Monday, August 31, 2009

Working. Out. (Richmond, VA)

First day at work. I've been out of the office since late June. I left a message on my answering machine saying I wouldn't be back until September. Twenty-some people left me about 36 messages. That's not too bad. Not compared to over 1,600 e-mails that I have to plow through.

No time to plow or even to return calls. Lots of meetings. A new phone system to get used to. Computer doesn't want to cooperate. People are calling, more meetings are being scheduled, my desk is a mound of papers. I'm making copies for a presentation I have to give twice on Wednesday. Running back and forth, forth and back. Greeting people who come into the office, colleagues, friends, acquaintances.

This year I've vowed to drink lots of water, to eat lunch every day, and to leave work when I'm supposed to. I forget to drink. I eat lunch but leave a half hour late. Already an improvement over last year.

Tomorrow and Wednesday I'll be out of the office again, presenting sessions and being present at others. Then back in and back out. My days will get busier and busier. Nights and weekends will fill with meetings, workshops, classes.

I'll soon start feeling exhausted and stressed and as if I were going crazy at times. But I'll never, ever be bored. Every day will be a challenge, each different, some better than others. The time will pass quickly. It will all work out....

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Tall Tale (Richmond, VA)

I joke that I am of average height and that everyone else is tall. But the truth is that I have always felt tall for my height. Except when I'm around other people. And children. I still feel tall when the children are toddlers, though.

In developing nations, at 5'1" I practically tower over others. And I think I'm even taller if we use the metric system, which is probably the reason that this country still refuses to adopt it.

Every once in a while it is brought home to me that I am not as tall a person as I think I am.
Usually, it is when I go to reach something on a supermarket shelf and either have to scale two other shelves to snag the item in question or have to make an offer to a person of higher height that, in exchange for reaching said item, I will happily retrieve an item of equal or lesser value for him/her from the bottom shelf or from the floor.

Sometimes, when I am in a school, surrounded by what appear to be professional basketball players, they turn out to be fourth graders. "Don't they make short children anymore?" I've asked more than once, but nobody has ever responded. Perhaps they couldn't see me.

I have to admit that I was a smallish child. There are pictures of me standing with the neighborhood kids, and I am tiny by comparison. But that's mostly due to the camera angle or because they are all older than me by at least a day or two, and because Asians in the US are, as you know, really, really tall and because my brother had me in a full nelson and I was unable to stand up to my full height.

At about 12 years of age I experienced a major growth spurt and shot up to nearly my current degree of altitude. I could practically look down at my mother, who barely topped five feet. Now, she was a shortie!

For a while there, I was the second tallest person in my little family. My husband, at 6'2", was definitely the tallest. And, until he hit 12, my son was unarguably shorter than I. (Yes, you were, too, R! Don't unargue with me...) But once he turned 12, my son grew not only impatient, but taller. I think he got all his height from me and he even must have gotten some of the height meant for me. But that's genetics for ya!

In the long run, it really doesn't matter much a'tall, does it?

. ..

Friday, August 28, 2009

I Take the Prize (Richmond, VA)

I'm back home for just a few days and already I've won a prize!

Don't get too excited on my behalf. After all, I didn't win the lottery -- or what the Italians refer to as the "Idiot Tax." I was merely the fourth caller to one of our public radio stations, which was thanking contributors to their interminable fundraisers.

What I didn't realize was that they were giving out good prizes, such as meals at restaurants I like or would like to try. Had I just held out a bit longer, I might be telling you about the entertaining play I'd just attended or my delightful dinner at the restaurant I could never afford to visit on my own. Unfortunately, I was the winner of two tickets to an award-winning documentary about the slaughter of dolphins.

After being turned down by the first 16 relatives and friends I asked to accompany me to a film featuring Flipper and friends' finale, I kind of lost the desire to take advantage of my good fortune. Alas, the tickets have expired (along with multiple maritime creatures).

