By the Book: Lawrence in Oaxaca
The 36-room Hotel Francia, near the main plaza of Oaxaca, Mexico, is clean, neat and freshly painted. Yet it's not on the tourist beat. Most guide books don't even list it. Rooms are only $17.50 a night. But on a quiet Sunday morning, I went there on a quest. I wanted to see he room where famed British author D.H. Lawrence stayed while in Oaxaca.
Lawrence -- author of "Sons and Lovers," "Lady Chatterly's Lover," and a score of other literary classics -- and his German wife Frieda, arrived in Oaxaca Nov. 9, 1924, after a brief stay in Mexico City. They came by train, transferring from the Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-hoc-a) train station to the hotel on a trolley pulled by two mules.
The author, who was suffering from tuberculosis, spent winters in Mexico because of its mild weather. On his first trip, he stayed at Lake Chapala on the outskirts of Guadalajara, where he wrote the first draft of "The Plumed Serpent," a novel set in Mexico.
On his second trip, he decided to go to Oaxaca because, as he wrote to a friend, "Lake Chapala has not really the spirit of Mexico, it is too tamed, too touristy." If Lawrence had lived to see Lake Chapala today (he died at age 44 in Italy in 1930), he might have felt his words were prophetic. The town has the largest population of American expatriates in Mexico. The lake is a major water source for rapidly expanding Guadalajara. So much water has been drained from it that Lake Chapala now has less than one third the water it held in 1923, when Lawrence described it as an "expanse of water, like a sea, trembling, to a far distance."
The lakeside yacht club is now so far from the water's edge that boat owners have to take a taxi to get there.
Today, most travelers to Oaxaca, about 300 miles south of Mexico City, opt for more-upscale hotels. These include the Camino Real, a beautifully restored 1576 convent, the Victoria, on a hill overlooking the city, or the Mision de los Angeles, a lushly gardened resort-style hotel l0 blocks from the center of town.
But in 1924, the Hotel Francia was the place to be. Built as a single-story hotel in the1890s, it was so popular that a two-story annex was later added. The hotel rate when the Lawrences arrived was 4 pesos a night, with the peso at the time worth about 50 cents.
When I arrived at the hotel, the young woman at the reception desk, who also handled the hotel switchboard, was having a spirited phone conversation with a friend. She stopped talking for a moment to see what I wanted. I told her I was interested in D.H. Lawrence, and she immediately summoned an aging bellman and instructed him to take me to Room 140. Then she went back to the phone.
The room where Lawrence and Frieda stayed is on the second floor overlooking the lobby (in 1924, an open patio). The room was rather small. It hadn't been made up yet; its twin beds were a tangle of sheets. The floor was tiled, and the room had a mirror and a desk. The toilet in the bathroom had a white plastic seat, obviously a more recent addition.
The Lawrences later rented a house from the Rev. Edward A. Rickers, a local priest, but when the house was rattled by a minor earthquake, the writer and his wife were quick to move back to the hotel.
Then, as now, the city of Oaxaca boasted the largest Indian population of any Mexican city (indigenous people make up 90 percent of the city's population). Oaxaca has grown six-fold since the time of the Lawrence's visit. Yet much of the past remains in place. The huge central market that Lawrence writes about so eloquently in "Mornings in Mexico" is only a block from the Hotel Francia. The cathedral, the central market, the Mixtec ruins of Mitla, and Oaxaca's large open-air crafts market that the Lawrences visited, are all unchanged.
Here is what Lawrence wrote about market day in Oaxaca:
"The market is a huge roofed-in place. Most extraordinary is the noise that comes out, as you pass along the adjacent street. It is a huge noise, yet you may never notice it. It sounds as if al the ghosts in the world were talking to one another, in ghost-voices, within the darkness of the market structure. It is a noise something like rain, or banana leaves in the wind. The market, full of Indians . . . silent footed, hush-spoken, but . . . in countless numbers."
"Mornings in Mexico" and "The Plumed Serpent" are two of the most requested titles at the Oaxaca Lending Library, a 40-year-old non-profit library at Pino Suarez 519 that serves the needs of the city's more than 600 English-speaking residents. Also popular is "Lawrence in Oaxaca," by Ross Parmenter, a long-time New York Times music critic who came to Oaxaca in 1966 and lived on and off there for the rest of his life. Of the many books on the shelves is one signed, "To Ethyl, a dear friend in a city that I dearly love. Carinosamente, Ross Parmenter."
Lawrence came to Oaxaca via Taos, New Mexico, where he was a guest for 22 months over a three-year period between 1922 and 1925 of socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan, who collected famous writers and artists the way some people collect butterflies. Luhan provided Lawrence and his wife with a place to live, Kiowa Ranch, on 160 acres in the mountains north of Taos. The D. H. Lawrence Shrine, nearby at the end of a steep walk on wooded Lobo Mountain where his ashes are buried, can be visited.
IF YOU GO:
The city of Oaxaca, capital of the state of the same name, is about 300 miles south of Mexico City. Its Zozocatlan Airport is served frequently from the capital by Aeromexico and Mexicana airlines. A new road linking Oaxaca to a major highway in the state of Puebla cuts the driving time between Mexico City and Oaxaca almost in half, from 9 to 10 hours to about 5 1/2. But the new highway costs about $20 in tolls, leaving many drivers to opt for the old toll-free roadway.
