Tag Archives: COVID-19

How to Travel Safely (More or Less) to Oaxaca During Covid

My son Jacob always reminds me that each of us has a different comfort level of risk for contracting the virus. As we face new mutations — Delta, Omicron, Whatever is Next — we need to take a pulse for our own willingness to travel by plane. Whether we are traveling within the U.S. to Mexico or to South Africa, some degree of discomfort is going to follow us.

Even with three vaccines behind me, I am an uneasy plane traveler and I take precautions. I realize, too, that I am not completely immune from contracting covid. I just arrived back in Oaxaca on Monday after a two-legged journey from Albuquerque to Houston to Oaxaca as Omicron is spreading. This was my second trip back and forth to Mexico in a month.

What Did I Do? What Did I Notice?

Planes are full. That means that two or three abreast is more common than not. It means airports are filled with people and it’s the holiday season so more are traveling. The flight from Houston to Oaxaca was packed with Oaxaquenos living in various parts of the USA returning to their homeland to be with family for Christmas and New Years.

While facemarks are mandatory in airports and on airplanes, they are of varying quality and fit. I saw lots of “slippage” with masks migrating below the nose. I saw masks worn as neckbands. I saw eaters and sippers who did not return their masks to faces afterward.

  • I wore two face masks. First, an N95 covering my nose and mouth, then a handmade cloth facemask that includes a metal piece across the bridge to guarantee NO SLIPPAGE.
  • I used hand-sanitizer liberally.
  • I carry alcohol spray and wiped down seat armrests, tray tables and seat belt buckles.
  • The two young Mexicans flanking me on the Houston to Oaxaca flight asked to borrow my pen to complete the entry forms for immigration and customs. I didn’t deny them. But, I alcohol-sprayed the pen after use. (Nutz? Maybe.)

With a six-hour layover in Houston and the end-of the year approaching, I used my annual United Club Pass that comes with the credit card to enter the lounge. After scanning the room, I picked a seat far away from others. All the staff were masked appropriately. All the food was pre-packaged and safe. I noticed some doing business calls with masks on and others who did not. There were no mask police. I wasn’t going to be one.

When you fly direct from the USA to Oaxaca on either United or American, this is your port-of-entry. The flight attendants will give you three forms to complete while in the air: an immigration form (different for foreign and Mexican citizens), a customs form, and a COVID questionnaire. No COVID vaccine card is required. This questionnaire is in minuscule type. Don’t forget to bring a pen and have it handy.

When we arrived in Oaxaca, another international flight had arrived just moments before. So the line to enter the airport and go through immigration and customs was VERY LONG. There were at least 200 people in line. Sidewalk signs indicated a 1.5 meter (5 feet) social distancing rule. Airport personnel, however, wanted to make space on the sidewalk and asked us to get closer to each other.

I did not comply.

  • Instead, I maintained distance between me and the person in front of me.
  • I was still wearing two face masks.
  • I extended the handle on my carry-on roller bag as far as it would go and stretched the suitcase out behind me, guaranteeing a distance of about four feet as we waited in line.

Inside the terminal building, after presenting the passport, immigration and customs forms, and covid questionnaire to the official, I entered the bag claim area where it was CHAOS. It was not possible to maintain social distance. However, everyone was calm, respectful and wearing a mask properly.

One by one, we loaded luggage and handbags and backpacks onto a conveyer belt to go through an x-ray machine. Then, we hand the customs form to an agent. To the left is a kiosk where you are asked to push a button. Green light and you are free to exit. Red light and you are subject to luggage inspection. Completely random.

For those of you needing transportation from the airport to downtown, there is a kiosk to the right of the bag claim area after you exit. This is where you purchase the shuttle ticket. You tell the driver the address where you are going.

Protecting ourselves and traveling during covid is not easy. All of us want some degree of normalcy and I also think it is difficult to be vigilant 100% of the time. Travel during the holidays has always been stressful anyway. It’s even more so now. I just figured I would do the best I can.

Worth it? When I left Taos it was 3 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Days warmed up to high 30’s and low 40’s. Albuquerque was 17 degrees at night with day temps in low 50’s. Here, I’m enjoying chilly nights in the 40’s and daytime temps in the mid-70’s. Is it worth it? For me, yes.

Gratitude and Giving Thanks: ‘Tis the Season

First, thank you friends and readers for your years of following Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. I’ve been writing this blog since 2007. That’s 14 years reporting about Oaxaca (and Mexico) culture, traditions, textiles and the changes that have taken place over this time. There is a lot in the archives! I also want to thank you for your support of the artisan makers who I feature here. So many are grateful for our help and have expressed this to me recently, especially since COViD has all but truncated their ability to bring the beautiful things they make to visitors and collectors. You are their lifeline.

Elizabet Vasquez Jimenez, Triqui weaver, says, ¨A million thanks. You helped me so much because I had no sales in months. Thanks to God and for knowing all of you. Saludos y benediciones.”

