Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day 5 (July 31). The trip to Guangzhou

As a well-oiled travel machine we were having breakfast at 6:30, boarding the city bus by 7:00, crossing the border at 7:30, and sitting comfortably in the bus to Guangzhou at 8 am (the latter with the help of Chi and his girlfriend, who kindly helped us to buy the tickets and find the right bus :)

Across the border from Macau is Zhuhai, a very pretty coastal city with a coastal drive that would be completely at home in Acapulco. Chi explained to us that this city was only 30 years old, and had been built as part of the special economic zone prepared to receive Hong Kong and Macau in 1996 and 1997.

We arrived to Guangzhou (aka Canton) around 10:30 am, and this time I had a chance to appreciate the vibrant modernism of this city. It reminds me of Los Angeles, with its freeways and skyscrapers. They are getting ready to host the 2010 Asia Games in November, so the city is in a fit of cleaning, repairing, and modernizing. The bus left us at the Landmark Hotel, and from there we took a taxi to our youth hostel. The taxi left us by the side of the Pearl River, in a street that seemed in the verge of being demolished. Apparently it had had a series of restaurants and night clubs, but everyone of them seemed now abandoned. We walked less than 200 meters when a mirage appeared in front of us. No, it couldn’t be. A big store front had the welcoming words “Youth Hostel” and the lobby looked like that of a hotel. Young travelers were scattered among comfortable sofas and a side desk with a couple of computers, while on the other side a friendly cafeteria was serving late breakfast or early lunch to a few more travelers. The front desk was attended by three young women who received us with a smile of recognition, as if we were old friends. Yes, they had our reservation, but alas, they were out of general dormitory beds, so instead they would lodge us in a two-bed room. We get to the room, and we find that not only we won’t have room mates, but the room has a TV, air conditioning, and its own bathroom! We have died and got to heaven :)

We spent an hour or so winding down, getting laundry done, and grabbing a bowl of noodles and wonton, but eventually we left the lap of luxury to go out into the world. At my suggestion we started with a trip to the zoo, which required us to learn to navigate the metro (piece of cake, we are getting to be pros at this). The zoo was a total success as far as people watching was concerned. The Cantonese are a happy, prosperous lot, who now how to amuse themselves with the family, and you would never guess their political regime is any different from ours. Gone are the times when everyone had to wear the same type of clothes, and now you see a fair mixture of tee shirts, hot pants, and designer clothes. We did frown at two things, however: people happily picking their nose in public (from guys to cute girls), and people tapping on the glass or mesh of the cages or throwing food at the animals (in spite of plenty of signs asking them not to).

From the standpoint of the animals I have to give this zoo a low mark. Unfortunately the wave of modernization has not reached far enough here, and many of the animals are housed in simple concrete boxes and bored to tears. I had to see the pandas, but it seems there is only one, and he was wedged somewhere between the lions and the monkeys. In my humble opinion, the zoo administration could reduce the number of animals in the collection so they could give them more space, and they could rearrange the collection so you could learn more about the animals of southeast Asia.

After the zoo we took the metro again, and stepped out at the riverside, intent on reaching a riverside park where my informant at the youth hostel had told me there were bikes for rental. It was in this leg of the trip that Luke learned some valuable lessons:

Make sure you know in which direction the metro is going! That means learning to read the metro maps, regardless of the language they are in.
Horacio has never been here before, so he really doesn’t know where he is going, or how far it is. He only looks like he knows.
Any “short distance” with Horacio could well turn out to be a death march. You should worry when you are using flip flops and he is wearing his hiking boots.

So we walked, and walked, and walked, came to the park, and found no bicycles for rent. Rats! Luke’s flip flops were looking the worst for wear, so we took a bus back to where we had started (another small triumph). I had spotted a restaurant at this end of the riverside avenue, so we decided to have dinner there (“we” is a euphemism here, because Luke has been “plugged” since we started, and he was considering skipping this meal).

We walk inside and of course everybody speaks Cantonese, so my cheerful “Ni hou” was received with giggles. Fortunately, a very professional-looking hostess kept her cool and with a smile brought us a picture menu, and one of her assistants set the table and brought us a pot of tea. So, I promptly served myself a cup of tea, which prompted another set of giggles. This people must have some sort of giggling disease. So, we order a plate of veggies, a plate of beef with veggies, a plate of squid with veggies, a Pepsi, and a beer. Looks of alarm as we are getting ready to take the fist swig from our respective drinks, but our hostess once again saved the day by bringing two glasses. Hmm, funny, the glasses are warm . . . then I look at a neighboring table and notice that the pot of tea was not meant to be a pot of tea, but an invitation to rinse the chopsticks, the cup, and the minuscule plate. Smiling at our hostess I signaled that I got the idea and started rinsing my chopsticks. With the exasperation of a mom dealing with a two year kid she firmly took the pot of tea from me, and demonstrated the whole rinsing procedure while everyone looked at us as if we were the village idiots. Live and learn!

Incidentally, Luke learned another valuable lesson:

When at the table, it is every man for himself, and if you are not fast Horacio may eat the whole thing.

You see, unlike what we are used to, where everyone takes into his or her plate the portion he/she intends to eat, thus establishing claim to a part of the feast, in China everyone eats directly from the serving plate, with no way to “reserve” the good pieces (this is why the plate you are given is minuscule, its only purpose being to give you a place to rest your chopsticks from time to time). So the faster you move your chopsticks, the more food you get (and I am pretty fast with chopsticks!)

We got back to the youth hostel at about 7:30 pm, with a full day behind us. But there was one more thing to do: About 50 paces from the hostel there is a peer, where a ferry moves people across the Pearl River, and where a boat makes a night cruise along the river. By 8:30 we were comfortably installed in the front of the boat, and off we went. It was fantabulous! Both sides of the river are lined with promenades, big buildings, and little buildings, and all of them are illuminated in one way or the other. So are the bridges and the boats that ply the waters of this vast river, so you get the impression to be inside an explosion of light and color. We thoroughly enjoyed the first leg of the trip, but on the way back tiredness took over, and we were quite content to stay inside the boat, dozing with the passing waves.

PS. I forgot to mention that the drab little street where the youth hostel is located turns into a veritable Xanadu when night falls. The “abandoned” restaurants and night clubs come to life, a kaleidoscope of lights illuminates the night, big cars with darkened windows disgorge glamorous women and new millionaires, and all manners of temptation lure the bypasser. Maybe this is why we saw so many hung over people in the living room of the youth hostel when we arrived. Don’t worry Sandy, I shall keep a close eye on Luke.

PS 2. I also forgot to mention that I have suffered a sad reminder of my approaching dead. We were in one of so many metro rides, when a young man sprung to his feet and offered me his seat. How funny, I thought, until I saw the looks of pity that he and his buddies casted my way. I had just been offered a seat as a senior citizen!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day 4. Exploring Macau

Only Day 4? Really? It seems we have been seeing so much that by now we should be in Day 10. Anyway, the day started very early. I woke shortly before 5 am to have the bathroom to myself (one bathroom for at least 16 lodgers), but shortly there after many of the other lodgers woke up so the place became a zoo. It turns out there is a rowing competition going on, and some of the rowers are staying here. Luke managed to get ready pretty early too, so by 6:30 am we were on the road.

First we took a walk around one of the fresh water “lakes”. Since this is a small island with no place to build a reservoir, the clever authorities simply built dikes in the harbor, pumped the salt water out, and filled the space with fresh water. This is now the freshwater supply of Macau, so they are very strict about not bathing, fishing, or other activities that could contaminate the water.

Walking, walking we ended in the temple of A-Ma, which is probably the oldest structure in the island. According to legend, a young woman dreamed that her two brothers and her father were in grave danger at sea, and in spirit went to help them. She managed to help her brothers, but was awaken before she could rescue her father and died of grief. For more than a thousand years the fishermen of the island have been praying to her for good luck, and thus the sanctuary has slowly grown bit by bit. Luke was quite fascinated by all the people praying, and by the incredible variety of offerings they bring (the most colorful are handfuls of ghost money, which are burnt in special furnaces to propitiate goo fortune.

We also found the Maritime Museum, but at 7:30 am was too early to visit it. So instead we had breakfast in a traditional eatery, with café con leche, tea, and noodles. Luke also ordered a small bottle of milk, which he judged “to sweet and rich” but happily chugged down.

