MEXICO: SIN MAIZ NO HAY PAIS
When I mentioned to the people I met in New York that my next stop would be Mexico, no one seemed that excited. Oh, they all thought it would be a great part of the journey and told me to expect incredible food, it was just that, for many Americans, journeying to Mexico barely seems like leaving the US these days. A bit like a Brit hopping over to Paris or Spain. It is so easy it becomes mundane
Not for me however, it was a realisation of one of my dreams.
When I wrote the very first list of things to do on EAT MY GLOBE, in the top five was “attend a cookery school in Mexico” I had put down the name of the town, Oaxaca, not least because it is home to a famous cookery course but also because, after years of not being quite sure, I was finally confident enough to pronounce the bloody name correctly and felt rather proud of myself.
I posted about it on a food website and soon received a message from one Cristina Potters saying “I am sure we can organise something better than that” along side an offer to guide me around for the period of my stay. She gave me the link to her website, Mexico Cooks and one glance was enough to convince me that I was highly unlikely to find too many other people who would
a) Know more about Mexican food than she did
b) Be prepared to spend so much time in my company.
Over the next six months, as I began to travel around the rest of the globe, my thoughts frequently returned to Mexico and what awaited me there. I had been in regular contact with Cristina and she had suggested that I come into the country after New York and in time to be in the country for Dia De Los Muertos on of the most important dates in the Mexican calendar, or certainly for the region where she lives.
The plan was set and, on the 28th October, I headed off to JFK at an ungodly hour filled with thoughts of my first real experience of a cuisine that, up until that point, had only been represented by London’s pathetic attempts to recreate which usually result in brown sludge of no particular provenance.
My flight gave me some idea what to expect. Huge amounts of money flood into Mexico from ex-pat’s living and working in the USA and, when the same return home for holidays or festivals, they seem hell bent on taking presents for just about everyone they know.
After I boarded the plane, I fought my way over to my seat only to find that it was already occupied. Not by a person but by about four large bags of what I took to be clothes. The couple in the window and middle seat made no attempt to move them and just gave me a beatific smile. A smile that lasted until I started to move them myself at which point all hell broke loose and they began jabbering at me in Spanish something, which, even to my untrained ear sounded most unsavoury.
The stewardess was with us quickly and, from the look on her face, I could tell that such things were not an uncommon part of her daily schedule. She rattled off a sharp admonishment to them in Spanish and moved the bags to an overhead compartment a few seats back to allow me to sit down.
The whole of my flight, the Mexican couple glowered at me as if I had placed their first born in the locker not some tat they had bought at a market in Queens. I am pleased to say, that in the whole of my two weeks in this remarkable country it was the single incidence of anyone being anything other than extraordinarily friendly.
By the time I had changed planes in Mexico City and touched down in Guadalajara, I was exhausted and in need to a friendly face, so I was delighted to see Cristina waving to me with a huge grin on her face as I lugged Big Red through customs.
Within half an hour, Cristina and her partner, Judy had dropped me at my hotel and left me to freshen up for a short while before collecting me again to give me my first introduction to Mexico. We hit it off immediately, I was sure we would, but reassured by Cristina’s patient responses to some very stupid questions and Judy’s equal level of patience to someone who was about to insert himself into their lives for nearly two weeks.
First stop, before supper, the central square where, on a Sunday evening, locals had gathered to listen to a live band and to dance. This was no ordinary dancing though.
Both men and women were dressed up to the nines and strutted their stuff in a manner that evidenced a huge amount of practice. As the sun began to sink behind the local church, the streetlights began to twinkle and it all, quite frankly took on a slightly surreal tint for a man someone who, a few hours before, had been in New York City. If I was not such a hard hearted soul making such things impossible, I would suggest it almost brought a tear to my eye.
If my eyes were watery, my belly was empty and when Cristina suggested that we decamp a short drive away for a supper of tacos, I was running for the car quicker than you can say "saluth, deenayro, ee ahmor, ee tyempo pahra deesfrutahrlos"
Our destination was Los Altos,
a bustling taco stand about fifteen minutes drive from the centre of town. Here, Cristina and Judy instructed me on the etiquette of taco construction as I gleefully added salsas, lime and chilies to the meat the guys behind the counter had placed on a double layer of fresh corn tortilla.
We found a spot to sit down on the pavement and I took my first bite of Mexico.
There had been plenty of “fuck me that’s good” moments on the trip to date and this was the latest. I think I lost the power of speech as the combination of savoury flesh, sharp lime juice and fiery salsa hit my taste buds. Cristina smiled like someone watching a small child take their first steps
“ I thought you might like these”
“Like?” I stammered between mouthfuls “this is one of the best things I have eaten on the trip”
I was not lying. The two I had ordered disappeared in about two minutes and I was already up in the face of the servers again demanding more. This time, instead of the goat meat of my first round, I went offal piste and wrapped the tortilla around some brains.
They were just as good and I would have gone back for even more if Cristina’s declaration of exhaustion had not prompted my own body to suddenly go into “down” mode and begin to shut down
Mind you, not before I had managed to stuff myself further with some excellent helado from the small store next to the taco stand where a handful of men were churning tubs of the iced delights in containers of salt and ice.
I slept little that night. In part, it may have been the excitement of being in a new country. In part, it may have been the four tacos and their spicy accompaniments gurgling along pleasingly in my stomach, but for the most part it was because of a couple in the next room who had wild, unbridled monkey sex for what seemed like the best part of the night. I was cheesed off and jealous in equal measures.
By the time they were finally sated, it was almost morning and I realized that sleep and me were going to be strangers for at least one more night.
Welcome to Mexico