The Hungry Cyclist @ Chelsea Arts Club
On Monday night I was lucky enough to read an extract from my book at The Chelsea Arts Club. As a member for six years this was a great honor and I hope for those that filled the Ladies Bar it was a fun and interesting evening.
As Nueva España expanded, a demand for beef and leather amongst its new inhabitants grew and, as well as horses, domesticated cattle were also introduced to the New World. Enterprising and wealthy colonial landowners filled their new ranches with cattle but, far too important to do the work themselves, they trained local men in the skills needed to control these swelling herds on horseback. These cattle hands became know as vaqueros, and as the enterprise of cattle ranching extended further into central and northern Mexico, so did the gutsy traditions and colourful folklore of these men.
During and after the Mexican–American War in the 1840s, the customs of the vaquero were absorbed by settlers in California, Texas and the southern United States, who borrowed their ranching skills, distinctive and functional attire and their vocabulary. The term ‘buckaroo’ is the anglicised pronunciation of vaquero.
Months before pedalling into the northern states of Mexico, I had experienced first-hand the hard-drinking, hard-riding, testicle-chewing cowboys of America’s Midwest, and I thought I had seen the real McCoy. But cycling further into the state of Sinaloa, on Mexico’s north-west coast, it became very clear I was now riding into real cowboy country.
Today the vaqueros of modern Mexico are known as charros, and when I wasn’t being passed by open trailers packed tight with baying cattle trailing their rich stench of manure, posses of hard-faced, moustachioed men clip-clopped past me on proud horses, decked out in black or white sombreros, gleaming spurs, high-cut boots, leather chaps and ornate belt buckles.
Sitting bolt upright in their worn saddles, with one hand they controlled their steeds with gentle tugs on the reins. The other arm hung nonchalantly behind. The machetes, lassoes and blankets that hung from their saddles made it clear these men were working cowboys. Their horse was their livelihood and their weather-beaten, worn-out attire was not a costume worn at weekends as a testament to a dying culture, but the most practical clothing for days in the saddle, driving cattle under a blazing sun.
Cantina de Vaquero. Carne Asada. 4km
It was the end of a steamy day’s cycling, and the abundant cattle flies and mosquitoes had begun their evening blood hunt. Fed up with the perpetual stings and bites, I pulled off the road and followed the dusty trail away from the highway towards the Cantina de Vaquero, in the hope that it might be a suitable place to eat and sleep.
At the end of the track six horses and a dusty pick-up truck were parked in front of a simple thatched barn, open on all sides. A large, smoking grill filled the air with the magnificent odours of grilled beef, and an antiquated jukebox pumped loud Banda, a traditional brass-based music favoured by charros, into the warm evening.
The only other customers, a gang of charros, sat around a table, their impressive collection of beer bottles littering the floor. This drunken cowboy choir mimicked every tune from the jukebox in pitch-perfect baritone voices, before accompanying the trumpets and trombones of the chorus with a succession of high-pitched shrieks and cat-calls.
To my huge disappointment the grill was no longer serving food, but after eyeing me up and down suspiciously, the woman in charge said I could pitch my tent on a piece of scrub behind the restaurant. Content with a good day’s cycling and happy to have found what looked like a safe place to stay, I began the mundane ritual of unpacking and setting up camp. From behind me as I forced a stubborn tent peg into the dry earth, I heard the unmistakable offer of a beer.
Having cycled over sixty miles that day, at the end of a hot, hard week, I accepted. I joined the men at their table, drinking Michelada, a gloriously refreshing cocktail of ice-cold beer, lime juice and chilli. It was soon dark. The owner of the restaurant had had enough and apparently so had we. The plug was pulled on the jukebox and next on the agenda was a local charreada in a nearby village. I was assured my bicycle would be safe hidden behind the toilets and, encouraged by plenty of beer and the chance to see a rodeo Mexico-style, I climbed into the back of a beaten up pick-up truck and we shot off in a cloud of dust.
