by Barbara Wishingrad
Ms. Wishingrad travelled to Mexico during the 80s. The lifestyle she experienced was truly local. Without much travel and trading and refrigeration, is how most of the world lives. This was her taste.
My first experience with eating food that was mostly fresh and local was when I was living in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico, about two hours south of Cancun, in 1983-84. I was one of many foreign travelers, mostly young people who were trying to stay in the warm Mexican sun for as long as possible on as little as possible. In those days the coast that rambled south from the Mayan ruins of Tulum had not yet been set aside as a nature preserve, and foreigners and locals alike lived in make-shift cabanas and set up campsites all up and down the coastline next to the clear, calm Caribbean waters. The actual town of Tulum was a mile or two inland, on the main highway, but when we said “Tulum,” we meant the loose collection of semi-permanent settlements along the coast.
It would only be later that these settlements would all get generators and cell phones and be in contact more regularly with the outside world. When I first lived in Tulum, we used candlelight or sat around campfires after dark, or went to sleep “early,” and the nearest phone was two hours away, in Playa del Carmen.
I had gardened organically for years before I got to Tulum, so I had eaten fresh and local before, but I was in the U.S, where I had usually lived in cities or small towns, worked for wages, and shopped in supermarkets. I had not had to limit what I consumed to what was available nearby.
When I first got to Tulum with the intention of wintering there, someone suggested I snorkel and spear/catch my own fish, on a daily basis. I was a little reluctant, partly because I would have had to order (expensive) special prescription goggles just to try my hand at it, since my uncorrected near-sightedness left me unable to distinguish a shark from a clump of algae, from as little as four feet away. I compromised and became a regular customer of the fishing boats that bobbed on the sea in the early mornings. I would arrive at the fishing co-op about the time they would dock, and most days I came away with a nice fish or two that would make a delightful evening or afternoon meal. We had no refrigeration, so we had to cook and eat the fish that we had that very day or at the very latest, the next morning. Besides, red snapper, shark and barracuda were some of my favorites. Most were caught in nets or with spears, by small groups of fisherman who made their living from their catches. Equipment was minimal and crews were local. This many years later, I am not sure how sustainable these practices were or what the present status of the fish habitats of the Mexican Caribe is. I can testify to the amazing taste of freshly caught and never frozen or refrigerated fish, which is much different from what I had known as fish until that time.
Actually I am getting ahead of myself. In the beginning, I did a trade with a local resort and painted some advertising signs for them in exchange for food. I weaned myself into preparing all of my meals by campfire by first bartering for restaurant food, also fresh and local.
Ok, so some of what I regularly ate wasn’t local, and it wasn’t fresh, but it was still limited, because there were only certain items that could keep without refrigeration in the tropics. Bananas, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, rice, eggs, tortillas and oil were possible to keep more than a day or two, and there were a few other items offered in local stores. All of our fruit and vegetables had to be hung in baskets from the ceiling of a cabana or from a tree, to prevent thievery from any number of small pests, including rodents and insects. I used instant beans from time to time; to cook a pot of beans didn’t make sense, unless you were cooking for a group, because they would spoil after a day in the heat, and that would have been a big waste of cooking fuel (usually driftwood) and time.
Ah, and then there were the coconuts. I had always loved the taste of coconut, but to have access to coconuts all day, every day, whenever I was willing to take the time and effort to open one with a machete, ah, that was a luxury. I usually had a coconut every morning for breakfast. Most of them were young, with clear milk to drink, a little sour sometimes, but always refreshing. After you drank the milk, you could continue to open the coconut, until the soft white meat appeared, which could be eaten with a spoon. If you got one that was more mature, the milk would be dried up, and the meat would be more like what we know as coconut, the hard, chewy, white stuff, also delicious, but maybe not as nutritious—it’s a lot oilier. I loved the ritual of opening coconuts. I love that I knew how to do it. I loved that they were available for the taking, everywhere, but then again, I lived in a coconut grove. If everyone ate as many as I did, I don’t know if they would have continued to be so available. That particular grove was destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988; I could hardly find the place when I went back to Tulum in 1995.
