Wednesday, February 8, 2017

It's my time, 'cause I'm the next in line.

It all started with a snowstorm. We were scheduled to leave Seattle a day after fat flakes fell and stuck for 12 hours straight. I had made backup plans to get us to the airport in case we couldn't get a Lyft, but the snow stopped and the roads were just clear enough by the time we needed to leave. When we got to the airport, lines of frustrated people sighed and scowled, waiting for their turn to rearrange flights that had been cancelled early that morning. Our first leg of the flight was with Alaska (hereafter referred to as "Satan") so we had to stand in line with many of these poor unfortunate types. For some reason, Alaska decided to group international check-ins with reschedules, so people who needed to get through security and catch flights in the near future were made to wait behind folks whose counter interactions took an average of 20-30 minutes apiece. Furthermore, the seven available service desks were only half staffed. It was lucky that we had arrived early because we stood there for an hour.

Finally, when it was our time because we were the next in line, the apathetic woman at the open desk called out to ask to ask what we needed. We told her, and she responded that our check-in would take too long and her shift was finished in five minutes. Then she promptly signed off and walked away. The next few folks in the line looked around bewildered and offended, some asking, "Is she serious?!" She was. After several more minutes another more helpful fellow occupied the desk and helped us with our check-in. He assured us that our bags were checked through, but that we would have to ask the Air New Zealand staff for our boarding passes when we arrived in LA. Easy peasy.

So we went through an almost abandoned TSA security line (probably because of all of the canceled flights) and found our gate with relative ease. We only had about 20 minutes until our flight was scheduled to board. We grabbed a burger at one of the fast food joints and then went to speak with the woman at the boarding gate to get our seat assignments. I don't know why those hadn't already been assigned. We each ended up with middle seats in two different rows, one in front of the other. No biggie, I guess. Then the time to board rolled around and nothing happened. After a few minutes, the gate agent got on the intercom to tell us that the plane wasn't at the gate yet. She explained that it was indeed at the airport and had been all night, but they had yet to tow it to our gate. Okay then. Seems like someone dropped the ball, but I suppose these things happen. Another 45 minutes went by. This was when we were supposed to be actually departing. Still no plane. Another hour went by and the plane finally arrived. The passengers, despite our predicament, had remained calm and courteous and boarded with relative quickness. As we walked through the gate, I noticed the plane towing guys were having a snowball fight with the baggage handlers. Not super professional conduct, but whatever.

Finally, the passengers were all seated and ready to go. We did not go. What we did was sit there and wait, and wait, and wait. The captain came on the intercom and apologized for the further delay but said we were just waiting for the baggage handlers to finish loading the plane. We could hear the bags being loaded in one-by-one, slowly but surely. It was a large flight so there would be plenty to load. Perhaps they should have been working on that rather than chucking snowballs at one another. The sounds of loading seemed to last forever. Our plane finally backed away from the gate a full hour and forty-five minutes after our scheduled departure.

By now I was outraged and nervous. Our itinerary had allowed us two and a half hours to make our connection. Based on my last experience transferring between the international and domestic terminals at LAX, I knew we'd need the time. We were now down to an hour to make the connection and this meant we would be running a very long way. As we approached our destination, a flight attendant came on the intercom and asked that passengers who were not connecting internationally remain seated so that the few of us trying to make the same or similar flights could get off as soon as possible. Sure enough, as soon as we stopped every dickhead and their mom stood up to start readying their bags. I shouted down the aisle that there were some of us in the back who needed to get off. Fortunately, most people complied and we managed to exit fairly quickly.

Now it was time to run. I tightened my backpack straps and took off at a steady jog that I knew would not last long. Within a minute or two I was sweating profusely and panting, my heart beating out of my chest. I alternated between the briskest walk I could manage and a light jog the entire way. We wound through hallway after hallway, trying to follow the unclear signs and figure out where to get our flight. We took a couple of wrong turns and had to backtrack, which felt like torture under the already dire circumstances. We knew our flight had begun boarding a good half hour before we'd be at the gate so we were pushing it. Finally, the half dozen of us who had traveled from Seattle together fell upon the boarding gate almost at once, with me and another older gentleman straggling in behind. The gate agents were a complete 180º from what we had dealt with so far. They collected all of our passports immediately and made haste to arrange our departure. Alaska claimed to have called ahead to inform our connecting flights of the delay, but that didn't appear to be the case when actually got there. I can't say I was surprised to hear that Alaska had not actually even processed our check-in in Seattle at all, which meant that Air New Zealand thought we were just no-shows.

