Posts Tagged ‘street food’

From Costa Rica back to Panama

2 May 2011

I am writing this on Sunday May 1st from the Cerro la Vieja Eco-hotel and Spa outside of Penonomé in central Panama. I arrived in San José on Wednesday April 27. Roberto Hernandez brought the truck to the airport from San Isidro de el General and had to immediately take a bus to La Fortuna where he had to escort some clients. I was feeling pretty tired, as I had woken up at 4:00AM instead of the 5:30 I had planned to catch the 8:30 flight to San José from Toronto. Had I bothered to check my itinerary, I would have realized that the flight was actually at 9:30, so I could have theoretically slept for another hour. But then would I have fallen asleep again?

Balconies at Cuna del Angel

Roberto suggested I might make it to Dominical before dark if I took the new toll highway, which is longer but would take less time than the Pan-American Highway. The road was pretty good, although it did go down from four lanes divided expressway to a regular good-quality two-lane road. I did make it to Dominical on the Pacific coast and started looked for a hotel. I finally stumbled upon the Cuna del Angeljust as it was getting dark.

Dining room at the Cuna del Angel

The Cuna del Angel was a wonderful resort, with excellent food. I wish I could have stayed longer. I had an excellent ceviche followed by a roast pork with pineapple. The morning breakfast buffet was excellent: the usual Costa Rican fruits (mango, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe), scrambled eggs and the ever present gallo pinto(rice & beans).

I left around 9:00AM for a relatively uneventful trip to the border. The coastal highway started out as excellent, but when I reached the Interamericana, it turned into the usual bombed-out state of Costa Rican highways. Imagine! A country that would rather spend money on social programs and medical care instead of highways! What is this world coming to?

Anyway, I got to the border and dealt with the inflexibility of the Costa Rican bureaucracy. I first went to the customs office, the “Aduana”, to see if I could get an extension for my vehicle temporary importation permit. No way! The cute Tica customs officer told me I had two days left, and if I left the country, I could come back and stay in Costa Rica for two days, no more. Otherwise, I would have to wait 90 days before my truck would be allowed into the country again. Broad hints about other possible arrangements met with a flat refusal; there was no way to do it. Don’t you just hate honest civil servants?

I also asked what would happen if I came back and stayed for more than two days, not that I would ever do that, I told the customs officer. This did make her smile rather broadly, not that she had been unpleasant before. It turns out that for the first eight days I might get away with a fine of $150, depending on my reasons for overstaying the permit, which I would have to document. More than eight days, I would have to pay the taxes, which I had previously estimated at about $3,000, as well as a $500 fine.

Then I had to go to immigration office to get my passport stamped. Unfortunately, the immigration officers were all in a meeting, so we all had to wait for over an hour before they came back and took the 30 seconds to examine & stamp the passports. Can’t say they were inefficient or slow once they showed up. Back to the customs office and got the paperwork on the truck, which was already prepared.

Then to the Panama border for another rigmarole. The immigration stamp went fast, but the importation permit took a while. I already had insurance for the truck & though I had photocopies of everything (passport, registration, driver’s license), but after waiting 15 minutes, a customs officer told me I also needed a photocopy of the insurance policy and then get it stamped by the transit police upstairs. I went upstairs, but there was a sign saying they were out to lunch. Oops, I meant out for lunch. I went to the other side, decided that I would go for lunch too as it now was past 1:00PM.

Then this guy said he would help me. I was somewhat wary, but he took me upstairs, took the police stamp and stamped my insurance document. This is one of the “helpers”, not a government official, who has access to a traffic police stamp and can use it with impunity. Welcome to Panama! I then had to get another stamp, I forget for what for, and I stopped the helper and asked him how much he wanted. He said: “Anything I wanted to give him (“lo que quiere”).” I said bullshit, just tell me how much you expect. I felt like saying: “How about 10 cents?” He insisted “Anything you would like to give me.” Then the woman official at the desk piped up and said “ten dollars”. I asked him if that was satisfactory. So then I went to pay for the fumigation spray, closed the windows in the camper. A customs officer then came and checked out the camper and the inside of the truck. He also asked me if I had any firearms. I said: “No tengo armas. Soy canadiense, no soy americano.” He laughed but I still had to show him practically everything. He missed the compartment behind the back seat of the truck & I opened it to show him my spare parts.

Old wooden building in David

Then to David, the first major town along the way and the capital of Chiriquí province. Stopped for lunch at the grossly overpriced TGIF ($3.00 for the lousy American-style Panamanian beer rather than the more usual $1.00) restaurant at a mall on the highway, where Marilyn and I had stopped before. I tried getting my bearings. (Panamanian beer is pretty lousy, tastes just like American beer, i.e. it is just like making love in a canoe. At least Costa Rica has Bavaria Negra which is more than drinkable. No local dark beer or ale in panama, just the pissy dishwatery American-style so-called “lager”.) I was parked in a mall parking lot next to a taxi stand. When I went back, one of the taxi drivers jokingly asked me if I wanted a taxi. I said, “Actually I do. I’m looking for a hotel, can you show me some and I will follow you.” He suggested the Best Western and Hotel Ciudad de David. I said: “OK, I’ll follow you into town.”

