Category: Mexico

Puebla #1: Lucha Libre!

Anyone who has been reading my stuff or following me on Twitter knows that I’m fond of Mexican wrestling. It hits the sweet spot between kitsch and real, folkloric, theatrical performance. I mean, I even loved Nacho Libre.*

The gods of travel scheduling were smiling upon Peter and me, because we happened to be in the city of Puebla on a Monday night, when the weekly lucha action goes down. And it was easy walking distance from our hotel.

Still, we almost didn’t go. We had eaten a very large dinner (surprise, surprise) and were feeling vaguely sunburnt and jet-lagged. Plus, Puebla is 7,217 feet above sea level. I tweeted this pitiful thing:


Fortunately, Rebecca of All About Puebla saw my public near-wimp-out and urged me to go. “It’s so bad, it’s good,” she advised. She didn’t need to explain the appeal to me.

Start time is 9pm, and we rolled up to the Puebla Arena about 9.30–there was a big mob of people, because we were in line for the cheap seats. It was a huge all-ages crowd: families with tiny kids (one baby freaked when her dad put on a wrestling mask; hadn’t learned object permanence yet, obviously), old folks, couples on dates.

That's me in the pink shirt. (Photo by Peter)
That’s me in the pink shirt. (Photo by Peter)

Inside, the arena was medium-size, and slanted very steeply–even four rows from the back, we still had a great view, without the risk of a wrestler actually landing on us. Food and beer vendors threaded through the crowd. One was carrying a huge basket of steamed shrimp, which seems like the most unlikely coliseum snack ever. But people were buying.

I briefly tried to see where we were in the program, and deduce which luchadores we were dealing with.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!! Er, I mean, Monday, Monday, Monday!
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!! Er, I mean, Monday, Monday, Monday!

That was silly. It didn’t matter. Every match was pure mayhem. There was an old-fashioned bad guy, a man with a huge belly and skinny legs and the old-style skinny-strap unitard, and some new-fangled baddies, all with gnarly-looking black-and-red costumes. Several wrestlers’ masks had mohawks on top. The biggest crowd-pleaser was campy-sweet Maximo, who didn’t wear a mask but did wear pink spangly pants and a blond fauxhawk. He disarmed one opponent by kissing him. Maximo even signed autographs for kids in between matches, which the bad guys didn’t.

Here’s a typical move:


(My first animated GIF! I’m so proud.)

After about an hour or so, the show was over, rather suddenly. We were caught a little off guard. We all filed out, past the detritus of the evening.

Man, it's like Spanish tapas bar in here...
Man, it’s like a Spanish tapas bar in here…

Peter said he liked the one we saw in Queens better. Which was, admittedly, more dramatic, and had midget wrestlers and child wrestlers, and a bad guy called La Migra. It lasted for hours.

But here in Puebla, this goes down every week. I realized we’d walked in to one episode of an ongoing soap opera–a tag-team telenovela, I suppose. We left on a cliffhanger. Maximo was up…for now.

Tune in next Monday at the Puebla Arena for more thrilling adventures…

*In Mexico, Nacho Libre totally “counts” as a real Mexican wrestler. You can buy Nacho Libre masks!

Counterintuitive Travel Tips #7 and #8: Taxis and Sleep

Two final bits of contrariness, both terribly sensible.

Tip #7: Don’t ask the price of a taxi before you get in.

Guidebooks always say “Agree on a price before you get in a taxi.” I think I’ve even written this myself. But nothing marks you as an out-of-towner like asking a cabbie, “How much to…?” This makes the cabbie’s eyeballs flash dollar signs, just like in the cartoons.

So your one job as a visitor is to find out in advance how much a taxi should cost (ask at your hotel, or ask your Airbnb host, or whatever). Then just get in the cab, say hello in at least a loose approximation of the local language and state your destination. Pay the known fare when you get out (or, in known antagonistic-cabbie towns, get out first and hand the money through the window). This is what locals do, and it works!

I don't have any photos of evil cabbies. Instead, enjoy these perfectly sweet triciclo guys in the Yucatan. Maybe taxi drivers only turn bad when they get engines?

Even if you’re in a metered-taxi town, it’s nice to get a ballpark estimate, for peace of mind.

(Why are taxi drivers the world over so prone to unscrupulousness? They are their own strange tribe. May the honest and generous ones multiply!)

Tip #8: Sleep now, not when you’re dead.

A very concrete aspect of Tip #4 (“be lazy”). Again, you’re on vacation – why tire yourself out? Take plenty of naps. Observe the siesta culture, if there is one.

There is nothing more delicious than waking up in a strange place. (Freya Stark, by way of Matthew Teller, says it even better.)

More practically, the better rested you are, the less likely you are to have those little streetcorner meltdowns, where you’re hungry and tired and just can’t make a decision, and suddenly your travel partner is looking like the worst beast on earth, just because he/she is also hungry and tired and can’t make a decision.

One person I know calls this the Death Mope. The Death Mope is easily avoided through adequate rest. (And carrying some peanuts in your bag–another tip of mine. But there’s nothing counterintuitive about not starving.)

Me enjoying Greek culture and avoiding Death Mope. (Not-so-flattering-but-oh-well photo by Peter. I didn't realize till after the trip that my very ugly bra was always visible through the very large sleeves of that dress.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #6: The Water

The first five tips (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5) had a lot to do with how to plan your trip (or not plan it). Now we’re getting into the more nitty-gritty on-the-ground stuff.

