All posts by Ellie Cusack

The Best Worst Weekend Ever

I chose to move to Mexico rather than go travelling because I wanted to experience a country intimately; I really wanted to know its people, explore its places, and discover its secrets. And so nothing gives me greater pleasure than the opportunity to head a little off the beaten track and go somewhere that’s not in the guide books. Being a girl from a small English seaside town, I’ve had difficulty adapting to life in a big inland city, and I jump at the chance for a trip into the wilds – bikini and hot springs sounded perfect. As the saying goes: be careful what you wish for. I wanted an adventure in the wilds and I sure got one.

I had heard of Tolantongo and seen some photos from people who had been. “You have to go,” people told me, “it’s incredible,” they said. “You might want to take a raincoat,” however, they did not.

The state of Hidalgo lies in central eastern Mexico and boasts strikingly rugged terrain. It touches on the south of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and is home to five major canyons, one of which is called Tolantongo. Located in the Mezquital Valley, the resort of Tolantongo (and the river – you guessed it – also called Tolantongo) is 17km from the town of Ixmiquilpan. The approach is breathtaking: a number of transport changes are required with the mode of wheels becoming smaller each time. The resort is fairly remote – just as it should be when you’re on the hunt for a really good adventure/nightmare.

We arrived at the site to be wowed by the picture perfect vista. There are a number of pools staggered down the cliff face, with the most wonderful sight of the canyon with its walls up to 500 metres high. The water comes directly from within the mountains, making it lovely and warm. However, there is one rule and guards to enforce it: no alimentos – no food or drink. Well this poses something of a problem for group of eighty twenty-somethings: first of all, it’s a rule, which generally doesn’t go down too well in Mexico. Secondly, if there is one rule, it’s that you just don’t relax in Mexico without a chela – a cold beer – in hand. So after a little while we moved off from the pools down to the river on the canyon floor – with chelas aplenty. The river was beautifully warm too, and by wedging yourself up against a big rock you could have yourself a cracking homemade jacuzzi. So far, so good.

After some delicious Mexican grub (chilaquiles, alambre, quesadillas) we moved off again to explore the area of the canyon called La Gloria. Here there were a series of grutas (caves) and cascadas (waterfalls) to explore. The water inside the caves is hot, but the water plunging from the waterfalls is cold, which make for a really fun dash-and-stop course of proceedings. As you venture deeper into the caves they become harder to navigate, and in the final ones you are in pitch black (apart from a couple of guides flashing torches), scrambling along in single file clinging on to a rope attached to the inner wall, sometimes heaving yourself up to climb over an obstacle and at others letting go to slide down a smooth rock, plummeting down to where your feet can find the bottom again. It was SO MUCH FUN. Unfortunately, due to not having a waterproof camera and hands being otherwise occupied I don’t have any photos of the caves, but it was like the best imaginable kind of free and natural water park.

After more delicious Mexican grub (and a couple more chelas) it was time to move on to the place where we were to camp overnight, a “fifteen minute bus ride away”. Fifteen minutes turned into an hour and a half, and as we arrived at a little shack in the middle of the Mexican highlands, we were informed that a bridge had been closed and we’d been diverted on an elaborate detour. It was about 9pm at this point. Here we were to wait for local pick-up trucks driven by classic Mexican rancheros to take us down to the river-side camp. Ok, no biggie. We’re in Mexico, so we knocked back some tequila-laced coffee while we waited, naturally. After a couple of hours the pick-up trucks began to arrive and people piled on with all their stuff. Then they stopped coming, no more pick-up trucks. I was not on a pick-up truck. Ok, potentially a biggie. The round trip down to the campsite and back again was about an hour and a half, so we were advised that we may as well start walking and set off into the black of night.

Of course, I take the luck of the Irish with me wherever I go, and the moment we started walking coincided perfectly with the moment it started to rain. This might not seem so extraordinary, but let me just say that hiking and wet weather were never, to my knowledge, on the agenda. I was not the only person who found myself laughably ill-equipped, and of course I felt slightly better that there were a number of people even worse prepared than I was, slipping and sliding around in their sandals whilst juggling their bags, desperate to stay upright as we wove our way down the mountainside. “What wild animals hang out in the Mexican highlands?” I wondered, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person thinking it.

Eventually, the camp appeared in sight. Marching down a dark and treacherous path toward a few twinkling lights in the distance, I felt like Bilbo Baggins, only it wasn’t some odious mythical creature we were in pursuit of but a cluster of tents amidst a raucous pool party. The fifteen minute bus ride had turned into a five hour ordeal, but by 2am we had made it, and nobody was more ready for the pachanga than we were. I will spare you the details of the party, but when I went to bed at 8.30am the music was still playing and a few jolly revellers remained in the pool. A good party, some might say. The rain had continued all night, so what had been a damp site when we arrived was now a mud pool. Absolutely everything in the tent was completely soaked through, so the best option was to go straight for breakfast and nurse our impending hangovers with huevos rancheros, pan dulce and steaming cafecito. No dry towel, no dry clothes, just sitting out in the elements getting colder and wetter. Well if you can’t get dry and warm, you may as well stay wet and warm, so we headed back into a hot pool where we able to shelter from the rain in a toasty cave for the rest of the day until it was time to return home.