I am hoping that this is just the start of a long run of good luck. Maybe I'll even buy a lottery ticket....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dancing with the Blues (Richmond, VA)

No, I'm not talking about dancing with the police, although I do have a regular salsa buddy who is a former officer. I'm talking about Blues dancing, something I never heard of until last Friday, when I took a lesson -- and put it into practice.

"So, what exactly is this dance form? " the uninitiated (You?) might be asking.

My answer, which is the only one you'll receive here, is that it is three parts swing, one part slink, and some other parts of whatever the heck you want to throw into the mix. The music, especially if you like blues (as I do), is great. My only problem with the dancing is that the most prevalent way to execute it is for the couple to be plastered against each other, which leads to a sense of closeness and intimacy that I just don't want with any man with whom I don't plan to have babies.

A case in point: A late arrival to the session (who'd missed the lesson) was able to manage some of the slinkier movements and then he began to put his own moves on me. Although the results were not what he had in mind, I've got to give him credit for his line(s) , which went something like this:

He: My first ex-wife was a psychologist for (the same school system you work for).

I: What did your second ex-wife do?

He: She was a Harvard-educated professor of Buddhism (at a local university).

I: How about you third ex-wife?

He: That would be you....

No, it wouldn't.

I'm going back to salsa.

Monday, August 17, 2009

First Daze Back (Richmond, VA)

My friend Cheryl will be off to her full time teaching position in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a few days. It's closer than where she spent the last year -- Korea -- but probably just as alien. (My apologies to any Oklahomaker who might be reading this...) Friday night is the goodbye party, and what a party it is!

Cheryl's friends are either contact improvisation dancers, writers, or both. They are artists and/or musicians. A yoga instructor and the esteemed, 90-year-old founder of the university's dance department are also in attendance.

Everyone is a good cook. Someone brought a salad, greens with figs, dotted with with pomegranate seeds. One of the guys baked a peach tart; a sign -- which I choose to ignore -- warns vegetarians that lard is in the crust. Blue corn bread. A huge bowl of blackberries. Figs, fresh from Robbie's garden. Potato salad. A rotisserie chicken, store bought. Crab meat with black beans, green peppers, garlic, onions, and green olives. A salad of tomatoes from somebody's yard, basil-scented, rich with summer. Meltingly warm chocolate-peanut butter cookies.

I am, for some reason unbeknownst even to me, telling the cookie baker about Finland: "World's highest or second highest suicide rate," I tell her. "That's because it's so damned dark most of the year. People are depressed. The men hardly talk. The national dance is the tango. It's the only country in the world where there's a Latin radio station. Latin - a dead language. That's perfect because they're suicidal -- Finnished." I harbor no ill feelings towards Finland or the Finns and am almost sure that some of what I am saying is true.

Male partners in orange shirts and pajama bottoms sit next to each other on the couch, and a female writer who looks familiar (as does almost everyone) watches from a nearby chair. Most of us are dancing in the living room. At one point, Cheryl dons a kimono and dives repeatedly onto one of those huge bouncy-balls favored by Pilates exercisers. A guy in a skirt, a man wearing a cowboy hat, an acquaintance who's a carpenter -- all seem to enter an altered state as they move and groove. We pseudo-tango, belly dance, improvise to the eclectic music selections. Host Robbie, a talented dancer, musician, and more, whips off his shirt, stands at the glass front door, gyrates, and says: "I hope my neighbors are watching!"

Rued Awakening: Homeward Bound

I've spent hours packing my one carry-on suitcase and "handbag" (translation: second suitcase). Weeks ago I sent home a skirt and a top with A. I've used up most of my allowable 3-ounce containers of shampoo, lotions, and miscellaneous liquids and creams. I'm leaving a shirt and a tote bag (along with a tip) for the woman who cleans the room. I should have plenty of room.

