Oaxaca de Juarez street sceneI think I’ve mentioned before that Andy and I have very different traveling styles. I’m all about the historical value and the authentic experience. Sometimes, I’ll admit, to a fault. A good friend of mine still tells about the year we were studying abroad and I dragged him all around the British Isles on about $1.50 a day. That involved camping — usually in driving rain — hitching rides to the back of beyond on farmers’ trucks, hiking for miles and eating a lot of cheap meat pies in a lot of out of the way pubs. However, we did manage to see every historical site, be it famous castle or obscure cairn, from Lands End to the Orkney Isles. A few years after this adventure, my friend joined the Navy SeALs. He said it was easy. Nothing the SeALs could do was tougher than traveling with me.

Then I met Andy who, like Oscar Wilde, has very simple requirements. He only wants the best. When you travel with Andy and partake in his billions of frequent flyer miles, air travel is first class, there are limos to ferry you at every stage of ground travel, accommodations are always the kind of places that land on the cover of those glossy travel magazines, and an after-flight recovery massage is always booked.

However, this Oaxaca trip is a learning experience — I’m taking an intensive Spanish language immersion course — and I thought it would be fun to get back to my hardscrabble student travel roots. Only one day in and I’m starting to wonder if, while it may be possible to travel the same road twice, you may not be able to strap on a backpack and wield an International Student ID Card after a 25 year hiatus.

The flight was certainly a shocker. I guess I forgot that when you travel as part of a group-negotiated discount student travel program — the real price you pay is inconvenience and discomfort. That’s how I found myself getting to SFO at 10PM to wait for a midnight flight to Oaxaca with a four hour stop-over in Mexico City for a total of 15 hours of travel . This ain’t no Virgin Atlantic International Upper Class travel, I’ll tell you that. Instead of tony departure lounges with complimentary amuse bouche and cocktails, you sit in plastic chairs until you are herded on to crowded economy seats to try to sleep bolt upright. No complementary pillows and blankets, no seats that recline to beds and no non-stop in-flight drinks and personal DVD systems. However, what AeroMexico does do for its economy travelers is roll out a big cart with several bottles of tequila on it. You can have an orange juice or Jose Cuervo. The serving size is exactly the same. I was tempted, but was already experiencing that uncomfortable state where you nod off only to have your head fall against the seat and jerk you awake. Tequila didn’t seem like it was going to improve matters. Especially since the only food on offer was a packet of peanuts.

The only good thing about traveling like a student is when you are surrounded by actual students. Luckily there are some lovely — and very, very young — students in our group. They are so filled with fresh-faced excitement about the whole idea of GOING SOMEWHERE that…well…it kind of allowed me to shut down my inner voice that was screaming, “Where’s my champagne?!!!”

Hotel Las Mariposas

Finally Oaxaca. And I was whisked off to my lovely hotel.

The Hotel De Las Mariposas is charming. It looks like an old colonial building. Maybe an old convent with an interior built around a series of walled courtyards and gardens. Then they led me to my room and I realized the convent association was very apt. While my room is scrupulously clean and includes a private bathroom, it has the austerity of a monk’s cell.  Tile floors, adobe walls, brick ceiling, and wooden bed, desk and chair. One picture on the wall. It’s a pastoral folk scene, but it should be the Virgin of Guadalupe. And I think I should have some large candles in wrought iron stands. Seriously, I’ve seen this set up back when I did my Mission Mission. Fra Junipero Serra stayed in a lot of rooms like this up and down the Camino Real. I know the old Padres’ plan. They would seduce the senses with the sights, colors and fragrance of their courtyard gardens, then lock themselves in a bare cell to turn their back on the temptations of the world. Which might actually be a good regimen for studying my Spanish.

Virgin in Prayer

Just call me Santa Lisa de Sonoma.

In that spirit of ascetics, I allowed myself a mere two hours nap to recover, then stumbled out into the streets of Oaxaca to get my bearings. Unfortunately, I was too late for the main meal of the day between 2 and 6 PM and too early for dinner. But I stumbled on until I came upon La Meson del Olivo. The Inn of the Olive. Seemed like a good sign. Once inside, I noticed the walls were painted with sayings and pictures extolling good food and drink.

painting on wall of Meson de Olivo

Praising pork products goes a long way to endearing me to a restaurant.

Or how about this one?

bar at Meson de Olivos, Oaxaca

It reads "Wine for the King and water for the ox." I ordered sparkling water.

I was the only one in the restaurant, so I had time to chat with the staff about the wonderful meal, I was served. For instance, the Berenjenas con queso (that’s eggplant au gratin to you) were a revelation.

eggplant au gratin

Instead of a heavy dish gluey with cheese, this used the pulled Oaxacan cheese which is light and airy. Can cheese be light and airy? This was. Imagine essence of cheese foam.

I even had time to gaze out the window and wonder what the guys entering the Grand Masonic Lodge of Oaxaca were up to.

Masonic Temple, Oaxaca

I even got pictures through the window when they turned on the blue lights and started doing funny handshakes. But if I posted them, they'd track me down and kill me.

All in all, a marvelous start to the vacation. Even when traveling on the austerity program, all it takes is a good meal to set things to rights.