How to even start with Oaxaca? Ben and Alex and I spent ten days there, and the trip feels too big to distill. I know I’d never thought about staying down here after service until I went. I know that I’d never seen a place as interesting or socially conscious or politically alert in this Republic.
I’ve got no coherent narrative or explanation, but I can piece together some vignettes.
Ben and I are sitting in a gloomy bar called La Cantina that will on following days evade us like the Room of Requirement. The air is close and the place is crowded for a football match. Every other table is twenty beers deep, bottles crowding empty cases underneath. Brews are ten pesos until six, but we’ll manage to pay more all three times we stop in.
A local, clearly plastered, bellies up to the bar and orders us two beers in jailhouse English. This is unwritten code—he’s bought twelve ounces worth of time to practice speaking with us. It’s always a bit of a press-gang situation, but he’s on Ben’s side, so I let him handle it and keep watching the game. After five minutes, the guy’s still there, and Ben and I pointedly empty our bottles and pay for the next two.
I try to get the attention of the guy’s friend, and I notice the first guy’s touching Ben. A lot. All over his pechos. He’s going on and on about his wife, which usually means he wants to make the gringo he’s hanging on his husband. After another sweaty five minutes, he ambles back to his table, shaking my hand through six or seven false starts before he goes. Ben and I get a few minutes of peace before he starts whistling from his stool. “That’s for us, isn’t it?” Ben asks.
“It’s for you, hombre.”
“He’s coming over.”
“No, come on, he isn’t right?”
“Hey guys,” he slurs, his hand sliding back onto Ben’s chest. He’s trying to make it look normal, like a hand on a shoulder, but it’s not. “You should come over, talk English, we practice.” He tries to look into Ben’s eyes, but my friend’s staring resolutely my way. “Bring a stool,” he says. “One stool,” he adds, caressing Ben’s tit again. He stumbles away. We look over at his table. There’s a very small gap between two sets of knees and sweaty dicks.
“Just one stool, Ben.” We pay our check.
It’s a Sunday and there’s nothing doing for open bars. Ben and I didn’t much want to go out after last night, but a demanding young German named Sandra from the hostel has dragged us to the street. We hit the Zócalo on the deadest night I’ve ever seen, the three of us and an Australian named Ross ready to die of flu. “I keep almost getting over it, mate, but then, you know,” and he gestures around himself. I understand.
A waiter coming off duty in the square points down a side-street and we end up in front of an ugly mess of neon and Christmas lights called Altura. Any cover makes us cagey on a night like this, but it’s ten pesos and comes with a beer, so we dive in. I slide a massive iron door aside, and a chubby eight year old whips my arms up and frisks me better than any randy TSA hack ever has. I crip walk to the bar trying to pull my jock free and a burly man in a small skirt offers to cash my drink ticket. They’ve got a Shock Top tap at the bar, though, and it’s only fifteen pesos to the uniform sixty for everything else, so I try that.
He seats us, and thick piss fug invades our mouths and noses, endless piss, bottomless piss, the piss corpse that begot the ghost of Christmas piss. Ben and I think it’s coming from a stained and leaking cooler near the front, but when I hit the bathroom on the second floor, I realize it’s rolling down the staircase in waves from an entire other piss dimension, a world of piss, a piss Gehenna holding the spirits of every bathroom break in awful stasis until the ending of Hebrew time.
Ross tries to use the facilities and comes back down twice as consumptive. He throws his hat at Ben. “No way mate, no bloody fucking way, I only made it half up.” I understand him. I get to the last third of my draught before I spot the solid centimeter of rice-pudding lookalike brooding at the bottom. It’s okay, though, because our cover comes with a bottle beer, and we can exit and repay it over and over, never coughing up for a la carte.
They start playing banda, and the three geriatrics on the floor stop their pained flailing. Banda for all its wants is the campo soundtrack and we’re campo boys, so Ben sallies to the floor and I follow with Sandra in tow. He steals a crone from her bus driver date and squires her across the floor for a good hour. Sandra puts up with the foot to foot hopping for five minutes before we retreat to the sidelines. “I do not like zis music,” she says, perfect monotone.
“It’s harder than it looks,” I offer, although it largely isn’t.
“It iz all ze time ze same, zis dance.” I nod. “I do not zink zat ze Mexicans like to pahtee.” I think that’s unfair and untrue, but Ben and I will mimic her Terminatoresqueness for a year at least, so I think we’ve come out even.
We’re done with the ‘way worse than Monte Alban’ ruins at Mitla and ready to move on to Hierve el Agua, mineral springs and a stalactite cum rock Niagra on a high bluff. We spend a minute failing to disabuse a cabbie of his association of white skin with ridiculous fares when a Mexican with a crabbed hand in a cast walks over. “Going to Hierve? Come with us, real cheap.” Convinced, we walk to his colectivo. The cab is full of foreigners, so we pile into the be-benched and covered back. And start driving in the wrong direction.
Ben, Alex, and I sit in silence for a while. “Hierve el Agua is that way, right,” I say, pointing out the back.
“Yea, I’m pretty sure.”
“We’re so getting kidnapped,” says Ben, and the consensus seems to be that we probably are. Ni modo. Half an hour down the road, we pull into a Pemex station. We’re getting gas. The guy with the cast runs around to us, a forty-ounce in his good hand.
