A Travellerspoint blog

January 2016

Paying attention in Puebla

sunny 23 °C

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My Uncle Jim used to say the "G" was for gullible, not Ginny. I was born without the skeptic gene and over the years have only developed it to a slight degree. So when I saw a man tie his two huskies to a window grill, and encourage people to come over and pat them, I thought nothing of it. When he kindly offered to use my camera to take a photo of me with the pooches - still no bells went off. It was only after I was hit up for money for the "photo op" that I realized it was all a cynical ploy. I told him I had no cambio (change), and walked away feeling vaguely foolish, and mightily annoyed.

Still, for a big city, Puebla feels safe and friendly and requires only the usual safeguards. This is an immensely walkable city, with an easy grid layout, which makes aimless wandering a pleasure. One nondescript block turns into a cozy pocket park, which unfolds into a pedestrian walkway. We crossed a busy highway, strolled for a while behind some newly renovated buildings (including the spectacular convention centre) and came upon this park:

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This whole area, which includes the convention centre, an old church, a stunning luxury hotel and a spiffy new shopping plaza, appears to have undergone a fairly recent renaissance. Workmen are still on site, and a number of small businesses are not open yet. Original crumbling walls have been incorporated with modern design details, flowing paths and structural landscaping to create an unexpected oasis. One of the intact buildings, a 19th century water purifying factory, now houses La Purifacadora, a showpiece hotel and restaurant, designed by a big-deal design firm out of Mexico City.

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They have mixed up old and new to great effect, with a broad black marble staircase leading upstairs, single-species plantings, columns encased in rough wood, and most interestingly, this floor, which is made of hundreds of square cut, removable wood blocks. (I'm trying to imagine the cleaning, but what a grand idea for a small foyer or sunroom back home). Travelling through Mexico is like shuffling through one big Pinterest board - DIY inspiration everywhere. Now if only I had the required talent, patience and generationally-honed craftsmanship.

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Other little eye-catchers along the way - colour, sculpture, street art, history, and serendipity

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One thing we have noticed in Puebla are the special-interest shops and services grouped together on one or two blocks. Our street is home to trophies and sports clothing - store after store catering to those who have moved beyond "participation". We walked down a bridal street - possibly dozens of stores selling almost identical gowns and accessories. Then there is the optician block - same thing - one small shop after another, selling frames, sunglasses, cases, and eye exams. For anyone in the market for cowboy gear - hats, shirts and boots, we have just the spot for you - hand-tooled leather boots for $60.

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On a more high-brow note, Puebla has almost 40 museums - everything from
the Museum of Miniatures to the soaring Museo Amparo.

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The Amparo is Puebla's must-see museum, if only to admire the modern structure, and the rooftop cafe.
More design ideas - would these tiled planters survive a west coast winter?

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The Amparo has a little of everything - from pre-hispanic artifacts to contemporary art. We found this three-dimensional timeline fascinating and very helpful. Beginning with 2400 b.c. and following along to 1500 a.d., it contrasts major man-made achievements occurring during similar periods on six continents.

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Artifacts from the Valle de Mexico

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Fanciful bronze bench

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Pantone is a paint colour-matching system - arranged in a fan of coordinating colours on thin colour chips. In recent years, Pantone has decreed the "Colour of the Year" to reflect current trends. Presumably this installation is meant to suggest that when it comes to people, there is no such thing as "Colour of the Year".

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Absolutely no idea - I'm open to all suggestions. Is the red cloud a metaphor for something? Is the artist playing with us? I find it both hilarious and repellent.

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There is always something happening in the streets. The zocalo is a natural for street performers, musicians - impromptu entertainment all for the price of a small propina (tip). Today, the zocalo was filled with cartoon characters, Stormtroopers, The Hulk and Edward Scissorhands. After watching several excited little ninos posing beside their favourite characters, I got my chance.

[b][center]Snuggling up to Edward Scissorhands - the closest I'll ever get to Johnny Depp

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A decent Michael Jackson impersonator

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When we stopped for a beer, these old gents were just two tables away from us, beating the daylights out of a xylophone. When I wondered how long they had played together, Oscar observed, "not long enough to get any better."

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Naturally, food was a focal point - we often met up with Joy and Oscar for dinner or snacks. We had a great time at this restaurant, La Fonda Mexicana. The food was good, and the service was great. Our charming server (the improbably-named Joshua) spoke English very well, and we discovered he was finishing a degree in Communications, and was in a band.


