Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Sunday Market

Empalme is a little town on the southern side of Guaymas where we often go looking for birds. I remember the first time I heard its name which by the sound of it had to be something exotic, like “rest in the shade of a coconut palm while soft tropical breezes cool your fevered brow.” Or “place where the Aztecs came to worship the sea gods.” Well, you can imagine the letdown I had when I actually went and translated the term and came up with “train junction.” It’s only fair, since trains and the train yard represent the main thing you see when you drive through town, starting with the giant parked train at the far side of the causeway and the line that crosses MX15 where I’ve almost been crushed on a couple of occasions. Trains are what Empalme is all about.
Although as a little city, it’s kind of nice –  neighborhoods made up of tiny houses in bright colors, their bare dirt front yards trimly kept with a couple of potted plants and maybe a lemon tree or two. Many of the roads are paved, and a lot of them are not. There is no lack of stray dogs of the variety Canus Mexicanus, plain brown with skinny bodies, pointed ears and black points, a living representation of what happens when random dogs are crossbred back to the point where they represent their hunting dog ancestors that roamed the African plains 8 million years ago. We used to drive the back roads of Empalme on our return from the town dump, a seemingly endless stretch of garbage flanking the road from San Jose de Guaymas and the one guaranteed place to find Cattle Egrets in their natural habitat, neck deep in torn plastic garbage bags. Another modern example of an African species normally found picking ticks off Water Buffalo.
Today though birds were not on the agenda, rather it was time to acquaint ourselves with the little known but locally famous Empalme Sunday Market. We’d been told about by our Canadian friends who spend months down here in the winter, looking for things like this. The directions were general, “drive across the causeway, turn left at the train and start looking to the right until you see a lot of people and cars. Park and go in.” Well, as it often turns out the truth of it is both accurate and wildly off. We followed the route to the letter, did see a lot of cars and people and then struggled mightily for a place to park our oversized car, finally finding a spot many blocks away in front of a combination bicycle store, pirate CD shop that was blasting Norteña as I pulled in to the curb. You never know if the car will be there when you come back, based on whether parking is allowed. Yellow curbs clearly mean “no” but white ones are hard to tell since they’re not often white. I got in close and locked it up. Looking around for a landmark that would lead us back, we figured the two story purple Santa Fe Supermercado tower would do just fine.
From the looks of it, the market knows no bounds. People had set up small booths selling all kinds of things from Bibles to clothes to baseball mitts on just about every clear inch of sidewalk. Restaurants spilled out of their confines too, with plastic tables and chairs and big grills under white tents taking up the rest of the available parking. Music was playing in a conflicting cacophony from just about every direction, and the smell of grilling beef and sewer added to the authenticity. Every sense was being employed, including the one that prevents one from stepping off some missing piece of the raised sidewalk and taking a header into the street. It looks as though the typical Sunday in Empalme involves going to church and then sitting down a favorite street-side temporary restaurant for a breakfast of asada tacos and freshly squeezed orange juice. Not terribly different than Sunday morning in the back streets of Sevilla although that involved a lot more beer, women in high heels and men with white Tommy Hillfiger sweaters tied around their necks.
Crossing the main drag, we went up a street choked with pickup trucks and blocked by three bright red ambulances, their purpose not readily clear. From here the layout of the market was clear – a long narrow lane with tents on each side, along a wall that seemed to delineate some sort of public space, judging from the bronze busts of Mexican heroes that appeared about every 25 meters. I’ll mention at this point that we’ve been to some interesting markets in our day, from the superb Panjiayaun Market in Beijing to the largest in Europe, El Rastro, our all-time favorite. This one was quite a bit downscale, a crazy three-way combination of food court, swap meet and used furniture. While all three of these markets offered endless amounts of used clothing, this one came up short in the area of antiquities and art. And like all of them, it was mobbed and the navigation was hampered by people stopping to visit in the middle of the flow, not quite getting the idea that it only works if you keep moving. Not nearly the crush of El Rastro, but plenty crowded in its own right and lacking all the chain smokers.
Deciding go up one way and down the back, we took a right turn and waded into the crowd. Much like the stalls out on the street, just about everything you could imagine was on display. Bicycles, a meat slicer from a deli, a power washer. On the left, a typical Sonoran cowboy was using a microphone to invite shoppers to purchase something from his table of 8GB thumb drives, no doubt straight off the counterfeit ship from China. ”Memoria, memoria” was his refrain, interjecting some technical lingo every once in a while.
Moving along, we walked slowly past the food tents where every manner of fried thing was on offer, including chichiarrones the size of knit leg warmers. Up ahead we spotted something we had to have – churros – being freshly cooked in a small stand. We got in line and watched as the cooker turned the capstan on the back of a cylinder, perhaps 4 inches in diameter, and full of dough, dispensing little three inch segments, sliced off with his spatula, into a big stainless steel cauldron of clear, fresh and very hot oil. He’d let them boil for 30 seconds or so before scooping up a big pile and tossing it into a glass enclosed box where his wife would roll them in sugar and serve them up in white paper lunch bags. He asked me what I wanted and I said “an order.” He replied “20 or 50 peso order” and figuring that even I have a limit to how much hot fresh fried dough I can eat, answered “20.”
“20 dollars or 20 pesos?”  was his comeback and he laughed when I told him that no one could eat 20 dollars’ worth of churros. She bagged them up, handed them over and we went on, enjoying them immensely.
With one end in sight, we turned around and started back, stopping at one tent where something caught our eye. Maybe 10 years ago, someone in New Mexico organized a bunch of local artists into a charity effort called “Trail of the Painted Ponies.” Each artist painted a life-sized fiberglass horse according to their artistic vision and the lot of them were eventually auctioned. That program spawned similar efforts country-wide, some using horses, others cows and even pigs. Someone else got the brilliant idea of making them more widely accessible and began producing smaller, shelf-sized versions in the $40-$100 range depending on the complexity. From there, a second product line was born, “Horse of Different Color” and today they can be found in gift shops everywhere, and especially in Albuquerque Old Town.
Well, right there on the table was a Horse of a Different Color, ironically named “Mexican Folk Art.” And not a bad one to boot. We stared at it for a bit, MLW finally picking it up and checking for the brand stamp and serial number which it had. I asked how much, 30 pesos was the answer (about $2 at the current rate) and the deal was instantly done. A bargain for sure.
Getting close to the end, we next stopped at a stall where a guy was selling what appeared to be metal-art poinsettias. They turned out to be plastic, but they also turned out to be 80 pesos ($5) so one of those was quickly added to our haul. Not bad, $7 lighter for a couple of nice mementos.
As with every place like this, one starts to glaze over after the endless banquet of the same things. On our way to an exit, we stopped to admire a big table of blue jeans bearing an exact replica of the Levi label but with Bogi in place of the correct brand.

