Your choice of type of loding in Oaxaca, and its location, will play a significant part in your overall cultural experience
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
An examination of the occasional tourist review of quality, reputable bed and breakfast accommodations in Oaxaca, reveals commentaries on at least one popular travel website relating to noise, insects, smells and sanitation.
Travelers to a Southern, Third World country, who want at least partial immersion into the host society as an element of their total vacation, must recognize that their choice of accommodation is an integral ingredient of the overall experience. By virtue of not selecting a Holiday Inn, Fiesta Inn or high end hotel in another international chain, you’re making a statement, and it’s not necessarily about how much you can afford or choose to pay.
Tourists who opt to lodge in the quaint, traditional setting of a family-run bed and breakfast, guest house or small hotel in Oaxaca seek a taste of “the real Mexico,” and a personal touch… but such a choice at times comes with night-time noise, unfamiliar insects, the odd unpleasant odor, and house rules which our Western mores, fueled by ethnocentrism, might lead us to mistakenly believe result in unsanitary conditions.
Even opting for the more traditional lodging style is no guarantee that your experience will be any different. Oaxaca is Oaxaca … a UNESCO world heritage site, so it must, and of course does, have something special to offer, including its multiplicity of rich and diverse cultural traditions.
Invite a middle class Oaxacan couple to vacation in your suburban home in Chicago, New York or Toronto. The unaccustomed, every morning before leaving for the day’s activities, will go outside and place a neatly tied plastic bag in the trash … soiled toilet tissue.
The state of Oaxaca, as is the case with many Mexican destinations, does not have the quality of waste removal infrastructure to which you are likely accustomed. Oaxacans have learned that the best way to avoid clogged and backed up drains, minimize the likelihood of unnecessary repair costs, be a considerate neighbor, and act in an ecologically responsible manner, is to not flush paper into either the municipal drainage system or the septic tank.
Although toilet paper has been around since late 14th century China, and the first flush toilet was developed in 1596, it seems as though we’re still struggling with the perfect recipe for excrement disposal … at least here in southern Mexico. But are we unsanitary? You be the judge: your hotel staff removing the bagged Charmin from the hotel every day or two; or running the risk of sewage coming up from the drain either in your lodging or outside on the street.
Your hosts will not ask you to leave for breaching this often unwritten rule, and they’ll probably never know that you’ve done so. But do consider their request. And by all means, when you have Mexican house guests with you in your home town, tell them they can, and should, flush it down.
Unpleasant odors are a fact of life from time to time in most rental accommodations, and in fact in the majority of Oaxacan households regardless of socio-economic rank of their inhabitants. It’s a function of antiquated municipal water delivery and waste removal systems. At certain times of the year our tap water arrives somewhat less than transparent, even though we religiously use and clean our filters---it’s even been known to happen in some major American and Canadian cities from time to time during a hot spell. The water is nevertheless safe without boiling or additional treatment, for bathing, doing dishes and other non-ingesting purposes. A partial solution is to order trucks, known as pipas, to fill our cisterns. The water usually, but not always, arrives crystal clear, sometimes even with a bit of green algae, evidencing its origin from a pure mountain spring, though not Irish.
In the rainy season at times sewers overflow and otherwise manage to create peculiar smells for a short while. We learn to control and eradicate such temporary scents in short order with one or more antiseptic-style formulations.
Noise and the prevalence of insects and small animals is a function of the lodging environment you choose. Certainly if you elect to stay on the top floor of a suburban hotel with hermetically sealed vinyl or aluminum windows facing a pool or alleyway, you’ll reduce the likelihood of encountering late-night noise and harmless tiny lizards.
Many travelers are drawn to downtown lodgings where inevitably there will be noise at night, predominantly from vehicular traffic, and as you get closer to the zócalo, from music and year-round fiestas. As you move out from the centro histórico, the quality of the din begins to change, at times characterized by canine barking, rooster calls and a plethora of other sounds echoing across the valley. Regardless of where travelers elect to stay, there will no doubt be the resonance of horns, bells, whistles and calls of vendors plying their wares, and of late night fireworks. This is part of the culture of southern Mexican society, on the one hand lacking noise bylaws (or at least their enforcement), and on the other evidencing a richness of tradition, albeit different from that within which most tourists to the region have been raised. Many visitors either purchase ear plugs at a local pharmacy or bring along their own, certainly doing the trick, if that’s what you want, that is to reduce the opportunity to enrich your oratory sense late night before retiring, and in the early morning hours.
Selecting a lodging style characterized by rooms with wooden doors and windows opening onto a lush courtyard, or perhaps a guest house with aesthetically pleasing adobe walls assuring tourists of a fresh and comfortable inside temperature no matter how hot it is outside, enables vacationers to enhance their Latin American travel experience. But you will see the odd spider, maybe even little lizards which keep mosquitoes in check, or ants or beetles depending on the time of year. It’s all a trade off, for both guests and their hosts. We fumigate periodically, but have environmental concerns as well. We might try to visually enhance our accommodations by putting art on the adobe walls, although this creates an ideal hiding place for harmless crawling insects. We maintain a rustic look with pine or cedar doors and windows which we might leave open during the day for fresh air circulation, and to welcome the pleasing perfume of flowering bushes in our gardens, but even with screens we cannot keep out every minute courtyard critter.
The rewards of selecting an accommodation-type which fits into the context of the vacation experience you seek are innumerable. There are only two prerequisites: that you seek to understand, get used to and in certain cases welcome, and accept for at least a week or two, the lifestyle, worldview and cultural traditions of others who in fact are not all different from you; and that you remember that your hosts are dedicated to providing you with value-added service which above all will ensure your comfort, safety and security, and enjoyment of the magic of Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Until a house guest walked off with about 20 pairs of ear plugs from a night table drawer, he was gratuitously supplying them. Alvin received his Masters in Social Anthropology from York University in Toronto in 1978, taught for a few years, and subsequently attended Osgoode Hall Law School. From 1986 to 2004 he was the litigation partner at Banks & Starkman, specializing in family law. Although a frequent traveler to Oaxaca since 1991, it was not until he ceased practicing law that he took up permanent residence in the state capital in 2004. In his spare time Mr. Starkman takes couple, families and small groups touring the craft villages, towns on their market days, ruins and other attractions including more off-the-beaten-track sights; writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca; translates from Spanish to English for a Oaxaca-based website; writes a legal column for a Canadian national antiques newspaper; is occasional consultant to documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca.