Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
If I could start over, I’d do just the same. I am, after all, who I am and not in a position to second guess my choices. I’m not God nor am I Laplace who told Napoleon “I had no need of that hypothesis.” I’m a sort of philosophical chimera.
I like to hang out with artists and scientists, sometimes with believers like when I sit alone in churches contemplating Hazel Motes and his creator.
This young girl, Narcedalia, is getting on my nerves. Not because of any unnatural desires, I’m well beyond that. It’s just that I came to Mexico to relax. She won’t allow that.
We had returned to Los Cuiles café where we sipped Oaxacan horchata, a cold drink made with crushed rice, almonds, cinnamon, sugar and water. A few sporadic hoots and hollers could be heard as the riot raged on a few streets down the hill.
“I have two tickets to a special dinner at La Olla tonight to celebrate El Saber del Sabor, a gastronomic festival here in Oaxaca we have to raise awareness of our Mexican, especially Oaxacan, cuisine. I think you will enjoy it.”
“The students of Oaxaca rise up in revolt and we dine on stuffed carp? I’m not a foodie, Narce. I like my meat well done without rich sauces. Take someone else who will enjoy it.”
The technology revolution has reached Mexico, or at least this part of Oaxaca. A group of child candy sellers with their trays of gum and sweets rested along the stone borders that surrounded Parque Labastida. iPhones in hand, the soma of this generation, they texted and surfed the Net. Through the open door to a bakery I saw three girls at a table lost in their devices. A century after Gorky’s City of the Yellow Devil, Amerika (Kafka’s spelling) exports their new and modern soma to the Brave New World, a mind-numbing jumble of electronic signals. Eliot’s hollow man, a whimpering mouse, shuffles along with his eyes fixed on his palm.
“There have been a lot of revolutions already and no one is satisfied. We cannot always have the best in the world: we are not Americans with their dollars. Look at the anarchy that reigns in America yet you go on having dinner parties. You must come. Even if you don’t enjoy the food, but you will, you will learn something about us Mexicans. I’ll meet you here around 7:30. There will be lots of women, even some around your age Mr. Farmer.”
She was gone before I could raise further objections. Fate once again raised its ugly head and spit in my face.
Dinner was at 8:00. We were right on time. The restaurant occupied three levels rising up from the street, multiple rooms and levels like Rules in London but with an entirely different effect. Maybe Borges’ Library of Babel since my Spanish was limited. I looked around for the old sailor in The Ship With Three Decks, my favorite Calvino folk tale, to guide me through the rats, the ants, and the vultures who watched with amusement as I walked in.
We sat at a table of ten. I was the only man. Nine women all to myself. This was either very good or very bad. Two Mexican women sat beside us, one from San Luis Potosi, the other from Queretaro. Across the table was Susanna Trilling, owner of Seasons of My Heart Cooking School. I knew her from Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. Narce told me the school had been in Oaxaca for 18 years. The only other English speaker was an expat from Vermont who was celebrating her birthday. She worked with Susanna.
The matriarch of the family hosting the dinner, Emelia, also sat at our table. She spoke English about as well as I spoke Spanish. We were both too intimidated to say much. We communicated with a combination of simple words and body language. There were three other women who spoke among themselves. They acknowledged me with an occasional nod of the head.
I was famished. “I hope the food comes soon. I don’t see any appetizers.”
“Slow down, Jeffrey. There are 90 guests spread out among the three levels of the restaurant. I’m sure they’ll get something to us as soon as they can.”
The wooden tables were set with handmade purple mats and cotton napkins embroidered with stripes and a fish design. I’d seen similar settings in shops nearby. Colorful agapanthus towered over colored glass vases, two to a table. I looked around at the gorgeous outfits and decadent silver jewelry. I was the odd man out.
Narce scanned the room nervously for some sign the food was about to be served. Finally, at 9 pm, the courses began to appear at a snail’s pace. First to arrive was “Nectar Zapoteca”, a mix of mezcal and fruit juice with maguey salt on the rim. Narce didn’t like mezcal. She insisted I drink hers. Salt, even with smoked and crushed worms mixed in, is not an appetizer. Soon I was experiencing the effects of two mezcals on an empty stomach.
I was not the only one. A man at the table across from us stood and offered a toast. I couldn’t understand him but I gatheered he was a little disoriented from the booze. The people around his table looked uncomfortable.
“Un brindis por nuestro gobernador cerdo, espero que pierda mucho en las próximas elecciones !”
I turned to Narce whose face turned red. “What did he say?”
“He’s drunk. He called our governor a pig. He hopes the governor will lose the next election. We all hate the governor. It’s no secret. Still, it’s very reckless to say it in public. He’s a blind idiot. See that woman and young girl at the end of their table? That’s the governor’s wife and daughter.”
“Well, the guy’s got balls alright even if he is drunk. The girl is probably too young to understand but from the wife’s scowl it looks like there will be consequences.”
“What do you mean, balls?”
“Sorry, chutzpah, you know, he’s brave to say what everyone else thinks but won’t say.”
“Oh, right. Cojones. Well, the wife will report this to her husband and yes there will be consequences. The governor is cruel and mean and greedy. Some say he’s had his enemies killed.”
