Mezcal and Murallas
Copyright 2020 Ruscena Wiederholt
Our guide Dari poured a thin stream of
flimsy gourd cup and handed it to me. We were in a small cement
shack, the maestro leaning casually against one of the barrels lining
the wall. We were just another group of gringas, giggly ones at that.
Like so many he’d seen before, vacationers, Spanish words
sliding off our tongues in an awkward, anglophone way. Dari, in
careful Spanish, had explained mezcal production all morning. He
paused for effect and said, “Es mezcal con marijuana.” My
friends laughed, clearly I was no longer home. We lacked such spirit.
I raised the gourd to my lips, took a sip, and passed it to my
A few samples later, we reluctantly left
our maestro and
his unconventional mezcal. A cloudless sky stretched over a parched,
brown landscape. Giant cacti sprouted from the pebbles alongside
guaje trees with dangling red pods that resembled chili peppers. It
was austere, the absence conquering abundance. It seeped into you
slowly, the dryness and dust, the heat at midday. Much like the
mezcal we’d tasted, spicy, a bit smoky, a shot of warmth in
your stomach. Here was the unexpected charm, the flavors flourishing
from the barren ground, a hidden oasis in an otherwise unforgiving
As we drove down a hillside studded with
crumbling cement was less obvious, the garbage scattered on the
ground, less prominent. That instinctual sensation of disparity had
softened. I would grow accustomed to these things, chickens crowing
early in the morning, the broken sidewalks, the simple luxury of
hammocks - if I stayed. But I was transient, taking a quick snapshot
of Mexican life, without plunging in. It was light and ephemeral,
like a story from an inflight magazine. And somehow unsatisfying, too
polished for the grit of meaningful experience. Although everyone saw
a rubia, I sensed I belonged. I had spent my last semester of high
school in the mountain valley of Tegucigalpa, and ever since, trips
south felt like returning home. My inclusion was hidden, but it was
there, tucked just underneath my skin.
We stopped by the side of a building with a
picture of a
man peaking over a wall. Below, in neat white letters it read,
“Donald, eres un pendejo.” I shared the Mexicans’
disdain for the American president. We stopped at a roadside stand
for lunch; grilled nopales and cheese, homemade tortillas, mole negro
and rojo, and eggs, somehow also grilled. Simple food though
complexity would add nothing more. Dari sipped a michelada, a beer
with salt and lime, as a few stray dogs eyed our food hungrily. A
land of endless varieties of mezcal and mole, it was exhilarating. Less
restraint without a cost, though I knew that wasn't true.
The afternoon brought us to another
palenque, this one
with an orchard, burros, and a pair of small dogs. Piñas,
agave hearts, were piled under a sign, “3 Mesquites de Don
Goyo”. The maestro was a barrel-chested man with a
disconcerting cough. His mezcal was of high quality, some of the best
in the area. In the late afternoon sun of mezcal tasting, this was
hard to discern, but verified the next day. Surprisingly complex, but
lacking the smoky flavor I loved. Apparently a defect, this was
incongruous with the quality it gave to mezcal.
Earlier in the day, we had seen a fire pit
piñas were roasted.
cumbersome hearts that aptly resembled pineapples. Amanda,
one of my friends, joked, “I've been waiting for this moment
all of my adult life”.
the same, though perhaps
not quite as long. We’d spent many a sweltering Arizona night
drinking tequila. Tucson was two hours from the Mexican border, and
you could feel it, spilling over, beckoning. Previously known as a
clear liquid for margaritas, tequila slowly evolved into an adult
status. It could be resposado (rested) or añejo
(mature) which possessed a flavor akin to whiskey. Eventually, sotol,
bacanora, and mezcal all came to life, but mezcal was the king of
them all. Undisputedly exotic, a dive into the southern depths of
Mexico. It held the mystery of far away places, rough around the
edges, challenging but enhancing. This was not apparent until you
returned to the wide, clean-swept boulevards of home, and found them,
for the first time, just a little too neat.
Once the agave was cut into smaller pieces,
placed in a tahona, a circular enclosure with a large stone wheel.
All you had to do was attach a horse, or burro if you preferred, to
crush the agave. It looked primitive, like the art of blacksmithing
demonstrated by some bearded, old man. Artisanal was the word they
used, which didn’t seem to fit either, conjuring images of
unshaven men and craft beer. Don Goyo preferred burros; his mezcal
tanks were decorated with little “Puro Burro” stickers.
We heard them braying somewhat pathetically in the background. Dari
didn’t seem to mind though, sipping a generous mezcal sample,
and looking through his phone. It was infused with turkey, which
imparted a distinctive taste, and was our least favorite. We had
tried it in gingerly in the tasting room, and through a tacit, mezcal
passing agreement, it ended up in Dari’s hands.
Nicky, my other friend, was delighted by
stickers, the artistic bottle labels, and the tiny chairs against the
wall. After much deliberation, we bought a bottle of mezcal, sat in
the little chairs, and ate some of the agave heart. It was fibrous
and sweet, like fruit with so much potential. Dari reprimanded us for
speaking so much English, when we could be practicing Spanish. He was
right, but to be fair, my Spanish abilities had degraded severely
since the morning. Nicky, on the other hand, didn’t know much
Spanish but used what she did unabashedly. At that point mere
communication was the goal, and comprehension was an added delight.
When I had arrived in Tegucigalpa, I was
worse than her,
much worse. “Entiendes?” confused me, which also answered
the question. I had learned Spanish in fits and starts through
several classes, trips, and countries. Each time it changed a little
bit, revealing a new face and a new accent, resonating with a
different tune. Sometimes a whole set of vocabulary metamorphosed
without warning from place to place. Maddeningly, like my inability
to grasp subjunctive tense. Spanish came to have an unmastered
familiarity. Some words, buried deep in the past, resurged. Each with
a memory, an imprint of its own. Like mano, pie, and dedo, taught by
my Honduran host mother on an evening walk through our colonia. Or
platanos, which were inevitably fried and covered in refried beans
and cream. I loved this delicious new word for bananas.
We left Don Goyo and his burros as the sun
the dusty landscape. We stopped at a
tree, tall, but more impressive for its width. It was over 1500 years
old, claiming the expanse of an entire churchyard. A hushed solemnity
emanated from the area; it had little to do with the small colonial
church. We ate esquites, giant roasted corn, amid the din of children
playing. And I learned another word, cruda, which I hoped not to
experience the next day.
On one of the final stops, Dari pulled over
to show us
a species of agave he particularly liked. On a hillside, a pair of
agaves were nestled in the gravel, one green, one purple. During the
dry season, the lack of water made their leaves lose color.
is that one still green?” asked Amanda.
“Does it get more water?”
answered doubtfully. It was
interesting, this depravation leading to beauty. Like leaves,
stripped of their nutrients, revealing the golden colors of autumn.
Austerity and abundance, a struggle
out the colors hidden underneath your skin. Something lost,
regrettably, in this era of billionaires and border walls.
This is a short piece I was
inspired to write after a
trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. During my time there, I did a mezcal tasting
tour, which captured my experience in one hot, dusty
I am a biologist living
in Miami, Florida. Originally from Wisconsin, I've found many places
to call home. I enjoy writing, traveling, and outdoor activities. I
aspire to be a published author.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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