Wednesday, February 25, 2009

¿Por qué hay palomas gigantes en todas partes?

Week three in Guanajuato and we're starting to feel a bit at home here. There are restaurants we're tried twice now, shop owners who recognize us (it's not hard - we're the two gringas browsing the silver shops constantly), people on the street whose faces look familiar. We're also definitely improving our Spanish by leaps and bounds: I can buy a bus ticket, pose questions, chat about the weather, describe what I did yesterday (learning one of the past tenses has been the academic highlight of the week so far - I'm no longer stuck in the present, which is a linguistic relief), and even - with a bit of thought and some referral to my notes - ask someone what medications they take and if they're short of breath or having chest pain, which is honestly much better than I expected after 13 days of classes.

This week has just been beautiful so far - the sky has been this unbelievable clear blue that makes me wish I painted. I've had to settle for taking lots of photos of flowers.

Speaking of flowers, I don't think I've mentioned the bourgainvillea that grows like a weed here. I don't think I'd ever known what bougainvillea looked like, before; I seem to associate it with jasmine and the fictional verandas of 19th-century literature set in the tropics. But it grows everywhere here, from little pots on the roof of the school to great vines that cover walls and buildings.

This is one of the potted varieties living on the roof of the school - which, like many of the roofs in Guanajuato, is the equivalent to the backyard of an American house or building. The school's thick stone walls of the school are certainly very insulating, so between classes, most of us walk up to the roof to warm ourselves in the sun for a few minutes. (The hibisicus bud, blurry in the foreground, was actually what I was trying to photograph against an out-of-focus bougainvillea background, but my little point-and-shoot camera was not quite up to the task.)

Yesterday, Kristen and I visited the Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato, which was another 90 minute endeavor, but was again really interesting. The upper levels of the museum showcased artwork - we think - from all over Guanajuato state, beginning with anonymous pieces of religious artwork from probably c. 16th century (nothing was dated) to painfully postmodern deconstructionist works from the local university students. (There were series of photos of Guanajuato's plazas filled with giant pigeons and men in tutus, a close-up painting of a woman in lithotomy, presumably postpartum from the gore, and (our favorite) a photo of a fork with all but the middle tine bent down, entitled, in English, "Fork You!".)

The near-modern artwork was the best (including some beautiful stained glass windows either designed by or commemorating Siqueiros , but the museum itself was gorgeous, too, with the typical open-air courtyards:

(framed here by antique wrought-iron fences):

and a chapel, adorned with some omnipresent cacti:

The first floor of the museum is dedicated to miniatures, apparently a longstanding artistic tradition in Guanajuato. We saw copper pans and tea kettles that were maybe 6 mm across, all sorts of animals and people less than a centimeter high carved from wood and bone or woven from corn husks, entire dioramas of homes and shops that fit in boxes maybe two inches by three. Some pieces were so small they were displayed in their cases behind microscopes, in order to actually be able to see them.

Before we went into the museum, though, we wandered up the callejone next to the university, where we saw this truck parked:

We were amused by the hand-lettering that designated its officiality. We also ran into the callejonadas again last night; they're university students who dress up in period costume and lead tourists around the city, singing. We had been under the impression they only did this on weekend evenings, but they were out in full force last night. It may just be that the burro carrying the wine they give out only accompanies them on the weekends.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Los perros ladran y los gallos cacarean

There's lots more on Mexican cuisine and tourism to relate from this week, but today I thought I'd write a little bit about what it's been like living in Guanajuato. Our slice of Mexico here is truly a sensual experience - last weekend, when I happened to wake up early and snuck down to the second-floor patio to knit and listen to music while waiting for the day to start, I had the odd sensation - one I've never had in the US - that I was cutting myself off from the world the second I placed my headphones in my ears. We've been learning this city by walking its streets, conversing with its inhabitants, enjoying its food, taking in its views, but I hadn't quite realized the depth of sound in Guanajuato until I closed myself off from it. I ended up just sitting at the table in our hostel's indoor courtyard and listening to the sounds of the city instead: the trucks driving by, recorded advertisements blaring, the hum of the water heater, the hammering of construction next door, the roosters crowing.

