De-Stressing in Oaxaca
by Robert B. Simmonds
Photos by James Bachrach
Robert B. Simmonds, Ph.D., is the publisher of Mexico File and the brother of Dave Simmonds. He is a psychologist in private practice in San Diego. This was his first trip to Oaxaca, which he took for the purpose of de-stressing. This article is the first part of a two-parter, which concludes with the October issue.
Whenever I talk to people about their Mexico travels, I usually hear, once they have arrived, that they suddenly feel calm, whole, complete, and welcomed. They feel like themselves again. They describe their traveling experiences as “magical,” and then when they haven’t been there for some time, they talk about needing a “Mexico fix.” (I’ve concluded that while a Mexico venture may not be as cheap as xanax or ativan, it seems a whole lot healthier – and it’s more fun than learning diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.) So, after going through my normal stress buildup for several months, I decided to take a Mexico trip myself to see what this magical elixir was all about. I wanted to understand the elements of de-stressing that are found in Mexico travel.
Everything logical suggests that a Mexico trip would be a stress-inducer. After all, there’s the tension of the flight (and, yes, traveling these days involves longer lines, metal detectors, and humbly taking your shoes off, and you can’t even use the usual tension-reducers like answering the customs agent’s question, “Where were you born?” with a meant-to-be-humorous “Guatemala” answer). And negotiating your way through the language barrier and the cultural differences, not to mention the fact that there are no Diet Cokes in Mexico (they’re called “Coke Light” instead, and they do have sugar in them), all seem, on the surface, to represent the ground from which stress grows.
Yet, I had none of that. The Continental flight from San Diego to Houston and then straight down to Oaxaca was a breeze. Yes, the shoes came off, but everyone was so nice about it and helpful that I rather enjoyed the experience. To get your electronic ticket and boarding pass, you put your credit card in the slot, answer a few questions on the screen, and then slide your passport through the passport reader – and off you go. The lines were minimal.
Traveling with the right people really minimizes stress. I asked my friend, James Bachrach, a couple of months before I traveled if he wanted to go along on a trip to Oaxaca, and he was eager to go. James is a therapist in San Diego – and very easy to get along with. And I emailed my friend, Elisabeth Tatum, before the trip to ask if she were planning to be in Oaxaca at the same time we were – and, by coincidence, she said that she would be there for three of the days that we were in Oaxaca. Elisabeth, a therapist in practice near Santa Cruz, California, travels to Oaxaca frequently. She has established a nonprofit organization to sponsor a boy’s orphanage in Oaxaca (www.vida-nonprofit.org), and she goes down as often as she can to work with the kids and the staff – and she spends the donations on computers and other projects. So, there we were – three therapists with good boundaries and flexibility – and I couldn’t have asked for a better, less stressed group of traveling companions. (My wife, a licensed clinical social worker, didn’t have any time off, so she stayed home and took care of our dog.)
One idea I had about travel as a de-stressor is that you get away from the normal cluster of things you worry about. Your normal daily routine vanishes. There’s no more concern about fighting traffic, paying bills, picking up bread at the store, thinking about who said what to whom, getting to places on time, keeping the dentist’s appointment, watching “Survivor” on Thursday nights. While traveling, you live in the here and now. The present becomes your universe. Your focus turns to a restaurant to try out for dinner tonight, or popping into this shop or that one for a moment. If you miss the tour bus to Mitla, there’s always mañana. Or never. Whatever. Let yourself go and the trip becomes what it will become. (Hmmmm.... why can’t we do this at home?)
