Saturday, September 6, 2008

AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA

Yesterday evening, we discovered a bona fide Mexican restaurant tucked away in the Tennessee hills in Tracy City, population 1698. The restaurant is a small place, and at 6 p.m. the parking lot was filled with workers’ trucks and cars bearing Sewanee stickers. Inside, the usual brightly-colored yellow and blue booths lined the walls of several rooms. Outside, people sat at tables under bright umbrellas on a patio behind a latticed fence, drinking Dos Equis and enjoying the halcyon weather of September in middle Tennessee. The menu was astonishingly varied, with entrĂ©e combinations of tacos, enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, chili rellenos to warm the palates of Cajuns seeking dishes comparable to seasoned French Louisiana fare.

The waiter, who may have been 16 years old, spoke broken English and was attentive to the point of downright cozy; at the end of the meal, he squeezed into the booth alongside me, put his arm around me, and asked if I liked the enchilada/chili rellenos combination I had ordered. I asked him the name of his home town in Mexico, thinking perhaps I had toured there, but I couldn’t understand his description of the place. His smile reminded me of the friendly waiters we encountered in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

We left the small restaurant at dusk, talking excitedly about former Mexican adventures. I’ve vacationed in Mexico three times, my most memorable trip being the one made to Oaxaca City during the late 90’s. Three of us flew to Mexico City on a jet and then on a smaller plane southward to Oaxaca City where we spent three weeks of total relaxation. The euphoric experience is often described by one of the threesome as OAXACA! OAXACA!, an exclamation of delight she makes when she recalls the trip. We want to return for a repeat vacation, but are afraid that the second trip won’t evoke the “other world,” dreamlike feelings we experienced on the first visit.

Oaxaca City is located in southern Oaxaca, a place that offers a slow pace of living in a dry, rocky setting. It’s famous for great handicrafts, especially the wooden carvings of strange, fantastical animals called alebrijes which were developed from toys Oaxacans had been carving for their children for several centuries. My friends bought me an alebrijes monster to remind me that such a creature could gobble up my creative spirit if I spoke negatively about the results – my writing. I still have the monster hidden in a handwoven basket from Oaxaca City.

We stayed in an old hotel on the zocalo (square), at night opening the windows to fresh mountain air and letting in the sounds of marimba bands that played until dawn. In first class restaurants, we sampled dishes made with mole (chili-based chocolate sauce) and scoffed at grasshoppers listed on the menu, ate cochito horneado (baked pork) and consumed platter-sized, American-style pancakes in the restaurant adjoining our hotel. We also sampled a small jolt of mescal made from the maguey plant and, sometimes, agave, and took a little bottle home to New Iberia where it still sits on a shelf, awaiting a serious drinker, I suppose. At the Camino Real, we enjoyed a three-hour performance of the Guelaguetza dancers in what used to be a convent chapel! When we got tired of relaxing, we made a trip out to the ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Alban, climbing stone terraces to look at ceremonial plazas and ancient tombs.

I bought a child’s tablet with wide lines and wrote the poems that are contained in a book of mine entitled AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA, two of which appear below:

SHOESHINE

The sound of monkeys squeaking
is only the last shiny touch on black shoes
forcing the patent gloss of a best foot forward.
We thought birds were conversing
across treetops in the early morning air,
it had the preternatural sound
of the Zapotec’s fantastical creatures,
voices shimmering on the air,
floating above the clacking
shop doors being drawn upward,
pleasing, like stepping out of old skin.

ADIOS OAXACA CITY

Every night is Saturday night in Oaxaca square,
hot keys on the marimba,
rumba in the street,
voices murmuring on the wind;
and we leave their celebrations,
the orange and yellow blossoms on sandstone,
but the sun will not age before we return,
lonely for the bruised stone,
wind blowing the curtain gently
through casement windows,
seeking the birds of myth,
the gold and black butterflies,
blue and yellow tapestry of memory,
our spirits’ refreshment again,
and Quetzalcoatl
anointing his new companions.
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