Tristan is a multi award-winning journalist from England.
In his professional capacity he spent nearly a decade-and-a-half travelling the world covering breaking stories for the UK-based newspaper, 'The Herald'.
During this time he spent approximately four-and-a-half months on Afghanistan's frontline working as a writer/blogger/photographer and broadcaster for The British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS).
In his career he has worked in countries including Iraq, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Norway, The Falkland Islands, Bahrain, Brunei, and of course Afghanistan.
In his personal life he's travelled far and wide lapping up the atmosphere of some of the world's most beautiful, and undoutedly most unbeautiful places imaginable.
Having quit and boxed up the life he knew, he's relocated to Tijuana in Mexico to learn Spanish and be a fiance to the beautiful Jacky.
His popular travel blog 'Once Upon A Time In Mexico...' is regularly updated with unusual and humorous observations on his new life across the pond in the land of tacos and banda music.
Oh, and of course he's going to bullsh*t on about writing a book or a solo album for years to come.
For full details and biog, photographs, travel features and stories, and other interesting bits and bobs visit www.tristannichols.co.uk.
Alternatively find him on Twitter by searching for: tristan_nichols
IT’S stupid-o-clock. It’s some time between 2am and 2.30am and I can’t sleep.
I probably would have been able to sleep had I not incorrectly set the air conditioning/thermostat thing to ‘ludicrous’ heat before settling into bed.
My dreams began peaceful and placid and slowly progressed to being infinitely weird and hell-like.
You know those dreams where you’re parched and desperately trying to find something to drink? You got it, times infinity.
Air conditioning is admittedly something I’ve never been able to get my head around.
I mean, hailing from England how or why the hell would I know how to operate an air conditioning unit?
All I’ve ever done is light gas fires to combat the freezing winters.
Air conditioning? Pfah.
Where I come from ‘air conditioning’ is opening or closing a window. Or asking your flatulent friend to leave the room.
Holidays in Egypt… that’s what air conditioning is designed for for us Brits.
So yes, I can’t sleep. My bedroom, and in fact my entire apartment, is currently a blazing furnace.
I’m in a state of undress with sweat dripping from my brow onto the keyboard. Ewww…
It’s warmer in here than it is in the desert on a summer’s day.
I hear you… ‘open the windows’ and ‘stop whingeing’!
They’re open. And it’s really warm outside. Even at stupid-o-clock.
San Diego, it seems, doesn’t do ‘chilly’.
It’s actually so warm here throughout each and every day, that the city’s parks and recreational spaces boast an unbelievable amount of tramps – or ‘bums’ as they’re called here.
They’re largely harmless. They just sit around sleeping, acting weird occasionally if anyone offers them a glance.
It’s like a year-round bum summer camp. And we’re their entertainment.
Honesty deserves charity
Anyhow I digress.
As I write this I’m also Googling the bloody air-con unit instruction manual in the hope that I can rest easy tonight without the sleep/sauna detox.
I might talk the talk and walk the walk but there is no doubt, here in the U.S. I am a still a stranger in a foreign land – just as much as I was in next-door Tijuana.
I’m daily misunderstood, and often confused.
In the nine weeks that I’ve been here in San Diego I can tell you that Americans are a fascinating bunch.
Oh and in case you didn’t know, they are crazily open and honest about health and religion.
These are two things that people here love to talk about openly.
These are two things that we Brits never really talk about when we’re in the UK.
We have a funny way of avoiding discussions concerning our illnesses, ailments, and of course religious leanings.
Personally I’m not really comfortable talking about either – especially with someone I’ve just met.
“What do you take?” I was asked recently.
“Now? Nothing, I feel fine”.
Again: “Seriously... what do you take?”
Me: “Uh… aspirin or ibuprofen for a headache… a ‘Lemsip’ if I’ve got a cold…?”
*cue long lingering stare*
“And… nothing… I don’t take anything. Nothing to get me through the day, nothing to help me sleep, nothing.”
“Isn’t that weird?” I was then asked.
It’s only when you go to a supermarket (otherwise known here as a ‘grocery store’) that you begin to appreciate the national obsession with remedies.
Drugs - 'aisle' buy that for a dollar!
Shelves and aisles of pills and potions to cure everything from headaches and sports injuries, to sleep deprivation and toothaches. There are pills for things I’ve never heard of.
And natural remedies featuring seemingly unnatural-sounding ingredients.
'D3 5000 I.U.'....? Isn't that a brand of motor oil?
Sure, we have pharmacies in England but wow.
I’m sure there’s actually medication for medication here.
When you’re seen to be new to town religion is the other big talking point.
Within seconds of meeting some people they’ll ask you if you go to church and if you want to go to their church.
I always consider that I must have sinned during the conversation leading up to that point and that they’re trying to cleanse my soul as a result.
I immediately feel uncomfortable and I try to joke my way out of it.
So forgive me.
The actual process of greeting someone here in California (or indeed the U.S.) also confuses me on a daily occurrence.
Rather than simply offering a hardy handshake or a pat on the back, people here seem obsessed with a greeting known as ‘fist-bumping’ – or variations of it.
How the pros do it
It’s basically the action of putting out your fist for someone else to ‘bump’ with their own fist.
