Tag Archives: puebla

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.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

¡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.

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.

¿Tienes novio?

Another day, another feria in Puebla: today was the turn of San Antonio de Padua. Saint Anthony – a compassionate man, and acclaimed worker of many miracles – is known as ‘the finder of lost articles’ and, more specifically in Mexico, as the Saint of matchmaking. To be ‘attached’ is, in Mexico, probably the most important character-defining feature. The question I am most frequently asked, often by the same person on each and every encounter, is “¿tienes novio?” meaning “do you have a boyfriend?” When I meet somebody, no matter who, it is guaranteed to be mentioned within the first few seconds of introduction. My response of “no” is usually met with a “why not?” – and even on one occasion with a sympathetic “don’t cry!” …Right. Being intentionally or happily single just isn’t an understandable or valid status here.

San Antonio exterior
San Antonio exterior

So imagine the furore when, on one holy day each year, women have the opportunity to appeal to that holy miracle worker and finder of things lost, San Antonio, to cure them of their shameful single status and the pitiful lament of solitude and match them with a man. People had told me about this tradition, and I had thought it amusing and interesting, but today I experienced how serious it really is. The young and not-so-young alike amassed at the church of San Antonio to pray for their most desperate wish to be granted: Please God, find me a boyfriend.

San Antonio interior
San Antonio interior

There are a number of procedures you can follow to maximise your man-catching potential. First option: fill a little felt purse (available for purchase at the entrance) with thirteen coins of the same denomination to deposit in the church; second, buy a red ribbon (also available for purchase) and tie it around the statue of Tony; or third, buy a red candle (handily available for purchase – spot the pattern?) to light and deposit at the altar. The most dedicated take no chances. I did none of these things, so it seems I may be destined to singledom forever BOO HOO.

I didn’t leave with hopes of being bestowed with a boyfriend, but with a great big beasty bread called pan de fiesta (also known as pan de burro). Contrary to popular opinion, I think I’ve got my priorities right.

Que viva Puebla

Naturally, the first thing I did when I found out that I’d be living in Puebla was take to the internet and scour the search pages. And what did I find? Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name, and is most famous for being the city in which the French troops of Napoleon III were defeated on the 5th of May, 1862 in the great Battle of Puebla. At the time the French army was considered the most powerful army in the world, and the Mexicans were outnumbered, under-skilled, and ill-equipped. Nevertheless, the Mexicans fought them off until they retreated, making it the first French defeat since Waterloo in 1815, and the first time that penniless, war-torn Mexico had defeated a foreign invader. The army leader heralded with this monumental triumph is General Ignacio Zaragoza. Heralded so much was he, that the following year the city was renamed in his honour from Puebla de los Ángeles to Puebla de Zaragoza. As if that wasn’t quite glorious enough, it was renamed again in 1950 as Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza. And to emphasise the heroical history of Puebla and General Zaragoza just a teeny tiny little bit more, when the children write the fecha completa (full date) at the top of every page in their workbooks, it is written ‘H. Puebla de Z., a 12 de Mayo 2014’. (Just don’t mention that the French came back in 1863 and successfully captured the city.)

We know by now that the Mexicans don’t normally need any excuse to celebrate, so you can imagine what happens when they do have one: all hands on deck! Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) was born, and is celebrated annually with the month-long Feria de Puebla, a huge fair held on the site of the battleground with rides, bars, daily music events, games and conferences. And on the day itself (of course a bank holiday), an enormous parade makes its way through the city. The Pueblans are very proud of it, and as preparations began, including huge stands and seating lining the Boulevard Cinco de Mayo, I grew increasingly intrigued to see what was in store. The parade was due to start at midday, and on the night before my host mum told me that we’d be leaving at 8am to get a good seat. Slightly excessive, I thought, given that we live a three minute walk from the Boulevard. But when we arrived we squeezed into the last two front-row spots and bought a pair of little wooden stools to wait. For the next few hours many minor spats ensued between people already there and others trying to squeeze in and get the best view. Apparently the raised stands had been full since 5am in the morning. Evidently, this parade was a BIG deal.

In the four hours we waited for the parade to start and reach us, the Boulevard was full of vendors selling traditional Mexican treats.

Coconuts and coconut milk, 'papas' (crisps), and gelatina (jelly)
Coconuts and coconut milk, ‘papas’ (crisps), and gelatina (jelly).

In the evenings the streets of Puebla’s ‘downtown’ are full of these carts selling crisps, ‘aguas’ (fruit drinks), and jelly pots.

A wheelbarrow of amaranth.
A barrow full of happiness.

This guy is selling nuts and amaranth sweets. Amaranth was a staple grain of the Aztec era and formed an integral part of religious ceremonies and rituals (it was notoriously, but not reliably, mixed with blood for use in human sacrifice). It has a very high nutrient content and is sold in health food shops, but is more commonly mixed with honey and sugar to make candy bars that look like bird food called alegría, ‘happiness’.

Chilli Squirt!
Chilli Squirt!

Squirt is the nation’s favourite grapefruit-flavoured soft drink, pronounced ‘e-squer’. In truly Mexican style, it is served in cups ready-lined with chilli powder. “Sin chile para mi, por favor.”

The Mexican equivalent of the Horse Guards.
The Mexican equivalent of the Horse Guards.
A slight altercation.
Mexican Iron Men dealing with a slight altercation.
Yoohooo over here!
Yoohooo over here!