After all, I haven't purchased too much: four thin paperback books of cartoons by Alex; a straw mask; two smallish primitive paintings; two ex-votos (one tiny, the other notebook-paper size); four small woven cosmetic bags with floral or geometric designs; a six-strand stone bracelet that's already fallen apart; three bottles of the indispensable Tajin, a mixture of salt, chili, and lime that will last me for a year and that I will sprinkle on virtually everything that's destined for my mouth, from soup to nuts to fruit to ice cream; a small bag of habas enchiladas to munch on the plane, in the airport, or at home (should it last that long). Oh, and there's the book of revolutionary poems that I was given for dancing, to the sounds of a live band, in the plaza in front of a subway station. I'm using every bit of available space to squeeze everything in and, if the bags don't burst, everything will fit.

I try to sleep, but what's the point? I've asked the hotel desk clerk to call a cab and to call me at 3:00 a.m. I'm not sure that he'll do either, so I close my eyes at 1:30 and open them every 15 minutes. I'm not ready to go home but I don't want to miss the plane.

At 3:00 the phone rings. I pop out of bed and answer. No answer.

A quick wash-up. I'm as ready as I'll ever be at such an ungodly, unhumanly hour. I try calling the desk four or five times to get help taking my luggage downstairs, as the hotel elevator hasn't been operating for the last week. No answer, no luck, no dice, no help.

I lug and tug everything down four interminably long flights of stairs. The lobby is deserted, except for the clerk and the taxi driver, who were obviously and obliviously snoozing.

The streets are dark, eerie, and uncharacteristically silent. The cabbie delivers me to the airport quickly and easily.

It is 4:20. My flight leaves at 7:30 am. Even the airline folks are still sleeping. It's too early to do anything else.

I figure that I'd better get something to eat now or I'll have to settle for bags of salty peanuts until I arrive home late this afternoon. I lug and tug my baggage and myself up a flight of stairs to have the worst meal I've not enjoyed since I left the US: tiny cubes of salt, seasoned with freeze-dried potatoes; ice-cold fried eggs; and refried, untried beans on what might pass for a tortilla -- if you are a lover of cardboard with an "off" taste.

On the first leg of my journey home, I am leg to leg with a handsome young man who spends the entire flight picking at his face and neck, staring at the slim or thick pickings, and popping them into his mouth. I am nauseous and look forward to upchucking on him. Unfortunately, I don't.

The flight from Atlanta to Richmond is uneventful by comparison.

Backlog: Last Dance III (Mexico City)

J.C. (not Jesus, but Juan Carlos) is scheduled to pick me up at the hotel at 5:45 p.m. He leaves me a message, confirming that we're on for the evening, but when I call him back, he tells me that there are some complications.

When he shows up at 6 o'something, it's without his car. He needs to stop at the university (where he's getting a Masters degree while teaching economics) to pick up materials for the semester."It won't take too long," he assures me.

We subway to the campus, and it takes a lot longer than either of us expected. By 7:15 or so we've retrieved his car and are heading towards Salon Hidalgo.

We don't arrive for hours, not because the place is far away or difficult to reach, but because Mexico has won a major soccer game against the US and all roads to our destination are blocked by jubilant crowds. Once we're in the neighborhood, we can't find parking, so we end up at a lot near Bellas Artes and ride the metro to Hidalgo. It's after 9pm and Jesus and his friend, with whom I was hoping to dance and to whom I would have liked to have said goodbye, are already gone.

I tell J.C. that he should dance with other women, but he says that he has plenty of nights to do that. The other women are sorely disappointed; this guy, in his 30's, is tall, dark, and gorgeous. He has broad shoulders, a narrow waist, perfect posture, and cheekbones as high as the law allows. He's the best dancer on the floor, and he dances every number with me.

On the way back from the restroom, I'm asked to dance by the "bloodhound." "No, gracias." The guy with no discernible girlfriend approaches. "No, gracias."

Women watch -- I can feel them aiming curses, arrows, daggers, and machetes my way-- as I try to follow J.C.'s smooth, stylish, graceful moves. He's an excellent lead, and I'm feeling pretty accomplished, myself. As I execute (a good word for what I did) a turn, I smack J.C. in the head. Despite my clumsiness and despite his dizziness, he remains gracious and sweet.

