I was 21 and had been working in Gibraltar in a bar and living over the border in La Linea in Spain for a few months. I’d just come back skint from an extended trip to Morocco and was looking for another job. In those days, the late ‘80’s, it was usually pretty easy to leave one job and walk straight into another.
However, it was late September, the end of summer, I’d been living by a waterfall in the Moroccan countryside and had just started dreading my hair so it was in its really ratty early stages. I’d also told the people in my previous job to stick it ‘where the sun don’t shine’ before I left, so maybe my chances weren’t so good.
After a couple of weeks and still no joy, things were getting a bit desperate. One day, walking around the small marina, I spotted a yacht with a hand-written ‘crew wanted’ sign, intending to sail to the Caribbean the following week. I jumped at the chance.
I shouted a cheery ‘Ahoy there’, thinking that must sound nautical and experienced and a grey head popped up from below.
Captain Smets, from Belgium, a small, wiry man with a deep tan, initially seemed friendly enough. He invited me onboard to check out the space. Climbing down the wooden steps into the cabin I noticed that each side of the hatch also had steps carved into it – I remember wondering why. The 60 ft bluewater (sea-faring) sailing yacht had a compact galley all made out of light wood, and a stove on a gimbal, so it always stayed upright with the rocking. There was a hook each side of the hotplate where a strap could be attached that went around the chefs back.
Already there was a slightly older Spanish girl with bright orange hair, Marta – she was the other crew member and there was also a couple of wholesome, white-toothed American hippy kids who were along for the ride. They had spent all their money travelling around Europe and were waiting for Daddy to bail them out.
Captain Smets spent all summer as a yacht charter going around the Med, and all winter sailing between Caribbean islands- what a great life, I was intrigued!
Although I hadn’t had much experience- i.e, any – with sails or sailboats, they wanted a chef and as I’d done some cooking of one-pot meals at my local pub in Brighton, somehow, I blagged my way in.
I got the job, went home, packed and within a week, we were off.
A few days later we stopped at Las Palmas on the Canary Islands. Marta and I went off to meet a couple she knew that lived in the town. We ended up drinking cheap red wine all night, their excited Spanish got too hard for me to follow so I left them to it and went to sleep on the sofa in the spare room. A couple of hours later, around 3 in the morning they all come in drunk and naked, trying to entice me into bed with them. I just looked at them, slightly horrified and embarrassed and turned over.
The next morning, we got back to the boat really late. Captain was furious, shouting about getting our suitcases out and leaving us there. Marta was very apologetic, smoothed it over and we were allowed to continue.
Captain Smets was a bit of a drunk and a Francophile, admitting that he hated the English, which made it all a bit tense. I didn’t shave my legs in those days either, I’d never bothered because they were lightly hairy and barely noticeable but he would constantly moan about them possibly getting in the salad! After three weeks, I was dreaming of dry land only to wake up and realize I was still on the damn boat.
Don’t get me wrong, some of it was amazing- we all had to take turns in doing a four-hour night watch. I loved that, alone with the expansive star-filled skies and the inky blackness and it meant we got a hot chocolate and a precious mars bar.
It was fantastic watching the sea life during the day, the big fish, the dolphins, etc that followed the boat. One day I was resting, reading a book on my bed, the top bunk, when a flying fish flew in through the skylight, landing on my lap, freaking me out.
I also really enjoyed the cooking, I had my sealegs- I never felt seasick. Strapped to the stove, I even made fresh bread a couple of times- the Captain seemed pretty happy with my food. I also got quite proficient at rolling a fag one-handed, with my arm wrapped around the rope barrier. Skills!
Once, we were discussing what I was going to prepare for the next day and Captain Smets walked over to the freezer, pointing at something in the bottom. Long and silvery, it looked like a big fish with a lump of meat in its mouth. Horrified, I realized I had to cook a tongue, and even now, thirty years later, after working as a chef many times, it is still the worst thing I’ve ever had to prepare. It sat grotesquely in the bottom of the pan with a few capers and a dash of wine vinegar. Once it was cooked, it had to be peeled and sliced. Gross.
One night, mid Atlantic, I woke up suddenly as my bunk had turned into a pit, like I was in a freshly dug grave. The boat was lurching sickeningly. Something was seriously wrong – the yacht was on its side. I scrambled up to look over the edge of my bunk as Captain Smets door slammed open and, stark bollock naked, cock flapping, he bounded up the stairs cut into the side of the hatch in one go. Ah, that’s why there are stairs there, I realised grimly. Also, a reminder never to sleep naked, just in case. Heart pounding, I clambered out, walking on a wall which was now the floor and followed him outside.
It was dark but the moon illuminated the ashen faces of the dude and his girlfriend who had been on watch. We were in the middle of the Atlantic, dead of night, in big trouble.
We were still bombing along erratically, the boat on its side with the spinnaker- the big sail which normally balloons at the front of the yacht – under the surface of the water, rapidly filling up. Not good. In a whirl of shouting and activity, Captain quickly untied some lines to drop the other sails and slow the boat. One or two more, and eventually the boat bobbed back upright. Clutching onto the ropes which formed the barriers around the side we all grabbed a piece of the sail fabric and hauled it slowly onto the deck. Luckily we didn’t fully capsize and nothing was broken, all the masts were intact.
None of us had a life jacket or were tied on, it could have ended horrifically, anyone going overboard would have been impossible to find. That would have been it. We somehow all clung on. I don’t remember feeling scared at the time but afterwards as I was rolling a fag, I realised how much my hands were shaking, knowing it was such a close call.
We finally arrived in English Harbour, an old settlement and natural marina on the south of the island of Antigua. After six weeks at sea, when you disembark your legs are wobbly, as though you are still sailing, it’s difficult to walk. It was soon clear that these were not my sort of people, entitled, posh and stuck up and I was not comfortable with them and me as a ratty-haired punk-rocker type, they were obviously not comfortable with me.
I spent about a week there, walking around the lush jungle-filled interior of the island, studded with brightly coloured shacks, high-fiving the friendly Rastas smoking their chillums. The poverty of the locals was a stark contrast to the well-to-do yachty types chinking glasses in the sailing club. Those people I couldn’t relate to.
