All it Takes is a Few Words, a Few Bites, and a Willingness to Try

As you can see, I am really focused on promoting peace, love and understanding these days. It’s a reaction to all the political maneuvering going on, a lot of policies being changed that are resulting in putting lives at risk, all because some people (too many) live in fear of what they don’t know, what they don’t understand. Even sadder, they don’t even try to understand. They want to build walls around our country, because they have already built walls around themselves.

I keep searching for ways to break through those walls, and the solution I keep coming back to is simply this: connect with others outside of our own culture and language. Connection can mean something as simple as trying to communicate, even if just with a few words. Trying each other’s food, even if just a few bites. Visiting each other’s countries and homes and workplaces. To stop living exclusively in our own comfort zones and be open to seeing that our way isn’t the only way.

I once dated a guy who wasn’t interested in trying new things. For 25 years he has had the same job, lived in the same house, and has eaten at the same restaurants. One of those restaurants is Thai, which is the closest he’s come to visiting a foreign country. He’s a tea drinker so when he took me to the restaurant I asked if he had ever tried Thai iced tea—tea with sweetened condensed milk. No. He didn’t want to. “Come on, it’s only $2,” I insisted. No. No thanks. He’s progressive and caring and supports immigration rights, but he’s just not that open. But openness is what is needed from each of us, as individuals, to really understand each other, and understanding is what we need in order to make progress toward global harmony. A passport would be good too.

I always remember some friends returning from their vacation in Rome, Italy. They were complaining that the sidewalks weren’t straight. WHAT?! Those sidewalks are one of the main reasons you go to Rome, to walk in the steps of ancient Romans on the very cobblestones they laid centuries ago! They also complained about the food. “We got so tired of eating Italian food and all that pasta that we were thrilled to find a McDonald’s at the train station.” WHAT?! I gained at least 10 pounds in a week after eating my way through Italy—oh, the cannelloni! The calzone! The prosciutto! The cappuccino! The gelato! I couldn’t get enough of it. I wish my friends—along with another certain Big Mac-obsessed individual—could open up their worldview and have more appreciation—more acceptance—for life outside of America. To vivere la differenza.

One of the reasons this is on my mind is because I’m not in the USA right now. I’m in Mexico.

Parked at the grocery store.

Last night I was in a grocery store, standing in the coffee section, trying to read the labels and figure out what kind to buy. (I have a coffee pot in my casita.) A large man pushed his way into the section and I stepped back to make room for him. He was clearly on a mission. He was older, weathered from the sun, with gray hair and a jowled face and, from his skin tone, I figured he was Mexican. He was homing in on a brand called La Finca so I asked him in my bad Spanish if it was good. He answered me in broken English, with a French accent—so I started chatting with him in my bad French, and tried to help him find the La Finca espresso beans he was looking for.

Speaking of farms…

I made my coffee in the morning—Café La Finca’s Europeo blend, grown in Chiapas—and I thought of the man in the grocery store. (I also thought of Doug, because La Finca means The Farm. How perfect is that!)

In the afternoon, I finally left my casita for a break after a particularly productive day of writing (I’m making progress on my book!) and rode my rusty rented beach cruiser to the fruit stand a few blocks away.

As I looked around at the produce, not recognizing half the ripe and wrinkly-skinned stuff in there, I had a hard time figuring what to buy—and how to pay for it. (The conversion of dollars to pesos still confuses me.) Finally, when the woman at the cash register had a break in customers, I asked her some questions—in Spanish.

Do you have Oaxaca cheese? Can I buy a small amount, just enough for one person? I will buy it later—what time do you close? What are these juices? What is the white one? The green one? Which one is mango?

She had a slight but constant scowl on her face as I asked one pregunta after another. She was short and barrel chested with black hair that she had tried to dye orange (black hair isn’t easy to color!) and she was wearing a plaid apron or pinafore, I’m not sure which. But she was definitely someone whose bad side you didn’t want to be on.

