Photo credit John Venable

It seems that colors were brighter, deeper, more various when I was a child, and this is way they still are in Oaxaca. It is as if the color itself, along with the city, had not quite grown up.— Larry Levis


There’s a park off the zócalo rimmed by fountains and huge blue agave. Other interesting and over-the-top specimens flourish, such as the organ pipe cactus and The Montezuma cypress. There’s even an old man pressing out corn tortillas and using country cheese and squash blossoms to make tacos. A few baroque churches, a place to exchange money, a health food restaurant, outdoor cafes with waiters standing around to take your order, you get the picture. It’s close to my hotel on 20 De Noviembre so it’s easy to come here in the afternoons and jog around the square with my hotel key pressed into my palm. My running shoes are only a month old, but they’re already beginning to stink. And because I can’t sleep, and because John Venable is already three days late for our rendezvous, I have been jogging in the park now so much that locals are beginning to recognize me. Or at least that’s my impression.

We’re doing this as a sort of promise to ourselves that we’d get together after so many years. When I say “this,” I mean two unrelated men traveling together without their significant others. Perhaps you’ve seen other such examples as you’ve gone about the world. And perhaps you’ve glanced up from your menu in the café you walked past three times before wandering in, and wondered: Two grown men together out in the world—what are they up to? There is no word for it yet, but there needs to be. Venable now owns a restaurant in Pittsburgh. He’s a certified cheesemonger. His wife is a sommelier. I am none of these. I live in Wyoming. We chose Oaxaca, because, as we’ve aged, we’ve both become interested in food, and similarly bored with America. Oaxaca is known for its mole′s, seven different types which I can’t seem to remember, except for the Mole′ Negro, a rich, black sauce that I see on all the menus. But, due to a recent breakup, I have no appetite whatsoever. I think of mole′ in a symbolic sense. And there’s another reason we are here.

John and I had planned this trip for years. Back in graduate school, we were each students of the late Larry Levis. Larry sets a poem in Oaxaca and an essay about when he lived there among stoned Europeans and impoverished fire-eaters. We wanted to go to the Hotel Francia, where Larry went, and have a drink at the bar as a sort of homage.

Over the years, John and I worked to remain friends. John married a Greek girl and moved to Pittsburgh. They rolled the dice on their own wine bar. John went to California to study cheese in earnest, forty, fifty varieties of goat cheese coming at him from all corners of the world, and he was trying to take notes and taste the just barely visible glimpses of foreign coasts, fog rolling in, farmers resting in the shade of broken stone walls. He punished himself learning the blues, the great Roqueforts, the mysterious Stiltons,—and God forbid, he sat in on some serious lectures about Gouda, which, according to John, will never be given the proper respect it deserves. In Oaxaca, John was particularly interested in their quesillo a la plancha, just a simple, un-aged, local affair that you could buy in the outdoor markets. “Hoss, it’ll be everywhere,” he promised.

What did I do after Larry was gone? I went around the West developing the most benign love affairs you can imagine, complete with a style of lovemaking that can only be described as a bad lay. I crawled under beautiful, fanatically drunk women, wherein I simply arched my back and allowed them do all of the work. Their hips kneaded my torso, their hair flung about. I just kind of laid there and thought about Richmond and what had gone wrong. Or I thought about a make-believe California—vineyards, wild hawthorn, coveys of sleeping quail—with my eyes closed the whole time.

Photo credit John Venable

Every few years John flew out and complained about my lousy cutlery as he diced onions for my elk stew. He looked worse each time I saw him—happiness was killing him. He walked with me on a pheasant hunts, not actually hunting, but limping along, while my black dog deftly flushed pheasants for easy shots. We took the lot home and made a sherry-inspired sauce with shallots and cream. I lit a four-hour fire log. We ate the gamebirds on mismatched plates. We talked a lot about getting out of the States and looking around, just we two. We hardly ever mentioned poetry anymore.

In Oaxaca we thought we’d see Monte Albán, sample the local mezcal, and view some of the markets. There were old churches, street food, cheese, of course, and the dry-looking Sierra Del Norte that seemed worth checking out. The guide book says that there are over twenty languages spoken in Oaxaca, many of them dying, many variations of ancient Zapotec. Spanish should get us by, it said. Beyond a few nouns, I only remembered how to express my wants and needs: Yo Neccesito, Yo Quiero. But this was okay, since I lived the last twenty years of my life with only these themes in mind. We planned on taking a cooking class too. And maybe, if there was time, we’d go by the Hotel Francia. The world owed us this much, I thought as I sat in the hotel and waited for John.


