San Cristobal and Oaxaca

The rain followed me to San Cristobal.  I thought, on the twisting road through the Chiapas highlands, that I’d outrun it on the six hour bus ride,

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but it was there, waiting, as I walked out of the bus station in San Cristobal.  I should’ve taken a taxi to my hotel, but I was wearing my wet shoes and rain jacket, and my hotel didn’t look that far on the map, so I took out my umbrella and walked instead.  The gutters and some of the streets were small rivers, impossible to cross without going ankle deep.  I had thought my feet couldn’t get any wetter.The hotel was further than I thought.  They had a room, and the first thing I did was to take what I hoped would be a hot shower.  It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cold either, small mercies. Even after the shower,  I was chilled to the bone, and the room had no heat, just a stack of blankets.  I had felt this way once before, on a backpacking trip in Yosemite, a day spent in the rain, wading through boggy meadows. When I got to camp, I realized at that time if I didn’t get in my sleeping bag soon, hypothermia was a possibility, and while things weren’t so dire now. I climbed under three blankets for half an hour while I thought about what to do next. I was only two days out of the sun and heat of Belize, but it already felt like two months.

Drawing on the experience of similiar mornings in the mountains, I put my wet shoes and clothes and walked back to the grocery store I had passed on the way to find something warming, like alcohol.  The rain had let up, and even though the street were still wet, my mood lifted.

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I found a bottle of tequilla and some off brand oreos and went back to the room.It started raining on my way back.

I sat in my room in dry clothes, bare feet on the cold stone floor, preferable to wet shoes and socks.  I rinsed and wrung out my socks in the sink, and put the shoes outside my door, trying not to think about what they would smell like when they dried.

I still had to find dinner.  I sat outside my door, under cover, and watched the rain, hoping for a let up, just long enough to find a restaurant.  There wwere many, no more than ten minutes away.  By 8pm, it was still coming down, so I put on my wet socks and shoes and just went.  What kind of place would I feel comfortable going into in this state, pants wet to my knees and shoes squishing?  Well, everyone would be wet.  I found a place with the Mexico friendly soccer match on the tv.  It was mostly empty, so I sat down at a distance from the nearest people, worried about my odor.

People were out, in small bars that looked warm and inviting, but I just wanted to be alone with my misery.   If I hadn’t already paid for my hotel, I might have tried to get on the 10pm bus to Oaxaca.

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Back in my room, I had more tequila and passed out in bed under three blankets, finally feeling the chill leave my body.

I opened my eyes the next morning and listened.  Rain pattered in the courtyard.Alcoholism seemed the appropriate response so I took at 7am swig of tequila.  By 10am the rain had let up enough to go out and buy my bus ticket to Oaxaca.  The bus left at 8pm, so I had ten hours to spend.  The rain wasn’t bad so I walked up the street

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and climbed the steps of Cerro de Guadalupe for the view.

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I walked back through the market and to the plaza in front of the church.

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San Cristobal had been one of my favorite stops in Mexico, but it felt different.  San Cristobal had been home to the start of the Zapatista revolution on January 1, 2000.  I had been there fifteen months later, and I didn’t remember it being so full of caucasions in dreadlocks dressed in Mayan clothing, toting babies in rebozos, and boutiques lining the main streets.  Revolution can be good business for some, I guess.  I wondered how many of the people profiting were natives, and how many were interlopers drawn by the lingering frisson of rebellion.  The Mayans down from the hills didn’t look any better off, sitting on the steps in front of the cross in the plaza fronting the cathedral.  People took their pictures as if they were there for decoration or actors playing a role.

I went to a cafe in the covered gallery on the main square.

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Small Mayan children with dirty faces walked by selling trinkets.  Their mothers sat nearby wrapped in blankets, selling sweet breads.  Men sold ponchos and umbrellas.  Two teenage boys walked by slowly, eyeing my phone sitting on the table next to my coffee.  The rain seemed to have let up for good, so I asked for my check.  The two boys, along with a girl, had returned, and stood, hovering nearby, looking obvious while trying not to, clearly waiting for the moment when I stood up, leaving my money on the table, to swoop in and grab it.  I walked it inside and handed it to the server.

I walked up the steps of Cerro de San Cristobal.

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I was alone, and two thirds of the way up I could see three teenagers loitering. I stopped on a terrace a few flights short of them, figuring the view from their was better than the view from the top, which looked closed in by trees.

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One of them came down to me, tired of waiting, and asked me how I was in Spanish.  I told him I didn’t speak spanish, hoping that would deter him, but he switched to broken English, pulling out a crumpled piece of paper, asking me to sign my name,I demured, but he inisted, and when I took it from him, he unfolded it further and explained he was collecting donations for his school, for medicines and supplies, and asked if I would write the amount I would give.  I saw other names scrawled, with improbable donations next to them, 600 pesos, 2000 pesos, 1200 pesos.  I was bemused these kids had the same scam kids did in Chicago in New York, except there it was for their basketball or baseball team, and told him I didn’t have anything to give.  He took the paper back and I went back down the steps, glad I hadn’t ventured any further.

