100th Post! What took so damn long? Oh boy! I eat the fancy food! I eat the fancies! And the pretties! The pretties and the fancies!
To the most logical extreme within the boundaries of my level of supreme over-spending on dining, I’ve eaten some pretty good stuff. It’s much easier to justify that incarnation of a crippling addiction…it’s socially acceptable, delicious, and fun to talk about. I forget how far from normal I am sometimes with the OCD sourcing, dining, planning and cooking. But the freakishness makes me the go-to guy for people who need a recommendation. Either I can point you to “the very best of whatever”, or I have resources that can handle whatever I can’t answer. “Your death row meal”….”best bite you’ve ever eaten”….and a thousand other topics that have sparked Penthouse letter level discussions of meals gone by. A topic about restaurant health violations on another blog had me going back and rattling my memory for horror stories, and it made me think of the best meal I’ve ever had. It was not the pretties. The fancies….about as far from the fancies as a mule pissing on a flat rock and having it splash way down into your shoelaces. However, what was arguably the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life was in the spring of 1990, while sitting in a gutter in Tepec, Mexico. I was 20.
This was back during when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do in ministry, and I spent a year in The Masters Commission program in Phoenix, Arizona. Basically, it’s a ministry school of sorts where the church gets free unlimited labor for a year, and you get to send a TON of timber up to your mansion in heaven. That was the year my brother died, and upon returning to Phoenix after his funeral and the holidays I was a bit out of sorts. Filtering the grieving process through God’s will and all of that…an existential crisis that had to be wedged into the confines of black and white redneck theology. But FANCY redneck theology…this was a superchurch that predated superchurches…Phoenix First Assembly…and I was one of the lucky few chosen for The Masters Commission/We’re Better Than The Mormons program. If Jesus had a Seal Team 6, we were it. So anyway, no less than a million stories THERE, but back to Tepec…
A bunch of people in the program got peeled off to go on a missions trip to El Salvador for a couple of months. I was kind of “in jail” because of my attitude and inability to let the Holy Spirit rush me through my grief, so I didn’t get chosen for that. Two guys were picked to drive a 1973 school bus all the way from Phoenix to San Salvador, as a gift for the children’s missionary who ran the ministry that was hosting the group. Obviously, I wasn’t chosen for that task either. BUT there was no task that was crazier, more dangerous or just “out there” in general…so I had to go for the glory and street-cred and get in on some of that. I called up Lloyd, our leader, and asked if I could not only go on the missions trip, but also be on the bus….I felt “led” to ask him, and I thought it was something that could give me a much needed boost. No idea what my real motivation was at the time…glory and popularity chasing mixed with a bit of a deathwish…but long story short, he agreed to it, in part, because “even though you’re not old enough for us to insure as a driver on the bus, you will be good at keeping the other two from killing each other”.
Mark was a great mechanic and Andy knew Spanish. They could both drive a bus. And someone really may have died if it was just the two of them. As it was, Mark and I had a very serious discussion about whether or not we could muster enough Spanish to get through the borders of Guatemala and El Salvador without Andy. Andy was a total douche who often put us in unnecessary danger, and as we drank two highly-forbidden bottles of Corona we weighed our options and by the slightest, tiniest margin decided NOT to leave him on the side of the road in southernmost Mexico. Our leader’s instincts were correct…even though I did not drive the bus one foot during the 2000+ mile, eight day trip, my contributions were vital. Nobody died. And that was mostly luck. It wasn’t a big deal playing referee with those two or anything, there are just five million different ways to get killed on a trip like that and we bumped up against twelve thousand of them.
At this point anyone who knows me has stopped reading because they have suffered through twenty years of the same El Salvador stories and are horrified that I have found a new audience. I don’t think I’ve abused this particular story that badly, because it’s not as fun to tell as the ones where things were exploding…this was at a time when fierce fighting between govt troops and rebels was just winding down. But it was like Monte Carlo compared to that goddamn bus. The way it worked was this: Since you only have a few hundred miles of actual highway as you head down the Pacific coast of Mexico, it takes way, way, way longer to get anywhere. Especially when you are driving a twenty year old school bus that has been freshly painted bright white with neon red lettering down the sides spelling out a poorly translated slogan “Because The Children Need Jesus”, that happens to be loaded down with a ton of puppets, toys, canned goods, and a bunch of other crap that gets rifled through five times each day by federal troops searching for drugs. A translator with the most broken sense of comedic timing and the assumption that all Mexicans have the same sense of humor tends to lose you some time as well. We’d have to drive from sun up to sun down, between twelve and sixteen hours per day and it still took us about eight days to get to our destination. At night we’d stop at whatever town was closest, and normally two of us would get a cheap (even by Mexican standards) hotel room and the third guy would sleep on the bus to keep an eye on it. A lot of well meaning, well travelled, upper middle class liberal white people would lead you to believe that there aren’t any dangerous places in the world because bad things can happen anywhere…and it’s inherently bad and downright rude to put labels on anyone or anything. Well, take it from me when I tell you that if you’re travelling through the entirety of rural western Mexico, when it gets dark you want to be in a well populated area for the night. Time never moves slower than when your Jesus-beacon bus is broken down between two towns with thirty miles of jungle road separating them, and it is long past dark. It is a worst case scenario that we tried our best to avoid, and is what landed us in Tepec.
