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A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Mexico: Oaxacan Life

Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.

Oaxaca Valley, Mexico

Oaxaca, the land of heirloom corn and the heart of Mexican cuisine.

Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.

All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.

On Local Grassroots Tourism

Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.

microfinance in Mexico

This En Via borrower used her loan to bulk buy wool and dye for her weaving business making rugs.

I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.

Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?

En Via microfinance, Oaxaca

A line of carefully embroidered aprons in San Miguel del Valle, a rural town about an hour and a half outside of Oaxaca City.

microfinance volunteering in mexico

On my En Via tour, we visited a seamstress in San Miguel de Valle. She shared her plans for her business, as well as how her embroidery has shifted to meet a growing trend of more elaborate apron designs.

On Work & A Little Adrift

For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.

There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.

Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.

To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.

oaxacan hot chocolate

Confession: in lieu of things to do, I go hunt down some freshly frothed Oaxacan-style hot chocolate. I read. I drink. It’s all very delicious (the free time and the chocolate).

On Current Travels

Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.

My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.

Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

Found a pair of flipflops on the edge of these pretty pools of water. I think the owner was won over by the beauty and forgot them in the excitement.

Oaxaca Valley, Mexico

Fun with reflections in the mineral-laden waters at Hierve el Agua. The pretty pools of water seem to just fall over the cliff side into the surrounding mountains. These pools of water are part of larger formations that resemble rock waterfalls. The name, Hierve el Agua, translates to “the water boils,” and this site pops against the muted blue and green mountainside. Small springs feed the pools of water. The water is full of calcium carbonate and minerals, causing cool, variegated pools of green and turquoise. It’s all swimmable and it’s a like a nature-made infinity pool with views over the mountains.

The boiling waterfalls of Hierve el Agua

The waterfalls appear frozen against the mountains, with just trickles of water falling down the white “falls.”

Monte Alban, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico

The sprawling ruins of Monte Albán outside of Oaxaca City. This was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, about 500 BC. This pre-Columbian archaeological site sits some 6,400 ft (nearly 2,000 meters) above sea level. It’s surrounded by the arid mountains and cool dry air. And it’s scorchingly hot. I love the scale of this site. Tiny people dwarfed by the large pyramids then dwarfed by the vast mountain range.

Zocalo Oaxaca City, Mexico

Oaxaca City’s zócalo bustles with activity in the late afternoon. On the weekend it’s packed to the gills, with music, bands, dancing, buskers, vendors, and people all enjoying the cool spring evenings.

On What’s Next

I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.

For now, this spring I’ll continue creating ALA responsible travel guides. If you’re keen to keep updated on where I am specifically at any given moment, I am much better about updating this “Now” page, and I update Instagram a lot too.

I welcome your thoughts and emails. What is spring looking like for you?

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  • Kate Green

    Great pictures. I used En Via’s online contact form two weeks ago to book a trip but they never responded. Sadly we got busy and I forgot to track them down and we leave on Tuesday. But perhaps you could mention to them that either it’s not working or they should respond. Hot chocolate is amazing here. So are the markets in the outlying villages such as Tlacolula — although sad for vegetarians:) If you go to Teotitlan del Valle try the food by the three old ladies at restaurant Tlamanalli. Renowned Zapotec and we had a great lunch today. Have a fun few more months in this lovely city.

    • Oh man, I am sorry that they never got back to you. I will definitely let them know when I go there this week, they need to get that sorted! And I will be in Teotitlan in two weeks, so I am going to hunt down that food stall, thank you for the recommendation. I hope you guys found some good cooking opportunities and that you enjoy your last days here! :)

  • Leah

    I’ve sort of lurked around your blog for a bit, but I need to do more in depth reading. My partner and I travel for about half of each year. While we can easily fill our days with walking, exploring, eating, and so on, I feel I am missing something. I know that I need to incorporate more of a connection to the people who live where I am visiting. I also recognize a need for some sort of purpose or meaningful involvement. Sometimes we move too often, sometimes I just don’t know what to do, how to reach out, how to contribute.

    Your search for balance resonates. We are winding down our travels for this year, but once we return home to Canada, I will dedicate some of my energies in planning next winter’s trip (South America??) to finding such a balance, to making more of a connection to the places I go.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Leah, thanks for popping in for a comment this time. I love connecting with readers. With you travels each year, I think there are definitely opportunities to add a deeper connection to the places you visit. I like to call that grassroots tourism, but really it’s more about the approach you take on the ground when you land in a new place. After years on the road, it was only by adding this element that I began to feel excited again to learn more about each new place. When you plan your South America trip, please do reach out if I can help with anything. And I hope you are able to create some balance both in Canada, and on your next trip.

      • Leah

        Thanks, Shannon. I’ll keep nosing around on your blog and I will, indeed, get in touch if I have specific questions. Balancing the “home and away” is a challenge all on it’s own, but technology sure helps to maintain connections.