Our car was still there when we found our way back to it, and getting out of town was a lot easier than getting in even though the busyness in the street had not abated at all. What a great Sunday morning, a bit of a cultural experience, some fun curios and of course, churros.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Tale of Two Tacos

It seems as though every trip we make takes on some sort of theme. Never intentional, rather the patterns of our behavior coalesce around some goal that assumes the raison d’etre for us being where we are. In Barcelona it was finding as many Roman ruins as we could. In Sevilla, trying to take as many Semana Santa processions as passed through our neighborhood. Paris, finding all the paintings we could think of in The Louvre. And here, in San Carlos, it’s about finding Tacos.
As previously reported, we really like JJ’s Tacos for the ambience and the food. And the dancing on Music Night. Having had such a blast this previous Tuesday, dinner last night (Friday) could only be in one place, given that the band was once again playing. So off we went after a disappointing sunset (adequate clouds, but no color) to that taco shack by the main drag. JJ has a big collection of license plates, nailed to the beams supporting the palapa and we brought him one from our humble burg. He was pleased, and he grabbed MLW and started dancing to the Norteña. Being 5’5”, he had his bald head planted squarely in MLW’s bosom as they did a few turns in front of the bar. I sat and had a good laugh.

Fish tacos once again and a couple of cold beers. I added a taco de pierna this time, stewed pork leg, and it was a nice complement to our regular fare, so regular in fact that JJ knew the order before we said it. The crowd on this night was considerably more subdued unfortunately and as it turned out we were the only people dancing. On returning to our table, one old guy told us we looked wonderful out there, a kind gesture and certainly a lie. But appreciated nonetheless. A couple more beers and when the few people there started to shuffle out, we did too.

Now the other night we had intended to try a nice place, Tony’s, but they had been closed. So today we decided to head over for lunch, knowing they’d be open. Overnight the temperature had dropped and today was a solid 10° cooler than yesterday. A welcome change considering that it is December and mild temperatures are one of the things that drag us down here every year. The only downside – wind, stiff and consistent.

