Wednesday, October 09, 2013

On the odor of Ajo

We went shopping a couple of days ago for a handful of things we forgot to buy on the way down. One of them was minced garlic, an almost daily staple for us. Yes, I know we can mince our own garlic, but the pre-cut stuff is a lot easier for me as I am afflicted with some sort of weird skin condition that retains the smell of garlic, shallots and onions for days after I handle them. And yes, I know about those stainless steel bars that supposedly absorb all the garlic smell from your fingers via magic. I have one and it barely works and in any event it's home hanging on a nail under a drive out skein of garlic cloves.

We went to the place where one might expect to find it, the spaghetti sauce aisle, and it wasn't there. Not dissuaded, this is the store after all where the matches are stocked with the candy, my second thought was with the vegetables and lo and behold there it was. Not packaged in nice glass bottles with leak proof lids, but rather in a can like green beans. But it was what it was and so I bought it and brought it home and used it to cook up some of the 9 pounds of fish we got suckered into buying from Alejandro.

Now of course the problem was how to keep it contained for its short life in the refrigerator, given that it lacked a lid. To address this obvious lack of planning on the part of the Herdez Food Corporation, I wrapped it up in the nice long piece of plastic wrap making sure that it was double and triple folded over the bottom. Nothing was getting out of there! Except for the pungent aroma of garlic that pervaded everything in the fridge the next morning.

So I put the wrapped can in a zip lock baggie and figured that would be plenty. That night I was brought up short again so MLW added a second bag to the first and the plastic wrap. The next morning the fridge stunk even more.

Last night we decided that we were running out of nights to cook so we threw it away. There wasn't much left anyway, and there was no chance that I wanted that smell in my otherwise pristine cooler for the whole drive home. So out it went. 

In the middle of the night I was awakened to that familiar smell, pervading our condo, no doubt abetted by the blower on the air conditioner that was unfortunately just above the garbage can. I lay there trying to decide just how bad it was and whether it really warranted getting dressed and walking all the way to the trash house knowing full well I would be contending with Raccoons for access. I decided it could wait and returned to a fitful sleep, rising this morning at the earliest hour yet and making my first priority the disposal of what seemed to be turning into a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

Our little home returned to normal almost immediately. Lesson learned, bring a jar of the stuff from home next time. We got talking about how to say "The garlic smells" in Spanish and that took me to the dictionary I use on my iPhone.

First I had to get past the verb form "to smell something." This dictionary is kind of funny because it's designed for native speakers of both English and Spanish - it has examples in each. Like so many times before I clicked on the little "speaker" icon and got a wordy sentence in English - "To perceive sensations with the olfactory system." Not exactly what I wanted, I was more after the action of giving off a smell. "Oler" was clearly not correct so I dug a bit more and found my way to "olor" or, "Any property detected by the olfactory system." Now we're talking nouns and we're getting synonyms like "aroma" and "fragancia." But that's still not quite right although I suppose I could just say "The smell of the garlic was strong" and be done with it.

A bit more digging and it became obvious that what I was trying to say was a combination of both - "Oler" is not only to use your nose but to emit a smell as well. So it's something like "Oler" an "olor." And that epiphany brought me to the best example ever, using both words, in both English and Spanish -

"Amo el olor de napalmo en la manaña. Huele como a victoria."

 Some application developer somewhere has a real sense of humor, quoting Robert Duval's oft-cited line from Apocalypse Now, about his love of napalm and its smell of victory. I'll admit it had me laughing out loud.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

A couple of tiny reminders from home

We always have a housesitter when we travel, so it's a case of "no news is good news" when it comes to knowing what's happening on the homefront. However, while we're almost a thousand miles south, we encounter lots of little New Mexico-isms on a regular basis. First there are the license plates of the guests at our vacation spot. Then there are the Kokopellis that grace much of the tourist-wares for sale in town. And then a boat or two in the marina with a New Mexico placename on the back and even the catamaran here on the beach that hails from Santa Fe. We're far from home but never far away.

Some reminders are less pleasing that others. Like the Mother of All Goatheads we found in the lawn two nights ago. We had just that day been opining that Goatheads didn't seem to grow down here, surprising considering the sheer volume of those awful green ground clinging vine producing abominations we have at home. But in truth we had never seen a single one, that is until MLW stepped off the seawall and straight into a mat of them. Barefoot. I'll admit I was shocked, but I quickly channeled that shock into anger and determination. Falling to my knees I dug every last little vestige of the beast out of the Bermuda Grass until none was left. My hands were numbs with sticker punctures, and many seeds escaped, but the plant was gone and in the trash and defeated in its nefarious task of reproduction. How it got here is unknown, but a guess would be one stupid burr traveled down in someone's boot or on their dog and kicked off the colonization of this pristine environment. And I'm glad I did my part to stem it.

The other little hint of home was less direct. Our shower has a tile bottom so we went out and bought a rubber mat. I dropped it in place and forgot about it until the next time I went into the bathroom and smelled that most ghastly yet common of smells - Skunk. We lived on a Skunk highway at home and barely a night goes by that one of us doesn't have to get up in the middle of the night and close the door because one of those little black and white monsters has let go nearby. A few nights before leaving, I encountered one under the bird feeder when I went out to reload the animal cam. In other words they are pretty common. So it was with great surprise that I found myself in the midst of Skunk stink in the middle of the afternoon in Mexico. Not that there aren't Skunks here too - I saw one sizing up the swimming pool only two nights ago - but afternoon is a weird time. I stood there sniffing and sniffing and just when I was beginning to hyperventilate, it dawned on me - the new bath mat smelled like a Skunk. So now, each day I am reminded of what I have to look forward to in a mere 5 days.

You can leave home, but home never really leaves you.


Monday, October 07, 2013

La Palapa Griega

I knew we were in for an experience when I saw the waiters peeking around the corner of the building as we walked up the sidewalk to the door. It was on the early side, so being the first guests of the evening was not wholly unexpected but there was something about their sense of surprise that worried me. But since we're always shopping for an experience, we forged ahead and chose a table on the edge of the restaurant, overlooking the sea. One of the waiters brought a floor fan over and set it on a table so we'd have a breeze. He took our margarita order and went off for menus.

The view was wonderful, a crescent moon setting over Tetakawi, the water in the cove slowly turning to inky black. MLW told me the story of how she'd found the big Abalone shell she still has, under the cliff off to my left. The waiter returned with our drinks, in plastic birthday party glasses. We found this a bit odd considering one can buy those giant margarita boats at just about any store. Oh well, at least they were cold.

The choices on the menu were interesting - all the traditional Mexican seafood fare plus a smattering of Greek choices. Many interesting things to choose from, I was challenged with making a decision. A second waiter came to take our order, a younger guy, late teens or early twenties. MLW ordered her regular, pescado al mojo de ajo. The waiter looked confused and said, "No, we don't have that." I pointed to it on the menu and he made a face and left, returning a few seconds later with the straight answer - it wasn't that they didn't have the fish the way she wanted it, it was that they didn't have any fish fillets. Whole fish, yes. Fillets, no, and no one was offering to turn a whole fish into a fillet. We asked for more time, considering if perhaps we'd be best served to just have the drinks and find dinner elsewhere. But, intrepid souls that we are we decided to tough it out. I called the waiter back over and MLW ordered scallops in butter and garlic, "callos" on the menu, another new word for us. She asked about vegetables and he said "yes, with green beans." 

Now I'd also been counting on some sort of fish fillet so I had to make a different choice going with the spicy calamari. Mexican meals usually come with a side of some kind of vegetable and rice, but I have had more than one instance where I ended up with nothing more than a big plate of meat so I asked, thinking I wanted something more than squid parts. "No" was the answer so I changed my order to one of the other "callo" dishes and the waiter made a face. He said that the calamari was really good. I said that I wanted some vegetables and he stood there in stoic silence for a full 30 seconds, making me wonder if Spanish was truly his first language. Finally he offered to add on some vegetables and rice and I said "veggies only" and all was once again good. He went off and placed the order.

The place was starting to fill up, a big table of Americans came in and sat down to our right. They got the good waiter, the one who had a sense of humor and spoke Spanish fluently. Another couple came in, Mexican woman and American man. She immediately got on her cell phone and he lit a cigar which prompted me to get up and move the fan in order to redirect his stinky smoke out to sea instead of across our table. 

