1) Adjust Body’s Internal Clock: Travel in the Age of COVID-19 is both a logistical and financial irritant, only made more logistically and financially irritating when a prospective traveller contracts the disease: a fate that befell me a fortnight prior to departure, thereby curtailing my sojourn across the Atlantic to a mere 72 hours. Possessing diminished powers of concentration, my Lonely Planet Mexican-Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary was pushed to one side in favour of a couple of lessons with Manuel, the third-rate Spanish waiter-cum-porter from Fawlty Towers. The thought of inevitable comparisons with another character from the 12-episode TV series – namely the slightly senile, perennially confused Major Gowen – when endeavouring to answer anything asked in Spanish disrupted a sleeping pattern already disjointed from experiencing the symptoms of coronavirus. Consequently, and with the hope of being asymptomatic in terms of jet lag, I adjusted my body’s internal clock to Mexico time (GMT -06:00hrs), eating as well as sleeping according to Central Standard Time. This I did five days prior to departure, and it worked seamlessly for an itinerary that was tightly woven together, providing little excuse for traveller irritability.
2) Check Out Competitors Before Checking-In with American Airlines: American Airlines maintains a near-monopoly on such routes (United Kingdom to the United States; U.S. to Mexico) but interactions, remote as well as physical, with call-centre agents in Trinidad and check-in staff in (not forgetting members of cabin crew over) the U.S. and Mexico illuminate – by projecting the impression that the most reasonable question was an outlandish request and matters requiring assistance were a “Kinda me problem” – that AA is an international carrier impersonating a regional budget operator which holds the Razzie Award (counterbalance to the Oscars) for “Worst Airline”. The pandemic has hit the industry hard, to be sure, yet most of the staff encountered ought to be more industrious for a company approaching its centenary birthday, lest they wish to make passengers feel as welcome as NSA-whistle-blower Edward Snowden at the White House.
I’m not frugal in terms of money, as the cardiologist who’s operated on me for open-wallet surgery would attest, though I didn’t want to take my phone off Airplane Mode at Heathrow to check the HSBC app after paying another seemingly random (so random it makes those taxi drivers who refuse to turn their metres on in Marrakech appear as though they have a fixed-priced system) amount for luggage in Oaxaca. While luggage was budgeted for to an extent, a second overnight stay in Dallas wasn’t, yet was something unavoidable after staff (who should, like those with competency issues on the Merseyrail network in Liverpool, wear black-and-white-stripped t-shirts given each experience feels like daylight robbery) in Oaxaca stated that the hour between connecting flights – flights AA partnered on its website, it’s important to note, and whose representative over the phone allayed concerns relating to the suggested transit when notified luggage would be checked-in – wasn’t sufficient time for baggage handlers. (British Airways offers direct flights from the UK to Mexico City, from where a range of operators – the largest being Aeroméxico – fly onwards to Oaxaca; for those whose budget precludes them from bypassing the US, United Airlines enables them to bypass AA and Dallas given UA’s hub is Houston.)
3) When in Dallas don’t Give Minute Suites a second’s thought: Good in theory though poor in practice, Minute Suites is to be avoided at all costs since it’s neither convenient nor inexpensive. That it’s located inside an airport terminal is a positive, apparent even to those whose specialist subject on Mastermind isn’t The Patently Obvious. But even its purported convenience can turn into a negative, such as when luggage intended for the aircraft hold (the next day, in my case) needs to be screened at cabin-baggage checkpoints, thereby leading to the discarding of liquids over 100ml; any losses will pale into insignificance if Transportation Security Administration staff aren’t cooperative, though, something they’re not obliged to be. Dallas-Fort Worth is currently the world’s busiest airport yet remains ‘understaffed’ (to quote an immigration official not displaying the usual resting serious face due to paid overtime) and a hub not overwhelmingly well signposted: the result being a sixty-minute delay in my arrival at Minute Suites; a long-ish delay considering that landing in Terminal D – as opposed to one of the other four terminals, each a Skylink-ride away – shortened considerably the ground needing to be traversed.
