Thursday, September 8, 2011

Acts of Nature (Richmond, VA)

Mother Nature is showing her feisty side.

I'm tinkering in the kitchen when the whole house starts shaking. I assume that it's some idiot blasting his bass as he drives by, but the walls are wobbling more and longer than usual. My son must be moving furniture in his room!

In my most loving mommy voice, I call up the stairs, "What the HELL are you doing?!!!"

He yells back, in his speak-slowly-to-the-idiot voice: "It's an earthquake, Mom!"

No damage done here, although the 5.9er was felt from its epicenter -- about 20 miles away -- up through New England. Apparently, buildings were evacuated all over town and the East Coast. Reminds me of what my friend Ingrid said when we were talking about the huge and terrible 1985 quake that wreaked havoc on Mexico City. Seems that the only person who got hurt at the downtown hotel where we stay was a receptionist who ran out into the street and got hit in the head by falling pieces of buildings.

Less than a week after Big Momma Nature makes the earth move, she winds up the wind. Hurricane Irene pays us a little visit, downing power lines and turning out the lights for thousands. Leaves are stripped from branches, branches are torn from trees, and trees are toppled over fences, roofs, and streets. Rain pours down in sheets and blankets. Here on the hilltop where I reside, the winds whip and howl. My house's siding, as well as its fronting and its backing, take flight.

Unlike so many others, we remain powerful. I'm on line for hours, chatting with Facebook friends, neighbors, and relatives. We check up on and update each other as events unfold.

I recount our recent natural disasters to a Mexico-City friend, who says they had a quake there, too.

"When? I ask.

"Always," he answers.

As I have suffered no severe repercussions from Mother Nature's wrath and as I am blissfully unaware of the extent of power outages, tree downages, and home wreckages in the area, I am miffed that a monthly salsa dance has been canceled. I do understand the concern for safety behind the Dance Space's owners' actions, so my miffiness is somewhat tempered. I am hell-bent, however, on taking tomorrow morning's Zumba class; and Hell, bent or otherwise, has no fury like a woman who doesn't get her Zumba fix.

The gym is open on Sunday morning. While our regular instructor, Debra, saws her way through fallen boughs to reach us, a fellow Zumbista leads the first half of our session. Ryan's mock boxing moves precede Debra's belly dancing workout. I finish the class drenched and exhausted and relatively devitalized.

I spend the rest of the day visiting friends. In the front and back of my mind, I am thanking Mommy Nature that she didn't beat us to a pulp.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Adios, amigos! (Mexico City, Mexico)

Final days in Mexico, 2011.

Adios to the construction workers whose table I join, in order to enjoy my final servings of barbacoa. One man wants me to adopt him. One pays for my breakfast. All wish me safe travels and a quick return to Mexico City. May you always find yourselves among friends!

Adios to my taco, sweet potato, and fruit vendors, to my favorite waitress, to my best chicken roaster, to the cooks and servers in my greasy-spoon holes in the wall, and to my least favorite restaurant owner. To the staff and guests of my D.F. hotel, to the workers in the internet cafes, the gum salesman, the hawkers in the subway, the shop clerks who sell me my spicy snack foods, and the used-book sellers, whose wares I peruse more often than buy. To the museum guards, the street musicians, the human statues, adios!

Adios to eating creatures with a face and four legs! Back to birds, fish, seafood, and a (principally) plant-based diet.

Adios to Ingrid, with whom I've shared visits to museums; coffee, ice cream and frozen yogurt shops; crafts markets; stores selling beads/jewelry, shoes, gourmet foods, and stationery; restaurants, churches, and all over town. We've shared stories and laughter to sustain us until (hopefully) we see each other next July in D.F. May you travel home and back safely, meine Freundin.

Adios to the much-too-little black dress and the other clothes that I leave behind. May others enjoy you!

Adios to the ten pounds that have left me without any effort on my part. May you never return!!!

Adios to all of my salsa, cumbia, and son cubano partners, from dance halls, clubs, and public parks. To those who've showed me patience and new steps, to those who've stoked my ego and those who've made me laugh and to all who have given me so much fodder for thought and for blogging. May you always step lightly, lively, and lovely!

Adios to all my Mexico-friends, old and new, Mexican, gringo, and others. Thank you for your hospitality and warmth, for showing me around, for inviting me in and out. I will miss you and hope to see you all again, in Mexico and/or the USA. Mi casa es su casa.

Adios to a country that continues to challenge, enchant, delight, and thrill me, to capture my heart and my imagination. I've immersed myself in the richness of your language, food, music, dance, art, and crafts. I have explored just a fraction of your natural and man-made beauty and look forward to digging deeper and to seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, doing, and learning more. Until next year? Now and forever: Viva Mexico!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vegetating (Mexico City, Mexico)

August 8, 2011

I've heard mixed reviews about this place, but my body is demanding that I atone for my recent spate of meat-eating madness. So here I am, lunching at the vegetarian restaurant on Molina.

The salad bar boasts fresh greens and beautiful, ripe, red tomatoes; slices of cucumber; alfalfa sprouts and pea shoots; yellow squash and zucchini slivers with onion, tomatoes, and grated cheese; amaranth and granola for sprinkling. The vegetables are all raw and refreshing.

I take the recommendation of the waiter and order the cream of celery soup. It doesn't sound all that interesting but turns out to be light and pleasant. I take the recommendation of the pigeons hopping off the balcony railing and onto the table where a couple has left some of their bread, and I nibble on a whole-grain roll that's big enough to feed two humans and three pigeons.

A pastate de zanahoria, a block of shredded carrots bound together in a creamy souffle, follows. It is my favorite part of the meal. My main dish is two huge soy meatless balls, bathed in a pool of thin tomato sauce.

I return to the salad bar for a dessert of fresh chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe, and papaya. I've already downed practically a full carafe of watermelon water. I am happy. And no animals have been sacrificed on my behalf.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Full Day (Mexico City, Mexico)

Carol and I breakfast at Cafe Rex. She can't eat the soup; she's allergic to seafood, and nobody is sure that leftover paella hasn't been added to the mix. With or without consomme, our morning repast is hearty enough to sustain us throughout a very busy day -- Carol's last in D.F.

We start out by elevating up to almost the top floor of the Torre Latino, where we are treated to an assortment of (glass-enclosed but live) tarantulas and carnivorous plants. Despite the fascination and icky factor inherent in such flora and fauna, the main draw behind our attempt to overcome our fears of height is the 360-degree view of Mexico City and beyond. With some trepidation, we look out at the landscape, noting volcanoes, government and religious buildings, the sports stadium, airport, and lake -- a fantastic panorama which the clear, beautiful day has revealed. I am able to take in the breathtaking views without plastering myself against the interior walls; perhaps I've overcome my phobia, but I'm afraid to find out for sure.

Next stop: the Museo of Artes Populares, one of my favorite museums since my first visit there, not long after its opening. The temporary exhibit of mini-train cars, each one showcasing an important event in Mexican history, is evidence of the incredible talent, imagination, and skill that endear this museum to me. Pancho Villa, Father Hidalgo, Porfirio Diaz, and other people, as well as horses and dogs, are rendered as skeletons in different media: sheet metal, ceramic, tile, papier mache, and more. I love this museum for its stellar examples of Mexican folkloric arts and crafts, from the cigar-smoking skeleton-granny to the fabulous pottery, dolls, miniature instruments, papel amato, and textiles. We spend lots of time oohing and aahing in the galleries, as well as in the on-site gift shop.

Walking along Reforma, taking in the strollers, cyclists, and vendors, we buildup a little bit of an appetite for food that has no nutritional value and will probably precipitate our deaths. I've talked up Mexican junk food enough to entice Carol into buying us a bag of doughy rounds, to which the friendly seller adds chili, lime juice, and salt. Carol finds the orangey circles disgusting, and I am inclined to agree with her assessment that they resemble Styrofoam, in both taste and appearance. (Carol actually compares them to "plasticine" or "Pleistocene" or some other South African term I've never heard of but have taken the liberty of translating into something I can understand. But she also could have meant some kind of Ice Age icky stuff. But you'll just have to take my word -- i.e., Styrofoam -- for it.) She then buys a compensatory bag of chili-coated "crisps" (American-English translation: potato chips), which she finds equally revolting. I eat some of them -- they're salty and spicy and more reminiscent of cardboard than of Styrofoam -- before throwing away the soggy and truly horrible orange thingies and offering the remaining chips to a grateful old man. Carol will never trust my food recommendations again and is probably relieved and eager to be leaving for Acapulco tomorrow.

We're not done yet, however, with our whirlwind tour of some of Mexico City's treasures. At the Palacio de Bellas Artes, we view the magnificent art deco building and its impressive murals by Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, as well as items from the permanent collection. Sculpture, paintings, and photography by some of the most renowned artists from around the world, including Picasso, Louise Nevelson, Dali, and Miro, are on display.

Carol, tired and needing to pack, returns to the hotel. I metro on to Parque de la Ciudadela, for an afternoon of dancing. But first, I stop off in the ladies' room, where my new purple bracelet sails off my wrist and straight into the toilet. I fish it out. Luckily, I'm packing both soap leaves and antibacterial liquid, which I apply liberally to bracelet, arm, and hand.

I'm actually too beat to dance much. Ismael swings me around a bit and an elderly man twirls me with skill and enthusiasm, but my feet hurt, and my left shoe is falling apart. I'm just not up for the challenges my partners present. Instead,I roam around the park, listening to singers interpreting romantic ballads, watching dance lessons, and admiring skilled dance partners as they practice complex patterns. Someone I don't recognize calls out my name.

In the mood for roast chicken, I swing by the 5th de febrero rotisserie. Unfortunately, it's closed. I find a holier than hole in the wall, enter, and -- who would imagine this? -- hit my head on the door frame when I go to wash up. (Being of average height has its downside and dangers.)

I order a taco al pastor and one of cochinita pibil from the tiny taco place (21 pesos for 3). Although they don't help my head, they satisfy my stomach. I get my just desserts at a nearby bakery: a cashew pastry that is crumbly and not too sweet, but absolutely addictive.

When I arrive back at the hotel, Carol is sitting in the lobby. She has a bag for me with "washing powder" (translation: detergent). She's already gifted me a South African woman's magazine, which she says she buys only for the crossword puzzles (which have another name in South Africanish), and a book that looks intriguing, as well as a bunch of cranberry Slim Slabs, which she says are delicious and will give me a jolt of energy. It's unlikely that I will see Carol again -- given the cost of and time involved with travel to and from South Africa -- and I will miss her. I don't give her anything, but I think she'll remember me whenever she comes across packing peanuts or glaciers.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Revenge of the Animals (Mexico City, Mexico)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What is going on with me?