The food showed up, delivered by a third water. Mine was a fancy pile of breaded octopus parts, MLW's was a collection of little gray-brown disks that looked like sliced Kielbasa sausage that had been pan fried. You know, held in shape by the sausage skin and puckered up in the center. Kind of like the little hot dog slices my Mom used to add to my Chef Boy-Ar-Di Spaghett-Os. I tasted one and it had the flavor of fish but the consistency of fried pork. Further confounding our analysis was the fact that there seemed to be two kinds of disks, one more meat like and one more fish like. Her rice and vegetables were more readily identifiable. 

My dinner was okay, sort of Latin version of sweet and sour squid that I might consider at the Chinese restaurant near our house, assuming that I would want such a thing or that we would actually eat there. The breading didn't really stick to the fish but the fish was tasty enough.My vegetables were also identifiable and edible. It was a fun dinner of inside jokes and laughs and funny faces and curses for our friends Carole and Doug who recommended the place. Perhaps we'd expected too much, that a seafood restaurant within casting distance of the ocean would have the ingredients necessary to make any of the dishes that comprised 75% of their menu. Maybe we should have gone Greek?
In any event, we finished up, I asked for Flan was told no and ended up with Baklava. I mean what could be better than Baklava on the seaside in Mexico.

We paid, left a reasonable tip and got up to leave La Palapa Griega, pausing only to admire the painting of the Parthenon on the far wall as we went out the door. 

A little research later informed us that "callos" is Spanish for callouses or tripe, neither of which explains the contents of her dinner. As of now, we don't what she ate but whatever it was it was not enough to make us want to go back for more. Our Culinary Tour of San Carlos continues, with another place checked off. Permanently.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A couple of small world stories and a discussion about glasses.

Every year we try to come in early October, and every year we swear we're never coming back in early October. Well, I don't know if that's literally true but it sure seems that way. The water is hot which allows us swim every day, the only time of the year when this is possible outside of summer, and no one comes here in the summer. The problem is early October is close to Columbus Day and school holidays so the place fills up with vacationers. This shouldn't come as a surprise since this is a vacation spot but given how we like to spend our time away, the people and the noise can be quite jarring. We do persevere and enjoy ourselves in spite of it. And really, the people are mostly okay except for those with dogs. As the place fills up the courtyards ring with the sounds of abandoned animals, their sad howls echoing off the stuccoed block walls. 

Turns out there's a gal next door with a dog that barks plaintively whenever she leaves it alone. We didn't much like that the first dozen or so times so yesterday when she asked if the dog was barking, we said "yes" and she was aghast. MLW and she got into a friendly conversation once they got past the apologies and it turned out that Penny (her name) lives up the road from us in Santa Fe. What's more, she knew our little berg of Corrales and when asked about her history there it further turned out that she used to live on our street. Small World Story Number One.

Last night we went out to dinner, ending up at Blackie's, a joint in town. We've been patrons of the place since it was built, maybe 10 years ago. It's quiet and dark and romantic and they used to have a charming nonagenarian who guarded the parked cars and an octogenarian who played jazz standards on a plunky piano. The food was good, the service steady and it always made for a nice night out. MLW would order pescado al mojo de ajo (her standard) and I'd get one of the clever things from the menu. We'd have a big boat of a margarita and between courses they doubled down on that with a frosty Bailey's. I'd open the car door for MLW when we left, we'd have a nice kiss in the parking lot and write the evening down as another good memory.

On our last trip we went in and disappointingly, it had pretty much gone to hell. The "genarians" were absent, probably gone to the camposanto, the service was terrible, the food passable and no one brought us our Bailey's. It was the end of the love affair, and we left swearing never to darken their door again. But last night our plan for dinner at a new place - La Palapa Griega - was scotched by a Mexican wedding. It was tempting to crash it, the disco music was pounding, but manners got the better of us and so we left. Driving back towards town, we decided to give Blackie's one last chance. We parked and went in.

Same place, same atmosphere. But things had improved, the service was instantly attentive and the drinks came quickly. The food showed up after a reasonable interval, MLW taking a risk and having grilled fish with Artichoke sauce while I lined up for calamari with piñons and tomatoes. Both were excellent. And after ordering coffee and Flan our Bailey's showed up. The universe had regained its balance. I was in such a good mood that I complimented the waiter on his reading glasses - thick white hipster frames on a chain around his neck - and that in turn spawned a great conversation about whether "lentes" or "ante ojos" was the correct term for glasses. Turns out while they mean different things (sunglasses vs. vision glasses) around here they are interchangeable. When he asked me how my dinner was, I responded "estuvo muy bueno." Using "estuvo," the past tense of "is" made me so proud I could have pinched myself. We left a good tip and went out but sadly some jackass tourist had parked his Ford Econoline Conversion Camper Van so close to our passenger side that I couldn't open the door for MLW and complete the experience with a kiss. Next time.

Heading back I stopped on the frontage road to take my Photo of the Day, the long suddenly working streetlights along Manlio Beltrones Boulevard. San Carlos' main drag. I got the shot, we went home and I posted it to my Tumblr. Just for grins - it was a nice picture - I posted it to a Fuji camera forum I visit on Facebook. Twenty seconds hadn't elapsed before one of the members responded, "OMG, that's my home town." Small World Story Number Two. We chit chatted for a bit, I shared a few more photos (he currently lives in Chicago!) and we made plans to try and connect should we ever be here at the same time in the future.

It is a small world, and technology seems to make it smaller. What a great thing to be so far from home and have two intimate connections with two complete strangers in the same day. Travel does this for you, time and time again and it's just one more reason why being out and about is a great thing. The road goes on.

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Sea, The Seafood, The Food

Last year I had the extreme misfortune of getting stung by a Stingray. The Eastern Pacific Round Stingray (Urolophus halleri) is common in the shallow waters of the Gulf and in the Pacific off of Baja from April through November. 2012 was apparently a banner year for them, I got it once, MLW got it twice and some little girl swimming close to us got it too. I knew that because of the way she howled as she limped out of the ocean. While it hurt a lot, a real lot, the pain went away within an hour and the whole episode became nothing more than an interesting tale to relate to friends back home. Particularly friends who think that sharks are waiting there to eat them.

But here we are a year later, and for the past month or so the site of the one-time wound has been bugging me. Not hurting per se, but just a feeling that something isn't right. Like there is something embedded in the inside of the arch on my right foot. Kind of a "presence." At first I attributed it to Yoga, figuring I was working those taut little muscles by trying to balance on one foot with my hands at Heart Center. But then I got used to doing that and the feeling didn't go away.

It got worse as we headed south, stronger but still not painful until our arrival here when my foot seemed to want to migrate back to the sea. I'd doze off for a nap and find my right leg off the bed, foot pointing at the ocean, toes trying to gain purchase on the tile floor. It took two hands and all my strength to stop what seemed to be an inexorable migration back to the spawning grounds. Only when I donned my bathing suit and jumped in the water, did the craving end. My foot, now a part of the littoral ecosystem, had found its way home like an Eel returning to the Finger Lakes from its birthplace in the Sargasso Sea.

These days I concentrate very intently on not pissing off any of the Stingrays that might be around. I can probably manage one foot with an unbreakable bond to salt water but two might be tough to govern so I spend my time doing the "Stingray Shuffle," bobbing up and down constantly on my tip toes giving fair warning to any little beast buried in the sand. It was in this preventative state that the Mean Fish started its attack. 

MLW noticed it first, reporting that something had bumped her leg. We'd drifted a few yards south of our Stingray-free zone and I thought perhaps we'd innocently entered some fish's territory. We moved back and that's when it started going after me - a hit on my left leg, a hit on the right. Not bites, but very strong pokes with what must have been its bony fish nose. Then two on the back and one on my left arm. The final shot to my shoulder was enough for me - swim time was over. I fled the sea and huddled under my towel on the seawall fantasizing about getting a net, catching the Mean Fish and throwing him on the sand. I'd stand there poking him with a stick while he gasped for breath asking him how he liked it. I'd return him to the ocean when he agreed to leave we humans alone. And not one minute sooner. 

We've known Alejandro for years. He's been our chief provisioner for all the time I've been coming down here and he and his dad served MLW and her family in for the time before that. In his salad days, Alejandro would show up in his truck with shrimp and vegetables. Over the years he expanded his offerings to include tamales and orange juice. In the early days, we'd bring enough food to get us through to the first day when we'd find him in the parking lot and then we'd restock our larder. Back then we rarely ate out due some combination of frugality and my fear of interacting with local restaurants. While those limitations are now gone, we still buy fish from him whenever has it. He no longer brings vegetables due to stiff price competition (Americans are cheap) with two new supermercados and we don't buy shrimp because we cannot support the destruction of the Gulf. He also downscaled his truck, now relying on condo guests to ferry him and his coolers back into town.

He showed up during our first cocktail on the seawall at sunset. He had fish he said, Dorado and Snapper so we went off to have a look. My dealings with Alejandro have always been a bit tense for me, he's a mathematical genius who can do currency conversions so fast that I have no idea if I'm getting ripped off or not. Of course it's never a big deal in terms of amounts, but I do like to have an idea of how much stuff I'm buying (volume) and how much it's costing (price per volume) and how my dollars are converting to pesos (cambio.) 

What he had looked pretty good so I said we'll take a bag of each. The asking price was 110 pesos per bag. He started talking about the exchange rate and said he'd give me 13 on the dollar, a full peso more than the toll booth in Nogales was offering. He tore open a bag and made MLW smell it for freshness.Then he took 2 more bags out and said he'd give me a special price if I bought all four - 410 was the quote and he wanted dollars. It must be a pain to go all the way home with a cooler full of frozen fish pieces so I said fine.

I had a handful of 5 dollar bills and 20 peso notes. I tried to multiply times 13 to work it all out but came up short. He put the money in discrete piles and said "This pile is 130, this pile $10" in order to make it clear for me. I finally realized I was 50 pesos short no matter how we separated the bills so leaving MLW there as collateral, I went back to the condo to grab a twenty not only to fill the gap but to make the math simpler. 

When I got back he and MLW were discussing he poor building practices in Acapulco that had resulted in widespread destruction during that double hurricane they had last week. In my absence, the "good price" had changed from 410 to 440, perhaps to cover the cost of the plastic bag he'd given MLW to facilitate the carrying of 10 pounds of fish back to our freezer. I asked about that and we decided to settle on 430 which meant the exchange of a 20 peso note for a 10 peso coin, more complex math that left me even more addled. In the end we got a bunch of fish for $30. 

When we were here last February we found a new Italian restaurant. Unfortunately it was closed so we made a plan to try it on this trip. It was open last night so we went. The owner met us out front and made a big deal about how giant our Suburban is, feigning being crushed between it and the wall in front of his dining area. We chose an inside table on the promise of air conditioning, sat down and ordered wine.

The owner told us that he was from San Diego and that his wife was from San Carlos and that they'd made a plan that when she completed culinary school they'd move back down here and open a place. Four years later, here they are. 

I ordered a Malbec for MLW and a Chardonnay for me - the only couple in the world in which she drinks red and he drinks white. I tried to make that joke with the waiter but it got lost in translation. They brought bread, sort of an empty calzone, and I sliced my finger open on the broken edge of the olive oil cruet. We decided to warn them about this imminent danger lest some litigious patron make a far bigger deal out of it than I intended to make. The sight of all that blood on my napkin prompted them to bring me a band-aid that I accepted gracefully. We had a nice chat with the owner about his business and how he had gained enough Mexican patrons to get him through the slow months of summer. We talked about eating late in Spain and Italy and about how Tapas would fail here because everyone thinks that "small plates" are Tacos. In short, it seemed like he was making it work with food that's not common regionally and significantly different than the common fare. And not relying solely on vacationers to make it work.

Dinner came - Osso Bucco for me and Chicken Piccata for MLW - and it was delicious. As good as anything Italian I've eating in the US. We gilded the lily with a Pannacotta served on a compote of raspberries and blueberries. A really nice dinner, we paid (in pesos to remove the question of exchange rate) and promised to come back.


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Ah, Mexico

October is beach time. Just about every year for the past 20 we've packed up the car for the long haul down south. Two days, roughly 11 hours and 762 miles. But it's always worth it if only to bob in the ocean and watch for those interesting little tidbits that make getting out on the road interesting.

Day One from Albuquerque to Tucson usually doesn't offer too much to get excited about. On this trip it was mostly about giant grasshoppers sitting idly on the pavement waiting to be run over. I suppose they might be better known as "locusts" as in Biblical plague locusts because they are really large, probably two or more times bigger than the cousins that eat my Zinnias. They sit there daring the traffic to run them over and I will admit that I try to avoid them as much as I can for no reason other than I hate uselessly killing things. I wonder how many meet their end under my wheels? 

Not so lucky and harder to dodge are the migrating butterflies. Thousands of little yellow and white ones that simply end up dead on my windshield and radiator. You could see them by the hordes flitting across the road on their way to whatever plant they favor and you could see the unlucky ones obscuring my vision as the sun began to fall below my visor. A big field of glowing bug innards making it harder and harder to see. It really became bad when we turned right at Deming and headed straight into the sun. Early into Arizona we picked up two state troopers cruising the the passing lane, a half car length apart, chatting on their cell phones. At precisely the speed limit. I fell in behind them and drove merrily along for a good ways, passing everyone too scared to chance a speeding ticket. At Benson, one exited and I went on with the other. Climbing the big hill out of the San Pedro valley I was glad to have a pilot car because I was nearly blind from the bug bodies. I drove by the only things I could see, the back of his SUV and the center line, and hoped that nothing untoward was going to happen because my reaction time would have been inadequate. We suffered along like that until the sun finally dipped below the mountains west of Tucson.

We started the Day Two with our grocery stop in Green Valley, my favorite Safeway in the world because of its dedicated gold cart parking. It's a funny place to shop, being a big retirement community everyone is very old and very slow and the employees are doubly considerate and happy. A glimpse into our futures I imagine. We left hundred or so dollars lighter with 4 iced coffees and food to last for a few days. 

There was no obvious sign of the government shutdown in Nogales at the border crossing, we were slowed down by four agents looking in cars. For some reason they were not very stern and almost friendly this time, unlike just about every crossing we've made in the past. No mad dog stares, no waving of automatic weapons and no warnings that it's illegal to import chicken pieces. We just crossed came around the bend and aimed towards the road to Hermosillo, nicely timing our exit behind a semi that obligingly crushed an orange traffic cone that was partially blocking my egress.

The drive into Mexico is both timeless and irritatingly always in flux. Rules change, toll booths move, stoppages evolve. We got through the first toll booth with no hassle, a decent cambio for the dollars I paid with and a cheery toll collector. We started our visit to the immigration office with a persistent guy in the parking lot who really wanted to deglaze my headlight covers so that I could see better. Dispensing with him we went inside and handed over our passports to a gal who was clearly a trainee. She initiated an international incident protocol when she found last February's visa still present in mine. This required a visit from the desk supervisor who lectured me on the requirement to return the visa each time we leave the country, something I've never been told. He didn't care to hear that. Apparently they're trying to put an end to the scam we've been running - lying about how long we're going to stay. We learned this a few visits ago - greater than 7 days means you pay (which I don't mind) at the bank which requires standing in line for who knows how long (which I do mind) behind other Americans asking all kinds of stupid questions (which I really, really mind.) So we always say "7 days," which is free, and go our merry way knowing that we'll just plead stupidity if we ever get caught. Now though, the specter of having to return it raises all kinds of problems like having to pay when it's discovered that we overstayed. Not to mention having to cut across traffic to find away back into the immigration office. We politely absorbed the lecture (including "This is the only time I will do this for you.") and went on. We'll see what happens next time we try to cross having not returned it. In the past we never followed the rules about turning in car permits because the whole system was based on carbon paper. Now they have computers which makes me long for the good old days of sitting in the office and watching the agent print the form by hand, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lip, the fan turning slowly overhead and flies beating the last of their lives against the window screens, the whole time waiting for, no craving the moment when he would decisively drag his seal across the ink pad and stamp the form with authority.

Now I'm thinking I'll just get indignant and claim that I did indeed return it. What's the worst that could happen?

The rest of the haul was little different than the drive through New Mexico - more locusts, less butterflies, ever increasing temperature, a new light on the Hermosillo bypass, signs worth translating and a lot of road work. Something they did to the new pavement in spots formed a weird harmonic with the Suburban, causing it to rhythmically bounce down the road. Not pleasant nor interesting, it was one of those things that felt good when it stopped.

