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GP27Aug03: Happy in Oaxaca

Anyone who has been feeling distressed lately might consider seeking solace in the colonial city of Oaxaca.  We spent a week there last month attending a cooking school, and came away feeling relaxed, lighthearted and, well, downright happy.  The question we kept asking ourselves afterwards was why?  Why did six days in southern Mexico, bumping around on dirt roads, roasting chiles over hot wood fires, making tortillas and cheese from scratch, provide the sort of tonic unavailable from endless spas created for the restless affluent? 

A Colonial Treasure.  It helps, of course, that Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s prettiest cities.  It is beautifully situated on a high plateau 5,068 feet above sea level, embraced by gently folded mountains, whose slopes appear to be wearing a dark blanket of trees.  The air here is clear and cool, even when the sun is scorching.  Thanks to a tropical storm or two, gardens were bursting with bright dahlias and roses, and a patchwork of fields surrounding the city were lush and green. 

This is an “intimate” city, one that feels more like a small, slow-paced town than a bustling locale of 259,600 people.  In its narrow streets, the Spanish colonial past is ever present: magnificent baroque churches and convents, elaborate gilded altar pieces and elegantly faded frescoes bear witness to the power of the Spanish conquest.  But the city’s ancient Indian heritage is also vibrantly alive.  The flight path between Oaxaca and the capital goes right by the impressive pyramids of Monte Alban, which were built on a green mountaintop 4,000 feet above the city between 500 B.C. and 1600 A.D.  This is one of the largest and best preserved archaeological sites in all of Mexico; many other nearby ruins can easily be visited. Even today, the facial features of many Oaxacans are pure Indian, and more than a few speak ancient Zapotec and Mixtec dialects.  Much of the rich, complex food prepared in homes and restaurants has its roots in the distant past.  Traditional fare, such as tejate, a refreshing foamy drink made from cacao, mamey seeds and corn, are based on recipes that go back a thousand years or more.  (For more on the history of Oaxaca, see www.oaxaca-travel.com.)  

Not Mired in the Past.  Even though Oaxaca has been  designated a UNESCO world heritage site, the city is hardly mired in the past.  It has a Sears, a McDonald’s and a Sam’s Club (where the availability of cheap Manchego cheese is transforming the local culinary repertoire ), but so far, these harbingers of north-of-the-border culture have been kept on the outskirts of town.  The Mercado de Abastos is a sprawling market where everything from tires and plastic shoes to exotic dried chiles and chapulines (fried grasshoppers dusted with red chile powder) are sold.  But traditional pinatas are nowhere to be found, having been replaced by Teletubbies and Sponge Bobs.  Tourism is big business:  Over 200,000 people a year visit Oaxaca and spend upwards of $90 per day, fueling a vibrant restaurant and folk art scene.  The city is also the site of maquiladora factories, and on the fringes of town the government has built non-descript housing for some workers.   

Art is everywhere.  One of Oaxaca’s secrets is the relative power wielded by artists.  Last year, a coalition including internationally acclaimed painter Francisco Toledo managed to keep the Golden Arches off the lovely arcaded zocalo, or central square, by collecting a petition of over 7,000 protesting signatures.  Always a city of artists, Oaxaca was the birthplace of the painter Rufino Tamayo, whose personal collection of prehispanic art is showcased at his eponymous museum. Toledo, a one man preservation movement, helped to found Oaxaca’s Museum of Contemporary Art in a beautiful colonial house, and was instrumental in transforming the cloisters and convent of Santo Domingo into a cultural center.  The city is full of galleries showing everything from wildly colorful folk art and rugs to the avant garde.  

