03.12.2012 - 27.03.2013
Firstly Let me describe the setting. Oaxaca , pronounced Wha Ha Ka, is a city of 260,000 people. It is set at the nexus of three valleys flanked by high mountains. When you are in the core of the city, its wide streets lined with colonial buildings and you look in any direction, you can see the mountains, mountains and blue sky. Oaxaca is 1550 metres above sea level which creates bright, clear light and a climate of cool crisp mornings dissolving into scorching hot afternoons and cool evenings. A perfect temperature for Nora. I loved walking to school each morning as the chill was departing for the day, so full of purpose and so delighted that I had chosen Oaxaca as my home for a few weeks. Even better was emerging from school at noon, into the dry heat of the day knowing the hard work was done. Even better, that if I avoided doing homework on my Spanish, that a day of exploration of the delights of Oaxaca lay ahead.
One of Oaxaca's many claims to fame are its culinary delights. Its signature drink is Mescal, which like Tequila is is made from algave that grow in the region. There were a number of cool Mescal bars in town specialising in top notch hooch. Brooke and I had an evening in a brilliant wee bar that had a taster menu of some the different flavours of Mescal. It attracted a diverse clientele, my favourite being a rather eccentric and drunk young man who cut off a large wack of his hair and offered it to the barman (also eccentric) as payment. It was accepted of course, with great grace, as is the Mexican way.
Foodwise, Oaxaca is most famous its Moles, sauces which would be described in fancy cook books as being' complex' and served over a cut of meat or poultry. The most complex Mole Negro is made of a trillion ingredients, one of which is chocolate. Oaxaca has many shop in which Cocoa is ground, mixed with almonds, cinnamon and sugar and made into chocolate for sauces, hot chocolate and so on.
But this is beginning to read like a 'I went there and did this and saw that' blog. So I will stop. Sorry.
One of the nicest things to do in Oaxaca was to hang out in the Zocalo, the central square. Right beside the city's main Cathedral, the Zocalo is surrounded by elegant colonial arcades housing cafes and restaurants. The place bustles with life by day and night. When I first arrived I was drawn in by the big players: the brass bands, the Marimba ensembles or by the wandering Mariachi troops in their tight trousers and big hats singing ballads of love, betrayal, death and politics . But after a while you get lured by the gentleness of all the other activities; old men reading their newspapers or getting their shoes polished, the grannies eating their ice creams, young couples snogging, young families from the countryside with their picnics, street sellers, backpackers with dodgy shoes. And many many people on their laptops. Could you imagine that in Dublin? I think not. People lived out their lives in the Zocalo and it felt like a real privilege to sitting there with them. It was all so gentle. I think in all my time in Oaxaca I met one person who was drunk. That was a big challenge to my pre existing stereotype of Mexico. I thought that with all the partying going on, a fair size of the population would either be drunk on their way to being drunk, thats what happens in my own country. But no, not here. Another reason to be really impressed by Mexico.
What I was most surprised about was a really vibrant arts and cultural scene. For being a small city, the centre had a number of beautiful art spaces, mainly old buildings; colonial churches and houses which had been converted with a twist of modern architecture into fabulous venues. Almost every night there was some sort of gathering open to plebs like myself; a classical music concert concert, a piece of theatre, an opening of an exhibition. There was a ton of smaller galleries showing really great contemporary art. I went to the opening of a arty farty photography exhibition. The people were as hip and cool as anything you might see in East London. Once a month Opera from the Met in New York is beamed live to the local theatre (art decco of course!). One Saturday morning I went to see Aida with my classmate Brooke. When it finished after three hours I was surprised at how painless the whole experience had been (I certainly wouldn't be a huge fan of Opera). It was only afterwards in the foyer, while in conversation with a Woody Allen lookalike from New York, that we realised it was only half time. Did we go back in for more? Certainly not.
Oaxaca also has a big coffee scene and the town is dotted with cool cafes selling local organic coffee and tasty treats. They were lovely spaces to just hang out, read your guide and look at trendily dressed Mexican teenagers making out. Free WiFi is everywhere in Mexico and Central America, and ninety percent of other people were on their laptops or smart phones. My twenty euro Nokia mobile was never removed from my daypac. My favourite was cafe Bruhila. The clientele were a mixture of mainly locals, a handful of expats (nearly all retired Americans and Canadians who stay over the winter), a dollop of longer staying language students and a sprinkling of tourists . I so enjoyed my time there.
I guess that as a result of my experiences in Mexico City and Oaxaca, my whole notion of Mexico had been turned on its head. Far from being a developing nation which I had aligned with the poverty and chaos of Central America , I learnt that while of course Mexico has poverty it also has a robust economy, a thorough and efficient public transport system far excelling that of Ireland and a vibrant contemporary arts and music scene that could knock the socks off anywhere in mainland Europe. It was only when I relooked at my map of the world I realised that Mexico is actually physically part of the North American continent. Travel really does open your eyes.
But uber cool Oaxaca is just one of its many faces. What I loved most about being there was the almost continual cycle of gentle if not chaotic celebration and enjoyment. In the 18 days in which I had the privilege of being there, almost every single night and day) there was some form of celebration erupting and evolving on the street or in one of the squares.
I'll give you a few tasters, but it is hard not to descend into a tedious recount of what I did and saw. The kids above were snapped after school one afternoon as I came across a huge gathering, a couple of thousand people, around one of the churches, again somehow connected to the lead up to Christmas. Part of the fun of the day is the kids being dressed up, either as figures from Mexican history or in the traditional clothing of their parents' tribal background . My God, I could have eaten them up.
The next picture and video are from a wedding celebration. The happy couple emerged from the church as I was walking past, next thing a crazy parade is swirling past me. The rest are from another parade which I just happened upon dandering home from school one afternoon. I hope by now you are getting the picture; gentle but joyous celebration at every corner.
Something which is really famous and really well published is el Noche de los Rabanos, the night of the Radishes! On the evening of December 23rd thousands of people arrive to view displays of intricate sculptures made out of, you've guessed it, radishes (with the odd head of brocolli thrown in). I'm sure you are laughing, as was I until I witnessed the whole thing. It was phenomenal, such artistry and humour. For those of you not in the know, the really intricate carving in the big picture below is of the Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico's most iconic and popular image.