Grant McWilliams

Oaxaca to Puebla

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...).