Eventually, Captain picked up some more appropriate crew, professional, ‘groomed’, of the same ilk and class as his potential clients.
After a bit of wrangling, Marta and I were given $1000 wages each and a ticket back to Europe – standard practise in the yacht industry. To get home, I first had to take a small twelve-seater prop sea-plane to the nearest island of Guadalupe, where there was a larger, international airport. That was wonderful. It flew low, skimming the water and reefs, revealing the shoreline dotted with fancy white villas and the gorgeous turquoise water peppered with yachts.
I was back in the UK within a few hours, glad of the experience. I had a bit of money in my pocket, slightly relieved, ready for the next adventure, but I knew without a doubt that the yachting scene just wasn’t for me.
Last night I drank one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted in the scabbiest bar I’ve ever been in.
I’m in Xochimilco, Nahuatl for ‘place where flowers grow’, a gritty working-class suburb south of Mexico City, remnants of floating gardens surrounding the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
It’s known for its gaudy floral gondolas- long flat boats which are punted up and down the canals in a carnivalesque atmosphere and also for ‘pulquerias’, places to drink the ancient alcoholic sap from the native maguey plant.
For the sake of research, my host Macarena, and I go to an oddly simultaneously famous and clandestine pulqueria. Behind a nondescript wooden door, I go with the recommended lemon pie flavour and step inside. It’s like a bombed-out garage. Dirt floor. Shredded tarps hang over gaps in the walls. I wonder how bad it is behind the tarps if the scabby tarps beautify it. Its definitely more spit then sawdust. There’s about eight old men, a group of young goths and a couple of young women playing with a cat, sitting on simple wooden benches against the walls. In the middle are a couple of crates with a bit of cardboard on top. A grubby unframed copy of the classic pub picture of dogs playing pool is sellotaped to a pole behind the goths. There’s space next to them. I’d like to take a picture but it doesn’t feel appropriate.
These people look happy, it’s about 6%.
Macarena has a beer. She doesn’t drink milk. It’s a texture thing, she says.
They bring over a terracotta half litre mug for me. The liquid inside is white, viscous, spunky. It’s easy to see why it hasn’t caught on. I try not to think too much and take a big gulp and its sweet first then tart and it tastes just like lemon meringue pie. The slight foaminess of the texture adds to it with this flavour, its actually fantastic. For a while. It starts to get gacky but I manage the whole half a litre because it is so delicious. I’m intrigued, I want to know more about pulque, and try it again, although not tonight.
Also known as agave wine, pulque has been drunk in Mexico for over 1000 years and has almost mythological origins. It is made from the nutritious fermented sap of the incredibly useful native maguey or century plant, which has to reach maturity, taking about 12 years after which the plant dies. The larger specimens are getting increasingly harder to find as the big, thick older leaves are also used to make barbecue firepits.
Pulque can’t travel far, it spoils moving around too much, it ferments quickly and sours quickly too. Originally a ritual drink, for the priests and their sacrificial victims, its’ production was also heavily ritualized and sexual abstinence was advised in case it made it too sour.
Elderly and pregnant women were eventually also allowed to enjoy its vitamin-enriched and filling properties, but other than that, it was for nobles only.
After the conquest, like a lot of things, it lost its sacred character and both Spanish and indigenous started to drink it. Although lucrative for tax purposes but a cause of sexual crimes and violence, pulque lost favour and was seen as male, rough and rustic.
The non-fermented sap is known as ‘aguamiel’, honey water. Still incredibly nutritious, it’s not as thick as pulque, that happens with the fermentation process which can take place inside the plant itself. One story on Wiki says opossum discovered pulque – with it’s human-like hands it was able to dig in, get the naturally fermenting juice and become the first pissed idiot.
I am delightedly told the myth about starting the fermentation off with a ‘muneca’ – an old hessian wrapped straw doll filled with all sorts of substances, camel spit, dog or even human shit. ‘Oh no!’, my stomach gurgles.
Nonetheless, the next evening, I was happy to give pulque another try and willing to let Macarena lead the way. She suggested that we went to the notorious ‘Temple of Diana’, one of only about a hundred pulquerias left in the whole of Mexico, it has been an institution for over 50 years.
We arrive animated, having to walk a couple of extra blocks as the cab gets diverted by a fabulous procession of elaborately dressed dancers, a full on Jesus parade with a huge band and a massive crowd carrying sculptures of saints with frilly outfits, on their shoulders.
As we step through the saloon style swing doors, it’s obvious this pulqueria has loads more class and the place is half full with a mixed crowd. It’s tiled floor to ceiling all the way round and colourful paper bunting is draped from each corner. There’s a ditch round the bar for the slops to go down and apparently where the blokes would piss too, back in the day. The toilet was a later addition from when the women were allowed to enter, but looking at the scabby plastic door in the corner, I dread to see the state of it.
A large screen tv high up in the corner blares the commentary of the latest Mexican wrestling.
Tables of four sit around on plastic chairs, a couple of cowboys amongst them, scooping glasses of pulque from a big blue bucket in the middle.
On the wall behind the counter is a large sign which describes around 40 flavours or ‘curados’. Some are vegan, some seasonal, between £1.25 and £2 for a half litre. One of the special flavours is oyster, the thought of the texture makes me physically shudder.
I head to the bar to chat to the barman about his specialities.
He says the most popular is the natural and then the oat, celery and tomato, which are all made in house. Avena -oat- ‘good for a man’s milk’ he grins, pumping his arm enthusiastically.
The thought of a savoury pulque isn’t appealing at the moment so I have the cherry one which is normally one of my favourite flavours. It tastes like a lassi but vegan. It’s delicious but I have to admit the lemon pie still reigns. Then I spot chocolate on the menu, my absolute favourite, so we decide to go out on a short gondola trip and come back for one of those later.
We walk a few minutes down to the dock. Macarena knows a lot of the people in the area so she negotiates the price. She organized teams to do all the mosaics which decorate the neighbourhood. I remember the axolotl piece from a previous visit, it highlights the scarcely a thousand wild axolotls which still just about manage to exist there, despite development.
We clamber over the wedged gondolas to one which can be manoeuvred out by a young lad who looks about twelve. He has a long bamboo pole which he gently pushes against the shallows and we are off.
It’s leisurely at first, pleasant, drinking a beer and peacefully drifting past concrete houses on shore, yapping dogs following the boats progress to their boundaries.
Several sections of the canal system are lively. There are clumps of gondolas, all having competing parties. It’s 7pm on a Sunday night and clearly some people have been at it all day. Most people raise a glass and cheer as we punt and bump and shunt past each other in the narrow canals. Filled with drunken families, whole dynasties are sat on wooden chairs around tables heaving with booze and grub. There’s a constant soundclash from sound systems and boats loaded with varying sizes of mariachi bands in full costume.
There’s a lot of traffic at this time of night, narrow boats with braziers maintaining vats of corn cobs on a roiling boil. A woman has a tiny bar in a canoe – she’s mixing up spicy micheladas to a tinny radio while a man directs with two stubby oars. Rafts are tied up against the bank in wider areas, piled with souvenir mugs or glossy, sticky fruit, swarming with flies as a young girl idly flicks a manky rag.
It’s loud, hectic, and great fun. Once our time is up, the lad docks us back at the embarcadero, huddled amongst the other gondolas. We sit on the boat to finish our beer so we can take the bottle back. A small gang of teenage boys lark about a couple of gondolas over, constantly looking our way, elbowing each other and making a lot of fuss over smoking a spliff. Within minutes the lareyist one is leaning over the water, puking dramatically.
As dusk arrives the atmosphere gets slightly heavier, so we head back to the pulqueria – I’m looking forward to my chocolate pulque.
When it arrives, it’s pale, which is always a bad sign with chocolate. It’s tooth-achingly sweet and cloyingly thick with only a faint chocolateyness but there’s also a background sourness that doesn’t quite fit. I know instantly that I won’t be able to drink too much of it.
A heavyset goth guy pushes through the saloon doors and walks up to the counter. I watch the man behind it make his order- a dash of some lumpy orangey liquid, a big ladle of pulque then five heaped tablespoons of sugar, all whizzed up in a blender.
It puts me off immediately.
The goth is handed an oversized polystyrene cup full of the liquid and a thick plastic straw and he turns and wanders out, happily sucking away.
The shutters are rattling down by nine, its early doors apparently in the pulque business. As they are closing I get a few more samples. The celery is amazing, less tacky, a little bit spicy, reminiscent of a Bloody Mary. The tomato was sweet but insipid and despite my previous misgivings, I am definitely beginning to see pulques savoury potential and a slight preference to the over-sweetened ‘curados’.
Later that week, I’m visiting family in nearby Tlaxcala, pulque country, and they want me to try it there. Dotted all over the state are massive haciendas which have grown rich from the ‘pulque trains’ which were developed to deliver it straight into the city. Xochimilco was one of the sixteen boroughs of Mexico City which received it directly from here.
I climb in the back of Carlos and Marie’s car and we drive for half an hour up a dusty semi-desolate motorway and turn-off to Tlaxco, a nearby ‘magic town’ with an abundance of pulque heritage.
We have a wander around, they buy an ice-cream, we walk under the palisade of wooden arches which lines one side of the zocalo. The narrow and decrepit rooms that lead off this are filled with taco stalls, their traditional flat griddle pans sizzling with small piles of finely-diced meat.
At the end there’s a woman with a colourful apron under the arches. She has a stall facing into the square, a long table with three big buckets on it, the flavours of the day. Above her is a banner with an old black and white photo of the pulqueria from many years ago, it’s barely changed. Chatting away, she gladly fills a shot glass with a small sample of each. Strawberry, coconut and pineapple. They’re very sweet and quite thick. I doubt I can manage much of any of them. Even Carlos, my Mexican father, although he tries, he can’t finish his litre. The whole town looks, and feels, quiet – ‘nothing has been the same since the new road has been constructed’, she sighs.
We take a back road to look at a small stone church on the way home. It’s very atmospheric, bleak and deserted, straight out of a Western. A little further along the road there’s a couple of gateposts demarcating a track which leads off into the distance. One of the posts has a 5-litre white plastic bottle nailed to it with the word ‘pulque’ scrawled on it in thick red paint. Remembering the muneca, I shudder slightly, deciding I’ve had enough for the moment. Never having had either kids or dogs , I guess I have a relatively low point where my gag reflex starts to kick in and I’m finding it hard to even look at it now. It hasn’t helped that Carlos keeps describing it as ‘baboso’ -a quick google translate says ‘slimy’ and shows images of snails.
Currently, interest in artisanal drinks, food, products and experiences is gathering pace, it’s only a matter of time before pulques popularity sees a resurgence and global recognition beckons. I hear somewhere they are going to try to start selling it in cans so if they can do something about that challenging texture, this savoury, visceral, vitamin-rich sap could well be the new coconut water!
I was pretty hungover if I’m honest. It had been quite a late night, I’d got rather overexcited at the decent cheap wine in the supermarket and I didn’t know if I’d find any more in the village where I was going next. So, it may have been partly that reason that my heart started pounding as soon as I entered the ‘Mercado de Sonora’- the magic market of Mexico City.
Traditional Mexican herbal medicine has been linked to religious and occult practices for centuries. This cheerful yellow building with large, hand-painted letters declaring ‘medicinal and mystical plants’ was built by the government to cater for it and has been around for over fifty years.
In the middle of a massive traditional shopping area, like most markets in Mexico, all the sellers of one type are clustered together in the same area. Here there is a concentration of stalls supplying occult and magical objects. Anything and everything that could have a magical significance to anyone is here. Yoruba, Voodoo, Santa Muerte, Santeria, the Egyptian gods. It’s a bewildering and eclectic mix of influences and traditions.
The area around the outside of the building is busy and full of sellers too- people are milling around with flapping chickens under their arms and huge boxes tied up with string. It’s a rough old place, the broken and potholed paths are filled with puddles of questionable substance and as everywhere here, there are wafts of strange smells.
Stepping from the open, bright sun, it’s a dazzling contrast to the gloomy labyrinth within and it takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust.
It thrums. Two steps in and its obvious. There’s something almost tribal and powerful, it has an underlying erotic intensity. I take a deep breath- my nipples stiffen, my heart starts pounding, sweat prickles my forehead.
Thick with copal and frankincense smoke, the narrow doorways are piled high with stalks, grasses, long branches of fresh leaves and flowers. A woman stands in front pulling herbs from each pile and wrapping in newspaper. Immediately there is a choice of several aisles to go down. I turn right on instinct.
It feels almost medieval, the corridors are tall and narrow and even though the ceiling is high and there are skylights, there is so much stuff hanging over the aisles, not much light is filtering through. It’s intense and claustrophobic, walking through tunnels of magical objects. I realise I am saying ‘Fucking hell!’, and ‘Jesus Christ!’ a lot, in awe of the displays. Knick-knacks are piled in baskets, hung and draped over every possible surface. Everywhere there are huge open sacks of herbs, seeds, chunks of bark and wood, knuckles of ginger, giant black beets and baskets of eggs- some dyed lurid colours.
The smaller booths, lined with shelves, are crowded with gaudy bottles of potions, in vivid purple, lime green and dayglo orange. Row upon row in varying sizes, from large room sprays to smaller boxes of perfume all with graphic, 70’s -style pictures- lots of moustaches- and names like ‘Triumpher’ and ‘The Stallion.’
Shrink-wrapped Voodoo dolls and ready prepared spell bags of various sizes and contents are stapled into handy bags onto cardboard sheets and hang floor to ceiling. They contain some dubious coloured powders, a few seeds, a small amulet, a candle and an instruction on a small slip of paper. According to the illustrations, most of the products seem to be about love- how to find it, keep it, control it.
On my left, a cluster of small plastic bottles contain a bright, oily liquid, with a few colourful pellets and the inevitable chili seeds. On the front there is a black and white photo of a woman with a gag over her mouth and the legend ‘trapaboca’ – ‘mouth-shutter’.
Most stalls are so cluttered with products, you can barely see the people manning them. I just hear the same sentence over and over again, ‘What are you searching for Guerra?, just ask me.’
A few strings of soft green hummingbirds dangle into my line of sight. ‘good for love spells!’ explains the disembodied voice behind the counter.
Amongst all the tiny booths, there are a few larger stalls that display increasingly bizarre stuff. That one has a complete wolf pelt, armadillo shells, shrunken heads and spatch-cocked lizards hanging over the entrance. Skulls of every kind hang on the wall, flanked by sculptures of Santa Muerte in different costumes. One’s a bridesmaid, one’s plastered with dollar bills, the giant ones are at the back, descending in eight sizes. There are small piles of rusty, antique metalwork- padlocks, chains, horseshoes, great fat nails.
A thick black hook holds half a dozen, long, severed horses’ tails, each bound tight at the root with bright fabric and beading. Sat underneath, a white- haired old man has his feet up on a block and is cutting his horny toenails with a machete.
Above him hangs elaborately dressed African dolls in traditional costumes, several sizes of drums and a whole range of wooden instruments. Native American dreamcatchers sit next to classic witches’ cauldrons next to cartoon plastic garden gnomes.
Hanging above the counter in front of me are some life sized, and larger, cocks encrusted with chili-pepper seeds, in plastic bags. ‘For love’, winked the woman. I couldn’t quite tell what they were made from so I asked how it was used, ‘It’s a candle..’ she paused, ‘…you burn it’, she continued, cackling. I could feel my face redden slightly. I have to move on for some other people coming the other way, jostling for space in the narrow corridors.
A few people are lurking. Leaflets are thrust in my hands from all sides, offering readings of chamalongos, personal cleanings and pacts with ‘holy death’. They speak to each other in Nahuatl, their eyes not actually moving but somehow still darting backwards and forwards between them. Beaded curtains rustle at the back of a stall. There’s a piece of paper with a photograph pinned to it advertising that a dark beauty can read the ‘Spanish Cards’ for a fiver.
I catch the eye of a short indigenous woman with a peaceful countenance. Somehow, I am drawn towards her. She is calm, petite, serious. Silently, she slightly nods and steps aside. In one quick movement she pulls a curtain back and ushers me inside her little booth. It’s a tiny space, barely enough room for the small rickety table with an altar, covered in jam jars and vases filled with plastic flowers and draped with beads. Prominent in the middle is a foot-high resin statue of the national icon, the Guadalupana. On her right, at two thirds of the size is a plastic figurine with a moulded label saying San Miguel in scrawly writing. On the left stands an equal sized, rainbow striped sculpture of the Santa Muerte. In front, between a couple of candles already burning in glass jars is a small package wrapped in a cloth. There’s a low, plastic stool slightly under the table to the left. The blue painted walls have small framed images of angels hanging from a nail, sellotaped newspaper cuttings and naff cartoon angel plaques. The whole thing is outlined with a string of flashing fairy-lights, attached with drawing pins. On the righthand wall are two small shelves covered in a random assortment of dusty jars, packets and bottles.
She points for me to sit on the stool. She has a thin white candle and several strings of colourful beads wrapped around her left wrist and hand and is continuously muttering under her breath. She touches the candle to her forehead and chest in the sign of the cross and then gives me the candle to hold, indicating to clasp it tight with both hands. After a minute, she takes it from me and strokes me all over my face with it. Short strokes on my fore head, cheeks, side and back of my head. Then I have to lightly kiss the wick. She turns to the altar and lights it from a flame already burning. It sputters out straight away – ‘because you have too many tears inside you’, she says. Wordlessly she relights it and places it in a jar on the altar.
She picks up the small package and puts it in her left hand, waving it above and all around me. Carefully, she unwraps the cloth with her right hand, revealing a small battered paperback, a pack of cards and a rosary. She indicates for me to hold my hands out, putting the cards face down and draping the rosary over.
