Saturday, February 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Many have claimed that Obama’s election marks a turning point in American history as epochal as that of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 or Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. At the very least, his success has redeemed the awful history embodied by The Birth of a Nation. But we can’t get away from Griffith so easily. He was right about one thing. Only a few weeks after The Birth of a Nation had its Los Angeles premiere, he predicted a time 'when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.' "
J. Hoberman

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day


The format is increasingly familiar. There are three narrative lines, each populated with stock characters. We have the Yanks at home stream, the Yanks abroad stream and the subtitled sub-story for the foreigners.

An Egyptian-born chemical engineer with a green card finds himself snatched at the airport in DC and shortly afterwards rendered extraordinarily to a generically messed-up Muslim destination. We know he's innocent, whatever his cellphone records might suggest, because he's married to a heavily pregnant Reese Witherspoon.

Assigned to observe his 'first torture' is local CIA man on the ground, Douglas Freeman (played by Gyllenhaal), apparently already lost in a Bowlesian North African nightmare...though unlike Kit Moresby he's going to find a way to back out of the maze.

You can get some shut eye during the parts of the story where Witherspoon follows her husband's trail to the the heart of American power. You might be woken up periodically by the his screams, but the point at which something actually starts happening is just after she's had a good old go at Meryl Streep's CIA harridan Corinne Whitman. The fact that Reese's travails are ultimately of no narrative significance is perhaps why Kelly Sane neglected to develop her character into the central protagonist, but the lack of such is what most impairs this script.

The tale of the torturer's daughter Fatima and her Islamist boyfriend Khalid is also fairly pointless, and the moment one discovers that it has been running in a time-slip is the biggest sensation (one of annoyance) in an otherwise mediocre movie.

Grade: B

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

"Success after all loves a witness, but failure can't exist without one."

A winsome bit of writing this; its wondrousness as a piece of fiction constrained only by the limitations set by its own stylistic conceit.

A second generation member of the Dominican diaspora, Oscar Wao is an overweight kid whose 'nascent pimpliness' in adolescence quickly gave way to the kind of chronic toto-lessness that comes with a dedication to the genres. And as well as the inevitable afflictions of the nerd lifestyle Oscar's misfortunes are tragically compounded by the workings of an old island curse on his family - the fukú .

While Díaz's prose is certainly of the high octane variety throughout, at times the vehicle it fuels begins to look like a bit of a crate. I admired the alluring blend of Macondo and McOndo for the first hundred pages or so, but then a bland, multi-generational Isabel Allende-style saga starts to poke through rather intrusively.

Even the 'voice' which gives this Pullitzer Prize winning novel most of its dazzle has a couple of shortcomings. It becomes clear that Oscar's 'watcher' is his sister's on-off boyfriend Yunior, a more typical specimen of Dominican male (one 'fly bachatero') who yet appears to share much of Oscar's sci-fi and fantasy scholarship as well as his penchant for writing. Yunior acquires some shape as a character in the story, yet remains somewhat artificial and underdeveloped, and we never get closer to Oscar's inner world than Yunior's effervescently sincretic vocabulary allows us. The brief switch to narration from Oscar's sister also struck me as a structural anomaly.

Maybe, having just finished Murakami's novel, I was hankering after a more gossamer touch.

Díaz has a couple of swipes at La Fiesta del Chivo, until now the most high-profile treatment of the Trujillato in Latin American literature. My admiration for Vargas Llosa has been tempered of late by his predisposition to stick his pronounced Peruvian nose into Guatemalan politics, but his is still perhaps the better novel.

Still, the introductory chapter of this book — "no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you" — is something of a mini-masterpiece. And anyone who spend any time in the 80s behind a DM's shield is bound to feel very much at home within the cultural references of the wider text, which, in spite of its often facetious tone (who am I to criticise here..?) delivers some pointed insights into both tropical tyranny and immigrant experience.

Quote of the Day

"If there’s anything we philosophers really hate it’s an untenable dualism. Exposing untenable dualisms is a lot of what we do for a living. It’s no small job, I assure you. They (the dualisms, not the philosophers) are insidious, and they are ubiquitous; perpetual vigilance is required. I mention only a few of the dualisms whose tenability we have, at one time or other, felt called on to question: mind v. body; fact v. value; knowledge v. true belief; induction v. deduction; sensing v. perceiving; thinking v. behaving; denotation v. connotation; thought v. action; appearance v. reality . . . I could go on. It is, moreover, a mark of an untenable dualism that a philosopher who is in the grip of one is sure to think that he isn’t. In such a case, therapy can require millennia of exquisitely subtle dialectics. No wonder philosophers are paid so well."
Jerry Fodor (in the LRB)

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Gran Torino

"Ever noticed how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with?"

