Pilgrims, Pilgrims Everywhere (A Voyage to Tibet)

I was surrounded in a wash of dark red clothing, heavy yarn-laden braids of hair, smiling, toothless pilgrims deep in the Barkhor Circuit, in the highest city in the world, and it was everything I could do to not barf all over all of it. The altitude sickness had kicked in. It was as the travel guides had warned, but there was no time to acclimatise. One does this by arriving at Lhasa by train or jeep, thus giving them the time to climb to 3750 meters above sea level. As a tourist (I prefer traveller, but sometimes behave in a way that demotes me to tourist) one has to apply for permits – Alien Traveller’s Permit, sometimes a military permit, depending on where you’re arriving from. In my case, I met a man who goes by “Jim Beam” in a lobby of a backpacker hotel in Xian, where hefty sums of cash were paid for all the necessary travel permits, plane tickets, and guide fees (proof of which are required for aforementioned permits). It was with a sweaty upper lip I handed over the rest of my travel money to this character, with a hand-written note given back to me illustrating some vague transaction that had occurred. I immediately took this into the adjoining bar and drank to soothe my nerves- the hand scrawl with the dollar amount staring back at me.

Obviously I made it. The necessity to arrive by plane at Lhasa Gonggar Airport had its drawbacks, but flying just above the Himalayas was not one of them. I’ll take the immediate pleasure of looking down upon the highest summits from a comfortable flight over actually having to climb them any day. I pondered this, a drink in my hand, imagining my childhood hero Sir Edmund Hillary’s life and death struggle to surmount Mt. Everest, and was glad, no, giddy, to toast his efforts more than fifty years on, from a very comfortable height indeed. Cheers, Sir.

Lhasa city central was less than an hour by bus from the airport. In strict contrast to the rocky mountainous surroundings that can be seen by the plane, the lower lying brown hills offered a maze to be guided through in the packed bus. There were brief sightings of yaks and prayer flags which offered the first glimpse of any expectation that this magical land had promised. But soon after these landmarks presented themselves, we entered a city I could scarcely have imagined – it was pure unadulterated Chinese officialdom. Squared off banks, governmental buildings in the familiar awful pastel colours I had gotten used to in Xian and other cities that dotted the train ride from Beijing. It was the kind of sprawl that is offensive to the senses, but it had to be gotten through in order to arrive at my destination – the Yak Hotel, chosen not only for its name, but that it was the first choice in the budget column. Jim Beam had taken all of my money, and the few RMD left to me were for cheap meals and various offerings to the many non-admission palaces I was sure to attend. I had a guide, after all, and many, many Buddhist shrines awaited.

As I always do when travelling, I threw my bags on the bed and took a perfunctory look around the meagre room before heading off to see the streets. A quick peek into the bathroom revealed the squat toilet – more on this later. I knew enough of Lhasa from what I’d read that the Jokhang Palace was nearby, and that it serves as a centrepiece to the city. More than that, it is the centre of worship for the entire autonomous region, with the circling pilgrims orbiting around it. I found myself in front of the Barkhor Square, immediately mesmerized by the crowds of Tibetans. Monks, children and pilgrims intermingled to and from the market stalls. There were the worshipers, performing their complex and physically adroit bows to the face of the palace, which could barely be seen. It has been built upon so many times over the years that the original structure is completely obscured by layers of tin siding, blankets and framing. Surrounding Jokhang Palace are the elements that absolutely colour the city – vendors, markets, delivery bicycles and fire pits. Of course, shuffling amongst this are the pilgrims, chanting and spinning their prayer wheels.

At that point, though, the real became the surreal, and after only hours at this elevation the top of my head started to feel frozen, the edges of my vision were blurred and the chanting, fires and spinning prayer wheels all became garishly cartoonish. My legs were heavy and the airplane food threatened to make a sudden appearance, but I managed to drag myself into The New Mandala Restaurant where I did myself no favours by ordering up the yak dumplings and local beer. I followed that with the palaak paneer, cooked with heavy doses of (probably) unpasteurized yak butter. Remember the squat toilet I mentioned earlier? Suffice it to say the meal was delicious – beyond delicious, but exacted its price.

On the second day, the elevation sickness had not subsided, but the gentle beauty of the mountains and the people – from the monks at the foot of the Potala Palace, to the begging children that littered the streets, calmed me into acceptance. By mid-day it had become routine to deposit 4 RMD into every collection plate beside a smiling Buddha of some variety. I stopped paying attention to my guide, whose lacklustre descriptions and history lessons were reduced to no more than saying, ad nauseum, “This is the Buddha of the past, this is the Buddha of the present, and this is the Buddha of the future,” barely gesturing to the statues. I didn’t bear him a grudge. I can’t imagine being an educated Tibetan, continually watching not only a hostile cultural takeover of your nation, but being host to the throngs of ignorant masses that come to see this land, with little to no context or knowledge of the history. My guide, his face worn and eyes deadened, was going through the motions, not even trying to fake enthusiasm, as we shuffled along the palaces and museums.

It was Wednesday afternoon when I attended the monk debating sessions. Held in a small square tucked in behind the school – yes, a Tibetan monk school, the sessions are a weekly occurrence, and tourists are invited to attend. Within minutes of the students gathering, the cacophony of debating teenagers is deafening – coupled by the slap of hands together that invite a response from the seated rival. The square, a peaceful and walled enclosure is laden with white stones, trees, and a narrow walking ledge that circles it. The tourists are asked to stick to the ledge and not accompany the students on the square proper. I enjoyed bearing witness to a few tourists that were not aware of this step upon the stones unwittingly, and embarrassingly scamper off when asked to do so. On the other hand, and I took particular notice of a photographer of Chinese persuasion step into the square to get a closer photograph of his subjects ignore the wishes of the students that asked him to step off. He continued to blithely photograph the debating monks to be. I felt as though I were witnessing the Petri dish version of what was, and has been happening, on the National scale for over 50 years. The Chinese, middle-aged photographer thought nothing of the gentle invitation for him to leave – and rather took advantage of the fact that the practiced and preached tolerance of the students was their Achilles’ heel.

I watched for hours, mesmerized by the youth and determination of these people – unlike anyone I’ve ever met or known in the west. I was desperate to understand the point of it all – like many others that visit this land, I think we just want to see something that we know will not survive, but there I was – surrounded by the youngest Tibetan scholars, who steadfastly applied themselves with their teachings of peace, enlightenment and forgiveness, despite the many barbarians waiting just beyond the gates. This theme was echoed within the inner core of Lhasa, where it would regularly occur that a young monk would surreptitiously hand tourists information pamphlets with shocking statistics of how many monks are extradited, have been made to “disappear” over the years, most regularly across the border to Nepal or India. The young monks handing out the pamphlets were more like ninjas in the way they stealthily gave out their leaflets – and then quickly disappeared into the many side streets.

In meeting with the locals one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of despair for the loss of culture, the exodus of the devout followers, and the annexation of what once was a distinct and autonomous nation. By the time I boarded the bus to the airport I was fully acclimatised and genuinely sad to leave. Lhasa then appeared to me to be a cozy, small town. I recognized the regular beggars, the local mentally ill people doing their rounds, but most of all, the mesmerizing rotations of the pilgrims in the core of the city – it is as if they are winding a clock. They keep the city moving – they keep it alive.

Vietnam in Waves

“Is it vacation or travel?” asked the nice American woman.

We were waiting for our coffee at a small booth in Hanoi, both lured from hundreds of feet away by the large sign that read in English “Espresso served here.”

To her question I drew a blank and she went on to explain.

“A vacation is time off from work and is usually characterized by extreme relaxation, where you no longer even think for your self.”  She certainly sounded like an authority on the subject.  I stole quick looks at her well-worn khakis, form-fitted backpack – and was that a compass around her neck?  I quickly concluded she wasn’t on vacation.

She was handed a cup overflowing with foam, a double espresso to go, from which she took a sip and went on, “whereas traveling, you’re engaged.  You’re taking in new things, challenging yourself and looking for adventure.  You’re immersed, looking the locals in the eye.”  This last bit she emphasized, looking me in the eye.  I smiled a tight smile and added more sugar to my latte.  We took a seat together with a view of the street.  The motorcycles blurred with cars and bicycles on the busy thoroughfare and its relentless pace was somehow soothing.

“So which is it?  Vacation or travel?”  And with one passing glance at the camera around my neck, the latte in my hand, and perhaps the slightly worried look on my face, she knew what I was doing was not considered traveling.

“A bit of both,” was my, admittedly, lame reply.  The truth was I’d have to give it some thought.  I had a month to see Vietnam.  And in those precious days I planned to make my way from the north to the south, starting in Hanoi and arriving at Ho Chi Minh City, a simple enough journey, and one with otherwise no agenda.

The nice American woman wished me well and we departed.  She hailed a motorcycle in passable Vietnamese, jumped on the back and sped off, her steely eyes set on the challenges and adventures that surely awaited her.  I took a taxi to the train station where I would begin my journey and, along the way, decide whether what I was engaged in was vacation or travel.

It was the Reunification Express that delivered me from Hanoi to Hue, at speeds that rarely exceeded 15 kilometers an hour.  It was an overnight trip, and I slept off and on, woken occasionally by nondescript screams and unnerving laughter from somewhere in another car.  I awoke in the early morning to a battered thermos of warm water and a small package of dried noodles.  The employee serving the breakfast wore an ill-fitted wool, communist green uniform, which reflected her excruciatingly straight face as she asked for my ticket.  This would have been the fifth time I produced it for various railway employees since boarding the night before.  I had thought I might tape it to my forehead and save myself the anguish of having to look for it in my pockets each time I was asked, but only in jest, and certainly not after meeting the employees, who made everything seem decidedly unfunny.

