Finding a New Perspective on Adventure in Oaxaca

A couple returns to the Mexican city where they lived in their youth to see how it—and they—have changed.

Finding a New Perspective on Adventure in Oaxaca

Oaxaca City’s historic center received UNESCO World Heritage status due to its numerous Spanish colonial monuments.

Photo by Andy Richter

My wife and I got on a local bus like old times and headed away from the tourist center of Oaxaca, in search of the house we’d lived in 18 years ago, when we were young and adventurous and stupid and thought that living in the mountains of southern Mexico with a 20-year old Volvo was a good idea—an inspired one, in fact. In this house, we had been stung by multiple scorpions. We’d almost died from a gas leak. We’d spent a great deal of time on the roof, rearranging pipes from the well so we could take a shower. We’d been kept awake all night by a farmhand who liked to sneak into our garden at 2 a.m., shitfaced on mezcal, and howl at the moon.

Now, simply taking the local bus, instead of a taxi, counted as an adventure. It was the last day of our four-day visit to Oaxaca, and this was the only bus trip we had been on. We could afford to travel in style, which was partly why we’d returned after all these years: to see what it was about the place that loomed so powerfully in our minds. Was it the hardship we valued? Or Oaxaca itself? For so long we’d equated travel with a shock to bourgeois comfort, with bushwhacking our way clear of the Gringo Trail—getting drunk with pickpocketers in Mexico City, seeing dogs eat a dead body in Varanasi, India—and yet this idea struck us now as earnestly naïve, even morally dubious. Would we find Oaxaca as thrilling, now that there was no struggle involved?

Outside the bus window, at least if I ignored the Home Depot sign, was the Mexico I remembered: feral dogs limping along the side of the road; four men standing in the bed of a speeding pickup, holding on for dear life; rows of taquerías and farmacias and auto repair shops with their names handpainted on the front, letters accordioned at one end to make them fit.

The house we’d lived in had no address, or at least it didn’t back then. It was on a dirt road we shared with campesinos and cattle ranchers and, according to our landlord, one or two “gangsters.” Both of us remembered the road as being at the end of the bus line, so we got off at the last stop and hiked up the first dirt road we saw. A volcanic peak loomed in the distance, wearing a necklace of clouds. I was nervous. Our landlord used to bring firecrackers with him when he’d stop by, to scare the bloodthirstier dogs away, but we didn’t have any firecrackers. We had a money belt, our Lonely Planet guide, and two kids in Baltimore who needed us home the next day. The sun was hot, and we were the only gringos for miles. But we were determined to find the house we had lived in, the place where we’d spent six months of our youth.

A young man's hat casts a shadow at the Lienzo Charro of Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca.

A young man’s hat casts a shadow at the Lienzo Charro of Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca.

Photo by Andy Richter

What do Americans who can afford to seek it out even mean by “adventure”? For those of us who’d rather drive across a bridge than dive off it, we usually mean travel, of the low-budget and slightly sketchy variety. There should be discomfort, and venomous critters previously only seen in zoos, and some kind of poignant reminder of the luxuries we take for granted. This notion of adventure was why Katharine and I had decided, at the tender age of 27, to move to Mexico on a whim. We were still young and wanted to prove it. Also, it was supposed to be cheap. One of our professors in grad school had spent time in Oaxaca, and her passionate endorsement of the city had made it seem like Valhalla. Just the way she pronounced “Oaxaca,” all wind and rhythm, was enough to convince us.

So we had packed our earthly belongings into our ancient Volvo wagon and set off for Mexico. We had little money and even less Spanish. No sooner had we crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona, than an 18-wheeler deliberately drove us off the road, sending us into a ditch. By the time we got to Oaxaca City, we’d been robbed by the police; our car windows had been smashed, twice, and all our camping gear stolen; and Katharine had lost so much weight from a food-borne illness that she resembled a Day of the Dead skeleton. We hadn’t expected to live in the mountains, but as soon as the Oaxacan lawyer who would become our landlord drove us up to his farmhouse and showed us the green hills and banana trees and brick-columned portico with a hammock overlooking the garden, we were smitten.

We could afford to travel in style, which was partly why we’d returned after all these years: to see what it was about the place that loomed so powerfully in our minds.