From the very first withering scowl you know that Clint is about to re-inhabit the character that he does best. Indeed, this movie encapsulates much of what Eastwood is all about: retribution, crankiness, generational drama, jazzy cleansing with a liberal(ish) twist.

Here he plays Walt Kowalski, a widowed former Detroit auto-worker and Korean war vet, who reflexively refers to his Asian neighbours as 'chinks' and 'slopeheads', but is soon to discover that he has "more in common with these gooks" than with his own "spoiled rotten family".

V doesn't care for his spaghetti westerns much, but is otherwise almost a fan - The Beguiled is one of her favourite movies of all time. She found the final scene here strangely reminiscent of that of Cruel Intentions.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable movie, for its unencrusted approach to its subject and for the 2 or 3 instances of set-piece Clint that it serves up.

Grade: A-

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Davies steps down

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a bit like one of Russel T Davies's Doctor Who scripts, without the wit. And of course, not a Tardis in sight.

I'm not especially sad to see him step down from the helm of the series. He plays to the stalls rather too obviously for my tastes, his plotting is occasionally jarringly smartarsey, and his season finales were always a touch too histrionic. The German-speaking Daleks at the end of season 4 were inspired though. (And provide further pointers to the Holocaust obsession that Davies has brought to the Timelord's adventures. )

His replacement Stephen Moffat is, if anything, being wasted on populist Saturday evening television. A specialist in the 'everyone lives' sub-genre, each episode he has scripted almost a masterclass in the manipulation of fantastical conceits. Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and The Empty Child are three of the most memorable storylines in the revived series, whose underlying ideas could easily have been deployed in more ambitious, feature-length narratives.

Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead, in which dying consciousnesses are caught in the wi-fi and auto-uploaded into the VR core of a supercomputer, and in which we learn that all creatures are right to be afraid of creeping shadows, was another mini-classic.

There's something of Lynch and Murakami in Moffat's imagination and I look forward immensely to his tenure as Whovian-in-chief. Meanwhile, here's Charlie Brooker's take on Torchwood:


I had some time to kill between buses in Tuxtla Gutiérrez (16 hours to be exact), so it helped that there was a Cinépolis multiplex right next to the terminal.

Movie-going is a lot more affordable in Central America. Two hours of Tom Cruise posing as a creepy, confused Nazi cost just 32 pesos - little more than two dollars. And this included a reclining, high-backed seat, a 'macro screen' and a superb sound system.

Valkyrie is all a bit 'oh look here comes another well-known British character actor'. That said, one doesn't have to entirely suspend one's knowledge of history to feel the mounting tension as the plot takes shape. But once Hitler has taken a splinter bath at the Wolf's Lair the whole thing descends a little into scenes of anonymous men in grey running around Berlin, perhaps more appropriate to a TV mini-series.

Grade: B


I had with me in Mexico a collection of movies that V had expressed a strong preference not to watch with me at home, and this was one of them.

In truth even I had been thinking this might be a good way to get to sleep on my bus to Oaxaca, but I ended up completely engrossed.

I don't agree with Kermode that Michael Sheen was equally deserving of an Oscar nomination, and I do agree with the listeners who pointed out his resemblance here to Alan B'stard.

Rebecca Hall has the rather thankless task of adding the barest hint of romance to this duel between two men fighting for a single spot back where the action is. For Nixon this could mean moving back east; for Frost, back west.

If Slumdog Millionaire had gone straight to DVD after all, this film could easily (and deservedly) have taken the Best Picture Oscar.

Even so, A.R. Rahman's winning end-credit tune was surely the clincher last Sunday. Jai Ho, which apparently means 'May Victory be Yours', was actually originally composed for another Bollywood movie called Yuvvraj and has now been re-recorded by the Pussycat Dolls for the benefit of those American consumers who can't abide no foreign shit.

Grade: A-

Trip Pic of the Day

A Cornish cove with cacti was my first impression of Mazunte from high up at Balamjuyuc.

I was saddened to learn yesterday of the accidental death here of Aura Estrada, wife of the Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman. It seems she drowned whilst body surfing back in July 2007.

Aura was also a talented writer and essayist, and following her death a prize for young Latina scribblers has been created in her name.

Ever since being knocked almost senseless by a wave at Monterico I have had a healthy respect for the dangers of the Pacific shoreline. At Mazunte I was careful not to go out much beyond the point where my feet could touch the bottom. Every seventh or so wave is a real monster and they tend to swell up fairly late in their approach, limiting the swimmer's options. You find yourself being literally sucked into their jaws, so powerful is the undertow, so any attempt to escape in the opposite direction is usually pointless. Your best bet is to rush to meet them, hoping to get there before they break over you.

