MEXICO CITY: Tlacoyos & Tequila

I woke up earlier than usual, and I was immensely proud of myself. “Today is going to be the day that I see and do great things with the sun,” I proclaimed boastfully to the cats in the courtyard. They looked for the treat package in my hand and came scurrying over. I’m sure that even without treats, they would have been excited for this development in my circadian rhythm. I might actually get out of the apartment before noon, I thought excitedly.

I went inside and got ready for the day and promptly fell asleep. I woke up to the ringing of church bells across the road at one o’clock in the afternoon. I was livid, but I quickly got over it. I don’t feel as if I’m a highly advanced emotional being, reader, so that is not what I’m trying to get at here, but I have certain personality traits that I don’t think are common. I always make the best of every situation, no matter what it is. I might be gloomy for a spell, but I refuse to let anything rob me of happiness. What’s the point in that? It’s just a waste of my own time, it’s like shooting yourself and wondering why it hurts. And I don’t mingle with people who make me unhappy or unsatisfied. Once again, why bother with them? They will do nothing but drag you down. So, even though I had slept the entire morning away, and I was frustrated with myself, I didn’t let it ruin my day. There were still wonderful things to do.

Muscle memory took me back to the Mercado de San Juan. Immediately I bought an agua fresca, this one was a delightful and unexpected combination of hibiscus and mint. I didn’t think that would work, but reader, let me tell you something, it worked just fine. Sipping on my delicious juice, I meandered through the mercado. The fruit man recognized me and gave me a firm handshake and started chatting away. I could only pick up a bit of what he said, but I was so touched that he remembered me.

Of course this is how you run a successful stall in a market, but it was wonderful. Felt a bit like Paris or going to the Veggie Grill in Los Angeles on Fairfax. I went there so much when I spent the summer in Hollywood that they prepped my meal while I was still in line. I loved that place. Miss it tremendously. Or like when I went to Villefranche-sur-mer every afternoon and Madame Betty poured me a cold glass of rosé the instant she saw me walk in her café. I miss all those people and all these places. In fact, missing things might be the only unpleasant part of travel. Abroad, your existence is transitory; you are an ephemeral presence in another world. I think of these encounters daily, like the waitress at the Café Saint-Antoine that I adored, but they’re surely too busy living their lives to recall a young man who spent a month on their shores. Still, it’s wonderful to have that to remember and reflect on.

Laden with grapes and nectarines, I marched on, procuring cheeses and breads and pastries. I explored the meat area just to see it. I only eat fish on rare occasions, so it’s not as if I was giving up on vegetarianism. I was simply curious to see what was for sale. I certainly did see a skinned dog, which was perturbing, but I have never been the biggest dog person, so my heart didn’t ache for it as much as it did the actual lion meat or crocodile meat. I can’t believe those are there. Why would anybody want to eat a lion? Even when I was a carnivore, there was no force of nature that would ever make me eat an endangered animal. The thought is repugnant. Lions are so beautiful and exotic and rare. What could drive a person to take a piece of their thigh and cook it up like it was a common cow? I mean, cows are always deserving of all the happiness in the world, but they are far from an endangered species. In fact, there are so many cows on earth that the methane gas they produce is causing a bigger impact on global warming than car exhaust. Isn’t that wild?

I finished my shopping elsewhere, grabbing some gorgeous eggs on the way out before heading back to the apartment. I stopped at a little tienda to grab bottled water for my coffee and was soon feasting on eggs and bread and cheese and bad wine and coffee. It was my kind of luncheon. I was truly living my very best life.

I didn’t have all day to wander, but I did have plenty of time before sunset, so I determined to go to an exhibit that I had seen advertised the day before.

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Right next to the Templo Mayor is a museum called the Palacia de la Autonomia that had a temporary exhibit devoted to the supernatural creatures that fill us with terror. I was absolutely sold on this, so once I tidied up the apartment, off I went, ready to face demons and witches and my beloved vampires.

This kind of thing suits me right down to the ground. I’m a very normal person, I feel, but the macabre has always fascinated me. Not the serial killers or cult leaders or things like that, but I absolutely adore ghost stories and tales of the undead. I quite firmly believe in the supernatural, though I’m not a fanatic about it. And I’m certainly not militant as some people are. I just think there’s more out there than what is apparent. In my life, there’s reason enough to believe this — for example, I am more than firmly convinced my home has one spectral resident. But we shan’t get into that right now. It’s a tale for another time, but let’s just say it involves keys, moving chairs, a haunted Christmas ornament, and a shadow. That was a night.

The exhibit was easy to find now that I had the area better mapped in my mind. It was only fifty pesos to enter, and I was soon in cramped quarters looking at what was basically a waxworks exhibit of all the things that strike fear into the hearts of mere mortals. It began gently enough with giant animals that our ancestors had been terrified of, though they are long extinct now. This  did nothing for me. I am no fan of humanity’s incredibly distant past. I care nothing for the times before civilization dawned in the Fertile Crescent.