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Today was our 35th anniversary, but we chose to celebrate last night, as a lot of restaurants are closed on Sundays. We went to a restaurant that had decent reviews, an interesting menu, and two pretty rooms; one of them out in the open courtyard. Since last night was quite chilly, we initially chose the inside room, but after listening to a large group loudly chatting (and allowing their kid to plunk listlessly on the piano), we moved out to the courtyard. Our food was good, but the service was so inept, we went from being annoyed to hysterical. The Fawlty Towers waiters lurched and ran about wildly; at one point, flinging my dirty cutlery from my plate to my placemat (rather than sedately changing between courses).

On top of that, the entertainment for the evening, a singer and guitar player, set up on the staircase in front of us, and when the singer began to loudly emote, we just about lost it.

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We decided our "date night" was a perfect metaphor for our 35 years of marriage. Things often do not go as planned, but there is usually something to laugh about. At the very least - there's a story.

And so, our time in Puebla has come to an end. Next stop - Cuetzalan - about 3 1/2 hours of mountain driving to arrive in the land of waterfalls, coffee plantations and birds. See you in a few days.

Posted by millerburr 18:04 Archived in Mexico Comments (11)

Warming up to Puebla

overcast 20 °C

Some places grab you the minute you arrive - Oaxaca was like that. Puebla was the city we almost missed, and we might not have even considered it but for the fact that our friends Joy and Oscar are staying here for five weeks, and we wanted to visit them. Before our research for the trip, Puebla struck us as being a large industrial city (which it is - over 1.5 million people), with not a whole lot for tourists to see and do. We knew there would be a major cathedral and zocalo.

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It took further reading as well as enthusiastic responses from fellow travellers to convince us to stay for a full week. We drove into Puebla without getting lost, which we took as a good sign. We had booked a room at the Hotel del Capitan de Puebla - and the outside looked as unassuming as do many Mexican exteriors, but the hotel is charming - 8 rooms spread out on two floors. Our room is lovely - bright, 20-foot ceilings, recently renovated, and spotlessly clean.

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Once we had parked our car and unpacked, we headed out to explore a bit. Our hotel is about a 15-minute walk to the centre, and a couple of streets away from a bit of a 'hood. We were told to walk down the street for two blocks and turn onto a pedestrian walkway that would take us straight to the zocalo. As we walked along, I didn't feel nervous, but I didn't feel comfortable either. So much traffic, so much noise, so many people - we had traded the calm and beauty of Oaxaca for a big, full-on city, and it was a bit of culture shock. We turned the corner to the pedestrian-only walkway, and stepped into a Mexican sideshow - carnies, colour, smells and noise.

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There are not a lot of foreign tourists in Puebla this time of year, and we felt quite conspicuous. Music blared from all corners, food odours mixed with sewer gas and men's cologne, and small packs of young men moved through the crowds. It felt very jarring, and my heart was sinking. My first impressions were quite conflicted. Stephen maintained a "wait-and-see" approach, and he was right. Puebla is a city that you need to work at. We walked around the zocalo, which is every Mexican city's "third place." We saw some reassuring sights - beautiful old buildings, fountains, respectable people sitting on benches and strolling about, enjoying the early evening.

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And then we stopped to have a bite to eat at Las Ranas - billed as being "a local institution that is cheap, cheerful, and worth the wait". Their specialty is el pastor ( marinated pork slowly cooked on the rotisserie), but with a poblano twist - served as tacos arabe (or Arabic) - this meat is piled onto warm pitas, instead of tortillas. So delicious. By the time we had walked back to our hotel, I was feeling much better, although very COLD. Puebla is at high altitude and winter months have chilly evenings - a coat would not be unwelcome. Most days do not get above 20 degrees. There are very few foreign tourists here - many wait for the warmer months.

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We needn't have worried about having enough to do - Puebla has a very large centro historico, with dozens of churches, museums and hundreds of buildings that are covered in the local Talavera tile, embellished with decorative brick and carved ornamentation and in many cases, high wooden windows and small wrought-iron balconies - sometimes all on the same building. The words baroque and rococo come to mind.

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We met up with Joy and Oscar the next day, taking in a broad and varied range of Puebla experiences - religion, music and art. First up, the Templo de Santo Domingo, with the Rosario, built in the mid-late 17th century, and literally every square inch covered in gilt. It's beyond. As Joy observed, if even one church was stripped of its gold and that wealth redistributed, how many poor Mexicans would then have enough to eat?

