Friday, 26 April 2013

In hot water in Aguascalientes

My colleagues were all a bit surprised when I said I was going to Aguascalientes. Not many of them had been, and none had visited the star attraction at this time of year, the Feria Nacional de San Marcos, though they were impressed that I was venturing out to see it. The taxi driver who drove me and A from the bus station to the hotel was equally perplexed. 'All the way from England, just to see our feria?' It all added up to a consensus that Aguascalientes was not a tourist town.

Well, I don't think we saw a single other non-Mexican during our stay, but there's absolutely tons to see and do. We started off by sampling the aguas calientes of Aguascalientes, which our optimistic map told us were just a hop, skip and a jump from the hotel. Of course they were considerably further, but after directions from a kindly woman waiting at the bus stop we made it there. I had been expecting a slightly-more-clothed version of a Japanese 'onsen' hot spring, but what we found were lots of relatively small baths in a range of sizes, all in individual rooms with intricate tiles lining the walls. We soaked contentedly for an hour and then set about challenge #2 of the day: transport into town.

We quickly discovered that this meant either a very long walk or a ride in a 'pesera' minibus. Plumping for the latter option, we had to make a couple of attempts, but eventually we clambered aboard a surprisingly new-looking green bus. We were confident it would just chug along the main road - after all, the driver had grunted in a positive way when A had asked if he was stopping at Calle Zaragoza, our destination - so we were a little perturbed when he immediately veered off into the back streets behind the baseball stadium. Our faith in Mexican public transport was restored, though, when A spotted a street sign that read 'Zaragoza'. I leapt across to ring the bell, nearly kicking the old lady behind's shopping while doing so, and the bus screeched to a halt right next to the museum we had planned to visit.

MEG would have been in her element in the Museo de Aguascalientes - a hodgepodge of curvy modern sculpture around the garden, a temporary exhibition on Javier Guerrero, a Communist painter who had dabbled (pretty competently!) in graphic design and whose work could be described as 'socialism with Mexican characteristics, a room full of engravings by Aguascalientes' favourite local son José Antonio Posada, whose 100th anniversary (of dealt here, rather than birth, confusingly) is this year and is officially a Big Deal all over Mexico, and the centrepiece, portraits by Saturnino Herrán, who was famed for being one of the first people to paint all sorts of Mexicans, including indigenous people, as they really looked, doing realistic things. All in all, pretty good value for the 50p we paid to get in.

Across the road was the Templo de San Antonio de Padua. I was a little sceptical about the guidebook's claims of grandeur, as on a first glance from the street, the church looked quite plain. Inside there was one brightly-coloured chapel, and I initially thought that was it. A murmur of voices behind a door to the right caught my ear, though, and when I went to investigate I was confronted with an explosion of Baroque. The rest of the church was crammed full of miracle-themed frescos, stained glass, a rogue bit of neo-Classicism in the dome, a glitzy crystal chandelier and a grand golden altar. As we walked out the other end of the church, we looked back and saw that the dome was coloured pink and yellow like a Battenburg cake, and the front facade was a frenzy of ornate carving. And that was just a local parish church...

The next day we wandered up to the National Museum of Death, which sounds dreadfully morbid but which Lonely Planet assured us was a must-see. It was sensational - simple but colourful displays of life-size skeleton models from the Día de los Muertos, doing all sorts from dancing to riding an equally skeletal horse. There were masks, artefacts from pre-Hispanic days, a fantastic mural and modern artwork. I left feeling like my preconceptions about how death and society interact had been shaken up - the Mexican view of death just being another phase of the same thing as life made me question British culture's insistence on sadness. Any museum that can make my thoughts go metaphysical gets a big thumbs up from me!

All this talk about cultural things brings me to the real reason why we came to Aguascalientes: the Feria. It's a riot of music, exhibitions, dancing, street food, sombreros, bullfights and drinking - this last is the real focus... A litre of michelada (beer cocktail, much better than it sounds) costs under £2, and it seemed crass not to try some local tequila while in the region (no shots, all in traditional cocktails!).

