Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Road of Good Intentions

The morning of the 8th of September I was waken up by the warmth of sunlight, filtering timidly through the thick curtains of my room. My shower was long and boiling hot on purpose; the simple pleasure of cleanliness has become immensely enjoyable since the beginning of the journey: the steam filling the room; my hair being soft and my scalp being relaxed; the ever-so-light revitalization of my eyelids; the smoothness of a close shave as I run my fingers down my jaw. Whoever said that cleanliness was next to godliness, understood the transcendental relief, the exhilarating peace of this aquatic refreshment.

Soon after cleansing body and soul, I devoured my continental breakfast and jolted up to my room to finish up the last Mexico City entry; then closed the laptop and checked out at reception. I asked for a "safe taxi", which is a very sensible thing to do in Mexico: a few, very unfortunate cabs down here operate fake licenses to gain some bait for fruitful kidnappings. For that reason, the safest thing to do is to run to the closest taxi stop (clearly marked and supervised) or to ask for one out of the central through the closest business. Hailing one from the street is always a gamble, especially if you are hauling a backpack, wearing shades, and look pale, clueless and clean-shaven.

You know you are in good hands when...
The bill for replacing both flex discs, the carrier bearing and its support amounted a little over $200, including driveshaft rebalancing and painting (!), plus an immense peace of mind. As soon as I arrived I was asked if I wanted a pressure wash for free, and in a few minutes my car turned from a soiled dirt color to a nice factory yellow. In the meanwhile, we talked about my plans in Oaxaca and some of the mechanics' stories, including a Catalan customer who refused to be called Spanish, or some of the cars they had worked on. Surprisingly enough, the head mechanic knew what a Buick Reatta and a Fiat 2300S were! I am glad he was the one to work on my car, despite the unfortunate timing of having to leave the USA in a rush. The manager let me snap a couple pictures, and we waved each other goodbye with a broad smile and the best wishes for the future. I absolutely recommend this shop: Afinaciones Cientificas Castillo.


Being back on the road felt like true heaven. The grip on the steering wheel, the seat beads salvaged from Tyler's Ford Crown Victoria, the purr of the diesel engine at 55mph, the neatly austere instruments ahead of me. Every click, every smell, every whisper of the car brought me back home in this machine, been cobbled together to support my life for the following months.

Just outside of Mexico lie some of the most monumental ruins of the New World: the spiritual complex of Teotihuacán. The story talks about the two gods who sacrificed themselves by diving into a bonfire, to be reincarnated as the Sun and the Moon. This sacred city boasts their respective pyramids, the tallest being 75m and the smallest being a not-so-modest 43m.

I had to take this photo on my own personal conquest of the pyramids!
The entire complex is crowded by little souvenir stores, sweaty overworked tourists and insistent vendors that shuffle towards you as if triggered by motion. Amongst the tourists, one can distinguish those of Anglo-Saxon origin (US, Britain), with their work-it-all attire consisting on running shoes, sunglasses and shorts. The ones from Spanish origin dress in cream/toasted tones, many a time in hippie organic fashion, and curse obliviously anywhere they go. And then, there are some of Mexican origin that have not bothered to change their everyday attire for the toil of climbing...

Props to this woman (in the foreground) for climbing 75m in high heels. The descent was hilarious to watch.
The complex itself was breathtaking, literally and figuratively. I arrived to the top of the Sun pyramid and collapsed on one corner, but I stayed up there for close to an hour, admiring the greatness of the whole complex and the surrounding landscapes in complete awe.

Nothing like a small-scale warm-up first at the Moon Pyramid.
Splendid! That wasn't that hard, wasn't it?
This is the moment in which you confront the scale of what you are about to do...
Hello, Moon pyramid! I think I like the views from your big sister a little better...

What a wonderful morning, what a wonderful day! And since I had the wonderful feeling everything was going my way, I decided to push on to Puebla and get dinner there before sunset. The drive was 120km, which lasted a couple hours with the respective share of potholes, speed bumps and extreme jaywalkers across the interstate. This decision did not disappoint.

I arrived to the heart of Puebla at 5.45pm, just in time to eat a couple tacos árabes (the meat is cut off a cylinder resembling a döner-kebab) and scout for a safe location to spend the night. I hit the jackpot with both choices, and parked about a block of the town's Starbucks in a über-safe neighborhood where I would be assured to annoy someone if I stayed for too long (see the trend?). I snuggled in my improvised tent and had a pleasant night back in the memory foam mattress.

The next morning I opened my eyes and heard nothing. Everything was absolutely silent: no traffic, no birds, no shouts in the distance. It was eerie, even: it felt as if my wagon had been blasted into deep space. I opened the door of my very own Apollo XII, and I could not believe the lunar landscape before my eyes: all buildings around the car had been leveled to the ground: some were oozing water from the broken plumbing, others were still in flames; not a soul was in sight. I walked to what I remembered as being the nearest avenue, just to see the dimensions of the damage, and why my Mercedes, despite this destructive blast, had been the only unscathed object for hundreds of meters. While I would like to brag about the toughness of my vehicle, it is not the time to do so. It took me a while to walk to the main street, completely empty.