(An aside about the roosters: one of the first things we noticed about Guanajuato - and really, how could we miss it? - was that around 2 or 3 am, the roosters start crowing all over the city and don't finish until well after 9 am. I hadn't seen any chickens anywhere in our travels, but I assumed they were kept in the courtyards or on the roofs of private homes, away from the public eye. One day in coversation class, I mentioned that I was tired because the neighborhood animals had been particularly vocal the evening before, and my teacher, who has been studying at the university and living in Gunanajuato for years, chimed in that the roosters were always their cue to start really cramming for the next day's exam, because they started up like clockwork around 2 am. But furthermore, he added, he had never been able to tell where the roosters lived - he's visited homes of friends who grew up here, has eaten at nearly all of the city's restaurants, and knows the town well, and in his years here, he's never seen a rooster, either. So their exact location is still a mystery, but their presence is daily noticed.)

This richness of sound was particularly apparent today - without a trip planned by the school, we had decided to be a bit lazy and to just wake up without setting any alarm, but the city served as an alarm for us; around 9 this morning, PRI (the formerly ruling political party) began loudly demostrating in the plaza next door, and a few minutes later, the workers who have been fixing the hostel's plumbing all week (we've had a few hours without hot water, but it's so far been a painless experience for us) began the day's work of cutting pipe, smashing walls and hammering brackets. We had fallen asleep the night before only when the positive-feedback loops of the neighborhood dogs barking from their respective rooftops and music of the cover band playing in the bar next door had begun to fade; it's been gradually made clear to us that the city sets the schedule of its inhabitants, and not the other way around.

We've actually been enjoying this lapse into the local habits and conceptions of time. We've been eating our main meal at two or three in the afternoon; we've been becoming accustomed to working our errands around the shops' unpredictable hours. It's been pleasant to step away from constantly referring to a clock or a watch and let myself be timed by the bells for classes, by sunset for going out in the evenings, by the brightness of the sun through the windows to wake in the mornings. It's been restful.


This week, we had been kept fairly busy by classes, but today, we've been enjoying a slower pace: we breakfasted at the student hang-out across from the university, and slowly wended our way through the opposite side of town - as yet unexplored by us - to visit the Museo de las Momias. The museums here are small, able to be fully appreciated in an hour or two, which we've been enjoying. We visited Diego Rivera's family home nearby the university earlier this week; today we took in the bizarre and morbid entirety of the town's mummy collection inside of two hours. We weren't able to take photos in the Diego Rivera museum, whose collection consisted mostly of his youthful attempts and sketches of famous finished works that hang elsewhere, but there were a few pieces that really stood out, an oil painted entitled The Forge among them, an image of which I can't seem to find online. (In typical fashion, the souvenir shop at the museum was closed - "Tomorrow," the woman who sold our tickets promised, but when we walked by, it was closed the next day, too.)

The Museo de las Momias was fascinating, if a bit gruesome; though visitors are allowed and encourged to take photos, I'm not really sure I want to post them on the blog. (I've uploaded them to my Flickr pool here, but I just didn't want to have anyone stumble upon them unexpectedly.) Instead, I'll share a photo of the decor of a local bar, which is an excellent example of the Day of the Dead artwork and sculpture that is present everywhere here, even four months after the holiday has occurred. (They even sell bride-and-groom skeleton cake toppers for wedding cakes. You'll all be happy to hear that I passed on that souvenir.) In the setting of this almost celebratory attitude towards death, the museum seemed a little less morbid than it would in the United States.

Museo de las Momias was created when bodies began getting exhumed from the local cemetery to make room for new inhabitants; by Mexican law, all corpses must be buried or interred. (In recent years, as cemetery crowding has become more acute, Guanajuato residents are permitted to remain buried for five years, and if the family cannot afford the subsequent upkeep fees, their bodies are exhumed and cremated.) But in the heat and low humidity of the region, many corpses had simply desiccated, and particularly fine examples of this escape cremation and instead are added to the museum's collection. Many mummies had plaques mounted near them stating their name and age, the date and reason of their death, and pointing out - in an often tongue-in-cheek way - their unique characteristics (blood stains from the fatal stabbing, cyanosis from death by drowning, particularly traditional burial clothing). To close, a direct transcription of one of these plaques (the translations into English, while appreciated, were haphazard at best):

"I was almost 70 years old when I came to rest at the Santa Paula Cemetery, but on January 20, 1973, I was found as a statue of eternity. I became part of the second group of mummified men, women and children, since before me there were others. I rest in a white and smooth nightgown that accompanies me in this eternal dream."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Estamos aprendiendo a cocinar comida mexicana

First off, a tourism update: yesterday, Kristen and I climbed up to visit El Pipila, the statue that overlooks the city, depicting a miner who fought in the first battle for independence. (Click on the link, if you're interested - his story is kind of cool.) Since the statue is at the top of the hill (Guanajuato, you may recall, is built in the valley between two small mountains):

we had beautiful views of the city, the photos of which really don't do it justice. I was longing for a panoramic lens. But here's a view of the city anyway, where you can see el jardin (green triangle in bottom right corner), the main basilica were we heard Mass on Sunday (big yellow building) and the university (above the church, kind of looks like a castle):

It was too close to take a good distance shot of El Pipila, and the sun was kind of back-lighting it anyway, so maybe this weekend, I'll take a picture of the statue from the town: he kind of hovers over the city. But here's what he looks like up close:

Yesterday I mentioned that we started taking cooking classes this week. The school runs these classes every week, and last week everything they cooked smelled so good that we just had to sign up. Also, the cooking facilities in our hostel are adequate but limited, and we were getting a little tired of eating out for every lunch and dinner. I'm going to be blogging about these classes this week, partly to share with you all and partly so I have the recipes written down somewhere! We didn't think of photographing our food yesterday (which is a shame, because it looked - and was - delicious), but hopefully we'll remember for the rest of the week.

Our instructor, Ana (who also works at the hostel in the mornings) is our instructor, and yesterday we chose four dishes we wanted to make from her list. (You can look forward to descriptions and recipes of enchiladas, gorditas and sopa de chayote (a squash that's very popular here), among other dishes I can't remember now.) Monday's dish was sopes de pollo, thick cornmeal tortillas shaped into little shallow bowls and filled with beans, chicken and cheese, and topped with salsa. We'll be making these when we get back for sure - they were totally fabulous. (Recipes below.)

Today's dish was not nearly as exciting, although it was very good: we browned chicken pieces in butter and mustard, then added boiled chopped vegetables (broccoli, carrots, chayote (a popular kind of squash here), summer squash and corn) to the dish and simmered it all in a sauce of roma tomatoes, two chicken boullion cubes, some garlic, some salt and some water, blended until pureed. Potatoes are traditionally added to the mix, but one of the women in the class is allergic to potatoes, so we didn't add them today. Definitely comfort food:

Our next culinary adventure is going to be tomorrow's breakfast. After dinner tonight, we finally broke down and bought a jar of cajeta, the goat's milk caramel that everyone seems to love here. We had been told numerous times that cajeta is eaten for breakfast with pan tostado, which I had mentally translated as toasted bread, or just simply toast. When we stopped at a bakery this evening, and inquired as the best bread with which to eat cajeta (and, incidentally, this question was posed and answered entirely in Spanish, which I was really excited about), we were directed to the grocery store next door, in order to buy this:

You may notice two things about this item. One: the brand name is BIMBO, which frankly I'm finding pretty hilarious. Two: it's pre-toasted wonder bread in a bag. We'll let you know how this goes.

Sopes de pollo
(not to be confused with sopa de pollo, as almost happened at dinner the other night. Good enunciation, I've found, is key.)

For the tortillas:
Some finely ground cornmeal (it looked like maybe half a kilo?) mixed with enough water to form a soft, pliable dough.

Take approx 2-3 tablespoons of dough and roll into a ball; flatten evenly by hand or with Ana's awesome tortilla press. Cook disks in a dry hot pan until slightly browned on both sides, flipping once, then place over an open flame until they puff up slightly, cooking on both sides. Carefully flatten the tortillas and scrunch the edges up to form a shallow lip, to hold the fillings.

Fill the sopes with a refried beans, shredded chicken, and shredded lettuce. Drizzle some crema over top, and crumble on some queso ranchero. Finish with a dollop of either salsa verde or salsa roja.

Salsa Roja

10-12 chiles pullas, dried (there will be some coming home with us; they're at the market for 25 pesos per quarter kilo)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
8 tomatillos, halved or quartered
salt to taste

Toast the dried chiles over an open flame, until lightly browned, about 30 seconds on each side. Pull off the stem and toss into a blender whole. Saute the tomatillos in a touch of oil until fairly well blackened. Add to the blender and throw in the garlic. Add some salt and enough water to cover; blend the salsa until it's very finely minced. Consistency should be very liquid; the salsa should be able to be poured easily.

Salsa Verde
8-10 tomatillos, halved or quartered
8 fresh serrano chiles, stems cut off but otherwise whole
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro
2 cloves garlic, peeled

Place tomatillos and chiles in a small pot with enough water to cover; boil briskly for several minutes. Roughly chop the cilantro. Place the chiles, tomatillos, cilantro and garlic in a blender and add enough of the cooking water to cover. Blend until a similar consistency as the salsa roja is reached.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Un buen fin de semana

We’ve been having a lot of fun since my last post here! On Saturday, the school ran an excursion to Dolores Hildalgo, Atotonilco and San Miguel de Allende. Lots of history in these towns, too: Dolores Hildalgo was the small town to which Miguel Hildalgo, revolutionary priest, was banished after he began preaching against the church and against Spain. Instead of quietly living out his life in this tiny mountain town, however, on September 16, 1810, Padre Hildalgo famously delivered his grito (I’m unclear on the etymology, but it was a speech calling for Mexico’s independence from Spain) from the town’s main church and then led his army of farmers and ranchers through the mountains and into Guanajuato, where they fought the first battle of Mexico’s independence. The emancipation from Spain took another ten years, and Hildalgo was killed in the first year of fighting, but he and Ignacio Allende are revered here as the fathers of Mexican independence.

Here’s the inside of the church where Hildalgo preached and delivered el grito (my exterior shots are kind of boring):

Nowadays, Dolores Hildago is perhaps equally well-known for its beautiful pottery (which was started as an industry by Miguel Hildalgo himself):

Gifts may have been purchased. (Sadly, we decided that what we really wanted to buy [the unbelievably beautiful sinks] were just a little too bulky to take back to the States. Also neither of us have a home in which to install an intricately painted sink.)

Locally, the town is also famous for producing bizarre flavors of ice cream. Unfortunately, both Kristen and I were so engrossed in trying different flavors that we forgot to take a picture of the carts, but the ice creams are sold from carts off to the side of the main jardin (literally “garden” but here its meaning is closer to “town square”). We sampled many different flavors, among them avocado, pine nut (that was just me), cajeta and coffee; I ended up getting mole and strawberry and Kristen opted for cheese and chocolate.

Then we climbed back in our van (driven by Michael, from Texas) and traveled onward to Atotonilco, a very small town whose main claim to fame seems to be an 18th century church where the priests still practice self-flagellation. (There were souvenir whips for sale at the booths outside. It was a little odd, to say the least.) The church, while in need of restoration, was lovely inside, with numerous frescos and statues of the saints and the Virgin Mary.

We enjoyed a lunch of pork tacos (grilled pork served family-style by the kilo, with a stack of tortillas on the side) at an outdoor restaurant right down the street from the church, and then continued on to San Miguel de Allende, the birthplace of Mexico’s other father of the revolution, Ignacio Allende.

San Miguel was beautiful, if a little dusty, and is home to a thriving artists’ community. The institute de Belles Artes is located in a former monastery and contains the most beautifully tropical monastery garden I’ve ever seen:

Mexican artist and revolutionary political activist David Siqueiros painted here, and upon his death left a mural unfinished in a ground floor room in the institute, which is preserved today:

We also visited the city's main church:

(where I really liked the floor):

(and the ceiling, judging from my pictures, but here's a picture of the whole church, more or less):

We wandered through el jardin:

And around some of the streets:

But, truth be told, we spent a fair part of the afternoon perusing the stalls at the extensive artists’ markets.

We drove back to Guanajuato just in time to see the sun set over the city as we returned.

Yesterday was spent mostly lazily, reading, knitting and catching up on our neglected notes. We did have brunch out, where we tried molletas (refried beans and chorizo on toast, a popular breakfast item); afterwards we heard Mass at the city’s main church. (We may have heard Mass, but unfortunately I’m not sure we understood any of it: the priest spoke very fast.)

Today was the second week of classes, and we also had our first cooking class, but more on that tomorrow. ¡Hasta luego!

P.S. As if this post weren’t long enough, I have one last story to share. Friday night, we wandered around town, got some dinner, drank some margaritas, and watched the university singers, but the highlight of the evening was Kristen asking a gentleman leading several burros (a common method of transporting goods around Guanajuato) if we could take pictures of his burros. Very gravely, he shook his head, then burst out laughing and told us that of course we could. We took our photos and as we were walking away, we realized that our request was probably equivalent to asking a gardener in the United States if we could photograph his wheelbarrow. We enjoyed the laugh at our own expense all evening. And truthfully, we enjoyed the pictures, too:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Mañana, vamos a San Miguel

Guanajuato continues to be charming. Kristen and I have started to adopt the local meal schedule, as my classes end at 3 pm and we're usually at school from 9 am until then. According to my grammar teacher, Mexicans traditionally eat five meals a day, with the largest being la comida at 3 or 4 pm. Therefore all the local restaurants serve their largest meals around 3 in the afternoon. Yesterday, we tried the prix-fixe menu at one of the restaurants on the main square, which was delicious: green beans criollos (which translates, supposedly, as "creole" but was green beans and scrambled eggs), mushroom and chili soup, grilled chicken and sugared plaintains with rum sauce and ice cream. Muy rico. (We didn't eat again until breakfast this morning!)

After la comida, we somehow found the energy to wander over to the Museo de Alhondiga de Granaditas, where we foundered our way through the mostly-Spanish-language plaques describing the history of Guanajuato. The building used to be the seat of Spanish government back in the 19th century, and was the site of the first battle of the Mexican Revolution. It's amazing how little world history I've learned - I had no idea, for example, that Guanajuato was kind of like Boston during the American Revolution: they had lots of money and resources here, from the silver trade, and when the Spanish started taxing their silver exhorbitantly, they revolted. The museum also had examples of pre-colonization artwork, which was beautiful - and clearly still a popular style, as we saw an 800 year old vase that was painted almost identically to the lamp in our hostel, which we found amusing.

Since I don't have any new pictures to share today, here's a written bit of local color: there's an old man who sits on the street just down from our hostel, playing his guitar and singing, seemingly all day long - he's there when we walk to school and he's there when we've passed by in the evenings. He seems to prefer American/English-language songs; so far we've heard him singing Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, show tunes and once, I think, a Britney Spears song. But it's pretty clear that he doesn't actually speak English: all the syllables run together into this mix of sound that sort of resembles English. It's a bit of a challenge every morning to identify the song he's singing. I don't usually give money to street performers, but I think before I leave I'll have to send at least a few pesos his way - so far, he's been a good diversion in the mornings.

