Days 15 and 16: Sunset over Guanajuato

And so it ends.

After 16 days in Mexico I head home tomorrow, Continental Airlines and a 6:15 a.m. taxi ride to the airport willing. It took me about a half hour tonight to figure out the proper protocol for calling a Mexican cell phone from Skype, and in a half-English, half-Spanish conversation I arranged with the taxi driver where to pick me up tomorrow morning (there isn’t actually a passable road by the house). I’d put the odds of actually seeing the taxi driver at 6:15 a.m. tomorrow somewhere around 20%, but I’ve left myself enough wiggle room that if I have to walk into town and find a taxi I should be OK. If I’m posting tomorrow night from Guanajuato you’ll know this theory didn’t hold.

I finally kicked my cold to the curb today and spent the better part of the afternoon on one last walk around town. I did some small souvenir shopping, took a last turn around Mercado Hidalgo, walked through a part of the city I hadn’t visited and stopped at a restaurante on the main plaza to have a bowl of soup and do some people watching. My verdict, to quote Depeche Mode, is that people are people.

Before stopping for soup I spent some time sitting on a bench in my favorite plaza, just enjoying the warm afternoon sun. I was joined on the bench by a guy named “Brian” from Guanajuato, who looked to be in his 20s and who proceeded to strike up a conversation in English complaining that Guanajuato was “too boring,” had “not enough nightclubs” and that Mexican women were not as interesting as American women. I wasn’t sure if he was bored, looking to practice English, trying to hit on me or just a general chatty Cathy, but we had a lengthy and amusing conversation in English and Spanish.

On my way home I took the funicular (a Spanish word meaning “tiny rickety mountainside cable car operated by what looked to be a 12-year-old”) up to El Pípila, a famous monument overlooking the city. El Pípila was a hero of the Mexican War of Independence, and the monument (and the view) were both quite spectacular.

Conveniently, the monument is also up on the same mountain as my casita, so it was a 10 minute walk and descent on a staircase to get back home, instead of the usual climb. A very nice way to cap off the trip.

Reflections On This Trip

Overall I consider this trip a marvelous success. I’ve had fun, I was able to work seamlessly with my office back in the U.S. (and very productively), it was delightful to spend the dreariest part of the Portland winter bathed in the Mexican sunshine and I never got overwhelmingly lonely or homesick thanks to the Internet.

Some key learnings and pluses:

It was a great decision to pay a few more bucks and get the casita I wanted. Having a comfortable home with a great view made being here extremely pleasant. The difference between the place I stayed for the first three days (decent) and the second place was night and day. It was also much better to be within five minutes walking distance of downtown.

Skype is my friend. I brought my iPhone but kept it in Airplane Mode the whole time so it wouldn’t get any calls, texts or data (the AT&T international rates are obscene). But with Skype on my iPhone, which works via wi-fi, I was able to make calls for a nominal two cents per minute that were better quality than regular phone calls on my iPhone at home. Seriously, the quality was stunning. I also used a service on my iPhone called Line2, which works via wi-fi as well. It was not nearly as reliable as Skype, but came in handy the last two days when Skype blew up worldwide for 48 hours. The only negative to the whole communication plan was that I was incommunicado any time I was away from wi-fi. For the most part that was fine, as I could always have popped into an Internet cafe or other place with wi-fi if I’d needed to while I was out. In practice, I didn’t need to.

I was worried that everywhere would be filled with smokers, but very few people were smoking here, and nobody smoked in restaurants or anywhere else I was in public. It may still be a problem in other parts of the world, but not here.

Coming to a town that is a cultural hub was a happy accident, but a great one. Going to see awesome and cheap concerts in beautiful venues was one of the highlights of being here.

I think I picked the right amount of time to be here. Long enough that I had time to settle in and stop feeling like a tourist (and I didn’t have to feel disappointed for losing a bunch of days to being sick), but not so long that I got too homesick. I do miss my gal, though.

And a few things to improve on for next time:

Guanajuato was sunny, but cold. The nights here get down to the mid-30s, and insulation is non-existant. I was cold a lot, even during the day. I think my next winter trip will be to somewhere warmer, or at least somewhere that has more insulation and heat. 🙂

I’m not an extrovert, so I didn’t spend a lot of time striking up conversations with strangers. I might arrange for language lessons or some other kind of forced socializing the next time I travel, just to have a reason to meet people.

Speaking of Spanish, with a little more effort I could actually be much more passable in the language. I think future trips to Spanish-speaking countries would be enhanced by considerably more practice than just listening to an hour of podcasts on the plane flight down. I did fine, but I could do way better. And I think more confidence in Spanish would help with the above point about meeting people.

