Thursday, 6 November 2008

Life as a travel writer-to-be

Oaxaca, Tuesday 4 November

Yes I know, there are a few days of my trip I have not yet blogged about ― I will catch up very soon. It has just been so intense that time barely allows me to relax, let alone blog.

Today, I learned how important doing pre-visit research can sometimes be. On day 2 of the guidebook writing boot camp, the afternoon's assignment was to review two activities, activities being defined as something visitors can spend their time doing (excluding eating and sleeping).
I already had two ideas in mind: the Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca (Coordinadora Estatal de Productores de Café de Oaxaca ― CEPCO), whose address the Reality Tour's interpreter Jason had given me as a visit there was not included in the tour, and the petrified waterfalls that I had seen on a poster in a tour operators window.

So as soon as we were released from class, I ventured out in the Sun into the not-at-all touristy streets North of the centre to find CEPCO. Turned out to be further away than expected, and when I finally got there, all I could find at the address was a building site. Luckily, a car with the Ita-Teku logo (a model farm; the name means 'Flower Of Life') showed up, and I asked its driver whether I was at the right place and could visit. I could, and I did have a talk with one of his colleagues in the office inside what had looked like a building site ...only, there was actually nothing to see. It would be possible to visit some of the plantations but not for tourists. So nothing for the guidebook assignment here. Still, I did not leave totally empty-handed (or rather -headed) as I got some information about the whole organic coffee growing and fair trade business, which can turn out useful for my professional future.

Heading back towards the centre, I popped into this really plain and good and friendly and ridiculously cheap restaurant. I later used it for a review ― here's the draft:

For cheap and excellent local fare, try La Casona de la Abuela in Colonia Reforma, a little out of the centre. In return you get friendly and fast service and a lunch menu of the (week)day with three starters and three mains to choose from, as well as a small dessert and fruit water ― all of it for $3. The modest size of the place along with its red-brick floors, dark-wood furniture and a couple of black-and-white photos of Oaxaca buildings create a cosy atmosphere. It is all very clean, including the toilets, which even have seats. The oversized television is always on, competing with the occasional busker.

It must have been about then, while sitting at the table reading the copies I had made from a German and a French guidebook, both borrowed from colleagues, that I discovered that I could not review the other activity I had intended to, either. We had been given five or six that were already reviewed. On this list was something called Hierve el Agua, and it turned out this is the name of those petrified waterfalls. Damn. At least I got a 'free' restaurant review. What's more, when l left the place, I saw a house on the other side of the street decorated with a nice drawing of a toucan. The green party! Wow! Interesting that they do have one here. Cross street, enter house, improvise Spanish, ask for brochure (some story that I'm a member of Los Verdes de mi país, Luxemburgo), got brochure, and smiles, out of house, continue downtown.

The great thing about those chessboard city designs they have in the Americas is that you can just zigzag in the general direction you want to go in, and you'll usually end up in the right place. And if not, you just zigzag back a few blocks. This also allows you to venture down unknown streets without the risk of getting lost like you would almost inadvertently in Copenhagen or Amsterdam or Brussels. Heading downtown brought me to a big crossroads where there was a big stadium on one corner. I asked some teenage boys whether it was fútbol. No, it was béisbol. ¿Hay un, eh, match hoy? I jumped on the opportunity to use it for my activity review. But damn, they're between seasons. Continue venturing.

OK, what else is in those guidebooks, lemme see. Oh, a museum for graphic art. Sounds interesting, and it's in the centre. Looking for it, I passed the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, and saw that the last tour of the day was in ten minutes. Cool, and the museum only closes in three hours, I have my two activities!

So I thought, 'cause I used the ten minutes to just go'n'see what this Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca looked like from the outside, and guess which single day of the week it's closed! Right, Tuesdays!! Actually, it didn't even annoy me that I don't know any swearwords in Zapoteco. I just took things as they came, and were. As a travel writer, like I guess with most other roles and situations in life, you gotta cope and take things as they come.

The Jardín Etnobotánico was actually quite interesting, and good for my Spanish too. I did the tour with a fellow student who had suddenly shown up, also in need of a last way out ― the next day it turned out we were four out of ten who had written about that garden. Here's what I submitted:

Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca
Moving a massive 1000 year old cactus includes putting a newsprint ball on every single spike. This Biznaga as it is called is a highlight of the garden's impressive collection of 9500 cactii and other plants, covering 450 different species. Located in the Santo Domingo temple's backyard, the garden is a pleasant place for a relaxing walk away from the city streets. Visits are only possible as guided tours. For those with a decent level of Spanish, tours are more frequent, half the price but also half as long (one hour) as the English tours which are only three times a week.

As we have to keep reviews down to 80 words as a guideline, there will always be interesting facts that you have to leave out. It's called 'kill your babies' (some say 'darlings'). One of several things I don't even mention is the next-door Hemeroteca Pública de Oaxaca "Néstor Sánchez H." where people can read local and national newspapers and magazines for free, they just have to register. I somehow found that pretty cool, and a Galería de periodistas ilustres de Oaxaca decorate the walls in the two small reading rooms, which are open every day from 9 to 20. Amazing. In fact, the french guidebook mentions the place!

So what about my second review? No Fair Trade coffee plantation to visit, the petrified waterfalls have already been reviewed, the baseball season is over slash hasn't begun, and the graphic arts museum is closed today. Good that I was here last week. So I wrote about the organic mezcal producer, cutting down the below blogpost to:

Mezcal Real Minero
Chicken breast liquor anyone? Mexico's only producer of organic mezcal markets this and six other varieties, and offers guided tours. They are in Spanish and led by Graciela Ángeles Carreño who runs the family business. On appointment, she will take groups of at least five through all phases of cultivation and production. The very interesting tour includes visiting the agave fields and the palenque where distillation takes place, as well as tasting three types of mezcal, a hearty lunch and a small gift. Decide in advance who will drive the 40 km back to Oaxaca.

It's an intensive course, an intensive life as a student…

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