Missives from Oaxaca – pt 1

Over the next few weeks the AirTreks blog will be bringing you guest posts from San Francisco native Susan Coss as she returns to Mexico after a year-long hiatus. Missives from Oaxaca, will document her month-long stay in the southern Mexican town. See Part II here.
Oaxaca side street


I’m back! That’s the big news. The not so big news (or not so surprising news) is that I still love this place—despite having to drive 5 times around the centro before getting dropped off at my apartment. The thing is, where I live is usually the first point of drop off in the colectivos from the airport (think Super Shuttle). Kind of akin to going from SFO over to North Beach, around to the Haight, over to the Castro, downtown and then doing it all again before heading to the Mission. Glass-is-half-full perspective: I got to see the city in its burst of Saturday morning activity and be reminded just how crazy the traffic is here.

Something to remember for the next trip: when on a red-eye to a country that speaks a different language, it might be best to nap before running errands that require interaction with people, especially conversations that involve some kind of interchange around technology. Who knew what a SIM card was? And to learn about it in Spanish, and the role it plays in having the phone work, but if you swap out the SIM card, you need to save the prior contacts, and oh yeah, you get a new phone number. The utterly amazing thing is that I ended up with a working phone and I have been able to do crazy things like call people and send text messages (in Spanish no less!). Anyone who went through the process with me trying to figure out what new phone/plan/programming I went through can understand just how traumatic this was for me.

But really, who cares about these trifle details when everyone wants to know about the sights, sounds, tastes, etc…

So one year ago, I left this city in tears—beside myself at having to leave. In getting ready to travel here, I was apprehensive. I’d be alone, would the magic hold, would I get lost, would my Spanish suck, would I get lonely? I have no answers to these questions yet, except to say, that yes, Oaxaca is still magical. Though because it is so familiar, so like home upon arriving, I am not sure I see it through the same rosy colored glasses.

State of the City

The GREAT PROJECT TO REPAVE THE STREETS OF OAXACA ONE COBBLESTONE AT A TIME continues. When the project is done, surely Oaxaca will have built the most expensive streets known to mankind. And there is a race to get the streets done as the Oaxacans are now in the Licence place Oaxaca, Mexicofinal year of their most hated governor – Ulises Ruiz. And lord knows the labor here is cheap enough these days, what with a minimum wage of 50 pesos a day for a 10 hr day (current exchange rate – 12.5 pesos to the dollar, do the math). Public works projects that seem to benefit anyone but the public. My landlord, Maria, is living in terror that they will soon repave Calle Arteaga—an action that is akin to an archeological dig and can bring electricity, and everything else, to a halt.

But the street construction and the inability of any driver to use a turn signal aside, this place still rocks. It is safe to assume I ate mole off the bat— a lovely colorodito in the central market. It is also safe to assume that I bought a rotisserie chicken, fresh quesillo, avocadoes, tomatoes, coffee and chiles immediately. I had a chocolate at the very unfashionable hour of 2pm, returned home and promptly fell into a long long nap and when I woke up, I met my friend Marisol for a bite to eat, and then met up with my neighbors (Tom and Joanne, same neighbors as last year—yay to more familiar faces!) for an opening reception at the Museo de Textiles for a project that combined weaving and literacy in a pueblo north of here. And then I dragged myself home and fell asleep to the strange though familiar sounds of the water truck, the tamale cart, and the bar across the street blasting rancheras.


Walks around the city show it to be worse for wear with the downturn of the economy. There is no way around the fact that the economy is shit here and it effects people in a whole different way—already people lived on the margin, but it’s bad. There’s no real safety net, and certainly not when the money goes to building roads that will bring the tourists back. The 99th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution was on the 20th of November. It felt like a blip—the focus is on the centenario next year, and the hope for the next revolution, a quiet one some hope, a louder one for others. But more than that, there is a cynicism that seems to permeate everything—the disgust with every political party, with every politician. The joy I had in reading the paper last year is mostly gone because it is just so damned depressing to read every day about the squander of the government.

Café Tacuba in concert

So thank god for a concert in the Guelaguetza auditorium in the hill above Oaxaca. It is apparently a rare thing for a really big band to play in Oaxaca, so it was a big effing deal that Cafe Tacuba came to play as part of a big environmental push—and to sell tickets for such a cheap price (70 pesos!) According to my friend Leidi, my intercambio from last year, gates were to open at noon, so we had to meet in the morning to get in line—a concept I didn’t even knew existed in Mexico, lines that is. There are two ways to get to the auditorium, walking up a gigantic set of steps, or taking a taxi. OfMezcales de Oaxaca course I chose the steps, and made my way slowly in the shaded heat. This is where you need to remember that Oaxaca sits at about 5000 feet, so walking up another 500 or so feet is in fact, a feat. And then I arrive to the news that the gates in fact will not open until 2. So after a conversation catching up with Leidi, and seeing that pretty much everyone was between 15 and 20 years old, Leidi included, I decided that I could come back (via taxi this time) and meet her, rather than sit in the sun for hours and hours, waiting. So, the gates did not open at 2, nor did they open at 4, perhaps not even at 6 when we had been told Cafe Tacuba would be playing. Perhaps they opened at 6:30 (thank god for cell phones and texting) and perhaps there were 6 other bands that would play before Cafe Tacuba, and perhaps Cafe Tacuba would not play until close to 9, when perhaps one impatient and old gringa would have called it quits. But none of that mattered in the moment, when they hit the stage, when the lights of the city below were twinkling, and when the wonderful high tempo beats of Ingrata ignited the crowd of at least 12,000 ecstatic Oaxaqueños.

