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Archive for March, 2010

 

Fifteen years ago, I traveled to Mexico City as a jumping off point for my first genuine “on location” television commercial shoot.  I vividly recall our night-time flight into Mexico City:  it is  one of the most populous cities in the world, and  it seemed to go on forever, hills undulating with sparkling lights,  like an endless golden lame gown,.  We only stayed long enough to get the crew together, so I did not see anything more than the inside of a hotel room. (A business travel tale that many of you will recognize). 

Over the years, there never seemed to be reason enough to go back, and reports of random violence, swathes of slums and seriously poor air quality did not entice. But since I was on my way to the very pretty colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, it seemed  a good opportunity to spend a few days exploring the capital of Mexico.  

I was there for four days in February, and am  here today on my way back to Toronto. I can say in all sincerity, that it has been a delightful experience. Even if my expectations were much higher, I would still be pleased. No trace of the dreaded smog:  the skies are uniformly blue, the temperature a comfortable 20 during the day. The traffic is very heavy, but the cars respect pedestrians and as long as you observe the same care that you would in any major city, say New York or Paris, you are very secure. 

In fact you may even be safer than in other major cities:   there appears to be 5 or 6 armed private security guards on every block, and police and private security cars dominate the streets. Outside every fine restaurant, serious men in dark suits congregate, waiting for their patrons to exit.  It actually becomes a little difficult to navigate the sidewalks, with all the bulky SUV’s with black out glass parked close by. Private drivers and body guards abound, and I think it is a bit of a status symbol (not unlike in LA) to have a security entourage. 

The city began to charm me when I watched a lovely young women carefully make my café con leche and present it with a delicate flower stenciled on the cream.  Mexico City is not as elegant or as self-conscious as Barcelona, another outstanding Latin city.  But it does have that wonderful mix of ancient, old and modern that appeals to the urban explorer. 

The architecture is an eclectic mixture of nineteenth century interpretations of Spanish colonial, mid-century modern and truly outstanding leading edge design. It feels warm, edgy, exciting and familiar all at the same time. The city is constantly rebuilding itself, and in the process, it continues to discover major pieces of Aztec construction, razed by the conquistadors’ centuries ago. The atmosphere is vibrant, energetic, positive and modern.

For my first stop in February, I was situated in Polanco,  the equivalent of Fifth Avenue, or Rodeo Drive;  lots of Gucci and Armani to be found. Many beautiful women wander around, expensively dressed. Or is that expensive women ,  beautifully dressed? I guess it depends on who is paying the black American Express Card bill. American Express is well accepted here;  another sign that this is not your stereotypical cheap Mexican holiday destination. 

The city is really all about business, with a Latin accent. Every coffee shop is filled with groups of earnest men and women, congregating around lap tops, reviewing plans and negotiating deals. Business lunches are long drawn out affairs, usually ending way past four pm. Given that dinner is rarely before 9, this makes perfect sense.   Mexican business people  here seem to be less addicted to their cell phones and blackberries. They appear to prefer to talk to each other in person, over coffee, wine or just walking down the street. 

My one regret is that I have had mostly mediocre meals here, which is a shame in a city so food obsessed. Unfortunately, when you are eating alone, you don’t want a formal experience every day, nor are you willing to risk   your health at a roadside stand.  So I seek casual resto-bars which serve small tapas style portions,  allowing me to sample a broader variety of food.   Sadly many of the restaurants nearby my trendy hotel are really just up market bars, frequented by chain-smoking, elegantly thin women (a coincidence, I think not) So the food is not the main event.

 However, I did have one outstanding lunch at a local hangout. One of the city’s favourite dishes is “pastor”;  slightly spicy marinated pork that is slowly grilled much like a gyro, and served with small maize tortillas and five different and delicious salsas. The flavours were clear, bright and sharp.  If I could, I would leave all of my clothes and stuff the suitcases with jars of these incredible salsas and moles!  

