Oaxaca de Juárez, OAXACA -- Oaxaca is rich in enticements for the traveler. I could write about the streets full of colonial buildings constructed of pastel stone, set amidst the hills of El Valle de Oaxaca, and Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec city whose hilltop pyramids are visible for miles around. Or the fantastic food, beautiful handicrafts and art, rich chocolate, numerous museums and galleries, parks, pedestrian streets, and full calendar of live cultural events. However for now I will leave those for the travel writers.
I avoid "how to" type narratives about travel within Mexico. There are others who like doing that and who do it very well. However annual visits to Oaxaca have become a necessity for me, and I feel the urge to write about it. All of the things mentioned above contribute immensely to my pleasure in being here, but what stick with me are other experiences. After a few years of visits I have friends and a history here. Oaxaca evokes memories of people.
About four years ago I was ordering an evening meal in a small vegetarian restaurant around the corner from my hotel when a young Canadian couple sat down at the next table. It was pretty obvious that they had just arrived in Mexico, were excited about their trip, and were in love. Within moments they had ordered wine and began asking my advice about items on the menu, beginning a conversation that would last into the wee hours of the next day.
When the first courses arrived we reached both withforks and words across the gap between the tables as we shared food and talk. They were in Mexico for six months and had great plans to learn what the area had to offer, maybe teach English, and explore Oaxaca. They'd brought their dog.
The couple invited me to go along with them after the meal, and I accepted the invitation. They wanted to go to a mezcal bar, the kind that offers drinks samplers to tourists. I nursed a beer while they tried various brands of Oaxacan liquor. When they finished, I invited them to a small live music bar I knew nearby. The performer that night was a mesmerizing singer and guitarist. The house was packed and the crowd was having a great time. After a while, the couple began whispering and smiling and looking into each others' eyes. She asked me, "Do you think the singer would do a private show?" I told her I suspected he would, and she said, "I hope he can improvise. I want him to accompany us while we make love." During the next break she went up to the platform and began talking with the performer. I watched his face. The man did not blink an eye or crack a smile, but simply began nodding. They talked for a few more minutes, she wrote something down on a napkin and handed it to the man, then returned to the table. "Tomorrow night, he's coming to the hotel," she said.
I never saw them again after saying good night that evening. I still wonder what happened.
The hotel where I habitually stay (always in the same room) in Oaxaca centro has a whiteboard in the reception area on which they post a welcome message and list the names of guests in residence. On one visit I noticed the name of a reporter I had worked with as a young photographer on an assignment for the Washington Post nearly twenty-five years before, memorable because the reporter fell asleep while we were driving and rolled the car. Curious, I left a note on his door.
Upon returning to the hotel that evening, I was greeted in the patio by a figure who was the spitting image of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The man was darkly and conservatively dressed in a shirt buttoned up to the collar, with long shocks of silver hair brushed straight back over the top of his head, and wearing small, black glasses that would have looked right in place on the nose of a '30's Eurpoean intellectual. "J.M." was obviously not the old acquaintance whom I'd been expecting.
A Texan, J.M. had been coming to Oaxaca for decades, he said, and was staying for a few months this time to look into buying a house here. He held court in the same blue chair each evening in the central patio of the hotel, where we both had our rooms. J.M. drank vodka on the rocks while I drank a coke or beer. J.M. owned an apartment in Paris, he said, which he'd bought in the 80's for $10,000 and now was worth a million dollars. It turns out I'd been in Paris for a bit in 1985 at just about exactly the time he'd been apartment hunting. We knew many of the same hangouts, and had lots to talk about. Evenings with J.M. were interesting. When I started considering the Beckett connection I was intrigued, because Beckett had lived in Paris for many years and there did his most notable work. I wanted to ask J.M. which came first, the Paris apartment or his "look," but we didn't become well-enough acquainted in a few short evenings for me to delve into it.
