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.