Ah, the return home. If the buses couldn’t get to down to the site in the rain, how were we going to get back up now that the whole place was flooded? Staying by the side of the river on the canyon floor may have seemed like a good idea at some point, but when the tail end of Tropical Storm Trudy hits and there’s a lot of water gushing down the mountain, at the bottom is not really where you want to be. Like poor little spiders washed down the plughole, there was no way we could get back up again. Now I’m not normally one to advocate Mexico’s culture of corruption, but there may be instances when, given no other option, a little bribe can work in your favour. This was one of those instances, so we paid our way to cross a forbidden area over the river (by this point I had ditched my shoes) and a short walk away we were able to get on a minibus to take us up another way to a bus collection point.

Unfortunately, there was no camp fire nor 10am yoga (as the itinerary had suggested), but a tropical storm and a midnight tour of the highlands of Hidalgo thrown in for free. I couldn’t help but laugh as I plucked my suncream out of my smelly sodden bag. It should have been the worst weekend ever, but as worst weekends go it was a pretty good one. Everyone knows the best kind of adventures are spontaneous ones, and I can confirm there’s nothing that can’t be made more bearable by a good measure of tequila.

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Mexico’s Forgotten Poor

When we talk of ‘marginalised groups’ we are normally thinking of minorities: those vulnerable groups in society who are outnumbered and without the necessary means to represent their interests. It’s easy to wonder how a group made up of millions of people could be marginalised – surely they could, would and should group together against the powerful few to make their voices heard? I couldn’t understand how such crippling poverty could exist alongside dramatic economic progress, until I came to Mexico and saw the jaw-dropping inequality for myself.

Real poverty

What is easy to overlook is how tragically debilitating living in extreme poverty is. In the UK, we measure poverty in numbers: so many per cent living below a poverty line, such a number educated and so many unemployed. But we don’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t understand it. When people live in real poverty (where they can’t afford to dress themselves, feed themselves, or shelter themselves adequately) they are living precariously from one day to the next. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from, how (and if) they will get their children to school, or where they might be living from one week to another. The ability and desire to plan meetings, strategies and long term campaigns to represent their interests publicly and politically is beyond comprehension. Survival itself is a full time occupation. The pressures of poverty in Mexico are closely linked to an intergenerational culture of violence, poor school attendance and ill health, with girls being likely to fare much worse. Mexico’s poor might be huge in number, but this by no means indicates the ability to mobilise themselves to defend their rights.

A middle class society

International headlines (carefully orchestrated by Mexico’s government and media outlets – which are practically the same thing) frequently rave about the rapidly growing middle class. It is generally believed that the larger a country’s middle class, the greater its potential for economic growth and, therefore, development. This may well be the case, but the middle class also tend to be very conservative in order to protect what they have. Wealth doesn’t necessarily redistribute itself – the government needs to introduce fiscal policy to encourage it. Mexico’s middle class don’t shop in the local markets but in Walmart; neither do they drink coffee on the street corner, but in Starbucks. Walmart and Starbucks do not employ Mexico’s poorest people, and even if they wanted to, the staff probably couldn’t afford the transport to work because the stores are located in the rich areas where the poor can’t afford to live or travel to (in December 2013 the fare for Mexico City’s Metro almost doubled from 3 to 5 pesos). In 2013 Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) calculated that the middle class constitutes 39.2% of the population, but the lower class still accounts for 59.1%.

Minimum wage

You’d think that all the “tremendous progress” of Mexico (OECD Better Life Index) would make a little leeway for the trickle down effect: thanks to the middle class spread everybody benefits and enjoys an improved standard of living. The reality, however, is quite the opposite: Mexico’s poor arguably shoulder the burden of the successful anti-inflation drive. The minimum wage currently stands at 66 pesos per day (although it varies slightly by region), approximately £3.00. Furthermore, 6.5 million workers (13% of the workforce) in Mexico currently earn this minimum wage, which is significantly lower than the poverty line. Not only is it low and lower than the poverty line, but in real terms it’s getting even lower: accounting for inflation, the minimum wage is estimated to have decreased by 43% in the last 23 years. Added to that, a government study conducted in July 2014 found that almost 60% of the workforce is actually in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and entirely without job security.

In August 2014 Mexico City’s Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera proposed an increase in the minimum wage to 82.86 pesos per day (approximately £3.80), stating that low wages are “at the heart of the country’s economic and social problems.” Yet President Peña Nieto, the central bank, businessmen and pro-government unions staunchly oppose it, supposedly in fear of drastic inflation. Read alternatively, they want to protect their own interests.

Social mobility

In its mad dash for development, Mexico has largely forgotten its poor. Social mobility is not only a product of the effort of individuals and families, but also opportunities. As De La Calle and Rubio explain in their recent book Mexico: A Middle Class Society, “Mexico has countless impediments and obstacles to social mobility.” It is the absence of equal opportunities that deny Mexico’s poor access to products and services and the ability to invest in the future. In other words, they live with very little stability and no security. What’s more, the government doesn’t just passively neglect the poor, but actively limits their opportunities. “The regulatory framework and incentives of the Mexican economy tend to create obstacles, skew opportunities in favour of very few, reduce competition, impede the development of new businesses, and limit individual potential,” they state. Mexico may be getting richer, but the poor aren’t seeing a slice of the pie. Rafael Ch, Director of Economic Development at Cidac in Mexico City, even claims that the middle class is diminishing because of its high sensitivity to macro and micro economic shocks: real income is actually decreasing.