Cathedral and Parque Cervantes in David

I stayed at the Best Western there, pretty cheap at $55.00 for a relatively small but clean room with air conditioning and internet. I needed a new mouse (forgot the old one on the Vancouver-Toronto flight, I think) and a Panamanian chip for my cell phone. The Costa Rican chip doesn’t work in Panama and neither does my Blackberry, which is a piss-off. I am paying $25.00 per month for “Latin American coverage”, but Bell does not seem to have an agreement with Panamanian cell phone providers. No problem with the state-owned ICEin Costa Rica. Is this one more example where state-owned companies are more efficient than the private sector?

I misunderstood the directions given by the hotel clerk and ended up walking all over town instead of getting to the “Hong Kong” electronics store two blocks away. It seems that all the electronics stores—as well as many of the small groceries, not to speak of the classic laundries—are owned by Chinese immigrants.

I went for supper at what was supposedly the best pizza place in town at the Gran Hotel Nacional and casino. Not very good, although it was nowhere near the abysmal depths reached by a pizza joint in Holguín Cuba. I also checked out the casinos. Rather sad seeing all these people playing the slot machines. I was tempted to join one of the cheap blackjack tables, but avoided the temptation rather easily. There was also a karaoke contest, with some pretty good singers. After a G&T and listening to a few songs, I went back to the hotel to bed.

Truck next to cabin at XS Memories RV Park, Santa Clara, Panamá

Next day off to XS Memories in Santa Clara, the only RV Park in all of Central America. I went there to find out about shipping the truck to South America. The owner gave me a lead to a new to me agency, Norton-Lilly, which apparently could ship it to Ecuador. A number of Germans RVers had just used it. The alternative is to use Barwil Agencies and go through Colombia, which I am not anxious to do. However, it was then late afternoon on a Friday before a long weekend (May 1, Labour Day in most of the world except the US and Canada. This is because May 1 commemorates the massacre of workers by police at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886, an event the North Americans authorities would rather that people forget.) I stayed there that night in one of the air-conditioned cabins they have; it is just too hot to stay in the camper. Supper was pargo (red snapper?) with salad. Quite good!

The room in the cabin at XS Memories

I didn’t know what to do after that. I couldn’t do much research as the internet was down at XS Memories—along with the phone system so they could not do credit card transactions or answer enquiries. I thought of staying in central Panama and going either to the Azuero peninsula with its traditional colonial towns or to the Penonomé area in Coclé province, with cooler mountains and rainforest in the Omar Torrijos National Park. I decided on the Penonomé area and I ended up staying at the Hotel Dos Continentes in Penonomé as they were the only one with internet in the room.

I went for a little drive into the countryside up to La Pintada looking for an artisanal market. Then back to the hotel and got my cell phone which had stopped working. The Chinese girl at the cell phone shop told me it needed a new “flex”, whatever that was and it could only be got in Panama City. So I bought a new phone as a temporary measure.

Prancing Andalusian? horse

I got lucky as they were celebrating the 430th anniversary of the foundation of Penonomé in 1581. There was a major parade with children and dancers in traditional costumes as well as prancing horses, Lipizzaner or Spanish School style dressage. The traditional dress women wear is known as a pollera while the men wear a traditional Panamanian peasant hat (sombrero pintao), which is quite different from what we know as Panama hat, actually made in Ecuador. The procession/parade was kind of neat and should was followed by a traditional dance show. I ate street food, including some great barbecued chicken (pollo asado). The woman selling it convinced me to also have some rice with it. $2.00 for an excellent ¼ chicken with rice and potato salad.

Queen of the fiesta in her pollera

Penonomé, the start of the parade

This is what it's about.

Costa rican style road in Panama on the way to Cerro la Vieja

That night, I also decided to go to Posada Cerro la Vieja eco-lodge (TripAdvisor reviews)north of Penonomé instead of the National Park where I would have had to camp, and called to make reservations. Saturday morning I was off to the supermarket to get some drinks (water, Belgian beer—as the Panamanian stuff is like making love in a canoe—and Gatorade) and snacks. Then up to the Cerro la Vieja for lunch on a Costa Rican style road and a couple of days of total relaxing dolce far niente.

View from my room, Posada Cerro la Vieja

Nice room with nice view, good food and I am staying here until Tuesday morning when I will call the agency in Panama City and figure out what next. I think I’ll go for a massage now. I just hope no right-wing cop anonymously accuses me of doing something illicit.

The last word to Omar Torrijos: "the more one consults, the fewer mistakes one makes". This is for Jack who will hopefully be Prime Minister soon.

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The dangers of Mexico

9 February 2011

We are now in north-eastern Costa Rica, in the Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiquí region. But I continue the story with more on Mexico City.

Mexico City proved extremely dangerous, especially for me. And not because of drug dealers, or pickpockets, or street crime. The real danger is the food. And not because of the “turista” or “Montezuma’s revenge”; food preparation is actually very hygienic. Mexicans seem to be constantly washing their hands, the supermarkets sell all kinds of disinfectants for the same Mexican vegetables and fruits we import and eat with impunity in Canada.