And finally, while the iPhone camera is decent, I wish I’d had a real camera. I don’t think I completely captured the beauty of the city.

As I was walking down the callejon into the city this afternoon I was feeling wistful about leaving. The beauty and peace that I’ve found here have been renewing and invigorating. I reminded myself that, sad as I am to leave, I can always come back another time. But on reflection, I doubt I’ll be back. Not because I don’t love Guanajuato, but because there’s so much more of the world to see. This trip has opened up doors for me. And for that, I will always remember my time here with a special fondness.

Thanks for reading.

Andrew Berkowitz
Guanajuato, Mexico
December 2010 

Days 13 and 14: In Sickness and in Health, But Mostly in Sickness

I’ve been holed up in the house with a cold the last two days (and by “holed up” I mean sitting in the sun on the terrace, sipping fresh squeezed orange juice and reading celebrity gossip on the Internet). Today, as I sat on the tiled patio, a hummingbird with a beautiful red body flew past my ear and hovered over my head. I took it to be some kind of a magical sign. In fact, the Aztecs of Mexico prized hummingbird talismans as being emblematic of sexual potency, energy and vigor. On second thought, I think this hummingbird just had the wrong address.

I was completely out of food yesterday, so I did venture out to the tortilleria, the mercado and the grocery store to pick up enough to eat for a few days. The nice lady at the fruit and vegetable stand where I’ve become a regular (if 10 days makes a “regular”) laughed when my purchase came to the exact same 22 pesos as it had the day before. Apparently I have a knack for buying 22 pesos worth of fruits and vegetables. Twenty-two pesos here equals 10 mandarin oranges, two chile peppers, four tomatoes, an onion and a lime. Not bad for $1.77.  I’ve been buying 10 mandarinas every time I go shopping, which makes two nice glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice, and adds enough weight to my trip back up the hill that I feel like Ivan Drago training in the Siberian mountains in Rocky IV.

Being sick, my shopping trip yesterday completely wore me out. Today I didn’t have the energy to venture forth, knowing I’d have to make the trudge back up the hill at less than full strength. Luckily, I don’t have to leave the house for entertainment — there’s always the nightly fare at the plaza just down the hill. Last night it was loud Mexican versions of Beatles music, with lyrics that in no way resembled the original lyrics. Tonight it was some sort of foklorico dance group.

On my walk yesterday, a group of teenage boys were hanging out at the end of the callejon giving each other buzz cuts with an electric razor. They tried to convince me to let them buzz my hair, but I declined with a smile. If I’d been feeling better I might have gone for it. What better souvenir then a Mexican faux hawk.

Other excitement in the neighborhood, as viewed from the terrace, has included a man carrying a car battery along the callejon, nightly Navidad processions with candles and singing, and a fair number of opportunities to watch the courtship rituals and post-coital pillow bark of local dogs.

There are dogs everywhere here, vaguely wild, barking and howling at all hours, all across the city. Bob Barker would be spinning in his grave if he were here, and if he were dead. This week leading up to Christmas also appears to be fireworks week in Guanajuato, so there are fireworks going off in the neighborhood at all hours, each of which sets the hundreds of neighborhood dogs to a new round of barking. 

I have only seen the occasional cat (perhaps owing to the dogstravaganza). While walking down Calle Tecolote yesterday a pretty gray cat sat in a doorway regarding me with the typically cat-like mixture of curiosity and suspicion. I knelt down to pet it, talking in a low, soothing voice. This thought flashed through my mind: “Why are you talking to the cat? It only speaks Spanish.”  The lack of oxygen at this altitude may cause brain damage.

Last night was the eclipse, which of course was spectacular here as there have not been any clouds in Guanajuato since 1937 (estimated). I had gone to bed at 10:30 p.m., but awoke around 1:30 a.m. and was able to see the eclipse through most of its cycle. It was a transcendent and magical sight, dampened only slightly by the barking of 24,398 dogs (estimated).

Today’s big excitement (and this should offer a window into what it’s like to hang out with Andrew when he’s sick) was shaving with a blade for the first time in, oh, 25 years. I had brought my electric razor with me, but neglected to bring the charging cord, so it was inevitable that the shaver would eventually run out of juice. Like the miracle of Hanukkah, my shaver hung on for a whopping 12 days of shaves, but on the 13th day, lo it did creepeth to a halt. Thus I faced the choice of either going unshaven for five says (not unprecedented) or going down to la farmacia and getting myself a razor blade and some shaving cream. I decided I didn’t feel like playing the part of the scruffy, unshaven American backpacker for my last week here, so I dutifully lathered up and took a clumsy but ultimately successful whack at shaving off two+ days of stubble. I have to say, my face is now baby smooth, much more so than achieved by my electric shaver. I could get used to this. I want to find the teenagers at the end of the callejon and see if we can get a shaving party going. I’m probably going to get myself deported.

