I didn’t get any photos of the mummies (more like well preserved cadavers) in Queretaro as my camera batteries had died. My friend and I stopped for tacos a la costilla (pig ribs), asado a carbon (cooked on coals). They were very tasty, but I paid for them for a few days to come, with the usual raging diarrhea that follows bad food. La Casa de Dante, the hostel that I stayed in, warned that eating cheese, yogurt, butter (essentially dairy), or pork can likely result in Moctezuma’s revenge. I learned this, but perhaps a bit too late. My friend, Antonio, was heading back to visit his dad in Leon, then on to a bull fight (as toreodor). I made the long trek back to the hostel, weaving up the steps to La Pipilla (the mythic figure, perhaps historic, who led the siege on the Aldoghon (grainery/prison), and died in the process during the Independencia in 1810. I flagged a taxi, realizing that I probably wouldn’t make it in time for the bus. He kindly waited for me as I descended the 100 plus stairs to the hostel and returned with the pack of death, my 20 plus kilogram mochila. Sure enough, I got to the bus station with minutes to spare before boarding. You have to arrive at least 15 minutes before a bus to check in and load your luggage. And don’t dally when you reach your destination. You usually have 1 minute to gather your things and disembark. People here are used to rushing for buses and other transportation, and have infinite patience for the vicissitudes of the transport system.
Not knowing what to expect, I eyed the landscape with interest as we made our way to Queretaro. We arrived around 8:30pm, and it was already dark. As usual I gathered my things and began asking where to go to take the local bus to the hostel I had booked, Blue Bike Hostel. After getting different answers, I boarded a bus and sat near an open window, grateful for the fresh air. It started raining hard, and I got soaked, as I wasn’t able to close the window. The driver indicated for me to disembark, and I launched myself into the storm with pack in tow. I queried people at the stop, who indicated that I had to return the way I’d come (toward the central bus station) to get to the hostel. Lovely, I thought. I caught another bus and got off at Plaza de America. Walk straight through the plaza to the road behind and climb. Easy. However, with dismay, I realized over time that the numbers were creeping 1 or 2 at a time, and that I was still a few 100 away from the hostel. Resolute, I wearily stumbled through the rain and ahead spied the great aqueduct built in the 1700s to bring agua potable to Queretaro resdients. I walked under the aqueduct and finally knew I was in the right area 20 minutes later. Found the hostel and knocked. No one answered. Knocked again, finally called the number posted on the door. The guy working the desk had gone to dinner, and said he’d be back soon. Still raining, I rested my pack under a ledge to keep it as dry as possible.
The guy came and I registered, put my pack in the female dorm, and left to walk for a bit. I was struck with bad diarrhea and couldn’t go far before I had to use the bathroom. Came back late, went to bed, and was awakened at 4:30am by my dorm mate who had been out all night clubbing. Life in the dorm – what fun. It seemed like hours for her shower, finally quiet around 6am. Fell back asleep, woke Friday am and met a nice Spaniard from Seville who is studying for a certificate in soldering. We talked physics, walked downtown and had a nice coffee, and I learned more about Seville. Apparently they have one of the biggest libraries in the world, as Andalucia, the southern part of Spain encompassing Seville, Cordoba, and other cities had been the center of the Christian world at one time. I later saw a photo exhibit of the library in the ex-convent turned Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Starving (I didn’t eat much for 2 days because of diarrhea and fear thereof), I pleaded with a small restaurant to serve me whatever they still had. I didn’t eat much, but enough to stave off hunger. I went to several large churches, many lovely plazas, and generally wandered around. I had more luck with my dorm mate Friday night, a very friendly and quiet psychology student. I ended up giving her some clothes and extra vitamins/supplements that I wouldn’t need and didn’t want to carry.
