Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Twelve Things That Might Surprise You About Mexico..."

Just in case you might be one of those gringos who thinks that all Mexicans bear bottles of Jose Cuervo, sing “La Cucaracha,” and wear giant sombreros, I’ve created a list of twelve things that might surprise you about our Latin neighbor to the South…

1) The word, "Mexico," is Nahuatl (the ancient Aztec language) and means "the belt of the moon." It was originally pronounced as "Meshico" as the Nahuatl 'x' actually makes a 'sh' sound.

2) Located along the eastern side of the world’s “Ring Of Fire,” Mexico isn’t just known for its fiery latin culture, its landscape is literally a hotbed of geologic activity. Mexico’s center is cut in half by a volcanic mountain chain, Cordillera Neovolcanica, which contains several active volcanoes and the country’s highest peaks. You can take advantage of this thermal activity by climbing one of the volcanoes or by visiting hot springs throughout central Mexico like we did in San Miguel de Allende or in other towns surrounding Mexico City.

3) One of the largest countries in the world (the 14th to be exact), Mexico encompasses the extreme aridity of the Chihuahua Desert, two major mountain ranges, the rainforest of the Yucatan, and vast coastlines along the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.

4) Chili peppers, squash, beans, chocolate (which comes from the cacao bean), and corn (belonging to the grass family and originally only a couple of inches in length) all originated in this part of the world.The Aztecs once used chocolate and chili peppers to blend into a hot drink that was very unlike the Nestle hot chocolate—made with milk and copious quantities of sugar—that we drink today.

While chocolate is indigenous to Mexico, it is used more often in cooking the traditional Oaxacan moles (a satisfying and labor-intensive sauce used on chicken made with cinnamon, chocolate, nuts, and raisins) and for preparing hot drinks than it is enjoyed in its American candy bar counterpart.

5) Mexico City is the second largest city in the world and is home to the second largest public meeting place (Tianamen Square in Beijing is the largest), the zocalo, or central plaza. Sixty percent of Mexicans are mestizo, a mix of indigenous and European heritage, thirty percent are indigenous peoples (Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, etc.), and around ten percent are Caucasian of European descent.

6) It is estimated that 25 million people inhabited the this region (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Mexico and the northern part of Central America) of the New World in 1519 when the Spanish conquistadores arrived. In less than a hundred years, this same population had fallen to one million people, the vast majority decimated by European diseases to which they had little resistance.

7) We can’t forget about tequila, the most wonderful libation from the ancient gods. There are actually three drinks native to Mexico, all made from different agave plants: tequila (a liquor made from the blue agave), mescal (a smokey tequila-like liquor made from agave using traditional methods and generally produced on a smaller scale than tequila), and pulque (a milky, low-alcohol beverage made on a small, community-based scale from the maguey agave).

The photo to the right shows me sucking the aguamiel (sweet inner liquid) from a maguey agave up through a hollowed-out gourd.Traditionally, people would then spit this liquid into barrels where the liquid would be fermented for several days to several weeks. From my experience, the low-alcohol content pulque has a sweet, fruity, and slightly fizzy flavor.
(source: http://www.ianchadwick.com/tequila/pulque.html)

A short history of pulque: Made as long ago as 200 B.C., pulque was used by Teotihuacan priests to put themselves into trances and to help anesthestize human victims of sacrifices. One little known fact is that for five days before a man was going to be sacrificed, he was given all the girls he could enjoy, pot he could smoke, and pulque he could imbibe. On the morning he was to be sacrificed, he was also given peyote to help with the pain (an obsidian knife was used to slit him open and to retrieve his still beating heart to be offered to the sun god) and to ease his transition to the afterlife.
The clincher?
Women who were to be sacrificed were given none of these drinks or drugs to take away the pain. That’s right ladies, the woman had no anesthesia when they were sacrificed. Hostal Moneda guided tour with birthday girl.

FYI: The Teotihuacan people believed in an ancient Nirvana-like heaven in which men and women were assured of two absolutes: all the water they needed and all the pulque they could drink.

8) The Mixteca and the Teotihuacan People believed that the gods of darkness and the sun were constantly at war, and that if they didn't 'feed' the god of the sun, that day would never come the next morning... they facilitated human sacrifices twice a day on giant slabs of stone in front of two pyramids dedicated to the sun and the moon. The man or woman's heart was cut out while it was still eaten and a part of their flesh was eaten and then offered.

9) The city of Teotihuacan (east of Mexico City), meaning “The City of Gods” or “The Place Where Men Become Gods,” was built nearly two thousand years ago by a group of people pre-dating the Aztecs (to this day, their ethnic origin and languages are unknown). At the height of its power, Teotihuacan was the largest city in all of the New World (that includes all civilizations in both South and North America, folks) and it was the sixth largest city in the world (larger than any city in Europe) supporting a population of 125,000–200,000 people. (sources: http://www.world-mysteries.com/mpl_7.htm and http://archaeology.asu.edu/teo/)

10) Teotihuacan’s Sun Pyramid is the third largest pyramid in the world.

11) Several award-winning films have recently been filmed in Mexico: Frida (with Salma Hayek), Traffic (Steven Soderbergh’s film), Once Upon A Time In Mexico, Amores Perros, and El Mariachi (starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek and made by Robert Rodriguez in two weeks for just $7000). Lonely Planet: Mexico.

12) Mexico City was built on a giant lake bed, which the Mixteca People (who later came to be known as the Aztecs) arranged into an extensive system of canals used for irrigation and transportation. Today, over 180 kilometers of these canals remain and visitors from around Mexico can hire boatmen to take them along the canals while feasting on pollo con mole negro, cold beers, and live music.