Although it’s been kind of dull cooped up at home with a cold, I do feel that I’ve already done my share of touristy stuff, so the last couple days have been a good opportunity to slow down and just “be” in Guanajuato. I’m glad that I planned enough time here that I don’t have to frantically rush around trying to see and do it all. A big part of my master plan was exactly that: just being somewhere without having to play tourist all day.

It’s past midnight as I write this. The wind is blowing outside and every so often I hear voices outside my door as someone walks up the steps that lead past this casita to other houses higher up the hill. I have two more full days here, and then I fly home on Friday. There are a couple other things I’d like to see in town if I have time, perhaps a few more souvenirs to buy, but I feel as though I’ve gotten what I came here for: Some peace, some sun, and a chance to explore what it’s like to work away from home for a few weeks during the dreariest part of the Pacific Northwest winter. I’m ready to go home, but I’m glad to have been here.

The moon rising over Guanajuato, hours before the lunar eclipse.

Day 12: Viral Marketgoing

Well, I came down with a cold, so I didn’t really do much of anything today other than laundry. At night I wandered into town to eat some fajitas (delicious, made with some sort of chile pepper) and bought 10 mandarinas at the mercado to make orange juice.

Here’s a photo of the moon rising over Guanajuato, while I was eating dinner.

Day 11: No Molestar Mi Siesta

This is the week the 2011 Guinness Book of World Records is released. Coincidentally, I attempted to set the new world record for napping today, piling one siesta on top of another for a grand total of nearly four hours. In fairness, I’m coming down with a little cold, which is why I was so wiped out.

Napping in Guanajuato, particularly on a weekend, is always a challenge because of the sheer volume of loud music pumping throughout the city, coming from clubs, plazas, houses, and in today’s case, from a wedding reception at the bottom of the hill. I fell asleep to Girl from Ipanema in one nap and awoke to Creep by Radiohead. Later, a rock band started playing just down the hill, ripping through a Mexican cover of Iron Man by Black Sabbath. This almost certainly cost me the World Nap Record.

In the evening I dragged myself into town to the Teatro Juárez to see tonight’s concert: Pancho Madrigal y El Borlote. Pancho is a well known singer, songwriter and guitarist, in his 70s with a rich voice that has echoes of Johnny Cash. His band featured a guitarist, an acoustic bass, percussion and jarana (a tiny guitar-like instrument that’s like a ukelele on steroids). They sang beautiful traditional songs with lovely harmonies and a wonderful give and take on all the instruments and voices. In the middle, all of the musicians except Pancho left the stage, and he performed three corridos, funny songs in which he would frequently stop playing music to tell a piece of the story before returning to his guitar. Unfortunately, though his Spanish was easy to understand when he was addressing the audience, the stories were mostly above my pay grade, Spanish comprehension-wise.

At the end of the concert, the band made the most token show of leaving in order to get the requisite shouts of “Otra!” from the crowd so they could do their encore.

After dinner I popped into a restaurant for a bowl of chicken soup. Although I’m worn down by this virus, the good news is that I’m finally starting to acclimate a bit to the altitude and the climb back up to the house has gone from punishing to merely difficult. Ah, progress.

Day 10: You Call That Hot Chocolate? THIS is Hot Chocolate!

Jesus is the MAN!

(More on that in a moment.)

I awoke to day 74,392 in a row of clear skies and not a cloud to be seen. The weather here is a bit like being in the movie Groundhog Day, only without the towering thespian achievements of Andie McDowell. Today’s forecast actually called for a 10% chance of precipitation, which seems a bit presumptuous considering the complete absence of “clouds.” There’s probably an equal chance that Megan Fox is going to come riding through my living room on a musk ox.

After a good day’s work I headed out for my daily stroll and tortilla reconnaissance. Today’s destination was the Museo del Pueblo, one of Guanajuato’s many, many museums. After initially walking in the wrong door (Mexico appears to be a little bit loosey-goosey with entrances and exits) I found my way to the real ingress and toured the museum. It has a bit of an eclectic collection. If I could describe the theme of the collection, I would call it: ”Stuff that’s in this museum.”

The ground floor housed an extended exhibit of miniatures. There’s a long tradition of miniatures in Mexico, which I suppose is awesome if you’re into dollhouses. This collection was a bit of everything under the sun. Miniature furniture, pottery, masks, animals … it was sort of like touring a Wal-Mart in Lilliput.

The next room was what I had actually come to see, an exhibit of coins from Guanajuato’s long history as a central mint for Mexico. This area was founded around a series of silver mines, and for a long period was the main location where coins were manufactured for the country. The display had historic coins from the past 300 years, plus some examples of how the coins were designed and stamped. Quite cool.

