Mercados de Oaxaqueños / by Shaun Sundholm

I was halfway finished writing this post when I woke up to the shocking news of Anthony Bourdain's passing. I don't recall ever being affected by a celebrities death like this, sure I've been shocked before but this one somehow feels different, heavy, crushing. He was such an inspiration and an actual role model in a world mostly devoid of them. One of the few people I that I really looked up to as creator, traveler, eater and enthusiast of life. He did so much to show that the "other" is not something to be feared but to be sought out and learned from. I can say with certainty that he helped stoke my curiosity about other cultures and I probably wouldn't have followed this path that I'm currently traveling on without his prodding and inspiration. I'm at a loss of words at the moment, so I'll leave this here and try to finish writing this in honor of one of the true greats — RIP.

If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.
— Anthony Bourdain

This first week of June marks seven weeks of traveling and living in Mexico and it's really starting to feel like home. As I'm settling into my little apartment here in Oaxaca, at least once a day I think about how difficult it will be to ever leave or return to — quote-unquote — real life. But until then there's markets, and tons of 'em, big ones, small ones, regional weekly ones and day-to-day ones, each offering it's own unique slice of Oaxacan life.

 Local bus station, Centro District - Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca

Local bus station, Centro District - Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca

In the last month I've tried to visit as many markets as possible in the surrounding areas, there are still a few on my list but it's become an almost daily obsession. Each day of the week plays host to a different market(s) in a different puebla or section of the city, the exception being the big markets in Cuidad de Oaxaca which run daily but also claim Saturday as their BIG day.

It breaks down like this: Sunday is Tlacolula de Matamoros, the largest and perhaps best, Monday is in Teotitlan del Valle, a nearby weaving village, that I've only visited on off days, Wednesday is La Villa de Etla Market famous for it's queso, Thursday is the market in Zaachilla, a wild affair with livestock and a more rural vibe, Friday is Ocatlan, famous for it's art and massive church and another smaller market in Cuidad de Oaxaca near the baseball stadium, known for it's carnitas and food stalls. In addition there are several organic markets in the city that are a mix of food stalls and fresh vegetables and other goods, the weekend Mercado Organico Pochote is especially great.   

 Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Most of these markets are Tanguis, pre-hispanic markets and traditional community meeting centers, running continuously for hundreds of years. The massive Sunday market in Tlacolula de Matamoros, eating up over 8 city blocks and located about 40 minutes east of Cuidad de Oaxaca by bus, is one of the oldest continually operating markets in Mesoamerica and my running favorite for the sheer size and audacity of it. The general rule is, if it's small enough to carry away you can find it at Mercado de Tlacolula.The small town also boasts a beautiful 16th century church that features a rare "Black Christ" said to perform miracles and an insanely, ornately decorated chapel.  

 Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Mercado de Tlacolula is the largest open air market in the state of Oaxaca (outside of the massive wholesale market Central de Abastos) and draws purveyors from all around the region selling every kind of craft, clothing, household item, meat, vegetable and flower imaginable. Many of the vendors and visitors are indigenous people wearing traditional dress unique to their village and speaking in dialects of Zapotec.

 Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Another reason to visit is the smoke filled food hall, broken into two areas — one side is a sort of grill your own meat market and the other side is a locally famous hall of barbacoa, filled with stalls shilling the intensely flavored goat stew to tables packed butt-to-butt with hungry market-goers. I'd been hearing about the barbacoa for weeks and finally made it out there a couple weeks ago. And the hype is real, it was hands down the best version of the dish I'd ever had, chunks of succulent goat meat served in bowls brimming with a rich red broth along with heaps of cabbage, radishes, cilantro and lime. Tortillas and salsas are served on the side to make your own tacos between slurps of soul fortifying soup. If I don't try every stall before I leave Oaxaca I will have failed miserably at life. 

*editors note: there is no photo of aforementioned barbacoa, it was gone before anyone had a chance to capture it. 

 Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Mercado de Tlacolula, Oaxaca

The market in Zaachilla is a completely different experience, much smaller and for lack of a better term, "local". It's a half an hour south of the city by bus and when you enter the market directly out the the bus station (gravel parking lot) you're immediately confronted with a street full of live turkeys and other fowl all ready for your Sunday dinner. It immediately sets the scene that this market is a bit different from the rest where it's not uncommon to see teenaged girls casually walking around with 3 or 4 live turkeys. 

 Mercado de Zaachilla, Oaxaca

Mercado de Zaachilla, Oaxaca

While much smaller than the massive Tlacolula affair it makes up for size with a certain air of festivity and liveliness. Maybe its the proximity to the weekend or just how Zaachilla does it but it was brimming with people eager to move their wares or tempt you to try whatever delicious thing they were selling. 

 Mercado de Zaachilla

Mercado de Zaachilla

I visited this market one sunny Thursday morning with my Spanish teacher, Estefania, it was a sort of real world language lesson we like to do instead of class once a week. After circling the market a few times inspecting the excellent local woodworking and stopping to buy honey and taste the local tepache, a fermented drink somewhat similar in taste to kombucha, we headed in to the inner sanctum, the prepared food area in search of the Zaachilla take on barbacoa.

After passing what felt like dozens of nearly identical stalls lined up on the street under massive blue tarps, we settled in at the one my Maestra said was the best. I trust her. This time we skipped the bowl of soup and opted for tacos de barbacoa enchilada as we were short on time and long on hunger. These aren't what you think of as tacos back in the states but massive plate sized, fresh tortillas filled with unctuous goat meat in a rich red sauce. Before we could even finish the first round of massive tacos Estefania was ordering a second round from the woman handily manning the double cauldrons of barbacoa enchilada (red) and blanco  while the man of the operation was passing out little plastic cups of mezcal, gratis as is the custom, in between taking the money and it was only 11:30am. When in Oaxaca...

 Cal for treating comals used to cook tortillas - Mercado de Zaachilla, Oaxaca

Cal for treating comals used to cook tortillas - Mercado de Zaachilla, Oaxaca

One thing I've noticed at these markets (and in homes and life in general) is that they are run by and almost totally staffed by women — selling, cooking, making, ordering, you name it. The men, if even present, are usually there to help in some menial task like guiding people to open seats or handling the money. Women run this country and it's awesome. Coming up this summer are the national elections in which a record number of women are running for senate seats and the first Indigenous woman is running for President. I can only think that if the men would get out of the way and let women really run this country at the governmental level things would be in a much better place. 

 Mercado de Zaachila, Oaxaca

Mercado de Zaachila, Oaxaca