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Glad to be in Oaxaca, Mexico

Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci

In January, I celebrated my fifth anniversary in Oaxaca, the second longest period of time I have ever spent in one place. " Soy vagabundo" (I am a wanderer), I often answer when asked what I "do". " ¡Bravo!" is the reply I most often receive.

In December, Diana and I returned from a three month trip to the eastern Mediterranean. Aside from the wonders and weirdnesses that always await the traveler, it was a great opportunity to regain some perspective on living in Paradise. Everywhere we went that we liked (and that was almost everywhere we went), we would ask ourselves and each other "would you rather live here, or Oaxaca?" Every time, the answer was the same: it's lovely, but I'll take Oaxaca.

Ninety days of travel in which we slept in 30 different rooms in 23 towns in four countries on two continents, was a wearying and exhilarating experience. Coming home across 7 time zones in 30 hours of continuous travel was merely wearying. We are still trying to digest it all, as we slip back into the routine of our lives in Oaxaca.

It is snowbird season now, and we are caught up in the winter social season of parties, fundraisers, holiday fiestas and visitors. What's a writer facing a deadline with a still-addled brain to do? Show pictures, of course! So, herewith, are a few snapshots of our trip, all taken by Diana, with commentary by your's truly.

London's China Town This is Chinatown, in London. There are many "towns", and a whole lot of differently colored and differently dressed people running around. London has more overt cultural diversity than anywhere I have been, I suppose at least in part as a result of Empire. Oaxaca, with 16 distinct tribal groupings and hundreds of combinations of indigenous, European and other mestizo mixes, is plenty diversified culturally, but the differences are less apparent to the Anglo observer.

Napoli - Pizza the old way. This is a pizza oven in Naples, Italy. It is wood-fired, and built in such a way that the fire and the pizza are in the same compartment. The pizzas in Naples are the best I have ever eaten, not only for taste but for variety and for texture (due to the oven, I am sure). Oaxaca has wood-fired cooking too, of course (doesn't everyone?) -- but the comparative tool is the Comal, a big flat ceramic dish that fits on top of the wood cooker for heating tortillas and making empanadas (stuffed tortillas, similar to calzone). In either country, the "old way" is still thought to be the best way to prepare many foods.

Tuscany - Abbey of Saint Antimo This is the Abbey of Sant' Antimo, in the hills of Tuscany not far from Siena. There is a simple, simply adorned church and a few outbuildings. It is home to an order of monks who pray / meditate while singing Gregorian chants before meals and on other occasions. Their dining room is wired with microphones, and the sound is piped into the church.

Like Mexico, Italy has more than enough giant, gold leafed cathedrals filled with precious objects, and choirs that perform at a professional level, and we, hardy tourists that we are, saw our share of them. Nonetheless, it is the "small" moments like sitting in the abbey and listening to the monks that stick in my mind. Another was in Ioannina, Greece, where we were the only customers in a restaurant and the owner/waiter was practicing his choir part in the local Greek Orthodox church while we were eating: he was the lead singer, and the moments were truly precious.


Athens - Olive Market Olives in Athens are like chiles in Oaxaca. The endless variety of curing processes and presentations boggle the mind and delight the palate. Food was a big part of our trip. We also drank the local wine wherever we went, and it was always wonderful and usually cheap. In fact, in Italy, where food was always a strain for our wallet, the wine was often a bargain. Just below the olive market, was an old-fashioned taverna where the retsina came directly from the barrel -- and one wall was stacked with barrels of various wines in various stages of aging. When we asked for retsina in Santorini, the owner laughed. "You're not in Athens now", he said, and set a carafe of delicious locally produced light red on the table.

One thing we missed in restaurants (it was available in the markets but apparently little-ordered when dining out) was fruit. We've had a fruit plate for breakfast every day since we've been back.

Athens - View from the Acropolis In Europe, the folks live among their ruins in a way that we don't in Oaxaca. This view is from the Acropolis, which is in the middle of Athens. Everywhere you look from here you can see large sites right in the middle of the several-million-strong urban sprawl. This is, of course, the result of the continuous history of these places: the people never moved away from their more recent sites (some, older than Helenic, are still being discovered, buried under the city). Oaxaca has tended to develop its sites away from the urban centers, although Monte Alban is now surrounded by new urban sprawl. The juxtiposition of modern city on the ancient monuments has created its own problems, most noticably acid rain and other polution damage. When I saw the damage on the marble in Athens and Istanbul and Rome, I couldn't help but wonder what the future holds in store for the granite and softer stones in Oaxaca and elsewhere.

Istanbul - 75th Anniversary Turkey celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of its emergence as a modern, sectarian democracy while we were there. The picture was taken in the new city, near Taksim Square, the site of most public demonstrations, pro- and anti- government. Because of the in-your-face protest marches held by Turks of Kurdish identity, there is always a large contingent of riot police in full tack and armored water cannons and black mariahs waiting just around the corner. Kemal Ataturk, the "father" of modern Turkey, a rather dictatorial strongman who preserved the privilege of the "oligarchy" of ruling families while repressing the religious (remind you of anywhere else you've heard of?), is the big hero of these celebrations and his picture is everywhere. In Turkey, as in Mexico, the foreigner does well to be circumspect when commenting on current affairs.

Rug weaver in factory near Ephesus This woman is weaving a rug which will take her one year to complete. Her pay will be about 3,000 u.s.dollars, and the rug will sell for upwards of five. She produces the rug according to the pictures that are hanging up in front of her to remind her of the design, but in fact she has been being trained to produce this one design since she was a little girl. Her working life is less than 20 years, as failing eyesight and arthritus will intervene. This picture was taken in a government-subsidized rug factory dedicated to preserving the old ways of production. All the wool is hand-combed and hand-dyed there. The loom she is working on has no shuttle, because each thread of the carpet is hand-tied twice over to the fiber matrix. The result is truly magnificent. Turkish carpets are said to last over a hundred years under normal wear and tear. Still, there is something to be said for Oaxaca carpets, at a cost of less than 10% of the Turkish.

Before I left, I used to complain occasionally about the street hustlers who are constantly working the tables in the sidewalk cafes of Oaxaca, selling chiclets, wooden spoons, etc. Since returning from Turkey, I am a lot more mellow. You can't walk 10 feet in the tourist areas of Istanbul without someone approaching you and trying to engage you in a conversation, the object of which is to sell you a carpet. Some of them are very hard to get rid of. Compared to that, the annoyance level in Oaxaca approaches tranquility.

So there you have it: some random thoughts and musings, a few superficial comparisons, some pretty pictures. If you want to know more about any of this, don't ask me. Go see for yourself.


Published or Updated on: March 1, 1999 by Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci © 1999
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