Need a room?

Five years ago, only a handful of hostelries in my adopted city of Oaxaca had an internet presence. Now, you just don’t count unless you have your own url (universal resource locator: web address). The internet is awash with information – far more than anyone can digest in a lifetime. Every kind of business in the world – from hotels to hardware stores – has the same problem: “placement”.

Placement refers to where you rank in the listing of perhaps hundreds of like-minded businesses (your competition) when you “Google” the category. The words that a shopper uses (say, “hotel”, “inn”, “hostel”, or “habitation”) are matched with “key words” that can’t be seen, that the business owner puts into the web page. Pretty straightforward, in a complex cyberkinetic sort of way, no?

Well, perhaps not, as one local B&B owner discovered. It turns out that, of dozens of similar keywords he listed, the one that got asked for the least was – you guessed it – “B&B”. This brought up two immediate possibilities in his mind: that so many hotels now serve some sort of complimentary morning meal that there is no distinction in the customer’s mind between the two; or that many shoppers (particularly in the U.S.) don’t expect to find B&Bs in Mexico. Either way, he decided, something needed to be done.

[Recently, we revisited the Ciudad las Canteras, a park developed many years ago in what used to be the old quarry that much of Oaxaca’s “green stone” came from. We were curious because there had been a series of articles in “Las Noticias” about how one private developer of low-cost tract housing had, with the co-operation of the nearby neighborhoods, rescued it from years of neglect. While it seems to me that the park was both more well tended and more interesting the first time around, it is certainly acceptable and worth visiting now. The masthead picture is of the centerpiece statue; this photo was taken from the main walkway. The following photos are of the “large stage” and the “small stage” performance spaces.]

Armed with this information, he approached other B&B owners with the objective of promoting Oaxaca’s B&Bs as a group, and meetings began to be held. It was decided that the best way to interact was within the framework of an Association. The association was formed, and a web site was established. At that point, things got a little murky. Some B&Bs dropped out for various reasons. Some “non-B&Bs” were added to the site. As of now, it appears to me that goals, methods and communications may be somewhat fragmented between the members; and that current members may not be very interested in expanding the organization. Still, it’s a start, and could develop into a useful organization over time. Meanwhile, it got me to thinking about the whole issue of where to stay and why; what distinguishes a B&B from a hotel, a guesthouse, or even a hostel.

Very quickly, I abandoned that line of inquiry. One “B&B” I know now calls itself a “small hotel”. Many hostels serve coffee and rolls in the morning. Some “guest houses” provide a room and bath, and access to the kitchen (including some refrigerator space) but little “personal attention”. Rather than try to distinguish by “title” or “category”, it seems more appropriate to share some of my own ideas of how one might choose…

For first-time, non-tour visitors, the most important thing (if price is not the overwhelming issue) is personal service. Not serving each guest personally but personally serving each guest: a small hotel with a breakfast and a concierge – the owner or the owner’s family – bringing their personal contacts and connections to bear on solving any problems a guest may present. It is the presence of the owner at breakfast; the owner’s personal experience of this or that destination; the owner’s personal guarantee of guides and drivers; the confidence the guest has that when he or she returns next year, no matter what other changes in personnel there may be (and in the best placess, staff tends to stay and stay and stay), the owner will be there.

(On the other hand, because the owners have done such a fine job of getting them oriented, the returning tourist might reasonably decide to abandon personal attention in favor of a more impersonal large hotel where they can come and go “on their own”; or to try a different family-run place to get a different perspective. There is no one “right way” to choose.)

“Full disclosure” is also an issue, particularly when dealing on the Internet. Does the price include taxes? Tips? Is the breakfast (if included) “continental”, “full” or “custom cooked”? Some hostelries do not list all the “free” extras. Some advertise a long list of amenities and don’t tell you that you will be charged for some of them. As an example, some places give away WiFi internet service, and others charge. Insist on these details before you book. Otherwise, you have no complaint coming when you get the bill.

Smart hosts will help a potential guest to find comparable accommodations if the house is full. You don’t want to stay with un-smart hosts…

As far as I can tell, there are accommodations available for every purse, although it does appear to be true that Oaxaca rates are in general slightly higher than in many other tourist destinations. Choosing a place is best done after you have set a price range for yourself. A full breakfast in the Center runs anywhere from 30 to 100 pesos, with 35 to 40 being a good average for a glass of juice or a fruit salad, a cup of coffee or tea, eggs prepared in a variety of styles, and tortillas or rolls; so you can factor that into your calculations.

Think twice about booking with someone who tells you “oh, everything is wonderful now, the police are doing such a wonderful job, there are no problems”. Their lack of honesty in this regard may reflect a similar bent when it comes to your stay with them.

