Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sounds of the 'hood...

Marfil is my 'hood these days. It’s a small (about 24,000 people) colonia (think precinct or neighborhood) of the city of Guanajuato. The B&B I used to manage, La Casa de Espíritus Alegres, is also in Marfil, just across the road about a hundred yards. What a difference those hundred yards make. Well, a hundred yards and a few hundred years—this house
was built in 1960s, La Casa in the 1600s.

The B&B is part of the Ex-Hacienda La Trinidad, a former silver-processing hacienda built along the Rio Guanajuato that is currently divided into a few private residences, the B&B, and in the hacienda’s former chapel, La Capilla, a kindergarten of all things. The gardens at La Casa are venerable and lush, a canopy of Jacaranda and Pirul (Peruvian Peppercorn) trees lace one's view of the sky; ivy, bougainvillea and copa de oro vines climb the ancient walls. It's absolutely gorgeous and I spent many a happy hour (and even a few Happy Hours) enjoying the beauty of Marfil from there.

The house I’m in now, however, is on the hill across the street and it is quite literally a completely different world up here. This house has towers of windows that provide a 180-degree view of rugged mountains, more haciendas along the river below, and sunrises over the the outskirts of Guanajuato in the east. In the eight years I worked at the B&B I had no idea that hundreds of egrets fly over Marfil every evening on their way back to the reservoir on the far side of Guanajuato. When I watch the skies here fill with spectacular cloud formations that end some lucky days with lightning, thunder, and rain, I’m reminded of the “big weather” of southwestern U.S.
By being one block up above the main thoroughfare of Marfil I can barely hear the traffic below, and instead am treated to an entirely new set of only-in-Mexico auditory treats (and some tricks) such as:
  • The distinct calls, bells, and whistles used by vendors as the pass through town. The knife sharpener is my favorite, he plays a five-note scale on his whistle—up, hold, and then down—to announce his presence. One guy goes by every day beginning at about 7am crying out a word that I cannot for the life of me understand. It sounds like “Arroz!” which means rice in Spanish, but I’m pretty darned certain I’m wrong on that one. “El Gaaaaaas!” is common as the LP truck rumbles through, and then there’s the ice cream truck that slowly rolls along each afternoon blaring a honky-tonk piano version of "The Alley Cat Song" from a speaker wired to the roof. Is that the international song for “Buy Ice Cream Now” or is it only in Mexico?
  • Children playing in the street in front of the house. I'm not crazy about the clatter produced by this year's most popular toy. It is basically just two plastic balls on either end of a string; you hold the string in the middle and bounce up and down to get the balls to click. Newbies are fine, they don't succeed in clicking the balls that often, but the older boys are really good at it, and they have big balls, it you'll forgive the pun, that make an extremely loud "clackclackclackclack" that seems to go on forever. Think dentistry tool and eardrum; just horrible. But then there are the laughter-filled evenings and weekends when the kids bounce a ball in the street and up against the big stonewall at the bottom of the garden. That one I especially love, it sounds exactly like a happy childhood should sound. When the ball gets away from them and escapes over the wall they ring the bell to come and retrieve it which gives us a few minutes to get to know each other. That I treasure.
  • The birdsong is amazing here, beginning with the 3am chatter of parrots who've set up housekeeping in a tree outside my bedroom window. Parrots in the high desert of Guanajuato, you ask? Apparently they were (illegally) bought as pets and escaped from their cages. Go parrots!
  • There are people walking, driving, and riding horses on the cobblestone street that passes behind the house and leads to a large part of Marfil that I never even knew existed. The lane passes just below the third floor window where I spend many hours working, so I pretty much hear the coming and goings of the entire village’s day. This one fascinates because I can’t actually see the road, just hear the sounds, so I imagine the stories to go along with the sounds. My favorite is the lone rider on horseback who goes down at 10 and back up a 10:30 almost every night. I’ve made him out to be a campesino who lives miles beyond here on his ranch in the hills and who comes down each evening to reward himself for his day of toil in the soil with one ice cold cerveza from the little store down the way.
  • Then there are the bells of the church just a few doors away. Since the church is so close they provide the daily soundtrack to life in this house, but I've been here over six weeks and but I still haven't figured them out. They ring on the hour, obviously, and then 15, 30, and 45 minutes after the hour are marked with a different tone. Okay, got that part. Then there are the calls to mass, which seems to happen most mornings at 8:30 and a few times a day on the weekends. That’s when they ring and ring and ring, announcing first, second, and third and final call, basically. Got that part too. But then sometimes I swear I am listening for them and they simply don’t ring. Sleeping bellman? Broken auto-chimer? Then one day the tones sounded different to me. That had me picturing someone up there 24 hours a day and when they switched shifts the tone changed. But that couldn’t possibly be true, who the heck would sleep on a church roof and ring bells every fifteen minutes all day every day, right? Then one day, when I had just about convinced myself that they were definitely on auto-chime, I was standing at the kitchen window washing dishes when the call to mass began. I looked over to see a real person pulling the rope, over and over. Theory bashed. My current thought is that it is some combination of automatic and hand rung, both of which sometimes malfunction, allowing for the missing clangs and mysterious changes in tone. Before I leave town I intend to get to the bottom of this, even if it means putting on a skirt and going to mass.
  • And just today I realized that my 'hood here, especially in the morning with all its roosters and chickens and burros, sounds exactly like my farm on Farm Town (a face book app that I am hooked on), which just delights me. When I return to Happy Valley and the familiar howl of coyotes and screech of red-tailed hawks I can turn on Farm Town any time I like and hear my Marfil 'hood.

