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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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