Saturday, July 24, 2010

Musings Prior to Day of The Dead.....Mitla 2007

Day of the Dead is almost here and I have to admit that I am far more excited this year than last because I have thrown myself into the preparations with gusto. This is far more fun than Christmas as far as I am concerned.

I have been having a rather difficult time trying to describe the flurry and frenzy so this morning I decided I would find a spot to park my ass and just absorb the smells and sounds and all that good stuff. Perhaps I may even be able to share some of that.

Today is the thirtieth and the market is bustling like I have never seen it before. My nostrils are assailed by the odors emanating from the various pots of incense burning. I like the smell when it is outside and not confined in some silly cathedral. It seems more natural and there are many varieties. I am reminded of my trip to Morocco when I smell it.

I am hungry this morning so I head to the indoor market to visit my empanada lady who dutifully tells me the price every morning for my favourite breakfast (3 whole pesos per empanada!!) even though I have been eating here everyday since I arrived. It has become a sort of game with us. Her empanadas are pure Oaxaca, stuffed with the stringy quesillo and flavoured with epazote, a local Zapotec herb that I am very fond of using for frijoles and soups.

Dona Maria must be at least eighty-something years old. Every crack in her face is a story and then some. I dare not ask her if I can take a shot. Instead I burn into memory these lines. It has taken me most of this month to win her over and yes she did remember me from last year but that was, after all, last year. She makes some great salsas and is very proud of her recipe. She gets very insistent with me to slather my empanadas with her concoction and she will watch to see how much I use. Today I used a lot and she was content with that.

I like being back here for I have gotten to know many Mitlenos. They can be a conservative bunch at the best of times but it is festive events that seem to wash away the taint of modern life that has invaded even this staid valley town. Folks from the outlying communities, you can tell because they are dressed up in their Sunday best, have been gathering here for the last several days. This is what I like to call the last big blowout before the spending orgy that entails Christmas only this one has far more significance as far as I am concerned.

Day of the dead comprises more than one day and no I am not going to describe it here. Google it in for there are writers that are far better equipped than me who can give the more anthropological slant. I concentrate on the food and family stuff. In other words I am gonna make you sing for your suppers and yes I am a lazy bastard sometimes.

Mole, mole and more mole. There are several varieties for sale today but most folks will make their own from trusted family recipes. Today for example I will be going to a mole lesson where I hope I will do my teacher proud later when I attempt to do my family's honored recipe that was so good that former President Zedillo ordered buckets of it to take back to Mexico City. I don't think for a second that on my first attempt I will triumph to that degree but as long as it tastes good I will be happy. Sublime will come much later.

Flowers and oranges and more flowers and oranges and apples, so many varieties of such that I am truly surprised. Belize could learn a thing or two if they sent some trade envoys up to live in this valley. I bet they would never go back after experiencing the choices here for fresh foodstuffs.

The orange trucks came in late last Friday and set up on the corners near the main plaza. The oranges are used mainly to decorate the altars that are in just about every home down here. Well maybe not up in the evangelical gringo gulag on the other side of town but who gives a shit about those party poopers anyway? Some altars are very modest and then there are some that defy description and can be so campy as to be cool but they all have oranges and apples in common as main decorations.

There is a Zapotec country woman who has just walked by and I will describe her outfit. She has to be around my age as many of the younger women, even those from the smaller villages, are choosing jeans and sweaters rather than the traditional garb which I believe looks far nicer. Firstly let's see her hair - it is in long pigtails that reach her arse and it is braided in a very loud orange color. Her hair is of course jet black and contrasts nicely with the orange braiding.

She is wearing a crispy white blouse embellished with rocket red roses, hand-embroidered of course, and to top it all off she is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt. Now that is a first for the village ladies tend to wear the same uniform of plain dress covered by hand embroidered full apron, earth-toned reboso (scarf) draped over and around the shoulders. Hair done the same way as the stylish village lady but cloth braiding more plain in colour. Most will also be wearing blue flowered head scarves. You see this uniform so often that when a creature walks by in a red plaid skirt you take notice. Did I also mention that she was gorgeous and that her husband followed her? Cool. He was dressed pretty snappy too and not cowboy kitschy.

Holy shit! Right across the street is my tortilla maestra Josefina clutching a bunch of marigolds that almost obscure her. Well she is a little person but boy does she move fast and her tortillas rock! Yes Marigolds and many more varieties of flowers are for the buying. The flowers are not just for the home altars but for the cemetery (Panteon) that plays a central role this week. This is the week that we honour and celebrate the dead by lavishing much attention on the graves of those who have preceded us.

We honor the spirits, sing to them, give them their favourite treats (in many cases shots of mescal and sometimes joints, toys and foods and will be placed reverently on gravesites) and make sure that every site is honored, especially the sites of the few foreigners who may not have family to clean up or honor their burial area.

