Oaxaca: learning Spanish and so much more!

posted in: Oaxaca 2024 | 1

I’ve spent the last two weeks in Oaxaca. My main purpose in coming here was to study Spanish. I enrolled in the Spanish Immersion School for 5 hours of lessons each day, Monday through Friday. The other reason for visiting Oaxaca was to visit Oaxaca! Famous for great food and for being a delightful city, this was my opportunity to find out for myself. I’ll give you my verdict at the end of this post. 

I took lots of photos. You can check out the entire bunch, or just browse my top 50.

Domingo 18 de febrero

I arrived at Oaxaca’s small international airport on a direct flight from GDL. At the taxi kiosk, they offered the option of a private taxi for a ridiculous price or a shared van for a reasonable price. I went with reasonable. The van was jam packed, and of course I was the last one dropped off.

My Airbnb was perfectly located in the heart of the centro. Over the next two weeks, I was able to walk everywhere I wanted to go in five or ten minutes. The only downside was that the street noise was horrendous. At least three nights there was very loud music well past midnight.

For my first dinner I wanted to try one of the local specialties I’d been reading about. I ate at Tlayudas “El Negro.” This was a great choice! I’d describe a tlayuda as a crispy quesadilla. I had it with costilla (pork ribs) and it was a winner!

After dinner I walked to the Zócalo. This delightful plaza was a beehive of activity. I came back here several times over the next two weeks, and there was usually live music and dancing.

Lunes 19 de febrero

Today I started classes. My morning instructor was Juan José, and my afternoon instructor was Miguel. (Pictures up top.) I had 2 1/2 hours each with an hour break in between. The classes were a combination of conversation and lessons on grammar and vocabulary. Conversing in Spanish requires so much careful concentration! At times I would forget to stay attentive and completely miss what they were saying. But they seemed to pick up on that and then switch gears and go more into a lesson. Already in the first day there was so much content!

Today I learned:

  • All the irregular verb forms for the present tense.
  • Verbos efecto (me gustan las películas, me agradan mis amigos, me dan asco las cucarachas)
  • The difference between me gustaría and quisiera (I’ve often gone to the bank and said to the teller, Quisiera retirar trenta mil pesos, or whatever the amount. Oh, how wrong this was!)
  • Debería (I should) and podría (I could)
  • Veo a mi amigo y veo un árbol. (The “a” is required when you see a person but not when you see a thing.)

After class I came back to my Airbnb and typed up my notes from class before I forget everything I learned. Then I went for a walk and visited Templo de Santo Domingo and the Xochimilco neigborhood. Santo Domingo is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. The interior is a spectacle in gold.

The Rosary Chapel
This acqueduct in the Xochimilco neighborhood dates from the 18th century and brought fresh water from the hillsides to the city center. It was replaced with a more modern system in 1940.

Martes 20 de febrero

Another morning with Juan José and afternoon with Miguel.

Today’s learnings were mostly review and practice of things I already know: reflexive verbs, demonstrative pronouns and adjectives, and positional prepositions.

One strange and confusing thing I learned today and still not sure I understand involves the use of traer and llevar (to bring and to take away).

If you’re at home and you want someone to deliver water to your house, you say, “¿Podrías traer agua a mi casa, por favor?” But if you’re not at home, you say, “¿Podrías llevar agua a mi casa, por favor?

Okay, this makes sense, I guess. But here’s a more confusing example. You can use these to describe what you’re wearing if you’re meeting someone.

You’re at home, and going to meet someone at the park. You’re on the phone with them. You say, “Llevo pantalón café y playera azul.” When you get to the park, you call them again, and they don’t see you. You say, “Traigo pantalón café y playera azul.

At 5pm I joined the local free walking tour. It was a pretty high level overview, but the guide was nice and the group was small (just five of us), so I enjoyed it.

Tomorrow my schedule is changed; I have the morning free, and my usual afternoon class with Miguel will start at 12:30, but then I will have class with Juan José starting at 4:30.

Miercoles 21 de febrero

Today I didn’t have as much formal learning. Juan José had a conflict in the morning, so I took advantage of the coolest part of the day to go for a walk, visiting the beautiful Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and the Auditorio Guelaguetza on a hill overlooking the city. Then Miguel and I went for a walk, so our entire class was devoted to conversation (with some snacks thrown in).

Instituto de Ciencias y Artes de Oaxaca, opened in 1827 at this location. Two Mexican presidents, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz (both of whom were born in Oaxaca), studied here.
Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad
Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. I like the angels holding up the chandeliers.
View of Oaxaca from Auditorio Guelaguetza
Miguel took me to Pan con Madre, a cafe with an array of irresistable pastries. We had garritas (little bear claws). Oh so good!

