Our guide Dari poured a thin stream of liquid into a flimsy gourd cup and handed it to me. We were in a small cement shack, the maestro leaning casually against one of the barrels lining the wall. We were just another group of gringas, giggly ones at that. Like so many he’d seen before, vacationers, Spanish words sliding off our tongues in an awkward, anglophone way. Dari, in careful Spanish, had explained mezcal production all morning. He paused for effect and said, “Es mezcal con marijuana.” My friends laughed, clearly I was no longer home. We lacked such spirit. I raised the gourd to my lips, took a sip, and passed it to my friends.
A few samples later, we reluctantly left our maestro and his unconventional mezcal. A cloudless sky stretched over a parched, brown landscape. Giant cacti sprouted from the pebbles alongside guaje trees with dangling red pods that resembled chili peppers. It was austere, the absence conquering abundance. It seeped into you slowly, the dryness and dust, the heat at midday. Much like the mezcal we’d tasted, spicy, a bit smoky, a shot of warmth in your stomach. Here was the unexpected charm, the flavors flourishing from the barren ground, a hidden oasis in an otherwise unforgiving land.
As we drove down a hillside studded with agave, the crumbling cement was less obvious, the garbage scattered on the ground, less prominent. That instinctual sensation of disparity had softened. I would grow accustomed to these things, chickens crowing early in the morning, the broken sidewalks, the simple luxury of hammocks - if I stayed. But I was transient, taking a quick snapshot of Mexican life, without plunging in. It was light and ephemeral, like a story from an inflight magazine. And somehow unsatisfying, too polished for the grit of meaningful experience. Although everyone saw a rubia, I sensed I belonged. I had spent my last semester of high school in the mountain valley of Tegucigalpa, and ever since, trips south felt like returning home. My inclusion was hidden, but it was there, tucked just underneath my skin.
We stopped by the side of a building with a picture of a man peaking over a wall. Below, in neat white letters it read, “Donald, eres un pendejo.” I shared the Mexicans’ disdain for the American president. We stopped at a roadside stand for lunch; grilled nopales and cheese, homemade tortillas, mole negro and rojo, and eggs, somehow also grilled. Simple food though complexity would add nothing more. Dari sipped a michelada, a beer with salt and lime, as a few stray dogs eyed our food hungrily. A land of endless varieties of mezcal and mole, it was exhilarating. Less restraint without a cost, though I knew that wasn't true.
The afternoon brought us to another palenque, this one with an orchard, burros, and a pair of small dogs. Piñas, agave hearts, were piled under a sign, “3 Mesquites de Don Goyo”. The maestro was a barrel-chested man with a disconcerting cough. His mezcal was of high quality, some of the best in the area. In the late afternoon sun of mezcal tasting, this was hard to discern, but verified the next day. Surprisingly complex, but lacking the smoky flavor I loved. Apparently a defect, this was incongruous with the quality it gave to mezcal.
Earlier in the day, we had seen a fire pit where the piñas were roasted. Huge, cumbersome hearts that aptly resembled pineapples. Amanda, one of my friends, joked, “I've been waiting for this moment all of my adult life”.
I felt the same, though perhaps not quite as long. We’d spent many a sweltering Arizona night drinking tequila. Tucson was two hours from the Mexican border, and you could feel it, spilling over, beckoning. Previously known as a clear liquid for margaritas, tequila slowly evolved into an adult status. It could be resposado (rested) or añejo (mature) which possessed a flavor akin to whiskey. Eventually, sotol, bacanora, and mezcal all came to life, but mezcal was the king of them all. Undisputedly exotic, a dive into the southern depths of Mexico. It held the mystery of far away places, rough around the edges, challenging but enhancing. This was not apparent until you returned to the wide, clean-swept boulevards of home, and found them, for the first time, just a little too neat.
Once the agave was cut into smaller pieces, they were placed in a tahona, a circular enclosure with a large stone wheel. All you had to do was attach a horse, or burro if you preferred, to crush the agave. It looked primitive, like the art of blacksmithing demonstrated by some bearded, old man. Artisanal was the word they used, which didn’t seem to fit either, conjuring images of unshaven men and craft beer. Don Goyo preferred burros; his mezcal tanks were decorated with little “Puro Burro” stickers. We heard them braying somewhat pathetically in the background. Dari didn’t seem to mind though, sipping a generous mezcal sample, and looking through his phone. It was infused with turkey, which imparted a distinctive taste, and was our least favorite. We had tried it in gingerly in the tasting room, and through a tacit, mezcal passing agreement, it ended up in Dari’s hands.
Nicky, my other friend, was delighted by the burro stickers, the artistic bottle labels, and the tiny chairs against the wall. After much deliberation, we bought a bottle of mezcal, sat in the little chairs, and ate some of the agave heart. It was fibrous and sweet, like fruit with so much potential. Dari reprimanded us for speaking so much English, when we could be practicing Spanish. He was right, but to be fair, my Spanish abilities had degraded severely since the morning. Nicky, on the other hand, didn’t know much Spanish but used what she did unabashedly. At that point mere communication was the goal, and comprehension was an added delight.
When I had arrived in Tegucigalpa, I was worse than her, much worse. “Entiendes?” confused me, which also answered the question. I had learned Spanish in fits and starts through several classes, trips, and countries. Each time it changed a little bit, revealing a new face and a new accent, resonating with a different tune. Sometimes a whole set of vocabulary metamorphosed without warning from place to place. Maddeningly, like my inability to grasp subjunctive tense. Spanish came to have an unmastered familiarity. Some words, buried deep in the past, resurged. Each with a memory, an imprint of its own. Like mano, pie, and dedo, taught by my Honduran host mother on an evening walk through our colonia. Or platanos, which were inevitably fried and covered in refried beans and cream. I loved this delicious new word for bananas.
We left Don Goyo and his burros as the sun set across the dusty landscape. We stopped at a giant tree, tall, but more impressive for its width. It was over 1500 years old, claiming the expanse of an entire churchyard. A hushed solemnity emanated from the area; it had little to do with the small colonial church. We ate esquites, giant roasted corn, amid the din of children playing. And I learned another word, cruda, which I hoped not to experience the next day.
On one of the final stops, Dari pulled over to show us a species of agave he particularly liked. On a hillside, a pair of agaves were nestled in the gravel, one green, one purple. During the dry season, the lack of water made their leaves lose color.
“Why is that one still green?” asked Amanda. “Does it get more water?”
“Somehow,” Dari answered doubtfully. It was interesting, this depravation leading to beauty. Like leaves, stripped of their nutrients, revealing the golden colors of autumn. Austerity and abundance, a struggle bringing out the colors hidden underneath your skin. Something lost, regrettably, in this era of billionaires and border walls.
Merci pour la lecture!