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The Jungle

Hasten Down the Wind

On Hamlet.


The man selling the tickets wore a blue uniform, unmarked like a plumber’s. I found him sitting at his table in a narrow atrium. It was also unmarked, a blank door next to an unreliably open café called La Organización. The concessions table was plastic, the universal bumpy gray you get in summer lunches and cheaper coffee hours, sudden games of beer pong, and also apparently when trying to buy a ticket at the Macedonio Alcalá theater in Oaxaca de Juárez. Arranged in its center were printed-out seating charts. Neon greens and yellows highlighted the occupied spots. The dust covering the table and papers and the clarity of the neons made me feel like the room should’ve been part of a construction site. I pointed at a promising balcony center stage and top floor, nestled in a gray zone above all the greens near the orchestra pit. “Is the performance in English?” The man looked at his mop, slumped a bit. “Señor, understand,” he said sympathetically. “Shakespeare wrote in English, yes?” My seat got marked purple. 

I’d heard about the play from my friend Dylan, who looks like a cartoon version of a gringo but speaks a slow and courtly Spanish. Coming back to our room one night he’d had a glossy show poster. He found it pasted eye-level at a urinal near the Zócalo, the city’s main square with a battered metal gazebo and huge trees rooting into the stone and the worst restaurants in town. It advertised performances every other night and an actor from London. The man on the poster held the skull in a surprised way, as if he couldn’t decide why the script included it. 

We needed Shakespeare because we needed something definite. The trip had been Dylan’s idea, a random thing he’d been planning since he’d read something about mole sauce and the beaches down on the Pacific. Within two weeks in the city we’d tried all seven moles seventy-seven times and hadn’t seen the beaches. Whatever other plans we made evaporated. Any expectation went away before we even noticed it was being unfulfilled. It was a constant Mexico of false perspectives. 

I mean this literally about our environment. The details kept confusing us. Everything began as one thing and ended up as something else: less a hollowness or disappointment than mirages melting into each other. Near our rooms there was some sort of military base. The soldiers would sporadically shoot drill mortars in the dusk, blank shells packed with a long whirr and a hollow pop. Most evenings felt like a tropical storm was about to break out. Around dinner, perched on a terrace with an overpriced de-Americanized hamburguesa, you’d see the wind get up and then the birds: loud black ones like crows with ice-white wing bars you could only catch when they flew full speed. A chair would clatter around. There would be some clouds, several raindrops, a general darkening. The waiters would laugh and mutter. You got ready to retreat inside. And then nothing, no real rain or storm. By dark it was back to the stillness and heat, the glare of lamplights taking over the glare of the sun. 

During the day everything was motionless and hot. Haze rested on the foothills like unrendered distances in an old video game landscape. The center of the city is solid and colonial, its buildings all some combination of jail, fort, and palace. They’re squat and brutal, roughly egalitarian among themselves, glitteringly hostile to their surroundings, their ornaments and friezes fanged on the flat, hard façades. The Spanish had built along a grid from a smooth green stone they quarried intensively enough to use for all the important sidewalks and some unimportant ones too. The light coming off the buildings is diffusive and heavy, always the stone’s specific green thickening in the car-exhausted air. The effect is intricate, dense, stern. It’s like aquarium architecture gone imperial.  

Revolutionaries took Oaxaca de Juárez in 1821. Surfaces get tagged now with a graffito or two, always red spray paint and neat handwriting. You can follow their point by cognates with America—El feminismo es humanism, Bee El Em, ¡Viva el PUNK!, that kind of thing. Once a protest blocked our way, a fifteen-minute-long line of men and mainly women from the countryside coordinated every hundred feet by pickups with piles of loudspeakers on their beds. Someone would trail alongside the trucks chanting into a handheld microphone hooked up to the sound equipment. The distortion made their Spanish slurred and pitched up, sudden high emphases troughed with slow downward whines. The trucks had to crawl along at the pace of the protestors, and the cord trailing from the bed to the speaker’s hand made it seem like they were taking their vehicles out for a walk. Dylan told me that from what he could follow they were asking for potable water and working electricity, themes the slogans on the walls didn’t mention.

Walking around I began to imagine the Shakespeare actors everywhere. Just below the Spaniards’ central grid there’s a distension of market streets frequented by tourists. Past that, wandering south, Dylan found the real market, without any tourists besides us, a closed network of pedestrian blocks roofed over extensively with rusted corrugated siding. You knew each quarter by how it smelled, which meant you hung around the corners with bakeries and stayed away from the fish-and-meat neighborhood. 

