Letting loose with mezcal in Mexico

mezcal 2A year ago I moved to Mexico to make some desired changes in my life, among other ambitious goals that required traveling beyond the familiar borders of my native country (the US). A year later, after consuming many delicious tacos and Corona beers, shacking up with a Mexican man, and enjoying countless hours of siesta in a hammock, I now consider myself to be more Mexican than American, a conscious choice of which I am proud. Here in Mexico, we live happily amidst colorful fiestas, piñatas and miles of Pacific coastline, but what is overlooked by most non-Mexicans is that we earn pesos, which means we must live frugally.

People find all kinds of creative, resourceful ways to save and scrimp their pesos, which often means cutting corners where they shouldn’t necessarily be cut. As incisive as this observation may be, the fact is that I live in this community, and I must therefore be exposed to the often negative consequences of budget-wise prudence. For example, a few months ago, I inadvertently inhaled toxic smoke fumes from my neighbors’ yard, where they were burning a huge pile of trash instead of paying for it to be hauled away and handled properly. I stubbornly stayed in the vicinity despite the noxious fumes wafting over into my bedroom window, and I breathed in the smoke for longer than I should have.

For a week I suffered from a persistent sore throat, a body-wracking, hacking cough, nausea and a hazy mind that couldn’t focus, not to mention the exhaustion. I took to my bed and rested as much as possible until I finally stopped hacking after several days. A friend gifted me her organic eucalyptus essential oil inhaler that she had brought down from north of the border, where such specialty products can be readily obtained, unlike here in not-so-convenient, yet exotic places like the Oaxaca coast of Mexico.

Mexico’s Oaxaca [Wah-haw-kah] is a popular tourist destination for its impressive culinary delights, not excluding the famous mole sauce, stringy Oaxacan cheese and tlayudas, to name a few, as well as mezcal—the richly sweet, alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant. Mezcal is traditionally served in a shot glass with lime slices and chile powder for the equivalent of about two US dollars, a small price to pay for the flavor sensation that it delivers.

Upon sharing my respiratory distress, many people told me I should drink a mezcal, the regional panacea of fermented cactus that rids you of all your problems in one sip, as the local saying goes: Para todo mal, toma mescal. Para todo bien, también. (For all disease, drink mezcal. For your own good, drink mezcal.) And it’s true. The plant medicine worked magic on me in no time. “It will loosen the phlegm in your chest,” they told me, “and you’ll feel better.” I forgot about the mezcal for days and resorted instead to sufficient bed rest and water, but in retrospect, I should’ve just gone straight for the cure-all mezcal. Every Mexican casa in Oaxaca has at least one bottle of it in the cabinet.

As a resident of Mexico, I enjoy the benefit of the traditional hours-long afternoon siesta in between my morning and evening work shifts. Walking past the neighborhood tiendita (convenience store) on my way home, the shopkeeper, a middle-aged, round-faced, loud-mouthed Mexican woman with dozens of grandchildren, called out, “Krista! Ven acá!” (“Come here!”) in a voice I’d never heard her use before. I walked into the veranda and saw her sitting there with two other Mexican ladies gathered around a small table strewn with half empty glasses of vodka mixed with maracuyá (passion fruit) juice, an opened bottle of mezcal and a radio blasting traditional Mexican music that can only be sung along to while getting drunk. These women did not hold back from bellowing out the lyrics that I could only pretend to know and appreciate the same way they seemed to.

Somehow it all fit together: the drunken ladies, the corner store, me taking my afternoon siesta to escape from the intense heat of the midday sun in June, and then the shopkeeper poured me a shot glass full of mezcal infused with the local fruit, nancé, a tart, yellowish berry that sweetens as it ripens in the sun. “Toma un mezcalito,” the grandmother said, “y ya no regreses a la escuela” (“Have a little bit of mezcal, and don’t go back to work”), she said laughing. I paused and considered it for a moment, then took off my backpack, pulled up a chair and thanked her. The other two women, neighbors I’d seen but hadn’t met before, introduced themselves and got on with their vodka. I settled in for an entertaining social hour with the drunken women—all of them grandmothers.

