Mexico - 2009 (15)
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.
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.
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...).
The end is near.. :-(
Natalya's not feeling well so she's staying in today. I'm thinking she's getting dehydrated and her back is out plus she has a cold and her stomach is just about done with strange food. She's craving fruit so Piper and I head out to take more pictures, pick up some fruit and Gatorade. I also wrote down Pepto Bismol because I'm not sure what's going to happen to Jade. You see last night when I went out to get food Jade said he just wanted something known which is where most everyone but myself is standing. I'm still going full force wanting to experience all the culinary variation that the country has to offer but I'd be lying if I were to say that my body was handling it without complaint. One of two things is going to happen, either this food becomes normal or we go home and start eating something normal. Either way I'm OK with it. For now though, it's Mole Pablano and Chiles en Nagoda for me. So to satisfy the need for normal food Jade begged for a chicken sandwich at McDonald's (of all places). We enter McDonald's and look at the menu. Of course nobody can speak English but we know the drill - we look at a combo, say the number then say “no” to everything they ask until they ask the same thing more than once (meaning it wasn't a yes/no) question to which we say Sprite. This has done us fairly well in 30 countries. My kids always ask if they can have their sandwich without and I say no because in order to ask for them to hold something you actually have to be able to speak some of the language. I know how to say Lettuce, I don't know how to say Pickles so all sandwiches will have Pickles in Mexico. What we ended up with was a 10 piece chicken nuggets and a chicken sandwich. Both made into “Trio” meals which came with fries and a drink. McDonald's is just as bad in Mexico as it is at home unfortunately so don't get any ideas about the quality of the food being edible. Piper sat down to dinner and took a drink of her soda then asked the all important question “does this have ice?”. Crap, we'd been walking around getting my dinner and didn't notice if there were ice in the drinks. Jade was done with his soda and we popped the lid to peer in and sure enough there were shards of ice in there. I drank a few drinks but before the ice melted, Piper drank a few drinks after it was melted and Jade drank the whole thing thus the search for Gatorade and Pepto Bismol.
Note that ice cubes won't get you 100% of the time but he had a cup full of the local water in the form of ice and he ate it which pretty much seals your fate. The front desk read my note listing Pepto Bismol and whipped out a first aid kit with the familiar pink bottle in it and made a motion for me to pour some in a cup and take it. I ran back to the hotel room and gave it to Natalya to calm down her stomach. She gagged on the Pepto because she'd never drank liquid chalk before. I remembered liking Pepto when I was a kid but haven't had any since. Finding out that Pepto Bismol was called Pepto Bismol here was encouraging. If Jade gets Montezuma's revenge he will need to be plugged up for the plane flight home so off to the Pharmacy we went. I mentioned Petpo Bismol to which she asked me a question and I just sat there and stared at her like an idiot which I've gotten very good at by the way then she disappeared into the back. She came out with Pepto tablets which was even better – we could take them on the plane. After handing over my $3 I took them back to the hotel for the little birds. Jade was feeling fine but decided to hang out with Natalya as Piper and I explored the city and explore is what we did.
We needed breakfast and I wanted an apple filled pastry so we headed to the Zocolo and out the other side. We ran into a Churreria which seem to be very popular here. We bought a couple of Churros and headed down another street where we found a Tourist Information office. The man there spoke English unlike the TI on the Zocolo and gave me directions for the bakery. I took more photos then got shown up by a girl packing a DSLR with a giant lens. In a weird way I felt less manly for a second.
As we were walking down the street toward our bakery a group of people ran across the street and up on to the sidewalk – it was our new friends Betty and Sylvestre! They were eating in a restaurant across the street and saw us walking but there were more of them this time. The hands came out and I went down the line asking each what there name was and shaking their hand. They were all as bubbly and friendly as Betty and Sylvestre are. I've tired my hardest to remember there names and I wish now that I'd taken another photo of all of them together. So from memory their names were Sylvestre and Betty (of course), Medium (spelling?), Ramone, Ramona (the grandma), Norma who was with them yesterday and Carmen. I think I'm missing someone but I can't think of who so I apologize if I have. I tried my best to roll my R's when saying their names and think I did OK for names starting with R but ones with it in the middle are very challenging. I think all of the kids range from maybe 12 years old to 18 or so. Carmen is a very pretty girl who's parents need to think about locking her in a closet until she's 18. If you're reading this get out the padlock now before the boys are knocking on the door! :-)
I told them we were headed to the bakery and they asked if we wanted to just follow them which we did. Along the way we decided to exchange email addresses and Sylvestre offered to let me stay with him in Pasadena when I go down to work. I can't stress how friendly these folks are. Betty seemed disappointed when I told her that we'd be leaving tomorrow. Having seen Puebla and spent two days in it I am 100% sure that we will return and now that we have Betty's email address we can get together with her and her wonderful family when we go down next.
