Hasta luego Mexico!
I shout suddenly, jumping up and pointing.
Jamie leaps up gasping too.
What? Is it a monkey?
He says in a panicked voice. I don’t have time to wander why he thinks I would have a panic attack if there were a monkey coming to visit. I’d be more likely to adopt it and call it Bobo. Then he sees it.
I say as the large, hairy, black tarantula stumbles across the porch in the shadows. It looks a little surprised, a little unsure like it has arrived dressed as the Cookie Monster to a party to find everyone else in evening gowns and suits. But Susan said characters from children’s tv….she….I…..oh I see….it seems to be saying.
I say, probably to the tarantulas annoyance. Jamie has stopped looking for howler monkeys and has run to get the camera and a variety of objects to place nearish the spider for scale.
The list of startling wildlife is growing rather quickly since our arrival at Kolem Jaa. We have spent the morning winding through quiet villages, bumping over uprooted road surfaces and gazing with quiet pleasure at the steep, grassy hillsides all around us. It’s like driving through a series of enormous, botanical teacups. We stop for bags of mango on the way, crunching down the sweet, brittle sticks of green fruit and pointing at the resplendent turkey in a field beside us. Road signs saying Kolem Jaa start to appear and we puzzle, the hotel we have booked at random must be named after a ruin or something. The place is in the middle of nowhere, booked as a pleasant, jungly retreat on our way back to San Cristobal, our last stop in Mexico.
Finally, having driven up and down the road for half an hour looking for Hotel Kolem Jaa, we decide to ask at the entrance to Kolem Jaa, whatever that is. There is a wooden sign by the road with welcome written on it in a variety of different languages but no indication of what is actually there. The man at the desk quietly informs me that indeed this is the hotel. I look about wondering where the hotel he speaks of has got to and noticing my confusion he adds,
Well actually this is the carpark, the hotel is on the other side of the river.
I tell him we have a reservation and he looks rather doubtful, informing me gravely that they have nothing available. I put on a but where shall we go face and thus begins a rather confusing twenty minutes of phone calls to the boss, hiding Robin behind the reception, ordering all our food in advance and being led down to a boat by three men because, after all, they can squeeze us in. Now, at no point, when we reserved this place, did it mention a boat. We climb aboard stiffly, still in our bike gear and sit down and the small boat leaves the muddy jetty. Jamie looks damply back at the steps leading up to bike evidently wondering if they will ever be reunited and I gaze about me wondering if this is an elaborate kidnap. Booking.com, I always knew there was something fishy going on there.
However, within five minutes, we are docking next to a waterfall and being led across a series of wobbly, planked walkways through a squealing, chirping piece of jungle. I begin to think I should have asked how far away the place was. Motorbike gear gets rather steamy under such conditions and I am beginning to regret coming here when we step out in to a clearing full of tropical fruit and brightly coloured bungalows. There is no one else here but us, the man in reception and the three men who joined us in the boat. The man at reception on the other side of the river’s confidence that they had nothing available seems suddenly a little odd.
It doesn’t really end there, the oddness. We wander through the forested grounds during the day and come across empty, semi ruinous buildings and rotten signposts pointing to various attractions. It is like being in Jurassic Park two (or is it three?) when they go back to the park to find everything muddy and derelict and dinosaur trampled. We are heading back up from the creepy buildings when we are stopped in our tracks by a dinosaur roaring. I turn around and look excitedly for Sam Neil but he is nowhere to be seen and then I remember that the loud roaring, growling are actually dainty little howler monkeys somewhere in the canopy overhead. The sound is extraordinary and it follows us through the trees as we pick starfruit and gaze longingly at green bananas until the hotel dogs crash, grinning, through the undergrowth and silence it. I name the dogs Itchy Dog and Itchy Itchy Dog because one itches a lot and the other itches so much his fur is coming off and he is going bald. The dogs escort us for a while through the jungle, chewing dutifully on a stick before crashing off again leaving us with only the sound of cicadas.
It’s only when we stumble upon a pitted, rotten platform supporting a rusted ladder leading in to the trees that we twig what all the desolated buildings and wrecked equipment hidden in the trees are. We have been offered ‘activities’ by Eduardo on reception that include ziplining, rappelling, caving and assault course. These rusting corpses are the activities! Jamie cautiously climbs the ladder and I watch in wittering horror as the platform bows with each rung. He reaches the top and gleefully shouts down that the top is held on with cable ties. I make a clinging ascent to note that, indeed, the pocked platform at the top is indeed held on with cable ties and decline the view before heading hastily back down. Each piece of equipment we find is in this state; frayed, mossy ropes, rusted ladders and neglect.