On the way to town we stopped at the annual Shrimp Festival where all the local restaurants turn out to serve up their particular crustacean specialties. We weren’t interested in that, rather we’d heard there would be some art and curio sellers along for the ride. We picked up a very beautiful serape, dark turquoise with hummingbirds, something I had in mind since I saw one in Old Town Albuquerque on a Christmas shopping trip last week. This one was much more beautiful and half the price so it didn’t take much thinking to hand over the $30 the guy was asking. The festival though was another story, crawling with Snowbirds waiting in line to buy tickets for the food and drink. We beat a hasty retreat.

There was a restaurant here, many years ago called Tony’s that was a favorite of ours. Like so many, it disappeared after a spell and unlike so many others, it never had a second incarnation. We were hoping that this new Tony’s might be it, but it isn’t as it appears to be owned by an American expat. We parked, went in and grabbed a table out of the wind which really was howling down off the mountain and straight onto the patio. The waiter brought us chips, two kinds of salsa fresca, a pot of guacamole and another pot of hot sauce. We ordered, what else, tacos; MLW choosing birria de res (stewed beef) and uno de pollo (chicken.) My hopes for lamb were dashed when I discovered the birria de borrego was not available today. So I opted for a pair of birria de res and one pescado frito. The lack of lamb really crushed my spirit, because for years I’ve been thinking about stopping at a place we pass on the way down, in the town of Santa Ana that supposedly specializes in Borrego. But that stop is never convenient (since we always just want to get where we’re going) and so today, in my own backyard, the opportunity presented itself. But alas, I’ll have to wait.

The food turned out to be superb, probably the best tacos we’ve had. The dish was fried to perfection and filled the little flour tortillas to the edge. The birria was just as wonderful, moist, a tiny bit spicy, clearly very fresh and with just the right amount of grease to drip off your chin. We sat in the breeze and stuffed our faces to the mild refrain of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Food, Reggae, Diet Coke and good company – the recipe for the ideal early afternoon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Gone dancing....

It’s pretty easy to settle into the slow rhythm of a place like this. You develop a nice routine – get up early, breakfast on the seawall, a walk down to the point, a drive around town looking for birds. Reading the afternoon, a glass of wine for the sunset and then dinner somewhere out in town. We made our obligatory trip into Guaymas for those essentials we didn’t have and made some cursory passes over the birding hot spots, actually meeting one of the women who helped (via a group organized by a snowbird) on last year’s count. That chance encounter was out at a couple of sewage ponds at the end of a nasty track, well off the main road and into the desert. In other words, one of those special places you visit when you want to know which of your favorite feathered friends are kicking it around town.
Dinner-wise it’s been a banquet, one night of sopa de tortilla, another at our favorite Italian place, a nice fish dinner and a boat of a margarita at the purported narco-restaurant. The best night though was at our favorite little almost outdoors taco shack.
We’d gone out to try a new place down by the water. These last couple of years we’ve been trying places that are not restaurants in the traditional sense of having windows, chairs and walls. We’ve kind of fallen in love with little semi-outdoor places with plastic tables and chairs and big sides open to the elements. They’re not so great in October when you have to wipe the sweat off your face while you eat, but this time of year they’re pretty nice with a soft evening sea breeze and temperatures more conducive to enjoying your meal. There was a new one at the far end of town that fit that simple bill and so we went off to try it, only to find it was closed. Lunch only, apparently. So I turned the boat around and went back towards JJ’s, the place that was the current de classe restaurant champion.
As I pulled up, I knew instantly that serendipity was at work – it was music night – the strains of Mariachi were wafting out the front and the full parking lot confirmed my guess. We were in for a treat.
JJ is a diminutive fellow with a big smile, a classic end of the road restaurant owner who greets you like you were just in yesterday. His place is something, a giant, beautifully constructed palapa, built by some guys imported from elsewhere in the state. A small kitchen area with deep fryer and grill are off to the side next to an even smaller bar. Some plastic rope chains – added since our last visit – announce that minors may not approach the bar, perhaps an artifact from some recent legal problems. The band sets up at one end of the place and the rest is wide open, filled with while tables and chairs. There is also a small gift shop that sells curios and t-shirts, many of which are hanging on posts around the dance floor, and all of which have slogans that would prevent them from being worn in polite company. The menu is simple, five or six kinds of tacos or burros and nothing more. They come straight off the grill or out of the fryer and you load them up at a small condiment bar. Every table has at least three kinds of hot sauce.
After visiting with him for a couple of minutes we made our order, six fried fish tacos and a couple of beers. That done it was off to the dance floor for a couple of rounds of the 1-Step and a bit of people watching.