Loud, raucous laughter and shoulder slaps, table thumping and belly rolling ensued as we emptied the bottles and told jokes. In keeping with the theme and tenor of the day (healing from toxic smoke inhalation), I expelled years of accumulated phlegm with each deep belly laugh and then, to really make the scene perfect, one woman started to cry. The other one grabbed ahold of her shoulder, leaned in toward her and murmured, “Sácalo, todo. Hay que sacarlo todo” (“Get it out, all of it. You have to get it all out”.) I sat there quietly, sipping my mezcal and witnessing the woman shed tears of stuff that she seemed to be trying to hold inside. No one bothered to ask why she cried, the other woman just held her hand on her shoulder and let her cry, and I sat there with my mezcal watching the scene like some kind of telenovela (Mexican soap opera), yet I could see myself in the protagonist, all hunched over her glass of vodka, covering her eyes with the fold of her shirt, embarrassed to be so vulnerable and still so able to cry. I considered getting up at that moment with the excuse that I had to go back to work, but something told me to stay, to be a welcomed part of this glorious emptying of years of pent-up emotion.

I sat there in silence and emptied the mezcal bottle for what seemed like an eternity until the shopkeeper produced the next bottle, a pinkish cream mezcal that reminded me of Pepto-Bismol, and I remembered a friend’s recent advice: “Go get a mezcal. Just one,” and at that moment I got up with a polite smile and thanks, bought myself a few unripe bananas and left for the sanctuary of my tiny little room in a thatched roof cabana by the sea, where I now write and listen to the crashing waves and wonder how I got myself here, after everything I denied myself, everything I’ve given up, lost, all the places and people I’ve met, how did I end up here, pleasantly buzzed and having just given myself exactly what I needed—an afternoon of rest and the palpable presence of my Aunt Rose, the one who worked hard all her life, lived alone, refused to do anyone else’s laundry and kept mostly to herself unless she was visiting with a few trusted friends.

We get exactly what we deserve at the precise moment we need it, the Maya shaman, Grandfather Jaguar, once taught me, and I’ll never forget his words. Even my students are the gifts I need now: When I thanked them this morning for their efforts in class, one of them said, “Thank you for you,” and it filled me.

“Enjoy the independent life you live,” my father had written me earlier this week, “a lot of people wish they could be as free as you.” And yet, I wake up startled in the middle of the night, I hear the tumult of the surf, and I drown myself in fear that I might someday die alone with no partner, no children… What then? What happens when I get old and sick? Who will take care of me then? A wave of nausea bowls me over at the thought, so maybe better not to entertain such thoughts. Maybe better to treat myself to a mezcal more often, to surround myself with friends, to sit with boisterous women who cry and laugh, because they’re here and this is where I am.

As soon as I’d decided to give myself the afternoon off to rest—an indulgence of which I rarely partake—the ocean invited me into her cool, calm water, gentle waves that lapped instead of crashed, and today was the first time in days I’ve been able to float and bob atop a tranquil sea at low tide.

I luxuriated in the soak of warm seawater for longer than normal, stretched out like a starfish into all directions and thought about the Mexican women, my students, my empty office at work, the house I built in Belize that is now lived in by a young couple and their newborn. I sighed at the thought of things and people I’ve left behind. I want to give birth, too, I know, to create something new that only I can create, and maybe better for it not to be an infant, but something more freeing for my spirit, fulfilling for my soul. Like the mezcal that cured me, my Aunt Rose’s blood courses in my veins, reminding me that I am complete within myself. I already have everything I need to be as happy as I want to be, and here in Mexico, the land of miracle mezcal, happiness is easy to find.