My class with Juan José was rescheduled for later afternoon, and we reviewed reflexive verbs in the present tense and then had a long conversation about culture, classism, and racism. I learned about “No Sabo Kids,” children of Mexicans born in the US who learn a bastardized form of Spanish. (They’re called “No Sabo Kids” because instead of saying “No se,” they conjugate saber as if it were a regular verb.) Also learned about gabachos y gabachas, a derogatory term similar to gringo/gringa. We also talked about different kinds of tacos. Neither Juan José nor Miguel had ever heard of tacos de carnaza, a very popular filling in Jalisco. I would feel sorry for them, because carnaza is delicious, but they have too many other fabulous foods in Oaxaca.

Jueves 22 de febrero

Today’s Spanish lessons were mostly review and practice, but although I was familiar with the topics, I don’t have much experience using them, so it was challenging.

With Juan José this morning, we studied pretérito. Pretérito (simple past tense) is used in Spanish for actions that started and ended at discrete times in the past. In English, we use the simple past tense for these actions but also for actions that continued over unspecified times in the past. For example, “Last week I took my car to the mechanic,” and also, “When I was young I took piano lessons.” In Spanish pretérito is only used for the first example, and imperfecto is used for continuous or continual actions. (I haven’t learned imperfecto yet. Nor subjunctive, Abby Bergman…)

Pretérito is not difficult to learn, but there are many irregular verbs, and some verbs that are regular in the present are irregular in pretérito, and vice versa. I’m really struggling to learn all the irregular verbs. I think rote memorization, along with lots of practice, is the only way to do this.

With Miguel this afternoon I worked on objectos directos and pronombres directos. This is not difficult, but again, it’s a matter of practice.

This fellow was watching over my shoulder during my lesson this afternoon. Based on the ruckus he was making, I don’t think he thought to much of my efforts.

Oh, and Juan José took me for tacos this morning at his favorite street stand.

Tacos del Carmen
One taco de champiñones and one de chorizo. These don’t really resemble to tacos I’m used to!

For dinner tonight I ate at El Origen. This was on many lists I found of the best restaurants in Oaxaca. It lived up to its reputation.

Viernes 23 de febrero

La mañana al mercado

This morning Juan José taught me the expression, “Hoy es viernes, y el cuerpo lo sabe.” There’s even a song.

Friday mornings at the Spanish Immersion School are reserved for an outing to Mercado de Abastos (also known as Central de Abastos), the largest market in Oaxaca. There we had breakfast at the famous Memelas Doña Vale, which is the second place I’ve eaten here that’s been featured on the Netflix show “Street Food.”

I had two memelas, one with a fried egg and one with costilla. And a chocolate (made with water, not milk).

Of course, our field trip was an opportunity to practice and learn new Spanish words and phrases, plus we discovered some of the local items that are made and sold here.

La tarde

In the afternoon, Miguel and I had a long conversation (en español, por supuesto) about all of my travels. He was fascinated by my descriptions of some of the places I’ve visited, and then we got to talking about the cost of my trips and how can I afford it. I told him about how I bought my house in Seattle in 1999 and sold it in 2019 and how much it had appreciated in twenty years and how that made it possible to retire in Mexico and do all the traveling I do. I think I blew his mind.

Then we reviewed objectos directos and pronombres directos, and we did a short lesson on presente progresivo (for example, estoy estudiando español) with pronombres directos (estoy estudiandolo ‑OR- lo estoy estudiando). So far so good.

Then he gave me some exercises with pronoun + verb + direct object (and some of the verbs were verbos efectos, which don’t take directo object). For example:

nosotros | lavarse | nuestras caras

which would become

Nosotros nos las lavamos.

And then there was this:

ella | enojar | tener que | comprar cosas innecesarias

And here’s when I was like, “Hoy es viernes y mi menta lo sabe.” I said I would take it home for mi tarea.

La noche

There was more music at the Zócalo tonight with lots of folks dancing. If you haven’t looked at my album yet, you really should! The videos are fun and illustrate the joy of Mexican life better than I can.

Sábado 24 de febrero

I did a food tour with Culinary Backstreets. There were seven of us on the tour, me plus a group of six friends who came down here from the US to celebrate a birthday. Our guide was Jalil. 

I love food tours because you burn (or can pretend you burn) all the calories you consume while you’re moving from place to place. I previously took a food tour with Culinary Backstreets in Istanbul. They do excellent itineraries, and there are few places in the world with better food than Istanbul and Oaxaca.

This is all of us at the last stop on our tour. You can probably guess which one is Jalil.

Afterwards I came back to my apartment to rest, and then I went out to the Zócalo where there were some fantastic dance performances going on. Most of the other nights the dancing was just by regular people enjoying the music, but tonight it was intricately costumed men and boys. (Videos in my album.)