The closest neighbors, some Zapotecs who spoke less Spanish than we did, were astonished that we wanted to live there. But we loved our Mexican idyll, partly because we had the privilege of knowing it was temporary. We loved having to buy our own propane, walking up the trail every morning to unclog the well, even braving rabies every time we wanted to grab the bus into town. There was the sense—whether it was true or not—that we were skirting disaster.

Now, 18 years later, we’d left the kids at home and embarked on a very different trip to Mexico. Nobody in his right mind would call it an adventure. We’d booked the nicest place we could find in Oaxaca City, expensive by Mexican standards but less than you might pay to stay in a closet-size room in Manhattan. This was the master suite at Casa Oaxaca, a 17th-century manor that’s been converted into a boutique hotel. Turns out it wasn’t a room at all but a house: two floors, with marble bathrooms, paintings on the walls, and a fairy-tale staircase swooping up to the bedroom, which overlooked a serene swimming pool. Bougainvillea curtained the windows. The showers were marble, and while washing myself with the brass sprayer after our long flight from Baltimore, it never occurred to me to worry about a scorpion climbing out of the drain to sting me, which had happened in our old house and made me shower-phobic for a month.

“We could never come here with Clem,” Katharine said, referring to our five-year-old.


“Look! The staircase would kill him.”

It was true: no railing. This was our idea of danger now, a stairway without a banister. Afterward, we walked around town for a while, reacquainting ourselves with our old stomping grounds. When we’d lived here, we’d both taught English in the city—making about two dollars an hour—but even on our days off we generally made the trip down from the hills to pick up our mail or visit the one Internet café in town, or simply to walk around the historic cobblestone streets together, feeling the grandiose buzz of being in love in a beautiful place.

A traditional Día de los Muertos altar in San Agustín Etla, Oaxaca.

A traditional Día de los Muertos altar in San Agustín Etla, Oaxaca.

Photo by Andy Richter

If anything, on this trip the city seemed even more glamorous than I remembered. The crumbling buildings painted like Easter eggs; the boy buskers playing accordion; the checkered domes of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo floating against a backdrop of scudding clouds. Some things I’d completely forgotten about. The view up Calle Alcalá, for example, the mountains rearing from the cobblestones as if you could hopscotch up to them and jump right over. I had the feeling that Katharine and I were the only things that had aged. It was the closest I’d ever come to time travel.

And there were less romantic things that gave me déjà-vu, too, like the fact that we kept referring to our guidebook as if it were the Bible, as in “Can I see The Book again for a sec?” or the shame and self-consciousness of pulling it out in the middle of a crowded sidewalk to look something up. (There should be a German word—lonelyplanetenschande—for this feeling.) Still, it was less mortifying than I remembered; in fact, the shame had completely evaporated by the second or third time we yanked out The Book. When had I become a Bright and Shiny Tourist?

As Bright and Shiny Tourists tend to do, we went to the nicest restaurant in town. We sat outside on a lovely roof terrace, overlooking the cupolas of the cathedral. A bored-looking waiter made salsa at our table, crushing raw vegetables with a mortar and pestle, and we reminisced about having to soak all our vegetables in iodine every time we wanted a salad.

We dined on things we couldn’t have dreamed of affording in our 20s: duck taquitos, rabbit in mole amarillo, grilled octopus with risotto. It was all very good, or mostly very good, but I couldn’t help thinking, as I drankmy “mezcaltini,” that the chicken mole we used to get at a place called El Biche Pobre II was better. It cost about 10 pesos, and you could see a mechanic working on cars from the window. Certainly eating there was more fun. Near the end of our expensive meal, some revelers congregated in the plaza below us to sing a song—dancing skeletons, a Catherine wheel shooting sparks—but we were stuck up on the roof, waiting for our bill.

