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.
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.
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“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.
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…
“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.