LEISURE LETTER 55: UNDER THE OAXACAN SUN
Oh! – why did I ever leave Oaxaca . . . Whatever could have driven me away, on a plane bound for Mexico City, only to land sometime near sunset on one of those gray-orange, apocalyptic afternoons when the whole earth trembles like a volcano – and on to Tijuana . . . Tijuana again! . . . after all I had endured there when I was outbound one week before, sprinting through the airport like some kind of deranged, sweat drenched madman, only to miss the outbound plane, to stop there in the middle of the terminal at CBX, where I dropped the trusty Vuitton Keepall duffle and just stood there with tears welling up in my eyes . . . Utter despair! . . . Up until some kind fellow tapped me on the shoulder to inform me that the plane to Huatulco had been delayed – yes delayed! – and I would be going to Oaxaca after all, a land as steeped in mysticism and lore as any I have ever dreamt of.
I suppose I felt really inclined to get out of California, to throw in the towel and quit the fast paced life, just get as far away from the scene as I could. It was high time to fly – to fly South – even one hundred miles would do, but I would go much further, into the very belly of Mexico itself, to the coast of Oaxaca. Things would be nice and quiet down there.
Fortunately enough Johnny and French had already arrived, having spent a week in Sayulita. Good for them. After one week of the Sayulita silly’s they got the itch and booked passage for Huatulco, Oaxaca. That’s when I got the phone call. “Catch a flight down here Johnny. You’ll love it down here.” There were several minutes of silence on the phone as I reflected on all the reasons I couldn’t make it, all of the responsibilities I could not at any cost afford to leave behind. “Sure Johnny,” I said – “I’ll catch the next flight . . .” – which happened to be a red eye.
The plane hit the ground before you could even see the sun, though it was starting to get light and you could feel the heat already: already there was a sticky, vaporous mist rising off the dense foliage surrounding the airport. In Huatulco the airport is essentially a giant palapa accompanied by a paved runway. Here, along with the trees and the rivers and the wet soil you could smell the temperature rising by degrees. No, there wouldn’t be any trouble here. Here was a vibe I could live by.
Which became apparent when I got in the car with Johnny and French, two sun-drenched lizards who could barely utter a syllable, having no more use for speech after having got their proper dose of UV rays and salt water splash. Deep in the folds of this kind of climate there is scarcely else to do but live in thrall of the vast world caving in all around you, the vast seas pouring into this residuum, a pervasive flickering energy, simmering, a calmness too, just down there hanging out with insects.
The insects . . . In a matter of days they had eaten French alive, and they would go on eating him for the rest of the trip. Not to mention the typical host of tropical maladies he had been suffering since Sayulita. It wasn’t looking very good. In order to provide only a slight perspective, I’d like to remind you about one of Mexico’s most powerful and ancient proclivities, as old as time itself – that to be alive in Mexico is either to thrive immeasurably amongst the elements or else to be tormented, stripped down and slowly, carefully destroyed. French, poor Mr. French, happened to be one of those unfortunate fellows who, when they make it down far enough into the sticks, are struck senseless by a near constant, pestilential degeneration. Such delicate species as French are simply not made for Mexico. The organic wine bars and air conditioned rooms of Los Angeles were far from his reach. I myself was on the up and up, as happy as a clam.
So happy to arrive at the hotel on the bluff where each morning we were attended by the wonderful Blanca and her family. Always awake at daybreak, we would take our breakfast of coffee, fruit and Huevos a la Mexicana by the pool, watching the sun melt into formation out of the hills southeast. My favorite was the American white bread, served untoasted, with a good smearing of butter. And then to the beach, always the beach, for a swim in the sea, . Some days we would get to the beach when it was still dark, waiting for old Apollo to emerge out of the distant interior, rising over the primeval jungle and all of its secrets, suddenly lit up like a living beacon of some lost world, a ghostly civilization, no more existent than a whisper running over the hills in one last sultry, frantic gasp, running forever out to sea.
Always back to the hotel for a lunch of cooked fish or shrimp, a limonada, a michelada, a game of cards and a hammock by the pool. There I could kick back and admire the hills shimmering in the noonday heat; there I could sit back and watch the terribly beautiful, slowly swooping birds forever flying, so effortlessly, some with snakes in their talons, like mythical beasts of prey. I think I live here now, I would sit and muse. I will live here forever.
