Thursday, April 30, 2009

At home in Mexico

The date is Thursday, April 30, 2009. I am at home in Guanajuato. I know this because, as cooks the world over know, being "at home" means having rice, beans, pasta, onions, and garlic in the pantry, fresh fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator, some protein in the freezer, and a pot of chicken stock on the stove.

But settling into my new beautiful home in Guanajuato has also meant coming down off the thrill of The Road Trip. Writing these posts, telling the stories of my adventures, has been helpful in bringing me into the present, allowing me to process all that I saw and smelled and thought of as the road flew beneath me for almost 2,500 miles.

The stats for the trip:
  • I started the trip on Tuesday, April 7 when I left my home in Happy Valley, Santa Cruz, California at 1pm. I arrived in Marfil, a district of the city of Guanajuato in the state of the same name seven days later on Monday, April 13, at 4:30pm. Total travel time = 147.5 hours; 95 in the US and 52.5 in Mexico.
  • I started out slowly - it took me 4 full days to leave California and head east into Arizona and to the border, about 1000 miles in total, and gained speed in Mexico, where I covered about 1500 miles in 2 days.
  • I spent about $140 USD on gas.
  • Tolls in Mexico totaled $109 USD, which works out to about 7 cents per mile. For this nominal fee I had well maintained roads that were patrolled by the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels), a fleet of roadside service vehicles that prowl the highways of Mexico 24 hours a day looking for motorists in need. (They're rather like AAA except that they're out there looking for you and it's free.) There were gas stations with clean bathrooms and mini-supers all along the route, and safe and sane fellow drivers.
My observations:
  • People throughout the trip were - as I have always found in my travels in Mexico - kind and helpful. This time they were also a little incredulous that I was making this trip solita (alone).
  • There were a few times during the trip when I was afraid. They were: 1) when I thought I might have done some damage to the tire by hitting the Invisible Cement Thing, 2) the morning that I was getting dangerously low on gas while counting the kilometers to the next Pemex station, and 3) a couple of times when, while driving, I could feel my eyes drooping from the sameness, not from tiredness. Cranking up the tunes and singing along helped with this one.
  • The highlights of the trip inside Mexico were 1) the absolute zaniness at the border and the necessary "logic adjustment" that followed, 2) driving Karina the toll-taker home to Santa Ana, 3) my guardian angels Carmen and Manuel in Guaymas, 4) staying in a No Tell Motel, and 5) the delicious barbacoa outside of Guadalajara.
For the record: I saw NO narco-traficante action, no rolling heads, and certainly no police state in Mexico. (I think Anderson Cooper should be made to wear a silly hat and stand in the corner for his shenanigans in the combat suit. Reminds me of a presdent we once had.) I'm not denying that drug-related problems exist, I am saying that crossing the border and then driving 1500 miles in Mexico with my eyes wide open, I saw none of these problems. No kidnappings, no drug cartels, and no police or army personnel. (I take that back. Somewhere around Hermosillo I saw three army jeeps filled with guys in uniform heading north. It looked liked the kind of thing you see in the US - first vehicle said "First in Convoy" and the last vehicle said " End of Convoy." I have no idea where they were going or what they were doing.)

Let me sum this up: My experience driving alone from the US border to Central Mexico was absolutely delightful. I felt completely safe. I was looked after and well cared for by everyone with whom I had contact. The coffee in the ubiquitous OXXO markets was terrible, but that is really my only complaint. I'd do it again in a minute. And I will, in June when it's time to go home.

Okay, off the caja de jabón and on to life in Guanajuato...

Dear Faye was here for the first two days and plenty of time was spent learning all the rules of a new house: when to pay whom, which keys open which locks, where to put the garbage, how to turn the lights on, etcetera.
We rested, we read, and on Faye's last day in Mexico we spent a glorious late afternoon in downtown Guanajuato on the rooftop terrace of Alma de Sol, my pal Hugo's B&B, then had a wonderful dinner overlooking the Jardín Unión, the main plaza of Guanajuato. Over Frito Mixto and Osso Bucco at an Italian place called El Frescatti, we looked down upon the bustling town as the marvelous cacophony drifted up to us: Mariachi, Ranchero, Norteña, and Spanish-style troubadours in Renaissance garb (Estudiantinas) all played at once, seemingly oblivious to each other as they belted out everything from De Colores in six-part harmony, the crowd swaying and singing along, to El Mariachi Loco, a song that Hugo always rewrites in the moment to tell my story: "Esta gringa loca quiere bailar, esta gringa loca quiere cantar." (This crazy gringa wants to dance, this crazy gringa wants to sing. And he's right!) It was a glorious only-in-Guanajuato evening made even more special by sharing it with Her Fayeness and Hugito.
The next day I dropped Faye off at the airport and officially began my two months living in Guanajuato. As I said, the way I feel at home in a place is to fill the larder, so I went straight to the grocery store. I figured I'd take the toro by the cuernos, as it were, so I went to the newish behemoth grocery store that had grown on the hill since I left in 2003 and I perused every single aisle to 1) learn what people eat here (or, at least, what the store owners believe people eat here), and 2) figure out what I and the people I planned to entertain would eat here. One thing that never fails to impress me in Mexico is the enormous variety and quantity of yogurt products available in the markets. This is just a corner of the yogurt department:


Over $200 USD later (an enormous sum to spend on food in Mexico) I had jamon serrano (think prosciutto), arrachera (a thin cut of beef very popular here for grilling) and chorizo of two types in the freezer; goat cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, and Parmesan cheese in the reefer; papaya, mangoes, bananas, limes, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce soaking in a disinfectant solution in the sink, wine in the rack and sparkling water chilling, and enough nosh-type goodies in the house to handle snacks for drop-in guests. My Full Larder = Happy Heart syndrome had been addressed and its needs met. The temperature outside was a dry 90 degrees Fahrenheit and I haven't lived through an East Coast winter since 1989, but it's clear to me that this drive comes from a deep-seated need to know that if we get snowed in I can feed us all for a week.

