Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone While Traveling in Chiapas
  • Share:

What the Tongue Tamale Taught Me

By Don George | March 15, 2024

It all began in a van. On a sunny, sultry December afternoon, we were traveling along a dusty dirt road in the heart of Chiapas when Mina, our assistant tour guide, asked what we would like to have for dinner the following night. In rural Mexico, many of the restaurants ask us to place our orders in advance so they can be sure to have exactly the fare that we want. In this case, Mina said, our choice for the first course was tamales, chicken mole, or chipilin soup. I am a big fan of tamales, so my decision was easy.

The next afternoon, as we were bouncing along, Mina said she wanted to confirm what we were all having for dinner. She ran through our appetizer orders, and at the end, she said, “And finally, there’s Don, who ordered the tongue tamales.”

“Excuse me!” I objected. “Don did not order the tongue tamales. Don has never ordered tongue tamales. Don has spent his whole life avoiding tongue whenever it appears on a menu!”

“Oh, really?” Mina said. “Well, let me check my notes.” She scrolled through her phone for a minute and then looked at me. “I have it right here: Don, tamales.”

“Well, yes, tamales!” I said. “But no one said anything about tongue tamales!”

I turned to my fellow travelers. “Did you all hear tongue tamales? I didn’t hear the word tongue!”

Some nodded their heads yes; some shook their heads no.

Mina looked at me.

What was I going to do? The orders had already been placed. The provisions had already been procured. Was the globe-exploring travel writer going to wimp out over tongue tamales? Was he going to whimper, “Couldn’t I just have the soup instead?”

No way, Don Jorge! ¡Claro que no!

So with visions of plump pink lengua lolling in my head, I steeled myself for the challenge to come.

As the afternoon wore on, my fellow travelers, many of them seasoned culinary adventurers, found various ways to insert “tongue” into the conversation.

“Ah, sorry, that was a slip of the tongue.”

“Was that a tongue-in-cheek remark?”

“Sometimes I just feel tongue-tied.”

“How many foreign tongues do you speak?”

A general sense of jovial anticipation grew.

Finally, dinner time arrived. At the restaurant, we were led to an elegantly decorated private room. At least my humiliation won’t be in public, I thought.

We ordered drinks – “¡Dos cervezas, por favor!” for me — and I tried not to think about the delicacy being prepared. Yet the more I tried to ignore it, the larger it loomed – now a leering face sticking its you-know-what right out at me.

I thought of the stomach-churning foods I had eaten in the past. Lamb’s eyeballs. Roasted guinea pig. Ikizukuri sashimi. Kopi luwak coffee. Fried spiders. I had survived them all. How bad could this be?

After 15 minutes, a team of waiters approached bearing our orders. They positioned themselves around our table and then, on cue, leaned forward and placed our plates carefully on the tablecloth before us.

And there it was: my tongue tamale.

Its appearance was benign: a rectangular pillow of corn dough served in a wide, deep white bowl, and nestled in a pool of brownish-red sauce. Crowning the pillow was an intricate composition of curled pickled carrot slices, tiny pieces of zucchini, and other accoutrements I couldn’t identify, along with a bright green sprig of fresh purslane. A culinary work of art!

As I studied my dish, I realized that everyone else was studying me. “Cat got your tongue?” someone asked. Chuckles ballooned into the air.

Don George stepping out of his comfort zone while travelling in Chiapas, Mexico and trying a tongue tamale.

Mina took my phone and began to film me. “Don, what are you eating?” she asked with a smile.

Feeling not unlike Anthony Bourdain about to tuck into some execrable treat, I looked at my phone and said, “I’m about to eat my first-ever tongue tamale.” Pause. “And I’m pretty excited!”

I cut a forkful and raised it to the camera in a kind of salute. Then I put it gingerly into my mouth.

The universe held its breath. All eyes stared. I chewed slowly, thoughtfully, intensely aware of all the stares.

And then — “Mmmmmmm,” I said, smiling and raising my hands in a prayer of relief and celebration. It was actually delicious!