Saturday I awoke to a bang, literally. The Templo de la Cruz (the oldest church in town located on a strategic hill 5 minutes walk from the hostel) was celebrating the annunciation of the virigin. They lit firecrackers and what sounded like bombs at about 6am. Another crappy night sleep. A brass band was playing various pop standards and oldies, positioned to one side of the temple. I entered the temple during mass, appreciating the devout following. There was music (loud and bad) starting around noon till 10pm or so. I decided to escape and asked to use one of the hostel bikes for an hour (they charge for more time). I did my best to navigate with the crazy drivers, and made my way winding through the old town to the river, and then along University Avenue, where several old brick mills are still standing, now serving as universities. They reminded me of mills I’d seen in Ottawa, Canada. Beautiful construction, probably British owned and operated. Had a nice cruise and returned the bike, not wanting to pay late fees. I then headed on foot to several museums, including Museo del Pueblo (which seemed to mostly house weird modern art exhibits such as the wooden penises and liquid-like substance splattering the walls. Not sure what that was supposed to represent.
I also visited a history museum that told some of the history of the Independence movement here. Apparently I missed the best museum, Museo Regional, located next to the Templo de San Francisco. Here, one can see the chair that Benito Juarez sat in, or the constitution that was finalized in Queretaro in the 1840s. I decided to hike to the Cerro de Las Campanas, where emperor Maximillian of Hapsburg, who had been abandoned by Napolean III in 1815 or so, was finally captured and killed before a firing squad along with his 2 generals. It was heartbreaking to read the letter he wrote to Benito Juarez while waiting for his execution. Basically, he said that if his death would serve to make things better for his new “Patria” (fatherland), Mexico, he was willing to give his life for the cause. I wondered about all the heroic people that had been killed over the course of Mexico’s history. It’s been tragic to contemplate the sheer number of dead as a result of the various invasions (French in the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, Americans a bit later) as well as the civil wars that have raged through this country, including that between the liberals and conservatives, cristeros vs those supporting separation between church and state, the insurgents against Porfirio Diaz’ supporters,, Iturbide vs conservatives, etc.
I was devastated to learn of Robin Williams suicide. I received an email from the National Portrait Gallery with a photo of Robin as Mork, and a comment the contributions he has made. Puzzled, I googled him and learned that he had hung himself the day before. I still haven’t recovered. He was a mentor to my generation (and others, I’m sure), his twinkling eyes and smile, humor, and vulnerable honesty about his losses, depression, divorces. Such a loss. Koko the guerrilla, who met him in 2002 when she was stunned by the death of her mate, reacted in hearing about his death by signing “cry”. Her lips were quivering. I watched a video clip of Robin’s meeting with Koko, and it made me cry. She took his wallet and checked his license to make sure it was really him, then told him to tickle her, which he did. She asked him to tickle her again, and then they rolled in ball. Why is it that the kindest and most gifted people seem to die young, leaving the rest of us to muddle through without their guidance and brilliant light. I will miss him.
The Cerro de Las Campanas hosts a larger than life state of Benito Juarez, towering over the city at over 80 feet. The interactive museum describing the battle at the cerro during the independence movement was closed, but I had a good look at the chapel that was built in 1905 by the Austrians to honor Maximillian, who was killed at that spot. I walked around the park, enjoying the trees and waterfalls (it’s a really lovely place), then walked back towards the center. I stopped at a zapateria (shoe store) and had a nice talk with a university student who is learning English. We talked about life in the US, US migration policy, generalizations about Americans, and what I have experienced during my trip in Mexico. A very kind young man. As I’ve done with others, I offered him help with filling out visa papers if he decides to visit. I made my way to the huge Templo de Santa Ana with the large square, entered and enjoyed the gold-leaf barroque altars lining the walls. They reminded me of the Capilla del Rosario in Puebla.
