Cigars and Carnaval
By now we have found our rhythm and the rhythm of Mazatlan. Our close friend, Warren Holder, is due to visit us from Toronto. He has an excellent position with the University of Toronto and travels the world promoting the university’s electronic library. Although he’s never been to Mazatlan, I am optimistic he will be charmed by the ocean, the Mexican culture, the cheap beer, the cheap Chilean wine, and he will not be offended by roosters, loud music and cockroaches. Warren and his wife separated three years ago, but he’s on the brink of a new romance so I know he will be in a good mood. Actually, Warren is always in a good mood, which makes him an amazing friend. He’s neat too. Warren even enjoys shopping with me and has the “when in Rome” attitude.
All three of us wish to experience Carnaval for the first time. It’s party central in Centro and we thought it would be fun to see what this feisty fiesta has to offer. There was just one thing missing: cigars. Both Soren and Warren enjoy a light cigar after dinner. Light is the key word. There is no problem buying the big Cuban cigars in Mazatlan; they are just too strong for my boys. We begin our cigar chase in the Plazuela Machado, the old square. One evening we discover Laura, who is hand rolling cigars. She promises to make Soren ten, so he could sample them, and we were to return “later” in the week. We knew “later” was a code phrase, but we were hopeful. We circled the square each evening, but no Laura. Well, a habit needs to be satisfied. We bounce from waiter to waiter and finally hit pay dirt with Carlos who points to a gringo with straggly grey hair, sitting on a bench. Sure enough, the dude does sell cigars and takes us to the back of another bar where red, shrink wrapped boxes are stacked on top of a rusty old fridge. The fact they are shrink wrapped is a very promising sign. Soren samples one and thinks it’s terrific and really terrific for US$1 each, made in Veracruz, Mexico. We buy a box to celebrate Warren’s imminent arrival. Soren, thinking ahead to future purchases, asks the seller his name. Dude replies, “I’m Horny.”
Soren says, “Sorry, what’s your name?”
Same answer: “I’m Horny.”
I thought this guy is stoned, or drunk or quite possibly both. Our “salesman” has no trouble spotting my various facial expressions. While I’m still chewing on “I’m Horny,” he finally explains he’s missing all his front teeth and his name is actually “Thorny.” Problem solved. We can buy cigars from “I’m Horny” any morning in the square. Except for the mornings when Thorny has spent the night with Mr. Tequila.
Warren arrives, he’s delighted with our rooftop view of the Cathedral, and he’s ecstatic about the weather; he didn’t believe me, because I caught him unpacking an umbrella. Well, an umbrella is part of his travel checklist, so I can’t blame him for being methodical. All three of us stroll the back streets and squares. Often, Soren and I will wander off to gossip quickly with friends. Frequently we return to find Warren nodding and smiling to Mexicans who are speaking to him in rapid Spanish. Warren doesn’t speak a single word of Spanish. I may have mentioned that Soren and I are whiter than a full moon; Warren, aka Juan, absorbs two hours of sun rays and he turns the colour of an almond. Because the Mexicans are so friendly, and because they enjoy spontaneous conversations, they assume Warren speaks Spanish. I teach him the phrase “no hablo espanol.” The Mexicans understand, but don’t accept it from Juan; they just want to share their daily quips with this handsome mustachioed man with the dark skin, wearing sandals. Warren continues to nod and smile; everyone is happy.
We show Warren all our favourite eating haunts, from the swish, to the local cantinas with communal tables. Warren serves up his “when in Rome” curiosity and dares us to try the pozole soup, which is a regional specialty. The basic recipe is to boil a pig’s head for over three hours, along with hominy or dried corn kernels. In our bustling market, El Mercado, the butchers display a pig’s head like a point of purchase sign. The live dead head is propped on the counter; it’s obvious that stall sells pork. I’m tempted to cut a slit in the top of the head and use it as a ballot box for a marketing promotion. Soren mumbles it’s a good thing I’ve retired from advertising and I’m not pitching that idea to the Ontario Pork Board. The pozole night arrives and we head for La Copita. Soren declines the dare and claims someone has to be available to call Dr. Levid. We enjoy the soup, sort of. It’s not greasy, but there are some unidentifiable bits we have consumed. Every two hours Juan and I ask each other,“How are you feeling?” Morning breaks and all is dandy. Neither one of us is sick and, without Warren, I would never have tried pozole. And now, I don’t ever have to slurp it again.
Christmas lights come down and Carnaval lights go up. It starts with a bang; Mexicans do adore their fireworks. Carnaval began around 1898 and is now the third largest Mardi Gras in the world. I am fairly sure it will be too many people, in too small a space, for too many days. All this proves to be true. My gym and our yoga studio close for five days. Spanish lessons cease because roads are blocked off and people can’t get from A to B. Yes, there is a party feeling, but I think the roots of the Carnaval lost its way in about 1960. It’s no longer an event for families. Over 300,000 visitors cram themselves onto our Centro beaches and into our hotels. It’s all about kids drinking beer until 6 a.m. It’s rowdy, it’s boisterous and the porta-potties overflow. There are no interesting vendor booths, no appealing foods being offered; it’s just a huge party ruining our beautiful Malecon. Finally it ends and we all concur, never again. We will leave Centro to celebrate elsewhere. Like Guadalajara.
Warren wants to buy a few Veracruz cigars to take back to Toronto. 8 a.m. is too early a start for him, so I offer to make the buy. I saunter through the square on a sunny, soft Wednesday morning and see “I’m Horny” chatting with his buddies. I really should stop calling him that, as he has a brand new set of front teeth, which positively gleam; he’s proud of them too. Proud he had the money from selling cigars to pay the dentist. There’s no fluoride in the Mazatlan water and once Thorny shared that bit of information, I notice that many Mexicans have many missing teeth. Thorny says to me, “I have some cigars for your husband, but I was arrested the other night and the cops threw me in jail.” He proceeds to describe the scene of a crowded cell, and even though the cops are on duty, the guards quietly pass matches to the inmates so they can light up their joints. Now aren’t the Mazatlan jails a happy and accommodating lot? Lighting the criminal’s spliffs? Once again, I’m caught in the fog of a “Mexican Moment.”
Finally I manage to ask, “You were arrested for what?”
“Oh, I was caught drinking beer in the square and the police tossed me in local jail.” The fog lifts, and I wonder if the police are watching me fork over pesos for a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. Am I on camera now, I ask myself? It’s Warren’s last night in Mazatlan and he wants to dine by the ocean. After a scrumptious mango shrimp dinner, the boys light up their cigars. We all agree, that while Thorny is a character, he’s a character that cops watch. It’s an easy conclusion; further cigars will be bought in a department store. Like Sanborns. Warren’s holiday was wonderful in every way. Delightful for us spend time with a dear friend who can see that we are “Mazmerized.” He gets why we want to move here, he gets our condo, he gets Centro and, most of all, he gets the Mexicans. I am thrilled for him that he’s returning to a red hot romance (the e mails have been rolling in faster than the Pacific waves), and we will have all summer to be together in Toronto.
As he packs up his umbrella, I’m engrossed in planning our trip to the Copper Canyon.