I sipped at my noodles while gazing out the narrow window.  In the straining, early light, north Vietnam looked like a picture book of Vietnam: peasants squatted in the paddy fields along the red river delta, water buffaloes grazed in the distant fields, shrouded in mist.  I couldn’t look away.  It occurred to me then that we were being transported at the perfect speed.  Lying there in my berth on the comfortable side of the glass, my warm breakfast in hand as I floated through picture-perfect scenery, my trip had just then nudged closer to vacation, farther from travel.

I arrived in Hoi An, a perfect little stop with fantastic meals, which I took at great leisure, thinking of little else outside of my own relaxation and watched from a comfortable distance the sassy locals sashaying in front of photogenic and crumbling colonial reminders, as if they were aware of the dramatic backdrop and the spell it held over tourists like me.

It was at a bar in Hoi An that I had heard about a secluded semi-private and eco-friendly beach north of Nha Trang run by a famed French Canadian ex- pat named Sylvio.  It was a little off the beaten path and even though the only available bus would drop me off in the middle of the night, Sylvio assured me on the phone I could easily find transport off the National Highway No. 1 by way of motorcycle taxi, or to use the parlance, which I didn’t,  xe om.

As much as the train was relaxed and tranquil, the bus was terrifying and painful.  It was the middle of the night and I was in the back of a rickety bus, chock-a-block with large backpacks, live poultry, gas cans and other frightful passengers.  I sat with my knees pressed to my chest and the imminent danger of someone’s tuba falling on my head (Who carries a tuba across Vietnam?)

My only pleasure flew by in the form of government sanctioned folk art billboards of smiling soldiers next to smiling factory workers, children and loving (and yes, smiling) wives; with an ever-present hammer and sickle featured prominently in the foreground.  I found myself snapping photos every time the bus zoomed past these artworks – I thought my motion-blurred photos of communist kitsch, taken from a speeding bus would be delightfully arty.

The bus slowed, which was odd, prompting passengers to rise in their seats and see for themselves what was happening.  I was one of them, and although I would regret it, I saw the obstacle, ever so briefly.  It was a man on the road, sprawled out and bleeding, and quite clearly dead.  A woman near the front of the bus screamed, eliciting murmurs and chatter and then the bus driver, delivering a torrent of angry Vietnamese, simply steered around the dead man and his bicycle, before speeding up again to his normal dangerous speeds.  From the side window as we passed, we got a closer look.  We pressed our faces up to the glass, gasped and covered our mouths, before exchanging horrified looks with one another.

That was it.  I had had enough.  I got up to demand the bus driver stop and as I opened my mouth and pointed, we skidded to a stop and the tuba came crashing down on my head.  The bus driver turned around and looked at me angrily.  It was my stop.

I was relieved to find my feet on the ground again – my organs still intact.  But when the bus squealed away, (yes, squealed, a bus) I found myself longing to be back on it.  For the dust had then settled, and I had a good look around.

Despite Sylvio’s assurance, the prospects for transport off of National Highway No. 1 at 4:30 in the morning looked rather dim.  That is, of course the precise moment the motorcycles emerged out of nowhere and started circling me like lionesses in the Serengeti.  I raised a hesitant finger and cried out, “Jungle Beach”, my intended destination.  They shouted out prices (all gibberish to me, of course) while kicking up dirt with their tires.  They laughed at my uneasiness.  With what little light their searching headlights provided, illuminated weathered faces haphazardly swarmed around me with the menacing effect of projected ghosts in the night sky.

I eventually took a leap of faith and got on the back of a motorcycle chosen at random.  The driver, with his one-tooth smile, yipped and yelled as he peeled away into the dark depths beyond National Highway No. 1.  Clinging to the back of him, sleep deprived and horror stricken, was me.

We passed a shipping yard, a paint factory and various other textile and chemical plants while I slowly began to question the validity of a remote and eco-friendly little beach resort in the area.  I buried my face behind the back of the little driver and swore off traveling.  Just as I began to despair, the driver slowly lifted his arm and pointed vaguely in the direction of the sea, a dark mass of nothing to our right.  He shouted over his shoulder and through his tight-lipped grasp of a tiny burning cigarette, “Yungo-P! Yungo-P!”

Jungle Beach.  He was saying, “Jungle Beach.”  He turned a corner and his headlights revealed a stick gate that looked like it might have been tied together with hemp.  This was it, Yungo-P, Jungle Beach.

A bamboo door slammed, and from the dark emerged a little man in a sarong.  He shouted something in Vietnamese at the driver, before greeting me in a barely traceable French Canadian accent.  Relieved, I paid the driver in crumpled American dollar bills.  He mounted his motorbike and turned to wave goodbye.  With his one tooth gleaming in the light of the moon, he again, yipped and yelled and tore off into the night.  Sylvio and I stood by the hemp gate and watched as the red taillight slowly disappeared.

“Who was that man?”  I asked Sylvio, who shrugged a genuine shrug before leading me past the gate and into what he called, “his little paradise.”

Once inside, Sylvio offered me an organic cotton cushion on the floor.  He disappeared into another room only to return with a glass in his hand.  “Every day starts with our special lemonade,” he said with a slightly worrisome twinkle.  To this I smiled a brave smile, but as I was still in the dark in every sense regarding the nature of Sylvio’s “little paradise”, I could only be skeptical about an oddly behaved man in a country that seemed to keep its visitors propped on the edge of danger, with always the possibility of disaster and seldom a chance to escape.

With yet another leap of faith, and as I steadied my eyes on Sylvio, I tasted the “special lemonade.”  It was lemonade.  If, however, my path had just then been set and my fate sealed, so be it.  I was exhausted.  If Sylvio would successfully lull me into gentle inebriation and begin the long process of reeducation so as that I might one day resemble the figures smiling vacantly on a billboard alongside National Highway No. 1, then there was little I could do.  I remember looking for weird insignias on the wall, any signs of cultish memorabilia, but all I could see was what the environmentally-friendly low-wattage bulbs would allow:  Bamboo furniture and organic cotton pillows.  God help me, was my last thought of the evening as I climbed under the mosquito net and onto the bed that Sylvio had prepared.

Through the small window I could hear the waves crash on the beach in a hypnotic rhythm that soon took me away on a gentle journey of sleep and malcontented dreams.

I awoke in a sweat.  I could hear someone yelling and a small scuffle.  I jumped to my feet, got tangled up in the mosquito net and fell flat on my face, with a thud, bringing the mosquito net down all around me.  I was trapped!  I believe I may have screamed like a girl, as well.  Sylvio bounded through the door, turned on the light and yelled for me to come with him, all before he stopped to shoot me a quizzical look.

“What are you…”

“Help me get out of this thing!” I demanded.

As Sylvio freed me from the mosquito net he explained to me in a whisper that someone was on his property.

“Just stay behind me and back me up.”

The mosquito net hung over my face like a wedding veil and through it Sylvio read my anxious expression.

“You won’t have to do anything, just stay behind me.”

Outside, I could barely make out the layout of the property.  Large trees were rendered as negative space, backlit by an impressive moon.  I had no idea where the beach was, though it sounded like the waves were crashing on top of us.  I thought of how lovely it must all be in the daylight.

We stood in silence for perhaps a minute, as our eyes adjusted to the dark.  All at once we saw movement.  Silhouettes bounded across our line of vision, in two different directions.

With a shove Sylvio directed me after one of the figures while he pursued the other.  I was in my stocking feet, running through what I could only imagine was a garden, after someone who I could make out as either a child or a midget.  By the time I caught up to him we were running on the sand and on the horizon I could see the white crests of waves, illuminated by the nearly full moon.

I caught the kid in a dramatic leap that brought him to the ground, but I didn’t know what to do with him.  He wouldn’t stop struggling and I had to hold him tight to the ground.  It was when I turned him over that I saw the large whites of his eyes, and the stricken panic in them.  We were both breathing heavily from the run.  We could also hear that Sylvio had nabbed the other fellow, and was scolding him in Vietnamese.  It was perhaps this that scared the kid most of all, for I’m certain the expression on my face betrayed any authority I was supposed to have had.

I got to my feet and picked up the child by his arm.  In his hands were vegetables from the garden; some shriveled up carrots and a handful of peas.  My hands clasped nothing but bone.  The poor kid was starving.

I let go of his arm immediately, and for an instant we held each other’s gaze.  It occurred to me that I might have finally broken through some sort of barrier.  Here, in front of me was a local with whom I had shared something of an adventure.  As I regarded his frail face and scared eyes, I thought we may have reached some sort of understanding, him and I, and I was suddenly elated as if we had just then cemented a true bond of post-post colonialism, or something.  And then I looked a little closer, and saw through his wide eyes a large bus pulling away slowly, white faces pasted to the windows, looking horrified at the sight of something truly terrible.

We could both hear Sylvio approaching and the child’s eyes darted everywhere for an escape route.

I nodded toward the direction we had been running, with what I thought to be an honourable gesture of forgiveness.  I even smiled.  By way of thanks, the kid kicked me square in the balls.

I saw blinding white lights and collapsed in the sand.  I gasped for breath but none came.

For reasons unbeknownst to me then, the entirety of the conversation I had had with the nice American woman came back to me.  I was in a fetal position on the sand, gasping for air and clutching myself.
“A vacation is time off from work and is usually characterized by extreme relaxation…”

Another gasp for air, my eyes bulging, the pain shooting up through my spine.

“…where you no longer even think of yourself.”

I could think of nothing but myself and my poor, innocent, unborn children.

“…whereas traveling, you’re engaged.  You’re taking in new things, challenging yourself and looking for an adventure.  You’re looking locals in the eye.”

Never look them in the eye.  Never look them in the eye.

“So which is it?  Vacation or travel?”

For two days I lied on the beach with an ice pack.  I read trashy novels that had been left behind by other vacationers and happily ate whatever meals Sylvio’s wives served me in my private and secluded hut.  I washed these down with fruity, umbrella cocktails of varying names that spanned, “Sex on the Beach” to “Passed out in the Sun”, which I also did, several times.  I had no thoughts beyond myself and I stayed clear of any locals, and I certainly didn’t look anyone in the eye.

