Post mountainous adventure, we returned to Oaxaca. I would have happily stayed up the mountain for a lot longer than the long weekend we had allowed ourselves. It definitely gave me space to reflect on how I may like to travel in the future. Getting away from the sound and speed isn’t so bad when the alternative is beautiful, warm, and full of peace.
Either way, it was time to go back to the city. WiFi provides my income, and I still had stuff to do in a city that I really was very fond of. I hadn’t finished with my lessons, the wealth of food to eat, or the music that still waited for me. Returning to the house of God and the kitchen-denying Sister that guarded it was a bit of a clash to what we had become used to.
My final weeks in Oaxaca were tranquil and full of music. Delicia, being the social powerhouse and musically gifted woman she is, had embedded herself in the local scene. They were avid players and hosted several nights in the city, which I took a lot of pleasure in being present for. They all played with immaculate skill, and it was a pleasure to watch them freestyle their jam nights together.
The nights attracted all sorts of musicians. Many of them were regulars, hailing from as far as San Cristobal, a solid 12 hours away. There were also surprise guests of people, I presume, who simply know how to sniff out where the talent hides. One night saw a professor of music hop up onto the stage to play his hand build reed whistle and serenade the crowd with a voice so soft I could have sworn he was Castrato.
I met some lovely people through her music and had the joy of listening to a group of artists work their magic. I’ve been inspired; I’m on the lookout for a harmonica now; I feel like it would fit my demeanor.
Leticia asked if I would like another cooking lesson, this time for the regional specialty, Mole. This dish is famous in Oaxaca and, therefore, worldwide. It consists of chili, tomato, herbs, spices, and a million other things. Everyone’s Mole differs depending on taste, time of year, and region. It is usually served over chicken and with rice and bread. Leticia wanted to teach us how to make hers. I gave her $500 for the privilege, and she took me around the local produce market to buy all the ingredients. She led me around the labyrinth of stalls grabbing this, that, and the other, finally saying goodbye as she took the whole load home. I could barely see her 4 foot 5 frame under the pile of bags.
We arrived later than intended. Colectivo’s, Mexican speed, and work meant we were an hour later than we said we would be, but that’s not too bad in this country. We turned up to a house full of smell and food already. Leticia had taken the opportunity to portion the chicken and chuck it in a huge stock pot. The vast amount of ingredients was also laid out, as before, on the table alongside a massive pitcher of fresh pineapple juice. I couldn’t wait to see how they all came together to produce such a rich and delicious dish.
We had over 20 ingredients to prepare, ranging from freshly picked Nopales from her garden that Delicia was assigned the task of de-spiking to deep burnt red chilies that needed de-seeding. Leticia warned us at the beginning Mole is not a quick meal; patience is the main ingredient. So we set to work preparing the different aspects.
One of the longer processes was the grilling of the various flavors. Even though most of the chilies were already dried, we still had to grill them to the point where the moisture that was being steamed out of them had actually given the shape back to the fruit. It was good to see that although this was a regular dish for Leticia, the vapor that came off them still made her choke. I thought I was just soft.
We added nuts, seeds, herbs, spice, four kinds of chili, tomatoes, and so much more, bit by bit, to the pans and blenders, slowly bringing together the smells and tastes that always fill the city’s neighborhoods. I recognized the familiar scents that drifted from doorways and windows of Oaxaca as we toiled away over the stove. Although toiling may be a little bit of a stretch, really, we punctuated our cooking with a local mezcal from an unmarked bottle and took regular breaks to play with the dogs. As a result, Delicia and I were able to learn not only how to cook beautiful, world-renowned food but also practice our Spanish with an endlessly patient Maestra and her kind family. It was an experience I will carry with me forever, I expect.
We finally sat down for our meal. The Mole was rich and exploding with flavor. Each of the separate ingredients took its time to shine through as it moved over the tongue. Select herbs complimented distinct elements working perfectly with the staples to open up and really show off the flavors that Mexico is so proud of. When people talk about the beauty of Mexican cuisine, I feel like the pure brilliance in taste and blend is what they’re really talking about. Mexican food can be as simple as a party starting two-piece, or it can be like Mole and create a symphony with an orchestra of hundreds.
