Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blackout Period

I am heading for the hills (literally) for a week, to a small village an hour out of the city of Quetzaltenango, to learn a little Spanish and hang with the locals. Starting tomorrow, I'll be incommunicado (see, I'm learning quickly!), but I'll hopefully have tales to tell about rural Guatemala when I return. See you soon . . .

Street Food

Quetzeltenango, like many Latin American cities, has at its heart a large park, in this case, the Parque Centroamérica, around which cars whip by with little thought for pedestrians trying to cross the street to enjoy the park's gardens, fountains, and shade-filled plaza. Surrounding the park are massive stone buildings housing banks, restaurants, and bars, and to the south is a small market where one can purchase foodstuffs, hardware, and cleaning supplies. It's the smaller sibling to the city's sprawling main market, which is about two kilometers to the northwest, near the bus terminal (which is essentially a parking lot with people milling around, drivers shouting out destinations, and disoriented gringos looking quizzically around, panic-stricken in the chaotic gyre of exhaust, pressing flesh, and thundering buses).

But back to the small market, at the entrance to which is a courtyard that teams with food vendors at night, selling a diverse selection of greasy food for locals and tourists alike who are out for the night and need a little padding in their stomachs before imbibing at the many local bars. Here one can find the Guatemalan version of the famous Mexican antojito ("little whim"), the taco. Unlike the Mexican version, which comes with beef, chicken, or sausage, the Guatemalan taco seems to be exclusively made of pork. As the picture to the right shows, a big pork leg simmers on the side of the taco stove (shaped like those in Mexico), with onions to the left and a large slick of pork grease in the front. The taco vendor soaks the tortillas in pork fat and then fries them in the upraised center of the stove while shredding the pork to order. After the tortillas are nearly rigid from the frying, he scoops up the shredded pork, adds some onions, and forms a sandwich-shaped meal between the tortillas. These tacos are much larger than Mexican tacos. One or two and you are well prepared to continue drinking throughout the night. Corn plus pork plus grease equals a great stomach lining onto which one can add much alcohol, be it tequila or a bitter but cheap local beer called Gallo (I like to call it Cock). (In Mexico, the vendors took great pains to not touch the money with the same hand with which they touched the food; here, though, there's no such precaution. So it makes no sense that I haven't been sick since Mexico, unless antibodies are now coursing through my veins at full strength.)

I was a bit underwhelmed at the Guatemalan taco experience—I think the Mexicans have that lil' whim locked up. But I wasn't about to give up yet. Street food is a traveler's prerogative, and I wasn't about to walk away without finding something to impress. Luckily, a few stalls down, a woman was frying up tiny tortillas with a thin topping of ground beef and salsa in a large pan over a coal fire. Unable to resist, I sidled and queried her as to what the little things were. "Garnachos," she replied, and said a plate was only five quetzales (about 75 cents). That was good enough for me, and I order some. Served up with cabbage salad, a carrot wedge, and a pickled jalepeño, garnachos taste and look like a Latin pizza, and with the vegetables you don't have to feel too bad about all the grease and meat. Perfect for a night out, and preferable (in my opinion) to the uninspired tacos.

But the best was waiting for me for last. As I was buying some roasted-in-the-shell peanuts to snack on later that night (and by roasted, I mean blackened over a fire), I looked in the street and saw a couple of indigenous women crouching in front of a coal fire on which sat a large pan full of hot oil. They were making little balls of dough from water, flour, and other unidentified ingredients, and deep-frying them in the oil. It smelled delicious, so I walked over and demanded to know what they were making. They were vinuelos buñuelos (thanks, Richard), and for about 40 cents I got five of them in a plastic bag coated with an intensely sweet honey-flavored syrup. They reminded me of abelskievers, a Scandinavian-type round breakfast pancake, but these were a dessert/late-night snack. Absolutely delicious! You just let them soak in the plastic bag to soak up the syrup, them pop them out of the bag one by one into your mouth. Yum.

