It’s a month since I arrived back in Canada from a week in Oaxaca. I touched down in Toronto on the eve of Hurricane Sandy which, fortunately didn’t affect us much except to make the rainy, windy, dark and ominous weather in very stark contrast to the beautiful sunshine of Oaxaca.
Since then, my absence can be explained by an increase in work hours, and the time-consuming task of applying to grad school. But as we near December and the weather is finally starting to resemble something akin to a Canada winter, I’m thinking again of Mexico.
Acually, I’m a winter girl. Fall and Winter, through and through. I don’t crinkle up my nose at forecasts of snow or wish for an eternal summer. In fact, that sounds something of a nightmare to me. But there is something to be said for a break of sun in the midst of the long cold Canadians experience (or, used to experience, at least).
And that’s the first thing to love about Oaxaca in October. The weather. Granted, in the afternoons it was hot. I can’t imagine what summer in Oaxaca is like. But shops and restaurants shut their doors under the violent afternoon sun, so B and I took refuge in our hotel for afternoons of reading and journalling. But in the mornings there was a cool breeze that often warranted a light sweater even for a heat wimp like me. In the evenings, the weather was that perfect, almost non-weather: neither hot nor cold. Just there. Perfect for a stroll or enjoying a beer on the zocaló, which we did, nearly every night.
That’s another thing to love about Oaxaca: the zocaló. There was constantly something going on in the heart of Oaxaca. Bands playing, traditional dances accompanied by thumping drums and wailing brass. A particularly spectacular and frantic firework display. The flashy cars of the Carrera Panamericana lined up along the square as their crew took a break over beers at the sidewalk cafés. And my favourite: clowns performing, every night.
While we were there, there was some kind of celebration going on that involved bundles and bundles of fresh flowers gradually being placed up the pillars and along the walls of the cathedral. We went inside nearly every night to see the progress. There were nearly always choirs singing, organs playing, and a steady stream of worshippers praying and receiving communion. And the heavy scent of lillies hung over it all.
I can’t quite describe the energy of the zocaló. It had a faintly European vibe. There were the ubiquitous vendors selling gum and jewelery and handicrafts, the mariachi bands shaking sombreros full of change, and here and there clusters of tourists, spurts of English or admirably attempted broken Spanish. But there was something different, vital, alive, about the buzz. Perhaps it’s because Oaxaca is not yet a place brimming with tourists (though it began to amp up the nearer we came to Día de los Muertos), and that the people there belonged there. They were not just observers – they were part of the energy and the life and the culture, and they understood it. Tourism is not (yet) the prevailing culture there. They weren’t presenting the dances and the fireworks and the music for the tourists alone as some sort of pre-packaged ideal of Mexican culture: it was their culture.
(Or so it seemed to me. Perhaps they are just expert at convincing the tourists this is true…)
And there’s the two-fold third reason: the people and the culture. Most everyone was really nice, even though we could only half-communicate with our limited Spanish. On one particular adventure (which I will describe in more detail later), we were welcomed by locals in the valley’s villages. They answered our questions, showed us how they lived, and fed us.
Above is a tlayuda that Martina, a weaver from Teotitlán del Valle, made us for lunch. I ate many tlayudas in Oaxaca, but this was the best. Though Oaxaca has its seven moles, notorious for long ingredient lists, much of Mexico’s everyday food is simple, like the tlayuda: beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, avocado, cooked on a comal. Easy, but delicious.
You guessed it, there’s reason number four: the food. I love Mexican food as it is, but Oaxaca opened my eyes to a whole new world. Smoky, smooth, and spicy salsas, chewy melted Oaxacan cheese, the variety of dried peppers, sweet and strong café de olla, frothy and nutty hot chocolate. And the markets! I seriously think Mexican markets are the best I’ve ever been to. It made me want to rent an apartment with a lovely kitchen, big clay pots, and start cooking.
Fortunately, we did get to try our hand at Mexican cuisine in a cooking class that merits its own post. And when I eventually did get back into my own kitchen, WB and I tried our hand at mole and tacos, and I “created” a recipe for our new house salsa. Perhaps I will share (It goes something like this: buy chiles. Blend with tomato and spices. Pour over everything).
So – have I tantalized you? Are you booking your trip to Oaxaca right now? Good. If not – don’t worry. I have plenty more planned for this little space, now that I need to return to the memories of Mexico as a refuge from work, school applications, and the dreary not-quite-winter weather.