Saturday, March 29, 2014

Don't Drink the Water

"Don't drink the water and don't eat where the locals do" was the advice a relative gave to me. I might as well just stay home was what went through my mind. I do not drink the water even though I do brush my teeth with it. But, "don't eat where the locals eat" is one I cannot abide by.

A number of mornings we ate very local. It was an easy 2 block walk up the street to the Sanchez Pascuas Market. Very few tourists venture into this market since it is kind of hidden away. Here, very few people speak English, and there are no t-shirt shops or sunglass guys. The locals come to this market to get their daily staples. This lady (she was very gracious and proud of her stand and was happy to allow me to take photos as long as her image was not taken) was our go-to stand. All these items were sold at $5 pesos per scoop. That is about $.40 US.

This was our typical breakfast for items obtained at the market. Five of us ate for about $4. For those curious, starting at the bottom right: tomatoes and avocados. To the left, chicken and chiles, next, guacamole. In the oval dish, nopal (cactus) salad. To the right of that, potatoes and chorizo. To the right of that, beans. Berries. Cheese. Two types of salsa. Blue corn tortillas.

At any, local, indoor market you find Comidors and Fondas. I do not know the difference. These are the restaurants the locals go to. Most of my American friends would be totally freaked out, but these are the places where I love to eat. The owners are always happy to have your business and make sure you have a great meal. The most difficult part is choosing at which fonda you are going to eat. They all have the same food listed on the board and they generally all look exactly the same. My trick of choosing is a two pronged attack. I look for the oldest lady cooking and the youngest girl serving. 

Beth and I were without child for this lunch, so it was a short, hour long date lunch. We each ordered, then switch plates halfway through. On this day we had chicken in mole coloradito with rice and (of course) totillas. 

We also has Caldo de Placitas (stewed tripe). I did not realize I was ordering tripe. I am not drawn to organ meats, but it came and I ate it. It was actually very good.

Two meals, two beers each, $8(with 20% tip). How can you not love that? 

We also ate at the Comidors and Fondas in the vast 20 de Noviembre Market just South of the Zocalo. In this market, there are numerous options. Here, they look even more identical and their menus are even more similar. The difference here is that they work hard to lure you in by waving a menu in your face while reciting their offerings. Once seated, they show very little interest in whether you are enjoying it or not. My technique here is to look for the largest crowd. Good food attracts a crowd, right? Not always. Though bright, cheery, and spotless, the operators paid us very little attention.

Halle had a chicken in coloradito mole with rice. It was too spicy for her. It was probably the best dish served at this lunch. Beth had the chili relleno with black beans. No awards offered for that dish.

I had enchiladas divorciadas with carne de res.  
The entire meal for three, with one beer each and a soda for Halle was about $20. I wish we had gone to the local market instead of the one downtown.

Oaxaca's most famous place for tacos is at Tacos Alvaro. Oaxaca is not really a taco town, but Tacos Alvaro fills a need. They fill it well.

Any place with a comidor de pastor has usually got it going on. If you are not familiar, I will explain. This is a lot like a gyro cooker. Marinated pork is stacked on the spit with onions and pineapple. The meat is rotated around the flame. Thin shavings of meat and goodness are sliced off and served on tortillas in taco form. If on the menu, I always order one to try. I think I ate two during our first visit and    three the second time. Many tacos de pastor have been tried over the years. Here, they are the best.

The tacos come with toppings guacamole, pickled carrots, chipolte salsa, limes, and pico de gallo. Only the limes were not fiery hot.

We had lengua (tongue, every one's favorite, especially Halle's), al pastor, de cabeza de puerco (pork head meat), de cabeza de res (cow head), and arranchera (marinated beef).  When you eat six tacos and you are still smiling, you know they were great!

We also had the pozole. This is the real deal cure for a hangover. It is also said to be an edible form of Viagra. The soup is made of beef stock with pork, chicken, and hominy.  You toss in all kinds of other things like radishes, onion, and cilantro. Beth's version is better, but it was really good. A typical meal here for three of us: $25 with two beers each and a soda for Halle.

You probably wonder if we ate only at small, hole-in-the-wall joints. We did go to some fancy places. We blew $150 dollars one night on dinner at a place with white tablecloths and waiters in ties. The food came plated with squiggles of cream and sauce, the plate sprinkled with green crap. The food did not come close to the $8 lunch at the local market. Maybe my tastes are off, but the closer to the common people we went, the better it tasted to me. For some, they need to feel special having fancy food and fancy drinks paying a big check for the privilege. For me It is the simple things that make me feel special.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Oh God

If you ever travel to Mexico you will not be able to escape how religion is completely intertwined with the culture. It is everywhere you go,  whether you are experiencing modern Mexico, colonial Mexico, or  pre-conquest Mexico. Whenever I made a purchase in the local markets, the person almost always kissed the money, then crossed themselves, thanking God for the business and the income. 