We then decided to start using the bus system, at 50 cents of a dollar each ride, partly to save us from walking in the heat and partly as cheap sightseeing. By the end of the day we were quite adept at it.

Next stop was the façade of the Church of St. Paul, destroyed by a fire 100 years ago, and a delightful visit to the air-conditioned Macau Museum of history. A great little museum, housed in the Fortress on the Mountain. I was a bit baffled by the fact that this fortress, which was the main protection of Macau against pirates and invading fleets, is so far from the ocean (later, in the Maritime Museum, I learned that when the fortress was in use the beach was a lot closer than it is today, since the island has almost doubled in size by landfill). The Macau Museum had great displays on the history of the city, showing the parallel development as a Chinese city and a Portuguese city.

Another bus ride brought us back to the Maritime Museum, this time at a more civilized time. The displays included wonderful ship models, maps and models depicting the growth of the city, and all sorts of marine memorabilia. I was in heaven, since you may remember that one of my traveling quirks is a fascination with zoos and maritime collections.

Lunch was a very yummy plate of rice with black pepper duck. Sigh!

For the afternoon we visited the Grand Lisbon Hotel, with its remarkable display of art treasures, and tried to walk a bit through downtown, but it was just too hot. So instead we took yet another bus ride to the far end of the neighboring islands of Taipa and Coloane (which together with the “big” island form the Special Economic Zone of Macau). The end of the line is the beach of Hac Sa, where not only did we get our feet wet in the South China Sea, but where we found a super modern, super comfortable youth hostel. My Lonely Planet really screwed us up this time. They should have advised us to take bus 26A direct from the border crossing to the Hac Sa beach, for all of one dollar, book in this marvel of youth hostel, and then pay another dollar everytime we wanted to come to downtown Macau. I am definitely writing to the editors of Lonely Planet!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 3. The trip to Macau

We woke very early in the morning, consolidated our packs (16 kg mine and 17 kg Luke’s), had breakfast, and said good-bye to Klaus. I am sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye to Yin Ru, but as I told her in a note good friends meet again sooner or later, so I look forward to our meeting again in Asia, Europe, or America!

The first metro past at 5:54 am, and the airport express metro passed at 6:15 am, so without problem we made it to the airport by 6:45 am. Check in was a breeze, and we finally boarded the Air China flight to Guangzhou at about 7:30 am. Once again I managed to fall asleep as soon as I sat down, woke up to have breakfast, and fell asleep again until the bump of the landing woke me up. Alas, poor Luke is not as lucky and had to hear me snore all the way.

Once in Guangzhou airport it was a matter of just a few minutes before we found the express bus to the China Hotel, from where the bus to Macau departed. As we approached the city it became clear to me that Guangzhou is an enormous city, and that we might have a bit of trouble jumping from one bus to the next. The bus left us half a block from the China Hotel, and from the distance it looked a bit too posh to serve as bus station (in fact, it is so posh that in the back it has a small but very well appointed bus station). The first couple of people we asked just shrugged their shoulders, and I was distractedly looking around while crossing the street. In a matter of a second my ankle gave way and I fell rather dramatically by the curb of a major street. Luke picked me up in a flash, but my ankle was badly twisted and I was hurting. A compassionate bystander came to our help, and directed us to the small bus station in the back of the hotel. By 1 pm we were comfortably installed in a luxury bus, two of five passengers, on the way to Macau.

The ride lasted something like two and a half hours, through very pretty agricultural country. A few quarries showed deeply weathered intrusive rocks, but in general the land was decked in the green of banana trees and other tropical crops.

The bus dropped us at the depot on the China side of the border, so it was very easy to walk into the Chinese immigration office, cross the courtyard, and walk into the Macau immigration office. It took us a few minutes filling forms and being scrutinized by immigration officials, but at the end we made our triumphal entrance into downtown Macau to exchange a few dollars into patacas, the currency of Macau.

Luke was a little worried I would want to walk all the way to our hostel, so to be compassionate I agreed on taking a bus. We would have gotten there faster walking, but the bus took us in a circuitous tour of the city, so we were able to look at the fancy casinos (Macau has been called the Vegas of the west, although on an income basis Vegas should be called the Macau of the east. Our lodgings (Augustus Lodge) turned out to be a small apartment on the third floor of an ancient building in downtown. It had been described as a charming small hostel, but there is very little charm in it. Still, it is in downtown, and the old city center of Macau has all the charm one would want.

By this time we were starving, so we walked a couple of blocks and entered a little eatery that was packed to the gills. We ordered a dish of ox tails on rice in a black been sauce, Portuguese rice with eel and crab eggs, and a broccoli stir-fry, and we ate like kings for under 10 dollars.

Happy and satisfied we went to walk through the old center, and visited the old house of a Chinese merchant, the Catholic cathedral (with mass being said in Portuguese), the ruins of the old Jesuite school and temple, and the fort that protected the city in colonial times. The small peninsula of Macau had been under Portuguese rule since the 16th century, and only got turned in to China in 1999, so the cultural mix between Portuguese and Chinese is pervasive, as shown in its cuisine, its bilingual character, and its boisterous population (the decibels are much larger in Macau than in Beijing!).

Tomorrow we have the whole day to explore the city, but for now a shower beckons.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day 2. The Great Wall

Since Yin Ru is with us, and navigating your way to the Great Wall is difficult, we decided to visit the 8th wonder of the ancient world today rather than toward the end of the trip. Now, the Great Wall extends from the Pacific to the Gobi Desert, over a distance of nearly 2,000 km, so when one goes to “see the Wall” it means you have chosen one of those 2,000 km for an outing that will take all day. The part that everyone sees is probably the closest to the urban area of Beijing, but we figured that we didn’t want to be lost among hordes of tourists, and chose an out of the way location known as Huanghua. It took us from 7:00 am to 11 am to get there (and Yin Ru had to made constant inquiries to make sure we took the right bus), first in metro to the long-distance bus terminal (no problem there, since the metro of Beijing works really well), a long-distance bus to the north of the urban area, and then a local bus that penetrates deep into the countryside to provide service to hamlets scattered across the green valleys and mountains. Huanghua is one of these hamlets, and its claims to fame are a reservoir and dam (the latter made with pieces from the Great Wall), a magnificent segment of the Great Wall running along the crest of mountains and dipping into the valleys, and a stubborn refusal to let the federal government take over the restoration and tourist management of their wall. The feds have answered by posting stern signs indicating this segment is closed, but the locals blow them off and encourage the rare visitor to go climb the wall.

So we did, starting about 11:00 am, a time when the sun is at its hottest. Yes, it was miserably hot and muggy, even if we never saw the sun due to the pervasive haze that was with us all day long. Klaus claims it is smog, but here in the country it cannot be anything but fog and haze caused by the very high humidity. We were all drenched in sweat for the day, but we got to see one of the better exponents of the Great Wall, and with no tourists! The architecture was magnificent, the slopes impossibly steep, and nature was luxuriant all around us. Luke was climbing around like a goat, while I huffed and puffed like the Big Bad Wolf. Georgina, you would have loved it; we must have climbed 3,000 stair steps, some of them at a 45 degree angle!

At the end, however, the heat and the humidity got to us all and we reluctantly went back down the mountain to seek our ride back. We had to wait for about 45 minutes, which we filled drinking beer/soda, and eating popscicles. By the time we had taken first the local bus, and then the long-distance bus back to the metro it was 5:30 pm (i.e., peak time for people and traffic).

So we entered the metro and were treated to what I have been reading so much about: A wave of humanity ebbing and flowing through corridors and platforms, like a pulsating amoeba. Maya, I wish you had been there to see us scrunch into a metro car, cheek to cheek and buttock to buttock, unable to move a millimeter in any direction. Hah! And people say the metro in Mexico City is crowded. You have not seen crowded until you try the Beijing metro at rush hour!

We finally made it home, to a cold shower and a big plate of chilled watermelon. Luke bailed out after that, assuring us that he needed more sleep than food, but Yin Ru, Klaus, and me still ventured out to have barbecued fish (super yummy, with peanuts, chives, and other green stuff), and an oven pot of pig intestines and slices of blood pudding. Yin Ru and I asked for the latter just to gross Klaus out, which we managed to do beautifully. Still, it was a very tasty dish, and we brought home some of it in case Luke gets hungry or Klaus changes his mind. Yeah, right!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day 1. The trip (July 26 AND July 27)

I met Luke at 4 am, ready for the trip. He had slept something like a couple of hours, a mixture of excitement and packing and repacking. His backpack is enormous! Chico and Sandy drove us to Sacramento airport, where we waited about four hours for the first leg of our trip, to Seattle. We got there without any problems, but again had to wait for another four hours before we could board the Hainan Airlines flight to Beijing.

