Into the unknown
into Mexico City at sunrise, which cast a burnt orange glow over the
sprawling mass that is the world’s second largest city I began to feel
a small twinge of apprehension in my stomach. When the plane started to
descend I had a fleeting thought that maybe I had finally lost the
plot, landing into such a large city with not one familiar face to
greet me, armed with my sleep-deprived wits, a backpack and some
fledgling Spanish. The night before I left Ireland my family were
insistent that I should have someone there to greet me at the airport.
Owing to a lack of knowledge on my behalf of any Mexican relations of
ours, I was forced to create an imaginary person to soothe the parental
worries. Needless to say the Mexican “rent a friend” representative
didn’t show up but I managed quite well without him.
I suppose I should elaborate on why and when this trip began to manifest itself. During the summer in Westport I took the notion that travelling around Central America, mainly Guatemala, would be an enjoyable way in which to escape the Irish winter. Although that was a part of my decision, the lure of learning Spanish on a solo trip combined with some volunteer work was of foremost importance. The volunteer work would hopefully give me an insight into the demands involved in a career in development work, if I was going to apply for an MA in the autumn, and Spanish, a language I’ve always wanted to learn. So I could kill two birds with the one stone as they say.
Having safely manoeuvered through customs and perfected the Manuel from Fawlty Towers look when confronted by rapid fire Spanish, I hopped on a bus to a nearby city leaving the fumes of Mexico City in my wake. First stop was a tranquil place about four hours’ away which allowed me to get my bearings and enjoy a cool beer in the plaza with my eyelids drooping to the strains of jet lag.
One of the fantastic things about flying to a foreign country is the different varieties of food to sample, although the stomach doesn’t always tend to agree so wholeheartedly with the mouth. It’s generally taken for granted that there will be more than a few Olympic ‘Sonia O’ Sullivan’ sprints to the lavatory when travelling in a foreign country, as it can take a little bit of time for the stomach to adjust to the change in food. Beans, rice and eggs and chillies are a common feature on Mexican menus but even my long-standing love affair with eggs could be strained if I have them every day. Mexicans will eat meat if they can afford it and the over-abundance of fresh avocado make it guacamole lover’s dream. In fact it’s so cheap here for fruit and vegetables that it’s a pleasure to eat healthily.
In the guest house where I was staying I met up with an American girl Rachel and we decided to go for lunch down in the local markets. Westport’s introduction of a Saturday market during the summer was a fantastic addition to the mall, but it would be a rather tame affair in comparison to its equivalent over here. The market is usually housed in a large overhang with stalls spilling out onto the streets surrounding it. The pathways are narrow and packed tightly, forming a maze that leads to stalls with food, woven goods and an amazing colourful array of fruit and vegetables with a few nonchalant chickens in baskets blissfully unaware of their impending fate.
Stall owners range from all ages, young girls and boys selling bread and bracelets to old women peddling meat and vegetables, with a lot of them having travelled from the rural areas every day to make a few pesos. One of the local delicacies here is called ‘los chapulines’ which are grasshoppers. Now most of us could guess that there’s not a hell of a lot of meat off a grasshopper so why would anyone bother frying them up. Well there was only one way to find out really and seeing as my American friend was vegetarian it left me to do the sampling. Our little jumping friends come in small, medium or large for any discerning dieter or would- be weight watcher, and have been relieved of their guts so it makes it that little bit easier for the squeamish to digest. Two old women were selling these little critters and had cooked them in chilli and garlic with a squeeze of lime. I thought I’d better try the small first and ease my way up the grasshopper ladder, once I got over the fact I was eating something with feelers and horns it wasn’t too bad, the largest were a bit harder to swallow as there was a definite crunchiness that yelled “yep I’m eating insects”. The taste wasn’t unpleasant but I wouldn’t be tripping over food stalls in a rush to get back to them. I can’t imagine how they catch so many of them, surely there is better things to be doing in life than lying in a field with a bag waiting for the grasshoppers to come along?
Some of the meat stalls would be a health and safety officer’s nightmare but the meat would have been sourced from local farms and would have been tasty enough if one could ignore the lack of refrigeration. Splayed out on tables were raw livers, hearts, whole chickens, cured sausage, stuffed intestines, slabs of beef, all getting a golden tan in the afternoon sun whilst the sellers idly flicked at the flies that landed on their wares. Some of the meat was draped over bars so when we walked through the meat area it felt like Hannibal Lecter had been and gone. But the crowning glory of all this was a whole pig’s head looking over the edge of a stall. It appeared to have been boiled and wore a kind of woeful expression but that’s as far as we got, it proved too much for the vegetarian and the pig lover. It was going to be the vegetarian road for me from here and even the tastiest looking chicken would have a hard job changing that.
To be continued