Quitting your job and travelling might seem like a really irresponsible risky thing to do but many are doing it. I spend three months a year in other countries and I insist on it when I take jobs. As I travel I meet people all over the world that are doing year long trips and some of them aren't just out of college either if you know what I mean. I met a woman in Croatia that had never travelled before and decided it was time so she found a way and was spending one year gone. It's common place in South America to find one year travellers going around the world.
The Washington Post wrote an article about this...
This is our last day in Oaxaca. We'd thought about going to Coyotopec where the black pottery is made but it's starting to look like our active life is taking a draw on our resources so we slept in a bit and missed breakfast. I didn't want any more eggs anyway as too many eggs bother me in ways I'm not going to mention here.
We had to still buy pottery which we could get in Oaxaca City and souvenirs for people. Since we'd missed a good dinner the night before because of the new years day celebration I decided to spend the previous days allotment of cash for a nice lunch on the zocolo followed by a nice dinner as well. We only have so many meals and it's just a shame to waste them in Oaxaca since the food is so good. We went to a restaurant on the Zocolo called Primevera which had a Mole Negro tamale which I ordered. Piper wanting something familiar ordered spaghetti. Natalya didn't know what she wanted so I ordered her a tortilla soup with two tamales – one sweet and the other savory. We waited and waited and waited. Each time the waiter came by he said it was one more minute. We were about to stand up to walk away when he rushed up with our food. Only when he put our plates down did he realize he was short one, Piper's. He said he didn't have the Spaghetti and offered to have something else brought out but the idea of waiting another hour wasn't very pleasant. One bite into my mole tamale and I about gagged. It was dry and tasteless. I would guess that it was last weeks tamale and he just warmed it up. Natalya didn't eat her soup because it was just mush and her tamales were just as bad or worse than mine. We were thankful that Piper didn't get her spaghetti because we got the heck out of there as fast as possible. I only mention restaurants names when something is wonderful or horrible and this was horrible. This wasn't just “less than” what the other restaurants had to offer it was practically inedible. The saddest part of this is that in that exact same spot on the Zocolo three years ago was a restaurant that served the very best Mole Negro in the entire zocolo. The fact that it's gone and replaced by this crap of an establishment is testament to what happens when businesses have a steady stream of customers no matter how good or bad the product is. I would rank the tastelessness of this meal to being equal to many I've had in Venice and I think for the exact same reason.
Leaving the zocolo behind we went to find pottery to which Natalya bought a few nice pieces for about $10 each which is a steal. Piper bought 6 small pots about 3 inches high for her friends and paid about $8 total. We then ventured on to the Mayordomo chocolate cafe (I shouldn't call it a cafe since cafe means coffee but you get the point) and Piper, Jade and I had a classico cold chocolate drink which was by far the best chocolate drink I've every had. It inspired me so that I bought 8 lbs of chocolate to take home. Another person ordered a hot chocolate where the girl behind the counter heated some milk and broke up chunks of chocolate into a cup and mashed it with her magic wand then poured in the mild and frothed it until it was all light and foamy. She frothed ours as well and I almost bought one of the wooden chocolate frothers but I know I can get them at home so I held off. I don't know why this chocolate drink tasted so good but I bought 5lbs of exactly the same thing she used and I'm going to figure it out. I also bought 2lbs of “premium” chocolate which I tasted in the store and another pound of canela chocolate which I've used before. I wished I would have had more time in Oaxaca because part of the Mayordomo expansion has been to create a restaurant using their own products. I would have loved to try their mole because I've bought several jars of it and was never satisfied. If they can make it good with their jars then that gives me hope. I also wish I would have tried the drink earlier as I would have sneaked out every morning before my kids woke and had an early morning chocolate.. :-)
We went down the street to a less busy Mayordomo and filmed them grinding the chocolate on the spot. That video will be up on Youtube later after I get home. They take cacao beans, almonds and sugar and grind them up in one grinder then transport the mixture to a second grinder which grinds it finer into a powder then bag it up and hand it to the customer. This once again parallels coffee shops these days. I don't know how may Mayordomo shops there are but I think I saw at least four plus the restaurant. They are not the only game in town either as there is another company across the street plus theres a chocolate restaurant that focuses on recipes with chocolate and chocolate cooking classes. Of course half the famous Mole sauces from Oaxaca also include chocolate. Oaxaca doesn't actually produce the most chocolate in Mexico, that award goes to Veracruz, they do however consume the most.
Since this was our very last meal in Oaxaca we wanted to eat a somewhere excellent so we decided to climb a small staircase to Casa Abuela which overlooks the Zocolo and comes highly recommended. The wait was 1 hr but it may be years before we come back so I put our name on the list and we left. We would have died had we waited the hour so we walked down the street to the Domino's (yes really) and ordered a chica pizza which wasn't that good but it was interesting to see what a Domino's would look like in another country. There was actually a dining room and the menu was designed for a Mexican audience with toppings more suited to tacos and tortas. It was interesting to see all of the product names in English but descriptions in Spanish. We eat Domino's in Paris and even though the pizza we had in Oaxaca wasn't that great it was better than what they sell in America. I don't know why a company like Domino's would offer 8 toppings in their home market and 20 in other markets. We headed back to Abuela and climbed the narrow stairs to their front door. We were still on the list and within 10 minutes were shown to our table. Piper had Mole Almendrado, Natalya had fish with garlic sauce, Jade had fish with green sauce and I had Mole Coloradito which was very good. I think the quality of food was higher overall here than any other place we've eaten if only by a small margin. I often wonder why some enterprising person couldn't transplant a restaurant like this into the States. It's inevitable that when a family moves from Mexico to start a restaurant they change the menu to rice and beans for the gringos. An odd group sat down at the next table and after some examination we decided they were on a tour because one person spoke Spanish and the rest were Brits. They were all eating various Moles but nobody was saying anything so I'm not sure they were impressed. Being British I don't think I'd want to eat there if they were. Having been to England many times I've had my taste of their food and I think the large Indian population is a good thing. Afterall Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish, that should say something. We were fortunate enough to have a balcony table overlooking the church and the many kids throwing hot dog shaped balloons up into the air. This is an activity we partook in the last time we were here and is one of the only memories my kids retained after a few years. I knew once we were done eating we'd have to go buy some balloons.
