Trip Start Jul 29, 2012
Trip End Aug 01, 2013

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Friday, July 26, 2013

We've been back in the States for nearly four weeks now, enjoying time with all sides of our family. This entry comes to you from my father-in-law’s lake cabin in central Minnesota.  Absolutely beautiful, and peaceful, and nicely familiar.  It feels like ages ago that we were in Oaxaca.  It feels surreal.  Were we actually there?  What just happened to our year?  I wrote an email in Spanish just now and, while I think I did actually construct sentences that made sense, it felt so very, ahem, foreign.  With this as a background, I am putting fingers to keys to record some of our reflections.

Sitting around our dinner table during the month of June, we wondered together what we would miss when we returned home, what we wouldn’t miss at all, and what things would feel different, not better or worse.  We got plenty of mileage out of talking about getting to flush our toilet paper down the toilet in the States, rather than putting it in the waste basket.  Leah joked that she was going to spend our layover time in the Houston airport using multiple bathrooms, just so she could enjoy flushing her toilet paper again.  Ever-diligent-Micah reminded her that that would be a big waste of water.  (Side note: Zola is still having a hard time kicking the habit of throwing her poopy toilet paper in the waste basket).
We’ll all miss individual people – teachers, the school community, running partners, people we interacted with in our daily routines, and other good friends.  I already miss the Tuesday/Friday market in San Felipe.  Before leaving, I brought my favorite fruit and vegetable vendors some homemade banana bread to say thank you for being a big part of my experience in Oaxaca.  They sent me on my way with smiles and handshakes and a bouquet of multi-colored roses.  I also miss Natalia, a street side food vendor we referred to as "the memela lady".  I ate a lot of this kind of “fast food” in Oaxaca -memelas, tlayudas, tacos, taquitos, tostadas, flautas, and lots of other variations on these themes.  The cool thing is that this food was really healthy, freshly made, and delicious.  We already miss the food in Oaxaca – fresh fruits and vegetables; local meats and cheeses (ah, quesillo); unique flavors and ingredients; and tasty, inexpensive, whole foods.  Leah is already suffering from withdrawal of “jugo verde” (green juice) - a mixture of orange, pineapple, parsley, celery, and cactus. 

Having our house cleaned once a week was a nice, nice luxury.   It’s hard to deny that we won’t miss that.  We’ll all miss the tropical mountain views, the open blue skies and the variety of birds, flowers and nature that were present at every turn.  Burros wandering down neighborhood streets, and cows and horses in the surrounding hills added warmth and energy to daily life. Leah in particular will miss Oaxaca’s contemporary architecture that celebrates earthy materials and colors, openness and light, mixed with preserved colonial structures and cobblestone streets.  She will miss the mix of rich folk art and sophisticated modern art, the amazing old convent which has been restored into the fantastically simple and chic San Pablo Institute, the natural fabrics that are at the root of Oaxacan fashion, and the rich aroma of coffee from the nearby Sierra Norte.  We will all miss the centrality of family, community and tequio- collective efforts to strengthen/better communities.

One of the things we won’t miss is the unpredictability of daily life in Oaxaca.  It was only on rare occasions that I was able to buy 100% of the things on our shopping list.  Most of the time, particular items hadn’t been restocked or had simply been discontinued.  Driving around town, we never knew if a major street would be blockaded by a disgruntled union.  A week before a friend’s scheduled triathlon, I asked him if he was ready to go.  He told me that the race organizers had just decided to push it back to the following weekend, so he still had two weeks to go.  In an odd kind of way, I suppose the unpredictability was actually predictable.

On a more basic level, although we will miss the clean, inexpensive and efficient Oaxacan city buses, we’re all excited to return home to our bicycles.  We won’t miss sitting in traffic.  While I love having learned a lot of Spanish, I look forward to being able to communicate easily and effectively, or at least relatively effectively, as I go about daily life.  Leah is particularly eager to return to a house free from scorpions, cockroaches and big spiders.  We are all looking forward to settling back into our own house.  I never thought I’d appreciate having a city noise ordinance, but after nearly a year of being woken up over and over in the middle of the night by fireworks, loud music, barking dogs, roosters, church bells, and vendors with loudspeakers mounted on roofs of their cars, we’re ready for some peace and quiet at night.  Now, if I could just figure out how to get rid of the street light outside our bedroom window in Bozeman.

