This Place I Call Home

Puebla is a beautiful city with an abundance of incredible culture, history, food, religion, arts and crafts. Many attractions deserve their own dedicated posts, which will come in due course as I get to know it better, but for now here are a few photos of my more immediate surroundings:

Mi casa
Mi casa

This is my house. Luckily for me, it’s the one on the right, but the comparison with our next door neighbours serves as a constant reminder of the enormous wealth disparity in Mexico. Behind the enormous black gates there is a small forecourt for three cars, and then the house, which is split into two halves. I live in one side with my host parents, and on the other live my host brother and abuelita (grandma). The security might look substantial, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to prevent our house from being burgled at the weekend. Despite being  a nice neighbourhood in one of Mexico’s more affluent cities, it’s not immune from the regrettable reality of crime here.

Mi calle
Mi calle

This is the view just down my road, and it’s a very typical Pueblan vista. Blue sky, check. Multicoloured buildings, check. A scattering of Beetles, check. The Volkswagen Beetle has become an icon of Puebla since VW opened a plant in 1965 on a 2-million-square-metre field in the Pueblan suburbs. The first Beetle rolled off the production line in 1967, and the plant made history in 1981 with its 20 millionth. A further 1.15 million units were made in Puebla between 1997 and 2010. Today the plant builds the coupé and cabriolet versions of the Beetle, the new Golf and the VW Jetta. The sight of so many Beetles, more old than new, give the city streets a distinctive rustic charm.

Popocatépetl and Itzaccíhuatl
Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl

Captured from just behind my house, this is the view of the volcanoes Popocatépetl (meaning Smoking Mountain in Nahuatl) on the left and Iztaccíhuatl (meaning White Woman) on the right. Popo is the second highest peak in Mexico (after Pico de Orizaba), and also Mexico’s most active volcano. Izta is the third highest, but is craterless and dormant. Due to Popo’s temperamental behaviour its summit has been off-limits for the last decade, so I am going to climb Izta in a couple of weeks instead. I love a big volcano!

The church of San José
The church of San José, a 10 minute walk from my house.

What do you get when you mix a Catholic calendar crammed with Saints’ Days and celebrations and the Mexican taste for all things bright and beautiful? A church façade adorned with giant, colourful foam décor and a bustling market brimming with rides and street food, of course! Almost every very week there’s a feria (fair) somewhere in the city, and last week the man of honour was none other than San José (Saint Joseph), Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and step-father of Jesus Christ – quite a biggie!

Reading up on Saint Joseph’s Day (which falls on or close to March the 19th), I learned that in Catholic tradition it’s a day of abstinence with the custom of meatless dishes. With an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world I’m sure this may well be the case for any number of them, but in Mexico abstinence isn’t a word that I’ve heard crop up too often: where the theme ‘more is more’ seems apparent in their approach to pretty much everything, why would a religious festival be any different?!  Enter embellishment in excess:

The grand entrance!
The grand entrance!

This huge decoration is typical of Mexico’s vibrant colours and patterns; it really embodies the lively, joyful spirit of festivities here.

Regardless of the ‘meatless’ custom (wherever that may or may not be), chalupas are the dish of choice for most street party attendees.

Tasty chalupas.
Tasty chalupas.

Chalupas are a Pueblan speciality, and when the Poblanos want to eat on the street, it’s most likely to be these greasy little treats they’re looking for. Made from little discs of masa dough, they are fried and topped with either red or green salsa, shredded chicken or pork, and onion. You ask for however many you want and they’re piled high in a big sloppy mess – and served with no cutlery, which just adds to the fun. A  delicious dinner for about 50p, you can’t really grumble at that.