Extreme economic inequality significantly drives the abuse of power; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (amongst others) campaign extensively against human rights abuses in Mexico. Various types of gender, race and class inequality are inextricably linked to and exacerbated by economic inequality, especially when the rights and needs of the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of society are so blatantly neglected.

It is often a feature of living in extreme poverty that the most fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security of person are not guaranteed. The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of a person and their family is not a given. We may have no control over where or the circumstances into which we are born, but we at least deserve equal opportunities to basic rights and services, and the Mexican government has the responsibility to ensure these as well as security and dignity to its people. Mexico may be desperate to develop, but it must not do so at the cost of the poor and vulnerable. Let’s not forget that decisions about those living in poverty are overwhelmingly made by the rich, who may not always have the redistribution of wealth as a genuine concern.

This post was written as a part of Amnesty International’s participation in Blog Action Day. Get involved on Twitter by following @AmnestyOnline or using the Blog Action Day hashtag #BAD2014

Seasonal Feasting: Chiles en Nogada

From hot cross buns and creme eggs at Easter to mince pies and mulled wine at Christmas, the anticipation of seasonal specialities makes them much more exciting than food and drink available at any time of the year. Puebla is home to a number of speciality dishes, many of which are available all year round, but the pièce de résistance (not only lauded as one of Puebla’s finest dishes but also Mexico’s) is the chile en nogada (meaning ‘chilli in walnut sauce’) – which is both weird and wonderful in equal measure.

Puebla owes much of its culinary fame and prowess to the melding of traditional Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques with the arrival of Catholic nuns from Spain in the sixteenth century, who had the time and creativity to develop incredibly complicated and labour-intensive dishes. Owing to the limited seasonal availability of ingredients and the painstaking preparation processes, dishes such as chile en nogada are not meant to be eaten every day or in huge quantities but savoured and relished occasionally.

The chile en nogada is a big, tasty, green chile poblano (a variety of chilli native to Puebla which looks more like a dark green pepper) filled with a picadillo mix of chopped meat and fruit and a variety of spices. The recipe, favourite ingredients, and chilli kick vary slightly, but every Poblano will tell you their grandma’s/auntie’s/cousin’s is the best! Typical ingredients include diced pork and beef, peach, pear, apple, raisins, almonds, pine nuts, onion, cinnamon, clove, thyme and oregano. The picadillo is slow-roasted for six to eight hours before being stuffed inside the chilli. Although not always served capeada, the original recipe dictates that it should be  – a technique which requires a dunking in frothy egg batter and frying. Then comes the best bit – the heavenly walnut sauce – generously poured all over so that nothing can be seen underneath. This creamy white  dressing creates the canvas for the presentation of the dish in the Mexican national colours: it is topped with a garnish of green parsley leaves and vibrant red juicy pomegranate seeds. The perfectly complementary red, white and green makes this dish as striking to the eye as it is to the palate.

It is no coincidence that this unique dish is made with seasonal ingredients and presented in the national colours: its origin and serving are symbolic of Mexican independence. In August 1821 the Mexican military commander Agustín de Iturbide (who became the Emperor from 1822-3) signed the Treaty of Cordoba in Veracruz, which granted Mexico its independence. As he travelled from Veracruz inland to Mexico City he was scheduled to stop in Puebla, and the nuns of the convent of Santa Monica created this dish especially for his visit. Each year ‘the season’ of August and September sees the simultaneous recreation of this spectacular recipe and Independence Day preparation and celebrations; the markets are full of glistening pomegranates and all the local restaurants advertise that they are serving it. There is even a local festival hosted in which Pueblan kitchens compete to prepare the best-loved chile.

All that love and labour doesn’t come cheap (especially in comparison with most Pueblan food), but it’s a speciality, and it’s worth every penny, so catch it while you can. It costs about 150-300 pesos per serving, depending on where you go. I sampled it at El Mural de Los Poblanos, one of Puebla’s most fancy tourist-friendly restaurants, and at La Fonda de Santa Clara, which is slightly better value and offers a more relaxed atmosphere: I highly recommend both. But alas, now we are in October it is time to  bid a sad farewell to the chile en nogada, not a trace to be seen – until next year…

Chile en nogada, served on a traditional Pueblan talavera plate.
Chile en nogada, served on a traditional Pueblan talavera plate.

 

Cholula de Día

It provided my host family great amusement that in my first months here in Puebla my only trips to Cholula were made after dark. The nightlife in Puebla is tame to say the least, and there is much more going on in Cholula (just half an hour away) thanks to its large student population. After much nudging (which ranged from subtle hints to stern orders) I eventually made it to Cholula for a day trip, and understood immediately why it came so highly recommended. Cholula has a lovely small-town feel: it’s tranquil, colourful, and nestled deep in the Puebla-Tlaxcala valley surrounded by the volcanoes of the Central Mexican Highlands. It offers a completely different experience to so many of Mexico’s vast and sprawling colonial cities founded after the conquest, under the heavy hand of Spanish influence.

