For reasons of hygiene.
Why do they call it the House Of Fingers?
Jamie whispers. I don’t know what he means and stare around me hoping for a clue. The cathedral is gloomy and hushed inside, the walls painted starkly in white. Gold leafing delicately traces the arching stone work across the ceiling and the glass crosses hanging from the chandeliers catch the last of the day’s light as the gloaming descends on the interior. I look at Jamie questioningly and he points to a sign.
House of Fingers
He repeats and points again.
I have to stifle my snorty laughter as I lead Jamie down the aisle towards the door, elbowing him in the side.
House of God!
I translate. Not house of fingers. His Spanish is improving daily but mistakes still occur. He is perplexed by a film we watch on television with Jennifer Lopez karate chopping at her ex husband until he falls off a balcony. Our Jenny from the block is perpetually in tears and Jamie can’t work out why her little daughter keeps telling her she hasn’t got any keys. The next day he learns the verb ‘to cry’ from a Spanish course online and things begin to fall in to place.
Since swaying off the boat in Mazatlan, tripping over the floor and queasily heading to our hotel speaking Spanish has become increasingly challenging for both of us. Mine takes a slow descent in to twerpish stuttering and unconjugated verbs framed as questions to shopkeepers.
Is it the hotel Don Cenobia there? Not to walk?
They narrow their eyes at me for a second and look baffled then with the dawning light of understanding on their faces, throw me tangled reams of impossibly fast Spanish from which I can usually only pick one word. What has happened? I thought I could speak this language. But if Mexico can teach you one thing, it is that you know nothing. Thought you could speak Spanish? CLANG! Wrong! Thought you knew how to drive? CLANG! You have no idea. Reckoned you understood how to buy something in a shop? Let us reeducate you.
I catch a rather revolting cold and, unable to sleep or stop snotting everywhere, pop in to a chmists to buy some Night Nurse, my favourite medication after codeine (do try an Ikea shop in possession of codeine. Ah the sofa department! Dreamy!). I hand the box to the lady who has answered our questions. She smiles, hands the box to another lady who puts it in a bag and hands it to another lady who takes our money. The same happens in a stationery shop where we are trying to buy a Mexican flag sticker for our panniers. I count 8 members of staff serving, each of whom stands behind a counter and retrieves each item the customer requires, prices it, hands it all to someone else and then sends you on to a third person who lives in a small hut in the corner. They are ludicrously busy and it takes ten minutes of standing about wondering what the rush on pencils and envelopes is all about before I am told they don’t have stickers of the flag. They mysteriously send me to a sports shop which has me wondering if I have asked for a sticker of the Mexican flag or a tennis racket. The sports shop don’t sell them either. Sighing we give up and go and meet our new friends Bev and John for a coffee.
I meet John as I head to the reception at our splendidly decrepit hotel. He is struggling through a question in Spanish as I come up to the desk and to my surprise, the manager answers him by pointing at me. John turns to look at me, a little taken aback.
I say. He looks at me.
Is that yours?
He asks pointing to our motorbike which is parked in the large reception area looking sad. It turns out he and his partner Bev are bikers too. Their bikes are hidden round the corner behind a huge pile of gravel that has bizarrely been left outside their room. After a minute of wonderfully Englishy conversation, I go up to our room and shake Jamie from his sleep deprived, sea sickened torpor and announce I have got us a date. He looks at me uncomprehendingly so I put a t-shirt on him and push him gently downstairs to meet his new amigos.
John is a little evasive about his Preston provenance but Bev comes right out and admits she is from York. Yes she knows of the Helsby’s at the beer shop, not heard of the Birchers though. South Bank? No, Fulford. Ahh….wrong side of the river. We wander the streets of Mazatlan questioning them about their trip. They have zipped through Iran, trundled through Pakistan and bezzed around Thailand. They’ve seen Canada, dined in Uzbekistan and camped in India.
Try putting up a tent in India
Bev offers. By which she means, don’t. Unless you like an audience. Apparently the whole village comes out to watch. I am suddenly quite pleased we guiltily posted our tent home a month or so back.
