Sense of Oaxaca - My Family Travels


            I did not arrive in Oaxaca until midnight; from the colectivo (shuttle), my first views of México terrified me: armed police on every corner, not something I see in my San José, California, neighborhood. In daylight, however, I learned the true charm of the city, and of the simple beauty of dated ways persisting in a modernizing city and of the kind-hearted people that live there.
            The singular most noticeable thing that hit me the moment I first stepped onto the colorful street in the beautiful, clean green city of Oaxaca was the smell. It was a smell unlike anything I have ever smelled before, and incomparable to any familiar American food, place, or fragrance. Biting, it was not a bad smell like dirty streets or rot or garbage. It was bitter, yet sweet; slightly smoky, but crisp; and oh so strong. The “olor,” en español, filled my nose completely. It was the smell of the immense, bustling mercados filled with food, clothes, and everything but the kitchen sink, the 5000 foot high valley’s moist air, the friendly smiles and warm faces of the kind indigenous peoples, mainly Zapotec, but Mixtec too—the smell of rich history thriving in the “modern” (really not very) culture. I can revisit the Sunday market Tlacolula and see the elderly women stooping over their weaving and their cooking, counting their wares, the region’s own thirty-inch tortillas called Tlayudas, and hear the children begging me to buy gum or cigarettes from them, and smell the nauseatingly sour unrefrigerated meat carcasses hanging above the sweet pineapples that I taste, while feeling the comfortably hot rays of the sun wrap around my exposed shoulders and tickle my face. Crowd surrounds me, but I feel more at home and safer than I ever would in my home city’s downtown. They stop to chat, and I get to practice Spanish. Friendly, generous, and always wanting to help with anything were strangers on the street, tour guides, my wonderful teachers, and the amazing hotel staff.
            Guided by recommendations from friends, I studied at the intimate Oaxaca Language School (http://[email protected]/index2.htm) and stayed at the also tiny, yet beautiful flower-filled posada-like Hotel Las Golondrinas
( Though small, both locations met all of my needs. For two weeks I studied one-on-one four hours a day, first with one professor for grammar, then with another for conversation. Teaching at my pace and the topics I asked to learn, Ileana and Agusto were accommodating, interesting, and very nice. Included with the lessons were excursions to the pueblo famous for its barro negro, black pottery, and another for its alebrijes, colorful hand-carved wooden animals, and a cumbia class and cooking class. Being in México, the trip cost a fraction of what a similar trip in America or to another country would have cost. Economical and educational, with centuries-old churches lining every street and museums and ruins galore, la Ciudad de Oaxaca is a great place to visit, not to mention its delicious dishes and trash-free tree-shaded squares and traditional attire-wearing welcoming natives. The city has a magical, Disneyland feel to it, too charming to be real, but a truly happy place. The culture there is unique to Oaxaca, different from anywhere else in México, with a smell of its own.
            In Oaxaca, I fell in love with the city’s complex simpleness and new oldness and the people’s constant care for each other and us outsiders. The paradoxical smells will stay with me forever, and are urging me to return, and also to continue experiencing life in other corners of the globe.

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