Directly in the geographic center of the state of Oaxaca, Oaxaca City is one of Mexico's colonial treasures. Its narrow streets are laid out in a simple grid pattern, making the city easily explored on foot. Situated in the pleasant Valley of Oaxaca in the southern highlands, the city enjoys an agreeable, temperate climate.
With its large Indian population, Oaxaca is still the center of trade for the surrounding villages. On Saturdays, Indian women spread out blankets at the Benito Juarez Market, displaying shawls, cloth puppets, wooden combs and woven bags. Nearly every imaginable article used in everyday life is sold here.
Oaxaca, once a sacred site of the Zapotec Indians, offers several archaeological treasures. Monte Alban, only nine miles from the city, with its famous Temple of the Dancers, is one the best preserved of pre-Columbian ruins Numerous organized tours with English-speaking guides are available through local travel agencies and hotels.
Mitla, about 12 miles from Oaxaca, offers buildings that resemble Greek-style geometric designs, with walls of inlaid stone mosaic, Nearby is the famous Tule tree, an enormous Cyprus believed to be more than 2,000 years old. It stands 140 feet high, with a trunk diameter of 138 feet. The tree dwarfs a nearby colonial church.
Two of the country's best known figures were from Oaxaca, Benito Juarez, Mexico's only pure-blooded Indian president, often referred to as the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, and artist Rufino Tamayo. Jaurez's birthplace is open to the public, and the Tamayo Museum, displaying the artist's spectacular collection of pre-Columbian art and artifacts, is a city highlight. Art buffs might also want to track down the studio of Oaxaca's Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico's greatest contemporary painters.
"The Ultimate Good Luck," an early novel by Richard Ford -- whose "Independence Day" won this year's Pulitzer Prize for literature -- is set in Oaxaca.
Where to Stay:
Hotel Francia (20 de Nov 212; tel. 9516-4811) is a favorite of D. H. Lawrence fans who want to soak up a little of its literary past; the famed British author stayed here for several months in 1924. Good restaurant on premises. Rates: $17.50 per double.
Camino Real (Cinco de Mayo 300; tel., 9516-0611), Oaxaca's showpiece hotel, is a beautiful former convent near the main square and the main market. It has 91 recently remodeled rooms. Rates: $150-$210 per double.
Victoria (Lomas del Fortin 1; tel. 9515-2633) is a two-story hotel on a hill overlooking the city. It has 151 rooms, with ceilings fans and cool mountain breezes. Rates $95-$180 per double.
Mision de los Angeles (Caalazado Portirio Diaz 102; tel., 9515-1500) is about 10 short blocks from, the main square. Its 155 rooms are situated in a series of attractive bungalows, several of which are poolside. Rates $85-$150 per double.
With its large Indian population, Oaxaca offers a rich variety of handicrafts displayed at street corner stalls and in sprawling markets throughout the city. Prices are good, especially in view of Mexico's recently devalued peso. But the savvy shopper will find the best prices and the best selections by visiting the villages on the outskirts of Oaxaca where the crafts are made. Here are some of the highlights.
San Bartolo Coyotepec -- This is the village where Oaxaca's stunning black pottery is made. On Route 175, the village is well marked and served by local buses. The black pottery has a satiny sheen, often with a silvery luster, obtained by burnishing the clay with a piece of quartz before firing. Shaped into tiny pots, animal figurines and beads as well as bowls, candelabra, jars, jugs and platters, the black pottery is perhaps the most distinctive of all of Oaxaca's handicrafts. The pottery is sold in family yards and in multi-staled buildings beside the road.
Arrazola and San Martin Ticajete -- These are the villages where alebrijes are made, animals carved from copel wood and painted with surrealistic designs in vivid colors. Shoppers go from house to house visiting each carver's show room to pick out their prizes, some of which seem thrust from their creator's worst nightmares. Highly prized and expensive when purchases outside of Oaxaca, the point-of-sale prices here seem like giveaways. All, that is, except the work of Arrazola's master carver Manuel Jimenez who was the first to create the wooden fantasies. His prices range from $300 to $1,000 or more. Appropriately, his house is the only one in the village with air-conditioning, a cable satellite dish on the roof and a Mercedes in the driveway.
Santo Tomas Jalieza -- This is where fine cotton textiles, colored with natural dyes, are made. Women work on small looms in the center of town, weaving elaborate belts, table runners, rugs and wall hangings. The brightly colored belts, called fasjas, are sold in bundles throughout the state. The distinct pink color comes from the tiny black cochineal bug found in the white, spongy web-like substance that clings to the nopal cactus (a species of prickly pear). In a process used by the early Zopatecs, the bugs are boiled down, dried and then put in water from which the color emerges.
Atzompa -- Traditional green-glazed plates, bowls, cups and munecas (dolls) can be found in this village located on the outskirts of Monte Alban. Tuesday is market day, but a door-to-door search at any other time will generally prove fruitful. "Ceramicas" is the operative word. Green animal musicians are a special find, violin-playing goats, flute-playing deer and pigs tapping away on drums.
Ocotlan de Morales -- On Fridays, the region's largest weekly market is held is held in this village, 40 minutes south of Oaxaca. Wood carvings, embroideries, cotton textiles, ceramics, woven baskets and sharp, well sheathed cutlery attract enthusiastic shoppers. The town's recently restored Colonial church is a photographer's dream.
For further information, contact the Mexican Government Tourist Office, 405 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022; telephone (212) 755-7261.