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.


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Tanja said...

Aiiie! First post I read this on this trip. Love the visit to the family house. And now I am hungry...