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Mornings in the Medellín

guayaba_medellin_careyI can’t think of any U.S. market like the ones in Mexico except Pike Place with its stands selling trinkets and fish mongers putting on a show for the tourists. I always say that the U.S. is so obsessed with permits and hygiene regulations that Mexican-style markets would never last there. But the truth is, that statement denigrates the reality that most markets in Mexico are clean, fresh oases in the middle of hot, dirty cities and dusty, rural towns.

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Medellín Market in La Roma

The Medellín market, about four blocks from my house, is a world apart from the chaotic traffic of Monterrey Street and crowded bustle of Campeche. It’s always clean and cool and everyone seems busy doing one thing or another and not that interested in you as a shopper.

In the Medellín, especially in the mornings, you are free to wander unhindered by the insistence of vendors that you buy their wares. The only other shoppers are Señoras checking the freshness of Poblano peppers and squeezing the tomatoes. I could start every morning there. Here’s why:

The Juice

Today I had cucumber, strawberry and mango. Lunch counter-style Las Delicias juice bar juiceis right in the middle of the market and has a million options. Surrounding the counter is a fog of juice particles.

The smell of roses

For a tiny market Medellin’s cut flower section is not wimpy and there are several other stands that sell orchids, compost and ornamental plants. Within the four “block” flower section your nostrils are flooded with the smell of pollen, petals and potting soil.

Tostones

tostones_medellin_lydia_careyWe just recently discovered a stand in the center of market that sells Cuban food. We meet more neighborhood Cubans and Colombians every time we go. This place helps to feed my tostones addiction and has heart-stoppingly good Cuban rice and beans.

 

Just a little bit of everything

So there’s only one fish guy and there’s one mariscos place and one place to buyred-snapper_medellin_lydia_carey lamb, but that’s good enough. Sometimes sixteen stands selling the same red snapper can be overwhelming. It’s nice to have one good option and not have to think too much.

You think It’s nothing special

… until you come upon that something a little bit more exotic. Like Argentine beer or Yucateco candies or African violets.

Of all of the other markets I have written about, this one is starting to carve out a special place in my heart. After a year and a half I’m starting to know the vendors and they’re starting to know me. The Cuban gave me some tips this morning on my rice and beans and the butcher I like knows that I am going to be there late and happily obliges my American habit of buying meat right before dinner. To them maybe I’m just another gringa in market, but for me, it’s starting to feel like home. I don’t even mind that much when they call me güera.

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Troncones Beach Life

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This was our second time staying at Casas Gregorio on Troncones beach in Zihuatanejo – two luxuriously simple beach front houses where you can make dinner looking at the sea. Despite weird natural phenomenon like a lunar eclipse and a 7.5 earthquake, it was as lovely as ever, maybe even more so for the tinge of the extraordinary.

Troncones is a sleepy beach town on the Pacific coast with two general stores “downtown,” a couple of surf shops, a yoga retreat and a handful of restaurants were you can get a mean coconut shrimp. It’s also one of the closest beaches to Mexico City and you can catch the overnight bus and wake up to the ocean breeze by 6am. Here is a mini guide to some places we have become fond of after four trips here in the past four years.

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Tickling the Ivories (well, wood) with Toca Conmigo

lydia_carey_toca_conmigo3

At four am on random mornings the past week or so the neighbors of Rio de Jainero Plaza have been treated to a piano recital outside their bedroom windows.

Not everyone appreciates this phantom of the opera performance, but a piano in a public plaza is just asking to be played in the middle of night.

Supposedly the mystery player is a homeless virtuoso who comes from a family of renowned piano players. “Toca Conmigo” is definitely bringing the piano players out of the woodwork. Check out this guy:

His name is Gabriel and we saw him play on that same Rio de Jainero piano. He had just come from the main plaza in Coyoacan, on a mini Toca Conmigo tour.

Before that, Ariel, who had never seen a piano before, and his sister, who yes, had played one once, tapped out Mary had a Little Lamb, giggling nervously.

The best part is that in a city of 28 million people, five of us talked to one another lydia_carey_toca_conmigo2for the first time.

That was artist Luke Jerram’s original intention when he created the street pianos project. In the last 6 years 1,400 pianos have been installed in 45 cities across the world and hundreds of thousands of conversations have sprung up.

According to the website, 20 pianos are scattered across Mexico City. Last Friday, on a search to find them, we came up empty in the Santo Domingo Plaza and the Alameda downtown but found them alive and well in the Rio de Jainero and Luis Cabrera Plazas of the Roma.