Once we landed in Oaxaca, we took a taxi straight to the hotel. La Casa de la Tía Tere was a real find (and thanks to Maryanne Wilson, a Manhattanite who contributes articles to MF from time to time, for suggesting this place). This 20-room bed-and-breakfast hotel has rooms for $50US a night and their four bungalows with kitchens, dining and living rooms, out back by the pool, are $60 per night (and $30 a night for a lengthy stay). They have free internet service and they serve breakfast every morning. This place is absolutely quiet – and very clean. You’ll probably do business with Lili, who is delightful, and she’s quick to pick up on the meaning of your words in English, as well as hand gestures. She seems to spend long shifts at the front desk. And if you go out the door without an umbrella on a rainy day, she’ll stop you and thrust one into your hand. You’ll meet other travelers at breakfast and poolside – everyone is social and, for the most part, European (although we met up with a nice group of people from Salem, Oregon). Tia Tere is at Murguia #612, eight blocks from the zocalo. Call them from the US at 1-01-866-578-4655. You can reserve a room online at www.casadelatiatere.com or email them at email@example.com (on the reservation form online, don’t fill in the information about your credit card, but fill out the rest of the information – and then give them a call a couple of days later to confirm that you are reserved). So, another conclusion about de-stressing on a Mexico trip – find a nice, clean, quiet, and friendly place to stay. (On the other hand, there’s the Hotel Monte Albán, right on the zocalo, which, at about $10 a night less money, carries the disadvantage of not being quiet at all, especially if you have a front room with a balcony – although the view from those rooms of the always-moving zocalo is positively mesmerizing.)
I bought a $30 phone card and called home to San Diego twice, with $4.00 left over. But basically, I was without a phone or the internet for my entire time in Oaxaca. James pays a small monthly fee on his Verizon account so that he can make calls to and from Mexico. I didn’t even take my cell phone with me. And I tried to do an email home to Cheryl, but it took me a very long time to learn that the “@” sign is made by pushing Alt-Q, rather than by capitalizing the “2.” So, I finally got an email composed, only to learn that I was unable to send it. So, I gave up. I had no telephone and no emails. Ahhh....the joys of de-stressing.
The people of Oaxaca struck me, on first glance, as aloof – or at least seasoned urbanites. They don’t usually smile and show eye contact when you pass them on the sidewalk. They go about their business and you go about yours, to the extent that before long I was entertaining fantasies about being the Ugly American. It’s certainly a contrast to Tijuana, Ensenada, and Cabo San Lucas, for example, which are more blatantly tourist-oriented. (But then I didn’t have to put up with the hawkers in front of every store front shouting, “Hey, Meester America. Come see what I have for you. It’s almost free.”) Although my first impression was that the residents of Oaxaca were distant, this definition falls apart once you talk to them. Once the social boundary has been breeched, the smiles and warmth begin, in a way that I seldom see back in the US. This reflects the heart of Mexican culture – a family orientation, community-mindedness, genuineness, an appreciation of beauty, a spiritual orientation, and a desire to do, and be, good. Without exception, the Oaxacans I talked to were nurturing and caring people. As I walked down the sidewalks (which I did a lot of, shoulders touching the wall beside me, sometimes made of rocks quarried 500 years ago), I wanted to take photos of the faces. They looked like genuine faces, faces with character. And that is de-stressing. (Incidentally, don’t take photos of people without asking their permission and giving them ten or twenty pesos.)
Oaxaca has a wealth of tourist sights and a good number of shops that cater to travelers, but the shops have a boutique-y feel and there’s not much bargaining. (However, you can usually get a 10% discount if you pay in cash.) Compared to some other places in Mexico, Oaxaca lacks a touristy feel. The shops specialize in hand-made crafts from the surrounding villages. It was nearly impossible, for example, to find Taxco silver – the few silver shops I saw all carried silver from Oaxaca state. And there was gold jewelry in abundance (especially at Oro de Monte Albán at Alcalá #403). The shops carry hand-embroidered dresses, weavings, alebrijes (hand-carved animals, brightly colored), black and green pottery, masks, leather, baskets, coffee, Oaxacan chocolate and mescal. A special shop to visit is MARO (Mujeres Artesanias de las Regiones de Oaxaca) at Cinco de Mayo #204. This cooperative was started by a grass-roots group of women artisans from the villages surrounding Oaxaca. In the shop they sell their wares and demonstrate how they are made. There’s nothing like a good shopping spree for de-stressing. I bought, not to mention coffee and chocolate, weavings for my office, as well as silver jewelry and a flamingo alebrije for Cheryl (she’s a flamingo freak) that, fragile as it looked, survived the plane trip back to San Diego. Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and it gratified me to spend a little money there – and I was more than generous in my tips in this state where the average daily wage is under five dollars a day.
