A Dream Come True
Ana and I sat on the patio of the La Cafeteria restaurant, watching the mexicanos and gringos swirl like leaves among the trees. Finally, after 24 hours of travel, I was able to relax. A feeling washed over me — part relief, part anticipation, all happiness. I was finally living my dream. For four years I had fantasized about continuing the journey that began with my amazing bike trip, and now here I was sipping fresh jugo de naranja (orange juice) on the edge of a zocalo (town square) in southwestern Mexico. I’m a lucky guy.
Ana picked me up at the airport in Mexico City yesterday, and we immediately drove to the bus station to enquire about tickets to Oaxaca. The next day´s early departures were sold out, so we opted to take the late bus for that evening — one which departed in about four hours.
“We’re going to Oaxaca tonight!” Ana said with some trepidation as we walked back to the car. “Shit, bato, I don’t do this kind of thing.” Four hours later we reclined into our seats at the back of the bus, next to the washroom and the engine, and tried to sleep while the driver hurtled us through the darkness.
We arrived in Oaxaca at 6am, found our hotel, and tried to get some more sleep while the city woke up around us. A few restless hours later it was time to explore.
The Sights and Smells of the Markets
Our first stop was a panaderia (bakery) for a light lunch. The warm aroma of fresh bread drew us in, and the array of baked goods on display confirmed our choice. There were croissants, distinctly un-french in style but delicious nonetheless; cookies, small and large, sugared, chocolate, and plain, in rings, disks, and countless other shapes; buns, lightly dusted; crispy sugar pastries that exploded into a shower of flakes with each bite; and festive round loaves of pan de muertos sweet egg bread with a candy face baked into the top of each.
The Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival was just beginning and preparations were still underway. In front of the main cathedral, flat sand sculptures were being covered in colourful powder. All of them featured typical Dia de los Muertos skeletons prominently.
After a stop for some juice beside the Zocalo, Ana and I headed off to the markets. As soon as we entered we encountered a chapulinesvendor, and Ana insisted I try one. After a few seconds of deliberation, I popped the fried red grasshopper in my mouth. It tasted of garlic and lime, with a rich, slightly oily texture underneath the crispy exterior. Bits of carapace stuck in my teeth. For the next few minutes, my mind reeled at the idea that I had just intentionally eaten an insect. It wasn’t on my to-do list, but it should have been.
Our next stop was a cheese shop, where we bought a bag with five small balls of quesillo, Oaxaqueno cheese, for one peso. The cheese was fresh, rubbery, and delicious. Moving on, we found a woman with a huge bowl of water and flour on her lap. She absent-mindedly churned the mixture with a small bowl, and occasionally she lifted some liquid into the air and let it pour back into the bowl with practiced nonchalance. After a short conversation with the woman, Ana explained that this was a mixture of water, corn flour, and chocolate. I was offered a small bowl and sipped cautiously. It was delicious, and (aside from the uncertain origin of the water) probably very nutritious, but the powdery lumps of flour gave it a strange texture.
From there we dove head-first into an exploration of the mercado. We passed chili vendors with everything from berry-sized paquin peppers to smokey, gooey chipotles to crispy poblanos and more. Several vendors burned incense in honour of the festival, and golden flowers decorated everything. Fruit stands sold oranges, limes, lemons, papayas, and small beat-up red and yellow fruits that I didn’t recognize. Vegetable sellers had chayote squash, nopal cactus leaves, bunches of onions, tomatoes, avocadoes, garlic, cabbage, and more. We saw baskets of beans, rich red spices, and heaping piles of moist mole concentrate — a Oaxaqueno specialty. Butcher stands sold thin marinated steaks and the sweet/sour/musty odour of raw beef lingered around them. Interspersed among the food stands were vendors of everything else you might need: medicines, t-shirts, guitars, dresses, fabric, thread, cookware, shoes, masks, and more. And everywhere, tiny Zapotec women sold baskets of bright-red grasshoppers.
We burst out of the market and into the glare of the afternoon sun. As we walked, the ubiquitous odour of diesel exhaust was suddenly replaced by the intoxicating liquor of fresh cocoa. Cocoa beans were being sold, roasted and ground into a paste along with almonds and sugar in a nearby collection of shops. We sampled a few of the crunchy beans. All were bitter, some distastefully so, but the underlying decadence of fresh, raw cocoa was unmistakeable.
We entered another market, this one full of small lunch stands. Vendors called out their menus in typical sing-song fashion, and we stopped to enjoy a fat tamale with chicken and mole sauce. We left the market via a smokey aisle dedicated to tacos: vendors of fresh raw meat and chorizo sausage were interspersed with charcoal grills. Bunches of green onion and peppers were set directly on the coals, sending up wafts of perfumed smoke. Ana and I promised each other we’d return for lunch, and then re-entered the heat of the afternoon street.
We headed west, toward another mercado. This one began on the street, under tarps strung at a comfortable height for your average four-foot Zapotec woman. Beneath the tarps were endless mounds of marigolds glowing in shafts of afternoon sun, and an almost equal number of unnamed curly pink flowers. The sidewalk smelled of sweet perfume. We followed a hunched old woman with a pile of yellow flowers on her back through the maze, and soon we left the flowers behind to enter a warren of pottery sellers. Brown pots spilled out of tiny alleys, all covered in traditional Oaxaqueno green glaze. Unfortunately, the traditional Oaxaqueno green glaze is laden with poisonous lead.
Once again we entered another general market, walking past piles of chickens, feet thrust into the air, and straw hats (only 20 pesos), and more fruits, vegetables, corn mush and grasshoppers. The market stretched on forever, with each aisle bringing us to a new department — breads, or spices, or clothing, or rolls of thick plastic sheeting.
Dia de los Muertos is a spectacular celebration — part solemn ritual, part wake, part feast, part art show. All the stores are decorated with golden flowers and most have ofrendas — altars with offerings of food, drink, flowers, and gifts for the deceased. The panteon general was the center of the main ofrenda competition, to see whose display of flowers, fruits, and bread was judged the best.
Alas, the Panteon General was overrun with tourists. The walls of the mausoleum surrounding the main cemetery were filled with votive candles, and the pathways were filled with shuffling, camera toting gawkers (myself included, of course). Where I was expecting something solemn, instead I found a craft show. But Oaxaca is a popular tourist destination, especially around the Day of the Dead, and I wasn’t too surprised. Although that particular event was a slight disappointment, the rest of the Day of the Dead festivities — the flowers, the sand sculptures, the decorated shops — have been intriguing.
From the Panteon General we caught a cab back to the Zocalo for a late dinner. I was eager to try a Oaxaqueno specialy: mole negro. A “mole” is a generic term for a whole range of flavourful sauces, and mole negro is an unlikely concoction of chilis, bananas, chocolate, pepper, cinnamon, and more. I had pork in mole negro sauce and it was heavenly: warm and rich, with an intricate layering of flavours. I can’t wait to try another.
We caught a cab back to our hotel after midnight and made plans for the morning. We needed to find a new hotel. The Posada El Cid was clean and comfortable, but much too far from the center of town — more than a kilometer. A phone call in the morning landed us a room at the Hotel Reforma — only a few block from the Zocalo, half the price, and with a great roof top patio.