Survival 101: Fitting Into Fabulous Oaxaca

by Allison Rosewicz

Oaxaca, Mexico is a traveler's paradise. With its lovely landscapes, wonderful weather, delicious dishes, and incredible culture, who wouldn't want to wander to Oaxaca? But always remember, no matter where one might venture in the world, there are always obstacles to overcome and differences to navigate. So when making your way to study abroad in Oaxaca, keep these “bumps in the road” in mind (as you read on, you will learn that's not a play on words).

We recommend you enjoy Oaxaca's tasty foods from restaurantsnot street stalls
We recommend you enjoy Oaxaca's tasty foods from restaurants—not street stalls. Photo by Eileen Loh

10. Tongue Twisters

When studying abroad in Oaxaca (or anywhere in Mexico, for that matter), students should learn at least a little Spanish or take a few Spanish classes. English and Spanish share many cognates (words that are similar), so sometimes it can be easy to figure out the translation of a word. For example, the English restaurant is restaurante in Spanish — easy enough, but be careful with the many false cognates and look-alikes. Embarazada in Spanish might look and sound like the English embarrassed — but, no, it means pregnant. So remember, you are not embarazada for doing something silly or culturally awkward. 

Also watch out for words with double meanings. Fresa means strawberry, but if you slip and decide to describe a cute, redheaded girl as such, you will not be giving her a compliment — it's local slang for someone very superficial. Furthermore, tread lightly when using words you think you do know. In most basic Spanish classes, we learn that viejo means old; but viejo can actually have a derogatory tone if you use it to describe someone. So "watch your tongue" when practicing Spanish, but don't be afraid to use it — most people here are happy to help you learn and kindly correct any mistakes.

9. Catcalls

Many female students to Mexico have to endure the occasional whistle, come-on, or similar annoyance from local men (it's pretty amazing how much English you'll suddenly hear during one of these exchanges). Blondes may find themselves especially prone to unwanted comments. Try to ignore it, but never fear: Oaxaca is a lovely and generally safe place for female students.  

8. Mongrels And More

If you are an animal lover, prepare yourself for some sad sights in Oaxaca. Packs of dogs live in the streets, scrounging through garbage, searching for daily sustenance. If you leave your door open, simply to let a nice breeze in the house, don't be surprised to find a skinny cat in your kitchen, taking what he can get. In Oaxaca, animals, even pets, are not doted on as they are in the U.S. and other countries. An animal's life can be rough here, and that's plain to see.

7. Dealing With The Doctor

If you find yourself dealing with a medical emergency or illness, realize that the waiting line to see a doctor could be an immensely long one, or that the term “appointment” doesn't always apply in Oaxaca. Once you do see a doctor, don't expect the consultation to last nearly as long as you waited for it. Often, doctor's visits don't seem entirely thorough. Also remember that any prescribed medicines will be in Spanish, as well as the instructions. So if you have very basic Spanish or none at all, it is very advisable to take along someone who can translate when visiting a doctor. When studying abroad in Oaxaca, be sure to ask your university or institute for help navigating the medical system. Again, don't fret too much, there are plenty of good clinics with modern medicine and techniques.

Oaxaca City

Oaxaca City

6. Careful Consumption

To avoid needing a doctor in the first place, one of the most important things you can do is watch what you consume. Oaxaca is home to a plethora of different foods to which your belly might not be accustomed. True, those street carts and stalls cooking up succulent meats, rolled into tantalizing tacos dipped in spicy salsas, might seem heavenly. But the spices used, not to mention the sometimes questionable sanitary conditions of street food preparation, can be hell for your stomach.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't indulge in the delicious dishes of Oaxaca, the food is some of the most irresistible in the world after all. Just be careful where you eat it (a clean, well-known restaurant is always a better bet than a street stall), and know your limits as far as spices and peppers.

5. Monster In A Bottle: Mezcal

As for the Holy Grail of what should be consumed most carefully, that top spot remains with Oaxaca's infamous liquor, mezcal. There is a reason why it's not uncommon to see men passed out on the sidewalk after an afternoon of mescal-guzzling with his amigos: this stuff is brutal.

