Almost every traveller I’ve met on this journey has told me they loved Oaxaca. The first person to tell me this was a French girl, way back in Holbox. Nobody really told me why the city was so cool; every time it was mentioned people merely smiled and told me to go there.
I didn’t look at images before arriving here; I’ve decided to stop doing that. I find it’s more pleasing to travel without any preconceived ideas of a place – then when I arrive I can’t be disappointed. Well okay, I definitely still can be disappointed – I might step off the bus and get immediately hoofed in the bellend by some scorned woman who’s mistaken me for her ex-lover – but it’s certainly harder.
Oaxaca looks like what I hoped Mexico would look like. Little streets with little old ladies dressed in traditional garb, shuffling along with little baskets filled with vegetables. Mexican flag bunting strung across pedestrian-only avenues. An old man cranking a music box, standing in the shadow of a balcony to keep out of the sun. Kids in school uniform laughing in clusters. Cranky old VWs parked on flowery sidestreets. And murals – murals everywhere. Why don’t we do murals in the UK. Banksy does murals, but they’re like, Boris Johnson wanking off Putin. Can we have nice murals please, Mr Banksy. Meadows and dragons and fair maidens with their boobs casually out. That would be good.
It’s El Dia de los Muertos soon – the Day of the Dead – and it’s exciting to witness the change as Mexico slowly gears up for the occasion. More and more flower-adorned skeletons are appearing in the streets, on balconies and in shop windows, and bunting in orange, purple and black flaps across suburban pavements. I’m going to be in Mexico City for it, but I heard Oaxaca was the best place. Again, dunno why. I’ve just been told that by a lot of people, including the behemothic Lonely Planet that I found in a book exchange in Holbox and have been lugging round with me ever since.
After my day of exploration with Pedro, I’ve been taking it easy in Oaxaca. I don’t particularly want to go out partying here; my 29-year-old body can’t hack it anymore. Every time I have more than two beers my energy is sapped the next day, and lounging for hours in my bunk makes me feel restless and guilty. Instead I’ve been slowly exploring the city – or at least, the old town. Oaxaca is quite big, but the prettiest bit seems to be the centre, where all the tourists go.
I stay in the centre also because it’s safe here – and it may not be quite so safe for me to go roving around unknown neighbourhoods, especially after dark. Robbery is common here if you go out alone after midnight – and so I simply do not. After experiencing the crush of a couple of Mexican nightclubs, I don’t feel I’m missing too much anyway. There’s more fun to be had during the day.
I bought some new shoes the other day to replace the exploded rags that my tennis shoes had become. While shlepping, toes exposed, through the town in search of shoe shops, I noticed locals glancing down at my feet, eyes widening. Sometimes when I travel I feel quite cool and suave – like Indiana Jones, like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And other times I find myself limping through the street with my toes hanging out and I realise I am far more akin to Frank Gallagher or Worzel Gummidge.
At any rate, it feels good to have new footwear – even if they are crap. I bought some of those Primarkian white pumps that last only until they get wet, because I couldn’t find a shoe shop that does proper trainers. Every man in Mexico wears giant leather boots only, if the shopfronts here are to be believed.
One day I took a little walk up to Plaza San Domingo, because I’d heard there’s always cool, local, cultural stuff going on there. My intel was good: I’d been sat on a wall there for all of a minute before a parade went past. There were kids dressed in bright feathery headdress costumes, a giant papier-mâché globe thing being spun around, a full brass band, and, inexplicably, a group of po-faced teenage boys on stilts, dressed as old women, doing little salsa steps to the music. No idea.
As I sat and watched the parade, I noticed people throwing handfuls of something in the air. I thought it was some weird sort of confetti, until a smiling lady pointed at me and wanged a fistful of sweets in my direction. I picked them up off the ground and gave her a thumbs up. A moment later, a man carrying a transparent jug filled with colourless liquid stopped beside me. He raised a tower of shot glasses, and nodded.
“Mezcal?” he asked.
“Er, okay, si.”
I answered without thinking, and next thing I knew I was cradling a free shot of mezcal. A moment later, a lady passed by and handed me another. Keen to embrace local culture, naturally, I drank the shots. Feeling the gentle burn of the spirit, I soon sauntered away to explore the backstreets, feeling a little tipsy. My route, by pure chance, led me to cross paths five minutes later with the same parade. As I stood to watch once more and take a few photos, another smiling man passed me by and poured me a third shot of mezcal.
I walked home feeling pretty loose, and decided to get a solo beer in a little hipster bar I found on the corner by my hostel. I bought a Pacifico and sat at a table by an open side door, facing out onto the street so I could people watch. Unfortunately, being in this location meant I was accosted by a succession of nutters as I drank my beer. Some things never change.
Then thunder boomed and the heavens opened, and in a minute the bar filled up with passersby seeking shelter and buying drinks out of guilt. By this time I’d finished my beer and considered buying another to wait out the downpour, but after the mezcal I already felt steaming. Instead I bit the bullet, stepped outside, and in the twenty steps to my hostel I got soaked to the bone. It was… a curious afternoon. Mexico reminds me a bit of India in that regard: all you need to do is step outside for an hour and you’re sure to return home with a story to tell.