She opens the book at a heavily dog-earred page and reads the few brief lines. She closes it, putting it on the alter, on its cloth, the rosary on top.
I’m asked to shuffle the pack and then to cut into three. She spreads them out in a spiral face down and I have to pick nine that feel right. She quickly lays them in a cross pattern. Straightaway, she says, ‘ah, the only way to cure lost love is with a new love.’ I gulp.
A man comes up. There’s lots of cups, lots of coins- I know what that means, its positive. Another man- ‘but there is a rival too’, she says, ‘there is another, younger man, with money, or an older man with no money.’ I’ll have to decide between them within the next few months.
As usual, there is another side, conflict and dilemma- nothing is ever so simple. There are lots of daggers on the card, it’s all beginning to sound a bit hectic. I feel slightly overwhelmed with it all. Some parts of what she is saying are resonating at a very deep level.
The prescription for this dilemma is multi-pronged. She reaches behind her to the top shelf and lifts down a half-litre plastic wine bottle of a mouthwash blue liquid. Firstly, I need to wash myself daily with this magic lotion –‘ It’s all natural’, she says, untwisting the cap and thrusting the neck under my nose. It smells of the hairdressers in our street when I was a kid so I very much doubt that. She screws the lid back and hands me the bottle to read. There’s a peeling photocopied label on the front with a cartoon of an angel and ‘contra danos’- ‘against dangers’ in large celtic-style font. I turn it round to a prayer on the back with blanks to fill in the missing names. It’s definitely for hands only, if anything, as it looks like it would give you a serious rash. Without looking down I put it on the floor between my feet as she continues. I must also wash daily with this, for love, she says, as she picks up a dusty box from the bottom shelf. She wipes the dust away with one finger and gives it to me. I can see it claims to be a bar of the ‘famous, multi-purpose’ black chicken soap. I somehow feel that surely they’re missing a trick by not calling it ‘black cock’?
I must also keep three whole nutmegs in my bag for the next month and read a copy of a prayer every day for 33 days of which today is the first. All these things will help heal and protect me from the inevitable chaos which is coming.
Her mellifluous voice has started to make me feel sleepy. I’m almost in a trance like state. It’s making me feel pretty uncomfortable and I think I’m having a hot flush. I’m a widow of three months and suddenly feel every bit of it.
I get up intending to head towards the shopfront, to try and get some fresh air. I stand up too quickly and get a headrush that my grandmother would describe as going all ‘swimey’. The copal incense becomes cloying and my throat has dried into a squeak. As I stand, I jog the table and the sculptures and candles wobble, threatening to topple. I hold my arms out, trying to steady them, silently mouthing an apology. I fish out a 100 peso note from my pocket and hand it to her. I try to turn, pull aside the curtain and step out into the rest of the market all in one movement. My clumsy feet catch on a large sack of corn on the step, scattering the contents in a loud whoosh. Spinning, I snag a small pile of ceramic cups with my bag, clattering them loudly from their basket. I hold my hands up in apology, feeling completely disorientated. I have a really bad sense of direction and take a wrong turn almost immediately and find myself in the live animal section. In the distance ahead though I recognise the small outline of an ajar door with bright sunlight streaming around it, so I stumble towards it. Before I get there it becomes darker and dingier with thick dust swirling in the beams of light from the meagre skylights. Ramshackle wooden pens begin to line the wall and there’s straw and pine twigs on the floor. The corridor is filled with live chickens and turkeys standing on and in boxes and crates. They’re quiet and passive as I walk past, aside from the fluster of feathers when they get sold and are unceremoniously grabbed by their feet and held upside down. There are pens filled with ducks and geese, cages of budgies, parrots and peacocks. Single exotic birds are crammed, their long tails leaving no space to turn around.
Certain areas are dedicated to particular types of animals. It feels like an ark, it’s almost shocking because of the sheer number and variety of animals on offer in such a small space. Cage upon cage, piled high with eerily quiet and very young drooling puppies, bundles of baby bunnies and some exotic rodents like giant rabbit-sized gerbils in a long tank. Huge trays hold docile doe-eyed kittens lolling in little piles. They seem like they have been drugged, or perhaps it’s the herb Melissa, to make them so peaceful. It seems slightly unnatural and a little bit sinister.
There are tankfulls of toads, turtles and terrapins. Axolotls, lizards and snakes. A little boy cradles a turtle, but sadly it’s easy to imagine not all of the animals are destined to be pets. A man is kneeling in a straw covered pen and peels bananas and feeds them whole to a dozen boisterous kid goats. I ponder their fate, noticing a hook with a load of pelts hanging from it. Shakespeare pops into my head – ‘Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog’. Are they for ritual sacrifice? To make potions and spells and cures? I read somewhere that the market has been raided a few times in the past by the police for dealing in animals in danger of extinction. Unwittingly, it reminds me of a market I found myself in, in China once. Horrible: swathes of cute kittens and puppies for sale, right next to stalls selling kittens and puppies split on sticks and dried and fried.
I feel slightly nauseous at the thought of it. The hangover is kicking in a bit now. It feels like the smell round here has suddenly become more feral, greasy and visceral.
A woman stands on the corner with a plastic bowl full of cooked chicken feet. She picks one out and starts chewing on the shank causing the foot to claw grotesquely.
The reptiles start scuffling, slapping their tails against the side of their tanks. A squabble erupts. The avian section all seem to start squawking and flapping at once, swirling up the dust in the light. There’s a scurry to gain control. It feels as though something surges, all the animals wake together. The spell is broken. There’s yapping and mewling and bleating – the noise level goes up more than a notch.
I am sweating like a pig- its roasting hot in here and my head is thumping. I need some fresh air more than ever. I am at the wide rectangle of a doorway. I am out. I lean on the wall, my mouth watering but I’m not actually sick. I jump in a taxi, get back to the flat in a blur, sleep for 12 hours straight and wake up starving.