Climbing out of the truck, I stood there with my blond hair, cycling shoes, blue jeans and camping-store fleece and felt the stare of a hundred dark eyes home in on me, accompanied by expressions that seemed to say, ‘What the fuck is he doing here?’ The burst of fresh air from the truck ride meant my beer-induced confidence was fading fast and in the dim light my friends from the restaurant seemed to have been cloned by the dozen. I began to question why I hadn’t stayed with my tent but instead was standing alone in a small rural village somewhere in the state of Sinaloa, northern Mexico.
In the glow of a couple of failing streetlights I watched as swarms of charros swigged from cans of Tecate beer and exchanged macho greetings. Men on horseback sparred with each other, pulling off sharp turns, twists and other equestrian trickery, while others showboated their horse-handling skills, galloping around the crude plaza before pulling on their brakes, forcing their horses to skid across the cobbles, then sharply turning tail, whooping with drunken bravado and joyriding back into the darkness.
Amongst the crowd broad-shouldered men in all their charro finery of matching boots, belts and hat straps strutted about parading their women on their arms, while those without partners stood puffed up like fighting cocks in the hope of attracting the attention of the pretty girls in tight-fitting jeans who swung their hips and giggled in the shadows. The place was bubbling over with machismo. Suffering from a serious bout of testosterone deficiency, I went to look for another beer and something to eat.
Making the most of the faint orange light, a team of enterprising locals had set up a taco stand under one of the village’s working lamps. The red plastic tables and chairs were full of customers. They were doing a roaring trade, feeding the alcohol-induced hunger of the crowd. I got happily in line.
A man with a weighty cleaver chopped and diced sticky heaps of meat on a large wooden chopping block, and a woman worked pressing fresh tortillas from round balls of dough. But something was different about this taco stand. There was no hissing grill covered with cuts of meat. There were no shallow vats of oil sizzling and spitting with short lengths of intestine. Instead the meat was being cooked on a round metal plate, domed in the middle, that puffed steam from numerous small holes punched in its surface. Slimy grey heaps of meat were cooked in the middle of the plate by hot vapour, and tortillas were warmed on the edges, slightly marinated in the sticky juices that seeped from the well-kept meat. Waiting in turn, I listened intently to the orders of the people in front of me, trying to determine what I was about to eat, but my beer-dulled brain failed me. I tapped the shoulder of the man in front and asked him what the meat was.
I must have looked blank. The man tapped a finger on the edge of his black hat.
Head. Of course!
Taking me by the shoulder, the man pointed at the different textures and colours of meat.
‘Labio,’ he said before touching his lips.
‘Ojo.’ He pointed at my eyes.
‘Cachete.’ He pulled on one of his cheeks.
‘Sesos.’ He tapped his temple again.
He stuck out his tongue. This was a mad-cow-disease pick ’n’ mix, but before I could decide which cut of a cow’s head to choose from, my tutor ordered for me.
‘Un mixto, unos sesos, una lengua y uno cachete.’
I thanked the man and, holding my plate of four neatly packed tacos, I went to work on the no-frills selection of condiments. A classic salsa verde, some finely diced onion, chopped cilantro and a deliciously smooth guacamole. None of the vibrant red salsas, radishes and pico de gallo I was used to, but the subtle greens complemented perfectly the grey tones of the meat and the translucent hue of the tortillas. In the half light it was hard to tell which meat was which, but I think I started with my brain taco, and the first thing I noticed was the wonderful texture of the steamed tortilla, soft, damp and chewy, like the skin of dim sum. The flavours of the various head parts were rich and meaty with a tender texture. To hell with bovine spongiform encephalitis. These tacos were superb.
Feasting on offal, I watched the crowds and listened to the invigorating tones of Banda music that jumped from a simple tannoy system attached to the roof of a van until they were replaced by an undistinguishable announcement. The crowd suddenly drifted away, and swept up with them I too arrived at a large circular arena encircled by a high metal fence. Pick-up trucks and tractors were parked tidily all around the edge, acting as both improvised seating and lighting. The vehicles’ headlights, filled the ring with a brilliant light, casting long shadows of the men and women climbing onto the roofs, bonnets and fenders for the best view.
