Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunrises, sunsets, and magic

An amazing 6 hour drive took us to the beautiful Pacific Coast of Mexico. Mountains, volcanos, mango and agave and banana and coconut farms, produce stands (spicy tamarind treats, sweet shredded coconut balls, coconuts, yum!), beautiful little mountain towns. So nice to be back in the tropics! We arrived at a little beach called Chalacatepec just before sunset.

It is an amazing and magical spot. A five mile drive down a bumpy dirt road from the nearest town, Chalacatepec is a timy fishing village right on the beach. By tiny, I mean that only 3 fishermen live here. Their few open-air tiny shacks, the turtle refuge up the dune, and a few palapas on the beach are the only buildings in Chalacatepec.

Locals from the nearby town (and surprised to see gringos), and random surfers in-the-know are the only visitors to this quiet, rustic, beautiful place. This beach is a rocky point jutting into the ocean, and a big smile of a bay where the swimming and surfing are safest. It was nice to be off the beaten path, to be totally roughing it for a few days (yes, even digging a hole to use for a bathroom), to be where it was quiet and natural and real.

Camp was set up in one of the palapas right on the beach. No one there but us and the fishermen till the next day! After dark we climbed up the rickety solar powered lighthouse on the point, where we were surrounded by ocean crashing into rocks by 320 degrees. So dramatic and powerful. Then, one of the most beautfiul experiences of my life! We went for a late night swim with bio-luminesence, something that felt straight out of the movie Avatar, but absolutely real! So magical! Sparkles of it lighting up in the wet sand where we walked, the waves and sea foam glowing and sparkling from it, glowing sparkles churning around hands and feet in the water while splashing and swimming around. I was euphoric and giddy, totally delighted in this close interaction with magical creatures. One even stuck glowing to my eyelash when I came out of the water. Hermit crabs of all sizes crawling all over the sand and in the brush during the night. Zillions of trails covered the sand in the morning.

Dolphins in the surf and yoga on the edge of the beach in the morning. The fishermen came back with loads of fresh caught fish, and walked over to our palapa to give us 2! So sweet! One of the fish we cleaned and cut into tiny pieces and made into fresh ceviche for lunch. It was incredibly delicious and so immediately fresh! The larger fish, similar to tuna, was cleaned right on the rocks. We fed the scraps to huge albatross and seagulls and pelicans circling above, and gave half of the fish to an indigenous family who were gathering crabs on the rocks. We sampled some of the fishmeat, fresh caught, fresh cut, amazing and vital. Salty from the sea. Lounging in a hammock, next to the lolling waves, crystal blue sea, deep blue sky, pristine, magical. Amazing sunset! And a delicious fire cooked dinner of fish, veggies, and mole sauce (that I bought at an amazing Mole Tienda in Guad.).

I awoke in the middle of the night to a stray beach dog going through our stuff, but was only coherent in time to see him run off with our huge bag of tostadas. I awoke again to a beautiful sunrise. Sunrise yoga on the beach is the best! We spent 2-3 hours each picking up loads and loads of trash from the beach and the dunes. It is amazing how the absence of littering laws is enough to make people not take pride in the beauty of places like this. We shouldn´t need littering laws! It felt really good to help bring back this magical place to it´s untouched state, and then to swim for a long time, cooling off in the beautiful sea.

We drove back to Guad. by a differnt route, this time heading north on the coast through Puerta Vallarta. Just south of this tourist destination, the houses and landscaping are stunning and outrageous, but Puerta Vallarta itself is way too touristy for my taste. We ate dinner in a small mountain town on the way home. One big table was set up on the street, with all guests eating together. The other local diners were obviously not used to seeing tourists, let alone gringos, and were so happy to talk to us, learn about us. They were so friendly and kind. I had no idea what they were talking about, though. I was soooo wishing I knew Spanish better! But, luckily Kelly is fluent and was able to return the kindness of these people through conversation.

The next day was another big travel day. Early in the morning, Kelly took Lucas and I too the bus station where I practiced my Spanish a lot. I found us a bus, and bought 2 tickets, to Mexico City. After a 6-7 hour ride and some icky bus station tacos, I got us a taxi to the other bus station in Southern Mexico City, Tasquena. The taxi ride was actually pretty fun, though no seatbelts and slightly crazy driving. It was a good way to briefly see this huge city, the murals, the street vendors, the beautiful parks, the amazing graffiti art, and all of the smog.

The one hour bus ride to Tepoztlan from Mexico City was so amazing, a magial and powerful ride for me, as I came closer and closer to what would be my home for the next month or more. Through beautiful lush mountains, we descended into the valley where the town of Tepoztlan lies surrounded my towering rocky cliffs and beautiful mountains. This city is the legandary birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the serpent god of the Aztecs, some 1200+ years ago. So, this place is loaded with magic.

Tepoztlan is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever been to. Cobblestone streets, beautiful flowering trees and vines everywhere, amazing stoneworked walls, hills of beautifully painted houses with gardens and animals, all so clean and tidy. Surrounded by amazing mountains! And populated by many stray dogs and the occassional stumbling drunk.

In our first night here, we saw more gringos than we had on the rest of our trip, and by a lot. It is definitly a growing tourist area, but still maintains a wonderful charm and authenticity that create some of it´s appeal.

We found a cheap and modest room, with a shared bathroom, for $16 a night, and then went out for lots of delicious street food. Fresh tacos, delicious nieve (I had mango and mamey) and then the oddest treat of all: corn on the cob, slathered with mayonaise, rolled in grated cheese, and sprinkled with chili pepper.

Our second day in Tepoztlan took us on the rigorous, but wonderful, hike out of town and up the mountain to the Aztec temple pyramid of Tepozteco that overlooks the town at a 400meter elevation.

The temple was built 1200 years ago in honor of Tepoztecalt, the Aztec god of the harvest, fertility, and pulque (a fermented corn drink.) Countless stairs and steep switchbacks led us to the peak. It was hard, but so worthwhile to see this temple with the best view of the valley.

Those Aztec priests knew what they were doing, and they were for sure devoted to their God. Lava rock was carted up this crazy steep mountain, pieced together in percision, carved, and situated in a special vortex of magical views and natural energy. We were momentarily swarmed by these crazy animals, the Tejon-coati.

They are weasel/raccoon like animals, but very tame and gentle and a little overly friendly, trying to climb up our legs and drink out of our water bottles.

And on our way down the hill, a stray dog apparently adopted us, accompanying/leading us down the mountain, into town, and even into the restaurant where we had lunch. Here we had to ask it to move on, leave us, go outside. I was half surprised to not see it waiting for us outside when we were done with our meal. And this meal was phenomenal. A beautifully decorated restaurant, pollo enchiladas with verde sauce, it felt like a splurge, but was probably only $15 total for the two of us.

The last night Lucas and I had together was unfortunately stressful and annoying. Lucas discovered that he has lost his debit card. And I discovered that there is nowhere in this town to exchange american money and that my bank won´t allow my debit card to be used in foreign countries without a block being lifted. How was I supposed to know that before leaving Portland? I suppose if I had bothered to read the fine print....Anyway, it was too late for either of us to get a hold of our banks, and Skype wasn´t working anyway, so we had to surrender and wait until the already busy morning to deal with our banking drama. Luckily, Lucas´ card hadn´t been used and he was able to cancel it over Skype. The electricity went out in the internet cafe just before I called my bank. So I had to find a calling card, and figure out how to use it. I got ahold of my bank, who emailed me a form to fill out. I had to print it out, fill it out, fax it to them and wait for it to be processed before getting money out of the debit machine. It all worked out, but made for a stressful last day. We packed up, found delicious vegetarian tamales, had more nieve, and found a Taxi to Tashirat, where I am now staying.

I was sad to have my time with Lucas in Mexico come to an end. He took the Taxi immediately from the gate of Tashirat to the Tepoztlan bus station. And I walked through the gate into the next phase of my journey in Mexico, alone, but with a whole new group of wonderful people.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Journey To and Throughout Guadalajara

Greetings from Tepoztlan, Mexico! The journey I have taken to reach this magical place and this wonderful day has been full and rich and delightful! I will start to share some of my adventures with you now. I may not get totally caught up, however, before the brilliant sun and the sights and sounds of market day draw me back outside. Pictures of my journies will have to be added after I return to the states. If only words could show you what I have been seeing!!

The journey started in San Antonio around 12:30 in the morning on the 4th of April. The bus ride started out painfully slow, for it took 4-5 hours to get through the border crossing at Laredo, TX into Nuevo Laredo, MX for immigration and customs, and beyond. Literally 4-5 hours of bumper to bumper buses lined up for only a couple of miles. Ug. The bus driver spoke only in a blur of Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying, so observed the other passengers and folowed suit. Lucas and I were the only gringos on the bus, and I one of few women. Easter Sunday, immigrant workers returning home to be with their families. I brought myself to a place of trust that we would arrive to where we had bought our tickets to, as the stops didn´t happen like they were written on our tickets. Sleep didn´t come to me on the long 19 + hour ride. But, I highly recommend taking the bus when travelling in a foreign country. You see the land as it transforms and are immersed in the culture in a way that flying doesn´t bring you.

