Beautiful Weekend with Beautiful People

Clemencia, our dear landlady, asked us one day whether we were going to visit the mountains in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca. We had actually checked into this earlier in the week as this area is becoming increasingly well-known as a destination for outdoor activities. In fact, a cooperative of five villages operates a variety eco-tourism opportunities including hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and camping. Unfortunately, the cabanas (cabins) operated by the association did not allow dogs. She told us that the mountains were beautiful and peaceful and that we really should see them. We thought she told us that she had a house in the mountains, that she was going there soon, and we thought that she invited us to visit her there and that Chester would be welcome. However our grasp of Spanish is still limited and we weren’t sure we’d actually understood correctly. We agreed to talk more that night. That evening she came to our door with her cell phone in hand and handed it to us. It was Max from her church and he was a good English speaker. He explained to Kristel that Clemencia did indeed want us to come to visit her at her home in the mountains. He told us that Clemencia wanted us to understand that it was rustic without the services of the city but that she would really like us to come. She was on her way there the next day and we could join her for the weekend. If we wanted to come, her brother could ride with us on Saturday and show us the way. He would also show us the trails in the mountains. Apparently she had everything we needed but we could bring some meat if we wanted.

We were quite excited about the idea of spending some time in the mountains but we were anxious about what to expect and how it would all go. Spending a weekend in a rural home with people that spoke almost no English (and who we didn’t know well) in a place we didn’t even know the name of seemed a little daunting.

The next day Clemencia left. We did not see much of her brother (he works long hours constructing houses) and didn’t have an opportunity to talk to him at all. We still had our doubts about whether it would indeed happen, but decided that we would get ready and if things didn’t work out Saturday morning we would just head to the mountains and explore the area on our own.

Early Saturday morning we were packing up when Odilon, Clemencia’s brother, showed up at our door looking ready to go. We finished loading the truck and headed out for what we were told would be a two hour drive. Odilon is quiet and his directions mostly consisted of fairly subtle hand gestures accompanied by small mumbles. Anytime I followed them correctly it was confirmed by a broad smile. We left the highway at the village of Teotitlan del Valle, a neat little town with many shops advertising homemade serapes, rugs, and ponchos. At this point, the small dirt road narrowed and started rising steeply up into the mountains. Had I been depending solely on Kristel for navigation at this point I would have had doubts but Odilon seemed confident and so we continued. The sketchy roads of the last three months have obviously calmed both Kristel and I; as the truck climbed upward, we agreed with Odilon that this mostly single track, steep and winding road was very good. We passed through the village of Benito Juarez, the largest of the five villages, and on to the village of Latuvi. Latuvi is 2500 meters above sea level and, although only 53 kilometers from Oaxaca, it had taken us well over the projected 2 hours to get there. Here we left the “main road” and headed towards the farm of Clemencia and her family. First, though, we made a stop at her cousin’s place: a small trout farm called Cara de Leon. She greeted us warmly and showed us the small ponds where she raises trout. She threw some feed to them and they swarmed and jumped for it. She netted a few for us and then started to cook.

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While she cooked, we enjoyed mescal and café de olla with sweet bread. Each bowl of soup she prepared came with a complete steamed trout and a delicious broth. We ate this with tortillas and were completely full as we finished it. Just at that moment she brought out more trout prepared another way. This had been baked with onions, tomatoes, and herbs. It was also delicious but as we were too full to do much more than try it. She packaged it up for us to take away.

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After lunch, our host asked if we would like to take a walk to see a waterfall. We agreed and were guided by a young boy of about 9. His name was Ignacio and he was very talkative. He prattled on rapidly and enthusiastically, completely undeterred by (and apparently oblivious to) our lack of understanding.

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He led us along a pretty trail for probably a kilometer or more to a lovely river with many cascades. We crossed on a log bridge and followed the river but as we neared the waterfall the valley narrowed and the water was too deep to get a perfect view. In fact, my attempt to get closer for a good picture only managed to soak my shoes and elicit a few laughs from Ignacio.

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After returning from our hike, Kristel, Oldilon and I hopped in the truck and headed towards the family farm on a seldom used trail. We parked the truck in a pasture and walked the last 300 meters or so to Clemencia’s house where we were warmly welcomed. The farm has three houses grouped closely together. One of these was occupied by Clememcia and the others by her brothers (and their family members).

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After the warm greeting, we were invited to go hiking with Odilon. He donned his straw hat, picked up his machete and woven satchel and led us up into the hills on small trails. He seemed truly at home in the mountains and we could certainly identify with his love for hiking. He stopped to pick peaches off wild trees; some to share with us and some to take home.

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After passing small cornfields, a few cows and a cabin we started a more serious climb. It was on these steep slopes that he started seriously searching for mushrooms. He was able to spot small bulges in the forest floor cover that he would turn over with his machete. If the mushroom underneath was to his liking, he would put it in his bag. Kristel and I joined in and even found a few mushrooms ourselves which we were proud to see added to the collection. (Kristel later watched Clemencia sort and clean the mushrooms and noted that most of ours went to the reject pile.) We continued our walk and covered several kilometers to complete a big loop that eventually led back to the farm.

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As we neared the farm, we came upon a cousin of Odilon and Clemencia’s father. He was out with his donkey gathering mushromms, herbs and wood. Kristel asked to take his picture. He was happy to oblige but inisisted that he remove his gun because he did not want it in the picture. Guns of all types are illegal in Mexico but I doubt the ancient .22 calibre rifle presented much of a threat to the civil authorities.

