Saving my Bacon

I stood in the dim shadows of the Tienda, clutching my twenty peso note. It had to feed me for the entire day, and appease a nicotine addiction as well.

Mexican cigarettes in 1975, fortunately, were only 2 pesos, if you weren’t fussy about taste.

At the tender age of fifteen, along with an established tobacco habit, I was at least as equally dependant on Carlos Quinto chocolate bars, which cost an additional two pesos.

This left Sixteen pesos, or roughly, a dollar thirty-five, American.

I sighed as I leaned into the cloudy yellowing glass case, hoping for egg in my bread that day.

Once a week, the little bolillo loafs would show up in a rich yellow color. Because of my cigarette and chocolate habit, I often didn’t feel like I was getting enough nutrition, and craved the egg addition.

The window of the bread case wasn’t yellow and cloudy from dirt, only age. In this part of the world, it was difficult to find much that wasn’t wiped and scoured within an inch of its existence.

Except the kitchen back at our place.

Our kitchen was fly infested and disgusting. It had no running water and we cooked on a kerosene pump stove that was smoky with a soot that blackened the white walls. It left left a kerosene stench in all of our clothing and sleeping bags.. Because the doors were always open in our place, the dirt and sand blew in all day and our lovely tiled floors were sticky with mud and food.

Unlike our Mexican Neighbors, we did not clean the floors every day with a mop and bucket.

We never cleaned the floors for the entire time we lived there.

When we first moved into the house, (After a week at that scorpion infested hovel with no lights or windows and floors made of dirt) We had more resources and we all took turns buying and cooking groceries.

But for some unknown reason, our budget had been reduced to less than half of our original per diums. With such a tiny allowance, the communal cooking ceased and it was every man (woman and child) for himself.

Our original stipend was fifty pesos a day. Plenty of dinero for chocolate, cigarettes, even a nightly meal in the one restaurant at the center of the village. It was a modest 3 minute walk from our new digs.

This restaurant served cold beer and duck or fish. Both species were deep fried whole with their eyes intact.

The first night in the village we had all assembled there. There was no kitchen in the dirt hole we had arrived to. One of the students bet the cost of dinner that she would eat the eyeball. Sarah did eat the eyeball, but became a vegetarian by the journey’s end.

The restaurant had no name, being the only one in town it had no need of one.

They also served chorizo, a sausage I had adored and ate almost exclusively since our class crossed the border that first night in Mexico.

That and Bacardi Rum.

There was no drinking age in Mexico, or if there was one, it was never enforced.

I spent the first two weeks of my trip nursing hangovers with freshly squeezed orange juice, Pan Dulce (Sweet bread) and fatty salty chorizo.

The trouble was, that the further south you went, the spicier the chorizo got. After one twelve hour bus ride, the sausage became lavic in temperature. The problem for me that night, was that I spent the last of my daily food allowance on the chorizo and I had a teenager’s appetite.

I cried as I ate the blazing thing, with rivers of tears streaming down my cheeks, stopping only to try and cool the fire in my mouth with a dry corn tortilla. (Water was a no no).

I waited my for turn quietly in the tienda.

The place was too small to miss my presence. My maggot white skin and bright yellow hair glowed like a beacon inside of the tiny market.

Looking back, it’s possible that they kept me standing longer than necessary, just to get a longer look at me. We were only the second convention of white people to intrude upon that little fishing village.

It’s probably all resort by now.

But in 1975, the village of Sisal had two trades. Fish and Sisal cactus, that was used to make rope and other fiber.

There were no beds in town, only hammocks, and every house had several hooks for hanging them on the walls in every room.

Most of the villagers took the bus to travel long distances inland. The one car in the community is owned by the mayor, who was also the town constable (or the equivalent). Filipe was the law in that village. He was also the skeevy landlord that had rented us the dirt hovel. (For quite a substantial amount of pesos I might add).

If not for Miguel, our school translator from Spain, we would still be picking black scorpions out of our shoes and fencing with foot long centipedes.

It was hard to sleep knowing they were sharing that lightless, dirt hole with us.

But Miguel saved the day and gave Filipe a piece of his Castilian mind, and for all Filipe’s supposed power, our American dollars spoke louder.

Still Filipe hung around us a little more than any of us were comfortable with. No doubt drawn to us girls, blond, braless and nubile, our U.S. reputations assured Filipe, that one of our Hammocks would be welcoming him almost any moment.

Hoping what he heard was true, Filipe invited me for a boat ride through the jungle swamp one morning.

He told me we were going to look for Alligators. My eyes must have widened with worry because he was quick to assure me that we would only look at “The Baby Ones.”

The boat sat very deep in the water as we pulled away from all civilization. I don’t know why I was not concerned for my safety. I must have perceived my white privilege would insulate me..

My guess is that he brought me out into isolation, hoping I would jump his bones.

After about an hour of paddling, he gave up waiting for me to make my move and tried a different tactic.

We pulled up to a grove of coconut trees. Filipe hopped out and gave me his brown strong arm to steady me out of the swaying vessel.

Once on firm ground, Filipe scrambled up one of the trees, and I have to admit, the act was impressive. His bronze legs were muscular and he climbed pretty high.

But when he returned to the bottom he chopped a coconut open and offered me a sip of fresh milk.

His face fell as I shook my head no.

I despise the flavor of fresh coconut.

Frustrated, Filipe paddled at a military pace back to the village and had to be reminded to help me out of the boat when we got there.

He never took me on another outing.

At last, a tiny woman sporting a yellow apron with arm length graying braids, takes my order.

I ask for a quarter kilo of cheese and a small loaf of bread. At the last minute, I order a dollop of Mayonnaise, for an extra peso. Along with my daily pack of Cigs and bar of chocolate.