On the third day, I departed rather unceremoniously.  Still limping, I waved at one of the motorcycles that waited at the far side of the hemp gate.  As I slowly and carefully mounted the motorcycle I nodded goodbye to Sylvio, who was tending his garden.  He smiled vacantly and began to wave while his two-year-old daughter, Rain, clutched at his leg.  She pulled away suddenly and ran.  In her tiny fists was Sylvio’s sarong.

So, my single last and vivid impression of Jungle Beach is Sylvio, smiling and waving, stark naked in the middle of his organic garden.  He didn’t seem to mind.  He didn’t even flinch.  He just kept waving.

Treasure Island: Getting the most out of Prince Edward Island

Slightly expanded version of an article originally published here: http://www.viarail.ca/sites/all/files/media/pdfs/via_destinations/2011/vol8n3/36_via_vol8no3.pdf

Unfortunately for rail travel on Prince Edward Island, the last section of track was abandoned in 1989, eventually replaced by the Trans Canada Trail bicycle path.  The good news for cyclists today is that the path of the PEIR meandered wildly, consisting of 147 miles of track for a 120-mile-long island.  The contractors were paid by the mile, adding iron solidity to the term “crooked business”.  The cost of the railroad, on the verge of bankrupting the government, prompted the Island to reconsider joining the newly minted nation of Canada in 1873, an unpopular idea nearly ten years after John A. McDonald and George-Étienne Cartier crashed a meeting in Charlottetown of the leaders of a proposed Maritime Union, failing to convince them to join their new country.  The idea that people would eventually experience the ghosts of Confederation by bicycle along the very path upon which gleaming tracks once promised to unite a nation from Atlantic to Pacific would probably strike the Fathers of Confederation as retrograde.  But Prince Edward Island probably contains as many historical ironies per square mile as any place on Earth.  There is now a statue of John A. MacDonald, sitting on a bench a block away from where he was found, legend has it, one morning after a particularly productive session of nation building, face down and unconscious at the corner of Great George and Richmond Streets.   The statue, while personable, almost seems like it was built to sustain considerable abuse.

If history can’t persuade you to cross the waters, then your stomach might.  Food culture on Prince Edward Island has, like everywhere in the last 15 years or so, turned the idea of taking shame in one’s origins on its head, insisting that fine cuisine is best produced using local ingredients.  Lobster was once considered poor people’s food, tantamount to eating rats, scattered as fertilizer over farmers’ fields and, as a sandwich ingredient, hidden by schoolchildren out of a sense of intense shame.  For people of a certain age, lobster tastes like poverty.  It’s because of the commonness of these ingredients that the Island has stumbled into what ought to have been its natural role for decades: seafood mecca.

The word Malpeque holds the same cachet for oyster connoisseurs that Champagne does for lovers of bubbly.  Whether you’re at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station or Joe Beef in Montréal, it’s the gold standard.  And much like privileging an appellation regionally can be unjust to a comparable product produced just outside the product’s boundary, beautiful oysters can be found all over the Island, not only in Malpeque, each variety representing its particular bay or area.  Johnny Flynn, proprietor of Colville Bay Oysters in Lower Rollo Bay was welcoming enough to me in the month of October, asking, “Do you like oysters?”  That’s a bit of a no-brainer for me and we proceeded to pop open several of the lightest, most delicious oysters I’ve ever eaten, within eyeshot of the bay in which they were cultivated.  Strictly speaking, he’s not a retailer but ships to your better restaurants and seafood shops, absolutely worth seeking out at your local oyster-friendly establishment.

A foodie tourist could do themselves no greater favour than booking into the one-day Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute in Charlottetown, particularly Seafood 101, followed by a meal composed of the fruits of your labour in the picturesque L.M. Montgomery dining room.

Also highly recommended is the Cow’s creamery for their aged cheddar.  I picked up a reasonably priced block of their extra-old variety and found it to be about the best cheddar I’ve ever tasted.  Recently at About Cheese, a specialty shop on Toronto’s Church Street, I enquired about Cow’s prize-winning clothbound cheese.  The owner wistfully reported that he didn’t stock it anymore because Cow’s had signed an agreement to sell it through Loblaw’s, so I wandered three blocks south and picked some up.  The good news about that is, if you’re near a Loblaw’s, the cheese is much less hard to find than it used to be and is absolutely great.

Charlottetown’s Farmer’s Market is a great source of local food of a very high standard, animal, vegetable, and lox on a bagel.  The bagel guy smokes his own salmon (and eels!)  The place is full of characters, both sellers and buyers, and is a neat place to people-watch as most of the regulars are there as much for the opportunity to catch up with friends as to pick up a few quality groceries.  In season, many local fishermen will sell you a bag of mussels for a fraction of what you’d pay on the mainland for mussels that have had to endure a transit.  As healthy and fresh as the produce here is, don’t leave without a bag of freshly deep-fried doughnuts.

On Sept. 8, 2010, an obituary found its way into the email accounts of expatriate Prince Edward Islanders everywhere.  Even for those who’d never met Gordie Dunn, it was clear that an era in the cultural life of the Island had passed.  Charlottetown’s most famous bootlegger had died.  The word “bootlegger” may conjure images of the Jazz Age, but while “speakeasies” ceased operation in every other corner of North America post-Prohibition, bootleggers remained a cornerstone of Charlottetown social life into the 21st century.  Gordie’s establishment dominated Chestnut Street until the authorities decided to roll up the industry, once and for all, in 2004.  Bootlegging establishments were essentially bars in houses, unlicensed, operating on a “gentleman’s agreement” between clients, proprietors and police.  Such blind spots are essential to the social fabric of the Island.

Carrying this torch legally forward is Ken Mill, of Myriad View Distillery in Rollo Bay.  He began, in 2008, producing what might have knocked Sir John A. unconscious in 1864: moonshine.  Or “shine”, as he’s allowed to call it by the liquor authorities.  It’s a beautiful drink, as clean and fresh, at 51% alcohol, as can be imagined.  Then there’s his Lightning.  At 75%, I don’t think I’ve had my sinuses cleared, or my heart warmed, quite so thoroughly in my life.  His rum, bottled at 57.1%, is what’s known historically as Sailor’s Rum or Mariner’s Rum.  This level of alcohol is the origin of the word “proof”, being the quality at which gunpowder would still ignite if you spilled some on it.  Watered down more than that, your gunpowder will fizzle out like a damp squib.  He also produces a mighty gin, which, with the high alcohol content, almost freezes its botanical ingredients in time.  He’s developing a client base loyal enough to make the trip from the mainland especially to stock their shelves.  His product is only available on the Island, either at his distillery or through local liquor stores, so you may want to stock up while you’re here.  Tell him Gordie Dunn sent you.

Down the road is Prince Edward Distillery, makers of an award-winning potato vodka, potatoes being, of course, practically the identity of the Island.  The vodka tastes distinctly of potatoes, in a very pleasant, subtle way.  For an alcoholic trifecta, there’s a winery nearby, Rossignol Estate.

As recent advances in home theatres have made going to the movies almost repugnant, it’s heartening to know that there are two moviegoing experiences on the Island that remind you that it used to be fun.  City Cinema is the Maritimes’ last remaining repertory cinema, its cosiness almost a dream for fans of art-house movies.  And Brackley Drive-In preserves a distinctly 1950s atmosphere, even in its concession stand, with classic cars framing either side of the outdoor screen.

The show on Prince Edward Island, however, is nature.  There are many family-friendly beaches scattered all around the Island.  These, however, don’t compare to the epic, cathedral-like beauty of Greenwich Beach.  My ritual is always to grab a bite at local institution Rick’s Fish and Chips in nearby St. Peter’s, either before or after your visit to Greenwich.  So fortified, you’re ready for the lengthy trek through spectacular dunes, some tall as houses, to the water, which you’ll hear more and more insistently as you approach.  Just when you think you’re about to arrive, another layer of dunes presents itself, to the point that you might think you’ll never get there, that the waves are just an auditory illusion.  The payoff for all this work is that the beach is yours and you’re alone with the immensity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  It’s a treasure of the Island.

If You Go

-Holland College, Culinary Boot Camps: 4 Sydney St. Charlottetown, (902) 566-9305, www.hollandcollege.com/bootcamps/bootcamps/culinary/full-day-camps

-Colville Bay Oysters, 83 Lower Rollo Bay Road, Souris, (902) 687-2222, www.colvillebayoysterco.com/

-Cows Creamery, 397 Capital Drive (North River Causeway) Charlottetown, (902) 370-3155, www.cowscreamery.ca/

-Farmers Market, 100 Belvedere Road, Charlottetown, (902) 626-3373, http://charlottetownfarmersmarket.weebly.com/

-Myriad View Disillery, 1336 Route 2, Rollo Bay, (902) 687-1281, www.straitshine.com/

-Prince Edward Distillery, 9984 Route 16, Hermanville, (902) 687-2586, www.princeedwarddistillery.com/

-Rossignol Estate Winery, 11147 Shore Road, Little Sands, (902) 962-4193, www.rossignolwinery.com/Rossignol-Winery.html

City Cinema, 64 King Street, (902) 368-3669, citycinema.net/

-Brackley Drive-In, 3164 Brackley Point Road – Route 15, (902) 672-3333, drivein.ca/

-Rick’s Fish & Chips, 5544 Route 2, St. Peter’s Bay, (902) 961-3438, ricksfishnchips.com/

-Beaches, www.tourismpei.com/beach-locations

Veni Vidi Vegas

Each city has its unique appeal or charm. And some cities are magnetic. The legend of New York is that if you can write or act or paint and work very, very hard you might be rewarded with some measure of fame, or at least a kind of niche recognition. Like magpies attracted to a shiny glint in the desert, those who find the pull of Las Vegas irresistible are primarily not those with the ferocious work ethic needed to make it in a regular metropolis. It’s a magnet that attracts the shiftless. Wealth has to be instant. To earn it would be ridiculous. It’s a kind of reverse ambition. The ambitious in Las Vegas yearn to “make it there” but remain completely anonymous, the antithesis of someone who’s culturally ambitious, a person who can live in poverty for years as long as they’re somehow renowned. Las Vegas offers a series of mirror fragments stuck in the sand that reflect the glow of this unearned wealth and glitter. In that sense, it shouldn’t exist. But it does exist. In contrast to the rest of modern society, suckers aren’t those who toss money into the bonfires of casinos. Suckers are people who earn money by working for it. There is, at least in Las Vegas, a kind of honour in gambling and losing. The point is to gamble. Dishonour falls on those who would never dream of gambling, losing every cent they can lay their hands on.