As we head back to our bungalow, pausing to inspect funnel web spiders lairs and weaver birds nests hanging like dirty socks from the branches above us, we pass a small group heading towards us. One of the men who accompanied us on the boat waves and greets us and two women with safety helmets on look at us pensively. It seems we have at least two fellow guests. At least for the next fifteen minutes before they get on the zipline.
We pass the rest of our time in this post apocalyptic place listening to the insects outside, feeding the nervy deer which is mysteriously locked in a rather barren compound on the grounds and watching Boardwalk Empire. When it’s dinner time we shamble over to the empty dining room and eat tortillas stuffed with cheese and ham and surprisingly delicious tamales. We are given a whole jug of horchata to drink by a serious and rather intense man and after drinking the lot and chowing down on our food, I follow him to ask for the recipe for the tamales.
He says and then something muttered and indecipherable but I follow him and give him a pen. After writing a list of ingredients (this is often the result when I ask for a recipe as if its obvious what you do with a bunch of foodstuffs you have never heard of before) he pushes the paper over to me and mumbles something and looks at me unsmiling. It sounds like tip. Jamie laughs a little as though the man has made a mild witticism and I nudge him.
Er, no he’s serious. He wants a tip.
It turns out Jamie didn’t know what the guy had said at all and just laughed when he thought appropriate and begins to rummage in his pockets and produces 3 pesos.
Er, that’s all we have.
He says, looking at me a little desperately.
The guy stares back at me and asks me not to tell anyone. I don’t know if he means that he gave me the recipe or that he asked for a tip. Perhaps it’s his grandma’s secret recipe. It’s all very bizarre and unexpected. Never before have I been asked for a tip in return for sharing someone’s enthusiasm for dinner and I don’t know what is an appropriate way to proceed. I explain that we will bring him a tip in the morning and I mean it but Mr Strange doesn’t believe me. He wants us to come back now and hand over the cash. He looks a little nervously towards the kitchen where the only other staff member in the building is.
Er…right, ok. Ok we’ll return in a minute…
I say and we head back to our bungalow, me explaining to Jamie in disbelief what has just happened. Jamie is laughing as he unlocks the door and I turn to find Mr Strange walking right behind me. It makes me jump and emit a little oop noise and before I know it he has followed us in to the bungalow and is standing in our room offering comments about the decor.
Yes! It’s wonderful!!
I am trying not to get shrieky so I hand him some money. He looks at it with dispassion, looks at me blankly and leaves. We close the door, lock it and stare at each other.
Well…at least I got the recipe!
I say, clutching the list of ingredients and we sit on the bed for a while feeling uneasy. Finally, there’s nothing to be done but settle down to an evening in the company of Steve Buscemi. He is busy making shady dealings and having people surreptitiously bumped off as dark falls outside and torrential tropical rain starts up. I watch out of the curtains, too wary of tarantulas to stand outside, as flashes of lightning briefly illuminate the garden in pale blue. It puts me in mind of a horror film I saw a few years ago and I go to bed imagining a serial killer with a fondness for tamales peering in through the curtains. That tip wasn’t really good enough, now was it kids?
The ground is wet in the morning though not mushy and dotted with small rivers as I had imagined it might be. We take the little boat back over the river and clamber the steps up to Robin eager to see if she is still there. At the top of the steps appears a figure, blanked out by the sunlight behind him but I already know who it is.
He says without smiling. We greet him hesitantly and begin the laborious process of packing bags away and unleashing the bike. Mr Strange stands and watches closely.
Where are you from?
Where are you going?
We tell him, smiling a little fixedly. He cranes to look at the bike.
How much is it worth?
He enquires, eyes on the saddle. Jamie gives him a figure in dollars much below the real value and I wonder if it is normal in Mexico to ask this question and then decide I really don’t care when he says,
Take care with it……a tip for looking after it?
Quite apart from the fact that he hasn’t looked after it because he was over the river taking tips from us. And apart from the fact that the bike is stowed away in a carpark where it shouldn’t require any looking after, I tell him we have no money left because really. We drive away from Kolem Jaa and he stands watching us from the window.
And thus begins the most ludicrous piece of road we have driven on yet. We have only 110 miles to do until we are back in San Cristobal but it takes us 8 hours. The road helterskelters in to the mountains and the subsidence begins shortly after. Great dips and foot wide cracks appear in the surface in front of us. At one point the road has divided itself in to two lanes with a natural traffic island of tufty grass rising up in the middle. One ‘lane’ is 3 feet lower than the other and, like a snake, both sides have shivered off their tarmac skin. We crunch slowly over rocks, sand and gravel before being shunted suddenly a foot down back on to tarmac. At each corner we round, the rains have washed a great, jumbled collection of rocks and boulders across the road and I look up nervously at the mountainside wondering what happens if more comes down now.