Simple answer: Mexico is a difficult place in which to be a pseudo-vegetarian. I've given up and in.

I join the crowd sitting at tables set up in front of a doorway on Calle Regina. This morning's breakfast is a savory consomme with chickpeas and rice and a tasty taco of barbacoa (sheep or mutton!), to which I add cilantro, salsa, raw onions, pickled yellow and green peppes, and lime juice. No coffee here, so I take several giant steps to the Cafe Emir (on the corner of Isabel la Catolica and Regina). I don't know what possesses me to order a medium-strength coffee. I need diesel to fortify me for the day ahead.

After spending several hours on the Internet, I stroll over to Celaya, Mexico City's most famous candy store (according to the guide books). There are lots of intriguing sweets, but WHERE'S THE CHOCOLATE???? I run into fellow United Statian and hotel mate Jim, who buys a bag of what little chocolate items they sell. The verdict is "thumbs down," so we look for and find another sweets shop. Alas, although they carry a wider selection of chocolates, they all look ancient and unappealing. We resolve to get the scoop on the city's source from Ingrid, who's been coming here since the early 80's and will surely know where to direct us.

We walk through the Zocalo, where we split paths. I wander into the maze of streets surrounding the market near this historic central plaza. Thousands of vendors tout their wares, yelling the virtues of what they're selling to lure in us passersby. Thousands of us plow through the crowded streets and through piles of clothing, toys, pocketbooks, perfumes, and other merchandise. I am tempted by some fabulous little hat-hair pins, decorated in feathers and sequins. And the scarves. And the food. I resist everything but the candies, buying one block of amaranth studded with raisins and pumpkin and sesame seeds, another of peanuts united by honey or another sweetener, and a disc of caramelized nuts (3 for 10 pesos). No, they're not chocolate, but they will satisfy my sweet teeth.

I practically trip over the Museum of Jose Luis Cuevas (Academia 13, Centro Histórico). Cuevas' art is the stuff of dark thoughts and nightmares. He depicts people as deformed and monstruous. Lucky for me, there's a concert of sacred music taking place here, so I am serenaded by ethereal voices as I roam through the exhibitions. I develop a crush on the male soloist, a tenor. The crush fades whenever he stops singing.

Continuing my meat-marathon, I lunch on pork, Yucatan style -- a juicy taco of cochinita pibil (Here's a recipe, if you want to try it at home:
I must confess that I am enjoying my carnivorousness, but -- animals can heave a sigh of relief! -- I don't intend to keep eating this way when back in the States.

Back at the hotel, I prepare for an afternoon of dancing in the park. Gerardo is going to accompany me. He'll take salsa lessons, while I dance to son cubano.
I'm running late due to my unexpected foray into the museum, but I wouldn't keep my friend waiting had I not inserted a contact lens into my eye with a finger that still held traces of lunch's chili peppers. Ouch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think the animals I've eaten have taken their revenge.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Full Day (Mexico City, Mexico)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Ingrid and I visit what promises to be one dud of a museum. We are pleasantly surprised by the Museo del Calzado El Borcegui -- the Shoe Museum (Bolivar 27, first floor, betwen Madero and 16 de septiembre). Not that we don't like shoes. Au contraire; I think shoe-love is in our genes. But we are charmed by much of the footware on display.

Fifteen thousand miniature shoes, made of materials as diverse as glass, porcelain, plastic, wood, ceramic, and animal hide, are delightful to see, but they are not what set our hearts a-pounding. There are 2,000 pairs of shoes on view -- Eat your heart out, Imelda Marcos! -- and, although the exhibits of sports shoes and astronaut's boots are nice, what interest us more are the shoes from different ages and from around the world (those itsy-bitsy foot-scrunchers from China, sandals from Mexico, high-walkers from Japan). Even better are the absolutely gorgeous 20th- Century shoes, many manufactured and designed in Switzerland (I didn´t realize they had a shoe industry there), Mexico, and Spain, which boast real leather and suede and brilliant details and fine workmanship from heel to toe. Luckily, the shoes are shielded behind glass showcases, because we might have slobbered all over them had we been able to examine them more closely and actually (Ooooh, the thought of it!) caress them.

At the Ciudadela this afternoon, a dance instructor and I discuss relationships. He is recovering from his fourth failed marriage and has sworn off serious entanglements. Probably a good idea.

The man who runs the weekly dances here has embarrassed me by calling out my name so many times that practically everyone knows who I am. People I don't recognize greet me as if I were their long-lost gringa. I dance with new and familiar young and old partners, including a former boxer-turned-professional-dancer, a fragile-looking elderly gent whose style and stamina astound, and a gum-chewing, dyed-blond wrestler-type, who laments that he hadn't met me earlier. As I leave the park, I receive one of the nicest compliments ever. "Traes tu luz," says a man with whom I've only danced once, and badly. "You bring your light."

It's still light out when Ingrid, Carol, and I set out for a farewell dinner. Carol is leaving shortly for Acapulco, after which she'll return to South Africa. We are dining at Cafe Tacuba, a "real" restaurant, about 40 notches and three stars above my usual eating establishments.

We begin the meal with a basket of good bread and -- something I haven't seen in my entire stay in Mexico, and rarely use at home -- butter. Carol treats us to a bottle of good red wine and, as we are serenaded by the talented resident musicians, we each offer a toast: "To our friendship!" "To our meeting again!" "To Mexico!" The combination of music, bread, and wine is... intoxicating. Or maybe it's just me, a.k.a. a cheap drunk.

Tonight we are determined to feast on Chiles en nogada (a seasonal specialty from Puebla), which comprises a mixture of ground beef, dried fruits, and pinenuts, stuffed into a large, mild green pepper, bathed in a creamy sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Interestingly, none of us are meat eaters: Carol eats poultry but not beef, lamb, or fish; Ingrid´s a full-blown vegetarian at home in Germany; and I'm a pseudo-vegetarian, eating poultry, fish and seafood but no red or the "other" white meat (i.e., pork).

Carol and I are a bit squeamish about the idea of eating an entire serving of beef, so we agree to split the Chiles en nogada with an order of chicken in mole poblano (the rich, dark sauce, also originating in Puebla, that contains chocolate and numerous other ingredients). After mopping up the sauces with warm, handmade corn tortillas, I am as full as my day has been.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dancing It Off, Eating It Up, Drinking It In, Wrapping It up, and Mixing It Up (Mexico City, Mexico)

Back in Mexico City. Highlights (Through August 4th):

Dancing It Off
My clothes are baggy. That's because I've been dancing at the following locations:
At the Park La Ciudadela
Ismael teaches me new moves.
Ricardo (a.k.a. Steven Segal, Jr.) makes me look like I know what I'm doing.
A dance instructor asks if I have a background in ballet. I do. As a little girl, I took years of lessons. Lacking rhythm, talent, grace, coordination, and ability, I never moved on to toe shoes. Although I did look rather fetching in the red tutu my grandmother sewed for me, the clothes never did make me a ballerina. My mom would be so proud of me now! Or, perhaps, the instructor was being sarcastic....

At Salon Hidalgo
My lovely buddy, Martin, dances well, even as he recuperates from a devastating elevator accident in which both feet were crushed and broken in multiple places. He tells me that I dance with sabor (flavor) and better than most. I love a good liar, don't you?

At Salon de Convenciones
Some excellent dancers are spinning me around the floor these days, among them, a heavily tattooed guy; a tall dance instructor with indigenous features who tells me I have "ability"; and a huge, overweight guy whose feet seem to be attached to springs.

At the PRI's Headquarters
New friend and good sport Gerardo accompanies me to a dance at the PRI (a political party) headquarters, although he's neither a dancer nor a party member. At 43, he is, however, the youngest person present.

Eating It Up

I continue to indulge in and relish the cultural richness of this city. Along with Ingrid, I revisit the Diego Rivera Mural Museum (http://www.museomuraldiegorivera. "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central" is a dream of a mural, featuring people from Rivera's life, archetypes of Mexican culture, and famous personages from Mexico's history in Diego's provocative and inimitable style.

Museo de las Intervenciones (
Ingrid and I tour the former convent for the first time. This museum offers a history of foreign powers' interventions in Mexico. The gardens are gorgeous, the photos on exhibit are both familiar (if you've spent any time in Mexico) and memorable.

My friendly neighborhood vendor sells me delicious potato and cheese tacos de canasta. When he asks if I'd like another, I tell him I would love one but I'm hoping my weight will go down rather than up, something that won't happen if I indulge in an extra serving. "With all due respect," he says, "you are very beautiful." A great way to start the morning, eh?

I eat chicken with a fabulous peanut sauce one day and with an incredible green mole sauce another in one of my greasy-spoon holes in the wall.

The tiny hotel porter asks me when I'm going home, then requests that I send him a postcard and a photograph.

The sleazy owner of Cafe Rex greets me and doesn't say or do anything obnoxious. What's going on? Possible explanations include, but are not limited to, the following:
1) He finally got the message that his attentions are unwanted.
2) Someone told him he was chasing away female customers.
3) Someone told his wife about his (failed) attempts at womanizing.
4) Someone cut off his...attempts.
5) His wife is now working at the restaurant.

Drinking It In
Ingrid, Carol (a South African psychoanalyst, in town for a conference), and I meet each night at "our" table in the hotel lobby. One of them brings a bottle of red wine, one of us secures glasses from the hotel restaurant, one of us brings something to nosh (Japanese-style peanuts, peanuts with garlic and chili, etc.), and we all drink and chat for a few hours before bed. We discuss opening frozen yogurt shops in our respective countries to sell the horchata-flavored frozen yogurt we've become addicted to. We talk about what we've done all day, compare our home lives and our lives here in Mexico, and they good naturedly blame me, as the sole representative of the USA, for all that is wrong with the world. We do this all in three different brands of English (Ingrid's is British), which often sets us off into spasms, hoots, and howls of laughter.