When I finally paid for a bottle of fresh mango juice I thanked her for her patience with my terrible español. “I’m trying to learn,” I told her, “poquito a poquito.” Oh how I wish our American schools placed an importance on learning other languages, and starting from an early age like they do in Europe.

I smiled extra hard to emphasize my apology—and my embarrassment. And then—que milagro!—she smiled back and said, “Sí, poquito a poquito.”

Her smile melted my heart like butter left out in the Caribbean sun.

When I went outside to unlock my bike, a couple of gringos were walking in. In front was a white-haired woman with sunburnt cheeks as red and round as the tomatoes on display, and behind her was her husband. I recognized him! It was the man from the grocery store. I blurted out—in French—“La Finca café était très bon.” The coffee was very good. My français is as limited as my español, but it didn’t matter because his face lit up in happy surprise.

If I do come back for 2 months, I’ll be in the classroom!

He’s from Québec, he said, not France. And he comes to Mexico for two months every winter. (Which explains why his skin is as brown as a Mexican’s.) “I don’t want to go back to that cold weather,” he said.

“I know! Same here. Next year I want to come back for two months,” I replied.

I finished unlocking my bike and as I tucked my mango juice and bike lock into the bike basket, he pointed to the rusty chain, thick with corrosion from the salty moist air, and asked, “Is that working okay for you?”

Oui,” I said. “Ça va bien. And, anyway, I don’t mind, because I’m in Mexico, it’s sunny, and I’m wearing flip-flops!”

As I pedaled away I waved and said, “Hasta luego!” See you soon. And if it keeps going like this, I probably will.  (And, by the way, the fruit stand closes at 6:30 and I did go back for the cheese.)

My point is that all it takes is a little openness, a little courage and humility—okay, maybe more than a little. But who cares if you don’t know very many words and don’t even correctly pronounce the ones you do know? The fact that you even try is so appreciated. (Think of this the next time someone makes an effort to speak to you in English when it’s not their native language and commend them for their courage.) A few words can go a long way in making a connection and making someone smile. And a smile is the most basic, universal language of life, the first step across the bridge of understanding.

If we all just opened up a little to try to understand each other—to stumble over a few foreign words, to drink the Thai iced tea, to eat the fettuccine, to walk a mile in each other’s shoes—even if on crooked cobblestone sidewalks—the world could be a more peaceful, happier place.

“There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea.”

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

He wrote this—with the word always in all caps—above a newspaper article he had circled in black ink.

He left the paper on the kitchen table knowing I would be down for my morning coffee well after he had left the house to feed hay to his cows, check on the pigs, and attend to his other daily chores.

I always like it when I see his circles of ink on the page. I like the anticipation of discovering what specific nugget of news he wants me to see—something about a new business in the next town, a profile on someone who is using their skills to help those less fortunate, a well-written obituary of someone who led an extraordinary life. I like that he is loyal to the newspaper, having it delivered, still reading it in print instead of online, even though the paper arrives a day late. I like that he is a thinking man, a feeling man, a caring man. He doesn’t outwardly express himself—stoicism is bred into his German genes—but this sharing of newspaper articles tells me he is thinking of me, that he cares for me, that he wants to help me even though he doesn’t know how.

The article he circled this time was in the opinion section, his favorite part of the paper, which he always reads first, before the front page, before the commodity trading prices and weather, before the sports scores. The article was about South and North Korea uniting for the Winter Olympics in Seoul, a rare olive branch extended after 50 years of fighting and a war that cleaved a manmade fault line between two halves of a whole peninsula. After all this time—and all the recent escalating threats of nuclear action—a previously unimaginable union is taking place with both sides walking and competing together under one flag. Even if just for the 16 days of this one event, it signals the possibility of peace, a sign of hope.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

He alone knows the depths of my sadness, the full picture of who I am and how much I struggle to stay balanced, to stay happy, to stay alive. The fun-loving girl in overalls and braids who basks in the country life of apple pies and goats and dog walks through green pastures—this is my curated life in colorful pictures on Facebook, the carefully edited version, the one that gives people a one-sided impression. The wrong impression. Fake news. Yes, I do smile and laugh and make people happy with my homemade pies, but many of my days—too many lately—are filled with despair, weighed down by a lead blanket of Weltschmerz (the German word for internalizing all the pain of the world.) Espresso and my dog’s insulin schedule are my only motivation to get out of bed in the morning, because I wake up tired after sleepless nights, my eyes wide open in the darkness as I pass the hours searching for answers, for meaning, for purpose, for hope. For solutions for how I can save the world.