Later on, I read in a free magazine how Mexico’s development means humungous shopping complexes so traditional market areas are being razed. The next page has an article on a bar in the city that has turned tarantula venom sourced at the market into a cocktail ingredient. Another creative bar owner uses the ritual herb for a spiritual cleanse as a distillate in their concoction, with a tarot card garnish. In the wider world, there’s a chef in Chicago, inspired by a stroll through Sonora, who has taken a native grass back to incorporate into his dishes, providing a taste of home for his Mexican customers. As these things become absorbed into a wider culture and are losing their meanings, isn’t this real cultural appropriation? In such an atmosphere, I wonder how much longer such an original place as Sonora can survive.
Designated a so-called ‘magic town’ for its unique cultural interest, it is high in the mountains, three hundred kilometres east of Mexico City. It’s been almost twenty years since I was here last. The journey didn’t bode well, a fire had closed a section of road up ahead so we stopped and got stared at in a small town for a couple of hours while waiting for the road to be re-opened.
When we finally got the go ahead, the sun was going down but the scenery was spectacular-the mountains created a giant bowl full of thick white smoke, stunning from above but scary having to drive through it in the dark once we got lower. The visibility was atrocious and I knew some of these narrow mountain roads have no edges. It was nerve-wracking, I was sitting right at the front just behind the driver, eyes straining to see the tiny section of kerb that he was slowly following.
Even though I was 4 hours late and out of contact, I was relieved, Esther from the AirBnb was still waiting. We had to get a cab to go to her village, San Miguel Tzinacapan, 15 minutes away. It’s pretty basic compared to Mexico City but she is friendly and welcoming, speaks no English. I’m going to get some good Spanish practise in.
The weekly Sunday market in Cuetzalan is pretty special, traditionally dressed indigenous people from all over the area come to set up shops there. The main square has a series of stone steps and every possible surface is taken up with somebody trying to sell something. Women with hair in pigtails and pom-poms, bright embroidered shawls and thick black skirts wander around with armfuls of textiles while children holding babies hassle to sell keyrings and purses.
The open-air butcher sets up his little stall on the corner, just a thick wooden table with a pole at each end and a piece of wood suspended over the top. Serene pig faces and clusters of trotters hang from metal hooks. Huge white sheets of fat and pigskin are stretched out to dry, ready to be fried up as pork scratchings, and dominating the chopping block is a long, thick spine with a lump of meat and a big fat cock dangling off the end of it. There was also a mound of something black, visceral and hairy which made me shudder as I walked past.
Next to him a toothless old man is sitting on his haunches behind a blanket piled up with fresh red and green chillies. Beside him a young girl is selling wicker baskets and hand -carved spoons.
A wiry old boy scurries by, hunched over with a crate of oranges on his back, supported by a ‘trampline’, a strap round his forehead. A young kid whistles in a sing-song behind a white table studded with fat discs of watermelon on a stick, soaked in chili sauce.
There’s a strong smell of leather and copal, always copal.
Everything is cloaked in a thick mist and there is a non-stop clamour of tinny songs, voices and birds.
This takes me back to those days I was last here, in early October 1999 at the big annual festival dedicated to Saint Francis. I had been travelling around Mexico as a jewellery maker with my much younger Mexican lover, Carlos. We had hooked up a few weeks before with another couple, Joel, a Brazilian guy and Marjorie, his American girlfriend. They did a show with fire poi and sold jewellery so we all decided to go to the festival together.
We had been having a good day or two, had sold a bit- the market was much larger and busier than usual and we had found quite a nice spot between a couple of florists on the steps in the centre of town. We also played some music and helped with the fire show for a small crowd most nights.
On the Saturday afternoon we went to get some tacos in a cheap cafe at the back of the market.
The famous flying acrobats, the ‘Voladores of Papantla’, had been doing their show, the mood was jovial, the atmosphere good, it was a great place to be.
Whilst we were eating, it started raining and didn’t seem to want to stop. It lashed down for three days straight, it was a total wash-out. Everything shut down. Rain stopped play. Once the storm finally broke, all the people came out and hundreds of people were gathered in the town square not knowing quite what to do. Someone official came out, somehow Carlos got the job of quietening the crowds and stood up amongst all the people that thronged the square to announce, in a big, booming voice, that all the roads had been washed away, no one would be able to get out for a while. Hundreds of tourists were stranded.
We had become a little band of a few of us artisans so we decided to entertain them. There was a guitar or two and a couple of bongos. I’d given fire poi a go a few times, swinging a pair of potentially dangerous torches on chains. I was not a natural but as I often said to Marjorie, who had been doing it for a couple of years,and was amazing- I was the warm up act.
Maybe I was really nervous in front of so many people and possibly had not been as careful as I could have been but I dipped the torches in the liquid and flicked them once to remove the excess fuel. Then I lit them, swung them in a wide arc, and then, literally, was on fire.
There was an audible gasp of shock from the crowd.
I’d had dreadlocks for years, so there was always a halo of split ends. Fire whooshed around my head in one spectacular flash.
Spots of ignited fuel spattered on my chest, arms and back- I was on fire in multiple places and I could tell it could have gone pretty badly quite quickly.
Luckily, it was superficial and looked a lot worse than it was. Marjorie rushed over and helped pat me out. It had tidied my hair up nicely actually, gotten rid of all the fuzz but left lots of little crispy wisps and a horrible burnt smell. Later on, on the other side of the square, people walked past and were heard to exclaim that they couldn’t believe I looked ok. ‘Was that the girl that got burnt?’, Carlos said they were asking.
On the way home, giddy with the whole thrilling night, I wasn’t looking where I was going and stepped in a hole in the pavement. My ankle cracked, loudly, reinforcing an old injury. I knew I’d done something bad but we were staying in a house at the top of the hill above town and we were all so exhausted we just continued home. They didn’t have a freezer, or even a fridge, so a bag of frozen peas was out of the question to put on the strain. I think I just went to bed and I was probably so knackered I may have even forgotten about it for a while.
