Welcome to the Adventure

Living in Mexico is often indescribable...you just have to live here. I have been journaling experiences for a while, and I hope you can get a feel for stupid-ass gringos trying to get it. But I am still here, and that says a lot for those of us sticking it out, as the payback is what makes life so good here.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mexico City in a Taxi, Pt 3

“I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert's bare, man.
I've breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.” Johnny Cash

Thought of Johnny Cash’s song, when Karen said to me “I’ve been everywhere, but never seen traffic like Mexico City”. Amen, Karen! Never have we seen traffic like Mexico City. Closest to it was in Bali, when 100 motos cut in front of us to get through a traffic light first, and maybe Italy’s roundabouts where getting off the roundabout gets standing ovations from observers and passengers alike, but they have nothing on Mexico City. We taxied everywhere, because we wanted to see everything...

We took our first big ride out to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The hotel recommended a guide with nice taxi rather than just a taxi, because in the end it would be cheaper...hum.... What could we say? Our guide picked us up, and weaved his way through city traffic with such ease in face of chaos. He drove on the dirt roads like he was racing a street car on a dirt track, but we got there in one piece. He took us to a stone carving business on the way to the pyramids, as is custom, when you get into a taxi, you will be stopping by businesses that sell to tourists, no matter if you want to or not. Of course the workshop was amazing. The artists do the most incredible pieces of stone work we have ever seen. The prices were higher than we have ever seen as well. But we did learn to tell the difference between a "manufactured" artifact, and a true carving by hand.... But after our visit to the pyramids, it was the ride back that did us in.

Forty years ago the Basilica was out in the middle of no where, trust me, and is now surrounded by a city still growing, really growing. In front of the Basilica our car nearly kissed a bus, passionately, but our man was steady, calm, did not bat an eye professional, and with the hand of Mary surely helping, the bus yielded. I took my cues from the driver, and didn’t move, nada... In back of me were white-knuckled, ashen-faced, heavy-breathing husband and friends. We bought a rose petal rosary right where it happened, just to keep the juju moving toward positive. The Basilica itself is the most-visited shrine in the Americas. This is where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. The original church was built in the 18th century, but there is a spectacular new church, where the tunic of Diego with the Virgin’s body imprinted on it (as in a miracle), is displayed. I found it other worldly, and spiritual. Thank you tour guide/driver for that day.

In the evening, to go anywhere, even if it is in normal time a 10 minute drive, plan on 45 mins, and you may still be fashionably late. But we saw side streets, jugglers, traffic cops extraordinaire (doing that conducting a symphony thing), colonial buildings still standing, streets as old as Mexico, and parks, everywhere. Graffiti, poor Indian women carrying their goods on their heads, people at a Mont Blanc party that looked really, really rich (to say nothing of the cars surrounding that little shop) all danced before us.

Taxi drivers tend to end up being our tour guides, and we have found gems. Larry and I had split from Karen and Ed to go to Costco. (Hello, opportunity knocks!), Martin! We walked (pushed) up to the taxi stand at the Museo and snagged a driver, Martin, telling him we wanted to go to Costco. He laughed, opened up his trunk and displayed a “Costco” sign. Turns out he works there on his days off from taxi driving (because you need a break, truly). Has worked for them for 10+ years, his son works for them, etc. We got to the parking lot (in Sport City, an American-style mall, somehow stuffed between two freeways), and parked by the door. He went shopping too, and hung with friends until we were done. Where else, I ask myself, can you get a taxi driver who works at Costco, and made our experience there a hoot.

We did find the Liverpool, speaking of shopping. Karen and I agree it's a Macy’s (my love affair with Macy's has not ended) mixed with Nordstroms. We shopped. Prices same as in states, but designers from Italy and Spain... nice stuff. Plus we found sun-dried tomatoes, and our favorite, hard to find, tequila. We even tried to get cat treats from the pet department, but alas, cats aren’t so spoiled down here, no treats. We even found a Woolworth’s (when was the last time you were in one of those) across the street from Liverpool, and met the most charming elderly (even for us 60+ year olds and one 70 year old) lady latched right on to Karen, as she spoke English, and was dying to practice. We wondered how many tourists had even found this Woolworth’s to wander into it, but there she was, waiting for the likes of us.