While the woman weighs and wraps my cheese, I gaze longingly at a dusty slab of bacon that hangs in the darkest corner.

For the two months I have stayed in that village, so far, no one has had either the money or inclination to cut into that slab.

Day after hot dusty day, that bacon was never once violated.

I never asked about it for two reasons. Primarily, I did not think my twenty peso budget could withstand the cost. I presumed that if the housewives weren’t purchasing it themselves, the price must be prohibitive.

The other reason I did not buy it was because of our nasty, filthy, kitchen.

Without running water in the Kitchen, we purchased it from a local, who captured it in a basin on his roof.

One week, the water was not as sweet as usual.

We all started drinking beer or soda, using it only to wash and cook with. At the end of the week one of our neighbors came to confide in us that a dead cat had been floating in that tank for ten days. Everyone else knew it and had made other water arrangements.

She didn’t think it was fair that we were the only ones still buying it.

After that, what sporadic cleaning that had been done by us lazy teens came to an abrupt halt, and the poor translator Miguel, finally had to dump the left over water because no one else would even enter the kitchen with it still in there.

The other staff member attending the five traveling teens was our teacher Pam. She was a thirty something woman, who had no interest in cleaning up after pack of loathsome dirty teenagers.

So the kitchen stayed filthy and I resorted to living off of cheese and bread every day.

Sometimes with a little mayonnaise.

But I couldn’t let go of the image of that bacon.

My diet had been reduced to a cheese sandwich for breakfast and a cheese sandwich for lunch. A little later in the day I would hit the Mercado and buy a tomato and a few corn tortillas. Which would be accompanied by the last morsel of cheese and hopefully a final smear of mayo.

The tortillas were terribly dry with out it.

The bacon made me think of American cuisine, cheeseburgers made out of mild flavored fatty meat, and manufactured yellow squares that melted the proper way.

Each day I had become more obsessed by the thought of that swinging dusty lump of pig meat.

Pam fell into step beside me as I exited the market. The post office was next door and she was picking up our mail.

“We’ll be leaving soon..” she started with.

Pam did not talk all at once and I had learned to let her finish her thoughts.

“The school sent us a little extra money this month, I think it might have been a mistake because it was the amount they used to send us.”

Forgetting how Pam expressed herself I started to erupt in happiness, but she held her hand up and said, “I thought because we are leaving, we might use it to throw a big party for our neighbors who have helped us so much.”

“Bacon,” I said excitedly. “We should buy that big slab of bacon and cook it all up for the neighborhood.”

And for some unexplained reason, Pam took my advice that very moment. She went inside that store and negotiated for the entire hunk.

Stunned, I let her place the wrapped meat into my arms as she said, “OK, you can take care of the party refreshments, I will send Miguel out for beer, soda and ice, later this week.”

I was not the only one from my group that had beheld that bacon, and longed for it daily. Our household was so excited at the sight of something familiar, that we all cleaned the nasty kitchen together.

Even the floors.

“What are you going to do with it?” They all wanted to know.

In my mind I had constructed multitudes of bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, wrapped into corn tortillas.

For the life of me I still do not know how I convinced this group of my plan.

That week we issued invites to anyone we encountered in town. The entire village consisted of less than two hundred people. And every person that we invited, looked perplexed when I told them we would be serving “Tocino.”

“Probably never tasted it before, because of the expense.” I said confidently.

I felt my genius in my catering strategy.

The morning of the party, I got up a little early, to get my best picks for lettuce and tomato at the Mercado. On my way home, I stopped at the tiny Tortilla factory and ordered a kilo of them.

The mayonnaise looked a little rancid though, when I ordered a quarter kilo of the stuff. For the first time, the actual jar was produced and I watched as she scraped the yellow jellied ancient mayo off the sides so that she could complete the weight on the scale.

The yellow and white mess was spooned into a plastic bag, and the good mayo was smashed and mixed with the yellow gel. But I had no confidence to object.

The real trouble began at home in the kitchen, when I tried to slice bacon I was planning to drop into the hot pan, that waited on the kerosene stove.

I only had a dull pocket knife and could do little more than peel small misshapen bits that I put into the hot pan to fry.

Soon the familiar smell of burning pork began water our mouths and when the first bits were safely brown enough, I passed around the tiny pieces.

But the faces around me did not break into delight as my schoolmates chewed.

Instead they looked puzzled.

At last Ken said, “It doesn’t have any flavor.”

He was right, so I tried assembling a Mexican BLT to see if it would improve the flavor.

“It tastes worse.” Michael reported to me. “Where did you get this mayonnaise from, World War Two?”

“Maybe someone should go get some cheese and hot sauce.” I suggested.

“Too late,” said Aleta, leaning out of the door. “The entire town is heading towards our house.”

Ken and Michael dove out the back door, to get more beer and were instructed to return with as many chips and as much hot sauce as they could find.

Minutes later, as the first guests arrived, Michael had returned, carrying a huge try of something that looked delicious.

“It’s Shark”. He told me.

“Where’d it come from?” I demanded, but Michael turned and waved like a magician, at a parade of women bearing plates and pots full of every kind of regional dish ever created, in that part of the world.

The party was the biggest social event of the season and the lady from across our courtyard admitted that the village women had gotten together to create the menu for our party.

When we heard you had purchased that bacon, we knew you had no idea what a party meant to us, she smiled.

Later, after I had furnished her with a few beers, she confided that she didn’t understand why I ever thought that cooking fat would make a good party food.

It seems that the slab bacon was reserved for dishes that called for animal fat.

I had confused everyone by bragging that I was serving it.

It was sort of like announcing that I was serving butter for lunch.

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