December 28th and still no John. He was delayed in a snowstorm in Pittsburgh, the city of ice and steel. Knee-deep in nativity scenes, I strolled along the cobbled streets of Old Town, heartbroken, enwrapped in tropical blossoms, nearly in tears, sleep-deprived, sensing a twang of pleasure in the fact that John’s latest email expressed near manic despair over not being able to escape Pittsburgh. I wanted someone to suffer with me. You can admit it here where no one in the world is paying attention, where the beggars point to the oval of the empty mouths and say “comida” mournfully, without hope, where the tourists—the real heavy-hitters—professorial and white-bearded, are setting off for a day of roving the markets and hammering away with their phallic cameras, their dizzying array of lenses to focus in and out. It’s hard to admit that I often take joy in another’s misfortune. But Oaxaca demands honesty, if nothing else.

zoby fowlsEach night I walked the city. I didn’t see the fire-eaters in the plaza, but I saw the disinterested Europeans, flipping through their guide books. And I have to admit, I felt better than I thought I would. There were tiny bags of weed for sale, and shakes of mushrooms. There were doorways and alleys where strangers beckoned me to come in and stay all night. I couldn’t figure out the value of pesos, and I was a fool with money.

In an effort to fight my Schadenfreude, I picked up a few tiny bottles of interesting local mezcal and some dried beef from the sprawling Benito Juarez markets. I spread this out in the hotel room on our table as a sort of welcome arrangement for John who was due to arrive by sunset. Then I went to Café Oaxaca, a real upscale doozy, with state-side prices and a Mole′ Negro that nearly stopped my heart. I fully expected John to join me. I ordered him a drink. But once again, his flight stalled, this time in Houston, and I dined alone. Afterwards, I walked along the busy streets near the Santo Domingo church/museum/botanical garden with over two-hundred indigenous species of plants, and allowed an old man, dirty and confused, to walk with me a while. The air was replete with warm smells from the restaurants, the chocolatierias, and the stones still held the heat from the afternoon. The old man and I walked for a while, not talking, but just stopping here and there to watch street performers do their cheap bark paintings, and a street barker attempting to get customers to enter his bright, loud, and nearly empty café. We looked at hand-woven rugs together; he caught my arm once or twice and pointed out his favorites to me—the deep red ones dyed with cochineal. I shook him finally near The Cathedral of the Virgin of the Assumption. He went inside to weep with farmers.

John arrived well after midnight. I wasn’t sleeping. We hugged in the way old, suspicious males hug—and I showed him the mezcals and the dried beef. He was spun-out from traveling. I was pert as a rutting buck from various pharmaceuticals. I offered him some. He just wanted to sit on the edge of the bed and chew the jerky. He was East Coast pale. His hands trembled even more than they used to, the signs of owning his own restaurant already working him over. He downed one of the mezcals with no appreciation. The dried beef was sour, and he lurched around for potable water. All the while I was telling him about my latest romantic disaster. He chewed. Then he began sneezing—gustatory rhinitis—I had forgotten about this. But it gave me all kinds of pleasure to see John sitting on the bed, sneezing in fits, trying to say something about the beef between blasts.

“You can tell—it’s local beef,” he managed. “Look at the yellow fat.”

Mind you, we had now entered a point in our lives where every morsel of food deserved commentary. It annoyed me, but I let it slide. The rhinitis subsided. He sprawled on his back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, his bulging midsection betraying his work with cheese. I went back to talking about my breakup.

“God damn those airlines,” he murmured. “I have half a mind to write a letter.”  He sprung up and looked around the room.

“Where’s the other bed?”

