Hold tight, hold tight!
The Mexican border official looks serious as he produces two forms for us to fill in. We nervously reach for pens and begin to fill the papers in pausing momentarily to ask him questions. He stands over us pointing out errors and I wonder if there is going to be trouble. Perhaps our journey ends here at the Tecate border. Where will we go? I wonder. The official sniffs and pulls himself up to his full height, preparing himself for something important, then his face brightens.
You are hungry?
I have tamales. You want to buy tamales? $1 each. Good breakfast!
I laugh in relief and ask for the flavours. He has chicken, pork or pineapple. Interesting cross section of flavours. I go for pork and look at Jamie who has turned to me stricken.
You have just ordered breakfast at the Mexican border? The bike? Remember the bike is just there, sitting in the street? We are in a rush!
I apologise meekly and murmur quietly about the importance of breakfast and wonder what the fuss is all about. It’s only one tamal and in we are in Mexico! I heard it was the law here to have a corn based snack at least once every 2 hours! The border official hands us some crinkly papers to put in our passports and gives me a hot tamal in a bag. I didn’t see him heat it or even get it and wonder if, in fact, his desk is a steamer used to maintain a warm lunch and international relations. At this point, the confusing details become clear to Jamie and he realises I have ordered unfamiliar sounding street food and have not brought us to an experimental pop up restaurant and the nervous look in his eyes diminishes a little.
We chime in unison as we leave the office. I look at breakfast hanging damply in its bag.
Only in Mexico!
I say laughing and we push through the revolving gate and step from the USA to Mexico.
It is like jumping from a hot, dry afternoon in to a freezing swimming pool. The change is massive and immersive, making you gasp out loud. I stare and shout
We’re in Mexico, Jamie!
There are pink houses and blue shops and taco shops and confusing handwritten signs everywhere. There are shops entirely devoted to desserts, goat stew or prawns. There are cables everywhere hung like tinsel across the streets, palm trees, grafitti that reads ”I love you Jesus. The roads are lump and bumpy, the pavements broken up or dust and there are Mexicans here living in Mexico being Mexican. Suddenly everything is fascinating again, even the adverts. I find that I am grinning inanely from inside my helmet. I am warmly glad to be back in Latin America. Everything feels a little more familiar here. Taquerias swizz past, ice cream shops and dogs take themselves on small jaunts to meet with friends and weave amongst cars that brake suddenly to avoid them. Big, yellow adverts for Pacifico beer slide past us painted on walls and held aloft above tiny shops. I’d like a beer I think and find to my delight that Jamie is pulling in. Good man, as susceptible to advertising as I am! It turns out though that he has spotted and ATM and we have no pesos. He strides away leaving me to guard the bike, an unwise decision since I am more focused on eating my tamal and thinking about a chilly cerveza. The tamal is delicious; full of slow cooked, tender meat and chilli and wrapped in salty, warm corn dough. I eat contentedly for a minute before the petrol pump attendant wanders over to say hello. He winces when I tell him where we are headed and warns us to watch out for the drivers in a city a few hundred miles away. Lots of drunks behind the wheel apparently. I thank him and sigh, adding him silently to the list of people who have naysayed the Mexican part of our voyage. All in all only one man, a park warden in California, who had done the same trip on his motorbike has found anything positive to say to us when they find out where we are going. The cartels! They say, oh but the drugs! The violence! The death! The shame! Here we are though, in Mexico and we will ride straight on through the drugs and the death and the shame and pop out the other side with a piñata and a small mariachi band. And maybe a dog.
Jamie returns with a nice wodge of pleasingly colourful banknotes and we ride on out of Tecate and in to the badlands beyond. The warnings all say we must ride for at least four hours to get away from the dangerous area near the border but we get hungry after an hour and pull in to a small, messy looking town with wide dirt tracks either side of the road for cars to pull off the road and park on. We lurch the bike cautiously off the vertiginous road edge and pull in front of a taqueria. The bike remains surprisingly upright on the new nobblier tyres that Jamie had fitted near Los Angeles and I am pleased because it means I don’t have to spend the next 8 months frozen in terror, holding on to Jamie’s shoulders as has been the case with dirt tracks to date.
We sit down and order tacos de carnitas and hibiscus juice. A little man in my head starts waving flags and dancing in celebration of the new and interesting foodstuffs when they arrive and we chomp them down, happily heaping shredded cabbage, onions and tomatoes on top then spooning red and green salsas all over that. The juices run down our wrists as we inexpertly eat our overfilled tacos watching the boys on the table opposite neatly roll their tortillas and pop them without rivers of mess. The hibiscus juice tastes like a chilled ruby ring and goes down in one cooling the toasted chilli on my tongue. Later, I read that carnitas are, in fact, pieces of pork boiled in lard, a piece of information that brings an indulgent grin to Jamie’s face when I mention it to him.