Like tequila, its better-known cousin, mezcal is made from the maguey plant; however, it is processed differently than tequila for a distinct, more unique flavor and seemingly much stronger alcoholic punch. Also unlike tequila, mezcal usually isn't mixed into a drink; a shot is its typical form, only adding to its knockout kick. Of course, a study abroad program in Oaxaca wouldn't be complete without sipping some of its traditional liquor, but remember, mezcal in moderation is the key.

4. Never-Ending Noise

One of the many great elements of studying abroad in Oaxaca is there is always something to do. With constant activity, however, comes a possible annoyance: nonstop noise. Packs of street dogs or yowling stray cats might be waking you up in the middle of the night. At all hours of the day, your ears are likely to be bombarded with blasting music, long-honking car horns, or loud fiestas lasting into the wee hours of the morning.

Probably the most distinct racket of all will be the fireworks that sound like bombs going off all day. Sometimes, even Oaxacan residents don't know if they're hearing fireworks or a military exercise. So unless you're one of the masses out partying all night, perhaps investing in a pair of earplugs would be a good idea.

3. Bearing with Banda

Regarding the music blasting in Oaxaca all the time — sometimes it's salsa or cumbia, that immediately makes you do a little shimmy and shake. Reggaeton is a guilty pleasure with a great beat. Ranchera, with its traditional horns, guitars, and voices, inspires a feeling from times past.

But then there's banda. No matter where you are or what you're doing, this music endlessly bombards your ears, whether it's playing from car stereos, stores, restaurants, or cell phones. If you're really lucky, you might find yourself lunching in a café or getting your hair trimmed in a salon that just happens to have the television tuned to a 24-hour, all-banda video channel. Banda draws from many of the traditional musical styles in Mexico, but somehow comes out with a sound all its own. It has more of a pop-music feel, which could explain why it's probably the most popular music in Oaxaca (as well as having origins there).

Banda is based around brass music, and includes other instruments such as the clarinet, accordion, and drums. The result is very similar to polka music, with a Mexican flair. This music, coupled with its constant flow in Oaxaca, can be somewhat annoying and exasperating to a foreigner's ear. But in time, you get used to it. Banda becomes like static noise.

Church in Oaxaca

Church in Oaxaca

2. The Trick of Time

Possibly the most important thing you can do in preparation for study abroad in Oaxaca is learn patience. In terms of time, the culture here is well known for being laid back and flexible, to put it mildly. Words like “mañana” (“tomorrow”) and “¿Quién sabe?” (“Who knows?”) are typical answers to questions about time. In many places, including doctor and government offices, appointments are not possible, so you can find yourself waiting in line for a long time.

If you schedule a meeting with someone, don't expect that person to show up on the dot. If you stop into a shop to quickly grab a bottle of water, “quickly” won't necessarily play out that way. The cashier might be having a conversation on his cell phone, and you will be expected to wait until he's finished talking. And the store might not be able to make change for you, which means the cashier will have to go to another store to get change, which could lead to yet another conversation (you see the cycle?). Don't get mad, though, it's also easy to admire the Oaxacan culture for its less-stress attitude.

1. Highway from Hell

A lovely trip to Oaxaca will feature one major “bump in the road”… literally. Speed control on the roads in Oaxaca has a singular solution: speed bumps (called topes), which are gigantic and plentiful. There don't seem to be a lot of traffic laws, so one can see why speed bumps are necessary. Thankfully, Oaxaca has excellent public transportation systems that, despite these bumps, get from one destination to another on schedule. This seems like a miracle, considering the conditions of many of the roads in Oaxaca.

Highway 150 going north out of Oaxaca City all the way to Mexico City is an excellent road. The most common route to the coast (Highway 175), however, can be atrocious. The highway going south to the beaches is not for the weak (be that of mind, spirit, or stomach). The road curves and winds through mountainous terrain, and is quite damaged from frequent mud and landslides during the rainy season. Drivers don't tend to slow down despite these obstacles, zooming between the speed bumps, swerving to miss the potholes, and racing around the curves. Sick passengers, therefore, are commonplace. Don't let this be a detriment to traveling while you are studying in Oaxaca; a journey is all about the ride, right? The beauty you will see along the way and at your destination is worth it (just remember motion sickness medicine can be a traveler's best friend).