It was true, there was only one bed. John had made our hotel arrangements and he had asked for a room for two, but somewhere, lost in translation, the owners must have thought we needed a bed big enough for two. It was a queen bed. I suggested that we go out and walk the city, but it was close to three in the morning and John only wanted to crash. He said he’d get us another room in the morning. With our luggage down the center of the bed, we built a sort of divider. I had purchased some regrettable bottles of coffee-flavored mezcals, so we used them, and the rest of our gear, to build a man-divider. Quickly, John began to snore and tussle. I couldn’t sleep, despite the drugs that promised I would, so I went out into the night and walked along the parks, the baroque fronts of churches, the huge serrated arms of reaching agave, frogs chirping from the black recesses of the city gardens. The stores were all gated and shuttered. It was as if the city I had walked through earlier that day were a mirage. I sat on the steps of Santa Domingo and watched jets comingling with the stars.

Photo credit John Venable


Next day, I was up before John, drinking coffee in the hotel courtyard, flipping through magazines in Spanish. The hotel kept a chalkboard with relevant daily activities. Today they were demonstrating hand weaving. Two tiny women sat at looms and weaved away, while their daughters displayed the rugs and tried to get Americans to buy. John arrived just as breakfast was ending. I was tickled to see him plead for one more quesadilla. The station had been shut down.

“I’ll take you to a place around the corner,” I said. By then I had cruised the streets for three days, and I viewed myself as a sort of concierge.

Today, the market was being held at Tlacolula, a thirty-minute drive out of the city, a place known for its mezcal. The bus from the hotel had already departed, so John and I had to find another way. John wanted, in particular, to sample as many mezcals as he could. There would be hundreds. He was thinking of importing some for his restaurant.

Then there was the matter of cheese.

“The cheese here is simple—nothing to get overly concerned about—but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in freshness,” he said. I wasn’t concerned at all. I’d eat a block of rat poison on a dare. I needed a new belt though, and thought the market would be a good place to get one.

“You look like shit, Hoss,” John said.

“I thought we were talking about cheese.”

Tlacolula was buzzing. Meat hung in sheets so thin that you could see through them. Charcoal fires smudged the air and made objects appear bleary and strange. Women in brilliant dresses parted the smoke and threaded toward some center, each with a live tom turkey under her arm, or two or three ducks, or Guinea fowls, or roosters which pecked at people and took the opportunity to inflict a nip on a bare arm if the chance appeared. When a passerby was nicked by birds’ beaks they shrieked with laughter. There were goats bawling and sheep calling, over and over, to their flock, to the red hills of their former life. There was live music coming from the center of it all, and John and I wove our way forward, caught in the crush. Mezcal? It was everywhere, including the cheapest variety which appeared in old vegetable-oil jugs totted by boys. We were offered tastes at every turn, but I quickly decided it wasn’t for me. John, on the other hand, never passed any up. The paper cups? You threw them on the cement when you finished.

We arrived in the cataract of the market—only to find dozens of women sitting in the dirt with their fowls spread out before them like flowers. The toms panted. The roosters raged and raged, wearing their crowns and searching for a target.  I wanted to buy the meanest of the lot and set him free. Ducks looked around as if this was some big misunderstanding, as if someone might soon arrive and clear this all up.

zoby destroyThe produce lay about on tables with clods of the red Oaxacan earth still attached, woven in the roots of onions, beets, fennel bulbs, corn smut, and squash of every description. Stalls were separated by sheets of tattered visqueen. Women reached across to feed bits of fresh mango to their next-door neighbors. There were bundles of medicinal horsetail ferns and resurrection ferns collected in the woods that morning. Dried chilies were a theme. There were manzanitas that looked so sour I wouldn’t touch them. John ate a handful.  I took a sample of chili verde, however, and listened as the woman spoke in Spanish about the tiny green tomatillos, cloaked papery husks. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to sell them to me, or just talking about them so that I could go back to wherever I was from and spread the word.

There were mess hall style dining areas, where Oaxaquenos sat and laughed, and dishes of green, red, and black mole′s showed up. Young girls went around with fresh-pressed tortillas and asked only fifty pesos for a stack. John and I wandered around until we got a feel for the place. John collected tomatoes, a fist of blood sausage, slivers of calf heart, a few chunks of lamb, onions, and blue corn tortillas. He rented a spot at one of the charcoal grills, then made his lunch, flies landing occasionally on his lips. I drank hot chocolate and tried to find some bottled water and napkins. If we were waiting for that amazing moment, this might have been it: flies, music, and laughter. John ate the blood sausage wrapped in tortillas, the whole scene warped by great slants of smoke and light from outside the stalls. His hands trembled as he lifted the mess to his mouth. Then he began sneezing, and with each sneeze, shots of sausage, heart, onions, and tomatoes squirted from his tortilla and ended up on the floor. He murmured god damn, shrugged, and went for more.

