Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Puerto Arista to Oaxaca

There IS a blog for our internet-free week in Puerto Arista, Chiapas. Unfortunately, it is on a computer that doesn't like the altitudes of Oaxaca and now that we finally have an internet connection we have no blog to post. I am hoping against hope that once we get seaside again it will wake from its slumber and I won't have to rewrite it.

After a perfect week beachside in Puerto Arista, Chiapas we felt it was time to head on. The drive was crazy. Our drive began in the windiest part of Mexico. Dwarfed by hundreds of massive wind turbines, we got buffeted around the road. More military checkpoints on the way out of Chiapas. Apparently many foreigners sympathetic to the Zapatista cause are found carrying money or guns. The military (all very young men doing their one-year stint) are invariably courteous and polite, just a bunch of kids with guns. After looking through the car, they hold the door open for you and offer their hand to help you back in.

When we finally got out of the wind the road started to climb into yet another string of Sierra Madres, these ones dry as a bone. The monochrome mountains were dotted with cactus fifteen feet tall. When we got up high enough, green valleys appeared below. It looked like all the colour had drained out of the hills and puddled in bands of deep green along the dried-up river beds. The crosses at every "curva peligroso" in the road (and there were many) marking the demise of a fellow traveller were very sobering reminders to take it easy. Any time there was any kind of widening of the road there was someone hanging in a hammock in the shade beside a "comedor", a little home/food shack. We kept wondering just what it would be like to live in such an isolated, inhospitable place. The vistas were unreal. Tiny little mule tracks wound their way across the mountains, leading in and out of the most remote patches of scrub planted in agave, a shade of green trying very hard to be blue and which, in plantation, looks a lot like a bad hair-implant job. The engine didn't like the drive much — the higher we got, the higher the temperature climbed. The steering wheel and Wil both got a real workout.

The drive took most of the day. Just outside of the city, we stopped in to have a look at a traditional Mezcal factory. Inside the wide front door were two men with pitchforks, loading and unloading the hearts of the agave onto a huge flat disk. A very bony horse strapped to the heavy millstone pulled it around and around. The crushed fibers were then loaded into giant barrels where they ferment. I'm not sure how it works but I think the liquid is then piped into two copper distilling vats set in cement over an open flame. Wil tasted some and picked up a couple of bottles, opting to pass on the one flavoured with chicken breast.

We had a quick peek at the famous Arból de Tule, a tree that is too big to be believed — something like 58 metres around — and more than 2000 years old. It was here before the Olmecs and the Zapotecs and the Mayans.

Not unlike the setting of San Cristobal, the city of Oaxaca sits in a high valley surrounded by peaks only they don't crowd into the city here. We drove around looking for a place to stay. The campsites were way out of the centro and, seeing as it was Wil's birthday, we decided to splash out on some swish accommodations. Frances complained that the city smelled of champagne and then we realized that sadly, one of the mezcal bottles' lids had broken. After trying to get around the traffic nightmare caused by a student demonstration (a weekly event according to one of our taxi drivers), we ended up in a lovely little hotel a half-block from the Zócalo. It wasn't easy parting with the van — seeing our home for the next month and a half in someone else's hands — but the long-awaited hot bath definitely helped. This city is fantastic. A Montreal-in-the-summer kinda vibe, small enough to be walkable and easy enough to navigate as to make one feel at home in a very short time. The people are friendly, the parks and churches glorious and the markets, oh the markets!

It's 28 but there isn't even a hint of humidity so it's comfortable. The nights are pleasantly cool. We had our hearts set on a fancy dinner out for Wil's birthday so we spent our first night scouting around for a location. We ended up on a rooftop terrace with a great margarita and some very mediocre food. There's no two ways about it — street food is where it's at — a tenth the cost and without exception much more satisfying. It's been very interesting seeing the trepidation we felt about eating certain foods melt away the longer we're in Mexico. The salads and vegetables we once steered clear of are now just a part of the dish. That low-level anxiety (and now its very marked absence) over foodstuff has, along with the easing of the language barrier, stripped a layer of apprehension away from our daily experience.

Some of the food we ate yesterday:

- Freshly deep-fried potato chips in a little plastic bag doused in homemade tomato-chile sauce.
- An amazing quesadilla that an Indian woman pulled out of her giant basket at the door of the market, filled with chicken, cilantro and what tasted a lot like tamale filling.
- Fresh churros, this time dipped in chocolate.

One section of the market nearest us is devoted to carnes asados. Barbeque land, a long tiled corridor about 100 by 30 feet with meat stalls on either side. Between each stall is a barbecue pit with tasajo (a very thin cut of beef), chorizo and chuletas (chops) cooking away. The air is thick with fragrant smoke. Toward the end of the hall, near the door that leads into the main market, are a series of two-sided red metal benches squeezed around long tables. Each section of table belongs to one of the meat stalls. You set yourself down and a woman from the stall comes up to ask what kind of meat you'd like, which is all sold by weight. You tell her what you want and off she goes to cook it. In the meantime you are approached by the vegetable man who offers you bunches of small sweet onions and fresh jalapeños. When you tell him how much you want he walks them over to the barbecue lady who places them under the grill in the coals. The veg man's assistant then shows you a series of plates full of things like minced tomato, onion and jalapeño, pickled whole chiles, cucumber slices, lime wedges, cilantro, guacamole. You order up. Then comes the drinks lady and, of course, Miss Tortilla. It all miraculously and deliciously appears before you at the same time. And they all seem to sense when you're done because, in a way that seems very natural, one by one they come over to settle up.

Our evening ended in the Zócalo, doing what I like best, people-watching. What a feast for the senses, teen lovers tied in horizontal knots proclaiming their love for all to see, abuelos taking pleasure from their grandkids' giggles, a big brass band filling the gazebo to bursting, tony couples in their seventies doing dance steps they've done a million times before, a couple locked in an embrace surrounded by a ten-person mariachi band in one of the most romantic moments I've ever witnessed.

We've done some shopping in this town. The whole family (except for me) have mastered the fine art of haggling. We've picked up a couple of hammocks and a little carpet, some tin milagros and a nicho. We've looked and looked for a Guayabera for Wil but his size, however reduced, is obviously not the standard in this country of very small men. After some very discouraging efforts to get the other macbook to wake up, we went to Sears and found ourselves a new one. We'll try the old one again when we get to sea level tomorrow to confirm if and/or what we've lost. I very prematurely deleted the series of photos from Puerto Arista after dumping them onto the machine. Please keep your fingers crossed for me.

We've walked and walked and walked. Next we head back to the beach, to see how much Puerto Escondido has changed since we were last there almost fifteen years ago.

1 comment:

A Friend Indeed said...

Just caught up with you ... can't wait to see you.