One of the other Big Adventures I had in Mexico was a trip to Mercado 23 in downtown Cancun. When we asked the hotel concierge for directions, they strongly advised us not to go. “You mean Mercado 28? The tourist market?”
“No,” I insisted, “I want to buy that paste made out of pepitas.”
“We want to shop where the Mexican people shop,” my mother told him in Spanish. He gave us a look that said: Certain death or possible abduction await you and I cannot be held accountable.
He would not give us directions.
I have been to markets in Istanbul, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Beijing, Oaxaca, Mexico City, and the list goes on. I guffawed. But my sister was going for the express purpose of taking photos. She gripped her camera. My mother looked flustered. She is used to fearlessly walking around Mexico, but when someone local advises her otherwise… We stepped back into the elevator for a consultation.
When the doors opened on our floor, where one of the maids was standing with her cart, my mother stopped her, “Disculpe. ¿Es peligroso ir al Mercado 23?” my mother asked.
The woman looked at us, unsure of what we were asking.
“¿Hay personas con armas?” my mother probed, fearing the worst: guns.
The woman laughed. “No,” she said, “there are no people with guns at the market.”
We got back on the elevator and walked resolutely through the lobby, waving at the concierge as we went.
As we made our way through the lazy city streets, my mother got her bearings. She had been here before, on previous trips to Mexico, she just didn’t know the name.
“Ridiculous,” she muttered. “This is no more dangerous than going to Wal-mart.”
On the surface, Cancun is not the most authentic-feeling Mexican city. It’s newly built and pretty much geared to tourists. But like any tourist destination, if you get outside the walls of your All-Inclusive, there are a whole lotta locals working to keep the props up. They really do live there. And they live much like they do in other parts of Mexico, shopping at the local market and at Wal-Mart, buying street food and going to local festivals. The Real Cancun is a place worth seeing, if you’re willing to ignore your concierge and brave the wilds.
We stopped first at a spice merchant where I eyed bags of achiote and pepitas. Then we looped around the block, looking for green oranges, banana leaves, epazote. Deep inside the market stalls, behind the chicken vendors and the mile-long line for cheese, we found a place selling tiny bundles of pastes and every kind of dried chili imaginable. I bought casabels, which are a little harder to find in the States. I bought a bag of every paste they sold.
My mother hunted for her chili and lime peanuts while my sister snapped pictures.
Then we sat a minute, sampling the local fare at a popular little place on the corner. The woman who took our order spoke perfect English. “I got my degree in business from UCLA,” she told us, “then I came back to run my family’s restaurant.”
As we ate our gorditas stuffed with cheese and epazote, I thought, “Oh yes, it is dangerous here.”