“It’s a goddamn travesty that you are here in one of the best food cities in the world and you have no appetite,” he said, after he had gathered himself.


Don Rufino was our guide on the ecological tour. It was he whom we were advised to tip upon completion. We were in the Cloud Forest in the Sierra del Norte Mountains, and indeed, wet sheets of vapor consumed the mountaintop. I did a quick survey of our group and decided there was no one worth seducing. One member of our group, a Brit, was nuts for birds. Camera-centric, he galloped awkwardly ahead of the group, missing Don Rufino’s descriptions of the neighboring pueblos, which, if the clouds lifted a bit, were just visible across the mesas: little flickers of cement and roofs, the zigzag of terraced agriculture. Don Rufino told us that the forests were protected by groups of roving locals who made sure the trees and the animals were not filched. He told us about a Zapotec myth wherein a spirit disguised as a beautiful woman tricks young men into the woods and keeps them there for days, until they nearly starve.

There were no roads, just foot trails, some of them used for over four thousand years to transport goods back and forth between pueblos. John’s camera fogged up, which thrilled me to my bones. Don Rufino, stoic and birdlike, leaned on a wooden staff and pointed out  makeshift alters on the ground: crude rock chimneys where the caballeros placed tiny flasks of mezcal, playing cards, scraps of colorful garments, and then burned them as offering to the gods. Drunk with heartache, I stumbled out of balance all day, lagging back, tearing my only jacket on a particularly nasty example of a blue agave.

Don Rufino was deft at positioning himself atop a crest of rock overlooking a canyon—this just as the wind came up and blew mist over his body. More than just photogenic, every moment seemed posed. He’d stop to pick some botanical example and push it into his mouth. The group snapped photos like mad on these occasions. But with John’s camera on the fritz, he couldn’t do anything but remove the lens and rub it with his sweatshirt. He blew on it.

We stopped in the mountain town of Cuajimoloyas for lunch. Don Rufino had arranged for us to have an “organic,” homemade lunch at one of the local’s house. A woman cooked over an old fire hearth. She made fresh blue corn tortillas, a soup with cactus, and bits of pork fat: caldillo de nopales they called it.  It was delicious. I hardly touched mine. It began to rain. The woodstove popped and hissed. I hissed that I didn’t want to go back to Oaxaca with the group. I told John that I didn’t think I could go back to Wyoming. I might have to quit my job and move somewhere. Would he hire me as a dishwasher in Pittsburgh? I was doing theater.

“We’re not doing well enough yet, but if things pick up,” he said, playing along.

“Why not just rent one of these cabanas and stay for New Years?” I said. I was only half serious.

John wasn’t against the idea. But we were low on pesos. He approached Don Rufino and asked if it could actually be done. Don Rufino smiled and said it was a great idea, and that we could rent cabanas with our credit cards if we wanted. He could arrange it himself. He said we could stay and take the second class bus back to Oaxaca the next day. It was settled. I was disappointed that it was settled so quickly. I wanted to stress John out, to drag him into something he was uncomfortable with, but he seemed glad to stay a while. Indeed, we had arrived just as cabanas ecoturisticas were becoming popular in Oaxaca. We fell in line. We even found a massage service that would come to our cabana and, for less than twenty-five bucks, rub John down with “organic restoratives.” The walking was taking a toll on him.

As luck would have it, John had even brought extra Band-Aids with him to doctor his feet. My torn jacket? No problem: John produced a tiny mending kit. I was hoping we’d suffer more. I barged into one of the town’s two stores and bought a bottle of red wine, several cans of beer, and a homemade bottle of Anise del Toro, which was the exact color and viscosity of urine. I was going to punish myself, and John, come hell or high water, would suffer with me. I wanted to ravish the final hours of 2012, because I didn’t have much hope for 2013.

zoby rufinoThere was a zip line strung above the town, and the folly of idiots rose up and echoed throughout the village. A crew of workers stood around the landing platform and laughed and smoked cigarettes by a fire they had lit on the bare ground. Turkeys gobbling the evening and celebrating the drop in temperatures sounded like laughter of girls. But there were no girls. While John received his massage, I sat outside the cabana near a woodpile and nipped at the Del Toro. I could hear him groaning with pleasure. The woman rubbed oils and tonics into his sore legs, his cheese-fattened midsection. She left with a basket of herbs and oils, her straw hat hiding her eyes. She sang her way back down the mountain.

