Chisel Chips

Start walking, keep walking and don’t stop walking until you are full

One of Oaxaca's many murals.
One of Oaxaca’s many murals.

How can anyone experience anything of a place at the speed of auto-motion? Cars and buses are great for moving us from Point A to Point F and quickly past Points B, C, D and E. What do we know of the in-betweens after we arrive at F? “Who cares; we were going to F.”

Sometimes, if we have a broken wrist and F is he hospital, we don’t give a rat’s ass about B, C, D and E. Just get me to the doc.

That said, driving is no way to see anything much beyond the bumper of the car in front. In the place where I live (Oregon’s Columbia Gorge), I am generally so focused on the road, signage and other drivers that I seldom take in much of the scenery on either side.

On rare occasion — I’ve tried to do this more often — I will divert my gaze, left or right, and see something I have never seen before — in 15 years of regular passage. Sad.

That’s why, in explorer mode, I believe that we need to reject speed in favor of the pedestrian. Often used as a diminutive adjective, “pedestrian” needs rescue. Like “slow food,” “pedestrian travel” implies opportunity to meet the world at an engaging pace, eye to eye, by and by.

As my wife and I planned our two-month stay in Oaxaca, the largest city in the Mexican state of the same name, we committed to learning the city by walking. OK, I’ll admit that we read a guide book. But we promptly forgot almost everything we read of any particularity that would serve to get us from A to B.

A "hidden" (off the tourist map) mercado.
A “hidden” (off the tourist map) mercado.

As we approached our place, we started at the center, or by walking to the center first, then looping our way back out, as if describing the geometry of a clover leaf.

Occasionally, map in hand, we would pick a destination and move in its direction. Along the way, discovery, as well as at the destination, and along a different path home.

The other day, seven weeks into our stay, we rose to a blank slate. “Let’s just go to a place we haven’t been before,” my wife said.

“There’s nothing you want to see in particular?” I asked.

“Nope. Let’s just go>”

I picked a neighborhood through which we hadn’t yet walked.

Church under repair.
Church under repair.

As we left known territory and entered a part of the city beyond the edge of our free turista map, we worked around a crush of cars assembled to gather children leaving school, across a street from a huge panteon (essentially, a graveyard).

That’s when we heard the thwacking sound. No, not zombies escaping. A bit farther on, we came to the source — an older man and a youngish woman, behind chain link, alternately whaling the tar out of a rubber ball with what looked like tennis rackets, on a court that reminded me of a racketball court with only three sides.

We clung to the chain link fourth wall, and watched them play, smashing the ball maybe 30 yards to the front wall, waiting as the opponent chased the carom and returned it. Back and forth, consistently hitting it, consistently hitting the wall.

When they finished, I verbally applauded their energy and grace. I asked the man what the game was called. “Fon-ton,” he said.

magna_muralI Googled it later, and found a Wikipedia description of a sport called “Frontenis,” invented in Mexico in 1900, and played now in 18 countries. The description matched what we witnessed. It looked way cool, like a ton of fun, and I didn’t know it existed before we stumbled on it.

Into the adjoining neighborhood, we came across a public market we hadn’t yet explored. Similar to several others, it was bright, neat, clean and compact. Great for locals.

We next found a church, not that unusual in Oaxaca, but a bit dowdy, and new to us.

Across the street, an explosion of color, at a store selling cartoon character figurines (Snow White, anyone?) and pinatas.

A store full of fanciful figurines and pinatas -- a visual treat.
A store full of fanciful figurines and pinatas — a visual treat.

Down the road, another Chinese buffet (the town has tons of these places, but nowhere that we have discovered where you can sit down and scan a menu of a thousand items and select something other than modest variants on veggie stir-fry).

Working our way south, we came across what looked like a walkway but also might have been a road, which paralleled a drainage canal draining … well, let’s just call it dirty water.

Floral abundance.
Floral abundance.

The walls of the homes facing the canal, like many elsewhere in town, had been appropriated by artists of varying talent, for bright and engaging murals, at one end of the scale more graphic than good, and at the other, more indicative of talent deserving an audience greater than the few who strayed down this back alley.

