Monday, March 19, 2012

Alya's Spring Circus Show

Alya has been taking classes for over a year now at Gravity Works, a local school for circus performance arts.  She has been developing skills on the hoop and the trapeze, but her real love is performing on the "tela" (Spanish for "fabric").  This takes great strength and concentration, and we are amazed at how well she has done.

Recently, she was asked to perform with her troupe at our local shopping mall on a busy Saturday afternoon.  And much to Alya's chagrin, I brought the Nikon along to capture it all...

There was quite a crowd on hand!

Here she prepares for the "Goddess Fall"...

...and unrolls and falls as I hold my breath!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

High in the sky over San Miguel

A balloon ride one morning as seen from our house.
We had the great pleasure of having Janan's parents, Al & Carol, stay in a neighboring house for just over a month this past February.  The kids loved getting to run over to Nana and Poppa's place after school, and we all had many laughs together.  Along with a couple of tequilas.  Unfortunately, they had to head back to the cold north earlier than we all would have liked, but just before they left, we got to surprise Carol with a pre-birthday gift of a hot air balloon ride over San Miguel!  She has always wanted to do this, and we had seen the balloons so many mornings from our house, so this was an easy decision...

It didn't start out so smoothly, however, as the first day we got out to the departure field only to pack it all back up and try again the next day.  The wind was simple too stiff for a safe landing.  Though disappointed, we certainly appreciated our pilot Jay's insistence that safety came first.  The thought of being dragged sideways on the ground was not too pleasant, especially given the fact that the terrain around here is covered in countless varieties of spike-laiden cacti and various types of thorny trees.

Day one:  wind test proves it's too windy.  The test?  Release a helium balloon and watch.
If it blows farther than higher, it's a no go.
The next morning, unfortunately, was no better, as Carol was suffering from a bit of a stomach issue.  So much to the delight of Will and Alya, we pushed it back a day further.  Which meant we'd be trying the third time (hopefully the charm) on a Monday morning.  That could only mean one thing: no school!  So we got up at 5:30am again, and this time, we got the green light!  Thank god.  I wasn't sure how many more times I was going to survive getting up before 6:00am.

A little sleepy, but we are ready to go!
The pre-flight process is simpler than I had imagined.  The balloon, basket, and a few other items are unloaded, the balloon is unrolled onto a giant tarp, cables & carabiners attaching it to the basket are connected, a large gas-motor fan is started, ambient air is blown into the balloon to inflate it, and lastly some extended blasts of the gas burner get the air warm enough to rise up in prep for a take off.

Step 1:  tarp down.
Step 2:  balloon unrolled from the bag.
Step 3: Fill the balloon with a big fan.
Step 3.5:  Try to keep Will focused.
Step 4:  wait.  It doesn't take long...
Step 5:  Don't forget the money shot!  Jay ran me around to the top of the balloon to make sure I got this shot through the top hole looking back at Carol and Will and Alya standing inside the balloon.
Step 6:  add hot air...
... lots of hot air.
Final step:  Get in!  Quick!  This bird wants to fly!
So we all piled into the basket (Carol, Tom, Janan, Will, Alya, and the pilot Jay) and it was up, up and away...

Janan met us via taxi (our car was in the shop).
Her driver couldn't resist hanging around to see us off.
It was a first for all of us, and such an amazingly beautiful and peaceful experience.  It took a few minutes for the adults to get used to the fact that the edge of the basket was no higher than waist level, and the ground was way, way down below.  But it didn't take long for the nerves to settle.  To float with no real control over your direction is quite a feeling.  Yet I must admit, Jay's experience was impressive.  He knew exactly what the various breezes and drafts were going to do during our ride, and by adjusting the altitude to either catch or avoid the various airflows that result from this mountainous and gorge-carved terrain, he was able to put us into a perfect drift pattern that took is right over the center of San Miguel...

The central Jardin & Cathedral
Wow!  What a ride!
And it sure beats school!

Janan and her mom are enjoying the ride too!
... then Jay dropped us into a current coming down through a gorge that pushed us westward, keeping us low as we drifted over the neighborhood of Independencia.  Apparently the gas burner, when blasted at various intervals, gives off a high-frequency pitch similar to a dog whistle.  Inaudible to us, but it drove every dog in the neighborhood crazy, which the kids found amusing...

Some kids on a roof waiving back.
These kids weren't so lucky as to get to skip school, but they certainly enjoyed waiving as we drifted overhead!
Finally, we caught a cross-wind that directed us north-easterly for a precise landing on the local golf course.

Looking down at Jay's van chasing us towards the landing site...
The three ladies safely back on the ground.
All in all, the ride lasted about an hour, and it was a truly magical ride.  It only took about 20 minutes to deflate the balloon and pack it all up, so it was just shortly after 9:00 am when we got back into town and decided to grab some breakfast together, much to Alya and Will's relief, as I couldn't resist the urge to fool them into momentarily believing that we were going to drop them off at school.