I'm the one with the blond ponytail, Farmer Betty.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

About that flu...

A little background: One of the reasons I wanted to write a blog about the experience of driving to Mexico alone was to share the other side of the story from what we were seeing in the news in the US - the kind and safe side of Mexico. Before I left, I wrote on my website...

"I’d like to address the 'news' stories about Mexico you’re seeing on TV lately that are wr
eaking havoc on tourism in Mexico, as you can imagine. I personally think it’s unconscionable for our sensation-seeking, ratings-rabid media to portray the entire warm, welcoming, and peaceful country of Mexico as being under siege and at war. It is simply not true. Yes, the government has launched a war against the drug cartels that supply the USA’s insatiable appetite for drugs, but the battles are almost exclusively along the border towns and involve people dealing in illegal activities. Since you are not likely to be vacationing in Ciudad Juarez or purchasing illegal drugs, a visit to Mexico for you will bear no resemblance to what you’re seeing on TV."

And my trip, thankfully, proved my point. I had an absolutely fabulous time and was well taken care of by kind and caring people wherever I went.

With 'Handle the Drug Wars' now off my To Do list, I jumped into my new life in Guanajuato.

After a week or so of settling in I was ready to entertain. I invited a couple of pals over for brunch on Friday, April 24. The process of preparing the meal included visits to several little shops in my neighborhood, which delighted me. I never even knew they existed when I lived here before, and now here I was getting bolillos at the religious tchotchke store (I have no idea why they also sell bread, but I was told that they had the best rolls in town), choosing a gorgeous papaya at the fruteria, ordering a Vampiro (beets, carrots, and oranges) and a Verde (parsley, pineapple, celery, and nopal cactus) from the fresh juice stand, and meeting my all neighbors along the way.Pat and Angélica came around noon and we spent several hours together enjoying the view from my rooftop terrace, eating, talking, and catching up. Gela asked if either of us had heard about this new flu that had been discovered in Mexico City. We hadn't. She told us that the papers that morning had mentioned an outbreak of a new strain, apparently very strange and dangerous and maybe even transmitted from pigs. We shrugged our shoulders. Swine flu? No way. The day was beautiful, the company lovely, the bagels and smoked salmon delicious, and we - and everyone we knew - was well.

That night I googled "influenza Mexico" and read that Mexico had received confirmation from a Canadian lab of a new strain of flu. It was suggested that people in Mexico City not attend large gatherings, including soccer games and mass. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control were involved and the words "epidemic" and "pandemic" were being bandied about. Ayyy, what madness was this?