Northern Mexico: flat desert with low green brush. Out of the fog, mountains suddenly spring up so high, towering, almost defying gravity. Agave fields. Forests of flowering towering cacti. The scatterings of dwellings in the desert and on the outskirts of cities are makeshift ramshackles...crumbling cinderblock homes, patched together with whatever materials are available, mostly reused items. Patchwork homes. Some places I saw I prayed no one was living in, only to pass a little further and see a car parked outside as a sign of inhabitance. Poverty that we don´t see as much in the states is dramatically present as soon as you cross the border into Mexico.

Into Coahuila: amazing colorful graffiti art and murals color the memories of buildings. Bland and crumbling intermingle with brightly painted and new constructions. Everything is either in a state of destruction or construction, deceasing or being created, but nothing is complete. There is a lack of the feeling of permanence. Everything is in flux, everything is in change. Subway, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Sam´s Club, and Coca-Cola murals painted on every other building. Trash and litter everywhere, in stark contrast to the lovely landscape.

The further south we travelled, the more colorful the buildings, the more apparent individual characters were expressed in the colors and the gardens, giving these places a new life and hope despite the lack of money. And here I started to feel like I was stepping back in time and into a different culture, despite the brightly painted satellite dishes dotting every roof top of the rows and rows of houses lined up side by side. Military checkpoints. Adobe villages. Goat herders. A desert that yawns endlessly between distant mountain ranges.

I felt enlivened by the newness, touched by the poverty, in awe of the lazy and quiet desert scape, and inspired by the "rude-boy" lives being lived here, people doing what they can with what they have, and bringing life to an otherwise desolate place.

Further south and inland, the landscape started to became greener with grasses and different trees, fuller forests, lakes. The town of Zacatecas was beautiful! Built on the slopes of the rolling hills, the colorful rows of houses were stacked nearly upon each other. There was a feeling of pride in the appearance of the place, it felt more pristine than other towns we had passed through. We were gifted with an amazing sunset reflecting off the clouds and lake water, a sunset that lit up the entire sky and seemed to last forever.

Arrival in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico: We finally arrived, only an hour later than expected. Kelly, Lucas´ brother, met us at the bus station and took us for a crazy drive back to his neighborhood. We passed through intensely busy intersections with absolutely no traffic signals nor any right of way established, and often with no lanes marked. This is the place to be for aggressive, wild drivers! Kelly lives in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, about 30 blocks northwest of the city center, in a little rooftop apartment on a surprisingly quiet street. Kelly is in medical school here, and plans to practice somewhere in Latin America.

After delicious handmade tamales with mole sauce from a street vendor, we finally made it to what would be our home for the next several days. In a city of 9 million, so close to the city center, it was totally amazing to wake up to the sound of birds...doves, pigeons, and roosters...rather than to the sound of traffic and sirens. Lucas and I had our first solo-adventure in Guad. upon rising. We walked to a little fresh juice stand around the corner for jugo naranja con zanahoria, and had such a difficult time communicating with the people who ran the booth. One girl scoffed at us, but another man eventually let on that he spoke english, and was very helpful. Less than a dollar for a litre of fresh squeezed orange-carrot juice! Delicious! Our next adventure was to the neighborhood mercado...vendor after vendor of fresh veggies, tropical fruit, local cheeses, meat, fish, cooked was amazing, overwhelming, stimulating, and fabulous! And so inexpensive! We stocked up on a few things and had our first fresh tacos, the best tacos either of us have ever had. The tortillas were rolled and cooked on order, and filled with the tastiest beans and cheese, topped with radish, lime juice, and a selection of delicious housemade salsas. So good!

After Kelly got off of his rotation shift, he drove us into the city center, where we spent a few hours walking around, and returned to the next day. Amazingly beautiful plazas, sculptures, flowering trees, beautiful people.

It was around this time that we began to realize that, while Guad. is a somewhat touristy city for Mexicans, the people are not used to seeing gringos. In fact, we saw maybe 5 other gringo tourists during our entire time in Guad. So, being an absolute minority, we stood out in a huge way. Normally when I go to new places, I try to avoid looking like a tourist, but here there was no way around it. I didn´t hesitate to refer to my map or to take countless pictures, or to look around in utter bewilderment. We were going to get lots of curious stares no matter what.

