Maybe the sense of discovery that hangs about Mérida seeps from the very structure of the city: streets of the Yucatán capital city hemmed in with blank, low facades, with or without the twisty churrigueresque touches of colonial baroque built more or less on the cheap. Gaudy paint heavily flaked, ponderous bars at the windows: No telling what goes on behind those thick, pocked walls—except when someone like Robert tells you, in a gay cantina, over beers. And plates of some of the best tamales you’ve ever eaten.
Here’s how it started. Perry and I were staying in a guesthouse run by some sweet, doughy guy from the Midwest. He and his perennially absent boyfriend had bought houses on adjoining lots, turned one of them into an inn for queer North Americans. You know the kind of place: rickety wicker castoffs from the States, free wine in the afternoons to grease the wheels of social interaction—though there was really no one to mingle with, since the Bears (the only other lodgers—a burly bearded couple who wore white athletic socks and tropical-print shirts) kept to themselves. That left only Robert—and he wasn’t even a paying guest. More like a hanger-on: slept at his own house but spent most days here, with the doughy Midwesterner.
Tall. Sixtysomething, though he looked a good fifteen years younger. Long hands, gray sandpaper stubble, battered panama. Robert had retired to Mérida from Manhattan, bought a house with his partner, who still worked in NYC and visited Yucatán when he could. Robert exuded boredom, a busybody constantly needing fresh material. He locked on to Perry and me at once.
Did he fancy one or both of us? Did we promise fodder for gossip in Mérida’s queer expat ghetto (which, apparently, includes faded superchef Jeremiah Tower)? Couldn’t tell. I said I wanted to taste authentic Yucatecan cooking. “Nothing overwrought, and not, like, the tourist kind of ‘authentic,”” I said. “Just the real thing.” You know—stuff a tourist says.
Clearly, Robert didn’t know the first thing about food—he’d recommended a place because the owner personally shopped for veggies at the local Costco, as if it were a guarantee of the food’s quality. Still, Perry and I agreed to let Robert be our guide next day. He’d take us to his friend, a guy, Robert said, who could lead us to the real shit. Cochinita pibil cooked in a hole in the earth. Shark and tortilla pie.
“You’ll have to get up early,” he warned.
We got up early, slipped out to the sitting room half an hour before Robert had told us we’d need to be out the door. He was already there, wearing a CCCP tee, idly flipping through a magazine. “When do we go?” I asked. “Oh, we’re too late,” he said, barely looking up.
Fuck. I looked at Perry; I could feel the cochinita pibil slipping through my fingers.
“We’ll go see my other friend,” he said. “He knows all the places. No rush.”
I won’t bore you. The day was a succession of long walks back and forth through Mérida’s hard, canyonlike streets, through blasting sun and sticky heat. Sunday, and Calle 60 was blocked to cars—young Mayans with traffic vests over flimsy shirts manned the street corners. Luminous black eyes; brown skin shiny, varnished with sweat.
We found the friend: an artist—a short, smiling Yucatecan who painted surrealist images of the Mayan cosmos, set out on the sidewalk to tempt the occasional norteño, Yankees-capped, in shorts that exposed pink, flabby legs. But after our long trek, the pint-size Yucatecan dished out a bogus recommendation: Los Almendros—even our Rough Guide listed it. Crap. No Mayans crowding around some courtyard pit, wrenching hunks of cochinita from a steaming, banana-leaf-wrapped heap of deliciousness. Los Almendros promised nothing better than tourist-authentic.
We set off back to Plaza Grande. Halfway there, Robert had an idea: we slipped into a botana bar, a sprawling place, listless and deserted on a hot Sunday. We drank beer from the bottle; the waiter laid out ten botanas: fried tortillas, vinegared cucumbers, warm black beans, the ubiquitous Vienna sausages in tomato sauce, a searing chunky salsa of blackened habanero chiles and onion, and something unusual: hunks of fried beef heart and tomato, drenched with the juice of sour oranges. Declicious.