They dropped us off at the bakery and once again the hands came out and I went down the line to shake them and to say goodbye. What a wonderful family and I'm glad we ran into them again. I've sent them emails so we can stay in contact.
The bakery was a small version of the traditional Mexican bakery and had the same things. Mostly muffins and many types of croissants and breads. The one thing I enjoy about Mexican bakeries is the lack of sugar. For whatever reason Mexican baked goods are not very sweet which is great for me. After the bakery we continued up the street and decided to take a different route back to the hotel which took us past a VIPS http://www.vips.com.mx/ which is sort of a commercial Denny's/Olive Garden restaurant that for whatever reason seems to have gotten the coolest looking buildings in Puebla. This building was made of large stones almost in a castle style and in the middle was a long hallway in the Paris Gallery style with an open roof and slanted glass panes providing protection from the elements. Curious we entered and found the entire center of the building was uncovered and filled with more tent like glass coverings and small shops. Again you don't realize that there could be an permanent store without a building protecting it from the environment until you go to a place where the temperature rarely goes below 70. The entire central “courtyard” was filled with a sort of outdoor mall with real stores, food stands and a carousel in the middle complete with a train ride for small children and adults who feel like small children. If you're having a hard time imagining this just think of what would happen if you took your average American Mall and removed the roof over the hallways between the stores and replaced it with an open v-shaped piece of glass. The sun and fresh air would get in and technically the hallway would be “outside”. This is only possible in a place like Mexico and I don't think it would translate well to Seattle with 366 days of rain a year.
Earlier in the trip we saw people walking along the street with a spiral shaped piece of food on a stick and in this “mall” we found a stand selling such a thing which turned out to be a potato that's cut in a spiral then deep fried. We also picked up another meal on a stick which we didn't really know the ingredients to until we bit into it. You have to laugh when you think of the dietary recommendations at home and what this thing is. It's a hot dog, dipped in batter, then wrapped in bacon and deep fried! Seriously, I'm not making this up. Of course we had to have a couple of those too so walking back to the hotel we looked like a couple of porcupines with eight spiny quills stick up in each direction – 4 with spirals and 4 with bacon wrapped hot dogs. Everyone like the fried potato but the deep fried hot dog wrapped in bacon got mixed reviews. Your system can only handle so much grease and it seems that threshold is met by this strange concoction.
After lunch Piper and I hit the streets again to take more photos and find souvenirs then later Chiles en Nagoda the latter being the local specialty. Yesterday Jade and I left the zocolo the wrong way end ended up taking the long way home but I remembered seeing a souvenir shop so Piper and I retraced our steps and found a shop with a shot glass and key chains which is what Natalya asked for. They also had the famous Pablano Desserts which I of course purchased. These sweets look like gummy squares but when you bite into them they're so soft they almost all apart. It's quite a surprise but my kids did not find the strong flavor bite appealing. Once I translated the ingredients list I found alcohol in them. I've not had a problem walking the line after eating any so I'm thinking the amount of booze is quite small.
After nearly two weeks of eating Mexican food (and drinking melted ice the night before) only my stomach is wanting normal but there was one dish left to try – Chiles en Nogada. I was told that they only eat it in August but I found on place on the zocolo that sold it year round. It has pomegranate seeds which I'm sure you can't get all the time but still, I've never seen it on a menu at home so I just have to try it here. Chiles en Nogada is a pablano chile stuffed with a casserole of ingredients including meat, nuts and fruit. It's then covered with either an almond or walnut cream sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. It's a gorgeous looking dish and wonderful tasting too. As you can imagine the pom seeds were not bright red and juicy since their not in season and they stuck them inside the pepper (for probably the same reason) but overall I was very impressed. This dish has potential. I'll have to come back in August to try it when it's in season.
