La Paz
La Paz
La Paz
La Paz, BCS

La Paz, BCS

La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, in Mexico, was rainy on March 1st when we arrived. We have come here for six weeks to see our friends and wait out the winter in Pittsburgh. Last year at roughly this same time we were here for a month, but on that trip, without exception, every day was sunny. Fortunately, the next day the weather was back to normal, about 50 degrees at night and about 80 during the day. This is what I call semi-desert; it’s dry, and if you’re in the sun, it’s warm, no matter what the ambient temperature and, if you’re in the shade, it’s cool. A city of about 130,000 people, La Paz is in southern Baja (Baja Sur), roughly the lower half of the long north-south peninsula that projects down from what is now California—which used to be Mexico’s you know.  It lies about 100 miles north of Cabo, a tourist area at the southernmost tip of Baja. There are some tourists here but not too many, and there are not the typical tourist attractions, although one may embark on whale watching trips from here and there are a number of rather nice playas (beaches) in the area. There are hotels, but they are modest and not especially oriented towards tourists.

Outside the city the countryside is hilly and dry, sandy-dirty. Dry grass, cactus and scrub trees and bushes predominate. The roads are narrow macadam with nearly non-existent shoulders—dangerous when a bus is hurtling at you about 80kph. Inside the city, the streets—most of them anyway—are paved and they have wide sidewalks of tile, or concrete made to look like tile by striking fake joints into the wet concrete when it is placed. The sidewalks  are often painted, or colored while the concrete is wet—maybe a dull red, or a deep green. In the morning you may see a householder out sweeping the sidewalk, or casually watering a bush or a tree. Little grows here without water, and with water nearly anything will grow.

The drivers are extraordinarily polite here and don’t play the get-the-pedestrian game, but the stoplights are few and the stop signs are the suggestive kind—slow down but stop only if you have to. The cars are somewhat older than in the States but not by much, and they aren’t the small Asian cars typical of South and Central America. They are typically older American cars—Chevys and Fords—but well kept up and incessantly washed. Because this is an agricultural area, one also sees pickup trucks and, more recently, large 4x4s.

The walls of the houses, or perhaps just a wrought iron fence or a pretty wall of stucco, are right next to the sidewalk; there are no front yards, no grass. Behind these walls are the homes, side-by-each, generally without space between them. Often you will see a wrought iron gate leading to a small semi-enclosed patio. Behind that, and thus very private, will be the house proper.  A narrow walk may lead from the sidewalk to a terrace of colorful tile at the rear of the house, similarly outfitted with small trees and lush plants. The colors will usually be white, but every once in a while a bright primary color will accent the eaves, or a doorway. Flowering plants in large vases, small trees, many of them flowering, and vines, and many cacti are everywhere. Walking along the sidewalk, shamelessly looking in where one is able, one sees complex shaded spaces with bright colors mixed with greenery here and there. One will often see low, orange, tile roofs—most every house is one story here—occasionally a roof of corrugated iron or of corrugated asbestos. Most of these houses are small, but rather open behind their walls and fences, and so with the outdoors seamlessly blended into the indoors, they seem quite spacious. They are altogether pleasant, at least now in the winter when it’s not—as it is in the summer here—120 degrees in the shade.

 

La Paz marches downhill to a bay of the Sea of Cortez, the strip of ocean that separates Baja Mexico from the Mexican mainland. Along the waterfront is a street called the Maleçon which, somehow, in some language (French?) means the promenade next to the water. On the bay side of this street are a few restaurants and a sandy beach with swing sets and other children-exercisers. Some of the restaurants are in relatively open palapas, thatched roofs on poles. On the land side of the Maleçon are shops, a few hotels and a number of restaurants. At the far northern end of the Maleçon is the marina, where fishing boats and yachts moor. La Paz is a major boat outfitting place—sort of the last port of call for boats making for the South Pacific.

The sea of Cortez is sometimes referred to as a fish trap because of its configuration, long (1000 miles or so) and narrow—only a few hundred miles, perhaps less. In an airplane you can see both shores on a clear day. So the markets here have all kinds of very fresh fish and other seafood you probably couldn’t name and probably wouldn’t eat if you knew what it was—although who knows, nowadays people eat all kinds of raw seafood. A century or two ago the mouth of the Sea of Cortez was an infamous pirate hangout.

 

 

Our Apartment

From the sidewalk all you see is a wrought iron gate in a stucco wall. When you enter you pass along a walkway into a central courtyard. Except from above, you are completely surrounded by high walls painted white. Toward the back of the courtyard is a two-story building with a flat concrete roof. Our apartment, the same one that we had last year, is the one on the bottom. On the side of the courtyard near the street is a larger apartment that we all call “the house”. It is stucco with a sloping corrugated roof. The courtyard separates these two white stucco structures, and the three units are all owned by the same man, a man from Oregon. We found the apartment on the internet. Around the courtyard are concrete walks and brick planters with all kinds of pretty plants. In the center, where you might think there would be a little lawn, is sand—not, I think, for play, but so as not to have to water the grass. Several trees grow from the sand, including a small papaya tree, just planted because the large banana tree that was there last year had to be cut down. This year therefore we can see the roof of the house next door peeping up over the white, stucco wall that is covered with flowering vines, bougainvillea and other colorful plants.