“Just stopping for petroleo, OK?” We nod and he offers us a sip of hot beer. We demur.
After our fill-up, we stop so the other extranjeros can pick up booze and fruit. An American girl takes her first bite of chile-d mango on a stick and yells, “You boys are missing out!” When I respond that we live in Mexico and that we’ve eaten chile mangos before, Ben and Alex tell me it was in a bitchy fucking tone of voice. Fully ninety minutes after we left, we pass the spot we originally left from in Mitla, this time going the right direction.
Up in the hills, we get charged ten pesos to cross a pueblo. Fair enough, I’m about to submerge myself in the waters of a national treasure and this is the second poorest state in the union. Shortly afterwards, the guy with the mangled hand hops out to let us know we’ll be paying more for the ride than the price he quoted us. We’re two hours into the bush, so we guess we’ll pay it.
We make it to the entrance to Hierve, or we think so; it’s actually just where the combi drops passengers, a full mile of high desert from the ticket office. It’s not that trucks can’t drive up—there are some parked inside. Ours just doesn’t. The Mexican with the cast hops out and starts walking with us. It turns out that he doesn’t work for the truck driver, he’s just a passenger giving out bullshit rates and trying to romance the obese mango-gobbling American girl. Later, at the pools, he slips, and saving both his bad hand and his beer, he eats serious shit. He bleeds in the pool and to us it feels right.
An hour into our beach tour and it’s clear we’ve fucked up again. Never take the tours. We’re supposed to see five beaches, dolphins, whales, turtles, and go snorkeling, but mostly we cruise sideways through heavy chop, and one middle-ager has already hurled. Sea-life is the plan, but there’s no go-to spot; we just tool around the open ocean hoping that we’ll run into something.
Our guide yells and dives off the boat. When he comes up, he’s got a sea turtle by the fin-pits, making it wave at us like an untreated spastic. It rolls its head from side to side and tries to bite him. Suddenly the three missing fingers on the first mate seem less mysterious. He invites us to rub ourselves on the animal, ‘but not the head.’ We find ourselves demurring a lot on this trip.
We’re twenty minutes up the side of el Cumbre, the highest hill in this part of the sierra and the one that marks the halfway point between the city and the coast. It’s not tall, but San José del Pacífico is higher up than where I or the two British guys from the hostel are used to. We’ve flopped down in a pine-needled clearing and are catching our breath when we hear running.
A man bounds down through the twenty meters of woods we can see above us and sits in our midst. “This is one crazy magic mountain, huh,” he says, his accent straight out of Sven’s shop in Frozen. He’s looking for a light, he says. He lost his lighter smoking in a clearing with five foreign guys. His eyes glaze a bit as he looks us over. There are five of us, one Brit smoking a cigarette. Wait, says the Swiss, kicking off his ratty flip-flops and running down the trail. He jogs back a minute later, lighter in hand.
It’s serendipitous to him, finding us and later his papers, but when a golden-tanned Swiss mountain man runs a mountain to pop down in the middle of your troop on in the middle of nowhere, you get the feeling there’s some kind of altered ruleset at work. He rolls, and smokes, a cigarette, then assures us we ‘have to’ climb the rest of the way and runs off again, barefoot sprinting down a thirty degree slope. We barely said a word during the visitation and now we look at each other wide-eyed. “Write that down,” says Ben.
I open my notebook and see my entry about the guy at the bar. Ben has amended it to say, “Touching Ben’s pechos,” but his handwriting is cramped and it looks like “pecker.” Makes me laugh every time.
“So you like The Lord of the Rings,” I say to Mari in the pidgin Spanish we’ve been using since we left the hostel. We can both speak the other’s language, but I think we like the mix.
“Yes,” she says, “since the movies.” We’ve been out dancing, our second straight night at the hellhole Altura. We warned everyone, but Ben had played banda for the girls at the hostel on the roof and they were not to be dissuaded from a bar that put on the same noisy trash. Mari’s from el Tule outside the city, so it’s her music too, and we ad-hoc’d our way through a few hours of that and salsa and bachata and cumbia on the side. Neither of us was impressive but we’re impressed with each other.
“And what else? Other nerdy stuff?”
“Like what?” She asks, shooing her dog Bob Dylan off my leg. We’ve been walking for an hour now and he’s still determined to get my chinos pregnant.
“Well…when I first got back to the US from China, my sister and I used to watch DBZ together.”
“Oh! My brother and I did this too!”
“Older sister. It was the way we related. To each other. We still talk about it when we’re together.”
“Yes, it is exactly like this with my brother.” We lapse into silence, Dylan’s labored breathing plaintive for heavier petting than we’re willing to give. “And Nintendo,” she says.
“Mario Kart?” She nods.
“And Super Smash.” My sister and I got an N64 our second year in China. We still feud over who’s who in Smash Brothers.
“Kirby?” I ask, and she’s excited.
“And Ness.” My turn.
“Ness? Nobody plays Ness.”
“You too?” I’m finding it hard to nod as emphatically as I want to. “He just, when you, así como—” and as she waves a hand, I can see the little guy’s loopy second jump.
“You should live in Jalpan,” I say.
“You should live in Oaxaca.” I think maybe she’s right.