As a mother I believe it is my sworn duty to expand the horizons of my children, so on a recent trip to Mexico I was determined that we would not have one of those “resort vacations” where the extent of the culture is contained in the fact that the staff is Mexican.
Besides, I’d been to Mexico lots of times, so it was with no small amount of swagger that I announced to my daughters, 12 and 16, that we were going to ride the city bus to the market one day for lunch. They were skeptical and thought the Wendy’s down the street sounded an awful lot better, but I would have none of it. “It will be fun, you’ll see,” I said.
Now, I should mention that I’d never been to this market, only read about it and its many delightful cafes. In fact, it had been 20 years since I’d set foot in Mazatlan, and I think most of that first time was spent misguidedly dancing on a bar somewhere.
Even so, I figured, big deal. I speak passable Spanish and the buses and market areas of Mazatlan are supposed to be exceedingly safe, and darn it, my girls needed a little adventure.
We fumbled our way through the city bus service, though I didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the girls when I admitted I had no map and no idea where the market bus stop actually was. But the bus was loaded with Americanos, and really, where else would they be going? “Let’s wing it,” I shrugged nonchalantly.
Okay, the truth is I was privately kind of scared about the whole no map thing, but this adventure needed a confident ringleader and I was it because, well, it was my idea.
Gratefully the market, a city-block-long building, was obvious because everybody on the bus poured off onto the narrow sidewalk. My girls clung to me in the coolest teenage way possible: by holding my hands. It was sweet, and really, they were terrified.
Inside, vendors hawked all sorts of wares, from touristy Mexican art to brilliant fresh fruits and vegetables. It was kind of pretty in a colorful, bustling way.
So in this brochure-worthy setting, my girls didn’t expect what we’d find in what I like to call the “corner of death,” and frankly, neither did I.
Enormous pigs’ heads, on sticks, no less. Heaping piles of entrails, coiled beautifully. Cow hooves. Eyeballs. Brains. My oldest daughter was actually gagging, my youngest’s eyes were like saucers. I, of course, fainted. Okay, not really, but it was touch and go for a minute. It was a hard scene to recover from, but I tried.
“Ha, um, okay girls, who’s hungry?” I think one of them said she’d rather die than eat something there, but we stumbled over each other to get away from the carnage and find the stairs to the cafes above. There we settled onto a terrace and tried to rub the macabre scene out of our minds so we could eat.
As we stared at the menu, I came to an uncomfortable realization: I couldn’t understand a single word on it. Helpless, it was with great pain that it dawned on me: I don’t speak Spanish, I speak “resort Spanish” where nouns come with pictures and verbs don’t have those pesky things like adverbs and conjugation.
“Mom, I don’t know what this menu says,” my daughter said. “Um yeah, haha, me either,” I replied, which earned me incredulous stares from offspring who now no longer trust me and my stupid adventure idea in the slightest.
The waitress came back once, twice, three times, but her English was about as good as my Spanish at that point, so each time I just treated her to “Una momento,” with an apologetic smile.
We had to do something. “Let’s just all pick something and if we don’t like it we’ll order something else,” I finally suggested. “We’ll keep ordering until we get something we like.”
So the food came, and quite frankly, the anticipation was killing us because we honestly had no idea what we’d asked for.
One plate of what appeared to be barbequed shrimp looked promising until my daughter noticed all the little barbequed legs and eyeballs still attached.
The other got a tinfoil-wrapped fish surprise of some kind with lots of cream sauce and jalapenos that made her nose run and set her mouth on fire.
And I got a mysterious bowl of something cold and a platter of tostadas. Ceviche, the menu had called it, comprised of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and jalapenos and what looked like pieces of shrimp. Raw shrimp, I realized after a few bites. In a market. In Mexico. I started to have visions of dysentery killing me before I made it back onto a plane home.
The adventure, I admit, was not going well.
We stared at the menu again but by this time we were starving and road worn. The good sportsmanship of my children had eroded to quiet contempt for me and the scary food sitting in front of them.
I discovered one word at the bottom of the menu that I recognized: quesadillas. That, along with a basket of plain tortillas, filled our bellies, and, as our moods lifted, laughter about the experience filled our hearts. One daughter ate eyes and a mouth into a tortilla and talked smack about the food through her makeshift mask. The other tossed pieces of shrimp to the scraggly pigeons that had become our lunch companions.
And as I sat back and watched I felt kind of bad about the whole thing, until I realized it really hadn’t gone so badly after all. Lessons are everywhere, even when things don’t go the way you plan. That day my girls learned to be brave, they learned to make do, and they learned sometimes their mom is a complete idiot. I learned that sometimes, no matter how good my intentions, quesadillas are better than adventure.