From the courtyard you can walk into our apartment without even going up a step. The concrete floor of the apartment is just an extension of the courtyard. The apartment is very modest. If it weren’t in this setting it might be considered merely a cabin as it is quite small. You walk directly into the large room, a living room-kitchen combination. There are two bedrooms off to the right side. One of them has a (the) bathroom attached. The floor throughout is of concrete marked in a tile pattern. The furniture is cheap and uncomfortable, somebody’s idea of Mexican country furniture. The kitchen is nominally separated from the living room by a crude wooden table. On the corner of the table is a five liter bottled-water dispenser.

Each day three different bottled water vendors go around the streets in a truck. Each one has a distinctive song about agua coming out of a loudspeaker. If you flag him down, or leave your old empty on the sidewalk, you can get a fresh bottle of pure water. The “kitchen” has an old stone sink and a few cheap knotty pine cupboards. A small stove that you have to light with matches is next to the sink and a refrigerator is next to that. Simple. The whole apartment is about 20 x 30.

 

The water system in La Paz is poor. We were told that the water is safe to drink, but even most Mexicans prefer bottled water. But the bigger problem is that there is nearly no water pressure. We were told that the pipes couldn’t handle it if there was pressure, and so a plastic vessel called a tanaka is installed on every roof. Water from the city at very low pressure dribbles slowly into it all day and night until it is full, then water for cooking or showering or washing clothes is taken from there by gravity. It is a very slow stream.

 

Tacos de Pescado

In La Paz, tacos aren’t much like “American” tacos. The most common variety here is the taco de pescado, a fish taco, and this is a broad category: one may order fish, squid, manta ray and shrimp tacos, and even others with names I can’t translate. Typically the seafood is battered and fried before going on the tortilla. This is, roughly, in other words, a fish sandwich.

One will also find tacos de carne asado, which roughly translates as a grilled beef taco. They are made with small pieces of steak that have been cooked on a grill, and they are served on a tortilla—always a soft tortilla. You can have a maize o harina (corn or wheat flour) tortilla. You can have some shredded cabbage on it if you want, and numerous condiments—not all hot, you have to get to know which is which—will be on the table for you to add before you roll it up and eat it. So these are very simple, non-messy numbers, just small pieces of fish or meat on a tortilla—no cheese, no beans, no lettuce, no ground beef in a tomato-based sauce as at home.

Every few blocks there are small wooden stands that sell these tacos and a few other things like pop and candy. But the strange thing is that these stands are generally only open for breakfast, if that is what you call it; they close up just after noon.

I was told by one snowbird who lives here that eating at these stands is like playing Russian roulette with your digestive system, but I did it anyway because I couldn’t resist them, and I didn’t have any trouble. Perhaps it was not my time. Who knows? At the stand that I went to, the specialty was pork tacos, though I didn’t know it when I ordered them; my Spanish is rudimentary. In this stand they serve tacos de carne (tacos with meat) and the nature of the meat was not specified. There were several Mexicans already eating at this stand when I went up to it. They all looked happy munching on these little folded up delicacies so I wanted to try them. No one spoke English, but when it comes to food my Espanol is not that bad so I try, “Dos tacos de carne, porfavor—harina—y un coca cola.” He knew what I wanted and began to cut up pieces of meat from what I guess now was a pork shoulder. It had already been cooked; these stands are just serving places; there are no burners or ovens in them. He put two flour tortillas on a paper plate, placed the meat on them and handed them across the counter to me. Then I had to lean over a bunch of people and try to put on some sauces on the tacos. There was a red sauce that looked hot, and a green one. I tried one and one, and I added some diced onion that was in a bowl on the counter. Then I found an empty white plastic chair among those that had been placed on the sidewalk for customers and sat down with my plate of tacos in my lap. The coke was delivered to me by a guy whose job seemed to be just that. My lunch was very good.

 

Emilio Salazar - 21 de Septiembre

Who Emilio Salazar was is not clear, nor is what happened on 21 de Septiembre. Yet here in La Paz they have intersected in the form of streets. The Latins have a grand sense of style and dignity. This shows, not least, in how streets are named. I have yet to see a 21st Street, or 2nd Avenue here. To a Latin this would be a wasted opportunity. Why name a street after a number that, after all, has no constituency whatsoever. Heroes de la 47, Dr. Estaban Suarez, Revolucion de 1910, Avenida de Alvear—this is how streets are named here.