He is the sole witness to both sides of my Yin and Yang, a black and white circle of life that has become lopsided and leaning too much on the black. He sees my grief—the cumulating losses of my husband, my dad, and even one of my goats—still as raw and festering as an infected stab wound. He listens as I unleash my rage over the state of the world, wailing about the injustices, the unending human rights violations, the suppression of women, the righteousness of the ultra-religious. He remains patient and quiet as I carry on, ranting about the increase of gun violence, the divisiveness of politics, the demolition of our democratic society, the proliferation of hate speech, the dismantling of health care, education and immigration, and the utter lack of respect for the environment and its finite resources. My list of wrongs I want to right is so very long. He leans against the counter, or the wall, or his pillow, biting the inside of his lip, as I cry and tell him yet again how I have lost my faith in humanity, how my heart—already so badly broken—cannot take anymore of this assault and battery. He is at a loss for words, or maybe he has nothing to say. He doesn’t know how to fix this. To fix me.

And then I come downstairs for coffee and see the newspaper splayed open on the table, his pen lying next to it, the familiar scribble of his handwriting.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

I saved the newspaper page. I’ve been carrying it with me for a week. I pull it out of my notebook several times a day and read his sentence, spelled out in his scratchy handwriting, even though I no longer have to read it as the sentence is ingrained in my head. I hear it, the words repeating so often they’ve become the refrain of my personal anthem. And still, each time the sentence forms— punctuated at the end with his nickname for me—my throat tightens. My heart seizes up so hard I feel a rush of hot blood. And my eyes fill up so quickly with tears that I can’t hold them back, the drops leaving water stains on my notebook.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

I am in Mexico this week for a writers’ retreat. I brought the article with me, folded neatly and tucked into my carry-on. I came with two goals: finish my American Gothic House memoir and get a break from the deep freeze of Iowa’s winter (and not necessarily in that order!) I have added one more thing to that list: find hope.

How does one find hope? How can I restore my faith in a humanity that keeps letting me down with its inability—its outright refusal—to get along? Is hope something you can hunt for? Something you can see? Is it tangible? And if you find it, how do you make it last?

My first day here I was walking on the beach, my bare feet splashing through the waves, the sun de-icing my body. I looked up from the sand toward the palm trees and houses and saw a boulder painted with graffiti. The art wasn’t that big, maybe not even noticeable to others, yet my eyes were drawn straight to it. On the rock was a white background with a child’s face outlined in black. Next to the child, painted in red ink, was one word: Hope.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

It had to be a message, a sign.

I didn’t start actively looking for signs of hope. The first days I was still consumed with the stresses of my life back home, of all that I had abandoned in the name of self-care, still carrying the excess baggage of guilt over leaving Doug to take on my responsibilities—of giving Jack his medicine and hauling warm water to the goats. But with each day I spend in Mexico, thoughts of home—along with my Doomsday Clock-watching worries—slough off like the layers of my dry skin, making room for me to take in my new surroundings. With each day my observations of the life around me become more vivid, more frequent, more obvious—observations I’ve begun translating with the same hunger I hunt for words in my Spanish dictionary.

What I am observing, experiencing, finding is esperanza. Hope.

Hope is the gruff fruit vendor who made me wait while he rigged up his grandson’s fishing pole, tying a plastic bag on the end of it and putting a piece of pineapple inside as bait, and the four-year-old, so adorable with his freckles, curly hair and round cheeks, saying, “Gracias, Abuelito.” And how the other customers cheered on the child’s efforts to catch something, his arm—still chubby with baby fat—not yet strong enough to cast the line. And how the grandfather prepared the coconut meat for me after I drank the water from the shell, taking pride in serving it the local way, with salt and pepper, lime, and chili sauce. And how he smiled so warmly when I said, “Gracias, Abuelito.”

