Archive: 2007 3rd Quarter

Turtle Island Quartet

Bigger, richer venues draw top performers for cultural events in the more fashionable fall and winter seasons. We, in the backwater that is San Miguel de Allende, must schedule our Chamber Music Festival for midsummer. But this works perfectly for us, because our summer is in May and the month of August is either our spring or fall, it's hard to tell which. But it's cooler and rainy and a great time to take in a concert or two.

Peter Levinthal's festival poster art manages to introduce an erotic element to the idea of chamber music, which maybe was the original idea back in the 18th Century, before high society and dry academics got ahold of it and sucked all the passion out. Peter managed for once to keep his female subjects' shirts on—barely. Still, his clump of musicians looks like an orgy revving up. I for one approve.

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The concert series is always held in the Angela Peralta Theater, so named for Mexico's Nightingale and great soprano. Sra. Peralta opened the theater in 1873, starring in Verdi's Rigoletto. Those were the days.

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It's a small theater, only 200 seats, and we like it that way. It offers an intimacy and a connection between performers and audience not often found in San Francisco or New York. Moreover, it's easy to get tickets and they are inexpensive by big city standards.

For the second year, the Turtle Island Quartet was the headline act. For the opening night, they played an entire concert based on the music of John Coltrane from their new album, A Love Supreme. If that doesn't redefine chamber music, I don't know what does.

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The couple sharing our season tickets went to the opening concert; we attended the second. The program consisted of a cross section of Turtle Island's music as we have come to know it over the years.

Classically trained musicians—a classical string quartet no less—playing what? Jazz? Not really, although much of their music was drawn from jazz composers and artists: Chick Corea, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis.

The hit of the night, for me at least, was a composition by quartet leader David Balakrishnan—I think he called it Snakes and Ladders—that contained classical, jazz, folk and Indian influences. In one section the quartet sounded like sitar and tabla, evoking memories of KPFA's feature, the Morning Raga—a great way to get your heat pumping. They used their violins as drums: Turtle Island knows no boundaries.

Two intrusions did little to interfere with the experience. At one point we had a precipitation event: a violent downpour drumming on the roof drowning out the quartet. And then, there was the usual scattering of egotists in the audience who felt it necessary to shout "Bravo!" at the conclusion of each number.

If I had to use a single word in connection with this group, it would be rhythm. You tap your toes, move your pelvis as you listen. Yet the music is as demanding as Shostakovich, and it is performed by masters.

All four players took turns chatting with the audience, creating a playful intimacy. They allowed one encore, a blues number that was the one piece that didn't work for me. Their blues sounded as convincing as Aaron Copeland's Hoe-Down—stilted, like folk music interpreted by classical musicians.

Overall, it was a thrilling evening. As one reviewer said of the group, "The Turtle Island Quartet have the chops, the guts , the soul, the spirit and the taste..."

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Going Home

I've posted a lot about our trip to Oaxaca: 24 posts in 18 days. Yet the trip only took eight. I followed in Clint's wake at a pace I hadn't kept since Silicon Valley days. His energy, contacts and experience made possible a tour that I hardly could have done on my own.

Exhausted (well, at least I was), we started for home, Clint driving but feeling poorly. He thought he might be coming down with a cold. Turned out to be food poisoning. All the usual nasty symptoms plus fever, chills and sweating. We were worried for awhile, but we stopped for the night in Puebla. Clint showed up in the morning a little weak but ready to go.

Our main objective at this point was simply to get home. No more tourist stops.

Near the Oaxaca-Puebla border, we passed through some spectacular country. The sun was beginning to drop in the western sky and thunderheads were forming. I looked out the shotgun seat window as the scenery rolled by, wishing I had a day or two to explore.

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Then Clint said, "John, we gotta stop and take pictures. It's just too much." He pulled over onto the inadequate shoulder of the carretera and I jumped out to capture a few frames.

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Traffic whizzed by. I was nervous because the truck was half sticking out into the slow lane. No time to find good vantage points. No time to compose, set exposure, wait for the sun. It was just "f8 and be there." Point, shoot and jump back in the truck.

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We stopped twice. We could have stopped a dozen times and not run out of worthy subjects.

Unusual yuccas and barrel cacti jumped out at me.

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A forest of cacti shaped like telephone poles spread up a hillside. I love the patterns they make.

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This is a region empty of settlements but full of beauty. It's about a day's drive from San Miguel de Allende. I'll come back some day.

—§—

The periférico, the ring road around Mexico City, isn't actually a ring. It's more of a C. If you want to stay on carreteras all the way around the city, you have to detour to the northeast, extending your trip to Puebla by an hour and a half.

Or, you can do what we did: Take the ring road and close the loop by driving for a couple of miles on one of Mexico City's surface streets. But we knew we would be gambling when we did that, exposing ourselves to Mexico City's hopelessly corrupt traffic cops.

On our outbound leg, we hit the notorious surface streets at the same time as a powerful downpour. Water ran in the streets as high as our door sills. The upside was the rain drove the cops off the street, and we continued on to Puebla without being stopped.

On our return, the weather wasn't as cooperative. Getting off the periférico, we came to a single block in which were parked three police cruisers with maybe 20 cops standing alongside. They were looking for one thing only: out-of-state or foreign license plates.

See, travelers passing through are not going to want to stick around Mexico City for an extra day to clear a traffic ticket, legitimate or not. So they're good prospects for extortion.

Two of the cops waved us over to the side. We had a nice pickup truck, a gringo driver, and Texas license plates, so we were a fat juicy mark. One of the cops swaggered over to the passenger door: Mirrored wraparound sunglasses, bushy mustache, no ID tag on his chest. He asked for Clint's license.

On Clint's advice I kept the window open just enough to talk through, not enough to reach through. I held Clint's Texas Driver's license against the glass so the cop could read it.

That was all it took. The cop realized we were not afraid of him, that we were going to resist extortion. He had too many easier fish to catch, so he walked off without another word. We took his exit as permission to leave.

The extortion is so blatant, surely Mayor Marcelo Ebrard knows about it. Why doesn't he do anything? A simple drive down the street in an unmarked car, and he couldn't miss it. He might even suffer a shakedown attempt of his own before the cops realized who they had.

I wonder if he cares. I wonder if he benefits from what's going on.

If any of you are stopped by a cop for no good reason, know this: You don't have to get out of your car. You can refuse to hand over your license. Let him read your papers through the window. You can refuse to discuss anything. You can demand to see his ID. You can demand your infracción (ticket). You can ask to be taken to the nearest judge. If he's angling for a bribe, he'll give up. Just stick to your guns.

The single biggest single cause of Mexico's poverty is corruption (See note). If you pay a bribe, you're contributing to it. Please don't.

—§—

Finally, I thought you'd like to see how Chiapas travels.

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He rides on his perch for miles. Then he climbs on one of our shoulders to gnaw our ears or crawls into the back seat and chews bag straps (until Marne or I catch him). Outside of that, he's the best traveler I've ever met.

—§—

Note about corruption:

The World bank ranks Mexico as the world's 14th largest economy. It ranks ahead of nations like Australia, the Netherlands, or Sweden. But these are rich countries; Mexico is poor. Income per person ranks only 79th. among nations. Given its population and resources, Mexico should be something like the world's #3 economy: maybe between Japan's and Germany's.

Investment in Mexico is the only way it'll get there. But investors,
even Mexican investors, are wary because there's so much corruption that they are afraid their returns, or even their principal will be stolen by crooked government officials. So they divert their investments to safer countries, which is why Mexico's economy remains anemic and the people remain poor.

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Meat and Vegetables

Regular readers may think I'm obsessed with food. Not really. It's just that what people eat tells me so much about how their cultures differ from mine.

Mexicans enjoy, if that is the right word, a GDP per head about one-tenth that of the U. S. Even so, there is a saying in Mexico, to the effect that no one ever goes hungry here. Something is always cooking somewhere: in street stalls, restaurants, homes, around campfires and in the mercados. People don't go hungry because they view a much wider range of meats and vegetables as good eating. If they can't buy or catch meat, they eat vegetables. If they can't afford corn and beans that day, they eat plants they find in nature such as huizontle or tunas.

In the meat department, we have chicharron—fried pig skin.

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Chicharrones are rarely eaten out of hand like the cello-paks of pork rinds (what a euphemism) we used to buy in the States. Here, you buy walk-away servings with chopped vegetables and chili sauce dumped on top. Cooked in broth, chicharrones make good fillings for tacos. I've eaten them in stews and soups.

If chicharrones aren't exotic enough for you, there's chapulines—fried grasshoppers.

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An Oaxacan staple eaten for thousands of years, chapulines are seasoned with garlic, chiles and lime, giving them a salty-sour flavor. I find them quite savory, either eaten out of hand, or as a filling for taquitos.

A long, roofed section of this mercado, festooned with papeles picados, houses carnicerias (butchers) along the sides, while asadores (grills) conveniently line the center. Pick out the meat you like and someone will cook it for you.

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In the [hoto we see those wonderful fat little Oaxacan chorizos (sausages) on the grills, as well as carne asado (beef).

Pollo asado (grilled chicken) is one of my favorite Mexican foods, whether it's the succulent kind expertly prepared in a mercado stall, or the dry, chewy but flavorful meal you get at Pollo Felíz—Mexico's answer to McDonalds.

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(I've mentioned before that Mexican people don't throw things out. They repair or recycle or make do. No product has so long a life cycle as one in Mexican hands. In the photo above, the cook's knife is stuck into the pile of chickens. It's been repaired with soft iron wire. Let that be a lesson to us all.)

