Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Mazunte.. it´s groovy!

I flew on a little 16 seat plane from Oaxaca to Huatulco, on aerotucan. I love an airline that has a cute bird as it´s logo:

The mountains of southern Mexico:

I checked into Alta Mira, a series of bungalows on a cliff. I made this reservation in September. This town is jam-packed full for the holidays. Many people sleeping in tents.

I realize I have been to this place before. It´s called Montezuma, Costa Rica. A laid-back beach town with a hippie vibe. I absolutely love it. This morning, there were tiny ants crawling all over my toothbrush but I just banged them off.

On the pacific coast, the waves are much stronger than they were in the Yucatan and the ocean is a little more feisty and less turquoise than it was in Tulum. Here it is during a calm time:

Having a michelada with dueling coke and pepsi chairs:

Most restaurants are just like this. Hand painted signs, simple food:

My hotel is at the edge of town. But it´s a tiny town, so it only takes me 5 minutes to walk to downtown. There is an interseting little cemetary near the back of the hotel:

I went into town and had some garlicky pasta for dinner, with some house vino for less than $10.

A little band came in and played:

I walked along the beach back to the hotel and came across a belly dancer. I didn´t get the chance to see belly dancing in Egypt, yet I saw some in Mazunte. I came across numerous people strumming guitars or just walking down the street with a can of beer.

I watched some fire dancers on the beach and fell asleep reading my book.

Grasshopper farming secrets

My plan for Oaxaca was to spend two nights at the edge of town at quirky la villada, then moving to the center of town for a night. I checked into my fancy Posada San Miguel, above, which was one-third the space of my old room at La Villada and three times the price. It was nice to be right downtown, though, and I enjoyed all the luxurious touches in the hotel, such as my new lounge chairs and little balcony:
I went back to the big indoor market to have lunch. I had mole negro on Christmas, and this time I tried mole colorado (roja) on some enchiladas at a little stand called Comidas ¨Lupita¨. One thing that amuses me is how so many businesses put the owners name in quotation marks. Such as Carnes y Pescados ¨Miguel¨, or zapateria ¨Lulu¨. It´s almost like the name is a pseudonym. If I had a restaurant here, it might be called Enchiladas ¨Sarita¨. If that´s really my name. It´s in quotation marks so who knows!

In the market I also bought a little bag of grasshoppers. They don´t sell them at night, and I really needed a drink before I ate them, so I carried them around and was finally able to examine them after a tecate:

I took them to my hotel restaurant, where they gave me some limes and peanuts (and a mezcal) to eat them with. There was a couple from Zacatecas next to me, encouraging me. After a little mezcal, I had one. It tasted like nothing. So I had another one. This one tasted like grasshopper. I really have no reference for the taste. A little musty, earthy and definitely buggy. I sipped a little more mezcal. I´m not just making this up to be clever, the mezcal was a nice accompaniment to the ´hoppers. Mezcal is really smoky and smooth - it´s almost like they were meant to go together! Smoke and earth. I had one more. A lady my parent´s age from upstate new york was also in the restaurant. I called her over. Also a grasshopper virgin, she had three or four and I ate about 5 more. The restaurant staff also had some, and together we had a little chapulines party.

I had wondering for days (see my last post) how they were caught and fried, thinking it must be so labor intensive. I´m strangely interested in food, farming and production. Maybe because my grandfather was a cattle rancher for awhile and I grew up exposed to it. One of my favorite memories from being very young was when he took me to a livestock auction. I went to culinary school for fun and took an interesting class called ¨from farm to plate¨. I also volunteer occasionally for chef Efrain Cuevas in Chicago, who puts together underground dinner parties. Sometimes he sneaks in his uncle´s cheese from Mexico or puts a latin twist on one dish or another. I always learn something new from him. I just had to know about this grasshopper farming business!


