As I said, I arrived in Puebla on Thurs around 2pm. I had a long chat with the tourist information guy, who gave me a lot of good information. After walking to several hotels and hospedajes, I chose the hostel. I also had a nice meal (menu del dia) of chile en nogado, which I wanted to try. It’s a specialty that was supposedly developed by nuns in the convent of Santa Clara in Puebla, though when I was in Mexico City they said they developed it there. As one guide said, it’s not exactly a local dish, as the pomegranate seeds were brought over by the Spanish under the influence of the Moors, (not sure about the apples – I think they were also brought over by Spanish conquistadores), though the chile is of course from here. After a filling meal, I wandered around the Zocalo (the name for the central plaza), and entered the main cathedral, the Palace, and went for a nice walk to the parque ecologico. Many of the streets I passed were paved with cobblestones, and I found out later that I was in the oldest part of town where the indigenous people lived and were essentially ghettoized after the Spanish declared Puebla their second most important town in Nueva Espana in 1532 (and essentially proceeded to build a perfect model town on the other side of the river, excluding Mexicans from living there). Also near the area that I was walking (Alcadon? I don’t remember the name of the area), was a large tanning factory that used bark from some native tree (with similar properties to tan oak which was used in California) to tan hides and the water from the river was used to cure and tan the hides. I met a nice young man named Carlos who worked in the park and was concerned about my return to the center, as you have to pass a sketchy area on the way back. I enjoyed the trees and artifical pond, birds in cages, and park-like atmosphere, of which there is scant in Mexico (that I have found, at least). Carlos and I walked back to the town center, and we ran into his sister and cousin. I was struck by the gaeity on the pedestrian access walkway and number of people walking with children. Balloon sellers (globo is ballon in Spanish) have 100’s of balloons of Sponge Bob, Disney characters, Pixar animation characters, and others. You can’t see the person selling them, and when they walk it looks like the balloons are floating away of their own volition.
A rare treat: as I walked the cobblestone passage, I heard strains of a saxaphone playing jazz and wandered in that direction. Two musicians studying in Jalapa Veracruz were busking, and doing a very good job of it. I requested Mais que Nada/bosanova and they played some Jiao Gilberto. They told me about a concert the next night by an American jazz guitarist, and I resolved to attend. Both were very kind and warm, much more open than most of the people I’ve met. As an evangelist/preacher that I met recently observed, the people in this part of the country have inherited the characteristics of their ancestors (primarily Olmecs and Toltecs) of a strong hierarchical/classist system. People tend to look at me like I’m from another planet, and while I try to be gracious and start conversations even though I feel judged, it’s not always easy. I assume that they are curious more than anything. I had fun in the market asking people what various fruits and vegetables were, as well as the woman with a big traditional ceramic bowl of froth that turned out to be cold chocolate beverage (very tasty and authentic). She gave me a taste of the foam – unexpectedly delicious! After 3 weeks of pretty constant diarrhea, my stomach is finally processing food, which I appreciate. I’m trying most foods, though am careful not to eat at some comida corrida (fast food) – I look at who’s eating there, how many, and the general cleanliness of the vendors.
I stayed in Puebla till the following Tuesday. I had another rare treat of meeting 2 very kind musicians at the jazz concert Friday night. They agreed to walk around the city center with me on Sunday, and our day consisted of them showing me traditional places to eat and drink (one called La Pasita, roughly translated to the little passtime). I abstained from trying the alcohol there, which consisted of a coloured creamy liquid (various colors: pink, green, yellow…). Mexicans seem to be fond of artificial colors and flavors, as well as highly toxic cleaning products which they use to clean their floors and the sidewalks in front of their shops and homes. They also like strong perfumes and colognes. I witnessed several “limpias” (literally, cleaning – but it means more of a spiritual cleaning) in front of the main cathedral in Mexico City, which consisted of using the smoke from copal (a tree resin used for centuries by indigenous people in Mexico, Central America, and South America). At the end, they sprinkle a strongly perfumed cologne on the hands of the cleaned person – Mexico old and new.