While we were standing in line for a table I got a phone call from Mother nature so we rushed back to the hotel. Undeterred we returned and sat in a couple of chairs with no table. A waiter came by and asked if we wanted a table (I guess that's what he said) and we said yes so off he went to get us a table. We just figured we'd sit while waiting instead of standing but in a minute he plopped down a table between our chairs and we were in business. I ordered the Chiles en Nogada of course and he said two numbers and a few other things which I figured out was a drink and soup which I took. He wanted to serve me a fruit drink but it has water in it so I skipped it and ordered agua purificado (purified water). Piper ordered a hamburger which turned out to be a HAM burger and she too got the meal with the soup and the drink. She wanted the fruit drink which I vetoed but then the waiter said agua purificado and I pointed to the fruit drink and he repeated agua purificado. I figured we're all probably getting sick form McDonald's anyway so what the heck. If we're not communicating right it's probably not going to make a difference anyway she got her strawberry drink.
Here hamburger was just that – made from smashed together ham which was hilarious. My dinner was excellent as well. We got Jade more junk food for dinner and returned to the hotel to pack up. The taxi will take us to the airport at 4:30 am...
On the architecture. I mentioned that there's a lot of red brick and tiles here in Puebla and the Spanish from Talevera have been credited for this. I can't say how different Puebla feels from other Mexican cities. To be fair, all Mexican Cities feel different from each other. Puebla however, feels like somewhere else. There was one time I was walking down one street and stopped and looked around because I felt like I was in Paris. Another time I felt like I was in Toulouse. There's such a mix here that I can't explain it. There are red brick and tile buildings everywhere and they really take you by surprise. It's as if there's a little of Morocco in Puebla.
My impressions overall... I like visiting Mexico City but I'd not want to live there. I would buy a summer (or winter) home in Oaxaca but I could see myself actually living in Puebla. Puebla is a real city with industry, tourism and culture. Puebla doesn't smell at all and is gorgeous. I'm very impressed with Puebla and we will without a doubt be returning in the future. There is so many things to do in Puebla which we didn't have time for I didn't even crack open the guidebook after we arrived. There's an African Safari place close! Don't even ask why because this is Mexico and anything goes. Also the largest pyramid in the world (yes larger than Egypt) is not that far in Chalula. Mexico City is only two hours away so even if someone wanted to avoid the rat race they could use Puebla as a base and take tours to Teotihaucan, Xochimilco etc.. in Mexico City I'd bet. This may be the safest and most pleasant way of seeing Mexico City too.
Puelba is so pretty that there's just no way I could have included enough photos in this blog post so I've added a bunch of photos to the end of it. The formatting will probably be all wrong but that's OK. Later I'll have all of the high res photos up in the Puebla trip gallery.
Last night we left out a few small things from our luggage. We packed the chocolate around the pottery to make sure it didn't get broken. Jade, Natalya and I are all on Pepto to make the flight better. Natalya has a flu, Jade ate ice cubes and I've subjected my stomach to all the strange and wonderful aspects of foreign cuisine that I could find and will continue to do so until we hit US soil! Our coats are packed away because outside of a short ride to the airport we'll be inside until we get home and only when we get to Washington will we need our coats. We're in Mexico - it's always warm here, right?
I asked for a taxi to pick us up at 4:00am because our flight for Guadalajara left at 6:30. I figured less than half an hour to the airport, an hour to get our boarding passes and get checked in and about 30 minutes to board the plane. That would leave us about 30 minutes extra for unforeseen circumstances and possibly finding breakfast.