Predictably after dinner we bought hot dog shaped balloons and the kids threw them up in front of the church which resulted in great smiles on their faces. All the Mexican kids were doing the same with the same result. We bought extra balloons but I'm not sure where they'll use them at home, we just don't plan open spaces like that at home.
Tired we returned to the hostel to make taxi arrangements, get more money to pay said taxi and pack up. Tomorrow we go to Puebla via bus.
Mexico City – Summary
Even though we've left Mexico City I wanted to summarize it for you. I've probably presented it several different ways and wanted to make sure that people who've never been there (and may never go) understand what this city is like.
First of all there are the stereotypes of crime, pollution and filth. This is all true within a certain context. This is also true of Rome, parts of Paris, LA and NYC. One has to remember that Mexico City is in a third world country and that there is a lack of formal infrastructure that allows other cities to clean up. I can tell you that I'd rather be in Mexico City than Compton California because it's a much much safer place. I can also tell you that Mexico City doesn't smell worse than the train station area of Rome or Les Halles area of Paris.
I'd also like to say that Mexico City is a city on the move. The first time I was here you couldn't see the mountains after 10 am due to pollution. This time I could see the mountains all day even if they were a bit hazy. The city officials have restricted the amount of days you can drive your car and as time goes on the old smoke belching cars of yesteryear are being replaced by newer ones making only a fraction of the pollution. You will find it hard to breath though because of the remaining pollution and the elevation. The entire time I'm in Mexico City I have a sore throat which goes away when I leave. Pollution is a very real problem but seems to be lessening as time goes on.
In the Historic District you don't have to worry about crime because there's tourist police on every corner. Taxi cab corruption has been circumvented in a lot of ways by having taxi pay booths at all major airports and bus stations so the driver never touches the money. I usually judge the crime in an area by how the people treat me. If they look concerned with my presence than I should be concerned with theirs. In some cities like Guayaquil Ecuador there's so much tension in the air that you can cut it with a knife. Having a money belt there doesn't help because they'll just strangle you until you pass out and take your money. Only twice in Mexico City did have I had someone walking in front of me step aside to let me by. I had that happen in Munich more times every 15 minutes. Things are getting better in Mexico City in this regard although it's still an issue.
The streets have gotten noticeably cleaner as well. Before there were street markets everywhere in the city. At 9 am they'd put their blankets out on the street or set up their booths and start selling their wares By noon the streets were littered with trash and they stayed that way until cleanup crews came in at 7pm. It was always amazing to me that the city put up with that since they were paying more to clean up the mess and weren't collecting taxes from the sellers. Apparently they did the numbers at some point as well because the markets are almost completely gone.
Another trend seems to be starting – scrubbing the sidewalks. There were some streets (September 16tth) where if you were to walk down them early in the morning the business employees were out hand mopping the sidewalk in front of their stores. This is a nice thing to see and removes the smell of urine that is so common in cities like this. Paris employs a sidewalk sized street cleaner for the job and I think Mexico City should do the same. Making sidewalk scrubbing a daily routine would go a long way to cleaning up the city. The way old cities like Mexico City are built is with stone sidewalks and cobblestone streets. People will go out in the morning and sweep the streets but there's only so much you can do when the surface is not even. Can you imagine sweeping up a cobblestone street? They need to invent a vacuum not unlike the parking lot vacuum trucks we have here.
So the reality is even though the amount of trash in the city has gone to nearly nil the streets and sidewalks still feel gritty because of the dust and grime accumulated. The buildings need to be cleaned regularly as well.
I do have to say one thing though. This city is going to continue having some major problems. There are more really poor people in Mexico City than there are RESIDENTS in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Montana combined! Mexico City is made of miles upon miles of concrete block homes with little in the way of shelter or warmth. The average wage of a working adult in Mexico is about $10 a day and many in Mexico City would be happy to have that. Mexico City is also sitting on a giant aquifer that is slowly being drained by the 25 million people so the city is sinking at an alarming rate. It has a serious traffic problem which probably doesn't have a solution. The metro trains are already 9 cars long (very long platforms) and come every 60 seconds. Do you run them every 30 seconds if you want to carry more passengers? The metro is one of the top 5 busiest in the world and averages 5 million riders per day with 9 lines where the other top 5 do a similar volume with double the number of lines. This tells you how full the cars are.
So if Mexico City still has problems why did I go there (three times!) and why am I dwelling on it. Because Mexico City is an amazing place and I think with vision and a little leadership (and a bunch of money) it will become one of the leading destinations in the world. Yes, a lot of work needs to be done but it has the potential. The city has over 2000 years of history, 500 years of Colonial European history, was the location for the largest city in the world 3 times by as many different civilizations, hosts the 3rd largest pyramid in the world (the largest is in Cholula Mexico and second is in Egypt) and has as many fabulous museums as the great capitals of Europe.. The people are a wonderful product of the Spanish and Indians and excellent to get to know. I don't know of any other people on the earth that are so unpretentious, laid back and fun loving than the Mexicans. They have a great feel for family and value the small things. They're larger than life in other ways and always make me smile. When you go to Europe everything is business, when you go to Mexico everything is a big cartoon. They do the funniest things and I guarantee they will keep you smiling if you can get past being out of you comfort zone.
