Ever since I posted yesterday that I am one week away from spending July in Oaxaca at an intensive Spanish immersion program, my inbox has been bursting with emails. Most are some variation on “You are spending a month on your own in Mexico? Are you INSANE???!!!” Followed by links and excerpts of every gory story in the past ten years on the subjects of banditos, corrupt Federales, drug gang wars and victimized tourists. So, in the interests of putting everyone’s mind at ease, I’m going to outline why I am pretty sure I will emerge from this experience unscathed, but hopefully with some fairly competent Spanish conversational skills under my belt. You see, just as I’m sure that most Mexicans bear no resemblance to the Frito Bandito, Speedy Gonzalez or those guys in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I’m sure very few of them are drug lords, white slavers, coyotes and gang members. I would guess that 90% of any trouble could be avoided the way it is in the U.S. — be sensible and stay out of dangerous neighborhoods and situations. As a tour guide in New Orleans once told me about his city: “Don’t be stupid and you won’t have no trouble.” So here’s my safety plan.
Why I Will be Safe in Oaxaca
*First of all Oaxaca is a tiny, historical town hundreds of miles from the Mexican border, Mexico City or the coastal areas where all the trouble is. Furthermore, it’s up in the mountains and not on the route to anywhere in particular, so, from what I’m hearing, it’s not even on any drug dealer, gang member or coyote’s path to anywhere. Sending me stories of dreadful crime in Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros and Tijuana before my Oaxaca trip is like obsessing over LA’s crime rate when you are headed on a trip to Truckee. (Oaxaca is a 6 hour bus ride from Mexico City and it’s another 8 to 10 hours from Mexico City to the U.S. border.)
*I will be staying in a very well regarded guesthouse that caters to visitors on extended stays, such as students, visiting archeologists and lecturers. The women who own it and live there cater especially to single women travelers. Plus there is a big walled courtyard keeping the rooms safe from any stray drug dealers who might be thinking of climbing in windows to steal stuff or kidnap tourists.
*I’ve traveled a lot of crazy, fairly dangerous places like Franco’s Spain (boy, that dates me), North Africa and Los Angeles. I’m pretty smart about planning ahead and conducting myself so I don’t get in trouble.
What I Will NOT Be Doing in Oaxaca
Sampling mezcal or peyote. Since I’ll be walking everywhere and it will be hot, I won’t want to be drinking. And since Mexico isn’t big on my drink of choice, Rhone style red wine, I’ll probably just abstain. And as much as I’d love to talk to a shaman, I think I’ll take the Nancy Reagan route if he offers me drugs.
Going out much in the evening. At orientation, we were warned that “intensive Spanish course” wasn’t a misnomer. Apparently the amount of homework I’ll be doing every night will be staggering. So, probably my greatest danger at night will be spilling Agua Fresca on my keyboard while studying in the courtyard. (Another reason why I won’t be sampling mezcal or peyote.)
Getting myself lost in the hinterlands. When I was younger, I did that whole “ride the local bus standing up with the people holding crates of chickens” type of touring. Now I’m older and all about the air conditioned minivan with the reputable, knowledgeable guides. The language school has a lot of these available. They assure me they are not routed anywhere near where shamen are taking peyote or banditos are shooting off rifles.
Where I May Be in Danger
*I’m just hoping I get through this trip without a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge. Because one of my goals in Oaxaca is to eat, eat, eat. Moles, street food, even those fried grasshoppers sprinkled with chile powder. I guess I’d better pack a lot of Imodium and Pepto Bismol.
*I might lose it on the flight down. For the last several years, I’ve been flying with the man in the Billion Mile Club. Since Andy never runs out of frequent flyer miles, we never fail to get upgraded to Business or First Class. Now I’m facing an economy flight on AeroMexico with a four hour layover in Mexico City. That’s about 10 hours traveling. With no complimentary champagne. Or mezcal. Or peyote.
*Two Terrier Vineyards may have to be renamed Ranchito De Los Dos Terrieres. Because I am going to buy so many alebrijes, weavings, pottery and other crafts, whatever house we build in Sonoma is going to look like a set for a remake of Frida. Anyone who has seen the living loft in our barn there, knows that we have just one decorating mantra: you can’t have enough cowboy-themed decorative items. We’ll be moving that south of the border.
So that’s my plan. I think it’s going to keep me safely away from Federales, drug cartels and banditos. Which is good, as I have no desire to meet any of them. Especially since I learned that the bandito in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre never actually said: “We don’t need no steenkin’ badges.”