From the Heights of Civilization
Raw meat sat on the counter as the female attendant alternated between swatting flies and flicking salt at the tenderized cuts. Long racks of ribs, loins, and internal leftover usually left out of supermarkets in the U.S. splayed out in front of Gonzalo and me. The woman, her husband, and their son manned individual stations and occasionally all covered down on the front counter whenever an especially interesting customer or question arrived to their store. The band saw along the back wall standing straight and proud prepared to customize any order; filled to the brim, a refrigerator paralleled the wall to the left with meat pushing sternly against its glass doors. Up front, along with the open meat display, a scale hung from the ceiling annotating up to ten kilograms along the circumference and, along with mental math, determined final prices. We purchased a feast and paid under twenty U.S dollars. Winding our way out through vendors selling Air Force Ones, roasted grasshoppers, dried chilis, cured and salted fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and chickens dead, alive and in pieces, our smiles pushed against the boundaries of our faces and veins popped below the skin of our hands from the weight of meat and wood. For the Argentinian and American man, this was kid in the candy store territory and excitement could not be contained.
To keep you reading I'll end this post with the caramelization over hot coals, but for now, the day prior, Sara and I were winding through a different maze towards Monte Alban. Riding uphill at a high speed in a van driven by someone I'm sure was a noted and certifiable professional, we were again testing the laws of probability from the back seat of a car darting through on-coming and out-going traffic. He drove with a certain level of confidence and brashness that reassured a passenger; until, that is, conflict turned a corner, and I rapidly realized that this guy saw an open race track driving a Ferrari when reality dictated a highly obstructed, narrow road and he was driving a high-centered, narrow wheel-based, Scooby-Doo van. We were not solving mysteries but rather charging headlong into tomorrow's headlines and rapidly approaching the crux of an unsolvable mystery ourselves at the bottom of a rocky ravine. I checked my seatbelt and listened intently to my audiobook, How to Win Friends and Influence People, wondering how Dale Carnegie's advice on complementing rather than criticizing could help if we went over the ledge. I closed my eyes to imagine a world in which it would.
We survived the drive uphill and the drive back down was three hours later in the day - far enough into the future for it not to be a real problem. I gave the driver a thumbs-up and pinched a frazzled, cracked-out smile while trying to bring my blood pressure back to a survivable level. Walking uphill towards ancient walls and pyramids, we shielded our eyes against the sun peaking through gigantic and even older trees. Monte Alban, a pre-Columbian village for the rich, famous, and holy of its day, overlooks Oaxaca City from the northwest. Built through several stages of history the site dates as far back as 500 B.C and shows signs of continual occupation through about 750 A.D. Fortunately, throughout the archaeological site, small glass displays shared information on the settlement, the art, and its inhabitants. The history, like most human history, was unsettling: slaves carrying water up 1,300 feet from the valley floor, castration of enemy leaders, and human sacrifice to unknown gods.
The information was gently littered with inspiration as well. Several obelisks served as complex time keeping devices, marking seasons and other days of cultural significance; the entire village itself impresses upon modern eyes the human species' ability to turn vision into physical reality. Unfortunately, the means to achieve often cause us to look at the ground in shame - a process which serves its own beneficial purpose for mankind - but nonetheless, I think it's also important to simultaneously analyze the human ability from a completely objective and unemotional perspective to remind us of our infinite potential.
Now, the world of natural history provides significantly more comfort and solitude to the mind. In it's abandonment, Monte Alban blends with the natural landscape as vines and grass grow where painted plaster once protected the stone. Birds and small rodents live among the buildings once reserved for august classes of society. The only human sounds within emanate from tourists on holiday and school children on field trips. High, atop a mountain, the valleys below project their own sound: a Mariachi band to the west celebrating some vague notion of a holiday; distant, cantankerous car horns dust the air in a ironic pleasantness from being so far away. The smells arrive too: the smoke of many kitchens containing the image of an old woman sweating over a circular, outdoor stove-top, pressing and cooking tortillas; a slight smell of shit and dirty water drifts by, and like the car horns, makes me smile knowing the distance between us. The wind carries the sound and smell up to our height and takes it away.
The labiodental and sibilant sounds of the wind passing through the trees and the cracks of ancient structures eventually drowns the noise of the present: the trees and buildings erected thousands of years ago continue to work magic in unexpected ways with the help of nature. Soon all I hear is the wind. I feel it too and smell the freshness carried on. Upon the coattails of city smells, freshness cleanses the aroma and only the bitter, vegetal crispness of natural air running through plants and leaves remains. I closed my eyes and returned to last July in Banff. At the crest before Hidden Lake along the Skoki Loop. Turquoise water slowly grew from a line and into a complete circular body. It's hard to put into words how incredible Hidden Lake was that day - as it is now with the transcendent wind on hallowed grounds of ancient people. I will always remember as the sun started to creep out from the periodic clouds; how the wildflowers began to glow; how the the glacial water of Hidden Lake, filled from the melting summer snow before us, reflected the green-blue of ancient sediment released from the melting glaciers. It was a liberating feeling to be completely surrounded in complete beauty. The buzzing of Monte Albanian bees awakened my poetic tangent of mind, and I started to use my eyes again as the primary receptor of inputs.
The three hours of wandering passed and we rendezvoused with the formula one van driver beneath a tree in a parking lot below the masoned walls of Monte Alban. The downhill drive seemed less wringing, and, beat by the sun, we napped somehow.
The following day, the aforementioned acquisition of meat occurred in the morning. Around noon we built the fire. In the afternoon we organized the kitchen and built a dining room. Our neighbors and their families dripped in with gastronomic additions of their own. In true Oaxacan fashion, all this occurred on the roof of our building. Rain clouds built in the mountains to the north and the occasional drop blew and landed on our roof. Despite this, the fire burned into the afternoon and we fashioned an indirect heating system out of metal grates, wired steel, and other available iron that allowed the two racks of ribs and one loin to hang above the fire and caramelize at a steady, observable pace. Like many human endeavors, we had absolutely no certainty in the potential of our design. In fact, the final design resulted from at least two failures! To then watch the brown crust satisfyingly develop was enough for us. We were overjoyed. Gonzalo and I drank straight from the liter bottle of Corona and delicately plucked inconspicuous samples from the edges. The cool, straw colored cerveza washed the fatty morsels from our palates with its acidic bite. We smiled uncontrollably at each other. Neither one of us spoke the other's language sufficiently but body language communicated more than effectively. We were proud of ourselves and each other. The ribs finished first and we removed them from the grates and sliced them individually on a cutting board for the twenty hungry guests. In between, we snuck some for ourselves. Cutting into the loin was orgasmic. Perfectly cooked through and still moist. Sara and Laura walked up the stairs with two more liters of Victoria Cerveza. All I ate was meat; all I drank was beer. The grease built on my face and I slipped into a siesta on a yoga mat as the sun slowly lowered to the crest of Monte Alban. I didn't dream. I felt full and happy. When I woke up we drank Mezcal and played guitar and I went back to sleep more certain of myself and what we were doing than when I woke up the morning before.