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Oaxaca (Wah-ha-ka)

Updated: Feb 27

So, do you think I was able to keep my promise to myself? That I stuck to my plan to ignore the city's museums, that I didn't walk around to see the sights? Did I just sit on my ass and EAT?

I tried. I pulled my chair on to our tiny balcony at Hotel Nueva Antequera, a lovely colonial building right off the best plaza in town - Plaza Zocalo - propped up my feet, and sipped my cup of coffee while I watched people.

At 9 a.m. I'm in a sundress. It's that warm. Not so for the locals - they're all in ski jackets and jeans. How can that be?

A blind man navigated from the plaza with his stick, up our street, then did a u-turn, ending where he started. He reminded me of us. Lost, every minute of every day.

It's strange coming from Orizaba where we were the only white people. Here, there are tons. Young ones with backpacks, their eyes trying to see everything at once. I wonder if they're blown away with what they're seeing like I'd been on my first trip. I hope so. First trips are magical. Then there are the middle aged ones, like Aaron and I, a bit more jaded looking. No, damn, we're NOT middle aged anymore. We're frickin' SENIORS now! Though I don't know how the heck we became part of this grey-haired, waddling group that passes below. So quickly? It's crap, that's what that is!

No, old people can be beautiful. I watched an old indigenous couple cross the street, each as short as the other. He wore a felt hat over his still-black hair and carried a homespun bag over his shoulder. She was dressed in traditional clothes that, I'm sure, her great, great grandmother wore hundreds of years ago. A turquoise dress and a purple apron with a thousand pleats, puffed sleeves from which her strong brown arms emerged, thick feet encased in sturdy black shoes, and an impressively long, grey braid down her back.

I love this picture. Though I stole it, snapping a shot from a photo in a gallery I visited. It captured the beautiful old indian women who sat on corners throughout the city selling their homespun wares.

Every night, Plaza Zocalo lured us out of our hotel. So fun and colourful, filled with shoe shiners polishing boots, and vendors selling cotton candy and balloons, the latter surrounded by clamoring kids and parents digging in their pockets.

I called over a tiny indigenous mama with her even tinier daughter, both in identical outfits. Can I see your shawls, I asked? I bought one with deep reds and oranges, interwoven with golden threads. The crow in me couldn't withstand the shiny thing. Beautiful. For 120 pesos ($8). Wish I'd bought more.

A young blind woman at the corner of the plaza, sang pretty but off-tune melodies. People passed and dropped coins in her cup. A five-man band climbed on to the gazebo in the centre of the plaza and began tuning their guitars. Aaron and I hurriedly grabbed a couple chairs. For an hour, the men played intricate, traditional ballads. The crowd called out favourites and sang along when they were played.

I glanced at the young blind woman, now drowned out by the band. How would she fill her plastic cup tonight, I wondered?

Oaxaca is filled with both beauty and ugliness. The wide boulevards, the towering cathedrals, galleries upon galleries with spectacular art.

So much gorgeous art I can't buy. Some that makes me laugh hysterically.

But woven among that beauty, like hemp threads within silk, is so much poverty.

In the historical centre, where the beauty of the architecture made the ugliness stand out, we watched an old man, a grizzled beard curling down his chest, ripped, dirty clothes hanging off his skinny body, root in a garbage can and slurp down the dregs of a leftover drink. A sad young man with beautiful eyes whose leg was is one big abscess, some horrible skin disease. Skin and bones women, clothes hanging on their barely-there bodies, young or old, I can't tell, their faces wizened before their time. A teenage indigenous girl, sitting on a sidewalk, her month-old baby beside her. It was heartbreaking.

On the other end of town, where the poverty was less an anomoly than simply 'the norm,' Oaxaca looked like a different woman. Not pretty and polished like the historical centre, but, rather, busy, crowded, and stinking of diesel. Not a speck of silence here, honking horns, bellowing vendors, rattling buses that belched smoke.

Food Adventures:

Shops upon shops crowding the sidewalks, crammed with goods: t-shirts, shoes, junk. Vendors selling plastic glasses of watermelon and pineapple and coconut. Baskets of grasshoppers at one corner; huge slabs of dried pork rind (chicharrone) at another.

There are two big markets near Plaza Zocolo and adjacent to each other: Mercado 20 Noviembre and Benito Juarez. Both chock-a-block full of intriguing and unfamiliar smells.

Piles of chiles in every shape and size, nuts, bags of deliciously smelling herbs and spices.

So cool to see the humungous colourful piles of oranges, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, and stuff I don't recognize.

The meat section, fresher than many meat markets I've smelled, but crazy as always for an insulated North American like myself who only sees meat under plastic in freezers.

I loved this list of Oaxaca's food and drink I found on the following blog: I was bound and determined to try every one of them.

El Negro was a good place for cold beers and cheap tlayudas, the Mexican version of pizza.

The tlayuda. A big, crisp tortilla smeared with refried beans, onions and some kind of meat. Like beef. Or chicken. But let's not cut that meat up and sprinkle it all over so it's easy to eat. Let's just put that big ol' chunk of meat smack in the middle of the 'pizza.' Weird.

Another new dish to us was Aztec soup. Similar to tortilla soup but spicier. Tomato based and filled with nacho strips, chunks of avocado, chicharrone (crisped pig skin) and cheese. Delicious.

I loved this list of Oaxaca's food and drink I found on the following blog: I was bound and determined to try every one of them.

With that goal, we hit Del Chef for a cheap 70 peso ($5) buffet. There was fruit, rice pudding, jello and salad to start and then eight main dishes: enchiladas stuffed with chicken, chicaquiles (nachos with sauces), beef with mole negro, pork with mole coloradito (no difference to my unsophisticated palate but they're both fantastic).

I can't get enough mole. In the market, I drooled at the pails of the stuff.

Mole is a thick, very complicated sauce that uses two or more types of chiles, sour tomatoes, dried fruits like raisins, lots of spices, nuts, and, for some versions, lots of dark, unsweetened chocolate. Every family has its own recipe. It's wonderful. It takes hours to prepare and tastes like nothing I've eaten before. I'd take some of this stuff home with me if I thought I'd be allowed on the plane with it.

Here's a great blog I found that explains way better than I can what mole's all about:

Besides food, Oaxaca's markets were full of irresistible souvenirs. Yes, we knew we'd have to haul them around for another five weeks. But our grandbabies are worth it, we'd say to each other as we stuffed yet another something into our pack.

Oaxaca was such a cool place. It was impossible not to explore it. Yes, I'd promised myself I wouldn't walk. We're just gonna eat in this city, I'd said to Aaron. Remember?

But...every day, we'd walk. And we'd walk. And every afternoon, I'd collapse on some surface, unable to walk another step.

"I'm dying," I'd say to Aaron. "Maybe we should take a bus back? Or...maybe a taxi?"

"Yep. We could do that," he'd answer. But, we wouldn't. We'd just keep walking.

Taking a bus meant asking questions, probably getting the answers wrong and walking in the wrong direction and, ultimately, twice as far as we needed to go. We'd sometimes play with the idea of taking a taxi but we'd never follow through. Why spend 50 pesos when we just had to walk a little further?

And that's why, every afternoon, our bodies wilting, our legs aching, we'd head back to our hotel for a nap. I don't think we ever made it past 3 in the afternoon.

And so, it's time. Time to get off my feet, into my bikini, and on to my back . Time to hit some Mexican BEACHES.

See you there. Thanks for continuing to follow our travels :).

Caryn and Aaron.

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