After two weeks of almost no cycling at all, and all the hallmarks of a totally sedentary life (e.g. buying groceries) we took off this morning. It has been an absolutely perfect day.We got up this morning a bit later than we wanted, but we couldn’t leave at first light (the way that we had planned) since we discovered that the laundromat that had washed our clothes hadn’t returned our laundry bag. You can’t wash your own clothes at a laundromat in Mexico, which means that you have to turn your clothes over to folks at the lavaderia to wash them for you. It seems to me that their job consists of two things: washing clothes and not losing clothes. This bag is the second thing that’s gone missing, and we were pretty frustrated, since we have a limited amount of stuff. That said, we also have a limited amount of Spanish, and I wasn’t sure I knew how to go about demanding that they buy us a new bag if they couldn’t find ours.
Anyhow, before going to the lavaderia, we said goodbye to Jorge, Yolanda and their family, which was a really warm and beautiful goodbye. They are an absolutely wonderful family, warm, sincere and funny, and we felt much more like family than tenants while we were with them. They truly made our time in Oaxaca memorable, and their patience with our miserable, broken Spanish was very generous, since they have no need to patiently sit through our broken attempts at conversation when the rest of the hostel was filled with fluent Spanish speakers.
Our Oaxacan family (minus one son, already at work)
Flat? What’s that?
We left the hostel and went to the lavaderia, where fortunately we were able to find the bag, and then we were off…into the first stretch of truly flat riding that we’ve encountered since Texas. It was awesome. Oaxaca sits at the top of the Central Valley, and so as we rode south through beautiful countryside, mountain ranges sat off to our left and right, providing spectacular views and a constant sense of appreciation for the nice terrain (and also a grim reminder that we’ll have to climb one of those ranges tomorrow).
The famous black pottery of San Bartolo
Riding out of Oaxaca is a great experience because you pass all of the small towns that specialize in the various arts and crafts for which Oaxaca is famous. We passed through San Bartolo de Coyotepec, which is the source of all of Oaxaca’s famous black pottery. I had been there before on a previous trip, but we entered one of the bigger houses/pottery factories so that M could see the huge variety of designs and styles. We were lucky enough to walk in just as one of the men in the studio started a demonstration of making a vase from scratch. It was pretty incredible. Using only his hands (no potter’s wheel), he whipped up a beautiful vase in no time. It was pretty amazing, which I guess the potter knew, since he seemed inured to the impressed gasps that escaped the lips of everyone watching. We thanked them for the demonstration and then hit the road again.
As we passed out of the more populated part of the valley and headed towards a big hill and sweeping vistas, I saw a little place on the side of the road that said “Mezcal factory.” I demanded that we stop and check it out.
It was awesome! But before describing the experience, first some terminology. There are over 250 species of agave which is a great big plant that I think is related to the cactus. Over 40 of these can be used to produce an alcoholic drink called “mezcal.” When the blue agave is used to make that drink in the Mexican state of Jalisco, the product is called “tequila.” So tequila is just like “champagne” – it’s defined according to the place where it’s made. If you make liquor from blue agave in, say, Oaxaca state, it’s called “mezcal.”
So mezcal is the name of the drink, and tequila is just one particular types made in a certain place. So while Burgundy is pinot noir made in Burgundy, France, it’s still wine. So too with mezcal. And Oaxaca is mezcal-central. And mezcal is vastly more interesting than tequila, since tequila is just one type of agave. In other words comparing tequila and mezcal is like comparing Burgundy and wine.
So we checked out this little mezcalero’s (mezcal-maker’s) operation. It was tiny but fascinating. He digs up the massive block of the mezcal plant and covers it with fire-hot rocks and dirt in a pit for five days. Then he hacks the mezcal up and crushes it using this horse turned millstone. The guy actually uses a horse. This was the coolest thing ever! Then he distills it, putting it into these jerry cans. Finally the mezcal is either sold in the jerry cans (to people who live high up in the mountains where it’s very cold and they prefer the heat of vicious, crude mezcal) or put into barrels to age.
The heart of the mezcal plant, ready to be roasted
The agave plants are tossed into this fire pit to roast for 5 days
Grind stone to which an actual horse is hitched to help grind the agave to a pulp
The distilation process uses pretty rustic equipment
We bought a tiny bottle of añejo (mezcal aged for 5 years) to celebrate my birthday tomorrow, which Rodrigo poured into a little bottle for us by siphoning from a cask. It was a really great experience and Rodrigo, the mezcalero, was sweet and generous with his time. It was particularly nice to be able to carry on a complete conversation in Spanish, since there’s no way that we could’ve learned what we learned, or shared the warmth with him that we shared, before we took our two weeks of classes. That said, we need to learn more.
After that we rode on to the town of Ocotlan, where we took lunch at a little restaurant called “Comida y Mezcal” (Food and Mezcal). We had a delicious meal of enchiladas, and I tried some of the locally made mezcal, of which they have a huge selection (distinguished by the type of agave it’s made from).
Guess what they serve here?
After another couple of hours we got to the sleepy, dusty cowboy town of Ejutla (eh-HOOT-luh). Riding into town we passed a local baseball game, which was cool, but the coolest thing was the parking lot by the baseball field where there were spots for cars, trucks and horses. We found a room to rent, although it’s not quite in a hotel, and we’ve just showered and are now about to go out to study Spanish, read and relax in the town square, by the church and market. All in all a beautiful day, and definitely a great day before tomorrow’s ride up and over the mountains.