We went back to our beautiful hotel room, where there was complimentary wine chilling in the fridge. I thought about the ritual we used to perform every night before bed, squashing all the mosquitoes we could find on the walls, many of them fat with our own blood, so that after a month it looked like we’d done a hack job of butchering something. As challenging as our life sometimes was back then, I missed it. In fact, it was probably the worst parts I felt most nostalgic for. I remembered the wildfire that nearly burned down our house, how we’d come home one afternoon to find our back fence ablaze and the neighbors lined up with buckets, trying unsuccessfully to douse the flames. It had been terrifying at the time, and then infuriating—the firefighters who eventually showed up to put out the fire ended up stealing our propane tank—but now the drama of that day seemed exciting and colorful, something that made our lives memorable. It gave our past meaning—gave it, I guess you’d say, a plot. I had to wonder, lying in our private suite overlooking a moonlit pool, what Mexico would mean to me if we’d lived in a place like this. What would I have written in my journal? Another mosquito-less night, and we slept like babies.

Had this happened when we were younger? Did we chalk it up, eagerly, to “experience”?

The next morning, when I opened the door, nothing was on fire. We had a delicious breakfast outside in the hotel’s courtyard—our coffees had tiny flowers and chocolate-covered espresso beans artfully arranged on the saucer—then took a taxi to Monte Albán, one of the more spectacular ruins in Mexico. We’d had to take a bus the first time we’d gone there, stranding ourselves for hours, but this time we were able to pay the taxi driver to stick around while we toured the place.

It’s a breathtaking site, first settled by ancient Zapotecs around 500 b.c.e., and the huge vacant plaza with its temples and ball court and Olmec-style carvings had a weird effect on me. Certainly I was moved in a way I hadn’t been at 27. I was particularly struck by the danzantes: carvings of disemboweled enemies contorted in pain and spraying cheerful spurts of blood. And of course it was hard to look at the displayed skulls of young children, possibly decapitated and offered up to the gods, without thinking of my own kids.

On the way back to the city we stopped at the Central de Abastos, the enormous market where we used to buy eggs and flowers and avocados. It was just as I remembered it. There were pieces of meat thin enough to see through, hung up like laundry; heirloom tomatoes so cheap and beautiful they’d make Whole Foods customers weep; bowls of live worms and sheep heads covered in flies; and Zapotec women scraping the spines off cacti as if they were whittling sticks. Nearby, an old woman was selling chapulines—fried grasshoppers— and I took a free sample, remembering what a big deal it was when I’d first tried them 18 years ago. I’d had to pull off the legs first, and even then it took me a while to work up the courage. Now, maybe because I’m older and better traveled, or because we live in an era of ho-hum nose-to-tail eating, I popped the thing right into my mouth. It was crunchy, and about as adventurous-seeming as a Dorito.

The next day, Katharine and I strolled down to the zócalo to do one of our favorite things, which was to drink micheladas at a café on the plaza and people-watch. We used to blow entire afternoons that way, reading books together or planning our next bus trip or eating free peanuts so we wouldn’t have to buy dinner. As always, the place was thronged with people. There were vendors holding so many balloons they looked like they might lift up and float away; shoe shiners bent over irredeemable shoes; indigenous women selling yellow hats shaped like the Minions from Despicable Me. Katharine and I sat outside at one of our old haunts and ordered drinks.

We were immediately bombarded. Tapestries, wooden salad spoons, a little comb for my beard—the peddlers wouldn’t take no for an answer. A little girl, maybe three years old, stood by our table with her hand out. “¿Un regalo de un peso?” she said, over and over again, but as much as we wanted to, we didn’t dare give her anything for fear of what would descend upon us if we did.

Locals dance in the Zócalo in Oaxaca City.

Locals dance in the Zócalo in Oaxaca City.

Photo by Andy Richter

Had this happened when we were younger? Did we chalk it up, eagerly, to “experience”? In any case, we felt way too sad and besieged and guilty to enjoy our beers. It made the “broke” adventure of our youth—our living on a few dollars a day in somebody’s farmhouse—seem absurd. Or worse: like exploitation.

That night happened to be the 20th anniversary of our first date, and so we decided to go to the same restaurant we’d gone for our second anniversary, an Italian place near Santo Domingo that, amazingly, was still in business. This had been our splurge restaurant. The owner was out of town, so we couldn’t reminisce with him, which was just as well, given that it was now the sort of place with pictures of the Coliseum and the Platonic ideal of a plate of spaghetti (labeled SPAGHETTI) on the wall. In our quaint memory of the place, spaghetti porn had played no part.

