Trip Start Jul 29, 2012
22Trip End Aug 01, 2013
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Markets play a rich and colorful role in our Oaxaca life. They come in all shapes and sizes. Let me introduce a few of them to you.
On our first trip into downtown Oaxaca back in August, we inadvertently found ourselves at a huge market. It was a somewhat jarring and overwhelming introduction to Oaxaca, and not the one we had been expecting. It was the Abastos market, which I have since read sprawls over four acres and spills out onto nearby streets. Claustrophobes should enter at their own risk. I went back to the Mercado de Abastos this past week in search of a tortilla maker and was pleasantly surprised by what a different experience it was – still overwhelming in many ways, but so fascinating, rich, and … really cool.
While it is very possible to get everywhere one needs to go in Oaxaca using public transportation, we have appreciated having a car to explore the area as our curiosity has dictated. So, I drove our car to Abastos, not sure of where I would park, but without a worry. On that day, I was by myself. I had the flexibility that comes with going solo and with a four hour window of opportunity while the kids were in school. Upon reaching Abastos, I got the lay of the land by circling the market in the car, which took about fifteen minutes in moderate traffic. I found a parking spot about four blocks away, grabbed my shopping bag, and headed back toward the market, stopping at a public bathroom (cost: US$.25) along the way. There are many, many entrances to the market, and no map of the interior of the market. The only real way to know where you're going on the inside is to have learned through experience. I saw an opening and headed in.
To my good fortune, I found a tortillaria (tortilla press) quickly. I had done some homework ahead of time and knew that 320 pesos (about US$25) was a good price for the tortillaria I was hoping to buy. But, I didn’t want to just buy it and leave. Not with four acres to explore. So, I decided to venture deeper into the market and return to buy the tortillaria on my way out. It was amazing how quickly four hours went by.
There is some order to Abastos. Vendors are generally grouped together according to the wares they are selling. Experienced Abastos-goers know where to look to find baskets, or stoneware, or furniture, or fish, or … wedding dresses. The list of things one can find at Abastos is long, and I was struck by the specialization of some booths in what I perceived to be a narrow niche, such as gift bags. There were vendors selling the things you’d expect – vegetables, meats, dried chili peppers, beans, breads, chocolates, mole pastes, and so on. There were vendors selling shoes, others selling clothing, some selling pets, a few selling pharmaceuticals, and more selling hardware. The order is not always kept. It’s certainly possible to find a person selling pink princess accoutrements amidst rice vendors. Oh, and Abastos is not a safe haven from cheap, random plastic stuff. Oh, no.
When and where possible, I asked permission to take photos. A man sharpening knives with a bicycle powered sharpening stone was delighted to show me his stuff. One vendor told me I could photograph her wares, but not her face. Others just nodded their heads and kept on with their business. I pondered whether taking a long-range crowd shot required any requests for permission, and then subtly snapped some shots.
After two hours of exploring the market, I was hungry, and I was … uh … turned around. Now which direction had I come from? There were no landmarks, and I had obviously wandered into the depths of the market as I could see no exits from where I stood. Oh well, one thing at a time. People were eating nearby, so I began perusing the plates and bowls they had in front of them. Soups, beans, tortillas, chicken mole, empanadas … A server saw me looking at one of her customers’ plate of food and honed in on me. Before I knew it, I had taken a place on a bench at a long table and had ordered mole negro with rice and three tortillas. While waiting for my food to arrive, I soaked in the scene around me and tried to figure out the storyline in the soap opera showing on a seven-inch television at the end of the table. It didn’t take long for the food to arrive, and it took even less time for me to devour it and pay the bill – 26 pesos, or US$2. It had been satisfying on all counts.
Now, to find my way back to the tortillaria. With nothing to go on, and not trusting my ability to ask directions back to where I had come in, I decided to just walk in a straight line, exit the market, and walk around the outside until I came to my starting point. It worked like a charm. Along the way, I picked up some mandarin oranges, some limestone (used in making tortillas), and a cone of something akin to brown sugar. While buying the cone of sugar, I struck up a conversation with the merchant and was feeling very pleased with myself, and my ability to express myself in Spanish, when she handed me a list of Bible verses and bid me adieu, or rather, adios. Oh, it turned out we hadn’t been having a conversation about how the many indigenous groups in Mexico believed in their own gods. She had been proselytizing. I smiled, thanked her, and kept walking in my straight line toward an exit.
Shortly thereafter, I emerged into fresh-ish air and sunlight. I didn’t recognize anything, so I just turned left and kept walking. Along the way, I caught glimpses of places I had been while in the market, and slowly got my bearings back. Within fifteen minutes, I was back at my starting point. Without delay, I bought the tortillaria and headed back to my car to pick up Micah and Zola.
So, that’s Abastos, the mega-mall of markets here in Oaxaca.
In contrast, the market that I frequent most is the one that comes to our neighborhood of San Felipe del Agua on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Usually no more than a dozen vendors set up their tarp-covered stands in the center square about two blocks away from our house. I buy 95% of our fruits and vegetables here. Although it is more expensive than some other markets, it’s hard to beat the convenience of strolling to the center square and returning home with my knapsack and cloth bag filled with fresh produce. While a person can still spend pretty pennies on some items in Mexico, such as clothing (basic Levi’s jeans sell for US$70), produce is generally inexpensive. Mangos are out of season right now, so we’ll probably need to wait until the spring to enjoy buying them at our local market.
While bringing Micah and Zola to Abastos would keep me on my guard, a visit to the San Felipe market is a fun and stress-free experience for all of us. On Fridays, Micah, Zola, and I have been enjoying the ritual of stopping by the San Felipe market after school to drink some cold tejate, a traditional Oaxacan drink made of corn and cacao. It’s not much to look at – the froth on top looks like it comes from dirty, greasy dish water – but it’s a fun drink to enjoy together. We usually accompany it with some fruit from the produce stand.
On Saturdays, our family sometimes goes to a market in Xochimilco that boasts organic goods. Vendors sell food and drink, but also woven goods, jewelry, pottery, soap, and other interesting things. Attractive to expats, it’s common to hear English spoken amidst the market-goers. It offers variety, among other things. Micah has had sushi to eat on two of the four occasions we’ve gone there; Leah has had pizza, made by a friendly Italian living in Oaxaca; Zola has often enjoyed pasta; and I have sampled variations on Mexican standbys like memelas and quesadillas (with mushrooms and squash blossoms, for example). Fresh juice has been a big hit with all of us. Our favorite is made with oranges, pineapple, cactus, and a bunch of leafy greens that we can't identify. We usually don’t leave the Xochimilco market empty handed. Our napkins, apron, small bowls, mezcal, candied figs, and grasshoppers have all been purchased there.
Markets abound. Countless areas within Oaxaca and in the towns around Oaxaca boast wonderful, colorful markets. Our plan is to take in many of them in our remaining eight-plus months.