Superficial Thoughts About the Depths of Oaxaca


When we return home from a journey, one of the first things we do is to unpack. Not merely all the physical items that have traveled to and fro with us, but the experiences and memories we bring back with us as well. It often takes a bit of reflection to understand these experiences and memories. William Faulkner wrote, “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”

            It’s true that photographs never quite capture or convey the immediate, existential experiences we hoped to retain, revive and elicit when we took them, unless of course, you’re a professional photographer. But even then, hands-on real time objective and immediate experience never captures reality the way reality itself does.

            Being in Oaxaca last summer was both magical and mundane. We had our share of bad meals, but there were some extraordinary ones as well. There was a lot of aged and aging architecture that was a delight to see and inspect. Having been to Mexico many times as a child and as a teenager, the streets were familiar though still new, foreign. The people were a joy to watch and intermingle and converse with. And it was the everyday stuff that was wondrous.

I was amazed at the limpid quality of the sky’s blue, and at the gorgeousity of the castling clouds. Yet the city air was kissed with ozone and car fumes. The taxi rides were a speedy, tail-gaiting provocation which, with time, felt as natural as jogging miles and miles without stopping, for me possible only in a dream.

            I was amused at how high the curbs are in Mexico when stepping down into the street

or back up to the sidewalk; even such familiar things were somehow a little “off,” and enticingly so.

            We witnessed a couple of street parades —it was 2022 and July, the month of the yearly Guelaguetza Festival — and visited the amazing pyramids and structures at Monte Albán, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán Municipality in the south.

            Because of the Guelaguetza Festival there were a lot of tourists, not merely from the U.S., but from all of Mexico as well. It was wonderful and lively, but there were some signs of the strain, literal signs in the graffiti that was there one morning but gone within a day or two.

            One day when we’d gone to the largest central tourist park where there were a million restaurants, wheeled kiosks and vendor’s tents galore, we went to visit one of various museums of note that we had to wait in line to get into. I started talking with a young fellow from the capital, an engineering student there for the festivities. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned the anti-tourist graffiti we’d seen.

            “Oaxaca’s is a tourist industry around this time of the year. Visitors are welcomed with open arms and coddled.” He smiled and hesitated, nodding. “But, you know, the city gets so busy taking care of the tourists that it neglects its own citizens a bit. The trash hasn’t been picked up at the outskirts for nearly two weeks now. The people scrawling on the walls are few, but the sentiment is not a surprise. It’s a love-hate sort of thing.”

            He went on to laud the everyday folk, and I had to agree. We’d met people who whose demeanors were friendly, helpful, informative, welcoming, very warm. When they were elsewhere, at home or alone with themselves, what did they feel and say? What were their thoughts?  Complicated, no doubt.

            We met and ate with other tourists like us, no Americanos but other visiting Mexicanos who had the leisure and money to travel. We ate with them, interacted with them, exchanged stories and contact information.

            Eight months later, I want to go back. I wanted to go back five minutes after we left. I fantasized at odd, quiet moments, as my younger self, as yet unmarried and without children. An expatriate writer and bon vivant in Oaxaca for a year or two. To know a place you must spend some time there. A trite thought, but there you are. Travel lends trite thoughts gravity, turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. Never enough time.

“You okay, Dad?” asked my son as we waiting in the airport lounge watching airplanes taking on the airfield, taking off and landing. I nodded.

I watched my wife reading her book, “Circe”, and suddenly I wanted to be home, enjoying the delight and warmth of cherished domesticity, of quiet, mutual and wordless understanding.

Travel does that, doesn’t it. Reinvigorates the mundane with a sheen of agreeable strangeness, washing the accumulated film from one’s eyes.

            Ten days in Oaxaca was a breathless gift. I was missing it before we even left.

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