Reading Oaxaca

By David Herstle Jones

She was travelling to Oaxaca for a two-year-old’s birthday party, the daughter of her friend. Chocolate cupcakes and a wrapped present were in the carry-on. Her eyes laughed as the words rolled off her tongue. She was from Tamaulipas, lived now in Mexico City after spending several years working in Monterrey.

Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-HA-ka)—a modest city in southern Mexico known for mezcal, mole, and more. “Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, tambien.” (For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same.”)

The plane rose up through the smog and white clouds covering Mexico City, the twin volcanoes visible to the East. She wanted to talk. She was quite beautiful. I didn’t mind.

“In Oaxaca they have these lovely processions of puppets with music and dancers on the streets. We call them calendas. Look for them while you are there.”

“Oh, yes. I read about these parades in John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children.” I had the book with me.

I had a list of short stories, essays, novels, travel journals and more set in Oaxaca all or in part. I was hoping to read as many as I could while in Oaxaca.

“You must be sure to taste the moles. Oaxacan moles are among the most complex sauces in all the world. There are seven moles in total. They each have different chiles for flavor and heat, some have chocolate added. You might like to try the recipes in a book by Susana Trilling, My Search for the Seventh Mole.”

“I once wrote a poem about mole. It sounds impossible to make, for me at least.” I smiled nervously. “You don’t have to make it,” she laughed, “Just eat it. I love all the moles and you will too!” Her white teeth sparkled in the sun coming through the window. I looked out. Down below, little towns like inscriptions on the shields of Aztec warriors flashed in the sun. Between the cerros still green from the last of the rains, ordinary lives went on unnoticed.

“Do they really eat grasshoppers in Oaxaca?” She answered as if she expected the question. “Chapulines, fried grasshoppers, yes. They say that if you eat them you will return to Oaxaca. Try them—they’re fried, salted, and flavored with lime. Delicious!” I replied, “Peter Kuper’s book, Ruins, mentions the chapulines. His illustrations of Oaxaca are lovely, but I was concerned by the teacher’s strikes. Is it dangerous there?” The corners of her mouth turned down ever so slightly. “Oaxaca has a long history of political strife. They say if there is ever another revolution in Mexico, it will start in Oaxaca. But no, it isn’t really dangerous. The strikes are disruptive and sometimes violent, but tourists are usually safe if they don’t go to the wrong places.”

“Usually? Should I go to the Basilica de la Soledad to ask her for protection?” “You know about Nuestra Señora de la Soledad?” I reply with another title from my list: “She’s in The Jaguar’s Children, by John Vaillant.”   “You’ve certainly learned a lot about Oaxaca from your reading.” I respond, “What better way to learn about Mexico than to read the work of great authors?”

Outside my window the great Valley of Oaxaca opened between sub-ranges of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Thousands of years of history leapt upward, an invisible eruption of echoes from lives lost and forgotten. The ancient ruins of Monte Alban appeared as the plane turned toward the airstrip. She asked, “What do you see when you look at those ruins?” “Thousands of people carrying stones to the top. Some died building a palace for their kings.” “It affects me always,” she replied, “even though I’ve seen it many times. I think how the people must have been in such awe when it was built.”

Our descent told me we would soon go our separate ways. She was so young, still full of the optimism of those years before the big disappointments begin. I wanted to leave her something to remember our short conversation, but I wasn’t sure what. She said, “There is a popular bookstore, Amate, close to the temple of Santo Domingo. I go there when I’m in Oaxaca, and across the street to Café Los Cuiles right by the little park.” I offered my token: “Here’s a list of books that all have some connection to Oaxaca. I hope I’ll see you again?” “Maybe. I’m only here for a few days. Do you have any funny stories about famous authors who spent time in Oaxaca?”

We were just coming down to the runway. “Well, let me think,” I said. “Malcolm Lowry spent Christmas in jail in Oaxaca and D. H. Lawrence was mistaken for Jesus Christ on the streets there.”“Probably the most bizarre story I’ve heard is about Clifford Irving, who went to jail for a caper he recounts in The Hoax. He claimed to have a deal for an authorized biography with the eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes and convinced McGraw-Hill to send a large advance, several hundred thousand dollars, for “the most fantastic project of the decade.” But it was all a scandalous hoax. Instead of meeting with Hughes, Irving spent Valentine’s Day in Oaxaca trysting with his mistress, the Danish pop star Nina van Pallandt.

It was time to go. She smiled as she said, “I guess some authors live lives as strange as their books! I hope we see each other again, but if not, have a wonderful time in Oaxaca. Be sure to get out in the countryside to see the villages where they make black pottery and carve alebrijes and weave woolen rugs. The Guelaguetza dance festival is happening right now. You’re too early for Día de los Muertos and the Noche de los Rábanos but maybe you’ll come back?” She was gone in the blink of an eye. I looked at my copy of the list. I went to Amate Books and found almost all of them.

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