mexico diaries 4: A day in the life of…

9/25/98

Life goes on more or less as usual here in la Ciudad de Mexico, though we haven’t had much to do with it lately, due to having spent two weeks in California at sibling’s houses and then at the San Diego Comics Convention, and then, ten days later, two weeks with first my sister, Justine, and then my mother. Everyone has gone home now and we are left alone again with our neglected studio staring us in the face, at least until the next trip.
With Justine, I went to Oaxaca City for the first time and was impressed by its beauty as well as its tourist-quotient. I’m always surprised when I leave my little ‘hood (and, especially, the city entirely) to see all the gringos who visit down here. We’re really (fortunately) off the tourist track. Still, for a few days, Oaxaca was great.
We did Monte Alban (huge, mysterious archelological site), we did Santo Domingo church and the new, gorgeous museum in the restored Domincan abbey next door (highly recommended), we admired the rain, we sat in the square being accosted by Indian ladies to buy useless wooden items such as bookmarks and chocolatl whippers (that’s the Aztec language—Nahuatl—for chocolate, by the way. You know chocolate comes from here.), and we shopped like crazy for handicrafts. We also ate mediocre Italian food at a beautiful restaurant that any owner of an Italian joint in the US would give up a limb to look like. Aged stone (colonial) walls around a courtyard covered by a cloth “roof”, with a probably-400-year-old bubbling fountain in it, and remnants of frescoes on the wall. Our waiter, Ignacio, was impressed that we wanted our pasta spicy, and explained in a confidential manner that they couldn’t normally do that because of the “touristas”. One of the best ways to get a good tip out of the Abel sisters is to imply that one doesn’t consider us “touristas”, and it was made all the more charming by the fact that Ignacio didn’t seem to realize what he’d just done for his pocketbook.

By the time my mom arrived, I was already pretty wiped, so we stayed more or less in the Ciudad, with one day trip to Xochimilco (pron. “so-she-mil-ko”), a town just south of the city that was originally a farming area of the Aztecs. This city (like my city of origin, interestingly enough) was built on a marshy lake. The original town was on an island in the midst of the lake, but as time went on, the Aztecs developed this farming method by which they built huge rafts, and planted on them. Over time, the rafts rooted to the shallow bottom of the lake, and the city became a series of man-made islets separated by canals. The Venice of the New World, it was called. The Spaniards, when they arrived, had no idea how to deal with the sophisticated canal, water, and waste-disposal systems of the Aztecs, so, after admiring the shockingly beautiful city, covered in flowers, they killed (by violence or disease) most of the inhabitants and dumped their bodies in the canals, thus filling most of them up.

The only place where there is any vestige of the antique system is in Xochimilco. Having long been interested in ancient plumbing (see J. Abel, “Roman Sewers”, 8th grade Latin class oral report), I was fascinated by this aspect. Mom just got all caught up by the fact that they call it “floating gardens”, which they aren’t. But they do provide a goodly proportion of the flowers and plants to the rest of the city from their lovely plant nurseries.
We went on a very slow day, and got poled around the really quite beautiful canals in a cool raft-like boat (a “trajinera”), getting accosted by vendors of various goods and serices—also on boats—every few minutes. We bought our lunch from a floating restaurant, beer from a floating bar (ok, ok, floating bucket), and could have bought everything from serapes and silver jewelry to a serenade from a floating marimba band. The best was seeing these bigMexican family parties or tourists on package tours floating along, two huge boats abreast, with small serape-vendor boats, restaurant boats, photographer boats, and a few boats of Mariachis in full swing, all sort of glommed on to the sides, drunk tourists getting their instant poloroids taken by floating photogs while wearing serapes and cheesy mariachi hats. It was great.
We stopped on the way back, and bought me a couple of flowering plants to lug back from one of the many nurseries.

One is a plant called a serie (no, I’ve never heard of it either), a climbing vine with dark green glossy leaves and red and yellow fuzzy tube-like flowers that resemble nothing so much as living candy corn. Maybe that’s where it comes from. More seriously,”serie” means “series”, and is what Mexicans call Christmas lights.

