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Archive for June, 2009

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I arrived back in Mexico City the evening of January 2nd and stayed at the same hostel. The holiday festivities were still in progress and the streets around the Zocalo were closed to traffic. The taxi driver let me out a few blocks from the hostel and I made my way through the crowds. Lugging around my backpacks in the crowd might have felt a little intimidating if I hadn’t already been here.

I didn’t leave myself enough time to take in all the cultural attractions I missed at the beginning of my trip. That’s ok though – it isn’t necessary to see everything. I was curious about the Metro and quite excited about braving the city’s subway system. I expected it to be crowded but was really surprised at finding vendors on the train. There they are passing  through the coaches quickly shouting out their sales pitches! I couldn’t leave without visiting the Museum of Anthropology and that’s where I spent my final day. I probably should have started my trip here. The museum is huge and the collection is vast, inspiring and a fantastic introduction to Mexico’s history and culture. It’s also impossible to take it all in – it’s staggering!

Mexico made a lasting impression. The people are sweet and gentle and they work hard and long. The history, culture, landscapes and climate are also part of the captivation. The country definitely has a place in my heart and I wasn’t at all ready to leave – there’s so much more to explore. Nonetheless, it was time to say good-bye.

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(December 2008)

I love Oaxaca! Unlike the highter altitude location of Guanajuato, it’s very hot here, sweltering actually. On the way here I was awed by my first ever sighting of a volcano and sensed the shift from North American to Central American Mexico. After a late night arrival I spent the first day walking and sitting and drinking (water) and walking and people-watching and walking some more. The Zocalo is quite large, lit for the season and filled with tourists, locals, and vendors. Oaxaca is reknowned for its food and crafts and neither disappoint.

The city has a population of approximately 200,000 and is a big tourist draw. Vendors, including children, actively try to sell their wares, even while you’re seated at one of the many outdoor patio restaurants. Beggars, mostly women with children, are stationed along the main streets. I’m still touched by the soft-spoken little boy who ran after me and asked for my almost empty bottle of water.

The historic centre and ruins at Monte Albán have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Monte Albán is situated in the mountains and the setting is spectacular! It’s an ancient Zapotec captital and during its peak, around 500 BC, it had a population of around 25,000.  Eventually, it was overtaken by the Mixtecs. According to our guide, it was destroyed by nature. Apparently, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs were frequently at war. The Aztecs expanded into the Oaxaca region but this was short-lived and ended with the Spanish conquest.

I spent the following day in town and wandered through the cultural museum. I was impressed by the Day of the Dead artwork on display. The artist’s graphic skill and the subject mattter were striking. Mexico has produced many highly talented artists. 

New Year’s Eve, I ventured out on yet another tour. This time it was to the Mitla ruins. Mitla is a small Zapotec site with a unique and intricate stone mosiac fretwork. It is not as old as Monte Alban; however, the town has been continuously inhabited. Apparently, the Spanish had the site destroyed due to its religious and political significance.

The tour also included a visit to the Tule tree, a small tequila factory and a Zapotec weaving community. The Tule tree is a Montezuma Cypress. It’s the widest tree in the world but not the oldest – there are older trees in California, Africa, and Japan (7,000 years old). The weaving village is a successful Zapotec project where members of the community help each other with building their homes and getting established.

New Year’s day caught me off-guard – unlike Christmas, most businesses were closed! Perhaps I shouldn’t put things off. I was looking forward to indulging in a hot chocolate at one of the specialty cafes I had spotted on my first day of wandering. Guess it will have to wait for a return visit. Maybe, then, I’ll be adventurous enough to try the grasshoppers!

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(December 2008)

Guanajuato is a prosperous city of approximately 90,000 people. It’s wealth is derived from the silver mines in and near the city and for about 250 years it produced a significant percentage of the world’s silver.  There is no shortage of cultural attractions; however, its “jewel” is the subterranean tunnels once used for flood control and now for traffic. Colourful houses are built up the hills and the winding streets, callejones, some very narrow, can be a challenge to your sense of direction and your knees. The city is truly enchanting and many a tourist passes through!

Guanajuato is a popular place to study Spanish and I had arranged for a three-week immersion program and homestay. The family that hosted me run a bakery and catering business and I enjoyed the fresh baked morning pastries. They live in a lovely large house. The property is gated and the windows barred. There’s something a little unsettling about the security measures; but, it is a safe city with a very strong police presence. Even at night, I felt safe walking up the deserted road to the house.

The Academia Falcon grounds are quite lovely and I do love a school with courtyards! I started with four daily classes and most seemed a bit beyond the introductory courses I had taken at home. Most of my fellow students were from the U.S., my age and older and staying anywhere from a few weeks to a year to however long it takes. There were also people from Japan, younger, and a woman from France. Even though English is an international language not everyone speaks it and the Japanese students and myself had to use Spanish to communicate with one another.

The second and third weeks I added a cooking class to my schedule – chilaquiles, mole poblano, pozole verde, flan de queso, enchiladas mineras, cochinita pibil, an amazing hot chocolate, a Jamaican flower petal drink – all incredibly delicious. The cooking classes were without a doubt my favourite classes! Although, my favourite homework assignment was to describe an object without saying what it was and my shoe was ideal for some creative energy.

