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The meeting

Stan Gotlieb

mural detail

This beautiful detail is from a mural painted inside the state government palace of Oaxaca. The artist, Arturo Garcia Bustos, finished the mural, which actually occupies three spaces in and around the grand central staircase, in 1980. A student of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Garcia Bustos is one of a legion of fine artists that have contributed to the patria (heritage) of our adopted home.

It used to be that if you wanted to find a good dentist, or some organic lettuce, you could just ask anyone who had been here longer than you had been. That was before there were so many newcomers.

We are now so large a community that we need to MEET in order to exercise our impulse toward mutual aid. We need an AGENDA for our meetings, and a MODERATOR. We are putting together a DATA BASE of information. Gringo corporatism has set in.

Today is the third Thursday of the month: Meeting Day. There are about 20 of us arranged around a few tables in one of the local restaurants, sipping cappuccinos and other morning drinks. We are couples, parts of couples, single women and one single male. We are on Sabbatical, and on leave; retired professionals, academicians and civil servants; writers and artists in search of new ideas and cheaper digs: pretty much the same cross-section of leisured folk that you will find in most south-of-the-border destinations, lounging about on a weekday morning.

Nametags are passed around. NAMETAGS? I ASK YOU! (Actually, I like nametags: I can't seem to ever remember names that I am told only once.)

We are given cards to fill out: name, address, phone number, what you are interested in doing, or have to offer to others, or are looking for. We are given more cards: know a "good" plumber, or carpintero, or...?

Our co-chairs talk briefly about the concept of getting together to pass the chisme (gossip; rumor; stories) around. That's my word, not theirs. They see it more as helping each other avoid some of the pitfalls, a worthy and useful goal. I, being the world weary and cynical traveler you have all come to know and love, am less certain about any "truth" about anything, especially things like what the Hacienda (treasury dept) will or won't do on any given day, or which service person does or does not show up on time.

Next, we introduce ourselves. I am sitting between Betsy from Pittsburgh (here for a while, I don't know, maybe forever, but we will see, I like to play Bridge) and Cal from Tucson (we were in San Miguel for the last five years, but it's getting so crowded and so expensive, and someone told us that Oaxaca is more "authentic", and so far we just love it). When it is my turn, I say "I'm Stan, I've been living here for about six years and I write a little as long as it doesn't interfere with my hanging out in the sidewalk cafes around the Zocalo". This provides everyone with a little laugh, except of course I am dead serious...

Actually, this is the part I like best: getting to know a little something about the people who come here (or at least a little something about what they want me to "know": see what I mean about being cynical?), and what they are looking for now that they are here.

The meeting is thrown open for questions and discussion. First topic: what should you pay a maid? We share experiences for several minutes, and finally arrive at a figure. Roughly summarized, we decide it is more than our landlady pays, and less than we thought.

Next topic is "should we hire an 'expediter' to help with immigration papers", and the answer is: it depends how much you are willing to pay to avoid the hassles, many of which are enumerated by those among us who have lived through them, and some of which approach my idea of living in the twilight zone. I will not deny other people's reality, but it sometimes bears only a peripheral resemblance to my own.

As we work our way through what I have come to see as a standard list - how to purify vegies, how much to pay for a taxi, where to get balsamic vinegar, whether to import your car or buy one locally - my thoughts wander. I reflect that many of the people at this meeting were pupils of mine; that the questions they are answering now are questions that they were asking, scant months or years ago. Now, here they are, "old Oaxaca hands", handing out their own wisdom. Somehow, somewhere, the balance has shifted: I am checking my reality out against theirs, now. It's a slightly discombobulating experience.

A lot of folks have dropped in to my "Orientation To Oaxaca" seminar over the years, and a few have stayed here to fashion a life for themselves. Some have become friends. Most have become buen conocidos (good acquaintances). All have gone off on their own hook, and have their own opinions, based on their own experiences. Many, much to Diana's chagrin and (to a lesser extent) my own, are more comfortable with formal structures like meetings and clubs.

I knew when I moved here that the Oaxaca I encountered then would change with time. (Everything does, even dead gold figures from Monte Alban, encased in climate-controlled glass cases.) And so it has, perhaps faster than I thought it would. For better and for worse, Oaxaca has become a "destination", with soaring rents and balsamic vinegar; smoked meats and a sushi bar; expediters and abundant Spanish tutors; masseuses and psychotherapists; Orientation classes and Meetings. It takes some getting used to.

Still, the bureaucracy remains relatively uncorrupted, the police are rarely the criminals, the vendors give the correct change, and everyone seems friendly. The musicians still perform traditional tunes as they wander the bars and restaurants, the demonstrations still go on in front of the government palace, and the Library functions as usual. And while we do have a Meeting, we don't have a Welcome Wagon, an American Chamber of Commerce chapter, or an American Legion post.

At least not yet.

Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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