Monday, 28 December 2009 01:19

Saint Angels and Skinny Coyotes - part 1

The sun came up and we didn't. We'd had a long day traveling and went out to the zocolo last night to get banana leaf tamales from a street vendor. He had a choice of rojo or verde so I used up all of my Spanish by saying dos dos which he understood as two of each. Most of the tamales I've had in the states have been dry corn mush with meat in the middle. I like them but you need something to drink with it. The one exception to that statement is the banana leaf pollo en mole negro tamale at La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard. That's a nice moist tamale. These tamales were like La Carta de Oaxaca in that they were very moist and on first bite tasted of chilies but after further digging I did find chicken (with bones). All four of us at tamales for 60 pesos which is roughly $4. Maybe the moistness comes from the banana leaf.

While I'm talking about food I might as well say you need to be careful in Mexico because you can get sick very easy if you don't know what you're doing. The problem is with the water.

  1. You should not in any case drink the water from the tap
  2. You should not get any in your mouth when showering
  3. You should not use it brush your teeth with.
  4. You should not have ice cubes in your drinks
  5. You should not eat lettuce.
  6. You should not eat any fruit unless you peeled it yourself.
  7. You should not eat anything else that doesn't look like it was cooked to temp.

That might seem like a lot of things not to do but in reality it leaves a great deal of food open for tasting. A lot of people are so afraid of getting sick that they never venture beyond the gates of their resort. This I think is unfortunate because real Mexico has food you'll never seen in a Mexican restaurant in the states or anywhere else for that matter. This is my “should list”.

  1. You should eat any fruit if you've peeled it
  2. You should eat anything that has been cooked in boiled or filtered water (tamales)
  3. You should eat anything cooked to temperature
  4. You should drink as much bottled or filtered water as you like

This is a shorter but all encompassing list. Think about how many things you eat everyday at home that fits into the second category and you'll realize that going to Mexico isn't as restricting as you thought. Notice that I've not singled out street food at all. When eating street food just follow the rules. The advantage to street food is you get to see it up close which is something you can't do in a restaurant until you've received it. If you think you're going to Mexico to eat hard shell tacos, burritos and fajitas you will be very surprised to find out that it's tough getting that food outside of the US. That food IS Mexican but not native to Mexico. I fear that as tourists “find” Mexico they may have to start serving it to satisfy the masses. I heard that you can now get nachos at movie theaters now. That I think is sad.

After you're removed your fear of eating you will have the other very overwhelming aspects of Mexico City to deal with – namely crime, pollution, elevation and crazy traffic. The first one you don't have to worry too much about if you travel smart. I would honestly rather be in Mexico City than Los Angeles. Crime does exist here but just be smart. Don't carry a purse and don't flash money etc.. I carry a small notepad with pockets that I keep the days pesos in along with a debit card with only a couple hundred dollars on it and I carry it in a zippered pocket. My cameras are pocketable which I like. Although I still take precautions I never feel unsafe in Mexico. I never look over my shoulder or have to step aside to see if that guy following me has malicious intent. These are things I do have to do in other cities. As far as the pollution goes it has gotten better. You can smell something all the time like when your neighbors cook dinner and you can smell it through the walls but you can't make out what it is. That's the way the pollution is here. It used to be that by 10am you couldn't see the surrounding mountains but I found that you can now see them all day long. The sky is definitely more blue. However, having said that you will still probably get a sore throat and feel short of breath. The latter not helped by the fact that you're 3000 ft higher than Denver Colorado. Between the pollution and the altitude we've all felt winded and have had altitude headaches. At least for another day we'll be keeping the Tylenol coming.

Since I didn't want to pay the hotel $4ea for breakfast in the hotel restaurant we hit the street about 11am to find food. I remembered a pastalaria (bakery) down the street but my memory was a bit vague about where and we never found it. Along the way we passed three tiny hole in the wall shops selling tortas so we stopped at one and bought their basic chorizo, beans and tomato torta at a cost of 19 pesos each or roughly $1.50. Natalya and I ate them down and Piper and Jade wouldn't touch them. They said they wanted to go to McDonald's but since we needed to find a place to sit anyway we went in that direction. I walked up to the counter in McDonald's and just couldn't do it. Why go to Mexico and eat McDonald's? We left and split the tortas between us.