Inside, John sat dazed on his bunk.  I fed lengths of pine into the fire.

“She was small, but she had strong hands,” said John. He didn’t want any Del Toro. Don Rufino had warned him about Del Toro and other hallucinogens that would be available in the village. New Year’s, according to Rufino, was a dangerous night and all precautions should be heeded.

“Rufino’s such a pussy,” I said. I tilted the bottle to my lips.

“Do you think you should be drinking?” he said.

“It’s weak anyway,” I said.

We took the only route available to us: a long, winding descent into the village. Drying corn was spread on the roofs of almost all the dwellings. The houses were built into the side of the mountain, a few neglected toys spread in the yards, a chicken coop. John complained during the walk. It was too steep, and, he said, there was no way he was going to do this trip, back and forth, more than once. His blisters again. We stopped and snapped photos with my camera. We took too many photos of tom turkeys cresting on to roofs of hen houses, ruling over the lesser fowls. We took turns standing beside enormous blue agave plants for photographs.

Out of nowhere he said, “I have people in Pittsburgh who would love to have your problems—white people problems.”

In the center of town, workers were erecting a huge tent. Speakers were being brought in, speakers as big as kitchen stoves. A young man told us the fiesta was about to begin. But only a few boys in cowboy boots were standing about, flipping stones at a crumbling cement building that said Escuela Zapoteca.  We dined at a small restaurant, both of us ordering mole′s. A few Europeans were there too, but otherwise the town was quiet. John sneezed unapologetically, publically. I went out and bought another small bottle of anise. It was New Year’s. I wasn’t feeling anything special, just distance.

Across the street, we shared our Del Toro with three young men who described to us the coming fiesta. They said the whole town would be there, and young men would take incredible risks and try to dance with their sweethearts. Boys would be lured into the woods by spirits. Some young men would never be seen again—or, if they did return, they’d be changed, touched as they were by spirits. Inexplicably, one guy kept asking me about Metallica.

“They’re done,” I told him. “Their best stuff was used up by 2002.”

Did I know them?

“Yeah, he knows them,” said John. “He knows everyone.”

John was half in the bag, shaky and glowing a pink hue: happiness. I had seen it before, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until he was headed up the hill to crash. Across the street, almost nothing was happening. The same few boys had been joined by a few more. But the tent wasn’t up yet. Fires flickered on the hillsides and we saw a firework, a single orange streak, wobble up and fizzle. Camp smoke was in the air. Walking back up the hill, John had to stop several times. He claimed the altitude was getting to him.

Sometime around midnight, I woke to thunderous polkas rising from the town square. The singer made burro and other animal sounds. He sung about love in the most endearing manner. There was the ballad, the raucous polka, and the brassy Gaucho stomp, the type with the accordion and lots of brass. Oh, there was so much brass. The mountainsides echoed and doubled the effort.

“Shit is getting real down there,” I said to the darkness.

“I ain’t going,” said John. He rolled over and began to snore.

I went out on the veranda. I had a wool rug wrapped around me. I was alone, looking down into the city, me and my white people problems. I could see a mass of partiers moving in and out of the town square, a firework sputtering here and there. It was finally 2013. The cities to the east looked like cities I had known all my life: Hampton, Virginia Beach, Newport News. I had this feeling I could leap into the future. The onyx eyes of sleeping fowls, the thin eyelids of a sleeping tom turkey, the brittle and rasping husks of drying corn—drying whether I was happy or not—is all that kept me attached to the world. I had the sensation I had breast-stroked away from the shore, that this performance in unhappiness might not be performance at all, but perhaps the way I would feel from here on out. Giant chimneys of rock and granite cared nothing about my happiness. I always had a hunch that the universe didn’t watch my every move, and now I knew it was true.


The next morning we were keen to get back to Oaxaca. We still wanted to hit some sites. The pitched and slanted streets of Cuajimoloyas were littered with tiny spent bottle rockets, a few plumes of urine, putters of vomit. No one was around.