Stomach bursting, I opted to head home. There was no way I could eat or drink anymore, and the night was perfect after gorging myself on the best food one can find when traveling: street food!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Crossing the Border

Having never really traveled extensively in Latin America until this latest trip, the transition from Mexico to Guatemala at the border between the cities of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc (named for the last Aztec emperor) and La Mesilla was, if not quite a shock, eye-opening. Although judging a country by its border cities is certainly a mistake (see Tijuana), the squalor and cacophony of Guatemala overwhelmed me immediately as I crossed the ill-guarded border, which separates the two countries with only a flimsy-looking stanchion supporting a yellow-painted metal bar. People crossed the border willy-nilly, and I had to turn back at one point in order to find the immigration office for an entrance stamp. Once there, the immigration official noted that I hadn't gotten an exit stamp from the Mexican side—which was two kilometers away. Trying to look as pitiful as possible (which wasn't too hard considering the heavy bags, tropical climate, and sweat-streaked shirt I was wearing), I asked if we couldn't just handle it there. And for 20 pesos, he gladly stamped my passport. We'll see if there are problems when I return to Mexico without an exit stamp . . .

The main road into La Mesilla is lined with vendors of all sorts hawking their wares and money-changers idly standing with fists full of quetzales (the Guatemalan banknote), hollering out "cambio" to all passersby. With trash strewn all over, it was decidedly more dirty and chaotic than its Mexican equivalent, which was positively staid in comparison. To reach the bus terminal for points further into the interior, one must hop about a motorcycle taxi for a short ride to a parking lot where the chicken buses load and unload their passengers and cargo (which can include anything, including chickens—hence their name).

After negotiating my fare, I climbed aboard as the driver's assistant tied my baggage onto the top of the bus. I was relieved to find the bus only half full, thinking that I'd have plenty of space to stretch my legs for the four-hour journey to Quetzaltenango, my destination. I would quickly realize the error of my presumption.

Chicken buses are just like the school buses I took as a kid. They have bench seats and little padding, and if you are tall like me you have to double your legs up to fit into the seat. At first, I had a bench all to myself, but as the bus stopped at little cities and towns on the way to Quetzaltenango (or Xela), it quickly filled up and I had to share my seat with an old man. Wedged in tight, everyone was thrown into the air as the bus rolled over the endless speed bumps that apparently are required every quarter mile on Guatemalan highways. Throughout the trip, the driver's assistant scurried on the roof of the bus to retrieve or store baggage from passengers that the bus picked up and dropped off along its route. Sometimes the assistant would still be on the bus's roof as the driver sped off, and he would have to climb down from it and let himself in through the back door (which is used as a regular door, not only as an emergency door, as it was in my school days). It's a truly perilous job, and I couldn't help but wonder what happened when a bus would lurch and the assistant would be thrown off of the bus (it's got to have happened in the past, I imagine).

(Days later, I would read in the local Xela paper that there are bandits along these routes who extort money from the drivers in order to allow them through; the prices they charge varies, and the punishments for not paying range from a casual beating to, in some cases, murder. All in all it's a hard job, and at the price I paid for this considerably long journey (40 quetzales, or about five dollars) not particularly rewarding for the risks involved—whether falling off the rooftop or receiving beating or worse.)

Finally we arrived in Quetzaltenango and I removed my knees from behind my ears and stumbled off the bus on deadened legs. Now all I had to do was lug my baggage through a darkened town to find a suitable hotel. Luckily, I had the Lonely Planet guidebook to show me the way. But unfortunately the map left a lot to be desired. (See this article for an explanation of why guidebooks are sometimes less than accurate.) Needless to say, after much grunting and cussing, I found a bed for the night.

Music From Mexico

I don't remember filing these bits (thanks to the Mayan medicine, I think), but here are some low-light clips from that last night in San Cristóbal. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Last Night, Bleary Morning

My last night in Mexico was marked by many glasses of wine and a couple of shots of tequila (yeah, I know, great combination). To the right is Nadie ("nobody" is Spanish), a wandering musician who makes a living dropping by various bars around town and passing his hat. Unlike other minstrels in town, Nadie actually has a strong rhythmic guitar technique, sort of like Manu Chao. I ran into Nadie while quaffing tequila in a little cantina off the main pedestrian strip in San Cristóbal, taking a break from hunting down the swindler Darius (whom I never did find). Later, Nadie and I went back to the wine bar, from where this picture was taken.

Pictured to the right is Carlo, the proprietor of La Viña de Bacco, my oft-mentioned wine bar of choice in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. This photo, also taken on my last night in town, shows a bottle of bats'i pox, which Carlo recommended over a shot of mescal or tequila. Supposedly a "Mayan medicine," I assumed that the hangover from it wouldn't be as bad as from the other two Mexican liquors. Wrong. I missed my bus to Guatemala the next morning and had to eat the price of another ticket. Furthermore, I was still drunk the next morning. Thanks, Carlo.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

From the Archives

I don't want you all to keep looking at an un-updated page, so here's a (very) brief film of the taco process I posted about a while back. I don't think tacos are on the menu anymore, having left Mexico a couple of days ago.

