OAXACA, Mexico- “You can just walk to Monte Alban,” an older Mexican gentleman in a park informed me as I sat with my wife and mother in law watching Petra play with some other children.
“What direction is it in?” I asked.
The gentleman just pointed out to the west, directly towards a hill that rises up over the city which onerously boasts a full sized amphitheater. “Just walk that way,” he spoke simply, “I’ve done it once.”
It is a rare moment when anyone on this planet recommends walking somewhere over public transport. The human species made their mark on this planet by using upright, bipedal locomotion, and now that we can proudly boast top dog position the art of walking between places has become archaic. So my ears perked up as this guy directed my family — grandma, kid, and all — to walk the 9 kilometers to visit the Monte Alban archaeology site. Most people here would not recommend us to walk even 9 blocks. I figured there had to be some sort of preliminary ramble to his recommendation:
Perhaps there was some sort of paved walk way that went from the city to its most beloved tourist attraction? Perhaps hiking to Monte Alban was a well trod tourist activity?
We set off on foot.
An hour walk led my family and mother in law to the side of a busy highway on the outskirts of Oaxaca. We turned off of the highway, crossed a river, and then walked through the sprawling hillside communities of the city — the gritter contrast here was great when compared to the posh, cosmopolitan place we were leaving behind.
Here, homes were topped off with corrugated metal roofs, were assembled with crude mud bricks, random materials. The people smiled in response to my greetings, some stopped walking for quick chats. We found ourselves in a social landscape much different than in the city below.
Cities tend to be fast, hard stone places. Cities turn people into landscapes. But a walk to the outskirts of a city — to the brink of the countryside or mountains beyond — the world turns a little softer to reveal another, more fundamental, direct side to human interaction:
People look at me as if they are wondering what I am doing there.
My family stopped at a little store near a switchback. We had a good view over the city falling away below in the valley, a quilt of myriad little white squares. We ate some cookies and chatted with the people out in front of the shop. They seemed a bit confused that we were trying to walk to Monte Alban, and from their reaction, this was was not a normal thing for people do here.
People take the bus.
I asked about the road ahead and was told that the archaeology site was around the mountain ridge that we were working our way up. It was estimated to be another half hour’s walk distant.
The walk was not bad, rough, or dangerous, it was just typical. It was a completely regular walk out of a Mexican city. No special path, no special nothing. It was difficult to believe that this walk was something that people commonly engaged in though — I began to doubt the words of they guy in the park that recommended this to us. Though at the same time, I was beaming that his rather crappy advice was what I needed to convince my wife and mother in law to go on this walk through the outskirts of Oaxaca and into the hills beyond.
Walking is my thing. Saving money by not taking transport is my thing, too.
In a world where it is standard for tourists to take shuttles and buses to traverse any distance over one kilometer outside of a city, I have a difficult time believing that the khaki hoards are walking down the busy highways, through the slums, over poorly made dirt paths, and then up a narrow road up a ravine to go all the way to Monte Alban on foot. No, walking to Monte Alban from Oaxaca City is not a tourist activity, it is just plain enjoyable.
The sun shined, a gentle breeze blew, the view over the city was electrifying. We walked on thankful that we choose to hike rather than ride. I walk often not only to save money, but to feel a journey a little keener, a little closer. To go on foot is perhaps the most intimate way to move through this world.
It is certainly the slowest.
Two hours later we were still walking. The one hour estimate we received was rubbish. There were no complaints from my family, but they were showing signs of wearing down.
A taxi ascended the ridge behind us. It stopped. “Get in,” the driver yelled to my mother in law. She told him to go shit in his hat. His cab was devoid of passengers. He drove up to me, “Get in,” he tried again. He was offering us a free ride.
It is my impression that the sight of a gaggle of white buffoons tramping slowly up a mountain with a baby to get to a tourist site was too much for good sense to bear. He opened his doors and we jumped in.
Walking is fun, but a free ride is a free ride.
The cab driver had an empty car, we were obviously hiking by choice. We were going to the same place. Rather than speeding by us or trying to scrap us for a few pesos, he stopped and offered us hospitality.
Again, I am reminded that each step in travel has the potential to break new ground.