On my way out of the church and down the street, who should I run into but Jozef, the kindly and very worldly gentleman from Georgia and South Africa that I met at La Catrina hostel in San Miguel de Allende. He had also gone to Guanajuato. We were shadowing eachother. I called out his name and he brightened and answered, “Here is Lisa”. I was surprised he remembered my name. I said I’d like to sit and have coffee, and we sat at a nice cafe called Cinammon, just in time for a deluge/torrential rainstorm to hit and begin flooding the plaza and surrounding cafes. He had lost my email and contact information and was relieved to see me again. I had wondered at not hearing from him, as I had sent him an email, and was glad to know that he wanted to stay in touch. We talked about his next 2 weeks in Morelio and Guadalajara, the opera and theater he hopes to see there, his plans to apply for a visa to China from Mexico City, and the possibility of his going to Brazil instead to get a visa to China and spending a few months in South America. He is walking much better than when I last saw him, and I was impressed by his progress. After a crepe, we stopped off in his hostel, Ixta, located right on the square. What a nice spot! I was wiped out so I took my leave and made my way with difficulty back to the Templo near the hostel. My shoes were soaked as I crossed the rivers of water inundating the cobblestone streets. Two hours of heavy rain and you need a boat to get around most colonial towns. Queretaro is no exception.
I got to the temple near my hostel and watched a fireworks display with excitement. I missed the 4th of July fireworks as I was in Mexico, and love fireworks. After about 10 minutes, they lit a sculpture outside the gates of the church, made up of various wheels. Each wheel represented a symbol important to the church, and when lit, spun and shone brilliantly for a few minutes before losing steam and dying out. The last ones to be lit had the words “Spiritu santo” and other important words, and again emitted a lovely light before going out. I took some photos, though I’m not sure any turned out. I turned in early for the night, only to find out that 5 young women were staying in the dorm room with me, planning on partying and drinking most of the night, and hanging out with their male accomplices. I asked to change rooms and stayed in a different dorm, but heard the noise of the parties going constantly through the night. Bleary eyed, I awoke Sunday am, called a taxi, and headed on a bus to el de efe (districte federal), Mexico City. As usual, things were tight, and I arrived with 5 minutes to spare before boarding. Uneventful bus ride, except that I told Ruben I’d arrive 1 hour later than scheduled. Luckily he came an hour early, so we met in the Central Norte station and made our way to Tacubaya, to a Chinese cafe serving “rico cafecito” and pan dulce, traditional Mexican sweet bread.
We talked about his life, marriages, kids. I consider him an old friend at this point, even though we just met this summer on June 11 when I arrived in Mexico City. He said he’ll miss me – I’ll miss him too. “Call me when you get home” he indicated in Spanish, biting his nails in gest to express his concern about me traveling alone. He doesn’t trust Mexicans at all – I have much more trust than he does in his own people. Actually, I’ve noticed that throughout Mexico,. They rarely if ever travel alone – the idea is foreign and a bit ludicrous to them. So it’s not simply distrust of other Mexicans, which the majority share, but also the unusualness of being alone in general. There are always people around. Alone time doesn’t exist here. At 2:30pm I asked that we leave, as I wanted to go back to the Museo de Anthropologia to see more of the Tehotuihuacan exhibit. I spent 3 till 7pm taking in masks, stone sculptures, ceramics, and other important objects of the Mexica (Aztecs), earlier Tehotihuacan culture, and other groups.
I love the reconstructions of temples and murals outside museum, complete with appropriate setting (jungle, desert, etc). I blew through the Mexica exhibit due to time, but really enjoyed the stone-carved Aztec calendars, stone figures, and other amazing artifacts. Not done with that place. Plus the entire second floor of 20 huge salas (halls) are filled with temporary exhibits of contemporary life in various parts of Mexico, featuring those cultures that have retained their customs to this day. The exhibit featuring the Huichol and surrounding tribes was very interesting, focusing on modern-day shamanism still practiced by these people. In San Miguel de Allende I attended a ferria (kind of outdoor flea market featuring artesenias (artesenal crafts), and bought 3 lovely blown bead-covered eggs featuring designs of spider (as weaver of the cosmos) and a 4 petaled flower (signifying peyote, and also the 4 cardinal directions used by the Toltec to represent the origin of the world).
