Tom Cruise and the pimped out pineapple.
‘Giant Sandwiches’. The name of the stall just about sums things up. We are deep in Oaxaca’s central market tucked away down gloomy avenues of leather bags, mysterious twists of animal hide, piled fruits and shopping bags with Frida Kahlo’s face on. Or the Virgin Mary. They seem to have equal standing here. We have found ‘Tortas Gigantas’ lurking down one of the fruit lanes opposite the textiles shop where we have somehow ended up buying pre-drawn embroidery patterns with no intention of doing any sewing. The lady looks surprised when Jamie picks out a fetching pineapple based design and asks if it’s for him. She smiles indulgently when I tell her it is and seems taken with the idea of this Englishman sitting wanly in the pale morning light over an an embroidery hoop. This is what Mexican markets will do to you. You duck under the 28,000 handmade pinatas, eyes scanning the piles of cactus paddles, chickens feet and smiling pigs head and exit an hour later clutching a bag of dried fruit, two sewing patterns, 5 plastic shopping bags with the Virgin Frida’s face on and a sandwich the size of your face.
We opt for the Cubana because that’s what he makes in that film, ‘Chef’…I think. I have mentioned the film before because I am definitely not envious or scathing of the success of Jon Favreau’s totally fictional and quite well acted chef who makes a roaring, Twitter based success of a food van primarily selling Cubana sandwiches to idiots. The huge, crunchy delight handed over to us, warm and flat from the griddle is filling for two people and unscalable for one. It seems to me that it isn’t so much a recipe as a midnight fridge raid by someone so epically stoned, that, reaching for the packet, they can’t remember they already put the ham in twice. Amongst the layers of apparently different kinds of ham, there is the white, stretchy, boingy cheese pulled in to spaghetti strands and oozing out the sides, there are jalapenos, avocado, tomatoes, the mysteriously titled ‘yellow cheese’ and a few other things thrown in for good measure. I happily poke jalapeno pickled carrot slices in to the gaps for the pleasing burning match swallowing effect and we leave with dazed smiles on our faces murmuring best sandwich everrrrrr twenty well chewed minutes later.
We are sad to leave Oaxaca where we have dined cheaply and very pleasingly on street food and the occasional splurge at a superbly cheap seafood restaurant where we sip margaritas and are given free ice cream in return for choosing the cheapest things on the menu. We have paced the museums, taken hundreds of photos of pre-hispanic ceramic figures with either funny faces, extraordinarily large penises or both and eaten many corn cobs. We have joined in the state’s annual Guelaguetza festival in a village just outside Oaxaca where we watch local women and girls dressed in head scarves, frills, satin skirts and toting pineapples performing traditional dances with groups of whooping men in white. A selection of bands play big, bursting tunes and the couples turn and shuffle, plaits flying and concentration marked on the younger boys faces. At one rather alarming point in the proceedings, eight men appear dressed like Christmas trees sporting gigantic, peacock like headdresses in which they skip and leap performing impressive flips and twists of the head. One skinny, younger boy finds his headdress quavering dangerously on his head and is forced to hold on each time he jumps of turns. He looks mortified at the ill fitting hat but I am rather pleased because he is more interesting to watch than the interminable repetitive leaping the dance devolves in to. As each dance ends, gifts of coffee, apricots and baked tortillas are thrown out in to the crowd who stand up, shouting, jumping to catch the brown bags and ferreting them away in their handbags. Jamie does England proud and catches us one apricot and three bags of coffee. I manage to bag us two cups of the delicious, smokey mezcal they are also handing out to the crowd and though, extremely dance weary, we leave happy and ever so slightly drunk after three hours.
The day after, we get up early and ride the bike out in to the countryside and up in to the mountains. We pass workmen digging up the road somewhat inefficiently and have to chug through ploughed up mud and over gravel and stones to pass. Dogs take offence at the sight of us and bark, biting our panniers and chasing us merrily up the hills until the turn off where the tarmac becomes compacted dust and rocks and people in the villages turn to stare at us as we pass. A man on a horse in a cowboy hat nods at us and a child led by his mother jumps up and down to shout and fling his arms about at Jamie who has thrown him a manly wave. Here, the dogs are strewn about in the road sleeping off a heavy night barking at moths. We weave amongst them trying not to flatten anybody and finally the bike crunches in to the carpark at Hierve El Agua. This bizarre waterfall sits high up on a lush, green mountainside overlooking a wide valley and huge, clear blue skies. The name means ‘the water boils’ which actually, it doesn’t. It is cool and slow moving, thick with minerals that form a spectacular frozen waterfall hanging from the rocks. Pools have formed at the top with strange, stalagmitey walls covered in lacey, mineral deposit patterns and smooth, white channels that look odd and manmade. The whole scene is like something from a film and we get in to swim about admiring the infinity pool effect that takes the green water to a vast drop with apparently nothing in between. I have been here once before, twelve years back and am confused by how little I remember of the place considering how spectacular the place is. What, you have to pay to get in? You can swim in them?? There are restaurants here? Other people know about this? Indeed they do. Even when we arrive bright and early, there are already two large Mexican families there making lots of noise and playing music on their radios. Mexicans don’t really do tranquility so we swim around them enjoying the water and the sight of two teenaged boys with Super Soaker water pistols engaged in hysterical laughter as a result of a water fight whilst sat plumply next to each other, completely stationary the whole time.
