Saturday, August 2, 2008

Escarcega: The Ballad of the Sad Panaderia

About halfway between Chetumal, on the road to the bay that borders Quintana Roo, Mexico and Belize at one end, and the big oil city of Villahermosa on the other, lies a bizarre town called Escarcega (accent on the first "a," an exception to Spanish accent on the next-to-last syllable). Escarcega is exceptional in other ways. For one thing, it is a town that would have to had to have been invented had it not sprung up, literally in the middle of nowhere. In almost compass-like alignment, there is a highway running roughly north and south connecting Chetumal and Villahermosa, as mentioned, and an equal and opposite highway running roughly east and west connecting Campeche and the Lacandon rain forest.

We knew Escarcega was strange when we dealt with the motel desk clerk. He didn't seem a bit interested whether we stayed in his establishment or somewhere else, and the room was not a fair value for the money. Not only that, but he refused to provide us with a third blanket when our party of three only found two beds in the room, necessitating inflation of our trusty air mattress. On our way to our room, we smelled the odor of marijuana coming from one room whose door was left open. I don't mind smelling marijuana, mind you, but the indiscretion annoyed me. Our room itself was barely large enough to turn around in.

The restaurant on the west side of town gave us the same apathetic service. When we finished our meal, we drove down to a big panaderia on the south side. A drunk leaned against the storefront, singing an inane ditty and, in between garbled verses, moaned and groaned in a kind of feral way. My sons took to imitating him, and we had a good time doing his shtick both that night and all the next day. But the fact is, one does not encounter so many drunks in Mexico as one did a generation ago. The stereotypical image of the pulqueria inebriate is almost a forgotten matter, more myth than legend.

The pastries were good, if a little heavy. Mexicans make delicious pastries. After all, they played not-so-welcome host to the French and Austrians, among other colonialist forces. (In Pachuca, the Cornish miners brought over a kind of fried pie called a "pastie," usually dough stuffed with meat and potatoes.) But don't expect Danish. Mexicans use lard for their "pan dulce" (lit. sweet breat, not to be confused with "sweetbreads," which is a whole other thing entirely). They're still delicious. And they're especially good the way Mexicans eat them: by dunking them in cafe con leche at the breakfast table. We were looking for desert.

I am told that the Mexicans are building a cross-peninsular superhighway from Cancun to Villahermosa which will shave several hours off the trip from Cancun to Escarcega by way of Chetumal. Unfortunately, we had to go the long way. I doubt I will ever see Escarcega again...but you never know.

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