Oaxaca is known for being a cultural hub of Mexico, and I have to agree, it has earned its reputation. The city is immediately vibrant, every street is covered in beautiful art ranging from spray-painted murals to pasted-on wood press posters. Every street holds a new gallery, and there are music venues tucked into every corner. Oaxaca is also known as a home to some of the country’s most important cuisine, one of which is their famous Mole. This sauce is created from, amongst other things, traditional chocolate, black beans, and some pretty delicious chillis. I get my hands on it as often as possible, I am yet to taste two the same, and I a never disappointed. The city has been a delight for the senses so far, and I have barely scratched the surface.
The journey was a long one. As I mentioned, the bus was fine. By American Greyhound standards I’m sure it was exquisite, but for me, it was a Megabus with 500 extra decibels added to the ride. The sitting took its toll on my old back and terrible posture. A few stretches were needed to get feeling back into my legs over the next few days. This is what I get for having the flexibility of a church pew.
I spent the first few days just taking in the city very slowly. Three months of traveling, uprooting, and finding my feet were finally catching up with me. I knew the feeling wasn’t homesickness, and it certainly wasn’t a desire to stop, but some inkling of exhaustion was starting to creep in. I took the days slowly and let myself rest.
The weather was incredibly hot. The humidity of the coast was gone, but another four degrees or so had been added to the overall temperature. Thankfully the tall buildings, avenues of shading trees, and regular spots to hide from the sun kept everything manageable. This heat probably added to the exhaustion, to be honest.
My accommodation has its ups and downs. More up’s than downs thankfully. It is run by a man and his mother, an elderly woman who is still utterly brainwashed by religion. The first question she asked me when I arrived was whether I had god in my life and what flavor it was. Glancing over her shoulder at the shrine to Mary didn’t make my answer of ‘God is Dead’ quite as confident as it usually is. That is one of the downs, the other is the use of the kitchen. I guess I missed the bit in the advert that mentioned that there wasn’t really any kitchen provided. Thankfully, Carlos, the man of the house, allows me to use it before his mother angrily shuts it off at about 6 pm. It’s a good thing eating out is so cheap or I’d be bankrupt.
On that subject, I have met someone here. It’s timely really, as most things in my life usually are. I was beginning to feel a little alone for the first time since being away. I realized that since Mexico City there was rarely a time I didn’t have a companion by my side; be it the friends I met in the city, Mum visiting in Escondido, or Swavek staying the last month of the beach trip. Delicia is phenomenally full of life, has an optimism I think I have only reached at the far limits of euphoric acid trips and has a mind full of new and fascinating ideas. She has kindly guided me around Oaxaca. She’s been here for a month, taking a break from the usual high-speed tempo of solo traveling to touch base and learn a little Spanish.
She sings beautifully and has found herself a few venues and fellow musicians to accompany. I am not the first person anyone proclaiming to be a singer should open their vocals up to. Years of working in bars with heartbreakingly bad open mics have marred my view of live music to the point of involuntary retching if anyone even starts to sing Valery. It was a pleasure to hear her, and a further pleasure to watch her dance. Queues of fast-footed Mexican men waited for a chance to take her for a spin in a late-night salsa bar. Each one left the floor with their heads spinning faster than the high-tempo music ever warranted. Meeting Delicia has been a pleasure and has undoubtedly added richness to a city I was already quite taken by. As usual, life has fallen into my lap.
Oaxaca is a small city, probably about the same size as my hometown, which actually works very well for me. It is possible to walk across the main body of the center in about 45 minutes, and you can reach the outskirts in a few hours. This does not mean that the city is void of life, quite the opposite. Oaxaca is densely populated by culture. I haven’t seen so many small galleries in one place in my life. They are matched only by the sheer volume of food places, both high-end and mama’s and papa’s. Every street could easily take a few hours to take in.
