It’s nearly September.
Can you believe it? Of course I’m still grieving for my two-month Mexican sabbatical, still grieving the landscape, the heat, the tacos, the blue.
You know that blue, that Mexican color omnipresent in everything from paints to walls to cars to sky to sea. Sherwin Williams calls these shades aquarium, marina, spa — but I call it Cozumel blue. See what I mean?
The students have returned to Boston, and I’m at my office desk most days, dreaming of faraway places and remembering the segments of the trip that made an impact, but that I didn’t necessarily get to blog about. Like, for instance, having a lovers’ spat in public.
Never a good thing, but all the more dramatic that it was in Mexico. I can check international romance off my bucket list.
Then there was the dreary Saturday afternoon I got a mani/pedi and the shop owner recognized me from my blog!
Or how I sneaked into an all-inclusive over a period of multiple days and used their facilities, all day, without detection. Stealth was always my strong suit. Maybe because my teenage years were spent stalking teachers and rock stars, but I digress …
I witnessed and lived through the Mexican national election.
I learned a lot about the role of sexuality in Mexico, even a went on research visit to Cozumel’s only sex shop. But this blog strives for a PG rating …
But most obscene of all? This. I ate at Domino’s Pizza. In Mexico.
There’s a story behind everyone of these events, and whose memories I’ll preserve for my Mexican memoir. Until then, I’m knee-deep in my Mexican period poetry-wise, and the verse is coming fast and furious, full of bougainvillea and that blue I talked about and triumph but not without a good amount of sadness and sexuality, too.
Most of all, I learned a lot about myself on this trip.
I follow my heart and I live full-on, unafraid of risk. I laugh louder and longer than the rest, and I’m not for the faint of heart.
I fell in love.
And then I had my heart broken. But I won’t let heartache thwart all that was good about my sojourn. And all was good, even when it was less than perfect.
On my last week in Cozumel, someone snatched my purse. I heaved my flip-flops at the guy as he fled via scooter, and shouted English obscenities. I lost everything except my passport.
But that’s living. And that was the purpose of this trip. I did it.
Sobbing through two international airports on my return trip home, I did it.
And more: I became a scuba diver. I climbed Coba. I swam with the whale sharks in Isla Mujeres. I wrote a blog about Cozumel for a hotel in Playa Del Carmen, and made new friends along the way. Hell, I almost took a job and moved to Playa Del Carmen!
Too bad I never got around to:
Tanning my tetas
Getting a tattoo
But good things are in the works. I’m:
applying for a Fulbright for an independent research/creative project in the Yucatan;
working on several writing projects at once, for work and for me;
… undertaking multiple freelance gigs;
I have two months until I turn the big 3-0!
Can you guess where I’ll be?
That’s right. I’m going back.
Did I mention I’m unsinkable?
The ride is far from over.
To my surprise, I actually did cook a lot in Cozumel, even with all the amazing tacos and glorious street foods that entered my life.
I foraged hard-to-find ingredients at each of the island’s markets and whipped up a not-too-shabby Thai shrimp curry. Finding basil proved the most difficult task of all, and even then, the herb was another variety, slightly anise-tinged. The curry was still good, all things considered.
And I made my famous stuffed poblanos, modified from this recipe. A true crowd-pleaser, I always make it extra spicy and add fresh shucked corn to the stuffing.
Then there was the night I grilled skirt steaks, slicing it thin for tacos warmed on the grill. Earlier, I’d roasted tomatillos, onions, chiles in the oven, then pureed in a blender for a chunky, tart salsa.
But on my last week, I enrolled in a traditional Mexican cooking class: Josefina’s Cocina Con Alma!
Josefina has lived on Cozumel for the past 25 years, though she was born in the mountains of Veracruz. She operated a vegetarian restaurant before switching things up and starting her own cooking class, which has become a favorite among tourists. (She boasts a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor!)
A short walk from my condo, I showed up to Josefina’s pad just before noon, and met two married couples who’d I’d be sharing the class with. Two were biologists from Corpus Christi, and the other couple was a nurse and a gynecologist. I was the single gringa among them, the lone soul craving cochinita pibil.
Sigh. That succulent, shredded pork dish, cochinita pibil, would merge the unforgettable North Carolina pulled pork of my youth with Mexican flair. Nothing sounded better in my life. But, what was I thinking? It was 100 degrees out, and pibil would require Josefina to jumpstart the stove. No way.
Andy, the gynecologist of the group, suggested fish, and Josefina agreed. Of course the island has an amazing fish selection, so off to the mercado municipal we went.
Josefina negotiated with the fishmonger about what was freshest, what looked good. He recommended the red snapper, and it was lifted to our nose for a freshness check before being sliced into perfectly-sized fillets.
The market was small but plentiful, Josefina told us; and I couldn’t help imagining the sights and smells of what must be available in a Mexico City market. Visiting one is on my to-do list on my next Mexican sojourn.
But the Cozumel mercado was worthy, to say the least. Among the stalls of meat, seafood, and vegetable vendors, you could buy anything from a traditional guayabera to bird cages to cowboy boots to school supplies.
And you could order breakfast or lunch at one of the many food stalls.
Or simply pop in for this guy. You bet your ass I tipped this man my pesos.
My favorite part of touring the market with Josefina was sampling the selection of tropical fruits, many of which I’d never seen. The group was amazed to see beautiful pitaya — dragonfruit — which I’d tried outside Coba, and which converted me forever. Later, back at Josefina’s, we’d slice and blend the pitaya for a refreshing agua fresca.
But, what is a nispero or mamey or cherimoya? I couldn’t try them all, but Josefina fed us each a nispero, or loquat. Seedy, but good.
We headed back to Josefina’s to create our goods. Josefina showed us achiote seeds, used to make achiote paste, a widely-used Mexican ingredient, which comprised the base of our fish marinade.
Achiote sauce, from Josefina’s cookbook Cocina Con Alma
This is the base of the famous Mayan dishes: Tikin’xic (fish), Poc Chuk (pork), Cochinita pibil (barbeque), and Pollo Pibil (chicken). Now you can find achiote cubes in the Mexican food section of the supermarket.
For every pound of pork, chicken, or fish:
1/2 cube of premade achiote OR a teaspoon of achiote seeds
1 sour orange, OR juice from 1/2 orange and juice from 1/2 lime and a bit of vinegar
1 large garlic clove
salt and pepper to taste
a teaspoon of cumin
Mix ingredients in a blender or mortar and pestle
Remember: if you use achiote seeds, soak them in hot water before mixing!
While chugging jamaica, the eponymous Mexican drink made from hibiscus leaves, we skinned cactus leaves, or nopales, careful to remove all the tiny blisters on the skin. Then we diced it and made a fresh nopal salad with cheese and lime juice.
When it came to tortillas, Josefina was strict. No nonsense. Just water, and corn flour. Mix until it seems right, then roll a small ball of the dough in your hands, and flatten into a circle lightly with your fingers, and then with the palm of your hand.
We carried our tortillas to a hot skillet, where they were cooked in lard, and which we used for papadzules, made with pumpkin seeds.
Papadzules, from Josefina’s cookbook Cocina Con Alma
Pumpkin seeds are widely used in the Mayan part of my country. This is a colorful dish, nutritious and easy to prepare.
Red Mexican sauce (recipe follows)
2 pounds of tortillas, freshly made
1 pound of red tomatoes
1 pound of pumpkin seeds
10 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1 handful of epazote
Make red sauce.
Toast the pumpkin seeds for 5 minutes and put them in a blender.
Boil the tomatoes with the epazote leaves and salt. Let them cool.
Add the tomatoes to the blender and blend together. You will get a sauce.
Soak the tortillas in the tomato and pumpkin seed sauce. Place a hard boiled egg in the tortilla and roll them.
Place in a serving dish and top with the rest of the sauce. Serve immediately.
Red Mexican Sauce
2 red or green tomatoes (tomatillos)
1 serrano or jalapeno chile (to taste)
handful of fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. onion
1 clove of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the tomatoes and chili for 5 minutes and let cool.
Add the cooled tomatoes and chili to a blender. Add the rest of the ingredients and blend.
To keep this sauce for more than 2 days, fry it in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil for 10 minutes. It will keep for 10 days in the refrigerator.
When all was said and done, we’d made so much food. No one could finish everything, not even Josefina’s famous guacamole. Her margaritas were equally amazing.
One of my favorite recipes of Josefina’s was a quick, simple summer salad (to the left of the guac), made on the fly with the juiciest and tastiest of all Mexican mangoes, chopped cucumber, dash of chili powder, and lime juice. Perfect poolside, with a Corona.