The night before this street was lined with cars! Where were they? What is going on?!
I finally saw some –very confused- people near the Financial District. Some of them had burns.
And if you have read this far, relax: I have been kidding all this time. The only true statements in that pile of apocalyptic gibberish were the fact that the morning was dead silent, and the main street being completely empty. I walked to the local Starbucks called by nature, and there I found out that every Sunday, the town of Puebla cuts off traffic to allow for people to cycle and jog. Now, isn't that cool? As I walked down the avenue I saw several officers stopping the crossing traffic to allow for cyclists to roam freely. I went back to the wagon and this is the actual landscape surrounding it:

Now, much better than I described, isn't it? The road condition honors the description, though.
Because my point-and-shoot was running low in battery and I have not found a charger yet, I grabbed my big Canon 60D, a camera that means business. I am incredibly glad, as the subject being photographed was well worth it, in every corner and every nook. Read on, and find out the marvels that I found that day, on a quiet Sunday in the streets of Puebla...

This formerly abandoned mansion was being rehabbed as a luxurious office for a psychologist.
You just walked into the real of Technicolor: welcome to Puebla.
Calle Reforma, the thin line between touristy and authentic.
The Zocalo. In the background there was a loud preacher commenting on the wonders of being alive.
Lively dancers, restless children, curious tourists, happy gluttons... the maelstrom of mankind!
The Zocalo fountain angel, with the Cathedral as a backdrop.
I do have to very important points to make about Puebla. The first one is the large amount of gorgeous abandoned architecture: while there are many imposing 19th century gems and Art Decó constructions that never fail to please the eye, there is always some incredibly detailed building that has broken windows, crumbling concrete and well... smells of pee. My entrepreneurial self reeks his mind thinking of the many possibilities, from hostels to little academies like my grandfather started his business... The second point is the extreme contrast between the areas that are touristy and the ones that are used by the locals. It is as easy as making a right or a left on Avenida Reforma. First, I went for some travel magazine shots to get them out of the way...

Rejoice in the historic charm of colonial times!
What better place to celebrate a unique anniversary with that special someone? Visit Puebla!
Thinking of work? Puebla offers a unique, multinational setting for the world-class businessman!
Are you a lover of the arts? The local architecture near the Zócalo will fail to disappoint!
Relax and shop in the many cheap souvenir shops along these overly colorful buildings!
Oh, my! Witness the fusion of East and West in this arabesque arch I found by total accident!
Okay, okay. Enough with the travel brochure shots. Let's get it on with the true nit and grit of Puebla, walking alongside the locals, people who would never think of spending $1000 on a camera! Getting to the true commercial quarter is as easy as walking a few blocks north, from the point in which you start feeling crowded amongst jaywalking locals, to the point in which you feel mildly threatened because you know you are sticking like a sore thumb. And somehow, everywhere I have traveled, I have a constant: to pass a few things that look pretty good, keep walking, start doubting, start thinking of returning, doubt some more, and, suddenly, discover something off the chart before the regret of walking too far has settled entirely. Yes, that's how everything in life –not only sightseeing- seems to work for me.

The first thing I did was to snoop around the stores surrounding the lesser churches. Soon enough I found a stream of older women pouring into a very humble-looking business. It happened to be an ancient Cerería, a business dedicated to the sole purpose of selling candles of all shapes, sizes and durations. As soon as the women were gone, the owner kindly welcomed me to take as many pictures as I wished, and even let me pass on to the very back.

The ever-smiling owner, just about to pull some to let me smell the fresh beeswax.
How do you think a store exclusively dedicated to candles would function in the USA?
The backstore was populated by hundreds of candles dangling from the ceiling and sitting on the floor.
Thanking her, I gave her one of the devotion booklets that I got in Guadalupe, and she offered me a couple stickers from her business. The Antiguo Cereo Alarkon doesn't have an online presence, so you will have to look very hard for it between the 3th and 6th East-West streets.

The next item on my personal laundry list on things to do in Puebla was to try some of the local candy. A long time ago, when my mother used to own a travel agency, a representative of the Puebla Chamber of Commerce stopped by our town and gave us some delicious samples of Puebla candy. That memory has stuck with me for all these years, and it hasn't been until this very special day that I could reunite with these sweet confectioneries. I skimmed the streets looking for a real cave of wonders, the ancient hole-in-the-wall where the Holy Grail of Candy lives.

And I found it.

Climbing a step into what seemed a re-purposed XIX Century lodge, I spotted several bags of pork's ear, gumdrops, obleas and artisan lollipops. The only thing missing was my Indiana Jones hat, which, despite making me feel embarrassed in front of the somber countenance of the owner, would have been greatly appropriate in the face of this epic discovery.