Hope is hiking on the trail through the jungle to get to the quieter beach and just as you’re wondering if it’s safe to do this alone, and realizing you haven’t told anyone where you’re going, a Mexican man jogs up the path, dripping with sweat from his workout, and as he passes you he pauses for a second, hands you a tiny sea shell, and says, “For you,” and then keeps going.

Hope is walking to the local espresso bar in the mornings, passing the kids on their way to school, so young and innocent—and sleepy—at 7:30am, dressed in clean clothes, hauling backpacks full of schoolbooks. And reading the outer wall of their school that spans a full block, covered in a hand-painted mural with messages of tolerance, cooperation, honesty, solidarity, and yes, hope. And the satisfaction of understanding enough Spanish to know that “En esta escuela trabajamos con amor” means “In this school we work with love.”

Hope is the shopkeepers sweeping and scrubbing their sidewalks, splashing buckets of water on the steps to make their storefronts look cleaner and more inviting, even when the effect is short-lived in a town with dirt roads.

Hope is eavesdropping on a conversation where a gray-haired expat in an embroidered Mexican dress relays her wisdom to a friend about the value of making decisions with her heart and not her head. (I wanted to butt in and tell her she should run for congress!)

Hope is the regular exchange of smiles and greetings of “Buenos dias” when passing strangers on the streets, whether their skin is brown, white, leathery, or sunburned.

Hope is the bougainvillea blooming with vitality in shades of magenta and orange and purple. It’s the breakfast of fresh papaya picked right off the tree. The morning swim in the sea. The baptism of diving under the waves and tasting the salt on your lips.

Hope is the sun coming up again and again and again, bringing with it the promise that there is still goodness in this world.

Hope is taking a much-needed break from home knowing there is a thinking, feeling, caring man waiting for me back on the farm. And though I love his ink-circled articles and his notes that go with them, I have found that hope is a lot easier to have when you limit your intake of news.

The Search for Pie – San Pancho to Sayulita

It was like a treasure hunt. Upon arrival in San Pancho, Mayte the hotel owner gave me a map. I had just walked through the tiny village and laughed smugly to myself, “This is the last place on earth I could open a pie shop.” To my amazement, there on the map was an ad for Pie in the Sky Bakery.

I wasn’t thinking this trip could be a tax write-off, but now I was all business. I had to find this place.

It’s in another town, Mayte explained, in Bucerias. Because Bucerias is a half hour away and I didn’t rent a car, I determined further research was out of the question.

By my last day here I grew restless and curious enough to at least explore the next town over, Sayulita, famous for its surf lessons. I mustered up the courage to take the bus.

Now if there was ever a question about whether or not I still have the will to live all I needed to do was sit in the front seat of a Mexican bus. During the short but windy 5 kilometer journey the driver careened around the corners as if he was driving a Porsche. It was like in a cartoon where the bus was leaning so far over it was tipping on two wheels — and then around the next curve, like a sailboat tacking in heavy winds, whipping back around to the other side. All this with trucks passing, facing near head-on collisions. Wide eyed with my jaw dropping open I turned around to look at the passengers behind me, to see if they too thought they were about to die. But all I saw was blank impassive faces, as if this was normal. Which, in Mexico, it is. I realized I don’t really want to die. At least I wouldn’t want to take out a whole busload of people with me. However, the grave markers lining the road indicate it wouldn’t be the first time. The driver was laughing, he might as well have been playing a video game. I made a sign of the cross to tease him, which made him laugh even harder. And I thought I was the insane one… But I digress. I was looking for pie.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled upon the sign! Pie in the Sky had a location in Sayulita! I followed the arrow.

I could buy a skeleton print apron. This would be a conversation piece to wear at the National Pie Championships, I thought. But not for 38 US dollars.

