Tuesday, July 27, 2010


This post is long overdue. Thanks for the patience. 

Tamales hold a special place in the heart of many Mexicans. And I only add the “many” to avoid potentially offensive stereotyping. Thank goodness I live in Mexico and political correctness is not (generally) a major point of concern.

All joking aside, tamales are something special. Traditionally eaten on Sundays with hot chocolate (my uncle likes to dip green salsa tamales right on in like donuts), and especially on February 2nd, prepared by the person who found the baby Jesus in his or her piece of rosca on the día de los Reyes on January 6th, tamales are a labor of love.

Fittingly, when I brought a rosca I had helped prepare from the panadería to share with my aunt and uncle, as hard as I tried not to remember where we normally ended up placing the tiny plastic dolls, I inevitably ended up with one of the baby Jesuses. And he was facedown...we really should try to be more careful with the infant savior as we toss him in the dough. And that meant that I would be preparing my uncle’s long-wished for batch of tamales. Thank goodness my aunt took it into her hands to teach me the ins-and-outs of the tamale business.

Like any dish or recipe that requires a fair amount of patience and elbow-grease, there are several beliefs and traditions that go hand in hand with the preparation. Break one of the rules and you are doomed to unevenly cooked tamales or a goopy mess. When we prepared a whopping 5 kilos of dough, about 170 tamales in early February, my aunt didn’t let me help her with mixing the dough because of the belief that if more than one person se mete la mano, the tamales will never fully cook. The result would be goopy, unevenly cooked tamales. A shame after all that work. She also said that if someone became angry or fought while preparing the tamales, that person had to dance around the tamale steamer as a sort of penitence, or the tamales won’t fully cook. Finally, if someone helping is pregnant, a small tamale must be prepared and cooked along side the other tamales for the baby or, you guessed it, the tamales won’t fully cook. She explained these rules without a trace of skepticism so I decided to take her word for it.

After an hour and a half of (im)patiently waiting for the tamales to fully cook in not one, but TWO vaporeras, we dug in. My aunt and I each ate 6 apiece! Most cooks now buy pre-prepared masa para tamales, but María Ester's homemade family recipe for the masa was exquisite. The tesquesquite and tomatillo husks resulted in perfectly fluffy dough that still held together to encase the delicious rellenos. In a pinch and most likely without access to tesquesquite, a rock or powdered mineral, to use as a rising agent, a teaspoon of baking powder will do the trick. 

Note: If you don't have two steamers or a way to makeshift two steamers (glass teacups with a flattened steamer basket placed inside a large pot will do the trick), reduce the amount of dough and fillings by half. You'll still have around 80 tamales to enjoy. If this is your first time making tamales, don't go all out with 5 types, try one or two. This is just for those who want to recreate the (thoroughly enjoyable) all-day tamale-making frenzy I underwent with my aunt.  
Note: Tamales can be frozen and enjoyed for up to a month. (I stretched it to three.) 

María Ester Canal Zanella

150 corn husks (about 3 bunches)

For the masa (corn dough for tamales):

husks from 3/4 kg tomatillo
1 pumpkin or large squash stem
1 tsp. tesquesquite
1 tsp. anise
1/2 kg shortening
1/2 kg pork lard
5 kg corn flour (for tamales)
~5 cups chicken broth 

For the savory rellenos:

1 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
3/4 kg tomatillo
125 g serrano chile
1 garlic clove
1/2 kg tomato
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 kg jalapeños, cut in strips (seeding optional)
~75 g of pasta for mole poblano 
1-2 cups of chicken broth
1 bunch epazote
200 g queso fresco, in strips
salt to taste

For the tamales dulces:
250 g raisins
200 g sweetened shredded coconut
sugar to taste
red food coloring
Before beginning assembly, prepare the savory fillings: 
Boil the tomatillos with the serrano chiles until soft. Blend with the garlic and salt to taste until you obtain a uniform salsa. Mix with half the shredded chicken breast.  

Dice the tomato. Saute in 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the cumin and season until the tomato is soft. Add the strips (rajas) of chile jalapeño and stir. Cook until just tender. 

Thin the mole poblano paste with chicken broth. (Who makes a complicated mole recipe just to make a complicated tamale recipe? I don't think so. Mole pastes in a range of prices are available for sale in the market, supermarket, even Walmart. Some moles specify that they are made with almond, others with peanut or a mixture for a less pricey mole). Mix with half a shredded chicken breast.

