The 'burden of freedom'?

Oaxaca Weeks 11-16!!

Week 11

As I wrote in my last post six whole weeks ago, I've been having my toughest time since leaving London. Ups and downs of mental health don't necessarily have clear 'reasons', but I don't doubt for a second the contributions of three straight months of my own company (<24 hours/day), all the complex psychology of language-learning, plus the particular kind of befuddlement that only a complicated break-up can bestow. None of this is a reflection on Mexico or Oaxaca, which I'm increasingly smitten with. I'm grateful to the friends who made their availability known even when - characteristically - I mostly avoided being witnessed. Many of you know how it is with depression; you know the kinds of things that would help (like getting out of the house, sunshine, exercise, talking to friends, helping others), but you don't do them.

Overall, one might say I've been suffering from a nasty case of 'the burden of freedom' (Erich Fromm).

I was further destabilised by writing on Facebook about the widespread harm caused by heteronormativity (including compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy) as a key tenet of the structural oppression that is patriarchal/colonial hegemony, and having normally thoughtful folks not only attempt to deny this harm but also take side-swipes at me for calling attention to it. I'm still not exactly sure what happened there, but in the circumstances I'm not surprised it tipped me over the edge for a while! I have started to have useful follow-up conversations with peeps about this, and I'll probably write more about it when I'm feeling stronger.

In week 11 three good things happened:

  • I wrote a monologue about my American journey, received help from and Jacob to translate it accurately, then recorded it. I still need to memorise all the useful new phrases I learned.
  • I attended an outstanding concert of music for solo piano by Debussy.
  • Unbelievably, I went for my first walk since arriving in Oaxaca: up the steep hill behind my house, along the wooded ridge and down into the city centre where I encountered a load of dancing monsters; Oaxaca's world-famous Day of the Dead celebrations were warming up!

Week 12

I feel extremely lucky to have had Caroline here for the week of Day of the Dead. Without the motivation of her presence (not to mention her excellent company) there's not a chance I would have seen and done so much. Just some of the fantastic things we did were:

  • Sat in squares drinking Oaxaca coffee and watching the world - and umpteen bonkers processions - go by.
  • Observed chihuahuas dressed as witches, skeletons and pumpkins, and their proud owners.
  • Saw and smelt a lot of marigolds.
  • Consumed ceviche, tlayudas with tasajo, tongue tacos (not a euphemism), drinking-chocolate and lots of coffee.
  • Pondered whether tourists getting their faces painted is cultural appropriation and concluded that it probably is.
  • Experienced what Caroline named 'extreme downhill horse-riding' in the Sierra Norte.
  • Visited Monte Albán, the Photography Gallery (free) and the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures.
  • Rode our bikes a lot, including all the way out to Xoxo in the dark where we got chased by dogs before eventually finding the amazing cemetery.
  • Learned that getting the bus in Oaxaca is really easy and only costs 7 pesos.
  • Attended Oaxaca's first Muertos craft beer festival, where we ate a grasshopper pizza.
  • Put the world to rights.

Week 13

In week 13 I hosted a young French couple who amongst other things put me to shame for never having visited my neighbourhood market-hall.

Also that week there was a huge book festival. I attended a panel about 'The borders that unite us: Latin America in relation to itself' with young Bolivian writer Maximiliano Barrientos and Colombian Juan Cárdenas. Maybe some day I'll give their work a try.

In my conversation classes Jacob helped me translate my OKCupid profile. I feel very grateful to have found a Spanish teacher with whom I can discuss the kind of 'specialist vocabulary' my life requires!

Week 13 marked the midpoint of my 180 days in Mexico. I don't doubt the second half, being more action-packed, will go a lot faster. Probably too fast.

Week 14

At the end of week 13 Lisa arrived from Vancouver for what was essentially our fifth date. I probably don't say often enough how bowled over with gratitude I am that so many wonderful people travel so far to spend time with me. Spending two weeks (with Caroline and then Lisa) finally getting around to being a proper tourist in my own city brought me much-needed joy.

Just some of the fantastic things Lisa and I did were:

  • Drank London Pride from the local supermarket.
  • Watched 'Inside Out' via the extraordinary projector Lisa made from a shoe-box.
  • Visited Monte Albán, the (free) Textile Museum and the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures.
  • Went on a day tour to the Arbol del Tule, Teotitlan del Valle, Mitla, Hierve el Agua and a mezcal distillery. (I like mezcal but neither Caroline nor Lisa was keen.)
  • Consumed ceviche, vegetarian or vegan versions of various Oaxacan specialties, nieves ('snows'), craft beers from around Mexico, drinking-chocolate and lots of coffee.
  • Had a difficult but important conversation about our preferences and intentions for when our relationship changes or ends.
  • Walked around Oaxaca hand-in-hand, at which no one batted an eyelid.
  • Joined the Friday-night bike-ride round the city centre before checking out a local gay bar.

After accompanying Lisa to the airport very early on Sunday morning I headed home again by collective taxi (10 pesos) and bus (7 pesos) in time to watch her plane fly overhead with a lump in my throat. My sadness :-( was tempered by knowing she's coming to Mexico again in January :-)

Weeks 15 and 16

Hours after Lisa's departure I caught the first of four overnight buses in ten days. I'd strategically planned a really excellent trip away from Oaxaca in order to meet up with Gabe and Rob over in Mérida. It was wonderful to see the boyz, and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire jaunt.

