Beneath the surface of our most idyllic moments are the banalities and harsh realities.
If I tell people that I once owned a tiny roadside cafe in Mexico, the usual response is a deep, wistful sigh. I feel pressured to tell dreamy beach-filled tales, but for the most part I remember the complications.
I went to Baja not to open a cafe, but to help my boyfriend-at-the-time build an eco-design center. He owned (a tenuous word in Baja) a tiny plot of land, a tent, and a pile of rocks. He had dreams of building something akin to Arcosanti, but with living machines filled with plants and fish to bio-remediate grey and black water.
I had planned to visit for a month, but one early morning I woke up and heard a whinnying sound. I opened the tent window and across the foggy field I saw silhouettes of galloping horses. This is when I knew I would stay. This was a place that I could just be. No commute, no office politics, just fields, mountains, piles of rocks, ocean, and tent.
The fields outside of Rosarito are golden. The light is lovely, ranging from a hazy grey to a hazy gold. The ocean in the distance fades into the sky above and hill below. This plot is surrounded by undeveloped lots and roaming goats. Occasionally, a young neighbor boy comes by to ask questions (mostly about why we don't have a house), to talk about hunting rabbits, or to deliver some homemade cajeta.
On good reception days, I listen to the radio. I listen to KCRW and a public radio station out of San Diego. I feel like an aristocrat in this field, with a new-to-me wicker chair from the flea market and listening to radio stations from al otro lado.
But things fall apart. The living outside part is not so good after a while. As a person who takes pride in being outdoorsy, this means admitting a huge defeat.
We have no potable water. Big trucks come and fill water tanks for our distant neighbors. All we have is a borrowed wooden hot tub and some barrels to store water. We travel to town to buy water in reusable jugs.
In the evenings there are legions of mice with large, black, alien eyes; hungry mice who steal everything that is not put into coolers at night. They settle in and set up nests in the car and in our stored clothes.
The wind and sun exposure further tear things apart: the tent, our sanity, and our relationship. The rain seeps into the tent. The wind shreds it a little more each day. When the tent is finally beyond repair, my boyfriend replaces it with a geodesic greenhouse made of plastic. It is a structure with no base. I express my concerns with this replacement. It is unbearably hot inside during the day and at night many critters come in to enjoy its comfort. We are now known as the gringos who live in Casa di Plastica.
The last straw is the scorpions. Although I have become accustomed to the multitudes that appear whenever I dig in the dirt, or collect building rocks, it is the one huge scorpion that I find between my thermarest and sleeping bag that invades my psyche. I can't sleep.
To escape the land, I begin to take collective taxis to town. I long for shade and shelter. I sit in a café and listen to music. This cafe often plays a Madredeus album that I love. I do laundry at the laundromat and often find myself arriving a few minutes before Tres Mujeres begins on the television. I notice other women time their visits to coincide with this popular telenovela.
On a trip to town I finally notice the “for rent” sign on a roadside taco stand. I have passed it every day for some time now, but it finally clicks that this is a tiny building for rent. It has walls and a kitchen. I meet with the owner, Oscar, and suddenly I not only have a roadside café, but Oscar also offers to put in an addition with a big stainless counter and a commercial sink with a hose. He installs a private bathroom. He finds beautiful tiles to border the windows and builds barstools out of rebar, and even puts in a back patio for additional seating. Oscar is a force of nature. I pay a local lawyer $50 to set up the business. He assures me that this is all I need to do and he seems genuinely embarrassed about the nude pin-up he has chosen for his computer screensaver.
So born from the desperation to find shelter, I now own a dusty roadside café in Mexico. Across the street from the beach.
I fall in love with my little space. I paint the outside cobalt blue and the inside a vibrant green. I buy a gas stove and a refrigerator. I find an army cot at the flea market and keep it under the counter, where I sleep.
As I set up for business, I befriend my neighbor Christina and her young daughters, Nadia and Paloma. Christina works in the shop next to the cafe. Her daughters come over after school to make pizza dough with me. They teach me Spanish and I teach them English. I don't really speak Spanish, except for food Spanish - sin cebollas, por favor. I do have a lot of Italian and Latin under my belt. But I misunderstand nearly everything. Thankfully, people are very patient with this gringa behind the counter.
My neighbors steer me away from food that I want to offer and tell me what our neighbors like: licuados, ensalada de frutas, and pizza. My neighbors like Ninja Turtle pizza (a popular pizza seller at the flea market, which looks and tastes a lot like school cafeteria pizza). I offer a variation of these items, plus leftovers from whatever I have made for myself. I teach Nadia and Paloma that small pizza dough balls should be the size of a naranja and large should be the size of a pomelo. We eat chispas - because I am a gringa everyone expects me to sell chocolate chip cookies and I am happy to oblige.