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We popped in to an airy glass-covered galleria to listen to a free afternoon concert. Like dutiful gringos, we showed up a half hour early for a 2:00 performance, and were the only audience for at least a half-hour after they began.

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Back in the zocalo, we watched a telenovela being filmed. A young actor and actress emoted at a cafe table, while the crew attempted to control pedestrian traffic through the set. At one point, this man came over to encourage young Mexicans to become extras, but they were all too shy. We started to talk to him, and he told us he is an actor and crew for this television production company, out of Mexico City. He too, has lived in the U.S. and would like to return.

Our new friend, Abraham

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On to see World Press 15, showing incredible examples of award-winning international photojournalism.

I've added the artist's descriptions of the photos - they depict such suffering and degradation that it's hard to look at them. Most of the photos in the exhibition have very difficult subject matter - refugees, war, animal abuse, drug and alcohol abuse - these are the hardest, and most dangerous photos to obtain.

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The next day, we drove out to Cholula, a magical small town that is almost a suburb of Puebla. Cholula has a pyramid, underground tunnels and 39 churches to visit, but it is also an excellent spot to see the twin volcanoes, the active and currently spewing Popocatepetl (known as Popo), and his sleeping woman, Iztaccihuatl (dormant, and snow-covered). While Popo is always active and smoking, he has been more annoyed than usual lately, and the airport at Puebla was closed for a few hours on Friday this week due to the ash. Therefore, we were quite pleased to have decent views of the volcanoes on the day we went.

Popo

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Iztaccihuatl

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To grab these photos, we climbed up to the top of the Tepanapa pyramid - the widest pyramid ever built. This is not immediately obvious, as it is more like a gigantic hill than a pyramid. You wind yourself climbing the steep steps; worth it for the view and access to the photogenic church.

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The next part of this adventure was to climb back down and visit the small museum, then walk through 800 metres of tunnels that were just narrow and short enough to make us all happy to see daylight again.

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Cholula provides an interesting contrast between the ancient and modern life. It has a young university population, and is a town that is easy to walk around - colourful and full of shops, cafes and restaurants.

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We stopped for lunch in the square, and chatted with our English-speaking server - he had spent 10 years in San Francisco, illegally, and then, as he said, "I did a stupid thing." He came home to see his family, and now cannot safely return to the U.S. If he flies, he could be caught and put in jail. If he crosses the border by bus, the cartels might catch him and force him to work for them. He mourns what is going on in his country - a very common and heartbreaking story.

We spoke with another Mexican man in Cholula - the beautifully-named Celestino. We met up with him as we were leaving the pyramid, and he was so interested in hearing about our travels, and impressions.

It is frustrating to be so limited in our encounters with Mexicans. We try very hard with our Spanish, but unless our new friends speak English, our conversations can only go so far. All the more reason to keep practising this language.

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Yesterday, we took a double-decker tourist bus to get an overview of the city. Puebla's downtown core is very walkable - on a grid and easy to navigate, if somewhat unimaginatively named. North and south streets are numerical, intersected by east and west, also numerical. Sitting on the top deck of the bus for an hour and 20 minutes was extremely enjoyable, informative and entertaining, and gave us a great overview of the city. Just before our departure time, a large street protest was making its way down Reforma Avenue - our intended starting point. Undaunted, our driver backed up the bus for a full block, and with the help of his assistant on the street, executed a perfect 3-point turn, then headed down another street, with overhead wires and street lamps mere inches above us.

Colourful walls and flowerpots

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A typical old building - variation of hundreds found in Puebla's centre.

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Not every centro building is restored and scrubbed up. There are a large number of buildings that are derelict - often with nothing but the facades showing to the street - the interior has been gutted. No idea if there is a plan (or money) to save these historic treasures.

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Our bus headed up a hill to the Parque Pereferico - a gorgeous park that runs along the top of Puebla, and houses a regional museum, a cable car, and a planetarium, all in acres of beautifully landscaped grounds, with stunning view of the city and volcanoes.

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We finished our tour with a drive along the stately Juarez Avenue, home to fountains, palm trees, mansions,
snazzy restaurants, and, of course - churches.

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So, after a few days here, have our impressions changed? Absolutely! There are still lots of Puebla stories to
share - more to come in a couple of days.