The second floor had a loosely-themed collection of paintings and drawings based around Mexico’s history of dance. It was a bit hodgepodge, although there was a TV showing excerpts from Mexican dance movies made in the 1950s. Delightful! One movie involved a midget putting the smackdown on someone who had stolen his girl. It looked to be the 1950s Mexican equivalent of Jackass.

The third floor had a collection of drawings by caricaturist Ernesto Garcia Cabral.

His work was a fascinating mix of caricatures and cartoons from the 1920s through the 1950s, and he seemed to be able to work in an impressive mix of styles. Several pieces that I loved were caricatures of musicians or conductors drawn directly on sheet music, and one particularly wonderful cartoon was a piece of music in which every note was a human figure. I believe that it was meant to represent the Mexican Congress. For just a moment I considered becoming an art thief. Considering the liberal nature of entrances and exits in the museum, I don’t think it would have been too tough.

Following the museum, I made my usual tortilla and mercado run for dinner ingredients, and returned home for a siesta and a home-cooked dinner of sauteed chicken with onions, garlic, red bell pepper, tomato and poblano pepper, finished with a generous squeeze of lime. Yum!

This evening I wandered out to take in the Friday night bustle in downtown Guanajuato. Right at the base of the hill beneath the house I stumbled onto a concert by Coro Shalom Maran-ata. As best I can figure, this is a Catholic(?) choir that sings up-tempo, rock-n-roll flavored Christmas music, accompanied by synthesizer, drums and a fair amount of handheld percussion. Their open air concert, in front of Teatro Cervantes, beneath a giant sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, was outstanding! At one point the conductor turned to sing a solo of her own, which she punctuated by sticking a finger in the air and shouting to the crowd “Jesus Cristo es el HOMBRE!”

At the end of the concert they gave away gift bags filled with small toys and candies. The kids in the audience stampeded as though the military had air-dropped pieces of Miley Cyrus into a middle school playground.

Friday night is hopping in this burg, so I wandered into the heart of the downtown to enjoy the bustle of the crowds — Mexican tourists window shopping, teenagers making out on park benches, groups of young girls in trendy clothing singing Spanish songs in dark karaoke bars and old couples strolling hand-in-hand through the many plazas. I stopped into a few stores to look at clothing and bought a sweater to ward off the chilly nights (fun fact: Mexicans are shorter than Americans — I may upgrade my wardrobe while I’m here).

To cap off the night I finally located the fabled Café Tal, which I had been unable to find for my first week here. I ordered a hot chocolate, and the barista asked me if I wanted it strong or not so strong. I asked for not so strong, and it turned out to be the thickest cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever had. I think it contained one tablespoon of milk and five kilos of chocolate. It was delicious, and will keep me awake well into the year 2014.

Ironically, after finally researching how to ask for the Internet wi-fi password in Spanish, it turned out that their wi-fi wasn’t password protected. Oh well. It was also an entirely tepid connection. Apparently there’s an inverse relationship between the strengths of beverage and internet. I’ll take the trade-off.

Coro Shalom Maran-ata performs Ven a Cantar:

Days 8 and 9: Andrew Gets Lost

I read a few guidebooks to Mexico before I came down here, and none of them provided the following advice:

When jogging through long underground tunnels, do not assume you know where you are when you get back to the surface.

Yesterday I went out for a run through Guanajuato’s downtown tunnel system. It’s a bit freaky, running through dark, narrow tunnels, on a foot-wide sidewalk while buses go speeding past just inches away. The tunnels snake underneath the city, with offshoots leading to the surface in some places and side tunnels heading off in this direction or that. I ran through the tunnels for about 20 minutes, finally emerging in a part of town I hadn’t seen before.

Thanks to my innate sense of direction, I took my bearings and headed off in the direction for home. Or, as it turned out, in the direction of Guatemala. It wasn’t long before I realized I was completely, absurdly lost. The direction I thought was home didn’t seem to be heading home, and I couldn’t see any of the landmarks that are easy to see from most other parts of the city. I was also hot, thirsty, tired and the only person wearing jogging pants and a t-shirt.

I backtracked, intending to head back into the tunnel and re-trace my steps if necessary, but eventually I came to a sign pointing for Guanajuato Centro. It was, in my opinion, pointing in the exact opposite direction as my innate sense of direction told me it should be pointing, but I followed the road anyway. The next sign also pointed in the exact opposite direction that I thought it should have, and this continued through two more signs until I popped up in a part of town I recognized. To say that I got turned around in the tunnels is a major understatement. It’s like if you got up in the middle of the night to get a drink and found yourself in Sweden. [Note: If you’re reading this in Sweden, please substitute “Ethiopia” for the previous reference. Also, if you’re reading this in Sweden, I’m very fond of your meatballs. Well done!]

