Oaxaca’s Llano Park is Alive and Well: Travel Report from Winn Kalmon

Note from Norma: Like many of us, Winn Kalmon has a permanent residence in Oaxaca as well as the USA (or Canada). One of her favorite places to hang-out is Llano Park, which she describes here. We are far from back to normal, and may well never be, yet the transition to having a vaccine allows us to be cautiously optimistic about travel now. Winn returned to Oaxaca from Taos, NM, just a couple of weeks ago and gives us this report.

Travel Report from Winn Kalmon

In early March 2020, when I returned to Oaxaca after a trip to Chiapas with Norma and a group of fabulously interesting women, I decided to stay put in this wonderful city we all love. Then the Pandemic hit the Western Hemisphere. Oaxaca went eerily quiet as businesses and churches closed their doors, schools sent kids home, and people and vehicles disappeared from the streets. All international flights in and out of Oaxaca were canceled. Unwilling to layover in Mexico City where Covid was raging, I decided to quarantine in the Jalatlaco home that my partner Fred and I rent year-round. My only outings winnowed down to morning walks, when I would venture to nearby neighborhoods and poke through the produce at Pitico convenience store to see what looked edible for that day. Sometimes, I would sit on a bench at pocket parks Panuelito or Jardin Conzatti with my favorite street dog, Sam-Leona (she has many names, given by many people). Then I would scurry back home to spend the rest of the day alone with jigsaw puzzles, e-books, news feeds, and hours of movie binge watching. Getting together with friends over coffee or comida changed to digital connections through with Zoom and WhatsApp – our sole source of companionship. 

Just a short walk from my house, Parque Llano is a large community park that runs northward from Calle Berriozabal, between Juarez and Pino Suarez. Four blocks long and a block wide, the park is “guarded” by two lions at each corner, roaring from their high pedestals. Last year, during the months of the pandemic, the city’s precautions required that people stop visiting all parks and plazas. All group activities were prohibited. Our group of women who gathered together for tai chi three days a week, just vaporized. So did the regular Sunday zumba class and other gatherings. Pairs of friends or couples were asked by patrolling police to leave. All the vendors of food and edible treats folded up their carts and tables, removed their umbrellas and disappeared. Yellow tape went up around the entire perimeter of the grand park to prevent people from entering the grounds even for a solitary walk with their dog. Big signs were erected at the park corners. The yellow tape extended from the ankles of the roaring lions to the announcement that park visits were illegal. Parque Llano and its lions went quiet. Even the birds in the massive trees seemed subdued. Only the cicadas, screaming their announcement that the rainy season was on its way, could be heard in the silence.

That was the way it was, until mid-August, when the first international flight left Oaxaca, with me (and my neighbor Judi and friend Martha) on it. I finally went home to Taos, New Mexico.

Now, fully vaccinated, I have returned to Oaxaca and to Parque Llano, which has come back to life. The lions are roaring again as if to call attention to their fresh coats of gold paint, gaudily beckoning folks back. The yellow tape is gone. The shoeshine guys have reclaimed their spots and look at the feet of passersby to see if there is potential business. Food and drink vendors are in their usual spots. A zumba class is meeting again, and I even saw a salsa class by the south fountain and a tai chi class by the north fountain. My tai chi group has still not returned, but they stay in touch, and once all have been vaccinated, they will come back too. The walkers circle the park, with and without dogs, and nod at familiar faces as they pass. Dogs, whether street dwellers or leashed to an owner, check each other out and re-establish their hierarchy after the long year of absence.

As I stroll the park with friend Liz and then sit on a shady bench to chat, I am relieved to see that nearly every person is masked and maintaining social distance. This includes the guy who argues loudly with himself as he marches quickly along the paths. Families are returning. Kids are trying out their roller skates or getting a push from grandpa in tiny, kid-size electric cars. In the evenings, young couples pretzel around each other on benches—that activity didn’t change during this last year, it just went indoors or behind courtyard walls.

Parque Llano is alive and well, and welcoming once again.

Please contact me if you would like to contribute a Travel Report to Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.

Home to Oaxaca: Travel Report from Carol Estes

Norma’s Note: Carol arrived in Oaxaca a week ago after a one-year absence like most of us who go back and forth. I met her years ago in front of Santo Domingo Church when she had just arrived in Oaxaca to live permanently. (Covid proved to us that nothing is permanent — another life lesson.) Soon thereafter, she met her husband-to-be, David Levin and they were married in Labastida Park. When David died last year, Carol moved from Toronto, where David was getting cancer treatment, back to Texas to be with her children. Now, she has returned and is telling us about her experience!

Carol’s Return to Oaxaca: Guest Blog Report

By the end of January 2021, I’d received my second Pfizer vaccine. Like the rest of the world, I’d hunkered down and waited it out the best I could manage. When the world screeched to a halt, I had big plans to return to my home in Oaxaca in summer 2020. I was sitting on the benches by the Panuelito chatting with a friend in March 2020, when I first heard mention of the Corona virus, then blamed on beer.  Little did we know!