I let my gaze wander over the scene before me; the bottles of chilli sauce, the limes greenly popping against the bright red plastic of the tables and chairs, the faces of the people around me. I listen to the lows sounds of Spanish and the splash of hyperactive mariachi music from a truck pulling away, raising billowing clouds of dust that land on the curled forms of dogs dozing in the sunshine. A few days ago, I think incredulously, I was on a rollercoaster screeching my mouth off over California.
I was being hurtled upside down at 80 miles an hour when we still worked in miles per hour. I was debating whether or not to join a ninety minute queue to be dampened liberally with a group of strangers in small river. I had curled my lip at the soft drink prices and made snobby comments about Americans being corporate slaves and then bought one anyway. I had listened as the confusingly cheerful staff bantered on repeat in their rich Californian accents to the riders before sending them to their spiralling doom. I had loop the looped, hung upside down, shrieked, bounced, flipped and shuddered all with the vague knowledge that Alton Towers had just experienced the worst accident in the park’s history. A girl had had her legs amputated after crashing on one ride and people had hung upside, stuck after a separate mechanical failure, for four hours. No matter, I had pushed the poor amputee to the back of my mind and sailed on, arms flailing and hair a-tangle. It had all been so sculpted and structured, so tidy, so manufactured. It had all been so not here, so not Mexico.
The landscape of Baja California Norte stretches brownly out on either side of us. It is dry here too, extremely so. And flat. At times it is a little like driving through an endless Belgium but without the chocolate. I imagine the Belgium government hiring a landscape gardener with a maniacal glee for large cacti and the scene fits perfectly. My eyes glaze over and my mouth hangs open a little, the intense fascination I felt in Tecate filters slowly away.
Sometimes Jamie calls me on the intercom.
Talk to me!
He almosts shouts,
I say in reply and dab at my neck checking in case my brain has started leaking out of my ears.
Hours later after miles of tangled, dust coated brown shrubbery and cows, we arrive at a dirt track where we turn off and canter towards the hotel we are stopping at for the night. Jamie begins to doubt my directions after slow minutes of dust clouds and chuntering but I spot a clump of palms in the distance and within a few minutes we are rolling in to the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon. The grassy lawns have been sheered with infinite care and nail scissors, blade by blade. Artful arrangements of giant cacti sit beside coconut palms and orange groves stretch out the back. The colours of the bougainvillea appear to have been cut and pasted on to the scene, so intensely bright and unreal are the colours. The quiet lady at the desk offers us a large, breezy room with a bathroom the size of Lithuania for £17 and I wonder if perhaps the drugs and the death and the shame have caught up with us after all. Perhaps we have been shot by the cartel and this is heaven.
We dine from the vending machine that evening, a gourmet selection of ecstatically orange crisps, dense little chocolates cakes and large crackers coated in caramelised sugar. Our attempt to reach a restaurant some four miles away is aborted after we hit deep, cool sand on the lane we are sent down on the bike. The bike wobbles crazily, back tyres sliding one way and front the other but Jamie pulls hard on the reigns and we come to ticking stop. We turn the bike back to the hotel and we pass a shop closing up. I see that the place is called The Sands and make a mental note to take obvious hints when they are thrown at me.
At least the vending machine is full of foreignese junk food so it’s fun to choose without fully understanding what we are getting. The sugary crackers attract an extremely large, mournful dog who sits impatiently by our side and huffs crumbs off the floor like a truffle pig. Eventually a heavily inflected voice shouts,
And he returns to his people while we retire for the evening.
I dream intensively of the zombie apocalypse which prompts eye rolls from Jamie having heard this many times before. I am still bleating about how we couldn’t adequately board up the side doors of the house in time as we pull away from our fakey paradise and head on down highway 1 where we soon meet a two hundred mile stretch of desert. I begin to feel my arms stick to the inside of my jacket. I hold my Kentucky Fried Chicken pose for a while hoping the air will billow in a cool me down but am met, instead with a frayed triangle of sunburn down my front. The world around us goes Dr Seuss with strange, parsnipy trees sprouting little green wigs, bushes sprayed with baubles of crunchy, fleshy green and shrubs decorated in fluff balls. Huge, comic boulders dot the landscape supporting prettily twisted, overgrown bonsais wreathed in clouds of tiny pink blossom and orange lichen. Amongst the enormous, elephantine cacti, some as large as an oak tree, a crow hops about holding his beak open and eyeing us warily while picking up scraps of wood. His feathers look slick in the pounding sun and he shimmies in to the shade of a tree to cool down, dropping his treasure at the sound of the bike revving.