We come to a sprawling town where people seem oblivious to the enormous motorbike bearing down on them. The roads are hugely crowded and grandmothers and babies have been strategically placed at intervals in the road. Men cross casually a metre or so in front of us on steep slopes where we can’t stop easily and then a man with a flag waves us down a side road whereupon we become lost after following a mototaxi up a hill. We retrace our steps and are waved through a messy construction site on the road narrowly missing some more strategic grandmothers and breathe a sigh of relief as we find ourselves on the other side of the town.
The relief is short lived as we brake suddenly for a bimbling dog and three chickens and spend the next few miles narrowly avoiding holes in the road that would safely house a small rhino. Rounding the corner we find six groups of machete wielding men and more poultry, three men on horses and a small boy spinning a lasso. Jamie pushes the bike to a protest up the mountain, eyes flicking anxiously over the mud streams and huge boulders freshly cleaved from the rock face lying across the road. We scrape the bike over a series of homemade speed bumps, each one knocking an ooph sound out of me involuntarily and finally round the corner to a large field of loosely piled rocks where the road used to be. We swerve and grind through it holding our breaths and feeling the wheels beneath us grumble and swerve and are relieved when we cross to the other side. It’s about this point as another dog lies in the road surrounded by 15 cows and a man on a horse that I start to laugh. It’s like a pure essence of Mexico, bottled for our inconvenience. The smile is quickly wiped off my face as another expanse of loose rocks looms up in front of us. Jamie is getting the hang of this road though and sticks to the tracks already compacted by cars and for the next six patches, I relax a little, don’t you worry….bout a thing, cos every little thing…. playing in triple time in my head. Finally though, the inevitable finally occurs when we trundle carefully on to the final patch and a car comes towards us. Jamie is forced to swerve the bike off the tyre tracks and I have a brief tableau of a panicked chicken jumping with both legs in hilarious tandem across the rocks in front of us before we are tipped in to a pile of stones and the bike lands on my leg twisting it the wrong way.
I say, a little louder than I intend to and a group of children gather in the window of a nearby house to watch solemnly as Jamie hauls the bike off me pulling something in his side as he does so. The whole thing happens rather slowly and yet too quickly and it is several moments of staring at the ground before I haul myself up and limp a little pathetically over to the bike. The car cruises serenely on by, the children stare and a woman walks past us like nothing has happened. I look about in consternation, wondering if we have become suddenly and inexplicably invisible before Jamie brings me back down to earth by asking if my ankle is ok. My ankle is fine, my knee a little twisty roundy and we are both incredibly dusty but apart from that there is nothing to do but get back on Robin and finish this ridiculous journey.
The remainder of the drive back in to San Cristobal passes with more errant livestock and another plank embedded with nails. They ask for a hundred, I give them fifty, saying it’s all we have and they have a little chuckle at us but wave us through. We arrive back in town to the tune of low mutterings in my earpiece about losing rags. I ask Jamie how much I would have to pay him to make a return journey on that road again. The amount turns out to be very significant and it is thus, with relief, that we seat ourselves back in the Catalan tapas bar later that evening and order him a jar of cold beer and promise him we can take the toll road next time.
Our final days in beautiful, bonkers Mexico end in a plethora of red wine, good bread and visits to the ham shop. We, at first, mistake the place for a shop selling religious paraphernalia such is the peculiarity of the decor.
They must be communion wafers….
I say unconvincingly when Jamie points out the bags of what turns out to be pasta below the counter. The interior is clothed in dark wood with an alter-like cupboard at the back, resplendently decked out with a large statue of the Virgin Mary. It looks like a chapel until we notice the small quantity of smoked ham and salami hanging behind a pain of glass set in to the counter. What I had assumed to be candles or wax effigies of, I don’t know, Little, dumplingesque Jesuses are, in fact, homemade soft cheeses made from fresh cream. The stripy block to the right is a hard cheese with a layer of butter running through it as though this shop wasn’t sinful enough. We eagerly buy up the little, tubby cheeses and have a whole though modest salami and great chunk of smoked ham weighed up. The price is incredibly low and we grin like idiots at the man behind the counter until I spot the little jars of pickled vegetables below the counter and stretch my grin even wider. The pickles are popped in with our shopping at my behest. I later am unable to identify the pale, crunchy vegetable that dominates the jar but it doesn’t really matter. They are sweet and sour, lightly spiced with jalapeno peppers and totally irresistible.