Cholula is one of Mexico’s oldest settlements and home to centuries of pre-Hispanic history. From AD 1-600 it grew into an important (indigenous) religious centre, until it fell to the Olmeca Xicallanca. At some point between AD900 and 1300 the Toltecs and/or Chichimecs took over, and it later fell into Aztec dominance. When Cortés arrived with the Spanish he formed an allegiance with neighbouring Tlaxcala, and when the Aztecs in Cholula plotted to ambush Cortés the Tlaxcalans tipped him off and the Spanish had the upper hand. 6000 Cholulans were killed in a day and the city was looted ruthlessly by the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish founded the city of Puebla to overshadow the old pagan centre of Cholula, which was further devastated by a severe plague in the 1540s. These days it remains upstaged by the Catholic and colonial splendour  of Puebla, but has developed its own alternative following: it is home to a generally younger, more fashionable population and hosts numerous trendy restaurants and bars. It also has a completely absurd number of churches in relation to its size.

Thanks to its original indigenous population, Cholula is home to the widest pyramid ever built – Pirámide Tepanapa. What is more striking than the pyramid, however, is the church perched triumphantly atop – a powerful symbol of the merciless religious conquest that came with the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. Although very little remains of the original pyramid structure, visitors can still explore the network of interior tunnels and see the excavated areas outside. Then it’s a short but steep climb up to the church, which offers spectacular views over the flat plains of Cholula.

Two of Cholula’s most interesting churches are located in the neighbourhood of San Andrés. The first I visited, San Francisco Acatepec, was constructed between 1650 and 1750, the golden era of Mexican baroque and talavera. The immense wealth, exquisite design, and talented craftmanship of this period are flaunted in the façade of colourful tiles covering the front of the church, which really makes quite an impression. The interior is just as awe-inspiring, entirely encrusted from floor to ceiling in elaborate golden decoration. Unfortunately, the interior isn’t original, it was destroyed by a fire in 1939. But it was painstakingly reconstructed in 1941 thanks to photographs made before the fire which extensively documented the decoration – taken by no other than Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo’s father. At no time is the church more flamboyantly adorned than during the fiesta for San Francisco (the namesake of the church) which falls on the 4th of October. The most beautiful displays of fresh flowers covered every available surface, ready to wow the weekend’s worshippers.

The church of Santa María Tonantzintla was also built in the seventeenth century, but is strikingly different. First of all, unlike Acatepec, it is relatively unassuming from the outside. It is far plainer, and has models of the Saints but with dark faces (like those of the indigenous Mexicans who created them). Whereas Acatepec presents itself as an extravagant show of Spanish wealth and style, Tonantzintla displays a far more complex union of Mexican and European culture and an interesting melding of Christian and indigenous world views. This includes the interpretation of both indigenous and Christian Gods and symbols, and the development of worship of Mother Nature to the Virgin Mother, Mary.  The angels adorning the walls are not the blonde-haired, pale faced cherubs the European eye is accustomed to, but with dark skin and hair – those of Mexico’s Indians. Unlike the golden glow of Acatepec, the interior incorporates paintwork in a vast array of colours, and rather than smooth and pristine carvings, Tonantzintla’s are much more deeply etched and simplistically stylised in design. The church of Tonantzintla is autonomous from the Archdiocese of Puebla, and they do not allow photographs to be taken inside, but I have found a couple from Google which are shown below (all other photos are my own).

Next up on our route was Huejotzingo, a small municipality in Puebla’s countryside. Here we visited the Franciscan monastery San Miguel Arcángel which was founded in 1525, making it one of the oldest monasteries in the Americas. It remains in very good condition, with original dining room and kitchen features, and etchings on the walls revealed beneath the more recent paintwork. The adjacent church (despite being mid-way through some repair work) was absolutely full of young teenagers having their first Holy Communion, and a wedding party waiting outside. The area is also known for its vast orchards and the production of apple cider – a sample of which was the perfect way to top off a long day of culture-seeking in the sun. It’s a hard life!

Puebla: A Night at the Museums

The city of Puebla (capital of the state of the same name) is not only set in the geographical heart of Mexico, but is famed for being the religious and historical centre as well. There is no doubt that Puebla has an abundance of public attractions, but more than that, you can sense authentic traditional Mexican culture in the streets: it’s a wonderful mix of the old and the new, charmingly preserved by its inland location. What was once meant to be the capital of Mexico (Poblanos tell me this, people from Mexico City highly contest it) boasts an incredibly rich background in all things truly Mexican, including food, art, and indigenous, religious and colonial history.

Two of Puebla’s mottos are La Ciudad que Queremos – The City that We Love, and Ciudad de Progreso – City of Progress: they are indicative of the notable increase in tourism that Puebla has experienced in recent years. State and national campaigns have worked hard to put Puebla on the map and both national and international travellers are increasingly seeking a more deeply cultural experience of Mexico than many of the coastal resorts have to offer. A part of this initiative to make Puebla’s rich culture more accessible is Noche de Museos – Night of Museums. One Friday evening of each month many museums offer free entry, for everyone, from 5 to 10pm. The locals embrace this as much as visitors, and it’s a great way to enjoy some of Puebla’s best attractions.

Unlike many world-famous European cultural institutions, most of Puebla’s museums and attractions are not vast and you needn’t allocate more than an hour to each. They are also largely located in the central ‘downtown’ area just a taco’s toss from the Zócalo, making a Night at the Museums a really great opportunity to tick off a few on your to-do list in one fell swoop. Even if you’re not particularly interested in art or exhibitions, it’s a great excuse to have a nosy around some of Puebla’s grand old colonial buildings, as many are set in old hospitals and monasteries.

San Pedro Museo de Arte – all descriptions helpfully translated into English: I particularly liked the exhibition ‘Constellations: Constructivism, Internationalism, and the Latin American Avant-Garde’, a series of 28 pieces by 26 Latin American artists in optical geometric style.

