Sunday, January 30, 2011

To the Yucatan

Another happy night in Mexico City. The kids spent the bus ride in the last row while Wil and I watched the steep road unwind in front of us. Much of the drive from Puebla to Mexico City is downhill, through tall pine forest. Every few kilometres, a crimson line appears on the road to guide brakeless vehicles into a short lane full of deep gravel off the right hand lane. About half way down is a long string of miradors on either side of the highway, fancy and primitive shacks selling food of all varieties and views of the valley below. Many truckers use the opportunity to stop and cool off their ageing and overheating engines.

On the subway ride to our hotel, we were accosted by a man asking us where we were from. We chatted with him until it was his time to get off. He said goodbye by saying how he hoped that we liked his city as much as he did. When it was our stop, a man who was standing near enough to eavesdrop wished us "Bon Voyage" as we got off. What a town.

We went back to Posada Viena and got a different, but equally cool room just two minutes from the Cuauhtémoc metro station. We decided to try out a restaurant in the Condesa neighbourhood, a little further south than the Zona Rosa. We'd heard from so many people to never, ever flag a cab in Mexico City —that it was essentially an invitation to be robbed — but as we stood out on Chapultepec watching cab after cab drive by, full of passengers coming home from work or shopping it occurred to us that this might be yet another bit of fear-mongering. I stuck out my hand and a minute later we were happily talking with our amiable driver. We got out a few minutes later and wandered along Michoacan Street, looking for Fonda Garufa, an Argentinian grill. The Condesa neighbourhood is lovely — full of trees, cafés, restaurants and parks. As we meandered along, I felt like we'd found OUR neighbourhood in Mexico City. A few minutes later, we were seated at a table, drinking nice wine and people watching. Everything that came to the table was simply delicious. We had another pleasant cab ride on the way home with an older driver. A block away from our hotel we got pulled over by some plainclothes policemen on the way home. The driver patiently handed over his paperwork and then got out to talk. We figured it was about the two sets of red lights he just drove through. A policewoman came over to apologize for the delay. When the driver got back in he explained that the cops were chastising him for having a sun screen in the back window, something that has been recently outlawed to prevent robberies.

In the morning we headed out to the airport by metro (again, only 3 pesos a person) and got on our midday flight to Cancún. On the plane I chatted with a young guy sitting beside me, a native of Cancún who'd been holidaying in Veracruz for a week. He bemoaned the overdevelopment of his city, complaining about the traffic and the congestion and the tourists. I didn't have the heart to tell him that we were going to skip Cancún altogether, jumping on a bus heading south as soon as we arrived. We stepped out on to the tarmac less than two hours later. There's nothing quite like walking down the steps of a plane and being hit with that first wave of humidity and hot wind to make you feel like your holiday has really begun. We asked around about a coléctivo going down the coast but a patronizing airport employee explained that cheap busses just don't exist in the Yucatan. We didn't have the heart to argue with the guy so we got into the van he directed us to and hit the road for Puerto Morelos.

Puerto Morelos wasn't what we expected. We couldn't quite get over the volume of tourists in the diminutive town. Most of the people were white and most of the signs were in English. I had imagined it more like Troncones where the rhythm of life is more like the rest of Mexico, interrupted by the occasional white couple walking along the road looking for a meal. The beach part of Puerto Morelos has no market, no street food, no vendors, just a lot of guys in white tank tops asking you in English about snorkelling and boat tours. We checked in to a little posada on the strip, stupidly ignoring the bar a few feet from our room, and then went for a walk on the beach. Golden sand, turquoise water, white waves breaking on a distant reef undoubtedly teeming with colourful fish, lazy, gentle, warm surf. It is pretty easy to see why this has become such a popular town. We wondered how we were going to find our friend Steve as we walked up the beach. We stopped for margaritas (the worst ever) at a beachside shack, the only one offering any kind of shade and saw a poster pitching yoga classes. We asked about the woman who gave the classes and whether she had a friend named Steve. "El flaco?" (the skinny guy?). Bingo. We had a phone number. A couple of tequilas helped temper our misgivings about the town. The Yucatan is definitely in a different price bracket than the rest of the country. Everything from bottled water & beer to hotels & meals averages double the price. We walked back along the road, looking for places we might come back to in a week's time with Wil's sister, Nicky and her husband, Gus. Steve came into town to meet us. He patiently sat with us while we ate supper (on day ten of his fast). While we finished up, the kids went to play in the zocalo, a pastel concrete construction which houses a decent playground in pretty good repair. Alice was feeling crappy so she and I hung out in the hotel as the others snacked on some great pizza across the road. The night was a nightmare for me, listening to people at the bar getting more and more drunk, laughing louder and louder at less and less.

In the morning we moved down the road into a hostel run by a couple in their fifties. Then Steve brought us up to Corinne's house to see the construction they've been working on. Hidden in the dense jungle, a lovely, cool house, a peaceful yoga palapa and much more on the way. Very cool. On the way there, we drove through the real Puerto Morelos on the other side of the highway, known as La Colonia (the neighbourhood) and found some of the things we'd been hoping to see, fruit stands, bakery, seafood, taco shacks. We picked up some fruit and bread, some unbelievably sweet fresh squeezed orange juice in litre bottles in a cooler. Wil spotted two guys outside a seafood place stocked with masses of ketchup. To Wil, the volume of ketchup meant high production of shrimp cocktail, ergo high turnover and fresh seafood.

Our night at the hostel was rough. The enclosed courtyard was very quiet but I kept waking and feeling like I was choking on the dank, heavy air. We went for a little walk in the early morning sun and watched the town come to life — fishermen pushing their boats out, grandfathers on bicycles, little ones in their school uniforms perched on the handlebars getting a lift to school. We decided to see a doctor about Alice's fever, thinking it better to sort out an ear infection before our prime snorkelling time kicked in. It turns out the hostel was just a block away from the walk-in clinic. We sat in the waiting room listening to the women around us chat about local politics. Each woman in turn would take one look at Alice and put their hand on her forehead, clucking about her high temperature and glassy eyes. The colectivo kept stopping outside to let people off, the ladies informed me that the lineups were shorter in the beach part of the Pueblo. The prices were posted on the wall, 35 pesos for a consultation, 40 pesos for medication. After a quick triage with the nurse and a little more waiting we talked to a sweet young doctor in four-inch heels. We left with a handful of prescriptions. Later that day, we ran into one of the local women from the clinic and she asked after Alice.

In the afternoon we made a date to meet Steve back at the beach shack, asking him to first drop by the seafood place in La Colonia for some ceviche. He turned up with a bag of totopos (fried tortilla chips), saladitas (saltines) and a half litre each of shrimp and octopus ceviche, the best we've ever had. We sat in the breezy shade, the sun blazing on the white sand and the pale water and devoured every last, delicious drop. The kids were happily building sand castles a little ways down the beach. When we went to collect them on the way home we found them with Cathy, a 70-year-old sculptor who kindly shared her sandcastle-building knowhow and tools with the kids. She was perfecting what looked like a modern take on an adobe home. Frances declared on the walk back that she wished she had three grandmothers.

Our friends, Mike and Véro, who spend their summers tending their vines in Farnham and the winter just down the coast in Paa Mul, nicely offered to come pick us up in the morning. They had persuaded one of their neighbours to let us stay in her palapa for a few days. We have such great friends! It took us no time at all to settle in to their easy, comfortable life here. We hung out in their palapa, catching up and taking it easy as the kids played.
The next day Véro put a picnic together and we rode bikes up to a little beach called Yanten with their daughter Soline and a few other kids from the campground. Véro and I built a little fire in the sand and cooked up some fajitas while Wil, Henri and Mike snorkelled out to the nearby reef. The other kids played in a fort and amused themselves painting their hands and feet black with coals, running back and forth into the crystalline water to wash off. In the late afternoon sun, I rode back to camp on a Wizard of Oz bike, doubling long-legged Frances, who hung on to my hips and chatted as I pedalled along a sandy track through mangrove by the most beautiful coast, I had one of those moments of unadulterated happiness.

