Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Temporary Hiatus

Dear Diary,
I'm back in Phoenix. Got back Sunday night.

My friend Jeanne has been kind enough to being receiving and relaying my mail for me. Last Saturday, she told me that the AZ State Retirement System had sent a notice that one piece of my retirement paperwork was missing AND HAD TO BE INTO THEIR OFFICE BY DEC. 2. "*!#**#!," I thought, "I'd better get myself back to Phoenix and get this straightened out." There is something about the allure of that lifetime pension check that really motivates one to get moving!

So....like a Keystone Cops comedy, I made a headlong rush to the exit. I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, high in the mountains of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. I took a 2-hour bus ride down the mountain to Tuxtla-Gutierrez, the capital. From there a 12-hour overnight bus trip to Mexico. And it was freezing. When we left Tuxtla, it was hot and the bus's airconditioning was turned on. As we headed up to Mexico City, it got cooler and cooler. And my jacket was packed in my luggage beneath the bus. I finally resorted to holding my backpack on my chest just to keep warm. That, and with frequent stops, I didn't get much sleep.

When we got into Mexico City, I took a cab from the bus terminal to the airport where I caught a 2.5 hour flight to Hermosillo in the far northern part of the country. From Hermosillo, I got a 8-hour bus ride back across the border into Phoenix. Jeanne was her usual sweet self and picked me up at the bus station in Phoenix. After my 36-hour odyssey, I was exhausted.

I woke up Monday morning with a head cold (no surprise). But I girded my loins (why do they only gird loins? Why not gird your ear, for example?) to go do battle with AZ State Retirement System on Monday morning. I went down to their office when it opened Monday morning like some raving madman. I've always felt that a bit of constructive raving goes a long way. And it did. Apparently, we've straightened out the mess and all is in order now for me to start receiving my pension checks. I've got my fingers crossed. And with TWO WHOLE DAYS TO SPARE before their dreaded deadline!

My plans now are to hang out in Phoenix with Jeanne and just do errand kind of stuff until I leave mid-month to do a "Tour de Family," visiting loved ones for the holidays. And then I will resume my Mexico journey in early January. Between now and then, I will take some of this down time to reflect on the places I've seen and my thoughts about life in Mexico.

Thanks for following the blog....and happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I'm in San Cristobal de las Casas




Well, I made it. The alarm I downloaded onto my laptop worked just fine and I got myself out of bed at 6 a.m. yesterday in Veracruz. Found a cab on the street, and got to the airport on time. The flight was uneventful (the way we like 'em) with a connection in Mexico City, then on to Tuxtla Guiterrez (the capital of Chiapas state). Now that says something about the hub-and-spoke system of the airlines, because I FLEW IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION from where I wanted to go. I headed back west to Mexico, then on the connecting flight returned east and south...past Veracruz to Tuxtla Guiterrez. There is evidently no direct service between the 2 cities. Tuxtla is down in the lowlands and is a big ugly modern city which is hotter 'n hell in the summer. I took a bus 1.5 hours up the mountain to San Cristobal.

This little town is pretty like San Miguel de Allende, but without so many tourists. Those tourists who are here are largely European. Right now I'm sitting in an Italian Coffee Company franchise coffeeshop, on my laptop. They have WI-FI Internet access for customers. The only other folks in here are a table of 12 large and noisy Germans. Eating cake and coffee, naturally. They look like nothing so much as a bunch of American Midwesterners, all ruddy faced and big. One lady did the "Gerta, now did you have the coffee cake or the chocolate torte" routine and divided up the bill 12 ways. It was fun to watch.

I'm staying at a very nice Posada. It has a family home atmosphere. The landlady lives there and has 5 guest rooms she rents out. I have use of the kitchen (for the first time), which is nice so I don't have to eat every meal out. I've got color cable TV in my room, private bath and plenty of hot water. The owner lady is very friendly and helpful.

Today, my big errands were getting a haircut and picking up my laundry. That's enough for a day. I also discovered the local farmers's market. These are among my favorite places....the sights, sounds, and smells. Once I get oriented, I want to dig into those incredible looking vegetables from the market. Maybe a nice vegetable soup? But there is stuff there I've never seen before.

I went to the Cultural Center today, and they have a mass choral concert coming up on Dec. 1. I wouldn't miss it for the world. The singers are from area universities and the groups are called "tunas" not choruses. I understand it comes from the Spanish troubadour tradition. Men in tights and capes, even.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunday Night in Veracruz

Now in the States, Sunday night is pretty slow, regardless of where you are.
But down on the zocolo, things were hopping last nigth! The town had sponsored a houseplant fair; and vendors had set up stalls. One whole side of the zocolo was lined with, maybe, 40 different plant sellers. And whole families were "window shopping" the pretty potted plants and buying a few. This is at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night. One interesting note--the stalls themselves weren't framed by dividers made of metal tubing. Instead, they were all made of bamboo rods. Makes perfect sense. It's super strong, flexible, 100% natural and recyclable.

Over on the other side of the zocolo, open-air cafes line the entire length. And little impromptu 3-piece Marimba bands were playing. Sometimes two or three at once. What was especially charming were the couples, mostly middle aged, who jumped and starting dancing to the music. Nothing fast or rock 'n roll. Just smooth, practiced steps. This is, I understand, a Veracruz custom.

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Part Two
Looking from my bed into my bathroom, it strikes me that most of the hotels I've stayed in in the last many towns have had what I'll call "The Uni-Bath." Not the uni-bomber, but a Uni-Bath. What's that? One room, tiled on all sides, including floor and usually ceiling. The shower head extends out a foot or so from the wall, pointing straight DOWN. And....the best...no shower curtain. So the toilet bowl gets splashed, the sink, whatever. At first I thought it was quite strange. But now it makes sense. In a climate with high moisture and warmth, mold grows like crazy. And shower curtains are the perfect breeding ground. Some hotel owner along the way probably said, "to heck with it" and stopped replacing his moldy shower curtains. It's a heck of a lot easier for the maid to clean, too. Just a little bleach water, and she mops down the whole room.
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Part Three
Computers. It's astounding to me how much technology has changed the way one travels. Remember, I've been doing some serious traveling since 1973. In 35 years, the world has changed. Even these cheap Mexican hotels I've been staying in have free WI-FI (wireless Internet access) in every room. That means, like tonight, I can be sitting in bed, connected to the world via the Internet, from wherever I happen to be.
I can: watch NBC Nightly News...the actual TV broadcast with Brian Williams on MSNBC, right here on my laptop screen. I can: check the latest news up to the minute with Google News. I can: check the Peso-Dollar exchange rate daily, or hourly from the comfort of my bed.

Things you used to need an experienced travel agent for, well now we have Mr. Computer. Before going to a new town, I do these steps: I go to "Thorntree," a Lonely Planet Guidebook website. There, thousands of travels from all over the world have traveled to just about every place you can name. I just enter a search for the next town on my list. Up comes travelers' impressions, hotel recommendations, things to watch for and watch out for. Then I click on over to TripAdvisor.com which has actual users' reviews of hotels. How the world has changed for hotel owners. If a guest is treated rudely or has a dirty bathroom, it gets posted to a site like TripAdvisor....and (literally) the whole world learns about it instantly. For hotels, I go to a site called All Mexico Hotels.com There they have practically every hotel in any given city, with star (category) ratings, current prices, and phone numbers.
I can then call my selected hotel via this same laptop.

It's just amazing what information is available online as travel resources.

And last but not least-- I have a flight out of Veracruz at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. I fly to Mexico City, then connect on to Tuxtla Gutierrez, from where I'll take a bus up the mountain to San Cristobal de las Casas. How do I awake early enough for my flight (I've been sleeping in soundly). The computer! I downloaded an "alarm clock" software that allows me to set the time I want to be awakened, let the computer run overnight, and it will ring in the morning. It least that's the plan. I've tested it twice and it works just fine. So, nightie night and "hasta mañana."

Here's What I Had for Dinner Last Night: Recipe

Red Snapper Veracruz Style (copied from Bon Apetit Magazine online)

* 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice, well drained, juices reserved
* 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
* 1/4 cup finely chopped white onion
* 3 large garlic cloves, chopped
* 3 small bay leaves
* 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
* 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
* 1/4 cup chopped pitted green olives
* 2 tablespoons raisins
* 2 tablespoons drained capers
* 6 4- to 5-ounce red snapper fillets
* 3 pickled jalapeño chiles, halved lengthwise

Preparation

Place drained tomatoes in medium bowl. Using potato masher, crush tomatoes to coarse puree. Drain again, reserving juices.

Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and stir 30 seconds. Add garlic and stir 30 seconds. Add tomato puree and cook 1 minute. Add bay leaves, parsley, oregano, and 1/4 cup reserved tomato juices. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 3 minutes. Add olives, raisins, capers, and all remaining reserved tomato juices. Simmer until sauce thickens again, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Season sauce to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Preheat oven to 425°F. Spread 3 tablespoons sauce in bottom of 15x10x2-inch glass baking dish. Arrange fish atop sauce. Sprinkle fish lightly with salt and pepper. Spoon remaining sauce over. Bake uncovered until fish is just opaque in center, about 18 minutes. Using long spatula, transfer fish with sauce to plates. Garnish with pickled jalapeño halves.

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Rod's comment: healthy with veggies and fish...and mighty tasty.

Veracruz Musings

Now I know what pretty girls must go through.

I stand out here. In all of Mexico, but especially here in the port city of Veracruz, where most folks are dark. I'm blond with fair skin. And people notice it. One example--I can't walk down any street without cab drivers beeping at me. Just a short honk, "Hey, (obvious) tourist...sure you don't need a cab?" And it happens almost every block. A Mexican lady walking the other direction said in English, "Good morning, how are you?" So, it's pretty clear I'm an English speaker. But I've also been mistaken for German.

