Puebla, where Rachel and I are tonight, is a grey city. At least, it has been since we got in a day or so ago. We left Oaxaca yesterday morning, after booking a room on Airbnb with a young architect living in the heart of Puebla’s Centro district. When our jam-packed bus pulled up on the side of the highway and dropped us off, we tried to secure directions from the driver in the cold grey rain, and the best we got was a rough idea of where to catch a cab.
But we made it to our host’s address–an eight-story tall complex called Edificio Vaca, or “Cow Building”–and before long, were settled into the comfort of his apartment. Today, we explored a very small stretch of the city, and before we go out for dinner, I figured it was time to update the blog with some more Oaxacan adventures.
A Day of Mezcal
One of the experiences we were looking forward to most when we left the States was a mezcal tour. The state of Oaxaca is known for its mezcal–a complex agave spirit that’s a close relative of tequila–and Rachel and I had both enjoyed the liquor since we first tasted it in our favorite bar in Eastern Washington. Lucky for us, Alvin Starkman, a Canadian ex-pat with a deep love for mezcal, lives in Oaxaca City and gives day-long educational tours about the spirit. We signed up immediately.
The tour took us to four or five different rural production facilities, allowing us to see every stage of the process. At our first stop, for instance, Alvin showed us the three-still setup belonging to palenquero (producer) Felix Ángeles Arellanes, where fermented agave juice went into a clay pot, condensed on a metal cone, and dripped out a bamboo shoot. At another facility, crushed roasted piñas–the juicy heart of the agave plant–were sitting in a trough, and we sampled the molasses-sweet liquid they were floating in. By the end of the day, we had not only a thorough understanding of not only how mezcal was made, but also a glimpse into the culture and industry surrounding it.
And, of course, we got to sample mezcal. Over the course of the morning and afternoon, we must have tasted at least a dozen different mezcals. There were fruity pechuga mezcals, named for the poultry breast (pechuga) that, along with a basket of fruit, is inserted into the still on the final distillation. There were crisp, sharp mezcals, and–our personal favorites–smoky mezcals that tasted, oddly enticingly, like burnt rubber.
Needless to say, it was a wonderful way to spend a Oaxacan day. The worst part: packing our five new glass bottles of mezcal for the plane.
Exactly What It Says on the Tin
Our candy apple-red bus was bumping and bouncing down the streets of Tlacochahuaya, a small self-identified Zapotec community outside of Oaxaca. Tlacochahuaya was Stop #1 on our tour with Fundación En Via, a local organization that supports working women via microloans.
I looked out the window, and as we passed, saw a wonderfully self-referential piece of faded graffiti. All it said:
Being a pedestrian in Mexico is a world apart from being one anywhere in the U.S., save perhaps for New York City. Cars respect traffic lights, more or less (which gives Mexico one up on NYC), but as long as they have a green or a yellow, taxis and buses will barrel down urban streets with a downright harrowing velocity. Here and there, you’ll see painted crosswalks, but more often than not, crossing the street means dashing out in gaps between oncoming traffic–or when the streets are clogged, dancing between the hoods of honking cars.
In Oaxaca, a handful of street corners actually have crosswalk signals, but these are relics in and of themselves. Based on careful study, I’ve deduced that when they are actually functioning, a timer on top counts down the seconds left to cross, while a figure in white LEDs below moves in a smooth walking motion, speeding up with 10 seconds left on the clock. However, the overwhelming majority of these signals in Oaxaca are on the fritz, so instead, they simply sputter and flicker in unpredictable patterns, occasionally sparking red as part of the “stop” signal accidentally illuminates.
We didn’t much rely on the crosswalk signals.
The Beetles That Oughtn’t Exist
The streets of Oaxaca’s Centro Historico are beautiful, lined with bright storefronts and old stone architecture. If you tear your eyes away from that, however, and look at your feet, you will inevitably spot a peculiar sight: large brown beetles. Or, rather, large brown beetle bellies, because the chances of seeing one right-side up are utterly infinitesimal.
These beetles are the pandas of the insect world, as far as I’m concerned; a species that should have been picked off by natural selection generations ago, yet still, inexplicably, keeps on ticking. About the size of a middle-sized strawberry, these beetles lope along the ground at a comically lethargic pace until they reach either a steep incline (like, say, a wall) or a steep decline (like, say, a curb). Upon encountering this startling change of elevation, they attempt (inevitably) to traverse it, only to fall (inevitably) and land (inevitably) upon their hard-shelled backs.