The next morning, Carlos brought me a cup of tea in bed. I sat up and got an awful shock when I looked down at my feet under the blanket. Something was seriously wrong with that silhouette. Nervously I pulled the blanket off my legs to see my right foot wrenched at an unnatural 90-degree angle. Although it wasn’t painful, it looked pretty gruesome. There wasn’t much we could do – no one was going anywhere for a while, I couldn’t walk around at all and after the night befores embarrassing fiasco, I was happy to stay out of sight for a bit. I spent a few days hopping around the house. It was a pain in the arse, literally, as one of my arse cheeks ached so much, it got such a workout.
After a couple of weeks, things were getting quite desperate. Shelves were empty, shops had ran out of food. A queue of over a hundred people waited outside the government office to pick up some corn massa to make tortillas.
Luckily our friends had been given a massive pumpkin a few days before the festival. We had taken the piss out of it a bit at the time but by the end, we were glad to have pumpkin soup to eat for 3 weeks.
Rumours were flying around about how everyone was going to get rescued. They said they would send helicopters in to save the tourists- that was exciting! I’ve never been in a helicopter before.
This was the first time I went to see a ‘curandero’, a natural healer in Mexico.
We had to wait for about 2 weeks before we could get out of town to see him.
Carlos and I got a minibus to a fairly remote area, the roads were deeply rutted and missing in parts so it was quite slow going. They dropped us off at the end of the road where there was a big gaping hole and they could drive no further. With one arm around Carlos’s neck, I hobbled down a dusty back street to a shack with a small garden around it. We were welcomed warmly and taken inside. There was a wood fire burning with the smoke only partially escaping through some slats in the ceiling. Mixed in was a strong smell of copal as well as him puffing continuously on a cigarette.
I sat on the edge of the bed and he sat down on a plastic stool in front of me, picked up a small bottle with a handpump, half-full of some gaudy yellow liquid. He dispensed some into the palm of his hand and rubbed it on to my twisted ankle. All the while he was muttering, smoking and making snorting noises. Then he blew the smoke from his cigarette on to my foot. It was denser than usual, dark, smelt lethal and slightly warming. When the cigarette was finished, he dropped the stub in a nearby empty sardine can, rubbed both his hands together and grabbed hold of my ankle. For nearly an hour he patiently massaged, rubbed, and slowly twisted my foot until it was straight.
Whereas I had limped in, I managed to walk out, albeit carefully and stiffly.
It was a week later before we could leave Cuetzalan proper. All we had eaten for weeks had been pumpkin soup which by then had got pretty tedious. My ankle was still strapped up with some thick bandages and I was limping but at least my foot was facing in the right direction.
Eventually we were allowed to get out of there. They summoned a few of us European tourists together, we gathered all our things and set off in a group walking in single file on narrow paths up and down the hills.
It was a bit of an obstacle course, my ankle ached with the effort because the road was broken into giant chunks in places and the ground was uneven.
After forty-five minutes, a couple of minibus rides, then a quick lift in the back of a truck we ended up on the banks of a fast-flowing river which had since become 130ft wide. There, we were divided into small groups and put into two little boats with two men already in each. A rope had been slung across the river and they used this to manoeuvre themselves around the big slabs of concrete from the broken bridge which were dotted in the water. On the other side, they were throwing cables across ravines, as broken roads disappeared down mountainsides.
There were just a few more convoluted paths to follow and eventually we emerged through the woods into a clearing on the edge of a town. We appeared to be safe and on the other side of the destruction. There were a few American journalists with big cameras wandering around, watching the trail of people reaching civilization. We were wild-eyed and delirious with the adventure and the freedom and happy to be interviewed by them. Afterwards we headed straight to the market for something else, anything, to eat other than pumpkin soup.
Luckily, it all still looks normal and I’ve not had much trouble since from my ankle. Occasionally it still clicks a bit when the weather gets damp and misty but that only helps me to fondly remember my time in Cuetzalan.
Aketzali and Stefan, two film students and my first ever Airbnb hosts have been part of an amazing beginning here in Mexico City. Even though they are half my age, we are from the same tribe and have been enjoying hanging out, listening to music, chatting about films and drinking wine. Civilized city sort of stuff.
They have provided me with a safe, plant-filled creative space to write and gather my thoughts for this next adventure which has already been so life-affirming and positive and incredibly intense in parts that I am still trying to put it all into words.
But I will tell you about my last night, ‘out out’ in Mexico City.
As we have all got on so well, its suggested that we go to a couple of the places which Aketzali and Stefan like, near the centre. We are going to eat some veggie food at a small cinema and bar they know and then after they will take me to Bosphoro, an artisan mezcal bar. Sounds great.
I’ve been eating street food all week and doing lots of cheap stuff like just walking around markets, gardens and museums, so it’s a bit of a splash out for me. The same, new sort of hipster bars you can see all over Brighton and everywhere are happening here. The place looks cool and the wine is delicious but pricey so after some tiny poncey food we jump on the sweaty metro again for a few stops. It’s a clement night so we are happy to walk a few blocks to the mescal bar
In a back street, we pause at a nondescript shopfront. I’m momentarily confused but then I realise there are thick curtains covering the doorway. They muffle the noise and there is only a small chink of light. Stefan tugs one to the side and a cosy lamplit space reveals itself. Inside, the place is tiny, not much more than the width of a garage. At the back are some narrow wooden steps which leads to a mezzanine and I can see it’s full of people. At the far end of the bar I notice two stools so I head straight there.
There is a thick stone bar with a hand-written blackboard on the wall behind. It is barely legible in the gloom and I’m realising with a slight sigh that I am going to have to start wearing glasses soon. It’s pretty much meaningless anyway. Under a few names of states that I recognise, like Oaxaca and Guerrero, are the names of small artisan producers.
There are around twenty -five different types of mezcal in a cluster behind the bar. All the bottles are the same- chunky and handmade. Respectful.
The waiter came to help me decide. I told him that my favourite flavours are chocolate, spinach and red wine so if there was anything like that, I’d be happy. He nodded. It came in a chunky shot glass, on a saucer with some thick wedges of orange and a dish of spicy peanuts. At almost £3 a shot, it’s not for slamming-they say It’s the sort of drink you give little kisses to. Mine was chosen perfectly for me, smooth and smoky, incredible. I tried them all. Stefan’s was hot and fruity-too much like the Portuguese aguadente for my taste but Aketzali s was balanced halfway between our two.