By 10:30, the bands have stopped playing, and the waiters have started clearing the tables. The place is clearing out.

J.C. drives me back to my hotel, and we say our farewells with a hug and a peck on the cheek. "See you next year."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Last Dance II (Mexico City)

It's a slow night at the dance hall. Admission is less than $2.00. Soft drinks, bottled water, beer, or hard liquor double the price or more. Two no-name, enthusiastic bands cover songs covered better by others. There's enough room on the floor to move without being stepped on or elbowed often.

As usual, women perch on their seats and wait for someone to ask them to dance. Men peruse the dance floor, stroll past the tables, eyeing us, extending a hand or not. Two strangers ask me to dance. I am lead-footed.

Someone I've danced with sometime ago, but whose name escapes me, leads me out again. He pastes his body against mine and whispers, "I am three months without a girlfriend."

I wish him luck in finding one as I jam my arm between us.

We dance apart, then he grabs me, reels me in, and presses me close. "The song says to hug you tightly."

I push him backwards. "Do you always follow instructions?" I ask.

He laughs and allows the space between us to grow. Then, "Are you alone?"

"I'm waiting for a friend." Honorio is meeting me at 7:45.

"What kind of friend?"

"A good one." I thank him and return to my table.

Honorio enters, wearing a suit. "Take your jacket off," I tell him. It's at least 90 degrees. "It only gets hotter."

We talk a while, in Spanish and in English. Work was fine.... His girlfriend, in France, is coming back to visit in three weeks.... His cousin and he enjoyed our jaunt to Tula.... Pancho's university started up again yesterday; he'll graduate in a year, with a degree in economics and lousy job prospects.... The band that played at a friend's wedding in Teotihuacan was well known and really good. They played all night but Honorio's favorite dance partner had taken lessons and was too good for him....

I'm not.

Honorio is a more accomplished dancer than he'd admitted to being. We move well together, but we won't be tapped for Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance anytime soon. I tell him to find some sweet young things to dance with, but he doesn't. We cumbia until 9:30, then say goodbye until next year.

The mosquitoes that torture me must have taken a vacation, found an easier mark, or be planning something special for my last night in Mexico. I fall asleep watching Desperate Housewives, dubbed in Spanish. For nine hours, I slumber. If I dreamed of dancing, I don't recall a single step.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Last Dance I (Mexico City)

Monday. I walk through my park, a goodbye stroll. I wave to teachers from whom I've taken a lesson or two and to people I've taken lessons with. I find my steady dancing partners: Jose, a narrow curl of a man, bent like elbow macaroni, in his 60's? 70's?, has been a sweet and patient teacher. Alvaro, with his high cheekbones and bulging eyes, is in his 50's or 60's. I think he told me that he makes car loans. He's also a wine connoisseur and, unbelievably, he only started dancing 5 months ago; he's got rhythm and groove in his bones and in his blood. They take turns dancing me to the music of a nearby class. Then we walk over to a union hall, the place to go if it rains or if you just want to dance inside for free.

Along the way I spy a vendor roasting giant camotes (sweet potatoes). Although my stomach is still satisfied with the fish ceviche I'd lunched on three hours ago, my nasal passageways are telegraphing my brain: THERE'S ALWAYS ROOM FOR A CAMOTE!

My friends don't get the telegraph. They escort me quickly past the enticing smell and into the dance space.

I salsa with Alvaro, then with Jose. A friend of theirs, now mine, churns me as if I were Dorothy's house in a Kansas tornado. "You have style," he says.

A dark-skinned man with a scar on his cheek swoops me through turn after turn. He's a strong lead with some original moves, a pleasure to follow. "You dance like a Puerto Rican," he tells me. I take that as a compliment.

Another gent takes my hand and leads me into a salsa. "How have you been?" he asks. "Where is your son?" We took a lesson or two, two years ago in the park, and we've both improved.

