Best City in the World?

Oaxaca was recently voted this phony accolade by Travel+Leisure magazine readers. Who are these readers? They are the upmarket travelers who don’t mind paying $500 a night for a bed. How can such people understand what a real city is? The photo above is a set piece for them.

Oaxaca is a great place to live, and I’ve been here for thirteen years. It has a colorful but sporadically gritty downtown, and if you have ever taken the drive in from the airport, you know what downscale urban sprawl looks like. Of it’s 300,000 or so people, many are poor and pursue a fractional existence. We’re in the midst of a messsy city-wide garbage strike now because the dump is full and can’t take any more.

OAX is not really the glamorous, historic, food-rich Mexican town that the tourists see. And yet it does have an overlay of rich chilangos who have moved here, moneyed kids who have come to study Spanish, and gringos who can fake a wealthy retirement because of the exchange rate. I’m one of the latter.

The Travel+Leisure-type endorsements we get just ruin things for us. They bring in money, yes, but we don’t want American culture or its values, particularly now.

In the eponymous capital city of Oaxaca, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a hotel worth overnighting at. If you’re not afraid to spend a few hundred per night, you can enjoy the modern boutique beauty of Hotel Casa Santo Origen, or if you want something more old-fashioned, check in at Quinta Real Oaxaca—a 16th-century nunnery retaining a thorough throwback charm.

—where you’ll also spend a few hundred a night. Every new T+L piece or New York Times article just brings in more of these vagrant deadbeats. They descend on us like the locusts. So we, or some of us, find a perverse joy in taking their money and making fun of them. I guess that may be a form of smugness—or a way of showing that we love our city and don’t want it to change.

Drinking Heavily and Watching Out for Cockroaches

For some, expat life means socializing and keeping up. The latter activity includes hanging out with friends, gossiping, volunteering for good causes, eating out frequently. Many women I know in Oaxaca spend a lot of time doing these things. I applaud them for it.

Others, both men and women, seem to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking. It’s not just loneliness and cultural disruption, as the common opinion has it. There are two main causes for expat boozIng: one is boredom; the other is disgust with the U.S. political/cultural scene. One more article on Elon Musk and Twitter and I’m ready for a martini.

I don’t socialize a lot, but friends and I have a weekly poker game, which always includes an open bar. Reading, writing, cursing out CNN and the news, and listening to music are activities I pursue to recover my sanity. I’m less addicted to booze than in years past, a good thing.

Oaxaca is in the tropics, after all, and that means cockroaches are always lurking or present. (Don’t believe people who say they never see them.) My compañera in our new house brought her cat here, and that seems to have eliminated most of the problem—but not entirely.

So I conduct roach patrol every morning and stomp on the bastards when I find them. They are not that numerous now, but we older white males seem to have a particular aversion to them. Why is that?

Expats who have adjusted here learn to live with bugs, along with the everyday difficulties of dealing with Mexican bureaucracies, AMLO’s idiotic pronouncements and decisions, the killing of journalists, and the still-horrific numbers of drug murders. To live a life without depending on booze, one must push these things to the background.

It’s pretty much the same with roaches. They are wily creatures who will be here long after humans are gone. Unless you have a bad infestation, just whack ‘em when you see ‘em and, if it’s cocktail hour, pour yourself a short drink.

The pleasures and joys of living here as an expat require one to acquire a certain calmness in the face of mostly unsolvable problems. If you don’t develop that, the booze could take over.

Old Neighborhoods and New

view from my rooftop

This is the last time I’ll keep boring you with news of my move. Moving is like jumping into cold water. You do get used to it.

A very good piece about the trials of moving is here. Writer Paul Cantor focuses on the things you acquire over time, how important they are to you, how you decide what to get rid of:

Ultimately, the hardest part about moving is sifting through those things, the things you acquire unconsciously, the things you don’t even know you have until you are confronted with the sad reality of maybe not having them, and trying to rationalize what stays, what goes, and what little pieces of yourself, pieces you may not so readily recall in the future, you’re willing to let go of.

I have a large green plastic box I brought with me from the states some twelve years ago. It contains many old family photos, some of my 19th century forebears, lots of pictures of my kids growing up, my high school yearbook, my college and graduate degrees, a grade-school report card, my first Social Security card. There is even some artwork my ad agency produced for clients.

What is the value of such stuff—not only to me but to my kids who will have to sort through it all when I pass? I’ve been stymied with this problem for years and couldn’t face the huge number of decisions it would take to come to terms with all this junk from the past. So I moved with the whole box, and the decisions are still on hold.

What I had to adapt to right away was a new neighborhood, almost like a new culture in this city of Oaxaca. The old town, or Centro as it’s called, is the heart of the colonial city with its many shops, markets, and tourist hangouts. I’m on the edge of that in a little alleyway called Flavio Perez Gasga. It’s an unusually quiet part of town.

