I had been in Oaxaca, Mexico for nearly a month with my wife and son, enjoying life. We were going to be leaving soon, and I decided that I wanted to bring a souvenir home with me. Because Mexico, like most places, is known for its fine leatherwork, and because the importance of footwear to the overall impression created by any given ensemble of clothing can hardly be overstated, I decided that I would like to bring home a handsome pair of boots. Upon reaching this decision, I suddenly recalled that the last time the three of us were in Oaxaca, not quite two years prior, when my son was not even one year old, I had similarly decided, as our time in the city was winding down, that I wanted to bring home a handsome pair of boots as a souvenir. I thought about the persistence of this desire for a souvenir and was reminded of a conference I’d attended many, many years earlier – in the time before wife and son, among other things – at the University of Texas, in Austin. In the introductory portion of her speech, the conference’s keynote speaker, a novelist and scholar of more than modest repute, related a little anecdote about Borges that has always stuck with me: that during his travels throughout the United States as an old man, mostly blind – travels that included, and hence the particular pertinence of the anecdote to the circumstances in which it was being shared, a brief stint as a visiting professor at the University of Texas, in Austin – the venerable Argentine writer once wrote or said (I don’t remember which), “Every morning I wake up in Buenos Aires.” I have never found a corroborating record of Borges having written or said this, but I believe that he did because of the simple but so easily overlooked insight it contains – namely, that if home did not accompany us on our travels, as a kind of image or psychic formation, the place in which we can already imagine our being wherever we are, doing whatever it is that we are doing, converted into a story or anecdote, or conscripted into the work of identity construction, then travel would not be travel at all, but merely everyday life in another place. By contrast, I thought now, souvenirs represent an attempt to carry the place to which we have traveled – a place that lacks the intimate connection to self it would need in order to survive as a psychic formation – back home with us, where its presence, albeit in miniature, might provide some measure of relief from the suffocating facticity of everyday life. As for my more particular desire for a handsome pair of boots, I supposed that in addition to the aforementioned reasons, they appealed to me as a souvenir because unlike, say, a postcard, or a replica in miniature of a local attraction or monument, they would tastefully conceal their true nature as a souvenir.
In thinking about all of this, I was revisited by now vivid memories of my futile efforts find a pair of boots during that previous trip to Oaxaca – a couple of hours spent wandering streets near the old Zócalo where someone had told me a number of shoe shops were concentrated, streets that at the time were occupied by an encampment of striking public school teachers whose tents and strung-up tarps presented an obstacle or hazard at nearly every step. That time around, I now recalled with clarity, all I found were boots I could as easily have bought back in the United States but never would have (made by brands like Caterpillar and Flexi), and other boots that were either cheaply made, fashionable in a manner that was so local they would have looked absurd anywhere else, or, in many cases, both. In an effort to improve on those results, I decided, this time around, to seek guidance from the internet before heading out into the city. Searching the phrase “mens boots Oaxaca” (apostrophes, of course, are irrelevant to internet search engines) led me to an online travel forum dedicated to Oaxaca, to which an individual named Nick had, in September of 2014, posted the following question: “Hi. I’m looking to buy some good quality leather boots in Oaxaca. Does anybody here have any recommendation of where to find or get boots made?” The responses were not very helpful. One user by the name of Alvin wrote, “If traveling around the nearby villages, the town of Ejutla is known for leather, although when I went there with that in mind about a dozen years ago, I was not very successful.” Another, Masha, wrote: “Oaxaca – chocolate, weaving, carving, etc. For footwear – León.” The third reply came from a user going by the name of peddler665, who wrote: “Nick – I notice that you posted a similar question here a couple of years ago. I hope that someday you find the boots you’ve been looking for.” The extent to which peddler665 could have been addressing me directly made me wonder if I had somehow been posting questions to online travel forums without knowing it, like some strange form of sleepwalking. But it couldn’t have been me, I concluded upon further consideration: for one thing, Nick had been looking for boots in Oaxaca in 2014 and, if peddler665’s timeline was accurate, 2012, whereas I had looked for boots in Oaxaca for the first time in 2016, and was now looking for them again in 2018; for another, my name was not, and never had been, Nick. All the same, we were kindred spirits, Nick and I – fellow boot-seekers, far from home – and in a strange sort of way, we had found one another. I wanted to leave him a comment to that effect, but the forum administrator had closed the discussion thread in September of 2015 due to inactivity.
As for the boots, I think Masha had it right: Oaxaca just isn’t the place for footwear. I ended up buying a pair of huarache style sandals that were too small for me, and which I didn’t really like, anyway. I never wear them, but from time to time I do think of Nick, wherever in the world he may be, and when I do, for just a moment, I am back in that bustling but simultaneously tranquil city in Southern Mexico where my family and I have recently spent so many happy weeks – or rather, that city that has come to join me here, where I happen to be instead.
Eli S. Evans is a writer, arguably.