“I’ve always considered latte art ephemeral” Another morning at Cafe Blé in Guadalajara

ble guadalajara

I come to Blé again today because even though I don’t want to come here everyday because it would be expensive, it is more or less the perfect way to start a morning. A matcha latte. A thick piece of toast slathered with butter and raspberry jam whose seeds you can taste. My seat in the corner where I’m able to observe the rest of the cafe, observe Ulises, the owner, as he goes about his business, and look out upon the street.

Ulises asks, “Can I prepare you anything?” and I say, “Lo de siempre, el latte matcha…” and then trail off. I take my seat in the corner and pull my laptop from its case, which is actually just a tattered merino wool shirt. I plug the charger into the wall and then insert the little magnetic piece that connects to the computer. I turn it on and see that the battery’s at 19%. This is probably because I was playing chess last night before I went to bed. I’ve been playing chess against the computer more lately, because I do it on an easier setting, and thus win more, and thus it’s more satisfying. Even when the computer has one second to think between moves it destroys me. And this is one of the lowest settings. But when it’s only allowed to think three moves ahead I can usually beat it.

My latcha matte comes and I comment on the design and Ulises talks about how latte art is “ephemeral” and how some people notice it and some people don’t. We talk about for-here cups and to-go cups, and how a latte having a design and being served in a ceramic cup can influence its taste, or at least our perception of its taste. I make a comment Ulises doesn’t understand and rather than I explain myself I let it linger. My Spanish feels poor this morning. I’m unable to express even the most basic things. I probably need mate, and I probably need to play chess. I’ve been playing chess and watching chess lately to the point where I see the pieces moving sometimes as I lie in bed, waiting for sleep. Supposedly, chess is becoming more popular. But isn’t that what people’ve always said? Isn’t that what people have always said about American soccer? Though that might actually be true. It is true, even if soccer’s popularity still blanches in comparison that of basketball or football. It’s hard to be an accurate judge of the popularity of something you’re involved in.

The toast Ulises serves me is almost two inches thick. I take the spoon and hack a wedge of butter onto it, and it’s real butter, not margarine. Margarine is huge in Mexico, because people think it’s healthier than butter. This, of course, is a travesty. Margarine is a disgusting mix of chemicals and oils. It tastes like refuse. It looks like refuse. It has a disgusting sheen to it, and I actually thought the butter at Blé was margarine until Ulises corrected me. Now that I know it’s real butter, it looks and tastes like real butter. I don’t know how I ever thought otherwise.

Within a few minutes the toast is gone, and the matcha latte is quick to follow. I sit back in my chair and look at the blue door across the street. I listen to the reggae or jazz or ska or whatever it is coming from the speakers. I listen to Ulises talking to a customer. They talk about expensive coffee, and I think back to the time in Buenos Aires with A where I tried the most expensive coffee I’d ever had. It was also the best. It was a Geisha bean from Panama, and it tasted sweet and caramelly.

My time in this cafe has almost run its course, and I wish I could relive it. I wish I could walk in again and order a matcha latte and slice of toast, and greedily dig into the toast as soon as it came. I could, of course, repeat this experience, but it would be disappointing. I’ll have to wait till tomorrow, or the next day. The plate that once held the toast now only holds crumbs, and the cup that once held the matcha latte now has a green stain where the steamed milk once reached. The latte art is long gone, as if it never existed. And it’s ephemeral, or we call it ephemeral, because it existed for three minutes, or less, and then was gone forever. But I wonder if everything isn’t ephemeral.

 

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Drinking Topo Chico in San Francisco de Ixcatan

tacos san francisco ixcatan

The day started with me descending into the belly of the beast, i.e. the dark cavern that is Guadalajara’s SITREN, i.e. Guadalajara’s metro. But don’t call it the metro. People will correct you and call it the train, despite the fact that it runs underground, and is indeed a metro in every way possible apart from the fact that people don’t call it that.

But anyway.

My goal this morning was to go SOMEWHERE. Anywhere. All I wanted to do was get out of GDL, and preferably to a small town. I had a few small towns north of GDL in my cross-hairs, one of them being San Francisco de Ixcatan, which looked to be in the mountains, or some kind of valley, next to a rushing body of water, which I believe laymen call a “Rhivjer.”