Music night brings out a lot of people from where we generically call “the country club.” Genuinely old folks, most of whom sit and watch but among whom there are always a couple of wound up grannies who dance and dance and dance, dragging their typically overweight husband out on the floor. The gents try to look comfortable, an impossible task, but it’s clear they’re enjoying being game enough for their wives to enjoy themselves. Our food showed up and it was wonderful as always, fresh, hot and tasty. The three things that every meal should be. Once done, JJ dropped by again and insisted on more beers, informing me that “the car can find its way home.” We complied and danced a few more times before heading back home. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Heading down south

Boy it’s been a long time since we’ve gone anywhere. Aside from a quick trip up the road to meet our delightful granddaughter Lydia a couple of weeks ago, the last 6 months have been a blur of horse show management, remodeling, gardening and other assorted hot weather tasks that pretty much keep both or at least one of us around the house. But now it’s the last month of the year and time to take that southbound highway until the road runs out on the sunny shores of the Sea of Cortez.
This trip in always done in two parts, 6 ½ hours to Tucson, a night’s rest and then another 5 hours into Mexico.  When it works, we have a night out at Falora, our favorite pizza place with Barbara, our favorite cousin. On our last trip in February, we got to know Ari, the owner and he was glad to see us again (once he realized that it was us. It’s always nice to be known at a place off your beaten path.
Phase Two commenced with a great breakfast and a walk along the new park that borders the Santa Cruz River, across the street from Barbara’s place. While the desert scenery in this part of Tucson is not spectacular, the city has done a nice job of reclaiming what was previously a half-century’s worth of dumping and destruction. And now in spite of the power poles and the horrendous din of the cars on I10, you have a decent place for a hike or a bike ride. Winter birds flick in and out of the bushes, and bundled up seniors cruise by on mountain bikes.
We rolled out around 10:30 and made it to our grocery stop in Green Valley about an hour later. Then it was on to the last best gas station in Nogales and from there to the border. The US has done a very interesting job of making the crossing procedure impossible to understand. I guess that prevents Narcos in Suburbans from shooting their way in and out of the country. On one trip, we had to park the car in an x-ray machine. On another, we were made to stop at a tent and present our smiling faces to some serious looking Border Patrol agents. Little by little, the structures have become more permanent and the entry road more circuitous. A year or so ago they added a couple of lanes with toll booth structures, but they’ve never been manned – you just drive right through. This time though I found myself behind a Timid Traveler who decided to obey the signals. There was a stop sign in front of an empty booth, and he stopped. And sat, and sat and sat. I waited patiently (hard for me) and hoped that the official, standing in the other empty lane, a civil servant from I’m not sure which country, would wave the Timid Traveler through. But he didn’t he just stood there impassively observing our waiting until finally the timid traveler understood that nothing was going to happen and drove on. I managed to get around him once we got onto the recinto fiscal, the import/export zone road that whose controlled isolation from the Mexican side of Nogales is belied by the gaping holes in the security fence along its entire 5-mile length. The road becomes two lanes at a posted speed of 24 MPH and Timid Traveler decided to obey the speed limit. I blew by and headed off to the customs stop 2-miles up the road.
The number of inspections a traveler faces has changed over the years. It used to be only one, at the immigration stop, 12 kilometers into the country. Then one appeared just after the toll both on the fiscal road. This one is a crap shoot, I get pulled over about a third of the time, and the inspection is cursory. The process of being chosen is the same as ever, you pull up and wait to see if you get a read or a green light. Today, I got neither so I inched ahead and still nothing. More inching, more nothing. And then an alarm and a flashing red lights and the wave of the arm from the customs guy directing me into the inspection bay. This used to scare the hell out of me, but now I see it was a fun challenge. I parked, turned off the car and got out, saying “Buenos dias” as an icebreaker. The agent asked if I spoke Spanish and I replied “un poco” and he switched to Spanglish. The regular questions then ensured – “Where are you going?” and “What have you got?” I replied “Ropa, comidas, dos barcas, una bicicleta, cosas de vacaciones” and he waved me on. It’s always a fun thing to claim a limited knowledge of a language and then answer questions skillfully. I remember asking my friend Ben for a better way of saying “so-so” in Chinese because I didn’t like the simple word I had learned. He gave me a choice with a warning, saying that I could use the word but when I did, the person I was speaking to would know I was sandbagging. At the time I thought that was a pretty good option, disarming even, and so I always claim to be ignorant when in fact I am actually only half-so.
We saw the Timid Traveler again at the immigration stop, he was arriving as we were leaving after securing our paperwork in about 4 minutes. This process used to be very 3rd World with slowly turning fans, flies buzzing in the screens of a little shack, inscrutable uniformed officials and lots of carbon paper. Now it’s a simple process and a chance to discuss the dates that Arizona schools close for Christmas. We pulled out and point the car south and were on our way. Just 4 hours of Sonoran desert landscape, broken up only by the occasional construction zone. To break up the monotony, I implored MLW to write down the names of the bridges which she reluctantly agreed to do (once she had finished her sandwich.) Some are obvious, others are probably local place or family names, but they are colorful and I thought they’d make a nice language project for me. So she did, and here they are:

