Tuesday, 19 July 2016

I need a Farrow and Ball paint chart.

The pinata shop
Oh my goodness. Mexico just keeps getting better and better. Queretaro, city of 2m people, sprawls over the hillsides as far as the eye can see.  The bit we stayed in, is the old Centro area and is absolutely charming. Not a phrase that I would normally use. But, I have to start slow with the superlatives because Mexico, it seems, is stuffed full of fantastic architecture. Not the whizz bang type that reaches for the sky in extraordinary shapes. This is the sort that comes in colours of burnt sienna and bright ochre; is made of crumbling painted cement and brick, is aged, flat topped and overseen by catholic churches ranging from magnificent to simple, that are still populated and not just mausoleums to a bygone belief. 

There is, as I type this, a car outside the house with “La Cucaracha” blaring out of the window. Fantastic!!!!

There is an aqueduct that spans one of the valleys in which Queretaro covers that has 74 arches and defines the edge of the old city where there are winding brick roads with restaurants, cantinas and shops that squash onto the exclusively one way roads. There are elegant plazas with fountains and seats situated around the edges and like Pachuca and Mexico City numerous police seemingly doing little.

Aqueduct in Queretaro
It’s weird. We all have a sixth sense that alerts us to danger. Something that heightens your awareness of your surroundings. Rachel’s is very acute (having been mugged and duffed up a bit in London once). But neither of us have felt a thing. People are friendly, helpful, laughing, kissing and very social. Do the police make it so or protect what naturally is? (Actually, just read a book called The Circle which is about the rise of a powerful internet company and it poses similar thoughts – worth a read).

Our room is right in the middle of it all and 5 minutes after we arrive we are sitting in a plaza, while latin guitar music plays in the backgound. We kick back and drink una cervesa (Corona) with fresh lime in a salt and chilly topped glass in the sun whilst chatting to two slightly tipsy locals. Both have the shits and are alternatively knocking back a concoction of anise, rum, tequila and mango juice and large swigs of Peptobismol. Our Spanish is starting to pay off and we manage a proper (although limited) conversation (alcohol makes people very forgiving) before they buy us some more drinks and rush off- presumably to be sick.

A short bus ride from Queretaro is the incredibly quaint and beautiful village of Sebastian de Bernal which is dominated by the 433m high Peña de Bernal one of the tallest monolith’s in the world. We had heard that it was possible to climb to the top of this rock first by following steep paths then scrambling up some steeper bits and finally by climbing up large metal staples fixed in the rock face.  We set off up the slope with gradually lessening numbers of people and finally reached an outcrop where Rachel called it a day. I preserved but after a scramble and the first three staples reached a point where the next three staples had been removed – leaving an 8 metre wide, virtually vertical gap that fell away towards some rocks. And…. I stopped myself!!! I had a good talk about the dangers, chances of falling, ramifications of my actions etc and backtracked to a very proud Rachel who often says to me “Be careful” knowing that my reply of  “I will” means “I probably won’t”. 

La Pena
Even though we couldn't get to the top it was still a great clamber with amazing views and a must do activity (although having decent climbing shoes, a small strap and carabineer might be useful). Bernal, similarly, is an amazing village. So pretty it makes you gasp. And words will not do justice to the pictures you can find in the gallery.

Sebastian de Bernal
Back in Queretaro we find out there is an international jazz festival starting the next day so extend our stay and prepare to dance. We pass the day wandering until its time for the festival to start (which would be simultaneously at two or three locations in the town). I could feel the excitement rising….and then nose dive with the blah blah speeches by dignitaries followed by a thirty minute set by an improvisational jazz orchestra. I cannot say this too strongly I F****ING HATE IMPROV. JAZZ. We envisioned Dixie style, or Swing Jazz or possibly Acid Jazz and plenty of it into the night. Not half an hour of people sounding like they all were playing different songs on badly tuned instruments. Not even half an hour really because I only lasted 15 minutes before skulking off but glad we hadnt booked for the whole weekend.

San Miguel de Allende. Voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world rightly deserves the title. Virtually every street is a picture awash with colour, amazing courtyards, wonderful colonial two storey homes and delightful gardens. Flowering pots stand on the parapets of the roofs and flowering bougainvillea adorn the facias or climb around ornate wooden doorways.

The amazing La Parroquia de San Miguel
Arcangel. Inspired by Gaudi's Sagrada
Familia in Barcelona
We have the run of a lovely traditional townhouse with an internal garden for three days and are starting to seriously think that Mexico could be on our list of places to stay and start a guesthouse or something. This town, in particular has a thriving arts culture so there are theatres, workshops, regular concerts and although it does have a higher than normal expat community it does mean there are amenities here that make for easy living. We will see. We still have a lot of Mexico in front of us.

