Kids in Buenos Aires are so different from the kids in Mexico.  As we’ve mentioned before, Mexican kids are not only incredibly cute, but they are just as incredibly well-behaved.  Months ago we attended a fundraising event in San Miguel with dozens of old gringos (like us) and four Mexican children.  Though the event lasted hours, the kids never acted up, never seemed visibly restless.  But in just a few weeks in Buenos Aires, we saw example after example of children running unsupervised through restaurants, squirming in their seats, and generally misbehaving.  Don’t get me wrong, the kids here are pretty much like American kids, many of which are well-behaved but many are not.  But the contrast with Mexico is a bit shocking.

There is a trade-off, though.  One of our friends in San Miguel, who has lived in Mexico for well over a decade, says that kids there are taught to march in public school and not much else.  She’s exaggerating a bit, but conformity and politeness is much more valued in Mexico, and our friend believes the limited public education system in Mexico is a deliberate choice by the government to keep people in their place.

The kids in Buenos Aires do, however, conform in one way – most wear white lab coats to school.  We saw kids on a break from school, or apparently heading off for a field trip, and the kids in many of the groups all wore the white lab coats.  They looked like they were off to their lab for a little experiment.

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As we wrap up our final days here in San Miguel de Allende, we wanted to pass on a few of the great restaurants we have enjoyed here. It is not a complete list, but it is our list which means affordable and flavourful.

CHEAP EATS:

Taco stand at Hidalgo and Insurgentes: If you are willing to give street food a try, it doesn’t get any better than this. The stand is up and running by around 7:30 or 8:00 most evenings. We have tried tacos at other places, and nothing can hold a candle to this place. Our favourite choice is an order of Gringas al Pastor. They slice off bits of marinated pork and cook it up on the griddle with a handful of molten Oaxacan cheese all put in a flour tortilla with a sliver of pineapple. The tacos al pastor are excellent, as well. In addition to tacos al pastor, they serve bistec, costilla (rib meat), chorizo and lengua (tongue). I’m sure the other choices are good too, but we are hooked on the gringas al pastor. A gringa al pastor will cost you $15 pesos, and the tacos are about $8 pesos apiece.

The Asador on Potranca on Salida a Celaya: Potranca 4. As with the tacqueria, this place has no name but you can’t miss the huge black grill sitting in front of the restaurant. Arrachera is their specialty, and the hamburguesa de arrachera is very flavourful. Arrechera is a thinly cut, marinated flank steak. I also like their hamburgers and the baked potato con todo: bits of arrachera, cheese and sour cream. We haven’t been there on the weekend, but I believe they offer grilled rib-eyes on Friday and Saturday. The arrachera burger is $40 pesos and the baked potato con todo is $30 pesos. Open for dinner (maybe lunch, too, but we’ve never tried).

Burritacos on Mesones between Hidalgo and Reloj: Once again, not sure of the name of this place, but it is the only place I know of that makes fresh flour tortillas here in San Miguel de Allende. Corn tortillas are far more common in this part of Mexico. You order the number of tacos you want at the counter (I usually get two or three), and then go to the back to choose from about 12 fillings. My favourites are pollo con mole verde (chicken in a green sauce) and papas y chorizo (potatoes and sausage). There are a few tables out front, but we often get the tacos to go and eat them while sitting in the Jardín. A burritaco costs $8 pesos. Open for lunch and (an early) dinner.

BREAKFAST AND LUNCH OPTIONS:

There are loads of options for breakfast and lunch here in San Miguel. The places listed below tend to run between $30 to 70 pesos for a meal.

Cafe Contento: Hernandez Macías 72. The terrace is shady and pleasant and the food is consistently good. Try the crepes with fresh fruit and cajeta (caramel sauce). A scrambled egg breakfast, one of their sandwiches, or the Sopa Azteca are also good options. As a bonus they have a basket full of old New Yorkers and other magazines to browse while you wait for your food. Free wi-fi is available and there is a small collection of paperbacks for sale or trade. Their bread comes from the Buena Vida bakery which is just down the hallway. Stop by Buena Vida to get a cinnamon roll or donut for dessert.