“Man, they tore it up down here last night,” said John.

None of the stores were open and the bus didn’t come. It was New Year’s Day. We wondered if Don Rufino had considered this when he told us we could get a ride down. We went to the bus stop and waited. A store across the street appeared to come to life, but it turned out to be the proprietor making breakfast for himself. His beautiful daughter brewed us Nescafe and told us it was free. She said Happy New Year’s in Spanish.

We went back to waiting. I asked John about his worst breakup. I remember him writing letters to me that showed despair and unhappiness, and a bit of humor.

“What was all that about?” I said.

zoby jvbestJohn told me the story and I listened. His father was dying that fall and he and his girlfriend, Dani, went up the Eastern Shore to see him in a hospital. Larry was gone by then. John withered in Richmond. The university wanted nothing to do with him. Then Dani left. Briefly, he considered moving to Indiana. Cooler heads prevailed. I listened. The sun came up over the spires of bare rock and poured light into the valley. A boy was coming up the road. He only wore jeans and a t-shirt and it appeared as if he had slept in the woods. He began to run towards us, veering off at the last moment to run to the girl in the store. He was weeping violently, shivering. She wrapped him in a blanket and took him to the side of the house where he vomited violently in chest-high thistles, the yellow pods releasing great clouds of pollen and seeds each time he wretched.

“So then what did you do?” I asked.


Back in Oaxaca, we showered and I did laundry down the street while John posted some cards back to the US. He had arranged to stay longer, the airlines trying to make up for his awful experience in Houston. I began to pack and sort things out for my return. John chose an expensive restaurant for that night, a place we could really get into some cheese. For an appetizer, we sauntered through the markets at Juarez and tried at least three different types of ceviche. The restaurant was full of white people, men with glasses and beards in particular. We tried a few cheeses, me not really buying in. I couldn’t tell one from the next. John held a piece for a while, looked it over, sipped his wine, nibbled, and then repeated. He breathed deeply. After dinner, we went to a mezcal bar and hung out with the Mexican equivalents to Denver yuppies. John began to coo and cajole. I knew where this was heading. That’s when I first felt the kick in my stomach. It was the cheese that did us in.

We suffered our way back to 20 De Noviembre. I almost didn’t make it. We spent twenty-four terrible hours in the hotel, trying to alternate time in the bathroom. The roll-away was hurting John’s back, so we shared the bed, using a long list of curious items to divide us, decorative bottles of flavored mezcals, hard-purchased woven rugs, figurines, posters of Monte Albán, Day of the Dead schlock, blocks of mole′s, dime baggies of dried grasshoppers. These things jostled and migrated all over the bed when we lurched and flopped and tried in general to save our own lives. Our bathroom smelled of scorched fields, as if all of the exotic foods had set our innards aflame. The only thing that made me want to survive was the pleasure I derived by hearing John groan and tear through the tiny room on his way to the commode. I remember him stumbling out into the courtyard of the hotel to attempt the wi-fi. He wanted to tell his wife he was dying. We paid one of the hotel staff a stack of pesos to go to the pharmacy to buy us medicine and bottles of water. At one point John asked me to hold his hand. It was smallish, clammy, and I couldn’t do it for long.

“It might have been that swordfish ceviche,” John managed. He was glistening with sweat.

“I wasn’t swordfish, it was amberjack,” I said. “It was that god damn cheese of yours.”

“Don’t ever blame it on the cheese,” John raged. He sat up on the bed, the wetted sheets, his hair whipped into cones about his face.

A day later, we woke to sounds of heavy machinery cruising through the tiny streets of Old Town. They were celebrating the sanitation workers. People lined the avenues and cheered for the city workers who had decorated their trash trucks with streamers and colorful blasts of flowers. I had missed my return flight and spent an hour on the phone begging the airline to take me back. We felt just good enough to tour Monte Albán. We paid a guide his asking price, because we were feeling generous—exuberant to be alive. I found a place in the ruins under a cypress tree and I just laid there listening to John tell some Canadians about our adventures. We splurged on a taxi back to the city, forgoing the bus, and flew through the air with all of the windows open. I had to leave the next morning. So we hit the Benito Juarez market one more time for gifts.

“Who are you giving all this stuff to?” John said. “Sounds like you’ve pissed off everyone in Casper.”

We found ourselves by coincidence on the cross streets near the Hotel Francia, the one Larry mentioned in his poem. There was a semi-permanent community of protestors living nearby, decrying labor conditions and environmental concerns. We stepped into the street with hundreds of other people, the busses wailing and smoking with bad brakes.

We found the hotel, a plush affair with marble floors and a dark stairway leading up to the rooms. I imagined Larry up there, napping through the afternoon. He’d wait until the heat of the day passed, put on a nice shirt, and be at the café just in time for sunset, in time to see the plaza fill with people. He’d find a way to connect it all to Yeats.

The lobby floors threw ghosts up, and outside protestors where drumming on plastic buckets and singing songs of revolution. Here was our chance to win a victory for the trip, to follow through on a promise we made to ourselves nearly fifteen years before. A drink to Larry, to visiting his poem.

“We don’t have a bar,” said the desk clerk. “We never have.”

Back in the streets we stood shocked by the blasts of sunlight, by the noise of huge busses lurching past, by the immense stalls with clay-work, the ubiquitous black street art, all for sale, affordable for all it seemed. So many sold skulls, for skeletons were the inside joke, the best joke there is. We didn’t buy a thing. We walked back to our hotel hardly passing a word between us.


Photos:  John Venable

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DAVID ZOBY publishes creative nonfiction in The Sun, The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, Gray's and others. He keeps a blog at His essay collection, Crazy White Boy, is looking for a home.

11 responses to “Destroy Your Friends with Tourism”

  1. White people problems, perhaps, but hurt is hurt. I hope the author has resolved some of it in post-Oaxaca life.


    a) “I’d eat a block of rat poison on a dare.”
    b) “…this performance in unhappiness might not be performance at all, but perhaps the way I would feel from here on out.”

    PS: Dr. Freud and I are curious about the barriers in the bed.

    • Ray says:

      In actuality, John Chapin, there were no barriers in bed. There never has been. It is well known that Dave Zoby will sleep with anyone.

  2. Kate says:

    Hmmm…also interested in those barriers… Would love to get John’s take on this trip!

  3. Anne Soffee says:

    Just a Lebanese boy from Poquoson with white people problems.


  4. Michele Whitaker says:

    Aw, Zobe. Forgot how much fun it is to write about something by writing around it.

    Would love to see how many times John’s version mentions John’s cheese-belly.

    Love the skulls at the end.

  5. Ray says:

    It’s not one of your best, but it’s one of your better.

    Goddammit, you never did fix that confounding typo in the swordfish-amberjack sentence, and it looks as though the good people here at The Nervous Breakdown missed it as well.

    Here were some of my favorite lines:

    “Pittsburgh, the city of ice and steel.”

    “He went inside to weep with the farmers.”

    “Women in brilliant dresses parted the smoke and threaded toward some center, each with a live tom turkey under her arm”

    “pert as a rutting buck.”

    “He just wanted to sit on the edge of the bed and chew the jerky.”

    “he lurched around for potable water.”

    “the roosters raged and raged”

    “Ducks looked around as if this was some big misunderstanding”

    “a fist of blood sausage, slivers of calf heart”

    “warped by great slants of smoke”

    “Our bathroom smelled of scorched fields”

    “He was glistening with sweat.”

    “his hair whipped into cones about his face.”

    “we stood shocked by the blasts of sunlight”

  6. David Wright says:

    “Ducks looked around as if this was some big misunderstanding, as if someone might soon arrive and clear this all up.”
    This is what I feel like most of the time, most days.
    A funny essay.

  7. Bill says:

    Dave – just what are these white boy problems you were or perhaps still are experiencing ?

  8. Janet says:

    Loved it! After traveling through Latin America for years, I felt like I was walking next to you on those quiet empty nights on the zócalo. I could smell, taste and visualize all the beauty, charm and despair that Mexico has to offer.

    So funny! Reminded me of one of my favorite movies “Sideways” except… as he fumbles through his man purse, your sidekick’s famous line would be…”Goddammit Dave, I don’t want any more fucking queso fresco!”

    A must read for those who have ever traveled with a friend or if you just want a good laugh.

  9. Frank says:

    Good read! I could almost taste the food, drink and culture. The author has a way with words for sure! It makes me want to travel and leave MY white people problems back at home, at least for a week or two.

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