This spasm of respect for the past is so pervasive, and the names occasionally so long, that the government, as in so many other cases, has been forced to seek assistance from the private sector. Therefore you will come up to an intersection and be a little taken aback to be presented with the street sign:


Hotel de Magisterio

Avenida Col. Hermano Vasquez

This does not mean that the colonel is a guest of the hotel; it means that the hotel is the sponsor of the sign; the Colonel is the avenue.

Now we have streets with peoples names on them too, back home. I can think of Diehl Road, for example, in Naperville. But it was named Diehl Road because that’s the road that, if you took it, got you to Diehl’s farm. I doubt Diehl did anything in his whole lifetime that would get a road named after him down here.

 

 

On Charm and Architecture

Similar to the stop signs at street corners, building codes here seem more suggestive than mandatory. The sidewalks will take unexpected ups and downs, surprising you at night when you’re used to sidewalks being flat. Wall air conditioners jut out into the sidewalk supported in metal enclosures—so they don’t get stolen—that protrude into the sidewalk right at eyebrow level. Even in the daytime you have to watch what you’re doing.  In the same unstructured way, stores, cafes and shops are all jumbled up with houses, the bus station and hotels. There is no evidence of a planning commission here, or maybe they’re just suggestive too. The Mexicans seem more relaxed than northern North Americans—even more relaxed than other Latins, and this is part of their charm. There is not the typical Spanish officiousness here that there is in the South American countries that we have traveled through. No rubber stamps, not even receipts. Just get along. I have no theory whatever as to why this should be so; but it is.

 

One of the things I like about South Side, where we live when we are in Pittsburgh, is this similar mixing up of things. In South Side it is stores, churches, bars, offices and a few factories all mixed up together. And there, as in La Paz, these different buildings are often right next to each other without lawns or open spaces. Similarly, a small “yard” tends to be hidden in the back; you get to them through a private little walkway. In both South Side and La Paz, you can walk easily to most anything you want, and the walk itself is pleasant. You can say hello or buenos dias to people you meet. You can window shop. In most places in the States this hodgepodge could no longer be built. La Paz and South Side are lucky leftovers from before today’s building codes and planning boards, which neatly force different functions into the different areas assigned to them.  This has the effect of making cars absolutely necessary, as a drugstore, for instance, cannot be built in an area designated for homes—where the  users of these drugs live.  Florence, New Orleans or Prague, or other old cities that tourists flock to today, could no longer be built today in the fashion that, quirkily, is the very one that draws people to them. It is a strange world that we are constructing today.

The curious thing to me is the hubris with which “planners” mandate a style, only to have follow-on planners mandate the opposite style. It might be better to just let people build where and what they want like they did in the bad old days when you never knew what might be built next to you. I suppose if you just had built a fancy $500,000 house you might not want an auto repair shop next to your bedroom window. But you could have built a $400,000 house and bought $100,000 worth of land around you.

Continuing my little rant, I once had to do a few days work near Phoenix.  I flew out and took a coach to a hotel that was supposed to be near where I would be working. Since I wasn’t planning to stay long I thought I wouldn’t rent a car. That was a mistake. You can’t reasonably walk to anything in Phoenix, even a restaurant. Everything is spread out. Huge malls are interconnected by eight lane highways that are not meant for pedestrians to cross. In fact in some areas they’ve given up entirely on sidewalks; if you want to walk you have to walk in the street, and people look at you strangely, as though you might be homeless, when really you are simply carless. There are no taxis either, unless you call one on the phone and wait half an hour for it to come for you. Then if you do take a taxi to a restaurant, what do you do when you’ve finished dinner? You have to have the restaurant call another cab for you. And the staff thinks it amusing that this well-dressed man can’t seem to afford wheels.  Oh, maybe he’s from back east.

In some cities, especially on the US west coast—take Seattle as an example—public policy is beginning to shift back toward dense occupancy, discouraging sprawling suburbs, and residential and strip mall development of open farmland. The aim is to cut down on the use of cars, smog and commute time, putting people back closer to where they work and preserving nature whole outside of the cities. Now I like that kind of life, but I can understand the desire of people that were raised in a crowded city to have a place out in the country, or the just in the suburbs if you can’t get to the country, the desire to put a little space between them and their neighbors, to have a barbecue in the back yard, and more control over their school district, etc. If you don’t have to work in the city, that makes it even better. You hop in your car, drive a few miles to your office park, park free in the lot and then home again. Your kids take a bus to school.

Each life style has its charm. I suppose that in our now-rich world we will live in cities until we have kids, then move to the suburbs, then, when the kid’s are raised, it’ll be back to the city. For the really fortunate it can be a very southern city. La Paz would be on my list.

 

Saturday Night At the Movies

At 7:30 almost every Saturday evening here in La Paz we go to the movies. The movies are video tapes;  the theatre is the home of a couple we got to know.