Huipil woven on the back strap loom by Elizabet Vasquez Jimenez, Triqui indigenous tribe
Elizabet at our Day of the Dead expoventa, Oaxaca. She traveled 6 hours by van to show us her work.
Elizabet in her village, traditional Triqui huipil
Natural dyes, handwoven wool and leather bag, by Estela Montaño

Estela Montaño, woven bag maker, cried as she told me, “You kept us alive during COVID with your help. You sent us customers and we are grateful. You are all angels.”

We have been living with COVID for almost two years (since March 2020) and the pandemic has altered (am I’m thinking perhaps for my lifetime) how we make our way in the world with people we love and care about. I recently returned to Oaxaca after being gone for 19 months. I’m grateful my two adopted campo dogs, Tia and Butch, remembered me! I’m grateful to my Chavez Santiago family for their love and support over the last 16 years, making it possible for me to live with them and enjoy the astounding beauty of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.

The COVID era brought many changes to all of us. We lost friends and neighbors to the virus. Some of us lost family members. Some of us still feel at risk and are wary of gathering this Thanksgiving and of socializing with those who are vaccine resistant. I hear from many friends that they are fearful of traveling outside their local area, let alone getting on an airplane to go to a distant land. These are polarizing and discomfiting times.

Left to right: Fernando, Barbara (visitor), Estela and Juana — Montaño family bag makers

This said, I’m extraordinarily grateful to those of you who are traveling with me to Mexico this year — 2021 and 2022. Thank you. I feel very reassured that when we practice COVID safety with vaccines and masks and hand sanitizer that we can stay healthy. Everyone on our recent Day of the Dead Culture Tour tested COVID negative the day before returning to the USA. For this, I’m incredibly grateful.

This has been a year of dramatic change for me. COViD isolation did me in and I made the decision just a year ago at Thanksgiving (where four of us huddled on the Taos Rio Grande Gorge mesa for an outdoor dinner), to change my lifestyle, leave downtown Durham, NC condo living in exchange for the austere beauty of northern New Mexico and the wide open spaces. Without COVID, I doubt this would ever have happened. At age 75, I decided to build a house! Crazy? Maybe. Liberating? Definitely.

House under construction, Taos Rio Grand River Gorge Mesa

When I left Oaxaca on March 12, 2020, my plan was to stopover in Huntington Beach, CA, to visit my son Jacob for a week and then to go up to Santa Cruz to see my sister Barbara before heading back to Durham for a while and then return to Oaxaca. I stayed with Jacob for two-months in a one-bedroom apartment. We juggled space and time. We bonded even more as mother and son. It was a blessing. I also got to know Shelley, who became his fiancee this year (they are getting married in March 2022). Her mom, Holly, has become a friend. COVID brought them closer together and they decided to make a life together.

Little did I know then that my boy would get approval from his office in March 2021 to work from home on a permanent basis and move to Albuquerque. We are now both living in the same state after being separated for over 30 years. Jacob and Shelley will be here this week for Thanksgiving, joining a group of 15 family members and friends under a heated tent outdoors on the Rio Grande Gorge Mesa. We are monitoring invitees for vaccines, exposure and overall COVID health.

It’s cold here in Taos, but the sun is shining, delivering beauty and hopefulness. Even the drying sagebrush is green today. Reminding me that even in the worst of times, there are many things to be grateful for. This, to me, outweighs the commercialism of the season and Black Friday.

Francisca Hernandez, master blouse embroiderer from Chiapas, says: “Thank you for the special orders over the last year. You have helped sustain my family. Otherwise, we would have earned very little, if anything.”

Francisca’s French knot embroidered blouse

I remember Oaxaca losses from COVID: Estela, a woman from San Bartolome Quialana, in the Tlacolula valley foothills who worked at Tierra Antigua Restaurant, always gracious, cheerful, helpful. Juvenal, my 52-year old friend, generous and compassionate, who left behind a wife, three children and new grandchild born after he died in a San Diego Hospital in February 2021. Juan Manuel Garcia, Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art, silversmith and filigree jewelry maker extraordinaire, died at age age 77 in January 2021. I miss them, and so many more. 700,000 is an unfathomable number. I am grateful to be among the living. I mourn our losses.

Juvenal with his family

Ím grateful for the vaccines that offer a miracle for life without risk of death or severe illness necessitating hospitalization. So much to be grateful for among the tragedy of our times.

This coming week, in the spirit of the season, I will be posting a Black Friday Sale either Tuesday or Wednesday. What I offer will all be hand-made, made in Mexico — and will be sure to bring joy to whomever receives them.

I also want to follow-up with the continuing discussion about Day of the Dead, commercialization of a pre-Hispanic tradition that has changed dramatically in the last two years. I want to share what readers sent to me and talk about whether Muertos has been co-opted by the film Coco, by the influx of mezcal drinking young tourists, or by COVID itself.

Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle, photo by Carrie Wing

Sending you blessings for a holiday filled with gratitude, giving thanks, abundance, good health and joy, however you celebrate and with whom.

Norma

P.S. I’d love to hear what this year has wrought for you and your thoughts about gratitude and giving thanks at this season. Write me at: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Living in a Sea of Sagebrush: Taos, New Mexico

It’s been two months since I left North Carolina and arrived in New Mexico, where life is more like Mexico than I ever imagined it would be. Spanish is a predominant language here. Indigenous Native American culture and artistry is powerful. Time moves slowly. There is no urgency and many people here say Taos means mañana. I am constantly reminded of the mantra told to me years ago in Teotitlan del Valle by my host family head Federico Chavez Sosa: Calma. Patiencia. Tranquila.

Life takes on a different meaning when the focus is on landscape and the whirl of city life is in the past. I’m utterly astounded by how the vastness of sky and horizon opens life to a defining purpose of expansiveness, the natural world, and infinite possibilities. Even as human life is finite, there is a sense of timelessness here that offers peace and solitude.

As I write this, a lone coyote dances through the sage brush traveling east to west toward the gorge. Only moments before, a white tailed rabbit came up to my patio door and peered in, ears and nose twitching in unison. A flock of magpies chatter on the fence posts. Small pleasures.

Out here on the Rio Grande River Gorge Mesa, I find comfort in budding friendships with people who are drawn here with similar vision, purpose, politics and lifestyle. I am also comforted by dear friends Karen and Steve who live a mile up the road from my rental house. I have known them for almost 45 years. She and I raised our children together, opened and closed a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, remained constant and supportive. Their land has become mine. We walk the gorge rim trails, smell the sagebrush, look for Big Horn Sheep, comment on new construction taking shape.

This is a soul-satisfying place.

It is a small town. There is no Whole Foods. (There is Cid’s.) There is no shopping mall. My drive to town takes a good twenty minutes. One could say I’m isolated. And, this would be true, more or less. It is perfect for writers, photographers, creatives who find sustenance in simplicity. For my city fix, I drive 75 minutes to Santa Fe. I’ve been going regularly since I’ve had a steady stream of visitors. I’m not sure when the feeling of being on perpetual vacation will end.

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

I’m here because of Covid. Sequestered for over a year in my Durham, NC, historic renovated tobacco warehouse condo gave me plenty of time to reflect. I felt trapped in an edifice of impenetrable brick with a view to the high school across the street, electric lines above, and elevator access to the outdoors. It served me well before Covid when I was spending more time in Oaxaca. Was Durham where I wanted to grow older? The question of values kept coming up. So, while my decision to move here was, by many accounts impulsive, I realized I wanted direct access to nature and a long view. After spending a month in New Mexico in November 2020, even before I was vaccinated, I realized that life here could be almost normal even in the worst of circumstances.

That’s not to say, I wasn’t scared of making this move — leaving good friends behind, a network of the familiar, with the best medical care in the world at my fingertips. I lived in North Carolina for twenty-two years, the longest sojourn of my life except for growing up in California. Fear is powerful. It freezes us and keeps us from exploring. It is also liberating if we allow ourselves to move through it and have confidence in our ability to adapt and thrive in new circumstances. I also realize I have the vagabond gene in my family. I have lots of practice making change. This is learned behavior. Over the years I have pried myself out of my comfort zone. This propels me forward.

Still, I continue to wait. Buying land and building a home is a process and anxiety provoking. After months, we have still not broken ground because the county has not yet approved the building permit. Lots of moving parts. Lots of puzzle pieces to fit in place. The bank cannot finalize the construction loan until this happens. The site cannot be touched until the loan is signed. Infrastructure needs to be put in place. The road I will live on, Camino Chamisa, needs to be grubbed out. A trench needs digging to hold the lines for well water, electric and fiber. Poco a poco. This is the main reason I cannot get back to Oaxaca. I’m waiting for this to start.

Covid Bonus: being closer to family.

In September, my son and his wife-to-be will move to Albuquerque. This is a gift beyond my imagination. When I committed to buying land and making the move, this was a dream, not a promise. He has approval to work permanently from home, and we know now that home can be defined as anywhere! My sister and brother are in California. They will visit in August. Durham was not on their travel radar.

When will I get back to Oaxaca?

It’s Dark Sky here. I am star-gazing. The Milky Way and North Star provide no clues for me, although the ancients grounded their beliefs in such spectacular displays. I know for certain I will be in Oaxaca in mid-October to lead our Day of the Dead Culture Tour (three spaces open). Returning this summer depends on timing to certify the construction here. Time will tell.

I guess the next best thing to being in Oaxaca, Mexico, is being in Taos, New Mexico. They call it New Mexico for a reason!

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.