Monday, September 19, 2011

Tianguis (The Tuesday Market)

A tianguis is an open air market or bazaar that is traditionally held on certain market days in a town or city neighborhood in Mexico and Central America. This bazaar tradition has its roots well into the pre-Hispanic period and continues in many cases essentially unchanged into the present day. ...

Shortly after arriving in San Miguel de Allende, people started telling me about the “Tuesday Market.” They said things like, “Oh, you’ve gotta go.” and “You’ve never seen anything like it.”
Curiosity finally got the better of me last year and I made the short, 1 and ½ mile, trek to Tianguis. Nothing could have prepared me for what I would find there.
Tianguis is a sumptuous feast for all the senses. The colorful and unique sights, the tantalizing and occasionally off -putting aromas, and the unique and sometimes deafening sounds that come together in this place can almost be too much to bear for the first timer. It has taken me quite awhile to become accustomed to the sensory overload that one experiences. After two years, I feel as though I’m finally a veteran and now suitably prepared to share my knowledge with others.

There are hundreds of vendors, arranged in aisles under a hodgepodge of brilliantly colored tents and makeshift tarps as far as the eye can see. They sell an enormous selection of goods. If you can think of it, there’s a good chance you will find it at the market. On any given day, a shopper will find… fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken that some would say is the best in town, but I’m a little put off by the lack of refrigeration, huge slabs of beef, seafood (both fresh and fried), kitchen gadgets, pots and pans, cleaning supplies, ladies perfume, makeup and hair products, incense, plants for your garden, hand crafted jewelry, artwork, used clothing, new clothing from the United States, DVD’s with the latest movies (otherwise known as pirated knock-offs), CD’s (Banda, Ranchero, and Cumbia music [which originated in Columbia] can be heard around every corner at Tuesday Market), an assortment of livestock including bunny rabbits, chickens, pigeons, canaries, parrots, puppies, kittens, snakes, lizards, an occasional goat, and my all time favorite…. baby chicks that have been hand-dipped in Easter egg colors.

There are furniture makers, antiques dealers, car parts vendors, junk collectors, tool salesmen, and shoe and sneaker vendors. Any oddity that one can imagine can probably be found there.

I thought it might be fun to talk about my favorite things to do at Tianguis. My absolute obsession is having lunch (almuerzo) at the market.

Kirsten and I enjoying lunch

There are so many choices. It is really tough to make a decision. My favorite meal involves carnitas (Carnitas, literally "little meats", is a type of braised or roasted (often after first being simmered) pork in Mexican cuisine…Wikipedia.) The tiny jewel -like chunks of moist and crispy pork are carefully arranged in tiny hand-made corn tortillas that have been garnished with a dollop of a smoky and slightly hot but, not too hot, green salsa made from tomatillos.

I like to wash this down with a special, icy cold licuado (a licuado is a blended drink, originating in Mexico, made with fruit and milk). There are innumerable flavors to choose from such as mango, guava, melon, and strawberry/banana. Another one of my favorite beverages is called Horchata. Horchata or orxata is the name of several kinds of traditional beverages in Mexico, made of ground almonds, sesame seeds, rice, barley, or tiger nuts. I think that the drink I sampled was made with rice, almonds, and cinnamon.

beverage cart

For dessert, when I am feeling particularly svelte, I am drawn to another Mexican specialty, churros. I covet these moist and tasty goodies. It is all that I can do to pass this stand without stopping to breathe in their lovely fragrance. Churros are deep-fried Mexican doughnuts. The pastry is passed through an extruder and fried until golden and crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside. While still warm, the churros are rolled in cinnamon and sugar and then placed in a paper wrapper. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

My other favorite activity at the market involves shopping for clothing. One of the biggest challenges, as a newly landed resident of San Miguel de Allende, is the complete absence of fashionable clothing that will accommodate the average North American woman’s body. The available garments in Mexico have been designed for a petite woman (both in width and height). The average dress size in the stores in downtown San Miguel, fits a size 0 and bears a striking resemblance to something Brittany Spears might favor ( in other words trashy)(Sorry Britt. It’s just how I feel). This apparent oversight on the part of the retailers never ceases to amaze me. Interestingly, while young Mexican women start out with a diminutive frame, somehow along the way things change rather dramatically. Women over forty can get quite large. This may be related to their fascination with day-glow orange corn puffs and Coca-colas, a story for another day. I have no idea where the more “mature” Mexican women do their clothes shopping. The only other location for traditional garment shopping is the mall at Lucianerga. For a woman like me, who refuses to pay inflated retail prices, this is not really a choice.

Tianguis can provide an alternative shopping experience; a savvy bargain hunter will find huge piles of clothing that have been brought to Mexico for resale. Most of the apparel has been sold to the Mexican vendors in bulk by retailers from the U.S. who are looking to unload last year’s styles (or possibly even the year before but, who’s counting?) Judging by the low prices, anywhere from $1.50 U.S. all the way up to $3.00, the vendors almost certainly pay by the pound. The clothing comes from retailers like T. J. Max and Marshalls as well as some high-end department stores, based on the original tags remaining on the garments.