A bilingual lady who worked at my hotel filled me in. There is a grasshopper season - mainly November, and we just missed it. They catch the grasshoppers in the cornfields in big metal cages. They are dry-grilled with lime and chiles, (not fried as I thought) and they keep for months, sort of like bug jerky. There are slats with holes, which filter out the grasshoppers into small, medium and large. I still don´t know why they are ONLY sold during the day, and never at night. Anyhow, it was a very interesting day exploring the market and trying something new.

That night, Hugh and Craig came down from la villada to join me for dinner. ¨wow, you upgraded!¨they said when they saw my new hotel. We went to an authentic posole place. I had chicken with roja broth, it had cabbage and came with fried torta shells to sprinkle in. Completely delicious!

Next we went to a local bar where there was a pool table. This pool table had no triangle, a slanted table, no 8 ball, broken pool cues and no ¨4¨balls. So we invented our own game called ¨Cinco is the Ocho¨, where we substituted the 5 for the 8, and just played with what we had. It was fun. Here I am racking up the balls with my arms instead of a triangle:

Craig trying to break up my terrible rack job with Hugh waiting his turn in another riveting game of ¨Cinco is the Ocho¨:

Later in the evening, some young locals came in to join the game and tried to guess where we were all from.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Oaxaca - Firecrackers, Grasshoppers and Mole!

I had to wake up at 3:15AM, but was soon in a great mood when I checked facebook. Two more of my good friends might come to run the Berlin marathon next year! This trip was taken on my miles, so I got to fly first class all the way to Mexico City. My seat mate for the second flight was a nice Mexican-American guy named Danny, who told me all about the food awaiting me in Oaxaca. Mole, Chapulines (deep fried grasshoppers with lime and chile), oaxacan cheese... For culinary-minded people, Oaxaca is one of the great food destinations in the world. I have wanted to come here for years, and the time was just right. Danny made sure I got through customs and escorted me to my tram to terminal 2. It was a nice welcome to Mexico.

For my little flight to Oaxaca, all of the intercom instructions were in rapid-fire spanish. A recorded voice came on later in english, with the funniest pronounciation of Oaxaca. ¨Flight 2409 to Oh-hox-i-ca¨is boarding now.

I had booked two nights at a hostel at the far edge of town, purely because it got rave reviews on tripadvisor, and I could get a gigantic room with my own bathroom for one third the price of in-town (Oaxaca is a little pricey). My taxi driver winded up steep, steep hills and I arrived at a fun hotel-hostel complete with a little bar, a christmas eve party and plenty of friendly (and a few quirky) people to talk to. I had a beer with Matt, an older English guy who has been here for 18 years, 9 months. That is because his daughter is exactly 18 years old. He had plenty of colorful, fun stories to tell. I also met Hugh, a former wall street worker, now painter-writer who lives in different places (Niger, California, Mexico) for a few months at a time to paint portraits of people and work on his book. I called it a night after an hour and slept amazing in my huge room, falling asleep to distant firecrackers and faint music.

On Christmas I walked three miles into town, stupidly up and down hills in flip flops (did I not learn in Amman?). I love how most people with yards set up a little nativity scene:

I stopped in El Llano park where I custom-ordered a squash flower quesadilla that was awesome:

Virgin of Guadeloupe:

An unusually quiet street in Oh-hox-i-ca:

I took an almost identical photo like this in Merida last year. I had a conversation with a guy from Alaska about Merida. He agreed with me that Merida, in the yucatan, has many of the charms of Oaxaca but gets very little attention. I have been raving about it since I went last year. A cheaper, easier to get to sort-of clone of Oaxaca (with completely different but also delicious food) - Merida - it´s great!

ALL over Oaxaca, there are ladies selling fried grasshoppers. I have many questions about this. HOW do they catch so many? Don´t they hop away? Wouldn´t grasshopper-catching and frying be a labor- intensive, thankless job? How do they stay in business when I really don´t see tons of people eating them? I have seen people eating them, but it seems like the supply far exceeds demand. I really need to learn more about the business of chapulines. If only my spanish was a little better. My spanish is getting better by the year, though. I have entire (yet simple) converstaions and transactions in spanish. The Chapulines questions would require Trisha-quality spanish.

