Friday, July 31, 2009

Puebla -Part II

I woke up to a cacophony of bells the next day.

Our hotel room afforded a great view of the city-a skyline studded with steeples, ornamental domes and tall bell towers, flanked by the mountain ranges beyond. I woke up at the crack of dawn, to the collective peel of what must have been fifty-odd bells, clanging from the belfries of all the churches in Puebla. And trudging to my balcony to have a view of the city in its morning glory, I was in for another surprise. Towering behind the tallest bell-towers in the horizon, illuminated by the pink glow of the rising sun, was a majestic snow-capped volcano- the Popocatapetl. One of the most famous (non-dormant) volcanoes in Mexico, there it stood, lazily billowing a thin cloud of smoke from its frozen mouth. It was spectacular, awe-inspiring... Take a look:

Once i managed to wake Prathyooshan (who, btw, had slept through the cacophony of bells, birds AND my oohs n aahs about the view), we went for a lovely walk around the zocalo, watching the city slowly wake up to life as the sun crept up the sky. Visited a few more churches...(i really hvnt dwelt on the churches coz there only so much I know about architecture.. but i can tell you this.. opulent interiors, elaborately painted domes, stained glass windows... it’s as good as it gets!!) and rounded off the morning tour with a breakfast of absolutely scrumptious churros, full to dripping with chocolate sauce.

Next on the agenda, was Puebla’s pretty little neighbour, Cholula, which had a interesting history of its own. The story dates back to pre-Columbian times, when Cholula was one of the most important cities in the Aztec empire, with close to 365 temples dedicated to the Aztec gods. And the most famous temple of all was the large pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, which according to the Guiness Book of records, is the LARGEST pyramid in the world! However, things changed when Hernan Cortez (the Spanish explorer who conquered the Aztec empire) arrived on the scene. Wishing to make a lasting example of Spanish might over the natives, he ordered a mass massacre of natives, destroyed the Aztec centres of worship and vowed to replace each and every temple in the city with a catholic church. And the most important church of all, Iglesias de Virgin de los Remedios, stands ON TOP of the large Aztec pyramid!

The church was magnificent ...

And the view, exhilarating...

And the Aztec pyramid, trapped forever under the burden of the Catholic Church...

A quick tour through the craft market at the foot of the pyramid, and we were on our way back to Puebla. Cholula had much more to offer – its local market, lively zocalo, and all its churches including the famous Royal Chapel with 49 domes- and it wrenched my heart to leave without exploring more of the city, but we had no choice. We were heading back to Mexico City that evening and that left us with just about half a day to go back to Puebla and.... SHOP!

Like I wrote in my last post, Puebla is known for a great many things –food, churches, architecture, et al. But what I didn’t mention then, was that Puebla is most famous, all over the world, for its art of pottery, Talavera. Talavera comes in all shapes and sizes, as tiles, vases, dinnerware and decorative items. In fact, Puebla is even known as The City of Tiles, because of the extensive use of Talavera tiles to decorate buildings, houses and church domes.

So, there we were, shopping for authentic Talavera Poblano! The first couple of shops we visited were rather unimpressive with the shop-keepers trying to sell shoddy designs and chipped china...But then we struck gold... A large shop filled with absolutely gorgeous stuff. We went gaga over everything they showed us and the shopkeeper was so pleased with our enthusiasm that he even took us to his hundred-year old workshop-cum-showroom, which was stacked roof to floor with talavera ware.

Check out the showroom...

And as far as our shopkeeper friend can be trusted, those frescos you see on the wall are original...painted over a hundred years ago!

And he was so kind; he even introduced us to his pets! Ahem!

After the first-class shopping experience, we had just about half-n-hour to kill before we headed back to the bus stop. We decided to visit the Museum of Religious Arts.