Like so many of us who made gallons of lemonade last year with the big ‘ole lemon plopped down in the midst of our lives, I did as well. Blessings mounted as the months meandered by. Life moved right along, at a different pace and with what felt like no control. I planned and dreamed, until finally…. on Tuesday, April 6, after a packing frenzy, I boarded the sleek little jet that would bring me home to Oaxaca. While I felt reasonably confident regarding my safety, I was not nervous, but  very cautious.

Fortunately my flights were not long since I live reasonably close to DFW that boasts a direct American Airlines flight into the Oaxaca airport. In both Lubbock and DFW airports, the staff practiced all the safety protocols we’ve become accustomed to. I saw no one without a mask on and only a few with their noses poking out as though their respiratory system operates differently from the rest of us.

I had no problem distancing myself in the waiting areas. I paid attention and managed spacing between me and those who were clueless, just like home. Of course compliance is relative, and the US is a big place with a spectrum of opinions and behaviors. No telling what someone will run into other places.

It’s been only one week today since I wheeled my suitcases into the old hacienda in Centro that is now my home. The last week flew by with nesting and connecting with dear friends. Most have been here throughout 2020, and the vaccine is just now being administered. Some have had one stab, and rumors are a second may happen the end of this week.

Businesses here practice all cautions. My favorite ATM has a woman posted in the small lobby who takes temperatures and squirts hand sanitizer coming and going. Most places have a tray on the floor with a puddle of disinfectant to step into, although that has been proven unnecessary. This practice is in many places. Most doors are marked “entrada or salida” and many have a rope across the entrance.

Las cubrebocas (masks) compliance has been likely 90%.   Bare-faced folks seem to be both Mexican and gringos, almost equally and all likely tourists or young adults.

Vendors are lined up along Allende running beside Santo Domingo, and the “hippies” that sell jewelry and political t-shirts, and posters are back in place along the side of the Graphic Arts Museum (IAGO). Other vendors are dotted down the Alcala toward the Zocalo, just like always. The blind musicians are in place as are the little kids screaming Cielito Lindo and begging. La Cosecha, the organic market, is open and a monitor limits the number allowed inside at any one time. I stood in line a bit until someone left. No social distancing here, and so I bought my produce and shuffled on out.

Last Monday evening I wandered to the edge of the Zocalo which seemed relatively quiet. The Frenchips  dude was in place, and little kids were zinging their light sabers in front of the Catedral.  A few vendors were set up, and of course, the balloon sellers. Saturday, I watched the bride duck into Santo Domingo, and the women guests for the wedding wobbling up Allende in their gravity defying high heels. We even heard a few fireworks Sunday evening. Slowly, slowly, life is recovering.

Sunday I met a good friend at Casa Oaxaca (one photocopied menu per table and a cute little paper bag for my mask), other friends at Zandunga (menu was accessed on my phone), and later in the week lunch alone at Los Cuiles, and La Levadura. Only Casa Oaxaca was very crowded, but spacing was comfortable. Of course, all of these are outdoor spaces. By the way, the food remains completely wonderful although prices have gone up a bit, just like in the States.

The people here remain enterprising and energetic. This is the land of hustle and strive.  Always I’m heartened and humbled by the spirit of these amazing Oaxacans. Our expat community remains in tact and just that – a community. It’s good to be here. I am most blessed in my dotage. When I board a plane, whether I’m headed north or south, I’m heading home.

All photos from Carol Estes. Thank you, Carol, for this contribution. If anyone else traveling to Oaxaca wants to share their experiences by writing about it, please contact me to consider publishing here. We are all interested in how things are faring on the ground so we can safely plan our return.

Packing and Selling: Talavera + Art Glass

Sometime after May 3, after the movers come to empty my condo contents, I will take to the road west. For the next three weeks, I will be packing and reducing my collection. Here are a few pieces I’m offering for sale today, that include Talavera DO4 from Puebla, Mexico, and art glass. Six unique, one-of-a-kind pieces today. All hand-made. Talavera is hand-painted, perfect for dining or wall decor. Dishwasher safe. No lead.

To Buy: Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address, ZIP code and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $16 for cost of mailing ONE plate, $24 to mail TWO plates (based on weight and sturdy box). At check-out, please DO NOT SELECT buying goods or services. We also accept Venmo and Zelle. I can also send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal. All sales final.

Culpability

This is my last month in Durham, North Carolina. I’m preparing to move west to Taos, NM on May 6, 2021, if all goes forward as planned. Last week, I walked to Maplewood Cemetery and around the historic tobacco town filled with renovated warehouses, factories and storefronts. Each step is a reminiscence of my 21 years living in North Carolina, and in the American south since 1989. This blog post is about intersections between past, present and future. It is about culpability: the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the American southwest. It is about indigenous and enslaved peoples. It is about redemption, making restitution, and guarding our democracy. It is about Oaxaca, too, as I look forward to the arrival from Teotitlan del Valle of my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago who will travel with me on this road trip. On her arrival from Mexico, I will get her vaccinated so she doesn’t have to wait until March 2022 for her age category.

As I walked Maplewood Cemetery, 120 acres at the intersection of Kent and Morehead Streets, I saw familiar names of families that had built this town interred here: Julian Carr who trademarked “Bull Durham and whose tombstone is inscribed with Veteran of the Confederacy. Here, too, lay philanthropist Mary Duke Biddle, Dr. Bartlett Durham, and Brodie Duke, eldest son of Duke University founder Washington Duke. As I walked, it jumped out at me: Where are Black people buried? Maplewood was established in 1872 during Jim Crow. There would be no Black graves here.

This is when I found Greer Cemetery, established in 1877, on four acres embracing the graves of at least 1,500 African Americans, many born into slavery. It was the first Durham cemetery for Blacks. So, I went to visit in tribute to the region where I have lived, respecting the Black Lives Matter movement, the acknowledgement that civil society enacts horrific crimes in self-protection of social, political and economic interests. I wandered the old carriage path and diverged onto ground uneven and softened with unmarked graves. I wanted to honor the diversity and voices of past, present and future. And, I wanted to mark the travesty of current voting rights restrictions enacted by 43 state legislatures across the USA now, in April 2021. We know that separate is not equal — this is another perfect example.

This visit caused me to think about culpability — the question of who is responsible for wrong-doing or failure, who is to blame, who is at fault, who accepts moral responsibility for transgressions past and current?

Which got me thinking about my life in Oaxaca among indigenous Zapotec people and their history of oppression and discrimination, and my future life in New Mexico where Native People’s have been abused and marginalized since the Spanish and U.S. conquests. This year, Mexico City marks its 500-year anniversary of the invasion by Spanish conquistadores and friars. We are in the middle of the George Floyd murder trial. So much and yet so little has improved.

Today, we celebrate spring, the emergence of new life flowering and green, as we move toward breaking down the barriers of isolation from Covid with 3 million jabs in arms daily, and the promise of travel to come soon. In doing so, let’s honor those who have passed to bring us to this day and be mindful to protect those who are vulnerable whose voices are muted or suppressed. It is up to us to be the difference.

Three Steps Closer to Oaxaca

I now have a signed contract for the sale of my Durham, NC, condo after two months on the market. Patience is a test in so many ways. We have struggled, endured, survived this last year when many haven’t. I remind myself daily that this is a blessing and carry on.

Now I can begin my return to Oaxaca after I get packed and moved to Taos, NM. My Durham departure date is May 6, 2021 and I expect to arrive in the west by mid-month. Then, I anticipate going to my casita in Teotitlan del Valle for a few weeks this summer to dip my toe back in the water after being gone for over a year. Will it be safe by then? Safer than it was before, I expect. Mostly because I have been vaccinated.

Vaccine distribution in Oaxaca is still spotty. My friends in Teotitlan del Valle tell me they have registered to get a vaccine with the village administration. They have been promised availability and times to show up for the jab — and each time, this has been cancelled and rescheduled. We shall see how it goes today.

My goddaughter Janet tells me that the Oaxaca government says she will be eligible to receive the vaccine in March 2022. She is in her mid-30’s. That’s a year from now. Think of all the young people in Mexico who will not be vaccinated. Millions. Youth represents most of Mexico’s population! Here are the demographics.

Elsa tells me that she had two people cancel dye workshops last week because they got infected with COVID. They were foreign tourists. Not a good sign.

Last night, I shredded the notes I took last year about how to stay safe presented by Dr. Atul Gawande, public health physician. We were in a steep learning curve then. The danger now is in relaxing our vigilance, even with vaccine. In reviewing them, not much has changed from March 2020 to March 2021 about precautions:

  • Wear a mask that covers your face and nose
  • Stay 3-6 feet apart (later adjusted to 6 feet)
  • Use hand sanitizer liberally
  • Only meet outdoors

Those of us who have been vaccinated are feeling more adventuresome. My friend Winn is returning to Oaxaca for three months on April 7. My other friend Carol is there now. I am getting more requests for natural dye and weaving workshops. Our study tours are either full or have just a few places open. All signs point to recovery — physical, psychological, emotional, financial. But, I believe we must proceed with caution.

When I return to Oaxaca, I will wear a face shield, mask and use hand-sanitizer liberally, just like before. I will choose flights that minimize airport layovers. When I drive west, my gasoline and rest stops will be brief and equally protected. I still spray gasoline dispensary handles with alcohol!

As I begin to pack, there will be Oaxacan and Mexican treasures to send back into the world. Please stay tuned for items I will offer for sale in the next weeks.

With gratitude, Norma