Posted by millerburr 20:06 Archived in Mexico Comments (8)

The 2,000-year-old tree...

...just one of the many reasons to visit Oaxaca state.

sunny 22 °C

Living to the ripe old age of 2,000 years is no small thing. Neither is the El Tule cypress tree, reputed to be one of the oldest and largest trees in the world. According to Wikipedia, El Tule " has a height of forty meters, an estimated weight of 630 tons and a circumference of about forty meters. The trunk is so wide that thirty people with arms extended joining hands are needed to encircle it." We have the photo to prove it.

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El Tule is considered sacred by the Mixtec people, whose ancient myth believes that people come from cypress trees. Situated in the main square, and flanked by the church on one side, there is a small admission charge to enter the grounds, take photos, toss a coin in the fountain, and buy souvenirs. I know it's just a tree, but in a country of outstanding trees, it is hard not to be impressed by the unbelievable size and majesty of this gnarled beast.

We stopped by El Tule on our way home from the massive Sunday market at Tlacolula, a village about 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca, situated in Los Valles Centrales. This area stretches out in all directions from the city and is home to many indigenous villages - each producing their own crafts - handmade, hand-dyed woolen carpets,many kinds of pottery, intricately embroidered textiles, the fantastical alebrijes (carved wooden figures), and much more. It is so interesting to visit and contrast each village - plus, the countryside is so varied and gorgeous.

So far, we have bought a beautiful little wool carpet that we'll use as a wall hanging, some woven napkins and a large rough clay pot. For anyone serious about shopping, the best plan would be to use Oaxaca as a base, and drive out into these villages (most less than an hour away) to shop. You will know for certain that you are supporting the people who make these items, and you will know for certain you are buying something handmade and not factory-made, as is now often the case.

The Tlacolula market is a gathering place of these indigenous crafts, as well as an amazing collection of food - raw, cooked, dead and alive. Jan and Dave took us there, and made sure we saw the turkeys. We're not clear if you buy the bird alive and do the dirty work yourself, or if you pick the bird you like, and it is discreetly slaughtered, plucked and bagged for you. I wish I had thought to ask - I'm guessing it's the former.

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A few images from our day at Tlacolula, beginning with some wall art:

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Veggies to drool over. We have no cooking facilities where we're staying - a tough one when confronted with these beauties.

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The most beautiful green onions, as well as a big variety of fresh herbs - such bounty.

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Many of the market ladies do handwork while they wait for sales. Back home, these tomatoes are called "heirloom",
and we are charged heirloom prices.

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While the market at Tlacolula was the biggest, cleanest, and had the highest quality goods, we've roamed through a number of Oaxaca's city markets, of which there are several - a couple of great daily markets, some food-only, some supporting the Chinese export business, and one notorious one - Mercado de Abastos. It is accessed by hopping across several lanes of traffic, a railway line and then working our way around this lineup of collectivos.

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Mercado de Abastos is located in a rather unsavoury part of town, and is a vast, sprawling, stinky, vaguely Dickensian place. Possibly a little truth, possibly a little lore, this market is considered potentially unsafe - the kind of place you keep an eye on your wallet and your wits about you. The reason we were there? Our friend Jan, who is a market warrior, visits this market regularly for the best deals. She navigated the narrow alleyways like a pro. Without her, I believe we would still be wandering around in there. All in all, it was quite the experience.

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A HUGE pile of used clothing - if I understand the signs correctly - that is 5 pesos for 10 pieces (less than 50 cents)

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Many Zapotec women wear long braids with ribbons threaded through them.

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As we made our way back up into the main part of the city again, we walked past a couple of very young prostitutes, one of whom was leading a young man into an alleyway. By the time we walked by, the alleyway was empty, nothing but a doorway and a dank, damp concrete floor. It gave us all a sick feeling.

We had the privilege of meeting a couple of inspiring American women ( Kathy and Marilyn), who are associated with Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots. They have spent years devoting a lot of their own vacation time and money to help young Oaxacan street children have a chance to move beyond selling trinkets in the zocalo.

We chatted with a young woman, Ruby, last night in a pastry shop. She was well dressed and spoke English very well - she was so bright and curious, and shared her dream of travel to Colombia, and to Cuba (her father is a fan of both Che and Castro). She said rather wistfully that perhaps once she is married she could travel with her husband. She is not currently in school - no idea what, if any, the barriers are.

