Friday, January 22, 2010

San Sebastian del Oeste

Ripe coffee "cherries" growing in the shade of citrus trees.

Geraniums in the window.

The church of San Sebastian, as seen from the "bandstand" in the town square.

The interior of the church.

    We rented a car yesterday and drove inland, up into the mountains, to an old mining town called San Sebastian del Oeste. It was once the capital of the state of Jalisco with over 20,000 people, but now has a population of only about 600. The drive itself was beautiful as we wound up higher and higher into the green mountains. The drive was was similar to "the scenic route" of my childhood memory, steep and winding. We saw some very interesting animal crossing signs. One was an armadillo, another a wild pig of some sort, and the third a mountain lion! We didn't see any wildlife quite so interesting unfortunately! On the sides of some of the steep mountainsides were huge boulders and rocks, and signs portrayed a car with rocks falling on it from above. Just something else to watch out for, other than armadillos.

    We finally reached our destination; San Sebastian. First stop was a coffee plantation; we could smell the coffee roasting as we stepped out of the car. Such a familiar smell! There were tiny glazed terra cotta cups to sample the coffee, and then we walked out into an open back yard. There they sorted beans, roasted, and sold the coffee. There was a cage with two big, colorful parrots, and the kids enjoyed seeing those. We walked back into the shady plantation where the coffee was grown. Most of the berries were still green, but a few were turning red. This coffee was truly shade grown- beneath huge citrus and avocado trees! Talk about getting good use from your land!

    After the coffee plantation, we drove further into the town and walked along the cobblestone streets to the town center. In the town square were beautiful gardens, with pointsettia plants taller than I am! In the center was a big gazebo, with lots of white wrought iron and lamp posts topped with white dragons! I learned later that these gazebos are called bandstands; that would explain the lack of any benches. The air was much cooler than here at the coast; still warm in the sun, but there was a fresh coolness about it. Plastic red and white flags fluttered above the streets, and most of the buildings were painted in white and burgundy. Pots of geraniums in all colors graced windows covered by wrought iron bars. There was a peacefulness to the town, in spite of the loud Mexican music coming from near the square.

    We walked around a little while Erik scoped out a place for us to get lunch. We ended up in a restaurant looking out over the square, past the tall white dome of the church, and beyond to the green mountains. I enjoyed a fresh squeezed orange juice along with a delicious chile relleno, rice, a handmade corn tortilla, and beans made with real lard from the taste of them! Typical fashion for the men of San Sebastian seemed to include jeans and cowboy hats, and Peregrine was very excited to see the occasional "vaquero" ride by on his horse, shoes clip-clopping along on the cobblestone.

    After lunch we walked down- literally; it's a very hilly town- to the church named for Saint Sebastian the Martyr. It was built in the 1600's, and then rebuilt in the 1800s after an earthquake. (I kept looking at the the brick buildings and brick walls and wondering how the town would fare in an earthquake.) It was a large church for such a small town, but quite beautiful. It had a very European feel, with great arches coming together overhead, and they were painted in shades of blue and purple. Poppy, of course, liked that! At the front of the church were several huge bouquets of flowers; the fragrance of lilies scented the church. I learned later that it was the last of three days of the feast of San Sebastian.

    We left the church and walked down another road. We stood overlooking a small ravine with a little waterfall and stream flowing at the bottom. Vegetation grew lushly out of the brick walls that had been built to fortify it; I was amazed to see clumps of impatiens growing three feet across, like small bushes! We continued on and stopped in the small shop of a silversmith, who had all the tools of his trade there and made beautiful jewelry. We enjoyed looking through open doors into sunny courtyards, filled with plants and people going about their everyday lives. We stopped in at a place that rented rooms; there were several rooms around the most beautiful open courtyard. On the floor were laid bricks in sun or star patterns, and in between the bricks grew tiny green plants; you felt like you were walking on a living tapestry. There were several sitting areas outside of the simple rooms; couches and tables and chairs, and lots and lots of plants. We toyed with the idea of spending the night, but thought better of it, as we were totally unprepared. We did take a card though; it would have been nice to spend more time in that charming town, and the price for our entire family? About thirty dollars!

    We walked back up to the town center and watched some men comb their horses, mount them, and ride away. Very exciting for a certain young man with a horse infatuation. From there we decided to take a different road, a narrow steep path that led down and out beyond the town. We crossed a small brick bridge with three arches under which flowed the same small stream we'd crossed over earlier. We walked out a bit, and then back up the road where we were enticed by the delicious smells of fresh bread baking. There, in a small open window just above street level, we could see a tray of cooling pastries. There were no signs to lead one to this panaderia, only that smell. We walked on until we found an opening in the wall, and entered into what seemed to be nothing more than someone's yard. At the end was a huge stone oven, and next to it a smaller one. And there, in two small rooms, were the bakers, three women, shaping dough and emptying trays, and watching over pans of baking rolls and sweet breads. We waited outside a moment, unsure of how to proceed, but quite sure that we would like very much to sample their wares. Finally one of them motioned for us to come in, and pointed us toward an empty tray and a pair of tongs. We got the idea; we simply needed to fill our tray, which we managed to do. We picked out a few rolls and things, stopping briefly to admire two huge spiders living behind the glass case that housed the sweet rolls. While not the most delicious of the things we bought, the most memorable was a cookie in the shape of a pig; it had the distinctive taste of lard.

