When retirement is on the horizon, many of us seek adventure that transcends the emptiness of unexpected freedom. When I turned 62, ready to begin the third stage of my life, I sought a travel destination far from home. Oaxaca, Mexico beckoned.
One might expect a traveller with such an excursion in mind to speak enough Spanish to manage the journey. One might be wrong. My carry-on luggage had wheels, but Spanish did not roll off the tip of my tongue. I disembarked in Mexico City, a metropolis of some 18 million people. Fortunately, international airport terminals use simplified language augmented by graphics to facilitate foreign passengers, but even this Spanish was too complex for me.
Confused, I stepped into line at the counter under the larger than life sign of the airline on which I was to make my connection and, after a half hour, plunked down my ticket for the agent to peruse.
“Senora, the check-in for domestic Aero Mexico is to your left, five counters. Your plane boards in thirty minutes.”
I dragged my little bag along the busy concourse full of soft rolling Rs to the correct counter, checked in, headed for the exit lounge, and pulled out my book to pass time, only to find no reading glasses. Accompanying me in my rush along the packed concourse, they seemed to have lost themselves.
Previous international travel has taught me to expect the “best” of people: The clerk in the shop that stocked reading glasses, who indicated she spoke no English, patiently attended my awkward attempts at communication; and the ticket agent took extra time to offer me explicit directions to the correct counter. Neither criticized my poor Spanish. The best part of the assumption of goodness in others is that they often deliver.
Arriving a few hours later in Oaxaca, I immediately found my daughter Sarah with whom I would be staying, and her partner, a Mexican graphic artist, who waited with hugs and smiles before we drove to the ridge-side compound where their tiny adobe cottage was nestled with four other homes. As I unpacked my bags, I looked out past cacti with huge green bouquets of spiny leaves growing in the well-swept red-dirt yard to the rooftops of colourful Oaxaca.
The next morning, after Sarah walked to the school where she is an administrator, I, aware of an internally screaming desire to retain mobility of body, spirit and mind, began my exploration of the city. I was engaged in a fast-paced retreat into the future, forging ahead of immobility and loss of cognitive processes.
Memories of my mother's loss of words because of dementia haunted my progress. I wanted to live in the varied cultures of the planet and, at the same time, maintain connections with my past.
Unlocking the gate and exiting the compound, I smiled for a moment as I recalled the stroll to the Zocalo the night before. Two of us were deep in conversation filling in the empty spaces of the previous year when I stumbled on the uneven cobblestones. Suddenly, I tumbled onto the walkway.
A Mexican gentleman rushed across the street to help. My daughter, stunned at my sudden disappearance, brushed me off and thanked him as we continued to the Plaza de Armas for a taza de chocolate.
In the startlingly clear sunshine of this next morning, I could see the bell towers of the cathedral through the maze of multicoloured pink, blue, green and yellow walls that lined the streets. After enjoying the cathedral's central facade depicting the Virgin Mary as well as the bronze altar, I rested in the Zocalo beneath the shade of larger-than-life ancient trees.
Returning to the compound, the three of us prepared a fresh garden salad before our “required” siesta. From 12 to 3 p.m., the families of Oaxaca retreat to their homes, eat their luncheon meal, and take a nap in the heat of the day. After three, the streets are full of children on their way to school and shoppers purchasing vegetables for dinner.
Mother and daughter joined them to walk to Sarah's place of employment, the Berlitz School of Oaxaca. Along our two-kilometre stroll, fellow walkers were friendly and thoughtful.
On our return, the scents of home cooking hovered over the city. “Have you tasted mole, Mom?” asked my middle child whose command of Spanish gave her a comfort level in this Mexican city that I could only dream of attaining. “Several varieties are notable; black is my favourite. How 'bout you and I go out for dinner tonight, my treat?”
The basic mole sauce that the Oaxacans serve is made from roasted negro chilies, raisins, almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds flavoured with roasted cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, oregano and Mexican chocolate. The mole we enjoyed that night was served over a huge slice of roast turkey - savoury as well as sweet. We dined in the flower-strewn courtyard of the historical building renovated into a restaurant where fine wines such as a Freixenet cabernet complemented the meal.
“Sarah, this is delicious. I hope you tuck your mole recipes in the bottom of your suitcase when you come home. Certainly, it is as unique as Thai green curry - indigenous foods are so thoroughly distinctive.”
“Yes, Mamacita. I’m practising,” smiled my talented daughter.
“However, Mother, moles I’ve eaten in cities outside of Mexico have not compared well to this rich, dark sauce. The French brag about their hollandaise, and I know you love the Thai green curry. I’ve tasted marinara in Italy, but none compare with the subtle chocolate mole. It’s one of the premier sauces of the culinary world.”
We spent Saturday at a Zapotec excavation site, Monte Alban, the capital of an ancient civilization that ruled the area from 500 BC-800 AD. The afternoon was hot, so I purchased a straw hat complete with an Oaxacan hatband of many colours. That hat travelled with me across the Pacific on at least six trips. I used it for fancy dress evenings as well as for long treks into the Australian rainforest. Finally, a less than considerate fellow passenger on Qantas stacked his computer bag too near in the overhead luggage compartment and squashed the straw beyond recognition.
After buying the hat of many colours, I tried to climb the steps up to and down the ruins. Those ancient Mexicans may have been short, but they obviously had strong thigh muscles. Lifting one's leg high enough to reach the next step hundreds of times in a row had to strengthen not only the legs but also the cardiovascular system. My arthritic right knee gave me distress. At the end of the afternoon, I retired to the museum where the cool air within the adobe walls provided a people watching respite.
Later that evening, we went to a movie theatre attached to the local shopping mall, where I read Spanish subtitles for an American adventure movie. It was half over before I realized that I only had to listen; the actors were, of course, speaking English. Habit is a strange travelling companion, but I did enjoy a delightful evening laughing aloud with the Mexican audience who found the foibles of Norte Americano gringos hilarious. A delightful awareness, a new experience “with subtitles” created a fine way to continue my Spanish language education.
On my final morning, the crowded, fragrant markets in central Oaxaca delighted all three of us. We wandered among the stalls where women rhythmically slapped out fresh tortillas that baked on the hot stone ovens lining the walkways. Fresh juice, churned from mangos, oranges and pineapples, filled the market with mouth-watering scents.
At my daughter's suggestion, I sat before the hot stone fires and munched delicious scrambled eggs, fresh vegetables and freshly baked tortillas washed down with piquant vegetable juice - a gourmet delight.
Birds of paradise
Winter lilies waiting to bloom
Sky peppered with billowy whites
Doors open; a new day beckons.
Frames blue, scarlet, yellow adobe walls.
DECEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND