Thursday, 19 January 2012

Oaxaca & Puerto Escondido

Welcome, amigos, to the third installment of our travels!

Since we left you in Puebla, our time has mostly been spent relaxing, with a couple of nasty hiccups. One interesting thing we didn't mention about Puebla is that it doesn't seem to be a huge tourist destination. This was evidenced by a few groups of high school students who were excited to see us (browsing and purchasing extensively from one of an entire street of candy stores! - Kevin) and took advantage of us being gringos to interview us for a school project.

Our hostel in Oaxaca was nestled way up in the mountain with an incredible view of the valley and city below. It came complete with a small restaurant (that had very little in the way of food for Juliet), a pool, and 'matrimonial' (2-person) hammocks. We met a Polish couple who are flying out to Cuba on the same day as us, but at a more reasonable hour (we realised after we bought it that it gets to Cuba at 12.35 am). We got in around 3, already hungry, so headed down to the city. The driver of the bus we got on said he was going to the zocalo (central plaza that most Mexican cities have). We patiently waited to see anything like a zocalo to no avail and ended up getting off the bus at the end of the line. Getting to our restaurant meant catching a taxi back in and the driver got confused about where we were going, so we had very rumbly bellies when we finally got there.

The horrible experience getting around Oaxaca combined with the opportunities for relaxing at the hostel meant Kevin was keen to just stay there for the day. I (Juliet) wanted to see the city so headed out on my own. I caught a taxi in with no trouble. For a measly 35 pesos I got a three course meal with a drink! I meandered through the streets, saw some traditional and modern art and found a huge market. I bought chocolate and packets of mole sauce to take home since those are two of the things that Oaxaca is known for and tried a hibiscus and cactus iceblock (surprisingly tasty). I happened upon some sort of town celebration, complete with multiple brass bands, dancing, fireworks that were set off from a small bull-shaped structure, dancing, and many people holding crepe paper flowers tied onto sticks of sugar can. Eventually I got back to the hostel to see a very relieved Kevin – I had gotten back after dark and he was worried. At least I had food with me.

Next, it was time for the second of the tours included in our bus pass. The first tour was slightly unpleasant due to two Kiwi men and two Aussie women who made us a tad embarassed to be from the same part of the world. Fortunately, the Aussies we encountered on this tour were a different sort. We saw the widest tree in the world, the production process of mezcal, and the traditional process of making rugs (where we left poorer in pesos but rich with a hand-woven, natural-dyed rug of Aztec calendar). Kevin decided that insects don't count as meat in his vegetarian diet and partook of one of the local specialties – fried grasshoppers. We also inadvertently ate worms – we found out after the fact that they were one of the ingredients in the salt we were given with the mezcal we tried. Third stop was to some remarkable examples of the local pre-hispanic architecture. Rather than going for pyramids and giant temple, the people of Mitla put huge amounts of time and effort into creating stunning 3D mosaics from shaped pieces of stone. Each mosaic was composed of hundreds of small stones, each shaped to make a tightly fitting geometric design such as :

The final destination of the tour was Hierve al Agua, literally boiling water. It is so named for the springs that bubble with an intensity that you'd think the water was boiling. What was more impressive was the way this water had flowed over the cliffs over the centuries, leaving behind sediment that created the appearance of waterfalls.

Onwards we headed to Puerto Escondido! After the two pleasant buses so far, we thought we'd be fine on an overnight bus. Sadly, this was not the case. The bus was just as comfortable, but the roads were incredibly windy. Juliet spent a substantial portion of that journey vomiting. We have now invested in Dramamine.

Life is sweaty but easy here in Puerto Escondido. Our 'hotelito' makes scrumptious vegan food and has four cats, and we're minutes away from the ocean. Our hostel here may lack hot water, but I think you'd have to be sick to want that here due to the temperature! The climate means it's possible for skinny Kevin to enjoy for more than a few minutes in the ocean, although the swell is too strong for us to go out very far. We think the real reason people stay for longer than they mean to in places like this is that the heat drains your energy to do anything. Speaking of draining of energy, it also seems to be draining Kevin's brain cells. 20 minutes after he got money out, he lost his wallet on a local bus. Juliet hadn't brought her wallet with her that day, so we had a long, hot walk beside a main road back to our place. The wallet is officially gone, as Kevin found the bus we were on and beyond that the people we've talked to say there's no hope of finding it.