After a few rounds of cheers and peanuts and more mescal, they teach me my new favourite saying- Para todo mal, Mescal. Para todo bien, tambien!’ For everything bad, mescal. For everything good, also mescal! That will take me a long way on my travels.
Just then, the guy sitting on my other side, is given his food from the woman behind the bar. He turns to me, and asks, in English, if I want the chipulines (grasshoppers), he hadn’t asked for them on his quesadilla. I say, I’m OK, I’m a vegetarian and we have a little chat about insects as future food and then about our reasons to be here. He is Isaac, an artist and gallery owner from New York – I lived in the same neighbourhood, Park Slope, for a while. He is here setting up a big art show, which opens locally on Thursday. I’m invited but unfortunately, I’ve already booked my bus ticket out of the city and I’m kind of ready to make a move too. He shows me pictures of a massive warehouse space all being divided into booths with flats and lights etc. he explains that New York is too expensive these days to be truly creative while Mexico City is still really affordable. He finishes his Mescal, pays up and leaves, as I wish him good luck.
Compared to when I was here 20 years ago, I’ve definitely noticed some changes.
There is a palpable creative energy here, but it is getting developed fast, like everywhere in the world
When we walk home arm in arm later, we pass a massive development. Stefan says it’s a new type of apartment, gaining popularity in the city. Hundreds of expensive tiny rooms but the complex contains everything -shops, services, gyms, all the tech. It’s like a resort, they will never have to step outside again.
We buy a couple of bottles of wine at the seven-eleven near the apartment. On the way back, we pass shabby wooden gates, some are open and inside you can see courtyards surrounded by shacks. These places fill in all the little areas between the swanky high-rise apartment blocks. There is less and less of them around here.
We stay up late, smoke, drink and chat. It was one of those nights’ worth having a hangover for.
I’ve not been sleeping past 5 am since I got here so when I do finally emerge at 10, Stefan is in the kitchen, making his guaranteed hangover cure, a michelada. It’s an extra spicy bloody mary made with beer. He gets a tall glass, squeezes half a lime, a teaspoon of ‘worm salt’, and a long glug of prepared chili sauce from a big glass bottle. Then he half fills the cup with clamato juice – tomato and clam juice, then tops it up with beer. Swears by it.
I just found that half a vegeburger under my pillow, must have been starving after the miniscule portions of food. It’s time to pack my bag as I have an early start tomorrow, a 6-hour bus ride into the mountains. Off to one of Mexico’s magic towns, a special place, Cuetzalan, but that will be another story.
Bye bye, Distrito Federale, it’s been a blast-I did drink mezcal, and it was fun!
This is the main reason I came to Mexico City. The young tattooed artist who runs the airbnb in the middle-class suburb of Coyoacan warned me of the danger of kidnappers. I take my jewellery off on the way and pull my hat down low. It’s in a rough neighbourhood, on a par with many of the shitpits of India I’ve visited. An hour on the metro and I come out to the cacophony that is Tepito. There’s a massive market going on, crowds of people pushing & shouting, blaring music, unrecognisable meaty smells. Very few tourists come this way. ‘Where’s the temple of the skinny lady?’ I ask one man, ‘Where does the bony lady live?’ I have to ask another. I’m glad I can speak enough Spanish not to sound too green. ‘ Psst, psst guerrita’, I hear from dark doorways. In the quieter back streets, shabby stalls cook up big chunks of meat in vast pans of hot fat on the pavement. A cowboy with extra shiny boots, sunglasses and a cowboy hat, spits out a lump of gristle as I go past. No time for photos, I walk quickly, feeling incredibly conspicuous and slightly vulnerable. It’s a densely populated poor area, a shanty town where every doorway reveals a scabby courtyard surrounded by a maze of flats and washing lines, inevitably fronted by a giant glass box containing statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Santa Muerte is still an underground figure, even though over the past twenty years she has become the symbol of the fastest growing religion in the Americas. I’ve waited a long time to see her. Mangy dogs jump up at the open-air butchers, flies buzz around the slabs of meat. Down one side street, then another, the buildings, shabby-chic bright colours emblazoned with hand-painted adverts, look desperate. A group of evangelists on the corner eye me suspiciously, the Catholic church still doesn’t approve. Past abandoned warehouses, burnt out buses, a truckload of chavos hiss, ‘Guerra, smoke, smoke?’ They know I’m only here for one thing. Then I see the temple, just a shopfront really with loads of bunches of flowers piled up outside. The altar already has candles burning, along with fruit, lit cigarettes, cans of coke for offerings. There’s a couple of tables full of resin sculptures of varying colours and sizes, along with different trinkets, necklaces, spell bags. I tell the woman behind the counter I’m here to light a candle for Little Bear, my missing cat and, more importantly, one for my dead husband. So it’s a green one for the cat and a white one for Keef. That’s £2.50 then. I’m feeling pretty emotional. The sculpture of Santissima Muerte is behind glass, life-size, a skull face with shiny gold robes and hung with beads and jewellery. She is surrounded by goblets, mirrors, fruit, knick-knacks, trinkets and gifts. It’s a powerful moment as I light my candles and place them there. As I think of my lost loves, other people come in, touch their chests with the sign of the cross, mutter and add to the altar. People stream in constantly, wheeling babies, supporting their sick family members. I give them space and focus on the shop. A few people are suspicious, give me side eyes so I feel uncomfortable waving a camera around. As usual, there are keyrings, necklaces, candles of all colours and huge old-fashioned cans of spray, each claiming special powers for a certain use. I’m travelling with a rucksack so I pick the smallest things I can find, two 3 cm images of the skinny lady herself. The woman behind the counter says they’ve been dipped in holy water. She turns her attention to some new arrivals as I slip back to the hot dusty street, past a concrete construction on the corner filled with religious icons and back to the bustle of the market.