Since it had taken me close to five minutes to translate a phrase from English into Spanish and then spit it out as abstract jigsaw puzzle pieces, I decided to take a week long course in Spanish in the infamous Oaxaca de Juarez. Arriving on Sunday arfternoon from Mexico City, I walked the picturesque streets of the city looking for a Spanish school. I finally found one, and started the next day.
Initially I started at a level that was below my abilities, to the delight of my ego, but changed the following day. Having studied Spanish at university for three years, I am familiar with all the tenses etc, but my speaking skills are sub par at best for my three years of study. Still, it was good to reinforce the subjunctive tense. Thankfully, there was only one other student in my class, making for a good learning environment. The majority of our conversations constituted topics such as; what is real beauty? Is religion necessary and to my delight, the upcoming US Presidential elections and other world problems. Basically, a political science major's crack.
Oaxaca is without doubt the kind of city you can spend three weeks in without doing anything. I met a very German guy in my hostel who was staying there for a month just tuning up on his ancient greek (no joke), writing, reading and watching movies. I'm not sure he saw anything of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca city is fascinating. It's a capital city without the cultural vacuum that is often a by product of a modern metropolis. The city itself has managed to be home to the expansive and enthrawling Indigenous cultures of the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs amidst a European style architecture of cobbled streets and magnificent cathedrals. My Spanish teacher told me that Oaxaca city encaptulates everything Mexican and all that Mexico comprises, if you really want to get to know Mexico, visiting Oaxaca city is a must. There certainly is truth in that. The city seems to be an eclectic crossroads between a modern European style city, awash with modern and renaissance period art with a cafe and bar culture mixed with traditional Indigenous artisans markets. Despite its modern city ambiance, the artisans still employ traditional and painfully slow methods of creating colourful clothing and rugs for tourists eager to capture a part of this city. Of course, not all agree on the beauty of their merchandise...I recently bought a shirt that almost made my girlfriend detest me, it's still the topic of intense disagreement. I will concede however, that it makes me look slightly preggers.
The food, always an obsession of mine and a major factor in deciding to come to Mexico, is incredible and very unique. Who could forget the spicy chocolate sauce that is mole, the cinnamon infused hot chocolate drinks or the chapulines (grasshoppers), fried with garlic and lemon, eaten as a snack as if they were a packet of chips. Karl Pilkington would have a field day.
Prospective travellers, if you are headed to Oaxaca, I strongly urge you to stay at Hostel Casa Angel. It was the best hostel i have stayed at so far in Mexico. The internet is amazing, the terrace has a great view of the city, the breakfast is great, but above all the staff are awesome. One guy that works there, Nestor, reminded me a lot of my great friend in Ecuador and was super friendly and knew everything about the city.
I went out a few nights with a group of Icelandic travellers, with whom I had the best game of "Would you Rather" ever. One of them was a master, who asked the question "would you rather fuck a goat and no one know, or not fuck a goat and everyone in the entire world think you did." I was happy my Icelandic was up to scratch to understand it.
The following day they bought a car planning to travel South in Guatemala and the jungles of Mexico. Fearing for their safety along the way, they all bought machetes that would put Danny Trejo's to shame, good luck fighting off the military's M-16s with a knife fellas.
After my first week in the Oaxaca state capital, I slightly reluctantly made my way to Puerto Escondido, an unofficial Australia colony on the coast. It was here that my ability to speak Spanish almost came to die. After a week on the coast, travelling with fellow Aussies, a Dutchy and a South Carolinean, I discovered how easy it is to lose the ability to speak a foreign language. Puerto Escondido was pretty much what I expected, every second local offering weed and/or surfing lessons, equipped with an OK beach. Sick of the heat, I thought jumping into the water would be refreshing. Clearly I had forgotten my experience in Sayulita, the act of jumping into the ocean in Mexico being much like jumping into a bowl of soup. I may poo poo it, but i did have fun in Puerto Escondido, owing in large part to the hostel in which I stayed, as well as an unhealthy consumption of alcohol.
