You know that chain of Mexican restaurants popping up across the UK? Opened up by Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers after she spent time in Mexico? It’s called Wahaca. Why? Well, the name is a phonetic spelling of Oaxaca. A city and state known for it’s food. I mean I like Wahaca, but I love Oaxaca.
Whenever I have told someone in Mexico that I am visiting Oaxaca there is a certain look, a certain facial expression that follows. The look is a mixture of joy, nostalgia, contentment and excitement. I can’t think of a moment or person or place that has quite the same effect on as many people… maybe Paris? But there are people who dislike Paris… I haven’t met anyone who dislikes Oaxaca. So, I was more than a little excited to visit this mythical place of food and culture and let me tell you – it lived up to my expectations. Now I understand that facial expression entirely…
Everyone said to me – financially it is a poor state but it is culturally rich. There are 15 different indigenous groups living in the state, the majority of the population are indigenous or have at least have part indigenous heritage and those roots remain strong. In fact those strong cultural roots have helped Oaxaca be one of the few states that have resisted the hold of the cartels (gangs). Close-knit and closed communities have not bowed to their offers of money and employment – something which is fiercely lacking in the rural parts of this state.
We arrive to heat. A type of hot air that almost made my eyes water. Luckily I adjusted pretty quickly and fall in love with the warm mornings, hot afternoons and wet thundering evenings. Tropical, almost. Mediterranean, almost.
As promised the food here is amazing – Ximena took me to two of the best restaurants in the city. I eat fruit, herbs and vegetables that I never knew existed. Complex flavours both sweet and savoury and sour and rich. Flavours I will never taste again. Although I have been a strict vegetarian for 15years I make an exception and eat grasshoppers and ants – a local deliciously. They taste… good, no really. They taste nice. A totally unique flavour of protein. The closest thing I can think of is miso but less salty and more full bodied. I’m not going to lie – I was a little scared but fuck it, I did it and glad I did. Also if you don’t know what mescal is – just order it and drink it. It’s the love child of whiskey and tequila and it’s excellent / dangerous.
The markets are a rich burst of colour and smells – leather, fruit, meat, flowers. It’s remarkable. I could have spent a whole day just taking it in because it’s an overwhelming site / sight. Too much choice says Ximena and she is right. There is nothing singular about Oaxaca except maybe it’s beauty but even its beauty takes many forms.
Side note – alas the WIFI in this hotel is too poor for me to upload photos onto this blog, which is ironic as I planning on letting the photos do most of the talking, so in time, when I can, I will post a seperate blog just of photos of Oaxaca…
We spend time with Ana who is Ximena’s friend and also the Cultural Secretary of the State – so a very important woman. She is kind, glamorous, warm and wanted to ensure I got to see the very best of city. One day we watch an orchestra of Indigenous children play traditional Oaxacan songs. From the crowd elderly couples come to the front and dance – spontaneously. I nearly cried… it’s such a simple joy. The sun was warm and the breeze refreshing and for the hundred time in 2weeks I pinch myself – what is a girl from Aberfoyle doing in Oaxaca?!
We meet another of Ximena’s friend a writer, mescal maker and indigenous activist. He talks of secret sacred places and how he has great hope for the indigenous cultures in his state. They are at a turning point, he says, they are ready to fight for what is theirs. He has been told of his responsibility to fight the mining companies that want to access sacred land – like what is happening in North Dekota but of course this story never makes the news in the UK… He accepts his responsibility as an activist, as legal council. A tough dangerous job. There is nothing simple about being an activist in Mexico. I find myself saying a secret sacred wish for his safety, long may he do wonderful work.
There are many different ways to thrive and the cultural richness does not lessen the finical poverty here and it’s difficult because it drives people away from this place, it widens an already extreme gap between the poor and the rich, the urban and the rural. The growing tourism will help Oaxaca but it also has the possibility of dulling it into postcards. I don’t know what the future looks like for this beautiful state and city though it’s strength and resilience is clear. I have hope. I have hope. I have hope. Even if hope is a flawed concept.
I don’t think I have any more words for Oaxaca just now – it feels like a place that has emended in my skin even if only after 4 days.
I was sad to leave. I don’t think I will ever visit another place like it. When we walk to our hotel after the storm the flowers throw their scent into the humid air – peppermint, aniseed, honey. Oaxaca was beautiful. I haven’t captured her, nor should I. She has the type of beauty that moves through generations, across landscapes, woven into cultures with secret sacred places.
Long may she thrive.