My plan of attack was this: Take the metro, I mean train, as far north as I could, and look for a bus. This is why I’m not allowed to travel with people. Most people wouldn’t subscribe to this plan. What if there aren’t buses? What if that part of town is really bad? Why don’t we just go to the main bus station and do this methodically?

Bo……..ring. (boring).

I got off the train and started walking north, hoping buses would be going by right there. But when I looked at Google Maps I realized I’d probably have to connect with the main highway before there’d be buses. So I kept walking. I bought a “chocomil,” or chocolate milk, made fresh right there with cinnamon on top. With this glucose infusion I kept walking, and after a few minutes asked a guy sitting by the side of the road if he knew where the buses to Ixcatan left from. He seemed excited. “Right down there, by the Elektra,” he said, pointing down the hill. And so I kept walking. I walked for probably half a kilometer, and the Elektra, an electronics store, came into view. There was a slough of people in front of it, the chaos of buses stopping, the heat, the cars speeding by. I crossed the road and followed people’s lead, taking a seat on a planter in the shade created by the Elektra.

“Good afternoon,” I said to the people sitting next to me. “My name is Mark Thomas, first of his name, and I was wondering if the buses to San Francisco de Ixcatan pass by here.”

“Where’s that?” the woman said.

“Ahhhh, Ixcatan,” she quickly added. “What did you call it?”

“It’s just that it says ‘San Francisco de Ixcatan’ on the map.”

“Why do you wanna go there?” the guy sitting next to her asked.

“I don’t know. To eat. To get out of the city.”

This seemed like a novel idea to them. I gathered from our short conversation that Ixcatan wasn’t exactly on the top of people’s bucket lists.

road to ixcatan

(For the record: I despise the term bucket list. I’m ashamed of myself for using it. It’s kind of a buzz word these days, people always asking each other, “What’s on the top of your bucket list?” followed by a 15 minute conversation about Thailand.)

The bus was glorious. Oh, how I love locomotion. Moving faster than you could under your own power. Is there anything better? Besides chocolate milk, of course.

Within 15 minutes we were out of Guadalajara and a large valley stretched before us. For some reason I had expected everything to be green and florid, but it was decidedly arid. Dry. Parched. And we weren’t going UP in altitude. We were going down. Down a steep, winding hill, further into the heat. Out of the city, but not out of the heat.

Even before getting to Ixcatan I was thrilled by the trip. Thirteen pesos and I had gotten a world away from GDL. Why have I not been doing this every weekend? Or every day, for that matter? Why don’t I live in San Francisco de Ixcatan, keep goats, and tend to them? This last question would plague me for most of the day.

plaza ixcatan iglesia church

Upon arriving to the town, which was quiet, a few old men sitting in the main plaza under the shade of a jacaranda tree (I have no idea what kind of tree it was), I sought out tacos. I was rewarded with a stand next to the church that sold tacos dorados for 10 pesos each, of which I had two. After this I drank a Topo Chico, Mexico’s premier mineral water, and headed for the hills. I took a cobblestone road that seemed to lead out of the town, and indeed in less than 10 minutes I WAS out of town, listening to the sounds of the insects, the birds, the sounds of the country on a hot day in old Mexico.

After my foray into nature I walked back into town where I spotted a horse standing on the sidewalk waiting for its owner. I sat next to the horse, and next to a dog that was taking refuge from the sun in a tree planter. There I sat for some time, observing the town. There was a group of people to my left listening to music and drinking beer. A man road by on his horse followed by his son, who was riding a pony, and then they talked to the people and went by me again. The dog, when I sat next to it, stirred for a second, looked at me, and went back to sleep. The horse seemed annoyed at having to wear a bit, but content to be in the shade.