Fortunately, they were still able offer all of us seats, and even moved some folks around so that those of us who had paid for upgrades could keep them. They really went above and beyond and we were grateful. Mem and I were literally the last people to board the flight. We plopped down in our seats, sweaty and exhausted, relieved and in disbelief that we had actually made it this far. This flight ended up departing about fifteen minutes late too, but it was supposedly because of heavy traffic at LAX. I suspected it might also have to do with the number of stragglers who boarded at the last minute.

Nothing like running across LAX to give you that youthful glow!

We were in for a 12-hour trip, so we tried to get comfy and relax. As a surprise and a retirement gift, I had paid to upgrade us to a Skycouch, which is essentially a three-seat row where you can lift the footrests 90º to make a bed. The very courteous flight attendants served us a surprisingly good dinner and then we set about making our bed. Although our Skycouch afforded more space and comfort than a regular seat, it was by no means as comfortable as a bed. We're lucky we're not tall and are familiar enough with one another to sleep in close quarters. There was much tossing and turning, readjusting, limbs falling asleep, cramping, and sweating. Still, we did manage to get sleep in short spurts and arrived surprisingly alert.

Now, I have to tell you, I have been through many airports in many countries, and have dealt with passport control and customs all over the world. Most of the time it is, at the very least, a mild inconvenience. Other times (usually coming back to the US from elsewhere), it is infuriating or depressing. In either case, it generally takes awhile. New Zealand appears to have solved this issue quite well, at least for Americans. When we got off the plane, we followed clearly marked signs, walked through a huge sparkly duty-free mall, and then were spit out into passport control. Before we proceeded, I stepped out of line to ask the fellow at the Vodafone counter whether this was where I needed to collect the phone I had reserved. He informed me that it was actually the store beyond passport control where I needed to get it. As I went back to the line, he called out to me to ask what kind of passport I held. When I showed him, he pointed to the E-passport symbol on the front, which I had never really noticed, and told us that we could go through a different line where there was no wait. As we walked in that direction, I noticed the e-Passport sign showed flags from countries like the US, Canada, England, and Australia. When Mem asked why we got to use the special line, I explained that it was because we come from a white people country.

There were no passport agents to speak of. We each inserted our passports into a little touch-screen kiosk, much like the kind you use to check in at the airport. It spit out a ticket and the screen instructed us to walk to the entry gates. These were much like subway ticket machines, except when you insert your ticket a screen in front of you tells you to look into a camera straight ahead, your picture is taken, and then the gate opens so you can proceed. That was it, and it was amazing.

Next it was time to collect our baggage so that we could go through customs. We waited at the carousel, increasingly nervous as minute after minute went by. Soon, the other passengers we recognized from our epic run through LAX joined us and we all found ourselves waiting until the carousel sign said that all baggage had been delivered. At this point, nothing could surprise us. We spoke with an airport staff member who directed us to the baggage services counter. Soon, all of our fellow baggageless wandered over too. Air New Zealand was amazingly helpful and explained that our bags had not been registered in Air New Zealand's system, so they were not transferred to the transpacific flight (quelle surprise). The agent was apologetic but made arrangements for our bags to be put on the next flight from LA and delivered to our B&B. She also explained that we were entitled a $100 NZD reimbursement for any emergency supplies we needed to buy due to the loss of our luggage. We could either return to the airport to collect it, or take care of it before our flight home.

She stamped our customs forms and instructed us to proceed through the checkpoint with our carry-on. As we approached the line, a tall woman saw me carrying our baggage services forms and said, "Uh oh! What happened?" We summarized our story and she was sympathetic. The customs agent was friendly and quickly questioned us as to the content of our late-arriving bags. He also asked whether we were bringing any food into the country. The flight attendants had passed out hard candy shortly before we landed, so Mem set her piece on the counter in response. "Thanks, but I've had lunch," he joked and then sent us through to have our backpacks X-rayed. Aside from the baggage services detour, the whole immigration and customs process took a few measly minutes and we were discharged into arrivals.

First we went to the Vodafone store to pick up the mobile I had reserved. I thought it would be good to text our AirBnB hosts to let them know we would be there later than expected due to the baggage SNAFU. I sent a message but it didn't appear to go through. No biggie. We weren't that late yet. We headed over the Avis counter to collect the keys for our rental car and then I programmed the address into the maps app on our phone. It couldn't connect to the internet so I went back over to the Vodafone counter for help. It hadn't actually been activated. They set it up properly this time (or so we thought) and then we finally walked outside. It was 9:30 AM and we had been in airports or on airplanes for nearly 24 hours. The slightly muggy air was a warm and welcome sensation. 