I've had a few loose plans for Mexico City and one of those was to take the metro to San Angel a suburb and walk to Coyoacan another suburb. I've heard it's a nice walk and although we'd been to Coyoacan before we didn't have enough time to spend there as we would have liked. So after the tortas were downed we headed toward the Zocolo metro stop and found literally thousands of people standing in line. We also saw bleachers and music playing so I assumed they were having some sort of concert but curiosity got the best of us and we headed for the middle of the crowd where we saw not a concert but a hill with snow on it! Those crazy Mexicans brought in a snow machine and that hour or more line was to go down the hill on an inner tube. They thought this was great fun and to me it does seem more appealing when you're sledding in 75 degree weather instead of freezing your patootie off. Next to the snow hill they built an ice skating rink and the bleachers were for people to sit and watch the skaters fall all over the ice. We watched for a minute and headed on down the road. If you missed my comment about visiting Mexico City being similar to being dropped into a Roger Rabbit comic I'll repeat it now. I spend a lot of time just shaking my head and smiling at these people. You've got to love them.

The Mexico City metro is not fancy but it's fast and efficient. It only has 9 lines (half as many as Paris) but those 9 lines transport 5 million people a day around the city. The platforms are the longest that I'e ever seen and the trains hold 9 cars with room for 40 seated passengers and probably 100 standing passengers per car. Each train probably transports about 1200 people and they come every 60 seconds. Contrast that to our light rail which currently is carrying about 12 people per hour and you'll be amazed as I am. The stations are simple, the cars are simple and it's dirt cheap – about 15 cents to go anywhere in the city. After buying 8 tickets for a little over a dollar we walked the maze of tunnels to out train passing ancient Aztec ruins on the way that were dug up when the station was put in.

Upon arrival at San Angel we saw a large pastalaria which looked enticing so we went in. I sadly didn't take pictures but I'd say the tarts we had were on par with what we eat in Paris. Piper and I shared an apple, kiwi and strawberry tart that had a layer of cream under the fruit and a swath of chocolate under that. Very very good...(and you don't hear me say that often)

In comparison to the zoo that is Mexico City the suburbs of San Angel and Coyoacan are both very laid back and pleasant which was a nice change. I've never been to San Angel before so I was excited. After about a 20 minute walk we came upon a nice park with a monument to General Obregon one of Mexico's founding fathers. While staring up at this megalithic monument we read a bit of Mexico's history. It goes something like this..... Mexico unlike the US had several independence moments. The first couple ended in the rebels getting executed. Eventually after about 11 years they succeeded and set up a constitutional monarchy and crowned an emperor which I think is a contradiction of terms but hey, what do I know? The empire lasted a couple of years after which the rulership bounced between Santa Ana and a bunch of other people for about 3 decades. He was president 11 times so that makes him very successful. He was also thrown out 11 times which makes a complete failure. He's not exactly worshiped in Mexico these days because he lost California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the US but secretly Mexico is getting those territories back. If you doubt me just go there and look around.. :-)

Anyway the head spot in Mexico bounced back and forth between Santa Ana, Bonito Juarez (my hero) the French under Archduke Maximilien (as emperor) and lastly a dictator by the name of Diaz. To make a long story short this Obregon guy comes in a bit later after 30 years of living under Diaz came to an end. Of course whenever an iron fisted dictator is overthrown there's a whole lot of chaos for a long time until the citizens can find another iron fisted dictator to replace him. This “interview” process can take some time and many people get assassinated in the process. Zapata and Pancho Villa helped out in getting a guy by the name of Madero elected who in turn figured out that rebels like their job of being rebels and now he was the guy having to fight them. One of the rebels was named Huerta which the US embassy convinced to switch sides and arrested Madero and promptly shot him. Like all people we put in power he was as evil as the last guy which angered the aforementioned rebels Zapata and Pancho Villa and General Obergon. The US however did what it does best after putting someone in power and undermined the new presidents power by invading Mexico and occupying Veracruz. Huerta resigned and left a power vacuum which of course always sucks. The aforementioned rebels all had to fight each other since there wasn't anyone else left to fight and any chance of peace was nil because they'd only actually met once in their lives. A third rebel named Carranza gained power which prompted Villa to retaliate and being a little confused (or drunk) attacked New Mexico since it had Mexico in the name which in turn prompted the US to invade Mexico again only to insult the newly recognised government. Carranza in good “rebel turned president” form assassinated Zapata. Obregon then joined his former rebels and turned against Carranza since he was no longer a rebel and was the enemy. Carranza was accidentally assassinated by one of his own guards (who probably liked the feel of the presidential chair himself because lets be honest, you don't accidentally assassinate your boss). This put Obregon in the presidential seat and his political party ruled Mexico for the next 71 years. This period is often called the perfect dictatorship where there was really only one party but people could vote.

