Home Travel Trip Journals Displaying items by tag: Mexico
Monday, 25 January 2010 00:10

Adios Mexico, sad to see you go.

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.

Published in Mexico - 2009
Thursday, 31 December 2009 09:37

Anthropology and our last day in Mexico City

Today we go to Oaxaca but first... (as all great plans start). I've mentioned the National Museum of Anthropology several times and I'm going to say it again in case you haven't gotten the hint – this museum rocks! This is the Louvre (or the Smithsonian if you don't know what a good museum is) of meso-American civilization. I can't stress enough about how impressive this museum is. A couple of years ago I went to the Smithsonian and my summary went something like this – art museum is a joke, Air and Space museum was great, Holocaust museum one of the best in the world, Native American museum was an insult to Native Americans. The Smithsonian is a hit and miss experience but when you get to the four story Native American museum and realize that two stories are empty, one has half filled with a gift shop and one is full of pictures of artifacts you'll be wanting your money back (it's free). There is one small wall with Central American jewelery and such but it only makes you with you'd bought a different plane ticket – to Mexico.

 

 

 

Anyway our bus was scheduled to leave at 1 pm and we needed to check our bags at 12:30 which didn't give us a lot of time with the museum opening at 10am. We also needed to be completely packed up by the time we left the hotel because we'd just come back to turn in the keys and catch a taxi to T.A.P.O. Station. In the process of packing our bags back up Piper's zipper totally split and not amount of jury rigging by me could get it to work again so all of her stuff needed to be unloaded and packed up in the free space of our bags. Yes, I said free space. I was going to take a picture of our “kit” because I've had so many requests but in all honesty I was so busy the night before we left I never went to bed so no pictures. My rule when leaving the house is that each person has one carry-on bag that's 2/3 full so we have room for souvenirs. All four of our bags have a total weight of 60lbs and last us for months at a time. This includes my Mobile Internet device, a laptop, enough clothes for 6 days, all toiletries, guidebooks, journals and any other miscellaneous items. Because this trip is only 10 days we actually left with less than that which meant that after buying souvenirs we were still able to get Piper's junk distributed between our bags. This also means though that we no longer had room for pottery from Oaxaca so we'll need to find another bag.

 

Once the bags were packed we hit the street to the Metro station. Thirty minutes later we're exiting the Auditorio station and walking toward the museum. Starved we stopped at a street vendor and bought 4 carne tacos with cactus for a grand total of …. wait for it.... 20 pesos! That's $1.50 for four folks... The walk to the museum took 30 minutes and there was about 10 people in line when we got there. I could have gotten a discount for at least one of my ninos but I was in a hurry so I paid full price. Each two story building has a section of time and/or a certain civilization or group of civilizations. We went straight for the Teotihuacan building which also housed the Toltecs and a few others. We've been here before so we skimmed a lot. After that we saw the Olmecs, the Aztecs, The Maya and many other groups before deciding it was time to go. We had 15 minutes less time to get back than we took to arrive. As we were walking out the door we noticed the line had grown to about 100 people. Somewhere in the back of the mind I was reciting what EVERY guidebook says, show up when the doors open and you'll walk right in. Show up later and you'll be spending valuable vacation time standing in line. One hour made all the difference.

 

We walked about a million miles per hour and hit the metro in full stride. We made our connection, got off a stop early to save time and just missed our taxi because we were 4 minutes late. Still not bad, we'd shaved 10 minutes off our time. The hotel called another taxi while everyone used the bathroom and we waited. An unmarked car showed up but I wasn't surprised because what happens is hotels pay family and friends of family to do taxi duties and since we'd stayed there before we knew the drill. The hotel said it would take 30 minutes in the taxi and we only had 40 so we didn't have a lot of time to spare. We'd done the same trip in 24 minutes on the metro so I was questioning my choice in taking a taxi. For the first 15 minutes we crawled along the street slower than walking speed and I was really starting to question the decision but once we got out of the historic center things sped up and we arrived at the bus station in 24 minutes – the same as the metro but we paid $9 more for the convenience. Running through the bus station we arrive at our gate 15 minutes after luggage check time but they took it anyway. Not having anything but one taco each we grabbed some junk (literally) from a stand next to our gate and boarded the bus. Since it was first class they gave us drinks when boarding and we had our junk food which got us through the trip.