I spent another hour in a bar having a margarita chased by a beer.  Behind me, and Canadian girl and her Kiwi boyfriend sat planning their future.  They could stay at her parents cabin in the Canadian Rockies while building a place of their own.  He was a carpenter, studying to be a draftsman.  He could design their home, she enthused.  He explained to her a draftsman was not the same thing as an architect.  Solar panels, a cow for milk, they could make their own cheese and grow vegetables. She envied the Mayans, living ‘off the grid’ the way they did. I admired her enthusiasm and ideas but loathed her ignorance.

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San Cristobal was depressing, and I was depressed to be leaving feeling that way, a good memory replaced by a bad one.

Dinner was a pizza, with two slices to carry and grow greasy, to be eaten for breakfast or sometime in the night.  It was eleven hours overnight by bus to Oaxaca.  Once again, Mexico would be passing by as I slept.

I arrived in Oaxaca at 8am.  I knew which hotel I wanted to stay at, the same as I had the first time I had been there, when I had had to leave a day earlier than planned, when I found out the only bus for the border left at night, and in order to keep on my schedule, I needed to leave that day.  Oaxaca, along with San Cristobal, Palenque and Mexico City, had been one of my favorite stops.  But my camera had broken, with a roll of 36 exposures stuck inside.  I never got those pictures back, and I had always wanted to come back to Oaxaca with a working camera.

The hotel, Casa Arnel, had a room, and was as wonderful as I remembered it. The courtyard was full of trees, flowers, birds and bits of sculpture.  The roof terrace had a view of the city.

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And my room had a tower fan which I could use to dry my shoes.  The rain had stopped for now, having lost track of me when I snuck out of San Cristobal at night.

Trusting my memory, I got lost on the way to the Zocalo, but found it eventually. I had breakfast of chilaquiles and coffee.

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The skies were cloudy but not yet threatening.  I should’ve worn a disguise, or at least a hat.  I could feel the rain seeking me.

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I walked the streets, and Oaxaca was like the anti-San Cristobal. Just as beautiful, just a full of tourists, but tourists of the more conventional, middle-aged shorts and flip flops variety.  It felt more like a working city.  Also, it wasn’t raining.

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Friday was Monte Alban day, and I was awakened at 7am by the whistle and boom of noisemaking fireworks.  That’s the thing with these Catholic countries.  There always seems to be some holiday that requires loud noises to celebrate.

Monte Alban is a Zapotec ruin on a flat-topped mountain 5 miles outside the city.  It was after visiting Monte Alban that my camera had died, so i lost all my pictures.  I was here to correct that great historical injustice.

The day was sunny, with just enough cloud cover to keep the temperature down.  It felt ike a gift.

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Back in Oaxaca, on the way to dinner, the rain found me.  I had my umbrella, and it was only a drizzle.  The was a graduation ceremony going on at the cathedral, and people danced gangnam style and did the macarrena under a tent.  On the pedestrian plaza leading to the Zocalo, some sort of festival was going on, and people danced in Zapotec dress.

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That it had started raining harder didn’t deter them, but it did me.  I was fifteen minutes from my hotel, and every restaurant I had passed was too expensive or empty.  I don’t mind eating alone, but eating alone in an empty restaurant was too much for me.  I was on my way to Burger King, feeling ashamed, when I passed a cart selling hot dogs and hamburgers. I bought one of each.  The hamburger was the best looking hamburger I may ever have seen, topped with baloney, grilled potatoes, jalapenos, lettuce, onion, tomato, mayo, ketchup and mustard.

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I clutched my bag and walked as fast as I could.  It was too late.  The streets had turned into rivers again and my shoes were a lost cause.  I stood too close to the curb at an intersection and a car drenched me from the waist down.

I had a day left in Oaxaca, and I had done what I had come to do, so I just spent the day walking around the city.  I climbed the steps to the amphitheater.

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I walked the market.

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I bought my bus ticket for Sunday’s 6:30am departure to Mexico City, where I would connect for Guanajuato. I had lunch on the Zocalo.  Around 3pm, the skies darkened.

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I sensed rain, but I dawdled, not yet ready to say goodbye.  I waited too long.  On the walk back to my hotel, a drizzle turned to a downpour.  I was caught again.  I got back to my hotel in the same state as I had the night before.  I sat under cover on the roof terrace.  Rain is pleasant when you can just watch it.

The rain hadn’t stopped by dinner. Despite it being Saturday night,  I knew every restaurant would be empty, and I would arrive soaked.  I had seen a McDonalds Golden Arches from the terrace of my hotel, and it didn’t look far, so I checked Google Maps.  It was only ten minutes away.  I made an excuse of the weather, and went out.  It was as disappointing as I expected it to be, but what was I to do?

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I woke at 5:30am on Sunday and left Oaxaca for another twelve hour day of riding buses.

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