Saturday, December 17, 2011

December 17


If you've been following this blog you know that I haven't traveled much in Mexico since I moved here nearly a year ago.  I went to Mexico City for a couple of days, but that was it until I went with my friend Natalie to Mazatlan.  Mazatlan is on the Pacific Ocean north of Puerta Vallarta and nearly due east from Cabo San Lucas at the bottom of the Baja California peninsula.  It was a ten-hour drive by highway (expensive highway! about $100 in tolls one way!) from San Miguel.

On the way there we stopped in Tequila — yes, that's why it's called tequila — so that Natalie could buy her annual supply, which is much cheaper than in the stores.  The vendor gives you tastes of different types of tequila, all of which tasted like medicine to me, and then pours your choices into clean, empty, unmarked containers.  Vendors were lined up one after another in their open-air shops on the road into town.

Natalie has two weeks a year of a timeshare in a resort called Pueblo Bonito, 20 km. north of the city on the ocean.  Posh doesn't begin to describe it.  The apartments have crown molding, marble bathrooms, high ceilings, very large rooms, and a terrace overlooking the ocean.  Here is the view from our terrace.

It was fascinating to study the design of this place.  All of the walkways were curved:  some designer determined that straight lines don't go with luxury.  In and around the lobby were huge aviaries with brilliantly colored parrots, peacocks — white as well as the usual emerald, and other birds that provided lovely bird music.  The grass was apparently cut with manicure scissors, blade by blade.  On the grounds were swans and flamingos.  These flamingos were sleeping, the head tucked under a wing, one leg tucked under a body.  How come they don't fall over?

The beach was actually the only less-than-perfect part.  At low tide you could see all the rocks in the water, not very inviting for a dip.  The beach sloped down steeply (you can see that in the picture above with me and Natalie), and the lounge chairs were hard plastic that hurt my butt.  But the beach was more-than-perfect for looking at.

Pueblo Bonito had four or five restaurants, most very pricey, and a little store where you could buy groceries if you wanted to cook in the apartments (cooktop, microwave, coffee maker, blender for margaritas, toaster, pots, dishes, silverware).  The prices at the little store were breathtakingly expensive, and in fact if you weren't careful you could spend a wild fortune.  One night we went into the bar, oops, excuse me, the lounge, and made the mistake of having a glass of wine without asking the price.  135 pesos:  $10 at the best exchange rate.  Plus tip.  It was very good that we drove because we could bring kitchen supplies with us, which we used often.

Mazatlán has about half a million people, including about 10,000 Americans and Canadians.  Many of them leave in the summer, when the heat and humidity are brutal.  Because of the heat and the salty air, the buildings are in worse shape than in San Miguel, needing but not always getting new paint every other year.  The city is stretched out along a few miles of coastline, there is a wide promenade along the entire length, and there are many casual restaurants on the beach under palm-frond palapa roofs.  The beach there is perfect.  Tourist-related business is bad ever since the American cruise ship lines cancelled Mazatlan as a stop earlier this year after some violence there.  We saw a number of closed businesses, although Natalie, who has been visiting annually for eight years, says that closed businesses and turnover are standard.

Mazatlán is the shrimp capital of Mexico, and Natalie knew where the shrimp market was:  a dozen or so women who sell just-caught shellfish from large plastic tubs.

I gorged on shrimp all the time we were there:  the prices were wonderful.  Great big shrimp that in the US would cost $20 a pound, heads off, cost 110 pesos a kilo, less than $4 a pound.  Now that I'm back, I checked the prices of shrimp that size at Mega, the supermarket I shop at:  350 pesos a kilo.  Gives me a healthy appreciation for markup.  And we bought fresh scallops, too.  Natalie, who is a gourmet cook, had a way of serving them I didn't know, and loved.  This is fine for an appetizer or a main dish.

Natalie's Scallops

Raw scallops
Sprinkle to taste with fresh lime juice, hot sauce, freshly ground pepper, and chopped parlsey

And that's the recipe!  Superb.

We went into Mazatlan most days.  We had dinners out probably two-thirds of the time and went shopping.  We also went to two performances, a modern dance and a symphony orchestra (the 1812 Overture and Mahler's First Symphony —  wonderful noisy percussion in both), both of which were superb.  The classical music concerts I go to here in San Miguel, like the otherwise excellent violin and piano concert earlier this evening, are attended it seems exclusively by gringos.  An entirely expat audience feels to me like an artificial island set down in the middle of a living sea.  Being a minority in the Mexican audience in Mazatlan felt very good, as if somehow the music and the whole concert experience were more real that way.

At the end of the Mahler concert on Saturday night — box seats for 250 pesos, about $19, the refurbished Machado Square on which the concert hall is located was brimming with people in restaurants, live music, vendors of about 5 million pairs of earrings and necklaces, and throngs of people having a wonderful time.