‘Psssssssssst – eh, gringo!’
It was one of the men from earlier in the evening. I was pulled onto the roof of a truck and squeezed into a row of tequila-enriched charros. I took a long pull on the bottle offered to me, and after the initial hit of the cheap tequila, a rush of calm coursed through my veins.
A loud announcement, followed by a chorus of wolf whistles and cheers, signalled that the charreada was about to get under way. On the far side of the ring, a teenager in thick leather chaps and a sombrero nervously mounted a gigantic bull, its broad neck and heavy frame a mass of muscle. Wriggling into his desired position and gripping a rope tied round the bull’s forequarters, the young man lifted one hand in the air, signalling to a man with an electric cattle prodder that he was ready to roll. The prodder was pushed through the bars of the fence towards the bull’s hind legs and then Zap!
What had been a docile and tidy collection of beef cuts was transformed into a wild, angry mess of muscle, horns and mucus, charging, bucking and kicking its way around the dusty arena, dismounting its rider after about five long seconds and sending him scrambling through the dirt for the fence and safety. While the victorious bull pawed the ground and acknowledged the adulation of the crowd, a team of men lassoed him in, ready for the next competitor.
Men were tossed high into the air. Others hung on for seemingly impossible amounts of time. Bodies were hurled effortlessly into the railings, while others ran scared, throwing themselves over the fence in the nick of time. There was no ambulance, I had no idea how far the nearest emergency room was, and I watched in amazement as these apparently fearless men clambered aboard. I wasn’t sure whether I felt sorrier for the young men being flung around, kicked and charged like worthless ragdolls, or for the bullocks who had to withstand 200 volts being zapped into their backsides. Either way, it made compulsive viewing. The bulls kept bucking and the riders kept coming, as did the bottles of cheap tequila and cans of beer.
The scratchy call of a cockerel exploded in my head and I woke, startled from a shallow, inebriated slumber, with no idea where I was. Scrambling to my feet, I took in my surroundings. Shafts of sunlight pierced a rusty metal roof. A few mangy chickens pecked at the dirt floor and a litter of whimpering dogs huddled together on a sackcloth bed. Topless, but thankfully still in my trousers, I was drenched in sticky sweat, and the plastic beer crates I had been sleeping on had left a strange geometric rash across my chest. In a fearsome one-two combination, an excruciating pain in my head and an overwhelming feeling of nausea threw me back onto the floor. The stale taste of alcohol on my breath and my parched mouth triggered my memory, and slowly a few broken fragments of the previous night began to materialise. The restaurant; the cowboys; a long ride in a truck; the rodeo; beer; tequila . . .
My bike! Where the fuck is my bike?
I had no idea where I was. I had no idea where my bicycle was. I began to curse my stupidity. My trip of a lifetime was meant to end on a beach in Rio, not languishing in a hungover mess on the dirty floor of a shed in Mexico.
‘Heeeeeeeraaaaaarch . . . putt!’
The hideous noise came from the other side of a tatty, hessian curtain, and the ensemble of deep-throat retching was followed by a combination of spitting, coughing and cursing, all culminating in a disturbingly loud expulsion of wind. Whatever lived behind the curtain was not well.
The curtain was drawn back to reveal an overweight, hairy, semi-naked, sweaty and very muddled-looking Mexican. The expression on his face conveyed his thoughts exactly. ‘Why have I got a semi-naked gringo lying on my floor?’
This silent standoff continued for a few more moments while he put his pieces of the night together and, after kicking a few chickens out of the room, he put on a shirt, picked up a worn-out leather saddle from the floor and threw it on the back of his tired horse, tied up outside. He signalled with a grunt that I should climb aboard, and at the mercy of a crippling hangover, and with equestrian skills that went no further than piloting a doped-up donkey on a beach as a child, I tried to obey. With one foot trapped in a stirrup, I hopped up and down trying to get my leg over, until the man from behind the curtain pushed a shoulder under my buttocks. With all the grace of a man climbing out of a small window, I clambered on board. The man from behind the curtain jumped on behind me and with our bodies sandwiched together in the saddle we wound our way through a cobbled maze of pathways and the simple adobe buildings of his village.
