In Oaxaca, A Place For Friends

oaxaca

Sundays in Oaxaca are quiet. The stores are closed; the streets empty.

There is buzz around the churches, as families mill in and out dressed in their Sunday best. Near the Zocalo, children play with oversized balloons, pushing them high into the sky.

But otherwise, the city is silent.

On a recent Sunday, I decided to embrace the calm and seek a quiet resting place where I could sit with a healthy meal, an iced coffee and the words of Carlos Fuentes. The spots I had in mind were closed, so I wandered the streets until I caught sight of an entryway leading into a courtyard shaded in bougainvillea. “Yoga, vegetarian food,” the chalkboard sign read. I had found my place.

I entered and asked for a table. The kind-eyed host explained to me that here, they do things differently, that this is a place for friends. She asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a table, and she gestured toward my new seatmate: an elderly gringo in khakis and a Panama hat.Inwardly, I groaned. The last thing I wanted was forced conversation with a senior citizen. I wanted to feel Mexico, not be reminded of home.

Outwardly, I smiled and sat down.

De donde es?” he asked.

De los Estados Unidos,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re American,” he laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Uh-huh. I pulled out my book and set it on the table.

“Where in the States are you from?”

“New York.”

“Oh, I lived in New York. In Manhattan?”

“Yes, the East Village.”

He laughed. “I used to live right near you, on 4th between B and C. But this was a long time ago, in the 1960s.”

Now he had my attention. You had to be a certain kind of person to live in the East Village in the 1960s.

“Do you know Allen Ginsberg? The poet?”

I nodded. I only idolized him.

“He was my neighbor.”

From there, the conversation flowed: from his life as an art student in the ’60s, to my writing ambitions in the ’10s, to his sons, my sister, his newly remodeled home, my newly redecorated apartment. Mitch was a man in transition, having just retired after decades of working as a museum exhibit designer for the federal government. I too was in transition, on the cusp of returning to graduate school and charting a new career path. He had come to Oaxaca to draw; I had come to write.

I didn’t expect Mitch and I to have much in common, but we did. I was reminded of a basic travel lesson: the necessity of being open to new people and new experiences.

Throughout our nearly three-hour conversation, the host, whose name I discovered was Rosaura, kept us fed and refreshed with a three-course vegetarian meal: crunchy jicama salad, hearty chickpea soup and a yogurt-oatmeal dessert, complemented by hibiscus tea. At the end, she only asked for $35 pesos (about US$3) to cover the cost of the ingredients. Every Sunday, Rosaura hosts this special gathering in the courtyard of the Comala restaurant on Calle Allende in downtown Oaxaca. The morning starts with a yoga session, followed by a meal. All are welcome – so long as they are open to new friends.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

A Travel Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico

Five types of words and phrases to learn in a foreign language

When traveling to many foreign countries, especially if you’ll be sticking to major cities, there’s no need to be completely fluent in the local language. But knowing a few key words and phrases can make your experience not only easier, but richer as well. While many people in the tourist industry speak English, they’ll still greatly appreciate your efforts in speaking their native tongue. Phrases like hello and goodbye are no-brainers, but a few other, less obvious phrases will be invaluable as well.

The Bare Minimum

Hello/Goodbye
Please/Thank you
Yes/No

There’s no excuse for not learning at least these words and phrases. Being able to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, yes and no won’t get you far in a conversation, but the people you speak with may appreciate your minimal effort.


The Basics

Numbers 1-10 and the general rules for converting to tens, twenties, hundreds, thousands, and so on
Where is?
How much?
What time is it?
I would like. . .
The bill please.
Hotel, restaurant, train station, taxi, toilet, airport, bus
Police, hospital, help
In crowded bars and on the street, knowing your numbers, and being able to ask how much something is, what time it is, for a certain number of something, where something is (and the words for the things you might inquire the location of), or for the bill, will get you what you need with little fuss. You won’t be able to hold a conversation, but you’ll be able to get directions and order food or drinks easily. In many countries, restaurant servers won’t bring your bill until you ask so knowing how to do so will save you time waiting around for the check.
It’s also wise to know a few words for emergencies. You hope you won’t need to know how to ask for help or call for the police, but if you do, you’ll be glad to be able to communicate when it’s most important for your safety and well-being.

Food Phrases
Beer/wine
Water/coffee
Meat, cheese, bread
Plate

You can always sound out the pronunciation of your desired item from the menu, or just point to it at the bar, but you may not end up with what you want. Memorizing the translations for a few basic foods will help point you in the right culinary direction. The words and phrases you’ll use most often may change from country to country but it’s always wise to learn the words for water, beer, wine, coffee, bread, cheese, meat, and plate.

If you have any food allergies, you should also learn how to say “I cannot have. . .” in that language. Many people prefer to just write the phrase down and hand it to the server each time they order a meal.

Avoiding Embarrassment
I’m sorry, I don’t speak. . .
Do you speak English?
Every traveler tries not to stand out as a tourist. But sometimes the strategy of looking like a local can backfire – like when someone approaches you in Barcelona and starts speaking rapid-fire Spanish and all you can do is stare blankly back at him. Instead of staying mute or responding in English, this is the time to pull out the phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” of whatever the local language is. Likewise, before launching into an English interrogation, you can politely inquire of another “Do you speak English?” in his or her native tongue.

Conversation Starters
What is your name? /My name is. . .
Where are you from? /I am from. . .
This is my husband/wife/child.
You’ll never be able to have an in-depth discussion with a person who doesn’t speak your language. But you can at least engage them with a few rudimentary phrases. Being able to ask people their names and then giving yours, sharing where you are from, or being able to inquire about family, can help them see you as a person like them, rather than a foreigner.
Though many of us would like to speak the local language anywhere we go, it’s often not a realistic option. Knowing these keys words and phrases won’t make you fluent, but they will help you get more out of your journey. If you can’t memorize them all, just make yourself a handy “cheat sheet” that you can pull out when needed.