Sunday At The Market In Tlacolula

“Donde esta el autobus por Tlocolula?”

The question was met with a quizzical look. Where was this gringa trying to go?

Perhaps I wasn’t pronouncing it correctly.

“Tloco… Toco… Tlaca…” I stammered.

“Ah, Tlacolula.”

Si. There.

I don’t suppose the makeshift bus stops on the highways of Oaxaca state see many tourists. But somehow, through a series of bumpy bus rides and a long stretch of walking along the side of the road, I had arrived at one.

Earlier in the day, I had decided to escape Oaxaca city for the villages of the Valle de Oaxaca, a vibrant region filled with talented craftsmen, small workshops and stunning scenery. I had discovered that the Tlacolula held a weekly Sunday market, but all attempts to secure a private bus in town had failed – not many tourists visit the small town, about an hour and a half east of the city.

So instead, I decided to try public transport. In time, I found the right bus, and after a cramped hour-long ride I disembarked at a small, dusty station.

%Gallery-181090%It was 10 a.m. and the streets were packed with pushcarts, pedestrians and small pop-up restaurants, with families packed into picnic tables eating tamales. Vendors sold everything from onions to electronics to handmade wooden furniture and gigantic aluminum cooking vats.

This wasn’t a market for tourists. This was a market for Oaxacans.

My tan coloring lent me a degree of anonymity, and I walked peacefully through the stalls, without the hawking and hustling I had become accustomed to in downtown Oaxaca. I stopped for a taco, and then for an horchata. I spent 30 minutes sipping mezcal with a third-generation distiller and another 45 learning about natural dyes and handlooms from a Teotitlan del Valle textile weaver. Enchanted, I left with a sweet passionfruit liqueur and a colorful Zapotec-inspired rug.

I continued through the food stalls of the covered market, where the scent of raw meats mingled with the charcoal from the BBQ pits set up to grill them. Tripe, chicken feet, whole rabbits with the fur still on. Your wish was their command. An old woman stirring a huge pot of stew reached out her fingers to offer me a bite.

Instead, I headed to the main plaza of Tlacolula, a peaceful spot bordered by the magnificent 16th-century Parroquia de la Virgen de la Asunción. Taking a seat, I breathed in the sights and sounds of the village: the meats, the heat, the bougainvillea. I watched as merchants chatted and children played and a single balloon ascended high into the sky.

The ride had been worth it.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

An Education In Mezcal

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I inhale. The scent is earthy, smoky. I take a sip, rolling the liquid around my tongue, exploring its flavors. Per instruction, I gurgle. My mouth explodes, the alcohol transforming into a liquid fireball that burns the insides of my cheeks. It takes a few minutes before the sensation expires.

There is a saying: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”

For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, textiles and colonial architecture. Legend has it that a form of the tequila-like liquor existed prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but mezcal as we know it was first distilled by the conquistadors in the 17th century. It is a generic name for spirits distilled from the agave plant, or maguey as it is traditionally called, of which there are 11 types. The state of Oaxaca is the traditional home of mezcal, and the countryside is littered with small family distilleries.

But not all mezcal is created equal. There is a difference between artisanal mezcal and the touristy stuff sold in bodegas across the city. I learned the difference at the Mezcaloteca, a tasting library run by a group dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal production.

It turns out, pure artisanal mezcal isn’t brown – it’s clear. And those larvae at the bottom of the bottle? Pure marketing, intended to bait unassuming tourists with the promise of a G-rated “Fear Factor” experience. (“I can’t believe you actually ate the worm!” your friends back home will gape.)

No, the best artisanal mezcal is crystal clear and worm free. David, our bartender-cum-teacher, filled us in on some other ways to tell the difference.

  • Look for the words “100% agave,” which signifies that the liquor is pure and not mixed with cheaper additives.
  • Make sure that the stated alcohol content is 45% or greater.
  • Check the label for the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
  • Shake the bottle and see if bubbles arise – they should, unless it is a mezcal with more than 55% alcohol content, in which case the bubbles only arise when you stir it.
  • Do not buy mezcal that is reposado or anejado in barrels – the wood destroys the distinct flavors and aromas of the mezcal.
  • Rub a drop of mezcal between your fingers to evaporate it – the scent should be of cooked agave.

