In the past two weeks, I’ve been to five markets and I haven’t even visited the ones in the pueblos yet. I try to remind myself that I’m going to be here for awhile, and that I’ll have plenty of time to visit them, and won’t it be nicer to go when I actually need to buy things like onions and chilis? But markets are my crack: I can’t get enough of them.
The biggest market in town is the Mercado Abastos on the southwestern end of town, near the second-class bus terminal and a good 10-15 minute walk away from the tourist-friendly Centro. It’s open everyday, but Saturday is its “market” day, the day people come from all over to sell and buy everything under the sun. It’s not in either of my guidebooks, the fussy Fodor’s or the more adventurous Moon Oaxaca, and from talking to my host mother, I get a sense that middle-class Oaxacans aren’t too fond of it. But chowhounds, of course, who tend to rate food more highly when it’s harder to get, like a frat brother who’s been hazed, love to write loving stall-by-stall descriptions of its culinary highlights.
Once we went past the zocalo, we soon stopped seeing other tourists and found ourselves squeezing between other people heading to the market with big bags on narrow sidewalks. I somehow ended up in charge, with a map and some sense of where we were going but with no real idea of what I was looking for. The streets felt louder, smellier, oilier even.
When we arrived, there was no real entrance. We just plunged in, finding ourselves at first surrounded by flowers, which segued into fish which segued into bread.
Tamales! I needed to buy one, but with no fork, I ended up carrying it for an hour, this hot little bundle that the vendor had somehow kept intensely warm in the depths of her straw basket.
And then we were in the religious section, with candles, skeletal images and books, on Wicca, and then the section for piñatas and the section for New Age health supplements.
We kept turning and turning, and I lost all sense of north-south-east-west. Jane was looking for crafts, and we kept asking people who just said, “Oh, straight ahead,” when that could mean absolutely anything.
We saw plastic cups hanging in bunches over our heads, tubs of yogurt big enough to bathe a child in, and then suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a stall full of frothy wedding and First Communion dresses.
Of course we passed fruit and vegetables, and the white onions that I love because with their tops on, they look like green onions with tumors, but we also passed rows of turkeys and chickens lying on the ground and cages crammed with ducklings and rabbits.
It was everything I knew it would be. Oh the excitement to being somewhere with live animals that you know are just waiting to be eaten! The unrecognizable herbs, little old ladies carrying mysterious sacks that could hold anything, perhaps the best homemade tortillas in the world! Yes, your pocket could be picked in the mad scrum of humanity, but you might also find anything and everything.
At the same time, It’s not an easy market to be in. It’s not like sitting in the shade of a secret garden at the organic market, serenely eating the most delicious, healthy-tasting taco ever (more on that to come). In a way, if you’ve seen Dongdaemun market in Seoul, or been in other similarly chaotic markets, it’s not as shocking and exciting as it might be to an American. At the same time, my American friends didn’t like it at all. But we’re going to another massive market at Tlacolula, a pueblo outside of Oaxaca, on Sunday!