In the evening we drove into Playa del Carmen to see Mike play with his band at a bar called Bad Boys. We walked along the Quinta, an endless, gawdy stretch of pedestrian mall, full of wandering tourists being hard-sold every imaginable tacky memento of Mexico. We turned down to the beach, which Véro explained was a lot bigger this year thanks to the truckloads of sand that had been pumped across the channel from nearby Cozumel. Bad Boys is a classic beach resort bar with sand floors and a lot of pink, drunk couples in their late fifties in tie-dye dresses and Hawaiian shirts. The kids played in the sand and wandered in and out of the bar as we sipped tequila and beer. Henri came to find me to tell me about a woman, "a grandmother!!!" who kept asking him to dance. "What did you tell her?" "I said no... I think she's drunk." Sure enough, when I got in front of the stage, a pretty, white-haired woman came to talk to me about her "little buddy", Henri. She talked at him over my shoulder as he squirmed uncomfortably, his good manners the only thing keeping him from running far, far away. Mike and his band rocked the house with a great (too short) set of classic rock tunes from the fifties and sixties and we headed back to Paa Mul for a delicious meal and some very yummy bubbly from Les Pervenches.

Next stop, Tulum to meet up with Nicky and Gus.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hello Mexicana

We went to a couple of museums yesterday, the museo Amparo which houses an amazing collection of pre-columbian artefacts. Funnily enough the kids actually got into it for the first time — just as I was thinking about how little I wanted to see more clay figurines. The place that really blew my socks off was Casa del Dean, the oldest house in Puebla, built in 1575. The two-room museum was once part of a more than twenty room mansion owned by the dean of the cathedral of Puebla. When it was sold to be turned into a movie theatre in the 1950s, renovations revealed murals dating from the late 16th centry behind the wallpaper in every room. The new owners of the building managed to demolish twenty of the rooms before someone caught on and stopped them. The two remaining rooms are spectacular. Friezes above and below the main artwork feature animals that appear in the Mayan codices leading experts to believe that indigenous hands were at work. The first room features a procession of Sybils on horseback carrying staffs with images of the scenes of Christ's life. The second room is based on Petrarch's poem about the Triumphs (of love, of chastity, etc..). Petrarch's muse sits on a carriage being pulled by various pairs of animals through life and death. I could have sat there all day. Such a sad reminder of how greed trumps art — a feeling I have again and again visiting ruins and realizing just how carefully the Spanish eliminated so much of mayan life and art in the name of god.

After spending an evening and way too much money at a fancy Mexican restaurant, and at the risk of offending, we've come to the conclusion that Mexican food just isn't a high brow food. I've also (reluctantly) decided that I just don't get moles. The combination of smoky peppers and chocolate is just too rich for me to be featured as the main component in a meal. Give me a taco al pastor any day.

The mechanic continues to make us wait. The flecha of the transmission finally arrived from Monterrey and it looks like we may actually get our van back today. We debated fleeing the city straight away but there's a bullfight in town tonight — an opportunity too good to pass up. We're also very happy in our hotel, a majestic old building called the Colonial. Our room has twenty-foot ceilings, vaulted in colourful plasterwork, a little balcony with a sitting area looking over the bedroom.

We went back to the mechanic's to pick up the van. We waited around for a while as they were wrapping up the job. The kids and I sat in the van doing homework as the mechanic worked under the van. Miguel finally showed up with his 6-year-old granddaughter, a beautiful, precocious little thing who came to visit us in the van. Off went the girls with Jimena. They spent the next couple of hours playing make-believe in a school bus that was being repaired. They took turns at the wheel, opening and closing the door for each other. In the meantime, Wil took the van out for a test drive with Miguel. It drove beautifully but it popped out of fifth so they had to take the transmission out again and get it adjusted. Miguel, who has very kindly been feeding us tips about places to visit since the first day we met, obviously felt badly about the delay. "Come have lunch at my house", he said as he called his wife to warn her that five extra mouths would be in her kitchen in half an hour. We all hopped into his pickup truck and off we went to his home in Cholula, the next town over. Mexicans are more than warm but we've never been invited into someone's home before and we were all counting our lucky stars. He pointed out the sights as we went — telling us about the volcano near his home that once threw a rock the size of our van into the next town. He pointed out all the churches on the way and the familiar form of the steps leading to those churches. Each church in Cholula, over three hundred of them at last count, sits atop Mayan ruins.

We pulled up in front of a white wall with a big gate. Our arrival coincided with his wife's who was hustling back from the store with a bag of limes. She opened the gate to reveal a lovely garden with a fountain and a stucco and red brick house up the path. He introduced us to his wife, Margarita, and his youngest son, Miguelito, a national mountain biking champion, and showed us around the house. The interior was inviting, more stucco and red brick. On the walls was an interesting collection of photos and prints, photos of Frida and Diego's first and second wedding, historical pictures of Cholula, colour photos of the volcano erupting, Mexican cowboy memorabilia, a portrait of Jesus made of sketches of all the churches of Puebla, along with an antique shotgun. Miguel proudly showed us his son's medals. We washed up and chatted as the kids chased the chickens around the back yard and then we sat down to lunch. First course was a simple plate of sliced tomatoes with lime and chile. Henri very bravely kept his gag reflex in check as he ate more fresh tomatoes in one sitting than he has in his whole life. Then came a delicious sopa de tortilla, a simple broth flavoured with chipotle, a dollop of cream, chunks of avocado and slices of fried tortilla. Then a plate of rice with a choice of either milanesa (breaded pork cutlet) or albóndigas de res (beef meatballs) in a simple tomato sauce. On the side, a salad of spinach, sesame seeds, ham slices and chicken. Then little plates of sliced banana with cream and sugar. Miguelito stood awkwardly (as only a sixteen-year-old can) over the table as we ate and then got kitted up in his biking clothes to go train for a big competition next week. Margarita hustled in the kitchen with the maid the whole time, only joining us at the table when everything was cleared away. We talked about the differences between Mexicans and Americans. Miguel used a story to demonstrate. He told us about some American cousins of his who had visited ten or more years ago, when his children were small. Miguel had left his house to let them use it for their stay and also took them for a camping adventure in the countryside. "The moment we got there,' he said, 'it started to pour. All the Americans reached into their bags and pulled out their raincoats and put them on... leaving all the Mexican kids to get soaked in the rain. That would never happen here.' he said. 'If your child is cold and I have a sweater on, I give it to him. That's the way we do things in Mexico. Americans think of themselves."

He later said that the reason Latinos couldn't move forward was because they were so busy feeling superior to each other than they didn't cooperate. "Between countries?" I asked. "Between states, between cities. We'll never get anywhere until we learn to work together." Margarita and Miguel compared notes on places we should visit if we ever spent time around Cholula. Margarita made me promise to come stay with them if ever we were in the neighbourhood. They couldn't believe we hadn't seen the pyramid of Cholula. "Let's go now," Miguel said, and just like that we were off, after many thank yous. We drove past Hernan Cortez's first house in Cholula and then pulled up in front of a massive pyramid of which only the bottom part is excavated, the rest was a small, green mountain with a cream coloured church at its peak. A pair of voladores were just jumping off their pole as we arrived. "There should be one for each of the four winds and one for the sun. This is a ripoff!" He teased the volador walking around with the collection plate about it, even as he put twenty pesos in the pot.

He dropped us off at the Plaza de Toros for us to pick up our tickets, promising that the van would be ready tomorrow by noon. We got amazing seats in the Sombra, right under the judge. We went back to the hotel to take it easy and then headed out to the bullfight. The kids were so excited. We picked up some tacos and a quick tequila before heading in. The scene couldn't have been more different that the one in Jalostotitlan last year. The Puebla plaza is massive and covered. The women were present but not on display in all their finery as they were last year. All the men were in jeans. The vendors sold, semillas (seeds, nuts, garbanzo beans with lime and chile), huge glass displays with each nut in its own little see-through compartment, tequila, beer, refrescos, roses to throw at the matador, sandwiches, cotton candy and hats.

Every once in a while we'd hear a small group of people chanting "Uno, dos, tres, quatro...", as several people held gourds up and poured wine in a long line into their mouths. Most competitors stopped in the twenties, some made it to the high thirties. It was fun to people-watch and to be part of the event but, to be honest, the show was disappointing. The bulls all seemed a bit defeated from the start, making it even more difficult to see them as any kind of threat to the showy matadors. We were feeling pretty lucky to be in the third row but I soon realized that being close enough to see the bull's eyes is not a plus. The initial fury they display when they emerge into the plaza fizzles so quickly as they are subjected to assault after assault. They're just big cows with horns and, however powerful, they are easy to manipulate and control. The posturing and macho head-flicking of the matadors verge on the ridiculous when you consider how much support they get from all the other performers whose deeds of "bravery" often outclass theirs. The worst is that only one of the matadors was able to kill the bull with one thrust of the sword, leaving us far too much time to think about what was really happening. I don't think we'll go to another bullfight.

