Digressions of a Traveling Housewife.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Waypoints and Wanderlust
One of the things I just adore about frequent travel is the benefit it affords, especially in the form of Internet access in United´s Red Carpet Club, where I am commfortably sitting in front of a modern Dell computer, pausing at this waypoint to consider and recount my travels once again.

Mexico City´s airport, one of the continent´s largest, is a surprisingly easy airport to maneuver. They´ve improved it greatly since I was a kid, apparently, because the crowds and dirt are no more than a childhood recollection. Duty Free´s not bad either....

Now that I´m here, I have the time to digress, go back to the beginning, and find my way to here again.

Puebla is the town where I grew a little, from ages 1 to 3.

Sunday, too, we got up early, and opened our hotel room curtains onto the cityscape and (pardon me while I figure out how to accent an 'o') the Zócalo, or Puebla´s Centro Historico. Don´t let the name Holiday Inn fool you -- our hotel was safe, elegant, clean, even lovely. Our 8th-floor room was accessible only by taking the elevator to the 7th floor, then climbing stairs. As a result, our view was of the Zócalo´s cathedrals. Jon hypothesized that their inability to give us a non-smoking room with a king bed prompted this extra-special room. The window was wider than the wall, and turned the corner before its terminus -- an actual working window, though small, let in fresh air. Not that we wanted fresh Mexican air -- it was too hot and smoggy for anything but airconditioning.

I recently read an Italian´s view of the U.S., Ciao America, by Beppe Severgnini. One thought of his -- that United Statesians (Unidenses) prefer to be ice cold in the heat of summer to the more luke warm normalcy of Europe. We would live in refrigerators if we could. In Puebla, where there is any AC, it is luke warm -- on the Estrella Roja bus ride from Mexico City, in the hotel lobby, in restaraunts. Jon and I initially pumped our AC down to 67 or 70 degrees in our room, and the first night I kicked off the covers (sleeping in a full bed with another person gets really warm). Proving that adaptation happens whether you want it to or not, after three days wandering the 80-degree streets and sweating in our relatives homes with no AC, we cranked the AC up to 75 last night, and still I was freezing under the blanket and coverlet.

Sunday morning.

Jon and I breakfasted at VIPs, a national favorite which, sadly, has recently been aquired by MegaloMart. Still, the food was as good as I remember, and the family atmosphere as pleasant. I´m fascniated by their children´s menu, which includes alphabet fries, but my favorite has to be the milanesas, which I could eat at every meal (and managed to eat three times in three days, though only once at VIPs). [While milanesas can be veal; personally, I prefer the sirloin.]

After sharing a croissant sandwhich and downing a bottled water each (total cost: US$3.50), we purchased postcards before meeting our uncle Gus and his wife, Tia Adelina for a sightseeing tour of Cholula. Uncle Gus (like all my uncles, but none of my aunts) was educated in the U.S. and speaks perfect English. Adelina, too, speaks English extremely well, and I assure you her English is better than my Spanish. Unlike my Grandmother, who dislikes her accent, Adelina said her accent "is cute." It´s adorable.

They are also extremely interested in (and knowledgeable about) the history of Puebla and the surrounding neighborhoods. Uncle Gus pointed out many sights of interest, including the Euro-French architecture of downtown; wrought-iron balustrades and flower boxes dot the colorful buildings. Indeed, Mexicans love color, especially natural shades from greens to muted blues to coral washes. The paint on their homes and businesses rivals nature, but seems totally organic. We also visited La Paz, the neighborhood at the top of the hill in what used to be the outskirts of town. My father moved to the "pink house" when he was 10, in 1957; my grandparents raised the family and continued to live there for 30 years, until a home invasion robbery drove them to build on GECAS. GECAS is a plot of land that my Abuelito divided into 8 lots, one for himself and each child. My aunt Maribel lived there until recently, and Uncles Carlos and Eduardo still do. The plot, completely enclosed by cement walls topped in broken glass, used to be on the outskirts of town, too, actually quite rural, but Puebla, as Gus pointed out, has grown exponentially.

In DC there is a rule of building height that is proportional to the width of the streets (the rumor that no building in the District can be taller than the Capitol is a myth). In Puebla, only church spires tower into the sky; buildings are only 7 ot 8 stories high. The city, however, has grown from 200,000 people 30 years ago to over 2 million now; it has nowehere to go but out. It has spread without cease, encompassing most of the valley and absorbing incorporated Cholula as well.

In Cholula, visitors find one of the oldest and largest pyramids of any ancient American civilization, the Tenapa Pyramid by the Cholultecas. Originally a small pyramid, the Cholultecas built a second, much larger pyramid over it, showing the Aztec influence. When the Spaniards came, they built the gorgeous Nuestra Señora de los Remedios church. Frommer's claims it is the world's largest pyramid by volume. It is without a doubt the largest pyramid in America. I loved our visit. It's so easy to see the Spaniard's history of influence here, in a snapshot.

From there it was off to the Church of Tonanazintla, the first church completely built by the natives, under the direction of the Jesuits who "converted" them. Looking at the profusion of images growing out of the very walls, and noticing that most have darker than European skin, one wonders how much influence the Jesuits really had. It's no secret that the Indios are suprisingly adaptable and fiercely independent -- they incorporated the idea of one supreme god made ludicrous by the abundant numbers of angels and saints. The Indios adapted by giving new faces to their gods, which in other parts of latin america resulted in blended religions, such as Voodoo (in the Caribe) and Macumba (in Brazil).

