Oaxaca is one of the most popular destinations in all of Mexico, and rightly so. A beautiful state that is home to beautiful beaches, incredible biodiversity, expert and diverse artisans, a cuisine of it's own, heritage foods, vast markets, mezcal, hiking, ancient ruins, and on and on.
The Mexican State of Oaxaca is famous for the city of Oaxaca, and also the coastal beaches, but we didn't even touch the coastline. After weeks in the Baja, the ocean held memories of sand and humidity which we were "over." And - Oaxaca has so much to offer even without the nudist beaches in Zipolite and the beach culture. Mexico's coastlines attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, but we weren't in search of tourist destinations. We wanted something a bit more enlightening.
We came here for a volunteer job through workaway.com working at a horse ranch breaking in young horses, building a small shade shelter for the garden, and re-fabricating a falling down chicken coop. What we got was a real-life glimpse into what life is like in the Central Valley.
Volunteering is a great way to travel on the cheap but even better, it allows you to become acquainted with places in a much more intimate way than solely through tourism.
Oaxaca is home to hundreds of micro-climates; from mountains to ocean beaches, cactus forests to fertile valleys rich in culture and life. We spent an afternoon at the Botanical gardens in the city (a fully worthwhile tourist attraction) where we learned about some of the amazing and unique plants in the region. The gardens are caretakers of varieties of plants including "Milpa" (maize field) staples; squash, beans, and corn over 10,000-years-old We also spent time wandering the hills watching the pueblos work in harmony to produce heirloom food and fodder and delighting in the fields of fall wildflowers.
For several days prior to arriving in Oaxaca we rode by vast fields of marigolds - orange and purple, all being harvested, sold on the road side, and loaded into overflowing trucks and tractor trailers to be shipped throughout the country.
As the timing was right , before starting in on our volunteer project, we spent some time in the city exploring and celebrating Dia De Muertos. Dia De Muertos is an old indigenous custom and is an interesting example of the way the native cultures have adapted to the intrusion of Catholicism while maintaining the heart of many traditions. Today, the celebration takes place over a week or more and it is both joyous and rambunctious but also somber and reflective. We visited graveyards large and small where families decorate the burial places of loved ones and ancestors, and sit in vigil all night long drinking Mezcal (or not), remembering, and lighting the way of the dead. We found wild parties in city neighborhoods where we were clearly outsiders but were warmly welcome, our bellies and pockets filled with sweets, fruits, mezcal, and hot drinks. Of course, we joined a parade of raucous families dancing to a 15-piece brass and percussion band and shooting off fireworks in the street. We watched preparations, theatrical plays in which the dead and living interact, ate street food, and even went to a wild late-night cock fight. It was marvelous. It was thought provoking. It was beautiful.
Our volunteer experience was a time of working, and learning. It was a time for reflecting, re-evaluating, being humble and giving ourselves and each other grace, and also to make some really wonderful friends. I spent half the time working with a rescue horse and donkey, ground driving a half-blind pony, and riding a new Criollo horse along with the tourists to give him some training and get him used to his new job. Scott and I worked together the rest of the time re-building a rotted and broken chicken coop and building a shade-shelter green house for the garden. It was a good break from being on the road every day, and I am glad we did it despite the challenges.
Motorcycles. Scott noticed that his moto was handling very poorly and determined that he needed to replace the headset bearings. Ha! After five days of pounding, scraping, dremmeling, and throwing wrenches without success we rolled it down the road to the local metal shop who spent about 5 minutes welding in a cross bar and pounding the bearing race out. Gah! Somehow in the nightmarish process, Scott punched a hole in his Clarke gas tank which is made of a plastic that is virtually impossible to patch. Having no choice but to try, he carved a stick to plug the hole and then sealed it in with gasket maker. It worked! Sort of. The tank held gas, but leaked and dripped all the way to Belize where you will later learn what the solution was to be...
A quick clutch job more, and we were ready to roll on out of Oaxaca - after exploring the mountains with our friends Farina and Octavio who's Italika ate up the dirt roads like a champ.
Italikas are cheap motorcycles originally produced in South Korea, but now designed and made right in Mexico. They are everywhere and they make sense - light, simple, and with millions of spare parts around. It's kind of like a bicycle but without the pedals.
But one cannot stay in Oaxaca forever, and after a month we were ready to keep moving southward. But not before we stopped to admire glowing mezcal medicinal tinctures and fill a roto-pax with delicious agave rot-gut. We paid $100 pesos per liter (about $6) to fill up a water tank. Chapolines (grasshoppers), and pepitas (squash seeds) are natural friends to Mezcal. Agaves are often planted along side squash and corn, and in the mornings and evenings chapolines are harvested. This particular mezcal producing family also had hundreds of pounds of pepitas and buckets of chapolines waiting to be consumed in the traditional style of Oaxaca - Roasted or fried with chilis and garlic, and snacked on while sipping Mezcal. Complimentary products both in the field and on the table. This is agriculture at it's best. Family farms, sustainable practices, crop rotation, habitat-friendly, integrated crops, naturally organic products... and all stemming from a culture and heritage of sensical stewardship. We could learn a lot from the people who live in this place called "Mexico." It's beautiful.