Buttery pancakes and waffles with whipped cream & strawberries.  What a day! And it's only 9:00am!!!
If you get the chance, it should be a Bucket-List item to try a hot air balloon ride.  And San Miguel de Allende is not a bad place to do it.

A Barbacoa (of sorts)

Ah... Barbacoa... the acme of Mexican cuisine.  The term "barbacoa" refers to a specific method of super-slow roasting meat, usually goat or lamb.  Traditionally, a hole is dug in the ground, a solid bed of wood coals is created which is then covered with a pot filled with herbs and chiles and vegetables, on top of which the meat is placed, and all is covered with maguay cactus leaves and a layer of soil.  As the meat slowly cooks in its own steam underground, usually somewhere around 8 hours, the pot collects the juices and creates a delicious, if sometimes greasy, "caldo" or soup.  And the meat simply falls off the bones and onto your plate, juicy and flavorful.

Here's how it's traditionally done down here...
... and how it's usually served.  Classic barbacoa.  Just add tortillas, onions, cilantro & spicy salsa...
... and a cup or two of the soup made from all the drippings.  Yum!
So, when our connoiseur-of-all-things-culinary pal Sam Hillers tells us that his gardener has a 40 kilo lamb for sale, there was little hesitation.  He decided it was time the Gringos take a stab at this barbacoa thing.

Understandably, the decision was made early on not to dig a big hole in the back yard of the Hillers' beautiful home.  Divorce papers would likely have been served.  And we had no desire to go scavenging for huge, thorn-ridden maguay leaves out in the campo.  So Sam got to work on the best "Plan B", scouring the internet for advice and developing detailed schematic drawings of how we were going to properly pull this off above ground...

Sam hard at work with a diagram that would confound a NASA engineer.
I'm pretty sure the drawings were eventually scrapped or simply misplaced.  But no matter.  The next day we were off to Israel's house to pick up the beast.  Israel is not only the gardener for both us and the Hillers family, he also is a bit of an expert on all things "carne" (meat), so he not only procured the lamb for us, but he slayed it, butchered it, skinned it, and neatly crammed it in to a plastic tub for ease of transport.

Israel unveils the prize.
Sam and Israel delicately managed to get the guest of honor down the tricky stairs, through the steep and narrow alley ways, traversing the ankle-twisting-cobblestones, and delicately loading the precious cargo into the back of Sam's car.  Sometimes it pays to be the photographer.  

Careful, boys.
Best to keep it covered so as not to alarm the neighbors.
Finally, approaching the bottom of the hill.
The kids were impressed and only mildly horrified by the sight.  That was good fun.  I was just hoping we weren't pulled over on the way to Sam's house.  There could be some awkward explaining to be done, in Spanish, of course.

Check out Mason (far right). Nightmares likely to follow.
Exactly how Sam managed to convince his wife Ann that it was perfectly reasonable to put our new friend in their shower overnight, with a slight cover of ice, well, that to me remains the biggest accomplishment of this entire adventure.  He's not only a highly talented cook, but clearly a master negotiator.  He should be working in the State Department.  Really?  In the shower?

Yep.  That's Sam & Ann's shower. 
Anyway, Sam got to work early the next morning.  Alas, I was not up in the wee hours of the morning (meaning before 10), so I was unable to capture on film some of the better moments of the early prep work.  Ann, however, most fortunately did rise early, and was wise enough to have camera in hand as their diminutive house-keeper, Luzma, promptly laid the carcass on the kitchen floor and hacked off the head with several blows of a sharp knife.  Luzma was, apparently, full of enthusiasm and all too thrilled to get to take the head home for soup.

As we say in Mexico, "bien hecho!" (well done!).
Luzma hard at work, prepping the lamb's head for some tasty soup.
After Sam and Ann got the lamb ready with a nice rub of olive oil, garlic, and herbs, on to a nice bed of coals it went, and under the watchful eyes of Sam-the-grill-master, this beast was ready about 6 hours later...

Just right!  Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside!
Janan's parents were visiting, which was a bonus, as her father Al was on hand to consult, being a bit of an expert on the art of cooking a good lamb.  He of anyone should know, having grown up in Palestine.  So he had the honor of one of the first pieces, and wasted little time.  And the verdict was obvious.
Al demonstrates proper one-handed technique.
Soon all the guests were enjoying it, Flintstones-style.  This due, of course, not to a lack of proper upbringing, but rather to the fact that the plates and silverware had been short-sightedly placed out of arm's reach from the grill.  Therefore, such formalities were quickly abandoned.

Al & Chris waste no time chasing down utensils.
It may have, in the end, really been more of a "barbecue" than "barbacoa", but no one seemed the least bit disappointed.  As you can see below, the real sign of success is evident in the empty cutting board and wine bottles:

Bien hecho indeed!
Maybe next time we'll try digging the hole and following all the traditional rules.  Then again, we probably won't.