Late August is one of my favorite times of year, especially in Santa Fe. Fall starts early here. Temperatures drop and storms are longer-lasting. Yet in the early evening, the sun can be as strong as during the height of summer and a yellow heat burns over the landscape just before it sets.
I like that “august” can be an adjective. Described in the 1932 Webster’s dictionary (which rests in the archives’ reading room) as: “of a quality inspiring admiration and reverence; having an aspect of solemn dignity or grandeur; sublime; majestic.” I aspire to be august, though my nature is often more silly and fickle than majestic.
Travis is back in the casita with me and the dogs. It feels good to have him home and to once again figure out a routine together. It can be disorienting having your partner away so often and for lengths at a time. I always feel like we have a lot to talk about when he returns, but I don’t know where to begin and then I feel sort of … bashful. What I end up doing is being quiet and letting the days and nights and adjustments happen gently. This reminds me of a line by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and mystic I’ve been remembering lately:
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.” (from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, p. 51)
For a “Welcome Home” meal to ease us both back into cooking again, we decided on a simple favorite: Chicken with Lemon and Olives. Prep and clean-up are easy with this one dish meal and we both love the brineyness of roasted olives, lemons and white wine.
Chicken with Lemon and Olives
4 – 6 chicken thighs, bone-in, trimmed of some of the fat and skin
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
3 – 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 lemons, preferably Meyer, sliced or cut in wedges
1 cup olives, mix of kalamata and green
½ cup broth
½ cup dry white wine
1 small onion, sliced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Pat chicken thighs dry with paper towels. Season well with salt, pepper and fennel.
3. Add olive oil to cast iron skillet and heat to high, but not smoking. Brown chicken on each side and remove.
4. De-glaze pan if needed with splash of wine. Lower heat to medium-high and sauté onions just until translucent.
5. Add garlic and continue to sauté for about a minute. Do not burn garlic.
6. Whisk in mustard, wine and broth to skillet, bring to a simmer. Let reduce slightly. Taste sauce and adjust seasonings as needed.
7. Add chicken back into pan, along with olives, lemon wedges and rosemary.
8. Cover with tin foil and bake for about one hour in oven, removing foil towards the end.
It’s been over ten years since I last traveled outside the United States. Ten years spent mostly working and studying and definitely not vacationing. So when Travis left for a two-month travel fellowship to research in Mexico City, I knew it was the perfect time to change this! I just returned from 6 days in Mexico and it was completely soul reviving, in many ways. I’m going to make this a multiple part post because we just did so much in those few days that deserves describing.
Trav studies the Nahuatl-speaking Indians who journeyed with the Spanish up through northern Mexico and New Mexico circa 1540 – 1680 AD. He loves learning about archaeology and anthropology – the rise and fall of ancient societies, spearheads, skull morphology, evolution, rituals, games, gods – all of it. More than once, when we’ve been driving through some rough western landscape, he’s said: “Imagine what life was like out there for the Paleo-Indians!” I can honestly say, I had never thought of it before! I think the curiosity was probably instilled in him by his father, a Spanish professor with a proclivity for Mexican art and jewelry, and perhaps even by his grandfather, whose wood-paneled study is filled with natural curiosities and rare books on rare subjects of all kinds. Most of the research Travis is doing in Mexico involves poring through documentary archives, but he’s also visited a few archaeological sites to become familiar with the places and material culture of the people he studies.
The morning after I arrived in Mexico City, we donned our Indiana Jones-ish hats (okay, mine is just a cowboy hat) and we took a subway train, then a bus, then another bus to Xochicalco – ‘place of the house of flowers’ – in Morelos state. An archaeological site which was “once a mountaintop fortress, [Xochicalco] controlled trade routes and was culturally linked to Teotihuacan and the Maya areas, flourishing between 650 – 900 AD” (Travis’s words). He’d been to the site previously and though it is not as famous as the nearby Teotihuacan, he felt Xochicalco was a more magical place, with its almost tropical mountain-valley location (and lack of tourists).
