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January 28 2012


Mexico: Week two, flying solo in Oaxaca

Saturday market in Xochimilco. Photo: Phillip Smith.

I had decided early on that this would be my week of exploration. I was feeling better — my head cold was mostly vanquished — and my friend, roommate, and work colleague, David was away on an adventure of his own.

The week got underway with another trip to El Hub Oaxaca to get my membership sorted; 250 pesos for thirty hours. I figure that’s enough time to give working here a try. The space is huge and lovely, and the other El Hub members are all doing interesting work. Later in the week, Gregorio corners me to ask that I translate my El Hub member profile from English into Spanish. I’ll need to wait until David’s return for this task, as my Spanish has suffered from a year-and-a-half of not being used.

I’m invited by Jena to join a few people for drinks and snacks at the hip-and-trendy Comala. The small gathering quickly expands into a large boisterous group, several tables in size, as more and more people show up — it’s clear that everyone knows everyone in Oaxaca. It’s a great night: I meet a bunch of new folks, including the dry-witted Rodrigo, who I’ve run into almost daily since.

Having lived here a long time, I pepper Rodrigo with questions. He’s humorously obliging. My number one question: bikes!? Where the hell to find them, preferably used? I mean, what exploration of a city is complete without a bicycle between your legs? This is a question that confounds even the most die-hard Oaxaca residents. I wonder aloud where all of the old bicycles go, but nobody has an answer. Rodrigo recommends two shops, Zona Bici and Bicimundo, and while doing some research for this post I find that there are at least another three shops in town. I don’t quite find the time to tour the bike shops this week, so I add it to my list for next week.

The next exploration is coffee shops. Having thought that I was allergic to caffeine, touring the coffee shops wasn’t that high on my list, but I give in to the gravity of habit and decide to check out the bohemian scene. I manage to visit Lobo Azul (the same place that hosted the forum theatre group) and Cafe Brujula — both lovely, spacious, comfortable spots with good, strong espresso — the next two on my list are Nuevo Mundo and Cafe Los Cuiles, the later which is supposed to have great food also.

What naturally follows coffee? Lunch, of course. As far as lunch places go, and there are many — lunch is a big thing in Oaxaca — my current favourite is El Biche Pobre for the “La Botana Oaxaquena,” a big plate of mostly deep fried awesomeness. There are many, many others, mostly small nameless places, that all have their own version of the “comida corrida,” a set lunch menu that leaves me ready for a nap every time.

Then came the exploration of the outdoor markets. These tend to happen on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the city. The first one I stumble on by accident is an enormous market surrounding Parque Llano with a bazaar-esq feel to it: little portable restaurants with large communal tables that are elbow-to-elbow with people eating tasty treats, rambling produce stands, clothing, electronics — you name it, it’s here. On Saturday I tackle the outdoor organic market in Xochimilco, that sits just in front of the Iglesia de Xochimilco. This is a great spot for breakfast, lots of little stands serving strong organic coffee and various other breakfast goodies, and — to be honest — some of the best cheese I’ve had in my life.

Friday market in Parque Llano. Photo: Phillip Smith

While waiting for today’s variation of corn tortilla with unknown stuff inside for breakfast, I meet Vivian, an American who is here writing a book. She is by no means the first American author in Oaxaca I’ve met. It’s either something about the air here, or something about the history of uprising and resistance in Oaxaca, that seems to attract all of the world’s lefty writers. It’s a good thing that I like lefty writers.

The weekend wasn’t complete without a lazy Saturday afternoon rooftop soiree hosted by the ladies of Pro World, Teresa and Blaze, and deejayed by the ever-entertaining Scott. The music and conversation continued well into the evening, and it was a superb vantage point to watch the sun set behind the mountains that surround Oaxaca city.

I ended my “week without a room mate” with the realization that, in Oaxaca, flying solo isn’t really flying solo at all.

January 23 2012


Mexico: Week one, a slow start in Oaxaca.

Red Wall, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Phillip Smith

As you no doubt know from personal experience, having a head cold when the sun is shining and the weather is hot really, really sucks.

Nonetheless, the week was not without some adventures, for instance:

There was the cultural experience of a trip to one of the local mobile phone companies — Moviestar — to get a local phone number. Similar to Buenos Aires, it feels like there’s an peculiar level of bureaucracy required for such a straightforward transaction, i.e.: buy the SIM card from one person, stand in line to see the next person who can swap the full-size SIM for a micro SIM, wait for a third person to activate the SIM, and back to the first person again to add credit to the SIM so it can actually be used. Ninety minutes later I have a working mobile phone with 3G Internet. It is no big surprise to me that I have felt lost without Google Maps, and it feels great to have it working again for care-free city exploring. (Bizarrely, I managed to get by in Mexico City with a paper map of all things. Go figure.)