"Ambulantes" is the term for street vendors, and they are thick here, especially along the waterfront streets. And I am an especial target. "Meester, want to buy_______, bracelets, candy, crosses, sunglasses, cigars, (you name it)?" What was surprising to me is that these vendors are allowed to come right into the restaurants. There you are sitting having dinner, and a vendor walks through stopping at EVERY table. Sometimes it's a local Indian woman with a baby strapped to her back. Other times it's just some hustler. You either say, "No, gracias," or simply ignore them. It's really intense at some times. But you can't get angry....this is how these folks make their meager living. If I were the restaurant owner, though, I'd be plenty upset at street vendors walking through my establishment selling food (candies). I saw one guy yesterday at lunch offering a large round tray of sweets. Then, 5 hours later at dinner, I saw the SAME GUY offering the SAME TRAY of candies at a different restaurant. Guess how many flies landed on that thing over the course of the afternoon?

Here's an example of why people don't get a much done here as in, say, Switzerland:
Efficiency is a stranger to these shores. I have had to reach into deep, hidden reserves of PATIENCE of which I was unaware I even had. My main reason for staying an extra day in Veracruz was to get my laundry done. When you're out of shorts, it's time. That should be easy, right? So I asked the front desk clerk where there was a local laundry. Just as I've done in towns all across Mexico with no problem. She gave me directions. I couldn't find it. So...take a breather and sit down for breakfast, says I. And I did. Afterwards, I found the official tourist office on the downtown zocolo (town square). They just weren't sure where I'd find a laundry. I suggested, "why don't we look in a phone directory?" They thought that was a brilliant idea. So I got the addresses for 2. The first was simply gone. Big metal roll-down shutters covered the front of the place, where it's name was spray painted on the metal. One down. Number two laundry was exclusively a dry cleaner. So I asked here for another recommendation. She said, "Oh, yes, this same chain has another shop about 10 blocks away." So, with 3 plastic bags of dirty clothes, I go for my (long) morning walk. With achy knee flaring up, I finally found laundry Number #3. Yes, she said, they do do laundry by the pound. BUT (isn't there always a but?)...it wouldn't be ready until Wednesday (2 days). I had no interest in staying in Veracruz for 2 more days. "We can, however," she said, "do a same day rush job for you and have it ready for you this afternoon." Wonderful! "It's double the cost."
No thanks.

Patience, patience, where are you? I took a cab the many blocks back to the hotel.
Along the way, the driver did the usual and asked where I was from (obvious gringo). I told her U.S. She, like many, many folks I've talked to in Mexico, volunteered that she used to live and work in the U.S. One driver in some town (I've forgotten which, there have been so many)...said, "WHERE in the United States are you from." Phoenix. "What part of Phoenix." He'd been working in Mesa. Small world. Really. Mexico and the U.S. are linked by so many many stories like this.

Back to the laundry saga. OK, so I can't get the damned clothes washed in Veracruz, apparently. Fine, I'll just do it on my next stop. I went out and shopped for a couple more pairs of sox and shorts to tide me over. No Woolworth's here, apparently. I found an appropriately cheap clothing store, however. And I found the bargain bin. Great! Made my selection and took them to the register. The girl was on a cordless phone stuck under her chin. The same call she was on when I walked into the store. She never so much as missed a word in her conversation. BUT (another but), there was no price on the underwear. Yeah, it was in the bargain bin. She had to call a male colleague to go do a price check (still on her phone call). He took about 5 minutes, came back....nope, can't find a price. So she sent a different male colleage to look. All this time, she's waiting on about 10 other customers and talking on the phone. Helper #2 returns and says that the pair of shorts I had selected was part of a 3-pack and couldn't be sold individually. Well, DUH! If you had the other 2 pairs, it wouldn't be in the bargain bin. Oh, to hell with it. I grabbed a different pair off the rack and paid for my purchases. She sensed my impatience and gave me change in all 1-peso coins. That's a sweet little touch, don't you think?

By that time I was breathing deeply, counting to 10. All this when I just wanted to get my laundry done. Now I understand what an American lady living in Oaxaca told me last year when I was down there: "Every day, we don't do much. If I go over and pay the gas bill (in person), that's a full day." And I can see why.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Mexican Stores

After a hard day slaving away at tourism, I like to treat myself to a little cookie or pastry of some sort after dinner. And that allows me to wander around whatever town I'm in looking for a bakery. That's unlike the States--first of all--in that there ARE bakeries. And that they're usually open until 9 p.m. at night. And that's all they sell...just bakery. What I've observed is that it's frequently women buying bread for tomorrow morning's breakfast. Doesn't that beat a loaf of Wonderbread you bought a week ago? Fresh every day. And people are in the habit of shopping every day.

I thought you might enjoy seeing how a bakery works in Mexico: You come in through a turnstile. Mexicans really like their turnstiles. You find them everywhere. Near the entrance there is a stack of round stainless steel trays, about 18" in diameter. And a rod over which tongs are hanging. You grab one tray and one set of tongs. And then you wander through the tall standing racks of bakery lined with bakery sheets filled with various products, and wooden shelves along the walls filled with products. There is never a sign indicating what the heck the thing you're looking at is. Nor one with a price. And don't look for a sneeze guard over the food, either. I guess if you're a regular, you just know. Now keep in mind that most Mexican bakery is like the mythical Siren....very appealing to look at, but sadly deceptive. It may LOOK sweet and yummy, but when you get it home, you'll usually find that its dry, not terribly sweet, and--if filled--lacking in filling. Why do I continue to buy bakery, then, you ask? Well, I want to. And for the locals....they don't know any better, never having shopped at a real German or Swedish bakery. There are puff pastry things, "mil hojas (a thousand leaves...makes sense)." Eating these is like peeling away layers of dry skin after a sunburned day at the beach. One type of cookie is called "Polvoron" from the word "polvo," meaning "dust." And, to no surprise, that is exactly what they taste like....dust. But they come in fetching shapes and decoration. Some are dyed pink and green with little black chocolate chips, imitating a watermelon slice. I have no idea if they taste like watermelon. Probably not. Just dust. And doughnuts have reached Mexico in a big way. Here, they are sloppily translated as "donas." Sounds like "doughnut," doesn't it? And they are usually little grease bombs lacking in sufficient sugar.

So, once you've made your selection of goodies, you go over to the wrapping counter, staffed by several ladies, all fastidiously uniformed. What strikes me is that universally they wear hospital surgical face masks. And ugly little paper hairnet/cap things. OK, I get it...sanitation. But their hands are ungloved. And with the same hands that pick up and wrap your bakery product, they print out a price sticker or use a cash register to print your ticket (they never take cash). Aren't we missing a page out of the foodservice sanitation manual there? Hands....hello! Sneeze guards...hello! But the face masks make a point. I think.

Step Two: So you then take your neatly wrapped goodies, along with you cost slip, over to the cashier who takes your money. The whole process is like a Disneyland of bakery....wandering through the interesting "rides."

Romance on the Waterfront



It was intrusive to take this shot, but I just had to. It illustrates so much of the story I want to tell. Like Mexican men and women together. Couples are very, very "touchy" by American standards. Even older couples who look to have been married a long time walk hand in hand. Or sometimes he'll give her a playful squeeze on the butt. Cute! Or like in this case, a full blown 100% smooch is fine, right in public. Every Mexican town square park (or garden, as they sometimes are called) has couples sitting on the pretty wrought iron benches making out. Other folks just ignore them, leaving them to their mutual pleasures. I usually yell, "Hey, get a room!" I don't really do that.

It came home dramatically to me last night as I sat in an Italian restaurant in Xalapa having a late-ish dinner. I sat on the outside patio and could look through a set of windows into the main dining area, the back room of the long and narrow restaurant. I felt like a peeping Tom or someone from an Alfred Hitchcock movie as I looked on. What else was I supposed to do? I was dining alone, no book, nothing to do as I waited on supper. So I did people watching. One of my favorite pastimes. So, as I was seated, I noticed the first couple seated at the table immediately in front of me through the windows....a young couple. Both of her hands in his stretched out across the table. Both leaning forward slightly, gazing into each others' eyes. Kind of sweet and mushy in a Doris Day movie kind of way. Then my dinner came and I focused on my fettucine. Somewhere along the way they got up and left, the table was cleared, and another couple was seated at the same table. (this is quite cinematic, isn't it?) This time, they appeared to be older American tourists. They ordered a bottle of wine. There was NO conversation whatsoever between the man and the woman. It appeared as though they'd said everything over the years that needed to be said. They studiously reviewed the menu. She looked off into the distance. He poured himself another glass of wine.

The two couples couldn't have been more different. Striking, really. But, of course, it's always problematic to generalize. There is plenty of domestic violence in Mexican homes, and the "macho" culture is still quite strong. Papa is always the boss.
I remember when I stayed with a family over in Guadalajara a couple of years ago while I was studying Spanish. After dinner, I went to help wash up the dishes. OH NO! Men were not allowed to do that. That was for the women and girls in the family. The men went to watch TV. But I don't judge cross-culturally. That's what's done here. And most couples seem pretty happy with it from what I've seen.

Which brings me to another manifestation of machismo culture: how women dress. I noticed today as I was sitting at my outdoor cafe for lunch. Woman dress up here. I mean really dress up. Tall high heels are not uncommon. They look uncomfortable as hell to me, especially if you have to navigate the uneven Mexican stone sidewalks and streets. Lots of gold jewelry. Hair always perfect. And tight, tight jeans or pants. It's as though the women are hyper-aware of being sexy. And their efforts at it are appreciated by the Mexican men. I've yet to not have a Mexican cab driver tell me how special the women are in HIS particular city. They're the finest!

The other part of this photo is the kids in the background in swimming suits. You might not be able to tell what they're doing, but they are diving for coins. Tourists throw 10-peso coins (about 80 cents) into the murky water right off the pier, and a half dozen of young kids dive in for it. Here's where I have to restrain myself from being judgmental. It's just the way it is here. To my sensibilities, it's demeaning for the kids and smacks of advantage-taking on the part of the (mostly Mexican) tourists. But the kids do it for the money. I'm not sure why it bothers me, but it does. Something seems out of kilter. But that's through the rose-colored glasses of a middle class American.

