Archive for the ‘Mexico City’ Category

Monday July 27, 2009

I’m running late. I need to be at the church in Santo Domingo de Guzman in 5 minutes. All the taxis whizing by the main road connecting nearby villages are at full capacity and don’t stop.

My goodbyes with the farming family I spent the night with went much longer than I wanted. And now I’m worried I won’t make this next, very critical interview. Finally, a taxi responds to my flailing arm and pulls over. I anxiously squeeze in the backseat with three other people.

These two little guys were for sale at an outdoor market for about $8.

These two little guys were for sale at an outdoor market for about $8.

It takes 15 minutes to get the village entrance, where I have to catch yet another taxi to the church. I wait for the second taxi next to a elderly woman with braids and a wide brimmed hat. She carries two live ducks in her market bag.  “Nobody wanted to buy them,” she tells me, pointing her nose at the two ducks with their slightly sooty white feathers. The ducks were quite endearing, sitting placidly in her bag. The woman said she was selling them for 100 pesos– about 8 bucks. She said she’d cook them up for herself instead.

The taxi arrives and by the time I’m dropped off at the church I’m almost half an hour late. The terrible realization that I don’t know the woman’s full name suddenly hits me– hard. What kind of a reporter was I?? Here I finally find someone able and willing to take me to their cornfield three hours before I have to catch my bus back into the city and I blow it by arriving late, not even knowing the woman’s full name.

Obviously she isn’t waiting for me at the church. I won’t have waited for me either.

Now I’m starting to panic. Again, this is a critical part of this story. I need a sound scene in the cornfields. I need a farmer to explain how cuitlacoche grows. If I can’t get this my story will be lame. And I won’t have a chance to come back to the village before my return flight to the states.  Ahhhhhhh!!!!

Alright, I tell myself, strategy, strategy. I start asking a few people who are out and about where “Martha” lives. “Martha, what?” they ask.  “DOUGH!”  Turns out there’s more than one Martha in the neighborhood. Big surprise. There are also dozens of homes “around the corner” from the church. In less than four minutes I abandon the thought of finding my female farmer and decide to start knocking on doors and finding a new farmer.

I obviously knew no one. I’m pressed for time. And I’m scared of dogs– which tend to guard village homes unchained and with a fierce temper. Nimodo. I swallow my nerves, blindly pick a direction and start down the dirt road.  I find Ezequiel Salinas Ramon about twenty minutes into my search, after clumsily wandering into his family store, El Paraiso, or The Paradise.

Nice name, turned out pretty accurate, at least for me. I am greeted by Ezequiel’s wife who is taking a few pesos from customer buying bread and a coca cola. I explain to her my dilemma. My problems so far are the following:  1. It’s early in the season so most cornfields aren’t mature enough to have cuitlacoche and 2. All the farmers I’ve chatted with on this trip can’t give me a scientific or even a logical explanation of how cuitlaoche grows.

“My daughter is a smart girl. I’m sure she can help you,” the woman says and disappears through a side doorway that appears to lead into the family’s living room.

The daughter is 25, though she looks older. She is very nice and after a good spell of conversation she introduces me to her father. Ezequiel Salinas Ramon is an endearing 59-year-old wearing a rancher’s sombrero, collared button down shirt and dusty jeans. His good humor is immediately contagious and before I know it he’s pulled out two rickety red bikes one for him and another for me.

“Let’s go,” he tells me. “I’ll take you out to the milpa (fields).” His daughter meanwhile changes into a nice blouse, streach pants, and high heeled boots. Strange choice since she says she’ll come out with us. She doesn’t ride bikes, though, and will walk  behind us.

The milpa is a mile away or more from the store. I struggle on the wobbly bike while steadying my recording equipment hanging from the one of the bike handels in a pink plastic bag. We pass beautiful country scenery, including two young boys walking a black and white cow as they would an old dog.

Ezequiel Salinas Ramon smiles proudly after finding a corn husk infested with cuitlacoche.

Ezequiel Salinas Ramon smiles proudly after finding a corn husk infested with cuitlacoche.

Ezequiel reaches the cornfields first, as I am going at a slower pace to allow his daughter to catch up on foot. Once the three of us are together again, Ezequiel and I make our way into the sea of stalks, he holding a long thin stick to scare away garden snakes. “It maybe hard to find,” he tells me. But we are luck! According to my digital recorder, exactly three minutes after entering the field Ezequiel finds a small husk with fungus.

He proudly poses for photos, treasured shots for me. I can hear the excitement in his voice through my headphones. This is probably his first interview with a reporter and he is an excellent interviewee. He even answers my questions in complete sentances. People like Ezequiel are my favorite kind of people to interview. Simple, humble individuals with big hearts. Foreign dignitaries and celebrities may be great but I’d rather talk with Ezequiel any day.

As we ride our bikes back to El Paraiso, Ezequiel’s daughter tells me how she had to quit going to a community college to help take care of her father, who is battling cancer. I am stunned. Ezequiel looks perfectly healthy. This year, he’ll have to undergo several  chemotherapy treatments, the daughter tells me.

Back at the store, we exchange information and take a few farewell pictures. I am just in time to catch my bus back into the city. I thank the family endlessly and feel a little sad that I have to leave them so soon after meeting them. They give me an apple soda for the trip back.

I walk out to the main road with a smile on my face. On days like this we journalists feel really blessed.

Ezequiel and me out in the cornfields with our lucky cuitlacoche find.

Ezequiel and me out in the cornfields with our lucky cuitlacoche find.

Ezequiel and his daughter with the red bike.

Ezequiel and his daughter with the red bike.


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Ixtlahuaca is the nearest town to a series of small farming villages where I hunted high and low for cuitlacoche.

Ixtlahuaca is the nearest town to a series of farming villages where I hunted high and low for cuitlacoche.

Sunday July 26, 2009 

It’s four in the afternoon and I’m zooming along inside a Volkswagen bug taxi typical of Mexico City. Sharing the backseat with me are a farmer, his wife, their loquacious two-year-old daughter, some luggage and eight empty nine gallon buckets.  Lucky for us, a majority of the beetle taxistas don’t bother with a front passenger seat, allowing us some extra room.

We are on our way to the pueblo, or the village. They following a somewhat onerous routine and me on an exciting quest for corn fungus. I pondered this present reality as the city flashed by my window. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my vines. This is why I love being a journalist: venturing out to discover new things. I loved that I was headed to a rural community and didn’t know exactly where I’d be sleeping that night. But then I turned and looked at the farmer and little Judy, dozing off in his arms. For them this was an almost daily regimen they kept just to make a simple living. I highly doubted that, for them, this was fun. I felt guilty and grateful at the same time.

Nearly forty minutes later we stopped at a bus terminal in the south of the city. Fifty pesos, the driver demanded. That’s less than five dollars. I helped the family lug their baggage to the ticket stand where for sixty more pesos we bought tickets to Ixtlahuaca, an hour and 45 minutes away. 

On the bus, the featured flick was The Illusionist with Edward Norton. Outside we drove by tall blocks of modern silver buildings and large minimalist billboards. It felt like the 20th downtown scene I’d witnessed in this gargantuan city. We past a hilly urban terrain that reminded me of a cruder, dirty version of San Francisco, then passed under a mountain tunnel and mile by mile I realized that Mexico City does in fact come to an end.

On the way to the small town of Ixtlahuaca we past by factories for Nestle, Bayer, and Nissan.

From Ixtlahuaca it was back to another taxi that would take us 20 minutes out to the village of San Andres del Pedregal.  The farmer, Pedro Torres, has a two room home made of concrete. There is no running water or gas and the bathroom is a two minute walk away in the backyard. He and his wife built the house with their own bare hands two years ago. You enter into a long room that’s both a kitchen and dining space. In the back corner there’s an alter set up for el Santo Nino de Atoche with flowers, streamers and multi-colored balloons.  The next room was the bedroom. One queen size bed, a tiny twin and bunk beds. A small television, a wooden wardrobe and piles of worn clothing in bins were set against walls and a floor of dull gray concrete.

