Sleepless in Oaxaca

(29th April – 16th May, 2016)

The 800km from Morelia to Oaxaca passed relatively uneventfully and within only a few days. Due to poor camping opportunities and lack of any worthwhile things for us to visit. Nothing seemed to hold our attention and so we didn’t stay anywhere longer than a night.  The most interesting along the way was the 1st of May party in Cholula, which we stumbled upon by accident, and which was celebrated in the normal Mexican way. There was also a Campground in the botanical gardens of Helia Bravo Hollis in the middle of the desert, where we spent a very quiet night for a change before reaching the famous colonial town of Oaxaca.

Sustenance Vs. Eating Out

What weren’t we told about Oaxaca? It’s one of the prettiest Colonial cities of Mexico. A trip to Mexico isn’t complete without a visit. Whoever we met, wherever we met them told us how wonderful the city is and that it’s a highlight of Mexico, of course that pushed our expectations (which one shouldn’t have in the first place) into the stratosphere. The city turned out to be “quite nice”, but not the highlight for us that everyone seemed to make of it. Yes, the old town is pretty but after all what we have seen of Mexico to date we were more than a little sobered as to what it had to offer. The market was a disappointment and we missed the “real” Mexico! It was all a little too organized, too clean, too modern. Even the little shops weren’t like they were in other parts of the country (stuffed full to the ceiling) but almost too tidy, too European, with lots of space and instead of the promised and highly praised indigenous artwork we found lots of shops carrying expensive modern art.

Although Oaxaca did have a completely unexpected highlight in store for us: Namely they have a McDonalds – a complete rarity in Mexico (at least the places we visited) Yes, you read that correctly – McDonalds has become an attraction for us. I know what you are thinking: “Seriously, McDonalds in Mexico! How could you! You guys are totally Americanized and can’t even forego a visit, and anyway how can you even support the personification of American Globalization when you can have awesome Mexican food every day at unbeatable prices!” Well, that’s what we also thought at first until of course we actually went to Mexico. Reality, however looks a bit different. The reality is that the best Mexican food we had wasn’t in Mexico. Eating out in Mexico is more what we would call food intake than any kind of culinary experience. For the most part there is a piece of meat (usually poorly cut and tough), rice, beans thrown together un-appetizingly on a plate accompanied by the ever-present stack of corn tortillas with a more or less tasty spicy salsa. Culinary highlights existed mainly as exceptions in some restaurants in larger cities and sadly and most frequently the food in smaller towns was always the same and exceedingly lifeless. That what you eat at your favorite Mexican restaurant at home is more the perfection of a basic concept that was born in Mexico, an idea of what Mexican food could be if nurtured and formed by someone with a love of food, someone who could take a plate of slop and turn it into a taste explosion and a feast for the eyes. Oh, how we looked forward to the food in Mexico. Things like “Huevos Rancheros”, a classic Mexican breakfast which we found superb outside of Mexico and wanted to enjoy it in its “natural environment”, however, after the 3rd time being served a plate of horrible tortillas soaked through with some kind of salsa, watery re-fried beans and runny eggs that only remotely reminded one of what we so enjoyed we gave up. The same with Enchilads, Fajitas and all the other wonderful dishes at the neighborhood Mexican restaurant. The few highlights like the super spicy stews and Tortas were great but you really needed to be lucky to find good ones. By the time we reached Oaxaca we had pretty much given up on Mexican food and returned to mostly cooking for ourselves with what the markets had to offer. Though, eating out and not having to take care of anything is really nice once in a while; and so, with McDonalds it’s kind of a special relationship. The thing is you know exactly what you are going to get when you walk through the door of a McDonalds, with the exception of a few regional offerings McDonalds is the only fast food chain (in our experience) that is absolutely reliable in providing the same quality of food no matter where you are in the world. When you order a burger, you know it’s going to taste almost exactly the same in Mexico as it does at home. And after the umpteenth culinary disappointment the joy of experimenting was at an all-time low and a McDonalds can seem like a little oasis – without wanting to over-dramatize – where one can escape. Not only to have one of their burgers but also to leave Mexico at the door and enter a “neutral zone” which almost had a calming effect – yes calming – as strange as that may sound. After months of having the constant loud colorful circus that is Mexico around us 24/7 we appreciated leaving Mexico outside for a little while to relax and enjoy our worldwide standardized burger in an air-conditioned and familiar atmosphere. Perhaps it’s something one can only understand after one has lived in a tent for an extended period experiencing a culture that is somewhat foreign to one’s own.