Incognito



This photo is of my bus ticket from Xalapa down to the coast at Veracruz. You can see I've "Spanglicized" my name. Roderick translates directly to Rodrigo. I actually like the name Rodrigo a lot. And Karl translates to Carlos. Hence, Rodrigo Carlos. So far, so good. But then when I stick that last name on there, and local folks are like "what the heck?" But I have fun with it.

Writers have always said port cities are different. There is a completely different energy about them that even the most un-attuned to such things pick up on it. As my friend Barbara in Chicago likes to say, "it feels LOOSE." Loose, indeed. People walk slower. I knew I was in for a change when the cab driver who picked me up from the bus station to take me downtown to my hotel had on a Hawaiian shirt. That would never happen in Xalapa or Mexico City. Too starchy there. "Veracruz" in Spanish translates "true (vera)" "cross (cruz)." However, I can find nothing particularly holy about this joint. Loose women. Loose men.

Like most port towns, Veracruz has a "malecon" or waterfront road or walkway. And hundreds of people take advantage of it at any one time, strolling hand-in-hand, stopping to rest on one of the park benches lining the walk, buying souvenirs or a bite to eat. Veracruz isn't a pretty beachfront town. It's not Cancun, not Puerto Vallarta, although it is on the water (Gulf of Mexico). Thing Long Beach, CA or Newark, NJ. This is a working port, a ship yard. Big rusting tankers. Sailors from the Mexican navy walking around in their crisp dress whites.

Thank goodness this is the end of November instead of August. You'll recall that as I began my wanderings I found La Paz over in Baja California hotter 'n hell at the end of October. Veracruz is just as muggy for much of the year. Luckily, things have cooled off. Today, there was a pleasant breeze coming off the water as I sat outdoors at a waterfront cafe for lunch. My hotel room has no air conditioning, just a ceiling fan. Wouldn't want to try that mid-summer, though. I'm embarrassed to say that this is a $14 a night room! It's recommended by my guidebook, "Let's Go Mexico." And it's sparkling clean, private bath. Color cable TV, and free wireless WI-FI internet in the rooms. And I'm 4 blocks from the waterfront. Can't beat that. So, I've decided to stay one more day, if for no other reason than to eat lots of fish. Every restaurant has lots of seafood on the menu, and I want to try it all. A special weakness of mine is "mojo de ajo," or garlic butter sauce. A grilled red snapper with a little bit of that over it.....um, um, heaven.

And, also, it's time to do laundry. If I wait until Monday, I'll find a local laundry place open. And it's always done the same day. After Veracruz, I think I'll get on a plane and fly down to San Cristobal de las Casas. That's up in the mountains in the southernmost state of Chiapas. Or I could backtrack and see Cordoba. I know that I'm very spoiled having the luxury of wandering around Mexico like this. As I was packing up, once again, this morning, I was excited to be on the road again and to add another notch to my travel belt.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

One Word Says It All



This shot is of the local bus line: Sociedad de Autobuses Urbanos de Xalapa, or SUX!

This has been another of those lessons I've learned on the trip--places I was SURE I'd like it, I don't. Other places I didn't even want to visit, I like a lot. That speaks to the relative futility of evaluating places based on Internet research. It's like an inside joke--you had to be there to appreciate it. The best analogy is online computer dating. The profile reads great; he or she sounds just perfect! Wow! All the same interests. Check 'em off the list. You're excited about meeting the perfect person. Until you meet face to face. Ouch! She never said anything about that wart on the nose or the prison record.....

I was certain I'd like Xalapa. Everything I've read off the Internet is positive. It's a university town, home to University of Veracruz. Lots of arts and culture going on. Tons of bookstores. What I didn't count on was how hilly the city is. My knees are just killing me. How's that for getting old, complaining about arthritis? If I can't navigate the place at 57...will I want to at 65 or 70? Something to consider. Also, the weather is cloudy, rainy, and often overcast. I might be able to deal with that, but the layout of the city, no. You can't change geography. Also, it's very spread out. Just getting to the symphony concert in the State Theater last night was a journey. Taxi both ways. I would prefer a town that's more compact. Where at least you can do the downtown area on foot, since I don't plan to have a car.

Today, I went out to Coatepec, which is about 20 minutes out of town. There are a number of Americans living there. I went out at midday and had lunch. There's not much to write about. It was a pretty basic Mexican small town. Lots of graffiti everywhere. Not much attractive architecture. The zocolo (town square) was just the main church and a small park. Glimpses of town: on a street corner....out in the street, a 3-piece marimba band, just playing away for no one in particular. And coming back into Xalapa....I first heard the sounds, then noticed the guy walking toward me with 5 bird cages strapped together in a tall stack on his back...filled with parakeets!

So, what's next? I'm not in any hurry; and that's nice. I'm very grateful to be able to do this....wandering around the country and enjoying many very different parts. Most people don't want to or can't. I did meet a guy in Patzcuaro about my age. He and his wife took 7 months and backpacked around the whole country looking at towns for retirement. I thought I was the only one nuts enough to do that!

I may head down to Cordoba next week. It's in the middle of coffee plantations and supposedly very pretty. I'm also intrigued by San Cristobal de Casas, which is way down in Chiapas. Maybe I spend just spin the bottle? A Ouiji board maybe? I'm actually enjoying the process of traveling. Bus travel is super comfortable, and it's exciting to see new places.

Do You Prefer: Jalapa? or Xalapa?

How many towns do you know that allow two different spellings of its name? This one does. The version with a "J" is the one you're most familiar with....in the case of "Jalapeño peppers." Yep, Jalapa is where those hot little chilis originated from. The other spelling, with an "X" is the more common one in government use. It's a bit confusing. I've looked in bus schedules, for example, looking under 'J'....no service to Jalapa, darn! Oops, then I looked under 'X'....ahh! there it is! The confusion all comes from the sound of the Spanish consonants X and J. They both sounds like "H" in English. So, when we see the name MEXICO, in English is has the X sound...in Spanish it has the H sound and is pronounced ME-hee-CO. And, indeed, old texts sometimes spelled it MeJico, also.

I took the ADO brand bus from Puebla to Xalapa. It's one of the premier bus lines in the country. First class all the way. Once again, these are executive coaches, so you sit up high and have a panoramic view of the countryside passing by. It was a nonstop, three-hour trip. Onboard, the drop-down TV screens showed "Pirates of the Caribbean." For all of $12, it's a hell of a way to travel. I actually prefer it to flying. You can get up and stretch your legs. The buses are never full, so you usually get the seat beside you for putting your jacket, magazines, or snack.

More language funnies
: The bus had a bathroom onboard. All the necessary stuff in there. And the TP dispenser was labeled in Spanish and in English. Only the English translation was: "Toiled Paper." I guess when you think about it, if it does its job properly, TP has toiled.

The journey from Puebla to Xalapa is up and over a major volcanic mountain range. The scenery changed abruptly to GREEN, as though someone had pulled a sheet of green cellophane across the bus windows. The scenery is quite Alpine--pine forests, open pastures with well fed cows, some corn fields. Every little town had shops selling cheese and milk. Clearly dairy country. Think northern Wisconsin.

Coming back down the other side of the mountain, on the way to Veracruz and the Gulf of Mexico, you find Xalapa. The outskirts are like those of any Mexico town--seriously ugly. The word that's used in Mexico for these suburban areas is "las orillas" which also translates as "the shores." A good translation, I think, since it looks like whatever washed up on "the shores" of the city's outer edge, just landed there and stayed there. Zoning laws? Unheard of. Junk yards, and concrete block buildings, hand-painted signs advertising ad hoc front yard shops. Tumble-down homes and commerce just grew up around the city, unfettered, like the black mold that grows on the sides of buildings.

Xalapa is a university town, home to the University of Veracruz. By chance, I arrived on Friday afternoon. Each Friday night during the season, the Symphony Orchestra of Xalapa performs in their own concert hall on campus. I went. The ticket was $5.50, surely the least I've ever paid for a professional orchestra concert. This orchestra is the oldest in Mexico, founded in 1929. They've performed all over Mexico and internationally, as well. The program included works by French composer Jules Massenet and by Mexican and Spanish composers. The highlight of the evening was a classical guitar soloist. The audience, comprised of all kinds of people--upper class, working class, young and old--erupted in applause for this guy. I turned to ask the fellow next to me if the guitarist was well know. He said, "Yes, he is the head of the guitar program at the University of Veracruz School of Music, and he is my teacher!" A group of 10 or 12 of his guitar students were sitting all around me. Their cheering was more like what you'd see American kids doing at a football or baseball game. I doubt if you'd even find American youth at a classical music concert.

It was interesting reading the concert program. Lots of non-Mexican sounding names among the orchestra's members: William Love, Miroslaw Szklarczyk, Mikhail Medvid, Eric Fritz, Jakub Dedina. Clearly a number of eastern Europeans and English or Americans among the group. It proves the point that music is an international language. I thought how challenging the rehearsals must be trying to make sense of it all in 6 or 7 different languages.

Today, I head over to the small town of Coatepec, where there are a number of Americans residing. Walking as much as I have been is difficult. My knees are giving me trouble. Xalapa is all ups and downs, lots of hills. And like most Mexican towns, uneven stone sidewalks and streets. I went and bought a knee brace this morning. The joys of getting older. I'm not 20 any more.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Puebla's 10th Annual International Festival

Yesterday, a band playing Cuban "Son" music in the Casa de Cultura. To a packed house. Tonight, two excellent guitarists playing gypsy guitar, accompanied by a male and female flamenco dancer and a female singer. I can't get enough of gypsy flamenco, stomping shoes, whirling dresses, and a driving beat. After they finished, the events moved out to the big public stage set up in front of the cathedral. They had an Argentine band who record on the Putamayo World Music label. I grabbed a table at a sidewalk cafe across from the park and enjoyed dinner and music and watched on the big screen. I thought, "how many cities in the world but on this kind of show.....for free." The evening was balmy, the colonial buildings dramatically lit, and it was just a neat evening.