But the one thing I refuse to sell is Coca Cola. Everyone orders it. I point to the well-appointed jars of homemade agua de jamaica and other agua frescas, but everyone wants Coke. All I can do is send my customers next door to buy one to consume here.
My experience in Mexico brought me face to face with failure. I made a little money with the cafe, but the food I wanted to share wasn't the food that my friends and neighbors wanted to eat. I learned that perusing Mexican cookbooks through a gringa lens was not the best way to feed them. I had to sit in kitchens and learn that a good pot of beans requires an obscene amount of manteca and cheese.
I also realized that my boyfriend was more interested in the image of himself as an eco-designer than actually building things. My ideas for interns and marketing to get people involved with the project were brushed aside. He wanted to do it himself. He was more comfortable with the potential energy than I was. When there was no reason for me to stay and help, I decided to go back to school and was considering a program in Oregon. When I said that I needed to move on, I was surprised to hear that he wanted to leave too. So we packed our few belongings and drove away in our car, a car that wouldn't go above third gear, but that's another story. Not that driving I-5 from San Ysidro to Eugene going no higher than 45 mph makes a good story (it doesn't).
The image we have of Baja embodies our notions of the West, it is a place that assures freedom on the horizon. But it is also a harsh place. I think about those who cross the border, risking their lives for a sliver of opportunity. I was constantly aware of the freedoms I had crossing the border to Baja. I had the privileges of being from the U.S. combined with the freedom to build in Mexico without regulation. I had the freedom to start a cafe with no money and no taxes. And yet when I crossed the border to go back north, the elusive otro lado, I have never felt so free.
I was ecstatic when we arrived in green, lush Oregon. We had no home and no jobs, but I could care less. I knew I would make it work. I walked from neighborhood to neighborhood, absorbing the beauty in the front yard gardens, the huge trees, the moss, the alleyway blackberries, and the amazing markets. I dropped off resumes. Meanwhile, my boyfriend sulked in the motel room for days, and when I found an apartment, he sulked there. Why it took so long for us to finally part ways is hard to say. I knew it was time to for me to move on, but we had been through so much together in a short amount of time, I thought a second chance was in order. But after a few more years, we called it quits and both moved onto happier lives.
It is only through the collected banalities and harsh realities that you discover what is important and what matters most. For me, nothing was more beautiful than my tenuous new life in Oregon. And, now so many years later, I am back again.
I want to share some recipes from my cafe. To begin, let’s make an agua fresca.
I love Agua de flor de jamaica. This is a tisane made with the dried sepals from the hibiscus flower. They are velvety crimson and are packed with anthocyanins. Our grocery store in Rosarito had barrels of dried jamaica. Sometimes I visited an old school juice bar near Rosarito Beach that made jamaica with fresh squeezed sugarcane juice. Similarly, I like to sweeten my jamaica with piloncillo or brown sugar syrup, to capture that vanilla meets fresh sugar flavor.
When I left Mexico I started experimenting with adding cinnamon to make a drink more like Caribbean sorrel, but I fell hard for the Palace Cooler at the Eugene Saturday Market, which combines hibiscus with lemongrass, spearmint, and honey.
Agua de flor de Jamaica, or hibiscus tisane, from my little roadside café, La Cocina Verde
Jamaica or hibiscus sepals are available at health food stores, Mexican groceries, and herb shops.
In a gallon jar, add:
A handful of hibiscus flowers
water to fill the jar
Let the infusion sit in the sun until deeply brewed. Strain and mix with brown sugar simple syrup (if you can find piloncillo, use a syrup made from that). I like a squeeze of lime with mine.
Palace Cooler, adapted from Toby’s in Eugene, Oregon
In a gallon jar, add:
A handful of dried hibiscus flowers
A handful of fresh lemon balm, or lemongrass
A generous handful of fresh mint
Top with water and let it sit in the sun. Strain and mix with honey, agave syrup, simple syrup (brown sugar syrup is good) to taste. Garnish with an orange or lime wheel and fresh mint.
Nota bene: Both the Palace Cooler and Jamaica make good paletas. Pour into ice pop molds. Add a few berries, if desired. They are a lovely color.
But most importantly, Agua de flor de Jamaica makes good cocktails too...
When I first tasted this cocktail, its voluptuous lustiness reminded me of the gorgeous women of Rumbera films. This one is for them. It is a smoky margarita with so much more going on. The mezcal lends a bit of earthy smoke.
Makes two cocktails
1.5 ounces lime juice
1 ounce agave nectar, brown sugar syrup, or simple syrup
3 ounces Agua de flor de Jamaica or Palace Cooler (recipes above)
3 ounces tequila
2 ounces orange liqueur, we love Creole Shrubb
A drizzle or more of Vida mezcal
Combine all in a large mixing glass and stir well. Add ice and stir until cold. Serve on the rocks and garnish with a nasturtium or orchid blossom.