I dance, nonstop, until they dim the lights. Then Alvaro and Jose walk me back to the park, where we watch a class kick and slide in the semi-darkness. I mimic the moves a little ways away. A drunk grabs me and slingshots me about. "Gracias," I tell him, backing towards the safety of my guardian-friends, who close ranks to protect me.

Alvaro spins me through a cumbia. Ismael, a 40ish cabbie who stinks of cigarettes but dances devine, catches me up and we twirl. I am a feather in the wind.

"You will teach them something new in Richmond," says Alvaro.

"You can start leading classes in parks in Richmond," says Jose.

"Don't go," says Ismael.

They walk me to my train, but I won't let them go out of their ways to take me to my stop. "We'll miss you. We'll wait for you. We love you," they chime.

"Don't make me cry," I tell them.

My feet hurt and my knee throbs all night long, but I keep dancing in my dreams.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Final Days (Mexico City)

On Thursday I'll be back in the States, so my goal is to pack in everything I want to do into my remaining days in Mexico. These things revolve around saying goodbye to friends, doing some last-minute shopping, dancing (no surprise), and food (no surprisier).

I'll call and, hopefully, see Miriam, Honorio, and Pedro. I'll go with Ingrid to the Sonora (witchcraft) market, and chat with her whenever we cross paths at our hotel.

I promised A. I'd pick up some tiny tiles (azulejos) for her at the Ciudadela Market. From a new shop that opened around the block from my hotel, I'll buy a small woven bag that I can tuck money, ID, and lipstick into and wear while dancing and, perhaps, some additional doos and dads. I want to purchase some CDs from a guy in the stand down the street that I can salsa, cumbia, and meringue to when I'm back at home.

On Monday and Tuesday, I'll stop by my park and take a dance lesson. I'll salsa with Alvaro, Jose, and Ismael for the last time in 2009. Juan Carlos will pick me up on Wednesday at 5:45, and we'll go to Salon Hidalgo. We'll meet Jesus and one of his pals, and among the three of them, I hope to dance my heart out and my feet off.

I'm going to hit my favorite food stands and get my fill of flor de calabaza, huitlacoche, quesadillas, vegetable tortas (think potato pancakes with cheese, but exchange the potatoes for cauliflower or broccoli), nopales, rotisserie chicken, mangos, and chilis rellenos. Grilled corn on the cob with chili, lime, and salt. Ice cream: tropical-fruit flavored or chocolate with nuts or (why not?) both. Salty, spicy snack foods. I might even indulge in some churros and thick, rich, Spanish-style hot chocolate. All this might very well undo my dance-induced weight loss, but what the heck? Mexican food in the States just doesn't taste this good.

The next four days must serve to reinforce the last six weeks, fixing them in my heart and mind, sustaining me until I return next summer.

Home Again (Mexico City)

I am glad to be back in the D.F. (a.k.a. Distrito Federal or Mexico City). Back to the crush of people, the snarls of traffic, the beggars' entreaties, the symphonic cacophony, the sweaty, bustling, sooty beauty of it all.

Here is where I can be alone, and even lonely, among thousands but where I can get my ego stroked simply by asking directions. "Turn right, then left at the next corner, Beautiful," the policeman will say.

Here is where the bright-yellow-suited mambo man, his head cloaked in black cloth and crowned with a jaunty top-hat, his hands black-gloved, turns on his boom box and turns the pedestrian street into his stage. His spats-clad feet glide and slide across the pavement as he moonwalks, cakewalks, sleepwalks -- smooth, sleek, silent. Around a tree and to the beat he chases little children, who scream in terror and elation. He dance-flirts, shaking his ass suggestively at a handsome young couple. He moves, all slink and sex, toward the woman, then embraces and bends the man backward -- to the crowd's shocked delight. When I add my pesos to his dish, he, now sitting, shakes my hand, then tugs me toward his lap. "Oh!" escapes me, surprised and embarrassed.

