Wednesday, February 27, 2013

No. 463 – This Is Us

Performer: Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris
Songwriter: Mark Knopfler
Original Release: All the Roadrunning
Year: 2006
Definitive Version: None

The start to our trip to Mexico in March 2008 was excellent, but the activities, altitude and alcohol at altitude had their effect. After dinner at La Posadita, we planned to go back to our casita, change and go back out. We never made it off the bed—just shoving our suitcases to the floor and crashing with the lights on.

When we awoke, we had no real plan—at least for the day. We were on our own, so we decided to hike up to El Jardin and tour La Parroquia.

I sought a Spanish phrasebook a few months before the trip to practice a bit, and at Borders, I found a Mexican Spanish phrasebook. I had it with me the first day, but I didn’t really need it at the airport, and then Laurie’s aunt acted as our tour guide after we arrived in San Miguel.

We had a late lunch at a cool place along the route that had an open courtyard—a popular theme for San Miguel restaurants as we found out. Then we made our way to La Parroquia, which was almost as cool from the inside as the outside.

Before we got there, a street vender accosted me. He was selling straw hats, which were essential considering the sun beating down from a cloudless sky. I wasn’t going to buy from him, because I never buy from the first vendor, but he had the hat on my head before I knew what hit me, and I was passing over the 25 pesos. I knew the instant I’d walked away that I’d been suckered, and seeing lower prices for similar hats as we walked along confirmed it. Oh well. I just figured the guy needed the money more than I did.

The evening’s plan was to head back to El Jardin for dinner and then another place for an after-dinner drink. Before that, however, we wanted to see the puppet show, which would play one more night. It had been so enchanting the evening before; we wanted to see the whole thing this time.

We got there early, and the area in front of the stage was packed with kids and their families. The show started with two people coming out on stage, acting as though they were embarrassed to be there. It turns out they should have been.

I don’t know whether it was a different show company or new actors or what, but it was clear from the outset that we weren’t going to see the same show. In fact, we almost never saw puppets. The show as best we could figure—after about 10 minutes of the puppeteers playing unfunny human clownlike characters—involved a grumpy old man puppet and his human maid.

It was brutal, and kids—being an honest audience—gave an instant thumbs-down review. After about five minutes, they started to fidget, run around and generally stop paying attention. Laurie and I felt the same way, so we split feeling gypped that we hadn’t stayed longer the night before.

Dinner was at a place called Tia Lucas. We picked it from a travel guide before we left, and it was both the fanciest and most Americanized place where we dined the whole week. I didn’t need my phrasebook, but I had it anyway, because—as I noted with Italy—I wanted to be a good guest.

I don’t remember what Laurie had, but I had a churrascaria—I wanted to load up on beef in Mexico—and I had another outstanding margarita. (I also wanted to drink tequila in Mexico.) Again, it was served in a tumbler and was a translucent whitish color. I asked the waiter what the tequila was, but it was a name I didn’t recognize, so it got lost in the wind.

Tia Lucas wasn’t my favorite food place—that was still to come—but it was good, and it was one of my favorite dining experiences on the trip. After a while, a jazz band played live music as we dined, and towards the end of our meal, a waiter came by and noticed my phrasebook. Spanish? Si. Ahh, MEXICAN Spanish! Bueno! He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

After dinner we headed off into the unknown. Also before we left Chicago, Laurie looked up a couple of nightlife places to check out and found one called El Gato Negro. She wanted to check it out, because it had the same name as a notorious Chicago drag bar that we frequently passed by on the way to other things and where a couple of her gay friends threatened to take me one night. One problem: This El Gato Negro was a bar.

In Mexico, there are different types of public houses—not different as in décor or theme, but different as in who’s allowed inside. In Mexico, a “bar” is a He-Man Woman Haters Club: Women generally aren’t allowed. Laurie didn’t know whether El Gato Negro was one of those bars, but she still wanted to give it a try, and we hiked up the dark street a bit off the beaten path until we came to it. El Gato Negro in fact did allow women, but it was definitely a guy’s bar: It was a total dive. A dive in Chicago is one thing; we weren’t in Chicago—or Kansas either, toto. Laurie didn’t care: Let’s go in.

The front door was saloon doors—I kid you not—and we entered into a tiny, undecorated and slightly intimidating dark room. Two tables sat on either side of the door that had a single chair at each. A single neon sign over the bar seemed to provide about the only light in the room. The bartender and his companion welcomed us with a hearty “Buenas noches” and asked what we wanted.

Laurie’s aunt told us to stick with only non-iced drinks off the main drag, so I ordered two bottles of Pacifico, which at the time wasn’t served in Chicago. We noticed a slightly ramshackle, open staircase to the left of the bar and made enough of a motion with our hands as to inquire if we could go up. Si, si.

Upstairs was a scene straight out of the Twilight Zone. It seemed to be someone’s attic as opposed to a room at a public house. My recollection was that it had a pool table and piles of what best can be described as clutter on top of it and, well, throughout the entire room. In the center, three amigos sat like zombies watching futbol on a TV in which you could barely make out the players through the static. We saw another staircase at the far end of the room and kept going.

This staircase led us to our destination. We now were on the roof, which was furnished in white plastic tables and chairs. Two more amigos were sitting at one shooting the breeze. We took one next to the edge … where we had a view of the Nuestra Senora and the rest of the town to the west. We also had a canopy of stars above us.

We didn’t see the Southern Cross, but like Stephen Stills said, we knew after arriving why we’d come this way. The roof at El Gato Negro was the payoff, and the fact that the next apartment over had laundry drying in the warm night air only added to the ambience.

No one bothered the gringos, and it was the best night of the vacation.

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