Cafe Buenos Dias: Reloj 64. This place is filled with loyal customers with good reason. The bacon is (almost) always crisp, the cafe latte is the best in town, the waiter is a perfect gentleman, and the owner, Elisa, is always welcoming and friendly. Pat always gets the scrambled egg breakfast and I am very fond of the French toast and the fresh fruit smoothies.

Via Organica: Calle Margarita Ledesmo 2. For breakfast, try their French toast or tapas de huevo (scrambled eggs, beans and cheese served in a puff pastry). For lunch, they have excellent salads. We also like the chicken salad torta and the ham and cheese torta, which come with a small side salad and cost as little as 30 pesos. In addition to the restaurant, Via Organica has a shop with fresh organic produce, handmade local cheeses and other items for sale.

Media Naranja: Hidalgo 83. Another great place for breakfast or lunch. Their salads are excellent (especially with the extra chicken). I recommend the falafel salad with tahini dipping sauce.

Bagel Cafe: Even though it is the Bagel Cafe, our favourite dish is the club sandwich. They also have good chilli. Try the naranjada here. It is a very refreshing drink on a hot day.

Cafe Etc, (or Cafe Juan): Reloj 37. Most people agree that Juan makes the best cappuccino in town. The club sandwich is excellent too. A friend of mine tells me there is a Spanish conversation class that meets here on Monday and Friday at 11:00. The cost of the class is 20 pesos.

Monte Negro: On Correo very close to the Jardín. The food here is always fine, although not spectacular, so it’s not usually our first choice, but it’s always a safe one. The prices are reasonable, the ambience is comfortable, and the salsas are tasty.

Sappos Restaurant: Paseo del Parque 10. The terrace is very pleasant, and the chilaquiles are the best I’ve had in town.

Cafe Rama: Calle Nueva 7. Come here for a special lunch. It is a bit more expensive than some of the other options, but the quality of the food is worth it. Try the Asian Chicken Salad, and make sure to leave room for dessert. The truffles are superb and I hear the lemon cheese cake is a revelation.

Posada Corazon: Aldama 9. Come here to splash out for brunch in a beautiful setting. They have a set menu which is $140 pesos. It is includes 2 cups of coffee, hot chocolate or tea, fruit salad or juice, a main dish such as eggs Benedict, and a buffet of homemade granola, yogurt and artisan cheese. Reservations are recommended.

DINNER IN SAN MIGUEL

Ten Ten Pie al Carbon: Sterling Dickenson 5. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. This place has the best arrachera we have tasted since being in Mexico. Perfectly seasoned and always tender. The chicken kebabs are also excellent. You will not be disappointed. Margarita, the manager, is always gracious and kind. The last time we were there, she plucked pomegranates off of a tree in the courtyard and shared them with the customers for a refreshing dessert.

Longhorn Smokehouse: Salida a Celaya 6. This is the place to go in San Miguel for Texas-style barbecue. The grilled ribs are quite good, but our favourite choice is a cheeseburger and a side of fresh cut fries. Thursday is steak night. They also have key lime pie that is worth saving a little extra room for. As a bonus, the waitress there (Jimena) is very friendly and charming.

Burrito Bistro: Correo 45. We love the fresh roasted salsas, and they make a delicious naranjada. We have liked everything we have tried on the menu, but our favourites are the grilled chicken salad, the thai chicken soup, and the grilled chicken burrito.

Gombo’s: Tata Nacho 2. Come here for the pepperoni pizza.

Fenicia: Calle Zacateros 73. Great Lebanese food. The chicken shawerma wrap is especially good.

Mare Nostrum: Umaran 56. Run by a Sicilian couple, the pastas are handmade and delicious. The last time I was there I had mushroom-stuffed ravioli with a sweet potato sauce. It was wonderful. Rumor has it the pizzas are good too.

Chinese food: DondayinSMA has a great post about the two Chinese restaurants here in San Miguel.

BITS AND BOBS

Ice Cream:
On the corner of San Francisco and Reloj is Dolphy’s Ice Cream, a Mexican ice cream chain. They use real cream and have about 20 flavors to choose from.

As you head south on Ancha San Antonio, you’ll find Santa Clara Ice Cream, another high quality creamy ice cream. Menta con chispas in my favourite.

