One Hot Tamale Filled with Page-Turning Fun
Hot like salsa, smooth like tequila and romantic as a moonlit serenade, Lucy Neville’s Oh! Mexico is a wonderful literary trip into the heart of Mexico City.
When Lucy graduates college she finds herself not quiet ready for what some would call the ‘real world’. Determined to evade the usual paths she strikes out on her own, equipped with some basic Spanish and sense of adventure she heads to Mexico City, capital of Mexico, home of 21 million and considered one of the most dangerous cities on Earth.
The city is both enthralling and dangerous, kidnappings and decapitations make daily headlines and the traffic situation is a constant gridlock. Lucy’s plan is simple, find a job, a place to live, and then master Spanish. But in Mexico things aren’t ever as easy as they seem and Lucy soon finds herself entangled not only in the culture but a love triangle between her unnervingly attractive flat mate and her down to earth co-worker.
Meanwhile there are the challenges of a young person living abroad. The food is fantastic but it seems everything, even ordering tacos in Spanish has some double meaning. As she missteps though innuendo and entendre Lucy finds learning Spanish is harder than she imagined and that first languages are jealous creatures.
From mummies to human sacrifice, political protests and soap operas, all with the Virgin de Guadalupe in the background we follow Lucy around Mexico City. Through Lucy’s eye we see not only her own Mexican story but also the story of Mexico.
The book has enough cultural information to fill a guidebook without being pretentious. It fills the reader in on the history of Mexico almost without meaning to and by the end you feel enriched as well as entertained.
Oh! Mexico is a perfect read for those who, like Lucy, are contemplating what to do next, as well as those who are more settled and longing for armchair adventure.
Lucy manages to capture the energy and chaos of Mexico City while telling a story that is romantic and sexy, without falling into the clutches of chick lit.
Here’s an excerpt Chapter Two:The Turquoise Serpent from Oh! Mexico:
As I locked the door of my first Mexican apartment, I no longer felt like a tourist. Now I was on the inside – living with a real Mexican in a real Mexican neighborhood. One that neither drunken backpacker nor the middle-aged matching-tracksuits brigade would know anything about.
Slowly I wandered down the road, though the plaza with the dancing fountain. Maybe I could find a supermarket. But the cooking was out of the question – no stove, no fridge. The only contents of Octavio’s kitchen were a big Pink Floyd poster and a barely functioning sink. I wondered what he ate?
This thought was interrupted by the smell of frying meat and tortillas. I looked up from my feet to discover that the next three blocks had transformed themselves into a vast restaurant. The footpath had been invaded by a multitude of frenzied cooks, frying, stirring and shouting at passersby. ‘ ¡Güera! ¡Güera! ¡Tacos de bistek, suadero, longaniza, lengua, pastor! What would you like?’
I tried to ignore the taco man. His stall was particularly gory to someone accustomed to western-style butchers. Various unsavory animal parts- such as snouts and digestive oddments- were being thrown into a bubbling pool of pig fat. Well at least you had some idea of what animal you were eating. Panchito had told me that some taco stalls cut corners by using the meat of stray dogs.
“ You know you’re eating dog when the price of the tacos is less that the meat,’ he had warned. And this was more than just an urban myth; Buck had confirmed that various taco stalls had been outed in the newspapers as serving dog meat.
After it was fried, the meat was then squashed into tortillas. A line of hungry men from the construction site across the road stood waiting, playfully brawling. The tacos man said something to me which I didn’t understand, and they all started laughing.
‘I don’t understand,’ I told him. ‘Can you repeat that?’
And then he repeated it very slowly. ‘ Free for white girls. What shall I get you?’
‘ Thank you but I’m okay. Maybe next time…’ hoping I would never have to take him up on that offer.
The next stall was occupied by a group of rotund middle-aged women wearing ruffled aprons over generous breasts. They were stirring industrialized-sized pots exuding extraordinary spicy aromas. This was comida corrida, the Mexican equivalent of fast food, where they serve you one already-prepared dish with soup, bread, salad or rice, followed by dessert- all for about three bucks.
It was a wiser choice than tacos, but it was just too big. At my previous comida corrida experience, I hadn’t been able to finish the meal and the cook had been crestfallen. ‘What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?’ ‘Yes, but it’s just very big…’ I tried to explain as she angrily took my plate away. I wasn’t going to repeat that experience.
Next was a torta stall. Unlike the Spanish torta, this is not an omelet but a sandwich. It’s a grilled bread roll, filled with meat, chili, re-fried beans, cheese and avocado. I sat down at the counter and asked the young man with the pointy white chef’s hat for a torta with chicken breast. ‘So, you like Mexican tortas, güera?’ he smiled at me; and then turned and grinned at his colleague with the big teeth, who was already throwing chicken onto the grill.
‘Yes, I like them a lot,’ I replied. They looked at each other and grinned. I always seem to have problems buying tortas the last time I tried to buy a torta, I had confused the words abogado and aguacate and had asked the man if he could please put some extra lawyers on my sandwich. He started at me strangely, until I pointed to the avocado. He looked at the avocado and then at me, dissolving into convulsions of laughter. What could I have possibly said this time?
‘ Have you tried tortas with sausage and egg?’ the big-teethed guy asked, still smiling.
‘No, I don’t really like sausage and egg,’ I said to him.
‘ Oh, but have you tried them?’ He persisted.
‘Well…no.’ His face began to go a pinkish colour.
‘Because, güera,’ he confided, handing me the torta, ‘here we have some very good sausages!’
‘Okay, well maybe I’ll try one tomorrow,’ I replied.
‘Okay,’ he told me. ‘ I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow.’
What exactly had I missed, as headed towards the park with my torta. It was as if the whole purpose of my being here was to provide entertainment to the locals.
To think of all that time at university – memorizing irregular verb tables, studying the differences between the indicative and subjunctive – and I still had serious problems when it came to buying a sandwich.
Then Octavio taught me a vital aspect of the Mexican sense of humor, which would aid me enormously in my quest to understand and communicate with Mexican people. This is known as the albur or ‘double meaning’.
The idea is to linguistically trick the unsuspecting victim into agreeing to have sex. Many everyday objects turned out to have double meaning: sausage, eggs and chicken breast…Well those ones are obvious, but some are less apparent. For example torta is a pseudonym for ‘bottom’.
Now, my earlier conversation made perfect sense. I had told the taco man that I loved Mexican bottoms, and that I was a lesbian (I didn’t like ‘sausage and eggs’). But I would come back tomorrow and try out heterosexual sex.
Excerpted from Oh! Mexico © 2011 by Lucy Neville. Excerpted by permission of Nicholas Brealy Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Read more articles about Mexico on GoNOMAD