I recently spent two months living in the colonial city of Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hah-kah), volunteering with a small volunteer group that helped tutor disadvantaged kids who had been given scholarships. I usually worked in the middle of the day for about four hours and then had the rest of the time to explore.
There’s a lot to see and do in Oaxaca but my favourite part of the city was its lively cultural calendar. There was always something on and Oaxaceños loved any excuse to party. During my time there I was lucky enough to be invited to the party of a Quinceañera in the smallest village I have ever visited. There were literally chickens and cows roaming the streets! I went to many a food festival where I got to try so many delicacies from the well-known “culinary capital” of Mexico. I also got to experience a Semana Santa parade which was literally sobering (more on that another time).
One Saturday I got a message from a friend letting me know that there was a water festival on. "World’s Dullest Festival,” I replied. She convinced me to meet her there and it turned out to be a huge festival with local dances, parades and stalls all to honour “agua”. Agua means water in Spanish but in Mexico it often refers to a flavoured water refreshment, full name Agua Fresca or Fresh Water, that mixes fruits, grains and other flavours with water. It’s a drink you are often served in local eateries and also sold on the streets.
The festival encouraged local business owners all around the city to give away free “agua” to passersby and there were also a variety of the more popular flavours available to try at the festival. It was a great opportunity for me to try some of the more “interesting” flavours that I wouldn’t usually want to buy due to their strange consistency and colours!
Some of the flavours of aqua that you might find in Oaxaca include tamarind, hibiscus and agua de horchata, my personal favourite which is made with rice, vanilla and cinnamon.
Moral of the story is - if you see a festival happening while you are in Oaxaca, you should definitely take some time to check it out. You never know what you will learn and what you will get to try.
The Quinceañera is the celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday in many parts of Latin America and it marks the transition from childhood to young womanhood. The party I was invited to was for the daughter of my good friend’s Spanish teacher. As there was not going to be anyone who was likely to speak English there she was allowed to bring a plus one.
We were super excited to attend the party as neither of us had been to a Quinceañera before and the opportunity to visit a new village was a big positive as well. The morning of the party we were stressing about what to buy as a present and kept being advised that a bottle of mezcal was definitely the right choice. So with a present appropriate for a fifteen-year old (apparently) we hopped into collectivo and off we went.
Side note about public transport in Oaxaca: The most common way to get around is by collectivo which is essentially a maroon and white coloured taxi which will have a placard on the dash stating location. The collectivo has a regular route and you just need to know where you’re headed too and let the driver know where you want to get off along the way. It’s called a collectivo because you’re essentially sharing the ride with anyone else who flags the driver along the route.
The most interesting part is that the driver will try to squeeze in as many people as possible and this means that you could get as many as two people in the front seat with the driver and four in the back seat. My top tip is to always choose the back seat when you jump in. You definitely don’t want to be in that awkward spot with the gear stick being jammed into your calf over and over again!
Once we were well on our way and everyone else had gotten on and gotten off, we started to have a chat with the driver and learnt that he lived in this small village and knew the party girl! We probably should not have been as shocked once we saw the size of the town. He drove us right to her door and told us how regularly the collectivos left for when we were ready to leave.
The party was well under way by the time we got there as I had mastered the art of “Latin American time” and we were introduced to the birthday girl. She was dressed in the most beautiful and elaborate dress and, compared to the rest of us, looked like a princess. I felt seriously underdressed but apparently it’s tradition for the Quinceañera to wear the big faux-wedding dress so no one really felt out of place.
After a touching speech from her obviously proud parents, there was cake cutting and then we feasted! There was so much to eat and everything looked amazing. There was lots of grilling going on and also I got to try lots of things I would not usually.
The afternoon was pretty spectacular, spending time getting to know her friends, family and neighbours as we all ate and listened to music but the best part was towards the end when she gathered al her friends together to open presents. This day has turned into one of my most memorable times in Mexico because of this beautiful girl and her little sister. Sometimes watching a child open presents can be a depressing thing for me. Seeing their bored reaction after opening pricey toy and after pricey toy which are then all shoved in a corner to be forgotten about.
The birthday girl spent so much time savouring every moment opening every present and even turned it into a little game by having the guests try to guess what the present could be. She even let her little sister open some as she was desperate to join in on the fun. She also loved book presents the most and her eyes would glisten over in excitement every time she thought she was about unwrap a book.
After opening the presents we started to play some party games and all the kids begged us to join in. They were super sweet and even got into charades with my friend who’s Spanish was non-existent. It was truly special to spend time hanging out with fifteen year olds who actually acted like fifteen year olds.
When we left they treated us like family and all saw us out and made sure we got into the collectivo. I am so grateful that I was lucky enough to peer into the life of a fifteen-year old in one of the smallest towns in Oaxaca. I love travel because I am gifted with these experiences! Have you ever been to a Quinceañera and was it a smaller event like mine or one of the large elaborate types?