I now have a new appreciation for farmers. After buying a bunch of squash flowers I cooked for quesadillas I complained that cooking them was far too much trouble. I hadn’t thought of how much work went into getting them to market. They must be picked, trimmed, washed, shaken dry and left to bloom. Before dawn, the farmers carefully package them in plastic bundles and carry them on taxis and buses into the city. All this is done outside in the evening and early morning hours outside the temperatures dip to the fifties (Fahrenheit) or less in the village.

The night we arrived in San Andres, we had a simple dinner of roasted chicken and pan bolillo. Judy and I played with the new Barbie I’d bought her at Walmart the day before. At 10:30 it was off to bed. I was the only one who bothered to wash my teeth and face outside in a concrete “sink.” Back inside, the alarm was set to 4 a.m. I slipped off my tennis shoes and socks and slept in my street clothes.

At 4 a.m. it was cold and I piled on the layers. The T.V. was switched on to an infomercial promising a remedy for an enlarged prostate and erectile dysfunction. Pedro was outside packaging the produce. We took a taxi back out to the Ixtlahuaca bus terminal where a bustling outdoor market was in full swing at 5 a.m under faint starlight.  

I left Pedro selling his produce, one among dozens of other farmers selling almost exactly the same thing. A nice surprise the Torres family gave me once we arrived in the village was to tell me that they didn’t exactly have cuitlacoche in their cornfields– they weren’t mature enough. But maybe we could find another farmer who did? Great, wonderful.

So my plan was to look for farmers with cuitlacoche at this market and ask if they’d take me to their fields that same afternoon. I needed to catch a bus back into the city by 2 p.m. But for one reason or another I couldn’t find a farmer able to help. Luckily, just as Pedro came to find me and I was ready to give up, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said I could come to her cornfield at 11:30. Perfect!! Meet me in front of the church in the village of Santo Domingo de Guzman, she said, I live just around the corner.

Then I committed a cardinal sin of journalism. I didn’t ask her full name.



Marta Patricia Segura, or the "cuitlacoche" lady with her daughter Judy and the Walmart Barbie doll.

Marta Patricia Segura, or the "cuitlacoche" lady with her daughter Judy and the Walmart Barbie doll.

Little Judy messing around with my digital recorder.
 Little Judy playing with my digital recorder.

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Leticia of Huaraches Leti serving a plate of chicken breast stuffed with cuitlacoche

Leticia of Huaraches Leti serving a plate of chicken breast stuffed with cuitlacoche

The first time I tried corn fungus I was a wide-eyed college student living in a rough barrio in southern Mexico City. My friends and I stumbled into the stereotypical “hole in the wall” restaurant that was stuck in between two houses in a series of colorful interconnected buildings along a single block. Outside the sidewalk were uneven and cracked, that is, if there was a sidewalk.  The sign outside the restaurant read: “Huaraches Leti.” Literal translation: “Sandals Leti”

Huarache is Spanish for sandal, but a huarache is also a kind of dish, which is served in this restaurant. When I entered there to my right was an impressive layout of Mexican grub with aromas too irresistible to resist. At least half a dozen cazuelas, or giant clay bowls, showed off different temptations. There was squash flower, or flor de calabaza, green chile and cheese, chicharron, or fried pig’s skin, shredded chicken and tomato, and then this tar-like mush that looked revolting.

“What’s that?” I asked the woman in the ruffled apron behind the counter.

“Es cuitlacoche,” she said. “You want a quesadilla?” I lifted my eyebrows and tersed my lips. The stuff looked questionable, but the smell…the smell was intoxicating.