The flip side is the poor condition the people survive in. The Mexican people are incredibly entrepreneurial within the context in which they have to work. You can't just start up a multi-national corporation without working up to it and the Mexican economic environment doesn't allow that so they do the next best thing – they make stuff and they sell it. People who don't have this entrepreneurial spirit come to the US and work for $8 and hour or less (illegally) to send money home. If you've ever tried living on $8 an hour you'll have an idea how much money is going back to their family. Even if you don't go to Mexico (we're not talking Cancun here) I encourage you to stop and ask Mexican people where they're from and get to know them. I think if you have lunch once in a while at the taco trucks you'll see a little bit of Mexico with the families gathering together to have some traditional food. Don't be alarmed if they treat you with a bit of skepticism because they're not treated very well in the states by the majority. They warm up fast though..
So in closing I think Mexico City is a gem waiting to be discovered. However, there's always a disclaimer and here it is. I don't think everyone should go to Mexico City. I've compiled a list of who shouldn't.
People who stay in Holiday Inns wherever they go because it's consistent
People who take cruises and enjoy them
People who like resort hotels because they have everything they need
People who are afraid of “germs”
People who think sitting on a beach sipping a Margarita is a form of travel
I should probably explain the last one before I get jumped on by Rush Limbaugh. Without applying labels there are people who like change and there are people who like things being familiar. Those who like change enjoy the feeling of their mind expanding because they experienced something new that broadened their perspective. Those who don't like change either don't see a need for this or see things the way they are as being the way they should be. The latter group (conservatives) may not enjoy being dropped into a completely foreign environment like Mexico City. I could see this as the worst experienced they've every had. If this is the case then why go? If travel means going somewhere to experience what you have at home then Mexico City has nothing for you. This is not a put down, it's good advice. If you fit into this group and are responding in your head with “But I went to London and loved it” then you're really not understanding the difference here. London outside of the funky accent and driving on the other side of the road is very similar to the US. Mexico on the other hand has nothing in common with the US outside of Jesus. If you don't believe the level of difference between these two things then by all means buy yourself a plane ticket to Mexico City and we'll talk when you get back!
I've taken a bunch of photos that I think may give you new insight into Mexico City which you can see in my other blog posts. You can also reference the photos from my previous trip to Mexico City in my Mexicy City Gallery. In time I'll have all of the photos from this trip too in a new gallery. Keep in mind that there are really bad parts too which I don't spend a lot of time photographing. I went to Lima Peru once and photographed all the amazing Colonial buildings and people told me they wanted to go because of how beautiful it was. I had to tell them that between all of those gorgeous buildings were burning heaps of garbage (really!). Maybe I'm doing a disservice by only photographing the good.... Maybe I only like the good so that's what I like looking at and I'm willing to work with the bad... But them maybe life itself is irrelevant so is this entire message. As always, you decide for yourself.
Not sure why this didn't get published. It's actually the second day in Oaxaca.
I first discovered Oaxaca (like Christopher Columbus discovered America right?) when I was researching archaeological sites and saw this city on top of a mountain similar to Machu Picchu in Peru. It wasn't as pretty as Machu Picchu but possibly bigger and intriguing. It was in a state called Oaxaca which seemed to be very popular with backpackers. One thing led to another and in 2006 I traveled here with my kids. I guess I could credit the Zapotecs and their interest in building cities on mountain peaks that got me to Oaxaca in the first place. Now we're back and we want to go see Monte Alban again but this time do it our way. Last time we took a tour because we really didn't know how to get up there to the mountaintop and it was the fastest way to see the ruins. We got transportation and a guide but it the tour only left 15 minutes left to sit and contemplate so we missed a lot. This time we looked in the guidebook for the place to get a bus and went to that location. We saw no ticket booth but a man came along asking if we wanted a touristic bus so we followed him around the corner to the touristic bus store. There we paid for tickets and waited. The “buses” here are really heavy duty trucks with bus tops on them and they need to be. The roads are rough and I imagine a normal bus would wear out quickly. The ride up took about 30 minutes and gave us almost 5 hours to see the museum and the ruins. It's designed so you can hire a guide when you get there but we didn't since we've already gone through that. We ate in the restaurant and predictably got taken for about double then went through the museum before ascending the hill to the city.
Monte Alban was built by the Zapotecs which still make up the majority of the indigenous population in the area. The Monte Alban civilization is the longest continually running civilization in the Americas having been created in 500 BC and ending when the Spanish invaded in 1500 AD. During the course of their run they saw the Olmec (from which they came), Maya, Teotihaucanos, Toltecs and Aztecs come and go with only the last still existent when they were conquered. If you think about the time line had they been in Europe they would have seen the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Gauls and Franks come and go too. Two thousand years is a long time. So Monte Alban was their ceremonial center as well as other things. They had a ball court there similar to the Olmec ball courts and many temples. If Monte Alban were the center of a major city now the city square would be twice as big as the largest in the world (Red Square in Moscow). It doesn't look that huge in the photos until you zoom in and notice the people on the far side are very small. Just thinking that over 2000 years ago these people flattened what was once a pointed mountain peak 1000 ft above the valley floor to build a giant city is mind boggling. They also did a lot of other things including astronomy, math and medicine. They found carvings and skulls showing proof that they were doing research in medicine. In the Museum they show several skulls that had holes drilled in them and plugged. They also showed dentistry that had been done and there are carved stones showing anatomy. Very interesting people. According to scholars the Maya got their knowledge of astronomy and writing from them. They in turn got their writing system from the Olmecs which came up with it.