Palacio Nacional – Puebla’s equivalent of the Houses of Parliament offer free 15 minute tours during Noche de Museos. The guided tour is in Spanish, but it’s worth going along just to have a peek at the magnificent interior, complete with sweeping marble staircase and ceilings adorned with beautifully crafted angels, muses, birds and flowers.

Museo Amparo – Puebla’s swankiest museum wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or New York, and the security guards in every room make you feel it. It is filled with treasures of Pre-Hispanic, colonial, modern and contemporary Mexican art. Mexican artist Pablo Vargas Lugo’s exhibition ‘Micromegas’ is impressive: his works present an interesting take on conceptual ideas by mixing elements from astronomy, cartography and archaeology with language conventions and typical systems of measurement, and are beautifully curated here. I haven’t the faintest technical knowledge of art, but his ability to portray common concepts and make you reconsider them is delightfully intriguing.

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana isn’t included in the Noche de Museos, but at 20 pesos (less than £1) for entrance, it’s hardly going to break the budget. It’s little more than a large room, but it’s worth a visit just to  wander around and soak up the aura of antique literature. It’s the oldest public library in the Americas and boasts over 40,000 books (the majority of which date back to pre-Independence), lovingly conserved in their original bookshelves and in their original location in a grand old building just off the Zócalo, behind Puebla’s cathedral. In 2005 UNESCO added the library to its Memory of the World list.

There are many more museums included in the Noche de Museos, but my last must-do isn’t included because it’s always free. The Rosary Chapel (Capilla del Rosario) located inside of the Templo de Santo Domingo is a masterpiece of baroque architecture and decoration which was added to the church between 1650 and 1690. It is an incredibly sumptuous and lavish symbol of Puebla’s religious devotion and importance: the city was founded by the Spanish in 1531 as Puebla de Los Angeles – City of the Angels – after angels famously appeared to the bishop in a dream, advising him exactly where to build the city’s cathedral. High windows allow natural sunlight to enter, giving the extravagant gold leaf, sculptures and paintings a magical golden glow.  

Mexico is a vast and variant country comprised of 31 states, so it’s no surprise that the Lonely Planet guide is a whopper. However, Puebla is resigned to a measly few pages in the ‘Around Mexico City’ chapter – ¡qué barbaridad! – an unjust travesty! Sure, it’s ‘around Mexico City,’ a handy two hour southerly bus ride to be precise. On the flip side, it’s exactly its discreet inland location that has protected its modest and authentic charm from the brash development that usually accompanies beach-seeking tourists – so go there and rave about it afterwards, just not too loudly.

¡VIVA MÉXICO!

Just as Cinco de Mayo was celebrated throughout the whole month of May, excitement had been bubbling throughout the Mes de la Patria (Month of Patriotism) in anticipation of Mexico’s official Independence Day which falls on September the 16th. The Mexicans are globally famed for their fiestas and for good reason – they rarely constitute a ‘little do’ as us Brits are more accustomed to, restricted to a set stressful few hours, for a limited number of family and friends. Mexicans go big on this one like every other, and it’s yet another opportunity to demonstrate and celebrate their impeccable hosting skills and generous, fun-loving, family-spirited nature. The city of Puebla (and entire country, no doubt) is cheerfully shrouded in lights and decorations in the national colours of green, white and red, much like the Christmas adornments we see in Europe’s cities throughout the festive season. Vendors line the streets and cram the markets with stalls of themed goodies from flags and face paints to wigs and ribbons, jewellery and garlands.

By 1810 Mexico had been under Spanish rule for almost 300 years (since Hernán Cortés’ conquest in 1521); plans to begin a revolution were well under way and scheduled to commence on the 2nd of October. However, the plot was discovered early, arrests of the leaders had begun and hopes of liberation were in great danger. In a swift and masterful move the Roman Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo initiated the War of Independence: he took to a balcony and made a desperate call to arms for his fellow Mexicans to fight and win back their country’s independence. His speech took place in the small town of Dolores, not far from Guanajuato, hence being known as the Grito de Dolores. It is not known exactly what he said, but in what must have been a sufficiently rousing and powerful oration he raised a lot of support and set off to Mexico City with Ignacio Allende to demand the freedom of Mexico from Spanish rule. They were captured and executed in July 1811 and José María Morelos took over until his own capture and execution in 1815. He was succeeded by Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria, who fought until Mexico’s eventual liberation in 1821.

To mark and celebrate the initiation of the war which freed Mexico, the Grito (‘Cry of Independence’) is re-enacted each year by the President from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City (and by governors and politicians in Zócalos throughout Mexico) at 11pm on the night of the 15th of September. In it the names of all of Mexico’s heroes are shouted, ending with three heartfelt rounds of ¡viva México! This is followed by fireworks, parties and general merriment in the streets. Although the 16th is the national holiday, the festivities actually take place on the night of the 15th. Much like England’s Boxing Day or New Year’s Day bank holidays, the 16th is for sleeping, being hungover, demolishing leftovers and recovering from the previous night’s abundance of food, drink and joy. On the 15th, families host a Noche Mexicana – Mexican Night – an extravagant feast featuring any or all of the favourite traditional fare: posole, chalupas, chanclas, tostadas, tacos, pelonas, molotes.

