Valladolid looks quiet but there’s a lot going on. Last time I introduced the crazy cast of characters I managed to fall in with. Now it’s time for some misadventures.
Writers Are Boring
Most days were tame. Writers are boring artists: we don’t hop around stage and cast spells like musicians or actors. We don’t even put on a show of furious brush strokes. Furious laptopping just looks like you’re unbalanced, too angry over someone’s comment on Youtube. I spent many days quietly typing at home.
But I felt out of place in the Canada House. There were four bedrooms and just one of me. I mostly lived in the back building, but I preferred to work up front in the outdoor kitchen, surrounded by nature. As a result I spent a lot of time walking back and forth. It felt odd having such a huge place to myself.
I wrote four stories I had dreamed up crossing Mexico. The first is about a woman in Laredo, who needs money for her son. She seeks out a magic man that lives in the desert, braving the threat of drug traffickers to find him—only to find out he’s in with the narcos, and requires a sacrifice.
The second one was conceived amidst the ghost towns of Real de Catorce. It follows a desert pilgrimage to the sacred mind-altering peyote. And a third tells of an old woman, an herbalist, who leaves her village and her adult children to seek her fortune in the big city. The big city, unfortunately, does not want her.
The last is a tale set in Xalapa, but it’s not done yet. It also doesn’t fit. While the others are all magical realism, this one is about love.
I wrote other things besides. I started to sit on the street, like an artist with a sketchbook, and write about what I saw.
One road in grabbed my attention. It’s a tiny lane off a major city street, but you’d think you’re in the country. It has trees, a low stone wall built by hand, a thatch roofed cottage, chickens. I mentioned my infatuation to Manda and she lit up. “Do you mean the street off Calzada de los Frailes? Second corner from Alberto’s, isn’t it? It’s rather like a storybook.” Artists think alike.
While I was writing, one of the street’s residents came up and introduced himself. Soon he brought two cups of coffee from his house and got bread from a passing vendor, and we practically had a picnic. He told me he’s a recovering alcoholic. He said he’s gone sober to win back his wife. Later, he confided that his coffee mug contained beer.
The paradox of writing is that to do it well you need to be reclusive, but sitting in your home alone deprives you of fresh material. Everyday I went out and walked around. I observed and made notes. But, deep in my inner world of ideas, I hardly talked to anyone. I ate alone and preferred restaurants where I knew no one. As the wait staff became friendlier I wouldn’t want to return. This hermitage may sound rude or lonely, but it only improved the quality of my work and, most days, my happiness.
In the evenings I was more social. By day Yucatán’s an oven, but after dark there are cool breezes. It’s a joy to sit outside a cafe or bar. Some nights we would go to Alberto’s—his Valladolid residence is a shuttered bakery—and we sat in folding chairs on the plaza outside his door. Families gathered in the plaza at night, and some upstanding citizen had donated a circus carousel for the kids (it was almost election time).
“Wow, what a nice gift to the city,” I said.
“Come on!” yelled Alberto. “Do you know that music plays all night? I’m taking out a hit on that thing!”
We also got a new arrival. Arianna, a professional musician from California, had fallen in love with Valladolid. Now she was scouting possible places to live. Arianna is a person who can talk to anyone, and she relishes doing so (she also has game with both men and women).
She really widened our friend circle. Mexico is a country of clear class divisions, and foreigners are automatically slotted into the upper caste. I can easily make friends with locals who are business owners, hold college degrees and know English. Working class Mexicans, however, sometimes view me with suspicion. Not so when Arianna walks up flashing her smile.
It was through her that I met Rosalía, a 30 year old Maya woman who is unmarried, works 10 hours a day and lives with her family. Unmarried at 30 is unusual in Mexico; no kids is even less common. Both are conscious choices she has made so she can save up money and open a business with her brothers. She is both a dreamer and a hard worker, a dangerous combination.
Soon she invited us to dinner at her house. We shared beer and pizza while her brothers grilled us about life in the US. Arianna’s Spanish made mine look good, but we managed to trade stories in a mix of languages. Slowly they seemed to accept that, although we have more money, we are basically not that different—and we’re at least not stuck up about it. It was the first time they’d ever had a foreigner in their home.
The next day Rosalía apologized fiercely.
“Why?” I said.
“Because we drank so much! You must think we’re drunks!”
I smiled and thought of the pool parties at Canada House.
The Fatal Chef
Valladolid has some good restaurants. There’s Fallo’s Seafood, where the 5-foot tall owner leaves his shirt open to show off his chest hair while making shrimp cocktails. There’s Yerbabuena, which serves the best breakfast in town, and where my waiter Carlos struggled to accept that he could speak to me in Spanish instead of using his perfectly practiced English. A hundred steps from my front door was Family Restaurant Oasis, more like a bar with a full menu, where the food is awful but the botanas (free snacks if you order beer) are worth the stop. In the evenings I would go to Conato for great food and solitude; Casa Italia, for great food and the risk of running into people; or the most fabled eatery of them all, Naino.
Naino was the restaurant of our Portuguese poet-chef, Mario. Originally he ran it like a standard restaurant with a menu. “I got bored,” Mario told me. “And I had customers get rude if we were out of something. So I took their menu away.” His eyes glittered.
The new deal was simple: you paid 120 pesos and Mario brought you three courses (sometimes four) of whatever he felt like. It was a hit, and rocketed him to the most popular restaurant in Valla. But that didn’t make it profitable. For one thing, 120 pesos is a low price for the kind of fine dining he provided. For another, the city resolutely refused to give him an alcohol license. (Valladolid is controlled by twelve ancient families and is notoriously conservative.) Undeterred, Mario launched a “bring your own” policy with no corking fee and frequently sold illegal cuagamas (40 ounce beers). But every wine bottle brought from the corner store was 150 pesos in missed revenue.
For Mario, the fun wasn’t in making money. It was in creating experiences where people truly let go and enjoyed themselves. There are many terms I could use to describe the man: a fatalist, a sensualist. But I think the best description is that he’s Mario. And Mario came up with ever more extravagant ideas for parties.
One of those ideas was the twelve hour breakfast. But that’s a story for next time.