And the slab of beans there? Yeah, I helped make ’em.
They’ve got chorizo, for extra flavor. And of course, lard. Smashed to all hell and delicious and nutritious as can be.
I walked home a bit drunk, and so full I didn’t eat for the rest of the day!
Gracias a Josefina y su hijo Geronimo por una tarde marvailloso de comida y diversión!
If you’re in Cozumel, and want to take a class with Josefina, information is available here.
Some members of my family are entirely convinced that the world really is going to end in 2012. Even my North Carolinian grandfather relentlessly tells me that the end times are coming, and that I’m not safe in Yankee-land of Boston, and that I’m certainly not secure in shaky Mexico. To me, though, if the world does indeed end on Dec. 21, 2012, I’d rather be in Mexico than any place else.
(Enter: one fateful, yet extraneous YouTube video of Echo & The Bunnymen. I swear this song comes into play later. Keep reading.)
My family is predisposed to this kind of thinking. Like most Southerners, we lead with our idiosyncrasies. For example, my father thought he was abducted my aliens. (Story here.)
But back to Mexico.
One of the many reasons I’m so drawn to the country is its brand of eccentricity, so singular and yet it somehow closely resembles the South, where the weather dictates our moods more than anything, and where we’re keenly shaped by the food and oral tradition of our families.
Spiritually, I feel right at home in Mexico with all its inherent mysticism of gods and goddesses, dark art, Mayan shamans, cleansing rituals, belief in ghosts, celebrations of life and death (hello, Día de los Muertos!), and extensive symbolism — the Mayan calendar, for one.
I grew up believing in ghosts, conducting seances with my brothers and friends; and at night, I worried about the sky opening up, the mysterious world of UFOs who’d struck my father and who might, at any time, want me, too. For a time, my mother even read Tarot cards; and on a fourth-grade trip to the Outer Banks, I scoured the isles looking for the ghost of Blackbeard the Pirate, who’s purported to still wander — lit candles tucked in his beard — when the tide or moon is just so.
Ancient Mayans believed in the alux — and contemporary Mexicans still do, too. And there’s the fabled Chupacabra, of course.
Mexico is intensely superstitious. Black cats, evil eyes, dropped tortillas, and walking beneath ladders all have consequences. As does, you guessed it, broken mirrors.
I broke two mirrors in Mexico.
Well, the housecleaner at my condo broke one, but it was due to my kooky placement of it. And then that mirror’s replacement was shattered out of nowhere when I arrived home one afternoon.
I decided to stop buying mirrors.
But the eeriness of Mexico persisted. My lover and I had been talking about skydiving in Playa del Carmen — it was one of the main things we wanted to do. My friend Stacy had warned me not to do it — a skydiving fatality had occurred to someone close to her, and she had obvious concerns.
Talking about all this one day, I turned to my lover and said, “There’s risks, but the risk of an accident is less than a plane falling from the sky and hitting you.”
That night, we randomly watched Donnie Darko (featuring aforementioned fateful Echo & The Bunnymen song), where in the film a plane falls from the sky onto the main character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Coincidence? See, this is what I’m talking about.
Bizarrely, we’d planned to skydive on Friday the 13th — for some the most superstitious day of the year. When I learned this, we rescheduled for the 14th, and headed to the Tulum ruins instead.
Potential death averted.
But the next day, my lover woke up with crazy stomach pains and was sweating profusely. He was in so much agony that he insisted we head right away to a hospital — but there are no hospitals in Tulum. So we pulled over to a team of bomberos washing their firetruck, and inquired about the nearest medical facility.
Right here, they gestured. Behind their truck was a Cruz Roja. Miraculous.
He disappeared for a few hours while I sat in a waiting room across from a young boy who stared at me the entire time. We never once spoke to each other.
Finally, my lover reemerged. It was intestinal blockage. Likely seafood, and he would be fine. We filled prescriptions and headed back to the hotel to pack up for the day. There would be no skydiving after all.
And maybe this was all for the better? Maybe there were other forces at work here?
If you’ve been reading LooseGringa, then you know that I’ve featured a mysterious man in my postings: my traveling partner, my partner in crime, my lover!
I am in love. In love.
And while I won’t gush — though it’s quite easy to do — I will say that traveling with him has been the greatest experience of my life, and our trip to Tulum was just another one in a string of unforgettable experiences with him, and in my Mexican adventure. But after two days in the town, we hadn’t had the romantic beachfront moment I’d fantasized. Not yet.