Getting to the Roots of Happiness.  As always, one needs a really good guide to penetrate the surface of a city in a short period of time.  We were fortunate to be taking a cooking class with Susana Trilling, a cookbook author and television host, who has spent the last 15 years in Oaxaca researching its ancient culinary traditions and meeting, along the way, dozens of wonderful cooks and artisans who opened their homes and their hearts to us. Trilling , who runs Seasons of My Heart cooking school (see www.seasonsofmyheart.com) at Rancho Aurora, an organic farm just outside of town, is a cheerful, enthusiastic woman who seems to have devoted friends in every village and market place in the region.  Our congenial group of eight spent six days eating fabulous food at market stalls, collecting wild mushrooms on a misty mountainside, and learning to make tamales and dozens of other delicious dishes.  One night Trilling skipped a planned visit to a restaurant so we could attend a lively party celebrating the baptism of a friend’s grandson.  We were welcomed as if we too were old friends and spent the evening laughing, dancing and sampling homemade mezcal, the lethal fermented drink made from the maguey plant.  Later we joined the crowds at a wildly popular late night tlayuda (grilled beef and tortilla) stand before staggering home to bed.  We never slept and though the body occasionally rebelled, we were all deliriously happy.  On the last night, one member of our very American group turned to us with tears in her eyes and said, “How can I ever go back?” 

It’s not that the Oaxaca doesn’t have problems.  There is the slightest air of menace on one side of the zolcalo, where a tent city has been set up by impoverished campesinos who have come to town to protest a variety of issues, from land rights to the holding of political prisoners.  One night we watched a procession of nearly a thousand silent men and women carrying long-stemmed, fragrant azucenas, white flowers of mourning, and handpainted banners demanding justicia and libertad.  Land use issues have erupted into violence in one village, and there is a sense that there might be a volcano waiting to erupt.  

Giving in Order to Receive.  And yet, everywhere we were impressed by the close relationships which exist amongst ordinary people.  We were awakened at 5:30 one morning by a brass band marching down our street and the sound of firecrackers exploding.  Sr. Chencho, our innkeeper, explained that the neighborhood church’s annual fiesta was just a few weeks away and parade was to remind the sponsors that food, fireworks and music would be needed soon. Chencho went on to say that in the villages around Oaxaca, whenever there is a wedding or funeral or feast day, it is the custom for the mayordomo of the celebration to go from house to house, asking for a contribution—two turkeys, a case of beer, money to pay for the music.  Next time, “when there is a celebration, the other families go to the mayordomo and ask him for a contribution,” he explained.  The is the notion behind Oaxaca’s famed Guelaguetza, a festival of regional dances that attracts thousands of visitors from all over Mexico.  At the end, the dancers from each village throw gifts to the crowd—loaves of bread, small pottery dishes, pineapples and the like:  “You give gifts in order to receive,” said Chencho.  

Although tradition can be inhibiting, it also gives meaning to the lives of many Oaxacans.  The Guelaguetza opens with the blowing of a conch shell and an oration delivered in ancient Zapotec, a clear invocation of Oaxaca’s mystical Indian heritage.  You can probably pick up packages of tortillas at Sam’s Club, but we met many good cooks who still grind dried corn soaked in lime water to make a rich, delicate masa, or dough, which, flattened and cooked over a wood fire, makes tortillas that are beyond compare.  Moles, the blend of chiles, spices, nuts, fruits and vegetables for which Oaxaca is famed (it’s known as the land of the seven moles), are slow, time-consuming dishes to prepare, but they provide an intimate link to the region’s past.     

In this connection to the past, there is a sense of wonder and mystery that we seem to have forgotten.  This is a city, after all, which holds one of Mexico’s biggest celebrations of the Day of the Dead.  Families create elaborate altars to honor their dead; these ofrendas are adorned with marigold flowers, copal incense and the favorite foods of the departed.  All year round folk art shops are filled with skeletons dressed as brides and grooms, priests and policemen, as well as troops of alebrijes, brightly colored fantastical animals that seem to have sprung from a feverish dream.  At Christmas, on the Night of the Radishes, the city’s residents compete to carve giant radishes into extraordinary scenes.  Even the ritual preparation of atole, a foamy corn and cacao drink, is kind of alchemy; its ingredients include calcified cacao beans which are buried by the light of a full moon and dug up eight moons later.  Perhaps magic and the artistic personality go hand in hand, but we suspect that people who can marvel may have a greater shot at happiness. 

