Needing a change of scenery, poet and travel writer Amara Amaryah embarked on a one-way trip from West Midlands, UK to Oaxaca, Mexico. There, she found true freedom, a sense of belonging, and community.
Last month I caught my first ever one-way flight to a country I had never before visited. I was leaving behind my job, the apartment I spent years turning into a home, the memories I could fit into my storage unit, the city I moved to seven years ago and knew inside and out, and my many friends and family and all of their lessons and love. After months of rationalizing and daydreaming, I left it all to move to Oaxaca, Mexico. I was trading in the familiarity of the damp West Midlands’ springtime with rain-filled canals and grey skies for aloe vera and cactus, complete with the ever-present mountain backdrop and the rainy season’s evening cool.
I mostly managed to dismiss concerns from loved ones about this surprise move by, mainly, lying to myself and others about my Spanish speaking abilities and by scouring Pinterest for blog posts about “What to Know Before You Move to Mexico.” I was as prepared as anyone has ever been for such a trip as this; I was equipped with everything from extra portable door locks to a reserve of lavender and citronella essential oils for the nerves and for the mosquitos. Before deciding to move, I was in an industry that drained me, working a routine that no longer aligned with my way of life and, more urgently, I was the freest that I had ever been or may ever be.
Out of the chaos of 2020 emerged one clear truth: life is to be lived—immediately, entirely. Equally and more glaringly true: there is a hefty amount of privilege in being able to embody this life mantra, and to ignore that would be to violently abuse the freedom I was so grateful for.
I currently work remotely, have no children, no mortgage, nobody to coordinate my travels with—there was nothing tying me to England or stopping me from existing in a completely new way. I had always wanted to move away and live out of my suitcase, somewhere obscenely green and obviously different and then, in 2021, it seemed like a very achievable reality rather than a moodboard vision. No matter how many dreams I had of an island-girl life of fresh fruit in the Caribbean, or of star-lit evenings from my treehouse in the Costa Rican jungle, it was Mexico, a place I had only ever transited through and never explored, that I kept returning to. Oaxaca, with its desert heat, reverence for art and indigenous culture, and its unrivaled culinary reputation, would be the place for me.
Even with the “to buy” lists and the pre-flight preparation and tests, I lacked the answers as to how I was going to move to Oaxaca. I knew where I was going to stay, what I would be doing, even the kinds of clothes I wanted to buy for my new wardrobe (avoiding the obvious concern of my luggage already being overweight). Despite all this I couldn’t confidently articulate how I, as an able-bodied person with passport privilege, a Russell Group University degree, a career, and all the other entitlements I have not yet traveled enough to notice, would be able to make Oaxaca my home.
My actual home to be was Irma’s place, listed on Airbnb as “Casa en el Campo” and it had, as promised, a countryside feel to it with a panoramic view of the tranquil city. Surrounded by competing orange, burgundy, and turquoise houses, the street was always filled with motorbikes and yellow taxis and stray dogs and music.
Upon arriving, I settled into my new room and tried not to let jet lag fool me into sleeping before lunchtime. I headed down to the kitchen where I met Irma and her daughter, Valeria. Irma has silvering hair, with streaks of lilac that you very nearly miss if you’re too distracted by the plentiful greenery surrounding the house. Valeria, who doesn’t yet know that she is to become my favourite polyglot, Taurus, co-chef of most of my meals, and eventual teacher and student as we exchange English classes for Spanish ones, welcomed me with a big smile. She greeted me and asked me questions about England and my travels. Before I ran out of the language, we spoke entirely in Spanish and then they showed me around the house (in English) and gave me directions I was completely too tired to retain: about where the nearest supermarket is, the markets with the freshest avocados, cilantro, and tortillas—and, of course, the best spot to buy tacos.
Aside from the barking guard dogs (mainly the bigger one, Ta’Cha, whose temperamental nature scares me even now), there was something special about the homestay experience that felt right for my first-time living in a new country. I was learning how to make tacos and guacamole the Oaxacan way thanks to Valeria, who rescued a refrigerated tortilla from becoming a part of my meal (it is a sin, she says, to eat cold tortillas) and every dinner time I was getting tips about which other parts of Mexico I should visit and when. I was having the kinds of discussions that helped me arrive at a fuller sense of what it will mean to be a part of this community, how I might adjust my current expectations and behaviors.
One evening, while Irma sat cutting the spines off the cactus, ready to prepare nopal, a silky textured dish served best slightly warmed as a fancy and flavorful addition to your regular salad or taco, we discussed the differences between living in Oaxaca City and some of the neighboring mountain towns. She explained that often people travel in from these towns to sell hand-made crafts and goods in Oaxaca City. The lush mountainside, rivers, open parks, and pre-Hispanic culture of these small towns sounded like my ideal destination and the more Irma described them, the more ready I was to see these pueblos mágicos for myself. But, as part of caring for the community I am in, I was reminded of the fact that many of these small towns do not have the same infrastructure as Oaxaca City against COVID and so, it is wiser to wait a while before visiting. Another lesson: only visit where and when you are invited in.