Then we met up with this trio. Magdalena is studying to be an industrial engineer, and she and her two friends approached us to chat.

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These young people crossed the highway as we were heading home - so full of beans. The economic and class divide is so
sharply illustrated in this city, and it can be heartbreaking.

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On a different note - Mexicans may not have a fair shake, but they don't take it lying down. Their current president, Pena Nieto, is highly unpopular. This piece of street art accuses him of murdering "the missing 43". The 43 students who disappeared over a year ago are a touchstone for the violence and corruption that Mexicans endure - the final straw - the outrage that will not go away. References to them appear all over Mexico.

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Rough translation: We are the sons of war you could not kill.

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I love this sign. There are a number of similar ones around the city, as parking is at a premium, and drivers push their luck with parking in front of garage doors. This one warns that "Parking prohibited. Punctured tires are free."

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I could add so many photos of art, stone walls, clever installations, etc., but in the interest of brevity, I'll give you my favourites.

A painting that stood out for me - the longer you look, the more you see

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Sunset over Oaxaca - a lovely ending to a great get-together with new friends Suzanne and Bill

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Cute little coffee shop tucked into a container

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The night riders. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, cyclists gather in front of the church and charge all over the city.

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An ode to oil

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A centrepiece of the Cultural Centre - dozens of glass jars suspended from the ceiling.

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The Cultural Centre is a work of art in itself. Stone, brick, extravagant, yet understated landscaping.

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Oaxaca is a food-lover's paradise, and you can luck out with a market stand tostada as easily as a four-star restaurant. Many restaurants offer comida corridas ( fixed-price 3 or 4-course lunches) for around $5. A few very nice restaurants also offer del dia menus at a fraction of what their regular menu would cost. Our favorite "treat" restaurant is Los Danzantes - decor, service and food is outstanding - and the comida corrida is 145 pesos (about $11 CAN, $8 US).

Entrance to the restaurant

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Our meal included shots of mescal, a warm rice and zucchini starter, shrimp enchilada, and a brownie topped with cantaloupe mousse.

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On the low end, Fonda Florecita is Rick Bayliss-endorsed. Stuck in the back of a market, this little stand just hops. We had black tacos topped with salsa and eggs, and bowls of hot chocolate - all Oaxaca specialities - so delicious.

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Yesterday, we went to lunch at Itanoni's, which looks like a cross between a market stall and a local neighbourhood hangout. It's not fancy, prices are low, and the food is out of this world - they use four kinds of organic heirloom corn that is stone-ground on the premises and then turned into a large variety of tacos, tetelas, quesadillas, tostadas, etc. It is reputedly one of Alice Water's favourites. It's been branded (cooks and servers wear stylish T-shirts with the Itanoni logo) but it has retained a very warm and welcoming atmosphere.

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All this food would be taking its toll, except for the non-stop walking, hill-climbing and a few classes of zumba. I take zumba at home with the lithe and graceful Veronique, and our Mexican instructor is the anti-Vero. With his diamond studs and thick chain, track pants and t-shirt, and short, muscular body, he is Ricky Martin's bad-boy brother. The one-hour classes were non-stop whirls of jumps, kicks, gyrating hips and bouncing buttocks - all set to Latin music, and whistles from our instructor as he stomped us through our paces. With Mexican women of all ages outnumbering the gringas about 10-1, I had to keep up, but it nearly killed me.

This morning, we went to an outdoor session of zumba in the park. It was set for 9:00, and we arrived on time to find our instructor and one other woman there. By 9:15, the speaker had arrived, and participants were starting to show up. (starting to get the drift of Mexican time).

Our instructor, also male, was an unbelievable dancer and within minutes he had our large group attempting to follow along to "Fireball." The Mexicans were just fine - try and imagine the gringos getting down with "the bounce", and you'll have an idea. I'll leave you with this shot.

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See you in a few days from Puebla. Oaxaca, we will miss you.

Posted by millerburr 09:05 Archived in Mexico Comments (8)

Fast track to heaven...

... funny, touching, sad and thought-provoking moments in Oaxaca.

semi-overcast 20 °C

Walk around Oaxaca for 15 minutes, and you will be entertained. There is so much rich material here, you don't
even need to visit a museum or cathedral. The street will provide.

Assuming this rather New-Agey image is Jesus, it would seem the Chavez funeral home is offering prospective clients
an assured passage to heaven.

