Friday, January 26, 2018

Oaxaca reflections

Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Oaxaca

“No one behind, no one ahead.
The path the ancients cleared has closed.
And the other path, everyone's path,
easy and wide, goes nowhere.
I am alone and find my way.” 
― Octavio Paz

We returned to Oaxaca for the first time in nine years, though truth be told most of my memories of both the city and state are far older and mostly concern coffee farmers and coffee buying. In retrospect how fortunate it is that the best Mexican coffees are grown in Chiapas and Oaxaca, which are for me by far the most interesting parts of México.

Our visit this time was far too short - just five days after a long stint in Mérida and Valladolid. More traffic and more people of course but the biggest thing I noticed was the proliferation of chef-run restaurants offering daring and often world-class fusions of native recipes and ingredients with European techniques, as well as an absolute explosion in other artisanal food and drink, with mezcal and coffee leading the charge and microbrewery beer not far behind.

The highlight of not just our time in Oaxaca but our entire 2+ week trip was connecting for the first time "in the flesh" with a Facebook friend who is a professional translator, language teacher and devout Mexico-phile. I'd had high expectations of Jody based on her acute and often hilarious online observations but they were thoroughly blown away by her depth of perception and utterly contagious love of México as experienced in the moment.

Jody has lived all over this country going back decades and visited much of the rest. She describes herself as an immigrant not an expat and one of the things she pointed out to us is that expats who do choose Oaxaca tend to not only live there year-round but also to really identify with their new home as home. This is certainly in quite sharp contrast not only to our own ambivalence about being full-timers in México but what we have seen time and again both at Lake Chapala and in San Miguel de Allende: Mexican residency with asterisks. Not only are more than half of those in these expat havens snowbirds who live elsewhere for six or more months, but even among the full-timers there are many who constantly fly back to the U.S. or Canada or who return home for good as soon as the first health crisis or plea from grandkids makes itself known.

For a prospective expat resident the allure and challenges of life in Oaxaca are pretty easy to discern. Culturally and culinarily there's endless depth but not the kind of breadth one takes for granted at, say, Lake Chapala. There are a zillion moles and other Oaxacan specialties but nary a cheeseburger or jar or box of a foreign "must have" food to be found. Functional Spanish is a necessity from the get-go (just check out all of the whining on TripAdvisor about how even the hotel and restaurant staffs usually don't speak English). Running out of water from time to time, dealing with the incessant protests called bloqueos that frequently shut off access to main streets and turn the central square into what looks like a  homeless camp and embracing the literal groundlessness of living in a highly earthquake-prone zone are other factors to be considered.

On the other hand, this is a place that attracts expats who really love México and who want to embrace to at least some extent the challenges of being in a state where indigenous people are the majority. That is where the artistic, culinary and cultural richness comes from, and of course it is also the source of the poverty and discrimination that fuel the state's deep-rooted political activism. Trying to live in a gringo "bubble" anywhere in México is ultimately going to be a lost cause but in  Oaxaca it's a non-starter - just ain't gonna happen. Learn enough Spanish to function, maybe even become semi-fluent and you'll start to notice the sound of clicking consonants flowing out of the mouths of the people selling produce or cooking your meal at the comedores in the mercado: they're speaking one of the 16 or more primary native languages - making you realize that you'll truly never do more than scratch the surface when it comes to understanding where you now live.

Trio of moles at Las Quinces Letras
I've often referred to living at Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende as "México with training wheels." This is particularly true at the lake, since not just the gringo scene but the local Jalisco culture are very "white bread" (or meat-and-potatoes, hold the mole and chapulines) by comparison to, say, Oaxaca, Puebla or Chiapas. I find myself haunted once again by a comment from our Oaxacan guide Jody (paraphrasing here from memory): "why go through all that it takes to live in this country without really living in it?"

Much to think about. I don't know that we have what it takes to live in such a large city but I do know we'll be back to hike the Sierra Norte and spend not just weeks but months soaking up the riches of this incredible part of México that challenges and inspires us like very few other places we've been.

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