I got to Oaxaca a couple of days ago and Dios de los Muertos was still going strong four days after I saw its start in Xilitla. Oaxaca’s Centro Historico was beautifully decorated with Ofrendas and strings of Marigolds everywhere.
I am in a snappy cafe in the fashionable part of Oaxaca Centro, in its quiet, sunny courtyard area, sipping a latte. Lululemon country. An American couple is discussing a marketing contract with great precision. A fellow in a baseball hat is glued to his smartphone. Next to me, a plump couple are chatting in an east European language (Polish?); The woman is sternly issuing detailed instructions about something that the fellow is taking in, acknowledging her instructions with a bowed head and somewhat put-upon look. Neither of them look happy: it doesn’t feel like this is going to end well.
Everyone is looking at their mobile devices – it is remarkable how these thin, glowing rectangles have invaded our lives: is there any other inanimate object we spend more time looking at? They didn’t exist 15 years ago.
Now a trio of polite, well dressed German women sit down to my left. They have crisp, sophisticated climbing packs that I am pretty sure will never see a rappel, bivouac or free climb, and water bottles made with ceramic or tungsten or kevlar that keep the water cool or warm or pure or oxygenated or ph-appropriate or full of electrolytes or balanced with anti oxidants. Wellness is paramount. In contrast to my East European neighbors, their conversation sounds positively light and melodic; maybe they are discussing their wellness.
Tasteful music is playing in the background.
When searching for somewhere to eat, the words “restaurants” and “restaurantes” (the latter Spanish) in Oaxaca deliver quite different results on Google Maps; Google offers different people different things. This got me thinking about how we travel, what we see and perhaps more importantly, what we are primed to see.
Americans, particularly American businesspeople, prefer to think of these differences in terms of market segments; after all, we’ve developed one of the most finely tuned consumer societies that has ever existed, one designed to get you what you want, when you want it, wherever you are.
Americans don’t like to think of our social arrangements in terms of “class” (Our narrative is that we are a classless society, hence the anxiety about the income inequality we’ve seen grow in the last 30 years) although it is probably the most obvious way to frame these things. Whatever you call the process and result, we each certainly do coalesce with our own kind.
Travelers sort into market segments nicely here in Mexico; you’ll find Americans, Canadians and Europeans who experience Mexico through the lens of:
- An all inclusive resort
- In Oaxaca to eat fine food, staying at a five star hotel
- A spa trip
- A golf holiday
- Medical tourism
- Riding buses, staying at hostels
- A road trip all the way to Tierra del Fuego
And the country responds by providing each of these the experience they expect.
When I travel, I happily transit through a number of segments, this enables me to more closely observe local folks, other travelers and my surroundings. I enjoy being a little bit “outside” and align with Groucho Marx when he said that he would never “join a club that would let someone like me in as a member”. Of course I am a member of a segment – we just don’t like to run into each other.
Now a trio of fashionable young Mexicans has sat at the other end of my table; one is carrying a very healthy looking bag of granola and another has extensive tattoos, including some on her face (that is intense!).
On my walk home this afternoon, I saw a coffin shop around the corner from my hotel, selling beautifully crafted products, in lacquered hardwood, some with carved tops, all with silver or bronze hardware. Their style is neoclassical, suggesting that in heaven we’ll be wearing togas and conversing with our nation’s founders, Rousseau, Voltaire and others (“Hey Ben, could you pour me a goblet of the cab?”).
The coffins remind me of heavier versions of the beautifully restored mahogany speed boats one occasionally sees in marinas near where we live, although these vessels are meant for staying put, not for flying across the water. One of the coffins has an airbrushed scene of Jesus being crucified on its top, whose ephemerality contrasts with heavy rounds of trim and hardware. They look like they’re built to last, which I guess would be comforting to the purchaser. “I’ll be staying where you bury me, I’m not going anywhere.”