The buildings and spaces themselves are exquisite. There are a large amount of superblock-style buildings around the city that provide stunning little oases in the center. Looking through a gated alley often reveals a luscious space filled with greenery, water features, and small hidden places to eat and drink. Fashionable couples sit around drinking the renowned Oaxacan coffee and nibbling on beautiful pastries in the sun. I leer at them with my holey clothing and my ashen feet in $70 pesos, corner shop brand, flip flops. I don’t know why I still don’t dress well, I’m basically royalty out here, I did splash out on a haircut though.
I finally took up Spanish lessons whilst I am here. I found a lady called Leticia, and she is everything I could want from a Spanish teacher. We meet up twice a week in the tree-shaded terrace of a library. We sit in the sun, and I enjoy joining her in conversation. Her patience and guidance have helped my Spanish to no end. I am finally feeling a little less like I am drowning whilst listening to someone speak to me in their language. She has taught me to listen as well as respond with confidence. It’s something I am going to have to keep up whilst I’m out here, possibly in Guatemala, but that’s a few months away.
Leticia found out I loved cooking and the time I had spent doing it as a job. I had been looking for a way to start picking up the recipes from locals whilst I was out here, and she proposed the perfect solution. She invited me to her house to learn to make tortillas and a selection of salsas. It was exactly what I was looking for. I would be happy to pay for an experience, as I think most people do in Oaxaca, but this was so much more up my street.
Delicia and I hopped into a colectivo to make our way out to her town, a spot about 45 minutes out of Oaxaca. The tiny car filled up with five people, not including the driver, and took us, crammed in like sardines, pretty much all the way to her house. The town was small, about 6000 people she said, and looked more Mexican, to my stereotyped eyes, than anywhere I had seen since the river village in Escondido. We made our way to a dusty roundabout, and she walked us to her home.
We were greeted by her wonderful family. Two daughters, a son, and her husband. He was a man with a lovely smile, lined by the gold of Mexican retainers that I love so much. He was sat with what looked like a meat grinder slowly turning a huge bucket of corn into what I guess would be called the flour. It was a wet mixture that clumped together like riced potatoes. The table was spread with chilies both dried and fresh of every color and shape. There were avocados, red and green tomatoes, nuts, seeds, and everything in between, and of course, a tall cooler of Jamaica tea. She wasn’t kidding when she told me there is nothing better than the simplicity of homemade tortillas over a wood fire and fresh salsa. I was already salivating.
We started by tasting a bunch of herbs. She showed us simple salads of leaves, lime, and salt that tasted beautifully fresh. It was a wonderful experience to taste flavors I hadn’t ever before. She took us around her garden next. It was full of cacti, the edible kind. The fresh sprouts could be picked, stripped of spikes, and eaten straight from the tree. We chose a handful and sliced them up to quickly boil.
Her kids were in the garden tending the firepit that sat beneath a huge concave clay dish. Her eldest was mixing up the cornflour prepared by their dad by mixing it with water and hydrated lime until it was a dry but very soft dough. She taught us how to use the tortilla press to create a paper-thin dough that could be thrown on the hot stone to cook to a soft, warm perfection. For the first ones we made, we simply rubbed them with a little water whilst still on the heat and sprinkled a pinch of salt on them. They tasted delicious. The flavors of the smoke, the stone, and the fresh corn all combined to make a wonderful earthy flavor.
Once we had a few tortillas prepped and kept warm in a tortilla wrap, we got on with making salsa. Everything on the table came into use as we prepped five different salsas, all incredibly different. We started by grilling most of the fresh chilies over a dry pan, along with the tomatoes and a lot of the nuts and seeds. A favorite was made with Manzano peppers which have a sweetness similar to apples but a heat akin to Habanero. Another salsa was made with dried Anchoes along with a few nuts and was made almost entirely with nuts, seeds, and herbs. It wasn’t pureed and instead sat in olive oil.
The table was filled with salsas, tortillas, nopales, avocados, and great company. We sat, drank fresh fruit water, and gorged on delicious flavors. My Spanish is coming along well, although I already had a wealth of cooking language due mostly to being a fat lard, and also having worked as a chef in Valencia. Oaxaca is turning out to be just as culturally rich as I had hoped.