“There’s this little dusty village about 20 kilometres from here that’s got this amazing church in it”. She said. “A church! That’s different” I said somewhat sardonically having seen lots of churches in Mexico. “No. It’s got these amazing murals painted all over the inside” She said really enthusiastically. “Look it’s like a small Sistine chapel”. She says showing me the web page “How cool is that? And it’s in a little village in the middle of nowhere”.

It did look cool and we liked the idea of getting a local bus and being dropped off in a one horse town and finding something extraordinary. The bus stopped right outside our house and returned to the same spot. The cost was only 10 pesos each way The bus was empty….. Two stops later there were about 60 people crammed in. 19 kilometres later about 80 and we stopped in the middle of the road which was jam packed with coaches and parked cars and hundreds of people all walking towards the sleepy little village. Hundreds of stalls selling food, inflatable everything’s, household goods and ice creams corralled us all and blaring music poured from speakers of the funfair… 

The sleepy village was mid fiesta and the population of about 40 had swelled to 20000. The church being the focal point of the day had moved its alter to the outside and closed the doors which rather defeated the point of being there….. But with lots to see, magnificent floral tributes in the central square, Aztec style dance group and lively mariachi band it was a fun place to be. After a somewhat lengthy sermon given to many gaily dressed old women and pious Catholics the church did disassemble the temporary alter and allow egress to the masses. So we were able, at last, to marvel at the remarkable interior - albeit in a driveby fashion with thousands of other jostling devotees. 

Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de

Shamanism. So being fairly open minded folk we noticed that there was a presentation in Spanish and English being given on Shamanism at a small theatre near us. 25 people in the audience 10 people on stage. Sadly because this was a public demo they used the hypnotic energy of drums to help achieve their preferred state instead of Ayahuasca or Peyote. We got to hear about their experiences, states of trance and watched several demonstrations where they ‘healed’ members of the audience. Rachel got selected for one where they would answer a question in the subject’s head. They didn’t answer her question. Not surprising, I haven’t got a clue what goes on in there either. But the two healers who were working on her both simultaneously looked incredibly sad and said later that they sensed a great sadness in her. Flummoxed us because she is basically simple and always laughing but there you go. Interesting.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Natural wonders - Geographical, man-made and modelled

We have now arrived in Pachuca. Slightly higher, seated amongst hilly countryside a couple of hours north of Mexico City. We are housesitting a dog and cat in a pleasant house in a gated community in the city centre. Natalia, the owner, kindly arranged Spanish lessons and meetings with various people for chats whilst we are here and we study for about 3 or 4 hours a day. Hopefully this will give us the kick start in the language we will need for the next year or so.

Pachuca itself is just a city and there’s not a great deal to say apart from its well appointed and positioned. Natalia has left her car and I am getting to grips with the terrible road system and dodgy driving. Multi lane highways suddenly reduce to 2 lanes, speed bumps are randomly positioned without signs, craters are the new black and, get this, you get your license before you know how to drive! Consequently you have to have your wits about you and a panicky navigator (i have both) as drivers do weird shit like go the wrong way around roundabouts or indicate left whilst turning right.

Real de Monte
We have done some interesting exploring to see what is called Pueblo Magico – Magical towns or picturesque towns. These are quaint places with colourful houses, discrete signage, usually a nice church and cobbled streets. Because they are pretty they are a bit touristy but exclusively Mexican. We haven’t seen another obviously foreign face anywhere apart from a man serving in a Chinese takeaway.

One of the attractions of coming to Mexico was to see a different type of antiquity. That of Sun gods, huge jungle complexes, tales of sacrifice and extravagant head wear. Our first archeological site is that of Teotihuacan, about halfway between Mexico City and Pachuca.


Your first sighting of the the pyramid of the sun, one of the two huge constructs on the site, is when you crest some steps. There before you is this collosal edifice with smaller ruins and plinths of Aztec civilization lining a long avenue in front. The pyramid stands 65m high and is 900m around the base with overly large and steep steps leading to the top platform. From here the views around the valley stretch away to the distant hills topped with white clouds and blue sky. We arrived at about 9.30am and for the first hour or so were one of only about 50 people in the whole complex. Consequently we were able to drink in the atmosphere and feel the energy of the place which made the hairs on our arms rise. Leaving this pyramid we then walked to its counterart – The pyramid of the Moon. A little smaller but equally impressive and set in a square with other temple ruins set about. The View from atop this was again the countryside but most impressively down the Avenue of the dead. A wide road running for two miles through the ruins of the ancient city. Aztec civilization was here from 100BC to 700AD when its inhabitants numbered 175,000 people. Mexico is dotted with various sites such as this and by all accounts this is not the most impressive…..We will see

Teotihuacan - The Sun pyramid in the distance is
the third biggest in the world
A short drive from Pachuca are the Prismas balsalticos at Huasca de Ocampo. These extraordinary rock formations, made of basalt, were formed when a volcanic eruption pushed the molten rock upwards into a marsh or lake which then cooled the rock and caused it to fracture. The really odd thing is that the final result are slabs of basalt that are either five or six sided and and all of approx.imately the same size (much like the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland). Plainly other stuff happened (geographically speaking) because now these columns of basalt form the sides of a gorge wall through which a small river flows. These have become something of tourist attraction and attractive gardens have been created around them. But, this has been done in a considerate way and the majesty of the place is still retained. Consequently we marveled as we ate our sandwiches – ham, mayonnaise, peanut and onion for those interested….yum!