One striking point, however. I noticed in the Casa de Cultura, where most of these festival events are held, that at the entrance, you have to pass through a metal detector. And there is a strong police presence at the event. Likewise, at the big concert in the central park, the entire park was fenced off, with only limited entry points. At each entry point was a metal detector, manned by a military-looking guy with a rifle. Maybe that all seems like a bit of overkill, but it's not. This last September, on the Mexican national independence day, over in Morelia there were 6 grenades exploded in the central town plaza, killing and injuring a number of unlucky folks in the crowd who'd come out for a pleasant holiday celebration in the park. The culprits, the Mexican drug mafias. Evidently what's happening is that the Mexican federal government is cracking down HARD on the gangsters. And they don't like it. They are fighting back with terrorist actions like that. Also, in the little tiny spa town I was in--Ixtapan de la Sal--they killed the mayor. Earlier this year, he spoke out against all this mess, and they sent hit men and assassinated him! Sort of like Al Capone and Chicago of the 1930's. Actually, quite a lot like that. But, in general it's safe in most parts of Mexico, with the exception of the northern border towns. And tourists aren't being targeted.

That said, I'm moving on tomorrow to Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. It's up in the mountains about 2 hours above the port city of Veracruz, for those of you trying to locate it on a map. It rains a LOT in Xalapa (also spelled Jalapa). That's why the city is so very green. I've read a bunch about it, and have high expectations. It's a real university town of about 350,000 with an internationally acclaimed symphony, and a busy arts scene. Not too many tourists yet. We'll find out mañana.

Puebla Tile



Puebla is the home of Talavera tile. It's been made here for centuries. You see this gorgeous hand-painted tile everywhere. Many of the older colonial buildings are covered in the stuff. Different patterns each one.

Froc Croc to You, Too



I don't have a clue what this abbreviation on the side of building means.
It makes a great cuss word, though.

Under the Coffee Table



Bet you've never seen a coffee table with a table base like this one before!
I stopped dead in my tracks as I was walking around Puebla. Here was this tasteless coffee table right in the doorway of a furniture store. Obviously a big draw! I wonder if you put cold drinks on the tabletop, her ............... Nah, won't go there.

And, to give you an idea of cultural conflict.....in another shop window, just a block or so away were 35 Baby Jesuses. Yep, laid out flat on their backs, naked, chubby arms. What's with that, you ask? I'm guessing the centerpiece for the family creche.

Other culture shock: yesterday, at lunch, the waiter in the restaurant called me "whitey." In Spanish, he said, "Aqui esta, guerro." Which translates, "here's your lunch, whitey." Now, he meant no offense. If you have dark skin, they'll refer to someone as "negrito." Or if you're fat, they'll call one another "gordo." It's just something they do in their culture. And--not too long ago in the U.S. culture we did the same: "Fats" Waller, Fatty Arbuckle, nicknames like "Slim," and "Tiny."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Adventures in Puebla/Cholula

What I've learned--I need to be somewhere where there is plenty going on. My first night in Puebla, I took a taxi directly from the bus station to the small town (suburb) of Cholula. Before I left Phoenix, I had high hopes for Cholula. In my research, I found that it was a college town, near a metropolitan area that has every imaginable service. In my mind, it seemed like a very "doable" little place. I hated it.

The omens weren't what you'd call great. I arrived by bus around 7 p.m. in Puebla. Couldn't figure out how to take a suburban bus on to Cholula, so took a cab. The driver didn't know anything about Cholula. He drove us the 20 minutes or so to get into Cholula, then promptly got lost. We drove up and down very dark one-way streets, buildings marked with graffiti. A couple times he stopped and asked other taxi drivers where my hotel was (American men--note--never ask for directions). After one tip, he did a U-turn in the middle of the street, went up on to the curb. And, of course, about a mile down the road, the upsetting sound of flop, flop, flop....a flat tire. So Rod, not wanting to be the Ugly American,GOT OUT AND HELPED THE CABBIE CHANGE HIS TIRE ON A DARK STREET IN CHOLULA. Call me foolhardy, call me fearless. But it does give me something to brag about. Bet you don't know anyone else who's done that! It reminds me of the afternoon I drove a cab, for one block, in Manhattan. But that's a story for another time.

The first night I simply took a hotel listed as OK in the guidebook I've been using along my Mexico odyssey, "Let's Go Mexico." It's a very good guidebook. Great information; and I've learned to trust their recommendations. They're dead on correct.
The first night in any city I consider a "gimme." All bets are off. I reserve judgment until the next morning. If the hotel was noisy, I move. If the area doesn't seem right, I get out of there. That's what it was like in Cholula. Cholula is actually divided into two small towns--San Andres Cholula and San Pedro Cholula. Mexcio suffers from a surplus of saints. I got up the next morning and walked from one side of town to the other. Ugly, I thought. On my way back to the hotel, a herd of cows crossed the main street, blocking traffic. And then, as I got closer to home, a herd of sheep blocked another streets. "Not for me, I thought." But, as like so many of the culture conflicts you see in Mexico, this is only blocks away from a new Starbucks, a McDonalds, a Burger King, a major bank, and one of the fanciest private universities in the part of the country. So, I moved. To the big town nearby, Puebla.

And, you know, you don't have to "live in" the entire big city. Just like in Chicago or Phoenix, I lived in one neighborhood. Sure, there are bad parts of town. You don't go there. Since I've always lived in metropolitan areas, maybe I need to factor that into my thinking in Mexico. I'd just have to pick my neighborhood. In Puebla, the historical center of town is amazing. I could live here. The surrounding barrios over a million people, well, I just wouldn't be going there. It's a different way of thinking about home.

I hadn't even thought of visiting Puebla. It wasn't even on my itinerary. But, sometimes unexpected things surprise you. Mexico is teaching me to be open to possibilites. In fact, Puebla is one of my favorite places in Mexico so far. Even though it was 37 degrees this morning. Evenings and mornings are quite cold. Folks walk around with surgical face masks, neck scarves, gloves, hats. Let 'em try Chicago for a week in January! Hah!

I happened to land here smack in the middle of the 10th Annual Puebla International Festival. Last night, in the main town square in front of the cathedral, there was a music concert. The set up was like something you'd see in NY Central Park, or Ravinia in Chicago, or Starlight in KC. Big fancy stage with overhead stage lights, backed up by a big Jumbotron screen. Images of the band projected onto the screens. A half dozen or so other screens all around the park area showing the performance. A tented area with seating of 1,000 or so. All free.

And here's a first for me: the band was the 40-member Symphonic Band of the Mixtec Indian pueblos surrounding Puebla. Not dressed in Native costume, but in black suits and ties. Very sharp. They played an evening of American jazz standards, ballads, and contemporary Mexican jazz tunes. The band was fronted by an important female jazz singer and pianist. She was a big, BIG deal. Like our Diane Schur, or that caliber. She and her pianist were whiter than white. The band Indian. And the audience, watching with rapt attention were "puro Mexicano" pure Mexican. Which is, of course a very old blend of European Spaniards with local indigenous people.

The hotel I'm staying at, La Teresita, was recommended by the guidebook. I'm very happy with it. It's modern and spotlessly clean. But the rooms are tiny. I'm up on the 3rd floor, and the entry to my room is between the main staircase and an open light well. It's exactly two feet wide. I measured it. And the door to my room is exactly two feet wide. It's dollhouse sized. If you'd had one too many burritos, you couldn't get through this space. This morning, I'm going to switch to a room with a grown-up-sized door.

Odds and Ends

One cultural behavior I've noticed in dining rooms is an example of Mexican politeness. At our hotel, where meals were included, when a couple entered the dining room, they said "good evening" to all the other diners. And, upon leaving, the wished the remaining diners, "Buen provecho." (enjoy your meal).

One kind of vendor that stops me in my tracks, wherever I am in Mexico is the handmade potato chip seller. I first experienced this in Oaxaca last Christmastime. Here, I've seen in in the markets, even sold on buses by "ambulantes" or roving sellers. There is nothing to compare to fresh potatoes, hand cut, fried immediately, eating them from a small plastic container while still warm. Yum!

A "Third Place"

Starbucks' founder had the idea of a "third place," not home, and not work. He first saw how people enjoyed hanging out in similar places in Italy. I think he was really on to something. This "third place" idea is the same idea behind the town square in Mexico. Whole families hang out, not necessarily doing anything. Sitting a talking, bumping into friends, catching up on gossip, grabbing a taco. In my mind, it's a far more social way to lie than sitting at home watching TV. Don't get me wrong, I like TV. It's just that it gives you an illusion of being with people or in a social setting. One of the things I really like about Mexico is how people use its public spaces--parks, town square zocolo, sidewalks, the steps of a church. It reminds me of life at college. If you wanted to be alone, go back to your dorm room. If you want socialization, just open you door. It makes more sense to me to open the door.

Market Day in Ixtapan de la Sal

Sunday is market day. The town closes off from traffic one long main street and several cross streets. Local sellers set up improvised stalls. Think flea market with farmers' market..but less organized. It's an explosion, a riot, an Impressionist painting. I didn't know Sunday was market day. As I turned the corner alongside the municipal building, I was accosted by smells, noises, and colors. Overhead was a patchwork of party colored tarps. Remember when you were a kid and made an improvised tent by stringing a tarp between two trees? Well, it's like that, one vendor's plastic roof attached to his neighbors with whatever cord he keeps around for market day. I was walking down this plastic-covered tunnel. Tall people, please duck your heads. I kept thinking, "this is a blast!" People scurrying to and fro. Old-fashioned hawkers touting the advantage of their wares, "My bananas are the sweetest, only 5 pesos." The fundamentals of retail merchandising and display: ladies with a cloth spread out on the ground the--with all the care of a department store window designer--place oranges or squashes or limes in precise little pyramids. Things I don't know what I'm looking at--mysterious fruits, which I'd still like to try. Long coils of fresh sausage hanging from overhead. And shoes. What's the deal with Mexicans and shoe shops? Probably every sixth or seventh stall had shoes of some sort, whether they be plastic flip-flops, Crocs, work boots, house slippers, leather huarache sandals, or anything else one could put on one's feet. Maybe because everyone walks everywhere in small Mexican towns, they go through more shoes? Oops, blew a tire: time for a new pair.
Smells: big vats of oil bubbling away over portable gas burners. Chiles rellenos being stuffed and breaded and fried to order. Chicarrones, fried pig skins, the Mexican equivalent of potato chips. Stealth restaurants that just pop up on market day with one table, a skillet, vats of food, one stool. A health inspector's bad dream.