Overlander Oasis

From one small “Oasis” we went directly to the next, namely the Overlander Oasis, a kind of mini-campground, a few kilometers outside of Oaxaca in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule. The campground is owned by Leanne and Calvin, two very hospitable and experienced travelers, and has become a real insider tip amongst “Overlanders”. The main attraction of the small town is the tree “Arbol de Tule” – a giant Mexican Cypress which is supposed to be the broadest in the world and is estimated to be older than a thousand years! The tree itself is worth a trip to Oaxaca as it is a little universe unto itself. Several types of birds call it home, a bee hive and probably all manner of other insects and creatures including a cat have taken refuge amongst the trees branches. We spent half the afternoon under the spreading arms of the tree, simply walking around it, or sitting on one of the many benches and observing the teeming life from different perspectives. A fascinating experience in the middle of an urban setting.

We spent 11 days at the Overlander Oasis mainly because we needed a few maintenance repairs for the Landy.  Quite some time in advance of our arrival we had the needed spare parts sent directly which Gary took care of getting installed. I had enough to do with myself at that moment as I was quite sick. Other long-term travelers had described it so: It doesn’t matter how careful you are it will happen. Apparently, they were right as I was laid flat with food poisoning in bed, or more correctly in the tent, or outside and the toilet was for a few days my new best friend. The blame, I figured, was the Chicken Mole, one of the very few food specialties of Oaxaca that everyone said we needed to try – although better not at the market in the heat of the afternoon. Yeah, as to all our safety measures to avoid such instances we seemed to have not been as strict as we should have and now I am paying in spades! Thank goodness, we were not underway somewhere in the countryside but with Leanne and Calvin who took wonderful care of me while Gary was in town at different garages getting parts installed and having his very own adventure. It took a couple of days but afterwards the Landy returned and happily healthy, so we could continue our journey.

Your Typical Mexican Circus

Mexico is a fascinating country, where we have met the friendliest, happiest and most hospitable people, however, it is also very tiring – especially when you sleep in a tent. There is always, always, something or someone who manages almost every night to rob us of a good night’s sleep. The Mexicans have taken parting to the extreme, which means that the weekends are always loud – location is irrelevant. There are no quiet hour laws and privacy seems to be a foreign word. And so, we read in many camping entries “If you want to sleep, then don’t go there on the weekend.” Only – you are always going to be somewhere on the weekend and it doesn’t really matter where the same loud spectacle repeated itself everywhere. Honestly, the week days weren’t all that better really and the church is to blame. They are as party crazy as the rest and enjoy shooting huge firecrackers into the air. We aren’t talking about little harmless firecrackers here we are talking about rockets whose sole purpose is to make a really, really loud BOOOOOM, that vibrates deep in your chest guaranteed to give a super adrenaline rush when the moment before you were sleeping peacefully. There seemed to be a reason almost every day for the deafening pyrotechnic display: Someone was born, baptized, got married or died, and if it wasn’t any of those then for sure a saint had his birthday or name day or something else – regardless there seemed to always be a reason and all that at unchristian, almost unholy hours of the night. And, if for some reason there was a pause for one or two days then it was the dogs who seemed to wait for sundown to wake up and be in need of releasing all that pent-up energy that they didn’t expend laying about in the shade all day long. It almost seemed to be a competition on who could bark the longest without pause. Should there not be, for some reason, any dogs about then it was the innumerable roosters, who, unlike their comrades in other countries who with first light begin their chorus, seem to start in the middle of the night and continue unabated until first light. In any case, there is always something to rob you of sleep in Mexico, and often it is all of the aforementioned at the same time, needless to say after several months we definitely developed signs of sleep deprivation, which of course affected our overall mood.

