Monday, June 20, 2005

Our Stay in GTO, part II

number forty

This is an installment in a nine-part series detailing our first big Mexican Vacation. This is also the second in a series of numbered posts about what we did in the city of Guanajuato for eight days. Make sure to read the previous and subsequent posts, too. 2,168 words.


[NL; composed from notes taken in GTO 6/11-6/17/05]—Looking forward to our vacation in Guanajuato was as easy as getting excited about seeing mummies and museums and a side of México that is not evident in San Pedro. It is strange that it never dawned on me to also look forward to the food there. There is no reason for this, food has been generally excellent everywhere I’ve eaten in México. One of the things I really love about travel is the opportunity to eat new and exciting things. But under the daunting shadow of those museums, a very striking Spanish colonial plan, and mummies for Pete’s sake, food just got overlooked as something I should have been getting excited about. I didn’t take long to remember to be excited about it, though, after that first night.

Our first full day in Guanajuato, after spiraling down from the mummy museum, we ate in a little unnamed cellar off the Jardín de la Reforma, across from the Mercado Hidalgo. The food was exceptional and I wish that I had been able to eat it, frankly, but it was full of chicken. The bite I had before I realized this, however, was really spectacular. This had happened to me in México City, too—twice in the same restaurant. In Guanajuato I thought I was getting good at asking first, but when I ordered the enchiladas de nata—explained to me as a cream and cheese paste with peppers—it came with the unadvertised chicken anyway. Sunshine got to eat it, and I got to eat her French fries. The French fries were also exceptional.

The next night, still trying to stick primarily to places which would take Sunshine’s credit card, we searched out a Hindi restaurant up in the alleyways off the main roads. The Hindi restaurant was advertised as a vegetarian place called “Restaurante Vegetariano Yamuna.” The central roads in Guanajuato all run parallel to one another, and end up coming together in a central area down from the basilica where the busses stop. These roads all pretty much occupy the area that would have been Guanajuato’s river before the dam was built. Servicing the scattered jigsaw of precarious housing jammed teetering on the surrounding hills are all these little alleys called callejones. In places these alleys are so narrow that the balconies on either side would touch if they hadn’t been so strategically built. In places they also seem to lead straight up, sometimes becoming a flight of stairs for a while before leveling back off to merely steep. Since they are the primary access to the sides of the mountains, these alleys all have official street names and are dotted with frontage: little grocery stores, bars, and supposedly, Indian food. The interesting thing about the callejones is they never seem to dead end, leading instead to another callejon, then perhaps another. Occasionally, the alley’s street signs will indicate that its name has changed at these right angles. Sometimes, the name will not change. Sometimes there is no sign. Someone searching for a Hindi restaurant is eventually spit back onto a main road somewhere far from his hotel.

We have not been able to find Indian food in Monterrey. The place is teeming with the odd sushi joint, huitlacoche, and one can hardly eat anywhere without having a choice of different types of crêpes. But no Indian stuff anywhere. This is why, when we discovered mention of a Hindi restaurant in our travel guide, we jumped at the chance to climb the side of a mountain to find it. Alas, when we finally located the place, the sign for the Indian restaurant still painted over the door, we discovered that it had been replaced by a menudo stand, sides of beef swaying beneath the word “Vegetariano” painted over the door. The woman with the big bowl of tripe told us that the Indian place was gone.

This was sad, but certainly no tragedy. We ended up eating at a large place off the zócalo where I had the worst meal I ate in this city: an excellent grilled vegetable sandwich with nata. We were seated in front of a large open window where we could look out on Guanajuato’s lavish Teatro Juárez (commissioned by emperor Porfirio Díaz to be the most resplendent theater in a town full of them). The theater is a popular gathering place for local college students and tourists alike. People congregate on the theater’s wide stairs to gaze over the scene on the plaza. Since we were eating on that plaza, it meant that about two hundred people were idly staring right in the large window at us. Luckily, the whole time we were seated, there was a clown entertaining the people assembled on the steps by doing improvisational comedy skits between us and this crowd. He was earning big laughs mocking passersby (and traffic) in the street right outside our window. This was actually far less annoying than it sounds, and we really enjoyed watching the clown while we ate. At one point, while hassling a passing police car, all of the clown’s change fell out of his pockets and landed in the middle of the busy street. He didn’t notice. From then on I spent my time evenly divided between watching the clown, and watching his change on the ground six feet from our table, sparkling beneath the wheels of backed-up traffic.

Intermittently, random small children would walk up to our table and stand on our unused seat to watch the clown outside. These kids would watch in silence, a look of awed concentration on their faces. Regularly, children of about the same age would try to sell us Chiclets through the open window as they walked by outside. These kids would plead silently, holding their cardboard boxes of gum in at us. The clown show went on for a really long time and occasionally I would spot a pedestrian, fleeing the clowny side of the street, stoop to retrieve an abandoned peso in the middle of the road. The clown packed it up and headed off after an hour or so. The kids inside drifted back to their own tables while we finished our dinner. By the time Sunshine got her credit card out, all of the clown’s money had been taken.

