Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Suzanne Dunning

In a past life my soul must have been broken into many different pieces and scattered throughout the world. Somehow my intuition always seems to know exactly where to find them— in a pint of Guinness on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, on a beach at the base of Mt. Etna in Sicily, in the eyes of a camel in Morocco. This morning my mind wanders back to the piece I found in a steaming cup of hot chocolate in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Just out of high school and traveling alone, I had come to Oaxaca to improve my Spanish, unaware that the city would come to mean so much more to me than this, that a piece of my soul was waiting for me.

After stepping off a rickety bus that I had been on all night, flying around blind corners and teetering on the edges of cliffs with only the dashboard alter to protect me, I was greeted by a city just waking up for the day. I stood still, taking in the place that was to be my home for the next month. The first rays of sun were just climbing over the mountains in the distance, and the palm trees above my head were filled with the sound of birds so deafening, that for a moment I forgot I was in a city, and caught a glimpse of the jungle that Oaxaca once was.

Men pushing giant brooms passed by, preparing the city for the day, and I marveled at what a civilized replacement this was to the obnoxious street-sweeping machines in my own city. A group of little girls in white uniforms, with immaculately braided hair walked by holding hands, and an old woman on the corner was just opening her juice stand. I found my way to the zocolo, the center plaza, and sat down at a little outdoor cafe. A man brought me a cup of “chocolate caliente”. The cup looked as if it were made of pure, un-tamed earth, and the chocolate inside was as thick and dark as mud. As I took a tiny, tentative sip of the steaming chocolate, the food of the gods, the Aztecs called it, I could taste the richness of the cacao, ground with cinnamon and cayenne. The Mexicans say it simply soothes the stomach and calms the mind, but certainly there is something magical and “godly” in this chocolate. It’s as if it causes you to see inside yourself, and to feel utterly at peace with what you see. It causes you to see vividly the path that has brought you to the moment you are witnessing, and to have a calm confidence that that path will continue to lead you home.

The waiter returned with a basket of warm bread. “I didn’t order this.” With a faint smile he placed it gently before me. The bread was warm and the sweet smell of anise engulfed me. “You’re from here?” he said in Spanish. It was partly a question and partly a statement. I returned his smile and nodded, “Part of me is,” I said.

I spent the next month staying with a family in a little yellow house, moments from Oaxaca’s main church, Santo Domingo. I felt so at peace in Oaxaca that it caused me to feel that I was truly experiencing each moment for the first time in my life. The mornings in Oaxaca felt especially magical, and I rose each day before dawn, which was coupled with the passing of the water truck, and men yelling “agua” at the top of their lungs, so that I wouldn’t miss them. Before the sun rose I would climb Las Escaleras del Fortin, the giant stairs that lead to the top of the mountain overlooking the city. From there, I would look out over the entire valley, and witness the sun’s ascent over the hills in the distance. I could also look across and faintly see the stone temples of Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec capital that stood on the opposite mountaintop, nestled in the trees, separated from the exhaust and noise of modern life. It felt so healing to watch, from above, the commencement of each day; to watch the earth turn from the perspective of the gods.

Each day, after descending the stairs, I would go to the market, which I entered by passing under a giant fig tree that grew outside. An old man crouched each morning selling his green peppers, carefully arranged on a white cloth on the ground. Several of Oaxaca’s indigenous groups, mainly the Jaurez Zapotec, are some of the only groups in the world that have a matriarchal society. Because of this, Oaxaca is a region where women reign; and it’s apparent. In business, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, and most of all, in the markets, the women of Oaxaca are the ones who keep tortillas on the table. They are so round and seemingly rooted to the earth that when they walk, they appear like moving trees. At five feet four inches tall I felt like a giant when I stood next to them, yet they had such presence and force that I was intimidated as well.

In the market the women stood in their colorful dresses yelling prices amid pyramids of oranges and petaya fruit. They squatted by baskets containing mountains of tiny fried grasshoppers called “chapulines”. They were the bakers, the butchers and the basket weavers. Each day I would wind through the stalls, past intense black eyes that would watch me from behind piles of marigolds, to the back of the market, where, tucked out of the way, a smiling older woman had a little juice stall that she kept with her son. I always went to the same stall. I think I was trying to penetrate that seemingly impermeable wall of feminine force, and that quiet, soft old woman seemed like the easiest way. Every morning her son would make me grapefruit juice, squeezing the giant fruits, and handing me the juice in a plastic bag tied around a straw. I would drop my pesos into his mother’s wrinkled, chocolaty hand, and we would exchange smiles. Each morning we would talk a little, and by the end of the month, I knew them both, and they knew me.

