J and I hit up el mercado today in search of some ice cream described in her guidebook. The heladero was kind enough to give us a few samples of the rarer flavors, which turned out to be a good thing, as the Beso de Oaxaca (literally a "Oaxacan kiss," and even more literally a mouthful of shredded dried fruit) and the leche quemada turned out not to be my bag. I kind of assumed leche quemada (literally "burnt milk") was a metaphor, but it turned out to be an all too accurate description. You can really taste the burning, which is not the sort of thing I personally look for in an ice cream.
I ended up going fairly traditional--chocolate and coconut--whereas J strayed into more adventurous territory, ordering a mixture of mango con chile (which is exactly what it sounds like) and tuna (which is not). La tuna is actually a cactus, and it turned out to be fairly refreshing. According to our heladero, chocolate and lime are the most popular flavors for children, whereas Oaxacan adults tend to go for leche quemada and tuna (so points to J for authenticity). His personal favorite is mezcal, which is the local liquor of choice, and he let me try a sample. Imagine a scoop of rum raisin without the raisins, and instead of rum, rubbing alcohol.
I am not a fan of mezcal--even in ice cream form.
As we ate, we were approached by several vendors selling bookmarks, scarves and other trinkets, and we began to wonder about the market's target audience. Some of the items (the hunks of raw meat speared on hooks, dark towers of chiles, wet mounds of mole, tortilla dough) are clearly for locals, whereas others (gewgaws and trinkets and festive sombreros) are clearly targeting a foreign audience.
I've done enough reading on tourism theory to know that tourism can harm a community as easily as it can help it, and I'm very conscious of my role as a tourist in this country. So today I ate ice cream (buying local = good!) but refused to purchase any of the Oaxacan gimcracks (spurning the informal economy = bad!) and took the bus (local transport = good!) and then walked to a popular church (photographing sacred spaces = bad!).
Granted, the tourism conundrum is significantly more complicated than I'm making it out to be here, but as today was one of my more touristy (as opposed to academic) days, I was highly conscious of my impact on the local environment. At this point I'm just hoping to break even. Perhaps some further research at the ice cream stand is in order....