Most of the day we spent laying under shade trees watching people come and go and the rest climbing the pyramids to get a better view. Some day I'd like to come here in the spring when everything is lush and green. I've included a link to a hires photo showing how small the people are on the other side.
That evening after we got back to town we attempted to get something to eat only to find out that the entire city was reserved by the residents. I guess that's fair but there was a lot of tourists going without food. I thought that things might be different since it was new years eve but didn't expect everything to be reserved. We wandered the streets and only found on restaurant accepting patrons – for $40 a person. No thanks. We did find a bakery open so we got a bunch of baked goods thinking we were going to starve otherwise but within one block of the hostel found a rotisserie that would sell us a whole chicken for under $5 so that's what we did. I actually went back for a second chicken because we finished the first quite fast.
To see the fireworks we went onto the hostel roof and overall I wasn't that impressed. I'm fairly certain that the people who live around our lake spend about 10x the money on fireworks than ALL of Oaxaca combined.
Albert 1er is definitely the nicest place we've stayed. The wifi started working and best off all it's just a hop, skip and a jump from the Capitole metro station that I use to get to work. The Metro proves to be an incredibly efficient way to get around. The class is coming around with my only female student providing enough wonderful smiles to go around. All of them are quite sharp and if we can get past the communication issues I think we'll do great.
We tried a restaurant near Place Victor Hugo and the food was average but cost more than that. I wasn't impressed.
Ah, you know it's going to be a good day when you start with a good breakfast. After consulting Yelp yet again we hoofed it north to the Ruby Slipper for breakfast. I'm going to go ahead and give you the address because I enjoyed it so much - 2001 Burgundy street in Faubourg Marigny (Corner of Burgundy and Touro streets). The Ruby Slipper is housed in an old bank building and boy do they know how to do breakfast. I've been wanting to try the famed Cochon de lait (suckling pig) that I've heard so much about and they have an item called Eggs Cochon which is a pair of poached eggs over apple-braised pork debris and an open-faced buttermilk biscuit, finished with Hollandaise. Two biscuits come on a plate and my only complaints about the dish are that I probably only needed one and it was a bit pricey. However, don't let the latter steer you away because this breakfast may be the only good food you get so pony up, it's worth it. Kris had the Eggs Blackstone which is a pair of poached eggs over applewood-smoked bacon, grilled tomato and an open-faced buttermilk biscuit, finished with Hollandaise and served with fresh fruit. This was equally good and I highly recommend it.
The Faubourg Marigny was one of the first "suburbs" added to the city and today remains the district that's still largely colonial but not crazy like the French quarter. The houses are of a different style than the French quarter and include more of the "shotgun house" style aptly named because you could fire a shotgun from the front to the rear with out hitting anything.
Just north of Faubourg Marigny is the Tremé district made famous by the T.V. show by the same name. It's known for it's racial mix, housing projects and modern brass bands. Historically it was where the free people of color held their markets and dance lines. Specifically they did this at "Congo Square" named for the Congolese people who made up the most recent imports from Africa. The slave folks were in charge of buying the days goods for the plantations as well as selling goods. Quite often the square was used for African dancing as well. The percentage of free people of color reached 20% before New Orleans was purchased by the U.S. In Spanish Luisiana slaves were never barred from purchasing their own freedom if they had enough money on hand and many did. Sunday was a free day where slaves were allowed to partake in capitalism and they got to keep half the money. A lot of this exchange of money happened at Congo Square in the Tremé.
We started walking north on Esplanade Ave to see all the fabulous French houses on this grand boulevard when we decided to drop into a local convenience store for water. The Russian sounding man behind the counter asked us if we weren't from around there as if he already knew the answer. He then proceeded to tell us not to walk up Esplanade because it wasn't safe. He then told us not to walk east or west either and that we should go back the way we came for a few blocks then walk west. According to him people come in all the time crying because the got robbed. We followed directions and went back the way we came a couple of blocks then headed toward what used to be Congo Square. Along the way we wandered through yet another Saint Louis cemetery (#2) wondering out loud who it's residents were. In the way back we found the protestant section. This was a breakthrough in social integration because at this time it was common practice NOT to let protestants in the cemeteries at all. I suppose being at the back of the cemetery was better than not being allowed in at all.
Congo Square no longer exists and it's last musical performances probably happened some time between the time the U.S. took over and the civil war. However, the area has been made into a park in honor of Louis Armstrong. Kris went there yesterday and wanted to take me back so we wandered the park, took photos and sat on a bench and watched a young black girl sing and dance for her friends. It took no stretch of imagination to close our eyes and picture that we were in another time.
Louis Armstrong park was nice if underutilized, the projects ended up not being very scary at all and along the way toward Canal street we stopped and admired the line of statuary social liberators like Benito Jaurez and Simon Bolivar. Reaching Canal street we decided to go to the Cabildo which was the center of the Spanish Municipal Government. Now it's the Louisiana state history museum and one of the items on my "must see" list.
Having just read The Accidental City and The World that Made New Orleans, two books with very different takes on New Orleans history I found very little in the Cabildo that was new to me. However, it was really nice reading summaries of historical events along with photos and/or items from that period inside the actual building that much of it happened in. I highly recommend the Cabildo if you're into history. That and it's a great place to be if it's raining outside.