The real dangers in Mexico City are tacos and quesadillas and chiles rellenos and salsas and tortillas and tamales and churros and manteca and mantequilla and all manners of other local foods. Particularly dangerous are the high-end restaurants, the humble hole in the wall taquerías, the street food sellers, and all other establishments preparing and selling food. It should come as no surprise that Mexicans are even fatter than Americans. (Or should I be polite and say they have a higher rate of obesity?) Not that Canadians are much better; our fat behinds are not that far behind. North America is unquestionably the fattest continent on Earth.

Let’s not forget that the conquest of Mexico resulted in a dietary revolution in most of the world: corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, turkey, vanilla, and chocolate all originated in Mexico, as did chewing gum (chicle).

The Mexicans seem to be as fanatic about their food as Italians. They all think the best food in the world is their mother’s, then their city’s or region’s, then the food from other Mexican regions. They will only grudgingly admit that other countries might have some good dishes, especially Italy.

As an aside, Italian and Italy are sexy in Mexico. The city and the country are rife with misspelled Italian words: the favourite seems to double up consonants to make the works look more “Italian” as Spanish does not have double consonants: I have seen Italianno, Insalatta capresse, Toscanna, etc.

Mexico City seems to cater to all Mexican prejudices about food. The only mediocre meal we had in Mexico City was in we what later found out to be a tourist restaurant. But they still had excellent artisanal beers and great guacamole.

I had one of the best meals in my life at the Izote de Patricia Quintana restaurant. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of it on the Trip Advisor Web site. I did forget to mention that we started with tortilla chips and four kinds of salsa when we began the meal.

All is not perfect, however. The Mexicans still need to learn how to roast and make good coffee; despite the fact that they grow the beans. It is a sad state of affairs when one has to go to Starbucks to get a quarter-decent (not quite half-decent) cup of coffee.

En la playa de Pana

13 March 2010

Rómulo and his son Elder playing at the Bistro

The first night in Panajachel (Friday, March 5th), we went to eat at the “Bistro” after a recommendation from the hotel staff. I had asked for a typical Guatemalan restaurant and this one turned out to have an Italian menu. We looked around for something else more typical and then decide to go to the Bistro. There was an absolutely fabulous singer guitarist, Rómulo, playing and singing there. I left him a really good tip, telling him that artists are never paid enough. This entry’s title is from one of his songs.

On the way home we ran into a procession. A brightly lit statue of Jesus carrying the cross was being carried by a group of men towards the Panajachel church. The float was followed by a wire leading to a generator that provided the power to the lights.

The next day, we met Lars for lunch. He suggested going to the Bistro again where I had a great filet mignon and Marilyn had chicken. That night we ate at the Sunset Bar on the waterfront where the food was all “genuine” Mexican, supposedly just like in Mexico according to the menu but actually mostly Tex-Mex. The band played some rock classics including Marilyn’s favourite: Stand by Me. But they were nowhere as good as Rómulo. On the way back, we passed by the Bistro where Rómulo waved at us.

On Sunday, following Lars’ suggestion, we went to the famous market in Chichicastenango (a.k.a. Chichi), about an hour away by twisty road: half an hour uphill, 5 minutes on the highway and an hour down and then up twisty roads. Yes, that’s an hour away, but it took us an hour and a half to get there. I immediately bought a rather dandy straw hat for 50 Quetzales (about six or seven dollars) without bothering to bargain. I needed it as my head was starting to feel sunburned.

In Guatemala, the custom is to bargain, and not only for tourists. The sellers usually ask for about double what they want and one tries to beat them down. On the other hand, I still refuse to bargain with artists and artisans for their work, and if it’s double what they really want, well, good for them; they’re underpaid anyway. The market was overwhelming & I forgot what Marilyn bought. We had lunch at the fancy Hotel Maya Inn where the waiters wear a traditional costume that costs almost a thousand dollars.

Marimba players at the Hotel Maya Inn

That night we went to yet another place, called the Circus Bar. Italian food yet again: I had home made potato gnocchi with tomato sauce and Marilyn had tagliatelle with shrimp and cream sauce. There were some musicians playing there, but they were not that great and passed the hat after their set. The place was decorated with many circus posters from Latin America and Europe, some very old, as the founders of the place were former circus people.

On the Monday, we went on a boat (lancha) tour around the lake with Juan, the brother of Timoteo our hotel clerk. Marilyn & I were the only passengers on this tour. We went to Santiago Atitlán as well as San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó.

In Santiago, after visiting the church where the saints were all dressed in different colour cloths, we went to visit Maximon (pronounced Ma-shi-mon), the Maya deity protector of the people. The Maximon is portrayed as a man with a suit and a hat usually smoking a cigarette or a cigar. At the shrine we went to, there were four women kneeling and asking favours of the Maximon: one had a stomach ailment, the second was opening a new business and the other two needed help with passing their exams. A Mayan priest was reciting incantations to help them while everybody else was chattering, smoking & drinking. We had to pay for our entrance and for each photo we took. The money went into Maximon’s pocket. Marilyn did not want to enter the shrine or chapel as it was way too smoky.

Luigi in Maximon shrine in Santiago

Maximones at the Nim Pot store in Antigua

In San Antonio, we saw some weavers at work and Marilyn was happy to see that the fabric she liked a lot and bought a lot of was actually made with a pedal loom rather than by machine.

