Count Not the Days, but Places
The total amount of places I have stayed in Mexico City reached eight as I started my five-week residency at Pandeo, an independent art space. This, along with two months on the Oaxaca coast and a couple of weeks traveling in Chiapas, has constituted my life.
I had chilaquiles in the afternoon. The fried tortilla soaked in red or green salsa and topped with crema and fresh cheese, often accompanied with eggs and chicken (yes, both), is a common breakfast item. When I woke up from a coincidental hangover this morning I thought I could ignore it with granola and coffee. Of course I should know better. I ended up at Los Hijos de Maiz a few hours later, ordering the overdue chilaquiles rojos — it cures most things, and certainly a cloudy head — with bistec, a popular cut of beef. The man next to me ordered it with cecina, and I wondered slightly if I would’ve been better off with the mixed veggies, as spelt on the menu, followed by a small green sign of ¡nuevo!. What freedom it is to have choices, and vegetables.
I finally rode a bike. When I first arrived in the city I saw a guy walking seven dogs on an ecobici, the bikeshare system in CDMX. He pedaled through a six-lane street accommodating Metrobuses, cars, and the vendor carts of potato chips, his left hand leading the canines, his eyes asking for no mercy — not that the drivers were willing to give any. I thought of the dog-walking bikers in Prospect Park, who paled in comparison.
“Things are more fluid and informal in Mexico,” I remembered a conversation I had with a Mexican playwright. His play, performed in people’s living rooms, was picked up by a major newspaper, and he was able to tour independently for three years based on people’s interest. I asked him what else he did, say, for a living. His answer:
I teach workshops. I sell mezcal.
Mezcal. The first time I had this drink I still lived in Brooklyn. My friend Nuria poured it at tea time. That year we visited a mezcaleria in Oaxaca City and learned, for example, an agave plant takes more than a decade to mature. It is not uncommon to have an 18-year-old maestro de mezcal who produces from a 22-year-old plant. We also swam in the pond at a lake house in Valle de Bravo and visited a small monarch butterfly sanctuary with her family members. A big wooden bowl carved out of a trunk, I recall from my visit, the colors and aromas I was offered from the walls, the dishes, the shadows of large blooming trees.
When I moved to Mexico I had two small packs and two suitcases, and Nuria opened her door and her attic (for me to store what I did not immediately use). One of the reasons I chose to live in this country, after having to leave the US, is the warmth of this friendship. For that I remain grateful.
I did buy a mezcal recently from an artist. I met him through Sofi, a talented puppeteer from Mexico City and recently toured with The Bread and Puppet Company based in Vermont. I had only known her as the manager of my yoga teacher training program (which was why I went to Oaxaca), until she performed her show at our certification dinner.
El Sueño de Lily, she wrote the title in the canvas made of sand and water on an overhead projector. Someone played a simple tune on the ukulele. The trapeze performer sat high and silent in the air, holding a red balloon like the shadows of Lily on the screen. It was under the palm roof and with the sound of the ocean that I thought: I would not have been moved as such, had I never left New York.
The second night of my residency I joined Encuentro Artistas, a bi-weekly artist clinic. The painter, Miguel, gave a presentation on his work as the rest of us drank wine and snacked on popcorn. Afterwards we ate tacos at the corner taqueria with no seating, our plates drenched in salsa and pickled onion and habanero.
“Tú hablas bien,” Val said. Val is the curator I will be working with for the next few weeks.
I still apologize for my Spanish. My expressions consist of assertions, as they are the easiest way of speaking — no ya quiero, pienzo aqui — and hesitance, as I often do not understand fully — no, pero, tal vez. Communication is fuzzy, but at least I try to look people in their eyes with minimal mindless nodding and uhuh-ing. I do not like to fly over someone’s words, as they say, dar el avión.
Someone asks about my medium, to which I now have a simple answer.
Soy una escritora.
I say, and nothing more. There is freedom in such simplicity. My struggle of a split identity has finally come to an end. Very rarely do I mention that I once wrote code and worked at a university. This, right now, is who I am.
