I’m writing this hungover as all hell, so forgive me if I’m not very… good… at words.
I’m in Oaxaca City now. Wha – HA – ka. I got the collectivo here from San Jose after hugging Cole, Joey, Sam and Liam goodbye in the morning. I said goodbye to the beautiful view too, then left the mountain town to head north. The ride in the minivan was easy enough – I was given a seat beside the driver, and after my initial attempt at conversation was swatted away, we maintained a healthy silence for the next four hours.
It was cool seeing the landscape change. Starting out in Yucatan everything was super humid jungle, and obviously Holbox was a tropical island paradise. Palenque was mountainous and thick with monkey-strewn foliage, and in the mountains San Cristobal was wind-swept and drizzly – much like an English summer, in fact. Escondido and Mazunte were beachy and sweaty, San Jose was high-altitude smoky pine forest, and now as I head north the land is gradually getting dryer. The landscape is hilly, and instead of thick forest, much of the nature in the valleys is scrubland dotted with towering cacti and agave. Things are starting to look more cowboy. I like it.
In the afternoon I arrived in Oaxaca, and my immediate impression was that it was shit and I hated it. This is not because the town is shit: it is because I am shit. I’ve not bought a SIM card in Mexico – a deliberate choice so that when I’m out, I’m out, and I can’t be distracted from beautiful vistas by notifications popping up all the time. I use my phone enough as it is – and we all know too much of that does no good. It’s fine for navigating, anyway. From the guy I travelled with in Bosnia a few months ago, Jack, I learned you can download the map of any city to your phone to use offline. So that part is chill.
What wasn’t chill was the fact that the WiFi in San Jose was broken, so I couldn’t download the map for Oaxaca ahead of arriving. With no means of navigating and no cash in my wallet, I resigned myself to asking directions in shops:
“Hola. Por favor, donde esta un ATM? Para cambio?”
When I was met with blank stares – apparently they don’t call them ATMs here – I instead mimed entering a pin number, with the obligatory ‘beep beep beep’ sound effects. This would probably have worked if I knew enough Spanish to understand what anybody was telling me. I drifted angrily through the city, getting knocked all over by people squeezing past my broad turtle-shell of a backpack, swearing under my breath and cursing Mexico for its lack of regular cash machines.
In the end I found a restaurant that would let me pay on card, and I bought lunch to use their internet. I downloaded my map, and found Nienke had messaged me. She was in a café a few blocks away – a famous bakery – and I went to sit with her for half an hour while she told me about her time in the city. Then I left her to check into my hostel: a simple, clean place for the princely sum of £7.50 a night.
In the evening I went to Nienke’s hostel, Iguana, because my own was pretty dead. We had a beer and I got stuck talking to a nutty American who told me that nuclear war was inevitable and that the world was going to end. He pirouetted admirably through various insanities – a ‘cabal’ runs the world, apparently – and finished by asking if I was vaccinated. I said yes. He looked at me with disappointment.
“Ah man, not you too? You know, one of my smartest friends got vaxxed. I thought he would know better. You don’t know what they put in those shots. What if it’s made you sterile?”
I told him I was very sure it has not made me sterile, and that regardless, I’m not sure I want children with the world in its current state. Maybe I’ll adopt.
“What? You don’t want to pass on your DNA? Your flesh and blood?”
I reminded him of his belief that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust at some point in the next century.
“One word man: Argentinian nuclear bunker. You get down there, and you wait for it to pass,” he said.
I asked him whether he thought emerging from a concrete bunker into this radioactive wasteland he anticipates would make a very jolly existence for his future offspring. He frowned and went quiet.
He offered to buy me a beer but I declined and ran away with a few people we’d met at the hostel: a few Brits and a Mexican guy, Pedro. We went to a club that I had been misinformed was a bar, and the music was very loud and there were about a thousand people shouldering each other on the dancefloor: very much not my scene. There wasn’t enough room to hold a cat, let alone swing one. I left early with two of the English girls, bought a hot dog in the street, and went back to my hostel to sleep in the first non-mosquito infested bed I’d had in days.
Early next day I went to the plaza of the Templo de Santo Domingo, a large square outside a very grand church, where they have parades and dancing seemingly every day. There I met Pedro and Nienke, and we were joined by five Mexican girls local to Oaxaca – Pedro had met them the day before in an art gallery and made friends. We all swapped names and I was overwhelmed and remembered none.