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There are captivating little alleys, stairways and archways.

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Decorative house numbers

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Dramatic and changeable skies

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Oaxaca is a very clean city. Storeowners sweep and hose down their front steps, and there is a minimum of litter on the streets.
Street cleaners like this gentleman are everywhere.

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An incredible array of goods are moved by hand throughout the city. It is a marvel to see how merchandise makes it though traffic.

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Santo Domingo church is a gathering place at all times of the day and night and it is also the scene of many extravagant celebrations - weddings, communions, christenings and the quinceaneras - the coming-of-age party for fifteen-year-old girls. Wealthy families celebrate in this church, and the parties can be as elaborate as most weddings.

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We have no idea what is so valuable in an auto body shop that requires no less than four dogs to protect it. If I had felt like aggravating these animals, I could have walked by them on the left, as their leads do not seem to extend that far. While pilons have been thoughtfully provided to prevent them from being run over, they do not have shade or water, or a comfortable place to lie down. Much like the roof dogs who bark endlessly and impotently at potential robbers, It would seem their barks are worse than their bites.

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Jalatlaco is a very cool neighbourhood (and Oaxaca's oldest) that is just off the main drag. Filled with cafes, small hotels, and street art, it is a walker's paradise. I peeked in the door of this pool hall - same as pool halls everywhere, but with better art.

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Oaxaca is filled with young lovers - they're like bunnies. Mexican kids mature much earlier than their Canadian and American counterparts. The parks are filled with amorous fourteen-year-olds, still in their school uniforms, away from the watchful eyes of their parents. It is endearing on one hand, with every park bench and stone step filled with teenage couples wrapped in an embrace. On the other hand, there also appear to be a lot of very young mothers around!

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We were at a market last Friday afternoon, and noticed a crowd surrounding this woman. Cameras and cell phones were going crazy, a couple of "handlers" were watching carefully, and women and children lined up for hugs. This woman was gracious with everyone, and stayed for a long time talking to anyone who approached her. We took this photo when she started singing to a shy young girl and her mother, who seemed overcome by being in her presence. We asked who she was - Eugenie Leon - as it turns out, one of Oaxaca's most famous singers. We were foolishly as star-struck as the rest of the crowd and Googled her when we got home. Big voice.

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On our walk today, we began to notice an unusual number of police around - all levels - municipal, state and federal. Then we encountered barricades with police in full riot gear, and we knew something was up. Just to the right of this barricade, a major protest was in place. The governor of Oaxaca, who is quite unpopular, was in a meeting in town. Whatever the agenda of the meeting, it provoked a huge outcry, likely over low wages,unfair working conditions, labour disputes, extravagant government waste, corruption - the usual. Oaxaca is a hotbed of activists - going back to well before the deadly teachers' strike in 2006, which resulted in 17 deaths, and still hasn't been resolved.

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At another intersection, these policia were far more relaxed, and allowed a photo. "Selfie!" They were very good-natured
about me posing with them.

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One challenge that always arises when travelling for an extended period is trying to find a hairdresser, in a strange town, with limited Spanish. My hair is very thick, grows very fast, and usually needs a trim every five or six weeks max. I got my hair cut short with my friend Vikki just before we left town, and the expiry date was up - time to get a trim. As luck would have it, we were at a party a couple of nights ago and I met a woman from Victoria who happened to have great hair - styled by a barber, Antonio. A very contemporary barber - complete with 2016 facial hair and beard, a mezcal bar, and a sign on his door that promised cuts - "classic and moderno". I hopped into his old-school barber chair, and got myself a "moderno" that was seriously razor cut. He lathered up the sides of my face and came at me with a straight razor, and I had a momentary panic that he hadn't noticed I was not an hombre and I was about to have a shave. A very unique experience, and a great haircut to boot, although a bit too much product for my taste.
Then it was Stephen's turn. I usually cut his hair with an electric razor, but he felt it was time for a bit of style, so Antonio shaved the back and sides, and left the top a little longer. You may not be able to tell from the photo that there is style involved, but it's a better look than I can achieve. We walked out with two haircuts for 200 pesos - about $17. The results below:

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Oaxaca is famous for its street art - some of it decorative and some of it sprung from the political unrest and fury over Mexico's ongoing social problems. We have walked into a lot of neighbourhoods that are just out of the tourist area, and stumbled upon some very interesting examples.