Oaxaca’s mountainside never failed to greet me each morning, three hours earlier than I’d like to be greeted, routinely woken up by bird song at 5 a.m. One morning, Irma called me out of my room, unafraid of the risk of me not being a morning person, and invited me into her garden, her true place of joy. I got the feeling that Irma has been working the garden in this way every morning, ever since inheriting the home from her father who built it up to what it is today. She walked me through the garden, through the baby cacti to the plum tree. It is an impressive system, with a clear order for the watering process, the trimming and the soil-checking. On this day, she showed me how the cactus has flowered, bright fuchsia flowers that the English climate has never afforded me the pleasure of witnessing. I could halfway translate as Irma explained: the lettuce and the cabbage will be ready soon, the raspberries too, provided the squirrels leave them alone. She showed me how the rain collected from the previous night would be used to water the plants. I looked around the garden, admiring how the recycling was stored, the water bottles and plastic packaging turned to pots.
When I returned to one of my favourite places in La Cosecha, a mini organic market and food court nestled into one of the many corners of the city, I met Naa, a bubbly half-Ghanaian, half-French woman with a laugh that begs to be joined. We catch eyes as the only two black women in the market and speak about how Oaxaca compares to other places we’ve travelled to and what we’re doing here. Naa tells me about her experiences on the Oaxacan coast and in Quintana Roo, how the relaxed vibe reminds her of the Ghanaian coast that is home to her. Naa has been travelling and creating homes in communities from China to Portugal and beyond. When I ask her what she recommends for a newbie “expat,” she rolls her eyes at the word and says her best advice is to “be completely honest about your position and your privilege.”
Naa and I sit and talk, while our food gets cold and the tables around us are filled and wiped clean and filled again with new people. “The only way I have been able to be welcomed into the communities I’ve lived in is by being transparent about who I am and can be for the community,” she says. It made me think that being called an “expat” will never lead to the same treatment as being called an “immigrant” and how I must recognize this as I begin to make Oaxaca my home. That is to say, even in communities where I could be mistaken as a local, it is still harmful to act as though living in the community makes you equal with all in the community. Being honest about being a foreigner means being honest about the responsibilities—social, financial, political—that come with that.
Naa, at last tucking into the near-cold plate of food, calls on an essay written by Jamaica Kincaid about tourism in her home island of Antigua. We both laugh at our mutual recollection for Kincaid’s essay “A Small Place,” which shares the lesson that even when we are not meaning to, we can mistake the feeling of being “alive” for simply being new and foreign and so exempt from some struggles of the actual community.
Afterwards I make my way home, drained equally from the sun and from my attempts to call friends and family in England before the time difference makes the call unforgivably late. Eventually, I made my way down to the kitchen, passing Ta’Cha who, mercifully, decided not to bark at me, to make my dinner half an hour before midnight. I make Jamaican fried dumplings instead of my usual evening tortilla fix. There is something about not having easy access to Caribbean take-out on every other street that made me feel deeply home sick. As I started gathering my ingredients—flour, salt, water and a little vegan lard in place of butter—Irma and Valeria joined in the kitchen. A few of the other guests joined one by one and suddenly I was cooking dinner for the whole house, far from home but doing what I loved best, connecting with people through food.
To the smell of dough frying and the black beans seasoned with chile cooking slowly on the hob, everyone gathered in the small kitchen, ready for a taste of the Jamaica I had spent so many evenings describing. That night we were joined by two other guests, travelling for a night to this side of the Oaxacan state. In between mashing the avocado to guacamole and trying to translate in my head what I wanted to add to the conversation, I found myself in the midst of the very thing I needed: conversation and community, preparing food, listening, learning, trying and retaining all I could about the best way to show up in this new space I was starting to call home.
Everyone cleaned their plates, asking again how I made the dumplings, how long I fried them for, how I kept them soft, so they might try to recreate the Jamaican classic on their own. As much as this made me feel affirmed in my diasporic Jamaican identity, quietly and away from my Caribbean grandmother, I admit that my true achievement of the evening was having a kitchen full of Mexicans complimenting my guacamole.
As the table was cleared and dishes washed, we crammed around the table drinking tea or coffee or whatever made us feel fuller, to talk of caring for the land in relearnt ancient ways. While finishing the last of the guacamole she taught me to make, Valeria said something that stayed with me: “People don’t tend to care for the land because they don’t feel like they belong to it. Once people have a sense of belonging, they understand the need to preserve.” And it was undeniably true, for the world and the global conversations about climate control, of course, but also for me. A traveller, far from home and so making a new one, doing my best to belong.