So that’s a little insight into my life here in the heart of Mexico. With plenty to see, to do and to taste there’s never a dull moment: it’s a crazy place and they pride themselves on exactly that. It’s everything I dreamed of, feared, and so much more – and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Mexican Madness

While France was celebrating Mardi Gras and England had its Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday in Puebla was all about the carnival of the huehues. In a number of neighbourhoods in the city, residents dance in the streets from dawn until dusk and right through to dawn again, dressed in elaborate costumes supposed to be like traditional Spanish attire. They wear huge feathered hats and white masks, supposedly making a mockery of the Spanish, and imitate their courtly dancing. I’m afraid I can’t say anything else about it because the only sources of information I could find were in Spanish, but the Mexicans themselves couldn’t tell me anything either, for them today it’s just another excuse for a good old knees-up!

The church in the neighbourhood of San Jerónimo, Puebla
The church in San Jerónimo, Puebla

I went with a couple of friends to the neighbourhood of San Jerónimo, where one of the carnivals is held.

Wonderful huehues! (pronounced way-ways)
Wonderful huehues! (pronounced way-ways)

By the time we arrived at 6pm, the participants of the procession were pretty tipsy, and shrieking, howling, and cackling from behind their masks. I was dragged into the procession to dance with them and the stench of their alcoholic breath escaping through the mouth holes was less than pleasant!

Hotcake!
Hotcake!

Because of the hot climate, it is in the cooler evenings that the streets really come alive with food vendors, clowns, music and mayhem. Having missed out on Pancake Day at home, I was more than happy to try the Mexican equivalent, hotcakes. They’re more like American pancakes and, like everything Mexican, huge! They can be topped with all kind of sweet treats, from jams and fresh fruit, to chocolate spread and Coco Pops! I opted for cajeta (a kind of caramel similar to dulce de leche) and strawberries, and got a generous splash of chocolate sauce on top at no extra request, ¡órale!

Paddy Juárez

“Why do the Mexicans have a public holiday for St Patrick’s Day?” I thought. Obviously, they don’t. Today’s bank holiday is actually to celebrate the birthday of Mexican hero Benito Juárez which is on the 21st of March, but the Mexicans, loving to party as they do (not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but the Mexicans do love to party), move the ‘bridge’ to make it a long weekend. It’s no surprise that people generally behave more patriotically towards their home nation when they’re away from home, but I couldn’t tell you when St. George’s Day is, or anyone English who celebrates it abroad. St. Patrick’s Day, however, is celebrated all over the world: perhaps because of the incredibly high emigration rate, but perhaps just as much because people love paddies and paddies love to get pissed, so  St. Patrick’s Day has become an ode to good times and Guinness.

Despite being in many ways about as English as they come, I have long considered Ireland as my spiritual home. Like about 70% of the English population (or so it would seem) I am half Irish, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in County Cork in the last twenty five years – the entirety of my lifetime. There’s a majestic beauty in the sweeping landscape of Cork and Kerry, and it just feels like everything I love about Ireland is soaked deep into the mountains.

Local tradition states that St. Finbarr walked from the Top of the Rock in Drimoleague to Gougane Barra in the 6th century, and people have continued to follow this pilgrim path ever since. As well as the spiritual aspect of this ancient route, it boasts spectacular views over Bantry Bay and the West Cork coastline. It offers an immense sense of restfulness, and whatever your religion or nationality,  and wherever you are, I strongly believe that spending a little time every now and again in simple contemplation works wonders for the soul. Living far away from home in a completely different culture gives a great opportunity to reflect on life from a new perspective: on our customs, thoughts, values and actions, by looking from the outside in and all around. This is what anthropologists like to call ‘reflexivity’.

I would like to share my favourite poem that helps me to feel at peace with the present, something that I have found the Mexicans to place great emphasis on. It is short and powerful, and I never tire of reading it, often over and over again in one sitting.

St Finbarr’s Hermitage – Gougane Barra

The peace of God enfolds it

And he who tarries there

Shall find a heaven for his eyes,

And in his heart, a prayer.

But he who hurries onwards

May search the world in vain

And never find before he dies,

Such peace on earth again.

After reading it I close my eyes, visualise what peace feels and looks like, and simply breathe. I’m not religious, and for me it’s not the peace of God that I feel but the beauty of life and the natural world. Sometimes it comes more easily than others. Living in Mexico brings frequent waves of joy; it’s an incredible experience and I have so much to be grateful for. So for today I’ll be swapping salud for sláinte in a toast to St. Finbarr, and enjoying this moment of absolute contentment.

