First you hear the cow’s joyous “MOOOO!” Then comes a recorded human voice over the same loudspeaker, an excitable man shouts something or other about propane gas tanks. Then the cow moos again. That’s how you know you’re in Oaxaca City, Mexico. That’s also how you know it’s 7:35 am, the bastard.
Backing up a bit, I met Francisco in his rental apartment in the heart of Zona Rosa, Mexico City, on a Saturday evening. We fumbled through his version of English vs. my version of Spanish on the verbal battlefield. I tried really hard this time, and my Spanish had improved, but man it comes at you faster than it does via Duo the owl.
I had to explain to Francisco that American Airlines had some flight delays and my clothes were still in Dallas. Thank God for a young man named Jesus at the “Day-Eff-Aye” (Mexico City) airport, he took care of me, speaking excellent English (which he shouldn’t have had to do) and filing my claim, then promising my bag would be delivered to the rental property the next day.
[The cool kids call Mexico City “Day-Eff-Aye” because it’s official name is the Federal District – Distrito Federal – en Espanol – therefore, it’s the D.F., pronounced “Day-Eff-Aye.”]
It was important that, once the Sunday 1 pm Dallas flight landed, my bag be delivered. I left on another flight the next day. If you’ve ever been to Mexico, you know they don’t have a ton of big people down here. In fact, the only shirts you’ll see over an XL usually tout the Chi Omega Spring Formal ‘08, or the 2002 Swanson Family Reunion “FamJam Hotlanta!” and somehow made their way to ol’ Meheeco via U.S. Salvation Armies.
I’m saying it would be hard to replace my XXL Cavender’s pearl snap shirts.
After some socially distanced beers in Zona Rosa, I got some shut eye, rose, bought a coffee and stared at the gorgeous flora y fauna in the Reforma linear park. Around 4pm, I got a frantic call from an excited, high-pitched voice, machine gunning Spanish at me. I just kept saying “si,” until I heard an exhausted sigh then a disconnection. He tried.
It was obvious this was the delivery guy and I was afraid I was missing him, Francisco had offered to call the airline for me. Francisco made a return call to Excited Guy and all was right with the world. Four short hours later, the delivery guy found the right neighborhood – which I thought was pretty easy to find to begin with – and dropped off my bag. Everything had remained inside. It was a great feat of teamwork, tenacity and patience, none of which were in any way a contribution of mine.
All three men involved acted like they were proud and happy they could be a part of helping me get my bag back to me. Tell me where that would have happened in the United States – because I’ll move there tomorrow.
When there’s what some call a “pandemic,” the last thing you want to do is go through airport security, anywhere. Even when things are perfect in the world, the last thing you want to do is go through security in the Mexico City airport. It’s a shit-show that’s on fire inside a dumpster that’s riding on a soon-to-wreck train. “Social distancing” isn’t something Italians, Japanese or Mexicans are familiar with. They pretty much have to brush up against you at some point, it’s science. And sure, science is sometimes racist.
The “security” lines in the 1st Terminal at MEX (cool world travelers use airport codes conversationally, right before they’re punched) are a mixture of that old 70s metal football game where the pieces just vibrate and bump into one another and the “I want my cigarettes!” scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (If you’re more of a TikTokker, that means… never mind, they don’t read). THEN, you get to the actual conveyor and scanner section. Before this would even happen, I had to show the first level of security my QR code, proving I’d filled out the health form.
My special code told them I was to be randomly selected for a health check. A man of no discernible medical merit pulled me aside and stood very close to me as he put the BP thing on my finger, making me remove my protective COVID gloves (useless). And also checked my temperature. They check your temperature EVERYWHERE in Mexico. McDonald’s, Starbucks, the OXXO (7-11), local mom-n-pop clothing stores, everywhere.
At 7,300-feet of elevation, this random man told me my blood pressure was “normal” despite having just been through the check-in line. And that my oxygen saturation was 96%. That’s virtually impossible for the last remaining overweight smoker on Earth but that’s what this guy told me.
I was now ready to pass through the initial checkpoint. The stern security woman told me to go to the front of the line. That’s because she didn’t see that the line had snaked around some tables and began about three feet from her, on account of her stature. After exchanging awkward looks with several people, I stood in the proper place, probably, and had some ginger kid try to ride the line in my back pocket. I could feel his breath at one point, so I introduced him to my roller bag.
