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April 5th, 2012
The Streets and Markets of Oaxaca
You don’t need to have a perfect Spanish accent to get by in Mexico, but if you want to enjoy yourself to the fullest extent, you should be fluent enough to have a basic conversation in Spanish. There have been a number of news reports announcing the dangers of travel in Mexico, but in December 2011, when I sojourned in Mexico City (Districto Federal — the Capital) and Oaxaca de Juarez (the major city in the State of Oaxaca – one of 31 Mexican states), I felt completely safe.
Because my mother speaks some Spanish, we socialized with the men and women working as street vendors and the ones passing by in the market; all were amiable and humorous. In the areas where I had stayed, I saw no violence, and I did not feel threatened.My mother and I stayed at Hostal de la Noria, a hotel right in the center of Oaxaca, literally across the street from the open market. The staff there were friendly and helpful as well.
Most of the streets were narrow but we got around easily by foot or — if it was late and we were tired — by very affordable taxis. The city has an old fashioned, charming look with stone buildings that were mostly around four stories high. There are no skyscrapers nor flashing advertisements on every corner. The buildings are all rectangular and are painted bright colors such as blue, orange, green, or yellow. In some areas of Oaxaca, attractive graffiti art murals can be seen on edifice walls. In the areas more crowded with shops and cafes, the buildings are taller and mostly white or natural stone.
Along all the streets, there are stores and boutiques filled with traditional Mexican art, crafts, clothing, or jewelry and there are many stores with modern day items — fashionable clothing and shows. I cannot decide if I more enjoyed looking at the traditional or contemporary objects for sale. I knew that everything I saw would be difficult to find where I live in New Jersey, and if I did come across the same dress or pair of shoes or earrings, it would be sold for twice the price. I bought a pair of wedge shoe-boots that go great with jeans! Among the local crafts, Oaxaca produces a large quantity of tin. Thus, many items such as mirrors, lamps, and decorative accessories are made by local artisans of pounded, shaped and painted tin.
There were also lots of traditional clothing shops. My mother tried on a number of repeals — a one piece local full length dress, but she ended up buying only a shirt version. Many Mexicans attempt to make money by selling their art or jewelry on the street. I saw, liked, and purchased so many interesting types of hand crafted necklaces and earrings — made from beads, feathers, wood, beans, metal, paper, even beer bottle caps! My mother purchased a pair of Corona bottle cap earrings painted with Frida Kahlo’s portrait. Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was a famous Mexican woman artist, who is even depicted on Mexico’s 500 peso note (about $40US).
Lots of the wooden earrings were painted in varies colors and carved into different shapes, including flowers, animals, musical instruments, and every day objects. I purchased a pair that were in the shape of mini woven reed baskets.
In addition to street vendors, there were plenty of Oaxacans playing musical instruments on the streets. They played, and then had their children go around asking nearby strangers for donations. They go where the crowds are. I listened to man play an xylophone. When he finished his song and his funds collection, he just wheeled the wooden instrument to another area. It was rare to find a street that was not filled with the sound of a strumming guitarist, mariachi band or other musician.
Our tour arrangements were made by Tia Stephanie Tours (www.tiastephanietours.com), which specializes in cultural and culinary experiences in Mexico.