Los Turcos I: Mexico
The Syrian, Lebanese and other former Ottoman subjects, who came from the Mediterranean basin to live in Latin America a century ago, are surprisingly called “Los Turcos” (Turks) around the continent. In recent years, new curious generations from Turkey have been joining them to explore the continent. The globetrotter Seçil Sağlam, who is one of them, tells us about the colorful Mexican universe.
“I do not know if it is correct to generalize as Latin America, but no matter what, Mexico has a culture honoring death and life without missing any opportunity. This is the first thing coming to my mind when I say Mexican state of mind.”
How long have you been living in Mexico?
I am coming back and forth between Mexico and Turkey since October 2016, therefore I can say three years.
How would you describe the Latin American “state of mind”?
Except for Mexico, I have just seen Guatemala. I do not know if it is correct to generalize as Latin America, but no matter what, Mexico has a culture honoring death and life without missing any opportunity. This is the first thing coming to my mind when I say “Mexican state of mind”. A “mind” that covers the city with decorations and colors for special days coming one after another from the Independence Day, Christmas and New Year to the Easter and the Day of the Dead. As far as I can understand from some social media posts, Peruvians also do not miss any opportunity to do “fiesta” as well.
FROM MAYAN CITIES TO MEXICAN MARKETS
What are the best spots to discover pre-Columbian civilizations like Mayas?
Yucatan Peninsula is fabulous with its cities, beaches, “cenotes” (underground caves filled with surface waters) and has good routes to trace the Mayan ruins. What surprises me, as in every ancient civilization, is how people established these cities at that time and built temples carrying tons of stones. Chichen Itza, which is one of the 7 New Wonders of the World, is among the places with high energy, where the Mayas made great discoveries by observing the sky and where the shadow of the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl seemed like descending from the steps of the Kukulkan pyramid during the equinox when the sun comes from a certain angle. Palenque and Tikal, located in Guatemala, are also among the Mayan cities worth seeing. There are still locals who speak the Maya language. Moreover, I was very surprised that a few words were similar to Turkish! (Those who are curious about the link between the Maya and the Turks, can read the book “The Lost Continent”, which is a compilation of reports by Tahsin Çapultepek, commissioned in Mexico as part of Atatürk’s Turkish history research).
What should we collect from Mexican markets?
Let’s start with food and beverage shopping: Oaxaca‘s markets are heaven especially for those who love hot sauces and pepper. You can lose yourself among peppers with different levels of heat. A new range of flavors awaits those who like hard drinks like tequila. Besides tastings in Mezcal bars, you can often come across mezcal varieties at the stands in Oaxaca markets. One of my favorites in the markets is tropical fruits and juices prepared with them. The colors of Mexican handcrafted products are as attractive as fruits. You can spend minutes in front of a vendor. On the stalls in the San Cristobal market, runners with animal figures, pillowcases and a wide range of traditional Mexican products are sold. In Oaxaca, even hand woven dresses and bags could drive you crazy even if you are not a shopaholic.
FROM THE DAY OF THE DEAD TO MEXICAN CUISINE
Why and where to see the Day of the Dead?
I had the chance to observe the Day of the Dead for three years in a row in Mexico. Oaxaca is full of unforgettable moments for me. I cannot describe the aesthetics and atmosphere of the cemeteries that are open on the Day of the Dead. Since cemeteries are not open in every city and state, it is necessary to go to places such as Oaxaca and Pátzcuaro to observe this special period more closely. It is very enjoyable to spend a few days in Oaxaca with extremely impressive, aesthetic and touching cemeteries decorated with flowers and candles, while the music, bands, and parades continue at full speed all along the day and local families stroll around wearing all kinds of makeup and costumes.
Do you like Mexican cuisine? What do you miss most about Turkish cuisine?
Simit (bagel with a crust of sesame seeds), cold dishes and appetizers cooked in olive oil. Since I am a vegetarian, I cannot recommend meat dishes that are very common in Mexican cuisine. Instead, I can tell more about interesting and healthy nopales. This is a kind of cactus, usually served as a side dish along with meals. After thorns are cleaned, they are sold in the markets and consumed sautéed. Compared to the sophistication and flavor of Turkish dishes, Mexican cuisine seems a bit overvalued to me. However, I recommend huitlacoche (corn fungus) and quesadillas (tortilla bread sandwiches stuffed with herbs like zucchini flower and mushrooms) consumed with delicious hot sauces such as salsa verde, salsa chipotle or salsa rojo on top. Since I eat seafood, tacos with shrimp, pineapple, and fresh coriander are among the Mexican flavors that I can highly recommend as well.
TRAVELLING SAFELY IN MEXICO
It is said that Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries of the continent. Should we really be scared? What measures can we take on the road?
In Mexico, minimum measures taken almost anywhere in the world are generally sufficient. But in a city like Mexico City where the metro is crowded, you should be a few times more careful for your bag and phone. You should also refrain from walking late at night in places that are not mentioned in the guides and you should not hail every taxi. Uber is a pretty much better alternative. Mexico City has a dark face like every metropolis, but instead of an unusual and disturbing situation, you will see plenty of music, smiling people, and a colorful culture. Yucatan region is also very touristic and safe. Additionally, Mexico’s cultural cities and towns with certain criteria are under a tourism protection program called “pueblos magicos” and are quite safe places.
Which Mexican “pueblos magicos” would you recommend us to discover?
There are many “magical villages” (about 121 of them in total). I haven’t seen them all, but a few tips from what I have seen so far: Tepotzlan, one hour away from Mexico City, is like a summary of mystical countries. In a traditional “temazcal” (Mayan sauna), you can get rid of your toxins (if you attend a shamanic session your traumas as well), have a massage in a garden that you surmise yourself in Thailand, and in the evening you can watch a drag queen dance by enjoying Moroccan and Lebanese flavors in a restaurant with Marrakech ambiance. Tepotzlan is like a small-scale esoteric world! Besides, I can add Tequisquiapan in Queretaro and the extremely cute, original San Cristobal de las Casas in the Chiapas region and Atlixco near the city of Puebla.
How could one avoid the tourist traps in Mexico?
In Mexico, you don’t come across the tourist traps much, except for the “boho chic” places like Tulum, where prices are regulated according to the American tourist. The market places have various food stalls and it’s easy to travel without spending a lot of money on food. Corn, taco, quesadilla, stalls selling sope (a deep-fried masa cake consumed with various toppings), cheese assortments, tropical fruits, and cocktails are everywhere. I haven’t seen anyone giving higher prices to the tourists. It’s nice, not being have to bargain all the time. However, you should negotiate hard with sellers in touristic areas such as the Yucatan Peninsula and Chichen Itza while shopping. My best Mexican experiences in sum: the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca, the majestic museums of Mexico City, swimming in the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula, cycling along Tulum beaches, being able to use the beaches of whatever hotel or resort you like, and watching the surfers in San Pancho in Nayarit area at the sunset.
What’s next? What is the wandering spirit in you is chasing for now?
I have just got back from India. Last time, I was there four years ago. After I turned my face to Mexico, I feel that neglected “The East” a bit. I have a craving for India and I cannot stop it. So, I was there on New Year’s Eve. I would love India to on my path in the future and would like to come back and forth for good causes.
Follow Seçil Sağlam on Instagram: @travellingparrot