Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 6, Holy/Maundy Thursday: Zacatecas

The kids slept in again this morning, so Greg and I took a walk around the Centro Histórico and found a nice little crepería, “Magic Kreep.” They made the most perfect cup of cappuccino. And, you know, in Guanajuato and now here, too, they have cappuccino everywhere, and it’s 20 pesos or so. Can’t Mazatlán do that? We enjoyed reading the paper and having some adult time.

Today was Danny’s day to be tour guide, and he wasn’t feeling so well. Seems he’s fighting a cold or something—body aches. But, he did a good job guiding us around today, first to the Artisan Market that is in the former “González Ortega” public market. The building, as most of them here in Zacatecas, is gorgeous. Inside are little kiosk-like stalls with loads of pewter, silver and gold jewelry, leather ware, charería clothing and accessories and knick-knacks.

From the market Danny had us walk over to the Pedro Coronel Museum, as I was really excited to see the Dalís, Mirós, Picassos, Chagals, Degases… and also to show such terrific international caliber art to the kids. It is unreal to me to have such incredible caliber art in such an intimate, local setting. Beautiful. The museum is a gorgeous building, a former Jesuit (San Luis Gonzaga) college, and the art was sensational. Danny and Mara both seemed to really enjoy looking around, and Danny took quite a few notes as well. The kids are growing up and finding their interests!

We took a break for a drink in a café restaurant called Olimpus or something like that—very old and not very clean. From there we tried to go into the churriguereque-facaded, eight gold altar-adorned Santo Domingo church and the cathedral, but the doors were all locked! So, back to the hotel for a respite it was!

We ate a late lunch at La Traviata, a pizza-pasta place near our hotel. Danny loved his pesto; he’s getting sooooo ready for Lent to be over so he can eat meat/fish/poultry again! He’s done great with the vegetarianism, but boy is his carnivore ready to come out!

We have really enjoyed walking around the alleyways and streets of this gorgeous city. There are so many artists and craftspeople selling their wares, and today Greg bought a gorgeous pendant carved and painted from bamboo.

Tonight there was a reenactment of the Last Supper and the events in the Garden of Gethsemene, including Judas’ kiss and the arrest of Jesus. We wanted to go, but it was just too much for us. I guess it will be left to our imagination for another year!

Around 9 we walked over to the former bullfight ring, the Quinta Real Hotel, for a drink.  It is the only hotel in the world, they say, that is in a former bullring, and it is stunning. To add to the beauty, it is located right next to the old “El Cubo” aqueduct.  We had such a nice time walking all around the hotel/bullring, and sitting out on the balcony gazing at the view. Tonight there was a Christie’s art auction going on, so we had some added people-watching.

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 5: Zacatecas

We slept in till LATE today, at the princess’ request, then Greg and I spent an hour or so reading in our courtyard before the kids showed up. We ate breakfast right here in the hotel courtyard. Let’s see, what we ate: huevos chamulcos, huevos divorciados, huevo con jamón for la guapa, and huevos encarcelados for the joven. La vida dura.
Today was Mara’s day as tour guide. She is beautiful and charming, she followed the map well and she easily got us where we needed to go. She wasn’t very good at answering questions though, lol.

She led us walking from our hotel up the Alameda, which is beautiful now with all the trees and flowers in bloom, to the El Eden Mine. 

This was our second mine tour, and we weren’t so keen to go on it, but we did want to take the Teleférico/gondola ride over to La Bufa, and the concierge told Mara that through the mine was the most convenient way to go. We ended up very happy we had taken this tour, as it was so different from the Valenciana Mine in Guanajuato. The Eden Mine is well-developed: gorgeous artwork at the entrance, a little train to take us into the mine shaft, a full museum inside, paved tunnels that are fully lighted… I preferred the first mine tour, as it felt so real and the guide was a miner who had wonderful insight, stories and history. But everyone else preferred today’s tour. The guide was very funny.

The mine has a nightclub inside that Greg and I have been very excited to visit. Sadly, this week it is closed for reparations due to some cracking in the walls. So, we could only peek in from the entrance, and I took a photo of a poster of it in one of the tunnels.

Once we finished the mine tour, we could either walk back through and then take the train back to where we started, or we could take an elevator up the 36 meters to the surface and then either walk three blocks downhill to El Centro Histórico or walk a bit farther uphill to the Teleférico, which was our true destination for the day. 

Upon leaving the mine there were quite a few vendors, and their creativity struck me. “Jicaletas?” Yes, paletas made from jicama, or jicama slices on a stick! How healthy, easy, and ingenious is that??

The most wonderful part of the entrance to the gondola, however, was the 83 year-old “mangolada” man, originally from San Blas. He was soooo very funny, creative and charming! We didn’t want a snack, but his clever schpeel roped us in. The mangoladas were great—frozen crushed mango with a bit of chamoy (chile) on top. I asked him how he stayed so fit at 83 years old, and he told me he eats about eight mangoladas every day which gives him great nutrition, and for exercise he walks up the hill to the Teleférico (132 STEEP stairs!) twice every day while carrying a cooler full of icy mangoladas in each hand. I guess it’s one secret to the fountain of youth!
The gondola ride was very cool, since we passed right over the city from one side to another. The day was clear and bright and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. We want to do it again at night to see the lights of the city. The view from the top of La Bufa is spectacular.
On the other side of the gondola we walked uphill a bit further. Along the walk were many stalls of handicraft items, especially Huichol Indians doing gorgeous beadwork. We had fun talking to them and looking around.
First stop at the top of La Bufa hill was the museum of the “Toma de Zacatecas,” the major Revolutionary War battle against Huerta’s Federal troops. They had terrific photos of the battle, but unfortunately they did not allow photos, so I can’t show them to you.
Outside the museum are hundreds of artesanía shops and restaurants, lining the side of the hill. After a brief rest stop we walked over to the church, which is incredibly gorgeous. The amount of red sandstone/cantera rosa used in the buildings here makes this such a very beautiful place. We especially liked the medallions around the courtyard representing the various trade unions that support the church.

We took a taxi down to our hotel to rest a bit, and then headed out for dinner. The streets are crowded right now, we supposed for the festival and also for Holy Week. 

We were anxious to try the “asado de boda” for which Zacatecas is so famous, and we were able to do so in a place Greg found for us on Chow Hound. It was good—Zacatecan pork mole, I’d say.
A very nice, relaxing day in the place we’re planning to stay the longest this holiday. It is nice to be here and get settled in a bit.

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 4: Machinez

Machinez is a small town, or pueblo about 15 minutes by car outside of Zacatecas. The residents we know there call it their “rancho”. The rancho has no governance, no police department, no real services. This somewhat organized series of houses, farms, lots and makeshift streets is home to about 250 families. There is a school and a couple of tiendas selling the basics of beer, refrescos and food staples. Most residents raise some portion of their own food, be it meat, produce or both. There is a soccer field and a park of sorts with a few old children’s slides and swings. There is a river crossing through town. The river was fairly dry on the day of our visit, but in rainy season is a force to be reckoned with. The river is a major source of water as we saw tinacos and water trucks being filled from the river. Most homes have electricity and some plumbing (but not much).

So, from this brief description, you may be asking why I have decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the subject. Well, the point of this post has nothing to do with Machinez per se, but about how we came to visit there this day.
The story that unfolds in Machinez occurs throughout Mexico time and time again. It is a story of hard work and resolve to improve one’s life and one’s family’s life. It is a story of the proverbial analysis of risk/reward. And yes, for us, it is a story or reconnecting with friends we have not seen in years.

The friends we came to visit are like many other Mexicans. They are recent returnees from the United States having braved the perilous border crossing to get to a city where a friend or a cousin says they can get work. The hope of that work is promise to the families of the ranchos. You see, it is with the money earned in the States that the ranchos are able to survive. We spent considerable time at two houses on this day – the house of Alvaro and the house of Eduardo. Both of these young men started as dishwashers in Kansas City. Both showed great potential, the willingness to learn English and the desire to get ahead. Eventually they both became cooks during the busy lunch rush. They routinely put out between 100 and 200 lunches of extremely high standard meals under the guidance of a C.I.A. trained chef. They became leaders in the kitchen as they continued to absorb the culture of the workplace and of the States.

The plight of the illegal immigrant is widely publicized and debated. This blog is not about that debate. Is grounded in the facts – like them or not, these are the facts.

