Running away from winter: Oaxacan Diary part 1

My grandmother started going to Mexico in 1970. She continued to journey south every winter until she was 89, when it became too hard to travel. In 2003, my mother and I scattered her ashes in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico.

My mother has been travelling to Mexico since 1975. Like my grandmother, she loves the land and the people and, of course, the fact that there is no snow or ice. In 2001, Oaxaca became her winter home.

Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca
Laurie Lewis at home in Oaxaca

Now, I’ve come to visit and escape the deadening greyness of winter in Eastern Ontario. I’ve left Tim at home, writing, and for a few precious weeks I’ll immerse myself in colour, feel warmth on my skin, shed layers of clothes.

Oaxaca City is in the capital of the state of Oaxaca, a central area of Mexico. The word Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word Huaxyácal meaning the “summit of the acacias”  and the city sits over 5,000 feet above sea level. The colonial city centre was declared part of the Cultural History for Mankind by UNESCO in 1987.

This isn’t the place to go into colonial history, but the confluence of cultures forms the city. Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Aztecs lived in the Oaxaca Valley for at least a 1,000 years before the Spanish arrived. With the conquest, the Spanish built on top of the original Aztec fortress. They designed the city around a central square, the Zócolo, and oriented it to the cardinal points. The cathedral, built over the Aztec spiritual centre, is along one side of the square and facing it on the other side they built the municipal buildings. Thus the square was designed to radiate a balance of civic and spiritual power throughout the city.

The cathedral on the Zocolo
The cathedral on the Zocolo

Today, Oaxaca is a busy and friendly city of 250,000 that does, in fact, seem very balanced between both worlds. On one side of the Zócolo is a permanent tent city of protesters. On the other, there are constant processions in and out of the cathedral.

The weather in Oaxaca is blissfully temperate. Mornings are cool, and I must wrap up in a shawl as I sit on the patio for morning coffee. My first morning in Las Mariposas, the family run hotel where we are staying, I am treated to fresh tortillas stuffed with black bean sauce, salsa, zucchini blossoms and cheese, cooked on an open grill on the patio.

My kind of breakfast.

My mother and I spend the morning walking the city streets, looking in shops, smiling at people. There is, everywhere, a mixture of wealth and extreme poverty. My mother carries coins to distribute as we walk, making a special effort to give money to musicians and elderly women. Yet even with the poverty, there is a feeling of ease on the street, an assurance of safety.

My mother constantly reminds me to slow down. Not because I am walking too fast for her, but because I am walking too fast for life.

We sit in the Zocolo listening to speeches about workers rights and watching the women and children make their rounds selling shawls, beaded jewelry, gum, wooden toys and bookmarks. Young children are employed in the family business of selling on the streets. Why aren’t they in school, I ask. “School costs money. Uniforms cost money,” explains my mother. “Many children cannot go. And many of those that do, only go half days.” I know this should depress me, but all around me are smiling, encouraging faces.

Food, and food preparation, is everywhere. Comida is the main meal of the day, served from about 2:00 – 4:00.  There’s a small restaurant beside our hotel where the owner serves a simple comida, with daily specials.

Comeda down the street
Comida down the street

Today’s menu includes Chayote soup, a kind of Mexican squash. When we ask, the owner/cook brings one from the kitchen to show us. It is light green and shaped like a fat pear. The soup is soft, light and topped with a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Second course is a “dry soup”, a rice pilaf accompanied by hot salsa and a kind of guacamole sauce. We pause as we sip our pineapple water. Lighter than juice, it is a way of getting all of your electrolytes and hydration at one go.

Chillis Rellanos are stuffed poblano chillis that are battered and fried. Today, ours are stuffed with ground meat, carrots, potatoes – almost like a dry stew in a fat pepper. The pepper sits on a bed of mole, with some fresh salsa and salad on the side.

A flan, decorated with swirls of chocolate and caramel completes our comeda.

Comida costs us each 4.50 pesos – less than $4.00 Canadian. There are up-scale restaurants in Oaxaca and we could have gone somewhere fancy and paid twice as much, but this suited us perfectly.

Our simple Comeda restaurant
Our simple Comida restaurant

This is another reason why my mother lives in Mexico. The global financial crisis hit Mexico hard. It is incredibly cheap to live here. With every peso you spend, you feel you are doing a service for the country.

As the heat of the day begins to overwhelm us, we spend the afternoon dozing, reading and recovering from comida. It hasn’t taken long to forget winter.

Ready for a post-Comeda rest at Las Mariposas
Ready for a post-Comida rest at Las Mariposas
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