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Let the Right One In

A superb Swedish vampire film imagined as an eleventh installment to Kieslowski's Dekalog.

The film is set in a snow-bound, concrete community outside Stockholm sometime in the seventies. Brezhnev is still General Secretary in the USSR.

It's the disturbingly touching story of a bullied misfit kid called Oskar and his neighbour Eli, who is also 12, but admits to having been that way for some time. Both are lonely and Oskar discovers that his need for an intimate pal is going to override all other considerations.

Eli lives with a creepy middle-aged man who others could easily mistake for her parent, but who functions essentially as her vassal, tasked with collecting her blood rations. His ineptitude in this respect permits us to see how this little girl — who walks barefoot in the snow and smells vaguely of putrefaction — is able to take on burly, blue-collar types considerably larger than herself.

The title derives from the clause in vampire lore which states that one has to formally invite them into your home. There's also an amusing scene playing on the attitude of cats to traveling Transylvanians.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

'Wanderlust' Travel Awards 2009: Top City

1 Antigua, Guatemala 97.78%

2 Kyoto, Japan 95.56%

3 Boston, USA 95%

4 Kraków, Poland 94.67%

5 Havana, Cuba 94.29%

6 Damascus, Syria 93.33%

7 Luang Prabang, Laos 93%

8 Cuzco, Peru 92.73%

9 Sydney, Australia 92.06%

10 Tallinn, Estonia 91.43%

Based on reader satisfaction scores on trips between September 2007 and November 2008.

A full list of winners here...

Mesoamerican Thingamajig of the Day

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Trip Pic of the Day

ET phone home...

The Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga in Mazunte was founded in 1994, four years after Mexico's marine turtles were granted fully protected status.

The centre's motto Conocer para Conservar testifies to its on-going task of binding local communities to its conservational objectives — only a single generation after they were forced to abandon practices of exploitation on which they had been dependent for many more.

I recall that back in the late 80s turtle was an almost unavoidable dish in Placencia (Belize). Nowadays they are absent from both the menus and the Caribbean waters around the spit. Along this stretch of Pacific coastline the hunting ban appears to have been imposed in a more timely fashion.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Trip Pick of the Day

This ancient Ceiba tree also known as La Pochota was already in situ when the Spanish arrived in 1524 and established Chiapa de Corzo as their first city in what was to become the state of Chiapas.

It has since served as a symbol of indigenous solidarity and narrowly survived combustion on October 9, 1945 when it was intentionally set alight, destroying over a third of the branches.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trip Pic of the Day

Puente Talisman frontier post.

I had an interesting dinnertime discussion in Mazunte on the question of exactly how much love is lost between these two neighbours. 

"The Guatemalans hate the Mexicans, but the Mexicans don't hate them back," opined my host, a man who'd grown up as a Mexican in Chiapas after his parents had fled Guatemala during the civil war.  

The Mexicans can't have been too chuffed though when Guatemala cost Hugo Sanchez his job as head coach of the national team by dumping them out of the qualifiers for the Olympic soccer tournament - first by beating them and then by losing by an unseemly margin in the next fixture, just to make sure that el tri failed to make it out of the group...on goal difference. 

There also has to be a reason why the Tapachula Pollo Campero appears to be doing its best to pass itself off as a bona fide Mexican institution. All the staff had little tricolor banderas on their orange and yellow uniforms, and the rear wall was emblazoned with images of Chiapanecan beauty spots and a big flappy Mexican flag, under which appeared the oddly familiar strapline: "Nuestro Orgullo"

Pedestrian Signals in Oaxaca

These are even better than the ones in Sofia because the animated man speeds up as the clock counts down!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Trip Pic of the Day

Acutus croc, La Ventanilla, Mexico

Friday, February 20, 2009

Moctezuma got me again

I was chamuscandome this afternoon, running a temperature of 39.46 degrees (103 in F.)

I took two paracetamols around midday which failed to hault the gathering fever. Just when V was offering me some warm consomme (concocted with the cubes enhanced with tomatillo that I found in TGZ), I suddenly realised that I had accidentally deleted over 800 megs of photos from my SD card. And then flushed the recycle bin. Boy did I come out in a cold sweat. Instantly.

Chicken soup may be an ancient Yiddish technique, but just try imagining an unrecoverable clusterfuck. Like reversing over your dear mother's cherished pooch or sending an email destined for your lover to your spouse. I'm sure any number of variations of such a tragic burrada could have similar fever-breaking properties!

Fortunately, I downloaded something called Pandora Recovery (gratis) and got every image back....

How did I end up in such a state? Traversing Chiapas in the ADO bus on Wednesday morning I realised that the rule about only doing No1s in the lavatory was one I might have to flout in order to prevent an interior effect similar to a full-on Zapatista roadblock outside.

The most obvious culprit was the gourd of Pozol I'd downed in the market earlier in the morning (see pic) - a mix of cacao, corn and nutmeg - which looked like it had been scooped directly out of the turbid waters of the Rio Grijalva (AKA the Usumacinta in Guate).

I thought my stomach wouldn't settle in time for the bogless stretch from Guatemala City to La Antigua, but aside from a complete set of skeletal aches and an overpowering sense of fatigue I made it back in one piece.

The killer thirst I then developed this morning I put down to two consecutive evenings sealed within the bubble of primera clase aircon. But soon after breakfast I realised that something more serious was afoot.

I wonder why the Mexicans like to add an "e" on the end of certain Guatemalan/Chiapanecan dishes such as guacamol and pozol?

In the case of apasote, given that there's already an "e" and that only someone from way up in the highlands might say "apasott", our neighbours swap out the first letter, rendering this ingredient as epasote.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

La Ventanilla

It had been my intent to follow in the tyre-tracks of Julio and Tenoch and seek out the legendary beach from Y Tu Mamá Tambien - La Boca del Cielo. Down in Chiapas there is a collection of huts beside the Pacific that goes by the name of Boca del Cielo (Heaven's Mouth) but somehow I don't think they used it for the location.

Anyway, Mazunte has been perfect enough for me. What a spot.

This morning I walked 2km west out of the village towards La Ventanilla. For much of the way the only sounds were intermittent, scratchy bird calls and that of little lizards slaloming through the dead leaves at the tarmac's edge. And then you hear the ocean, like the roar of a jet reverse-thrusting down a distant runway.

Here roughly 25 local families have formed a cooperative to protect the wildlife of their mangrove-bounded lagoon, which sits just behind a mile long stretch of beautiful and completely empty beach. Too rough to swim or surf here, my guide informed me.

The lagartotes are the big draw. These Acutus crocs are the largest of three species in the region, sometimes attaining a length of 6m. (The others are the Crocodylus Moreletti aka De Pantano crocs, and the yet more compact caiman.)

I saw a caballo gingerly wading through the tanin-tinted waters and asked the obvious question. No, these crocs are rather anglo in their attitude to horsemeat. Their favourite meal is dog however. And pisote when they can get it.

There are two main species of mangrove here, white and red. The white mangrove helps regulate salinity and the red variety emits the inky black tanin stain into the water. We spotted several turtles keeping KV on a half-submerged tree trunk, and one crocodile which had been doing a passable impression of a floating log itelf, then made a less than elegant facsimile of a snorkeler's dive the moment its snout made contact with the fibreglass hull of the lancha.

I was rowed to the far end of the lagoon, stopping for iguana, heron and grey toucan photo ops and then led around a small visitor centre which is also home to Itti, an aggressive little coati (pisote) who paw-swiped at my lens, and a dainty little male fox with no name. The cooperative also keeps one big female crocodile called Susanna who subsists on a diet of poultry, and a pool full of snappy crios (yearlings) that have to make do with chicken nuggets. 10x zoom lens or not, I felt brave when I stepped up close to Susanna to get a shot of her ponderous eye.

Under the trees close to where the boat was tied up there was a sad looking burro who looked as if the falling coconuts had really shot his nerves...

Anyway, I'm now in a world-class dump called Pochutla waiting for the 20:00 bus to Tuxtla. You hardly see any girl over 14 here not carrying a young baby.

There are rumours of yet another paro tomorrow, but once I'm in Chiapas and near the border I should be able to make alternative plans more easily than it has proved up here on the coast. I plan to watch the last 3 episodes of Generation Kill on tonight's journey.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Cuando una persona está hechizada ¿es cierto que se alivia si los familiares hacen daño o matan a la bruja? ¡MENTIRA! Nunca hace provecho perjudicar a otra persona."
Donde no hay doctor: una guia para campesinos que viven lejos de los centros médicos

(Shame I can't show you the little illustration that went with this advice!)

Mazunte de Sobra

I missed my bus last night.

They've only had electricity here for about a year and such as it was in my cabaña, it wasn't going to recharge my camera battery. Emiliano kindly agreed to plug it in in his kitchen and then vanished for the rest of the day, locking the door behind him.