We then had lunch in Santa Catarina, where I also took some pictures of the perfectly safe scaffolding. (NOT!!!) It is amazing with what workers will put up with when they are poor and powerless: people spraying paint with only a handkerchief over their face, no ear muffs in sight when using jackhammers, and speaking of sight, I have yet to see any safety glasses in Guatemala. But the hardware stores are full of Satanley (sic) tools.

That night (Monday) we went back to the Bistro but Rómulo was not playing. However, he was there and we did talk to him. We arranged to meet the next morning at the hotel. At breakfast he told us about a project he was heavily involved in: building a school for special needs children. I went to the school with him.

Martha and Rómulo in the school showing one of the displays. The curtains in the background are the "doors" to the toilets.

The school was fully operational with 32 kids and two teachers, despite still missing interior doors and windows and having little furniture. They are responsible for 52 kids, but the others are in the regular school system; for example they got fitted with a hearing aid and can attend regular school. The school was built within the precinct of a kindergarten in Panajachel.

Martha, the teacher, told me that it would be ideal to have another six small tables so the kids would have a place to work. (Hint, hint Luigi!) I asked how much a table would cost and she figured about 500 Quetzales each (about $65 dollars). I asked about chairs and she said it would be great to have some too, but right now the parents were asked to bring chairs for their kids to sit on. I got sucked in and agreed to get the tables made to a maximum of 3,000 Quetzales.

Canadian peas for Soupe aux pois.

I was happy to see that the school got assistance from a Canadian organization in Montreal and from Spain. They also had bags of pasta, gummy bears and dried split peas donated by a Canadian parish, but they did not know what the peas were. They thought they might be lentils, but I told them they were not and that they were used to make a traditional French-Canadian soup. I later looked it up in a Spanish dictionary and Rómulo now knows what they are called (guisante, alverja, or chícharo).

Planer and jointer in wood storage and planing area

Anyway, Rómulo and I head to the carpentry/cabinet making shop where they are already building some lockers for the school with money Rómulo raised. The owner is not there, so Rómulo and I agree that he is to look for the guy and call me after he talks to the owner.

Table saw

I go off shopping with Marilyn and I call Rómulo around 5 PM or so since he had not called me yet. He tells me the owner wants 675 Quetzales per table. I think, shit, he’s going to hit me for more money. Anyway, around supper time, Rómulo calls me to ask whether we would come to the Bistro for supper, I am ready to say no more money with Marilyn supporting me in my resolve. We sit down with Rómulo, and he tells me he found a cabinet maker in another village (San Pedro, IIRC) who is ready to make the six tables, and six chairs as well, for 3,000 Quetzales. I am truly relieved and maybe have been unjust with Rómulo who had every intention of respecting my boundaries. I owe him an apology for my misjudgement of his intentions. Anyway Rómulo does his gig which we truly enjoy, throws in a line about amigos de Canadá in his Playa de Pana song. He calls the president of their association, Marvin Quinoñez, who happens to be married to Martha the teacher and works as speech pathologist. I hand him half the money so he can pay the cabinet maker when the work is finished, and I am to pay the first half tomorrow directly to the cabinet maker so he can buy the materials. I also ask Marvin to look into the possibility of my getting a Canadian tax receipt for my donation. I tell Rómulo and Marvin that the tables are in honour of my good friend Todd Hardy, carpenter, unionists, former leader of the Yukon NDP and founder of Habitat for Humanity in the Yukon. Todd is dying of leukemia.

Ricardo at his workbench

We have every intention of leaving the next morning, but I want to go see the woodworking shop first. Rómulo shows up at the hotel and tells me he found someone in town to do the work. Ricardo shows up after a while and we go to his shop to discuss design. He already has some sketches done, and he intends to use round tenons for the chairs and regular mortise and tenon for the table. His shop is really simple; a small metal table saw, and a workbench and a bunch of hand tools in the yard.

Ricardo's table saw

Anyway, Rómulo says he can’t make a decision about the design, he has to ask Martha. We go to the bank and I hand Ricardo 1,500 Quetzales and go with him to the lumber dealer to buy the wood. The pine lumber to be used for the table is sold in 12-inch wide planks, 8 to 10 feet long at about 65 cents (5 Quetzales) a board-foot. Cypress is a little more expensive at 8 Quetzales per board-foot. Ricardo picks his planks and some 2X3 rough material for the table legs. He tells me to be at the entrance to the callejon (alley) near his house at 2:00 PM to help unload the lumber.

Ricardo slecting wood for the tables

I show up at around 2:10 and Ricardo has a box on his shoulder and is obviously weaving. The man is totally pissed. I think to myself, “Uh oh! We have a problem here.” He insists on carrying the box back to his place. Luckily the alleys are quite narrow and the walls help keep him staggering in the right direction. He is quite proud to tell me numerous times that he has bought the glue, contact cement, varnish and screws needed, which are in the box he is carrying. I get to his place and meet his wife who is rather shy and maybe a little ashamed. He hands her 400 Quetzales and to my relief she tells me he has already paid for the wood. I call Rómulo, who had been there before when no one was there and I tell him that Ricardo seems to have had quite a liquid lunch.