Tiny little finger bananas. One man exclusively selling big, red, ripe strawberries in wicker baskets. Apples--mostly imported from the U.S., but a few grown in Chihuahua up north. Teeshirts and ax handles. Homegrown and roasted peanuts. Dried beans. Homemade ice cream in buckets packed with dry ice. Kitchen wares. Dried herbs in huge bundles. Off-the-farm honey packaged in used juice bottles or whatever container was at hand. Cowboy hats and batteries. Carters navigating impossibly loaded dollies through the crowds. Women balancing loads on their heads in a feat of equilibrium. One woman had the very best answer to a fancy baby car seat--she just placed her little one in an empty plastic milk crate lined with soft towels. Hey, it works. With the mountains of picturebook pretty fruits and vegetables I thought to myself, "I could become a vegetarian." Of course, I'd have to have my pork roasts and hamburgers, too.

New Friends

Back in Ixtapan de la Sal, I took advantage of the municipal "balneario" spa on both days of my stay there. Soaking in the warm thermal waters was pretty wonderful. In fact, here in Puebla this morning the temperature is 37 degrees....I could go for a nice hot soak.

Mexican kids are cute as buttons. So, while I was in one of the 5 thermal pools, this little 7-year-old kid comes up to me, "where are you from?" Do I stick out like a sore thumb? Yep. White guy with blond hair (blond, that is, in areas where I'm not bald). "I'm American." So he asked my name. "Rodrigo," I replied. My name translates perfectly into Spanish. In fact Rodrigo is a hell of a lot more common here than Rod is at home. His name is Miguel (Mike). Turns out his mom is an English teacher in Toluca, and he speaks a little English. I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "A soccer player," he volunteered. I told him they make lots of money, so that's a good idea. Then I asked if he could guess what my job was. I gave him a hint: it's at a school. His guess: "you're a soccer player." See a pattern here? I told him I was a little old to be a professional soccer player. So then he asked, "have you been to Beverly Hills or Las Vegas?" Is this the impression American movies and t.v. are giving to kids around the world? (answer: YES) I told him I lived near Las Vegas in Phoenix. That was good for a "Cool." It's easy to impress little kids.

I met his grandma over in the "mud pool." This is a cool mineral water pool, where the management has conveniently set out buckets of naturally mineral-rich mud. Ladies give themselves improvised mud facials. They look really strange submerged up to their necks, with only this muddy head sticking out of the water. One teenager had a clever use for the mud. He covered his face with the gray stuff, then fashioned a long addition to his nose and two horns, which he attached to his forehead. Devilishly clever and a delight to the younger kids.

It was Sunday, which--apparently--is family day. The pools was loading up with moms and dads and grannies and tons of babies in diapers and toddlers. And the old pool adage: when you've got kiddies in a pool, you've got kiddie wee wee. Since the water was looking a little yellow that morning, I left. (Alright, full disclosure-- sulfur is one of the minerals naturally occurring in the water). But it still looked a little yellow.

What a Difference a Class Makes

Well, my itinerary has taken me from Ixtapan de la Sal through Cuernavaca and now I'm in Puebla. Monday I spent entirely on the road, from bus to bus. On the first leg of my journey, it was a second class bus from Ixtapan to Cuernavaca. I thought I was being smart to check the bus departure times from Ixtapan with the local tourist office. I did it twice just to be sure. Yep, both times they told me, "It runs every 2 hours beginning at 8 a.m.....8, 10, 12, etc." Now, I didn't ask twice just out of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It wasn't so much my need to have all the details down perfectly and in advance, so much as knowing how Mexicans work. If you ask a question, they will always give you an answer. Not necessarily the CORRECT answer, just an answer. My thought is that this is a cultural quirk....they just want to be polite and helpful (even though you get the wrong answer about 50% of the time). So, I planned to take the 10 a.m. bus. Got up, went out for breakfast, packed, checked out, got a cab to the bus station, and arrived around 9:30 in time for the 10 a.m. bus. BUT, there was no 10 a.m. bus. It was an 11 a.m. bus. "Tiempo Mexicano"..they call it Mexican time. So I just took it as a chance to catch up on some reading.

It was supposed to be a 2.5 hour trip and turned out to be a 3 hour trip. Lots of 2-lane twisty and turny mountain roads. Looking out of the bus window at sights of Mexico whizzing by (OK, not whizzing. Maybe crawling by.): an observation on Mexican home security. For the common folks it amounts to metal bars on every window. Great for stopping robbery. Not so great if you're caught in a fire. Another homemade home security measure--soda pop bottles. Huh? Yes, they break them into shards and implant them along the roof line or exterior wall. Not even the most motivated crook wants to crawl over that. Sometimes, if their building abuts their neighbors, they will place a half-moon looking piece of metal with spikes radiating out at 90 degrees. Again, to prevent bad guys from climbing over. And, the deluxe edition of home security: roof dogs. To use it seems hopelessly cruel, but that's what they do. Keep dogs up on the roof. When someone approaches, the bark their heads off.
Good fences make good neighbors.

A sign in the town square/ park back in Ixtapan de la Sal: "Una flor es un mundo de felicidad" (a flower is a world of happiness). Mexicans have this sweet sentimental streak.

When we finally got to Cuernavaca (which is a dump, by the way...crumbling buildings and lots of graffiti), I had to transfer to another bus line on to Puebla. Cuernavaca is one of the cities where there are separate bus terminals, no one big (convenient) one. So I had to take a taxi across town to make my connection. And the sharks they call taxi driers knew that. $18 for the trip they said. "Are you nuts?," I said. I walked away. We agreed on $15....still about double what it should be. Those are U.S. prices. But we got clear across town in time for me to make the 3 p.m. departure of the "Oro" bus (Golden). Wow! It was "super deluxe" class. That means leather seats. Only 24 passengers. Lunch provided. 2 bathrooms, an "in-flight" movie, and no stops to pick up folks along the way. The bus was full, mostly young, rich Mexicans. And me. Lesson learned: first class is nicer than steerage.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A "Found" Poem

When I was in Tequisquiapan....was it last week or 2 weeks ago??.....I've been moving so quickly across the Mexican landscape, that I can't remember where or when. When I was in Tequisquiapan, I had lunch in a little natural foods shop. On the counter was a handout with a poem by Pablo Nerudo. Now, Nerudo is one of my favorite writers, one I came across when I was down in Chile almost 20 years ago. He is the beloved favorite son of Chile, sort of like Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost in our country.

Nerudo won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971 and grew up in the same town in Chile, Temuco, that I lived in in 1991. I've translated the poem here for you. The message is especially nice:

THIS REMAINS PROHIBITED
It remains prohibited to cry without learning,
to wake up one day without knowing what to do,
to have fear of your memories.
It remains prohibited to not smile at problems,
not to fight for that which you love,
to abandon all because of fear,
to not make a reality of your dreams.
It remains prohibited to not show love,
to make someone else pay for your doubts and bad humor.
It remains prohibited to leave your friends,
to not try to understand that we all live together,
to call them only when you need them.
It remains prohibited to not be yourself before other people,
To feign to be something you're not before people that don't matter,
to be charming so that they remember you,
to forget all the people that you love.
It remains prohibited to not do things for yourself,
to not believe in God and not to make your own destiny,
To have fear of life and your promises,
To not live each day as if it were your last breath.
It remains prohibited to miss someone without being happy,
to forget their eyes, laugh, everything.
Because your roads have left you from embracing,
To forget your past and pay for it with your present.
It remains prohibited to not try to understand people,
To think that their lives are worth more than your own,
To not know that each one has his own path and his own story.
It remains prohibited to not create your own story.
To not give thanks to God for your life,
To not have a moment for people that you need,
to not understand what Life gives you,
also that which it takes away from you.
It remains prohibited to not look for your own happiness,
to not live your life with a positive attitude,
Not to think that we can be better,
to not feel that without you this world wouldn't be the same.

--Pablo Neruda


And, my friends, that's why he won the Nobel prize for literature!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hey, Big Spender

Being on the road with a very limited wardrobe and no ready access to a washing machine, it's easy to run out of undies.

In general, laundromats are not self-service, but rather full-service laundries where you drop off you clothes and they wash, dry, and fold for you. I could get used to that. They charge by the kilo.

This week, I didn't judge so well and ran out of socks and shorts. Jeans, you know, you can wear forever, or at least until they stand up on their own. So, I thought, until I get somewhere I can find a laundry; I need to buy some wardrobe basics.

To the resuce, Woolworth's in Toluca. And you thought they were dead. Nope, alive and well in Mexico. Just like me. A taste of the 1950's. It's a familiar--if retro--face. And, yes, prices are still dirt cheap, just like the olden days.

In Toluca, in the evenings it's chilly. This is one of the highest spots in Mexico. I'd guess in the 40's. But, for the Tolucans, it's a different definition of cold. They walk around with face masks, scarves wrapped around their necks, and gloves. Oh honey, I can't WAIT for you to see Chicago. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

From Toluca, I went to Valle de Bravo. This is a spectacularly situated lake resort on a big, deep manmade lake. The dam holds much of the drinking water for Mexico City. Valle is a cute little town, on a lake, surrounded by pine trees. It's a lot more like Colorado or Wyoming or Montana than your typical mental picture of Mexico. There is sailing, and motorboats, diving, skiing, and para-sailing. I thought I was back in the hills of Lake of the Ozarks! But I didn't like the place. Too touristy, congested, dirty. It just didn't feel right. And on Thursday evening, the town square was swarming with military in full fatigues and machine guns. I felt a lot safer sleeping. But not an environment to live in.

