Wise Cook

There was something trusting about the way that everybody slept on the night bus from Huatulco to San Cristobal. Upfront, the driver listened to romantic Mariachi songs for all ten hours of the drive, while behind him slumbering bodies were curled up and draped every way over the seats. Cáli and I were amazed to see a replacement driver emerge from a tiny cabin next to the luggage hold where he had been sleeping. There was an air grill so that he could breathe.

Pilar was waiting for us at our rented house with a huge grin on her face. ‘Welcome, welcome! You are going to love it here!’ The adobe house was in a courtyard behind a gate not far from the centre of San Cristobal. I was excited to see that we had a small fireplace and a stack of wood to burn in the evenings.

We hadn’t put our suitcases down before she was suggesting a trip to stay in a cabin in the country with some friends of hers. ‘You should come. It’s going to be great and you are going to love it. We’ll eat by the fire and walk to a waterfall. But I’m leaving in five minutes. You want to come?’

’Sounds great. How about tomorrow?’ I said, feeling my weariness after the journey. Cáli and I exchanged looks. ‘No, no, tomorrow is too late. I was supposed to have left fifteen minutes ago.’

Ten minutes later we were on the back seat of Pilar’s car, squished up against bags of food, jammed against a great coffee urn and some blankets, while other bags spilled over with flutes and shakers, ribbons and children’s toys. Pilar thrust spoons and pots of yogurt in our hands along with some biscuits, which added to the feeling of being a kid going on some holiday without quite knowing the destination. Pilar’s teenage son sat in the front. He was as silent as she was talkative. Words spilled out of her in florid torrents, sometimes in English and then when she got particularly enthusiastic she switched to Spanish. She even managed to interrupt herself. ‘So many topics, so many histories!’ After a stolen doze in the back, we arrived at her friends’ place in the mountains. We said hello to five friends, their three children and our hosts, Antonio a geologist, and his wife, Maria de Guadalupe. Her full name consisted of about ten names which is why she was known as Lupita. A table was set up in the shade of a tree, tortillas unpacked, a pot of steaming beans was produced along with omelettes and roasted green pueblano chillis doused in lime. We drank black coffee from paper cups and ate breakfast together as Antonio, a kind and intelligent man, told the story of how he met Lupita. He first set eyes on her where she lived in the jungle as a widow with her two young children and it was love at first sight.

Pilar clapped her hands in excitement. ‘How I love romantic histories!’ When he told the bit about how they flashed sunlight off mirrors so that they could find each other in the wilderness, Pilar couldn’t contain hersel; she leaped from her seat and made an impassioned stomp on the earth before sitting down again. ‘That is sooo romaaantic!’

As we got our beds ready in the cabin, Pilar told us to meet the other campers at dawn because she wanted to do a goodbye ceremony for Antonio and Lupita as they were shortly leaving for New Zealand on sabatical. ‘I want everyone to participate,’ she said, shaking a rattle above her head. I thought I detected an eye roll from Lupita. Both Cáli and I were exhausted, longing for sleep and Pilar’s enthusiasm was beginning to grate; it now felt more like desperate hyperactivity. It was a relief when everyone left the cabin so we could go to bed. Cáli and I agreed we would get up when we woke up, dawn or no dawn, ceremony or no ceremony.

It got very cold at night. We were at over 2000 metres of altitude and the cold air whistled between the boards of the cabin as we shivered on our lumpy mattresses, despite sleeping fully dressed under our blankets. When we awoke we were of one mind. We would make our way back to San Cristobal after breakfast and leave the friends to their celebrations. We had got swayed off our course, and over breakfast it was becoming evident that there was some tetchiness brewing amongst the friends, that they weren’t quite as close as we had thought. 

We walked over to visit Julieta and her family, neighbours to Lupita and Antonio. They lived in two bamboo huts: one was a kitchen with a fire burning on a waist high fireplace which Julieta tended, burning slim branches and dried corn husks; the other was where the family slept, and it was also where they kept their scythes and animal feed. The family invited is into the kitchen. There were a couple of small benches where Julieta’s husband and son were eating their breakfast of plantains and tortillas with coffee. The door was open and the son, a grown man wearing a leather cowboy hat, was caressing his favourite cockerel and feeding him tidbits. Julieta moved easily and efficiently about her kitchen as she made nopales in a frying pan on the fire. The cactus was trimmed of its spikes and sliced into fingers, fried in a pan and sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of lime. It was fresh and sour and had the slippery consistency of okra.

Ranged upon a couple of shelves, Julieta had everything she needed to hand and yet nothing more. Plastic bags and utensils were stuffed between the gaps in the bamboo walls. Julieta emanated sane goodness, the essence of which I can only compare to the most delicious tostadas I have ever tasted: golden, toasted tortillas made with home grown corn, roughly ground and cooked by Julieta on her fire. The taste was warm and fragrant and nourishing. It stayed with me all day and I think it shall stay with me much longer.

Next to the huts was a substantial altar, with statues of Jesus and Mary, family photographs and offerings of flowers, candles and husks of corn. Beyond the huts, the family grew vegetables, corn and nopales cactuses. A couple of dogs roamed around. Another was tied up and barked at us. We fed the breakfast leftovers to the chickens and turkeys, while pigs squealed in their sties, and rabbits and guinea pigs spread themselves out on the earth and panted in the shade. 

A look of curiosity crossed Juileta’s face when Cáli and I told her that we had travelled from Europe and from Brazil. ‘Muy lejo,’ she said thoughtfully - very far away. She was planning to catch one of the rabbits and cook it for dinner that day and she looked disappointed when we told her that we would be leaving on the bus for San Cristobal soon. I got the feeling she was enjoying sharing her kitchen with us. Cáli and I were also sad to leave her, yet it was time to make a move back to our base. 

Before Pilar would drive us back, she insisted on a group photo. But first of all she wanted us to shut our eyes and breathe deeply, ground ourselves, stretch this way, then that way, look down, bend our knees, connect with positive energy and think of something that would make us very happy. I went with the first thing which came into my mind which was a fervent longing for this extended photo shoot/workshop to be over as soon as possible.

’That woman has so much energy, she should find some chickens to herd!’ said Antonio afterwards,

We loved our days in San Cristobal surrounded by wooded mountains and the smell of woodsmoke in the cool night air, and the silvery sleigh bell sound of the gas bottles ringing against each other in the delivery truck running through the streets. We spent many hours in shops and markets buying clothes. We admired exquisite embroidery and woven cloths in the textile museum. More about the those to come soon.

Before we left, Pilar came round to the house with three bottles of Pox, (pronounced ‘posh’) a feisty liquor made from corn and sugar cane. Each bottle was flavoured with different fruits and had different properties. Pilar told us that it was medicinal and had been used by the Mayans for thousands of years in ceremonies. ‘It’s very sacred. We must try them all.’ She told us that she hadn’t much enjoyed the day with her friends on the walk and that now she was going to spend a few days by the sea and take care of herself and her cough. She had spread herself too thin. She shed a few tears and so did we and then we all toasted each other with the Pox, drinking to our dreams and our good wishes for our futures, our friends and our families and then we had hugs all round. We left her, feeling warmed, slightly more patient and just a little tipsy.

 

 

 Julieta cooking nopales on her fire   

Julieta cooking nopales on her fire

 



 Julieta cooking beans  

Julieta cooking beans  

 The family altar  

The family altar  

 Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too. 

Nopales cactus. Good for inflammation and for the stomach too.