Friday, February 25, 2011

The White City

Heat drifts over the low scrub of the peninsula, wrapping itself around the whitewashed corners of the buildings that rise at the edge of the city. Merida, the white city of Yucatan, once pulled tremendous wealth from plantations scratched out of that hot, hardscrabble limestone landscape. If the land was harsh, life was harsher: to cultivate acres of rough sisal agave plants whose long fibers could be spun into a strong twine the planters kept legions of Mayan peons in quasi-slavery on haciendas across the region. That twine, prized by international markets for use in mechanized harvesters, brought riches to Merida and its proudly aristocratic planter class. Today, the flowery facades of the mansions are fading reminders of former opulence and the city has grown, a low sprawl creeping outward against the dense vegetation on the edges.

In the afternoon the tropical sun bears down on the wrinkled skin of the city, a socialite unwilling to relinquish her former fame. Sunburnt paint peels from sunburnt buildings. By 3 PM, the anesthetizing heat has dosed residents who lounge on shaded benches or under the awnings of cafes, waiting for the respite of evening's coolness. Under the dirty orange glow of streetlights, the city will reawaken, life flooding back to her streets. In that dim twilight, a guitar plinking distantly, Merida slips back into her ballgown and heads out for the night.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Volcano Dreams

There is something about mountains that impels us to climb them. Perhaps it is little more than an evolutionary urge to seek a higher vantage point, or maybe it is the thrilling beckon of the unknown.

Southeast of Mexico City, the summits of two volcanoes emerge above the serrated edges of the foothills. The northernmost peak, Iztaccihuatl, forms a long ragged ridge that bears more than a faint resemblance to a reclining woman. Farther south, the dramatically steep and snow-covered cone of Popocatepetl still smokes, as it has since a 1994 eruption.

This weekend, after years of wondering, I will be traveling to the slopes of Iztaccihuatl in the hopes of reaching the 17,000 foot summit.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


"How sensible to have had a mescal. How sensible! For it was the right, the sole drink to have had under the circumstances. Moreover he had not only proved to himself that he was not afraid of it, he was now fully awake, fully sober again, and well able to cope with anything that might come his way." - Malcom Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947)

Mezcal--a clear, spicy alcohol drawn from the roasted core of the maguey plant--is as deeply embedded in Mexican tradition as it is in the imagination of foreigners. Long produced in rural regions, for much of the twentieth-century mezcal remained in the shadow of tequila, its heavily distilled cousin. But this seeming lack of refinement is precisely what gives mezcal its allure. Whereas tequila is made only from blue agave, roasted and distilled in modern, stainless steel factories, local mezcaleros produce in small batches, roasting different varieties of maguey hearts in earthen hearths, then fermenting and curing the nectar in rough clay vessels. The resulting spirits possess a range of flavors that reveal the individuality and artistry of their provenance. Mezcales are often hot with peppery alcohol, infused with a campfire smokiness, but can also be sweetly fruity and insidiously smooth, or richly earthy with tones of bitter chocolate.

There is an odd duality about modern mezcal, however. As it has become increasingly chic in Mexico, and the number of trendy mezcalerías has exploded, the endearing qualities of small-batch artisanal production have become commodified, with printed labels proclaiming towns of origin. Simultaneously, many of the best mezcals are homemade, slowly traveling from down from the sierra, passed along chains of friends and acquaintances, sold or gifted in recycled plastic soda bottles, unlabeled and unpretentious.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Hemingway once observed that if French was the language of diplomacy, Spanish was the language of bureaucracy. Standing in line at the National Institute of Migration to get a visa renewed, only to be told that after following online instructions to the letter you only have about half of what you need, the frustration behind that sentiment is hard to ignore.