I've never been much of a shopper, either at home or abroad. I've already got too much clutter in my life. On family trips, however, I end up traipsing through shops with my daughter...

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I’ve never been much of a shopper, either at home or abroad. I’ve already got too much clutter in my life.

On family trips, however, I end up traipsing through shops with my daughter who, like many kids, wants to buy souvenirs.

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Fortunately, as I found on a recent trip to Mexico, shopping in a foreign country can give youngsters more than just stuff. During a visit to the mile-high, historic city of Oaxaca and nearby villages in southern Mexico, I watched my 13-year-old and a handful of other American teens get cross-cultural lessons from shopping as they browsed in outdoor markets, visited artisans’ homes, and dealt with street vendors.

We had traveled together, a group of mother-and-daughter friends from Seattle, to the city of 300,000. For many visitors, Oaxaca and nearby villages are a shopping Mecca for crafts, from handwoven rugs and jewelry to ceramics and tiny carved wood animal figurines.


Visiting Oaxaca

Basic info: For general information on Oaxaca, most Mexico guidebooks have ample information. I found “Moon Handbooks: Oaxaca” to be particularly useful (Moon Publications, $16.95).

• Some useful commercial Web sites are www.go-oaxaca.com/
and www.oaxacainfo.com/. The Oaxaca state tourism site in Spanish only (an English-language site is under construction) oaxaca.gob.mx/sedetur/

Hotels: Oaxaca is full of hotels and small inns, from budget to luxurious.

• The Oaxaca Holiday Inn Centro Historico, where we stayed, is a 100-room hotel that’s far nicer than most Holiday Inns in the United States. Newly built, but in a traditional colonial style, it’s comfortable for families, with spacious air-conditioned rooms; a small pool in a courtyard; and a free breakfast buffet. From the hotel, which is on the edge of the city center, we could walk to the city’s major sights and the Zócalo, the main square, within 15 minutes. The hotel is popular with Mexican tourists and businessmen; front-desk staff speak English.

Rooms are about $95 per night. In the off-season and for longer stays the rates drop to about $70. Reservations: See www.holiday-in-oaxaca.com or the Holiday Inn corporate site at www.ichotelsgroup.com or phone 800-465-4329.

• The nearby, 18-room Parador Santo Domingo has rooms with kitchenettes, a small pool and also is within walking distance of Oaxaca’s main sights: www.paradorstodomingo.com.mx/

Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots: This U.S.-registered nonprofit group was started by some American travelers to Oaxaca who wanted to help the street children they saw. It’s now run by Oaxacans and Americans with ties to Oaxaca. Through sponsorships of children and donations, it provides street kids, many of them indigenous Triqui Indians, and their families with education, health care and more. Information: www.oaxacastreetchildren.org
or e-mail the group’s U.S.-based treasurer, Frank Vannini, at vannini@comcast.net.

Oaxaca’s center is a centuries-old gem of Spanish-colonial architecture, so well preserved that it’s been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site. Low-rise adobe buildings, with thick walls and peaceful, shady courtyards, hold high-end art galleries and silver and gold jewelry shops. Street stalls and strolling vendors offer low-priced handicrafts.

On one of our first days exploring the city, we paused at a half-dozen stalls in a small, quiet square. Beaded bracelets and necklaces covered battered wood tables. Woven purses dangled from wood pegs, and alebrijes, the wood animal figurines, were a gaudy painted mass of electric blue, red and yellow.

Sun-creased vendors sat on a stone bench and bemusedly watched the American teens flit from stall to stall. We mothers soon hauled the girls away, eager to get back to our hotel after a day of visiting 17th-century churches and newly refurbished museums.

A few days later, after another whirl of sightseeing, the girls wanted to return to the craft stalls. By then they knew their way around the compact, pedestrian-friendly core of Oaxaca so, with maps and the hotel phone number tucked in their pockets and motherly admonitions about street safety ringing in their ears, we gave them an hour to go shopping on their own.

Soon they were back, proudly showing their purchases and proud of their independence. Without mothers to rely upon, they had found their way, figured out the peso prices and some even bargained a bit, using the Spanish they studied at school.

