ola mexico!

we went to mexico over christmas break 2007 and what a terrific vacation that was! the weather was perfect, the food was flavorful (and quite different from the rather tepid fare passed off as mexican at most american restaurants), the people were friendly, and the places we visited were lovely.

we landed in puerto vallarta a little after 1pm and rented a car to drive about 1 1/2 hour north to chacala, a small fishing village. just take highway 200 in the direction of tepic. we stopped at rincon de guayabitos for some lunch and found this sleepy seaside town to be charming. we ate at this small family-run restaurant where the owner sat comfortably under the shade of a colorful awning, playing cards with her friends. it looked like she had spent a good part of her day doing just that. the food was delicious but it took the longest time for it to get prepared. it was obvious that our american-style dependence on time and efficiency, units of work produced per unit of time, would look embarrassing here. it’s better to go with the flow and enjoy each languorous moment of the day.

after following a long dirt road into chacala we finally got to kate’s house, casa monarca. kate is american, her husband is mexican. they have just finished building this beautiful house in chacala – tangerine-colored stucco, a pool with shimmering spheres of mediterranean blue, friendly hammocks and colorful wicker rocking chairs. it was a feast for the eyes. the family lives upstairs and rents the lower portion of the house. after settling down a bit we decided to walk to the beach and get some dinner. the most tourist friendly restaurant with the most extensive menu is the one with all the flags on it. it sits right on the beach. but instead of eating at the restaurant we decided to try a pineapple from a little fruit stand. it was an elaborate affair.

the top of the pineapple comes off first, before the fruit is cored. the core is moved to a small bowl filled with grenadine. the inside of the pineapple is then scraped and grated so as to make it drinkable. fresh lemon juice is squeezed into it and so is fresh orange juice. sea salt and chili powder are carefully stirred into the concoction. finally the fruit’s core is replaced into its center along with cucumber and orange slices. it’s a thing of beauty and perhaps the best tasting treat i had in mexico. my husband, the doctor, was praying that the chef and sous chef had duly washed their hands before embarking on this culinary project. all i can say is that it was well worth the risk! after this tasty and unconventional dinner we lingered on at the beach and experienced a stunning sunset. for the first time in months, i felt completely relaxed and carefree.

chacala pool

chacala sunset

cafe colonial and the goog

while in nyc last february we had breakfast every morning at cafe colonial, 276 elizabeth st, at houston. the freshly squeezed orange juice, delicious omelets and fruit salads were a great start to the day. the decor is brazilian and the ambience very french. i highly recommned it.

we got a chance to see the “el greco to picasso” spanish painting exhibition at the goog. the guggenheim is stunning museum space. the exhibition was extraordinarily extensive and unique in how the artwork was displayed – rather than being chronological, the display was thematic and had no qualms about mixing up 5 centuries of spanish art. only when you see juan sanchez cotan’s classic “still life with fruits and vegetables” hanging right next to the modernist “still life with newspaper” by juan gris, that you begin to see the similarities. who would have thought that pablo picasso’s portraiture was somehow rooted in velasquez. it’s amazing how juxtaposition can lend a completely new meaning to art. it was the first time that we saw picasso not as a french painter but as an artist closely aligned with the spanish aesthetic.

velasquezpicasso

richard foreman

while in nyc, my friends and i went to see richard foreman’s “wake up mr sleepy! your unconscious mind is dead” at the ontological theater at st mark’s church. what an experience. first we were late (it took us a while to figure out how to navigate the nyc subway system). we literally ran out of our cab and rushed to the theater. after a couple of wrong turns and missed theater entrances, we finally got in. it was exactly 8pm. however, there had been a strong directive to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start of the play. as we tried to present our tickets, an old professorial-looking, bespectacled guy told us we were late and couldn’t get in. i tried to argue that it was 8pm sharp. he was adamant. we should have come earlier. one of my friend chose the “appeal to sympathy” approach and told him we had come all the way from rochester to see this play. finally he recanted. he told the usher to seat us on the narrow stairs, in between aisles. we were happy to sit anywhere. we later found out that our tormentor had been mr foreman himself.

the play was a multimedia, multi-layered work of art. my friend sarita likened the experience to stepping into an abstract painting.

in foreman’s own words: “will i be punished if i tell the truth about my motives? i want above all, to make a play that escapes what i see as the tunnel vision of unified subject matter – creating instead a play about ‘nothing’ except the evenly distributed grid of all things at once.

most plays are built with events, adventures, ideas. but i believe this focus has locked us all in a psychological/spiritual isolation chamber, fixated on the limited plateau of always inherited, second hand desire and experience.

i want instead –
TO MAKE A FASCINATING event that – through multilayered filigree of sound, image, light, verbal statement, gesture – makes that ‘texture’ be, all by itself, a new way of ‘being’ that creates or evokes a self no longer in need of the false ‘kick’ of events, no longer needing to latch onto focused intention. but a new self that can be energized in simply HOVERING over the field of total, evenly distributed ‘multi-possibility’.

does this sound like denying what has been the very basis of theater? so be it. but this is my aesthetic obsession, my love – to make ‘theater’ that spreads in the mind, spreads the mind itself, spreading evenly until there is… ‘nothing’? and yet one is thereby vibrating, and fulfilled.”

