Blog 17: Sunday


January 12, early Sunday morning in San Pablo Etla.


Reyes is behind us and presumably the Three Kings have returned to wherever they hang out when they are not delivering gifts to Latin American children. Nobody knows exactly how they get here: there are no camel tracks in the dust on the dirt roads, only prints of goat, sheep, horse, burro, and cow. Mercifully this morning the sky is filled only with stars. The Baby Jesus really, really likes to wake up to fireworks, so on his birthday and every one of the twelve days following that fill out the official Christmas season, it is customary to give him what he really, really likes. And of course on December 31, la Noche Vieja, we are treated to a triple dose of booms. I suspect that after Reyes morning the supply of rockets has been exhausted, or maybe there have been no neighborhood birthdays or local saints to fête. Anyway, this morning I wake up to almost quiet, with only the complaints of a hungry burro and the boasting of the rooster two houses down the road to let me know that in a half hour or so it will be dawn.


I make coffee, toast a slice of Judith’s delicious black pepper and cheese bread, drizzle on a little honey, check my email, and by the time it is light enough to see to put the key in the lock on the front gate, I head out into the street. The road on the south side of El Huajal is paved with concrete, so except for the speed bumps it is a good place for the neighborhood kids to exercise the new bicycles that the Reyes have brought them. I wish each a Buenos días as they speed past, a Qué bonita bicicleta as they come back around, and the same to the proud parents escorting the toddlers on their tricycles.


I walk up the hill path toward Bill’s house for the morning birding, keeping one eye on the ground for snakes. Since I saw the dead coral snake in the road a few weeks ago my awareness of where I am stepping seems to have intensified. A little further along I overtake the old woodcutter with no teeth who is leading his three pack burros up the mountain to gather firewood to sell. In the States his axe would be in a museum of pioneer tools. I offer a Buenos días and he gums me back the same.


An hour’s birding yields a satisfactory tally, including all five of the local hummingbirds and a varied bunting. By 9:15 I am back home. Linda is up and dressing. We exchange hugs; reports; and pour coffee. It is almost time to leave for the Sunday Morning Main Event at the Mercadito.


I pull the CRV out onto the street, Linda locks the swinging gate, and we drive past the pre-school up to the street that hugs the ridge top just to our north. At the intersection is a nacimiento, a large community crèche with a miniature Baby Jesus, shepherds, angels, and a trio of those camels that don’t leave footprints. The nacimiento appeared the day before Christmas and since it is still there, I expect it will remain until Candelaria, on February 2, which officially closes the holiday season. Or as officially as anything in the festival calendar seems to be in Mexico. Over the center of the intersection, suspended from the electric wires, is a Santa Claus piñata. We turn right past the white house that has the cast iron urns on top and drive across the next arroyo to the ridge on which sits San Pablo’s village center: a church, a school, the municipal office building, a basketball court, a water-purification facility, an abarrotes (convience) store, and the Mercadito.


We pull off into a field and park in a line of cars. Behind us is a long, low, open-sided shed filled with tables and chairs. On each side of the shed are food stands: folding tables, braziers heated by smoldering firewood, cast iron and pottery grills (comales) for cooking tortillas or frying onions and sundry meats and sausages. At our favorite stand (we come almost every Sunday) in a row of pottery ollas simmer the morning stews: Pork ribs in green cilantro sauce flavored with hoja de conejo (rabbit leaf – your guess is as good as ours) and little dumplings. Red coloradito sauce for transmuting the stack of chicken-filled rolled-up tortillas into enchiladas that are then covered with grated farmers’ cheese (queso fresco), sprinkled with cilantro, and topped with a dab of clotted cream. Black mole, also for simmering the enchiladas, and another olla of green sauce. There is a plate of stuffed chile peppers, not the small hot ones, but smoky with something that hints of chilpotle. Another olla of black beans. Roasting on the comal are memelas, small tortillas smeared with stewed beans and topped with tomato, salad, cheese, chicken, whatever else is at hand. Next to the comal, on another brazier, are ollas of hot chocolate, flavored with cinnamon, and café de olla, sweet cinnamon-flavored coffee. Both drinks are served not in cups but in bowls, lifted to the mouth with both hands and slurped to the last drop. One stand on the other side of the shed offers drinking bowls of atole, a thin, flavored, cream of wheat (or sometimes corn), a favorite street-corner morning breakfast all over Mexico. If you mix chocolate into it, it becomes a champurrada.


We order our breakfasts and choose a table. The first time we went to the mercadito Sunday breakfast we sat at a small table by ourselves. But besides the delicious food, what is the fun in that? Now our habit is to pick an almost filled table that has two empty chairs. We ask permission to sit, which after a brief perplexed look is always granted with a smile. Mexican San Pablo-ites tend to sit down in family groups— grandmas and daughters, young couples with kids—or with three or four old friends. We are obviously newcomers and gringos, which means that we are a little weird and can be forgiven for doing the unexpected, and for not being constrained by local customs of etiquette that we cannot be expected to know about. This gives us a great deal of freedom and we are determined to use it during our season of newness.


Last week we met a dentist from Oaxaca city, Doctora Ruiz, a woman of near our age who comes up to spend the weekend in a little house she has in San Pablo. A fascinating woman, who in addition to her practice—almost everyone we meet has two or three jobs, or a main job and a couple of little sidelines—runs a small B&B in the city near the Parque Llano. We enjoyed sharing B&B experiences and life stories with her for an hour. When we arrive today we see she is already seated at a full table, so we choose another, but as soon as we sit down the Doctora comes over to give us a hug and ask us how we are doing.


Today’s table has a couple of farm folks at one end, men who look like they have just come in from hacking at corn stubble with their machetes, and two women, one in her forties, we’d guess, and one in her sixties. The older of them lives in Oaxaca. The younger has a real-estate business here in the Etlas. We tell them we are historians, and, surprisingly, the younger woman is an avid reader of history and has acquired a remarkable grasp of late medieval Europe. Before we have finished our first enchiladas she is asking us about the Dominican crusade against the Albigensians in southern France. Go figure! We exchange cards, we tell her about the kinds of places we are looking for here in San Pablo, she promises to keep in touch, we say goodbye to Doctora Ruiz, and drive back to our house, El Huajal.


We are full, and it has been a full day. And it is only noon!


If we have strength, maybe this evening we’ll go to the 1-tent circus that has set up in the lot in front of doña Concha’s abarrotes store.