A different kind of pilgrimage
I decided several years ago that I would devote part of each summer to seeing more of God’s world. I wanted to absorb the rhythms and colours, tastes and smells of countries and cultures that fascinated me.
I would combine my explorations with pilgrimage, stopping in places like Barcelona, Spain, and then proceeding on to the community of my spiritual Guide, Meher Baba, in India.
This summer, I decided to make a different kind of pilgrimage. The Master had once dictated an important message about devotees being “bound to one another by internal links.”
I came to realize that I had Guru-brothers and sisters in two parts of Mexico, Argentina, the Peruvian Amazon, and along picturesque Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.
Some of them I’d met in India. Others I’d become friendly with through Facebook. I would make this trip a pilgrimage to the Master within the people I was visiting. I would also, of course, simply explore these regions that I found so appealing.
I began corresponding with my friends to the south. Gradually, the route for a swing through Latin America began to emerge. As planning progressed, I had to drop the Guatemala stop, because I only had three and a half weeks and there were just too many places.
Finally, after poring over flight schedules and hotel listings for several days, and responding to invitations from two of my friends to stay in their homes, I had a firm itinerary with flights and lodging all booked.
On Sunday, July 29, my wife Barbara and I ate breakfast at a favorite restaurant in Berkeley, California, 15 miles (about 24 kilometres) from our home. Afterwards, she took the wheel of the car and dropped me off a few minutes later at the nearby Rockridge BART (rapid transit) station.
The train let me off at San Francisco International Airport. In two and a half hours, my plane took off, enroute to Mexico City and a connecting flight to Oaxaca in southern Mexico.
I’d wanted to visit Oaxaca ever since I’d first read its name in one of the later Don Juan books. There’s a scene in which the old wizard teaches author Carlos Castenada on a park bench in the city.
Recently, I learned that most of the 300,000 or so inhabitants of Oaxaca are descended from the Zapotec Indians who dominated the region in pre-Columbian times. Even today, 18 different non-Spanish tongues are spoken as first languages in the area.
My friend Jay Mohler, a longtime Meher Baba devotee, moved to Oaxaca about a year and a half ago. Shortly after that, his photos started appearing on Facebook. At his apartment, he hosts couch-surfers from all over the world and gives them tours of Oaxaca, simultaneously taking his own pictures. I saw a lot of them, and before long, was smitten by the city.
Jay is, by the way, a renowned creator of a kind of woven mandala called “Ojos de Dios” (Eye of God). One of several reasons he moved to Oaxaca had to do with the plentiful natural-dye yarn made locally and used by the region’s weavers.
When I’d begun praising his photos, he’d invited me to visit, After a little correspondence, we agreed to make five days in Oaxaca the first stop on my summer odyssey.
I hailed a taxi at Oaxaca Airport. Because my efforts to learn Spanish hadn’t been very fruitful, I read the driver Jay’s directions from a scrap of paper: “muy cerca de la iglesia de San Felipe del Agua.” (“Very near the church of San Felipe of the Waters.”)
Half an hour later, I could see the big two-towered church looming. It was around 11 at night. The street was deserted, and after driving up and down it several times in longer and longer swings, the driver told me he couldn’t find a house with Jay’s exact address.
As he continued once more up the hilly street, I frantically looked on my phone for Jay’s number, in spite of the fact that I’d turned off cellular data to avoid roaming charges and didn’t think I could get a connection.
Fortunately, Jay answered and came outside. Carrying my heavy rolling duffel bag up to his second-floor apartment, I began my Oaxaca sojourn.
Eating, talking and sightseeing
The next morning, Jay and I went out to the bus stop. For seven pesos (around 35 cents), we rode several picturesque miles towards the centre of the city.
We disembarked at a lush park with dramatic statues of lions at each of its four corners. Jay explained that back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there’d been a zoo there. All that’s left are these lions. It’s known as Llanos (Lions) Park.
When I mentioned being hungry, Jay led me across the park to a restaurant in an unobtrusive yellow building that turned out to be an old mansion with a brick path and a lovely garden inside its gate. We sat down at a table with a window facing the park.
Two very attentive waiters appeared. I loved their service. I loved the omelet and coffee and roll they brought. I loved the view out the window. I loved the muted yellow walls of the room and the little fountain I could hear splashing in the foyer.
