Insanity in Oaxaca by Barnard Browne
I had to stop the bus - the driver was trying to kill me! But the highway was dangerous enough already without some crazed Brit trying to wrestle 20 tons of metal to a screaming halt.
I had convinced myself that it was better to leave the bus by any means possible than face certain annihilation. After turning off the main highway onto supercarretera 135D that led in a series of tight curves to Oaxaca, I had quickly become seriously alarmed. There was only one lane in each direction and the bus was overtaking on blind bends, narrowly avoiding collisions with the oncoming traffic.
I was now crouching in the gangway by the side of the imperturbable, but clearly insane, driver. I could see the twisted horizon of rocks and pine trees reflected in his aviator sunglasses. My body was running on pure adrenaline and flexed for action; but I did not know what to do or how to do it.
Cresting a sharp curve on a steep embankment I could see, way below me a large truck enveloped in dust and smoke. It looked as if it had been forced off the road only moments before.
Even before this, my sanity had been assaulted by the on-board entertainment. The screens showed American college kids being hunted down and eaten by avian dinosaurs. While some were grabbed whole before being dismembered and fed piece by piece to their scaly nestlings, others were ripped in two as the serpents swooped, leaving the lower half of their bodies to stagger on for a few paces before collapsing. Bad enough under normal circumstances, the proximity to certain death, made it simply unbearable. Worse still, my colleagues seemed to be enjoying the film. A young Italian family had perched their children on their laps so that they could get a better view of the computer-generated carnage. “How can you let your kids watch this stuff” I shouted. The parents looked puzzled. I realised that I had crossed a line and shut up.
Somehow, I reached Oaxaca unharmed. Perhaps I had imagined the whole thing. Was I the only one who saw the wrecked truck?
The city was exquisitely rendered in a palette of colours remarkable even by Mexican standards. Our dinner was accompanied by a long speech which echoed through the empty streets around the zocalo - the main square. But it was easy to ignore it if you knew no Spanish. Although the zocalo seemed at first to be quite empty, a number of people were settling down to sleep in the shadows. Then large TV screens were set up showing riot police and protestors locked in fiery conflict. Our hosts said there was no reason to worry because these scenes had been recorded in the zocalo the previous evening.
There was a dispute between the state governor and the teachers. Coincidentally, there had been a strike of university lecturers in the UK just before I left a week earlier. Although it had been bitter, there had been no violence. The Oaxacan dispute however had now escalated after el Jefe had ordered the state militia to suppress the strike. They had been accomplished with heavy casualties. Our hosts had found it advisable to play down the situation and had decided not to translate the speech for our benefit. Although we avoided the violence, this was not the only political upheaval we were to experience.
The next day, we found that the city was calm and reassuringly full of visitors enjoying the sites. Many were from other parts of Mexico. This vast country is a patchwork of regions isolated by mountains ranges, each with their own unique languages and customs. Outside the main museum, we were waylaid by a group of about thirty women. Not only were they dressed identically with dark-blue straw hats and stiff ochre skirts, but they also looked identical, with the same dumpy shape and sun-burnt faces. Even stranger, they acted like a single entity with a common purpose. They wasted no time in inviting our organiser, a handsome septuagenarian, back to their village located somewhere in the encircling mountains (their gestures were expansive but imprecise), presumably to invigorate their gene pool. He thanked them for their kind offer but pointed out that he was already married – indeed his wife was watching the scene with some amusement.
She had no reason to doubt his loyalties. He was bound to her by more than simple matrimony. He was a gadget-freak – perhaps the most extreme example I have ever met. No sooner had he seen some new and exciting piece of kit, than he would take steps to acquire it. He showed me his latest joy – a telephoto lens of the kind that paparazzi use - but equipped with image stabilisation to ensure perfect focus even at the most extreme zoom setting. While he was proudly showing it to me, I recalled our first meeting at the Royal Observatory in Herstmonceux castle some 25 years before. He had a top-of-the-range portable calculator which uniquely for the time could run simple programs. To secure it together with its optional paraphernalia, required straps so that you actually wore the calculator like a bandolier – which he naturally did.
How could he justify these expensive toys? Of course, they were all presents from his wife who had picked up on his hints. He could hardly reject presents which had been so thoughtfully selected by his loving partner.