The flight was long (11 hours) but uneventful. We were flying west, so of course we crossed the international dateline and stepped into the following day. The gentleman to my left was a Beijing lawyer, and gave me some pointers on how to get from the airport to downtown Beijing, using the airport shuttle. I of course slept like a log for most of the trip, but Luke was barely able to sleep, even though he had deprived himself of sleep the previous night.

Once at the Beijing airport we went through immigration with no problem, exchanged dollars into RMB (or yuan) at about 6.7 RMB per 1 dollar, picked up our backpacks, went through customs, and stepped into China. Luke decided that his backpack was too heavy, so we will have to do something about that when we get to Klaus. We duly asked about the shuttle, and were directed to the right bus without much trouble.

The shuttle brought us to downtown and for the first time I got that tingling through the spine that told me I was in a giant city where I could not understand a thing. Downtown Beijing has enormous buildings, many freeways, a fair amount of cars, and a goodly number of people. Ah, but if you look carefully there is the odd sign in English. I knew we had to get off in the third stop, and it was with some relief that I noticed Guandou bridge in one of the signs, since that was a landmark in my map. So we alighted from the bus, and in my best Mandarin I asked the directions for the next bridge. The young woman looked at me with some puzzlement, and then answered in very passable English that, yes, the direction I was pointing was correct, but why not use the metro? We were one station away from our destination, and Luke was still muttering about the weight of his backpack, so a metro ride was a solution sent from heaven.

We walked into the station and headed for the machines, where another very nice woman explained to us the way to get tickets, stood by patiently while our backpacks went through the x-ray machine (all hand bags, packages, and backpacks go through this), and practically walked us to our platform. One short ride and we were there. All we had to do now was find the apartment building, a block and a half away. So we walked, and Luke complained of the beginning stages of scoliosis, and I ignored him while I tried to ask for directions in Mandarin. Alas, the Chinese, like the rest of the people in the world, are not satisfied with a simple “yes” or “no”, but need to give me a whole, long, unintelligible explanation of why they cannot simply point me in the right direction.

Then I spotted a public phone, and thought about calling Klaus and Yin Ru. Ah, but to use the phone you need a phone card, and my attempts to buy one were fruitless. For example, a young woman looked at my charades in wonder, and asked me why didn’t I simply use my cell phone? Later I learned from Yin Ru that there must be only 100 public phones in all of Beijing, that she had never seen one being used, and that she had no idea where one would buy a phone card. OK, forget the idea of the phone, and get back to asking for directions.

Well, finally we got half the way there, and then I spotted in the distance a blond head. “Klaus, amigo!” Yes, it was Klaus and Yin Ru, who had had the good sense of coming down to the street, to try to spot our taxi cab (most sensible people would have taken a cab from the airport, wouldn’t they?) Big smiles and hugs followed, and our good friends showed us into their building and apartment (it turns out that Luke had guessed the right apartment building from the distance!).

After a delicious bath we went out to dinner, at a typical eatery. Yin Ru did all the ordering, in rapid fire Mandarin, and we ended with a small mountain of skewers with pork, some type of stir-fried turnips, calabacitas, stringy pseudo-bambus, and 1000-year-old egg. Luke by this time was eating by instruments, since he was dead tired. So we finished our yummy food and learned: always triple check the total, the pork skewers need to be paid separately to the guy that barbecued them outside the restaurant, and nobody has change for a 100 RMB bill! The latter is an important discovery, because all our fortune is in RMB’s.

We got home and Luke promptly crashed. It is very hot and muggy, but mercifully our room has air conditioning, so we will get a good night rest.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 15. Vámonos p’al Norte!

Again, not much to report. We started north toward the border, together with my parents. Our excellent Silverio was at the wheel (he is my brother’s personal driver), and by 2:30 pm he brought us to the Laredo border crossing. The Rio Grande was at a much lower stage than when we saw it two weeks ago, but still in flood.

The border crossing was slow but uneventful. I hesitated for the fraction of a second when the customs officer asked if we were carrying any medicines. Should I tell her that my parents were carrying a small pharmacy with them? “No, officer”. So she waved us in and that was that.

After an early dinner at Denny’s (I love their senior menu), Silverio left us at the hotel and started on the long way home. Poor man, will probably not get back home until 9 pm.

My parents found that their favorite soap opera channel was available, so they settled in the room for the evening. Maya went to the gym, and I went to the bank. After all, I have another trip to fund next Monday! When I got back I went to the gym with Maya (need to start training for the bike trip in March to the Camino de Santiago, Spain), then we went swimming, and finally went to pick up cups of tea for my parents.

Tomorrow we will leave for California, so I think this will be the end of this blog. Stay in touch for the blog of the trip to China that Luke and I will start on Monday! =)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day 14. Monterrey, Ciudad de las Montañas

Since there is not much to do in Monclova, Maya and I borrowed a car and drove a couple of hours to Monterrey, the City of Mountains. The title comes from the tall mountains that rim the basin, which are formed by enormous folds of a Cretaceous limestone sequence. My idea is that we could hike around in the mountains, glimpsing at the city below. Unfortunately Monterrey suffered quite a bit during hurricane Alex, which brought unusually heavy precipitation to the area, causing the dry washes to turn into roaring rivers. This happens from time to time in desert environments, but the times in between are so large that people become complacent and start using the washes for sports fields, temporary markets, and even camping areas. Well, all that is gone!

Our first stop was in a place called La Huasteca, a favorite pic-nic place for the people of Monterrey. Here a canyon cuts through steeply dipping limestone beds that have been eroded into obelisks that jut for a few hundred meters into the air. Normally one walks through the wash, but there was still a good size river running through it, so we had to limit ourselves to contemplate the cliffs from the distance. The two bridges that normally cross the dry creek bed had been washed away, but the road crews had already built two temporary berms to cross, so we got pretty far into the canyon.

Our next stop was the trendy neighborhood called San Pedro, where I treated Maya to a piece of heaven by taking her to lunch at Wendy´s. She has been an absolute trooper at eating all sorts of Mexican food, but she had a yearning for American food and was happy as a clam eating a chicken sandwich and fries drowned in ketchup :)

My Plan B was to go walking in Chipinque, a relatively cool forest high up one of the mountains that overlook Monterrey. The road up is steep, and had all sorts of small landslides and potholes eroded by running water, but was still passable. Unfortunately once we got to the entrance station of the park we had to turn around. Sorry, but storm damage was intense, and they were in the process of removing debris and making repairs. Rats!

So we went to downtown, stared at the damage done by the Santa Catarina river to the two freeways that run along its banks, and settled for a walk around the macroplaza and the shopping district. Maya chided me for having her dress for hiking when the most strenuous thing we did was go up a flight of stairs. How was I supposed to know?

So, it was a lot of driving for very little excitement. Oh well, in every life a little rain shall fall (or in the case of Monterrey, a lot of rain shall fall).

Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 13. Monclova

Not much to report. We had a slow morning running errands, such as visits to the pharmacy, the bookstore, and the supermarket.

In the afternoon we went to visit my brother Armando and my sister-in-law Mimi. Armando was not there, but his grandson Angelito was, so we took the lid off the small swimming pool and splashed for the rest of the afternoon. Armando eventually got home and promptly got into the pool. It was a lovely afternoon, with a refreshing breeze to counter the brutal heat of Monclova.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 12. Saltillo to Monclova

The day evolved slowly. I woke up early to surf the internet to plan the trips of next year (Egypt and Spain, I think), but the rest of the family did not surface until past 9 am. After breakfast my cousin Carlos took Maya and me to the Museum of the Desert, one of the not-to-miss sights in Saltillo. It has all sorts of interesting things about the desert, but is better known for its displays of dinosaurs. As it turns out very few fossils have been found of Triassic and Jurassic dinos, but in the Cretaceous a shallow sea embayment formed in what is now the state of Coahuila, and its shores provided the perfect environment for the activities of dinosaurs, and for their preservation as fossils once they died. The museum is not only a showcase, but includes a team of paleontologists that search, dig for, and investigate these fossils.