I said goodbye to Leticia. I hope to revisit her one day and show her one of my recipes. By that point, I plan to be fluent and able to hold a conversation the way I like rather than as a stuttering fool. I still feel the deficit of being unable to express myself with my words, but I don’t plan to let it be a hindrance for much longer.
Before I left, I knew I needed to see the famous temples of Oaxaca. Monte Alban was a vast site, typically restored by the Mexican preservation trust. Unlike Europe, which just leaves the ruins as they stand and let you imagine how they may once have looked, Mexico likes to rebuild them to their former glory. I’m not really sure how I feel about that, but they’re impressive all the same.
I got a colectivo out to the city’s far reaches, getting dropped off in the boiling sun right at the bottom of the mountain. I checked my maps to see what direction to head in and made my way up.
The hill was a monster. It just got steeper and steeper, dryer and dryer, and less like a path with every step. I quickly realized I was not on the path people had mentioned and was forging my own through the hottest part of the day. Nonetheless, I persevered. I won’t lie; I thought about turning back more than once.
The sun was savagely hot. I had to wear my shirt over my head to stop the sunstroke. The views were spectacular, but the sweat running into my eyes spoiled it somewhat. Finally, after an hour or so of vertical slope, I made it to the road.
I had the enjoyment of bus after bus passing me on the road full of happy, air-conditioned tourists looking at me like I had just walked out of a four-day pilgrimage, which is kind of what it felt like, in all honesty. I was dusty, sweaty, and hungry, but the end was almost in sight—just a few more unshaded twists and turns of highly reflective tarmac to go.
Monte Alban was great. Look it up on Google. I got a bus all the way back to town; it cost me the equivalent of about 2 British pounds.
Before we left Oaxaca, Delicia and I decided to treat ourselves to a night away from the city and instead take in the lights of it all from the mountains surrounding it. Oaxaca is built into a valley and, like a lot of Mexican cities, has homes climbing the mountains it nestles in. Delicia knew of an unlisted hotel on the side of the hill her friend had stayed in; she promised the views were spectacular.
When we arrived, after a long hill climb in a loudly complaining taxi, her promises were more than fulfilled. We had the hotel to ourselves, and we had booked out the penthouse rooms stuck right on the top of the family-run establishment. But, as most people do, they remembered her, leading us up to our room and leaving us to our evening.
The room was beautiful: floor-to-ceiling windows ran along the entire outside wall of the building, showing off the sprawling city far below us on one side and the peaks of the mountains on the other. Two beds lay in the middle of the room, and little more than the wind and occasional firework from the celebrating city below could be heard.
We settled into the evening with some wine and other treats, sitting out on the balcony as the sun slowly set over a city that had given me, and I think Delicia, some memories we would both cherish. It’s hard not to feel content as you bask in the warmth of an evening looking over a city that had been completely new only a few weeks ago but now felt a lot like home. I felt I was ready to move on, but Oaxaca would always be somewhere I could return and be happy.
We whiled away the night, laughing and chatting until well after the sun had set. A gentle breeze from the city below pushed sounds and smells up to where we perched on the mountainside. I know I can’t afford to stay in places like this more often than just the odd day here and there, but the extravagance was worth it. We even treated ourselves to a curry, one of the first I’ve had the whole time I’ve been away. It was delicious. I have no idea who cooked it; I’ve not met a single Indian since I’ve been here.
Delicia and I decided to move on together. We get on famously, and I haven’t laughed like I do with her for a long time. She’s a pleasure to be around as her energy and spice for life radiate out of her. It’s a rare occurrence that she steps into a room and isn’t immediately a focus for people’s conversation and friendship. I find it remarkable to be around, it would make me crumble into a shy mess, but she knows how to turn it to her advantage. A night rarely ends the way it’s expected with her around, and that’s just the way I like it.
We found a place to stay in San Cristobal and made moves.