My wife and I have taken a couple of tour-type vacations. You know, the ones where a guide takes a whole group of you around on a big tour bus. This kind of trip has a few distinct advantages, but experiencing authentic, unscripted local culture is not one of them. Generally, you're steered to events that appear to be staged especially for tour groups and, uncannily, they always manage situate you so you can’t get back to the bus without a trip through the gift shop.
It’s one thing to witness the culture of a place and a people; it’s another to live it. It’s a rare opportunity, one that seldom occurs without a convergence of effort, connections, and timing. Oh, and sheer dumb luck.
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FISH OUT OF WATER
The weather in Mexico City was sunny and clear, but for the usual blanket of brown smog pressing down on this, the sixth largest city in the world. It was clear enough, though, to see Popocatepetl, crowned with clouds. Popo, Mexico’s most active volcano, is only 45 miles away from the center of Mexico City and her 20 million inhabitants and about half as far from Puebla, with another two million. It is within striking distance of all of them, a cataclysm-in-the-making, since eruptive activity has occurred as recently as January, 2008.
I was traveling with my Mexican-American friend and Spanish tutor, Silverio, along with two of his other students, Anne and Kip.
Silverio’s friends, Ignacio (Nacho) and his wife Martha, picked us up in the van he’d rented for us for the week. We drove right from the airport about 80 miles southeast to the state of Puebla and the small village of Santiago Tenango de Reyes, where we were to attend the wedding fiesta for one of Nacho's friends.
...we three unusually tall, unusually pale norteamericanos) walked in to what seemed only slight curiosity from the 100 or so locals.
As we drove into Santiago, we realized just how small a town it was—only about eight blocks long and maybe three or four wide. Its population couldn't have been more than a couple hundred. We parked the van and walked a couple blocks on nearly-deserted cobblestone streets before we came to a broad alley between two cinder block buildings. There the stark space had been converted into a cheery hall by a huge bright yellow-and-green-striped tarp strung between the second stories above.
The six of us (Silverio, Nacho, Martha and we three unusually tall, unusually pale norteamericanos) walked in to what seemed only slight curiosity from the 100 or so locals—evidently half the folks in town—sitting at long rented tables. Within a minute, though, Nacho was proudly introducing us to the bride and groom (the groom Nacho’s co-worker in Mexico City), to the groom’s parents and to the couple’s padrino (something like a godfather). Pony beers and tequilas were in seemingly endless supply, and for the rest of the evening were cheerfully placed into whichever of our hands happened to be free at any time.
A ten-piece mariachi band dispensed its energetic music from the far end of the hall. The charro, or lead singer, is one of Nacho's cousins. Before I knew it, he was announcing something into the microphone about guests from far away and then something more familiar: “...por Cheff, de Meeny-sota…” Suddenly, I was aware that all the guests had now stopped talking and turned to look at us. The next song, apparently just dedicated to me by Nacho, was Como Quien Pierde una Estrella (Like One Who Loses a Star), one of the songs Silverio had taught us in class. I always love mariachi music, but I was especially moved by this rendition and Nacho's thoughtful gesture!
I kept wondering if I'd be so generous and thoughtful if roles were reversed.
After about an hour the parents of the groom asked us to join them. Leaving the other guests to their dinners, we walked about a block down the street to their home. Waiting for us inside were the bride and groom, still in their wedding finery, five or six other adult members of the immediate family and a few kids. We sat down at the dining room table and were served what Silverio explained is a sort of appetizer course traditional for weddings: two types of tamales freshly steamed in corn leaves, two bright little gelatins which tasted like they might have been flavored by chiles, a sweet, crispy, deep-fried sort of cookie, and atole, a hot, creamy, corn-based drink flavored with chocolate with some other notes I couldn't quite place.
It was already the experience of a lifetime just to attend the fiesta, but this—being welcomed like this into this dear family—made us feel deeply honored. I kept wondering if I'd be so generous and thoughtful if roles were reversed.
For no particular reason I picked door number two and swept open the curtain. The young woman sitting on the toilet five feet in front of me scrambled to cover herself with a handful of toilet paper, but the damage was done. I exclaimed, backed gingerly away and waited nervously across the hall. When she emerged, I gestured toward my heart with both hands and said earnestly: ¡Estoy tan embarasado! She seemed to accept my apology graciously, which must have been really hard for her, since—as I later found out—I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious false cognates in Spanish, and had exclaimed "I'm so very pregnant!"
