IS THE WATER IN THAT RIVER CLEAN? by Spencer Dyke

Rubrique : MEXIQUE, Oaxaca

© spencer dykeI sent some photos from a hot place a few days ago and the woman in the green dress asked me that question and because of my despairing morning-mood I easily could have replied: after all the Chinese rivers we saw passing in busses, or waded across, or swam in, how can you ask such a silly question, but being the gentleman that I am, I didn’t. I answered in another way.

Why a despairing morning-mood? The 2013 Australian Open, of course. A generally mediocre quality of play from both side of the gender grand canyon, no true drama, nothing epic in any matches (with one exception), fake injury claims at opportune times, idiotic Aussie Day firework celebrations in the middle of the Woman’s Final; followed by a falling on to the hard court ankle-twist and concussion fear. Only a single expression of true humor (Li Na) during the whole tournament. In the Men’s Final, a pigeon feather falling landing and the Scotch player at second serve at a crucial point in the set, interrupts his concentration, daintily picks it up and carries it to a linesman and then promptly double-faults. Many disingenuous player interview comments. Many fatuous television commentator comments. ‘I couldn’t breathe’ female excuse. ‘Blister on my heel’ from a male. Smashed racquet Black female outburst. Orgasmic Belarus Banti Rooster screeching from another woman. Absurd alpha-chimp-teeth-barred-shirtless-posturing from too many of the men. Not pretty sounds, not pretty sights. Despair, also, because Raphael Nadal’s knees are probably ripped beyond repair and he hasn’t been seen on the tour for the past five months, and who knows for how many months longer?

So, a good morning to get outta town; to choose a village somewhere in the Centrale Valle where green fields of sugar cane lie ripening under the tropical sun and apricot and peach orchids create shadows and shade and every manner of vegetable market gardens paint huge long vertical patches of color red green yellow orange. Go to one I haven’t been to before: Cuilapam, renowned for its Mixtec Ethnic people, the 15th Century Convento Dominicano Monastery, and where in 1831, Vincente Guerrero, the Mexican Independence hero was shot by a firing squad. The town has a monument to his honor and they say that you can still see the pockmarks that the bullets punctured in the stone wall where he stood smoking the last cigar of his life on this earth.

A long hike thru Oaxaca’s morning traffic and crowded sidewalks to El Secundo Clase Terminale de Autobus, then the high wall and its arched entrada opening into a football stadium-sized space of dusty pot-holed earthen parking lot with a semi-circle of terminal at its far end, 15, 20 busses parked with their noses facing the long curved plexi-glass plate window. Each with its destination village town city handwritten in white paint on the windscreen. Not that one not this one not that one so I finally asked and he pointed to one at the far end of the terminal. Of course, why didn’t I know that? That it would be the one farthest away from where I started looking. Cuilapam is 22 kilometers from Oaxaca, seven pesos, forty cents.

Thru the developing country’s city ramshackle outskirts, jammed traffic, hundreds of corrugated street shops, busted-up pavement, unfinished cement apartment buildings, broken street lights jammed on red, but past all of that and instant wide-open countryside: a big sky, a border of hills, a slower pace and a deep big breath for me. The 2013 Aussie Fiasco fading, the expectations of a Centrale Valle day rising; the usual emotional roller-coaster of being alive in a hot (or for that matter) a cold place.

Saw the monument, but unfortunately Mexicans never get this kind of sculpture figuratively correct. They mix too many European classical styles together into a soup of tastelessness. Saw the cento plaza under a seriously hotter sun. Walked to the monastery, saw its massive thick arches and walls. Didn’t bother paying the fee to go inside, but instead looked and found a small, cool, quiet, green courtyard and took a relieving, satisfied, well-deserved (it felt like) piss. Found a Zapotoe shade tree to sit beneath and plan my next move. I’d come a fairly long way to see not much of what I found very interesting which is a common dilemma if one travels a lot.

What saved the day was the sound of music in the distance, from down on the street below the high monastery wall. The usual Mex brass band hooting tooting of trumpet, sax, trombone, French horn, crashing of cymbals blending with the boom boom of bass and tin drums. It was bound to be a parade and who can resist a parade, especially in a foreign country? Not me, so I hustled across the ruined cloister, found an exit thru the wall and skipped down the stairs to the sidewalk just as the last parade people were passing by.