The museum also has a small collection of black bears (still roaming around in the mountains of Coahuila), coyotes, and Mexican wolves. The latter are pretty much extinct (the result of a systematic campaign of extermination by US and Mexican cattlemen, who in the 1950’s to1970’s used poison in out-of-the-way water ponds), with only three populations left in captivity. The museum is part of an effort to expand the captive populations with the hope of reintroducing these animals in some protected areas.

Afterward we came back to another fine meal (Pescado a laVeracruzana), and very, very slowly prepared for the trip to Monclova. My aunt and uncle wanted to drive us to my parents’ home, both to make life easy for us and to visit my parents. My aunt let the cat out of the bag when she told me that she wanted to see how my Mom was doing. “What happened?” “Oh, she fell and broke her nose.” “What?!!” Yes, my poor Mom had slipped forward while fiddling with her walker, and had hit herself against a sharp edge and broken her nose. Falling down is, alas, a common occurrence, but this is the first time that she has not been able to do the ninja roll, so she was hurting. Pobrecita!

So we started kind of late (maybe 4 pm), and then we found out that the first third of the highway was closed for repairs of the damage caused by the heavy rainfall of storm Alex, so we had to do a big detour through the old highway and that took forever. My cousin Carlos was driving, and he has a pretty heavy foot, but it was not until 6:30 pm that we got to Monclova. By this time my aunt had covered the whole recent history of the family, and Maya’s head was spinning, so it was with relief that we pulled in front of my parents’ house. Wow, my Mom looked like she had been in a boxing match! She fell 8 days ago, so the swelling and the pain were all gone, but she still looked like a mean street fighter.

A few minutes later my other cousin arrived. His name is Jorge and he moved to Monclova seven years ago to work with my brother in the steel mill. Five years ago he married Yvonne, and they now have two children, and a house in the process of construction that is almost90% ready. He wanted to take his parents to see the new house, so of course we all went to see it. It is in the outskirts of Monclova and it is huge! The lot must be as big as mine, but the house is very large (actually, it is a three bedroom house, but everything is large in it). Jorge was so excited talking about his new house, which they have built little by little as money became available, that it was hard not to be carried along by his excitement.

We ended the day—a very long day—with supper at a local restaurant, where I did my best to gross Maya out by ordering the head of a baby goat. Mmm . . . tacos de ojo, sesos, y lengua!

Day 11. Saltillo

I tossed and turned in a restless, shallow sleep, and woke with a start, drenched in sweat. I had done the same for the last eight hours, concerned that we would miss our stop. Normally the driver announces on a deep baritone the name of the town where the bus is stopping, but this particular driver was in a grumpy mood and the passengers had to fend for themselves. No, not yet, we were in Matehuala this time, and I had to face another three or four hours on the overheated bus. Rats!

Finally the torture came to an end, and at 5:45 am we stood, blinking like owls, in the platform of the city of Saltillo. It was too early to call my aunt and uncle, so we decided to take a taxi. A nice old gentleman was behind the wheel, but try as he might, he could not remember where the street Davila Fuentes was. Hmm . . . OK, I started describing to him the way, but he said there was no street of that name there. He had driven through Saltillo for 30 years, and he knew every street. There was no Davila Fuentes street on that part of town. Reluctantly he followed my instructions, shaking his head. I was confident because I have gotten lost many times going there, and finally my uncle impressed on me that I had to go up from downtown—on this street whose name I couldn’t remember—until I got to the Oxxo (a type of 7-Eleven), and then make a turn left. So we get to the Oxxo and turn left, and I say in triumph “This is the street”. The man turned to me with some resentment and said “You didn’t tell me you wanted the street Zapateros”. I asked my aunt a little later and indeed, the street had been called at some time Zapateros, but the name had been changed nearly 10 years ago. It just happened that my worthy cabby had not had a fare to this street in more than 10 years!

OK, it is 6:15 am, and enter the family Ramos Suarez: My uncle Bernardo is in his mid 70’s, as is my aunt Prieta (this is not her name, but a moniker she got as a kid because she was very dark skinned). My uncle is a retired doctor, and a very jolly soul. My aunt is the most divine cook and loves to talk. They have four children, all of them grown up. The older is Bernardo, who is married to Rocio; then comes Liz married to ????; Jorge married to ????; and Carlos. Because Carlos is not married he lives with his parents, and will only leave when either he gets married, or when his job forces him to leave town. Maya was blown out of the water by this Mexican custom, since Carlos is 37 years old (she is chomping at the bit to go out to college shortly before she turns 19). Like all good Mexican families they all like to be together, and very often come to enjoy Mom’s fabulous cooking. They are the most kind and generous family you can imagine, and they received us with open arms.

We started with a badly needed shower, which Maya followed with a four hour nap. I used the post-shower time to catch up on family gossip, and to go downtown with my uncle to buy some books. On the way back we picked up Maya and went to visit the Museum of the Teaching Profession (a big to do because my Saltillo family includes some very prominent educators, one of whom is featured in the museum). It was kind of funny because the house where the museum is located was the house of an aunt of my uncle, so he kept expanding on the explanations given by our guide, telling her stories about the fountain, the chimney, or the banister of the grand staircase. We also went for a walk in the Alameda, the favorite Sunday walk of old residents of the city.

Back home we sat down to a fabulous meal of Arroz con Pollo and Albondigon, and immediately after left with Bernardo Jr. for a tour of both the old city (the Ojo de Agua where the city was founded, the mirador with a great view of the city, the cathedral, etc.), and the new city (an immense area to the north of downtown with many modern residential developments, malls, and commercial areas). I had no idea Saltillo had grown so much and was such a vibrant city. It has a very good climate (particularly when compared to Monterrey 75 km to the north), and has attracted lots of industry, so level of employment is good and its economy is thriving. At the end of the tour we picked up Rocio from her work, and went back to a yummy supper of taquitos and tamales.

Sadly all this good food made me think that as soon as the summer travel is over I need to put myself on a severe diet. Sigh.

Day 10. More of Guanajuato

We decided to be our own tour guides, and since our hotel was near theValenciana Mine we started by visiting this small mining community(the silver mines here have been active for more than 400 years, and 5years ago were bought by a Canadian company that believes there is alot more ore in them). First we had to visit the church, which is ajewel of 18th century architecture. The three retablos (the wallsbehind the altars) are covered in gold leaf, and survived the war ofindependence (1810-1821) and the revolutionary war (1910-1917) thanksto the fact that they were covered in coarse plaster, thus hiding themfrom the greed of the fighting factions.

We also visited a rock and mineral shop, where they had a beautifulspecimen of the host rock, criss-crossed by veinlets with ore.Unfortunately the shop owner was convinced that the shiny stuff wassilver, and he asked an astronomic price for the specimen. So mystudents do not get a sample from Guanajuato for the ore deposits lab;pobrecitos!

Next we went a hundred meters into the mine, guided by an old miner.He was fabulous! Full of old stories about his time as an apprentice,and how he slowly worked his way to master. We saw different models ofthe mining operations, mannequins demonstrating mining techniquesthrough the ages, and old pieces of equipment. Our miner had workedwith a couple of those pieces of equipment, so he could tell firsthand how hard it was to work with the percussion equipment, firing thedynamite, and even having to carry the bodies of comrades who hadperished in a misfire. Since we were interested and posing manyquestions he talked at length, and went out of his way to demonstratethe darkness in which he had worked, and the different types of ore.We spent well over an hour in the tour, and when we came out hisbuddies asked why he had taken twice as long as normal. What can Isay, we were wonderful company 

Afterward we took a ride along the panoramic roadway that runs alongthe outer edge of the city, twisting around the deep gorges, andgiving breathtaking scenic looks of the city when crossing the ridges.

Our final destination was the gardens of the Hotel Mision Guanajuato(actually, the hotel leases the land from the state Direccion deIntegracion Familiar—DIF—so the gardens are truly the DIF gardens, butnobody would recognize them by that name). They cover about 4 acresand are simply fabulous! Maybe not as luscious as the Jardin Borda inCuernavaca, but deigned with exquisite taste, and lovingly tended by asmall army of gardeners. Don’t miss them if you ever go to Guanajuato.

