Hunting an apartment in Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico
No superhot landladies, no horrifying cesspits to generate hardcore traveler cred, no impromptu parties, no death-defying escapes.
Right up until the word tinaco was uttered, my apartment hunt in Oaxaca had been shockingly tame, even boring. Nothing I could stretch into an amusing lie, er…story had happened.
I was nostalgic for the days when my rickety Spanish required that I resort to pantomime to communicate.
I was just…talking to people. I was talking Spanish, so it was cool, but still. I was standing around like a bearded potato wedge…talking.
I’d made appointments with people who showed up on time and acted normal. I looked at apartments. Most were okay, but none had everything I wanted: a terrace to do yoga on in the morning, a nearby laundromat, a taquería within easy walking distance.
So, when Jony, my potential landlord said I would need to keep an eye on the tinaco, a sharp thrill went through my body. I had no idea what tinaco meant. Animal, mineral, vegetable? Bloodthirsty saltwater mutant?
Couldn’t tell you!
An arboreal cousin of the capybara?
Jony explained the tinaco was on the roof. This only raised my hopes that something cool was about to happen even higher.
Maybe the tinaco was an arboreal cousin of the capybara, but instead of being calm and sweet, it was vicious and unpredictable and possessed sharp claws, long, serrated fangs, and a particularly virulent form of rabies.
I was about to find out.
Jony and I climbed a narrow set of stairs to what is now my terrace and then proceeded up a ladder bolted to the side of the building to the roof.
A gentle breeze greeted us. I looked out over the flowering trees and colonial buildings of Oaxaca to the surrounding hills. I plucked a ripe avocado directly from the branches of the tree overhanging the roof.
“This is the tinaco,” Jony said.
Turns out, a tinaco is a water tank located on a roof.
If I didn’t make sure to keep the tinaco full by pumping water up from the cistern every couple of days, I wouldn’t be able to take showers, and my toilet wouldn’t flush.
Good to know, but not exciting.
The word itself is cooler than what it means. Tinaco combines the Spanish word tina, meaning “tub” or “large container of water” with the Nahuatl suffix -ahco, which means “up” or in “the high part.”
I dig that kind of linguistic cross-pollination.
And even though filling the tinaco every 48 hours wouldn’t be an adrenaline rush, I took the place.
The terrace is sweet, there is a laundromat next door, and I don’t even have to leave the compound to eat awesome grilled meat. I’ve been here 10 days now and the place is a solid win.
Even if I’ll probably never get attacked by a slavering arboreal rodent or execute a death-defying escape from a superhot landlady with rabies.
Follow More Than Tacos on IG for cool Oaxaca photos. ZERO rabid rodents, guaranteed!
It’s amazing how things fall into place here.
I commented on that to a new friend and she smiled and said, “That’s Oaxaca.”
She didn’t say anything further, but the look on her face spoke volumes about her love for this place. How it brims with a reliable magic that is always appreciated, never taken for granted.
It’s not perfect, her expression said, but it’s wonderful.
For my part, I feel way beyond lucky to live here.
One thing that has fallen into place in the last ten days is my new apartment.
It’s got a sweet rooftop terrace and an avocado tree in the yard.
If I need to do laundry, there is a lavandería a few steps away.
If, come winter, I want to go to the beach, there is a transportes company right next door with vans leaving for destinations all over the state.
If I’m hungry, there is an asadero in the same compound. I don’t even have to go out onto the street and I can be eating delicious marinated pork grilled to perfection. Or steak, or chicken. Don Luis also makes a tasty tlayuda, among other options.
(A tlayuda is sort of like Oaxaca´s version of a quesadilla. I’m still wrapping my head around Oaxacan cuisine, not to mention trying to eat all of it, so I’ll get into tlayudas in a later post.)
If I want tacos…I mean, when I want tacos, I head up the street toward the Zócalo (central plaza) to a great little taco cart for tacos al pastor (marinated, rotisserie grilled pork). It's half a block past the comedor that serves tasty comida típica (everyday food).
If, instead, I hook a left and walk one block, I can grab tacos de surtido (mixed pork cuts).
In other words, I’ve got everything I need close to home. Which is a real blessing, because the idea is to keep my butt in my chair writing stories.
However, when my butt gets sore or I get stuck on a story, I wander the city. It’s beautiful and full of wonderful people, so I always return refreshed and inspired.
On a recent walk, I picked up a bag of chapulines (grasshoppers).