Oh, the beautiful colonial era buildings:

Plaza de Armas (plaza with a gazebo donned with the figures of the 9 muses):

Palacio de Gobierno (c1774, the ex-congress building that houses amazing, imposing murals by Jose Clemente Orozco of Miguel Hidalgo who led the fight in Mexican Independence and revolutionized the government in 1810):

the elaborately tiled twin tower Cathedral (c1558-1618):

Teatro Degollado (c1856-1886, with another 9 muses facade):

Instituto Cultural de Cabanas (c1805-1810, originally an orphanage for about 150 kids, then a nursing home, then a military barracks and jail. It houses 23 gorgeous courtyards, one of which triggered a deja vu from a dream I had had several years ago of the same courtyard!!!, and 58 incredible fresco murals by Orozco in the main chapel. Outside was a cool sculpture plaza.):

And finally, we went to a regional artisan festival with amazing handmade arts and crafts. Lucas and I made a great connection with Tito, a jewelry maker from Cuernavaca, who spoke great english. His jewelry is beautiful, inspired from nature, unique, and complex. One of his rings now has a home on one of my fingers, happily. It all was so charming, ornate...the tilework, the metal gratings, the bright colors. On our walk home, we discovered more and more enticing sights, tiled sidewalks, rooftop gardens, trees lining narrow sidewalks providing much needed shade, character and creativity in the buildings, simplicity of living even in the city. Old buildings still being used and modified.

Oh, and the road where several men were selling pharmacueticals on the street, neo-blackmarket style! Fresh flan made by Kelly´s neighbor! Mangos, mameys, basil cheese, corn icecream, cockroaches, cityscape sunsets from Kelly´s rooftop.

Wednesday was market day in the neighborhood, where at least 5 blocks were filled with produce vendors. Vendors not only lined both sides of the street, but also filled the center of the street. It was so wonderful! The stacks of fresh tropical fruit, veggies, chilies, dried beans, rice. It seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was there to stock up for the week, and that the norm is to buy produce by the kilo. It is wonderful to see so many people buying such a large amount of produce, thus eating fresh whole foods diets! So healthy! We bought kilos and kilos and kilos of food, and had to make 2 trips to carry it all back to the house. Avacados, limes, tomatos, onions, garlic, mangoes, pineapple, guava, bananas, cucumbers, carrots, oaxaca cheese, handmixed strawberry yogurt, cherimoya, sweet potatoes, strawberries, 2 fresh made juices, and some unidentifiable fruit, all for $17 U.S. dollars. In Portland, the cherimoya alone would have cost $17. A treat on the way home: fresh coconut water straight from the coco, and the soft coconut meat mixed with fresh squeezed lime juice, salt, and chili sauce....soooooooooo delicious! Beet pineapple juice. A shop dedicated to various mole sauces, in dry and wet form.

A delicious meal at a very nice Mexican restaurant, El Sacromento. Gorgeous atmosphere and inspired (not traditional) entrees. Lentil soup, cheese quesadillas with a spicy strawberry sauce, crepe stuffed with veggies and cheese and topped with a cilantro pistachio sauce, white fish with mole sauce. I even had a bite of lengua! It helped to not think about what I was eating, and I was thus able to appreciate the taste of tongue! Homemade kiwi, strawberry, and coconut icecream, yum!

A sunset hike 20 minutes to the NW of Guad. in Huaxtla Canyon: dramatic mountains, rocky cliffs, canyons, amazing vistas, mango and agave farms, cool cacti. So beautiful, and so hard to concieve that a huge city lies just over the other side of the mountain. These mountains are a part of the Sierra Madres and run along the San Andreas Fault.

There were challenges too, at first the main one being communication. People in Guad. are super nice and helpful and friendly. They would babble to us in quick Spanish, and we would have no idea what they were saying. We would nod, and smile, and say "Si, Si" or "no hablo mucho espanol," and I felt very challenged in trying to communicate what I needed to in my very limited spanish. As time goes on, I am more and more comfortable. Though my vocabulary isn´t growing fast, I am more comfortable and confident with the few words and phrases I do know. But, people were really into practicing their limited english with us, giggling while listening to us speak english, and running up to introduce themselves to the gringos.

The other challenge in those first few days was money! Finding a bank that would exchange our U.S. dollars became evidently impossible, after so much time searching for one. Eventually, we resorted to using the Casa de Camino, which has a lower exchange rate than the banks, but would at least exchange our money for us.

And, I was ready by day 5 to leave the city and head for the sea! I love Guad. and the sweet neighborhood we spent our time in, but it definitly was time for fresh air, open spaces, and ocean waves! Stay tuned for the next post about the delightful adventures on the Mexican shore!