By the time he reappeared at 9:20pm I had already mentally committed myself to a night in a hammock and doused myself in appropriate quantities of DEET. I still had a chance to make it to the OCC bus station in Pochutla, he insisted. So I set off down the hill in the a pitch blackness relieved only by the candles flickering in the boneyard. I did manage to find a taxi driver, but he was lolling on top of his g/f and when he stood up he twice stumbled to his left. Steadying himself, he asked for three times the going rate for the drive and then, looking wistfully at the woman still swinging gently in the hammock, he resolutely embarked on a bid to convince me that such a mad dash to the bus station would end in almost certain failure. By this time I only had sufficient pesos for one successful break-out.

And so I stumbled back up the hill and claimed a spot in the 'Tortuga' cabaña underneath my penthouse of the night before. The combination of powerful standing fan and mosquito net is one I am yet to master.

Shortly after dawn I spotted Emiliano loitering outside. When I opened the door he called me over to a little bench overlooking the bay and offered me a drag on his porrito, as one might offer such a thing to a condemned man. From the look he adopted before opening his mouth I imagined he might be about to inform me that the Islamaniacs had finally done it and that all my friends and family back in London were now floating on the breeze as so many specs of radioactive dust. But no, it is in fact this country that is 'so fokkedopp', he informed me. In short there was a paro nacional, a general strike. All buses were halted and roadblocks erected from here to Tapachula. Orale!

Two extra nights in paradise I thought. Tant pis?

Enter clouds stage left...

Still, if I had made that bus last night I'd be stuck in Tuxtla right now, a circumstance that barely bears thinking about.

By the end of breakfast Emiliano had informed me that his abuelo was a Colonel in the Guatemalan army, that his father was a radical and that he himself had grown up in a refugee camp in Chiapas. He also told me that he knew I was working for MI5!

Today's mission has been to find an ATM within 60 pesos of Mazunte so I can pay Emiliano for his Mayan bitter hot choc and Huevos a la Mexicana...and for another night in Tortuga. This was accomplished a little way up the coast in Puerto Angel, an otherwise missable destination where they also have payphones so I could call V and try to persuade her not to issue me with my P45 just yet.

Mazunte is certainly the key beauty spot on the coast. Not a lot seems to happen here in the evenings. Every day a girl comes up to me on the beach and hands me a little leaflet promoting some sort of activity in a bar. She's so beautiful - penninsular Spanish or from the Cono Sur - that each time I feel a pang of embarrassment for her that she had has to interact like this with random people such as myself. And 'Live Music' here tends to mean some dreadlocked dickhead from Michegan banging on a West African drum.

But there is one amazing, and gratis, bit of nightlife here the like of which I have never come across in all my years in Central America: star-gazing. Across this peerless night sky, so bright as to almost leave a perpendicular anti-shadow across the glimmering sands, stretches the Milky Way, like some giant celestial roll-bar.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Now this is more like it. Mazunte is so lovely I was almost tempted to give it the kind of bum blog review I gave to Puerto Escondido...just to help keep the numbers down! But this is about as far from barfbag as you can get.

I've been staying in a 'penthouse' cabaña called Concha with gasp-inducing view of the bay. The complex - Balamjuyuc - is run by an excellent cook from Chiapas and his Argentinian wife. The name means Jaguar Mount in one of the Mayan dialects, but this is still basically Zapotec country.

Quibble time. Aside from the fact that it's dead dog hot for around three hours of the day, there's also something a little bit girly about Mazunte. Most of the visitors you see on the streets are attractive, earnest-looking young ladies, travelling in pairs for the most part. The only non-local blokes you tend to see are a bit girly as well, too busy plucking their guitar strings, or twisting their ringlets in their sun-bronzed fingers to actually pick up a board and surf - Sol drinkers.

Meanwhile the native, naturally-pigmented surfer dudes and the beach chuchos hang ten in much the same way - running after the retreating wash and flipping around in the follow-up batch of breakers as they crash on the beach.

There's a faintly Caribbean vibe here too. Wander down the narrow alleyways between the local homes and you could almost get high. But the ocean is most certainly the same Pacific I came across and learned to respect in Monterico - the one which left me face down underwater with a mouth full of sand. On the other side of the isthmus the most there is to fear is a sudden infestation of your swimming trunks by a passing shoal of tiny fish. Here you can be in water up to your navel when it suddenly drops to your ankles with an undertow which yearns to topple you before that humungous wave does...

Back to Chiapas tonight and the Sumidero by lancha tomorrow.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Puerto Escondido

I'm missing Oaxaca already.

I used to think that if I had to nuke just one place in Mexico I'd surely pick Cancun...around spring break time ideally. But now I'm not so sure...