Puente Oasis
Oasis Bridge
Puente Victoria
Victory Bridge
Puente Tres Cerros
Three Hills Bridge
Puente Pitahara
Who knows?
Puente La Salada
Salt Pan Bridge
Puente El Chony
Who knows?
Puente Pitayaro
Fruit of a Local Cactus Bridge
Puente La Chicura
Who knows?
Puente Ocelote
Ocelot Bridge
Puente Iguana
Iguana Bridge
Puente Arrieros
Muleteers Bridge
Puente Areneros
Sandbox Bridge
Puente El Tigre
Tiger Bridge

I had so much fun with that, I hope I can convince her to do it again on the way back home!
Once past Hermosillo, it’s only another hour until our turn off to San Carlos. Jagged mountains start to appear to the west as we get closer to the coast, and we diligently watch for the first appearance of Mt. Guaymas (what we call it) in the south east, signaling that we are getting close to our destination. There are a lot of big antennas on top of it, and we’re often fooled by False Mt. Guaymas, a microwave station atop a mountain at the 2/3 point of the trip. But eventually we’re passed that one and our beacon begins to shine, first dimly in the distance and then brighter and brighter until we’re finally at its feet and we make that sweeping turn to the west and down to the sea.

Once the car was unloaded and we had a chance to look around, we saw the Timid Traveler again, turns out he’s staying in the condo across the sidewalk from us. Small world, right? We said our “hellos” to the regulars and made our way to Rosa’s for our traditional first night meal – sopa de tortilla y dos cervezas. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

And so to home

Prehistoric Man had one thing on all of us – he never experienced Jet Lag. And of course that’s also true for Bronze Age Man, Iron Age Man, Roman Era Man, Medieval Man, Renaissance Man and all of humanity up until Alcock & Brown decided to fly from Newfoundland to Ireland in June of 1919. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith kept the ball rolling with the first Trans-Pacific flight in May of 1928, and since that time it’s all been downhill although I suspect that those early flights were so slow and so tense that no one thought much about how they felt the morning after their arrival. Prior to the first mention of the term by a columnist by the name of Horace Sutton in a February, 1966 article in the Los Angeles Times, no one had any  name for it. Jet travel was not yet 15 years old when the phrase was coined and I suspect people had an idea about what was afflicting them, even if they didn’t know what to call it.
Well I know a lot about it, knowledge gained painfully over these last 10 years of jumping over the big ponds. Going to Asia was never that bad, coming home was miserable – the effect lasted for so long that at one point I considered giving up on trips home that lasted less than two weeks. Going and coming from Europe is less sickening, but not completely without a cost. Particularly on that travel day home when you stay up for 24 hours (less what sleep you might catch on the plane) and then go to bed at your regular home-time. You wake up at midnight, and every hour thereafter until 4 when you really just want to get up and get going despite the fact that it’s pitch black outside and the world hasn’t started yet.
So you try to lie in bed until a more reasonable hour when you do your chores and eat breakfast, all the while dreaming about that 10:30 AM nap. And that’s where we are today.
The ride home was pretty nice once we cleared the clouds hugging the mid-Atlantic. While the polite thing to do is to keep your window shades down, I sneak a peek every once in a while and yesterday was good day for that. Bright late spring sunshine pouring down on a vast expanse of sea ice, spread as far to the north as I could see. Coming in across Labrador and Newfoundland, the land was clearing up but the harbors were all still choked with bright white ice. We crossed somewhere into New England and flew straight across Quabbin Reservoir, one of my old favorite places in Massachusetts. Google Earth makes this kind of high altitude sightseeing possible – I love to take photos and come home and compare them against the satellite shots. It imparts a nicely detailed relationship with the physical world.
Our trip was pretty great, we visited some new places, and devoted time to some old favorites, all the while bathing in the history the place and how as Spain evolved, our little corner of the world did too. We averaged about 15,000 steps and close to 7 miles of walking each day, data points that our knees will certainly attest too. Particularly those steps taken on slick wet cobblestones. It was a wonderful time, and like every trip before, we start talking about what we’re going to do next year.