My old hood was in Colonia Reforma, just north of here and a more “modern” area where formerly the wealthy had moved to escape the clamor and indigence of the city. Reforma’s atmosphere is more like Mexico City’s, and even the food there is somewhat different. Here in Centro the cuisine is more traditional Oaxacan. There are more door-to-door services, different markets, different kinds of restaurants, a different spirit.

It’s only a mile away from where I used to live but, I’m tempted to say, a world away in ambience and character. I think I’ll like it—and God knows I’m too old to consider moving again.

Thoughts on Moving

Mercado Sanchez Pascuas

I moved to a new house a little over a week ago. Which prompted me to review all the many times I’ve moved since, for instance, leaving graduate school and getting married. It turns out that I’ve changed domiciles some 16 times in those 61 years. Reasons for this instability range from job change to partner change, from responsibility to choice.

For movers I’ve used everything from U-Haul to FedEx. My latest move, about a mile across town, went very smoothly and made me grateful for all the good help I had. But it also brought on a lot of anxiety, fatigue, and irritation. Clearly, my age is showing.

Moving, as we know, brings out the best and worst in people. Stress-wise I would compare it to:

    • taking on a lot of questionable debt
    • a poker game—being sometimes in control, often not
    • the trials of a migrant trying to cross into a new country
    • being grateful for a former tenant who left behind a lot of booze and a big bottle of Tums.

I had great friends offering to help box the 3,000-plus vinyl LPs and CDs I’ve collected over the years. Finally, my new roommate and I did it ourselves, and she provided sort of an organizational roadmap for the move and the services (internet, utilities, etc.) and people we had to contract with.

We had to paint and make a few repairs to the new place. Our new landlady was accommodating and paid for much of this. The local moving crew was friendly and competent. The physical packing and moving was completed in a very few days.

So why did I experience so much fatigue and anxiety? Moving gives you no excuse for harboring old papers, files, and stuff you will never want or need again. Housecleaning means cutting loose from the past, which can be liberating or disturbing. I felt it both ways.

And then there’s the pressure of trying to find new places for all the stuff you brought with you—the clothes, cookware, houseware, underwear, hardware that need to find a new home. This takes time and involves making lots of petty but necessary decisions.

Being here just over a week I find the experience still a little unsettling. And yet I’m right next door to a large farmers market, and other small shops selling everything abound in the neighborhood. People have been friendly and helpful. What’s not to like? Moving at its best seems always to cut both ways.

Travel Broadens the Mind?

Maybe so, when you’re younger. Travel did that for me long ago in trips to Europe and South America, later to the Caribbean and Mexico. Living in France for a summer I think changed my outlook more radically than my years growing up in Chicago. One reason is that you are compelled to adapt to new values and lifestyles.

The appeal of travel has waned as I’ve aged. The world has become a lot less engaging as its problems have escalated. Better communications have brought distant peoples (and their predicaments) closer. The hassles with air travel, Covid, and crowds of tourists don’t seem worth it.

Becoming an expat has forced me to look at travel differently from how my fellow expats view it. They have ties and needs that I do not. My family is small, dispersed, and I feel somewhat dislocated from them.

One friend is now on a trip to the East Coast, nominally to get her Covid shots but also to visit an old school friend, family, and rediscover the U.S. after an 11-year absence. A couple just returned from a hectic trip to Philadelphia, seeing doctors and friends and rushing to three other cities. Another couple flew to Minneapolis for a week to finalize the purchase of a condo.

I view these activities with a sense of wonderment. There but for the grace of God don’t go I. Studying French literature years ago I encountered a wonderful decadent novel, À rebours (Against Nature, 1884) by J.K. Huysmans, which contains a remarkable interlude with its hero, Des Esseintes. This reinforced the notion that travel is, of course, a mental as well as a physical act.

In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Charles Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow through with his plans.

I’m not an aesthetic recluse, at least not yet, and I surely don’t reject nature and normal life in favor of artifice, as Des Esseintes did. But I’ve discovered that by not having to resort to travel I can keep alive some of the illusions and discoveries that it brought to me long ago.

Now celebrities and people like Bezos are going into space—in search of new sensations perhaps. For me, travel is just a short circuit for living extensively in another place. A typical article on the benefits of travel finds seven:

      1. Travel Makes You Happier
      2. Travel Lets You Disconnect & Recharge
      3. Traveling Relieves Stress and Anxiety
      4. Travel Exposes You to New Things
      5. Travel Exposes Others to New Things
      6. Travel Makes You Physically Healthier
      7. Traveling Can Boost Your Creativity.

I submit that none of these are really true. They may happen or they may not.