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Mexican meat is cut thin. Takes some getting used to. I was struck by the light shining through this carniceria's wares.

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It isn't simply a matter of taste: there's a practical reason why Mexican meat is cut so thin. Mexican animals are not finished in feedlots. They come right off the range where they've been eating dried cornstalks if they're lucky and chaparral if they're not. These beasts are tough and stringy. A Mexican Rib-eye or New York steak is difficult to cut and chew, to say the least. Believe me, I've tried. Besides, from a Mexican standpoint, they're way too much meat for any one person.

Most chorizo and other mexican sausages are made by specialists using commercial casings and machines to form them. But in rural areas, you can still find ground meat and seasonings stuffed into intestines, the way God intended.

But they don't look as appealing, at least to my eyes, as the uniform, manufactured kind.

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You can buy prepackeage unshelled peanuts at convenience stores for snacking whle driving down the carretera. More commonly, though, peanuts are boiled and served soft. In the southern U. S., we call them goobers.

Served this way, they're more of a staple than a snack. This somewhat distracted little girl is selling cacahuates (peanuts) intended for boiling.

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Mexicans eat many other seeds These pods are called guaje.

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They're pods of the mimosa tree (Leucaena leucocephala?). They're shelled, and the bland, high protein seeds cooked and eaten.

A reader commented that I had not been in a U. S. supermarket for awhile and wasn't familiar with today's prices. Guilty as charged. But even compared with Safeway's prices five years ago, the values in mercado stalls are astonishing.

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At ten pesos to the dollar, the cantaloupes are priced five for $1.50-$2.00; the potatoes, $1 for 4½ pounds.

(The slogan at the top of the potato price sign says, "In war, everything is lost," a reference to the ongoing conflict in the City of Oaxaca.)

I find it interesting that cornmeal for making tortillas isn't sold much in the mercado, nor is unground corn. Apparently you grow your own or you buy it direct from a neighbor. In either case, you grind it yourself or you take it down to the molino (mill). My friend Berta relates how one of her chores as a little girl was to take a bucket of corn to the molino for grinding.

Dried beans are more in evidence, but there's still not a lot of them offered. Beans and corn, the foundations of life in Mexico, can be found in any restaurant or supermarket. But in the country, in the mountain villages, everyone produces their own. They have to, in an economy where cash is scarce, where much commerce is still done by barter.

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El Viejecito

Tribal women from the south of Mexico dress so colorfully that it's easy to overlook the men. I'm always a little disappointed when on return from exploring, I realize that once again my collection of images lacks those wonderful masculine faces I observed but failed to capture.

This little old man, though, is one I didn't miss.

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How old is that face? Could be 70. Could be 50. His face is marked by a hard life, so it's difficult to tell. His hair is gray, not white, so it's possible that he's younger than I think.

He's wearing two sombreros, one over the other. His Sunday best hat is covered by a sweat-stained felt one, to protect it from soiling and the intermittent rains. He's wearing a Goodwill tee shirt under a heavy, long-sleeved shirt. The temperature today is pushing 90, but he doesn't want to get chilled. I'm often surprised at how warmly Mexicans dress.

He probably does not live with a woman, on account of he's grimy. Indigenous women are scrupulously clean, even if they're living on dirt floors. How they do it is a wonder.

One thing for certain: There's no way they would tolerate their man looking like that. It's a matter of pride, a reflection on their homemaking.

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His sandals are beat up, yes. So are his feet. Which part is leather, which part skin?

Four thousand years ago, we all had feet that looked like his.

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An Embroiderer

There are so many ways to enjoy Mexico. My friend Clint has found a particularly intriguing one. He drives his pickup truck all over the country, visiting small towns, meeting artisans, buying their work which he then exports to Texas.

He isn't gonna become another Wal-Mart this way, and he doesn't want to. For Clint, the destination is the journey, something he sees as clearly as any Zen master. In his journey, he's seeing a Mexico few of us ever will experience.

One category of exports is hand embroidered garments. He overpays for them here, benefiting hundreds of women who do the work, and wholesales them at a good markup in the north. Part of our mission on this trip to Oaxaca is to visit with one of his suppliers.

Working with this kind of operation isn't like placing a wholesale order with a Wamsutta account executive. There are no downtown sales offices, no sleek glass headquarters in some industrial park in Hackensack, NJ. This business is more modest. Way more modest.

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This place might look poverty-stricken to you. Well, for rural Oaxaca State, it actually ain't bad. The proprietor is fairly wealthy by local standards. She's an employer, after all. A member of the power elite.

Clint went right in and began discussing business matters with her. I wandered around her place, camera in hand and Chiapas the parrot on my shoulder. Right away, we met two other parrots, a couple of parakeets, a dove and two chicks of undetermined species.

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Foolishly, I carried Chiapas over to meet one of the parrots. He took one look at the overhanging tree branch and gleefully climbed onto it. Free at last! When I grabbed for him, he squawked and bit the hell out of my finger. Clint and Marne ran over, and between the three of us, we managed to get him down out of the tree. Note to self: Don't walk under low tree branches while carrying bird.

This place was unlike any manufactory I'd ever seen. An enameled pot of beans bubbled away on a charcoal brazier.

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Two grandchildren emerged from somewhere and greeted me. They insisted on posing for pictures, asking to see each frame as soon as I shot it.

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A junkyard dog, chained to a tree, barked threateningly and incessantly, until the owner broke off her discussion with Clint long enough to beat it with a broomstick. (I have a hard time accepting the way animals are treated in this country.)

Clint negotiated with the embroidery lady for a couple of hours. This photo was taken late in the discussions. Does she look happy?

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She does not.

Her rigid position was that she wanted Clint to buy the pieces on the table in front of her. Clint wanted her to embroider the box of jeans jackets he had brought with him from the States, as she had promised to do at their last meeting.

For years I was involved negotiations like this with suppliers and customers in the semiconductor industry. Not fun then; not fun now. The only difference today was the size of the deal: ten thousand pesos instead of ten million dollars. But it still boiled down to two hardheaded people trying to get what they wanted. Some things never change.

I snapped my photo and retreated to the yard to talk with the grandkids some more.

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Restuarante Donají

We stopped for a meal during our tour of maguey-growing, mescal-making country at the excellent Restaurante Donají. They present themselves as purveyors of comida tradicional oaxaqueña. Targeting Norteamericano, Europeo and urban Mexicano visitors, this place has managed to avoid the cheesy tourist-processing feel typical of restaurants dependent on travelers.

Walking from the parking area, the first sight greeting us was this woman making tortillas.

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We knew right away we were in for a treat. She's patting the masa (tortilla dough) out by hand. Nobody does that anymore.

Handmade tortillas, rare in their own right, are usually made with the aid of a tortilla press.

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Photos: gourmetsleuth.com

But for my money, tortillas made with a press aren't as good as the ones patted out by hand. They lack the imperfections and tenderness of the truly handmade. They have a sharp rim that detracts from the mouth feel of the ones shaped in the cook's palms.

Restaurante Donají makes tortillas the hard way, the traditional way, the centuries-old way. Dried corn is soaked and boiled in lime water, the softened kernels ground in a mill (their one concession to modern times), patted to shape one at a time and cooked on a sheet of iron over a charcoal fire. I can't emphasize enough, how different, how much better these are from any factory-made tortillas. We're talking mom's buttermilk biscuits vs. Wonder Bread.

The restaurant is famous for its moles; that's MOE-lays, not the little critters that burrow under your lawn. Brown, red, yellow, green mole; the variety is endless. Most moles contain chiles and chocolate, the latter unsweetened of course. No respectable mole has fewer than eight other ingredients.

English-language recipes for mole offered online are disappointing, listing commercial chile powder and unsweetened Baker's chocolate as ingredients. I wouldn't eat that stuff. Restaurante Donají, befitting it's traditional approach, begins with fresh chiles and cacao beans, roasting them in a wood-fired oven.

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They make the best mole I've ever eaten. (Excepting, of course, that made by our cook, Rosario. It takes her two days to make her sauce, using her grandmother's recipe.)

A big, open kitchen is where it all comes together. It looks a little questionable, but everything in there is spotless.

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Chicken is grilled, sauced and served from there. A boy runs outside to the tortilla lady to get fresh ones just before serving your order. As you eat in blissful satisfaction, you gaze at a bucolic mural of a mercado as it looked in the last century.

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Today, a hundred years after the period depicted—the mountains, the mercado, the sellers, the produce, the stilt walkers, the costumes—look exactly the same as today. Maravilloso ¿no?

Like all good Mexican businesses, Restaurante Donají is more than a restaurant. For example, they raise ostriches...

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... although they don't serve them.

They weave traditional Oaxacan rugs when business is slow.

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As if that's not enough, a family member makes furniture in a shop out back.

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That's an electric bandsaw on the left; pretty sophisticated for woodworking in these parts. Note also that the shop serves as a dormitory. A couple of hammocks provide perfectly satisfactory sleeping arrangements in this warm country.

Restaurante Donají has been a fixture for decades. Oaxaqueños who have cars and can afford to eat in restaurants (a minority) make the one-hour drive out of the city for a special afternoon.

If you English speakers want to enjoy a meal here, you're gonna have to brush up on your Spanish. But the friendly owners are used to Norteamericanos. They may address you in Spanish, but they speak slowly and articulate clearly. Talking with them was one of those rare experiences for me, where I understood everything they said.

