Anyone who lives in our part of Canada will tell you it’s been a hard winter. Long cold spells, mounds of snow. Not without its beauty, of course. We’ve had lots of opportunities to snow shoe and explore our woods.
But I’ve escaped for a couple of weeks to an easier world, a world of colour and light. I’m visiting my mother in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has one of the most benign climates imaginable. Mornings of warm sunshine, just right for coffee on the patio. Hot at midday, but a heat that is easily escaped by moving to the shade. Cool in the evenings, perfect for long, air soaked sleeps. Every day predictably the same.
The transition from Canada to Mexico is a jolt. My first days have been overwhelming, the sensory overload almost unbearable. Sounds, smells, colours everywhere. Soft breezes, warm sun. The beauty and struggle with language. The laughter and frustration, as I try to dust off old vocabulary.
It is a gorgeous immersion. I started my first the day with a breakfast of quesadillas, made with soft corn flour tortillas, filled with black beans, Oaxacan cheese and squash blossoms, grilled over a wood fire.
Sated, we headed to the market just up the street at Llano Park. The stalls sell everything imaginable: clothing and shoes of all varieties; hardware and kitchen utensils; toys and electronic games; fruits and vegetables; cheeses and meats; jewelry and makeup.
There are grills throughout the market where endless amounts and varieties of tacos are being prepared. We walked long enough to work up a bit of an appetite, and rewarded ourselves with a plate of arranchera tacos – soft, tiny tortillas filled with shredded, grilled and chopped meat, onions, peppers, cheese. We topped them with fresh salsa and the most amazing blend of raw onions and hot peppers. Each plate has 3 tacos on it and costs 10 pesos, about 80 cents. We shared a huge glass of hibiscus water and were both stuffed.
My mother invited me to join in her one-on-one Spanish class, where her teacher hugged me and thanked me for sharing my mother with her. My mother has that effect on people. The class consisted of a lot of hugging and laughing, my mother working on subtleties of the subjunctive that I don’t understand in English, let alone Spanish. I signed on for some private sessions next week, if only just to exercise my brain, wondering, as always, why I didn’t do this sooner in my life.
A poster caught my eye. There was to be a performance on the atrium of Templo Santa Domingo. Viva la Vida, it was called. It seemed to have something to do with dancing and watermelons. Of course I was intrigued. So at 5:00, as the sun was just hitting the front of the church, we assembled to await whatever adventure would befall.
A program told me that I would see pre-Hispanic rituals, religious symbols and images from the fiesta de Quinceañera, a celebration for girls when they turn 15 years old. I also was reminded that the title comes from a work by Frida Kahlo. Sounds interesting, I thought. I was open to whatever was to come.
Hundreds of spectators milled around, with cameras at the ready. Eventually a space cleared. A drummer and keyboard player played something that was vaguely liturgical and a woman lay prostrate in front of the church. Suddenly about 25 children ran into the space carrying watermelons and they began to run in formation with the woman. Then they set the watermelons down and it was time for a costume change. The crowd waited, the sun moved down the church façade and the drummer did a 15 minute drum solo.
When the woman finally reappeared, she was wearing a wedding gown and wielding a very sharp machete.
She was inches from me, looking quite menacing, the knife clanging and creating sparks as she whacked the flagstones in front of me. This is not something we could do on a Canadian stage, I thought. Health and Safety standards would have protected me.
The musicians played something that sounded vaguely like Pink Floyd. The woman picked up a watermelon and held it high before splitting it open with the machete. She gouged out the red flesh and began to wolf it down carnivorously, the seeds splattering her dress. Holding a fresh chunk, she then circulated through the crowd offering portions as a kind of perverse communion.
On it went. Watermelon pieces passed to the children, to the audience. Music and vague menace. Then the woman raised a watermelon high in the air and smashed it on the flagstones. This is what I had been waiting for! Smashing watermelons. At least 30 of them! Mexicans never waste food, so the throng dashed forward to rescue what they could. Photographers swarmed like paparazzi. I have no idea if they were part of the performance, or just part of the audience longing for a spectacle they could record.
Spent from her watermelon frenzy, the woman again lay prostrate in front of the church in her soiled wedding gown. Then she sat up and was joined by a young girl. The woman took off her golden shoes and put them on the girl. Then they both stood up and screamed. They screamed at each other, they screamed at the church, they screamed at the crowd.
Surely this is the end, I thought. The sun had left the Churchyard and we began to feel the pull of the downhill walk to the Zocalo, to a glass of chilled wine and the happy contemplation of the universe. We turned from Viva la Vida, from costume changes and drum solos and plunged ourselves back into the world of un-programmed surprises, of street musicians and performers, of families joyfully reuniting after work and school, of shy young lovers snatching a few moments together, of tourists buying brightly coloured hats and rebosas that will look out of place in Minnesota, of ancient indigenous beggars with outstretched hands hoping for a centavo.
Sometimes art cannot hope to compete with life.