The peak of celebrations happened yesterday morning, with a long parade through town. It started with groups of 'charros' (cowboys) on horseback and segued into what looked like most of the young people of Aguacalientes, in marching bands, dancing in traditional costume or pushing along enormous mechanised floats. My favourite part was the periodic breakout music, when the parade would stop, the band would pipe up (playing Lady Gaga's magnum opus Poker Face at one point) and the more intrepid among the spectators would go and dance with the people in costume. Everyone was laughing and clapping along - maybe a touch of cowboy dancing would go down a treat amidst all the economic gloom in the UK?

I've purloined A's iPad to write this from Zacatecas - hopefully the subject of my next blogpost - and I think it will be too complicated to include photos now, but I will endeavour to include some later. Consider this the beta version - a blog for the imagination - at least until I get back to my PC...

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


So it's been a while - sorry. Tired, bit of a dodgy tummy and all that. Must do better.

Puebla, my destination for my birthday trip just before Easter, was splendid. I have a few poor-quality pictures taken with my work Blackberry, but hopefully they will give you a sense of the place. It's a beautiful colonial city with a grand cathedral overlooking a large square, tiled streets covered in boisterous market stalls selling traditional crafts, and a few languid stretches of (nearly) green.

Somewhat obstructed view of a trono going past
Bit better!

We were staying in an extremely nice hotel, La Purificadora, literally set in an old water purification plant. These days the only remnants of the waterworks is the external wall - everything else is shiny and modern. As you can see from the hotel website, the logo is written in a wibbly-wobbly font that's meant to represent the water, I think, but made me feel as though I didn't have my glasses on. Although we did make a bit of an effort to do cultural things - watching Easter processions and visiting the Museo Amparo full of baroque things, including a very peculiar 'altar of sorrows' which had lots of gold flags, oranges and vessels of coloured water, all with a distinct symbolic meaning.

'Sorrowful' wasn't the first word that came to my mind, but it just goes to show that grief takes very different forms in different places...

We also spent a fair while wandering the streets, spotting dubious signs like the one that read 'Puebla was founded as a 'perfect' city - i.e. one only inhabited by Spaniards'. But I'd be lying if I didn't confess the significant amount of time lounging by the pool, which was curiously long and thin. The pool was perched on the edge of the roof, looking right at the spires of the cathedral, which felt like they were almost close enough to touch. I'm a bit rusty on my Catholic religious practice but I'm pretty sure that wearing next to nothing and soaking up the rays is not quite what you're meant to be doing at the end of Holy Week... The rest of the clientele was mostly made up of fresas - a wonderful Mexico City slang word which has no exact English translation - it certainly doesn't mean 'strawberries'! If you imagine 'people who might be on the Mexican version of Made in Chelsea, you'll get the idea.

More soon...

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends

Let's start with the guilt. My flat is still looking like a bomb has gone off, so no pictures for you yet. And it's dark so they'd look rubbish if I took them now anyway. Second kind of guilt is for not taking many (any) photos in Coyoacán, so any that make their way onto the blog will be others', unless I can work out how to use the scanner at work to reproduce my postcards. That leads neatly on to my third and final source of guilt for today, which is technical in nature: I can't work out how to get the (admittedly not very good) photos from my work-issued Blackberry to the blog. There might be a way to upload them somehow from the Blackberry straight to the Internet... any ideas, people? I tried Bluetooth to my iPhone and that didn't work. I feel slightly ashamed of having so many whizzy electronic devices that I can't use properly.