Occasionally, Jim from China by way of Virginia, joins us. He teaches and tests English-as-a-Second-Language students, translates and edits, and is writing a novel. He tells me that the owner of Cafe Rex stares at him incessantly when he stops in; perhaps the sleaze has found a new love interest and that is why he no longer bothers me. (Thanks, Jim!) Jim accompanied Ingrid on a tour to hear ghost stories and legends. During the tour, his mother called from the US, to tell him that she'd just seen a TV news program showing how dangererous Mexico City is. I don't think she felt at al lreassured when her son told her that he was, at that moment, in a cemetery.

Wrapping It Up
I go shopping with my friends. My budget is so limited that I look and touch more than I buy. But I do pick up some cute bracelets and the figure of a woman/flying insect at La Ciudadela's wonderful crafts market.

Because my woman-insect is fragile, so Ingrid brings down some bubble wrap and tape one evening. While we're talking, I only burst 12 of the little bubbles. Had she brought the bigger-bubble wrap with the ultra-satisfying pops, I wouldn't be able to spend the night alone in my room with it.

The tour vendor in the hotel invites me to the movies. I tell him that I've got plans for the rest of my time in Mexico. He asks if he can go home with me and live in my house. "I'll fix things and help you out by getting a job and paying expenses," he tempts me. I tell him I've got plans for the rest of my life.

Mixing It Up
Lingering too long at Starbucks, I'm enjoying the gorgeous day. I sit here nursing the dregs of my now-cold coffee, just people watching and staring into space. If it weren't for the street noise -- ear-splitting sirens, a competition among songs emanating from each storefront, sales pitches for fresh fruit and politicians blasting from the megaphones in passing trucks -- I would be utterly at peace.

I have mixed feelings about going home. I love my relaxed, stress-free Mexican life but miss my family and friends. I want to stay here forever. I want to travel to other countries, see new places, taste different foods, and learn about different cultures. I want to go home. I want to know, for certain, that I'll come back here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Kicking back (Guanajuato, Mexico)

Thursday, July 27, 2011 Don't hate me because I'm comfortable!

Another beautiful day, cool and comfortable. I hardboil some eggs for today's and tomorrow's breakfasts. With a little salt and freshly ground pepper, they are simple and simply amazing!

Nikki's off to Zacatecas. K and I drop her at the bus stop on our way to Dolores Hidalgo. We wind our way along the picturesque mountain highway, reaching the "Cradle of Mexican Independence" in plenty of time to take in three shops loaded with Talavera tiles, tableware, and tchotchkes (translation: knick knacks -- and, no, it's not a Spanish word). K buys a bowl in a purple peacock-feather pattern. I purchase painted ceramic knobs that will, I hope, transform a blah chest of drawers into a work of art.

We stroll around the main square and pop into the church, to view its ornate, guilded altars and its bloody Christ figure. Then we pick a pretty restaurant in which to dine on entomados de queso in (a, for me, too-sweet) mole and breast of chicken stuffed with squash blossoms, in a huitlacoche (corn fungus: sounds yucky but, trust me, it's yummy!) sauce. While waiting, we eat the escabeche (pickled cauliflower, carrot, jicama, chili peppers, and a tiny potato -- quite picante!) and sip our huge goblets of aguas (i.e., fruit waters: K's is watermelon; mine is tamarind). The delicious chicken comes with a side of mixed vegetables that would have been more welcomed had they not been previously frozen. The eggy, cumin-scented bechamel-sauced pasta, also on the plate, is sinfully rich and luscious.

K wants to check prices on some tiles that she'll use to form table tops, so we step back into the first Talavera shop we visited. We return to the car, which has, thankfully, not been ticketed nor booted nor towed --despite threatening street signs warning of the contrary. Shopped out, we don't bother stopping at a large store, which sells beautiful ceramicware and foodstuffs from a women's cooperative, that K. had pointed out on our way into town.

K. drops me off in downtown Guanajuato, so I can buy my bus ticket back to Mexico City. I wander around the beautiful city's center for a while, as it's my last opportunity to do so this time around.

Back at the house, I fill a glass with clamato juice and help myself to several lychees that have appeared in the fridge. (I don't advise you to try this at home, as the combination is truly disgusting; however, they are quite good when taken separately.) K comes downstairs and tells me to help myself to anything and everything in the kitchen.

Later, I do: A slice of lovely, gamey feta cheese. Some almonds. Blackberries. A spoonful of chipotle-jitomate sauce. A few black olives. A ripe fig. A glass of mango agua. I love eating this way!

I'm sitting on the terrace, feasting, when I hear pinging on the metal roof. Finally! A much needed, torrential rain obscures the view and cools down the already temperate temperature. Should it continue, I'll sleep really well tonight.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Dead and Unburied (Guanajuato, Mexico)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The bus ride from Queretero to Guanajuato is only about 2.5 hours long. Long enough to sit through multiple episodes of a TV series called "Mental," which I find entertaining, if far fetched, and better than some of the usual bus-movie fare. It is followed by a raucous French version of "Puss In Boots" that teeters between brilliance and obnoxiousness.

In the taxi up to K's house, I realize that I've left my sweater on the bus. Oh, well. One less thing to pack and carry.

The cab takes me through a tunnel, along the Panoramica, past two topes (sleeping policemen), and drops me off in front of the blue and white storefront, behind which stairs wind down to K's door.

I ring the bell and she opens the gate. I meet Nikki, from New Zealand, a fellow couchsurfer who's staying in the patio-level apartment. K leads me to the second floor, gives me keys and the same, lovely bedroom I stayed in last year, shows me the eggs and juices (watermelon, grapefruit, guava, and clamato), and leaves me to settle in, while she goes to tutor English to a young man (who never shows up). When she returns, we sip red wine, while she throws together a delicous Asian-style soup with beef broth, noodles, zuchhini, and onion.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I walk down numerous steps to the fetid-smelling river, turn left, and find a place to breakfast on huevos a la mexicana, coffee with hot milk, and warm bread that is so delicious I scarf up the entire basketful. Stomach full, I meander through the center of town, past the Quixote Museum, into and out of a crafts and jewelry shop that K thinks might be a front for money-laundering drug smugglers. I stop and go into other, less impressive shops with more reasonably priced merchandise, into churches, and past the theatre, market, parks, beautiful restaurants, and hotels. I continue my walk out of the more touristy sections of town as I go up, up, up to the Museum of Mummies, the one site my Guanajuatan students always recommend that I visit when I find myself in their hometown.

The mummies, including two French doctors and the world's smallest (fetus) mummy and its mommy, are 100% naturally preserved, all but one in wooden caskets, by the minerals present in the soil of the cemetery in which they were buried. Exhumed and exhibited years later, when no family member claimed the bodies, they are either prone or standing up (strone?), protected within glass showcases. (When some of the earliest ones were displayed, viewers made off with souvenirs (sp?) -- clothing and body bits. So, museum staff no longer take the chance that we will look and not touch and take out.)

Even leaving aside the purple-tinged fellow who died of asphyxiation, the man who was shot to death and whose deadly hole is gapingly apparent, and the woman whose raised and crossed arms prove she was buried alive, none of the leathery, papery corpses look pleased to be the subject of my and others' curiosity and scrutiny. Most of the eyeless faces bear anguished, pained expressions. They are definitely not resting in peace.

I come back downhill. Coming to a doorway where clothing and some ceramics are displayed, I step inside the little shop. The prices are reasonable, so I figure that I will replace my lost sweater. Half an hour later, I emerge still sweaterless, but with five new blouses (for less than $5.00, total).

Next stop is the market. It's lunchtime. A seafood soup bursting with shrimp, clams, oysters, fish, octopus, potatoes, and carrots is garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, and slivers of avocado. Accompanied by a crusty, fragrant roll, the fresh, but dead seafood helps bring me back to the land of the living and the hungry. I want to lick the bowl clean but remember my manners.

The climb back to K's house is exhausting. My panting and breathlessness prove that I am not quite as aerobically fit as I thought. I am relieved to know that 20-something Nikki finds the uphill hike equally challenging. She joins me on the second-floor terrace, and tells me about the decision she faces upon her return to New Zealand. Will she go back to "uni" to study biotechnology or wine science? (I know which one sounds more appealing to me!}

K joins us and we climb the stairs to her third floor digs, where the sun won't beat down on us with such furor. From her living room, an even better view of the brightly colored houses that dot hillsides and hilltops unfolds. K gives me a tour of her bedroom/office with its walk-in closet and promises that we'll go up to the roof at some point, to see the 360 degree view. Eventually, she'd like to put a structure there that will withstand substantial winds and rain and offer protection from the sun -- a perfect place to sit and enjoy a glass or two of wine, whatever the weather.

It's the rainy season, but it has not rained. The clouds look ominous and we hear thunder, but the much-needed downpours that will keep water flowing through pipes and revive the stinking river do not come.

K and I drive to an Italian restaurant she's been wanting to try. We share ravioli with mushrooms in a rich, rosemary-scented cream sauce and ziti with shrimp and (unfortunately, canned) black olives in a tomato sauce. With glasses of wine (she goes for white, I opt for red), we are quite satisfied.

It's still early when we arrive back at the house, but we retire to our rooms. I am looking forard to doing some reading and getting a good night's sleep.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Out of Town (Queretero, Mexico)

Sunday, July 24, 2011 Queretero

Art meets me at my hotel, so we can travel together to Queretero. As we catch up on a year's worth of goings on and off, we overshoot one of the 87 metro stations at which we have to change trains. It's simple to get back on track, and we arrive at the bus station, purchase our tickets, and have a full 30 seconds to scramble to our bus.

Art waits in line to stow my wheeled bag in the vehicle's luggage compartment. When I attempt to board the bus, I am told by the hand-baggage-checking official that my little carry-on won't fit. I assure him that it will, and we argue until I show him that I can shmoosh the bag into the space allotted and even squish it into the size of a postage stamp, if that's what it takes. I don't know if, with my rabid refusal to kowtow, I've scared him into submission or disgust, but he lets me through. Then I have the same argument with the guard who does the pat-down-weapon-search-wand-wave. I hold my ground and my bag -- and triumph. I mount the steps, laden now, too, with a plastic bag containing a refreshing BOING tropical fruit juice drink, a sweet chocolate sandwich cookie, and a disgusting sandwich sandwich that the refreshment lady gives to everyone who's traveling in our direction.

Before we pull out of the station, the camera guy videos each of us passengers. I don't know if this is an addition to his personal, G-rated collection of people in bus seats, a precaution just in case a terrorist or an over-sized carry-on has managed to get aboard despite multiple screenings and arguments, or a record of our almost-last moments should the bus tumble off a cliff, but it seems to be standard bus take-off procedure.