On my Sunday tour with Daniel and Fernando, I must have eaten something disagreeable (maybe it was the nieve de vino de tinto con limon – ice with red wine and lemon). This was a treat from Fernando, and the taste reminded me of sangria, except cold. Sangria was a Christmas beverage at our house. My parents would create a spicy concoction of clove-stuffed oranges, cinnamon sticks, and red wine. The house would be filled with the aroma for days. I tried cemitas, which is a specialty of Puebla: a sesame seed bun stuffed with various meats, avocado, and melted cheese. Hamburgers are another favorite here, as well as french fries and papas locos (freshly made potato chips). People here like fried food, but few are overweight. Most don’t own cars but take combis (interurban vans or VW buses) which careen about the narrow streets and honk their way to the next stop. It’s scary to actually watch the drivers maneuver – most seem like they have a date with death and are speeding happily toward that eventuality. On my way to Cacaxtlan (an archealogical site hosting a large pyramid complex of 7 levels), I asked the driver if he could slow down. I explained “no necitas apurar, no tengo prisa, tenia un choque un ano pasado y me quebre mi pie y pierna”. He understood and slowed down, much to my surprise and appreciation.
Other side trips in Puebla included a nice walk to Las Fuertes, where the battle of Cinco de Mayo was waged against the French (who invaded Mexico in 1862? on the pretext of collecting on the debt – although England and the US settled debts owed them by Mexico peaceably in Verazcruz). Another idiosyncracy I’ve noticed is that people don’t like walking here. When I ask whether I can walk to a particular destination, most people say no, even though it only takes 30 minutes. So it was with Las Fuertes. It was Monday and all the museums at Los Fuertes were closed (museums are generally closed on Mondays here). I walked up to the highest point and enjoyed the view from the top, and around the back. I saw a young man in the bushes and got a bit scared, as I saw another young man below who had beckoned me (I ignored him and walked quickly to catch up with a couple). Street smarts is not easy to learn – one can be too paranoid or not enough. Finding the balance is tricky. There is a fountain in front of a huge statue of some military commander on horseback that shoots water to the time of various classical musical pieces. Kids and adults were getting soaked, and I enjoyed a rare pause on the grass taking in the scene. Half the sky was black with thunderheads, while the other half was bright blue. It’s been raining almost daily, at times hailing. I’ve gone through several umbrellas trying to find one that is light enough but has adequate coverage and is reinforced (the winds shred most umbrellas here).
After walking around Los Fuertes (literally, the strong ones), I walked down the hill in the direction of the parque ecologico to find my friend Carlos and go for a long walk. I ended up in a very interesting part of town, a strange mix of residential, auto repair places, and old churches and convents surrounded by cobble stone streets. I asked several people for directions, and as usual got many answers. I followed the most detailed one and ended up at the park. Carlos’ friend knew a lot of the history of various sites that we passed in the center of Puebla. Here, history is mixed and indistinguishable at times from legend, which the people here hold dear and seem to value more than the factual perspective. He told me that in one particular cafe, Frida Kahlo loved to come and drink her coffee. He claimed to be a coffee expert and said that the cafe had the best coffee in town. Not sure of the boast, but it certainly had a charming interior and street view. I went to every church I could, and made a special effort to go to the Capilla del Rosario in Santo Domingo daily. They explained the process that the indigenous Mexicans used to create the baroque stucco that the Dominicans (in this case) cherished. They mixed sand, liquid from the Nopal cactus, egg white (Spanish influence), chalk, and the blood of a bull, which supposedly neutralized the salt and prevented degradation of the chapel. The gold leaf coating most of the entire chapel is quite impressive. Like the Colombians, the people of this area learned how to work gold into thin sheets and apply them to stucco. Very impressive.
I met quite a few nice people traveling at the hostel: several French women traveling alone, an Australian couple, a large group from England and Ireland studying applied engineering (as it pertains to clean drinking water and sanitation, which is sorely needed here). I mentioned “agua negra”, black water, in a previous post. Although this part of Mexico gets loads of rain, all their streams and rivers are contaminated and smell more or less like sewage. I’ve been inquiring about water filtration systems. There are some rain barrel filtration systems which were promoted by the government, but scant few. I met a man in Tlaxcala that has a system using ozone, charcoal filtration, and a cistern that catches rainwater. He was very kind (he had a room to let and I was seeking an alternative to the expensive hotel where I was staying). We talked for a while about environmental issues, especially water, and what can be done about them.
I finally left Puebla Tuesday and headed for Tlaxcala, which had been recommended to me for its natural setting in hills, tree-lined streets, and beautiful surroundings.