Jorge and Marjory’s house is only a few blocks from our apartment, in the same block as “Aramburos”, the Mercado where we buy most of our groceries and meat. When we see them outside their home—at the beach, at a restaurant, or somewhere else—they are both likely to have hats on their heads. He has many hats but his favorite seems to be a beret. Her hats all tend toward the Little Bo Peep type. He is 86, she considerably younger. Their house of course, like most here, is contiguous with their neighbors’ on both sides. Marjory told us it had been an office when they bought it in the mid eighties after they decided to winter in La Paz permanently. It has only one floor but it has a pretty large floor plan. There are a lot of paintings on the walls, many of them his; he has a style all his own and sells many of his paintings. There are many sculptures and wood carvings here and there in the house. If you ask, most of them seem to have been done by their friends. Many of the US people that live or winter in La Paz are artistic.

At 7:30 people start arriving. As I said, this is a regular event. There is a large wooden table in the middle of the largest room. You might call it a dining room, except that they seem to use the room for any and every use, not merely dining.  Saturday evening, Marjory usually puts a platter of cookies or brownies, or of some other sweet thing on the table. Many of the guests bring something too—these tend to run toward fruits and nuts and juices and sweets. One lady always brings popcorn to the movies. Until 8:00, people stand around and chat, as though at a cocktail party. There are no cocktails at Saturday Night at the Movies though; these are mostly older people from the west coast of the US and they take more to juices and sweets than beer and vodka. Here I only temporarily match this profile.

At 8:00 Jorge gets impatient for the movie to start and calls for everyone to quit talking and move into the viewing room—a large but just an ordinary and nearly empty room, with a 32 inch TV set on a high stand in one corner so that everyone can see. There is one couch but no other heavy furniture. We sit in a lot of different kinds of chairs brought from all over the house and we compete for the ones with cushions. Normally 15 or 20 people come to Saturday Night at the Movies, but once there were nearly 30. This is the crossroads of La Pazian expats. Some live in La Paz all year round, a few even work here, but most just come in the winter. Some live on boats docked in one of the city’s two marinas, often semi-permanently. Nearly all have interesting and unusual stories to tell about how they first came to La Paz and what they did before they retired.

The movies are the kind I like to watch, not the blockbusters but the unusual, slightly off-beat movies, many in a foreign language with subtitles. Both Jorge and Marjory—and many of the guests, for that matter—seem to know a lot about movies, and sometimes they will say a few words about the movie ahead of the showing, or about the director, or the cinematographer.

When the movie has finished people don’t get up and leave the room right away; they watch the credits, then it’s back to the dining room, where now ice cream, with a piece of cake, or a brownie is usually served. More talk. But in 45 minutes nearly everyone has gone and Jorge is in bed.

Everyone enjoys Saturday Night at the Movies. 

 

Comida Typico (Home Cookin’)

Corn, peppers, beans, rice and flour, seasonings and spices—including chocolate: these are the ingredients of typical Mexican cooking. Take Sopa de Azteca. Fundamentally, this soup, of which you can occasionally find a neutered version in the States, is made with chicken broth containing cutup strips of corn tortilla, but in a seaside restaurant on the Maleçon, at a table overlooking the bay, I had a large bowl of Sopa de Azteca that was exquisite. In the warm broth that contained a hint of tomato were the tortilla strips of course, but in the bottom of the bowl I found a soft thick dark brown pepper, not especially hot. It was good to eat and it flavored the broth with that unique Mexican taste. Floating on the top were slices of aguacate (avocado) covered in a sour cream sauce. That was it. And it was great. 

Soup in Latin America is not thought of in the same way as soup is up north. First of all it is relatively expensive, costing as much as a small entrée. There is no “cup of soup” meant as a side dish for a sandwich or small entrée. Here, the bowls ane large, the broths rich, and you can tell that some time was spent making the soup. I have had good soup in restaurants at home as well, but that is the exception that highlights the rule. Most restaurant soup in the States is bad to terrible: thick gloppy “cream” soups, without an ounce of cream, or soups completely filled with solids, as though it was to be your last meal for two weeks Soups should be thin.

Here is a recipe for a beef-vegetable soup I have had in many Pittsburgh restaurants:

Take six cups of water. Add 8 beef bouillon cubes (6 would do but eight means you aren’t stinting on the quality). Heat until cubes are dissolved. This is beef soup, so cut up some of last evenings left over steak and drop it in.  This is beef-vegetable soup so throw in some frozen peas and carrots. Simmer for a minute or two to thaw the vegetables and to develop the flavor. Serves six.

 

 

Yesterday I went walking in La Paz at lunchtime—about one o’clock here. Inspecting menus posted on the street, and peering in at one restaurant after another, I tried to find a place that would have some real Mexican cooking. On Martin Bravo street I came across a homely place that I thought had possibilities.