(What you don't see in the forefront of the frame of this video is a raw chicken breast slowly cooking, its raw juices combining with the other meat; although I didn't get sick at this taco stand, culinary standards such as that might explain why I got ill.)

Fear not! I have a plenty more planned for this blog. I'm in the midst of moving into an apartment(!). Pictures aplenty soon, and more history lessons!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


On about the second night after I arrived here in San Cristóbal, I met a 27-year-old man, whom I will call D. (I don’t want to give out his name yet because I might be wrong as to his intentions, and I don’t want to accidentally slander him.) I first met him at the wine bar I’ve written about in the previous post. He was friendly and well-spoken, dressed in a gray sweater vest over a short-sleeve striped olive shirt, and wearing baggy cargo-type gray shorts and flip-flops. (The same outfit he’d be wearing every day for the next week, for reasons explained below.) He’s about 5-foot-7, with dark, medium-length hair and a typical traveler-type overgrown short shaggy beard. I can’t remember what we talked about that first night, probably innocuous small talk about where we’re both from, where we’re going, jobs back home, etc.—the normal topics of conversation when one meets a person while traveling. In his case, he claimed he was Lebanese-born, now living in Manhattan with a job at Morgan Stanley as an MIT-trained mathematician. He said he was on a long trip through the south of Mexico and through Central and South America, ultimately due to end up in Buenos Aires in approximately a month. Soon, over the course of the conversation, he said he had Asberger’s disorder, and he demonstrated the lack of affect during that and subsequent conversations which I associate with autism (or sociopathy, as we shall see later). D. constantly bragged about his sexual conquests, which I found a little disconcerting, but this behavior is none too uncommon for many men, so I paid little attention to it, and I chalked up his lack of discretion as just a manifestation of his Asperger’s. He did have a way of insinuating himself into the confidence of many people, including me, and I would witness this many times in the next few days. His fluency in languages—among them Arabic, French, Spanish, and Japanese—certainly allowed him to talk to and gain the trust of many people. (The picture is sheet music that he made while we were listening to a cello concert; he claims to be able to transcribe music as he hears it. Can anybody read music and tell me if it looks kosher?)

Later on during that first night, D. told me that that his luggage had been stolen. He was waiting for American Express to ship another card out to him, and in lieu of payment his hotel was hanging on to his passport as guarantee of payment. I took pity on him and paid for the drinks that night, and he said he’d pay me back the next day, when his card was certain to come. I even slipped him a 50-peso note on the way out so that he could eat the next day.

We met the next night, and he said his card still hadn’t arrived, that it was held up at the Oaxaca DHL distribution hub—and you know, the Mexican notion of mañana, mañana was working against him. At no time did he ask for money, and believing him, I always offered to buy drinks. This continued for a couple of days, with me always paying for drinks—no more than $5 worth, except one night when we went to a club and ordered a bottle of tequila for $50. (Oh, sweet hangover the next day, that was a mistake!) And I’d slip him a 20- or 50-peso note for food at the end of the night.

Throughout these nights a brief outline of D.’s moral character started to emerge, and I wasn’t too impressed by it. He bragged about cuckolding a man, than going out to lunch with him and his girlfriend, whom D. had slept with earlier that day. He told me about a lecture his boss once gave him about the business he was in, about profiting off of other people’s losses, and laughed about his boss’s concern that he worked merely for the sake of greed (which he had no problem with). And one night he was trying his best to seduce a married woman in front of her toddler child. He had no conception of moral responsibility to others. Frankly, I was getting sick of being around him. But how could I not meet him every night, when that night (which never came) was the night that he would pay me back? (Besides, he appealed to my own sense of greed by saying that he had so many frequent-flyer miles racked up that he’d give me a round-trip ticket from Guatemala to Venezuela. When he first offered it, I shrugged it off as too good to be true. But he was so incessant with his offer, I finally said I’d take him up on it. I’ll let the reader guess as to whether that panned out or not.)

The last night I saw D., he said that he was flying to the DHL hub in Oaxaca to pick up his Amex card himself. He promised that he’d meet me the next night to pay me back, and then asked me, for the first time, for some money. I loaned him 220 pesos, shook his hand, and offered him luck. Perhaps my doubt was showing through, because he insisted that luck had nothing to do with it: He’d have his Amex card by early the next morning.

