Friday, March 4, 2016

Trekking the Birthplace of Food IV

The next morning, I’m driven to the small town of Coxcatlan by a new friend named Lily. She’s not exactly hard on the eyes. Our road traverses agricultural fields with multiple mountain ranges on both sides. The top ridges are stark and knobby. Heat and humidity increase until we reach the town turnoff at a fountain inscribed “Coxcatlan: Cradle of Maize.”

Getting permission to visit the cave of the oldest corn fossils means following the 5-step process required for most authorizations in Mexico: submit to authority, make new friends, wait and wait and wait. Confrontation and demands can get you results but more often get you screwed.

Thus, I play it cool. Initially, I submit to, make friends with, and wait on the security guard at the palacio municipal. Next, I submit to, make friends with, and wait on a long string of bureaucratic gatekeepers and community leaders. Finally, I’m introduced to the presidente municipal Vicente Lopez de la Vega.

The mayor is a Spaniard wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, silver belt, red checkered shirt, and cowboy hat. This rodeo attire is clean, starched, and worn with pride like a redneck tuxedo. I’ve found the guy who can make things happen.

Vicente snaps his fingers to summon director of tourism Atenea Espinoza Sanchez, instructing her to meet our needs. A couple of smiling and backslapping photos with world-famous author Lyn Fuchs for the local paper then el presidente rides off into the sunset followed by a dust cloud of his sycophant entourage.

Mexican politicos are often little more than corrupt clowns, but (like all dictators) they can get stuff done. Unfortunately, the coveted authorization has come too late in the day. We must wait until morning to visit the archaeological site.

My chauffer and I grab dinner and a bottle of wine. She leans in and engages an intimate conversation. Stuck overnight with a hottie who seems thrilled to be stuck with me – there are worse fates. Still, there’s a problem: I’m terrified. Lily is a weight lifter and fitness instructor with curves that scream out and points you could bump into from across the street, but her hunger is so strong she can’t stop touching my hand or intimating her neediness to give love to a man.

I couldn’t venture a guess which of us is pumping more testosterone and I wouldn’t dare challenge her to arm wrestle. If she only had a beard, she’d be in a 19th-century traveling circus satisfying every midget, acrobat and donkey in the show. Perhaps, she has surmised that I’m built like one of these performers. (Hint: I’m not short or flexible.)

She keeps telling me what a gentleman I am. Translation: why aren’t you ripping off my pants and what do I have to do to get some satisfaction around here? I’m not easily intimidated but fear I can only serve as her appetizer with a horde of Vikings being required to complete what she considers a decent meal.

So, do I summon the adrenaline of my inner Cirque du Soleil star for “the greatest show on earth”? All I can say is: one man’s hotel bed is another man’s circus trampoline and the animals in some road shows are extremely well treated.

Now, some gringos may be shocked to find raw eroticism in a story about ancient cuisine. Surprise! Mexicans tend to view our hungers for food and sex as the basic passions and pastimes of life – quite similar and even better combined. While gringos often live in their minds visiting past and future with books and technology, Mexicans live more in their bodies savoring sensual reality in the here and now.

Must an apology be issued for relishing natural pleasures more than synthetic thrills? God-given ecstasies over man-made escapes? I think not. Readers who ain’t gettin’ enough (good food and lovin’ I mean) should come to Mexico: a place that offers all the good things in life plus just enough violence to keep the wimps out. I’ve suggested this slogan to the tourism department but haven’t heard back.

At sunrise by the Coxcatlan church, I squeeze into a car with a handful of staffers from the Casa de Cultura. We drive for an hour. Entering a forestry preserve, we wait for permission from forestry officials then pack into the forestry truck with several chubby government workers joining the parade.

We drive for another hour. Arriving at an indigenous communal landholding, we wait around for yet one more access clearance. The settlement is called New Town, begging the question of whether the nearby cave occupied for thousands of years constitutes Old Town. The two community fathers with eight teeth and half a beard each give their blessing then transfer us into their vehicle – a feat similar to the loading of Noah’s Ark.

When they inform me that few other gringos have visited this historic site, I try to feign surprise. “No! Really? You don’t say! There isn’t much demand to spend two days getting permission to drive and hike across a hot dusty desert then look at a hole where old corn cobs used to be? Suddenly, it dawns upon me that I might be the only author to do a project like this because the other authors are smarter. Damn it!

We pass a mountain ridge resembling two faces looking up. Town father Alviro Juarez, who wears official community-government shirt, vest, and baseball cap with muddy boots so old they allow his toes to peek out, explains that these are people who sold their souls to the Devil for money. No doubt I need not ask for his take on the politicians gazing out from Mount Rushmore.

We navigate a bumpy twisting route, pausing to unlock forestry gates then rolling through a shrub forest of shiny trees with green, white, or red bark like the colors of the Mexican flag. Stop in a rugged canyon. For about a mile, we hike alongside a wall of flat stones with mud mortar that prehistoric people built to dam rain and spring water tumbling down from the harshly-ribbed plateaus up above. Locals claim it’s the oldest human construction in Mesoamerica from around 5000 B.C.

Driving a little farther, we park under a steep cliff of brown dust riddled with many visible holes. The corn fossil cave is here. A winding path, flanked by glittering calcium stones and vines with thorns jutting out from the middle of the leaves, guides us toward the cliff face. We pass a 1000-year-old Candelabra cactus: a Mexican Redwood. We encounter another cactus species bearing red-chili-pepper-lookalike fruit with an acidy flavor.

The trail ends at an amazing Noxhotle cactus. Alviro climbs the 12-meter plant with flesh-ripping razor-like spines using his bare hands. His machete hacks off fruit resembling plums with protruding needles. On hitting the ground, the pods open up into a star shape filled with jelly that tastes just like blackberries. I can’t stop eating it.

A little uphill scrambling and I stand in the mouth of a cave where millennia of early Americans ate, slept, made love, gave birth, prayed, and died. The jaw-dropping vista extends across a massive valley as far as the eye can see. Here cave-dwellers watched in fear for approaching enemies and gazed out in anticipation of visiting friends. To the left is a medicinal plant garden. I snap a twig from the Sangregado tree, which drips with horrible-tasting sap medicine that numbs pain and heals infection.

To the right is a small pit where the world’s oldest corn cobs were found. Exactly where a tired or lazy husband would put the trash after his wife reminded him to stop dumping it in front of the house and spoiling the view. Proof positive that these were our human brothers and sisters. I wonder how you say “Get off your duff and take out the garbage” in cavespeak.

Squatting down, I take a handful of dust from the primordial settlement residue, letting it stream through my fingers like sand in an hourglass. Swiftly passing are the days of our lives. To those who devoted many of their days that we might have more and better food, what can we say but “Thanks”? I climb down the bluff a little bit misty-eyed but ready to move on. Having visited the birthplace of corn, I resolve to savor every future bite of a tasty American food (or a tasty American woman) with gusto and gratitude. Buen provecho!

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