I’ve observed plenty of Californians doing it here and I must admit, they look cool.
I however, do not.
There are simply too many variations for me to get my head around.
There’s the actual fist bump. Then there’s the high-five. And there’s some of other part-handshake part-grip thing.
And these are just three of the more popular types of greetings.
And for me, who is new to town and the whole fist-bump thing, I panic when someone puts out their fist or hand because I don’t know which greeting they’re planning on using.
It’s always an awkward moment and, despite the fact that the whole thing is supposed to look and feel ‘cool’, I don’t. I can almost feel my coolness dripping away as and when someone puts out their hand for the bump , or slap, or whatever.
I always hesitate.
Once or twice I admit, I’ve pretty much just thought ‘bollocks to it’ and shaken the outstretched bump fist.
I actually freak out that one day I’m going to face-palm someone by accident.
So I’ve taken to YouTube to try and teach myself some basic rules…
Anyhow. People are strange when you’re a stranger right?
Hey, I noticed my last blog post was popular in Latvia.
Bizarre, but very cool. Welcome Latvians!
At the bottom of this blog is a ‘translate’ icon if anyone wants to read it in a different language.
I can’t promise my ramblings will make any more sense but hey.
Thanks for lending me your eyes.
Want daily updates on this bizarre life I live in…?
Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tristan_nichols
IT’S fair to say that wherever you are in the world if there is a communication breakdown between languages, it’s wise to speak the universal language of football.
Since arriving here nine months ago I’ve often found myself being stared at, blank-faced, by a Mexican wondering what the hell I was going on about.
However if my ignorance – or indeed stupidity – in grasping the language has taught me one thing it’s this: if all else fails mention Manchester United, David Beckham, or Christiano Ronaldo.
Smiles, laughter and nods of approval will be forthcoming.
In fact here in TJ, any mention of me supporting Club Tijuana (nicknamed ‘Los Xolos’) – as a Brit – will almost certainly be met with a hug, and the offer of dinner with the person’s family that evening.
Football is, and always will be, the universal language.
You can use it in any situation to get even the most hardened anti-foreigner to help you out…
Me: “Kay horra porvavor?” (pronounced in manner of English man trying to sound Mexican)
Me: *point at wrist.
Me: “Er… Christiano Ronaldo…?”
Mexican: “Ah… si, SI… FUTBOL!”
Cue nod, and friendly hand on shoulder.
Me: *points at wrist again.
Mexican: “Ahhh… cinco y medio.”
Football here in Mexico is as big a deal as it is in England.
There is truly fierce rivalry and passion akin to something seemingly religious.
Los Xolos (pronounced ‘Cholos’) were only formed in 2007 and, in just five years, they’ve broken league and cup records for their efforts.
A couple of weeks ago they beat the world club champions Corinthians, of Brazil, 1-0.
Such has been their meteoric rise to success, their stadium isn’t even finished yet.
Like the team, the stadium is in development
In the last few weeks Jacks and I have been lucky enough to catch a couple of games at Estadio Caliente, Los Xolos’ home ground.
Our first experience of 'Los Xolos'
For someone who is used to watching football matches in the driving rain in England, watching a game in bright sunshine with mountain views in the distance is simply magical.
Supporters take their seats at Estadio Caliente
The whole experience is nothing short of brilliant.
A carnival atmosphere is almost guaranteed with sections of fans having formed their own bands, complete with trumpets, drums and enough flags to rival those seen at The Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations.
One of the most colourful and standout groups of fans are bizarrely known as ‘Masacre’ (translated in English as ‘Massacre’).
They take their seats in a kind of ceremonial pageant, which almost upstages the arrival of the players on the pitch.
Loud, proud and as flamboyant as you could possibly imagine, these guys are the die-hard fans who dance and sing through every second of the game – despite the score-line.
Parts of the crowd literally bounce up and down in time with the drumming, celebrating life like it’s the last party on earth.
The spectacle creates the atmosphere of an English FA Cup tie, but with a South American flavour.
Los Xolos test their opponents defence again
One of the most bizarre differences between English football and Mexican football is the technique used by companies to advertise their products.
Sure you have the advertising hoards surrounding the pitch, and the company stands within the ground, but these guys go to unusual lengths.
So picture the scene... the ref blows for a foul and play momentarily stops.
An announcer comes on the Tannoy system and, instead of asking for help in returning a key discovered in the ground to its rightful owner, he says this: “Hamburguesa con queso… ahora a Carl’s Jr en Tijuana”.
Yes, that’s right. Advertisers use every spare few seconds in the game to advertise their services and products – including cheeseburgers.
You almost expect to hear: “That goal was sponsored by Coca Cola…”.
Weird hey? If you ask me the FA is clearly missing a trick!
There are other more subtle differences between English and Mexican football.
When the ref blows for a free kick he marks the spot of the foul with some sort of white spray paint, and then again where the 10-yard point is where the opposing team’s player must stand.
The stadium scoreboards in North American football are also different in that instead of counting up to the game’s normal 90 minutes of playing time, they count up to 45 minutes during each half.
While there are no doubt many differences between English football and Mexican football, the universal outspoken disapproval of another team by fans is a global addiction.
