Adventures in Oaxaca Pt. I

It’s 10:00 in Oaxaca as I write this, and Rachel and I are relaxing in bed in our hostel. If you want to be technical, yesterday was our first (nearly) full day in Mexico, as we landed in Mexico City before the sun was up, but given how much of the day was spent in planes, cabs, and buses, I’m feeling like quietly[ref]Well, okay, I’m not sure it counts as “quietly” if I spend a whole line disclaiming that…[/ref] discounting it. Today was our first full day, and already we’re adventuring.

Here are a few of our adventures thus far.

Lost (Briefly) in Mexico City

Before our departure, I was sure to call Sprint, where a helpful Customer Care Agent informed me that my phone would definitely work in Mexico. At least, that’s what I thought she told me. In hindsight, she may have been informing me of the available services–which, in Mexico, involve free 2G data roaming and free texts–but I took what she said to mean that I could simply take my phone to Mexico and count on it for occasional texting.

To be clear, I wasn’t hoping to spend my vacation sending ceaseless selfies to my friends back home, or maintaining a constant stream of SMS messages the way I might have in high school[ref]or as I occasionally do when I’m in the twitterpated throes of a crush[/ref]–the primary reason I wanted texting was to get ahold of Rachel. See, our flights to Mexico City diverged in Los Angeles, so she arrived not only on a different airline and at a different time than me, but in an entirely separate terminal, roughly 3km away from mine. When we parted ways in an airport diner in LAX, we agreed to “meet at Arrivals,” and said we’d text each other if we got lost.

When our wheels touched ground in Mexico City, I switched my phone on, and by the time we’d reached the gate, I’d discovered a disturbing fact: my phone definitely wasn’t working. No matter what settings I fiddled with, it wasn’t even connecting to a roaming network. And as I quickly realized, “Arrivals” is hardly a specific location when you’re talking about a major international airport.

I was in the second busiest airport in Latin America, in the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere, at 5:30 in the morning, and I couldn’t get ahold of the one person I was supposed to meet.

After clearing customs, with $40 and a paperweight cell phone in my pockets, I made a couple laps around the stretch of money exchanges and taxi stalls, feeling panic inch closer with every step. Should I look outside, where her taxi from the other terminal might arrive? Should I wander down to the much busier area for domestic arrivals? Should I convert some of my money to pesos and buy a few minutes at an internet terminal just so I could send her a message via Hangouts? My ideas were growing increasingly absurd in my desperation.

It was lap three or four when I heard “Spencer! Spencer!” from behind me, and turned to see Rachel. It was a stroke of luck, but we’d found each other… no thanks to our useless phones.

Riding Second Class

From Mexico City, we took a bus to Oaxaca, roughly eight hours away. We bought tickets for a “second-class” bus, which our guidebooks and earlier research had said was the budget-friendly option, though one missing luxuries such as air conditioning. For about $30 each, though, we were happy to make that concession. Our bus left at 8:15 or so in the morning, and very quickly, Rachel and I, having only slept three hours each in the last day, conked out.

We were awoken barely half an hour later. The bus had stopped at another terminal on the outskirts of the city, and more passengers were filing on–including a man carrying a sack that was, judging by the chirping and cheeping, filled with chicks. They weren’t the only people to make their way up and down our aisle, though; a number of vendors, including a man with the ringing voice of a carnival barker, hopped on board as well to hawk their wares. This, both the acquisition of new passengers and the visitation by vendors, turned out to be commonplace, and the bus sometimes stopped in locations significant for nothing more than the small crowd of potential passengers there.[ref]I kid you not. We stopped at least twice on the bare side of the highway simply because a half-dozen people were assembled.[/ref]

My memory of the bus ride comes in bits and bobs, since I was oscillating between sleep and wakefulness, but about an hour outside of Puebla, the bus–which had been keeping a consistent speed of what felt like 40mph–passed under an overpass and very promptly pulled over to the side. At first, I thought we were just picking up more passengers, but there was no one to be seen. Instead, the driver, and then his co-pilot as well, exited the bus with little explanation, leaving the dozen or two dozen of us passengers to sit in quiet confusion, sharing puzzled looks. From my seat, I could see both side-view mirrors, but apart from occasional glimpses of the co-pilot in states of undress–first in just his undershirt, and then entirely bare-chested–they provided no clear answers as to what was going on.

Eventually, someone got up to pee on the side of the road, and with that first trickle, the flow began. We streamed out of the bus to investigate. The engine compartments were open, the driver and his partner were alternating between poking around in the bus’s guts and making phone calls, and when someone finally asked what was happening, we were told, over the zoom of passing cars, that there was a problem with the radiator. This bus wasn’t going to Oaxaca.

A full hour after we first pulled over, a replacement bus finally arrived, and we, gratefully, hopped on. Our trip to Oaxaca had resumed.

…ten minutes later, we pulled over to rescue another stranded bus. Good thing we didn’t have a dinner date in Oaxaca.

Thunderstorms in Oaxaca

Rainstorm in Oaxacan hostel
Looking out into our hostel’s courtyard during the storm

When Rach and I sat down at a cafĂ© today on the corner of the central plaza in Oaxaca, I was wearing sunglasses and the waiter pulled a parasol over to our table. By the time we’d paid our lunch tab, however, I was glancing at the overcast sky through non-tinted lenses. We had hardly walked a block in the direction of our next destination when a wind picked up, gusting a nearby tablecloth to the cobblestone, followed promptly by a cacophonous thunderclap. Suddenly, it was–

–well, let me take a moment to talk terminology here. As a Pacific Northwest boy, I have a certain familiarity with inclement weather. I had one spring in high school where the sun never emerged once from its cloudy cocoon for three straight months. When I talk about rain, I think of a range of weather phenomena, from light spring drizzles to muggy summer thunderstorms, and nothing in my experience, save perhaps a Japanese typhoon, holds a candle to what hit us in Oaxaca after lunch today. It wasn’t so much rain as it was suddenly being underwater.

In the approximately 10 seconds it took for our clothes to become saturated, and without saying a word, we agreed on a new plan. Though we had been considering visiting a museum or two in the corners of town, we had one very simple new goal: RETURN TO THE HOSTEL.

So we ran down Oaxacan streets, past store owners watching knowingly from their dry shops, through the momentary patches of respite provided by street vendors’ parasols. We ran, nearly blinded by the rain, my hiking boots squelching with every step. We ran, and we ran, and we ran, the Oaxacan streets echoing with millions of raindrops, chased by thunderclaps that cracked and boomed and roared violence.

And once we had shed our dripping garments and were sitting damply on a bench in our hostel, we watched lightning lance across the sky, in awe and grinning.

Oaxacan sunset
Sunset from the roof of Hostal Cielo Rojo, where we are staying.