I resurface from the underground and run eager to leave the stagnant air of the subway behind me. I forgot how toxic the first inhale of Mexico City’s outside is. Disappointed, I walk with the nose pointing towards the street, when the invisible fragrance of grilled corn reaches my nostrils. I’m already in the contamination free zone and before reaching home I pass through the market. When I lower my hand holding the cob, its smell leaves space to its contenders. The perfume of the flowers melts with the stench of the raw meat, this is the Mexican contradiction.
Which one is the best cuisine in the world? And what are the parameters to define a good cooking? Is it the healthy Mediterranean diet? Or maybe the spicy Asian dishes? Could it be the Mexican hot and corn-based gastronomy?
Personally, If I had to choose one special dinner in any place around the world I’d go for a restaurant in a village in the South of Italy. As much as I appreciate international cuisine in the worldwide capital cities, I firmly believe the ingredients of smaller places conserve a genuineness that is impossible to find in big metropolis.
The sweet flavour of tomatoes grown on Sicilian soil are difficult to find in a common restaurant in a city like London. The freshness of the fish, caught in the morning and delivered on your plate is something that, in a big city, you get only in exclusive and therefore extremely expensive restaurants. Whereas in the Mediterranean fisher towns is part of the daily diet.
The speciality of Southern Italian cuisine is that it’s a people’s kitchen; you can find places where the very same elderly Italian woman cooks as if for her guests at home. It’s the love for the soil, the warmth of the sun and of the people that make the dishes one of a kind.
What is most recommendable to eat? Everything from a pizza, to Spaghetti allo scoglio (seafood), including a Parmigiana (aubergine lasagna) and a sea bass cooked in oven. Every Italian region has its own recipes and specialities, so the best thing is to have a local person suggest you where and what to eat. There’s neither a food guide nor a website that could replace the advice of a native. The problem rises when you don’t know the language of the place you’re visiting.
I noticed that in Thailand there are many food places that translate and list all the ingredients of a dish. However, it didn’t satisfy me since the mere enumeration of components doesn’t explain a dish and it may confuse me with another plate that has similar ingredients but is cooked in a completely different way.
I reckon that the name of the dish in the original language needs always to appear on a menu so that if someone suggests us that dish or we want to eat it again we can refer to that name.
However, when we see a dish for the first time and have no clue about it, I think images are an additional support to our understanding, yet, they don’t offer a complete explanation. So what is the solution? Well, learn the language of the place you’re visiting!
While you study, you could also look up an English version of the restaurant’s menu if their site uses website translation. It shouldn’t be just a literal translation, it should explain what the dish consists of , how they prepare it and serve it. Especially, nowadays that everyone’s food demand is becoming more and more specific.
So for example when you’re in Italy and read the Orecchiete alle cime di rapa you’ll know that orecchiette, meaning small ears, refers to a kind of pasta that resembles small ears and cime di rapa, literally turnip tops, allude to broccoli raab or rapini.
In Thailand, Pad See Ew, which is a phonetic translation, is a noodle dish. They use large, rice noodles fried in soya sauce with Chinese broccoli. This is a specific noodle dish not to be confused with the endless variety of other noodle dishes.
The Mexican Chile en Nogada is one of the finest dish of the country. Where we all understand what chile is, the Nogada need at least a paragraph to be explained. Briefly, it’s a white walnut sauce in which the chile is dipped. The dish is also decorated with pomegranate and is typically eaten in July, August and September.
Why all this fuss? It may not matter to you what you eat or you may look for dishes of your countrywhen you’re aboroad. However, for the traveler food is one of the most important component of the journey so we have to get the best out of it, don’t we?
The noise of the alarm clock interrupts the sound of the ocean waves. I switch it off, my heavy hand causing the mobile to fall. I turn around and continue sleeping but I suddenly remember why the alarm clock is waking me up on a holiday. With my eyes swollen and only half open, I look for the still damp bikini while the images of the boat, the dolphins, the sun cheer me up and make me move. “Come on Uli, stand up and come with us!” I try to convince my boyfriend to join the sea excursion. Yesterday evening he was firm about not coming, “I don’t want to see exploited animals and stupid tourists again!” he grumbled. Last year in Thailand we had promised not to support a certain type of tourism. We didn’t want to see natural landscapes ruined by people behaving as if in a bar, treating nature like a garbage bin.
