From Mexico

Mexico City: Plaza Garibaldi

Another major hot spot we just didn’t manage to get to on our first trip was Plaza Garibaldi, where all the mariachis gather. The symbol on the signs for the metro stop is a guitar.

The plaza had a reputation for seediness, and it’s now being spruced up in that slightly heavy-handed way city planners use when they want to get rid of blight. Lots of LED lights and green glass, and a museum. Presto!

The actual open area was a bit too tidy and unfocused for our tastes, so we hightailed it to Bar Tenampa, which is famous as apparently the first bar on Plaza Garibaldi. Inside, it feels like the party has indeed been going nonstop for the better part of a century.

It’s a big barn of the place with high ceilings and huge murals of great singers, and bright lighting.

Those are jarocho guys, with the harp. Mariachis lurk in every other corner.
Those are jarocho guys, with the harp. Mariachis lurk in every other corner.

Mere words and photos can’t describe the atmosphere of the place. Let’s try a little multimedia experiment instead.

First, pour yourself a drink. We were fond of palomas–tequila and Squirt (say it ‘Esquirt’), with salt around the rim. I can also recommend a ponche de granada, which Tenampa seemed to specialize in, and of which I had never heard. It’s booze and pomegranate juice, aged for a bit, and served with crumbled pecans floating on top. Seriously, dangerously drinkable–good thing I only got around to ordering one on the last round.

What really makes it is the dainty glass!
What really makes it is the dainty glass!

Now, all settled in with your drink? Start this video playing.

That’s just for background, really. What we really care about is the next song. The lyrics are painted on the wall:

Que borracho!
Que borracho!

Maybe best to click on that and open it in another tab, to see the words.

Got that? Now start this next video. Yes, at the same time as the other one.

WHAT?! YOU CAN’T HEAR ME? THAT’S OK. THAT’S NORMAL! JUST RAISE YOUR GLASS AND SING ALONG!!! THAT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE AT THE OTHER TABLES ARE DOING!

If you’re still not feeling the cacophonous, drunken magic, go stick your finger in a light socket.

Because, as an added attraction, in addition to the three separate mariachi groups in the bar, and the jarochos, there are guys walking around selling electric shocks. With, like, jumper cables. Apparently this is a thing in Tijuana and Juarez, and I guess wherever vast amounts of tequila are drunk; I never knew how sheltered I was.

Near the end of the night, one of our party said, “I’m exactly three shots away from doing that.” It seemed like a fair assessment. He’d already done quite a few.

My magic camera that captured the evening just as I saw it.
My magic camera that captured the evening just as I saw it.

Hiring a band (M$120 per song; M$50 for the puny jarochos) was a way of coping, of creating a wall of sound that screened out the others. The bathroom attendant, for her part, wore noise-canceling headphones.

In a way, the noise was so solid that it made everything like a silent film. Far down the end of the room, I watched a small, brief melodrama unfold: two tall, jocky American bros guzzled shots, stood up and jumped around and posed for pictures and danced. I glanced away, then glanced back, and they were already back in their seats, bent over, heads on the table.

I would totally go again. I just want to learn some lyrics first.

Mexico City: Beyond the Palacio Nacional

Peter and I went to Mexico City two years ago. It happened to be the week before Easter, when the city runs at half-speed because everyone’s on vacation. We were too, so we just didn’t wind up doing very much sightseeing.

Oh, why am I making excuses? We never do much sightseeing. It’s just too tedious to make big plans and maps and timetables, and get your heart set on any one thing. (Precise opposite: friend of a friend who planned her family’s trip to Disney World with a spreadsheet, down to the minute.)

Awe-some. Like, really, awe.
Awe-some. Like, really, awe.

The other problem with planning too much is it’s basically admitting you’re never going back to a place. If you have a big checklist, and you check off all the sights, well, then why would you come back?

I know, the world is a big place and we have a limited amount of time here, so I see why people are strategic (especially with only two weeks of vacation a year; the American workplace is savage). But let me dream, OK? I would much rather leave a place with a pang of regret–which may be strong enough to make me go back–than some kind of bucket-list satisfaction.

This is all a very roundabout justification for my own laziness and the fact that, on our first visit, we didn’t even manage to see the Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio Nacional. They were, what, five blocks from our hotel?

This time, we were three blocks closer. No excuse.

I could load you up with photos, but I’d seen the photos before, and I didn’t understand how powerful the murals are. While we were in Puebla, Peter and I were in awe of the buildings–like, how was it the Spanish were building such amazing things just 40 years after they discovered the place, and the English couldn’t even keep a colony of settlers alive?

The answer is in the last of the murals.

If you answered 'slave labor,' you win a prize.
If you answered ‘slave labor,’ you win a prize.

