travelog 38

Mexican Hospitality

1. Rancho El Puerto

In previous travel reports we promised you a story about Mexican hospitality. As an example of all the kind, helpful and hospitable people we met in Mexico we want to tell you of our experiences on two Ranchos.

In general, it can be said that not all the horror stories about bandidos and ladrones are true. Americans who have a sister-in-law whose aunt and her ex were once robbed somewhere in Mexico - such stories are very common. Even in Mexico the police warn you about assaults and many very unsafe areas. Mexicans, especially from the northern state of Sonora, warn of there southern compatriots who are said to be thieves and robbers one and all. If you come to such so-called dangerous areas and ask about the existence of dubious fellows, everybody assures you unanimously that their own little town, their own municipality, in short their immediate surroundings are an absolutely peaceful place with no problems at all. However, you should take care in the next settlement or in the neighbouring municipality because that's the place where all the crooks on earth gather together. Of course you hear the same story in the next village. Certainly the gangsters never live where we are at the moment, a thing we like to believe. We have never felt threatened in any way, and we have never had the problem that somebody wanted to take something from us - on the contrary, the people here give you the few things they have just to welcome you. Many times we think that they also know all those tall stories about the Mexican lazy-bones, and that's exactly why they assure you very eagerly that their area is a very safe place. That's probably also the reason why they are so friendly to strangers whom they want to show what a beautiful place Mexico is with its peaceful inhabitants.

We're probably dead wrong and our guardian angel is constantly busy. Or maybe we're safe because we travel with the help of the Pope and the "Virgen de Guadalupe"(Mexico's patron saint) whose portraits we carry with us. Sometimes, when we leave for longer hikes, we hang them in our windows because friends in the US told us that nobody in Latin America steals under the eyes of the Pope. Whatever it is, we think that the rules are the same as all over the world: you have to take care in big cities because that's where the crooks find enough clients. The people out in the countryside have other worries than robbing innocent tourists.

We find the first rancho, "El Puerto" (= the pass) in Sonora, by accident after taking a wrong turn. On the rancho live Roberto, also called "El Cuate" (= the twin, his twin sister lives al otro lado, on the other side, meaning in the USA), his wife Graciela and one daughter. The dogs "Gringo" (he's very white, hence his name) and "Chapato" (this means little, and he's little and black) keep an eye on everything. Other inhabitants include numerous hens and roosters with shining plumage. At night they climb into the trees to look for a perfect place to sleep. Of course there's a donkey and some mules. The family earns its living with their cows which give enough milk to allow them to sell cheese in the nearby village. After we have met everything and everybody, the motto is: "mi casa es su casa" (= my house is your house).

Every day we explore the area around the rancho and find interesting plants. After every hike we are invited for a coffee into the dark kitchen where we're treated to fresh tortillas, beans and guajada. Guajada is the first cheese-like product, resulting after the milk is curdled, something like Ricotta. Roberto helps eating while Graciela is responsible for making sure there are always enough hot tortillas on the table. She doesn't sit down with us at the table. She stays near the stove and provides her husband and the guests with food and drinks. She enjoys telling me more about her recipes, e.g. how she pickles the chiltepín (wild tiny chiles which grow in the nearby mountains and are hot, hot, hot) or how she prepares her wonderful tortillas. Roberto keeps promising new typical dishes which his poor wife then has to prepare at daybreak so that we can enjoy a soup or a hearty stew in the afternoon.

In the morning they milk the cows outside, regardless of the weather. Of course this is hard work and there are no machines around. If a cow does not constantly pay attention, the most impertinent roosters appear on the spot. In their greed for a share of the delicious food, they almost cut their throats on the sharp rim of the cut-off barrel. Afterwards the milk is mixed with natural rennet and at night the mixture is pressed into big cheeses. The sooner the cheese is sold, the more money you get for it since it's still very heavy; later it begins to lose water. The cows, one is called "La Suiza", are fed with purchased feed (no animal meal!). That's why the family can milk the cows every day. But not many farmers are able to afford the feed; most of them have to rely on their cows to fill their stomachs with whatever they find in the sparse desert vegetation.

Roberto very much enjoys accompanying us on our hikes. He shows us new places and then relaxes under a shady tree while we take pictures - and his wife makes the cheese at home. Over the few days that we spend on this rancho we live on tortillas, beans and guajada which we get fresh every day. The pickled chiltepínes provide a little heat. Of course we get a jar right after we show only the slightest interest in chiles. As a parting gift we give Roberto a nice Swiss pocket-knife. Graciela suddenly disappears into the bedroom and returns with a beautiful pair of deer antlers which she found around the rancho. That's what she wants to give us as a memento of her rancho.