We located our car, a silver Holden Cruze, and threw our luggage into the back. New Zealand is a left-driving country and we had read up on driving rules in preparation, but it was still disorienting. To begin with, the steering wheel is on the opposite side. I would be driving us to our AirBnB so I had to get used to keeping to the right inside the left lane. I hit the curb on the left side of the car a couple of times because my depth perception was off. Also, the windshield wipers and turn signal levers were reversed, so every time I tried to signal I would turn on the wipers and then swear.

When we started driving, the GPS failed to stay connected and we just ended up with a map that couldn't give us directions. We first pulled into a gas station to try to correct the matter and then went back to the airport. I had no idea where I was going so I accidentally pulled into the airport's pay parking area. I was getting flustered now and a steady stream of profanity began to emanate from my mouth. Mem was doing her best to talk me down and find a solution. I parked and marched back inside to the Vodafone counter. The woman there looked perturbed to see us again. I explained the issue and asked if we could just return the phone because I figured we could just pay for the GPS service from the rental car company. She said she couldn't accept the return and instead programmed the phone to be used as a mobile hotspot. That way, we could use one of our own iPhones for GPS. Fortunately, that worked, although I was annoyed at now having to use two phones to do the job of one.

We went back outside, got in the car and made our way to the exit. We had to pay $6.00 NZD (about $4.00 USD) for the five minutes we had been there, which was annoying, but at least we were on our way. I got the hang of the driving pretty quickly and, for the first time in my life, was thankful for moderate traffic because it meant no one could get too annoyed at me for driving slowly and carefully. Except for a couple of abrupt lane ending incidents when I had to think fast to get in the right lane, we made it in one piece. We pulled into our AirBnB about 20 minutes later. Relief doesn't begin to describe how I felt.

Our accommodations were a white Victorian house in the Epsom suburb with a beautifully manicured garden and a curved stairway leading up to a covered porch. We rang the old manual bell and were greeted by John, one of the owners. He was a friendly middle-aged Chinese man who graciously welcomed us in even though we were several hours early for check-in. He offered us tea and a sit-down on the patio while he called Rosie, his wife, to let her know we had arrived. Mem instantly noticed their fluffy cat, Mimi, sitting on the grass nearby. Mimi was friendly and came over to collect some scratches while we rehydrated and recombobulated. Rosie arrived and introduced herself. We explained to her that we had had quite the adventure getting there and that our luggage had not arrived. She was sympathetic, and she and John busied themselves readying our room so we could take a load off. We put our feet up and guzzled water.

Our first encounter with the local wildlife.

It was now 11 AM and we were hungry. We had noticed several restaurants and shops on the main road as we drove in, and Rosie recommended a few of them. We decided on the Chinese restaurant,  Golden Jade, half a block away and were not disappointed. It was run by an all Cantonese-speaking staff, who promptly brought tea and casually tossed menus on the table. The restaurant had just opened, but they moved busily as if preparing for the lunch rush. We ordered BBQ fried rice, kung pao chicken, and choi sam in ginger sauce. They brought out three huge plates of food and we realized we had ordered enough for a medium-sized family. I helped Mem with her chopsticks skills and we ate well. This was some of the best Chinese food I had had outside of China and the warm, juicy BBQ pork was in fact the best I had ever had.

We dropped our leftovers back at the house and then ventured out again to buy some emergency toiletries to get us through the next (hopefully only) 24 hours until our luggage arrived. We walked to a beautiful produce market called Farro, which looked like an upscale health food store and smelled amazing. They didn't have any non-food related items though, so we left empty handed. We walked into a pharmacy so Mem could buy a toothbrush (which only came into a two pack) and then headed back toward the house. On the way, we stopped at a little convenience store (known as a "dairy" in New Zealand) that had boxes of used books sitting outside The books cost $2.00 each so I snatched up a copy of The Official New Zealand Road Code, and recommended Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund for Mem. We noticed the store also had a few basic toiletries, like single toothbrushes for cheaper than the pharmacy had them. On the next block we stopped into the Lido Cinema to inquire about ticket prices and peruse their selection, discussing whether it might be good to see a movie later.