Domingo 25 de febrero

Today I took a full-day tour outside the city. The first stop was Monte Albán, one of the earliest cities of any Mesoamerican culture. Monte Albán thrived as the center of Zapotec culture for about 1000 years, between roughly 500 BCE and 500 CE. Unfortunately, the tour was in Spanish. I had signed up for an English language tour, but they put me in with a group of Mexican nationals. A part of me was glad for the opportunity to push myself and advance my Spanish learning, but I probably understood only about 10% of what the guide was saying. But it was impressive to see, and there were some informational signs in English (also in Spanish and Zapoteca), so I figured out some stuff.

The other stops in the tour were a mezcal tasting, a visit to one of the black pottery makers in San Bartolo Coyotepec, a visit to a place where they make alebrijes in San Martín Tilcajete, and a visit to a place where they do traditional weaving in Santo Tomas Jalieza. We got some nice demonstrations of the crafts, but they were all pretty much commercials with ample opportunity to spend money, and since it was all in Spanish, I struggled to keep up. So overall, today was disappointing and too long of a day, including a lot of time in the sun.

An alebrije (spirit animal). Many intricate carvings like this are custom made for families, combining the spirit animals of each family member. Some of the most elaborate ones were selling for tens of thousands of pesos.

Lunes 26 de febrero

Today’s Spanish lessons:

Juan José had a family matter to deal with this morning, so I had a substitute, Norma. She did some review with me and then introduced me to the imperfecto. There are two version of the past tense in Spanish (well actually there are other compound forms). The pretérito is used for actions that started and ended at discrete points in the past, things that happened at a specific time or for a specific number of times, or to describe things that no longer exist.

Ayer visité tres museos.

Guadalupe Victoria fue el primer presidente de México.

Imperfecto is used for actions, routines, and habits that were ongoing, without specific starting and stopping times. If in English you would say you used to do something, you would use the imperfecto in Spanish.

Cuando era joven, me gustaba ir a la playa.

Ayer hizo mucho calor.

Quería un carro nuevo, pero no tenía dinero.

In the afternoon, with Miguel, we had a long conversation about favorite foods. Then we went over direct and indirect objects and pronouns.

¿Dijiste la noticia a ellos?

Sí, se la dijo.

¿Pudiste comprar zapatos para tu hija?

Sí, pude comprárselos.

I hope you don’t mind my giving a lesson here. It’s mostly review for my own sake.

Tonight I had dinner at El Destilado. It was so good I had to write about it in its own blog post.

Martes 27 de febrero

Juan José reviewed imperfecto with me. We didn’t really cover anything new. But there’s always a lot of conversation practice in every class.

Miguel introduced presente perfecto. This is actually the easiest tense so far. If you know your English grammar, you know that the present perfect consists of the present tense of “have” plus the past participle of the verb. It’s exactly the same in Spanish, except the verb is haber, which isn’t really used for anything else. There are just a dozen or so verbs that have an irregular form for the past participle. The rest are easy peasy, as Miguel likes to say.

He visitado catorce estados Mexicanos.

Ella ha comido tres veces en este restaurante.

Nosotros ya no hemos abierto todos los regalos.

After class I came back to my Airbnb and had dinner at the pizzeria downstairs. I didn’t go out at all. I just did my homework and just tried to relax and sleep.

Miercoles 28 de febrero

La mañana

Today with both Juan José and Miguel I did a lot of review via conversation and comprensión lectora, reading and identifying the correct use of the three forms of past tense I’ve learned. There were some exercises where I had to fill in blanks with the correct form of the verb provided. Even though I know the rules about when to use pretérito and when to use imperfecto, it’s not always straightforward.

Some of the stories I read have to do with famous legends, both oaxaqueño and mexicano. La Princesa Donají is a well-known legend in Oaxaca, the local version of Romeo and Juliet. La Leyenda del León y el Grillo tells the story of how the cricket outsmarted the lion and became the hero of animals, birds, and insects in Mexico. You know it’s just a legend because there aren’t actually any lions in Mexico. And the most famous legend of all is a story I’ve heard before, about Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. This one isn’t so much a legend as a part of Mexican history, because, as I understand it, Juan Diego was a real person who was born in 1474. If you Google it, you can read all about him and what happened to him in December 1531.

My favorite story today wasn’t a legend. It was the story of chocolate! Of course, it’s much better to eat chocolate than to read about it.

Oh, and this morning I was locked in the building! Normally the deadbolt is never engaged, but this morning it was, and my key wouldn’t turn in the lock. I sent a message to the owner of my apartment, and he came pretty quick, but his key wasn’t working either. Finally we got the door open by disengaging the thing that holds it in place in a hole in the floor. I don’t know what you call that thing. He messaged me later that the lock was fixed.

