Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Puebla: The Return

Last weekend I came home from Cuernavaca early because Chris and I had big plans. First we were going to go over the east side of the city, where Kanye West was performing a Mexico City stop on his Glow in the Dark Tour 2008. Now, we weren’t actually planning on going to go the concert, mind you – much too expensive – but we had a hunch there would be tons of cheap pirated concert gear outside the stadium and we needed ourselves some Kanye gear. (Did I say “we”? Ok, ok, I guess I mean that I needed Kanye gear, and Chris, well, she loves me so much that she humors me at times like this. Te amo, Christina!)

The next morning we took the Metro (a Metro line whose first stop is called Barranca del Muerto (Canyon of Death) and whose last stop is called El Rosario (the Rosary)) to the bus station and headed two hours southeast to the city of Puebla.

Puebla is one of Mexico’s oldest cities, founded in 1531 as La Puebla de los Angeles (the Village of the Angels). Over the years Puebla has played an important role in Mexico’s history: The battle of Cinco de Mayo, in which the invading French were temporarily defeated, was fought in Puebla in 1862. Fifty years later the revolution began in Puebla when a house of plotting revolutionaries was shot up by the Mexican army. You can still see the bullet holes (scroll down for a Puebla photo gallery).

Puebla also has a rich culinary history. Molé (pronounced mole-lay), was invented by nuns when they wanted to welcome a visiting European bishop with a food made of particularly Mexican ingredients. They came up with a spicy, nutty, chocolatey sauce poured over poultry. (Mole poblano also happens to be my favorite Mexican food, with apologies to tacos al pastor.)

Today Puebla is probably best known for its talavera pottery, an Arab-influenced style of pottery that often finds its way into tiles (you can see a few examples of talavera in the Puebla photo gallery, too). Latent multiculturalism never fails to surprise me: Spain was Arab-ruled for hundreds of years, so of course Arab influence bleeds into Spanish influence bleeds into indigenous (Aztec, Mayan, etc) influence bleeds into the multiculturality of today’s Mexican culture.

Besides this general history of Puebla, Chris and I have our own particular history here, too. In the Spring Semester of 2001, Chris studied abroad at the Universidad de Las Americas (UDLA) in Cholula, a town about twenty minutes northwest of Puebla. I visited her over spring break, my first trip to Mexico, and, actually, my first trip out of the United States (not counting Canada). Thus, Puebla: The Return.

We arrived about in the afternoon and hopped on a bus that said “ZOCALO” on it, with the logic that you can always find your bearings in the zocalo. We sat down on a bench, flipped through our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook and picked out a hotel that sounded good. We walked the few blocks over to it, and discovered that the hotel was a former monastery. This was a good sign: Our hotel in Taxco was a former monastery, too. We ended up in a high-ceilinged room upstairs with a balcony that looked out over the street leading to the cathedral (awesome pics of this below), all for, again, the price of a budget hotel in the States.

Settled in, we followed the suggested walk through town in our DK guidebook (Lonely Planet=great for information and maps; DK=great for photos, cross-section illustrations, and suggested walks). The walk was fantabulous because it took us around to many of the great sites near the center of town. We wandered through the street market in the Plazuela de los Sapos (Little Plaza? of the Toads), chatting with some of the sellers about their retablos. Retablos are small, simple paintings done on tin to thank a religious figure like Jesus or la Virgen – including the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos, Chris’s dissertation topic (Chris calls her “my girl”) – and they can be quite incredible to see. One of those we saw at the market featured a shootout in a cantina, another a car wreck on a highway. We refrained from buying any today – we’ll be heading to San Juan de los Lagos later in the year, where we’ll see many, many more.

We continued through the talavera markets, scoping out the brightly colored pottery of everything from small dishware to massive water jugs. Talavera looks cool in individual pieces and tiles (some of which are captured below), but to see a whole collection of it piled up against a market stand is overwhelming. You can easily get lost in the variety here; we picked up a few small things, and then moved on.

On our walk we passed at least three different hundreds-of-years-old massive cathedral-shaped churches, all with their own distinctive elements (man, the Spaniards built a lot of churches) before finishing our walk at Puebla’s main cathedral, which borders the zocalo. Puebla’s cathedral is the second largest in all of Mexico (the biggest is in Mexico City’s zocalo) and features the tallest cathedral towers of any of the massive cathedrals in Mexico, which is saying something. It was consecrated in 1649. Have I already mentioned how the age of these cathedrals just blows me away? I think so.

For me, however, the most distinctive thing about Puebla’s cathedral – which is, I think, my favorite cathedral in Mexico so far – is the green iron fence that surrounds its massive cement courtyard. On each of the fence posts is an identical angel with an arm raised and one foot off the ground, as if it is getting ready to move. Is the arm raised in greeting? Or in warning? It’s hard to tell, but the effect of these hundred angels surrounding the cathedral is mesmerizing. And I’m not the only one who likes Puebla’s cathedral – it’s also featured on the back of the Mexican 500 peso bill.

After our whirlwind tour of Puebla, we found an Italian restaurant – what, you thought there was only Mexican food in Mexico? – with outdoor seating on one edge of the zocalo. From there we wandered down to a coffee shop, and then a churro place, and wandered around the zocalo for hours, watching the couples and teenagers and families and little kids running around. Every zocalo in Mexico has balloon sellers (see picture below!); Diego Rivera, some 60 years ago, even painted a balloon seller into his massive park mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central” (for more on this mural, see our blog post from August 3). But Puebla’s zocalo seemed to have more balloon sellers than most, and even had a special kind of balloon we’ve yet to see anywhere else, one shaped like a pencil but giant-size, bigger than most of the little kids who were carrying them around. After awhile we wandered back to our hotel and sat out on the balcony until it got too cold, and we finally had to turn in for the night.


In the morning we hailed a bus for Cholula, about twenty minutes northwest of Puebla. We took the “indirect” bus so that we could get the scenic route and hopefully pass by the university where Chris studied for four months. We passed by the back of it, and then Chris kept her eyes glued on the neighboring streets, to see which hangouts were still around: not many. The zocalo looked more familiar, but it was bigger than she remembered it. And, of course, there was the church on top of the hill, visible from anywhere in town.

The “hill” is actually a pyramid, the largest ever built in the Americas and as big as those in Egypt, that has since been covered over in vegetation; if we had more time we could have taken tours of the inside of it. On top of the former pyramid is an orange-painted church (Chris swears it has been repainted since she was last here),

As we ate breakfast, on a patio on the edge of Cholula’s zocalo, Chris reminisced about her time here in Cholula. “Did you ever think you’d be back here for a whole year as a Fulbright scholar?” I asked. “No,” she replied. “When I left that time, I didn’t think I’d ever be back to Mexico.” Life moves in mysterious ways.

By now Chris really did want to spend some more time here, walking the streets she walked during that fateful semester years ago. It was all starting to come back to her. But by the end of breakfast it was time to be heading back to Puebla – we needed to check out of our hotel room by one o’clock, no room for flexibility. We took the direct route back, our faces turned toward the windows, Chris pointing out familiar streets and intersections every few moments.

We made it back to Mexico City late that night, tired but satisfied, full of memories old and new, one adventure completed, another just beginning.

1 comment:

Jane said...

Oh my goodness...you are making me miss that semester SO MUCH!! Chris, I have to know...is Rosendo's still there?? I fear it is not. Remember how often we went there...and got pizza?!?! I am getting sad just writing this & reminiscing.... What about Cemitas Conchitas (Is that what it was called?)?