Today, however, was the day that inspired me to get around to writing. After all, we didn’t do much independence celabrating on Independence Day (Sept 16), though we did have a blast staying up until 6 am celebrating our friend Rogelio’s birthday, but we made up for it today: Todo Mexicano. We started out at noon, picking up pay for illustrations from Business Mexico, a business magazine the American Chamber of Commerce puts out here. OK, so that’s not so Mexican (though I did have to explain how to set up my computer files to the cover designer yesterday—in Spanish), but then we walked out on to Paseo de la Reforma, the huge, palm-tree-lined, beautiful avenue that cuts diagonally through the city. Reforma is the site of most of the biggest and most famous monuments, notably the Monumento de la Independencia, a flashy gold angel (thus its common name: el Angel) on top of a 75-or-so-foot-tall column (don’t hold me to that number; I’m terrible at estimating distance), lit up gloriously at night, and the focal point of all World Cup-related hooliganism, which explains why, during every World Cup game, there were hundreds of machine gun-wielding cops swarming over the Angel’s stairs. Not that the cop or the machine-gun part is unusual, just the concentration and location of said cops. Also, since these monuments (el Angel, la Diana, the palm tree, the monument to Cuauhtemoc, etc.) are in the middle of the road, it creates a roundabout-like structure to the street every so often along the way. I say “roundabout-LIKE” for a reason, as it isn’t actually a roundabout. No, the traffic changes direction every time the lights change. It’s like one huge, insane, incomprehensible intersection. And the contrast between the beautiful monuments and the ridiculous, dangerous traffic is JUST SO MEXICO!

Anyway, we went out onto Reforma, and hailed one of the infamous bug-cabs, because we were late for El Santo Contra Las Mujeres Vampiros ((El Santo (the saint) Versus the Vampire Women) reputed to be one of his all-time best films!). OK, so you can get mugged and kidnapped in these cabs. We were gonna miss SANTO! Not to be tolerated. It turned out that, as is often the case, our taxista was a nice and careful man, prominently displaying his credentials. Sigh of relief. We landed in the Centro about two blocks from the theater with two minutes to spare, and booked over there, ducking into a theater so black, we had to stand 15 minutes before our eyes adjusted sufficiently to find seats.

The movie was in black and white, and, due to the Vampiras, naturally took place entirely during the night, so it was pretty dim, which didn’t help the seat-finding. The sound was terrible too, so I couldn’t understand anything, but, what the heck, who cares, we were experiencing our first Santo movie. For those of you who don’t know, El Santo is the most famous of the masked wrestlers, and starred in everything from photonovelas (photographic comic books) to movies. Kinda like Hulk Hogan, only more so, and sporting a classy-ass silver mask the entire time. Never, ever takes it off. Sleeps in it, eats in it, reads his own comic in it. Santo zipped around in his silver sportscar, wore a snazzy cape, and burned all the Vampiras to death. Cool. Best parts: the father of the girl the Vampiras are trying to take into their ranks has all these egyptian papyrus manuscripts that describe a prophesy that his daughter would be taken by the Vampiras on her 21st birthday (ohmygahd, tomorrow!) which will signal the beginning of Armageddon, unless a hero in a silver mask saves her (Eres TU, Santo!), and, plus, the cool radio/satellite/tv device which the profesor uses to call Santo into action: the prof can see him even while he’s driving his silver car! (Llamando a Santo, llamado urgente, contesta Santo, cambio!)

When we staggered out into the bright sunshine, we saw that the theater is in fact in a beautiful, courtyard-sporting colonial building of three stories, owned by UNAM (the big, nay, HUGE university here), and the movie was part of a series they were putting on. The courtyard had a fountain and a simple but pretty garden in it, with a large tree, which provided shade and a pleasant privateness that was in such total contrast to the chaos outside that it was hard to keep one state in my mind while I was in the other. That said, the building is in one of those slower side-streets in the Centro that has a sense of quietness, of oldness, like no where else in the city. Although the Centro is so beautiful and ancient in places, one never has the sense of a showplace or museum atmosphere. It is so actively, fully, even brutally used on a day-to-day basis, by everybody, that sometimes you forget to even look around you. Both sides of the street we were on held massive stone colonial buildings, many leaning at odd angles from the combination of the city’s sinking and earthquakes, many with doors open so that one could look inside and glimpse the green oases of the courtyards, always, always longing to go in and sit by the fountain. There was even a genuine stone-carver in the street, apparently shaping some blocks for repair to a nearby building.

Turning the corner from all this contemplation, we entered the Barette District, and, as I was in the market for some rather largeish, clip-close numbers, I was in luck. I soon found some mock-tortoiseshell 3-inchers that just fit the bill. We also passed through the Stuffed-Animal-Backpack District, but I took a pass on that one.

As we headed back towards the Zocalo (the huge central plaza, named after the platform of a statue that never went up), we passed Plaza Santo Domingo, otherwise known as “plaza of the typists” after the typists who line an arcade down one side of the smallish plaza and who will type whatever you like, from letters to yo’ mama to theses. There was a very loud, almost-all-girl salsa band playing on a temporary stage in the middle of the plaza, I have no idea why. A cute hipster girl in pigtails and camoflage pants was salsa-ing with her boy, which reinforced our resolution to get back to dancing. It’s funny, but it seems like everybody here knows how to salsa (though just how well depends on the person, of course), as well as all the words to many many traditional pop songs. It always makes me wish we had a common pop history in the US, and could all sing together.