We had dinner in the hotel, and it was a special occasion becauseafter the good meal it came time to say goodbye to our good friendsGeorgina and Raul. They were magnificent hosts, very congenialtraveling companions, and the sweetest couple you could imagine. Mayaand I commented that it was clear that after 34 years of marriage theyremained deeply in love, and their solicitude for each other hadpermeated the trip to that point. They had also grown quite fond ofMaya, whom they introduced as their niece, and in parting invited herto come visit anytime. We will certainly miss them, and to make thegoodbye more palatable have made a plan to go biking together alongthe Camino de Santiago, in Spain, in the last two weeks of March.Looking forward to that trip!

Maya and I used the afternoon to visit the Alhondiga de Granaditas(museum closed), the Mercado Hidalgo, the Museum of Don Quijote, andthe Presa de la Olla. We walked, and walked, and walked, but by 8:45pm we were in the bus station, ready to board the bus that will takeus to our next stop: Saltillo.

Day 9. La Tzararacua y Guanajuato

We figured that the best part of the morning would be taken with thetrip from Uruapan to Guanajuato, but eager to extract the most of thetrip decided to make a short detour to visit the waterfall of LaTazararacua, about 10 km south of Uruapan. It turns out that this partof Michoacan has very steep topography, and the Tzararacua is at thebottom of a very, very deep canyon, so of course there were many, manysteps to get down.

Once we got down, however, we were thunderstruck by the beauty of theplace. The Rio Cupatitizio forms the bulk of the waterfall in terms ofdischarge (and it has been raining a lot lately), but what is reallyunique is that the cliff has “exposed” the water table near thecontact of two lava flows, so the whole water is springing along thewhole wall, creating a curtain of falling water. (I have seen the samephenomenon only once before, at the Burney-MacArthur Falls in NorthernCalifornia).

La Chiva Loca (aka as Mayita) decided to jump on a zip line thatrushes down the roiling waters. If her mother could see where herdaughter has been not only would she not be able to sleep at night,but she would also stop talking to me! Maya’s lead was followed byRaul, who was beaming with excitement after the swift ride. Alas,Georgina and I thought that they were nuts and remained with our feetplanted firmly on the ground.

The ride to Guanajuato was swift, along excellent toll roads, exceptfor the crossing through Morelia, which had a lot of traffic. We gotto Guanajuato sometime around 4 pm, so after dropping our things atthe hotel made a beeline for downtown, where we had a delicious dinnerunder the shade of the trees of the Parque Union. Later we took astroll around the callejones (very narrow footpaths in between housesand buildings that seemed to have been tossed helter skelter on thesteep slopes of the canyon where Guanajuato was built) to see theCathedral and the University.

Guanajuato was one of the earliest silver mining districts developedby the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, so it retains a very strongSpanish flavor. I believe it is my favorite Mexican city, full ofcreepy legends and romantic traditions. One of these traditions wasestablished by students in the seventeenth century. A Tuna, or studentmusic group, would go singing to the streets to earn a little moneysinging in plazas, or they would bring serenades to the girlfriends offellow students for a few coins. From there to flirting with everypretty girl in town was but a step, and now they adorn their 17thcentury garb with capes with ribbons of many colors, each given by agirl who showed some favor to the young man.

Naturally we wanted Maya to see this old tradition, so we joined aTuna as it ambled through the city, “callejoneando” until quite lateat night. They did a good deal of songs, and Georgina and Raul joinedin every one of them. Wow, they seem to know all songs ever written!It was a very romantic stroll through the town!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 8. Paricutín

The streets of Uruapan were barely waking up and we were already on our way to San Juan Nuevo, where reportedly you can find the best traditional breakfast of corundas (a type of round tamal wrapped in green corn leaves) and churipo (a beef broth with big chunks of beef and cabbage). Yes, all we had heard was true. You can order corundas preparadas, like Maya did, which come 5 to a plate and are served with crema y queso. Or you can order churipo, like I did, and then dunk your corundas in the broth. Add a café de olla to the mix, and you have indeed a delicious breakfast.

And we needed a nutritious breakfast, because come hell or high water we were intent on reaching Paricutín. For those of you who haven’t heard, Paricutín is the only volcano that we have seen being born. It started as a crack in the ground of the corn field of Dionisio Pulido, sometime in 1944. Mr. Pulido heard rumbling noises coming out of the crack, and a few hours later a dark cloud of scoria and steam started issuing out of the fissure. He promptly notified the municipal authorities about the phenomenon, and a couple of days later geologist Ezequiel Ordoňez arrived onsite, and started documenting the growth of the new volcano. The volcano grew up to its final height of 300 meters in a few months, but volcanic activity continued for another three years in the form of parasitic cones and lava flows. One of them finally reached the town of San Juan Parangaricutiro, surrounded it, and finally destroyed it in 1947.

Of course, Raul and I had to see this geologic wonder, and we had been told that from San Juan Nuevo (now you understand why we have a town called new San Juan) one could probably rent horses or hire a truck to take us there. Ah, but they had not taken into account that we were traveling in a Jeep SUV, so Raul asked for directions and there we went!

The road was from passable to miserable, but our brave steed never faltered, and after an hour of feeling we had been caught in a clothes washer we arrived to the mal pais formed by the lava flow. We turned a bend and there they were, Paricutín in the distance, and the tower ofthe church of San Juan Parangaricutiro as the only indication of the former location of the town. It was very sobering to climb over the jagged rocks of the lava flow into the remnants of the church. Significantly for the locals, the lava never touched the altar’s backwall, so there are still many offerings of flowers and prayers on it.

As we were coming back from the engulfed church, we fell in conversation with one of the locals, who assured us we could get to the foot of the volcano itself by going back and taking a different road. So we did, and the new road proved to be sometimes miserable, sometimes nearly impassable. Still, we finally got close to the foot of the volcano, and without vacillation we started the climb. I was quite surprised to see a lot of fumaroles. The volcano was now over 65years old, and I would have thought that infiltrating rainfall would by now have cooled the rocks completely. Comes to show that rocks are very poor heat conductors.

Maya, who is a "chiva loca", headed straight up to the zone of the fumaroles. If her mother knew of the cliffs that girl climbed she would not be able to sleep for worry! So of course I had to go after her, while Georgina and Raul took the more sensible way around. We kept going past the fumaroles field, straight up the volcano. The slope must had been a good 60 degrees, steep as steep can be, and covered by jagged bombs the size of baseballs to basketballs. The rock fragments were very loose, so for every three steps we took we went back one (Georgina later told us that in the route they took they went back one step for every one they took).

We finally made it to the top, and the view was glorious! The crater is elongated, deep, and has very steep walls. Add to that the fumaroles and the unreal swirling of clouds around us, and you could well imagine you were looking into the maul of Hell. This time we were very lucky, and when we did the circuit around the crater we had clear views of the lava fields surrounding us. Way, way far out there we could see the tower engulfed by the lava.

Georgina and Raul caught up with us as we ended out circuit of the crater, and we all stood there speechless, but happy to have accomplished such an adventure. Georgina swears that she will never do such a crazy climb again, but I am beginning to convince her that next time we have to climb the Pico de Orizaba!

One last, sad, note, about Paricutín. Dionisio Pulido, the owner of the corn field where Paricutín grew became very famous, as his name appears in almost every Introductory Geology book. However, fame does not bring bread to the table, and the poor man spent years asking the government for compensation for his lost field. Alas, the growth of the volcano was considered an Act of God, and the government refused to compensate him. Finally, after a frustrating ten years Dionisio Pulido decided to put the volcano for sale, and placed announcements to that effect in El Excelsior, one of the daily newspapers of Mexico City. As far as I know nobody took the offer (pity, I would have certainly jumped at the chance of having my own volcano :)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day 7. Janitzio

Like brave little tourists we woke up early, had a breakfast of café con leche and pan dulce, and went for a walk through Morelia’s downtown. An area of 10 blocks around the cathedral has been declared a World Heritage site, and indeed every street is full of colonial charm. Now and then we got a glimpse of a private residence, stark on the outside, but having an inner core of gardens and flowers. We visited the School of Music (very nice), and the old convent of the Carmelites, which has been renovated and now functions as a Community Center. The structure is enormous and very beautiful, but the best part was to see so many people involved in aerobics, guitar lessons, salsa lessons, tai chi, choirs, etc. It is indeed a space devoted to culture and recreation.

