I was on a mission of mercy, and like a fairy-tale wanderer, I slipped down a hole in the ground and found myself in another world altogether. This is how I felt after I arrived in Oaxaca walking down the zocalo in the evening hours. It was like a hallucination. The great trees that shade the square, the overpowering façade of the cathedral that overlooks it, the cafes that line the pavements-all were bathed in an eery light making the movement of the people in and out of the darkness like the movement of stage characters.
Grandly, in the high white bandstand that occupies the middle of the zocalo, a brass band was preparing to perform. But no, though I hung around the plaza for two long drinks, and though the crowd was waiting with infinite patience on white iron benches beneath the trees, I never did hear the band play and this gave the whole scene, when I recalled it the next morning, a tantalizing air of suspense, as in a dream whose denouement never quite arrives, leaving you to make up an ending of your own.
It was not magic mushrooms that gave me these agreeably alienated sensations. It might have been partly the altitude. Oaxaca is 5,000 feet above sea level. Its name sounds to me onomatopoeic in its queer combination of breathiness and romance. The air is thin, the location lonely, and even in the light of day the city retains an air of festive unreality.
For travellers of my own sensibility, who rather stay home than face the hassle of this endemically delayed, cancelled, closed-owning-to-national-holiday, mariachi-deafened, corn-corpulent republic-for faint hearts like me, Oaxaca offers a salutary lesson. Even here nearly everything goes wrong, but when it does it all happens so gently, so elegantly, that you are instantly mollified. It is like an hour acclimatization session. An hour in Oaxaca and you are indoctrinated into the frame of mind by which aficionados insulate themselves against Mexico’s hazards, and live through them all with affectionate detachment.
Our Lady of Solitude is a proper patroness for Oaxaca, because the city really does stand on its own amid those bare-looking mountains of the south. Its appearance is abrupt, suddenly you reach it suddenly you leave it. Contemplating this fact, looking around me I realized the fantastic nature of these Spanish colonial towns. In no other modern empire was building done with such ebullient sophistication at such remote and improbable sites. The British built no Oaxaca in India, the French created nothing so exquisite in Indo-China and we must look back to the dominions of the ancients, to the overseas cities of the Greeks and Romans, to find a civilization re-creating itself with similar art and craftsmanship in foreign parts.
Oaxaca is a questionable sort of place, as it had to be from the beginning, no doubt, in order simply to survive the Spaniards who fortified themselves with dogma and architecture against the unknown.
All this-the isolation of history and geography-makes the character of Oaxaca feel all the more absolute. I love old, small cities in any country, and Oaxaca provides the authentic provincial stimulation. The undertaker reads a magazine among the ornamental coffins of his premises. Going to the movies is an event, and people make an evening of lectures on art at the Teatro Juan Rulfo.
In such cities, and especially in cities of Spanish origin, I always like to imagine that somewhere around the corner lives an Eminent Local Historian who knows more about the town than anyone else ever will, and whose whole life is its history. Where ever I go I look out for this sage of my fancy, and in Oaxaca, sure enough, I spotted him, walking stately through his beloved streets in the cool of the evening accompanied by the adoring wife essential to an eminent local historian.
Oaxaca has been vividly, some might say violently, colored by Indianess. Pure-blooded Europeans seem to be a rare figure here. Even the historian is high of cheekbone and exotically deep of eye. On all sides I see the unusual walk, almost a falling on the toes, that is specific to the Indians, and you hear the arcane languages of the Mixtec, Zapotec, or Ixcatec-well, perhaps not Ixcatec, because according to the local museum only nineteen people in the entire state now speak the Ixcatec tongue.
The Indians seem endlessly productive-endlessly inventive, too, for every rug, every tapestry, every mask, every funny giraffe is different-and the life of the city appears to be governed by their calendar. Saturday is Oaxaca’s great day of the week, because the Indians come into the market from the villages all around.
European that I am, I have tried hard to imagine a European analogy for the combinations of Oaxaca. Architecturally, of course, it is like a Spanish hill town, with its baroque and rococo glories, its domed suggestions of Islam, its portentously fin de siecle Teatro Macedonia Alcala. Yet thousand of country people, from tribes long thought extinct, are unleashed each day upon the municipality bringing with them all the styles, attitudes, and traditions of an almost forgotten age.
They strike me as a people almost inconceivably old-a truly indigenous people, rooted in their own mores. In the regional museum you can see how true to itself their style has remained down the centuries-the same suggestions of animist certainty, the same tastes for the gaudy, the decorative, the macabre, and the whimsical.
High above Oaxaca resides the ancient city of Monte Alban, which probable achieved the height of its glory in the seventh and eight centuries AD, and was later converted to a royal necropolis by the Mixtec-those very same people whose languages I still hear, whose haunting faces I still see in the dappled light of the zocalo.
It is one of the supreme archaeological sites of the Americas, but it surely more than that. It is also the colossal folk memory of a race still alive and creative. A steep winding road leads you up there from the city, to the scrub land ridge that commands the converging valleys of the Oaxaca. Arcane pre-Colombian buildings, temples, palaces, ball courts and supposed observatory. The wind blows out of the wide bare hills around, and there is the mingled smell of dust and herbs. The dry air carries voices with a strange clarity across the plateau.
Far below Oaxaca lies, like an exquisite model among the foothills and Monte Alban seems to look down upon it with a monitory air. Perhaps the presence of this peculiar stronghold casts some spell upon the town. I was here when the night began to fall, the lights came on in the streets below for all the world as though the old lords of the mountain had decreed it; and as I stood there so high above the little city, entranced, I swear to you I heard the band strike-up.