I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious false cognates in Spanish, and had exclaimed "I'm so very pregnant!"
Eventually, we all returned to the main party and sat down at one of the long tables. As we made up for lost time with yet more bottles of tequila and beer, the volunteer servers brought each of us a gigantic bowl of chicken mole. (There must have been half a chicken in each bowl!)
The parents of the groom, sitting near us, were presented with even bigger bowls—each the size of a large casserole, filled with what looked like half a turkey!
The mole, with its complex blend of flavors, was very good, but none of us could even begin to finish such a portion. Apologizing, we were told not to worry; soon big plastic buckets were passed around and everyone just dumped in their leftovers. They offered us one of the buckets to take home with us, but we deflected the generosity to others whom we suspected would be far better able to use the food.
Now that it was dark, the mariachis wrapped up their gig and joined the party. Huge speakers and portable banks of equally loud colored lights had been installed right outside the dining area, under another big tarp. An endless flow of recorded popular and ranchero music started to blare, and people began to dance.
We'd heard somewhere about the wedding fiesta tradition of dancing with goats or turkeys, which then would be slaughtered for dinner. (This, I guessed, might be a remnant of Mayan or Aztec sacrificial offerings.) Sure enough, after an hour or so of dancing, the floor cleared and four older men (I suppose they were the village's elders) walked out, each holding a huge live guajolote (turkey) in his arms. A simple, rhythmic music started and each man danced with his turkey. It was a plain, elegant dance, just stepping, moving and turning with the music, and both the men and the spectators (and the poor birds for that matter) seemed subdued, even reverent.
STICKING YOUR NECK OUT
By this time, I'd had several beers and probably five or six tequilas. I was honestly beginning to believe that the people I'd been trying to converse with could understand me and vice versa. While waxing more and more “fluent,” I looked up and suddenly there was a guajolote in my arms. Apparently one of the men had singled me out as the "elder" of our group. Before I could object, I was being pushed by the crowd out on the dance floor and did the only thing I could: I danced with a turkey.
With the sensation of the warm, damp feathers on my hands and arms, I let the both the music and my emotions move me around the floor.
The bird was surprisingly docile, given what must have been, for him, the otherworldliness of the situation. There I was, with the other three men, being watched by half the village, and the reality of the situation broke through the fog in which the tequila had shrouded me. While I was very much in the moment with the sensation of the warm, damp feathers on my hands and arms, I also felt a transcendent sense of peace and contentment as I let the both the music and my emotions move me around the floor. Then a very conscious thought rose through the raw motion: a prayer that I would never forget this magical moment.
Eventually, the loud music and less morbid dancing returned, and the turkeys disappeared. A few minutes later, four young men crossed the dance floor, unceremoniously carrying the now limp bodies of the big birds by their necks. But, since everyone already had eaten dinner, I was left wondering what became of them. Still in my reverie, I never thought to ask.
TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE...
After the turkey dance, people seemed to look at me differently, with approving smiles, I thought. I did my best to engage in small talk, but couldn't make out much of what they said above the thunderous music and my re-thickening fog of inebriation.
About midnight, we decided that, after such a long day, we'd find the hotel Silverio had booked for us along the road back to Puebla. But one of the wedding couple's relatives wouldn't hear of it, insisting we stay at his home. So we got our bags from the van and ambled off with him down the street. The music abated long enough for an even noisier round of fireworks.
A deafening aerial bomb went off, rattling the few religious trinkets decorating the walls.
The house was relatively nice compared with the working-class Mexican homes I'd seen, with several sparsely decorated, apparently unused, small bedrooms. Kip and I shared one of them. The beds were quite nice, with decent mattresses, but, like those in so many Mexican homes, each room cringed under the harsh light of a single bare bulb. The bathroom didn't even have a switch (we had to screw and unscrew the bulb).
Just as we'd settled in, turned out the light and closed our eyes, the music started again at the party, blasting as if it were coming from the next room. At the same instant a deafening aerial bomb went off, rattling the few religious trinkets decorating the walls. Kip and I both burst into laughter at the amazing experience...and the obvious futility of trying to sleep.