Since we had no fresh clothes, we thought it might be a good idea to take Air New Zealand up on their reimbursement policy. Once again I braved the road and took us about a mile and a half north to the Farmers department store. We each picked out underwear and a sleep shirt that could double as an actual shirt. This would at least give us the illusion of freshness, especially after we took advantage of a much needed shower. We had a nice conversation with the Iranian cashier, whose name tag read "Shireen", pointing out that my mom and I shared the middle name Shareen. Then we returned to the house to put our feet up for a bit. I had been having trouble with one of mine and the jog across LAX did not help.

The resting just made us drowsy, so we opted to go see Lion just to keep us awake until an appropriate bedtime. We were dealing with a 21-hour time difference and didn't want to spend the next several days jetlagged. The movie was beautiful and harrowing, with very little actual dialogue. I worked hard to suppress tears through most of it. I was amazed that it was true story because it was so unbelievable. After the movie, we went home and had some leftover Chinese and then I took a much-needed shower. The high water pressure was delicious and made me feel so much better. I donned my provisional wardrobe and crawled into bed. Mem was asleep in minutes, but I made myself stay up awhile so that I wouldn't wake up at a ridiculously early hour. I slept hard and dreamed of joining some rogue members of the media in publicly demonstrating against Donald Trump while he watched a basketball game with his family. Not even my unconscious will give it a rest!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Day My Girlfriend Broke Up with Me

Today was our final full day in Mazatlan. Charlie and I wanted to have one last outing downtown to do some souvenir shopping and pick up a couple things for dinner. Rather than having the bellboys call us a cab, we just walked out to the street and got into the only one parked where we had seen cabs lining up all week. The driver immediately addressed us in nothing but Spanish and never asked how I knew it, so that was kind of nice. He also pointed out several points of interest and monuments and explained some of the demographics and geological features of Mazatlan. I tried to cut in whenever possible to interpret for Charlie and was minimally successful. Luckily, Charlie is catching on to the whole Spanish thing and picked up a fair bit of what was said. When we got downtown, the driver asked whether we wanted to go directly to the market or whether he could take us a roundabout way and show us a few more things. We agreed to the latter so he drove us a little further south and continued his tour. It was quite nice to be oriented rather than wonder about all the things that zipped by the car window. He was also critical of the aggressive timeshare sales that goes on all over the city and warned us against taking anyone up on a free offer. “Nothing is free,” he said. “Everything has a price.” As we neared our destination, Charlie wondered aloud about El Chapo’s recent capture and before I had the chance to ask, the driver just started telling us the epic tale of how it happened.

We were dropped next to the cathedral and walked up to the main entrance to buy a gift from the little kiosk there. Then we walked the block to the market and went the long way around to avoid the non-food vendors. The first thing we saw when we entered was a skinned cow head lying upside down on a butcher’s counter, at eye level with any passersby. It was slightly unnerving but also kind of cool. We walked by the funny butcher from whom we had purchased beef a couple of days before and he smiled and nodded in recognition. We bought some beans and then went outside, chatting about whether to have second breakfast like a couple of hobbits. There were several little trailers along the street selling tacos and other typical dishes, so we approached one run by two young men who looked no older than 18 or so. Next to the trailer was a little table where several locals sat eating their lunch, and the trailer itself also had a built-in metal bench and bar area where it looked like one could eat. Since the table was full, we sat on the bench and immediately drew the stares of the other patrons and people walking by. Other than in the church, this was the only time that people obviously stared at us. We ordered a few tacos and then I asked one of the young proprietors whether it was alright that we were sitting there to eat. He looked at me like that was the stupidest question anyone had ever asked and said yes. We ate a few pork tacos with onions, cilantro, and a mixture of salsas and fresh lime juice, and then obnoxiously paid with bills so large that the poor guy had to wander around the block asking other vendors to help him make change.

Street tacos

After our short meal, we flagged down another pulmonía for our ride back to the resort. This one was slightly quieter and stank slightly less of exhaust, fortunately. The driver also tried giving us a tour kind of ride, but we told him we had been there a week and had already seen a lot of things. He told us about the aquarium anyway and it made us regret not going there because it sounded really cool.

When we got back to the resort, we joined Tony and Elena at the pool, swam a bit, went for a cigar walk, and then went back to the pool to sunbathe and have lunch. Charlie spotted my "girlfriend" as she circulated the pool on her security circuit and we were amazed that she either didn’t spot me or was ignoring me completely. We saw her again near the reception desk where she clearly avoided eye contact, perhaps because she was near her coworkers. Charlie asked what I had done to upset her and I said I hadn’t seen her since she smiled at me from the security gate the day before.