        • Joseph Alberts

          interesting convo. i just returned from a trip to cambodia and n thailand–wanted to offer thanks to shannon for the chiang mai overview/tip posts from back in the day, they came in handy.

          i would rate it as my best ever independent backpacking trip, mainly because of the locals. sure, the sites were fantastic, the food excellent, etc. but the connection with the people, especially in cambodia, was superb. it really made my trip. connecting definitely requires an openness on behalf of the traveler, something which was perhaps lacking on my end previously. but opening oneself to the conversations, the daily life, the evening soccer sessions with kids in the park–those really are the best moments of a trip.

          it’s funny; it took a lot of miles through many destinations to understand and appreciate what was actually leaving those indelible marks in my memory, the highlights i cite in my mind when i recount my travels.

          • Leah

            Getting those conversations going is key, isn’t it? We are house sitting and, while walking the huge dogs of the house, I have the chance to chat with people on the street. The home owners have a cleaner in a couple times each week, and we chat about all sorts, as well. These brief encounters add to my day, for sure. I know that it’s the human connection I want to build on in future. As you say, Joseph, it’s what makes an experience stand out.

          • So glad that you were able to use the CM guide Joseph. And that you had such connected travels in Cambodia. It’s sometimes an afterthought on the backpacking route, but like you some of my best memories come from tiny plastic chairs in the markets of Cambodia, or impromptu conversations — these also form the bedrock of my best memories.

  • Clare

    I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago. It is a life-changing experience, one that will humble you, change your perspective on pre-conceived ideas you may have lived by your whole life without realising. I do think it is the year of the holy year though, and the route will be more crowded than usual because of this – which may require a lot more forward planning (pre-booking albergues), than in other years (ie. the year I did it, I only pre-booked two or three albergues in advance) where you can reduce your life simply to “eat-sleep-walk-think” and how you travel each day is dictated by where you choose to stop – this is refreshing and counter to how you may experience a structured day in the modern non-camino world.

    • Hi Clare, thank you so much for sharing your own experience. I know that the Holy Year will greatly increase the number of people on the trail, and that worries me. Friends recommended that I go in mid Sept as a way to perhaps limit some of that overwhelming numbers walking this year. That eat-sleep-walk-think sounds like exactly what i need in my life right now. I so look forward to the experience, and I thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on it.

      • John

        Hey Shannon. This is so amazing. I stumbled onto your site while looking for some commentary on Bagan Burma. I just got back from there in January 2016 and wanted some more ideas from others experiences. You gave some great insights. Okay..well..then one of my experiences of 2013 was walking the Camino from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela. Till this day there is not a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on my walk on the Camino. Clare is right, it will change how you look at so many things and alert you to what is important in your life. I went end of May to early june and it was fine with the crowds, but Sept is also a great time where the crowds are down. I think the Holy Year would be an inspiring time to go, but I would say stay away from late June-August. Please practice by walking a lot before your trip. My humble advice is GO! You will never forget it.

        • Ah Burma, still one of my favorite travel experiences. So glad you found your way here John. And thank you for your thoughts on the Camino. The more and more I hear how it’s positively impacted people’s lives, the more I am drawn to doing it this year. I hope by starting a bit into September, that I can avoid the rush and still have some of those long reflective days like you had. My thought is to house-sit for a friend in the mountains for the six weeks leading up to it so that I can get some experience! I really appreciate you sharing your own time on the Camino. I am heavily leaning toward it and looking at plane tickets and everything. :)

  • Love the picture of the church in the zocalo. Tried to line up a similar shot the other day but to no avail. You’ll have to show me what ya did next time we walk through :)

    • Why thanks! I will totes show ya what I did; it’s all about time of day and a willingness to lay on the ground. :)

  • Nice post, great pictures and very nice to highlight the microfunding program of En Via. Its a great example of sustainable business and tourism by supporting local people – there should be more of this out there! Btw, nice article also “In Search of Balance” – thats what it comes down to.
    Thanks for the inspirations and enjoy your upcoming travels!

    • So glad that the piece resonated Julian! I have just five more weeks here and then I’ll be moving onward. I hope you have some great upcoming travels planned :)

  • Wow, that’s a great view with the mineral waters. I have been looking for more details about Oaxaca for my upcoming trip there and you provided me with some insights that I haven’t found elsewhere. Part of the reason is because of volunteering some time with the deaf school there. I’m curious about the micro-lending organization since it sounds like a way for the local deaf people of Oaxaca to start a business with as well. Looking forward to more of your updates on Oaxaca.

    • Information is definitely scarce out there! But it’s a great little city, you will love your time there. En Via is also fantastic, but they work exclusively in six communities out in the eastern part of the Valley. There are others though, but it’s important for the locals to find microlending programs that don’t change high interest rates. I have another reader who is starting a deaf-focused NGO to do student outreach from U.S. universities. I would love to know the name of the school where you are volunteering so that I can pass it on to her. She was just recently in Jamaica meeting with the deaf association there.

      Enjoy Oaxaca! :)