The Other Side of Mexico

Just when I thought I couldn’t keep my left knee bent a moment longer, our driver stopped the truck in the middle of the road, ac864-img_1114opened the door, and got out, telling us he’d be right back. He disappeared into a crude little house made of cinderblocks, sun-dried clothes dangling on a line outside. In the truck, we looked at each other, murmuring our guesses as to where he’d gone, when suddenly he emerged with a plastic cup of homemade mezcal, pride in his eyes, and urged us
to take a sip. We did, in turn, passing the cup around, smiling at both the randomness of it all and the authenticity of such an unexpected experience.

We were returning from a day trip to Hierve el Agua in the southern state of Oaxaca. Aside from the driver, with us in the cabin of the truck was a lovely young couple from Spain- he from the Canary Islands and she from Granada. They were visiting Mexico after a six-month social work internship in Guatemala. In the covered truck bed in the back sat more people on benches that lined the sides. The driver stopped periodically to pick up more people and drop others off. All the while, he chatted to us about the Oaxacan countryside, about the village of San Lorenzo, through which we were driving and which happened to be his home, and especially about mezcal. It was only natural, then, that we would stop in the middle of the drive to taste some of the famed drink native to Oaxaca. Made from the maguey plant, mezcal tastes a bit like tequila, but is smokier and tends to go down much more smoothly.

Our impromptu mezcal tasting on a village hillside took me back about ten years, to the Bulgarian village of Червена Вода (Chervena Voda; “Red Water” in English), on the route between the large city of Ruse on the Danube River and the small town in which I lived at the time. I spent a week one December night in Chervena Voda, when the bus on which I was traveling broke down and we sat on a dark dirt road in the midst of cinderblock houses for hours until a pair of taxis finally came from the city to rescue us. There had been no mezcal to keep us warm that night, no friendly driver to speak with pride about his village….

Driving through San Lorenzo and its surrounding windy, mountainous roads was a highlight of our journey through Oaxaca, and possibility of our entire time in Mexico. The four-day trip, a wonderfully thoughtful and generous thank-you gift from the family that operates the school where I’ve been teaching for the last year, was our last excursion in our tour here in Mexico. We soaked in every moment, seeing a side of the country we hadn’t seen before and ultimately understanding why so many Mexicans maintain that Oaxaca is their favorite place in Mexico.

Today’s Oaxaca is a melting pot of people with Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Spanish origins. Considered one of Mexico’s most indigenous regions, it is not uncommon to hear a variety of languages spoken in Oaxaca, particularly among those who live in smaller towns outside the capital city. We marveled at all of the color so distinctive of what we began to call The Other Side of Mexico. Color in architecture, in clothing, in women’s long braids, in food… color everywhere. Color that brought a cheeriness that we don’t see very much in the north.

 We spent our first day wandering up and down the streets of the capital city, officially called Oaxaca de Juárez (population approximately 265,000). We wove our way through dozens of rows of shops and stalls at the huge downtown market, where if you stand still just long enough, vendors will invariably approach, offering to sell you anything from gum to handmade crafts and blouses to chapulines– grilled grasshoppers with a hint of lime and salt. Crunchy.

Famous for its mole (spicy sauce made with nearly three dozen ingredients, using chocolate as a base) and tapetes (hand-woven wool carpets from the village of Teotitlán de Valle), Oaxaca’s offerings left us at the end of our first day with full bellies and two modest rugs for our home. At night, we watched as traditional dancers filled the streets, a precursor to the upcoming Guelaguetza festival. It was a good day.

The next morning, we ventured out to the renowned Sunday market in Tlacolula in the Valley of Oaxaca, about thirty minutes from the city. Usually leaning towards more economical, efficient modes of transportation, we opted for a collectivo, nothing more than a standard-sized taxi that is shared by anyone and everyone traveling in the same direction. We exchanged nervous glances as the driver stopped to pick up a sixth person, and again when the passenger in the front seat moved over to sit on the gear shift without batting an eye. The lone seatbelt in the car remained unused, though I’d like to believe we were crammed in so tightly that no one would have budged an inch had we needed to make an emergency stop.

The Tlacolula market was an overwhelming, incredible mix of people-watching, shopping, and general human existence. Tens of thousands of people from the city and surrounding valley travel to the market every Sunday to buy, sell, barter, socialize, and just be. Everything imaginable was for sale, including fresh produce, handicrafts, tools, turkeys (live or dead- take your pick), and of course, mezcal. We meandered through the labyrinth of aisles, never knowing where the market officially began or ended, and realizing after about three hours that making it through the entire thing was an impossibility, at least not without getting lost.

We happened upon a carnecería, or butchery, where several vendors had fresh meat and vegetables for sale. We strolled alongside the booths, taking in the flank steak, pork bellies, and whole chickens with long, sharp claws still intact. With no refrigerator in sight, we watched as the vendors- mostly women- shooed flies away from their offerings. In the middle of the carnecería was a line of grills, some unmanned, but all smoldering. We finally figured out that we could purchase meat and vegetables from the booths and grill them on our own. After about ten minutes of deliberating our willingness to risk food-borne illness, we finally decided to go for it, telling each other that if we get sick, we’ll both go down together. The misery-loves-company approach. We chose a bit of skirt steak and a couple of peppers that were way too hot for the likes of us, some onion, and an avocado. As we grilled, young women approached us with bags stuffed with tlyudas, huge tortillas made of yellow and blue corn. When the cooking was done, we sat down at a nearby table and tasted our creation. Although the pepper brought tears to our eyes, twelve hours later, we were still alive and well.

Our third and final full day took us out to Hierve el Agua, natural limestone formations that closely resemble waterfalls. Contrary to their literal translation of “the water boils”, these natural springs concentrated with limestone were cool and refreshing, particularly following the hike we did to the bottom of the formations and back up. It was here, standing at the top of the giant cascade of limestone, knee-deep in the water, that I realized that The Other Side of Mexico is one that cannot be properly described in words or justified in photos. It must be experienced through its people, culture, food, and nature.

I thought about this later that day, as we rested in the cozy bed-and-breakfast where we stayed. Our three days in Oaxaca were filled with a richness that we will remember for a very long time. As with any place that I visit and never seem to have enough time to experience fully, I’d like to return to Oaxaca one day, with more time, better Spanish, and a journal, to capture more completely the preciousness of the Other Side of Mexico.

Thank you for reading!

Photo credits are to my wonderful husband, M., (except for the one that he is in). Click photos to enlarge.

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