The stock pot simmered away. I started calling people, telling them that I was town, making plans. (If a cook knows she's home when the pantry is stocked, a caterer knows she's arrived when the first dinner party is scheduled.) I met a friend who makes goat's milk yogurt so I bought some and started making myself a papaya lassi for breakfast every morning. (Absolutely delicious. Just needed a pinch of cardamom and I found some yesterday.)

On Saturday I went to a "tea party" where I met at least fifteen new-to-me North American women who moved to Guanajuato since I left in 2003. After lunch I spent a good hour chismear-ing (Spanglish for gossiping) with two older gals whom I met on my second day in Mexico in December 1994. Sunday afternoon I attended an excellent concert at the Gene Byron Museum across the street from my house. Wonderful accessible jazz music played by four darling young men, all students at the University of Guanajuato. Cuarteto Obsidiana, The Obsidian Quartet. Later in the afternoon I visited with the younger crowd in town at a BBQ at El Fusilado, a way cool mescal bar in Valenciana. A full weekend.

That night a cool wind began to blow. And blow. It had been very warm, 90s, so it was a welcome respite. I slept with the bedroom door open to the garden to enjoy the breeze and the view of the mountains. I the morning it was still cool and breezy and the room was littered with bright pink bougainvillea flowers. Gorgeous.

Ignacio the gardener came by that afternoon for a couple of hours to pour gallons and gallons of water onto the parched earth. I was sitting at my desk writing and watching him outside when I began to hear...thunder? No way, not in April; this is the dry season before the rains begin in June. But Guanajuato is laced with tunnels (it's a mining town, after all) so I figured they were working on a new tunnel and I was hearing the explosions of dynamite, a common sound in Guanajuato.

But it got louder and the sky turned a steel blue and suddenly it began to pour. Big time. Like run-madly-through-the-house-closing-doors-and-windows pour. By the time I hit the third storey it had changed to hail and I was being pounded with little pellets of ice. I grabbed my camera and tried to catch a few pix of this amazing phenomena. (Note the hose that was dropped mid-watering as Ignacio ran to get out of the storm.)

And I'm thinking, Yahoo! If we get "hailed in" I'll be able to feed the neighborhood for three days!

Some photos of my lovely casa...







Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Camino de Guanajuato

Monday, April 13 was Day #7 of the Road Trip of My Dreams and turned out to be the final day as well. Yes, gentle readers, by the time you've finished reading this post I - and therefore you, vicariously - will have arrived at our final destination of Guanajuato, Guanajuato. And once I have completed the process of blogging forward through the past I can get to the real reason to have a blog: pontificating on all manner of subjects about which I know a lot or a little. But, first, back to the past...

Having gone to bed so early last night (I had no internet connection and one can only watch just so much opera on TV...) I was wide awake at 5am. Well, at least, I thought it was 5am. For all I knew I may have crossed into a new time zone by now and then there was the elusive (to me, anyway - just ask my Monarchs and Diana Kennedy tour group!) Daylight Savings time change that had apparently taken place in Mexico over the weekend. But you know what, who cares about any of that when you're on a road trip? You drive while the sun is up and you hope to be safely holed up in a hotel room by the time it goes down. Ya, basta, throw the watch away.

Based on the maps I was using (which turned out to be terribly out of date) it looked like I had about a 12 hour drive ahead of me to make it from Mazatlán all the way to Guanajuato, and my supposed 8-hour days were already taking me 10, so I figured I'd best get going. Quite honestly, I wondered if it was wise to try to do this entire drive in one day, but I figured I'd give it my best shot and we'd see how far I could go.I hit the road just about sunrise, this time following the coast southeast toward Tepic, and from there up into the central highlands of Jalisco (think tequila and mariachi) and then almost directly west to Guanajuato. I called friend Faye in Guanajuato to tell that I hoped to make it today but certainly not until evening.

The route from Mazatlán, Sinaloa to Tepic, Nayarit, was a relatively new toll road, so I tooled along nicely. I had filled up the tank the night before, so my only stops were for intake and output of coffee and to pay the tolls. Quite honestly, I don't really remember much about this part of the trip, so I'm guessing that the road signs weren't quite as funny as they had been (or I was getting used to them?) and the scenery was pretty much like it was the day before: dry but with a tropical twist (in that there were bananas and papayas and cars parked under palapas), fields of corn, mango orchards, and a road that went virtually straight ahead for as far as the eye could see. I was mostly just trying to make good time while driving safely, singing along to old radio shows I'd done that I had loaded on to the iPod (cue up Pink Martini, Holly Cole, Joan Osborne, Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou, Feist, and more...) But oh, that Dixie Chicks song! It was hitting me where I live, quite literally.

I made a commitment to myself in 2003 to play the Chicks on every show I ever do after they were nixed from most country stations in response to Natalie Maines saying, upon our invasion in Iraq, that she was ashamed of her fellow Texan then-President Bush. As far as I'm concerned you're welcome to agree or disagree with her hasta las vacas regresan a la casa, but for an entire block of radio stations to decide to censor the airwaves like that? No way. So I figured I'd make my own little bit of a difference once a month on KZSC by making sure they were given airtime.

Back to today's soundtrack... the song the Chicks were singing was "Godspeed" from their excellent album entitled "Home". (I wish I knew how to link to it from here, but just go buy the CD if you don't already own it. It's all good.) This one song was written by Radney Foster and is a sweet lullaby to a son. I don't have a son, but I do have a wonderful 5-year old housemate named Jess who is one of the very brightest lights in my well illuminated life. And okay, I admit it, sometimes living with a 5-year old is a challenge, but I adore this little guy and I miss him something wicked when we're apart. I hadn't had much time to think about home and Happy Valley since I'd left, but when this song came and I heard their gorgeous harmonies singing "Godspeed, little man. Sweet dreams, little man. My love will fly to you each night on angel wings. Godspeed. Sweet dreams." it hit me with a wallop just how much I love him and how hard it was going to be to be away from him for two whole months. Made me all teary-eyed I got that "open hearted" feeling in my chest. Here's the reason why:
Jess, a.k.a Jackie Brown, Tooter, and Bug. Pretty cute, eh?
Oh, hey, hi, Jess. Howya doin'?