It turns out that we actually purchased and extremely significant quantity of ham and cheese and no matter how much dedication and baguette we apply, we are still finishing our haul in Comitan, fifty miles down the road. The town is pleasant and full of educated, sociable people milling about by the book fair in the central square gifting roses to one another and holding hands. It is our last day in Mexico and we mean to stroll in to town in the evening and dine at one of the restaurants overlooking the hubbub, a way of celebrating the last 50 days. Instead, we find ourselves glued to the tiny screen of the tablet insatiably gobbling down more Boardwalk Empire and the remains of the ham and cheese. The journey to Comitan, as ever, has been rather trying, we are tired so we feel validated in our actions. We left San Cristobal by sneaking through gaps in a city wide taxi strike where every street in was blocked with cabs and stoic looking men protesting the rise of illegal cabbies. We do a great, winding circuit of the town following cyclists and other motorbikes, pretty pleased with ourselves as we squeeze through the gap in the last rank of white cars and out on to the highway. The smiles are wiped from our faces only fifteen minutes down the road when we spot a large group of people slowing a lorry in front of us. They have blocked the road and are, once again, politely mugging the drivers wishing to pass through. Unlike previous occasions, nobody is smiling and when the lorry pulls away in front of us, the group crowd in closely around the bike. We only have twenty pesos in change, the rest is in a couple of large notes unwisely supplied by the atm in town and stashed in Jamie’s wallet. Since this group are universally clutching big sticks and haven’t practised their smiling faces recently, we have no intention of letting anyone here know we have a wallet. I pull out a twenty and ask how much.
Says a man to my right.
Right, well we only have twenty. It’s all we have. Can we pass?
Says the man again without a quiver of emotion.
We only have twenty. It’s all we have.
Says the man. It seems logic isn’t going to apply here so I tell them we can’t give them fifty so we have to turn and go back the way we have come.
Says the man again and I feel the mild stirrings of exasperation. I explain that I am fully versed in the price they are quoting, willing myself not to add the made up price that you just made up because you fancy some extra cash and explain to him again, and the rest of the crowd that we are not giving them fifty so we will have to turn the bike and return.
You don’t speak Spanish?
One man says to Jamie. Is this really a relevant point when I am speaking perfectly servicable Spanish to you with a clear intention? I wonder but instead, repeat what I have already said twice and indicate that they will need to step back and remove their big sticks from the path so we can turn.
Says another man and just as I am about to get really ineloquent, a man steps in and the situation is explained in rapid Spanish.
Says the new man looking at me like I have been causing an unruly fuss. I hand the twenty over and the crowd parts reluctantly.
We both say without much enthusiasm.
So it is with a mixture of great regret and relief that we depart from Comitan the following morning headed for the Guatemalan border. Mexico has been, well very Mexican. Wonderful food, great pickles, pleasant people, fascinating markets, towns, culture and some great music. We have eaten more tacos than we can count, sat watching crowds burbling in busy, happy, fiesta filled squares, visited fascinating museums and gazed in wonder at the fabulous ruins dotting the landscape. We will miss the salsa and the swarm, the colour and the crowds but we are happy to be leaving behind the planks full of nails, the demands for cash, the threat of dragging small children along the road by a string and the unmarked, bike teetering speed bumps. More than a few times I have been lifted a foot or so in the air by one these hidden evils to land with a loud humph! and I’ll be grateful of a smoother ride.
Of course, Guatemala is up next, a country notorious for terrible roads and exorbitant murder rates but that’s all on the other side of a border at the end of a road full of homemade speed bumps. And besides, the murder rate in Honduras is much higher. So it’s all going to be hunky dory.
Tamales a la Mr Strange– this is an expanded version of the basic list of ingredients he gave me. You better make this, I paid for it this time!
Makes about 15.
1 quantity of tamale dough- this is made from maize flour, lard or shortening, stock and seasonings. There is a good recipe here which also features someone elses recipe for tamales. You can buy Maseca, which a popular brand of the maize flour in Latin American shops or online at www.mexgrocer.co.uk for a very reasonable price.
Chipilin- this a spinach like, iron rich, leafy herb so use a bag of spinach briefly fried in butter instead
Guiso de chile color- this seems to be ‘casserole chilli’ and while I’m not totally sure what it means, I’d say, use 8 mild chillies or preferably 8 dried ancho chillis. I bought anchos from the Mexican grocer. Delicous, not too hot, smokey and lovely.
Tomatoes- you can skin them by dropping briefly in boiling water or you could just dice them- about ten medium sized.
Half a chopped onion
Parsley- one bunch chopped finely
1kg chicken or beef- covered in water and boiled for an hour then pulled apart (pop some garlic in the water too)
These are the ingredients I was given. The recipe is very involved (but worth it) so I would recommend using the tamale recipe above in the link provided and, if you would like to use Mr Strange’s ingredients, substitute them in! If you don’t want to or can’t buy corn husks, use baking parchment or foil instead.
Now, I’m off to an art gallery…..bye for now!