A Pilgrim in Mexico

By | July 11, 2017

Have you ever yearned for a pure immersion experience in another culture? My mate Lety and I recently returned from a week in the south-central area of Mexico, where she was born and raised, and where most of her relatives still reside. Having direct ties with an indigenous family gave me the opportunity to live their ways; rather than being stuck in tourist-observational mode.

Food and the traditions around it can be a fertile doorway to understanding a people. This is particularly true in Mexico, which is a melting pot for world and regional Native cultures. What most of us know as Mexican food is only watered-down Tex-Mex. To jump-start my culinary immersion, I went with the resolve to not eat anything I was already familiar with.

Which was no problem, with the dozens of new fruits, meats, traditional dishes, and drinks arrayed before me at nearly every turn. Even the small villages had central markets, where you dealt directly with the producers (but not me: I was told to keep quiet, as I’d be charged much more than my hosts.)

Even with the endless variety of foods, what most fascinated me was not what I ate, but what I could eat. I’ve had a sensitive stomach all my life, and I periodically suffer from acid reflux. Not on this trip. I comfortably ate not only spicy-hot fare, but a couple of things that my typically heat-seeking native cohorts shied away from.

What changed? Something drastic, for sure, as my eyes used to water and I’d flush, then get lightheaded and desperately try anything short of suicide to quell the fire. At first I thought I must have burned out my taste buds and stomach lining. However, everything kept functioning—better than ever, in fact. The most plausible theory is that I could not only tolerate, but enjoy, the chile, ginger, and garlic-infused dishes because they were part-and-parcel to the regional diet, which I had completely adopted.

But that’s not all: I saved the best for last. Imagine an ice cream parlor the size of your average store, with over 600 flavors bearing names such as Day of the Dead, Angel Wings, and Cinderella’s Journey. Now imagine incomparable quality—and you can taste anything you want. Let’s take ubiquitous vanilla, which in our world is typically pale white. We might get flecks of vanilla bean with the deluxe version. Wipe that image away and replace it with a spoonful of deep copper-gold velvetiness that nearly brings you to orgasm as soon as it enters your mouth.

I’ll share more on this particular dining experience in a later installment. For now, I’ll tell you that I’m thinking of organizing pilgrimages to this culinary shrine in the mountains, known as Tepoznieves. It’s located in the village of Tepoztlán, birthplace of the Aztec feathered serpent-god Quetzalcoatl.

In those rare moments that I was able to transcend gastronomic ecstasy, I was struck by two cultural features. Where we have gated communities, they have gated residences, with working and middle-class people sharing the same neighborhoods. At a glance, most of us can gain a sense of our neighbors’ economic status and lifestyle by giving their properties a quick visual sweep. Not so in most of Mexico, where tall walls—often topped with embedded broken glass and razor wire—completely surround yards.

Machismo is expressed quite differently there than here. In my time there, I saw only a couple of rumbling motorcycles and none of the beefy pickup trucks so popular here. In general, males expressed themselves more through character than accouterments.

Culturist that I am, I cherish what I was able to learn about untold Mexican history. Miguel Hidalgo, the leader of the Mexican War of Independence and father of the country, was a presumably celibate priest; yet he is rumored to have sired 150 children. At one socialite party he attended, the hostess was a buxom woman who had adopted the French curve and cleavage-flattering fashion of the day. Her husband had just given her a large, bejeweled crucifix, which she wore as a necklace. When she leaned over to serve Don Miguel, he couldn’t help but stare.

“Kind Father,” she said, “do you admire this lovely crucifix?”
“My dear woman,” he replied, “it is rather the ringing bells on either side of the crucifix that draw my attention.”


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