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Why the Ballet Folklórico de México captures Mexico perfectly

In a flash, the stage is bursting with almost forty Juans and Marías whirling about at a hundred miles an hour, hankies in hand, dressed in dazzling costumes of orange and yellow like a bowl of zesty citrus fruit come suddenly to life. The first five minutes leave you simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, and that in itself lets you know it’s going to be really really Mexican.

Amalia Hernández’s Ballet Folklórico de México visited the London Coliseum in July for the first time in over twenty years as a part of the programme of events for the Mexico-UK Dual Year 2015. Dance, music, parties and celebration form such an integral part of Mexican life, and have done since time immemorial, that it’s just the perfect way to capture the essence of Mexico in one intoxicating showcase.

The dances are Mexican, of course; a varied programme of beautifully choreographed pieces that give us a political as well as historical and geographic tour of Mexico. It’s important to appreciate the impressive amount of research, training and technical ability that goes into its production (the ballet has a permanent residency at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City as well as its internationally touring company). But the show from start to finish is just so much more: it encapsulates the vital elements of Mexican life, and, crucially, the feel of it. Essentially, it’s a complete education in Mexican spirit delivered in full volume, at breakneck speed.

One of the things I love most about Mexican culture is how inclusive it is, nowhere more evident than at the regular family fiestas where guests both young and old are trussed up in ridiculous party paraphernalia dancing alongside one another from dusk until dawn. Mexicans just really get stuck in and throw themselves into things without the stuffy self-awareness and stiff upper lip that’s so characteristic of the British. The Ballet Folklórico appeals to everyone, it’s just impossible not to get swept up in the vivacious energy that radiates from the stage. They’re having fun and they love what they do; it’s evident and contagious.

With an abundance of sombreros and criminally tight trousers, and enough elaborate stomping to get Michael Flatley toe-tapping, the show is hugely entertaining, a visual and aural delight. The performance, like the culture, is totally immersive, not just literally (when the company dances with the audience in the aisles), but emotionally, too. It’s cheeky and romantic, raucous and unapologetic. There are shouts of encouragement amongst compadres on the stage: “¡Eso!” and “¡Viva México!”, and streamers are thrown bountifully into the auditorium. Just the same as you’ll find when visiting Mexico, they don’t just want you to enjoy it, they want to you to share it: it’s an open invitation to empathise with their national pride – an honour indeed as it’s hugely cherished and was notably hard-won.

I can’t talk about the Ballet Folklórico without giving the musicians – the mariachi and jarochos (who belt out the tunes as well as mastering their handheld instruments) – the praise they deserve. The show is not only a dancing triumph but a musical extravaganza. And I’m pretty sure they’re the only nation who could fit two full-blown fiestas into a couple of hours. It’s no mean feat, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. When you’ve got a British audience in one of the UK’s most prestigious venues whooping and cheering on their feet, I think you can safely say you nailed it.

You’ve now missed the opportunity for a slice of fiesta with your afternoon tea (hopefully they won’t wait another twenty years), but, as if you needed an excuse to go to Mexico, the Ballet Folklórico is performed throughout the year at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and tours internationally.

 

This article was originally written for Mexico Retold.

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A Long Time Home

Despite the lengthy break (insert torrential apology here) this blog definitely isn’t finished, I still have a long list of posts to write, and not a day passes when I don’t think of Mexico. In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot, and I’m currently reading an incredible book with a passage I wanted to share. I know lots of people who have so kindly supported this blog are similarly wandering-minded, people who have shared that inexplicable but unignorable pull I felt before I went to Mexico, to escape the confines of my home country, culture and everything I knew. We all have our own reasons for going, but whether it’s borne of a simple boredom and restlessness or a valiant quest for the meaning of life, there’s a common denominator: we are compelled to question, to learn, to explore.

Culture and identity have been key themes explored during my time in Mexico and documented here, and just a short step on from analysing personal culture and sense of identity lays a broader international and political perspective: ideas of nationalism and borders, territories and boundaries. Stepping outside our own culture is hugely liberating; it is, metaphorically and physically, like stepping outside of your self. The freedom to form our own thoughts and opinions is a luxury we just seldom have the time or capacity for when we’re lodged prohibitively amidst the everyday doldrums of school, studies, work, politics; even the smaller cycles perpetuated by pressures and consensus amongst family and friends. And they’re just the external factors, never mind the pressure we put upon ourselves, the neverending drip of doubts that seep through layers of consciousness like acid rain. We might be struck by the odd bolt of inspired thought, but never seem to have the freedom to explore them fully, to develop our true selves as we’d like to.