Since few gringos tourists actually do come to Mexico City,  I am afraid that the infrastructure is not as well-developed as in most Western or even Eastern cities. There is one tour bus, that gives you a three-hour orientation to the city, but that’s about it.  I could not find a walking tour, or a cooking class, or casual Spanish lessons. The hotels can arrange tours of course, but I found most of them wanted to get you out of the city, not deeper into it.   

But since this is the capital of the country, there are many wonderful museums and galleries to explore. The Museum of Anthropology is truly one of the best in the world, offering an exhaustive history of early man, and of course,  of the diverse, rich civilizations that contribute to current Mexican culture. You could easily spend 3 hours there. Afterwards, you can continue your immersion in Mexico culture at the Museum of Contemporary Art which is just down the paseo.   

As I sit in my lovely hotel room (The Four Seasons proudly hangs a huge Canadian flag outside its grand entrance:  how can you not love that?), I am contemplating the stunning Jacaranda trees in full bloom. Washington DC in spring is famous for the glorious pink cherry blossoms that ring the Jefferson Memorial.  Mexico City in spring is awash in purple flowers on a canopy of huge trees that bloom up and down the major avenues and then carpet the city in mauve petals.  It is a lovely memory to keep of a city that has been so much more than I expected, and definitely not at all what I may have thought.

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In my first post, I tried to articulate what I felt made San Miguel de Allende so compelling to visitors.  There are many stories of people who planned on only staying for a week or two, and end up buying a home on impulse within a few days.  New friends from Connecticut did that in my last week there:  we celebrated their purchase of a “tear down” with drinks on a roof top terrace, toasting their new venture and the stunning San Miguel sunset. 

 As I said earlier, there is something for everyone in San Miguel. You can explore your latent creative ability with fine art lessons, seek spiritual enlightenment at an Empowerment Centre, watch fabulous, sexy flamenco at the local theatre, or expand your mind with lectures on Dante’s Inferno.  The option of spending your days recovering from the night before is a popular choice too! Actually, there are so many restaurants and bars with live music, filled with folks eagerly practicing their dance steps, you would have to be pretty much a curmudgeon not to enjoy yourself. (And if that is the case, don’t come! Please.) 

Or, you can join a number of strong, independent women in San Miguel, and open your own business. I spent my month in SMA at Casa Linda, a boutique hotel done in an extravagant colonial style, owned and operated by a Texan, Linda McLaughlin.  There are a lot of Texans here, and they bring their warm, big-hearted attitude to the place. (I like the contrast with the more earth mother bohemian women of a certain age that choose to retire here) There are over 100 hotels and B&B’s here, so I could have been more nomadic, which is what I normally do to “try out” a new city. (For example, in Bangkok, I moved between three boutique hotels in 5 days, just to see the difference in value for dollar. For future reference, the winner was the magnificent Sukhothai.) 

But here, I was upgraded to a suite, and frankly, I welcomed the chance to practice Spanish with the staff, and spend my morning coffee with Linda when she was available. I even got the point where I would just go to the kitchen door to order breakfast. As the manager said, I became family. 

Linda came to SMA 16 years ago, by way of small town, working class Texas, a high school marriage, which led  to Dallas, New York, Philadelphia and L.A. (I may have omitted a few spots, but you get the sense of a  busy life, filled with her children, a demanding career of her own and an ex husband with a big job in the oil industry) Her first stay here was for 6 months, in honor of her deceased brother, who had loved Mexico. She had no aspirations to be an inn keeper, and in fact her first venture was a jazz bar, restaurant, art gallery mélange. Doing business here can be challenging because the working culture is so different from our own. The tax structure is pretty straightforward and there are no mortgages, so cash talks. As a foreigner, you cannot work here if it means taking jobs from Mexican citizens, but you can certainly invest. 

So she did, jumping right into the deep end of the pool, by renovating a 400 year old meson into a modern boutique hotel with 8 unique decorated rooms & suites, a pool, Jacuzzi, gym, restaurant and an extremely popular roof top bar, aptly named, The Sunset Bar. In fact, I met almost all the people I now enjoy as friends sitting on that terrace, watching the lights come up on the churches and in the hills beyond.   

