STAY AWAY FROM HIDALGO’S GULF COAST BEACHES ON THE WEEKEND

Traveling buddy Dan McWethy, on his way back to the frozen North, sent us a brief report from the jungle fantasy world of Edward James. James was an eccentric multimillionaire who built a concrete and stone village in and among the trees near Xilitla in eastern Hidalgo state. Xilitla is well away from the Gulf. Dan sent us this picture which he took of a beach that gets inundated by weekenders from Mexico City.

When the sun worshipers leave, they do not take their garbage with them, and the cleanup takes several municipal workers all day to accomplish. They appear to have no concern for others who may wish to walk along the beach, pitching their tents wherever they please. In other words, they live up to the unflattering picture of the average Chilango (MexCity citizen) which is held by most of the folks out here in the provinces.

DON’T COME TO OAXACA FOR NON-MEXICAN FOOD

[This is probably a non-issue for the vast majority of my readers, who come here to eat the local food. It’s more important to those of us who spend most of our time here. Still, some day YOU may be a resident, so pay attention anyway.] The latest addition to Oaxaca’s lineup of disappointing Chinese restaurants is located on the second floor above Tito’s on Garcia Vigíl. It joins a long line of Japanese, Italian and Lebanese bistros that don’t quite make it.

Although there are some esoteric ingredients that are not available in Oaxaca, it is not lack of materials that is at work here. Nor is it inexperienced chefs: most new startups have owner / chefs trained abroad. The culprit, alas, appears to be the culinary preferences of the average Oaxaqueño.

This picture, and the one at the top of the page, are of the interior of the Alvarez Bravo photography museum on Avenida Murguia. In case they look like exteriors to you, let me explain that in Oaxca, exterior means the outside of the outside wall…

Good Oaxacan cuisine, well prepared, is delicious, and there are many fine restaurants and excellent cafés where one can go to get good “típico (traditional fare). But be prepared: the menu is often brief, and a survey of any ten comida corrida” (fixed price menu) restaurants is liable to turn up nearly identical choices.

Susana Trilling’s marvelous book, ‘Seasons of My Heart’, notwithstanding, there is little variety available in the average eatery, and that appears to be fine with Oaxaqueños. The most outstanding exception to the “make it just like my mama did, please” restaurants is El Naranjo, where chef Iliana, a MexCity transplant, has been experimenting with local dishes. She was one of the first to do away with manteca (lard), and puts a “nouvelle cuisine” twist on many Oaxaca standards.

Iliana, whose restaurant is praised by visitors, gets little local trade. “They just don’t want anything new”, she says. “This is often true even for the better educated and wealthier ones.”

Thus it is no wonder that foreign-cuisine restaurants serve food that uses ketchup instead of plum sauce, regular mustard instead of wasabe, and local cheese instead of mozzarella: that’s what they have to do to get a steady local clientele.

To be sure, there are exceptions. Some dishes in some foreign restaurants are authentic, and some restaurants get it more right than others. Let me know when you get here, and I’ll recommend some of the better ones. But after nine years of eating in Oaxaca’s restaurants, we generally prefer the variety and authenticity of the food we eat at home.

This altar was put up on Garcia Vigíl, about a half block up from the Zócalo. It lasted a couple of days before street maintenance workers swept it away. It memorialized a bag lady who had lived on that spot for several months before she died a couple of weeks ago. Her daugher, who was constantly at her side, put it up in her memory, and then disappeared from the street completely. One hopes she found a less strenuous way of life.

AS SOON AS I PUT IT IN WRITING, IT CHANGES

I wrote the above article on Saturday. On Sunday, we noticed a new banner on an old standby of ours, “El Manantiál Vegetariano”. Being right around the corner from us, it qualifies as a neighborhood restaurant, and on those rare occasions when Diana just doesn’t feel like cooking we have become accustomed to popping round for a quick buffet comida.

The sign said “Cantonese food, pay for what you choose”. On Monday, we tried it. First, the old Manantiál is gone. The long buffet style steam tables and prepared salads are no more. Instead, there is a glorified “salad bar” type of setup, and a very large grill where a chef with two large spatulas holds forth. There is also a scale, and a choice of several sauces. What’s that you say? Sounds like a Mongolian restaurant to you? Well, it looks, smells, and plays a lot like one to me, too. So they got the nomenclature wrong, but they appear to have gotten the routine right, even though there is no hump in the middle of the grill.

The food you pick gets weighed and costs you 1/10 of a peso per gram. It comes with a bowl of soup, bread, fried rice and desert. We didn’t realize that we were getting all the extras, so we could have easily gotten by with less main dish. One should be quite satisfied with less than 50 pesos worth: a little high priced compared to a “típico” comida corrida, but well under the 70 pesos each we recently paid for a very pedestrian faux-Chinese meal at Tito’s new upstairs.

Marco Polo’s resaurant is located on Cinco de Mayo street. It serves “tipico” with the accent on sea food. The banner reads “We favor peace. No to war.”

Still, while we were there, at one of two occupied tables, in a venue that usually did a pretty good business, two people walked in, took a look around, complained that the old Manantiál was gone, and left. Iliana would probably understand.

GENERIC AIDS DRUGS MAY BE COMING TO MEXICO

Those of you who have been reading this rag for a while know that we support the work of El Frente Común Contra el SIDA (The Common Front Against AIDS). Struggling to overcome dwindling corporate funding (who isn’t these precarious days?), the Frente is managing to keep its doors open through sales of Reuben Leyva’s print , and spreading the word about the causes and prevention of AIDS.

Bill Wolf, the director, dropped by yesterday for a visit, and reported an encouraging new development. There is a campaign going at the national level to reduce the amount of time reserved for the patent holder to have exclusive rights to manufacture a medication, from 20 years to 10 years. It is being aimed at the national legislature, and is being partially bankrolled by Farmacias Similares. Similares is a vertically integrated manufacturer and seller of generic medications: medicines whose patent protections have run out. They have several outlets in Oaxaca. Each outlet has a doctor’s office attached. The doctors work for a non-profit organization that provides low-cost medical and prescription advice: a visit can cost as little as 20 pesos, one tenth the current rate for private physicians.

Bill assures us that the doctors are not there just to steer the patient toward the attached pharmacy. Where it makes sense to do so, they prescribe patent protected medicines, which are not available at Similares. Of course where it is a fit, they do recommend the cheaper generic, as well they should.

Most of the drugs used in the AIDS “cocktail” are now over 10 years old, but still have a ways to go to get to 20 years. Reducing the protection period would mean instant availability of affordable medicines to thousands of people who cannot presently afford them. It would also mean another profit center for Similares, but that’s capitalismo, amigo. Meanwhile, Bill wrote an analysis of the current situation on their behalf which will appear in various publications as well as being used as a supporting document in the campaign for change. He did that at Similares’ request. He is pleased that a large national corporation thought enough of the Frente that they approached him for help and advice.

This fresco, approximately 3×5 feet, was made by dry coloring on a plastered board. It commemorates the 2001 visit to Oaxaca by the Zapatistas on their way to lobby the national congress over the indigenous rights law. Some of artist Jamie Downs (no relation to Lila though they are friends) other works can be seen by clicking here