As a car surprised us and proved the flexible use of the corridor, we came to a tree blooming with bright yellow flowers. It was one of many scattered around town. I have no idea the variety, but they are spectacular when you find them, a glorious cloud rising just above the concrete jumble and litter that mars a city of marvelous art, architecture, energy and warm spirit.

The footpath-street-canal led to a boulevard down the middle of which a bike path had replaced a trolley line (Avenida Ferrocarril). We took that route as a welcome alternative to sidewalks. In Oaxaca, sidewalks are an unruly affair, sometimes wide, sometimes missing, often tipped topsy by roots and free-form design additions, or interrupted by utility installations or driveway ramps.

Business buddies.
Business buddies.

They pass an often-discordant mix of tire repair shops, paint supply stores, beauty salons, office buildings and gymnasiums.

So the old rail bed, which was little used, put us beneath a canopy of trees and in between the traffic heading east and west.

After crossing a major boulevard, I realized that we had returned from the “great beyond (the part of the city on the tourist maps)” and back to the “centro.” A man stepped out from his repair shop when he saw us consulting our map, to ask if we needed help. We thanked him, but declined the offer.

“We’re fine,” we said. “Lost, but found.”

Even though we again knew our location, what lay ahead was still new, scrolling up more churches, crazy architecture, free-form integration of parks and parking, and more.

Playground with parking.
Playground with parking.

We kept walking, seeing, stopping, talking, absorbing the magical ordinariness of it all.


Very, very slowly, never once tempted to leave the sidewalk and join the people inside the cars, out in the congested streets, jostling to protect their fenders while missing abundance uncelebrated, wonders unimagined, revelations uninvited.

‘Doing nothing’ involves a whole lot of ‘something’

Is reading the paper while waiting for a customer considered "work," or doing nothing?
Is reading the paper while waiting for a customer considered “work,” or doing nothing?

Of all the tasks I’ve added to my plate in the last year, none has caused me more psychic disruption than the simple act of doing nothing. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by “doing nothing.” The whole idea is oxymoronic. If I’m doing nothing — if I have turned it into a task — then I am doing something, that is, nothing.

Even when I find myself in a place where I feel as if I have stepped over the line into a state of nothingness, I know it’s not really what it seems. It’s just that I have created a space where I can do that which I seldom allow myself the time or luxury of doing in my normal life.

Context is everything. Exploring this notion (which, ironically, drove me to this keyboard and the act of composition, thereby turning nothing into something) became possible only through the complex process of planning and embarking on a two-month winter break to Oaxaca, Mexico.

In the run-up to this event, my wife, Kathy, would tell people, “No, it’s not a vacation. It’s just a relocation of our life.”

My wife is a bit of a work-a-holic type. It’s so much easier to see this trait in others, but standing back from the mirror, I realized that I have a lot of that in me, as well. It just plays out in different ways.

Kathy likes a good project. Meetings, phone calls, objectives, Gantt charts and deadlines. Like me, she welcomes the “ask,” and has little ability to say “no.” As a result, we find ourselves running from one thing to another, many of them volunteer commitments, doing research, shooting off e-mails, meeting with vendors, exploring funding sources for a new culinary school project, juggling pet-care duties and calls to daughters and siblings, taking overnight trips to meet and talk about travel information at freeway rest stops, and on, and on, and on.

Where did this come from? Nature, or nurture? Our work histories suggest the power of patterning. We both worked for years in journalism, with deadlines and the frenetic cross-currents of sources and editors and readers. Then, to acknowledge my wife’s lifelong passion, we side-shifted – upshifting wasn’t humanly possible, and downshifting it definitely wasn’t – into the restaurant business for 10 years.

Deadlines and vendors and customers, oh, my.

Selling the restaurant might well have opened a time of leisure and quiet contemplation. Nope, not in our natures, nor in our nurture.