Then they die.
Really. Sure, they don’t go gently; they flail their little legs in the air and attempt to rock back and forth to right themselves. Some of the cleverer ones spread their wings to give themselves extra leverage. But it rarely works, and the beetles usually give up and die there. The streets (and, really, all paved horizontal surfaces) of Oaxaca are lined with belly-up beetle corpses, only a few inches away from those treacherous curbs and cornerstones.
For how much I love my pens, I have a shamefully bad track record with them. Ever since I got my first Parker Jotter, I’ve suffered the semi-regular misfortune of misplacing my everyday pens. Frustratingly, I never know how it happens; even when I have a designated spot for my beloved pens (in a jacket pocket, in a pouch, clipped to a pocket), there will inevitably come a time when I reach for the pen in its place and realize, with a sinking feeling, that it’s not there anymore.
Rachel and I, along with our guide, Carlos, were barely 10 minutes down the dirt road that lead out of Latuvi, where we spent the first night on our trip to the Pueblos Mancomunados, when I tightened the chest straps on my backpack and noticed something odd. I was expecting a sharp bit of pen-shaped pressure on my chest, since the straps sat right over my pen pocket, but there was nothing.
Then I remembered I had handed my pen to Rachel to sign a guestbook before we left Latuvi, without telling her it was my pen.
Carlos radioed back to the office, and we pressed on. Within fifteen minutes, we heard a whizzing behind us, and a smartly-dressed worker from the Latuvi Tourism Office dismounted from his bicycle, fished around in his pocket, and handed me the runaway.
I had hopes that that would be my only pen-related mishap on the trip, but this story has a sad ending. When we visited the Monte Alban ruins outside of Oaxaca City a few days later, my pen once again went missing, and this time, it was gone for good.
I will be traveling with cheap plastic ballpoints for the rest of the summer.
Not Quite What It Says on the Tin
As Rachel noted, there was an endlessly amusing disparity between what our itinerary for our trip in the Pueblos Mancomunados said we would do, and what we actually did.
Itinerary for Latuvi: “Visit Doña Julia to learn the process of pulque and tepache, visit the group of women who produce jams, and after a long hike, enjoy a steam bath with a massage and scrub.”
Actual experience in Latuvi: Drank some tepache and looked at a squirrel in a cage. Asked about the steam baths, were told it would take a couple hours to warm up and that it might not be possible. Wasn’t possible. Walked around town. After dinner, watched some kids play basketball, got asked if we were in line for the municipal office. Bought two cans of Modelo and drank them in our cabin. Dared to shower without knowing if the boiler was on.
Itinerary for La Nevería: “Walk around town, take a bike ride, learn to bake bread in adobe ovens, go with a farmer and learn about his daily activities in the field or the greenhouses, and memorize some Zapotec words while speaking with some members of the community. You can also make a trip into the community to learn about medicinal plants of the region.”
Actual experience in La Nevería: Watched a guy paint some signs. Tried to follow a game show on fuzzy TV screens. Explained we had a homestay, were taken to the home of the tourism administrator’s family. Were shown to a lovely concrete room with four beds, Santa bedspreads, and two bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Asked about the bread-baking, were told we could help someone shuck corn for an additional fee. Walked around in the rain.
By our third night, we’d learned to simply disregard the itinerary’s optimistic ideas.
Our visit to the Pueblos Mancomunados was really quite great, to be sure. It just wasn’t filled with adobe ovens and Zapotec legends, as the itinerary may have had us believe.
We leave Puebla tomorrow, and take a bus to our final destination in Mexico: Mexico City, where we plan to see some museums, visit the Teotihuacán ruins, and experience the major Mexican metropolis. Stay tuned, because I’m sure I’ll have more to share.
The new WordPress Gutenberg editor does not currently support footnotes. This is silly, but here we are. Here are my footnotes from this post, preserved awkwardly until I can reintegrate them more elegantly:
 For more on that, check out Rachel’s blog post.
 Pronounced “tlock-o-cha-why-yah”, more or less.