Drugs, Doctors and Hot Potatoes
December has zoomed by faster than a speeding bullet, which is an apt analogy for Mexico, since the top two fears raised by my Canadian friends are the ongoing drug wars and health care. Of course, there are serious drug wars in Mazatlan’s state of Sinaloa, but they are not visible to us. Apart from the policemen’s AK47s, we never see gangs, guns, knives or any devious drug deals. I’m sure, high in the hills of Mazatlan, some drug lord is laughing hysterically at my observations, as he pats his pit bull and sips on his single malt; but I don’t sense, or perceive any danger ever. I feel safer on the streets of Mazatlan than I do in Toronto. As long as I look down.
What happens when you get sick? Well, I can tell you. In December we made an appointment to meet our new doctor, Dr. Levid Torres Guzman, known to everyone as Dr. Levid Torres. Dr. Levid has a morning and an evening clinic in Centro, and on Saturday mornings. It appears he takes Sundays off. The receptionist, Rosie, is efficient and duly records our appointment time. It means absolutely nothing. The clinic operates on a first come, first serve basis. Dr. Levid is a warm, wise man with Native American and Jewish blood, born in Mazatlan and trained in California. We both like him immediately. A consultation is $25 and the poorer Mexicans pay him in peanuts… literally, I saw a basket of peanuts being ushered into his office. I become very sick; the kind of bedridden sick where I can’t leave my buckets. Soren speed walks to the clinic and when Dr. Levid’s last patient leaves, he locks his office door and visits me at Villa Serena. I get a shot in the rump, along with a couple of scripts; it’s $25 US too for a house call, including the shot.
Weeks later I have a relapse, but by then, I have gathered additional information. Walk-in laboratories are on every street corner and open at 7 a.m. You don’t need a requisition to get results. Answers to the test are given within two hours. I take “my poop” to the lab, and deliver the lab report to Dr. Levid. Within four hours I have a new script, and am on the road to health. The most expensive lab analysis bill is US$16. The medical system is simply better, more efficient and faster than in Toronto. Access to doctors is much greater, and most of the doctors make house calls. In Mazatlan you can pretty much solve your minor ailments within hours. The medical superiority is totally unexpected and the system here gives the control back to you. I am never kept at arm’s length, like a mushroom in the dark. Information is readily shared with me, the patient. When I see Dr. Levid he never rushes me, and he even takes the time to share his theory as to why so many northerners experience intestinal difficulties in Mexico. To be fair, he did say it is a bit like the sighting of Big Foot. No doctor can ever really be sure, but he suspects the culprit is raw food. Such as salsa sauce or guacamole, which sit around in lazy restaurants and gets recycled over time. And, of course, the Mazatlan specialty, ceviche. Ceviche is a selection of raw fish “cooked” in fresh lime juice. It’s not cooked at all, it’s just marinated. My gut knows that it was a ceviche dish which caused my second intestinal bout. I am enjoying trying all the different foods and I am eating from the local food carts, but I am following Dr. Levid’s advice: no more raw food. Which leads me to our hot potato night.
There is a food stall two blocks from Villa Serena which sells baked potatoes and tortillas. My tumultuous tummy is finally calm, so we head over to Hildago Square to sample the wares. Every night at 7 p.m. Soledad and her family arrive with their cooking supplies and she spends 30 minutes organizing: lighting the grills, arranging her corn flour, avocados, radishes, cucumbers, salsa sauce, and by 7:30 she is ready to serve her customers. Soledad is the mistress of multi-tasking, the queen of short order chefs; she’s poetry in motion. Two food carts are set up: one contains her dough, a wooden tortilla press and a flat gas grill. The other cart houses a charcoal grill, which is piled high with baked potatoes. In front of the grill are a myriad of toppings. Except, they aren’t really toppings as Soledad embeds them, buries the mixtures deep inside the potatoes. She mixes the tortilla dough in a large plastic bucket, plops the lump onto a well- loved wooden press, pulls the lever down, and the large vise flattens and rounds out the dough into a perfect pancake shape. The raw dough is then shifted to the flat grill. She flips the tortillas again and again. Now they are ready for the toppings: cheese, onions, beans, salsa, cream, butter, chicken or shredded beef. Mums, teenagers, surfers and kids pick and choose and Soledad adds the toppings, rolls up the tortilla, and puts the entire yummy package in tin foil for her customers to take home, or to devour at the picnic table beside this happy outdoor kitchen. I want a la papa (potato) and after much deliberation I select cheese, onions and chicken for my toppings. It takes awhile to communicate my wishes with my awful tourist moves, like flapping my wings to say chicken. I do know the Spanish words for all these foods, but my accent is apparently so appalling it’s not ringing any bells with chef Soledad. Granny is proudly sporting an apron which reads, “The Kitchen Bitch,” so some English is clearly understood. Or, perhaps Granny has no idea of the meaning of her apron slogan.
Beef is sizzling on the grill, and then shredded like butter with a large axe Soledad wields with precision. I thought Papa would have that role, but no, that’s women’s work. The entire time she’s flipping tortillas, turning the meat, mashing potatoes, chatting, laughing and shouting “Hola, chicos” to regular customers who pass by her stall. She mushes all the delicious toppings into my potato, pops a tortilla on top, like a tiny hat, to keep it warm. Soledad then re-packs it in tin foil and throws it on the hot grill so all the tastes can meld together. Soren and I return to our rooftop and unwrap the shiny parcels like precious Christmas presents. It’s divine; simply a sea of comfort flavours, all for less than US$3. Just what the doctor ordered.