Feline Therapy post "loss of thousands of peso and my drivers license"
Extra time in this part of our schedule means that we're spending tomorrow night in a different beach town.
That's all for now from tropical paradise!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Goodbye Mexico City

So today we left Mexico City and have moved on to Puebla, a lovely, quaint little town a few hours to the SE.

Since we last posted, we've been to some of the most incredible museums.

On Saturday we went to the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, which documents the history of essentially all the people of Mexico over the last few thousand years - how the lived and live today, their customs, culture, music, food and architecture to name but a few aspects. The place is massive beyond belief. While obviously the most visually stunning works were the recovered and recreated works of the earliest cultures - those of the Aztecs and the (unknown) people of Teotihuacan, the depth and breadth of culture of the people of mexico is just astounding. While nearly all of them suffered serious shifts when the Spanish conquered Mexico, it was fascinating to see how each group co-opted some parts while retaining aspects of their previous cultures to create these marvellous hybrids.

Sadly we cut out time there short to get over to the Museum of Natural History, which turned out to be a major disappointment. Clearly built around the early 80's, it doesn't seem to have been updated or upgraded essentially at all in that time. If you find yourself in Mexico City and have a choice between this and somewhere else, go somewhere else.

Sunday was another day of museums, but this time much more narrow in focus.

First off we stopped in at the National Palace to see a series of murals Diego Rivera did documenting the history of the Mexican people:
It turns out that this mural is actually one of a series, and each is as stunning as the next. This one certainly takes the cake though. A truly epic work, absolutely worth the detour on our busy day to see in person.

Next it was on to the Museum of Frida Kahlo, which is situated in "the blue house", where she was born, lived much of her life including much of her time with Diego, returned to often, and finally died in. It featured a great number of her paintings, as well as those of Diego and others who inspired her and were inspired by her, but mostly just gave a really good look into her person and her life. A personal favourite of the paintings shown was the (slightly blury, sorry) "Marxism will heal the sick":

The house itself is truly stunning, having been modified by Frida and Diego during their years of living there to turn it into a living piece of history, even before it was officially turned into a museum. The place was absolutely packed, mostly with locals who clearly love her a great deal.

From there it was a quick walk around the corner to the house in which Leon Trotsky and family lived out their last years of exile. The house today is a fortress, having been built up while he lived there to protect him from the various assassination plots (imagined and real) against him. While nowhere near as busy as the Frida Kahlo museum, the house turned museum was by no means empty, which was quite heartwarming to someone who has a deep respect for the ideals Trotsky lived and furthered. The museum had a great collection of the belongings of the family which remained in the house after "Lev" was killed, but also an awesome collection of pictures of his life both inside and outside of Mexico. The energy, passion and vitality which are described so often in books about his person and life are readily visible in almost every picture, whether he be working at his desk, talking to guests, carrying cactuses back to his garden from his strolls in the surrounding countryside or feeding his rabbits and chickens.
It was almost spooky to stand in the same room where he was killed, but I was deeply moved to stand in his garden in front of the memorial/mortuary where his cremated remains lie to this day, along with those of his long-suffering wife, Natalia.

From there we though we were going to the house the Diego and Frida built, a few kms west of Casa Verde (the blue house), but instead we were taken to the great studio/museum that Diego Reviera designed and built to house his great collection of pre-hispanic artifacts, Anahuacalli.
This behemoth of a building exists on a scale almost beyond comprehension:
It's a little hard to tell from this picture due to the lack of relative scale and the fact that the whole house is in proportion to itself, but the lowest "pedestal" row of stone came about to my shoulder (5 feet or so), making the whole building .... well, honestly, I don't know how big and google doesn't seem to know either which is a bit surprising. Anyway, it's big, built of massive chunks of volcanic rock dug out of the surrounding grounds. The interior is divided into 3 floors - the lowest was designed to be unlit, respresenting the prehispanic underworld; the middle floor representing the earth and housing his cavernous studio space complete with half finished drafts of some of his more famous murals, and the top floor was the heavens. Roof access really did give the impression of standing on the edge of the sky.
The ceiling of most rooms were decorated with murals, and each had dozens of repositories for the artifacts collected over Diego's decades of life.
While it was an unexpected visit, it was certainly a rewarding one.