Once we're rolling, the movie begins. It's a subtitled, cop-buddy flick that looks both stupid and funny. Unfortunately, the driver decides that funny isn't at all necessary; he switches to a dubbed Brad Pitt-Martin Scorcese film that is predictable, forgettable, and stupid. I'm happy that the bus ride is quick, but slightly disappointed that we don't get to view the excellent Israeli film, "The Band," which starts just in time for our disembarkation in Queretero.

After dropping off our bags, Art and I eat dinner at the new Italian restaurant boasting a wood-burning pizza oven near his house. We chat with the owner while indulging in our individual, thin-crust pizzas with mushrooms and red and yellow peppers; an order of salty but tender, fried calamari on a bed of French fries (I did not want fries with that, but that's how they come); and some prize-winning gelato. I love my scoops of chocolate and Nutella so much that I don't even know what Art asked for.

To "bajar la comida" (make the food go down), we stroll the city streets. Every plaza is crowded with young people, families, musicians. In one of the plazas, we meet Art's charming girlfriend, Guadalupe, an educator-guide-graphic designer for Queretero's art museum ( She uses her insider-status to gain us after-hours entry into the museum. She then gives me a fascinating tour of the gorgeous Baroque patio: Columns represent the three stages of life (childhood/youth; maturity; old age). There are carvings of animals, plants, and mermaids, and religious symbolism abounds.

Monday, July 25 Queretero

I awaken to a cacaphony of church bells, rooster calls, and train whistles. Art and I breakfast lightly on sweet rolls and coffee, as we're meeting Kim and Guillermo for brunch at 11:00 a.m.

At a "typical" restaurant with a chess theme, I dig into my huevos divorciados (divorced eggs), my ritual Queretero breakfast of one fried egg covered in tomato sauce, separated by a refried-bean barrier from another fried egg covered in green sauce. A glass of orange juice, a cup of cafe con leche, and a bite of of Art's half of a bready, not-too-sweet donut complete the meal. While eating, the four of us chat.

Although I introduced my friends to each other last year and despite Art's twice- daily walks past Kim and Guillermo's apartment, the three hadn't crossed paths again. Our conversation ranges from mutual friends in the U.S. to the progress of Guillermo's quality painting business (slow, but promising) to Kim's beginning search for a communications position that will permit her to either telecommute from Queretero or return, temporarily, to Virginia or Washington, D.C. My three compañeros exchange phone numbers, to facilitate their get-togethers between my visits, and Kim promises to let me know when she returns State-side -- which she must do every three months or so -- so we can grab lunch or coffee.

Art and I take a long, sunny walk from downtown to the aqueduct to view the huge, papier-maché alijibres (based on the fantastical animal figures, carved of wood and painted by Oaxacan crafters) beneath the arches. By the time we head back to his house, we've worked up an appetite.

On our way to see the sculptures, we pass by a Yucatecan restaurant that we might like to try, as well as a place with a pretty garden, where we spend time chatting with the owner. Unfortunately, both eateries are closed when we need them.

But there is always somewhere to eat. As we love seafood, we stop at a place near the market. It's near closing time here, too, and some chairs have already been upsided-down on tables, to enable floor mopping. The service isn't overly friendly. Still, it's the food we came for, and we are happy with our ceviche tacos, cheese quesadillas with shrimp and octopus, and seafood cocktails (a combination of mollusks and crustaceans in a tasty sauce of catsup and lime juice, with avocado slices). Art drinks a beer, while I down half a liter of horchata -- turning a low- calorie feast into a high-calorie one.

We meet up with Guadalupe again and stop at a mall on the way to dropping her at home. We walk around the center, recommending hideous pairs of running shoes for Art to buy and trying to figure out which Spanish word is the most beautiful, based on sound, not meaning. In a competition, a Mexican actor had just judged that "Queretero" was the most lovely. Our judgment was that he was paid off by the city's politicians. I suggest almond -- "almendra." We crack up as I repeatedly bark out ¨Queretero" -- as if it were a curse -- and practically sing "almendra," so they can truly appreciate its obvious superiority in the beautiful word category.

Tuesday, July 26 Queretero

After the same breakfast at the same place as yesterday, Art and I tour an exhibit of paintings. He's got a piece in the show, a multi-colored abstract entitled "Coral Reef," which includes dabs of orange and red which my color-blind artist friend can't see. He comments that he'd tempered the brightness of the colors and that one of his friends (or, perhaps, frenemies?) had said that the painting "looked better in the dark." I like it (in the light), as well as two other thought-provoking pieces. One is a mix of delicate line drawings, words, and collage; another ia an oil that suggests images of people as I see them when I don't wear glasses or contacts -- fuzzy, indistinct, faceless, and melded together into hilly formations.

With time running short, Art drives me to the bus station and we say our goodbyes. I'm off to Guanajuato.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Woman vs. Machines and Other Highlights (Mexico City, Mexico)

Highlights of the last week (July 21 or thereabouts):

The Good Stuff:
Evening talks with Ingrid, who's in the lobby when I return from dancing. She´s a great listener, is always interesting, and has a great sense of humor.

Museum of Memory and Tolerance, another new museum, in its second year. Exhibits cover the Holocaust, as well as the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Guatemala, and elsewhere in the world. Five stories (include an attractive restaurant/cafe and gift store, from which proceeds go to pay for the entry fees of children who can't afford to attend the museum)

Strong design and use of colors in a temporary exchibition of posters around the corner from my hotel.

The owner of Cafe Rex is keeping his distance.

The Bad Stuff:
The TV in my room refuses to cooperate. I turn it on; it turns itself off. I want to watch something; it thinks the time isn't right. We are constantly arguing. My hotel room safe is so safe that I can't open it. I have to make multiple attempts before it (grudgingly) allows me access. The housing of the soap dispenser in the lobby restroom falls into my hand. I want soap; it gives me plastic. Then the paper towel dispenser's front falls off, hitting me in the head. The worst is yet to come....

The ATM teases me. I enter my PIN, indicate the account from which I want to withdraw money, tap in the amount, confirm the amount, confirm the fee I'll be charged for the process, request a receipt for the transaction, refuse to donate money to a scholarship fund for bankers' children (Sorry!!!), confirm my refusal, and confirm my confirmations. The ATM then refuses to gurgitate my money.

I am down to my last 100 pesos -- three days of eating one meal a day, nothing to pay for my hotel room, museum entrance fees, or other amusements. Concerned, I send messages to family, assuring my son that I am not attempting to "friend" him on Facebook, but that this is an emergency.

In the meantime, I contemplate how I'll spend my years in a Mexican prison cell and ponder what I can do to earn money. Start charging for the free English lessons I'm offering a friend's friend? No, too tacky. Sell my back-up roll of toilet paper and my convenient plastic case of soap leaves? They would buy me a subway ticket. How much can I get for my clothes? Not much. The (very) little black dress might bring in something -- even more, if I wear it. No. Much too tacky.

I spend the night trying to remember what the acronym ATM stands for: Another Tawdry Monkey? Autocratic Tsar Matures? Ain't Tellin' Mommy? After Tonight, Methadone? Asteroid Targets Me? After Tonsillectomy, Medication? Angling Towards Mecca? Agitated Teacher Monitored? Alternative Treatments Mentioned? Aren't Twins Magical? Aspiring Tomato Mutates? Arthritis Topples Matador? I come up with thousands of possibilities and no ZZZ's.

The Happy Ending:
Turns out I was asking for more than the ATM could give. The next day, I ask for less and the machine cooperates. Thank you, Automatic Teller Machine -- or something like that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Street Walker (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 17, 2011

After dancing for over five hours yesterday in the Ciudadela, I feel a bit tired today. The muscle I pulled before I left the States no longer hurts, but that could be because my big toe, my calves, my arms, and and my torso are aching so much that all previous pain is overshadowed. Be that as it may, I resolve to spend the day taking it easy.

On Sundays, Reforma -- a major thoroughfare -- is closed to vehicular traffic. People stroll, skateboard, roller skate, and bike for miles, often bringing their dogs along for the ride. Bicycles and wheelchairs are available at no charge, if you are willing to leave your I.D. at a kiosk. I prefer to walk along the street.

Street vendors are out in force, selling everything you never knew you wanted or needed. A line of children and their parents patiently await their turns on the merry-go-round in Alameda Park. Toddlers tote balloons. Japanese tourists pose for photos with people dressed as Sponge Bob, Cat Woman, and Star Wars characters. A turbaned man will write my name in Arabic, for a small fee. (He looks like the same guy -- minus the turban, plus Hassidic garb -- who wrote peoples' names in Hebrew, last year. Will 2012 be the year of my name in Chinese?) Four thousand people cross the street, all coming towards me at once; I've got my own posse of at least 4,017 strangers, streaming along beside me.

The enticing aromas of cooking and the sight of just about everyone eating something -- bags of chips, tacos, giant lollypops, sandwiches stuffed with meats and cheeses, ice cream, corn swathed in mayonnaise, coated in grated cheese, sprinkled with hot chili peppers -- make me want to join in. I purchase a cup of esquites, large chewy corn kernels, hold the mayo, but drenched in lime juice and sprinkled with cheese.

Fatigued from hours of strolling, people watching, and chewing (of corn, not people), I escape the crowds by stopping at a Starbucks and lingering over a small coffee. (There are hordes of police milling around outside the entrance; I learn later that that they were present, for crowd control, at the wonderful parade that I am either missing, had missed, or was about to miss.) The sloping glass skyscraper which houses the cafe is undergoing re-construction, and I notice that there are no ceilings or floors above me, just randomly placed beams, boards, and sheets of plastic. It sounds, however, as if ungainly mastodons (were there any gainly ones?) are playing tag overhead, so I begin to fear that I am experiencing an earthquake. My feeling is that I should get the hell out before being turned into sashimi.

There is no earthquake; however, I do feel a bit shaken. So, I purchase a ticket for the final chapter in the movie chronicles of Harry Potter; I need a bit of unreality to settle me down. I attend the subtitled, non-3-D version, which probably explains why there are only seven other people watching with me, as opposed to the roughly 7,086 seated in each of the ten other theaters of the multiplex. Still, the film is fun and doesn't require any thought or activity on my part.

I wander through other closed-to-car streets, stopping to listen to a group of young musicians playing their brass instruments. I join the crowd surrounding them and observe two elderly couples dancing gracefully. One pair waves frantically to someone behind me, I think, but it turns out that they are greeting me. After the number ends, the man comes over and says, "We know you from the Ciudadela. Will you dance with me?" I say no, but only because it's danzon.

