At home in Mexico

Betsy McNair

Betsy McNair

· 10 min read
At home in Mexico

The date is Thursday, April 30, 2009. I am at home in Guanajuato. I know this because, as cooks the world over know, being "at home" means having rice, beans, pasta, onions, and garlic in the pantry, fresh fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator, some protein in the freezer, and a pot of chicken stock on the stove.

But settling into my new beautiful home in Guanajuato has also meant coming down off the thrill of The Road Trip. Writing these posts, telling the stories of my adventures, has been helpful in bringing me into the present, allowing me to process all that I saw and smelled and thought of as the road flew beneath me for almost 2,500 miles.

The stats for the trip:

  • I started the trip on Tuesday, April 7 when I left my home in Happy Valley, Santa Cruz, California at 1pm. I arrived in Marfil, a district of the city of Guanajuato in the state of the same name seven days later on Monday, April 13, at 4:30pm. Total travel time = 147.5 hours; 95 in the US and 52.5 in Mexico.
  • I started out slowly - it took me 4 full days to leave California and head east into Arizona and to the border, about 1000 miles in total, and gained speed in Mexico, where I covered about 1500 miles in 2 days.
  • I spent about $140 USD on gas.
  • Tolls in Mexico totaled $109 USD, which works out to about 7 cents per mile. For this nominal fee I had well maintained roads that were patrolled by the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels), a fleet of roadside service vehicles that prowl the highways of Mexico 24 hours a day looking for motorists in need. (They're rather like AAA except that they're out there looking for you and it's free.) There were gas stations with clean bathrooms and mini-supers all along the route, and safe and sane fellow drivers.

My observations:

  • People throughout the trip were - as I have always found in my travels in Mexico - kind and helpful. This time they were also a little incredulous that I was making this trip solita (alone).
  • There were a few times during the trip when I was afraid. They were: 1) when I thought I might have done some damage to the tire by hitting the Invisible Cement Thing, 2) the morning that I was getting dangerously low on gas while counting the kilometers to the next Pemex station, and 3) a couple of times when, while driving, I could feel my eyes drooping from the sameness, not from tiredness. Cranking up the tunes and singing along helped with this one.
  • The highlights of the trip inside Mexico were 1) the absolute zaniness at the border and the necessary "logic adjustment" that followed, 2) driving Karina the toll-taker home to Santa Ana, 3) my guardian angels Carmen and Manuel in Guaymas, 4) staying in a No Tell Motel, and 5) the delicious barbacoa outside of Guadalajara.

For the record: I saw NO narco-traficante action, no rolling heads, and certainly no police state in Mexico. (I think Anderson Cooper should be made to wear a silly hat and stand in the corner for his shenanigans in the combat suit. Reminds me of a presdent we once had.) I'm not denying that drug-related problems exist, I am saying that crossing the border and then driving 1500 miles in Mexico with my eyes wide open, I saw none of these problems. No kidnappings, no drug cartels, and no police or army personnel. (I take that back. Somewhere around Hermosillo I saw three army jeeps filled with guys in uniform heading north. It looked liked the kind of thing you see in the US - first vehicle said "First in Convoy" and the last vehicle said " End of Convoy." I have no idea where they were going or what they were doing.)

Let me sum this up: My experience driving alone from the US border to Central Mexico was absolutely delightful. I felt completely safe. I was looked after and well cared for by everyone with whom I had contact. The coffee in the ubiquitous OXXO markets was terrible, but that is really my only complaint. I'd do it again in a minute. And I will, in June when it's time to go home.

Okay, off the caja de jabón and on to life in Guanajuato...

Dear Faye was here for the first two days and plenty of time was spent learning all the rules of a new house: when to pay whom, which keys open which locks, where to put the garbage, how to turn the lights on, etcetera.


We rested, we read, and on Faye's last day in Mexico we spent a glorious late afternoon in downtown Guanajuato on the rooftop terrace of Alma de Sol, my pal Hugo's B&B, then had a wonderful dinner overlooking the Jardín Unión, the main plaza of Guanajuato. Over Frito Mixto and Osso Bucco at an Italian place called El Frescatti, we looked down upon the bustling town as the marvelous cacophony drifted up to us: Mariachi, Ranchero, Norteña, and Spanish-style troubadours in Renaissance garb (Estudiantinas) all played at once, seemingly oblivious to each other as they belted out everything from De Colores in six-part harmony, the crowd swaying and singing along, to El Mariachi Loco, a song that Hugo always rewrites in the moment to tell my story: "Esta gringa loca quiere bailar, esta gringa loca quiere cantar." (This crazy gringa wants to dance, this crazy gringa wants to sing. And he's right!) It was a glorious only-in-Guanajuato evening made even more special by sharing it with Her Fayeness and Hugito.