Downtown P.E. is like a mix between Playa las Americas in Tenerife with Playa del Carmen's Quinta Avenida...packed with shambling 'silver' surfers.

No sooner had I descended from the bus than some cockney bloke appeared at my side like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben, albeit fezlessly. Using a clipboard he started hustling the charms of a hostel named after a major London landmark. "Aircon, boards to rent...and I've just picked up a pair of lovely girls who'd be pleased to meet a young man like yourself..." It sounded all too horrendous, so as if to spite him I checked into a place which appears to be full of silent, retired Canadians - quite possibly the only place in town worse than the one he'd been pitching to me. I did eventually spot someone there under forty, but she turned out to be the Italian owner's moll.
Everything here is overpriced, including this Internet joint. 10 pesos for 30 mins, compared to 8 for an hour in Oaxaca. It's located on a strip of tourist tooteries selling phoney machine-woven rugs, beady necklaces, sombreros and inflatable gekkos.

If you don't want to pay the earth for mariscos you will be hard pressed to find much else to eat other than pizza and pasta. I've learned the hard way in Spain that anywhere where the restaurants advertise their delights in German as well as Spanish and English is best avoided.

And it took 11 hours to get here on the OCC bus. 11 effing hours. I could have made it back to Europe on a plane in less time. It's just 300km as the carrion crow flies, but as soon as we reached Salina Cruz I realised that the bus had picked the longest of three possible routes, effectively taking me half way back to Guatemala before heading north-west along the Pacific shoreline.

For my last meal in Oaxaca I ordered a medley dish - Botano de Oaxaca - advertised to include the famous chapulines, as well as quesillo, memelitos, cecina and tasajo. But it arrived sin grasshoppers. "Es que ahora no es temporada," the waiter explained. Liar Liar Calzoncillos on Fire! I'd been offered the little red crunchy things numerous times in the market, but was still choking on my tejate.

Much more to say about Oaxaca, but these thoughts will have to wait until my return home next week.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oaxaca: Impressions

I met a young Japanese couple at breakfast this morning. They own a restaurant in Tokyo and she came here to do a cookery course. I've been snacking rather than eating since I arrived so am looking forward to trying out some proper local nosh tonight.

I bought some quesillo in the market and drank some tejate which sparked a coughing fit. According to this recipe it has ash in it.

Am yet to feel brave enough to tackle the chapulines (crispy little red grasshoppers).

They put chile on most things here. I bought some coconut strips in the market this morning which came with lemon juice, powdered chile and Valentina (basically more chile). They even serve chile flavoured helados (you can have a cone with that and a ball of tuna-flavoured ice-cream!) and the nuts they serve with the beers are sprinkled in chile grains too. My lips hurt.

Nice to have a bigger selection of cervezas again. Gallo kind of disagrees with me and Brahva is nice and all, but after eight months of near exclusivity it begins to taste a bit like Piss One Chango. Here my favourites are Bohemia and Victoria. XX is OK too.

The handcrafts are a bit disappointing. I suppose that living where I do I'm bound to be a bit spoiled in this respect. In fact a significant proportion of the típicos appear to have been imported from Guatemala.

Hadn't seen any street dogs or tuctucs in the centre but today as we ascended to Monte Albán through hills on which ugly domestic buildings have been strewn like litter, they both started to appear in abundance. Tuctucs are called 'moto taxis' here. I wonder what the local term is for chucho?

There are three well stocked bookshops of a serious nature but I'm yet to locate a copy of 2666. Sadly it seems that its author's reputation has soared a bit higher in the anglophone world. And to be honest these places stock far too much Paolo Coelho codswallop and CD compilations of ethno-lift music. And this a university town....

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Oaxaca: arrival

For a place with a population almost ten times that of Antigua, Oaxaca is fairly sleepy. You get the impression that not much happens here before 10am...which makes a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle - the hustle in particular - of Tapachula yesterday.

Down there every other car was a taxi and almost without exception they slowed beside me and honked ecstatically, as if I had the best rack in town. I didn´t see another non-Hispanic on the pavements all afternoon so I guess I was fair game.

Anyway, something must be going on here in Oaxaca because two of the hotels I tried on arrival at 8am were full. Coming in on the bus I couldn´t help noticing the almost familiar Mediterranean-style landscape flecked with cypresses. The Mezcal factories help to localise one well enough though.

The cypresses are native too and I´ve read that in 2005 the local government eco-renovated the zócalo, ripping out the incumbent flora and installing these tall, flint-shaped trees instead, on the basis that they are more local. Didn´t go down well with the two-legged locals however. I´m off now to see for myself...