And it’s no different here – but obviously the insults are in Spanish.
Even before the game has kicked off the banter starts with the reading of the players’ names on the team sheets.
“Numero uno for los Xolos…” – Cue loud cheers.
And then the opposing team sheet: “Numero uno for …” – Cue loud cheers of “PUTO” (‘faggot’ in English) for each and every name.
Once the game kicks off the goal kicks are also comedy gold.
“oooooooooooooOOOOOOOO…. PUTO!!!!!!!!” shout the thousands of men, women and children crammed into Club Tijuana’s stadium as the opposing team take a goal kick.
I can’t help but laugh each and EVERY time, especially when they get louder.
It’s much like the “you’re shiiiiiiit AAAAAHHHHHHH….” heard in English stadiums across the kingdom during the same moment.
From comments made by Jacks during the last couple of games, I think I’ve got work to do in explaining the rules and ways of football.
“If it starts raining, do they stop playing until it stops?” she asked during last Saturday’s game.
During a goal kick I questioned the thinking of the opposing team’s goalkeeper in wearing bright purple shorts and socks with a blue and white striped top.
“Which one?” asked Jacks.
“Um… the only goalkeeper playing on the other team…”
I think I’ll wait a few weeks before trying to explain the offside rule.
Los Xolos' Fidel Martinez fends off two opposing players
Raul Enriquez on the attack
As I’ve said before, Tijuana sadly has undoubtedly one of the worst reputations and images in the world – not helped by Hollywood.
So to me with the city’s team nicknamed after sacred Aztec dogs, metaphorically it speaks volumes of the team.
Like the city itself, they are almost ‘underdogs’.
The attitude here reminds me of my birth town of Plymouth which was almost completely annihilated during World War Two.
It too boasts that gritty sense of belief, togetherness and pride in being media outcasts.
So I’m proud to say that I’m now a Xolos fan. And possibly the only English Xolos fan.
I wonder if they’re in the market for a foreign striker?
I mean, I played English Sunday league football for a few years… (ahem).
“DO YOU want some of THAT meat in your breakfast taco?” a Mexican friend asks me as we take our places in the queue at one of Tijuana’s best-known and most celebrated taco stands.
“What is it?” I ask.
Oh… no sooner had I asked, I realized that the long thick piece of meat being ‘shaved’ in front of me was in fact a cow’s tongue.
Shaved tongue anyone?
People say they enjoy going to restaurants where they can see the chefs preparing the food in front of them.
But on this occasion I beg to differ.
Taco stands – and the idea of simply pulling over on the side of the road and eating among strangers – are woven into the very fabric of life in Mexico.
They are inextricably associated with Mexico in the same way as a traditional fish and chip shop is linked to England.
The look of them, the smells, the tastes, even the sound of them, is so unique you can only be in Mexico.
And it seems that over the generations, Mexicans have developed a technique to eating tacos.
Much like the Chinese with their amazing ability to eat soup with a pair of chopsticks, Mexican folk devour tacos without any issue.
And me? Well… here I’m like a clown who got left behind by the circus.
The skill involved with eating tacos is something which I am yet to master and truly understand.
I’m sure it’s a secret art which has been whispered to young Mexican ears through the generations.
So what is the secret?
“Head down and eat fast,” is one answer from a Mexican friend here in Tijuana.
“Big bites, get your head close to the plate, eat quick, don’t talk, focus,” adds another.
However no matter how hard I try, I end up wearing the tacos instead of consuming them.
I mean, how hard can it be...?
It all went wrong from here
Napkin count for eating two tacos?
In the end I’m not sure whether the restaurant charged us for the tacos, or for the napkins.
I look around and other people have clear plates with no evidence that they ever held food.
As we leave the stand I’m fully expecting one of the staff members to shout after me (between giggles) “you haven’t finished your food…”
Yes I know, I’ve left most of it on my once-clean T-shirt.
New sense of the word ‘takeaway’.
Eating at a taco stand will never be classed as a fine-dining experience.
It is definitely not the place to take a girl on a first date. Can you imagine?!
“I really like you…” says the hopeful hombre with meat juice and chili sauce dripping down his chin.
However with all jokes aside, the food is goooooooood.
“The beauty of these taco stands is that you can drive for miles and miles into the middle of nowhere, you can be starving hungry, and then you’ll just stumble across a random one right there on the side of the road,” one Mexican friend tells me.
“It’ll almost certainly serve the most delicious tacos you’ve ever tasted. They can be the shittiest looking stands, but they’re guaranteed to serve the best food.
“That’s how it works.”
I mean, you just won't expect this to serve Michelin Star food right?!
Urban legends are always associated with culture, and – given the national obsession with tacos – it’s only natural that there will be some myths surrounding such places.
“They’re good, but they’ve not been the same since my friend was killed who used to work here…” a Mexican friend proclaimed as we tucked into tacos in Playas de Tijuana on another occasion.
“Car accident?” I offer between bites.
“No, he was shot dead by a gang.”
“Yeh, while serving tacos right?” I add laughing.
“Oh, you heard about that?” he asks me surprised.
“Um…WHAT?! I was joking!”