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Shopping for Groceries

The largest market in Mexico said to be the Abastos in Oaxaca. There you can buy almost anything that you might need for living in this country, and buy it cheaper than anyplace else. Thousands of people visit hundreds of stalls every day. It's a must see for tourists visiting the city.

We didn't go there.

Instead we visited three or four mercados in nearby towns; places where mostly indigenous people were buyers and sellers. Here mother and daughter check out some apples. You can bet they have sharp eyes for quality and value.

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Women in particular wear traditional dress. Our local friend Eric says he can tell which village they come from by their costumes.

Of course, not all women dress in the old style. The older woman on the left makes a nod to tradition with her head band, but her apron is exactly like those worn by anyone doing housework anywhere in Mexico.

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The woman in the flowered dress clearly dresses in modern style, while to her right, another woman creates a scandal by wearing pants. Young people. What can you do?

Many rural Oaxaqueños wear braids interwoven with ribbons.

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Ends of her braids tied together, this woman reminds me of the girls in Diego Rivera's painting, Flower Festival: Feast of Santa Anita. The look hasn't changed in 70 years, and probably many more.

These vendors from a remote village, don't like to have their pictures taken. Had I realized this before I shot, I would have respected their wishes. As it turned out, I got a photo of women holding cloths over their faces.

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Disabilities abound in the mercados. The crawling woman is paraplegic. She is a vendor, selling items woven from palm fronds.

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Her life must be incredibly hard. But I later saw her sitting up with a group of women, gossiping and smiling. Her debilities haven't broken her spirit.

Men tend to look like cowboys. Most work in fields or the jungle.

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You rarely see people with prominent birthmarks in the States; they're removed, usually at an early age. This man almost certainly had no choice in the matter. Cosmetic surgery isn't available for people like him. I would have liked to ask him if his markings bothered him, but how could I have done such a thing?

This young cholo looks much like one of his peers in East L. A., except he doesn't quite manage to carry it off. The ragged pants and the Goodwill golf shirt spoil the effect. Still, he's doing what he can with what he has.

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Staffing a stall can be stultifying, especially when you're merchandising a low volume commodity like lime, used for boiling dried corn to remove the kernel coverings.

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That's the wooden handle of a hammer sticking up in front of her. She uses it to break the lime into consumer-sized pieces. Notice the white dust on her hands.

Some vendors just can't stay awake.

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It's not all old women in the stalls. Here. a young mother sells cantaloupes.

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Another young woman sells garlic. She and several other ajo sellers have no stalls; they just wander around and push bunches of bulbs in shoppers' faces.

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If you want to meet real Mexicans, the place to do it is in the mercados. Here, Clint is engaged in conversation with a woman preparing tostadas.

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Toward the end of our trip, Clint came down with a case of food poisoning. He thinks he got it from a mercado restaurant selling grilled chicken, and I have to defer to him, on account of it's his system that took the hit. But I can't get rid of the feeling that it might have been food from an operation like this one.

This is not to say that Clint or I avoid this kind of food stall, as all the wussy tourist guides advise. Every day millions of Mexicans eat food prepared this way, and so can we. Being overly cautious, we'd be cutting ourselves out of one of the great pleasures of visiting or living in Mexico—sampling the incredible variety of street food.

We didn't visit the greatest of markets, Abastos. But we didn't miss anything. The places we visited offered more than we could absorb. Nor did we miss the tourists who troop along in docile groups through Abastos. Nor the pickpockets who prey on them..

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El Centro de las Artes San Augustín

Old industrial buildings adapt surprisingly well to modern purposes. The 19th-century woolen mills along Route 128 in Massachusetts became high-tech offices and laboratories. Brick warehouses south of Market Street in San Francisco have been converted into trendy condominiums.

In the little town of San Augustín, near Oaxaca, an abandoned yarn and thread factory has been beautifully refurbished and is now used as an art center.

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They don't make 'em like this anymore, do they? Looks like a county courthouse. The factory as monument.

In the early decades of the last century, hundreds of workers trooped up those steps to work for less than a dollar a day. Today it provides paid employment for maybe a dozen residents of San Augustín: custodians, maintenance workers, guards, administrators, who provide all the services needed to make the place function as a museum, a gallery and a place for art-related events.

This summer, the first floor is being used for an exhibition of contemporary ceramics—cerámica utilitaria—pottery. But what pottery!

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The work on display is not folk art, not pedestrian crafting by amateurs. These are serious works worthy of deliberate appreciation.

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Half the second floor houses a temporary showing of drawings, which don't particularly appeal to me. But the room they are in does. The unused half of this floor is empty, permitting an unobstructed view of this incredible space.

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The high roof is new, the rest is original. The wonderful rank of arched windows, the scarred oak floors, heavy enough to support massive iron machinery, the absence of posts, create a vast, open space capable of displaying works of any size without crowding them.

In the center of the second floor, some of the huge old bobbins, still wound with yarn, and a couple of looms have been left to mark the building's original use.

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They are installation art in their own right.

Other examples of incorporating the old industrial facilities into a compelling design include retaining the old incinerator, now surrounded by a reflecting pool.

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Another part of the pool contains a drift of submerged ceramics: more architecture as art.

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A whimsical staircase leads to the thorny trunk of a ceiba tree.

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Empty, this place would be worth visiting on its own merits. Containing as it did, an exhibition of extraordinary ceramics, I found my attention hopelessly, but happily divided.

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Turkey Ladies

Benjamin Franklin proposed that the turkey be the American National Bird.
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We're all thankful he was ignored. Nevertheless, nothing is more American than the family gathering around the table laden with a large roasted turkey at Thanksgiving. Norman Rockwell americana, no?

No.

The turkey was domesticated in Mexico. The pilgrims shot and ate wild turkeys, but these were poor, stringy substitutes for the plump, succulent birds the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica had been eating for centuries. Today, Mole de guajolote (turkey in mole sauce) is thought of as the national dish of Mexico.

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I saw plenty of guajolotes being raised in dooryards. They're handsome birds compared to those white-feathered, insipid turkeys that are all breast meat, the kind sold in American supermarkets, and in Mexican ones too, where they're called pavo. But in the rural south of the country, most people buy their turkeys in the mercados.

Like this.

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Oh yeah, it's a live one. They sell dead ones, too. But they sure sell a lot of them that are still kicking.

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Wandering around rural Mexico—never in the cities—I'd see signs advertising pollo en pie—chicken on foot. We might say "chicken on the hoof." I correctly surmised this means live chickens, feathers and all. But why? Are they better that way? Maybe some Mexican cooks are sticklers for freshness?

None of those reasons seem very Mexican to me, not in a country where good enough is good enough.

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(Look closely. The woman above is carrying two turkeys. Must be expecting company.)

The answer, of course, is lack of refrigeration. People who live in the campo often cannot afford refrigerators. Many do not even have electricity. So whatever's for dinner has to keep itself fresh until the family is ready to eat it.

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The women in the markets haul their live purchases around so nonchalantly. It's no big deal. It's just the weekly turkey. Gotta buy some tomatoes, too. So they shove the birds under their arms and pick over the produce. Nobody gives it a second thought, except the slack-jawed gringo tourist who can't believe what he's seeing.

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During their back-to-the-land days, my parents had a chicken coop. On rare Sundays, my father would catch one and lop its head off with a machete. My mom would dip the still-twitching carcass in boiling water and pull its feathers. She'd gut it (which grossed all us kids out) and give us the feet to play with. (We would tug on the exposed tendons to make the claws wiggle.) Mom went to a lot of work for chicken and dumplings—which I never liked anyway.

These women do it every week. Except they dispatch their birds by wringing their necks. They cook them in mole sauce and serve them with tortillas made from corn they ground themselves. Mom had it easy.

(Incidentally, one word in Mexico for slaughter, as applied to animals for food, is sacrificar, to sacrifice.)

It's not just turkeys that are sold on the hoof. This young man is leading his goat around the mercado. I don't know if he's buying or selling it.

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Jean grew up in midwestern farm country. She's never seen a live animal taken for food. Her parents, like mine, bought cello-wrapped ground beef in the supermarket, or ready made burgers at the Rensselaer Dairy Queen. We've come so very far from our roots.

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Artesanal Paper Factory

Another of Francisco Toledo's projects (Ref: my post on his organic market) for preserving and enhancing arts and crafts in his native Oaxaca is a workshop for making handmade paper. To house the project, he bought and refurbished an old hydroelectric plant.

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Located in a beautiful mountain jungle setting, the plant is ideal for water-intensive paper making processes. Below are a couple of large tanks in which maguey or other natural materials are soaked to begin extracting fiber from leaves.

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Paper making equipment looks crude to my rich-country eyes. The stove is used to boil dyes and binders.

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José, the head paper-maker, demonstrates a guillotine used for cutting long fibers into workable lengths.

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Only materials found in nature are used. The jars on the left contain roots, bark, dried flowers and minerals, used as colorants or inclusions in decorative papers.

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The bucket contains sliced pads of nopal cactus (prickly pear), being soaked to extract a subtle dye.

Fibers are soaked to soften them and then put into this machine, which José describes as an industrial-strength blender.

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Dyes and binders are added to the pulp...

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... which is then scooped onto a hand-held screen that holds a thin layer in place while water drains off.

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The layer of pulp is inverted onto a worktable and a sheet of felt laid and pressed on top to absorb more water. Fine paper is pressed in a large old-fashioned screw press. Special papers are patted out by hand; designs are pressed into some, inclusions like mica or flowers into others.

