Far, Far South Of The Border Oaxaca Has Lured Even The Famous With Its Visions Of Mexico's Past.

Posted: April 04, 1993

OAXACA, Mexico — British novelist Malcolm Lowry once spent Christmas in jail here, and fellow English writer D.H. Lawrence, wracked with tuberculosis, was mistaken by superstitious Indians for Jesus Christ in the streets on another occasion.

All the more reason to visit this sometimes mysterious, sun-weathered and slightly seedy old colonial city in the southern highlands of Mexico.

Travelers with a taste for the off-the-beaten-track should find the city Cortes founded in 1529 a robust, if unorthodox, antidote to Mexico's heavily commercialized coastal resorts.

Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ka - the capital city and the province share the same name) is where it is possible to find a bit of the pre-tourism boom of the last 25 years - an older, grander if slightly shabby Mexico without high- rise beachfront hotels or the smog and mayhem of Mexico City.

And if Oaxaca is not quite as bizarre as Graham Greene or Malcolm Lowry or D.H. Lawrence would have it in fiction, it's still a long way from a sanitized Club Med holiday. The city, even though it has always attracted visitors, is an excellent alternative to what American novelist Bob Shacocis calls ''gringolandia" - the phony tourist world along Mexico's Pacific coast and the Yucatan.

In Oaxaca, the most colonial city in Mexico, the traveler still sees something of the world Lawrence and Lowry were seeking - the Third World and the Old World conjoined in a wonderful, vulgar and sad spectacle.

About 5,000 feet above sea level, Oaxaca sits in the high, dry country under the arch of the Sierra Madre del Sur, the great mountain chain that splits Mexico from north to south. With more than two dozen colonial-era churches and a predominantly Indian culture, Oaxaca offers the remains of la epoca colonial - the age of the conquistadores - and a rich display of Mexico's pre-Columbian cultural roots. It is also home to the country's most famous archaeological sites - the once-great city of Monte Alban, which overlooks Oaxaca City, and the ruins at nearby Mitla and Yagul.

But for cars, much of the city seems still in the 19th or even 18th century - and many of the buildings date to even earlier times. It is the city of two of Mexico's most famous national heroes - former Presidents Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz.

Many of the buildings and walls are a sun-bleached brown, or faded, soft, suedelike colors, with a splash of pastel trim or painted shutters. Others are painted bright pastels, sharp turquoises and pinks. Some are trimmed with wrought-iron grillwork. Great swatches of bright bougainvilleas and roses hang over the little walls that ensure privacy from the street. Enormous terra- cotta pots overflow with geraniums. The sky over this valley is most often a sharp azure blue.

SOUNDS OF DAWN

In the very early morning the traveler can hear the cocks crowing across the town, stray dogs barking, a chorus of birds singing in the subtropical trees and the Angelus ringing.

Because Oaxaca retains the soul of an old colonial town, it is ideal for walking, a warren of tiny squares shaded by great towering old trees and built around ornate and garish old fountains shading skinny dogs.

The capital is famous for its Saturday public market, a sprawling array of produce that covers several city blocks. Indians from the villages crowd the market, carrying tiny cages full of brightly colored tropical birds stacked ladderlike on their backs, enormous baskets of fruit and vegetables, leather goods, serapes and shawls, and folk medicines for man and beast.

Oaxaca, and the surrounding countryside, look like sets for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Travel away from the city and the brown and dry land will sprout with swatches of soft spring green like bits of a quilt, the roadsides lined with gnarled jacaranda trees, flowering with bright purple in the late winter.

PRIMITIVE SCENES

Fifteen minutes from Oaxaca, life continues as it has for hundreds of years, with almost biblical scenes of men plowing with oxen, and tiny donkeys hauling enormous loads of scrap wood. Life becomes very primitive very quickly, a reminder of how out of the way Oaxaca remains.

The Zocalo, the central plaza, is said by many to be the best in Mexico. At dusk it becomes a stage for a kind of living theater, with a never-ending procession of musicians, vendors and beggars; shoe-shine men and boys; protesters demanding land reforms; underpaid schoolteachers; angry farmers, and regiments of young soldiers, sometimes complete with a military brass band.

Men with raised, clenched fists and a flurry of leaflets are replaced on this stage by two dozen little girls dressed in costumes of sombreros and serapes, singing traditional music. In the evening, musicians perform impromptu in front of the genteel, shabby Monte Alban or Marques de Valle hotels. A group of middle-aged men accompanied by an accordionist stop by to serenade some friends drinking coffee. A small crowd intently studies a pair of chess players.

TWO SQUARES

The Zocalo, or Plaza de Armas, is actually two squares, one part tree- shaded, with an enormous and elaborate old bandstand that hosts nightly concerts, the other part a central meeting area bordered by arcades of shops and outdoor cafes.