Back in the car we headed for the Lago de Patzcuaro, a lake renowned for its celebration of the Dia de Los Muertos. As we approached, from the distance you could see a steep hill covered with houses, like a small Mont St. Michel. It was the island of Janitzio, which sits in the middle of the lake. We promptly decided to go there, took seats in a long boat that was ready to depart, and . . . and right behind us a band got unto the somewhat crowded boat. No sooner had we cast off than the band started to play, and soon the boat was a floating dancing party.

We approached the island and out came to greet us a small flotilla of fishermen, in their traditional boats, which at the distance seem to have ethereal wings. The wings are the nets, which are fitted to a big hoop. The fisherman skims this hoop through the water, and the whitefish, who likes to swim very shallow, gets scooped out of the water. Pretty clever.

Once we landed we came into a market scene, with each house having handcrafts for sale. We were also facing a long climb to the top, through meandering narrow “streets” full of stairs. Huff and puff, huff and puff, we finally made it to the top to enjoy the magnificent view of the lake and the emerald fields surrounding it. This is volcanic terrain, so dotting the landscape were the profiles of volcanoes, great and small, randomly spread across the land. Maya andRaul had the energy to climb the 70 steps inside the giant statue of Morelos that crowns the island, while Georgina and I enjoyed ourselves watching the Viejitos execute many of their crazy dances. The Viejitos are dancers who are dressed like old men, and normally start each dance stressing the tottering walk of old men, just to gain energy and speed as they dance, clacking their wood-soled huaraches to create their own version of tap dancing. I was sorry Maya had not seen the dance, but after they got down we had the good fortune that another group of Viejitos started their own performance. It was particularly cute because the oldest Viejito must had been no more than 5 years old.

We ate in Janitizio, in a restaurant overlooking the lake. Naturally Raul and I had to taste the local moonshine, called charanda. It is a type of rum, very pleasant to the taste. I had the local fish, Maya had chicken, Georgina had enchiladas, and Raul had carne asada. It was pretty good!

Back across the lake, we drove through the small town of Patzcuaro (very quaint), and by 7 pm we were arriving into Uruapan, which will be our center of operations for the next couple of days. Uruapan is not particular as a town, but is the port of entry to many natural beauties.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day 6. Nevado de Toluca

We left the house at the wee hours of the morning, intent on missing the morning traffic of Mexico City. It worked like a charm, and by 7:30 am we were crossing Toluca, headed for the volcano that towers over the city. This is the most accessible of the chain of active volcanoes that crosses Mexico from east to west: Colima in the west, then Nevado de Toluca (or Xinantecatl), Popocatepetl, La Malinche, and Pico de Orizaba (or Citlaltepetel) in the east. We stopped around 8:30 in a little restaurant at the foot of the volcano to have breakfast (and to see Mexico score three goals in the first half of the World Cup of Womens Soccer), and then started the drive up the mountain.

When we got to the 4,000 m elevation (about 12,000 ft), we found the road closed. The guard explained that access to the crater lakes had been barred two years ago, because of the litter problem caused by the visitors. The option was to walk the last 6 km down the road, or to take the 2 km shortcut over the rim. Naturally, we chose the shortcut, and 45 minutes later were standing on the rim, panting because of the exertion at high altitudes.

At our feet extended the broad depression of the caldera, or somma, formed 40,000 years ago when the volcano had its last big eruption. The jagged edge of the peaks that form the rim look, from the distance, like the crest of a crown, in the middle of which seat, like jewels, two lagoons. One is of the deepest blue, whereas the other appears to be made of turquoise. It is a good thing I have seen this landscape before, because I was able to describe it great detail to Georgina and Raul, who, alas, couldn’t see a thing because the fog was so thick you could barely see 10 feet ahead of you (see the description of Aso Caldera, in my Japan blog, for a similar event). Well, Maya insisted we had to go down, because she was not going to come all this way and not see the lagoons, so down we went (Georgina and Raul, clever people they are, decided that this was far enough for them and they would go back to the car). It was a precipitous way down, but all of a sudden the ground leveled off and we almost fell in the water of the Lagoon of the Moon. Well, we walked around a bit, took pictures of the fog, and then started on our way back.

Ah, what cruel blow faith had in store for us, because for once my legendary sense of direction failed (I blame the fog), and after scrambling up the hill for some time we came abruptly to a road. A road? We had crossed no stinking road on the way back. I promptly figured out that this was the road that had been barred, so all we had to do was follow it and it would take us back to the car. Left or right? Oh, I was pretty sure it was to the right, so Maya and I took off at a good clip, and half an hour later almost fell in the Lagoon of the Sun. Rats, I had done it again! In compensation the fog lifted briefly at that moment, and we had a nice view of the lagoon, which extended all around us!

So we went back on our tracks, and Maya set a killer pace, but 6 kms a lot of kilometers, so it took us a good hour and a half to get back. On the positive side, the fog lifted at this moment, and we had some magnificent views of the Valley of Toluca below. We were tired when we got back, and much to my surprise we found no Georgina nor Raul. I asked around and nobody remembered seeing them, so I started to worry, thinking that perhaps they had followed us into the crater and gotten lost. A gentleman there had a cell phone, so I tried calling Raul but got no answer. I was already in negotiations with the guard to see if he would take me in his truck to look for them when Raul called back! They had climbed for a second time to the rim to see if they could see us (no chance with the fog, really, but they were also worried because of our long absence). Ten minutes later we were reunited, and laughing at our misfortunes, drove down from Xinantecatl.

We then took a two or three hour ride through the Mexican countryside, heading west. It was so beautiful. This is the rainy season, so the fields are looking green and are being lovingly tended by farmers. Even the cacti and magueys were looking great. There are hundreds of small dams and lakes, all brimming with water. It will be a good year.

We got to Morelia sometime around 6 pm, and after a couple of false turns we finally made it to our hotel. After briefly freshening ourselves up, we went out to be tourists, following the old rule that tourism must hurt. Actually, it didn’t. We crossed through the Candy Market (Morelia is famous by the variety and tastiness of its candies), walked along beautiful colonial buildings, and finally came into the main square. We were wondering what to do next, when I spied a city tour bus. Perfect! We bought our tickets, and for the next 90 minutes enjoyed a guided tour full of stories and lovely sights. While on the tour it got dark, and we were able to admire the beautiful illumination of temples and colonial palaces around the city. They have truly done a good job highlighting the beauty of its colonial architecture.

We ended the very long day with hot chocolate/coffee and “pastel de tres leches” under the arches of the main plaza. Maya thought the young waiter was cute, and made goo-goo eyes to him, upon which the quality of service got erratic but the coffee got much better. =)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mexico - Day 5. Chapultepec

We caught a ride with Raul, who had to go to the west part of the city, and landed at the Museum of Anthropology by 9:30 am. Maya was feeling much better, and was no doubt happy we had not taken the metro.

The Museum (yes, with a capital M) is one of the best in the world, and in its first floor houses the most amazing collection of Mesoamerican artifacts, beautifully displayed in thematic halls. In addition, there are detailed models of all famous sites, and full-size replicas of some pyramid decorations, burials and tombs, and inside chambers selected for their exquisite decorations. Maya went nuts taking pictures “for Uri”, but I am not sure what the intention was here. I believe it is because Uri, who is studying archaeology, is sure to turn green with envy. She also played a game of hide and seek with two younger girls, who broke into giggles every time they talked to her.

After we finished browsing through the first floor we had lunch, and thus fortified, we climbed the steps to the second floor, where the vast ethnographic collection of the museum is on display. This collection documents the mores, costumes, work, festivals, and handcrafts of modern Mexican Indian tribes. It is a wonderful reminder of the rich cultural traditions of the native people of Mexico, even though it becomes clear that their numbers are dwindling and their lifestyles are being diluted by modern culture.

After we finished I had to stop at the museum shop, where I found the perfect missing piece for my collection: A vessel with lid in the thin-orange tradition of Teotihuacan. So I bought it and now will have to be carting it around for the rest of the trip (as my mother would put it, “ahora tengo que andar cuidando la loza”.

Since we still had some time, we crossed Reforma and took a walk around “El Lago”. I told Maya that I used to play hookie here when I was in middle school. We then turned into the main touristic pedestrian path and walked all the way to the zoo. Of course we had to visit the zoo!

The zoo is very well maintained by the city, is free, and is a great place to look at both animals and people having fun. Maya had a field day taking photographs of all the animals, elbowing her way to the front of the line. She made a friend with a little girl who pinched her gently in the leg, and then turned to give her a big smile. This young woman sure is a magnet for little girls!