Every single village you go to has a church that is grander than just about any you will experience in America. Even the churches in tiny little pueblos are impressive. The one above might look familiar to you. It is in San Pablo Etla and was featured in the movie Nacho Libre. Mexico is a highly Catholic country. It was not always so.

Before the conquest, the royal elites were revered as gods. Great cities were built for them. This is Monte Alban and it was used from 850bc - 850ad.

By the time the Spanish took control, Monte Alban had been abandoned for 700 years. The Spanish did not even know it was there. They were hungry for gold and had no idea how much gold was buried in the tombs dotted all over the mountain top city.

The conquistadors forced Catholicism upon the native people. I am not using 'forced' lightly - it was convert or die. For many of the native people it was convert and serve until you die, but that is a different story.

This city was once covered in brilliant white plaster and multi-chromatic pigments. An entire caste system serviced the priests and royal families. There was an army of people whose entire life consisted of carrying water to the mountain top. Day after day, year after year, they carried water up the 1500 foot climb from the water source below. They did it out of reverence for their gods. When conquered, many were forced to do the same type of labor, but as slaves.

I suspect many of you have seen the Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. Though they were a similar culture living at the same time, the people of Monte Alban were not as focused on human sacrifice. They were a warrior nation, however.

When they waged war with a neighboring city state, they sacrificed the royal elites they conquered. They were also immortalized in stone.

Death was brutal for these prisoners, beginning with genital mutilation and then disemboweling. 

What a divine view the divine had during their time.

Amazing that it took so many centuries for Monte Alban to be found again. It was not rediscovered until 1859.

One of the smart things the Spanish did was to blend the pagan religions and Catholicism together so it would be more widely accepted. You see hints of that constantly in Mexico. 

Why do those floral elements look so similar to glyphs? 

The Sacred Heart is a very common element. It comes in many variations. 

The churches really are grand. This one is the Basilica de Nuestra SeƱora de la Soledad. It is the site of a miracle. It is said that at this spot, pack trains rested on their caravan route. When all the mules were collected, one remained unclaimed. In its pack was a crown of gold, which to this day rests on the carving of the Virgin Mary inside. You might notice I have no pictures of these church interiors. Photos are forbidden inside. The second a camera is seen, it is taken away. I learned this the hard way during my last visit to Oaxaca. You may have also noticed that in all my posts there are very few pictures with people in them. Many believe that a picture will steal one's soul. I try very hard to be respectful of this.

For such a poor country, great wealth was spent on church buildings. In the southern part of the valley, many were built using the stones of the pyramids that once stood in the same location. In Mitla, you can actually see the glyphs and carvings from those original buildings in the foundation stones. 

Street Art.

During colonial times artist were employed to pass a message to the people since most could not read. The locals were all Indian tribes and their pagan practices needed to be converted to Catholicism brought by the Conquistadors. During colonial times all public art was religiously thematic. Times have changed and public art in Oaxaca is huge. 

This piece was right around the corner from our house. I walked past it multiple times a day. I love it.

I loved this porno house poster too. I tried to peel every one I saw but could get none loose. I walked to the location to ask for a poster but they were not open yet.

Unfortunately a lot of  gang graffiti has infiltrated the streets of Oaxaca. Fourteen years ago there was virtually none but now it is literal every where. Gorgeous 350 year old building are tagged over and over. They try and fight it by painting it over right away, but soon there after, some want be gangsta comes along with a spray bomb.

I also walked past this piece daily. 

Daily, I stopped to check it out.

The graffiti boys seem to respect this type of art and do not tag it.

All hope is not lost.

Just so all you hippie types know, hongus, or magic mushrooms are plentiful and used in Oaxaca. 

This is a wood block print. Who needs a gallery when you have the street.

The photo does this piece no justice. It is huge and very vibrant.

The Virgin of Guadeloupe has never stopped being posted on the streets.

Just about all signage you see is hand-painted. I loved this one painted all over a neighborhood proclaiming citizens on patrol. I participate in my communities citizens on patrol. We do not carry machine guns like they do.