The landscape drops the green eggs and ham routine a little further down the road, flattening once more, the harsh light simmering off every surface making my eyes sore. My eyelids are sweaty and it’s hard to blink. My gloves are adhered to my hands as though the leather has reanimated and begun to digest me. I am intensely relieved as Jamie slows the bike down outside a building covered in hand written signs reading ‘cocos frios’.
I slither off the bike and peel the dense jacket from my damp arms then release my hair from the boiling confines of the helmet just as a man appears at the doorway to greet us. Buenos dias! Yep yep we ARE thirsty. Coconuts? Yep! Two please! And we are led in to a shaded patio area from a Mexican comic. Mariachi music trumpets from the radio and we take a seat on little stools made from cactus wood. Every surface is draped and dangling with stuff to look at. There are skulls, dolls, antlers, mirrors and bottles tied to every available post and nook. Each piece of lunacy is hung with tinsel which catches the breeze and dances hotly reflecting little shards of light on the palm leaf ceiling. It’s the most overtly Mexican place you could find yourself and I am admiring a racoon skin stretched across the wall and Jamie is looking set to start a conversation with a mannequin next to him when our host returns bearing two plump looking, green coconuts which he expertly chops with a hatchet. He pops a white straw in to each and hands them over chatting merrily about the Hawaiian man he had served just recently and the massive quantities of Europeans apparently sailing down this road of whom we have met none.
The coconut water is chilly and ambrosial. We look at one another briefly and smile with the simian quality of those sucking on straws, concentrating on the delight of the cold liquid. I finish first with a phew and ask if our man does food. In response he removes the coconut from my sweaty grip and chops it mightily in half then busies himself for a moment with elbowy movements and clinking bottles. My coconut is presented back to me dressed for a night on the town. The tender, almost jellylike coconut flesh has been planed away from the shell and sits glistening in a cool, red liquor, a spoon rests to one sight, submerged. I take a mouthful, slurping up the coconut and realise with joy that this it, The Great Ceviche Hunt of 2015 has begun! The fruit is bathed in an exquisite mix of fresh lime juice, chilli and a popular Mexican product called Clamato. Initially, I’ll level with you here, clam juice mixed with tomato juice doesn’t sound terribly promising but here, I soon learn that they slosh it in to everything with great effect. Actually, in reality, what I am eating is more akin to a coctele which differs to ceviche in that the seafood is not ‘cooked’ in the lime juice but added presteamed and a ceviche doesn’t contain any Clamato. Nonetheless, this is close enough and I eat the lot then make my coconuty friend laugh by drinking down the rest of the sauce straight from the shell and the rest of Jamie’s too. I am quietly confident that no one has displayed quite this level of enthusiasm for this dish before and the smile spreads across Mr Coconut’s face easily. We go in to great depth about coconuts and the differences in the flesh across species from ‘tierno’ (or tender such as those I have just downed in one) to ‘duro’ (hard). He waves at his map of Mexico pointing out places where they mix even lobster in to the coconut and by the time we have finished proclaiming the wonders of the universe, its time to go, there’s many miles to cover and also, we want some icecream.
We wave goodbye with many thanks and muchas de nadas and wheel the bike in the direction of the great beyond. I narrow my eyes against the stinging intensity of the sunlight and Jamie starts the bike.
I don’t feel the heat, I don’t wriggle about to get comfy. I’m not thinking about where I put the iPod, whether I have tied my shoelaces and how many miles to go. I’m thinking about ceviche. Jamie is going to need some extreme patience with me in the next few weeks. Come on Robin Rawhide, let’s go find some seafood! The Andrews Sister’s got it in one really……
Want some seafood Mama
Steamers and sauce and then of course I like oysters lobsters too
And I like my tasty butter fish
When I come home from work at night
I get my favorite dish, fish!
Hold tight hold tight hold tight hold tight
Want some seafood Mama
1 coco tierno (tender coconut, jellylike not hard)
A big splosh of Clamato Originale
A splash or three of Valentina chilli sauce
A pinch of powdered chilli to suit your taste
Powdered or finely chopped jalapeno chillies
A pinch of salt
Plenty of fresh lime juice, perhaps one or two whole fruits.
Using a nice big shiny axe, chop the green outer layer from the coconut and some white flesh is revealed. Stick in a straw and drink. Yum.
Then cut the top off and scoop out the fruit within with a spoon. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until you have the right balance. Not too spicy, not too blah. There should be plenty of liquid for the coconut to swim in. Put the coconut pieces into the shell, pour the liquid over and serve with a spoon. Nom.
All these ingredients are available in the UK, I know because I have bought them….perhaps harder to find outside London I admit….but you can try The Mexican Grocer who are great. If you can’t get tender coconuts, substitute prawns, fried plantain, water chestnuts, lobster, whatever you like. Buen provecho!