These are the staples of my day: Up around 7, have a little something to eat with organic Oaxacan coffee. Then some writing. Comida (the main meal of the day) at 2 ─ sometimes with friends, or a good book. Intercambio with Soledad ─ she practices English, and I Spanish. Lots of walking.
Walking is an art here. I’m learning to walk mindfully, aware of where my feet touch the ground, looking down at the green stones, cobblestones, holes that could swallow a small person whole, places where the sidewalk is a giant step up from the street or an earthquake one day made the cement walkway like waves in a stormy sea. Respectful of the cars, which mostly seem entitled to run a person down if I’m not nimble or watchful enough when crossing, even where there is a stoplight. Striking a balance between letting eyes take in the richness above ground ─ shops, people, food ─ and keeping a careful eye on the feet that could not walk three years ago and now carry me magnanimously all over this wondrous city. Dexter, sweet old dog, would have a hard time here.
Here is a story I wrote in 2003 about falling in Oaxaca :
I’m walking fast, my mind on important things. My leather sandals chafe tender broken blisters and tempt the uneven sidewalks on Oaxaca’s Cinco de Mayo to trip me on my way. In less than a second, I am flying through the air, landing without controls, smashing my left elbow and knee into its craggy concrete walkway.
“Shhhhhh-it,” I murmur, aware that the Oaxacaqueños congregated here might look askance at a Gringa lying belly down on the sidewalk, swearing, her loomed shoulder purse and mesh shopping bag having flown off her shoulder and arm, lipstick, Kleenex, books and electronic equipment flung in the four directions. Out of the corner of my eye an outstretched hand, a man’s I think, though I don’t look at the face. I take the hand. “Estoy bien, gracias,” I say with assurance, though I feel small, vulnerable beyond measure. “Gracias, estoy bien.”
“Su camera,” the voice says, handing me my camera and tape recorder. I take them. “Gracias.” Stuffing the spilled goods back into the bags, wiping the sidewalk’s grit from the seat of my purple jumper, I stand tall and proceed forward on the sidewalk, though I am aware of the flayed skin and reddish brown lumps already forming on my elbow and knee, aware that my spine feels out of alignment, my neck, shoulder and back stiff from the body tensing as it crashed. When I arrive at my destination, on time, sweat at my temples and in my armpits, muscles in knots, I learn that Juan Manuel left five minutes ago.
Things often do not go as planned in this city that is trying hard to catch up with the developed world. But then things often do not go as planned in the world at large. This evening the President of my country announces that the United States will invade Iraq.
In the morning I am filled with sorrow for the world and for myself. My left elbow and knee are tender and swollen. I am angry and ashamed to be an American at this time, so sad to be leaving my beloved Oaxaca in a few days, despite its damned sidewalks. Tears spring to my eyes. I’m thinking how little control any of us has in this life. Pulling myself together, I assure myself, I can come back to Oaxaca. And I can protest this war. But what about falling?
What about walking on uneven sidewalks? I wasn’t paying attention at the time, anxious to get to the meeting that didn’t take place. So, I think, I can walk more carefully, like the Buddhists in walking meditation. Breathing in, I feel where the street turns cobblestone and massages the balls of the feet, where it drops off into a dip and then a gutter easy for the foot to slip into, for the ankle to twist, and the body to hurl into the air and crash into concrete. Breathing out, I feel joy. Um. Right.
Colonia Reforma’s sidewalks are like waves in a concrete ocean. Here the earth has moved many times, causing the feet to have to step up, watch for the place where the concrete disappears, then step down over the chasm, trusting the body’s joints to bounce like well-oiled ball bearings. The Centro’s sidewalks have holes like Swiss cheese and giant steps down to the street. Stoplights change without a yellow warning; pedestrians have no right of way. Walking here can be hazardous to your health.
I took that outstretched hand on Cinco de Mayo not looking at the face, especially avoiding the eyes that might expose my tender places, and maybe those eyes weren’t seeking mine either. In this culture that is so gracious, perhaps there is something of what Octavio Paz calls masks. A vulnerability hidden behind the graciousness, because this — falling — is not really supposed to happen. Me duele la rodilla. Me duele el codo. Literally translated, “It hurts me, the knee.” Not my knee, not my elbow. But we are vulnerable. We do fall.
On my last evening in Oaxaca, I stop in the Templo de San Jose, its cool stone floors a gift to my feet, wounded from the bounce, jiggle and heat of walking all day on sun-baked cobblestones. Here in abundance are candles and calla lilies. I drop my gaze and ask God to hear my prayer and hold it, join it with prayers of others for peace in the world. Has God heard enough prayers within these centuries-old stone walls to turn swords into ploughshares? Maybe not. They say that when a butterfly flutters its wings on one side of the world it causes a commotion on the other side. In this temple I am not in a hurry. I fall on my knees with grace.