We packed up from the in-town Maison Tulum after two nights and remembered a sign on the town’s beach road advertising rooms starting at $79 — a bargain on the hotel strip, where on any given day you may just bump into a celebrity. The place was Playa Azul, a funky and colorful little joint with a cabana cheap enough that we had to say yes. We plopped a credit card down and enjoyed a light breakfast on the hotel’s whimsical waterfront restaurant, watching the sun come out.
How fantastic does this place look?
Hotels on Tulum’s beachfront road are expensive, but rustic. They’re required to generate their own electricity, so in the daytime electricity in your room is turned off. At night, it’s allotted at certain times. I was fretting over the loss of my beloved air-conditioner — my life’s true soul mate — but I would have to make do with a fan. A fan.
But you can bet I had that thing blowing directly on me all night.
Yet it was all perfectly romantic. Our room was outfitted with candles. There was no door on the shower, not even a bathroom door. If there were anymore gastrointestinal meltdowns, we were shit out of luck. There’s a pun in there, you clever folks.
There’s a magic in Tulum. It’s not just those yoga-loving, granola-types, wandering around wearing kaftans and gauzy pants, sending good vibes into the air … but I felt so utterly relaxed that I absolutely transcended vacation. I was on vacation while already ON my vacation. It’s a rare feeling.
And it was in Tulum that I imagined a life here with my lover, so overtaken with the beauty of our surroundings and the irrepressible wanderlust that travel evokes. As we barefooted down Tulum’s beaches, we dreamed our life in words — opening a hotel here, chic and minimalist bungalows, a small space, but perfect. It’s always been a dream of mine to own and decorate a hotel. And even if it was just fantasy, the magic of Tulum was such that it felt like we could actually make it happen if only we kept talking about it.
And as impractical as it may sound, If he had said, Let’s stay, I would’ve stayed.
But we had one full day left ahead of us, and we would take advantage of more of this paradise’s offerings. It’s ruins, it’s indescribable beaches, and a culinary feast to remember.
As happy as I was, a sadness was churning inside me. My time in Mexico was running thin: soon I would leave this gorgeous place, this gorgeous man. My heart burned.
But we seized the day (stay tuned!). And we’ll always have Tulum.
I wanted to submerge my body in freezing cold water.
And that’s what I did.
I needed to be reborn after donning a pair of Levi’s cut-off shorts. LooseGringa does not wear shorts. I would gladly wear Bruce Hornsby concert t-shirts before I wore shorts.
But this was Mayan ruins, so I couldn’t show up in a dress or a skirt. I had feared this moment, the moment of wearing shorts, of exposing thighs and all sorts of unpleasantness. (Dear readers, I haven’t worn shorts since I went to Disney World in, like, 1999. The year before the world turned modern. So, may you understand my distress.)
The locals told us that cenote Tamcach-Ha was the best in the area. So with our crude map and our 4-cylinder rental car, we dodged potholes and stray dogs down dirt paths to the cenote.
But first I had to take a photo of a church we passed. This is the kind of place to get married in, if you’re into religious weddings.
It has character, no?
The cenote guide who greeted us informed us that we had to take showers before we entered the cenote. I can only imagine he understood my need for an immediate baptism from abysmal shorts-wearing.
But, in all probability, it was to wash away sunscreens and other toxins that could upset the balance of the pristine freshwater cenote.
We crept down a wet and winding set of stairs to a below-ground cenote. It was almost entirely cut off from air, and a little difficult to breathe.
That photo above is what you think it is: a diving PLANK.
I couldn’t wait to jump. I am afraid of heights, but I love jumping into water. The plank was about 25-30 feet in the air, and scary as hell. Some people jumped, and others couldn’t muster the courage.
I decided not to think about it. I was that desperate that I just needed to throw myself from great heights for fashion forgiveness. And when my body hit the water, I was clean again.
After the dip, we stopped at a no-name family-run restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my stay in Mexico. The waiter whipped us up some mango water — simply, sliced mango and water, blended until smooth. I could drink this forever (and with vodka, too).
And a shared plate of cochinita pibil. Heaven!
Back in our Tulum hotel room, I balled up my wet shorts and cast them into eternal damnation forever.
But it was still a really good day.