After that successful foray, the girls ventured out regularly by themselves to the craft stalls; to an Internet cafe to e-mail friends and family back home; and to a bustling outdoor market by our hotel where stalls were crammed with CDs, trendy T-shirts, mounds of vegetables and, to the girls’ dismay, blood-dripping slabs of very fresh meat.

An easygoing city

Oaxaca turned out to be an ideal city for teens to stretch their wings or for young children to explore with their parents.

The center is compact enough to explore on foot, with streets laid out in an easy-to-navigate grid and the imposing churches and the mountains that ring the city serving as handy landmarks. The city center is tranquil and tidy and isn’t so touristy that locals are weary of visitors. And there’s an abundance of cafes and restaurants where even picky-eater children will be happy with simple rice or tortilla dishes — or pizza restaurants will deliver to hotels by motorbike.

Learning how to bargain, Seattle teens talk to a street vendor in Oaxaca.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to worry much about traffic since one of Oaxaca’s main streets, the Alcalà, has been turned into a five-block-long pedestrian walkway. It started near our hotel and led to the Zócalo, the city’s central square, with restaurants, cafes and museums along the way.

Beyond traffic-free walking, other things worked to make the girls’ solo excursions hassle-free.

Oaxaca doesn’t have the street crime of places such as Mexico City (although, like anywhere, there are some pickpockets). If tourists do get lost or have problems, there’s an abundance of police, including specially designated tourist police, walking, biking and car-cruising the historic center.

The city remains socially conservative, due to the area’s substantial native Indian population and relative isolation. Happily, that means the city seems to lack the persistent, wanna-be Romeos of some Mexican beach resorts. And it didn’t hurt that we insisted the girls dress modestly, unlike some American tourists who traipse around in exceedingly skimpy outfits that no locals would wear.

A brief encounter

Although the girls moved in a happy pack, we also took some quiet family time.

This whimsical figurine was one of many at a Oaxaca-area pottery studio.

One hot afternoon, my daughter and I headed to the Zócalo for an ice cream. We sat at a cafe’s outdoor table, shaded by the square’s towering trees, and watched the Oaxacan world pass by.

Old men lounged on the square’s wrought-iron benches reading newspapers and dozing. Little kids clamored for shiny balloons from vendors. Women lugged their daily shopping from the maze of food stalls at the city’s main Benito Juarez market, just around the corner. Mariachi singers crooned in the shadow of an ornate cathedral, competing with a loudspeaker that blared speeches and rousing songs from a socialist protest group at a state-government building that stretched along one side of the Zócalo.

As we sat at the cafe, the shopping came to us, thanks to a steady parade of street vendors who cruised the outdoor tables of the square’s half-dozen cafes.

Indian women with waist-length braids offered shawls, bracelets and little plastic bags of fried and chili-spiced grasshoppers, a traditional Oaxacan snack (my daughter emphatically declined). Men offered small wool rugs, unfurling them to show their intricate patterns. It was a constant parade of the poor of Oaxaca state, which, despite the well-groomed affluence of the city’s center, remains one of the most impoverished areas of Mexico with fast-growing, poor outskirts.

Lost in my guidebook, I hardly looked up as a young boy came to our table, “No, gracias,” I muttered, weary of the sales pitches.

Unlike other vendors who quickly moved on when we didn’t buy, he hovered over our table, staring at my daughter’s dish of ice cream. The toothpicks and candy he was selling from a little tray were forgotten. He was mesmerized by the luscious, melting swirl of vanilla and chocolate.

I put down my book. My daughter looked at him, looked at her ice cream, looked stricken. “Should we get him some?” she asked quietly.

No, I said, unsure about the appropriateness and practicality of sitting him down for ice cream. I started to dig in my bag for a very generous sum for a packet of toothpicks when a burly security officer shooed away the ragged boy.

He skittered away. But memories of our encounter with the young vendor lingered.

Days later, out of the blue, my daughter asked, “Do you think that boy selling stuff had ever tasted ice cream?”

Maybe not, I replied. And we resolved to send some money to a Oaxaca street kids’ charity so he, or some other kids like him, can get their ice cream, and more.

Kristin Jackson’s Family Matters column runs the third Sunday of each month. Comments are welcome: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com