By now, Robert was opening up about the life of an idle homo expat. “Mexican men are so sexual,” he said. “Even the straight ones flirt with you. Sleep with you sometimes.” As if on cue, a waiter in a tight tee-shirt strode up to the table and shook Robert’s hand. “Nice to see you,” he said in English, like he was, well—making a move. When he left, Robert shrugged. “See what I mean?” he said. “Never even seen that guy before.” Damn. Perry and I went off to the men’s to take a piss. We had growing suspicions about our guide, and not just because our food trek was turning out to be a bust. I spotted the flirty waiter in the tight tee, laughing with the other waiters in an otherwise deserted patio out back. He glanced at me, slowly curled his mouth into a sneer.
We worked back to the city center, on narrow sidewalks clogged with Sunday-afternoon throngs. “Here,” Robert said, and we ducked into a long, dim cantina, where a dozen guys sat on barstools or slouched at tables against a wall half-clad with tiles in dirty shades of faded pink. “Hustlers may ask you to buy them drinks, but otherwise it’s okay here,” Robert said. He knew the smiling proprietor; they chatted briefly.
In the back, amid a jumble of empty tables, an aging butterfly of a thing was acting the coquette with a short, middle-aged guy sporting a skinny mustache and a crisply pressed shirt. You figure his wife ironed it for him, and here he was, spending the afternoon buying drinks for his worn-looking diva: bleached hair styled in a Liberace pompadour, wearing a flow-y, eyeshadow-blue pantsuit, scuffed white boots, and an expression of elegant detachment. You gotta love Mexico.
The beers loosened Robert’s tongue. He began spilling secrets—how he paid young Mayan guys to come to his house to give him massages and, um, you can imagine. He developed a regular thing with a particular one, but the poor kid was a cokehead. “Oh, he was beautiful,” Robert said, rolling his eyes up in his head. Whenever the kid needed money, he’d come by Robert’s casa, and perform what Robert called one of his special “Mayan massages.” He got strung out, skinny.
By now the flowing blue diva was dancing with her romeo, doing a merengue or something to whatever was pulsing out of the jukebox. The proprietor brought us a tamale—a Yucatecan chicken tamale, squat and slippery, glistening on the banana leaf it’d been steamed in, a spoonful of tomato sauce on top. We cut it up with a plastic fork as Robert talked, speared pieces of it with toothpicks. It was fantastic—corn masa strained smooth, with a coarse filling that tasted dark and frankly chickeny, all suffused with the green, grassy tang of fresh banana leaf. We asked the patron for a second one.
“It was a weekend my partner was in town,” Robert was telling us. “We had friends form New York staying with us. One morning there was this pounding on the door. I knew who it was.” The Mayan kid had gotten really bad; he was yelling for Robert, needed money for drugs. Robert didn’t want to go to the door; their guests were uneasy, asking if everything was okay. Robert’s partner looked at him: What the fuck?
“I had to tell him everything. He went out and scared the kid away, told him he’d call the damn police if he didn’t go away. He never came over again.”
The tamale plates were smears of tomato sauce on banana leaves. Robert seemed tired of us as suddenly as he’d been interested. “I’ll walk you as far as the mercado,” he said, “and then you’re on your own.”
As we strolled through the mercado, with its almost overwhelming smells of overripe fruit and sweat, Perry said Robert had kind of creeped him out. Still, I thought, we’d managed to have a taste of something authentic. —John Birdsall
At a bar in Alicante, Spain: facing a tapa of meaty cuttlefish (sepia) in a thick, sticky pool of its ink. Warm—it’s emerged from the microwave behind the bar—congealing slightly as it cools, deep with coppery saltiness, like the taste of blood. Per —my husband—doesn’t want more than a bite, and I admit, it’s a tad gory, too murky a concentration of flayed sea life for me to finish.