In one last ditch attempt to find good local cuisine (I know, beating a dead horse) I asked my fellow Facebookers what they recommended. Most pointed out the restaurant in the "Not New Orleans food but pretending to be" category like the Commanders Palace and Kpaul. One suggestion said that we just HAD to have boiled bay shrimp. So after wandering around a bit and looking at Yelp reviews and menus we settled on the Original Pierre Maspero's. It seems there's another Pierre Maspero's but this one's the REAL one or something. This is the historic home of the Original Pierre Maspero’s Slave Exchange. Yes they sold humans here and proudly so it appears. There are plaques on the wall announcing that it was a slave market, it's in the menu, on their website and just about everywhere else. There's probably graffiti on the bathroom walls too but I didn't look. It felt just a tad odd that so much was made of a horrific past.
We ordered the very popular Shrimp Pistolettes which were bay shrimp in little boats smothered in cheese sauce. They were overly cheesy and not that appealing either. Kris ordered the Crab Cake Maspero and Bay Shrimp and Grits. The crab cakes were actually very nice, probably the best I've ever had anywhere. They were light and fluffy with just the right amount of crab flavor. The bay shrimp were OK. They were tender and tasted like shrimp. In a blind taste test nobody would know the difference between these and any other properly prepared shrimp so I wasn't exactly bowled over by them. The cheesy grits were about as good as they sound. Bland granules in a cheap cheese sauce. I ate part of them and left the rest. NOW I think we're done with local food. I hope.
We finished the evening with a very pleasant walk along the Mississippi river bank.
Wired ran a story describing Lukas Grunwald's Defcon talk on an attack on airport passport readers. After extracting data from the (read-only) chip in a legitimate passport, he placed a version of the data with an altered passport photo (JPEG2000 is used in these chips) into a writable chip. The altered photo created a buffer overflow in two RFID readers he tested, causing both to crash. Grunwald suggests that vendors are typically using off-the-shelf JPEG2000 libraries, which would make the vulnerability common.
Read the article at Wired.com
I've been a bit slow in getting this up because I wrote it once when I was in Puebla then accidentally overwrote it and I have a real issue with doing ANYTHING twice... Here goes anyway...
Last night I told the gentleman at the front desk that we needed a taxi at 6:15am. He shook his head but after telling him three times and him shaking his head three times I figured he wasn't quite understanding me but that's all I could hope for considering the language barrier. I woke up at 5:45 and took a shower not wanting to stink up the whole bus, I'm sure my fellow bus patrons appreciated my thoughtfulness. We packed up last night so didn't really have a lot to do and the front desk guy was nowhere to be found. I started taking the bags down to the front desk and made no effort to be quite about the matter thinking that if he were close (which he probably was) he'd wonder who was making all the racket and come out to either call the police to escort us out of town or call a taxi to escort us out of town. Either would get the job done. At 6am he appeared and I used up one of my many (if you use both fingers and toes) Spanish sentences – “taxi?” to which he said taxi? And I said si! It's amazing how much communicating you can get done with three words and two are the same. Women take note.
The kids came downstairs and instead of calling a taxi he said “uno momento” and went out on the street and waved one down. Well crap, had I known that's all he was going to do I would have done it myself. Riding in a taxi in Oaxaca early in the morning feels a lot like riding the back of a Bumblebee in a race for the last flower on earth (I assume). Our little mid 90s Nissan taxi that was missing it's muffler was buzzing down the street wandering from side to side until another little Nissan taxi started buzzing around us and at each intersection we'd swap places. Interestingly when the buzzing bees would come up on an intersection they'd flash their lights which in turn shined on the sides of the buildings to let anyone coming to the right or left know not to run the red. I'm telling you they have system down here and it works.
We arrived at the First Class bus station which I think is all new from the last time we were here. The last time they only announced the buses over the speaker at a million miles per hour and I couldn't tell them apart so I turned on my traveler sense and took my ticket through the crowd and motioned to see everyone else's ticket. When I found someone that was riding my bus we just planted ourselves next to the young guy holding it and when he moved we moved. This method works really well for a lot of things that you don't want to miss - text rules when you don't know the language. Now we didn't need to do this because things have changed. We were riding ADO GL again and when I went to the ADO ticket counter to inquire about where to check my baggage they pointed me to my right. I saw another counter there so I went there and they too pointed me to a room to the right. I went to the room and a lady was guarding the door which asked to see my ticket and she motioned me inside. It was then I realized we were riding deluxe class and part of the perks was to have our own lounge where we didn't have to stand in line to check our bags. All of this for an extra $10... We checked our bags and bought a bunch of junk at the store to eat during our 4.5 hr bus ride to Puebla.
Even though the ride is only 4.5 hrs and we probably only covered 250 miles it feels like I crossed the entire United States. We started out with deciduous forests with leaves that were slightly colored because it was winter, then went into dense pine forests which turned to cactus forests which turned into a white knuckle ride along a giant canyon which then turned to the badlands and then beautiful red clay hillsides then barren land with white chalky cliffs and finally a green fertile valley floor. We covered about 6 US states and went through a few areas that had no equivalent as well. According to my calculations (said in Jade's comical East Indian voice) we'd be in Puebla at 12:30 but we came into a flat valley floor at 11:30 and it fit the description and I really knew I had calculated wrong when I started seeing Puebla billboard signs. We pulled into the Puebla bus station which is the largest in all of Mexico. Mexico City has four large stations but Puebla a city of only 1.3 million people only has one and it's very busy. It's built like two large circles with gates inside and outside the circles all the way around. We parked in the inner circle and our primary concern was to find a bathroom. The bus had two (men's and women's) but since I've been in airplane bathrooms I had an idea what a bus toilet would look like and didn't seize the opportunity.