Last night was a particularly odd one. During the day I visited the Museo de las Culturas, which houses an array of artefacts – necklaces, gold trinkets, a creepy skull covered in turquoise tiles – unearthed at Monte Alban. It was cool, but I rushed around the exhibits because I was dying for a wee. When I got back to the hostel I was exhausted, most likely due to the dehydration which creeps up on you here. I lay on my bunk with the intention of watching The Road to El Dorado on my laptop (cos Mexico), but after five minutes I grew peckish and decided to nip to the shop two blocks down to buy Doritos. I asked my dorm-mate (he’s also called Dan; we are the only two in our dorm, so we have dubbed it the Dan Dorm) if he wanted anything from the shop: he said yes, a bottle of cola please.
I hopped away to the shop and purchased a few treats, and while the cashier was ringing them up, a middle-aged Mexican man with a sharp shirt and fancy black hair said hello to me. His English was very good. I said hello back, and he told me he’d seen me at the hostel; he was staying there too. Then he uttered something which I only caught the end of: mezcal?
Jesus Christ, Mexico. What are you doing to me?
The guy – his name was Juan – invited me to sit with him in the back of the cornershop, in which a little hidden local watering hole sits. I stepped through the shop and into the bar. It was sparsely decorated, with warm yellow walls, a half-finished Day of the Dead skeleton in a suit, three wooden tables, and a rickety back shelf on which sat various bottles of liquor. A proper local cowboy bar – I loved it immediately. I remembered Dan wanted his cola, but ah, I’d only been two minutes. It was just one shot.
Well, one shot turned into two mezcals, three beers and two hours. Juan and I sat talking through the afternoon, our lips growing looser with each beer until we found ourselves sharing stories about our families, our careers and our lives. I wasn’t entirely sure about him, to be honest – he mentioned in passing that he’d had a problem with alcohol in the past, and I caught him ogling a couple of women, and one or two of his stories trailed off into vague mumbling in a way that suggested he was concealing details. He liked me though – that was plain to see. He laughed at my stories, and a couple of times he wrote down jokes that I made. I liked him too – in a wary, on-my-guard, ready-to-dash-outside-at-any-moment sort of way.
At one point three elderly men entered the bar, one of whom was in uniform, and I noticed Juan’s inebriated eyes swivel away from mine – I was midway through a story – and lock onto the new arrivals. I paused my story and asked him what was up.
“They’re government,” he said, behind his hand.
“How do you know?” I asked.
Then he stood up and shook their hands and introduced himself, then paid for their drinks.
“It’s useful to make these gestures,” he said, sitting back down. “They’ll remember I did that.”
I sensed that I shouldn’t ask further questions, so I didn’t.
He talked about his business a lot. He wants to open a chain of hostels or hotels, and was busy trying to work with a team of contractors to design one that would be affordable but full of flavour. I told him about Casa Xtakay in Vallodolid, one of my favourite hostels: not too big, not too ‘party party’, with a simple common area and a breakfast cooked fresh every morning by the sweet old couple that owns it. I told Juan that I think the key to a good hostel is a communal eating area and a family feel. He nodded along, grinning, waggling his finger at me like Robert de Niro, saying “You know something? You’re smart. You’re a smart guy.”
I paid two rounds, he paid for one, and we headed back to the hostel together. Upon arriving I was steaming, of course, and had to apologise profusely to Dan for taking two hours to get his cola. He didn’t mind; he’d been sipping vodka mixed with Fanta in the meantime.
I spent half an hour lying drunkenly on my bunk, then went to the common area to join everyone. The hostel is trying out a new thing: drawing classes. A volunteer here named Joaquin organized it; fifteen of us sat around a table and were handed pens and paper, and we played a game where you had to write a sentence at the top of the page, then fold it over. The next person reads your sentence and draws the concept. The next person looks only at the drawing and writes what they think it is, and on and on like Chinese whispers. This would have probably worked well and been fun, except I was sitting next to Juan who was too drunk to comprehend or care what was going on, and immediately scribbled all over his paper and then sat there smoking and yelling obscenities in Spanish for the next three hours.
We played a few more drawing games, and I sat with three German girls who were good fun. The mezcal was making me sloppy, however – I kept forgetting people’s names, and I made a boob of myself at one point by attempting to sit with the ever-present chain-smoking French contingent of the hostel and converse with them in their own language. It was a mess; I kept lurching into Spanish, which is surprising given I only speak about 30 words of it. In the end I gave up and ran away.
Finally, the time came for the inevitable Irish goodbye; I slithered away to bed without announcing my departure. I woke up this morning fully dressed on my bunk, with breath like a walrus and my keys and vape in the pocket of my trousers jutting painfully into my knob.
Ah, the eternal glamour of travel.