This time was different. We arrived one morning as dawn broke. The Pacific Ocean welcomed us with its waves, while the village and its people slowly woke up at their Mexican rhythm of life. We stood feeling the grains of sand between our toes, dressed with our city clothes and feeling the breeze on our skin still dirty from Mexico City pollution.
One afternoon, a life guard approached us, “Hey guys do you want to spot some dolphins out in the ocean? There’s also the possibility to see turtles and whales”, “Whales???” we exclaimed. “Yes, if we’re lucky enough we’ll see them, they were spotted very close to the beach a couple of days ago.” We told him we were going to think about it, acting as if we weren’t absolutely tempted.
“Please help me with the cream” I try to get Uli up. Probably at the risk of being wrong, he joins us. We buy liters of water and meet the life guards at the beach. We help pushing the boat in the ocean and jump on it. It’s us, a Mexican family and another two young couples. This familiar atmosphere already feels good. The morning light makes us all look beautiful and hides the swollen eyes of the night. Lidio and Hugo, the captain and the guide, lead us through the high waves of the Pacific. “Look at the sides so you don’t get sick!” says Hugo with a smile of experience. I follow the instruction, however, I soon feel all my organs upside down. The waves come towards us as big as those drawn on the kids books and I turn my head to the side.
We’re nowhere in the middle of the sea and the boys start to whistle to call the dolphins. We all look for the friendly mammals but apart from waves and seagulls having breakfast there’s nothing to see. For a long while everyone is in his world, we stare at the impenetrable ocean and sometimes we cross gazes and smile to each other. The dolphins come out of the blue and start to show off their acrobatics. “On the right!” says Hugo, “On the left” says a member of the group, “Look in front” says another one. We all announce our sights, but we’re to slow to catch what the others spot. I see them jumping far away and then I see them right by the boat, I can look them in the eyes, observe how they swim. Their proximity tells me that they feel comfortable with us. The spurts of salt water blend on my face with a tear that I didn’t even notice. For once, we humans are the small ants passing by without disturbing the world around us.
We continue navigating and leave the dolphins to their daily activities. Daydream starts again triggered by stormy waves and a clear blue sky. My day gets even better when I spy Uli’s face and see the corner of his mouth pointing upwards. I’m so busy enjoying all these good feeling that I forget we’re expecting to see whales and turtles. It’s only when I see Hugo’s brown feet moving forth and back on the boat frame that I come back to reality and start to observe around. There they are. Mister and Mrs turtles in their most intimate intercourse. He’s above her shell and they don’t even notice we’re getting closer. They just keep on copulating. Hugo invites all to jump into the water and swim nearer to them. “Are we supposed to disturb them right now?” ask the pregnant girl behind me, “They don’t care about you” he assures. “Splash!” some of us enter the open ocean. The two creatures carry on undisturbed while we enjoy observing them. We get so close that we can see the details of their snouts, their shells, their fins. My undeveloped powers of scientific observation let me establish that turtles couple for a long time and quietly.
When I swim back to the boat I take a moment to feel the ocean. I don’t swim, I just move my body in order to float; the blue of the sea is so dark that I can’t see my feet. I wonder about the whole world underneath me that I can’t see. The waves don’t allow me to see neither the horizon nor the coast. The precariousness of this moment is at the same time a great sense of freedom. I take it with me and climb up the boat ladder.
The silence of the previous hour is now interrupted by chats, jokes and laughs. I guess the jump in the water woke us all up. Before the end of the excursion we spot a huge black spot and two fins on the surface. A magnificent manta ray moves elegantly and slow by our boat. Hugo shows us a small scar on his ankle, “I stepped on a manta ray on the beach once. I stayed in bed for three months” he says proudly.
Back on the beach, Lidio and Hugo tell us to buy some red onions, chiles habanero and tostadas and meet them for lunch, after their fishing trip. We agree, I think they want to make up because we didn’t see the whales. A couple of hours later, in the very same boat we navigated earlier on, Lidio is cutting stripes of fresh dorado fish. In about fifteen minutes he prepares a promising ceviche that makes us drool. Thankful, we savor the delicacy and get to know the boys a little more.