Apart from the steady clip-clop of the hooves on the cobblestones, and the occasional bout of retching, we suffered in silence, trotting past the confused faces that peered out of the shadowed doorways of the village. We rode into a sun-scorched pasture, dotted with heavy cattle. At length, climbing a gentle hill, I could hear the drone of the highway, and was relieved to see the restaurant where I hoped I would be reunited with my own trusty steed.
‘Adios.’ The man from behind the curtain trotted back the way we had come.
Mercifully, my bicycle was where I left it, and against my better judgement I rode it slowly through the heat of the morning, suffering from the kind of soul-destroying hangover that makes you swear never to touch alcohol again. Wearily, I counted the miles to the next town on my map, where I hoped I might find my cure.
In pre-revolutionary Mexico, poverty was chronic. The unfair distribution of wealth meant that the best cuts of meat went to the wealthy landowners, while the campesinos and vaqueros had to survive on cheaper cuts. Having to make do with offal, brains, heads, tails and hooves, these became the foundation of Mexico’s cuisine, of which menudo is one of her most celebrated recipes and a famed hangover cure. Overcome by waves of nausea, the thought of swallowing down slippery chunks of tripe hardly helped my delicate condition, but having heard about the magical powers of this miracle dish from numerous truck drivers, it was now my only hope.
Limping into town, I headed straight for the mercado municipal, a boisterous and stifling labyrinth, heaving with people. Behind tables piled high with produce, men and women shouted above each over. Boys pushing loaded sack barrows ordered me out of their way and the sound of butchers thumping heavy cleavers down on chopping boards echoed in my head. The screeching and crowing of chickens in metal cages was amplified alarmingly. Swept up in the slow-moving current of people, I was pushed past tables of reeking fish buzzing with flies and on through alleyways of smoking grills and steaming pots that filled the already stuffy air with pungent smells. On any other day I would have loved this place, but in my state of disrepair it was all too much and, like a poisoned man with only minutes to live, I searched desperately for my life-saving antidote.
At the heart of the market a huddle of small fondas or temporary kitchens was busy with women each with their own speciality, cooking local delicacies from the freshest of market ingredients. Lining one side of a long table, a line of black and white sombreros indicated the heads of men hunched over steaming bowls. On a chalk board above them were the magical words. I had found what I was looking for.
Rico menudo, fines de semana.
Drenched in sweat, I squeezed into this hungover line-up, the only man without a hat and well-kept moustache, and asked for some menudo.
Bubbling under the lids of four metal vats was the magic potion. After lifting the lid, the ham-fisted woman spooned three large ladlefuls into a bowl and placed it in front of me, along with a plate of warm tortillas, two halves of lime, a plate of chopped cilantro and diced spring onion and a small terracotta dish of tiny red and yellow chillies.
The menudo smelt unusual, like a wet animal, but after stirring it through with a healthy pinch of cilantro, and wringing every last drop of vitamin-packed juice from the limes, I dropped in a pinch of chilli and took my first spoonful. Like my mother’s hand on my forehead, it was immediately comforting. The soggy texture of the tripe soothed my parched throat, nursing every inch of my insides as it found its way south, and with every spoonful I could feel my damaged system recovering. The stew was spicy enough even without my addition of extra chillies to begin flushing out every drop of the previous night’s excesses. I was crying like a teenage girl at the end of the film Titanic, rivers of mucus poured out of my nose, saliva dribbled from my lips and every pore of my skin was emitting fluids. I was a sniffling, drooling, sweat-drenched mess of a man, but peering with bloodshot eyes down the line of vaqueros on either side of me, I knew I was not alone. I didn’t have a wide-brimmed hat, I didn’t have a fancy belt buckle and I couldn’t ride a horse, but with my own ride tied up outside, enjoying this perfect hangover cure, I felt at one with the real cowboys who surrounded me.