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From México (San Miguel de Allende, México, D.F.)

By Sahand Rabbani

from México (San Miguel de Allende, México, D.F.)

Dear Friends,

Memorial Day presented a prime opportunity to make an extended weekend trip to our southern neighbor, the United States of Mexico, my first such trip and one that has been long overdue.

Our first stop was the quiet, tidy town of San Miguel de Allende, a cosmopolitan village, home to Mexicans and North American and European expatriates alike. Arrayed with vibrant, colorful facades and squeaky clean cobblestone roads, it's no surprise that this UNESCO World Heritage site has such wide appeal.

Commencing with an ungodly six-AM flight out of Chicago on Saturday morning, we flew via Dallas into the regional airport in León and took a private shuttle that we had reserved in advance for the one-and-a-half-hour drive to San Miguel. Informed mostly by a few travel articles in the New York Times, we spent our inaugural meal at the Peruvian restaurant La Parada where we enjoyed several delicious ceviche plates and an incredible carnitas sandwich, all accompanied by at least a few Coronas.

The rest of the afternoon we spent stumbling around the cobblestone alleys of the town, returning many times to the central square of the Jardín, situated in front of the ornate and emblematic church Parroquía de San Miguel Arcángel whose garrulous clock tower chimed so verbosely on the quarter hour that it barely finished in time for its next service. In the evenings, the Jardín filled with local vendors, families, and tourists who gathered to listen and dance to both live and recorded music.

Off of this main plaza is where we sought the rooftop bar of La Azotea. We lingered there in the hopes of letting our appetites mature for dinner, sipping margaritas and gazing through the limpid air toward the distant Guanajuato Mountains and the final glowing vestiges of the setting sun.

By this time, however, it was getting late, and when we found that our first choice of dinner was closed for renovations, we followed the advice of the hotel for something "muy típico" ("very typical") to the restaurant Bugambilia. With my expectations soaring after lunch, I was disappointed by the blandness of the carnitas tacos and chili relleno. There was no mistake though that the place was a local venue as the staff only spoke Spanish and the clientele was noticeably less international than the rest of the town. This experience was, if nothing else, a reminder that San Miguel is really not representative of the larger Mexico; the desire to preserve the beautiful town and the involvement of an international community has ironically displaced some of its traditional components. This was most evident to us the following night at the local cantina La Sirena Gorda (The Fat Mermaid), which seemed to fill up with Americans much like ourselves.

We inaugurated Sunday with a visit to the artisan market. Afterward, we hired a taxi and left town to see the nearby botanical gardens, where we enjoyed an hour-long hike through a maze of exotic cacti, and then to the small village of Atotonilco whose famous santuario (sanctuary) has its inside walls painted densely with biblical scenes and whose few streets are littered with stalls selling disturbing trinkets of a bloodied post-crucifix Christ and tacky eponymous memorabilia. A kind vendor offered us some madera de agave (agave wood) after I asked him what he was chopping. It had a strong and sugary taste.

Back in town, we attempted to recreate our favorite meal by returning to La Parada only to learn that it was closed on Sunday evenings, along with many other places. As a last resort, we indulged in some corn-on-the-cob with mayonnaise, cheese, and chili powder and turned in for an early night ahead of an early start the next day.

Up well before the sun on Monday morning, we took a taxi to the main bus terminal where our six-thirty-AM bus departed for Mexico City. What should have been a three-and-a-half-hour ride turned into a tormented seven and a half hours after an accident on the main highway resulted in hopelessly backed-up standstill traffic. At one point during our hours of immobility, an enterprising lady was seen going car to car on the highway selling tacos from a basket to stranded drivers. She boarded our bus, too, and made a few sales. The bus itself was impressively equipped with an in-seat entertainment system that even promised wireless internet. Though like many things that promise WiFi, it was unable to deliver.

Mexico City's vastness and pace first shocked our senses, which had grown accustomed to San Miguel's lethargic nonchalance. We braved the metro to the swanky Polanco district where we found the W Hotel, our base for the next and final two nights. We then set out for an ambitious walk down the extensive Paseo de la Reforma along which we passed several roundabouts hosting notable and majestic monuments. We were visiting presumably amid some sort of world exposition as the large boulevard was lined with booths representing many of the world's nations, each exhibiting a sample of its own cultural and gastronomic highlights. The USA booth was distributing free miniature flags, while the India booth had sent some representation to rival stands to try to redirect flow to its own.

A torrential rain drenched us before it forced us underground to complete the rest of our journey to el Centro Histórico by metro. Little had we known as we descended the steps of the subway station that we would be joining the rush-hour crowd. Luckily, we skipped the ticket line, which must have been at least fifty people long, because we had bought a few extra the first time. But our luck ended there. The platform was a dense, impenetrable throng of men, all awaiting the next train to rush it in a Hobbesian war where every man was for himself. We waited about one minute before the first train arrived, already packed to brim, its windows swelling with people flattened against the glass, the cars bursting at the seams, nuts and bolts on the verge popping off like the pant fly button of a taco-stuffed belly. As soon as the doors opened, the crowd rushed toward the openings, people on the platform fighting to get in and people on the train fighting to get out. A few people were able to squeeze on after Herculean exertion, popping their limbs out one by one from the relentless jaws of the closing doors. The train lingered for a bit and then hissed off into the tunnel, leaving a waxing crowd of tired, sweaty citizens in its taunting wake. This episode repeated itself several times, with each overflowing train defying physical laws and leaving behind it an increasingly hopeless horde.