On a deeper level, Leah and I have been pondering, as Leah puts it, “the social construction of time” in Mexico.  In some ways we loved it.  People were generally laid back and flexible.  In most situations, showing up late was acceptable, and even expected.  But it also got under our skin at times.  Take, for example, the case of Micah’s orthodontist, who didn’t take appointments, but told us to be at his office at 4 p.m. to be the first in line for his afternoon office hours from 4 – 8 p.m.  The trouble was that he never showed up on time for his own office hours.  Over eight visits, we waited a minimum of 25 minutes and frequently 40 to 60 minutes … because his “lunch arrived late”, he told me on one occasion.  One time we were there for an hour and a half, just waiting with some other people, when finally we all decided to leave and come back another day, concluding that he had opted not to come into the office on that day.  With my blood boiling, I vented to Leah about his disrespect for all of us.  Leah reminded me that expectations surrounding time were different in Mexico.  True.  When it came to the social construction of time, I often wished I didn’t need to take the bad with the good.

Likewise, I think the non-PC way of speaking in Oaxaca was a mixed bag.  Mostly, I found it refreshing.  When I was out and about in town, I was regularly referred to as “guerro” (fair-skinned guy).  There was no offense intended or taken.  They were simply saying it like it was.  I had lighter skin than all those around me.  Similarly, calling a child “gordita” (little fatty) was a term of endearment.  On the other hand, when we learned that one of our friends was nicknamed “China” because her eyelids were relatively wrinkle-free, we wondered whether there was a line out there somewhere that might best not be crossed. 

Of course, it’s easy to be armchair analysts about the pros and cons of Mexico, just as it’s easy to do the same in the States.  There are upsides and downsides everywhere.  Fortunately, because of our position as relatively well-off visitors, we got to experience mostly upsides.  We were able to weigh options, and knew all along that we would get to return to our home base in the States.  With that in our heads, and with Leah as our sociologist teacher, we all gained an even greater appreciation for our privilege in the world.  We were also frequently reminded about how much we, as guerros, have to learn from our neighbors to the South.

Now, I’ve ended many a blog entry with a humorous story.  This one will follow suit.  A few days before we left Oaxaca, Micah and Zola graduated from Papalotes.  The graduation ceremony was full of singing and dancing and storytelling.  Leah and I keyed in on Micah and Zola’s Spanish voices during the songs, and our hearts swelled with pride.  When all of the kids began singing a song in English, we recognized it as Puff the Magic Dragon right away.  After a few lines, Leah and I looked at each other with a “are you hearing what I think I’m hearing?” kind of look on our faces.  Micah and Zola, who had sung Puff the Magic Dragon many times before, were unconsciously singing with Mexican accents.  Leah and I cocked our heads and heard their voices clearly and loudly singing, “Pooff de mahjeek drrrahgone, leeved bi de see.”  
We had a wonderful adventure.  Leah wrote a book, we made great friends, the kids and I learned Spanish, and I have a new Oaxacan cooking repertoire.  There’s no doubt that our year abroad had a big impact on all of us and will have lasting effects.  While we recognize some of the effects already, it may take a while for us to really understand the depth of impact this experience has had on us.  What we can see clearly is that it brought us closer together as a family, it broadened our perspectives on the world, and it enriched our lives.  We feel blessed to have had this opportunity.   Thanks once again to all of you who came along on our adventure with us.  Having you to come home to is the true blessing.
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Uncle Ralph on

You were never alone on your Oaxacan adventure, thanks to your excellent Blog. I also spent the last year there with you and not only learned about the wonderful people you encountered there but also about the cuisine and many customs. Thanks for you talent for photography I felt as if I was there on your scenic excursions. What a treat it was to watch Micah and Zola grow and enjoy their friends and new environment. Thank you for your excellent Blog and allowing me to share in your privileged experience. So, what's for dinner next time I visit you?

Uncle Ralph

Katie on

Thank you Steve for sharing your adventures with us-you should be the next to write a book;) Leah, congratulations on finishing up your book! I will keep an eye out for it!! Can't wait to see your kids and speak to them in Spanish;)

Dave on

What a treat to have been part of your journey Steve, Leah, Micah and Zola; thanks for keeping us posted.

Diane Rushing on

I'm just Sara's mom and was privileged to be introduced to your Year in Oaxaca. Thank you for sharing this wonderful adventure. I'm proud of/for you four to have shared this adventure together and to have learned so much. The kids will never forget it, I'm sure. Thank you so much for sharing this time with those of us who will not have the opportunity to have such an adventure. It was wonderful! Enjoy your new paths, your new adventures!

Patricia A. on

I loved your blogs, Steve. Thank you for sharing all of your adventures. I'm looking forward to being "neighbors" next year. Let us know if you need help with the move.

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