I’ve been in Mexico for a little over two weeks now, finding anew my gringo feet on the cracked, smoky pavements where people glare. Learning a whole new vocabulary of food and expletives, trying to relax that Spanish lisp and the hissing ‘s’ of Castille. Less grathias, more grasius. Sitting self-consciously at little taco booths in that familiar and much-loved throb of the latin market place, so far removed from those American main streets: the swarm of crowds and traffic together, the stands of a hundred sweets and cups of fruit – flies buzzing on watermelon freshly cut, the rind heaped nearby. Huge sacks of garishly coloured crisps dangling. Walls of copied DVD movies and CD compilations. The thump of cumbia, reggaton, electronica, pop and the hiss of grills in front of stained stucco in green vermillion, red, yellow and orange.

My last stop was the pretty old mining town of Guanajuato, whose callejones (narrow alleys) clamber steeply up both sides of a dry river bed, making for some lovely views of the clustered, coloured blocks all over the hillsides above colonial spires. The vast areas on both sides of the River Lerma and its tributaries, the Bajio, was known to the Spanish conquerers as the breadbasket of New Spain. More significantly, the hills of Guanajuato yielded enormous amounts of gold and silver, at their peak more even than the fabled mines of Potosí, and formed an important part of the Camino Real de Tierradentro, a mining trail that connected places as far flung as Santa Fe (in the US state of New Mexico) with the mints in Mexico City.

I went to visit the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, an imposing, fortress-like granary building constructed in 1798. It was originally built to store up food supplies in response to some lean harvests, but now it’s a museum and an art gallery. In it I started to learn a bit about the Mexican war of independence of 1810, a pretty complex old beast of various stages and shifting bands of players (that’ll be my way out of that one, then). It was originallly led by the criollos, people born in Mexico of Spanish parents who resented the power and status of newly-arrived peninsulares from Iberia. This was an Iberia that was in the process of disintegration, let us remember, after Napolean’s 1808 invasion of Spain which threatened changes in America. That cue got me reading a lot of wikipedia articles about that Peninsular war, the start of so much strife, division and ignominy for Spain of the 19th century. The war that took me back to that Madrid plaza called Dos de Mayo, and those grim and bloody Goya paintings in the Prado museum. A war I like to imagine caused all the blunt and clipped retorts of a legion of Madrid barmen, in my perverse history.

One night there was a free movie screening on a quaint little plaza called Mexiamora. A number of us sat on the edge of the pavement in the evening chill, where a few teenagers in tight jeans giggled and hurried for nights out. The film was called Morirse en Domingo, a black comic tale set in the D.F. (Mexico City). A young man’s uncle dies, and his father puts him in charge of paying for the cremation. Unfortunately the bent funeral director sells the body on, and gives the poor family an urn full of the ashes of a street dog he’s just done in. But! the deception is uncovered, for as luck would have it, a friend of our young protagonist is studying at medical school, where the old uncle’s body is wheeled out for the students to practice on… All in all, a good laugh, and an interesting look at this country’s fixation with death just a few days after the Dia de los Muertos festival. It also proved to be a good window on the language of the streets. As the lad is desperately driving around the capital with his decaying uncle in a zipped-up body bag, we’re treated to an onslaught of pendejos (I believe this is something akin to a******) and cabrones (big goat, stubborn goat) as well as the following useful expressions:

chingado – fuck! (used in place of our old Spanish friend joder)

un chingo de = un monton de (Spain) – lots of

¿Qué pedo, guey?¿Qué pasa, tio? – what’s happening, mate?

¡Qué padre! – that’s awesome!

These are all used a lot. I’m working on a food glossary in my notebook, ‘cos there sure are un chingo of new words.