And then I went back to the main plaza, where I continued to sit. When I heard the sound of the bus, I ran to get on it. It didn’t leave for a few minutes, however, so I walked over to a guy selling fruit and got a bag of mango and watermelon covered in chile and lemon for 15 pesos. And then it was time to get on the bus, and time to leave San Francisco de Ixcatan.

horse ixcatan

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Legs Pointed Skyward

Today I taught my English class in the upscale neighborhood of Providencia, three hours of intense one on one English instruction, nurturing the finest minds from Guadalajara, and then afterward went to the park. I went to the park to work out. Lately I’ve been going three times a week and doing bench, sit-ups, pull-ups, and usually one wildcard exercise like wrist curls.  My workouts last approximately five minutes. Today was special though, because there was a guy there working out, and upon arriving I said to him, “Hey, do you know how to do these exercises? I don’t know if I’m doing them properly.”

“More or less,” he said.

It turned out he was basically a personal trainer. Or at least he became my personal trainer for the next 30 minutes. His name was Frank, and when he said his name with a distinct American/Non-Mexican accent, I asked him if he spoke English.

“More or less,” he said.

He taught me how to do various exercises, like deadlifts, with perfect form, and stressed that good form was much more important than how many reps you could do and with how much weight.

“I’m a perfectionist, Frank,” I said, “So I understand the desire for good form. Why do you think I asked you if you knew how to do these?”

Frank helped me add several new exercises to my repertoire, like hanging from a beam. I’ve never been one to just hang from a beam — I usually can’t resist the urge to try to pull myself upward — but it turns out it’s fairly agreeable. It stretches you out. It felt good on my wrist. And Frank claimed it was a good way to build grip strength and strength in general.

On the way to my English class I made another wonderful discovery: An upscale grocery store. I went in hoping they’d have mate, and they did have mate, two wonderful Argentinian brands — Cruz de Malta and Rosamonte — that are guaranteed to send my brain into the stratosphere over the next few weeks — but they also had something even better (roughly the same): Vichy Catalan. If you don’t know what Vichy Catalan is, I feel sorry for you, but I don’t blame you. Vichy Catalan is sparkling water. It comes from Catalunya. It tastes roughly like sulfur, and I’m obsessed with it. The only problem is in Spain it costs about a euro a liter and here it costs $3.50 cents for a half liter. Still, I bought one. I brought it to my English class and said to my student, “Prepare for massive life changes.” My student hated it, which I was hoping for, since it meant more for me. And so now, for as long as I stay in Guadalajara, I’ll reward myself on any occasion possible with the finest mineral Spain has to offer, since now I know exactly where to get it.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Guadalajara. How long I’m staying here. This morning I woke up in foul spirits and upon exiting my room immediately stepped on a paralyzed cockroach and the resulting sound sounded like a bubble on a sheet of bubble wrap popping. Why do I say “paralyzed?” Because when cockroaches come into contact with fumigation chemicals they become paralyzed, lying on their back, feet pointing to the sky, waiting to be disposed of. I’d seen them like this before and always thought they were dead. But today the owner of my house set me straight. When this happened I thought, “OK, no more. I’m getting the hell out of Guadalajara.” But then on the way to class I had a sort of epiphany. I could’ve left today, I could’ve just said to hell with everything, and been instantly “free,” but I would’ve felt bad and probably questioned the decision. Or I could do something I’m not used to. I could give the decision some more time, and not rush it. So that’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m pretty sure I’m going to leave GDL soon (which will be great for this blog), but I’m going to take Semana Santa (Easter), and getting out of the city for a few days, to think about it. If I come back and still want to leave, then peace out, GDL.

But who knows. Maybe I’ll want to stay here and work out with Frank. And drink mate. And on very, very special occasions, buy a cool, refreshing, slightly sulfuric bottle of Vichy Catalan.

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A Cafe Dedicated to Cats

el gato cafe guadalajara

Imagine a restaurant dedicated to cats. It might be difficult, since you might wonder why anyone in their right mind (or any frame of mind) would dedicate a restaurant to cats. But that’s indeed what’s happened at El Gato Cafe, a half block from the famed neo-gothic cathedral El Expiatorio, in Gaudalajara, Mexico.

Now imagine spending time at this cafe, eating there, perusing the menu. This was the situation I found myself in the other day. I’d seen El Gato Cafe on Google Maps, where  it has an extremely high 4.8/5 rating, and since I spend 98% of my waking hours in cafes I figured I should check it out.