Back to the garage in the morning. The transmission was being put back on. Wil took it out for a test drive with Miguel and everything worked beautifully, until he tried backing it into the garage. The van started backward and then lurched forward as though it couldn't decide which gear it wanted to be in. (Feel free to add your own unprintable string of expletives!)

Basta. Enough. We packed up a few backpacks and some homework, made a list for Miguel and took the bus to Mexico City. Tomorrow we're jumping on a plane to Cancun for a holiday from the anxiety-fest of repairing the effin' van.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Puebla and Mexico City

We pulled off the highway after twelve hours and 1000 kilometres of the most tense and intense driving of my life. When we got into Puebla and I saw a hotel on the side of the road I begged Wil to turn in to the parking. It didn't matter that the hotel was the most expensive in Puebla, just that it had a parking lot that was wide enough to turn around in without needing reverse. Wil performed a clever little trick of going up a hill and then using the pitch to roll backward into a spot we could get out of in second gear. It was such a huge relief to get out of the car and to leave the anxiety behind for a little while. The high count cotton sheets didn't hurt either!

We asked the waiters and the security guards, anyone we met, about someone who could rebuild the transmission. We had a lead to follow up on on Monday morning but in the meantime we were determined to relax a bit. We took a colectivo to the Hidalgo market and walked around for a couple of happy hours. We hadn't seen this market when we were here last week and I realize that my impression of Puebla had suffered because of it. So much of what happens in Mexican towns and cities happens at the market. Any one who needs to buy any thing comes to this labyrinth of colourful stalls. The Hidalgo market has got unusually high ceilings for a mexican market which, despite the hordes of people flowing past in all directions, helps keep the inevitable claustrophobia at bay. Mexicans have a different concept of merchandising. The idea here seems to be to get it all out there even if it means that there is very little space left for the actual shopper. The displays are uniformly overwhelming, as is the high volume music pumping from every stall.

Cesar, one of the security guards at the hotel, had told us about a transmission rebuilding business down the road, a place he assured us we could get to without first gear. After drawing us a half dozen maps, he stepped out into traffic to help us get across into the opposite lane without killing our momentum and we were off. We pulled in to Bronco Transmisiones five minutes later and waited for the owner. When he turned up, a tall Mexican version of MacLeod (remember MacLeod? the only thing missing was the sheepskin coat), he called his associate, who runs the standard transmission wing of the business, and he came over to confer. They both seemed quite sure that they'd be able to find a gear box to replace ours. I'll believe it when I see it, but they were dismantling it a few minutes later. The owner gave us a lift downtown where we picked up another yummy garochita and chatted to the kitchen ladies about tourists in Puebla. We found a new hotel and headed off to the Lucha.

Puebla lucha is like lucha everywhere else, each wrestler embodies a different persona, the ninja, the scotsman, the caveman, the devil. The good guys are predominantly dressed in white, the bad guys in black. The Puebla arena is a small one so there is little fanfare as the wrestlers are announced, no girls in bikinis and boots, no light show, just a foggy announcement and some loud music. A little red door opens and out comes the wrestler trotting to the ring. They usually appear wearing capes which they pass down to the security guard after they have stood on the ropes and saluted the cheering (or jeering) crowd. Most of them have little or large paunches hanging over their tight pants and shiny, patent leather booties. When six wrestlers have been announced and have paraded around, hanging over the ropes to have their pictures taken with the kids that are lifted up beside them, the fight begins. There are usually four half-hour fights in a night and the quality of the show improves as the night goes on. The arena is separated into three tiers. The floor (numbered seats), the next level up and the nosebleed section are general admission. The seats are all concrete and obviously designed for Mexican proportions. In the nosebleed section are two groups who sit on opposite sides of the arena and provide the colour commentary for the evening — deafening drums, noisemakers, coloured t-shirts and a string of expletives & lewd hand gestures. One side supports the guys in white, the other side the guys in black. One side drums and cheers and then the other side takes over. The crowd is full of small kids, despite the fact that the show starts at 9 on a Monday night. Young moms hold their sleeping babies wrapped in fleece blankets. The vendors are everywhere. The caliber of food at the Puebla arena is a step up. Men carry around big baskets lined with banana leaves, and inside juicy shrimp served with lime wedges, valentina & a sprinkle of salt or fried filet of fish. Other baskets hold cemites (the Puebla sandwich), a special cemita roll filled with deep-fried potato slices, sautéed red and green peppers, breaded pork, avocado and oaxacan cheese. Beer and refrescos, cotton candy, masks and t-shirts, you can find it all.

Our Mexican MacLeod seems to have found all the bits we need, a new transmission and a new clutch but they need one more piece from Monterrey. We decide to head into Mexico City (or Dé Efe as it's known in Mexico) for the night. We hop on one of the busses that leave every fifteen minutes. It's a totally painless way to travel. Wil smiles happily beside me, patently relieved to be on the road in a vehicle that is not his responsibility. Mexico is just as great as last time. Vast and congested, bustling with the whole population of Canada in one city. While beautiful, the infrastructure of the city is crumbling apart. Traffic is a nightmare, the roads are disintegrating but it's so very alive. We got ourselves a great hotel room in the Zona Rosa, a mellow neighbourhood that reminded me a lot of Barcelona, and headed toward the Zocalo. Although surrounded by some very regal, albeit colourless, buildings, DF's zocalo has zero charm. When we've seen it, It is often just a huge, desolate square. Approaching it up a wide boulevard, the spire of the massive cathedral that faces it is far from vertical. Mexico city is built in a lake bed and the unsteady soil has slowly but steadily been claiming the city's heaviest buildings, notably the Bellas Artes and the Cathedral. We spent the afternoon in the Palacio Municipal, a long, low, beautiful building that frames one side of the zocalo, checking out the beautiful museum it now houses. The history of Mexico is brought to life with flags from every era of Mexico's past, uniforms, paintings, maquettes and video displays. It is not a happy history, slaughter & slave trade, suppression & struggle. A quote from one of the fathers of Mexican Independence described the Mexican people as "either rich or wretched", a description sadly as apt today as it was two hundred years ago. It was fascinating seeing the faces and the achievements of all the characters and getting a grip on the events that shaped Mexico. This country's history is very much kept in the present; every town and city has a street named Cinco de mayo, 15 de noviembre, Independencia, Insurgentes, and on and on. Diego Rivera's incredible, larger than life murals tie it all together. One massive mural over the main staircase paints the entire history of the country in mind-boggling detail and beauty.

Outside, the familiar shouts of the vendors standing behind handbags and stuffed animals and sunglasses. Suddenly a whistle sounds and they all hustle to jam their product into black garbage bags. A moment later, a jacked-up black police pickup appears, full of armed officers. The vendors have suddenly disappeared, melting into the crowd. The truck makes its way up the street and, within minutes, all is as it was, products on display everywhere. The Mexico city metro is a marvel. The pictographs for each station and unbelivably cheap 3 peso tickets mean that it is accessible for all. You can't go longer than from one station to the next without a vendor coming on board selling pens or chiclets or pirated cds blasting out of mini-speakers in their backpack. Nothing ever costs more than 10 pesos.

We had dinner out at a great Italian restaurant where we chatted with the owner, a Mexican-Italian who spent some time in Victoria. A nice bottle of wine, cocktails for the kids. We had a blast.

We were heading out for breakfast at a restaurant when Frances froze in fascination in front of a food stand to watch a man making tacos. We couldn't resist. A plate of two big tacos, hot tortillas under a mix of chopped, seasoned beef and french fries, with a squeeze of lime and some salsa verde. My mouth is watering just remembering it. We started with one order and ended up getting three. Juicy and tasty and a bit greasy — the perfect hangover cure. Back on the bus to Puebla to get news of the van.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

the van throws us a fast one in Chiapas

It was nice to be back in Oaxaca. What a beautiful city. The zocalo is vast and amplified by a network of streets closed to anything but pedestrians. We decided to find a hotel south of Independencia (the north-south axis of town), out of the tourist zone and settled on la Lupita, a place a couple of blocks away from the mercado. We hauled some stuff inside and then went out for a look around. We wandered around the markets a bit, picking up some fruit and veg, a couple of embroidered dresses and aprons for the girls. We saw most of the sights of Oaxaca the last time around but we did see Monte Albán, incredible ruins set on the top of a mountain. The whole peak of the mountain was levelled off (by hand) to house the city. One of the Oaxaca highlights for Wil was the oil change which is done right on the side of a busy road. You basically park on the street, out they come with the ramps and seconds later a teenager is under the car with a pan.

The drive out of Oaxaca was no fun. The scenery was spectacular, up into the lush mountains and through dozens of valleys with colourful little pueblos settled around the almost dry riverbeds. The road was uncomfortably windy and the non-existant shoulders dropped away from us on either side. The back wheel was making an alarming wugga-wugga noise that seemed to be getting louder with each passing curve. We couldn't take it anymore and stopped at a mecánico in Xalapa de Marquez, in the foothills, to see if we could tighten up the baleros. They did what they could but the only explanation we could think of was that that the guys in Puebla had stripped the teeth off the flecha, overtightening the nut and that it had popped. We found our way out of the mountains and by La Ventosa, a barren stretch of flat land between the Pacific and the very photogenic Sierra Madre de Chiapas. Along the highway are hundreds of wind turbines and thanks to the van (which could double as a sailboat) we saw both sides of the road close up. We made it to Puerto Arista in time to see the sun set with our feet in the Pacific. We weren't sure what kind of welcome we'd receive when we got there (or even if they'd still be there). But Michel and his mother came out to see us with arms open wide. The rest of the gang here has changed a bit, Michel told us. His in-laws (mom, dad, sister & kid and brother) have all moved on, Michel's relief apparent as he told us. His brother Henry moved into town with his girlfriend and her three kids. There are a few other guys on the compound who sleep here before they head out on the water to fish. The mom, Margot, caught me up on their news. The toilets now have basic plumbing (no more buckets!), someone is building a hotel going up behind their property, and Michel is driving around a new ATV. I guess business is good. The young waiter has been replaced by two teenage girls who, after a little watching, appear to be two teenage boys in drag. They are fourteen and seventeen and both fled their homes near Tapachula. As the teenagers cleaned the kitchen, Margot flicked her head toward them and put her hands on her breasts. "No tienen. Hombres", she said. Yes, I can see that. They had Wil and the kids fooled though. It was an incredible opportunity to talk about the challenges transgender people face. I'd assumed that Mexico, as macho a country as it is, would be a difficult place for people like Presilla and Daniel, but I wonder. They seem to be more in evidence here than I've ever noticed at home. The teenagers definitely got a lot of ribbing from the family but perhaps no more than anyone else and they seemed to live together harmoniously. We figured a couple of days here and then on to Guatemala and back to Mexico through Belize.

In the morning Michel calls out to Wil as we sleep. Wil goes to check it out and comes back to get us all. A sea turtle has just finished laying her eggs not thirty feet down the beach and is covering up the hole before heading back out to sea. We watch in wonder as she uses her flippers to cover her tracks and then slowly pull herself back to the waves. After she is done, some of Michel's friends start poking around in the sand with a large stick to find where she laid them. We saw new signs on the highway in saying that Puerto Arista was now a turtle sanctuary. I thought they might try to move the eggs to protect them, as we'd seen in Puerto Escondido last year. But when I ask the dad what they're doing, he tells me they want to eat them. Sanctuary, my ass. I keep my environmental outrage under wraps but am quietly thrilled when they fail to find the eggs.

We ask Henry about a mecanico to look into the baleros which continue to make a racket and he takes us into the next village where we pull out the cotterpin (with great difficulty) and have a go at tightening the wheel. It sounds better as we drive back to the beach. When Michel comes back from setting his lines a big wave pushes them onto the shore and they crack the bottom of the motor. We asked him what he was going to do and he said he'd get a taxi to take him to the welder about twenty minutes away. Wil offered to drive him so Michel, his dad and a friend loaded the motor into the van and off they went. I started doing homework with the kids to keep them out of the sun, Michel's son Cesar came over to see what we were up to and I convinced him to do his homework too. He is in grade 2, like Frances. While she is reading books to me and learning how to write in cursive, he had four five word sentences to read and copy which he did with great difficulty.

After about twenty minutes of homework a taxi pulled up outside and whistled me over. You have the wrong person, I went over to tell him, but he insisted. "Your husband wants you to come." Where?, I thought. He must be doing something that needs translating or else has seen something cool that he wants me to see. I tell the kids to keep at it and jump in the cab. As we come around the corner, an ambulance with lights flashing is sitting at the corner — my first inkling that maybe something is wrong. How this thought escaped this pessimist for so long still mystifies me. The cab driver assures me that Wil is not in the ambulance but he doesn't know exactly where he is. We turn the corner away from the shore and head up the main road. About five minutes later, I see the van parked on the side of the road. Only when we get closer do I notice that the van is jacked up on the left side and that the rear wheel is propped against the van. Mierda. "It fell off?, I ask Wil. "Yup, and it hit a lady on the side of the road... but she's okay,' he answers.' The wheel brushed the back of her legs. She walked away but Michel's dad has taken her to the hospital. And the transmission is finished. I went over a speed bump, put it back into first and the gear just wasn't there. There was an awful grinding noise and, as i was thinking of how to break it to Michel that I couldn't take him to the welder, the back end dropped off and the wheel went flying by into the field." Wil was ashen, Michel and his companion seemed unconcerned. We talked it over and made a plan. First back to the beach to tell the family what's up, then find someone willing to drive us around for the day who wasn't going to cost us a fortune like a taxi, to the boat motor mechanic, to the welder in Tonala, then to the car mechanic down the road from the welder to bring him back to try to get the wheel on to at least park it someplace safe. We drove around Puerto Arista and nearby Cabeze de Toro to hunt down one of Michel's friends with a pickup truck, went by Las Tablitas to explain the situation to the kids and off we went to get started.

We stopped off at the van to have another look and, without a word, one of the Michel's friends jumped out and sat down on the pavement in the shade of the van. "Security", Michel explained. As we were assessing the van, a taxi stopped on the other side of the road and Michel's dad, Tabla, appeared, on his way back from Emergency. He came over and explained that the doctor had said that there would be swelling but that she was totally fine and that he'd negociated a price with her. "I got her to agree to three days," Tabla said. Translation please? "600 pesos." Hunh? Apparently the way it works is that when someone is involved in an accident, the one responsible pays the daily wage of the injured party for the amount of days they are unable to work. In this case, the doctor felt that three days was more than enough. We offered to go over to the taxi and pay the woman but, for some reason, the dad insisted that he be the one to hand over the money. I went along to apologize as he handed it over. When I got to the cab, I found three large women filling the back seat, each looking more miserable than the next. They glared at me as I proffered my very heartfelt apologies. Evil gringo. We all went back to the pickup, Tabla and Gorcha, the pickup's owner, got in the front, Michel, his friend, Wil and I jumped in the back. As we drove, Michel explained that the woman was an acquaintance of the family's and that the woman's family had a reputation of being "abusivo"; that if we gave her any kind of encouragement, by assuming the blame for what was essentially a weird fluke, that she would take us to the cleaners. "They see gringos and they think of money. They're not good people." he said. I wasn't feeling very sure about it all but I did feel sure about the family that was guiding us so I left it alone.

We drove from Puerto Arista to the next town up the coast, Paredón, to see the motor mechanic. Despite the undercurrent of feeling stuck in a seriously crappy situation totally beyond our control, the drive was surreal. Sitting backwards in a rusty old pickup, late afternoon sun blasting, wind whipping my hair into knots, watching the flowering mango trees fly past, the spectacular Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains as a backdrop, the peaks hidden in a fluffy cotton batting strip of clouds. Wil and I sat near the cab, Michel and his buddy sat on the back corner of the bed, ribbing each other and Gorcha as they got bounced around on the bumpy roads. It was all laughs and good humour. The anxiety started melting away. They kept reassuring us that everything would be fine and I started to believe them. When we got out at the boat mechanic's, Michel's buddy was dispatched to get everyone refrescos. There is a definite hierarchy here. The guy who gets stuck doing security, the one who has to go get everyone refrescos but is the last to take a drink. All of it unspoken but obviously very clearly defined for all but us. We all stand around and Tabla entertains us with the story of his trip to the hospital — how the woman's twelve family members mysteriously appeared when they arrived and were all telling him off. Everyone, including the mechanic dismantling the propeller shaft, is laughing now. He finally hands over the casing for us to take to the welder and off we go to Tonala. More spectacular scenery — cows grazing, herons picking their way along wide river beds, women by the road holding up little plastic bags of yellow mangoes, all of it made more beautiful in the flattering light of the late day sun. Everyone does a double take when they see our very unfamiliar and white faces in the very familiar pickup (Gorcha runs a water purification plant and drives around selling the water.) We weave our way through Tonala and drop off Tabla with the propeller shaft at the welder's and go on to the car mechanic's. The first mechanic sends his son off down the road to find another guy who comes skipping up the road in a few minutes. Gorcha, Michel and I explain the situation and soon enough the tools are being loaded in the back and we're all heading down the road back toward Puerto Arista.

When we get to the van everyone jumps out, the guy who was watching the van is now three guys, Michel's brother Henry turns his motorcycle around to face the oncoming traffic as a warning to drivers that we are there. We all stand around as the two mechanics work on the van. It gets dark and it becomes clear that this busy, dark, country road is not the place to attempt surgery on a van. One of the mechanics is bound to get hit. Gorcha runs across the road to see if we can park it at his abuelito's who lives, very conveniently, two minutes away. The bigger of the two mechanics puts it into second gear and eases it onto the road. A few minutes later we pull in to the front yard of this house. While we're parking it the mechanic realizes that the reverse gear is also gone. Double Mierda. Our hosts greet us warmly, getting their kids to pull out chairs for us to sit down as we watch & try to help the mechanics go at it. The priority is getting the wheel back (with a brake) on so that it is safe to drive the van to the mechanics. First they need to dismantle it all in order to see what parts they need. The brake drum is worn down to a semi-circle when it should be a circle, the brake fluid is dripping everywhere. It's not looking good. They pull it all apart to take the bits back to the shop to try to find replacements. In the meantime, the couple hosting us and the van hang in their hammocks, asking us polite questions about us and Canada. Wil and I are both quietly grappling with what it all means for us and our trip. While we're grateful for the guidance of Michel's family, I wonder whether the woman the tire hit is getting her due. I have only seen her in the back of a taxi surrounded by scowling women and after Tabla's stories, I'm not feeling particularly sympathetic. But she is undoubtedly in pain and that sucks. Guatemala is definitely out. That window of time will now be used up finding someone to rebuild the transmission which shouldn't be too hard. The parts, on the other hand. We could be stuck here for a while. And though there are worse places to be stuck than on a beach on the Pacific, no van means no house, which means hotels which means mucho dinero. Wil sends me home with Gorcha and all our mattresses and stuff so we can set up our beds under the palapa. It's getting quite late, the kids will be worried. Gorcha drops me off. When we get back Michel's mom and wife ask "Where were you?!! We were so worried." When I was telling the kids what was up I assumed that Michel was doing the same with his wife and mother but he wasn't. We also forgot to pick up Tabla at the welder's. He pulled up in a taxi right afterward, claimed his usual hammock and launched into the whole story again for everyone's benefit. Now they were all laughing. The amount of swearing from all parties directed at the woman's family made it pretty clear that this was not their first encounter with her. Tabla told us later that we'd probably be seeing the family again. With the rapid fire converstaion I catch about half of it. Every once in a while someone takes pity and explains what they are saying in less colloquial Spanish. Wil gets home an hour or so later, totally spent. We all settle into our beach beds and try to sleep. The assurances that there are no mosquitoes don't hold. All of the kids got eaten alive as they slept. The bugs leave me alone, perhaps because I'm not sleeping. There is a fierce north wind blowing, whipping sand in my ears and my hair and my sheets. Aargh. Too many sleepless hours later, the orange sliver heralding the sunrise comes as a huge relief.

Sure enough, the next day two women walk in and sit down facing ten members of the family who were sitting around in a semi-circle after their midmorning meal. We were told not to show our faces so we stayed well away until they left. It definitely got heated with everyone was putting in their two cents. The report from the dad later was that they came to get money for the taxis to and from the hospital and were lobbying for more compensation. Later the same day, the woman's brother also showed up to ask for more money. The system here leaves me totally perplexed but the family assures us that we are being fair. We spend much of the next day trying not to worry. The kids are in heaven, playing with Michel's kids, playing on the beach, hanging out with adults that have unlimited patience with board games. Gorcha is supposed to be back at four to pick us up, to drive us to the mechanics' to pick them up and swing back to the van to put the wheel & assorted bits back on. Much of the hassle of fixing things in Mexico stems from the fact that the mechanics don't have the money to buy the pieces for the repairs so they have to go the store twice, once to see if the piece is available and again with us so that we can pay for it. Gorza never turns up so we find ourselves calling a cab at 4:20. We arrive in Tonala, pick up the mechanic and do a tour of the UAP/Napa Mexican equivalent for bearings and bits. Again the tools are gathered along with the shaft that they have rebuilt and a new brake drum that they lifted off a scrap truck at the Jonque (junkyard). We head back to abuelito's house. Again, chairs are brought out for us and they welcome us as warmly as the night before, despite the fact that our van is taking up their whole front lawn. I get some clean clothes together for us and ask the woman about the collectivo back to Puerto Arista."I'll come with you," she says, insisting on carrying one of my bags. She flags down the collectivo for me and makes sure I'm safely inside before she waves goodbye.The ride is quiet and lonely. It's incredible how fast one's bravery can fade when there is noone around to reassure.The kids are relieved to see me. I throw together some spaghetti with tomato sauce. Michel's oldest two hang around, curious about what we're eating (and the fact that we're dining after dark which they never do). I serve them both a bowl of pasta and they gobble it up alongside my three. Wil turns up an hour later. The mechanics dropped him off on the way back to Tonalá. The woman's family has been back and everyone agrees that she should see a chiropractor tomorrow to make sure that nothing is broken. Michel's wife, Marisol and I will take the woman in the morning and perhaps to get an x-ray. Wil is due back at the mechanic's at 9 to pick up the van and hear what they have to say about the transmission. We bugspray the kids, tuck them into three hammocks and make a big windbreak to keep the sand out of our bed. Wil and I sit on the beach and try hard to digest what is happening. It can be very hard to make a plan in Mexico. The mechanics always seem very confident that things will work out, right up until the moment they don't — leaving us struggling with contingency plan after contingency plan. If, o miracle of miracles, the mechanic can find the pieces he needs to rebuild the transmission, we could be here for a week or two or three. If he can't find the pieces, we'll have to backtrack toward Mexico City without first gear or reverse, which pretty much disqualifies any city or small town as a good stopping point on the way. We'll have to stay on the highway (and camp there too, if we can.) Despite this bad bit of luck, we can't help but feel lucky that this happened here, where we have access to the Isthmus and we don't have to go through a mountain range without first gear to get where we need to go. We're also grateful that Michel's family is here to help us figure out how to handle all of it.

It is so dark here on the edge of the Pacific. The waves breaking look like rips opening up in the black fabric of the sea and the sky. The stars twinkle brightly around the half moon. When we finally crawl into bed and lie down just sixty feet from the sea, we're feeling pretty lucky in our little corner of paradise.

In the morning, a change of plan. Marisol thinks that if I come to the chiropractor the woman will start seeing dollar signs. To be honest I can't think of anything I'd like to do less so I happily beg off and go to the mechanic's with Wil for nine. We bring the kids along for our trip into town. The market in Tonalá is one of my favourites, a labyrinth of stalls with two large halls, one for fish, one for meat. The roads around the market are lined with awnings and more vendors selling fruit & veg, dried chiles, sun-dried fish, mangoes and the taco stands. We first stop at the mechanics and ask him about the parts for the transmission. "No hay" he says and just like that our hopes are dashed for repairing the car in Chiapas. We'll have to go back to Puebla.

We pick up a bunch of food for Michel's family, along with a birthday cake for Michel's mom and a little one for the lady whose front lawn we took up with the van. I ask Henri and Alice to guard the cakes on the back seat on the way home. As we're approaching her house we miss a speed bump. Alice's cake is half smushed. Henri's is in great shape but Henri hits the floor hard saving the cake instead of himself. The lady who hosted the car is amazingly gracious, offering us some fruit from her tree in exchange for the cake. She tells us that they are "pobre pero de corazon" poor but of good heart and insist that we consider her home our home whenever we are in Puerto Arista. When we get back we hand over the food and Henri presents Margot with her birthday cake. She is almost as thrilled as her husband who claps his hands and cheers. Marisol gets back from the chiropractor and hands me the x-rays which say that all is well. I think x-rays of someone else's knee may qualify as the strangest memento we'll be bringing home. Michel shows us a huge sea bass that they caught on their overnight fishing trip and tells us it's for us. While Margot prepares it, the boys head out in the lancha to try to trade some cases of coke with the shrimping boats that are trawling off shore. We watch them go to one and then another. It seems noone wants Coke today. Meanwhile, Daniel & Presilla (the teenage transvestites) get the tables ready for dinner. The pecking order is in evidence once again when dinner is served. Tabla is served first, then Margot and the sons, then us, Michel's wife, Marisol, next, the teenagers eat at a separate table, as do Henry's girlfriend's kids. I encourage Alice and Frances to keep them company. After we have all had our fill, plates are cleaned for Michel's fishing buddies. The same order is respected for the cake.

We decide to head across the isthmus in the morning to try to be in Puebla by Sunday night to hit the VW dealership first thing Monday. We leave the family with some cash to pay for the woman's pain medication and for a week more of her time, if she should decide to hit the family up for more. If she doesn't, I suppose they'll use it to help replace the boat they lost this week when a line heavy with fish broke. We hit the road this morning. Wil and I were feeling so anxious we were both nauseous the whole way, hoping desperately that the road won't call for first gear or reverse, but the roads were beautiful. Dark green craggy mountains and lush hills that are so perfect they look fake — like the mounds on golf greens in extra large. Past marshland, field after field of sugar cane and pineapple which, for such a massive fruit, is so unassuming. No tree, no bush, no nothing. The fruit IS the plant. We had a couple of really tense moments, one came this morning when we encountered some construction on the road. As we were climbing a fairly steep hill, we could see ahead of us that the road was down to one lane, the oncoming one full of heavy road-paving machinery. As we approached, a man held a red flag overhead indicating that we should stop. Wil says to me "we can't stop" and keeps right on going. The man with the flag looks on in shock and I scream out the window at him that we don't have first gear and we barrel ahead, into the construction zone hoping against hope that the path is clear. As we near the end of the of the construction zone, there is a line of vehicles including a couple of 18-wheelers waiting in the left lane. If we'd been one minute later and... In the afternoon after going through Cordoba and Orizaba, the road gets brutal, switchbacking through the high mountains. Wil knew it was coming. There were tons of 18-wheelers on the road, many of them double semis. We could see the road above us snaking through the mountains so we knew that getting our underpowered van over the top was going to be a challenge. The key was to keep our momentum going. We climbed for what seemed like an eternity and then, just as the light of day starting to wane, we drove into a cloud. The kids were wowed. I'd assumed that we were nearing the peak but the road just kept climbing, the light was fading and the clouds were getting denser. Visibility was next to nil as we came upon a truck in the right lane inching its way up the steep grade. Wil indicated to pull out into the passing lane when an 18-wheeler suddenly appeared in the rear-view mirror. Wil was doing his best to keep up our speed up without crashing in to the slow truck in front of us when another truck appeared right behind the first. Wil had to hit the brakes and downshift into second gear. A few more seconds at that speed and we were dead in the water. The second the second truck passed, Wil was out in the passing lane, missing the truck in front of us by inches, another car coming up fast behind us flashing its high beams. We were both breathing hard. We pulled into the first hotel in Puebla.


The drive was brief and bumpy, a reminder of how fortunate we are to have the money to use the toll roads most of the time. The most expensive stretch of road we've been on probably cost us $7 putting it well out of reach of the average Mexican. In this densely populated part of the country, non-toll roads mean lots of speed bumps, sitting behind trucks that should have been taken off the road decades ago carrying a hell of a lot more than they were ever designed to carry, men pulling donkeys, ladies hustling their kids, vendors. Everyone takes advantage of the pause in traffic the topes afford to go about their business.

When the signs to our destination disappeared, I jumped out of the van to quickly ask a couple who were eating dinner to confirm that we were heading the right way. The man got up from the table and led me out into the middle of the road to ensure that his directions were absolutely clear. The notion of this country being dangerous gets more and more ridiculous with each passing day. A few minutes later we pulled up to a lovely old textile mill that has been restored and turned into a vacation centre by the Social Security branch of the Mexican government. In the hopes that their employees will use it to holiday outside of Mexico City, the government has spared no expense. The grounds are spectacular. The building itself is a one-story sprawling structure of pale pink and yellow stone, the centre has an indoor and outdoor pool, an extensive play park for the kids, a restaurant, a bar and a beautiful campsite with palapas and stone fire rings — a welcome break from the almost complete lack of greenery that is a Mexican city. We set up the beds and went down for something to eat. The restaurant was cavernous but only two other tables were taken. At the back of the restaurant were a pair of giant speakers that shook the whole place with banda music. Conversation was next to impossible. There must be a lot of deaf people in this country. Our night in the van was as close to perfect as can be. Quiet, save for the train that snaked through the valley below. Train whistles seem to strike a universal chord and the familiar sound got me dreaming about home.

We decided to spend another night to give the kids a chance to enjoy the freedom of some open space. They took full advantage. We spent an hour in the nearby village, finding someone to bleed the brake fluid. A little research online showed that the lack of power was to be expected at high altitude in a diesel, the brakes needing to be pumped was undoubtedly the result of boiling the brake fluid on our first, aborted departure from Puebla.

We spent a couple of hours in the olympic-size pool which was connected to a kiddie pool via four narrow water channels. The place was packed, moms holding on to babies, fathers trying to teach sons how to swim when it was clear they had no idea how to themselves, and, of course, the ubiquitous necking teenage couples. More than a third of the large pool was deeper than 1-1/2 metres and completely empty. This is not is a nation of swimmers. People looked at us in alarm as our kids jumped or dove in to the deep end. After a quick hot shower, we went back to our site and the kids ran around trying to track down a litter of puppies that obviously make the grounds home. Wil put a yummy supper together and I wrote. Bliss. We headed back to the pool after dinner and the kids got their fill. Alice waved me over to the edge of the pool when she stopped understanding a family that was chatting to her. I went over and chewed the fat with them for a while. The conversation took a familiar turn as the dad listed off a bunch of his favourite places to visit in Mexico. The more time we spend in Mexico, the more places on the list we've seen so it's fun to compare notes on cities and towns. He asked me if we'd heard the train. I told him about how it made me think of home. "It just makes us sad', he said, 'when we think about all the people on the train." On the train? No, ON the train. On top of the train. There are so many people from Guatemala and countries further south that ride the tops of the trains trying to make it north to a better life. There is a whole network of Mexicans who live along the tracks who give them water and food on their journey. Tlaxcala is a major train hub and a lot of people jump off here while the train is still going to avoid being caught by the authorities. Desperate parents put their children on by themselves hoping to give their kids a better life. Many, many die on the way." Out the window fly my sentimental thoughts about the train.

After another peaceful night, we got an early start on the drive. We climbed and then coasted down into the high Oaxacan valleys, the soil going from chalk white to deep red, the 20 foot high cactus became pines and then agave and scrub on the rolling hills. At the road's highest point we stopped to make ourselves some lunch by the road. At a tiny little clearing looking out over layer upon layer of hazy mountain, an old man sat in the shade of his little shelter selling refrescos. We spent our lunch wondering just how he got up here with his drinks until Frances looked down the side of the mountain and found a little home hiding in the crook of the mountain below with a well-worn path from there to here.

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.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Veracruz and Jalapa

Drove into downtown Veracruz and found ourselves a hotel on the zócalo. The kind of place that probably looked so cool when it was renovated in the 60s but is now faded and dated but very well-located. As usual, finding parking is a bit of a chore as the van's height means it rarely or just fits into city parking lots. We went for a walk down the malecón (a wide sidewalk that runs along the shore in a big U). Everyone is out — the families, the vendors, the buskers. It's a zoo. There's so much to look at but when you walk in Mexico you need to keep an eye on your feet as the sidewalks are fraught with peril; the most common are what I've dubbed the ankle-breakers (ten inch square two foot deep gaps in the pavement). We made our way around the malecón, watching massive ocean vessels being parked by tugs and a man who encouraged passersby to throw coins into the water. He'd then dive gracefully into the water and retrieve the coin from the murky depths. He folded the coins into his mouth as he dove for more. The wind was blowing something fierce. When the mooring space became a narrow beach the sand whipped around us, creating sand drits on the sidewalks around cars and beached dinghies. We finally made it past the Aquarium, one of the highlights for the kids last year, to where the beach widens enough for the restaurants to set up tents. The surf was rough. The lifeguards in black lycra paced self-importantly back and forth, whistling people out of the water. They'd planted big red flags indicating that noone was allowed in the water, but the would-be waders just waited until the lifeguards were past before heading back into the waves. The restaurant tents covered most of the usable beach, white plastic chairs and colourful wooden tables were cheek by jowl. Waiters in white shirts and aprons wove their way through the tables. We had a seat near the water. The very little space not occupied by people was littered with plastic cups and bottles. Once we picked a table we became sitting ducks for the vendors that hit us up at least every minute. "Sabritas (chips) 3 bags for ten pesos, trencitos (braids for the girls), chicles (gum), wandering musicians in twos and threes, wool wraps and embroidered blouses being sold by Guatemalan ladies, bracelets and necklaces being sold by impossibly small children — kids so tiny we had no faith that they'd be able to do the math if the purchase required making change. They wore us down. I got myself a wrap, Henri got a necklace, Alice a hairband and we bought a song from a motley trio — the mostly-toothless singer sang beautifully and his singing partner slid up and down into perfect harmony. While we had our drinks the tide crept closer, eliminating the table between us and the shore. As we polished off our yummy sea bass a la veracruzano (with a delish tomato sauce) our toes starting getting wet. We walked back through town and bought the kids some nieves (the tastiest ice cream ever — mmmm, peanut flavour!)

We watched break dancers strutting their stuff and street vendors putting together delicious-looking creations that we had no room for. Wil and I sat down for a drink and the kids ran to the other side of the zocalo to watch a clown entertain the crowd. In the centre of the park, a trio of musicians (guitar, harp and drums) in white suits and white cowboy hats played for a group of folkloric dancers. Ten beautiful couples in white, men in straw hats, women in flowing lace and blood-red sashes, stomped across the stage in a kind of mellow, country flamenco. The finale involved the women flirtatiously grabbing the red sash around the man's waist and unwinding him. After dancing up and down the length of the sash, they used their feet to tie the sash into a perfect bow which the woman kicked up into the man's hands. They then wove their arms into either side of the bow and swung each other around.

The next morning we went out to get breakfast and found a big crowd milling around the zocalo — a formation of army soldiers with their instruments, a line of navy officers, a line of policemen, all polished and coiffed. Six soldiers stood apart, waiting, holding the Mexican flag at shoulder height. Eventually a woman of note stepped on the stage, a very small boy in identical fatigues ran to stand at the end of the army formation and the band began. The little boy drummed along. First the (very long) Mexican anthem and then the Veracruzan as the soldiers marched the flag and hoisted it up for the first time in 2011. Most of the onlookers saluted through the whole thing, right arm straight across the chest at shoulder height. We went out to Café la Parroquia which has been open for more than two hundred years. The waiter brings a tall glass with black coffee on the bottom and hits the side of the glass very loudly with a spoon. Moments later another man appears holding two large silver kettles and he pours, at first at the level of the glass and ending with arm stretched straight up as a long stream of hot milk to fill your glass. YUM!

A new noise has Wil worried. A hum that he thinks is the rear wheel bearings. A few hours to Xalapa, we stop for lunch at a taco stand on the highway, a few hundred metres from an ancient bridge. A couple and their daughter serve us lunch. What would we like in our tacos? The man dips a huge ladle into a massive vat of boiling water and pulls out all sorts of meat — skin, tongue, chops, masiza. We settle on some chops and masiza and chow down as the daughter stares at us unabashed. We pull into Xalapa, the city of flowers, a gorgeous city in the shadow of massive Cofre del Perote. Tucked in behind the cathedral, we find Hotel Limón, a block away from the zocalo. Through a stone portico, a two-floor building with rooms set around a central courtyard filled with plants, ornate ironwork and colourful tiles everywhere. Our room(s) has five beds and costs 420 pesos a night. We ask some cops for a good garage and they send us to a mecanico who keeps the van to check the bearings. We spend the day at museums, the morning at the beautiful MAX (Xalapa Museum of Anthropology), the interior all cool marble, well-lit spaces with gorgeous displays of the history of Mexico.

In the afternoon, we went to the MIX (the kids' interactive museum) which was probably fantastic when it opened but is now sadly run down. Some displays had no explanations or simply didn't work. The 3-D IMAX film (on the largest screen in Central America), a boring Tom Hanks production on NASA's Apollo missions, felt a lot like propaganda for the space program. After the museum, we stopped in at a Peluqueria (a barber) to take care of Henri's hair. Inside the portico of a colonial building, the barber donned his threadbare apron and carefully wrapped Henri in a sheet. The haircut took an eternity but the barber was such a pleasure to watch. I joked with him that it obviously wasn't his first haircut. He replied proudly that he'd been cutting hair for over fifty years. We all took turns going to the baño upstairs, to check out the beautifully tiled room in the cool heart of the central courtyard. The man would not accept a single hair out of place, clipping and snipping and spraying until Henri looked (much to his dismay) like Richie Cunningham. Wil couldn't resist asking for a shave when Henri was done. Without a word, the man dug around in his drawers looking for his long-forgotten straight edge and plugged in the element to heat the water for the foam. He tilted Wil back in the creaky barber chair and went to work. He ran his hand over Wil's face a hundred times looking for errant stubble. The haircut and shave together took over an hour. All of it for 60 pesos. Unbelievable.

We found an amazing Italian restaurant for supper. Nice wine list, homemade pasta, sauces that weren't sweet (a very rare thing for tomato sauce in Mexico), crunchy delicious salads.
In the morning we walked back up to the mecánico's who had taken off and greased all the the front bearings. After a test drive said he felt the problem was actually the transmission, not the bearings. Shit.

We'll head for Puebla, home of Volkswagen in Mexico and within spitting distance of the capital and hope for the best.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

New Years with the Martinez clan

Papantla was as terrific as we remembered. So refreshing to see the place again with new eyes. Last year we were here for Christmas eve and this year it is New Year's Eve. Wil had no trouble finding his way around (and avoiding the very difficult driving he remembered). We parked the van and had a wander around. The place was alive with people hustling to get provisions for the evening's celebrations. Mexicans take New Year's very, very seriously. Every inch of sidewalk was laid out with someone's wares — vegetables, chiles, cilantro, black beans on display in front of women sitting on low wooden boxes. The market is conveniently right off the zócalo, one floor for food, the other for everything else under the sun. The food stands were at the entrance, a line of women selling tamales (corn masa, corn's answer to couscous, with seasoned shredded chicken or pork steamed in a banana leaf), taquitos, aguas de piña & other fruit (tall plastic glasses full of fresh pineapple juice with chunks of fresh fruit in the bottom), atole (a thick drink of chocolate, cinnamon, milk, and corn mash), tostadas (deep-fried tortillas smeared with black beans, shredded lettuce or cabbage and crumbled cheese). Wil cut a path through the crowd and the kids followed. I chatted with a woman who lived in Puebla who was back in Papantla for the holidays. I quizzed her about her family's food traditions. We picked up some staples — some oaxacan cheese, some veg from a cute little woman in coke-bottle glasses. Every once in a while a man in traditional dress would walk by, like a vision from another time, white pants gathered at the ankle, loose white shirt, colourfully embroidered scarf and a broad-brimmed straw hat and ankle boots, not one of them taller that five foot.
The drive to the Costa Esmeralda (emerald coast) was quick. We were back at Sun Beach camping by early afternoon. There were mixed feelings about revisiting the site of the absolute low point of last year's trip. Noone but me was very keen. I thought it important to exorcise the demons, to put that hellish, rainy, barfy Christmas day behind us.