I hate to break it to you this way, but I have moved here and opened a fruit stand. See ya!

While I was walking near the edge of town, I came across a random party with a mariachi band. As soon as they saw me take the photo, I was invited to the party and offered food. But I declined this time...

View from La Villada:

Mole shops - everywhere in the markets! There are seven different types of mole here. So far I have had the black and the red. They are both amazing.

When I got back to the hostel, Hugh rounded up some more people to come back into town for Christmas dinner and drinks. From left to right (below) are Craig from England (teaches English in mexico city), Anton from Madrid (dating Gabi and writes for a magazine & makes films and commercials), Gabi (Architect from Mexico City), and Hugh.

Gabi and Anton had recently returned from living and working in India for a few years. They had some very entertaining stories to tell. Everyone did. It was a great group and a fabulous night out. I also tried Mezcal for the first time, a smoky, wood-aged version of Tequila that is found in the south of Mexico. It was smooth, I swear. Not harsh like some tequila can be. I don´t drink liquor as a rule, but this was nice to try. I might have talked Gabi into going to the middle east for her birthday.

We tried to find a Chapuline seller at night so that I could finally try some, since I refuse to try them completely sober. Apparently grasshoppers are only a daytime food. Every time I tried to ask about them after dark, I just got head shakes and laughs. Manana for chapulines!

Do I try them? What do they taste like? Stay tuned to find out if I eat some ´hoppers!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Laufin sie schell!

I leave for Mexico in the morning, yet I planned another trip today - well, the race registration anyhow. After three Chicago marathons, I am ready for something new - a destination marathon! My friend Kimberley from my marathon group is running this, and I was torn between Dublin and Berlin. Strangely I have never been to Germany. I have a time goal in mind that is just ridiculous - but this might give me the motivation to do it. I have another friend who PR'd in Berlin. Can I take 15 more minutes off my time? Maybe in the land of the autobahn and my ancestors?

And afterwards - a few days in Prague, perhaps. Europe, it's been awhile. You are so expensive but a week won't kill me. And your beer is so tasty.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Islamic Cairo - the neighborhood - in pictures

Islamic Cairo is the more traditional neighborhood. I enjoyed walking around and taking pictures before I meandered all the way back across town returning to Zamalek.

Cairo - it's not as crazy as people say...

Cairo was everthing and nothing I expected it to be. I kept hearing how crazy the traffic is, how loud it is, how intense it is.. but it's really not as "in your face" as people say, at least from what I can gather from two days of being here. The traffic is exactly the same in Rome or Athens. With the exception of the call to prayer, It's equally loud but does not exceed New York. Sure it's hard to cross the street in places, but if you just find someone who is crossing the street at the same time, it's not a huge problem. I'm staying in Zamalek, the embassy district (pic above) - with french architecture and old, tree-lined streets. There are THREE boutique cupcake shops within 5 minutes of my hotel. Bookstores and coffee shops share the street with food markets and shisha (hookah) pipe places. Cairo is old and new - traditional and completely cosmopolitan in parts. The only thing that really gets to me is the air quality - it's so horribly polluted here, there is a constant haze in the air - and there is a lot of chain-smoking. Every taxi driver I've had chain smoked in the cab while I tried to breathe out the window. I blow my nose and it's black.

I went to see the pyramids. They were allright. The people hanging out there were really annoying. Every minute someone would come up to you, try to get you to ride a camel (no thanks), a horse, asking what's your name, where you from? I have started to say I'm from Australia or Germany or Mexico just to mix things up. Aside from the people, the pyramids were kind of cool for about 45 minutes but then I was ready to move on. It was pretty amazing to see them in person (they are enormous), but temples in Mexico and Petra in Jordan were much more fun to me for some reason. I'm not really an ancient monument person so much as a culture person - city-explorer, walker, talker, delicious food-eater, music-listener and atmosphere soaker-upper. I would sooner spend two hours trying to find and eat in a good restaurant than spend the day in Giza at the pyramids. But I'm happy to have seen them.