The terrible boredom of the next few days — mostly sneezing fits and watery eyes — was punctuated by several trips to the taqueria just a few steps down the street for their tasty chicken and vegetable soup with lots of yummy avocado. Another of the week’s “highlights” was a trip to Chedraui, the local equivalent of Walmart. Clearly, this week got off to a slow start.

On Thursday I was starting to feel a bit better, so Dave lured me out to one of the culinary treasures of Oaxaca city, La Biznaga. This place deserves all of the praise that it receives for being an oasis in an oasis; between the food and the open-air ambiance, it’s hard to say which one was better. Following dinner, a quick trip to the local hipster bar Txalaparta for another of Roberto’s never-ending despedidas.

The world gets smaller, again. As I talk to Roberto’s friend, Tonto, we discover that we’re both connected to Chocosol in Toronto, Tonto through his work with chocolate and me through the Toronto Awesome Foundation (we gave them a grant in October, I believe, to upgrade their off-the-grid, mobile chocolate factory).

The whole time I’m furiously writing down the recommendations and advice of any and every person within earshot that’s willing to submit to my questions: breakfast joints, health food shops, yoga studios, bicycle shops — by the end of the week I have a list a mile long. Now I have a reason to live!

On Friday I manage a visit El Hub Oaxaca, the local node of the global network of “Hub” spaces. The gregarious Gregorio gives a tour and tells us about El Hub’s focus on supporting local social justice activists, social entrepreneurs, and a variety of other non-profit initiatives. It feels strikingly similar to the early days of the Center for Social Innovation in Toronto: a bit dusty and rough around the edges, but filled with passionate and creative people. I must have liked it, by Monday I have a desk there.

El Hub, Oaxaca

I’ve recovered enough by Sunday night that I’m able to meet up with Nelly and Amber again. They’re on their way back from a few days in Puerto Escondido and Mazunte and just passing through on route back to Mexico City. We grab a bite at the Casa de la Abuela overlooking the Zocalo, but skip the opportunity to try the local delicacy, fried grasshoppers.

After dinner, we meet Dave at the church of Santo Domingo de Guzman for an evening of dancing puppets, fireworks, and a Burning Man-esque tower of pyrotechnics.

All in all, for a quiet week, it worked out pretty nicely.

January 15 2012


Mexico: Day Four, a journey to Oaxaca de Juarez

Occupy the fields

Monday morning. Sore throat. Start of the journey to Oaxaca de Juarez — my home for the coming months.

I gather my things, check out of the hotel, and get moving south.

On route, I meet two Americans, Nelly and Amber, they are coming from Durango and heading to Puerto Escondido. We exchange travel advice and recommendations and part ways.

Oaxaca, it seems, is really a small place: I run into Nelly and Amber again this same day, later in the evening, having dinner in Oaxaca’s historic Zocalo.

I make my way to the little apartment that my friend and colleague Dave has rented in La Cascada, in the hills just north of the Zocalo. It’s a bit hard to find on winding unmarked streets, but soon enough I see Dave’s red hair and I know I’m in the right place.

Without delay, Dave whisks me out the door and into the beautiful cobblestone streets of Oaxaca.

Our first stop is the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca to inquire about Spanish lessons. What at first appears to be a large compound from the outside, opens up into lush green gardens and shady outdoor patios. Students are scattered about, studying under a tree, taking salsa lessons, or perhaps catching a nap; it’s a little oasis of extranjeros in Oaxaca (probably not the only one). We meet Ryota, from Japan, who gives us the run-down and a tour. We stop by the kitchen where a class is learning to make Oaxacan food. Our Spanish is sufficient for today, but no doubt we’ll be back here soon to improve it.

Next, we make our way to the Zocalo, where we find a small restaurant with a patio. The Zocalo is filled with people — vendors, musicians, turistas, and so on — it provides no end of entertainment over a dinner that is various arrangements of corn tortilla, beans, and cheese.

Bellies full, we wander up to the Lobo Azul for a performance of “3000 mil mujeres” by a “forum theatre” group from Puebla. The performance explored the issues around the trafficking of women in Mexico. At the end, the performers ask the audience to take the place of one of the characters and to re-enact the scenes. One after another, audience members work through the scenes, and provide feedback to the performers. It’s an eye-opening experience.

Oaxaca Theatre

We wind up the evening in Xochimilco at a “despedida” (going away party) for Roberto, an linguist & activist who has been living and working in Oaxaca for the last six months but is soon to return to the US. Here I also meet the rest of Dave’s witty, smart, radical crew: Simon from Occupy Oakland, Erin who works with The Berkana Institute and facilitates “The Art of Hosting” workshops, Jenna (or Juanita) who is in Oaxaca doing research for her dissertation, Moravia who is here working with Witness for Peace, and also Yeyo and Ana. This lively bunch will no doubt be a recurring theme in my Oaxaca experience, and I’m grateful for that.