There's one thing that I have to say about Seattle before going on. It might be 48 degrees in the middle of the winter during the day but it's still 43 degrees at night thanks to our cloud blanket. Mexico is more like eastern Washington in that it's 70 degrees during the day and a full 30 degrees colder at night and Puebla is no different. There we stood shaking in our summer clothes with our coats safely tucked away in our bags. Natalya decided that she was going to be comfortable on the plane so she wore her pajamas – which I'm not sure were made to safeguard her against 40 degree weather. Our taxi showed up on time and much to our surprise it was a ratty Nissan Sentra! Who would have thought that a taxi driver in Mexico would be driving a ratty Nissan Sentra? :-) Just kidding, so far they've all been ratty Nissan Sentras. Our driver who loaded our bags in the trunk was a fairly young Mexican man with a pencil thin mustache and only said one word the entire trip – aeropuerto? To which I said “si” as if there's anywhere else to go in the middle of the night. He presented himself as a man of strong convictions but very few words. Maybe convictions isn't the right word considering my very American audience and the preconceived notions of Mexico and Mexicans.. The first thing he did when getting into the car was reach over, grab his seat belt and click it into place. Crap I thought, we're about to buy the farm. You see this is the first time I've seen ANYONE in Mexico use their seatbelt including the police so obviously he's planning on using it. As if that wasn't enough he crossed himself before starting the car. Good God we're all going to die I thought! I'm not sure what our drivers name was but we need to call him something so I've named him Jose Emilio Sergio Ulises Santiago - Jesus for short. For you northerners that's pronounced “hey zeus” just to let you know.
Since I feel a bit silly calling anyone Jesus I'll refer to him as Jose which of course is pronounced “Hoe Zay” or if you're from Canada - “Hose eh?”. Considering the very un-Mexicanlike act of buckling his seatbelt and the additional fact that the sun had not yet risen I felt uncharacteristically patriotic and had a very strong desire to sing the Star Spangled banner. Or at least the part that says “Jose can you see, by the dawn's early light...”. Jose apparently could see and with a twist of the key and a belch from the tailpipe the tin can fired to life. This I felt was a very special Nissan in that the sound burbling from the tailpipe was different than the other Nissan taxis we'd taken. In a normal Nissan Sentra taxi you have the aforementioned tin can painted in maroon and gold sporting a very anemic four cylinder to which the only thing to say is “it gets great mileage” as saying anything more would just be depressing. The little maroon and gold Nissans don't have a lot of power but once you get them wound up you can cover some serious ground. This Nissan however didn't sound like it had the capability to be wound up as it was very clearly ¾ engine, ¼ air pump. The engine part coughed and sputtered and the air pump portion just wheezed. Jose however, seemingly undeterred put the shifter in gear, revved the engine, slipped the clutch and off we went into the night.
At the first stoplight Jose pressed the brake pedal until we gently came to a complete stop. We stopped? At a stoplight? Are we still in Mexico? I was shocked and looked over the seat at Natalya to see if she was paying attention. We were sitting at a red light, at four o'clock in the morning, in a taxi, in Mexico and there was nobody coming. After being in Mexico for almost two weeks this act of sitting at a stoplight in the middle of the night with nobody coming seemed to be a very inefficient use of an empty roadway. For a moment out my passenger side window I thought I'd glanced a pig flying by (rotating on a tacos el pastor spit of course). Could it be the Spanish influence in Puebla? Maybe Puebla is leading the country into the modern age and its citizens obey the laws of the road. Just as I was about to conclude one thing or the other Jose hit the gas and off we went through the remaining one second of the red light. In looking at his side profile I saw there in the dark shadows of the car a slight resemblance to Montezuma II, or was it Quetzalcoatl? The thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned from the east to reclaim his kingdom on the backs of giant sea turtles only to settle on driving a taxi in Puebla brightened my thoughts. Humor - has a warming quality to it.
We encountered 4 more red lights all of which were handled in the same manner – sitting until the last second and then prodding the hamster until he heaved himself up on his feet and started moving. The old hamster was getting a work out which is fine enough considering he's probably got a spare tire or two and asthma anyway. I can imagine him hunched over his wheel, respirator in hand putting one foot in front of the other to get the taxi moving. I've heard that in the coastal cities they use lemmings in lieu of hamsters which makes a lot of sense. It would also explain why after a long day at the beach the taxi ride back to the hotel always costs you double – lemmings run faster toward water and slower away thus costing more.
As we were getting near the edge of town we pulled up to a stop light next to this hulking dump truck fully loaded with large chunks of concrete, re-bar and miscellaneous junk – all appearing to be massively heavy. The road merged ahead and it was very clear that the dump truck wanted in our lane. The tension rose as we waited for the last second of the red light and then Jose crossed himself, said a prayer and slammed his foot to the floor. The heaping metal dragon in the lane next to us clattered profusely and clouds of black soot bellowed out the sides. Jose jammed through the gears, slipping the clutch and revving the engine to within an rpm of it's life. Half mile or so later we'd gained a couple inches on the bellowing beast – enough so - that it's master ceded the victory to us and backed off. Meanwhile the other maroon and gold tin cans (with all of their cylinders working properly) continued to buzz around us disappearing down the road with their taillights burning brightly not unlike a bunch of fireflies. The momentary look of triumph in Jose's eyes was quickly replaced by seriousness and determination and he very clearly set his sights on the fireflies disappearing over the horizon.
Our ratty tin can gained speed at a nearly imperceptible pace and let's be thankful that we weren't trying to stay ahead of any glaciers. The increase in speed was so slow that I had to use the frequency of the heavy vibration coming from passenger side front tire to gauge our speed. The road widened as we headed out of town. At that moment I realized that I hadn't shown Jose the name of the airport. What if Puebla had TWO airports and we were going to the wrong one? In a reversal of roles I asked “aeropuerto?” and he said “si” - so much for clarification. Normally airports in Latin American are dropped dead center into the middle of the cities. We were very clearly heading out of town and if the passing signs were accurate – toward Mexico City. Mexico City was only two hours away which got the old noggin wondering even more. Finally I saw a sign pass with “aeropuerto” on it. Then another sign with saying aeropuerto whizzed by followed by a third. The fact that anything can whizz by tells you that we'd built up a little speed and the tire immediately in front of me was bouncing more than rotating. Maybe his brakes no longer worked which is why we weren't turning off at any of the exits labeled aeropuerto. What do I know, I'm just a gringo that can't speak Spanish. Looming on the horizon are a horde of tiny red lights – the fireflies – and Jose had them in his sights!
The vibrations increased both in frequency and intensity until the front end was shaking but we were slowly gaining on other cars! Had the turnoff came up I think Jose would have just kept his foot planted because it would be bad to spoil the hard work and determination needed to get us up to this speed... One by one we passed motorhomes, dump trucks and estate sedans full of families. In Mexico you flash to pass - meaning you put your emergency lights on to let the driver in front of you know that you're passing. If that doesn't work you also flash your brights at him. So there we go haphazardly flying down the road in our maroon and gold tin can, engine about to explode, streamers on the antennae, tires vibrating like a pogo stick and lit up like a Christmas tree in the passing lane the whole way because that's just what you do in Mexico. Knuckles white from strangling the door handle I was relieved when we start to slow and proceed to exit the freeway onto a small two lane road and everyone else starts breathing again. It's very dark and our maroon and gold tin can makes it's way down the paved road that looks way too small to be headed to an airport which makes one wonder about ones destiny especially when one is in Mexico. The fears are calmed as we turn into a parking lot in front of what appears to be the illegitimate child of a warehouse father and a shopping mall mother – it's the dreaded ware-mall.
Being that Mexican Pesos are worthless at home we crafted a plan to get rid of them before we left the country. I guessed that the taxi ride would cost about 50 pesos which up until now has been the standard. I did not however, dream that the airport would be in the middle of Timbuktu so I asked the driver “cuanto cuesta?” to which he said “ciento treinta pesos” - $130 which was more than I'd reserved. I left the kids and bags and went looking for an ATM which was just inside the door where I took out enough to pay the taxi driver. This also left us with even more pesos than we had before the ride. Starving I figured we'd get rid of them inside at a nice traditional Mexican eatery. It's still only 5:30 and there's no restaurants open so the signal my stomach is so impatiently forwarding to my brain has to be ignored for a little while longer.