One of the best ways to de-stress is to have a massage – a luxurious full body massage with an emphasis on foot reflexology, and maybe some aromatherapy thrown in just to complete the experience. We took a four dollar taxi trip to San Felipe village in the northern suburbs of Oaxaca City and were dropped off at Hacienda Los Laureles (Hidalgo #21, www.hotelhaciendaloslaureles.com). This boutique hotel, which is expensive (at $225 for a single), was created in the late 1990's by Peter and Ligia Kaiser, a German couple who had managed hotels in Africa, Europe, and the U.S. They remodeled an old hacienda and created a paradise with hanging vines and tropical trees. The hotel also has temazcal therapeutic hot room and spa services. I had a $60 full body massage by a masseuse with strong and sensitive Mexican hands. New age music played in the background. It was a massage in paradise. Finally, my stress had gone away. I was back to myself again.
This is part one of a two part article on my Oaxaca trip. For the October issue of MF, we’ll go to Monte Alban, Mitla, a Guelaguetza, the Hotel Camino Real, all the good food to be found in Oaxaca, and a glimpse of El Presidente.
A Cold, Luscious Glass of Creamy Milk
Several days into my Oaxaca trip, sitting at an outdoor café with pan dulce and a cappuccino in front of me, looking onto the constant buzz of the zocalo, just after a drenching rain, while the pavement was still wet, and a band was playing in the gazebo in preparation for President Fox’s tour of the newly rebuilt zocalo – I suddenly had a craving for a glass of milk. Except for a little full-bodied milk that I had poured on my cereal at the Tia Tere a few days before, I realized I hadn’t had one of my staples for about a week. I think it was the pan dulce that triggered it off. Since I usually drink fat free milk and since I was on vacation, I thought that nothing could be better than a frigid glass of that creamy, whole milk you can get in Mexico. Ah – nurturance and fulfillment.
So I asked my waitperson if she could bring me some leche. And there it appeared – some cream in a silver creamer, presumably for my cappuccino. “No, no,” I said before she left. “Leche!” – as I mimed with my hand the act of drinking a glass of milk. After several minutes she returned with a cup of very hot, scalding milk (McDonalds could have been sued over the heat in this cup) – with espresso froth on top! My waitperson beamed with pleasure as she brought it to me. I found my nurturance and fulfillment in the joy in her eyes. I said “gracias,” and I tipped her well. (And the first thing I had when I got back to San Diego was a cold glass of fat free milk.)
De-Stressing in Oaxaca – Part II
by Robert B. Simmonds
Photos by James Bachrach
Robert B. Simmonds, Ph.D., is the publisher of Mexico File and the brother of Dave Simmonds. He is a psychologist in private practice in San Diego. This was his first trip to Oaxaca, which he took for the purpose of de-stressing. This article is the second part of a two-parter, part I of which appeared in the August/September issue.
I found that my Mexico fix in Oaxaca completely erased my San Diego worries. I had no computer, no cell phone, no clients, no billing deadlines, no newsletter editing, no traffic nightmares, and no snooty twenty-something-year-olds trying to act professional. I was in an ancient culture that embraced me and awakened within me archetypal memories of gentleness, compassion, community, and human dignity. I became the person I like to be in Mexico. My feet were on the ground again.
Monte Alban and Atzompa
On the second day of our week in Oaxaca, we booked a van tour to Monte Alban, which lies just west of Oaxaca in the mountains. Monte Alban stands as one of the most spectacular archaeological ruins in Latin America. This great city, originally called Danni Dipaa, was first built about 2,500 years ago – and was rebuilt a few times during its 1,200 year reign. It was the seat of the Zapotec empire, which sat between the Teotihuacans to the north and the Mayans to the south. The Zapotecs controlled a swath of Mexico from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico – and they were matriarchal and nonviolent. For 500 years B.C., this advanced culture had permanent temples, a priesthood, a calendar, written language and numerals. By 1000 A.D. the population of Monte Alban declined for unknown reasons – it may have been because of drought, perhaps disease, perhaps revolt. The people moved into the Valley of Oaxaca down below and were eventually invaded by Mixtecs from the north.
