November in Mexico

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November 27th 2016
Published: November 27th 2016
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I've been walking a lot for the last 6 months, and have lost 18kgs of bodyweight. I've been curious to see the impact on my fitness, and so November began with a big run to Altepexi; a small town about 20km from my house. This is the biggest run I've ever done, and I was proud to finish it! Lunch and a beer followed the run, which took almost exactly 3 hours. I felt surprisingly good after it, although I was a tad sunburned! I'm still very much an incipient runner, but I'd like to improve my fitness enough to run a really large distance in the future.

The afternoon after the run, I was in Zocalo watching some people dressed in tribal garb participating in a ritual dance for Day of the Dead. It was slow and methodical in places, and intense and exhilarating to watch in others. They danced around a cloth laid on the floor, that was adorned with plates of food, cups of drink, and yellow and purple varieties of a flower that's grown especially for the festival. They danced in an undulating arc, with young and old both participating equally enthusiastically. I think it's great that Mexican traditions survived the Hispanic christian ideological onslaught, and got to chat briefly with a few of the dancers afterwards. They're not tribesman in the sense westerners imagine them to be, as they live in a small town near to Tehuacan, rather than in a remote forested part of Mexico. They take that particular ritual, and others, pretty seriously though, and it was a joy to watch.

I was in Mexico City and Guatemala for the week after, which are both in a separate post or two!

My weekends have filled up, and I spend more time with other people than alone, which was often the opposite in Taiwan. It's a little strange to have very little time to switch off my brain and get lost in my own head, but I'm getting used to it. It makes the solitude I do manage to snaffle fairly precious and much needed. I tend to drink coffee, read, and eat cake or donuts when I have a few hours alone. This has been, consistently, my retreat throughout my 3 years of travelling. So, if I am missing home, feeling sad, or simply not feeling social, then that's where you'll probably find me; nose in book, or reading the news in my phone, situated in the corner of a coffee shop, and with "people-ignoring" headphones in. The news is a particularly big feature at the moment, given what's happening in the states and at home in the UK too. Without getting too political, I'm glad that people are trying to buck the establishment... Even if it may be a few difficult years for Britain before the benefits come to fruition. And in the USA, I regularly imagine what the outcome would've been if the Democrats had picked a remotely democratic candidate.

Anyway, before a political diatribe ensues, the rest of November has been pretty sweet! I went to a small town an hour away from Tehuacan called Tlacotepec. We went there to check out some new Mayan pyramids that have recently been discovered. So recently indeed, that there are still fences up around them to keep them safe while the rest of the site is excavated. There seem to be about 4 or 5 pyramids there, and a museum is now being built. At the moment, it's free to walk around (as any historical site should be, in my opinion), and there are some pretty spectacular views of other pyramids, and the outlying towns in the sparse, dry, and enchanting Mexican countryside. There's a large hill in the center of the site from which to gaze down at the two uncovered pyramids. I love a good view, and the pyramids didn't disappoint. I found myself imagining the people who built them, the people who were sacrificed on them, and the people who lived next to them. To still be able to look at them a millennium later is a wonderful thing, and often leads to a fair amount of silence. We stood on the hill for about an hour, a lot of it in silence, as we enjoyed the visual feast of the pyramids. Having read further about the Mayans, I felt extremely humbled to be walking around the very places that they lived and worked. Their knowledge of astronomy, maths, and architecture was quite the thing. Their religion was fascinating, and their language is still spoken in parts of Mexico and Guatemala today!

The last days of November are being spent in the city to the north of Tehuacan; Puebla. It was originally built by the Spanish, and has become the biggest city in Mexico other than the capital. The architecture is wondrous, and I lament that I took so long to visit! There's a whole host of sites to see and I'll try to balance enthusiasm and concision. I arrived in the morning at 9am, hit the artisans market, walked through a street full of pretty but useless knick knacks, and bought some locally made chocolate (delicious!)

I found a light lunch in the city center, el Zocalo, to watch people walk buy, and to have a quick bit of internet time, before seeking out an antique library, which turned out to be the highlight of the day! It was the first library in Latin America, dating back to the 1700s, and features literature by some of the "great" conquistadors; Quixote (who conquered the Incas) and Cortez (who conquered the Aztecs) for example. I use quotation marks there for a very simple reason; killing people isn't cool, and these people spent a lot of time butchering phenomenal indigenous cultures. As idealistic as I'm about to sound, that's fundamental for me. People use religion as a guise to do horrible things to this day, and the conquistadors were offered an opportunity to get away from their criminal lives in Spain to see if they could conquer the newly discovered Americas for themselves. Money, greed, power, and religion all played a big part. There's a reason why there's a cross or a church on many hills here; "our belief is best."

Anyway, the library is phenomenal! I was staring up at the 3 tiers of shelving with eyes like saucers when a guide came over, and asked politely whether I'd be interested in learning more about the library. A lazier guide would've baulked at the volume of questions I peppered him with, but he was happy to have an enthusiast to show his favourite building to. The library itself is over 300 years old, as are most of the texts within. He explained that most of the books were written in Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and German. A smattering of the later ones were in English. I explained that this was because English developed more slowly than the romance languages, and that people of science or literature wrote in Latin or French during the days before Shakespeare and Chaucer, who introduced/modified tens of hundreds of words between them, and thus made self expression possible in English to an academic degree. (On a par with the romance languages). This put a twinkle in his eye, and I suspect he'd been listening politely, despite already knowing all about it. A skill I need to work on, as it's easy to be immodest at times!

