Do you remember the rules? Maybe they came from your mother, your grandmother, or some other really concerned person. Regardless, they always began with the same refrain… “Don’t drink the water!”
The first time anyone ever mentions they are going to Mexico, everyone around somehow turns into an expert on all things related to this great country. Especially the food and the water.
No water, no ice without holes, no lettuce, no salad, no fruit you don’t peel, and above all, no matter what, under no circumstances, no food from street vendors. Failure to abide by these simple rules will somehow render you useless to society and begging Grandma’s forgiveness as you grip the sides of your personal porcelain bowl and willingly give up your guts in some sort of spasmodic ritual.
At least that’s what we’re all told. Us gringos anyway.
All the stuff was on my mind as I made my way tepidly across the US/Mexico border the first time way back in 1990. I had a little red truck and group of people traveling with me. In the bed of that truck was all the food we’d need for a week and gallons and gallons of clean refreshing water.
Cheerfully we grilled hamburgers, opened bags of Costco [Price Club back then] fajitas, boiled hotdogs and munched on lots of chips and fritos. There was not a single taco in sight and we made sure that as close as we got to local food was the typical ham and Kraft “cheese” on some bread with the name of Bimbo.Thankfully, I’ve learned a few things since my early days in Mexico. I now regularly push people that travel with me to “break the rules” and “get outside of their boxes.” As soon as possible we are sitting at a taco stand, ordering in a local market and trying food sold from those small mobile carts seen all over parks and city squares across Mexico. It’s enough to drive Leroy Jethro Gibbs of the hit CBS show NCIS, and curator of the list of rules, crazy.I still love those incredibly thin ham and “cheese” sandwiches on pan Bimbo, but I’ve left the rules behind. In fact, about the only gringo food you might find me eating while I’m in Mexico is an occasional burger and some fries. Let’s face it, Mexican food, with all its flavors, spice, variety, color and tastes is vastly superior to most of what we call American food. Even the hot dogs, loaded with grilled onions, chopped tomatoes and jalapeños, are better.
Think I’m kidding?
Quick, write down your three favorite American meals. I’ll be surprised if you can even name three quintessential American meals. Ask that question in Mexico and you can’t get an answer because there are simply too many fantastic choices.Tacos, in about a hundred varieties, enchiladas, mole, tlayudas, huitlacoche, chiles en nogada, cemitas, tasajo, tampiqueña, tortas ahogadas and of course those wonderful caldos. Pozole, menudo, tlalpeño and from the Yucatan, lima. And believe me, this is only a scratch the surface list.
Sadly, many people who visit Mexico will never get beyond that surface.
Simply put, Mexico is just too large and diverse a country to experience from an altitude of 35,000 feet. A flyover will never get you any closer to the heart of Mexico than an overloaded bus tour from the beaches of Cancun will get you a real understanding of places like Chichen Itza, Dzibilchaltún or Uxmal.
If you want to live Mexico, tear up the rules! Get to know the people. Eat in the markets. Visit the pueblos. Go see places like Uxmal and Chichen itza, but get there early and stay late. Watch the sun change the way the shadows dance across the ancient structures.
Ride a horse drawn train to the cenotes of the Yucatan and take a dive, literally into some of the clearest water you’ll ever experience. Order the tacos de seso or a quesadilla with squash flowers from a small puesto in a place where gringos never go.
Eat the chapulines, don’t skip the cacahuates japonesa and always ask for the water of the day. Some days it’s melon, others cucumber, but it’s always wonderful and refreshing. You can always have another Coke when you get home.
Listen to the sounds as you walk, even in the large cities. I’ve woven chairs, tried my hand at glass blowing and even worked a pottery wheel simply because I followed my ears to a place that sounded interesting. I’ve roasted coffee, harvested magueys, and cooked corn in steam vents of volcanos. All because I refuse to live by some set of play it safe rules that seem designed to suck all the fun out of life and vacations.
You can lay on a beach anywhere, and if that’s what you want, Mexico has some amazing beaches. But if you want to get off the beaten track, live a little and experience what I call My Mexico, tell your inner Gibbs “No!”… and set out to break the rules.
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