A few years ago, before the collapse of the subprime mortgage bubble, I stood on a half-empty lot watching water trucks hosing down the ground so as to prevent a dust storm (legally required by the municipality for construction projects) and listened while the man responsible for building these homes pointed at an airplane flying overhead: “See that? Another plane load of suckers.” He said this every few minutes, each time he saw an airplane.

I once had a friend who taught philosophy at UNLV (he’s no longer there), and while we dined on cheap steak and 99 cent shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate restaurant on Fremont Street I asked him, “So, is it just like teaching regular philosophy or what? What can you really tell anyone about philosophy in Las Vegas?” The place really seems to either embody or refute the deepest concerns human beings could possibly have about being alive. He replied, “Well, it does change the way you teach when you know that everyone in the room believes that the best you can do is to work as a valet at Caesar’s Palace.”

Las Vegas’ tug on the imagination for the bachelor rests on its centrality as a playground for the Rat Pack, and the shallow/profound morality of those men. The film Ocean’s 11 answers the question, “What’s more amoral than gambling?” with the response, “Robbing casinos.” One shouldn’t discount totally a philosophical approach to Las Vegas, however. Continental philosophers have amused us (see America by Jean Baudrillard and the probably unintentionally great Zabriskie Point by Antonioni) by trying and failing to “get it”. The secret is to inhabit the place, geographically and otherwise, without trying too hard. The Zen master of a place like Las Vegas is Dean Martin, a man who understands the paradox of expressing something deep by saying something stupid. The more overtly profound entertainers of his day are hopeless in this regard, especially in hindsight.

For my most recent visit, it seems appropriate that the show I had tickets to see, Charo‘s Musical Sensation, was cancelled owing to a twisted ankle she suffered during the most recent, increasingly unhinged Jerry Lewis telethon, and that furthermore I had to console myself over that devastating loss with a show the next night by Bob Dylan, a man who has identified himself through his radio show as a great admirer of Dean Martin. This sphinx of a town was the perfect setting in which to watch a triumphant, spellbinding concert by the nation’s sphinx. The other highlight was the Atomic Testing Museum.

One thing about the place, on or about day four, you really will run out of things to do if all you’re doing is hitting casinos and drinking.  But there are other activities that are well worth seeking out.  You might even remember some of them later.

If you go:

– As stated, the Atomic Testing Museum really is worth your time.

– If you’re mobile, drive all the way north up Las Vegas Boulevard to the municipality of North Las Vegas.  At 2930 N. Las Vegas Blvd. you’ll find the Broadacres Swap Meet.  It closes at 3:00 p.m. on Fridays (cost 50 cents) and 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (cost $1), but it’s definitely worth rousting yourself out of bed to get a couple hours in investigating it.  It is approximately two football fields worth of Mexican wrestling masks, excellent and inexpensive Mexican food, pony rides for the kids, cheap haircuts and a whole lot of off-brand clothing, crafts and electronics.

– Boulder City is Las Vegas’s virtuous twin, separated at birth.  The town’s pious founders made a decision a long time ago to remain dry and not permit casino development.  Such a short drive away from Las Vegas, and a starker contrast cannot be imagined.  You are in Leave It to Beaver land, essentially on another planet.  You could say that what happens in Boulder City stays in Boulder City, but it’s the kind of place where you feel bad jaywalking.  And there’s almost no traffic.  There are some great little diners along the main drag.

Mon Ami Gabi, located in “Paris”, is a nice little “French” place.  Actually, the food is very good and if you can sit on the terrace, you’ll get an eyeful of the Bellagio’s dancing waters while you poke listlessly at your brunch boeuf bourguignon in a hungover state.  Tip: tastes really good the next day if you’ve got a microwave in your room.

Bouchon, a Thomas Keller enterprise located in the Venetian, is worth hunting down.  Really excellent food, wine and atmosphere.

– I’d love to be able to tell you to go to the Liberace Museum, but it’s gone.  It was great while it lasted.

– Binion’s, the ex-home of the World Series of Poker, is worth hanging out at for a while if only to observe real gamblers at work.  But if you’re in the mood for a punishingly large steak, get on the elevator and head up to the 24th floor and Binion’s Steakhouse, with its dark, old-school interior and excellent view.

– Afterwards, stroll down Fremont to the Lovo hand-rolled cigar factory.  Nothing is better than the night air with an inexpensive, high-quality cigar.

– Cross the street to the local hipster enclave, Beauty Bar.  Ask the rosy fingered dawn to point you home.

Mexico City is big (D.F. es grande)

At customs, I often respond to interrogation, trying not to appear glib about it, Q: Purpose of trip?  A: Fun.  As long as it doesn’t anger the interrogator, it can sometimes deflate the atmosphere.  It can also backfire.  But the pleasure of gambling lies in the stake, and in the possibility of watching it disappear, of losing.  The American border security official checking my passport this time offered a small warning about my carefree attitude towards travelling in Mexico.  “Be careful,” he said.  “Isn’t it mainly in the north?” I asked him, “it” referring to the drug-related murderfest that has become the only thing that anyone knows on the subject of Mexico anymore.  “No, it’s everywhere,” he corrected me firmly after verifying my identity and sending me on my way.  This incident capped off weeks of concerned looks on the faces of friends asking, “You’re going to Mexico now?”

So waking up the next morning in Mexico City, the usual sense of anticipation and joy I associate with travel was mixed with a mild dose of paranoia and dread.  Wandering the urbane, beautiful, tree-lined streets of the Zona Rosa, the only hint of the violence that had been vexing the nation was distilled into the tabloid imagery of corpses twisted into unnatural positions and the mute faces of murder victims staring out from lurid Weegee-style photos plastered over ubiquitous newsstands.  I ordered an espresso at a sidewalk café and began to map out my day.  Later on, while I ate a plate of tacos at one of the many excellent sidewalk food stalls that are omnipresent in the city, birdsong permeated the flower-scented air, and I settled in to the relaxed overload that constitutes the rhythm of the Distrito Federal (D.F. for short, and not pronounced “Dee Eff” but “Day Eff-ay”).  Hawkers of merchandise along the pedestrian thoroughfare of Génova called out as I ambled towards the Insurgentes Metro station, where a man sat getting his shoes polished in the bright sunshine amidst the throng of pedestrians in the circular plaza.  Menace could very well have been lurking everywhere.  It never once tapped me on the shoulder during my time in Mexico.  Lots of people did ask if they could shine my shoes.  I said, “Sure,” once, without much incident.

There was a moment, on the third day, after attending the flea market at Lagunilla, a vast hub of inexpensive goods, clothing and food, and then wandering aimlessly for a few minutes outside of its territory, that I sensed a sketchy atmosphere.  For these occasions, the Metro exists.  If you’re feeling even a little wary and the “M” sign is visible to you, follow the stairs down into the immediate safety of the subway.  The Metro sign that caught my eye and offered me a retreat on this day was labelled Tepito.  Later, I met an American full-time resident who confirmed my wariness.  “I’ve never been to Tepito,” he said.  “I just don’t need to deal with it.”  Not only is the Metro clean and ostentatiously staffed by police carrying light artillery, it is also easy to use and reliable, and covers more or less the entire city, including stops at the airport and bus stations, including Tasqueña in the south of the city, which was the terminal I would need in order to get to Cuernavaca at the mid-point of my trip.  The Metro also costs the incredible sum of three pesos, not even a fraction of a gringo quarter.  For female travellers who crave segregated transport, there are women-only cars in the Metro system, as well as pink taxis driven by women and women-only buses.

On the Metro, hawkers stroll up and down each subway car, pacing their shouts so as not to compete with fellow hawkers.  On each subway journey, you will be propositioned by men selling small hammers, CDs, chewing gum, pictures of wrestlers, etc.  Anything that can be bought and sold and carried on your back is bought and sold in transit by people monotonously shouting their pitches at you.  Consider it a small price to pay for an inexpensive and otherwise immaculate journey.

To begin with, Mexico City is big.  I have the feeling that I’m not even really scratching the surface of the place.  There are many neighbourhoods I meant to explore and specific things I wanted to do but never got around to.  The good news, after all the wariness imposed on me by the voices who regard Mexico City as a frightening and violent place, is that I wouldn’t hesitate a moment if the opportunity to return presented itself.  I already miss the place.

Hemmed in by the sprawling boulevard Paseo de la Reforma, the Zona Rosa is tourist-friendly enough to feature high-end shops and nightclubs without the congestion of the Centro Historico.  By night, the Zona Rosa is also renowned as a hub of gay life.  Wander down Ameres between Paseo de la Reforma and Chapultepec as the sun is going down, and the entire street has become an open-air pleasure dome, dedicated to trance music, necklaces, and tank tops.

The Centro Historico, however, shouldn’t be avoided.  Here you’ll find the excellent 150-year-old Tardan hat shop, which is as effective a means to acquiring proper streetwear in the form of a tasteful, inexpensive Panama hat as you’re ever likely to find.  You will then likely notice, walking out into the sunshine with your new hat, that you’re on the Zócalo, the enormous public square that represents the heart of the city and contains at its centre the largest flag that has probably ever existed.  You won’t be alone, either, in that many men still do wear hats in Mexico.