I eventually returned home, hot, sweaty, tired and ready for a phone meeting. For some reason, it turned into a video chat meeting, and I spent most of the meeting snacking, somewhat oblivious to what it must have looked like on the other end to see a disheveled me pounding almonds and cheese like it was happy hour at the hors d’oeuvres factory.

Last night I went out for dinner and had a bowl of mediocre posole, which was served with a basket of chips and salsa, as well as a platter of fried tortillas (i.e. giant chips) and lettuce. That may be too much chips for one sitting, as I dreamed last night that I was so late to a ComedySportz road show that they replaced me with another player, and I was simultaneously disappointed to miss the show and thrilled that my team followed protocol. Also, the show may have been in Spanish.

This morning was a work morning, interrupted by the gas man coming to check the propane tanks. The upper tank is currently low, and he explained how to switch the gas to the secondary tank when it runs out, i.e. in the middle of a shower that suddenly becomes an ice bath.

After work I went out for a shopping trip, stopping by the close tortilleria for a stack of five to go, which I hoovered down post haste. Then I stopped at a café for the hottest cup of hot chocolate I have ever had. Seriously, the boiling point of water here is 199 degrees, but this cup of hot chocolate was at least 450 degrees. I think I scalded some of my ancestors.

Next I hit my favorite tortilleria for a stack of 20, ate a few for quality control (Quality: Excellent) and then hit Mercado Hidalgo to get some fruit, veggies, nuts and chicken. At the chicken stand, the proprietor was expertly hacking up chickens with a small machete. Speaking as someone who has cut up his fair share of chickens, that sucker must’ve been sharp.

Then it was back home, where I discovered a few neighbor girls had turned my front steps into a makeshift fort. They apologized for disturbing me, and I smiled and told them not to worry. Or maybe I told them that I was considering a career as a chicken bifurcater. They didn’t run away screaming while I unlocked the door.

It’s hard to get used to all the locks around here. Every house has a locked front metal grate over the front door, as well as a sturdy lock on the door and bars over all the windows. The house that I’m in has a total of nine keys to open the various doors on the premises. The guest book makes a point of insisting that all doors be locked at any time I’m not here, so I spend the better part of each day locking and unlocking doors.

After dinner I headed back into town for a concert at the Teatro Principal. It was a choral group, accompanied by a solo pianist, singing Vivaldi’s Gloria and a few excerpts from Handel’s Messiah. They were delightful.

Guanajuato audiences are extremely sophisticated. Not only do they know where to clap and where not to clap during classical music, but they also understand that standing ovations should be reserved for the most transcendent performances. Contrast this with, say, Portland audiences, who believe that standing ovations are warranted any time the performers are carbon-based life forms.

It does appear that the encore is a standard and expected part of any performance here. I’ve been to three shows, two of which were classical, and in each one the audience demanded an encore, which the performers had clearly prepared for. And in both classical concerts, the encore was simply a repeat of a particularly interesting passage of music from earlier in the night. It’s a charming custom.

One more simple pleasure from today: At the mercado I bought four tangerines and squeezed them into a refreshing glass of juice to quench my thirst following the afternoon walk. It was sweet and delicious and vibrant, a wonderful way to put an exclamation point on the day.

Day 7: Museum Day!

Museum Day! Museum Day! It’s Museum Day! I’m going to the museum!

Oops, museum is closed. Museum Day is tomorrow!

It seems to be a fact of life here that museums open and close at random times and days. On most of my strolls I’ve passed by museums where there were printed signs announcing an unexpected closure (or opensure) for the day. It looks like I’ll have to make museum-going more of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’m OK with that. It’s very laid back here.

Today was a work day, and I cranked through a good six and a half hours of work between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. One of the big questions I had going into this experiment was whether I would actually be able to work remotely. Would the Internet work? Could I stay focused while in another place? Would I be able to work on my laptop without my usual desktop setup? In all cases, the answer has been yes, and because I’m parked in one place for the entire time I don’t feel the pressure to go out every hour and every day and be a tourist. I’m enjoying Guanajuato at a leisurely pace, as if I were living here instead of visiting. It’s exactly the feeling I wanted.

In the afternoon, forsaking the traditional siesta, I headed out on the aforementioned unrealized museum quest. Failing to find an open museum, I stopped into the funky Antik Kafé (my spell checker just hissed at me and ran under the sofa), where I enjoyed a chocolate caliente while reading the newspaper and writing postcards.