We were to host the Noche Mexicana for all of the rellies at our house, and it had been voted by the democratic majority that we would dine on posole and chanclas. (A Noche Mexicana with a toque Inglés – the English touch being provided by my cooking an enormous amount of apple crumble.) Everybody loves posole. It dates back to Pre-Hispanic Mexican cuisine and is the number one dish of choice for the Independence Day feast. It is a shredded meat soup (usually made with pork but often with chicken) with giant whole white kernels of maize. It is topped with thin strips of lettuce and finely chopped radish, powdered chilli and oregano, and served with tostadas (crunchy fried tortillas) rubbed generously with fresh lime. Absolutely exquisite. Chanclas (‘flip flops’) are one of Puebla’s many speciality dishes. It is made of pambazo (a soft white bread like a finger roll) with a filling of shredded beef or white cheese, onion and avocado, which is then drowned in adobo sauce (a rich, smoky, spicy salsa made from guajillo chillis). I say drowned because the sauce isn’t just poured over the top, but the rolls are actually submerged in the dish of adobo and the salsa poured inside as well to soak it all up into a deliciously soggy mess. They always come in pairs, like the shoes from which they take their name. We also ate buñuelos – huge, sweet, crispy round discs bathed in a dark spiced honey syrup.

After the feasting, and the watching of the Grito on the television, the games began. There was a lucky dip of presents (accordingly wrapped in green, white and red) and a game I will call Confetti Egg Smash. The children had made boxes of hollowed egg shells filled with confetti to break over one another’s heads. The children made the eggs, but they were distributed equally amongst all of the guests and a jolly good fight ensued.

The night is a brilliant celebration of Mexico’s well-deserved pride in their culture and cuisine, history and heritage, and a wonderful opportunity to revel in the pleasure of Mexican life with family and friends. Viva México indeed.

Remembering Mexico’s Heroic Children

On the 13th of September each year Mexico remembers six courageous young military cadets who fought to the death in the name of Mexican independence.

The Mexican-American War was well under way, and on the 13th of September 1847 this included the Battle of Chapultepec where the Mexicans fought to defend Chapultepec Castle (the only Royal castle in the American continent, but following Mexico’s independence from Spain, a military school) from the invading U.S. forces. Despite General Bravo of the Mexican Army ordering retreat, six young soldiers – Los Niños Héroes – refused to fall back and died fighting. They were Juan de la Barrera, Juan Escutia, Francisco  Márquez, Agustín Melgar, Fernando Montes de Oca and Vicente Suárez, the youngest of whom was just thirteen years of age and the eldest nineteen.

The bravery and patriotic heroism of these young boys is celebrated on the annual anniversary of their tragic deaths. They are also honoured by the naming of numerous streets, squares and schools throughout Mexico, the Niños Héroes metro station in Mexico City, and the Altar a la Patria monument in Chapultepec Park. They were featured on the five thousand peso banknote for many years.

At the time of the U.S. invasion Mexico was on the brink of civil war, left weak ever since achieving independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexicans forces were also armed with far inferior weapons. Texas and much of their northern territory was lost, which although sparsely populated signified a humiliating defeat. For this reason, the absolute dedication, honour and heroic sacrifice of Los Niños Héroes to their beloved country is particularly poignant for Mexico and its history.

A Ringside Riot

Monday nights don’t normally offer much in the way of entertainment, but in the centre of Puebla you’ll find the world famous Lucha Libre in full swing. Mexican free wrestling is something of a cultural institution, and can be loosely compared to the English pantomime for its blend of family appeal, audience participation, vibrant costumes and fun heroes and villains narrative.

Lucha Libre is most notably characterised by the colourful masks that most (but not all) wrestlers wear, which create a stylised identity for the luchadores (fighters), add to their heroism and mystery, and allows them to achieve fame and reputation. The wearing of masks dates back to the early twentieth century and has become symbolically sacred: the unmasking of an opponent during a match is grounds for disqualification, but the elaborate threatening constitutes an important part of the drama. The mask of Lucha Libre is often used as an emblem of Mexican culture, honour and moral spirit, and frequently features in Mexican art and forms a part of public murals.

The wrestlers mostly fight in tag teams of three called trios, which make for fast-paced matches with as much action outside of the ring as in it. The teams come in two categories, making it very straightforward to follow. The rudos are the ‘baddies’, who fight in a more brawling style and tend to bend or break the rules, goad the referee and their opponents, and generally make themselves unlikeable. The técnicos are the ‘goodies,’ who fight with greater technical ability and display more complex and spectacular manoeuvres, including impressive high flying attacks.

As much as anything else, a night at the Lucha Libre offers an interactive lesson in Mexican slang, insults, swearwords and groserías – essential education for any trip to Mexico. Don’t miss the delicious esquites (sweetcorn with mayonnaise, cheese and chilli) for sale outside, and of course your very own mask which shouldn’t cost more than 150 pesos.

The Charitable Conscience

Take a closer look, the above photo isn’t digitally altered. The wealth gap in Mexico is shocking and obvious, and it’s not uncommon to see the rich and the poor live side by side like this. Mexico isn’t considered First World (despite joining NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, 20 years ago) nor Third World, but rather sits in the vague and variable ‘developing country’ category.

