Monday, July 23, 2007

Eating in the Streets

There is food in the streets in Mexico. And by that I mean literally in the street.

At heavily trafficked intersections the vendors are walking in traffic lanes, selling everything from candy bars to fruits and vegetables. In a country without a social safety net, this is a means of subsistence for many. Even young children frequently are seen wandering in traffic hawking gum and candy. Chicklet! Chicklet! they cry.

On our way out of Mexico City we were making great time until the freeway came to a sudden, screeching halt at a major construction site. Major may be an understatement. Huge new overpasses were being constructed. Traffic was at a standstill. Sure enough, we were soon swarmed over with vendors. Peanuts, nougat candy, quesadillas, sodas and juices. It´s a constant refrain of Non, gracias. Non, gracias.

You begin to think this is a country constantly nibbling on something. At the mountain passes, the highway is lined with small food shacks. Often just a wooden hut with a couple of plastic tables in front, but also a grill smoking aromatically. One eatery after another, all cheek by jowl and butting right up to the highway.

We were on the toll road and somehow the food vendors know where the delays are. Any time you are caught in line in front of a toll both, you can count on the old ladies in their black shawls approaching with boxes of sweet potato candy or men in straw hats twirling plastic bags stuffed with pistachios.

About halfway to Oaxaca, we stopped in a rest area to east the sandwiches our friend Ninfa had prepared for the trip, lovely sandwiches on a kind of hard roll with fresh tomato and cheese. She gave one to a policeman who was standing idly near his vehicle. Then two large transports full of soldiers with automatic weapons pulled up. At that point an entire family, from grandma down to the preteens, that had been sheltering themselves from the sun under a nearby underpass made their entrance, offering the soldiers tortillas and sandwiches from aluminum pots and plastic tubs.

On a good day, the drive to Oaxaca from Mexico city is five hours. But as we neared the ancient city, we learned that major road construction was underway. The toll road was being torn up and narrowed to one lane at various points. Often we were not only stopped but forced to wait long intervals. Long enough that most of the vehicles emptied out their loads of passengers, to be greeted by hoards of food vendors.

We were miles from the nearest village, yet here were pedaled vehicles with traveling ice cream stands, hot tamales and corn on the cob. Where do they come from? We wondered. The only thing we purchased was a small block of toasted amaranth seed held together with some kind of sugary syrup. It would last us several days. Now we know we have the same delays to look forward to on the return trip.

Next, we dive into Oaxaca´s famous mole...

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