Outside the Caza Azul

So let's cast our minds back to last weekend. Saturday came and went with little activity other than a determination to make the most of Mexico's lax attitude to antibiotics to sort out my dodgy tummy once and for all. 'Generix' pharmacy did the trick within 24 hours, and on Sunday I met my Japanese friend Manami for a trip to Coyoacán, once home to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, now a colourful, slightly bohemian neighbourhood in the south of Mexico City with a vibrant market, museums and throngs of visitors. There was a predictable queue snaking along the blue walls of the Frida Kahlo museum, but it was totally worth it: not just for the paintings, fresh and punchy as they are, but for the little touches of unusual insight that were peppered through the museum. It was spooky to look up at the same alcove as Trotsky would have seen when he woke up from a sleepover at his friends' house, shortly before an ice-pick gave him a grisly end; slightly creepy to see Frida Kahlo's deathmask perched on top of her bed, as if she'd tried it on and discarded it before going out; touching to see the intricate dresses she wore and the analysis of why she had that particular dress sense (a combination of polio making one leg shorter, and a spine problem causing serious back problems, that made her put the focus on the upper third of her body when dressing and styling herself).

Viva La Vida (the original by Kahlo, before Chris Martin was but a sparkle in his mother's eye)

A michelada with an IT analyst by day, rock guitarist by day later, we took a stroll through the main square, which was chock-a-block full of people selling palm branches (I tried and mostly failed to explain the significance of Palm Sunday to Manami - eleven years of church school education and I am still officially Not Good at the Bible stories) and other festive things like candy floss and tacos. We cast an eye over at the Mercado de Artesanía but my feet, which I had foolishly shod only in flip-flops, refused to go any further, so that will have to be saved for another day.

Coyoacán square - just imagine lots of families milling around clutching palm fronds
More blog coming soon on my birthday minibreak to Puebla... stay tuned!

Saturday, 23 March 2013

This blog comes to you from my duplex

So the big news of this week is my move, which happened (contrary to everyone's expectations) on the day it was meant to, Friday. I now have a beautiful two-bedroom apartment, spread over two floors, with terraces off the living room and my master bedroom suite (which includes another living room, a bathroom, a bedroom and a dressing room). There are four bathrooms, if you count the downstairs loo and the maid's loo (I would be happy to share toilet facilities, but apparently this is not the done thing here. So much for solidarity). It's on a quiet, tree-lined street named after one of my least favourite authors from my degree, Calderón de la Barca, in Polanco, the Knightsbridge of Mexico City. Gucci, Chanel and Cartier are only a short walk away.

That all sounds amazingly fancy, and it is, in many ways. But there are refreshing touches of normality: a discount generic-drugs pharmacy, a street vendor or two round the corner, a man selling Oaxaca-style tamales late at night (complete with a megaphone), Starbucks (present here, as it is everywhere), La Casa de los Abuelos (kind of a Mexican diner chain, with good breakfasts). I did get the impression that I was in the minority walking - it's perfectly safe, and there are shady pavements with only the occasional pothole - as pretty much the only people striding along were me and the Orthodox Jews on their way to/from synagogue. It feels rather American in that way. But I think I'll enjoy living here, and I hope I don't become too spoilt!

The other main event of this week was less auspicious: my iron stomach finally failed me, and Montezuma's Revenge struck. It could have been so many things that it's hard to pin down quite what the cause was. I think you have to be resigned to the fact that once in a while, you'll get a bit ill while you're here, and just enjoy the food the rest of the time (while following a couple of basic food-safety rules and not taking ridiculous risks). In the land of discount pharmacies, a whole course of prescription antibiotics can be had for not much money at all with no need to consult a real doctor. I made sure to read up on WebMD and NHS Direct before actually taking any (medical friends, don't hate me).

Gastro-intestinal problems don't lend themselves to illustrated blogging, but I promise that pictures of the flat will come once I have packed away my belongings and it is less of a bombsite...

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Pueblo Mágico

After a pretty hectic week in the office, I was very excited to get out of the city today and head off to Tepoztlán, a 'pueblo mágico' in Morelos state, to the south of Mexico City near Cuernavaca. My friend driving us breezily said 'it's only about an hour and a half's drive there', and so we set off just after 9.00 this morning. But no - I evidently hadn't had sufficient first-hand experience of the horrible, snarled up, cars as far as the eyes can see traffic jams that everyone moans about here. After an hour and a half of crawling through graffitied suburbs, we finally made it to the 'cuota', the toll road leading south. Along with the rest of the motorway, we had a brief comfort break, and true to form, some enterprising people were trying to make a bit of money by selling food anywhere people might walk past. I wouldn't trust the hygiene of anything within a hundred metres of this particular building, but I guess some people's longing for a taco knows no bounds...