Okay, back to the trip. I was making great time. I hit Tepic before 9am. Had I more time I would have stopped just to see it. Nayarit is a state populated by Huichol and Cora indigenous people about whom I know very little and am eager to learn more. Maybe on the way back...there is a Sunday market I'd like to see.

The road from Tepic to Guadalajara was epic, as my friend Harlan would say. We climbed and climbed, then dipped and dove, over what looked to be volcanic mountains. Gorgeous! As I reached the central highlands I saw in the distance the purple clouds of jacarandas in bloom - first of the trip - and passed acres and acres of blue agave, the steel-blue spiky type grown for making tequila. A whole new world lay before me.

By this point I had switched over to listening to podcasts I'd downloaded to Most Beloved iPod. Coverville for ideas for the radio show, and The Splendid Table, which was, in fact, just splendid. I especially loved the February 28 show on Mexico, don't miss it! It provides such an informative and happy antidote to the "news" about Mexico you're seeing on TV. And the episode with the wonderful Steve Sando, El Señor de los Frijoles of Rancho Gordo in Napa, CA, on March 28 was great too.

The road was flying beneath me, I was almost to Guadalajara and it was only 11am. Those new tolls roads really made a difference. That, and not taking the turn off to the town of Tequila. Yes, I, gentle reader, I took the road less traveled by and that made all the difference...
...about lunch, that is. Because I was making such good time I decided to stop at the fabulous little restaurant I had discovered in 2002 while working with Bon Appétit on their May 2003 Soul of Mexico issue.

Vicente, my dear friend who was our driver for most of that rather grueling 28-days-and-22-shots-in-18-different-locations road trip, had dropped the rest of the team off at the airport in Guadalajara early that morning and now just he and I were going to drive out to the coast and meet them in Puerto Vallarta in time for the "Shrimp in Sayulita" shot the next day. It was a sweet day of travel and communion between two good friends - no pressure, no egos, no worrying about the light and shadows - just us pals on a road trip in a country we both love. Vicente, bless his soul, had his priorities in order when he suggested we stop for almuerzo (late hearty breakfast, more like our lunch) before we set off into the mountains and from there to the coast. It was a very good call.

After we left the city but before we hit the mountains we saw this place on the side of the road serving lamb a million different ways in a restaurant familiar (family-friendly, casual restaurant) and we both immediately knew, "This is the place." We stopped, we ate, I had that out-of-my-skin-excited feeling I get when something is so good, so pure, so real. I had dreamed of returning to this nameless house of culinary wonderfulness ever since.

I had a very clear picture in my mind of where it was - just outside of the city in the foothills just before you begin the climb. No name, but hey, who needs a name? I'd know the place from a mile a way, it was that good. As I made my descent and approached the outskirts of the city I started looking on my left...and there it was! La Fogata, The Bonfire! Borrego Al Pastor, Birria, Barbacoa...it was all there, just as I'd remembered it.

And it was just as good as I remembered it. (How often can you say that?) I ordered up a plate of barbacoa, chunks of tender lamb wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked over a wood fire, home made tortillas, a pile of cactus and tomato salad on the side, and served with a steaming cup of the consomé, the broth that is created as the meat cooks. Only one thing was missing and that was easily remedied, "Una cervesa, por favor."

I did my best to make a dent in the giant plate of tender meaty goodness, then had the rest wrapped up to take to Faye. This was a dining experience that begged to be shared, and I knew she'd appreciate it. One quick cup of cafe de la olla (coffee boiled in a pot, usually with a little cinnamon and often with way too much sugar - today's wasn't bad) and I was back on the highway. Not for long, however...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I remembered from a folk art-buying trip with Joan Summers years ago that there was a periférico (beltway) around Guadalajara and I was quite certain I wanted to take that rather than drive straight through the center of Mexico's second largest city in the middle of a work day. This was my decision even though my memories of the trip with Joan included driving around and around and around the city on said periférico until we all started singing "Oh did they ever return, no they never returned....they will ride forever on the periférco de Guadalajara, they're the gringos who never returned." But heck, that was over ten years ago, the roads and signage were clearly better now. It didn't even bother me that on the map I had it looked like the beltway had a piece missing that I was going to need because my own experience this morning had already proved to me that the roads were better than what the maps showed. And hey, I'd driven in Mexico long enough to know that "maps" and "Mexico" only belong in sentences with the words "don't always work in" in them.

So on I drove, headed straight to where the periférico abruptly ended and the rubber hit the dirt. I am not kidding and I took this picture to prove it. This was taken literally five minutes after I had been barrelling along the big six-lane highway at 65 mph.
So...it really did just end just like it showed on the map. Hmmm. I was suddenly on dusty back roads in the southeastern reaches of the city of Guadalajara. I called Hugo in Guanajuato, whose mother is from Guadalajara and I figured would be able to help, I followed my nose and my maps (now trusting them again...big mistake later!), and then I did what I learned to do on that trip with Joan in '96, I hired a cab to lead me out.