Linda credits her eight successful years here to her wish to make people comfortable, to make them happy with their stay in SMA and at her hotel. Anyone who has ever touched the service business knows that sounds a lot easier than it does. She has been described as the perfect hostess, a slim blonde with a dazzling, welcoming smile, who works the room to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves, as much as she obviously is. I think that she also has a generous heart:  one of my first events in SMA was a chili tasting contest which was also a  fundraiser,  spearheaded by Linda and two friends, for a local school for kids in need. When I saw her a few mornings after the event, she was going off to see the accountant to see “how much money they had raised for the kids”.  

Her ”Next Big Thing” is to help others face  the challenges of getting old and still have  a wonderful life. She is looking at a venture which will be retirement residence that has a huge fun factor built-in:  could this be the Club Med for Seniors that I referenced earlier? She sees it as a natural extension of being an innkeeper, but it also an expression of her genuine caring for others.

I wanted to profile more of these strong successful women in San Miguel, but I ran out of time. Or perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to go back?

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While in San Miguel de Allende, we were joined for breakfast by a woman with a harrowing tale of a spider the size of her fist that took a chunk out of her traveling companion one evening, causing pain and paralysis of the arm. The location of the incident was exactly where I was heading in a few weeks:  two and half hours by motorized canoe down the Napo River into the rainforest, plus a half hour hike over land, followed by another thirty minutes by canoe to a private lagoon.  As she delivered her story,  beads of sweat broke out on my forehead, my stomach churned and my palms began to grow moist. I have a somewhat irrational fear of all insects, but I fear spiders most of all. Rodents and snakes are tolerable in comparison. 

“What are you doing in the jungle”, muttered our naturalist guide as we made our way up the dock to the rustic La Selva Lodge, “if you don’t like bugs?”   Good question. As the trip to the Galapagos had mostly been about birds, this trip up a tributary of the Amazon was mostly about bugs. Primarily because there are so darn many of them, and unlike other creatures of the rainforest, they are relatively easy to find. 

We had motored quickly up the broad flat brown Napo River, slowing only to avoid the wake of the barges laded with equipment for the oil companies. The jungle was visible on both sides, but the forest was virtually impenetrable to our sight. The guide forewarned us that the jungle was not like the Galapagos where animals were at best, welcoming (frolicking sea lions) and at worst, indifferent to your presence (everything else). 

There was a Disney quality to the Galapagos:  as we mingled with the animals we speculated on the existence of some master  mechanic behind the curtain, orchestrating the display for our benefit:  “Ok cue the cute sea lion pups to start crying for their mommy:  Now move the miniature penguins into position, and begin to waddle by”. The animals on the Galapagos benefit from an abundance of food, and a lack of natural predators, which explains their easy co-habitation with all creatures, including camera wielding tourists. 

As I wrote earlier, Galapagos animals of all species were preoccupied with procreation and almost all of their behaviour was driven by that impulse.  In the jungle, everything is driven by survival. Even the plants compete for life in the so called “green desert”.  The layer of productive soil is only a foot or so deep; beneath that it is  dense hard packed clay. Huge trees grow massive buttresses of roots about ground to support their climb to the canopy.  Roots come down from plants high above you to seek nutrients on the ground and in the air. All manner of plants have developed defense mechanisms like poisonous bark or vicious thorns to protect themselves from animals. Native parents threaten misbehaving children with a lashing by branches from the poison ivy tree. Yes, I said tree, and it was big. 

Most wildlife remains safely hidden from view:  even our guide had only seen one of the five major cats that live in the jungle.  During our daily nature walks (which started at 6 am!) we learned about what the animals liked to eat and where they might be found, but we seldom saw any.  Spider monkeys swung through the trees in troops of 30 to 100 every night, seeking a safe place to sleep, but we got within close sight just once. Other than that, you were grateful for binoculars.  Yes, we did see a wonderful flock of parrots at a “parrot lick”, but only after waiting for two hours in a blind for the parrots to assure themselves that the area was safe enough to venture forth. While observing hundreds of small parrots at another mineral pool, we were suddenly startled by an explosion of brilliant blue, red and green wings rushing out at us like bats from a cave when a single black bird of prey swooped into the area. Survival instinct drives all. 