Chapulines are a common food item here in Oaxaca, even a delicacy. Before being sold, they are toasted on a comal (smooth, flat griddle) and seasoned. The three flavors I’ve seen are chili, garlic and natural (salt and lime).
According to Wikipedia, they have a higher protein content than beef, which is about 55% protein. Chapulines, in comparison, range from 62 to 75% protein and cost about half as much.
The lady selling the chapulines let me sample all three flavors. I almost went with the garlic, but in the end I took home the chili flavored. That aluminum scoop you see in the top left photo holds about a double handful. One of those dumped into a plastic bag set me back a buck.
I could have got a kilo for $12 USD, but I wasn't that hungry.
I headed for home, thinking I’d eat my hoppers on a tostada with refried beans and avocado.
When I got though, I decided I’d try them with some of the Oaxacan chocolate I’d also purchased. That worked out well. So well, in fact, that I ate all the chocolate and most of the grasshoppers and put off the tostadas til the next day.
I’m not a food critic, but to me, chapulines taste like whatever they’re seasoned with. The exoskeleton imparts a slight crunch, and the insides of the bugs are soft. The antennae don’t seem to make it through the toasting process, and only very rarely did a leg get stuck in my teeth. I definitely enjoy them, and will be eating more chapulines.
In fact, a tour guide I met while sampling mezcal the other day told me that here in the city chapulines are featured as ingredients in pizza, ice cream, tacos, tamales, and mezcal. So I’m planning on a day of eating almost nothing but chapulines.
If there’s a Mexican market in your town, you could pick up a bag and try them yourself. If you do, let me know what you think in the comments or on Instagram @more_than_tacos_oaxaca
PS--Funnily enough, Mexico isn’t the first place I’ve eaten grasshoppers. That honor goes to Uganda, where I spent 6 months working on a chimp project after graduating from UC Davis.
One morning much like any other I woke to find camp abuzz. The grasshoppers had arrived, from wherever they came from, and the Ugandans were excited. They rushed to gather baskets and sacks and head out to the savannah.
The grasshoppers were clinging to the tops of the tall grass, waiting for sun to dry their wings, which were wet with dew, so they could fly.
An hour later, the sacks and baskets full, the Ugandans returned to camp and an impromptu feast of grasshoppers sautéed with tomato, garlic, and onion broke out.
As with the chapulines, the seasonings dominated the taste of the Ugandan hoppers. I'm starting to suspect that isn't an accident.
Drop a note in the comments or hit me up on Instagram--more_than_tacos-oaxaca.
Or: Why I’m changing my name to Goldilocks
If you’ve been following along the last few weeks, you know I started this Mexico jaunt in Colima, a small state on the Pacific Coast. After a decade living in Alaska, it was just too hot, which came as a surprise to nobody except, perhaps, yours truly.
So, after 10 sweltering days in Colima and neighboring Nayarit, I made the trek to a friend's house in Mexico City, which, at over 7,000 ft elevation, was blissfully cool.
Again surprising nobody except myself, I decided after a week that a city of 20 million people was just too big. So, despite all its cultural and historical attractions, not to mention some great friends and a restaurant in a neighborhood market that I came to love, I put Mexico City in my rearview mirror.
Unintentionally showing off my inability to learn from recent history, I decided to head back to the beach.
Yes, despite nearly drowning in a puddle of my own sweat only a week prior, I couldn’t resist trying the coast one more time. I hopped a flight to Puerto Escondido, a surf town about 600 miles south of Colima. And guess what?
It was too hot!
It was also beautiful, of course.
Puerto Escondido was breezier and less humid, so actually more pleasant than Colima and Nayarit had been. But, it was still too hot. It was also overrun with surfers from all over the world. (Imagine that, surfers in an internationally famous surf town!)
I’ve nothing against surfing, mind you, but it’s not my thing. I’d like to learn how, one day.
I just want to surf somewhere magic where the air isn’t too hot, the water isn’t too cold, and I can ride to the beach on my pet unicorn, Cuddles.
But, since sitting around waiting for Cuddles to show up didn’t sound like a good plan, even to me, I got a little bit smart and bought a bus ticket to the city of Oaxaca.
Like Mexico City, Oaxaca is in the mountains—it sits in a valley at about 5,000 feet. The days are warm, and the nights are cool. Oaxaca’s population, though, is far less than Mexico City’s, and it is full of gorgeous colonial buildings and street art.
I visited Oaxaca 10 years ago and loved it. So much so that it was my original destination this time around, before the possibility of house-sitting in Colima instead of paying rent distracted me.
