Dream of Oaxaca
I can bring you a Bird of Paradise, but I cannot bring you the sounds and smells of Oaxaca. The pungent odour of the first drops of rain falling into dry dust, the tang of waxen candles burning in the cathedral’s dark, the high notes sung at the altar by the old woman, dressed in black, who sings each day, on her knees, before the golden images in Santo Domingo: these sounds and smells defy any words I can pen. Nor can I place on the page the bustle of the abastos, the bickering of rooftop goats, the barking and growling of the dogs who patrol the azoteas at head-height and snap at your ears. Other things escape me: the salty taste of sweat, the heat and heaviness of the midday sun as its hammer falls vertical from the sky, the sandpaper touch of hand-hewn stone, cobbles hard beneath the feet, the visual impact of the revolutionary bullet holes still scarring the church where Benito Juárez got married and reminding the tourists that violence in Mexico is never far away. The silk smooth threads that run through the vendor’s carpets contrast violently with the harsh sharp tares still lodged in hand carded wool. Colors and scents: coffees and chocolates blending and blended in the open air-market, the spice stall with a hundred different kinds of peppers, the golden yellow flower of the gourd — flor de calabaza — as it floats on the surface of spiced soup or lolls luxurious upon Oaxacan cheese or tortilla and quesadilla. Such things are the substance of daily reality: I remember them well, but I cannot gift you with their taste, nor their smell, nor their sound. At night, strings of fireworks hang down the cathedral’s towers and, at the spark of a match, these castillos as they call them, burn. Cataracts of light flicker and flow as rockets claw upwards into the sky to knock on the doors of the slumbering gods. A bull’s head, attached to a wooden frame, bears fireworks that crackle and spurt fire as the bull charges at the gathered crowd. Sparks char cotton and wool, young girls shriek and flee, a striped, carved tiger emerges sparkling from the shadows and his eyes light up with another set of fires … But there is always something missing from these words. How much can I describe? How much am I forced to leave out? How close can I get to an imagined reality that is more imagined than real, more creation than memory? I live in a world that has forgotten poetry. I live in a world that has laid aside the great myths and replaced them with a media that misleads and falsifies. I live in a world in which the power and glory of words is used not to delight and educate, but to manipulate. I live in a treacherous world of lies and deceit, the world of Descartes’s evil genius, for not everything is as it seems to be and the people have been misled. But this world of ours is old, and older, darker powers than ours still dwell on this earth: a pinch of salt thrown over the shoulder, index finger and thumb pinched into a magic circle that wards off the evil eye, the traditional hunchback – el jorobado –, carved from jade, who packs our cares and troubles into his hump and carries them away … as I have been carried away, on this tide of creation that ebbs and flows, a virtual sea, a wave of autumn leaves that washes up to my door, then falls asleep, golden, brown, peaceful in the vacuum that is left by the wind’s sudden absence. So, for a while, after you have read these words, avoid all shadows, do not step on the black lines that divide sidewalk and pavement into squares, do not crush the elf’s dry bones hidden in a fallen leaf, avoid black cats, make sure the crow flies on the correct side of the road … then find a quiet corner of the street where the leaves dance to the wind’s tune, and fall asleep to re-create your own life in dreams.