Recently, Oaxaca experienced a severe social disruption. The underlying causes have not gone away, and many tensions remain, but animosity toward visitors has all along been, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Aside from being dependent on tourism for income, Oaxaqueños are generous, forgiving folks.

[Recently constructed in the neighborhood of Xochimilco with the assistance of the Harp Foundation, is a large, well-stocked, well-landscaped, and interestingly designed library for youth from childhood through high school. Pictured here is the lobby entrance. The next photo shows one of the many gardens.]

Law and Injustice in Mexico:

The “Dirty War” goes on. As Nancy Davies has reported, there are many leaders of popular movements in hiding at the moment. Those who do get caught are subject to beatings, torture, imprisonment or worse. Some of the new leadership (typically young people) are arrested, beaten, and then let go (uncharged) with “get out of jail” fines. A typical example occurred recently in Michoacán, where peasant movement leaders were cut off by a pickup truck full of state police, and eventually released upon paying a fine – for “damaging” the police vehicle that cut them off. No other charges were brought.

Meanwhile, the laws are being changed to make dissent a crime. A couple of weeks ago, the government passed a bill making many acts of protest – such as blocking a government building or a highway – into “terrorism”. While there are varying sentences prescribed depending on the “crime”, the longest imprisonment is saved for people who “aid terrorist organizations”: they can get up to 40 years (more than most murderers get). Presumably, this could include anyone who contributes to any social change organization, sponsoring peaceful civil resistance, a member of which is convicted of “terrorism” under the new law.

Last week, three leaders of the original (successful) attempt to prevent the government from appropriating their land for a new airport near San Salvador Atenco were sentenced to 67 years each for “kidnapping” (they had detained a couple of municipal officials for a brief period). The next day, one of the biggest drug kingpins in Mexico, allegedly responsible for scores of deaths, got 25 years. I don’t know how the message could get any clearer than that.

[This terrace is in front of the “main wing” of the Library, which houses the main collection. There are other wings that are devoted to a computer lab, offices, and other functions]

Some websites:

From time to time, as they become known to us, we investigate other websites to see if there is anything of interest. Some are service providers; some are photo sites; some feature political commentary; some are mixtures. Today, we would like to call two of them to your attention.

Saundra Sturdevant is a photographer who lives in California. She specializes in pictures – and analyses – of the status of women in various parts of the world. One of her projects brought her to Oaxaca for an extended stay during the recent uprisings. The Oaxaca segment can be seen athttp://www.ssturdevantphotography.com/Oaxaca.html

Tony Mindling is a painter, photographer and nature lover from Nevada, and his photos from Oaxaca can be seen at www.tonymindling.com/galleries01.htm

New Social Security Law foments protests:

The Zócalo was breached by protesters on May 1, for the first time since the occupation by federal police in December. There were no barricades and no police present to impede access. The “security” returned about an hour after the demo broke up, and remains there today.

The occasion was a march and demonstration against changes in the regulations governing retirement age, social security payments, worker contribution levels, and privatization of pension funds and medical services for government workers covered by Mexico’s largest benefits and services fund, known by its Spanish acronym, ISSSTE. Teachers are also government workers, so they too participated. Cops are also beneficiaries, and this may have had something to do with their standing down.

There was a good deal of spray painting, which is what the press focused upon while basically ignoring the underlying issues. The demonstration itself was short, orderly, and without incident.

Over 500 injunctions have been filed in federal courts all over the country demanding the repeal of the changes. As long as a court is considering an injunction, the law can’t be implemented. The federal government, in the person of the director of the ISSSTE, has hit upon a unique ploy to prevent further injunctions from being filed: he has declared that he is considering revoking all access to medical care and other services for anyone (and, presumably, their family) who seeks judicial redress. This act of high-handed stupidity has, of course, only broadened and enflamed the opposition.

[These “monos”, constructed of papier maché on a bamboo form, are among several to be seen at the Artesan’s Co-op at Matamoros and Garcia Vigíl. Sculpting of faces has come a long ways since we first started seeing them more than 12 years ago.]

Those pesky parking meters:

Now that things have “quieted down”, the private firm that was conceded an exclusive license to install parking meters in Oaxaca has returned with a vengeance. It is now virtually impossible to drive into the downtown area and park without paying a fee. As you can imagine, motorists are up in arms.

Oaxaca has “European” style meters. There is one machine in each block. It dispenses tickets which you then place on your dashboard. Enforcement is strict. There are meter maids, traffic cops, and some really thuggish looking civilians checking for violations. The fine is 750 pesos. For some perspective, that is several days’ wages for most motorists. The monitors do not merely leave a paper tag under your windshield wiper. Cars are (depending on who catches you) booted; license plates are taken; and fines must be paid before the car is released.

If the teachers take the Zócalo area again this May 15, expect some “vigilante justice” against the ticket dispensers. Last year they were torn out and destroyed.