I spent a good part of the weekend doing what I would normally do. I attended an meeting of the Guanajuato Renewable Energy Network (amazing!), visited with friends, and attended a wonderful concert of Brazilian guitar music. Most of the time things were completely normal. But when I wasn't out doing those things I was obsessively reading whatever I could find about Mexico on the Internet. My browser history for that weekend is filled with the BBC, NYTimes, Google searches, and blogs about science, Mexico, well as Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Face Book. My in box is full of messages from friends in the hotel business reporting cancellations galore and links to articles about the flu...and all the regular fare alerts and mundane stuff too.

It was rather surreal to be reading about one reality and experiencing quite another. I was reminded of Santa Cruz after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Then, too, what I saw on TV or read in the papers did not match the reality I saw all around me. While there was tragedy around me, and there truly was, if you turned on the television it appeared that ALL of San Francisco was on fire and slumping into the ground and ALL freeways were down. But when you went outside and looked around houses were standing (albeit filled with broken china) and people were surfing and playing volleyball on the beach. I felt that same sort of disconnect this time.

But it was still scary, how could you not be scared?

By Sunday night, April 27, Mexico City was said to be a "ghost town" with just a few people in blue face masks out. Schools there were closed until May 6, hospitals were besieged with people complaining of flu-like symptoms - most of whom were checked and sent home, and President Felipe Calderón asked people to remain calm. In the US a public health emergency was declared after 20 cases of the "swine flu" were reported there.

That night my heart ached for Mexico. How could it possibly take this other cruel blow when it was already suffering a recession largely tied to our own economic problems in the US, drug related violence, and inflammatory reports of the latter in the US news that were affecting tourism in a big - and negative - way? I was bothered by the dismissive "Well, it is Mexico, after all..." tone I noted in many of the articles I read. And I cried when I read racists remarks in the "readers comments" sections that followed very decent articles in the NY Times and the Washington Post. I wanted to scream,"Viruses don't know what a border is, you idiotas!"

Hugo Garcia, a Mexican editorialist for the Mexico City daily El Milenio, wrote "Now, like a sign of the Apocalypse, the last thing we needed -- an epidemic...What the hell did Mexicans do for the Gods to punish us like this?" I had been wondering the same thing myself, but using the words"karmic circle" in place of Gods.

And just when it couldn't get any worse, it did. Monday morning an earthquake of 5.7 struck in the nearby state of Guerrero and was felt in Mexico City. Little harm was done, but it was a huge blow to an already shaken public. You really did have to wonder about the end of the world, the plagues and all that. What was next?, I wondered. Boils, floods, and locusts?

Wait...locusts we could handle. Send locusts and we'll fry them up, sprinkle them with chile, call them chapulines, and sell them in the markets in Oaxaca. That was the one weak joke I could make in an increasingly sad situation.

Some creative tapaboca humor from Mexico City.

I started to hear from friends asking, "Got masks?" There was still not a single case of the new flu in the State of Guanajuato, and I was, quite honestly, more concerned with my mother's knee replacement surgery that afternoon (she's doing great, thanks for asking) than I was about a flu that was no where near me and that I wasn't going to catch and an earthquake that had apparently caused little damage, but I was aware all day of the gloom that hung over the country like a giant storm cloud about to burst.

I had a dinner party that night, and over drinks I asked the group (two Mexicans, one Canadian who has lived here for many years, his German wife who lives here and there, and four North Americans - one a tourist, two who own homes here, and me) what they thought about the situation. The conversation was nothing if not lively. "This happened right after Hillary and Obama were here, could they have brought it?" "Our government knows more than they are telling us." "I don't get it, why is the US media seem to be trashing Mexico so badly these days?" "It's got to be a conspiracy of the drug companies to sell us anti-virals." "Did you read the statistics of how many people die in he US from your everyday garden variety flu every year? 30-50 thousand! Who knew?"

For dinner I served Cochinita Pibil - a roasted PORK dish from Yucatán. It was fabulous.