Sheaves of finished paper are displayed for sale in a sort of showroom. I don't think the place meets its expenses through sales.

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Objects made from paper are also for sale; here, kites.

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The next two photos show gift boxes; the ones on top closed, the one below open.

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Most intriguing is paper jewelry. Who would have thought of something like this?

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Francisco Toledo is an artist. He's not interested in the business aspects of an enterprise like the paper factory, and it shows. The place survives through his patronage—a venue for artists and children learning art, and a place for the lucky few who find out about it to spend an interesting afternoon.

What will become of it when Francisco is gone?

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Shopping the Mercados

We visited three or four mercados (markets) in or near Oaxaca, places where tourists can come into close contact with indigenous people. These collections of market stalls offer a much more intense experience than any set of ruins or museum. Sadly, we saw almost no Northern Europeans or Norteamericanos during our visits. Such people will leave southern Mexico with little idea of how the descendants of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs live.

Mercados offer food more than anything else: prepared walk-away food, sit-down stalls where you can get enchiladas or chicken mole, or produce and staples for stocking your larder. But they're also the place to buy tee shirts, cold chisels, watches and blender parts. In this post, we'll look at some of the non-food items offered in marketplaces.

Like copal.

In my post about Monte Albán, I related how our guide,
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Rolando, pointed out various plants, naming them and explaining their medicinal uses. One of them was copal, a bush with red berries useful as a vermifuge and to make a salve for acne. At the time he told us all this, I had a vague sense that copal was something entirely different, but I couldn't remember just what. Did Rolando really know what he was talking about? A little investigation revealed that there is indeed a bush that grows in southern Mexico, Bursera copallifera, commonly called copal.

OK then. I must have misremembered. Later, I ran across a powdery substance for sale at a stall in a mercado. I asked what it was. The seller said, "copal."

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Hmmm. More than one thing in this world is called copal. The powdery and chunky kind is sold here for use in ceremonies and in church. People burn it to make sacred smoke; a sort of incense, that is said to be trance-inducing. It is made from sap collected from trees related to the one that produces the medicinal berry, or more commonly, from the pitch pine. Sellers offer two grades: premium and economy. Looking at the pictures, can you guess which is which? The unattractive blackish substance costs more. The lovely amber colored pieces are the cheap stuff. I don't know why.

Hammocks are widely sold in the mercados. They're not frivolous decorator items. They're what people sleep in, who live in rude houses in the tropics where insects would infest mattresses.

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Expensive ones are made of soft, fine yarns and are very nice. But I think the ones you can buy in Yucatan are better.

Less practical are metates and manos. The decorated ones shown below are given as traditional wedding gifts; no bride's home is complete without a set.

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While some grandmothers living in thatched huts still grind corn with them, most people anymore take their corn to someone who has an electric mill. The pace of life is picking up even in the jungles of Oaxaca, and only the poor still do the backbreaking labor to grind corn that way.

Incidentally, the copal vendor also sells lime for use in soaking dried corn to make hominy. Hominy is used to make pozole, or can be ground on a metate while wet to make masa nixtamalera, which used to make tortillas or other foods. Dried, masa nixtamalera becomes the familiar corn flour called masa harina, found in U. S. supermarkets.

(Here I am, talking about food again. Hard to stay on topic when there's so much good stuff to eat in Mexico.)

Ribbons find lots of uses: braided into hair, appliqued onto blouses and dresses, but rarely used to wrap presents. It's too expensive for that.

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Many vendors sell yarn and embroidery thread. Every woman's, every little girl's Sunday best includes an embroidered blouse, a beribboned skirt and pigtails braided with ribbons.

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As for yarn, Mexicans rarely knit. They crochet. You can just make out a bunch of crochet hooks in the upper right corner of the photo.

Clint saw these sharpening stones and was immediately captivated, as was I. Neither of us had ever seen anything like these huge things.

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The seller demonstrated their utility by sharpening Clint's pocket knife. He worked hard at it, ultimately producing a respectable edge, but I thought the stones to be too coarse to make knives razor sharp. Clint was satisfied though, and bought one of them. The biggest stones are for sharpening those ubiquitous Mexican outdoorsman's tools, machetes. For that, they're ideal.

People who work outdoors often own draft animals. They're an important source of power and transportation in the Oaxacan campo, and so there's a need for tack.

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Leather is too expensive, so tack is made from cotton, hemp, sisal or plastic rope. The ropes displayed on the pavement are hand-spun.

Even furniture is on sale. I didn't see any trendy equipal chairs, but these horrid upholstered pieces apparently were manufactured in great quantity, because I saw them everywhere.

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They're so awful, I was tempted to buy one as a conversation piece. Sort of like seeing Plan Nine from Outer Space, their vileness makes them almost good. Too bad I didn't manage to get a photo of the burnt orange ones. Truly ugly.

Most of rural Mexico shops in mercados, as do many city dwellers. Fierce competition keeps prices low. The selection is incredible. But sooner or later, Wal-Mart is gonna come. And ultimately it'll displace the mercados. But not for awhile yet. Even when they come, most mercado shoppers can't afford the big box stores' First-World prices. So you all have a few years left to get out and experience these markets for yourselves.

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A Happening in San Juan

During our visit to Oaxaca, we didn't spend much time in the city itself. The villages, the countryside were too much of an attraction. Our local friend, Eric, suggested we might like to visit San Juan, a pueblo an hour or so away, to see their once-a-year festival.

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Something big was going to happen. People lined up along the main street, waiting for some sort of parade or procession. The anticipation was palpable.

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Banda music erupted from the plaza in front of the church. We arrived to find costumed young women dancing.

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Their outfits included ornately appliqued skirts, white embroidered blouses, and baskets containing elaborate floral arrangements carried on their heads.

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Check out the spike heels worn by the girl on the left. Mexican women routinely walk over cobblestone streets in these things, whereas gringos slip and fall even when wearing trainers.

The dancers braided ribbons in their long black hair. They wore their party earrings.

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They have such beautiful faces.

A couple of dancers-in-training develop their balancing skills for a future festival.

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These girls clearly show their Asian roots: high cheekbones, hints of epicanthic folds in their eyes; more evidence of the migration across the Bering land bridge so long ago.

At the conclusion of the dancing, it was time to make a procession through town. A bugler and drummer led the way.

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The horn player was able to play near-perfect diatonic scales on his valveless long bugle. He did not play the usual martial bugle calls; instead choosing dignified minor-key processionals, adding an air of solemnity to the proceedings.

A small boy trotted along wearing his papier mâché mojiganga costume.

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The procession snaked along the streets for a mile or so, winding up at the Mayor's house. Snacks and candy were distributed to children (and dogs). Mescal was distributed to Clint, Marne and Chiapas the parrot, who draws a crowd wherever he goes.

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Late in the afternoon, the bright smiles disappeared, replaced by tired faces. I don't know how these girls managed to keep it up; festivities were to continue all night long. We wussy gringos, drained of all energy, headed back to the city for dinner and sleep.

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We were the only foreigners present for the fiesta. It's possible we were the only foreigners to observe it, ever.

The residents of San Juan were not putting on some kind of quaint folkloric show for tourists. They were dancing and parading for themselves only, for their own satisfaction. But the townspeople went out of their way to make us feel welcome, and took obvious pride that we were so interested in their event.

San Juan is by no means wealthy. The costumes and decorations, dances and music, are the culmination of a full year of preparation. I never figured out what the celebration was about: A saint's day? A political anniversary? Doesn't matter. We were very fortunate to be there, whatever the reason.

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Oops

Maintaining a website is proving to be more difficult than I knew when I started this thing. Yesterday I discovered that more than 150 posts could not be accessed via the archive links. All is now fixed, so for those of you who want to read past posts, they're all available.
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Organic Market

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Francisco Toledo, an artist of international stature who is widely regarded as Mexico's greatest living artist, is a native son of Oaxaca. As if becoming a great artist isn't enough, he has donated initiative, energy, influence and income to any number of philanthropic projects benefiting the city. He has founded libraries and museums, galleries and workshops. He has purchased and preserved any number of Oaxaca's architectural gems. One of his projects is an outdoor organic market that would delight any natural food enthusiast from Marin County.

Located on land behind an old aqueduct, the mercado, held daily, is no more than a few blocks from any hotel visitors to the city would choose to stay in.

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A low doorway, unmarked by any announcement or sign, leads into the market grounds.

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Here, a scene similar to farmers' markets everywhere unfolds.

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Fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, artisanal cheese, bakery products, lead-free pottery, and more are offered to visitors. Strict rules govern the produce and foods sold. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers are permitted. Foods must be healthy: flour tortillas may not contain lard. No plastic vessels are supposed to be used (although this requirement is difficult to meet).

The main reason for our visit was breakfast. Mine began with a glass of horchata—a sweet drink made from rice, almonds and cinnamon, here spiced up with the red juice of local berries.

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She's serving my drink in a regular glass that I was permitted—encouraged—to carry away while exploring the rest of the market. When I was finished, I returned it to her, and she washed it in a (oops—plastic) tub of soapy water and dried it for use by the next customer.

Next it was time for some solid food. What do Mexicans eat for breakfast?

Well, some eat eggs: huevos revueltos, huevos rancheros, huevos divorciados, huevos mexicanos. But most don't. Instead they eat something on or in a tortilla.

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Tables everywhere are laden with ingredients. Nopales (cactus), chicken, chayote, wild greens, frijoles, chiles, salsas, moles—the variety is overwhelming and making choices is almost impossible, although overeating isn't.

