Chance Encounters in Oaxaca, Mexico

A writer returns to the colonial city to reconnect with a family he met 25 years ago

During the heat of the day, the quarry stone plaza adjoining Oaxaca’s massive Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude teems with vendors in shaded outdoor shops selling homemade ice cream. Among these, Nevería el Niagara features more than 60 flavors, from aguacate (avocado) to zarzamora (blackberry). Though 25 years have passed since my last visit, I easily recall my favorite: nuez moscada (nutmeg).

The last time I scanned El Niagara’s menu, I was brought here by a local couple and their precocious 8-year-old daughter, Paula.

“Paula,” I offered, “can I buy you an ice cream?”

“Not today,” she deferred, in flawless English.

“What flavor?” Her words literally didn’t register, so incredible was it to me that an 8-year-old would turn down ice cream.

“I said I don’t want any,” she repeated. “Can’t you see the shadows? Or the color of the sky? It’s not an ice cream day.” 

It seemed like a perfect ice cream day to me.

Today, alone, I order a cone and take a seat, gazing up at the basilica’s baroque towers. Though a quarter of a century has passed, I’m suddenly hopeful when a little girl steps up to the counter. She orders a scoop of tuna (prickly pear), and for an irrational moment I wonder if it might be Paula. 

But Paula, of course, would now be in her early 30s.

In 1994, I passed through Oaxaca while working on my third book, The Size of the World. During that visit, I stayed at the modest casa of Elena Flores, a lovely abuela (grandmother) who lived near a playground. Elena introduced me to her son Alejandro—an architect, only two years my junior—and his wife, Rosa. An instant friendship bloomed as, along with their daughter, Paula, we visited Oaxaca’s 1733-era Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and the ancient ruins of Monte Albán.

I fell in love with Oaxaca and the family charmed me. Paula, in particular, had a take on life that was so novel (and sharp-tongued) that I wanted to include her in my book. When I told her, she thought a moment, then shook her head.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked. “You might become a star.”

“Stars have to live way up there,” she replied, pointing heavenward. “I’m perfectly happy right here.”

I spent two memorable days with Alejandro, Rosa, and Paula. I’ve wondered if they ever saw my book, and what they thought of it. I’ve also wondered about Paula: What’s she like now? Has her sharp intelligence flowered, or been blunted by adult life?

So I’m back in this city again—with the hope of reconnecting with Alejandro and his family.

Family Ties

I’ve enlisted the help of Sarai Cruz Santiago, my liaison with the Oaxaca Ministry of Tourism, who says to contact her if I encounter challenges in my quest. The single clue I have is Alejandro’s weathered business card, with an address. My cab skirts the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán de Oaxaca, whose photogenic courtyard is a beloved site for local weddings. We cruise slowly past rows of bleached pastel houses until we find the right place.

Or is it? The windows are shuttered. There’s no sign of the family I knew, or anyone else. The adjoining home, however, is open: A curtain pulses through the iron window grate, and I spy people watching TV inside.

“¿Buenos días?”

Within minutes two brothers are on the sidewalk with me, answering my questions so rápidamente (quickly) that my only recourse is to call Sarai and ask her to translate. The news is not good.

“Ayy,” sighs Sarai. “The house was sold. Because it seems, sadly, that Alejandro and Rosa both have died. But María is alive.”’

“Who is María?”

“Alejandro’s sister. I got her phone number.”

“Can we call her this afternoon?” I ask Sarai. “During our drive to San Martín Tilcajete?”

Yes: We’ll leave from my casa at noon and make the call together.

Lost in Translation

During our drive to this town 18 miles from Oaxaca city, Sarai leaves two messages, to no avail. 

We pass the time admiring San Martín Tilcajete’s alebrijes—those wonderful painted animals that inspired some of the characters in Pixar’s Coco. The art form began in Mexico about 90 years ago, spurred by the dreams of an artist named Pedro Linares, who worked in papier-mâché. Oaxaca wood-carvers later adopted his inspiration.

The streets are hotter than a tortilla griddle, so we duck into a workshop called La Lechuza Tileña. We’re gazing at a majestic bull alebrije when Sarai’s phone chimes. She answers eagerly. Her eyes meet mine as she nods. Then she hangs up, looking thrilled.

