After two years of isolation and three jabs for protection, visiting Oaxaca was the shot in the arm I needed to reconnect with the joy of traveling. But was it safe to go? In a world where choosing whether to eat inside or outside ties people in knots, going to Mexico seemed like a stretch.
The debate: On one hand, it was Oaxaca. The colonial city on a plateau in central Mexico is one of our favorite places.
The invite for a week-long photo tour in early January came from photographer Eddie Soloway just as I scheduled my booster shot. So far, all good. And Eddie had booked Casa Oaxaca, the hotel where David and I stayed in 1999. I fondly remembered simple but comfortable rooms and generous breakfast platters with mango and papaya in the lovely courtyard.
We sent Eddie our deposit right away. But as Thanksgiving rolled into Christmas and then New Years, and omicron multiplied beyond reason, our anticipation mingled with increasing apprehension. We checked the numbers. They were better in Mexico. What to do?
Worry. Buy masks and tests. Go anyway.
The welcome rituals at the Oaxaca airport were simple and efficient. A quick temp check. Documents perused and stamped. We were greeted with mask signs everywhere.
The city had definitely grown. When we first visited in 1975, we arrived from Mexico City by overnight train, long since discontinued. On the way from the airport we passed a Walmart, Sam’s Club and Mercedes and Audi dealers on what must be Oaxaca’s Auto Row. Minutes later we were in the colonial center of town, where buildings built right up to the sidewalk sport fancy grillwork on their windows. As we entered Casa Oaxaca’s wooden door it felt like coming home.
By design, our first day was a lazy Saturday. It would have been easy to sip coffee or mezcal all afternoon under the pomegranate trees, watching colibrís (hummingbirds) come and go, but we wanted to get our bearings before the rest of the group arrived for dinner on Sunday.
On the streets of Oaxaca
Traveling light with just our iPhones, we wandered past brightly painted homes …
… people reading at cafes …
… luscious flowers …
… colonial remnants …
… mezcal bars …
… and ubiquitious street art …
… to ARIPO, a curated artisan shop with treasures from all over the state of Oaxaca. There we were greeted by a giant Tiliche or Rag Man, a folkloric character from the western Oaxacan town of Putla Villa de Guerrero.
Inside we were asked to sign in and do a temperature check. Masks, of course, were required. Only then were we able to enjoy the collection of jewelry, textiles, animal carvings, handwoven rugs and tableware in a beautifully repurposed home built above an ancient Spanish aqueduct. It was all very tempting, but it was only Day One.
As we turned to leave, giant metallic stars suspended across the courtyard caught my eye. I was enjoying the play of light and color as they twisted in the wind when I noticed the ladder…and the workers.
Within ten minutes the orbs were all down, ribbons flapping forlornly. Oh. It was January 8, and Christmas was definitively over.
Crickets for lunch
Oaxaca’s cuisine is renowned for its tlayudas (pizza-sized tostadas), salsas, moles, chocolate…and chapulines (roasted grasshoppers or crickets). After catching some more photos we hopped into Zandunga for a light lunch of guac and salad. Would we like some nopales (cactus) and chapulines to go with the guacamole? ¿Por qué no?
They were crunchy dried little things that get all their taste from frying on the comal (griddle) with spices and S-A-L-T to preserve them. Yes, they were that salty. Later on in the market, we saw baskets and baskets of chapulines in all sizes.
Not to mention this chapulín bag for an ironic souvenir.
Three weddings and identity politics
Those of you who have followed Hidden-inSite know that I have been collecting street-side wedding photos for years. Oaxaca did not disappoint. That first morning, just as we left ARIPO, we saw a wedding party lined up against a blue building. Ah, photo time, I thought. While David aimed his phone toward a solitary reader in front of a café …
… I concentrated on the wedding party and their photographic team of four.
That was our first clue to Oaxaca’s crazy wedding business. Clearly, this couple’s photo director was fabulous!