Rómulo shows up, tells him he expected more professionalism from him. Ricardo excuses himself. We decide to go get the wood. Ricardo and I walk there and Rómulo goes on his bicycle. Along the way, Ricardo alternates between being my best friend and ashamed of himself. He had to stop to relieve himself along a wall on the main drag of Panajachel. He meets another guy along the way who wants him to do some work. I introduce myself to him and he tells me his name is also Rómulo. I ask him about Ricardo. Rómulo No. 2 tells me he is a very good worker but has an alcohol problem. No shit!

Cypress & pine planks at Sebastiano's lumberyard

Anyway, we decide to get the lumber delivered the next day as the alleyway is currently blocked as workers have dug it up to install a water main. Ricardo later told Rómulo that he gets really happy because he got a job. I told Rómulo that allegro (alegre in Spanish) also means happily drunk in Italian. Anyway, Ricardo is obviously a drunk, as he is too poor to be an alcoholic.

We decide to stay in Pana one more night, go have a light supper of ceviche and salad at a waterfront restaurant. We then go to the Bistro to see if Rómulo is still there, but he has already left. I also happen to see a place where they make housecoats, but they don’t have any my size (Surprise, surprise!). I start walking away, but then I ask them if they could make one for the next morning. The tailor says he can have it for nine in the morning, so he takes my measurements and I put a deposit down.

The next morning, I call Rómulo to let him know we are leaving. He tells me he is going to Chichicastenango. Since it is on our way, I offer him a ride. I tell him to meet us at 10:15. We are late as we are doing some last minute shopping (I need to get my housecoat, Marilyn wants to buy me another shirt, I need to get a map of Honduras and we decided to buy some Huehue coffee which just came in from Mike at the Crossroads Café). Then off on another adventure with Rómulo.

Anyway, we’ll see if we can get Rómulo up to the Yukon to play in one of the music festivals.

Belize: Part I

5 January 2010

We finally got on the road to Belize on Saturday, January 2nd despite our best intentions. It is hard to leave a idyllic spot like Puerto Aventuras. I received my new bank card on Monday which the Bank of Montreal branch in Whitehorse couriered to me. So, in theory we could have left on Tuesday, but Marilyn was sick, so we couldn’t leave. Wednesday was a day of recuperation for Marilyn. Thursday, New Year’s Eve, Sophie had asked me the day before to try to get the flat fixed on her car, but it turned out she needed new tires according to a local tire repair place. I believed them since they don’t sell tires. So I went and bought a couple of tires in Playa del Carmen and installed them on the car. By then it was too late to leave, so we stayed in Puerto Aventuras for that night, but we did go to bed early. Actually, we were just planning for a short nap, but we woke up in the New Year. In the morning, we talked to Helena about the keys and giving her the money to get the apartment cleaned, and we started shooting the shit. But that turned into lunch, and late in the afternoon, we decided to stay for supper. Helena’s eyes lit up when I mentioned spaghetti aglio e olio, so that’s what we had for supper.

Luigi with raw borrego in front of the restaurant

Finally we left on Saturday morning for Chetumal and Belize after tanking up at the Pemex station in Puerto Aventuras. I found out the gas jockeys only make 70 pesos a day and depend on their tips. According to the president of Mexico, that is enough money to live on, one of the gas station attendants told me. I would like to see these right wing politicians live on the amount of money they think is enough for others. I’m sure Calderón lives on much more than 70 pesos a day, and I don’t think he ever had to. One other point Helena brought up is that the policemen are also grossly underpaid, so it is not surprising they try to get bribes: they do want to feed their families. We stopped for lunch in Felipe Carillo Puerto, between Tulum and Chetumal. Absolutely excellent barbequed lamb (barbacoa de borrego)!

We got to the border around 3:30, but by the time all the formalities (surrendering the Mexican tourist license, getting the vehicle sprayed with disinfectant, getting the Belizean tourist permit, then going through customs and finally buying insurance) were done, it was 4:30. Since it gets dark before 6:00 PM, we figured we better not go too far. So we went to Corozal, the first town after the border.

We stayed at Tony’s Inn and Beach Resort (slogan: “For those who like the best”) on the south side of town. We walked into Corozal looking for what the tourist guide claimed was the best restaurant. On the way, a couple of teenagers playing basketball asked us how we liked Belize and welcomed us to their country. I think I can warm up easily to that kind of people. It was just a pleasant, warm experience, and put Belizeans in very good light. But Belizeans create Christmas light decorations that rival anything in the Yukon for their fantastic kitsch.

We finally found out that the restaurant had been closed for a few years, but recommended another two. We met a young English couple who were also going to eat. The first one, Patty’s, was closed, but Vamps’ Chill and Grill was up. So we went there and had a couple of Belikin beer. I drank my first one to Tony DeLorenzo’s health: may his arm and wrist heal perfectly. Tony and Sierra went to Belize for their honeymoon, and asked me to drink one for him. So I drank four. It’s actually a pretty good beer for a commercial product, much better than the Belizean Lighthouse lager and the run-of-the-mill Mexican beers. The guys had rice and beans and chicken while the girls had fajitas. The couple both worked in operations research (i.e. heavily mathematical applied economics), and Marilyn said she felt out-numbered.