Taxi driver to the National Palace was an educational ride. He pointed out buildings of interest, district names, and gave us our easiest ride in Mexico City. The National Palace is where Moctezuma’s palace was, then Cortes moved in, and now it is Mexico’s White House. Murals painted by Diego Rivera depict the revolutions, and his own personal take on the revolution. You can imagine, if you are familiar with Rivera’s history, what that point of view depicts. Those were fabulous, but the special bicentenial exhibit was still going on, and that had taken over half of the palace. What an experience. I hope it stays intact if it gets moved anywhere, because it is a very important exhibit reflecting on Mexico’s political history.

When we did finally get back to Huatulco, it was like being in alternative universe. The frantic pace slowed dramatically. We missed our quiet, sleepy little bay, but did not miss the traffic. Can’t say I have been everywhere, but Mexico City, was as exotic as any other city in the world, with much to offer. We had a lot of fun, as we always do with Karen and Ed. A lot of laughing are always involved. I cannot say enough how nice it is to have friends you can travel with, and still like each other at the end of it. We’re having fun back here in Huatulco, seeing the sights, socializing with winter people, and hanging by the pool, and we are still shaking our heads over Mexico City. Five days wasn’t enough to see everything, but it was long enough to want a break, so we already have a list of places to see next time.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mexico City P. 2: Food

Hotel La Casona

There is a cooking revolution going on in Mexico City (and Oaxaca) right now, as Mexico and it’s chefs are turning out world-class, sophisticated, delicious cuisine, where local street food meets innovative chefs. Rick Bayless (guru of all things Mexican food in US), even has a list of stands on the street that are must visits. You all know I didn’t get this body eating salad, and luckily Ed was with me on this trip, but we ate at some fabulous restaurants.

Enrique Olvera, chef/owner of Pujols, gave us a night to remember. He went to cooking school at the Culinary Academy-Hyde Park, New York (the mecca of cooking schools in US), and worked in Chicago (think Grant Achatz if you are a foody). He runs a Mexican version of say a French Laundry (although you don’t have to sell your soul to the devil to eat there, unlike French Laundry). He is famous for “deconstructing” typical Mexican home cooking. From start to finish we marveled how he could get those flavors in every dish presented to us (by 4 waiters, one for each of us). We talked with him during desert, a great conversation about the food revolution coming out of Oaxaca. (The picture of the gourd left, contained the sweetest small corn I have ever tasted....) When we got home, an email was waiting for me, did I want to come back for a cooking class? Larry gave me the look, but I'm thinkin'....

We also hit Izote, a restaurant owned by Patricia Quintana, a legend in Mexico. We had food that reflected the very essence of Mexico. From Karen’s Chile Rellenos, stuffed with a smokey pork, Larry’s corn fungus (cuitlacoche) tacos, Ed’s fish tamale, and my red snapper with a cream/saffron sauce over cuitlacoche, we ate like pigs.....

One of our favorite places was the oldest candy store in Mexico, Dulceria de Celaya. My students have been bringing me sweets from Mexico for years, but really I had no idea. Traditional candies in Mexico are based on fruit, coconut, caramel, peanut marzipan, and sugar. OMG. This little store is in a building that they have been in since 1859, and when you go inside the shop, that is exactly where time has stopped. We bought two boxes of sweets for presents, then shamelessly raided them to try a piece of this and that. We were lucky we got them back to Hutualco at all. And if you received one of those boxes, I truly apologize, because it could have been a little fuller, I know.

We found a local wine bar, and hung out there a couple of afternoons, after a strenuous morning of touring, and talked to the young people in the neighborhood, while sipping wines from Mexico and Latin America. We had some great wines, outstanding being a Cab from Casa Madera (up in Baja), and some lovely Malbec from Argentina. Yum. But our true find was Che Genaro’s Argentine Italian Restaurant!. Owned by a former professional soccer player from Monterey, this gem was across the street from our hotel. Genaro greeted Larry and me on our first night there, while waiting for Karen and Ed to show up. We asked to see the wine list, he waved his hand and said red or white, and brought us out a Malbec, that was amazing. Then he plied us with empanadas (we ordered one, got three) , and finally, when we were nearing the end of that bottle, somehow there appeared before us a steak that could feed the neighborhood, and “here try this of wine” (another bottle, this time the Cab ). Fortunately, Karen and Ed showed up just in time, steak still warm, to help us finish it, and quaff that second bottle.

