Monday, July 04, 2005

Only 41

number forty-five

A half hour or so south of Monterrey there is an idyllic little town called Santiago. Between these cities, stretched along the hot highway, there is a shopping Mecca. 1,714 words.

[NL]—México’s Carretera Nacional (Highway M85) runs its sun-blasted course from the Tamaulipas border town of Nuevo Laredo, through Monterrey, and on to points increasingly south of the border. Taking this route down through the arid dust bowl of Nuevo Leon’s winding midpoints, the next town on the map is Santiago, about thirty kilometers deeper into the interior. About twenty K along the way is the popular shopping area of los Cavazos which is conversationally referred to as “la Carretera” because of its proximity to this main artery. Starting just behind Monterrey’s iconic la Silla mountain, snug in the scorched earth of the northeastern Sierra Madres, this long strip of booths, concrete shops, and corrugated metal lean-tos winds along both sides of the Carretera Nacional for a half dozen sunny blocks. This strung-out mercado is a great place to shop for many things considered traditionally Mexican and attracts a prodigious amount of daily visitors to what is otherwise a baked and sunburned cake of dusty heat.

To further our circle of familiarity, we decided to head off on our first Mexican road trip on this beautiful July day. Sunshine could show me this much ballyhooed roadway market, and we could both see the quiet little village of Santiago, tucked into a crevasse in the surrounding mountains, where there is a honest-to-god lake and the very famous waterfall Cola de Caballo, or “Horse Tail Falls.” Santiago or bust.

Driving south along the Highway, we came to the medium-sized mission church that signals the beginning of the Carretera. This traditionally whitewashed two-story adobe building had been turned into a store for Mexican arts and crafts. The place is beautiful and filled with beautiful things: ceramic lily tree candelabras and clay animals, hand-painted vases of all sizes, woven fabrics, and wooden Loteria-themed wall shrines made of beans and bits of glass. They had the coolest wicker loveseat I have ever seen, long, low, and with jaguar heads for armrests. The stuff was, for the most part, priced in a way I felt pretty good about, and I even ended up buying a jaguar head planter for my bathroom. But the pure joy of the place is the building itself: the mission church with a capped well in its newly-covered courtyard and little off-center adobe bell tower. The floors are covered in slate tiles. The stuff for sale fills the first floor and the courtyard within the old privacy wall, covering every centimeter of flat space on the floors and walls. Some things even hang from the ceiling. Upstairs, in the back, are living quarters, I assume for the proprietors, opening onto a pretty, somehow green, little vine-filled back yard.

The heat today was amazing. I am pretty much getting used to the dry, furnace heat of this semi-desert world, but today was almost surreal. On the way out of town, in occasionally heavy but slow-moving traffic, the air conditioner in the car meekly struggled to putter out thinly chilled air. I kept trying to crank the little knob to “high” but it was already as high as it would go. By the time we pulled into the mission church twenty-five minutes later, my Coke was like coffee and I was somewhat afraid to get out of the car. The parking lot of the church, a patch of road shoulder roasted sterile long ago, sits adjacent to what must have originally been the gate to the church’s outer courtyard. Here there are already many interesting, larger scale items of interest for sale, but today it was simply too bright to see anything (and to hot to feel around). We scurried into the shaded open courtyard in self defense.

The accessible part of the building was not air conditioned. Inside this uninsulated clay oven, the air took on a more humid quality; though if this was because of some residual dampness in the old well, or just a byproduct of the shade, I do not know. It was so neat in there, however, with so very many interesting things tucked around everywhere, that we stuck it out for a good twenty minutes before retreating to the car and promising to return in the fall. The car was a blazing crematorium, or course, the Cokes just this side of actually simmering; but at least there was the puttering blat of cool AC, and a breeze through the windows once we got going on the highway again.

Not far down the road we started passing flower and fruit sellers (about the twenty kilometer mark south of Monterrey). Then we were passing a strip of road where the majority of the parked vehicles were advertising dogs for sale. Cages were lined up along the baked shoulder and in the backs of pickup trucks, men standing beside handwritten signs would hold a playful little tuft of puppy up to the passing traffic. Another minute or so later, we started flashing by the Carretera proper: runs of low stalls and concrete bunkers connected across the road by stout pedestrian bridges, busily populated by shopping families beneath fluttering tarps and Mexican flags. We opted to stop here on the way back when it was a little cooler, maybe. So we drove straight on through the action to the sleepy town of Santiago.

Santiago is such a quiet little place that it was very easy to find a parking spot on the zócalo right in front of the eighteenth century catholic church. The town is idyllic: leafy and slow—certainly a complete reversal from the modern reality of downtown Monterrey. Like some preserved TV village, Santiago sports a laid back, Sunday afternoon sort of a small town ambiance. People strolled around the town square, listening to popular music playing from inconspicuous speakers throughout the plaza, birds chirped, flowers bloomed. There is really very little to do in Santiago: it is a small place, visited mostly as a jumping-off point for the area’s scenic nature preserves or for the water sports offered down by the lake. It is telling that the free map we picked up at the tourist center is dominated by friendly arrows indicating the shortest routes to these surrounding areas of interest. A tiny map of Santiago with the Church in the center and multiple invitations to leave town. But the overlooked village itself is very appealing, rambling colorfully across its gentle slopes, verdant and very picturesque.

Down the hill from the middle of town, with its church and zócalo, three Italian restaurants, a pharmacy, and little civic museum, we could see across the street to the large lake pooling at the bottom of the mountains to the southeast. We wandered in that direction for a while, but didn’t feel like crossing the highway on foot, so we turned around and chose one of the Italian restaurants to relax in. This is when we noticed something very strange: we were sweating like crazy. Twenty miles away in Monterrey, I have never gotten so much as a damp armpit due to arid surroundings that steal the moisture right out of my skin. In Santiago however, nearly on the shores of a large lake, where there is precious moisture just laying around on the ground, it is a whole lot more humid. Actually it is sweltering, sultry, and oppressive.

So we retreated for an hour or more into the restaurant, which was vastly more successfully air conditioned than the car. I liked the place a lot, it was dark with high wooden ceilings and the waiters seemed to actually be Italian. We sucked down a number of drinks, and the appetizers were yummy, but I was served a fettuccini that was full of ham. What I will remember, looking back, is that the whole time we were there, we were wiping hot sweat out of our eyes. By the time we left, we had grown accustomed to the temperature inside, and stepping outside felt like taking a hot shower. The climate in July, in Santiago, is a lot like the North Carolina summers I left behind. It is far more uncomfortable than the more deadly desert air a few miles north. We hurried to the car, and headed back to the arid places to which we have grown accustomed. Getting in the car was uncomfortably akin to settling into a stew.

With over two hours of blinding daylight left, we parallel parked in the toasty berm alongside the Carretera. The revolving electronic sign we had just passed had the late afternoon temperature written out in small light bulbs: 41 degrees. Outside the car, I could feel my lips begin to crack, but at least I was not basted in sweat anymore. For the next hour plus, we strolled along the Carretera down sidewalks shaded with stretched blue tarps. Beneath the tarps were rows of stores selling souvenirs, saddles, and stationery; plants, pottery, and custom wooden shelving; bedroom sets in wrought iron flower or crescent moon motifs, electronics, jewelry, hardware, cutlery, tiles, terracotta, and toilets. There was one overpriced squirrel monkey who looked pretty comfortable in the heat. Roaming along beneath the tarps was like window shopping beneath a solar strobe: alternately too sunny and too shady to see.

Incredibly, standing between the shaded sidewalks and the shops were long lines of working stoves griddling up all manner of traditional Mexican fare; and, incidentally, filling the covered areas of the Carretera with clouds of billowing heat. We bought a deck of Loteria cards and water, but the hungry could choose from funnel cakes, cornbread, gorditas, tacos, and select peelings from vivisected spit-roasted baby goats. It smelled wonderful, but I was beginning to blacken around the edges by the time we finally headed back to the car. A little less than an hour remained before nightfall, and the sun was now almost to the low line of scrub that decorates the mountaintops. Inside the car we were cozy and warm, nothing near the broiling we had endured earlier in the day. We nosed our way back into the heavy traffic heading toward Monterrey; north to the constant 24 degrees of our ferociously climate-controlled desert sanctuary.

A short explanation of Loteria can be found here.

The Loteria deck I bought looks similar to these; but not these, or these.

Can I have cream in that? Photo © the Author

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.

Return to Previously

About Mr. Cavin