Undo the husk bundles and put the husks in water to soak.

Boil the tomatillo husks and the squash stem with the tesquesquite and anise until the water obtains a greenish hue. Set aside to cool. 

In a very large bowl or earthenware casserole and at room temperature, beat the shortening with the lard and half a cup of cold water until fluffy and all lumps are gone.

After using the hand mixer, use a technique of rotating the large earthenware casserole while pushing hand down and towards the center, incorporating air and ensuring thorough mixing.

Add the tamale flour and mix using hand mixer and then manuel technique to incorporate fully. Add the tomatillo-husk water, strained. Add up to 5 cups of chicken broth a little at a time to obtain a loose but not liquid dough, using manual technique to mix thoroughly after each addition.

The dough is fully mixed and ready to form tamales when a small ball of dough dropped in room-temperature water floats and does not come apart. 

Remove the husks from the water and shake to remove excess water. Get yourself, dough, husks, and fillings ready for assembly!

Working with one husk at a time, take a husk in your hand. Using a large spoon, add tamale dough and spread to fill the base of the husk with a centimeter-thick layer. 

 Add filling to the center. In this picture, first a slice of fresh cheese, an epazote leaf and a few rajas quickly softened in the chunky tomato sauce.

Carefully detach one side of the dough from the husk to cover part of the filling. Detach the other side of the dough and hope the two ends meet. Fold one edge of the husk over the filling and dough and into the other husk edge, created a tight and neat little package. 

Repeat with remaining cheese and rajas. Start the process with the other savory fillings, the chicken breast with mole poblano and the chicken breast in salsa verde. Save about a fifth of the dough (or more if you have a sweet-tooth) to make the tamales dulces. You will most likely have some filling left over. 

For the tamales dulces: 

Mix half the remaining dough with the shredded coconut and a handful of raisins. Add sugar to taste (yep, taste the dough, just a bit). Form tamales with the dough.

Mix the remaining dough with a bit of food coloring to obtain a Mexican rose color (too bad I didn't take a picture...the hands were a little doughy at this point.) Mix with the remaining raisins and sugar to taste. Form tamales with the dough. 
Place water in the bottom of two vaporeras. Add a small coin to each. The coin will let you know when the water begins to boil (clink clink clink) and when it's necessary to add more water. 

My aunt made the sign of the cross over the vaporeras, kissed the coin before dropping it in and prayed for the fruits of out efforts to cook quickly and evenly. This step is considered crucial, so I'm including it. Many of us take our food religiously, and tamales should be no exception.  

Accommodate the tamales vertically, not too tightly packed. Stuff the tail-end of extra husks overlapping down into the sides of the vaporera, ensuring that the bases overlap to cover the tamales. Cover with a wet cloth and a plastic bag, tucking into the sides of the vaporera. Cover with tightly-fitting lid and cook for an hour and a half, counting from the time the water begins to boil with the signature clink clink clink noise, on the stove with medium-high flame or over a charcoal fire. Be sure to add water if necessary. 

After an hour and 15 minutes, remove a tamale and check to see if the dough is fluffy and easily detaches from the husk. If so, your tamales are ready to eat. Remove from the flame and remove carefully with tongs.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

An Easter cookie

Given that Easter was last Sunday, I thought I would share the recipe for a cookie traditionally made only during Semana Santa here in Puebla. These mueganos are a shortbread-type cookie made with lard (vegetarians beware!), brushed with anise-flavored syrup made from piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) and topped with crumbs from the same dough.

Several of us have been itching to learn the recipe from Luicita, and she obliged us with a batch this past week. The woman is incredible; she has a seemingly infinite number of recipes filed away in her memory. She might forget to buy onions while we're at the market, but she can perfectly dictate a recipe for mole, any number of cookies and dulces, salsas, you name it. As the oldest child of ten who practically raised her youngest siblings, she's had a lot of practice. Not to mention that she is a seamstress by trade, knits and embroiders, teaches a catechism class to eighty kids, has held nine out of the ten mayordomo positions in her church, and tells slightly off color-jokes. (Case in point, referring to her status as a señorita, or virgin, at sixty-five: "He pasado muchas Navidades, pero nunca una Noche buena." Noche buena being Christmas Eve. I'll leave you to discern the double entendre.) A woman of many talents, the result this week was a crumbly, delicious cookie to celebrate the Easter holiday.