As it so happened we weren’t just a little annoyed but really pissed off as we decided to camp at Hierve el Agua (a petrified waterfall) with a beautiful and quiet area when just in time for bed at 2300 a group of Mexicans pulled up next to us, despite having a good kilometer space left and right of us, they set up their tent, unpacked their stereo system and partied like it was 1999 all over again until 7am in the morning at which time they promptly went to bed. Discussion won’t help, besides our Spanish was still lacking, and secondly privacy just doesn’t exist. People enjoy camping together, no one would think about camping far away from their neighbor and besides camping means partying. Similarly, no one would think about complaining about the noise since they all grew up with it and could probably sleep through an earthquake, likewise everyone lives for today, for the here and now, and what comes tomorrow isn’t important. If you are tired and hungover in the morning, it’s unimportant. Today we party just as hard as we worked yesterday, and no one knows what tomorrow brings anyway. It’s a wonderful way to live when you compare it to the way people live in the stiff future oriented industrialized world. We could all learn a little from them, though it is difficult for non-Mexicans to actually manage a good night’s sleep. Nevertheless, we were over tired and angry at the constant noise that we started thinking up revenge scenarios like hiring the world’s worst Mariachi band to circle the tent of our partied-out neighbors from say 0700 onwards.

Hellish Heat

The mountainous regions of Mexico’s mainland are at the generally comfortable range of 2000 meters above sea level and allowed us to avoid the lower and hotter lowland regions. However, even at those altitudes the heat at midday was almost unbearable, though with sundown the nights cooled giving us some relief until the next midday. Unfortunately, there was no way for us to avoid the lowlands any longer, whichever route we chose would lead us to sea-level before climbing once again to more comfortable mountainous region of Chiapas. Closer inspection of the weather diagram showed regular temperatures of 40°C in the shade! Nights didn’t look to cool much and since I hadn’t any experience with tropical heat I wondered how I could even begin to handle such Heat? Wouldn’t you just simply pass out at some point? And, wasn’t there something about how protein starts to coagulate at 40°C? So, how long can my poor brain cells stand being slowly simmered in their own juices before something bad happens, after all we have no way to escape the blistering heat. Gary just smirked or laughed as I told him of my fears, though I was seriously concerned with the idea of going into that hot zone. The fresh morning air of Hierva del Agua at 1800m would be the last before we crossed over to Chiapas. First, it was simply comfortably warm, then the ubiquitous cicadas started taking up their grating drone and finally at an altitude of 500m a brutal heatwave! The wind felt as though we were driving into a giant pizza oven, the air was so hot it almost took our breath away and nothing seemed to help, with the windows fully open we had the oven temperature air, though closed made it even worse (if you haven’t guessed by now the Landy doesn’t have air-conditioning). After a while we stopped at a gas station that appeared to us like an fata morgana to a dying man. I fled to the bathroom and splashed my face with water, wet my hair and soaked one of my Buffs to hang around my neck which offered some small help before heading to the shop to buy an ice-cold Coca-Cola. As I entered the air-conditioned shop, which I am sure was over 20 °C, it felt as though I had just walked into a freezer, which made it all the worse when leaving. It felt as though in the 2 minutes that I was in the shop the out-side temperature went up another 10 degrees. Our car thermometer displayed a whopping 46 degrees, a record! We asked ourselves how in the world the locals survived the brutal heat, apparently not all that much better than us as it turned out. Parked beside us was a pickup filled with locals in the back and they looked about as wrung out from the heat as us as they took turns fanning each other. With a half liter of Cola and soaked buffs we felt at least somewhat refreshed enough to continue our drive through this little piece of “Hell” on earth.

