Beanz meanz frownz.
It’s not that I don’t like refried beans I just draw the line at the thin, dark smear hiding in my cheese on toast. Yeah I know, it’s molletes and it’s supposed to have refried beans on but jesus, please give it a rest! Unfortunately, it’s beans here on out. They love a bean do these Latinos, they love a bean. I know it’s getting a little desperate when I start looking forward to the big, brown slow cooked pinto beans of Colombia which I definitely remember recoiling from after weeks of eating them with every meal. So far during our time in Mexico we have had pots of pale brown refries, slurpy black ones, bullety little black beans cast carelessly in a puddle of salsa verde and thick lakes of bean stew lurking under our chaquiles. We have had salty corn chips, still warm from the fryer dunked in beans and we have found them lurking in our sandwiches. If they can get a bean in it, mark my words, it will have a bean in it. The English name ‘refried beans’ is a mistranslation though, it actually means something more like ‘well fried’ or ‘cooked to within an inch of it’s life’. Done well, even I, with my bean weary tastebuds will admit that they are a good thing though I do not condone their use in lieu of Branston Pickle.
When the bastardised cheese on toast arrives we find ourselves sitting on the warmly lit balcony of a coffee shop overlooking the high energy ‘Parque Marimba’ in a steaming hot city in the state of Chiapas called Tuxtla. Below us there are cars honking, collectivos shoving their way through too small spaces and groups of girls giggling in the road as motorbikes weave around them. There are red cheeked men clutching huge bunches of balloons and sad eyed women in luscious, embroidered skirts selling woven belts, bags and shirts. Steam billows out from pots of food and heartbreakingly young boys with dirty cheeks and adult expressions lug shoe shine equipment through the crowds searching for scuffed toes. Who are these people who feel no sense of awkward shame as they watch a barefoot child clean their footwear for a few pence? Pushing the gnawing guilt aside I watch the couples jigging about to the rhythms of the marimba band playing in the curlicued bandstand standing in the centre of the square. Lines of benches are filled with smiling locals watching the dancers and musicians. Some are chewing on corn cobs, others eat dribbling ice creams and shake their heads when they are encouraged by a friend to get up and dance. A small girl with no shoes on, dressed in bright purple and blue, trails through the square holding a cup in one hand. Her eyes and sticky mouth are intensely concentrated on the ice lolly she is clutching in the other hand which is homemade, some kind of fresh fruit juice frozen in the cup with a stick leaning at a funny angle protruding from it.
The molletes arrives with our drinks. I have tried to order a plain iced coffee with no caramel, no sugar, no chocolate or syrup but the waiter looks at me like I am making some kind of strange, foreign joke and patiently explains that this no sugar business is not a thing. I order a cold, chocolatey coffee frappe latte beasty and it arrives with a beautiful whipped cream bonce, tooth crackingly sweet but icey cold and refreshing in the low, sultry heat. We have ended up here surrounded by Tuxtla’s chicer crowd sipping silly coffees and ordering sullied cheese on toast as a kind of minor escape from the madness. We are hiding, just for one evening, a few feet above the crash, bang wallop, the jibber jabber, the hulaballoo and the refried beans. Unfortunately though, the beans have found our hiding place and follow us up to our perky vantage point.
There’s sodding beans on it!
I try not to screech when I discover the thinly spread paste. Jamie wilts a little at the discovery but neither of us weep and that’s something. And actually the cheese on toast is pretty good if I am to be completely honest. We make a happy mess of chunks of tomato and crumbs all over the table before returning to crowd gazing in contented silence.
We have three days in Tuxtla before we head on to the cooler highlands. Those few days in the mountains will be the last moments of reasonable sounding temperatures we will experience for some time. Having headed here from sunny Oaxaca via the steaming coast, we haven’t seen much in the way of chills for a few weeks and we find ourselves missing English rain. Slow, steady drizzle and draughty living rooms. We miss duvets. We miss the great British institution of lugging a jumper and warm socks with us no matter the weather. The last taste get of chillier climes is at San Juan de Teotihuacan where we go before the long drive to Oaxaca to see the great, hulking pre-Columbian ruins just outside the town.
On the way there, we are flung accidentally, by virtue of a wrong turning, in to the sprawling outskirts of Mexico City. The traffic squeezes and pummels us round shabby villages swallowed up by the vast capital. We find ourselves bumping down narrow lanes, bottoming out on home made speed bumps and squirdging suddenly and hopelessly back on to motorways with no advance warning. We circle and backtrack, passing the same scenes twice sometimes from one road, the next time from a flyover. Hundred of thousands of grey, concrete houses march up the steep mountain slopes in either side of us, mostly in a permanent state of construction to avoid housing tax payments. Thin layers of brightly covered paint are sloshed over the walls of every fourth or fifth house and I soon realise they are the same five colours repeated again and again perhaps supplied by the city council to brighten the dismal neighbourhoods.