Needless to say, I never saw him again.

Several things that should have alerted me but I was too oblivious to:

  • Why was his Amex card stolen, but not his passport?

  • He needed his passport to board a plane to Oaxaca, yet he said he his hotel was holding it in lieu of payment. How did he get on the plane?

  • Why did his e-mail address use the domain, when google uses

  • Why did he give me a telephone number with an 847 area code, which is for the Chicago area, when he purportedly lives in New York City?

  • If he was such a big spender with a platinum Amex card, why didn’t American Express try a little harder to get it to him in a timely manner?

  • Why couldn’t he simply get money wired from his work, if he was such a money earner like he said?

  • And if I am wrong with my suspicions, why hasn’t he e-mailed me to apologize?

All in all, I am out about $70 to $75, which is a pretty small sum to have been conned out of. In fact, that’s what makes it so perplexing: Why all the trouble of lying to me and inventing all these stories for such a meager sum? Perhaps it’s that being a con man is like any other sort of addiction, and the payoff is in the con, not the amount swindled. Maybe my simply believing his story was enough to give him the rush he was after. That, together with his in-retrospect sexual-addiction behavior, paint a picture of a man living on impulse alone, with little regard for the people he interacts with. Whether it’s due to Asperger’s or because he is simply a self-absorbed sociopath, it’s a sad life that I saw a glimpse of, and I wonder how it will all wind up in the end. Probably none too prettily. I am glad that I’m through with my association with him.

Unfortunately, people like him (and there are a lot of really sketchy characters in places where travelers congregate) make it hard for others who are on the road. People do get all their possessions stolen at times. And people do depend on the kindness of strangers. But they will not be able to depend on me anymore. Thanks to people like D., I won’t trust them anymore.

Update: Hours after writing this post, while I was (of course) back in the wine bar trying to ease the pain of being swindled, a burly enraged Israeli man ran up to Carlo the proprietor, looking for D. (Darius, I can can tell you now that his criminality has been corroborated). This man was staying at the same hostel as Darius, and was now missing some articles of clothing. It seems that in addition to my 200 pesos, Darius took this man's shoes and fleece jacket! We talked briefly, commiserating together, and laughed it off. He did say, though, that he's putting the word out over the Internet (as I guess I have too).

Monday, April 14, 2008

They Sell Codeine Here, Don't They?

Hmm …. I've traveled thousands of miles, only to be struck down by a serious head cold. Before I left Brooklyn, two weeks ago, it seemed that everyone in the neighborhood was coming down with a particularly vicious bug that laid them up for days at a time. I remember running into rheumy, congested friends on the street and keeping my distance, going so far as to even holding my breath so as not to get their infection—and I thought it worked. Aside from some gastric distress, I've been very fit for this expedition. Now, however, I've got a throat as dry as a husk and a throbbing headache that just won't let me fall asleep. All I can do is wrap myself in a blanket and wait, wait, wait.

I was planning on heading out to Guatemala tomorrow, but if I'm in bed all day today I might delay my departure. There's a lovely little wine bar down the street, La Viña de Bacco, run by a friendly Italian fellow, Carlo. On my first visit there, on a late Wednesday afternoon, I drank five glasses of a passable red wine, along with free botanitas, small plates of bruschetta, ham, cheese, and olives. My bill came to a startling $9. It's a dangerous sort of place if, like me, you enjoy an early drink. It's so comfy, good, and cheap that it's tough to get out the door before you start swaying. And unlike a lot of touristy spots in town, the owner and management remembers and greets you, and makes you feel welcome, something that is missing in a lot of other joints in this town.

