Five characters (and their guests) in search of something.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Every two months Tracy and I have agreed to try to capture the flavor of the city as we know it. The idea is to be able to track the changes in our perceptions of Oaxaca over the time we are here.

At this point I am sorry that I haven't done this each week, since I feel we have gone through a lot of changes in the past two months. From a need to defend to feeling close to being "at home".

The Ciudad de Oaxaca is insulated by outlining streets (on the north end, Heroes de Chapultepec, etc). Once you cross these streets into the surrounding colonias (or neighborhoods), the pace changes. The security of homes change. The sounds change. Colonia Reforma (not to be confused with calle de la Reforma) is quieter, newer, more like an urban suburb. Houses are more open there and their interiors more visible to passersby. More pizza. More taquerias. More money. More patrons filling little restaurants. And with fewer stone walls, the temperature is cooler. One day it seemed nearly 10 degrees (F) cooler.

Though the buildings are no taller in the city, the warmer city, the pace quickens. Cars are more impatient. Trees are older. And the iglesias. The people in Oaxaca are very warm (this coming from someone who just spent about 6 years in Upstate New York, USA where you are more likely to catch cold than get a warm "Hello" or "Good Morning" on the street). And the people make eye contact. I've always taken a sort of visual poll of eye contact, by women and men, and the people in the center of Oaxaca are likely to make eye contact with foreigners. The eye contact then triggers a "Good ____ (refer to your watch for Day, Afternoon, Night, etc.)" either from you or spontaneously from them. Lately, it may be that it requires me to instigate the greeting. Older Oaxacans and folks from outlying villages also will give you the civilian salute of waving the back of their hand at you a couple of times with their greeting. I like this very much since it reminds me of 1940s movies and wearing hats. I've always liked Clark Gable's hand-sliding-across-the-side-of-his-hat-and-out-at-ya (or sometimes from the eyebrow) salute. And this is the closest salute to Gable's still in use that I can find.

I find myself walking in the middle of streets that have been closed to traffic. Either the sidewalks are too narrow or there are couples making out on the curbs--and it becomes awkward to say "with your permission" to people who are french kissing. I haven't yet become comfortable with the lack of distance between me and people who are obviously spending some necessary personal time. The family or the house set-up in Oaxaca seems to put these kids into the streets for dates. Under trees. In the shade of walls near the garden. In parks. It's funny, because at once I am drawn to experience the open, the welcoming nature of the people here, and at the same time, I am aware that I'd like to give these people some space and privacy. "Hello! Oh, I'm sorry... Excuse me."

The city seems quite small, especially if you don't count the colonias. Looking up at the mountains that rim the valley of Oaxaca, it seems that a city that takes up the space of the valley would have to be expansive. Yet, each day we drop off the kids at school and usually walk back to our house. From central Oaxaca's southeast corner to the north central end of the city's center. It's only about 20 blocks at the most.

The markets have gone from being a place of wonder and awe--considering the variety of goods and our lack of familiarity with local food and customs--to a place of distrust and business-like shopping. In two days two members of our extended house were robbed in markets. At the Ocotlan and Abastos markets. A digital camera out of a backpack and a wallet out of a front pocket! Both robberies happened during the Day of the Dead holiday, and probably by out-of-state carteristas, but nonetheless, it has created in me a grave need to create a mental canopy around our entire group during a visit to places like markets and busy tourist spots. I've never really liked shopping, but it has made it so that I don't even like to go to busy places with more than two people at a time in my group. And NEVER AGAIN with the kids. Being forced to watch the kids in a busy market puts me at a severe disadvantage. This is too bad because so many of our cultural differences, the really educational ones, are housed in these markets. Eating, shopping, working, and negotiating.


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