I went at 3:30pm, certainly not the most happening time of day, and besides the waiter standing there looking expectant, and Elton John music drifting from the speakers, there wasn’t much going on. I sat down and began paging through the menu, which brought to mind an unabridged volume of War and Peace or other such Slavic tome. I’d never seen so many coffee drinks, and all of them seemingly similar. There was the Iced Cafe Mocha on one page, and then halfway down the same page the Iced Coffee Mocha. On the same page there was also a Cappuccino with Chocolate, a Coffee with Mexican Chocolate, and something like an Iced Mocha with Mexican Chocolate (I don’t remember exactly, since I have the memory of a turtle). I opted for the Hot Chocolate with Shot of Coffee, and as the waiter was walking away I said, “Actually, can I have it cold?” He didn’t bat an eye.

I immediately noticed a curious thing about the tables at El Gato Cafe. They’re all equipped with buttons so you can page the waiter. He said, “Press it for three seconds and I’ll come right over,” which seemed a bit excessive since there was no one there and I’m pretty sure even from across the room he could hear the sound of me breathing. I noticed there was also a button labeled “Surprise,” which seemed mysterious to say the least. Letting my curiosity get the better of me, I started reaching for the surprise button, and as I reached for it I noticed the waiter eyeing me while he reached for what looked liked a clown mask and a meat clever. I put my my hand down, and he went back to making my drink.

My beverage came, which was, strangely, exactly what I’d asked for. It was a hot chocolate, with a shot of espresso, and at the last second it’d been made cold, as if an afterthought, much how I’d ordered it. I sat back and listened to the music, which had changed from Elton John to something worse. I kept on looking at the menu, since there’s not much else to do when you’re at a cat-themed cafe by yourself. I noticed many of the drinks and food items had cat-themed names, none of which I can remember now. One of them had the word “Miauuu” in it.

I finished the drink in about four seconds, since I have the self control of a Labrador retriever. Then I paid for the drink, which was prohibitively expensive, and exited out to the street and back to El Expiatorio, where they sell tamales for 17 pesos, or, less than a dollar. It was nice to be out of a cat-themed place and into a place that was cathedral-themed, or street-themed, or tamale-themed, or normal-themed, or anything else-themed, a considerable improvement from El Gato Cafe.

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Turning Left

el terrible juan guadalajara

“The only way round is through.” – Robert Frizzle 

This morning I woke up and did something I’d never done before when leaving the house: I turned left. Now, this might not seem like a big deal, turning left, but since I’ve been living in the house where I’m currently living, every single morning, when I’ve left the house to walk to work, or to walk to Starbucks, or to walk to similar cafe where I digitally scribble in this blog, I’ve turned right.

Of course, my reasons for turning right are manyfold. I love walking down Calle Libertad. It’s leafy, it’s airy, and if the time of day is just right you feel like you’re soaring rather than walking, such is the air of tranquility the street creates, the foliage. I also turn right because the places I usually go to, El Rincon del Mate, el Expiatorio, are most expeditiously reached by turning right. To turn left leaving my house would not only take me into a shabbier neighborhood, it would also add at least five minutes to my walk. To turn left would take me onto the busy Avenida de La Paz (I hate walking on busy streets), and it would also take my by an Oxxo, Mexico’s most ubiquitous gas station.

But of course the main reason I always turn right has to do with habit. It feels comfortable. It’s what I know. And thus any other scenario, turning left, for example, going straight and running into the building across the street, taking off my shirt and standing in the middle of the road screaming, would feel uncomfortable. We’re creatures of comfort — this is one thing I’ve figured out in my 34 years — and change scares even the most intrepid explorers.

After turning left and walking a few blocks I was immediately confronted with an arresting sight. As some of you know may know, I’m currently in the market for new lodging, a new apartment, a new abode, a new dwelling, new “digs,” as it were, and it just so happened that staring me in the face was a big banner that said, “For Rent. Shitloads of space. Roof terrace.”