After witnessing the end of the service, we made our way to my Tia Salme's new house. The US knows next to nothing about gated communities. My aunt lives in a walled community with no less than six guards at the gate. Inside is a very different Mexico, the Puebla of the comparatively wealthy. My Tia has been a director for Mary Kay cosmetics for many years. She got her pink car, though Caddie's are prohibitively huge on Mexican roads, so I believe she got a Taurus. That was years ago.

Things occur in Mexico as they do only in novels. My aunt's former home, a lovely home, was sold furniture and all to a wealthy landowner looking for a residence for his son. He liked my aunt's house so much, he even bought her dishes, a story confirmed by my Uncle Gus. She took only her piano, clothing, and family heirlooms. And, of course, the dog.

My Tia is certainly expert when it comes to lebanese food. My abuelita, who should not be forgotten as the point of all this visiting, her parents were from Lebanon. She raised all her kids on it, and the older nietos remember huge feasts of stuffed grape leaves, Kibe naye and kibe crudo (cooked or raw ground lamb), hummus, babaganoush, and shishbarak (yogurt soup with kibe-stuffed ravioli). My aunt outdid herself for us, serving kibe crudo (yeah, don't freak out -- I ate raw meat -- in MEXICO), baba, hummus, fried kibe, and grape leaves. I haven't had such fabulous grape leaves in years. The secret, she told me, is to use fresh leaves, rather than canned. She picked hers from my grandfathers grape vine, in his small garden at his house. I'd forgotten how much he loved to garden.

After our leisurely lunch, we sprang back to the hotel to freshen up before heading up to my Abuelita's house once more, to see her and everyone else. Tia Maribel, with her husband Dr. Miguel (a cardiologist-cum-opthamologist who retrained to spend more time with hsi family, their two kids (Maribelita and Miguelito), my uncle Carlos and Aunt Yolanda, and their son, my father's namesake, Carlos Armando, and Uncle Yayo's three: Alejandra (replete with a neckbrace from a recent fender bender which she was loathe to tell her dad about, despite the fact that it wasn't her fault), Lorena, who couldn't stay because she was studying for her Calculus exam (!), and Gerardito, arm in a cast from a football injury (that's soccer, to you Unidenses). It was great to see everyone, and we spoke to my Abuelita again before and after her dinner. She seemed more tired, but it was late by the time we left, close to 10.

Monday we were on our own to explore the Zocalo, the town square with its ancient cathedrals, where I played on Sunday's as a child. My father would take us to church, then to a light meal at one of the Zocalo's many indoor/outdoor eateries or VIPs, then get his shoes shined by the square's ample shoe shine experts. The experts are still there, young boys too young to be apprentices earn their families' keep, compete with old men who shoo them with a terse click and hiss when a customer approaches. Jon didn't want to get his new shoes refurbished, but he was very excited to see the Cathedral where I was confirmed, and the places I played as little Christina. It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage site to add to his list.

We also wandered around El Parian, an old colonial marketplace that reminded me of Old Town San Diego's historic district. There you can buy Puebla's best -- from camotes (sweet potato candy) to handcrafts to Talavera (pottery like Majolica). Puebla is famous for its pottery from its clay-rich soils, although the best handmade talavera is found at Uriarte Talavera, a brisk walk from Puebla's Zocalo, about 9 blocks, which allowed us to dive into the local culture a little more.

A few blocks back from the Zocalo, Puebla changes from a tourist center to a lively downtown for locals. Shops with intricate bridal wear and children's fashions occupy stores next to electrical boutiques -- although calling them boutiques is a stretch. Some of these little stores are barely more than storefronts with counters inside. Most of the downtown is built around courtyards; peering in, you can see lovely Spanish colonial architectures with wrought iron railings that remind you of New Orleans. It's appropriate, I think, that Puebla reminds you of so many other European cities; it is after all such a mishmash of culture.

Uriarte's talavera artisan shop is a courtyard entire, with rooms and rooms that must once have been residential converted into stock- and showrooms through which you can wander. The courtyard looks up into open air, or rain that day. Talavera pots planted with local vegitation (bouganvillea) adorn the railings on the second story, where the artisans' workshops occupy the rooms.

Walking back to the Zocalo, I considered buying a pupusa fresh off the griddle in front of a taqueria, but decided to heed my Uncle's warnings. They smelled so delicious, I still regret it, but can't much since I made it home without untoward digestive incidents.

We also stopped to buy lottery tickets. The Mexican National Lottery is very different from the State's many options. Although they now let you choose your own numbers in Lotto, the original lottery is more like a raffle. Tickets are sold in twenty-page sets of five-digit numbers. We bought five tickets for 33733. You can buy one or all of the available tickets, increasing the amount of money you'll win. If your number is selected, and you have all the tickets, you win the big prize -- 75 million pesos; at current exchange rates, about 6.6 million US$.

Our last evening.
Cousin Tita, Salme's daughter, picked us up and took us to a great local favorite, a Mexican restaraunt on the Avenida Benito Juárez, a main street converted into Puebla's own restaurant row. We ate with her and my cousin Eduardo, and his fiancee, Marta. The food was good, the music mediocre and too loud! But the company was fabulous.

Tuesday, we got up early and retraced our way to the Estrella Roja bus station, which we'd ridden to Puebla on Saturday, which I've yet to write about despite reaching the end of my trip.

All in all, Puebla is a great place to live, a lovely place to visit. If my father hadn't been born there, I wonder if I'd ever have seen it. Probably not. It's a waypoint between Mexico City and Veracruz, and for me, it's the waypoint. If my father hadn't been born there, hadn't moved back there after marrying in the States, hadn't dragged us back and forth between countries, I doubt I would have revived my nomadic nature and become a wanderer. No matter. No I've got the wanderlust, I'm going to be traveling a lot.

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