Here is where I can find, on the street or in a bus station, tamales wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks, stuffed with chicken and mole, with strips of green pepper, with cheese, with raisins and almonds and with God knows what else -- but it all tastes so explosively fabulous! And I can wash them down with guzzles of atole, a corn drink flavored with fruit or chocolate.

Here is where my favorite waitress tells me to eat some of my fruit salad, so the boss won't yell at her for giving me extra, and where the hotel maid hugs me warmly each time I see her.

Here is where what I call the gypsy musicians play 40's Cuban ballads on the steps of Waldo's (translation: The Dollar Store). The pirate-guitarist flicks, strokes, and strums; his brother coaxes the drum; the main singer silkens the air. Only the dogs and the very young hustle by without hearing, slowing, stopping, or listening. The rest of us can't help ourselves. Couples pause, embrace, pour into each others' eyes. Men lean against walls, their faces slack and dreamy. Women stand motionless, mouths ajar, tongues licking lips without even realizing, eyes half-closed, hearts pulsing, heating, throbbing to the beat of the music. We are all in love.

Friday, August 7, 2009

True Confessions (San Miguel de Allende)

I don't want to offend anyone, however, sometimes I can't help but do so. And the truth is, I really didn`t like San Miguel de Allende. Yes, it's picturesque. Yes, the people are lovely. Yes, it's got lots of art galleries, festivals, and culture. But it feels more like the States than like Mexico, which is probably exactly why there are so many gringos there.

You can eat Indian, Thai, sushi, or chi-chi. You can pay more and receive less than you would anywhere else I've been in Mexico, and you might, as one American couple told me, still consider things to be inexpensive. And that's no doubt part of the appeal for expatriates and travellers.

Granted, I didn't get too far away from the historic downtown area, where visitors are most likely to congregate. But so many of the conversations I overheard were in English, so many of the signs and menus and everything else were in English, that I felt linguistically disoriented.

Granted, I only spoke English with two United Statesians who have a house there. I spoke Spanish with the vacationing interior designer from Los Angelos, who was so smitten with San Miguel that she didn't want to leave. I confess to misleading an older gentleman (from somewhere smack dab in the middle of the mid-West) into thinking that I was from a Spanish-speaking country, although I never said that I was. In valiant, broken Spanish, he informed me that he had always loved to dance; he proved it by being quite the salsero. I spoke in Spanish, too, with the formerly-from-Pennsylvania, married-to-a-Mexican owner of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where I took a free salsa-bachata-rumba-meringue-swing lesson with Ivan (of eyes like a doe's, with lashes that mascara would give its wand for, and of a skinniness that a not-so-gusty gust of wind would send spiralling into the great beyond).

Some nice things happened. I was flattered that a dance partner who turned out to be an artist said he'd like to paint me, but not flattered (or dumb) enough to go to his apartment to view his work. I liked my $2.00 breakfast before I left town: yogurt, honey, and granola atop a fresh fruit salad (an apple, a banana, 1/2 mango, a guava, 1/8 cantaloupe, and a stomach pump, if you please). I enjoyed speaking French during the 3.5-hour bus ride back to Mexico City with a charming (French) ex-pat artist and got to view his impressive oeuvre online. But I still am not a fan of San Miguel de Allende.

Okay, I was only there for two nights. Maybe I didn't give it a fair shot. With time, I'd probably discover some neighborhood joints that are more cheap than hip, appreciate the foreign influences, and uncover the hidden Mexicanishness of San Miguel. But there are so many other places to go in Mexico, that sound and feel like Mexico, that I don't really think I'll be back. Unless someone buys me a plane ticket, rents me a house, and pays for my food and entertainment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Eating It Up in Queretero

My second day in Queretero, a city of about a million souls. The historic city center is small and beautiful, designated a world heritage site by whomever does that (UNESCO?).

