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Sweet Surrender in Oaxaca

Housed in a restored 16th-century Dominican convent once called the Santa Catarina, Oaxaca's Camino Real is one of those rare hotels that you wish you could live in forever. Faint music--an ethereal choir of female voices--floats through quiet stone corridors. The guest rooms, arranged around courtyards filled with bougainvillea and hibiscus and tidily clipped trees, are a haven of peacefulness. But as I unpack, the silence is broken by what sounds suspiciously like gunshots in the street.

Now, I'm not in the habit of investigating gunplay in strange cities. But I've discovered over the years that in order to experience Mexico fully, you sometimes have to set itineraries and assumptions aside.

As it turns out, this is especially true in Oaxaca (pronounced "wa-hah-ka"), where there seems to be a different fiesta or celebration almost every day. Those gunshots were actually fireworks: a block from the Camino Real, on the pedestrian Alcalá Street, is the most bizarre parade I've ever seen. Eight dancers, mostly young boys, are wearing costumes that make them look 10 feet tall. Wooden frames on their shoulders support tall papier-mâché heads and torsos clothed in outsize garments, either garish prints or silver lamé. The heads, painted a sickly pink, are topped by blond, red, or black wigs; the arms swing out as the dancers spin around. To see where they're going, the boys peer through an opening just above the costume's waist-- usually where a few buttons have been left undone. Below is a long skirt or baggy pants; one dancer is missing the pants, so I can see his skinny four-year-old legs in his own shorts, as well as his hands holding up the torso frame.

The parade, a banner explains, is to celebrate Saint Francis of Assisi. A few boys are dressed as brown-robed Franciscan monks; other kids are in cat costumes, with blackened noses and painted whiskers; and a handful of friars are also in attendance. Members of a ragtag group play trumpets, guitar, a drum, and cymbals.

Suddenly, the parade is moving. As if in a trance I fall in at the end of the procession, along with several dozen women who are holding sugarcane stalks decorated with paper flowers. The friars reach into the baskets they're carrying, draw out bunches of candies, and hurl them to onlookers-- adults and children alike-- who scramble gleefully.

After circling for several blocks I realize we have landed in the zocalo, the main square. The late-afternoon sun is golden, and finally I leave the parade to look around. Wherever I turn, there's something delightful: a marimba band playing, teenage girls strolling arm in arm, a rainbow of woven vinyl baskets, a vendor surrounded by a mountain of balloons, a woman selling bouquets of heady gardenias for pennies. The city seems almost surreal-- a reminder, in case I needed one, that no matter how peaceful your hotel room may be, in Mexico there's always something intriguing, something serendipitous, something wild going on outside.

A half-hour later I'm sitting behind a beer at a sidewalk café, watching the zocalo pulsate. The crowd is a mix of Indian families, some with barefoot children in tattered clothes; more prosperous groups of Mexicans; young European backpackers; and a few Americans who seem to be Mexico aficionados. Though it's not much farther south of Mexico City than San Miguel de Allende is north, Oaxaca feels far more removed, more authentic, more Indian. As I sip my beer, a bold little girl, around eight, sidles up to my table. "Rebozos?" she asks, flipping expertly through the shawls slung over her shoulder. "Where you from?" she follows up, looking me squarely in the eye and smiling in what she must know is an appealing way. Though I decline the shawls, within minutes she's helping herself to the spicy peanuts on my table, companionably squirting on lime juice. Why not? I ask myself, and enjoy her visit.

But however much you relax into the moment, a place like Oaxaca can easily induce a sense of panic. Unless you've come for, say, three weeks, you may feel overwhelmed by the choices: you can concentrate on the colonial city's stunning churches and outstanding museums, study the nearby archaeological sites in depth, or dive into the wealth of markets. The city itself has a half-dozen marketplaces worth seeing, but the shopping doesn't stop there. All along the valleys are towns whose inhabitants have developed a distinctive craft.

I make a simple plan: I will start in town, exploring a few churches and museums, and then do some shopping on Saturday, when the big Abastos market is in full swing. That done, I'll venture out of town. I resolve to be open to chance at every turn.

Though poverty is evident in Oaxaca, a surprising number of buildings have been beautifully restored in recent years. The most amazing efforts have gone into Santo Domingo Church and the adjoining convent that is now the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo (the former Regional Museum of Oaxaca).

I enter an austere cloister, serene except for a fountain splashing in the center; no plants, just pale shades of stone and the remains of ancient frescoes. I have no choice but to put my fresh resolve into effect and surrender to whatever comes next: there's no map and all the labels are in Spanish. I stroll down long halls, passing gradually from pre-Columbian times (some 12,000 years ago) through the Spanish conquest and right up to contemporary culture. One display, Tesoros de la Tumba 7, shows the fortune in gold rings, necklaces, and earrings, as well as turquoise, pearls, coral, and carved bone, that was unearthed in 1932 from Tomb 7 at Monte Albán. A film clip reenacting the discovery shows our archaeologist-hero, Alfonso Caso, wearing Groucho Marx glasses.

All the while, the sounds of hoes and pickaxes echo down the museum's halls. Workers are planting an immense walled garden, due to open to the public this month. Cacti, some of them hundreds of years old, have been transplanted from all over the state.

The church next door, Santo Domingo, is beyond ornate. White-and-gold walls are covered with statues and carvings gilded to a fare-thee-well. Molded figures in the ceiling depict the family tree of Félix de Guzmán, who founded the order-- interestingly, the family was able to sustain itself with very few women. At night the floodlit, tiled domes look like a fairy-tale palace as they rise above this part of the city. (Of Oaxaca's 29 churches, two others deserve special mention. The Cathedral of Oaxaca, overlooking the zocalo, has a cavernous, crumbling charm; it's almost spooky. The imposing Basílica de la Soledad presents a dazzling array of stained glass, chandeliers, trompe l'oeil painting, and statuary, amid the heavy scent of flowers.)

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