Sunday, September 30, 2012

It's been a long time

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:

This tree, the granddaddy of all junipers, belongs to a species known locally as the ahuehuete.  It's enormous.  It's not the tallest tree in the world, nor is it the oldest.  But its amorphous trunk has the biggest circumference of any known living tree.  As far as I know of, anyway.

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:

Like many Mexican towns, this one bears both a Spanish name and an original name from Pre-Columbian times (albeit hispanicized from its former pronunciation of Mictl├ín).  Today many of them are known colloquially, more often than not, more by their original name than the Spanish one.  Nonetheless, the Spaniards left an indelible mark on the community of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, which was still populated and in use when the Spanish arrived.  Mitla had been a religious center for the local Mixtec and Zapotec people, and recognized as a gateway between the land of the living and the dead.

As such, there had once been an extensive series of temples and other ceremonial buildings in the community, the walls of which were graced with intricate stonework interlaid without the use of mortar.  These designs were intended at least in part to facilitate the transmission of one's spirit into the next world.

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.

After wondering over the silent monuments of (not so) ancient civilizations, you can take a swim in a place known poetically as hierve el agua.  That translates more or less as "The water boils."  I couldn't decide if the water in this shallow pool was really a hot spring, or if the warmth of the water was the product of the perpetually warm Mexican sunshine, and the insulation of the warmed stone beneath it.  Not to mention the further natural heating power of dozens of tourists piling into it every day!

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.

You also are afforded, from your perspective in a pool located on the edge of a cliff, a panoramic view of the unspoiled natural landscape all around.  Devoid of any human settlements as far as the eye can see, what you get is a quintessential hot spring experience, as close to nature as a modern human will often find himself.

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.

The trip came to its conclusion with one more stop, this time at a mezcal distillery.

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 Mitle├▒o'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!

Here, we were offered a tour that explained the process of making mezcal.  The first steps are illustrated above.  You cut the leaves respectfully from the agave plant until you are left with a pineapple-shaped core.  This you slice from the earth and cart off to the distillery.

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.

The next step is to grind up the smoked agave into a pulp ready for fermentation, and later, distillation.  Then it's into a barrel with it for at least a year before it's good enough to drink.

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.
Once armed with a bottle of high-proof drink, and once back in the city of Oaxaca, I was now equipped to embark on one of my other favorite activities in Mexico: street food!  This stand was serving up empanadas de amarillo, which quickly became my preferred main course of any Mexican street food adventure.  It is basically a corn tortilla with chicken and a fantastic sauce of yellow color, hence the name of the dish.

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.