“The neighbors were confused!” she declares. “It was actually María’s parents—Paula’s grandparents—who died. Alejandro and his family are alive—though they no longer live in Oaxaca. María will try to reach him for you."

That night, I find it hard to sleep, thinking of the prospect of finding the family. The next day, I arrive midmorning in Oaxaca’s zócalo, a shaded public square lined with fountains. Choir music filters from the open wooden doors of the nearby cathedral while a boy shines shoes, and a banner advertises an upcoming concert. Mexico’s zócalos are like hearts, in that their city’s whole population seems to circulate through at least once a day, drawing life and renewal. Sarai sits on the edge of a stone fountain, swinging her legs as she talks on her smartphone. I wave. She waves back and holsters her phone.

“¡Hola!” she says. Perhaps she has news, I think. But no. No word yet. To pass the time, she leads me up the boutique-lined avenue behind Santo Domingo church into Oaxaca en una Taza (Oaxaca in a Cup), one of the city’s coziest chocolate shops. Here, an entire bar of spicy, ginger-infused chocolate is power-blended with milk to make each of our frothy hot cocoas. 

Once again, Sarai’s smartphone rings. Once again, it is María. She has welcome news: Alejandro, coincidentally, is in Oaxaca state on business. He will be in touch … “soon.”

“When is ‘soon’?” I ask.

“Maybe this evening,” she replies. “Or tomorrow, latest.”

The Waiting Game

The next day passes with no call from Alejandro. As I explore Oaxaca’s historic district, watching how sunlight enlivens the vivid blue, saffron, and green buildings, and browse La Mano Mágica (The Magic Hand) gallery, with its kaleidoscopic display of crafts, I begin to wonder if my quest might not be a búsqueda inútil (wild goose chase).

Still no news the following day, when I journey into the hills outside Oaxaca to Hierve el Agua (roughly “the water boils”), known for its natural pools, sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, and an astonishing “frozen waterfall.” Built up by white and orange mineral deposits over millions of years, it’s actually a mammoth stalactite, draping over a cliff nearly 300 feet high. I hike to the bottom with a guide and gaze back at this otherworldly sight.

The patiently sculpted rock formation brings back a memory. During my 1994 visit to Oaxaca, the Flores family and I visited the ancient ruins of Monte Albán. The vast empty plaza, with its 2,000-year-old temples and stairways, are all that remain of the region’s once dominant Zapotec civilization. Both sites illustrate the time scales—natural and cultural—that define so much of Mexico.

Hierve el Agua is so hallucinatory that it distracts me. The last thing I expect is to wander back into my hotel room at 9 p.m., open my laptop—and find an email from Alejandro.

The Final Chapter

I’m not sure what I was expecting. I’d written about this family 25 years ago, published my book, and talked to friends about my desire to reconnect with the family someday. But for Alejandro, Rosa, and their young daughter, that visit—still so vivid to me—was but a brief encounter with a stranger, very long ago.

Alejandro does remember me, but vaguely. He is in Puerto Escondido, a Oaxacan seaside resort seven hours’ drive away. It’s a business trip, and he will return home tomorrow. Where is home? The whole family now lives in Denver. Everyone is well—and Paula, who works as a beautician, recently had her first child.

Alejandro thanks me for my call and wishes me well. There is no further invitation to be in touch.

The next morning, over an enormous breakfast at Catedral, one of Oaxaca’s best-loved eateries, Sarai tells me there are two similar words in Spanish. “The first word is casualidad,” she says. “It means something that happens by chance—by coincidence. The second word is causalidad. That is a series of events caused by fate.” My journey to Oaxaca, she believes, has elements of both.

Sarai is right. Although there was no jubilant reunion with the family I’d met in 1994, I rediscovered the love I felt for this city a quarter of a century ago. And I developed a new friendship, with a smart woman who will no doubt welcome me on my next visit. There’s only one thing to say as we finish our meal.

“Sarai, can I buy you an ice cream?”

Jeff Greenwald is the author of six travel books, including Shopping for Buddhas: An Adventure in Nepal.

To protect the family’s privacy, we used different names for them in this story. 

Top photo: Colorful houses enliven the historic center of Oaxaca, Mexico. | Courtesy of Oaxaca Ministry of Tourism.