Oh well …. Anybody know the Spanish for "really strong cough suppressant"?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nuestra Lucha No Entiende de Fronteras

The city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, located in the Joval valley of the Chiapas highlands, was named after Bartolomé de Las Casas, a former conquistador who experienced a religious conversion and entered the Dominican order in 1510. Formerly an encomendero himself, Las Casas renounced his encomiendas (rights to the labor or tribute of Indians; basically villages or towns with what the Spanish could do as they liked) after witnessing the savagely brutal treatment of the indigenous Americans at the hands of their Spanish overseers. (A startling book to read on this subject is American Holocaust, which is a catalog of the murder, mutilation, rape, and near-extinction of Native Americans at the hands of the European invader.) Las Casas wrote the polemic A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies and persuaded King Carlos I to enact the New Laws of 1542, which protected, in the theory, Indians from the very worst excesses of the encomienda system. In 1545, Las Casas was appointed the first bishop of the state of Chiapas. The original liberation theologian, Las Casas was a tireless advocate for indigenous Americans throughout the rest of his life, eventually even arguing for restitution for the wealth that Spain had plundered and suggesting that the lands be returned to the native peoples. (Engraving to right is of Spanish invader Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) in Central America executing Indians with mastiffs, by Théodore De Bry (1528-1598))

How fitting, then, that on Jan. 1, 1994—the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect—the forces of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, named after the Mexican Revolution hero Emiliano Zapata) seized control of San Crisóbal and demanded that the government hear their grievances. Led by the masked Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle before abandoning the city and disappearing into the Chiapas jungle. (The First Declaration was essentially a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which the EZLN considered illegitimate; after being routed from the city on Jan. 12, 2004, the EZLN underwent a transformation into a pacifist revolutionary group. Now on its Sixth Declaration, issued in 2005, the EZLN is more of a social justice group, at home and abroad.)

The EZLN—which is largely composed of indigenous people from Chiapas (notwithstanding Subcomandante Marcos, a former university professor originally from the state of Tamaulipas) who live in poverty and face discrimination and evictions from the racist wealthy landowners in the state—have set up several autonomous communities in the Chiapas highlands and jungles. Entrance to the villages is strictly limited; the Mexican police and army are not permitted to enter. Juntas with rotating memberships govern the villages, ensuring that everyone in the community has a chance to serve and corruption is minimized.

An hour and a half out of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the small village of Oventik lies nestled in Los Altos, the Chiapas highlands. It’s reached by combi, a small van that departs from the north of San Cristóbal’s main plaza, in a neighborhood where few non-Mexican faces are seen. The combi station is really nothing more than a corrugated-steel roof attached to a concrete wall, surrounded by sidewalk venders hawking household goods, clothes, tools, and pirated CDs, taco and tamale stalls, and elote (boiled large-kernel corn, topped with mayo, salsa, and cheese) pushcarts that fill the air with the fragrance of burning charcoal and maize.

Once the combi fills up, the drive takes you through a verdant series of undulating mountains and valleys, around hairpin turns where you can catch glimpses of goats grazing, Indian women washing laundry at the side of the road, and spring crops pushing their way up through the soil on the terraced hillsides. An occasional plume of smoke wafts across the road from a controlled burn on the hillside, to clear it of trees for future planting.

Finally, the combi stops on the side of the highway overlooking a valley at the entrance to the village. Oventik is Zapatista-controlled, which means that its main road has a steel gate blocking it, with a watchman standing guard, face covered by a bandana. Visitors must present their passports to him, which he carries to a small shack next to the road. After waiting for 10 minutes in the hot sun, while the reception committee is presumably deciding whether to allow any more people in that day, the guard returns and waves the visitors through the gate and into the shack. Inside, two balaclava-clad men—one young, who does most of the talking, and one old—sit at a desk where the visitors’ passports are stacked. The younger man gives a curt buenas tardes and produces a questionnaire that asks for the visitors’ nationalities, what their jobs are, the reasons for visiting the town, the length of stay, what organizations they are affiliated with, and if they have been in Oventik before. Passports are then returned to the owners, who are then directed to the village’s governing junta, across the road in another wooden shack painted with colorful murals.

Inside this building, the junta de buen gobierno (good-government council) sits at a long table—two women and four men, all wearing balaclavas with only their eyes showing. An old man sits in the middle, and the atmosphere is chilly. Once again, questions are asked about the reasons for visiting the village. The junta speaks Spanish to the visitors, but they interject the interview with asides to each other in their native Tzotile dialect, which has a sharp character to the way it sounds, along with a peculiarity that has the intonation of chewing. Visitors are sent outside to wait on a bench and, presumably because of the poor Spanish attempted by some during the interview process, laughter is heard resonating from inside while the junta debates the visitors’ fate. Finally, a member of the junta—a small woman with a fierce glare in traditional Tzotile garb (a white blouse with red-embroidered shoulders and chest, a dark voluminous skirt with an embroidered sash)—bids the visitors to enter once again. After they sit down, the old man in the middle informs the visitors that they are granted access to the town for the fiesta that is happening that day (who knew?), and that it is strictly forbidden to take any pictures of anyone wearing a balaclava. After agreeing to the rule, the visitors are dismissed.