At a time when most people are contemplating retirement, we found ourselves so looking forward to time away, in southern Mexico, with a chance to disconnect from all we had heaped on our lives.

“What are you going to do in Mexico?” people would ask.

“Nothing,” I found myself saying.

And then I would contradict myself. I would talk about how I never give myself time to just sit down with a good book and read, diving in and swimming across the lake until I hit the other shore.

Or I would talk about exploring the art and architecture, the cuisine in the land of the seven moles, the source and substance of tequila’s mysterious cousin, mezcal.
I realized that I was not describing a time of nothing. I was describing a lot of something, but not the same things that occupied our domestic (that is, U.S.) lives.

In college, my good friend Dan and my brother Pete and I developed a shorthand to describe our pot smoking. We thought ourselves so clever, hanging out with my parents, chortling incessantly, probably reeking like ripe bongwater and speaking in code about “doing something different.”

Inhaling the fumes from a bag of bad weed would have been different for my parents, but not for us. For us, it was the usual, normal, what we did at 19 and 20.

When I read about Americans’ reluctance to use their full allotment of vacation time — Project Time Off reports that 41 percent would not use their full vacation allotment in 2014 — I wonder how many of them could qualify for membership in the “cult of busy.”

Many of them tell researchers that they fear losing their jobs, or appearing non-essential in their absence. Others talk about the pile of work that demands their constant engagement or a belief that the pile will only grow if they take a break.
And two-thirds say they hear “nothing, negative or mixed messages” from their bosses when it comes to taking a vacation.

I’ve got my doubts. I worked busy, stressful, demanding jobs my entire life, but I always relished and took my vacation time. It made me a better person, even if it allowed me only the luxury of falling asleep on a beach.

I suspect too many Americans drink from the same fountain, the one that pumps out a constant stream of applause for those who are “most busy.”

Ask any American casually how it’s going, and note how many times they answer, “Oh, really busy.”


“It’s insane.”

“Can’t keep up.”

Then watch them. Often times, the people who effect this image of overload appear, even at work, as if they are sedated. Moving in slow motion, they struggle to move through a world of puddling molasses. It takes them forever to do anything, and not that well.

My wife and I constantly find ourselves noting how so-and-so takes forever to do what either of us can — and do — accomplish in minutes or hours.

We think they are deficient, or crippled by some genetic lassitude.

We seldom stop to think that perhaps we are the broken ones, afflicted by the rigid grid of deadlines that overlay our lives’ work hours.

Take a break like ours to Mexico, and we tend, then, to approach unscheduled time with a near pathological rigor.

“What are we doing today?”

It seems a betrayal of the unwritten rule of travel productivity to even contemplate answering, “Nothing.”

Yes, on one hand, we want to relax and downshift, so why are we charging out the door again with packs and maps and guidebooks to tick off another list of “must-see” monuments, “must-eat” diners, “must-get” trinket markets?

I say I hate the congested 12-countries-in-a-week, hop-off-the-bus approach to travel. Then I find myself creating my own sanctimonious variant.

This morning, three weeks into our stay, I found myself relaxing into yet another online news journal, going to a literary magazine’s web site and reading a great story by Maile Meloy, putting it all away for some time with a Carl Hiaasen novel, wandering outside to shop from the back of the battered VW van driven by the gentle veggie vendor, improvising a workout device from buckets and a broom handle, and returning to my reads.

And, all the while, fighting to ignore the voice in the back of my head that wants me to believe it’s all a huge waste of time that could be better spent …

Doing what? Perhaps, as in the Seinfeld sitcom, joining friends at a coffee shop for a good session of active nothingness. The show, famously celebrated as “about nothing,” was really a show about small things, in short, the acts and irritants of daily life.

Getting lost in a parking garage.

Resisting the allure of masturbation.

Inventing a product that, on one level, makes so much sense, but on another makes no sense at all (the “Bro,” aka Mansierre, a bra for men with gynecomastia).

Take the minutiae of daily life, ponder and debate and recast them into scale much greater than their true import, and you, too, might create something from nothing.

