I wish I could have taken photographs on the plane into Oaxaca. I don’t often talk about the actual transportation involved in travelling, but it’s obviously a big piece of the puzzle. Between the comfort of home and the long, lazy nights of travel, there’s a whole lot of itineraries, ticket stubs, crying babies, and attempts to navigate airports and train stations in foreign languages.
Even if it were just a colossal stress, transportation woes would be worth the joys of exploring new and faraway places. But I actually kinda sorta like the transport part. I love airports, locales most people hate. I even like airplanes though after a few hours it does get tedious. I look forward to the airplane meals – mostly just the cute trays and tiny cutlery, not the actual eating aspect. Sometimes, it’s kind of nice to just have a few hours to yourself to watch a movie (or several) or read a book – downtime before settling into long days of adventure.
Our flight into Mexico City was relatively calm, but it was when we attempted to get to Oaxaca that some mild chaos ensued. We found our way however, and boarded the tiniest of plans for our 45-minute flight to Oaxaca. Though it creaked as it flew through the air, I at least had my own seat – a window and an aisle seat. Bonus. I ignored my book and spent the journey gazing out the window and trying to ignore the ferocious snoring floating over from a nearby passenger.
Mexico City airport seems like it’s smack dab in the middle of the city, surrounded by colourful, crammed in houses with red roofs, with a thick layer of smog hovering about the entire scene. Takeoff felt a bit like we were going to sheer the tops off the buildings in our path, but soon they were mere dollhouses.
Shortly after takeoff, the plane turned, dipping itself with a disturbing creeeak so that I was gazing downhill at those to my right. But this gave me a spectacular view of the blanket of clouds above us. So fluffy and white – well, sort of – the smog had tinged them a pinkish brown in places that, if you ignored the fact that it was pollution almost looked like a fairyland sunset. Or maybe that was just my pre-travel rosy optimism.
I love the moment of flying that you break through the blanket of clouds and rise above them. First, the clouds grow larger – and it’s only really from this perspective that you realize they are actual, physical objects, however ethereal they may be. They aren’t just painted onto a flat sky. And they are enormous – they cast huge swathes of shadow on the ground below. If they weren’t so delightfully fluffy, like big pillows you could just sink right into, they’d almost be scary. I think everyone should fly for this experience: the acknowledgement that the world is so large, that almost everything is bigger than us. And yet, we can fly around it in a day. So we’re still pretty awesome.
Then you’re inside one of them, and the creaking plan begins to shake and rattle. I’d thought we’d burst through the cloud line almost immediately, but instead, it was minutes of pure white. As if we were inside nothing, nowhere. Passing over to the other side.
Then we did just that. We came out on top of the clouds, spread like a duvet beneath us.
I always thought of “an ocean of sky” as a bit of a lazy and clichéd metaphor. But this looked like just that – an eerily pinkish-grey ocean. Sure, it was really a film of pollution from Mexico City, half-covering the clouds, as if they were marshmallows floating in a cup of some disgusting and probably poisonous beverage. It was maybe a bit gross, maybe a bit depressing, but it was also strangely beautiful. But it’s hard not to think the world is beautiful from 40,000 feet in the air.
Then Oaxaca appeared, and above it the clouds thinned.
I believe it was in Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, that the narrator tells of a man rolling up a ball of paper in attempt to describe the Oaxacan landscape. Staring down at it, I understood what he meant: wrinkled mountains, some with misty clouds curling up them like wild beards. Spots of small, packed-together villages, strips of agriculture, and clusters of green trees with great swathes of land sheered and bald where forests had been harvested.
Trains and buses and driving are all good means of transportation, and they give you a spectacular entry into your chosen destination. You can see the surrounding environment from down where people see it. Daily life, the human footprint, travelling along the paths many generations before also took.
But up in the sky, you get a different view. There’s still the evidence of human life, but there’s also evidence that the mountains of Oaxaca were wrinkled and crumpled long before we were here. As the land stretches out endlessly and the clouds, spreading wider and reaching higher than any factory or skyscraper, cast their shadows on it, there is evidence that the boundaries we set between nations and provinces and cities and personal properties are all arbitrary and human creations that have existed for less than a molecule’s worth of space on the long arm of time. Though we all have our own traditions, our own culture, and our own language – which is a really beautiful thing and makes travel very worthwhile – I’m not so much a foreigner intruding on someone else. I’m just visiting another part of my home, the large and tiny planet Earth.
Maybe, one day, generations after me will be thinking the same thing as they look back on Earth from dark, star-splattered outerspace on their holiday to the moon.
And then we landed, in a culture dramatically different from my own. Speaking in a beautiful language I can only awkwardly mumble a few words of. Eating foods I’ve never tasted and learning histories and stories I never before knew.
Up in the air, I might have felt that Oaxaca and Mexico and the world was enormous, but here down in the grit of the city, Oaxaca is an insular world. A city you can walk across, whose streets and landmarks soon became familiar. Whose markets are bursting with life and smells and sights, whose zocaló is always packed with music and languages and dancing and drinking. Whose people are friendly and vibrant and welcoming. Whose lovers held hands down the street, and vendors cried out for customers. Whose schoolchildren played and elderly shuffled. Whose citizens went to work, and to grocery shopping, and to the bank, and home to their families. Whose sun rose and set, and time passed.
Funny how the world can seem so big and varied, and so small and the same, all at once.
The plane once again dipped low over the houses, and I felt certain we were going to land on the very roofs, but the strip of runway appeared suddenly to catch us as we lounded with a resounding groan.
We arrived. Nosotros llegamos.