Culinary travelogue by Mike Allen
I was running the camarero ragged with my thirst.
“¿Cómo estás hoy, todavía enfermo?” Daniel asked one day, partially blocking my view of the Pacific.
“Better, mucho mejor,” I said around the straw of my third, or fourth or fifth, michelada.
“¿No quieres hacer algo más mientras te encuentras aquí?”
I puzzled on that. I wasn’t sure what else he would have me do. I was traveling alone, without a car, still weak, in a tiny coastal town with no phones and maybe two bars, both of which were usually vacant.
“¿Cómo qué? Hay todo aquí mismo. Hay cerveza, hay pizza, hay pescado a la Veracruzana.”
An old guy walked by on the beach, pushing a steel cooler on wheels with a parasol above it.
“Helados ricos: fresa, coco, chocolate!” he called to the fifteen-or-so pale Germans, Scandinavians and estadounidenses sitting around on the sand and in chairs, drinking and watching the surf roll in.
“Hay ice cream,” I added.
“Todavía no sé… Pero tengo algunos amigos aquí también,” Daniel laughed, turning to the water.
He’s got some friends? I wasn’t sure what that meant.
He loped down through the surf, dove in, and swam circles on immense swells for a few minutes before getting out and running past me to the shade of the main patio. He walked behind the palm wood bar to claim a kiss from his dark and curvy wife, whose name I never understood. I saw them talking, glancing my way. I turned back to the sea, shoved my feet further into the sand, took another deep drink, and sucked the cold, peppery dregs from the glass. Martín appeared at my side, a consummate professional in bare feet and board shorts.
“¡Por favor, Martín!” I enthused, slamming the glass on the chair arm.
Later, Victor and Luis showed up in a little beat-down Suzuki Samurai, Spanish-language stoner metal blaring from tinny speakers. We bounced off on the single road through the jungle.
“¿Que es esta música?” I blundered.
“Música mala, música para putos,” Victor said from the passenger’s seat, ejecting the tape and throwing it to the trash-and-sand strewn floor. He pulled another dubbed tape from the console, and Argentine surf rock competed with the wind and the Suzuki’s four noisy cylinders.
The previous week I’d spent in the capital of Oaxaca, city of a thousand moles, eating whatever was offered. Much had been offered. Cups of sliced tropical fruits were wetted with lime juice and doused with chili powder and salt. Chapulines, from old women proffering thatch baskets, were graded by size and eaten by the handful. Tamales, wrapped in banana leaves, were sold out of a cooler packed in the back of an old station wagon. In dark cantinas, I’d sipped shots of mezcal while gnawing on chili and garlic roasted peanuts, and sour oranges seasoned with sal de gusano, salt seasoned with ground maguey worms. In out-of-the-way corners and alleys, girls patted out fresh tortillas from masa dough as smooth and plump as their biceps and toasted them on wood-fired steel pans. I tried every topping that fit. At night, wandering drunk through cobbled streets, I ate ears of corn slathered with mayonnaise, chili powder, and cotija, and hot dogs split lengthwise, woven with bacon, and served up in Bimbo buns with grilled pineapples and pico de gallo. I walked miles through the chaotic markets, to see colonial architecture and up and down the hills of the alrededores, to keep my appetite strong.
I hadn’t known what else to do, but I’d heard that a vacation should include cultural, historical, or scenic side-trips. I was into ceramic art—since food comes in dishes—and a nearby village was known for its barro negro, black pottery. So I boarded a bus to San Bartolo Coyotepec.
The shop at the bus station had seemed strictly for güeros, so I walked to the town proper. It was the hottest part of the afternoon. Dusty streets were vacant except for mud-brown mutts whose protruding rib cages accentuated their pinched waists.
A woman stood in a doorway, leaning on the frame, staring at me. She beckoned with her free arm. It was dark and cool inside. Makeshift shelves lined all the walls and stood in the middle of the floor, crammed with pots, plates, and bowls, vases, animal figures, religious icons, and skeletons. Skeletons playing guitar, wearing top hats, skeletons eating, drinking, burying (or exhuming) one another, skeletons chingando.
Barro Negro isn’t usually intricate and light, but the best work has elegant matronly curves and negative spaces that belie the apparent galumph of the whole form. I couldn’t afford any of that stuff. I paused in front of a display of rosaries. Big, simple, and matte black, they looked like symbolic representations of the stainless and pearlescent rosaries my grandmother used to give me when I was a kid. I picked one up.