By Monday, cash advances from the bank meant that we were able to eat anywhere we wanted. By Wednesday we had discovered a cool little courtyard coffee shop and very cool little courtyard bar. The coffee shop was in a whitewashed villa just beside the university apparently built by two European brothers who had immigrated to Guanajuato and subsequently fallen in love with the same woman, a soap opera that left one dead and the other in the local jail for life. The ice lattes were great, and they served these little veggie baguettes with tapenade that were messy but tasty. The bar, the Clave Azul, or Blue Clef, was a dark brick warren located on a callejon just off what was quickly becoming our favorite plaza, San Fernando. After nightfall we would go for a walk because the weather was so much nicer in Guanajuato than what we had gotten used to at home. On many nights, bands of musicians dressed in ceremonial uniform and called Callejoneadas, would meet beside the large Templo San Diego on the Jardín. They would sing bawdy songs and hand out wine as large groups of revelers followed them up and down the alleyways for hours. When all is said and done, the spectator would be drunk and very winded, but deposited back at the Templo. When we tagged along for a while, the group consisted mainly of a large group of drunk young Puerto Rican tourists and the women they were trying to impress. When we finally departed it was long before the route had gotten us near the Templo again, and we had to find a new way home. We new we were heading in the right direction when we passed the menudo restaurant with the sides of beef advertised as Hindi Vegetarian food.

Plazuela San Fernando is larger than the Jardín de la Union, and paved with slate tile. The center is a large stone fountain and here and there it is decorated with ancient, rusting mine cars that have been turned into flower pots. It connects with two other plazas, the middle of which (Plaza San Roque) sports a sixteenth century church. Roving mariachis and Norteño musicians solicit table to table or sit in front of the fountain. The bands come in sizes ranging from three to five players, and can be grouped together by the color of their uniforms. Plazuela San Fernando mostly had green and gold mariachis, but occasionally a red band would wander through. In the course of our stay in Guanajuato, we ate at a majority of the places situated around that plaza, and talked to quite a number of mariachi. When we were tired of being solicited, we would retire to the Clave Azul where it was always dark and cool, and they were always piping Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald.

By midweek, Sunshine was really beginning to come around to my strategy in regard to vacationing. At first, the hours that I would sit around in the shade reading or working on postcards was driving her nuts. She felt as though maybe we should be busily doing all of the things that the city offered us to do. I wanted to relax. I won, and we began to relax more than do. One of the nicer places to sit for an hour or two and read or write postcards was the Clave Azul, and in our short week, we sort of became regulars. Of the other regulars, my favorite was the thirty-something guy who sat at the bar, impersonating (or caricaturing) Armstrong whenever one of his songs would play. It really never stopped being funny to hear him phonetically belt out gravelly song lyrics.

Two doors up the callejon from the Clave, around a little corner, and before the alley became a steep stairway, we found that the Indian restaurant had not closed, just moved to another location. We were elated, and decided we would come back first thing the next day when it was opened. Inside, it was painted a shade somewhere between peach and Caucasian, and it had two-foot-thick adobe walls. When we sat down, the waitress asked if we wanted two meals, and we agreed, although with the luck I have had getting food without chicken, this lack of control made me nervous. The sign over the door, though, said “Restaurante Vegetariano Yamuna,” so I took a chance. All in all the place was really good. The meal consisted of a great salad and soup, and strange but acceptable appetizer of goat cheese and veggies stuffed in a pickle, and rice. There was a apple yogurt dessert. It did not consist of any chicken. The weirdest thing about the meal was the drink they served, and while other parts of the menu changed on a day-to-day basis, this drink remained. It was some kind of celery juice (or maybe melon) with lime, fennel, and anise. Maybe a little mint. It was really strange, and served sort-of lukecool. I didn’t really dislike it on the first taste, and I liked it better and better as I went along.

But the best food that we ate in Guanajuato was the place we finally found on the second to last day we stayed there. Up past the menudo place, teetering high on the side of the same hill that the Callejoneadas serenade by night, perched directly below the feet of the huge Pípila statue that looks over the city, is el Gallo Pitagorico, home of the most excellent Italian food I have eaten in México. We ate looking out a window with a splendid view of the whole valley; a vantage point from which we could see just about every place that we had been. All of the cool museums and plazas and churches and restaurants were arrayed before us like a collage of the city. The salmón carpaccio and penne alfredo were superb, and neither contained the rooster from the restaurant’s name. All of the table sets were hand carved Michoacán furniture depicting moons and suns and corn and Posada Calaveras. The staff was friendly and attentive. After dinner, to get away from a group of young women drinking diet rum and cokes and speaking loudly in English about many dull and uninteresting things, we headed up to the terrace for drinks. If anything the view here was even more spectacular, encircled with twinkling Christmas lights in a much darker room. We hung out here for another hour, as the sun set on Guanajuato and the Callejoneadas started singing loudly in the valley far below us.

stay tuned for part three.

Click images for pictures from Guanajuato © Cavin

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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