Nearby, you will probably never mail a postcard from as memorable or beautiful a location as the golden interior of the post office on Tacuba Street.  Wandering down that same street, you’ll notice a concentration of perfume shops, where the scents are made to order.  Nearby is Sanborn’s, a chain restaurant started by a couple of Californian brothers a century ago, the flagship location of which, here in the Centro Historico, is covered with beautiful blue tiles and looks almost vaguely like the exterior of a Middle Eastern bathhouse in this context.

One Sunday morning, in the tangle of streets adjoining the Templo Mayor I witnessed vendors engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with police, their goods spread out on blankets which they could quickly and easily bundle up and run away with when cries from vendors farther down the street warned that the cops were on their way to sweep them out.  For a while, I was surrounded by vendors shouting and running and then by police, trying to sort out who in the crowd they could nab.  Obviously, vendors who had been used to claiming the open streets of Centro Historico as an overhead-free place of business were being made to shove off by a concerted municipal effort.  Your attitude to Mexico City’s politics is probably nonexistent, but that goes to show how completely overshadowed such issues are by our media’s depiction of the Guns and Gangs problem, at the expense of all other aspects of life.  Several years ago, I read a story about a literacy program for the city’s police force.  The idea of training up semi-literate police officers with the goal of instilling the qualities of empathy and openness to humanity that one gets from reading fiction, absorbing the dynamic of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, for example, and then employing those skills on the street would be ridiculed in almost all North American cities as hopelessly pie-in-the-sky.  And so it’s to be applauded where it exists.

Several people remarked to me that during the previous decade, the air in Mexico City was oppressively polluted.  I was impressed by how clear it was in 2011, and what a change that must represent in the lives of residents.  You can’t help but notice the recent appearance of light-rail projects, the Metrobús, and the Ecobici bicycle share program and then associate those with a certain lightness in the life of the city.  While the program mainly exists in the Centro, Roma and Condesa neighbourhoods, Mexico City has plans to triple the size of Ecobici in 2012.  The city’s traffic is still vicious and impossible, but there appears to be a municipal appetite to curb the sheer quantity and lawlessness of motorists (policy that would be characterized as a “war on cars” elsewhere).  Reputation is difficult to shake, however.  I was told explicitly, for example, never to approach a police officer, which I did several times in my naïveté, asking for directions.  They’re widely regarded as corrupt by residents.  Personally, I found them nice enough, but they may have simply been taken aback at being approached by a gringo holding a map.  And all told, although I think very highly of making any city easier to navigate on a bicycle, riding one in Mexico City strikes me as recklessly dangerous.  Gambling when the stake is death is a little outside my comfort zone.

On the road in front of Plaza Garibaldi, Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas, I witnessed (without actually seeing) a woman struck by a car.  Facing away from the street, I heard the screech of brakes followed by an impact, and whirled around to see her body fly into the air (“like a ragdoll” is the cliché, but that is exactly what it looked like) and then land heavily on the pavement.  It was one of those heart-stopping, adrenaline-producing moments.  Slowly, in the middle of the road, onlookers roused her to consciousness.  The police arrived and began stopping traffic in preparation for an ambulance’s arrival.  I stood on the side of the road beside a group of mariachis and watched.  A couple hours later, the police had dragged the woman onto the sidewalk, standing over her and chatting on walkie-talkies.

Walking along Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas between Plaza Garibaldi and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there is a string of sketchy cantinas, the male clientele of which are drunk well before noon and the women are either willfully garish or decked out for work.  I wasn’t sure that this would be the best introduction to cantina life that I could have hoped for.  I ended up wandering into a place called La Mascota, at Mesones N° 20, at the intersection with Bolivar, in the Centro Historico.  It was agreeable looking from the outside, and I was in need of a place to sit and collect myself over a meal and a drink.  The atmosphere inside didn’t disappoint.  I still haven’t figured out how cantinas work (my Spanish is no good), but the menu hangs on a chalkboard from which you can order food in small portions, which are served along with your drinks.  The trick being that as long as you have a fresh drink in front of you, the food is gratis.  So I ordered a mescal, and then a dish of sautéed crevettes (which were large, like crayfish).  A father and son walked in and looked so familiar and easy with the ritual of the place and each other, that it seemed like a pleasant family habit.  At the end, the bartender made it clear I should leave a little something for the guy who brought the food.  Or at least that’s how I interpreted it.  I didn’t get the sense that I was being shook down meaninglessly for extra cash.  I left extremely happy and full.

You can splurge on food in Mexico, but the quality of the average taqueria (which are abundant all through the city) is excellent.  A plate full of tacos filled with various meats, often of the al pastor or pork variety, runs anywhere from 30 to 70 pesos, depending.  Lime wedges are served on the side for squeezing over top, followed by a sprinkle of salt, and either a red or green chilli sauce.  I wish I could eat this way every day.

Plaza Garibaldi is a large, open square, hemmed in street side by the white-cubish architecture of the recently opened Tequila and Mescal MuseumThere are stray dogs all over Mexico City.  I was entranced by several regulars who make their home at Plaza Garibaldi.  The square is also home to a school for mariachis and is filled with idle players wandering around, occasionally strumming their guitars.  They play with slightly more conviction at the bars on the square during the evening, when they serenade tourists.  I saw one standing on the side of the road trying to hail a taxi.  One of the dogs recognized the mariachi’s plight and sprung into action, stepping out into traffic and herding a taxi, gently nosing the fender and positioning it towards the curb.  A young pair of dogs pranced together through the square, ears and tails happily up, begging from people sitting on benches and occasionally intimidated by a lone, hierarchically superior dog.  There’s possibly a worthwhile project in investigating the social dynamics of stray dogs in Mexico City.

At 69 Allende Street, nearby the Lagunilla Market, is Café Allende, established in 1957 and rather beautifully frozen in that year.  When my server asked if I wanted my coffee “con leche”, I thought he was just asking if I’d like milk with it, a couple of tiny plastic cream containers thrown at you, as you would get in North America.  I said, “Sure,” and thus had my first “café con leche”, discovering quickly enough that it’s a whole other kind of drink, sort of a coffee and milk prepared separately from each other and then united in a single cup which will likely have a hot-milk skin plastered over top.  This was a pleasant and fun discovery, which marked out Mexican coffee custom as distinct.

One of the great places to enjoy both a coffee and a view in Mexico City, funnily enough, is on the eighth floor of the Sears Tower, which faces the western edge of Alameda Central, the huge park which contains the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  It feels like bad advice, but trust me; enter Sears, take the escalator to the eighth floor, find the café, and then take a seat on the outdoor terrace overlooking the golden domed Palacio de Bellas Artes, with the city and mountains sprawled out behind.

Eventually, I got the impression that the city is simply too large to explore fully, that even if I lived here for years I’d never see it all.  I’m not sure if there are informally circumscribed areas that out-of-towners and wealthy locals frequent (Centro, Zona Rosa, Condesa, Roma).  Then again, I’m not going to try and figure out why it’s okay to venture as far as Lagunilla, but not okay to keep walking into Tepito.

Back in Roma, walking down boulevard Jalapa, I came across a large record store called Retroactivo.  Meandering the stacks, and seeing a lot of the usual pop music suspects, I asked the guy behind the counter if he had any recommendations for local music.  He put forward a 45 by a local garage rock group called Los Explosivos.  I discovered later, after looking it up online, that the shop has a large record press in the back room and that this 45 was one of the records cut there.  It’s excellent.  He also sold me an LP of songs by various artists from Chiapas.  It’s a bit heavy rock for my liking, but great to hear that the young folks of that region are keeping themselves culturally occupied.

All told, I ended up spending a lot of quality time in Colonia Roma and came away convinced that this was a neighbourhood I would actually enjoy living in, if push came to shove.  Grant Cogswell opened D.F.’s only English-language bookstore, Under the Volcano books, in October of 2011 in Roma Norte, and I dropped in on him to see if he had a better sense of the lay of the land.

“Nobody really knows how many native English speakers there are here.  I think the best guess is probably about 20,000.  They’re not concentrated.  They’re spread all over the place.  And as this store starts to penetrate, I’m starting to pick up information from different parts of the city that I didn’t even know about, you know, things that are going on out there because people are sort of coming and explaining it in English, where I can pick up the subtleties.  So I think this is going to develop into something really fascinating.”

It must be interesting, I suggest, discovering the city through this particular cross-section.  “We have these Friday nights where people come over,” he explains, “and I wouldn’t call it an expat clubhouse, but there is that element.”

I’m also eager to hear from an outsider who’s lived here long enough to settle in.  I’m still walking around in the enchantment phase, not yet able to imagine how the place might feel after an extended period of time.  I ask how he came to live here.  “In the U.S. there’s a reputation of this city, partially justified, over the last 30 years of it being dangerous:  you get kidnapped, there’s crime everywhere, it’s dirty, the smog is really heavy, it’s chaotic, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Over the years, I’d run into people, knowing what Americans know about D.F., and somebody would be like, ‘Oh, I just spent six months in Mexico City,’ and I’d be like, ‘Whoa, you’re hardcore!’  And they’re like, ‘Oh, no, it’s the greatest place in the world.’  And I kept hearing this again and again and again.  And I just got fascinated, and I proposed to a friend of mine that we go.  And over the course of a couple days of extreme paranoia I realized it was completely unjustified, and settled in and relaxed and just totally fell in love with it.”

I mention that I’ve fallen a little in love, too, and suggest to him that the city often reminded me of Paris, albeit a much less expensive version with much more insistent traffic.  In fact, the resemblance is often striking, right down to the blue street corner signs on the sides of buildings in the Centro.  In fact, beside the Palacio de Bellas Artes, there’s a Parisian Metropolitain archway.  I’m pretty sure the only other city in North America that has one of these over the entrance of a functioning Metro is Montreal, so it’s nice to connect the two.  (There is a third Metropolitain sign in the sculpure garden at MoMA, standing uselessly over no subway entrance.) But it’s really in the relaxed cosmopolitan neighbourhoods like Colonia Roma, envisioning your own life transposed here, that the likeness really opens up.  My assessment is that Mexico City is like a post-apocalyptic Paris, if Paris was relaxed and fun and didn’t close at 11:00 every night.  Paris could, in fact, take a note from Mexico City on joie de vivre.