Our first indication that Puebla was different was that we had to pay to use the bathroom – 3 pesos roughly 25 cents U.S. I knew the Puebla bus station was 5 km from our hotel so we took a taxi who's drive spoke English! Hoorah. He wanted to know where I was from to which I replied Seattle and he said “Oh really, I have family in Idaho Falls” as if those places were close. I guess it's the same thing as me saying I went to Oaxaca and someone saying “Oh I just love Cancun!” which is not at all the same experience. I tipped him for the conversation when he dropped us off. He seemed to have a bit of a problem knowing where our street was which I thought was odd since the street name was 4 and they come in order (as do most numerals). Later I learn that there are 4 streets named 4 and they all radiate out from the zocolo. There's also 4 streets named 6 and 8 and.... All street numbers decrease from every direction until finally you arrive at the Zocolo. It's important that you know the difference between 4 oriente (east) and 4 norte (north).
The hotel was nowhere near as luxurious as the photos online or the description in the Let's Go guide. Before leaving home I went to the bookstore to see if there was a new Let's Go guide but there version looked identical to mine so I didn't buy it. Come to find out mine was printed in 2006 which is a long time in the travel world. Maybe something happened between 2006 and 2010 to this place because it was all a bit dingy. Having said that our room was large, we did get free breakfast in the morning, a free snack in the evening, free ping pong, free pool (I guess), cable tv channels and a host of other stuff. Maybe it was a luxury hotel at one point but just lost it's luster. Considering I was only paying $40 a night for all four of us I wasn't complaining too loud anyway. The check in lady didn't speak a word of English but she spoke really loud to me which seemed to make help out a lot. :-) My fine tuned ears can discern the words diez minutos (10 minutes) which means I should plant myself on the couch until something obvious happened which is what I did until the bellhop came (the obvious part) and took us to our room. I had no money on me so my next question to the desk lady was ATM (using up yet another word in my "Spanish" arsenal)? Which she responded "Zocolo" and pointed down the street. You have to love Mexico. You can check into a hotel, get the key and never give them any money. In the US you'd have to give them money or a credit card first before they let you do anything.
So off to the Zocolo we went to find money and food.
Let me take a break for a moment and tell you about Puebla. It has about 1.3 million people, sits at an elevation of 7000 ft (which we no longer noticed) is or is one of the most photographed cities in all of Mexico and the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site. This should tell you something. I came here in the search for pretty buildings and great food and I was not disappointed in either endeavor.
I've been amazed at how different each city in Mexico really is. I'm not talking about each city as in Cancun, Play del Carmen because all of those places are for the most part identical. I mean city as in real Mexican cities like Mexico City, Oaxaca and Puebla. These three cities all have their own style and feel. Puebla as it's been told to me was a social experiment by the Spanish to provide enlightenment via education and religion (yeah, that'll work). The city was founded in the early 1500s and was to be the crossroads of faith and education, with libraries, schools and administrative buildings designed to civilize and Christianize. Puebla to this day is a mix of 17th and 18th century European ideals and Mexican art. It has been said that Puebla's streets were laid by angels who streaked ribbons across the land, forming the grid that makes the city so simple to navigate. Puebla since it's inception has been stocked well with convents and nuns which to this day you see wandering the streets. These very same nuns invented two of Mexico's most famous dishes – Chiles en Nagoda and Mole Pablano – both of which I planned on sampling while I was there.
Puebla has an interesting architectural style that you don't see anywhere else in Mexico. As it's been told to me the folks from Spain that settled here came from Talavera Spain just west of Madrid. In Talavera they use red brick and tiles for their buildings. When they moved to Puebla they continued this tradition and Puebla shows it with many streets lined with red brick buildings and tiled walls. Even the dome on the main cathedral in the Zocolo is tiled. My first impression of Puebla is WOW! What a pretty place. There's a reason it's one of the most photographed cities in Mexico. In the zocolo there was one side of the main square that serviced nothing but double decker buses full of tourists. Double decker tourist buses in a town that nobody's (most nobodies live in the States I think) ever heard of? Welcome to Mexico... It seemed the tourist line to get on the buses was chock full of Argentineans, Chileans and Mexicans with an occasional Gringo. Not a popular place for the white non-German speaking folk though. It's my prediction that within the next 5 years Puebla will suddenly pop onto the tourist map the way that Oaxaca has.
Natalya who's been partially sick the with a cold the entire trip and who's stomach was becoming particularity sensitive to unknown foods wanted to just sit on a bench and watch the tourists go by which is what we did. About 15 minutes later we became of interest to some locals that came up to us and told us that they were curious about where we were from. The man who introduced himself as Sylvestre lived in the state of Puebla as a kid but now lives in Pasadena California. The woman Betty was family and still lived in Puebla. It was Sylvestres first trip back to the city of Puebla and was doing the tourist thing as we were. We talked for a bit and then I told them they were going to be famous because I was going to blog about them and needed a photo. They brought in more family and I took the photo. They were a delightful bunch and very inquisitive. They left only to return a few minutes later asking for the URL so they could look at my blog then they were off again.