In June, on our way back to the US, we want to visit this rancho again. So we say goodbye with a "con el favor de Dios" and everybody hopes that God has the same plans and we will see the rancho again.

2. Rancho La Laguna

Again, we find the second rancho, "La Laguna" in Sinaloa, accidentally and, as always, in our search for plants. It's a tiny settlement of three wooden houses with corrugated metal roofs. The houses are surrounded by huge pines and oaks, in the small clearings you can still see the yellow stubble of old corn fields. The corn is stored beside the houses, some dry corn-cobs hang on a pole, to be used as seed next year. The rest of the corn is used little by little to make tortillas, a basic food in Mexico. Additionally the farmers here grow beans and in their small vegetable gardens onions, tomatoes and yellow squash. In the very inaccessible areas even marijuana and opium (also called "illegal agriculture"), at least that's the rumor. In any case, in these areas, the high Sierra Madre Occidental (around 6000 ft. above sea level), people know the more exact details about the going prices. As a normal tourist you will never see the fields which are very hidden and best reached by horse. Only the frequent military checkpoints and soldiers roaming the fields remind us that there must be a more lucrative business than maize and beans. The little house has a kitchen with a very original square-shaped brick stove in one corner with a vent through the low roof. On the stove there is always a little fire burning and some hot water ready. A part of the stove is covered with a metal sheet which serves as the heating unit for making tortillas. The floor is treaded down soil, and after washing the dishes the water is poured over it to make it very hard. The adjoining room, separated only by a large curtain, is the bedroom filled with many beds. At the front of the house there is another little bedroom with a big mirror and an immense collection of pictures of different saints, a crucified Christ and other relics.

Our host, José Antonio, is the proud and new owner of a lemon- yellow pickup which stutters and spits and roars horribly with every start of the engine but nonetheless works. Together with his oldest sons Antonio (14) and Luis (13) he rides out every day to take care of his fields and the cows. In the meantime, Dora, his wife takes care of the other two children Carmina (7) and Leonel (10), though they are here only for the weekends. During the week they live at the boarding-school far away. She's very happy about our presence and likes to talk about everything under the sun. With his donkey, Leonel gets two loads of water every day from a nearby spring. Later he has to help his mother grind the nixtamal, the watered maize, so that she can prepare fresh tortillas three times a day.

We're immediately invited to join the family for breakfast, lunch and dinner. From our supplies we contribute food and Dora prepares wonderful meals for all of us. Here, too, the men are served first. She stands behind her stove and provides everybody with steaming tortillas. After everybody has had enough, it's her turn to eat, mostly standing. She likes to exchange our eggs from the laying battery for her small rancho eggs. She really likes the huge white eggs from the laying batteries better than the healthy and organic ones from her rancho. It's the same story with the corn tortillas. Her own ones with the organically grown corn taste less good to her than the purchased ones which are made with enriched corn flour. A little bit of luxury is necessary even if it's only eggs and corn tortillas.

The highlight of our visit, however, is a little cooking lesson. Dora shows us how to prepare bayusa (century plant flowers). It's a lengthy process but the result tastes surprisingly good (click here for the recipe). The flowers are eaten with scrambled eggs, beans and tortillas, this time she treats us to tortillas de harina which are made with manteca (lard). By the way, even the young inflorescence of the century plant is prepared in a special way. The final product is thick brown slices which are sprinkled with lime juice and chile powder. You have to chew on them and spit out the fibres. It tastes like a mixture of wood and smoked fish. In the evening hot coals are scattered on the kitchen floor and Dora prepares carne asada. Thin slices of meat, similar to an escalope but a lot bigger, are washed and seasoned with salt. They are turned over and over again on the improvised bbq until they are nicely brown and crisp. The family eats the meat and the beans skilfully with the tortillas which work as cutlery. We still have to learn how to manage the food without the help of a fork.

This area has many exciting spots and Dora has such interesting plants in pots in front of her kitchen which the two boys would love to show us in the wild. We plan to visit this rancho again, of course only "con el favor de Dios".

These are only two little experiences but they are typical for the people's mentality here. Even if they don't have much or anything at all, they share with everyone and they'd sell the shirt off their back to help you. Time and again we were invited for a hot tortilla or a coffee, even if we only asked for directions. Again and again we were offered a place to stay for as long as we liked, to feel at home. From a police officer on duty we received half a deer haunch. The children of a nearby rancho brought us Easter cookies for breakfast. Farmers picked grapefruits from their trees which we all had to take with us. We could even fill up our water tanks with purified drinking water and our empty beer bottles were replaced with full ones - for free of course! With a little bit of Spanish and an interest in the life of other people you're always given a warm reception and treated as an old friend. Mexico is a land full of hospitality and we can only say that we feel at home here.

April 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen