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Language & Luxury: A Oaxaca Sojourn — Page 2

Story and photos by Leslie A. Westbrook

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Dessert at CriolloAfter a tasty breakfast of chilaquiles, Erika arrived on time for day two of instruction. Fortunately, my maestro laughed at my jokes and mistakes, and we had fun while learning. I told her what I did the day before and she did the same, all in Spanish, while sitting in another one of Oaxaca's lovely parks, this one with a fountain. Again, an hour later, we walked to another one of the town's many historic churches (there are perhaps 14 alone in Centro), with a stop at a farmacia and then a tienda to purchase sweet seed and honey treats that caught our eye and delighted our taste buds.

We walked back and stopped to admire embroidered blouses from San Antonito (Castillo Velasco), a village known for its beautiful embroidery work. I made a mental note to visit on a future visit.

I had booked lunch at the highly regarded restaurant Criollo, from the chef who also oversees/owns Pujol in Mexico City, recently named the best restaurant in the Americas. Criollo did not disappoint. The seven-course tasting menu for lunch was well worth the price (about $70 including wine and tip) and the setting was delightful. This was my most memorable meal, but there's plenty of competition for great food in Oaxaca.

Gallery Sandoval Oaxaca

Tuesday afternoon was scheduled to visit local contemporary art galleries with my afternoon teacher and to personally meet one of the artists, Emilia Sandoval, whose fascinating work was on exhibition. The three of us talked extensively about her work, art, and life while walking to and visiting her small studio with a rooftop view where we sipped mezcal at day's end and watched the sunset.

Excursions from Oaxaca City

For this next morning's lesson with Erika we decided to sit at Las Amantes' breakfast café, then we walked to explore an old neighborhood, practicing along the way. She left me at the graphic arts cooperative we'd passed by the first day so I could make some purchases for my art collection. Ericka also left me with my homework marching orders: a list of five verbs that I was to conjugate into questions present, past and future for Thursday's lesson.

Oaxaca agave mezcal

At noon, for an afternoon tour outside of the city, our Language and Luxury guide Luis arrived in his sparkling clean and comfortable midnight-blue VW Jetta. We began at the famous 2,000-year-old Tulle tree—said to be the largest tree trunk in the world. Our drive through the arid south valley on the Pan American Highway reminded me of Southern California inland landscape. We then had a fascinating visit to a fifth-generation weaving family who explained the entire process in a "show and tell and try" demonstrations that included carding, dying, and wool weaving, with information on how they obtain their materials.

We stopped for lunch at a delicious family run restaurant, La Antigua, before heading to the amazing 13th-century archeological ruins at Mitla. During our exploration of the ruins I was shocked to see codex that were surprisingly unprotected.

Our afternoon was topped off with a mezcal tasting and explanation of how the smoky liquor is made at a local mezcaleria.

mezcal in Oaxaca

More Wanderings and Spanish Lessons in the Historic City

I have pages of notes with helpful new expressions like, "Que barbaridad!" and "Que coraje!" (when something makes you mad). I also learned more polite ways of asking for a drink or coffee from my waitperson at a restaurant.

Erika and I laughed a lot, so of course I learned that "reir" is the verb to laugh. Our lessons were very organic in nature and relaxed.

That day my friend and I had lunch at the highly regarded and often recommended Casa Oaxaca. We were underwhelmed though. Although the rooftop setting was lovely and both the service and tableside prepared salsa were excellent, the rest was rather routine. We would be much happier at tomorrow's lunch at the place recommended by the drunk local who apparently knew his stuff.

My last cultural immersion afternoon was spent visiting more museums, a local art foundation, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, and another ice cream stop. We finished at the Toledo library, where my maestro pulled a book from the shelves containing two of her essays on Mexican contemporary artists.

On the last day of my Spanish lesson with Erika I was sad to say goodbye. I felt like I had made a friend. I told her that my house was her house (mi casa es tu casa) if she or her sister came to California.

Oaxaca herbs and spices

She remembered that I was interested in visiting a local flea market and so we took a taxi there and spent our final hours together wandering the market, tasting fresh tamales from a local vendor and checking out all the goods for sale.

My lessons were not about grading, but about improvement. Hopefully I did improve my Spanish in our short time together; I know I do want to keep learning.

My friend and I had a great lunch Las Quince Letras, popular with locals as well as tourists, not just our drunk friend who recommended it. That evening we had to try the tacos at Sierreta, a place open since 1940 that is pure local, cheap and tasty—a great recommendation from my maestro, Erika.

Oaxaca language school

Loaded Down to Leave Oaxaca

My bags were fully packed with treasures acquired in Mexico's top artisan region: weavings, embroidered clothing, ceramics, and more. Our 2:00 p.m. departure left us with time to finish up any last-minute shopping and enjoy another fantastic lunch. This one was at a restaurant right next door to Las Amantes called Pitionia. It was a delicious end to a delightful week, one I hope to repeat either in Oaxaca again or perhaps Mexico City or San Miguel de Allende, where Language and Luxury has a bevy of fine homes to enjoy while improving or acquiring Spanish language skills.

It was time to say muchas gracias to beautiful Oaxaca, Language & Luxury, and the warm and welcoming people of Mexico. Hasta pronto!

If you go:

See more about Language & Luxury Spanish immersion tours at Rates vary based on location, time of year, accommodations chosen, and duration of trip. Their toll-free number is 1-866-321-LANGUAGE (5264).

Story and photos by Leslie A. Westbrook.

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