And thank god for the Feria del Libros Internacional that I seemed to have timed my visit for. Thank God for fiction writers and poets and their irreverence. And thank God for a cartoonist named Rius who had the crowd in the aisles laughing so hard from his wonderful and pointed irony, sarcasm, and general dismissal of the powers that be. And then his whole diatribe against diabetes, and the Mexican love of Coca Cola. It is always a unique experience to be the only gringa/o in an audience like that, and to have the speaker lambast the US (oh the truth hurts!) and the evils of the Coca Cola Corporation. Oh the utter irony of how there is such a demand for Mexican Coca Cola in the U.S., and its ingredient of pure cane sugar…

Language lessons

I can’t say the same thing for school, which kicked my ass the first week and left my head swimming with verb tenses and vocabulary—so many words to learn, to remember, to bounce around my head as I walk the 1.5 miles each morning, by the funeral parlors, the comida corrientes, the morning food carts steaming with chocolate and champurrado, pan dulce by Parque LLano and its fountains and trees and quiet beauty. But somehow I survived and met new people to add to the familiar faces on the street and in the cafes.

Side trip

I took a trip to Hierve el Agua, an incredible place in the mountains where cool water bubbles from the rocks and cascades over the cliffs to create a petrified waterfall from the salt and mineral laden waters. The air was so clear, and the natural “infinity” pools so wonderful to swim in. It was worth the drive, the curve laden road that took us up and up and up. To see the pueblos en route, and to appreciate just how wild and vast this state is.


And then there was the Investour (www.investours.org) a project of the Instituto where I am studying Spanish. The project is:

“A non-profit organization providing socially-responsible tours to poor communities where participants visit hardworking entrepreneurs in need of small loans to improve their lives. Tourists listen to the entrepreneurs’ business ideas and choose which projects merit investment. The group’s tour fees are then pooled and offered to the selected entrepreneurs as an interest-free small loan.”

So much easier just to cut and paste from the website to describe it. Apparently, Oaxaca has the highest concentration of microfinance institutions, but with a downside that most are for profit and offer loans with interest rates as high as 150%.

We visited several places in Teotitlan del Valle, a town outside of Oaxaca known for their woven rugs. A total of 6 women presented their businesses, and described what they would do with their loans of 1500 pesos, most of which involved buying materials to add to their current business, or materials for a new business venture. They ranged from being able to buy wool, yarn and gas to drive to the mountains to get the herbs that make the natural dyes, money that would go to a display stand for a show business, or to a new comal to make larger obleas (delicious thin wafer cookies) and the basket to carry the larger wafers to market. We had to pay attention to each presentation, weigh the merit of the proposition because eventually, on the drive home, we would have to decide who would receive the loans, a really heavy decision given the serious need each woman had for a loan.

It was an incredible experience to be part of, to see the entrepreneurial spirit so alive in each of the women, and to really put tourist dollars to work where it is needed the most. So often the money never trickles down. I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who may travel here in the future.

Back to basics

Again, the serious creeps in to this missive, but not all is serious, and in fact this is where we come to the heart of why I return to Mexico again and again. In spite of all of this, of the difficulties, there is at the heart the incredible spirit and warmth that exists here. And I encountered that yet again this past Saturday as I went out with my new best friend Claudia, a Swiss woman who shares my sister’s birthday. Despite having an obnoxious Danish guy attach himself to us at the first place we went, a truly odious guy who couldn’t bear to speak Spanish, who had recently had his chest tattooed with the Superman symbol (really, need I say more?) we eventually found ourselves at Cafe Central my most favorite place here in Oaxaca. An art collective, a cinema club, a dance club all in one, where folks of all type gather, and make you feel so welcome. We met a group of guys who kept us entertained all night with their multiple languages and stories, eventually ending up at the restaurant owned by one of them with a few other people collected thru-out the night, drinking more beer, more mezcal, more aguaiente than any person should consume in a month, dancing and watching the light of dawn color the sky above the open courtyard. And what woman wouldn’t love to be dropped at her door, and hear as she places her key in the lock, a question from the car- are you sure you want to go to bed alone? And to laugh and hear someone else say as the car drives away – we are Mexican you see, we have to ask.

And so to week two, and the trip to Puebla to meet my friend Marco before we head to Veracruz for a long weekend. The adventures continue!

To mole, to mezcal, to chapulines and to the mountains surrounding this beautiful and ancient place.

Besos y abrazos,


Susan Coss organizes the Bay Area’s Eat Real Festival, a social venture created to “inspire eaters to choose tasty, healthy, good food” with a focus on “delicious and sustainable ‘street food’ options.” She is a perennial traveler, completely obsessed with Mexico and can be contacted here.

* photos by SouthernAnts, woody1778a■ Guerry via Creative Commons