My friend, Ingrid, is due to arrive at our hotel at around 7:00 p.m., so I head back. She hasn't come in yet, so I go out again to find something to eat.

Roast chicken sounds tempting, but the rotissomat is closed. The stand around the block that sells quesadillas looks just a little too iffy. The spot I've been wanting to try for a turkey sandwich is being cleaned up for the night. What shall I do?

There's a place on the corner, only two streets away, that's still open. I peer in and notice some women. What I don't notice is that they are with men and that the place is not really a restaurant, but a bar. Oh, well. They're advertising turkey tacos, 3 for 25 pesos, just the thing -- all that serotonin -- to help me get a good night's sleep.

Unfortunately, they're out of turkey. There's no chicken. No fish. No seafood. Steak, yes. And other man-food to accompany the alcohol that all of the men are downing.

The bar is full of men. Three at a neighboring table are already toasting me, one across from me is giving me the eye, and another man is either winking at me or suffering from tics.

I request an order of cheese quesadillas. "With beans?" my waiter asks, hopefully, as if they wouldn't, otherwise, be substantial enough to serve.

"Yes, please," I reply, because I've developed a man-sized appetite.

I pull out a magazine and try to read over the blare of the TV and music. One of the men from the table for three plops down across from me, tries to engage me in conversation, invites me to go out to dinner with him, and leaves in a huff when I turn him down.

That's the cue for another fellow to pull up a chair and offer to buy me a drink. I've already polished off my quesadillas, the lemonade I ordered, and half of another one the waiter said was on the house, so I sweetly say, "No, thanks. I'm leaving." I manage to do so, just as another man -- either intent on being "the chosen one" or interested in apprenticing as a waiter -- approaches my table.

(Note to self and warning to solitary female travelers: Next time you're hungry on a Sunday, stop at the 7-11 or OXXO, and buy some crappy sandwich to eat in your room, alone and in peace!)

By the time I reach the hotel, Ingrid has checked in. We catch up on each other's lives over the last year and agree to meet on Tuesday, to visit a new museum that I passed earlier in the day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Face to Face with My Food (Mexico City, Mexico)

Every four or five days my body craves vegetables, tons of them. That's when I heap my plate at an all-I-can eat Chinese buffet. So far, I've done this twice on this trip.

The first time, I loaded up on zucchini, carrots, bean sprouts, cabbage, green peppers, jicama, broccoli, onions, and cauliflower. I had a bowl of seafood soup, and a bit of chicken. I also grabbed a fried chicken wing and a chicken-carrot croquet that tasted sour and neither chickeny nor carroty.

The second time, I´m at a different place, gorging on a bowl of broth and two plates of the vegetables above, plus string beans. I also help myself to the chicken and seafood that some of the greens, yellows, and oranges accompany. As I finish up, I am struck by a debilitating MSG headache.

Through the headachy haze, I hear what sounds like someone screaming. I feel unnerved, as the screaming keeps getting louder, coming closer. Then I notice a girl, heading for the restaurant kitchen, toting a big plastic bag in each hand. One bag holds three large, live ducks. The other, four white pigeons or doves. I know this, because their heads are sticking out and their eyes peering at me as I watch them. A young man follows behind the girl. He's hoisting another, larger bag, in which a small goat -- the source of the screaming -- is struggling.

Now, I am not a vegetarian. I know that some of what I eat -- poultry, fish, seafood -- has a face. But, the sight of these animals, destined for tomorrow's buffet, is pretty disturbing. I can't tell if I've lost my appetite because of all the food I just ate or the soon-to-be-food I just faced.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dancing with the Stares (Mexico City, Mexico)

I've been meeting my gal pals at the Centro de Convenciones. We share a table and take turns buying each other soft drinks, raising our eyebrows about our partners, and fanning the hot air around.

To recap, I´ve danced with some pretty competent salseros. Then there are the memorable ones, who seem to crawl out of the walls when the dance hall lights are dim:

The little guy, exactly my height, who breathes heavily into my face and sends his breath up my nose, who stares nonstop and soulfully into my eyes, and who leers in a way that makes me fear his canines are about to grow, sharpen, and sink into my necky flesh.

The man with a small head and a shirt opened to reveal a thick, unwelcome mat of curly hair that hits me at face level and reminds me of an overgrown roll of sod or a misplaced toupé. This fellow has traveling hands which I am constantly moving off my derrière. I have no idea what he's mumbling into my hair: "My name is Fernando?" "Do you mind if I feel your bum one more time?" "Are you still breathing, or have I succeeded in suffocating you in my manly chest hairs?"

The nonmover and shaker. He stands practically in place, as he whips me around. Unaware of space, he swings me into the people nearby, causing me to get stilletoed by a well-heeled female and to rump-bump an innocent bystander. At one point, purely by accident and in self defense, I smack him in the head with a hand I flailed to pull back in time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Daze and Nights (Cuernavaca, Mexico)

Day 1

I arrive in Cuernavaca three hours earlier than planned, so Horacio sends his mother and stepfather to pick me up at the station. They take me to Costco for some shopping, then we go to their lovely house. (Living room looks out onto the garden, the star of which is a swimming pool that beckons even me.) We dine on homemade lentil soup, Costco-made roast chicken, and nature's own mangoes.

Horacio stops by to get my stuff and me and gives me time to install everything in the guest bedroom. We go next door to greet his grandmother, and she and I agree to walk downtown and get something to drink.

At 82, Leonor is practically wrinkle free, has no pains or illnesses, and has no lack of energy. (When I grow up, I want to be like her, however, I'm gonna have to do something about these wrinkles...) The 20-minute walk is hilly and cobble-stoned, and our pace is quite clipped. Leonor made the mistake of wearing dressy shoes rather than sneakers, and she suffers, as a result. Next time, she says, she`ll forget her vanity and wear comfortable shoes.

We stop at a chic coffee house, but some kind of event is taking place, and we are ushered into a tiny, claustrophobic room. We leave, ending up at a sidewalk cafe, where I slug fresh lemonade and she sips a frappachino. We comment on the lack of United Statians in Cuerna, this year. We admire the view of the cathedral across the way, then up and walk around the zocalo (central square).

Leonor points out the changes that have been made since last summer: The huge, imposing statue of Morelos has been moved to one side of Cortes's Palace; a statue of Zapata on horseback rears up in its place. Zapata is half-encircled by smaller statues of an indigenous woman and child, a mariachi, and other Mexican types. The area where older couples danced Danzon is gone, replaced by steps. There's a more expansive view of the palace and a larger garden in front of it.

We cross the street to the nearby square that features a gazebo. This area, too, has been remodeled. Three-quarters of the vendors who sold corn on and off the cob, cotton candy, and fried dough in 15 forms are gone. The scene is still lively, with loads of people sitting on benches, children careening through and laughing, and couples snuggling; but the openness cuts into the feeling of intimacy, of closeness with everyone else in the crowd.

And then I look up and notice that the lights are not on in the dance studio where I took belly dancing and salsa lessons last summer. Not a good sign. As a matter of fact, there is no sign at all.

Day 2

Breakfast at a restaurant (similar to a hundred others) is cantaloupe, the ubiquitous instant Nescafe, huevos a la mexicana (with chopped tomatoes, green peppers and onions), beans, and tortillas. Tasty and filling, for less than $3.00 (USA).

I pass familiar signs as I get closer to Cemanahuac: Diario de Morelos (a local newspaper), KFC, Pizza Hut, Office Depot, and Estrella de Oro (a bus station). I stop by the school to greet my former teachers and to chat with owners and administrators. Harriet gives me a t-shirt, in celebration of Cuernavaca's 50 years of "teaching Spanish to the world." We lament the low number of students in attendance this year (fear? the economy?), and I take leave. On the side street, a four-legged wet mop (a.k.a. dog) waddles toward me, leaving me to my own devices only when I approach the main drag.

Horacio's mom and I meet for lunch in an off-the-grid, cheap, and popular hole in the wall, where we grab the last two seats at one of two long, communal tables. I've invited her, but Rosalba insists on paying for our delicious shrimp soup (23 pesos each), along with the several fried fish and their accouterments (guacamole, pasta) she's ordered to go (for the family). She allows me to buy three pastries for her to take home.

I'm off to visit more friends.

It's Santiago's seventh birthday. The big celebration has already taken place. This party is only for six of his school buddies and their moms, his parents and brother, and a few other relatives. The adults' conversations range from the pros and cons of yoga and zumba, to the remarks made by snooty parents of other children at Santi's school, to reminiscences of when my son and I first came to Cuernavaca, just in time for Santi's second birthday. Over 200 people attended the farm-party extravaganza, a toy store worth of gifts were given, two big piñatas were beaten to within an inch of their papier maché lives, and the more intimate, family-only party (25 attendees), like this one, was held soon afterwards.

I eat some of the carrot cake Santiago's mom, my friend Claudia, has baked; a raspberry gelatin made with yogurt, prepared by one of the friend's mothers; and a bag of popcorn that I douse with a salty, fruit-tinged hot sauce. Alternating glasses of water with agua de jamaica, I am counting on finding an opportunity to dance off these empty but delicious calories.

I get to visit with Beto's parents, his sisters and their kids, and Claudia's brother, Haciel, his Spanish wife, Tamara, and their three-year-old and one-and-a-half-month-old daughters. Before I go, Claudia, who designs and sells soaps and teaches classes on soap-making, presents me with an adorable aqua and white soap popsicle, with a "bite" taken out of it.

Day 3

There's no water this morning, so I can't shower. I've brought a package of baby wipes especially for such contingencies, so I'm good to go.

Horacio makes us breakfast: fried spaghetti and fried eggs, over easy. I brought my own coffee, instant but stand-your-hair-on-its-ends strong. Everything tastes fabulous.

We spend the morning running errands and then ride around a neighborhood for about an hour, searching for two seafood restaurants that are located somewhere in the maddening maze of streets. We finally find a quiet, pretty spot, where we enjoy the fish quesadillas that we dress up with hot sauce and cool, fresh lime juice. We each wolf down a small (translation: huge) bowl of fish ceviche with octopus, shrimp, and oysters, washing it all down with huge goblets of watery lemonade. So full, I could pop, I plop down around $20 (USA), which includes the tip.