Highlights included:

  • The different, more obviously indigenous atmosphere in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, especially the market.
  • Two evening film-screenings at a tiny, pro-Zapatista cinema, including thought-provoking 'Sleep Dealer'.
  • The fastest boat-ride I've ever experienced, along the stunning Sumidero Canyon.
  • The different-again, distinctly gentrifying, bigger-city atmosphere of Mérida, where I especially enjoyed the (free) contemporary art gallery.
  • Mooching about the city with Gabe, Rob and family, trying various (new to me) Mayan dishes.
  • Two nights in a cabin in the jungle near extraordinary Mayan archaeological site Palenque, where I was woken in the night by the sinister sound of howler monkeys.

Arriving back in Oaxaca at 9am on my fourth and final overnight bus I noticed I felt very 'happy to be home' and it struck me that I'm gradually starting to feel like myself again. I actually feel excited about some things I want to do in week 17 (my last full solo week in Oaxaca) and the many other things I have upcoming. My trip away also confirmed that it's Mexico - not just Oaxaca - I'm smitten with, for so many reasons. My friend Claire is currently cycling down the middle of Mexico towards me, and seems to be feeling much the same.

Yesterday I finally made it to my neighbourhood market-hall. It's fantastic and I feel completely ashamed I haven't been buying my fruit and veg there all along because I was avoiding having to ask for everything. Turns out you can self-serve fruit and veg! For £5.50 I got onions, potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes, a pepper, a broccoli, mushrooms, shelled peas, avocadoes, a bag of oranges, a bag of limes, ginger and coriander. I also got lunch for a pound and a massive guanabana juice for the same. The atmosphere was even calmer than in the more central markets. I find Mexico wonderfully calm in general, which I'm sure is the exact opposite of its reputation.

Before Claire arrives I'm intending to:

  • Publish this long-overdue blog post!
  • Skype with various neglected friends (had a fantastic conversation with Rachel yesterday; next up Anne, Kate and Jude!)
  • Meet and say farewell to my Oaxaca friends Ralfka and Magaly.
  • Visit the contemporary art gallery to see an exhibition about women who decide not to have children.
  • Head north and south out of Oaxaca on specific village market-days, and visit the Atzompa archaeological site I can see from my balcony but have never visited!
  • Submit my tax return.
  • Finally print my will and living will ready for witnessing.
  • Finish working through my Spanish textbook.
  • Get a check-up and some blood tests to try to figure out why my hair is falling out.
  • 'Test pack' all my panniers to see which of my Oaxaca acquisitions (jeans etc) I can actually take with me!

Looking ahead

I'm greatly looking forward to comparing Mexico stories with Claire when she arrives and doing some planning for our journey through Central America in Feb/March/April. (I haven't bike-toured for longer than ten days with anyone except Zoe. Claire is another experienced bike-tourer and much friendlier than me, so I'm particularly hoping some of her openness will rub off!)

I can hardly wait for the three-week, three-part visit of Adrian (the closest friend I've yet to have a chunk of time with since leaving London) to Oaxaca city, the Oaxaca coastline, and Mexico City.

As soon as Adrian leaves I will have to pack up and leave Oaxaca myself in order to get back across to Yucatán in time for the second coming of Lisa. After a week in Playa del Carmen I'll need to hotfoot it to the southern border before my visa runs out.

It'll probably take Claire and me 2-3 months to reach Panama City, from where we'll need to fly or take a boat to Cartagena in Colombia. Since I'm expecting to like Colombia a lot and also to want to invest more time in taking my Spanish to the next level, my latest, very rough medium-term 'plan' now looks like this:

Feb - Apr, Central America
mid Apr - mid July, first 90 days in Colombia
mid July - end Sept, trip back to the UK (via Vancouver if I can swing it)
Oct - Dec, second 90 days in Colombia

Jan - Feb, Ecuador (hopefully joined by BD here if not before)
Mar - May, Peru
Jun - Jul, Bolivia
Aug - Oct, Chile
Nov - Jan, Argentina

Feb - Apr, Uruguay

c. May 2020, head back to UK/ Europe for a bit!

During one of my two stints in Colombia I will probably base myself in one city.

So, who's coming to see me where and when?!

En fin, ¿cómo va mi español?

There's no doubt, I understand a lot of what I hear. On the rare occasions when I speak, I'm generally understood. I've covered most of the key grammar points theoretically. Before leaving Oaxaca my intention is to revise what I've learned here and plan my strategy for continuing to learn while I'm on the road, mostly by reading and listening. I'm pretty sure my time with Claire will put me into more conversational situations. By the time I reach Colombia I'm sure I'm going to be itching to improve my accuracy.

In general I don't think Spanish is a hard language. Verb forms are probably the hardest thing: 'Even without resorting to auxiliaries, which also are used, most verbs have more than 30 forms in contrast with the three of English.' Yeah. Also, nearly all the most common verbs are irregular.

Olly Richards says: 'Many perceived difficulties with Spanish grammar can be solved simply by reading a lot. When you see the grammar being used in a real context, it intuitively starts to make sense. I believe this is a much better way to learn grammar than trying to study it in an isolated way in a textbook... Treat reading as your main Spanish study each day.' I'm getting into Isabel Allende's 'La Casa de los Espíritus' and am starting to see why Olly is right about this.

I haven't got anything like as far as I imagined I would here in Oaxaca, but I'm still every bit as committed to fluency as I was when I arrived. Onwards!

Gracias por leer/ Thanks for reading