“Orale,” I said. “Give me one with queso oaxaca. I don’t know what cuitlacoche is, but let me taste it first. If I like it, then you can tell me what it is.”

With the first bite I was already heavenward. Soft and chewy, the taste was mushroom-like: earthy with a hint of raw corn.  Oooooh, and add to that a little lime and fresh chile salsa….I could’ve died. It really was delicious and unlike anything I’d ever tasted. 

During the week that I lived in this barrio, called Santo Domingo, I went to Huaraches Leti as often as possible. And it wasn’t until five years after that stay that I was finally able to go back.

Now I was a well-traveledm career driven 27-year-old. I was delighted to find the restaurant still existed and was doing well. My order was the same: two cuitlacoche quesadillas and a liquado de mamay. As I chewed away, I chatted with the cook and owner, Leticia.

“Where do you get the cuitlacoche?” I asked.

“A woman comes in from the village in the mornings and sells it over by La Escuelita,” Leticia said.

Oh. Interesting. Then the light bulb went off. Why not do a story on cuitlacoche? This is the kind of stuff most Americans aren’t  familiar with and it’s certainly not available in Mexican restaurants over there or even along the border (at best it’s incredibly rare, or comes out of a can). If I can find the village woman and convince her to take me to the cornfields, I could really have something!  NPR loves this kind of stuff! Hot dog!

This was the story I’d been searching for: non-drug-related, non-violent, simple, light, and cultural. Wonderful! I cooked up a plan with Leticia about meeting the next morning to find the cuitlacoche lady. But, as can be typical in Mexico, a “plan” rarely goes as planned.

I showed up the next morning at 8 am. Leticia was running late and turns out there was no cuitlaoche lady this morning. The next morning I called Leticia to ask if the lady had showed up before making the trip to the barrio again. Leticia never answered. So, what the hey, I risked another trip to Santo Domingo, and luckily this time I found the cuitlacoche lady. We made arrangements for me to go to the pueblo, or village, that Sunday accompanied by her husband and their Barbie loving daughter, Judy.

………to be continued

My favorite dish at Huaraches Leti in southern Mexico City.

My favorite dish at Huaraches Leti in southern Mexico City.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 12:37am
Forecast today en la capital: Rain, rain, rain. Complicated my whole day. But come late evening there was a happy ending.

I woke up this morning after finally getting a good night’s sleep. Two nights before I clubbed at The Bulldog Cafe. The following night I spent with farmers in the pueblo, which meant getting up at 4 am to sell their flor de calabaza (pumpkin flowers) at the bus terminal market. Luckily, it all ended well on Monday night when I had a full body massage and facial scheduled, all for $30.

Anywaaay, I got up with the intention of putting my dirt streaked clothes –thanks to tredding in the corn fields– in the washer and then the clothesline. But the forecast was rainy all day. I’d planned on scowering the city for a chef in some high brow restaurant, BUT, you can’t just leave your freshly washed clothes out on the line when it might rain. Shhhh….eeeez.

So, still in my jammies, I put in a couple calls to a couple restaurant associations hoping their communications people might actually do their job. Just then, I get an email from the municipal government (I don’t recalling sigining up for their mailing list). It’s a press release: the mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard will announce a new insurance program for all tourists traveling to the capital. Hmmmmm….that’s NPR spot material, I think to myself!

Friega. Pues a jalar my butt into the city. Two metro rides and several blocks later I’m at Hotel Geneve. Todo posh. Pretty cool, but man was it hot! There were ambassadors from Autralia, Argentina, and tourists from Germany, Chiapas and the Dominican Republic. The mayor finally shows up ( I have to say find him an attractive older man) with his trail of officials. All in all it wasn’t a bad press conference. It was a cool experience for me. I even met a producer for the BBC, but darned it if I lost her card on the trinche metro!

But the real interesting part of the day came later.

