Guatemala stop-over

It was the Wednesday night of semana santa, and I’d crossed the Guatemalan border the evening before. I wasn’t sure what I’d find or where I’d stay, let alone how I’d feed myself. It’s official. I’ve become a lazy traveller.

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I landed in Huehuetenango. It’s about 2.5 hours by bus from La Mesilla, the less-than attractive border town beside Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. And after asking a taxista where to stay and then immediately not taking his suggestion, I tracked down a quiet hotel at the edge of town.

As it turns out, crossing the Guatemalan border at night isn’t the best of ideas. Not knowing the currency exchange rate is even stupider. But that’s a story for another time. And everything’s okay now, right? So after defusing with a 5-hour nap, I woke up starving and desperate for a bite. I trekked back toward the plaza principal, where I’d wandered aimlessly that morning, this time with a better idea of where to eat.

But I didn’t expect to find a full-blown festival. Every woman in Huehuetenango was out with her own stand or tent, grilling, frying, and flipping foods. I sat down for the first thing I could find resembling vegetables.

It’s called chorizquito,” one woman told me, laughing. I’d already finished the tiny styrofoam plate. “But yours is sin carne.” Chorizquito without the chorizo? So that’s what I’d just scarfed down.

A chorizquito sin carne is a thick, small white corn tortilla slathered with refried beans. It’s topped with pickled cabbage, two grilled green onions, a piece of boiled yellow corn, salsa roja, and two halves of a small golden potato. Then it’s closed up like a sandwich with another tortilla– this one covered in mayonnaise. Somewhere in there, there’s supposed to be an enormous serving of sausage. In Guatemala just like in Mexico, food vendors are happy to alter a dish to make it vegetarian. It’s just that on their part, it’s practically required that they laugh at you in response.

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How the hell are you supposed to eat this? It looks like a tortilla sandwich but is impossible to pick up. I’d watched the old guys at the foldable table beside me. They took off the top layer and used that thick tortilla to grab hold of each vegetable, like a utensil in of itself. Full from one, chorizo-free chorizquito, I wandered around the feria while the sun went down and other vendors set up.

Feria isn’t festival, they’ll tell you. It’s just feria: a mix between a block party and a state fair. No government agency has funded it; taxpayer quetzales aren’t at play. Instead, the feria emerges from the community. Anyone who knows how to prepare something out of anything is out here cooking it. Plastic “tupper” containers crowd card table tops. The lids practically burst from too many contents. Roasted potatoes. Slaw. Pickled carrots. Salsa roja. Salsa verde. More salsas. Chicken wings, chicken thighs, chicken feet. Tamales piled so high in wicker baskets that they threaten to burst from the woven blankets that swaddle them and trap heat. Steam sneaks through the cotton folds.

I returned to the same coffee shop I’d visited that morning upon finding myself lost in Huehuetenango. It’s called Monte Alto, and it’s possibly the only reliable source of WiFi in town. It’s a chain pasteleria where the counter servers wear puffy red fabric bakers’ hats.  From the same corner table by the sidewalk, I’d reserved a room at La Chacra de Joel Hotel, and then booked it across town to check-in and immediately take my all-day nap.

The atmosphere in Monte Alto has shifted since the early, boiling morning. Now, the temperature has cooled. The lights dim, rock music blares, and flowers occupy each table where before only existed sugar. The evening counter girl is young. Her eyeliner is winged at the sides, piped with a precision that matches the elaborate cakes in the display case beside her. Delicate dark chocolate slivers are stuck in the edges, leaving puncture wounds when they threaten to fall. The girl rests her elbows on the counter, flirting with an officer. The bright yellow letters on his bullet-proof vest read, PNC.

From the edge of the cafe, I watch the feria emerge like dress rehearsal where only parents are welcome. It smells like fire, gas, oil, grease, and salt. Two grown sisters swat one another with styrofoam plates before they use them to fan the flame. It’s a family affair; business isn’t taken too seriously.

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Women deck foldable tables with cloths: patterns of sunflowers and marigolds, red diamonds like playing cards. A thin woman with a ponytail lifts a green tub onto her head. It’s enormous– large enough to bath a golden retriever. The tub holds another afghan-sized blanked, bundling up something secret and steamy. She dashes off. It’s almost time to go. I anticipate someone parading with a megaphone. But no one arrives to shout ” Lights” nor “Action.”

Guatemala doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time. It’s nearly 6:30 already– only a half hour of sun remains. Cotton candy clouds blur with the poles that carry sugary treats stacked half a story high. A man selling blue bundles of soft sugar drifts to the far corner of the plaza principal. 