View of ball field
Side of plaza
Example of Mesoamerican artifact found at Xochicalco
Bushes filled with butterflies on our way to the site
Temple of the Plumed Serpent
Gotta take a pic with the sign, ha
It was hot and humid when we spilled out at the entry to the site, located on a steep and meandering road. Since we missed the guided tour, Trav explained some of the history to me and we read our little tourist guidebook while walking along ancient ball fields, pyramids, foundations of living spaces and areas of worship (and sacrifice!). The most prominent pyramid, called simply “Structure A” on the map, stood in the main plaza and promised a spectacular view of not only the archaeological areas, but the surrounding river valley. As I mentioned, it was very hot and humid and the climb involved a lot of steps. But we were in the mood for adventure! I was so happy to not be in my office back in Santa Fe, I could’ve climbed 5 pyramids! I felt like Mesa must feel every time I get out the leash – Adventure! New things! The world! The person I love the most!
So we clambered up the stone escalones and I stepped to the edge, looking out over everything. The breeze that was mild below was graciously much stronger up top. I turned around to make some remark to Travis and – he was down on one knee! I was so incredibly surprised, as if I’d turned around and seen him doing a handstand or playing piano. Then he was saying all these nice things about me (I wished I had listened better!), and all I could say was “Of course! Of course!” and pull him to me and hug and kiss and laugh out of pure giddiness and nerves. I didn’t even cry at the time – I was so caught off guard and incredibly excited and energized from it all.
First picture after proposal!
So that was the BIGGEST THING of the trip. It made the rest of the trip that much more celebratory and romantic. I don’t have the right words (yet) to describe quite how I feel – except incredibly in love and humbled by it.
Still on a love-high from the proposal, we continued to explore the park until closing time and then took another bus to a small complex of “eco” cabanas in Tetlamatzin, a nearby village. The cabanas are well-built, of some sort of clay or stone, with real thatched roofs, Mexican tiled bathrooms, and traditional wood furniture. The beds were placed strategically out of the way of the holes in the roof. 🙂 Our spot was very private, with a view of the leafy Morelos valley.
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The woman who manages the cabanas also runs a tiny restaurant where you can get chales (some sort of chicharrones/ pork skin) or bean quesadillas, whole fried mojarres (fish), and gigantic micheladas. A michelada is a beer-based cocktail, whose ingredients vary depending upon region. In Morelos, a michelada is this: your choice of a 40 oz beer, some strange Worcheshire-ish sauces (Jugo de Maggi, Salsa Inglesia), Clamato, lemon or lime juice, and a big sticky swath of what is called chamoy around the cup’s rim. Chamoy is a sweet and tangy fermented fruit syrup, which we both fell in love with. I’m aware this description sounds pretty gross, but as a non-beer drinker and cocktail enthusiast, I can tell you – it was so good! Very tangy and light and super fun to drink. This description from Bon Appetit puts it well: “… it sounded lowbrow and disgusting, but instead it was a minor miracle: tart, slightly sweet and salty with umami flavor from the Maggi and funk from the Clamato.” ( Recipe here )
After a night’s rest in the cabana, we took a quick bus ride to Cuentepec, a very small, traditional Nahuatl-speaking village where there was – inexplicably – an “Xtremo” sports park offering a handful of different activities. After some confusion in locating the place (there was no signage and some very rapidly spoken-in-Spanish directions), we walked into a compound of buildings where a small, middle-aged lady in traditional dress and apron read us the slew of options from rappelling, to horseback riding, to lengthy hikes. We chose one of the shorter zipline trips, which crossed a 260 foot high cascada (waterfall). Before signing the liability forms, we asked: “Nadie ha muerto?” only half-joking. They answered quickly, “No, no!” … I was not especially assured by the answer, but signed anyway. (Sorry mom!)
Our young guide, Calisto, led us to the waterfall on a short hike through muddy agricultural fields, dewy trees, and horse tracks. I was pretty exhausted by the time we crested the canyon ridge and saw the waterfall – it was huge! We did three ziplines across the river canyon. It was really magnificent and over in a flash. The gymnast in me is always excited by flying through the air.
After some more tromping, and a few more buses, we were back in Mexico City by evening – dirty, sweaty and very happy.
Next post I will describe our experiences in the city, which primarily included lots of walking and seeing and eating and drinking.