Huasca de Ocampo
Tonight we went to Lucha Libre (WWF style wrestling show) at a truly seedy little arena in town that looked like it usually hosted bare knuckle fighting.  Grubby concrete tiered steps-cum-seats with a few fading upholstered seats surrounding the strip light lit ring with duct tape patched floor. The place was packed with families and aficionados and constantly patrolled by vendors selling soda, crisps and cheap merchandised shit. We paid for general seating through a little barred window and found a concrete patch to call our own. Then waited for the fights to begin as the place slowly packed itself to the rafters and children wearing the masks of their favorite fights simulated moves in a free for all in the ring. Finally the lights dimmed, the strip lights came on and the show began. Luche Libre fighters wear masks (disguises) to hide their identity (possibly through shame of the appalling performances – I’m not sure!). All are gaudy and there is lots of gold lame to be seen upon their persons. And I have to say, I was a little surprised at the sometimes generous covering of fat that was contained in their costumes. One imagines, honed muscle as might be seen in their slick American counterparts. No matter - they threw themselves into their fake kicks, tumbles, punches etc with gusto whilst the crowd cheered, booed and heckled them with such force that you could barely talk to one another. It didn’t seem to matter that the choreographed moves we’re perfect or that punches that didn’t connect miraculacely send bodies reeling. It’s showbiz and that’s what the punters wanted. There were several fights. All tag team events: first two guys fighting two guys (standard fare and truly appalling); second, two buxom trailer trash type women dressed rather drably fighting two other gold lycra clad, and slightly less rough looking, women; third another tag fight between four brightly clad and slightly more muscular men for a title belt that looked like someone’s mum had made it and then, the pièce de résistance: three transvestites fighting three men. 

The men; one in gold lame trousers, bare breasted and gold mask; one diminutive fellow who bounced about like a ruber ball dressed in green gold lame and elaborate mask with headdress; the third in the guise of a white tiger. Their opponents – a tall, lithe, tattooed, not unattractive man/woman with tits and lithe muscles, a pear shaped person with a witchy face and hair and big hands and a balding wo/man with gold and silver painted face and body, with pouty lips, mincey walk and wonderful fitted lame suit open to his small pot bellied navel. 

Our 'girl' is the one in the middle (picture borrowed online)
They performed all the usual tricks of throwing one another from the ring, jumping against the ropes, indignant punches, mock kicks and impressive throws but the added weird sexual thing roused the crowd even more as members and the public alike were chased and kissed (crowd chanting BESO (kiss) delightedly) whilst pinned to the ground by a burly bird. Even more delight when one fighter lost the round through having the lithe tranny sit on his face which somehow incapacitated him. A great evening.

More ruins - this time the Toltec ruins in Tula. The site is not as large and impressive as the previous Aztec ones we saw. Not so much excavation work had been done and the stuff that has been uncovered was in a poorer state. But. Unlike the Aztecs those Toltecs did like a statue and consequently their ziggurat (pyramid) was bedecked with 5 metre tall carvings of Toltec priests, kings or warriors (not sure). These monoliths had served as columns holding what what would have been the roof of an impressive temple up. And, as we stood there on what was the plaza in front of the temple, we imagined what an impact this building would have had on these ancient people. It seems religion has always had a habit of cowering the masses with their impressive (awe inspiring) constructions. Anyway. We wandered about and climbed on what we could, took in the faded carvings that once adorned the external surfaces of the buildings and strolled among the cactus garden and museum until it was time hit the road and head home.

I think today was the last of our sightseeing in the Pachuca area and we concluded it by going to the Chico National Park for a walk. We followed trails among the trees and first found a lovely lake surrounded by closed log cabins and picnic tables. Later, in another direction, we pushed our way through overgrown paths and clambered on a a couple of rocks and both times were suddenly presented with views into the far far distances with rocky outcrops in the foreground. A perfect vista that we just could not capture on camera but kept us captivated for some time. Finally, after seeing a beautiful bright green humming bird we walked back and Rachel almost stood on a rattlesnake. OK it was only a little 'un but  even so it was still a 'Rattler' and you never know how near mum might be!!!

