“To know Mexico, you must smell it for yourself,” my grandmother said on returning from her tour south of the border.
When my mother fled her marital misery in 1968, she drove 1,400 miles to contemplate her life and whiff that aroma with her own nose.
Armed with a Spanish vocabulary consisting of buenos días, adiós, adobe, bravo, matador, tortilla, Old El Paso Taco Sauce and Chiquita Banana, she crossed the international bridge into Nuevo Laredo:
After fending off dozens of pesky vendors, I stepped inside the native market and crashed headlong into the eye-watering, heart-stopping, stomach-churning smell with a capital S.
The odiferous interior held the vaporized distillation of unrefrigerated meat from a thousand barnyards, fish from a thousand seas, and sweat from a thousand shoppers. Fortunately, the scents of fresh vegetables from a thousand fields, fruit from a thousand orchards, and spices from a thousand gardens softened the olfactory assault, and my nose adjusted in short order.
On exiting the market, I cleared my beleaguered sinuses. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Return to my cranky spouse? My stomach did another flip flop, so I folded myself back into the car, checked the map, and drove south to Saltillo.
Saltillo turned out to be a spruced up, toned down, sweeter-smelling version of Nuevo Laredo. Saltillo bustled without as much hustle as its northern neighbor. Here, the street vendors waited for business instead of ambushing it.
Or so it was until I ambled across the central plaza, where an unkempt man suddenly planted himself in front of me. In his brawny arms he toted a beat-up, breadbasket-sized metal box from which two frayed cords dangled.
“Un peso . . .” he began.
I didn’t understand the rest, but I didn’t wont to donate if he was begging or buy whatever he was selling. “No, gracias,” I replied.
The persistent vendor or beggar didn’t budge. I tried to walk around him, but he moved at the same time. We spent an awkward moment two-stepping before I admitted defeat, handed him a peso, and tried to walk on.
But the man pocketed the peso, thrust a wire into each of my hands, patted them to signal me to hold on, and pressed the red button on his metal box.
A sudden hair-curling, spine-jangling, wallop of a jolt caught me off guard. I heard my strangled roar as if from far away while willing my spasming hands to drop the wires. When I was finally able to let go, I glared at the horrid brute who had tried to electrocute me in the middle of town in broad daylight.
The man hastened to mime an explanation. First he pointed at the box, pulled up his shirtsleeves, and flexed his hefty biceps. Next he rippled his meaty triceps while pointing to the box and smiling. Then he pinched the drooping flesh on my upper arm and frowned.
Apparently he had zapped his way to a better physique and had intended to tighten my flab.
Finally, he pulled at his crotch and nodded enthusiastically to indicate that even that muscle could be electrically toned.
I nodded curtly and walked on, but my heart was singing. If was possible to earn a living by zapping, business opportunities in Mexico must be unlimited! Suddenly the chains anchoring me to my marriage felt a bit looser.
My mother subsequently moved to Irapuato, Guanajuato, where she focused on learning Spanish, raising her two youngest children, and teaching English. She supplemented her meager salary by smuggling, using her gift for gab and wily wit to outfox the officials on both sides of the border.
After being caught and sentenced to 10 years in a Mexican prison, she admitted that not all of her contraband runs were unmitigated successes.