Into Oaxaca

*This is part 3 of a 13-part series. Read part 2 here.*

The wind curls its invisible fingers through our unkempt hair as the vanishing horizon with its giant hand pulls away all those dead yesterdays. We are sitting in the empty bed of a black Ford barreling down highway 190 toward Oaxaca.

The Estado Libre y Soberano de Oaxaca (Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca) is an ecological and ethnological puzzle: a 300-mile long coastline stretches down the Pacific, three mountain ranges converge at the Complejo Oaxaqueno, and of its 3.5 million people over 1 million speak an indigenous tongue.

The Be’ena’a (or “The People” aka Zapotecs) and the Nuu Savi (or “People of the Clouds” aka Mixtecs) are the largest indigenous groups, but over 16 are officially recognized. Due to this immense diversity a governing system called Usos y Costumbres (Traditions and Customs) allows for 3/4ths of its 570 municipalities to be semi-autonomous. No wonder the state motto is “El Respeto al Derecho Ajeno es la Paz” (Respect for the rights of others is peace).

OaxacaMap

Victor, our congenial driver, stops at a Pemex station buys my travel companion S. and I ham sandwiches and water bottles, saying “tap on the side of the truck if you need me to stop.” Conifer trees and maguey cacti dot the landscape as we pass through obscure villages like Guelavia dn Quiechapa to eventually parallel park on a crowded street in Oaxaca City.

As we strap on our colorful backpacks Victor snaps a photo of us with his teenage son. The light impressions left inside that camera to allow picture building are akin to the ethical impressions left inside that teenager to allow character building. “I think we just witnessed a father-son moment” I say to S as we head toward the central square.

It’s Monday July 21st, the first day of the Guelaguetza. Derived from a Zapotec word meaning “reciprocal exchange of gifts and services”, this annual gathering of indigenous Oaxaquenos predates the 1521 invasion of the Spanish, although it was more spontaneous back then. Nowadays it’s a big tourist attraction and different villages have different stands to showcase their art, culture and food.

OaxacaChapulines

We unload our heavy bags at a cheap hostel and strike up a conversation with a lively traveler S. would describe as an “elf chick” — a New Age member of the Spiritual Fashionista family. Baz comes fresh from the Peruvian jungle and glows with a visionary hope culled from some long nights drinking some strong Ayahuasca. She’s someone you ask the strange questions to.

“Where can I live in a cave?”

“Ah vision quest.” she replies without hesitation. “Go to the northern deserts.”

She laughed when greeting and hugged when leaving, imparting a cheerfulness that stays as we stroll to the market.

The Benito Juarez market is named after the revered Oaxacan native who became President of Mexico during the tumultuous end of the 19th century. Venders at the market sell everything from mass-produced breads to locally-made chocolate to seasonally-picked grasshoppers — that’s right, grasshoppers. They’re called chapulines here, picked between mid-spring and early-autumn, toasted with garlic and lime, and piled atop huge clay bowls that line the street. We purchase a bag and nibble on the tasty snacks while heading down the carnivalesque street toward a local favorite: Casa de Mescal.

Mescal

Founded in 1935, this local favorite has suited bartenders throwing bottles of mescal from the well-stocked shelves while live mariachis — dead mariachis are difficult to hire — play in the adjacent room. It caters to a professional class that S. and I — with out sunburnt bodies and stained clothes — don’t belong to, but the locals offer their kindness anyway. The drink here is mescal served in a shot glass with sliced oranges and sal de gusano (worm salt) on the side. It’s a harsh beverage that stings when slithering down your throat.

This distilled celebrity — para todo mal, mescalm y para todo bien tambien (for everything bad, mescal; for everything good, the same) — is made from roasting the heart of the maguey plant in an earthen mound for three days, crushing and mashing the hearts, fermenting them and leaving it inside a bottle to age. After the conquest Spaniards tweaked the recipe of native pulque (a highly nutritious, lightly alcoholic drink of fermented sap) to create a strong alcohol that would replace their beloved liquors. Currently it’s experiencing a rise in popularity due (mainly) to tourism…and there are lots of tourists here.

As night takes over — “step aside Day, I got this” it says in a cocky tone – the central plaza explodes with activity, mimicking the fireworks display that scatters tangerine bullets across the sky. Thousands upon thousands of people walk around, photographing the strange figures in mythical costumes, cheering for the break-dancers in stylish converse, and dancing with the rock trio in psychedelic garb.

As the sun perks up to reclaim the light of day, we search for the edge of town because the first rule of hitch-hiking is get out of the city. Now when asking questions, most people assume there is only a right answer and a wrong answer, but a third option called “I don’t know” also exists. This was never used on us when asking locals for directions, so we ended up walking in endless circles due to wrong answers, eating up the hours of the day as well as the energy of our bones. Eventually we find the outskirts of town, throw up our weary thumbs, and hope for the best.