As we stood high above the jungle canopy one misty morning, looking for the early rising birds, I noted that the jungle was as curiously dark and impenetrable from above as it was dark and impenetrable from below. The jungle seems to have infinite number of shades of green and black:  as the guide noted, if something is brightly coloured, the odds are good it’s poisonous.   It is a gloomy, moist, dangerous and unknowable place, at least by us. 

I admit that as interesting as the guide made it, I  always breathed a sigh of relief when the morning hike or canoe  was  over. One night I decided to brave the darkness and join the evening hike with a smaller group looking for the bigger insects that are nocturnal feeders. We saw tarantulas the size of my outstretched hand, whip scorpion spiders that were a good  foot across, and massive webs built by brown spiders with a curious white skull on their back, that wove their traps every night starting at six pm, and then rewound the silk into their abdomen every morning. I walked warily right down the middle of the muddy trail, hands by my side, careful to touch nothing or be touched.  One of my companions noted that to get lost in here at night was likely to be lost forever, and I heartily agreed. 

So why visit the jungle at all? Well, as the lovely lady from Alberta with the fear of heights said, as she climbed to the top of the scaffolding, high above the canopy, “if she (meaning me) can do spiders at night, then I can do this”.  Spiders, like almost all creatures in the jungle are hidden because they are rightfully fearful, and would sooner scuttle away than engage a creature as large as a human. Still, I tucked in the mosquito netting around my bed with extra care every night, especially since my bamboo casita had  large gaps in the floor, walls and ceiling, anywhere from one inch to five inches.  I may have overcome my fear of spiders through exposure, but I was certainly not going to issue an invitation! 

After four nights in the jungle in my drafty accommodation, listening to monkeys, frogs and cicadas all night long, I checked myself into a suite at Le Mirage, Ecuador’s finest spa and a member of the prestigious Relais &Chateaux group. I rationalize that what I save in fine dining and wine expenses while traveling alone, I can spend on spa treatments!  

My biggest danger here is getting bit by one of the gorgeous peacocks that stroll the manicured grounds and they are too proud to acknowledge my presence. Iridescent hummingbirds flit around the famous Ecuadorian roses as I enjoy my café in the breakfast room by the fire. My suite is enormous, with a regal four poster bed, a charming round alcove where I can lounge and enjoy the view of my private gardens beyond, and a wood burning fire that is lit every night at my request. (In fact, it was just lit)  It’s a long way from the bamboo hut, and its multi-legged residents in the rafters, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful. It’s the contrast in things that makes travel interesting, at least for me, and certainly, in Ecuador.

p.s. A helpful jungle hint given to us on our last night during the nocturnal canoe ride:  you can tell that a snake is poisonous in the following ways:   if they have a tail, a triangular shaped head, or if they are aggressive and attack you, they are likely poisonous. Of course, by that time, it’s likely too late!

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My week in the Galápagos was as magical, as beautiful and as wondrous an encounter with nature can be. It was also all about sex. Well, procreation if you must.  Our Galápagos born guide (as they all must be by law) had many years of formal education, field research and extensive guiding behind him and we benefited greatly from his knowledge. But really, every shore excursion seemed to be a in-depth discourse by species on preparing for mating, the actual act itself and then little or no attention paid to what happens after the deed is done. Sound familiar?

Over the course of the week, we heard about territorial displays of virility,  double pronged penises,  harems of willing females,  colour changes on the body to  signal stages of sexual readiness or satiation,   the ability to keep a fertilized ovum separate while entertaining other suitors, just in case a spare was required and ejaculations that could last for up to four hours.  Certainly much more interesting than the high school biology lectures that I recall.