Now, this is interesting. This building had been considered a usual private home for many years, until some time back, when a secret passage was discovered, that led to a convent. Another secret path that was discovered from the convent ended up in a neighbouring church. The story goes that even though the convent was closed by the Reform Laws of1857, the nuns continued to run it secretly till they were discovered in 1934. The austere chambers in which they lived, the instruments that they used for self-flagellation... The museum was indeed interesting, but our excitement waned when we realised that there were no explanatory material that gave details of the convent, nor were there tourist guides available who could speak English. We went around on our own trying to tag along with Spanish-speaking tour groups, catching snippets of information here and there, but altogether, it wasn’t a great experience.

We just had about enough time to rush to the hotel, collect our baggage and rush to the bus stop. Both of us fell silent as the bus pulled out of Puebla and across the mountains towards Mexico City-we were reliving what most definitely had been the trip of a lifetime.

wanna see more of Puebla? Click here

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Puebla -Part 1

It started with a bowl of soup.

We’d been told great many things about the colonial city of Puebla –that it was flanked by volcanoes on all four sides, that there were no less than 60 churches within the city limits alone, that it was one of the only two places on the world where the adorable VW Beetle is made and so on. But what really clinched our decision to make a weekend trip to the city was...a bowl of soup –a bowl of rich, creamy delicious Crema Poblana, which had Prathyooshan smitten and salivating for more. A quick research told us that ‘Poblana’ literally translated to ‘from the city of Puebla’ and there, off we were, to Puebla, in search of authentic Crema Poblana!!!

It didn’t take us long to realise that Puebla was everything that it had promised to be, and much more. Even though the bus dropped us at the outskirts of the city which was more or less filled with run down match-box apartments, leaving us to wonder where all the lovely buildings and churches were hidden, the first turn our cab took towards the city centre had us gaping in wonder...Straight ahead was a cobbled road going down with absolutely gorgeous colonial mansions lined up on either side. It was as if we had suddenly apparated into an 18th century European township.

Wonder gave way to amazement as we got out of the taxi and stepped into our hotel. The Holiday Inn where we had booked a room in turned out to be an old Spanish hacienda re-modelled into hotel, complete with carved doors, stained glass windows &roof, and exquisitely furnished with opulent chandeliers, paintings and antique furniture. Not wanting to waste another minute, we quickly dumped our bags in the room, loaded my freshly-recharged batteries into my camera, and set forth to explore the city.

Like you might have realised by now, I’m a shutterbug in the truest sense of the word. I have an obsessive compulsive point-and-shoot disorder. And to be fair to him, Prathyooshan has borne this trait of mine with admirable panache, feigning ignorance when I sudden go prostrate in the sidewalk to get a good shot of a skyscraper, patiently pulling me out of the way when I stop in the dead centre of the road to get a picture the setting sun through the silhouettes of buildings, and even valiantly coming to the rescue when I’ve got into scrapes for clicking away at all the wrong things at the wrong time! (Oh yeah! I’ve been to terrible scrapes, but more on that later... that calls for a separate blog entry altogether!) But it seems like Prathyooshan was as overwhelmed as I were by the sheer beauty of the place. For the first couple of minutes, we just stood and stared all around us, him taking in the magnificence of the place totally ignorant of the fact that I already had my eye glued to the camera viewfinder, clicking away from every angle possible!

One of the oldest cities in Mexico, Puebla was the first city in Mexico to be planned entirely by the Spanish (as opposed to other places like Mexico City, which was built on the ruins of pre-Hispanic settlements). The cobbled roads run straight as arrows and cut each other at right angles, with beautifully turned out churches at almost every junction.

We first made our way to the main cathedral, a majestic structure that overlooked the city square (zocalo).

Much to our delight, a marriage was being solemnised at the church, the very moment we stepped inside. With the entire cathedral decked up with flowers, and the ornate gold-covered interiors glowing in the light of the chandeliers, the effect was decidedly awe-inspiring. We walked around the church in reverent silence, taking in the splendour of all the 14 chapels housed inside the church, as well as the church organ, which is said to be the largest in Mexico. Prathyooshan (who considers himself to be quite an authority on churches because he’s been to the Vatican (hmph!)) fervently pronounced that this was the best church he’d ever been to in his life.

