The MEXICO Report
By Susie Albin-Najera
Life in Oaxaca, Mexico: Suzanne Barbezat, Writer for About.com’s Mexico Travel Site, Talks About How One Serendipitous Moment in Oaxaca Changed Her Life Forever and For the Better
I have great respect for people in general but especially for those in the same industry and it has always been on the top of my list to showcase their work. During the last year, I became familiar with Suzanne’s work as the writer for About.com’s Mexico Travel section. As a fellow travel writer, we share the same love for Mexico, travel and the surrounding cultures. Her story is extraordinary, unique and romantic, just like Oaxaca itself.
Originally from Montreal, Canada, Suzanne obtained a degree in Anthropology from McGill University. She traveled extensively through the United States, Canada, Europe and China before undertaking a solo trip through Mexico, Central and South America in 1997. She loved Mexico and Oaxaca, in particular, and decided to settle there. She lives in Oaxaca with her husband and their two kids, where she writes about Mexico for About.com’s Mexico Travel site (gomexico.about.com). She and her husband also offer tours in and around Oaxaca through their company Discover Oaxaca Tours (www.discover-oaxaca.com).
When did you start writing about Mexico?
I started writing about Mexico on the web five years ago when I became About.com’s Guide to Mexico Travel.
I first came to Oaxaca on an adventure traveling by myself from Canada. My goal was to see how far south I could get by bus, starting from Montreal. I knew absolutely nothing about Oaxaca, but as soon as I stepped into the Zocalo (the main square), I realized that this is a very special place. I hadn’t planned on staying more than a night or two, but I met two young Canadian women in the youth hostel where I stayed who convinced me I should spend more time here. They were leaving the following day, but they told me I must visit Monte Alban and several other places in and around the city, so I decided to follow their advice.
On the following day I met my future husband, Benito, so I guess it was fate. I stayed a few more days getting to know him and Oaxaca a bit better, and then I continued my trip (resolved to return). I traveled as far as Costa Rica by bus, then flew to Ecuador and continued south by bus to Buenos Aires, Argentina, before heading back north. On my way back I stopped again in Oaxaca and that’s when I decided that I wanted to come back and live here. I had run up some credit card debt while I was traveling, and I had a job waiting for me back in Canada, so I went back for 6 months, tied up loose ends there, and returned to stay. Thirteen years later, I’m still here and loving it. I think I was very lucky (and still am!) to find someone that I wanted to be with in a place that I wanted to be.
Moving to Mexico – can you explain how easy/hard it was to physically (and mentally) move to Oaxaca?
Moving to Mexico was a bit of a challenge. Oaxaca is a beautiful city with a thriving cultural scene, and there is a fairly large expat community here, so I wasn’t completely isolated, but it was quite an adjustment moving to a place where I knew no one but my husband and didn’t speak the language fluently. Also there are all sorts of cultural differences that took some getting used to.
My lack of Spanish was probably the biggest obstacle at the beginning. When I was traveling I felt that I had reached a level where I could communicate my basic needs quite well, and understood a lot more than what I could speak, but after 6 months back in Canada it felt like I was beginning all over again – although I already spoke French and I think that gave me a leg up for learning Spanish.
I missed my family and friends back in Canada very much at the beginning, and I still do, but I’m happy here. The lifestyle is more relaxed and the pace is slower, which is nice (though occasionally frustrating), and I find it’s a great place to raise kids. I enjoy the local food and traditions and the emphasis on family and community.
One thing that’s been essential to my happiness as an expat is to have friends, both other expats and Mexicans. When you live far from your family, friendships take on even greater importance. Also, I get along well with my in-laws which has been a blessing.
How long have you lived in Oaxaca?
I first came in October 1997, and moved here permanently in July 1998, so 13 years. Time flies!
How much time do you spend on writing about Mexico each week?
It varies a lot, depending on what else I have going on – when I’m giving tours or traveling it’s less than other times, but several hours every week, and I also spend a lot of time reading blogs and books about Mexico too.
Love in Oaxaca – how did you meet your husband? (is he Oaxacan?)
My husband Benito is Oaxacan. He’s Zapotec, originally from the Sierra Norte area of Oaxaca, but he’s lived almost all his life in Oaxaca City. I met him at Monte Alban – he was guiding a tour group and I overheard him and was interested in what he had to say. When he finished I asked him some questions and we started talking…
How old are your children? Did you name them traditional Oaxacan (Mayan/ Mixtec/Zapotec) names?
My daughter Jasmine Ixchel is 11, and my son Jeronimo Benito is three and a half. Jasmine is named after my godmother. We think it’s a pretty name, and we also like that it works in Spanish, English and French, although here in Mexico people usually spell it differently. Ixchel is a Mayan goddess associated with the moon and fertility.
We had a hard time finding a boy’s name that we all liked, but as soon as I mentioned Jeronimo both my husband and daughter agreed. Jeronimo is the Spanish form of Jerome. We associate the name with the Apache chief Geronimo, and we like that it’s not too common, although slightly more so here in Mexico than in Canada and the U.S. His second name is Benito, like my husband, who was named after his father, who was named for the president Benito Juarez, because he was born on March 21, the birthday of Benito Juarez (a national holiday here in Mexico).
