By Jon Darby
Oaxaca has me hooked. What started as a last minute 10-day getaway from the UK winter turned into a 2-month love affair – ending only to return home to London for Christmas. On day 9 of my 10-day break, I made the call to my boss in London. “I’m sorry but I can’t come back. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve fallen in love with somewhere else”
I came to Oaxaca by accident really. With a couple of weeks off work at short notice, I looked at my options and found I had a friend in Mexico City for the DÍa de los Muertos celebrations. That’s another story of its own, but after a weekend in DF I flew to Oaxaca City. To be clear, I was ignorant of the place. I didn’t know it was the home of Mezcal. I didn’t know its colourful political history. And I didn’t know it was the inspiration for the popular UK restaurant chain Wahaca, which changed the name phonetically for the local market (perhaps you didn’t know that either?).
There’s so much to be impressed with. I could start with the staff of the airline that flew me there, of which all that held mainly static positions were wheelchair users (what a great policy!). Or the food and world class restaurants, about which much is written. Or the comparably cheap cost of living for North Americans and Europeans, also well documented. But I’m no retiree (I’m 31 years old), and what’s really struck me is something harder to explain – the vibe of the place, the way life is lived. Oaxacans appreciate that life is something to be enjoyed and bettered. This manifests itself in art, parties, and protests.
Within hours of arriving in the city I was confronted by a women’s rights rally, headed for the zocalo, or main square. The group of mostly young women were carrying signs about abortion, domestic violence, and the importance of schooling for women. They were in fine voice, chanting a strong rhythm, and making sure everyone could hear. It made for quite an impactful introduction to the city.
Later in my trip, during one of the journeys I made through the mountains between the beach and the city, my minibus was stopped at the end of a long queue of traffic being held up by a roadblock. Everyone got off the minibus with their luggage in the middle of nowhere – well, just outside Ejutla, to be precise. Some people turned back, but I walked the kilometre or two up to the blockade and then between the lines of riot police. A group of protesting farmers had left a dead pig and a number of parked trucks on the road. While this was all highly unusual for me, I had no trouble catching another bus on the other side of the police line and continuing my journey to the city. From chatting to a local guy on the second bus I learned these protests were due to upcoming local elections.
My intention here is not to paint a dangerous picture and actually, the protests I witnessed were very good-natured. But I live in the UK, where most people’s idea of political engagement is moaning on Facebook about their morning train delay, or occasionally sharing an anti-war news article on social media, long after an invasion has already been approved by Parliament. (That’s pre-Trump era anyway. It will be interesting to see what happens as people become more polarised.) So I found the level of local political activity in Oaxaca to be incredibly enlivening and inspirational.
The engagement doesn’t start or end with direct action. The Oaxacans express themselves artistically in impressive numbers – everyone seems to be an artist, and there are galleries on every corner. I was in Oaxaca before and during the recent US election, and the amount of art depicting Donald Trump (in a pejorative manner, you may not be surprised to learn) was notable.
When I made that call to my boss I had thought I might backpack down into Guatemala, but Oaxaca just kept on giving and I never made it out of the state. As mentioned I made the trip from the city to the coast more than once, exploring the hills in-between. One of those trips was to catch the annual Jazz festival in Mazunte – a town recently designated by the government as “Pueblo Magico”, and with good reason.
I’m a hardened festival goer around the UK and Europe – a regular at Glastonbury, tiny Cornish folk festivals, and many in-between. But everything I’ve ever thought was missing at those festivals was right there in Mazunte. In Portugal I’ve wondered why they put the stage in a car park rather than one of the beautiful beaches. Well in Mazunte the stage was right there on the beach. You could hear the music whether you were standing in front of the stage, playing in the surf, or swimming in the sea. In the UK I’ve wondered why nobody is enterprising enough to come and sell beers in the crowd so you don’t have to queue for hours. Step forward Mazunte. The food, of course, was fantastic – it’s like Mexican food was designed for festivals. Well, fiestas anyway – I think it probably was.
And the music itself was not just traditional jazz. It was everything from pop to forward thinking electro-fusion with a progressive political agenda, as well as performing arts. At times I could feel revolution in the air, but all the while couldn’t have been more relaxed. On a perfectly clear day and night, I had one of the best festival experiences of my life. By midnight, with a minimal backing of house-music, you could see the curvature of the earth from looking at the sky. Each of the stars that completely filled it glittered like a multi-coloured disco ball until a perfectly semi-circular and orange moon rose to wash them away.
And this was a family festival, with children and old people everywhere. There was something for everyone and space for everyone to enjoy it. There was no exclusivity, and no prejudice, which is an observation that follows perfectly from my experience of Oaxaca as a whole. You are welcome – come and enjoy with us.
There’s a sense of common bond and understanding that permeates social interactions. If you speak Spanish it helps enormously of course. I already spoke a little, but also took some lessons with Yolanda at the ICC Spanish School, while staying at Casa Frida in the same building – highly recommended. Whether you’re buying a coffee or hailing a taxi, the common niceties of saying hello and good morning are never forgotten and make a certain connection. As a tourist, it takes you a long way to start paying attention to that. Without making it, doors will remain closed to you.
In some of the galleries in Oaxaca City, if you see a piece of art you like, express interest, and make the common connection, you might be invited back later to talk directly with the artist about their work. If you end up buying a piece in this way, the transaction has a lot more meaning for all involved. If you go out for dinner and connect with your fellow diners, you are just as likely to be invited to party until dawn in a house in the hills as anyone that’s lived there for years.
And then there’s mezcal – the spirit of Mexico. My discovery of this amazing drink is yet another whole story in itself. But for the purposes of this article, suffice to say if you tour the palenques around Oaxaca and fail to make the common connection, don’t expect to come away with the best mezcal. This sacred spirit is something to be shared with the connected, not just sold to the highest bidder. This multi-faceted and historical drink requires much discovery, and it has enthralled me to the point that I now plan to go home to the UK and open a London-based mezcaleria – which, of course, will require an on-going and deepening connection with enchanting Oaxaca.