Because of people like him, everybody loves Mexico

John J. Pint

We ran into Cándido Escatel one Saturday while hunting for a waterfall. On a muddy track that winds its way down to the edge of one of the spectacular canyons that surround Guadalajara, we flagged down a pickup truck. The window rolled open and a cloud of suspicious-smelling smoke billowed forth; then the red-eyed riders in the cab told us we were hunting in the wrong place. "You can't reach la cascada (the waterfall) from here. Go back up to the main road and turn left at La Conchilla. One kilometer down the hill, you'll find the house of Cándido Escatel. He can show you how to reach the waterfall."

The Careful Stranger
One kilometer can last forever if the road is bad enough and the further we lurched and bounced down the "road" from La Conchilla, the more rocks and ruts we found, each doing their best to twist our little VW Bug into shrapnel. So, at the first rancho we came to, we waxed philosophical: "Why ride when we can walk? We can always use a little more exercise" and pulled off the narrow track, trying to park in such a way that another vehicle could get past us.

At this moment, a campesino walked by and we hailed him, asking if it was OK to leave our car there and whether he knew how much further it was to Cándido Escatel's place.

He said yes and why were we looking for Cándido. We told him about the waterfall and -- of course --the cave we suspected was alongside it. "What's the name of the person who told you to talk to Cándido about this?" he queried. After answering another dozen questions about ourselves and the mysterious Cándido, the man said, "Well, I am Cándido... but you know, one can never be too careful."

Ghost stories
Five minutes later, our car was parked on the other side of the fence and the three of us were sitting on rocks under a shady tree, listening to Don Cándido's stories of ghosts, cave entrances that appeared out of nowhere and great heaps of gold and silver inside -- treasure guarded by a mysterious being whose voice boomed out of the darkness to any intruder: ALL OR NOTHING! a choice that would inevitably lead the greedy straight to their doom. (I believe this oft-repeated legend was behind The Treasure of Sierra Madre).

By the time Don Cándido led us, through thick brush, around cacti as tall as trees and over prickly volcanic rocks, to the abrupt edge of an incredibly deep canyon wall, over which our long-sought waterfall was pouring, we had discussed so many subjects -- from religion and trees to how long it takes the squash to grow -- that we felt we'd known him for years. Our "cave" turned out to be a great black smudge far down the steep precipice. Fortunately, we were able to view this from another point up at the top, because the rope we'd brought along would have been far too short to reach that spot anyway.

So, back we went to the rancho for another session of Don Cándido's ghost stories. Then I stood. "Well, we'll be off now. It's getting late."

"Oh, you can't go yet. It's lunch time. Come and join us for beans and tortillas."

The world's best tortillas
Their kitchen/dining room was in what would pass for a woodshed in some lands. The floor was hard-packed dirt and swept perfectly clean. There were no doors or windows and so much space between the roof and the walls that I'd hate to be trying to cook or eat there in a thunderstorm. Cándido's wife welcomed us with a big smile, a smile that was in her eyes as well as on her lips. She sat us down at the "table" and whipped up servings for each of us as though she had been waiting for guests all day long.

Our plates lay on a surface that was not a table at all, but a specially coated, counter-like extension of the hardened clay stove, in which a wood fire heated the large metal comal on which there always seemed to be at least three extra-large tortillas warming up. These, of course, did not come from a supermarket or off the conveyor belt of a tortilla machine. In the corner of the room was a bucket full of fat grains of corn that had been soaked in lime water all night, to remove the tough outer coating. Some of these were then ground in what looked to me exactly like an old fashion, hand cranked meat grinder. Out of this comes the nixtamal which the hands of an expert (and none other) can somehow fashion into a uniformly thin, round tortilla. And what tortillas! These are so good, it would scarcely occur to you to wrap them around some other food.

Hot chile and windy pods
We garnished our plate of beans with a few sprigs of fresh cilantro and just a dab of chile de arbol which you scooped out of the molcajete -- made of volcanic rock -- in which it had just been ground. The scooping was done with a folded piece of tortilla, the same instrument we were using to eat the beans. They didn't bother with spoons at all. These beans were absolutely exquisite, but to bring them to perfection, we were told to open a few long, flat guaje pods and mix the tender seeds in with the beans. Since guajes are famous for making you pass wind, putting them in a bowl of beans seemed like pouring gas on a fire, but we all followed directions and I can truly swear those were the most delicious frijoles de la olla ("beans straight from the pot" as opposed to the refried sort) I've ever eaten -- nor did any of us suffer the windy fate we were expecting.

Upon our departure, we were made to promise we would return and we even had to name the date. We asked if we could get them anything from town and, after some coaxing, Don Cándido admitted they could always use powdered milk and sugar. Now here we were, three rich people in his eyes and whatever he would have mentioned we would have brought him. But sugar and milk was all he asked.

We parted like old friends and now we add Don Cándido Escatel and his family to the long list of warm, generous, genuine human beings we've had the fortune to meet while scouting for caves in the middle of nowhere.

© 2000, John J. Pint - All rights reserved