If the sip of a crimson drink will take me there, I will go. I will go freely and happily, just as this tart, crisp flower that stained my water to a delicious and refreshing memory lures me back, I will go willingly. Because even though the traffic is horrendous, the likes of Bangkok’s gridlocks and Cairo’s chaos, and even though the news of crime and kidnap and danger ricochets from its warm and forgotten embrace terrorizing those outside its magic and charm, I will go, gladly, I will go back to Mexico.
I gravitate towards the most crowded spot in the city, the Mercado de la Merced, the Saturday market, a labyrinth of tiny alleys and passageways leaking with cow guts and blood from pigs’ feet, where chickens dangle upside down in skinned nudity, waiting to be snatched and boiled into some tasty broth or mole or taco.
The spaces are small and dank and festering with people, some toting their goods precariously stacked on wheelbarrows which they deftly navigate through the city that is this market. Whistling serves as their horn to warn others of their passage. And many would feel claustrophobic in this dimly lit chaos, nauseous perhaps: the smell of life and death are pungent; inescapable. But I, I am invigorated here, shoved along this wave of food and people. I feel embraced by the millions of stands overflowing with produce and meat, and even though I am the only fair-skinned, blue-eyed woman in the entire market, a guera, I am embraced by the Mexican’s characteristic courteousness:
“Bonita, guera, aqui, bonita, aqui.” ‘Here pretty blondie, here’, the vendors coax, offering up free samples of fresh cheese, a slice of a mango, a piece of tripe. They are curious of me and my camera, each peering out from behind their stalls loaded with their life’s work, becoming bashful and hiding safely behind a bag of tacos or a mountain of fresh nopales when I turn to shoot their image. But still they all call after me, wanting me, and we share a moment of laughter, a smile, and a taste; always there’s a taste. I apologize that I can’t buy their goods: I have no kitchen of my own here in Mexico and it aches to leave empty-handed. I am too weak with temptation.
An aged lady at a corner stand senses my eyes softening and draws me in, offering up dried flowers the color of rubies, placing a bunch delicately in my hand:
“Good for the heart, good for the mind, a piece of Mexico.”
And so I buy a bagful of these beautiful flowers, called Flor de Jamaica. They are dried Hibiscus. I will cradle their delicacy amongst my lingerie, brushing away the image of a U.S. Customs dog attacking my suitcase to confiscate my goods. I risk it all because they are lovely and when boiled with water and chilled they make the unmistakably Mexican drink of Agua de Jamaica, a little piece of my experience I refuse to let go.
I take the bag from my Mexican muse and hug it close to me. I hear the bustle of life. Something cold drips on my toe and I dare not look down. I am in Mexico. I am in the market. The waves of passer-byers behind me feel like a mammoth embrace. A man carrying several sacks of jalapeños on his head brushes by. A woman slices a lime and it explodes with juice, leaving a trail of citrus oil within smelling range. A row of pig feet salute me in the next stall. I breathe in the flower’s fragrance and feel myself irrevocably drawn into this country. In this culinary chaos I am home.
Agua de Jamaica
1 cup dried Hibiscus flowers
6 cups water
½ cup sugar
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for five minutes. Turn heat off and allow to cool completely.