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 espaÃ±ol, 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
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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