Monte Alban, for me, was one of the most mystical places I’ve ever seen. I climbed the temple stairs for a good view of this ancient city (the Zapotecs, of short stature, must have had strong knees to deal with these ergonomically incorrect stairs. And they certainly had a better ability than I to withstand the thin air at an elevation of about 7,000 feet – of course). One way to visit Monte Alban is to take the tourist approach and marvel at how these primitive people could create such interesting buildings and pottery. It’s good for a couple of hours of entertainment, and the tourists feel somewhat educated by the end of their tour. But I tried something else. I stood atop a temple and imagined myself as a Zapotec, 2,500 years ago, my eyes half closed and peering off into valleys and mountains in the distance. I saw the same scene that they must have seen (except for the houses in the valley down below). I felt a surge of connection to the universe, similar to what I imagine these ancient ones may have experienced. I wondered why the Zapotecs built this city here, in this place. What magical powers they must have associated with this location.
Our tour guide, a very bright and well-educated Zapotecan, told us that there was a research study done in which audiotapes of the Zapotecan language were taken to Japan to see if the Japanese could understand any of it. And it turned out that the Japanese could understand about 40% of the words. He also described the Zapotecans, in comparison to other Mexican Indians, as having distinctly Asian physical features. He inferred that the Zapotecans are distantly related to the Japanese. (The scientist in me would question this, of course.)
On the way back from Monte Alban we stopped at Santa Maria Atzompa, a crafts-oriented town of 5,000 specializing in green-glazed pottery. We stopped in the center of town at the Mercado de Artesanias, where the local artisans bring their wares (although all along the road into town, many houses display their pottery and weavings out front). I wasn’t eager to buy any of the pottery, which, because I was so hungry, I had a hard time enjoying. My hunger lured me into a little eating place at the Mercado (plastic chairs, plastic tables, dogs sleeping on the floor) – and it was there that I had the best chile relleno I’ve ever had. I know I was hungry, but this is no exaggeration. The corn tortilla was filled with beef, nuts, raisins and the right mixture of spices. It was clean and from the earth. For the rest of my trip I went to some top Oaxaca restaurants and ordered chile rellenos, but none of them compared to what I had at this little roadside stand. (Chile rellenos in Oaxaca are not made with cheese, as they are in the U.S.)
El Tule, Mitla, and Teotitlan
On the fourth day of our week, we took another van tour, this time to the east of Oaxaca. The little village of Santa Maria del Tule, nine miles from Oaxaca, boasts the largest tree in Mesoamerica. El Tule is a 2,000-year-old cypress with branches reaching fifteen stories high. The trunk is the size of a house. Looking up into the branches, you see masses of birds flitting between the branches (although Elisabeth, one of my travel companions, claimed she could see angels and fairies – this tree does have that kind of magical quality). Several years ago, Highway 190 ran too close to the tree and posed a danger to it. So they moved the highway, and now the tree can continue on until the end of its natural days.
Once you’ve seen Monte Alban, the other ruinas near Oaxaca might seem a bit disappointing, at least to the casual visitor. Mitla, 31 miles east of Oaxaca, was called, in Zapotec, “Liobaa” or “place of the dead.” It reached its apex in about 1350 A.D. and held a population of 10,000. The city remained intact and in use for generations after the Spanish conquest. We noted that the old ruins of the temples had been torn apart by the Spaniards and the stones were used to build a church in the adjacent village, San Pablo Villa de Mitla. The edifices at Mitla are mostly rubble now, but several of the buildings retain their exteriors so that today we can imagine what the old city looked like. There are tunnels within the ruins that you can explore.
Again, I got hungry while I was at Mitla. And it led to the best quesadilla in the world, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never tasted a quesadilla this good. Outside of the ruins at Mitla there is a permanent market set up with craft booths – and one place for food. A woman makes quesadillas, and apparently nothing else, on a portable stove. The one I bought (for about 20 pesos) was unbelievably good. I sat and ate it alone, and then three nursing students invited me to their table (my first inclination was to refuse the invitation, but then I remembered that I was in Mexico and not the United States. So I went over.) All three of these people were from the smaller villages in the Oaxaca Valley. They were genuine and grounded. They were trusting and happy. It was liberating being around them.
Teotitlan is a village of weavers. The weavings are displayed in front yards and porches. If I had been driving a car, I would have stopped at nearly every house. We were led into a demonstration of spinning the wool, coloring it with cochineal and other dyes, and weaving. There was a treasure trove of Zapotec weavings in this shop. I bought a wall hanging and a notebook and I would have gotten more if I thought I had the luggage space to hold it.