So, on Friday, I went back to Toluca and transferred to a bus down to Ixtapan de la Sal. I like the place. It is a spa town with municipal hot water springs. They have a big downtown "balneario," and this morning I had a massage, jacuzzi, and a good soak in warm mineral waters....all for around $20. My hotel is a super bargain, too. About $25 per night with cable TV.....and 3 meals included. The climate is spring-like and they have a pretty little town square. I'll keep this one on the list. I'm here until Monday, when I head on to Cuernavaca and then Puebla/Cholula.

Smells: Those are different in Mexico, too. As I checked into my little hotel, in the lobby, there was a vase with 15 stems of a fresh lilly flower. The smell was intoxicating, like someone had spilled a (large) bottle of perfume. But it was pretty. And then, I went walking around town before breakfast at about 7:30. I passed a little mom & pop storefront restaurant, just setting up for the day. The owner lady had just chopped ingredients for the salsa she had put on the tables. So the pungent smell of fresh cilantro and onions....at 7:30 a.m.

Observations

On the way up from Morelia to Toluca (a detour, as you recall), we passed mile after mile of fields covered in plastic staked up as rooves over--apparently--the entire U.S. crop of Christmas poinsettias. Sure enough, they grow a lot here, both red and white. And they grow wild, too.

As the bus whizzed by, I noticed a restaurant in some little berg called "El Ilegal".-...the Illegal. Now, that's a lovely bit of irony in a state, Michoacan, where a huge proportion of their men head north to find work in the U.S. There are complete towns where only women, kids, and old men are left. Working-aged guys are gone to "El Norte." Now, with the U.S. economic crisis and less work up there, they are coming home in droves. Hence, "El Ilegal." Bittersweet, I suppose. No one wants to be illegal. But, of course, no one wants to leave their family without food.

The Mexican alarm clock
It's well know that many Latin-Americans have a completely different notion of time that we Northerns. It's not so precise. Lying in bed in Toluca the other morning, I listened to the church bells ringing out their message, "get out of bed and go to work." It wasn't a Sunday. At 6 a.m., out chimed six sonorous tones. Got it. It's six o'clock. I'm retired, so I don't have to get out of bed. Then, at 6:15, a short 4-tone sequence. A chorus of dogs harmonizes. Followed at 6:30 by an 8-note sequence building on the first, and then at 6:45 by a 12-note sequence, including the two earlier patterns. Got it. This is the Mexican alarm clock....with a built in snooze alarm! It{s a public service. No wonder hardly anyone wears a watch around here.

Something to Bitch About in Mexico

You've certainly heard about all the layers upon layers of stupid bureaucracy. Paperwork. Forms to be filled out. In duplicate. Stamped in one office and takend to another office. In Mexico, this paperwork is called "tramites." Frustration mounting, snippy customer service. Getting the wrong answers, and later...a completely different answer. Initials for every organization. Workers not in, it's a holiday. Everything you've ever heard about Mexico's administrative nightmares is true.....except this story isn't about Mexican bureacracy, but good ol' American. Read on:

Trying to get the paperwork for my state pension done from Mexico has been trying at best. To start with ASRS (Arizona State Retirement System)informed me two weeks after I retired that my former employer, the college district, had NOT submitted my ending payroll verification form, a prerequisite for my getting my pension checks. Damn! Huh? The college knew I was leaving. I talked to HR. So when I called to check to see where things were, the retirement clerk at the colleges said, "Oh, yeah, I see that you are retiring, but I only handle people with more than 10 years of service." Great, then get off your butt and get my retirement over to the clerk who handles short-timers like me. I then called her the next day to confirm that he had brought her the paperwork, and that she had faxed it down to ASRS (before I left town.)

So far, so good. My second day on the road, I called ASRS from Mexico to verify that they had--indeed--received the paperwork from my employer. "Yes," she said, "we have it and it will take approximately 6-7 weeks before we send you your final payoff statement." I owe a balance on a Service Purchase of years. I clarified, "so I should have that letter about mid-December, right?" "That is correct," she assured me.

So, on my merry way I went on my 6-week tour of Mexico, expecting to be back in PHX in mid-December to take care of my pay-off and rollover from my IRA. Free of worries, no deadlines. Off to enjoy the trip!

Wait! Not quite! Nine days later....not 6 weeks, not 7 weeks....nine days later, that damn payoff letter came to my mailing address (at Jeanne´s). In it was a deadline for me to complete this paperwork at execute the roll-over. Someone in ASRS is surely calendarly-challenged. Panic set in on this end. How can I do this complicated financial stuff from a foreign country? Do I have to cancel the trip and go back to PHX to take care of this...mid-journey?

After several (very) long distance calls and some fast scanning of the forms by Jeanne who emailed them to me, I was back in business. I completed them and faxed them back to ASRS. And one page to TIAA-CREF, where I have my IRA.

The saga continues: The next morning on my telephone voicemail, I have a message from TIAA-CREF, "Mr. Fensom, we received your rollover request, but you are not allowed to do rollovers." Here, I said a bad word. OK, a long series of hyphenated bad words. So, I called ASRS to make sure I had done the right thing with the forms. Yep. I also wanted to see if ASRS had received the forms I'd faxed back the previous day. "Sorry, we were closed for the Veteran's Day holiday and their is no record of your fax." But she thought TIAA-CREF was confused....indeed, I could do the rollover.

So now it's ME who}s confused. Next I call TIAA-CREF for a 25-minute arguement just to start the day off right. All this from a phonebooth storefront place. They explained that my employer didn't allow for rollovers. Panic, once again! What in the hell am I going to do to pay off that invoice? Sell the car? Take out a loan? After being put on hold a half dozen times (from Mexico, remember)...she's checking with colleagues....she has conflicting information. Finally, she came back and explained "Oh, yes you CAN do the rollover. You are no longer an employee, you're retired, so it's fine." I'm glad someone was fine, because I WASN'T!!!

Seems to me like their calling with 100% incorrect information and then arguing with me for near half an hour cost me plenty of expensive phone time and plenty of anxiety. TIAA-CREF faxed me their own proper forms to the little shop where I was waiting. I completed them and faxed them back immediately. At least someone in the sorry tale can be organized.

Moral of the story--pain-in-the-ass bureaucracy isn't limited to Mexico. It's alive and well in the good ol' U.S. of A. But I'm looking at it positively. It was great practice for whatever "tramites" Mexico can throw at me in the future.

Lost in Translation

Cultural differences are what makes travel interesting. They can also make it difficult, depending on the traveler's attitude. I've had to get in touch with my laid-back side. Didn't really know I had one, but I've cultivated one. In order to survive in Mexico, or any developing country for that matter, it's necessary to appreciate "good enough." Things don't HAVE to make sense. Often, it's better if they don't. Not perfectionism, but good-enough-ism. This is easy for me, having worked for the college district for 7.5 years, I long ago learned the phrase, "good enough for government work." And it's like that down here. For example: in my current hotel (I'm in a little spa town called Ixtapan de la Sal) I have the bargain of the century with my room. It's $25/night...including 3 meals a day. BUT....in the bathroom, the toilet tank is rectangular. The lid to the tank is trapezoidal (with a big crack in it). Hey, it works! Good enough for government work.

Other examples that have left me feeling culturally Lost in Space:
An automatic vending machine from one of the biggest bakery companies in Mexico, Bimbo Bread. I like them just for that name. The company is the sponsor of one of the biggest sports teams in Mexico, the "Chivas" soccer team in Guadalajara. And the team jersey has the big word BIMBO emblazoned on the front. I bought one just to wear it. Hey, I'm blond and proud of my bimbo heritage. But I disgress....this vending machine had a full-length posterized illustration of a comic book black guy complete with Afro hair style. And the title was "El Negrito," which translates, Little Blackie.....or someting like Little Black Sambo. Now, in the U.S. that would be considered shockingly racist. But here, it's just fine. People call one another by names. Political correctness--thankfully--hasn't reached most of Mexcico. I once had some Mexican workers in my house in Phoenix. One was tall and the other quite short. The tall guy, throughout the day, referred to the shorter one as "Dwarf."

Other word items: did you know that the Spanish word for wife is "esposa." And the Spanish word for handcuffs is....you guessed it, "esposa." Two eggs sunny-side up in a red sauce are called "Divorciados" (divorced). When you think about it, makes sense. The shampoo I bought down here is called Manzanillo (so far so good....that means "chamomille") Grisi. I have no idea what "grisi" means, but it sure sounds like "greasy" to me....not the best name for a shampoo. A major brand of cold cuts here is called "FUD." Instantly, I get a mental picture of the cartoon character of Elmer Fudd. But here, it's pronounced ¨"food." And a top brand of yogurt is "Soful"...pronounced "so full." Obviously, some marketing type is also having fun with Spanish/English translations.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How to Arrive at Someplace You Didn't Think You Were Going

So, yesterday, Wednesday, I left Morelia about midday, after spending a large part of the morning fighting with the Arizona State pension office and my annuity company to try to get all my pension details arranged. Via long distance. Very long distance.

My plan was to go to Valle de Bravo. A pretty town on Lake Avandaro, up in the mountains. I asked the lady at the bus station in Morelia, and she said there was no direct service, but sold me a ticket to someplace called "The Monument," from where I could catch a connection on to Valle. That should have been a clue. Normally, on a bus, you want to go from one town to another town. Not to a statue. Well, the trip was pleasant enough, if you forget the lack of a bathroom onboard during a long trip on winding roads. This was a second-class bus. Not the chicken bus, but definitely a step down from deluxe or first. And then the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere to pick up this old, old guy with a guitar slung across his belly. "No, no, please no," I thought to myself. But to no avail. Sure enough, he climbed onto the bus, moved about half way down the aisle...still standing.....right next to where I was seated, and began to tune the instrument (directly into my left ear) and then sing. Sort of. I guess you could call it singing. For about 45 minutes. Please God, let this end. Even my thumb pressed against my ear didn't phase the old guy. And on he went. The concert was concluded with a passed hat. I declined.

