As my husband, Si, and I leave Atzompa, green pottery capital of Oaxaca, we wave down a local taxi. Unknown to us, the taxi is a collectivo, operating much like a bus. The driver collects six fares instead of one for the same trip. We stop frequently, picking up passengers, cramming into the small four-door vehicle. I draw the line when two large men smash on either side of me in the tiny front seat. “No, No, mas personas,” I say. “Yes, yes, Senora,” says the driver. My husband takes care of me, as he usually does, and gets out of the ragged back seat to trade spots, maneuvering around the stick shift. As we zoom around corners lurching from side to side, I’m disconcerted and thrown off balance in every way imaginable. The collectivo is economically understandable, even ingenious. But, not being used to such close contact with strangers, I heave a sigh of relief when we reach our destination.
It is March 2017, and a sheltered casita in the heart of Oaxaca has been our home for the last five days. My husband works too much, so I convinced him to spend a month in Mexico; up the Baja coast, inland to Guanajuato, spending our last week in Oaxaca, a magical colonial city that seized my imagination.
Up a metal spiral staircase is the loft bedroom, a king bed covered by a rough blue Mexican blanket for the cool nights, and a white tiled bath. Water pressure is poor, and the lonely sprinkler on the tiny lawn sputters occasionally. In the morning, singing drifts over the wall from the primary school down the street, as we drink deep rich chocolate coffee. The chocolate is sweet on the tongue, thick and dark. I remember years ago when we were first in love, Si took me to Puerto Vallarta, and one night whispered to me, “Your hair is like chocolate.” Now my hair is graying, no longer the dark brown it was, although still thick, falling to my shoulders like a worn cloak. We’ve come here, Si searching for meaning in his work, and me trying to staunch his workaholism so I can have my husband back. We’re both helpers, trained from an early age, drawn to pain, like an insect to flame.
I learned about Fundacion En Via on the flight to Oaxaca from an American woman who lives in the city and volunteers. The non-profit organization headquartered in Oaxaca offers an intimate look inside the lives of women business owners who live in the outlying pueblos. Our co-dependency stretches even into our vacation, driven to benefit others in some uplifting celebration of usefulness.
Not far from the tourist center, Oaxaca is surrounded by small proud villages, each with a specialty craft; green, black and red pottery, weaving, textiles, leather. Our do-gooder tendencies surface, practicing responsible tourism by taking an En Via tour to visit one of them.
In Teotitlan del Valle, a town of six thousand located thirty-eight kilometers from Oaxaca in the Sierra Juarez mountain foothills, I meet Elena, the owner of a small internet café. The cafe walls are lined with dated computers that crowd the tiny room as we sit to talk. The En Via tour guide translates Elena’s words. She’s single because her husband had an affair and she left him. The café no longer serves coffee because Elena’s pot broke and she didn’t replace it. She cornered the market on printing when she purchased a printer using an En Via loan, and is planning to expand soon. I start fantasizing about donating money to the cause, changing someone’s life with my gilded 401K instead of funding a comfortable retirement.
Our volunteer tour guide says the money we pay for our tour is used to fund interest free business loans. Perfect, now I can feel I’m doing my part. The loans start at fifteen hundred pesos, or about seventy-five U.S. dollars, and they go a long way in Oaxaca. The microfinance recipients don’t qualify for standard small business bank loans, and non-traditional loans carry large interest rates, some as high as sixty percent.
My thoughts go further; I could start a non-profit of my own. I worked in the field for most of my adult life. Si and I discuss ideas about how we could do this or that.
Further down the street in Teotitlan del Valle, two Mexican women explain their craft. The mother’s hands are wrinkled, and her long black hair is sliced through with gray, like my own, yet she has strong arms and fingers. The daughter is plump and smiling, eager to display her wares. The work room has a concrete floor and the walls are covered in wool rugs, the specialty craft of this pueblo. Long, short, multi colored, plain; the rugs are hand woven out of sheep’s wool from the next town over.
The weavers wash wool in the river, soften it with hand tools and separate the strands using a wooden spinning wheel. I watch a demonstration and try the tools. They require a degree of strength and dexterity I don’t have, and my respect grows.
Their home has five looms, one for each person who lives here. Family members live and work in the same house to care for children. They don’t have money, but they have family and community. The artists started weaving at the age of eight. Because school was not accessible in Teotitlan at the time, weaving was one of the few vocations open to them.
