Crispy Grubs, Gay Bars, and Shower Hammocks

Mexico City has changed more in the last ten years than it has in the previous fifty. Unless you’re happy to see a Starbucks on every corner, this is a mixed blessing.

It had been years since I’d last been in Mexico’s capitol. Flying in at night was something of a surreal experience. The massive city stretches even farther now into the distance. As the plane passed silently over the sleeping city, countless police car lights flashed red and blue down the amber lit streets. There are over 100,000 police in Mexico City, and from our vantage point in the sky, all of them appeared to have taken their cars out at once. Either crime was endemic, or the police were unaware their lightbars could be turned off.

I checked into the Mexico City W just across from Polanco’s Bentley dealership, and listened to the hotel’s acid jazz soundtrack as I snuck past the city’s rich and trendy youth who hung out at the hotel’s bar. The last time I’d been in Mexico City there hadn’t been a W hotel or Bentley dealership. There’s hadn’t even been sugar. The country had simply run out. Sugar needed hard currency, and like sugar, there wasn’t any.  For today’s wealthy classes, those days are long gone. Now if they want a Frappuccino with a dash of cinnamon, there’s a cafe on each corner with a hipster barista who’ll make one exactly to order.  Polanco is the epicenter of that new class. It is a posh neighbourhood of trendy restaurants, valet parking, and armed guards. My room at the W was red and white, and my bathroom had a hammock stretched across the shower. Placed right beneath the massive shower head I’m not entirely sure how the hammock was meant to work. Likely it required a snorkel and goggles.

The next morning I went for a long walk and marveled at the City’s changes. What struck me the most were the new bike lanes running down Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s major boulevard. You have to understand, riding a bike in Mexico City is a bit like strapping on one of those lead lined dental lab coats while standing near an atomic bomb blast. Despite the protection, likely you aren’t going to be pro-creating. Best intentions, and all that. If you want to see a Mexico City ambulance up close, riding a bike is likely the quickest way to have one come find you. Based on how they drive, it might even be the vehicle that hits you. Incidentally, Reforma’s wide medians now serve as a vast open air sculpture gallery funded by the city. It’s well worth a stroll.

The Zona Rosa has forever been the heart of the city’s tourist trade and remains a great place to pick up tourist trinkets, Mexican silver, and now even a rent boy if you’re so inclined. Surprisingly for this staunchly Catholic country, there are now entire blocks of the Zona Rosa full of gay bars packed with men who spend far too much time on their hair.  Small steps to be sure, but tolerance moves ever so slowly forward.

One of my goals on this trip was to sample a selection of more traditional dishes, especially those that pre-dated the Spanish conquest of the Americas. After a bit of searching I found a nice little place that offered a special side menu of just such dishes. I ordered everything on it.

I started with a salad of nopales, the sliced pads of the prickly pear cactus. They have a somewhat sour green flavour that is a welcomed change from more traditional greens. Next I moved to huitlacoche, better known in the English speaking world as corn smut. It’s a fungus that infects young corn plants and turns them into something from the Walking Dead. Instead of orderly lines of bright yellow kernels, the cob ends up a bulbous purple-black fungal monstrosity. It’s quite horrific, actually. In the rest of North America we’d torch the field and try growing cabbage instead, but not in Mexico. This, after all, is the country whose people drown worms in their national drink. Here the fungus is fried with oil and garlic and simply amazing. It is one of the great culinary treats.

From there the menu dipped into the more exotic. The next item translated as deep fried larva. It was never really clear to me just what sort of larva these actually were, but they had little heads, lots of little legs, and came in unfortunately vast numbers. I tried one on its own, expecting something chewy and snail like. It wasn’t. They had been deep fried to a crisp and instead it tasted a bit like a piece of popcorn with too many legs. Not good, but not horrible either. This opinion would change the more I ate. Having survived my first encounter with the larva, and remembering that the really brave ate these things alive, I decided to jump in for a proper serving. I tucked a good handful into a tortilla, added a healthy serving of salsa, and took a bite. I nearly forgot what I was eating…well, no, that’s not true at all. I never forgot that I was eating larva. With each bite I became more aware of those little legs on my tongue. I did not clean my plate.

The last item on the menu was Escamole. They call them Mexican caviar. This should have been a warning. Of all the things Mexico is known for, caviar is not one of them. Escamole are eggs, just not from fish. They’re harvest from the Liometopum ants that swarm about the roots of the Agave tequilana plant. This is the very same plant that gives the world Tequila, and likely the over consumption of tequila is the only reason anyone would have thought to collect up those eggs and eat them with a spoon. All in all, however, they’re actually not that bad. A bit nutty, with a bit of a crunch. Passable, but I’ll still stick to the real stuff.

This oddly satisfying dinner finished late and was washed down with a large ice-water before I headed back to the hotel for the night.

Food poisoning is a miserable thing.  Bent over in a foetal position I felt as though I’d eaten a brick fireplace.  I’ve had food poisoning three times in my life.  Once in Yugoslavia, long ago during the cold war, the result of bad caviar. Once in Paris after eating an unpasteurized goat cheese that spread like butter and then tried to kill me while Euro Disney’s Minnie Mouse kept trying to take a picture with me. And now this time after eating ant eggs and fried larva.  Hunched over, I vowed to stick to restaurant bread sticks from then on. In defence of Mexico City’s finest cuisine, I suspect it was the water the came with the table, not the dead little critters from the country’s Aztec past.