It’s all rather delightful so we treat ourselves to some tacos and a pimped out pineapple. The friendly stall holder uses a device I recognise as a wonderful Christmas present I received from my step sister at Christmas to decore, slice and remove the fruit from a pineapple. I poke Jamie in delight at the sight of it and silently promise to use it for this very purpose when we get home for the fruit has been replaced in the hollowed skin, soaked in lime juice, Valentina salsa (tequila is offered but stupidly declined) and a dash of salt. Large pieces of fruit are arranged like synchronised swimmers around the top then sprinkled with powdered chilli. The whole thing is finished with a plastic spoon and a straw. I don’t think I have ever seen a finer thing and we amuse ourselves taking photos of ourselves holding it and looking grand for a few minutes before devouring it in a deserted corner of the carpark overlooking the mountains. There are wild orchids around our feet as we eat and I am feeling extremely festive by the time we have finished but sadly the rest of the universe have turned up whilst we have been otherwise engaged. We watch them sadly as they file down the hill and spill in to pools. Time to go. The pineapple skin is chucked unceremoniously in the bin with a pile of coconut shells impaled with straws and we head back to the bike cursing the Lonely Planet. The bike looks like a lost kitten in the car park now that it is surrounded by minibuses, four by fours and, confusingly, full sized coaches. How did they get here? We puzzle and can’t find an answer. The road is tiny and deeply bendy, strewn with rocks and steep drops. We, atop little Robin Rawhide Suzuki Von Elkin Stay struggled to squeeze round some of the corners in the tiny villages clinging to the mountainside. We shrug our shoulders, it’s a mystery. A Mexican mytery. One of those feats of driving that only a Latino has in them perhaps.
We are still puzzling it as we meet a steamroller working in the road on the way down. The men working point in big, we can’t hear you gestures to the oncoming lane indicating we should drive on the wrong side of a small, mountainous road with no indication given to the oncoming drivers that we are there, in their lane with a stretch of red hot tar liberally sprinkled in sticky black gravel serving as our only escape option. Another Mexican mystery I think and we nervously start the ridiculous descent, craning to peer around corners and driving at 15 miles an hour. Naturally, a truck appears hurtling towards us within 12 seconds and are shunted on to the newly laid tarmac. Hot, adhesive pieces of black gravel engage in an energetic party beneath us, flying in to our boots, socks, up (how?) our trousers and pinging off our helmets. This process is repeated each time we spot a car driving towards us and by the bottom of the mountain, our tyres have acquired a small, quite neatly laid road front and back. I pick many stones from inside my socks and wander how it that Mexicans can be so delightfully warm and energetic, cook so wonderfully, run beautiful museums, shops and restaurants and yet fail to appreciate the importance of a road cordon. Perhaps I am being too British about it. We’re ok aren’t we? I think, picking some gravel from my hair.
The thick layer of fresh tarmac and stones has vanished completely from the tyres by the time we have made the 150km journey from Oaxaca to the coast. The road snakes unendingly through the mountains and the journey takes five or six hours, longer even than we had pessimistically anticipated. We stop for lunch in the cool mountain air at Lupita’s Restaurant where we are given two plates of black refried beans (argh!) with a deep fried chilli stuffed with salsa and chicken and a deeply crunchy chorizo that looks unnervingly like a dog poo. Fortunately it tastes delicious and we spend the time eating happily and staring at the ceiling which is adorned with hundreds of crocheted animals, scarves and hats. The waiter cannot be convinced to bring us anything other than the small portions we have already eaten and looks desperately at a fridge full of fizzy drinks when asked if there is any dessert. He eventually decides that Gatorade does not sit comfortably in the category of ‘pudding’ and gives us a wincing shake of the head so we buy a lopsided crochet elephant and call him George instead. Slightly peckishly, we get back on the bike and continue the descent to Playa Estacahuita where we will be stopping for five, luxurious days in a bamboo hut. The temperature slowly rises until we are both sweatily adhered to the silky linings of our bike gear and bananas become the main item sold in the shops on the road.