Sunday January 2, 2010

We had a good breakfast (eggs for Marilyn, fruit plate for me with “jacks”). “Jacks”, a specialty of the hotel, were absolutely wonderful wheat tortillas folded over and deep fried, which puffed up when fried. With papaya jam, they were absolutely great. Reminds me very much of the gnocco fritto of Modena, and equally good.

On the road again I was happy to see there were no more topes. Instead, there were f…ing speed bumps all over the place! Can’t these countries find ways of reducing speeding in towns other than those damned suspension-destroying bumps????!!!! Also, Belize still operates in gallons (real Imperial ones, not the wimpy US ones) and miles per hour. When I first tanked up, I was taken aback by a pump price of eight dollars something for gas. But then I realized it was Belize dollars per gallon.  The Belize dollar is worth $US0.50, so that translates to about a dollar a litre, about the same as in Canada.

We then decided to head for the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. We had lunch there in the camper, and walked along one of the bird trails. We came across the Birds Eye View Lodge right on the lagoon. As the rooms are air-conditioned and it’s a really nice and relatively inexpensive hotel, we decided to stay here. Excellent supper of conch and chicken, accompanied by the rice and beans the Belizeans are incapable of surviving without. And more Belikin to keep me from drying out.

Great Egret and Wood Stork

Getting to Morelia, Part I

7 December 2009

Monday, 7 December, Morelia, Michoacan

I am writing this having a cerveza under the porticos in the main plaza in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. The truck is the shop (I should say taller) again suffering from a broken U-joint (cruceta or cardán) on the driveshaft (arbol). But before you GM haters say anything, it turns out the same thing happens to new boy sheep trucks. If you see my page on Facebook, you will see that Lil told me that Simon had the same problem with his new Dodge Ram.

I could pick worse places to break down, like halfway up the pass between the South Canol and Seagull Creek, where I went moose hunting this year. Morelia is a delightful colonial city with a very beautiful historic centre. I could easily spend more time here.

I still have 1,300 kilometres to go to get to Sophie’s apartment near Playa del Carmen. Marilyn arrived there last night (Sunday). She told me she is in paradise: beautiful apartment, beaches, swimming pools, dolphins frolicking with people, perfect weather and hardly anyone there. Sophie is definitely getting the good bed next time she comes to Whitehorse!

Continuing with the narrative of how I got to Morelia, we go back to last Wednesday

3 December, Guaymas to Culiacan, Sinaloa, day 2 in Mexico

As I drove south, the landscape became more agricultural and less desert like. In Ciudad Obregon there were many silos and flour mills and some vegetable oil mills. Eventually the desert gave way to flat country, large fields with much stuff growing that will most likely end up on our grocery shelves this winter. Definitely not campesino agriculture; clearly the industrial kind requiring large investments in machinery and irrigation.  I was then in Sinaloa

For lunch—this will surprise many of you—I had half a charcoal roasted chicken, the pollo asado sobre carbón, a specialty of Sinaloa, and—get this—salsa with cilantro. All with a squeeze of lime on it, of course, since this is México and limón goes on everything. The chicken was excellent, as was the salsa. I am either getting over my dislike of foul, I meant fowl, or Mexican chicken is that good. The smell of roasting chicken is all over the place, and I actually find it wonderful.

It is true that travel changes one; I have disliked chicken since I walked into Zinmann’s  Jewish-Italian poultry store with my mother at the Jean-Talon market in Montreal many years ago. I gagged and had a hard time not vomiting from the foul fowl smell. So telling me that something tasted like chicken was not a good way of getting me to try something. The only chicken I could stand were the chicken sandwiches at McDonald’s, which tasted nothing like chicken, and boiled chicken breast smeared with tons of salsa verde made with anchovies, capers and parsley.

There were also some small holdings with a few cows or goats. Getting further south, I saw a number of cowboys herding cattle. Therioux points out that much of the cowboy culture and lingo comes from Mexico, even the word lingo. The other things Mexican cowboys gave include lassos, corrals, rodeos and the big, wide-brimmed hat. Well, they are still there in Mexico at least in Sonora and Sinaloa.

Arriving in Culiacán, I had a hard time finding a hotel, the first one did not have room, the one they sent me looked a little seedy, and the third also did not have a room. Finally I landed at the Hotel … which had recently opened. I have to add that I lost my way a few times, the f… GPS mislead me and led me into a number of dead ends and sent me the wrong way in some one-way streets. Luckily, Mexican drivers are quite tolerant of stupid gringos.

I have to add that Culiacán gave me a definite European impression, much more than anywhere else I have been in Mexico so far. On the other hand, I found out it is the drug capital of Mexico and I guess it was not surprising it was patrolled by federales and soldiers in pickup trucks wearing the requisite flak jackets, helmets, machine guns and passe-montagne to hide the face.

Supper was another overcooked hunk of beef at a restaurant suggested by the hotel clerk, who was also going there for some take-out. The steak was actually quite good and tender despite not being bleeding red the way I prefer it. Mexican restaurant menus all have a warning about the health dangers of eating undercooked meat. Give me a break!!