 “But let’s just suppose. What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on – what if it’s all a scam? What if all of it- home, kinship, the whole enchilada – is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your real life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut your ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! To lead the life nobody tells you how to live, or when, or why. In which nobody orders you to go forth and die for them, or for god, or comes to get you because you broke one of the rules, or because you’re one of those people who are, for reasons which unfortunately you can’t be given, simply not allowed. Suppose you’ve got to go through that feeling of chaos and beyond; you’ve got to accept the loneliness, the wild panic of losing your moorings, the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air.

You won’t do it. Most of you won’t do it. The world’s head laundry is pretty good at washing brains: Don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door don’t step into that waterfall don’t take that chance don’t step across that line don’t ruffle my sensitivities I’m warning you now don’t make me mad you’re doing it you’re making me mad. You won’t have a chance you haven’t got a prayer you’re finished you’re history you’re less than nothing, you’re dead to me, dead to your whole family your nation your race, everything you ought to love more than life and listen to like your master’s voice and follow blindly and bow down before and worship and obey; you’re dead, you hear me, forget about it you stupid bastard, I don’t even know your name.”

It’s from Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which follows three peoples’ lives knitted closely together only to unravel wildly throughout this tragic tale. I haven’t finished it yet but I highly recommend it. And I’m totally poaching “the whole enchilada” for my everyday lexicon. In the book, Rushdie explores themes of home, belonging, escapism and identity, as well as their consequences. His writing is as questioning and provocative as any work of political non-fiction, and while I’m back in England, it’s literature I turn to to give my mind the taste of liberty it craves.

There is such immense opportunity in independence; when chatting with friends we have likened extended travels to a kind of rite of passage¹ to peace of mind, self-knowledge and realisation. What makes us happy? What do we really care about? What do we value most? Egotistical though it seems, to leave our loved ones behind and spend so much time thinking about ourselves, it’s more like a simultaneously selfish and selfless finding and losing: you lose yourself in the bigger picture, and you find your place in it. We come home, and by all superficial appearances things go back to how they were, yet we continue to live in a heightened state of awareness and autonomy. What an incredible privilege to have had that experience.

Having a British passport gets me practically anywhere in the world, with relative ease. Many passports don’t have that kind of international leverage, and it’s just one of an endless list of consequences of that long-established global order that breeds a warped sense of cultural and national superiority and creates a kind of NIMBYism on a global scale. Having a sense of national pride isn’t wrong, but it is dangerous. It is natural to feel love for a country you have grown up in, to feel a sense of reciprocal obligation, but there is nothing natural about incarcerating others in the country they were born in, condemning them to a life of poverty and misery because they had the misfortune of not being born elsewhere. It’s so valuable to get out, to question our politics and motivations, open our hearts, feed our minds, and nourish our souls, for ourselves and for humanity. And to remember that even if we go back in, we’re not going backwards.

Image by one of my favourite artists, Lisa Congdon

Footnote:

1. The concept of the rite of passage was innovated by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep to describe rituals that initiate members into various stages of society, such as transition into manhood or marriage. His major work was Les Rites de Passage (1909), in which he observes a tripartite sequence in ritual observance: separation, transition, and incorporation. One hundred years on, we are truly global citizens: could the 21st century rite of passage be about getting out not getting in?

A Sudden Turn in the Tide

Firstly, apologies for not writing for the longest period of time since my arrival, the last month has been somewhat eventful. I went on holiday to the Riviera Maya, where my parents met me to share a blissful ten days of rest and relaxation (pretty sure they wouldn’t word it exactly like that); I had my last day at work – boo hoo; and my nephew who wasn’t due to be born until January decided he wasn’t to miss out on a sleigh-full of presents so arrived a month early. All these have made things a bit hectic writing-wise; I have been a terrible blogger and neglected Day of the Revolution, and the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and numerous trips which I will catch up on in due course, but in terms of my life in Mexico, a big shift has occurred. I came back from holiday and everything was different. Suddenly I had only ten days left at work. Suddenly I had passed the 11 month mark – only a month left to go. And suddenly I realised that Puebla had become home.