We moved around the library, and he explained that Latin was relatively readable for fluent Spanish speakers, which I certainly am not, and that he could translate for me if I so wished. I then discovered that I was able to follow the archaic Spanish of the period reasonably well, and he showed me to a couple of titles about eclipses so that I could test my newfound skill. We moved through a fair number of books before I asked him what his personal favourites were. His answer was that on the third level, that the public can't access, there are books about dealings of the occult, mythology, and the supernatural. He had a fascination with a couple of titles about werewolves and exorcism respectively. I asked him if we could sneak up to the third level when no one was looking, and a flash of temptation crossed his face before he said "no" solemnly. Elaborating, he said that the upper two levels, as well as the reading furniture in the center of the 1st level, have been off limits since the 80s. People scratched their initials into 3 century old reading tables made of marble or onyx in acts of utterly astounding bellendery. Books were also damaged during this time, and now the collection is merely available online, and I shall be paying that website a visit! I love that library, and have rarely been sad to leave a place I've only been in for 90 minutes!

I ventured into a historical house containing colonial pieces from the 1600s onwards, and was blown away by how good the quality of the pieces on display was. Some of the furniture looked like it was made last week, albeit in a classical style. I took a free tour in Spanish, and was able to follow everything bar a few pieces of difficult vocabulary. They have a different word for turkey here; in Tehuacan they use "huacolote" (my spelling of the word is dubious at best!) It's a Nahuatl word, that is used more commonly than the Spanish equivalent "pavo". I got stuck with that, as they use a third word for it here that's already exited the language part of my brain. There was a fair mixture of art, well decorated rooms, and gorgeous furniture. I was fairly passive about the art of Christian theological origin, but some of the paintings in there were wonderfully done, and of a good quality for their age too. As we traversed the different rooms, I imagined the colonial fellows lazing around on the couches, writing letters on the writing desks, and checking their attire in the mirrors. As a free visit, with a free guide, this place is a good use of an hour of anyone's time. My personal favorites were the kitchen, which was complete with a wood burning stove, and a variety of cooking utensils from yesteryear, and the bedroom. The bedroom has to be mentioned because the paintings in there are gorgeous, and the bed looked so comfortable that I was tempted to find out if the guide would accept a bribe to let me have a nap in there for 30 minutes! The house is a throwback to a time when only the rich could live lives of excess. The wardrobe in the bedroom was enormous, the guide told me, because the lady of the house had a fondness for dresses, for example. The kitchen wouldn't have looked out of place in an Oliver Twist play, until you realized how many utensils and artworks adorned the walls and surroundings. It's a period of history that I don't often take such an interest in, given that it's only a few generations before our own times. However, I shall be doing a little more reading on it after seeing this house; a snapshot of 19th century colonial times located in a busy city center.

On to a pretty beefy museum I went, and soaked up 3000 years of Mesoamerican artifacts, information, and art. A few things struck me; there's a distinct difference between the precolonial cultures in the center and south of the country, the gods of the time are even more interesting and varied than I first thought, and looking at knives that were used to pierce the chest or throat of sacrificial victims never gets tiring. There was a video of some Mexican men playing the famous Juego Pelota (ball game) of the ancient cultures. It's played with the hips only, and two teams play in a court only differing slightly from a volleyball court; a line instead of a net, and the court itself is shaped like a capital I. They could never hit the ball with their head, as this was either dangerous or a foul. I knew all of this already, but the video of them playing was interesting. What I didn't know was that the people who worked out the basic rules of the game from pictures at archaeological sites never figured out how a team won the game; they don't know how many points were needed to win, or whether scoring in a certain way merited extra points. I'm imagining the idea that a game of Juego Pelota could result in death by sacrifice (of the winning team, paradoxically) and I wouldn't know how to lose so that I didn't get sacrificed! Post museum, I ventured up to the café on the roof munched on a torta (a Mexican bap with any combination of meat, veggies, and eggs), and watched the sun set over the town after quite the full day.

A reasonable night's sleep later, and I was on a combi (minibus) to Cholula for just 5 pesos. Perfect! I arrived there after chatting with a local fellow on the bus. He was of a mind that food was too commercial and full of chemicals, and we chatted about how difficult it can be to access cheap and healthy food. In Britain, a burger is often the same price as a salad. I then ended up outside the pyramids, chatting to a local whose friend had just run a 10k race. We went and got some drinks before they bade me farewell, and I scooted up a hill overlooking the archaeological site. I'd heard from a fellow traveller at the hostel that the view from the hill was sufficient to see 90% of Cholula, merely excluding the tunnels. I decided to test this theory out before paying the 60 peso (£3) entrance fee. She was right, and I saw a pretty reasonable Mayan archaeological site for free. I personally preferred Tlacotepec, but I'm happy I came, and may well pay to see the tunnels and stroll within the site next time I'm here.

November has been my most active month in Mexico; packing in Mexico City, Guatemala, Tlacotepec, Puebla, Cholula, nights out, market day trips, and some pretty hardcore socialising. I'm going have a quiet fortnight, preceding the hectic 3 weeks I'll have free between my current contract, and my new contract in Chachapoyas, Peru!


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