Tomorrow (if more people sign up to meet the minimun group size), the school will running an excursion to San Miguel de Allende, a neighboring town about an hour away known for its artistic community and, I hear, some truly beautiful hot springs. We'll also be visiting Dolores Hilalgo, which ostensibly has some sort of historical significance but, by the comments of our teachers and other students, is mainly memorable for the odd flavors of ice cream produced there, such as avocado, tequila, cactus and pork-skin. I'm not sure I'm adventurous enough to brave the pork-skin ice cream, but if the trip happens, I'm sure I'll manage to bring back a report about one of the other flavors.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

La ciudad es muy divertida

Just wanted to share a few pictures of some buildings around Guanajuato - last night's post was getting a little long! This is the street our school is on (it's the yellow building on the right):

This is one of the many plazas in Guanajuato, Plaza de la Paz:

The basilica of Guanajuato is on this square:

As is the little place we ate lunch on Monday:

We're going out tonight to watch the Mexico vs USA football game at a restaurant with some other people from the school, which should be a lot of fun. (We had to promise to cheer for Mexico, but since I don't even know who plays for the US, I felt okay about that.)

The main adventure this morning was the yogurt I had bought last night for breakfast: piña-apio-nopal. I knew "piña" was pineapple, and thought, "How bad could the rest be?" After tasting the bright-green yogurt, the dictionary came out, and I discovered that my breakfast was pineapple-celery-cactus yogurt. Not quite as bad as it sounds, as it turns out, but certainly a unique flavor, to say the least.

We're also getting used to the sound of roosters crowing every morning, and all the dogs in the city (and there seem to be lots of them!) barking every night.

¡Hasta manaña!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

¡Hola! Me llamo Christina y soy de Estados Unidos

So, I'm not going to even attempt to catch up in any meaningful way from the last time I posted here (residency interviews: done; NaNoWriMo: epic fail, but I'm okay with that; knitted: two sweaters, a shawl, most of a pair of socks; holidays: amazing; current educational state: ready to graduate; wedding: mostly planned). However, I do want to start posting again, in order to chronicle this next month.

I'm currently in Guanajuato, Mexico, studying Spanish with my friend Kristen (from med school) at Escuela Mexicana. We arrived on Sunday, and have already gotten a feel for the city. There are about 150,000 residents, and the city is full of plazas, churches and open-air restaurants. There's actually no car traffic in the historic center of the city; instead, all car traffic is diverted to underground tunnels that run beneath the city.

Beneath those tunnels, our tour guide told us yesterday, are drainage tunnels, as Guanajuato is built in a valley. The surrounding homes and businesses tower over the central city, which is gorgeous, but apparently the city had quite the problems with flooding until around the 1920s, when the drainage tunnels were constructed.

But so far we have mostly seen our hostel (Casa Mexicana) and the school. The school is a large building off a small side street open to pedestrian travel only, and there are several stories of classrooms. It's really a beautiful building - here's the foyer:

Just off to the right of the foyer is a large room with tables, chairs and (all importantly) wireless internet access; this will be where most of my posts are made from.

The best part of the school, however, is the roof:

The buildings here are neither heated nor cooled, but constructed to hold heat in winter and keep cool in summer. They are certainly good at keeping cool, at least, and this morning I very much appreciated being able to duck up onto the roof between classes to warm up in the sun!

We're staying at a hostel run by the school, so all the people staying there are also taking classes. The women who run the hostel are very lovely, but they speak no English, and, between the two of us, Kristen and I speak very little Spanish, so we've been mostly miming our interactions. It's been working out so far.

Our room is actually very lovely (if also a bit chilly):
We have a beautiful window overlooking the interior courtyard of the hostel:

And our bathroom, while spartan with regards to light fixtures, is large and equipped with running water that is (so far) consistently warm, so overall, I'm very happy with our accommodations. As for classes, I've already learned the alphabet, how to order in a restaurant, some words for food, some regular verbs and how to tell time, so we're keeping pretty busy "academically." And speaking of classes, I do have some tarea to complete tonight, so I will just say ¡buenas noches y hasta manana!