Halfway through our meal, an American couple came in and took a table in the corner, where they ordered some mezcal. They were tan and attractive and had that force field of invincibility that young couples in love have.

“We weren’t that young when we lived here, were we?” Katharine whispered.

“Maybe younger,” I said.

The young woman stole a glance at us, as if she’d overheard us whispering, but she didn’t seem to care much. I sensed they were a bit embarrassed by us, the middle-aged couple with eroded Spanish, who’d invaded their Hemingwayesque fantasy of bohemian travel. We might as well have been aliens. That was the real story: They couldn’t imagine being us, and we couldn’t imagine being them.

As U.S. travelers—or at least as privileged ones—we’re supposed to equate adventure with the craziest, most challenging things that have happened to us. But are these really the most adventurous things we’ve done?

As we walked home, that kind of magical Oaxacan thing happened, too perfect to be real, which is that an enormous parade celebrating some saint or holiday came out of nowhere and we weren’t on the roof of a fancy restaurant and so we were suddenly swept along with it, half willingly, feeling drunker than we were. It was a Wednesday night. There were children on stilts, and giant spinning puppets that dancers immune to dizziness propped on their shoulders, and women twirling their skirts in a choreographed way with baskets on their heads. A man, staggering, handed out cups of mezcal to the crowd. We walked for blocks and blocks, tugged along by the crazy energy of it, knowing we could sleep in the next morning.

Instead I woke up at 4 a.m., feeling like the old lady who’d swallowed a horse. I spent the next few hours on the toilet. It seemed too neat an irony that the one restaurant from our youth—the one we’d returned to hoping to relive a bit of our past—had made me sick. Enthroned in that beautiful bathroom, about as far removed as you could imagine from the other Mexican bathrooms where I’d spent turista-crippled nights, I had plenty of time to ponder the meaning of experience.

As U.S. travelers—or at least as privileged ones—we’re supposed to equate adventure with the craziest, most challenging things that have happened to us: that time we got driven off the road, or were bitten by a howler monkey, or almost fell into a crevasse. But are these really the most adventurous things we’ve done? I can only speak for myself, but having kids and raising them is the hardest thing I’ve done by a mile, and probably the craziest, too. When I think about our life in Oaxaca, I’ve tended to think about how intrepid we were, as if intrepidness were some special province of the young. But it’s easy to forget how terrified we were too: not about whether scorpions were hiding in our shoes, but of growing up, of failure, of making a life together somehow when we returned to the States. Living in Mexico, dodging a few savage dogs, was kid stuff.

A man sits behind the wheel in traffic during rush hour in Oaxaca City.

A man sits behind the wheel in traffic during rush hour in Oaxaca City.

Photo by Andy Richter

Later, when I was feeling a bit better, Katharine and I got on that bus to the mountains and hiked up the dirt road to look for our old house. Despite some new development, the neighborhood was still a far cry from Oaxaca City and its picturesque courtyards. The road was lined with homes we didn’t recognize, fenced off by chicken wire or barely visible behind rusty sheets of corrugated tin. One of them had a three-wheeled mototaxi with a flat tire parked out front. Roosters were crowing, just as they used to, and the few people we saw stared at us from their yards. We had stepped off the Gringo Trail. I couldn’t help feeling like we’d taken a bus to the end of the line and wandered into a dream. Where were the vicious dogs? The banana trees? Our porch with the hammock? It was hot, and I was thirsty, and we hadn’t brought enough water. Katharine and I walked all the way to the mountains. I wondered whether you seek adventure when you’re young because you’re still trying to make a plot out of your life, to shape it into a story, and then you reach an age when life begins to tell the story for you. We tried a different dirt road, then another, before we stumbled upon a house, hidden behind a high new fence, that looked like it might be the right one. Katharine climbed the front gate and peered over it. But the place wasn’t ours anymore, if it ever had been.

>> Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Oaxaca

Besides Last Day on Earth, Eric Puchner is the author of the story collection Music Through the Floor, a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and the novel Model Home, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and won a California Book Award. His short stories and personal essays have appeared in GQ, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. He has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2015 he was awarded the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize, given annually to writers “of proven excellence in poetry or prose.” An assistant professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Baltimore with his wife, the novelist Katharine Noel, and their two children.
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