 

Part of the reason I rally for rail so much is right of way. Theoretically we could have right of way with buses but for some reason we don't. In Mexico City they have bus lanes where only buses are allowed which makes sense. On the freeway though they have no such thing and we sat in traffic for an hour just trying to get out of the city. They played a movie in Spanish that I now want to see. I have no idea what it's called but it takes place in San Francisco and India. The synopsis is that a call center worker in India gets a thing for a bank customer and calls him repeatedly until she decided to fly to meet him. It was hard to follow because of my lack of Spanish lingual skills but it seemed interesting. They also played Fire Proof which I've seen before and once was enough. The last movie was one with John Cusack in it and was painfully slow so I listened to podcasts.

 

The area around Mexico City is dry and arid but there was a time when it wasn't. Apparently the natives that lived there over forested and stripped the land of trees. The Spanish later drained the giant lake Texcoco which made matters worse. However, once we got up into the mountains pine trees appeared and you could have imagined without too much trouble that you were in the Rocky mountains. I think imagining the Cascades would have been a stretch but the mountains were similar to the rockies. Later the pine trees turned to cactus forests and Itzy and Popo loomed in the background. Popo is a smoking active volcano and Itzy is a snow capped inactive volcano. I will have to look them up but I believe they're both between 18,000 ft and 19,000 ft. Both very tall. There's a story behind them but I don't have time to tell it now. Something about an Indian girl and her boyfriend falling in love and Itzy's father sending Popo off to war to become a man but then lying to Itzy about him dieing. Juliet of course, I mean Itzy dies of a broken heart and Popo follows soon after. Seems humans the world over have similar problems and come up with similar stories.

The land eventually turns to cactus forests so dense they could be pine trees and then you come into Oaxaca state. It's interesting that crossing borders between Mexican states is about as much work as crossing into Canada with border police brandishing machine guns and body armor. We whizzed right on through since we're a bus but we had to do three state crossing en route so that slowed us down a bit. We finally pulled into Oaxaca city 40 minutes late. The hostel was about 1 mile from the station but we decided to take a taxi anyway. If you ever want a story to tell just take a taxi in a Latin American country. I'm going to skip it because I've told it before but I will say that it seemed like the taxi's ability to turn and stop were not equal to it's ability to go fast. Just so I didn't have to explain or the directions in Spanish or retrieve the address I told him the zocolo and thats where we went. Total cost was about $4.

 

Being dropped in the zocolo at Christmas time is like joining the circus. Street performers, live bands and chicklet sellers swarmed but we were able to beat them off and proceed to our hostel. You might be wondering why a family would stay at a hostel instead of a hotel. The short answer is that Oaxaca has been overrun by tourism (I'll get to adding more about that later) and the entire city was booked. Hostels used to be just for people under 30 years of age and only dorms. There were no private rooms available so I rented 5 beds in one room so we wouldn't be sharing. All 5 rooms cost me $40 a night. I can handle that since it comes with free breakfast and Internet. The bathrooms are down the hall but we've had a lot worse...

I'm going to plug the hostel for a second because I think it's worth it. It's the Paulina Hostel about 3 blocks from the zocolo and is so clean you could lick the floors. Any Mexican city is noisy but Paulina has an internal garden area where you can escape the chaos. It's also interesting to note that there are giant holes in the roof that lead to a pool of water on the first floor. This concept that you don't actually need a roof is a bit foreign to me since I live in a land where heat is necessary in the winter and shelter from the rain is useful. Here the hallways are open to the environment as is the aforementioned giant hole in the roof over the pool of water. It reminded me in a small part of being in the Amazon. Just for reference it's December and 81 degrees out. The temperature here only varies about 10 degrees a year. Also the dining area is open to the garden area so as I type this I'm sitting at a kitchen table outside. I wish I had a hammock is what I wish. I'd like that.

 

The last thing I'll say today before singing off is that we ventured out and decided to celebrate our coming to Oaxaca by eating anything we wanted. That meant we went to a really fancy white table clothed restaurant with balconies overlooking the Zocolo and I ate my Mole Negro. It was excellent of course and Natalya had Mole Almendrado since she doesn't eat chocolate. This too was excellent. The waiter rushed over at one point and laid a cloth napkin on my lap and I looked down and realized I'd dropped mine. He whisked it away to the cleaner pronto. The food was expensive by Mexican standards but all four of us ate fine food for about $40 total.