Alas, my sore throat is starting to feel like a cold, so I skip the generous and plentiful offers of Irish whiskey, which is always for the best as it has gotten me into trouble more than once, and head home exhausted and sober.

What a few days it has been. Sadly, the next several days are punctuated by a nasty head cold. Rather than bore myself by writing up my trip to the pharmacia to procure tissue and cold medicine, I’ll just pick up the story when it picks up again.

Hasta pronto.

January 12 2012


Mexico: Day Three, Mexico City. Pedestrian Sunday, Flash Mob, and The Zocalo.

The Zocalo, Mexico City. Photo: Phillip Smith

It’s Sunday. The last two days of exploring have taken their toll. I give myself a pep talk and manage to get outside around noon. Today’s mission: The Zocalo — the main square in Mexico City’s historic centre.

Google Maps says that it’s forty-five minutes from Zona Rosa. I figure I’ll walk there, wander around for the afternoon, have some lunch, and try to navigate the subway back. I set out in the direction of the Angel of Independence; from there I should be able to follow Paseo de La Reforma, a six-lane main artery of downtown Mexico City, all the way downton.

I arrive at La Reforma expecting the vehicular mayhem that is common to such large avenues, but instead find that it is filled with bicycles, people on roller blades, and random salsa classes. It seems that Kensington Market’s “Pedestrian Sundays” is not such a novel idea, nor nearly ambitious enough. Each Sunday in Mexico City, La Reforma is closed to vehicle traffic and is transformed into a playground for people. I walk down the centre of this huge avenue all the way to the historic centre.

A short pit stop at the Palacio de Bellas Artes is made more enjoyable by an impromptu interview. A group of five local students ask if they can interview me on camera for a school project:

“What is your name?”

“Where are you from?”

“What do you do there?”

“What is your favourite thing about Mexico?”

You never know when you’re going to get your fifteen seconds of fame.

Interview complete, with appropriate compliments paid to Mexico and its people, I’m off again. Cultural perceptiveness may not be my strongest skill, but — as I wind my way toward the Zocalo — I’m noticing that an ever increasing number of people are, um, not wearing any pants. At first it’s just a few here and there. Then more and more people appear wearing only underwear on their bottom half. It’s a jarring — but not entirely unpleasant! — sight. What is going on? I’m keen to investigate.

In the final block before the small street open into the massive square pedestrian traffic has come to a stop. Ahead is what appears to be a protest. A large crowd has filled the block and is chanting loudly. The chant grow louder and louder and then — suddenly — break into boisterous applause and cheer. The apparent cause of the cheer: a person waving their pants from a window above the crowd.

I push my way through. I want to know what’s happening. I’m now surrounded by people with no pants. The pantless mob randomly descends on those people still wearing pants and chants in Spanish “Take them off! Take them off!” (or something like that; admittedly, my Spanish isn’t great). If the person strips, the crowd goes wild. I find a few pantless warriors on the edge of the mob and enquire “Que esta pasando aqui?” Flash mob.

Having arrived at the Zocalo without having to remove my pants, I duck into the Hotel Majestic and head up to their rooftop restaurant, La Terraza. I sip a beer, take in the view overlooking the entire historic square, and snap a few photos.

The area and streets around the Zocalo are filled with vendors of all kinds. Some streets are so densely packed that it makes walking almost impossible. There are many performances happening simultaneously. It’s a swirling, noisy placed filled with bright colours and every smell imaginable. Definitely worthy of more than a few short hours of exploration.

It’s time to head back. I’ve read about a place — Plaza de Computacion, an indoor market of electronics — that I want to find on route to the subway. I head down Eje Central Avenue, a large busy street with lots of vehicular mayhem, and pedestrian mayhem also. Eje Central is not a pretty street. It’s busy and loud and the sidewalks are full with street vendors. I find the Plaza de Computacion. It’s a multi-floor market of mostly cell phones, video games, and pirated music and movies. A bit of a let down, but worthy of a quick tour nonetheless.

With the metro station Salto del Agua in sight, I make my escape from blocks and blocks of bustling commerce back to the relative quiet of Zone Rosa.

A quick stop at the local taqueria reminds me that I don’t like Dos Equis that much.

A sore throat sends me off to bed early.

Tomorrow morning I journey to Oaxaca.

January 10 2012


Mexico: Day Two, Mexico City. San Angel, Coyoacan, and La Condessa.

A park in the San Angel district of Mexico City. Photo: Phillip Smith.

Zona Rosa never sleeps and neither did I.

