The road(s) to Oaxaca, November 1996.

Friday, January 13th, 2006

Folks have asked, inquiring minds want to know: what have we been doing? Ah, well, it’s simple. We’ve been travelling, and as a public service, I thought I’d post some of my journal entries from this trip. It isn’t very Positively Atlanta Georgia…and that might be a breath of fresh air.

Tuesday morning begins in Saltillo, a town about 45 minutes east of Monterrey. This is, so far, a Mexico very different from my limited experience in Oaxaca nearly five years ago. This seems like a Mexico that has definitely been touched by NAFTA, and homogenized more than we’ve seen before. We are surprised by Pemex stations that offer pay-at-the-pump and fancy convenience stores. We see in this small town Wendy’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut. The ‘hipermart’ where I buy some bolillos and get some cash is as big as any Michigan Meijer store, with, admittedly, a bit different selection. The toll road that we were virtually the only vehicle on was fast, smooth, painless. From all reports, today’s driving will be less of that and more two-lane winding. And don’t even get me started on Mexican television, delivered here via satellite, along with latin american versions of Fox, ESPN, Canal de Noticias NBC, and the Discovery Channel. We spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express that is easily the fanciest we’ve stayed in this trip. I would say it would meet the most stringent franchise standards. Deluxe.

At some point we’ll have to get into a lifestyle that is more ‘real’ Mexico. I’m curious just what that is at this point.

We spend our Tuesday trying to make some headway on a variety of road conditions; most of the morning Sam is behind the wheel as we head further south, along the chunk of the highway that hasn’t been four-laned yet. That doesn’t mean that it’s two-lane exactly…because most of the trucks drive far to the right, with half the wheels on the shoulder, there’s actually a tight passing lane in the middle. Sam spent plenty of kilometers working that space to our advantage, wending our way past camion after camion, making good time. My drive in the afternoon was considerably easier because we had gone past San Luis Potosi and were back on the four-lane. It will be, theoretically, easy going from here on.

As we drove, we passed stands of Joshua trees (so that’s what they are), patches of various cactus, and a variety of what seemed to me to be scrub pines. We climbed up to some serious altitude (7000 feet or so) out of Saltillo, and went up and down through areas of varying population. Past a certain point, we noticed the first colonial churches–fancy and not so–in small towns. They had been entirely absent (to our eyes) in Saltillo and further north. We passed roadside stand after roadside stand, labeled ‘restaurant Bety’ and ‘restaurant base Potosi’ and just every name you could imagine. Most seemed all but abandoned.

We made it into Queretaro, the capital of Queretaro (actually the city’s full name is Santiago Queretaro, and they’re celebrating their 495th anniversary, thank you very much, which makes the history of Atlanta seem all the more ephemeral.) Sam found us a fine place to stay, a six-story hotel called the Mirador, and we again had most of the comforts of home–including satellite TV and a comfortable king-size bed. But we mitigated that by getting our elbows into the culture of town by a brisk walk into the centro of town. It was clear from our first look at the huge colonial churches that we had crossed some sort of mason-dixon line and were indeed in the land the Spaniards tromped through and altered irrevokably. Most of what we enjoy about a colonial Mexican city like Oaxaca we found here in a bit different form: a lively town square, very old architecture, restaurants ranging from the far too trendy for us to the snack on the sidewalk variety. We also found ATMs and franchises and more of that northern stuff. But we also encountered what you wouldn’t see in a Georgia town square: We turned one corner on our way back to the hotel and discovered the end of what seemed to be a schoolkid’s public debate–the judges were in a row along one side of the stage, and one of them was just finishing up some closing exhortations when we showed up; then he called the debaters up on stage, all in school uniforms of four or five different kinds, some older, some real young, and they were awarded certificates, and, finally, to the winners, trophies and stacks of textbooks!

We went back to the hotel and lost consciousness fairly quickly, but not until I had a chance to see a bit of "Dos Mujeres, Un Camino" starring Eric Estrada in the truck-drivin’ role he was meant to play. The quality of acting in this novela is, well, let’s just say it makes ‘CHiPs’ look spectactular. I’ve been singing the theme song ever since.

Our Wednesday started early as we headed out of Queretaro and towards Mexico City on a good road. We decided (wisely) that we should make every effort to make it all the way to Oaxaca by the end of the day, and indeed, here we are. Along the way, we had a breakfast not 20 km south of Queretaro, and before long we descended into some fog that soon took on the qualities of trapped air pollution and became a constant sickly brown-grey overhead that lasted through our run through D.F.–Mexico City. An east bypass we found on the map never materialized, and we plunged right through the heart of the city, on a set of freeways clogged, unnumbered, and with lane changes that would make Bostonians wince. I became one with the truck and made maneuvers that one probably shouldn’t do with sport-utility vehicles. We spotted a road that led to the Aeropuerto, and since that was near the road to Puebla, we made our way in that direction, sometimes on surface streets, sometimes on freeways. It was one of those last surface street transitions that gave us a problem. I made it through a light as it changed red–well, maybe a little late, and a whistle blew on the play–that of a Mexico City policeman who, after demanding my license, went through the time-honored procedure of extracting a bribe–a mordida–from us. It didn’t take long for us to realize that’s what the deal was–no paperwork was being filled out, he stood there and demanded 600–then 500 pesos. (About $60.) Through some stalling and obfuscation on our part, we got off easy–$26 in that confusing US currency. Once the license was back in my hands, we left his street corner and the rest of D.F. at warp speeds.

Not long after that, we were on the toll road to Puebla (and on to Oaxaca) which took us up, and up, and up, and up into the mountains. The pollution was soon left behind, revealing a beautiful blue sky with puffy clouds. And we climbed and climbed, past volcanic mountains, one covered with snow, until the mountains and hills soon took on an appearance familiar to me from Sam’s photos of her 1990 project area. We were coming into familiar territory from (for me) an unfamiliar direction. It was a great feeling to pull off the toll road and on the familiar approach to the city from the north-northwest. Oaxaca seemed both changed and unchanged, more prosperous and populated and yet very dusty and torn up–several of the major intown streets were totally excavated for reconstruction, leaving huge dust clouds and craters for people to trudge through, around and amidst the workers. We saw a little of this in years past, but not this much.

We found Art and Martha’s friends and got the keys to their place, and after a quick meal at the Colibri, we were up the hill in San Felipe to the Villa de Art y Martha. A beautiful place it is, too, especially by Oaxacan standards. Two buildings nestled within high brick walls, one guest quarters (including, confusingly, what passes for the kitchen) and one living quarters and workspace for los dos doctores. Sammy quickly made the guest bedroom into a very comfortable John and Sam space, and we went to bed early. I slept quite well–Sammy less so, as her concerns about her orals continue to take up most of her conscious and unconscious mind.

Thursday was Thanksgiving, but here that doesn’t mean a thing, although we noticed in the Gigante (the food and discount store) that Navidad decorations were going up. Right across the street from the Gigante: the home offices of Antequera Red, one of perhaps two Internet service providers for the city. And right by the canned mushrooms, we encountered one of the few people we could possibly know from here: Nelly Robles Garcia, who recently finished her PhD at the University of Georgia and who is a native of Oaxaca. Like any student who has just finished a huge amount of work, she was celebarting these past few days by sleeping in, and enjoying having nothing in particular to do. Quite a surprise to run in to her, and quite good timing for Sammy, who had a quick chance there in the aisles to chat about exams and dissertations and pressure while other shoppers discuss the price of tortillas. Nelly told Sammy about a party Saturday night, a birthday party for the woman who runs the Welte Institute’s library. We feel as if we are becoming re-accustomed to a familiar place. Whether she realizes it or not, Sammy willingly plays the ‘how this place has changed’ game that my brother and I do upon return trips to Ohio. (The game she finds so annoying in that context.) It’s interesting: this place is part of our history, right from the beginning as a married couple. In a few days, we’ll celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary while down here. It’s very familiar and comfortable while simultaneously maintaining an undercurrent of complete "foreignness", whatever that means.

After shopping at the Gigante, we returned to our temporary hogar and Sammy took some delight (and went to some pains) in creating our dinner, homemade caldo de Sammy, soup with lentils, potatoes, carrots, and just the right amount of salsa. Boy, was it incredible. Home cooking, Oaxaca style. Simple. It amazes me how quickly Sammy can establish a homey feeling in unfamiliar surroundings.

Friday morning, and we’re awake at first light again, although we really aren’t ready to leave for el centro until almost nine. Our big mission is to make sure the hotel room for Kevyn and her kids is ready and comfortable, and to my amazement, this goes quite quickly and efficiently. We stop by the Welte Institute, which is the ongoing effort by Art Murphy and Martha Rees to create a legitimate research and study library from the bequest of one Cecil Welte: a huge collection of works on Mexico, Oaxaca, the Mixtecs, and geography and history in general. We meet the chainsmoking Gudrun (the birthday girl) and Ramona, and we talk about the place and people they and Sammy have in common. (Thanks to Sam’s work, there is an intersection of people, but it’s a strange intersection of people.) It’s clear that the library is a very interesting place, with lots of material worth examining, both on an academic and on a journeyman level. We’ll probably end up spending a good deal of time there, and I’m looking forward to doing some more graphic material for them. Sammy and I are invited to Gudrun’s Saturday party, but since it’s a ‘no kids’ affair, Sam will probably go alone while Kevyn and I and her kids go do something. I think definitely Sammy should attend and network like crazy.

We return to the house in the afternoon so that Sam can get some studying time in for her orals. Incredibly, she leaves Monday for Atlanta for this trial by professor in Athens, one week from today. We settle in this comfortable home, Sam reading on the bed and me typing at the kitchen table, and I think about how this is the rough sketch of the structure of our lives for the next couple of months.