The big front page news (assuming my Spanish is correct) is that the state-mandated price on tortillas is being raised. Which leads to a number of questions: Price controls on tortillas? Really? And should I stockpile before the price goes up? I bought 15 tortillas just to be safe, but ate nine of them in the first few hours, thus blowing my economic hedge fund. I think this is what happened to General Motors.

For those keeping track, my tortilla count for the trip is now 39.

Next I stopped by the post office to mail my postcards. The Mexican post office has a color scheme that could best be described as “Early Baskin-Robbins.” I couldn’t decide whether to buy stamps or ask for a taste spoon of Mono Gordo.

I opted for the stamps, and while she was getting my change the helpful post office lady explained to me that I had to put one stamp on each postcard. Apparently I look stupid. Or maybe it was because when asking for the stamps in Spanish I said something amounting to “It would please me to get five pastries pregnant.” I become flustered when I have to speak Spanish.

Fun fact about the post office: They have motorcycles for the postal carriers to use in delivering the mail, parked right in the lobby of the post office next to the P.O. boxes. This makes the post office much more awesome.

My next goal was to find Callejon del Beso, and if you’ve been reading this blog you know it’s always a 50-50 shot in this town to find anything you’re specifically looking for. Amazingly, I stumbled right onto it, just a few turns off of Plaza Los Angeles (much less traffic than the other Los Angeles). Callejon del Beso (Kiss Alley) is an alley in Guanajuato where the houses are so close to each other that you could literally lean across the balconies of two facing houses and kiss your neighbor (I mean, if you’re into such things — my neighbor is 89 years old). 

The callejon was as advertised. The houses are just inches from touching, and it was a tight squeeze to take the steep alley in between. I arrived just behind a young school group, which was given a funny, joke-filled introduction to the landmark by a college-aged tour guide, including a number of riddles such as “What kind of kiss do you get from a baker?” (Insert your own answer — I didn’t understand the punch line but I think it had something to do with buns.)

The guide also made all the girls in the school group kiss him on the cheek as they passed through the callejon. If this were the USA that would at least require a permission slip and an observer from the school board.

I took a number of back alleys toward home, getting lost several times (hint: if the alley starts climbing, you’re probably lost; if you go down the stairs into tunnels, you’re really lost).

I ended up behind the Teatro Juárez (a running theme this week) and found the funicular cars that go up to the Pipila Monument (more on that in a few days when I ride the funicular). The whole contraption has the appearance of being manufactured out of Legos.

On the way home I stopped by a fruit and vegetable store and the small local grocery to pick up some dinner ingredients, and then made the steep climb back up to the house. In answer to the question: How long does it take to acclimate to 7,000 feet, the answer is “More than a week.”

Hard to believe it’s already been a week. In some ways it seems like I’ve been here forever, but I think that’s a good sign that I’ve settled into life. Tonight I made a home cooked meal of sauteed chicken with red pepper, garlic and onion, served over rice.

Speaking of cooking, it’s a bit of a challenge thanks to the altitude. The rice turned out simultaneously overmoistened and undercooked, and this afternoon I had a complete hard-boiled egg fail. So far I’m batting .500 on cooking eggs. With a boiling point of 199 degrees at this altitude, there’s a fine line between boiling eggs to death and ending up with raw yolks. Like the museums, you never know what you’re going to get from one day to another.

Day 6: Mercado Hidalgo and the Quest for Produce

How do I know that I’m in Mexico and not, say, Vermont? At a B&B in Vermont, the most recent handwritten comments in the guest book would not say:

“Killed two scorpions today in the bedroom.”

Needless to say, I’m somewhat more alert than normal when putting on shoes, and let’s just say that I’m not sure how soundly I’m going to sleep tonight.

As today is a Monday, and as I’m still working my job while I’m here, I spent a good portion of my day on the phone in meetings. Luckily, I’ve discovered that Skype-to-regular-phones works astonishingly well, so there’s no communication penalty to being in Mexico. I took several of the meetings while basking in the sun on the balcony overlooking the city, often putting the phone on mute to hide the sounds of blaring music and laughing children that are a constant here. As meetings go, it was pretty blissful.

Owing to the time zone difference, my meetings didn’t start until 11 a.m., so I had a chance in the morning to go for a light run. I say light, because the altitude makes anything that’s not perfectly flat darned near impossible. After making my way down into the city I scoped out a running route that took me through some of Guanajuato’s many downtown tunnels. It was a little eerie running through a tunnel, but also less crowded with pedestrians and an interesting exploration. I really had no idea where any of the tunnels lead, but the one I took popped up right next to Teatro Juárez. The geography of this city is still a complete mystery to me. Luckily, it’s a small enough town that anywhere I end up I can easily find my way home (it doesn’t hurt that I can see the mountain that my home sits on from anywhere in town).

