Monday, October 29, 2012

Abastos: Boca del Lobo

Last weekend I found myself with an inexplicable urge to get myself a waterproof jacket, an empty flask for my shampoo, and a machete. My hard work at the hostel is beginning to encroach savagely onto my free time, but, after rearranging a few duties, I managed to clear a couple hours last Sunday and head to the much-feared Mercado de Abastos. For starters, this lawless metropolis is a triangle about eight times the size of the average city block, running parallel to the Periférico city ring and limited by the Atoyac river –a winding, muddy stream laden with debris, garbage and (many a time) criminals.

Admire to colossal MESS of the Abastos market!
As you pass the food market and start heading out of the historical district, every trace of any fair-skinned, carefully dressed individual disappears. As I walk down the street, businesses turn from folkloric souvenir stores into hardware stores, key-makers and knife sharpeners. Every building and automobile starts showing signs of obvious disrepair; the newer constructions become hastily built, boxy concrete shells painted in bright colors and protected by security bars; cheap hotels in their majority. The ground gradually turns into a dusty surface with heaps of forgotten rubbish lying in the gutters and dried by the sun; the air thickens with the smell of fuel, rotten produce and worn clothing.

...and not a damn was given that day.
Once you reach the rim of town you reach to the rim of civilization. Ahead of you lies a set of abandoned train tracks and the greatest jaywalking symphony to ever exist. Many street vendors lay their blankets between the rails, as traffic runs slowly in both directions. Beyond these tracks stretches a sea of corrugated steel, concrete walls, acres of weathered posters from local bandas, and political grafitti every now and then. I walked along the rim on the sidewalk, to finally find an elevated walkway.

One policemen on each side? Safest photo I have ever taken!
 Once on top, I saw the profile of one of the two policemen who guarded the walkway. As if the previous landscapes had not been sketchy enough, my intuition told me (shouted!) I was heading into something much worse, right into la boca del lobo –the wolf’s mouth. And there I was, right in the middle of the walkway, taking a picture and swallowing heavily. What lied before me was a monstrous rabble of merchants occupying a sprawl of unorganized shops, sheltered by two outer walls and a busy parking lot; easily a place where entry means no return. Later research through local news sources and co-workers revealed that the Abastos central market has been the background to scores of violent assaults and several homicides, many by stabbing. With as much courage as caution, I grew an extra set of eyes in the back of my head, and proceeded on my descent into the depths of Hell.

Loading area right outside the big maze of the market.
I did not feel it was safe to take pictures for the most part: given my unusual attire and complexion, I had way too much potential to attract suspicious glares. I also wanted to focus on embracing the experience: the frantic pace at which everything happened, the many items competing for attention and the combined smell of a thousand spices and meats, are all part of an overwhelming experience that saturates the senses.

Colorful merchandise for display, right near the market's largest basket store.

Extremely narrow hallways zigzag all over. This section was for brand-new clothing.
Past the walls my sense of alarm calmed down a little, but not enough as not to dart into the nearest hardware store and get the machete first. For less than $10USD I was handed a long, stout blade made in Colombia, along with its sharpening stone, all wrapped with outmost care. With some relief and a renewed sense of safety, I kept on walking with a clearly identifiable newspaper silhouette clenched in my hand, lips pressed firmly in an unfriendly frown, eyebrows low to the edge of my glasses.

A shrine of beautiful smells past the butcher and live chicken section.
The following hour was spent trying up to seven leather jackets and unsuccessfully chasing after shampoo containers. As soon as I realized I had to get back to work, I headed out through a more open area dedicated to food, pots and wicker goods. On the way to butcher alley, I stumbled across a couple surgery clinics, built right in the middle of the market, on the second floor of a modest concrete structure. On the storefront of the opposing building one could indulge in a wide variety of wedding dresses for that special occasion. Clearly, and just like in any American mall, I found everything possible except for what I needed the most!

Checklist for the day: buy onions and get my wisdom teeth pulled.
For a place that is recommended as the #4 of the greatest five world markets, the Mercado de Abastos inspires as much awe as it inspires fear. The locals will try to drive you away from it out of concern, and with good reason. If you so wish to ignore these warnings and adventure in the wolf’s mouth, do so with the outmost caution… and maybe a newspaper-wrapped machete in hand.

Monday, October 15, 2012

60 Minutes at the Food Market

The Oaxacan historical district consists on a regular grid of 100x100m squares that sprawls down to the busy peripheral rings, stretching as far up as the lush hills of San Felipe and limited by the local college on its Eastern side. Every Wednesday I walk from the square where I live towards a square that I love, exactly 650m, or five blocks, to my weekly solace, hidden in the entrails of an early 20th century brick construction.

Notice the "crunchy pollo" sign at the corner, followed by "Kentucky Style".
Past each of the entrances lays a tall, open space, crowded by some of the more popular businesses and hoards of street vendors, proudly displaying their merchandise out of makeshift posts, wooden boxes and plastic bags. Their announcements are bold, sharp and at times pushy –asking right away what amount you will take, without any ceremonious greeting-; yet, deep within the walls of this lively building and hidden in the darkest corner, you will find unique cuisine that runs true to Mexico’s heartbeat.

Right behind the camera sits a man whose job is to typewrite things. On a real typewriter.
Right after the main halls all trace of sunlight disappears, leaving only the buzz and glimmer or fluorescent lighting. The air smells strongly of spice and starched clothing as I walk through endless hallways lined with purses and candies. Some of these sellers recognize me from previous times, and wave timidly at the squinty, black-on-black stranger holding a big camera in a quiet, mildly threatening fashion.

Just having some candy... the dog seems to want some as well!
Traditional, nut-based confections, as well as some handmade marzipan (left).
Despite this market resembling Kowloon City (for those who remember) more than anything, there is a healthy sense of normalcy. Customers line up for an order of Tamales, a scoop of almonds, a bag of sweet marzipan or a bowl of foamy tejate, the Mixtecan drink of the gods, and the energizing boost that brings me to the market every week. A caramel-skinned woman pours and re-pours the dark liquid in an almost hypnotic trance, blending it with the maize and cacahuaxochitl (cocoa flower) mix at the top.

As soon as you order, you get some sweet syrup and your choice of cup or glass.
The view from the Tejate post: moles of all kinds (bottom) and miscellaneous nuts.
My coworkers here in Oaxaca have recommended me many foods to taste during my stay in Oaxaca. In these last few weeks I have had the honor to be introduced to some of the most unique foods in Mexico, in some instances through interesting anecdotes that have made these delights, well, even more delightful.

Bright colors, despite the lack of natural light, are a complete must!
As a hostel receptionist, I can say that most of our clientele are local businessmen. One of them, a former assistant to my boss, plopped three bags on my desk on fine afternoon. “Try them! Each bag is a different kind”, he said. After asking about the crunchy stuff before me, he replied: “Chapulines –grasshoppers–. Ever had one?”. I instantly grabbed one and shoved into my mouth, not giving my sense of Western “decency” a chance to react. And it was good. A few samples from each bag and a long conversation later, I found out there are three kinds of seasonings for fried grasshopper cooking: spicy pepper, garlic and salt-and-pepper. Oaxaca has a rich tradition with cooking bugs, from mammoth “chicatana” ants to the iconic maguey worms that distinguish mescal (agave liquor) from tequila, two drinks that are often mistaken for each other.

Guess what these little crunchy things are!
Chapulines, or grasshoppers, ready to eat straight out of the mound.
Mezcal has curative properties: sore throats, colds and headaches, amongst others.
Two of the most popular Oaxacan foods are quesillo and mole, recognized worldwide for their common use in Mexican cuisine. On the one hand, quesillo, or string cheese, is probably one of the few kinds that you will see wrapped into a ball upon purchase; it has a soft texture and mildly sour flavor. It tears similarly to mozzarella and it is most commonly melted on top of meat, enchiladas, empanadas and tlayudas –tortillas served with a rich mix of ingredients in a similar fashion to pizza. And talking about pizza: you will see several businesses offering it the historic district, but do not take it as an insult to your cultural sensitivity; pizza is eaten fairly often by the locals, and prepared by the small –but very dedicated– community of Italian immigrants in town. Mole, on the other hand, is the Mexican sauce by default; it offers a myriad of ingredients that change significantly depending on its color: from cocoa in “black” mole to miscellaneous herbs and chili in the “green” type. Oaxaca is dubbed “The Land of the Seven Moles”, and with reason: at the central market you will find all possible combinations and flavors, sold in big tubs of paste and bags of powder.

Casually rolling some cheese for a customer.
Special mentions go to the native cocoa and coffee products, grown locally and a must-have if ever stopping by Oaxaca. In the realm of desserts, the most original ones are the Nieve de Tuna (cactus pear sherbet), Leche Quemada (burnt milk) and amarath-based confections that are guaranteed to surprise the Western visitor. From the pre-Hispanic recipe for Tejate to the 1940’s mezcal worm gimmick, the culinary capital of Mexico has many delights to offer –many a time linked to an interesting story!