Yesterday, my guide was the friend at whose house I'm staying. Alex is an artist (graphic designer, cartoonist, painter, sculptor) who walked me around the entire historic district as we searched for galleries, churches -- anything open on a Monday. We did get to see a really bloody Christ and lots of statues of the Virgin Mary in the two churches that were accessible. We also took a self-guided tour of the building where a new gallery has opened. Unfortunately, they were between exhibits, so I could only envision what a nice house it would make...
We walk through several beautiful green spaces, one reminiscent of Parque Guell, Antonio Gaudi's colorful, tile-studded park in Barcelona. And we snap photos of the symbol of Queretero, the 4,199-foot-long, pink sandstone aqueduct that brochures and guidebook state was built in the 1700's to remedy the problem of scarce, potable water.
I, however, prefer Alex's version of the story, in which the Marquis de la Villa de Villar del Aguila built the aqueduct (the 18th century equivalent of a billboard?) as proof of his love for a beautiful, young nun. Whether his love was requited or un-, we'll never quite know, but a statue to the Marquis shows him to have been quite an attractive and dapper dude. And, no doubt, he had more enticements and inducements (i.e., money) under his sleeve, in his pocket, or within his pantaloons....
One of the day's highlights was lunch in a tiny (5-table), charming restaurant with yellow, rag-washed walls, blue-painted lintels, and original art. Restaurante Antigua Cocina Mexicana was jammed. As we waited for a table, the waiter informed us that one of the two entrees being offered had just sold out; no more chiles stuffed with guacamole, which was exactly what I had my eye on and exactly what I would not get a chance to have my mouth on. I don't eat pork, the other white meat and the other entree, but the smells were grabbing me by the nostrils and pulling me inside. Plus, it was nearly 3pm and my morning tamales had already worn off. The waiter ran back into the kitchen and said that there was one more chile, which he promised to save for me. (Alex had said that he'd go to the store and buy one, if necessary!)

The restaurant serves only a comida corrida, i.e., a prix-fixe menu of the day. There are fewer choices than in other restaurants I've been to, but the food's the best I've savored in Mexico. For 35 pesos (less than 3 bucks), you get soup (Monday's was a clear, delicate broth, with chunks of squash), your entree with flavorful rice, a salad of lettuce and tomato in a tasty vinaigrette, and dessert (flan -- a rich egg custard). The place is only open for lunch, but they serve breads and other baked goods out of the doorway in the evening, and you can eat their tasty cheese stuffed, onion, and garlic rolls (about 30 cents each) with lunch. Corn tortillas are included in the price of your meal, along with agua or fruit water, this time tuna (not fish, but a green oval fruit that I hate to eat because it contains more seeds than flesh).
Tuesday morning Alex and I breakfast in another lovely restaurant. We both order huevos divorciados (two eggs fried sunny-side up, one bathed in red salsa, the other in green, sitting atop fried tortillas and separated by a line of refried beans). I eat fresh fruit (papaya, melon, and pineapple), he drinks orange juice, we both order coffee. Coffee comes with a choice of powdered or liquid cream substitutes, chock full of artificial flavorings and hydrogenated oils. But who can complain? Breakfast costs less than $3.50 each.
I spend the day wandering into churches, the old theater, the regional museum, and hotels that were former homes of distinguished Queretero residents. The art museum, housed in what used to be a cloister, boasts fanciful columns adorned with half-naked, flute-playing men. Exhibits include the requisite religious-themed sculptures and paintings, but what catches my plain and my fancy are the large paintings of semi-squashed insects (I loved the mosquitoes!) and the photographs of dead ducks, pheasants, and other birds.
Alex is meeting me for lunch at the same place we ate at yesterday. We'd agreed to arrive early in order to be sure the restaurant doesn't sell out the entree we want. Problem is, I can't find the restaurant. Alex drew me a very detailed map (but without noting the street name), and I am hopelessly lost, proving that I have a problem with details and/or that I can't read maps and/or that I can't count to three (the number of blocks the Restaurante Cocina Antigua Mexicana lies from the art museum).
ve been searching for the place for about 20 minutes and it's almost 2pm. I ask directions of various people, none of whom know the restaurant but all of whom helpfully send me back- and forward-tracking around the neighborhood, without success. Eventually, an older woman says that she'll help me find the restaurant.
As we walk around the block together, she quizzes me. "Are you meeting a friend?" "Male or female?" "Mexican or American?" "I might know him. What's his name?" Luckily, I recognize the doorway of the restaurant, so I don't have to provide Alex's shoe size, IQ, or blood pressure reading -- none of which I know.
I'm the first person to arrive, but Alex pulls up on his bicycle shortly thereafter. We both choose the chicken entree, which tastes like a wonderful Oaxacan mole, but which the waiter says is a recipe from northern Mexico. The salad is loaded with nopales (cactus paddles), the rice boasts peas and carrots. We sop up juices and dressings with tortillas and rolls. We drink down a huge pitcher of mango agua. Dessert is bananas in a caramel-tasting cream. The food is so good that we are tempted to lick our plates, the pots and pans, the kitchen counters, and the cook. I want to live in Queretero, so I can eat here every day!
After lunch, we check to see if the spectacularly Baroque Santa Rosa de Virterbo church is open, but can only admire its fanciful Spanish and Moorish-style exterior. We walk back to Alex's house, hoping to nap before our respective evening activities.
Alex is meeting a group of artists to discuss an interactive show they'll be putting on in September. I'm meeting another Alex (I highly recommend this way of choosing friends; if they all have the same name, you don't get too confused) for coffee and then we'll see a movie at the museum where Alex 1 will be. Another lovely day....