“Para mi abuela,” I said to the woman, smiling like a fool. She smiled back, the way an indulgent adult smiles at a cute little child.
I walked back out into the dusty sun with the rosary in a paper bag.
Fuck this. There’s not even anyplace to get a beer, I groused silently, stumbling around in the heat in jeans and suede sneakers.
But the bus was gonna be a while, and I was starving.
In the back of the marketplace had been a row of open-air stalls. Monoblock furniture, emblazoned SOL, scattered around in the dirt out front suggested this was the place to eat. No one else was eating, making it impossible to tell which shop was good, so I walked up to the first stall on the left and looked at the handwritten cardboard menu. I ordered some huaraches from the two little kids working the counter. Their mother must be around somewhere to come and cook the food…
After I paid, one kid ran over to a brick fire pit, threw some tinder onto a smoldering bed of ashes, and put a steel pan on top. Spaces between the bricks let him fan the flames with a bunch of thatch tied to a stick, which he did, vigorously. Meanwhile, the other kid found some pre-patted masa loaves from somewhere and threw those on the pan. Immediately, a couple of mangy dogs ran up to try and pull the bread off the pan. Flies swarmed everywhere. The kid smacked at them with the thatch-bellows, then turned back around to fan my huaraches some more.
I sat in my chair under a tree, watching this unsanitary little comedy play out, wondering if I should just get up and leave. But then the pollo en mole amarillo, which I had never tried, went onto the crisp-toasted dough, and I thought, It’s getting cooked; don’t be such a whiny little güero. It wasn’t bad; I ate maybe half.
The nice thing about sitting in the zocalo in Oaxaca is that it’s full of pale estadounidenses and Europeans struggling to not notice one another. Oaxaqueños were curious — always looking, gesturing, and asking, “¿De dónde eres?” and, “¿A dónde vas?” A gray presence, heavy and suffocating, descended over my vision, resting on my chest and shoulders, and I didn’t want to answer any questions.
I went back to my concrete-floored rented room and waited, trying to puzzle out Neruda’s love poems and fingering the rosary.
I hadn’t realized the human body secretes so many colorful juices in the digestive tract, as varied and bright as the moles of Oaxaca. Like wringing a dishcloth, they flowed from either end simultaneously and wept between the fingers. I wondered if neighboring rooms were lying awake listening, and why they weren’t doing anything. When I was empty, I lay crosswise on the bed, my feet on the cold floor to slow the spinning of the cavernous room, and heard distant fireworks and music. I was missing the biggest festival of the year, the Guelaguetza. Then I got that metallic taste in my mouth again, and I knew it would be a longer night still.
In the morning, the tall fountain in the courtyard came to life, shooting water at the sky only to splash back down to a concrete basin below. This was usually my cue to grab a spot under the pomelo tree for saucy huevos rancheros and tropical juices. That day, I dragged myself to the dark vestibule that housed the front desk behind an iron grate.
“Necesito más agua,” I croaked.
“Claro. ¿Estás bien?” the girl behind the grate asked.
“Estoy muy enfermo. Necesito un doctor.”
She would call a doctor, and he would come here, she said. Which was good, because I didn’t think I could walk. But in the end, the doctor couldn’t make it. I would have to go to the hospital. I asked her to call a taxi—but it wasn’t far, she said. So I stumbled down the narrow Oaxacan sidewalk, holding on to the concrete facades wherever I could, trying in vain to hail a taxi all five blocks.
When I showed up at the hospital, I couldn’t remember the word for diarrhea. I’d assumed it was the same, but the doctor didn’t seem to understand my utterances of “Dee-uh-ree-uh.” He supplied the more apropos “Evacuación,” bending over slightly, gesturing away from his culo. Laying on my stomach with my pants down, waiting for a shot in my culo, I could see through the open door into the room across the hall. A few pieces of medical equipment were arranged haphazardly around a mound of concrete rubble in the middle of the room. And I prayed…
* * *
The Suzuki clattered into the dirt ditch of a driveway behind the patio. I climbed out the back with a watermelon under my arm.
“Traer… traigo… traerlo… I brought un melón,” I stumbled, a little high.
“Una sandía,” Daniel corrected me as I set it on a table.
He slid a large pocketknife from his hip pocket, opened it with the hand that held it, expertly sliced large wedges from the pale green melon, and handed them to each of us, the blade pointing at himself. We stood in the shade, Daniel, Victor and Luis and me, silently devouring the dripping wedges. The juice cooled my inflamed guts, reconstituting me from the inside.