Arriving early for a change, my unpacking was blocked  by some dumb American, from New Mexico no less, who parked his goofy camper-bus in the traffic circle in a way that not only prevented me from going around but forced me to drag our stuff up and across the lawn instead of wheeling it up the ramp. I'll admit I considered vandalizing the inside of his wide-open vehicle in some unsanitary way but my morals got the better of me. I worked grumbling instead.

The one thing we talk about, the thing that drives us on the closer we get, is our first dinner. Tradition holds that it's at Rosa's Cantina and that it's carne machaca, that wonderful Sonoran concoction of shredded beef, onions, peppers, potatoes and grease, served with a big pile of steaming tortillas. It's the number one thing that makes that 762 mile drive worth every boring minute. Sometimes if we're stuffed from eating our gourmet car-lunch, we'll have tortilla soup instead. The best in San Carlos and maybe the best anywhere. Either of those with a cold Negro Modelo makes even enduring a lecture from an officious immigration guy tolerable. So we tore into town marveling at the hundreds of Lesser Nighthawks dining al fresco on insects by the (suddenly working again) street lamps and looked down the road for the first glimpse of the neon out in front of our favorite place.

I knew we were in trouble the moment we passed our second favorite restaurant. The road up ahead was dark and that beacon to culinary bliss was unlit. As we drove by reality sunk in - Rosa's was closed. I made a u-turn when the opportunity was presented and went back down the frontage road pulling to a stop in front. A cheerful banner announced the situation - "Open on October 12th," in other words, the day we arrive back home. We glumly circled the block and went back to our second choice, and enjoyed a nice dinner of giant margaritas, fish grilled in garlic and in my case a fillet stuffed with crab and shrimp and covered in "Chihuahua Cheese." Quite good, but not carne machaca

 Our typical first day task after a walk and a swim involves heading into town to buy the things that have been stolen from the condo or those that we forgot. Today's main targets were a shower cap for MLW and a tub to wash dishes in. And kitchen matches because for some reason the auto lighter on the stove has died in the interim. The shower cap is always fun because it's one of those things that don't translate really well. One version, gorro de baño can be confused with a swimming cap. Another way of saying it gorro de la ducha doesn't sound really nice. We usually go with the former and have the latter held in reserve if our first choice doesn't work. But today it did, even spawning an opportunity to have a little Spanish lesson in the proper way to say it. 

The dish washing tub is another story altogether. Like China, it's not a common product due to local dish washing practices. When I was over there I had to improvise because the Chinese simply do not use a tub to soak or wash dishes. They block the sink and use this oddball dish drying rack that slides into the kitchen cabinets. Apparently their trans-Pacific cousins the Mexicans don't use them either because while plastic drying racks are available, the normally associated tub is not. Last time we ended up with a repurposed storage bin that for some unknown reason disappeared since our visit in February. Perhaps we sparked an epiphany and one of the maids said "What a great way to wash dishes" because our perfect solution was replaced with what seemed to be the ice cube tray from someone's cooler. We searched high and low but couldn't find what we wanted, almost settling for an insect gut green wheeled toy storage bin decorated with the characters from Toy Story. I couldn't bring myself to spend $10 on it so I insisted we check down the road at the other supermarket.

At this point I will admit that we were shopping at Walmart de Mexico. Only under the most exigent circumstances do we patronize them at home, but their store here is such an improvement over the other choices that we parked our aversion in the lot out front and started shopping there a couple of trips ago. Where else can one find a jar of pesto in Guaymas? Besides, given the recent revelations of their extensive use of bribery as a business tool, they seem worthy of our disdain as we ply their aisles, shopping under moral superiority while trying to help the local economy. Today though they let us down. 

Our last item on the list - matches - proved more challenging. I asked a couple of women working in the kitchen aisle almost reverting to Chinexican with a conflation that came out "Fosphoros zai na li" before catching myself. I finally got my brain in order and spoke only in Spanish. She thought about it and told me that they were on the other side of the store with the dry goods, which made decent inventory sense. So off we went hopeful yet with that nagging feeling that we'd been had by that old 3rd World ruse of just telling the foreigner something in order to get rid of them. Sure enough, our instincts were right and the matches were nowhere to be found. Not even with the Virgin de Guadalupe votive candles. We milled around for a few minutes before deciding to chuck it in when a young man went by pushing a dolly and dragging a broom. I decided to try once more, this time acing the question. He thought for a moment and nodded and sped off towards the food aisles. In a miracle of dutiful working and parallel processing, he continued to sweep the floor in front of us as he hurried me along. I was cross processing, trying to guess where we'd end up in and I'll admit I was surprised when we took a sharp right into the candy section. There they were, on the bottom shelf just below the Hershey's Kisses. But of course. 

The old standby supermercado, Leys, has improved no doubt due to the competition with Walmart. It was cleaner, it was brighter and the announcements were no longer in some dialect of Spanish that was totally indecipherable. In short, the new Leys made me think that they might be worthy of a second chance. We found a perfect dish washing tub in the laundry section (again, of course), a big bottle of Bacardi Anejo on sale, cheese flavored Ruffles potato chips and a nice green broom to replace the crappy one in our condo. It was a good detour made better by the old guy in the parking lot who directed my backing up with arm flourishes worthy of someone parking jet at an international airport.


Sunday, September 01, 2013

Some things require no words, Part Two
September 1, 2013

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Some things require no words.

June 14th, 2013

Friday, June 07, 2013

Analemmas and other things that keep us busy

When I quit my job, I went looking for fun projects to fill some time. Of course there are tons and tons of things to do associated with our house, my bikes, horses, dogs, gardens and whatever else. But one thing I really began to enjoy when I was living abroad was taking lots of photos. Living over there, and traveling back and forth offered many opportunities to stretch my creative legs, and to that end I took a few hundred more than 20,000 pictures during the 5 years I was on the road.

In 2007, while wasting some time in a business meeting I stumbled on photography website called pbase. Basically a large storehouse for amateur and professional photographers. I kept coming across the term "PaD" as in "My 2006 Pad Gallery." It took me a few minutes before the light bulb came on and I realized that it stood for "Photo a Day," or more specifically a collection of pictures taken every day for a year. I gave it a shot and took 365 pictures between July 2007 and June 2008, capturing people and places and things, pretty much all over the world. It was fun. For a while, at least until it became a real drudge, right around picture 304 when I was so close and yet so far from finishing. It certainly improved my eye for things, being forced to find something interesting will do that. But I was glad to take a break when it was done.

I began my second PaD about 2/3 into my stay in Dalian. My first shot was a snowy city scene outside my Kaifaqu apartment and my 366th was the same out my office window at home. A nice pair of bookends that included trips to Beijing, Shanghai, Datong, Yunnan, Tibet, Xian, home, Mexico and every airport in between. Again it was time for a break when I wrapped that one up.

By the time I completed that PaD of that one, I was fully unemployed, not going anywhere in particular and looking for things to do. I decided (we're now in the spring of 2011) to take a spot in my lovely village of Corrales and document it on a weekly basis for a year. We've all seen those stop action videos of flowers opening up and Soybeans breaking the soil in Nebraska, but I was interested in a more macro perspective - all the changes you might see walking past the same spot for a year. I chose a ditch bank up the street from my house and centered my experiment on flood gate, near a spot nicely surrounded by trees and bushes. The resulting video (all the individual photos patched together) captures a year, one second at a time:

Once that one was done I started another PaD, this time using only my iPhone and dozens of the myriad photography applications available in the iTunes Store. It was fun, and quite different than doing a PaD with a camera because first of all, I always had it with me and secondly, you can make some weird pictures with your phone. But like the others, it eventually became more of a drudge than a labor of love.

Last June I decided to shoot an Analemma, a multi-shot project that traces the path of the Sun through the sky. The word comes from the Greek ἀνάλημμα which translates as "pedestal of a sundial." Using conventional cameras, it is extremely difficult to do because it means leaving your camera hard-mounted outside somewhere and taking a photo 24-50  times on the same frame of film using a solar filter. It's been done a dozen or so times, the first by a gentleman named Dennis DiCicco between 1978 and 1979. When using film, the roll is developed at the end of the year and then printed on some interesting background that was not part of the original shot (Greek hills with temples on them are very popular choices.)