We skipped solid food for at least a couple of days based solely on the conditions of the Pemex gas station bathrooms. That, plus the fact that once you get into the more tropical parts of Mexico there aren’t many great places to pull off to the side of the road and walk into the jungle for a dump. The terrain is unpredictable and there is stuff alive out there. And as I mentioned before, towns can be very far apart and twenty miles can turn in to five hours. The oppressive heat also makes it easier to stick to fluids. While I never really regretted volunteering for the adventure, it was one of those things you knew would look a hell of a lot better in hindsight. If I remember correctly, the day leading up to our stop in Tepec was extraordinarily brutal. The high elevation scenery was not unlike Tony’s arrival in Colombia in the movie Scarface. Very scenic, green, misty, other-worldly. And you’d catch glimpses of that in between shit like staring wide-eyed every time you rounded a bend in the road to see whether or not your lane had been washed down the mountainside. Or the ubiquitous cow in the middle of the fucking road. Or learning the unwritten Mexican law of the mountain road “if I rear end you and you can still drive your vehicle, I don’t have to stop”. It was just a bad day, but they were all pretty much like that. And I think our plan was to try and make it to whatever town was past Tepec, and even though we arrived there right as it got dark we probably would have kept going. But that fucking place just swallowed us up.
Most nights, one of us would be stuck sleeping on the bus. Which was total shit, because the “children who need Jesus” would stop by in droves to see what was up, and those little fuckers are mean…terrorizing you for not throwing open the doors and giving them toys at 3am, beating on the doors, throwing stuff at the windows…and you know as soon as you flip out on one of them you’ll have a whole Mexican village drawing and quartering you. On a couple of occasions, all three of us were stuck on the bus all night. After trying to navigate through a maze of freakishly narrow streets to either find a hotel or the way out of town, Tepec was just such an occasion. That town sucked. And either we kept circling in the worst neighborhood, or the whole city is just cursed. If you’re one of those annoying people who get all offended and assume any negative comment about another country is spoken by an “ugly American”, go fuck yourself. The ‘hood is the ‘hood, in any language, and I’m quite familiar with the fine line between the types of areas where white people venture in order to get some level of liberal-guilt street cred, and the types of areas where you just do not belong. This particular area was just south of somewhere we did not belong, so we found a parking lot and planned to hole up there until morning. The rest of Tepec might have gold-paved streets for all I know. We just happened to stumble upon the area where the workers who pave those streets go raping.
I don’t remember what we’d talk about on those nights when we’d all have to sleep on the bus. Once we were just so wiped I don’t think we said anything at all…until about 3am when a soldier came beating on the door and we realized we’d pulled over to sleep at the entrance of a huge military base. We were pretty big on re-capping anything insane that stuck out in particular from that day. And we talked about food quite a bit. Overall, we were in pretty good spirits…this was all for God and we were looking forward to meeting up with our friends who had already flown into El Salvador. You’d chit chat until you were ready to pass out though, because there’s no good way to sleep on a school bus. The floor is too filthy and there is zero air movement. The seats are too narrow and short to get a good position. In the end, the best you can hope for is putting boxes or something in the aisle between the two seats to give your legs someplace to rest. But still, lying across the seats means those little bastard kids can crawl up to the windows and almost be in your face. And it was usually very hot. Hot enough for me to get over any fear of going shirtless in front of others when it was time to get to sleep.
I wish I could remember the logic we used to get off of the bus in the middle of this neighborhood in the middle of the night in order to go and break a solid-food fast with something that was sure to have us soiling ourselves for days to come. I think there was some talk of just two of us going, one to still watch the bus and be ready to come pick us up if something started happening…or power in numbers if three of us went. Whether we all went or not is hard to remember, and what we’d find once we got there was a total pig in a poke. What I do recall is lying there generally pissed off, bored, and a little scared when the smell of cooking meat made its way across the parking lot. Grill smoke is a universal language, and we were starving. The little cart/stand was about half a block from where we sat, and by this time in the evening it’s not like it was being overrun with people…which made it a little scarier actually. Some elaborate trap to lure us gringos out into the open with the promise of grilled meats. In reality, we were about fifteen hundred miles away from anyone who cared being able to hear us scream, so if we were dead men we were already dead, so may as well have some food.
The little food stands are just everywhere in Mexican towns. Tepec was the point at which we went from avoiding them altogether to the OTHER extreme…we started eating anything and everything we could find. We avoided the bags of juice drinks kids sold because of the water, but other than that we ate a ton of stuff that would be Travel Channel-worthy. In the ‘hood in Tepec, it was your typical little family food stand where they were selling some and feeding the family at the same time. If I were the culinary genius back then that I am today I’m sure I’d have some involved descriptions of the food and condiments. Surprisingly, instead of tacos, tamales and things of that nature, we arrived to find…hot dogs and hamburgers. Well, by Tepec standards perhaps. The relatively identifiable shapes of the meats and buns were the only things giving them away. The hamburgers were slider-sized and overcooked, with a tiny bun and way too much of a mayo/crema/onion/pepper mixture on top. The hot dogs were really different….think of a freakishly fat leg stuffed into some kind of spandex, with random slits in the fabric where the fat presses out…and instead of tied/twisted off ends to close the hot dog the casing is just open with some meat coming out. All I can remember is some kind of green hot sauce with those.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I have some Mexican hot dog poetry planned here…there isn’t some crescendo that surpasses all of the words I’ve dedicated to temples of gastronomy in New York and San Francisco. I was a twenty year old kid with several days worth of filth on him, hungry and dehydrated, sitting on a curb in Mexico with his feet planted in a nasty gutter, eating deliciously charred mystery meats like his life depended on it. It’s funny what you can be thankful for when you’re at a place way on down the road you never expected to see, and you find something familiar and comforting in the scariest of surroundings. We ate with a speed and volume that amused anyone who happened to stop by for a meal, and we downed God knows how many sodas. Without question, the best meal of my life thus far. It was a turning point that happened in the midst of a much larger turning point that I can look back at now in the comfort of the past twenty years and know in my heart there isn’t a hell of a lot in life as nice as finding something good to eat instead of worrying about whether or not you are approaching the twilight of your existence.