Eventually, we squeeze back in to the clotted traffic and find ourselves, by some miracle, on the right road to Teotihuacan. The suburbs disperse slowly and gentle, green fields take their place. Jamie, keen to kick off the heavy protective gear we are wearing, speeds along the country roads, weaving around hulking farm vehicles and the occasional chicken until we hear a loud claxon sounding. We could definitely make it across the tracks before the train comes, there is more than enough time but I am in a state of high agitation after the previous hour and tap Jamie frantically on the shoulder to stop. He pulls to a standstill followed by a car and a man who looks at us with fascination from atop a small, red Chinese motorbike wearing a sort of plastic bowl on his head. The train arrives and starts to slowly pass us. And pass us. And pass us. And pass us. The freight carriages graffitied in English and Spanish, replete with funny drawings and angsty political messages go on and on heading from the United States to who knows where for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes with a repetitive clatter. The train is perhaps a mile and a half long and I can see Jamie clenching his teeth in frustration and shifting uncomfortably on the saddle.
The moment the enormous train finally trundles past, we roar on and into the little town. There are no safety signals to tell us when we can go, this is Mexico remember, just use your eyes, estupido. I watch the back of the train receding and the traffic revving past us in the other direction and very soon find myself admiring a huge, grey, castle like church in town which we pass before pulling up outside the ramshackle RV park we are staying at. The long grass leaks over on to the paths and clothes lines hang amongst the great, leafy trees sprouting from the lawn. A few tents and trailers are dotted about the place and I am inspecting them with interest when a large lady in purple appears and welcomes us in. She shows us to our room which is part of the building complex at the edge of the park and we step straight in to North Wales. The temperature has fallen and it is cool in our room which has white walls that look just like cottage cheese. There are twin single beds covered in blue patchwork quilts and a picture of Jesus on the wall. Confusingly, stood behind him is another Jesus who has wandered in to the scene. I imagine the more religious guests flicking through their bibles in consternation. Is there a bit missing in my copy?
Later, it rains and lovely, cool puddles fill the concrete floor outside our room and the illusion is completed, if only there was a Welsh pub somewhere for a quick pint before the ruins. I put on a jumper, thrilled to feel cold after the boiling heat we have crossed through and we head out to make the twenty minute walk to the ruins. We are the only people walking and taxis beep at us confused by our perambulations but we wave them on. The Pyramid Of The Sun appears alarmingly at the end of the road as we round a corner and we stand for a second to stare at the bizarre spectacle. The great, ragged stone pyramid towers heavily above the rows of souvenir stands and the tarmac road looks suddenly ribbony and frayed beneath its vast bulk. I am reminded of a great, ancient toad squatting in amongst the trees about to eat the insecty tourists below it. We shake our heads, no gracias, no gracias, no gracias as vendors ply us with menus and jangling tat. Streams of brightly clad, camera toting visitors march in through the entrance and seamlessly up the steps of the hulking ruin. Loud roaring sounds and tinkling tunes emanate from every corner as strolling salesmen blow through terracotta toys and play on tin whistles.
The ruined city is huge. It once housed more than 125,000 people and covers an area of 32 square miles. There are painted frescoes still clinging to the walls after, perhaps 1500 years. Little, flat topped pyramids cluster around the Pyramid Of The Moon at the far end and hundred of palisades, rooms, houses and walls glow in the sunshine before, further back from the path, sinking back in to smooth, grassy hillocks topped with giant cacti. I clamber up some rickety steps to wander along a sort of raised walkway and look down on the rivers of people making their way up the steep pyramids. I turn to descend via some grassed over, wrecked up walls behind me and find myself suddenly quite alone. It like somebody just turned off a dripping tap such is the relief to my senses. I am in an grassy meadow filled with bees and wildflowers. Vast armies of ants have spread grit in great circles on either side of the path and birds swoop in low arcs to snap at flies. Crumbling walls poke through the grass at intervals and I realise I have ventured in to the unexcavated parts of the ancient city. Homes and gardens lie peacefully under the brown earth untrammeled by visitor traffic. The Pyramid Of The Moon is just visible, craning to peer at me over a series of hillocks. The wind catches in the seed heads of the grasses and with a bit of concentration, I think I can imagine the place as the beautiful, imposing, awe inspiring city it must once have been. Jamie appears behind me clutching the camera appearing immune to the hum of the bees, instead, he is full of the structure, the angles, the stony presence of the place swamped in people just beyond us. We take some video of the ants until they invade the camera, biting and stomping angrily on the lens. In the little piece of film, the image of steady paced work suddenly clouds over with giant, blurred ants then spins and spins dizzyingly as the we race to pick up the camera, holding it by the string, unable to get to the off button without being bitten. A few hundred ants safely dispersed in the grass, a few limping a little, we walk over the the base of the moon pyramid and look up at the imposing staircase before us.
I suppose they didn’t have to walk up them that often if they just wanted to pull someone’s heart out now and again..
