Monday, October 26, 2009

Day of the Dead in Mexico

In October, I went with a group of American expats to Patzquaro, a small town with a strong Day of the Dead tradition. We spent all afternoon building an altar to honor our dead, a long and painful endeavor that included cutting millions of squares of tissue paper like you would do a snowflake, folding bright shiny paper into fans for a wreath to take to the cemetery at midnight, and stringing flowers into necklaces. After about four hours, we finally finished, and had a beautiful altar as a result. We then went around looking at everyone else's altars, and trying without success to not eat the food they kept bringing to us. One woman continued to ask stupid questions and repeat everything over and over again, and talked to a 12-year-old and me as if we were both five years old. “OOOHHHHH!” she would shriek loudly, her voice high-pitched and whining. “Isn’t that FABulous?” As we were sitting down to dinner, she asked a question for the 50th time, and the lady next to me said, only slightly under her breath, ¨I wish we could sew her damn lips shut. ¨ I thought it was the best idea I’d heard all day.
Aside from that minor setback, it was great. The Day of the Dead is a tradition dating back to before the Spanish conquistadors and Catholicism in Latin America, and the church has accepted it and added its own nuances. There's as much praying as there is chanting, and it's a fascinating mix of the two cultures. The altars are built to honor and remember the dead, and all their favorite foods are put on it so they can eat after their long journey, but most have pictures of Jesus or Mary as well. The chant they sing to bring back the dead refers to God and Jesus, and they pray Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers before and after singing. At midnight, they carry candles to the graveyards and sing together before going to their family graves to leave food and wreaths. It doesn't compare at all with Halloween, which has much more to do with candy and being afraid of death and ghouls. Mexicans can stand in a graveyard at midnight, singing to bring back the dead, and not even flinch.
What an amazing place.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sometimes, it just doesn’t get any better.

It’s the small things that get me. I realize that most people’s best days are the ones that are full of people – weddings, births, engagements, etc., but that’s never really been my style. I realize what that says about me, and I’m okay with it. There are a couple days that I do remember that included my friends and are among my most memorable, but the times that stick out most for me, with the best feeling attached, are the ones where I am alone.
Right now, for instance. The fire is going out and I can hear the rain on the roof – it’s been coming down all day. I’m not usually a fan of rain, but it’s different in the mountains, when it’s not a normal occurrence. I’ve noticed that the pine needles take on a lighter hue – the color of sage – when they’re covered in raindrops. With the window open I can smell the pines, a faint tinge of smoke, and wet earth. I am not doing anything very important, simply sitting, working on what I want to work on, perusing the internet for information about writing, publishing, cookbooks and my friends. It’s heaven.
There are two other moments like this that have stopped to give me pause. One was on a German mountaintop where I spent the summer. I walked to the summit one early morning from the hut where I worked, and looked down on the clouds that covered the valley floor. The peaks were all snow-capped around me and the sun shone brightly, and I was only one of very few people who could see it, up here among the chamois and above the tree line. I sat, dangling my feet over oblivion, and just stared, a silly grin on my face.
The other time was coming up from a night dive on the Great Barrier Reef. I had snorkeled and dove during the day and the colors were amazing. The night dive was scary and I couldn’t get over the sound of my own breathing in my ears. I ran low on air early, and the dive master sent me to the surface. I should have been disappointed, but as I slowly emerged from the dark, I saw a huge golden orb above me, and found myself staring straight into the moon as it rose above the horizon. There was a sailboat in front of it, its skeletal outline glistening in the moonlight, and the water was warm and comforting around me. I realized that I was the luckiest person in the world, because I was here, and now, and there was no other place or time like this on earth that I would experience in quite this way again.
It’s easy to forget what a wonder life can be. We slog through our daily tasks, worried about our jobs, our friends, our families, our lives, what we don’t have, what we have too much of, and we forget. Sometimes the days run together and we don’t remember what brought us here in the first place, why we made the choices we did, why we haven’t made different plans. But sometimes – and unfortunately it’s just sometimes – all that other crap falls away and we can just sit, stark naked in ourselves, and remember what a wonder life can be. It’s at those moments that we realize that we have it all, and it doesn’t need to get any better.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mexican Cooking Tour

