There’s Always More: A Writer & Photographer's Week in Oaxaca Pt.II

"Nneka, you say this every single time, then you end up talking to strangers for seven hours."

Where do I begin?

It’s our last day at Casa Criollo before heading to Puerto Escondido, which feels both sad and exciting. In a short but rich three days, this place feels like a home we had in another life. Side note, Tambor just interrupted my writing. He’s the casa’s permanent guest who nearly gave Ify a heart attack yesterday by hopping through our living room. He’s a rabbit the size of a Pit Bull puppy. No joke, this thing is fuckin huge. Tambor was called a “monster” by our host, Fabiola, a young woman with kind eyes the color of cedar and thick wavy hair worn in two neatly twisted french braids. 

We didn’t see her whole face until last night when we crashed a staff dinner. We almost didn’t recognize her, maskless, purple highlights grazing her shoulders. It’s me! Fabiola! She yelled, laughing. There’s such joy in tracing lines of a smile, watching mouths rise, widen, and fall when people talk about things they love and hate, give thanks for, and blush about. 

Man, I miss faces. 

In Fabiolas’s case:

She loves making magic with her hands, combining various textures and spices to create the most fleeting yet satisfying piece of art on the planet: food. Specifically traditional Oaxacan dishes she plans to keep alive. 

She hates when the drum of a bunny, Tambor, tears up the freshly cleaned Airbnb. 

She’s grateful for the family formed and forged at Casa Criollo and how staff extends that feeling of home through taste and hospitality. 

Her face flushed pink when I asked about romance, gums flashing, and cheekbones standing as she shook her head. Most of the staff is single, Fabiola claimed. We work seven days a week, 8 am to 10 pm. Mira, no time for romance! Of course, I didn’t entirely believe her, as I snuck a glance at two tangled staff: rubbing backs and whispering secrets.  

How we ended up at the staff-only dinner on a Sunday night, you ask? Mackenzie. Perpetually hungry and ready for her second dinner, Mak waltzed into the courtyard, saw the staff gathering, and chose a lone table in the corner so as not to disturb. Daniel, our server from earlier that morning, spotted her and told her to join; she could even bring her friends. When Mak came back and proposed we go, I shrugged yes, and Ify declined, then, with pressure, hesitantly acquiesced. I could eat, or maybe even babysit a beer, and there were probably a few patrons still peppered across the courtyard, I thought. 

I was wrong. So, so wonderfully wrong.

There was no one, except thirty staff in all black, in the courtyard brightened by webs of string lights and stars. In the center, four wooden tables wedged together to form the most expansive banquet I’ve ever seen. Endless plates of every Oaxacan dish imaginable lay family-style, covering end to end. Tamales, fresh fish, tortillas, tostadas, guacamole, grasshoppers, pulled chicken, crispy pork skin, and every color mole you can imagine. The crickets symphony mixed with puffs of beer being opened. It was a feast amongst friends. A thing too sacred to share with strangers. And until Daniel stopped us from quietly tip-toeing backward and directed a few people to wiggle left and right to make room, we felt like intruders. 

Before walking in, I told my Ify, my sister, that we’d be there tops, twenty minutes. She scoffed while rolling her eyes. Nneka, you say this every single time, then you end up talking to strangers for seven hours. I denied this accusation saying my Spanish was trash, i’m talkin straight-up basura, so that would be impossible in this case. 

But Ify was right. So, so disrespectfully right. 

That night, we met a woman named Aissata. And Aissata’s story so poignant reminded me why strange new places, faces, and serendipitous Sunday night staff-only dinners can bestow lessons you’ll cherish forever. 

We wiggled into the generous space and looked at each other in shock.