We got back in the car and the rain, which until now had been a steady Manchester-style drizzle, suddenly got all tropical monsoon. Once in a while we caught a glimpse of mountains through the thick mist, but for the most part we concentrated on negotiating the hairpin bends through the mountains. Abruptly, a town came into being around us, with 'tiendas sindicadas' (unionised shops - an interesting concept) lining the streets and streets that narrowed down as if they were breathing in to fit through a slender gap between the buildings. Just as we were starting to think about finding a parking space, market stalls started to throng the street on either side of the car, and hitherto leisurely shoppers were forced to the side of the road as we rolled down over the cobbles...

I have to confess that my main priority at this point was lunch. I mean, local colour and culture is lovely, but my stomach comes first... But we decided to be good visitors and have a quick gander at the 500 year old Dominican church before attending to our appetites. We wandered up the path, umbrellas aloft, and I was all set to admire some saints' chapels and then declare that I wanted to eat, but then we got caught up in a wedding. Andrea and José Armando were just at the ring exchange stage, and we couldn't resist loitering at the back for a few minutes to watch.

The wedding venue

After all that trouble getting there, lunch was bliss. Small problems like a leaking roof soaking my plate didn't distract us from margaritas (apart from our dutiful driver, who stuck to fruit tea), taquitos, tortilla soup and mole sauce. There was even a lady doing embroidery outside the loos whose sole job seemed to be pulling the lever to work the paper towel., without any expectation of a tip. Maybe if what you like doing most is sitting doing embroidery, having to get up once in a while to work a paper towel roll isn't such a hardship?

After lunch Other Friend suggested we go off to a bookshop-cum-cafe, a very popular combination here in Mexico, it seems. I was captivated in the garden by the exotic trees - a squat palm in the middle of the garden confirmed the tropical setting, and citrus trees were dotted at the far end of the garden. I don't think I have ever seen a lime tree before, but a quick sniff of the blossom and a mental comparison to expensive lime blossom-scented shower gel (I knew my escapade to L'Occitane's factory on Airline would come in handy someday...) confirmed what it was. I do worry slightly that after many years of teenage rebellion refusing to take any interest in plants, I am now turning into my parents. If I show signs of wanting an RHS membership, please can someone take me aside and have a quiet word?

We trundled along hilly cobbled streets, replete with puddles and potholes, to our last stop, Other Friend's childhood home. But en route, a couple of makeshift bollards were blocking the road. Other Friend was having none of it, and demanded an explanation for the blockage from the heavyset guy loitering at the side of the road. He replied with a neckless shrug that he was just there to look after the wedding guests, and it clicked that we had stumbled across the venue for the reception for the wedding we had glimpsed earlier. Other Friend was unperturbed by the diffidence shown by us wimpy foreigners, and she strode out the car to move the bollard out the way. We slowly drove past the reception, which had overdressed guests tottering along in heels, bored-looking men and quite a few bodyguards hanging around - whose wedding needs that level of security in a peaceful village in Mexico, I wonder? Interesting as it was, I was pleased when we passed the bollard at the other end of the street and arrived at Other Friend's house. The plant fascination continued, this time seeing sacks of red berries that I initially thought were cranberries. Other Friend laughed and said that they were her mother's homegrown coffee - once the (unseasonal) rain stops, they need to be dried in the sun, then the berry flesh picked off and the beans roasted. Amazing - I have only ever seen coffee growing in the hothouses in Oxford Botanic Gardens before.

As fresh as coffee gets

Driving back to DF (as the city is known by the 'chilangos' who live there), the astonishing mountains revealed themselves. We were high enough up - around 2400m - for cloud to be blanketing the bottom of the valley, with stark rockface looming up either side above. It was very strange, almost like we were in a plane looking down at the clouds. If it had been in England there would have been a layby for people to take photos every 200m, but here in Mexico people are made of less easily impressed stuff, so we had to make do with startling vistas once in a while while driving.