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When we returned Clemencia and her sister-in-law, Amada, were preparing supper. Before supper we tried a glass of homemade brandy that we both enjoyed (enough to accept the offer of seconds). Supper consisted of rice and beans with a mushroom salsa made with the locally picked mushrooms. It was very good.

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After supper we sat around and visited and learned about the area and life on the farm. We also learned a lot about Clemencia. This woman with a love of simple things and who prefers her home in the rural mountains to her home in the city is indeed worldly. She has worked in the home of a diplomat in New Orleans for a couple of years, she lived in Paris for three years and Berlin for one. She has traveled extensively in Europe and prepared meals for hundreds of guests. Her native tongue is the Zapotec dialect of the area but now speaks mostly Spanish. She can also speak understand some French. Although, she has not practised in the last ten years, she was still able to share a few words with us.

Another interesting resident at the farm is Negra. Negra is a pretty, small, black and white dog that appears to be shared by the entire family. Chester was particularly enamored with her but she was less than impressed with his constant attentions. His persistence was rewarded with a few snarls and nips to the nose but he only saw these as a temporary setback. Truth be told, he was a bit of a jerk (Kristel said he reminded her of the typical obnoxious guy at the bar who does not take no for an answer).

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As much as we enjoyed the opportunity practice our Spanish and get to know everyone better, we both still find that listening and trying to communicate requires tremendous concentration and is absolutely exhausting. We went to bed early that night feeling both exhilarated and extremely tired. The cool mountain air helped us get a great night’s sleep despite the sagging springs in the bed and the clucking of chickens and turkeys outside.

We both awoke early but lay quietly in bed as leaving our room required us to pass through Clemencia’s room. After an hour or so we heard Clemencia’s voice outside and realized that she must have been up for quite some time. When we got up, we learned that Odilon and Negra were already off on a mountain walk and mushroom gathering expedition while Clemencia and Amada were busy making breakfast. We watched as they broke up tortillas and fried them until crisp; meanwhile, in another pot, they boiled tomatillos, peppers and a local herb into a mouth-watering salsa. The mixture was blended and then added to the tortilla chips until they were slightly softened. A fried egg was added to the top and the creation was called Chilaquiles. As Odilon joined us, we enjoyed this amazing breakfast along with a drink made from corn called Atole. This now my favorite breakfast of all time!

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After breakfast, we headed out for another hike with Odilon and Negra. We covered new paths and returned along a small pretty river. It was wonderful to enjoy this time with nature and truly appreciated being with Odilon as he was able to show us many things – we learned the names of local birds and plants and he even showed us how to find the worms that are put into mescal.

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As we were nearing the farm, we passed by the house that belonged to the cousin we had met the day before. We were invited to stop for a drink and he poured us each a generous glass of home brewed Pulque. We were both a little reluctant but after I ventured the first sip, Kristel gave it a try. It was surprisingly pleasant, somewhat fruity, and quite refreshing. Our host was very pleased when we enjoyed his drink. As soon as we finished our glasses we were offered seconds. We were a little concerned about the time as were planning to cook a meal for everyone in the afternoon and were still hoping to return to Oaxaca before darkness. Their smiles were impossible to resist, however, so we agreed to “un poco mas” (a bit more). He immediately returned with our glasses filled to the brim. We shared a laugh and enjoyed our drinks. Before leaving, Odilon was presented with a large pop bottle of Pulque. As we returned to the farm with the bottle, we did not have to explain our tardiness to Clemencia and Amada.

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Clemencia had told us that she wanted to make tortillas to go with the meal we were making and we were treated to a wonderfully interesting lesson in traditional tortilla making. The dry corn was removed from the husks and then ground with a stone rolling pin and base (mano y metate). Water was added to make the dough. Clemencia explained that her mother formed the tortillas by hand and gave us a demonstration but she prefers to use a press. With the press, she formed perfectly round and uniformly thin tortillas (quite a feat for anyone who has tried it). She cooked the tortillas on a wood fired stove starting them on the hottest “burner” and finishing them on the cooler one.

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We set about roasting the chicken we had brought in our Cobb (our portable BBQ) with potatoes, carrots and onions. With able assistance from Clemencia, everything was soon cooking and we had a while to relax before it was ready. Odilon offered Pulque to everyone. I refused this time as I still had to drive. I explained to all “Manajo, Kristel y Odilon duermen” (I drive, they sleep) and got a good laugh. While we visited we were asked what kinds of meat people barbequed in Canada. Kristel answered “Pollo (chicken), res (beef), cerdo (pork) y ….” and turned to me and asked how to say “lamb” in Spanish. I responded in my best Spanish “Baaaah”. Everyone laughed and Odilon said something to the effect “Kristel hablo espanol, David hablo animales.”

Our barbecued chicken seemed to be enjoyed by all. Although it really didn’t measure up to the fabulous Oaxaquan meals we had been treated to, I think they appreciated the effort.

After eating, we packed up for our trip back to the city. We said our goodbyes and tried to express our appreciation for the incredibly warm hospitality we had been shown. The trip back was along a beautiful road with amazing views. The drive was pretty uneventful partly because it took me almost 2 hours to drive a road the road that the local taxis can supposedly negotiate in a little over an hour. We are still in awe at the incredible hospitality and generosity of these beautiful people. Although we’re not sure how yet, we hope to do something to repay their kindness.

5 thoughts on “Beautiful Weekend with Beautiful People

  1. Kiran

    I think it was very kind of you two to prepare a e-mail. This experience will definitely be one to treasure. Can you tell them your friends in Canada said gracias for all their kindness. Always nice to know you are friends are surrounded by such generosity:) Of course knowing you two I am not surprised.

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