Yep sure enough, a while ago my friend’s favourite taco maker/server was murdered while doing his job in this very taco stand right here in Playas de Tijuana.
Gulp. Bon appetit!
Sure, you never really know what you’re going to get at these stands.
Some claim that another stand here in TJ once sold ‘cat’ tacos.
Admittedly when you look at the meat it’s difficult to tell which animal it once belonged to.
You can get egg and shredded beef tacos, which is basically your ‘breakfast’ taco.
As mentioned above you can also get ‘tongue’ tacos; chicharron (boiled pork scratchings) tacos; chicken tacos; intestine tacos; chorizo tacos; and fish tacos – or a strange combination of them all.
It seems that anything goes.
I’m sure that if someone discovered traces of horse meat in any tacos here, there would be a queue miles long across the border into San Diego.
Most tacos with either a mix of, or all, beans, chili, cheese, avocado and fresh herbs.
A relatively 'normal' taco
And most are actually delicious.
But with each visit comes a new surprise for me.
Last weekend Jacks and I took our seats at a taco restaurant in front of a cauldron-like bubbling dish of stringed meat.
The ‘meat’ turned out to be intestines.
Sometimes you just shouldn't ask...
Worst of all… after we ate relatively ‘normal’ meat tacos, I discovered that the actual taco tortillas are cooked in the fat which the intestines are fried in.
In times of economic meltdown and global hardship, people are wishing on their lucky stars for a bit of good fortune. So it seems only fitting really that some people are turning to the more 'alternative' methods of the 'dark arts', AKA voodoo, to help them out.
In some of the more traditional markets here in Mexico, tucked in between the bustling vegetable and fruit stalls and herb stands in the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, you'll find bizarre market traders selling weird and wonderful spiritual help-me-outs.
Colourful and creepy good luck charms and figurines, potions, spells, ointments, elixirs, herbs, amulets and candles are all crammed onto busy shelves offering different magical powers to target specific issues in every day life.
Some trinkets are said to bring good luck, while others are said to offer protection. Some of the potions are meant to be drunk like tea or mixed with holy water; some powders are spread out on the ground in the shape of figures or signs; some herbs are burnt; and some powders are thrown over lit candles while the user whispers their wishes during rituals.
Wouldn't it just be amazing if these potions actually worked?! Want a successful business? Want that crazy woman/bloke to leave you alone? Wish they were dead?! Just add boiling water and two sugars. The spells are sold in small envelopes similar to those that normally contain teabags. And they cater for a huge range of predicaments.
Some claim to help businessmen and women keep clients; some claim to help you get a pay rise at work; some target generic fears; and some claim to assist you in getting someone to love you. Others apparently help to 'send someone away' who has been cheating on you; and some also claim to bring 'death' to a person boasting a "reinforced dust formula."
God only knows what ingredients are used. A quick search on Google highlights 'dried snakes' skin' and 'cactus' as being just some of the ingredients used in such concoctions. Mexico, like many other countries around the world, is a deeply spiritual place.
>Religion is closely related to folk traditions, intertwined with mythology and magic. While the vast majority of people do attend church to pray for luck, it seems a great many people here do trust in the more magical and mysterious methods.
Personally speaking, as a Brit these sort of potions have certainly never been on any one of my weekly shopping lists.
But hey, anything's worth a try right?!
All this aside, it actually wouldn't be right to talk about all these weird and wonderful things and not mention UFOs. A number of people I have spoken to here in TJ claim to have seen "weird shapes" or "lights" in the sky. Everyone seems to know someone who has seen a UFO.
Jacky's mum and dad claim to have seen several - one here in the sky above the house, and a couple in Mexico City where they once lived.
The relative proximity to New Mexico and the notorious 'Roswell' only help to fuel the fire of belief of aliens visitors. News reports here on Mexican national television also seem to show amateur footage of UFO sightings on regular occasions.
The volcano shown is just outside Mexico City which is one of the busiest places on earth. Hence it the sight attracted a large audience. Mexico is said to be a 'hotbed' of UFO sightings with more sightings than most other countries in the world.
FOOD, glorious food.
There really is nothing quite like it. Especially here in the land of tacos.
I realise that the vast majority of these blogs have been about food but hey, my tastes, habits and self-inflicted ridicule are a constant source of amusement and entertainment.
So why not write about it? If it looks good enough to eat, you might as well tell people about it. That's what I say anyway.
Besides, Mexicans talk about food a lot. Like all the time.
"Muy bien, mi quesadilla es incredible".
Or something like that. Or is that just me?!
On the whole Mexican cuisine is amazing. One of my favourite Spanish-Mexican phrases is actually now 'queso con todo' (cheese with everything!).
So with food for thought, and with so many people from back home asking me for traditional Mexican recipes, I thought I'd give you one.
Breaking with the blogging norm, here is an easy recipe for 'Bistec al chili guajillo' (basically meat with guajillo chili).
Believe me, if I can make it anyone with two hands and a pair of eyes can.
And no, it is NOTHING like the fajita packs you get in British supermarkets. Honestly when I told Jacks and her mum and dad about them they laughed, and then pulled faces of disgust.
I'm ashamed to say before now those fajita packs were my only brush with Mexican cuisine.
So here goes... Bistec al chili guajillo.