For a taste of real Mexican ice cream, go to the ice cream stand at the corner of Canal and Hernandez Macías. I highly recommend the sorbets. Limón and Mango are my favourite. If you are feeling adventurous they have queso (cheese), mamey (a fruit with a sweet potato-like flavour) and rose flavours on offer.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables: My favourite place to go to for fresh fruit and vegetables in San Miguel is in the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez. DondayinSMA is also fond of this particular stall. See his post for details.

I hate the laundry.  In America I didn’t hate doing the laundry; in fact, it was a reminder of the luxury of life in the United States.  Every time I did the laundry I was reminded of just how easy life was for us there.

We mentioned in a long ago post how our first apartment in Ireland had a washer/dryer in the kitchen, and it sounded like a jet plane about to take off.  The washer and dryer in our second apartment was out in a separate building, and was shared with two other properties, so it was less noisy but often occupied and not always convenient.

Here in Mexico, though, and often when we’re on the road, we simply have to turn our wash over to someone else.  Our apartment doesn’t have a washer we can use, and there are no self-service washers in town that we know of (actually, they seem pretty rare in every country we’ve visited), so we go to a lavanderia.  It might sound nice not to have to deal with the laundry but it isn’t. Let me use our current situation to explain why.

When we drop off the laundry, it’s usually ready the next day, but it can take up to two days before it’s done.  With last week being Semana Santa (Holy Week) many shops, including our lavanderia, shut down from Thursday on, so to be sure we got our clothes back before they left on holiday, we had to get our last batch of clothes in on Monday of last week and we weren’t able to get anything washed for a week.  For many of you a week without washing clothes is no great inconvenience, but we travel light — I own five pair of pants, about that many t-shirts, and two button-up shirts.  Since I can’t exactly deliver the dirty clothes naked, at least some of our clothes are not able to go for a wash at any one time, and so a week without being able to wash is a problem.

I dropped off clothes Monday morning, and miracle of miracle, they promised they would be done that afternoon.  Unfortunately, when I went to pick it all up, the smallest bill I had was a 200 peso bill (about $16) and they couldn’t make change for the 72 peso charge.  So, our desperately needed clothing was done, but I couldn’t get it because I didn’t have the right size bills.  Luckily, when Amy got home she had some smaller bills and was able to pick up the clean clothes.

Today, though, when Amy went to pick up another load, she had a 50 peso bill and the charge was 42 pesos.  The 8 pesos in change is about 65 cents.  The woman working at the lavanderia laughed as she looked at her till, because she barely had enough change, with Amy cleaning her out.  We discovered upon Amy’s return home that she was actually short-changed one peso, however, so the lavaderia wasn’t actually able to make 8 pesos in change.  Our earlier post about the difficulty of making change is applicable here in Mexico – one store is so averse to giving change, the owners have a sign saying they won’t accept bills, which means the largest denomination they’ll accept is a 10 peso coin, or about 80 U.S. cents.  It can be maddening to be in a country that often requires exact change but by that same token never gives you any.

Zipolite at sunset - photo by Ciara Baxter

Last week was spring break for OSU, so we took a little vacation to see some places we hadn’t made it to yet.  We met our friend Ciara in Mexico City Sunday night and flew to Huatulco the next morning.  Huatulco is the site of a small airport near the Pacific, in the Southern state of Oaxaca, and this was the first time any of us had been to an airport with thatched roofs.

The plan was to head to Zipolite, a small beachfront town about an hour away from the airport, and we’d seen on other blogs and websites that a taxi was probably the best way to get there.  One website said the taxi should cost 250 pesos but at the official taxi stand the actual cost was around 750 pesos.  Zipolite has a reputation for being cheap, but already we were paying three times the expected price even before arriving.

After a wild taxi ride (the expected hour travel time was cut to 45 minutes), the driver stopped us at the east end of the town, and we took a room at the Lyoban hostel.  At least the room was cheap, but the cost of everything in Zipolite was more than we’d been reading about.  A can of coke at the hostel cost 14 pesos (as compared to 8 pesos for a bottle almost twice as big in most stores in San Miguel), and all of the meals we had cost at least 60 pesos each.  That’s only around 5 U.S. dollars, so it’s not expensive, but it’s also no cheaper than many meals we can find in San Miguel, which is not known as an inexpensive locale, and the food in San Miguel is much, much better.