This region of Mexico is somewhat sparse when it comes to camping alternatives, so we ended up camping at a “Balneario” – a natural swimming pool, on the large shaded parking area. It was Sunday and according to iOverlander (the app we have used for quite a while now for planning our trip) it is one of those places that one best avoids on the weekend if one wants to have any peace and quiet at all. So, we had prepared ourselves for a less than perfect nights sleep, however, we were in no way prepared for what awaited us as we pulled dripping with sweat onto the property – the words “Mexican Circus” described it perfectly. It was packed full to the last centimeter with extended families with huge coolers, chairs, tables, blankets, and toys. Nothing what we had described as “full” before came even close to what was unfolding in front us. Overwhelmed from the heat and the spectacle we at first didn’t quite know what to do. There was no where to set up camp and simply finding a parking spot was a challenge enough. We squeezed ourselves between two pickups and sat in the shade of a big mango tree watching the show. It is always heartwarming to see how families in Mexico from baby to great grandmother spend their Sundays together, although it was all a bit too surreal at the moment and it felt more like we were watching a film. Thankfully it was late afternoon when we arrived, so it didn’t take too long before the families started slowly packing up and heading home. Boxes, coolers and family members were loaded into the back of pickups or squeezed together 8 or more into compact cars, which slowly reduced the chaos around us until just before sunset only the food stall workers were left, who like most places in Mexico were only open on the weekends. A chaos of a different kind remained behind in the wake of the mass exodus; the people may be gone but their legacy remained in the form of mountains of trash. There may be innumerable trash cans on the property, and even for separating, though sadly only a few actually thought to throw anything in them making the entire property look more like a garbage dump than anything else. Paper plates, plastic cups, chip bags, cans, mango pits and even dirty diapers were strewn throughout almost as though a garbage truck had exploded. What for us was a relatively new and shocking view appeared to be a normal weekend occurrence for the workers of the Balneario. Garbage, and how it’s viewed by the Mexicans seems to be a big problem in Mexico –  something that continued to shock and distress us repeatedly.

With sunset the temperature thankfully fell a couple of degrees. It was still extremely hot but no longer unbearably so – at least if you didn’t move around too much, that is. We found a place between all the garbage to park and set up camp and began to cook dinner, which seemed to draw quite a bit of attention. The ladies from the neighboring food stall came over to take a peek at what we were having. Our stove, table and pans and just about everything else was inspected with a critical eye, as something like our set up is just not seen. Finally, one of the ladies asked what I was cooking and since I didn’t have a clue how to say “pan roasted potatoes” in Spanish I answered with “Papas Alemanes” (German potatoes). That got the curiosity of the other neighbors and before long I was surrounded by a whole gaggle of ladies who wanted to know how one prepares German potatoes. They started talking amongst themselves and we could hear every now and then “papas alemanes, papas alemanes” while pointing at our cast iron frying pan. Our “home fries” obviously are not something typically Mexican as every now and then we heard an “Ah” or “Oh” from the hoard standing directly behind me. On the one hand a moving feeling with so much almost childish inquisitiveness but on the other a little strange with the unabashed crowding. We worried that we wouldn’t have anything left if we let them all try it thankfully, however, they were all gone by the time dinner was ready. Finally, the Balneario was ours, and since we were a few kilometers away from the nearest town we figured we would finally have a quiet night’s sleep. Not in Mexico! At about 2300 a pickup fully loaded with sweaty Mexicans hoping for a little cooling off pulled up right beside us despite having a good hectare of parking available and excited over a good chat regardless that we were in our pajamas and brushing our teeth. The idea of sleep suddenly popped like a soap bubble, at least for the next few hours. Oh well, it was still too hot to sleep anyway and apparently it goes hand in hand with travelling in Mexico.


More Photos on Flickr: Sleepless in Oaxaca

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