here’s the ny times review by ben brantley.

wake up mr sleepy!

the blue note and nyc

listening to wynton marsalis reminded me of going to the blue note. three of my friends and i went to nyc for a weekend in feb 2007. we rented a small apartment in the village and spent our first evening at the blue note, legendary jazz club and greenwich village institution. we had to stand in line for an hour, in spite of reservations, but it was worth it. the mulgrew miller trio performed first. miller has played with the duke ellington orchestra, under mercer ellington, and is an accomplished pianist. the donald harrison quartet was next. harrison’s confidence and ease with the sax were immediately apparent and so was his knack for badinage. the atmosphere was intimate and convivial. some of harrison’s young band members stood out. grammy-nominated christian scott was amazing on the trumpet. esperanza spalding is this beautiful young bass prodigy and vocalist who blew everyone away. i was interested to find out later that she opened rochester’s international jazz festival this year.

esperanza spalding

la tunisie – part 3

yasin dropped us off at hotel khamsa corinthia in gammarth. that evening we met badi again. the kids (and i – i have to confess) were dying for some american food. badi took us to champs, which was a pretty good rip-off of the original. there were huge plasma tvs with loud sports events (a soccer match), and gigantic coke bottle and plaster of paris replicas of football players. the food was awesome – we all had hearty cheese burgers with fries and lots of ketchup! it hit the spot. the kids were finally satiated and up for anything. we went to a shisha cafe next and tried some apple-flavored tobacco. i just had one puff. the best part was spending some down time with badi. what a great finish to a really long day!

on april 12th we had a leisurely breakfast, followed by a trip to the hotel’s indoor pool. for lunch badi took us to a hip little restaurant (very manhattan in look and feel, but way more mellow). the food was fantastic. next on our agenda: sidi bou said.

sidi bou said

la tunisie – part 2

on april 10, 2007 we left tozeur to visit the oasis villages of chebika and tamerza tucked away in the jebel en-negueb mountains, near the algerian border. these berber villages were roman defense outposts. in those days berbers used to communicate with mica mirrors thus the roman title “castle of light”. chebika means spring. this earthen village follows the contours of the mountain, rising and falling elegantly to accomodate pretty gorges, waterfalls and palms trees. the kids headed to the streams and waterfalls to catch tiny frogs and geikos. we climbed rocky staircases carved into the side of the mountain to access different levels. the town must have been enchanting. both chebika and tamerza were abandoned in 1969 after freak torrential rains resulted in a literal meltdown. we had tasty grilled lamb on skewers for lunch at hotel tamerza palace. this beautiful hotel, brought to life by a profusion of colorful berber rugs, overlooks the old town of tamerza.

that evening we left for nefta and for a rollercoaster ride along shapely sand dunes. the remote ong jemel (camel’s neck) was the location for films such as the english patient and star wars. one star wars set thrives still in the middle of the desert and attracts numerous tourist buses. we ran into a group of japanese tourists several times that day and were in turn amused by their face masks (the desert heat probably takes care of most airborne viruses) and impressed by their high tech wireless earphones which connected them to their guide. the desert sand was incredibly fine. it was cool on the surface but still warm underneath. we took our shoes off and let our feet sink into the sand. the sunset was vast and magnificent. the desert puts everything in perspective.

on april 11th we checked out of our hotel in tozeur and almost missed our train, le lezard rouge. this historic train passes through the selja gorges. the track was originally used for mining phosphates. the landscape we encountered was stunning: vertiginous crags, surprising waterfalls, precipitous ravines and quiet streams enfolded in vegetation. we had lunch at hotel gafsa palace and then began our long journey back to tunis (about 6 hours).

le lezard rouge

la tunisie – part 1

badi picked us up at the airport on april 7, 2007. it was wonderful to see him after so many years. he looked good. he took us to a hip little restaurant in gammarth for lunch. gammarth is a quiet suburban town by the sea, about 20 km from downtown tunis. after lunch we left for sousse to visit badi’s mom in kalaa kebira. we stayed at hotel el-mouradi palace where badi’s ex-wife and kids were also spending the night. badi had offered to take us out for coffee or shisha in the evening but we were tired from all the traveling (more than 12 hours from toronto to milan to tunis) and decided to crash after dinner. the next day badi took us to port el-kantaoui in sousse and then on to his house. his mom had prepared a sumptuous seafood lunch – there was grilled tuna and sardines and harissa (hot chili paste) and couscous (that tasted a lot like chicken biryani less the rice plus the couscous) and pasta for the kids and mussels (which gibran discovered and devoured with relish). it was a grand old feast. badi’s youngest sister sausan was there and so were his brothers nizar and saif. we had tunisian mint tea (which is intensely sweet) and talked about our lives. sausan spoke fluent english – she and i acted as translators whenever needed. my son played soccer with all the boys and managed quite well with his 6th grade french.