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We are here until Monday morning - heading out to Puebla. There is still so much to share - incredible food, markets, art galleries, 2000-year-old trees. Here is one final image to sign off - not sure who that ear belonged to (pig? cow?) but it got me thinking about more veg, less meat.

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Posted by millerburr 17:53 Archived in Mexico Comments (11)

ACCIDENTE!

We're both fine, but our VW has a little more character.

sunny 27 °C

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We did a foolish thing yesterday, and we can't say we weren't warned. According to all the travel books and online forums, a minor accident in Mexico is best left alone. Police involvement is something to be avoided in Mexico, and generally, both parties are advised to work it out among themselves, and then leave the scene.

Apparently many Mexicans drive without insurance, which further complicates things, and can result in the offending parties being thrown in jail while the whole mess is sorted out.

We have our car parked right outside our posada, and yesterday someone sideswiped the back left side, and then drove off. So when we discovered this note on our windshield, written by a witness, and giving us the licence plate number, we were both crestfallen at the damage, and encouraged that we might be able to do something about it. The note is telling us that a white truck with camper ran into our car so hard it made it shake.

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Although I know this is a bad idea, on the advice of the owners of the posada, I went across the street to speak to an auxiliary police officer, who looked over the damage with an appreciative whistle. (We figure the damage will be over $1000 to fix, as we'll need a new bumper - the body should be able to be banged out.) We then went around the corner to the Polizia Vial (traffic cop), who gave me an address to go to make the report; an office several blocks away.

We discussed the pros and cons of doing such a thing and came to the decision that a police report would be necessary in our insurance claim - this being through our Mexican insurance. BIG MISTAKE! Down the rabbit hole we went, into a bureaucratic nightmare that went on for four hours, and ended with a copy of the report (typed painstakingly and then copied multiple times on a dot matrix printer). Needless to say, having just three months of online Spanish and four days of in-class study did not help the situation.

We were aided by two people (a father and daughter, as we found out later), and apparently the last tourist they had to help was over a year ago, so they had no idea what to do with us. They questioned everything - including the colour of the car (green) and the style (hatchback). The daughter did not feel green was the right colour, so we went through an insane charade of holding up various objects in the room that were different shades of green, including her father's jacket, which was almost an exact match. We felt like the perpetrators, not the victims, and it got a bit tense for a while. As we realized we were now in the system, we knew we had to keep our cool, and just get it over and done with. Our address caused them a lot of confusion, especially "Columbia" - we tried several times to explain it was a province, not a country. Our passports, drivers licences, BC insurance and Mexican insurance all had the identical information, but our papers were scrutinized endlessly (for signs of fraud? - no idea). The piece de resistance was that into the fourth hour, when it looked like it might be wrapping up, I had to sign 6 copies of the documents. Each document package had about 6 pages, and I had to sign each one in two different places - 72 signatures. I began signing - Ginny Miller - and after I had signed through on the first set of documents, it was pointed out to me that this was not the same name on my passport. What was I thinking? Again, I know better - my name on official documents is Virginia Miller, and after I explained that all my familia and amigos call me Ginny, she seemed reassured I was the same person. A new set was photocopied, and the long signing process began again. Stephen and I were both so exhausted, stressed, hungry, thirsty and fed up by the time we finally left, we could barely speak.

When I told my Spanish teacher the story this morning, he told me Mexicans never go to officials for help, especially police, whom they have very good reason not to trust. He went to the same office last year when his laptop was stolen, and had a similar experience with an equally unsatisfying result.

Steve tried to call the insurance company today, but our internet connectivity is so spotty here, he could not get through with Skype, and has emailed them instead. Hopefully, we will get to the bottom of this soon. In the meantime, our car is completely drivable, our tires were not damaged - there was only body damage, so we will carry on and figure out the best place to have it fixed (Mexico or back home).

Moral of this story - when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do. We are not going to change things to work the way we think they should, and so we have learned a very good lesson.

To backtrack by a week, we began our time here on a high note (after we changed our lodgings) and that has carried through.

My friend Nicola happened to be in Oaxaca when we arrived. She is a writer and editor from Ontario, who spends her winters in Spanish-speaking countries, often Mexico, and our timing worked out that we were finally able to meet face-to-face. I have known her since my days with New Society Publishers, and we've had an ongoing email correspondence. Nicki is also an avid hiker, who has written hiking books and travelled through Patagonia by horseback, so when she suggested we go for a hike in a nearby town, I knew it would not involve flip-flops.