Pool iguanas

Today I learned that iguanas are excellent climbers.

A close-up of the sand

My view most days

Since it was our last day, Charlie and I walked around the resort to give extra large tips to a few of the staff who had gone above and beyond in their service, especially where it concerned accessibility for Elena. After we made our last stop, we once again found ourselves about to cross paths with my girlfriend. She was clearly still avoiding eye contact so Charlie stared her down to force her to acknowledge him. And she did, but only him. She didn’t even look at me. “I think my girlfriend just broke up with me,” I told him. “That’s why you shouldn’t stick your dick in crazy,” was his reply.

We walked out to the beach for a few minutes to watch the sunset. The sky was completely free of clouds, which meant there would be no shocking pinks and purples, but the sunset was no less beautiful.

My man watching the sun set

A lovely side effect of the earth's rotation

We headed back to the room and Tony, Elena, and I played Qwirkle while Charlie prepared dinner. We ate the rest of the beef from the market with a slightly different take on the mole sauce, plus rice, fresh salsa, and the refried beans we had bought at the market earlier that day. It was delicious, of course. We prepared our luggage for our trip out the next morning, built the couchbedfort, and then headed out for one last cigar by the pool. And now, without further ado, Smoking in the Park!

Update: Rather than dedicating a whole blog post to our trip home, I just decided to add it as an addendum to this post. Suffice it to say that our flights were cancelled or delayed every step of the way and it took as long to get home as if we had been on the other side of the globe. It was exhausting, but a took a few interesting pictures:

Watering the grass with the firetruck at the Mazatlán airport

Our flight was rerouted through Mexico city and we couldn't believe how immense it looked from the airplane window.

Urban sprawl

Every surface covered with buildings

A fairly clear day in a normally very polluted city.

 I do not think I would like to live here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Español Makes Me the Boss

I had a hell of a time waking up this morning. The couchbedfort was taking its toll on my body and I slept terribly. Luckily, I didn’t have to do much that required concentration. Except speak another language. Oh yeah, that. The four of us went down to breakfast and had the usuals from the buffet: chilaquiles, taquitos, potatoes, and a variety of salsas. Word of my linguistic prowess must have gotten around because our waiter almost immediately asked, “You speak Spanish, right?” I said yes and we had the usual conversation about how that was possible. He mainly addressed me for most of the meal and then even handed me the bill. At first I thought this was because Spanish apparently makes me the boss of the table, but it was just because he wanted to explain that we had been given a discount.


After breakfast we prepared for our outing. We planned to do some souvenir shopping at a place that Charlie had seen during one of our many taxi rides along Av. Camarón Sábalo, but he didn’t know its name. The taxi driver who picked us up at the resort was the same one who we had paid to wait for us a couple days earlier when we visited the cathedral. He seemed happy to see us again. This was probably due to the fact that I inadvertently gave him a very large tip while trying to quickly round up enough cash for his services rendered that day. Today, I told him that we were trying to find a place whose name we didn’t know. I gave him the street and told him approximately where it was, but he either didn’t pay any attention or was trying to run up our fare. He seemed to circumvent the very road I had told him it was on, and we ended up at least a couple miles past where we needed to go. When I reminded him of the street, he apologized and then took us to where we were going. Unfortunately, many of the stores in the area were closed and the ones that were open were not very good and didn’t have what we were looking for. Charlie bought one overpriced trinket and then regretted it as soon as we walked a couple blocks to the next store, which was exponentially better.

After we found a few things, we asked the salesclerk whether there was a drugstore nearby because we needed a few supplies. She said there was one just a couple of blocks up the road, so we headed that direction. Soon we happened upon a tiny, ghetto-ass pharmacy that looked more like a convenience store. Tony and I walked in and a boisterous woman behind a counter greeted us with, “Hhhello, nice to see ju agaiiin. I hhhave enny peells ju want weethout prescrrripshon.” It was simultaneously cute and worrisome. It said a lot both about the state of healthcare costs in the US and the type of recreation some people get up to while traveling abroad. I also wondered whether any of the drugs they carried were in fact real. The pharmacy didn’t have anything we actually needed, so we left.

