How a Yucatecan Tamarind Slushy Gave Me a Black Eye

Lessons learned in Mexico

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By David Hammond

"Sunset Boulevard," the Hollywood classic, begins as we hear the narrative voice of Joe Gillis (William Holden) and see his body floating face down in the swimming pool of faded star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). My story, of the slushy in Yucatan that gave me a black eye, begins with me lying face down in a pool of my own blood, face smashed against a stone pillar, in an old Hacienda in Merida, the capital of Yucatan, Mexico.

We'd spent the day at Chichen Itza, probably the most recognizable and picture perfect archaeological zone in Yucatan, a Mexican state thick with ancient cities, pyramids and other monuments to a magnificent civilization, long vanished due to time, rain, encroaching vegetation, the wanton destructiveness of Spanish invaders and local neglect.

On a map of Yucatan, one of three states that make up the Yucatan peninsula, I counted seventy known archaeological sites. There are no doubt still others yet to be excavated.

Most surprising to me was the amount of new excavation that's been done in the past thirty years, and the extent to which the more famous archaeological zones (Chichen Itza, Uxmal) had been extensively gussied up, with gift shop malls, sparkling washrooms, multiple on-site restaurants – and admission prices to match.

When we visited back in 1980, I got to Chichen Itza around dawn and just walked in, no place to pay admission and no security, and I climbed to the top of the big pyramid and took photos of the sun coming up over the jungle. Now, that same road I walked along is lined with vendors selling merchandise, some produced in China, none of very high quality, most representing a hodge-podge of Mayan, Aztec and even African influences (a mistake made when products are conceived and designed in some small town in Yunnan or Szechuan).

We were driving back to Merida when Angel, our driver, graciously offered to buy us a raspado, a slushy made by running a rasp over a block of ice; the shreds are then drenched in fruit syrup.  I hesitated, as the last time we were in Yucatan, Carolyn bought a paleta (Popsicle) from a Yucatecan street vendor, got a stomach bug, and ended up passed out in Coba, in the middle of the jungle.

Still, it was very kind of Angel to treat us, and we hadn't had any lunch that day, so, reluctantly, I accepted a slushy, choosing tamarind as the fruit sauce. I had a sip. Two. Three. Then I started burping, and felt several slight stabbing stomach pains. Now, for a bacterial infection to hit that quickly is rare, but Naima, the host at the wonderful Villa Merida, an Airbnb where we stayed, told us of a study that indicated that ice in Mexico contains 50% more bacteria than your average toilet bowl. Ugh.

Later, my body was racked with aches and pains, I had a headache, and the next morning I woke up to go to the bathroom, passed out, fell against a white pillar by the shower, and woke up in a pool of blue-black nose blood. Apparently, my nose absorbed most of the impact; as Brad Knaub of Oak Park's Carnivore thoughtfully observed, "With a beak like that, who's surprised you landed on it?"

Naima gave me a comforting cosmic healing (I think she adjusted my auras) and Angel came to the rescue and took me to the radiologist. I thought I'd probably dislocated my nose, but the radiogram (cost $30) showed no damage, only swelling.

Today, I have a black eye.

So what have we learned? Yucatan remains a magical place where the remnants of ancient American civilizations are still being uncovered, but when visiting, you should avoid the ice. And should you get a bad stomach bug, and start to pass out, don't break your fall with your nose; that is a very bad plan.


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David Hammond  

Posted: June 23rd, 2017 8:47 AM

Though when traveling I always carry super-antibiotic Cipro, I avoid taking it unless death seems imminent. We Americans take too many antibiotics as it is, and I'd rather use body's own defenses. Side note: I've heard Cristobal de las Casas is lovely, though I've never been there.

Barbara Purington  

Posted: June 22nd, 2017 4:41 PM

I hope your recovery was speedy. I took a similar trip in the early 1980s, which extended to San Cristobal de las Casas, a lovely mountain town near the Guatemala border. Only our cab driver insisted on buying us a cold choco milky liquid drink on the drive to the airport. I was already suffering from a mild case of turista from adventurous eating, but didn't want to offend the cab driver. IT hit me on the Aeromex hop to Merida. Get this, a Mexican passenger suffered a heart attack on the fligjt, died in the aisle. Flight attendants shoved drink service carts against restrooms, blocking usage. Longest. short flight I was ever on. I later chugged a bottle of Neomiacin from the farmacia, (directions on bottle said 2 tblspoons) to slay microbe invaders. Lesson from your story and mine, don't drink cold, icy drinks from taxi drivers while on the Maya Trail in Mexico.

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