But that would not be the case. At this point French was really starting to break down: close to a thousand bug bites, sunburn, malaise, what appeared to be onset malaria, intermittent fever, sleep deprivation and other questionable symptoms of a sickness for which there did not seem to be a cure. Once dark, over a candlelit seance beneath the Virgin Mary, we decided that something needed to be done, and quick. The next day we would find some of the mescal, some of the pura gasolina . . . Only the mescal might have the power to fix Mr. French. We made the sign of the cross and thanked the beneficent Virgin. And then we tried to sleep.
Solemnly we set out the next day at sunrise, stopping by the fruit cafe for our journey’s provisions and a coffee. We then drove along winding roads cut through jungles as dense and chaotic as black holes, passing many townships and remaining as hopeful as we could. At some point we pulled up on a vast empty beach with a few structures built here and there. It was called Playa Grande, and it was a very big beach, indeed. The small village went right up to the sand. There were some children there laughing and kicking a ball, and a little niño sat in the shade playing with the dog, his mother close by stirring a big steaming pot of a delicious stew. On to the beach I walked, and walked until I came to the water’s edge, the wind blowing strong out of the northwest. Then I walked back, pausing to take a seat at a convenient table built in the sand underneath a storm ravaged palapa structure. Oh, I could have been left there forever, just staring out over the infinite sea, dead strait in the middle of an infinite beach.
Only we had to keep pressing on. French was in a bad way and needed the magic elixir, mescal, along with its healing properties. Back to the main road, again snaking through the jungle with Eydie Gormé blasting on the stereo. “What we need is to find a little market off the side of the road, a tiendadita . . .” Johnny yelled above Eydie – “That’s where we’ll find our mescal.” And find it we did, in a small shop off the side of the road. In the market we were greeted by a sweet elder working the counter. Johnny did the talking. “Señora,” he said, “necesitamos un litro de mezcal por nuestro amigo. Él tiene mucho enfermo!” And we both made the sign of the cross. She laughed and lifted up from behind the counter a two-gallon gasoline tank she used to pour one liter of mescal into a plastic bottle. Johnny sniffed the bottle, smiled, mumbling – “Bueno.” We handed over all the pesos we could muster from our sandy trunks, got in the car and sped off in the direction of Huatulco.
That night we ate liberally of the fish and the rice and beans served by our gracious host. We then commenced with the mescal and another game of cards. Everyone was in high spirits, even French and his ten thousand bug bites. When it was time to go to bed I wandered off into town with my notebook and a cerveza, in a kind of mescal delirium. It was time to begin writing my story, just a few notes to get things going. I drifted through the unpaved streets like a night-boat floating the river Nile. The night dogs sang in greeting to my right and to my left.
Thus I drifted into a most peculiar restaurant professing to serve a slice of pizza comparable to that of any served in the great city of New York. I took a seat in the corner where there was an oversized candle burning and melting onto the table. The fire danced dizzily over the table in a trance. Entranced, I ordered a slice and a mescal slushy. There I ate and drank and scribbled my notes, slipping into a soft midnight passion. That’s when the dog approached me. A friendly dog, it seemed. Except, when I reached to give it a pet, the perro snapped at my hand and broke the skin. The barman witnessed all of this. He rushed over with a bottle of mescal and poured it over the fresh wound. The wound sizzled, bubbled and burned. “Todo bien,” the barman winked, pouring himself a nip of the mescal. “Si, todo bien,” I said. I was quickly learning that Mescal, native to Oaxaca itself, was an appropriate prescription for anything from a broken heart to broken skin.
The next morning we all caught a flight out of Huatulco. French, the native Los Angelean, in 23C could barely speak but sat contently knowing he would soon be back at his second home in Hawaii, comfortably applying Cortisone to each and every bug bite, sweating out the sickness in his sauna bath in between senselessly long walks along the beach, enjoying the soft caress of the tradewinds. Two rows back in 25F, I was still rattled from the dog bite. I kept thinking about rabies, about the madness soon to sweep me away, the fever, and finally . . . I shuddered to think of it. Johnny was just fine way up in 4A, enjoying all the perks of the corporate expense account. So it was that we arrived in Mexico City on a gray-orange, apocalyptic afternoon. Gazing out over the endless metropolis, it appeared as if the entire city were sinking. Later I would find out it was: and at an alarming rate due to its construction upon a lakebed in the center of a massive volcanic crater, which has since dried up. Sitting at the terminal, cradling my skull in the palms of my hands while waiting for the Tijuana flight, I imagined the old Aztec gods dancing and chanting from the tops of pyramids built all over the Yucatan, mustering a storm of unimaginable consequence. It seemed Old Mexico had gotten the best of me this time . . .