Leaving the market, I would reentered the tranquility of the morning and pass back by the little old man selling his peppers with such dignity. The thought of him trying to compete with those huge, powerful women with their enormous piles of perfect produce always made me smile.

The school I attended, Becari Language Institute, was a small sanctuary, tucked behind heavy wooden doors. It was built in the typical colonial style, with an open courtyard and a fountain in the center which was surrounded by classrooms. Ferns grew out of the cracks in the building and bougainvillea hung from the second floor balcony. It was an oasis where I got to do the thing I love best— study Spanish.

Each day, when classes were over, I would reenter the city, which in the afternoons became increasingly stressful and hot. Honking cars spit exhaust from un-smogged engines, men slapped donkeys carrying loads of wood, and people rushed to complete errands before everything closed for siesta. Just at the time of day when things seemed to reach a climax of chaos and filth, the time of day when everyone seemed like they had begun taking their problems, or their errands or the entire human race too seriously, the gods would deliver a message. The sky would darken, and the winds would push heavy clouds across the valley’s fertile fields, driving the stale, hot air from the city. Then torrents of rain would begin so suddenly, that just the first drop would send people running for cover. One moment I would be obliviously passing someone on the street, and the next we would be laughing together as we gratefully shared the shelter of the same doorway for an indeterminable amount of time.

While people crouched under trees and awnings, sharing the names of their children, and strengthening the human spirit, a river would flood the hot streets, sweeping away any bits of food or trash, stray chapulines, crushed flower heads and cigarette butts. Then as suddenly as they arrived, the clouds would move on, goodbyes would be said, and life would continue again. But this time a little slower, a little cleaner and with a little more perspective.

Each day I would stroll through the zocolo, the center plaza that was lined in giant Indian laurel trees. The laurels shade the men shining shoes; they protect the agricultural protestors, camping outside the capital building, They stand, elegantly— the center of life in Oaxaca, a place where not even cars are allowed.

One day I took the bus with a Oaxacan girl named Nubia that I had become friends with to see a movie in the new part of the city. I watched from the bus window, as the familiar streets where donkeys and pedestrians had almost as much presence as cars, were replaced with multiple lanes and speeding SUVS. We passed Burger King, McDonald’s, and Subway and got off next to a huge parking lot. The absence of trees made the heat unbearable, but as we passed through automatic glass doors into an overly-air-conditioned, sterile, Mexican version of Macy’s, I desperately wished I was back outside. I stood in the perfume department of all places, stunned, while Nubia tried out a new Calvin Klein perfume. I felt like crying, I felt like I should have been warned that this existed so close to the old world that I had been living in. I felt naive to have thought a place like Oaxaca could have rejected all of the plastic, synthetic temptations that are so common throughout the modern world. We watched the movie in a theatre that could have been anywhere in the US, and I continued to feel numb.

Returning that evening, drained, I felt like one of my days in Oaxaca had been stolen. My trip, from that moment on, changed. Part of me felt utter despair for the fate of the entire world, but I also felt thankful that the multi-story mall, the Big Macs and Tommy Girl were outlawed from the true heart of the city. In this sense, I think my experience with Nubia enriched my trip because it made me see the delicacy of what I was witnessing.

Oaxaca’s true beauty exists in moments, in the magical alchemy between smells and sounds and tastes. It exists in the moment of sharing a pomegranate on a park bench with a poet so old he remembers Poncho Villa and the Mexican revolution. It exists in the scent of the gardenias a smiling woman carries in a basket balanced on her head; it exists in a potter’s wet clay as he forms a pot with weathered hands; it exists in the tint of apricot left in the evening sky; it exists in the cool breeze that blows past the women flipping empanadas filled with squash blossoms under solitary light bulbs; it exists in the black molé, that the Oaxacenos say will explode in your stomach and give you nightmares if eaten after midnight; it exists in the seemingly forgotten corners, on rooftops, in courtyards and thankfully, it exists forever in my mind.

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