Frankly, the process of pondering the essence of nothingness is driving me a bit nuts. Even so, it has taken several hours, much thought, and a lot of typing to reach this point, so nothing could be finer.

Collectivos, buses provide cheap transit path to rich Oaxaca experience

Dueling for passengers, an urban bus and a collectivo in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Dueling for passengers, an urban bus and a collectivo in Oaxaca, Mexico.

With three weeks remaining on our two-month stay in Oaxaca, I took a collectivo out to the airport yesterday.

“A what?” you ask.

It’s a local transit option, a little bit taxi, a little bit bus, and a whole lot more.

The driver asked me where I was going after I reached the airport, on the assumption that I must be flying.

Nope, I told him, just picking up a rental car.

As I spoke with him, it struck me that I was probably speaking heresy. In essence, I was telling him that I was graduating to a more preferable mode of transit than the mode that provided his livelihood.

To his credit, he didn’t take offense, jam on the brakes and dump me by the side of the road.

On the way back into town, in the air-conditioned comfort of the VW Jetta, I found myself a bit wistful. I had gained flexibility and independence, at the cost of all that comes with going slow, on foot and stop by stop on public transit.

Collectivos are a marvelous option. I wondered why something similar hadn’t migrated north to the United States.

I can speculate. Maybe we’re too rich. Or too independent (gotta have our own rides). Maybe we’re too dispersed; it’s a model that wouldn’t work in the wide open spaces of the American west (neither do Uber and Lyft). Or maybe it’s just too capital intensive for anyone to launch it against the tide of U.S. auto-fixation.

As Uber and Lyft gain traction in urban areas, they offer a stark contrast. The business model is far less costly than the collectivo model. Just enlist a bunch of people who already own cars, to provide rides for people who don’t.

In our first six weeks in Oaxaca, when we found it inconvenient to walk, we turned to buses or collectivos. Both really get the job done. For my money, the collectivos are the better option, especially for trips outside the central part of town.

Oaxaca has taxis, too, but they’re a bit spendier, and offer less adventure for that higher price.

Why would any traveler looking for a novel experience pass on using a collectivos? Fear, maybe, or a pathological embrace of the familiar. Silly people.

Now that I’ve sung the collectivos’ praises, it’s time I explained how they work. First of all, they look like taxis. They even have the light on top with black type that says taxi. There are similarities to taxis, to be sure, and a rider can book a collectivo to work like a taxi, at a higher fare. If you want to do that, just take a taxi.

In their difference from taxis lies the genius of the collectivo.

The best transportation in Oaxaca.
The best transportation in Oaxaca.

Unlike the Uber model, they are not owner-operated. A company owns and operates the collectivos, hires and pays the drivers. The vehicles are typically small, Asian sedans — think Nissan. They are painted red and white. And they run specific routes, like buses, as indicated by the signs on their windshields indicating where they go.

Their fare structure is still a bit of a mystery. We grabbed one to deliver my wife and me to a town — San Bartolo de Cuyotepec — about 10 kilometers outside Oaxaca. The driver charged us 80 pesos (roughly $4.80). For the return trip, we flagged down a ride with a bunch of other riders, and paid 20 pesos ($1.20). My ride to the airport, maybe five miles outside town, cost 10 pesos (60 cents).

Just remember this: If you want to cut costs, you should welcome the chance to share a collectivo.

Here’s how that works. The cars can hold six or seven people. It’s to the company’s benefit to cram as many in as possible — three in the front, and three or four (depending on how big) in the back.

The first rider to sit in front with the driver should prepare to scoot over onto the console and brake handle when another rider hops in front.

Comfy? No.

Functional? Si.

If you want a ride, you stand alongside the road and hold up fingers for number of passengers. A driver with space will honk as he approaches loading zones, and hold a hand out with fingers showing how many he can take on (one hand, five spaces max).

As you wait for a ride, you may be able to read the destination signs on the windshields of approaching vehicles. If not, just confirm the destination with any driver that stops.