Going for a ride
I like getting out of the city to visit nearby pueblos. The most efficient and economical way to do this is to go by "taxi colectivo," which around here is a small Nissan Tsuru sedan that picks up and drops off passengers along a particular route in the same way a bus does. One afternoon I was in San Antonio Arrazola, a pueblo about a twenty minute ride from the city that specializes in the manufacture of alebrijes, the fanciful carved and painted wooden figures Oaxaca is famous for. I had bought a few things in Arrazola and was ready for lunch, so I found shade along the main road and waited a few minutes for a Oaxaca-bound colectivo to pass by. When he stopped, the driver was alone in the car, and I jumped into the front passenger seat. The driver was large, and he looked as if he was barely old enough to have a driver's license.
Within minutes there were three additional passengers taking up the back seat and we headed out of the pueblo. Suddenly the driver braked at the side of the road. A woman with large bundles neared the car and pulled open the front passenger door next to me. The driver said something rapidly to me and I didn't quite understand, but I thought he wanted me to get out and let the woman in, so I stepped out. The driver said, "No, no, the front seat is for two persons and unless you want to pay two fares she is going to sit with you." I got back in, and in order to accommodate the new passenger, had to put my left leg into the driver's floor area, not an easy task considering his bulk. However he was soft and unoffensive, so it was not uncomfortable. That was, until I realized that the gear shift was now protruding about eight inches straight up between my thighs, with the large, polished shift handle at about mid-belly level. I decided not to think about what would happen if we had an accident (of course I had no seat belt) and relax.
When the new passenger and her packages were firmly wedged into all available crevices and the door closed, the driver said to me, "Don't worry, I'll be careful when I grab it," as he glanced down at the lever sticking up between my legs. He made eye contact with a sideways look, smiled, and then we both laughed. I don't know if he was flirting or just being considerate, but it was hard not to notice the possible double meaning. With that, we started down the road. First gear, no problem. In a few seconds as the engine revved, he said, "OK, second gear, take a deep breath," and gave me another sideways look. There are lots of stops on a colectivo trip. The gear-shifting jokes and laughs continued until the woman finally got out. The journey ended as it had started, with just myself and the driver in the car as we entered the city. He asked me where I wanted to get off, and I paid him. He dropped me at a corner and handed me my change. He smiled. "There you go, amigo," he said. "Thanks," I replied as the door slammed and the taxi nosed back into the traffic.
Change and the people
The last several years have not been easy in Oaxaca. Civil and political conflicts have shattered the calm here, hurt the economy and distinctly changed the atmosphere. The place looks a bit tarnished and now seems less innocent, but hopefully these conflicts have prompted the people and the decision-makers to take a pragmatic problem-solving view of the future.
I have met all kinds of interesting people during my sojourns in Oaxaca, but above all in my memories looms the heart, warmth and civility of the Oaxacan people. A great many have opened their homes, helped me and taken time out to explain and teach me about various aspects of life and culture here.
I wrote last year about my favorite recording artist, the Oaxacan singer and cultural figure Lila Downs, and a chance acquaintance with her godmother Victoria that enabled me to meet Lila and have a privileged inside look during her 2009 concert in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. The friendship with Victoria continues, and resulted in another backstage view during Lila's concert in Oaxaca this week, during which I sat with Victoria and Lila's mother, Anita. We clapped, laughed, sang along and thoroughly enjoyed a fabulous performance. During a posh, outdoor after-concert dinner at a private home I was feeling a little out of place, and Anita, sitting to my left, said, "Marc, a look in your eyes tells me you are uncomfortable. Let me tell you something. We Oaxacan people are very down to earth, and our hearts are big. There is no reason for you to feel uncomfortable. You are at home. I want you to enjoy yourself." Afterward, Victoria and I accompanied the family to their home to see Lila and her husband Paul's recently-adopted six-month-old son, Benito. I've been charged with the pleasant task of finding him a suitably-sized guayabera when I get back to Mérida. Anita told me again as she walked us to the door, "Well now you know us and the house, and you should feel at home here, so I hope you'll come back soon."
Oaxaca's strengths lie is its culture and the hearts of its people. If you get to know them, the place gets inside you. Its beauty seems fragile and because of this more precious due to the turmoil of the past few years, but these inner strengths will pull Oaxaca through. I am already thinking about that next visit.