The village has only one road, which is paved when it first braches out from the highway, but turns to rock and gravel after several hundred feet. Lining both sides are the aforementioned junta and reception shacks, both painted in brilliant colors with Zapatista-themed murals. There is a café/corner store, a couple of textile shops, and a well-constructed adobe-walled clinic. Behind this tiny commercial district are the living quarters for the villagers, nothing more than simple hovels made from planks and corrugated steel. The village is on a hillside of a small valley, in the center of which is a large plaza and open-air basketball court. The fiesta is a staid affair: A band plays Mexican ballads in the shade, and a basketball tournament takes place in front (the participants include a girls’ team, most of whom are dressed in the Tzotile style, which in no way handicaps their surprising good athleticism). Villagers stake out spots in the shade, or hang back in the tree line at the edge of the clearing to escape the heat of the afternoon sun. A sprinkling of venders sell fried plátanos, churros, and soda. Off to the side of the plaza sits the new secondary school, which also has murals depicting the Zapatistas, their symbols, and their progenitor. (The spaceship EZLN, pictured above, filled with masked Zapatistas while a campesino strides the earth (notice the peeled ear of corn to the left, with each kernal containing a masked Zapatista); villagers find shade in picture to the right; the new secondary school, below.)

Unlike San Cristóbal, the women and children do not mob tourists and try to sell them everything under the sun (whether that be traditional weaving and textiles or horrific mass-produced trinkets that are as likely to originate in China as in Mexico). Instead, there seems to be a quiet dignity to the people here. There is wrenching poverty, to be sure, but it seems that with the autonomy of the village comes an autonomy of their lives. Instead of begging for change, as the children do in San Cristóbal, the children here smile at the tourists, or just look away. The women sit in the shade and laugh at the tall, white gringo; instead of demanding money when asked for their photo to be taken, they giggle and firmly decline. (Picture to the right was taken on the sly.)
The men are much less shy, and they wear modern, western-influenced clothing: cowboy boots, an occasional hat, jeans, and gaudy belts. They nod when nodded to, and some even allow their pictures to be taken against the backdrop of a mural. (Notice the corn motif in this and other murals; maize is a venerated plant throughout Mexico.)

There’s not much to do in Oventik besides laze around, watch the basketball tournament, eat fried plátanos and look at the murals. Toward the end of the afternoon, one can stop by the café and order a platter of huevos a la Mexicana (eggs with tomatoes, chiles, and onions—red, green, and white, the colors of the Mexican flag), buy a T-shirt with a Zapatista slogan emblazoned on it, and nod goodbye to the young man sitting outside the reception shack—now not wearing his balaclava and no longer anonymous to the world (perhaps now you can be trusted, now that you’ve spent the day in town?). Then you step outside the steel gate—back in Mexican-controlled territory again—and sit at the side of the highway with a friendly gray Zapata-dog to wait for the combi to pick you up, and the winding, vertiginous ride back to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Letter to Philip Marlowe

I’m sitting beside a second-floor window in a room in a not too clean hotel in a town called Otatocán, a mountain town with a lake. There’s a mailbox just below the window and when the mozo comes in with some coffee I’ve ordered he is going to mail the letter for me and hold it up so that I can see it before he puts it in the slot. When he does that he gets a hundred-peso note, which is a hell of a lot of money for him.

Why all the finagling? There’s a swarthy character with pointed shoes and a dirty shirt outside the door watching it. He’s waiting for something, I don’t know what, but he won’t let me out. It doesn’t matter too much as long as the letter gets posted. . . .

I have written a confession. I feel sick and more than a little scared. You read about these situations in books, but you don’t read the truth. When it happens to you, when all you have left is the gun in your pocket, when you are cornered in a dirty little hotel in a strange country, and have only one way out—believe me, pal, there is nothing elevating or dramatic about it. It is just plain nasty and sordid and gray and grim.

So forget about it and me. But first drink a gimlet for me at Victor’s. And the next time you make coffee, pour me a cup and put some bourbon in it and light me a cigarette and put it beside the cup. And after that forget the whole thing. Terry Lennox over and out. And so goodbye.

A knock at the door. I guess it will be the mozo with the coffee. If it isn’t, there will be some shooting. I like Mexicans, as a rule, but I don’t like their jails. So long.