Had the food been good, it would have been fine, but we didn’t have a single good Mexican meal in our three days there.  We had an okay pizza one night, and our final meal in town was excellent, at La Alquimista, on the west side of the beach.  It wasn’t, however, Mexican.

Zipolite is a beach town that caters to a laid back, slightly hippy crowd (the beach is a nude beach, though the majority of people wore suits), so you’d think there would be at least some concessions to tourists.  Not really.  We had to go to five stores before finding sunscreen, for example, and there are no bank machines in town.  If you want something in Zipolite, you better bring it yourself.

We knew the beach had a reputation for dangerous currents and riptides (the name apparently means Beach of the Dead), but it also sounded like there would at least be days when it was safe to get into the water and swim.  Unfortunately the entire time we were there the red flags stayed up – no swimming.  It was relatively safe to splash around a bit in the swash (Ciara explained the swash is the area of the beach between the highest point the waves reach and the lowest point when they roll out, the area with all that sea foam), but we never swam near our hostel.  Ciara pointed out the irony of taking a cab to the next town, then hiking up and down a hill to a more secluded beach just so we could swim, when the ocean was ten yards in front of our hostel room.

The Lyoban ended up being a bit of a mixed bag, but we don’t recommend it.  The mattresses were poor and the linens threadbare and torn.  The hammocks were nice and the view was great, but almost everywhere had hammocks and equally good views.  The hostel’s showers were only open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., which would normally not be a problem except that on our last day we needed to catch a cab at 7:30, which didn’t leave us much time to get ready.  Worse, the man with the key strolled in at 7:10, though the management of the hostel had arranged our 7:30 taxi and knew we were on a tight schedule.  We just made it in time.

So it may sound like it wasn’t that great a time (bad food, more expensive than we thought, so-so rooms, and no swimming) but it was quite relaxing and not a bad way to start our trip.


Flooding in San Miguel

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We’ve experienced incredibly good weather in San Miguel, but the last few days were an exception. Four nights ago it started raining so hard and so suddenly that Amy thought someone was moving heavy furniture upstairs. The rain hasn’t been quite that heavy since, but it’s been steady, and the rainfall statistics are kind of amazing. There have been reports of 3.4 inches of rain in one location, and even 8.5 inches of rain in a different neighborhood, in just the last few days. The huge variations, according to one source, are due to the location of San Miguel near some mountains and hills, which creates some unique and sometimes unpredictable weather patterns, but the whole area is getting drenched. This amount of rain is all the more remarkable when you consider that the average rainfall in San Miguel de Allende for January is .38 inches, February is .18 inches, and the annual precipitation is 21.4 inches. These statistics are taken from a variety of sources, and they may not all be completely accurate, but this gives a sense of how odd this rainfall is. People who have lived here for many years say this is more rain than they’ve ever seen, even during the rainy season.

The rainy season comes during summer here, so for this time of year, even a couple of days of rain is said to be unusual. It’s nearly impossible to stay dry right now, at least for anyone like us without a car. A couple of days ago we went out for lunch and while our Columbia jackets kept our top halves dry, our pants were soaked by the time we got back. It’s bad enough to have the rain fall directly on us, but there are no downspouts in San Miguel so all the water is shunted away from the roofs of the buildings by these pipes that stick out about two feet from the walls. If it’s a strong rain, the water shoots out into the street, but anything less and the water just drops right into the middle of the narrow sidewalk. There is about one spout every ten feet, so you can imagine how hard it is to avoid getting dripped on even when on the sidewalk. Also, almost all of San Miguel has cobblestone streets and stone sidewalks, and some of it becomes very slick when it’s wet. Without a car, and with these horrible conditions, we’ve had to stay indoors almost all day, every day.

So this bad weather had made us feel pretty sorry for ourselves, trapped here, out of the rain and wind, with a heater blowing nice hot air on us, because the rain made it difficult for us to get out and enjoy the restaurants or go to a drawing session. Then we went to breakfast with a few people this morning, and we heard about what the poor people out in the rancho (or small community) of San Miguel Viejo are dealing with. If they’re lucky, they have the most basic of housing; we know of one family with six children that had nothing until some people towed an old van out to give the family at least some shelter a couple of weeks ago. The floors in most of the houses are dirt, so in this weather, they become mud, and because many of the villagers heat their homes just by starting a fire on the floor, they can’t even do that in these conditions. If they’re fortunate enough, they may have a stove, but even if they do most people still can’t start a fire because they gather wood in the area and it’s all completely saturated. The few clothes they own are now soaked, and they have no way to dry them without a stove, nor can they cook.

So, if you have a home, or heat, or dry clothes, or something to eat, be thankful for what you have. I read a letter in an advice column a few weeks ago. In it, the writer explained that when she had something unpleasant that she HAD to do, she would try to change her thinking. She would tell herself, “I GET to clean the toilet, because I have plumbing, and running water. I GET to wash the dishes, because I have food to eat.” Reminding herself of what she had made the chores a bit easier to get through. It’s not a bad approach to looking at things.

Many Americans tend to think of the U.S. as the place for small business people, but I suspect there are more small business people per capita in many of the countries we’ve visited than back home. Amy and I recently walked around our neighbourhood counting small family stores (think of a 7-11, but about 1/3 to ½ the size) selling pop, chips, and a few other things. Within a three block radius we counted 19 of these businesses. We may have missed one or two, and we weren’t counting all the other small businesses, like papelerias (paper and school supply stores), auto shops, small clothing stores, and many others. And this is a residential neighbourhood, as much as that means anything in a country where there isn’t any zoning, as far as I can tell.

There is the Mercado de Artesanias (three blocks long) where artisans sell jewellery, small crafts, tinwork, and so on. The shops vary in size, from about 8 foot square, to maybe twice that size. There are quite a few more carts on the streets here, too, selling ice cream, tacos, chips, you name it. Vendors may walk through neighbourhoods pushing a bike with a grinder on it for sharpening knives or carrying foods like jicama, corn, or tortillas to sell. They call out what they’re selling or, depending on their craft, they may have a particular whistle, horn, or recorded jingle that announces their presence.

People often don’t have many employment options even in places like San Miguel, which is fairly prosperous. In a city like Corvallis there are still large employers like Oregon State University and Hewlett-Packard, a few mid-size employers, and lots of small businesses that employ at least a few people. Most people in the States will never work for themselves or start a business, although with the recession I know more Americans have had to get creative in finding ways to support themselves and their families. Because the costs of starting and running a business are so much greater in America, though, a person normally has to really want to be an entrepreneur; here a person needs to be an entrepreneur just to survive.

Pat and I have been talking about how much we are enjoying our time in San Miguel de Allende, but rather than just continuing to talk about the place I thought I would show you what one of our days is like.  Below is a photo essay on how we spent Pat’s 40th birthday.

We are house-sitting for a friend here in San Miguel and looking after her dogs, Mario and Jake.

Pat went out this morning to get a bottle of coke, and encountered a fiesta down at the end of our street at the nearby catholic church.  There seemed to be a battle of the bands going on.  In front of the church, young men and women dressed in native Indian costumes were dancing to a pounding drum beat…

…while at the same time, directly across the street about 20 feet away a band with trombones, french horns, clarinets , a tuba and drums played Mexican music.  Both groups seemed to be intentionally playing as loudly as they could in friendly competition.

While we were watching the festivities, our friends Eli and Joseph called and invited us to a birthday breakfast for Pat at Posada Corazon.

Pat's 40th birthday

We walked back home through the Jardín, where a Mexican Artisan Market is happening until 29th November.  They are selling tapestries, hand painted wall-hangings, and mirrors like this one.

Things really picked up at the fiesta this evening with a live band, people dancing in the streets, and a small carnival with rides for the little kiddies.

Crowds at the fiesta

Carnival rides

This may seem like a unique and special day (and it was because it was Pat’s birthday), but we have stumbled across several parades and fiestas, and we bump into new friends and go to social events several times weekly.  This is just the way things are here in San Miguel.