They ask me what I write about, which is not always a fair question. Many things, I reply, writing is both the process and the product. But often they insist on knowing something more specific, as if vagueness is an unbearable foe.
Well, I say,
I wrote a story about love.
Appendix I: Oaxaca
In Oaxaca I took the colectivo to Zipolite, a ten-minute ride on the mildly windy hill roads. The only nudist beach in Mexico was peppered with Italians, and menus, in fact, came in three languages. A direct flight connects Montreal and Huatulco, the airport an hour away, and there was no shortage of Quebecans, either.
“Ah chocolate!” One of them seemed genuinely happy when I revealed the item of that day. After my yoga training, I tried to sell pastry on the beach. I did it to set a schedule for my otherwise structureless day: waking up, scheming a recipe, baking, reading, checking the oven, and going out for a sales walk.
“Why don’t you sell to restaurants,” a few friends suggested. One could forge a partnership quite easily should one desire.
“I am not going to make any money, nor is it my goal.”
The day I made mango cookies, a local fisherman called me over. Cinco pesos, I told him. The price was a quarter US dollar. He had a few of them and invited me on a free tour to see the dolphins.
“Ya fui,” I said, “quizás más tarde esta semana.”
The enterprise lasted for about a week. I realized I wasn’t keen on being a sales person, nor was I able to collect a person’s life story through the transaction of a cookie. (I will still try, in some other context, some other day.) I continued to use the oven to bake only granola and roast vegetables for myself, and retreated back into the solitude of studying anatomy and sitting on the beach around 4:30pm, when the sun was no longer too strong.
Appendix II: Chiapas
When I got to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, I detested how touristy the town seemed. I was told that many expats lived there — German, French, Italian — and a lady with a perfect American accent asked me if I was looking for a hostel. I suppose I qualified for her attention with my two backpacks and a beat-up pair of Converse.
Instead, I missed Puebla, a city I stopped by before taking an overnight bus to end up here. There was space for all. I sat for hours on a bench in Barrio de las Artistas, watching the passersby with the guitarist’s faint melody. I encountered the flea market in Los Sapos — old horseshoes and vintage records — and the rooftop of Museo Amparo — the domes of cathedrals, of glory and of decay. For four pesos I bought one churro; for four hundred pesos, I had a tasting of five types of Mole Poblano and a very good beer. After all, this is the birth place of the famed Chile en Nogada.
A few days later I found myself the only one on a colectivo traveling in the Southeast-most corner of Mexico, on the border of Guatemala. I had visited Yaxchilán, a Mayan ruin that was only accessible by boat. I camped for a few days where the howling apes started their orchestra at sunset, when the villagers came out of their siesta. The river was shallow, the rain season had not yet come.
The jungle was too hot for any clarity, or movement, I decided, and embarked on a trip back to the mountainous west. The mariachi playlist and the radio station overlapped each other, as the driver honked through every poblano— a settlement smaller than a pueblo — to collect potential passengers.
San Cristóbal was calmer when I went back. Something about the cool mountain air grew on me as I finally learned about the Zapatista riots in detail.
They took the heads off of the stone saints.
Appendix III: Where to?
I had an interview with a graduate program while I was in Oaxaca. The waves pounding next to me, her voice broken up, the Head of Playwriting said, “I like your work, but the other two schools might be a better fit for you.” I agreed, and thanked her.
The other two schools said no. So did the rest of the schools I had applied to. “I am not disappointed by these particular decisions,” I said to someone recently, “but I feel alone knowing that I will not be back to a place I have made home.”
There is weariness and fear of uncertainty, I must admit, and I am trying to accept them without saying but there’s always tomorrow/next year, but you are having such a good time, but this is temporary. But is a negation and escape, and I do not wish to disconnect from myself, nor the moment.
Where I will go next deserves another post. I will keep it brief here: I am likely to be in Europe later this year, for a while.
I have chatted with a few friends — one is coming for a visit and the other, who currently lives in South America, I am going to visit.
By any measure, I do not wish to stay far, a term too conveniently assumed by physical distance. I am here, and I hope you are, too.