No one at the man’s table acknowledged the toast. They went on talking and ignored him.
The first course of actual food consisted of three tiny balls of goat cheese with different coatings. From what I saw, everyone around me was as hungry as I was. After what seemed like an eternity we each got two more cheese balls accompanied by fried grasshoppers. The grasshoppers were spicy and smoky. I closed my eyes and gulped them down. I didn’t wait for the intricate explanation, which was in Spanish and incomprehensible to me.
The man across from us went on complaining about the governor. The governor’s wife finally had enough. She rose from the table, eyes flashing, and pulled her daughter with her out the door. The girl was crying. I think I heard helados (ice cream). Everyone looked on in horror. I sympathized with the man, drunk or not. Temerity in the face of evil is admirable. We Americans could use a little more of that.
“Thank God they’re bringing out some chips.”
I knew Narce was uncomfortable. I adjusted to the delay by focusing on the interesting interactions going on around me.
“Don’t worry, Dear. They’re over booked. We’ll get our food eventually. I’m okay. Really, I am.”
“Please don’t call me Dear. I don’t like it. It makes me feel like your daughter.”
“Well, you could be.”
At last, just before we all fainted, a corn soup was served in martini glasses. What there was of it was excellent. The soup returned me to the bare minimum level of sobriety needed to carry on meaningful conversation.
“The chef from Mexico City specializes in pre-Hispanic dishes like the “Nectar Zapoteca.” This corn soup uses indigenous ingredients from all over Oaxaca.”
Somewhere in the dark night outside the window by our table I heard The Girl From Ipanema on a trombone. Mexico is full of surprises, incongruous scenes that make a strange kind of sense when all gathered together. I looked around the room at people I didn’t know, probably would never know, yet I felt as if I were one of them. A nostalgic shiver went down my spine.
“Jeffrey? Come back. Where are you?”
She used my first name. That shocked me back to the present moment.
“Just dreaming. Life is a dream, you know.”
“Si, la vida es sueño. That’s Calderon. It’s in the Unamuno book. I knew you’d come around sooner or later, Mr. Farmer.”
I saw then in her face something like true happiness, something I had experienced in a few rare moments in my own life. Her happiness spread over me when I saw that look. I realized then this was where I belonged.
Something finally arrived to sink our teeth into, a shrimp, just one but a big one, very lightly covered with a delicious breading and served with a fresh tomato basil cactus salad. No more than a tease but enough for Narce to hear this voracious American male, exclaim: “Ah, wonderful, wonderful. I wish I could cook like that.”
The shrimp was followed by a small duck tamale, four bites worth. I devoured the entire tamale in less than a minute. It’s impossible to truly enjoy a gourmet meal when you’re starving. That’s why all true gourmets eat regularly. The taco was delicious but the spices set my stomach on fire. I did not expect this. Maybe it was the rapidity with which I downed it. A waiter brought another shot of mezcal. I grasped the glass in desperation and drained it, hoping to combat the nightmare indigestion that had set in. The mezcal only added to my dilemma. Mexico is truly a country of extremes. Here, heaven and hell are separated by a thin line. One must be always alert and on guard.
“Jeffery, you don’t look well. Are you okay?”
“Air, a little air. I’m feeling faint.”
I stood and walked to the window. There was a cool breeze. I was the only person in the room with white hair and eyeglasses. The wife of the governor returned with her daughter. She looked gorgeous and defiant in her slinky black dress, but everyone knew that in a fair election her husband would be voted out. Still, she had his power at this moment, and she knew revenge would soon be hers.
Dessert was a berry ice with a cross between a fritter and a cinnamon bun. Delicious. I was still reeling from the mezcal. My eyes closed and opened repeatedly.
“Narce, what do you think will happen to him?”
“The man who spoke ill of the governor.”
“Hopefully no more than the closing down of his business for a few days. It’s hard to know but he is rich. The governor, corrupt and evil and powerful as he is, still must be careful.”
I live by the Ben Franklin rule, early to bed etc. I was exhausted. I thanked Narce. I said my goodbyes to the women at my table. I left. The party went on without me as Mexican parties do. I understand from two women I saw at breakfast that the group went out dancing until three in the morning. I also found out that the business of the man who insulted the governor was closed indefinitely “for administrative irregularities.” More distressing, however, there were rumors of several young people arrested at the Zocalo who were now missing.
Certain words have come to describe Oaxaca for me—relaxed, happy, quiet, ancient, slow, warm, sunny, cloudy, colorful, birds, families, small and friendly. Now I was forced to add a few more—political, corrupt, violent, riots, demonstrations. I don’t like these new words but one must be realistic when making life decisions. Violence, even when justified, is dangerous.
Albert Camus once said: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” His mother was a charlady with no talent for communication, emotional or intellectual. Yet, he chose his mother. I choose the people of Oaxaca, the indigenous, the poor, the rising middle class, even the rich. None of them deserve the sorrows that have been thrown their way by the greedy, the evil, the manipulators. But here we are. This is reality. I’ve run away from an idiot, a self-centered madman only to find myself in the arms of yet another monster. Why is it always the monsters that are in control?