Two days later, we take the bus back to Mexico City at 7 pm. We want to enjoy the sunbeams, the ocean roar, the hot sand underneath our feet until the last moment. We eat ceviche, this time at the restaurant, we walk the whole beach, we contemplate the horizon. It’s really time for the last swim. Short after, with the towels around our backs and the bags in our hands we give the sea our goodbye gaze. Wait. That is a huge fin. It’s coming on surface and disappearing in the water again, as if it was waving. Jesus, this is a whale! Visible from the beach with bare eyes there is a whale swimming in the ocean. First she shows the fin, the she jumps, then she spurts water high in the sky. As she swims, we walk parallel until the last piece of beach. I wave back.
The altar dedicated to Frida. The celebration of the dead is commemorated with these highly decorated altars.
The city of Puebla.
Tlatelolco, the old and the new venerations.
The kind alternative to Stop! “One by one”
Oaxaca, the piñata and the Santo Domingo cathedral.
As The Mexican say, “Para todo mal mezcal, para todo bien tambien”
Christmas at the beach.
What do you miss when you’re in the middle of wilderness? What are the elements that bring you back to the city?
I think that I’m actually looking for the same component that arises awe as when contemplating a view from a peak.
In Mexico City it can be one of Diego Rivera’s murals, world’s windows in which ideals and values are depicted impeccably. “Man, the controller of the universe” is together a painted book of history, the twentieth century on a wall and it even contains elements of science, biology and anthropology. When I saw it in the Palacio De Bellas Artes, its dimension, its details, its story completely captivated me. I looked at Lenin’s face and thought about the many times it had been depicted. First here in Mexico, probably on a draft, later in the Rockefeller’s centre causing a horror reaction in the family. As a result it was destroyed into pieces and Rivera re-painted it in Bellas Artes where it finally was left alone. I looked how El Maestro chose to represent women in the capitalism section, playing cards with a drink. In the socialist part the female characters take part to the debate and practice sport. I stared and contemplated.
When the night comes in the middle of nature and also the other creatures go to sleep, I happen to miss the assemblage of musical notes performed on a stage. Like the music of Yann Tiersen that stimulates goosebumps in every cell of the body. When, a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see him live I remembered how important it’s to go to concerts, how important it’s to see and live those soundtracks that accompany our days. The song played on stage, free of discographical adjustments, is pure flow of sound and that particular melody is unrepeatable. It’s beautiful to share it with the multitude of people around you. Almost every musician passes from Mexico City, I’m here to listen.
It’s thanks to the time that I spend in a minute village in the middle of nowhere that I now appreciate this much the aspects of the city life. Simply going to the cinema is exciting for me. Here, I spoil myself and pedal to the nearby national cinematheque around three (sometimes four) times per week. Apart from the pleasure of seeing a film, the place is immersed in a special atmosphere. A modern building with ten movie theaters surrounded by objects, images and music that have in common a passion for cinema. When I arrived there was an international festival and at the moment there’s a tribute to M. Antonioni. I see films that teach me history and customs about Mexico and others that bring me back home. I must confess that they also sell the best sweet popcorns.
During my months on retreat I also missed just walking around a city with its unmistakable Latin rhythm, dictated by the music in every corner and by the voices of women and men selling the unsellable. A rhythm that enters the body and makes it dance at the same beat. Mexico City, in particular, has a very colorful facade. The dyes of houses, food sauces, clothes and decorations range from yellow to red, passing from blue and green. I first noticed the colorful character of the city when I had just arrived and the altars built for the celebration of the dead spread in every neighborhood. They’re mainly built with flower petals, grains of corn, sand, beans and tissue paper. A joyful offering to the deceased relatives, friends and artists. They’re mainly remembered with scenes of their daily lives, favorite food and vices. It’s pretty usual to see paper skeletons, sitting at a table with a bottle of Mezcal in front of them, some cigarettes and a couple of tortillas.
I had forgot the power that exert those huge, historic buildings. Like the revolution monument here in Mexico City. It starts to be visible when it’s still small, a white arch in the horizon. Suddenly you’re under it and the weight of its meaning hangs over you. The perspective changes again, you’re on it, enjoying the view its architecture decided to offer. The Government Palace should have been built where this monument rises today. Fortunately the sight over the city until the bordering volcanos was granted to everyone and not only to presidential eyes.
So I guess that what I miss mostly when I’m confined among mountains is culture in all its forms. Whether it’s a painting, a concert, a lecture, architecture or someone reading poems. Mexico City has a lot of it, the most I’ve ever seen gathered in the same place.