I arrived in Tlaxcala in the afternoon and searched for a place to stay. Hotels here are more than twice as expensive as Puebla or Mexico City. I’m essentially spending my entire budget on a hotel room here. How the locals manage on 2.50 USD/day, the minimum wage, I don’t know. People tell me that they are accustomed to it. I wonder how much people can be squeezed before they revolt. That’s happened multiple times here, aside from the Indepencia and Revolucion. I admire Mexicans for their strength and ability to tolerate harsh circumstances while still maintaining a positive outlook. There’s a fair bit of cultural idiosyncracy here as well – it’s not all roses.
I made my way up the hill and found a nice hotel, Quinta San Clemente. I settled in and then went down the hill to the Franciscan convent. Unfortunately the museum in the convent was closed for remodeling, so I took a few photos of the inner courtyard and chapel. I got caught in a heavy rainstorm and took refuge under the imposing portico with a few other pilgrims. It lasted an hour or two and we stood listening to it advance over the hills, a black cloud of granizos making its way steadily in our direction. I had a nice conversation with a couple (also happened in the church on the hill in Cholula that had been built on top of a pyramid, as so many of the churches here had been. I had forgotten my warm clothing and rain coat at the hotel, so had nothing but an umbrella and my short sleeved shirt/pants. After a couple of hours I ventured forth and braved the remaining storm. I explored the Palacio Municipal, which houses a beautiful mural by an artist from the 1950s of the history of this entire area, starting with the first indigenous people. It is very impressive, extensive, and rivals that of Diego Rivera in the Palacio Gobierno in Mexico City. A guide kindly offered her services but given that they were in Spanish and inordinantly expensive, I declined. Afterwards, I explored the city center and was struck by its cleanliness, the lack of graffiti and garbage, and its tree-lined streets. And the people – so friendly! Unfortunately, they do have agua negra (contaminated water) – their river smells like sewage, as is apparently the norm everywhere in Mexico.
The next day I took a trip to the zona archeologica nearby, Cacaxtla and Xochitecatl. The ride in the combi was an adventure unto itself, and I ended up pleading with the driver to slow down (I was the last person in the van) as I wasn’t in a hurry. The museum at Cacaxtla was impressive – a fine collection of ceramic and stone remains, including some figures representing sacerdotes (priest rulers) festooned in jaguar and human pelts, others with a staff that gave fertility to the earth. There were also reproductions of various frescos that appear in the pyramid complex, the most extensive and impressive of which is the battle scene (representing either a symbolic battle between opposing forces like day and night, or an actual battle between the people of this region and Mayan warriors, who lost the battle). I listened in on a Spanish guide who gave some interesting additional information at the pyramid complex about the lives of the people at the time, the presence of sacrificial altars within a few of the complexes, as well as altars for incense, food, and flowers (ofrendas). It is the largest single pyramid in Mexico, perhaps in Latin America, and has 7 levels. There are some interesting examples of Mayan influence on the construction of the pyramid and architectural details, like the lovely lattice work between rooms and the depictions of warriors in the battle mural.
I could see the other pyramid complex of Xochitecatl from the protected pyramid of Cacaxtla, but the people working there don’t allow people to walk from one to the other due to “asaltos”. I doubt that this is a problem, but followed their directions and rushed down the hill (one combi blasted by me and I had to run to catch another, then hike about 2 km up a steep hill). I barely made it in time, but the man at the gate was so welcoming and I told him about a dream I had (in Mexico, in a mountainous area looking down to the surrounding countryside). He said that people have a connection to this place and often come here because of that connection. Apparently this was a very important site for the reverance of women, specifically their fertility. They unearthed many small figurines depicting women with a small opening representing their womb, a baby inside, some pregnant, others of female sacerdotas (priestess rulers). It may have been the public ceremonial site associated with Cacaxtla. In any case, I felt very comfortable there and didn’t want to leave. I had a nice walk down the hill and contemplated walking to San Miguel de Milagros, where archangel Michael performed some miracle for a poblano, when it started to rain. I jumped on a bus and headed back to Tlaxcala.
The next day I headed for the Museo de Arte Popular (artesenias) and met a lovely vieja who was embroidering centuries-old patterns into white flax shirts. We talked about Mexico and how it’s changed, the pollution and contamination in the food and water. She’s 82 and tiny. I wonder how old this generation of Mexicans will live given their exposure to dust, chemicals, smoke, smog, and dirty water. Who knows? They’re pretty hardy. Another vieja put a belt on me and then told me how much it was – reasonable, but I didn’t have any money with me. I didn’t have time to see all the exhibits, and decided to go back to see the rest. I took a nice walk up the stairs and climbed the hill across from the hotel, then followed a young man through the milpas (corn fields) to a small street. In front of me was a crumbling adobe house, fence, and 6 horses – and a man in a tower-like structure with no windows. I didn’t notice him at first but saw him after taking pictures. He was very friendly and we talked for several hours – his great uncle fought in the revolution and his family founded the town. Fernando Aguillar Martinez is a kind and lovely man. His mother lives a few streets below, he owns land on the carretera, and he sleeps with his chickens outside with a shotgun on his bed for protection. He grew up in this adobe and has the intention of rebuilding it in the old way, making a paste out of clay and stepping on it with his feet. His neighbor has the wood molds necessary to make the bricks.