A less misty view from the road above Tepoztlán
I inadvertently made my Mexican friends guffaw by describing Tepoztlán as what I imagined 'México profundo' to look like - showing the perils of translating a phrase that would be normal in France (la France profonde) to the New World. Apparently the real 'México profundo' would probably be among the marijuana cultivators and drug cartels of the mountains further south in Guerrero... maybe not such a good spot for a daytrip?

Sunday, 10 March 2013


Over the past couple of days I've investigated different Mexican entertainment options. This really is a wonderful but slightly bizarre country...

I was wandering down to La Roma (the Shoreditch of Mexico City) to find a light dinner, having eaten a huge lunch of five courses for less than £4 with my team. Having passed through a small park where people were jamming on guitars and drums, I found a few promising-looking places but settled on El Péndulo, a 'cafebrería' bookshop-cafe-bar-restaurant hybrid. It reminded me of Piola Libri in Brussels. I ordered a margarita and said yes when the waiter asked if I wanted it 'frapeada' (which looks worryingly like 'fraped' when written down, but is altogether different when spoken). It arrived with so much crushed ice that the ice was as tall as the glass! Alas, I don't have photo evidence but it was amazing. To balance out the tequila, I also ordered some mollárabes which are an example of fusion food at its best - toasted itta bread, stuffed with melted cheese, a touch of mayonnaise and avocado, with limes to squeeze and pico de gallo salsa to spoon on the top. I might have to reinvent this as a party snack soon.

The following night I went to the cinema to see Beautiful Creatures (which I would watch on a plane, but I wouldn't rush to watch on DVD). All quite a pleasant experience - quite roomy seats, virtually nobody in the cinema, lots of trailers for sci-fi films I probably won't watch. At the drinks-n-snacks counter, I was flummoxed by the many combo options but eventually settled on a 'combo movie meal', despite the assistant's slight disapproval when he described it as 'infantil'. It came with a vast quantity of popcorn, a reasonable size soft drink and a mini chocolate bar, and may go some way to explaining some of the plumper children you see around from time to time...

Last attraction was karaoke, but not as I have ever done it before. The scary thing was that it was public - there was a big stage with spotlights, with tables of guests looking up from smoke-machine shadows. More strange, though, was the compere, who made a massive build-up for everyone and said 'qué bonito!' after most people, even when it was very clearly not bonito at all. But even odder were the live drums and bass, which drowned out most of the singing, and the two backing singers, whose brief it was to subtly cover up the less tuneful among the karaoke-goers. Overall I think our group was among the most musically gifted - there was a table over the other side of the room which was ear-shatteringly dreadful, with one of their number, Jessica, nonchalantly checking her phone halfway through a song as she screeched through an interminable Spanish ballad. I was not among my group's leading lights, though, with a rather flat rendition of Don't Stop Believin' which improved slightly towards the end but started fairly awfully. This time I think being drowned out by the drums was a blessing... The best moment came when Kelly in our group sang Total Eclipse of the Heart, and the backing singers did a 360 turn every time they sang 'turn around'... comedy gold.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Jaguar growls and tortillas

So it is high time I wrote the first post on this new blog. Before I begin in earnest, I should explain the title - 'The Chilaquiles Chronicles'. I have already developed a crippling addiction to chilaquiles - which are composed of tortilla chips, red salsa, green salsa, queso fresco, sour cream, refried beans and eggs - because they are included in the free breakfast buffet at the hotel. Today I went cold turkey to try and regain control, but I bought a delicious but cholesterol-laden ham and cheese croissant instead so I don't think I'm doing very well.

After my KLM flight on Friday, I can officially confirm that I am a convert to the charms of business class. It really didn't take much! Though it turns out that even if you have an enormous seat, you can still be annoyed by inconsiderate neighbours - the fat man in the seat next to me had no concept of personal space which meant that his immigration form, napkin and blanket kept creeping over the armrest and into my seat. But the fact that there was seat for it to go onto (i.e. I was still several inches away) means I really can't complain.

