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."
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."
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."
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.
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.