 

Upon finishing we were beat and returned to the hostel to hit the hay. Tomorrow is market day...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Saturday, 26 December 2009 20:18

Culture shock in Mexico City

Describe Mexico City in two words? Sensory overload! I'm very careful about recommending Mexico City to travellers because of the intensity of it all. I usually ask people where else they've traveled and if they enjoyed it. If they say they just loved Aculpulco, Cancun or PV then I'll probably tell them to keep going to those places. If they say they were in Istanbul and got a kick out of the Grand Bazaar then I'll recommend Mexico City to them. Note that I wouldn't recommend against Mexico City for any of the reasons that people think – crime, pollution or danger in getting sick. I'd recommend against it because it's full force sensory overload and a very foreign place. People get a little miffed when I tell them that Europe is a lot like America. My first trip to England I thought it was some really foreign country and I couldn't believe how hard it was to get around. Now I smile when I think of that because to me England's primary worth is to change airports to catch a plane to a destination with more punch. England outside of an accent difference and not driving on the same side of the road is very much like America. They have most of the same companies, cars, types of foods etc... France is a bit more intense because of the depth of their culture but still if you took a French person and dropped him in the middle of a major US city you'd not be able to find him until he spoke. Mexico City though is a very different story.

 

Where do I start with Mexico City? If it weren't for the basis in Catholicism and the Spanish colonial buildings we'd have no connection with this country and it's main city. For anyone who's been to the main four or five coastal resort towns I'm going to go out on a limb and say you've not seen anything of Mexico yet. I had a friend that said he really liked adventure so they went to PV (Puerto Vallarta) and one day they ventured outside their resorts gated area and into a “slum” and ate some tacos. If that's adventure I don't know what is! :-)

You might be wondering what makes Mexico City so intense then and that's what I'm about to attempt to answer. I'd relate the experience of going to Mexico City as being more like Istanbul or maybe Morocco than anywhere in Europe, the States or the 5 Mexican resort towns. When flying into Mexico City (or Day Effay as the locals call it – District Federal) at night you're blown away by how far this city goes. It's very difficult to measure a city when it has as many people as this so I'll refrain from throwing around numbers but it's one of the largest in the world along with Tokyo. As a rough comparison you could put New York City, Los Angeles and possibly Chicago in it, so as you can imagine it's immense. It has many social problems which you will no doubt encounter while you're here. I'll talk about those in a minute but for now to give you an impression of Mexico City I'll tell you about our own arrival.

Because of a massive ticket price reduction we flew from Portland Oregon to Atlanta Georgia and then to Mexico City. I love arriving in Mexico City after dark because it gives me a real sense of the size of the city by the lights. The MEX airport looks a lot like 70s concrete prison with wall to wall indoor/outdoor carpet and not much else. So we arrive not knowing if immigration will let us in because our passports are getting ready to expire. There are some countries that will turn you away if you have less than 6 months on them. When the immigration official scanned that first passport, stamped it and handed it back you could have seen all my muscles relax if you'd had your eyes trained on me for very long. He stamped the rest of them, took our immigration cards and welcomed us to Mexico. The next step was to pass through customs and play the “do you want customs officials to manually search your bags lottery” which is always fun. All bags go through giant scanners which to be honest probably aren't even turned on but they make the criminals a bit more nervous. Then after your bag is scanned you take it up to a stand an push a button – if the light turns green you go, if not you get searched. It's always fun and a bit nerve racking. No poker faces here, it's completely random.

After customs you walk out into a series of grand hallways all leading to different places none of which you have any interest in. Your main mission at this point is to get pesos and get a registered taxi. To combat taxi fraud which is rampant you buy your taxi ticket to your destination at a taxi booth and then take the ticket to a taxi. That way no money changes hands between you and the taxi driver. If you think this is just a Mexican problem you'd be very wrong – I wish most of the major cities in Europe would adopt this because it's a major problem there as well. The Mayer of Prague put on a disguise and took three taxis to see how bad it was and he got ripped off twice and the third guy recognized him. This is a problem everywhere and Mexico has found a decent solution for now. Mexico also had a problem with taxi drivers taking you to your ATM and helping you decide how much money you need to take out as well but that's a different story.