Six teenaged girls line up for photos, pulling selfie sticks from their aprons as they set up their own food stand. Three tables form a frame  around their group. They dance around, unpacking ingredients, already washed, peeled, sliced, and marinated. Pride sifts out. That powerful feeling of creating something that you know is delicious, beautiful, or satisfying. With no mamás in sight to help, they pose for photos in front of their crates and baskets of prepped creations, ready to sell.

Something’s brewing in Huehuetenango, and I only have a moment to taste it.

 

 

san cristobal de las casas

San Cristobal is magic. That’s what everyone had said. The colonial city overflows with spirits, hot food, fog, and brisk evenings. I knew Mexico was haunted. But as it turns out, it can also be shockingly cold. Naturally, I hadn’t done my research. I’d brought shorts and one sweater.

The colonial city was built in the 16th centry. While its Spanish charm still rings loudly, navigation is easy; tourism has taken root. Streets are cobblestone and buildings are vibrant yellows, pinks, and blues. Soft celestes and whites cover chapel exteriors. Flossy blouses and embroidered house dresses stack to the ceilings of market stands. Antique huipiles run at tourist prices, each one a work of art. San Cristobal is a pueblo magico, officially– a preserved, recognized historic town in Mexico. The architecture is charming but simple: two-story buildings, arched windows, too many churches.

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Upon tracking down my hostel (that’s Puerta Vieja, which I can’t recommend enough), I stopped in Doña Ame Tamales. The restaurant is located on Calle Diego Mazariegos, just three blocks from the zócalo. At 12 pesos for a café americano and 14 to 16 pesos for a tamal, it’s a cheap breakfast for a traveller’s town. They even offer vegetarian and vegan options. (I told you it was touristy).

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Later in the afternoon, I took a break from Mexican food. I was thrilled to find a Salvadoran restaurant in town. It’s a mother-and-daughter run pupusa cafe. Pupusas are a traditional dish in El Salvador. To make a pupusa, you start with a ball of masa dough the size of a baseball. Then, carve out an indentation, as if you’re forming a shallow bowl or the start of a pinch pot in a middle school art class. Fill the masa dish with beans and cheese (or chicken– whatever you want), and seal up the ball again so that it’s filled like a cream puff. Flatten the ball like a thick pancake (or small tortilla) so that the filling stays inside. Fry that up on a griddle, flipping like a pancake. And then top the pupusa fresh slaw and salsas.

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Although I’d eaten pupusas with my hands in the Ignacio Ellacuria community while I was visiting El Salvador five years ago, I gathered that that wasn’t so acceptable in a city. Using a fork and knife (because you’re a proper lady), slice into the pupusa, and savor the soupy black beans inside. The tangy slaw adds a contrasting flavor to the savory, creamy pupusa. It’s crazy how one meal, like a good book, can transport you to a time and a place. Like baking quesada, a Spanish cheesecake, in a Boston apartment while working (for free) for a recipe site. Or crimping Argentine-style baked empanadas in a friend’s kitchen in Texas, recreating what had been our daily lunch for six months in Buenos Aires. I might have just spent 14 hours on a bus passing through southern Mexico, yet with one bite I’m back in tropical, mountainous El Salvador. No place seems too out of reach.

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Despite the obvious backpacker status, San Cristobal hasn’t lost its charm. It feels old. This is the city that Sandra Cisneros visited when she set out to write her second book, tapping away on a type writer at a secretary school, sitting beside women working toward an opportunity for escape from their present life. Employment.

I’d just taught The House on Mango Street to my 10th graders in Tehuacán. The book feels different every time I re-read it. And I chose this trip to break open Cisneros’ new nonfiction collection, A House of My Own. It’s funny to read about one of your favorite writers travelling to a place you are literally travelling to in that moment. She calls Chiapas “Mayan country” where the women where huipiles, the woven tunics that precede Colombus, and where the people smell of leña, that mix of smoke and wood. Cisneros wrote her book of poems, Loose Woman, in this town, in 1985. Thirty years later, her descriptions are picture-perfect. She describes the used, worn huipiles that are sold on side streets. “By pulling the garments inside out,” she writes, “I could read their history.”

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You go to San Cristobal for the stories and the adventure; the place is filled with voices. It’s the hub for daytrips to the cañón de sumidero, to the towns of chiapas del corzo and comitán de dominguez, and the breathtaking blue of the cascading water at el chiflon. But you’ll want to stay in San Cris for the way the sun beats on the golden-yellow buildings at midday and the coziness of a glass of wine and a serving of mezcal in the gauzy evening. The air is fresh, and artisans stroll the streets, arms piled with cozy blankets and tops to wrap yourself in when the daylight fades away.