My hero Ramón took me the last two miles that I would have never been able to negotiate by myself, during which time we passed this fabulous piece of art painted on a wall. I renamed her Nuestra Señora de los Gringos Perdidos (Our Lady of the Lost Gringos) for the day.
He stopped the cab just shy of the highway, I gladly paid him the $30 pesos he requested (about $2.30 USD) plus some extra, and he pointed me toward Guanajuato. I was back on track and only a few hours from Guanajuato - yes! Except that there were no signs for Guanajuato. There were signs for Mexico (the city), Lagos de Moreno, Aguascalientes, San Juan de los Lagos - plenty of options, but none of them Guanajuato. I called Hugo again, consulted the map again, then I figured I'd just do the derecho thing and go straight ahead. Sooner or later there would have to be a sign to Guanajuato, right? (If anybody is keeping track of how many times my logic had failed me on this trip, now would be a good time to tally things up before the number gets too high.)

You know how you hear "Most automobile accidents happen within 25 miles from your home."? Well, I think we should add to that "On a 2,000 mile trip you get the most desperately lost within 25 miles of your destination." Maybe we relax a little too much? Maybe we get cocky? I'm not sure what my was excuse this day, but once I reached the outskirts of León, which meant I was less than an hour from Guanajuato (and it was only 3pm! Que milagro!), and therefore officially in territory I "knew", I became so completely lost that I thought I might never find my way out. Bonnie Raitt singing Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" instantly came to mind and stayed there.

In hindsight, I realize that I probably wasn't lost at all, just taking a ridiculous route right through the center of this big city at rush hour. The sign had said León so I followed it. But I didn't really want to go to León, I wanted to go around it and on to Guanajuato. Well, that was not to be, so I took the "scenic route" through every stoplight, past every strip mall, and past at least one example of all of the USA's worst "restaurants": McD's, BQ, KFC - you name it and León has at least one.

The irony here is that the song Camino de Guanajuato (The Road to Guanajuato, by José Alfredo Jimenez) is one of my all time favorite Mexican ballads and one that has worked like a charm to make me friends all over Mexico. Everybody loves to hear la gringa loca belt out "No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale naaadaaaaa..." (Yes, that really does mean "Life is worth nothing." Think of it as the ultimate existentialist bar song). It also touts in the second verse, "bonito Leon, Guanajuato" (beautiful León, Guanajuato). Well, I am here to tell you, gentle readers, if there is a part of León that is bonito, it was not evident to me today.

Somehow I finally emerged on the east side of town, closer to Guanajuato, and began to recognize where I was. On my left was the gas station where Carlene and I had gone for help the day we bought the purple plastic dragon see-saw for the twins and got two flat tires in one day. Over there was the Costco where I spent so many days loading carts with frijoles charros (cowboy-style beans, mmm!), turkey bacon, milk, beer, and endless rolls of TP during my tenure at the Casa de Espíritus Alegres B&B. Yes, the worst was over and I was almost home.

But not until I took one more wrong turn. What is it with road signs in the state of Guanajuato? I swear, I just followed the signs to Guanajuato and the next thing I knew I was headed back into the nightmare I had only minutes ago gladly left behind. No way. I circled back and soon was on the last stretch to home. I pulled up to the house I'd be sitting for the next two months in Marfil, a district of the city of Guanajuato in the state of Guanajuato, right about in the geographical center of Mexico. The house is just across the street from the B&B where I'd spent so many years and it definitely felt like coming home. I'd made great time, arriving at about 4:30pm - hours before I'd expected to, and hours before Faye expected me! Luckily Nacho the gardener was working and he opened the big wooden door into the garden for me. And oh, what a garden! The house was locked up, but I cared not, I was happy to be right where I was. I sat on the patio in the shade of the tiled roof, popped myself a cervesa bien fria (ice cold brewski) and sat back to soak it all in. A 10-foot tall white plumeria in full bloom. The brightest-ever red-headed bird, which I later discovered was a vermillion flycatcher. The pealing of the bells from the red church steeple up the way.
What a day. Up at 5am, beautiful toll roads where I didn't expect them, and dirt roads where I was sure they'd be highway, I'd revisited the site of one of my fondest Mexican culinary memories and not been disappointed, I'd been lost but now was found, the 12 hour trip had taken only 10, and now I was home. Bed or no bed, it was time for a siesta. I lay down on the grass in the garden was out in a minute.

At last, we're back to the present! Well, at least we're off the road and in Guanajuato. From here on out I plan to post to this blog on a more regular basis, like once or twice a week. (Insiders in Bloglandia tell me that this is how it's done, and intend to follow their lead...if I can.) If you've made it this far with me I invite you to subscribe to this blog so that you'll be notified when I post something new.

Welcome, bienvenidos, to My Mexico.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Destination Mazatlán

April 12, 2009, Day #6 of My Fabulous Road Trip. Up and at 'em early today. I had what looked to be at least an eight hour drive ahead of me and I was eager to arrive in Mazatlan in time to find the sweet hotel on the beach before dark - sand, sunset, cold beer, uke - you know the routine by now. Yeah, well, I shoulda known the routine by now too, because it was still Easter Week (Easter Sunday, in fact) and I was once again heading to a beach town. But we'll get to that....

What I remember most about this day are the following things. 1. Jorge, the tire guy who was working on Easter Sunday, 2. the crash at the tollbooth, 3. entertaining road signs, and 4. my first stay in one of "those" hotels.

I'll begin with Jorge. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a run in with an invisible cement thing en route to a hotel the night before. It didn't look serious, and Ruby was handling beautifully, but there was a slight ding to the wheel's rim so I thought it wise to have it checked out at one of the llanteras (tire repair places) that lined the highway. Jorge was about 24, cute, with pants saggin', and he'd probably had been out late the night before celebrating the last night of his spring vacation. But there he was on Easter morning looking at my tire, agreeing with me that the rim had a slight ding. I certainly didn't want to drive with an unsafe tire (I still had at least two longs days ahead of me before I would arrive in Guanajuato) but I also felt pretty strongly that a tap or two with a hammer could put the rim back where it belonged and not compromise the safety of the car. Jorge agreed. I smiled. (I love it when they agree with me...doctors, tire repair people, it doesn't matter, I just like that they agree with my assessment of the situation.) I found some shade to stand in while he did the deed with the hammer. He suggested that we switch the tire with the back one (something about having the best tires in front, I think?) but didn't have another gato (jack) with which to lift up the back of my car because they were all in use jacking up the other two or three cars and trucks that were there. Only then did I realize that he had been working on someone else's car when I drove up and had left that to tend to me. The used-to-be-first, now-waiting-for-my-car-to-be-fixed guy was very sweet when I acknowledged this, "No problema, Señora, no tengo prisa." (No worries, lady, I'm in no rush.)