In a way, becoming an expat is the ultimate travel experience because it implies committing to a place rather than just sampling it. Your perspective changes totally, and you see the follies of your home country, for instance, more clearly when you’re detached from them.

Living Here, Not There

Oaxaca, where I live, is a very transient community. Of the Americans living here, many visit for a few months a year or less, then move back in the summer to enjoy the heat, humidity, and dementia of U.S. culture. Snowbirds, we call them. They come from Canada too.

The transiency of this place also affects Oaxacanians. Over the past twelve years I’ve been here, two of my best Mexican friends decamped to the U.S. and it’s been hard to replace them. Some go there to work and support their local families. Others give up on the basically tourist economy. The pull of family draws others, gringo and Mexican.

For Americans, learning Spanish may just be too big a challenge. Some feel (rightly) that they will never really identify with Mexican culture and mores. Asking gringos why they choose to give up on living here—and how long they might stay—elicits many responses: Mexican culture doesn’t work for them; it’s too remote here, too different; they love the beach but it’s too hot in summertime; medical care is too erratic.

Some can’t stand the frequent bloqueos, where aggrieved social groups halt traffic on major thoroughfares for hours. Or the contrasts between poverty and wealth that abound. Living well here requires at least a modicum of wealth and a sense of history.

But the big draws are the rate of exchange (it’s cheap to live here), the food, and the climate. These can mean a lot. The small talk in my group usually covers all of the above, though conversation with the many resident foodies can get a little tedious—for instance, babbling on about the newest restaurant or the grand molé at Le Catedral.

Personal responses to living here vary considerably. One resident couple I know splits up frequently because she likes her time in the U.S. and he enjoys more time here. Another has a house at the beach but they also want to spend half time at the house in Arizona they are building. Another couple will be moving back to Virginia for better medical care and a more congenial social atmosphere.

Twelve years ago I decided to change my life, live more cheaply, and flee American politics and culture, with which I had been too involved. I told friends I was broke and needed a total change. I’ve explained some of the causes behind my move in a post here last July entitled “Expats Exposed.” Take a look if you are curious about my motivations.

My move here accomplished all I had hoped for. After living in many places in the U.S. and traveling abroad in my younger days, I can’t conceive of a better place to flop and face the bizarre, often desperate world we live in.

Don’t Take a Laxative Before You Travel

Stating the obvious can make people uncomfortable. Still, why do most travel and expat sites not tell you the obvious things? For instance, with Covid still on the rampage in many places, and with widely varying responses to it, it may not be a good idea to travel at all. You should read “The Travel Industry Is a Total Mess, But Everyone Is Traveling Anyway,” in yesterday’s Intelligencer. Why would anyone voluntarily undergo these wretched experiences?

Travel advice often gets political, especially in the personal comments. Regarding the trials of travel, readers often make it a Covid matter, like this guy rayornot from Las Vegas—in the “Total Mess” piece—who expresses a pretty common feeling:

Headlines say masks are ‘suggested’ indoors again.  To protect the unvaccinated.  I got one message for the unvaccinated: fuckem.  I’m vaccinated, I will show my card and I will get a booster if necessary. But any business (except the grocery store) that puts up a ‘mask required for entry’ sign will be telling me they don’t want my business.  And any politician who supports a mandatory return to masks ain’t gonna get my vote.  Don’t care what party they are.

The greedheads who opened these resorts here should have given tourists an option:  get vaccinated or stay home. . . . Vegas is a perfect example of a digressionary [discretionary] expense: nobody HAS to come here.

And nobody has to travel when conditions are this bad. Yet some travel writers encourage it, and they are not just the industry hacks. Here’s one, with perhaps the dumbest advice of all:

Now is the best time to travel: because you can’t delay life. We all want to make the most of our time here, which is why taking a break or a mini-retirement shouldn’t be put on the backburner. Stop delaying all those things you really want to do and just do them. Make a travel plan and stick with it. Don’t let your travel dreams keep being just dreams—make them goals. Bring them to life.

For those sensitive plants among us, travel can bring personal nightmares to life. One such person named Erin writes about that:

Things will go wrong. You will stress out about making friends, and you’ll wonder how everyone else in the hostel already knows each other. You will rehearse openers and practice them in your head. And maybe you’ll try convince yourself that you don’t need to make any friends—at least then you wouldn’t have to put yourself out there. You wouldn’t have to take the risk. Travel is full of risk.

Without taking too many risks, I managed to make it out and back last month from Oaxaca to Charlottesville to see my kids and grandkids. The trip entailed a whole day of bad food and involved four airports and three flights each way. It was worth it, despite having to deal with the incidental chaos of Mexico City’s airport and the premeditated pain of surviving Atlanta’s. Getting there was not half the fun, as the Cunard ads once advised us.