December 12, 2008
Across the miles, we gaze at the same full moon
but mine’s over Mexico!
FROM THE CITY OF OAXACA, THE STATE OF OAXACA, THE COUNTRY OF MEXICO,
I had put a deposit, 150 bucks or so, on author Ariel Gore’s writing workshop that I’m attending here at the beautiful Casa Colonial on Calle Miguel Negrete (remember that name) months before I even knew if I could afford it. I was stone broke, hadn’t yet listed my flat, and was in debt supporting my new apartment. Wait, what was that shushing sound? The sands of time cascading through the hourglass to their inexorable end…but I just assumed the flat would sell and I’d have the money. I’m always assuming I’ll have the money. I’m certainly not going to assume I won’t! My mother does all my worrying for me, so that frees me up to be fearless. Thanks, mom.
Everyone who goes anywhere with me eventually discovers the ugly truth that I have no sense of direction, and not too much later, that I haven’t acquired one during our walk. I’m not going to apologize for the rest of my life for being “directionally challenged.” I’ll tell you once and that’s it. Deal. I may not have a sense of direction, but I have a razor-sharp sense of misdirection! I can always pick the wrong way to go. Nevertheless I made it from Mission BART, San Francisco, to this Oaxacan paradise behind a purple door.
The hotel has a lovely clear old-fashioned ding-dong doorbell. There are nine or ten of us here showing up at different times from all over the states—a writer from Iowa, a writer from Milwaukie, another writer from Madison, two writers from Portland…you’ll notice I identify each as “a writer” and not whatever else she may be, because that word is why we’re here. We all are writers and we all want to be better writers. That commonality has brought us all to this blessed place on this blessed day.
Our host Ariel herself, was snowed in at Houston airport, I think, and is joining us tomorrow. Her beautiful and dignified mother, Eva, who lives here in town, played the hostess with the mostest by offering wine and the best mescal to be had—because she wanted us to taste the best first so we’d know what good is. It was intense, smoky and velvety, and surprised me by offering several levels of depth after swallowing. But my palate is not very sophisticated and I fear I disrespected her by being unable to finish the generous portion. The familiar and comforting red wine went down easier.
I AM GLAD
to be amongst the amiable group in the comfortable library, because I had just stepped out of a cab after the ultimate embarrassing reminder that, you guessed it, I am easily lost. I don’t know that there can be degrees of being lost, but if so I rang the bell on this one. And this after spending the morning on a random tour through what has to be the noisiest, nastiest, most pollution-choking section of the city, with speeding cars nearly taking you out on the crumbling sidewalks, all because I can’t read a map!
CHECK THIS OUT
Nuestra Señora de la Casa, Jane, who has the gravitas of an Amazon warrior, and three of us writers are doing a quick tour of the local mercado and one of us falls behind. “Don’t worry about her,” says Jane, “she’ll catch up with us.” I tell her, don’t ever say that of me, because you will never see me again! For a million dollars I couldn’t get back to your hotel. Later on, I am paying for a brightly colored vinyl tote bag labeled “Not Made in China,” and the rest of the group slips into a nearby spot for a drink. I probably just don’t look hard enough, but when I can’t find them on the street I say to myself, “Well, Lewis?” and “Yes, Clark, we’re lost.” Of course I don’t have the map the hotel gave me, and strangers wanting to be helpful are sorry they can’t be. No one has heard of the place.
I spot a cabbie who’s having a tire changed and we enter into a lengthy discourse of broken Spanglish about the mysterious hotel located on what street? Um, e-ger-e? e-g-e-r-e was all I could remember of it. We both give up—and minutes later I am waving my arms at an approaching cab, which when it slows down turns out to be his—sorry, me again.
And someone had just told me she was using the mountain and the towers as landmarks, but that wasn’t enough to get me to Calle Miguel Negeres. There were some familiar elements, but on my first time in this town I didn’t stand a chance. OK, kiddo, it’s getting dark. What are you going to do? I spend some token time aimlessly wandering with puzzlement wrinkling my brow as I peer up streets and around corners. I know it’s a waste of time, and I seem to have wandered into the worst ghetto Oaxaca has to offer. If only mom could see me now!
I WAS THE STUPID TOURIST
the next cabbie was hoping for when I flag him down and ask him if he knows donde the hell esta my hotel is! He makes a grunt of acknowledgement and I think phew! I have not yet learned never to get in a cab without confirming the driver knows the destination and you have agreed on a price. Boy did he take me for a ride! Could it have been the neon arrow over my head flashing “stupid tourist/stupid tourist”? During a twenty-minute wild goose chase with him and his dispatcher and me in a three-way running argument about where the hell is he taking me, we had to have covered every street “en toda la ciudad,” I try to tell him. Meanwhile the dispatcher is cracking a joke about an idiot, who I am sure has to be me. We’ve got a big catch here all right!
“UN MOMENTO! UN MOMENTO!”
I yell as I suddenly remember I have my Travel Bible with me! The spiral bound little notebook has harbored my travel arrangement details for various trips since I acquired it in Rio de Janeiro in ’97, and it has the address and phone number of the hotel! I’ve had it the whole time!
The girls were glad to see me when I shame-facedly entered the lobby, having simply grumbled and paid his price for the lengthy ride. He snatched the large bill and burned rubber. No doubt he and his compañeros had a good laugh at my expense over cervezas. This one’s on me! There are no meters in these cabs, so they can accrue whatever charges they want, I suppose. And that’s how I lost my virginity about making it obvious to natives just how stupid a tourist I truly am. I flew 2,200 miles for that lesson.
And that was just the first day.
I HAVE EXPERIENCED MAGIC
in Mexico on many occasions. Walking amongst lightning strikes on the beach at Tulum, fording a river and climbing a mountain in Yelapa, a little theater where we discovered the Guadalajara Folkloric Dance Troupe—and Casa Colonial, on the street whose name I will never forget, is a vortex of the stuff.
More news from the road as it breaks…
The author’s writing desk in Cuarto 14.
Coming to you live as the cock crows from concrete porch of the Casa, the closest wireless hotspot. It be cold out here!
copyright Alexandra Jones 2008