On Sunday I squeezed myself into a colective as passenger number 3 (yay! The back seat!) to visit the weekly market in Tlacolula (tla-co-lul-la), a town about 27km from Oaxaca city. One of my favourite things to do is wander on market day in the pueblos surrounding Oaxaca – just chat with stall holders, browse the produce on offer and eat lunch somewhere packed with locals, bags crowded with purchases placed at their feet. Market day is considered a festive day in Oaxacan towns, and as such, is looked forward to all week.
The Tlacolula tianguis (indigenous open air market) is said to be one of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica and certainly one of the largest in the Central Valleys area. People living in this district take buses and colectivos from surrounding towns, all ready for a fun day of selling, socialising, bargaining and information exchange.
Each Sunday, very early in the morning, the main street of Tlacolula is closed for eight blocks between the main plaza and the bus station, near the highway. Venders set up stalls along the main road and along several of the related streets as well, winding their way around the church and the central produce market building.
Most stalls are covered by (very low) hanging lightweight tarpaulins which provide protection from sun and almost completely cover the streets from the buildings on one side to those on the other. Being tall in Mexico is usually a bonus, except when trying to navigate under the lower of these tarps, whilst the 4ft Zapotec grandmothers with their hair braided with ribbons zip on through carrying large turkeys by their feet.
You can buy pretty much everything imaginable at this market: wooden furniture, leather sandals, enamel pots and pans, knives, clothes, metates (stone mortars), plants, vegetables, fruits, meats, live animals (goats, turkeys and chickens), handmade jewellery, tapetes and woven bags, aprons, caps, CDs and DVDs, sneakers and plumbing supplies are all covered!
The number of vendors on any given Sunday varies but I was told that the number usually exceeds 1,000! In addition to the stalls, some vendors sell their products as they walk through the crowds; it is usual to be offered (by different people) bouquets of garlic, peeled mangos cut into flowers and mounted on a stick for ease of eating, boxes of matches, assorted hair ties, tarpaulins, and ice cream as you make your way down the crowded streets.
There are so many different places and options to eat at the market, including a fantastic selection of panaderías (bakeries) with all types of breads available. For lunch I had a delicious champiñones (mushroom) and flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower) quesadilla at a stall run by sisters. I ate with 2 ranchers at a little table located behind the women venders and their comal (literally a hot pottery plate used for cooking), and as we ate we just watched the bustle of the market go on around us.
It is common to see women carrying bundles wrapped on their backs or on their heads, gliding through the crowds whilst chatting with their friends and only occasionally reaching up to adjust the produce as they walk. Zapotec grandmothers are my favourites to watch as they go about their business, in much the same way their grandparents would have, and probably the way their grandchildren will as well. The sense of history at the market is one of the incredible things for me – especially since I come from such a young country. People have been inhabiting this valley area since 600BCE.
I caught the local bus back to Oaxaca after a couple of hours and watched the yellowing fields out the window to the romantic ballad soundtrack DJed by the driver. Across the aisle was an elderly couple, their laps packed with purchases, and as I sat down they both gave me huge smiles with curious eyes. Unfortunately my Zapotec is non-existent and so we just shared smiles and grapes instead on the ride back home.
I know that Sundays spent like this is one of the things I will miss the most when I leave Oaxaca.