Blog 12 : Etla [2]

Blog 12                                   21 January 2013

Etla 2 – Ocotlán & Tlacolula

            We’ve settled into a routine. I get up at the first tinge of pre-dawn, which here, now, is about 6:15. Even though the days are longer, dawn comes later each day, because as the sun moves north, it breasts the horizon higher and higher on the mountain. I shave, make coffee, down the day’s pills, nibble a piece of something, maybe a fresh mango or a granadita, put on two layers of jacket and my floppy, hat and head out to meet Bill for the morning’s tally of birds on our knoll. First stop is his patio for the doves, blue grosbeak, and curved bill thrasher. Then the pool overlook to count the turkey vultures on the cell tower across the near valley, the black vultures gliding down by ones from the mountain top, and the cattle egrets pecking at whatever is scared up by the two black cows grazing in the corn stubble across the near valley. Looking out across the far valley, over the Pan American Highway to the mountains capped by the Monte Alban and Atzompa pyramids, an occasional great egret or flock of glossy ibises. The eucalyptus grove for warblers. The bush-lined road to the corner of Camino al Seminario for vireos and white-throated towhees. The white-flowering casahuate trees in the arroyo for hummingbirds and orioles. The open field for endemic sparrows and vermilion flycatchers, gleaming redder than red in the morning sun, perching on the barbwire fence like feathered exclamation points.

            After breakfast with Linda, we either spend the day on our respective projects, punctuated with short walks to feed the cats and change their water (Linda), or (me) stretch my legs with short walks up one of the multiple paths that go up the mountain or down into the arroyo

and the agricultural areas below us. Every other day or so we take a mid-day excursion to someplace interesting in Oaxaca or its environs. What with the roads, the dimensions of this valley, and our enthusiasms, these can take from 4 to 7 hours. There are enough fascinating places around Oaxaca to busy us for the rest of our lifetimes and, were we able and there be such, I suppose, much of the next.


            Here are two: the Friday market at Ocotlán de Juárez, thirty kilometers to the south, and the Sunday market at Tlacolula, to the southeast. Everything south of us is Zapotec, the language still alive with its fricatives and glottal stops even spilling over into village Spanish. Zapotec men and kids have strong features and darkish skins, but dress like any other denizen of the 21st century. But, as in Chiapas, women’s dress hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years: voluminous skirts, embroidered aprons covering even more elaborately embroidered blouses, sandals, hair often covered by a bandana or with a folded blue striped shawl worn like a hat, with abit of the shawl hanging down to cover the neck. Women’s hair is usually worn in two braids, tied together at the back with a small blue ribbon. On market day, which in most villages and small cities is once a week, the streets near the everyday indoor municipal market near the town square fill with vendors of every possible good that might appeal to a Zapotec villager. In Tlacolula, with daughters Abby and Deborah, who were here for a blog-hiatusing ten day visit, vendors were offering live turkeys, ducks, chickens, canaries, sheep and goats.

Hand forged ax heads, hoes, pry bars, adzes, and picks; the stall next door offered hand carved handles to fit them, as well as simply carved wooden yokes for oxen (for plowing 50-degree slopes, oxen beat tractors every day; you don’t have to buy gasoline, and they drop fertilizer). Clothing? Maybe 200 stalls: every item worn by men, women, or kids, in every color in the Chinese palate, every motto in picturesque near-English that you can imagine, and every character that Disney ever developed and collected no royalties on. Plastics: cups, pails, basins, plates, flat things and twisty things whose use I could not imagine. And next door the same array in galvanized zinc. Food? Every fruit and vegetable grown in Mexico, piled up in colorful pyramids. Braided strings of onions and garlics. Leafy green bunches of parsley, cilantro, hierba santa, watercress. Bags of nopal, the paddles of paddle cactus, defanged of their thorns with a scraper. Mounds of chiles, heaps of chiles, mmountains of chiles. Stalls of meat: lamb, goat, beef, with every edible part hanging on a rack for sale, from ears to hoofs, from tail to smile. Mounds of freshly baked bolillo (rolls) in a dozen varieties, sweet breads, braided breads, fruit-laced breads, cream-stuffed breads. Chicharrón, which is the outside peel of a pig fried to a delicious crisp, sometimes a whole pig in one piece, ballooning at the side of the stall like a spinnaker.