The advent of digital photography greatly simplified the project however, requiring only your willingness to dedicate a camera and tripod for a year, some time positioning the shot twice a month and a copy of Photoshop. The process I used was pretty simple - I began with a nice morning photo of my backyard with no sun in the frame of reference that would serve as my baseline. Then on the 6th and 21st of each month I went out, aligned the camera to the top of a fence post and the eave of my bike shop and took a picture at precisely 12:18:32 (I messed up and lost 18 minutes during my set-up for the first Sun picture.) From there, I loaded them into the computer, overlaid the latest photo on the baseline photo, carefully aligned my two reference points and cut the center out of the Sun and then pasted it "in place" onto the baseline and then deleted the now useless bi-monthly shot. The result after 28 photos and a year of work is this -

You can see a couple of interesting things here. The crossover does not take place on a significant date, like an Equinox or Solstice. The fact that one of the dates is My Lovely Wife's birthday (April 2) is probably cosmologically significant but how I am not sure. Another is the size of the upper and lower node. Because I live at latitude 35° North, the Sun is never directly overhead going no higher than 78°. At the Equator where the Sun reaches 90°, the Analemma would be directly overhead and equal between top and bottom. In the Southern Hemisphere, at my equivalent latitude, it would be the same shape but with the smaller node on the bottom. The difference in shape is due to the tilt of the Earth and how that affects our virtual position on the planet, relative to the Sun.

There are two components to the Earth's journey around the Sun that cause this Figure 8 to be formed. The first is the tilt of the Earth's axis (23.4 °) relative to the Sun and the second is the elliptical shape of our orbit. If the Earth stood straight up and down and orbited the Sun in a perfect circle, and you went out each day at noon and took a picture, the resulting Analemma would look like this -

 24 Suns superimposed on each other and honestly quite boring.

Now we all know that the Sun moves up and down the sky during the year, lower in the winter, close to overhead at the height of summer and this is due to the tilt. It's what changes the lengths of our days, gives us our seasons, creates temperate zones and allows for ice at the poles. As the Earth moves through its orbit, your position on the globe effectively changes and that is where we get Solstices and Equinoxes and all the variation in between. If the Earth orbited the Sun in a perfect circle but had its tilted axis, the resulting Analemma would look like this -

 The path of the Sun would be vertical from high to low, up and down from a central point.

The effect of the second component - orbit  - would not be as obvious if you simply went outside and looked at the Sun at noon everyday. In fact without a photo, you probably wouldn't notice it at all. This effect manifests itself in a difference in the Sun's position relative to the time on your watch - instead of being in the same place, it's going to be a bit further ahead or behind due to the Earth moving more quickly through the pointy ends of its elliptical journey. Three photos during the year  from an Earth without a tilted axis but with an elliptical orbit would look like this -

The Sun would lag or shoot out ahead of a centered point depending on where the Earth happened to be in its yearly trek through outer space.

But because we are blessed with both components, we end up with a habitable planet and a cool shape in the sky if we take the time to capture it.
The work was pretty interesting in the end. In addition to the lesson in celestial mechanics, I also learned something that I think I already knew - New Mexico has some pretty nice weather. Of all the photos I took, only a few had cloudy skies. And even then, they were not cloudy enough to stop my progress. Here are the raw shots presented in a grid -

And as a added bonus, I was able to create a video like the one I did above of the seasons. It shows trusty Sol making his way up and down and around, this year, next year and for the rest of the time he hangs in the sky. 

Friday, May 03, 2013

One last gallery - The Horses of the Feria de Abril

Sevilla's Feria de Abril presented us with countless opportunities to admire and photograph horses. While everyone knows we're involved in the equine business, it often seems that their spirits follow us everywhere we go. From the immeasurable impact of horse cultures on the historical sites of China, to the Ming Dynasty Appaloosa horse in the Forbidden City to the Irish National Stud to the horse parade we stumbled into on our first morning in Barcelona - they always see to be around. This gallery reflects our favorites from this trip, just a sampling of the 100s of photos we took, all of which were special in their own way.

Please click on the  link below to visit the gallery -

Caballos De Sevilla 


May 3rd: The journey home and a bit of reflection

The biggest problem with every journey is the trip home, particularly when that trip requires 22 hours of being awake in airports and planes. There is nothing about that prospect that rings attractive.
I had a text message from Juan, the customer contact for the rental company we use in Madrid. We had planned on meeting at 10:30 on the morning of our departure, the kind of thing that I, the Nervous Traveler always worries about. “He’s going to be late,” “There won’t be a taxi,” “We’ll miss our flight,” “The traffic will be bad because of the rain,” - all things that drive me batty and yet have never happened. Well, in an unusual case of positive travel serendipity, Juan had too many things scheduled on Tuesday morning and so was hoping that he could come by and return our deposit early. In other words an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Tuesday morning broke partly cloudy and dry – another worry out the window. We packed up and left, bouncing our suitcases down the cobbled street towards Opera Square and the taxi stand. Stopping first at ABC News for the Herald Tribune and Times of London, we hailed the first guy in line and told him “Barajas” and climbed in. He asked about terminals and I honestly didn’t remember so I said, “International, American Airlines” and off we went. The drive was traffic free and fine until exited the highway and passed a sign listing airlines, non of which were American. Pulling up at a terminal I’d not seen before, I paid and we went in and were faced with the Aeroflot counter. Wrong nationality, wrong airline. We asked a girl at the Iberian help desk where we were and she said, “Go outside and catch the transit bus to Terminal 4.” This, is why I like to go to the airport early.
The bus ride was quick and uneventful and took no more than 10 minutes. Checking in was another story, receiving a grilling like we’ve never had before. Along with the “Have these been in your possession” and “Did anyone give you something” standards, I was asked how long I’ve owned the suitcases. On to security where I developed a fun relationship bantering about my watch and belt with the young woman at the start of the x-ray machine and had a nice conversation about the Corte Ingles store chain with the gent on the other (he having seen the green store stickers I’d stuck on my laptop) as he admonished me for trying to sneak my iPad through in my bag. We passed and killed the remaining time in the Lounge.
Our flight was pretty easy and uneventful and comfortable, much more so than the trip over when we were surrounded by the binge eating Korean grandparents. One odd thing, two guys in the front of our cabin, one young (30s) and one older, perhaps his father. When the young one would get up to use the lav, the old one would stand outside the door and talk to him through it. Like most airplane bathroom experiences, this one took a long time and the other passengers didn’t even bother queuing up once they realized this was an event. Why the flight attendants didn’t do something about this, is beyond me. They just closed their curtains and made themselves unavailable.
There is something about planes and bathrooms and people that continues to elude me. Why do people take 15 minutes in there? It never fails, every time I get up I stand there forever. Once on this flight I decided to stand and wait and so made my way to the galley. There was a woman already waiting and upon seeing me, she inched even closer to the door as though I was trying to cut her off. I stood there for a couple of minutes (again, why so long?) and looked at the door on the other lav and it was vacant. So the antsy woman was standing there waiting for nothing so I waved her over and she gave me an embarrassed “Thank you.” I returned to waiting and finally the door opened and Mr. Seasoned Business Traveler stepped out. I’d noticed him earlier in ticketing – black t-shirt, crisp slacks, blue blazer, tassel loafers – the Guy I Had Seen a Thousand Times Before. He opened the door and proceeded to stand in the opening. I said “Excuse me” and he replied “I can’t get into my seat yet.” Apparently he couldn’t move 6 inches to the left either.
The sort of good but not so great news was that the flight was getting in a full hour early. This is great if you’re flying home, but not so wonderful if you’re now faced with an additional hour of sitting around waiting for your connection. We landed, got off the plane first and headed down to the immigration hall. Coming around the corner, our free hour evaporated – the place was packed. Perhaps 2000 people on both the US Citizen and Foreign Nationals sides. So many people that the line was outside the ropes. While it moved, it was interminable – a full hour from start to check, probably one of the longest waits I’d ever had. The Sequester, or maybe just too many planes in from Cancun at the same time. I don’t know, but the only saving grace was that the air-conditioning was on “high.” We  made it out and went downstairs to the exit through Customs and the same line repeated itself. In the end it was a full two hours from plane to the security re-check. That extra hour had turned into a nice buffer. We were left with only an hour so we had a coffee, sat for a bit in the Admirals Club and got on the plane for home.
This turned out to be a truly perfect trip. It started out with worries about the heat in Sevilla, but we made that work, focusing our touristing on the mornings and the evenings. The weather in Madrid was iffy, but it really only rained hard on us the final day. The sights were wonderful, among the best things we’ve ever visited including Córdoba’s exquisite and incredible Mezquita. And how could it have been better than accidentally stumbling into the Feria de Abril, Sevilla’s annual horse fair? Between the beautiful women in Flamenco dress and the horses in the streets every day, I can’t imagine a more perfect moment for us to have been there. We had the best tapas we’ve ever eaten, finally saw some wonderful Flamenco and had a few nice day trips including Toledo where we got to see the things we missed last time around. Both our apartments were nice and worked out well, in spite of that internet problem in Sevilla. Not a bad problem to have I suppose.
For us, every trip falls under the heading of “The journey is the thing.” For this trip, we added a new one “La vida es mejor in las sombras,” or “Life is better in the shadows,” dedicated to trying to stay cool by walking on the shadowy side of the street while roaming around in Sevilla. But at a higher level, it really is about the journey and more importantly the people we meet along the way. It started with Manuel in the cathedral in Sevilla’s working class Triana district. A pensioner who spends his days chatting up visitors with his incredible wealth of information about he history of his parish. He clearly liked visiting with us, having a bit of Spanish, a lot of knowledge and an unbridled curiosity. He asked where we were from and pronounced My Lovely Wife being pure Andalusian due to her height, blond hair and blue eyes. He was a great guy and we loved our time with him.
Next was the great conversation we had with the French shop owner about the noisy streets. What a great guy, conversing in perfectly French-accented English and loving my stories about the maddening fireworks in China. Purely Gallic, working in the shop for the love of his woman and taking an ironic posture on how it drives him crazy, but such is life.
Lastly, the friend we made at Elmandela, the African restaurant down the block from our place in Madrid. Jose the consummately professional waiter, the perfect mix of solicitous and friendly, the guy who I watched step outside for a cigarette in the rain and smoke it in one giant inhale. He was fantastic. And Aba, the fellow from Mali who was so kind, and so pleasant and so very emotional about the state of his homeland. Two great guys, we’d never had met were it not making the mistake of trying to order the menu of the day at 9 o’clock at night.
Why do we travel? We do it for the head-clearing and the sights. We do it to extend ourselves in another language and to see how other people live. We do it for photographs and we do it for food. We do it to absorb our common history. But mostly we do it for the people, because those little ephemeral connections are what makes it so wonderful.
I’m including one photo from each day of the trip below that is emblematic of what we did, what we saw and how we were feeling -