I spent much of my spare time hanging around centro. There are several squares and ample places to enjoy a good cup of coffee, bottle of beer (Bohemian obscura), meal or dessert (ah, tres leches). During my walks about town I visited most of the attractions – Alhondiga de Granaditas – at one time a prison where the heads of the four martyrs of the War of Independence were displayed in cages as a warning to the citizens, and now an excellent museum and gallery, – Museo de las Momias, Casa de Diego Riveria (GTO is his hometown), Museo de Don Quixote, the Pepilia monument and the breathtaking view from this mirador, the infamous Callejon de Besa (kissing balcony), the Pastita area (Carlos, one of the instructors, suggested it along with great places to eat), and a small museum where Manuel, the gardener, allowed me to visit after hours, provided a delightful tour of the garden, and even gave me a Christmas gift. I also joined in and followed the musical callejoneadas (strolling minstrels), walked around the damns at Presa de la Olla, and walked up to the church amidst the large crowds for the Festival of the Virgin de Guadaloupe . On the final night, at the suggestion of Connie and Roger, a group of us from the school took a tour of the city – the perspective from a vehicle is quite different and I realized there was much I hadn’t previously seen.

San Miguel

Being a tourist, I also went on a day excursion to Dolores Hildago and San Miguel de Allende. I was the only English speaker on the bus and one family more or less adopted me for the day – they were concerned about my travelling alone. In Dolores Hildago we visited the home and museum of Miguel Hildago, the father of Mexican independence, other buildings of interest, and sampled the tequila ice-cream. San Miguel is a beautiful town but the American influence is very apparent. 

My three weeks in Guanajuato was an interesting experience. I really like the city with its off-grid colourful buildings, warm, wonderful inhabitants, and great food and culture. The historic town and the mines are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

Note: During my pre-trip research I came across a great travel tip – pack duct tape and wrap it around a pen. I only had to use it once – during a violent windstorm – and was very glad I had it. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the windows closed without it. It will always be a part of any future travels.

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(December 2008)

I awake early on the morning of December 4th. The subway isn’t operating yet and it’s dark and cold as I get into the cab. It’s a quiet, peaceful drive to Kipling station where I catch the express bus to the airport. I am running a little behind schedule and when I see that there isn’t anyone in line at the check-in counter I’m not sure whether to be worried or not. It’s alright, I still have time, but, I drop my documents all over the floor. Relief, I have time for a coffee in the lounge. It’s the start of a whirlwind day.

Huge, vibrant, pulsating and slightly overwhelming! My month in Mexico begins here right in the heart of D.F. one of the world’s most populous metropolitans with an estimated 22 million inhabitants. From the moment I slipped into the authorized cab I was in awe. It was early afternoon, the sun was beating through the smog, and I was amazed by the shear volume of traffic, impressed with the somewhat organic nature of its flow, and stunned by the vendors incredulously selling snacks, refreshments and miscellaneous wares right there, in the lanes, in that mass of cars, trucks and buses.

I checked into a beautiful hostel in Centro Historico and climbed the four flights of stairs to my second floor dormitory. After chatting with a dorm-mate I ventured out for a stroll. Guidebooks and Alvaro, a very helpful resident who I had previously corresponded with on CouchSurfing, provided plenty of suggestions of what to see. I do enjoy visiting cultural and historical attractions but I also like the sense of place I get by walking around and people-watching. The Zocalo is the world’s second largest public square and the ideal place to start.

It is the holiday season and Mexico City’s Zocalo is a focal point for the season. Despite the warm weather there is a large skating rink and many short-sleeved residents are enjoying the challenge of being on ice-skates. Others are experiencing the thrill of the snow-tubing slides and checking out the igloos. As I walk around taking in the people, amusements, architecture, and space, I stumble upon Templo Mayor and purchase a ticket to get a closer look at the excavation.

Gone is the noise and frenzy of the main square. My mind is contemplative as I wander through the site. The temple of Tenochtitlan was once home to a powerful Aztec culture. It’s impressive. Actually, I’m fascinated by the layers of culture and history – sculpted symbolism and architectural remnants of an ancient state, a beautiful Spanish colonial historic district, and a blend of contemporary cultures with striking contrasts between the haves and have-nots – all here in this spectacular, polluted, earthquake-prone, sinking city centre.

I went back to the square later that evening. I had read warnings that this city is dangerous, i.e., 60 kidnappings a day, but I felt safe. The Zocalo and nearby streets were overflowing with people – families, friends, lovers, performers, artisans, tourists, and police. A magnificent Christmas tree, lighting displays, and the vitality of the crowd were all so enticing. I was glad I had decided to stay in this part of the city. However, after a refreshing pineapple and orange juice earlier in the afternoon I now felt I was doing a disservice to myself and the culture with my 7-11 dinner of a hot-dog and coffee.

Day two found me on the Touribus. It’s an excellent service – 21 stops and you can get on and off all day! I did not get off though – not my intended plan – the city is so large, and I decided it would serve as an orientation and overview. Back on foot, I explored more of the historical district. Architecture, sculpture, mesmerizing murals, the Almeda, Spanish conversation with a couple schoolgirls, a tortilla and cerveza at an outdoor cafe made all the more pleasant by a talented classical musician, and another evening strolling about the Zocalo happening upon various groups performing ritualistic dances.

The third day I went to the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan.  The site is awesome, the sun is hotter, and it’s full of tourists! I stood on top of the Temple of the Moon and tried to imagine life in the former society. While anthropology sheds much light, the reality is that time presents an impenetrable barrier. I didn’t make it to the top of the Temple of the Sun – I was worried about how I would get down. I wondered if the Aztecs, too, experienced vertigo.

Later that night, while I was sitting in the hostel entrance, a young man entered and very politely explained that he was a craftsperson from the north but hadn’t sold enough today to pay for his room. He was now trying to earn the money by selling lollipops for a peso a piece. One peso is worth so very, very little.

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