Oaxaca City, Mexico


My New Hat

I packed a brown cotton oilskin hat to wear while I’m travelling. That hat was too hot, the brim wasn’t wide enough, and it was just plain uncomfortable to wear, so the first task this morning was to buy myself a new hat. A brief foray into the market located the “straw goods” section, and after a bit of negotiation I procured a great straw hat for just 15 pesos. It’s without a doubt the most comfortable piece of clothing to ever adorn my head, and the wide brim is wonderful against the intense mid-day sun.

The trip to El Tule, a small town about 10km down the road, cost a whopping 3 pesos each. By the time we were on the highway the bus was packed with passengers literally hanging out the door. When we reached our destination we were dropped off rather unceremoniously by the side of the road, and we wandered off to see The Tourist Attraction.

A Big Tree

El Tule’s big draw is a big tree. That’s it. A really, really big tree, standing in a courtyard in front of a church in the middle of town. It’s not “tall”-big, it’s “everything”-big — like an undulating mountain of bark with little green branches. So yes, it’s big, thanks for paying two pesos to get into the courtyard, now please get on with your day.

The Yellow Sauce

We wandered down to the local mercado in search of lunch. We encountered another of Oaxaca’s famous moles — this time, mole amarillo. The mole was spread onto a tortilla which was then folded over and stuffed with chicken, cheese and epazote (“wild spinach” — kind of like a cross between basil and bay leaf). The sauce itself was like a mexican combination of Italian marinara and Indian curry. Like the mole negro it was rich, warm, and intricately delicious.

The Real Day of the Dead

“Perdon,” Ana said, poking the shoulder of the man in front of her. The man ignored her. She wanted to do know if the bus we were on, the return bus from Tule, would go near Mina street so we could catch another bus to the ruins at Monte Alban. She tried again, and again received no response. She gave me an exasperated look.

Out the window, I saw a crowd gathered along the the street leading to the Panteon General, and I knew we had to get off right away to see what was happening. We stepped off the bus and walked up the street.

After two days we’d finally found the real thing. The cemetery was packed with people, and every single grave was decorated with huge bouquets of flowers. The place was a symphony of stone and colour — mostly rich orange marigolds, but also every other flower known to the Oaxaquenos.

People were busy. Some carried flowers and buckets of water, while others cleaned or painted the grave of a dear departed. Solemn families could be glimpsed through the white stone memorials, passing time with the memory of a loved one. Musicians offered to sing favourite songs.

Ana and I stopped to listen to one trio — a guitar, trumpet, and vocalist — as they played for a large family gathered around an elaborate headstone. The song was upbeat, not the funeral dirge one would expect, but the tone was sombre as the singer expertly worked each note. While we stood there, listening, an old man pushed past us rather rudely (but that’s not uncommon for the respected Mexican elderly). The song continued.

The old man stopped beside a simple brown grave, lovingly adjusted the flowers at its head, crossed himself, and then stood alone, head bowed, eyes far away. His Raquel had died three years earlier. The song ended, Ana wiped a tear from her eye, and we drifted further into the maze of gold and white. This was the real Mexico.

The Gringo with the Guacamole

Ana is concerned for my welfare. She doesn’t think I’ll survive with my rudimentary Spanish after she returns to Mexico City, and I must admit that I’ve been using her as something of a security blanket. So, she decided that it was time to pay a visit to the market, where I could practice my survival Spanish. We headed for the smokey taco aisle, where raw meat was available for immediate grilling. After giving me a much too brief explanation about what to do, she left me to get dinner while she tried to find a bano (bathroom).

The first part was easy. I grabbed a woven basket/tray with a paper liner, and asked the vegetable merchant for some guacamole, salsa, and cebollas (green onions). I got all three for 15 pesos. The young girl then said something about refrescos, and I asked for a coke and some water. Then she said something about meat — asking if I was going to get some, I think. I responded affirmatively. Then she said something about a table which I didn’t understand so I just said “okay” and went off to get some meat.

An imperious young woman sood behind a rack of raw beef, pork, and sausages, taking orders. I asked for uno chorizo (one sausage) and she asked if I wanted quarter, half, or what? Fortunately, I’d done my homework and knew she was referring to kilograms. I asked for a quarter-kilo of chorizo and another of cecina (marinated beef or pork, a Oaxaqueno specialty) (total cost, 27 pesos) and she threw them on the grill.

An old woman was working the grill from my side, fanning the coals and dishing out the cooked meat. I had a huge basket tray in one hand and a bunch of onions in the other. I need to get the onions on the grill, and I needed to keep the stupid tray from landing on the floor amid the jostle of the dinner rush.

“Perdon,” I said to the old woman. “Mi cebollas?”

She ignored me.

Another customer’s order was thrown onto the grill, and he pushed past me to hand her his onions, which were tossed into the coals to cook. Apparently, I hadn’t used the right words.

A few minutes later I tried again. This time she glanced back at me with pathetic disdain, grabbed my onions, and threw them on. Glancing back again, she said something which I believe translated as, “hey, you stupid gringo, you’re spilling your guacamole everywhere.” Which I was. A lightbulb went on inside my head — if yougrab the salsa and guacamole afteryou get your meat, you won’t stand there like a dork balancing a huge woven tray in one hand for fifteen minutes in a crowded mercado. The meat was finally done, and Ana procured us some drinks, tortillas, and a place to sit.

Needless to say, dinner was absolutely delicious — the best tacos I had during my whole stay in Mexico.

Culture Shock

Just surviving in such an unfamiliar culture is exhausting. It’s frustrating to have to work so hard to understand and be understood. Combine that with the heat, the rich new diet, and the effects of my earlier travel, and I was just plain overwhelmed. I was experiencing classic culture shock. I needed a night off, but this was Dia de los Muertos! What intricate, intimate celebration would I miss if I took an early night? Well, I’ll never know — I went to bed early and stayed there until morning.

There is so much to see and experience in that I’ll never be able to catch it all, not even if I spent a year here. It’s better to take a break when I need one. Adding to my fatigue was real concern about what I’d be doing for the next few weeks. Stay in Oaxaca with a language school? Travel up the valley? Head for the beach? Much of that stuff required planning ahead, and the weight of those decisions left me tossing and turning.

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