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Soul Service in Mexico

“Please, wait before tasting. I want to tell you the proper way to drink Tequila.”

We are standing in an earth finished adobe distillery. It’s dark and cool in here, and behind us, the barn-size door frames are warm squares of white light, opening to a brightness that bathes the agave hillside in such vibrancy that the blue of the spiny leaves bleeds into the air. Agave azul.

About six years ago, I lost my ability to do shooters of any kind of liquor, whiskey and tequila in particular, without awakening a deep, wretched gag reflex.

“If you drink it with air in your belly, it will not be good. Take a deep breath in. Let it out slowly. Then, drink.”

I’ve enjoyed listening to him talk about how they make the tequila and what tequila means to the Mexican people. I watch as they pulverize the agave into mash, before distilling it, using cold water and working to remove all the impurities.

I have no intention of tasting it, but you see, Mexican people make it hard to say no, especially when they are sharing something with you. Even when they are trying to sell you something, the conversation (sometimes banter) is laced with laughter and wit. I do not want to offend, so I decide to suck it up.

Inhale. Exhale. My eyes wander to meet my sister’s and my mother’s. I drink. Smooth heat, with the essence of earth, fiber, smoke, slides to my belly. All of a sudden, the part of my brain reserved for good wine says, “I’ve got to bring some of this home.”

Next, we taste the orange one, and the nutty one, and the coffee one. Each would be fabulous over ice cream. But it’s the pure tequila, the one that embodies an unbreakable strand woven into the rope of this man’s heritage that has seduced me.

Perhaps this seduction is a result of many elements: The romanticism of foreign travel, the experience of uncommon heat and coastal life for a Montanan in March, the openness that occurs at the interface of a simpler life and a booming tourism trade. More than anything though, I find this seduction an expression of my thirst to speak the language, to respect the culture, to put in context every little thing that I am experiencing in one short week away from my day-to-day life.

And yet, this is still not a purely cultural experience, because I am with a bus full of tourists, and this distillery is one stop on the tour, in which at least 20 bottles of tequila are sold to support this man’s family. This, I do not begrudge him, I am just acknowledging that this culture is evolving to support the tourism trade that supports its growth. And I am acutely aware of how as an American tourist, I feel more spoiled than ever.

Everywhere we go in Jalisco, people speak English (well except when we mistakenly take an extra long bus ride up into the mountains and back). Our first night here, we don our skirts and tank tops and wander down to the open-air restaurant for dinner. I want guacamole and chips.

“Good evening ladies. Welcome. Please look at our buffet. It’s Italian night!”

Down at the marina, one can find Chinese food, Sushi, Italian, a sports bar dedicated entirely to Hockey, a pancake hut. I always describe Missoula’s Reserve Street as anywhere America. Our first hour in Mexico, our host tells us that there’s a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s club just down the road.

I stand on the beach with my toes dug into the sand and my head tilted to the blue cloudless sky. “But you are Mexico, be Mexico. Don’t cater to me or anyone else that comes to visit. I want you to be what you are, not change to become like everywhere else!”

I find myself in this space where I feel very lucky that I can visit Mexico for a week, without being required to be fluent in Spanish and well versed in the culture to feel safe and relaxed, while simultaneously feeling guilty for not speaking the language, and for not taking myself deeper into the country. I use the few words and phrases I know with gusto and then get frustrated because I don’t know more. I savor the moments when a local’s eyes flicker in amusement and appreciation at the sound of a gringo attempting to speak their words.

And, like my succulent little vacation, I realize that this train of thought will just barely delve below the surface, only bringing to light a few simple thoughts in regards to changing cultures, being an American in the larger world of today, and honoring the exploratory spirit that lives within us all.

Customer service, in Mexico, contains many layers that I have never had to consider in my years of this work. Namely, they speak my language, and several others (in some instances) and I guess I see their work on even broader terms: as service to their country, in which they appear to have great national pride. Their country is building a hefty part of its economy on tourism and they see making it as easy as possible for their visitors as good service. At what cost?

Does anyone know a good Spanish teacher? Oh yeah, and an Italian teacher? Does anyone here speak Swahili? I need to brush up.

About Danielle Lattuga

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