On Monday we took a tour out to Teotihuacan, an ancient city located 45 minutes north of Mexico City. Believed to have been founded around 100BC, it was discovered by the Aztecs centuries later who gave it the name we use today, "the place where men become gods", as they believed that to be the only reason such a huge city would have been abandoned. Stargate, anyone? 2000 years does a fair bit of damage to a city, even one made of slabs of volcanic rock, but over the last 100 years the Mexican state has funded a massive restoration effort, based on descriptions by Cortez and the anthropological evidence found during excavation. To be honest though, it was mostly just Hot. Stunning, and on a scale - again - almost beyond comprehension, but HOT, and filled with hawkers trying to sell their wares to tourists in numbers which almost matched those of the tourists.
We did make it to the top of the Temple of the Sun, and as far up the Temple of the Moon as you can get, which made for some pretty spectacular pics:

Us at the top of the Temple of the Sun

[click to enlarge]
The temple of Quetzalcoatl and surrounding minor temples. Pay no attention to the disembodied limbs - no one else seemed concerned by them at the time, so I ignored them.

And that was our last few days in Mexico City! Today we bused into Puebla, which is similar to M.C. except it's smaller, friendlier, prettier and the drivers are less homicidal, which pretty much amounts to "Come to Puebla: Mexico City, but pleasant". The bus was really comfortable and the 2 hours passed almost without us realising. Upon arriving we checked into a great hostel (Casona Poblana, for any interested tourists-to-be) and found dinner at a really good vegetarian place (not so great for vegans sadly, but Mexico isn't exactly vegan friendly at the best of times), checked out a local museum celebrating some of the participants in the Mexican Revolution and have crashed early for more uber-long blog posting. It's seriously hard to find the time to do this! However, we will continue to make time, so long as people indicate they are actually reading, so post comments!

Next stop, Oaxaca, home of Chocolate (!) and then on to the beach wonderland of Puerto Escondido. Check back soon.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Day 4 of our grand adventure

Ola mi amigos!

We are in a penthouse suite, overlooking the vastness of Mexico City. How did we come to be here??
We've not had internet access for a few days, so buckle up for a looooong first post :)

Kevin here:
My trip started in Venice Beach, after a few long flights. My only words are "Wow... Wow". I swear to frog, it's like walking onto a TV or movie set. It was new years day (again, for me) and the beach was packed. Stalls as far as the eye can see selling everything from tacky tourist crap to 5 places openly selling weed (for "medical use only" of course), palm trees, street performers, and my hostel was about 12 seconds from the boardwalk. Way cool. I discovered that Funnel Cake is the best food on earth, and that pizza comes in slices bigger than my head. Met some Aussies at the hostel who we may encounter later on as they are doing part of our tour in reverse, but crashed early cause the next day was on to Mexico City!

Juliet here:
It's hard to believe that I left NZ almost 2 weeks ago now. Air TahitiNui loses points for service: in Auckland I was shown to the wrong desk to check in at first, wasted half an hour or so, and I found out on my way to LA that they don't know what a vegan meal is. Tahiti was... such a mix of France and Polynesia, in my mind. I had a 6 hour stopover there and after getting through customs it's only a minute's walk to Papeete so I had a bit of time to explore. I heard Simon & Garfunkel in French from a car, saw both Nestle and Tip Top ice creams in the corner store, smelled a lot of beef being barbecued French-style, and saw a large crab trying to scratch its way through the glass and into the customs area of the airport.

I survived my first solo international flights, and met up with my extended family on my father's side in LA. I had a lovely week-long holiday with them in the north of Mexico. Highlights included simply getting to know my family better (I hadn't seen them in 2 years or more for some), seeing a 30cm long orange-and-black iguana fall from a palm tree and eventually end up in the pool, the amazing place we were staying in, a horse ride to the top of the mountain near our town, and a New Year's Eve pinata that wouldn't die (it took all 22 members of my family in turn to finally destroy it).