  • According to 2013 government data, 45.5% of Mexicans currently live below the national poverty line.
  • The World’s Richest Man is the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, whose fortune increased from $74.5 billion to $79.6 billion between the 1st and the 11th of July this year, that’s a jump of $5.1 billion in just 10 days.
  • Mexico ranks second only to Chile for Worst Income Inequality as measured by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

In Britain, we like to pretend that our society is much more equal than it really is; we want to believe that we live in a thoroughly modern, civilised, just society. We don’t want to see poverty: if we must deal with it on our doorstep, it’s veiled as ‘regeneration’. It’s hidden behind confidentiality clauses and highly sensitive lists of children receiving free school meals, just a glimpse caught in the odd homeless person being swept off the street by a bobby on the beat, and begging is illegal – if you’re poor, better just not to show yourself in public at all. Poverty is a foreign problem, and even then we arm ourselves with numerous distancing mechanisms: charity campaigns are glossed up, large scale events put the ‘fun’ into fundraising, and the causes are glamourised with endless celebrity endorsements. It all makes poverty sickeningly palatable.

General advice tells foreigners not to use the Metro, the figurative and literal underground of Mexico City. I believe this is less to do with the impending ‘danger’ and more to do with the discomfort of being visually assaulted with the desperate poverty of Mexico’s poorest citizens. The devastating reality chokes your throat and crushes your heart. Be prepared to be approached by people with shocking disfigurements, infected gun wounds, exposed catheters, and filthy children crawling the carriages with no shoes. Some have something to sell, others are purely begging, but it is impossible to look away. What do you do? What can you do? And what should you do? What if by giving money you are perpetuating the problem rather than helping to solve it? Many children have shoes, but they look more pitiful and are given more money by going without them. The more money they return home with, the more hours a day they are made to go out begging. The horrible truth is that a lot of children are abused and exploited by their families, who are themselves the victims of mental health problems or drug or alcohol addiction. There’s a real likelihood that your good gesture is doing more harm than good, so how do you give responsibly?

A few weeks ago, I passed a boy of about 10 crying in the street. “What’s the matter?” I asked, and he replied that he had lost his wallet and couldn’t get home. Pobrecito, I thought, and asked him how much money he needed. “50 pesos.” FIFTY PESOS?! This wiley little weasel was having me on. “How many buses do you need to take?” “Three,” came the reply. Well unfortunately for him, I know very well that three buses costs 18 pesos (it’s also highly unlikely that he really needed to take three different buses). I gave him the 18 (just under £1) and went on my way, rather confused by the exchange that had just taken place. Were they crocodile tears? Does he know exactly how to make some easy extra pocket money after school each day? Or does he have a sick parent or many younger siblings at home that he has to care for? I will never know. Giving money to people is the most direct form of giving, but you still don’t really know where your money is going.

The nature of charitable giving in the UK has undergone huge changes in the last 30 years: as the third sector has increasingly shifted away from alliance with the public sector to be more closely aligned with the private sector there has been a dramatic rise in demand for the transparency and accountability of charitable institutions. Charity is increasingly competitive and funds are hard fought for under strict requirements of impact assessment and evidence of effective spending. We are also much more personally concerned with responsible giving, and it seems that no type of contribution is without its criticism. Social media has hugely increased accessibility and awareness, but is also criticised for its swing towards ‘slacktivism,’ where a click, ‘like’ or ‘share’ is the newly favoured form of being seen to be supporting without really doing anything impactful. There is cynicism towards international aid as recent exposés have revealed instances of foreign funds being squandered, fostering corruption, destroying local enterprise and creating a dependency culture. Even direct volunteering is often attacked as ‘voluntourism,’ where short-term programmes are accused of benefitting young, privileged white Westerners more than the needy communities they recklessly flit in and out of.

These dialogues raise important issues, but mustn’t become an excuse for apathy or a “my money won’t do any good so I won’t give any” attitude. Instead they ought to be used as an opportunity to harness much more deeply engaged giving. It’s great to see the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raise so much awareness and money having ‘gone viral,’ and simultaneously be closely scrutinised and called to account for how their funds are directed. When deciding how to donate, it is a good idea to think about where there is the greatest need for support, where your money will have the biggest influence, and what are the most urgent problems. We all prioritise differently: do your research, choose your cause. Every kind of aid is political, so it really is worth thinking carefully about. And when you’re abroad, you can do your bit by not just staying within a resort but travelling and spending money in the local community.

Photo credit: http://petapixel.com/2014/05/15/shocking-aerial-photographs-show-stark-economic-divide-mexico/

Querétero and San Miguel de Allende

The Mexicans have got tourism Down. To. A. Tee. Whatever you want, they’ve got it, and they don’t just do it, they do it really, really well. There couldn’t have been more contrast in my travels so far, from the wilds and Mayan ruins of Chiapas; the indigenous craftsmanship and pristine beaches of Oaxaca; the religious and colonial history and culinary fame of Puebla; the vibrancy of life and juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in Mexico City; the flash and glamour of Acapulco. Just a few hours north of Mexico City, a trip to Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende offered yet another entirely different experience with their clean streets, immaculate parks, pretty plazas, chic cafés and cosy accommodation perfectly tailored to the needs and desires of expats and international travellers.