When we had our meals there—cheap, actually better food taste-wise than you found in the center—I scanned the stalls thinking about where our Ophelia was, our Polonius. The night before the show we saw a flock of opera singers pounding out some Bizet in the street. Dylan befriended a homeless man who said he’d been an English professor years ago. It was obvious that the aesthetic infrastructure for our show was there.  

The woman stamping the tickets wore a blue dress. From the windows of the theater glazed light from old bulbs spread out onto the street. This time we were allowed in the front door, where a brief line of Oaxacan playgoers waited. Inside, the place didn’t have the typical squadrons of hall-monitors to tell you where to go. I didn’t see piles of programs anywhere, and there wasn’t any restoration work on the walls. Here and there you could see between boards, and none of the doors worked right. The hallways smelled like ancient paint and dry wood. We’d arrived there early, so Dylan and I snaked around trying to get roof access. We found it through levering a window near the top that would’ve been glued shut in a richer country. Up from the Zócalo we could hear a cover band doing Pearl Jam in fuzzy Spanish. The hills still kept their haze, even this late. Across the low spread of the newer neighborhoods the churches were all turning their backs to us. 

On the roof we fell to speculating. Dylan was optimistic about our prospects for a good show. Since there wouldn’t be any American theater kids the text had a shot at not getting mutilated. He wanted simple, steady costumes, appropriately historical and chastely layered. He imagined we’d hear real Elizabethan accents. At one point he lost the theme of his argument and started telling me about a Vietnamese Lear he’d seen under an impinging monsoon, the king howling in the warm rain and the actors all barefoot. 

I agreed about the theater kids, but how would a small city like Oaxaca de Juárez field Hamlet? None of the details would be accurate here, but maybe they’d catch the spirit. I told Dylan I thought it’d be the same way London had done it: roving troupes, feverish nights of rehearsal on word-rolls at the edge of town, low moral standards. My hope was semi-amateur actors competing in an ad hoc meritocracy under the bleary eyes of drunken tyrannical directors. Is Shakespeare dangerous in the States? Is he anything in England? I wanted a rough, poisonous Shakespeare. I wanted the man you see in the Chandos picture with the face like a used-car salesman, the man with the greasy hair and dull gold earring, the man who knew what a pander was, who made little lyrics that made you want to cry. 

Opening the door to our balcony I realized immediately what kind of mistake we’d made. The main well of the theater was as unrestored as the hallways. The color scheme was that neutral gold and dusty red you see in theaters or casinos. Painted on the ceiling above the stage our patron Macedonia Alcalá looked down with a wilting mustache as if embarrassed at a long white canvas unrolling toward the ground. Somewhere near us up top a clicking began. Projecting onto the canvas a bright insidious logo appeared and then a man with a lilting voice came on to inform us in English that the play would be streamed live from New York.  

After that the camera panned placidly for a few minutes over Manhattan playgoers milling around. Their Covid duckbill masks inflated and collapsed like vestigial outer lungs. Down in the pit on our side the audience looked up expectantly. The colors on the screen were bright and compact, deep and regal fluorescents: they made our seats and settings seem like the difference between a moth’s wing and a butterfly’s. The man from earlier returned to make a few comments about Shakespeare’s troubling legacy and also Ukraine, at the mention of which we all broke out into uncertain applause. 

The play was worse than you’d think. It was in English, yes, but they’d transposed Denmark onto the Rust Belt and all the actors had chalky white paint on their faces for some reason. Hamlet came out with a black flannel suit and an accent so nervously American it implied he’d be beaten if he made a single “bin” a “bean. He and Ophelia spent several minutes miming a make-out session in a pickup truck with the doors flung open. A man in a balcony near us coughed woundedly until Hamlet leapt out and slammed the doors on her. Later Ophelia drowned herself in an above-ground pool. The actors theatrically smoked fake cigarettes. Since the theater’s speakers couldn’t handle the stream every sound was a blown-out bass rumble except the dialogue, exaggerated iambic whispers punctuated by off-metric shouts. The canvas kept shimmering, like a broadcast decades ahead even though we were only a time zone late. Down below, half of the audience fell asleep. The only good part was the ghost. He wore a gold baseball cap and an industrial-sized trash bag like a sheet, the red plastic twist tie coiling feudally at his neck. 

Before the end Dylan turned to me and said, “I really don’t want to see Hamlet die like this. Let’s get out of here.” We thought about the roof but then just went back to our rooms. I checked the tickets, and in small letters like the side-effects warning on a bottle of pills it told us the play would be taking place in America. When I woke up Dylan was packing his bag. This failure was huge enough that we were leaving town and heading for the beach. 