So we get our registered taxi which is a Chevy HHR – a definite improvement over last time which was a little rattle trap with a back door that wouldn't close all the way - I'm sure you can use your imagination. I have to take a break for a second just to mention that walking into Mexico City is like being drawn into a Roger Rabbit cartoon. Everything resembles reality but is just funnier than crap sometimes. I spend a lot of time smiling here and even writing this gives me chuckles. Back to the story. A couple of years ago we hired a driver to take us to Xochimilco – Fernando was his name. Fernando told us you needed two things in order to drive in Mexico City – first you needed a drivers license and second you needed to be crazy. I concur. Lanes are optional and traffic lights a mere suggestion. It's amazing that I've never seen a wreck in this city but I think they just get very good at defensive (and offensive) driving. My first point that lanes are optional is realized by the taxi only staying between the lines about 50% of the time. In Ecuador I'd say they're never between the lines so this is an improvement but a part of me says they're only between the lines when trying to avoid running into someone else who also happens to be between the lines in the next lane. As soon as that danger has passed they just drive wherever. The second point about traffic lights is true. Between the airport and our hotel near the Zocolo we ran EVERY red light! It wasn't like someone in America running a red light though by whizzing through it at the last moment but rather he'd slow down, look both ways and if there wasn't any traffic he'd just hit the gas again. This is not the only place in Mexico where I've seen this. I did however, see some cars sitting at red lights so I assume that not everyone runs them. If anyone has insight as to who gets to run the reds then I'm all ears. There's another thing I need to say about me not recommending people to come here – they don't speak English! We've encountered many people in shops and on the street and we've found two people that speak English, one at our hotel and a tourist guide at the Zocolo. We did encounter a kid that knew his numbers in English but that's it. If you need to be pampered and want someone to speak English to you then Italy or the resorts may be a better choice.

Another thing that people dwell on about Mexico is they ask if it's dirty. Well, yes I suppose it is. But then I can show you some pretty nasty areas of London or Paris as well and there are parts of Los Angeles that are trash dumps. I think in any country where the average yearly wage is roughly what I make in 4 days things are going to be a bit rough. There just isn't a lot of money to repaint buildings, fix sidewalks or clean streets. I will say this though that if Mexico can ever get to a point where they're making enough money to fix the place up they are sitting on a gold mine! You heard it here first. I will probably be going more into detail in the coming week or so but I this city is packed with so many beautiful colonial Spanish buildings and ancient ruins and in combination with the awesome culture and food it's crazy that people don't come here.  Since I have international readers I should quantify that by saying I don't know why more Americans don't come here. If you see a white person in Mexico City he/she is probably from Europe and I'd put money on it that they're German. But then Germans are everywhere. You could climb to the top of Mount Everest and there'd be a young German couple in their tan backpacker pants and the girls blond hair pulled back into a ponytail... Seriously.

Mexico in general is a gold mine. There are more ancient cities here than anywhere on earth including Greece, Italy and Egypt but there isn't enough money to excavate them or provide infrastructure. If they could uncover all the ruins and provide infrastructure these guys would be rolling in cash. National Geographic did an article on the Maya region and through satellite imaging they estimated there were about 250,000 covered cities in the Yukatan penninsula. This does not include the cities of the Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Teotehaucanos and the many many other civilizations that have lived here. It's overwhelming to be honest. I have an Archaeological guide to Mexico and just when I get done reading about the history of some civilization I've heard of I get to the next chapter and they start talking about another one, and another one and another one. Mexico from 400 BC to 1500 AD wasn't that much different than Europe with many many different “countries” struggling for power and cultural dominance. The largest city on earth has been in the Valley of Mexico three times by three drastically different civilizations over the course of 1500 years. Tenochtitlan would have been the worlds greatest tourist attraction had the Spanish not been blinded by the hopes of finding gold so they razed the pyramids and palaces and filled in the canals in the lake that the city was built on. For those of you who don't know Tenochtitlan was practically a floating city with water for streets not unlike Venice Italy. The Spanish like most catholic countries wanted to assimilate the locals and steal their gold. Ancient temples and local culture had no value – idiots. What people will do in the name of religion.

Anyway Mexico = Goldmine. I'm in amazement just walking around Mexico City looking up at the buildings... This could be Vienna or Madrid or Paris in a lot of areas. It needs Paris' yearly budget though and that's not going to happen.

Just as a teaser I'm going to upload a few photos to get you by. Later I'll write about our first full day here.

Published in Mexico - 2009
Monday, 25 January 2010 00:08

Early morning flight

The night before 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 and 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 effected 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 keep 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.

Published in Creative Writing
Monday, 04 January 2010 11:24

Last day in Oaxaca

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.

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009

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.

  1. People who stay in Holiday Inns wherever they go because it's consistent

  2. People who take cruises and enjoy them

  3. People who like resort hotels because they have everything they need

  4. People who are afraid of “germs”

  5. People who think sitting on a beach sipping a Margarita is a form of travel

  6. Conservatives

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Sunday, 03 January 2010 18:34

Monte Alban - the city in the clouds

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.

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Friday, 08 January 2010 20:28

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...).

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Mexico - 2009
Friday, 09 November 2007 16:00

Oaxaca! Maybe it's time for Mole...


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.

Published in Travel Blog
Saturday, 02 January 2010 09:33

Oaxaca!!!

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.

Published in Mexico - 2009
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