Chile candy, gumdrops, chewy caramel, toasted almond crisps, cajeta lollipops...
As soon as the elevating music of John Williams ceased to play in my head, I asked the owner for some recommendations about some genuine Puebla sweets. He pointed right to the counter, where I saw a few bars delicately wrapped with thin plastic and simple, unpretentious labeling. I thought of the kids who I was going to teach in Oaxaca, and also ordered, for a whooping $5, a couple pounds of fruity candy squares, a favorite with a little bit of acidity, as the store owner described. With $9 spent in the big boy and the little kids, I was happy as a clam.

Notice the pink and the yellow bars at the bottom: less than $1 a piece, made of pumpkin seeds.
With a whole day's worth of walking, my legs began feeling heavy. At 4pm I thought it was a good time to sit down in one of the Starbucks couches, sip some tea and write the day away. However, on the way back from the candy store, I made yet another discovery, the one that has made Puebla satisfy every single expectation that I could ever have of a town I barely know anything about: a section in the local Chevrolet dealership, dedicated exclusively to vintage models...

All of them in mint condition. That white one in the background is a 90's Pope escort Caprice!
Darn, Puebla. Not only my thirst for beautiful architecture has been quenched today, but –who knew!–, my car-nut sense of curiosity has gotten its due reward just a few blocks from home. All these GM models were brand-new looking down to the taillight plastic, as if I had gone back in time thirty years. I wished Tyler, Mr. Roadmaster wagon, was there to witness it!

Got church? Yep, a few steps away from the shiny new GM showroom.
That street seemed to be where all the auto parts stores were at. Being a Sunday they were all closed, but they offered a colorful and shabby panorama as I walked back to the Mercedes.

An ubiquitous Mexican scene: a fonda (restaurant) and an old Volkswagen!
The Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza, or simply put, Puebla, has surprised me in every single way. Bit by bit as the day went by, I have had moment of sheer amazement combined with those of utter, unexpected awe. The day started with a pleasant realization of a city government who puts people's health before automobiles, and ended up surrounded by delicious candy –only found in this part of the world– and a blast thirty years into the past into a vintage Chevrolet dealership. That one day, simply put, has been one of the best days I have had in months.


The following day I woke up at dawn and drove for close to five hours on to Oaxaca, on my way to be a volunteer teacher for the following month. The road was reasonably well paved, and it was beyond scenic. I had my bulky SLR in the back of the car, so I could only take pictures when I had the chance to stop, in one of the terraces overlooking the valley...

A little roadside stop to take some pictures and enjoy some Puebla candy overlooking the foggy peaks!
The supervisor at the education center received me rather... coldly. She explained me the mission of the center, handed me a sheet of paper to be filled, and told me to return the next day at 9am. I recognized that she may have been buried in work, or maybe she had a so-so day. In any case, I wandered the beautiful streets of Oaxaca. I will have a month to write about its flavorful architecture, its coffee-skinned people and the many unusual dishes I have bowed to try.

The traditional Spanish patio, many miles from home.
Just of of curiosity, I stopped from hostel to hostel asking for rates for a bed for one night, just to factor some budgeting for the month that I will be spending here. One of these hostels seemed rather empty; I could hear the beating of the hammer behind the reception desk. Just out of curiosity, I asked if they had any job openings available, and Javier, the receptionist, gladly called his boss to ask. He said he would visit in a couple hours, so I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to Javier about the mouth-watering food specialties of Oaxaca, and tasting some myself out in the streets.

Mr. Lino, the owner, arrived at 6 o'clock. He shook my hand with firmness and confidence, and we talked about a possible exchange of lodging/food for an online visibility package (listings, website, promotion). We agreed on another solid handshake. Now I could really experience Oaxaca like a true native, intermingling with local families, hearing their stories and helping them in the process! I was beyond glad and thankful for this strike of luck. If you feel curious, I shall be here, at the Hostal Plaza del Carmen in Matamoros Street... so come pay me a visit if you are thinking of coming to experience this gorgeous town of Oaxaca de Juarez!

- - - - - -

It's been more than 20 days since I left Wichita, forced by a government who cares more about what can be gotten out of immigrants than the whole spectrum of what they can provide by themselves. I miss my friends deeply, and somehow two visits to KFC –hush, try to understand!– have tightened this nostalgia of the United States. It's still a long road of unexpected events, with fortunes and misfortunes. However, all I can say is that the day I spent in Puebla and this pleasant surprise in Oaxaca have been the best start that I could have had for everything I have ahead.


  1. Very cool views of the pyramids. But are you driving a Kansas car in Mexico?!


  2. Thanks you! And yes, yes indeed! I can drive it all over Latin America as long as I get a "temporary import" permit in each of the customs offices along the route!