We eventually come to a tiny turn off made of concrete slabs that requires a complete 180 to get down. We scale some small hills and suddenly we are staring at a glittering, blue sea in front of us. Coconut palms rattle gently in the breeze and the waves pile politely on to three tiny, clean beaches skirted by palm thatched huts and tiny huts. It seems we have driven straight in to a postcard. The address we have been given is equally quaint, Estacahuita Beach, at the back, on the left. We ask a puzzled family where Playa Estacahuita Inn is. They frown and say this is Playa Estacahuita.
Er….they are bungalows….
I try. Nothing.
To stay in? To rent? Here….we…er Playa Estachuita Inn?
Nada. It takes a sudden memory flash of an short online review mentioning that the place is owned by a married couple, one from Mexico and one from France to hit the jackpot. Everybody’s faces light up, ahhhh of course Benoit and Maria Antoinetta why didn’t you say?
We are pointe,of course, to the back of the beach, on the left. In the end, we just follow the tiny, leaf strewn road in the rough direction they point and find the tarmac immediately dwindles in to a small, grassy path leading in to the forest. We go for it. Or rather, Jamie does. I follow him taking photos and laughing as he Fred Flintstones it up the path, both legs paddling furiously on either side of the bike to stay upright. I catch up with him stood in a clearing looking at where the path should be but isn’t and we turn the bike around and weave back to the road again. It looks like we are walking across the beach and Robin is staying on her own outside an abandoned building under a palm tree.
Our motorbike clothes are heavy and by the time we have trudged through the boiling sand, hopping over the waves as they rush to moisten our toes then climbed up to our rickety hut, Jamie has sweat dripping off his ears. He looks a little like he might die so I sit him in a chair and tell him not to move whereupon he stands up and insists on getting everything from the motorbike leaving a trail of drips behind him. Benoit, the owner of the hut arrives looking cool as a concombre as I am admiring our view over the tiny beach and introduces himself in Spanish so heavily inflected with French that I am not totally sure what language we are speaking. He explains that unfortunately due to a booking mix up, our hut, OUR HUT, has been double booked two days into our stay and perhaps the people who have booked will turn up, perhaps not, who knows? Eez theez not zee joi de vivre? Never knoweeng? He happily informs us we will just have to enjoy our two days here and after that, we will sort out something or other. He smiles gallicly and wanders off leaving us wondering what happened and why we agreed so heartily when all we really just wanted was five days with which to do nuseeng at all.
I look around the hut helplessly. It seems to be constructed from bamboo and shipwrecks with a thatched roof replete with geckos who serenade us with chip chip chipping sounds at night. There is a simple bed in the middle surrounded by a gauzy mosquito net and a woven mat on the floor. An oyster shell has been left as an ash tray and the breeze from the sea billows in through the open doors. In short, it is like a well written poem and we have just had it snatched away from us. I make a sad face for a while and then we go snorkelling and the sea is warm, the beach strewn with purple shells and green coral and we make a decision. We will go up to Benoit’s house and ask him if we can pay extra to stay put by golly we will!
So, since Jamie can barely stand in the heavy, layered heat and because I am a gigantic coward who needs practice, I make the enormous climb up to the top of the hill to the house to stand my ground and give Benoit extra money he has not earned and which we cannot afford. Anarchy!
At the top two dogs await me who are clearly a pair of dozy wimps who have been told to look fierce, bark and cower, wag and grin then run away. The noise alerts Benoit who appears asking if everything is ok. In a shaky voice made really pathetic by being so out of breath I gabble in rubbish Spanish for a few minutes. Benoit looks at me blankly. A beat.
He says and I try once more until he asks if I would like to try English and I switch over in humiliation.
When I finally finish a ballad about how tired and pathetic we are and how we will howl and weep if we have to leave for some Airbnb LOSERS, he smiles and tells me nooo! Its fine! You don’t have to leave! He didn’t mean he would kick us out, just shuffle things up! And it turns out that after two nights in our rickety hut sipping coldish beers and swimming intermittently, he gives us his apartment and stays downstairs and we get a view over the whole cove to admire while sipping coldish beer and swimming intermittently. We befriend the dogs who leap merrily at the very sight of Jamie, we play doctor to the vomity American girl who has taken our hut and don’t even hate her. We chomp down great chunks of fresh fish from the local fish shop and squeeze lime juice over everything we can get our hands on. At night we slip down to the beach, setting the larger local dogs barking and the small ones howling operatically while we swim in the dark water. I try to be blase. I try really hard but I have remembered the pickup truck outside the fish shop full of small sharks and that kills the enjoyment somewhat so we reluctantly allow the waves to somersault us on to the beach and return to the flat for one last evening of liberally scattering sand about the place.
