Thanksgiving turkey, one-eared dogs, muffler shops, pumpkin pie, Xbox & bullfighting.
Thanksgiving turkey, one-eared dogs, muffler shops, pumpkin pie, Xbox & bullfighting.
Finding a whole, fresh turkey in Mexico is like discovering a sale on veal cutlets down at the baby petting zoo: ain’t gonna happen. But during my five-hour Thanksgiving shopping trip at the local MegaMart in Guanajuato, I did manage to find a smoked turkey frozen solid and dating back to sometime before the Bush presidency.
The pressure of completing my list was making me sweat; Thanksgiving was three days away and my family was counting on me. I had already struck out on cranberry sauce and the bags of whole-shelled mixed nuts we liked to crack open and eat while watching the Macy’s Parade. And I’d given up hours ago on finding those crunchy little onion-things to make green bean casserole. When I asked a stock boy if the store sold gravy he said yes, happily leading me to a row of bottled Caesar dressings.
Luckily, after rolling the smoked turkey around in my hands like an icy bowling ball, I spied a couple of ducks and snagged those bad boys instead. Bush would have been proud: “Mission Accomplished,” indeed.
Mexicans, as it turns out, are the fifth largest consumer of turkey products worldwide: about three and a half pounds per person per year. But most of this consumption comes in the form of the pervasive deli-style turkey ham or substandard turkey breast, called pechuga de pavo, which, honestly, is more akin to those little “turkey-food” processed roll-ups that got handed to you in kindergarten.
But it was Thanksgiving, and we were not home, and my family and I needed something that felt familiar in a land bursting not only with wonder, but also its fair share of potent contradictions: the drug war has disemboweled the north of Mexico with staggering, unimaginable violence and yet every day I was surrounded by the kindest and gentlest individuals I’ve ever been lucky enough to know in the Central Highlands. Also, the geography is as much about its gorgeous, arid landscapes and as it is about its arcane traditions—the stunningly vibrant death rugs laid out in the town square on Day of the Dead were simultaneously frightening and beautiful; massive, colorful sidewalk displays made of hundreds of flower petals and dried beans, brightly colored salt and sand. One showed skeletons wistfully holding hands in love, and another had a skeleton was comically chomping on a cigar and wearing a top hat while riding a big-wheeled bicycle from sometime in the 19th century. All the while though, I felt somewhat lonely. The images, regardless of how intricate or weird or lovely, were never meant for us, outsiders.
A knife-sharpener played his pan flute to announce his arrival, neighborhood families bringing out their cutlery for grinding.
When Thanksgiving finally arrived, and each plate was prepared and everyone, friend and family alike, was seated at our rooftop table for this immaculate meal, I raised my glass of champagne and gave a speech of thanks. I did my best to imbue my words carefully with both the humility and gratitude I felt while life on the street continued like any other Thursday. Guys in hardhats and orange vests jack-hammered the shit out of a nearby thoroughfare; kids in pressed school uniforms leapt and ran through the streets excitedly talking about Xbox and YouTube; buses rattled slowly up my street as standing groups of mothers and businessmen, farmers and teenagers, checked the writing on the windshields to see if it was their bus finally arriving. A knife-sharpener played his pan flute to announce his arrival, neighborhood families bringing out their cutlery for grinding. Nobody around us gave a crap it was Thanksgiving except for my small bundle of friends and family neatly arranged around a table and waiting for me to finish my words in order to bite into the duck’s crispy skin and juicy thighs.
Afterward, we had pumpkin pie made expertly by a woman who owns a vegetarian restaurant in town, as well as pies both chocolate and key lime. Everyone was sated. Everyone content. But there was no football, no Detroit Lions to watch screw it up again or Dallas Cowboys to cheer while spread half comatose across the living room couch. There were just dishes to wash, homework for my daughters to finish. At least we weren’t inundated by all that Black Friday nonsense gearing up back home, adults preparing to stand in line at 3 a.m. at Toys R Us in Gary, Indiana, ready to stab anyone who tried to take the last Barbie Dream House so obviously meant for their little girl.
