I arrive at night and I’m alive here and I’m exhausted in the glorious way that only travel can make you. Exhausted from moving. Exhausted from learning. Exhausted from reading maps and trying languages and opening up to strangers.
Exhausted from the way that each new place at night can seem dangerous and scary until you know it. Exhausted from questioning myself and then remembering I’m fine.
From the second I get off the bus, I’m met with smiles. I’m met with broken English and warm faces and people who work hard and try their best.
I meet a smiling face at my hostel. He tells me about my room and how my bed is waiting and my towel is there and the hot water will be left on 24 hours a day. I laugh. I’m tired and I’m in Mexico and I have never before thought about not having enough water.
There is a sleepy dog on the floor drooling everywhere and I feel like this is my place.
Some sort of home.
I settle in and drop my stuff. I look around and make small talk with a girl from England who now lives in New York and I’m jealous of her life but I’m happy with mine.
I wander the streets in search of dinner and I find the restaurant of my dreams after a week of street carts and corn tortillas on every corner. The smells will stick with me in a way I can’t quite explain.
I eat dinner and drink mezcal because that’s what one does in Oaxaca and I am indeed willing to become a part of this colorful fabric in any way that they will let me.
It’s midnight and the streets are the gorgeous sort of warm that you dream of on nights when you are too cold and days when you are too hot. It’s that beautiful in between.
The smiling face back at the hostel greets me when I return and I ask him about pueblos mágicos — magic towns. I saw it written on a map and I need to know more because I can probably find parts of myself in a Mexican magic town, I’m certain.
He explains to me that magic towns aren’t really magical, but they’ve received a special designation because they are areas that have stayed traditional in their ways.
We talk about patron saints and our jobs and our countries. We talk about festivals and artists and writing and how much an apartment would be and when I should move back.
An hour passes and I don’t want to leave.
This new friend feels the same and says to me, “I don’t want to bother you, but are you tired? I’d like to keep talking to you. Can we go for a walk?”
It’s 1am and it’s a sweetly warm night in Oaxaca, Mexico and there isn’t a reason in the world to say no to this smile.
“I’m not trying to hit on you, I want you to know that.”
“I feel like you’re a free spirit but you’re also responsible.”
“And I like your big hair.”
I laugh in the heat and we walk. Down alleys and around corners and up stairs to cathedrals and down hills to the market.
I have my own personal midnight guided tour of Oaxaca.
“Ask me anything you need to. I don’t mind.”
I see a sign. Zapateria.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“It’s a sign.”
Language is beautiful and funny.
I laugh loudly on a sleepy street.
“I like making you laugh. You’re a little bit weird.”
We walk through public squares called zócalos and we stop on corners while this new Mexican smile tells me of the history of the buildings we pass. The haunted theatre, the cathedral with the tunnel underneath that connects to the cathedral across town. The convent and the botanical gardens. He takes me into a bar where two men are drunk and spinning each other around in the doorway. He leads me past them, into the smokiness behind.
“I want you to see this,” he says.
I look past the tables of people and I see a mural spanning three walls. It’s a painting that shows the history of the Zapotec people in Oaxaca.
It’s beautiful. It’s bright and perfect and it’s painted on the walls of a smoky bar. I love this city.
We walk through the main square. There is a lady who I feel like is 500 years old and she’s sitting on a chair in the street, completely folded over on herself, asleep. Her treasures are spread out around her, waiting to be sold. Bright green porcelain dishes everywhere. The square is empty except for a few stray dogs.
“Oh! This poor woman. She should be at home sleeping in her bed. She’s too old to be out this late.”
“Life is different here than what you are used to. She needs to make money.”
“But where are her kids? Her grandkids? Doesn’t she have someone taking care of her?”
“Look at us. Are we at home taking care of our grandparents? No. We’re here walking around in the middle of the night. You’re in Mexico.”
I stay quiet. He’s right.
He takes me to a market. It’s closed up but he wants me to go back the next day. He wants me to walk through these doors and to go straight to the back corner. He tells me I will find the people I like. A stall in the back where people do witchcraft and spells and sell potions and coyote eyes.
“I’m learning you tonight and I know you’ll like this place.”
He’s right again. I like this place. I like him and his innocent friendship and I like myself for saying yes. For coming here. For feeling scared and doing it anyway. I like myself in this place.
We turn around and head back, retracing our steps.
He tells me, “I know you’re tired and I could talk to you all night but I will take you back. But if you weren’t tired, we could pay a police officer 50 pesos and they would unlock this theatre for us and open the curtains and you could stand in the middle of the stage and look out.”
“What happens in theatres? Plays? You probably like those.”
We walk back through the square, past the sleeping lady folded in on herself.
“Ohh. That little old lady…” I exclaim again.
“I know. She should really be teaching yoga holding poses like that, not sitting in the street selling dishes.”
It’s 3 in the morning in a near empty square in Mexico. I laugh and it’s warm and I feel alive and new friendships are beautiful and loving yourself is important.