A TV crew arrived and the crowd got VERY excited. The people next to me started shouting, “¡tenemos una guera!” – “we have a white girl!” – to improve their chances of being filmed, hilarious!

Mexican version of our Red Arrows.
Mexican version of our Red Arrows.

To keep the baying crowds happy we were also treated to a flyover by the Mexican version of the British Red Arrows.

Finally, in the scorching midday sun, the parade got under way, and it was quite spectacular!

Valient Cinco de Mayo soldiers.
Pueblans dressed as valient Cinco de Mayo soldiers opened the procession.
Toy soldiers.
Left, right, left, right.

Armed forces marched in their hundreds.

Eagles!
Eagles!

There were more different uniforms than I could count, and various weapons, instruments and other paraphernalia, including eagles!

Trumpeting tanks.
Trumpeting tanks.
Bring in the cavalry!
Bring in the cavalry!

After all of the military forces came a whirlwind history of Mexico in the form of animated floats and reenactments.

Aztecs.
Aztecs.
Soldiers of Cholula.
Soldiers of Cholula, Puebla’s next-door neighbour.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula.
The Great Pyramid of Cholula.
The Spanish conquest.
The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, 1519.
BATALLA DE PEUBLA! And national hero Benito Juarez!
BATALLA DE PEUBLA! And national hero Benito Juárez!
Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln.
Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln.
Princess Carlota, and Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and his pals about to be shot.
Princess Carlota, and Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and pals about to be shot.
Music and dancing.
The entire procession was punctuated by music and dancing, with the soundtrack varying from the theme tune to Dad’s Army, to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ We Found Love, and Pharrell Williams’ Happy.
¡Revolución!
¡Revolución!
Traditional Mexican costume.
Traditional Mexican costume.
Siege of the Serdán household.
Siege of the Serdán household: the Pueblans are very proud that the first shot of the Mexican Revolution was fired by Poblana (Pueblan lady) Carmen Serdán.
More colourful costumes, music and dancing.
More colourful costumes, music and dancing.
Choo chooooo.
Choo chooooo.
You go girls (just like Shania)!
You go girls (just like Shania)!
The Muralismo Movement.
The Muralismo Movement, 1920-1970.

Mexico is really famous for its murals, and Puebla is no exception. The promotion of mural painting began in the 1920s as part of an effort to reunify the country under the post-Revolution government. Painted onto public buildings, they generally had social or political messages: at a time when most of the country’s population was illiterate, they were encouraged as art for education and the bettering of the people in line with nationalist ideals. The mural-painting tradition continues to this day, and my Barrio of Xanenetla has some great examples. To see more on the murals in my area please follow this link: http://www.nileguide.com/destination/blog/puebla-mexico-74/2011/01/10/murals-in-the-xanenetla-historic-barrio/

The day was an absolute scorcher and the atmosphere was terrific. Celebrating in the history of Puebla and Mexico was very special for me, especially as an anthropologist wanting to learn as much as I can about the people, their culture and their sentiments. If there’s one thing Mexicans do really well, it’s coming together to celebrate, and it was wonderful to feel a part of that.

 

TEMBLOR

Another one checked off the list of dangerous things that could happen in Mexico, that have happened in Mexico: today I survived an earthquake – a temblor. Okay, I may be being slightly dramatic (completely out of character, I know), but it was certainly an experience. And isn’t the word temblor much more exciting than earthquake?!

At first I thought my chair was wobbling, then I felt very dizzy as though I was going to faint. Then I became aware that it wasn’t actually me, but the whole room swaying. Well, more accurately, the whole region, but I didn’t realise that at the time. The weirdest thing was its silence and the seemingly very slow realisation of what was happening, which in reality must have just been moments. It felt like a very strange kind of dream or time-lapse, until confusion turned into action. I was in my classroom at the time, and luckily the children had already packed up all their things because they were ready to go outside for break, so leaving was a relatively quick and stress-free process. It was much like a fire drill in the UK, with all of the children lining up in an open space across the road outside the school while each teacher counted their sprogs.

We waited there for a short time, presumably to be sure that a second tremor wasn’t about to happen, and then the school day resumed as normal. Everybody felt queasy afterwards, and I was a little bit in shock to be honest. I’m told that these sort of earthquakes happen here about once a year, but I’d never felt anything like that on land before, and as the reality sunk in of how far it had come from and how deep in the earth it had been, I did feel a big sense of relief that it wasn’t any worse.

It had measured 6.4 on the Richter Scale, classified as ‘strong’. According to the US Geological Survey, its epicentre was 9 miles north of Tecpan de Galeana in Guerrero, the state which borders Puebla to the west. It lies on the section of the Pacific Coast known as the Guerrero Seismic Gap – a 125 mile stretch where tectonic plates meet and have been locked, creating a huge amount of energy to be stored. The USGS estimates that it’s enough energy to cause an earthquake potentially reaching 8.4. In 1985 a ‘quake measuring 8.1 killed approximately 10,000 people and devastated parts of Mexico City, so it’s no surprise that people got in a bit of a tiz today, especially as aftershocks are unpredictable and often cause considerable damage where structures have been weakened by the initial shock. My naïvité probably served me well in this situation.

Living in Mexico is nothing if not eventful. Temblor: done. And one is quite enough for this lifetime.