We were four lines of people meeting in one with no traffic cop, all up in one another’s business, taking off belts. Bags piling up, being removed to scan again, it was a cattle car of filth and confusion. I got the feeling this airport’s Stanley Tucci was also a sadist. After exiting absolute mayhem, you now go to “gate B,” which doesn’t exist. “B” is an entirely different level of the airport where you climb stairs, elevator is handicapped only, then find your second ticket counter and, when it comes time to board, a very rapid announcement will tell you which gate to go to.
Or, you can just walk down to gate 19, pay $3 for a membership to the cigar lounge and drink free coffee and sodas until your gate is revealed. Then you can avoid the whole walk a mile to “gate B” and climb the stairs only to descend again, thing. When you do get the gate assignment – it’s time to trek, and I mean trek, down to the gates in the 20s.
It’s at least a quarter mile from gate B to Gate 26, that’s no exaggeration. Along the way, you’ll be carnival barked at for anything from Duty-Free liquor and chocolates to makeup, luggage (I never understood why luggage is sold at the airport. Is it just for flight attendants?), electronics and… sweaters. This is one of the many things I love about the culture, they just assume everyone is blind and don’t know they need things. “Perfume! Gummy ants, with ants in them! Area rugs!”
Taxis work much the same way. They honk no matter what you’re up to. As if you’re walking until a taxi comes by but you’re unfamiliar with what they look like. Especially at the Oaxaca airport, taxis drive round and round, stopping every time to honk and announce that they are there, ready for you. Luckily, I had a ride. A former (maybe) Navy man with whom I shared screenwriting classes at Second City in Chicago was coming to get me with his main man, Alfonso. The nicest, hardest working human being on the planet.
[I say “maybe” because I constantly said things like, “on your six” and he would have no idea what it meant. Maybe they have their own euphemisms in the Navy. Who knows? Anyway, we no longer speak to one another and I’m pretty sure that’s mostly my fault.]
Stepping out on the town my first night of the month-long visit, I was reminded of how incredible the weather is.
The songs in the preferred Oaxacan genre of music all sound exactly the same to me. Like Foo Fighter songs.* But this music has accordions and tubas and trumpets and unidentifiable wind instruments. And the men mostly holler about their corazones. It’s all the same waltzy beat, same time signature,** and – from what I can tell – the same lyrics. Then again, my Spanish is about as good as my Italian. That is to say, not great.
Each day, I walked to Lula’s Cafe (RIP as of today) from my rented apartment near the busiest street in town – where cars begin their very loud catalytics-unconverted-progression to work around 5:30 am. My lungs and ears wake me up shortly thereafter. During this daily walk, navigating unreasonably disheveled, lumpy sidewalks, I pass the stray dogs who run the place and all types of shop owners and street vendors.
After three weeks here, a couple of them actually smile and say hello as I pass. I try to be a great U.S. of A. brand ambassador no matter where I am – but this was tough times. A lot (A LOT) of the wonderful Mexican citizens are convinced that we (the United States) manufactured COVID and want them all to get it.
Why come to Mexico during a pandemic? 1. I was in Austin where it was consistently in the 150-degree-Fahrenheit range, so Oaxaca’s 75-degree highs were attractive to me.
2. Because they have their shit more together than we do right now. When’s the last time they were able to say that? This all lends itself to our rather confusing leadership and the fact that we refuse to listen to experts.
At any rate, the locals were warming up to me, which felt like an accomplishment.
Things you’ll likely notice when you head down to Oaxaca:
You DO NOT have the right-of-way as a pedestrian, not in Oaxaca you don’t. That little off-brand car careening up and down the center(ish) of the “street” needs to get somewhere an hour ago and – if you’re in the way – so be it. No one gets hit that I know of but the entire endeavor seems to be orchestrated near misses.
I’m not sure what in the Sam Hell is going on with people and their printers in Oaxaca but they go through toner like a bad metaphor goes through a half-thought-out sentence. There are entire “stores” that only sell toner. After a bit of detective work (aka, walking around), one might surmise that all of the printer toner is being used by one guy with a large printer that makes vinyl banners that accuse someone of criminal activity. They’re everywhere and some of them are highly entertaining, if they’re not completely abhorrent. [On poster: actual photo of dude] “Juan Cabrilla Rodríguez de la Miguel Santiago Fernandez is wanted for molesting koi fish in August of 2018. Call +52 591 005 099 888 3456 77 109 333 with information on where this hombre might be staying.”