When I left the UK, I didn’t cry saying goodbye to anyone, not even at the airport. There were moments when a little welling in the ducts threatened to ruin my steely facade, but the ruling emotion was far more casual excitement at the unknown adventures to come than cautious apprehension (you will find the proof in my initial posts!). However, after ten months away, I was obviously ridiculously excited to see my parents. Our holiday was great: it made me realise how adult I’ve been this year (though I manage to hide it quite well), and I had an opportunity to share with them a slither of my experience here. Saying goodbye, however, was awful. Ten days together after so long apart was nothing but a merciless teaser. When I left the UK I knew I’d miss them, but not how much. Now I knew how difficult it was, it was much harder to say goodbye again. Silly really, because I knew I’d be seeing them again in a mere six weeks, but the heart does not always obey the head, and the prospect of a Christmas away from home was a tricky one.

The journey back to Puebla was spent stifling tears through a ragged tissue. As they always do, our holiday had gone far too quickly. But just a few hours later, there were my host mum and dad waiting for me at the bus station in Puebla, and how wonderful it was to see them! I gabbled away all the way back to the house, catching up on everything I’d missed and filling them in on all of our visits. It wasn’t depressing to be arriving back in Puebla rather than in England, but comforting. And that was when it hit me: Puebla really isn’t just a place I’m staying any more, it’s the place I’ve made home. It shouldn’t be surprising – it’s an essential part of minimising homesickness to try and immerse yourself completely and make your new location home as quickly as possible, yet in the back of your mind there are the constant reminders that it isn’t what you’re used to – the language, the people, the traffic, the climate – a subtle but persistent resistance to an unfamiliar culture that isn’t your own. I didn’t realise how normal life in Puebla had become until I left and came back again. And it’s a double edged sword, because now I am not only longing to go home, to be with my loved ones and surrounded by home comforts, but also all too aware that I have loved ones and home comforts here.

Then, all of a sudden, my nephew, due to be born the very day of my arrival back in England, pops his little self out (with some surgical assistance) wayyyyy before we were expecting him! I was already feeling anxious about making it back before he graced us with his presence, and the shock I went into upon hearing of his birth was agonising. Those precious first minutes, hours, days and weeks, I am missing – and will be counting down until the moment I squidge his fleshy little hands in mine. Not to be too dramatic (totally out of character), but it felt like somebody plunging an armoured fist through my chest before slowly and ruthlessly wrenching out my heart not to be comforting my sister through such a simultaneously tremendous and terrifying time. Anybody who has been away from home for any period of time can sympathise with this kind of longing I’m sure. I just had to remind myself to be grateful that it was a joyous event I was missing, and thankful that everyone is okay – surely much easier to deal with than if something tragic had happened while I was away (which was actually my biggest fear about leaving). Nonetheless, I sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed, until there was no sob left and I’d given myself a headache. Unfortunately, I fear this may have started a trend which will continue until my departure and quite possibly some time into my arrival…¡más chillona que nunca!

Also, good to remember that it’s not all about me, and I’m not the only one missing my family. My host family are missing their son, who is in Germany as part of the exchange programme that allows me to be in Mexico; without their daughter who lives far away up in the north of Mexico; and without their Dad who has gone to spend Christmas with his daughter and her husband’s family. My host mum had to stay behind to look after her elderly mother (and me), so I have as much responsibility to nurture them in this season of love and family as they do me. I’ve enjoyed over 20 years of Christmases not just in England, in my home town, but in the very same house, so I’m excited to see what Christmas here has in store. And Mexico never disappoints on the celebration front. With a seasonal calendar full of fun festivities, my birthday, and a family holiday booked for over the New Year, my last month is sure to fly. What an incredible year it has been and I’m absolutely determined to make the most of every moment until the last.

“There’s no need to rush home now the baby’s been born, stay a bit longer,” say my host family.

“Remember that you’re only on loan and I do want you back,” says my mum.

Suddenly the prospect of going home has become a lot more wrought with emotion than leaving ever was.

A Pocket of Paradise

Cuetzalan is a small town set high in the hills of the Sierra Norte, about three and a half hours from Puebla. Its hot, rainy, humid climate make it incredibly fertile and home to an astounding level of biodiversity. It is known for its strong indigenous traditions and Nahuatl-speaking Totonac Indian population, but tourism has rapidly increased since it was declared a Pueblo Mágico in 2002.

The town is named after the exquisite (and almost extinct) quetzal bird, native to Mexico and Central America, who makes its home in cloud forests at high altitude. It’s a beautiful, delicate little creature with plumage of red, green and blue, which was considered sacred by ancient Maya and Aztec people. Most famously, Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (ruler at the time of the Spanish conquest) wore an elaborate headdress of quetzal feathers on a base of gold encrusted with precious stones: it is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, and the Mexicans are more than miffed about it. The quetzal continues to be the emblem of Cuetzalan, the crest of which inspires the headdress of the local indigenous Quetzal Dance, and this distinctive circular shape is depicted in all sorts of souvenirs sold there from napkin holders to necklaces.

Just outside of Cuetzalan is the archaeological site of Yohualichán: it consists of five pre-Hispanic buildings once home to the Totonac people, who were until the 19th century the world’s main producers of vanilla and whose territory stretched right from the highlands of northern Puebla to the coast of Veracruz. Set up on high with spectacular views over the jungle valley below, the site is very impressive. And as we so often find in Mexico, right outside the site is the church built by the Spanish when they arrived and tried to eradicate indigenous Mexican beliefs and traditions.

Also just outside of Cuetzalan is the Jardín Botanical Xoxoctic, a beautiful botanical garden which shows, protects and develops much of the area’s natural wildlife, including an astounding range of orchids, coffee, cinnamon, passion fruit, bamboo. Additionally, there is a wonderful butterfly sanctuary and a tree which ‘bleeds’ red sap, the Sangre de Grado (Dragon’s Blood).

The deeply curving roads in the area are nausea-inducing – you’ll need to alleviate your symptoms as soon as you arrive with some of the best local cuisine – tayoyos. Like little squashed dough balls, they are made from maize, filled with a spiced mix of chick pea and avocado, and topped with green or red salsa (or go for both to create the bandera, Mexican flag).

Cuetzalan’s remote location makes its central Zócalo (main square) and Parroquia (parish church) seem particularly impressive, and one wonders how on earth they were built long before proper roads and modern machinery. A big attraction for weekend tourists is the Sunday tianguis, its bustling market. Local people descend from the hills to the town in their thousands to sell their wares, and you can find pretty much anything. There is an amazing variety of handmade souvenirs at very reasonable prices, including lots of jewellery made from coffee beans, hand-embroidered blouses and beautiful rebozos, a kind of traditional Mexican wrapped scarf.

A short climb up the steep hillside away from the Zócalo is the church charmingly called Los Jarritos, which means ‘little jugs,’ named after the little jugs which decorate its tower.

It is especially lovely to wander the peaceful streets at night when there is a refreshing lack of traffic and minimal light pollution. Just opposite Los Jarritos is the bar Peña Los Jarritos which is a great relaxed hideout for the evening: it hosts its own pole for voladores who perform in the dark amongst the fireflies, making for a truly magical experience.

En route home, about two hours from Puebla and one hour from Cuetzalan, is the town of Zacapoaxtla. It is like a smaller, quieter version of Cuetzalan and is famed for the brave contribution its population made to the Batalla Cinco de Mayo. It’s worth stopping by for a wander, toilet stop, and to fill up on tayoyos (again) before heading home.

The centre of Zacapoaxtla
The centre of Zacapoaxtla

Visitors complain that the ‘original’ Cuetzalan is now little more than a legend owing to the huge boost in tourism it has seen in recent years. This may be true, but there’s no doubt that the increase in visitors provides an important flow of business for the locals, who are able to maintain their life and culture in the hills rather than flock to the cities. Furthermore, they benefit from being able to sell directly to consumers rather than through a middle-man who would take a handsome wedge of the profit. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Mexicans young and old to escape from the cities and enjoy a slice of the incredibly beautiful nature and wildlife their homeland offers.