María Luisa Bueno Vargas

This dough can also be formed into round cookies called “rodeos” topped with powdered sugar, either white or pastel-colored.

1 K all-purpose flour
500 g lard, setting aside 50 g to grease two medium-sized cookie sheets
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cups water
1 piloncillo cone (Mexican cone-shaped brown sugar)
1 tablespoon anise

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  In half a cup of water, dissolve the baking powder. On a clean surface, make a fountain with the flour. Add the lard, sugar, and water with the baking soda to the center of the fountain and mix well until fully incorporated. Gradually begin to pull in flour from the sides, incorporating as you go. 

Mix until the flour is fully incorporated. The dough should be crumbly and not too greasy, barely held together by the lard. 

Make 8 balls from the dough. Grease the two cookie sheets with the remaining lard. Extend each ball into a long roll, the width of the cookie sheet.

Place one roll at a time on the cookie sheet, flattening it with your hand to a rectangular shape the width of the cookie sheet and cutting into 5 equal squares, trimming the two ends. Don’t worry about leaving space between the dough and the edge of the sheet. Repeat with each of the rolls, placing 4 rolls on each cookie sheet. Bake the mueganos for 18-24 minutes, or until slightly golden. 

While the mueganos bake, dissolve the piloncillo in the remaining cup of water over medium-high heat. Once the piloncillo dissolves, add the anise and let the syrup boil for about three minutes. Strain the syrup.

Remove the mueganos from the oven and cool slightly. Using a pastry brush, brush the cookies twice with the syrup, leaving 4-5 cookies without syrup. Crumble these cookies through a strainer to adorn the mueganos.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What I've been up to

I know I’ve been away for awhile, but think of this as a quarterly report. I promise a good update over the next few weeks and a fantastic tamale recipe to come. 

I think one of the reasons I’ve been reluctant to write in these past two to three months is that I’ve been reflecting a lot on this experience and sort of internalizing the fellowship year. It just felt strange to be writing and posting online when I was trying to make sense of everything myself. I spent a lot of this new year thinking about how I want to spend the rest of my fellowship experience and also about the uncertain future that awaits beyond. For New Year’s, I went to a small beach in Oaxaca with Nico, our friend Marco, Nico’s dad and his girlfriend, and Jen, a random girl Nico picked up in a bar in Queretaro, as he is wont to do, who turned out to be an incredibly down-to-earth person and a great beach companion, and now, a good friend. 

La boquilla is a secluded beach, kept pristine by the shoddy roads that prevent hoards of visitors. We spent five luxurious days waking up, sleepy-eyed, to watch muted but gorgeous sunrises, lounging and reading on the beach, snorkeling, and cooking delicious beach-side dinners. 

On New Year’s Eve, several families from Puebla, the first to build homes on the leafy hills surrounding the beach, gathered around a bonfire, grilling sausages and shrimp and feasting on ceviche, cheeses, wine and beer. 

Throw in a guitar, impromptu sing-a-longs and makeshift instruments, a full moon and a midnight dip in the ocean and I can’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year. Even if a monstrous wave soaked my carefully stashed clothes during the swim. 

For all of us, this trip meant a time for reflection. But for Marco and I, January 2nd at the beach really brought that fact home (01/02/2010....odd coincidence I think). Nico, Marco, Jen and I walked to our friend Tiago’s house, with a stunning view of the beaches below. We trudged down the path to the teensy Playa del Muerto (rumor has it a dead body was found here in the 1940s). We were planning to swim back around the point separating the two beaches to La boquilla as a late afternoon capstone to a beautiful day, but with the size of the waves and the setting sun, we decided to postpone the longish swim for another day. Marco and I decided to console ourselves by splashing around, diving under the crashing waves and coming up, laughing, for air. I claimed I wanted to “sentir la fuerza del mar.” After about five minutes and not more than twenty feet from shore, we heard Nico and Tiago yelling, signaling for us to head back. We found out later that they had seen a large series of waves heading for the beach. We both tried to head back right away, only to find the ocean floor was no longer beneath us and the current pulling us parallel to the beach. Only the night before we had all been talking about the strength of the currents at a neighboring beach, Zipolite, and the fact that you have to swim with, not against, the current to get out of it. I yelled to Marco that we would tire ourselves out and pointed to a rock the current was carrying us towards. We grabbed hold like the sea urchins I was afraid would tear our feet to shreds and braced ourselves against the waves. Recovering our breath and our nerves, we talked strategy, with Nico signaling and yelling to us from a rocky outcrop. It was bizarre--here we were, not ten feet away from him but with no way for him to help us. We decided that we would swim with the current during a lull in the waves. Right then, a wave knocked Marco off the rock and I decided that we would make a go for it together, me being the stronger swimmer. Face down in the ocean, trying not to panic or swallow water, I swam furiously, looking up to check for signals from those onshore who could see the current pattern and to see how Marco was doing, who I had passed almost immediately. I reached a point where I could touch a rock underwater and swim the last bit to shore, reassuring Marco he was almost there. I’ve never seen a face so white. I crawled to shore, laughing with nervous relief. When Marco followed me two minutes later, we collapsed in a hug.

 In reality, we were on the edge of a dangerous situation, but it could have been much worse. We weren’t far from shore, the current could have been stronger, and we didn’t tire ourselves trying to fight it. It was more of a scare than anything, but enough to get both of us thinking. As a sailor, I should have known better to test the fuerza del mar, especially at the Beach of Death. Furthermore, I’m in Mexico as a Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellow exploring death. The irony didn’t escape me; Michael C. Rockefeller was lost at sea. 

Eating breakfast at the counter of a market restaurant in Oaxaca

Traditional Oaxacan pan de yema (egg bread) and chocolate

Coming home from the beach and a day stopover in Oaxaca City, I started to think about how to make the most of my time here in Mexico. I’ve been busy doing just that since, hence the lack of blog posts. I’m still interested in the relationship between women, food and death in Mexican culture, but in my December travels I had the chance to see some of the conditions under which a huge portion of the Mexican population lives. To me, the question of how these women live has become more interesting. I can’t ignore the incredible paradoxes and hypocrisy of this country, home to Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, as well as a huge population living under the poverty line. I’ve been looking into microfinance organizations that operate here in Puebla, mainly in the Sierra Norte where the small pueblos are connected to larger communities by single dirt roads that get washed out during the rainy season and the population is mainly indigenous. The women create incredible artisan crafts, including embroidered blouses and shawls, but there is a definite need to connect these women and these communities to a larger market. 
However, knowing that the timeline can be a little slow around here, I also began looking for opportunities in Cholula to work with women, really why I came here. In late January, I found the Estancia de Día, a day center for the elderly providing a reasonably priced daily meal, dance and exercise classes, an instructor teaching knitting and other handicrafts that the “abuelitas” can then sell, medical and psychological services, and generally an upbeat and supportive atmosphere. 

While a few men come, the Estancia is normally full of senior citizen women, knitting, dancing, telling off-color jokes and laughing. It’s a joy to go to work everyday. I’m currently helping Luicita, a 65-year old “señorita” who is in charge of the kitchen and preparing the daily meal, as well as working on a cookbook with the abuelitas’ recipes. The goal is a cookbook that the abuelitas can sell themselves for a profit, as well as being able to share these traditional recipes with one another and with their families. The women at the Estancia are loving, fiery and hilarious. For my birthday, they sang Las Mañanitas and gave me a beautiful flower arrangement and a huge box of Ferrocher chocolates. I felt very loved. Besides working at the Estancia, I've witnessed the Carnival traditions here in Cholula, the parade floats in Veracruz, spent a week in Chilapancingo, Guerrero, witnessed hoards of people dressed in white recharge in the sun at the pyramid on the Spring Equinox, and attended a Cambio de mayordomía (change of caretaker of the church) and the festivities afterwards in the mayordomos' homes. In a nutshell, that's what I've been up to in the last weeks, but a more complete update, and the tamale recipe of course, to come soon. So, without further ado, here is a recipe from Luicita, who I have come to know and love. 
Adobo con pollo desmenuzado
María Luisa Bueno Vargas

1 whole chicken breast
1 K tomato
50 g chile mulatto
1/2 cinnamon stick (preferably Mexican cinnamon, which is larger, looser and less strongly flavored)
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 garlic clove
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 avocado leaves
2-3 tbs. vegetable oil
salt to taste
Boil the chicken breast in water with salt. Once cooked, remove the breast from the broth to cool. Reserve the broth. Separately, boil the cubed potato. Boil the tomato and the chile together until the chile softens and the tomato cooks through, about 10 minutes. Letting them cool slightly, blend the tomato and chile together with the cumin and garlic. Heat the oil and add the blended mixture. The color should develop to a bright red as the adobo seasons. Let the adobo simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Add about 1 liter of the reserved chicken broth. Shred the chicken breast. Add the shredded chicken breast and cooked potato. Let the adobo cook over low/medium heat for another 10 minutes or so before adding the avocado leaves and salt to taste. Cook over low heat for another 5 minutes. Add more chicken broth if necessary. The adobo paste can also be used with steak or chicken for carne enchilada. 
I also love Luicita’s salsas. This one is great for pork tacos. 
Salsa de Coca Cola

100 g dried chile chipotle
3-4 tomatos
1 can Coca Cola
1/2 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
vegetable oil

Fry the chiles with a fair amount of vegetable oil until they almost burn. Remove them from the oil and set aside. 

In the same oil, place the tomatos, cut in halves, the onion and the garlic and cover for 8-10 minutes. When the tomatos are thoroughly roasted, blend the tomato, onion and garlic together with the chiles and half a can of Coca Cola. While blending, add the other half. If necessary, add water until it obtains the consistency of salsa.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

An update on December travels and a horror story.

Continuing the December travels update! Trip number 2 was a return trip to the state of Guanajuato, this time to a small town called San Felipe Torres Mochas. I was invited to come along with a startup ecotourism company called Turismo Mosaico México. They interviewed me in Guanajuato during the callejoneada and I ran into the team again during our one night in Querétaro. We took it as fate and I joined the team for this scouting trip.

View from the window of an hacienda being restored in the area. 

A critical figure in Mexico’s history and cultural legacy, Father Miguel Hidalgo spent ten years as priest in this small town before leading his country to independence. We were able to see his entries of baptisms, marriages and other church proceedings in the records of the parroquia (parish church) dating from the 1600s. It was a really inspiring moment, witnessing the awe on the faces of the Mosaico México team at the sight of Hidalgo’s handwriting and signature. 

Inside the hacienda. Thank goodness the beers later that night were less dusty.

Another highlight included a long night of drinks at our kind host and guide el Ingeniero’s bar Tres Metros Bajo Tierra. I wasn’t the only one to get excited about drinking nine feet under...

What a view. Rahjib agrees. We took an excursion to a cave while in San Felipe.

Another encounter that blew us all away was meeting the archaeologist in charge of a eight-year dig of an incredibly important ruins site near San Felipe, due to be open to the public in September 2010 in time for the Bicentennial. The archaeologist described some of the joys and frustrations about the research and excavation process. His team has worked through hypothesis about the use of this site, which is significant because to this date all prehispanic peoples in the Guanajuato area were nomadic. This large, permanent site could stand to refute or alter this hypothesis.

 Before we left, he brought out some artifacts discovered at the site and due to take up residence in the site’s museum. What a special treat. No one who visits this site starting in September will get the chance to speak so candidly with the head archaeologist, whose blood, sweat and tears are all invested in the project, or see these artifacts except through a thick layer of glass. We were blown away and left on an excitement high. 

Overall, it was a joy to work with the Turismo Mosaico México team, even though they did enjoy making a huge deal out of every bite of food I ate, me being the “food specialist” on the trip. And then proceeding to Facebook tag every photo of every food item I was compelled to eat on camera. Joy. But by far the best part of the trip was getting to know some of the proud residents of San Felipe Torres Mochas, residents who are working hard to show what jewels their sleepy town has to offer. 

After spending a few more days in Guanajuato (I couldn’t pass up staying with a new friend from Mosaico México who lives in my new favorite city), I made it back to Puebla for five hours before heading out with Manuel on an overnight bus to Chiapas on the 15th (trip number 3). I went on a four-day trip to the Selva Lacandona and then spent a couple days in the beautiful colonial city of San Cristóbal before an afternoon at the ancient Mayan ruin site of Palenque. 

Guatemala in the distance

Manuel and I met Alicia through Nico. Alicia is a young twenty-something biologist who rocks a mullet/rocker haircut, is a natural-born storyteller, hysterical and super fun. She is, in short, fantastic, zany and completely invested in her work to save the jungle. I couldn't think of a better person to lead you through the Mexican jungle. This pilot trip to the jungle was run by the non-profit Alicia works for, Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos A.C.  This non-profit works with various ejidos (cooperatives), including the ejido Flor de Marqués, to find alternative means of income to clearing the jungle to make way for grazing cattle or growing crops that do better in the central Mexican climate, saving the jungle while helping the people of the region. 

Around thirty years ago, the Mexican government dropped four families from the central Mexican highlands off in the jungle as part of a larger land distribution policy to start a cooperative and survive as best they could. Doing what they knew best, they cleared some of the jungle, planted corn and beans and started grazing livestock. But, as Alicia explained, the richness of the lush jungle is in the plants and trees themselves. The nutrients exist mainly in the ecosystem, not in the soil which is actually pretty shallow and nutrient-poor above the sandy base underneath. Not the ideal conditions for growing corn and bean crops. So the people are forced to clear more and more land to survive. The biologists of Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos A.C. are working with the ejidos to come up with more sustainable and eco-friendly solutions. For example, one ejido has set up a butterfly farm as both a tourist attraction and a means of creating and selling artesanías after the short lifespan of the gorgeous butterflies is up. 

Luckily, the Flor de Marqués land has suffered much less deforestation than land occupied by neighboring ejidos, making its preservation that much more important. 

After the overnight bus to San Cristóbal, Chiapas, we met up with the rest of the group and then drove five more hours in a van on windy roads through gorgeous, lush mountains and jungle. We finally arrived in Flor de Marqués the afternoon of the 16th. We spent four days camping out on the ejido’s soccer field, spending the days clambering through the jungle and bathing in a fresh jungle stream near camp to wash away the sweat and mud at the end of the day. 

We had the chance to see spider monkeys, loud, angry-sounding howler monkeys, macaws, other beautiful jungle birds and a huge range of flora: bromides, thick jungle vines, spiny trees meant to combat a now-extinct bear, the huge ceiba, and my personal favorite, the matapalo

The matapalo is a tree that grows vine-like branches around a host tree, eventually killing it. The result is an enormous hollowed-out tree made of what looks like fused vines, the ultimate climbing tree and dream tree house. As we clambered up about 20 meters, I definitely had a Robinson Family moment. The ceiba, however, is probably the living thing that most defines this jungle. With its enormous skirt of supporting roots called contrafuertes, its trunk meter upon meter tall, and its branches that extend at the very top of the trunk, so high that when viewed from below you either get a crick in the neck or dizzy, this tree was revered by the Mayans living in the area a thousand years ago. Their religious beliefs actually promoted protection of the jungle. The ceiba contained both the Mayan cosmology and their perception of history and time. The roots, the underworld or the past, the trunk, the earth or the present, and the branches, heaven or the future. You cut down the tree, future and past, heaven and the underworld collapse, destroying the present and the earth. Pretty accurate still to this day. Makes me a little nervous about the Mayan calendar’s prediction of the end of the world in 2012 (just see the movie for the highlights.) 

Baby ceiba

Big ceiba

One sign that this part of the jungle is recovering was the set of jaguar prints we saw on our final day in the jungle. Alicia put it in perspective for us: we had stumbled upon paw prints of a nearly-extinct large cat, a cat that had walked the exact same path we were on, headed to some thermal springs, just the night before. Wow.