We had seen several pharmacies along the way each time we drove this road, so we decided to walk a bit to see whether we would stumble upon another. Instead, we found ourselves at another souvenir kiosk where Elena tried on some drug rugs and bought a beautiful rainbow colored one with fleece lining. While this transaction was taking place with the female shopgirl, I was being chatted up by the man who worked there with her and possibly owned the place. When he realized I was fairly competent in Spanish, he started speaking speed Spanish to me. As I was fairly tired that day, I was having a harder time speaking back and stumbled over my words a lot, which just made me feel flustered and, in turn, made my language skills worse. He started talking to me about timeshares and asking me whether he could show us a property. I think he must have been getting kickbacks from the property owner for recommending it. We had seen lots of aggressive timeshare sales spiels during our trip and it was pretty obnoxious. I just kept saying no. Eventually I got around to asking him whether there was another large pharmacy nearby, to which he replied in English, “What kine of peell you wan?” implying that he could get it for me. I told him we just needed general supplies and so he offered to show us where it was.

After Elena made her purchase, he took off speedily north, expecting us to follow him. While the sidewalks here are generally pretty accommodating to people with special accessibility needs, they can be rough or incomplete in places, or have cars or other obstructions parked on them. I kept pace with the salesman, leaving Charlie, Tony and Elena in the dust, but I figured they could catch up once I knew where it was. During the few blocks that we walked, he continued to try to give me a sales pitch for a timeshare condo. Along the way we were accosted by other shop owners, except that they were addressing us in Spanish instead of English now. “Do I look like a tourist?” he asked. “No, but I do,” I said, “so they assume you are one too.”

We got to the pharmacy and he left me there, having failed at selling me a condo. I waved at the rest of my party, who were still a block or so away, and indicated that I was going in. I had found everything we were looking for by the time they arrived. As they were paying, I went out and flagged down a taxi and had him pull up to the front of the pharmacy so that we could get Elena into the car more easily.

The resort has a closed gate through which all traffic must enter and exit with the approval of the security staff posted there. For the safety of their guests, they note the taxi number and name of every driver leaving or arriving with them. My "girlfriend" happened to be working the security booth today. She took down the driver’s credentials and then leaned over to see into the car to make sure that the occupants were indeed guests. I was the only person she could see through the partially opened, tinted window, so I waved and smiled so that she would recognize me and know that we were legit guests. When she realized who I was, she got a grinned wide, put her handed over her heart and did the little polite bowing thing again. Charlie and I giggled about this and then he explained to his dad that I had an admirer.

Once we were settled back at the resort, Elena declared that she wanted to go to the pool or the beach and was happy that that was the only decision she really had to make here. Tony and Elena decided to get lunch at the poolside café while Charlie and I went for a cigar walk along the beach. When we came back, we swam a bit in the cold pool, warmed our bodies in the most direct sun we could find, and then joined Tony and Elena for some lovely rest. We also ordered tostadas and ceviche for a late lunch.

Daily beach walk with a cigar

Duckface selfie

A quiet day at the pool

Three Hutchinsons relax by the pool

Once we were all well toasted by the sun, we headed in where Charlie immediately started preparing the meat for our dinner that evening. Three of us played a little Qwirkle while Elena napped. I finally won! A couple hours later Charlie served us brown rice, beef mole, and salsa fresca. It was even better than the mole we had had a few days before because it was the house made recipe from the woman at the spice store rather than the stuff you buy in a jar at the grocery.

Cha does some topless mise en place

Final Qwirkle board

Cha gives up on the resort-provided knife and uses his pocket knife.

¡Vamos a comer!

Rice, mole, and salsa fresca

As usual, we ended the night with Charlie smoking a cigar by the pool and me accompanying him.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Salma Hayek's Life-changing Art Tacos

Once again Charlie made us breakfast, which consisted of eggs, beans, salsa, and avocado. Oh, and we polished off the remainder of the kilo of tortillas we had bought not even twenty-four hours earlier. Tony and Elena decided they wanted to have a pool and/or beach day, but Charlie and I were interested in venturing out into downtown again.

We had a cab drop us at the Plazuela de Machado, which is a major tourist destination for some reason. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty, but it was just a typical tree-lined plaza. It was surrounded by typical tourist trap restaurants, one of which wasn’t even Mexican but Argentine, with persistent hosts going out of their way to convince you to eat there. We arrived just as a tour group was stopped in front of one such place. An assertive female staff member was offering and administering shots of tequila. We decided to take a walk around the neighborhood to see what we could see. It was about midday and very quiet. Brightly colored buildings lined the almost abandoned streets. These were occupied by homes, small kiosks selling junk food and drinks, and several art galleries and upscale restaurants.