Drink the water.

I had written a righteous screed about how all guidebooks are just covering their asses when they tell you not to drink the water, and of course you can drink it, if normal middle-class people drink it too.

Then I went to Fes, Morocco, where everyone drinks tap water…and I got sick.

But even so, I believe that tap water is often not so horrible. If people who could afford to buy bottled water drink from the tap, you can certainly brush your teeth with it. You can even swig a bit in the night, when you realize you’ve run out of bottled water. You can have a little ice in your drink.

Peter drinking from the (very large, public) tap in Comitan de Dominguez, Mexico. Later we drank the water in Villahermosa too, sin problemas.

It’s with cumulative exposure that your system freaks out (or mine does; yours may be different–that’s my CYA). I didn’t get sick in Fes until about a week in. My threshold for Cairo tap water is about four days.

Contrary to logic, the worse the water is, the better off you are. If all the restaurants use bottled water, this means your ice is almost certainly made from purified water. Basically, there are very few situations in which you have to do that prissy “no ice, please” thing.

The reason I’m even being so macho about tap water is that plastic bottles are the world’s third-largest evil, after plastic bags and Halliburton, and I feel like a failure every time I buy bottled water. If you’re not feeling like risking it, I really recommend a Steripen. I just got one this summer–it’s fantastic. It has cut down on my water-risk-taking and makes me feel like a magician every time I use it. (But I recommend rechargeable batteries–it was due to battery fail that I was in the unfortunate Fes situation.)

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #3: Go Where the Tourists Are

This tip, hot on the heels of Tip #1 and Tip #2, seems completely contradictory. Bear with me.

Go where the tourists are.

I really mean Go where the local tourists are. Plan your trip around domestic holidays or popular weekend-getaway spots, and enjoy. The most fun I’ve had in recent memory was in Chiapas in August 2009, the year swine flu scared off foreigners from Mexico.

I foolishly thought the major tourist spots would be empty. But hotels were packed with Mexican families enjoying the tail end of summer vacation. The ruins at Palenque were swarming with people. In San Cristobal de las Casas, kids were running around in souvenir Zapatista ski masks. It was great.

Peter and me posing with the winners of the Golden Age pageant in Palenque.

As travelers, we spend so much time avoiding (sniff) common tourists, but in the long run, you have to admit this can be a little wearing. When you’re the only foreigner in some village, everyone’s staring at you all the time, and you start getting antsy. Or if you’re trying to blend in in some European capital, you’re constantly worrying whether you just flubbed your coffee order and revealed your out-of-townness.

But, just as in the ugly, over-visited places I mentioned in my last post, if you go where the local tourists are going, you can enjoy the buffer of a crowd, which takes the heat off of you.

During that Chiapas trip, I went to the amazing church at San Juan Chamula. If I’d gone in a quieter time, I would’ve felt like a terrible interloper–it’s such a private-seeming place. (Er, should I really be stomping around this church while people are in the middle of intense healing rituals?) Walking into the church on the heels of a busload of Mexican tourists made me feel a little better. (Oh well—all the Mexicans are!) In fact, another Mexican tourist saw me hesitating and waved me in with a smile, like a good ambassador.

Ignore the traveler/tourist rivalry. Frankly, most tourists are fun (especially Mexican tourists!). They’re out to have a good time. So if you go where the domestic tourists are, it’s a little like crashing a party—but it’s still “counts” as a travel experience, because you’re with another culture.

Counterintuitive Travel Tip #2: Ugly Places

Continuing my series of cranky travel tips, many of which have to do with how to plan your itinerary. This one’s related to Tip #1, but in the bigger picture.

Go to the ugly places.

I’ve argued this before, specifically about Cancun. But it has a broader application.

Any indie traveler worth his backpack shuns the place with concrete hotels, nor do most people go where there are zero landmarks. But you can learn a lot about a local culture in some random “ugly” city, more than you can at some remote beach where there’s exactly one local, who’s selling you weed and cooking your fish dinner however you like it. Cancun is very, very Mexican if you know where to look—and how to look at it.

Perfectly authentic Mexican sweets in supposedly soulless Cancun.

Another example: Pattaya, in Thailand, universally reviled as ground zero for whoring. But to quote a guy I met in Bangkok: “It was great! There were Indian package tourists, and they were posing for photos with trannies on the beach!”

C’mon! How is that not heartwarming? I’m not saying you should go for a week, but one night can be fun. The nice thing about ugly, over-touristed places is that you can gawp all you want–at prostitutes, at sunburned Brits in gold chains, at whatever.

The same logic applies to under-touristed spots with no major attractions. This summer, Peter and I took an exceptionally great trip to Thrace, the eastern fringe of Greece. According to guidebooks, and even most Greeks, there’s “nothing there.” That means no ancient Greek ruins–but there are very interesting Greek-Turkish towns and more recent history. One town–New Orestiada–is definitely un-charming: it looks like a midsize Midwestern town, with uglier apartment blocks. It was built from scratch on a grid system, and the very reason it’s that way is what makes it interesting.

Greece like you've never seen it before: New Orestiada.

Even if you don’t buy my argument, you should thank me. Every time I get held up in some ugly place, gawking and eating and laughing, I’m not making it to that pristine, off-the-radar beach. I’m one less person ruining the fringes. And the world could use a little more of that.