I'm going to take a break for a second to tell you what makes traveling special. You can watch travel videos or thumb through the World Book encyclopedia and never go anywhere if you wish. A building in person looks about the same as a building in a book. However, it's the people and the culture that you will never experience unless you actually go to those places. When we're in Croatia or Slovenia we stay with local families and it's wonderful. To come “home” to the Strnad family in Ljubljana and hear them singing after a day of seeing the sights is a joy to behold or to have breakfast with Andrea in Dubrovnik is a wonderful memory. I've always thought there's a market for people in countries to just do whatever it is they usually do but allow tourists to do it with them. This might seem completely ridiculous but I'm sure people would pay to hang out with the locals. If you go on tours it's always so sterile and cold with reciting stories and dates and when it's over everyone goes their separate ways. You learned something but you experienced nothing. My greatest memories are those where I forged a relationship with someone in a foreign land. I always like Mexico because the locals want to know about us. We're not quite as big a spectacle now that my kids are getting older so people only stare at us 50% of the time.
Anyway meeting Sylvestre and Betty is a good memory and I hope we run into them again. They are delightful and full of energy as is the rest of the family.
Natalya said that while I was talking to them and taking pictures the eyes of the entire line of tourists waiting for the double decker bus was on us but that just adds to it. Mexico is the most unpretentious place on earth. You can go there, wear crazy clothes or do about anything you want and you will only make people more curious. I've never seen a turned up nose in Mexico so the moral of the story is relax and enjoy yourself.
Our stomachs started sending signals to our brains and Natalya wanted familiar food so we ate at an Italian place on the zocolo. I of course had Pollo en Mole because I'm not wasting one moment here eating food I can get at home. The Mole was so thick with chocolate that they might as well just melted it down, added chiles and put it on my enchiladas. A bit too thick in my opinion. The kids had pasta which they all enjoyed. After dinner we took more pictures and then Natalya had to return to the hotel with stomach issues.
Not a bad first day in Puebla. Overall I'm VERY impressed with this city and know for sure that I have to return one day to spend a lot more time here. I'm going to give you one photo from Puebla for today (I'm trying to build suspense...).
My favorite state in Mexico is definitely Oaxaca. Oaxaca is second most southern state in Mexico near the Guatemala border. It's roughly about as far south as Belize and has decent climate. It has untouristed beaches facing south, excellent ancient ruins like Mitla and Mont Alban a ancient hilltop Zapotec village with planetarium, ball court and hospital. There is just enough tourism for services to be available but not enough to be really irritating like the entire east coast of the Yukatan Peninsula or the many west coast resort towns like Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Puerta Villarta. But the real reason I like Oaxaca is for the nice people and the wonderful food. Even among Mexicans the Oaxacans excel. Oaxaca is billed as the land of the 7 moles. If you haven't had mole you need to fly to Oaxaca. Don't go to your local Azteca for it because you'll decide that you don't like it. That's about the same as going to Olive Garden and having "Italian" food (pronounced with a long i!). If you're wanting to know a bit more about mole visit the Wikipedia page on mole.
Wow, Oaxaca has become mainstream! In case you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years there's this place called Oaxaca (wa-HA-ku) in southern Mexico about the same latitude as the country of Belize that has great food, great people and great ruins. It also seems to have been discovered. In the first 15 minutes of being in the zocolo I've seen more tourists than ALL of Mexico City. We came into Oaxaca llate last night, got signed into our Hostel and went out to eat. Credit cards are not used that much here and our hostel charged us 10% more to use my card so I chose to pay for one night and I'll go to the ATM to get cash to pay for the other nights. I've found this to be the case everywhere including restaurants. The money thing is a bit out of control because the exchange rate is 12.5 to one. That means I paid 2,500 pesos for a hostel for 4 nights. It's not hard to pay 2000 pesos for bus tickets or 600 pesos for dinner. Each peso is worth less than one dime so it's like you're paying for everything in dimes. What's more interesting is the lack of ability to make change for anything over a 20 peso bill. I remember the last time I was here I went into an ice cream shop and tried buying four ice cream cones with a 50 peso bill and they about fell over. Not understanding how cheap things were I though $5 USD would cover it. I ended up digging through my pockets for change 10 pesos in change. Another time I tried buying an antibiotic and band-aids from a pharmacy with a 500 ($40 USD) and the girls eyes about popped out of her head when she saw it. My daily budget for 4 people is roughly 1000 pesos or $80 for food and accommodations.
So first day in Oaxaca and I've already seen changes since the last time I was here. Before it was more common to see tourists than Mexico City but not overwhelmingly so. This time every third person was a tourist from somewhere and there were plenty of Americans as well which you rarely ever see in Mexico City. I wish prosperity for the Oaxacenos but at the same time hope they don't turn into Cancun because a beautiful city will have been destroyed. It will be difficult for Oaxaca in the future to remember who they are so many tourists that it will be more profitable satisfying the demand for Nachos and Burritos. Italy has had so much tourism that it's all but been dissolved into Disneyland and I pray that Oaxaca doesn't suffer the same fate.
Our plan for day one of Oaxaca was to get our bearings, wander the streets, eat good food and figure out how to get to Monte Alban. We've been to Monte Alban before but we took a tour which had an excellent guide but only left us 15 minutes of personal time. Monte Alban is a lot like Machu Picchu in that you're best memories may be just sitting under a tree imagining what this once great city may have been like. This is what we planned on doing and in order to do that we needed to just find transportation alone.