The scenery was something out of "Sound of Music." High mountains, thick pine forests, twisty narrow roads, and every now and then, a break in the trees with wide pastures and tiny farms. Cows wandered alongside the trail. I asked the driver and his sidekick nicely if they'd let me know where the hell "The Monument" was since I didn't have a damn clue. Oh, yes, they assured me. Just a little way beyond Zitacuaro. And so we went. And as I was watching the Alpine panorama whiz by, I also see a big bronze statue set at the confluence of two roads, marked with an outsized plaque. "The Monument?," I wondered? The bus driver never called it. At that point the shadows were getting longer. It was around 5:30 p.m. Up in the mountains, it was getting much cooler. I thought to myself, "Self, you don't want to be standing the middle of B.F.E. (for those of you who understand the abbreviation, great....if not, substitute "nowhere" waiting for a connecting bus to Valle at night with all my worldly possessions stacked around my feet?" Self answered, "are you NUTS!" So, I said nothing and the driver said nothing, and off we continued to Toluca. A town. Rod took a cab and went to a real five-story hotel and took a nice hot shower. I found a Chinese food joint, had supper and went to bed

And that, children, is how you arrive at someplace you didn't think you were going to.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where Old Mannequins Go To Die


Having worked at Marshall Field's in Chicago for many years, I understand department stores and retailing. But I never knew what happened to old display mannequins. Now I know. They move to Mexico to live out happy lives in somewhat reduced circumstances.
I've walked past dozens of little clothing stores with the most hideous mannequins. Startling, really. Enough to make you stop dead in your tracks. Today I saw a black mannequin with a 70's Afro. I recognized it because I lived through the period....in Michigan. It's nice to know that old department store mannequins have a place to go.

Which brings me to my question of the day: Why is Jesus blond? Down here, you see pictures of Jesus everywhere. Of course, you say. It's a Catholic country. But the weird thing is that we is always depicted as blond, with light eyes, and white, white skin. Now come on. He was a Mediterranean Jew. How blond to you really think he was? My supposition is that this is all part of the Mexican obsession with fair complexions. In fact, the lighter the better. Most Mexicans will tell you that they don't have prejudice like we have in the U.S. But they do. Virtually every ad, every poster, every t.v. commercial has a blond woman (blond women are very big here, even if bottled version) with a cute-as-a-button little blond kid and a light-skinned husband. The posters in the fancy department store chain, Liverpool, show lots of Anglo-Saxon types. Now my guess is that that represents only about 15% of the Mexican population. So what's wrong with light-brown?

Today, I got up early and took a "combi," which is a collective van to the bus station. The combis stop anywhere along a predetermined route, picking up and dropping off passengers. And it's dirt cheap, about 50 cents. But you get as may as 10 crammed into a little van. From the station, I took a bus up to Patzcuaro....a 45-minute trip. Patzcuaro is the little mountain town I stayed in when I attended a seminar sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix about 5 years ago. It's cute, but small. I went to the weekly Expat men's breakfast. Some 28 guys showed up, and many had stories about life in Mexico. It was a nice way to connect. This afternoon, I came back to Morelia and switched hotels (the old one was too noisy). I'm goig back to the little family place I tried last night for dinner. The call them "comida corrida" and it's a fixed price meal from soup to dessert.

The picture attached tonight is the National Music Conservatory....a former convent. There is a really pretty interior courtyard and garden open to the public. And you can sit there and listen to students practicing in they small practice rooms around the perimeter of the courtyard.

Tomorrow, off to Valle de Bravo.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Porcelain God is Angry...Do Not Feed Him


OK, so here's the (nasty) deal with Mexican toilets--in every town, they're working with plumbing systems that are at least a couple of hundred years old. Therefore, they don't work too well. It is the accepted custom to NOT put toilet paper in the toilet. It stops them up, and the results are unpleasant. Next to each toilet is a little plastic-bag-line trash can. And, you guessed it--that's where the TP goes. Sounds awful, but once you're used to it, it all goes smoothly (no pun intended). Oh, yes there was!

So, last night was my first night in Morelia. In the hotel I found--modern--I thought, "let me just chance it a little bit. This place looks brand new, it's clean...give 'er a try." The Porcelain God rebelled! Not an explosion, mind you. I've seen some of those. This was just an oozing out of water from the base of the toilet all over the bathroom floor. And I didn't realize it had done that until (yep) I stepped in it! Ooooh. The management let me change rooms.

This morning I changed hotels. This one is the Hotel El Carmen. For all of $22 it includes private bath, color TV, and wireless Internet access. And it faces out onto a pretty public park and the city's cultural center. Very nice.

A couple glimpses of Morelia:
I noticed that the main public square/park was being advertised as "Free Public Wireless Internet" available. Wow! That's more advanced than most U.S. cities. I had to ask a policeman how it worked, and he pulled out his Blackberry and showed me how to sign in. Computers are everywhere. A saw a girl with her mom sitting in the park doodling away on her laptop. There are sidewalk cafes everywhere....always with at least one person working on a laptop. And Internet shops are in almost every block...very popular, too. So, you can say Mexico is truly on-line.

Out in the public square "zocalo," this afternoon, I had a nice sit down. No reading a book, no listening to music. Just a sit down. Not that I do that very often. The people watching is great. The world just passes you by. I watched a movie/ videographer setting up his very fancy camera equipment. His models were 3 little boys--triplets! All dressed alike. Dressed to the nines. With mommy and daddy looking on proudly (also dressed exquisitely). The middle and upper class in Mexico have money, and aren't afraid to spend it.

Morelia is a cultured city. I've noticed a number of bookstores in the Historic City Center. That's unusual in most Mexican cities. Probably as a result of the universities here. Also, the country's oldest music conservatory is here, housed in an old ex-convent. Inside is an open courtyard with a formal garden and mature shade trees, covered sidewalks around the periphery. And lined with student practice rooms. It's a little slice of heaven.

I got to hear not one, but TWO concerts this afternoon. The first was in the little park right in front of my hotel...a community chorus. Since I'm a reformed singer...near and dear to my heart. Sponsored by the state government as a "Sundays are for Families" event. The other was a big deal in the main plaza, up on the main bandstand. Hundreds of folks were in the audience.

In Morelia, I saw my first organ grinder in--oh--probably 30 years. No monkey, though.
Another custom you see throughout Mexico is women walking hand in hand or arm in arm. It's a rather endearing sign of friendship.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hard to Spell



Today, Friday, I'm in another little town in the state of Queretaro called "Tequisquiapan." Hard to spell, huh? It's easy. Try this: B.O.R.I.N.G. I had high hopes for the town from my research before I left, and--indeed--it IS a charming colonial town sit around a large center square (like many in Mexico). The periphery is ringed with "portales," or covered, arched walkways, home to restaurants and shops. It's pretty. It's nicely preserved. It's cheaper. But it's just plain dull. Especially after San Miguel, where there's always something going on. Knowing myself, I'd go stir-crazy in about a month living here. So.......on to Morelia tomorrow. It's about a 3-hour bus ride south and west.

Random thoughts:
Remember the corner grocery? Chicago...in the city....used to have them on every other block. When I was selling real estate there, I think I showed clients a few of them for conversion to residential property. Well, those corner groceries are alive and well in Mexico. I find it delightful. These are small places...often the back of someone's home. They carry a limited selection, often behind the counter. It's like stepping back to the 1940's or something (not that I'd remember!). And then there is the neighborhood bakery (once the rolls are gone in the morning....that's it). And the neighborhood ice cream store, and shoe store. Along with these stores comes personal service, someone who actually greets you (no, not like Walmart), and who gives the customer some attention. I could get used to this.

Buses. Nope, not the old "chicken coop" buses of old. I've been traveling on deluxe and first class buses....all Mercedes Benz or Volvo manufacture. The deluxe ones, on longer journeys, come with 2 bathrooms on board and color movies! Most Mexicans travel by buses instead of by air. The first class bus service means that it stops a lot. If someone standing along the road...anywhere...in a cornfield, I've seen...the bus stops and picks them up, and along we go. Sort of commuter service, of a sort.

The money is making sense now. Instead of that furtive little calculation at every purchase, "let's see, that's REALLY $17.50 in U.S. money"..... Now, I know that a 400 peso hotel room is very nice, and a 250 peso hotel room is plenty OK for my needs. And all those strange little coins? I can hand 'em over without looking to see what denomination each is.

How weird is taking a trip like this, going from town to town? Yeah, it's methodical. Well, having worked as an academic for the last several years, I recognize the power of silly minutae and the limits of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Of course, I researched each town before I left Phoenix. In fact, I created a 3-ring binder with facts and collected comments on each town on my "potential" list. So, look at it like this: would you buy the first car you saw in the car showroom without first looking it over carefully, taking a test drive, looking it up on the Internet?

The other day at the fancy shopping center outside San Miguel, they were putting up Christmas decorations in the mall and in all the stores. I had nightmares of Marshall Field's all over again. Retail is retail, wherever you live. But do realize how funny it is to hear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in Spanish?

Tourist Day



Thursday I was a tourist. At the recommendation of my landlady, I took a taxi up to the Botanical Garden, high on the hills above San Miguel, overlooking the city. It made for a nice hike along a long trail through the desert landscape. The botanical diversity, however, was mostly cacti. Hey, I'm from Phoenix. I wouldn't walk half a block to look at another cactus. But I did do some photography, and got to "commune with nature." The photo here is of another park, down in the city called Porfirio Diaz Park (or the French park for style of gardens). That one I liked. Green, cool, and peaceful, with only the not-too-obtrusive piped in music playing throughout the park and the occasional jogger to disturb your reverie.