I could get a hair cut.

I could buy fruit.

I could have a drink.

Better yet, a non-alcoholic one.

I could adopt a street dog.

Or two.

I could buy a bikini.

And then go surfing.

But I could not find pie.

After 6 blocks I asked around — Donde esta Pie in the Sky? — and learned from a real estate agent that someone used to bring pastries from the shop in Bucerias and sell them from a street cart in Sayulita. No more street cart, but they left the sign there.

No worries. I discovered Panino’s Bakery instead.
And inside an abundance of breads, cinnamon rolls, muffins…and pie. The apple pie looked pie contest-worthy but all I bought was a muffin for tomorrow’s breakfast.

I returned to San Pancho, flagging down the bus to get my ride back. I thought of death again — and how maybe I’m not ready for it — as I jumped back out of its path as it screeched from 60 mph to a halt, kicking up gravel and blowing my hair back. You want to face your mortality? A Mexican bus ride is the way!

One last stop in San Pancho before making the 2 mile walk back to my hotel — the grocery store for more of that amoeba-fighting beverage, Yakult.
At the checkout another surprise awaited. Pie. In my bad Spanish I asked, Esta pay de queso? Yes, the clerk nodded. Cheese pie. I shook my head in disbelief. Pie? Here? Claro que si. Of course.

Clearly when we get “This American Pie” TV series made there will have to be a follow up series: “This Mexican Pie.” From what I’ve seen so far the possibilities for pie — or pay — in Mexico seem endless.

Pie Spotting in San Pancho

It looked like pie. And it sure got my adrenaline pumping to think…could it be….really…here in this tiny little Mexican town….? Alas, it was a crepe stand and the crepe maker cut the crepes in half for some customer to share. I still like to think of it as pie.

And yes, I had a crepe. With Nutella. Yum.

M is for…

(Photo: I is for Infinity Pool.)
I realized when I looked back on my day yesterday that it was full of Ms. My day began as it does no matter where I am, writing in my journal, writing about Marcus, writing to Marcus. In this case I was in Mexico drinking Madomi coffee. This was followed by a massage, after which I was planning to meditate, but my hotel neighbors invited into town for a margarita. (An offer I couldn’t refuse.) After the tequila worked its drug-life effect into my bloodstream I was useless for the rest of the afternoon. It was all I could do just to soak in the hot tub — and, sorry, but as hard as I tried, I could find no M word for that, not even in Spanish.
M is for the madness going on inside my head, angry at life for letting Marcus die and angry for everything else out of my control, like the weather (it was dark and cloudy here yesterday… waaaahhh!), like greed and corruption, pollution and politics, madness that makes me want to burst out of my body.
With my mind working like this, seems that maybe this solo trip to the tropics wasn’t such a good idea after all.
But today is a new day. I just saw a yellow-breasted something or other fly by. I pay more attention to birds since Marcus died, as if he is a bird now flying by to say “I’m still here and I’m looking out for you, so don’t worry so much!” Is my letter for the day going to be Y? Y for yellow like the bird’s feathers and yellow like the sun which is now, thankfully, blazing down? Y for my internal yelling and yammering that ceases to stop? Y for the yoga I should be doing right now to calm down the existential hurricane inside me? Y for the probiotic Yakult I’m drinking to fend off another potential internal battle, that fought in the intestines known as Montezuma’s Revenge?
Or maybe the letter of the day should be I — but not for the insomnia I’ve had every night or the irritability that I wear around like an illness. And not for the Internet that works only intermittently here. I for imagination, illusion, impertinent, intention, independent, industrious, ideal, ingenious, isolation, indulgence, impatience, idiot? No, no, no, no, and no! (Oh, I know what you’re thinking….I is for her insanity.)
I is for one thing today and one thing only. I is for the infinity pool that is about to take over where the salt left off yesterday, another attempt at curing my interminable grief and confusion. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to get my laptop wet.
S is for splash! And renewed sanity, and…..

Enough Pie, Pass Me the Salt

My friend Matt once said to me, “Beth, you’re happiest when you’re baking pies.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know I have been baking a lot of pie lately and it’s not eradicating my grief. How much more fucking pie can I make before I stop feeling suicidal over Marcus’ death?! If you’ve been reading this blog you will also know I have tried other means to feel better: cocktails at Mint/820, a day trip to the Oregon Coast, long hikes in the forest with my dogs, hours and hours of grief counseling, a 2-month road trip in the RV to California and Arizona. Lately, I’ve tried other means as well, like numbing myself with Netflix.

God knows it hasn’t helped that the Pacific Northwest spring weather SUCKS. Even die-hard native Oregonians have been complaining about the rain and cold instead of giving me the normal “Oh, I don’t mind it” responses. (I hate it when they say that!) So on top of my sadness I’ve been S.A.D. — to the point of panic. I need to get OUT OF HERE…out from under the thick, suffocating, soul-crushing cloud layer…NOW….or else!

I tortured myself the entire Easter weekend (when I wasn’t stuffing my face with chocolate bunnies and eggs), spending hours surfing the web for airline tickets to tropical climes. I know what helps and it’s SUN. Period. But I couldn’t justify the expense, and I felt too guilty about abandoning my dogs, so I convinced myself I couldn’t fly anywhere. It didn’t help that one friend suggested my problem was all “in my head,” that I needed to deal with what was on the inside and not run away. And I might try, she suggested, going to a tanning salon. WTF?! I told my brother this and he added, with sweet sarcasm, “Yeah, and you can listen to CDs of wave sounds and tropical birds too.”

The thing is I KNOW MYSELF. I know that the dark and wet climate of Portland is not good for me when I’m already down. So instead of flying south and leaving my dogs, I decided, I would pack up the RV with the pooches and drive south. Again. (It turned out pretty well the last time with the pie TV pilot and all.) Hell, I might even keep going all the way down to Baja California. Or I might drive all the way to Orlando and arrive in time for my judging gig at the National Pie Championships.

I organized my travel gear into piles, ready to load into the RV, and then took a shower. When I picked up my razor and found myself deforesting my bikini line — as if in preparation for the beach — I knew at that moment the answer was not the RV. Fly to Mexico. Go! Get to the sun A.S.A.P.

I bought the ticket at 2PM, called the dog sitter, and was on a flight the next morning at 5AM.
Bleary-eyed at 4AM, walking through the terminal at PDX, I was awake enough to see the signs (literally) that, yes, this was the right thing to do. (See photo above.)

I often quote Isak Dinesen, particularly as an argument against the use of anti-depressants. “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” So, no, I don’t need drugs and I certainly don’t need a *#%*$ tanning bed. I know what I need and I’ve found it. It’s a little piece of salt-saturated tranquility — a room by the ocean with hot sun to warm my bones and a salty sea to swim in to soothe my broken heart.
(PHOTO: We’re not in Portland anymore. Farmers’ Market, Mexican style.)

So, my friends, all this to say, Greetings from San Pancho, Mexico! I’ll be here until next Tuesday. Working on my tan. And my attitude. The thing is, even after being here less than 24 hours, I’m feeling MUCH better already. At least it’s a move in the right direction.

Tragedy Befalls the Pecan Tree

BEFORE
The harvest season is nearing. The pecans were ripening right on schedule (see “Pecans in Progress“) and I was still holding onto my fantasy of being able to pad down the hallway in my bare feet to pluck the nuts off the tree inside our house for my homemade pecan pie (I mean, how much more home-made can you get?!). But disaster struck! First in the form of an almost imperceptible tiny white bug that was causing the leaves to shrivel up and drop, then in a dark brown fungus-like growth that not only covered the remaining leaves but started spreading onto the clay-tile floor. I consulted the manager of the pecan ranch, who happened to knock on the door last week asking if I would sign a petition to stop the Saturday afternoon ATV races on the other side of the ranch. Now I didn’t really mind the ATV races, in spite of the four solid afternoon hours of revving, roaring engines, because at least they were confined to an established track instead of ripping up wilderness areas and terrorizing wild animals, but I signed my name and then asked if he would come inside and have a look at our sick tree.

