The fact that it’s almost Cinco de Mayo got me thinking about, well, of all things, Cinco de Mayo. In high school I lived about two hours north of the Mexican border in West Covina, California. Being a suburb of L.A., there were a number of easy access attractions available to young people including Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm (amazing pies and fried chicken), the famed Southern California beaches where I spent most of my summers, the San Diego Zoo and Tijuana, or T.J. as we referred to it.
T.J. was a big draw for us back in the day. It was, and most probably still is, a typically scruffy border town with a downtown area populated largely by bars and strip clubs and otherwise deriving its livelihood from the plump pockets of tourists flocking there to buy cheap booze, leather goods and Mexican bric-a-brac. As teens we heard much about what went on in those bars, most of it secondhand. Avidly interested in such things, we, of course, passed the information on to one another like telling a secret in a circle until the stories grew to involve scantily clothed women, elephants, a midget and a flock of Canadian geese. For most of us, what went on in the smoke-filled rooms beyond the swinging doors was left solely to our active imaginations.
We flocked there during the summer, overfilling the back seats of our cars. Flush with our allowance or babysitting money we bartered for hand painted velvet bulls, brightly colored paper flowers, and whatever else caught our eye while we were there. Tijuana, though potentially dangerous to some extent on the average day, during cinco de Mayo bringing with it more people, more drinking, and more potential for disaster was a time I was never permitted to experience there. Parents, at least when I was growing up, considered it off limits for pubescent young women while the celebration was in full bloom.
Mexico always held a kind of fascination for me. So different in culture, and the heat and flavors of Mexican cooking rank it right up there on the top of the board for me. On my first visit across the border I can remember following a huge crowd milling toward the downtown area and commenting on what looked like a city of cardboard boxes on one side of the road. As it turned out later, in actual fact I wasn’t far off. Poverty was no stranger to the people there. Children, often not much more than three or four, hawked packs of Chicklets on the street corners, and some I suppose returned daily to that makeshift village without benefit of electricity or sanitation.
Once my children were born and old enough, my husband and I ventured further south in the Baja Peninsula and often camped on the beautiful sandy shores of Rosarito Beach. Youth in general takes little into account except the enjoyment of the moment, and we were no exceptions. Usually traveling with my husband’s brothers and their young families or girlfriends, we never stopped to consider the dangers of traveling in Baja but only the enchanting beauty of our destination.
Over the period of two summers we probably set up our tents on five occasions on the far end of one of the prettier, but perhaps more desolate beaches in the area. There were beach facilities available, but they were not well maintained and I wouldn’t recommend using them. To our children’s delight baths meant being rinsed off in the ocean and porta-potties were the mode of commode, if you will, for doing needed to be done.
Around mid-afternoon on the weekends most days a group of bronze skinned local men would show up guiding unsaddled horses behind them. A set of reins could be yours for cash in hand. This was my favorite part of the trip. There is nothing quite as freeing as riding bareback with the horses hooves splashing through the breaking waves. For those of you never having ridden without a saddle, you have missed an experience. In order to stay on, you must grip your knees tightly to the animal’s sides and as the horse determines what he or she wants to do with you (which is in the truest sense is up to them when you consider the size differential). Bareback, you can literally sense and feel their muscles tense beneath you before they move one way or the other. Exhilarating.
On our last weekend there, and I say that wistfully because I would liked to have visited again, we had four tents erected. After riding in the afternoon, we took a trip into town, left some money behind, stopped at a well-known local restaurant for lunch and a margarita and generally put in a full day. Well-browned, as the sun was our constant companion, and beat we built a fire later in the day back at camp and grilled sea bass.
Shortly after dinner, the little ones washed, pajamas on. settled in for a good ghost story until small lids began to droop and adults were left to finish up the evening. Night was quite beautiful there with not much to steal the show from the amazing display of stars overhead, and the constant swish and flow of the ocean not far away.
Our tent was the closest to the bank of trees sheltering our view from the hill above and the road beyond. Worn out from the day, we slowly lightened our ranks until the fire was just an ember and all lanterns were doused for the night. Memory escapes me now what time, but it was in the deepest part of the night when I heard a whinny close by and then snorting. Lying there in the dark I didn’t think much of it until the sound of muffled voices trickled through the bushes to the back of our tent. Quietly I woke my husband, putting my finger to my lips to keep him from speaking.
Before we could move, the tip of a knife blade slit through the back of our tent. The baseball bat brought in case of trouble was suddenly in my husband’s hands and shouts of alarm caused a bustle of activity outside. Whoever had been there was gone now, but had taken our coolers, rafts and Coleman stove on their way out.
I still remember the beauty, and have friends who are avid scuba divers and fishermen that have purchased a retirement home. Can’t wait to see it again one of these days.
Feliz día del cinco de mayo!
Colorful Pasta Salad
1 lb. tri-colored rotini pasta (corkscrew)
1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
8 pieces of string cheese cut into 1/2″ lengths
20 rounds of dry salami, large dice
15 peperoncini, chopped
14 grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
1/4 cup sliced ripe olives (optional)
4 slices of bacon cooked crisp and crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and place in large mixing bowl. Toss with 1 1/2 tsp. olive oil. Let cool or refrigerate. Do not add cheese until pasta has cooled or it will soften.
Once cooled, toss with remaining salad ingredients. Add dressing and mix well. Adjust seasonings as needed. Refrigerate for at least 2 hrs. to marry flavors. Just yummy.
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. water
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. Mrs. Dash (or your seasoning blend of choice)
1/2 lemon (squeezed over top)
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Note: Sharyn at thekalechronicles gave me a great suggestion – add some of the peperoncini juice to the salad when tossing for a greater depth of flavor.
Mix all ingredients together in medium mixing bowl. Refrigerate for at least 1 hr.
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