I like the art galleries, the black pottery, and the cold beer by the zocolo, but for me, the best part about Oaxaca is the tortillas.
Finally fulfilling a recurring New Year’s resolution, I took a leave of absence from a demanding job to study Spanish, escaping a bitter winter and a series of ordinary days. I wanted to prop up my fledgling Spanish and feel the throb of life in Mexico.
As soon as I stepped off the airplane, I knew I made the right decision.
The air was warm and dry, the sun a whisper of pink on dusty looking hills. Mexico’s southernmost Colonial city, Oaxaca is still inconvenient enough to deter many tourists and has consequently kept its unique culture in tact. Its large Mayan-speaking population flavors the art, language, food and history, and for me, graces the atmosphere with a foreign quality that I like.
My sister and I had arranged to rent a spacious apartment about ten blocks from the square, far enough from the town center to offer tranquility but close enough for convenience.
The apartments were tucked behind a massive gate that locked out the bustling world. Inside, a tropical sanctuary brimmed with hibiscus and all manner of bird life. Purple bougainvillea climbed austere grey walls, and bright red geraniums looked more like trees than garden shrub.
The apartment itself was simple but clean and Latin in its decor, Chegal-looking paintings with angles flying on winged lions through swirling skies.
In the mornings, I would wake early and slip out before my sister stirred. Usually, the gardener was already at work in the courtyard. “Buenas,” we’d say to each other quietly, aware that we were likely the only ones awake.
Mornings are cold in Oaxaca, and I had to wear the only jacked I packed, a soft green cotton zip up, along with a creme colored rebozo which I draped around my neck. Rebozos are loosely woven cotton shawls, and during the first week of my stay I bought one in the Central Mercado. Mayan women use them for all sorts of things – carrying babies, warming shoulders, or wrapping merchandise. I also carried a clean blue tea towel and a giant pink and white plastic shopping bag, the ubiquitous catchall favored by Oaxacanans.
I left the courtyard and entered the street which was already busy with vendors. The proprietor of a tiny grocery was rolling up her metal door when I passed, and a horse drawn cart loaded with bamboo was making its way down the street. I wound through a maze of unmarked streets to a brick building where two faces in the window indicated the tortillaria was open.
“Diez de maiz por favor,” I said to the smiling girls at the window who looked to be about twelve years old.
I handed one of the girls my towel and she returned with a warm bundle, the fragrance of ten hot corn tortillas seeping through the cloth. I tucked it into my bag, handed over some coins and made my way back to the apartment, the streets a bit more lively as I walked the route home.
My sister had the coffee on, sunlight streaming into our modest kitchen. I unwrapped the tortillas and we got out butter and jam, a handful of pintos left over from the night before, and a few slices of creamy Oaxaca cheese.
I’ve had many great Mexican meals in my life, but whenever I have a really good corn tortilla, I’ll always remember Oaxaca, where they were perfect.