Day of the Dead: Las Ofrendas

One of the most important elements of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico is the making of an ofrenda – a number of offerings arranged around an altar. Day of the Dead is the time of year when the deceased come back to Earth to visit their friends and family, so Mexicans feel that is very important to do everything they can to firstly facilitate this journey, and secondly give the souls a very warm welcome. The ofrendas vary hugely in size and design, but almost all Mexican families will make one in their home; there are many compulsory components, although these too vary slightly by region.

Pre-Conquest Aztecs dedicated most of the month of August to the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl, but the influence of the Catholic Church that arrived with the Spaniards moved it to coincide with All Saints Day on November the 1st and All Souls Day on the 2nd. The current Day of the Dead festivities are therefore a result of ‘spontaneous syncretism’ between Pre-Hispanic celebrations of death and the Catholic tradition of All Saints. It is really interesting to see the different elements mixed together and there are many kinds of ofrendas, some of which have a more religious, indigenous or regional emphasis. For example, the ofrenda at my work was centred on teaching the children about Mexico’s pre-Hispanic traditions (including hot chocolate made from the water used to washed the body of the deceased!); Puebla’s public ofrendas featured famous Poblano characters and a lot of local talavera pottery; and the ofrendas in Huaquechula had a far more heavily Catholic flavour. Authentic ofrendas (as opposed to those made for tourists) are always dedicated to specific individuals, and the first Day of the Dead after somebody has died there is always a huge party held in their honour; in the following years a smaller ofrenda is made.

Some of the essential elements of the ofrenda are:

Cempasúchitl – also known as flor de muerto (flower of the dead), it is the bright orange-yellow marigold which fills the markets and the streets in the run up to and throughout Day of the Dead celebrations. The bright and strongly scented flower is crucial for decorating the altar to make it pretty and colourful; the petals are scattered on the floor around the ofrenda and in a path to the front door in order to guide the deceased to those awaiting them.

A glass of water – this is really important for quenching the thirst of the dead, who have had a long and difficult journey from the afterlife back to Earth.

Copal – the incense burned at the altar, with the belief that its strong and distinctive aroma calls the spirits.

Candles – a number of candles are lit to light the way, again to help the spirits find their home on Earth.

Hojaldra – also known as pan de muerto (bread of the dead). There are many types of pan de muerto, but hojaldra is by far the most popular and recognisable for its distinctive shape which represents the tomb, skull and bones.

Food and drink – the ofrenda is always decorated with the person’s favourite food and drink.

Toys and sweets – if the deceased is a child, toys and sweets are also included to make sure that the spirit feels happy and at home when they visit.

The ofrendas are generally installed from the 28th of October to the 2nd of November. The 28th is dedicated to those who died violently or suddenly in accidents; at noon on the 31st the souls of children are awaited; on the 1st of November adults who died naturally are welcomed; and the 2nd of November is the day of graveside vigils when people visit cemeteries in their thousands to clean and decorate the graves, eat their beloveds’ favourite foods, and pass the day and night recalling stories and memories of the lives lost.

At work we made an ofrenda to accompany Day of the Dead celebrations with the children, therefore it is a more child-oriented one with lots of sweets, candy and chocolate skulls, brightly coloured papel pikado, sticks of sugar cane and bright flowers.

In my house, a far smaller ofrenda was made, typical of those found in the ordinary houses of Puebla. Crucially, it has the photos of loved ones and little trinkets which invoke memories of them (including Sofia, the family dog!), little sugar versions of their favourite fruit, hojaldra, candles and water. The marigolds are missing, but this is only because the baby in the family was very poorly all week and there wasn’t time to buy them.

Traditional private family ofrenda
Traditional private family ofrenda

More public, tourist-friendly ofrendas were made all around the city centre, making a ‘Corredor de Ofrendas‘ in a trail to follow with different themes based on Puebla’s history. These were less traditional but no less impressive.