We leave Playa Estacahuita at 7.30 the following morning just in time to see the vomity American girl looking a lot less vomity, wave goodbye and head back to Robin who has been patiently waiting for us despite Jamie’s desperate assertions that she has been stolen away. The dogs shrink from us in our motorbike gear and peer eerily around corners to eye up the bike as we pull out of the parking spot. Goodbye paradise I think as we round the hill and the Pacific slips out of sight.
That afternoon we pull up outside a multiplex cinema on the outskirts of an industrial looking city called Salina Cruz where the sunshine brings us slowly to an unpleasant simmer. There is a high rise hotel towering over the cinema ans Jamie is peering in to the carpark gasping breathily that there is a Walmart. Forget palm trees and bath warm oceans, forget the sweeping vistas of verdant mountains and forests swinging with spider monkeys and butterflies the size of an exercise book, Jamie’s favourite place on this enormous continent is Walmart. He likes switching off to hum of the fridges, wandering air conditioned isles to the sound of musak, a six pack of beer in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. He likes that he can buy pizza, a stereo and a tortilla press all under one roof and I kind of like it too. It’s like a gigantic vacuum in which to pop your brain for 45 minutes while you make inappropriate purchases and cool down. So, we go in to the hotel and ask them the price. Predictably its too expensive and I can’t get them to give me a discount by looking sad so I turn to go and give Jamie the news but am followed by a member of staff. He who stops me and tells me with a sly look in his eyes that they do a free breakfast and that’s when I know we will have a room tonight.
Hmm no…we don’t really eat breakfast so much…..
I say looking regretful and pulling on a glove.
Ok what can you pay?
He cracks quickly and I give him a price very considerably under theirs. He vanishes back in to the hotel for a minute leaving us to bake in the heat, Jamie staring sadly at the cinema. When the man returns, he does so with a calculator. He means business. Or perhaps my Spanish isn’t very good and he doesn’t forsee clarity in the haggle but either way, the number on the little screen is rather delightfully close to my ridiculous offer and we accept cautiously. Is there some kind of mistake? But Jamie is already wheeling the motorbike into the hiding place the man points out to us and I appear to be paying. And so it is set, we have an evening of purchasing jelly and pizza, toothpaste and weird kitchen gadgets ahead of us, an air conditioned and a free breakfast (eaten guiltily). We drop by the cinema to check out the listings and are pleased to see a single, subtitled showing of Mision Imposible Cinco.
Five?! How are they still making these films?!
I shout incredulously but I am almost embarrassingly excited about it. It’s going to be dreadful I am sure but we buy the tickets, some fizzy pop and bright yellow popcorn and go find our seats. The film begins, Tom Cruise leaps about punching people and going on impossible missions, Simon Pegg hams it up talentlessly, a sexy lady drives a motorbike up a staircase and it is just dreadful, just dreadful.
And we love every minute of it.
Torta Cubana Giganta – Giant Cuban Sandwich…Mexican style
1 baguette (nearest thing we have to the large, lemon shaped breads they use. Make sure it’s crispy and light)
500g sliced ham
5000g sliced mortadella sausage
200g soured cream
500g cooked chicken (brown meat from leg or thigh)
500g Oaxaca cheese ( you can use a mixture of mozzarella and halloumi to recreate this)
250g yellow cheese ( shamefully I think this means Kraft singles but you could try any swiss style cheese)
250g chorizo (use raw chorizo and fry it before putting it in the sandwich)
Pickled jalapenos (as many as you like)
Sliced white onion (use the mild, white variety)
Sliced avocado (must be good and ripe)
Slice the bread longways then butter, mustard and mayo it before carefully assembling all your ingredients on top piling them HIGH . Sandwich it all in with the other half of the baguette then pop the whole thing (you may need to cut it in to sections) in to a panini griddle. If you don’t have one, use a stove top griddle or, failing that a large frying pan over a low heat. Flatten the sandwich with a spatula and toast repeatedly on each side until the cheese has started to melt and the bread is crunchy. Serve with red salsa and pickled jalapeno carrot slices shared amongst friends. For authenticity, serve on a plastic plate that has been placed in sandwich bag (hey presto no washing up) sat in low lighting amongst large quantities of vegetables.