AFTER
The ranch manager rattled off all kinds of horticultural terms in high-speed Spanish and I just stood there and nodded, clueless. Basically I got that a tree does not belong inside a house, it needs light, and oxygen, and water. I explained to him the tree had survived for five years inside already. Until now. I got his phone number and had my landlord call him to get the full explanation. The next thing I know, Carlos, the landlord’s son, comes over with his pruning tools. And that is the end of my pecan dreams. Well, not really. Because there are about eight hundred more trees outside, including three in my yard, there’s no need to despair. We will still be up to our eyeballs in pecan pie come November.

Also, to soothe our sorrow over the nakedness of the tree, we were assured that the leaves will grow back. “Yeah, like in one or two years from now?” I asked him sarcastically. (We are only here until spring when my husband gets transferred again.) “No, maybe in one month,” Carlos answered. Keeping in mind this is Mexico, where things don’t happen with any sense of urgency, it remains to be seen how the pecan tree will fare. If it was a Type-A New York City variety I might have a little more confidence.

Stay tuned. I will continue to post updates on the progress–of the pecan trees and everything else.

Homemade Tortillas–and VERY Hot Chillis–at Ines’ House

Ines, my Mexican artist friend, invited me over to her house to make (or, rather, watch her doña make) homemade flour tortillas this morning. But what she really wanted is for me to bring my espresso machine and make her one of my famous BIG cafe lattes.
I drove over there with my little Krups machine, made her a triple espresso with steamed milk, but I had arrived too late to see how the tortilla dough is mixed. I inquired as to what I had missed and was told the ingredients are very basic: flour, shortening (actually, “fat” is what she said), salt, and water, simply blended together in a bowl.

I did watch, however, as the tortilla dough was rolled out flat into discs the size of a dessert plate. The tortillas were then fried (but not deep fried, there is very little oil in the pan, if any) on an iron griddle until they puffed up, the layers of dough actually separating, though only momentarily.

The cooked tortillas quickly piled up as, one by one, they came off the grill. They were left to cool, then stacked and bagged in a plastic bag for later use. BUT….some went directly into a basket, kept warm by being wrapped in a cotton towel, and were served with some VERY spicy Huevos! Here is Ines spooning her second helping of the eggs onto her plate. In addition to noting Ines’ giant cup of coffee on the left, note the generous amount of little green pieces scrambled in with the eggs. “These might be a little picante,” Ines warned. “No problem,” I answered. “I’m getting used to the Mexican spices.” I hadn’t even started chewing my first bite when I started screaming for help. “Drink your iced tea! Eat some cheese! Have a plain tortilla!” Ines shouted as I grabbed my burning throat with both hands and tears streamed down from my eyes. I stuffed a tortilla wrapped around a piece of cheese into my mouth and guzzled my whole glass of tea. I didn’t touch the eggs again after that.

Here I am on Ines’ terrace with my dog, Jack, tranquilo again at last after the fire in my throat was extinguished. It was another delightful, if not eventful, time with Ines. She invited me over again this weekend to make Chiles with pomegranates and creamy nut sauce, the dish that was featured in the book (and movie), “Like Water For Chocolate.” I said I’d come, but hold the chillis, please!

(**PS: I want to note that today is September 11, and just because I am living in Mexico doesn’t mean I have forgotten about this day in American–no, world–history. Even Ines brought it up over breakfast. So, this is to say, we are thinking of all those families, workers, friends of friends, all those affected directly or indirectly by the tragic events of that day and we are sending you warm, loving, healing thoughts to all of you from south of the border.)