Just as we were getting out of the zoo Raul called to see if he could pick us up on his way from work, so we also had a very comfy ride back home. When we got home we were starved, so it was a good thing that Georgina had dinner ready. She made a very yummy chicken soup with veggies, and “pollo en pipian” (chicken in a green mole sauce). Muy sabroso!

Tomorrow we start on a tour that will take us to Morelia, Uruapan, Guanajuato, and Aguascalientes, so I am not sure I will be able to keep up with daily entries. Not to worry, sooner or later I will get access to the internet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mexico - Day 4. La ciudad de los palacios

Today Maya and I are on our own. Raul dropped us off at the metro station, and 20 minutes later we were in the zocalo (Central Square). Unfortunately there was a picket of some type or another, with many tents, so we couldn’t truly appreciate the vastness of the space, nor the mosaic it makes with the Cathedral on one side, and the Palace of Federal Government on another. We walked to the corner of the plaza where the remains of the Templo Mayor of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was located. Unfortunately the museum was closed.

We then went into the Cathedral, built between 1570 and 1750. It is an enormous building, but to my taste it is too cold and gloomy. We did have a bit of fun taking the bell tower tour, because they take you tothe roof of the main nave, and from there the bell man jabbers away about the age and weight of every one of the bells. One of them, a counterweight bell that is played by making it turn on its axis, hit one of the bellmen sometime in the 1950’s, so the church punished it by taking off its pendulum. However, 2000 was a year of indulgence, when all sins are forgiven, so the bell was pardoned and now flies with all its buddies in major celebrations, such as Christmas and the Day of Independence.

From there we walked down Tacuba, admiring the different colonial palaces. They are now known by their current use, but in the past they were the houses of Spanish noblemen. We saw the Palace of the School of Mines, the Department of Communications, the Central Post, and thePalacio de los Azulejos (so named because of the blue tile that gracefully adorns both interior and exterior). Buildings like these gave Mexico its name of the City of Palaces (la Ciudad de los Palacios).

Then we walked past the Palace of Fine Arts, built in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, and cut across Central Park (La Alameda) before heading back to the metro.

The close quarters of the metro freaked Mayita out, and she started to feel not so well. Actually, I suspect that she had had a bit of an upset stomach since the morning, and the heat and the crush just brought it to a head. She was a trooper, though, and did her best to enjoy the ride in trajinera through the canals of Xochimilco.

Let me backtrack a little. When Cortez arrived in Mexico Tenochtitlan, he found a magnificent city on an isle at the edge of a large lake. The city was connected to the mainland through causeways, and a myriad of flat-bottom boats (piraguas) plied the water of the lake moving people and goods back and forth between the city and the main land. Much of the food supply of the city was grown in floating rafts covered with dirt. Well, Xochimilco is what is left of those rafts of floating agriculture (chinampas), and over the years has become a favorite weekend treat to go board a decorated flat-bottom boat (a trajinera), meander through the canals, buy food from floating kitchens mounted on piraguas, and listen to the music of bands of mariachis or marimbas also afloat. It is a veritable Venice of the New World.

They were filming an episode of the soap opera “La Loba”, so we got to see actors all dressed up for a wedding, camera crews, and a few extra bands and “tourists”, all afloat their respective trajineras. Fun.

From Xochimilco we went straight to the house, and Maya made a beeline for her room, and fell asleep for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I hope a mild fast, lots of sleep, and her youthful resilience will conquer by tomorrow.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mexico - Day 3. Teotihuacan and Coyoacan

Today is Sunday, so we decided to do a long outing to Teotihuacan, the Place Where the Gods Were Born. Before I tell you about this giant city of antiquity, let me set a chronologic framework for the cultural development of ancient Mexico:

1500 to 500 BC – The Formative. Small independent communities.
500 BC to 200 AD – The Preclassic. The Olmecs.
200-750 AD – The Classic. Teotihuacan in the Altiplano. The Classic Mayas in Guatemala, Honduras, and Chiapas.
750-1250 AD – The Postclassic. Caltonac and Tula in the Altiplano. The Postclassic Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula.
1250-1521 AD – The Aztec.
1521-1810 AD – The Spanish Colony
1810-1821 AD – The War of Independence
1868-1872 AD – Maximilian’s Empire
1910-1917 AD – The Revolutionary War

OK, so please note that the Aztecs are very late coming into the central Altiplano, and that by that time Teotihuacan had long been abandoned. Imagine the amazement of the Aztecs as they contemplated the giant pyramids, the empty causeways, and the abandoned palaces. This is why they thought that this is where the Gods had been born, and why they gave this abandoned city the name Teotihuacan. We don’t know what the original inhabitants of the city called themselves, but we do know that they built an enormous commercial empire that controlled the flow of merchandise from the Altiplano, down the Gulf Coast, and into the Mayan sites of Central America. We also do not know why they abruptly disappeared in 750 AD, leaving behind their city and dispersing to partner sites such as Caltonac and Tula.

You can probably tell that this is one of my favorite archaeologic sites, and I was quite eager to show it to Maya, Georgina, and Raul. We got there around 11 am, and made a bee line for the Pyramid of the Sun, reasoning that we might as well make the toughest climb while the day was still cool (actually, we had perfect cloudy weather throughout the day).

The Pyramid of the Sun is a good 100 m high and was built in stages, adding one layer after another over a period of 200 years. Like the pyramids of Egypt it is one of the earliest structures erected by the Teotihuacanos. Unfortunately we cannot be quite certain that its current aspect is the original one, because when it was reconstructed in the early 1900’s there was much guesswork on the part of the archaeologist. When we got to the top, huffing and puffing, we found a group of sun worshipers praying the sun under the direction of a native woman (we found another two groups doing the same in different portions of the site). It was interesting to hear the gibberish, imagining it was Nauhatl, but she broke the enchantment when she spoke of Chilaam Balaam (the Mayan word for the 7 heavens).

From there we walked north along the Causeway of the Dead, toward the Pyramid of the Moon (again, remember these are all names given by the Aztecs, and that we don’t know what the original inhabitants called these structures). There was enough people to make the Causeway interesting, as we imagined the original times when the Causeway itself, and the many bordering plazas and temples must have been teeming with people. The city grew over the years to almost 100,000 inhabitants, so it must have been a pretty lively place.

The Pyramid of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun, but is more impressive in that it stands at the end of the Causeway, and thus can be clearly seen for a distance of several kilometers. We had to climb it, of course, and from it had a fabulous view of the layout of the site.

To the side of the pyramid are some exquisite palaces, but the one of Quetzal Papalotl was closed for renovation. Still we got to see the underground chambers of the palace of the Sea Eagles, where some of the original wall murals are well preserved.

We now took the long walk south on the Causeway of the Dead, to reach the complex known as the Citadel. It is a good 4 km from the Pyramid of the Moon, but the time passed quickly joking and looking at the wares being offered for sale by ambulant merchants. I bet the same was true 1500 years ago!

The Citadel was built after the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, as a very large ceremonial square, surrounded by small platforms and temples. It does contain a small but beautiful pyramid, decorated with masks of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent) and Tlaloc (The God of Rain), but for some strange reason the front of it was covered with a late layer (which is probably why the masks have been so well preserved).

Tired, but not beaten, we made a last stop at the museum of the site, which has a fabulous model of the site. The model is “sunk” and covered with see-through plastic, so one can “hover” over the city to admire its incredible urbanism and extent. I paid a visit to the museum shop and bought a reproduction of a piece of ceramic I had been coveting for years, so I was very happy. Maya in turn bought a very nice mask.

We had a late lunch/early dinner in one of the many restaurants in the area, and managed to catch the extra times of the Spain-Holland game. It was great to see Spain score the winning goal! Let’s see, we had a sampler of tlacoyos and quesadillas, a molcajete of assorted meats, and a big serving of cecina (which proved to be a little bit too much for Maya). Oh, and I had two jarritos of pulque curado de guayaba! (Pulque is a fermented drink that the Aztecs were drinking when Cortez came to Mexico. It comes from the maguey—the Century plant. The central leaves of the maguey are cut out, to create a small bowl, in which the sweet sap of the cactus collects overnight. The following morning the “tlachiquero” comes and siphons out the sweet sap or aguamiel, and brings it to the farm house, where the aguamiel is put to ferment in big vats. You can drink it straight—definitely an acquired flavor—or you can put fruit to soak in it. In my case I had one where guava had been soaked into the vat, and it was quite yummy).