I had been fearing the effects of altitude when I arrived but felt nothing at all beyond suddenly feeling a bit tired on Saturday, which I would have expected anyway with jetlag.  I wandered down the street my hotel is on, Paseo de la Reforma, which is a stately avenue lined with palm trees and interesting modern sculptures, until I hit the historic centre. The main square, the Zócalo, is vast, nearly as big as Tiananmen Square, and houses various impressive buildings, including the blinging (there is no other word for a building containing so much gold) Metropolitan cathedral. There was also a big '100 years of the army' exhibition - unlike various other countries in the region, Mexico has not had the army taking over from civilian rule, so the public's attitude towards it is quite different from other places, and there was an enormous queue to get in to see the cadets. I passed and decided to take the metro back instead, which was an experience - walking CD vendors prowl the carriages with speakers in their backpacks pumping out mariachi music. Lots of sombrero sightings too, which was pleasing.

On Sunday I went with my new boss and his girlfriend to Teotihuacan, which is 50km outside the city and houses some astonishing pre-Hispanic monuments, including the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon and tremendous avenues of stepped ruined buildings, in an immaculate grid pattern. It's a place full of mystery - they're still not really sure how the temples were used or quite who was worshipped. And they don't really have much idea who actually lived in Teotihuacan - the latest theory is that it was an early example of multiculturalism. These days it is pretty busy with daytrippers, to the point where you have to wait in a queue at various points on the climb up the Pyramid of the Sun. It's worth it, though, for the sudden amazement at how high you've got, and how majestic everything is around you. Dotted around the ruins at ground level are lots of trinket-sellers, the most noticeable of which sell little whistle things that can either make a bird noise or an unnerving jaguar growl.

The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, which I climbed! Pictorial evidence of that coming soon.

As you might expect, food has been a priority and I have eaten very well. There are still tons of things on my list to try but I have already consumed my body weight in corn products. Lots of tacos, pozole (see below), empanadas... I plan to have a tamale for breakfast next. Everything is supercheap - a humongous bowl of pozole cost me just over £2 and I keep being able to pay for things in change... Drinks have been good too, though I had a panic when I ordered a michelada, as recommended by Sam Gibbons, and there was no Maggi sauce or chilli in sight! I hurriedly asked my colleague what was going on and she explained that the word 'michelada' means different things in different parts of Mexico - in Mexico City, as it turns out, it means slightly sweet lime juice at the bottom of a tall glass rimmed with salt, with the beer poured on the top.

Pozole: predictably, it involves corn and chilli...

British music appears to have invaded the city. All sorts of Brits playing, from One Direction and the Wanted to David Bowie and the Police. Part of me wonders whether this is just success for the GREAT campaign but I suspect the reality is less organised. Apparently the Beatles (pronounced the 'beet-lez') are huge here, which is a boon when explaining how to pronounce the name Maxwell, as there is a ready-made song title reference.

Work has been fun - all a bit hectic, but enjoyably so. Lots to learn but bit by bit I understand what people are talking about a bit more... Tomorrow will be my first external event which is entirely Spanish-speaking - easing myself in gradually by going to a lecture tomorrow, then a Spanish-speaking meeting with EU partners on Friday (though I am very lucky to have an exceptionally knowledgeable and bilingual colleague going to both, so I can be nearly mute without it being too awkward). The office chatter is in Spanglish which is entertaining and I am doing my best to make my Murcian accent a bit more comprehensible... I enjoy the fact that our team meetings are outside on the terrace, with early-summer-style sunshine and bougainvillea trailing along the walls. Quite a change from snowy Brussels!

PLEASE comment if you can, it makes blogging so much more fun. It's very easy to sign in with a Google account to Blogger, and that way you can also comment on Matt's blog too... I think Ali's blog is on a different platform but do read hers as well (otherwise she will kill me once she gets to Mexico next month!). Hope to hear from you soon!