So we put the tire back on the front and decided that I would have it switched out and balanced at a real tire store the following day. How much? "Como usted quiere." Whatever you want. I love and hate when people do this. I love it because it really does feel like he did it to be nice and helpful and if I bought him a Coke for his trouble that would be enough. But I hate it because, of course, I wanted to pay him a fair wage and I have no clue what that is so I feel lost. Jorge was moving on, so I looked at the used-to-be-first-now-waiting guy and made the universal gesture for "Can you help me out here, pal?" I held up a $50 peso note and a $100 peso note and he pointed to the 50 and gave me the thumbs up. Jorge paid, the waiting guy now back in first place, I wished them all well and drove off.

The tunes were on and I was singing along, I had just passed a Mexican crop circle declaring that Jesus was the way, which I thought appropriate for Easter Sunday, and all was right with the world.

I pulled up to the toll booth, noting the heavy traffic going the opposite direction and feeling grateful for the light traffic on my side. That gratefulness lasted about two seconds before I was hit from behind. BAM! Not seriously smashed, not whiplash material, but enough to scare the heck out of me, invoke a swear word in English that I bet most of the Mexicans around me understood, and stop traffic while I and the driver of the BIG truck that had hit me got out to assess the damage. Nada, nothing, not a scratch. You know, there is a lot to be said for a 1990 Toyota, and one of those is this: In 1990 they made bumpers that worked as bumpers, not the touch-me-and-I'll-shatter-into-pieces-and-cost-you-$400-to-replace plastic junk they put on cars nowadays. They guy clearly knew how lucky he was, and I was relieved beyond words. He apologized, we shook hands and drove off. I took a picture of the truck just in case...
Once I stopped shaking and settled back down I spent the rest of the day driving south on 15, past Cuidad Obregón, Navojoa, Los Mochis (last stop on the Copper Canyon train trip I intend to take someday), even a turn off to Rick Bayless' restaurant's namesake, Topolobambo. Sugar cane and corn fields lined the roadway. I began to notice the signs along the road. I started jotting them down and trying to photograph them as well, but the pencil won out over the camera pretty quickly since I was driving, after all.

Do we name our bridges in the US? I mean, other than the big ones like the Golden Gate and the George Washington? These were little bridges that went over - for the most part - gullies where water ran for a few months each year during the rainy season. But they all had the most interesting names: Banana Tree Bridge, Little Boy Bridge, Beekeeper Bridge, Ocelot, Tiger, Turkey, and Parrot Bridges, Big, Little and Hidden River Bridges.

Other signs amused me too: Salsipuedes, "Leave if you can", which is chuckle-producing enough, but if you're a cook it reads "Salt if you can", even funnier. One that really got me was Relleno Sanitario, which I have since discovered means "landfill" but sure looked like "Stuffed Bathroom" to me. I passed a turnoff for a town called Carbo, which I knew I would enjoy and wondered if Dr. Atkins had avoided. Then there was Querobebi, which one could almost construe to be a misspelling of "I want a baby."

Yes, folks this is what one does to stay awake and alert and smiling on a long straight drive of about 500 miles. Well, it's what this one does, anyway.

By about 5:30 I was nearing Mazatlán, a town I'd heard good reports about. It wasn't supposed the be the prettiest beach town in Mexico, in fact it is a bustling port city, but I'd heard that the malecón (pedestrian walkway along the ocean) was pleasant and I - ever the hopeful one - expected that the Spring Break crowds would have thinned out by now and I'd be in my motel on the beach soon. Just how wrong can one gal be?

I followed the signs and found the malecón without a hitch, where I found a MOB SCENE! Loud music pounding out of speakers from all directions. No way I'd stay there even if I could find a room, I'd never get a minute of sleep. Traffic was bumper to bumper, creeping along, and there was nowhere to turn off. I was on a two-lane barely-moving road headed straight into Spring Break hell. I watched the sun sink behind the palm trees into what I presumed was the Pacific Ocean that lay just beyond the sea of cars in which I was trapped.

See the ocean in that picture? Neither did I, and I was there.

Okay, that was it for me, no beach needed, no malecón, no people even, and please, no ear-popping music. I'd just head out of town and find a hotel on the outskirts where I could make an easy getaway tomorrow. I saw a likely spot and pulled in, looking for the office. Office? Oh no, Bets, this wasn't that kind of motel. Yes, gentle readers, I found myself in Mexico's own fabulous version of the No Tell Motel. I'd heard about these for years, their reputation is the stuff of legends. Some charge by the hour and some, like the one I had chosen, actually rented for 12 hour shifts. They have curtains in front of the parking places to assure privacy for their guests, and serve whatever you might order up via Lazy Susan-type contraptions in the wall, again, offering complete anonymity for those inside. That part reminded me of convents I'd seen in Puebla where the nuns passed their exquisite confections out and the people put the money in via these revolving doors; perhaps an odd connection to make at a place like this, but hey, my mind is known for the odd connections it makes.

$190 pesos for 12 hours, that's about $15 US dollars. A steal. My faceless voice spoke to the other faceless voice on the speaker (like ordering at the drive-through window at Burger King...not that I've ever done that) and told her I wanted a room, she told me to pull into unit 35, so I did. "How do you pay? How do you check in? How does this work?", I wondered. With that a lovely maid walked up to me and welcomed me, asked me for $190 pesos in cash (wouldn't want a paper trail leading to stays at places like this, would you?) and gave me a receipt. Did I need anything? If so just call the office and she'd bring it to me via the revolving door.

Now get this. After paying almost $50 USD last night for one of the baddest hotel rooms ever, today for $15 US dollars I opened the door to a spotlessly clean huge suite with a vaulted brick ceiling, king sized bed, giant bathroom with toiletries in a cute little lace-lined basket, and a sitting area with the weirdest iron, Naugahyde, and tile table and chair set I've ever laid eyes on. There was a room service menu, a dessert menu, and a menu of what might be called "marital aids", except I don't think the people purchasing them were necessarily married...at least not to each other. And my parking spot had not just a curtain but an automatic door, which, while I know was there to ensure my privacy also provided me with a completely secure place to leave my full-to-overflowing car. It was perfect. It was 8pm. I was whupped. I considered TV and discovered the other interesting part about the hotel: three channels - opera, cartoons, and porn. Good thing I like opera, mom.

Hotel Real, Mazatlán, Sinaloa
Ask for Unit 35 and tell them Pepsi sent you.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Onward to Guaymas

Today's post will take the gentle reader from my laughingly easy border crossing onward to the port city of Guaymas on the west coast of Mexico's mainland.

We begin in the afternoon of April 11, Day #5 of the Road Trip of My Dreams.

The road from the border to the main north-south highway that would lead me to Hermosillo and on to Guaymas was for the most part in great condition and a breeze to drive. There were several sections under construction where we were detoured onto dirt roads running parallel to the parts being repaved and that slowed things down a bit, but the surroundings were so different from what I am used to that I found it all just wonderfully interesting and beautiful. Rolling hills lined with great rock formations, lots of cactus and scrub, and every once in a while a small town with something interesting to look at. My heart was full and my mind was pretty much empty - a good combination for me.

Ruby was in fine form. So fine, in fact, that I looked down to see the speedometer reading 80mph. I backed off and slowed down to a more sane 65mph just as I rounded the hill and saw the blinking lights ahead. Damn. I pulled over, looked sheepishly at the officer, and said, "Demasiado velocidad, ¿verdad?" (A little too fast, eh?) He nodded in agreement and suggested that I relax and enjoy my trip in order to arrive safely in Guanajuato. All good advice and I agreed wholeheartedly. With that he waved me on. I gave thanks to to Our Lady of Kind Policemen.

I came to my first toll booth of the trip about 15 miles outside of Santa Ana, a fairly good sized town where I would pick up the main highway. There I had yet another only-in-Mexico moment. I greeted the lady toll collector, handed her my pesos and she my receipt, and as I was putting my change away she said something that sounded like "Could you give my coworker a ride to Santa Ana?" Obviously I had misunderstood, so I asked her to repeat herself. I was right the first time, she pointed to a lovely young gal at the next booth over and asked again if I would be so kind as to give her a ride to Santa Ana where she lived, since she needed a ride and I was headed that way.

Would I ever even consider this in the US? No. Would anyone ever ask me this in the US? Not where I've lived...at least, not someone I would be willing to roll my window down and talk to. Would my friends and family shake their heads that I would even consider this? Yes. Would I of course say yes? Absolutely.

Karina moved my maps and papers to the backseat and got in beside me. We chatted. She was lovely, 26 years old with a 5 year old son waiting at home for her. No husband. She lives with her parents, her mom helps care for her son so that she can work. They have transportation for the many toll collectors who live in Santa Ana, but her shift ended early and she didn't want to wait another hour for the bus to take her home if she could find a ride. How kind of me to say yes. And how odd that I found the countryside and Santa Ana so interesting, she found it boring. I told her I was going to Guanajuato, which she knew of but had never been to. She only knew Santa Ana. And Hermosillo, she had been there a couple of times too. We arrived a little too soon for my liking, I was enjoying the interchange. I dropped her off my on the main road a few blocks from her house. I hope she and her son get to visit Guanajuato one day.

The rest of the day was all about a big road heading directly south, two lanes in either direction, some traffic but not much. As I reached Hermosillo it got crowded and smelly, but the thing that struck me was that on every single telephone pole, and I really do mean every single pole, there was a plastic banner advertising one of the two candidates for governor of the state of Sonora. Sometimes there was one for each of them on the same pole. On bridges there where ten for each of them. There must have been 2,000 that I saw, and I was on only one road for only about twenty minutes as I passed through town. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for a two (or more) party system, but I lived in Mexico long enough to know that gazillions of these plastic banners go up for every election and every event and are never taken down. They fly in the wind until they shake loose and eventually end up littering the roadsides and spending the next million years waiting to break down. It makes me crazy. I decided that if I was a Sonorense I would vote for the guy who promised to take all his banners down, no matter what his other policies were.
Alonso Elias will take Sonora to the next level! Guillermo Padres promises a new Sonora! But will either of them recycle their five gazillion plastic banners? I doubt it. But at least they're smiling. It wasn't long ago that formal portraits in Mexico looked like mug shots and all candidates looked like criminals. Hmm, maybe there was something to that, now that I think about it...

I made it to Guaymas about 5:30pm, plenty of time, I thought, to find a sweet little hotel on the beach. Now if only I could find the beach, much less the sweet hotel. I swear, in Guaymas the mountains tumble right down to the water in a most dramatic way, but I'll be darned if I could get out of those mountains and to the water. I passed the same freakin' McDonald's about fifteen times as I followed the signs, followed the map, finally gave up and followed my nose (more about that later...) which got me a glimpse of ocean (with the sun quickly setting upon it, so much for my cold beer and ukelele sunset) but not much more.