We walked around drinking in the sights and sound of the city...The buildings itself were a treat to the eyes, the quaint charm only made complete by tiny boards in front of each of them giving a brief history of the building or an anecdote about the owner of the building. One in particular caught our fancy- the master of that particular house brought a Hindu slave named Mira from Manila, who was later found to have mystic powers and was considered holy by the time she died. Doesn’t this story bear uncanny similarity to our own Indian Mira, who was believed to have powers to converse with Lord Krishna?

The sun set and night fell.... And it was time for dinner! The primary reason of this trip being food itself, we’d done extensive research as to the best places to wine and dine in Puebla. We headed straight to Fonda de Santa Clara, one of the oldest establishments in Puebla, said to serve authentic Poblana cuisine. Puebla is said to be the birthplace of some of the most delicious delights of Mexican cusine –

One, of course, the soup, Crema Poblana. A thick creamy soup with corn kernels and Poblano cheese. A treat fit for the gods!

Then, the Mole (pronounced mo-ley). A sauce made of more than twenty different ingredients (including different kinds of chillies, nuts, seeds, spices and Mexican chocolate), it is said that it can go awfully wrong if not prepared properly. And there is no Mole like the Mole Poblano! But because we wanted to have everything at once, we ordered for a plate of enchiladas topped with Red Sauce, Green Sauce and the Mole. Slurrrp!

I’d saved the best for the last- the Chiles en Nogada! Poblano chillies (rather like a bigger version of our shimla mirch, less spicy though) are hollowed out and stuffed with sweet mincemeat filling and served bathed in walnut sauce and garnished with blood-red pomegranate. Imagine the pungent taste of the chilli, offset with the sweetness of the mincemeat inside, all rounded off with the lovely nutty flavour of the walnut sauce...Hmmm!!! Manna from heaven!

Happily fed and watered, we trudged our way back to the hotel and passed out the minute we hit the sack. It had been one perfect day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hello there! To all my darling readers out there (which I think, amounts to all of TWO people including myself) who have been waiting with bated breath for my next post, you can fix that 100-watt smile back into your lovely faces again! I’m BACK! As for what I’ve been doing all this while, well... nothing much. I re-read Harry Potter 6 in anticipation of the movie, and watched it first show, on the day of release. And like all five of its predecessors, this one is also a disappointment (even though I have quite a crush on Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy, and wouldn’t mind going for the movie a second time, just to watch him in action again! Sssigh!)
And among other things... I also had a haircut. What I wanted was a trim, but undoubtedly, I did a very bad job of explaining that to the hair salon lady in my broken Spanish, because, when she was done with my hair, it was atleast three times shorter than how I wanted it to be- rather like a badly wrecked cuckoo’s nest, with fly-by bits of hair going in every direction. Anyways, what with ironing and a bit of serum, I thought I looked quite chic... like this:-

But now, a couple of hair-wash-days later, I look like this:-

Seems like my hair was just dying to come out in all its unbridled Malayali splendour! 

Now, back to what this travel blog is actually supposed to do... Here goes...


Yeah. That’s where we went this weekend. The floating gardens of Xochimilco. Popularly known as the Venice of Mexico. It took us about one and half hours to get there (had to change metros lines twice, followed by a half-hour ride on the Tren Ligero which finally dropped us at Xochimilco station) and another 45-mnt walk to one of the boat jetties where we paid through our nose (THREE HUNDRED AND FITY PESOS!) for what we thought would be a nice romantic boat ride through the famed Xochimilco canal. And how wrong could we be!!!
The jetty looked nothing short of breath-taking, with atleast a hundred improvised-canoe-like boats, bobbing up and down merrily, each one a riot of colour in itself, and with absolutely original names like Maria Euginia, Margaret Gomez and so on ( Our boat was called Vive Lolita! – I’m guessing that the owner was either a fan of Nabokov, or of Lolita-esque nymphets! ). I gasped in wonder, thanked my stars for bringing me there, and promptly took out my camera and went clicking madly until Prathyooshan and the boatman threatened to start off without me. And it all went smooth until we pulled out of the jetty- We commented on the weather (Oh! Isn’t it just the purrrfect weather for a nice cruise down a floating garden?), on our expectations of the ride (Aw! This is just going to be like being in a gondola in Venice! Or even better!), and if my memory serves me right, I think we even HELD HANDS!!!!!!! (which is saying something, considering the fact that both of us are extremely anti –PDA).

