Of the Chingles

Our one local supermarket, the Ahora, comes to life mainly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. That's when the fruits and vegetables arrive.

They're nothing to write home about even though I'm writing home to you about them because in the United States you'd mostly find Ahora's fruits and vegetables in the dumpster behind your local Safeway, A&P, or Piggly-Wiggly. Broccoli with the mange, tomatoes with hemorrhoids and lettuce with anorexia.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. First because they are all we have: mange, hemorrhoids and all. Second, if I wanted Safeway, A&P, and Piggly-Wiggly vegetables, I wouldn't be living some 2000 miles and five days drive south of the U. S. Border. I'm complaining, but merely and merrily.

The other days of the week there's little life in the vegetable sectionat our local Super. Yesterday, I swear to you, all I found were a couple of forlorn onions and potatoes. The onions are trying to grow other onions. The potatoes are blighted with age but don't show it because they have been painted red. There is, apparently, an army of Mexican ladies sitting around somewhere with brushes, turning the Idaho potatoes into the New variety. Seems the colored ones are more valuable. And you get a bonus when you buy them: Agent Orange in your lentil-potato stew.

In the fruit bin one sole Bell Pepper with crows' feet under the eyes. There were some chilies, but there are always chiles --- ten or twelve varities, most of them hot as hell. There was some jícama, too, but those bastards live forever. I think that if they found some jícama at Pompeii, you and I could enjoy some now peeled and sliced, served with the juice of limón.

And as always, if there's nothing else, there are always tortillias --- if the tortilla machine is working. Tortillas! Forty cents a kilo, which contains (I just counted) fifty-three of them. Where would we be without tortillas? There is nothing more sensual for us Mexicophiles than the first hot tortilla of the day. Biting into it is not unlike biting into the skin of a sweet young thing. Your teeth meet a very slight resistance, and as you rip off a piece, there floats up a heady flowery smell --- protein-rich, fecund, filled with warm lust. If you crumble up a piece of Oxacan bitter cheese, slice up an avocado, stuff them in your plump hot tortilla, why it's a complete meal.

Tortilla, by the way, is fabricated with whitewash, that stuff that we used to paint the outhouse walls (we also threw a handful down the hole to make the place a little less ripe). In those days, it was called lime. To make tortillas with it, you mix a pinch or so with water, and boil the maize in it for a short time. Drain and wash the corn, grind it up and you have tortilla flour.

Lime --- known here as "cal" --- turns up everywhere: not only in tortillas, but in cement, and that white stuff painted on the base of trees --- presumably to keep the ants from carrying off the whole thing. It's also used to make piggy banks --- figuras --- for storing your change, and even to paint lines on the soccer fields. But mostly, it's tortillas. It turns out cal provides just enough minerals to make it possible for people to survive on them alone, which many do in this area. You can't say the same for Hostess Twinkies and Coke, our preferred poisons to the north.

Every time I think of cal, I think of tortillas --- but I also think of whitewash, and Tom Sawyer, and that great song from World War I, sung by the "limeys" immersed in the goopy-mud of the front-line trenches. Can you hear them now --- lying in their cold and filthy, rat-infested dugouts, bodies and uniforms black with ooze, singing:

    Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
    Whiter than the whitewash on the wall,
    Wash me in your water
    That you wash your dirty daughter
    And I shall be whiter than the whitewash on the wall.

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For five days of the week, in the supermarket, the food supply is strictly limited. They make up for it with an extensive liquor section --- heavy with Kalhua, bad wine, beer, and Mexican cońac. Alcohol, not denatured, industrial strength, goes for twenty-five cents a liter --- which may explain the plethora of drunken expatriate Americans who litter the beaches around here like so many trash wrappers.

There is a full aisle of Ahora dedicated to sweets, another to perfume, one for suntan oil (twenty-five brands), shampoos (fifty), and hand soap (seventy-five). Speaking of soap, around Christmas, the speaker system of Ahora lights up with a traditional Mexican Christmas Carol known as "Chingle Bells." This is performed at high volume, with considerable vigor, by a raucous lady who is, apparently, wild on meth. I've heard the song so many times while pawing through the tie-dyed potatoes that, to my considerable irritation, I find myself humming "chingle all the way" most of the day and much of the night. The fidelity isn't very good, either in my personal version or the store's --- so I've haven't figured out how they translate "one-horse open sleigh." In hot climates, these things aren't easy.

If I sound like I am complaining, let me repeat --- I'm not. You and I don't travel all these miles looking for shopping malls. If the Ahora gets to me, there is always the public market down the street. The vegetables are more or less the same, even the painted potatoes --- but the smells are more exotic. Especially in the meat section. With its bevy of flies and its carrion-and-dead-rat smell, these flailed pieces of beef and pork turn many of us into full-time vegetarians.

But even in the public market there's been an Invasion of the Chingles. Three years ago, they starting importing Christmas tree ornaments from China that not only wink and blink, but that sing to us with an especially harsh keening sound. So now we have lights that chingle all the way with the oft-repeated warning that we'd better be good for goodness sakes because Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is coming to town with a guy named "Sanda Cluse."

--- Carlos Amantea


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