The next day I dropped Faye off at the airport and officially began my two months living in Guanajuato. As I said, the way I feel at home in a place is to fill the larder, so I went straight to the grocery store. I figured I'd take the toro by the cuernos, as it were, so I went to the newish behemoth grocery store that had grown on the hill since I left in 2003 and I perused every single aisle to 1) learn what people eat here (or, at least, what the store owners believe people eat here), and 2) figure out what I and the people I planned to entertain would eat here. One thing that never fails to impress me in Mexico is the enormous variety and quantity of yogurt products available in the markets. This is just a corner of the yogurt department:


Over $200 USD later (an enormous sum to spend on food in Mexico) I had jamon serrano (think prosciutto), arrachera (a thin cut of beef very popular here for grilling) and chorizo of two types in the freezer; goat cheese, Oaxacan string cheese, and Parmesan cheese in the reefer; papaya, mangoes, bananas, limes, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce soaking in a disinfectant solution in the sink, wine in the rack and sparkling water chilling, and enough nosh-type goodies in the house to handle snacks for drop-in guests. My Full Larder = Happy Heart syndrome had been addressed and its needs met. The temperature outside was a dry 90 degrees Fahrenheit and I haven't lived through an East Coast winter since 1989, but it's clear to me that this drive comes from a deep-seated need to know that if we get snowed in I can feed us all for a week.


The stock pot simmered away. I started calling people, telling them that I was town, making plans. (If a cook knows she's home when the pantry is stocked, a caterer knows she's arrived when the first dinner party is scheduled.) I met a friend who makes goat's milk yogurt so I bought some and started making myself a papaya lassi for breakfast every morning. (Absolutely delicious. Just needed a pinch of cardamom and I found some yesterday.)

On Saturday I went to a "tea party" where I met at least fifteen new-to-me North American women who moved to Guanajuato since I left in 2003. After lunch I spent a good hour chismear-ing (Spanglish for gossiping) with two older gals whom I met on my second day in Mexico in December 1994. Sunday afternoon I attended an excellent concert at the Gene Byron Museum across the street from my house. Wonderful accessible jazz music played by four darling young men, all students at the University of Guanajuato. Cuarteto Obsidiana, The Obsidian Quartet. Later in the afternoon I visited with the younger crowd in town at a BBQ at El Fusilado, a way cool mescal bar in Valenciana. A full weekend.

That night a cool wind began to blow. And blow. It had been very warm, 90s, so it was a welcome respite. I slept with the bedroom door open to the garden to enjoy the breeze and the view of the mountains. I the morning it was still cool and breezy and the room was littered with bright pink bougainvillea flowers. Gorgeous.

Ignacio the gardener came by that afternoon for a couple of hours to pour gallons and gallons of water onto the parched earth. I was sitting at my desk writing and watching him outside when I began to hear...thunder? No way, not in April; this is the dry season before the rains begin in June. But Guanajuato is laced with tunnels (it's a mining town, after all) so I figured they were working on a new tunnel and I was hearing the explosions of dynamite, a common sound in Guanajuato.


But it got louder and the sky turned a steel blue and suddenly it began to pour. Big time. Like run-madly-through-the-house-closing-doors-and-windows pour. By the time I hit the third storey it had changed to hail and I was being pounded with little pellets of ice. I grabbed my camera and tried to catch a few pix of this amazing phenomena. (Note the hose that was dropped mid-watering as Ignacio ran to get out of the storm.)

And I'm thinking, Yahoo! If we get "hailed in" I'll be able to feed the neighborhood for three days!

Some photos of my lovely casa...


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Betsy McNair

About Betsy McNair

MY MEXICO TOURS began in the fall of 2003. Since then I've introduced hundreds and hundreds of intrepid travelers to the folk and fine art of Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Chiapas; the elegant colonial cities of Puebla, Guanajuato, and Morelia; the fabulous cuisines of Oaxaca, Michoacán, and Yucatán. We’ve enjoyed regional culinary experiences in humble huts, palatial homes, and cooking schools throughout the country; walked amongst the crumbling ruins yet seen the thriving preHispanic cultures in Michoacán, Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatán.

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