All of which means that in addition to hauling my luggage through Puerto Escondido, I was carrying some high hopes to the bus terminal. I’d chosen the night bus so I wouldn’t have to pay for a bed that night.
It was 8:45 PM and at least 90 degrees outside when I boarded the bus and was enveloped in the luxurious coolness of the air conditioning. I found my seat, got comfortable, and popped some antihistamines to knock me out for the 10-hour journey.
As I drifted off to sleep, some naysaying part of my brain offered up the aphorism, “You can never step in the same river twice.”
I told myself to shut up and closed my eyes.
* * *
I woke when the bus downshifted. I looked out the window and saw we had nearly arrived at the station.
The morning air was delightfully cool—neither too hot nor too cold—when I disembarked. Even through the fog of antihistamines and 10 hours of bus travel, everything looked perfect. And it just got better as my taxi moved away from the bus station and toward my hostel where breakfast awaited.
That was five days ago. Spending the intervening 120 hours in Oaxaca have me thinking about John Denver’s lyric in Rocky Mountain High–the one about being born in the summer of his 27th year and coming home to a place he’d never been before.
Of course, I’ve been to Oaxaca once before, I’m 45, and I can’t sing, but you get the picture.
Oaxaca is better than just right. It is magical, and I love it.
Learning a language is fun because the complexities of languages are essentially limitless.
Learning a language can be frustrating for the same reason.
Recently, learning Spanish was amusing.
For the last week, I’ve been staying in Mexico City with my friend Moni. Learning to live in a culture I thought I knew more about than I do has been a humbling experience.
I haven’t committed any egregious errors that I know of (yet), but I’ve snuck in a faux pas or two.
As a result, I’ve taken to asking a lot of questions to check my assumptions about whatever is happening at the moment. In other words: I’m asking stupid questions constantly.
The funny part is, I don’t always get those right.
The other night, Moni and I were at the neighborhood tire shop—the vulcanizadora—because her car’s front tires kept losing air. We were standing on the sidewalk chatting. I was watching a light rain fall on some beautiful flowering tree, or maybe there was a vine growing up the tree—don’t even start on me about botany with all the language learning going on—while the tire guy was breaking the lug nuts loose on the tire.
I figured he was going to check for leaks with soapy water like we would in the States. But I thought I’d check, because it’s a habit now.
Here’s what I said, translated from Spanish:
He’s looking for fruit punch?
Moni laughed. “Not in the tire. We don’t keep it there, and anyway, it is not Christmas.”
Turns out, I should have said ponchadura, not ponche, to refer to the hole in the tire.
Ponche (recipe here) is a warm drink made with cinnamon and a variety of fruits such as apples, raisins, pineapple, and others I’ve never heard of. It is served in the days leading up to Christmas.
Not only that, it’s usually served in cups, not tires.
In writing news, I’ve been sending out stories and adding to my rejection log. One of these days I’ll get published in a real, live literary journal, but in the meantime, I’ll keep celebrating every 25 rejections, because that means I’m in the game.
Maybe I’ll get a publication credit for Christmas…but if I don’t, I’ll drown my sorrows by drinking as much ponche as I can.
The wandering continues...I fled the coast for the high-altitude metropolis of Mexico City.
When they reach the Pacific Ocean, red salmon smolts are no bigger than your pinkie finger.
Mexico City is home to approximately 22 million people. That’s more than 8 times the population of Chicago, the biggest city I’ve ever lived in.
I'm confident I know how those little fish feel.
We arrived last night, late.
For much of the trip, lightning crashed from cloud to cloud behind the volcanic mountains ranging north of the highway, the strikes so close together it was like watching a wildfire rage across the heavens.
La guerra de los dioses, one of my new friends said. The war of the gods.
Today, when I woke, I climbed to the roof to look around. Peace had broken out. Cotton-ball clubs filled the deep-blue sky. A soft breeze danced by. Sunlight caressed the brightly painted houses.
On the neighboring roof, a friendly cat stretched in the sun.
My new neighborhood is known as Casas Alemán. German Houses.
A tiendita down the street sells snacks and candy.
A block away there’s a fruit stand full of mangos, the miniature bananas I love so much, and tons more fresh produce.
Another block away there’s a collection of market stalls selling everything under the sun.
I found a small, cheerful-looking restaurant to eat lunch: nopal leaves stuffed with homestyle cheese served with beans and rice and piping-hot tortillas made by hand and cooked on the spot.
Speaking as a small fish, I’m happy to call Casas Alemán my home pond.