I Am the Invader (43)

Once I walked from Ajijic to Chapala and back. I don’t remember how many hours I spent doing it, but I remember being present for big chunks of time, taking it all in with new and thirsty eyes. I avoided the highway for all but a two or three block stretch in a couple of spots where it was the only choice. I walked through cobblestone streets in the villages, past horses and cows and goats on the dirt roads on the outskirts. More than once I sensed I was walking where gringos didn’t show up very often, and probably not on foot, a woman alone. I didn’t feel afraid, only conspicuous from time to time.

Shore of lake, old rowboat and wheelbarrow

I hugged the lakeside when I could. I passed old brick buildings, glassless windows, the courtyards swept clean, women doing laundry outside by hand, the cluck of chickens behind low brick walls with bougainvillea spilling over them. Once I stopped for a long time watching a heron standing still in the shallows near the shore, and I felt the richness of the life there, the birds, the water, the place where fertile earth and decay overlap, reminiscent of my visit to the deep south here, maybe Biloxi. I marveled at the idea of owning land beside this lake, how much that would mean to me, but wondering if it could feel like that same opulence to the locals in their poverty. East of San Antonio Tlayacapan there was a stretch where the road became more of a walking path than a road, dotted with shacks, more plywood lean-tos than dwellings. I passed a man and two children. They were sitting at the edge of the road, a piece of plywood for a table, a bag of bread between them, the makings of sandwiches. I remember the surprise on their faces when I appeared. I felt like I’d just walked uninvited through their living room. I can still see the man’s face. He is chewing, and he nods to me in response to my greeting. But his eyes are wary, resentful. I am the invader.

Fruta Picada (5)

The first time I saw a street vendor selling fresh-cut fruit in Mexico I was wandering through a residential neighborhood in Cabo San Lucas, where a man wielded a small portable set-up, rolling it along the banquetas there, the sidewalks. His work area held whole fruit, cucumbers and pineapple prepped for making slices, his tools, his cutting board, his kitchen towel. It was framed of wood and bordered on three sides by glass. I watched from a small distance, fascinated, while people stopped to make their requests, listening to the rapid-fire Spanish, the different selections. In Ajijic we had a fruit stand every day at the edge of the plaza, and one just east of town on the carretera, the highway. Wednesdays another family always set up shop at the top end of the open-air market, the tianguis. You could find mango and melons, papaya and cucumbers and jicama, sometimes huge bosenberries or bright red strawberries or pineapple, fresh coconut. When there was time, they’d make up clear plastic cupfuls in advance, all cantaloupe or watermelon, or a mixture of berries, the bright colors and succulent fruit a still life on the street. Or you could ask for your own particular combination from the fruit on hand, and they’d prepare it for you. Some vendors use a dry blended chili powder; others offer a chili sauce. Always there is fresh lime and salt. The first time I tasted limon y sal y chile on fruit, it surprised me, all that hot, tangy, salty sweetness. But it grabbed me, too. I loved it. And when I was counting calories, I’d go for the cucumbers.

cut fruit and cucumbers in plastic cups in Mexico

I remember stopping once at the fruit stand on the highway east of town. I was walking home from shopping at the Super Lake grocery store in San Antonio Tlayacapan. I sat on the curb near La Floresta with my large plastic cup of cucumber spears with lime and salt and chili sauce. I savored each long luscious slice, dipping again and again into the spicy red sauce pooling at the bottom of the clear plastic. And our first day on the mainland, the cats and Lolita Roja and I found fruit as if by magic en route to San Blas. The downhill road to the coastal town wound its way through the trees, and at one slow turn three women materialized in front of my car, apparitions with cups of cut fruit in their hands. I got flustered–by the unexpected suddenness, the blind curve, the rapid Spanish, my own ambivalence and groggy brain after a day of driving. I pulled over on the side of the road and chose one container of mixed melons and one of green mango. When I told them I wanted to save the fruit for later, they put the chili powder and the salt in little plastic bags for me, gave me whole limes. We stayed two nights in San Blas, time for the cats to recover from their ferry crossing nightmare. I made three meals of the fruit. It was the perfect thing. I would sit on the veranda outside our room in the warm April breeze eating green mango con limon y sal y chile. I watched the lighthouse revolve, watched our little patch of water move up the estuary, slow and quiet. I listened to the grackles calling from the trees, from the rooftops. I licked lime juice from my fingers and studied the houses down the street and wondered what it might be like to live there.

patch of estuary with lighthouse on the opposite bank

view up San Blas street from veranda

[The photo of the fruit is copyrighted by antefixus21 and can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/21728045@N08/2328071644/.]