            Did I mention the music? The marimba player with a paper cup for tips on the bass end of his keyboard?

The blind guitarist singing hymns? The mariachis rehearsing in a corner of the patio by the Ayuntamiento? The stalls sampling their pirated CDs on ultra low fidelity speakers? The church bells clonging the hour?

Naturally, on the edge of every market hereabouts are stalls of goods that appeal to tourists. This row is always at the market edge nearest the main road so that customers won’t have to carry their prizes very far to their cars. There are woven rugs called tapetes, pottery of whatever shapes and colors the village specializes in, woven shawls, carved gourds, devices for grinding and stirring chocolate (a Oaxaca area specialty), embroidered bags and purses and glass cases; carved wooden toys; fanciful, brightly painted, carved figurines called alebrijes, squat little trolls, pigs, dragons, crocodiles, insects, birds, and monsters that never were and could never be; tooled leatherwork; and baskets in every imaginable shape and size.


Stalls are pricey, especially anywhere near the center of the market. You have to inherit one, or muscle somebody out, or buy one, or have superb political connections with the municipal administrator of markets. If you are poor and unconnected, or have only a handful of things to sell because they have just come ripe, then you bring the goods that you can carry and squat in the aisles between the rows of stalls and offer your goods as best you can. If your goods are portable, you can stroll through the throngs calling out their best features:


“Tasty, crispy, red radishes!”

“Shoe laces, every size, dress shoes, and sport shoes.”

“Strawberries, ten pesos a bag!”

“Gelatins! Plum, orange, tuna (no, not the fish: the fruit of the prickly pear cactus), and guayaba!”

“Ice cream! Flavored shaved ice! Popsicles, made with water or milk!

“Wooden spoons! Toothpick holders! Book marks!”

“Rat poison and potato peelers! Get your rat poison and potato peelers.” (Really: I’m not making this up. In both Tlacolula and Ocotlán markets!)


Since the weekly markets draw crowds, and the hub markets in the larger towns draw huge crowds, the constriction of space in which to walk means jostling is inevitable. No one holds to the right or left: people in every part of every aisle flow in contrary directions at the same time. Foreigners sometimes get claustrophobic, but it all works pretty smoothly. People sell, people buy, people carry huge loads, often on their heads, or on two-wheeled dollies. Kids don’t get trampled, short adults (and most older Zapotec women can look me straight in the belt buckle) don’t get elbowed. No insults, no fingers thrown, no haste. An overriding sense of community: close community.

Snacks are never more than an arm length away. But when a deeper hunger calls, or the perfume of frying/boiling/stewing delights overcomes common sense, the restaurant comedor stalls are right over there to dispatch their guisos (stews), enchiladas, plates of mole, caldo de barbacoa (spicy lamb-laced broth), soft drinks, hot chocolate, and bowls of atole (imagine a foamy, drinkable, cream of wheat, with flavorings). Mescal vendors with their home brew in an unmarked bottle and a handful of tiny plastic cups prowl every aisle. Hygiene is the way it is and nobody seems to get sick, including us, who eat at market comedores as often as we can and are almost never disappointed. The key is not to go looking for some particular dish you have a craving for (but probably won’t find; or it will be different from what you expect), but to listen to the list of foods that the proprietor rattles off, order one of the things that you’ve never heard of, and love what you get. Nine times out of ten it works like a charm, and the tenth …. Well, you can always leave it on the plate, and move on to a comedor further down the line.

Speaking of which, it is time for dinner and my mouth is watering . . . Home food tends to be familiar, but we’ll go out again tomorrow.


David & Linda