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

6 December 2009

Wednesday 2 December, Green Valley AZ to Guaymas, Sonora

Nogales

I missed the breakfast as it ended at 9:30 Mountain time and I was still on Pacific time. Headed out to Nogales AZ to get auto insurance. Mexican insurance is compulsory in Mexico, and it is available at the border. One insurance company seems to be recommended in most of the guidebooks: Sanborns. They also publish a series of guidebooks (Logbooks) which describe what there is at different mile points along most routes through Mexico. Something similar to the Milepost, for those who are familiar with driving on the Alaska Highway, but the Milepost is much better.

Their insurance also allows your vehicle to be repaired in the US. However, why one would want to do that given the obvious competence of Mexican mechanics, judging by the vehicles they manage to keep running. I stopped at an insurance/real estate agency. For some reason, they don’t want to insure my truck for road breakdowns, it couldn’t be ‘cause it’s only 20 years old. I did live to regret this, twice but it only happened on Saturday and Sunday.

I crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona around 10:00AM. The difference was immediately obvious. At first I thought it seemed a bit European, but then I corrected myself: definitely not European or USian. I first tried to stop at a bank to get some pesos. I couldn’t figure out what the big “E” in the traffic signs meant. It dawned on me after a while, of course, that it means Estacionamiento—Parking. That was weird to me because even in Québec they use the “P”, even though, like in Mexico, they like putting the local language on stop signs. Anyway, I ended up parking on the street, went to the bank machine and collected some pesos. I didn’t stop any longer in Nogales but continued on.

The customs offices are 20 kms south of Nogales. First you need a tourist card, then a temporary vehicle importation permit. They also need photocopies of all the relevant documents, which can be done there for a quite reasonable 25 cents US each, or M$2.50. But it took the cashier at the Banjercito almost an hour to check my stuff and make two credit card payment. As I waited, I saw a pick-up truck full of federales in full battle gear—flak jackets, machine guns and stahlhelm—go by. I thought oh-oh!

Then to the customs. I decided to declare the wine I was carrying. In theory, you go through and if there is a green light you don’t get checked. If you are unlucky enough to get a red light, they go through your vehicle with a fine tooth comb. I didn’t want to take a chance in losing all that expensive wine I bought in Oregon and California. It seems I am allowed six litres of wine, so I had to pay duty on 4 bottles of a $M450.00 or so. This was totally and completely above board, with two customs agents taking my money and giving me a receipt which we all signed. Not even a hint of a suggestion that anything that was not completely honest would be acceptable. But the custom guards were a lot friendlier than I usually experienced in Canada and the US.

As an aside, it seems that Mexico has got rid of most of the corruption, at least at the lower levels. Like Canada and the US, I am sure it is rife at the higher political levels, especially (but not exclusively) among the right-wing parties. There are signs everywhere for phone numbers where once can anonymously denounce corrupt officials. It seems the days of the mordida are gone. Sanborns’ guide has this to say about the police in Mexico:

“You’ve probably heard nothing but bad stories about Mexican police. Most of them are helpful, polite and honest. While it’s true that many years ago, mordida was a way of life, things have changed. The best advice is to approach each policeman with the attitude that he is honest and just doing his job. … Some travelers have told us about policemen went out of their way to help them or guide them out of town when they were lost.”

I would act that the actions of the federales against the drug traffickers in the border towns—many of them actually losing their lives—is not exactly indicative of a corrupt police force.

Back to the chronology, I decided to stop for tacos for lunch. I saw a lot of taquerías along the way, but usually too late for me to stop. Finally, I saw one where I managed to stop at about 12:30: Taquería Lupita.

Taqueria Lupita

A customer eating there told me they were the best tacos in Sonora, made with home-made flour tortillas. They were certainly the best tacos I ever had. Birria and cabeza tacos, both with meat and covered with lettuce and tomatoes. I asked what birria meant, and the owner told me it was cow meat (carne de vaca), it turns out it is some kind of beef stew. When I first saw the word birria, my Italian mind’s immediate thought was that it was beer, birra. The tacos were served open-faced and you had to fold them yourself. I had an interesting conversation with the owner about languages and the similarities between Spanish, French and Italian. He knew some Italian from seeing movies. Lupita, his wife was rather shy and did not talk very much although she beamed quite obviously when the other customer complimented her home-made tortillas.

According to my Lonely Planet Mexico guide, it turns out that there is one of the best roast meat places in Mexico right next to the taquería: Asadero Leo’s. I should have eaten there too. This is a problem with Mexico: too many good places to eat and too much stuff to try. An unlike Europe where I know something of what the regional specialities are, I have a lot to learn about Mexican food. So much for being on a diet. But at least I am no longer snacking at night, which was one of my major downfalls.

The road continued in the Sonoran desert, which makes sense because I am in Sonora. Interestingly, the Okanagan first nation and others claim that the Sonoran desert continues into the southern end of the Okanagan in Osoyoos and Oliver. I guess some of the vegetation is the same. A lot of the desert looks like a giant orchard, with small trees or bushes evenly spaced. The saguaros (or sahuaros) were more impressive in Sonora than in Arizona, and there seems to be many more kinds of cactuses. I stopped for a break south of Guaymas on a side dirt road and took pictures of the vegetation.

Sahuaro forest

Sahuaro forest

A couple more things struck me: the colourful cemeteries and the roadside shrines. All of a sudden, there is this splash of colour and bight white, and it turns out to be a cemetery.