The baroque-style cathedral, which dates from the 16th century, and the Palacio de Gobierno, stand on opposite sides of the Zocalo. Because of the heat in Oaxaca, the rays of the sun intensified by the altitude, the Zocalo really comes alive after dark.

It's incredibly noisy. But for the price of a Corona (beer) or a Tehuacan (mineral water) or coffee or hot chocolate, a visitor can sit at one of the outdoor cafes and take in the show free.

The Zocalo is also where you will see how Mexico keeps alive the tradition of the shoe shine. Travelers will not find this practiced with any greater devotion than in the central plaza of Oaxaca where the shoe-shine men and boys stake out their turf from dawn until midnight. Many of these operations are comically elaborate, involving enormous old barbershop-like chairs with head and foot rests, a stack of reading material for the customer, a tiny battery- operated fan to cool the patron while he is having his shoes shined, and an extensive array of shoe-care products.

All of this ritual, and Mexico loves ritual, is done with a great deal of seriousness and dignity. The shoe-shine men in the Zocalo do not call after customers or argue among themselves but bow graciously, offering only a soft ''Senor" and a slight wave of the hand, usually holding a dye-stained cloth, toward the waiting chair.

The edges of the plaza are crammed with vendors selling ice cream, roast corn, chunks of pineapple on a stick, slices of dripping watermelon, chorizo (sausage), brightly painted carved wooden animals, serapes, little handmade toys for children, tiny tin skeletons dancing on the end of a stick, or day- old copies of the News, Mexico's English-language daily.

An enormous man, unusually tall for this part of Mexico, stands in front of the Monte Alban selling tiny handmade fiddles. He plays one of them, holding it very gently in his great hands and concentrating with his eyes closed, a broad and beatific smile spread across his wrinkled, simple face.

Next to him a very aggressive young man operates a news kiosk offering a bizarre blend of materials: Mexican comic books (Rambo and soft porn being the staples of this genre), cheap wall posters (the Mexican version of the Praying Hands), even books of advice for desperate women, such as How to Get a Man.

Malcolm Lowry came to Oaxaca in the late 1930s while he was doing the legwork that would later lead him to write his greatest book, the novel Under the Volcano. Lowry was in his late 20s, and had spent a bit of the previous year in the psychiatric wing at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Fresh from that experience, it seemed perfectly normal that he would travel to what was then a still-remote section of Mexico famed for its powerful mescal (a drink similar to tequila and made from maguey). It was Lowry's research into this local potable that led to his misadventures in Oaxaca and subsequent incarceration.

Some of the poems Lowry wrote during his travels in Mexico give one a sense of what sort of a visit he was having: "In the Oaxaca Jail," "Delirium in Vera Cruz," "Thirty-Five Mescals In Cuautla," "Eye-Opener" and (my own personal favorite) "Sestina in a Cantina."

The pity is that Lowry readers will realize the poor man was not having any fun, and his escapades, which he called "the last tooloose-Lowrytrek,' ' read like Hunter S. Thompson without the laffs. Some people should not drink. Lowry's letters from Oaxaca and later musings on his visit might scare some tourists off, but it is probable that some of his dispatches and paranoia were the result of alcohol-induced hallucinations.

Other than the fact that he was mistaken for the Nazarene, the English novelist D.H. Lawrence had a more sedate time during his stay in Oaxaca in the mid-1920s. Lawrence was dying of tuberculosis when he stopped off in late 1924 and early 1925. Coincidentally, although Lawrence eventually rented a house, both he and Lowry were guests at the Hotel Francia, still doing business in Oaxaca.

Lawrence came here for his health, calling it "a perfect climate: sun and roses." The rail-thin and bearded writer, whose pale face was drawn from his illness, was put off by the encounters he had with the indigenous Indians who make up much of the population in the south. They took one look and ran in the streets, shouting "Cristol, Cristol!"

Graham Greene came through Oaxaca about a year after Lowry's wild visit. Greene had just crossed the wilds of Chiapas and Tabasco and was violently ill with dysentery when he hit Oaxaca, though he pronounced it an "agreeable" town.

Under the best of circumstances, Greene was no international Rotarian. He dismissed the local crafts - actually pretty good and still renowned through Mexico - as a lot of junk. Lawrence on the other hand bought souvenirs. Lowry's reminders of his trip were more metaphysical. He left Mexico haunted by his experience. He was, in fact, deported in 1946 during another lively visit.

The book Greene was writing when he stopped off in Oaxaca, The Lawless Roads, was a nonfiction work that would provide him with the experiences and material to write perhaps his best-known novel, The Power and the Glory.

So, dysentery and all, the trip was worth it.

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