We end up in a large, shouty restaurant by the sea. It’s so by the sea that I can feel the spray land on my back as I am ordering a margarita. We are chatting, our voices already raised above the incessant chatter when a band T-shirted in green filters in through the crowds clutching trumpets and other brassy things. Their instruments are worn and dulled with use and their shirts say something about not being happy until every corner of the world has heard their music. Looking forward to thi…….
My thoughts are walloped to a standstill as the band launches in to a crazy German oompa Mexican oopla brand of total madness. A cynical looking young man beating hysterically at the drum laughs as they go out of time. Two loutish clarinet players doodle away in the background looking like characters from a hilarious film about cartel members on the run. A waiter rolls in, belly first, to sing an extraordinarily off key rendition of something only vaguely related to the music and I turn open mouthed to look at Bev, John and Jamie. They look back at me with a mixture of horror and glee and we sit together, the spray dampening our backs, the ice melting in our glasses, unable to shout or hear over the deafening noise. No one else in the restaurant bats an eyelid, no one seems to even hear it and when each identical clamouring piece of madness ends, no one claps. I am forced by Englishness to applaud them despite the blood running freely from my ears and nose. One trombonist catches my eye and grins as I clap. At least all is not lost, one person liked it he seems to be saying and I duck my eyes away, embarrassed to have lied.
And this is Mexico, this easy going, sociable, food obsessed, ear shattering place. Each place we move on to, Tepic, Guadalajara, Morelia, Teotihuacan burbles with noise. The oompaish music tumbles dischordantly from every truck that drives by us and every shop we wander past. No one seems in the least bit concerned when great groups of people arrive in a knot of excitement at 2 in the morning to shout and laugh and joke. Not one window is opened and not one citizen hushed. I like it and I loathe it. Every night is a mash of swirling fans turgidly pushing the warm, heavy air about the room, blasts of itchy, trumpety music and gurgling bursts of laughter. But each day is a trillion details; embroidered dresses, sun drenched turquoise walls, street fried crisps doused redly in salsa and tacos, tacos and more tacos. We nip in to catch a bite in the odd times we are feeling hungry and watch as heavy silver presses roll corn dough in to flat, neat circles to be cooked on a griddle and filled with mysterious meats. Cecina, al pastor, res, carne asda, cabeza…wait, is that head? Head tacos. Catchy. I am entranced by the huge jars of multi coloured aguas sold in each taqueria and street stand and become quickly addicted to great icy cups of horchata, agua de cebada and jamaica. Each place makes their own and each tastes subtly different. Some, a smoulder of cinnamon, others, rich cream or the barest hint of cloves.
We catch up with John and Bev again in Morelia. We seem to share a single consciousness between us and have, for the third time, booked in to the same cheapo hotel. Morelia is a beautiful little colonial city full of arched ceilings and portly stone buildings covered in curlicues. We slope through the streets idly looking for socks and flags and come away with scissors, transfers, cheap electronics and great cups of fruit. Here they douse their chopped fruit in chilli, salt, orange and lime juice and a dusting of parmesan-like cheese, call it gaspacho and charge you 20p for the pleasure. I say yes to the cheese mainly for the pleasure of forcing Jamie to take a bite and see his expression crumple. He has requested naked fruit a number of times and I am sure this will tip him over the edge. The face he pulls is a triumph but even I have to admit that cheese and mango are an unusual combination and order my next gaspacho sin queso. We try several times to visit the cathedral but it is constantly holding services and is filled with fervant looking people so instead we settle for watching a gathering of protestors watched uneasily by a smattering of machine gun toting police. The protestors have blocked the road with their cars and some have tied scarves around their faces. We try to read the signs they have put up but fail to understand their significance. Remembering we are still in Michacoan, a somewhat edgy state despite this pretty, colonial facade, we elect to clear out and do our laundry instead. The luxury of clean smelling, warmly folded clothes is becoming a minor obsession of mine and I am pleased to find a launderette a few doors down from the hotel. While we are waiting to pay I spot a sign on the wall. I struggle at first to translate it because, frankly, I can’t believe what it says. For reasons of hygiene…we are unable to accept…
For reasons of hygiene we are unable to accept clothes that have been vomited on or are full of poo.