“It’s kind of uncanny,” Cogswell says.  “I think a lot of people come here for the same reason that people went to Paris in the ‘50s.  It’s a cultural escape hatch.  This city has absorbed refugees and expats for a century, and is so friendly.  I mean, you’re bringing a sort of cultural privilege here, as a North American, that is something people are hungry for.”

Before suggesting that his shop could become the Shakespeare & Co. of D.F. if things really were to pan out, I ask whether he’s travelled much outside of the city, since I’m about to head for Cuernavaca.  “You’re so close to so much mind-blowing natural splendour.  It’s unbelievable.  I’ve been places, San Luis Potosí, which isn’t even in the Fodor’s guide, it’s amazing.  It’s not even an internationally acknowledged destination.  People in the city go up there camping and stuff.  You get close to the U.S. border, the quality and the attitude of people definitely goes down.”

I tell him that the Roma neighbourhood appeals to me immensely and ask for an assessment, “Roma is kind of a down-market Condesa.  Condesa can get a little Richie Rich on the weekends.  I tend not to drink there.”  The shelves in his shop are lined with English-language classics, so I grab an anthology of Mexican poetry compiled by Octavio Paz and translated by Samuel Beckett, thank him very much and wander back out along Orizaba boulevard.  It’s a beautiful street, packed with bars and idyllic parks.

I end up drinking later that night at Pulqueria Insurgentes, which has some association with the excellent local arts magazine Generacion.  It’s easily recognizable with its distinctive sign featuring a bell in red.  A man steps forward as I approach the entrance to pat me down and speaks to me in Spanish.  Upon realizing that I speak no Spanish, he summons his fellow security guy who does a perfunctory frisk, asks where I’m from, pats me on the shoulder and then ushers me inside.  “Enjoy yourself.  Drink some pulque and have a good time.”

Pulque, which I really knew nothing about prior to this trip, was the sacred beverage of the Aztecs, that they only gave to sacrifices and priests who were in need of a ritual tranquilizer to make their mutual roles bearable.  I already knew plenty about mescal and tequila, but had been woefully ignorant on this drink.  I managed to do a lot of catching up on my education in sampling every variety of pulque that was available in the bar (there are several different flavours), and exited the bar quite late and satisfied.

At the risk of suggesting that I preferred Colonia Roma to the point that I shunned Condesa, I did find many quality things to do in that neighbourhood.  For brunch, I went to the absolutely great El Pendulo, at 115 Neuvo Léon, which has an excellent bookstore on its ground floor with a restaurant upstairs.  If you’re lucky, you can score a seat on their beautiful terrace looking down onto the wide boulevard below.

Nearby, walking along avenida Mazatlán, I came across Nevería Roxy, a neighbourhood time machine that looks straight out of the mid-20th century.  Mexican ice creams are called nieves. I had a flavour called mamey, which had a kind of earthy berry quality about it.

In the nearby Parque México, you can find, depending on the day, outdoor stalls selling goods ranging from clothing by upscale local designers to quality bags, shoes and art supplies.  There’s a small train for the children and the place overall has a relaxed, green air of timeless beauty about it.  Grant Cogswell says that if you can catch this park around dusk, “I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world.  I really do.”

Continuing on from Condesa into the vast Bosqe de Chapultepec park, I wander in the direction of the vast and extremely worth visiting Museo Nacional de Antropología.  On the way, I pass through the Jardín Botánico, with representative plant species from all over Mexico laid out over beautiful grounds and several expansive greenhouses.

The National Anthropology Museum is a thing unto itself, and if I were to recommend one mandatory thing to experience (aside from eating the street food), it would be to visit this museum, in which you can position yourself first with the Aztec natives of this land and then wander through the history of each region, well represented with informative dioramas, through the Spanish conquest, absorb the Aztec frescoes out in the courtyard, to be confronted at the end with the justly famous Aztec sun stone, unearthed from under the present-day Zócalo.  This is a world-class museum, well worth reserving an afternoon for, especially since it might help smooth the edge of bewilderment you no doubt feel over how Mexico came to be the way it is now, this insane swirl of people, music, food, history.  I hesitate to use a word like “madness” to describe life here because it sounds like I’m trumping up a charge of groundless exoticism.  However, you wouldn’t need to be told that the city is built on top of the soft, pliant soil of a dried out lakebed and that it is gradually sinking to know that life feels exhilaratingly temporary and immediate here.  And while I didn’t experience any overt huffing and puffing because of high altitude that many people report, I wonder if the thin air didn’t feed into a certain light-headedness on my part.

Also in this park, on the recommendation of a friend, I walked through the Zoológico de Chapultepec.  Admission is free, and if you have children to entertain, better to book out a couple extra hours to explore this exhibit of exotic animals.  The pandas are obviously very popular.  There are giraffes, monkeys, birds of various types and a nice aquarium.  Myself, I toughed it out for about an hour.  It is a very good zoo, as zoos go.  But as an adult, seeing animals cooped up for public display seems a vaguely depressing pastime, both for them and a little for me.  Watching children react to these creatures, though, seemed at least to redeem the time spent wandering the grounds.  You could definitely find worse things to do with an afternoon.

Back in the Centro Historico, I went shopping for a typical Mexican shirt, hoping to score decent Christmas presents for my brother-in-law and his son, my nephew, in the form of identical guayaberas shirts.  These are popularly referred to as Mexican wedding shirts, and the prominent pockets on the front are apparently designed to contain a guava fruit, “guaya” meaning “guava”.  At 13 Lopez is Guayaberas Carr, seemingly a family-run business.  An adorable elderly woman calls the shots here.  No English is spoken, but somehow we signal our intentions to each other.  She has shirts and I would like to buy two of them.  Having guessed the right sizes and then having to choose among three colours, I find myself asking out loud (in German, I think, which makes no sense at all, but at this point in the trip my language faculties are completely mixed up), “Hmm, which colour will I take?”  She replies, without missing a beat, “Todo.”  It’s just about my first good laugh in a normal conversation with a native of Mexico City during my entire time here.  I want to buy both sizes in all three colours, exactly as she demands.  Hell, I’d like to be her grandson at this rate.  I choose blue, pay and move along.

Also in the Centro are several bakeries that are worth visiting, both for a snack and for staring at golden art deco interiors.  Really good bakeries are all over the city, but they’re especially magnificent in this neighbourhood.  Dulcería de Celaya, at 39 Cinco de Mayo, or Pastelería Ideal, at 18 avenida 16 de Septiembre, are both gorgeous examples of these shops out of time.  On the second floor of Pastelería Ideal is a surreal display of wedding cakes.  The more quotidian baked goods are downstairs.

The next morning, I head out to the Coyoacán neighbourhood, getting off at the Viveros Metro stop, in order to visit both the Frida Kahlo museum and then the Trotsky museum.  Trotsky was killed here, after at least one unsuccessful attempt on his life by a gang of gun-wielding mercenaries.  Finally, the famous ice-pick, on order from Stalin himself, struck the even more famous eyeglasses of Leon Trotsky, here in this compound that he lived in with his family.  In the Joseph Losey film The Assassination of Leon Trotsky, you can gauge how vastly the city has changed.  It was shot here, on location, and the view over the wall depicts practically a rural scene in the film.  Now it’s hemmed in on its north side by the avenida Río Churubusco, which is basically a highway, and the city has expanded outward to surround everything out here.  On the day Trotsky was killed, he had an appointment with Saul Bellow, making Bellow the last person who arrived at the compound expecting a cordial meeting, only to discover that Trotsky was unable to lunch.

Coyoacán is a very beautiful neighbourhood, and I’d like to explore it a little more fully on my next visit.  While this part of town is a little more scenic and restful than in the centre, anyone who’s used to the pace of traffic in North America will still be absolutely shocked by the persistence and recklessness of traffic in Mexico.  If I had to name a drawback to life in Mexico, that would be the one.

Speaking of traffic, I should mention that I walked past the Frida Kahlo museum and would probably have gone in if the line hadn’t been out the door.  I predicted this would be the case, and anyway wasn’t so crushed, as I’m not completely taken with her work but would have been curious to at least see the place.  Luckily, the Trotsky museum is just a couple blocks away and is a whole lot less busy.  Staffed by Marxists, there’s a small gallery space in the entrance building, but the main attraction is the house where he lived.  No attempt has been made to plaster over the bullet holes in the walls from the previous attempt on his and his family’s life.  Everything remains just as it was left, books on the shelf and a writing desk ready to be used, as if the owner had been sitting there the day previous.  Outside in the courtyard is his and his wife’s grave, with a Soviet flag hung overhead.

On my final evening, I attended a show at the incredibly beautiful Palacio de Bellas Artes, a vast art deco complex with an architecture exhibit on the fifth floor and a lovely gift shop downstairs.  Shows that are staged in the theatre often feature folkloric dancers, which might be an ideal experience for a tourist.  I was lucky that I was able to catch a show by Laurie Anderson, who was touring her latest show, called Delusion, a kaleidoscopic work on the subjects of life, death, family and the imaginary glue that holds these things together.  To see such a modern and multi-faceted work in such an ornate and gorgeous theatre was just about as appropriate a note as I could have hoped for to close out my journey.