Much like printer cartridges, single DJ speakers, the kind normally used for karaoke or quinceañeras, are sold absolutely everywhere. The demand for these loud, bassy, tinny luggage-sized speakers with lights is such that, not only does everyone have one, they obviously need another one or they wouldn’t sell them everywhere. They’re perfect for the waltzy yelling music with the horns.
I tend to use a lot of quotation marks when talking about Oaxaca, not out of disrespect – but because what actually goes on is not definable by my brain’s historic standards. Well, that over there is a store but, it doesn’t look like the shirtless man selling DJ speakers and print toner spoke with anyone about rent or keys, so… is it a store? No, it’s a “store.”
Water. Why can’t we figure this out?
There’s a working sewer system. There’s running water. Why, at the source of the running water, can we not ensure its potability? Is Mexico Flint, Michigan’s Sister City? Water is the essence of life, you know – combined with oxygen, which is in water – but let’s not overthink it. Folks need water and they have to have it delivered by a dude in a truck. Not cool. I’m hoping whatever Kevin Costner has cooking in the desalination department can help out the good people of Mexico. At least it’s cheap at the OXXO.
Exit OXXO, die in traffic.
Most OXXOs (that’s Spanish for 7-11, or perhaps Hug, Kiss, Kiss, Hug), are always on busy corners and some of these busy corners have 10-inch sidewalks. So beware after purchasing your bottled, potable water and Bimbo oxygen-flavored dust cakes, that you don’t open the door and step directly in front of a careening off-brand car.
Cathedral Votive Shot Glasses
Mexicans are decidedly Catholic. Like… a lot. In fact, I think Cortés demanded it. However, nearly every cantina in Oaxaca uses the little votive, cross yourself in memory of someone, candle glasses as shot glasses. It’s plain as day. I don’t know what this does, karmically. Does it bring God into the liquor business? Does it welcome Satan? Is it sacrilegious? Some kind of Church-sponsored guilt trip? It’s more than likely just cheap. I’d guess there are a surplus of church votive candle glasses and bar owners get a good deal on them.
Bimbo Oxygen-flavored Dust Cakes
¿Por qué? Not sure why they exist or how anyone could like them. Then again, I still can’t wrap my head around alcoholic seltzers either and they seem to be doing okay. I’d had similar pastries at an authentic shop on South First Street near Polvo’s (Austin) years ago. Even took some into work. Various shapes and colors of the same air-flavored breadish stuff, neither sweet nor savory. They just kind of retain mass. Cada uno con su propio…
* Don’t take offense, you know who you are.
** We can argue ‘beat’ and ‘time signature’ all day long. Actually, you can. By yourself.
Staying in doesn’t work for me for very long. Not sure anyone would ever call me a homebody, perhaps you are, in which case you probably don’t travel much. Not sure where that leaves us. Should you find yourself in this beautiful little mountain town, surrounded by lushness, there are locales you might want to hit up – or avoid. You know, go out and find.
Take the Zocalo area, for instance. Avoid. It’s crowded, not odd as it’s the center of town where the massive outdoor market and main cathedral are. It’s where the tourist information carts hand out pamphlets, where you can haggle over the price of handmade purses, pullovers, dresses and whatever else you may or may not need. There’s a big, dry fountain, several patio cafes, restaurants and ice cream parlors and no shortage of freelance salespeople.
And all of this is only a short, chaotic walk away from the gigantic indoorish mercado. This is where you get “gold” jewelry, shot glasses, cowboy hats, candy, everything else. The mercado has incredible lunch counters inside, pretty great produce stalls, fishmongers, butchers, the list is quite literally endless. Then you can step outside and find several smaller versions of the mercado selling things that may or may not have been accounted for in the big one.
The entire neighborhood is surrounded by street after street of shops, mostly printer cartridges and DJ speakers, but some unique, we’ll say pop-ups. When the sun goes down, if you’re the socks-with-sandles, sun-visor, look at the phone for coordinates and announce to the world you’re pulling money out of the ATM type – this is where you’ll be murdered.
Personally, having been there a few times over the years, I avoid the Zocalo like the plague. Well, not the current one.
But you have to do the heavily touristy parts once just to know not to do it again.
Crime’s not bad in Oaxaca. It’s one of the many places across Mexico where the local government will come down hard on criminals so they don’t disturb the tourist economy. On top of that, Oaxaca is known for staunch vigilante action. They won’t put up with nonsense down there, not even from their own government. A local artist by the name of Israel Salcedo can tell you all about the struggles of the region through his art or over a beer at the cantina.
