Monte Alban, 2012
October 14, 2012
I am not a foodie. I have spent much of my adult life perfecting the art of boiling water for pasta and buying whichever marinara sauce is on sale. I have an affection for meals which mean company and conversation, but food has been a means to an end, never really savored, anticipated or enjoyed.
In Oaxaca, however, I find myself moving through the day eager for the next encounter with sustenance. The coffee alone is a momentously soothing experience. Today, my Americano came in a ceramic vessel that in any other situation would have passed for a large soup bowl. Here, it is the only size you get and not in a gross McDonald’s SUPER-SIZE way.
Our meals are a clear lesson that proximity to ingredients is everything. Fresh is an inadequate word for how close we are to the parts of our food before they become the juices, tostadas, or enchiladas we ingest. And while each is standard fare in the States, comparing the two is like contrasting the footballing skills of Lionel Messi and Tony Hibbert. One is lovably adequate, the other is so good as to be immeasurable. Price is more about ambiance than deliciousness, as today’s street vendor quesadilla matched yesterday’s terrace-with-a-view restaurant tacos.
Yesterday we experimented with plants we’d never anticipated eating (cactus and pumpkin flower). Today in the true test of Oaxaca’s culinary power I ate tomatoes and mushrooms. By choice. I’ve thrown every bit of picky to the wind and now simply assume that whatever we get, as long as it’s sin carne (without meat– Linda in particular is catching on) will not only satisfy, but set our mood to a fantastic mixture of relaxation and ecstasy.
In between meals, we’ve found a way to be productive site-seers even as we bumble through the language barrier. We still have difficulties, but as I said, Linda, dictionary in hand, is diligently getting it right. Today we had our first and only total failure when the security guards at the Cultural Museum couldn’t explain to us why we could enter the museum, but our stuffed animal giraffe could not. But yesterday was an unfettered success. We booked tickets for the rest of our journey and very easily made it to Monte Alban, a Zapotec ruin on top of a mountain about 1/2 hour outside the city.
Monte Alban is one of those special places like the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall that have become tourist traps, but because of their transcendence manage to leave you thinking grand thoughts despite the mass of gawking intruders. It’s a place I struggle to describe. We had three hours at the site, we could have spent days.
From the highest platform at Monte Alban, one can look one way and soak in the mastery of human creativity, witnessing geometrically aligned temples, monumental palaces, and, yes, an ancient soccer field. And then turn 180 degrees and gaze out off the mountain at the spiraling expanse of Oaxaca and it’s 500,000 people, its fields and the ring of yet undeveloped mountains that surround it.
It called to mind a theme I often return to is such places, that our ingenuity is at once our greatest asset and deepest burden as a species, and reinforced a theory I first encountered in Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay The Sixth Extinction. The idea that humanity’s primary purpose is as the Earth’s sixth extinction event: that what drives us to succeed and lifts up our existence to build a place like Monte Alban is ultimately what will drive us from the planet.