The Economics of Happiness.  In a series of three lectures given in March 2003 at the London School of Economics, Lord Richard Layard put forth the radical notion that the economic well being of the West may  depend on how happy we are.  By happiness, Layard simply means “feeling good—enjoying life and feeling it is wonderful.”  He defines unhappiness as “feeling bad and wishing that things were different.”  (To read more about Lord Layard’s lectures, please see our entries in Brain Stem and Big Ideas on the Global Province.)   

For most economists,  money equals happiness, but Layard finds that even though the Gross Domestic Product has soared in the last 50 years, happiness in highly developed countries such as the U.S. and Japan has remained unchanged or even dropped slightly.    

Certainly, as Layard notes, “when you are near the breadline, income really does matter.”  But something funny happens when countries get richer:  After per capita income reaches $15,000, happiness and money part company.  A study conducted in 2000 found that the U.S., with the world’s highest per capita income of about $25,000, ranked near 88 on the happiness scale, 100 being the top.  But take a look at Mexico:  With vastly less per capita income of $5,000, it ranks only 10 points lower on the happiness scale.  Iceland, incidentally, appears to be the happiest country in the world, while Moldova is the most miserable. 

The Hedonic Treadmill.  There are a couple of reasons why people don’t get happier as they make more money.  Layard notes first that the perks money can buy—bigger houses, better cars, fancier vacations—soon come to be regarded as necessities.  We work harder and longer to buy ever better possessions, but the thrill of acquisition fades rapidly.  This puts us on what psychologists call “the hedonic treadmill,” a never-ending cycle of “excessive, self-defeating work” which leads to excessive, self-defeating spending and more dissatisfaction. As important is the rivalry between peers, particularly in families or corporations. Comparisons are odious and usually lead to unhappiness. 

A Question of Trust.  We are particularly impressed with his conclusion that “me first” is not a good formula for personal or social happiness.  Happiness, Layard says, depends not only on how you interact with yourself but also on how you interact with others.  People are happier if they live in a “friendly and harmonious world” in which they can trust others.  It’s hard to have decent relationships if we nakedly pursue personal self interest. 

If the general well being were the first goal of our society, we would have to rethink many economic and social assumptions, among them, job security, mobility, the pace of work and mental health funding.  Although most economists view unemployment simply as loss of income, Layard focuses on the enormous psychic stress it causes.  So too does job insecurity and the intense pace of work in America, which leaves no time for leisure.  Geographic mobility, usually viewed as an effective way of moving people to where the jobs are, also breaks up families and networks of social support.  Depression is increasing, but not funding for mental health.  The richer we get, it seems, the worse off we are. 

It’s a Family. Which brings us full circle to Oaxaca.  Occasionally a vacation creates a seismic shift in one’s perspective, which lingers long after the holiday is over.  It seems to us that the Oaxacans we met—almost all of them in the low income category—are privy to secrets of contentment which seem to have eluded us.  They work hard, but not egregiously so.  They take pride and genuine pleasure in what they do.  They love a good joke, they love to party, and they are intimately connected to their families, to their communities and to traditions which keep the past alive.  Plenty of younger richer Mexicans have climbed onto the hedonic treadmill, but so far the people we met aren’t scrambling for a Macmansion or the latest Prada handbag.   

Of course, in the end, happiness may come down to genetics.  The merriest people we met were a family of four middle-aged sisters and an unmarried brother who all live with their mother in the dusty village of Ocotlan.  We spent an enchanted morning in their outdoor kitchen, which opens onto a dirt courtyard, swept clean and planted with profusely blooming roses and bougainvilla.  Birds sang in their cages, a black dog basked in the sun.  Every bit of conversation provoked a torrent of giggles.  These superb cooks were just plain happy, stirring a pot of squash blossom soup over a wood fire or showing clumsy gringos how to cook tortillas on a clay griddle.  Like so many villagers around Oaxaca, their unmarried brother is an artist.  He paints the vividly colored, surreal visions he sees in his dreams in a clean, well-lighted studio on one side of their compound.  We came away with one painting of joyous lovers floating in the air amongst flowers.  It was titled, appropriately enough, Encuentro de amor y alegria:  The meeting of love and happiness.

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