April 16th, Puerta de Atocha Station, Madrid. Waiting for the train to Sevilla


April 17th, Court of the Damsels, Real Alcazar, Sevilla


April 18th, Feria de Abril grounds, driver tending to his mules


April 19th, We find the only Appaloosa in Spain


April 20th, The Fodor’s Neighborhood Walk, Barrio Santa Cruz, Sevilla


April 21st, Plaza Espana, Sevilla


April 22nd, The Mezquita, Córdoba


April 23rd, Italica, Santiponce


April 24th, Our last day in Sevilla, carriages lined up in front of the Cathedral


April 25th, My Lovely Wife rewarding her favorite street performer, Plaza Mayor, Madrid


April 26th,The mysterious suspended monks, Madrid


April 27th, Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, Toldeo


April 28th, Music at Elmandela restaurant, Madrid


April 29th, The Royal Lettuce Collection


April 30th, Gate S47, Madrid Barajas Airport


Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29th: Lightning Strikes Twice

The weather hadn't improved when dinner time rolled around. We left our place and combed the neighborhood for somewhere to eat, but the menus just weren't thrilling and it was only 8:30 and all the places were empty. Even though it was raining cats and dogs, I just couldn't bear the shame of being the first couple in the place. So we left our barrio and crossed the street into the tourist land at Plaza Mayor.

While the outside tables were set up, and covered with umbrellas, there were no patrons – it was just too cold. As we walked around the outer portico checking menus, a short waiter tried to get us into his place, but it looked like the worst diner on the worst day of the year so we went on. We stopped at the first main gate and read the menu for a place halfway down a set of slippery stairs. I told My Lovely Wife to wait at the top – no reason to climb if the menus stunk. I liked to looks of one of them but when I got to the bottom of the stairs, they were not yet open. But I noticed another, with the really unappealing name of “Kitchen Stories.” They had a “best sellers” list written on a chalkboard out front and one of their specials was Duck Cannelloni. Now how could a place with anything Duck be bad? I motioned to My Lovely Wife to come down the stairs. She wasn't sold but I applied what was left of my rain-soaked charm and she consented. We went in and grabbed a table.

What resulted of that soggy decision was the best meal I've had in Spain. She monopolized the Cannelloni and I went with the Magret de Pato, a Madrileño riff on that tapa I’d left behind in Sevilla so many days ago. Rare duck breast with sauteed vegetables and a little pile of caramelized onions – who could ask for more?

A couple of glasses of wine, a superb dinner, a nice conversation with the owner about the various aspects of New Mexico chiles and we had the best possible last night dinner imaginable. Given the weather, the nature of the places we had to choose from, nothing suggested that we’d end up wishing our meal would never end. The owner topped us off with a couple of flutes of some sort of red Ouzo and we were on our way back into the rain after double cheek kissing her on the way out the door.

Much like our trip to the gardens and the wonder of vegetables, tonight’s dinner was one of those grand experiences you don’t expect. We might have had just another set of boring tapas with a tourist hating waiter. Instead we had a wonderful meal, some great conversation and the best end to a great trip.

Throughout these last two weeks, we’ve toasted each dinner with the same words “El Viaje es la Cosa.” The Journey is the Thing. And it is, undoubtedly.

April 29th: The Royal Vegetable Collection

It took us three attempts to get to the Royal Botanic Gardens today. This was the first bad day of weather on the trip, bad in the sense that it was cold, windy and raining pretty hard. Our first time out, we made it as far as the Corte Ingles on Calle Arenal (~.5 miles) before it just became too wet. So we browsed their bookstore and stopped for coffee before returning home.

After sitting around for a bit and looking out the window, it seemed like it might be letting up little bit so we left again, this time heading across and out of Plaza Mayor (~.5 miles) before the wind and rain really kicked in and we called the journey due to weather a second time. Three-fourths of the way back to the house we decided to wait out the weather over lunch and stopped by one of the places that had relegated us to their basement last year for being too early for dinner. We were seated in a pretty fancy dining room, one way more deserving that the bocadillos we wanted so when it came time to order we were told that bocadillos are only offered in the bar. The 8x10’ bar that luckily had two stools available. We sat and ate and were entertained by a large tour group that managed to cram itself into the bar with us. I asked the bartender if this was typical and she told me that they handle three large tours every afternoon, with each allowed one hour to eat. The bar improved when the group was kicked downstairs to the basement.

The sun came out just as we were polishing off a slice of Ponche at the Mercado so we made our third attempt and actually made it to the gardens before the rain started again. In for a penny as we always say, we paid and went in and spent an hour roaming around in the drizzle looking at the myriad plants and trees. One of the guidebooks called it a “tree museum” and they were right. There was even a stand of Sequoia, but the highlight was the vegetable garden. Imagine spending a year practicing another language and then flying a quarter of the way around the world, walking for an hour in unsettled weather and then being wowed by a great collection of Cabbage, Beets, Carrots, Artichokes, Broccoli and Lettuce. Next door to the Prado no less. I had my iPhone out to do on the spot translations as we circled the beds oooing and aahing and taking pictures of the incredible specimens.

By now though it was really starting to come down, we had the umbrellas out and it was time to go. We crossed the Paseo del Prado and picked a street that headed up the hill through the Las Huertas neighborhood, one of our favorites. By the time we were home, the sun was out again and the showers had stopped.

Today’s Travel Lesson of the Day – excitement and wonder are often just where you never expected to find them.

Center Lane, Royal Botanic Garden.






Weeping miniature Rose Tree




Lettuce and Kale






Test your Spanish on this useful guide


Pink flowering something or other


My Lovely Wife and the Wisteria she will never have


Did you see a guy run out of here with a bag?


Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 28th: Why we travel, part eleventy.

We spent the better part of Sunday trying to figure out the washing machine. Before that though we took a hike to El Rastro, Europe’s largest flea market. But before that, we had to figure out how to get across Calle Mayor without disrupting the Madrid Marathon. It turned out to be a day of this and that, a mishmash of interesting stuff.