The bus south over the mountains was really a van, an eight-seater with blacked-out windows that blocked what the driver claimed were beautiful views. I sunk into the abstract sightless motion of the thing going up and down the switchbacks like a broken flight simulator at an aeronautics museum. When we stopped we confirmed the views and I vomited into the jungle. Dylan told me he was sad because there was a starving dog outside a roadside restaurant. For provisions we bought two types of Mexican candy, one brand called Bigot and the other Bimbo. 

We reached the Pacific at Mazunte, a hippy expat town with a main cove that looked designed for Instagram and a rotting ridge of seawall from the Fifties. The people there were the type of European whose skin gets so tan it thickens and melts like mottled brown wax. While we were in the mountains the weather had turned and the Pacific became a warm, slow gray. Dylan and I squabbled over whether the ocean reflects the sky or the sky the ocean. We drank bad beers and watched the town depopulate under the rain. Sullen surfers lashed their boards to Jeeps. The waiters were lighting joints before the lunch rush ended. Nobody was in a hurry, but most everyone wanted to leave. 

When we were feeling our worst Dylan checked the weather on his phone. Off the coast a category 3 hurricane had formed. Her name was Agatha and she’d make landfall in thirty-six hours with a focal point on Mazunte. Advisories claimed you should get out if you could and go to ground if you couldn’t. Officially the main dangers were poor infrastructure, mudslides, and high velocity debris. A storm chaser on Twitter was announcing that Oaxaca’s hurricane shelters were traps, that they’d never hold, that the buzzsaw winds and sudden floods would mean death above and drowning like rats below. One tourist had already died in a riptide made muscular by the storm’s circumference winds. Behind us a French man was excitedly describing the nude beach one town over. 

Dylan wanted to stay, but I talked him down. Dying for Mazunte would be like dying for Gomorrah. The last bus left the next morning at eight a.m., so we retired to our room. The hippies made lodging pricey and we’d only booked one big bed, which turned out to be a king in the same way that Kinbote in Pale Fire is. We sweated on its plastic sheets and debated trying to fix the Soviet-looking air con unit. Around midnight we heard a bat pulsing darkly around the bathroom. Barricading the door solved the rabies question, but we lost our shampoo for good. Dylan decided to use our downtime to email a dispatch to a Russian Orthodox abbot at a monastery in the States he’s friendly with. His Vladika replied almost immediately to say he’d never cared much for Spanish but that he missed going to beaches and he’d remember us at First Hour. 

We rose while the monks were praying for us and flagged down a colectivo to get to the bus station. While we jolted on its benches Dylan slept hugging his backpack. A man hopped on and sat next to me, giving me the sideways glance you give strangers when you intend to attempt a conversation in a few minutes. He was pudgy, maybe in his thirties, with a blonde, intelligent face and wearing a black tracksuit that had a sheen like ink. When he spoke his accent had the slow liquid creak you hear from Scandinavians who’ve learned to speak English but not pronounce it. 

“Are you fleeing the storm?” he asked. 

“Oh yes. Last bus leaves in an hour apparently. Are you getting out of here?”

“No, no. I don’t quite know what to do, but I’ll stay here for that at least.”

“Are you staying in town? Maybe rooms’ll get cheaper with the weather.” I saw he didn’t have any bags and seemed not to be carrying anything in his pockets, which ran flat against his legs. 

“Right on the beach. Near the cliffs by the cove, you know. I have some things I need to do here before I leave.”

We had some talk about our personal logistics, the endless travel conversation about where you’re from and what you do and why you’re here. He told me he had been a student somewhere in Europe, studying something philosophical. Trading sentences about American–European differences took up a few miles. I wanted to tell him my impressions of Mexico, but he was hazy and vague about the place. “I like the birds,” he said, “and the peace.” 

“What’ll you do during the storm? Doubt there’ll be birds or peace.”

He stared at the floor. “My father—it’s complex. It’s complex, my friend. I have to check something out at the seawall tonight and then I can leave I think.”

“Fair enough. Be safe I guess. Dylan and I are hoping to get up to Puebla, at least somewhere dry. Have you been to Mexico City?”

I didn’t learn much more. The bus back over the mountains was worse than the first, though we found our starving dog lapping at a bowl with mashed plantain and milk. Puebla turned out to be like a more severe Spain conjoined with the Latino parts of Los Angeles. We had distinct adventures there, more solid and definable sorts of fun than in Oaxaca. Once Hurricane Agatha made landfall it took nine souls, with another six reported missing. It’s hard to know what happened to my man on the colectivo. I suspect he found what he needed out on the seawall, facing the wind. 

Daniel Ortiz is a Ph.D. student in Literature at the University of Basel.

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