Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Real Mexican

Alan’s blonde hair, hanging in tousled curls, was spattered with blood. He clumsily fumbled with his white Hanes undershirt and worn khaki cargo pants as he crossed the rocky clearing toward our primitive campsite. The dark scarlet streaks that hideously painted his clothing belied the grin across his boyish face.

“He skinned that thing in three strokes. It’s grotesque. He’s trained for this one ceremony all his life, and performing it is his sole purpose in the tribe,” Alan said, never wiping the sparkle from his eyes.

Thousands of miles high in the Sierra Madre mountain range, our camp was in the tiny settlement of Rowerachi – a home for 200 Tarahumara Indians, and our domicile for the past two weeks.

After the blazing sun and work gloves and repetitive 50-pound lifting, we were all tan, tired, and happy. We had painted schools in Chihuahua city, installed a shower and sink in an albergue (homeless shelter) in Cuatehmoc, and planted crops with the Tarahumara. Our service to these people was about to be rewarded with some hearty Mexican fare.

A boiled goat.

And home-made tortillas – which are, by all means, transcendental pillows of rough cornmeal and fat.

Served with a boiled goat. A whole one.

Alan had been among the few of us brave enough to watch the killing and blood-letting ceremony. The tribe had prepared an all-night gathering to commemorate our service and thank us in a formal way. Medicine men and tribal elders danced and struck goat-hide drums adorned with silver trinkets and dried nuts and seeds until the sun came up. The donkey that stood guard next to our camp brayed excitedly, waking us at odd intervals as we slept next to a dying fire under the trillion stars that shimmered above us.

The goats neck was sliced with a sharp blade with a bone handle, supposedly painlessly and quickly. The blood from its carotid artery was quickly clamped by a pair of rough, tan hands, but not before it sprayed abhorrently in all directions, as Alan’s formerly pristine undershirt attested. One of the elders dipped his small hand into the clay pot used to collect the syrupy lifeblood from the goat. He chanted a blessing of thankfulness and commitment to the Tarahumara gods and released the goat's animal spirit to them. He deftly flicked drops of blood to the cardinal points of the compass in order – north, south, west, east – in the sign of the cross.

After the final repetition of the ritual, the goat slinked lifelessly away in the arms of two men in identical plaid shirts and yellowed jeans. Their besandaled feet were rough and calloused from work, the way mine should have been inside my high-end running shoes and triple layered socks. I silently cursed my fifty-dollar pedicure and longed for a pair of black, rubber tire-soled sandals held on by quarter-inch rope straps. I watched them saunter away and hang the goat by the neck to a thick log rooted into the ground by thousands of years of tradition.

The goat’s eyes stared through their opalescent sheen straight into the distance, to a point invisible to everyone except dead goats. Another man in a flannel shirt with straight black hair and a wide nose approached the upright animal with macabre familiarity. In three quick flashes of his blade, the goat was skinned naked. Completely exposed, the body was rubbed with oils and spices as it was prepared for boiling.

My travels in tourist-free Mexico had lead me to eat things I never thought I would eat, nor think I will eat again. In a cubbyhole taqueria in Chihuahua City, I was in the mood to try something new – tripas, or “tripe” in more familiar terms – was the taco of the day. Bathed in spices and masked by red cabbage, queso fresco, and lime, the innards were a new texture – soft and chewy – probably not an everyday staple, but not vile enough to be passed by without thought. Cuahtemoc afforded us the best roasted chicken I have ever eaten. Juicy and tender, crisp and flavorful, served with verdant salsa verde, it was a treat each of the five times we visited La Albergue de Pollo.

Goat, however, was not on my to-eat list. At 9:00 am as we said adios to the Rowerachi settlement, its sparse landscape and parched buildings, its people warmed our hands and hearts with handshakes and smiles, leaving our insides as glowing as our skin. We watched as they extracted the whole goat – head, innards, and hooves – out of the steel cauldron. We watched as the women in vividly colored dressed pulled off the grey meat in large hunks and thrust it toward us gratefully, robed in a fluffy tortilla.

Our first shower in two weeks awaited at the bottom of the mountain, in the logging town of Creel, twenty miles – and four hours – down a rocky, steep grade. And while we packed our gear into the black SUVs we arrived in, the bitter, gamy taste of the goat, so graciously prepared, was the sweetest memory.

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