With no end in sight to this crowd, we realized that we had little choice but to compete with the professional metro riders, and, in fact, after several failed attempts, each one delivering its own important lesson in train-boarding tactics, we finally did it. We boarded the train. And as the doors fought to close behind me, exposing through their windows the populous platform of the forlorn commuters, I twitched with contrition, knowing that I had probably taken the place of an exhausted man who was just trying to get home after a tough day of work.

Getting on was only half the battle. In one absentminded moment, I realized that the train had stopped and as I looked for the plaque marking the name of the station, I tried to recall if this was our destination. In the instant that I realized it was, I had been too late. The narrow isthmus of air that was our only chance out of this car suddenly exploded with people. As if a sweaty balloon of flesh was instantly inflated with a cartridge-powered pump. The last pockets of air were eradicated from the car and the train started to accelerate to its next step, where we struggled to dismount and find our way back. Fortunately, the train in the opposite direction was empty. During our backtracking journey, we discovered that at the end of the platform, corresponding to the last few cars of the train, was a section open only to women, patrolled by female police officers.

That night we walked around the Palacio Nacional and saw the Aztec ruins at Templo Mayor from above before we started back toward the hotel.

The next day, we rode to the southern frontier of the city's metro and light rail system to the town of Xochimilco, Mexico's little Venice. During the long subway journey, we were entertained by various peddlers who wore large speakers on their backs and played clips of music CDs that they offered for 10 pesos. In Xochimilco, we enjoyed a boat ride through the colorful canals of the village while dodging some admittedly overly persistent solicitations of beverages and entertainment.

We then rode back up into the city's pleasant Condesa district, a mix of peaceful residential streets and taco stands. Here we sampled some succulent birria tacos (braised goat meat) and Mexico City's famous carnitas tacos al pastor, seasoned pork shaved from shawarma-style rotisseries served with cilantro, onions, and pineapple.

Another metro ride had us back in el Centro Histórico, where we reviewed the previous night's sites in daylight and ducked into a mezcalería to try the ancient agave spirit of mezcal. This bar, el Bósforo, was nothing short of the sort of dimly lit hip joint one might aspire to find in New York or San Francisco. We let the bartender select our mezcal from her ample collection based on a brief interview of our tastes. We then asked for directions to a pulquería to try pulque, an Aztec specialty also brewed from the agave plant. Our request was met with an incredulous grimace, but our bartender obliged nervously, identifying on our map the rough coordinates of a place she vaguely knew.

On the way, we tracked down the hole-in-the-wall taco window called El Huequito (The Little Hole). Already several tacos deep that day, we ordered a modest three for the two of us. When I attempted to pay, the old sage behind the counter motioned me to put my bills away. "Comen primero. Cobramos después." ("You eat first. We charge you later.") His wisdom was evident presently, for after our first taste of these delectable tacos, we understood that it would be impossible to resist the urge to eat more. We tried to identify what made the tacos so delicious. Perhaps it was the seasoning of the meat, the green and red sauces that were added, or the fact that the diced onions soaked up the juice of the pork in the pan below the braising meat. Or maybe it was the fact that the tacos were set to rest on a hot stove for a few seconds before they were served, searing the tortilla and unleashing the flavors within.

The pulquería was only a few blocks away. A grungy saloon where uniformed officers were prohibited, this pulquería served a crowd that was very different from that of the mezcalería, a mix of young people many of whom were ornately tattooed and pierced. The surfaces of the tables were sticky with the stray drippings of pulque. A less-toothed barman spotted us and made toward us, offering his pulque, which was available in the original unflavored blanco (white) form and in five other, more palatable varieties. I tried a glass of the oatmeal version. The drink was thick and foamy with an element of sourness and bitterness. While the oatmeal version was sweet, the straight blanco, which the barman allowed me to taste, was much more of an acquired taste. I proudly drank my glass of pulque to the end, but many were drinking from taller mugs and even pitchers.

We wound down the evening with a leisurely stroll through the ritzy Polanco neighborhood. Home to many of the high-end hotels and designer shops, Polanco is evidence of Mexico City's wealthy elite. We passed by luxury car dealerships and shiny restaurants serving European fusion cuisine and wine, a distant cry from the Coronas and Huequito tacos of that afternoon.

The following morning, we made the painless, off-peak journey by subway to the airport, concluding a very memorable and enjoyable five days. This trip will surely be the first of many to Mexico. With only two days in the capital, we barely scratched the surface of North America's largest city. Its many neighborhoods are dense with sightly and delicious surprises. They are calling me back.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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