That was the highlight of my visit to Tlaxcala, though there is more. I went to the Saturday market, which is huge – I tried fruits I’ve never heard of, including mamie, cold chocolate foam, and a wonderful quesadilla made of blue corn (I found out that the calc that they sell for tortillas is baking soda, and that real tortillas don’t use soda – I’ve been smelling the tortillas I get to see whether or not they use calc). I inadvertently joined a tour of the convent chapel, and learned lots of interesting things about the Franciscans and Mexico during the 1500s. Apparently the Franciscans wanted to create a utopian community amongst the native tlaxcalquenos, and Christianity was close enough to their previous religious beliefs that four important indigenous men converted and started a wave of conversion. Tlaxcala was the hub of Christian adherents (Spain took a different tact in this part of Mexico. Instead of killing all the native people, they struck an accord and allowed the indigenous people to govern themselves, although a vice rey was still involved in governance here. Hernan Cortes built the first city here – the main square is bordered by buildings built under his influence.
In my wanderings I found a school of Mexican folkloric dance, Escuela de Danza Regional Mexicana Tlaxcala. I spent two evenings spellbound as I watched 18- to 20 year old dancers for three hours straight under the watchful eye of a very strict (and professional) maestro. It was near an old church surrounded by a cemetery and a beautiful blue and white wall. The teacher allowed me to stand on the platform outside where I could barely see the feet of the dancers, they moved so rapidly. The moves and music reminded me of Polish folk dancing, and I wondered how many people shared similar folkloric traditions. I discovered the Centro Cultural, a lovely building that had originally been a school for higher education in the early 1900s. I saw many lovely photos of Carnaval, a three day celebration in Tlaxcala celebrated during Mardi Gras, replete with painted wooden masks of blue eyed, smiling Germanic looking people. The masks remind me of those used during Carnival or Fasching in Germany, Tyrol, and other parts of Europe. I found a young boy kicking a soccer ball against the front of the church where a family retired to the small enclosure next door for the evening. I talked to various people, including a woman who directed me to a place to ask about rooms to let.
I discovered a rural road at the edge of town where hens roamed free and a few homes were being constructed. I saw a man tending his garden and said hello. We spoke, and the next time I walked down the road, he invited me to visit his home. He was in the middle of construction, and had erected a two story home with roof. There were no walls, and the chill rain and wind blew through me as we stood talking on the upper floor. He was very proud of his house. He told me that, in order to buy windows, he needed to sell something. I don’t remember what now, or how he had planned to do it, but he seemed like a man on a mission. A slow one, but a mission nonetheless. I remember coming back one last time to say goodbye, and wishing I could stay and watch his house grow and perhaps help with the construction, or just chew the fat. The world is built on friendships, I think.
The next day, Sunday, I went to Huamantla, and enjoyed the crowds of families gathered in the main squares. The Museo de Titeres (puppetry) was very interesting, and built in honor of the Rosete Aranda puppeteer troupe started in 1835, which became one of the most important in the world. I caught a bit of a puppet/marionette exhibit and marvelled at the detail of the marionettes carved by the talented hands of Rosete Aranda and family. I also toured the bullfight museum, and had a lovely tour by Juan, a young man who rattled off lots of facts (in Spanish of course) and told me that his dream is to be a toredor. I was wary because some young people give tours without asking if you want one and the demand a stiff fee. I didn’t realize it was the end of the tour – he asked me if I wanted to see the arena, and I said yes. As I turned around I saw his form running down the street the other way. I called out and offered him a propina, a tip to thank him for showing me the museum.
He had told me that he saves all his money, that when his mother asks him how he will become a toredor without money, he replies that he is working towards his dream. His resolve brings tears to my eyes. I also saw the photo exhibit of alfombras that cloth the streets of Huamanantla for one day in August, usually August 16, a few days before the Pampalona (21 bulls are released into the streets – unlike Italy, the people are behind the bulls and often taunt them). Every year there is at least one death and many injuries. During the exhibition of the alfombras (sand or sawdust mandalas that cover all the streets of Huamantla), people dressed in white line the alfombras to protect them from the people coming from afar. There is one man who is a particularly good artist and was invited to the Vatican in Rome to display his talent. He has the honor of portraying the Virgin Mary every year. The event is in her honor, of course (as almost all festivals in Mexico are), and her image is paraded through the streets on that night. It takes people 12 hours to create the mandalas, some using cutout patterns, others by hand. The silica or sawdust is colored in lovely hues.
Transportation is always an issue in Mexico. I was told to wait on one particular corner in Huamantla, only to find out (an hour later) that because it was Sunday, the last bus had already left, and I needed to wait on the highway. Luckily another woman was with me, and a nice bus driver gave us a lift to the necessary stop. A bus soon came, but no sooner had we boarded than we were stopped at a train track for another half hour while a train bound for Apisaco stopped in the station. Passengers, used to such delays, texted or dozed, while I watched the train with impatience, wondering whether we’d be there all night. Luckily we made it back to Tlaxcala that night, having waited 30 minutes for the stopped train. I walked my usual nightly rounds to the Casa de Cultura, a beautiful building that was originally built as a college of higher learning but is now an art and music school. I love the grounds and gardens, especially in the rain, which is a guarantee most nights. It generally starts about 7 or 8pm and continues for a few hours. I also walked to the old church and grounds where I saw a young boy playing soccer against the church wall a few days before. I will miss Tlaxcala.