There is a restaurant near my hotel called Abou el Sid that is just fantastic. I suppose it's a little touristy because I met Americans in there, but there were plenty of Egyptians in there, the food is Egyptian and just amazing. It is dark and so full of atmosphere with middle eastern music, people smoking sheesha, beautiful lamps and design. Because I had no reservations (it's popular!) I sat at the bar where I had fuul, falafel, tzatziki and the second night Fettah, which is tangy rice with veal, sort of an egyptian risotto. Friday I sat next to a fun couple from Oregon who are avid divers. We had been to a lot of the same places, including the same hotel on a tiny island off Nicaragua. They had also just taken an intrepid tour. We had a lot of the same views about travel. Saturday I sat next to Chris, cinematographer from NYC who is working on a documentary about an underground rock music scene here in Cairo, and one about the Swell Season. He was such an interesting guy that I invited him along with me that night to meet up with my friend Trisha's friend Ellen, her boyfriend Amr and his friend Gindi.
Abou El Sid:

The remnants of my dinner that I was too busy to photograph because I was talking to the Oregon couple! Note the bowl of fuul is scraped clean and the falafel has sesame seeds on it here:

Travelling solo is fun because if you want to be social, you can be. If you want to just read your book in a bar, you can. I frequently do both. I tend to meet more people solo or with girl friends than I do when I'm part of a couple. I've travelled a lot as both. Maybe it's because I don't have someone else there dominating the conversation. I don't know, but I love the luck I've had on this trip with strangers opening up to me. Everybody has a story to tell!
Ellen so nicely came to my hotel and we all went to a local bar, Bodega. I should have taken more pictures, but I have one on facebook. Ellen is going to the American University at Cairo and is doing some interesting humanitarian-type projects and studying. Her boyfriend also went to the University and finished his military obligation. It was nice to see a familiar face from home, meet two fun Egyptian guys and have my new dinner friend along with us. It was a nice evening.
Now let's talk about my new obsession, Kushari!

When I was in Dahab, I met a Canadian woman who raved about a place called Abou Tarek. They had some kind of local dish and I didn't know what she was talking about at the time. They serve only one thing, Kushari. It's a mixture of tiny macaroni, spaghetti, chick peas, some sort of lentil, ground meat and fried onions on top. There is a garlicky vinegar and spicy tomato sauce to go on it. It is delicious!! It is nowhere near my hotel and I made a point to go there two times in two days. I think I can replicate it somewhat when I get home:

The real star of Cairo (according to me) isn't the pyramids, but just the city itself and all the fun contrasts. We have young veiled girls talking in front of a victoria's secret-type shop:

Sparkly shoes which I have actually seen women in full veiled robes wearing:


Young guys just hanging in groups on the street laughing just like they would anywhere:

I walked all the way home from downtown yesterday, and all the way from Islamic Cairo (a section of town) today. Street signs aren't usually in English, but every once in awhile you come to a traffic circle and you can figure things out. I was not expecting the fancy French architecture!

Sometimes you'd think you were in Europe, if not for the arabic:

I stopped on the nile at the Sofitel for some mango ice cream. Check out that hazy sky:

View from my balcony. I had a great hotel that really was a complete bargain. (and clean!!). I recommend the Hotel Longchamps to anyone coming to Cairo. Nice people, good breakfast, I picked well at the last minute! It had a real Parisian feel to it.

Here's a fish shop next to a fruit store in the neighborhood:

Street signs even looked European. In Zamalek, anyhow. In other parts of town you just have to walk in one direction and hope you eventually figure out where you are: