Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dia de los Reyes in Puebla

The drive to Puebla was stunning, a sharp climb up the lush mountainside into the high, dry plains. On the way we passed a thousand tiny farms, horse-drawn ploughs cleaving wide troughs in the dark soil, dairy farmers checking on their half dozen cows, others leading horses laden with old-fashioned milk jugs (the kind our neighbours favour for anchoring mailboxes) across the highway. The temperature dropped but the sun was full and hot.

We pulled in to Puebla around lunchtime and tried our luck just off the highway looking for a mecánico. Our first stop didn't seem promising — an older woman very busy with her cell phone and a bunch of teenage boys who very clearly had less mechanical knowledge than me (and that's saying something). We stopped for gas and asked if the guy knew of anyone in the neighbourhood who worked on Volkswagens. He pointed at an alley a couple of hundred metres away and off we went. We were met with some curious looks when we pulled up but both mechanics seemed very eager to help. They agreed that the only way to confirm whether the noise was the rear wheel bearings or the transmission was to take it out on the road so they both jumped in. "We'll go to the Servicio tecnico of the VW plant. If we need parts we can get them there instead of having to wait for days for them to send them." Made sense to us. After a couple of minutes on the road, they seemed pretty sure it was the bearings, not the transmission (phew!) Mario rode up front with Wil, Oscar was in the back with the kids and me. We chatted about the new government, which Oscar felt hopeful could make some changes in Puebla, and about mechanics. They directed us to the plant which employs 13,000 people (all of whom, according to Oscar, are very well paid and get a car lease while in the company's employ). Lots of VWs on the road = good for us. He and Mario worked together for six years at a VW dealership before going out on their own. They jumped out of the van at the servicio tecnico and talked to the manager about us. It turned out the plant garage only serviced employee cars and because the plant was on holiday 'til the 10th of January he couldn't help us. He redirected us to a dealership where he said they could at least requisition the parts we needed, which could take a few days. Wil had very cleverly brought one set of bearings for a front wheel and one for the back along. It seemed to us that if any work was going to be done we'd rather it be done by Mario and Oscar who very good-naturedly spent the better part of their afternoon showing us the VW sights of Puebla. We headed back to their shop. Oscar explained that the work would be done at his compañero's shop — that they had a network of former VW employees who all worked together so that none of them needed all the tools. We said we'd be in touch around 11 the next day and set off to see the city.

We found a great old hotel in the centre of town, a faded old grand dame of a colonial building. Through a pair of massive, ornately carved doors into the cool courtyard of a home that must have been the abode of a very important person in colonial times. A six foot wide sweeping staircase that led to a sitting room on the mezzanine and a subtle, stained glass wall framed in iron the width of the building. The room had been poorly retrofitted with a bathroom and electricity and, despite the reduced floorspace, was of proportions none but the richest would now consider devoting to a single room. Henri counted six different kinds of tiles in the floor of our room alone. Our hosts were a charming elderly pair and their son, who sprang from their lodgings in the back of the building whenever we set foot through the door to hand us our keys. We decided that if we can't camp, we'll take thin sheets and sluggish hot water over the sanitized but reluctant attention we get in the bigger hotels. Downtown, Wil and I had sipped tequila and had an amazing soup, a chipotle flavoured broth with chunks of avocado, cheese and crispy tortillas pieces while the kids watched a pair of clowns.

Later on, we headed to a restaurant called La Guadalupana for supper. The place was as quiet as could be when we walked through the door but the owner assured us he was open, even as he skittered around turning on the lights and music. The ladies in the kitchen who were evidently getting ready to pack it in were not amused. We ordered in a hurry, an amazing molcajete (a Puebla specialty), strips of beef in a mole sauce served in a sizzling lava mortar. As we ate the owner showed us the adjoining room and told us it was where the scene from Frida where she kisses the other woman was filmed. I asked him if he had kids and then asked if he had gifts ready from the three magi (which are due at midnight on the 6th). "It's been very quiet this week .. maybe I'll have something for them on Saturday," he answered. Yikes. Eating with one's foot in one's mouth is seriously awkward. About halfway through the meal his wife and kids showed up and watched TV in the other room while we finished up. The chef streaked past us on her way out.

We walked back up to the zócalo. The balloon vendors were out in huge numbers. We sat down to people watch. Families were showing up in droves, even more than you'd expect on a regular night, and each and every kid held a letter or card carefully taped or tied to a helium balloon. When the family reached the side of the cathedral the littler children were deposited on the ground and everyone stood around, often posing for photos on cellphones. And then, to much ooing and aahing, the balloons were released. They climbed up along the cathedral's illuminated spires, some quickly and some painfully slow, spun around in the black sky and disappeared. I talked to an abuela , there with her son and his two kids, about the tradition. "Yes, the letters are requests for toys and presents sent off to the three magi and at midnight, the magi deliver the presents to the children. Of course, we are really the ones who buy the presents," she said, at which point her son dragged the kids away as quickly as he could. I signalled her to zip it but she tut-tutted me, assuring me the kids knew it wasn't REALLY the magi, as her son glared at her from a distance. Oops. The zócalo was aglow — with the excited energy of hundreds of kids believing in the magic of the magi — and of their parents reliving those same childhood moments through their kids.