That, my friends is what Mexico is all about. Say it like it is. No offence taken. I leave the launderette wishing I could snap the sign from the wall and take it home but the man who runs the joint looks like he has seen his fair share of light-fingered, vulgarity worshipping tourists and keeps an eye on me. I trudge back memorising the line for Jamie. He frowns in puzzlement when I tell him and then laughs and shakes his head. Full of poo. Great.
We wander in to town again. The protestors have marched on and it’s business as usual. Shoe shiners, sweet vendors, terrible buskers and great cups of water melon glistening on the little stalls by the side of the road. We follow John and Be to a chaotic restaurant who have sold out of almost everything we order and spend the evening harassed by strange women in princess costumes and guitar players. Everybody’s food arrives but mine and I watch the others eat, finish and cast about looking for the beers we ordered twenty minutes ago before my platter of tasty sponges doused in red arrives. I eat enthusiastically not having eaten all day and start a conversation about Yorkshire tea. I miss it, I disclose in abashed tones. I have decided to ask Jamie’s brother to ship a consignment of it out with him when he visits in September. Bev’s face brightens.
You’re in luck!
I say, glancing at Jamie. They do! They too have been unable to leave the English Breakfast in the cupboard where it belongs. They have smuggled a bag out. They offer me a bag. A single, precious bag of joy. I offer to swap the bike for it, Jamie, money, whatever it will take. Jamie clears his throat and says
Really, you musn’t give us your tea!
loudly and nudges me with a warning glance that says stop trying to exhort tea from near strangers.
I chime unsteadily, wildy,
You musn’t give up your precious tea, not for us!
And with that we finally give up on trying to get one of the dreadfully inept waiters to bring the bill and heap the approximate sum on the table. We weave back amongst the crowds towards Hotel Galeana saying goodnight and promising to meet them somewhere further down the line and close our bedroom door on the evening.
The night passes with the usual fiesta of clattering and loud jokes from hotel staff and guests, warm air creeping over us and bedsheets flopping to the floor as we twist and turn to get comfortable. Jamie resorts to sleeping on a folded blanket on the floor in a gentlemanly attempt to allow me and my vile cold to hog the bed. Finally, the hotel falls quiet and the Night Nurse kicks in. I dream trippily and in vivid colour of birthday cakes , cooking for famous actors, my friends appearing in odd locations and of unfamiliar houses. I wake intensely blearily in the morning, struggling to keep my eyes open as Jamie busily fills the panniers with our stuff and pulls on his motorbike gear. It’s time to go again. We have our first pre hispanic ruins to see 150 miles North East in Tula and a half built hotel to get to. I wearily stuff my clothes back in to my little green rucksack and hoist myself in to my heavy gear and finally stump downstairs to the reception. The owner stops me as I pass and tells me to wait. Your friends have left you something. I hold out my hand and she gives me a crumpled, plastic sandwich bag. I thank her and open the bag and start to laugh. Jamie cranes his neck to look in at our gift. At the bottom, in a small, uncomfortable ball lies not one Yorkshire teabag, not two, but five. Five cups of tea. The prehispanic ruins can wait I think, it’s teatime.
Agua de Cebada – Barley water but not as you know it…..
From a recipe given to me in a Tepic taqueria where the barley water tasted like creamy, cool, milky coffee but was nothing of the sort….
1 bag of barley
4 tins of evaporated milk
2 kg of sugar
20 litres of water
Cook the barley in the water for 45 minutes then add the sugar and evaporated milk. Blend in a magimix and strain the resulting goop through a muslin cloth. If it were me, I would add a a cinnamom stick while the barley is boiling. I have no idea what ‘a bag’ weighs in Tepic but I imagine, based on other recipes, it’s about 2 kg. Obviously you will want to scale down this recipe so I suggest dividing it by 10.
Chill the sieved liquid and serve in a large glass with big chunks of ice and a taco or two.