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Vision is the art of seeing things invisible"
Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects (1711)

Friday, February 06, 2009


Progeny of a star-crossed match between a handsome and taciturn Yakuza gangster and the ex-girlfriend of the head honcho of a Thai triad, Prachya Pinkaew's protagonist 'Zen' is a troubled autistic girl who learns her kicks from watching martial arts students practicing next door...and from old Bruce Lee movies.

She gets her first hands-on encounters with assorted organised low-lifes when her mother falls ill and the family needs to secure funds from small-time racket runners more used to collecting monies than re-distributing them.

If not themselves written by an autistic savant, the subtitles on the version we watched looked to have been supplied by, which in many ways added to the entertainment value.

"I also money," Zen demands of each boss before downsizing his private army. "I immediately put the money to you," one eventually responds after a right old pounding. When her mother asks her where she got the dosh, Zen replies "We billing."

Close to the end there's an extended one-against-many confrontation reflecting back the influence of Tarantino's Kill Bill, which commences with the following desafío:

"You this bastard..."
"We the grudge between two people."

Whenever a fight starts in a big room whose walls are made from flimsy oriental screens, you just know that there will be a yet more final set-to outside once someone has made a pioneering exit through them...headfirst. And so we are treated to what can only be described as a fracas on a facade, with participants leaping from edges, rebounding off surfaces and kicking out from the edges of hanging neon signs — a scenario unlike anything I've come across before in the genre.

It's ultimately terminal for the Triad boss and his upper-echelon goons and judging by the footage shown over the end credits, very nearly so for the actors and stunt men playing them as well. (Several left the set in neck-braces and the very last shot is of smiling crew-members crowded around fairly immobile looking characters in hospital beds.)

The biggest laugh in the movie came when Zen has to take on the villains' secret weapon, a geeky-looking myopic teenager in a blue adidas track-suit whose martial arts style is an extension of his physical tics. That, impeccable of the political not is.

Then there's the scene where a hidden assasin offs four packing trannies led by one who looks remarkably like Victoria Beckham, before reporting to his superior that "I was a few shemale kill the".

The director of Ong Bak has served up another cult classic.

Grade: A-

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Quote of the Day: Murakami Series (3)

"Everything is rigged, tied into that massive capital web, and beyond this web there's another web. Nobody's going anywhere. You throw a rock and it will come right back at you."
Haruki Murakami, Dansu, Dansu, Dansu (1988)

[I read somewhere that Murakami has fessed up to the influence of David Lynch and Twin Peaks on his fiction. And yet this, perhaps his most Twin Peaks-like novel was written some years before that show was aired...]


The Broadway version was called Doubt: A Parable, and it is indeed a parable, a metaphor even — and perhaps a rather simplistic one — that underpins the narrative of this movie.

In this battle of wills between priest and nun in a 60s Catholic grade school in the Bronx, the issues at stake are not essentially spiritual.

Streep's Sister Aloysius is a widow for whom the vows she has taken imply a strict system of self-denial which extends to the creepingly modern world of the young people in her charge . Her attitude to Frosty the Snowman for instance is decidedly Talebanic.

Father Flynn could be both a hypocrite and a pederast, or he may just be the kind of priest whose celibacy is tinged with license, a man prepared to give a bit more reign to his feelings and desires.

Perhaps in order to compensate for some of the inherently simplistic, sermon-like treatments of issues such as tolerance and compassion, John Patrick Shanley lays the moral ambiguity on pretty thickly, especially in the scene when Sister Aloysius goes for a walk around the block with Mrs Miller, mother of the black altar boy the nun suspects of having benefited from inappropriate levels of protection from Father Flynn.

Both central performances are deserving of their Oscar nominations. There are odd spikes within each however which will tend to affect how viewer's respond to this parable. Streep's Aloysius is sometimes a bottled-up charicature, at others disconcertingly knowing. And when first confronted with the Principal's suspicions Hoffman's Flynn appears to betray his guilt with some cartoonish 'who me?' expressions before reverting to a more enigmatic defence.

Grade: B++

The Oxford Murders

This one came as two CDs and we've only watched the first, yet already there's hardly a character in this awful tale that I don't wish to see die horribly.

I also don't know if I will ever be able to face the second half.

The cast may be mostly anglophone, but this is a Spanish production and was — almost unthinkably — nominated for the Best Film Goya.

Tedious. Tedious. Tedious.

Grade: C-

Knockdown prices

It has been reported that a 22-year-old hitman called Aníbal Juarez López, nabbed on Tuesday by police as he attempted to whack a bus driver and his conductor, later confessed that his current rate is just Q300 ($38) for each murder he performs.