Actually, it didn’t say shitloads of space, but the amount of square meters listed on the banner deserves no other moniker. The most intriguing part, though, was the terrace. Ever since a few days ago walking by a beautiful house with a veritable forest on top I’ve decided that the ultimate thing you could do in Guadalajara would be to have a terrace. I’m talking about terrace with a view and shade and most importantly, obscene amounts of plants. I’m talking about a jungle. I’m talking about a place where you step out onto the terrace and a Virginia Creeper wraps its tendrils around your neck and asks for the password. I’m talking about a place where you get lost and when you finally make it back to society you realize you’re in Belize. In short, I’m talking about the ideal roof terrace.

So of course I took a photo of the phone number for the apartment and plan to contact them sometime later today to see how many gross tons of bio-matter they think the roof terrace could support, and thus figure out if this might be the place for me.

After seeing this apartment I walked down Calle Montenegro, taking in the sights. There was a place called El Comedor that looked peaceful and elegant, with delicious food. There was a hotel called Hotel Isabel that looked suitable for visiting family members or friends, should that ever happen. And finally there was a restaurant called La Menuderia which specialized in menudo, a soup people have told me I must try but that in my obstinacy I still haven’t. And then I got to El Terrible Juan, my second favorite cafe in Guadalajara, and realized I’d been on a veritable odyssey, that my morning had been completely transformed, indeed my mentality had been transformed, and all because I’d turned left.

And so tomorrow, and later today, and for the rest of this week, I might not always turn left when I leave the house, but I will strive to do one thing each day in a similar vein. I’ve been complaining about my life getting stagnant in Guadalajara after just two months, but it actually might not be so difficult to remedy. It might just involve continuing to step outside my comfort zone, continuing to explore, continuing to meet new people, and of course, ideally, a roof terrace with a shitload of plants.

A Day at Andares, Guadalajara’s Swankiest Shopping Mall

plaza andares guadalajara

How much does living the dream cost? It turns out 82 pesos, or exactly $4.40. The dream involves sitting in a cafe in Andares, Guadalajara’s swankiest shopping mall sipping a “Green Black Tea.” The dream involves watching a Liverpool Champions League game while you sip said beverage. The dream involves shade. The dream involves disposable income. The dream might involve type 2 diabetes.

Eighty pesos is a lot to pay for a coffee in Mexico. I concede this fact. A fact I refuse to concede, however, is that this Black Green Tea, one of the sweetest substances I’ve ever put in my body and probably causing all kinds of physiological mayhem, is not 100% necessary.

I came to Andares today with the idea of buying another dress shirt, since my current dress shirt count is holding steady at one. I went to H&M, where I had a small crisis due to the fabric makeup of some of their shirts. Sixty five percent polyester? Isn’t polyester for used car salesmen? This crisis caused small amounts of sweating on my part, and also some taking of selfies in the dressing room. If you’ve never taken a picture of yourself in front of a mirror (i.e. are over the edge of 50), I don’t recommend it. It’s never flattering. You always look about 16 times worse than you thought you looked. And sending these selfies to friends so they can tell you which shirt they liked is not a good way to continue the process.  In fact, the more prudent option would be to throw your phone in the garbage can.

One thing I realized immediately upon arriving here is that I really like nice places. I consider myself an adaptable person. I’m currently living a room that costs less than $200 a month in a part of Guadalajara that would never be termed “nice.” My room is next to the entryway to the neighbor’s house, separated by a thin, single pane window. Yesterday, when they left the house, they left their rabid dog in the entryway, who proceeded to bark at any sound he perceived as a threat, which is to say, any sound. At one point I leaned close to the window to shush him, which only resulted in increased growling, albeit in my direction, the kinds of growls that said, “It would give me great pleasure to sink my teeth into your thigh.”

No one would ever call my home luxurious, but I find it completely acceptable, if not ideal. That said, I also love luxury. When I stepped onto the grounds of Andares I said to myself, “Ahhhhhhh, I’m home. This is what life is supposed to be like. Is that a fountain over there? Interesting, that grass looks perfectly manicured. Is that the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen? Is that a Gucci store?”