Back at home, we invite Leonor to join us for a visit to the Brady Museum. It's Horacio's first time there, probably my eighth, in the charming art and artifact filled former home of the American born artist and collector. We run into Sergio, the curator and art restorer, who promises to arrange for me to see some of the other art collections in private homes around town. Maybe next time...

Horacio, Leonor, and I stop into a new hotel, three doors down and across the street from the museum. Beautiful rooms run less that $140 (USA) per night and include a continental breakfast, Internet access, use of a lovely swimming pool, an elegant common room, and terraces with views of the grounds and/or the cathedral. One room boasts a jacuzzi, another, a steam bath. A bungalow has a separate entrance, huge master bedroom and bath, a nice little kitchen, charming living room and a smaller, second bedroom and bathroom. If you want the website, let me know!

We take a bus back to the house. I nap for an hour and awaken to the smell of Horacio making toast. (To clarify, it's the toast that I smell, not Horacio.) I make myself two slices, spread on some peanut butter, and eat, contentedly.

Day 4

Horacio drives me to two small towns, to visit churches, with their monasteries and convents. The first place (TK) is also known for its cecina, thin sliced, grilled steak which one sandwiches in tortillas, with cheese, avocado, and green onion. Horacio orders some, while I munch on cheese quesadillas, with sides of avocado and grilled nopales (cactus paddle).

The second church-monastery is more interesting than the first. An on-site museum exhibits nine mummies -- the dessicated bodies of children, a man, and a women, who were buried in the church, preserved by the minerals in the soil, and who look like shriveled dolls with poorly drawn, cartoony faces and leathery hands and feet.

In the evening, Leonor and I go to Los Arcos to hear music and so I can dance. We order chicken tacos to share and some nonalcoholic beverages. Leonor catches the eye of an acquaintance, an older woman seated with four others and a man, all danzoneros. Leonor tells the woman that I want to dance and asks her to send over the man at her table. He is kind enough to dance once with me, when the band begins to play salsa.

Two young couples ask to join us at our table for six. They order beers and make multiple toasts with each other, and with us. The older (29ish?) of the two men asks me to dance. He has already had three too many beers and is becoming overly friendly. "Isn't that your girlfriend?" I ask.

"No, just a friend," he assures me, as he swings me wildly about. He's interested in a more mature woman, who knows more about the world, he tells me.

"I hope you meet one," I tell him.

"Just a friend" and her friend leave and leave us with these 20-something Romeos. The young'uns suggest we go somewhere else, while Leonor and I try not to splurt out our beverages through our noses.

I dance with a salsa instructor from Los Angeles, who was born in Mexico and on vacation in Cuernavaca. Before leaving, I run into a guy who took salsa lessons with "Rubber Legs," the dance instructor who seems to have changed locations once again. (See previous posting from Cuernavaca.) Although I don't get a chance to take lessons this time out, it's good to know he's still teaching.

Leonor and I bid good night to our besotted young friends and catch a cab back home.

Day 5

I say my goodbyes to Horacio and his grandmother. Rosalba walks me to the bus station. I feel as if I'm leaving family. I am.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A (Very) Little Black Dress (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 6, 2011

I lunch at the Pausa...Cafe, which is situated right next to my subway stop. It's almost always packed, so I'm assuming that the food is good rather than that yesterday's patrons have all died of food poisoning and that those of us who are here today are all here for the first -- and last -- time.

First, a delicious cream of red pepper soup. I remove the stray, floating herb or eyelash and add almost too much hot sauce, which ramps up the flavor, will probably kill anything that's not already dead, and leaves my lips stinging. Next course: steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, bland but tasting like themselves. Finally, chicken with fine herbs and four petite, pink potatoes. Musicians plink their guitars and sing as the tastes play out quite pleasantly in my mouth.

Sated, I walk to the Banamex Palace of Culture (Madera #7, near Bolivar). I spend a tranquil hour or so viewing the temporary exhibit of religious paintings -- saints, the Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, the Resurrection, etc. -- by Zurburan, Rubens, Coello, and other noted and unknown artists from both sides of the Atlantic. These are not my favorite subjects, but they are well executed. Especially the saints.

On my way back to the hotel, I run into Irene, who promises to meet me at the Centro de Convenciones within an hour or so. Of course, it starts to rain cats and dogs, plus a few mules and a soggy goat, as soon as I am dressed for dancing and step outside again.

I step inside the huge Convention Center, and a woman asks me if I have already bought a ticket. When I say no and rummage in my bag for the 10-peso entry fee, she hands me an extra pass. An auspicious beginning...

The place is huge. There are tons of people. I walk up and down one side of the hall, trying to find Irene at a table or on the dance floor. "This is not going to be easy," I tell myself, but I'm not really listening. That's because he band is cranking out salsa, my toes are already tapping, my hips, hopping.

Before wading into the sea of bobbing heads and swirling bodies, I decide to put on my dancing shoes and put down the bag holding my "supplies": toilet paper, soap leaves, a fan, tissues, rain poncho, some business cards. I park myself and my stuff in an empty seat at an empty table.

Before I can buckle my shoes, I am asked to dance by a man twice as big and twice as old as I am. In the middle of the song, he asks, "Do you like chocolate?"

Now, those of you who know me know that I don't just like chocolate, I love chocolate -- to the extent that I consider it a basic food group. Dark, bitter-sweet chocolate, that is. None of that namby-pamby milk chocolate for me. None of that phony-baloney white-chocolate chocolate-wannabe substance for me. Not that there's anything wrong with them. (We can talk about your problems at another time.)

So I say, "Yes....?"

"I'm going to give you some later."

I thank him for the dance and no-thank him for the promised chocolate.

When I return to my seat, a thin, graying man is sitting across from me. I greet him, then set out again to look for Irene. Before I've taken two steps, a park acquaintance pulls me onto the floor. As I leave to re-search, another man I've danced with at the Ciudadela, grabs me for a cumbia.

There are two dance floors, one of which is sunken, adjacent to each other. I make may way around both, ever on the look-out and now, on my way to the ladies room.
Suddenly, a thin woman with long red hair runs up to me. "Excuse me, amiga. I'm sitting at a table for four, but we are only three. Would you like to join us?"

"Thank you," I say, "but I'm meeting a friend."

"If you don't find her, please come sit with us -- over there." She points to table at which two men are swivel-necking to see us. They smile at me, wave, and nod. I thank but no-thank her and continue on.

It's only by chance that I spot Irene, momentarily seated between dances at a table not far from my own. I return for my things, excuse myself from my table mate, and switch to a seat with Irene's entourage.

I notice the redhead and her male friends beckoning to me from halfway across the hall. "I FOUND MY FRIEND!" I mouth, pointing to Irene with boundless enthusiasm.

One of the redhead's companions, green eyed and hair gel slicked, comes over to request a dance. He's a good dancer but he carries with him a cloud of cigarette smoke that fogs the air around us as we salsa.

"My name is Memo," he says.

"Oh, short for Guillermo, huh?"

"Memo para ti."

"So, your last name is To You...," I joke.

"No," he says. "I'm Memo to you."

Just my kind of partner: smells bad and has no sense of humor.

Later, when I dance with him again, he pushes a crumpled napkin into my hand. "Call me," it says, followed by his number and his name. I have no intention of calling him, however, I don't intentionally blow my nose in the napkin. I realize that I've done so only when I look in a mirror and notice the blue ink on my schnoz.

I dance several times with the man who was seated across from me before my move. Both he and another of my younger dance partners are attorneys. The two offer me their professional services, which I hope that I will never need. They offer me their phone numbers, which I do not accept. The younger one proposes taking me to breakfast. I don't need that, either.

After dancing with three or four other guys, my first partner of the evening puts out his hand. Instead of leading me to the dance floor, he stops at his table and thrusts a small, black garbage bag into my hands. "I sell dresses," he says, "and I want you to have this."

"I can't accept a gift from you," I tell him. I wasn't about to take chocolate from him, much less a dress, although I haven't had chocolate since I left the States....

"No, really. I insist. There's no commitment. I just know that this dress will look great on you. It's a dress made for dancing. Please, take it."

I don't know why, but I do.

Later, in my room, I try it on.

Let me explain by using an analogy: shmatta: dress = me: Gweneth Paltrow (Translation: This thing is to a dress as I am to a movie star.)

It's heavy, black polyester, lined with black, heavy polyester. Three sequined horizontal bands run across the front, like sparkly bandages of death, hitting me at my chest, my waist, and my hips. The sleeves hang down, five inches longer than my arms. The hem hits just slightly below my hips. The neckline scoops so low and so wide, that if I lean forward an inch, you can see clear down to my belly button. The gaping front slit runs from the hem clear up to my belly button. In short -- in very, very short -- it's a cross between something that the Addams Family's Morticia would wear and a drum majorette's uniform.

I laugh so hard that I split a seam.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rats! (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 5, 2011

I didn't sleep well last night. The bags under my eyes are big enough to carry a change of clothing and a pair of slippers. My hair looks like it´s weathered a lightning strike. And I am not in a good mood.

It´s not a good morning for the Cafe Rex's lecherous owner to start messing with me. First, he places one hand directly on top of the page I'm reading in my book of short stories (Rest Area by Clay McLeod Chapman),which is populated by crazed killers, cannibalistic boy scouts, and pumpkin-screwing farmboys. (I'm not making this up, although I hope the author is!) Then, he puts his other paw on my chin, rotating my face towards his. "I like you," he says, in a way that translates not into like as in liking ice cream or foreign films or poetry but into liking someone in a sexual way. "Is there anything wrong with that?" he asks.

"Yes," I answer in a tone that rings at once calm and ominous. Sort of like spitting, but without the saliva.

"What?" he asks.

I look him directly in his beady little eyes as I enunciate: "I JUST WANT TO EAT MY BREAKFAST."

He obviously reads the subtitles of my thoughts, which translate into something on the order of "Touch me one more time and I'll smack you so hard even your mother won't recognize you," because he quickly moves away.

Tired and cross, I piddle the day away. I am cheered by the scrawny, green-necked, little chicken hopping in and out of a doorway that I pass on my walk back to my hotel and a much-needed nap.

I awaken to a sound that sends shivers up and down my spine, that raises my hackles, that makes me want to run, screaming from my room: Rats running around my closet? I´m afraid to open the door and find out. Eventually, I realize that what I´m hearing is not the pitter-patter of tiny rodent feet but the plinking-plunking of enormous raindrops against my window. Rats, rodents, raindrops. An honest mistake. The words all begin with "r."