 Take the blue footed boobie for example:  one of three species of boobies that inhabit the Enchanted Isles (so called because the variable winds seemed to trap sailing vessels in the  Archipelago) These birds were named “boobies” by visiting sailors because they were thought to be stupid, having no fear of humans and so could be caught and killed easily.  In fact, when Darwin  made his seminal month  long  visit  to the Galapagos in 1835, he recorded  that there was so little fear among birds that he “brushed a hawk off a branch with the muzzle of my rifle”.* 

 We watched with delight one morning as the male blue footed booby elegantly danced and sang for a prospective mate.  She of course, looked every which way but at the male, who was so eager to charm, and appeared to be preparing to entertain another suitor at the same time. Like with so many other species (including our own), it’s the female that chooses.  Given that she is the one who then has to be fertilized, give birth, and then is likely to be the primary caregiver until the offspring leaves the nest, it only makes sense that she take her time to pick the right mate.  After all, she is making the selection that will ensure the survival of her species, in whatever form it has adapted to, whether  in its unique Galapagos habitat, or say, London.  

 During one morning hike, the island air was literally ringing with the sounds of would be suitors, singing, dancing, and flapping their wings, desperate to attract the attention and then of course the affection (if only for a moment) of a willing female.  We might have been at a nightclub at around midnight in an urban club district; there was so much male sartorial display.

 But my favourite feathered suitor has got to be the magnificent frigate bird. With a wing span of greater than 2 meters, he usually soars above the islands, climbing high with the thermals.  However, during the 3 month mating season, he perches for eight to ten hours a day, inflating his “gular” pouch, made brilliant red by engorged blood vessels, and waits for a potential Ms. Right to come along.  If she deigns to come by, she will spend ten minutes or so, checking him out from all angles, and then, if pleased with his table manners, bank account and financial prospects (oh sorry, wrong species), if pleased with his potential to procreate a likely survivor in life’s difficult game, she nestles her head under his wing.

 But the competition is stiff, and all of his buddies tend to hang out together on the same thorny bush. There is no gentleman’s agreement on who saw the bird first:   if a female comes by, attracted by one’s crimson pulchritudinous, the others will slowly puff themselves up, just in case. Who knows what goes through a female frigate’s mind when she is looking for a mate:  the first spotted may be Mr. Right, but the bird to the left could be Mr. Right Now.

 But you have to pity the poor fellows who have to fly with that thing distended under their beak like a giant flaming beach ball.   And since they do roost in thorny bushes, sometimes, the pouch bursts on landing. Sadly, the punctured pouch will never come back to its full crimson glory, and then it is unlikely he will attract a female.   Sort of like admitting you still live at home or play the accordion.

 After the guide made the comment about the prospect of the  thorn piercing the engorged red sack,  I observed that three men of my group shifted their feet uneasily, grinned a little at each other,  and then quickly moved down the trail to the next feathered attraction.  Peter from Sussex, (whom I fondly thought of as the “clown fish”, because he was very funny, and we could not keep him out of the water) I think made the comment to his companions that it was nothing that a Saville Row suit could not fix!  

 In contrast to the frenzy of courting and coupling on land, life at sea was an oasis of calm.  I was fortunate to spend my week touring the islands on a vintage yacht called the Grace. At one point in its long history, it had been a wedding present from Aristotle Onassis to Princess Grace and Prince Ranier, and indeed, they had spent their honeymoon onboard. With only 16 passengers and 8 crew members, it was as promised, a luxurious experience, all gleaming teak and polished brass.  (Never mind the malfunctioning air conditioning which threatened to spoil an otherwise perfect voyage)

 One gloriously sunny afternoon, late in the week, as we were all lounging on the upper decks’ wicker furniture, reading and reviewing photos, it struck me that I was in the presence of a very rare phenomenon:  multiple, multi year successful marriages.  Out of the seven couples on board, at least six  had been married for over twenty years. By my observation, it seemed that they had made a very good initial choice that continued to work and possibly even blossom over time. The couples tended to be similar in general appearance and build and had equivalent levels of attractiveness, all of which the socio-biologists would approve of.  

 Over the week, as we all became more comfortable with each other, I watched them sit closer on the love seats, drape legs over laps, and share photos or books with an arm casually wound around the other. Couples chose to sit together on deck and at dinner, and the conversations were lively and engaging: no sniping, griping or otherwise grinding your partner down. 