By Tuesday school across all of Mexico were closed, sending parents who had just gotten their kids back to school after Easter vacation dashing to the video stores to stock up for yet another Spring Break. I heard from a dear friend who was to arrive the next night and spend a week that she was canceling due to fears of the flu. Another friend, who planning to spend one night with me before going on to San Miguel where he was to officiate at a wedding, was informed that the wedding was cancelled. He decided to come anyway - flu be damned! - and spend the extra days in Guanajuato. News reports started to trickle, then pour, in about a pig farm in Veracruz...La Gloria...Smithfield Hams...a little boy named Edgar...a woman in Oaxaca...factory farming...and whose fault is this, anyway?

One brilliant piece of reporting, I thought, came my way on Tuesday via Rachel Lauden, a food historian and friend who lives here in Guanajuato. It's from a blog called Junk Food Science, which sets out to debunk popular myths and get to the truth of the matter regarding food, health, and science. The piece is entitled Flu Fears, and though its numbers on this particular flu strain in this particular post are obviously outdated now, the sound information about flus and epidemics and the like is great, well worth a read. (Click here to do so.) One important point she made was the unwarranted - and unbridled - use of the word "pandemic" by the media even though the facts did not support that.

Oh, heck, what are facts to the media?

Somewhere around May 1st it began to dawn on me that while the flu was very real and deserved my attention, I was once again being taken for a ride by our out-of-control media. I began to notice that almost all articles with doom and gloom headlines had words like "likely", "might become", and "could evolve into" in them. The light came on. I stopped obsessively reading everything I could find about the flu and choose instead to wait for things to calm down. They always do.

Luckily Tobin was here to take my away from my computer for a few days and we had a wonderful time visiting Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel. Oh, and Guanajuato. I finally did let him see Guanajuato.

We were treated like royalty at Hacienda de las Trancas while Tobin consoled the disappointed bride who'd had to cancel her dream wedding because her friends in the States were told they would face unpaid quarantine days when then returned from Mexico. (This is in a state with not one reported case of the A(H1N1) flu. 'Splain that one to me, Lucy.)

Tobin, acting like the royalty he is.

And we spent a fabulous night with my pal Dianne at her Rancho Casa Luna the most elegant "ranch" I've ever seen. Absolutely over-the-top gorgeousness wherever you look. We slept in big iron beds in the outside bedroom, I felt like I was in a set for a Ralph Lauren ad.

There's Tobin doing his Royalty thing again, this time at the fabulous Rancho Casa Luna.

A couple of good articles from the New York Times came my way during the week, one by Julio Frenk, Mexico’s former minister of health, now dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, entitled Mexico's Fast Diagnosis, in which he refers to the influenza situation as a "global challenge". That phrase resonates deeply with me. Another on May 1st had the headline "Outbreak in Mexico May Be Smaller Than Feared"; good news at last!

Yes, it was becoming clear that this flu, too, shall pass.

I have to say, I am grateful to be here during all this. I can't imagine being in California with the 24/7 barrage of "news" in my face everyday. I'd be worried sick (pun intended.) By being here I am able to balance the hysteria building in the media over the imminent pandemic sweeping the country - and then the world! - with the reality I see around me: Mexico City brought to a standstill as people took the warning to stay home seriously now slowly coming back to life, still no flu in Guanajuato, and the stabilizing of numbers of actual cases and deaths from cases across the country.

I think the Mexican government, which had the impossible task of handling this storm, and the Mexican people, who have a healthy distrust of said government, did a brilliant job of keeping this outbreak very much under control. I'm very proud of them. Twenty-nine people dead of anything is tragic, but it could have been so much worse had they not taken the precautionary measures they did. I say, ¡Bravo Mexico!

What deeply worries me now that things are back to "normal" is the livelihood of the thousands and thousands of people affected by this latest blow to an already suffering economy, specifically in my world of tourism. Weddings, events, and vacations were canceled throughout Mexico for months to come, even in areas where no flu was present - Guanajuato is a perfect example. They are predicting (be careful here...who are "they"? and note that I am using the word "predicting") a drop in tourism this year of about 40%. But even if "they" are exaggerating the exact number, it will be huge in a country where tourism is the third most important source of foreign income.