The best food is in the villages around Oaxaca City and not in the city itself. And in Cd. Oaxaca it’s hard to find an outstanding restaurant. I thought I would have luck at the Camino Real (Calle Cinco de Mayo #300; 951-516-0611), but the beef with two kinds of molé (green and black) was just a bit above average. The setting is second to none, however. We ate twice at Catedral Resaurante (Garcia Vigil #106; 951-516-3285), because the first try was so good that we had to go back again. The service is attentive, the food is consistently excellent, and the ambience (especially next to the fountain) is elegant and conducive to enjoying a fine meal. But there was another restaurant I really enjoyed – La Olla Restaurante (Reforma #402; 951-516-6668). This is a special find (and was recommended to us by Jean Cockelreas of Salem, Oregon, who was tour-guiding a group of Oregonians). This is fine cuisine, or as close as I found in Oaxaca. The food is organic – clean, fresh, and tasting like nature. (But their chile rellenos were still not as good as the one I had in Atzompa.)
The zocalo, in the months before I visited Oaxaca, underwent a renovation, one that turned out to be quite controversial. But it was finally re-opened, with some of the plans scaled back in light of the opposition to the changes. And President Vicente Fox came to examine the new zocalo on my last full day in Oaxaca. I went to the zocalo for a late breakfast and couldn’t find James, my traveling buddy. It had been raining that morning and I had an umbrella. A band was playing classical Mexican music in the bandstand. Almost overnight, they laid new bricks, scooped up all the dogs, planted new flowers in the flowerbeds, and got the plaza spiffy clean. Post-adolescent young men in black military uniforms strutted around the zocalo. Most people seemed to ignore them. I saw the president’s entourage of about 50 men, most in white shirts and dark trousers, approaching, and it walked right past me. The presidente held hands with his wife, who was dressed in orange. Fox stayed at El Camino Real, along with the governors of five states, all of whom were there for a meeting.
El Camino Real and La Guelaguetza
Lynne Doyle contributed a superb article on the Hotel El Camino Real to the July 2005 issue of Mexico File in her “Las Joyas de Mexico” column. Originally founded in 1576 as the Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena, this huge edifice housed novitiates for hundreds of years. In 1862 the sisters had to leave the convent in the Juarez reforms, and after that the building languished as the city hall, a school, and a movie theater. Walking the corridors, I wondered how it must have felt to be there when it was a convent, in a peaceful religious setting with fear-inducing enforcement of rules.
The price of a room at Camino Real is nearly prohibitive ($200 to $400 per night), but spending time in the courtyard of this paradise is free, and not to be missed if you’re in Oaxaca. James, Elisabeth and I drank margaritas while Schumann played peacefully on the speakers.
Every Friday night El Camino Real puts on a Guelaguetza. Get your tickets before (about $35, which includes the Guelaguetza and a buffet meal of very good Oaxacan cuisine). A guelaguetza is a costumed show of folk dances with a band accompaniment. And it is impressive. As for me, the guelaguetza, which we attended on our last full day in Oaxaca, was a celebration of my week. I had come to Mexico to relax and get in touch with the genuine human spirit that’s ubiquitous in Mexico. And I did just that. But the guelaguetza, which served as a real capper to the week, wasn’t the end. Something funny happened the next day, and it made me feel like Elvis Presley or the Beatles.
The Kumbia Kings
When James and I deplaned in Mexico City for the transfer to the Continental flight to Houston, we were met by screams, the screams of adolescent girls. As we walked closer to them, the screams only increased in intensity. I know that I had a good week in Oaxaca and I needed some validation for that, but this was over the top. Still, it was nice to let my imagination take hold. “Thank you, thank you, young ladies...” My flight of fancy, however, was disturbed by a group of young men crossing my path, one by one. And every time one walked in front of me, there was another chorus of screams. I looked over at the screamers and saw that they were carrying a sign that read, “Welcome Kumbia Kings.” (The Kumbia Kings are a Mex-Tex band based in McAllen, Texas – and they’re all the rage in Latin American these days.) Welcome to America in the 1960's. Welcome to Mexico in the 2000's.