Weary, I dragged my 40 pound pack and daypack on the metro heading for the historical district or zocalo and Hotel Juarez, with fairly good 320 peso per night rooms that had been recommended by a fellow traveler. I walked to from the metro to a bus stop on Avenida Reforma, the gentrified main avenue connecting the historical district with Parque Chapultapec and Zonas Rosa, Condesa, and Polaco (the posh parts of town primarily made up of expats from other countries). Reforma is lined with fancy hotels and cafes also found on Avenida Insurgentes Sur in San Angel and Coyocan (the neighborhood of former nobility and current wealthy Mexicans). As one bus stopped, I asked the driver, “va al centro historico”? He said something about not going there about 15 times, literally the same statement, and a passenger waiting at the bus stop got mad at him and told him he was being rude.
The driver raged, jumped off the bus, and threw a punch at the passenger seated a few feet away from me. I jumped back as well as I could, given that I had a 40 pound pack, afraid I’d get caught in the fray. It started pouring rain and hailing, with me and the pack beginning to get soaked. Desperate to get to the center and more importantly get out of the rain, I jumped on the next bus, deciding I would stay on till it stopped raining, possibly 30 minutes to an hour from now. Gabriel, a math and physics college student at UNAM (the best public university in Mexico and almost impossible to get into given the limited number of spots and thousands of applicants) took pity on me and offered to help me find Hotel Juarez. We jumped off the bus at Hidalgo and sought refuge in a shoe store while the rain continued to pelt the city and flood the streets. We were joined by about 20 other people over the course of 15 minutes, including a man pushing an older woman with dementia in a wheel chair.
Once the storm subsided (Mexicans know better than to head out right away – they wait 10 to 15 minutes after the heaviest rain, when a fresh dose comes and catches you unaware), Gabriel and I walked toward Avenida Cinco de Mayo, searching for the hotel. We found it on a callejon (alleyway) off Cinco de Mayo, where we dropped my pack and headed out again. We walked past the main cathedral and presidential palace (Palacio de Congreso), and got caught in yet another rainstorm, seeking refuge under an awning with several other pilgrims. The stink of urine and excrement, never far away in the city, reached my nose and I tried not to wretch. Steve Sondheim’s Urinetown is a reality here. No need to look to the future – bathrooms (“sanitarios”, which are usually far from sanitary) are few and far between, and are almost never free. The majority of residents hold it as long as they can, then pee in the street. So rainstorms not only cleanse the air contaminated by millions of cars and smoke-belching combis and camiones, but also temporarily relieve the streets of the pungent smell of pee. So from June to November, the rainy season, there’s a respite.
Exhausted from no sleep the night before in the party hostel in Queretaro, I eagerly hit the pillow and slept through yelling neighbors and cigarette smoke from adjoining rooms. Speaking as a veritable canary in the coal mine, that tells you something about how tired I was. I woke up Monday and did some local sight seeing in and around the Zocalo, revisiting the lovely terrace cafe that overlooks Templo Mayor (excavations of the pyramid behind the cathedral) for a latte. I then wandered up the callejon (alley) looking for the Santa Muerte temple that I had been told about by an herbalist in San Miguel de Allende, but didn’t find it. I discovered some ancient churches previously unknown to me, a nice plaza, and the Teatro de la Ciudad, also called Esperanza Iris after the benefactress/opera diva who partially funded its construction in 1918. Two Italian architects who also built the opera house in Milan were responsible for its lovely architecture, and the ceilings were painted by students of American muralist O’Farrell. Images of greedy capitalists squeezing kernels of corn into coins and profiting from the labor of noble miners, campesinos (farmers)and peasants peer down from lofty heights. The power of the images reminded me of Diego Rivera’s work for Rockefeller in NYC that was destroyed because it was too poignant and accurate a portrayal of the ravages of the capitalist state.
I was happy to have discovered this gem, and of course was startled by the contrast of the lovely building and interior with the slummy surrounding conditions. You can really imagine what the city looked like during the gilded age, both Porfirio Diaz time and earlier in the 1800s. It’s sad to see such a lovely place fall into such disrepair. Worried about missing my taxi to the airport, I rushed back to the hotel and arranged my pack. The taxi came quickly and we made it to the airport in good time. I approached the Viva Aerobus check in line and presented my documents only to find out that I had written down the wrong date. My flight was for Tuesday, the next day. So I had to decide what to do. Should I shlep everything back to the city and find somewhere to stay, or pay the 120 change fee (the original ticket was 70). Saddened, I paid the change fee and then found out that the plane was 6 hours late, so I spent 6 long hours trying to catch up a bit on my blog and read some emails. I had a horrible internet connection at an airport Starbucks. I tried calling someone on Skype and they understood one of every four or so words. Pretty frustrating.
