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.