Tortillas complete the dishes and reduce the need for plates Like everything else here, they're cooked on charcoal braziers.

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These were patted out by hand—the ancient, traditional way. I ate a tortitla de huazontle (a sort of tostada topped with stewed amaranth) and chicken mole enchiladas.

We had a long day planned, so I topped everything off with a gourd filled with tejate, the traditional Oaxacan energy drink made from ground corn, cacao seed, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao, a flower that is not from the cacao tree.

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Tejate is prepared by making a paste of the ingredients and then adding enough water to make a smooth liquid vaguely similar to chocolate milk topped by curdy foam. I was initially put off by the appearance, but I have to say it's now on my A-list of Mexican foods. It's incredibly tasty and refreshing.

Of course, my sweet tooth wouldn't let me pass up the pastries. These looked as good as anything you'd find in a French patisserie.

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The organic market is one of Oaxaca's living art treasures. Don't miss it if you visit the city.

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Oaxacan Transport

I saw this man ride by in the small town of Tlacolula, about an hour outside of Oaxaca. He's not a peasant; he rides that fine horse for pleasure. But following the old ways, he cuts cut fresh forage out in the campo so the animal will eat well. And because the feed is free.

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Large, well-bred horses like the one above are the exception in Oaxaca. More typical are the ponies used to draw carts. This form of transport isn't some quaint throwback kept alive by hobbyists or as a show for tourists. I saw scores of these things. They're an important part of the Oaxacan transportation network.

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If you can't afford a pony, you use a donkey. This is one of many in San Juan, another small town.

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Horses, horse carts, and donkey carts are not used in the city of Oaxaca itself. It's too congested and drivers are fast and aggressive. But they're plentiful in the pueblas.

Internal combustion technology has made greater inroads since the last time I was in the poor, backward south of Mexico. While I saw I few tricicles being pedaled, most of these taxis have been modified so they can be drawn by motorcycles. The bikes often are tricked-out beauties that can be detached and driven with pride to the local cantina on Saturday night.

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The greatest change over the last year or so is the sudden appearance of the nifty new micro-taxis.

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Clint says they're of Chinese manufacture. They look like they're environmentally friendly. They have four-cycle engines (less polluting) that barely sip gasoline. Watch one struggle up a hill and you'll see what I mean. A ride costs $5 pesos—50¢.

The primary purpose of this Volkswagen beetle is to carry a blaring sound system around town to harangue the people into voting for PAN, one of the political parties.

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This practice is sublimely irritating. The message is loud, unintelligible and unwanted. Nevertheless, they've been doing this sort of thing for over 50 years, and nobody but expatriates thinks they should stop it.

Below we have a working big rig tractor from the late '40s or early '50s. Just look at that split windshield. Usually trucks this old are quietly rusting away in a field or junkyard. But this one is still in service. You can tell because of the newish, meaty tires. There's no sign left of the model or make; that hood sheet metal has been reworked a few times. But what a beauty!

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I'm accustomed to seeing the Virgen de Guadalupe airbrushed onto the backs of pickup trucks. But a dump truck?

Our local guide, Eric, told me that Guadalupe is colloquially know as "the serpent crusher." Cool. The words Reyna Mia mean My Queen. Reyna is a misspelling of reina. The juxtaposition of a sacred image with a pair of longhorn mud flaps was too good to pass up.

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The last pair of photos is barely transportation related. This DC-3 is parked on the lawn of a huge buffet-style restaurant situated out in the country.

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The big rotary engines are intact, as is the landing gear and other essentials. I guess it could be restored to flying status.

But it won't be. It now functions as a small movie theater; a diversion for the kiddies while the old folks idle away the afternoon at an hours-long Sunday comida.

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Making Mescal

Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.

—Otto von Bismark

—§—

Mescal neither.

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It starts out pretty enough, with orderly maguey fields growing away in the beautiful Oaxaca countryside.

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The plants must grow for eight years before they are large enough for harvesting.

Working in a maguey field has got to be tough. The leaves have sharp serrations and a needle-like point at the tip of each.

To harvest the plants, the spiky leaves are cut away with a sharp blade at the end of a pole. Then the swollen stem can be cut off at ground level.

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This core was massive. I could barely lift it.

Now it starts to get ugly. The cores are burned in an open fire to enhance the sugar content.

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Next, they are mashed in a mill to separate the sugary pulp from the fibers. The traditional way is the best way: using a horse to pull the mill wheel round and round.

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What results is an unappetizing mess. How the hell did anyone ever figure this out?

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Looks like cow manure to me.

It can only get better from here. Or can it? The mashed, burned maguey is forked into a wooden tub with water added and the whole mess is allowed to ferment for three days.

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This tank was bubbling briskly. You'd think it would smell awful, but the tank gives off a pleasant smoky molasses odor.

The fermented liquid is drawn off and placed in a charcoal-fired still. A crude still. Oh, you can get that mass-produced stuff made in gas-fired stills, but then you might as well drink screw-top wine. Or lite beer. Real mescal drinkers insist on distillation over a wood fire.

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Let me explain how this works. The fire, as you can see, is over there on the left. Above it, mostly hidden by the plastic tub and the square metal can, is a copper flask that holds maybe 10-20 gallons of fermented maguey mash. The mash boils, and water vapor and alcohol vapor carrying impurities that give mescal its flavor is carried through that semi-horizontal copper pipe to a coil in the cold water tank. The various vapors condense in the coil and drip out of a spigot at the bottom of the water tank into that grimy used cooking oil container standing in the rectangular recess at the base of the tank.

And this is one of the good installations. Here's another still, currently not in operation.

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Mezcal Mi Tierra. My Land Mescal brand. Be sure and look for it in your local expendio.

The mescal is aged for a couple of years in oak barrels. The last step is bottling, painstakingly done in your better fabricas.

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From this point, the mescal is rushed to your nearby open-air mercado where it's placed in the traditional liquor-cum-embroidered-blouse display. There, you can sample the stuff for free. The sample cups look pretty small, but Clint tells me that after a few of them, you really need to get something to eat. Fast.

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Trouble in Oaxaca City

My intention was to focus on the positive aspects of my visit to Oaxaca, but events on Sunday need to be addressed now rather than later. Violence has broken out again, this time over the Guelaguetza (gay-la-GET-za), the annual folk crafts fair.

Ongoing unrest in the city over teachers' wages and other grievances has continued to simmer after demonstrators took over the city center last summer, shutting down tourism and all other businesses. Ultimately the Army went in and re-took control of the centro historico, establishing a semblance of quiet and normalcy.

Protesters, having successfully shut down last year's Guelaguetza, decided to shut it down again this year. The result was a clash between hundreds of police and demonstrators.

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Photo: Yahoo News

We could see it coming. Protest leaders with bullhorns were stirring up crowds. Police were massing at the fair site.

The political graffiti wars that have defaced so much of the downtown heated up over the weekend. A lot of spray paint was applied to walls using stencils; here of a female guerilla with a timorous expression on her face and a rifle in her hand. Reminds me of Patty Hearst.

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The red caption reads, "Hooray for the peoples' Guelaguetza. Boycott the commercial Guelaguetza;" this in reference to one group's attempt to divert attendance from the official function.

But this really isn't about the craft fair. It's about a whole lot of angry people who feel they are being exploited and abused by the power elite. Many anti-government groups maintain a presence on the zócalo, registering their protests and disseminating their views.

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The banners cite grievances and assert rebellion, and power to the people. One grievance is the arrest of fifty or so who were suspected of leading protests. These were transported to a prison in the state of Nayerit where visits by friends and attorneys would be difficult. Shades of Berkeley in the '60s.

On Friday, a party was held at the daily organic market where those arrested, now freed, were treated to lunch and music.

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The unifying factor in the dissent is intense hatred for the Governor of the State of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz. Protesters accuse him of strong-arm tactics against political opponents and gross corruption. They hold him responsible for the shooting deaths last year of some demonstrators by masked gunmen. I talked with many people in Oaxaca, and all despised him.

Some of the protest messages are ugly. This one urges people to "kill the dog," referring to Ruiz.

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The unrest has provided a toehold for communists. Largely discredited in almost the entire world, they maintain a highly visible presence here.

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These are ignorant adherents to communist principles; witness the banner with the likeness of Joseph Stalin.

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They're obviously unaware or uncaring that Stalin was not a communist, but a dictator who was responsible for killing more people than anyone else excepting Mao Tse-tung.

Governor Ruiz has lost the confidence of the people he governs, to put it mildly. He should resign. The State of Oaxaca needs a Governor who can heal some wounds and redress some of the grievances. But he clings to power. People say the governorship is a road to wealth, and there's far too much money flying around the Governor's mansion to walk away from. Maybe so.

These troubles are terrible for the residents of Oaxaca, but they shouldn't be a deterrent to travelers. Outside of the zócalo and the stadium where the Guelaguetza is held, there's little sign of unrest. The city's churches, historical buildings and restaurants offer fascinating opportunities to explore and enjoy an intriguing destination. And the small villages nearby are inhabited by skilled artisans and some of the warmest, friendliest people you'll find anywhere.

Oh, they all hate the Governor—make no mistake about it. But that having been said, they are far more interested in enjoying life and raising their families than in the affairs of politicians and zealots.

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Agricultura Tradicional

In San Miguel antique shops you sometimes see weathered oxen yokes. You take one home and place it artfully beside that old wagon wheel leaning on your faux hacienda gate.