More than anything, I enjoyed talking with the people of Flor de Marqués. Guys from the community served as our guides, clambering up trees alongside us and showing us some incredible bat-filled caves in the middle of the jungle. A group of women cooked breakfast and dinner for us, keeping us full despite our larger-than-normal appetites. I was touched because these women had never cooked for anyone outside their families before and were obviously nervous about feeding us. By the time the day we were set to leave rolled around, one of the women held my hand in a group photo. I felt humbled and like I had won the lottery all at once. Because one of the things that made this trip even more eye-opening for me, besides learning about the massive deforestation and seeing the beautiful flora and fauna firsthand, was seeing how very differently these people live. They did not inherit a thousand years of knowledge about the jungle but, instead, had to learn over the past thirty years how to adapt and survive with very little. And seeing the very little interest the fellow campers, mostly young Mexicans fortunate enough to have a university education in the cosmopolitan city of D.F., showed in getting to know these people and about their way of life just underscored the classism and racism still existing under the surface in Mexico. I was floored and felt uncomfortable, trying to lead by example but making no impact on my peers. Instead I decided that this opportunity was one that only Manuel and I could, or would, take advantage of and to make peace with that. But seeing this sort of blatant disinterest in making connections and overcoming barriers in my peers, young, educated Mexicans, diminished some of my hope for a less-discriminatory future for Mexico. Maybe I’m wrong, but it opened my eyes. Not that I didn’t feel the inherent differences between myself and these people from Flor de Marqués, that would be a lie and a too-rosy picture of myself. But the point isn’t to pretend differences in backgrounds and circumstances don’t exist, the point is to try to reach across those differences without suspicion or fear and to make a human connection. That’s why that woman saying, “I’m going to sit right here with you,” for the picture was the highlight of my trip. 

After the return trip to San Cristóbal, Manuel and I decided on a whim to stay a couple more days. The city is an interesting mix of European and indigenous, cosmopolitan but the end-of-the-world as well. Travelers from all over the world come to San Cristóbal as the launching-off place to visit the rest of Chiapas, and many become enchanted with the city and stay for years, creating a market for funky cafés and bars. I can see the attraction. The white-washed colonial buildings topped with dark tile roofs in a misty city surrounded by lush greenery make for a picturesque setting. Add to that the vendors in indigenous dress selling beautifully crafted artesanías, including colorful stuffed wool animals that I fell in love with, textiles, leather, and amber and jade jewelry, and a colorful food market and you know you’ve ended up somewhere very special. 

We extended our trip by one more day to head back to the jungle and the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque. The huge temples and palaces, with more waiting to be excavated, were really breathtaking. I was pretty excited to see the Templo del Muerte. After a few hours exploring the ruins and climbing one-too-many pyramids, we hopped on another overnight bus to Puebla. I walked into my apartment at 8 am on December 23rd, with just enough time to shower and take my clothes to the laundry before heading to the market with Sra. Zanella to shop for the ingredients for her special spinach, bone marrow, and cheese lasagna and Sr. Canal’s stuffed chickens to bring to the ranch on Nochebuena. It felt to come home to my Choluteca family.

I ended up bringing more home from Chiapas than pictures, memories and souvenirs though. The last night in the jungle, Alicia told us she had a horror story to tell. We got excited, having been fishing for some horror or ghost stories the entire trip. (No better way to ensure a good night’s rest than telling horror stories right before sleeping in a tent on a cleared soccer field surrounded by dense jungle full of snakes, jaguars, howler monkeys and other predators, all very active at night to gauge from the enormous racket they make around 3 am.) But no, this was no ordinary ghost story. More like the plot of some science fiction film, maybe Alien vs. Predator. As our eyes widened and our jaws dropped in first horror, then disbelief, Alicia told us about a large fly living in the Central American jungle regions. This fly lays its eggs on the abdomens of normal, pesky but ultimately harmless mosquitos. When these mosquitos bite a mammal, the eggs enter the bite and hatch inside the mammal’s skin. The larvae grows for 8 to 10 weeks, feeding on the skin. The normal mosquito bite lingers and after a few days, a small watery opening at the center of the bite appears. The larvae keeps the bite open with its watery excrement so it can breath. The other sign that you’ve been infected with the bot fly is the sharp, shooting pains a couple times a day as the larvae moves or grows. 

I noticed a few days after coming back from Chiapas on the 23rd that I had a mosquito bite near my bra strap on the side of my back that hurt, still itched and wouldn’t go away. Sure enough, a watery opening at the center of the bite. I thought I got a tiny worm-like thing out while I was at the beach in Oaxaca, but things didn’t improve. Maybe I had twins? Today I finally managed to remove the bot fly larvae, and this time there was no mistaking what it was. Ewwww. Let’s just say I really connected with the jungle, in more ways than one. 

Thanks for joining my horror story hour....only look below if you’re not the squeamish kind.