I’ve always thought that piano players were a special breed, but the ones we saw playing, I mean really playing, not just tapping out Yankee Doodle like me, practically snuck up to the piano, put their heads down shyly and then regaled us with these five minute sets. Afterward, they demurred at the applause and timidly skulked off. It was only passion for the piano that had brought them to the plaza, they were visibly embarrassed by the attention.

lydia_carey_toca_conmigoThere once was a time when pianos reigned supreme in homes and classrooms in the Western world. When they represented entertainment, good breeding and even flirtation. But who has pianos anymore? Besides family heirlooms so out of tune they are practically unplayable? How many of the kids in Luis Cabrera Park are seeing pianos for the first (and maybe the last) time in their lives? They’re their model-Ts and phonographs.

Toca Conmigo will only be around until the 13th of April, and even though there have been some whispers that the pianos may stick around longer, it’s something you’ll want to see just in case, just as they were suddenly there, they will suddenly disappear.

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Upcoming April Events in Mexico City

jacarandaHere are just a few upcoming events in April as I build my regular calendar, click on the comments above to add more to my list.

Outdoor Movies all month @ the Cineteca Nacional

April 1 to 6 – Poesía en Vos Alta: El Sonido que Delira www.casadellago.unam.mx

April 4,5,6 – Bazar Art District: primavera 2014, 11:00 a 19:00 on Pedro Antonio de los Santos 96, in Colonia San Miguel Chapultepec.

April 5 & 6 – Food Truck Bazaar in Coapa/ follow them on twitter for more info @FoodTruckBazar

April 8, 9, 23, & 24- Book Presentations @ Casa del Poeta

April 11 & 12 – Garden Festival @ Huerto Roma Verde

Until April 13 – James Lee Byars: ½ An Autobiography @ Fundacion Jumex and Archivo de María Izquierdo @ the Museo de Arte Moderno

April 13 to 21 – Semana Santa (more info about events later)

April 23 – Feria de Libro y de la Rosa @ UNAM cultura.unam.mx/fiesta2014

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Noche de Museos at El Chopo

I must once again wax poetic about Noche de Museos here in Mexico City. Like lots of similar programs around the world,it’s a monthly event when museums around the city stay open late, offer free or discounted entry, guided tours and often program special musical or artistic shows. For me there is something so satisfying about staying at a museum past 9 o’clock or listening to a rock band while appreciating contemporary art.

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This last Wednesday, when I hit the Museo Universitario del Chopo, I really had no idea what I was in for. All I’ve ever known of El Chopo is its infamous El Chopo Sunday market (named for the museum, where it began) where the heavies, freaks and black-clad rockers hang out, buying and selling cds and talking about their piercings.

Turns out there is much more to the place than that.

An Alternative Past

The Chopo museum looks more like a cathedral than a museum. An Art Nouveau glass and steel structure reminiscent of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the building was shipped in pieces from Germany and arrived by train at the nearby Buenavista station. Originally meant as an exhibition space for industrial art and design, it ended up serving as the city’s Natural History museum from 1913 to 1964 — when the building’s deteriorating condition caused its collection to be distributed among the Natural History Museum in Chapultepec, the Geology Museum and various institutes of the UNAM.

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They started repairing the building in the mid-seventies as an artistic and cultural space, particularly focused on the work of young, emerging artists. In 1980s the Chopo Market began, originally as a place for music lovers to trade lps, and they hosted the first Gay Culture week in 1987 (which was an annual event for 15 years).

The Tradition Continues

Their latest show? Sex, Drugs and RocknRoll: Art and Culture of the Mexican Masses from 1963-1971.

hippies_el_Chopo_lydia_careyWhile Sex, Drugs and RocknRoll is full of the drug-induced short films, drug-induced art and drug-induced music of the 60s in Mexico, not all the current exhibits are quite so rowdy. The Return of the Dinosaur by Erick Meyenberg and Liminal Animal by Mariana Magdaleno are shout-outs to the building’s past — fossil displays, old taxonomy books and freakish looking baby pigs floating in formaldehyde. Liminal Animal also includes these incredible images of creatures and insects drawn on the blank, towering walls with scientific precision.

Each exhibit inhabits its own little corner of El Chopo’s liminal_animal_el_chopoexpansive warehouse-style space. Upstairs there’s a cafe and last Wednesday a local rock band jammed out the El Chopo soundtrack.

I probably wouldn’t have gone and seen any of this if it weren’t for Noche de Museos, which lists all the participating museums on their website, divided into areas of the city. So I just wanted to say that this program rocks – especially at El Chopo.

