Monday, 3 November 2008

The secrets of the agave and the ambiguity of cemetery tourism

Oaxaca ― Ocotlán de Morelos ― Santa Catarina Minas ― Oaxaca ― Xoxocotlán ― Oaxaca, Friday 31 October

It is difficult to find an appropriate title for today's ― short ― article. The two main events were a visit to an organic mezcal producer and to a cemetery on Day Of The Dead.

Dating back to Prehispanic times, mezcal is a distilled liquor made on agave, or maguey as the plant is also called. Yes, tequila is a type of mezcal, but Oaxaca's indigenous will tell you that this highly commercialised drink is no way near the quality of the mezcal produced in Santa Catarina Minas by Productores de Mezcal Real Minero.

The Global Exchange group went there after breakfast in Ocotlán and had a very interesting guided tour by highly knowledgeable Graciela Ángeles Carreño through all phases of cultivation and production of the family's organic mezcal production. There are 14 different sorts of agave. They only blossom once, and for some sorts it takes 30 years. This also means that you can only harvest their fruits once, and you actually can make use of the entire plant.

What is also interesting is that Mezcal Real Minero cooperates with other local producers from all over Mexico, in order to have a common quality label, Real Minero being the only organic producer though. One of the customers is the governor of Oaxaca… which is kind of tragicomic, as he is not exactly supporting the indigenous people.

Mezcal Real Minero comes in many varieties, the most surprising probably being the 'chicken breast' variety. Yes, apart from different fruits that are actually in the mezcal while it is heated for 24 hours, a chicken breast also delivers to the taste, without being in the mezcal itself though.

After an excellent lunch at the family Ángeles Carreño's, and tasting of a few of the varieties, I finally got to buy postcards and stamps back in the city of Oaxaca. As it had become rather urgent to send some of the cards, for example one was a birthday card for yesterday, I stayed in the post office writing the cards, so I could send them immediately, mailboxes not being exactly a common sight in the streets of Oaxaca.

While I was writing, more and more young people came in, preparing and putting on their costumes for the Day Of The Dead Celebrations. Again, a bit like carnival, which is not really my thing ― but the costumes here seemed genuinely homemade, and this very well. As always with one predominant theme: death.

In the evening, after another simply delicious dinner at a local home, we got to finally see this unusual and impressive celebration in Xoxocotlán, a Mixtec community. There was an exhibition of big sand paintings. Theme: death. They were very colourful and imaginative. The most impressive experience though was visiting the cemetery. Imagine a cemetery at night, every grave decorated with bright orange flowers, candles and skulls. Some of them with relatives sitting at the side. Add a multitude of tourists with flashing lenses, and big boots of which only the few tried to step between the graves instead of walking over or even on them.


Glossary: spices = especias

Beetle count: 314 (thereof just 5 'New Beetles')

Today I will not explicitly ask you to vote.

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