Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for November, 2012

“Well, if that is what matters, you aren’t doing it right”. So proclaimed the bright young money manager from Chicago with the absolutism of someone on the fresh side of 40. Those of us with more world experience, and ahem, a few more miles under the hood, know that very little in life is absolute.

However, since what was under discussion was the importance of a good hotel with an equally good bed, I chimed up with my own version of a universally acknowledged travel truth:

“Well it will certainly matter when you have spent the whole day walking the city and your feet ache, and if your bed is as hard and thin as a pauper’s coffin, the toilet breaks on first usage, and the pillows are like slabs of concrete mix. Not to mention a level of noise and mayhem outside your room that defies even earplugs meant for use around explosives!”

So yes grasshopper, it matters.

Of course, the nice young man and his pretty bride, the art consultant, had scored a coveted room at the Casa Oaxaca. According to Fodor’s, Casa Oaxaca is a place where “A trio of imaginative Europeans poured their hearts and souls into this chic B&B. Their house combines traditional materials like adobe and cantera stone with minimalist sensibilities. The result is a masterpiece where gleaming white colonnades lead you to your room.”

Sounds like a gem, and it is doubtful that he would have exchanged with us even if it apparently, did not matter to him. Much. (They were smart enough to book way, way ahead, almost a year in advance and so should you if you intend on visiting popular Oaxaca during a major festival or holiday)

Stunning Art Installation in Abandoned Villa

Admitting my bias, I may be considered a hotel snob. But since snob has such negative connotations, I will settle for aficionado. I like a good hotel. Even as the young man observed correctly, you don’t really spend that much waking time there, you are however, ensconced for at least 8 hours a day, or a third of your week or weekend. How does it make sense to spend time exploring a charming city, enjoying the cuisine, interesting art galleries and museums only to return to your charmless and uncomfortable room? How does that enhance your experience?

In fact, why would you pay to spend time in some place that is less comfortable, less accommodating, and less aesthetically appealing than your own home? Why not consider the hotel as integral part of your overall travel experience, and not just a place to hang your hat between tours. It need not be over the top luxury, but why not explore a modern hard-edged vibe in a hip boutique hotel, or a B&B in a restored mansion with over-stuffed chintz upholstery and sherry at 5? Sometimes, when you spend a little more, (and that is not always needed) you can significantly enhance your whole experience. And your poor abused back and feet will bounce back, ready for the next day of abuse.

Marigold: The Flower of Death

So against the background of all of my hard-won hotel wisdom, we gratefully took what was on offer, since we were so happy to get any room (see description above) during this very busy time in this very special city.

The Mexican Day of Dead ceremony, which really lasts about a week with its elaborate preparations, is a uniquely Mexican celebration, more dynamic than Easter or even Christmas. It reflects the Mexican’s attitude towards the transient nature of life and death, the deep importance of family, and the melding of pre-Hispanic religious practices and their adopted Roman Catholicism.

The dead are not honored or even remembered, as in our familiar traditions: in Mexico, they are welcomed, even enticed, back to their families, to take part with them in this special time. Much of the ceremony will be in private homes, where the favourite foods and drink of the departed are carefully arranged on offering altars. In the cemeteries, headstones are cleaned; food is shared among relatives and fondly remembered music played. It’s like the whole city is having a picnic, only that the guests of honour are, well, invisible.

Food is important to the Mexican culture and in the culinary capital that is Oaxaca, it is central to the celebration. Markets, stores and bakeries are sold out of special ingredients and products days before. Families have their own special mixtures for the ubiquitous hot chocolate and moles (complex cooking and finishing sauces, and there are 7 unique to this area) , and bring them to store fronts where only men grind them in large machines. City streets are strung with doily like paper skeletons of pink, yellow and orange, and most stores and hotels have their own beautifully decorated alters of food, candles and generous bouquets of yellow chrysanthemum, the flower of the dead. Offices are closed, and banks are shuttered.

A Modern Altar

Diners at the Cafe

At night, the party intensifies. Roving bicycle gangs circle the central square or Zoloca, blowing whistles and lights flashing. Groups of students burst into “spontaneous” dance numbers, moving in unison to some techno pop beat that reverberated through the central square. We sat and stretched out a few glasses of wine for hours, unwilling to give up our ringside seats, even as the temperature dropped. Our evening parade included every manner of beast, ghoul, witch, and vixen, including some that looked positively dangerous. I doubt that you could carry around a very real looking 12 ft long scythe in a public place in Ontario. Or that 5-year-old princesses would be running around the public gardens close to midnight.

We spend a day doing the tourist tour thing on the outskirts and then another doing a cooking class with a market tour. Both were valuable for an orientation, but Oaxaca deserves a closer, more attentive visit. There is some excellent food here, the wide boulevards (so unlike our narrow cobblestone streets here in San Miguel) are perfect for strolling, and there are many art galleries with some serious work on offer. We have decided to return when the pace is less frenetic and the volume turned down. And of course, when I can get a reservation at Casa Oaxaca!

“Puppy Posies” in the Mercado

Wide Oaxaca Avenue

Fresh Market Produce

Local Specialty: Fried Chile GrasshopperCandy Skulls

Alter in Hotel

 

 

A Colourful Cafe Altar

Natural Infinity Pool at edge of The Sierra Madres

Read Full Post »