I routinely see garments with designer labels including Ann Taylor, Dana Buchman, Ann Klein, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, Giorgio Armani, YSL, Betsey Johnson, Tommy Hilfiger, Eileen Fisher, Isaac Mizrahi, and Vera Wang. I have also seen some real dogs. Clothes that you wouldn’t gift to your worst enemy, fearing that someone might think that you had poor taste. Well, real fashion finds just get my juices flowing. I can stand in front of a pile of clothing, with hundreds of other style-starved ladies like myself, for hours, rooting through the heaps of clothing like a dog looking for his favorite bone. When a shipment of new clothing comes in and people realize that there are some real gems among the fashion don’ts, things can get quite heated. I have seen clothing actually flying in the air. Once, I got hit in the head by someone’s discarded blouse. I don’t think that it was intentional, just over- enthusiasm.
My all time favorite shopping experience happened a few weeks ago. I went to Tianguis with a couple of friends. My amiga, Sylvia, was on a mission to find unique costumes for a special event, namely Burning Man. She brought Kirsten and me along for the ride, acknowledging both our fashion expertise and unique abilities at finding unusual items at the market. I credit my mother for this skill. She was not ashamed to shop in some of the most unlikely places back home, if it meant that a bargain was to be had. Until I was able to buy my own shoes, I wore a lot of cast-offs from the bargain table at Sears. Trying them on was always a problem as they would wire the shoes together to prevent the pair from being separated. I would find myself, dragging one shoe behind me, when trying them on at the store.

But first, I should explain Burning Man. Burning Man is an annual art event and temporary community in the middle of the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, three hours and many miles from any humanity. The whole emphasis of this event is radical self expression and self-reliance. The self-reliance is referring to the fact that one has to brave the oppressive desert heat, the occasional dust storms that blow through, as well as the grueling experience of having to live in a dusty tent for a week.

Admirably, Sylvia was hell bent on expressing her zany side at this event, seeking madcap, sexy clothing in unique colors. We found some decidedly interesting get-ups that day, including dangling Katrina style earrings, wild and crazy hats, a hot pink tutu, skin tight glitter bedazzled jeans, and an ostrich feather boa. Needless to say, the local women who stood shoulder to shoulder with us at the table, while we sorted through the melee, seemed quite fascinated by our unique choices of clothing that day. You could see them giggling to themselves when they thought we weren’t looking. Sylvia finally explained to them that we were shopping for “crazy clothes” and they began to gleefully assist us in our quest. At the end of the day,I can say with some assurance that a fine time was had by all!

Sylvia in one of her glorious finds from Tuesday Market. You go girl!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Carol's book montage

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Catcher in the Rye
The Great Gatsby
Animal Farm
Of Mice and Men
The Alchemist
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Romeo and Juliet
Lord of the Flies
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Little Women
The Odyssey
A Tale of Two Cities
Les Misérables
Moby-Dick or, The Whale
Memoirs of a Geisha
The Lovely Bones
The Secret Life of Bees
Eat, Pray, Love

Carol Hammond's favorite books »


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Sounds of San Miguel

I think it is the right time to discuss the sounds of Mexico. For a gringa, like me, the unusual sounds that one hears on a daily basis require an adjustment in one’s thinking. Back home, I used to get annoyed by the low-level sound of passing cars…. that occasional “swoosh” one hears as cars drive down the adjacent streets. I felt that the sound invaded the peace and tranquility of my garden. I found the noise irritating enough that my husband went to the trouble of installing a small pond with a waterfall in order to mask the sound.
I still recall the first morning that I woke up in my new home here in old Mexico to the sound of a rooster crowing enthusiastically on the roof next door, at approximately 4 AM. The rude awakening brought back memories of a trip to Roatan, Honduras. Just like it was yesterday, I recall quite vividly that the roosters crowed all night long, apparently disturbed by the lights of passing cars. I soon discovered that they were living directly under my cabana and that everyone, except me of course, knew about the roosters and found the situation quite amusing.
Fortunately, my friend, the Mexican rooster soon settled down. But, only long enough for the next surprise. Fireworks began to erupt at about 6 AM. The cacophony of sounds lasted for a full hour. I would soon discover that fireworks play an integral role in Mexican life, a topic for another day, perhaps. The exploding rounds promptly set off the roof dogs, which are inclined to bark relentlessly when any stranger passes.
As the noise finally subsided, I slowly fell back asleep only to be roused five minutes later by the clamorous music of the Sonic gas truck, as it lumbered slowly down the street in hopes of finding some customers. Next came the vegetable man, with another catchy tune blaring from a set of speakers mounted on the roof of his truck ,while he attempted to be heard over the din, shouting on a microphone while informing the neighbors what fruits and vegetables were on special that day. I have to admit that the various tunes are quite catchy and after a few weeks, I actually began to identify which vender was passing. Once again I drifted off to dreamland only to be woken this time by a strange hissing sound; it seemed very close. Too close for comfort. At first, I was unable to identify the source. Could it be a snake? Raising my head off the pillow, and quickly glancing around the room, I saw nothing out of place. Then, framed perfectly in the eyebrow window above the door to my bedroom, I spied a colorful hot air balloon, hovering in the air above my casa. My first thought….“my god, I am naked! I wonder if those people in the balloon can see me?” (Please note that I am not particularly inclined towards public nudity. It never occurred to me that anyone would be capable of seeing past the high wall that surrounds my little house.)
Finally, the gentleman who sells fresh rolls approached the house. He shouts “bolillos, bollillos”…..hoping to attract some buyers. As the dust settled, a garbage truck appeared in the distance.