It took us about three hours to find suitable accomodation in Mazunte, me being super paranoid about robberies, we needed somewhere secure. We stumbled across a cute little hostel, incessant with the smell of sweet Mary Jane. It also seemed to be the place to go for a mosquito orgy, the lagoon surrounding the hostel swarming with them. On our second day there, we discovered that the lagoon was home to a crocodile. So, honouring Steve Irwin's name, I jumped into the lagoon and wrestled the crocodile and pulled a baby out of its mouth, before spit roasting it over a fire.
One of the worst things about laying back on a Mexican beach, or nearly any beach in a developing country for that matter, is the neverending flogging of useless shit, which seems to be in endless supply. I don't blame them of course, they have to make a living, but it gets a bit tiresome. Why, for example, would I buy an empanada while I am in a restaurant waiting for my food? On the second day I chatted with a local dude, who seemed to be just chilling out. After a break in conversation, he said to me, "do you want to but 2 kilograms of cheese?" He read my mind, 2 kilos of cheese was imperative to my survival.
One more observation, when a Mexican is trying to sell things, he is more of a bullshit artist than an Italian telling a story, or a 16 year old recounting their many sexual experiences. While on a boat tour of the surrounding beaches, our guide suddenly jumped out of the boat and grabbed a turtle he had seen. I asked him facetiously if the turtle was his friend, and he said "of course, it's rosalina, a friend to everyone." It was sweet, but clearly bullshit. Having said that, it was incredible being so up close to such a beautiful animal, who didn't seem bothered by being man handled. While sitting on Mazunte beach, I noticed a white rock sticking out of the sea about a kilometre off shore, that almost radiated at night. Being a scientific genius, I hypothesised that the rock was white due to bird deposits...and it turns out I was right. At least according to our trustworthy guide.
Back to Oaxaca city for the day of the dead celebrations. Unfortunately, Hostel Casa Angel was fully booked, so I had to settle for another hostel. It's fair to say it was quite shitty. I don't need much, but I would like the person manning reception to be over 12 and have some idea about the city they live in, not screw up reservations, not lose deposits for a key and not overcharge my friends and argue when questioned about it. Whoever designed this place was clearly a tad crazy. There were powerpoints outside the rooms, not inside, a powerpoint half way between two floors and 16 powerpoints on the roof. The unisex bathrooms were tiny and awkward, with a urinal in plain sight, right next to the sink. The bathrooms were attached to the dooms, and someone had put the lock on the dorm side of the door, meaning that if someone locked the door, you were stuck in the bathroom untill rescued by a reluctant staff member. The kitchen, equipped with modern appliances, was out of use for the whole week, and the jaccuzi on the terrace, with attracted me to the place, was empty. I know what you're thinking, this part of the blog should be posted on whitewhine.com, but it was frustrating. Just as frustrating as a $3000 espresso machine not frothing milk properly.
The celebrations of the day of the dead were fascinating. The day of the dead, which should be called days of the dead, takes place over two days in which Mexicans visit the graves of loved ones, offering them food and mescal in the hope that their souls will visit. The ritual is said to have its origins in pagan indigenous tribes up to 3000 years ago, with families of the fallen keeping skulls as trophies and using them during various rituals. What really struck me about this festival, and something I really liked, was that the act of visiting the grave of a loved one was not depressing, but rather it was a celebration of their life. I'm not one of those wanker travellers who whenever they observe a cultural difference say, "Oh my god, the West has it all wrong. These people are totes beautiful and their simple way of life without modern technology is how we should live," and then post it on facebook using their iPhones, but I do think this is a better way to remember someone, sharing humourus stories and laughing, rather than being all depressed about it.
I maintain that Mexican kids are the cutest in the world, and seeing them dressed up in day of the dead costumes just reinforced that belief. Seeing them walk down the street with their faces made up while their parents followed was probably the cutest thing ever.
I was kind of sad to leave Oaxaca, but took solace in the fact that I know I will return someday, hopefully for an extended period of time