Ingredients (in no particular order of appearance, importance or preference):
- three medium-sized potatoes
- four garlic cloves
- 12 (yes TWELVE) dried guajillos
- one big ass tomato
- two pints of water
- three chicken breasts or some pork or beef (stewing beef I imagine would be pretty good)
- quarter of an onion
- level teaspoon of powdered cinnamon
- one stock cube (chicken)
- 10 or so cubed pieces of pineapple, and roughly three tablespoons of pineapple juice
- a little oil
- salt and pepper
Grab the chilis and LIGHTLY burn them on the stove.
(Yes, that's right... we're lightly torching the buggers so we can release some of the flavour).
Make sure you don't over-burn them, simply toast them for a few seconds on each side.
Pull out stalks and place them in a pan containing a pint-and-a-half of water, the four cloves of garlic and the whole tomato.
Simmer until the tomato skin begins to peel off
Bring water to the boil then reduce heat, cover and simmer for five to 10 minutes - or until you can easily peel the skin off the tomato.
When you can, take the skin off the tomato - we don't need it. Why? Not sure, but Mexican mum knows best.
Now transfer contents of the pan to a liquidizer adding the quarter of an onion.
Blend it baby!
Yes, my fingernails appear to have grown a tad...
Okay, now gently fry the meat (chicken, pork or beef) in a little oil adding salt and pepper.
Chop up the three potatoes into cubes and add them to the frying pan. Fry for a few minutes.
Once everything is nicely browned, add the blended chili sauce using a strainer.
Use strainer to avoid chili stalk bits etc
Add a tiny bit (maybe a level teaspoon) of cinnamon powder to the sauce, meat and potatoes.
Then scrunch up the chicken stock cube and to the pan, along with about half a pint of water.
Simmer and season more to taste.
Now add three tablespoons of pineapple juice and the pineapple cubes.
Don't add all the juice seen in this picture - only three tablespoons!
Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until it looks like this:
Boil up some rice and add the meat and chili sauce to it.
And there you have it: Bistec al chili guajillo.
Now I know what you're all thinking... jeez TWELVE chilis?! Believe me, if they were that hot I wouldn't add one!
They're pretty weak in terms of heat, but they do add some amazing colour and rich texture to the dish.
Try it! Go on, you know you want to...
Oh, by the way you should be able to pick the guajillo chilis up in most supermarkets or markets, either fresh or bagged. We got ours bagged in a local supermarket.
On a side note, massive huge thank yous to one of my besties, Claire (Fulton) Ray, for steering me in the direction of the Scoville heat chart.
It turns out she too co-habitated with a chili fiend, and it made sense to check the 'scale' to see what was potentially painful at mealtimes.
As you can see the 'pretty weak' (according to Jacks' dad) habanero chili is one of the hottest chilis in the world!
And there I was thinking I was a wimp.
The new addition to the fridge door - the Scoville chili heat chart
BUENOS dias! Oh, and feliz Nuevo Ano (happy New Year).
So where was I….?
Oh yes, chilis, that’s what I really want to talk about today.
I’ve referred to them often enough in this blog without really going into detail about my encounters.
So as they’re a cornerstone of meals in Tijuana and Mexico, It seems right to shed some light on the little buggers.
Firstly, no matter what anyone says about how great they are and how a dish 'simply isn’t the same' without them, bear this little fact in mind…
Capsaicin, one of the main substances found in chilis, is one of the key ingredients of pepper spray - you know, the WEAPON.
I rest my case.
These things are armed and dangerous. And they should carry a health warning.
Jacky’s dad swears blind that they’re actually “muy bueno” and won’t hear a bad word said against them.
“Different chilis have different effects on your body,” he told me yesterday as I once again mulled over adding some to my soup.
“Some are irritants, some help your stomach, and some make you sweat. Some are bad for you, and some are good.
“If you’re feeling rough after a night out drinking, you can eat some habanero chilis and you will feel better.
“You sweat out the alcohol.”
Okay, fair shout. Although personally I think the last thing I’d want to eat on a hangover is something which would ultimately make me feel sick.
The habanero chilis are a particularly violent and nasty variety, as I found out a couple of weeks ago.
Contrary to my previous belief, the small ones are the more powerful.
Who’d have thought that something so tiny, orange, and kind of cute-looking could pack such an evil punch?!
Behold the habanero - cute but violent
I was having some soup over Christmas and Jacks’ dad suggested I add some habaneros to “add some flavour”.
Holy sh*t. Within seconds of eating a spoonful I turned into a cartoon character complete with steam bursting out of my ears. I started sneezing uncontrollably, and my nose streamed like Niagara Falls.
My tongue suddenly wanted nothing to do with the rest of my body ever again.
Of course my pain and suffering generated immense pleasure and hilarity with my Mexican family.
“This is GOOD for you?!” I attempted to argue as torrents of sweat poured off my forehead and onto the once dry tablecloth.
I struggled to see any ‘good’ in the meal’s late addition.
“If it’s too hot for you add some lime?” he said offering up a solution.
How about passing me the fire extinguisher and a couple of towels? I thought.
I did try and reply verbally, but my tongue refused to allow me to speak properly so I simply generated a noise.