After the run I walked back to the base of the callejon that leads up to the house and bought a bag of roasted-in-the-shell peanuts from a street vendor for a mid-morning snack. I also scoped out a nearby vendor who appears to be fresh-squeezing orange juice on the spot. I will visit him tomorrow morning for a post-run drink.

After several hours of calls and work, I took the requisite siesta and then headed out for some exploration and shopping. I took a new route from my house, even steeper down the side of the mountain, and then a different set of side streets toward the city centro. Nearby, I discovered a much-closer tortilleria and grocery. Alas, on my way home the tortilleria was closed, so it’s a tortilla-free day for me. For those who are wagering, I’m stuck on 30.

My walk took me past several of Guanajuato’s notable museums, some of which I plan to hit in the next week, as well as many interesting businesses and restaurants, including what I have to imagine is Guanajuato’s only Irish pub. The menu did not appear to be particularly Irish, to my untrained eye, unless carnitas are a Dublin specialty.

Then I hit the Mercado Hidalgo, which is the city’s bustling market featuring everything from butchers to fruit vendors to restaurant booths to pirated CDs and DVDs to all sorts of odds and ends. It’s in a spectacular building that was inaugurated in 1905, originally intended to be a train station but ended up as a mercado. Go figure.

It’s packed to the gills, inside and out, with anything you could want to buy, including the city’s largest selection of fresh meat and produce. I’d been in there a few times and bought a few bananas, but now it was time to get serious food. I hit my favorite fruit and vegetable booth, run by a charming lady who is always quick with a smile and who puts up with my mediocre Spanish, buying some mini-bananas, potatoes, oranges and carrots. I bought corn from another vendor, and hit one of the carnecerias to buy some chicken breasts. The large pile of chicken feet was a reminder that this meat had probably been chicken-adjacent rather recently.

On my way home I got thoroughly turned around exploring some new streets and plazas, but eventually made the steep climb to the house, where I rewarded myself with five mini-bananas (they taste very different than standard-issue bananas) a boiled potato and some corn. I’ll make myself some orange chicken after this blog.

Depending on what you believe on the Internet, it’s either perfectly safe to eat anything and everything in Mexico, or I will die a slow painful death just looking at a piece of fruit. I’ve decided to aim for a happy medium of being reasonably cautious, cooking food thoroughly and using the BacDyn disinfectant on anything that seems squirrely or raw. Speaking of which, BacDyn sounds like something from the movie Terminator.

In the evening I did some more work, serenaded by loud music playing from the courtyard of the theater directly below my house. Standing on my balcony, I could watch a community dance recital to music ranging from Latin standards to Wooly Bully. 

Now I’m enjoying the beautiful lights of the city from the living room, accompanied, as always by the sound of music playing and dogs barking, which are both constants here. It’s a delightful way to spend an evening, scorpions be damned.

Oh, and for those following along from yesterday’s post, manzanilla-flavored Crest toothpaste appears to taste exactly like original-flavor Crest. Not quite as exotic as I’d imagined.

Day 5: Mexican Traditions

Today I decided to throw caution to the wind and try one of the most famous Mexican customs — the siesta. Of course, not being entirely familiar with the culture, I had to try it twice. I can report stunning success. I will be bringing this back to Portland as a cultural exchange.

It was also laundry day. This house has a rooftop washer and dryer, though the dryer is entirely superfluous because hanging clothes to dry on clotheslines is infinitely more effective. The perfect storm of sun, wind and bone-dry air at 7,000 feet dried my clothes near-instantly. My jeans were dry in less than an hour. My synthetic quick-dry travel clothes were dry while they were still in the rinse cycle.

In between siestas I walked into town to go shopping, visiting the “super” to get soap, shampoo, paper towels and other sundries. All the toothpaste here comes in different flavors than the USA, including lime-flavored Colgate. I ended up getting manzanilla-flavored Crest. I have no idea what that is, but will report later.

I also bought 15 more fresh, hot tortillas, of which I have eaten, er, 13 today. I may need a 12-step program to deal with this addiction. Although it appears that the first 12 steps involve eating a tortilla.

I also bought eggs, which, charmingly, are individually stamped with the date and the eggery (I’m sure there’s a correct word for this):

One final observation about Guanajuato for today: This is an absurdly clean city. Not only are there trash cans everywhere (which people use), but there seems to be a squadron of city trash-picker-uppers who regularly roam the downtown taking care of anything on the ground. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a city (especially a downtown) that was so spotlessly trash-free. They really take civic pride to the next level.

Day 4: Tortillas y Paco Rentería

You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a seven-piece Latin fusion band play “Hava Nagila.” More on that in a moment.

Today was moving day, transferring from the first apartment to the one I’ll be at for the rest of my time in Guanajuato. The first apartment, up in the Presa district, was about a brisk 20 minute walk into town. The new place is about five minutes.

Around 11:30, the guy who owns the first apartment came to say goodbye. He’s a 62-year-old American expat who has a 32-year-old Thai wife and two-month-old twin girls. The phrase “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. They’re eventually going to sell their house and apartments in Guanajuato and move permanently back to Thailand, where they already spend some of their winters. He was a nice, cheerful host and he wished me well for the rest of my time in Guanajuato.

I packed all my clothes into my backpack, grabbed my laptop, and headed on the walk to the next place. Since I had some time to kill until I was meeting at the next apartment, I stopped in a little park and soaked in the sun while people watching. There were teenagers playing around the fountain, and if there’s anything universal on this planet it’s the way teenagers horse around. Someone was gonna get wet.

There was also a young couple making out on a park bench, various people passing through for their daily shopping, and of course the ubiquitous helado vendor, selling all manner of ice creams. It occurs to me that Portland would be much cooler if all the downtown food carts were spread out instead of being confined to food cart ghettos.

After some time in the park I made my way to the new apartment. This being Guanajuato, you don’t get an address. You get a description of how to get there. I had to find a certain cafe, take an alleyway straight up the side of a mountain, then jog left up a set of stairs, bear left on a smaller alley, and find the blue house on the right. It’s like playing Zork, only without the trolls. (If you’re reading this, Jason, shut up.)

Did I mention this place is on the side of a mountain. It’s a brutal, punishing climb to get up here, and carrying all my baggage with me I had to stop several times to catch my breath (we’re above 7,000 feet elevation here). I took a wrong turn at one point and continued up another set of 75 stairs and popped up on a road above where I was supposed to be, so I had to backtrack. Eventually I found the house, though I was sweaty and my legs were wobbly.

I was met by James, an ex-Oregonian, who has lived here for six years and manages properties for Americans. He showed me the house, which is spectacular. The view is out of this world, with a sunswept balcony overlooking the city, and two levels — a bedroom downstairs and a full kitchen and living room upstairs, plus two bathrooms and even a rooftop terrace with a washer and dryer. The house is tastefully decorated with Mexican art and furnishings. All this for the price of a Motel 6 in the USA.

But the cleaning lady still had to come and clean, so I had a few more hours to kill before moving in. I headed down into town (a MUCH easier walk going downhill) and did some more wandering around the city. I found the University and the movie theater and more hidden parks and plazas. Plus more grocery stores and other niceties that I’ll be availing myself of.

I also found myself to be very hungry. Luckily, I wandered past a tortilleria and got a stack of five hot tortillas, fresh out of the tortilla machine (yes, there’s a tortilla machine — and yes, you could totally film an episode of I Love Lucy with it). I ate the five tortillas in approximately three seconds. 

After that it was back up the hill to the house (pant pant) for a little rest before heading out for a concert at historic Teatro Juárez.

Built from 1872 to 1897, and finally inaugurated in 1903, Teatro Juárez is just spectacular. Outside, it’s a mishmash of Greek and Roman. Inside, it’s all reds and golds, ornate woodwork and texturing, with four balconies, hardwood floors and an intimate feel despite having a large capacity.

The concert was guitarist Paco Rentería and his seven piece band. It’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Paco is an amazing guitarist and showman, a mix of Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen and Jack Black. He showed off innumerable techniques, from simple to flashy, and equal ability to go big or go intimate. He’s also quite the talker, sharing his thoughts on love for humanity, fellow man and (especially) fellow woman. At one point, before playing a love song, he encouraged everyone in the audience to kiss their spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, or anyone they could find in the room. (I got this from the Spanish … I rock.)

Rentería has dubbed his style of music “Free Play,” which means it’s a melange of Latin, Pop, Jazz, Salsa and good old American standards. After opening with a number of high energy Latin songs (he wrote music for the Antonio Banderas/Salma Hayek movie Desperado), the band went into an overlapping medley of Latin-flavored popular music, seamlessly morphing from Beat It into Dust in the Wind to Johnny Cash to Save Tonight and on and on. At one point, Paco and the violinist engaged in a duel to see who could player higher, faster or throw out a riff that the other couldn’t match. When the violinist played a particularly impressive piece, Paco answered on guitar with the theme from Close Encounters, and the violinist responded with the melody from X-Files.

After an hour and three quarters they were called back for an encore, which started with a beautiful, spare love song played solo by Rentería, and then a few more bouncy Latin numbers with the whole band. It was two-plus hours of sheer joy, technical mastery and foot-stomping goodness.

After the concert it was time for a late dinner in a restaurant off the Plaza Jardín, then a stroll back up to the house and welcome bed to rest my weary legs.