After spending only two weeks as the lowest of the low as a starting intern journalist, they sent me away. I hope they do it again.
I had mentioned early on that I was interested in food and travel writing, and it just so happened that Jim, a fine food lover, and Isabel, a tour guide and translator, arrange cooking tours for the retired English-speaking expatriates that have made their home on the shores of nearby Lake Chapala, the biggest freshwater lake in Mexico located about an hour from Guadalajara.
They made some room for me and away I went, the night before we left, to stay in Ajijic. Ajijic is a small village on Lake Chapala, about an hour away from Guadalajara. One of my coworkers lent me the key to the house he housesits on the weekends, and I arrived at about 8 p.m. I went to a local restaurant for dinner and ate with a retired guy from the States. He introduced me to two older Spanish men who insisted on welcoming me by offering me beer and their fine company. When I say older, I mean about 65. I was out of there early and off to bed.
The next morning, we took off in two vans and headed northwest out of town, away from the lake and toward the Pacific coast. Immediately the houses gave way to lush green fields, mountains and trees. We stopped at a small town with a church dating back to the Inquisition and a museum of tools dating from even before that. Later we stopped at a little roadside restaurant for lunch, where they made us fresh tortillas from corn they ground themselves. Next we moved on to Talpa, one of the religious centers of Jalisco and the end of a pilgrimage people make to pay homage to the Virgin Mary. Her statue is only about a foot tall, and she's made of corn cane, but the museum is full of ornate outfits people have made for her out of gratitude for her miracles. Talpa is a small town, but aside from being famous for the Virgin, it is also well known for rollos de guayaba, a sweet made of fruit paste (mostly guava) and rolled in sugar. Even more fascinating are the four women in their eighties who are the only ones left making handicrafts of the gum from a chitle tree. The gum is harvested, soaked in water with dyes to color and soften it, then beaten into flat rolls of a waxy paper material. These women, one of whom told me she had been doing her craft since she was six years old, buy the rolls and shape them into baskets of fruit and vegetables or flowers, statues of the Virgin and intricate churches. The details, such as the eyes in the tiny potatoes or the scales on the miniscule fish, are made with scissors, tweezers or fingernails. The pieces, which will not be produced with such detail or care after these women die, sell for about seven dollars.
After Talpa, we drove to the Hacienda Ahuacatepec, nestled into a valley surrounded by mountains. One of these mountains – well, a hill really – lies close to the earth behind the hacienda and looks like the fruit that gives the hacienda its name: place of the avocado. The land and villages nearby belonged to the hacienda at one point, but now are merely its neighbors, as its lands have diminished to the area that immediately surrounds the house. The house! The 390-year-old beauty has been reconstructed but maintained the same theme as it probably had 150 years ago. Its walls are peach-colored adobe, with simple stenciled vines around the windows and old pictures on the wall. The furniture is made of stretched animal hide and sturdy wood, the floors are tile to keep the house cool, the ceilings are higher than the rooms are wide and the doors are solid wood. There are no hallways: you cut through the kitchen to get to the dining room and the first bedroom to get to the next ones. The covered back terrace looks out at an overgrown cutting garden speckled with beautifully colored flowers, with a low brick wall that gives a view of the avocado-shaped hill and the larger mountains in the background. I learned the hard way to watch where I walked in the garden after stepping into a mountain full of angry biting red ants. I quickly returned to the terrace, where everyone else was gazing out at the setting sun and eating fresh cheese made that day on the premises.
Alicia, the cook, served us a noodle soup in a tomato and chicken broth base as our first course for dinner that night. The soup is a common dietary staple for children, much like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the U.S. Next came the tamale pie, a delectable dish made with sweet corn meal, mild chiles and topped with tomato and strong aged cheese. Dessert was gorditas de nata, a sweet tortilla made with flour, sugar and the film that forms on the top of boiled milk. The whole dinner was washed down with lemongrass tea, cut from the garden minutes before and steeped in hot water.
The next morning our first breakfast was available at 8 a.m.: coffee, fruit and leftover gorditas. At 11, the brunch came out: fresh tortillas, chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips cooked in tomato sauce) fried or Mexican scrambled eggs with peppers, and sopes, small cooked boats of tortilla dough filled with fresh cream, sprinkled with sea salt and great with a little bit of salsa.
To burn off the two breakfasts, some walked and some drove to the nearby village of Volcanes to visit a hacienda that had originally been built to help the Ahuacatepec Hacienda with its land and cattle. The hacienda, recently crippled by an earthquake in January of 2003, will turn 307 in October. Devoid of its front arches, the outside does not call as much attention as inside, where all the inner patio’s wood is original, carved with axes long before electric tools. We were greeted by the dueña, a regal woman with a kind smile whose family history was etched into the walls. She showed us old black and white pictures of her ancestors, and brought out clothing they used to wear. Her daughter and son-in-law lived on one side of the courtyard in a few rooms, as she had when she married. Haciendas were meant to house whole extended families in rooms built around a central area, with shaded walkways and bright sunny gardens. I could only imagine the arches that graced the exterior before the earthquake. Their outline was still visible on the brick walls, now bare and unable to inspire the awe they were meant to.
Back at Ahuacatepec in the afternoon, Alicia showed us how to make a fresh salsa. She roasted a tomato on the comal, a flat griddle mainly used to cook tortillas. The skin blackened and peeled off, leaving the flesh with a smoky flavor. She then got into the more complex process of making the sauce for Pollo con pepian mole, a chicken dish in a nutty sauce made of ground pumpkin seeds, onions, garlic, and corn. After the lesson, fresh guacamole accompanied the fresh cheese for appetizers and dinner was served at 7 p.m., after an extensive cocktail hour.
Dinner was buffet style, as the dishes were too large and heavy to carry around the table. The chicken in its pepián sauce slipped off the bone and the sauce pooled around refried beans and Mexican rice covered in fried bananas, making it hard to eat with anything less than a fork and a tortilla. Dessert, though there was barely room, was homemade rice pudding with a molasses aftertaste from the sweet sticky Mexican brown sugar.
The next morning, the first breakfast was once again fresh mango, papaya and granola before the larger brunch, this time with cubed potatoes grilled with tomatoes and peppers, scrambled eggs, tortillas and sopes.
Whew! No wonder I decided to join a spinning class when I got back!