Reconnecting: Oaxaca, Mexico
© Copyright 2009 by Jasmine Maharisi
2009 Travel Nonfiction Winner
The valley of Oaxaca dips down like the Spanish ñ, creasing into the Sierra Madre mountains running through southern Mexico. Oaxaca, the city inside the valley, is home to sixteen different indigenous groups, some of which have never mixed with European blood. The earliest settlers in this part of Mesoamerica were agricultural people. They most likely travelled only when in danger or when the land failed to produce food. But mostly, they came to Oaxaca to cultivate, to plant, and to harvest.
I came to practice my Spanish and to receive seven hours of study abroad credit.
It took me a long time to digest everything about Oaxaca; the narrow streets, the street vendors, the multi-colored graffiti painted on the large walls in front of houses, the mescal shops, the stores running together as if they were all part of one long strip mall. All of it was indescribable. All of it terrified me.
Living temporarily in a foreign country is much like going to a stranger’s house for a party. The host is often self-assured, confident, and all around in his or her own element. The light in which we view our host is much different than the one we shine on our own guests, those who come to our house, looking around insecurely, standing awkwardly just inside the door. It takes time for them to become comfortable, to open up enough to show their wit and humor, their talents and potential. But it will never be their party; it will never be their house.
I acquired many new beliefs while in Oaxaca, some of them not necessarily a direct result of cultural influence. I stopped eating red meat while I was there, and I haven’t been able to look at it the same since. I can owe that to my excursion to a nearby town’s mercado del carne. When translated literally, it means meat market.
There are thousands upon thousands of outdoor mercados in Mexico, especially in rural areas. But el Mercado del carne was different from others because of the raw meat hanging everywhere; over racks, over string encircling booths, drooping half-off the tables. The large pink and red slabs attracted flies, and reeked of the smell that raw meat acquires after it has been hanging outside all day. In the middle of the market, large charcoal grills would allow patrons to cook and consume their food immediately. I pulled my shirt collar over my nose and blinked through the smoke. Everything started to become hazy.
The mercado is where I began to understand the degree of poverty plaguing most of the indigenous population in Oaxaca. Since arriving, I would often walk past women sitting against buildings, typically in the center of the city, holding their sleeping children and extending bowls out for strangers to deposit pesos. Children would also beg, without their parents in sight. Years later, I would read that most of the children begging on the streets in Oaxaca are orphans, and even if they have parents, their parents aren’t able to provide the basic necessities for them, leaving a large gap for the children to fill on their own. This isn’t real, I would think, they could get a job if they wanted. Their children aren’t hungry or sick. It’s a scam. They’re just trying to hustle tourists. And maybe they were. The reality of it all still seems strange to me. There isn’t anything quite like traveling to a land where people still practice customs that existed before the Spanish conquistadors, where limestone pyramids still stand erect from the ancients, and children sit on curbs in torn clothing with their accordions, asking strangers for pesos.
But in the mercado, the poverty was unavoidable. Everyone there seemed so tired, as if they hadn’t slept in years, quietly sitting behind their goods, their eyelids drooping, and their frail bodies still. I saw the Zapotec women walking back and forth across the mercado, talking to this person or that, their bodies stagnantly moving underneath their clothes. Suddenly, the anxiety I felt when I arrived in this foreign country quadrupled. I started to feel dizzy. My chest began to tighten, and everything seemed to happen all at once, yet slowly. I looked around the mercado for something familiar to fix my eyes upon and all I could see were rows of indigenous families in handmade clothing selling herbs, chapulines, fruits, and vegetables, anything they could. I saw the Zapotec women laughing, revealing their toothless mouths and heard their daughters talking in the rat tap tap rhythm of their native language while their children sat, sometimes a piece of twine wrapped around their waists attaching them to a leg of a chair, their dirty faces streaking with tears as they tried to get up and run and play as children do but were immediately pulled back, most likely painfully, and there were so many people here, their faces all brown or olive and their hair all dark, darker than mine and I was just a gringa, a rich American who didn’t know anything about real suffering, real hunger, real anything, just take me home, take me back to clean showers and toilets where I can ignore this ugliness if I wanted to, where I won’t face it everywhere I turn.
I never thought I’d experience a strong form of cultural shock. After all, it’s Mexico; it’s just across the border. I prided myself on being globally conscious, a daughter of a Turkish immigrant, a person who grew up surrounded by a plethora of accents, customs, and beliefs served to me from each of my parents like a ball in a tennis match. I’ve always embraced the opportunity to learn about different cultures, which was part of my initial attraction to the Spanish language. I was too open-minded for cultural shock, I thought, too exposed to diversity to feel any type of intense anxiety in a country so close to home.
But this time was different. This time, I was the foreigner.
I studied there in the summer, during Oaxaca’s rainy season. Everyday, after I walked home for a siesta, the downpour began. I’d lie on the bed and listen to it, the hard pounding of water on concrete, the abrupt claps of thunder. It would lull me to sleep and I’d awake, feeling as though the rain had showered me clean of the frustration and loneliness I was feeling.
“You kind of isolated yourself,” one of my classmates said to me after we returned to the States. “It’s like you didn’t want to be around any of us.”
And I didn’t. Out of the fourteen or so of us who went to Mexico, I became the reclusive during the experience. My classmates were nice people, and I’d known most of them quite a while before the trip as a result of my Spanish classes. But I’d been transplanted, removed from everything I’d known my entire life, and for whatever reason, I though this feeling was unique to only me. My reaction was to go somewhere safe and familiar, and the only place that existed like that was inside my own thoughts.
A reconnection with Earth or God or whatever may be divine in one’s life doesn’t occur on a group level. Every religion has some form of personal prayer or meditation, every successful civilization has recognized the importance of solitude in addition to solidarity. The stories of sages wandering alone in forests and deserts are famous as are the recounts of the archetypical seekers throughout human history. I knew what I was doing even if I didn’t know it at the time.
It happened during my second week in Oaxaca. I was walking home after my evening cooking classes as I did every day. I walked slowly, not for scenery purposes, but due to my insistence on wearing a pair of thin-soled flip flops despite the miles I covered every day on foot. Like many people from the fire ant infested south, I have a terrible habit of looking down when I walk and only look up to make sure I’m going the right direction. But for some reason, when crossing the graffiti covered bridge over the dark, thick water, by some slight of mystical intervention, I lifted my head. I lifted it high, over the dilapidated shacks across from me, over the river from me, over the river that becomes brown when it rains heavily, over the graffiti on the bridge and the posters of missing people taken by the government during the teacher protests. Behind all of that, like a hand-painted backdrop, rose two mountains, the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen, standing proud and dark against the rich-blue sky. From my perspective, the proximity of each mountain created an overlapping effect, each top separate but marrying at their base, their stoic bodies standing still behind the city. They had been there quite possible for forever, before the Americas were encountered by conquistadors, before the natives ruled the land with spears and astronomy, before the railroads, before the Mexican revolutions, before some young woman decided to finally look up for just a moment.
I was humbled, more humbled than I became when I tried to speak intelligently in Spanish. There was something greater than me. I knew this. But something greater than the poverty stood in front of me, something stronger than the mescal, so great it stood behind the brown river since the day it was blue and would stand behind anything else that came after.
Someone once said that Latin America is one of the greatest contradictions of our time because it’s a place where impoverished people inhabit rich lands. I agree. Mexico is much like the exotic, poverty stricken heroine in a novel. Her clothes are stained and torn, and her skin bears the grime of hardship and lack of clean water. But her natural beauty; that color of blue blending into the mountains, the plush green on Monte Alban, the brilliant magenta of the hibiscus flowers, all of it empowers the soil and stains of her man made exterior. Given a gown, she would outshine any country with a flash of her brilliant skies and valleys.
Jasmine Maharisi studied abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico
in the Summer of 2007 before earning her degree in Spanish. Upon her
return to the United States, she began working as a tutor for ESL and
adult literacy classes. She currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska where
she teaches Creative Writing and Illustration for a non-profit arts
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)