I gave in and pulled up next to a parked cab. I asked if I could hire him to take me to a hotel on the beach and from the passenger side his wife answered, "Of course!" We talked about something mid-priced, on the water...she knew just the spot. We took off (and passed the g.d. McDonald's again) and ended up at a hotel on the water. Hooray. Except for two things: they had no rooms and when did a U-turn to exit I dinged the right front tire on an invisible cement thing. Not good. Daylight was quickly disappearing, I was tired, I had no hotel room, and now I had popped the hubcab off dear Ruby and wasn't exactly sure what other damage I might have done. Ayyy.

Carmen and Manuel, waiting in the taxi outside the gate, suggested another place...not on the beach, but I cared little about that at this point, I just wanted a room. First hotel was full. Second hotel was full. It began to dawn on me that it was Semana Santa (Easter Week, but read: Spring Break!) and I was in a beach town, even if I couldn't find the darned beach. But my guardian angel Carmen was not about to give up, and her tenacity paid off. The next place, Hotel Santa Rita, had one room...maybe. The guys who had just checked in had a problem and might need to leave...we waited expectantly at the front desk until they appeared and said that yes, they would need to leave. I had a room! Carmen and I hugged.

The next step is so only-in-Mexico and I just love it. The cost was $600 pesos (about $45 USD, kinda steep but I was fine with it, I just wanted a room!) I pulled out my credit card to pay but Ernesto at the front desk said, "They already paid for the room so you need to pay them, not me. This will be the easiest, okay?" I cracked up and handed the $600 pesos to the departing guests, me in my faulty Spanish saying, "I'm sorry for you but this is good for me!" and they, in their equally faulty English saying, "Here are the keys, everything is so easy in Mexico, no?"

I walked Carmen back to the taxi, thanked her and Manuel for all their help, and asked how much I owed them for their time (it had been at least an hour by then). "No, no, we just wanted to help and be sure that you were safe and had a place to stay, you don't need to pay us." Carmen told me. I wasn't taking no for an answer, so I folded up a $100 peso note and put it in Manuel's hand before I hugged Carmen and waved goodbye to my guardian angels of Guaymas.

A room, at last! It was now about 8pm, I was toast. Since this morning I had crossed the border, driven Karina the toll taker to Santa Ana, made it though stinky Hermosillo all the way to Guaymas on the it's-there-somewhere coast, dinged my car, found my angels, and at last, had a place to stay. No time for ukelele, no feet in the sand, and no cold beer, but I had a room. And oh, what a room!!

Where do I start? The white tiled walls? "Tiled walls," you say, "that that sounds pretty." Well, we're not talking Moorish tiles here, folks, we're talking wash-em-down-with-a-hose institutional tiles. The black and gold "embroidered" bedspreads? OMG, they were so bad they were good. The dusty pink plastic window shades that didn't quite close? Let's just say that I don't mean "Dusty Pink" as a color tone, I mean that were as dusty as they were pink. The air conditioner had two speeds: Noise or Freezing, so I opted for Noise...at least it masked the street sounds. The shower had a shower head...which sat on the windowsill about eight inches away from the shower. But I think my favorite thing about this room was the sign in the bathroom warning me that I would be charged for anything that I stole. For the life of me I couldn't think of a single thing to steal. The towels were see-through, the chair was plastic, heck, even the ashtray was from another hotel. But, I thought, bless them for their pride.

And you know what? I was content. Very content. Happy even. I had made it across the border and all the way to the Guaymas on my first day in Mexico. The ding on the tire rim didn't seem too serious. I had internet connection if I sat just outside my room. Ernesto at the front desk was darling. Juan, the night guard, promised to watch my vehicle like a hawk and I believed him. I finally found a cold beer and a "burro" to go with it, my first Mexican food experience since I arrived, and it was tasty. With the AC on Noise and the bathroom window open, the sounds and smells that initially assaulted me mellowed out to nothing, and hey, I like a hard bed.

Ahhhh, my first night in Mexico.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Crossing the Border

April 11, 2009, Road Trip Day #5 ...

I packed up my cute little 1990 red Toyota (henceforth known as Ruby) this morning and handed my key in to the nice guy from Poland working at the desk of the hotel. I asked him his name, which was Waldo, and I just had to do it: I took his picture so that perplexed children everywhere - and the adults who read to them - will know once and for all the answer to the question, "Where's Waldo?" Waldo works at the Marine Hotel in Garlic, Arizona and here is his picture to prove it. Who knew?

I headed out about 10am. But before I could leave town, I just had to see if I could track down Mimi, a great gal I had met in Guanajuato years ago but lost touch with and who I remembered had relocated to Ajo. It wasn't difficult. I'm not sure how many people live in Ajo but lets just say "not a lot". A quick inquiry at the one and only wine shop in town last night had quickly yielded Mimi's address and phone number. My cell wouldn't work, but Mimi's street appeared before I even had time to look for it, and there was her cute little house, complete with purple cactus with brilliant yellow flowers. Alas, there was no Mimi to be found, but I took some shots of the amazing purple cactus and left a note. Hola, Mimi, wherever you are!

First stop was about 11 miles away in Why, Arizona. Why "Why", you ask? I asked the same thing. "Because it is where there is a Y in the road" was the answer. Unwilling to go down Abbot and Costello's Who's on first? path, I grabbed a weak cup of joe from the ersatz "breakfast buffet", and set off.

Yes, those are pickled pig's feet, pickled pork jowls, and pickled Polish sausages all available for breakfast in Gringo Pass. Señor Bourdain and all pork lovers everywhere, forgive me, but I opted for coffee.

Onward to the border! During the 4o-minute drive I passed through Organ Pipe Natural Monument, which was pretty, though no prettier than what I'd been driving through and would continue to drive though for hours. But I do believe that National Monuments are good for us to have, and public bathrooms on long stretches of deserted highway are very good, so all in all I enjoyed it.