Then jump in, and enjoy the ride. It’s good form to have small change on hand, rather than handing the driver a 500-peso note when you disembark.

Half the traffic on local roads seems to be collectivos. Clearly, they work, and people love them. But be forewarned: Drivers have an incentive to churn passengers. So the quicker they can get to a destination — especially one outside the city — the quicker they can off-load and replace passengers.

To accomplish this, drivers will sometimes drive like maniacs.

You may enjoy the thrill as they push the speed limit and stretch the width of the road to include non-existent passing lanes.

You may also see your life pass in front of your eyes.

One longtime local advised against using collectivos, out of regard for personal survival.

You can catch a collectivo ride along any major boulevard leaving or returning to town. The collectivos have a number of pickup zones, such as on Calle Bustamante south of the Zocalo.

Collectivos also congregate in swarms near the massive, teeming and chaotic Abastos market. Collectivos going north and east — to the Etlas, or toward Atzompa — queue up north of the market. Collectivos heading south — San Bartolo, airport — or east — Teotitlan, Tule, Tlacolula, Mitla — queue up to the south of the market.

The whole collectivo scene can be a bit dizzying, like watching a swarm of bees on the comb. Don’t let it scare you. Just jump in, ask simple destination questions (“San Bartolo? Si? Cuanto (How much)?”)

Taking a bus is the other, safer and somewhat less flexible option.

That, however, implies waiting for a bus that is stuck to a schedule. There are numerous bus options. A second-class bus station sits north of the Abastos (Central) public market. There is also another bus station on the south end of downtown, that serves more southerly cities such as Ocotlan and Miahuatlan.

If you want to go, and go now, a collectivo is your best bet.

That said, the in-city buses are cool, too. Many are very tired, spewing diesel exhaust, screeching brake pads at every stop. But they keep on trucking, and it’s a good way to go native.

Cost (winter 2016) is just 7 pesos (42 cents) for a ride to wherever they go. They also sport signs in the windshield to help you pick the right bus.

The problem with all that? You need to know the shorthand for the various neighborhoods (colonias) or major landmark destinations, like hospitals, and boulevards. Otherwise, the signs mean nothing.

Get a map — tourist office on Benito Juarez just west of Llano Park — and familiarize yourself with the neighborhood names. Thus educated, you can generally ensure arrival somewhere near where you actually want to go.

A willingness to walk is critical. Taxis will take you door to door. Buses and collectivos require a bit of hoofing.

If the bus turns away from your desired path — their routes can be a mystery, too — just stand up and get off at the first opportunity.

The bus is also a great way to give yourself a self-guided tour to … somewhere. I like serendipity when traveling. I veer away from landmark tourist magnets, and guided tours. I prefer to amble, and veer impulsively off course down side streets, alleys, up stairways and down cobblestone paths that serve residential areas.

Which is why, for a lark, I like to just hop on a bus and see where it goes. We did that the other day, with the goal of just going in circles. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The bus took us to a big public market, then stopped. The driver told us if we wanted to continue we had to get off and get on a bus that somehow had materialized right behind the first bus.

In the U.S., we would get a transfer ticket. Not here. We figured, what the hell, then got off, got on the other bus (the driver didn’t ask for money, which is their way of providing a transfer), and began a ride that took us way out of town and up a rambling dirt road to the back of beyond.

It stopped next to a bunch of other battered buses near a little lunch stand. We had to get off and wait until one of the other buses started up, and pay for a return trip to town.

It was a hard wait. As we slowed down, I could see a couple of dogs competing for a chance to mount another. A pathetic-looking dog met me as I stepped from the bus, its protruding ribs telling more than I wanted to hear.

The lot was full of mangy mutts, thin, sick, starving. Traveling in a poor country — where many of the people live little better than their dogs — is still painful for dog
lovers used to providing their own pets everything but a college education.

Kathy dispensed the leftovers from her lunch to the pack, and left crying.

We had no idea where we would go or what we would see when we got on the bus. It delivered us to something sad, far from a picture postcard and barking with more questions than answers.

And it only cost $1.68.

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