The airport “arrivals” area had enough room for a couple of ticket counters, 4 or 5 benches and a box of matches. Apparently there are only 3 airlines that fly to Puebla and nobody was at the Mexicana booth. Knowing not to assume anything I went to the Aeromexico booth and showed him my ticket to which he raised his shoulders, turned the palms of his hands up and said “diez minutos?”. He was saying he had no idea and I should just do the Mexican thing – just sit back and see what happens. Being a seasoned traveler the question I was really asking was “Am I in the right place to catch a flight by this airline?” which he unknowingly confirmed. No more than 10 minutes later a very attractive Mexican woman wearing her coat (I'll get back to that in a minute) showed up at the Mexicana gate along with baggage people. All bags were being hand searched and tagged. We find out later that our plane is too small for carry-on bags – an image of a reconditioned crop duster works it's way into my mind – with chickens – and old women carrying bags of onions. The very attractive (did I mention that yet?) ticket lady asked for our passports, gave us baggage claim forms, boarding passes and stapled our customs forms together for when we leave the country. The whole time she was wearing a heavy winter coat. So was the baggage search crew and the guy putting bags on the conveyor belt and the people waiting in line – as was everyone in the building because it was positively FREEZING! There we stood with our knees knocking, teeth chattering and hands regrettably reaching out toward our bags holding our coats as they wound their way down the conveyor belt and out of sight. Figuring it was only cold on the side of the airport with the door wide open we decided to go through security post-haste to the warm side where as we also found everyone wearing their winter coats. I then realized that the entire airport may not even have heating facilities considering it's the dead of winter and daytime temps are about 70 degrees.
The airport had all of three gates and it looks like the nearly new building has room for about two more which were walled off because what airport could possibly need more than three gates? I don't however think they walled the rest off because they didn't want to heat the whole thing! There were no restaurants to be found but after about 30 minutes of us mimicking a bunch of epileptics in a timeout huddle a man opened a coffee stand which got stampeded immediately. I didn't want any coffee but we wanted to get some bottled water for the plane so I jumped in line behind about 8 other people none of which wanted a plain old coffee – they all wanted fancy coffee – cappuccinos and such. I thought that a bit odd since we're in Mexico until I noticed they were speaking English – Americans! In Puebla? We creeped one cappuccino at a time forward until I only had one American lady in front of me which of course ordered a couple cappuccinos, frappachinos, crappachinos, mochachinos and other random chinos. I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and asking her in my best Brooklyn accent “Yo lady, don't ferget to order a freakin' Al Pacino, it's not like nobody in this buildin's waitin' for a freakin' airplane or anything” . Some people only enforce the stereotype. As I stand in line waiting for Al Pacino to show up for the American broad I see Natalya stand up and move toward the gate which means I need to go.
The very same attractive Mexican lady (I did mention that didn't I?) that took our bags and printed our tickets was also our gate agent. When they announced the flight to Guadalajara only four people walked to the gate – us. How big is this plane anyway if only four people are riding on it? Maybe we filled it up! Images of a cropduster once again formed in the thought bubble over my head. When the door opened for us to walk down the gangway to the airplane we realized we weren't looking down on the tarmac as we do at most airport gates but we were directly ON the tarmac! It was so dark outside that when looking at the terminal glass we only saw a bunch of Mexicans stuffed into winter coats, four shivering Americans plus one more holding 23 cups of foaming coffee waiting for Al Pacino.
The very attractive (I'm sure I mentioned it by now) Mexican lady led the four of us out onto the tarmac and down a painted “sidewalk” thankfully past a couple of crop duster sized airplanes and then turned toward an business sized jet that held maybe 50 people. A small plane but huge for four people I thought. Once on the plane we realized that it already had people on it. I'm not sure where it could have come from that early in the morning but Puebla was not it's origins. It was warm though, that part I knew.
We soaked up the warm air blowing from the vents as our plane lifted off and rose in the sky. The sun came up and bathed the ancient Mexican landscape in a glow of warm rays as it's been doing for millions of years. Mexico is a lot like life – there are difficulties and struggles, trials and tribulations, exciting human connections and depth all of which are dotted with memories of very warm people and a huge dose of humor. As the plane glided through the early morning sky I felt relieved in knowing the rest of the trip would be hassle free as I was going home and yet sad as I always am when leaving a foreign land. Sad because I've been touched deeply by this place and it's people. That affected portion of my being may remain dormant for years before I get back and get re-acquainted. One thing is certain - those are cherished memories that will be wrapped tightly and kept in a safe place so I can take them out whenever I want – whenever I need a smile and a laugh. Mexico - you're something else.