All the while my mind was going over and over everything I'd ever read or heard about the US-Mexico border. I didn't picture a wall, or Anderson Cooper and a CNN film crew, nor did I expect any problems. Running through my mind were visions of something like a toll booth manned by stern-faced border patrol guards, a German Shepherd or two sniffing about, possibly a detained car or two with some handcuffs involved, and definitely a big pile of red tape to wind my way through. I had checked and rechecked a million times to be sure that I had the correct paperwork to legally bring the car in, but I still worried a bit about that - "Will the registration be enough or will they demand the title? If so, with the fact that I have a photo-copy and not the original title be enough?" I am oh-so well aware that everywhere in life - from the grocery store to the electric company and most certainly with government agencies - rules are not so much about the rules as they are about the person who is enforcing them. So with my cheery can-do attitude tempered by a healthy dose of yea-but-what-if? anxiety, I arrived at the border crossing in Sonoyta hoping for a rule enforcer who had woken up on the right side of the cama that morning.

There was no red tape in sight. A big sign announced the Sonoyta crossing, but other than that there was little in the way of signage, no officious guards warning me what I could or couldn't do, and no obvious toll booth-looking place to ask immigration for a tourist visa or to get the papers for the car. There were just smiling people pointing ahead and saying "Derecho, derecho", straight ahead. It was SO Mexico, where everyone is smiling and everything is straight ahead.

A friendly guy in a guard outfit said hello, asked me where I was going, looked briefly in the back seat and trunk, and waved me on. I went ahead a few yards but I just couldn't imagine I should just leave without filling out some sort of paperwork, so I stopped and asked someone (a guard? a fellow traveler?) "But what about the car?" "Straight ahead on your left." So derecho I went, looking on my left but seeing only stands selling Pollos Estilo Sinaloa, Carnitas Michoacán, Burritos Sonorense, Tacos "La Capital" - a veritable smorgasbord of economical eateries featuring food from most every state of Mexico. I was tempted to stop - the aromas were tantalizing and all I'd had so far that morning was a cup of warm brown water with instant creamer back at the Why Not Y?-Who's On First?-Pickled Everything Cafe - but I really felt that I should focus on getting myself and Ruby across the border legally before stopping to eat.

I drove on. Derecho. But I worried about what I had missed and how I has missed it, why it hadn't been more obvious what to do. I spent a good ten minutes redesigning border crossings with lots of clear signage about automobiles (cue the orchestra: If I Ruled the World).

I remembered hearing, reading, knowing that there was a second checkpoint further in, but I had also be warned by a friend that when she arrived at the second stop they sent her all the way back to the first to get the proper papers for her car. I really didn't want to lose time backtracking (I had a long day ahead of my to reach Guaymas and find a room before nightfall) so I was preoccupied with that worry, but I did what I often do when I don't know what to do, I kept going. Derecho.

The road was beautiful, the sky was blue, so I cranked up Linda Ronstadt and Perla Batalla on the iPod (oh, most heavenly Pod, how did I ever live without you?), noted that the scenery around me looked pretty much exactly like it did before I crossed into Mexico but the food smelled better and spent a few long moments pondering the arbitrary nature yet powerful reality of man-made borders (Julie Gold's "From a Distance" came to mind). The irony of my struggle to find someone to take my money and review my papers so that I could legally enter Mexico made me laugh. And cry. I am torn up inside about the US-Mexico immigration/visitation issue. But we'll save that subject for another day...

A few buildings appeared at last; this had to be the official border crossing, right? Now it would get organized and all would be clear, right? One lane was marked AUTOMOBILES so I headed that way, only to find a gigantic truck parked in it, apparently for the afternoon. A bunch of guys in yellow vests were sitting around in the shade, clearly waiting for someone other than me. I drove on, almost back onto the main road, when a lovely young Mexican gal in uniform stepped up to greet me. In my impeccable (not) Spanish, I asked, "Car? Into Mexico?" and she pointed to a little house behind me. Okay, we were getting somewhere!

I went to said house only to find it empty and locked up. A fellow traveler stood outside, trying to turn in his papers so that he could return in his car to the USA. We laughed, we waited, and finally I did what any red-blooded American would do...I took things into my own hands. I gave up waiting for the guy in the little house to return, said goodbye to the laughing patient Mexican traveler waiting to turn in his papers so he could legally go back to the U.S., I parked Ruby in the shade, and I started asking the guys in yellow vests "Hombres, ¿qué necesito hacer para traer mi coche a México?" (Dudes, what the heck do I do to bring this car into Mexico?)

Pretty quickly it all fell into place. I found the Migración (Immigration) office and ten minutes and less than $20 USD later I had my tourist visa that allows me to stay in Mexico for 180 days. From there I found the bank and within another ten or fifteen minutes I had the sticker for the car that allows Ruby to stay here for six months (cost: about $36USD). From there I headed back to the highway and after a wonderful spirited discussion with the exit guard about immigration, narcotraficantes - and the lack thereof - and the US media, both Ruby and I were legally on the road in Mexico.

Note the Hassle Free Zone for US cars in the picture. Do we have that for foreign drivers? I doubt it.

Hollering a hoot of exaltation and belting out a few Mexican classics at the top of my lungs with Linda and Perla providing back up, Ruby and I rolled along through the desert landscape of northern Sonora heading southeast toward Santa Ana where we'd pick up Highway 15 and then drive almost directly south through Hermosillo (named by someone who'd obviously never been there or worked in real estate) toward the seaside town of Guaymas, where I intended to find a cute little cheap motel and plant my feet in the sand before the sun went down. Ukelele and cold beer in hand (well, not at the same time...or at least not with the same hand), I envisioned watching the sun set over the Pacific and celebrating the completion of the 5th day of the trip and the 1st night in Mexico. Silly me.

Tomorrow on to Guaymas and Mazatlan...you can join me in trying to find freakin' hotel room in a beach town in Mexico during Semana Santa, aka: Spring Break. What was I thinking? Stay tuned to find out.