We went back to Mexico City, which was unusually empty and clean (we attributed it to the soccer game and the recent rains), and decided to cap the day with a stroll through Coyoacan.

This was a small town away from the city (but now is just a part of it), where the Spaniards established rest homes, and ever since it has retained a quaint colonial flavor. Aha, this is where all the people were! The place was packed, because coming to Coyoacan to have some ice cream, sip on a cup or chocolate, or just sit in the park is a favorite pastime of people who live in the south of the city. A very good end to a very good day!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mexico - Day 2. Cuernavaca

After a good night sleep and a lazy morning, Georgina, Raul, Maya, andI headed south of Mexico City, toward the city of Cuernavaca. To get there one first has to go over the volcanic range that forms the southern limit of the basin where Mexico City is. It is a beautiful mountain range, decked on pine trees and high mountain meadows, and the site of the small village of Tres Marias. Since time, immemorial travelers have stopped at this tiny town to eat delicious Mexican food, and we were not going to be the exception.

It was about noon, the sun was shining, and the café de olla was sweet and delicious. The specialty of the region are quesadillas filled with yummy things like wild mushrooms, papas con chorizo, the flower of the zucchini plant cooked in a tomato sauce, braised calf brains, huitlacoche (a black mushroom that grows on the corn ears), chicken, and, of course, cheese. Every bite brought me happy memories of the many outings I did with family and friends when I was young.

Immediately after we got out of Tres Marias we were surrounded by a heavy fog. This is common in this stretch of the road, which goes down the precipitous edge of the Mexican Altiplano to the south. It is a mountain front nearly a 1,000 m high, against which bank the clouds coming from the south. One can see places where lava flows spilled over the steep slopes, not unlike the pali of Kilauea in the big island of Hawaii. In the distance, one can see the remnants of a gigantic Pleistocene lahar (a debris flow), which ran at least 30 km into the plain below and now forms a series of steep mounds several hundreds of meters thick. (We actually saw this on the way back, when the fog had burned out).

At the bottom of the steep incline is the valley of Cuernavaca. This city has been a favorite rest place for people from the city since the time of the Spanish conquest. It lies at a much lower elevation than Mexico City, and accordingly has a much balmier weather. Flowers are to be found everywhere, and the whole city has a general feeling of bonhomie. We headed for the historic downtown, to dust off some more memories of my youth. For example, we went to the Jardin Borda, which is an enormous botanical garden right in the center of the city. It was probably the creation of a rich nobleman from colonial times, but it has been preserved over the centuries to the great delight of kids and lovers.

From there we went to visit the cathedral, which is a tasteful combination of very old and very new. From the outside it has all the hallmarks of a sixteenth century religious complex, built more like a fortress ready to stand siege than a church. However, the inside ofthe main church (there are four of them in the complex) was restored sometime during the last 20 years in a very sober modern style. Blood-red skylights give a solemn ambiance to the enormous nave, decorated only with the remain of frescoes that must have been added during the seventeenth century. Something about these frescoes seemed peculiar to me. They showed sailing vessels coming to a shore, and friars bringing banners and crosses to the new land, but none of the landscapes looked like Mexico. Then there was a scene with a good number of friars being crucified, and that reminded me of the Martyrs of Nagasaki, in Japan (see my blog of Japan for more details). Well, it turns out that it was exactly that event that was being represented, as I learned by laboriously deciphering the writing accompanying the scenes. Why was the Cuernavaca Cathedral commemorating this particular event is something I couldn’t figure out.

Our third stop in downtown was in the Palace that Cortez had built for himself, as Marques del Valle de Mexico, around the main plaza. It now houses a small museum that explains the pre-Hispanic history of the valley, and the main events of the colonial era and the events that led to the war of Independence. Incidentally, this year Mexico celebrates the 200th anniversary of the war of Independence, and the 100th anniversary of the revolutionary war.

On the way to the car we went through the main plaza, where a music group was loudly entertaining the crowd with music from northernMexico. Nice.

Our final visit was to the waterfall of the Salto de San Anton, a favorite destination of the family when I was a kid. A small stream, today engorged by the copious rain, hurls itself over a ledge formed by a lava flow. It drops a good 50 m, forming a nice waterfall. Unfortunately the small path that leads to the base of the waterfall was closed, reportedly because some of the columns of the columnar-jointed lava flow have fallen and destroyed the path. Too bad, because it was great to get behind the waterfall and look up into the gorge. Other attractions of the area are a nursery with the most amazing tropical flowers, and a restaurant where you can eat some very exotic dishes (but we played it safe by ordering food we could all recognize) —well, I had to have a sopa de medula for old times sake.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mexico - Day 1. The trip (July 9)

We actually started last night, at 8 pm, when Chico picked me up for the ride to the Sacramento airport. Maya was all excited, savoring the adventure to come. She was dressed very chic, with cargo pants,sandals, and a tee-shirt with the legend “I am BORED . . . with you”. We arrived in good time for our midnight flight from Sacramento to Houston, sat in Houston for four hours, and finally took the short commuter flight to Laredo. It was warm but overcast, the best conditions for crossing the border on foot.

I looked for the driver of the only taxi, who turned to be a middle age woman speaking in her cell phone who simply waved us in. She waved three other people in, and without breaking the cell phone conversation she jumped in and started driving out of the airport. We had just been delivered unto the hands of Nora Madrid, taxi driver extraordinaire!

Somewhere in between cell phone calls from old clients, calls to dispatch other drivers to pick fares, arranging the installation of a new air conditioner, and calls to several friends to borrow the money to pay for the AC, I managed to ask her to take us to downtown. She blissfully ignored me and started driving out of the city, as she text messaged at terrific speed “Don’t you worry, my friend, I will take you to Nuevo Laredo as soon as I drop off these other two people” she explained, in heavily accented English. I made the mistake ofanswering back in Spanish, and the floodgate of her pent up emotions poured as a torrent of stories about her 16 years as a cabbie in Laredo. We had plenty of time for conversation, because after she dropped off the two “trockeros” and the truck depot she explained she had to swing by her house to talk to the AC man, but not to worry, because she would take us to Nuevo Laredo immediately after that. “No,no”, I said, we only want to the border crossing on the US side. She looked at me seriously and asked (all this between cell phone conversations): “But you want to go to Mexico, right?”. “Yes, but we are crossing on foot”.

“Oh no, you cannot cross on foot, the pedestrian bridge is closed and you can only cross by car”. I told her I didn’t believe her, and she offered a bet of $2,000 that she was right (exactly what she needed to pay for the new air conditioner). I felt she was trying to take us fora ride (literally and figuratively), but she was so earnest that I finally gave in and agreed to the fare (under the threat of grievous bodily harm if I found out she was lying). So we took the car bridge and—Oh, my God! –saw that the Rio Grande had flooded its banks and was on the brink of flowing over the pedestrian bridge! So, dear Nora Madrid had been right all along, and I had to eat humble pie. If you ever need a wild ride through Laredo make sure to give her a call at(956) 645-5890.

OK, so now it is noon, and Nora has left us at the bus station. I walk confidently in—followed by a slightly shaken Mayita—and find out that there are no buses out of Nuevo Laredo! The Rio Salado had flooded, cutting off all roads out of the city. We were stranded!

I tried checking with other bus lines, and looking for private cars that could take us to Monclova or Monterrey, but got nothing, nada, zip. By this time we had made friends with the owner of a little tacoshop, who very kindly had sent his helpers to inquire from Pedro, and la Sra. Gonzales, and el Grupo Senda, and . . . the local travel agent. And it was from the latter that we got a small ray of hope: Why not fly? Why not indeed? Nuevo Laredo has a perfectly good airport, and for a goodly consideration he managed to get us two tickets in the7:30 pm Mexicana flight. Thank God for the Visa Platinum card! :)

Having arranged our escape from this besieged city, Maya and I went for a walk through downtown, got drenched by a summer downpour, and hot and sweaty, finally decided to take a taxi to the airport, where we sat for another four hours waiting for our flight. Fortunately I was able to connect to the local wireless network (I love my new netbook), alerted my friend Raul about the change in plans, and he was able to pick us up at the Mexico City airport. It was a long travelday, but we are finally here!