06.12.2012 - 13.12.2012 15 °C
Much to my surprise I arrived in Oaxaca without trauma; no road blocks, no men with guns peeking out of their bomber jackets, no emergency loo stops . Truth be told, the journey was very pleasant. For the full 5 hours of steep ascents and corkscrew bends the minivan was accompanied by cyclists, boys and men, about five hundred of them, all heading in the same direction. Thankfully lycra was nowhere to be seen. Rather unusually, the accessory of choice for most cyclists was either a religious statue or a framed religious picture tied to their back. And I'm not talking pocket sized here, think of 2 foot high Virgin Marys and 2 foot wide Scared Heart of Jesus's. It was quite a sight. Obviously I had no idea what was going on in fact I still don´t, but it was a sign of some of the religious devotion, Mexican style, I was to enjoy in the lead up to Christmas in Oaxaca.
I was very pleased when I hopped off the van. I had broken the curse of the disastrous arrivals of the previous ten days. With me I had the address of a family I would be staying with for the following 2 weeks. This was part of the language school set up, they called it linguistic and cultural immersion, which sounded good. Practically it means you have a room in the family house and share mealtimes with them.
However each taxi I flagged down refused to pick me up. Instead they all keep shoo-ing me further down the road. About half an hour of dragging myself further and further down the never ending road I was picked up by a taxi driver, driven about 2 metres and then deposited on the side walk, the driver gesturing with hand movements that I had to go down the street. I had no idea why he couldn´t drop me at the house, but having no Spanish I had no choice but to follow his directions. The street signs didn´t match with the address I had and after ten minutes of walking round aimlessly I approached a shopkeeper and asked for help. They didn´t know what was going on (as far as I could ascertain). I then approached a friendly looking couple waiting on a bus. No joy. My next strategy was to phone the house but the person who answered couldn´t speak english and I couldn´t speak Spanish. You get the story. Just as I began to loose it my saviours arrived. The lovely couple I had approached earlier had returned, this time with two uniformed municipal police officers at their side. Somehow I managed to convey the situation to them and after a quick phonecall they indicated I should follow them. And so it was that I was paraded through the busy streets of Oaxaca city, flanked by 2 men in black. These officers were different to the Arnold Swarchenegger variety of Mexico City. There wasn't a gun in sight, instead agreasy brown paper bag containing a cooked chicken. Cruelly I had interrupted their walk to the station for their dinner break. Ten minutes later and nowhere near where the taxi driver dropped me, I was standing at the front door of my new home. Hugely relieved.
As the door began to open I imagined how my new Mexican mother might pull me into her arms and give me a big reassuring hug. That would be so nice, and so needed. But there in front of me was a tiny old woman, maybe four and a half feet tall, with long long grey hair and a sour face. She reminded me of a water sprite. For those of you not in the know, water sprites are one of the not so nice fairy folks. Trying to hide my disappointment I grabbed her hands and greeted her, Ola Eunice. She shook her head. She wasn´t Eunice. I wanted to cry. Had I the wrong address? What the hell was going on? Conversations between the water sprite and the men in black lead to the water sprite indicating I should move inside. I wanted to go with the lovely police men and their roasted chicken, but it was not to be. I was shown to a bare room with a comfy bed and left there. Abandoned. I wanted to go home. Eventually a lovely girl in her twenties arrived with a piece of paper on which she had written a speech. She had used Google translate to make it. She was the daughter of the house. The police had called her and told her to come to the square to pick me up. When she got there I was nowhere in sight. This left the granny, Carmela, to do the meet and greet at the front door. In my assessment Carmela´s talents lay more in general intimidation then in meet and greet, but that is only my opinion. More importantly the mama of the house was out at a meeting but would be back in a few hours. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and then, room key in hand, fled the house. I was sure Carmela was planning to hide in the cupboards and jump out on me.
When I hit the streets I was surprised to find them at a standstill; jam packed with huge trucks adorned with mega sized holy pictures, statues, flowers arrangements and fancy ribbons, all blasting their fog horns in merriment . The crowds lead me to one of the many Catholic churches in the City, the Basicila de La Solledad. The place was jumping. First their were multiple groups of women dancers in traditional dress with baskets on their heads, filled either with fruit, flowers, or religious statues, all swirling in a synchronised way to numerous crazy brass bands. Then 2 large paper mache figures, probably about 15 feet high with a person inside, basically swirling around and around and knocking people sideways. They had another loud and crazy band to swirl to. Add to this very very loud firecrackers being lobbed in to the crowd and more formal spinning fireworks on wooden or metal structures, well you can only imagine. It was total chaos, total craziness and totally fantastic. It was pure exhiliration to be there. And what I didn´t know at the time was that this was only wee buns, the tip of the iceberg, I had arrived in Oaxaca at party season.
I was never able to make a video of all the night time madness. The daytime one below will therefore have to do. Most days it was a regular event to stumble across one of these joyous ocassions. Although all different, the core elements are usually similiar; the skirt swirling ladies with baskets on their heads, the twirling paper mache giants, a man with a representation of a bull on his head and lots of musicans trying to drown each other out! Enjoy
At nine the next morning I was at my new School. The first activity was a test to assess my level of Spanish. I could answer the first question. That was it.
I have always wanted to learn Spanish. But despite attending night classes and buying expensive CDs which promise that even a hamster can become fluent in 5 days, I have failed miserably. Added to my struggles with French at school and my various failed attempts at learning Irish at night classes, I hold a strong but foolish belief that I am incapable of learning a language. It was time to knock that on the head. And so my daily three hour Spanish lesson began.
My classmates were Brooke and later Joyce, both from North America, both in their late sixties and both very determined and motivated learners (I was not in that category). Our teacher was Juan. He had a lot of patience and very large biceps. At the end of the three hours I was in a terrible state, my body was just one huge knot of tension. I had to resort to lots of deep breathing just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and walk out the door. It was that bad. I went for a hot chocolate (a Oaxacen speciality) with Brooke. He was in a not too dissimilar state, which was very reassuring. Day two was not much better. Day three, not quite as bad. But it was both shocking and delightful to realise that despite my utter relief when each class was over, I was learning things, I was managing the class, for fecks sake, I was learning bloody Spanish!
Life with the Cortes family was another challenge. As part of the deal I had breakfast and lunch with them, all 5 of them. They were a lovely warm sociable bunch, but I think they had no idea how little Spanish I had. For the first few days I was bombarded with questions which of course I had no understanding of. I engaged in a lot of smiling, sign language and then staring into the distance to try and avoid a new conversation beginning. Eunice in particular was ever so keen to engage me in speaking Spanish, I thus became especially talented at trying to avoid eye contact with her. I began to be able to time my watch to the regular pre-lunch dread and post-lunch relief. After which I went for a long siesta. But the reality was that I got a huge amount from being with the family. Firstly I got to sample proper home cooked Mexican food and drink in all its varieties. The water sprite turned out to be a great cook and I had many culinary treats, especially at breakfast time. But first and foremost I lost my fear of trying to speak Spanish. When you have an hour long mealtime experience and only 15 words, you sure as hell make use them. Making a fool of yourself is of no significance when survival is at stake! In the 12 weeks of travelling which followed, I am ashamed to say that my Spanish skill improved by about 3 percent, I made so little effort to build on what I had learnt. I remain however fearless in my use of those 15 words.