The sun was still strong in the sky, and the heat held a few birds as they played the air, flitting from one T.V. antenna to the next. My friend Ken left to explore the Diego Rivera museum nearby, and my older daughter Grace had friends back in the States to gossip with on Facebook. My youngest, Sophie, needed to get out for a bit and I suggested we go and visit the old bullring on the other side of town. My wife Lisa was appreciative, eager to get back to a novel she was engrossed in.
In the cab, Sophie, who was 8, held my hand and said she hoped they wouldn’t be hurting the bulls that day. I explained the bullring was no longer in use and that it was now more a museum or old relic than anything else.
All the while, I couldn’t shake this strange sense of melancholy. As a family, we had felt Mexico was the perfect choice for us to spend the next six months; I had two new books coming out the following year that still needed editing, and Lisa relished the idea to be back in a place we had spent large chunks of time together with the girls, both of whom had loved their previous time in Mexico as much as we had. But still…what were we really trying to do here? Why had we truly come back, and what was it I believed Mexico could teach me about my life? I closed my eyes.
When the taxi driver arrived at the bullring, it looked pitifully old and beaten down, graffiti scarring its once proud façade; symbols and images dotted its side, and, strangely, “Black Power” spray painted defiantly across the cracked white walls.
“Is anyone inside?” I asked the taxi driver in Spanish.
He shrugged his shoulders.
Nonetheless, Sophie and I got out and the driver sped off, leaving us in a neighborhood populated by muffler shops and hollowed out cars fuming in their own rust. A dog with one ear darted out from behind some dusty bushes and galloped by, intent on finding something more promising elsewhere. I turned back to the bullring.
“Let’s go knock on the door,” I said more to myself than Sophie. She took my hand.
After my second knock, a boy no older than 10 answered and said hello. I asked if we could come in and look around. He turned to his father, who was standing back a ways and waited for the man’s answer.
“Sure. As long as you don’t take any photos.”
For the next half-hour the bullring’s caretaker recounted its history. He spoke of the pageantry, the cries of the people, the valor of both man and beast, the shocking deaths of two bullfighters. He led us to the center of the dirt bullring and we gazed out at the stands encircling us. I could picture all those passionate fans, those aficionados, and smiled when I then thought of Hemingway.
“Why did they shut this place down?” I asked.
The man spit in the dirt and rolled it under his sneakered foot. “The seats were ready to collapse and kill everybody.”
We then saw where they led the bulls out, one at a time, sometime 12 in a single day, into something called the chute; this was where the bulls waited before being released into the ring. And the man spoke of how some bulls were passive, maybe a little apprehensive while they waited, while others banged violently against the heavy wooden stockade separating them from the arena, shook their black anvil-like heads up and down violently into a froth, horns exquisite, ready to take someone with them in their last moments on Earth. The man spoke of these particular animals with something greater than pride.
Afterward, I thanked the man and his son. Sophie whispered gracias and we were let out through the doorway in which we had entered.
Hand-in-hand, Sophie and I walked down the road in search of cab. I stopped at a little store and bought her a Coke, something I didn’t normally do, but it was Thanksgiving after all, and there existed an unspoken moratorium on rules about sugar.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I liked it,” she said.
“Because that man cares about all those animals. That man loves his horses.”
“You’re right,” was all I could think to say, because, she was. And at that point I felt a small heat fill my chest. How lucky, I thought, to love and beloved by my family in this world, this place, this land I both knew and was not mine.
I picked Sophie up and hugged her. I could feel her breathing in my ear as she held my neck. I could feel her weight in both of my grateful arms.
Christopher Locke writes about travel both here and abroad. He currently resides in Lake Placid, NY, and is about as far from Mexico as he ever wants to be.