The campsite was as we remembered, a long tract of land running between the road and the beach, two grassy strips for camping separated by tall coconut trees and a driveway on grass down the middle.The bathroom building cuts the lot in two. The side closer to the beach is full. Ten or more cars are parked on the left-hand side with a village of tents close enough to share pegs with the neighbour on the right. Even in camping, Mexicans have a different concept of personal space. We have the whole other side of the bathroom building to ourselves but choose to squeeze into the last spot beside the tents. We worry about invading a private party but our polite hellos and buenos dias are received and reciprocated with very warm smiles The kids play in the waves with Wil. I get my suit on but chicken out.

We eat supper by candlelight and the kids head back toward the pool. We head over to check on them. There is a lot of screeching and laughing coming from the pool. When we get closer we find it is full (it's a big pool) with ladies, all of whom are in their clothes (not swimming clothes mind, regular clothes). Everyone is laughing and splashing. A little woman comes up to me, takes me by the hand and invites me into the pool. No thanks, I say. "Todos son iguales, no?" She says. Yeees, I answer hesitantly, as she starts pulling me toward the pool. "All the women are in the pool so you must come in the pool." I really don't want to go in the pool but I go in the pool. All the wet ladies are looking at me to make sure I am taking this in the spirit in which it was intended. I start laughing. Everyone else does, obviously relieved. A splash fight ensues. I pull Alice and Frances in. Esther, the woman who pulled me in, introduces herself. I pull her into deeper water to get her back. She shrieks at me that she doesn't know how to swim. I bring her back to the shallow end and ask her questions about New Year's in Mexico. "Does it always involve pulling strangers in their clothes into a pool?" She laughs. The nieces are very curious about me and alternate between splashing me and standing around in a semi-circle asking me questions about me and the family and where we're from, etc. "We eat at midnight,' Esther tells me. 'Not a moment sooner. Two of my brothers got together for New Year's last year and they had such a good time that they invited the rest of the family this year. Sadly, we couldn't all be here. Only seven of the eleven siblings are here." Each sibling is married, each has at least two kids, most have three, some more. They rented a couple of marquees for the occasion and a beer truck came especially to deliver their thirty cases of Coronita." We would love it if you would join us for dinner." At midnight?, I'm thinking. I can't remember the last time I stayed up until midnight. That's very kind but we don't want to impose. "I insist. We saw you, poor little family of five all alone. You must join us."

I was worried Wil would be back at the van alone. I sent the kids to bring him back to the pool but they returned with a cryptic message "remember the ocean" a.k.a. he went it and I didn't. After an hour of fooling around in the pool, all the ladies got out to dry off and get dressed for supper. When I got back to dry off I find that Wil is surrounded by the husbands and is happily drinking tequila. Under the marquee it seems there is an endless supply of tequila. As a woman, I am not allowed to pour a drink, as a guest Wil is not allowed to touch the bottle. We keep thanking them for the kind offer but tell them there's little chance of us staying up that late (it's now 8) but they refuse to accept it and keep pouring us tequilas. No matter where I go, Esther calls me "Ven" so that I am sitting beside her. I think she worries that I will slink off to bed. I am determined to fully enjoy this amazing opportunity that has landed in our laps. In a little palapa they are using as their kitchen, most of the sisters sit or stand around poking at the food. Esther spoons a delicious mix of macadamia and ground chiltepín peppers into a huge pan of sliced hotdogs. Esther tells me about her husband's macadamia business and then about the peppers that aren't even a centimetre long but that "pica mucho" (very hot). She gets me to try a little of the ground peppers. Absolutely delicious, hot, smoky and a rich, round fragrance. The salchichas get put on the table and picked at as appetizers. A spectacular amount of tequila disappears. The men do not leave their seats. If they need ice they shake their glass, raising their voice if they have to to get the closest kid or wife to serve them. Everyone is yawning.

At a quarter to twelve, all the women and children gather around the table and everyone gets a little something to drink, the men are happily sitting in a circle slightly apart. With the help of the oldest daughter, Abuela emerges from her mosquito net and stands at the head of the table. She tells us how happy she is to be surrounded by her children and their families and tells them how much she hopes to be with them next year but that it may not be possible. She is very choked up and all the grandchildren, who range in age from 25 to 11, start to wipe their eyes. She leads the family in the lord's prayer and then hail mary, and then hail mary, and again a few more times. The men continue to chat through the whole thing. The daughters and daughters-in-law all chant along, as do most of the female cousins, while the boys snicker or stay silent. Abuela is helped into a chair and her oxygen is brought out. She has emphysema, it turns out later it's from cooking without ventilation for her eleven kids. There is always a daughter sitting beside her to keep her company. Everyone argues as to who's cellphone has the right time until someone turns on the radio and hears that there are three minutes left. The countdown comes, everyone raises a glass, says feliz año and then we all wander around hugging each other. It is not acceptable to miss anyone.

Ven (Come), Esther tells me as she leads me into the kitchen. Serve your husband and serve your kids. Okay... I dig in to the huge vat of caldo and pull out a huge shrimp and a big chunk of fish and cubed potatoes and top up the bowl with the smoky reddish-brown broth. It smells absolutely amazing. Wil keeps trying to get up to help out or get ice but it is made very clear to him that his role is to sit and eat and drink and be served. He sits and enjoys the amazing soup. The kids don't love it but they're very polite and fill up with saltines. When I go back to talk to Wil about the soup, the men tell me I need to get him a shrimp cocktail. I'm laughing but I do it. I notice that none of the women are at the table. They hover, rushing back and forth to the kitchen keeping everyone happy, picking at the food but never, ever sitting down. I wander back and forth into the kitchen trying to look busy and am told to bring this to the men or bring that to the men or go check that the men have everything they need. They do have legs, I am inclined to answer but I do as I am told. The men, in turn, insist that I go back to get Wil all sorts of things that he doesn't really want. Wil and I smile at each other in these newfound and unfamiliar roles. After everyone has eaten their fill, I occasionally try to sit with the men to chat but Esther keeps finding me and calling me over to the chair who's owner she has evicted in my name. At one, we are on our last legs and beg off. "No, no, we haven't danced yet. We'll be up 'til five, you'll see." We won't. We can't. We slink off. Sure enough, the music keeps going through the night but the tequila and the sound of the surf muffle the noise as we crumple into bed.

The campsite slowly comes to life in the morning. Everyone is amazingly bright-eyed. No mention of hangovers, despite the fact that most of the compound only got a few hours' sleep. I'm also feeling good, which I can't believe. I thought I had been cleverly controlling my intake last night but it seems that when I had my back turned the men were slipping extra tequila into my drinks. We go for a family swim in the very gentle ocean which washes away any trace of hangover. Wil and I go to the store, leaving the kids with their new friends, to pick up some lunch and a little something for our new friends. Soon after we eat, a few people come over to tell us that everyone is going in the ocean. Ven. We head down to see. Abuela is set up in a plastic chair with her feet in the water as the whole family (the WHOLE family) plays in the waves. Teenagers stand at shin depth with their backs to the sea and scream every time a wave hits. They all have bathing suits on but wear t-shirts or tank tops or wraps to cover their suits. Only men older than Wil swim with bare chests. All boys wear t-shirts in the water.

Every time we've passed by the marquee since 9 this morning, the men call us to join them for a drink. They are determined to get through the thirty cases. After the swim, we finally fold. I'm not a beer drinker and I'm not sure how I'm feeling about tequila today but one of the sister's insists I try her clamato and when I do I find it's quite tasty. The Mexican version of the bloody caesar. Tequila, clamato, worcestershire sauce (salsa inglesa), lime, Squirt (lime soda) and some Valentina hot sauce. When my glass is empty, everyone calls Wil to fix me another. We are told that it's almost dinner time, we sneak back to our van to fix up some food. Guillermo comes over and says we must join them for supper. "Thank you, but no. We've eaten enough of your food and drunk enough of your drink." Ten minutes of negociations follow. He insists. We say we'll come over with our food but realize that our paltry offerings would probably feed none of them so we just stay put and eat. After supper, the kids are in a rush to go back to find their friends. We clean up and then walk over to see the fire they've started on the beach. Everyone asks us "Where were you?" Why didn't you join us? We were waiting for you?" Unbelievable hospitality. We sneak off to bed.

The next morning is all tears (on my part) and lots of email address writing. A group photo. All the women shriek at me for taking it before they have their makeup on.

I'll be eternally grateful to the Martinez family for sharing their new year with us. What an amazing family.