Posted on 15 March 2016
Martin Martinez left Oaxaca to study at Portland State University in 2004. Martin is José and Jackie's eldest son and a co-owner of Orox Leather Co. The idea of starting Orox grew out a project Martin did while a student at PSU.
Martin loves to return to Oaxaca whenever he can to reconnect with his many relatives, favorite places, and much-loved traditions. Now he has the added pleasure of sharing all this with his wife, Ann. In December Martin and Ann spent three weeks in Oaxaca and he’d love to share a few highlights from the trip.
One of the things I love most about Oaxaca and Mexico is all the wonderful, lively public spaces. In the City of Oaxaca the Zocalo or central square is a sort of large scale, open-air living room. It is protected by a bower of trees and there are many smaller plantings, paths and places to sit. At almost anytime of day it is full of activity: people sitting, walking, talking, and simply watching other people. We don’t quite have anything like it in Portland.
Musicians of all types are common and on the day we visited it was Miercoles de Danzon. “Written in 2/4 time, the danzón is a slow, formal partner dance, requiring set footwork around syncopated beats, and incorporating elegant pauses while the couples stand listening to virtuoso instrumental passages, as characteristically played by a charanga or tipica ensemble” (Wikipedia). A band was playing an old style of salsa with songs that were slow at first but would then build to energetic crescendos. About 100 dancers were practicing and a few passersby joined in. I was reminded that my grandfather when he could barely walk would dance in the Danzon and the years and pains would seem to fall away. Ann had to grab my arm to prevent me from joining the group of dancers!
NOCHE de RABANOS
Each Christmas season the Zocalo is the site of one of the most unusual Oaxacan traditions, the Noche de Rabanos. On December 23rd there is a display of fantastic sculptures and scenes – Biblical, indigenous and of everyday life – created entirely out of radishes. The origins of this event are somewhat uncertain. It may have started with a particularly abundant radish crop sometime in the 18th century. With so many radishes, many were left unharvested and they kept growing, becoming large and misshapen. This bumper crop of all radishes of all shapes and size apparently inspired Oaxacans to get out their carving tools.
However it got started, the event is an absolute blast. This year I was particularly impressed by an elaborate carving of a bat (see above), a representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe (see below), and a cotton candy seller (see below). 2015 was the most attended Noche de Rabanos ever and I was happy to be part of the crowd.
MEZCAL and TERROIR
At Los Amantes Mezcaleria just off the Zocalo we learned a great deal, came away with a new found appreciation for this quintessentially Oaxacan spirit, and had a great time. Many of you are likely familiar with Mezcal or tequila (which is a specific type of Mezcal) as a high alcohol beverage that is best drunk fast with nose closed. There is certainly truth to this as much of the exported and commercially produced Mezcal fits that description. But well made artisanal Mezcal is an entirely different beast and it was this that we had the opportunity to sample at Los Amantes Mezcaleria.
We sat at the weathered bar, conversed with the owner and sampled Joven and Añejo Mezcal. Joven or young Mezcal is explosive and full of vibrant flavors. Añejo Mezcal is more subtle and has a lower alcohol content. Like scotch, Añejo Mezcal takes on the flavors of the wood barrels it is aged in. Both Joven and Añejo Mezcal are typically accompanied by sal de gusano, a traditional Oaxacan spice made from sea salt, toasted and ground agave worms, and chile costeño. Mezcal can also be accompanied by orange and jicama. Sampling Mezcal, we were delightfully transported to the agave fields where the plants that become this great drink are grown.
Markets throughout the city and state of Oaxaca are truly a special experience that borders on sensory overload. Shopping in the U.S. I find myself overwhelmed by the size of big box stores and the quantity of merchandise. Oaxacan markets, on the other hand, can overwhelm with their density, juxtaposition, and sheer variety. While markets are typically separated into sections for food and crafts, there are still dramatic contrasts. You’ll find fruit and dairy, meat and fish, spices and sweets all rubbing elbows. Intense smells come at you from all directions and it can almost drive your nostrils crazy. It’s a different sort of shopping and social experience and one that I love.
Oaxaca is a city, but it is also a large and diverse state with cloud forest as well some of the most beautiful coastline anywhere. While there are some touristy spots, much of the coast is still quite quiet. Ann and I had the good fortune of staying at my Aunt’s cabin in Puerto Escondido. We spent quite a bit of time at Playa Carrizalillo a lovely small beach tucked away in a cove and reached by a flight of stairs. There is usually a lot to see in a low-key sort of way. Fishing boats come and go. Surfers and bodyboarders practice their skills. Children play and swim and so too do some adults. I never forget to buy some coconut ice cream – it’s delicious.
Playa Carrizalillo is also a lovely spot for the sunset. I can’t wait until my next chance to return and until then I’ll continue aging some great memories from this trip.