Travelling to Oaxaca is a short story in five parts. The earlier parts can be found here:
The world is beautiful and outside there is no salvation.
At my age I have to avoid repeating myself. I think I told you about the riots at the Zocalo and the extravagant dinner later that night and about the man who insulted the governor and about the missing students. I’ll pick the story up on the next day when once again I met Narce at Los Cuiles.
“You see, I think the intellectual elitists who were shocked and surprised by Trump’s victory, who feel now out of place, out of step with what they once thought was a progressive modern country, I think they should leave. The true colors of America have been exposed. It’s no city on a hill. I’m one of the disenfranchised. Leaving is complicated by spouses, children, grandchildren, jobs and so forth, but when you reach a certain age no one really cares what you think. They’re all too busy with their own lives. When you see that clearly, it’s best get out of the way. I don’t kid myself. I won’t be missed. The only question is how to do it.”
Narce disapproved. I could see it in her face.
“What would your mentor, Camus, say about this escape, Jeffrey? He wouldn’t like it at all. What you are proposing is a sort of suicide, something Camus argued against in the Sisyphus essay. He’d have you carry your rock up the hill over and over and learn to enjoy it.”
Was she was making fun of me? I live mostly through books as you might have guessed. That makes me a poor conversationalist. Most people’s eyes glaze over but Narce listens and she responds. I don’t quite know what to make of it.
“How do you know about my passion for Camus? I didn’t tell you. I haven’t mentioned it since I arrived.”
Behind Narce I saw the frizzy-haired travel agent. She held a cell phone to her ear with one hand and used the other to open the office. Damn those things. They’re everywhere.
“Oh Mr. Farmer! I looked you up at Amates, the English bookstore on Alcalá. I read your book. I hope you don’t think I’m psychic.”
She smiled a strange crooked smile.
“You actually read my book?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Too find out who you are Mr. Farmer.”
“And did you find out?”
“No, but I found out what you read and how you think.”
Mexicans are closer to nature than Americans. This has an effect on how they live. I think it was Carlos Fuentes who said geometry is not inherent in nature. Lives are not linear in Mexico with progress toward an ultimate goal. People wander. It’s possible to be purposeful and productive while still having multiple varied adventures along the way. Of course, not everyone in Oaxaca is well educated and well read. Narce is privileged. I saw that when we first met. The majority of Mexicans aren’t so lucky. Exploitation is widespread. Some of those missing students will never be found. I have no illusions that I’m moving to some kind of paradise.
“Tell me, is there a book I can read to find out about you? Do you think you’re in a book, all of you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
She liked to argue. I will admit I enjoyed the sparring. But, I had a queer feeling that in some way she was a part of me, my alter ego perhaps. It felt very odd. I didn’t like it. It was preposterous, of course, but it changed things between us from the moment I felt it. Stupid. Silly. I tried to dismiss it but I couldn’t.
Lovemaking wasn’t confined to the young students in the park across the way. An older man walked silently through the entrance to the patio and sat in a corner obscured by a large green plant. The plant had long pointed leaves, dark on the outside and lighter in the middle, rather like a grownup version of the potted houseplants my wife called corn plants at home. The man wore a collared tan shirt that was tight around his burgeoning paunch, chocolate brown pants and cowboy boots. Soon a plump woman joined him. She was decked out in jewelry. She wore a flowered print skirt and a pink blouse with a low bust line that displayed her ample décolletage. They kissed and embraced. She sat almost on top of him. I’d seen this couple before, kissing and hugging under the large laurel tree in the plaza outside the Templo del Carmen Alto.
“You are wrong about me, wrong about Camus,” It was all I could think to say. I was making up the argument as I spoke. “Leaving my country, leaving my family and friends, it has nothing to do with suicide. It’s a revolt, an expression of my freedom. It’s living a life of passion, and Camus would agree completely.”
I could see the wheels turning.
“Yes, Camus made his choices, but then he wrote The Fall as an atonement to those he loved.”
My God! Where does she come up with this stuff? She’s read everything I’ve read.
“Who are you?”