View the full photoalbum here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bachelormachine/collections/72157630531245784/

If you go:

Tardan hat shop, Plaza de la Constitución No. 7, on the west side of the Zócalo

Post office (Palacio Postal), corner of Tacuba and Eje Central Lazaro Cardenas

-La Mascota cantina, Mesones N° 20, corner of Bolivar

Tequila and Mezcal Museum, Plaza Garibaldi

-Café Allende, 69 Allende Street

-Lagunilla Market, Libertad (between República de Chile & Calle Allende)

-Café on 8th floor of Sears tower (for the view), Av. Juárez 14, Centro

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Avenida Hidalgo 1, Centro

Retroactivo Records, Jalapa N° 125, Colonia Roma Norte

Under the Volcano Books, Celaya 25, Col. Hipódromo Condesa

Pulqueria Insurgentes, Insurgentes Sur N° 226, Colonia Roma

El Péndulo (bookstore with great brunch upstairs), 115 Neuvo León

Nevería Roxy ice cream stand, Mazatlan 80, Colonia Condesa

Parque México

Jardín Botánico, Chapultepec Park (slightly east of the Anthropology Museum)

Museo Nacional de Antropología, Chapultepec Park

Zoológico de Chapultepec (Zoo in Chapultepec Park)

Guayaberas Carr (shirt shop), 13 Lopez, Centro

Dulcería de Celaya (bakery), 39 Cinco de Mayo, Centro

Pastelería Ideal, 18 avenida 16 de Septiembre, Centro

Leon Trotsky Museum, Rio Churubusco 410 Del Carmen, Coyoacán

The Olfactory Floor: Perfume Mixologists of Calle Tacuba

You’ll inevitably notice scattered around the Centro Historico in Mexico City a lot of perfume shops.  While this is hardly a remarkable feature in a city of any size, these shops distinguish themselves from your average scent counters in that they are more hands-on affairs.  In a typical perfume shop, you walk in demanding a brand name scent in a box with a logo on it, pay and get out.  In Mexico City, you can ask for a scent by name (even by brand name), but what happens next is that the alchemists behind the counter consult their recipe books and custom build something for you.  It would be unkind to think of these places as knock-off shops.  Whereas an imitation product will boldly print a lookalike label with a subtly different name on it (Chamel No. 5 or something) and sell it as if it were the real deal, the shops in Mexico City will custom mix a bottle of perfume, cologne, eau de toilette or whatever you request, put it in an unremarkable bottle with a plain sticker for a label and your mixologist’s handwriting on the front.  Naturally, this costs a fraction of buying brand-name product from a perfume counter.

When you first begin to notice these places, you’ll likely think to yourself, “Wow, Mexicans are really into perfume.”  But it’s really on Calle Tacuba walking past a string of these shops, their window displays looking more like chemistry sets than displays of luxury goods, that you begin to realise the uniqueness of this enterprise to Mexico City.

I wandered in to a shop called Perfumes (No. 13 Tacuba), attracted by the Art Deco entrance and the window display, which looks more like it’s selling to home darkroom enthusiasts than perfume addicts.  The place was crowded.  Each customer looked to be on a mission, engaged in deep discussion with the women behind the counter who would take their orders and retreat to their mixing stations and return with their goods in small bottles.  My meagre Spanish skills and the long queues intimidated me into exploring other shops on the street, convinced that even if I managed to reach the counter and speak to someone, the conversation would be meaningless.

So I crossed the street to No. 14 Tacuba, otherwise known as Alquimia Perfumes Y Esencias S.A. de C.V.  Much less busy, there was no trouble getting the attention of an employee, and then several employees as my inability to communicate became a group decoding project.  I would have liked to ask them questions about their lives and the nature of their trade, but ended up just pointing at things and mostly being met with a kindly shake of the head.  I’ve really got to learn Spanish.  All the same, they handed me a binder full of brand names and it became clear that I could pretty much pick something out and ask them to replicate it.  So I chose a certain French brand of men’s fragrance.  The women went away and performed their magic, measuring out substances from a variety of bottles, weighing things on scales and putting the final product into a bottle that would easily cost, oh, I don’t know, a couple hundred bucks standard retail for the size I was getting.  A sticker was slapped on the front, and the word “Hombre” (a literal translation of the French brand name I had asked for) written on it by hand.

As the lady rang up my purchase, she showed me on a calculator the amount I’d be paying: 460.0000-something pesos.  I nodded.  “Well, that’s still a pretty good bargain, I guess.  Not bad.  Well done,”  I thought to myself as I walked over to the cash register, where I was then asked to pay 46 pesos and change.  I must have looked confused.  I’ve paid more for a cup of coffee.  I took my bottle home and compared the Mexican version done up by the alchemists with the real deal which I had a very small quantity of already.  If there’s a difference, my untutored nostrils can’t detect it.

So, while I’m not so sure a hand-made imitation brand perfume from the D.F. would be the ideal gift for that special someone you’re trying to impress (because nothing says “I love you” like handwriting on a sticker slapped on a bottle), this should certainly cause some kind of excitement for the perfume fancier in your life who is kept from her/his favourite scent by a lack of cash.  We all know someone who fetishizes brand names to the point where the bottles on display in their bathroom are mainly intended to intimidate visitors.  The forces of marketing press the vulnerable into a perverse rationalisation that equivocates an “I’m worth it” message with the kind of phantom value that can only be redeemed by a coreless persona.  If that’s where you’re at, then Calle Tacuba, and Mexico in general, can do nothing for you, for it is by and large an off-brand way of life.  Otherwise, I can recommend a street full of alchemists in Mexico City who will happily provide you with a lifetime supply of your favourite odour for pocket change.  One more item on the long list of things to love about this metropolis.

Day of the Dead, Mexico

I ended up in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, more or less as the by-product of some literary tourism, sparked by a longstanding appreciation for the novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, which is set in the city of Cuernavaca, on the Day of the Dead in 1938.  Cuernavaca is about an hour south of Mexico City by bus.  Fairly quickly upon arriving, I abandoned the idea of following a strict itinerary or chronology, retracing the events depicted in the book, in favour of maintaining a steady intake of mescal and immersing myself in this peculiarly Mexican festivity, about which I knew practically nothing.  The mescal was meant to keep me close to the spirit of the book, whereas ignoring the actual events and timeline of its narrative seemed to me a reasonable surrender to both the spirit of the place and this most unusual “day” which was about to swallow me up.  I felt this method could possibly guide me more meaningfully towards the centre of the book than if I just walked where the Consul walked and saw what he saw.  Drinking what he drank and then wandering more or less blindly would have to suffice.  With luck, I wouldn’t end up like he did at the end of his Day of the Dead, in 1938.

To begin with, the Day of the Dead is not just a single day, which threw my plans a little.  The contrast with the average North American holiday, in which everyone acts cute for a day and then goes back to work, couldn’t be greater.  The Day of the Dead is far more beautiful and primal and complex than any comparable group experience I’ve ever seen.  To begin with, its significance has not been tarted up for the purpose of selling greeting cards or goosing the economy (cf. Christmas).  Its continued existence remains an expression of the feeling of a people, rather than a duty imposed from above.  It can last for a week depending on where you are in Mexico, culminating over the first two days of November.  Its penultimate day coincides with All Souls’ Day, a Catholic celebration, but its origins lie in an Aztec festival which once took place during summer.  What we have now in Mexico is decidedly a mix of pagan and orthodox, with some unusual additions, such as the appearance of a woman named Catrina, a sunhat and gown-wearing skeleton lady who looks like she’s either throwing or attending a garden party.  Also unique is the laying out of ofrendas, or offerings, in which a sort of altar-like arrangement of mementos is placed in a spot significant to the departed, sometimes including a replica of the person represented by an empty suit of their clothes, or perhaps a significant object, along with a photo, some bread, candles, marigolds and incense.  If the person played music, for example, there might be a guitar.  I saw an ofrenda at the Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca for Malcolm Lowry, which featured a couple of bottles of mescal on either side of his photograph, one of which was called Mezcal del Consul.

During the week leading up to the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, there were many ofrendas on display, often in public institutions, such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where a large mirror-ball skull sat in the middle of the lobby.  I had forgotten that Damien Hirst took the idea for his jewel-encrusted skull from a trip he made to Mexico.  At the magnificent post office on Tacuba, glass-topped coffins displayed the preserved corpses of children who had been dead for decades.  The fact that this wasn’t immediately creepy or shocking in this context is testament to the festival’s power and authenticity.  All over Mexico City, however, I was seeing it mixed with a decidedly Halloween-ish vibe, an indication that the cosmopolitan dwellers of upscale neighbourhoods like Condesa had less time for the serious nature of the Day of the Dead.  I would not discover how much more serious it could be until I spent the day at the La Leona cemetery in Cuernavaca many days later.  Until then, the Day of the Dead had an air of kitsch about it, with its sugar skulls and funny little displays of skeletons wearing suits or smoking cigarettes.

As interesting as the buildup to the Day of the Dead was, I got the impression that in order to get a fuller experience of it, I would have to head to a small town to really take its measure.  I was lucky to discover, after a full day of observing events and displays at the Zócalo and Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca, that I was near enough to a town called Ocotepec, about 40 minutes to the northeast of Cuernavaca, which was renowned for taking the Day of the Dead very seriously indeed.  So I made my way there just before sundown, at which time the entire town appeared to pour into the main street and all the quiet little residential streets leading to the doors of people’s homes.  Households that have lost a loved one during the previous year have constructed a homemade archway in front of their door, declaring over the top, “Welcome home, X,” the X standing for the name of the loved one.  For example, “Bienvenida a tu casa, Mamá,” or “Jonathan” or whoever.  On the ground leading up to these archways is a pathway of orange marigolds, which provide the vivid and ubiquitous colour for this festivity.  This bright orange pathway, lit by candles, is there to guide the loved one’s soul to the front entrance of their former home for one more evening among friends.  And the friends are already there taking their turn offering either bread or candles in exchange for a tamale or perhaps a drink, with many more people lined up out front of the house and into the street.