The garbage men alert the neighbors of their proximity by banging two metal pipes together, waiting patiently as all my neighbors stream from their houses with garbage in tow. Just as everything seemed to settle down, I heard a peculiar whistle. I wondered what it could be. Why it’s the fellow who sharpens knives, of course.

Is it done yet, you ask? Not quite….Soon the carefree sounds of Ranchero music drift into the bedroom. My neighbor, Hector, the local herrero (ironworker) begins his day by switching on his favorite radio station. I think to myself, “must be time to get up! No, lollygagging in bed for you, my dear. The whole of Mexico is alive and well.
I am sure you are thinking, “Lord, it sounds downright noisy in Mexico.” Strangely, I can honestly say that all is well here in my new home. I have become quite accustomed to the din. It has grown to be such a part of my daily life that it rarely disturbs me. I actually find the clamor quite reassuring. The noise is simply a delightful reminder of the vibrancy and joyful celebration of what life has to offer. This is what Mexico is all about.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Finding My Way

     Having landed in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a full year and eight months ago, I feel it is finally the right time to share the richness of my experiences here. Time has literally flown since leaving my good ol' hometown of Buffalo, New York. I think the thing I miss the most about home, besides my friends, is the green growth of Spring, the leaves just starting to appear on the trees and the tulips breaking through the the remains of last fall's leaves. I miss the first hint of the summer to come, when the snow begins to melt and the temperatures are just starting to be a bit less frosty and all the youngsters put on their shorts and sandles, in hopeful anticipation of what's to come, while the rest of us were still sporting our cold weather gear.
     Life is certainly different here. I hardly notice the change of seasons. One just runs into another.  People complain that it is chilly here in the winter and I just giggle.  It is apparent that the complainers have never experienced the numbing cold of a "true" Buffalo winter. For example, I was attending a party at a friend's house last night and the temperature dropped to 66 degrees. Everyone on the patio ran for their jackets while I toughed it out in my shirtsleeves. I thought back to the days when I was rowing competively with the West Side Women's Masters Crew. We were in Boston in late October, rowing the "Head of the Charles."  My crew and I were on the river in our scull preparing for the race, wearing only our unisuits (one-piece jumpshorts that are made of light-weight  spandex) with our team colors and a pair of cotton socks. We believed that excess clothing would only slow us down. A women's crew from California rowed up next to us and were clearly astounded at our lack of clothing (note that they were all bundled up like Eskimos).  They asked us where we were from and that information seemed to satisfy their curiosity. So, Buffalo winters  have certainly prepared me for the small range of temperatures in San Miguel.
       Daily life is simple here. San Miguel brings back so many fond memories of my childhood back in Buffalo. It reminds me of a time when people were comfortable letting their children play outside, back before malls and superstores, back when mom and pop stores were where people shopped, back when people went to church on Sunday and family life was the most important thing in everyone's lives. The elderly were revered for their life's contributions and their knowledge.  Surprisingly, that lifestyle still exists here in central Mexico. Unlike back home, I know all my neighbors on my little calle. I can walk to the corner and buy farm fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, eggs and bread each morning. Conveniently, the local butcher is two blocks away. I can buy a roast chicken, potatoes, tortillas, and salad for less than the equivalent of four dollars without getting in my car.  Every evening, people knock on my door selling warm, homemade gorditas, nopal salad, and crisp, fresh rolls without preservatives . The plumber, who lives a block away, will come to my house and make a repair for  ten dollars.  
     People are clearly happy here despite leading very simple lives. Everyone doesn't have a big car and a grand house yet, they love life. Every weekend brings a new cause for celebration. It seems that there are just a lot more saints here in Mexico. The rich sensory experiences one encounters daily enliven  the spirit.

The Mojigangas joyfully dancing in the streets, the enticing aroma of pineapple and pork wafting from the local taco vendor's cart, the rousing bursts of ranchero music streaming from people's homes,  the exploding rounds of fireworks bursting in the air, the handsome strolling mariachi in the jardine, and the parades of people dressed in  colorful indigenous costumes are the norm here.

That joyous and robust approach to life is what I find most compelling.  It is what makes me love Mexico and it's people.