Leon: I love Mexico

It’s almost 6 years ago to the day that I met Marifer Fernandez, or as I call her ‘Buga’. We were part of a group of almost 30 exchange students who attended the University of Strasbourg Ecole de Management in the summer of 2011. The experience inspired several blogs, my first novel, and friendships which have endured the tests of distance and time. As a testament to this sentiment, I could not ignore the invitation to her wedding in Leon, Mexico. She was one of the closest members to me of that summer; enduring, kind, and intelligent. I promised 8 months prior that I would come, and after a couple of nights out on the town in Guanajuato and Leon, I am about fulfill that promise.

It’s the day of the wedding and about noon. I’m laying curled into a ball of angst with a very unique combination of hangover and what I expect to be an acute food poisoning. In a world of moderation and perfect sense, it’s completely justified that I should stay in my room for the entire day chasing painkillers with pepto bismol. However, I have to assume full responsibility for the fact that I went dancing and drinking mezcal until 3am with random locals at Bronson, The White Rabbit, and La Rufina, in the Leon city center and clearly ate something that my stomach didn’t agree with.

In that same spirit, the responsible spirit, I shuffle to the Holiday Inn Plaza Mayor’s lobby  at 7:30pm as listed on the wedding itinerary. Each of the suggested hotels have chartered transportation to  La Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de la Madre Santísima de la Luz de León. I sit in the van with pockets filled with pain killers and pepto as a nice couple, John and Sofia, enter. Immediately, John and I bond over our current stomach situation. I begin to tell them how I came to be in Leon, and even about my exploits in Guanajuato. Despite being in good spirits, my fever and gastronomic disposition are sure to remind me of yesterday's decisions. Even after we arrive in front of the cathedral, to hosts of spectators, and crowds of wedding goers adorned in gowns and suits, I still cannot overcome how terrible I feel. It’s not until I see Buga emerge from a classic automobile in her wedding dress that I am filled with energy and life.

This is it. This is her moment.

With the slew of photos being taken, she notices ,me in the crowd and waves; my old friend from those days in Alsace. I’m reminded of our days in Strasbourg as we enter the cathedral. The church’s grandeur and opulence, is only complemented by the hundreds of royally dressed guests. With a few hundred people filling the old church, the procession begins. When I see in all her matrimonial regality, I am truly happy.

----

There is something to be said for Mexican weddings, and I was never the one to say it being that this is my first time. Friends like Adriana, who in addition to being from Leon, had studied with us in Strasbourg, told me about what weddings were like, but quickly I realize that I am in for a spectacle which words could do no justice.

Well over 400 wedding goers exit the cathedral into a very cool Leon night air. Lining the street are 20+ buses and vans, automotive chariots, waiting to take us away to the reception at the Ex-Hacienda Ibarrilla about 20 minutes away. Upon arriving we meet the check-in teams with their ipads who give us our assigned table numbers. The hacienda is adorned with dangling foliage and well placed lighting creating a well balanced atmosphere of tropical regality. Adriana and I take our seats, still in awe of the decorations as our personal waiter takes drinks orders.

 

Every detail has been thought out in advance, and is so spectacular that I almost forget my stomachs wrath. Buga  and Juan enter singing a duet of Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E. Next, a band called Vedette plays Spanish classics and even does a rendition of ‘Hotel California’ while we eat. In blatant defiance of my physical condition, I eat everything in front of me to be sure to not miss a moment.

“Are you ok,” asks Adriana.

“Well, no. Not really. But I didn’t come all this way to stop now.”

“Haha. Agreed, carnalito. Well, if you want we can leave at 1am. The first shuttle is then.”

She’s right. In addition to transportation to the reception, there are shuttles making trips to the hotels every hour starting at 1am. It seems like a good plan, but as the clock nears 1am, Buga and Juan Pablo begin the father-daughter, son-mother, dances. It’s so beautiful. They’re all so wonderful, and I can’t bring myself to leave so soon.

“2am,” I say to Adriana. “We will leave then.”

It’s almost 2am and the sounds of trumpets, drums, guitars, and more the main stage come from the main stage. It’s Grupo la Calle and their energy shoots through me as my body succumbs to irresistible rhythms. Someone begins handing out slippers to the women so they can dance comfortably, while a bar opens on the dance floor serving drinks in plastic bottles.

“Excuse me, waiter. Can I get two cups of coffee?”

“What are you doing?” asks Adriana.

“Getting ready. I’m not going anywhere.”

I sit for about 20 minutes taping my feet and chugging coffee, before ultimately walking to the bar to collect my own plastic bottle. Grupo La Calle’s energy gives me my 4th wind of the night. They play a an enormous collection of Spanish jams, which I dance to despite not knowing the words to any of them, in addition to hits from Bruno Mars, Selena, and Maroon 5. Through the chaos Adriana and I track down Buga and Juan Pablo for photos. Soon after Buga tosses her bouquet to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, which is a pretty appropriate choice of song.

It’s nearing 5am. Adriana has disappeared, but I’ve reconnected with John and Sofia. We sit at tables facing the dance floor; sweaty with smiles.

“How do you feel?” asks John.

“I don’t know, actually. This is all a lot to take in really,” I say. I look around the hacienda at the couple of hundred people who are still dancing. “I think I’m done here.”

They both agree. We say our final goodbyes to the bride and groom, grab a handful of to go snacks from the ‘to-go snack’ table, and head to the shuttle. We sit almost in silence on the bus, because there really isn’t much to say.  John shares a couple of photos with me.

The first is pretty funny. 

The second is simply accurate. 

 

I love mexico. 

Guanajuato: It's delicious.

From the moment I arrive in Guanajuato, Mexico the city's beauty overwhelms me. The numerous small streets and passageways host delightfully local splendors; long dark tunnels and street vendors. Upon arrival at Hotel Casa de Pita the city's color and vibrant noise pollution continue to call to me, but as I look out across the mountainous vista from my patio I wonder if I still had 'it'.

Various books, projects, and business endeavors have kept me occupied, where as there was a time when I was somewhat known for adventure. To be completely honest with you, I wondered if the Shameless Vagabond was still shameless.

IMG_5919.JPG

I set out to El Clave de Azul at the suggestion of a friend back home to discover if I am still that man, that viajero who had traveled the world so aimlessly before. Upon arriving I'm overtaken by the bars bohemian simplicity. The walls are decorated with old posters from concerts, newspapers, and more, and the shelves are lined with a variety of old radios and cameras. My friend was right to suggest it to me, and in his honor I order the strangest sounding mezcal available and a Victoria.

It is disgusting.

However, all eyes are on me. I imagine that it's not everyday large black guy with an afro comes into this place ordering mezcal, so I finish the bitter drink to make a good impression. I order another round, but this time I tell the waiter to bring a much milder type. By now two well dressed men have entered and sit at a nearby table. They lift their drinks to me, 'salud', and begin to ask questions about where I'm from and how I speak Spanish.

Eventually, Jesus, or 'Chucho' as he asks me to call him, invites me over. He and his friend are lawyers, and as we continue to discuss they order more rounds of mezcal and beers. To my delight I see the barman slang a large glass jug over his shoulder filled with what looks like snake skins and brown liquor.

It's delicious.

We continue to drink until we're joined by two men: one named Luis and the other who is simply called El Maestro who's apparently known for his musical talents in the city. Eventually, they invite me to a restaurant, since I hadn't eaten anything all day. I bid Chucho adieu, and head out into the night. We traverse the streets passing taco stands, bars, musicians, and everyone who had an idea for a Thursday night out in Guanajuato. We soon arrive at La Cimbra only to see that it is already closed, as a restaurant would be at midnight. However, Luis and El Maestro have a reputation. They serve us last minute drinks and allow us to go unto the rooftop. A brief chat with the chef, whose kitchen is certainly closed, leads to a nice meal for us to share.

We sit under the canopy eating, drinking, and joking, with only the adjacent cathedral's brilliance to give us light. The music echos from the streets below as a soft rain keeps rhythm. We decide it's time to visit a taco stand, and a bar where they know the owner. We quickly devour the tacos before crossing the street to a place called La Champa. We enter to see a DJ to our left providing the night's deep house grooves, while a few patrons are scattered around the room. A short man approaches me.

“This is the owner, Sam,” Luis says.

“You're from where?” asks Sam?

“Houston, Texas.”

“Come with me you're guest working the bar tonight. But take this shit off,” he says as he points to my jacket and button up shirt. “You have to be looking sexy behind the bar.”

I take his advice and come behind the bar. Soon I'm crushing herbs, shaking shakers, taking orders, and dancing; all while making a few drinks of my own. I wink to the DJ after he asks for a beer, and even to a few mexicanas who ask for a light of their cigarettes. Eventually Luis and El Maestro say there goodbyes, but I decide to stay a bit longer. It's regretfully my only night in Guanajuato before heading to Leon tomorrow morning, and I've got to make the most of it. I'm shaking a drink when Sam puts a key necklace on me, making the entire scene official.

“You've got this shit now,” he says as we pose for a photo.

It's around 3 am or so, when he suggests I speak with a tall woman. I come from behind the bar and began to talk with her. Her name is Marie. She's exquisite and comes from Austria. I tell her some stories from when I was and Vienna and to her delight I've tried some very specific Austrian cuisines. Her cousin and another guy suggest we go have some mezcal, and I riding I wave of a certain familiar shamelessness, oblige.