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Daytripping (Tula)

Honorio and his cousin, Francisco (a.k.a. Pancho), pick me up at the hotel at 9am sharp, and we're off to visit the ruins of Tula. It's about 90 miles away, and we should make good time at this hour of the day.

According to my guidebook, the town has little to recommend it (unless you're a fan of peace and quiet), but the archaeological site is one of the most important in Mesoamerica. Demonstrating influences of other major sites in its ceramics and pottery shards, architecture, and sculptures, through conquests and trade, Tula linked Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, and other places of note in the PreColombian world.

The on-site museum exhibits a chacmool (reclining figure carved in stone and used for sacrifices), ceramics, and other artifacts, some of which retain their original colors. The most impressive sights at this site are the huge, stone Atlantes figures, with their loincloths, breastplates, and feathered headdresses, made by the Toltecs, and standing atop one of the pyramids. We scramble up narrow steps to snap photos and to admire the sculptures and the view. We wander about the two ball courts and a couple other pyramids and building foundations. Some walls display repeating, incised geometric designs, jaguars, and more. We've arrived before the crowds and depart before the heat becomes oppressive.

Honorio decides that we'll return to Mexico City via a shortcut -- along a newly constructed highway. Because of my wild ride on a "shortcut" in Oaxaca, I get a bad feeling about his plan, but who am I to argue?

Two ominous signs indicate that we might have a problem: We are the only travellers in either direction, and a bird crashes into and bounces off our windshield. However, we practically fly along, making excellent time.

The road ends suddenly, and we are redirected through the arid, cactus-strewn landscape and the dusty streets of small towns. The shortcut has become a longcut. Honorio vows never to use this highway again. I vow to argue whenever I hear the word "shortcut." We spend at least an extra hour and a half reaching our lunch destination of Pachuca.

Once there, we stop at a roadside restaurant and eat flaky pastries, called pastes (pronounced pas-tays), that are typical of the region. Imagine an apple turnover, but scrap the apples and insert savory or sweet fillings, such as pork or pineapple. I order one paste with cheese and mushrooms and another with chicken in green mole. Both are delicious.

We get back on the road and swiftly make our way back to Mexico City. The traffic, once we reach the city limits, is atrocious and it takes forever (translation: a really long time) to get back to my hotel. As Honorio commented on our way to Tula, "It's a good thing that not everybody has a car."

I go to bed tired and early but spend most of the night battling mosquitoes. Tomorrow, I'll be on the road again. No shortcuts, though.