Sinaloa CemetaryI made it to Guaymas, stayed at the Armida hotel, which also has a famous steak house. While the steak house was full, I was directed to the hotel restaurant which featured the same menu. I had an overcooked filete (filet mignon wrapped in bacon) with mushroom sauce. Maybe I did not make myself clear to the waiter.

Waiting for the clutch

24 November 2009
Russ Chevrolet, Tigard OR

Russ Chevrolet, Tigard OR

23 November, Monday, Portland Oregon

Headed out at 7:00AM to the dealer in Wilsonville to try to get the clutch fixed. Luckily, I had left-over coffee from yesterday. The Wilsonville dealer said they couldn’t do anything today, so I called Russ Chevrolet in Tigard, south of Portland. The service rep, Robert Murphy, said they could look at it. Diagnosis was clearly what I feared: clutch is burned and needs to be replaced and flywheel turned. They looked for a clutch and found an aftermarket one, available tomorrow. It turns out that GM’s parts depot for Portland is in Reno Nevada and it generally takes 2-3 days to get parts from there. Anyway, estimate is about $1,200 and the car might be ready tomorrow if I’m lucky but Wednesday is more likely. Yuck. I blame Larry Jaques and my brother for jinxing the truck. It has nothing to do with Malcolm’s driving over the track (road would be to generous a term) over the pass to Seagull Creek where we went to sexually harass gentle innocent moose or the steep hills on the streets around Seattle’s Pike Street market

Rented a car (a Hyundai something or other, or maybe some other small Korean job, I forget which, but they all look alike anyhow) and headed to Portland’s visitor centre, which is now open. I talked for a while with a volunteer and he gave me a number of tips and ideas of where to go and where to eat. He also told me about Powell’s book store. I found a room at the Hotel Fifty on the waterfront using Expedia.com, so I headed out there, checked in and parked the car. By that time, it was almost lunch time, so I decided to go to Portland’s oldest seafood restaurants: Jake’s Famous Crawfish Grill. I took the MAX, their light rail system which operates directly on city streets in the downtown area, and then turns into a more conventional system like underground in other parts. The neat thing is that transit is free in the downtown area.

Food Stands

Food stands

On the way there, I saw this series of ethnic food stands surrounding a parking lot. (There was only one non-ethnic one serving gelato and coffee).

At Jake’s I had four different kinds of oysters, three from Washington and one from Fanny Bay in BC. My favourite was the BC oyster, which is from near where Ted, Marilyn’s brother, lives on the Vancouver Island side across from Denman Island south of Comox. After that I had a salmon stir fry, which was excellent with the fish cooked to perfection.

Luigi drinking beer at Jake's Famous Crawfish

Luigi drinking beer at Jake's Famous Crawfish

I had a couple of local brews to accompany the salmon. I noted in their menu that the Arctic Char came from Iceland. ICELAND??? When they could get fresh char flown in from Whitehorse. I talked to the server and got the executive chef’s name (Billie), who wasn’t there at the time. I left him/her a note pointing out that Icy Waters and Ying Allen’s Wild Things could get them arctic char the next day and that the Icelanders probably got their eggs or hatchlings from Whitehorse. So there, I did a little export promotion work.

Luigi eating oysters at Jake's Famous Crawfish

Luigi eating oysters at Jake's Famous Crawfish

I then had an excellent coffee (short double espresso) at Stumptown coffee and headed to Powell’s bookstore, which may or may not be the world’s largest bookstore. Pretty amazing and tempting. As the guy at the visitor centre said, you could spend one hour or one week there. I resisted temptation fairly well, only bought two economics books and one old used Terry Pratchett (Guards, Guards!), which I hadn’t re-read in a long time. I resisted the temptation of buying a hardcover version of his latest. I also found a used copy of Alma Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History, which was recommended to me by Karyn Armour. What I especially like about this store is that used and new copies of each book are side by side and you can choose either, depending on what you want.Powell's bookstore

After that, I headed out the World Forestry Centre in Washington Park on the MAX. it went from being a streetcar to a subway, 300 feet below the park. Some interesting exhibits. I tried the harvester simulator: I will never make it as a machine operator.

I then went back to the hotel & tried to do some work. I have to start getting more disciplined about getting work done. This is supposed to also be a working holiday. The fact that I very little done has obviously nothing to do with the 3 glasses of wine at supper and the half bottle of Pinot noir leftover from last night’s supper.

Anyway, then went for supper at the hotel restaurant (H50 Bistro & Bar) where all they had was a tapas menu. Good tapas at that. I tried three different local whites (pinot Gris, Chard and a sweet Gewürztraminer which I liked a lot), and ate salmon fritters, clam chowder, a Caesar’s salad and “torched” salmon. The salad had an interesting presentation: the romaine leaves looked like a bunch and were held together by a ring or short tube of dried bread. The torched salmon was excellent: crispy on the outside and sashimi on the inside & bottom. I have to try that when I get home. It was served with soya sauce and square cucumbers slices garnished with thinly sliced jalapeños and sesame seeds.

Tomorrow I have to decide whether I go on a drive to the Columbia Gorge and Mount Hood, a wine tour in the Willamette, or stick around Portland.