You'd think the night was young the way we continue at the next bar. Soon after arriving we order a couple of rounds of mezcal and Victorias. Marie is shy about her English, but I insist it's much better than my non-existent German. The small disco is packed with people dancing, and we stand close in order to hear each other's words. The strobe lights continue change color, and as it lands on red we kiss passionately.

----

Breakfast at Hotel Casa de Pita is at 9am and is included. With about 3 hours of sleep and a mezcal infused disposition, I creep out of my room. I'm pretty quiet at the table for more reasons than the obvious. It's not proper to speak with food in one's month, and who would want to talk when there's a delicious assortment of fruits, tortas, orange juice and coffee. To add to this, I really don't know what to say.

I slowly ascend the winding stair cases until I am once again on the hotel's rooftop patio: where it all began. The morning's mountainous air is cool, with a hint of heat in it. It's going to be a hot day. I lounge in one of the chairs looking out once again across the city. I think of Chucho, Luis, El Maestro, and Sam. I think of Marie. I don't remember the last time I ever wanted to stay longer in a city, but it's not possible. Leon, Guanjuato and the wedding of an old friend are waiting for me. I look at the city one last time. I dwell once more on yesterday's doubts, and smile.

“I still got it.”

The Balvenie 2015 Rare Craft Collection: A dram indeed, Tony.

It’s Tuesday night and I wander into Silver Street Studios for The Balvenie 2015 Rare Craft Collection. The Balvenie, a Scottish whisky distillery known for its natural alchemy and centuries old craftsmanship, is providing tasting sessions of their malty finery, in addition to showcasing the talents of American craftsmen. While free samples of aged whisky are tempting on any night, this event has a special draw.  Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, is the collection's curator and has personally selected the five craftsmen who, in his educated opinion, represent some of the ‘finest around today’.

As I look around for signs of Mr. B, I began to question what is true craft. What denotes quality? What denotes class? Perhaps it's the way one carries themselves in response to the perceived bourgeois delicacies of life? This cheese, goes with that wine. That must be eaten at this temperature. “Look at him. He can’t even hold his nosing glass properly. Ha!”

No. That can’t be right.

I polish off the rest of a formidable 12 year sample and shuffle effervescently into the craftsmen sector. Bourdain’s allure combined with Balvenie was enough to get me in the door without having any idea of who these craftsmen were, but as I make my rounds to their stations I become acquainted quite fast.

Sebastian Martorana of Sebastian Works sits shaping stones with his chisel and smile, inviting us to try our hand at the craft.

Megan O’Connell of Salt & Cedar operates a cast iron press, which more or less is the same type used since the Renaissance. Across the room is Elizabeth Brim, blacksmith and teacher. She wears pearls while showcasing her metalwork.

IMG_2892.JPG

I can’t stop staring at Roland Murphy and the folks at RGM Watch Company as they use a centuries old technique called guilloché to etch intricate designs into metals, which will become the faces handcrafted watches. Finally, I arrive to Ian McDonald of the Balvenie Cooperage. He began beating on distillery barrels when he was 15 years old, and from the looks, and certainly sound of it, he is not stopping anytime soon. It’s at this moment, during the clanging of metals and murmurs of people turned cattle being herded into a tasting session, when I overhear Bourdain’s voice coming from a speaker saying, “It’s about people who care about things enough to make them better than they need to.”

Quality. Class. Craft. Yeah. I think that’s it.

Very satisfied with this as the answer to my true craft question, I take my seat during a tasting session led by Jonathan Wingo, The Balvenie Ambassador to the Central and Southern United States. He prowls around the center of the room hoisting his nosing glass and explaining how to taste, and how the three samples, aged 14,17 and 21 years, were formed.

IMG_2896.JPG
IMG_2897.JPG

Someone at my table jokes that two of the whiskies are aged to young to drink alcohol. I conclude that they can’t handle their Balvenie, and refocus on Wingo’s instructions. The flavors, textures and tone are distinct, indicative of the methods and barrels which conceived them. As I savor the last drop of the only whisky old enough to drink itself, my palate is educated anew. The Balvenie hosts craftsmen, because they’re craftsmen in their own right.

We are herded once more into the final segment. We are jubilant cattle, content with our official Balvenie glasses, notebooks and pens as mementos, along with the adequate amount of whisky we’ve had in the last hour.

Waiters hustle about with savory hors d'oeuvres, and I stand, another Balvenie in hand, laughing at the sight of suited gents and dolled up dames rushing to take the bites. I look around for signs of Bourdain. It seems that I won’t be meeting the hero tonight. However, his image is blazoned on the wall, and I lift my glass while reading his quote;

“Let’s raise a dram to giving a damn about what we create.”

A dram indeed, Tony.