But for now it’s back to horses and gardens and home construction and all those things that make the rest of the year pretty great too.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

One last evening and one last night

We chilled out at home for a couple of hours, arranging our suitcases and getting in the “time to go home” mindset. The gray weather had passed and there was actually sunshine pouring in the skylights so we thought it might be nice to have an early evening walk. We left, headed down Carretas across Puerta del Sol and picked up Arenal for a stroll down to the Opera district. The weather was nice now, no clouds, a mild temperature and just enough of a breeze to be enjoyable. We took a new street out of the Plaza de Cervantes and walked through some nice neighborhoods, well-tended apartment buildings, clean streets, nothing like the commercial grime of the street where we’ve been staying. I’d remarked about the cleanliness of our neighborhood when our train to Avila passed through the northern suburbs. No uncollected trash, no overflowing bins. I think it comes from the mix of the area around Plaza Mayor, where you have tons of restaurants and shops located on the ground floors of the apartment buildings. More trash generated means less trash collected.
For grins we walked along Calle Ferraz with the goal of visiting the Temple of Debod, the friendship gift from Egypt to Spain. Crossing Cuesta San Vicente, we marveled at the most amazing Wisteria plant, pale purple blossoms covering both sides of the bridge over 4 lanes of traffic. The Temple was closed which meant that the park was more or less empty, a nice change from the last time we visited when it was sort of mobbed. We’d hoped for a last view of the Guadarrama Mountains from the paseo at the back of the park, but the air was too hazy. We left the park, crossed Plaza de España stopping for a look at the statue of Cervantes, gazing down on his two most famous creations, Quixote and Panza, and then took the exit on the far side, braving the commuting crowds on Gran Via for the walk back home.

We had promised our friends at El Mandela that we’d come by on our last night for dinner, but when the time came I just didn’t feel like doing it. After more than 2 weeks of restaurant eating in a foreign language with all the extra mental work that involves, I just wanted to do something simple. We left the apartment and headed off towards an alley we’d nicknamed “Paella Street” when we’d discovered it a couple of nights ago. But mentally I just wasn’t into it and the thought of spending 40 euros for a pan of rice just wasn’t appealing to me. The sky had gotten pretty ugly since our earlier walk and I wondered if it made sense to stop at home for the umbrella. I let it go though as the suitcase was packed and it was on the bottom and I really didn’t want to undo all my good work. Besides, we were only going to be out for another hour or so and what could possibly happen in that time?
We wandered past a few more options, scoped for empty tables at Mercado San Miguel (there were none) and finally decided that we’d just follow our original plan. Turning down Calle Espejo we walked up to the door of El Mandela and found it locked. Jose saw us and came over and opened up, smiling and showing us to “our” table. We ordered wine and food and settled in for what turned out to be a very nice evening. MLW had her signature fish, I chose the chicken and plantain stew this time, and spiced it up a bit with their infamously hot pepper sauce. We had a nice talk with Jose about their business model (since they get virtually no guests during the week) and an in depth discussion of the politics of the anti-monarchy people and the Spanish Civil War. While talking, I had one eye on the sidewalk outside as it had started to sprinkle. Not much at first, and not consistently. But of course by the time we were ready to go, the thunder started and the skies opened up.
People were passing by without umbrellas, and I kept joking by saying “They don’t care” but they were getting soaked. We left in a sprint, hugging the side the building where the downpour was somewhat mitigated by the eaves up above. But it kept getting worse so at the first opportunity, we ducked into the shuttered doorway of a building and sat on the stoop, out of the deluge.
People kept passing by in various degrees of wetness. A few good shots of lighting streaked overhead, followed by almost instantaneous thunder. The rain kept getting stronger and stronger and a small river started flowing down the middle of the cobblestones. I suggested we give it 15 more minutes before deciding and so we sat and watched and tried to guess the volume of the rain in the one streetlight overhead.