A few miles outside the city is Monte Alban, a complex of step-pyramids, spacious plazas and an oddly-shaped astronomical observatory built by the indigenous Zapotec, the “sky people” during the first century BCE. The main purpose of the observatory was to determine the precise time of critical events in the agricultural calendar. At higher latitudes, cosmic clocks, such as Stonehenge, use the sun to determine the summer and winter solstices by recording the day on which the setting or rising sun aligns with features on the horizon. But towards the tropics, the slope of the sun’s track is steeper making it harder to determine the precise moment when the sun encounters the horizon. The positions of other celestial bodies, particularly Venus – usually represented by the fearsome flying serpent Quetzalcoatl - could then be brought into play, creating a dual solar and ritual calendar based on 365 and 260 days which together generate a 52-year “calendar round”.
The 365/260 “cosmological” ratio also appears in the dimensions of the courts used for the playing of tlachtli, a violent ball-game whose rules appear to be at variance with those of Association Football as currently understood, in that it permits decapitation and the substitution of a player’s head for the ball.
Could I now make sense of it all? The crazy driver, the strikers, the Molotov cocktails, the vile movie and the flying serpents; all locked in an endless game of tlachtli from which there could be no rational outcome.
Two weeks earlier…
After just a few minutes in a taxi, I had decided to abandon plan A. The streets close to the airport were populated by a monoculture of iridescent Beetles. They were of the older sort where the driver’s nose almost touches the windscreen. The indicator lights had wisely been reinforced with metal armatures for extra strength. The jetlag had fooled by brain so that the little cars seem to crawl over each other like a pulsating mass of beetles feeding on heaps of bat shit.
Elderly Chevy trucks with high ground clearance were able to escape the gridlock by clattering over the raised concrete strip separating the carriageways. When the traffic cleared momentarily, there would be a mad dash for a few hundred metres before the drivers slammed on their brakes to avoid being shaken to pieces as they encountered gigantic speed bumps (topes). These had little to do with road safety but were maintained by the local communities to improve their chances of selling refreshments to the drivers waiting for the traffic to unclog.
I had arranged for my family to join me after the conference in Mexico City on a collaboration between Mexico and South Korea to build an observatory high in the mountains close to the border with the USA. We envisaged a leisurely trip by car centred on Tontanzintla, the university campus in Puebla that was hosting the planning meetings, but I had already had to abandon that scheme - a decision reinforced when I learnt that there is a traffic ordinance in Mexico City that allows one to jump traffic lights if there is a risk of being car-jacked. Despite the good public bus network, I could not risk another visit to Oaxaca without losing what remained of my sanity - and there had now been reports of armed attacks on a leftist radio station there.
But these geopolitical considerations seem trifling in what is surely one of the most vibrant and exciting countries for art. The diverse native and imported traditions harmonise in surprising ways. Native meso-american forms overlap with vivid baroque mouldings in Tontazintla’s church, using a technique which has now been lost. At the other end of the temporal spectrum, the Zapatan revolution of 1910 mixes the European mural tradition with the Aztec death-god Mictlantecuhtli whose flayed body is echoed in the anatomised (somatic) self-portraits of Frida Kahlo and in Arnold Belkin’s mural in Puebla’s Aquile Serdan museum which shows the tracks of bullets passing through the bodies of the insurgents from multiple vantage points.
But for me, Puebla’s greatest glory is Mole Poblano, an extraordinary dish made from forty or so ingredients of which the most conspicuous is chocolate. It had long been my self-appointed task to seek out and devour this unique dish all over the world. Here I was able to visit the very kitchen where it was invented.
The capital, with its cathedrals and Russian-doll pyramids – whose sides were set at the precise slope required for sacrificial blood to flow without clotting - was clean and easy to explore on foot. The metro was cheap - ridiculously so – and therefore vastly over-loaded. We found that the correct way to enter a carriage is to run full-tilt with eyes closed into the seething mass of humanity just as the doors start to close. To exit requires violation of the laws of thermodynamics - but in Mexico anything is possible.
Two weeks later…
Although the Oaxaca insurrection cooled, the whole country was now in ferment due to a dead-heat in the presidential elections. The left of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador narrowly lost out to the incumbent Felipe Calderon.
Returning to Mexico City we found that the vast zocalo in front of the presidential palace was occupied by leftist protestors. Wandering in the dusk through the tented city, under the billowing profiles of Marx, Engels, Lenin and – shockingly – Stalin, it was clear that the protestors were more interested in chess or sing-alongs than violent insurrection. The police too kept a low profile. In a country where art and death meet on equal terms this was a blessing.
Later, we flew out into the rational world that we knew, where colours and forms are muted, flatter and safer. Now Obrador has become president and the fight with the drug cartels continues.