I did not eat again for days. On the third evening, recovered slightly, I walked by a Starbucks and nearly went in for a safe bite to eat, but was distracted by a very attractive woman in a tight black dress who was handing out flyers. I took a flyer. It was for a Zona Rosa gay bar.  I think she was missing the point.

Yes. Mexico City is changing.


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Sorry about the stench

Singapore is not so much a country, as it is a high-end shopping mall with Customs officials. The food is varied, the streets are spotless, and there are rules about everything. This explains the local joke that Singapore is a fine city.

One of those many rules pertains to a fruit. The signs are everywhere on the city’s metro. You cannot eat food, smoke cigarettes, transport flammable goods, or bring aboard the hedgehog shaped fruit called durian. A fruit, banned. The very same government that boldly proclaims on their visa entry forms, in large red type, that drug traffickers will be executed, also keeps their public transit system safe from a fruit. This seemed excessive to me. (They don’t like gum either, but that’s a separate issue.) I’d heard of durian, heard it had something of an unusual flavour, but knew that it was wildly popular across East Asia with over a million tonnes of the fruit being harvest every year. It was called the King of Fruit and yet Singapore felt it necessary to ban the thing from public transit. I had to try it.

Unlike much of South East Asia, Singapore keeps its fresh Durian well hidden. Across China town I found numerous stalls selling durian puffs, durian cookies, and durian cream filled crapes, but never the real thing. Never fresh durian in its hedgehog armor.  It wasn’t until after a day wandering the old British fort at Labrador Battery, that in the sort of high-end grocery store that sells fifteen dollar peaches, I spotted a store attendant keeping guard over one particular part of the fruit section.  I had found durian.

When un-opened a durian looks like a medieval weapon. It can grow to the size of an American football, and if you get through its formidable defenses has a yellowish, brain like flesh.  The flavor, they say, is unique and wonderful, even if the smell is a bit unusual. Unfortunately what I’d found wasn’t a whole durian, but rather a half durian, cleaned and prepped in plastic wrap.  I asked the attendant how I could buy the whole fruit, assuming that would be the most flavorful version. No doubt correctly pegging me as a durian virgin, she politely advised against it. It seems the fruit is armored well enough that for the untrained, getting at the interior meat is the quickest way to lose a finger. The half durian would have to do for now. Twenty dollars later I had my half durian, encased in plastic wrap, which was then place in a plastic bag which also contained two French pastries. I headed out into Singapore’s heat. The pastries never had a chance.

Whenever I stopped walking I began to notice a sweet, meaty rot.  The first time I figured it must be garbage somewhere nearby, which was unlikely as there’s never garbage nearby in Singapore. It’s against the rules. When I began walking again the smell dissipated and I thought nothing more of it.  However after stopping again at a traffic light, the exact same smell returned and after sniffing into the bag I realized it was coming from the durian itself. It was a terrible smell, a foul odor that combined all manner of putrid stenches into one. Surely this smell wasn’t right. My durian must have gone bad in the heat. I tied the top of the plastic bag into a tight knot.  The knot had had no effect.  The stench returned every time I stopped. Singapore’s air is hot, humid, and had activated the thing like a chemical weapon.

At my hotel I hurried to the elevator—past the sign banning durian within the hotel–and swore quietly as just before the elevator doors slid shut a well-dressed man squeezed in.  Poor fool.  The durian had taken on a life of its own. I’d brought that chemical weapon into an enclosed space and could do nothing now but hope he was suffering a rare condition that left him without the sense of smell. I pressed 58. He pressed a higher number. He was trapped with me and the durian, in that enclosed space, for 58 floors. As the elevator rose he stared resolutely forward as though it was entirely normal for an elevator to smell as though there were a dead animal rotting in the ductwork. But I could tell. I could tell by the way his brow furrowed that the durian was having an effect. I imagined I could see a bead of sweat on his brow. This would be an elevator ride he would not soon forget. I was grateful once we reached my floor and I hurried quickly out. I’m sure he was as well.

Once in my room I didn’t know what to do, the stench quickly filled the entire place.  This was madness. It wasn’t even a whole durian. I’d lost any desire to try the damn thing but couldn’t very well throw it in the garbage can. What would happen tomorrow when the cleaning lady came about? I had to contain the stench, seal it off from the rest of the world. I had to be able to sleep in that room. I thought of the safe. Surely that would work. I removed the two pastries that had been in the bag with the durian, double bagged the fruit, put it in the closet safe, closed both the safe and closet doors, and then opened the sliding door onto my 58th floor balcony. I’m not a fan of heights, but had to do something. The breeze was substantial and the room’s air was rapidly cleared. With the durian finally safety contained I got a drink and fired up Google to find out if my durian had gone off. Wikipedia said, “its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” No. My durian was apparently just fine. I took a bite of my French pastry and spat it out. It was ruined. Perhaps durian is the King of Fruit, but I’m guessing the selection was hereditary.

I woke up in the middle of the night certain I could smell the durian again. Within minutes I had the safe open and the durian went out onto the balcony where it remained the rest of my stay, and may very well still be there today.

In Indonesia durian is admired as an aphrodisiac. “The durians fall and the sarongs come up,” they say. Perhaps it’s due to fainting.