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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