This is where we begin. Four months of travel stretch ahead and we start here, southern Mexico, in a city I’ve loved recklessly and disproportionately for years. Before we landed I wondered if the city could live up to the one I’d built from memories, but it was just like I remembered. Oaxaca feels like someone’s imagination of what Mexico is like: men carrying bouquets of spinning pinwheels and teenagers singing ballads on the terrazas and clusters of balloons waving among the zócalo’s trees; dust and heat and color and the smells of cologne, cleaning solution, tortillas cooked over the comal.
One night we left a mezcal tasting feeling light and buzzy and stepped into the warm evening. Crossing the street toward Santo Domingo church, we ducked through vendor booths selling gauzy blouses and the straw hats worn by every expat in the city. I was looking up at the trees, their flaming blossoms that fringed the plaza, then at the sky and its thin nail of a moon hanging high above. Wildfires smudged the sky brown during the day, but now that it was evening the smoke and low sun turned everything gold.
We paused at the edge of the plaza behind a crowd that extended for blocks. There was the murmur and movement of waiting: women bouncing toddlers, people with cameras raised, and a young man pulling plastic garlands of lollipops out of a box and distributing them benevolently to outstretched hands. In the center of the crowd, standing in the street, kids and teenagers stood at attention, dressed in white. They carried signs and flags and whirling shapes. It was a parade, just about to begin.
I looked at Davis, his hair getting long on top and a beard already growing out. He was wearing a shirt I loved: the navy one with a collar, the single “nice” shirt he packed on this trip. He turned to me and we shrugged at each other. “Want to watch for a bit?”
As we turned back to the parade the music began, a brass band led by a trumpet playing something that was not Banda and not mariachi but unmistakably, wonderfully Mexican. Two small boys with larger-than-life puppets on their shoulders began to spin, and the puppets seemed to dance in time with the music. Then the stream of people in the center of the crown surged forward, processing down the cobblestones to the cheers of the crowd. Davis and I cheered too, and became the same crowd holding our phones aloft to film, reaching out to catch the candy that parade members tossed into the air like jewels.
The group who garnered the most cheers was a group of children with Down syndrome who marched together, dressed in white linen shirts (the boys) and traditional dresses with red lipstick (the girls). They beamed at those of us watching, exuding delight, and I thought of the parents who had helped them dressed, who had braided hair and applied makeup to set their beauty on display.
The whole parade took just twenty minutes to pass us, and most of the crowd—likely family members and friends, followed the music and noise toward the zócalo. A blur of color and horns and candy and then it was quiet. Only in Oaxaca, I thought. We could only stumble on something like this in Oaxaca. Davis and I looked at each other, smiling, shaking our heads, and I knew he had felt it too: the city’s enchantment that resists words.
We walked up the steps to the plaza and sat under a tree facing Santo Domingo. A group of high school graduates dressed in robes and caps posed for portraits as a group. Then, as one, they took off their caps and tossed them into the air. Above us: moon, caps, sky. The caps rose like a rush of pigeon wings, spinning and then falling as the church bells tolled.