Something from the Vault: Volume #5
While living in Oaxaca for four months during the spring of 2008, I focused a good bit of my free time on travel writing. Reading over the essays from my stay in Oaxaca revealed the philosophical questions I grappled with during that era, similar discussions which I continue to engage with today. I revised this piece to my current style while trying to maintain my thought process from four years ago. Enjoy!
When the claws of the chicken carcass caught my shirt, I realized that I was no longer wandering around my American grocers: Vons or Trader Joes or Whole Foods. Despite all attempts to avoid the sharp little nails in the tight walkway of Oaxaca’s Mercado Abastos, sometimes you just can’t escape an intimate chicken encounter. As I unhooked the poultry from my clothing, I looked around to see if other shoppers caught my foolish act.
But the chaos of the market distracted even the most aware shoppers. I was safe. Left alone in my tangled troubles, I returned the chicken to the stack of its friends, and smiled. After nearly two weeks in Mexico, I finally arrived at the full awareness that my travels had led me to a new time and space, a place of complete unfamiliarity. Following days, or even weeks of traveling, we sometimes continue to walk in that holiday daze, never entirely conceiving of our new environment as new. But I could not escape those claws and their veiny rawness, limp and lifeless, a neon sign welcoming me to a whole a new world.
I walked beyond the butcher area and heard the soundtrack of Jurassic Park blasting from a vendor selling pirated C.D.s. As I ducked under some low hanging clothes of another stall, the music shifted to a recorded mariachi band, that stereotypical sound which Americans associate with Mexican food and our misconceived notions of Cinco de Mayo. And moments later the soundtrack changed once again, flowing into the sinking notes of a Peruvian flute and an old acoustic guitar. The songs re-welcomed me to the labyrinthian land of the market. I began observing everything with fresh senses, sights and sounds and smells no longer dulled by the original daze.
I soon stumbled upon the central area where several restaurants inside the market served up local delicacies of Tamales Oaxaquenos and fried grasshopper enchiladas, savory mole and steaming chocolate con leche (no ordinary mug of campfire hot cocoa). Stopping for a moment, I enjoyed a few delights, finding refuse in careful bites of food amongst the madness of the market hustle happening all around me.
After returning to the labyrinth of vendors, I observed rows upon rows of kitchen supplies and woven grass mats stacked high, green pottery, black pottery, and some blue pottery too, sacks stuffed full of adobe, pasilla, and habanero chilies, peanuts and almonds, zapotec women selling bulbs of onions and cloves of garlic in-between the already tightly situated stalls, and yet others hocking fresh maize tortillas and fried fish. Then came the pig guts and cow tongues, rolls of yarn and rolls of a local string cheese, even rolls of intestines, and every fruit and vegetable grown in the local farms. Then the hammers and ladders and tools of all shapes, sizes, uses, and styles. Anything, really anything I could possibly want, passed through my vision.
An understanding of time vanished, as did my sense of orientation to the city of Oaxaca outside the market boundaries. Like the architects of Las Vegas casinos, the market designers, (whether intentionally or accidentally), created a space where shoppers could easily lose themselves in the capitalist habit of spending money, or more appropriate to this venue, the need to spend money for survival. Of course, locals walked with direction, surely able to find their way out with ease.
As I wandered deeper into the labyrinth, I considered the comparison to a different modern day phenomenon: Super WalMart, the cousin to the Mercado Abastos, and its antithesis. With repetition and careful organization, Super WalMart, for better or worse, is the modern day market place. Instead of chaotically stumbling onto new items and new styles of food, or being caught by chicken claws, WalMart has eased the stress of the shopper by laying out every store in exactly the same pattern. You try on jeans in the clothing section, buy peanuts in the nut aisle, and pick out your steak from neat cellophane packages. The buyer burdens no risk of mistaking hard boiled eggs in the deli section for pickled pigs feet in jars of marinating juices.
While vendors in the Abastos call out the prices of their items, bartering with every shopper and competing with their neighbor for the sell, WalMart provides men and women in blue vests to greet you at the doorway with a friendly smile, to offer a price quote of any item to ensure that you’re getting the best deal at the best price, and to carry your bags to your Subaru in the parking lot. And these blue-vested assistants don’t have to worry about family lineages of who owns what stand, they all work as a team. The blue-vested workers sign guaranteed, fortified contracts, offering minimum wage and benefit-free hour-by-smiling-hour compensation.
A WalMart shopper also doesn’t need to worry about facing signs of humanity’s struggle to live: a starving child frothing at the mouth while trying to stomach a bread roll, a toothless old man trying to sell his last woven rug, a young boy reaching up for his father’s hand so as not to be lost in the crowd, the laughter of two friends as they tell stories at the taco stand, a woman carrying her child as she picks out the two or three items for that day’s comida which she can barely afford for her family. The WalMart paradigm robs us of encountering our own life blood; it distances us from the human condition, (or does it?).
But the Mercado Abasto’s labyrinth eventually guides you to these moments of humanity, for such visions are inescapable. Even amongst the growing list of materiality, possessions and stuff and things that we don’t need as we walk the market, the essence of life appears. The grasp of the chicken reminds our slumbering thoughts that humanity struggles and thrives not just on the corner at the end of our block, but everywhere.