When I saw these yokes in a small town mercado, I figured the supply of antique yokes had given out, and a woodworker was making new ones for the tourist trade.

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Then I saw this plow, and I began to realize that these were not yard decorations; they were tools, tools that someone would actually use.

It isn't pretty, this plow. But it looks functional and sturdy. That draw bar is a scraped small tree trunk and is attached to the foot with a wedged short plank. A handle reaches up for the farmer's guiding hand. A pointed plate of 1/4" mild steel (not visible in the photo) is bolted to the foot for durability and sharpness.

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We saw one of these in action, cultivating a cornfield. The farmer has reached the end of a row, and placing his left arm under the control handle, lifts the plowshare out of the soil.

You can see that this plow will not turn the earth like the common American moldboard plow. It's capable only of scraping a furrow. Since there's no need to cut sod, that's probably enough for this farmer's needs.

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Here we see it all put together. A pair of oxen, bearing one of those wonderful wooden yokes, draws the plow down a row of corn plants. When one of the oxen pauses, the farmer pokes it with his pole.

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Apparently, left to their own devices, oxen will eat young corn plants. Why not? That's what they're fed back in the stable—last year's cornstalks. Your local mercado offers a solution to this problem as well.

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Ox muzzles. Here, a properly attired ox models one. (Also note the leather straps holding the yoke to his forehead and horns.)

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This is not Zapotec or Mixtec technology. Oxen and the plows they draw were brought to the New World by the Spaniards. Prior to their arrival, Indians planted corn by poking a hole in the ground with a pointed stick.

But plowing with a team of oxen is very old, very primitive. That plow, yoke and team of oxen are probably this farmer's largest investment. It's all he can afford in this state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest in Mexico.

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Marketing Mescal

Oaxaca is mezcal country—mescal in the U. S. It's a liquor distilled from the maguey variety of the agave. Here we have The Pines House of Mescal, a store that caters to tourists looking for premium or unusual varieties.

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It's way typical, right down to the embroidered blouses for sale, hanging on the left.

Clothing in a liquor store? Well, that's how they do it here. Many mescal outlets also sell embroidered blouses. Pictured below is a display from an outdoor market.

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My theory: Mescal store owners noticed that Dad comes into their store wagging his tail like a puppy and heads for the sample bar while Mom stands in the doorway tapping her foot, getting more hacked off with every shot he takes. Solution? Add clothes shopping to the mix. Mom sees that embroidery, she doesn't even notice what Dad's doing until it's too late.

Mezcal stores abound in these parts. Competition is fierce.

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Hundreds of artesanal brands vie for your attention. Kind of like the Napa Valley wine country, without the sophistication.

Some makers are very small, which makes their products rare and therefore desireable. Here we have I Like It brand.

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Non much cachet in that name, is there?

A great deal of ingenuity goes into product differentiation. You can find herbal mezcal, good for medicinal purposes. (Yeah. Right.)

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Or you can buy flavored varieties: mocha, almond...

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... orange, nanche (see previous post), with or without a worm in the bottle.

Some is packaged in the old traditional gourd-shaped bottles wrapped in netting so it can be tied to your belt or saddle.

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Mezcal is offered in barrels with wooden spigots. One use of these is in wedding processions that include a mezcal burro. Guests visit the burro, glass in hand, whenever they feel the need for more refreshment. I've noticed at these events that the younger men especially need to be refreshed.

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The host at the celebration hands out small glasses on strings that guests hang around guests' necks, facilitating conveyance of booze to bloodstream.

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Merchandising reaches new extremes: This place offers little bags of salt flavored with ground-up agave worms. Yum.

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You can put together the equivalent of a Sonoma Valley wine tour in the maguey-growing region of Oaxaca. You have to be very careful in your tasting, though. Mezcal is potent, and you could easily get blitzed at your first stop, ending your tour prematurely.

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Nanches

This young entrepreneur is looking for a good place on Oaxaca's Zócalo to set up his mobile emporium. His minimalist facility consists of a wheelbarrow filled with fruit, a folding stool, a roll of plastic bags and three rusty tin cans in different sizes,the latter for measuring out $5, $10, or $15 pesos worth of fruit. Reassuringly, he has lined the wheelbarrow with plastic, to protect the food from traces of manure or whatever else was last carried in it.

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I bought a $5 peso bag of the fruit, which he called nanches. They're the size of raspberries, but berries they're not, because they contain just one stone. I think they're drupes; like cherries or plums. The seeds even look like a cherry stones.

Marne, here holding my baggie for the camera, says they taste like a cross between an orange and a banana, and I have to agree.

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A benefit of traveling in less-developed countries is the opportunity to taste fruits and vegetables I never run into in big chain supermarkets. Even adventurous stores like Austin's Central Market aren't going to carry nanches. Can't move enough of them. Gotta train all the checkers: "Now these here are your nanches—$1.29 a pound this week. Produce code #7873."

Even if Safeway's buyers knew about them, they're just too much trouble for a big corporation. No commercial growers. Not enough volume. But they're just right for a guy selling out of a wheelbarrow in Oaxaca.

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Zona Arqueológica de Monte Albán

More than 8,500 years ago, Zapotecs arrived in the three valleys that radiate from Oaxaca. Some 1,600 years ago, they built a temple and administrative complex on a mountain overlooking what is now the city. We don't know what they named their site, but today we call the ruins Monte Albán.

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Photo credit: Marne Rizika

Unlike Chichén Itza, this pre-hispanic site is manageable in scope. You can take in the whole archeological zone from a single viewpoint.

A friend suggested we look for Rolando to serve as our guide. Perhaps descended from the builders of Monte Albán, he was born on the next mountain over from the site, where his mother was a practitioner of folk medicine. Self-taught in many fields, he held forth on astronomy, mineralogy, medicine, philosophy and religion as these subjects relate to the Zapotecs and Monte Albán.

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While informative, he has the annoying trait of many guides of talking to us instead of showing us stuff. Here he lectures on geographical considerations in temple site selection. This wouldn't have bothered me so much except that often, his facts were just plain wrong.

(Yes, that's Chiapas the parrot sitting on Clint's hat. He likes it there.)

Rolando told us that Monte Albán got its name from large white flowers that grew on a type of tree he identified as a morning glory. Hmmm. Morning glories are not trees. Moreover, the trees in question had only a few blossoms; hardly enough to turn the mountaintop white, although this might be different in another season. However, another type of tree common to the site was covered in white berries (shown on the left, below). Perhaps they were the inspiration for the Spanish name of the place.

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As we walked along, viewing the massive stone structures, Rolando would frequently stoop down and pull up some plant or other, telling us its name and medicinal use. I was familiar with some of them; for example, epazote, a plant related to mint, is used in cooking beans in Mexico. What I didn't know is that it's an anti-flatulence herb. Cool. Rosario routinely uses it in our kitchen. You all should.

Pictured on the right, above, is a shrub he identified as copal. Juice from the berries is used to clear up acne.

A large number of steles and other carved stones were found at Monte Albán and set up for viewing. A row of them featuring depictions of human figures is shown here.

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Some of the images dealt with human reproduction. On the left, below, is a male figure with an erection.

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The figure on the right, according to our guide, is of a woman in the throes of a breech birth. The baby's feet have emerged, its head and torso are shown still in the mother's body.

Then again, Rolando's interpretation seems somewhat fanciful to me. The so-called baby, for example, appears to be wearing a hat.

Several vaguely pyramidal temples occupy the site.

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None of them are in the original condition they were found in. Structures are continuously undergoing reconstruction here, as they are in most major archeological zones in Mexico.

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So who shows these workers how to restore this temple correctly? Well, archeologists tell them how. They actually number the rocks. Workers read a map to know where to put each one.

Do you buy that? Not me. I bet archeologists have no more idea where each of these rocks go than your grandma. No ancient Zapotec stone mason decided to put stone #412 to the left of stone #411. Stone #414 would have been a much better fit there. Come on.

Note also how thick they slather on the mortar. This is to compensate for the poor fit of the stones in the pattern specified by the archeologists. They're using so much concrete here that they have an abañil dedicated to going back for more.

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What did the ancient Zapotecs use to cut the grass? Flint-edged sickles, maybe? Their great-great-great-great... grandson uses a riding mower. He's got the best job on the site. Nothing beats riding around all day on a lawn tractor.

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Looks like life has become much easier for these people, when you consider that his ancestors made their livings hauling stones up the mountain using muscle power alone.

Then there's the matter of guys selling genuine pre-columbian artifacts. They assault you in all of the frequently-visited places. They do their jobs in the same zombie-like manner as the straw hat sellers in San Miguel's Jardín. They approach you and make a half-hearted pitch. Then fifteen minutes later they hit you again, with no realization they ever saw you before. Can you imagine the US government allowing souvenir vendors into Williamsburg?

Rolando says the Zapotecs chose this place because of a bunch of complex astronomical, geographical and mystical reasons. I think they picked it because the climate is perfect, and the views are drop-dead gorgeous.

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The Zapotecs knew prime real estate when they saw it. Tmpl. w/vw. EZ terms.

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The Music of Oaxaca

No sooner had we arrived in the city of Oaxaca and checked into our hotel, than I heard intriguing music drifting down the street. I investigated and found this:

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You got it. A bagpiper. He was pacing in that slow, solemn manner bagpipers use at memorials or wakes.

I felt mightily disoriented. Why was a bagpiper playing in front of a 17th-century Mexican church door?

