Easter 2010,

Oaxaca is 450 kms and normally 5 hours away, but traffic was expectedly congested so I figured it’d likely take twice as long. I decided against hitchhiking right outside of Mexico City. It’s never a good idea to thumb up at by a busy toll. Everyone’s pissed after sitting too long in the crawling traffic. And as people speed by, they tell themselves there’s a good chance the car right behind may stop. Plus, Mexico City is really not the nicest city on earth to just be hanging out on the road.

I spent an hour on the bus to Puebla, and took my chance there. Within 10 minutes of getting off the bus, I got picked up by a sales rep of a national milk company. He was going all the way to Oaxaca. Great, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting more rides. But I was a little nervous, not so much thanks to the forbidding threat from my supervisors when they found out I wanted to hitchhike, but because it was my first time riding for such a long distance. I have the good habit of falling asleep if I’m in the passenger seat for more than an hour. The steady speed at which the scenery passes is a soporific lullaby to my eyes. This spells trouble when hitchhiking long distance because a/it’s rude to the stranger driver – I should keep the person company even if no conversation is required, and b/it’s not wise to be unconscious on the road. The driver was nice, but we didn’t really click so conversation was mostly cordial. Sleepiness crept up; a couple of times I did find my head jerking ahead from almost nodding off, and immediately fought back by pinching myself and biting my tongue.

We left Puebla at 9 a.m and finally crossed into Oaxaca 8 hours later. Before dropping me off at the center, the rep drove me up a hill that offered a stunning panoramic view of the city and the valley below. The city is quite compact, and typical of colonial urban planning, you can see a prominent cathedral dominating the center.

Oaxaca, the land of the native. My favorite Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs was born here to her Mixtec mother. It was through her heart-wrenching soul-tearing songs that I was introduced to the region’s indigenous musical heritage. I knew that the culture was living strong here, but was still surprised at the number of native speakers that I encountered.

Oaxaca valley, MexicoOaxaca valley

The region is reputed for its cuisine, and rightfully so in my opinion. At that time, I wasn’t too fond of the food in Mexico City and Veracruz. I loved torta and taco, tostada and tamale, and of course all the chilli concoctions, but the food in general was too greasy and sugary for my palate and my digestive system. I’m pointing my fingers to flauta, cream-stuffed fried flutes served in a bath of oil, or churro, the ever so popular deep-fried sticks filled with dulce de leche and doused in sugar. In Oaxaca, the tastiness comes straight from all the fresh ingredients. Added to my favorite T-list were tlayuda and tejate. Tejate is a refreshing drink made by mixing water with a dough that blends corn and cacao beans together. And tlayuda is a crunchy tortilla the size of a large pizza, topped with layers of black bean and chorizo, strips of quesillo (Oaxacaqueña version of mozzarella cheese), and of course avocado, the Mexican answer to the lack of veggies in their food.

Both tlayuda and tejata are distinctively Oxaqueño, but the iconic award would have to go to mole. There’s a song dedicated to it La cumbia del mole, performed by no other than the magical Lila Downs. The recipe according to the lyrics is grinding together peanut, bread, dry almond, chilli, salt, chocolate, cinnamon, pepper, and clove. The end result is a smooth blend of dark chocolate bittersweet with other complex spices. You are treated from one rich flavor to the next, and in the end, can

La cumbia del mole begins with the line

Cuentan que en Oaxaca se toma mezcal con cafe.
They say in Oaxaca people drink mezcal with coffee.

Oaxaca was truly becoming my favorite city. Besides all the great food, it is the hometown of mezcal, the country cousin of tequila. Less refined, more heated and sincere. A proverb here goes:

Pa’ todo mal, mezcal, y pa’ todo bien, también, y si no hay remedio, litro y medio.
For all the bad things, there’s mezcal, and for all the good things, mezcal as well, and if there’s no fix, drink a liter and a half .

With my Couchsurfer host and his friend, I ventured to La casa del mezcal, going strong since the 1930s but still sporting a modest look. Dark and dinky from the outside, the catina was filled with raucous men, and as smoky as the flavor of the drink it offers. I’d sure feel intimidated if unaccompanied. Amidst the blaring jukebox music and mezcal shots, I was informed that here they drink it straight without the coffee.

On the way back, I planned to thumb up by the toll booth right at the outskirts of the city. Got there and was told not to, as the military patrol posted at the toll could arrest hitchhikers. Oops. Simple solution: walked to the other side, crossed the bridge to the convenience store, and stayed out of sight. No more worry about the legality of my action, but also no luck with any pickup despite a decent number of cars that pulled over for a quick snack and drink. I asked some local women if where I was standing was indeed a good spot to catch a ride. They weren’t sure because they hadn’t really seen anyone hitchhike.

After half an hour of digging my feet into the ground, I finally managed to write up an half-decent sign that said Puebla. Right then, a beat up car that I saw zooming by just a few minutes earlier came swinging back. The guy worked as a private company driver in el DF and went to Oaxaca with his group of friends for the holiday. He saw me, drove past, took pity on me and U-turned. We chit chatted along the way about politics, traveling, the living experience in the gigantic city of Mexico. Roughly of the same population, Mexico City is twice as large as New York City. I still remember the first days walking around Mexico City and was surprised at how uncrowded it was. The relatively “low” density proved a challenge to my social life. There’s no true downtown because each delegación (borough) is big enough to have its own center. If you live in Coyoacán in the south, you’ll have more than enough fun in Villa Coyoacán that you don’t want to bother with a 10-km trip to la Condesa or el Zocalo in Cauahtémoc.

Both my driver and I were broke and cheap, so we took the windy and scenic old national highway to avoid the tolls. It was already dark by the time we approached el DF. And just then, my driver said, “I’m gonna show you the true Mexico City. You won’t believe your eyes.” The highway curves right above the valley that nestles the whole city. As we made the turn to head down into the valley, a sea of light rolled out to greet us. The whole sky was lit up in a soft orange hue – terrible air pollution I know, but still mesmerizing to the eyes. And seeing is believing. Only then could my brain straighten itself to truly comprehend how expansive the city was.