Maybe thirty farmers and townspeople bringing up the rear all singing in chorus a sweet Santa Maria-like song. The kids dressed: as girl angels with tinseled cardboard wings, as boy Tinker Bells with tin whistles. Many of the adults carried candles, their flames protected from the draft by cupped hands. The band was up in the front banging and tooting with all their might and just behind them three old crones carried chalices filled with incense, bluegrey smoke rising in small clouds, scent drifting behind filling the spaces between the walkers. But, the best, the most beautiful, the most striking, were the three tall brown Mex horses in the middle heart of the possession. A teenage girl on each, faces painted to look like men: thick black eyebrows, thin black mustaches, pointed black goatees, each with a gold or silver plastic crown and each wearing a green and gold-trimmed velvet cloak over their slender shoulders long and falling over the haunches of each horse, their hoofs clicking clacking on the pavement in unison. Steadily moving forward, traffic stopping as they passed, absolutely lovely to watch and to follow from the rear, but if the procession had turned at the curve in the street that led to simply more modern houses and shops, I would have stopped and left it at that  – a brief five minutes of following and one photo.

But, lo and behold, they didn’t make the turn, they walked straight ahead and joined a small dirt country road. Ah, I thought, they are going somewhere kinda mysterious, kinda compelling; like something exotic, or magnetic to one’s soul. Like some people, I like situations that I find myself in where I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a little like Kerouac said: “…..and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody, besides the forlorn rags of growing old”.

I had no water, nothing to eat. Two in the afternoon under a sheltering sky. An occasional billow of hot breeze from the fields blowing across from the distant hills and riding on it the subtle smell of wild sage, the stronger sweeter scent of blossoms from the spring-flowering trees. We walked, slow in the Indio way. The band and the singers silent now and then for long periods to catch their breaths. One two three and a half kilometers, then a long high arched Spanish stone bridge straight ahead, a broad graveled arroyo riverbed on our right; and closer I saw the narrow winter strip of bright blue water flowing (the source of the title of this story) and a small group of Mixtic women washing their laundry two of the younger ones bending down to their knees on the sand, leaning over the current and washing their raven’s wing hair.

Suddenly, there seemed to be more than the normal volume of music in the air and it appeared that my possession (I thought of them as mine by this time) was stirred up about something unseen. And as we rose up on our side of the bridge, on the opposite side another possession came slowly into view: about the same sized-band and crowd and with the same intent to celebrate the 26th January Festival of the Three Kings. The famous fairytale from the Bible wherein twenty-six days into the new year the three wise-men kings leave Bethlehem and return to the Saudi Desert from whence they came after following an imagined heavenly star and arriving bearing gifts. The one major difference between the two possessions meeting at the middle of the bridge was that their three horses were white and white always looks more dashing in contrast with a blue sky than brown does.

It takes quite a while for sixty people, sixteen drummers, sixteen horn players, six incense carriers, six horses and a bunch of kid angles to sort out the mingling and passing at the high point of a narrow bridge; what with all the greetings, Hail Mary’s, bits of exchanged gossip, well wishes, farewells which even in Canada would take some time (especially in the Maritimes); here in Mexico it took about twenty minutes, but finally it all got sorted out and we carried on to the village sitting on the horizon line shimmering in waves of heat. I figured: okay, they are heading to the church there and that will be that. I’ll leave them there. That’ll be a good ending to a good country side experience, I figured.

But, nothing is that simple, nothing is that straight forward in Latin America. As we entered the village the band really let loose and people began appearing at doorways smiling and softly clapping as we passed and in passing each doorway, each of the three girl kings tossed candy down to the little wide-eyed kids. We turned up this lane, turned down that one, didn’t go to the church at all, just kept turning (turn, turn, turn) and twisting (the day away). Up and down the hilly village lanes all of us sweating, breathing hard until we reached the edge of it (with no name); reached the beginning of the countryside once again of more fields and gardens and groves of trees and dun-colored adobe houses and ranchos and over there the same range of northern hills like a long thick brown undulating arm holding the valley together in its protection.

Well, by now, three hours in, six kilometers in, it was too far for ancient me to walk back to Cuitapam. Best thing to do is just keep walking, stay a part of a strange true happening. Call it a day at the next village, get a tuk-tuk motorcycle taxi there and head back to get something to eat, drink a nice ice-cold Coca Cola. So, I kept walking, faithfully keeping up the rear, eating the dust coming off their leather sandaled bare feet, plodding forever forward into the wall of air like a weary donkey.

We passed another arroyo river channel, crossed another bridge. It took almost another hour for us to arrive and in the village, at one point they turned right, and I turned left. I found the tuk-tuk depot and while waiting for one to arrive, crossed the street and got a glass of freshly- pressed-right-in-front-of-your-face pineapple juice and gulped it down sucking hard thru the slender straw. Una otro, senora, por favor, I croaked.

When one came along I jumped in and said: Cuilapam, senor and he nodded and gunned her ahead. When we neared the bridge just beyond the edge of the village we saw my possession just about to begin to cross it. Ah, so they are heading home too, kinda symbolic I thought and as I was thinking this the driver realizing that our way was going to be blocked, turned the yuk-yuk sharply to the left into a narrow path leading down to the riverbank. Thru the trees then onto the gravel, then bumping and bouncing across the stretch of river-rock and into the small current; gearing down as the rear wheels began to slip and slide trying to get a purchase on the underwater stones. Down into first gear, wheels spinning, taxi l sharply leaning toward the current, but then they got a grip and we shot forward thru the final part of water and up onto the sand and another path leading up to the road. A final sharp left turn and we were on our way straight ahead to the original village and then onward to Cuilapam…..fingers crossed, just in case because you just never know.

Back in town, I found a comida familiar with a grandfather and his two grandkids eating sopa and bread at one of the four wooden tables and I played my usual gringo stunt in places in the world where I don’t have enough of the language or they don’t have menus with photos of the dishes or I don’t have a green-dressed translator at my side. Here’s what it looks like: I walk up to the cook, who is almost always a tired middle-aged woman, smile, say hello, hunch my shoulders and pleadingly place my arms out wide, palms up in the international gesture of: please help me, I am hungry, you choose what to cook for me, I trust you. It always works and after checking me out in a single sharp look top to bottom my face my age my clothes my relative western wealth, she decides on the situation and then says something in her language and I nod not understanding one single word of what she has said and then am abruptly directed to a table and when I’m seated, a teenage girl stops washing dishes and comes over and asks aqua, senor? And I say no, una Coca Cola, y mucho frio, por favor and she shyly replies, no hay, senor, lo siento. Pepsi? And I say, si, Pepsi es buen, senorita.

This is my third winter down here and it’s definitively time I found a new on-the-ball translator. Someone who likes nature, likes good food and red wine; one who has a fine sense of ribald humor, one who likes poetry. But the trouble is, the best ones are real difficult to find and are very few and very far in between. As per usual, it’s always comes down to pure luck, the kind that arrives out of the blue.

White rice with small bits of red chili pepper, a heaping of stewed ribs cooked in a salsa sauce, a  green cucumber and carrot salad with freshly squeezed lime juice dressing, a small plate of soft white Mex cheese, a basket of pan, a bottle of cold Pepsi.

Unlike in China and some other enlightened Asian places, you cant smoke in Mex cafes so after I’d eaten up, paid up, I stepped up outside and asked a woman standing with her kid on the sidewalk: las auto-bus a Oaxaca aqui, senora? Si, senor. Spied a nearby bench, sat down with a second Pepsi, lit up. What felt like only half a minute later, a bus pulled over and stopped. She called to me waving me forward and I sorta panicked, flicked the butt away, hurriedly stood up and began to shoulder my daypack…..and then it dawned on me: What are you doing? Are you stupid? Spencer DykeWhat does it matter? There will be another bus in twenty, thirty minutes. Sit back down, relax, enjoy your drink, light up another smoke, watch the centro scene from across the street happening there in front of your eyes. You’re down Mexico Way and you’ve got a full belly, got some cool shade to sit in, got a bit of money in your pocket and got some new memories. Got lots of time on your hands and no particular place to go back in Oaxaca on what’s left of this afternoon; nor in the cool evening waiting like a dream, holding its secrets like those inside of Aladdin’s Lamp in the olden days, waiting to be caressed.

2 Responses to IS THE WATER IN THAT RIVER CLEAN? by Spencer Dyke

  • John

    Réponse : décembre 12, 2013, 2:35

    My old pal Spencer! Amazing who shows up when you Google their name!!

    I am trying to get hold of you and having no luck, since all I have is your Dodge address and phone number.

    I don’t know if you check this blog at all but would love more recent contact info.

    Take care and hope to hear from you,

    John/Shel from Cranners

    • Olivier Maurin

      Réponse : mars 6, 2014, 3:43

      Hep, Spencer is not far away right now, but he told me you are yet in contact. ;)

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