Oaxaca is famous for several things - chocolate, cheese and black pottery. South of the zocolo a few blocks is "chocolate corner" where you can get a cup of chocolate caliente at every corner or there about. Mayordomo is becoming the Starbucks of Oaxaca in putting a chocolate cafe on every block. I've had hot chocolate before and I've had mexican chocolate before (Mayordomo) but I've not sat down and ordered a hot chocolate from a chocolate cafe so that's on the agenda. The cheese they sell in the markets in the form of giant balls that are wound of long flat "noodles" of cheese. I bought one kilo of cheese to eat as snacks while we walked around. It's good cheese that resembles a salty mozerella more than anything. The last item is something special to this region. They hand make the pottery without the use of a pottery wheel, cut out designs in the sides then bury it underground cover it with green leaves and build a fire on top. The smoke impregnates the pottery making it a very deep charcoal black. The best part is they sell it for next to nothing. It really is beautiful and unlike anything you'll see anywhere else.
The indoor market in Oaxaca City is possitively large and sells everything from handmade scarves to meat. I'd love to to have access to the mounds of chiles, chocolate and cheese not to mention the spices and other raw ingredients.
We also planned on getting off the zocolo to eat some great food at cheaper prices than we enjoyed before. I believe I used the Moon guide on our first trip to Oaxaca and this time I brought the Let's Go which is great for budget travelers and not so good for those who want to spend their childrens inheritance on Oaxacano cuisine so we just had to wing it a bit.
Before I go on I'll tell you a bit about Oaxaca the state and Oaxaca the city. Oaxaca (pronounced wa-HA-ku) the state is populated by many different indigenous groups which make up nearly half the populus. The most common is the Zapotecas followed by the Mixtecas. The former built Monte Alban, the latter build Mitla and eventually ruled Monte Alban. The difference between Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico is that the native people didn't mix with the Spanish so technically they live in Mexico but aren't Mexican. A lot of the people in the
state don't speak Spanish either and stick to their original language. This brings a surprising diversity to the area and you'll notice that the people don't even look the same if you travel around the state. Oaxaca city has become very popular with tourists because it's a very pretty city with cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture. The zocolo is one of the prettiest anywhere with gardens, an art nouveau gazebo, hundreds of planted poinsetias and two story Spanish colonades lining all four sides. Because I've never been to Spain it reminds me a great deal of Bologna Italy which has somewhere around 70 miles of porticos lining the street. The zocolo is in the same style. Two of the four corners are anchored by 450 year old churches and the area is mostly for pedestrian use only. The restaurants lining the zocolo on both first and second stories are mostly white table cloth fancy places with excellent traditional Oaxacano food. The exception to this being the one Basque restaurant which seemed to have gotten lost and ended up in southern Mexico. I'm not sure how that happened but a Spanish galleon and shackles may have been involved.
I think I mentioned the hostel (Paulina Hostel) yesterday but I wanted to reiterate that this hostel is only about 3 blocks from the zocolo, is incredibly clean, is a Let's Go thumbs up and has a very tranquil inner courtyard with attached open eating area, free Internet and free breakfast. We rented all 5 beds in a 5 bed dormroom so we'd have a private room. There's wifi access just about everywhere except the room full of computers (ironically) so I can get on the Internet in our room. My only real complaint is the lack of power outlets in the rooms. I'm sure it's to discourage people from plugging in electric weed eaters or toasters but still I'd like to use my computer in my underwear which I currently can't do without shocking a bunch of German and Korean backpackers. I've only found four power outlets in all of the hostel – one I have to reach over a pool of water to access, the second has a christmas tree plugged into it, the third is in the dining room and the fourth the computer room. Each one of these places only has ONE outlet so I can't charge my laptop at the same time as my camera batteries. Today I'm going to go find a power strip of sorts.
Before we left the hostel we handed over our clothes to be washed which cost us 75 pesos or about $6 which was fine. So in search of food we wandered the pedestrian street leading from the zocolo to the nearly 500 year old church of Santa Domingo
We ran across the Catedral restaurant which had an inner courtyard. They had several mole entrees including Mole Almendrado (almond) which Natalya wanted. Overall the service was decent and the food average. The Mole Negro Tamale in banana leaf was the best thing there. Piper had squash flour soup with cubes of cheese and plantain molettas filled with meat neither of which she was impressed with because either the color or the texture was off. Jade had chicken breast with squash flower sauce which was decent. He didn't have any problem finishing it off. We were also reminded that if you can't speak the language and you didn't want something don't mention that you don't want it because they will only hear the part that they recognize (the item not wanted) and bring it to you. I ended up drinking both bottles of mineral water with gas. We made the mistake of saying no gas. No gas gets translated to gas which is what you get. We've learned this lesson before so we have no excuse. Sin gas is the secret password to water without bubbles or still water as the Brits say.
During dinner we heard an American couple at the next table and before leaving I asked them where there where from to which they responded Boulder Colorado. Boulder? That was my response because usually the travelers I encounter are from California, Florida or New York. I bet their reverse culture shock after returning home is greater than ours. Anyway there names were Audry and Jeffery and seemed to be a very nice couple. She'd been to Oaxaca 30 years ago and I can only imagine how much it's changed in that amount of time. It's changed in the last 3 years so 30 years has to be a big jump. She asked me about San Miguel de Allende and Puebla too so apparently she'd either been to them or had been doing some reading. She was also aware of the hot springs, the big tree and Mitla. There's a slight chance we may run into them tomorrow since they too decided to go to Monte Alban via the bus. I hadn't researched how to do that yet but I know it's possible.
Mexico does Christmas a lot different than the States. Since 97% of the population identifies themselves as Catholic they celebrate Christmas from December 25th to January 6th. Even now near the first the zocolo is going full swing with bands, decorations and many many people. Thankfully our hostel is a couple of blocks away so we can get some sleep.