The modern dance concert in Mazatlan was free, and Natalie and I were astonished that a free concert would be of such high caliber.  As we were talking about this after the performance, a man in his 20s overheard us and explained with evident pride and in very good English that the Sinaloa state government sponsored performances like this to promote culture among the citizens.  I loved that he was so young and that he cared enough about something I'd imagine few of his counterparts in the US would care about to explain it to us.  And it was also good associating the name Sinaloa with cultural life instead of a drug cartel.

Both concerts we went to were held in a refurbished historic hall, El Teatro Angela Peralta.  This theater is as important to Mazatlan as Carnegie Hall is to New York, both of them resurrected from abandonment and transformed into something beautiful.  Angela Peralta was a Mexican soprano, 1845-1883, who had a stellar international career and died at age 38 in Mazatlan after a concert at the hall, then named something else. The story is that she married her lover on her deathbed, very romantic, but there remains a question about whether she was conscious when she did so.  More than one theater in Mexico is named after her, including ours here in San Miguel. 

We went to the Mazatlan aquarium, where I got to kiss a sea lion in the sea lion show and stroke a parrot in the bird show.  I also said hello to a crocodile, who was obviously saying hello back.

And on this trip I also got to meet an iguana up close!  It has dry warm skin like a snake.

The shell shop in town had an enormous pool on its second floor:  you can extrapolate from the shallow curve how big this pool is.  Koi were swimming happily in an environment I wouldn't have associated with them, a blue-tiled pool with water maybe 8" deep.  (Although how do I know?  Maybe the koi die every night and are replaced every morning.)  The outside of the pool was beautifully covered with an intricate mosaic made out of dozens of kinds of shells. 

One day we had lunch at a restaurant, La Puntilla, near the port.  We watched the fish in the harbor jumping joyously out of the water and back in again. Well, "joyously" is my interpretation.  Here is the view from our table.

All in all, a marvelous trip!

Back home in San Miguel, I saw the electric garage door opener that had been installed while I was away.  I had made a big point of insisting that there be no garage-door support structure overhead to block the view one gets of the jacaranda trees and the bougainvillea coming in the front door.  Gerardo, the contractor, had suggested that instead of the usual door that pulls up overhead which would require a big armature right smack in the way of the sight line, that we have two doors opening out from the middle.  Brilliant solution!

The people who came to install the opener said that a big overhead iron structure, parallel to the front wall and stretching from the casita to the casa walls, was necessary even for outward-opening doors.  Rick was here, thank goodness, and he and Gerardo called me.  I asked Gerardo to tell the installers that he had an impossible client who absolutely refused to do it that way and insisted that they find a better way to do it.  Blame me:  I have broad shoulders!

And the squeaky wheel got the oil!  Here is the structure that was installed, supported from above and not from side to side.  I took this picture leaning against the casa wall; Rick's casita is on the other side.  When you come in the front door you see the trees, not the structure.  The doors open smoothly, silently, and perfectly.  And every time I see the craftsmanship of the woodwork, I marvel anew.

The weather is definitely cooler at night now, so since I got back six days ago I've been sleeping in the bedroom and not on the sleeping porch.  The stone/cement houses are cool and the night-time temperatures are in the low 50s or upper 40s, so when you get up in the morning you put on warm clothes.  And then you go out in the afternoon and are hot because the sunshine is warm and the temperature is in the 70s.  Or you wear light clothes for outside and are cold when you come inside.  I am having a hard time remembering that when I go out at 4:30 while the sun is still shining and it's nice and warm out, and will come home two or three hours later, as I did tonight with the chamber music concert that started at 5:00, the temperature plunges a good 10 to 15 degrees as soon as the sun goes down.  Brrrr!

Mexican houses don't have central heating (or double-pane insulated windows or doors) but instead have gas heaters.  Poor houses have no heat source at all, and people bundle up.  It's a progression from heating the whole house to heating a room to heating the person.  In my house I have two original gas heaters about 18" by 30",  attached to the walls in the living room and the study.  I have no idea how old they are.  Here's one.

To make them work, you first turn the valve (bottom right) that opens the gas line.  Then you turn a knob (that you can't see on the top) to "pilot."  Then you hold this knob down to make the gas flow and press a button, hard, to create an ignition spark.  If all goes well you get a small pilot flame.  Then you turn the knob past pilot to low/medium/high heat, and the gas burns over less or more of the white grill space accordingly.  This is an open fire, in a house!  It looks so dangerous, but I guess I'll get used to it.  And of course it's like a fireplace with the heat from one localized source, not nice all-over heat from baseboards or multiple floor vents.  Oh well, nothing is perfect.  But what compensations, like the fireworks I hear outside right now.  People are enjoying themselves, and that happiness is contagious.



  1. Thanks for the travelogue. Love that last sunset shot. Good one, Jo!

  2. dahling you look fabulous! obviously this life agrees with you. i am jealous of the cooking and house designing. the place is a dream.