And it did let up a bit, almost at the end of that 15 minute wait. Deciding that we really couldn’t sit there all night we made a dash for it, running from overhang to awning, crossing Calle Mayor and darting past San Miguel until we got into the first tunnel at Plaza Mayor. At least now we could stay out of it for a good portion of the remainder of our walk. MLW scavenged some cardboard from the trash pile of one of the restaurants and we used it to fashion some rough hats. Under better circumstances we could have stayed dry on the portico to the far side, but this year two of the sides are under construction so we were deprived of a significant portion of the cover. Our cardboard hats did help though as we forged ahead. We passed a street vendor who tried to sell us an umbrella twice in two blocks, refusing him both times. Shooting out of the Plaza we rounded our corner and then only had to concentrate on not falling down on the wet marble sidewalk until we reached our front door.
Airport trips always come too early, but at least there was a cab waiting for us at the end of the street this morning. The rain had stopped which was nice for us since starting on a 24 hour trip with wet shoes was not something I wanted to do. The cab absolutely reeked of some cheap masking scent, like the worst toll road bathroom cleaner you’ve ever smelled. The drivers are all smokers, and I’m sure smoking in the cars is against the rules so they cover it up with a suffocating level of scent. This guy did drive fast though, and his constant Facebooking while driving didn’t appear to put us at too much risk.

From the front door at Barajas T4 it was just the ride home. 10.7 hours in the air - eating, dozing, movies, landing, a new process at immigration (scan your passport and go on) and now the final hour waiting for the last leg home. A long day with a good bed stocked with better pillows, waiting at the end.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Our Last Day in Madrid

Over the last couple of years we’ve sort of stumbled into a kind of tradition, walking down to the Royal Botanic Gardens, taking a stroll and getting rained on. That was pretty much the agenda for today, and as one can hope for on any travel day, all the pieces fell into place.
The one thing we had somehow managed to miss over these last two weeks of fun has been a healthy meal of chocolate and churros. I did have that folder full of them back in Sevilla, but I’d forgone the chocolate in the interest of being able to fall asleep. We’ve spent the last couple of days wandering around here and yet the time never seemed right. So this morning we left home with the express goal of having a second breakfast comprised of that most wonderful Spanish treat.
Rather than take the long haul to the Valor over on Gran Via, we chose instead to patronize San Gines, the older churreria in Madrid, and unfortunately a favorite of tourists (the place is mentioned in every guide book ever published in every language.) Upon arrival, sure enough the non-Spanish speaking hordes were spilling out the door. But we were committed so we queued up. I ducked out for a second to check on another entrance to the left, apparently a whole second San Gines but with much less of the old cultural flavor of the one where we were waiting. When one of the servers came out and started pointing us in that direction, I asked “Abierto?” and he said yes and we shuffled to the side, ending up second in line instead of zillionth. Unfortunately we were second in line to a family with a bunch of kids that they couldn’t keep corralled long enough to figure out what they wanted. The chaos only lasted a few extra minutes though and we had our order pretty quickly.
It’s a wonderful treat, dripping in simultaneous waves of guilt and pleasure. You can enjoy them as long as you don’t think about what you’re eating which is really nothing more than hot oil, flour, sugar and a giant-sized molten candy bar. You eat slowly and savor every bite, planning all the while to head to the nearest Starbucks to get a coffee to dilute the giant slug of chocolate that you’ve ingested. It was fun though and the Chinese couple at the next table taking selfies of themselves shoving churros in their mouth was an unexpected entertainment bonus.

We really did stop at Starbucks for dilution and from there wandered down to the Paseo del Prado where we grabbed a bench to enjoy our drinks. We sat opposite a fountain with a water nymph giving the “sit” hand signal to some sort of alien creature with three nipples on its face, dispensing water. Slug? Dragon? Who even knows? A young woman came by with a pair of some kind of Mastiffs which she freed to run around on the grass patches that were clearly marked “No dogs.” To her credit, she did clean up after them, including using a paper towel to mop up the grass when one of them peed.
It was getting cold with low gray clouds blowing past and a moderately stiff wind picking up. We got up and crossed the street towards the gardens, only to get stalled by a very large group of teenagers, mostly boys whom were heading into the garden. For the life of me, I could not grasp why any tour leader would think for even the shortest second why a bunch of teen-aged boys would be interested in a spring flower display, but there they were. Once they passed through the group gate we went on, dissing a woman who was trying to sell us a package of greeting cards for the purpose of helping the elderly disabled children.