badi introduced us to our chauffeur/guide later that afternoon and we were off to the south of tunisia. we stopped at el-djem to see one of the best preserved roman amphitheaters. it had already closed down for the day so we couldn’t go inside but it made an impression anyway. late at night we reached matmata and stayed at a hotel i had read about on the internet, “les grottes de matmata”. it was supposed to be “cavernous” (like the caves matmata is famous for) and have a local feel but what we found was that it was simply run down and rather dirty. thank god we only spent a night there! the next morning we went to see the caves. for thousands of years these underground caves were used by berbers as homes and for safely storing their possessions while they were out on mercenary missions. subterranean homes stay cool and are obviously very useful in the desert. these are built around artificial craters 5-10 m deep – it’s a virtual moonscape.

after exploring the caves of matmata we began our journey to tozeur. en route we stopped in douz. we got a chance to ride camels at ofra (one of the country’s largest and most accessible sand dunes) for about an hour and a half – not the most comfortable of rides. the kids loved go-karting in the desert. we had lunch at hotel saharien in douz and then left for tozeur. on the way, we were amazed by the brackish water of lake chott el-jerid. it was pink on one side of the road and a rich turquoise on the other side. there was absolutely no vegetation anywhere – not even a lonely cactus or two. it was easy to see how the steamy heat from the sun could beat down on fine desert sand and create a mirage. we experienced a few ourselves.

tozeur has its own distinctive architecture. rectangular yellow brick is used in all construction and arranged in beautiful geometric patterns. we checked into hotel palmyre – a terrific hotel in the middle of the desert. the kids jumped at once into the hotel’s dreamlike swimming pool – a huge bean shaped pool surrounded by palm trees and overflowing with sparkling blue water.

in the evening, we took a horse and buggy ride through tozeur’s green oasis. 400,000 dates palms, pomegranates, bananas, peaches, apricots, citrus fruit, figs and fragrant arabian roses in a 2600 acre oasis irrigated by 200 springs and artesian wells. water is shared by different land holdings under a system developed by imam ibn chabbat in the 13th century. our “caleche” driver and guide told us how female date palms have to be pollinated with flowers from male trees – share croppers climb the long palm trunks barefoot and pollinate about 30 trees a day. he also pointed out the marabout of sidi aguili (shrine to a holy man), an important tozeur landmark. the oasis is lush, lavish, luxuriant and (unfortunately for me) abuzz with the whining sound of hungry mosquitoes! we had to get out of there, fast!

our next stop was chak wak, a historic theme park. this is their spiel, in their own words: “marchez sur les traces des ancêtres de l’humanité, au coeur de tozeur, dans la plus grande palmeraie de la planète. du big bang, au hommes préhistoriques, jusqu’aux grandes civilisations, vous allez redécouvrir le mystère des grandes religions. un voyage qui vous fera parcourir des millénaires d’évolution hunaine, dans le cadre enchanteur d’un jardin botanique oasien”. the kids enjoyed the giant dinosaurs. before returning to our hotel, yasin took us to the local bazaar. i looked at some rugs (the store manager was particularly ingratiating, starting and ending each sentence with “dear gentlelady”). i bought a beautiful berber rug. my daughter was feverish so we decided to call it a day and not go to the dar cherait museum.

tozeur brickworktunisian rugs

why tunisia – let’s talk turkey

in april 2007 we went on a weeklong trip to tunisia – stunning country. it’s got history (going back to the 2nd century BC – does hannibal/carthage ring a bell?), it’s got the mediterranean sea, the lake of tunis, and then it’s got the sahara desert filled with lush green oases (if you don’t believe me, read this ny times article on “how green is the desert“). not bad for a relatively small country (area = 63,000 sq miles) with a population of 10 million.

why did we just up and go to tunisia, many have asked. simple answer: i have a friend there. his name is badi ben mabrouk and he’s tunisian. i met him when i was 15 (he was 16) for a week, in turkey. what were we doing in turkey? the turkish government had organized an international competition to celebrate the creation of modern turkey by its founder mustafa kemal ataturk.

i wrote a lengthy poem in french (it’s called “le lever du soleil” and you can check it out by going to my writings page) and badi wrote one in arabic. all the winners were invited to turkey as state guests for a week. there were winners from france, great britain, belgium, tunisia and of course pakistan. we went to ankara, istanbul, izmir, and buyukada (one of the princes’ islands in the sea of marmara). we met governors and government officials. we sang on turkish radio and were covered by turkey’s most popular newspapers. we even got gold medals from the turkish prime minister (bulend ulusu in those days). we gorged on turkish food, luxuriated in turkey’s natural beauty and her rich history and culture, and we made friends for life. or at least i made a friend for life. badi and i wrote to each other for over 20 years – this was before the advent of email. over time we both graduated – i got an MBA, he bacame a corporate lawyer. we both got married. we both had kids. we swapped pictures. we upgraded to email. it was time for us to meet again – life is too short to hesitate.

and you know what, that was the best thing we ever did! my family loved badi. he has grown into an absolutely charming man. he’s soft spoken and warm and generous to a fault. he has 2 beautiful sons and a wonderful extended family. like he said, “la tunisie c’est pas l’etranger – vous etes avec moi”. that’s truly how it felt – very comfortable and cozy and safe. it warms my heart to think about it…

the blue mosque