We finally left the airport at 7:45 pm, and didn’t arrive till 10:45pm. After a 2 hour flight with no water (VivaAerobus can’t spare the expense, apparently), I arrived at the Cancun airport ready to drink a lake. They are fully aware of this, and of the fact that there is no way into town but by taxi or a bus that comes hourly, so you’re stuck. $6 later, I was still thirsty. Owing to the lateness of the hour, there was only one more bus leaving for Cancun (city) that night, arriving at the ADO bus terminal at midnight. I had originally planned to ferry to Isla de Mujeres upon arrival, as the plane was meant to arrive at 5:30pm. The airline didn’t even apologize for the delay. Instead, they served us nothing on the plane and then kept us hostage on the plane 30 minutes after touchdown without air conditioning with ambient temperatures of 100 degrees with 95 percent humidity. Welcome to Cancun. Or maybe more aptly, welcome to Mexico.
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I did not spend the night at the terminal. In my disgust and anger at Mexico in general and Viva Aerobus in particular, I paced and cursed in Spanish while waiting for the last bus to town. I approached several guys in the parking lot and explained my frustration. At this point, 12 hours after I’d started for the airport in Mexico City, I was livid. Juan took pity on my situation (I didn’t have a place to stay as I’d planned to ferry to Isla de Mujeres that day), and invited me to stay at his place for the night. He said he’d meet me at the ADO station in town at midnight, as he was taking separate transport. As backup, I asked another guy if he could help me find lodging in town in case Juan wasn’t there when I arrived. True to his word, Juan was there, and helped me with my pack. He hailed a taxi and for only 20 pesos (about 1.50) we got a 20 minute cab ride to Juan’s house. Juan informed me that cab drivers don’t charge locals what they do tourists – they actually have a set fee that they aren’t allowed to go over.
It had cooled off to a stifling 90 with 90 percent humidity by 1 am. Even though we were a few miles from the coast, there wasn’t a breeze to be had. As I was thirsty as hell after 7 hours without water, we walked to a small store in the front of someone’s house and bought water. Many people sell snacks, water, and real food (veggies and such) out of their house. It’s a common way to make ends meet – the family I stayed with in Zacatlan did so as well. It might be cheaper to go to the local market, but by the time you take the bus or drive, it’s much easier to pop over to Isabela’s and procure ingredients for dinner. Tortillerias are pretty common in most towns, so it’s easy to get that basic need met. Returning to the house, we talked till about 3am, Juan telling me about life in this little barrio of Cancun. His tiny cement block house is very common – they sell them the equivalent of about 20K USD. His doesn’t have a kitchen, and he can barely make his mortgage working his airline baggage loading job. He often doesn’t eat all day because he can’t afford it. His bedroom had the only fan in the place. I had to move it to within a foot of my face to get enough air to sleep. Juan slept in the hammock in the living room, or rather dosed, as I don’t think either of us slept.
I asked whether we could leave the front door open, but he said no, as there are many assaults and robberies in Cancun. Attracted by wealthy tourists and a good port for drug smuggling, many ne’er do wells apparently come to Cancun to sponge off the tourist trade. I was told this by several people, but thought their fears were exaggerated. Just to confirm the apparent dangers of the neighborhood, vigiliancia drove came through all night long, announcing their presence with loud speakers and sirens. My friend Ruben’s neighborhood in Ixtapaluca/San Buenaventura also had vigilancia – some are volunteers, while others are paid to drive through the streets, warding off potential criminals. People are accustomed to living with bars over their windows and doors, gates around their houses or streets. If you don’t have a key, you can’t get in or out of a gated street. It was something I had to get used to.