We awoke to the sounds of helicopters go hovering overhead and figured it was just another demonstration. Only when we walked up the street did we discover that we were on the route of the marathon. Trying to get across through a never ending stream of runners was tough, but we finally found a window and scooted through the throng, hopefully without disrupting anyone’s pace. We popped into Mercado San Miguel of the off chance of finding some coffee but the bar was three deep and frankly I burned up all my interest in jostling during my years in China. We left and headed downhill to the flea market and spent the next couple of hours roaming up and down without buying. It was a great place for early morning people watching but none of the wares were appealing today. I already have enough Palestina scarves to last a lifetime and nothing else was jumping out at us. We headed back up to the Plaza Mayor and took a spin through the Sunday coin and stamp market before stopping in a local place for chocolate and churros. It’s interesting how each chocolateria produces a different product. Sometimes it’s thick like pudding, other times thinner and sweet. This time it was on the thin side but it retained that dark chocolate flavor, it ranked among the best we’ve had.

The afternoon was devoted (once again) to trying to make the washing machine work. I did one load that came out okay, but got sucked into an multi-hour slugfest when I tried to re-wash some clothes I did the other day, that came out smelling like soap. I finally figured out where the soap was supposed to go, and ran a cycle or two but the result was the same – the rinse water was foamy as heck. I finally gave up after I got it down to being mostly water, spun them out and put them on the rack to dry. Thankfully it was the last load of the trip.

Later in the afternoon we went out for a walk on Calle Arenal, stopping in some shoe stores and an electronics place that was like Best Buy squared. There was a live concert going on in the foyer that was being loudly broadcast throughout the store. We shopped cameras a bit, checked out the various Nespresso offerings and then went back out and down the street to the Corte Ingles bookstore where My Lovely Wife bought an English language book to get her through the trip home. By then it was time for dinner so we decided to reprise the other night and eat at Elmandela, the African place down the block.

Our pals from the other night, Jose and Aba were surprised and glad to see us and we got the same window table as last time. I opted for a big beer from Cameroon figuring I’d stay in style. My Lovely Wife, vino tinto de la casa. There were a few locals in the place eating tapas and drinking tea, and a few more guests arrived while we waited for our food. I had a chicked stew with plantains and vegetables that I topped with a few scoops of the same screamingly hot chile sauce I’d had on my peanut stew the other night. My Lovely Wife had grilled fish, West African style that arrived on a bed of fried plantains, head and all. We dug in and were not disappointed, the food was excellent. Jose had Aba bring a wine bucket to keep my beer cold and her continuously filled my glass, the bottle delicately wrapped in a white napkin as though it was the best bottle of white Rioja in the house. We visited a bit with Aba, talking about the weather which had taken an unfortunately cold turn during the day.

A couple of young men carrying instruments wandered in while we were eating. Aba told us that they were the floor show, two musicians from Guinea. They set up and started to play forlorn songs from their homeland, one on an instrument built from a large pumpkin called a Kora and the other doing percussion on a half a gourd and a tiny symbol. What a really nice and unexpected treat. The place continued to fill up with more people from the neighborhood, all of whom knew each other. We listened and shared a piece of chocolate cake and sampled some coffee liquor the Aba had brought by. It was getting pretty loud and crowded and late so we asked for the check and bid our adieus, telling Aba and Jose that we would return next year. They were both very glad we’d come by and wished us safe travels. As we left I went over to the musicians, now on break, told them I’d enjoyed their music and slipped the singer a 10.

What a great night – food, music, some fleeting friendship. Yet another “why we travel” moment from a simple dinner and a restaurant chosen for no reason other than I liked their menu a year ago.





April 27th: Dinner among the Proletariat, desert among the Bourgeoisie

I’ll admit that this waiting around until later than 9 PM for dinner is a bit annoying. The Mali fellow at the African restaurant told me that they sometimes stay open until 3 or 4 in the morning for dinner guests. This makes me wonder how this country functions because I’d be of no use at work if I was out drinking and eating until 4 every night.

After lying around and recovering from our day of hiking in Toledo, we decided to go out for dinner. It was 8:30 and so we’d at least be hunting and gathering at a more socially acceptable time. On the walk over to Plaza Mayor, My Lovely Wife hit on a brilliant idea – let’s act like Spaniards and go eat tapas instead of dinner. That’s what they were all doing, and we could pretend we are like they are, only we wouldn’t be going out to dinner at 11 after we finished the tapas. I suggested one of the places we’d eaten last year, the one where we were relegated to the basement when we’d incorrectly answered the Test Question, “Dinner or Tapas” with “dinner.” The place was open but there wasn’t a soul inside, and even if we’re pretending to be tapas eaters, I am not about to be the first person in the restaurant and face that shame. So I a pivot and said, “Let’s try that place over there,” a working class hole in the wall jammed with locals.

We went in and took the last table. I ordered potatoes with garlic and mayonnaise, grilled mushrooms and mixed croquettes. Two glassed of vino tinto de la casa turned out to be served in little half juice glasses. The Real Madrid fútbol game was on the wide screen and a Spanish family to our left was yelling and arguing and slapping each other on the back. What a really nice change from all the places we’ve eaten over the last week. If this had been the states, there would have been a bowling alley out back. It was great. The food came, it was tasty and the din only died down a bit when the family shuffled off to a room in the back. Sitting there I could have imagined myself in any town in Spain in the 1930s, stopping in for a bit and a cup after a long day working on the railroad.

We spent the next part of the evening at the other end of the spectrum, the Mercado San Miguel. Formerly a neighborhood market, it’s been gentrified into an upscale “stand up and eat” place frequented by people who want to be seen. We’ve tried a couple of times to eat there but it is such chaos and truly you have to stake out a seat at 3PM and hold it if you want to sit and eat at 10. I found us a square foot at the wine bar, ordered two glasses which came in stemware, a distant echo of the place where we’d just had dinner. Leaving My Lovely Wife there, I went off and bought two slices of ponche, and brought them back. A couple next to us apparently felt infringed upon because they made a lot of noises and gestures and the big shiny headed husband of the two eventually inched his way in front of me, taking up room for three. I guessed that they didn’t understand the concept of European Socialism. But it didn’t matter, we ate our desert, drank our wine and watched the young women who were doing neither, hogging the prime seats while hoping a disowned Spanish prince would come along and take them away from it all.






April 27th: Adventures in Toledo

My shins are killing me today, the legacy that is Toledo, that wonderful, maddening, beautiful former citadel of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The city sits on a knob in bend of the Río Tajo, about 30 minutes SW of Madrid. It’s an easy train ride and while a short walk into town from the station, the smart ones pay the 4€ cab fare and save their legs for the climbing inside the town, not up to it. You ask to be dropped off at Plaza Zocodover and grab a bite to eat. Or just march off into the warrens.

We began our day walking our street which was mysteriously covered in chicken feathers as though the bar crowd had held a light night pillow fight. Across Plaza Mayor and then hiking down Calle Atocha to the train station, we stopped along the way for a couple of Americanos (hot) and a napolitano. It was cold, probably 20 degrees lower than what we’d been used to in Sevilla, and the wind was blowing up the street into our faces, making it feel far more like November than the end of April. I had chosen the wrong jacket, figuring I’d walk myself into warmth but that was a misguided expectation so the first thing I did at Atocha Station was buy a scarf. You might think that you’d pay more in such a transportation hub where most of the goods are aimed at fathers who forgot to buy something for their kids on their business trip. But the scarves were the standard 1 for 3€, 2 for 5€ you see everywhere in town, including the El Rastro flea market. Apparently there is a Scarf Cartel that keeps prices fixed and thus promotes equality among sellers. I chose a nice multicolored striped one from India and put it on.

The train left on time with us on it (my kiosk ticket purchase having been successful) and off we went for our second trip down this line. On our last visit we’d tried to hit the high spots – Cathedral, Church of San Juan of Los Reyes and the wonderful little Mezquita that sits tucked away quietly in a far corner of the town. In doing so we’d missed the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, an oversight that I came to realize by eavesdropping on the photos of the girl sitting in front of me on the return train. My sole purpose for coming back was to visit this little gem.