After that, we cheered ourselves up with ice cream.

Colors of the Mexican flag, no coincidence.
Colors of the Mexican flag, no coincidence.

And some tacos–grilled beef and cactus.

Gorgeous.
Gorgeous.

That were grilled in this contraption:

See that? Next trend in food trucks. Mark my words.
See that? Next trend in food trucks. Mark my words.

Not sightseeing rewarded us with those tacos, and several other neat things.

Crazy bottles of booze.
Crazy bottles of booze.
The pinafore store--for all your street-vendor-uniform needs.
The pinafore store–for all your street-vendor-uniform needs.
The Mercado de Dulces...which really was the candy market.
The Mercado de Dulces…which really was the candy market.
Funny fonts. It's like they saw the 'circ' and thought 'circus'.
Funny fonts. It’s like they saw the ‘circ’ and thought ‘circus’.
Shrimp 'cocktel'.
Shrimp ‘cocktel’.
A perfectly nice art deco warehouse.
A perfectly nice art deco warehouse.

Wait, you’re saying, that’s just not interesting at all. No–look closer!

Hello, plaintains, ripening like hams in the Alpujarras!
Hello, plaintains, ripening like hams in the Alpujarras!

The most trivial thing we did in our post-Palacio walk was stop for many long minutes to watch a street vendor make a perfectly round pancake, without the aid of a mold. While we were sitting, playing it cool, waiting for him to pour the batter, I realized why you can’t always travel like this, planless.

People! Other people! What a pain they are.

No, seriously, we love our friends we went to Mexico City with, and we would have happily spent all of our time with them. But they’d gone off to Trotsky’s house, which is amazing, but we weren’t sure we needed to see again.

Practically speaking, you can’t stop a group of four or six people and say, “Hey, guys, check out that pancake maker. Let’s watch him for a while.” At least not if you want to make it through the day alive.

Hell, you can’t even do this with one other person, if that other person isn’t totally on your travel wavelength.

I feel incredibly lucky that Peter is. Sure, sometimes I wish he’d wake up maybe a little earlier, but he’s totally open to the ‘Wait, stop, let’s…’ and ‘Take a pic of that weird thing’ (most of the photos here are his, at my prodding) and ‘[Chortling at some incredibly immature thing]‘.

The fundamental similarity that makes it all possible, though, is that we don’t care if we miss some big sights. We get so many little ones instead.

Puebla #3: Miscellany

We were only in Puebla two and a half days, which really isn’t fair to Mexico’s fourth-largest city. (Did you know that? I did not. After DF, Guadalajara and Monterrey.)

We were pretty fried on Sunday, our first day out, and overwhelmed because it was Palm Sunday. The streets were packed with people.

Getcher palm doodads here!
Getcher palm doodads here!

We wandered around pretty aimlessly and happened across equally random treats, such as this hot dog situation:

What the heck?
I don’t know what that is in the foreground. We’re talking about the thing in the guy’s hand.

It was, as far as I could make out, a hot dog dipped in molten cheese then wrapped in an eggroll wrapper, and then wrapped in bacon, and then deep-fried.

That's just rank.
Peter swore it was one of the best things he ate on our trip. And he wasn’t even high.

Please don’t extrapolate about Puebla cuisine from this; I think it’s a one-off invention of the guy who runs the stand.

Not far away was weirdness of another sort, a veritable garden of kiddie rides:

Photo by Peter. Actually, let's just say all of these are.
Photo by Peter. Actually, let’s just say all of these are.

We stopped at the railroad museum (doesn’t everyone make that their first stop in a new city?) and cried over the oh-so-recent death of Mexico’s passenger rail. (Our friend Jim took the train from Texas to San Miguel de Allende for a high school trip in the 80s! Argh!)

This is the style of travel to which I am accustomed, thankyouverymuch.
This is the style of travel to which I am accustomed, thankyouverymuch.

Later that day, we met up with some real live poblanos, who were kind enough to make sure we saw the Rosary Chapel, one of the city’s major attractions. Which we almost certainly would have missed otherwise, because it’s off the side in one of the churches that was mobbed with Palm-Sunday-enjoyers.

Click to enlarge. Really. It’s worth it.

We also went to the Museo Amparo, recently reopened after a big renovation. In fact, it’s still not totally finished. But the rooftop cafe was a great place to get up close and personal with all the church domes in the city.

Modern museum on the right; colonial city on the left.
Modern museum on the right; colonial city on the left.

Aaaand then, back to our regularly scheduled aimless wandering.

Park life
This park was so committed to its jacarandas that all the benches and trash cans and everything were painted purple.
Emo bus driver. As Peter pointed out, there's a lot of heart-ripping-out imagery in a country that historically did heart-ripping-out.
With all the heart-ripping-out imagery, are emos just updated Aztecs?
Jesus loves neon, this we know.
Jesus loves neon, this we know.

