Monterrey is Okay
[NL]—After traveling to México City and Guanajuato, and learning so much about those places in very concrete and historical ways, it feels embarrassing to admit that I still know very little about Monterrey. I was eager to start changing that, so we made the trip over the bridge and through the tunnel to town today.
Part of my trouble with Monterrey is its distance from my house: far greater than I am willing to walk in the June heat, here. Also, this ignorance self-perpetuates because it is very difficult for me to take a cab to town due to my inability to give the driver a destination, owing as much to my feeble ignorance of Monterrey’s locations as to my feeble Spanish.
Certainly there are plausible reasons for all of this, but there are also shameful excuses. We are located inaccessibly, in a cultural and environmental desert, making it easy to put off acclimation to this new place. It is entirely too hot in the middle of the summer out there, and, really, there is just not that much to acclimate to. It becomes a rather less pressing necessity. San Pedro, at least the parts around me, is pretty dull. The house is great, and there are plenty of things to do in it. Culture shock is something that one has to slowly wear away by subjecting oneself to ever greater amounts of that culture; and that is very easy to avoid here. This self-perpetuation rolls along: hard to go, sort-of don’t know what to do, not immediately interested, mildly troubled by daunting ignorance and minor cultural divide. Then repeat, with more intense qualifiers. The solution, as always, is over the bridge and through the tunnel.
Plus, I found Monterrey disappointing. This is the shameful part. There is something about travel that can be looked at as the peeling off of fanciful prejudices to be replaced with local realities. This is probably much of the reason I never came to Monterrey when I was traveling in México a decade ago. Monterrey is very real, and fantasy visions of México and Mexican culture are hard to maintain here. These are not so difficult to maintain in ancient and quaint Guanajuato, although they are just as false there. My attachment to this desire to travel in a fantasy México from movies and literature is a byproduct of my fancy of the exotic. In reality, exoticism owes more to willful ignorance than knowledgeable perception to perpetuate a thing’s mystery. Once you see real people, running about living real lives, with jobs and educations, they immediately become normal people and lose their exotic mystery. This is all very obvious, of course, but it can be a hard thing to let go of in the face of a really beloved fantasy. Conversely, once faced with these realities, often it seems that the fantasy was at best without merit, and at worst actively corrupt. If you shut your eyes when you think about México, and you see banditos and bell towers, piñatas and mariachis, terracotta and adobe, you should be aware of what I mean. That all of these things exist here is somewhat beside the point; México is a real, modern place made up of far more than these icons. Monterrey is a city with very little invested in the tourism of people interested in maintaining a vision of México’s exoticism; Monterrey doesn’t care about all of that.
I don’t mean to make myself out like an idiot clinging to some Pancho Villa romance. Or like someone who is disappointed that México is fully in the twenty-first century. México is vibrant and dynamic and real, and I like it just fine that way. But, for just a little bit, it is sad to feel my fantasies recede, and it can hurt to come face to face with my own inexplicable presumptions.
We took a cab to the Mercado Juarez, located in the central district of Monterrey, somewhere between the end of the Macroplaza and the city’s pretty, tree-lined Alameda. The Alameda is where families and teenagers would stroll in the evenings and weekends in a small, fantasy Mexican town, firing their guns in the air, and trilling loudly. Here they go to the shopping centers and watch movies, talk over crepes and baguettes in stainless steel coffee joints in palm shaded strip malls. The Mercado was very much the way I remembered them being from my trip ten years ago. A massive concrete building crammed with booths grouped by subject. In one corner there are electronics, in another CDs, and in another little places to sit and eat. Guanajuato’s Mercado Hidalgo was much the same, though more touristy and fanciful, mostly brimming with non-essentials like candles and ceramics and toys. In other parts of México, and the México in my head, the mercado is also where people go to buy grain for the livestock, browse hooked rows of butchered pigs, and pick up the hardware for the farm and the fences. The mercado is tons of fun, and filled with really cool stuff, but at all times it was impossible to ignore the reality that Mexicans do their real shopping at the grocery store.
Across the street from the mercado, we found ourselves in a piñatería, a bulk candy store specializing in the festive papier mâché figures as well as the industrial servings of brightly colored fallout rewarding the person who manages to beat them open with a stick. The candy was awesome: every conceivable shape and flavor, leaning toward the freakish. Rows and rows of chamoy- and tamarind- and chili-flavored hard, soft and gummy candy; hard pastel cereal-marshmallow scoops in the shape of ice cream cones big as a monkey’s fist. Straws and ropes of powdered sugar, figurines of crusted sugar, and toys and bottles of liquid sugar occupying a vividly-colored warehouse of boxed candy. In México, sweets stores known as duclerías produce and sell Willy Wonkan varieties of fancy confection; chocolaty, powdered sugary, and fruity fantasies of dessert living. La Catrina in Guanajuato, with its pharmacy of colored bottles of fancy syrups and candied fruit-encrusted stuff, is an example of this. The piñataria is the downscale reality, sporting every conceivable type of packaged candy product as different from a dulcería as orange circus peanuts to grandma’s apple pie. The whole warehouse is like the swag of a particularly strange and successful trick or treating, and occupies the space of a medium-sized grocery store in the US. And of course, populating the rafters like a condemned zoo are the countless swinging carcasses of frilly, crepe piñatas. Fantasy versus reality: I wanted to see piñata bulls and donkeys and cactuses and big hats, “traditional” things that make good souvenirs from my stint in this country;. The piñatas that sell however, are the ones that kids want: Star Wards, Finding Nemo, Spongebob and dinosaurs. The piñatería also sold hot sauce.
Wandering on down the road we passed numerous small bookstores and an occasional used clothing store; a paper goods store for art and office supplies and long rows of white privacy walls advertising this and that in colorful three-foot-tall block lettering. The black school-type city busses looked pretty third-world with their chicken wire and missing doors, but many of the passengers had mobile phones and PDAs. It was pretty hot out, and we began to make our way over to the Barrio Antiguo, the old area of town with the strange sushi buffet and the huitlacoche joint. I wanted to eat at a Greek restaurant Sunshine had been telling me about. This took us past one of Monterrey’s museums where I was finally able to get a few postcards of this city in the gift shop. After eating, we wandered in the cooler Monterrey twilight, enjoying the comparatively leafy and pretty neighborhoods just northeast of the building Sunshine works in. We stopped at a gas station to pick up some eggs, but they were out.
Monterrey is a good town. There is plenty to do here, and there are friendly people to do them with. There are a few museums I will venture into later, I am sure. There is a reportedly excellent planetarium and science center. There are several large technical universities, and several feats of modern architecture. The food is consistently wonderful and the water is actually drinkable. The array of things to see and do are not engineered to be spectacular to some fantasy tourists from an exotic culture; this is a real city, interested in its own people and things. It is not lovely, but it is a nice place to live. I am just not sure I would want to visit here.
On the one hand, Huitlacoche is excellent; but on the other hand, it looks nasty.
On the third hand: something from the blog of Poppy Z. Brite.
La Catrina’s website.
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