He wasn't looking for donations. No tin cup, no hat, no open bagpipe case salted with a few coins and a half-dozen self-produced cds. No playing to the audience—he ignored us all. He was just playing for the hell of it.

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He's a Scot, through and through. The shaggy beard, rumpled hair, gray woolen shirt, gloomy expression—this guy is straight off the moors. He's a quintessential piper: long thin fingers held straight, cheeks reddened from blowing, bag firmly pressed with his left arm, the noter gripped in the corner of his mouth. He's bringing a little bit of Scotland to Mexico: two places that couldn't be more different.

What was that tune he was playing? Ceilito Lindo.

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A Ruined Church

On the long run from Puebla to Oaxaca, we detoured off the carretera for a rest stop at an old church.

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Photo credit: Marne Rizika

The building is in a state of near-collapse. But it is still used by nearby residents, who come to the cemetery to honor their deceased.

The roof is gone, plants grow atop the walls, people have pried stones out of it to use for newer buildings. Mexican recycling.

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You can't come here to baptize your babies anymore. No Masses, no quinciañeras. The building is crumbling, following in the footsteps of the nameless Zapotec ruin behind it, sleeping under its unexcavated mound.

But people were interred here as recently as 50 years ago. Modern crypts and grave markers testify that this place is not yet forgotten.

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A small glass house protects a burning votive candle. It looks big enough to burn for a month, but the flowers are fresh, placed there this morning or yesterday.

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Judging from the condition of the flowers below, Florentino Miguel Vasquez López was remembered sometime last week. Mexicans know that their offerings of flowers will be respected by passers-by, but perhaps not so, vases. But probably nobody is gonna take the Comex bucket.

A small yellow-breasted bird uses the cruciform grave marker for a perch. Droppings indicate he does this often. I imagine Miguel Vasquez appreciates his companionship.

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It's a warm, sunny day. A warm breeze blows. Cumulus clouds scud overhead. In the churchyard, a mare and her foal graze peacefully.

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It's a peaceful place to rest for a pleasant half hour. Or for some, a little longer.

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Fine Stoneworking

All those onyx bookends and desk sets and figurines you see in gift catalogs, they come from Mexico. Desk clocks. Ash trays. Well, not ash trays anymore. But in the evil old days when I was a smoker, I had one—green onyx with beautiful striations.

Less frequently seen in the USA are large objects, like this three-foot lizard...

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... or this large dolphin. The cost of shipping one north would far exceed the cost of the carving itself.

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People decorating Mexican homes are much closer to the source: shipping costs are pretty much not an issue. Marble columns, onyx furniture, travertine floor tiles are frequently found in expensive houses.

All this stuff gets made in factories. We visited one such in the state of Oaxaca. I'd name it and tell you what town it was in, but a man who retails marble sinks told Clint about the place on the condition that he not make the location public, probably to keep demand, and therefore prices down. Or maybe to deprive competitors of a good source.

One way you can tell you're approaching a marble factory is when you see houses with lots of over-the-top stonework. This is the home of a member of the family that owns the factory. The spiral patio is made of small pieces of onyx. Elaborate, but perhaps not particularly esthetic.

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It's the front door, though, that drew my eye.

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It's a mosaic of patterned onyx. Makes quite a statement, doesn't it? I could not have imagined that anyone could use stone in that way. But the door suffers from the same kind of over-elaborate design that sometimes crops up in fine woodworking, where garish patterns of contrasting woods serve only to showcase the maker's joinery skills, not his design ability.

And if that's not enough, there's an onyx sconce above the door, selected to produce yet another color contrast. Can't have too many, I guess.

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A delightful aspect of traveling in Mexico is the freedom to enter and wander through workshops. At the stoneworking factory we walked unmolested past all the machines and workers, getting a good look at how the work is done.

Here, a worker uses a large crowbar to adjust the position of a large piece of rough marble prior to sawing it. The stone is so heavy that it doesn't need to be clamped during sawing. It's gonna stay right where the guy put it.

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A huge saw blade is set to spinning. The operator cranks a handwheel to slide the stone through the cut. My teeth start to ache.

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Copious amounts of water cool and lubricate the blade. The saw slices through stone like it was pot roast.

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Here an artisan works a marble basin with a hand-held circular saw. He's shaping the piece freehand.

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Sure doesn't look very safe. Below, another worker guides a saw through a bevel cut. He's pushing the blade toward his fingers.

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I'm guessing these saw blades are not sharp. At one point I saw an operator clean slurry off the edges of a spinning blade with his wet fingers.

Actually, for a small-time Mexican artisanal factory, this one seems oddly safety-conscious. Well, a little bit, anyway. People who work close to cutters wear safety goggles and dust masks. And unlike the woodworkers in Adjuntos del Rio, the workers here seem to have all of their fingers. Still, compared with factories in the U. S., this place is an OSHA nightmare.

Clint buys some onyx sinks from one of the owners. Note that he is wearing huaraches, this in a place where people handle large stones with wet fingers.

A hand-lettered cardboard sign above the compressor behind Clint warns people not to lean on it. That's an exposed drivewheel behind the cylinder heads. Since it's in the nature of compressors to start automatically without warning, anyone leaning on it could lose fingers or worse. So much for safety. I mean, why not cage the damn thing?

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Mexican businesses are run with pleasant informality. They don' need no steenkin' procedures. No regulations. Machines are jerry-rigged. Prices are negotiable. The pace is relaxed. The products, though, are art.

This is not a country that cranks out a million perfect iPhones. Instead, it makes a few dozen onyx vases, each one unique. Nobody else will ever have one exactly the same as yours. Nice, huh?

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Passing Through Puebla

I'm taking my first-ever trip to Oaxaca, traveling by car (well really Clint's huge crew cab truck) with my friends Clint and Marne, and Chiapas the parrot. Chiapas rides on a wooden perch velcro-ed to the center console. Clint has driven to Oaxaca many times on business so he's the perfect guide.

Our route takes us past Querétaro, skirts the eastern edge of Mexico City, and on through Puebla to Oaxaca. We wanted to make some stops along the way, so we're spending the night in Puebla, a big, industrial city. I think it's Mexico's #4 city, Guadalajara being #2 and Monterrey, #3.

Ordinarily, Mex 57 from Querétaro to Mexico City is a drab, tedious drive. On this occasion, the scenery was much more pleasant than usual, the countryside having greened up from the recent rains. We passed a pilgrimage strung out along the carretera—hundreds and hundreds of women marching in squads, each squad with an identifying banner at its head bearing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. All of the women were wearing broad-brimmed straw hats with colorful ribbons serving as hat bands. An impressive sight: a couple thousand straw hats strung out along a mile or two of freeway.

The procession was led by two men. Of course. Everyone in Mexico knows that two thousand women can't take care of themselves. As Basil said to the Colonel in Fawlty Towers, "Women. Not a half a brain among the lot of them."

Our greatest concern was the traffic cops in and around Mexico City. Mexicans call them tiburones—sharks. They stop motorists with out-of-state license plates on some pretext and threaten to impound their cars unless they cough up some bribe money. One of the most common "violations" cited is driving in Mexico City on a "no drive" day. Clint's license plate number ends with a 3 which means it's illegal for him to drive in the city on Wednesdays. Our pass around the perifico—the ring road—would take place on a Monday, but a little detail like that wouldn't deter the tiburones from claiming a violation. Those Texas plates on that shiny new pickup truck would look too juicy to pass up.

Blessedly, a robust thunderstorm struck just as we came off the freeway onto the surface streets, dispersing the lurking pack of extortionists. I thought to myself, "Any self-respecting crooked cop wouldn't let a little rain get in his way." When the muddy water running down the street reached our door sills, I realized why nobody in the neighborhood was on foot, especially the police. The feeding frenzy was called on account of rain.

Once past the cops and the floods, it was a clear shot down what used to be called the Pan-American Highway to Puebla. We saw a high-rise Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town and checked in.

The hotel was better than almost any I have stayed in here in Mexico. No, it's not four star. But it was only two months old and was designed to cater to international business travelers attracted by Puebla's burgeoning industry. Free WiFi in every room. Need I say more?

We ate dinner at an upscale Mexican restaurant that looked like one of those slick chain establishments you find in California: the kind that serves strawberry margaritas. I ordered what was described as roasted pork in adobado sauce. When it came, the waiter slapped a huge meaty limb down in front of me.

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Must have weighed five pounds. You could have served all three of us with it and had leftovers. Very un-Mexican.

Puebla demonstrates that life is becoming economically better for many Mexicans. Sparkling restaurants, squeaky-clean hotels with all the amenities proves the point. A mercedes dealership gleamed smugly, sitting there across the highway from our hotel.

Of course, from a gringo tourist's point of view, prosperity makes Puebla look as interesting as Cleveland. But this generation of Mexicans has known poverty. What looks like suburban sprawl, like franchise ennui to us, looks like paradise to them. The great industrial cities—Querétaro, Monterrey, Puebla—are growing and producing an educated middle class that will ultimately break down the caste system and reduce corruption and inefficiency even as they're building shopping malls and freeways. I think I'll just shut up and congratulate them on their progress when appropriate.

Tomorrow we'll be in Oaxaca. It'll be full of charm—and full of poverty. Do the two have to go hand in hand?

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The Conservatory of Mexican Plants

One of the many attractive features of El Charco del Ingenio is the Conservatory of Mexican Plants. Architecturally interesting, it provides filtered sunlight, moist air and warmth for a large collection of common and rare plants.