I don't know who made this so I can't give them the credit they deserve, but I was sent this by several friends this week.
I know he's wearing a mask, but did he wash his hands?

My friends with businesses here are creatively coming up with projects to keep their staff busy and employed, but it's going to take clients to pay those salaries. A waiter in Mexico makes just his tips, so even if he keeps his job he needs diners in the restaurant to make a living. I'm worried about the airlines, sure, but also about the flight attendants, pilots, and the guys who wave the flashlights and move your bags at the airport. Hotel owners are in a pickle, and so are their lovely maids, maintenance staff, and bell boys. Bus drivers are losing shifts, taxi drivers too. Everyone here will feel the effects of this flu for weeks and months to come. I just hope and pray that people won't stay away for long.

From my vantage point in Guanajuato, I can tell you wholeheartedly and with no reservations that it's a great time to visit. There are still no cases of the flu in the state, there are no lines at the airport, people in the hospitality business have never been more hospitable, the peso is still hovering around 13 to the dollar, and heck, I've been telling you to wash your hands for years, so there's nothing new there.

Again, I am only one voice, but I want to speak up in hopes of balancing a little of the sensationalism and unfortunately, xenophobia, that is out there:
  • This influenza is on the planet, not just in Mexico. We all live in a big soup bowl called Planet Earth and on that planet flu strains are morphing, we keep on reproducing, and our demands on the planet are high.
  • Put these numbers you are hearing into perspective. Every year in the US upwards of 50,000 people succumb to the influenza or resulting infections. In contrast, as of May 7 there are 2371 verified cases of the A(H1N1) flu in the world, and 44 of those cases resulted in deaths. Repeat: 50,ooo vs. less than 3,000. *
  • Take what you read and hear in the news with a HUGE grain of salt. We cannot simply believe everything we read or hear, that is very clear.
I have always told people who travel with My Mexico Tours that you, the travelers, need to trust yourselves in order to stay safe and healthy and I will say that again today. Read the papers, talk to your doctor, do some research on your own, and when you feel confident and safe to travel in Mexico come on down and enjoy. It is as safe here as where you sit right now, reading this.

And before I step off my soap box, let me say one more thing:

I believe there is an opportunity in the midst of this crisis for us to all learn a lesson or two about our world and how we're caring for it...or not. We must confront the perils of factory farming, we cannot turn our heads from the absolute necessity of health care for all, everywhere, and, most importantly, I truly hope this reminds us that we are all in this together. If we would just remember this, I could consider this nightmare a blessing.

Now go wash your hands, wherever you are.

¡Viva Mexico! ¡Viva Madre Tierra!Killer Chiles Rellenos at La Sierra in Santa Rosa, a little village in the hills above Guanajuato. Let's go!!

*As of May 11, 2009, acording the W.H.O., the number of worldwide cases of this flu is 5251 with 61 cases resulting in death.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Papaya Lassi, it's what's for breakfast...


2-3 cardamon pods, brought to Mexico years ago by a dear friend visiting from Milwaukee and still flavorful after all these years, lightly toasted and cracked open.
2 cups or so chunks of super ripe papaya, peeled and seeded.
1.5 cups fresh yogurt, goat's milk handmade by a friend if possible, or use a good quality unsweetened yogurt if you don't live near Lori and Dan.
1 TBS or so Rancho San Cayetano's organic honey, if you're lucky enough to have some on hand, if not you can substitute your favorite honey for now and make plans to go to Michoacán with me next March to see millions of monarchs and cook with DK.
4-5 ice cubes
Put cardamom in to blender first, then add all other ingredients. Zap until velvety smooth. Pour into tall glass and breathe in the scent of cardamon before you take your first sip.

Makes enough for 2 if you're feeling generous, or just 1 if it's all about you today.

As I wrote this recipe down I realized that it is inspired by both the late great Joan Summers, creator of the Casa de Espiritus Alegres B&B, and her husband, artist Carol Summers. Joan taught me how to pick the sweetest papaya - it should look almost like it's on the way out - and I tasted my first lassi in India with Carol. They were a great combo, those two, and so are the flavors in this flavorful drink.