As Alvaro and Eduardo continued to work hard and grow as cooks, they hit a ceiling of sorts. They were illegal. They were forever limited in their employment opportunities. And, they were lonely. Eduardo and Alvaro were both single and aside from a few cousins in town, void of social opportunities. Living in the shadows of Kansas City, they hesitated to venture out. A broken turn signal can domino into a bus ride to Tijuana and the loss of everything. Also, going out cost money and was seen as frivolous spending. Like many others, to relieve the loneliness and boredom they took a second job. A second job fills the time, provides additional social interaction and keeps the money coming in. This after all is the goal. We can fall in love with these guys all we want, but our love is not going to keep them around. They are on a mission. Years ago, the goal was to make a life and then bring everyone else up to share in the new life. This has changed dramatically due to the legal/political climate. Now, the goal is to make enough money to build the house back home, buy the car, put the sister through college, pay for dad’s eye surgery, whatever. Rare is the visitor who finds a way to stay permanently (marriage, sponsorship, etc.).

And so it goes in Machinez. The houses that Alvaro and Eduardo have built are some of the finest in town. Big and strong, nicely appointed, two levels high with incredible vistas, they are symbols of a success found by taking off for five to ten years and working really really hard towards a goal. Each has surrounding land with crops and a few livestock. Each is connected to or very close to family homes, also very nice. Their efforts provided economic stimulus for the rancho. The jobs provided were local jobs. The supplies were purchased from locals and money went back into the community. Alvaro has since married. He has a beautiful baby girl and another on the way. Eduardo is still single—but working on it. As they tour us through their homes, they proudly show pictures of their family and point out which cousin or in-law is still in the States. These family members, they tell me, are making the same sacrifice they did in the name of getting ahead. They are missed by many, especially the older family members who realize that they may not live long enough to see their son or daughter’s return. Yet, they understand the reality of the situation.

Alvaro and Eduardo’s lives are quite simple. They work, they celebrate life. They enjoy beautiful weather and scenery. They listen to music everyday (often played by the family band). They share everything with their friends and family in town. This includes their homes and their SUV’s (brought down from the States). They don’t have cell phones, Internet or cable TV. They drink some beer, dance to banda music and retire for the evening. They have little or no crime in their clean community. They don’t have a mortgage or credit cards. They can and do live on very little. If they weren’t under 40, they would sound like they are living the life pursued by retiring gringos.

But they are not retiring gringos. These young men are starting families; they have financial responsibilities and need to work. No problem, right? They are well trained in the kitchen. They cook better than many chefs and restaurateurs that I know. They are certified in serv-safe, understand cross utilization, understand wine basics, can lead a team, can work with vendors, and speak two languages. But you see a great cook in the States, even one that has worked for ten years at an exclusive upper-end dining establishment is nobody in Mexico. To get the attention of a kitchen manager they need to have a degree from a vocational school specializing in culinary arts. They need to have diplomas from Mexico and they have none. There is an outside chance that they can find a friend of a friend in the food industry to introduce them to someone, but it a chance not worth waiting for. Instead, my two friends are gas station attendants. They receive a minor minimum salary and cash tips. They work various shifts, but all are long –both days and nights. Their jobs are dead end to say the least. They work along a busy highway and risk getting robbed or worse. They spell of gasoline and other chemicals when they return home. Like many workplaces in Mexico there are poor sanitary and safety conditions.

What does the future hold for my two friends? I really don’t know. They will not return to the States unless there is a major shift in politics that offers some sort of path to legalization. They would love to cook again and have a job with some potential. Being technically uneducated and from a “rancho”, their options are very limited. There houses will survive almost anything thrown at them and they will always be able to work enough to keep food on the table and the lights on. With any luck they will have children who are able to go one step further, finish school and get a job with some promise. Until then, the beautiful sunset on the western horizon of Machinez will usher in another session with the local band. The moms and daughters will dance with each other and the few men not in the band. As night falls, they will turn in with the adventures in the States a distant memory until the next time a certain gringo comes to town for a visit. And don’t worry, he will.

Travelogue Spring Break 2011, Day 3: GTO-Zacatecas

We are very, very happy with our hotel here in Zacatecas: Mesón de Jobito. It was a mesón, then it was a neighborhood of several streets and dozens of houses, now it’s a mesón again.

The Zacatecas Cultural Fair is going on right now, luckily for us. Mariachi music and loads of art and artesanía today.

Greg’s former employees from KCCC live here now. It was soooooo good to see them! Tomorrow we will visit them on their rancho.