Somewhere between the giant white cross on the hill to the Northwest and the looming golden arches of McDonald’s to the Southeast is real Oaxacan life, with squash flowers in quesadillas, basketball games in gyms, poetry on walls.
Some observations and findings from my week, stream of consciousness style:
Cars don’t stop for anything or anyone here. I’m not honestly sure whether there are any regulations against what we refer to as Jaywalking, but if there are you’d never know it from the way Mexican pedestrians approach street crossings. There’s a lot of darting across when the flow of traffic allows, regardless of lights or police. And I’ve concluded that the safest time/place to cross the street is always when/where the Mexican person is doing it. Besides helping to judge the right moment to dash across, safety in numbers applies also I think.
Even with pedestrians taking a backseat in the transportation culture here, I am thankful to be on my own two feet carrying myself through the world for the present. Every time I walk past a gas station and pay zero attention to the price and pump number a reflexive smile creeps across my existence. At least I can try to be carbon neutral for a while to counterbalance some of the driving we do out of necessity on the rivers where I’m from.
Roberto, my salsa dance instructor at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca (ICO, pronounced “eco”, for short) arrives to class each day on his bike. When I struck up a conversation with him about it, he conceded that it was sometimes dangerous to be a biker in this city. Just as in the United States, I conceded in turn. As in the U.S., also, there are critical mass bike rides that leave from a local church yard every Friday and Saturday, he informed. I explained about how some critical mass rides in the U.S. happen with the participants wearing no clothes. This caused him to raise his eyebrows, exposing a cultural divide, but he instantly understood the value of eyebrow raising behavior for a biker trying to raise awareness about the importance of sharing the road. Especially in today’s society of non-stop movement and information.
At a break later in class, Roberto started explaining Zapotec reciprocating customs surrounding weddings and other community events, whereby the host feeds guests and the guests then usually return the favor by bringing something to the host/s. These gifts vary depending on what the guest has at his or her disposal. He clarified that all of these exchanges are purely voluntary, never obligatory, which I suppose is what gives them their significance. Since I had just made an attempt at translating the “Undam the Klamath, Save Wild Pacific Salmon,” slogan on my shirt, he suggested that I might bring salmon, for instance. People helping people according to need and ability fosters a strong sense of community, whether in Northern California or Southern Mexico, apparently. Here, this tradition is referred to as Guelaguetza.
This only reinforces my sense that people are intensely proud of their culture here, much as we are at home in the Klamath. Another conversation at ICO with the cooking teacher, Vicki, illustrates this clearly. Having already engaged in a number of conversations about why the chickens in markets here are amarillisimo (so yellow), with theories ranging from marigold feed to chemical injections used to make the chickens mas gordos (fatter), I consulted Vicki. Chemicals, Vicki confirmed, shaking her head.
To put it in context for her, I described my plan to cook 40 clove chicken using mezcal (a smokier countryside cousin of tequila, also derived of agave) in place of the white wine I would ordinarily put in. She shook her head even more, displaying a characteristic common in Oaxaquenos: a deep-seated love of and commitment to local food prepared traditionally. It was as though I’d just suggested we make sushi with Klamath salmon to a Karuk person. Being basically a nice person, however, Vicki warned me before we parted ways that mezcal was much stronger than wine, so I would need much less of it. She was right. Even cutting the quantity of cooking liquor in half, I still had to simmer the stock-mezcal mixture about twice as long to achieve the desired effect; the mezcal bottle cited a 38% alcohol content. The juices at the bottom of the pot after pulling the chicken out of the oven, breaking the seal and carving up the bird were the richest yet, however, so it was well worth the risk. Everyone at the dinner party loved it.
Toting the carcass home, I tossed it in a pot with herbs, carrots and onions and started new stock. The next day a few classmates and a wonderful Mexican young woman I tutor ventured to Mercado Abastos, the biggest market in town. This market dwarfs the ones I’ve described earlier, sprawling over 5 city blocks. It is overwhelming and awesome in its scope, so we set out simply surveying what it offers. My only purchases were small: fresh corn for the soup coming together in my kitchen and a cup of tejate (a distinctly local frothy tan-colored drink made from toasted corn, cacao beans, seeds of a local fruit and flowers of a local tree.)
Now, with a pot of soup in the fridge, the next cooking experiment will be Guanabana Panna Cotta topped with sauce of some local twist – stay tuned. Maybe vampiro sauce involving grape juice, blood oranges and vodka? The guanabana (which I still think of as corossol from my Haitian days and we know as charamoya in the US) was painstakingly juiced by yours truly this morning. Now I’m going out to seek condensed milk, gelatin and whatever other ingredients grab me. Not yet known is how guanabana will behave in this medium. I’ll report back soon. It may require a couple of tries, and brave guinea pigs.
Each trip to the market, dinner party, dance class is a lesson in hearing, speaking and making yourself understood, and in the humility as well as confidence we need to get the job done.
I want to close this thing out with a gigantic thank you to Francine Fischl for so graciously allowing to borrow her life here in Oaxaca for a month and a half. Although many people have been extremely helpful and supportive in getting this trip off the ground, Francine is more singularly responsible for me landing here and finding a niche than anyone else.