Monday, March 26, 2012

The Sacred and the Profane

The solemn pilgrims bearing the bloody "Lord of the Column"
arrived at dawn in San Miguel to church bells and fireworks
after an all night pilgrimage from the sanctuary of Atotonilco.

Later the same day, a parade of costumed "locos" dance and march down our street
to the lively blaring of a brass band to celebrate who knows what.

Easter is coming and the suffering of Christ is celebrated with elaborate ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims carry the bloodied and beaten image of Jesus several miles through the desert arriving at dawn in San Miguel to fireworks, the clanging of church bells and beautiful carpets of scented flowers releasing the scent of chamomile, fennel and oranges as the dusty feet of the pilgrims trample them on their journey to the church. Clusters of shawled grandmothers sing hymns and battered trumpets play a sad and mournful tune as the hunched figure of the 'Lord of the Column' wobbles by above the dark heads of the faithful.
We sip chocolate atole and munch tamales from the sidelines as the sun rises into the lightening sky, casting macabre shadows on the nearby crumbling walls.

In the afternoon I run out of my house to the sound of oompa music, only to see doorways opening up and down the street from which dozens of costumed people emerge wearing masks and feathers, dancing and wiggling down the street followed by a brass band. Old ladies and children dressed as birds, aliens, rabbits and devils. The 'Locos' bumping and grinding and twirling down the cobblestones under plastic banners, surrounded by clouds of dust and crazy joy.

In Mexico, everything is a contradiction. Or maybe it just appears that way to those of us who are accustomed to a logical order to things and a predictable, insulated life. In order to maintain one must learn to be in the moment and remind oneself over and over that everything changes constantly. Because it does.
Not only in the external world, but in the emotional world as well. Moods swing from elation to sadness to frustration to tenderness in a heartbeat.


posted by Susan (reposted from Notes from the Island blog- 2010)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Packing Mescal

I was invited by friend and fellow Mexican homebrewer Barry to go on a little road trip the other day. A 90 mile excursion north to the 'Valley of the Kings' near the city of San Luis Potosi located in the Free and Sovereign State of San Luis Potosi. Our goal? Cheap but delicious mezcal.

The wheel that crushed the agave
Barry drove us North East for most of the ninety miles through the wide open spaces of the high desert. Vast expanses of beautiful Mexican countryside flew past us as he swerved around the slow moving farm tractors and autobuses until we reach a rugged unpaved road off the highway leading us to the mescaleria slash dairy farm. A couple of farm hands (possibly armed guards) removed the padlock from the chained gate allowing us to enter. They didn't question our motives, our thirst for alcohol obviously evident on our parched faces.

 Secret door to the mezcal

Another couple hundred yards of driveway and we came to an adobe building as old as the hills and the same color with the exception of the printed sign claiming to be the "Fabrica de Mezcal San Francisco". The excitement was building as we entered the compound. Nobody was around and I took the opportunity to get a couple of photographs of the antique machinery. This was at one time a large scale operation judging by the enormous grinding wheel and press used to process the agave pina for it's sugars, but most of this equipment obviously hadn't been used in many years.

You may ask what the difference is between mescal and tequila? Mainly, in any product distilled from the maguey, it's the type of plant. There are numerous plants that fall into this family. The blue agave that grows within the state of Jalisco is considered and sanctioned by Mexico as 'True' tequila. But, generally speaking, it can be considered tequila if it is produced using only the blue agave plant no matter the region. Mescal (spelled with a z in Spanish) can be made with a variety of plants and raicilla is made with an entirely different plant. In other words, the plant type is the main difference.

Barrels of fun
Plasticos de mezcal

It wasn't long before a farmhand met us and then disappeared through a pair of ancient wooden doors into the darkness of the earthen building. The new equipment somewhere deep within was kept hidden from prying eyes, like mine. We were not allowed into the facility to see their operation and I was disappointed about this but it didn't stop me from shoving my camera into the doorway to get of shot of a wooden barrel used for aging the mescal. I could also see our attendant pouring mescal through a funnel from large plastic drums into our smaller containers. But, that was about it.

He brought the filled containers back out and we paid the 35 peso per liter fee and thanked him for his efforts. 35 pesos by the way, at today's rate, is the equivalent of about $2.50 a liter. For good home distilled mescal, that's an amazing cost. I was anxious to sample some and just outside I took a sip from my bottle. Smooth and dry with a mild smokey flavor. In the wrong hands (mine) I could tell this could get you into trouble. Easy to drink and flavorful with none of the burn or bite in the back of the throat. Barry suggested it be drunk chilled with lime. I'll be taking his suggestion very soon. This is a lot different than the mescal I brought back from the Palomas Mensajeras distillery in Patzcuaro a couple of years ago. It is far less smokey and judging from the taste and burn I'd say it has a lower percentage of alcohol too but I can't determine that at this time.As we posed for a picture outside I experienced a bit a container envy as I held one of my two 600 milliliter water bottles and compared it to Barry's five (count them 5) full gallon jugs set at our feet.

Packing for home

But, I was preparing to leave San Miguel in a few days and I needed to consider how much I could pack into my checked baggage. I hear you're only allowed 2 liters of alcohol at the most. I've also got some raicilla and a bottle of tequila infused beer that needed to be packed, so this was the most mescal I dared take.
I'm excited to share this mescal with my homebrew club when I return to Santa Cruz and maybe do a taste comparison with the raicilla but for now I need to get busy, I've got a few homebrews to drink before we leave San Miguel. Cheers!