How did ‘Discover Oaxaca’ come about?
When I met Benito he was already a tour guide and after some years living here I became a licensed tour guide myself. I have a degree in Anthropology from McGill University in Montreal and I’ve always had an interest in culture and archaeology, so it seemed a natural progression to join him in that work. Our website is at www.discover-oaxaca.com and we offer tours mostly in and around Oaxaca City. Benito is also an amateur birder and works with groups of birders, touring throughout Oaxaca State, and also to other parts of Mexico.
What is one of your favorite tours you offer – and what do you do/where do you go?
I love introducing people to all of Oaxaca’s attractions: the markets, handicrafts, food, culture and archaeology. Monte Alban is one of my favorite places in the world, so it’s always a joy to introduce people to that site, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.
What is life like on an average day for you in Oaxaca?
One of the things I love about being a freelancer is that I don’t have a set routine. I enjoy working from home on the days when I’m writing, and it allows me to be close to my kids, but then there are days when I’m out touring, so it’s a good mix. I also have the opportunity to travel quite a bit, and I enjoy that very much as well.
Do you eat chapulines? Do you recommend, what do they taste like?
I’m ovo-lacto vegetarian, so I don’t eat chapulines as a rule, although I must admit that one time a chapulin accidentally made it into a cheese taco I was eating, so I inadvertently tasted one. I can’t say that I detected any particular grasshopper flavor; my basic impression was crunchy and slightly spicy. People here say that if you eat chapulines you will return to Oaxaca, so if you come here and like it, you should definitely eat some, though for me it wasn’t necessary: I came back anyway!
What are some of your ‘must-sees’ or ‘must-tries’ in Oaxaca?
Every visitor to Oaxaca should visit Monte Alban and Santo Domingo church and museum, and also sit in the Zocalo to have a drink or a meal. There are many villages around Oaxaca that are well worth visiting as well. My personal favorite is Ocotlan on market day, (Friday).
Your favorite Oaxacan foods?
I love tlayudas. You start with an extra-large crispy tortilla, spread bean paste on it, then put on some quesillo (Oaxaca string cheese), then some lettuce, tomato and avocado, fold it over and toast it on the grill until the tortilla is crispy and the cheese inside is melted. Delicious!
Do you belong to any groups in Oaxaca?
I’ve been part of a women’s writing group since 2004. It started as a 3 month creative writing workshop but the group really clicked and we’ve been meeting periodically since then. It’s a nice mix of women of different ages and from different backgrounds, and it’s been a good creative outlet for me, and has helped me work on my written Spanish.
Most of the locals dress in native attire – do you ever dress in native wear?
Rebozos are definitely a wardrobe staple for me; I hardly ever leave home without one, and they’re so practical for the weather here; the days are warm but evenings can be slightly chilly. I sometimes wear traditional blouses, but I don’t usually go full-out with huipil and all, though I do admire them on others!
I’m assuming you speak Spanish…
I do speak Spanish fluently now. When I returned to live here it took a while before I felt that I could converse fluently. After living here for a few months I took a one-week course at a Spanish school here in Oaxaca. Fortunately I was the only student in the class and the teacher whipped through the past tense forms with me which I was confused about, and that helped solidify my grammar. The rest of it I picked up speaking with people and watching telenovelas (which taught me useful phrases like: ¡Eres un desgraciado!).
What do you want people to know about Oaxaca?
The state of Oaxaca is the fifth largest state in Mexico, but it’s the one with the most biodiversity. It encompasses many different geographical and climactic conditions which has resulted in both biological and cultural diversity, making it a fascinating place to visit. We’ve got cloud forest, temperate valleys, and gorgeous coastline, really what more could you ask for?
Oaxaca City is a tranquil, peaceful city, with beautiful colonial architecture and vibrant cultural traditions, excellent cuisine and amazing handicrafts. There were some political problems here in 2006, and although there are demonstrations periodically, it’s a very safe city. I feel perfectly fine walking around the historical center on my own or with my children at night.
Last, maybe some general thoughts about the people, life in Oaxaca and your outlook on travel to Mexico.
About Oaxaca: People in Oaxaca are very friendly and welcoming to visitors.
I’m very glad to have made my home in Oaxaca. There’s no place I’d rather be.
Suzanne’s Thoughts on Mexico: I think most people outside of Mexico don’t realize how big the country is, the vastness of the landscape, the geographical, biological and cultural diversity that is present in this country. It seems that when people from other countries think about Mexico what comes to mind for them is the violence due to the drug war, or they categorize it merely as a beach destination. Those are real aspects of Mexico, but Mexico has so many more facets. Mexico is home to 31 UNESCO world heritage sites; six elements of Mexican culture have been recognized as intangible heritage of humanity; there are 147 natural protected areas, and it’s one of the top ten most biodiverse countries in the world. There are over 60 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico. It’s truly an amazingly diverse country, and most of it is safe and worthwhile to visit.
Be sure to follow Suzanne on Twitter @mexicoguide.