My initial run-in with Israel was at my favorite bar in town, La Fama. The little place is literally like stepping into the old west, swinging batwing doors and all. Place may as well have a dirt floor. The back wall is covered in photos of old-timey Mexican film stars that reflect the outside light, making you think someone will spring up from a table without notice and accuse you of cheatin’ at cards. That’s about the only light in the place in fact.
The bar area also has that, “flip a coin on the counter and ask for a bottle of whiskey,” feel to it. With the exception, of course, of the DJ speaker pumping out whatever Tejano music’s been in the Top Ten for 30 years. I’m sure they have a printer in back somewhere, out of toner.
Be aware that just about all the mom-and-pop type bars will allow the street vendors and freelance salespeople to come in and try to sell you loosies (cigarettes), Chiclet, empanadas, churros, tacos and just about anything else that “fell off the truck,” don’t worry, they’re mostly charming. The best is when someone strolls in with a guitar and knocks your socks off with a couple songs for the ladies.
After dark, other types of characters stroll through bars trying to sell other things, keep an eye open for these folks and be VERY polite in turning them down. I find claiming to have some horrible affliction that makes them cringe seems to work.
The comida, oh my, the comida. Oaxaca is, as you probably know, famous for their cheese, chocolate and mole (moe-lay). The mole is my favorite and they have several types, the internet will tell you there are seven, an 80-year-old woman making handmade tortillas on 5 de Mayo will tell you there are upward of 20. I’m going with the old lady.
In general, I like chocolate okay and I guess Oaxaca’s is alright, you connoisseurs will know better than I. Cheese, I’m not a big cheese fan to begin with (and I don’t want to hear any horseshit from you about that), so the mole is my main area of study. Big fan.
But don’t just focus on their exceptional array of hand-crafted mole’s that will change your life, Oaxaca also has incredible everything else. Among my go-tos, baby pig tacos.
When explaining to a fellow traveler, destined for Oaxaca, that he HAD to try the tacos de Lechon – he, knowing that “Lechon” is a baby (or suckling) pig – called me a liar. Then I told him exactly where he could find the food cart when he gets there and reminded him that we eat veal and he seemed intrigued. It’s not on TripAdvisor but you have to try it if you’re ever down that way. (“El Lechoncito,” to be precise when referring to this guy’s cart.)
You won’t find the best places to eat in Oaxaca on your phone or your favorite search engine (let’s be honest, Google). The real deal meal is purchased for next to nothing from a grandmother sitting on a cooler in the doorway of her own home, slouched over an improvised griddle, pounding out her homemade masa.
Masa’s tortilla dough, and she’s flattening it out by hand and placing it on the hot surface. You know what she’s going to do when it’s perfectly browned? She’s going to load it with one of three asadas she’s been stewing for hours and hours. You’ll buy one of each because why not? Then you’ll thank her profusely, give her too much money – which will confuse, maybe even anger her. Then you’ll walk about ten feet more and buy one of her granddaughter’s frescas with which to wash the meal down.
Even though the fresca was stirred by hand and has flies in it, and God knows what else, you won’t care. 1. You’ll think of Clark Griswold’s niece Audrey from Vacation and laugh it off. 2. The smell of the food has distracted you beyond your sense of self.
Now it’s time for an afternoon beverage, but where? Don’t fret, Oaxaca has dozens of fantastic cantinas, patios, balconies and hotels, complete with another local favorite, Mezcal. “Hey, that’s like tequila!” people will say and continue to say, then say some more. Sure. It is indeed like tequila. Tequila can only be made (ideally) from blue agave, mezcal can be made from a lot of different types of agave and it’s all cooked. As far as the ‘chicken and the egg’ part? Who knows and who cares.
They’re both plentiful in Oaxaca and both get the job done. There are little stores called mezcalotecas and the like that will gladly sell you an overpriced bottle with a fancy label, especially if you’re American. And Lord help you if you choose to hunt mezcal down in the States, it’s insanely overpriced. But my favorite is served straight from a 10-gallon gasoline jug by the farmer who made it. He and his tooth came into the La Cucaracha cantina one afternoon, looking for the manager.
The manager wasn’t in, the reason for needing him – that batch of mezcal goes into the “Manager Only” bottle behind the bar. The gentleman farmer turned to me and asked if I’d like to try some. He asked for 20 pesos (about a nickel) then commenced to pour me three pretty good sized shots in a row, having a couple himself. I woke up behind the controls of a Cessna somewhere over Honduras.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find the SalamanBar on 5 de Mayo. Then again, maybe our tastes differ and you like glasses, stools and counters to be clean and food to be edible. Not me, I like a place that smells exactly like it did at closing time mixed with purple cleanser and oppression. SalamanBar fits the bill and the owner’s a gem, one of the nicest people in Oaxaca, quick with a smile and probably very funny jokes – if you’re fluent in Spanish.
If you’re lucky, Rick, we’ll call him, and his daughter/niece/girlfriend, it’s unclear – will play the same three songs over and over again on the bar’s Tandy computer with dial-up internet service. It’s quite the experience. Then he’ll put on a soccer match no one in the world could possibly care about and the chicken wing delivery guy will come in around 4 pm. You can then watch Rick clean the feathers and Dear-Christ-Knows-What-Else off the wings, which look to have been sitting somewhere at room temperature for a few days.
Wings are Rick’s specialty and they’re said to be the best around by the regulars who come in and know some English. I’ll pass though, I’m not sure deep frying something cleans the municipal water off it. And, as affable as he is, I can’t vouch for Rick’s hygiene. He hasn’t changed shirts in a few days and his pompadour’s looking a little hard ridden. But a grand time is had there on every visit nonetheless.
From SalamanBar, it’s across the street we go to Clandestino, one of those places that hypes up it’s nightlife with large vinyl posters of a scantilly clad woman suggesting you’ll have sex right there on the spot, with everyone else watching. Not my thing but they have excellent happy hour prices and two-for-one mezcals before 7 pm. It sits three floors up with a fourth floor outdoor patio, decent view of the surroundings. I’d never been after nightfall as it looks like an excellent place to get knifed.
Back at the rental, Jesus and his wife are still cleaning and replacing filters and bulbs well into the night. The single mother who lives there fulltime is doing her laundry by hand on the rooftop as bass-heavy tejano music pumps into the heavy evening air. The stray Mexican Yellow Dogs are finding their beds and the night owls are applying too much hair gel and body spray. All’s right with the world.
Aside from the live electrical wires laying in the streets, the gray water, their love of Metallica (if you hear anything other than Corazon Horn music, it’ll be Metallica), the cart in front of the restaurant that only sells rat traps, batteries and CBD back cream, the bizarre association between keeping your shoes clean and COVID and a million other peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies, Oaxaca is a home away from home. A place where inspired, brilliantly painted murals spring from nowhere near a vivid wall draped in vibrant, exotic flowers and vines.
It’s a place where the sun shines every day, maybe not all day – it tends to drizzle somewhere between 1 and 4pm, much like Hawai’i. In fact, in certain settings, you can look up at the surrounding mountains and think you’re in Kauai. Of course, you’ll then hear Lenin Ramirez blair from a DJ speaker – or a Toyota Viceroy blaze by, burning 60-octane petrol, and get snapped back into reality, but it’s a beautiful place.
Oaxaca’s where a Third Gender is celebrated. You’ll likely meet a Muxe and be glad you did. Every person of the Muxe persuasion I’ve been lucky enough to meet carries themself with poise, grace and respect. In Oaxaca, gender is a concept they’ve been fluid about and okay with since before I was born – our obsession with such things would seem quite odd to them.
There’s a chance you’ll step on a six-inch long scorpion in the middle of a busy sidewalk but it’s not the big ones you have to worry about. Much like many of Oaxaca’s citizenry, it’s the small, silent ones you should be aware of.
Like some of the cities in the old Eastern Bloc, Oaxaca wrestles with its past while attempting to ease into a more touristy future and it’s slow going. Not a lot of people want to cater to a culture that’s more fast-paced, demanding and disrespectful than what they’re used to. Can’t blame them there. Oaxaca has its share of assholes walking around in pressed shorts, looking for the perfect bit of real estate with which to entice even more gringos – perhaps they’ll sidestep it. History has proven otherwise.
Who knows. If the transition is gradual enough, the defiant and honorable spirit of the region will win out over the glut and greed – and the good people of Oaxaca State and City can have the things they need to live a quality life without enduring the pangs of a growth too rapid to control with any semblance of decorum. (clears throat, looks at Austin)