It's pouring, but I have agreed to meet Alvaro for an evening of dancing at Caribe. Unfortunately, we have a bit of a miscommunication. I drip and wait outside the subway stop, while he waits inside -- for half an hour.

When we finally reach the club, I find it a bit depressing. We sit with some friends, I dance with Alvaro and others, and I'm back in my hotel room by nine. Tomorrow will be sunnier, I'm sure.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dancing with Wolves (Mexico City, Mexico)

July 2, 2011 (Continued)

It´s raining again, so I arrive, completely drenched, at Salon Hidalgo. I sit with some women but, mostly, I dance.

A guy, exactly my height and with a charming smile, holds me too closely for my comfort. When I refuse to dance with him again, he asks me why, and I tell him. He promises to keep his distance. This time, he maintains a good foot (his size, not mine) or so between us.

"Better?" he asks.

"Much better," I reply.

My slovenly partner from the other day requests a dance. While he´s flipping me around the floor, he says, "Don´t get angry, but I´d like you to be my girlfriend."

"Thank you, but I´m sorry. That´s impossible." That´s the last I see of him.

Another man tells me that he recognizes me from last year. "I never had the opportunity to ask you to dance," he says. He slips me his phone number and tells me that I can call him anytime, for anything.

All dressed in white, a long-haired, skinny, young man twirls and whirls and whips me around. I am laughing hysterically, in part because of his frantic and athletic moves and partly out of fear that his strenuous yanking of my arms will separate them from their sockets.

Word has obviously gone out that there is a gringa in the house. The wolves are circling my table. They are knocking into each other in their attempts to ask me to dance. Good for my ego. Bad for my relationship with the other women at the table. And a bit scary. Where are my friends and protectors when I need them?

I know how to take care of myself, though. I leave.

Two Things I Like to Do (Mexico City, Mexico)

(July 1, 2011) Dancing and eating, not necessarily in that order.

I´ve already told you that I´m not that comfortable with numbers and, as I don´t have my calendar with me, I´m confused and out-of-date. So, forgive me for taking you back in time once again...

I´m dancing in the Ciudadela with Alvaro, Ricardo, Roberto (a sweet and charming friend of Ricardo´s), the cowboy in black (met him last year; so much fun to dance with), a tiny, dapper, mustachioed guy who won´t let me rest), and a fellow Acquarian (who makes me want to change my birth sign).

In the evening, I meet Miriam and her husband, Jorge. We get something to eat in my hotel´s restaurant. I must be really hungry, because I relish every last bite of my chicken, potato, and cheese quesadillas, despite the fact that the food here is nothing to blog home about.

(July 2, 2011)

Cafe Rex´s owner bends over me as I am eating my breakfast. He whispers in my ear: "I want to have your children."

"Fantastic!" I say. "But you´re going to have to pay their way here. My son´s in Rhode Island, and my daughter's in Colombia, so it won´t be cheap. I have to tell you that they eat a lot and they´re both at university, so it´s great that you´re going to take care of them! Thanks!"

He leaves me to finish my breakfast in peace.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Lot of Bull, Not Much Fight (Mexico City, Mexico)

(July 4, 2011)

As part of my quest to visit every last one of Mexico City´s 250-plus museums, I make my way to the Restaurante La Faena/Museo Taurino (Venustiano Caranza, No. 49, Col. El Centro). Actually, I´m lying. I just happen to pass by this place as I wander around and about. So, in I go.

Everything and everyone in the large space housing the collection of bullfighting memorabelia and regalia looks to have seen better days. Several dark paintings of bullfights hang on the walls. Faded, decaying trajes de luces (Suits of Lights) of some of the great matadors (El Cordobes is the name I recognize)are encased in dusty showcases. Mariachis serenade the one table of elderly diners; their music competes with a TV set blaring a soccer match between France and Mexico.

The most interesting things I spot are the small tiles, on which quotations are written, embedded in the entryway's walls. Alongside Descarte's "I think, therefore, I am," and other pithy sayings by the likes of Virgil, Shakespeare, and Stendahl, are: "You have to be careful when telling lies and eating fish" and "Paula, how nice you look from the front and from behind."

I spend the evening in my hotel room, watching two hours of old American sitcoms, with Spanish subtitles. Except that the subtitle machine must have gotten stuck; every line translates as "That's a load of garbage. You're full of it!"

Friday, July 8, 2011

I'm Starting to Like Carlos Slim (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 30, 2011)

Breakfast today is yogurt with strawberries, granola, and honey and a cup of instant Nescafe (a weak excuse for coffee) at the homey Restaurante Lucy. Always crowded, you'll be forced to wait forever if you're unwilling to share a table with someone or somemore.

I share my table with Daniela, a recent college graduate who majored in communications. She has just returned from a conference in Colombia, accompanying her sister, a renowned environmental attorney. I notice Daniela´s intermediate English text, and our conversation shifts back and forth between our two languages. We exchange emails and phone numbers, so that we can get together; I'll help her with her English.

I´m running late to meet Pedro because I've stayed too long in the Internet Cafe. Still, I arrive before him at the Palanco Metro, from which we bus and hoof it to Carlos Slims' new art museum. Museo Soumaya, named for Slims's deceased wife, mushrooms from the ground, an asymetrical, windowless structure, covered in hexagonal metal panes. Inside is an impressive array of works from Slims' private collection, including sculptures by Rodin and Dali, paintings by Corot, Rivera, El Greco, Dutch Masters, and more. Even the restroom is a work of art, all marble and mirrors and adorned with vases holding white orchids. A fellow museum goer snaps photos as I close the door to one of the stalls.

The triangular excavation adjacent to Museo Soumaya is the future site of a second Slim museum, this one to house modern art. Two hundred and fifty seven museums to visit in this incredible city!

After he helps me re-activate my (Mexico only)cell phone, Pedro and I sit down to lunch in a crowded restaurant. Pedro worries about eating in a little street dive like this; he's already spotted a few cockroaches scurrying up a wall. As some of you already know, I never let bugs get in the way of my enjoyment of a meal, even if they are an essential or accidental part thereof. So far, my stomach has handled pretty much anything anyone can dish out. As Pedro's willing to take a chance with his digestive system, we dig into the meal of the day, squeezing lime juice into the shrimp broth brimming with cubes of potatoes and carrots. I push the sliced frankfurters to the side of my tasty plate of yellow rice. The whole fried mojarra (crappy, in English, but not crappy at all, in taste) with garlic is almost too big for one person. Almost. Of course, there are tortillas, and all we can drink of agua de jamaica. We stuff ourselves for 45 pesos each, less than $9.00 (US).

Two nice things happen: Pedro says I have a Cuban accent (when speaking Spanish), and the waiter asks if I am from Argentina. Flattery makes me feel...flattered.

Pedro walks me over to a place near my hotel, where I can use the Internet in comfort, thanks to Carlos Slim (whom I am starting to like a little). There are armchairs, sofas, tables, and artwork, and you can use a laptop at no charge, for however long you want, from 11am to 9 at night. I spend entirely too much time there.

Later, at the Ciudadela, I run into Jose. We dance to the sounds of a live band playing son cubano and then stroll over to the middle of the park, where Ismael is helping with a cumbia lesson. He teaches me some new moves and laughs at me, nonstop. I ask if he's making fun of me. He says that I dance well, that it's my constant smiling that makes him laugh. I guess it's obvious that I love to dance, huh?

I return to the area with live music and dance with a young Steven Segal look alike with whom I was taking cumbia lessons two years ago. Ricardo tells me that he wants to learn a couple more turns and then will move to Guadalajara, where he will teach dancing. There will surely be a line of women waiting to sign up; he is really, really good and easy on the eyes, as well. Plus, unlike the other Steven Segal, he doesn't beat you up if you make the wrong move.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

It Was a Dark and Stormy Day... (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 29, 2011) As a storm rages, I wrestle with a restaurateur, meet with a foreign correspondent, hop on the wrong subway line, and tussle with a TV.

I awaken to a dark, chilly day. A tropical storm is pounding Vera Cruz and attempting to do the same here and in other parts of Mexico.

Julieta gives me a big hug before she serves me breakfast. I linger long after I´ve finished. It´s pouring, and I´m freezing in my light jacket. What to do today? Maybe I´ll visit a museum; there are at least 200 I haven`t been to yet. Perhaps I´ll just relax and go dancing later.

(Dancing starts at 4:00 pm and ends by 10 o´clock on weeknights, allowing time to decompress after work and still get a good night´s sleep. Pretty civilized, don´t you think?)

As I exit the Cafe Rex, I can`t avoid the owner, who is manning the cash register. I hand him 25 pesos, and he grabs my hand. "I know someone who makes sculptures of models. Should I make an appointment for you?"

I roll my eyes and try to retrieve my hand.

He pulls me closer, into a bear hug, and whispers, "I know we are going to make beautiful love together, aren't we?"

"Not while I´m alive," I tell him.

As I struggle to get away, he lets out a guffaw and releases me. I don´t eat here every day because I get tired of his overtures and expressions of unrequited like. I know it's all BS, but it's annoying, just the same.

I pass two hours in an Internet cafe, at the last minute receiving a message from a friend who wanted to meet me -- yesterday. I call and we arrange a get together in Colonia Roma, one of D.F.´s chic, upscale neighborhoods. Although Mexico produces superior coffee beans, it is incredibly hard to find a good cup of java. Temoris suggests Cafe Colon.

Temoris is rarely in town. Just returned from Colombia, where he lectured on censorship in the Arab press, he is now teaching a workshop on how to do what he has learned to do by experience. A freelance journalist who has written for major magazines throughout the world, he travels to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Gaza. He interviewed the Ugandan politician who proposed the law which would condemn homosexuals to death and who compared himself to Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and others "who are doing God`s work." More often, Temoris tries to report the stories of people who are fighting for justice.

We talk until Temoris must leave for his workshop. As I walk to the subway, I´m considering whether or not to go dancing. Hopping onto a car headed in the wrong direction and spending an hour traveling back to my point of departure settle the matter. I will go straight back to my hotel.

The ride is always interesting: I listen to the young, tatooed boys hawking candies, two for five pesos, in that particular singsong the subway vendors use. An old man, with his trousers rolled up to reveal scabby calves, wheezes through a harmonica. A man touts the benefits of (believe it or not!) a miner's headlamp, which I am sorely tempted to purchase. I try not to collapse in laughter as I surely would, if my friend A. were with me.(See my second blog entry for more on miner's headlamps.)