The restaurant is little more than a bunch of plastic tables and chairs in the open, though they are covered by a large, sloping corrugated iron roof. Definitely not tourist material, so I think I’ll give it a try. Since all the tables and chairs carry the Coca Cola logo, I order a coke. The waiter gives me a menu but then—in Spanglish—points me to a hand-drawn card with the Comidas del Dia (meals of the day) listed on it, in Spanish of course. This is a comida compleata, which means it comes with soup, entrée and desert. I have my choice of six different entrées, that are read to me quickly in Spanish from his handwritten slip. I recognize nothing. Good. “Give me numero cinco (five),” I say as though I knew what it was.

The waiter returns to a small concrete-block house—apparently the kitchen. I sip my coke waiting for my soup course. When it comes, my restaurant feelers twitch: nothing like soup to define a restaurant’s quality. He explains that this is sopa crema de zannahoria (cream of carrot soup) which I can confirm by a casual glance. Oh well. Imagine my surprise when I find the soup is rich and delicious. Unlike any I’ve ever tasted—well not unlike, carrots are carrots, just different somehow. Maybe real cream, which is thick and rich here and definitely not for dieters.

There aren’t very many customers here. I sit and sip my Coca Cola, primed now for the Comida Typico. I sit. I sip. I sit. I sip. Nothing’s happening. My brain now automatically switches into speculation mode. Will the food be bad because they obviously don’t know what they’re doing, or will it be good because they obviously are taking plenty of time to prepare it? In a while it comes, with a small apology. “Sorry Senor,” a slight mix up in the kitchen. He puts a plate on the table in front of me and I check it out. There is rice. Good; I know what that is. There are beans, or rather there is a beanlike sauce with a half dozen more as less whole beans in it here and there. Then there is something that looks vaguely like old fashioned shredded beef barbeque, without the bun. I taste it. That’s a lot like what it tastes like, only a bit differently spiced. Completing this course are a few soft corn tortillas that one rolls up and eats like bread. I dig in. As I am finishing the main course the postre (desert) comes. A small cup of lime-green jello. Then he brings the check: 30 pesos ($3.10). Nice.

 

The Salmon People

This summer, at a very, very early hour, up in western Canada, a man we know called the fisheries department, or some such Canadian department, on the telephone, or perhaps the radio. Given the nod by them, so to speak, he then guided his fishing boat out into Vancouver Bay for three days of very chilly salmon fishing. In those three days he usually catches a lot of salmon.

He uses a large drift net that is let out and hauled in with a hydraulic winch. As the net is emptied, an employee beheads, guts, ices and stores the salmon in a hold. It’s hard work and very long hours. On shore the salmon are filleted and then the fillets are smoked in his smoke house. Finally, he has a long list of people that know his product and every year want to buy what have now become “lox”. He goes around and sells to them. All this has taken several months.

Allen, and Jill, his wife, now friends of ours after two successive winter vacations together in La Paz (last year they stayed in the “house” part of our complex) live in the summer on a float-home on a river in Canada near Vancouver. The fishing boat—which cost about C$200,000—is docked next to it. A one-time-charge for a commercial fishing license cost them about C$80,000 when they began the business. Then it has to be renewed each year. That costs about C$800. So it is an expensive business for only three days of fishing a year, when you may or may not catch anything. Last year he didn’t catch much and had to borrow nearly C$30,000 to buy salmon to smoke.

If they’ve had a good year, and usually they do, they fly to Hawaii for a month or two when it begins to get very cold in Vancouver. There, as in Baja, they go back to the same place every year that they can. After they return from Hawaii he may have more smoking and tinkering to do, but then, before it gets real cold they pack up their station wagon and drive down the west coast of the States and then down the rather desolate Baja peninsula to La Paz, a 2,800 mile trip, which they do in seven days. They stay here a couple months usually. He likes to play the guitar and to carve pieces of driftwood in his spare time, of which he has considerable here.  Then they drive back, stopping to visit friends along the way.

This is how one can live in cold, cold Canada.

 

El Mercado

Every town over a certain size in Latin America has a mercado, a central market where meat and fish and vegetables are sold. Some cities have more than one, but there’s usually one big one, the rest are runners up; it is El Mercado. These are sometimes very grand markets situated in a public structure where they’ve been for many years, maybe even a century or more.

In Santiago, Chile, El Mercado is housed in a structure about a block square, fabricated of ornate wrought iron, like an ancient European train shed that you might see in an old black and white film. The roof is very high and split, like a train shed, into two differently-sloped levels, perhaps for ventilation. It is supported on spidery trusses that are in turn supported by large, ornate, cast iron columns. It is very grand.

On the floor of the mercado there is intense activity with vendadores bringing in their stock on dollies, rolling in barrels of ice, arranging the produce in neat little pyramids, filleting fish and cutting meat, arranging flowers, and with people milling all around looking everything over. The mercado is a collection of independent vendors that rent or lease their space there, not an integrated store like a supermarket. Besides food, you can also buy goods like hand tooled belts and cowboy boots. funky sombreros and little statues of the Virgin Mary, and even lottery tickets. You can get your shoes shined. You will find little cafes sandwiched between the meat, fish and vegetable vendors where they serve comidas typico—the “home cooked” food of the country.

Here, in the Mercado, meat is meat; it’s closer to the hoof. You will see the butcher working from half a cow hung up on a hook, carving off huge chunks seemingly at random, but in compliance with some inner plan. You can watch him, like a human automaton, deftly take a surprisingly big and very sharp looking knife and, on a wooden block, slice a large piece of meat up into thin lomos (steaks), very rapidly, and very neatly, laying them in piles arranged for sale. Unnervingly, the cow’s head may be staring sorrowfully right at you from its place on the counter, where it is on sale too (about US$30). All the inside parts are here too: the liver, the brain, the heart and stuff you don’t recognize. At a separate “store” are sausage products, hams and other smoked meats. These more refined products are not mixed in with the carne. Tradition.

Between the carne shops will be ave (poultry) places. Pollos (chickens) in huge pyramids, plucked but with heads and feet still in place, are arranged by size. In the States you can find four pound chickens, whole or cut up, and sometimes six to eight pound roasting chickens, probably frozen. Period. Here you can find every size from very small to very large. In French cuisine there are many names for chicken. These names indicate their age, size and gender—and there are recipes to match each one: poulet, coq, poulet de gran. Here in El Mercado you can fulfill any of these requirements. There will be live chickens in cages, crowing at whim, sharply punctuating the almost overwhelming background din of the market. Of course there are large arrays of chicken legs, thighs and breasts; they are cutting these all day. These people have cut so many chickens that it seems to take about six quick strokes of the knife to do the whole job. They know what they are doing.

A large part of the market is given over to mariscos y pescado (shellfish and just plain fish). The biggest selection of fish that I have seen is in the Mercado Central, in Costa Rica. There you will see large fish of every description, stacked like cordwood in bins. They are sold whole or cut up into steaks. The heads and tails of these large fish are hacked into pieces for making caldo de pescado (fish broth). Smaller flat fish are arrayed in stacks of hundreds. You can buy them whole or have them filleted right there. It is interesting to watch them fillet a fish. As with the chicken vendors, these people have done this so many times it has become an art form. It is done in front of you with an inexplicably large knife. Cut the head off—one chop; grasp the fish by the tail on the counter; one stroke along the backbone toward where the head was, and, at the same time, down; fold back the fillet, skin side now down on the counter, and then cut forward, removing the flesh from the skin in one delicate motion. Don’t try this at home.

Next to the fish, or perhaps at a different seller altogether, will be the shellfish and what I’ll call variety fish: clams, oysters and crab, curlicues of octopus and schools of squid, long slender nasty-looking eels, prickly sea urchins and starfish. There is an amazing variety; one wonders what is done with all these animals, how they can be prepared.

Food here is sold in kilos, and you have to get used to converting. Multiply kilos by 2.2 and you have pounds; if you’re in Mexico then divide the pesos by ten to get dollars; presto, dollars per pound. And cheap at that.

Here and there, right between all the poultry, fish and meat, will be crowded counters with stools where, if you can get a seat, you can watch them bustling around dishing up sopa de pescado (fish soup), serving ceviches of many kinds, all seemingly well known to the locals, as well as small lunch plates of fish prepared in every possible style. At one of these I once tried—roughly translated on a hand-printed sign on the wall —“squid in his ink”, a cold soup with lots of cilantro and, of course, squid. It was dark and delicious.

Mixed in with all this activity are small wooden structures, houses within the grand house, oases in the melee. They contain crude wooden tables and benches, as at a picnic, where you can order from a menu and waiters bring the food to you, as in a restaurant, from a small open kitchen in the corner. Depending on the mercado— and what country you are in—you will probably come across stands that serve nothing but fresh fruit and vegetable juice, juiced on the spot, and combined in various concoctions, perhaps with a little crema blended into it if you like it richer, or azucar if you like it sweeter.

These markets were once the universal way to buy food. We had a market in Pittsburgh once that was similar to what I am describing, though it was smaller, and I used to like to go to it. It was called the Diamond market (was it once in the jewelry district?) Now gone. And you can see this trend here in Latin America too as supermercados spring up, where the meat is neatly sealed in sterile packages and refrigerated from start to finish. In the more modern cities like Santiago and Buenos Aires, the mercados are still there but are now becoming gentrified, places where tourists can come to still get a little taste of the past. Having been sick more than once from eating food that perhaps had not been properly refrigerated in markets, I appreciate the reliability of supermarkets. But there is no comparison in atmosphere.

 

 

ER en Espanol

A few days after we got to La Paz I came down with another cold. It seems every time I get on an airplane this happens. I may have to adopt the Japanese method of wearing a gauze mask, no matter how odd it looks. A week or so later the cold settles into my chest. Now I have bronchitis, big-time. It gets worse. I can hardly breath—and I don’t breath too well to start with. There’s no way around it; as much as I hate to, I have to get some treatment. I need an ER.

Fortunately, the Hospital Militar is a block and a half away from our apartment. This seems to be a small military installation that has a clinic for its own use and treats out-patients as a source of supplementary income. Very sensible. We are told they’ll also take gringos—odd to be a minority that has to ferret out and be aware of all the rules.

They won’t be speaking in English so Trish polishes up some Spanish ahead of time so that when we get there we can try to describe what it is that is the matter, what medicines I’m taking—many—and that maybe I have pneumonia and can you please take an x-ray. Off we go.

We find the right door. This is definitely not TV’s ER. It looks more like a grammar school circa 1940. We walk in. There is a nice looking man at the desk in a white military uniform complete with epaulets. Nurse? Doctor? Clerk? There are gurneys and curtained off areas, but it is a pretty pedestrian room with that old “hospital” feel: very spare, terrazzo floors, painted, no nonsense, institutional walls with a few high windows. I slump down in a straight backed chair, breathing hard from the slow block and a half walk while Trish goes to talk with the man at the desk. There are a few other patients about, but they are being helped by other people. While Trish talks to him in Spanish, pointing occasionally at me, he glances over, trying to get a handle on what the trouble is. Then, before she finishes, he gets up, comes over to me and with a little Spanish thrown in, points me to one of the curtained areas. There’s a hospital bed in there. He has me sit on its side and fits a small breathing cup to an oxygen fitting in the wall at the head of the bed. He motions to me to breath in and get my breath while he finishes speaking with Trish. We haven’t yet filled out a piece of paper or talked about payment—he doesn’t even know my name.

After five minutes he brings another man over to me. Doctor? He’s in a lab coat. That, I think, is better than a uniform. The new guy talks to Trish. I try to understand what’s being said, try to get my two cents in too in Spanglish. He checks my chest with a stethoscope then writes on a piece of paper that he hands to the first guy, who has been attending the exam too. He smiles at me assuringly and leaves. He has said that I don’t have pneumonia but that they will take an x-ray to be sure.

The first man, in uniform takes me to another curtained area where he, without a smile, says, “bombe” and pats his rump. I’m to get a shot.

Five minutes later, with prescriptions in hand, fifteen minutes from arrival, we’re trying to find out how to pay. Oh, the second guy says, “dos cien”, two hundred pesos, twenty bucks. No, I didn’t get an x-ray; the machine is broken now. But I’m happy.

The shot and pill—or just nature taking its course—worked fine in a couple days.

The Whole Loaf

There is no good bread in Mexico, and practically no good bread in Latin America. This overstates my case only slightly. Pan Bimbothink Wonder bread—is largely it. Last year we found a Frenchman and his Mexican wife here, and only a couple blocks away, that baked pretty good bread and sweet rolls. He did the baking and she did the selling out of a little store that was really just a part of their home, a pleasant place that overlooks the sea. Mornings she would take their baked goods down to the harbor and sell it to the “yachties”, the gringos living on their boats at the marina. This year we found that they have moved their entire base of operations to the Marina and so we are out of luck unless we are willing to take a cab.

So I bake bread. I’ve learned to make a good French bread loaf using just flour, water, salt and yeast. I raise it three times—putting it out in a covered bowl in the sun on the top of our wall to rise, hoping the cats don’t get nosy. I then bake it in a small frying pan that has an all-metal metal handle so that I can safely put it in the oven. The oven is the tricky part because there is no temperature control—well actually there is a knob that you can turn, but who knows what the temperature is; it isn’t even marked. But I have it down pretty well.

Baking bread is like anything else; if you do it a few times, so that you get the hang of it and don’t have to look up every little thing in a cookbook, it’s not that difficult. I just mix it all up in a bowl with a big spoon as I add the yeasty water to the flour and salt and, when it gets to where it will almost hold together I dump it out on the old wooden table in our apartment and knead it. If you get the amount of water just right, so that the dough isn’t too hard or too soft, it is fun and easy to knead. I knead it fifty times and then let it—and me—rest five minutes, and then give it another fifty. By this time it is nice and smooth and elastic. But the whole process, with all the raisings, takes a very long time.

 

 

Bopping for Bars in Baja

Not only is there no good bread in Mexico, there are no good bars. Actually there are bars, they’re just very few and far between. Why is this when they are so plentiful up north? Part of the reason is that beer and liquor are sold virtually everywhere in Latin America, and maybe bars are more expensive. The smallest café’s will serve cerveza (beer), the smallest bodega or market will have beer and wine and maybe some booze.  The idea of going to a place just to drink seems not to have occurred to the Latin mind. Maybe they’re so relaxed to start with that they don’t need much lubrication.

The stereotype of a drunken Mexican with his burro and his bottle of tequila is, as far as I can tell, a myth. I have yet to see anyone visibly drunk or even feeling good down here. That includes me. Of course I go to bed at 9:00 o’clock now and that may have something to do with it.