Plazuela de Machado

Colorful buildings line the plaza

A tree divides old and new

We zigzagged through the neighborhood until we encountered a perimeter beyond which things looked decidedly less interesting. At one point, we walked by a restaurant called “Delirium”. A young woman who was standing in the doorway walked out and handed us a flyer that read, “Tacos will never be the same after Delirium.” We neared a pastelería and talked about going in because Charlie knew his mom loved Mexican pastry and had run out of what she bought earlier in the week. Two Americans, who we recognized as being the people who had asked us if we needed help the day before, overheard us speaking English and approached. They asked if we had come on a cruise ship because they had seen a large group of people earlier (probably the tequila drinkers). We said “no” and then discovered that we were all from Seattle. Jokes were made about escaping the weather and getting our vitamin D, as well as the supposedly life changing tacos at the restaurant we just passed. We parted ways and Charlie and I went into the pastelería and picked out a few different goodies.

We flanéed through the neighborhood and I insisted we stay on the shady side of the street because the hot Mexican sun was starting to kick my ass. We stumbled upon the tiny Museo Arqueológico de Mazatlán [Mazatlán Archeology Museum], run by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia [National Institute of Anthropology and History]. A tiny policewoman stood guard at the door and asked us to sign the visitor's register while she fetched the man who was supposed to be at the front desk. The museum did not seem to attract many visitors, so he probably had more pressing matters than sitting there staring into space, waiting for the rare visitor to appear. He emerged from a back room, collected our few pesos, and told us where to begin.

The museum was so small it only had three or so separate rooms for exhibits, one of which contained a living artist's large, brightly colored paintings of Mexican historical figures. Only a couple other visitors came in while we browsed the exhibits.

Funerary vase

Remnants of a funerary vase

Pipe collection

The museum took about 30 minutes to complete and we were back out in the heat taking in the sights.

A few cases of rare glass bottle Coca Cola spotted in their natural habitat!

A colonial style building under renovation

These loud little jerks were guarding the Casa Bonita. This was the most popular type of guard dog in town, much to my dismay.

Eventually we ended up at the waterfront and the strong breeze blowing in from over the water was a welcome respite from the oppressive heat reflecting off the paved streets. The waterfront was beautiful and refreshing, and we could see several sunbathers, a man flying a kite, and people just enjoying the view.

A local enjoys the beach

Graffiti in an abandoned lot

A kitten chases a beam of light reflected off of someone's wristwatch.

By then we were starting to tire and get hungry, so we headed back toward the historic district. We perused the options in Plazuela Machado but nothing caught our eye, plus several establishments were now closed for siesta. We decided to head back to Delirium for some life-changing tacos.

The restaurant was a hip Mexican fusion place that claimed to have something for everyone, whether you were a carnivore, vegetarian, or vegan. We went in and were invited to sit wherever, so we installed ourselves in an empty room containing several works by Mexican artist “La China”. Our table was right next to some kind of art sculpture that consisted of the base of a sewing trundle with an old box TV on top. Inside the box were wine bottles holding candlesticks. On top stood a tiny 5x7 painting on a tiny easel. There was also a projector across the room that appeared to be pointed at the TV screen, but it was turned off. We rolled our eyes, as we often do with modern art. Our friendly waitress looked just like a 20 year-old Salma Hayek, minus the bazongas. While we ate, another female employee who dressed like M.I.A. wandered in and out.

We started with fantastic chicken mole sopecitos topped with pickled onion. The mole was sweet and flavorful, and the sopes were crispy and fluffy. We had identical main courses of three different tacos: shrimp fried in amaranth with chipotle sauce and pickled onions, shredded marlin in spicy and citric yucateco sauce with pickled onions, and sautéed shrimp with gouda and jicama.

Analyzing a sope

Unfortunately, the last one tasted, as Charlie put it, “like the oil was set on fire.” I had to agree that it had a distinct burnt oil flavor. We paid and left, asking to be pointed in the direction of the market, which I knew was nearby. Charlie stopped at a kiosk to buy a coffee that tasted like “slightly colored water” and threw it away after a few sips.

