San Sebastian del Oeste

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We’re all a big bundle of contradictions, don’t you think? Me most of all. For instance, I can’t stomach any sort of organized religion but I love churches. I like the drama of them. For me, walking into a church is like walking on to the set of a movie soundstage. Sure it’s all an illusion, but god it’s exciting.

All during lunch I’d snuck glances at San Sebastian’s colonial church with its bright white bell tower, topped with pale blue tiles, reaching dramatically up to touch the cerulean sky. Other than the bell tower, the church looked unremarkable; boxy with little ornamentation around the edges. But for me, it was like a Christmas present. The wrapping may have been simple but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something wonderful inside.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

So after lunch, The Girls went shopping and I went to visit the church. What a treat. Rustic paintings of angels and saints, in bright colors, dangled from ropes along the walls where you’d normally find the stations of the cross.

The walls and ceiling were beautifully painted in various shades of blue and purple. Three elaborate chandeliers hung from the ceiling (god, I would have loved to have seen those lit up at night) and above the altar was an Italian-inspired mural of the town’s patron saint, San Sebastian. The artist, whoever it was, had obviously borrowed from a similar Medieval painting by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, retaining the pose (though tilting the head in the other direction) and the backdrop of an Italian town while losing the archers.

Bartolomeo di Giovanni painting of St. Sebastian

Bartolomeo di Giovanni painting of St. Sebastian

Saint Sebastian was an interesting guy. The story goes that he was a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity, thus pissing off the Emperor who then ordered him to be tied to a post and slain by arrows. But damnit if he didn’t survive. When the Emperor found out he said, Fine. This time I say we stone him. And that did the trick.

For some odd reason (or maybe it’s not so odd) he is the patron saint of both athletes and gays. Since he managed to survive some rather nasty treatment by the Romans, you can see why athletes venerate him. The gay thing is a little more perplexing. Unless it has something to do with the way artists like Giovanni and Moreau have depicted him. Which is to say, effeminate, buff and mostly naked. 

For some reason I’ve always associated St. Sebastian with Valentine’s Day. After all, St. Valentine, despite the reputation, doesn’t exactly look like a hottie. No matter what your sexual persuasion. Unless he qualifies as a geeky looking aesthete. But St. Sebastian definitely looks more interesting, don’t you think?

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The Girls were having a tough time figuring out where we should take our comida in San Sebastian. They were like Goldilocks—Los Arrayanes was too stuffy; Los Arcos too rustic. Meanwhile, I went back to the cantina across from the plaza and had a shot of raicilla with the borrachos.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I’ve had raicilla on a couple of other occasions and every time I drink it I wonder why. This local Mexican moonshine, which, until just recently, was illegal, smells like kerosene and tastes even worse. There’s an old story that while John Huston and Richard Burton were filming The Night of the Iguana back in the early 60s, they got hammered on raicilla and Burton made the remark that he could feel the potent fermented mash coursing through every part of his intestines. Huston assured him that was just the cactus needles in the drink.

Here’s another one of my favorite dichos, this one particular to Sierra Madre towns, like San Sebastian del Oeste, Talpa, and Mascota, that have been making raicilla since before anyone had ever heard of tequila: Para todo mal, raicilla; y para todo bien tambien. Which means, For everything bad, raicilla; and for everything good too. (By the way, some readers have sent me some of their favorite dichos as well. This one comes from Tu eres como un pulpo en el garaje; You’re like an octopus in the garage, which means “You don’t fit in.”)

They say you can have a couple of shots of raicilla and you won’t notice any effect—until you try to stand up. I can testify to the truth of this.

Once The Girls had rescued me from my borracho friends and safely maneuvered me across the street to El Fortin, where they’d finally decided we’d have lunch, I immediately insisted on them sampling the homemade raicilla of Gabriel, the owner, if for no other reason than equaling the conversational playing field for me. Gabriel told The Girls that he had been working on inventing a new cocktail, to be called the El Fortin, using his raicilla and a passion fruit liqueur, both of which he makes and sells at the restaurant. The Girls ordered the drinks (I switched to cerveza in an effort to rediscover my tongue). The cocktail was okay—a mix of the raicilla and passion fruit liqueur topped up with sparkling water. But the color—“Gerber’s Yams” I’d call it if I had to give it a name—was wretched.

The Girls, however, were just thirsty enough from their exploration of the town that they downed the drinks rather quickly. And then ordered another. “Put a little more alcohol in it,” they urged Gabriel. “We could hardly taste it in the first one.”

He smiled. As did I. I think The Girls are going to catch up with me rather quickly.

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While The Girls walked around San Sebastian looking for someplace suitable to eat, I had a shot of Gran Centenario reposado with the cowboys at a little bar across from the plaza. At one table, three fairly drunk vaqueros were arguing about the various virtues of a lucha libre wrestlers named Mistico. I tried to stay out of it. As we all know, Mistico sucks. 

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

When The Girls hadn’t shown up by the time I’d finished my tequila (and concerned that the borrachos were going to challenge me to a wrestling match), I decided to take a look around the town myself.

Just across the street from the bar was a little tienda with a couple of bags of oranges on a counter and that was about it. Although the doors were open, there was no sign of life except for a little white mutt who seemed to be watching over things. I yelled hola a couple of times but other than making the dog anxious, nothing happened.

What interested me about this little store was a sign they’d posted outside saying they sold their own homemade panelas. Which is interesting because a panela in Mexico can be one of two things: Either a fresh cheese or a very raw form of smoky sugar. I like them both. And wondered which panela this shop was selling.

I’m guessing it was cheese. Queso panela is a cow milk cheese that, traditionally, is molded in a basket and looks like the back of someone who has been sitting bare-chested  all day in a lawn chair. It’s the sort of cheese that you usually find crumbled into a salad or on top of tacos or enchiladas.

The other type of panela (also called piloncillo) comes from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. It’s what gives café de olla that subtle smoky-sweet taste. The sugar you get in a typical Mexican store is good, but homemade panela made by some country woman stirring a big open pot out in the open—that’s special. 

Either way, it would have been interesting to try. But the tienda dog wasn’t talking. And I was getting hungry. 

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The weather turned hot and sticky on Saturday. The Girls, anxious to get out of town, proposed a trip to San Sebastian del Oeste in the Sierra Madre mountains.

Although San Sebastian is only 40 miles from Puerto Vallarta, it used to be a four or five hour by horse and buggy. Okay, I’m exaggerating about the horse and buggy part, but it could take half the day, particularly during the rainy season.

Then a few years ago they paved the highway between PV and Guadalajara and suddenly you could get to San Sebastian in something like an hour and a half.

Of course, that required that you didn’t get lost. And I always manage to get a little lost, particularly when traveling with The Girls who may just be the worst map readers I’ve ever known.

We kept going into little villages and asking people on the street for directions. They’d point this way or that and we’d travel on for another 20 or 30 minutes before I’d announce, “I don’t think this is the right way.” And then we’d backtrack and take a different turn until, once again, we were totally lost. The only thing I was sure of was there was a big honking bridge somewhere between Las Palmas and Mascota, called El Progreso, and if we ever saw that, we’d be close.

photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I’d pretty much resigned myself to the idea that we were going to be driving for the next six or seven hours and would suddenly be in Guadalajara—which would have been fine—when we came around a blind turn in the mountains and there it was—the rainbow bridge, El Progreso.

After that we only got lost once when I didn’t see the sign that had fallen over in La Estancia telling you where to turn to go east to San Sebastian. Fortunately, we came across a couple of bomberos (firemen) having a smoke along the side of the road (I know, the irony of it, right?). The Girls got out (I think the bomberos thought it was their lucky day), gave the boys a big smile, and next thing you know, we were headed up the right road.

Twenty minutes later, we were in San Sebastian. Just as everyone was shutting down for comida. Oh well. We’d made it. And the restaurants around the plaza were still open. So we joined the rest of the locals and looked for someplace to have a meal.

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