Chocolate confections made out of local cocoa plants.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dreaming of home

To be honest, these last weeks I have not had much to say about what I have been doing in Oaxaca. My student, Evaristo, continues to make progress in his lessons, and it really feels that he has unlocked his motivation to learn English. The "breaking point" came to him as we were listing the kinds of animals, and we stumbled on a Wikipedia article on how to treat snake bites. Putting himself in a situation in which English would be a valuable tool –more than a chore-, followed by a screening of The Last Crusade, have really helped him awaken his hunger to learn!

Being a model for my gear review in Expedition Portal.
Regarding my writing, I have composed a special article on the may culinary wonders of the Central Food Market here, to be published very soon. Just as a little heads up... there are grasshoppers! I also plan on writing a special post on the character of Indiana Jones, and the impact he has had on me since my early childhood to take me to where I am right now.

Kentucky Fried Grasshoppers. What flavor would you like?
Did this picture take off the flavor from the previous one, or did it make it worse?
 Today, however, I do not just write to state my current state of boredom. In all this time that I have been confined in this beautiful hostel I have had quite a bit of time to indulge in some introspection. At times I have exploded in rage about the fact that I cannot return to the United States, followed with a deep sense of melancholy. However, the truth is that in an economy where foreigners have it pretty hard to be hired in a profession that consists on freelance work, I did not have much of a chance to stay anyway. I shall return under a tourist visa once more, in a year or so, and as soon as my export company starts getting its first orders, I shall establish a permanent base in the United States, most likely in Texas –a somewhat central location close to my friends.

In the meanwhile, all I can do is to study import law carefully and hunt for relics, like I will be doing in Cuba. That Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, unless it is gone already, has no chance of escaping my curious eye and my perfect command of the Spanish language! It will be an adventure worth writing, instead of obliviously walking around smoking cigars and drinking rum, don't you think?

Many memories have sprung to my mind, mostly related to friends and automobiles. I miss driving through the plains of Kansas during those magnificent Midwest sunsets, I miss the complicity with Tyler every time we were surrounded by morons at the Wednesday auction; I miss the Mooney family and those times where we would take the big ol' Ford Galaxy and cruise past the farms of the Northern Bay; I miss the days in which my friend Ziming and I would feel like the kings of NYC in his penthouse after a run to the Shake Shack –pretty good burgers there–; I miss my mentor, Jim, and our wacky automotive errands in New Hampshire, full of political conversations; I miss my buddy Alex Finis, and his adorably pessimistic touches, followed by the second best Italian sauce ever; I miss my dearest friend Bree, and how we did not need words to poke fun at housewife stereotypes. I miss a lot, and revive many of these experiences in my head from time to time. I miss a lot, but I know that as soon as I am back there is always a friend nearby, in almost every corner in the US, all connected through Newport the 300TD, one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my five years in the United States, now on its way to La Jolla (California) as we speak, ready to greet its new owner. Its sacrifice will allow me to turn one changing life experience into another: the proceeds will fund the rest of the expedition.

When I get into my Mercedes and drive up and down Oaxaca for errands, I am transported back to all those memories, almost if I was on my way to visit each of these people. The seat, the clatter from the engine, are all elements that have added the ambiance to these unique times. Even the little fan on the dashboard reminds me of David, my loyal mechanic, back in Kansas, and the time that Tyler and I picked up the car from him up amongst the crops of Halstead.

I meant to write about what happened that afternoon, but the timing with the other posts has been less than ideal. In short, Tyler had one last thing to show me before we parted ways. So we got into his car, and drove for twenty minutes, past Hutchinson, along a rural road and then a narrow driveway masked amongst all kinds of trees. And there it was: paradise in Kansas. All kinds of Mercedes, from the 1950's to well into the 1990's, including a couple pagodas and 170D's, in various states of decay and completeness. Needless to say, I was happy as a clam!

Mercedes, Mercedes everywhere! I was in paradise...
A row of Mercedes Pontons will all kinds of engine options!
What seems like a post-war Mercedes, now an abandoned wreck.

Diamond in the rough... a complete MErcedes pagoda, awaiting restoration!
Now, THAT'S the kind of bull bar I need!
This project sits here because of a monstrous engine fire it had years ago...
What a shame to leave such a beautiful color combo like this rotting in the woods!

Things are slowly taking shape, and many doors are slowly opening. Along with the wonderful offer from Expedition Portal as a weekend writer, I have an open door to return to Oaxaca anytime; my boss has been extraordinarily happy to have an in-house tech person, and we have already talked about the possibility of exporting typical Oaxacan delights to his friend in the US. It could be the start of something big down the road! But for now, I shall concentrate on the promise I gave myself: to finish this expedition in Ushuaia, and triumph.