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Gifts of San Antonio

San Antonio
We wake up every morning to the sound of sweeping, and something that sounds like a cross between a monkey and a rooster. It's the grandmother, the Abue', sweeping up the leaves and bougainvillea blossoms in the garden below with Picotes, her pet crow hopping beside her, chuckling and cawing in what appears to be a vain attempt to mimic the human language and the roosters next door. She shuffles along in her pink bedroom slippers, a long silver braid down her back. He picks up a magenta flower in his beak from the swept pile and the Abue' knocks him  aside with her broom and he squawks and flutters his blunted wings at her. It is an endless game they play together, and is becoming as familiar to us as the church bells, the tap tapping of metal at the nearby herraduria, and the ceaseless coo of palomas in the nearby tree branches.

The Abue' never smiles or says buenos dias to us, unlike the old woman in the shop on the corner, who sits day after day in her dark empty store before a table of dried pomegranates, nodding and mumbling to everyone who walks by. One day I went inside and offered her a mango from my bolsa full of produce. Is it dulce? She asked me, and I said that I hoped that it was very sweet. Good, she said, then I will save it for my postre. Her eyes twinkled in that way of old Mexican women who look ancient beyond their years, and I wanted to ask her who she was and what happened to her shop. Intead I just stood there with my bag of fruit and vegetables and then just left, somehow realizing that one mango is not enough to win such confidence. These things take time.

Maneuvering over the broken concrete steps outside, I stumble past a pile of used dog-eared books laid in neat rows on the cobblestones. Poetry books, pulp fiction and philosophy, dusty old encyclopedias, a stack of ancient National geographic magazines. Felipe sits in the doorway of his house, the one with the roosters and puppies and plants in rusty coffee cans vying for space in a tiny dirt courtyard that I can see from my rooftop. He dreams of owning a bookstore one day, but can not afford the rent, because most of his earnings go to medical bills for his six year old daughter who suffers from a kidney disorder. I buy a Mexican cookbook and a Spanish grammar book for Mark, which he will open only once. Why don't you advertise? I ask him. Put a few flyers around, get the word out, rather than depend on the randomness of passersby? But he just shrugs. Poco a poco, he says. Little by little. He is in no hurry, he can wait for the world to find him. There is plenty of time for dreams to come true. I smile as I bite my capitalist tongue, and open the door to my apartment. Wait, says Felipe, holding up a thin, yellow-paged book of Spanish short stories titled Los Angelos Blancos del Delirio- The White Angels of Delirium. You will like this one, he says, and hands it to me, smiling. A gift.

The street where we live

Sometimes I feel a little guilty about my own personal struggles, which at times seem to pale in comparison to my neighbors here in la colonia San Antonio, who struggle on a daily basis with health and poverty and yet seem to manage playfulness and dignity and an inner strength that I could only hope to achieve. And yet I see us all sharing a similar human need for purpose and meaning in our lives, whatever form that takes. Even if it is only for ourselves. 

A statue of San Antonio himself watches over us from the corner of the church down the street. He rises up above a dry fountain, clutching a pink plastic lily. I used to think it was real, and that the people replaced it with a fresh one every day. It was Mark who quelled my romantic notions and gave me a harsh reality check. In his gentle down to earth manner, and with much rolling of eyes, by telling me 'It's plastic, for godsakes!' And of course he's right. Nevertheless, San Antonio, patron saint of lost and stolen articles, has helped me find my heart, which I perhaps didn't even know I had lost until now. My heart, that stubborn and fearful beast, is being pried open, poco a poco, by every person I meet here in the broken streets of my neighborhood.

Picotes the crow takes the bright bougainvillea blossom to a corner of the garden and buries it beneath a pile of debris. Who knows why he does this? Perhaps in his own feathered way he is finding a purpose, a way of holding on to something beautiful and precious. Or perhaps he is just following an ancient crow ritual or instinct that even he does not understand.

-posted by Susan

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pages From Mark's Journal

O.K. I get it. Writing is hard. Sometimes you're just not inspired even when immersed in a unique and exciting culture like here in San Miquel, where anything can happen. What to do? You could dig deep into your psyche and dredge up a little creative poetry that captures the essence of a moment or that tells a story about your Mexican experience. Some creative writing that inspires, repels or just plane lays out the truth of the matter.

Getting ready to throw a treat to the landlords dog below
our balcony. Maybe he'll stop

That's one option, or as some (who shall remain nameless Susan) might do, you could simply take the easy way out and post a few drawings of the local scenes that you've captured over the weeks. Maybe add a caption below each with a single sentence that sums up the poignant moment.

Just as I was about to enjoy a cup of coffee
at Juan's Cafe, an elderly man begins to
explain to his hard of hearing friend, the
complications of his recent colonoscopy.
Evidently, there was some sort of vein
perforation involved.
"Who's hungry for breakfast?"
While walking the path at the Charco desert
park we came upon what appeared to
be some kind of strange fox/racoon half breed.
Oh yeah, and a bird.

Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander as they say so I submit in like manner these drawings that I hope will accurately convey my recent activities here in the Corazon de Mexico.

- Posted by Mark