Under the calm guidance of the Mexican girls, we got a couple of taxis out of the city to Monte Alban – an ancient ruined city from an indigenous civilisation known as the Zapotecs. Before arriving I felt unsure whether the ‘wow’ factor would be lost after Chichen Itza and Palenque, but no: it was gorgeous. High up on a mountain (or certainly a very large hill) sits an ancient, long-abandoned city made from stone. The top of the mountain has been levelled off – god knows how they did it – so the whole area looks like an enormous football pitch surrounded by stepped pyramids. I walked along in bare feet, because my tennis shoes finally burst and my poor be-socked toes were poking out of the ends like sausages out of a packet. It was nice to feel the grass between my toes. It’s always a treat – and even more so when exploring a ruin.
Pedro had a tiny bottle of mango-flavoured mezcal, and he handed me it to sip from as we sauntered around the site. There were temples, palaces, and an observatory, which is where the most educated priests used to predict weather patterns and seasons and astronomical events. Pretty gnarly.
I climbed up a pyramid at the far end of the site and tried to picture it a thousand years ago, without the tourists, bustling with Zapotecs in traditional garb. It didn’t really work – I think I was too tired – so I changed tack. Instead I tried to imagine the event of the abandonment of the city; I don’t know what cataclysmic event befell the people there, but clearly at some point, whether in droves or idle drifts, the people who lived here left – and never returned. I imagined the night it happened: a young mother with a baby clinging to her, carrying all her worldly belongings away from her lifelong home in a great exodus with her family and loved ones. Creaking carts laden with belongings, filing out and down the mountain in a torch-lit, mournful procession. I imagined the young mother stopping on the brow of the hill to take one last look back at her now-empty city, left behind to sit silent and dormant for the next thousand years.
Our next stop was a tiny village called San Martin. I’d never heard of it, nor had Pedro – it was the Mexican girls’ recommendation. We took a collectivo and a tuk tuk to reach it, and I fell asleep in the collectivo but before nodding off I put on my sunglasses and facemask so nobody could take embarrassing photos of me with my mouth hanging open. The town is known for its art: of the 250 people that live there, almost all of them are involved with the carving and painting of beautiful little wooden figurines called alebrijes. Alebrijes are carvings of animals and figures from Mexican folklore – spirit animals, winged beats, sea creatures, deities, gorgeous flowery skeletons.
A man in a hat gave me a shot of home-brewed mezcal as I browsed the stalls (everybody just keeps giving me mezcal here, honestly), and I bought a little painted skull keyring with staring red eyes. I thought it was very beautiful, and once I’d bought it – from a 23-year-old girl who’d practised as an alebrije artist since she was 7 years old – I sat on a bench and turned it over and over in my palm, staring at it. I never buy souvenirs. It feels quite nice, actually. I attached the little skull to the zip of my day rucksack, thereby quickening my transition into a true travel wanker.
We went for food after at a place the girls knew: a restaurant way out in the middle of a great valley that appeared empty save for corn fields and fruit trees and grasshoppers. I tried pork with mole, which is a sauce local to Oaxaca, pronounced like ‘MOH-lay’, and not like ‘mole’, which is how I said it for about a week before being corrected. It tastes like an odd salsa-y gravy-esque chocolate-tinged mashup, and it was very tasty but very rich; I couldn’t eat it every day. At the arrival of his own mole dish, Pedro dropped a bag of dead crickets on the table.
Now, in England, dropping a polythene sack of insects on the table just as people are about to dine – or at any point in the evening, really – is considered poor form. People don’t appreciate it. In Mexico, however, as Pedro began to scoop out handfuls of garlic-glazed crickets and distribute them across his mole, the Mexican girls glanced over enviously and asked if they could share. Seeing my bewilderment, Pedro asked if I would like to try a cricket. I said absolutely not. He said go onnnnn. I said no, dear god. He said come ooon man you’re in Mexico, wrap some in a tortilla if it makes you feel better. This I did: Pedro took two crickets and put them in a little shred of tortilla, tucked up like they were getting into bed. Then I took the tortilla and crunched them to bits. It tasted nice, but I couldn’t quite get past the notion that there were now legs and eyes and wings being mulched between my jaws. But I tried it, and now I do not need to try it again.
Unless, I suppose, that mad American is right and we blast ourselves back to the stone age at some point in the next few years. But I rather hope we don’t: it’s quite nice here.