The gardens are a great place to spend a last day before traveling. Peaceful, mostly quiet (aside from the groups of elementary school children running around screaming) and full of good energy and fresh air. Lots of bird song and beautiful blooms. We were lucky this year because a lot of the spring flowers were still in bloom, along with many of the trees and quite a few Rhododendrons. Our favorite plot, the vegetable garden, was replete with as much chard as I’ve ever seen. We walked from one end to another and then back until we’d covered the place from top to bottom. And just like that, it started to rain as we were heading to the exit. Crossing the Paseo we stopped in Starbucks for a coffee and a sandwich to split before heading back up hill along Paseo de Lope Vega and Las Huertas.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Something different - MAN, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional

Today was tagged a recovery day after the rigors of yesterday’s travel. We decided that we would visit the Museo Arqeológico Nacional for a change of pace. Rather than experiencing history in situ, we thought it might be different to visit a collection of it. And as it turned out, we’re very glad we did.
Stopping for coffee at a Starbucks on Alcala, we took a window seat and spent some time assessing passersby as tourists or locals. From there it was a downhill stroll to the Paseo del Prado, stopping along the way to watch a drama unfold in the very busy intersection in front of the Metropolis Building.
Two women were frantically trying to stop traffic, but we couldn’t figure out why. They had their faces in the driver’s side window of a red compact car that suddenly started to roll into the oncoming traffic. A motorcyclist jumped off his bike, swung open the door of the rolling car and tried to steer it out of the oncoming cars. But he couldn’t turn the wheel and the car continued, crushing the guy between it and a car stopped at the light. The rolling car finally crashed into the front of another car, bringing it to a stop, with the motorcyclist trapped between the two. Some pedestrians ran over and dragged the motorcyclist out from between the two and suddenly there was a policewoman on the scene. The motorcyclist was walking around, clearly dazed and probably hurt but not too seriously has he was able to remain upright. There seemed to be another man sitting on the ground by the crashed car, perhaps the original driver. As far as we could figure, the driver must have passed out behind the wheel and the women were trying to get help. Thankfully no one seemed seriously injured.
We came to the building that (my loyal friend) Google Maps had identified as the Museo, and after climbing about a thousand steps and asking, we found out it was actually the National Library. The Museo was around the backside of the building. Back down the steps and around the block and we found the entrance.
What a museum, probably the best representation of this kind of material we have ever seen. I’ll admit I’m sorry I had not visited before. The first floor was dedicated to the emergence of hominids through the beginning of the Iron Age. The displays ranged from skulls and skeletons to tools and pottery and on to more complex tools, tapestries and of course weapons. Each era was accompanied by a very thorough yet accessible video representation of the significant events. The displays and information were so captivating that we didn’t take a single photo. Australopithecus through early Hominids through Neanderthals up to Homo Sapiens, the entirety of evolving humanity represented in tools and art. Just incredible. We spent more than two hours poring over the material.
Moving upstairs we spent far less time than we should have visiting the ancient era from the Celtiberians to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and finally the Moors. If we hadn’t nearly spent all our energy getting through the Ice Age, we would have had at least as daunting a task of absorbing this material. We focused mostly on the ancient Spanish and Celts, because it was so well represented and it filled a gap in our understanding of the local, pre-Roman history. Wonderful sculptures, a lot of horse related artefacts and even another pair of Verraco, statues similar to those we saw yesterday in Ávila. I learned an awful lot about the period, and I was glad to have had the opportunity to see such a good collection from this era.
The Moors were not quite as well represented, although there was a very nice model and depiction of the Mezquita in Cordoba including a hanging ceiling, demonstrating the construction and architectural flourishes. Beyond that, a bit on the Visigoths and some truly exceptional Roman mosaics. All a feast for the eyes.

Checking the time we saw that we’d spent a full 4 hours getting educated so we left but not before telling the guy working at the information desk that we thought it was one of the best ever. A really unexpected treat.