That's pretty much how it went so after being harassed by a drunk bum with so many open sores we started wondering how he kept all his stuff inside we left to find San Angel which turned out to be about another 10 minutes away.

Published in Mexico - 2009
Wednesday, 18 January 2012 00:36

The History of the Sweet Potato

This is the first in a series of "Histories of things" taken from a very tongue in cheek point of view.

The history of the Sweet Potato:

  1. 750 BC an unknown Peruvian digs up a root and starts gnawing on it. Sweet Potatoes become a big hit spawning massive population growth, a couple of ruthless rulers, a box with a diseased feather and some really unruly metal clad illegal immigrants who have very little respect for local customs of ownership but I'm getting ahead of myself.
  2. A man from Italy wants to go boating but doesn't have the means to purchase one so he turns to begging which proves successful. He immediately gets lost in his new boat and about a month later runs it into a mound of dirt. Hungry he digs up a root and gnaws on it to much delight.
  3. The local Taino people who were of course overjoyed to have been finally discovered told the Italian boater that the root was called batatas. 
  4. Not having heard of a batatas  and having a slight hearing and/or comprehension problem he erroneously called it patata (you know from the rhyme potato, patata). Since the nice couple who loaned him their boat were Spanish this became the Spanish name for batatas. 
  5. Later the English not paying much attention to anything on the stranded side of the English Channel renamed it potato. Keep in mind there wasn't such a thing yet so you have to give them some credit for their originality.
  6. One hundred years later another man (who due to his lack of accomplishments remains unknown) dug up another root in South Columbia (I mean America, don't get me started) drags another tuber back to Europe. It resembled the batatas but generally lacked flavor or any other discernible value so it was given to the Irish and also named potato.
  7. Since people then named things by shape nobody noticed that the tasty batatas and the untasty potatoes were not in fact related nor did it matter - they were similar in shape so too should be similar in name.
  8. One hundred years later some well meaning folks needed to get some shit done and since it was a bit early in the timeline to run by Home Depot for good hard working laborers they asked the Portuguese if they knew of anyone who might want a job where pay wasn't an object. They did and offered to provide the transportation. 
  9. The newly arrived people were famished and upon taking into their sight the aforementioned roots responded with the Wolof word  "nyam" loosely translated as "If you don't give me something to eat I'm going to open up a can of Chris Rock on you".  As a side note the same people used to say nyam back home followed by feverish gnawing on roots as well.  Food is once again named by shape. Do not confuse nyam with Miami which although has a similar amount of dirt and clingy things attached to it differs in shape on the southern end.
  10. Zoom forward another 100 years (thankfully history happens in nice round numbers) to the deep south when orange colored sweet potatoes were introduced. The folks there didn't want to confuse anyone by competing fairly so they decided to rename orange sweet potatoes to  "If you don't give me something to eat I'm going to open a can of Chris Rock on you" but that was voted down in favor of Yam, an Anglicized version of the Wolof word nyam. Miami doesn't factor in here so we'll skip it for now.
  11. Fast forward to another nice round number in history and you have the USDA whom with good intentions tries to rectify the naming situation and passes regulations to force everyone to put the name Sweet Potato on every box of Yams. They failed to define the size of the text thus a new industry was born for super small typesetters. 
Published in Creative Writing