With the Minute Suites’ reception not staffed (20:00hrs) I, together with luggage in tow, exited the TSA-screened area in search of a taxi rank outside the terminal entrance. The hassle of navigating security for a second time (21:30hrs) was a minor inconvenience as I reflected upon the transitory visit I’d just paid to a major landmark (atop of my dark tourism bucket list): Dealey Plaza, where a Leftist assassin – Lee Harvey Oswald – slayed John F. Kennedy with three shots from a sixth-floor window in November 1963; or where a Right-wing plot engineered by the CIA – who used the aforementioned shooter as a “patsy” in the removal of a dovish president – played out, if you believe JFK-director Oliver Stone. But my bright mood soon darkened when shown the room. Jalapeno Suite was as sheet-less as it was pillow-less although one pillow was provided, albeit reluctantly, for the receptionist was ostensibly of the opinion that failure to bring your own rendered a guest unfit to stay, much like a positive COVID test renders a passenger unfit to fly. Worst still, however, was having to walk onto the main concourse for the toilet. While I understand showers are to be booked separately, I find it incomprehensible that guests must pay serious pounds ($20-30) to “spend a penny”, as Brits euphemistically refer to urinating. Those not on a digital detox will likewise have to go beyond their door and possibly reception, presumably in night attire, for a stable internet connection.
The flat-rate of $175 for a night (22:00-06:00hrs) is steep, especially when considering that only those with the envious ability to sleep on the wing of a plane could have suite dreams on the sofa-daybed hybrid. Given prices at the Hyatt Regency (also located in Terminal D) start at around $313, I’d recommend booking an Uber ($35 one-way; public transport is a cheaper option) and staying at the Hampton Inn & Suites Dallas Downtown ($145), where breakfast is included with the room, and a toilet as well as shower – not to mention bottled water and even windows – come as standard. For less curious, more thrifty travellers, spacious seating at the boarding gates provide the least objectionable areas from where to take refuge and recharge electronic devices and human bodies alike.
4) Switch to Photographer Mode after Switching to Airplane Mode: A sizeable proportion of passengers, from my experience, enter sleep mode when turning their smartphones to airplane mode: most as early as take-off, some when landing. Yet this isn’t a particularly smart thing to do because these windows of opportunity – before ascending and after descending through cloud cover – offer “Kodak moments”; even flying at 35,000 feet can, during daylight hours, provide mesmerising in-flight entertainment compared with, say, the latest installment of the Fast & Furious film franchise, by now possibly #35,000 given the frequency with which prequels, sequels and midquels have been released over the past twenty years. Ever since missing the opportunity to snap the Gateway of India (shortly after take-off from Mumbai) and Mount Kilimanjaro (mid-way through a flight between Mombasa and Nairobi) my mobile is glued to my hand, much like an out-of-work TV personality waiting for a call from the producers behind a celebrity special episode of Gogglebox. And this tactic, sweaty palms notwithstanding, paid off handsomely during the approach to Oaxaca airport since what this route (via San Juan Quiotepec, Abejones and Nuevo Zoquiápam) lacks in behemoth landmarks it makes up for with dramatic landscape consisting of lush, green mountains bisected by dusty brown, snake-like roads linking valley towns of precariously perched white buildings encircled by rectangular-shaped, yellow-green patches. Among the views from airplane windows deeply etched into my memory – the sky-piercing buildings of New York and the Old Town of Dubrovnik with its distinctive red roofs being but two – none exceed those over Oaxaca State.
In addition to the technical aspects pertaining to exposure settings, budding photographer-passengers shouldn’t overlook the following basic tips: reserve a window seat, ideally in front of the wing if your P60 allows it, given engine fumes can blur portions of the foreground; shoot images – portrait as well as landscape, sometimes including not always excluding, window frames – earlier rather than later into a flight as micro-scratches form between the plexiglass panes due to condensation/ice; wear dark clothing to minimise window reflections; and carry extra phone/camera batteries in hand luggage.