We went back on my birthday, and what a hoot. Got the ubiquitous bottle of wine (fab), and ordered. Karen and I went with chicken, Ed went with the pasta, Larry decided gnocchi (being the semi-vegetarian that he is and he had mentioned it to Genaro on our previous night), we were salivating. Everyone got their plate, Larry included, but in front of him was a side of veal, slow roasted all day, a most amazing dish. Where’s the gnocchi? Larry asks. Genaro, laughed and said, “you didn’t want the gnocchi, this is far better”. It was divine....I know all the nastiness surrounding veal, but OMG. A slip once in a while cannot be a mortal sin, can it? So good.

We really didn’t make a dent in the eating opportunities, and are looking forward to going up again to continue on with our list of places we have to try. The food gods truly blessed this country. ...... Ok, to be continued - just one more blog I swear on this trip...

Mexico City Pt. 1

Larry and I met up with our friends Karen and Ed in Mexico City last week. As anyone who has been listening to my slightly excessive rap .. well none of us had been to Mexico City for about 40 years (give and take). We fell in love with this city all over again. And one of the truisms in life, that I embrace these days, is that it is better to have a reasonable chunk of money to splurge, than staying in the local cheap-ass hotel at $1.25 a night located from my Frommer’s $5 a Day book 40+ years ago. But, oh, Mexico is so exciting, beautiful, crazy, richly historic, and just plain fun!

We stayed in a highly recommended neighborhood The Condesa, near the Zona Rosa, Roma, and Polanco Colonel districts. Where Polanco is the very high end neighborhood (sort of like Rodeo Drive in BH, or anywhere in Las Vegas), to the infamous Zona Rosa, where bohemia Mexico used to flock, each of these neighborhoods have a distinctive character. The devastating earthquake of 1985, sadly killing over 10,000 people, almost completely destroyed the city of Mexico. Many of the wonderful old colonial-era architecture is gone, and the late 19th/early 20th century Diaz-era architecture was almost severly damaged too. I cannot emphasis that from this devastation rose again, like the phoenix, an incomparable city.

The surviving buildings have been lovingly restored. The modern architecture that dots the skyline now is world-class in its originality and beauty. Mexico City has always been blessed with their gardens, and tree-lined streets, so most of the central part of the city is green and still has those colonial rock streets, that were there 40 years ago. We stayed at La Casona (highly recommended), a small hotel that bent over backwards to make sure we had a loving family-like experience. Karen wanted a mojito on our last night (it was a very small bar by the way), and our waiter said they had no mint. Next to our table were two men, and a lovely women (lovely), when the woman came to us and asked what it was we wanted again. Mojito. Turns out she was the hotel manager. She sent someone out for mint, and Karen had her mojito in about 5 minutes. So Mexican.

I can endlessly go on about the archeological museum (a 3-day journey to see everything), the Modern Art Museum with their Frieda's, Tamayo’s, O’Gorman’s, Orozco’s, etc, and the pyramids (Larry climbed the sun pyramid with Ed, Karen and I hung with the vendors that flock to the pyramids), but the true surprise was the National Palace (The White House of Mexico). We went to see the Diego Rivera murals depicting the history of “the struggle” here, and found an exhibition on the history of the revolutions of Mexico, and it’s war with the United States. Our one hour mural field trip turned into a four hour journey through the history of Mexico. The American War (as they refer to it) is a paragraph in our history books (and I know, because I taught history), but it was a revelation to see the photos, read the testaments of participants, and get the Mexican perspective on our role in Mexico. Clearly we were imperialist pigs in this involvement, and from this exhibit you can clearly understand the pride Mexico has for standing up to this invasion, and managing to drive the Americans out. It was pivotal in Mexican history. They had been invaded or taken over so many times, and yet pulled it together once again... Amazing.

But what was also clearly on show here in this exhibit, was how complicated the history of Mexico is. It is a country of revolutions, and most likely will continue to be, as indigenous/poor peoples will, we hope, become included in the conversation that moves this country towards a democracy. We also visited the Basilica de Virgin de Guadalupe, Mexico’s holiest site (think Lourdes, Fatima, etc). I know I am so sacreligious here, but I truly believe there is not a village in Oaxaca, that the Virgin hasn’t appeared, more on that later), but the vibes from this site, viewing the robe attributed to Juan Diego (the young Indian youth to whom the Virgin appeared), the new Basilica, and the old cathedral, well, you know you are in a very holy place. Very moving, the whole experience. We even got to check out the Pope mobile that is parked on the plaza next to the church.

to be continued...