My family flew back to the states and I had a night in Puerto Vallarta by myself. The hostel I stayed in seemed pretty cool and was the top-rated in Mexico in 2010 but I had little time to enjoy it. After throwing my huge bag down, I headed out in search of the city's one vegetarian restaurant. I was very glad the hostel gave me a map of the area - my directions jotted down from Google Maps would've gotten me horribly lost. I had a long walk, mostly next to a river, on streets that were only cobblestoned. I highly recommend Planeta Vegetariano (aforementioned restaurant) to anyone in the area. For 85 pesos (about $NZ8.50) I got an all-you-can eat buffet of salads, hot food, drinks, bread, tostadas, and dessert. The dessert of the day had dairy, so I passed it by and got a sorbet from elsewhere that tasted like a virgin mojito, soo good. I passed a lot of stores with lovely and cheap art, I would've definitely bought a few pieces if I'd had room in my bag! Mexico has a great discrepancy between rich and poor, and there are definite ethnic differences. The only beggars I saw were indigenous women.

Finally, it was January 3rd, when I was due to meet Kevin! I got up at the unholy hour of 4.45am to ensure I got on my flight to Mexico City. As it turned out, my flight was the first out of the airport that morning, so I had two hours spare. Ah well. I left Puerto Vallarta on what the taxi driver described as a hot winter's day for them (about 28 degrees Celsius) and arrived in Mexico City to less than 10 degrees Celsius. I sat shivering in the airport for 20 minutes or so as was waiting for Kevin 10 minutes after my plane landed and I didn't have a knife with which to undo the clip through my zipper the airline had put on.

We got to our first hostel hours earlier than their check-in but fortunately were able to drop our big backpacks there. The rest of that first day was taken up with finding a map, a dictionary, and muesli for my breakfast. Finding a map of the city was absurdly hard. Finding a supermercado (supermarket) was also tricky, there were no indications of any in our hours of walking around but thanks to the misleading map from our hostel we eventually found one. The supermarket was like a Pak n Save crossed with a Warehouse, basically a warehouse with stuff in it. The other success of the day was finding what is most likely the only vegan restaurant in the city, Falafelito's. It serves falafel with a range of veges (included in your falafel order you get a limonada (limeonade with mint)), and desserts. Muy, muy buena comida (very, very good food).

The city is almost incomprehensibly huge. You could ride the metro (subway) for two hours and still not be in a rural area. Fortunately, the metro is very cheap (for most trips, you pay only 3 pesos ($NZ0.30)) and covers the city quite well. Many people make their living in connection to it - sellers at the entrances of the station, sellers inside the station, and hawkers who make their way through the trains as they move. add in the Metrobus lines, the other city buses, a host of private "buses" (run out of vans and truck-like things), "ecobici" bikes for hire all over the place and the half million (mad as hatters) taxis and you have a city incredibly easy to traverse.

The people of Mexico City seem to have a laissez faire attitude towards many things: cars don't pay attention to road rules, pedestrians cross at any time it might be safe (and many it's not!), people walk BETWEEN lanes of traffic going in the same direction to sell stuff, push bikes ride down the motorway. The streets are crowded beyond anything we've ever seen. Power lines dangle casually in the street, accidents waiting to happen. Taxi drivers apparently get daily doses of getafix's potion - that's the only thing that can excuse their approach to road sharing. It has been eye opening to be sure.

Our hostel was strange. As with nearly all the properties in Mexico City, it was gated off the street, and the place not only resembled, but actually *was* an old spanish villa. There was internet downstairs, and 3-point power plugs upstairs (for our old, "no battery life" laptop), but no point where access to the 2 overlapped, which is why this has taken so long to appear. The shower was apparently designed as a whole room sprinkler system, which was... well... weird. The tap water was "drinkable, but has a little lead in it" - welcome to Mexico's water supply. Otherwise, nice, quaint and quiet.