5) Venture Beyond the Emerald City to Discover a(nother) Jewel in Oaxaca’s Crown: Readers surveyed by Travel + Leisure crowned Oaxaca as the World’s Best City in 2020, with the magazine lauding the southwestern Mexican city for its ‘rich culture’, namely the ‘architecture, food, history, spirits of the drinking kind [and] handicrafts’. The pre-Hispanic archaeological ruins of Monte Albán and colonial-era structures comprising the centro histórico (dating from the 8th century BC and 16th century, respectively) are the reasons UNESCO designated Oaxaca a World Heritage Site in 1987 and, together with the native victuals on offer, entice ever-increasing numbers. Despite their seeming omnipresence food and drink aren’t limited to mole and mezcal: the complex, thick sauce considered by many to be sacred, and the fiery tipple regarded by some as sacrilegious (Malcolm Lowry, author of the acclaimed Under the Volcano, referred to the local firewater as ‘daemonic’ – and my fellow Wirralian was quite partial to the agave plant-based liquor!); chapulínes (fried grasshoppers) and tejate (cocoa-based beverage) also provide distinct experiences for the taste buds.
Even elotes (corn on the cob) sold by vendors from rolling carts lit with small bulbs outside galleries from where you can buy alebrijes (indigenous art) are flavourful (indeed, love at first bite) snacks while wandering through a mercado (market), underneath papel picados bunting (artisanal paper-cut flags onto which a variety of patterns are created) or across the traffic-free, tree-dotted Zócalo (main square). So ubiquitous are the one- and two-storey rainbow-coloured, rustic adobe-walled buildings that visitors – hitherto starstruck even by crumbling cantinas (bars) – can become normalised to their pulchritudinous façades, although there’s nothing normal about 5 de Mayo: just over half a kilometre is all that separates the Renaissance-inspired Teatro Macedonio Alcalá (the theatre where some of Oaxaca’s best and brightest have their graduation photos) from the Baroque colonial aesthetic of Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán (the church and former monastery is an example of architectural syncretism); both are Instagram-worthy sites, to be sure, yet amateur photographers are directed to YouTube for professional-looking footage of the latter by Oaxaqueño aerial photographer René M. Juárez.
Adventurous souls should venture beyond the capital of the eponymous state (the fifth largest in terms of surface area of Mexico’s 32 states) to the mountainous region, however, since although Oaxaca City is known as the “Emerald City” (due to buildings being hewn from the largely earthquake-resistant, green-hued cantera stone; not because of a c.2,000-year-old tree in the nearby village of Santa Maria del Tulé), Sierra Norte is a(nother) jewel in Oaxaca State’s crown given its rich biodiversity: the natural corridor of cactus-covered hills and pine-oak forests is home, correspondingly, to hundreds and thousands of species of birds and plants.
Also calling this area home are indigenous peoples whose cultures have survived, and nowadays thrive, thanks to the isolated yet inviting terrain. One such mountain-top village is Cuajimoloyas, approximately 60 km from Centro via Federal Highway 190, which is one of the eight comprising Los Pueblos Mancomunados (the Commonwealth of Villages). This collective share profits from enterprises such as an ecotourism project that offers cabins, low-impact activities (hiking, mountain-biking, even zip-wiring) and a warm welcome irrespective of the cool temperatures at 3000-odd metres above sea level. The opportunity to step back in time (literally, since the villages run on Mountain Standard Time for roughly half the year, which is one hour behind Centro) and be immersed in traditional Zapotec life will surprise those who think Mexico is merely a land of drug cartels and/or beaches in Cancún. And yet, this priceless experience is inexpensive, relieving the responsible traveller conscious to offset their carbon footprint of relatively few pesos (chiefly for entry into the reserve, onto trails and, if required, a local guide), but helps to preserve cultural heritage as well as conserve the natural habitat through sustainable initiatives like reforestation. If ecotourism sees a post-COVID boom, as projected, it could help Oaxaca regain its numero uno slot (having fallen to eighth in 2021) in Travel + Leisure’s annual survey.