Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Guanajuato, Mexico

What is remarkable about this photo, is not the slabs of chicharrón the size of a lifeboat, that this ranchero is selling. (The type of Chicharrón pictured here, and there are many, is deep deep DEEP fried pork skin. The hair and rich pork fat have been removed, the skins blanched and dried and then fried to oblivion, until it reaches a puffy, airy foam-like texture. Due to the fat removal part, this is not my favorite incarnation of chicharrón. But I can't help but be impressed by the butchers skills- he got the whole pig suit off in one piece!)

Anyway, what is truly amazing about this photo, is what you can not see. Behind the lens, Carter and I are both sitting down drinking coffee. Both of us. The two of us. Sitting. At the same time. It has been two years since we have been traveling and indulged in the lazy ways of people observing their surrounds without interruptions from a small child on the constant verge of destruction. One of us is always fishing the little guy out of a fountain, apologizing to another set of parents for a stolen ice cream cone, or snatching him off of a street corner at a moments notice-- the coffee going cold in a wishful state of leisure. This simple moment of stillness was delightful!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

tripping stones in the Schanze

Hamburg is one of those cities in the northern half of the northern hemisphere that gets so cold in the winter, that locals begin to peel off their woolen layers the moment the mercury creeps past 55.  I appear somewhat overdressed next to the masses in tube tops and flip flops all sitting outside at the numerous outdoor cafés on the Schulterblatt, the main aorta of the hip Hamburg neighborhood, Schanzenviertel.

I squeeze into a slot at a table outside the Supermercato Italiano between übercool teenagers in cardigans and skinny jeans, a group of new mothers with their brigade of baby buggies, a gay couple who sit silently sunning themselves and three African men who spend more time talking on their mobile phones than to each other.

A sushi joint, a Pakistani place, a Portuguese café, an Italian deli, competing Turkish kitchens and Hamburg’s finest currywurst bude/shack are all – barring the bude - run by immigrant families. Around the corner is the “Drink and Call” a convenience store selling calling cards and cheap internet phone connections to reach family in Kabul, Accra and Ankara - the telltale sign of an immigrant neighborhood.

What makes this particular melting pot so unique is not the diversity, which is a prominent feature of major metropolises throughout Europe; rather the juxtaposition of past and present. It is almost unfathomable to think that not that long ago, Hitler’s regime of hatred sought to destroy an entire race and other individuals who were deemed too different or “unusual” to fit his mad Aryan dream.

From the deli, I head over to the “Helal Bazar” for a few groceries. On the way, I come cross a cluster of stolpersteine, literally, “tripping stones”. A project initiated by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1995, the brass blocks have been placed into the pavement before the entrance of the former homes of Jews, homosexuals, intellectuals, the disabled, and other victims who were deported to concentration camps and murdered during the Third Reich. These little memorials simply state the name of the individual, date of birth, date and place of deportation, and date of death – if known.

I have seen these stones throughout the city but the cluster that I have just come upon is particularly striking: seven blocks, all bearing the family name “Beer”. Presumably a couple and their children and grandchildren deported together. They used to live here.

Lost in thought, I am nearly run over by a group of young Turkish boys on bicycles.  As I look across the street at the Turkish men on the stoop drinking tea, the hipsters at the müsli bar, the veiled woman heading home with her groceries, the African man coming out of the call center, I am struck by how “usual” the “unusual” are in this neighborhood.  

On this gorgeous spring day, when everyone is giddy with the first promise of spring and liberation from the confines of the cold, good moods and goodwill are palpable. I think the Beer family would have liked it here.

Does this post resonate with you? Have you had similar experiences? How do these kind of everyday experiences compare with just visiting a major tourist site?

Friday, March 19, 2010

My Tortilleria: Feeding the ‘Hood

Every couple of days, I walk five blocks into the heart of Santa Tere to visit Beto. “The usual kilo?” he asks, placing a tall paper-wrapped stack on the counter next to the antique metal scale. I dig a ten peso coin out of my pocket and hand it over in exchange for the package. Our well established routine always ends with Beto deflecting my barrage of questions about the history and process of his family’s tortillería (tortilla factory) with a cheeky grin and an open invitation to come at 4 a.m. to witness the magic. “Un día”, I assure him with a playful smirk.

“One day” came last Tuesday. I rose at 3:30 a.m. unable to resist an opportunity to peer into their secret world. Going to work in a tortillería is similar to unlocking the secrets of the Rosetta Stone; it is the key to understanding Mexican culinary traditions. The tortilla was a gift from the Aztecs; I was going to the source of my adopted country's cuisine.

Beto’s family has been supplying my neighborhood with tortillas for fifty-four years. Their tortillería churns out, on average, 880 pounds of corn tortillas, or 7000 tortillas daily.

With a thermos of hot coffee in hand, I hopped on my bike and peddled towards the tortillería. The tic-tic-tic of my wheels cut through the background din of the city’s sleepy hum. In the early morning hours, my bustling urban ‘hood was completely at rest. The piñata makers were still sleeping soundly; vegetable trucks which crawl through the streets blaring bargains through loud speakers, will be parked for several more hours; the street-front stores and restaurants were shuttered, the public space reclaimed as the family’s private domain for the night. Street lights penetrate the stillness and cast a warm glow on empty curbs—a set stage waiting for daily life to play out.

A look of shock ran across Beto’s face as he got out of his truck. “I never thought you would come!” he exclaimed in surprised amusement.

“You’re late!” I laughed and waited for Beto and his father to remove the padlocks from the heavy metal roll-top doors. The tortilla machine was fired up, and I helped haul forty pound bags of soft warm masa (tortilla dough) from out of the back of the truck.

The masa is put into a sink-sized funnel that churns out perfect little disks onto a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt moves over gas flames, looping around three times, flipping the tortillas, and cooking them gently on both sides. Puffy with brown speckles, the tortillas are dumped onto a second conveyor belt and transported to a round bin. Steaming hot, they are weighed out into one kilo stacks and wrapped in clean white butcher paper.

Beto and his crew were fascinated that a tortillería, did not exist in every U.S. neighborhood. If I really wanted to learn how tortillas are made, I would have to come back on Friday at 2:30 a.m., they taunted. Fridays and Saturdays they make the masa at the tortillería. Now they are just messing with me, but darn right I am going to bite!

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo- HomeAway travel writing competition. Does the post resonate with you? Does it inspire you? Have you had similar experiences? How do these kind of everyday experiences compare with visiting a major tourist sight? Lara and Terry of Grantourismo are keen to hear your thoughts.