View in Chico National Park

So that's it for Pachuca and its surrounds. The Spanish is coming on... Yo hablo Espanol poquito. Pero yo leo y escribe mas que puedo decir! Nosotros veremos. Our spanish teacher that we had for 2 hours 4 times a week was patient and entertaining... She even had a special way of saying "Shut up Chris, just accept it" ..... "DeeYess Chris". Rachel is doing better than me and i have to say i am a little bitter about it.. Not really! Ima gave us lessons in the house, in a petrol station and whilst shopping in a mall. We even went with her down countless small lanes one night in downtown Pachuca to an innocuous looking black garage door that was slightly ajar. Inside, after a brief conflab through the gap, we were ushered in to sit at  the only table. There we were served by various members of the family (gran and grandad, son and wife) Chapulcas small tacos with stuff on top and Pambazos (Mexican bread filled with chorizo, lettuce, potatoes and salsa. Very intimate and a bit strange but delicious. The poor people had to endure Ima telling us what to say in perfect Mexican then patiently listen again, pretending not to know what we were saying, whilst we mangled the language and asked for assorted things.

Thanks to Natalia and Carlos and Calitos for their help and company upon there return and a special thanks for the Tequilla headache I got consuming our present to them. Now off to see warmer climes in Mexico and hopefully grow moustaches.

Friday, 1 July 2016

"Andale, andale! Arriba, arriba!"

Mexico. Land of Speedy Gonzales, sombreros, moustaches, cactus plants, tacos, tequila and so much more…

First stop is Mexico City. The capital of Mexico which sits at 2,200m above sea level and is home to over 9m people. It is a sprawling place that, in 1992, was declared the most polluted city on the planet. But, like most things, those pesky Asians can now produce pollution cheaper and quicker so the title is now in China. Even so, things are still bad enough for the government to ban cars driving in Mexico City some days!!! That said, pollution wasn’t apparent. The air smelt fresh, the streets were clean and there were lots of trees doing their best to maintain the status quo. Maybe we were in the wrong (or right) places.

We stayed with Omar and Brenda (siblings) who we found through Couchsurfers.com. In a nutshell Couchsurfers is a website that links travellers to a community of people who allow you to stay in the their houses for free and, if they have time, will show you around their city. The hosts get to meet travelers and help them out (sort of ‘pay it forward for when they might travel). The travelers get to share their experiences and reduce their costs. All very altruistic.

Three Amigos
I admit, we were highly skeptical but posted our needs on the site and were quickly invited to stay with 5 different people. Omar and Brenda sounded nice and quickly responded to our questions and so we chose them.

Being over twice their age we quite expected to have to bail if things didn't work out but, as it happens, it was a great fit. Our room was clean with its own bathroom. The location was good. Our hosts were generous and considerate and happily showed us about and we all laughed a lot and got on really. We are looking forward to trying this again and maybe delve deeper into the social groups that it opens up.

Street life Mexico City
Anyway. Mexico City is stuffed full of fantastic architecture. Palaces, imposing edifices, stately governmental buildings and huge squares. There’s an enormous park, museums, churches, a cathedral, dozens of cultural locations and places of interest all shouldering the bustling streets full of street hawkers and entertainers and beggars. Just outside of the central downtown area the towering skyscrapers of modern Mexico leap to the sky. Whilst at ground level the urban sprawl still has numerous examples of old style Mexico – bright colours, shuttered windows, crumbling plaster and painted signs boldly stating services in ROCKWELL TYPE. You can ride the subway for 5 pesos for any journey irrespective of length and 'Combi's' (privately ran vans with seats) run routes all over the city for about 4 pesos per journey. 

Food is the main pre-occupation of the city. Stalls are squeezed into every nook and cranny and sell fabulous smelling Mexican fare that demands to be eaten. Restaurants and cafes vie for your business and tempt you with three course meals for 70 pesos (under 3 quid). Bakery’s and coffee bars fill the air with pleasant aromas. Highlights for us were the Frida Kahlo Museum (Home of an interesting Mexican artist who was a disabled, libertarian, ahead of her time and had an affair with Trotsky). 

Post office
The enormous post office which was truly beautiful inside like a giant gilded bird cage, the National Museum housed in the Castillo de Chapultepec in the huge Chapultepec Park, The Anthropology museum full of Aztec history. the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Cathedral and civic buildings in Zocalo Plaza. Seen in the opening sequence of the newest James Bond film where crowds celebrate the Day of the Dead Festival – Bad news if this inspired you – they have no such festival here!!!

Torture device. Guess how it works

Mexico City is so much more than we expected. In reality the many other things we saw - Mariachi players, Torture museum (Never knew there were so many ways to torture people), quaint alleys and markets etc. all add up to more than the things we mentioned. Definitely a place to visit.