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Stuck in Boston with the Oaxaca Blues
Back to March-April 2019
The drive from the airport to the center of Oaxaca starts off badly; the suburbs are a study in industrial chaos, buildings and companies sprouting up in a grubby free-for-all. But soon enough, one slips into the center of town: cobblestone streets, two-story buildings painted parrot green, terra-cotta orange and periwinkle blue. And then the destination, La Betulia Bed and Breakfast, down a small side street and through large wooden doors into a secluded inner patio surrounded by balconies and anchored by an outdoor kitchen.
Our guide, Maria Itaka, was born in Oaxaca and has the relaxed charm of someone who has traveled the world but came home to stay. I was running late when we met for lunch outside the tourist center of town. She promised me exceptional tacos and tlayudas (large tortillas filled with beans, cheese and other toppings, folded in half and quickly toasted), and I was not disappointed. Key ingredients included Oaxacan cheese, which is a salty mozzarella, slow-cooked black beans and lard, plus pork, squash blossoms, chili de agua (hot chilies), seven different types of mole, dried grasshoppers, hoja santa (a large green herb) and carnitas. A variety of hot salsas were available as toppings, as well as a mild avocado salsa. And, after every meal, one is offered a shot of mezcal for friendship and good digestion.
We have all been tourists, and that is the conundrum of travel. One wants to experience the unfamiliar, penetrating the veneer of foreign culture that is offered up to the casual visitor. The center square of Oaxaca is the epicenter of the tourist experience: helium balloons, panama-style hats, ice cream and tourist shops, plus a few authentic touches such as women selling stacks of corn tortillas. Every photogenic city in the world is expert at giving tourists what they want and separating them from their money, whether it’s duck boat tours in Boston or a Zapotec cook in Teotitlán demonstrating how to roast corn on a comal, then grinding it with a metate for a yellow mole. We are given what others think we want.
Oaxaca has plenty of tourist offerings even for residents of Mexico City, who vacation here. But the secret of Oaxaca, and any good destination, is that it allows one to choose one’s experience. My favorite time of day was in two blocks to the laundromat. Though my Spanish is haphazard, I managed to negotiate the transaction every evening, entering into lively discussions about why I could not pick up my shirts until 7 p.m. because the sign says 24-hour service and I was 30 minutes short of a full day. Or, if my laundry weighed less than the minimum, I still had to pay the full 35 pesos (just under $2) and I was required to explain why I had come up short in pounds. After a few days, I became a regular customer and the proprietor, a woman of limited facial movement, as if she had a small and valuable supply of expressions, actually smiled.
One evening, tired after a long day of filming, we walked to a taco truck and stood on the sidewalk with locals eating pork tacos with chicharrones. Then the cook asked us to try the tostadas, then a torta (the roll is hollowed out and toasted before being filled). The small corn tortillas were soft, the filling warm, and the salsa verde bright and spicy. Across the street, there was a dance hall; through an open window we saw couples moving back and forth, smiling, spinning. It was an evening on the cusp of a warm day and the flow of cool night air. A streetlamp flickered off and on, dogs barked, headlights illuminated stucco walls with flaking sea-blue paint. We went back to La Betulia and sat on plastic chairs in the alley for an hour, enjoying the evening and drinking beer.
Tourism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the practice of traveling for recreation.” I don’t travel to relax; I travel to get out of my skin and to test myself in uncharted cultural waters. The traditional tourist experience asks nothing of travelers—it is prepackaged to give them what they expect, wrapped up in pretty colors and song, name tags for all. The best experience in a strange land is commonplace: picking up laundry, buying a beer, riding a bus. One is neither tourist nor local; just someone going about the daily exercise of living. That exercise, when practiced in a foreign land, will tell you more about yourself than you ever imagined.March-April 2019