Now for tasting the mezcal.

  • Mezcal is traditionally consumed from a gourd or wide-mouthed cup.
  • Pour the drink from one cup to another to see the bubbles rise.
  • Inhale the mezcal. Try to find the aroma that you smelled when you rubbed the mezcal between your fingers. Then inhale with your mouth closed and try to discern other smells. You’ll notice that there is a difference.
  • Sip the mezcal and rinse your mouth for 10 seconds without swallowing. Exhale through your nose. Feel the flavors on your palate.
  • Take another sip, rinse your mouth for 10 seconds, then swallow and feel the burn.

According to David, these flavors are the essence of mezcal.

The Mezcaloteca is located at Reforma 506 in central Oaxaca. Tastings are available by appointment only, though you may be able to piggyback onto another group’s tasting if you swing by at the right time. Prices vary, but a basic four-pour tasting cost us 150 pesos (about US$12). Call +52-01-951-5140082 or email mezcaloteca@gmail.com for reservations.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

In Oaxaca, A Place For Friends

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Sundays in Oaxaca are quiet. The stores are closed; the streets empty.

There is buzz around the churches, as families mill in and out dressed in their Sunday best. Near the Zocalo, children play with oversized balloons, pushing them high into the sky.

But otherwise, the city is silent.

On a recent Sunday, I decided to embrace the calm and seek a quiet resting place where I could sit with a healthy meal, an iced coffee and the words of Carlos Fuentes. The spots I had in mind were closed, so I wandered the streets until I caught sight of an entryway leading into a courtyard shaded in bougainvillea. “Yoga, vegetarian food,” the chalkboard sign read. I had found my place.

I entered and asked for a table. The kind-eyed host explained to me that here, they do things differently, that this is a place for friends. She asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a table, and she gestured toward my new seatmate: an elderly gringo in khakis and a Panama hat.Inwardly, I groaned. The last thing I wanted was forced conversation with a senior citizen. I wanted to feel Mexico, not be reminded of home.

Outwardly, I smiled and sat down.

De donde es?” he asked.

De los Estados Unidos,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re American,” he laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Uh-huh. I pulled out my book and set it on the table.

“Where in the States are you from?”

“New York.”

“Oh, I lived in New York. In Manhattan?”

“Yes, the East Village.”

He laughed. “I used to live right near you, on 4th between B and C. But this was a long time ago, in the 1960s.”

Now he had my attention. You had to be a certain kind of person to live in the East Village in the 1960s.

“Do you know Allen Ginsberg? The poet?”

I nodded. I only idolized him.

“He was my neighbor.”

From there, the conversation flowed: from his life as an art student in the ’60s, to my writing ambitions in the ’10s, to his sons, my sister, his newly remodeled home, my newly redecorated apartment. Mitch was a man in transition, having just retired after decades of working as a museum exhibit designer for the federal government. I too was in transition, on the cusp of returning to graduate school and charting a new career path. He had come to Oaxaca to draw; I had come to write.

I didn’t expect Mitch and I to have much in common, but we did. I was reminded of a basic travel lesson: the necessity of being open to new people and new experiences.

Throughout our nearly three-hour conversation, the host, whose name I discovered was Rosaura, kept us fed and refreshed with a three-course vegetarian meal: crunchy jicama salad, hearty chickpea soup and a yogurt-oatmeal dessert, complemented by hibiscus tea. At the end, she only asked for $35 pesos (about US$3) to cover the cost of the ingredients. Every Sunday, Rosaura hosts this special gathering in the courtyard of the Comala restaurant on Calle Allende in downtown Oaxaca. The morning starts with a yoga session, followed by a meal. All are welcome – so long as they are open to new friends.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

A Travel Guide to Oaxaca, Mexico