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.

Monday, January 11, 2016

La Muerte de Bowie

I woke to the news of David Bowie’s death.  I had been listening to him since high school and rather enjoyed much of his work. I even got to see him play live about 10 years ago. His talent and charm will certainly be missed.

We four decided to go visit the cathedral and, time and energy permitting, see a bit of the historic district of Mazatlán. The resort staff called us a taxi and we were on our way. When we arrived, the driver pointed us in the direction of a few interesting things nearby and agreed to meet us back at one of the cathedral’s side entrances in an hour and a half. While it cost a bit extra for this service, it was great to have if Elena got tired and needed to return to the resort. It also meant we didn’t have to wander around on Mazatlán’s sometimes narrow and precarious sidewalks looking for a reputable method of transportation.

It had been fun speaking Spanish all over the place and I felt we were getting better information and better service because of it. Most of the staff at the resort spoke a little English, but not always well. I had witnessed more than one sigh of relief when someone realized they didn't have to struggle through a foreign language when talking to me. It was no different out and about and I took charge of getting information and negotiating transactions. Back in the States I had been feeling insecure about my speaking abilities. Interpreting for others was becoming more difficult because I just wasn't getting a lot of practice. Hell, I barely even spoke English to people now that I worked from home. In Mazatlán, however, several people had complemented my linguistic abilities. They were always pleasantly surprised at how fluent I was and would ask why I knew Spanish. Rather than explaining that it was a combination of years of study, living abroad, and a decade of working in translation, I found that it was much easier just to say, “My dad is Mexican.” Even if my dad only really taught me the words and phrases that came with the warning, “Don’t ever say that in front of your grandma!” it at least bought me a little cultural cred.

The cathedral was lovely, save for the somewhat graphic anti-abortion display at the main entrance. We strolled up and down the aisles, attracting curious stares from Mexican visitors who tended to sit and pray rather than gawk at different aspects of the nave. There were only a couple other foreign tourists inside and not many around town either. The ceiling was ornate and floral, lit by the afternoon sun shining in through the multicolored stained glass. This cast a glowing rainbow-colored light on the main altar.

Cathedral exterior overlooking Plaza República

Cathedral ceiling and pillars

 Rainbow lit altar

Virgin Mary

The cathedral was not very large so we weren't there for very long. We exited and shopped for religious trinkets, and then crossed the street into Plaza República, the central plaza of the historic district. It was modest in size and its footpaths were lined with busy shoeshines. Elderly people sat on benches and chatted with one another. One such bench held three men, two of which looked like brothers and, strangely, much like my grandfather who had the same thick white hair and bushy mustache. They all wore standard Mexican cowboy gear. I didn’t have the courage to ask them if I could take their picture, but I wish I had.

We walked a couple of blocks to a nearby indoor market. As soon as we entered, several saleswomen politely accosted us to show us their knickknacks, clothing, jewelry, etc. The market was busy but not overly crowded. Within a couple of minutes I heard mariachi music nearby and I could tell it was live. A man in a cowboy hat came around the corner, carrying a large hexagonal boombox that played background music while he sang Volver Volver with all his heart. His voice was strong and beautiful and I barely managed to dig several pesos out of my pocket and dump them in his donation cup before I burst into tears. I love mariachi so much that I just can’t keep my shit together.

Food and textiles side-by-side in the mercado

Soon thereafter a friendly and persistent saleswoman coaxed Charlie into her a kiosk by flashing a very nice cream-colored guayabera in his face. This gave me a chance to compose myself because I had to concentrate on wheeling and dealing for what became two guayaberas while fending off the other saleswomen who came at me with dress after sarape after poncho, desperately trying to sell me something. Tony and Elena were also seduced by some of the colorful wares these diligent women had to offer and left with a new tablecloth and an embroidered blouse. The mariachi must have noticed the effect he had on me, or perhaps in my haste I had been unusually generous, because he stayed close by and circled around the block of kiosks where we shopped.

After a little more perusing we ended up in the food section of the market. We realized we wouldn’t have time to eat in the neighborhood before our driver would be back to collect us, so Charlie decided to pick up some ingredients for lunch. We bought a couple pounds of shrimp from a fishmonger for only $5.50 USD and then visited a vegetable stand. The vendor complemented my Spanish and then I was immediately embarrassed because I needed to ask for celery and couldn’t remember what it was called. I pointed it out and named the nearest vegetable so that he would know what I was talking about. He smiled and offered, “Apio.” After we paid him I asked where we could get some really good corn tortillas. He told us to exit the market and walk a block to a nearby tortillería where they would be fresh and warm. Our time was running short so we told Tony and Elena to stay put and then booked it to the tortillería. It was nothing more than an open-air corner shop with a big tortilla-making machine, several gigantic balls of dough sitting in containers here and there, and a counter where the checkout girl weighed out each patron’s order on a scale, taking bunches of tortillas off the top of a steaming stack. After discussing whether a kilo of tortillas might be too much, we asked for a kilo anyway, paid her the customary $15 MXN (less than a dollar USD), and were on our way back to the market to collect the parents.

We walked the couple of blocks back to our agreed-upon pick up spot and our driver, who had seen us coming, approached on foot. He instructed us to wait there so that he could bring the car around. Several minutes passed, presumably because of all the traffic on the adjacent streets, and we must have looked lost or concerned because two North Americans who seemed in the know stopped to ask us whether we needed help. We declined and our driver arrived shortly thereafter. We returned to the resort and Charlie made us a late lunch of shrimp tacos in a tomato-based sauce, a fresh salsa of tomato, pepper, cucumber, and cilantro, and more of the beautiful avocados that we have been eating daily. Oh, and we managed to wolf down about half of the fresh tortillas we had just bought. If anything, a kilo was too little.

After lunch, Tony and Elena took a short nap and we cleaned up the kitchen. Then we all went down to the pool. We didn’t last long because the sun was already low in the sky and the palm trees were shading much of the sunbathing area. There was also a little breeze coming off of the ocean so it got chilly quite fast. We decided to take our relaxation back to the room.

Later we went down to the resort’s restaurant for dinner where the special was the salad/dessert buffet and three tacos with choice of meat. I had taco salad and carne asada tacos. I had predicted that I would get sick of Mexican food at some point, but that had yet to occur.

We went back to the room and introduced the parents to Qwirkle, a game similar to Dominoes and Set. I like to think of it as Dominoes for dummies since it doesn’t really require any counting and you work with large blocks stamped with bright rainbow-colored shapes. It’s an aesthetically pleasing game. Charlie whooped our asses almost every time.

After dinner Charlie and I went down to the pool for our nightly smoke/read session and a camera test of Smoking in the Park (coming soon!). The only lighting we had to work with were the bright floodlights that are kept on shining over the pool at night, so we had to make sure they were sufficient. After that, we continued our nightly routine of sitting in our couch fort, eating Takis, and rewatching Arrested Development.