The next morning, the scene was altogether different. The zócalo was packed with families, but almost exclusively women and kids. The women looked tired and many of the children were dirty (a very rare thing here), a whole other slice of Mexican society, lined up three people deep around the whole perimeter of the zócalo. We're talking about an entire city block. One end of the zócalo was closed off to traffic and a container sat alone inside a barricade. I asked a cop about what was happening. "They are waiting for gifts from the Magi, all of it funded by Banco Azteca" (a bank cum department store found in every Mexican city — look for a store with speakers on the sidewalk that are so loud they practically push you into the street through sheer volume you have found Banco Azteca). "Some have been waiting since five o'clock this morning." When we got back from breakfast, mothers and kids continued to file into the square from every direction, the queue now circled the perimeter more than once. The barricaded zone was no longer empty. At the entrance, mothers went one way and the kids ran another, as fast as their little legs could take them, elated, toward the container. Volunteers pulled out gifts and handed them out to the kids. Hundreds of children hung out in the zócalo playing with their new toys, according to the policeman tens of thousands more went home happy. Some got balls and trucks, the very lucky ones got bikes.

We went back up to "La Maria", the neighbourhood north of town, to check on the van. Oscar drove us over to the other shop and said "It should be ready by tonight but we'll take it for a test drive in the morning just to be sure. You should be out of here by 11." Excellent. When we ask a man on the street which bus to take downtown, he walked us down the street and pointed out the bus. We hop on. The kids love it. We jump off at the Museo de los ferrocarilles, the railway museum that is housed in the former, quite picturesque, Puebla Rail Station. The museum consists of about 8 lengths of rail packed with car after car, from the first steam engines to a groovy sixties bar cars. You get to climb on and poke around engines and cabooses. The mail car was my favourite — with all the iron racks for hanging the bags and tiny, perfect pigeon holes for the letters. It was in such immaculate shape it was easy to imagine the long ago correo employees sorting and handling the mail in an age when penmanship was an art; a time when matters of the heart were arranged by correspondence. It was even more fun to picture the people waiting expectantly for those letters scattered in the remote Mexican pueblos the mail car served. We also thought about our friend David Grenville and whether he would have arrived at this very station as a young man when he came to live in Puebla. On our walk back to the centro, we saw and smelled a hundred delicious treats, settling on a couple — one giant quesadilla (a big oval tortilla folded over squash flowers, mushrooms and cheese) and something new to us, garochitas, little balls of masa wrapped around black bean paste, flattened like a tortilla and deep fried 'til it puffs up, then topped with cream, crumbled fresh cheese and salsa. We walked and walked. We crashed at the hotel for a while. We walked around the more touristy restaurants on the zócalo, keen on having a nice meal and then setting the kids free in the square while we enjoyed a quiet moment after dinner. We got the usual spiel from the waiters and waitresses, selling their menu hard as we passed. We counted the votes and settled on a place which meant doing the loop a second time. Same waitresses, same spiel. I suppose white guys all look the same. After dinner, the kids went across the road to buy and play with balloons. Our entertainment was a very personable traffic cop waving off and talking down would-be illegal parkers. When a certain grace period was exhausted, he proceeded to remove the car's front license plate which he carried around in a black felt bag. He targeted two cars while we had supper. His partner later told me they basically hold the plate for ransom. Any car without a front plate is pulled over by the cops and you can't get it back until you show up at the main office to pay the parking ticket.

Back to La Maria to find Oscar. Surprise, surprise, it will be a little longer than expected. The bearings we had with us were not the right size so he had to hunt down some new ones down. They got it all put back together and we hit the road toward Oaxaca, only to turn around 15 minutes later when we started smelling burning brakes and Wil was feeling like the van had lost its pep. Sure enough, one of the bearing sleeves was too wide (different name brands, go figure!) and didn't allow them to get the wheel on as well as they could/should have. More adjustments and more chatting with mechanics. Despite the fact that:
- the kids sit patiently in the car for hours at a time and I know they don't begrudge us;
- our mechanical woes provide us entry into a realm of people and neighbourhoods with little or no exposure to tourists revealing, over and over, that Mexicans are unbelievably helpful, courteous and just plain nice;
- it has required a range of vocabulary that I never would have otherwise needed or learned (through incessant repetition).
I am nevertheless getting effin' tired of it. And it is no good for Wil's mental health. Let's hope that this is the end of it.

We finally got out around 4. With the limited daylight hours left, we had to find another destination and settled on the Centro Vacacional La Trinidad just outside Tlaxcala for a little country interlude before heading down to Oaxaca.

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