Man sometimes it is so hard to concentrate with all the noises and no I do not mean the market and people noises but the new annoying modern noises as generated from the moto taxis, a new phenomena for Mitla. It used to be, and that was just last year for crying out loud!, that if you had a bunch of groceries you could flag down a bicycle taxi and have a leisurely ride back to your home but no more. We now have a hundred of these putt-putt things and it seems that damned near every one of them is driven by someone under twenty-five years of age who thinks he is Mario Andretti. Sorry boys, I am.

Where I am sitting is the main intersection so imagine a traffic jam comprised of these silly machines with drivers impatiently honking their horns as if they are going to get anywhere faster today! Not a chance. The streets are choked with people, livestock, flowers, oranges…best to walk I would think. Besides, how else is one to get an essence of what is going on? I hope that in the years to come that Mitla maintains its traditions and doesn't get too caught up in the bustle that afflicts Tlacolula just down the road. They don't seem to take Day of the Dead as seriously as they used to. Here it is celebrated with gusto.

It is now just a little after ten a.m. and I am hoping that the ladies with the charcoal grills are preparing chuleta and filete for I am looking forward to having some beef. It is a treat to be sure. Man you could eat market food every day and not break the proverbial bank.

I am now on my third cafe con leche. I love the coffee here for they enhance it with cinnamon (canela) and yes, unlike American coffee it has body for it home-roasted and fresh-ground.

For the last two weeks in our kitchen we have been preparing for this week by making rounds of chocolate spiced with cinnamon for the de rigeur Oaxacan hot chocolate which is served with pan de muerte. Every village has its own particular take on this bread and some loaves are quite ornate. Think of the hennae designs on the arms of Indian ladies and you will have an idea as to how some of these loaves are decorated. Some come with little icing angels on them or Jesus themes. The little angel breads are for the one day that we remember the little children who have passed away.

Folks have been fattening turkeys for sale this week. Turkey is the choice meat to have with the moles. Another village up the road, Teotitlan, serves up tamales made with mole Amarillo (yellow mole) and boy are those tasty tamales.

We are not doing turkey this year but will do instead barbacoa with mole. Barbacoa in this region means goat meat and I for one really enjoy it. Not for everyone but I like the rich flavour and when served on fresh, hot tortillas it makes for an excellent meal.

You have to pace yourself when making the rounds of eating (that is front and centre after the cemetery visit) for each household will offer you hot chocolate, pan de muerte, a mole concoction and of course shots of mescal. It is the latter that can really bite you on the ass so I have a strategy already planned. I will take a small bowl and a small shot glass with me to each home I visit so I do not get inundated for on visiting day I will be going to at least ten homes.

Just outside the cafe where I am there is a group of country ladies sitting down on the sidewalk having their mid-morning snack of tortillas some sort of meat stuffing.

The tortillas in this region are worth mentioning for they are not of the wimpy northern sizes that we are used to. These tortillas can sometimes be
almost two feet across and the so-called regular ones measure a healthy ten inches or so in diameter. They are served hot or crispy and my favourite ones come from a small village and are made with blue corn.

A huge tourist bus is trying to make its way past the square towards the ruins. Hahahaha - good luck buddy. As much as I can sometimes be a real snob about certain varieties of tourists I have to admit that it is good to see them coming back to Oaxaca after a prolonged statewide strike. The local economy has taken a major hit since last year and the recovery of such may never happen.

This cafe is a great vantage point this morning and I wonder why I have never sat here and worked before. Maybe because I always felt like I would be too visible. Today that is not the problem and I am able to write unnoticed which is nice. I have only had one person approach me and that was a gringa looking for ways to get to Hierve la Agua (a spectacular waterfall not too far from here). It just so happens that I know Hugo, the man who drives tourists up there so I told her how to find him but I warned her that Hugo may be missing in action for his wife is really pissed off at him. I will see if he is still alive later this week when Richard and I invade his place for our hot chocolate and mescal. It seems that Hugo got rooked into providing a huge breakfast for a visiting fiesta band and he did not tell his wife of this and if I was her I would be angry too for it would be she doing the bulk of the work! Hugo got conned into this honor� when he was sort of in his cups? Hahahahahaha. Never commit to a favour when you have been drinking. Not a good idea and I am sure Hugo will never hear the end of it.

A lady just walked by with a huge bunch of basil with the purple flowers. I smelled the bouquet long before I saw it! Yes, I have been making pesto. Of course!!

A girl is walking past carrying bunches of sugar cane no doubt to festoon the altar at her home. This is so cool this day and finally the nasty weather that has been plaguing us seems to have vanished. It was windy and cold and miserable to say the least but today makes up for that. I am getting coffee-d out now and have the urge to walk to the net cafe in order to post musings to friends.

Author's note......this first appeared in fall of 2007 on a forum,

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