We saw our second clue as she hurried down Calle de Manuel García Vigil past the restaurant as we were finishing lunch. In a world where everyone wears logo t-shirts and jeans, she was an indigenous-looking woman with long braids in a brightly colored costume. And she carried something that looked suspiciously like a basket with a turkey.
We couldn’t finish in time to follow her, but when we left the restaurant, we heard the lively beat of a brass band and instinctively set out to follow the music. It led us to the plaza in front of El Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, one of the most iconic sites in all of Oaxaca.
There in front of us was a formally dressed (tuxes and gowns) wedding crowd watching a troupe of six dancers with long braids and colorful skirts balancing baskets with hearts, stars and, yes, turkeys, on their heads. The woman who passed the restaurant was one of the dancers. Even more surprising was a huge balloon with the names of the happy couple, Amelie y Marcelo, bouncing along to the music.
And just as the crowd followed the band, the balloon and the dancers out into the street, a second wedding party, a bit less formally dressed, took over the plaza with their own band, dancers and balloon for Iliana and Cole. With both bands going at once, it felt like halftime at a college football game. What a treat for people who’ve been isolating at home for two years!
“Your dad stiffed us,” joked David. “Our wedding was fun, but nothing like these.”
Curious, later on I asked Juan, one of our guides, about weddings in Oaxaca. “Weddings are a huge business here,” he told me. The parades, called calendas, were introduced in colonial times by the Dominican friars to celebrate saints days. There was even an early version of the balloon structure to venerate the saints. Today personal calendas are organized to celebrate weddings, graduations and other happy occasions.
The dancers are part of Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas, a folkloric dance group founded in 1949. The origin of their name is lost in the swirl of history, but speculation centers on its roots in a neighborhood of Chinese factory workers where the Asian women taught their Mexican neighbors how to embroider. Check out this Vogue article to learn more.
“Local people can’t afford to get married at Santo Domingo. They charge too much for a wedding mass,” Juan continued. He mentioned an article he had just read that criticized Oaxacan destination weddings as appropriation. Indeed. After we got home, I found the English version of the article from the Oaxaca Post. It’s 2022, and identity politics is an international phenomenon.
What can I say? It may not be authentic. It may be expensive. But following the music was a fantastic, festive re-introduction to Oaxaca.
Following Iliana and Cole’s parade around the side of Santo Domingo brought us face to face with a display of painted watermelon slices. The block was filled with them, lined up in their own parade.
I didn’t understand the reference. I asked Mariana González, galerista of La Máquina, a historic graphics workshop across the street from the church, about the watermelons or sandias.
She explained that the invitational exhibit commemorates the 30th anniversary of beloved Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo’s death. Thirty artists, some once students of his, were asked to participate. Tamayo, a native Oaxaqueño, combined modern international painting styles with Mexican folk themes, including an impressive collection of paintings of watermelons. The story goes that he worked at his aunt’s fruit stand in Mexico City as a youngster. Hence, the watermelons. Since the exhibit was only a block away from Casa Oaxaca, we had ample time, day or night, to enjoy them.
An evening stroll
As night fell, we wandered past another church. They’re everywhere, forbidding and welcoming at the same time.
We were on our way to La Plaza de las Nieves, literally, Ice Cream Square, the famous plaza where we tasted zapote negro and mandarina ices.
Then on to the Zocolo, Oaxaca’s central plaza, where we saw knots of people enjoying themselves in the cool evening, sipping chocolate at Mayordomo, watching their grandkids, buying balloons.
Although we steered wide of crowds and skipped the tempting mezcal bars, just to be safe despite almost universal masking, exploring Oaxaca was a fiesta of life and color. We walked back to the hotel under the rings of paper picado with the moon shining through. It was just our first night, and we wanted to stay healthy for the adventures to come.
LATER THIS SPRING: Hidden-inSite will explore the history of the remarkable La Máquina graphics workshop, the indigenous weaving of Teotitlán del Valle and more from Oaxaca.