When I travel, I’m the same way. I’ve stayed in places people would call slum-like. I’ve hitch-hiked many hours on end. Slept in airports. Slept at bus stops. And the thing I like about roughing it sometimes is not only that it builds character and usually you meet way more people the less money you spend and have much richer experiences, but it also makes you appreciate luxury. Even when this blog becomes wildly successfully, I still won’t fly business class (all the time.) I won’t stay in nice hotels (exclusively). Because when it comes to traveling, I can’t think of a single time staying in a luxurious place directly produced a memorable travel experience, but I can think of many examples where roughing it did. The less money you spend, the more you rely on your fellow humans. The more money you spend, the more you shut yourself off from the world.

The problem with living the dream when your dream is a beverage with whip cream on top is that it’s short-lived. I’ve finished my Black Green Tea, whose name I still find mysterious, and will now head back to H&M and purchase the darker of the two shirts, since that’s what my fashion consultants (friends) have advised. And then I’ll get out of here, because if there’s one thing to be taken from this post it’s that luxury should be enjoyed in sparing doses; it only remains luxurious when the rest of your life is not. It will be hard to rip myself away from this place, though. It’s so comfortable. So swanky. If Guadalajara is my frappe, Plaza Andares is the whipped cream.

The Compact Object of the Pastry World

pan regio guadalajara

One of my English students via Skype is an astrophysicist. She’s taught me a lot about “compact objects,” which are things like black holes, dwarf stars, and neutron stars. Today I decided I would give her a presentation on astrophysics, because she was feeling a bit tired and might’ve had a headache and didn’t feel like talking that much. This worked out perfectly, because I love talking, and love making stuff up. I gave her a short presentation on High Mass X-Ray Binary Systems, and explained about things like accretion, compact objects, coherent pulsation, supergiants, quiescence, flares, etc. And the interesting part was that, on  some of the stuff, I wasn’t that far off. In fact, at one point she asked, “How did you know what that was?” and explained that I didn’t, that I was guessing.

Of course, for most of the stuff I was completely wrong and had no idea what I was talking about. One of the graphs had a jagged blue line with a spike in it, for example, and a bunch of red dots, and I said that the red dots were plankton and that the blue line represented whales’ hunger before and after eating the plankton. The best part was she wanted to participate, and she forgot she was speaking English. Whenever I asked if she had questions she played the part of the skeptical student perfectly, unmasking my spurious knowledge. It made me realize I need to strive for this more as a teacher. Forget about grammar, or correcting, or anything like that for at least 15 minutes a class, and just focus on getting the student as engrossed in a topic as possible. So much so that which language they’re speaking becomes secondary, and the focus is on communication.

After giving the class I headed out into the fresh Guadalajara morning. It’s getting hotter here. Yesterday the high was in the mid 80’s. I come home from teaching, strip down, put on my board shorts, and hang out barefoot in the cool inner sanctum that is the living room and kitchen of my house. It’s only bad for a few hours. And even during those few hours it’s not that bad. When evening comes the temperature is perfect again. Twilight is my favorite time of day Guadalajara.

As I did yesterday, today I got a bread pudding from Pan Regio for six pesos ($0.32). It was the last one left. On the way back I took a picture of it, because I knew I would want one for this blog. Also on the way back I remarked on the density of the bread pudding. It’s only about the size of a large brownie, but weighs about 30 times as much. How do they make bread pudding so dense? Is it filled with lead? But then I realized it must just have properties similar to those of a compact object. When the bread pudding (called “budin” in Spanish) sits on the shelf in the bakery, it attracts other objects towards it, slowly at first, but then they gain speed rapidly until they slam into the bread pudding, resulting in accretion. Some of the matter from the original object becomes assimilated into the bread pudding, and some of it is spewed into the atmosphere, in this case in the form of particles called “crumbs.” This process continues, croissants and buns and rolls and danishes slowly sliding toward the bread pudding when the shop employee isn’t looking, slamming into it, leaving their mark (and their mass).

And now this compact object is in my stomach. I have a neutron star in my stomach, a dwarf star, a black hole. Which finally explains my eating habits.

A very special thanks to Stefan Peter-Contesse for his (second!) contribution to this “bweeg.” 

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