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We drove out to a small town just outside Oaxaca - San Andres Huayapan, parked by the church and headed down the road. Huayapan is one of many small pueblos in the Oaxaca region that have a special energy to them. This little town is very up-and-coming, with big houses being built and financed by new middle-class money . This is the town that Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs spent much of her life in, in her later years. We walked past her old casa and once-beautiful gardens that were intended to be left to her gardener. Sadly, a bureaucratic glitch has prevented her estate from being settled properly, and it sits empty.

It is said that Oaxaca and surrounding countryside sits on one of the largest vortices in the world. If you believe such things, ( I do - Stephen is skeptical), then spending time in the Oaxaca area feels like one cosmic recharge.

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We mainly had the trails to ourselves, but encountered this group of mountain bikers...

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...as well as this gentleman and his donkeys.

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Back in town we stopped for delicious quesadillas at this food stand in the square.

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The church in Huayapan is not terribly noteworthy, but someone has taken their pruners to the trees around the church and in the square with a fair bit of artistry. The trees in the square are shaped like birds, and the tree to the left of the church doors is shaped in a credible image of Jesus on the cross.

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Speaking of friends - one of the joys of travelling for us is meeting people from all over the world (or at least all over North America); some of whom we have kept in touch with. Jan and Dave Rooney are two people we met in Oaxaca in 2011 on the steps leading up to Monte Alban. Jan started talking to us, (very common for her, I'm told) and that was it - we had an invitation for drinks on their terrace. Jan and Dave live half the year in Boston and half the year in Oaxaca - their huge terrace overlooks the city and is a popular site for parties and gatherings. We met up with them last year, and again last week, and had the pleasure of meeting some of their friends. They are all very involved in the city's to-ings and fro-ings, which is a big advantage to staying in one place for a while.

The ladies - Carol, Jan and Suzanne

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The gentlemen - two Bills, a Stephen and a Dave

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Spanish Magic! That is the name of our Spanish language school, but it is a bit of magic when you experience a breakthrough in learning a new language. I had been studying for the past several months online with an app called Duolingo, and felt as though I was making progress, but nothing beats conversation with a native speaker. There is a very long road ahead to any level of fluency, but for this trip I would be thrilled to consistently be able to understand and make myself understood. Stephen and I took one week of lessons here in Oaxaca and will look into another week in San Miguel in March. Classes were Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to noon - we finished today. We were placed in different classes, which was good. Quality time apart on a 24/7 road trip is always welcome.

This is my group - our teacher Ruben, and students Jory, Eileen, Ann and Robert. There was wide disparity in speaking and comprehension levels, which wasn't ideal, and while I got a lot out of it, I would prefer to consider either private lessons or a smaller class next time. Still, it was sociable and engaging, and put us both on track to take learning seriously.

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Our school

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A city where food and art meet...and are often the same thing. Such unusual and interesting combinations of food, decor, wall art, landscaping, and whimsy exist throughout the city's restaurants and cafes.

This is a great little spot close to us - intimate (chef brings the food out), devoted to the bicycle, and devoted to wonderful, affordable food. A four-course meal here is 80 pesos (about $5).

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This was one of our first meals in Oaxaca. We were wandering in the market, and got a bit overwhelmed with sights and smells. This seafood place fit the bill, and as a bonus, we were the only gringos - often a good sign. Steve had tacos and I had the shrimp cocktail. Shrimp cocktail is very common in Mexico - served in a sundae glass, filled with a ketchup-y sauce and a basket of saltines. This could take you back to the 50's and 60's, except the shrimp are incredibly fresh and you get about 2 dozen of them in a serving. I couldn't eat them all.

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This place is fun. The art on the walls as well as the fellow on the left are a great diversion while you wait for your food.

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Our lunch in this restaurant. It is impossible to eat too many shrimp. The avocados in Mexico are like butter. I realize this is where they are grown, but still - no comparison to what we get at home.

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My final shot for the day. Christmas trimmings, especially wilting poinsettias, are everywhere. This non-denominational nativity scene in a popular coffee shop really caught our eye. In addition to the usual suspects, there are a number of women in traditional dress, a couple of baseball players, and a guy who looks like Sonny Bono.

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Posted by millerburr 19:25 Archived in Mexico Comments (12)

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