Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Adventures in Puebla/Cholula

What I've learned--I need to be somewhere where there is plenty going on. My first night in Puebla, I took a taxi directly from the bus station to the small town (suburb) of Cholula. Before I left Phoenix, I had high hopes for Cholula. In my research, I found that it was a college town, near a metropolitan area that has every imaginable service. In my mind, it seemed like a very "doable" little place. I hated it.

The omens weren't what you'd call great. I arrived by bus around 7 p.m. in Puebla. Couldn't figure out how to take a suburban bus on to Cholula, so took a cab. The driver didn't know anything about Cholula. He drove us the 20 minutes or so to get into Cholula, then promptly got lost. We drove up and down very dark one-way streets, buildings marked with graffiti. A couple times he stopped and asked other taxi drivers where my hotel was (American men--note--never ask for directions). After one tip, he did a U-turn in the middle of the street, went up on to the curb. And, of course, about a mile down the road, the upsetting sound of flop, flop, flop....a flat tire. So Rod, not wanting to be the Ugly American,GOT OUT AND HELPED THE CABBIE CHANGE HIS TIRE ON A DARK STREET IN CHOLULA. Call me foolhardy, call me fearless. But it does give me something to brag about. Bet you don't know anyone else who's done that! It reminds me of the afternoon I drove a cab, for one block, in Manhattan. But that's a story for another time.

The first night I simply took a hotel listed as OK in the guidebook I've been using along my Mexico odyssey, "Let's Go Mexico." It's a very good guidebook. Great information; and I've learned to trust their recommendations. They're dead on correct.
The first night in any city I consider a "gimme." All bets are off. I reserve judgment until the next morning. If the hotel was noisy, I move. If the area doesn't seem right, I get out of there. That's what it was like in Cholula. Cholula is actually divided into two small towns--San Andres Cholula and San Pedro Cholula. Mexcio suffers from a surplus of saints. I got up the next morning and walked from one side of town to the other. Ugly, I thought. On my way back to the hotel, a herd of cows crossed the main street, blocking traffic. And then, as I got closer to home, a herd of sheep blocked another streets. "Not for me, I thought." But, as like so many of the culture conflicts you see in Mexico, this is only blocks away from a new Starbucks, a McDonalds, a Burger King, a major bank, and one of the fanciest private universities in the part of the country. So, I moved. To the big town nearby, Puebla.

And, you know, you don't have to "live in" the entire big city. Just like in Chicago or Phoenix, I lived in one neighborhood. Sure, there are bad parts of town. You don't go there. Since I've always lived in metropolitan areas, maybe I need to factor that into my thinking in Mexico. I'd just have to pick my neighborhood. In Puebla, the historical center of town is amazing. I could live here. The surrounding barrios over a million people, well, I just wouldn't be going there. It's a different way of thinking about home.

I hadn't even thought of visiting Puebla. It wasn't even on my itinerary. But, sometimes unexpected things surprise you. Mexico is teaching me to be open to possibilites. In fact, Puebla is one of my favorite places in Mexico so far. Even though it was 37 degrees this morning. Evenings and mornings are quite cold. Folks walk around with surgical face masks, neck scarves, gloves, hats. Let 'em try Chicago for a week in January! Hah!

I happened to land here smack in the middle of the 10th Annual Puebla International Festival. Last night, in the main town square in front of the cathedral, there was a music concert. The set up was like something you'd see in NY Central Park, or Ravinia in Chicago, or Starlight in KC. Big fancy stage with overhead stage lights, backed up by a big Jumbotron screen. Images of the band projected onto the screens. A half dozen or so other screens all around the park area showing the performance. A tented area with seating of 1,000 or so. All free.

And here's a first for me: the band was the 40-member Symphonic Band of the Mixtec Indian pueblos surrounding Puebla. Not dressed in Native costume, but in black suits and ties. Very sharp. They played an evening of American jazz standards, ballads, and contemporary Mexican jazz tunes. The band was fronted by an important female jazz singer and pianist. She was a big, BIG deal. Like our Diane Schur, or that caliber. She and her pianist were whiter than white. The band Indian. And the audience, watching with rapt attention were "puro Mexicano" pure Mexican. Which is, of course a very old blend of European Spaniards with local indigenous people.

The hotel I'm staying at, La Teresita, was recommended by the guidebook. I'm very happy with it. It's modern and spotlessly clean. But the rooms are tiny. I'm up on the 3rd floor, and the entry to my room is between the main staircase and an open light well. It's exactly two feet wide. I measured it. And the door to my room is exactly two feet wide. It's dollhouse sized. If you'd had one too many burritos, you couldn't get through this space. This morning, I'm going to switch to a room with a grown-up-sized door.