Soon more horrible creatures appeared, werewolves, witches, zombies, and other anthropomorphic monsters. This was all well and good, but the last chamber delighted me most. This room had DRACULA. You know by now that I have like a crush on Dracula. Not on the actual vampire, because I really don’t think a relationship with the undead corpse of Vlad Tepes would be rewarding emotionally, I just love the idea of being a vampire. I talk about this all the time, so I won’t type it out again. I just want to live forever.

Other rooms were filled with creepy creations that I had never before heard of. The one that stuck with me the strongest is a human looking thing that had no legs. She had been cut in half around her stomach, and her vertebrates and veins trailed grotesquely after her. Leathery wings covered her back so that she could fly about the Philippines in search of pregnant women. When she found one, she would thrust out a bizarrely long tongue that shot down the woman’s throat. The end of the tongue had a spike that would impale the unborn baby and allow the monster to drain the blood out of the fetus. Then the creature would retract her tongue and fly off in search of her next meal. This was a folkloric creation that explained why some people suffered stillbirths and miscarriages. It was awful. I think about it all the time.

For me, a particularly intriguing display was about the creatures that the people of ancient Mexico feared. The Aztecs were terrorized by a skeletal pregnant woman. They allegedly believed that if a woman were to die during childbirth, she would come back and haunt the temple of her hometown. I couldn’t figure out what she did other than look frightening. But that might have been enough.

The exhibit had a gift shop, so I bought myself a mug so that I could remember this creepy time every morning while I sipped coffee. It was a sensational time.

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As I left the museum, I noticed a free exhibit about an architect, so I decided to take a moment to visit. I’m very glad that I did. This architect was famous for a building he designed for a Middle Eastern Royal in the desert. It was, get this, called the Winter Palace. I cackled and daydreamed about the weeks I’ve passed in that magical hotel on the Nile. This palace wasn’t the same one, but the photos of it were absolutely beautiful and I was inspired again about my future Luxor retirement villa. And there were photographs and models of camels, so I was obviously deeply in love.

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Outside of the museum, I saw a man flipping odd blue-green ovals. They smelled intoxicating, and I watched him for a spell. Emboldened by my eternal starvation, I asked him in rotten Spanish if whatever these were, were vegetarian. They were, so I ordered one at once.

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Reader, this street dish was called a tlacoyo, and I absolutely lost my mind over it. It was a sensation, I will endeavor to explain it. Retried beans and cheese are mixed and put inside a thick blue corn tortilla. If you have ever had an El Salvadoran pupusa, you will know what I’m getting at. Instead of a circle, these are shaped into an oval and cooked on an incredibly hot griddle. When charred, the tlacoyo is topped with green salsa, more cheese, and nopales. Nopales are pickled cactus, and though that was not something that I ever considered eating, it turns out that they are lovely. The entire dish cost eighteen pesos and was worth every one of them. I was so happy.

Finishing this, I made it out to the Templo Mayor and decided that I should try every street food I could find. I enjoyed elote, but only had it once. I’m not really a huge fan of corn on the cob, but covered in mayonnaise and cheese and spice, it’s really quite good. I have no idea what the other thing I had was called, and it wasn’t fabulous. A massive tortilla chip was covered in beans, salsa, and more napoles. It sounded good in theory, but when I bit in, it was just not entirely satisfying.

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Took a break in the Cathedral Metropolitan. So beautiful.

Stuffed to bursting and with the sun starting to sink into the horizon, I decided that it was time to visit the Plaza Garibaldi and listen to the mariachi bands…and make an important visit to the Tequila Museum. That’s a real thing, reader!

I took a few moments to rest back at my apartment and fed Bitch Cat all the treats she could ever desire. She was unimpressed.

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The walk to the museum was, as all walks in a foreign place are, wonderful. My senses overwhelmed by sights and sounds, I drifted dreamily down the Calle Simon-Bólivar. The strumming of guitars and the melodic bleating of trumpets heralded my arrival at this popular destination. The Plaza Garibaldi is renowned for its mariachi bands. It seems that any group that desires to strum a guitar and sing Mexican classics can be found here. I was a bit early, for the nightlife doesn’t begin until much later, but there were still a few groups tuning their instruments or warming up with “Guadalajara.” With strings of light illuminating the cafes and shops surrounding the square and statues of famous icons in Mexican history all over the place, the setting could not have been more serene.

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The Tequila and Mezcal Museum was directly opposite the entrance to the square, and I was more than excited to pay the entrance fee and make my way upstairs. The building is fairly new and not huge, but the displays in the exhibit were fantastic. One wall was completely covered in every bottle of tequila and mezcal that you have ever seen. Looking at the different labels, from the oldest to the most recent, from the beautiful to the absolutely bizarre, I decided that I needed to drink more tequila. I always like it. Tequila makes me happier than any other cocktail ingredient. Not sure why.