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No machismo en mi casa: My man does the housework

Unlike most women, I am childless by choice at age 42 after a decade of traveling solo in Central America. I am an intensely independent woman who loves her freedom and gets off on an insatiable thirst for adventure. I don’t want to be tied down, which means I probably don’t want to get pregnant. After moving a year ago from tropical-wet Belize to the tropical-arid Oaxaca coast of Mexico, my sensual wetness dried up almost entirely when I looked around at the paucity of potential suitors. I told myself that I’d given up on having a Mexican boyfriend, as much as I’d given up on the Belizean men: all they wanted were babies and a dutiful housewife. No, thanks. I’ve got other plans.

Like one in four women, I have been the target of physical and verbal abuse by former male partners, ranging from near-death by strangulation to invectives and subtle manipulation, leaving me with many dramatic stories to tell. After two decades of downright failures and otherwise mere approximations at shacking up with a good guy, I am now partnered with a peaceful Mexican man who is not abusive. He is far beyond the “machismo” male typically associated with his culture, as depicted in the recent drama film “Roma”, which illustrates the plight of two Mexican women partnered with machismo Mexican men. Things don’t go swimmingly for either of them, as they are relegated to single motherhood and shouldering the heavy load of daily housework, not excluding the task of shoveling up dog poop from the driveway, and, to top that off, being abused and disrespected on a daily basis. On the contrary, my Mexican man is not at all like these “pendejos” (jerks), although there seem to be plenty of them to go around.

With my preference for long hours of voluntary solitude, meditation, yoga and constant travel to new places, I simply don’t fit the profile that most Latino men seem to prefer—kitchen-bound and pregnant. A year after making the bold move to live and work full time in Mexico, I am delighted that these cultural norms don’t apply to my current partnership with a strapping, middle-aged Mexican man, a fisherman and lover of the sea, born and raised on the Oaxaca coast. He owns and operates a coconut palm tree-shaded hotel and restaurant that he built himself on the beach. He has an impressively full range of useful, practical skills: lifeguard, construction worker, landscaper, plumber, electrician, cook, housekeeper…. This dude defies the stereotypes about Mexican men: He’s not into soccer, and he seems happy doing the housework—cooking, cleaning, shopping, and more. Don’t get me wrong; he is a straight male with a healthy, intact libido. Again, don’t get me wrong; this guy is by no means an opportunist, using me for a green card to the US, a place he says he’d be crazy to go, unless he were to be overcome by his own death wish. Neither living nor visiting the US interests him in the least bit, and I join him whole-heartedly in our shared preference to live and work south of Trump’s hostile border wall.

I’m a white Caucasian American transplant to this rural part of Mexico, where smiling, brown people in sombreros abound in a land of delicious tacos and Corona beer. Needless to say, my whiteness stands out in our small community, especially when I’m arm-in-arm with my handsome, dark partner. We capture the attention of our neighbors, mostly divorced Mexican women who stare as we stroll by, silently stewing in jealousy and wishing they too could find a “good man”, as I hope someday they do. Maybe then, we would get fewer envy-laden glares from the local women. We are the “chisme” (talk of the town) in our newfound cohabiting happiness.

Evidently, our relationship is fascinating to these women, because they can’t imagine a man voluntarily doing the chores. My guy knows he’s under the watchful eye of our catty neighbors, but he doesn’t care. At sunrise he takes out the trash and sweeps the front walkway, while I don jogging gear and enjoy a half hour jaunt up and down the length of the beach with our dog before heading to work all day. As soon as I return home, he (and the dog) are there to greet me at the door with a resplendent smile, dinner already cooking on the stove and the laundry done. He has folded my clothes in a neat pile by my bedside. I have gotten into the habit of showing up with a cold bottle of beer at the end of the day to “reward” him for his domestic triumph and show my appreciation for his readiness to rebel against his own culture’s norms.

