Anton Segal Memorial Scholarship Fund
Magazine article by Doris Huang
The following is a travel essay that I wrote upon returning from Oaxaca; it focuses on one very specific experience that I had during my travels around the Valle Central. It has been submitted to Abroad View magazine, and I hope to submit it to other publications as well in the future.
Eleven O'Clock Mass
I glanced down at my wristwatch. My fingers dug nervously into the top of the seat in front of me.
I'm going to miss my stop, I'm going to miss my stop … was that it?! That was it, wasn't it? Oh, no. Now what? Or … maybe that wasn't it after all …
I clenched my jaw. This wasn't working. I swung my shopping bags off the seat next to me and slid over to the window, forcing the dingy pane of scratched-up glass open as far as it would go. It caught a snag in the frame at about three inches and staunchly refused to budge any further.
I craned my neck around the passengers in front of me and stuck my nose out through the window (it was the only part of my face that would fit) in a desperate attempt to discern a road sign, a distance marker, anything that might reveal to me the remaining mileage (er, kilometerage) to my destination. At the last bus stop the driver had rumbled to a halt outside an abandoned stand of rickety wooden-framed stalls to let out a shriveled old woman dragging an astonishing number of baskets of all sizes; the stop before that was an unmarked footpath the width of a team of oxen cutting through a desolate field of tall yellowing grass, where a squinty-eyed man with skin the color of rough cured leather hide descended and vanished into the inscrutable distance. Neither stop had been announced. I had no reason to believe that mine would be.
I had resigned myself to taking navigational matters in my own hands, staring fixedly out the window and gripping my bags tightly in anticipation of launching myself out of my seat as soon as I reached Cuilapan de Guerrero, an unassuming Mexican pueblo just outside the city of Oaxaca de Juárez. (How I would know that I had reached Cuilapan, I hadn't the faintest idea.) I glanced again at my wristwatch: 11:15 AM. So if we left the bus terminal at 10:57, and the last road sign posted a distance of five kilometers remaining, and we were traveling at 60 kilometers per hour, then shouldn't we have been there … two minutes ago?...
A flash of movement overhead jerked me out of my reverie-the sign Bienvenidos a Cuilapan de Guerrero flew by as the bus skidded around a tight curve in the road. A vivid mint-green two-story building sporting rows of arches and the painted words Palacio de Gobierno slid by beyond a compact town square marked by a neglected, flagless flagpole. Beneath the shade of a pocket of trees an old man swept the cobblestones with a giant straw witch-broom. A wide dirt road labored past him up the hill. Beyond him, the town was deserted.
I hastily tottered to the front of the bus and pointedly made my presence known to the driver, who obliged me by pulling to a rough stop just past the municipal building. As I hurried down the steps onto the sidewalk, a wave of relief washed over me for having survived the harrowing but otherwise uneventful trip to Cuilapan in one piece. I was here now and I had a whole hour and forty-five minutes before I was supposed to be back in Oaxaca for mass with my host family. That should give me fifteen minutes to find the ex-convent, I thought carefully, an hour to explore it, fifteen minutes to grab lunch, and fifteen minutes to catch the bus back. Plenty of time.
Cuilapan is known as the site where Mexico's second president, the revolutionary Vicente Guerrero, was executed by firing squad in 1831; more notably, however, the town is renowned for a beautiful and sprawling ex-convent whose construction was undertaken by the Dominicans in the 16th century but abandoned when funds in the Spanish royal treasury evaporated. Although Catholic services have been held for centuries in the adjacent enclosed church, the convent itself was never completed and still stands today like a mystic half-ruin atop a grassy green plateau below the dusty town. This was the Holy Grail of my sunny Sunday morning quest, but from my low-lying vantage point by the highway, el ex-convento was nowhere in sight.
I started uphill a ways from the main road and passed the town market, an enclosure of azure-blue wooden stands surrounding a smattering of picnic tables, where sun-dried old men lounged in the thin noon shade and colorfully-clad children buzzed around them. At the top of the hill the clouds of dust condensed into a fine-grained film on my skin. In the distance to my left I could make out a set of vivid red stone domes hovering above the horizon just where the intensely blue sky sank down onto the hazy yellow land, as if blue and yellow explode into the earthiest clay-red wherever they meet. Blue and yellow and red, sky and land and stone, glinted in the shimmering heat of the day like a mirage. A young woman approached from behind.
"Disculpe, señorita," I called out. "Where can I find the ex-convent?"
"Ah, mira," she smiled knowingly, conspiratorially, as she gestured towards my mirage in the distance. She was confiding a secret between neighbors, or between friends. "Look: there it is." My intuition had been right.
I thanked her and set off striding through the dust towards the ex-convent. The dirt path was clear but for a crouched, shuffling figure silhouetted in the noonday sun some yards ahead. My steps gradually gained on hers. She was what Mexicans fondly but sometimes dismissively call a viejecita, a wizened old woman with peppery hair plaited into two long braids that shifted to and fro on her rounded back in time to the measured rhythm of her swaying gait. She was dressed in a simple deep indigo cloth dress printed with miniature white flowers and covered with a checkered gray apron frilled with plain lace at the hem. We moved in parallel, she at a fifth of my pace. A worn, thin layer of cheap leather, virtually indiscernible against her tough soles, was strapped to either foot against the hard, unforgiving ground. She might as well have been barefoot.
I was on the verge of overtaking her. Suddenly, without warning or even a glance in my direction to indicate her awareness of my presence, she croaked in thick indigenous Spanish and the most pleasant conversational tone:
"Hace mucho calor."
I glanced over my shoulder; there was nobody there. Surprised as I was, I had the presence of mind to respond that yes, indeed, it was very hot.
"Sí, hace mucho calor," the viejecita repeated amiably, with a patient and humbling grandmotherly air.
I curbed my pace dramatically to match hers, and before long we fell into a simplistic conversation of sorts, the kind you have when you meet a gently rambling old lady on the bus who can't help but absentmindedly repeat herself and whom you can't help but humor with the most angelic patience. "I have always lived in this pueblo," she told me, "as did my mother and grandmother and father and grandfather before me. It's a quiet town, not like Oaxaca." Her beady, clouded eyes blinked at the ground, peered ahead, then blinked at the ground again; she addressed me without glancing once at me. I wondered if I could see what she was looking at, if I tried. I wondered if she was even talking to me. "Things don't change much here. Everything is more or less the same."
Together she and I inch towards the magnificent ex-convent, whose arched stone façade has crowned this plateau against that panorama of fuzzy green hills for four centuries. I draw near with muffled footfalls, my gaze fixed in awe on its defiant, stalwart form.
Beside me the viejecita marches resolutely on. "Where are you going, señora?" I ask curiously as we cross the field in front of the ex-convent.
"A la misa," she replies matter-of-factly. Of course; to mass.
"To eleven o'clock mass," she adds, almost as an afterthought. She pauses. "What time is it?" she asks me.
"It's already eleven-thirty," I answer as I glance at my wristwatch, my brow furrowing with concern.
"Eleven-thirty," she repeats deliberately, contemplating the implications of the hour. Her little silence vibrates like a taut guitar string in the thick warm Mexican air.
"Yes, I will make the eleven o'clock mass," she assures herself quietly, as if I were not even there. Her plaits swing to and fro, to and fro as she shuffles away. As I watch from a standstill, puzzling, she continues plodding steadily down the deeply worn dirt track through the grass to the church, to eleven o'clock mass, which she has yet to miss on a single Sunday of her life.
I missed one o'clock mass in Oaxaca. I took my time going back.