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Anatomy of a Trip, Oaxaca: Getting Acquainted



Oaxaca de Juarez is a beautiful city, no question, but what impressed me most were the people I met, Mexican and expat, in all walks of life.  I’ve never visited a place where the warmth and kindness of the residents stood out as it did for me in Oaxaca.  It’s as good a reason to visit this fascinating city in southern Mexico as any.



Getting There


I was right to have been concerned about the 3 flights and not since spending time in India had I experienced travel commencing in the wee hours.  I'm clearly not cut out for it, not then, not now.  I should have known better but was seduced by the low fare and the original 2 flight schedule.  In any case, loosing an entire night's sleep was torture, but there were interesting moments nonetheless.  Sacramento airport felt altogether different at 11 at night with everything but our gate shut up tight. 


The early morning arrival at Guadalajara was a revelation, quiet and calm, Starbuck's waiting with a flat white on the menu to try with my pesos bought in advance for just such an opportunity.  I relaxed in the airy white terminal as I drank my coffee and realized that it felt like coming home, surrounded by foreignness, alone in a place nothing like home, nothing expected of me, a kind of floating, a nomad's dream come true.  Had I not had a 3 year break from wandering, I suspect the realization of my comfort with the unfamiliar would never have dawned on me.


If the Guadalajara airport was an oasis of calm, Mexico City’s, in stark contrast, was chaos.  I very nearly missed my onward flight in the clammer of people, noise, conflicting announcements and no sign saying "Oaxaca"  at a single gate with many lines, several airlines and other destinations posted.  A voice declaring  "last call for Oaxaca"  pierced the din and I was saved.  I was beginning to feel the real effects of sleep deprivation and missing my chance at salvation in such a place would certainly have finished me.




This is the first picture I took in Oaxaca as I walked from the plane to

the terminal, before being shut down by a policewoman on the tarmac.


The flight to Oaxaca was only 40 minutes long, the midday approach into the sensationally beautiful Oaxaca Valley an inspiration, even in my pitiful state, as we floated down between hills green from the rainy season.  The small airport that received us was beautiful, not only because it was the end of an exhausting journey, but the small control tower was clothed in flowers and the place was tidy and welcoming, as only small airports can be.  My suitcase appeared, another miracle,  I bought a seat in a colectivo van for 70 pesos, less than $5 US.  I was the first passenger delivered to my accommodation.  Charming and beautiful Carlos, with his immaculate English, showed me to my Airbnb room off the courtyard at his mother’s house.


I’m sorry to report that, after a seemingly auspicious beginning, my pretty room, booked months before and the entire 3 weeks paid in advance, was a nightmare.  The owner, understandably, had failed to note in her description the 24-hour-a-day din from the busy streets that passed a sidewalk’s width from the building, located in an unattractive commercial district of the city.  Strictly speaking, it was Centro, the colonial heart of Oaxaca but this was not the serene city of Google’s pictures, it was the other part.  Described as “my 400 year old house”, one entered though the waiting area of a radiologist’s office, patients occupying half the courtyard that looked so inviting in the photos and I was given instructions to not sit in his chairs.  A traffic light just outside the building insured that engines of city buses, trucks, motorcycles, cars & taxis were revving at the highest possible RPMs as I tried to fall sleep, the start and stop of the small fridge in the room jolted me awake when I managed to doze and fireworks like small bombs went off at intervals, mostly at night and early in the morning.  And we were directly under the flight path of the nearby airport, take-off, of course.  When I made the decision to move a week later and told Irma why, her comment, having lived a portion of her life in Vermont and knowing whereof she spoke, was “Mexico is noisy”.


I found a very reasonably priced alternative in a 6 room hotel, Casa Rua, not exactly quiet but not as noisy, no fridge, a very good fan with a setting called “white noise” that helped a great deal and a terrific king-sized bed.  Also no patients in the courtyard, a charming young woman, Carina, who I loved and surrounded by good places to eat and those pretty streets in the pictures.  It all works out.


Casa Rua





My room up the stairs.



The First Things I Learned 


The ZÓcalo


The ZÓcalo is Oaxaca’s living room.  A huge leafy square with restaurants on the east and west sides, the baroque Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, on the north, it’s where Oaxacans go to stroll, work, demonstrate, eat, play, make music, dance and pray.  It divides the city roughly in two with upscale neighborhoods to the north and more workaday areas, including the 3 main markets, to the south.  Things start happening mid-morning in the Zocalo and build during the day, making it one of the great spots on earth for people watching.








The Cathedral








The Street Sweepers


Centro, the colonial heart of Oaxaca, is remarkably tidy due to the efforts of a small army of men who work for the city and whose job it is to sweep and pick up the trash.










To my delight, Oaxaca is full of VWs and, I suspect, not unusual in Mexico.








Double Parking


It appears that the unsurprising shortage of parking in a colonial city has been at least partially solved by consensus, with the practice of double parking.  Most streets have room for 3 lanes, one side for parking, one for driving and, in between, short-term double parking.  No one seems to mind but I never saw what happens if a parked car needed to get out while another was parked alongside.






Historic Streets, Vivid Buildings & Street Art


The best thing to do in Oaxaca is to just walk the streets and enjoy the buildings, the colors and the spectacular outdoor art.  I’ve never seen a city as decorated as this one, individual images and whole buildings, commercial and residential, painted as if everyone’s lives depended on the creativity expressed everywhere I looked.  It’s quite something and as the days went by I came to know where I was, not be street names but by the art on the buildings.














Next week, Food.





Click here for links to all episodes of 'Anatomy of a Trip: Oaxaca'



To read others of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.







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