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Fundación Jumex in Polanco

I finally made it to the Jumex Foundation Museum over the weekend and while I still think that the building is ugly as sin from the outside, the curation and interior design of the space rocks. James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography will be at the museum until the 13th of March, and Habitar el Tiempo until May 18th. Here are some photos.

 

 

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My Map

I started my map-making class last night and this was my first map… the Centro Medico park where I take my dogs in the morning to walk.

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Saturday Afternoon Pit Stop at Al-malak

  • Al-malak jocoque
  • Al-malak keebe bolas
  • Al-malak facade

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A Oaxacan Primer at Guzina Oaxaca

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I’m sitting at Guzina Oaxaca, a new restaurant in Polanco with an old friend from San Miguel days. Foodie companion and chef extraordinaire Shaw, has a serious love affair with Oaxacan food and is giving me a list of instructions on what to eat during my upcoming trip in May when hopefully the two of us can meet up amongst the mole.

Tlayudas, hot chocolate, pan de yema, emoladas fragranced with avocado leaf, enfrijoladas, mole verde, mole amarillo … the best food is in the market stalls. Last time I was there it was for work and everything was condensed into 20-minute intervals. This time around I’m going to spend a whole week watching the guy who grinds the chocolate.”

As she speaks, our waiter is making us a tableside salsa with moritas – small, guzina_salsa_ingridientssmoked jalapeno peppers, peeled Roma tomatoes, small tomatillos called tomatillos milperos, cilantro and onion – a molcajete full of an ever so acrid blend of peppers with a lite bite and heavy complexity. He offers us blue corn tortillas toasted on the comal.

Guzina is the new brainchild of Alex Ruiz, known for his restaurant Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca City and as one of Mexico’s young chefs taking traditional Mexican food to haute cuisine heights. For a Thursday night in a new restaurant that’s getting lots of press, the place is pretty calm – we agree it would be better with outdoor seating on a tree-lined street in the Condesa than in the high-end strip mall it shares with AirFrance in Polanco.

guzina_oaxacan_empanadasLocation and empty tables are set aside though – we came for the food. We order creamy black bean tacos wrapped in hoja santa, Oaxacan empanadas with chicken in yellow mole (a sacred Oaxacan combination, says Shaw) and chichilo rojo mole on braised porkchops.

The chichilo mole is the more savory cousin of the traditional mole negro that has come to represent Mexican mole all over the world. It has burnt chiles, no chocolate and “actually ends up looking black on the plate,” according to my night’s Oaxacan food guide. This version, the chichilo rojo, is slightly lighter in color, with a nutty, smoked flavor – the result of its hodgepodge of dried chiles and dashes of clove and allspice.

We are definitely not struggling to get our food down.

“This food tastes right,” says Shaw. “Sometimes the problem with these vanguard places is that the food just doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to, and this tastes Oaxacan.”

Two mezcal martinis, one with cucumber and mint, the other, maracuyá (passion fruit) and apple, are followed by an El Portal Oaxacan stout and two shots of Alipus to sip – the place has over 40 brands of mezcal behind the bar.

guzina_cocadaDinner finishes up with toasted coconut atop a smear of maracuyá sauce and some rose petal sorbet. Even though I say I’m not interested (“I prefer to drink my dessert”) I end up eating half of it anyway, only because I feel it’s my journalistic duty.

By the time we’re done (around 10:30), the place is a little livelier but it’s still not as packed as I expected.

The food has passed the expert’s (and the novice’s) taste test and I personally think it’s a great new edition to regional cuisine in Mexico City. I can’t wait to get to Oaxaca and eat some of the down-home cooking that inspired the menu.

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Taller Tlamaxcalli’s Toybox

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Toys have no nationality, no origin, according to Álvaro Santillán. Children invented toys.

That being said, Álvaro seems to have a beginning, a story, a little detail of origin for every item in the Tlamaxcalli toy workshop.

A Playful History

The cramped space on Chihuahua Street in the Roma is overflowing with dust, wood-working equipment, two dogs, canisters of paint and toys of all colors and shapes.

“You see this one,” he points to a wooden monkey with metal spring arms that when shaken beats on a little drum. “This one was originally made from resistencias, bought by junk men from rich people.”

“And this one,” he shows us noisemakers with thin metal strips that form a globe and spin in circles when you slide the ring around their base up and down. “These used to be made in the colors of the French flag. During the centennial celebrations in Mexico, the government passed them out to all the children to greet the dignitaries with because, you know, Porfirio Díaz was a lover of all things French.”

There are papier-mâché devils and dolls that originated from Valencia, Spain, Taller_Tlamaxcalli_cartoneriagarbanceras, the forebearer of José Gaudalupe Posada’s famous catrinas and matracas, noisemakers used during Semana Santa’s Holy Sabbath to keep the demons at bay until Christ rises again on Easter Sunday.

A Workshop is Born

“I am a storyteller by trade,” Álvaro says matter–of–factly. “And when I went looking for toys to use to illustrate my stories, everyone told me that the ones I wanted were no longer made. So we had to start making them ourselves.”

Álvaro and his partner Jazmín Juárez, a shy, round-faced girl who looks younger than she probably is, met when he was working for the Museo Universitario de Ciencias and she was there studying on a scholarship. She became his pupil then, but by Álvaro’s account has far surpassed his skills in her particular specialty — cartonería or papier-mâché sculpture.

“She’s the expert now,” he says, “She could run this shop without me, but I could never run it without her.”

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_calibrinAll the dragons and alebrijes and garbanceras are Jazmín’s work, spread out across a work bench surrounded by endless bottles of paint and straight–edge knives. Today she’s working on a giant chess piece for the outdoor chess board at a school. I ask her how she decided on papier–mâché.

“It’s just want I liked the best,” she says, immediately drowning her timidity by picking up a toy and showing me what it can do.

These two toy makers opened up the Taller Tlamazcalli to the public only four years ago after several years working on commissioned pieces for museums and private collectors.

“What really struck us,” says Álvaro, “is that even though the toys are covered in sawdust, people like coming and seeing us working, I don’t know what it is … they like the smell of paint and glue. We decided to keep the shop a workshop.”

The Tlamaxcalli has been recognized by some of Mexico’s major cultural institutions like the Museo de Arte Popular and Museo de la Ciudad de México. They are the only surviving toy workshop in all of Mexico City.

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_toys

A Personal Philosophy

“I would be angry if you gave me a beautiful toy and said ‘when you want to play with it, let me know and we’ll get it down.’ No, no, no, it has to be designed in a way that I can say, ‘I don’t want to play with this anymore’ (he tosses a noisemaker angrily onto the table) and then tomorrow, when I find it again and want to play, I pick it up and keep playing.”

This is almost word for word what he told us last time we came by the workshop. P1050196It summons up Álvaro’s attitude about toymaking. If you paint a toy too beautifully, he believes, you turn it into a piece of art and it loses its utility.

If you want, he will teach you how to make toys the way he does, but you’ll have to start with the basics. Both Álvaro and Jazmín give classes at their shop and at schools and organizations.

“Before you can make a chair, you have to learn to saw a straight line,” Álvaro says while demonstrating how to use what he calls a San José — an old–fashioned wire saw. (Did you know that this tool is Biblical, he asks us.)

All their students start out making papier-mâché (because you need few tools not because it’s easy, he insists) and then slowly move on to wooden toys, like the fighting boxers or the pull-apart wooden robot. And every person goes through the step-by-step process so that “when they’ve gone home, they’ve really learned something.”

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_ferris_wheelOutside, a wooden ferris wheel on a high table and a devil that hangs down with a sign reading “We make devils!” attract all kinds of people through the door, from kids with 10 pesos in their pockets to nostalgic parents to foreigners who want to take home a piece of “artesanía.” This last kind of customers irks Álvaro, but it’s unavoidable — regardless of how “rustic” he says he wants their finished products, they’re all still breathtakingly beautiful.

An Endangered Species

Jazmín is quick to assure me that she plans to carry on the toy-making tradition Taller_Tlamaxcalli_dogswhen I ask, but it’s still something that Álvaro worries about in his own whimsical way.

“You know what happened when those f***ing Crocs appeared? There went the guaracha makers,” he says referring to sandals made once upon a time in Mexico out of used tires. “You see these beautifully dressed indigenous people wearing Dallas Cowboys hats and you know why? There are no more sombrero makers. Que lástima! If you’re looking for toys and you ask around someone might say, ‘oh, yes, Don Jorge still makes toys’ … and he’s 98 years old.”

He calls it an oral tradition — befitting of his personality I would say — and believes in training the next generation of toy makers, but is not interested in writing an instructional manual or copying down his patterns.

“If you want to make a duck, go ahead, draw a duck. How? However you imagine it in your head,” he tells me.

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_diablosAfter years of pouring over books about toys, watching old movies and sifting through jail archives (at one time in Mexico most childrens’ toy were made and sold by inmates) both Álvaro and Jazmín still believe that creativity and practice are the only things that will make you good.

“It’s dignified, the work we do,” he says proudly.  “We are an endangered species; it’s your job to make sure we don’t disappear.”

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