Along the opposite wall were dioramas displaying how these alcoholic beverages are made and what the history was of the distilling process. I never realized I didn’t know how tequila was made. The leaves are stewed and fermented and then distilled more and more until a delightful alcohol is produced. I also never realize that I didn’t even know that mezcal was a thing. It’s just a different form of agave, but is smokier flavored. The displays go to great length to explain these differences, but it is, of course, impossible to differentiate without a taste testing. Wisely, the museum offers this.

A little booth that looks like a wagon is at the end of the exhibit and a very friendly duo serves you up a shot of tequila and mezcal with lemon and salt. They tell you all about the drinks you are about to have and the proper way to drink them. The tequila was simple enough, you just drink it. Mezcal was utterly different. The man guiding me through the tasting wasn’t super fluent in English, so we were talking in charming Spanglish and a lot was lost in translation, but he informed me that to drink mezcal, you must “give it little kisses.” Adorable, I thought, but immediately wondered how one is supposed to kiss a liquid. When doing it, though, this makes sense. You take little sips of the liquid and it is utterly different and much better than tequila. It’s smoky and delicious and goes down smoothly. Eyes wide, I finished it and was glad to be informed that the museum also had a bar to sample other varieties!

An elegantly dressed older woman that looked like an aged Frida Kahlo led me to a table overlooking the plaza and left me with an extensive menu of drinks to choose from. I was so taken by mezcal that I knew I had to try one. I had one called Lobos, which means wolves in Spanish. With a bit of guacamole and these delicious fried wheel chips, I spent the most magical hours overlooking the plaza.

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It was dark and the people were all in high spirits below. More mariachi bands than I could ever properly tell you were filling the plaza and the variety of songs blended together in a fantastic cacophony. I slowly sipped my mezcal, scooped my guacamole, ordered more mezcal (its served as a large shot, so don’t worry about me) and found that I could not stop smiling. I was so happy.

People here, I determined, live better lives. They are allowed to engage in their passions and their vices without letting them consume their lives. I found this particularly remarkable. In America, we have guilty pleasures and everything is supposed to make us feel bad about ourselves. We can’t enjoy anything unless it’s saintly. In Mexico, I didn’t feel shackled by these same restrictions. If you wanted more tequila, good for you, treat yourself. If you wanted to dance in the park, by all means go. If you simply desired a wander through the museum, do it. If you want to stay up all night and sing, please do. That acceptance is marvelous and somewhat intoxicating. It is, in fact, decadence. This, like most every country I visit, is what allures me.

Quality of life is a topic that I’m very interested in. National Geographic just had an article about cultivating happiness and the places around the world where this is more successful. The United States had a sad face, México had a happy face. It makes sense. I crave a better quality of living. It’s not as if I’m homeless or destitute or addicted to drugs or anything, but there is a poisonous sterility to American life. In France and Egypt and Italy and Mexico, this is a foreign concept. Life is yours to lead and you should enjoy it. I have been spoiled by this mentality and whenever I find myself coming home to America, I am more removed than I ever was before. I don’t feel like I’m in my own skin most days here, but abroad, I’m at my best and most honest. That was another ramble. Sorry.

On the way out of the Plaza Garibaldi, I noticed a sign offering pulque, another traditional agave-based drink. I had already had the other beverages that issued forth from the distillation of this plant, so it was obvious that I needed to sample the trifecta that night.

I stopped in the tiny bar and ordered a glass of the natural flavored pulque. This was my first mistake, but I wanted to give the drink a chance in its untempered form. Pulque is created when the stalk of the agave plant is removed and the sap that pools in this cavity collects. Pulque makers siphon off this liquid and allow it to ferment until it is lightly alcoholic. It’s white in color and looks alarmingly like skim milk. I stared at the glass I was given for quite some time, all the other patrons of the pulque bar watching me bemusedly. I took a sip. Too small. I took a bigger sip. Nope. That was not something that I wanted. The liquid was slightly warm, tangy, and had an unsettlingly slick consistency. This was repulsive on the palate, but I finished before the contents erupted from my stomach. Not a fan at all. The barman was not at all surprised by this and gave me a sample of guava flavored pulque to convince me that they aren’t bad. This was so much better, reader, and the fruit masked the bizarre flavor of the natural pulque. The only thing it couldn’t fix was the texture. I love nearly everything about Mexico, but that’s something I don’t plan on adopting in my life.

I needed to get the taste of the pulque out of my mouth, so I stopped at one of the many vendors that line the street. To my shook and delight, I found that there were roasted pumpkin seeds for sale. If you read my other blog series on this website, you know what a passion I have for these. It’s bordering on addiction. For five pesos, I bought myself a wondrous paper bag full of salty seeds. It was divine.

The streets were no longer crowded and the hour was late. Darkness reigned and imbued me with incomprehensible peace. “Is this heaven,” I wondered to myself ridiculously. And the answer was no, this was Mexico.

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