Wandering the streets was an experience all unto itself. We saw a car that had been stripped right to the body, and even that was gone the next day. We stepped into a restaurant area only to be assailed with chilli fumes so strong we coughed until we left. You can buy paint from every third shop, but books are a rare commodity. Vegetarian food is mostly accidental, if available at all. Every street has vendors cooking dodgy ...well... lets call it meat and flipping tortillas cooking on what look like aluminium sombrero with their hands. People seem to walk down the road yelling loudly and indistinctly for no apparent reason. And *everyone* has dogs - not *a* dog, but several, packed into little flats. Many sad looking possible strays. The city is divided into neighbourhoods, each of which has it's own flavour and community, and they are HUGE. Tens of thousands of people in each neighbourhood, and thousands of neighbourhoods. The extent of the contrast between this and anywhere in New Zealand is impossible to describe.

Finally, we get to specifics.

On our second day we tried to find Chapultepec park. It was a mission and a half but we finally managed to navigate the myriad of uncrossable roads, underground passages and rickety bridges (there was severe sweating on Kevin's part) to discover a park that dwarfs Auckland Central. We tried some street food and wound our way up to Chapultepec Castle, now home to the National History museum of Mexico. I was struck by how proud the Mexican people are of their revolutionary history. Everywhere there are reminders - memorials to the revolutionary heroes, streets and neighbourhoods named after them, art and theatre and museums dedicated to the memory of freeing themselves from dictator after dictator. Strangely enough the National History museum was no exception.

A mural by Diego Rivera showcasing the victory of the Suffrage movement
This pride was contrasted with the opulence and obscene wealth of the Spanish rulers and priests of past. Staggering to see first hand, even hundreds of years later.

On day 3 we went down to one of the big tourist attractions of Mexico City - the Gondolas of Xochimilco. In "The Lacuna", Barbara Kingsolver described Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky riding the canals in the same style of boat as part of their illicit (if obvious) affair. Though the ride was expensive and frankly a little underwhelming (what was once an idyllic ride through beautiful countryside has since become a bustling cluster of hawkers and merchants selling food, drink and crafts to groups of drunk teenagers partying while riding past the back of slums, shops targeting riders and plant nurseries) it was kinda cool to emulate a little part of history of 2 great people.
We will eventually post pictures of us on the boat, but unfortunately our first encounter with gondaliers saw the inexplicable loss of our camera and Juliet's sunglasses, and almost saw us paying half again as much as we did for our 2 hour ride. We got out of there pretty quick, but suffered a few losses for our troubles.
To  compensate our loss, we found a pretty cool vegetarian restaurant for dinner, and Juliet was served fake meat and veges in what can only be described as a large 3 legged pig made of volcanic rock and piping hot. Sadly, still no replacement camera at this point, so no pictures.

And finally, today we went into the Centro Historico, the old centre of Mexico City. Originally intending to get into the National Palace and the ruins of a large Aztec temple discovered nearby only a few years ago, we only made it to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of fine arts), which houses some of Diego Rivera's most stunning murals (pics next time), and the Museo de Diego Rivera (self explanatory). For the third day running, we were overambitious in what we wanted to achieve. The entry fee to Palacio de Bellas Artes was justified entirely by a single large mural, and the architecture itself. Though the exterior looks like a palace/church, with great statues and carvings, the interior is a masterpiece of Art Deco stylings, stunning to see first hand. (again, pics to follow - it's really late!).

And now for the punch line - how we ended up in a penthouse suite, looking over the whole of the city.

After our 3 nights in the old Spanish villa thing, we booked in to a place a bit further south, more convenient to some of the other areas we want to explore. Upon our arrival, however, we met only a very confused young woman who had no idea that we were coming, and indeed, there didn't appear to be anywhere for us to sleep in what looked like nothing more than a 2 bedroom apartment. Fortunately, she was very friendly, spoke english and was extremely helpful. Her boyfriend owns an apartment nearby, had a room spare at a reasonable (ish)  rate and - surprise - penthouse suite!

So now it's really late, we've spent hours writing this, and presumably if you've made it this far, you've spent about as long reading it. We promise future updates will be more frequent, and hence shorter. All in all, a few pitfalls, but a lot learned and an incredible city enjoyed. We'll be moving on next week, after heading out to the ruins of Teotihuacan and down to see the house that Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky (+family) all inhabited at one point, among other things.

Stay tuned and Buenos Noche,