When I told people I was going to spend New Year in Oaxaca they didn’t hesitate to tell me that I would love it, that it was one of the mot beautiful places in Mexico. Most of the people that told me this had never visited Oaxaca. It didn’t matter. They were certain that I would love it. I had to love it.
Among the many surprises Oaxaca offered was the best collection of English language books on Mexican topics that I’ve seen in Mexico (it’s in the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, adjacent to the immense Iglesia de Santo Domingo for anyone who may be interested). There, for the first time ever, I found a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the cover hued in the same shade of moss green as the old churches of Oaxaca.
Under the Volcano, Lowry’s best known and most highly regarded novel, is set in Cuernavaca, but Oaxaca leaves a lingering presence within the novel. The protagonist (who is loosely based on Lowry) and his wife share memories of Oaxaca, of the beauty of the city and of their love burning brightly there. Later when his wife leaves him the protagonist returns to Oaxaca alone. It is a kind of test of endurance and suffering for him, a purgatory that he faces with the aid of a lot of booze.
Lowry’s own experiences in Oaxaca were not too different to this. Lowry’s first marriage broke down in Mexico, and he ended up alone in Oaxaca, lost in his alcoholism. He was thrown into jail there and later deported under suspicion of being a spy.
This is the strange alter-ego of Oaxaca. For most these days it is a paradise of great food (in enormous portions), beautiful architecture, vibrant culture and counter-culture, and well-preserved traditions. It is a popular destination for tourists, expats and students. It is also, however, conspicuously poorer than the bigger cities of the north. More people beg on the streets. More dejected animals slink through the side streets. More discontent graffiti adorns its restored walls.
Just outside of Oaxaca is Monte Alban, an ancient temple complex that receives a fraction of the attention of some of Mexico’s big name ruins. The site is situated atop a high ridge that was levelled and carved out by the Zapotec people thousands of years ago. The setting is dramatic, looking out over the valleys of Oaxaca. Its pyramid temples are beautifully restored and much of the original carving is preserved. Among the most famous carvings are ‘the dancers’, thought to be captured rival rulers who were imprisoned at Monte Alban. The carvings show these dethroned rulers with the genitals mutilated (pretty damn badly), and their bodies contorted in the agonies that preceded ritual death. Always this cruelty. Always this serenity.
Hernan Cortes, subjugator of the Aztecs and conqueror of Mexico, was given the title of (first) Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca by the King of Spain. Cortes, for all his legendary reputation, was forever at odds with the other colonial powers of Mexico, and twice returned to Spain to defend his name. Oaxaca was a lucrative territory for Cortes, but it was also an isolating one. He was effectively retired into Oaxaca, and would never again hold an administrative position in the colonies. He spent the rest of his life filing and fighting lawsuits.
(The museum of contemporary art in Oaxaca is known as the Hernan Cortes house, even though he never lived here. Like Lowry he found Cuernavaca a more agreeable residence than his Oaxacan purgatory.)
While in Oaxaca I sampled local fare, returning time and again to atole and tlayudas. I sampled mezcals (each their own purgatory). I climb to high places and looked down over the city. I found churches that stand distinct against the million old churches of Mexico. I found art and books and friendly people and magnificent ruins. There was little in all this to suggest anything less than paradise (apart from the mezcal). So are the difficult days of Oaxaca behind it? It was only four years ago that riots in Oaxaca turned violent, and civilians were killed as police pacified the city. That deep-seated ambivalence is still present in Oaxaca. Most people, or at least most people that write or photograph or blog or whatever, will only experience the paradise, I suppose. Only a few become lost in the purgatory of Oaxaca. Their rare testimonies give a far greater depth to Oaxaca though, a troubled poignancy that may be why the city is so unforgettable.