I hope you enjoyed my take on Oaxacan street art. We'll discuss the conquest and religion in my next post.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I'm in the Market(Days)

In case you are not hip to the name, Oaxaca is both a city and a state in the country of Mexico. Throughout the State numerous villages have weekly market days, also know as a tianguis. 

The tianguis is very important to those living nearby as they give an opportunity to buy things one cannot produce oneself and sell the things one has too much of.

The tianguis also give an opportunity to sell things only the tourist might need or want.

There are many imported items infiltrating the markets these days, but for the most part everything is made by hand, locally.

You name it, you will find it at the market. Don't see it, just ask a local and they will direct you to where it is located. A cool thing about Mexicans: they don't actually tell you where it is. They take you to where it is. Often it is a shop that is owned by a cousin and they wait to make sure you got what you needed. 

Many stalls specialize in a single product or line of products. For those unaware, tocina is Spanish for bacon. Tocineria is a bacon shop.

Every butcher A) is the only place open at daybreak (very little is open before 9am), B) lacks refrigeration and C) sells massive amounts of chorizo. Many will grill them up for you over charcoal.

The proprietor of this stall insisted that all his puppets worked perfectly. All purchases came with a proven performance before the deal was done. I thought it a great sales pitch. A campesina puppet dancing to electronica seemed odd to me but the local kids sure were mesmerized.

Oaxaca is known for its cheese. They make three basic kinds with many variants. The Oaxacan string cheese is the most popular. It is now available in most store in America. String cheese is a modern kid's snack but it has been around for a long time. I love this cheese. It is salty and fresh tasting and so fun to unwind directly into your mouth. 

Flowers have a strong presence in every market we visited. They are plentiful, vibrant, and cheap enough to splurge on for the room. I seriously doubt they are flown into these villages from Kenya.

Fruit is alway plentiful at any tianguis. Fruit is often sliced into a cup or bag for easy take away. Sometimes you find them on a stick. Saying no to the chili powder usually applied at purchase is highly frowned upon. 

It looks like coconut but it is not. I could not understand the actual translation. It is sweet and starchy. 

Talk about sweet. This watermelon was breed for eating not being shoved into a truck or rail car to be delivered to your local grocery store two weeks later. After a couple of days this watermelon would be a puddle in the shipping crate.

All of what you see does not keep very well. It is picked, you buy it, eat it, and buy fresh again. Baja Fresh my ass, this is the real freshy fresh.

These were the stinkiest dried fish I have ever come across. I could not get a translation of what they were except sign language for "funny how much they stink".

I mentioned earlier that each stand specializes. This stall is a bean stall. They sell all the ingredients needed to cook your beans. Just add water. 

Chili peppers. What can I say about chili peppers? You probably have seen the bumper sticker "it's a jeep thing, you wouldn't understand" (Not that I think much of jeeps produced after 1956) Chili peppers are a lot like the bumper sticker. We brought back about 4 kilos of 7 different kind. We use them A LOT! 

This green pottery is from Santa Maria Atzompa. It is really cheap there. You find it at every market throughout the State. Even out side the town it is made in, it is still very cheap. It is intended for use not to be put on a shelf. We have a lot to use. 

Any guess on what these items are? The ladles are rather obvious as are the rolling pins. The tools to the right… any guess? They are a molinillo used to make Oaxacan hot chocolate. I was trying to find a video for you to see how it works. Unfortunately, I am only finding Americans using them incorrectly. Starbucks devotees who are impressed with the foam on their latte would be blown away with how this tool froths it up.

AH, MY FAVORITE MARKET STALL!!!! The mezcal stand. 
For those unfamiliar, I will attempt to describe what mezcal is. Most know what tequila is(Jose Cuevo is not tequila it is fermented corn syrup so forget what you learned in high school). Tequila is made from what most call a cactus(however a succulent, a cactus it is not) called the blue hubber agave. Mezcal is made from a maguey instead of an agave. They look very similar but they grow at very different altitudes. The heart of the maguey is roasted in a large pit using a wood fire. The hearts are then crushed and the juice is fermented. Once fermented it is them distilled. The smoke, from the pit is imparted into the flavor of the spirit. You do not get drunk drinking mezcal, you get high. You also do not get a hang over from drinking too much mezcal. You will however get into big trouble if you drink too much because you will do things you never thought you would.
Every seller of this divine spirit wants your business. They will let you try every single distiller they represent. As long as they think they have you on the line, they will pour. The key is to look and act as if you are going to make a purchase. After trying a couple, you want to buy the entire inventory.