    And so our time in San Sebastian came to an end. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and we decided to head back. It was a magical day, one I won't soon forget. There is something I love about mountains, and about mountain towns, and one got the feeling there, in spite of stalls of gaudy plastic trinkets for sale, loud music, and high heels clicking on the cobblestones, that there is something about life there that is much the same as it has been for a good long time. Something relaxed and unhurried, something beautiful. I would love to return someday when we have more time to explore.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Welcome to Mexico

Our first full day in Mexico began bright and early, a little too early for some of us. After a long day of traveling yesterday and adjusting to a new time zone, Raphael was up at about 6:30 local time, which is 5:30 at home. Erik, being the sweet man he is, got up with him so that I could sleep some more. When I got up, somewhat more rested, two hours later, Erik went back to bed to get some more sleep. Like I said, yesterday had been a long day.
I decided to take the kids out on the back patio, which is a small, walled in concrete yard with a couple of lounge chairs, a washing machine and clothesline, and a table set. The air was pleasant and the day promised to be beautiful. I carefully closed the sliding glass door, leaving it slightly open, as it self locks when closed all the way. A few minutes later Peregrine came in to get something and returned, closing the door behind him like a good boy. All the way. Not a big deal, I though, Erik would be up in a while and we could just hang out while he slept. The kids entertained themselves quite nicely for a time; they played with clothespins and even built a parachute out of their sun hats. I think the plan was to float up to the second floor window and wake Erik up so we could get back in. Surprisingly, it didn't work. We played Twenty Questions, which is quite entertaining with a 7 and 4 year old. I surfed the internet; yes, stranded with no water, but able to connect to the outside world. Just not to connect to anyone who could let us in!
All went well for a while, but, of course, that could only last so long. Soon hunger, heat, boredom, and full bladders set in. The sun began to encroach on our shade and I stripped Raphael down to his diaper. We'd all snacked, but no one had eaten breakfast yet. I could see a bottle of water inside and felt thirsty. I wanted to let Erik get some sleep and didn't know if we could wake him up anyway; he was asleep upstairs on the opposite side of the condo. There was no way of leaving the backyard save climbing a concrete wall, and there were at that time no neighbors outside that we could ask to go bang on the front door. We prayed that Erik would wake up soon; I tried hard to keep us all positive. Finally, after many rounds of Twenty Questions involving lots of marine animals, a diaper, and an Unborn Baby, I told the kids they could start banging, gently of course, on the glass door. Enthusiastic banging ensued, followed by tiredness and no Daddy. More banging, and more, but alas, no help. I took a few turns myself, and even tossed a flimsy plastic container up at the second floor windows in hopes that maybe that would be louder up there. I think at this time we'd been out there more than an hour and a half, not the end of the world, but we were all ready to go in. At last I told the kids they could start yelling for Erik; prior to that I'd wanted them to just knock. It was the yelling that finally did the trick. "DAAAAADDDDY!!! We're trapped out here! Let us in! Daaaaaaaad!!" He came, at long last, groggy and surprised that we'd been out there all that time. He'd been sleeping soundly, of course. At our rescue I burst into tears, like any good damsel who can at last collapse into the arms of her knight in shining armor.
Ah, yes, welcome to Mexico! Not quite the ideal way to spend our first morning, but it was memorable at least. After some oatmeal for breakfast we walked out to the pool and had a nice swim in the now hot sun. And then, it was off to find some lunch. We headed into town, staying on the less touristy side of the highway. We were all hot and tired, again, by the time we came upon a promising looking little old Mexican woman sitting in her street side restaurant. (Restaurant may convey something a bit too formal. Think instead of a thatched roof overhanging a home, a few tables, and a small cooking area.) This is the kind of authentic experience we crave, the kind where you really feel the need to pray before you eat, if you know what I mean! Our proprietor spoke about as much English as we speak Spanish, which is precious little. We communicated enough to order some quesadillas for the kids, ceviche tostadas for Erik, and I, being pregnant, went with the fish that was actually cooked. At least that's what I hoped I'd ordered. I decided not to risk drinking the tall glass of ice water she kindly brought me. She assured me it was "natural", but what does that mean? Natural out of your tap, natural out of the river? I discreetly dumped half of it out, so as to not seem ungrateful, and sipped instead out of Poppy's bright pink water bottle I'd brought in my purse. Not cold, but safe.
Our "Lady", for lack of a name, hustled back and forth; first came Erik's tostadas. Two thumbs up. I noticed a man walk up with a plastic bag, which he handed to our Lady. Out of the bag came a fish, for me I assumed. Next up were the quesadillas for the kids, served with beans and rice and delicious avocado. They were all good and done before I was served a platter of food; a whole fish, rice, beans, avocado, tomato, onion, and more beans. Wow! It was delicious, every bite of it. When it came time to tally up, this feast cost us a total of about $15. We left satisfied, and after an ice cream bar from the nearest little shop, ready for our walk home.
I was so ready for a rest by the time we got home, but that was not to be. We'd arranged to have someone pick us up to take us to Mega, the Mexican version of WalMart, to do some grocery shopping, and he arrived just a few minutes after we returned. There's nothing like wandering the aisles of a very loud, crowded, large, unfamiliar, and foreign supermarket to put a person over the edge. Two carts of food and supplies, and we were ready to go. A quick meal of tacos, a taxi home, and I was about ready to call it a day. It's never that simple of course, as there were groceries to be put away and kids to be put to bed, but, at last, it's quiet and I think I can say "I'm done". And, I can almost look back on this day and say "it was good". Almost.