Later, in our hotel room, in a thick-walled arcade ringing the plaza in front of the ayuntamiente—the town hall—looking out onto a crude baroque clock tower, I flick on the TV before leaving for dinner—it’s a bullfight, a glimpse of the San Ysidor Festival, Spain’sWorld Series of matador-dom.
A boyish matador in tight turquoise pantaloons and a pink cape gaudy as paper roses: curly dark hair, handsome and sinuous, like gay guys we’d see around La Chueca in Madrid. Junk taped down, probably, like a drag queen’s—sexy and at the same time sexless. He’s ripe and precious, petulant as he prances gracefully in the ring.
Cutaway to an older torreador in a wide-brimmed hat, advancing with elaborate picks to stab the bull, already sprouting a plume of ribbons from where it’s been gored, taunted. Cutaway to the crowd in the stands: celebrities, politicians, the monied—in delicate straw hats, expensive-looking clothes and tans, a superhyped whiff of anticipation, the sleek turquoise ass of the boy matador, a delicious suspension in the load of ritualized violence about to drop.
The bull—El Pelillo—is following a predictable trajectory of impulses; the announcer lauds the beast for its bigness, its magnificence and courage. Like a climax prolonged to amp up its pleasure, the grave-faced, handsome old torreador slowly advances to El Pelillo.
But the deck is stacked against El Pelillo. He’s fucked—it’s all been a distraction. A picador on horseback deftly advances from behind the pissed-off bull, makes a deep, fatal stick. El Pelillo turns, tries to gore the blinkered, well-padded horse. Now the old torreador is running, drawing the bull away from the horse, and tries to make another stab, picks fluttering white ribbons; they wobble in El Pelillo’s shoulder, heave, fall to the ring.
The matador advances, wields a curved sword like a ballet student executing a move, but the bull’s done: El Pelillo collapses, like a dog laying down in the heat. An then it’s over—the TV cuts to smiles on in the crowd, the finely molded beauty in the matador’s expressionless and yet triumphant face, then a cut to a commercial about toilet paper or chocolate biscuits or some shit. You don’t see the enormous, twitching black carcass dragged across the ring, the smear of blood in the dirt.
As for Per and me, we’re off to dinner. Well, that’s Spain for you—like the sepia I can still taste, lurid reality shows up mainly on the plate. —John Birdsall
Evenings I would visit the Plaza Mayor, where outdoor cafes and tabernas spilled over with high-spirited Madrilenos, and from there I would descend to the gently curved Cava Baja, where I’d spend hours at cave like taverns called mesones. There was no need to purchase theater or movie tickets or have a specific place to go; singing, music and dance filled the streets, and one could join in; lively conversation was to be found everywhere.
The Desert Music, I think—that’s the place William Carlos Williams noted it’s the strange hours tourists happen onto stuff that makes even ordinary scenes seem, well, magical. And Alain de Botton says even a crummy sign in a foreign airport can seem steeped in the all the romance of travel, all the strangeness of new places—turned electric with anticipation you, the traveler, have juiced it up with. Like some foreign-current converter you pull from the bulging fanny pack of your imagination.
It was a night that’d been drenched fitfully in rain. In a cab we hurtled through the dark, bent, eventually, for a late-ish meal at billy kwong, the mod-Cantonese place (originally co-owned with Bill Granger) by Sydney chef and author Kylie Kwong. Magical? It was, in a way so many restaurant experiences simply aren’t these days: a chain of advance bookings, the 5:30 seating you didn’t want, and anticipatory anxiety, leading ultimately to food that seems to wither on the plate under inspection, like a picked basil leaf under the 100-watt lightbulb of expectation.
Was it the drinks Perry and I had before we hit Kwong’s place? The murky glamour of some sleek, boozy Surry Hills hotel bar, where Aussie twentysomethings were sloppy celebrating the convergence of summer and Christmas. Wiry, handsome-ish guys in fauxhwaks or Rod Stewart rooster cuts; girl hotties in holiday-party sheath minis, some drunk as hell, tottering on the stairs down to the loo, in a dizzy spiral leading inevitably to vomit and remorse.