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My anniversary in Oaxaca

Stan Gotlieb

La Casa de Mezcal

La Casa de Mescal is a Oaxaca landmark, which at the millenium will have been doing business at this location near the Zocalo for 60 years. Those of us who prefer Mezcal to its cousin, Tequila, know that there are many kinds of Mezcal to be had, each with its distinctive "nose", aftertaste and smoothness; and that the best rarely makes it beyond the metropolitan area. There is a saying in Oaxaca: Para todo mal, Mezcal; para todo bien, tambien (for everything bad, Mezcal; for everything good, also).

Five years ago, on January 30, 1994, I left the frozen tundra of Minneapolis for the warm and exotic climes of Mexico. When I landed in Acapulco (I had called a travel agent specializing in Mexico and asked for a one-way "distress" ticket to whichever destination was cheapest in the next three days) I had only the vaguest idea of where I would go, and what I would do. I had found a renter for my house, stored my stuff, and, armed with what was left of a small inheritance from an aunt who I had not known was rich, nor suspected of any great fondness for me, was off on an adventure whose outcome I could not predict.

While I was not yet sure where I wanted to be, one look at Acapulco was enough to convince me that wherever it was, it was not there. Since it was late in the afternoon, I grabbed a hotel room near the bus depot, and early the next morning I was on the road to Puerto Escondido. I had been in Escondido two years previously, and liked it, so it was an easy and convenient (8 hours by bus) choice for a place to hunker down, decompress, and let my internal clock get in synch with Mexican time. I stayed in P.E. for a week. During that stay, I wrote the first of my "Letters", a personal note to Ed Felien, a buddy back in Minneapolis who published a weekly newspaper, "Southside Pride". In the next two months, I would write two more letters to him.

A week on the beach was enough for me, and I started getting anxious to start Spanish lessons. Since there were no schools there then (now there is an excellent one), and the one tutor was, like me, "beachified" (so laid back as to act as a brake on pedagogy), I decided to head for Oaxaca city, some eight hours inland, and in the mountains at about 5,000 feet. Oaxaca had been my first Mexican destination, back in 1973, and I had spent another three days there in 1992 on my way to P.E.

Oaxaca in the first week of February is a glorious place to be. The days are consistently warm and sunny, and the nights cool, without any hint of the hot days and nights to come in late March. There is still some green left over from the rainy season, and the water shortages that start around Easter and last until the rainy season which starts in June are but a distant future problem. Sandwiched between the two peak seasons of Christmas and Easter, it is a time of sufficient tourists to keep the beggars and the ambulantes (itinerant sellers) from being too much of a distraction for any one hapless gringo, while leaving enough table spaces in the portales (sidewalk cafes) around the Zócalo to accommodate the local lounge lizards like myself. In the next few days, I enrolled at the Centro de Idiomas (Language Center) of Benito Juarez Autonomous University (all state universities call themselves "autonomous"), found an apartment, and settled in for an indefinite period. Now, five years later, I am still here. Along the way, I sold my house and most of my possessions. Everything I own is here.

About three months after I arrived, I received a letter from my pal Ed, to whom I had continued to write. In it was a check. Seems he had published my first three letters, and this was his standard fee for columns contributed. I remember thinking, OMYGOD! Am I an AUTHOR now? Isn't getting paid for your writing the qualification? Does this mean I have to change my attitude and GET SERIOUS? I decided it did. As of today, over 60 of my columns have appeared in Southside Pride, and its sister weekly paper, since inaugurated.

Since then, I found my way to the Internet (about 80 articles so far), and one thing leading to another, a twice-monthly Newsletter and a twice-weekly Orientation to Oaxaca session for new arrivals; and I have contributed to books on Mexico and been published in Small Business Opportunities magazine. As of now, I have five deadlines to meet every month, plus my classroom appearances. Some retirement, huh?

Since I have been in Mexico, there has been a new President, a new Governor in Oaxaca, a new Government in Mexico City; a major devaluation of the currency, and persistent inflation; criminal investigations and prosecutions of numerous high and medium level politicians, law enforcement officers and military personnel; new guerrillas and civilian dissident movements; several major natural disasters; and a Papal visit.

In Oaxaca, the tourism has increased many-fold (in large part due to the superhighway connecting Oaxaca to the millions of weekend travelers in MexCity), the Regional Museum has opened after three years of partial closings (the project, five years old, is still being worked on), Teotitlan del Valle where the rugs are woven has become a boom town, Holiday Inn is about to open a small hotel (by their standards; by ours, quite grand), and more gringo retirees are drifting in.

As for me, I have moved three times, once with my beloved Diana, whom I met through mutual friends here in town. She has almost twice as much time on the ground here as I do, and acts as my photographer, critic, and repository of information (she is more organized than I), as well as being my partner.

At this point, I have been in Oaxaca longer than I have lived anywhere else since becoming an adult, with one exception. We have traveled extensively in Mexico, and in some other countries, and so far we have not found anywhere else where we can afford to be that we like better. When we do, we will move. Until then, here we stay, looking forward to the unfolding drama of the next five years. We hope you will stay with us. Happy anniversary.

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: February 1, 1999 by Stan Gotlieb © 1999
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