Real de Catorce: We Came for the Pie, Not the Peyote

This weekend we drove to the town of Real de Catorce–elevation 9,000 ft, population 1,200. It’s a silver mining town-turned ghost town-turned movie set for Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in “The Mexican“-turned up and coming trendy spot for European expats in Mexico. To get there you drive very slowly along a 17-mile-long cobblestone road, then wait at the entrance of the one-way Ogarrio Tunnel, making sure the oncoming traffic of pick-up trucks, horses, mules, and pedestrians has cleared, then proceed 1.5 miles in damp darkness though the inside of a mountain until you reach the town on the other side.

We did plenty of siteseeing on foot, ankles wobbling precariously on hundred-year-old cobblestone paths. Here we are climbing up to The Cemetery where you walk on tombstones (there is no way around them!) to get inside the chapel.

This was followed by shopping. Handicraft booths line the streets selling Huichol (Indian tribe) artwork, like the small square picture sitting on the table, made with yarn and not paint. The Huichol are known as “The People of the Peyote,”eating the hallucinogenic cactus as a way to commune with their gods. Apparently many of the original expats here came to experience this high. As for us, the altitude was high enough. We could barely breathe climbing up the steep sidewalks.

After all that driving, walking, and shopping, finally, we were able to take a break. We found a hip cafe on the corner of Plaza Hidalgo, called La Esquina Chata, run by an Italian who makes a fine espresso. And what did we find on his menu? PIE!!!! (Or “pay” if you read it in Spanish.) We had a piece of the pear and chocolate pie with our cafe lattes. Dee-lis-ee-oh-so!

Refueled with pie and coffee, we climbed back into the car (but not on top of the car like many of the locals!) and headed back to Saltillo.

I’m already looking forward to our next outing–and to discovering where we might find pie next.

Another Pie for the Neighbors

Yesterday I went over to my neighbor’s house to ask if she could recommend a new maid. Ours quit because our floors are too much work to clean. I would have quit too. When I mopped these Saltillo tile floors two weeks ago–3,000 square feet of big clay squares lined by rugged grout–I was so tired I could still feel my sore muscles two days later. And I’m athletic.

I knocked on Marisa’s door and she invited me in for a cup of coffee. No, she didn’t know anyone, but she would drive me down to the agency in a few days. I went to leave and, like some automatic Mexican reflex, she started handing me plastic bags to take home with me–a bag of pan de pulche bread (made with cactus pulp), a bag filled with potatoes the size of cantalopes, and a bag of apples. I am always impressed by the generosity I so regularly experience in this country. But I am still shy about receiving part. “No, please, I can’t take all that,” I protested, especially when I saw there were at least 20 large apples in the shopping bag. She pushed the apples back at me, insisting I have them. I realized I was insulting her by not taking them so I said, “Okay, then if I take all these apples, I am going to have to make you a pie.” To which she responded with a sly grin, “That is what I was hoping.” What a clever woman.

Marisa knew about my apple pie as I made one a month or so earlier, as a belated birthday present for her husband. (We had been invited to his birthday fiesta at the last minute and thus had shown up empty-handed.) My pie plate was returned two weeks later, washed and filled with Dulce de Leche caramels, a locally made candy. But there was no indication as to whether or not they actually liked the pie.

I lugged my produce-filled bags across the lawn back to my house and a few minutes later someone knocked on the door. It was Fatima, Marisa’s maid. Marisa had sent her to clean my house, “but just for today,” Fatima said. I wanted to protest again, but my tile floors were in desperate need of mopping, so I said, “Sure, come on in.” Not just a clever woman, but an exceptionally thoughtful one too. We don’t interact often and I was learning a lot more about her than just the fact she drives too fast down our quiet street.

This morning, in my freshly cleaned house, I got to work first thing on that apple pie. Marisa wasn’t home when I delivered it, still bubbling hot, but her teenage son was. “This is for your mom,” I said. He replied with a big smile, “She loved that pie you made before.” He shut the door and as I walked away I heard him yell, “Hey, we got a pay de manzana.” And I heard whoever else it was in the house yell back, “Yeah!”

A clean house, healthy food that will feed us for a week, and some pretty fine neighbors who appreciate pie. Life in Mexico is good.