Muchacha Borracha

Today I am celebrating my two months in Mexico with an appropriately stonking mezcal-induced hangover. Mezcal? Yes, mezcal – tequila is so passé! And I can confirm that with an average of 50% alcohol content, it really does what it says on the tin.

Despite tequila’s continued international synonymity with the Mexican fiesta, the hype within Mexico is all about mezcal right now. It’s been around for donkeys’ (more accurately, in production since the 1500s), but used to be considered a drink for the poor, working and rural classes. Only the last 15 years have seen it storm the Mexican booze market, with mezcalerías popping up here, there and everywhere. Even the British Mexican eatery chain Wahaca has opened one on Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia.

Both tequila and mezcal are made from the maguey plant native to Mexico, but tequila is only made from the blue agave, whereas mezcal can be made from a number of types of maguey. Mezcal is often referred to as tequila’s older, more mysterious forefather: all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal is also generally very smoky in flavour; mezcal’s agave hearts are cooked in conical pits in the ground for two to three days, whereas tequila’s are cooked in ovens above ground. Afterwards, they are both double distilled to achieve the high alcohol content.  Most mezcal comes from state of Oaxaca, while tequila is almost exclusively produced in Jalisco, where the blue agave thrives.

To dispel a common myth, only mezcal has a worm in the bottle, never tequila. And not even all mezcal has a worm in, in fact it’s the most expensive brands that don’t have it. I say worm as that’s what it’s often called, but it’s actually a larva from a moth that lives on the maguey plant. There is some discrepancy as to whether the larva adds flavour to the mezcal or is simply a marketing gimmick that coincided with the spread of mezcal consumption outside of Oaxaca. Either way, the larva has only been part of mezcal’s notoriety since 1950.

In case you’d be disappointed not to get the larva in your glass (the ‘prize’ for the reveller drinking the last serving of the bottle), don’t panic, there’s plenty of worm to go around! Mezcal is traditionally served neat, accompanied by orange slices and sal de gusano, a gritty powder made of ground fried larvae, ground chilli peppers and salt. Or if it’s all a bit much, just stick with tequila, but I don’t know why it’s served with lemon and salt in the UK as it’s always with lime and salt here (like pretty much anything else you can eat or drink). In fact, despite the abundance of fruit, I haven’t seen a single lemon during my time in Mexico.

Last night I had the pleasure of visiting Mezcalería Coyoacán in Puebla. Something like a Mexican barn dance, the atmosphere was lively with Puebla’s young hipsters showcasing their latest moves, mostly taking inspiration from Cotton-Eyed Joe.  Mezcal is supposed to be sipped and savoured slowly, but I find it rather like a removing a plaster, preferring to take the ‘get it over quickly’ approach. I wanted to last the evening, however, so I turned to the extensive menu of mezcal shots and cocktails. I found the Crema Innata shot (mezcal and coconut milk) and pretty much all of the cocktails (yes, we sampled most of the list) far easier on the palate. I can’t remember the name of it (reading had become un poco dificíl by this point), but the cocktail with mezcal, Jamaica (a juice made with hibiscus flower) and a lime ice cream float was a personal favourite.

Of course, in Mexico there’s no moment without food, and the smoky flavour of mezcal lends itself perfectly to the tasty marinade for the chicken wings served with our drinks. And because the larva and sal de gusano just aren’t enough to satiate the ravenous appetite for insects, mezcal is also traditionally served with chapulines, grasshoppers toasted with chilli, lime and salt (surprise, surprise!). These are especially nutritious and delicious smothered in guacamole and rolled up in tortilla.

There is a saying here: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también,” meaning for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good as well. Good news for the mezcal producers of Oaxaca, and totally fitting with the Mexican philosophy of life, there’s more reason than ever to drink and to party, ¡salud, amigos!