Huaquechula is a small municipality just under an hour away from the city of Puebla, whose ofrendas are famed for their grandeur, bringing tourists from near and far. It is a tradition of the town that each family which has a member who has deceased in that year will make a public ofrenda in their house. This year there were twenty-two deceased and therefore a route of twenty-two altars to visit. They are very proud of this tradition and incredibly hospitable – visitors are offered traditional Mexican refreshments such as agua de tamarindo, agua de jamaica and atole inside the homes. The ofrendas are extremely elaborately decorated according to the gender, age, occupation and personality of the person who has died. They feature more religious aspects such as crying angels, which represent the grieving family; the photo of the deceased is indirectly viewed using a carefully positioned mirror, representing the rift between life and death; and many of their favourite things from clothing to cigarettes.

Huaquechula was a really lovely, traditional, tranquil little Mexican town, hosting a former Franciscan convent and a troupe of voladores (‘flying men’). I have already written about voladores, but I saw the best display yet in Huaquechula and managed to get some better photos so I have included them here.

As you can see, the size, scale and intention of ofrendas varies hugely, as much as the extent to which people believe that the spirits really do visit. But it doesn’t matter so much whether they do or they don’t, it’s a really lovely way to remember the dead, celebrate their lives, and share the memories.

 

Day of the Dead: La Calaverita

Calavera translates as skull –  they’re absolutely everywhere at this time of year and are undoubtedly the biggest symbol of Day of the Dead in Mexico. The skull obviously represents the dead, only the skulls and skeletons that adorn everything here are not grim, vacant figures at all, but jolly personalities always smiling or laughing and very often in character, for example in traditional Mexican dress, or as a nurse or mariachi musician. Mexico’s sugar and chocolate skulls are an internationally recognised symbol of Day of the Dead, and they are always brightly coloured and decorated, again demonstrating the fun of the celebration. There’s nothing haunting or spooky about the tradition, it’s about welcoming back loved ones who have died, who are only able to visit at this time each year.

In the UK we are much more uncomfortable with death, and rarely laugh at it. For that reason Day of the Dead can be misinterpreted as a little creepy and weird. However, once it is understood within the context of the Mexican culture and character it becomes apparent that it’s just an alternative way of dealing with the same emotions (of the universal experience of death), in a style that is more fitting with the Mexican approach to things in general. Mexican humour is very dark and clever, full of double entendre, and they do tend to laugh at everything no matter how disastrous, so it completely makes sense that the Mexicans take one of the most difficult and painful human experiences and spin it into something entertaining and fun.

As calavera means skull, calaverita just means little skull. Following in the traditional of double meaning in Mexican language (which can be very confusing for outsiders!), calaverita also refers to a special kind of poem which is written and shared around Day of the Dead. They are humorous rhymes which detail a prophecy of how a person is going to die. A few of my sprogs at work wrote me this Calaverita, it had me in stitches and I had to share it!

Calaverita Maestra Ellie

Estaba la maestra Ellie

comiendo un cachito de melón

cuando llego la muerte

acompañada de un viejo pelón.

-¿Que haces maestra Ellie?

-La muerte le preguntó

-Aquí, matando el hambre

-Ellie le contestó.

– ¡Matando! – La muerte se sorprendió

– Mmm, me quiere hacer competencia…

– Es lo que doña muerte pensó

– Pero no me ganará la impaciencia

– Solita se consoló.

-¡Ayudame! Le llegó su hora

– La muerte le dijo al pelón

– Ahora vamos a matarla

golpeandola con un balón.

Y así la pobrecita Ellie

nunca jamás volvió a Europa

porque la malvada muerte

se la llevó con todo y ropa.

En Juconi los niños lloraron

Pero se les olvido en un dos por tres

Porque al fin y al cabo…

Ninguno entendia su Inglés.

Loose translation:

There was Teacher Ellie eating a chunk of melon, when Death arrived accompanied by a bald old man.

“What are you doing?” Death asked her.

“I’m killing my hunger,” Ellie answered.

“Killing?!” she exclaimed, “she wants to compete with me,” thought Lady Death. “But hastiness won’t get the better of me,” she consoled herself.

“Help me! Her time has come!” Death said to the baldy. “Now we’re going to kill her, by thumping her with a ball.”

And just like that poor Ellie died, and never returned to Europe, because evil death took her with clothes and all.

In Juconi the children cried, but they forgot her in a jiffy, because in the end, after everything, nobody understood her English.

Genius!

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.

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.

 

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.