Now, there may have been some natural selection at work here as well:  if you choose to spend a week with your partner  in the close quarters of a boat far from home, and at great expense, the odds are good that you enjoy each other’s company. But these couples had been making that same choice every single day for at least two decades. It was a pleasure to see the rewards of well suited monogamy close at hand, and a joy to be in their warm and inclusive company. 

** If you have the inclination, I highly recommend reading “The Voyage of The Beagle” by Charles Darwin.  It is a lucid and interesting account of his five year journey as a budding  naturalist, from the perspective of  a  well educated, upper middle class man of a 19th century when England still ruled the world. It is also a first hand record of the observations that ultimately led to his theories on natural selection.  I was surprised at what an easy read it was, and how fascinating it was to literally be inside the mind of a man who would fundamentally change the way we looked

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One rainy evening in San Miguel, (and believe me, many of them were rainy) it was suggested that we take refuge in the warm bar called Berlin and undertake that tequila tasting I had been talking about.  By way of background, to be called tequila, the product must originate from the region of Tequila, where it is made from the blue agave plant in a time-consuming process. Anything with over 51% agave can be called Tequila, but the higher the agave content, the better the product and the more expensive the bottle. But is the extra cost justified?   Connoisseurs of the fiery Mexican drink will tell you that you get what you pay for:  more expensive tequila should taste better, smoother, more complicated and nuanced in flavour. 

There are over 950 brands of tequila but I have neither the time nor the liver to conduct an exhaustive survey so we took a simple approach to the question.  We ordered a pair of roughly equivalent tequilas, served straight up in shot glasses, tasting in sequence from least expensive to most. 

Honestly, it was all a bit lost on me. I don’t think tequila will ever replace fine Scotch whisky or premium bourbon in my liquor cabinet. However, some folks in San Miguel sip it all night in small snifters, and report feeling no ill effects the next day. I cannot say the same about an evening spent with Glenmorangie!

However, in a country where beer is the ubiquitous beverage of choice, which I don’t drink, and house wine tends to err on the side of plonk, tequila is a good choice for an evening out.  Frankly, the best part of the tequila tasting for me (except for the charming company) was the sangrita. It is a traditional accompaniment to premium tequila, meant to heighten the appreciation of the agave flavour, by sipping alternatively from each glass. It is made from a spicy blend of tomatoes or tomato juice, orange and lime juices, onions, salt and hot chili peppers. It is vaguely like sipping a Blood Mary with the liquor in one glass and the tomato mixture in the other, and it is really appealing.

 At the close of our evening, our intense concentration was broken by a gentleman from a group sitting across the bar who shouted “OK, enough already, which was the best?”  Apparently, our little experiment had attracted an audience.

So here’s the verdict: the best tasting tequila was indeed the most expensive:  Don Julio.  The next best was actually not Tequila at all, but a premium mescal:  Jaral de Berrio  Made of 100% agave, and aged for about four years, this beverage had a smoky flavour that these two scotch drinkers found appealing.

 Since mescal does not have the cachet of aged tequila (it is commonly associated with college binges and dodgy worms lurking in the bottom of bottles) it will always cost less than premium tequila. Think of the relationship between Armagnac and Cognac. Despite the name mescal, it has no psychedelic properties, and indeed, in the north of Mexico, they drink it before breakfast as an aid to controlling diabetes and hypertension.  Somehow I think my good doctor might be skeptical. 

But there is really only one way to drink tequila or mescal for that matter. You find your way late to a dark, dingy cantina in Mexico, where the doors swing open like in an old-time Western. Brush the crumbs off the battered chairs, ignore the decades of grime ground into the carpet and order a round of tequila and sangrita. The corners are dark and the air smoky and there will be at least one couple dancing close and another kissing as if they were on life support. If you are very lucky, the music will be old-fashioned Mexican western songs of love and loss, strummed on an acoustic guitar by a handsome man who wears a Sombrero and sings in a rich baritone. Mix the music with impromptu sing alongs by the mostly Mexican audience, really filthy jokes (they have to be really profane if I understood them in Mexican) and good-natured heckling from the floor and you have the makings of a fine evening with tequila and friends. Salud!

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