La torta and other disputes

Once I thought I’d gotten a hang for a local cuisine and the language attributed to it– specifying that by sin carne I not only mean without beef, but also… um…. Do you have anything without chicken, fish, pork, and insects, too? Oh yea, and guinea pig. Sorry! THEN, my adoptive Mexican mom asks me if I’d like a torta for dinner when I get home from work at 10 p.m. No thanks, I tell her. I think I’ll make myself a sandwich– something savory.

In Colombia, this is a torta: tres leches, torta negra, or basically any two-tiered cake filled with jam and sometimes coated in bold, glossy frostings. Not, of course, to be confused with a tarta. When sweet and dessert-like, a tarta can also be a cake– a fruit tart, more often. In Spain, the tarta is the consistency of breakfast bread, and sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. But in Argentina, a tarta is a quiche: a savory, eggy crusted pie, often filled with jamón, spinach, or cheese and eaten for merienda alongside a piping-hot cafe cortado. Swap your a’s and o’s, border hop a bit, and you’ve got yourself an entirely different commodity.

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Eloisa gave me a strange look and held up a piece of bread. In Mexico, a torta is a sandwich, she explained. You can order one out or make it at home, and it’s always served on a crusty, thin white bread produced exactly for torta-building purposes, or on a bolillo, a short, fat baguette. It’s easy to request a torta de quesillo, skipping out on the meat and going for the stringy cheese instead.

No matter your type of torta, it nearly always includes lettuce, tomato, and avocado, with a layer of frijoles spread onto one piece of the bread, and mayonnaise slathered onto the opposite. Mayonnaise, it has been said, is Mexican butter. It’s everywhere, and it’s never refrigerated. (It’s ok! We’re just strengthening our immune systems!) And the magic thing about black beans on a sandwich is that the beans and bread work together to form a complete protein. As I’m learning in Tehuacán, beans can (and do) pair with everything.

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The above made-to-order torta costs only 12 pesos (about 70 cents) at an unnamed cafe on calle 3 oriente in Tehuacán. In many city restaurants, they’ll run anywhere from 10 to 25 pesos. (The cheaper ones tend to be premade, set out in a glass box.) Served on a tiny dish and set on Tehuacán’s favorite checkered table cloth, a simple lunch takes on the green-white-red combination of the nation’s flag in the most charming way. It’s simple food, really: vegetables, cheese, beans, and bread. When I want to duck out of the sun and grab a quick bite, a torta is exactly the satisfying, crisp sandwich that won’t break the bank (now that I know what’s what).

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puebla part 2: cholula y micheladas

Cholula is a tiny dream: a pueblo magico speckled with vibrant pink, green, and dandelion houses, 365 churches (one for every day of the year, logically), and lots and lots and lots of restaurants. Don’t put off lunch; nearly every food space will close for siesta after 3 p.m. So get to a resto-bar, pronto.

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Cholula is a short 30-minute, 8-peso bus ride from Puebla. Food is similar to that of the neighboring metropolis: cemitas, molotes, pelonas, y pozoles. But if we’re being honest, we’re really here to drink.

Micheladas are available on the street, in liter-sized paper cups lined with chile. Walking and drinking is encouraged but difficult; am I only one prone to wearing my beer down the front of my shirt?  I ran off with my roommate, Vivien, and opted to order a chilada in a bar. (Que fresa, I know.)

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I’d progressed three months into life in Mexico, and I hadn’t yet had a true michelada. Or at least that’s what my old roommate would say, a mexicana who shared an apartment with me in Medellin last year. She hated the lime-and-cerveza “micheladas” in Colombia, which are always rimmed with salt. Le falta la salsa, she’d told me, scrunching up her face when I’d served her a light, limey beer. The micheladas in Cholula are just as she’d suggested: darker, redder, and flavored with tomato and chile. Todo con chile. It’s a rule I can abide by. When paired with a beany take on sopa azteca, the afternoon wasn’t looking too bad.

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On a Sunday in Cholula, families gather in the zócalo (the pueblo’s central plaza), rent battery-powered kids’ cars, eat churros, sample creamas de mezcal, and listen to live music – banda, typically.  At first it all feels so predictable. Is Mexico a caricature of itself, I wonder, with all of its  elote stands, floral blouses, striped ponchos, and marijuana bowls?  But then I realize, this is just Sunday life. Daytrippers and locals alike searching for a treat before Monday strikes again.

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It’s hard to say no to helado on a hot afternoon in a magic town. This one was maiz azul – blue corn flavored. It’s sweet and light, with a slightly grainy texture. A little odd, pleasantly surprising, and beyond agradable. 

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