As I circled el mercado for the third time I could hear my stomach rumbling above the din of the crowd. Apparently so could the gangly teenage boy with the big chocolate eyes who was handing me my change for the three bananas I'd just purchased. He looked up at me in surprise and then broke into a wide grin.
"¡Comé!" he exclaimed, pointing at my bananas.
"Gracias," I smiled back and nodded as I began to walk away.
But it wasn't bananas I wanted. The breeze shifted in the already hot morning air and once again the tantalizing aromas of grilling meat, grease, and spicy hot peppers wafted over me. As if Mr. Pavlov had just rung his infamous bell, my mouth immediately watered.
In Belize less than 24 hours, the last time I ate anything of real substance was before my 6am flight yesterday morning. By the time I reached my hotel room late last night, I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to eat my crushed granola bar in three bites before falling asleep on top of the covers still wearing the clothes I'd traveled in all day. This morning I woke early and by the end of my glorious (if rather cold) shower, I was energized, excited, and hungry.
I passed the shrunken old man in the bent straw hat and the young boy working alongside him as they cleaned their enormous pile of coconuts with razor sharp machetes and unbelievable precision and ease. I made a mental note to come back to their booth for fresh coconut water to enjoy on my walk back to my hotel later. But first...
I hesitated and immediately grew annoyed with myself. I was intimidated. I can get like this when I arrive in a new place, becoming uncharacteristically timid, a little overwhelmed until I get my bearings. It drives me crazy. Now I was hungry and lacked patience…this was not the time or place to be shy.
I walked past the stand that had grabbed my attention on my first two passes, three women moving quickly and surrounded by such an enormous crowd that I had no idea what it was that they were selling. The crowd jostling for position appeared to be predominately local, so I joined the mass of people shouldering forward, sure that the combination of local crowd and irresistible smell made this an ideal spot to begin my culinary adventures in Belize.
As I was knocked from side to side by the press of people around me, I craned to get a glimpse at what we were all so eagerly awaiting.I finally spotted the gigantic aluminum cook pots and covered plastic bowls perched atop a red-checked vinyl tablecloth and one of the women using a battered cookie sheet as a tray, balancing it precariously as she assembled the various mystery fillings on fresh soft corn tortillas.
In my elation, I missed the opening to my right and three men in their early twenties deftly sidestepped me and jumped in to order. You snooze, you lose. I used the delay to try to get a sense of the ordering protocol. People were holding up fingers, some just one or two, but others all five. The number of tacos they wanted? I assumed that was the case and pressed closer to try to hear the questions the women were asking. No luck.
"Perdón, Señor," I attempted to ask one of the twenty-something guys in my less-than-stellar Spanish,"qué es este?" He gave me a long look, clearly unimpressed.
"Tacos," he snapped and turned away. Alrighty then.
Suddenly it was my turn. I held up four fingers and just said yes to everything she asked me, having absolutely no idea what I was agreeing to. With confidence her hands flew, assembling a cookie-sheet tray full of tacos that I assumed were multiple orders. As she began stacking them onto one plate, taco upon taco, I began to realize that my one-finger-means-one-taco assumption was clearly wrong.
"Cuatro," she said and held out a hand. I looked at her for a moment, confused. Four? Yes, I'd ordered four tacos, but there were a lot more than four tacos on the plate she was holding.
"Cuatro," she repeated and pushed her hand out more, beginning to look exasperated. Duh. Four dollars. Four dollars worth was what I'd asked for when I'd held up four fingers. I handed over my cash and as she grabbed a napkin to go with my bulging plate, I did a quick count.
Sixteen. I had a plate of sixteen tacos.
I looked up from my taco pile and met the eyes of Mr. Twenty-something Grumpypants. There was a pause that seemed to hang there for a long moment and then I burst out laughing. He looked surprised for a brief second and then gave in and joined me, clapping one of his comrades on the shoulder and pointing at my plate. I offered them each a taco and after they acquiesced at my prodding, I made my way back out of the throng to find a quiet place to stuff myself on my remaining thirteen.
As I settled on the ground beneath a giant ceiba tree and looked out at the Macal River gently meandering past, I realized that my intimidation was gone. In a single botched taco order, I'd broken through my own inhibitions and self-consciousness. I'd mangled some Spanish but managed to communicate enough and even had a few glorious moments of connection and community, even if it was over a shared laugh at my own foolery. A pretty good deal at only four bucks.
I ate every single one of those thirteen insanely amazing tacos and licked the grease off my dripping fingers when I finished. I began planning a few more laps around el mercado, this time wondering how long before I'd have room enough to hit up the pupusa stand.