I felt so empowered, so healthy, and so in tune with where I lived in those days when I could pick up a coconut and eat one to start my day. It usually kept me until my main fish meal later on. There were some canned goods on the shelves in the stores in Tulum Pueblo (the town). There was cheese and butter from Holland, but they were expensive; once in a while we splurged on the cheese. We rarely ate bread because it didn’t keep and it made more sense to eat tortillas with the other basic foodstuff we could keep. We did eat crackers. There weren’t really any dairy products to speak of, and I noticed that I didn’t crave any. We got sweetened evaporated milk once in a while for a treat, oh, and yes, we did drink coffee – terrible instant coffee, which was all that was available. It was a staple. And we kept cans of tuna fish and sardines, which especially came in handy on rainy days when the fishing boats couldn’t go out and it was hard to light a fire. Just up the coast at some fancy resorts, tourists went out sport fishing for tuna and marlin, but there was no facility that I knew of for packing tuna in the state of Quintana Roo; national brands came from across the country.
I was interested in living as the natives did, but I probably really didn’t. One problem was that there were few natives there to learn from. Quintana Roo, at the time at least, was one of the least populated places in the world. Most Mexicans who lived there had come from other states with an incentive from the government to set up businesses in this “undiscovered land” which was being developed, albeit slowly, for tourism.
Some friends tried to plant a garden in this stark, dry, salty-earthed land. They put a lot of time and effort into it, but nothing grew to harvest. They might have succeeded if they had an irrigation system set up, or a rainwater catchment system. As it was, they hauled water from a distance (most of the Yucatan Peninsula gets it water from underground artesian springs called cenotes; at least, that was the traditional source.) Corn grew; the milpas or cornfields sometimes stretched for miles and miles. But other crops were rare, at least very close to the ocean. I don’t recall seeing any actual family gardens. But maybe they were in places that were more private or I didn’t know where to look. I’ve heard recently that the ancient Mayans grew their crops in the forests, in the middle of non-domesticated trees and shrubs. I don’t know if the Mayans 20 years ago followed the same practice.
A Mayan shaman whose family had lived in the area for generations was fighting the creation of the nature preserve because it was said it would prevent the native peoples from hunting deer, a traditional way of putting food on the table. I don’t know how that was resolved; when I was last aware of it, he was trying to take the government to court.
Just an hour to the south by bus, from the highway that ran by Tulum Pueblo, was a huge market town called Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Fruits and vegetables of all sorts, meats, diary, processed foods, and more were displayed in stand after stand; market days were Tuesdays and Fridays and they were always packed with people from towns close by and faraway. It could have been a million miles away as far as we were concerned, though, because it would have taken an hour or more to walk to the bus stop, followed by a sweaty bus ride there and another one back, and another long walk back to the coast, just to get a little variety in our diet. To the north lay Cancun, which represented commercial interests, offered overpriced items that weren’t of local origin, and huge luxury hotels that could have been found in any sunny paradise – the only hint that one was in Mexico was the occasional whisper in Spanish. It was so much easier and felt so much more grounded to stay in Tulum, laid back and lovely, and partake of what was available locally, limiting as it might be. The local flavors and basic foodstuffs were imbued with the attitude of the calm sea and the open sky, a simple life, free of frantic antics, full of meaning and ritual if one chose them, and pleasing to the pallet. It was a great place to be alive, and any attempt to impose a more cosmopolitan market would have changed it completely. That would eventually happen, of course. But in the meantime, Tulum was the place where a thousand stars shown in the night sky. And localization was part of the magic.
“Barbara Wishingrad lived in Mexico from 1983-1999. She’s worked as an herbalist, midwife, street artist, massage therapist, translator, and with special needs children. She is President and founder of the Rebozo Way Project, http://www.rebozoway.org and mother to Van (22) and Gabriel (20). Barbara has land in central Mexico, which she is planning to build on in the near future, using Permaculture principles. She presently lives in Santa Barbara where, among other things, she helps out with Hopedance Films. Contact her at