I offer, recalling some gleefully bloodied drawings of Aztec pyramids drawn at the age of eight. In fact, the pyramid was used for worship and various non-sanguine ceremonies and not by Aztecs but I don’t know this as I scramble on all fours amongst the crowds up the giant steps. I struggle to catch my breath as I join the crowd milling at the top. Jamie points to a heavily pregnant woman being observed rather indiscreetly by the crowd as she heaves herself up the huge, blocky steps. She manages it rather gracefully with an even smile on her face and I feel my perceived fitness level drop another few notches.
The view from the top is something to behold. The city sprawls out in front of us, grand and sad like a drunken countess. A little boy shoots a wooden arrow from the top and it sails through the air to hit the ground far below. The boy and his brother jump without fear down the steps zipping past the adults gingerly stepping down like crabs clinging to the rocks. They retrieve the arrow and wave at their younger brother who shoots his own arrow. Unfortunately the little, feathered piece of dowling careens straight down in a belly flop on to a terrace below. He looks crestfallen and his brothers can’t reach it. I am forced to drag Jamie away from heroically scaling the walls to retrieve the arrow and having us forcibly removed from the site. We wander back towards the road, Jamie casting hopeful glances back at the pyramid and dodging ocarina toting vendors before the bulging clouds open and drop bathloads of water on us, soaking us to the skin in moments.
We slop back through raging torrents, slipping about on the smoothly tiled pavements and duck in to a shop where we are welcome by two laughing women who donate a plastic bag for the camera. A few shops on we bump in to the self styled ‘Australian’ biker who is camping outside our room. A distinct Mancunian accent wends its way through his Ozzy tones and it turns out that he is actually a Brit who has lived in Oz for a few years. I feel a compelling mix of sorrow for the lonesome figure and the unbearable desire to laugh out loud at everything he says. He nonchalantly informs me later on that he doesn’t carry a map and indeed, when telling us where is heading, manages to erase Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua from existence when I ask him which route he will take to Panama. Over breakfast the next day he will tell us he intends to ride the Darien Gap; an virtually impenetrable piece of jungle with no road that joins Panama to Colombia filled with extraordinarily unpleasant characters who don’t take kindly to Mancunian interlopers and carry machine guns as a matter of course. I nod and chew my toast when he tells me,
I’m not sure what to say since he has already told me he takes no notice when people tell him to be careful so I change the subject.
I think of him as we stroll the pleasant streets of Oaxaca a few days later. He is here somewhere, enrolled in a two week Spanish class he confidently asserts should have him fluent by it’s conclusion. I wonder who his mother is, a Yorkshire woman apparently, like myself. I wonder if they are close and if she is worried about him now. I find myself hoping he will be ok and maybe stop being such a pillock in the name if adventure. I hope he will get to go home to his mum sometime and not end up as a series of increasingly concerned forum posts and an unhappy ending. I am thinking all this as we cross the zocalo, a bustling central square full to bursting of vendors selling food, souvenirs and clothes. I find my eyes scanning the crowds for him, wandering if I actually want to bump in to him or not when my attention is suddently diverted. Corn on the cob?! Super! I am invited to choose one and the pale yellow cob is lifted from the steaming pot and a stick is bashed in to the softened core. After that, with quick, practised hands, the boy squeezes lime juice over the kernels, spreads it liberally with mayonnaise using a palette knife and the rolls the lot in finely grated, crumbly cheese. He finishes it off with a dramatic shake of chilli and hands it over like an enormous, misguided lolly. The whole fascinating endeavour costs me 60p. I am very pleased. The corn is deliciously mealy and gnawable, the flavours surprising and actually wonderful all together. I am immediately hooked. A dusting of cheese falls on lap and kernels of corn surround my feet. I eat with concentration and say little except this is soooo nice and mmm until I have an empty cob on a stick and a hankering for more. I scan the the vendors, who was I worrying about just now? Was it Jamie? Was it the boy who sold me the delightful snack? Never mind, another one please! Yes, with everything. Gracias!
Oaxacan corn on the cob
If you can get Latin style white corn, do. It’s less sweet but more mealy textured and starchy which is delicious in this recipe. If not, get yello corn on the cob as fresh as possible.
Boil the corn on the cob until it cooked. Meanwhile take a crumbly, fresh tasting white cheese such as caerphilly, wensleydale or even feta and crumble it thoroughly in to cheese crumbs
If you are feeling particularly authentic, use a small piece of bought kindling type wood, sharpened at the end and stick it in to the stalk end of the corn, if you have thoroughly boild the corn, it should go in with a few knocks. Now you can eat this properly, like a lolly.
Squeeze lime juice all over the corn cob and sprinkle with salt.
Using a knife, smear the corn cob with mayonnaise all over. Not too much, just an even coat.
Roll the corn cob gently in the crumbed cheese until it is covered.
Sprinkled the cob with chilli powder.
EAT! Also workes wonderfully if you bbq the corn.