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Based on the maps I was using (which turned out to be terribly out of date) it looked like I had about a 12 hour drive ahead of me to make it from Mazatlán all the way to Guanajuato, and my supposed 8-hour days were already taking me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.


  1. Heroic, informative and humorous, an epic journey. Wow, that was great, I loved riding along with you! Glad you made it safe.

  2. We're so glad you're at home!....now we are going to follow your Guanajuato epic tales T.2009.....(temporada 2009....)..we are so happy to have you here and we defenitely need to see you!

  3. So glad you arrived safely, your driving to Guanajuato was as adventerus and interesting as you made our Monarchs & La Maestra tour, one never knows whats around the corner until you take a look. Love the food picture, and what a garden to take a nap in. Jess is such a cutie. Hugs Gramma Barb


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.