Toledo has a long and storied history, beginning first with the Romans who used the strategically defensible site as a transportation hub. The beginning of the Jewish history are here, relocated from Italy proper to the hinterlands to act as managers and merchants. The Visigoths filled the void after the fall of Rome and in 711 they were supplanted by the Moors, who held out until 1085 when Toledo was one of the first cities to fall to the Reconquista. Many of the Moorish craftsman remained behind and they work imparted a very heavy influence on the architecture. Of all the cities we’ve visited in Spain, Toledo by far looks the most exotic. Toledo was considered the cultural and spiritual capital of Spain until Philip II moved the capital to Madrid. Some say it was a matter of geography, Madrid being easier to reach, more central and more amenable to expansion. Others say it was Philip’s desire to draw a strong line between the spiritual and the governmental. In either, Toledo fell asleep until the 19th century and the era of the Grand Tours of Europe.

Following our own advice we hied ahead of he train crowd and grabbed the first cab in line. I asked about the weather – it was threatening – and the driver launched into a long tale of which I got about 10%, most notably that it was typically over 100° in the summer and that even if it did rain we were better off being here today. I stopped at the tourist information booth and grabbed a map, knowing full well that it was by and large a waste of time because Toledo is the unmappable city. There are so many streets, sub-streets, passageways, nooks, crannies, deadends and lanes that any map that include them all would either be unreadable or 5 feet square. As I’ve said in the past, maps in these old cities are basically nothing more than guidelines and that adage is brought to full fruit here. The best you can do is count intersections and hope for the best. Even asking for directions from shopkeepers is a waste of time.

Given our location, we headed off in the direction of the Mezquita del Cristo de la Cruz, the finest remnant of the 10 mosques in the city. Dating from the 10th century, it was converted into a church in 1187 following the Reconquista and its name purportedly refers to the Cid’s horse which upon entering the city, knelt down in front of the building in honor of a Christ that was hidden in a wall and illuminated by a lamp (de la Luz.) I suppose to most people it would be an afterthought, but I think it’s very special. Tiny, sacred and abutting a garden that sits alongside a section of the city wall that offers a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. The inside is divided into 9 squares, each with a unique dome held above by four columns and four double arches, very similar to its much grander cousin in Córdoba from which it took its inspiration. Like that, it’s columns and capitals are largely reused Visigothic materials. To one side is a semi-circular apse added when the building was converted. The as yet unrestored remains of 13th, 14th and 15th century frescoes illuminate the dome of the apse. It’s a fine little place and worthy of the horrible climb up necessary to get back into the center of the old city.

The Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz


Our next goal was on the far end of town so we did the struggle up and walk down and check the map routine, stopping here and there to admire some little square or the face of some ancient building. Much of what it old in Toledo remains, repurposed for apartments or homes or shops. The Islamic and Mudejar styles predominate and every once in a while you find a house on a side lane that was probably one of the other 10 mosques, never restored. We stopped to admire a shop offering the traditional gold and steel work that Toledo is known for. I had passed on purchasing one of the little black and gold plates that are emblematic of the work of these craftsmen and have regretted it since. They’re expensive, not so much as the broadswords also for sale, but costly. But this time I decided I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice and bought one featuring little birds in a garden scene. It helped that the proprietor, a very nice elderly gentleman, came outside and chatted me up while inviting me into his shop. He let me use the loupe on his workbench to admire the details of his work and produced a certificate that guaranteed the quality of the gold. One more of those little fun interactions with real people.

Back on the road and heading towards the Sinagoga, the maps again presented an interesting representation of the real world. We ended up zeroing in on it by going in every shrinking circles until, after one more corner we found the entrance. I remembered it from last year and our decision to skip it, because we were caught in a rain shower and decided to keep moving until we got into the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes that was just up the street. A young woman in a black suit with multiple facial piercings pointed out the fact that we’d overlooked the ticket office, through no fault of our own. The outside was pretty simple and not enhanced by the fact that it was mostly covered with scaffolding and construction scrims but once inside, I was glad I’d made the effort to return. What a gorgeous place.

Built sometime between 1200 and 1280, this was once the main synagogue for Toledo’s Jewish Quarter. Despite its obvious Islamic style, it is one of the few religious buildings in Toledo that was never a mosque, commissioned by the town Rabbi, built by Mudejar craftsmen and converted to a church in 1492 following the expulsion of the Jews, it only served two faiths during its history.

As you enter, you’re faced with 4 long rows of white columns, capped with carved stone capitols depicting pine cones (a Middle Eastern traditional element representing the unity of the People of Israel) which in turn support horseshoe shaped arches. Above them, another series of wooden arches supports the beams of the roof. At the end of each row is a small apse, topped with either a dome or a half dome in the form of a seashell. While not as shocking as the Mezquita in Córdoba, this one was ever bit as powerful in promoting a true sense of contemplation, again achieved through the beauty of the pieces and parts, not a bleeding saint. Just wandering around made me glad I’d taken the time and effort to amend my miss from our last time here.

Interior of the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca.


Now it was time for lunch, and like all lunches here finding the right place to eat is an effort in intimidation and indecision. This place being one of Spain’s premier tourist traps, even the tapas places were grossly overpriced. Just a simple lunch was going to run into the $50 range, or twice as much as what you’d pay for the same in Madrid or Sevilla. The options were weird too, either fancy restaurants with linens and wine glasses already on the tables or garish tourist joints with photographs of every meal plastered to the front. I’ll admit it, I don’t do well with these kinds of options, preferring to find something a bit more authentic but not so much so that the patrons all stop talking when you come in. So after passing on a few choices we decided to head downhill (since that was the way we eventually needed to go) and to try and escape the traps along the main thoroughfare. We finally settled on a little, not too busy place next to the El Greco museum and ordered Americanos and a lomo (sliced pork) bocadillo (sandwich.) It came fast and as the waiter arrived, he sort of yelled at My Lovely Wife “please, please, please” and grabbed he menu out of her hands, replacing it in its cradle on the table. We couldn’t quite figure out what that was about but at least we didn’t have to take it personally when he did it to the guy at the next table. We ate, paid and left deciding to head back into the tourist frenzy for desert, which here could only be Marzipan, Toledo’s tasty almond treat. Again faced with the same restaurant dilemma (most of the sweets shops were mobbed) we stopped to look in the window of a small shop. The owner stuck his head out, said “5€ for a sampler,” I said “deal” and we were once again on our way with marzipan para llevar (to go.) It turned out to be a nice little box with a dozen pieces in the shapes of snails, apples and loaves of bread.

We were now on the downside of our trip and with an hour and a half left we turned right, taking the next lane downward and towards the river. I had one last place that I wanted to see, the Puente de Alcántara, an old Roman bridge protected by a gate that was one of the first in the original city walls and the original entrance for religious pilgrims. Last year, we had come down the hill on the other side of town and started walking towards the area only to become discouraged by not really knowing how far we had to go. We hailed a taxi a very short (and embarrassing) distance from the train station and I was very disappointed to see that we’d given up just a bit too soon. So I made a solemn commitment to see these last sights this time around.

Our map showed an intriguing route, a combination bike path/hiking trail that ran along the river so we angled downwards figuring it would be a nice respite from climbing and descending on cobblestones. We found the remains of some ancient baths, either Roman or Moorish, on the banks of the river but unfortunately the informational signs were completely obliterated by graffiti. Continuing on, we opted to continue downhill in hopes of finding the hiking path. At the end of the paved rode, we found it, a nice hard dirt track that took off past an old mill and through a picnic ground. It was nice to be on dirt for the first time in weeks, having the kind of walk we have at home. The river was rushing by, birds were singing in the trees, fisherman were trying to catch lunch. Poppies and daisies in full bloom rose up to the base of the old city walls that towered above us. Every once in a while we’d come upon some old structure, a defensive tower or gate, sticking out of the side of the hill. We went on like this for perhaps a half mile until we reached a little paved square at the base of a steep cobbled lane that climbed back up into the city center. Our path ended.

Having a look at the map, the green line we’d been walking along was supposed to continue on, perhaps all the way the train station, but from here there was no way out. Our way was blocked by a house and a gated set of stairs that led down into the water. Our only option was to climb, one…more…time, back up until we found another route. So we did and after a short bit and a few dozen stairs we discovered the Ruta de Don Quixote, the path we should have been on in the first place. We’d been fooled when presented with the dirt path back by the baths, and the joker who created this map didn’t see anything wrong with drawing a green belt that was continuous when in fact it was broken in half. This path wasn’t dirt, but it had all the other amenities we’d just had – birds, flowers, trees and the sound of the river. We followed it until we hit the bridge, saw the gate, took some photos and went off in search of coffee before our train ride home.

Puente de Alcántara.


For more photos, please click on the  link below to visit the gallery -
Toledo Photo Gallery