As an old bar person—semi-retired—I can testify that there is something nice and comforting about a bar, especially in a city in which you are unacquainted. In a café, everyone sits at their own table; the party is private. At a bar you are on an equal footing with everybody else at the bar. You can talk to people if you want, but you don’t have to; you could just sit there and see what goes down. Plus, if you want to talk, there is always the bartender who, after all, isn’t going anywhere.

If you can find a bar here you can try out your Spanish, learn the dirty words that aren’t in your lesson plan. A bar is non-denominational. You can be as screwy as you like—or as you are—and nobody will seem to notice until your drink is finished, then the bartender will. That bar stool is yours as long as you keep the money coming. That’s what’s nice about capitalismo.

 

 

The Next Door Neighbors

I have reread what I have written so far about La Paz and I think I have made it seem fancier than it is. All the parts I mentioned about the architecture, the streets, etc. are true. But they were selective. I wrote about what I liked. This will give you a little balance.

As you face our place from the street, Revolucion de 1910, there are neighbors to the right and left. On the left there is what seems to be a wooden shack. It’s not falling down, but it’s still a shack; it’s made out of old and weather-beaten, wide, wooden boards, running vertically. No paint. No windows. In the daytime, when it’s warm, a large door, made out of the same boards, and when closed indistinguishable from the siding, is opened. Then, when I walk past down the sidewalk I can see in. The concrete floor of the living room is merely an extension of the sidewalk, and at the same level. I try not to let my curiosity be too obvious as I walk past, but I look in anyway. Two nicely dressed women—dressed nicer than gringos anyway, who tend toward shorts, funny hats and running shoes—watch a large colored television set that, I have time to notice, has an excellent picture. One woman might be ironing. The house is much nicer than one would expect looking at the outside.

To the right of our “complex,” there is a large and spooky-seeming house with a big yard; and a yard is unusual here. I have never seen anyone go in or come out of this house, but one can tell that it is not unoccupied. On each side of the house’s front door there are large palm trees. Placed in the big diagonal cracks that mature palm trees have on their trunks are a number of bones. I’m pretty sure they are not people’s bones, but they are large. In the dirt at the foot of the tree—there is no grass in the yard, just dirt as is normal here—is the bleached skull of a cow that, now that I think of it, probably is the source of the other bones stuck in the palm trees.  Old Dolly couldn’t bear to leave home.

As I said, the yard is large—wide and deep. It is full of well-kept tropical trees and bushes. There are bee hives here and there in the back, and large cages for birds—sans birds. They might have been for chickens but this is a pretty exotic habitation, and I’m thinking exotic birds. The dirt of the “yard” is swept with a house broom occasionally and usually shows the marks, testifying to good yard-keeping. There are two large dogs in the yard—there are dogs in every yard here, and that is another story. These dogs are quite different though; in some strange way they complement the house, the bones and the other mysterious artifacts placed here and there; they look supernatural. They are both pure and very light gray, with very short, smooth hair, and with strange looking red eyes, as though the line had been inbred too long. All in all the place is spooky. Though, as I wrote before, I have never seen anyone come or go from the house, but the dogs are always there. It is a place one would not enter casually.

 

 

Howling in La Paz

You are correct if you sensed that there are a lot of dogs in La Paz. Every house with a parking area has a dog. Every yard has a dog, usually a big one. I estimate that there are fifteen dogs in each block. They are, on the whole, big dogs, big dogs that seem mean. Sometimes a big dog that seems mean will really be a friendly dog if you get to know him, but I never had the courage to find out in any specific case. This thing for dogs is something about petty theft, which we are informed is “rampant” here, though we have never seen any signs of it. These are working dogs.

But there are even a lot of non-working dogs around, retired, or just homeless. The most surly looking cur is treated with respect here. I saw an old dog go into a busy intersection and lay down; he was tired, or just taking the sun and the asphalt felt nice and warm on that cool morning. No one disturbed this dog. The cars went around him—or her—as nice as you please. A dog lying on a sidewalk in the city is sure to be petted, no matter how tough it looks. They love animals here.

One morning at two o’clock, when we are asleep, an ambulance or police truck goes by several blocks away, its siren blaring. Now we’re awake. This is unusual here. In a wide path all along the emergency vehicle’s route, the dogs wake up too, and begin howling—like wolves. These dogs are not smart, they no doubt think the ambulance is howling at the moon and feel enough solidarity with it to help.

The howling spreads in a wave now, all over the city, as the dogs in one block excite the dogs in the next. Soon enough, like the wake of a speed boat, the sound waves following the vehicle roll over the entire city and sub-waves travel back. This will go on for five minutes or more, then it just slowly peters out. Why they stop then I don’t know. It’s not because they are tired. Believe me, the dogs here don’t tire easily. It is probably some obscure law of physics, the half-life of canine excitation.

 

Satellite photo by NASA
On the Malecon

One of the bedrooms is our "work" room

The taco stand

Jorge & Marjorie and
Saturday Night at the Movies

The northern marina
Sopa de Azteca
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