Wednesday, February 4, 2009

You can't miss it...

I visited a friend in his hometown of Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca this weekend. Juxtlahuaca is even smaller than Huajuapan -- it’s a sleepy little village tucked away in the Oaxacan sierra. But what Juxtlahuaca lacks in cosmopolitanism, it makes up for in unspoiled nature. We spent most of the weekend biking, running and hiking through breathtaking mountain vistas.

But when we weren’t doing that, we were lost in the car, looking for fish.

Let me explain: My friend had heard about a new restaurant in town. The restaurant supposedly sold fresh fish. Yum. We inquired with a friend of a friend of a cousin of the alleged restaurant owner (such is Juxtlahuaca) and were told that the restaurant was about 60 minutes away, straight up the side of a nearby mountain.

“It’s near the radio antenna on the top of the mountain. You can’t miss it.”

You can’t miss it. Famous last words.

Already hungry in anticipation of a delish fish dinner, my friend, myself, his parents, and his brother all piled into a tiny car and began the journey up the mountain. We were optimistic that we'd eat fairly quickly. After all, we could see the radio antenna from the town below –- how long could the journey really take?

But the dirt roads were awful and multiple switchbacks made our ascent slow. At the 60-minute mark, we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dust and trees and rocks.

At the 80-minute mark, we were still in the middle of nowhere, but spotted another car pulled over on the side of the road. We stopped to ask for directions. The driver was asleep.

After about 90 minutes, we were still in the middle of nowhere, but had finally reached the radio antenna. Unfortuantely, there was no restaurant in sight.

At this point, there was discussion about turning the car around. We were really really really hungry. There was obviously no restaurant there. And where, exactly, were we going to find fresh fish on top of a mountain, anyway?

But we pushed forward, finally arriving in a tiny, dusty mountaintop town called El Mesón. We continued creeping along the dirt road, slowing to allow a woman with her herd of sheep to pass in front of us. We rolled down the window to ask for directions.

“Do you know of a restaurant that sells fish around here?”

She looked at us as if we all had two heads. What a crazy question. There were no restaurants around here, she said. We’d have to keep driving, she said. Past a church, she said. We should ask a guy named Fidel, she said.

It took us another 10 minutes to find the church. It was deserted. No Fidel.

We kept going, eventually crawling up to a house with a couple of women standing outside.

Buenas tardes. Does Fidel live here?”

Fidel wasn’t around. However, the women thought they had heard about a fish farm about 10 minutes up the road. But the fish were sold fresh, not cooked.

No Fidel. No restaurant. No dinner. Bummer.

We piled back into the car, hungry enough to contemplate eating the fish raw. (Had I learned how to make sushi in Japan?) We kept driving. 10 minutes turned into 20 minutes. 20 minutes turned into 30. After taking a wrong turn, we finally saw tarps and people and smoke in the distance.


The road was too muddy and bumpy to continue driving, so we abandoned the car and walked about 800 meters to where the people were standing. They were Mixtec, members of an indigenous community whose ancestors were part of a pre-Columbian civilization that stretched through Oaxaca and several neighboring states.

We walked up to the crowd. The lively banter in Mixtec stopped. Wide-eyed children hid behind their mothers, not knowing what to think of the motley crew before them. But two Mixtec men stepped forward and offered handshakes and friendly greetings in Spanish.

Then they saw me, the green-eyed gringa.

“Ummmm…you’re not from here, right?” They asked in Spanish.

“No, I live in Huajuapan,” I answered in Spanish.

They looked at me, confused. "But you're not Mexican, right?"

"No, I'm from the United States. I'm gringa." I smiled.

“Ah, I know the United States well. I lived there for about twelve years,” a woman replied in perfect English with almost no accent. She leaned over to explain who I was to an older woman, switching between English and Spanish and Mixtec flawlessly.

The men led us up to four large pools that they'd constructed out of cinder blocks. They threw some feed into one of the pools, and hundreds of hungry grey fish swarmed to the surface. They’d been raising truchas (trout) here for the last two years, they said. The land had belonged to the Mixtec people for generations, they said. They’d tapped a fresh-water mountain stream to fill the tanks, they said. Everything was clean and natural, they said. They’d be happy to make us some dinner, they said.

And would we like a beer while we waited?

¡Si, por favor!

They handed us bottles of Corona and set up a makeshift table -– two big planks of wood suspended across four tree stumps. They pulled about a dozen big fish out of the tank, cleaned them right before us, and fried them up in a big metal pot over a campfire. They cooked potatoes and warmed handmade tortillas and chopped tomatoes and chiles and onions for fresh pico de gallo. We all chatted away -– in English and Spanish and Mixtec –- through this process.

Turns out the English-speaking woman had worked in the U.S. as a coyote. She helped undocumented Oaxacans cross the U.S.-Mexican border to find work. As she related her stories to us, one of the Mixtec men looked at me.

“Please don’t judge us,” he said. “Now that you know Oaxaca, you can see that we face a desperate situation here. We want to work, but we have nothing except for these fish.”

I assured him that I understood completely. While almost any gringo is aware of the 12 million Mexican immigrants living in the United States, many don't know that about half a million of those folks are indigenous Mexicans -- and that the latter usually have a pretty rough time in los Estados Unidos, considering that many don't speak Spanish, let alone English. But this gringa was informed. He was preaching to the proverbial choir.

“Let’s see how el negrito (the black man) will welcome us in your country,” he said, affectionately referring to Obama.

I found myself at a loss for words. But I assured him that many estadounidenses were also ready for big change, and that our election of Obama was a sign of that.

“And let’s make sure that we take a picture with you. Nobody will ever believe that a güera (white girl) was on top of this mountain with us!”

I could barely believe that I was there myself, having been lost on winding dirt roads for the better part of 2.5 hours. Sure, we could take a picture, I assured him. (You can see the results above. I'm only 5'6," pretty average by U.S. standards, but I literally towered over the tiny Mixtec women.)

Dinner was amazing, but the conversation was even better. When it was time to go, we packed up gifts of extra fish and tortillas and mountain herbs and reluctantly said our goodbyes.

"Please come back soon. But come earlier next time."

You can’t miss it. I’m glad I didn’t.


Quinto Sol said...

“Ummmm…you’re not from here, right?” They asked in Spanish.

You should have responded: I am a direct descendant of Quetzalcoatl :-)

Say, if you get a chance, and you find it, would you please try Del Maguey Mezcal? Minero or San Luis Rio... and let me know what you think. TIA

Oh- and we, Mexicans, are short because we like to pack quality, not quantity [grin]

Lisa (LGMB) said...

I felt so small in the world compared to your hilltop moment ... how can that be? LOL

I love your blog!