Monday, June 2, 2008

Oaxaca, city impressions

We had the smarts to schedule a few days in Oaxaca City and one more on the end, book-ending our 7 day yoga retreat in Teotitlan del Valle. There are many things to see in the city, and we jumped in with both feet.

On Thursday, May 22nd, our flight landed at 8am. We hopped in a combi ($12, no taxis at the airport) and were taken directly to the sweet Casa de los Milagros (see separate post for details on that). We met up with our friends Peggy, Jim and Michelle at the Milagros. After a delicious breakfast (fresh yogurt and homemade granola, rife with pumpkin seeds, amaranth, pecans, then the open-faced delicious quesillo sandwich whose name I now cannot remember), we strolled down to CafĂ© Nuevo Mundo on Calle Bravo for some “real” coffee. As a rule, Mexican brewed coffee is really weak. We San Franciscans needed the depth of an espresso to kick-start our morning.

At Nuevo Mundo they make particularly beautiful and delicious mochas with the characteristic cinnamon-rich Oaxacan chocolate. Sweet!

From there we ambled down to the ethnobotanical garden for a two-hour English language tour with guide Carol Turkenik.* I was a little nervous about the tour – two hours in the hot sun on our first morning, in English – but we learned so much. It was in many ways the perfect start to our Oaxacan vacation, since we really got to see the biodiversity of Oaxaca and understand its role as the most diverse place in Mexico, itself one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Everything good – ok, except coffee and tea – originated in Oaxaca, our guide would have us believe, or at least everything that we eat every single day: chocolate, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, squash, things which were unknown to the so-called Old World. Impossible to imagine the cuisine of India or Thailand without the spicy kick of peppers and yet how far and wide these plants traveled to create those distinctive flavors.

From the ethnobotanical garden, we wandered through a few museums and the markets. Amazing! It’s hard not to be totally sensorily overloaded – the color, the smells, the abundance of fruit and vegetables, the fabulous tlayudas (why don’t we have these oversized, thin corn tortillas at home?), the quesillo stands, the many mole y chocolate stores where they’ll grind the cocoa beans and add sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, nuts to your specifications. And everywhere the older women in traditional dress, the hair braided with bright ribbons tied together at the bottom, colorful aprons over their dresses, rebozos draped over their shoulders or heads. The baskets of toasted crickets with garlic (chapulinas).

I myself was a bit of colorful abundance, drawing stares and comments for my tattoos. One old lady in the Zocalo, startingly shorter than me, stroked my arm and said, “Como ropa,” “like clothes.” Joe was entertained by observing people’s reactions to me, although this made me a little uncomfortable, shades of my childhood experiences in Mexico, when my parents would make me walk alone in front of them down the street, tickled by the reactions to the guera.

* Carol Turkenik is the author of a little guidebook, "Oaxaca Tips," available around Oaxaca, or from me. I'd love to loan it to you, if you're going!

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