First stop Querétaro, capital city of the state of the same name. Originally a settlement founded by the Otomí people in the fifteenth century (hence the dolls in the above photo), it was soon absorbed by the Aztecs and then the Spaniards. It reminded me a lot of Oxford with its open air International Jazz Festival; of Brighton with its andadores (pedestrianised streets lined with neat little stalls selling jewellery and bags); and both with the plethora of handsome, bearded,  20-something male waiters. Querétaro is a beautiful city for wandering: there’s a tranquil, cultured air to the streets (unlike the chaos of less touristy areas), and it’s brimming with lovely squares, quality cuisine and interesting museums. Even the taxi drivers seem that little bit higher up the scale of contentment. All in all, it’s very, very pleasant. But this comes at a price: ninety-five pesos (almost five British pounds) for an 80 gram bar of ki’XOCOLATL “directly from the cacao tree groove bean-to-bar artisinal criollo chocolate,” to be precise.

We found our green boutique hostel Kuku Rukú a little disappointing. On arrival they had lost our reservation (shouldn’t complain, we bagged a free upgrade for the night). Despite numerous recommendations we found the hostel breakfast on the stingy and minimalist side, and the attached restaurant wasn’t serving food at all while we were there. No use crying over spilled milk, we soon discovered that there was no shortage of great places to eat. After seven months without a good Full English or anything remotely like it I was disappointed to discover that Sunny’s All English café has now closed, but if in search of comfort you could still head to Bhaji, which serves “the Great British Curries  of traditional UK Indian restaurants.” It was very tempting, but we were on the hunt for something a little lighter so headed for the Calle Cinco de Mayo where most of the cafés and bars are situated. There’s a far less distinct line between cafés and bars here than in the UK, so you can still grab a light bite to eat or a coffee without paying ‘restaurant’ prices, and soak in the lovely early evening atmosphere as dusk turns to night. I highly recommend U:La La for bagels, salad and fresh-if-a-little-bitter mango juice; Kaluna café whose very reasonable prices reflect that they are situated slightly off the far end of Cinco de Mayo; and Bisquets Querétaro for a really authentic Mexican breakfast and cantina atmosphere.

Beware: (almost) everything is closed on Mondays. This is mildly irritating, but the lady in the tourist information office was still incredibly lovely and helpful about it. So the museums had to wait until the following day (on Tuesdays, almost apologetically, some offer free entrance). Luckily it’s such a nice city that we quite happily whiled away the day just moseying around. María y su bici is a Mexican restaurant with a few branches dotted around the city, each uniquely decorated in a mix of traditional and contemporary Mexican style décor. I had the most delicious Tamal Maya with Cochinita Pibil (spicy pork) and a jug of Tejate – an ancient drink from the markets of Oaxaca consisting of cocoa, maize, mamey (a Mexican fruit similar to papaya) and corozo (a Latin American nut like a chestnut) mixed with iced and charmingly served in the traditional jícara cups made from coconut shells.

Like all of the Mexican states’ capital cities there are lots of museums and churches, and it’s easy to tick off a handful in an afternoon. Templo de San Francisco is worth a peek, especially as it’s right next door to the Museo Regional: to be honest, it’s no competition for Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology which completely knocked my socks off, but it’s interesting on the state’s indigenous groups and Querétaro’s role in the independence movement and post-independence history. The Museo de Arte is set in an eighteenth century baroque monastery and is home to a great mix of European and Mexican works spanning the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries. Querétaro also boasts an impressive eighteenth century, 1.28km-long aqueduct made of sandstone, Los Arcos, which features heavily in the city’s postcards.

Over-state into Guanajuato, we were eager to visit the famously pretty San Miguel de Allende. In keeping with the Mexican trend for setting cities in deep valleys surrounded by imposing mountains and volcanoes, the approach to the city gives a great view and adds to the excitement of the arrival: San Miguel de Allende’s biggest attraction, its Disney-like church complete with pink towers, La Parroquia, is clearly visible (I won the prize for first-spot) from the highway. Having the name of a notorious prison and a prominent sign at the entrance stating that no refunds can be given once you’ve seen the room had my senses on high alert, but our stay at Hostal Alcatraz was surprisingly enjoyable. The facilities are basic but perfectly clean and pleasant, and the staff very friendly and helpful. I’m surprised that more hostels don’t seem to have cottoned on that a good breakfast is a sure-fire way to a great review.

There isn’t all that much to do apart from shop and eat, but if you’re on holiday that’s a pretty good start. The Mercado de Artesanías offers beautiful Mexican handicrafts and folk art, but its prices are more expensive than you can find for similar items elsewhere so be sure to haggle your socks off. To get a glimpse of ‘real’ Mexico head to the food market, where you can buy a pot of fresh fruit for fifteen pesos rather than paying sixty for a fruit salad in a café. Vía Orgánica  is a lovely little restaurant offering organic local produce, and is also engaged in not-for-profit initiatives with local farmers. But the highlight for anyone with a sweet tooth is San Agustín’s hot chocolate and churros. There’s normally a queue outside but it doesn’t take long to whittle down, or you can hustle your way to the front to make a reservation for a bit later that same day. I am a stern advocate of trying different things, but we may have gone there twice in less than forty-eight hours.

San Miguel is surrounded by various hot springs just a short bus ride away. We went to La Gruta which has three small pools, a tunnel and a steamy cave. Entrance is 100 pesos, there’s a café, restaurant, massage parlour and good changing amenities, but it’s very busy, touristy and not as natural as we were expecting.

In summary, don’t go to San Miguel if you’re in search of a really ‘authentic’ Mexican experience, but it’s definitely worth popping by if you’re passing through from Guanajuato to Querétaro. And if you can, leave it to last so that you can spend your last pennies freely (you will want to) without the bitter taste of sore temptation and fear of over-spending.