Two gringos in Mexico
A Spanish language course in Oaxaca turns into a lesson on Mexican life for Shannon McKenzie.
IT’S a balmy night, I’m in a tiny restaurant overlooking the church gardens, and I am testing my courage against grasshoppers. The grasshoppers are winning.
Our waiter laughs a little: “What’s the matter? You no like chapolinas?”
Chapolinas – or rather dried grasshoppers fried in chilli and garlic – are just one of a host of unfamiliar dishes served up in the Mexico. And during my stay in Oaxaca City, I am determined to taste as many of them as possible.
But the chapolinas are proving my stumbling block because, despite their culinary treatment, they still look very much like grasshoppers. In the end I give up and opt for the chapolina salsa instead, which is surprisingly tasty and much less daunting to eat.
While I may have baulked at the grasshoppers, I quickly become addicted to the rest of the food on offer, in particular the mole (moh-lay), for which the wider region of Oaxaca is famous.
This is a rich, thick sauce boasting – according to local restaurateurs – more than 30 ingredients, which can include fruits, chillies and types of bread. These are roasted, dried and then ground down into a fine powder or paste. When the right texture is achieved, water is slowly added to transform it into a sauce. The whole process can take days, which is why restaurateurs will, quite proudly, point out the various types of mole on their menu.
There are multiple variations of the sauce – traditionally served over poultry and rice – but my favourite by far is mole negro, a rich black sauce that includes dark Oaxacan chocolate in its litany of ingredients. Sampling the various moles at every opportunity – mole amarillo, mole colorado, mole roja – leaves my taste buds utterly delighted. At the same time I feel cheated by every Mexican restaurant I’ve ever previously set foot in back home in Australia.
No Mexican meal would be complete, however, without mezcal – especially in Oaxaca State, which our guidebook refers to as the “Mezcal capital of the world”. My dislike for tequila has made me very reluctant to sample this alcoholic beverage, but my reluctance is misplaced. Though it is made from the same plant as tequila, its flavour and smoothness is entirely different to the tequila I remember from my younger days.
A visit to a local mezcal factory in the nearby town of Teotitlán puts paid to any lingering doubts that this is a cheap and rough drink. Here we are walked through the stages of mezcal production, which, like the mole, involve much time and care.
Depending on the quality of the mezcal, the process – from the harvesting and roasting of the maguey plant to the distilling and ageing of the spirit – can take up to 12 years. We spend time sampling the range of mezcals on offer, from the rather rough six-month-old mezcal, to the smoothest 12-year-old mezcal, to the flavoured crema de mezcal.
We are also instructed in the correct way to consume the drink: sipped rather than knocked back, and followed with a slice of orange rather than a lemon. After an hour in the factory, we are happy mezcal converts indeed.
When we aren’t steadily working our way through every restaurant and market stall in Oaxaca, we are working our way through the Spanish language. We came to Mexico to learn Spanish, and we find our fortnight spent at Oaxaca Spanish Magic an incredibly rewarding one.
Of course, our clumsy tongues do their best to mangle even the most basic words, which makes for some memorable comedy moments.
On one occasion I attempt to explain to the small class that I live in an apartment with three small rooms (quartos). Yet I somehow manage to tell them I live with three small cats (gatos).
“What are their names?” asks my teacher, Jessica, in Spanish.
“Kitchen, bedroom, living room,” I say, not yet comprehending my mistake.
“What cats?” asks my boyfriend, Alex.
There are some half smiles and earnest explanations when Alex unwittingly mangles the word for ‘kitchen’ into something akin to an insult.
But we persevere; each morning we take a pleasant walk through the colourful city streets to the school where for four hours we try our hardest to absorb a flood of new words and phrases.
Founded 17 years ago by director Flor Irene Bautista Carreno, the school hosts students from around the world wanting to learn or just refine their language skills. Before starting a learning program, each student is asked to complete a short test to assess their level of knowledge, and to then tailor a suitable program.
After completing my exam – and only being able to answer the questions relating to my name, my age and where I live – I am rightly assigned to the beginners program, along with Alex and two other students.
Sitting in the school’s informal classroom, our little group of four is taken through the basics of Spanish. Verb tables are repeated, grammar is corrected, many notes are taken and – to my bemusement – homework is given.
Despite my scepticism that much could be achieved in such a short time, by the end of the first week I am able to order at restaurants with confidence. I even know enough to ask directions of locals – and, more importantly, to understand their replies.
By the end of the second week, I find I can string together sentences and have conversations – albeit slowly – about myself, my family and my life back in Australia.
It is a rewarding, and surprisingly inexpensive, exercise. Students can choose how much of each day they wish to devote to lessons. Four hours a day – or 20 hours a week – cost US$140 (about $135 at the current exchange rates). At less than $7 per hour, it’s a real bargain.
Oaxaca City also has a rich history dating back to ancient times, and we spend our afternoons exploring its historic sites. The most significant of these is Monte Albán, ruins that date back to the Zapotec civilisation of 500 BC.
Located just 9km west of Oaxaca, on an artificially flattened mountain-top, stands a majestic series of pyramids, temples and terraces.
Although much of the site is the work of a diligent restoration exercise, the historic site is no less impressive for this.
The buildings themselves are gorgeous examples of ancient architecture, and we spend hours at this site walking on and around them, peeking into the tombs and tunnels, and catching a glimpse of civilisations past.
Further out is Mitla, a small group of ruins that archaeologists believe was mainly ceremonial.
This site is one-of-a-kind in Mexico, famous for its stone mosaics. Inside the temple patios, our guide points out the mosaics crafted from hundreds of stones, each of which had been cut specifically to fit the pattern design.
The mosaic patterns at this site look instantly familiar to me; our guide tells us this is because they are some of the last designs remaining from ancient Mexican civilisations, and as such have proved the inspiration for much Mexican ‘themed’ clothing, painting and art produced around the world.
But the best pastime in Oaxaca City is also the cheapest. Each afternoon we head down to the town square for some earnest people-watching.
The zócalo is the hub of activity in this city, crammed with balloon vendors, women selling chapolinas, men selling toffe-apples, old-fashioned shoe-shiners, street performers and – it seems – every young couple or young family in the town.
In the evening there are fireworks, more balloons, and music from young men playing guitars.
Here we happily while away hours, listening to snatches of conversations, watching the vibrant street performances, and immersing ourselves in the vibrant and delightful city life.
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