Anyway, the typists. Also in the same arcade, are many many kiosks holding letterpress printers, right there, outside, in the open! It’s pretty incredible: I mean, letterpress is almost a lost art in the US. Frequently, artists who are interested in it can get complete sets of type from old commercial type shops who are getting rid of useless shit, for, like, dirt! No one wants it! But here, there’s a whole district devoted to printing business cards, invitations, whatever. Young men slapping together blocks of cold type at the speed of light, just like it must have been before hot type, linotype, and computers in the composition shops of newspapers across the land! There are really so many strange and distinctly un-modern printing methods readily available here, from this letterpress, to, possibly, block printing! Anyone who’s seen Artbabe v.2 #3, the “Baila la Artbabe” poster Artbabe is walking by is based on these really excellent, beautiful boxing and wrestling posters that are all over the city, and especially in the Centro. We haven’t tracked down the printers yet, though we’d like to, but I’m almost sure it’s a relief block-printed technique, just like those “wanted” posters in the Old West!! Every time I see something like the letterpress guys, my mind starts racing, trying to figure out what I could do, what kind of art book or poster I could print, how I could create something that would utilize this strange and precious resource. I haven’t done anything yet, and I just hope that I do before I leave here.

After wandering around, gazing at all the novelty items we could have letterpress printed or silkscreened (glasses, swizzle sticks, matchbooks, toothpick holders, etc.), we were faint with hunger, and managed to find, just around the corner, Hosteria Santo Domingo, founded in 1860. Decorated with so much red, white, and green that you would have thought it was still last week, we noticed that the vast majority of patrons were eating Chiles en Nogada, a festival dish (especially for Independence Day) that is seasonal (now), but that Hosteria Sto. Domingo serves Todo el Año!! Obviously a big fave, but, as we had tried this concoction of stuffed poblano peppers (stuffed with beef) covered with a thick and sweetish almond-based white sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (red, white and green! GET IT!?), a few weeks ago when my mother was in town, we took a pass. Kinda wierd, kinda gross. I ordered the cerdo (pork) with chile pasilla sauce. It was decent, though the pork sure resembled beef pot roast, and there was enough of it for at least three, with a token three cubes of potato on the side (one for each diner!!). We discovered chiles pasillas earlier this week, when Matt whipped up some fava bean soup a la Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen (a gift from the clever Steve Beal for my trip down south of the border). I recommend this book, though the food you will cook out of it will no more resemble Mexican food that either you or I have ever had than your momma’s pot roast resembles Julia Child’s steak au poivre. There’s a lot of tasty food there, and I’m sure the recipes are authentic, but where he got them? I have no idea. They taste…Mexican-ish. And delicious. Also, I warn you, if you start using the book, you will likely start making jokes like these: “Matt, how do you want your ice cream?” “I think we should roast it in a dry skillet until it is black in spots, let it cool, and then peel off the papery skin, conserving all the juices.” Ol’ Rick roasts everything, whereas I have almost never encountered roasty flavor in my Mexican food. Regardless, the book is worth it just for this fava soup recipe, which is fabulous, and easy, too, despite all the roasting. I recommend trying it, even to all those cooking morons out there (you know who you are). Soup is truly the lazy woman’s food. It takes a bit of prep, but then it keeps like crazy, and this one fed us for four days. Plus it’s cheap. But, if you do make it, don’t skip the chiles pasillas part! it’s the BEST! I’m a total pasillas convert. They are, like Rick says, sort of like a smoky, rich combo of, like, sun-dried tomatoes, cherries, chocolate, and chiles. And this is JUST ONE VEGETABLE! They are spicy, but not overly so. Any Mexican grocery should have them. Sigh. All that huge paragraph, and all I wanted to say was, I love pasillas!

After lunch, we stopped at a cantina on the corner to try some Mezcal (we’ve never tried it yet), but the guy said they don’t deal in mezcal, in a tone of voice that implied he’s saving us from ourselves, and we’d thank him later. So we had some tequila, which we have tried, in quantity, and I am a total convert. Throw away your Sauza crapola and head to the fancy liquor store, and get yourself some Casadores or Herradura, or something else aged (reposada or añejo) and relatively expensive! Sip slowly, savoring the taste, occasionally suck a bit of lime, but NO SALT please. Man, that’s the stuff!! Mmmm, I could use some of that right about now.

After a modest one tequila, we headed to the less-than-entirely-Mexicana Zara, a Spanish clothing store chain that we’re addicted to, just tipsy enough to recklessly spend a big wad of money on a bunch of swell new togs. On the way home, hit the coffee store for some fresh-ground Chiapan for Matt for tomorrow, and El Globo, our favorite bakery, the only one we’ve found whose chocolatines actually taste like real French chocloate crossants, to pick up breakfast.

Another welcome round of fava soup with pasilla topping for dinner, and here I am writing it all down! Ah, what a day. Not one of our usual ones, but one that shows up all the highlights of living in a new place, a new culture, and having a little time to kill.