“Mmmmmmmm!” I said to the phone, and everyone smiled and applauded.

The meal unfurled fluently from there. The tongue tamale was melt-in-my-mouth tender, the ingredients a savory blend of finely chopped meat plus herbs and vegetables that was perfectly enhanced by the saffron-chile-tomato sauce. Delicious!

The appetizers flowed into the main course, which flowed into dessert. Before we knew it, post-prandial mezcals were being drained and it was time to go.

What a relief! I had survived! In fact, not only had I survived and preserved my travel writer cred, but I had actually expanded my palate.

That night I reflected on how so much of life is like a tongue tamale.

We put things off because we’re afraid of them. It might be speaking with a stranger in a foreign language, or trying to ice skate, or venturing to an unfamiliar part of town, or going on a tour with people we’ve never met before, or trying a food we’ve never imagined eating.

There are all kinds of things we avoid in life out of fear of failure or disappointment.

And how liberating and empowering it is when we finally try that thing – and everything is fine! We have an invigorating conversation with that stranger, we manage to stay on our feet and even glide across the icy pond, we discover a charming cobbled neighborhood, we meet fascinating, funny people who enhance our travels, we discover that we actually like the taste of tongue.

Taking risks, venturing out of our comfort zone, is such an important and enhancing part of travel, and life. For me, the growth that is seeded and nurtured this way – so fundamentally inspiring and transforming – is at the very heart of travel; in many ways, it’s why I travel! And yet I would have completely missed this chance on that Mexican trip if I hadn’t misheard Mina in that dusty, bumpy van.

Sometimes the road delivers its gifts in the most unexpected way.

And that’s what the tongue tamale taught me that day.

The tongue tamale that was presented to Don and he actually enjoyed!


Have you ever ventured outside your comfort zone while traveling – and learned some precious lesson? Please share your experience in the Comments section below! We love to hear from you!

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Laurie McAndish King
Laurie McAndish King
3 months ago

Hello, Don Jorge! I admire your culinary courage. In my travels I have been surprised to discover that blood pudding, horse meat, haggis, and lewak coffee are quite delicious. (Crocodile, however, is not.) What fun to share in your lingual adventures!

Loxie Lou Davie
Loxie Lou Davie
3 months ago

How delightful… made me laugh out loud!! Having lived 15 years in Mexico I can relate to this experience!! 😉

Anne Sigmon
Anne Sigmon
3 months ago

Now I want to try tongue tamales!

Diana M Chang
Diana M Chang
3 months ago

Braised tongue is a Chinese treat. It is lean, tender, with a chewy soft texture. I cook it on special occasions (it costs $8.99 a lb here). I’m so glad you’ve found this addition to your palate. I’ll cook it for you if you come to Honolulu. The only thing I’ve tried and found really disgusting were silkworms.

3 months ago

Holà Senor Don! You are indeed a culinary adventurer! Sometimes in life, we have to take those big steps that take us out of our comfort zones, as you say. And more often than not, they are more pleasant than we could have ever dreamed. Glad you enjoyed the tongue tamale despite your reservations. Did your Spanish improve after eating it? Sounds like your group and Mina had some good laughs WITH you! Que bueno!

Margaret Wagner
Margaret Wagner
3 months ago

That’s an elevated tongue dining experience! What a great story and writing. Thank you for encouraging us to explore outside our comfort zone.

Debbie Talamo
Debbie Talamo
3 months ago

I have and it was a food experience in Hong Kong. I somewhat “willingly “ tried jelly fish before I was told what it was. I didn’t love it but I stepped out of my comfort zone to try something when I had no idea what it was. Another experience was a cultural one in Algeria on a GeoEx trip. I was on my own walking along a street market. I observed a local man looking a bit ‘grumpy’ selling his wares. As I speak no Arabic and he no English, through hand motions between us he agreed to allow… Read more »

GeoEx eBook:
The Best of Wanderlust

An Anthology of Travel Stories
Edited by Don George