La tarde

This afternoon after class I visited the Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México. What an amazing collection! I’m not a fan of museums that present cultural artifacts. But this was a collection of art of the period roughly from 500 BCE to 1500 CE. It would turn out to be my favorite museum in Oaxaca. Here’s just a small sampling. But this would be a good time to take a break from reading and see them all. I made an album just of the work I especially admired in this museum.

Look at the expression on this fellow’s face!
These were quite small, just a few inches high. The level of detail is so impressive.

Jueves 29 de febrero

Today’s Spanish classes were mostly more review. With Juan José I read some more stories: Ricitos de Oro y los 3 Osos, and Caperucita Roja. I had to fill in the verbs with the correct tenses.

Miguel and I went to Café Boca del Monte for our lesson. The rooftop deck had a great view and a pleasant breeze. 

We talked about economics. He told me about the awful salaries in Mexico (public school teachers make less money than delivery drivers or their helpers) and I shared some stories about the joys and pains of growing older. (Envejecer apesta, pero es mejor que la alternativa.) Then he taught me pasado perfecto. He said most students tell him there’s no such thing in English. I said of course there is, but a lot of English speakers don’t know how to use it correctly.

Tonight I had dinner at Criollo. Another fabulous meal with a tasting menu.

Viernes 1 de marzo

Morning “class” was another outing for breakfast at Centro de Abastos. Lots of conversation practice.

Miguel and I went back to Café Boca del Monte for our class. More conversation practice, and one final written exercise to practice verb tenses. On the way there I told him I was disappointed with myself for struggling to become more fluent over the last two weeks. He said based on his experience I have progressed faster than most students. That made me feel good, but I’m still not where I hoped I’d be in terms of being able to converse in Spanish.

In the evening I went to Boulenc for dinner. After the big meals I’ve had, I was happy to have just a salad.

Sabado 2 de marzo

I went to the Jardin Etnobotanico this morning. This was very interesting. Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and Oaxaca is the most biodiverse state in Mexico. It is also the most ethnically diverse state, with at least 19 distinct ethnic groups. According to our tour, there is a clear relationship between Oaxaca’s biodiversity and its ethnic diversity. The garden is organized in different areas representing the different botanical and agricultural regions.

I made an album of photos from the garden. Here are a few highlights.

Pseudobombax ellipticum (Pink shaving brush tree)

After the tour in the hot sun, I went back to Boca del Monte for lunch, and then I went to the Museo de Las Culturas de Oaxaca. This was an excellent collection of artifacts from local history, housed in the former monastery of Santo Domingo, adjacent to the church I visited on February 19. For me, though, given my general lack of interest in seeing ancient artifacts, I passed through the exhibits quickly. The one area of the museum that I found interesting was the collection of treasures discovered in 1932 in Tomba 7 at Monte Albán. After my trip to Egypt last year, where I saw some of the treasures from King Tut’s tomb, this actually impressed me more, perhaps because it was more unexpected.

An ancient skull covered with turquoise
Gold breastplate dating from between 1250 and 1521.

On exiting the museum, I encountered a big wedding celebration on the street in front of the church.

My next stop was the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños. This was really disappointing. There were a couple of nice pieces, but that’s the best thing I can say about them. Nothing in this museum moved me or caused me to linger. I was in and out in about ten minutes.

By now it was the hottest part of the day, and I came back to my Airbnb for a nap before going to dinner. I had a reservation at Casa Oaxaca. The seating area was on a pleasant rooftop balcony, and the menu looked enticing, but a very loud (and not very good) rock band was playing on the street below, and I told my server I just couldn’t enjoy a meal with that raucous din. So I left and ended up eating at Humar, a seafood restaurant I passed every day on the way to the Spanish Immersion School.

At the end of the long and full day, I felt like I needed a treat, so I got myself an ice cream cone!

Domingo 3 de marzo

My flight to GDL today wasn’t until after 5pm, and I had to check out of my Airbnb by noon. I decided to use the morning to visit two more museums: Museo Textil de Oaxaca and Museo de la Filatelia. Both were just “meh.”

Untitled collage by Joaquin von Mentz (1999)
It’s made up entirely of postage stamps
The Textile Museum had a exhibit of Japanese clothing.

Final thoughts

It’s a little too hot in Oaxaca for me. 

That’s the only negative thing I can think of to say about this awesome city. The food lived up to the hype, and the city center is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The Spanish Immersion School was great. I really loved the one-on-one instruction. And my two teachers were perfect for me. Juan José was my cheerleader, and Miguel made me feel like I wanted to succeed or he would be disappointed. They were so different, but together they formed an ideal team. 

And in spite of all the great food, I didn’t gain an ounce!

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