After this breakfast love-fest, Jay led me down Calle Benito Juarez, and I began to fall in love with the colours of Oaxaca. One building would be bright red. Next to it, there would be a blue one, and a little ways down the street, a green one. Then there were the ones the colour of spices, various hot yellows and oranges; and the ones with beautifully-wrought carved and polished wooden doors with the doorframe painted a different bright colour than the building.
Finally, we reached Santo Domingo, the great Cathedral of Oaxaca, one of many churches there that were built in the 1500’s. The gold-leaf arabesque ceiling of the Cathedral, studded with colourful embedded reliefs of Saints, is one of the most exquisite—and playful—works of art I’ve ever seen!
We continued on to Oaxaca’s Zocalo, the large central square where tourists and locals and vendors and Lord knows who else all go to sit and relax, have a coffee or a fruit drink, and talk. Cafes and restaurants line all four sides of the park-like area.
Jay and I sat on a low wall and told each other stories of our many years of spiritual endeavour. It turned out we had several close friends and many acquaintances in common in the Baba community. We talked there for a good two hours.
On my second full day in Oaxaca, Jay took me to Teotitlan, a village about an hour away that’s famous for its weaving. We started at a shop called The Bug in the Rug. As we entered the courtyard, I was enthralled by the gorgeous designs and colours of the rugs I could see hanging on display.
At the back of the area, under an open-air roof, two venerable weavers were at work on their big looms. One of the men came away from his work to show us more of the finished products in the showroom. I loved his smile. Weaving and knitting have a reputation for bringing peace, and this man’s face radiated not only peace, but joy.
Later, Jay took me to a yarn shop. Elena, the proprietor, was a friend of his, as he sometimes goes there to buy the yarn for his God’s-Eyes. I thrilled to see the brilliant colours of the skeins of yarn hanging everywhere!
Elena took us out into a courtyard behind the shop and showed us how the yarn is soaked in a vat of dye that has been heated over a fire. Then she showed us how she grinds cochineal, a natural red dye made from small insects which inhabit a certain kind of cactus. It was such a bright red! She showed us how she mixes it with marigold dye to make orange and with other natural dyes to get other blends.
Back inside, she let us smell both the natural and the chemical dyes. Guess which smelled better?
Finally, Jay and I went to visit Dr. Samuel Beautista Lazer, whose doctorate is in Sustainable Manufacturing. He and his mother own a weaving ranch that has also morphed into an Airbnb.
Samuel had recently invited Jay to lead an Ojos de Dios workshop on the ranch. They discussed details for a while, while I visited the goats and two beautiful white bulls. After they were done talking, Samuel took us inside and explained some of the symbolism of the Zapotec rugs [see video directly below].
A love of Art
For three more days I immersed myself in the ambiance of Oaxaca, one of the most beautiful and livable cities I’ve ever set foot in. The people were gentle and the love of Art was widespread. Why can’t we Americans paint our buildings bright colours, I wondered?
I encountered inspiring music every day, as well, walking along the streets: a family band with the boys playing turtle shell drums; a guitarist and singers serenading me as I sat at a cafe on the Zocalo; a blind Andean flute player whose plaintive melodies penetrated my heart to its core [see video above].
One morning I walked into an art gallery that had the most spectacular contemporary art I’ve ever seen. A little later, I discovered a “street of artists” freelancing along one of the outdoor pedestrian walkways. Several of them had their easels set up and were actively engaged in painting.
I actually proposed paying each of them a small fee to photograph their work, because I recognized that they’re professionals and they have to eat. Most of them laughed at the offer, but it broke the ice, and I was able to establish real connections with them.
I bought a small lithograph from one of the artists, adding it to my Oaxaca art collection, which had begun my first morning. That day, Jay and I had passed a 10-year-old boy named Roberto, who was displaying his own charming paintings by the curb of the main walkway between Santo Domingo and the Zocalo.
Farewell to Oaxaca
The wonders of Oaxaca seemed endless, but my time wasn’t. After five days, a local friend of Jay’s who was a cab driver picked me up, and I was soon bound for Mexico City, this time for a two-and-a-half day stay in that great metropolis.
On the plane, I wrote this little farewell to Oaxaca:
You don’t say goodbye
to these colours,
they are here
to shake me awake.
Inside, these streets,
the textures of these trees,
these flowers, these
gentle people remain,
are part of me now and I, part of them.
Several days later: I feel that even this colourfully-illustrated record of a visit short-changes the sublimity of Oaxaca, somehow, so I’ve added a new file of photos
(captionless, at least for now).
images: Max Reif