El Hombre de Molcajete

Taxco, México

Taxco, México

There was a slight breeze weaving its way through the mountaintop homes and playing with the wisps of hair that had escaped my unkempt bun in the sweltering heat of the Mexican summer. All of the Spanish swirled together with the wind, composing an exotic melody I only slightly understood. Wondering how I would find my way out of this labyrinth, I navigated the lurching steps and passageways, which seemed more illogically placed and complicated than irregular verbs in the past tense. After a few minutes, I found myself halfway down the hill and in the middle of the Taxco market. There was no dearth of vendors who peddled hand-tooled leather sandals, bright woven bags, and glittering silver jewelry. Some of the younger men hawked their wares by calling out to the fresh-faced American women, telling the passing señoritas bonitas to stop, hoping for an opportunity to practice their English, make a few dollars, and get a shy smile out of a foreign girl.

Photo credit: Alexandra Poli.  Editing: Emily Myers

Photo credit: Alexandra Poli. Editing: Emily Myers

I drifted through the open-air market, absorbing the symphony of the Spanish language, powerful in spite of my youthful lack of comprehension.  I stepped over lazy mutts sleeping in the shade of rickety stalls and abstained from the churro carts that tantalized my nose.  After a few hours of exploring, I found myself in the small, walled plaza at the base of the hill where I had started my day. My eyes took a cursory sweep of the cramped shops and stalls, crossed over the papel picado fluttering like butterflies, and eventually landed on El Hombre de Molcajete.

Molcajete, pottery

He was an older man, sitting under a tree that magically grew from a small wall embanking yet another staircase. The midday sun poked its way through the tree’s leaves, casting dappled shadows on his crisp white shirt and his wares, small molcajetes and various works of pottery spread before him on a roughly woven blanket. He had snow white hair and a perfectly groomed mustache in stark contrast to the bright and chaotic market. I remember thinking that his skin was dark brown like freshly fried churros before they have been dusted with sugar, laughing at my silly comparison and distinctly gringa humor. Even through my ridiculous folly, I sensed that he had a dignified, yet humble, way about him.

I stood in the market, transfixed by his stillness, enchanted by this man whom I just happened to notice. The calmness he exuded was almost surreal; he was the only person unaffected by the energy coursing through the market, like the sea under the eye of a hurricane.

molcateje, cantina

After a few minutes, one of my rowdy countrymen decided to buy a molcajete from him. I vaguely remember the exchange conducted by a cumbersome and tentative American tongue and the man’s smooth and rhythmic diction, though I can recall what El Hombre de Molcajete did next with brilliant clarity. He used a bit of twine to craft a handle for a facile portage of such an awkward souvenir and wrapped the accompanying pestle in newspaper with a certain tenderness, all while the market continued to surge like a wildly exhilarating party in a cantina or dance hall. He executed his actions carefully and methodically, turning the molcajete in his hands with deliberate purpose, which caused me to notice his gnarled, leathery hands flecked with age spots and all of the wrinkles that gave his face a unique depth.

How did he earn such capable-looking hands? What caused the lines striping his forehead, worry or laughter? And how, within the bustle of the market, could he seem so peaceful?

molcajete, market

The man and the market were analogous to a serene Indian guru and a bouncing Bollywood dance number. It seemed so odd to me that he could sit in such a spirited plaza and be as calm as he was, yet that is what drew me to him. This old man immediately left me with the impression that he was far wiser than I could ever hope to be; he was the kind of person one is lucky to encounter, the kind who understands all matters of worldliness and has achieved peace by it. By this moment, I knew that if language were no levee, El Hombre de Molcajete’s wisdom could flow endlessly, helping me to find some tranquility of my own. If only I were able.

Regardless of how much I wanted to hear his stories to learn his peace, I knew I had neither the capacity nor the time. I had only a swollen tongue, a product of fear that stemmed from my accent, and a few crumpled peso notes, wilted from the sweat of my hand. The only thing I could do was buy something, so I examined all of the pieces– ponderous molcajetes and russet terracotta bowls. I selected a small coffee mug that had petite impressions of sunflowers around the rim, knowing that I would be able to transport this treasure home without cracking it. After bumbling through my transaction, I bid El Hombre de Molcajete an amicable goodbye, and turned to ascend the stairs that lead the way out of the market.

Molcajete, hombre

I turned back for one last glimpse over my shoulder, adjusting my cheap sunglasses and brushing locks of hair out of my eyes, feeling refreshed that there is someone in the world who has a sense of peace.

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