But the sight that awaited us just at the end of the jetty took the magic out of the moment in no time.

There were at least fifty similar boats vying for space in the narrow canal, either packed with gangs of drunken revellers or with vendors trying to sell everything from corned beef to stuffed toys to halter tops and ponchos. On either sides of the canal were where almost all the vegetables and flowers for Mexico City is grown, but being sandwiched between an Ana Louisa and a Veronica, both of which housed mariachi singing groups each trying to outdo the other, there was little chance of us every getting a closer a look at those botanical wonders. We spent the next hour bumping into the ass of/ scraping the sides of the gondolas around us and nodding our heads negatively to all the overpriced touristy wares that the vendors try to thrust upon us. And, needless to say, the most glorious part of the tour was when we sighted the jetty again on our way back. Of course, there was one silver lining to the trip - Prathyooshan got me flowers, which he doesn’t do very often!! (he was emotionally blackmailed into it, but umm... let’s not dwell on unpleasant details, shall we?).

Totally forgettable experience, nothing to write home about, and so, I’m not wasting any more precious blog space on that episode!

But you can still check out my pictures to get a feel of the place, they are right here!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Teotihuacan -The Place Where Gods are Made

“Let’s not have any more mortal sacrifices here”, warned our trusted tourist guide Miguel, as we set forth to climb the tricky flight of stairs that led up the sacred pyramid of Quetzelcoatl.

We were at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, the enormous archaeological site near Mexico City that housed the ruins of probably one of the biggest settlements that existed in the Pre-Columbian Americas. A race mostly known for their expertise in architecture & murals, exotic gods like the Feathered Snake (Quetzalcoatl) and the Fanged Rain-god (Tlaloc), and also for their custom of conducting mass human sacrifices to appease the gods, the Teotihuacanos are believed to have existed in the same time as the Mayans did in the Yucatan peninsula.

Legend has it that when the Aztecs discovered these ruins more than seven centuries after the entire race had been wiped out, they were so impressed by the architecture and splendour of the city, that they gave it its name Teotihuacan, which in native tongue, Nahuatl , means, “The Place where Gods are made”.

Our guide kept a steady flow of information while we negotiated the steep stone stairs to the Pyramid of Quetzelcoatl. The entire city centre was originally a massive 22 square kilometres in area, of which only 7 kms is open to public today. The Pyramid of Quetzelcoatl, which is bang at the centre of the ancient city, was our first stop of what was to be a two-hour tour of the entire ruins. The pyramid is adorned with stone heads of the feathered serpent god as well as the rain god Tlaloc. Even though very little of the stone adornments of this pyramid remain, archeological studies have shown that there were not less than 360 such stone heads on the pyramid, atop which there was also a temple where human sacrifices were made.

A short walk down the grassy avenue was the gargantuan Sun Pyramid. An impressive 75 metres in height, it was with quite a bit of trepidation that we started the ascent to the top. However, with the hot searing sun high above, and rivulets of sweat running down our back, exactly 245 steps later, what greeted us at the top was a breathtaking view of the entire archeological site, with the valley of Mexico City and the mountain ranges beyond. While the temple atop the pyramid had been completely destroyed with the passage of time, leaving us no clue as to what the pyramid had been used for, Miguel was quick in pointing out that we should all join hands in exhorting Tlaloc the Rain God , just like the medieval times. We did so enthusiastically, of course, to no avail. The sun still burnt down on us and there wasn’t the faintest trace of rain clouds in the bright blue sky! 