Habaneros - should be sold with health warnings, or painkillers
I had no idea that there were so many varieties of chili.
In England, chili is chili. Or at least for me it was.
Here they seem to have different ones for every day of the week.
Chili de arbol, guajillo chilis, habanero, pasilla, jalapeno and ancho chilis... to name but a few.
Dried chili de arbol
A light snack Jacks?
Dried guajillo chilis
Each one boasts a different level of flavour and heat.
One of the many things I find weird and wonderful about Jacks is the way that when we go to the cinema, she adds jalapenos and their brine juice to the popcorn box.
She throws the chilis all over the popcorn and adds the liquid on top just to give them some extra flavour.
Being a Brit with a definite sweet tooth as opposed to sour, I stick with the sugar-coated popcorn.
So when we have a ‘half-and-half’ box of popcorn I definitely know when I’ve reached the bottom.
I always joke that Jacks would put chili on her cornflakes if she could, and it’s no exaggeration.
In her view (and the rest of the family’s for that matter) no meal is complete without something which turns you bright red and makes you reach for a glass of water.
Soup? Add chili. Noodles? Add chili. Quesadillas? Add chili. Scrambled eggs?! Add chili. Potatos chips? Chili sauce.
Chili? Of course, add some more chili.
"Would you like some crisps with your chili sauce?!"
Towards the end of our recent trip to England she actually began shaking due to the lack of chili in her diet.
I had to hide my small chili plant away for fear of it being chewed in the middle of the night.
For most Mexicans chili is the staple ingredient of any meal.
Even the chocolate here has chili in it!
They very obviously have stomachs lined with lead.
According to Wikipedia chili peppers have been part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500BC, so the Americans (whether it be northern or southern) really should no better.
I guess after that amount of time their stomachs and digestive systems have got used to the effects of eating the buggers.
And yes, it seems that they truly do have medicinal uses.
In retrospect, I don’t think that seven months is nearly long enough for an English gut to get used to consuming chilis – whatever variety they are.
I think I’ll stick to the ‘Flaming Hot’ Monster Munch… if only I could find them out here…
WITNESSING the 'big five' on an African safari, watching humpback whales gleefully leaping out of the ocean, photographing an endangered bird in its natural habitat.
All the above are great, but if catching a glimpse of a Tijuana zebra-donkey isn't on that 'things to do before you die' list then it might as well be void.
Is it a zebra? Is it a donkey? Is it actually a horse with a seriously bad case of mistaken identity?!
Who knows... but the mystical creatures live on the streets of downtown TJ like four-legged gods walking among mere men.
In all seriousness if you're a tourist, no trip to downtown TJ would actually be complete without a picture of one of the hapless sun-baked animals.
And on visiting Avenida Revolucion you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid seeing one – not least being pushed onto one by its owners desperate to grab your cash for a photograph.
I'd heard about them before from Jacks but I didn't actually realise how famous they are. Their existence in the city is woven into the fabric of Tijuana's identity.
The zebra-donkey has become something of a cultural icon here over the decades and people actually travel from far and wide just to see one - even internationally.
Two or three of the animals are paraded around certain spots on a daily basis in front of a cart containing enough colourful sombreros, throws and rugs, to make your eyes water.
Stranger than fiction - behold the zebra donkey
Okay, kids if you don't want to know the truth look away now... the 'zebra donkey' is basically a white donkey which has black stripes painted on it. It's as simple as that.
And people love it so much they have even daubed huge neon pictures of them on shop fronts.
The 'zonkey' expertly presented by Jacks
When I first heard about the animal I thought it was linked to some bizarre legend Tijuana, or indeed Baja California.
But it seems there is no legend.
The truth is in fact stranger than fiction.
A quick scan of the internet states that the bizarre idea to actually paint the stripes on the animals came about in the age of black and white photography so that the animals stood out in the tourists' pictures.
Despite the invention of cameras which could take colour photographs, the animal graffiti stayed.
Personally I question whether back in the day the donkeys got on to their agents demanding more recognition for their role in the tourist trap?
They must be the laughing stock of the farm when they return home after a hard day's work!
What made me laugh even more was the discovery of some websites which are actually claiming that these animals are in fact a "unique breed" - much like the people who try to force you into having your photograph taken with them.
So is it too early to say 'Happy Christmas?!' Well, there you have it!
“BUY something you don’t need?” asked the ageing Mexican as we walked past his magnificently chintzy tourist shop.
As far as sales pitches go, this one was pretty lame.
But you had to appreciate the apparent brilliance in its sheer honesty.
Had we a penchant for buying over-priced rubbish then we might have taken him up on his offer.
But we decided to venture on exploring Tijuana’s infamous ‘Downtown’ area.
I know I know, I can hear you asking… ‘it’s taken you six MONTHS to go downtown?!’
Personally I’d much rather settle into an area and then do the ‘norm’ and take in the tourist traps.
Avenida Revolucion (Revolution Avenue) is THE tourist heart of TJ. It’s the main strip which plays host to most of the city’s bars and tourist shops and stalls.
At one end is the famous Tijuana arch, and at the other is the huge Mexican flag. Both act as symbols of pride.
Standing tall: Tijuana's famous arch
Now THAT is a flag
Each shop on Avenida Revolucion pretty much sells the same chintzy assortment of key rings, guitars, sombreros, chess boards, 'I LOVE Tijuana' stickers, wrestling masks (Mexicans LOVE wrestling), and spectacularly bright ornaments which would immediately cheapen any mantelpiece.
I’m led to believe its TJ's notorious drug cartels which have given the city, and indeed, Avenida Revolucion its bad name in recent years.
Sadly even at night the once bustling and chaotic downtown area is now a shadow of its former self.
Promotional teams, bar and restaurant owners and even waiters, almost go as far as to sell their souls to entice you into visit their establishments.
Some sales pitches are obviously better than others.
It seems that even the sale of a couple of cold beers will allow these establishments to open the next weekend.
When I ask whether it was the global downturn in the economy that put paid to the once booming trade, Jacks tells me that it was actually largely the fault of the US media which shot an arrow through its heart.
As I’ve mentioned before, you only have to watch a US comedy starring Will Ferrell and you’ll hear reference to the slurs against ‘Tijuana’.
It has probably the worst name in Hollywood.
And while I admittedly wasn’t around here a few years ago to witness the ‘bad times’, it’s hard to imagine a place so bad that it deserves such a stigma which still sits heavily on its shoulders.
Even Jacky openly admitted after our night-time visit that “it’s not as bad” as she imagined.
Sure it’s seedy, and it feels dangerous and edgy.
But we weren't offered any form of drug, not least an Aspirin, as we wondered around.
The air reeks of stale cigar smoke, cheap perfume and tacos, and your ears are filled with the sound of The Doors, banda music and some sort of techno – but isn’t that its appeal? It is what it is.
A few titty bars, drinking holes, bric-a-brac tourist shops, and a zebra-donkey or two to have your photograph taken with?
I mean, that’s Blackpool right?!
Nowhere here does a sign say ‘welcome to Tijuana, please wipe your feet’.
Besides in life you have to taste the sour to appreciate the sweet.
And I actually like it.
TJ - proud to be Mexican
In between all that there is also evidence of an upcoming art revolution in the street. A few new trendy and retro art gallery/shops have opened and there are cool Banksy-style murals and designs on shutter doors and shops fronts.
The famous 'zebra-donkey'
Oh, useless fact for the day?
The concept for the traditional ‘Caesar salad’ was created in Tijuana.
It turns out that an Italian restauranteur called Caesar Cardini owned a restaurant in TJ and developed the salad at that establishment.
That was back in the 1920s.
Nowadays The Hotel Caesar and the associated restaurant on Avenida Revolucion proudly continues the association.
Further food for thought eh?
Talking of which it didn’t half feel strange tucking into an ice cream last weekend in 25 degree heat – especially because everyone back home in the UK has been experiencing hell on earth with regards to the weather.
I’ve told Jacky that on second thoughts she’d best pack the snorkel and mask and a few extra woolly jumpers.
YOU know, most of the more interesting and funny moments of my new life in Mexico have happened around the dinner table.
Telling my girlfriend’s mother that I was feeling ‘horny’ when I meant to say I was feeling ‘hot’ (due to the sun) is a moment which those in attendance will never let me forget.
Another standout moment has got to be when numerous members of Jacky’s family tried to teach me to roll my R’s to get the perfect Spanish accent.
The sound that came out of my mouth was not a rolled ‘R’, it was more like the sound of a bee slowly dying (probably of embarrassment).
Having five or six people rolling R’s at me at the same time in perfect harmony was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
“It’s easy!” Jacky told me.
“Er... it’s really not,” I replied.
It is one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to learn. And now I am so self conscious of doing it wrong and simply making a noise at someone, that I can’t possibly EVER try it again.
I don’t understand how people can wake up one day knowing how to do it.
I’ve even tried googling it to find a video tutorial. To be honest the comments – mainly from half-wit Americans – are more entertaining.
So yes, I’m trying new things. I’m eating different food, I’m exploring new places, and I’m learning a new language (well, new for me).
An Englishman here in Tijuana (known as ‘TJ’) is a rarity.
And to say I stand out like a sore thumb is a massive understatement.
My skin colour is different, my accent is weird, and I’m literally about three feet taller than your average Mexican.
I stand head and shoulders above everyone. When I’m in a supermarket I peer out over the aisles like the Statue of Liberty gazing out over Manhattan’s ant population.
Jacky bought me a pair of boots as a welcoming gift and, while the size and length of the boots are fine, they are so narrow that I’m sure the daintiest British tinkerbell supermodel would have a job squeezing into them.
I now honestly believe that I – like many men who derive from the West Country – have ‘pasty’ feet.
Such has been the intensity of people’s stares here that they’ve nearly walked out into traffic.
I, more often than not, smile politely and say ‘hola’.
I’m not sure exactly what people expect me to say, but they often look bemused and give me a look to suggest ‘wow... it speaks’.
It’s strange being in a foreign land. And my foreign mind works in strange ways.
Wherever I am, somewhere in the chasms of my brain I immediately look for an indication of where the next toilet is. You know, just in case nature calls.
Last week Jacky and a contact of hers took me to a kind of TJ chamber of commerce event.
It was a weekly update for a huge expo style event called ‘Tijuana Innovadora’ going on over here in October.
It will undoubtedly be a big deal as they’ve lined up the co-founder of Apple as well as many other important speakers from the US and Mexico.
The event is all about celebrating TJ and its relations and standing with the world.
So unbeknown to me, my attendance at last week’s event – as an (award-winning... well, I can say that now right?!) English journalist – was seen as a ‘big deal’.
I walked into a room of around 100 people and people stopped talking and stared.
You know like the classic scene in a Western when the stranger character walks into the saloon?
People stopped sipping their coffee, they fixed eyes on me, the guy in the back stopped playing the piano... (okay, there was no piano player but you get the gist).
The next thing I know someone thrust a microphone into my hand and signalled for me to introduce myself.
I spoke some Spanish, I spoke some English, and I spoke something which is a cross between the two incorporating hand movements and weird facial expressions.
And I got a round of applause. Oh, and then everyone started dancing. Honestly.
I must have said something right? Right? People even wanted their pictures taken with me.
In that single moment I felt like I’d announced my arrival to potential future employers.
So watch this space.
At the weekend I also encountered something else which was new and weird in equal measure.
We drove past a hardware store (TJs equivalent to B&Q) and there was a large group of men shouting at the passing vehicles.
It turns out that these men were actually plumbers and electricians who were plying for trade.
Yellow Pages? Facebook group? Who needs em. Just shout loudly at your potential customers!
Personally I wouldn’t want to employ someone who scared the living cr*p out of me but hey, when in Rome... or Mexico.
It got me thinking that maybe I should just massively over pronounce my R’s and growl at people to show that I’m actually trying?
Hmmmm... maybe not.
I’VE eaten some amazing dishes in the last two weeks.
I’ve also eaten some weird things which I didn’t know whether to consume, or flush.
“What’s this?” I ask sat around the dinner table.
“Mole” Jacky’s mum replies.
“Er...” cue smile followed in quick succession by confused look.
“Um, muy bien... que... por que... como... Oh what the hell, sounds good to me”.
It’s black, it has the consistency of mashed baked beans and it tastes like chilli and chocolate.
Oh, and it’s served over chicken.
It could be a lot worse.
Another favourite dish over here is chicharron – known to you and I as pork scratchings.
Apparently chicharron is a dish which has been around since forever in Mexico.
While we know chicharron from the weird taste in our mouths the morning after a good night out at the pub, over here the pig skin (because that’s what it is right?!) is boiled and served with a kind of tomato sauce – and of course chilli, LOTS of chilli.
I think this is the only dish I’ve tried over here which I don’t like.
Crunchy pork scratchings when drunk = good sooooo good.
Soft and sludgy pork scratchings when sober = bad.
I’m even enjoying eating cactus, which is once again boiled, but served as a meal’s accompaniment like green beans.
It doesn’t really taste of anything, and it doesn’t give you the hallucinogenic effect I was half expecting.
Of all the dishes I’ve tried the classic ‘Mexican’ dishes still take some beating.
Traditional quesadillas rock my world. As do the tortillas.
Jacky’s mum also creates this amazing dish which is basically scrambled eggs with chorizo sausage and grated cheese on top.
She is a very VERY good cook.
Just about everything smells and tastes good. Even the street taco stands produce some pretty good meals for a few pesos.
And the Mexican almond shower gel smells good enough to eat.
When I bring Jacky to the UK later this year for a short holiday (that’s the plan), I’m sure she will look at the menu of Arriba’s or Lorenzo’s – or that of any other Mexican restaurant – and laugh.
Real Mexican food is so far removed from what I knew before I arrived here it’s hard to fathom how it can actually be described as being even slightly authentic.
It’s like our pasty – in any other country it’s just NOT a pasty. It’s pastry with meat and veg in.
The staple ingredient of any dish here – whether it be a main meal, a packet of crisps, or even a candy bar – is chilli.
Every single meal has chilli in it, and there’s fresh chilli in salsa present on the table at every meal time.
I swear Jacky would have salsa or chilli on her cornflakes if she ate breakfast.
Jacky also took great delight in introducing me to Tamarindo candy which is basically made from a fruit called tamarind, and... surprise suprise, chilli.
Yes, that is the picture of the fruit. Looks like it should be 'flushed' right?
You know that expression your face pulls when you’re not expecting to be repulsed so much? Well, that’s the expression my face pulls whenever Jacky tricks me into trying the same product in different packaging.
It is, put simply, rank.
This is not the face of pleasure
While my Spanish is improving daily I‘ve still been caught out on more than one occasion in recent days.
For instance beaming with pride in myself for successfully asking for and ordering a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and un rollo de canela (a cinnamon Danish) at a cafe shop, I was almost immediately brought back down to earth.
“Caliente?” the girl behind the till asked.
I replied “Tristan,” thinking that she’s asking me for my name to write on the paper coffee cup.
She was in fact asking me if I want the Danish ‘hot’.
So what did I do? What does an Englishman do when abroad and asked a question he doesn’t understand in a foreign language...?
Answer: I repeated my name again only louder just in case she didn’t hear me the first time around.
I have an awful lot to learn.