Loans are designed to encourage repayment through shared accountability by lending to women in groups of three. This “solidarity” model permits En Via to lend to women with little credit history and no collateral. I find their business model sensible, so far, it’s been successful. I know I’m supposed to appreciate my prosperity and share with those who have less. The more I think of how I can help, which I don’t seem to be able to stop doing, the more tired I feel.
I admire these independent women; whose lives are so hard. There are low income people in the United States, but I haven’t seen this kind of bone deep poverty at home. I ask a weaver how much she sells in one day. She says, “Usually, one woven item per day, a bolsa bag or a rug, to gringos at the market.” Some of the women are raising children without fathers. Ron, an En Via volunteer, says a number of the husbands have crossed the border to look for work. They send money home when they’re able. I reflect on my own experience as a single mother with the responsibility of supporting my children, the overwhelming despair, the fear of failure. The women have each other, but it must be lonely at times.
After I met Si, my money troubles were over. As a physician, he had a stable income, more than enough to support our blended family. It allowed me to be fully available to the children, and I was grateful for his generosity. I found myself living with a level of affluence I never expected. I don’t regret my decision to leave my career, but it shrank my world to parent/teacher meetings, school functions, and taxiing the kids around. Si spent the bulk of his time at work while I was home, the kind of traditional marriage I once despised.
The people in Teotitlan have been weaving for centuries, the craft passed down from their ancestors. They don’t have the luxury of bemoaning existential dilemmas. Fifty percent of them still speak Zapotec, a living language since 400 BC. The Zapotecs ruled this area from Monte Alban, an archeological world heritage site a few miles outside of the valley. Si and I wander in the shadow of tall stone ruins, peeking into centuries old burial sites. I sit on an ancient staircase and watch my husband climb to the top, our typical pattern.
Afterwards, we talk. “Let’s travel more,” I say. “It helps us.” He agrees but he’s reluctant to be away from work too often. What will his patients do without him? “We have to do something different,” I argue, “You’re having heart problems and I never see you.” He looks old, the face of a man who takes on the weight of the world, patients who threaten to commit suicide, children who can’t cope, parents who want him to inject their wounded families with a miracle.
That night, Si and I are resting from our walk on a bench in the plaza under a shady tree, and a woman approaches him. “I remember you,” she says. “I know you.” They talk for a few minutes and discover they knew each other thirty years ago in Vermont. When they start talking about work, I feel myself slipping away. I have nothing to offer the conversation.
Before Mexico, I was trapped in a tedium of routine, oblivious to life playing out only a short flight away. This country, one so many in the United States view as a threat or a nuisance, has captured me. When I travel, I tend to regard people with skepticism, and proceed with caution. I don’t need a border wall because I have my own walls to separate me.
Drinking coffee outside a café, we encounter John, who strikes up a conversation. This is what happens in Mexico. There is none of the reserve I expect from a stranger on a bench. He’s an ex-pat who moved here twenty years ago and never looked back. We happen upon others like him during our time in Mexico. Could we leave our lives and disappear here? Si says, “I could live in Mexico,” and I feel a sliver of hope, could we be alive again? The kids are grown and gone, it’s just us, left with an empty nest and a troubled world we can’t heal.
A few days later, I watch the hills and valleys of Oaxaca recede in the distance and reflect on my good fortune to be born in the United States, land of child support and opportunity. If I’m so lucky, why do I dread going home?
I feel a deep connection to Oaxaca and the people I’ve met, those who were born here, and outsiders who found a home in this central Mexican city. Their stories inspire me to be different, to share creatively, to wisely use what I’ve been given, and remember the powerful unexpected forces that bind us together.
Si and I have been talking about a trip around the world for years, leaving our responsibilities and flying with the wings of chance. He’s not ready yet, but soon. I feel a pang of longing. Don’t wait too long, the wind seems to say. Oaxaca is only the beginning.
Kim Steinberg has lived in Boise, Idaho since 1978. Recently, her work has been published in Idaho Magazine, Writers in the Attic – The Cabin Anthology, Bewildering Stories, and the Shut Up and Write Zine. She holds a BA in Communication from BSU and a Masters from Fielding University. She is currently on a year-long adventure, working on an around-the-world travel memoir.