For dinner, I buy about 90 cents' worth of roasted, salted pumpkin seeds from Sanborn`s. (There I go again, lining the pockets of its owner, Carlos Slim, one of the world´s richest men.) I eat them in my room.

I try reading in the dim light, but give up. I turn on the television, a cranky, crotchety contraption that promptly turns itself off. We tussle. On. Off. On. Off. I eventually win or, as the case may be, lose. I am subjected to an idiotic and obnoxious video -- the fourth most watched on YouTube -- of a drunkard explaining the meaning of the word "Fwa," which emerges from his lips as a great catharsis and (probably) the prelude to a bout of vomiting (which is, thankfully, not shown).

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Up Against a Wall on Regina Street (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 29, 2011) Art! Dogs! Dancing in the park!

My breakfast restaurant won´t open until 9:00 a.m., according to one of the waitresses I meet on the street. I have an hour to while away, so I start walking and watching.

It's obviously time to take the animals out to people watch. A bevy of poodles and bichons frises, all white fluff, lead their walker on her leashes. A sweat-shirt-sporting sharpei, alert and energetic even down to his wrinkles, precedes his mistress down the street. A pair of the world´s ugliest dogs, hairless but for tufts atop their heads and tails -- that rare breed so beloved by Frida Kahlo, who included hers in many self portraits, and by the Aztecs, who no doubt thought they tasted like chicken -- pause to give me the once-over. They are probably thinking:"Oh, my God! Another one of those ugly humans! There are more of them now than in the good old days before the Spanish Conquest!"

A man pushes a cart laden with huge plastic jugs of purified water. "Ay, I´m so tired," he says aloud. Then he sing-songs his wares in a rich, resonant voice that reverberates through the concrete canyon that is Regina Street.

From 1560-1928, this was called The Street of the Heart of Jesus. That heart might break if it were to see what has sprung up among the churches, convent, and remaining buildings that date back to its founding. Now it is home to bars, to stores selling school supplies, to closet-sized food stands, chi chi restaurants, a rambling market,and raw-chicken mongers. Or, maybe not. Merchants probably hawked their produce and all sorts of merchandise in doorways and impromptu stands back then, as well.

I sit down on a stone bench, as I am mesmerized by the mural that covers the first story of an abandoned building. "Huellas de la basura" or "Traces (or Tracks) of Garbage," by Gorka Larrañaga (; shows man-like creatures with broad, squared shoulders, barrel chests, and skinny, bird-like legs. Hands and feet are claws, although one of the creature's hands have bolted knuckles, reminiscent of a robot's. Another figure has a beak. All are bald. Several have openings, in the form of keyholes, doorways, or tunnels, in their chests. In one figure's abdomen, a window --no, a medicine cabinet -- reveals a man's face, partially shrouded by netting and, on the cabinet door, a mirror. Connected at the hip to one of the strange man-birds is an armless child-sized being. A blue cup, from which a black palm tree sprouts, balances on its head. A seated man wearing a hat opens the door of what appears to be the interior of a car -- inside another creature's head. The host holds an empty bird cage.

It is at times like these that I wish I had a camerea, to show you the perfect incongruity between this at once horrific and captivating contemporary mural and the crumbling old building it adorns.

The maroon-colored edifice has been shedding slivers of its facade. Shards of glass have cracked or fallen from the windows. Balconies are chipping paint and earning rust. A still-perfect tile, imbedded in the middle of the top story, depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe. Another, lower down, shows two birds, necks craning toward each other, surrounded by flowers that hover in white space. Trees nest on the roof, no garden, but a scraggle of spindly shoots that testifies to the power and persistence of nature. Life adapts. Life continues.

I continue on to my breakfast.

Later in the day, I am at la Ciudadela, my favorite park. I dance with Paco, Ismael (the cigarette-reeking cabbie, one hell of a dancer), the pompadoured salsa instructor -- all acquaintances from previous visits.

A man with whom I danced last night runs up to me as I head toward the rest room. "Remember me?"

I do. Two lead feet, stiff as a board, trying to execute steps far too advanced for him.

"You dance well," he says. "When are you going back to the dance place?"

I shrug and take my leave.

On my way back to the hotel, I stop for a paste, an empanada-like snack. I pick one filled with tuna and chipotle peppers.

I'm in bed, two minutes short of sleep, by 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I´m baaaaack! (Mexico City, Mexico)

(June 28, 2011)

Other than a couple of new faces and the vendor or insane person attempting to sing, off-key, in an ear-splitting monotone that echoes off the walls of my room and makes me want to slit his throat and/or mine, things are pretty much the same at the hotel I call home. The first thing I do after unpacking is go for a walk to see what´s changed in the neighborhood.

I am shocked to discover that my preferred breakfast joint has been shut down, yellow tape strips announcing its closing according to law yadda, yadda, sections such and such. Probably a question of hygiene, or maybe a desire to extract a big fee/bribe for the restaurant to reopen? Who knows and who will tell me?

My favorite chicken rotisserie guy greets me at the restaurant across the street. "Where have you been? I went to Los Angeles to look for you."

"I don´t live in Los Angeles."

I order a quarter of his succulent, crispy skinned chicken from the sullen waitress. Within minutes of its arrival, I polish it off, suck the marrow from the bones. I even eat the the mound of potato chips that accompanies the poultry. I believe this is the way in which I am expressing my grief at the Cafe Rex's demise. I am sad to lose my cheap, filling, nutritious, and delicious breakfasts. More than that, I am worried about the fate of Julieta, my favorite waitress, and of the other employees. Work is hard to come by these days, especially for the not so young.

On my way out of the restaurant, I notice that the door is ajar at Cafe Rex. When I peer in, I see the chickens browning on the rotisserie. I enter and greet Julieta and the others. People are seated at the tables, eating paella, eating chicken, eating as usual.

"What happened?" I ask the owner, the lecherous older man who usually ogles me as if I were some spring chicken and he the fox, ready to spring. Today, he's obviously too absorbed in his restaurant's troubles to trouble me.

"It was a trap," he says, refusing to elaborate.

"Will you be open tomorrow for breakfast?"

"Yes, there´s no problem."

Still hungry, I stop at a hole-in-the-wall fruit stand and consume a bowl of fresh papaya, cantelope, and mango chunks, drenched in chili, salt, and the juice of half a lime.

I spend an hour at an Internet cafe, letting people know I´ve arrived. I´m so tired that I return to my hotel for a nap. After 10 minutes or so, my alarm shrieks me awake. Groggily, I redress.

Emerging from the subway, I am completely disoriented. The streets are closed to vehicular traffic, as thousands of people mull about, almost every one of them carrying a plastic Saint Judas, garlanded with flowers. Some of the saints are the size of a Barbie doll, others a foot or two tall. Occasionally, someone staggers by holding one that is bigger than life-size. I weave my way through the throng, among the men handing out cards covered with prayers and blessings, and around the numerous vendors of rosaries, corn on and off the cob, tortillas, quesadillas, sandwiches, saints, flowers, puppets, and manual can openers. I glimpse the church spires that tell me I'm close to where I want to be, but I can't see the dance hall over the heads of the saints.

After ten or fifteen minutes of false starts and middles, of ending up across the street from my destination, and of forging my way back, I escape the crowds.

"Salsa, tonight? I ask upon arriving at Salon Hidalgo.

"Pura salsa," the ticket taker assures me. "Nothing but."

My best bartender´s face lights up when he sees me. "¡Qué milagro!" What a miracle, indeed.

I sit down at a long table, empty but for a large pocket book slung across the other end. A couple turns up and, upon learning that the seats across from me are free, they drape their jackets on the chair backs and hasten onto the dance floor.

The music is playing. One cumbia follows another. Pura salsa, my eye!

A man holds out his hand. "I don´t know how to dance cumbia," I tell him. He withdraws his hand, along with the rest of him.

A quartet of women enters, searching for seats. I am happy when they join me. (It´s always a good idea not to appear to be alone.) We introduce ourselves: Irene (the only woman whose name I can hear and remember) is a dark skinned beauty with a strong, Mayan profile; there's the friendly, vivacious, and slender dyed-blond; a third woman is elegant in black and pearls; the fourth is very overweight, frowny, heavily made up, and the least receptive to me. We quickly start to joke and laugh. They fan me with their fans, and I wave my hands to do the same for them. The fans are more effective, but not by much. It´s hotter than hell, and we haven't even danced yet.

I walk over to a table to greet someone I recognize. "Don't you teach dance at the Ciudadela?" I ask him.

He leads me to the floor and says, "Yes, and I will give you private lessons wherever you want."

He holds me in a boa death grip; I push him away. He launches into a series of steps that translate into "LOOK AT ME! I AM SUCH A GREAT DANCER!!!!" and that make me look away. As soon as the song ends, I send him a message that translates into "LOOK AT ME! I CAN RUN!" I scurry back to my table.

My other dance partners include a slovenly, bespectacled guy of undeterminable age and girth, who turns out to be a wild man on the dance floor. He spins me multiple times, ending with a dip that drops me to within an inch of my life and the dance floor. An acquaintance from the park catches me on my way to the restroom and drags me into a poor excuse for a cumbia. A profusely sweating, mustachioed walrus of a man leads me so deftly in a cumbia that I remember the rhythms, the steps I've forgotten, and some that I never learned. Four or five other men pull me out of conversation with my new girlfriends. Angel, an excellent, smooth-dancing teddy bear, always hovers in the wings and swoops me onto the floor when nobody else does.

It's only 8:45 p.m., but I am exhausted. Lack of sleep is catching up with me, and my hips are aching. Gotta go!

My girlfriends decide to leave with me. But first, they program my name and hotel phone number into their cell phones. This takes about 10 minutes of yelling the spelling and misspellings of my last name over the band's blaring. Then we wait about 10 minutes for Irene to emerge from the Ladies' Room.

As we dawdle by the stairway, virtually all of my partners come up to me, requesting another dance. I refuse. Then, a young man with whom I haven't danced, asks me to. "Thanks, but I'm too tired and have already taken off my dancing shoes," I tell him. "But look! There are all those women out there waiting for you!"

"But none with blue eyes."

"Oh, no. I think there must be others. You just have to look for them."

The five of us women descend the stairs, stream out into the street and down into the subway. The blond gifts me a rose from a bouquet that she's bought for her mother's birthday. We all hug good night and goodby.