The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chander

Taqueria 'Laura' Made Me Sick

Try as I might, I’ve never found a legitimate Mexican-style taco in my wanderings throughout the United States. One would think, what with nearly half of the country being Mexican territory until only 150-odd years ago, that there would be some authentic tacos somewhere. (All due apologies to Voice food scribe Sietsama, but I’ve done the suggested Queens taco crawl, and, even though some were quite good, none came close to the real thing.) That’s not to say there’s no good Mexican-American food: Witness the great and grande Mission-style burrito, which sustained me throughout my three-and-a-half-year sojourn in San Francisco.

The best tacos, though, that I’ve tasted stateside were purchased from a shack just outside the Las Vegas downtown, or whatever they call that hell of a simulacrum with all the casinos. They were done the right way: two small soft-shell (never ever hard-shell) corn tortillas lightly fried with chopped up pieces of beef on top and sprinkled with onion. But those, as good as they were, still were lacking a certain something.

Well, straight off the plane four days ago, when I first arrived in Mexico City, I immediately took the metro to the Insurgentes station and walked up the street to where in the past I’ve found the best street food. Sure enough, at my usual corner (forgive me being so nonspecific, but I lost my notebook on the bus ride to Chiapas), was a taco stand with the typical steel cooking bowl overflowing with several kinds of meat. In the middle of the bowl, surrounded by chorizo, beef, tripe, longaniza, and other fleshy victuals, was a raised section of the bowl on which the cook could splash the assorted fats and grease that accumulated along the sides, with which he gently heated the tortillas. This, I’m convinced, is the certain ne plus ultra of authentic Mexican taco preparation: the grease. We estadounidenses (people from the U.S.A.), as fat as we are, are repelled by grease. But it’s this grease, I think, that makes a Mexican taco so delicious. And at this taco stand, I bought all five of these little sliders for only 15 pesos—that’s less than a buck and a half.

It’s a simple meal that should be so easy to make, yet seldom is north of the border. Adding to the dilemma, the preferred drink of choice, a Coca-Cola, is made with corn sweetener in the U.S. Down south, it’s made with cane sugar. There’s a taste difference there that makes all the difference in the world.

Addendum: After eating this street feast, I was sick for three days. Now, I know certain people distrust all street food, and I know that Mexican sanitary conditions sometimes—OK, most of the time—aren’t up to the standards exhibited in the U.S. Nevertheless, I always get sick in Mexico within the first week, and now, four days later, I am fine. So there. I say enjoy street food and deal with the sickness if it comes.

(In all fairness, Taqueria 'Laura' did not get me sick--in fact, it was closed when I walked by. But it was too good not to take a picture of, and if you can't blame your friends, whom can you?)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

¡Mantequilla por Nadia!

Pictured to the right is Essenzia Española, a très chic boutique in the ultra-rico neighborhood of Colonia Polanco in Mexico City. That ol' Red Hooker Nadia has her brand, Butter, duly represented in Chilangolandia. I passed by this store on a very hot and smoggy day, and I was afraid to step inside, what with the sweat stains on my shirt and the security guards armed with really big guns. (I haven't a clue why Nadia's designs denote any "Spanish essence," but it's a stronger selling point than "Brooklyn essence," or, God forbid, "Pennsylvania essence.")

Colonia Polanco is a bit of a weird section of town: The people there are noticeably paler there than in other neighborhoods in Mexico City. This is due to the oligarchy of Mexico having fairer skin than the average Mexican. (And Polanco is the home of the oligarchy; even a well-off New Yorker can feel impoverished when strolling through this nabe.) You do find typically Mexican-looking Mexicans there, though, but they are largely confined to menial tasks, like washing the sidewalks and serving up food at the restaurants. (Sad to say, it's similar to the United States, where as forward-thinking as we like to think we are, there is a huge racial divide in social rank.)

Speaking of food, a taqueria in Polanco was responsible for my getting a bad case of food poisoning two years ago. Perhaps it was because I ate there on Mexico's Election Day 2006, when no alcohol at all is served in Mexico? (Does alcohol act as an antiseptic? Or was this a masterful scheme of the right-wing party PAN and its oligarch candidate, Calderón, to indispose me at a critical moment so that I couldn't expose his fraudulent election victory? Nah.)

More on tacos and stomach problems later. I've been doing a bit of research for the past three days, and I have much to discuss.

Oh My . . .