“Mexico is slow.”
My friend Tanya told me: a big mama type born and raised in Mexico but with features and build inherited from her Cuban mother. The people in the market still try to cheat her, imagining that she must be a foreigner. She splayed a pudgy, friendly hand in front and sighed:
“You can’t just rush into this country and hope to understand everything at once,” She continued, looking me up and down to see if I was eating enough. “You have to go slow if you want to understand how things work here.”
Okay, slow. Of course my head was already full of all the movie cliches: a fat Mexican with his sombrero tipped down snoozing in the shade of his hut, agreeing to every plan but all with the same provision:
“Si, seÃ±or, manana.” Tomorrow. And we all know which day it is that never comes. Wasn’t this the country that invented the siesta?
Whilst a good number of Mexicans make their living by reinforcing such clichés on Hollywood film sets, the real Mexico has been joining the modern world for some time now. Telephones where you actually get to speak to the person on the other end of the line; buses where there are enough seats for the people who travel on them; things that actually work.
Thing is, while Mexico wants to leave its rustic past behind, not everyone living there was informed about this change. Young guys still jump on the buses with their guitars to earn a few coins. Women walk around with baskets of home made sandwiches to sell. And there are still troops of guys ready to shine your shoes.
I never felt comfortable about this last part. Perhaps it’s just too symbolic a display of status, having someone grovel at your feet and scrub away. I guess I could just have taken off my shoes and handed them over if I was that bothered. But all the same it’s a profession that has almost completely died out in most of Europe along with the days of the chimney sweep. I hardly see any window cleaners these days either.
Ten children run up to me with sheets of paper in their hands and a pen, demanding that I write my name. But I’ve fallen for this scam once before – the paper is folded in half and the other side is where you’re emotionally blackmailed into donating money to some fictional good cause.
I figure a good way to try and go slow is to head to the market and buy what I need for lunch. I work out that if I buy the avocados, tomatoes, cheese and cucumbers all from different people the whole process will take longer. I’m getting into the spirit of things now.
I’m tempted by the stalls of cake and sweet breads but then I remember that they’re made with pungent lard. The taco stalls also draw me where the taco man serves about fifty corn shells a minute with chicken, beef or the mysterious meat that my dictionary translates as ‘beast’.
But I’ve already bought my handful of salad and the best part is still to come. I have to go and buy my tortillas at the tortilleria. It’s hard to imagine people actually queuing for something as dull as flat corn bread but at lunchtime there’s seven people waiting ahead of me. I feel like we’re waiting to get ice cream or something.
In reality there’s little more appetizing in here than corn flour mixed together with starch and the pervasive aroma of toasted maize is proof enough of this. Still there’s an exciting machine with nuts and bolts, bicycle chains and tire tracks that produce hundreds of tortillas every minute. One of the lads in aprons hurls a ten kilo mound of dough on a trough on top. Pieces slide through a miniature oven and then miraculously roll out on the conveyor belt as round tortillas.
I’m so absorbed that I fail to realize that I’m now at the front counter. The girl there smiles patiently. I ask for half a kilo and have no idea if it will be enough for my lunch or perhaps all my meals this week.
“Where’s your ticket?” She asks me, looking at my empty hands.
Ticket? It’s an exclusive business this. A ripple of laughter goes through the crowd behind me that the white boy doesn’t know how to buy tortillas – imagine! The girl smiles again, takes my money and walks over to a ticket counter on the side that I missed in my enthusiasm. She comes back with my change and gives me a foot high pile of tortillas wrapped up in a brown paper bag.
Despite my embarrassment as a first timer here, I still feel a rush of elation as I exit the tortilleria (try pronouncing that when you’re drunk). I hold the warm package close under my arm and it warms my side. I can’t even make it to the next corner before I have to unwrap my score and take out a couple.
They feel like dry pancakes to the touch and I flip the first one from hand to hand until it falls apart. Determined not to waste the next one I hold it up to me face and inhale the aroma of maize. Suddenly I get a flashback of those hot tissue wipes that expensive airlines give you in the morning to freshen up at 8000 meters. I rub it against my cheeks and it feels as soft as baby skin.
Trouble is, I don’t really feel like eating it now.
And that’s the thing with tortillas, the least exciting part is actually putting it in your mouth. You can use them as flannels, fold origami shapes out of them but at the end of the day the basic truth remains unchanged – they don’t taste of anything. You can fill them with avocado and lemon juice, cheese and chillis, but you know in your heart that it’s all just an elaborate bluff to fool your stomach that a good meal is coming its way.
What it does do is put a good weight in your stomach, although sometimes I think sand would do just as well. It keeps half of Mexico alive though and at a dollar a kilo it’s as cheap, ready-to-eat food as you’ll find anywhere on the planet.
I stop at a bakery and pick up a baguette. Bread never tasted so good.
And I don’t have to look far to give away my tortillas for up ahead are the eternal drunks, passed out cold on the sidewalk as comfortable as sleeping children. Street dogs guard them as they sleep off a bottle of cheap mescal. As I lay down the paper bag next to their heads, I reflect that there’s no one in all of Mexico who takes life slower than they.