I came back home and spent like four hours struggling with the restauarant association PR people, struggling to reach the NPR newcast long distance, writing my spot and editing my audio. All seemed lost….until just before 7 pm, when I was about to give up. Both PR peeps call, each to confirm an interview with a renowned Mexican chef: Carmen Ramirez Degollado and Patricia Quintana. A really big deal for me.

I also finally get thru to NPR and the shift producer tells me, “Sorry we’re full. Try again at 10 pm EST”
Boooooo. Having finally finished my work I could now attend to my growling stomach, which to this point had survived on only a bowl of Mexican Cheerios. But what luck, as I shut down my compu, the forecasted rain finally shows up. And it made its appeareance grandly. Cats and dogs grand. Shhhheeee…huahua. I run to get my laundry from outside. I throw on my just dried rain jacket and grumble to my host family, “I’m going out.”

My pesos ran out after my pueblo trip and I didn’t have a chance to go to the currency exchange before they closed. Taxis or minibuses do not take VISA, unfortunately. So if I wanted to eat (and make an essential trip to the farmacia) I had no choice but to walk in the pouring rain. As I walk the wet deserted streets of Coyoacan, my thin blue rain jacket taking a severe beating, I cursed the weather, the fact I had no pesos, and that nobody had offered me an umbrella before I left the house. I think I sloshed some 15 blocks in the rain.

When I finally arrived at Las Lupitas, a quaint restaurant across from La Casa de la Cultura, I was soaked down to my socks. This is the place that the Washington Post reporter told me filled up with important politicians and diplomatic types in the evenings. ( I figured, then, that they took credit cards). But when I walked in, there was not a soul in the place. I smile at the lone waiter in a crisp white linen shirt, “Oiga Senor, que segun aqui viene gente muy importante a cenar?” (“So I hear very important people come to dine here.”)

“Bueno, si. Pero ahorita, usted es las mas importante,” he says. (“Right. But at the moment you’re the most important person here.” ) “Take your pick,” he says, gesturing at some two dozen empty tables. Later into my meal, I learn this waiter picked grapes in California and marched for workers’ rights with Cesar Chavez.

Just as I decide on a table and slide out the chair to sit down, the lights go out. And that, my friends, made all the difference.

The waiter and I just sort of shrug in the darkness. This kinda stuff happens here. A misty gray light glides in from the tall slender windows. It’s enough to makeout the menu. Thanks to dimness and the and the fact that I’m the only customer, I feel an unusual sense of comfort in this restaurant. So I proceed to remove my wet tennis shoes. Then I slip off my soaking socks and wiggle my bare toes under the table. I hang my socks on the seat of the chair beside me with a sort of mischevious smile.

The waiter disappeared for a second when I was ready to make place my order. So I patter barefoot onto the Mexican tile and into the kitchen where chubby faced women are working under the glow of a long gas stove. “Can I come in and see your kitchen,” I say. Sure, they reply. The warmth of the kitchen feels nice against my moist skin. We get into a conversation about the food and the cooks suggest what I ought to have for dinner. The waiter pops in and says “There you are!” I tell him I’m a periodista and am governed by my curiosity.

Back at my table, the waiter, Jose Luis Martinez, talks about his days as a farmhand in Californa. I like it in Mexico much better, he says. It’s hard being away from your family. Maybe you struggle a bit more, but life is richer here. He brings me my empanadas. We continue chatting through dessert in the dusk lit restaurant.

When I leave the restaurant it’s still raining, but I am no longer cursing the weather. I am thinking about the smiles of the chubby cooks, the warmth in the kitchen, the delicious empanadas, and the waiter inviting me to his wife’s restaurant in a nearby humble barrio. Que chido.

Once back at home I try NPR again. The night crew should know me well by now. “Sure, send us your spot,” the producer says. Maybe the international roaming charges on my cell phone will be more than what I’m actually paid for this spot– but I’m happy none the less. This is my first news spot from Mexico City!!

Tomorrow is my last day en la capital. Maybe it will rain again. When it rains it can be in a bad way, but also in a good way.

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