Today you're looking at the 51st post I've managed to put together on this blog since I started keeping it, which was, by some stroke of synchronicity, almost exactly five years ago. That's an average of 10 posts a year, not too bad!
When I think back on five years ago, and read what I was writing then, I realize how so much is different and yet how much is still the same. Back then, I had recently arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico for the 2nd time, and as my writing was a lot more sporadic at the time, I managed to leave out quite a few of the experiences I'd had there. So today I thought I'd see how good my memory is as I try to piece back together one of the more interesting excursions I took outside of the city.
This particular day involved a trip stopping off at a number of locations, each one offering a vastly different experience. The first was at a town politically separate from Oaxaca, although with the urban sprawl of recent years you never really leave what feels like a city before you see this:
It, and a younger specimen of rivaling immensity in the near vicinity, are now located within a populated area known as Tule. But historically this area, like much of Oaxaca, was a swamp, and this particular swamp as it had once occurred would have been the home to countless such wooden giants, a veritable freshwater mangrove forest of gargantuan proportion. Today the two millenary survivors are fenced off into well-manicured gardens, where local boys will, for a few pesos, point out some animal shapes in the knobby trunks and branches. To this end they are equipped with handheld mirrors to bounce some sunlight onto the formations in question, like a low-tech laser pointer.
Once you've had your fill of these massive specimens, you can make your way to Mitla:
Take, for example, the recurring pattern seen in the middle of this photo. Here we can see a visual representation of one aspect of the Mesoamerican cosmovision. The staircase represents an individual's ascendance from birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. This was followed by the spiraling mystery of existence in the afterlife, only then to be proceeded by another staircase, another life. Reincarnation!
The Spanish came to such a place and ordered the temples to be dismantled, the stones of which to be incorporated into the church you see above. Fortunately, not all the temples were needed for that project, and thanks to the lack of mortar, which is more susceptible to erosion, what's left of the temples can still be appreciated today.
But the real draw of this pool was the incredibly high concentration of mineral content, not the least of which is calcium bicarbonate. The effect on the bather is the bubbly sensation of soaking in Alka-Seltzer.
Before I took a swim myself, I took a quick jog up the hill to see the pools themselves from another vantage. Here you can see how the cliffside below the pools has accumulated centuries of mineral buildup as water has spilled endlessly over it, like a petrified waterfall.
One of the things I suspected through some prior samplings but never knew for sure until I spent some time in Mexico is that I love mezcal. When it is made well, it has for me a flavor which rivals the complexity of the finest whiskey from either side of the Atlantic, and at a fraction of the price. It took me awhile to find some mezcal that genuinely belonged to this rarified category, but by my reckoning, Mezcal El Mitleño's top shelf offering, at about $50 a liter, is a fantastic imbibe. On the other hand, there's a lot of mezcal out there that ought to be reserved for cleaning the floor, so watch out!
The next thing you're going to want to do is take those big agave hearts, pile them into a big hole on the ground, and smoke them good. The heat converts the natural starches of the agave into deliciously caramelized sugars available for fermentation, and the technique also imparts onto the final product that magically smoky overtone I've never gotten from any other beverage.
At the end of the tour, we got to try the mezcal, and my heart was won by their highest-end bottle, still a steal at the price I mentioned above. In fact, I bought enough of it to travel with, and I drink it sparingly enough to still have a few ounces left for sharing on a special occasion.
But what really kept me coming back for more of the Mexican food on the street and in the markets was the endless variety available to try, from the well-known tacos, tamales y tortas to some of the lesser-known and exotic preparations: chapulines, huitlacoche, tlayudas, molotes, chochoyones, atoles, pulques, to name a few with no explanation whatsoever.
If you're worried about the safety or cleanliness of what you just ate, don't. That's what the mezcal is for. I can tell you after weeks of frequenting countless markets and food stands on the streets of Oaxaca, and always going to a cantina or back home for a shot or two of mezcal afterwards that no harm will come to you if you follow that formula. And in the process you will have tasted what Mexican food really is, and due to the naturally gregarious Mexican spirit, you will have met plenty of people happy to talk and listen for as long as the meal lasts.
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