Ocotepec’s Day of the Dead was a lively mix of children running around, dogs barking at fireworks exploding in the air, and the agreeable throng milling around the main street or sitting in the church courtyard watching projections of home movies featuring recently deceased family members on a screen in the open air.  I ended up leaving at around midnight.  Many of the residents of the town would stay out all night, until the next morning when the next and final phase of the Day of the Dead would kick into gear: the visiting of cemeteries, for the purpose of a little housecleaning around the grave and in some cases a bit of light maintenance, like repainting, as well as socializing among family members, eating and entertaining.

As early as I could the morning after the night spent in Ocotepec, I headed to the Panteón La Leona, across a bridge from Cuernavaca’s Centro district.  In crossing the bridge, I looked down into a very wide and deep barranca, a verdant ravine full of ramshackle homes.  On the other side of the bridge, doorways in what otherwise looked like a normal building facade opened on to an array of staircases leading down to the ravine and what amounted to a second, almost underground city.  Kids played soccer in the courtyards at the top of those staircases, glimpsed by me through carelessly open doorways facing onto the street which, if they had been shut, in the same way that the swimming pools of the wealthy in Cuernavaca are hidden behind high walls, would have kept this world invisible to me.  Annual festivities at their best can produce a Brigadoon-like effect, revealing a place within a place or the wellspring of a town which surfaces temporarily and then disappears, returning the residents to their normal lives, only catching a glimpse of their real selves.  The graveyard would, the next day, be silent again.

In the morning of the homestretch, everyone arrives at the cemetery for a riotous celebration, mostly joy shot through with the occasional expression of sadness and adorned with the omnipresent blazing orange marigolds and smell of incense, the smoke of which was everywhere.  What struck me most about spending the day at La Leona was how joyful it all was.  Everyone together in a cemetery, playing music, eating, children running around.  People did not even seem to resent the gringo observer snapping photos during what were probably private moments, but in fact appeared to be quite welcoming and mutually curious.  The power of the Day of the Dead lies in the fact that it’s taken seriously, but not solemnly.  Albert Camus noted (literally, in a footnote to his essay “Love of Life” about travelling in Spain), “There is a certain freedom of enjoyment that defines true civilization.  The Spanish are among the few peoples in Europe who are civilized.”  I would not suggest that the Mexican attitude towards death is more grown-up or enlightened than ours.  But I would say that the freedom of enjoyment extends in all directions, encompassing all of life and death.

The default attitude to death in North America is to simply not refer to it at all, for fear of appearing morbid.  Funerals are occasions for intense grief and nothing else.  And yet death is never a terminal condition, and never unburdened by transitional metaphors.  Our dead pass on, they check out, they’re in a better place, etc.  Thornton Wilder was once asked by Montgomery Clift, “Is there a God?”  Wilder responded thoughtfully to the young man, via a letter which Clift treasured:  “There is a bridge between life and death which you can call ‘God’ and the only thing we know is that that bridge is traversed by our love of those who die and go on to another world.  As long as we remember them, and as long as we love them, they’re alive.”*  These are two major artists, and Wilder’s attempt to make a harsh reality palatable to the young Clift and satisfy his yearning for something greater than the mere here and now has the appearance of a parent soothing a frightened child.

The Day of the Dead in Mexico has a phantasmagorical quality about it, almost a cartoonish aspect at times.  But one thing you cannot say about it is that the average person, not even the average child, is trying to look away from or soften the categorical nature of death.  There is no confusion that the people who are being celebrated, specifically loved ones that have died during the past year but more generally all of the dead, are living somewhere else or making some kind of journey.  They are dead, almost as gone now as during the eternity before their birth.  The ability to accept the definitive nature of death, to look it in the face, acknowledge its inevitability for each of us, and moreover to use the occasion to declare a solidarity between the living and the dead, is part of the remarkably expansive character of a culture that is secure in its own temporality.

Trudging home after the hours spent at La Leona, I eagerly wanted to eat and then sleep, possibly forever.  I walked past several taquerias and cantinas, trusting that the right place would present itself to me.  A pozoleria whose fluorescent bulbs cast a green light across its front finally beckoned to me.  A pozole is essentially a corn soup, using the same part of the corn that Southerners refer to as hominy.  The proprietor of the place was a man called Rafaelo, who asked me in English if the soup was to my liking.  It was delicious.  After a long conversation on a wide range of subjects, during which the sun slowly set, I asked Rafaelo how he came to speak English so well.  “Celine Dion,” he replied.  He had spent years listening to and transcribing her lyrics, learning an entire language mainly through her songs.  I will not hear or see this woman again without thinking of Rafaelo, diligently learning the English language by this arduous method.

An explosive noise boomed from the road, and startled me.  Rafaelo knew what was going on and we wandered on to the balcony to watch a convoy of loud motorcycles accompanying a convertible car in which were seated a man and woman who waved to children and bystanders on the side of the road.  She was wearing devil horns and they had clearly been nominated the “king and queen” of this tail end of the Day of the Dead.  “They’re going to a party,” Rafaelo said.  He shook his head as if to regret that he couldn’t go with them.  As eager as I was to sleep after these intense days, I paid my respects to Rafaelo, wandered off, and wanted nothing more than to go to that party, too.

*Quoted from a DVD extra for the film I Confess.

Photo gallery of Cuernavaca: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bachelormachine/sets/72157629238263123/

Photo gallery of Ocotepec: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bachelormachine/sets/72157629149533774/

Drinks Tourism: Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum

Opened in December 2010, Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum is based in Plaza Garibaldi, a large public square with something of a reputation for fun, being the headquarters for Mexico City’s mariachis and generally a hangout for dancers, loiterers, stray dogs and other sorts of night-time denizens of this colourful neighbourhood.  A friend of mine who knew it before the construction of the museum describes an incident that occurred in the midst of a large crowd of people dancing at night during which, for whatever reason, a knife was drawn.  He describes the crowd splitting like a school of fish sensing danger, instantly creating an empty space around the threat where a moment earlier existed a multitude.

The building itself is essentially a frosted glass cube decorated with silhouettes of the distinctive maguey plant.  The admission and gift shop are on the ground floor, with the main exhibit on the second.  Among other things, the museum displays pages from the official diary of the 30th session of the World Heritage Committee’s meeting, held in Vilnius on August 23, 2006, which secured the tequila producing region’s place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, granting it the same cultural privileges enjoyed by Gros Morne National Park, the banks of the Seine, and the Great Wall of China.  While the museum itself is disappointingly small, the exhibit is basically complete, explicating the stages of harvesting the maguey plant and its processing into either tequila or mezcal.  The exhibit makes an important distinction: that the distillation process was introduced to Mexico by Spaniards, overshadowing pulque, the predominant beverage produced before the Spanish arrival, which to my shame I had never tasted or much thought about before my arrival in Mexico City, obsessed as I was (as a result of my worship of the novel Under The Volcano) with mezcal.  Grant Cogswell, owner of the Under the Volcano bookstore in Colonia Roma, insisted to me that tequila and mezcal are “less serious beverages” compared to pulque.

Pulque was, indeed, serious as a heart attack, given that its primary role in Aztec culture was as the facilitator of ritual sacrifice, equally taking the edge off the extremely unpleasant acts engaged in by both killer priests and victims offered up to please the gods.  The Aztec goddess Mayahuel, closely associated with the maguey plant, and also incidentally regarded as the giver of life, was regarded as an endless supply of mexcalli, aguamiel (honey water) and pulque.  Really, what these colonial processes of distillation amount to is the cooking of the maguey heart, either steam-cooked or earth-roasted.  Tequila is made using only the blue variety of the maguey.  Mezcal takes its name from the nahuatl word for “cooked maguey”, or mexcalli.  Archaeologists know from finding maguey fibres around Mesoamerican settlements and in period feces that the plant is intimately affiliated with the goings on of the earliest human settlements in this part of the world, which corroborates the unsurprising fact that humans will ferment any substance at all other than rocks and drink the result.

The trick in harvesting maguey plants for tequila or mezcal production is to get the mature plant immediately before its flower stalk (quiote) blooms, so that the fuel that would have been used to produce flowers becomes the source of mezcal.  Jimadores, workers who harvest the plant, can also spot when the heart of the plant (cogollo) is thinning.  The stalks are cut with a machete, exposing the stem, which is then cut either with a machete or chainsaw.  The plant is taken out of the ground, the remaining stems removed, exposing the heart of the maguey, the piña.  This maguey can be left to sit for a couple of years, thus concentrating its sugars.

Cooking the agave hearts breaks down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, allowing for fermentation.  Cooking techniques vary by region and era.  During the Industrial Revolution, tequila making involved steaming the hearts in brick kilns.  The only difference between then and now is that the agave can be steam-cooked in a mere 12 hours in gas-heated stainless steel autoclaves.  As pure tasting a result as this produces for tequila, the characteristic smokiness of mezcal would be lost without the traditional method of cooking over several days in hermetically sealed, cone-shaped earth pits for ovens.  Agave hearts are placed on heated stones, covered with palm leaves, straw mats (or simply grass or canvas).  Then the pulp must be separated from the fermenting juices and sugars.  This can be done industrially or by stone, axe, mallet, or whatever means can be employed to grind the cooked maguey.

On the third floor of the museum is a lovely open-air bar, where with your ticket you can claim a free sampler of both tequila and mezcal and chat up the staff about product.  On the ground floor, the gift shop sells an extensive array of both tequila and mezcal, from well-marketed high-end brands like Los Danzantes and Patrón, to much more obscure, less expensive and equally high-quality marks.  The gift shop employee I quizzed not only spoke excellent English, but also had some highly specific opinions about her wares.  I believe that she steered me right in the end, the heartbreaker being that you have to make a choice at all, owing to draconian laws for “importing” alcohol depending on your home country.  Canada allows something punitive, slightly more than a litre of spirits.  This really must change.  Write your MP.

I couldn’t resist two days later further burdening my luggage buying a true mom-and-pop make of both mezcal and tequila at the Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca on the Day of the Dead.  More on that to come.



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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965