Finally, to end this post on an educational note, did you know Chia Pets are, like, a real thing? Here, look:

An 'altar of sorrows,' commemorating the Virgin Mary's loss of her son.
An ‘altar of sorrows,’ commemorating the Virgin Mary’s loss of her son.
This time I did the zooming for you. Check it!
This time I did the zooming for you. Check it!

As a display at the Museo Amparo helpfully explained, sprouts and wheatgrass are placed on the altar, to represent rebirth. And little hollow clay turtles and sheep, covered in chia seeds, are a way of doing that. It was hard to tell from the phrasing whether this is something that’s been going on for centuries, or if Mexicans just like Chia Pets, and incorporated them into the altar? Chia Pets were originally made in Mexico, says-Wikipedia-so-it-must-be-true, which suggests the former.

Cool, right? Who knows what I’ll learn on my next (hopefully longer!) visit to Puebla…

Puebla #2: Street Food Tour

HOLY MOLE!!!

(Sorry, just had to get that out of my system. The whole time I was in Puebla, the home of mole poblano, I had that dumb joke running through my head. But really? The mole? Hot damn, it’s so good.)

Peter and I took a food tour with Eat Mexico, the same wonderful folks we did a street food tour with two years ago in Mexico City. Not only have they branched out to Puebla, but the guide is the woman behind the excellent All About Puebla blog.

Peter and I put on our stretchy pants and met Rebecca in the center of the zocalo. As usual, we thought we knew stuff (mole, cemitas), but we knew jack. She promptly marched us off to a place with molotes, jarochas, chanclas and pelonas, among other things.

Now, as I type, I could not tell you what molotes really are. The shape has evaporated, and I just remember the tastes: we had one filled with potatoes and cilantro, which tasted like a samosa, and one filled with brains, which were silky and surprisingly beef-flavored.

The pelona is clearer in my mind because it’s, get this, a deep-fried sandwich!!!!

Rebecca explained all this rationally, about Puebla’s long tradition of baking a variety of wheat breads and so on, as though it were perfectly normal to dunk the outside of a bread roll in hot oil till it gets shatteringly crunchy, and the fill the inside with something hot and cheesy and fabulous.

Peter and I were so busy gobbling that we forgot to take photos. Sorry.

Then we marched on to a place that called itself a taqueria oriental, which specializes in tacos arabes and tacos al pastor, on dueling vertical spits.

Foreground: "arabe" meat; background: "al pastor" meat.
Foreground: “arabe” meat; background: “al pastor” meat. (Photo by Peter)

I don’t know why it delights me so to see Arab culture mashed into/absorbed into/flourishing in Mexico, but it does. Tacos arabes are basically shwarma in form, but still Mexican in flavor (the pork helps).

They look like shwarma too, with a flatbread-y wrap that's halfway between a flour tortilla and a Syrian pita.
They look like shwarma too, with a flatbread-y wrap that’s halfway between a flour tortilla and a Syrian pita.

They were allegedly invented in Puebla, in the early 20th century. The skewer technology either enabled or improved the taco al pastor (not sure which–any food historians know?), and wow, the ones we had were some of the best ever.

A thing of beauty, right?
A thing of beauty, right?

If I continued with this blow-by-blow account, we’d never get anywhere. Suffice to say, we also stopped for strange and wonderful cookies and candies I’d never heard of, detoured for mysterious candy apples, and, best of all, walked for a while, out of the historic center and into a part of the city we hadn’t yet gotten to see. On the way we passed a peaceful protest.

Power--and parasols--to the people.
Power–and parasols–to the people.

By the time we got to the market we were bound for, our appetites had been magically restored. We strolled around ogling all kinds of things, and asking people pesky questions. We bought a kilo of homemade mole. We saw huitlacoche in situ!

Mmmm, corn fungus!
Mmmm, corn fungus! (Photo by Peter)

And then we ate cemitas. Just as Rebecca promised, every component of this amazing sandwich was perfect.

I love the man chomping in the background. (Photo by Peter)
I love the man chomping in the background. (Photo by Peter)

You can’t see all the gorgeousness in the photo, but the string cheese was unstrung into fine threads, the milanesa was hot and crispy, the chipotle was homemade, all smoky and brown-sugar-sweet. (Ohhh, so that’s what chipotles en adobo are supposed to taste like!) A man came along and sang a sad song on a guitar, and a woman rolled up and sold us a big plastic bag full of fresh pineapple juice. It was one of those crystalline this-is-why-I-love-Mexico moments.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, we went and drank sweet-and-boozy drinks on a tiny balcony in a pretty arcade.

Slurp!
Slurp!

Puebla. So much more than mole!