We reached the market and walked all the way around the outside of it so we could get to the food section while avoiding the gauntlet of saleswomen in the clothing section. We stopped at a butcher to buy some meat. The guys working behind the counter were the joking sort so we had a good laugh while we were there. After the usual conversation about how I knew Spanish, Charlie told me to ask them for beef haunch. When I said I didn’t know how to say that, he suggested “nalgas de res” (beef buns), employing a few of the useful words he knew. Against my better judgment, I asked them for nalgas de res while pointing to my own haunch. They laughed and said this was just called “esteak”. Of course. The guy helping us drew Charlie a diagram of a cow leg to make sure that was exactly what he wanted. Then when he wanted to know how to cut it up, I told him to leave it whole because Charlie was a chef and could do it himself. “¡Chingao!” he exclaimed, impressed. He also asked whether Charlie had a decent knife to work with and probably would have sold him one if not. I lied and said yes, figuring Charlie could make due with the pocketknife he had been using all week.

We then stopped at a spice vendor to buy some house-made mole mix, grabbed a few veggies from the stand we had visited the day before, and were on our way.

We exited the market just as a pulmonía was turning the corner. These are open-air converted VW bugs (the old style), sometimes convertible and sometimes with a canopy overhead like a golf cart. They have loud engines and smell of exhaust, but they looked like a hoot to ride in, so I signaled for it to stop. I negotiated a reasonable price with the driver, a middle-aged man wearing a Dallas Cowboys shirt, and we hopped in. There was little more than a metal bar between ourselves and the outside of the vehicle, and we knew that we would probably die if we crashed, but it was worth the risk.

The driver turned up the music and we were on our way. We had heard a lot of disco while here and this pulmonía was no exception as we were treated to Rasputin right away. We also got Buffalo Soldier and some raucous banda sinaloense. The ride home was cool but suffocating given the exhaust smell we had to endure the whole way. It was exciting and a little scary because the driver had no qualms about speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. Luckily, we made it back to the resort in one piece. 10/10; would ride again!

Tempting fate with my favorite guy

Nice sea views

For dinner we decided to try a Cuban-Mexican fusion restaurant just a short car ride from the resort, which we had seen in Lonely Planet. It was called Carlos & Lucia’s and was run by a Cuban husband/Mexican wife team. The very amicable and charming Carlos waited on us that evening. He was a handsome older man with smooth skin, a warm smile, and the most fluid English we had heard the entire week. The restaurant’s walls were decorated with photos and artwork from both countries represented there. I think we were all in the mood for something slightly different from what we had been eating all week because we all ordered Cuban dishes. We knew the local specialty was shrimp, so for starters we ordered shrimp aguachile, whole raw shrimp dressed in lime juice, salt, pepper, chiles, and cucumber. It was the most delicate, creamy shrimp I had ever tasted. We also ordered the standard shrimp cocktail, which was quite good. I had asado cubano, a mixture of pork and potatoes. Charlie had ropa vieja, pulled pork cooked with onions and peppers. Tony had smoked pork with peppers and onions. And Elena had a house specialty whitefish platter served with sautéed onions and melted cheese over Spanish rice. All of our plates were served with congrí, a mixture of black beans and rice, and fried plantains (to die for!)

We all ate way too much. During the meal we heard several of the patrons interact with Carlos as if they knew him well. Additionally, several cars drove by from which people yelled “Hi, Carlos!” and he would wave back. Clearly he had a well-deserved positive reputation in the neighborhood. After dinner, Carlos was kind enough to hail us a cab on the street and see us off.

When the car pulled into the hotel we could see spotlights darting back and forth from the beach area behind the resort. There was a large group of Mexicans entering the lobby and talking to the resort staff, seemingly checking in. Charlie and I went out for our nightly read and cigar by the pool, where we found that the recent arrivals to the resort were all coming for a party being thrown in one of the timeshare sales buildings near the beach. Clumps of people walked by us, following the colored lights and thumping reggaeton rhythms coming from the building. After a while we saw several musicians walk by with a collection of drums, a trumpet, and a few other mystery instrument cases. Soon enough it was clear what sorts of instruments they had when crashing banda sinaloense poured from the building, amplified or muted every time the door opened or shut. Charlie noticed the telltale macho gait of my security guard admirer as she approached the area where we were sitting. “Your girlfriend is coming,” he said. I looked up just in time to catch her eye, smiled and nodded. She also smiled and continued to grin widely, as if she couldn’t help it, as she strode by the table where we were sat.

After Charlie was finished smoking, we walked toward the timeshare sales building to see what the party was all about. It was pretty crowded, with people lined up at the bar on the veranda. The music was loud and it wasn’t really a style that I enjoy all that much, so we decided not to find out whether it was a private party or not. Also, my “girlfriend” was working the door and I didn’t want her to think I was following her around.

Instead, we went back to the room, ate Takis and watched more Arrested Development. I feared we were going to end up going through Takis withdrawal by the time we left.