“A gift from God.” She had that crooked smile on her face. “I’m going inside for another latte.”
Large dark clouds blew over the patio. Such clouds! These clouds that play and dance in the sky over Oaxaca must be why the ancient Zapotecs called themselves the cloud people. It grew cooler and the wind picked up. Cocijo, the rain god, was arriving. Little isolated rain drops began to fall … splat … plop … kerplunk. Then booming thunder and pouring rain.
There’s nothing like rainstorms in the late summer and early autumn in Oaxaca. They come seemingly out of nowhere. The water builds to flood levels almost instantaneously. And then, in a an hour so the deluge moves on to another part of the valley. The tourists love the excitement but it’s a horror for the locals. Roads become impassable, bridges wash out, animals and even people can be carried away. I remember last year that a hospital was flooded when a river overflowed. All the patients had to be moved. A wall collapsed and crushed two teenagers. A man and his cow drowned in the Atoyac River.
I went inside the café where Narce was waiting for her latte. The old couple ran for cover into the entryway. Their secret tryst was brought to a climactic end. The few vendors in the park were prepared with plastic bags and tarps. The streets and the plazas emptied. Everyone scrambled to find a dry place to wait out the rain.
Narce said she’d be off after it cleared. She had other plans for the night. I can’t say I was unhappy to hear that. Her nitpicking of my thoughts, my intentions, my purpose in coming was getting on my nerves. In fact, I’d hardly had any time alone since arriving in Oaxaca, and that was why I came, to be alone so I could think and decide what to do.
I’d booked a rather posh B&B with all the amenities for a month. I thought that would give me give me enough time to find a quiet house to meet my needs if I decided to stay. I don’t need much, just my books, and they were packed and ready to ship down at any time.
As I went over all this in my mind, Narce sipped her latte. And then the rain was gone. And then she was gone. I don’t remember anything about how we parted and it really doesn’t matter but it was on good terms. We agreed to meet again, but there was no set plan.
I walked slowly back to the B&B taking in everything around me. The sun had returned and the beautiful streets and buildings of Oaxaca glittered like gold. Trees and flowers came alive. A vibrant pink jacaranda stared at me from its prison inside a stone wall. A woman walked past with an immense basket of dried flowers on her head, flores immortales, flowers that do not lose their color when they die. A vendor in Parque Labastida was setting out small pots of brilliant red nochebuenas, poinsettias, popular decorations all year in Oaxaca.
I walked up Alcalá past the bookstore where Narce thought she could find me pigeonholed inside a book. As I reached the corner I saw the beautiful Santo Domingo Church, it’s twin towers standing tall and severe like two sentries in their aureate uniforms, glistening in the setting sun.
The scarlet blossoms of a flame tree on the corner urged me forward. I passed a row of guaje trees heavy with seedpods, the tree from which Oaxaca gets its name, a perversion of Hauxyacac, literally on top of the guaje tree in the ancient language Náhuatl.
I reached the wall of stone and mortar that surrounded the botanical garden. Behind the church industrious gardeners had sequestered hundreds of cacti and other plants indigenous to Oaxaca. Familiar yet strange like Star Wars characters, this unlikely array of nature’s oddities was visible through barred windows set in recessed alcoves along the wall.
In a small private garden up a driveway, potted plants with colorful blossoms similar to plumeria attracted a small yellow warbler. I stood and watched while he picked at the remaining raindrops with his beak. A purple allamanda vine had clawed its way up the wall.
I turned down Reforma Street and soon found myself back home at Casa de las Bugambilias. The Americans call this plant with its spiky thorns and brightly colored blossoms bougainvillea. It was named after the French explorer Antoine de Bougainville who discovered the plant growing in South America. In Mexico it’s bugambilia. The blossoms come in many colors, white, yellow, orange and pink as well as red, purple and magenta.
When I walked into the courtyard, my wife was waiting for me.
“Did you enjoy your walk?”
“Yes, as always.”
“We leave tomorrow.”
“I suppose you want to come back again next year?”
“I’d like to live here.”
“You know I couldn’t?”
“Yes, I know. Let’s go upstairs and pack.”