I'm up, but Saturday is already half over. Yikes! Gather my belongings and my wits, consult my options for the day — today is the day for markets in Mexico City. I'm off.

The first destination is the San Angel district for the Bazar Sabado in Plaza de San Jacinto. It's a lovely spot full of rambling cobblestone streets and a large central plaza full of vendors selling mostly art and hand-made crafts. I duck into a little taqueria and over lunch I make a note to come back again and to bring a camera.

Next, I'm off to Coyoacan. There is a rumour about good artisanal markets there too. I ask for directions. Nothing is as close as it looks on a map in Mexico City. The directions involve at least one minibus, if not two; I think about it for a minute, then I take a taxi.

The taxi drops me in front of a huge shopping mall. Not quite what I was looking for… but, hey, why not? I take a spin through the mall. It's very upscale. I think I saw a Prada store on my way out. I get new directions and head along Calle Mexico toward destinations unknown.

It's a sunny warm afternoon and the city is still quiet from the Christmas holidays. I pass the Viveros Coyoacan, another of the enormous and well-appointed parks that I've come across. A wrong turn here and there and I stumble on La Casa Azul, the birthplace of Frida Kahlo. I take a break in the courtyard and absorb some sun before heading off in search of the Leon Trotsky museum (which I'm not destined to find this day).

A short walk away along Avendida Miguel Hildago I find the centre of Coyoacan, near Jardin Plaza Hildago. Old narrow streets open into several blocks of connecting squares and gardens, all of which are filled with activity: vendors, musicians, food stands, an open-air theatre and much more. I spot a congregation of tents and political information — perhaps part of the Occupy movement here? I'm not sure. At the far end of all this is the Kiosko de Coyoacan, a two-floor building filled with crafts and food shops. I could easily spend a whole day exploring this part of Coyoacan, but it's dark now and I head back to Zona Rosa.

Old friend from Argentina, Clare, tells me that, similar to Buenos Aires, people eat late in Mexico City. We arrange to grab a bite at 10 PM. I walk from Zona Rosa to La Condesa along Avendia Oaxaca passing several hopping "Cervezarias" as I skim along the edge of Parque Espania. The streets here are not on a grid and it's easy to get turned around; I end up on Tamaulipas, a long stretch of "fresa" (slang for roughly 'hipster' and 'posh') bars and restaurants. I wind my way back to Nuevo Leon and to the small oasis that has been built at the corner Mexicali in front of the restaurant Bacan.

A bottle of Escorihuela Gascon brings back memories of Argentina and sends me on my way home.

January 09 2012


Mexico: Day One, Mexico City

El Angel de la Independencia in Mexico City. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I left for the airport at 4 AM on January 6th. It’s always pretty quiet in Toronto at 4 AM and this day was no different.

This is my first time departing from the American Airlines terminal. It’s pretty run down. The U.S. Customs agents hadn’t even started their day yet. We all waited staring at these big metal gates, like the ones you see on TV at the border between two countries that don’t want each others people to come in. Eventually, and probably reluctantly, they opened the gates.

“What’s your business in the United States?”

“I’m going to Mexico.”

“I didn’t ask where you are going, I asked what your business is in the United States.”

“Um, I’m traveling through the U.S. to go to Mexico?”


I’m at the Dallas airport around noon I think. I’m looking for some food. I hear thunderous clapping. I think the Rolling Stones must be getting off a plane or something. I wander over to check it out. Hundreds of U.S. Army troops are returning from Afghanistan. They’re receiving a standing ovation from everyone in the airport. It’s both beautiful and frightening. I duck into the Au Bon Pain.

The plane lands in Mexico around 3 PM. I quickly read some information about what you can and can’t bring into the country — not the best timing, I know (honestly, I’ve never been great at planning trips). Whoops, I’ve brought along two laptops. Seems that you’re only allowed to bring one. No worries, I probably won’t get searched. Put my bags through the X-Ray: no problemo. Push the button that “randomly” picks people for searches: red light, oh shit. Act stupid, speak English, smile, and slip through with two laptops and a warning. Today is my lucky day.

Taxi downtown to the Zona Rosa. Walking around and I’m struck by the U.S.-ness of Mexico City: McDonald’s, 7-11, Chilli’s, GNC, Starbucks, and so on. I wander over to El Angel de la Independencia and take in the city for a while; it’s huge, but not intense like Buenos Aires. Nothing like swirling chaos around the Obelisco on 9 de Julio.

Dinner at Fonda del Refugio because it was written up on Wikitravel. Guacamole, little fried quesadillas, and chicken with mole sauce. Hey! When in Mexico… No celebrities, sadly, only a bill for 300 pesos.

It’s a Friday night. Zona Rosa is on fire. Boom, boom, boom goes the disco music until 4 in the morning.

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