We live (and sleep) together in biracial bliss, but our daily paid work obliges us to fill very different roles. Every day, while he stays home, tends to his hotel guests and handles the housework, maintenance and repairs, among other odd jobs; I earn a steady paycheck in pesos. He does the heavy lifting and sweats profusely in the intense tropical heat, while I take on a more “intellectual” role in our dynamic duo. I enjoy the privilege of a Mexican version of the ivory tower of academia, comfortably ensconced most of the day writing and reading in my cozy office whenever I’m not teaching Mexican university students how to read, speak and write as fluently as possible in English or teaching yoga classes.

We have achieved a collaborative effort to earn a respectable, decent living in a part of the world where the average household income is around $500 US dollars. (Yes, you read that correctly: five-hundred US dollars. Per month. And we live comfortably on that amount). Even if I were not here, my man would be financially stable without me, and vice versa. I have a Master’s degree and a diverse, marketable skill set; he has his own thriving business in a popular tourist destination. And he definitely wouldn’t miss my help around the house. I tell him half-jokingly, “you cook the food; I’ll buy the groceries.” Mostly, I’m serious about that. I don’t take to the kitchen very readily, and if I do, it’s mostly to clean the dishes. Occasionally, there are exceptions and we reverse these roles, depending on our needs and those of the people around us; but for the most part, we stick to a mutually agreed upon division of labor with the goal of staying in love—and keeping separate bank accounts.

To make our partnership all the more countercultural, he doesn’t even get jealous when I put my hands all over other men’s bodies, which I enjoy doing several times a week. (Seriously!) As a licensed, certified massage therapist, I have butt-naked men in close quarters regularly, and I deliver up what I know to be a wallop of professionally delivered relief from stress and tension, with absolutely no sex involved or solicited by neither me nor my clients. Most working class people in Mexico—myself included—rely on more than one skill set and find ways to live resourcefully. In addition to my daily work at the university, I enjoy my side gig as a massage therapist in this small community, where rumors spread quickly. If I were not entirely professional in my therapeutic services, everyone here would know within an hour or two. My partner actually encourages me to keep rubbing on his friends, because he knows it helps them, and he knows how much I love to help people with my unique style of therapeutic massage. Eventually, he says, I will be able to open my own business here. I can help you, he tells me. While I am grateful for his help, I know I can do that myself. I’m fluent in Spanish, highly skilled and not afraid to go out and get what I want.

I moved to Mexico as a single woman on a mission to find my man (among other personal goals), and within a month or so, I knew that I didn’t want a typical Mexican male as a partner. That’s why I chose this guy. He has already fulfilled his biological imperative to procreate: He has two grown sons and a five-year-old granddaughter, in addition to three thriving businesses. So far, he seems to need nothing from me other than my companionship. As a career-oriented, ambitious woman who spends over an hour every day in advanced yoga postures and eschews the ephemeral, I need a man who isn’t afraid to sweep or do the laundry. When I clock out of my full-time university gig, I want to come home to a happy partner, a clean house and a cooked dinner. (I sound like such a misogynist…. Wait. I’m a woman!) Achieving such an atypical domestic arrangement is my own dream come true, and it stretches the limits of what I thought were possible with any man, let alone a Mexican.

Last night when I got home late from work, he had an enormous plate of oysters on display with sliced limes that he picked from the backyard, and the oysters?—well, they are plentiful here in the Pacific Ocean along the Oaxaca coastline, and he is happy to do the precarious work of maneuvering the rocks and dangerous current to select the best ones, pry them open and clean them out. Oysters can only be eaten by sucking and slurping, and yes, they definitely get you in the mood. Loaded with milky white juices rich in vitamins and minerals, oysters are a natural aphrodisiac.

Today he’s going fishing, and for dinner, he says, we’ll have fresh fish with steamed vegetables. After dinner, I’ll give him a massage on the veranda under the coconut palm trees. I’d say I’ve got it made in a tropical paradise with the man of my dreams, and I know he’d say the same about me—in Spanish. After all, we live on Playa del Amor (Beach of Love), and there is plenty of love to be made every day.

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