He had arrived on scene on a motorbike ridden by an accomplice (also arrested) and opened fire on the transport workers with his AK-47. Both victims were hospitalised with serious gunshot wounds.

12 bus company employees were killed in January, many of these hits carried out under the auspices of maras running protection rackets in the capital.

V reckons however that Juarez López may well have been deliberately under-reporting his earnings!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Quote of the Day: Murakami Series (2)

"For better or worse, the further from the midrange of things you go, the less the relative qualities matter. The same holds for wavelengths: Pass a certain point and you can hardly tell which of the two adjacent notes is higher in pitch, until finally you not only can't distinguish them, you can't hear them at all."
Haruki Murakami, Dansu, Dansu, Dansu (1988)


To paraphrase a remark from the movie which won Best Picture at the Oscars last year, "if this ain't a mess, it'll do until one comes along."

Camino won the best film gong at the Goyas on Sunday, along with five others. "I'm not here because I'm the best, I'm here because I'm very lucky," said director Javier Fesser on receiving the best director Goya. Indeed....though I haven't yet seen the other nominated movies.

The film operates on a number of levels, none of them entirely successfully. Firstly it is an account of the terminal illness suffered by a beautiful and vivacious little girl from Pamplona, based on the true story of the exemplary expiration in 1985 of Alexia González-Barros, now a candidate for beatification. (Fesser has shifted his timeframe to 2001 and renamed his central character Camino.)

Camino has grown up in the midst of the psychological self-flagellation that is Spanish Catholicism, with her mother and elder sister firmly in the cold, clammy grip of La Obra (Opus Dei). The strapline on the poster - Shall I pray for you to die too? - suggests to cinema-goers that Fesser intends a darkly ironic critique of those who are to greet Camino's death with a round of enthusiastic applause. But the religious freaks are neither unsympathetic enough to be properly scary antagonists, nor sympathetic enough for us to really care about their existential afflictions.

Meanwhile Camino seems predominantly oblivious to their issues, although she does dream of being chased around by a bloke who looks like a member of Bucks Fizz with big feathered wings. That's when she herself isn't onirically engaged on a mouse hunt. For Fesser has presented the inner world of the dying girl, unfortunate victim of both religious and scientific bodgery, as a whimsical mix of The Sea Inside and Amélie , such that at one stage around the mid-point V turned and asked me "Is this a kids' movie?" The score is correspondingly kitschy.

But then there's a nod too to The Exorcist with a sudden venting of green vomit, and the gruesome O.R. scenes are like Nip/Tuck on steroids.

In conclusion, I have no idea really what to make of Camino. All it seems to clarify is the line between "unique vision" and garbled message. And for a film with this subject matter a lack of courage is particularly disadvantageous.

Grade: B

A small place with big ideas?

Anna Murphy's article in the Telegraph about Guatemala is indeed an assault on the senses:

"Perhaps the most civilised place in Guatemala is the stunning old colonial town of Antigua. A short drive out of the capital, it's a small place with big ideas. I spent a couple of memorable days exploring the cobblestone streets, each lined with beautiful single-storey townhouses painted terracotta or Córdoba blue.

"Some of the houses are Moorish in style with chimneys like minarets and flamboyantly arching doorways; others look more Venetian, with balconied Juliet windows. All of the houses have stunning courtyards, just glimpsed from the streets, dripping with bougainvillea and jasmine. A number have been turned into fine guesthouses, like the Panza Verde."

Last time I checked, terracotta and Córdoba blue were at best minority colours in the palette. Chimneys like minarets???

Here's a pic of some 'Venetian' arches. If anyone can find one in Antigua they're welcome to comment here...

[Thanks to Scott for the link.]

Monday, February 02, 2009

Quote of the Day: Murakami Series (1)

"The hotel should never have been built where it was. That was the first mistake, and everything got worse from there. Like a button on a shirt buttoned wrong, every attempt to correct things led to yet another fine — not to say elegant — mess. No detail seemed right. Look at anything in the place and you'd find yourself tilting your head a few degrees. Not enough to cause any harm, nor enough to seem particularly odd. Who knows? You might get used to this slant on things (but if you did, you'd never be able to view the world again without holding your head out of true.)"
Haruki Murakami, Dansu, Dansu, Dansu (1988)

[A sojourn at the Dolphin Hotel —"that weirdly fateful much circumstance as place" — must be a bit like living in Guatemala!]

The January Barometer Effect

Friends in London have been sending me pics of the blizzard blowing there today. Conditions such as these haven't been seen since '91, though this time, if anything, it's worse.

Just like the economy really...

(Thanks to Gaylene for the pic!)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Quote of the Day

"A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
Italo Calvino