Food. It is deliciously intimate, public, and shared. It is sensual, spicy and messy. It provokes conversation, and encourages us to stop and look around at our companions. In Oaxaca, Mexico, food and eating form an essential part to everyday social interaction, and is deeply linked to cultural identity.
The most touching moments of tenderness and hospitality often occur within the context of food. At a street stall, you will literally rub shoulders with someone as you reach for more guacamole. At a market eatery, you will be sitting behind a family and be blessed by a little toddler’s sticky salsa fingers in your hair. At a restaurant, you will be offered the last tortilla from the next table’s basket to soak up the lonely piece of chorizo that is left on your plate.
There is something about sitting down to a meal that makes everyone feel comfortable. All of a sudden, around the table, or at the counter, people who would be strangers are transformed into friends and good company. For a few tasty minutes, they share a common human experience; a good experience, that opens up the potential for more than just a brushing of hands while passing the chilli.
And so, it is not surprising that one of the most important chances for meaningful exchange, during our tour, is over lunch. Every time we visit the town of Teotitlan del Valle, we stop to eat together at a very special little place; a restaurant run by one of our borrowers, Concepcion, and her family.
No matter how many people Concepcion has to cook for, I have never seen her flustered. She always looks so cool and calm, behind that hot stove, and this is exactly how she has been throughout her participation with En Via; always with a cool head and a quiet confidence for business. When she joined En Via, she strategically used her first loan to expand her menu. Before, she was limited to simple tacos and sandwiches, now she offers a broad range of local favourites including tlayudas, memelas, and huaraches, all of which incorporate a variety of fresh ingredients. She used her second loan to invest in soft drinks. Buying these in bulk helped her in a few ways, it enabled her to save, cutting down on delivery costs, and making her eligible to receive significant gifts from the beverage company. The plastic tables and chairs her customers now sit at, as well as the invaluable beverage fridge were gifted. Within months, the simple counter-based takeaway set up was looking more and more like a popular family restaurant. She had the means to provide more meal options and have her clients sit, relax, and spend more on cold drinks. From this point, people inevitably started asking for beer, and so with another loan she invested in this beverage that comes with a higher profit margin than others.
Now, as we sit at the plastic tables, we are joined by men coming in from the fields for lunch and high school students passing for snacks, as well as the occasional tourist passing through the town. Concepcion’s success story gets us thinking and making connections. We talk as we scoop spoonfuls of the sticky green nopal cactus salad onto our tortillas. We talk as we crush the creamy avocado. We talk as we raise glasses of cold soda to our lips. We have so much to say to each other. In the middle of a sentence my taco blando comes apart and salsa gets all over my fingers. I imagine that it is all around the edges of my mouth, but I go on smiling at everyone anyway.
Really, one of my favourite parts of volunteering with En Via is getting to know the different people who come to connect with us. For me, and the other En Via volunteers, sitting down to a meal is a chance to continue sharing the stories of our program; the achievements and challenges we experience as a foundation, and the individual stories of the women we are privileged to know. It is also an important opportunity for all those joining us on the tour, new friends, to voice their own ideas, ask questions, and bring new light and perspective to the issues and contexts we work within.
You, our friends and supporters, come from a multitude of backgrounds, and places in the world. Despite existing distances in geography and experience, many of us were, for the moment, together in Concepcion’s restaurant in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, and by sharing a simple meal and a delicious conversation with us you were actually contributing to a program, to an idea, that is becoming more and more sustaining and nourishing with every bite.