Next on the agenda was the moon pyramid which was on the other end of the3-km avenue which started from the base of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. All along this avenue (also called La Calzada de los Muertos- The Causeway of the Dead), are more pyramids, mausoleums and sacrificial sites. The climb to the first level of the Moon Pyramid (visitors are not allowed beyond) afforded a magnificent view of the entire stretch of the Causeway of the dead, with all the smaller structures alongside it.

The entire city of Teotihuacan is said to have been decorated with murals of their numerous gods and jaguars (which was presumably an important political symbol for the race). And with the lack of any known language or script for the civilization, these murals are the only key to understand the life of Teotihuacanos. With time having destroyed the temples atop the pyramids and erased the murals almost in entirety, Teotihuacan still lies steeped in mystery- mystery about their life, customs, beliefs and death. But this only adds to the grandeur and larger-than-life awe that they evoke in us as we walk in the shadows of these majestic structures.

The tour coming to a close, we made our way to the gates through the grassy slopes alongside the medieval mausoleums. However, when we looked back to have a last glimpse of the Sun Pyramid, we saw that Tlaloc had completely taken over- dark rainclouds thundered above the peak, where the tiny colourful pinpricks that were tourists atop the pyramid scampered around for non-existent cover. Our prayers had been answered. The God of Rain poured down on us mercifully as we rushed to our cars.

For more pictures of our trip to Teotihuacan, click here...!

Yeah! I’m in Mexico! It’s been a week now...My husband and soul mate, Prathyooshan, flew in for a six-week project in Mexico City and deciding that it would extremely dangerous for him to start contemplating on the merits of his new-found bachelorhood, I quickly signed for a two-month non-pay break from work and made the journey half-way across the world to join him here! 

I don’t know why, but from a quick dipstick I did just for curiosity sake, Mexico seemed to figure right down below, somewhere in the range of 100-150, in the list of desired tourist destinations of Indians! I sure got a lot of raised eyebrows and incredulous “but why”s when I made news of my trip public! And because everything I heard and read about Mexico City had to do with crime and poverty and pollution etc, it was with understandable trepidation that I landed at the Mexico City airport. But a week here, and Mexico City is nothing that I feared it would be! The city is clean, green and beautiful; and there couldn’t be a friendlier city anywhere else in the world!

Few first impressions of Mexico...
1. There are Sanborns’ and VIPs everywhere ( for those in the dark, the first is a retail chain and the second a fast food chain)
2. The city is like one humungous khao-galli: There are restaurants, roadside taco joints, churro carts (slurrrp!) etc at every fork, bend, nook and cranny of the city.
3. Oops...I forgot the obvious... Everyone speaks Spanish, the billboards & road-signs are in Spanish, and the menu cards in restaurants are in Spanish-and I’ve mastered just about enough of the language to EAT and SHOP!
4. The city roads are studded with Volkswagon Beetles of every possible shade of VIBGYOR! Super-cute!
5. They SIP Tequila from a SHOT glass! ... Along with lemon juice and tomato juice (It denotes their national colours and the drink is called BANDERAS)
6. And of course, there cannot be a more courteous, gracious, polite race than the Mexicans! One week with almost zero knowledge of city or the language, and I’ve got along amazingly well with the local taco guy, the local croissant & donuts guy AND the churro guy (ahem..Oh-kay! Enough of food now!), the local laundry, taxi drivers and waiters at restaurants!

I love it here!!
It’s been my dream to travel. To places far and wide, known and unknown. To experience that rush of adrenaline one feels at the virgin view of a breathtaking beach, or snow-peaked volcano or a deep valley. To know that swoop in your belly when you stand at the edge of a cliff and marvel at the immense drop below. To gape with awe and wonder at man’s patience and skill that built magnificent churches and palaces and edifices that rise up to the sky. To learn how man lives, loves and celebrates life in every corner of the world.

My work traps me to my cubicle and makes me attend to bad bosses and difficult clients throughout the week. Which is why I grab at ever chance life throws at me to pack my bags and set off, be it near or far, for a day or a month or forever more.

So, here I am, backpack on my shoulder, camera slung around my neck, ready to see the world and make it mine. Join me; I’m sure you’ll not be disappointed.