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Outside the conservatory are beds of plants adapted to the poor soils and dry climate of the Bahio. Inside, a variety of protected microclimates have been established, from dry and warm to riparian.

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Hundreds of species inhabit the conservatory and its surrounds. It would be impossible to photograph and describe even a tiny fraction of them. This is a place you simply have to see for yourself.

Here we have one of the yuccas, a type we called Bottle Palms in California, beside an agave in bloom, it's 20' flower spike framed in the doorway. OK. That's two plants. Only 498 to go.

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Through the door, the view leads to a natural landscape; chollas outlined against the sky and huizaches in the background.

Cacti are the most represented group; a seemingly endless progression of variations in colors and shapes .

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I haven't been able to figure out how to photograph some of the most interesting forms: sinuous cacti that run along the ground ten feet or more, arboreal cacti that hang from branches like vines.

Almost any time you visit, you'll find cacti in bloom.

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To me, it seems almost impossible that these tough, thick, spiky plants produce such beautiful, delicate flowers. Most blooms last only a day.

Succulents store water in their leaves, giving them a fleshy, turgid look. There are almost as many of them here as there are cacti.

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A stream runs through the conservatory, providing habitat for water plants.

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The water is recirculated through filters by a solar-powered pump. El Charco as a whole produces a negative carbon footprint. (Try to get your head around that concept,)

Outside the conservatory, hardier plants grow in attractive groupings. Flagstones invite strolling, benches allow visitors resting places.

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The conservatory compresses a broad ecosystem into a tiny space. In the image above, those are cattails to the right of the cacti. Not many places in the world where you can see that.

I'll return often to photograph the plants. Many photographers do.

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Here we have El Guapo with a huge pile of gear looming over an innocent blooming cactus. He is cursing his 4X5 view camera, hoping it'll become intimidated and start cooperating with him.

Ah, Paul. "'Tis a poor workman, who blames his tools."

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Property Tax Increase

Some time ago I posted about the underground utilities project on my street, Aldama. Now the time has come to pay the piper. Pictured below is a notification I received from the Treasury Department of San Miguel de Allende.

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It informs me that the value of my property has increased, on account of the work placing the power lines under the street. The increase in the assessment is such that my taxes will increase by 20%.

Below you can view the appearance of my street now that the work has been completed. I'd show you a "before" picture so you could judge the amount of improvement for yourselves, but alas, it would look the same.

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Yes, conduit has been buried under the street and wires for the electrical supply have been snaked through. But they are connected neither to the transformer nor to any of the houses along the street. Nor is there any sign this is going to happen soon.

This is typical of Mexican construction: part of the job gets done, then everything screeches to a halt.

Compounding the problem, it seems no plans appear exist for placing TV cable and telephone lines underground. Rumor has it that Telmex isn't cooperating with the city, casting doubt over whether telephone lines will in fact ever be buried.

I really have little cause for complaint. My new tax bill will still be less than $300 per year. I'm impressed that the city is able to supply as many services as they do for that amount.

But I still get a sense of deja vu. Once again, I'm paying money for which I'm not receiving anything in return: a common experience for anyone who lives in Mexico, whether citizen or transplanted gringo.

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El Charco del Ingenio

If you've never visited San Miguel de Allende, you probably don't know about our botanical gardens, el Charco del Ingenio.
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El Charco is a showpiece illustrating what can be done when dedicated people work to preserve and restore the environment.

San but true: Mexico has been trashed. The wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly have been decimated by illegal loggers. In Puebla, the Valsequilla Reservoir is so contaminated with heavy metals that hundreds of children are born with birth defects. Much of the country is disfigured by stinking swathes of litter.

The country is a pigsty.

It's not that ordinary Mexicans don't care about the environment. It's not that they don't want to or can't afford to clean up the mess. It's that self-seeking and corrupt elites, from the bribe-hungry police to the aristocrats holding the highest offices are more interested in their own enrichment than in preserving their patrimony. They take kickbacks from illegal loggers, turn a blind eye to studies proving drinking water contamination, accept bribes to ignore roadside dumping.

Against this massive despoliation, a few projects provide sparks of hope. El Charco is a particularly beautiful one.

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A modest palapa serves as the entry to the gardens, where you pay a $30 peso day pass fee unless, like me, you are awarded an annual membership. My privileges allow me to secure entry for guests like El Guapo here. This is the only way he can get in, having been denied full membership. (Apparently someone blackballed him—a not entirely unfamiliar experience, I'm sure.)

Just beyond the entrance, plantings of cactus and other xeriscape plants greet visitors. It's immediately obvious that these gardens are designed, planted and maintained by experts. Mexico has some beautiful gardens, but few so manicured as these.

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A clue to where the skillful gardening comes from appears in the form of that rarest of all Mexican gardeners: one with pruning shears. Usually you see guys with machetes whacking away at the shrubbery. Used for shearing, pruning, lopping and felling trees, they perform none of these tasks well. At el Charco, someone has gone to the expense of providing gardeners with proper tools, and training them how to use them.

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El Charco is more than a bunch of formal plantings. The preserve covers 100 hectares (250 acres) of canyon, hills, streams, reservoirs and structures. Directional signs on a dead tree point out visitors' options.

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Unfortunately, an additional sign prohibits dogs. The management was unwilling to waive this rule, even for a well-mannered purebred Boston Terrier. Rosie was disappointed.

The fanciful Plaza de los Cuatro Vientos (Plaza of the Four Winds) is used for a number of public activities, some involving indigenous traditions, music and dance.

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On the south side of the plaza, a stone pavilion with an altar houses smaller functions.

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In the summer, a súchil appears. A form of religious offering, it's made by local indigenous people from the leaves of the Green Desert Spoon (one of the agaves). Raising of the súchil is a part of the festival of the holy Cross—a blending of European and Indian religious traditions that underscores the futility of the efforts of the conquistadors to eradicate indigenous beliefs and culture.

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El Charco packs a lot into 100 hectares. Hiking trails take you through a steep-walled canyon containing ponds, wildlife, and plants.

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That's an abandoned aqueduct running along the canyon wall.

A silted-up reservoir provides habitat for egrets and other waterfowl.

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The structure on the horizon is the crown jewel of el Charco: the Conservatory of Mexican Plants. It contains a wonderful collection of desert plants, mostly cactus, some of them rare. I'll cover the conservatory in a future post.

If you come to San Miguel, el Charco is a "don't miss." If you live here, you should become a member and visit it frequently. Projects like this need and deserve your support. You have no business complaining about litter or polluting buses if you're not supporting efforts to restore and improve the environment.

And you need el Charco. You need a few quiet hours, sitting beside still water, breathing in all the natural beauty, healing yourselves. The Indians who have lived here for millennia know this. Time for us gringos to learn it too.

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A Historical Railroad Car

In the 1860s Porfirio Díaz fought Maximilian's troops to help end
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the Second Empire imposed on Mexico by the French. He was President (read "Dictator") for 31 years. His regime ended in 1911 during the Mexican Revolution, which his excesses had brought on. His governing style was described as pan o palo—bread or stick. Your choice, presumably.

He wasn't all bad. He industrialized Mexico and brought it into the 20th Century. He recognized one of Mexico's principal dilemmas, saying "Poor Mexico: So far from God and so close to the United States."

But one of his signature achievements, the Mexican railroad system, became his bête noire as Pancho Villa and others used it for rapid troop movements.

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It was fitting then that Porfirio Díaz used a special train to make his escape to Veracruz where he sailed for Paris and exile. He had his very own train, you know. Sort of a rolling Air Force One.

His personal railroad car sits today beside a restaurant on the Querétaro Highway.

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You can tell it's not an ordinary passenger car from the uneven placement of the windows. This one was built specially for someone who could afford it.

The lettering at the top of the car originally read "Nacionales de Mexico," the short form of the name of the national railway. Below the windows, the lettering tells us it was reserved for "management special services"—probably adopted for use by railroad executives after Porfirio Díaz was deposed.

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This is a big car. Because of its size, and the need to not jostle its important passenger, top-of-the-line triple axle trucks smooth the ride. All the windows are operable and have screens (things you'll never find on an ordinary passenger car), so that when standing on a siding in mosquito country, they can be opened for cross-ventilation.

After all, this car was used for housing as well as for transportation. Here's a part of the galley.

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The explanation for the liquor bottles is that the current owner uses the car as a party venue. Check out the old brass General Electric fan.

Paul Latours, seated here in the parlor, would have worn his wing collar and tails had he known we'd be invited inside.

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Red velvet upholstery, marble-topped tables, etched glass mirrors—this conveyance was not for the common people.

There are two bedrooms, each with its en-suite bathroom. (A single shower is down the corridor.)

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Those sinks are made from Monel, a nickel-copper alloy that I last saw used in the Horn & Hardart Automat Restaurant on 38th Street in Manhattan when I was thirteen years old.

An office for a secretary contains its own toilet and an ingenious fold-out vanity, also made of Monel.

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A utility closet contains what we today would call a load center, manufactured by the Safety Car Heating and Lighting Company of New Haven, Connecticut. I don't think Mexico had the capability of manufacturing its own passenger cars at the time.

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Those copper strips are knife switches, not used much anymore because it's easy to get a shock from one. You saw them in Dr. Frankenstein's electrical apparatus and, more dramatically, in the Titanic's generator room in the 1958 movie A Night to Remember.

In any other country, a railroad car of this historical significance would be in a museum. Queen Victoria's train is in the Railway Museum in York. This one sits alongside the Querétaro Highway, quietly deteriorating. I was lucky to find it.

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