Thursday afternoon I went to a "balneario," or thermal spring spa just outside of town. I tagged along with an American expat who lives in SMA and kindly asked me if I'd like to take a trip to "take the waters." It made for a wonderful afternoon--3 natural thermal hot spring pools in ascending temperature gradations. This was great for achy bones unaccustomed to their owner's walking so much. Also I took advantage of the staff massage therapist. $19 for an open-air massage looking out over lush green lawn, trees, and potted flowers. What's bad? On the way back into town, we stopped for a beer at a converted former textile factory which has been made into a VERY upscale shops & offices complex. It was something you'd see in Dallas's Turtle Creek, or Chicago's Winnetka. Fancy architect and designers' offices, artists' studios, a spectacular antique gallery and a couple of bars. Clearly, someone in Mexico has a lot of money to spend.
Don and I had a neat freewheeling chat about Life In Mexico. Very useful.

That same morning, as I was sitting at my usual breakfast counter in the market, another American expat (a lady) struck up a conversation. She was headed to her all-morning art class and asked if I'd like to join the group for lunch (couldn't since I had plans to go to the balneario). People are friendly in SMA.

The Washboard Streets



As you can see from the photo, Mexican streets are different from ours. Those over in Guanajuato were amazing--black, hand-laid flat stone that almost looked like tile....tightly joined together, and going up some pretty steep inclines. Pity the poor road workers who have to create and repair the streets, one stone at a time on their hands and knees.

In San Miguel de Allende, however, it was a different story. The photo here is actually of a San Miguel street. Many of these are made from big round rocks....the kind you find at the bottom of a river. Some not so smooth. Just set into concrete. So you have kind of a washboard effect. Or more like those plastic sandals with are the little bumpy things on the footbed. Imagine walikg across these streets....with oncoming traffic and no stop signs! Your foot lands on the top of a stone, then slides into the depression between it and the next stone. I saw little kids, blind folks, ladies in high heels, and motorcyclists navigating the funhouse streets. With no falls. At least any that I saw.

More on Mexican streets. They're named funny. At least to American sensibilities. For example these streets in San Miguel--

The Clock (or Watch) Street (El Reloj)
The Organs Street (Los Organos)....explain that one to your Mom!
Aparition Street (Aparicio)
Old Tithe Street (Diezmo Viejo)
And in Guanajuato:
Chen's WORM Street (Gusano de Chen)
Casualty Street (Casualidad)...maybe a lot of accidents?
Mules Street (Las Mulas)...a place to make an ass of yourself
Solitude Street (Soledad)
Flea Market Street (La Baratilla)
Dry Battery (Pila Seca)...OK, it also translates "Dry Pile," also lovely
And also every saint you can name has a street. I'm waiting for Saint Rodrigo Street!
And a goodly number of streets have the name of an important date in history. For example, almost every town has a 16th of September Street. Like they say in Buenos Aires, you need a calendar to get around town!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Contrasts


Well, Mexico is both old and new.

This morning, as I was walking over to the Mercado (market) for breakfast, I passed the guy sweeping the streets. They're meticulous about this here, they do it daily. By hand, the traditional way. The old street sweeper guy uses a handmade broom made of thin twigs bundled together..... the kind my ex-boss used to fly around on!

Then later in the morning, I took a local bus out to the shopping center. You really don't need a car in Mexico. Public trans can take you almost anywhere. What a modern center! There is an Office Depot, a Radio Shack, a McDonalds (of course), a big multi-screen cineplex movie theater, and a very fancy "Liverpool" Department Store....clearly NOT a Spanish name. Liverpool makes Macy's look like a five-and-dime. VERY upscale and very pricey, too.

I had lunch at their open-air food court, in a Chinese place much like the U.S. chain Panda Express. I found it a little ironic to be sitting in the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende eating a super-tasty Chicken Curry. And the owner of the shop was Chinese, who spoke Spanish (not English) with a Chinese accent!

Tomorrow I'm doing an out-of-town day trip to a thermal hot spring spa. Should be fun.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

San Miguel de Allende



In the travel guidebook that I've brought with me, "Let's Go Mexico," the very first line of the entry for San Miguel de Allende is this: "You're as likely to see greying hippies as mariachis in this diverse town...." Greying hippies? Hey....who you calling a greying hippie? I'm a BALDING hippie!! They must have been looking over my shoulder.

Last night I stayed at the Parador San Sebastian....a very pretty local place. The rooms are set around an open courtyard on two levels. I sat in the courtyard at a wrought iron umbrella table and had a picnic lunch. A brilliantly colored flowering vine climbed up the wall. I had a big room, with high ceilings and 1930-ish furniture. The windows in the room had colonial wood shutters set into alcoves in the wall. A (non-operating) fireplace in my room. Clean white tile bathroom. For $29, though, a bit pricey for Rod!! So today, I moved to a guesthouse just down the street (it's $19....ahh, better). I really the owner lady. We chatted yesterday and then again today when I checked in. She corrects my Spanish. That's a good thing! She also showed me one of the two apartments she has to rent (they're currently occupied). A neat place with a little kitchenette, private bath, and a balcony overlooking the street. All for about $300/month. Intriguing...

By the way, have I recently mentioned how much I like NOT WORKING? Just getting up and NOT having to go into the office is a treat!

A glimpse of San Miguel--
I had breakfast in the local market, a place stacked to the ceiling with fresh fruits and vegetables of every kind, butcher shops,and stuff. Great smells, a riot of color everywhere. I wound up having breakfast at a little stall. Sat at the counter. Only a half dozen or so stools. Right in front of me, they squeezed a big glass of fresh, fresh orange juice. Whatever you do, stop drinking that junk in cartons from the supermarket. Whatever that is....it ain't real orange juice. The stuff this morning was ambrosia! And I had them make me an egg sandwich. All for about $2.75...such a deal. On leaving the market, I stumbled onto an altar set with an offering. This is Day of the Dead time, remember. I asked one of the vendors what it was about. She said each year at this time, they set out offerings to honor those of their former co-workers in the market who had died. It looked like a pretty tasty dinner, in my book. Several hefty plates of dinner, dessert, a beer, and........a bottle of Pepsi. I bet the Coca-Cola Company will be plenty disappointed to find out that ghosts prefer Pepsi.

Hasta manana

Monday, November 3, 2008

"Guanajuato" translates, "buns of steel"


photo is University of Guanajuato, with the steps covered with Day of the Dead decoration including skulls made from sugar.

Must be true. Imagine getting onto the Stairmaster exercise machine. Set the incline to the maximum setting, and let 'er rip. That's what going up and down Guanajuato's streets feels like. My calves hurt. My hamstrings hurt. My butt hurts.

But one charming town it is. Guanajuato has been given the rare title of UNESCO World Heritage Site, Patrimony of Humanity. I think that's United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization. What that means is that the town is delightfully preserved in the 17th century. No neon signs are allowed. No traffic lights; the streets aren't asphalt, but flat, hand-laid stone. By law, the architecture can't be changed.

The steeply inclined twisting streets are so narrow that you could stand in the middle with your arms outstretched and almost touch the buildings on either side of the road. It's funny watching big SUV's and pickup trucks negotiating the curves. But it's not so funny getting out of their way. Every few yards there is a nook built into the adjacent building, and that's where you plaster yourself until the car passes by. I wonder how many drunk drivers have come down those streets like a crazy pinball game?

A glimpse of Guanajuato: Sunday brunch Guanajuatense style (those are the local residents). Let me set the scene--

As I was walking down around the central Plaza de la Paz (plaza of peace....nice name),
on Sunday morning, I was attracted to the two principal churches by the sounds of church bells. The two are the Temple of the Company of Jesus (Jesuit) and the Basilica. As I came closer, I could here organ music and the sound of a church choirs (plus a very good tenor soloist). As a reformed choral singer, I'm a sucker for beautiful choir music and church organs. But the most visually impactful part was out in front of each church was a single nun, dressed in the traditional habit...selling homemade tamales out of a huge covered pot. Now there's something you won't see back home! And across the the churches, parishoners had set up a little table with Sunday morning pastries like cheesecakes and other sweets. Beats Denny's!

Which brings me to one of the most salient differences between what I've seen of Mexico and most of the U.S.--life in the streets. At any hour of any day, people are outdoors in the streets, in the parks, going into and out of churches, whole families playing in the main square, shopping in the open-air markets. I really, really like that. In Phoenix--especially--people go to work, come home, close the garage door, close the gates around the house, and that's that. Somehow, it seems to make a whole lot more sense to be out and about among your neighbors. Sunday evening I did just that. I had a beer with a local guy whose family used to live in an apartment in Chicago that belongs to a friend of mine. Rudy put me in touch with Alberto here, so I got to make another local connection.

Another glimpse of Guanajuato--remember this is Day of the Dead..
Down an out-of-the-way covered arcade, sidewalk art, a picture of the classical skeleton Catrina made from only colored wood shavings, black beans, and salt.
And walking back home Sunday night, I stopped to listen to the church bells of the Basilica and observed a young couple necking inside the doorway of the church. Surely God smiles on such license.

A Nation of Shopkeepers
That was the moniker given to the British of centuries past. Well, it's now the Mexican's turn. Another thing I really like is that on every street, around every corner you'll find a tiny shop. They call them tiendas de abarrotes. Like old-fashioned general stores. Selection is usually very limited. Maybe only one kind of toilet paper. They'll break open a pack of batteries and sell you just one. But I'm impressed by the industriousness of these folks, often open early and late, with Mom of Grandma behind the counter. There are tiny movie rental places, miniature hardware stores, a store with only bags and paper. Capitalism lives on in Mexico!

Today marks my one-week anniversary on the road. So far, so good. I'm having a ball. Seen a lot, done a lot, and thought about it a lot. This evening I'm in San Miguel, and right now it's #1 on my list of possible places. Yep, there are a bunch of gringos living here. Unofficially, about 12% of the population. I almost didn't stop here in San Miguel. A sort of reverse snobbism, I suppose (too many gringos for me). But what I found was quite different. It's not some sort of Disneyland copy. It's a real Mexican town. Yes, one dedicated to tourism. But if you had to choose and industry, it's as good a way to make an income as any other.