“Mezcal” el elixir de la vida

 

Oaxaca is the hottest place we’ve been to so far, we went out to breakfast at 8:00, the temperature was just right for me, we came back at 8:30 and it was just right for Florence, after that it’s hot! In the evening, it takes a long time to cool down because the buildings are radiating their heat from the day.

Most of today was a day out at a number of sites around Oaxaca; first was a very large and very old tree. We were all a bit sceptical about this but it’s actually very impressive – 42m round, 16m wide, 2000 years old. It’s remarkable to think of everything it’s lived through. About 20 years ago, the tree wasn’t looking good, the town got some experts in, they removed a lot of parasite plants, pruned it and re-routed a road that was too close and now it’s fine. The town only has one tourist attraction so they were pleased.

Next stop was Mitla, the most important Zapotec site in Mexico. In their usual role as cultural vandals the Conquistadors destroyed a lot of the original town and built churches on it but they were so impressed with one part that they left it in place. The temple has proved to be resitant to earthquakes that have flattened most other buildings in the area. The secrets are in the quality of the stonework – all the stones fit together precisely like a huge jigsaw, also under the main structure is a thin layer of flat smooth stone that the structure can move on. These things combine to make the temple just flexible enough to survive any tremors – clever stuff.

Our third stop was the petrified waterfalls, formed of calcium deposits from springs in the mountains. The falls look they are cascading down the mountain side but are actually solid with a very thin trickle of water over them. It was a steep and hot walk down to the base of the ‘falls’ and an ever hotter one back up. At over 2,000m the air is getting a bit thin and this was a hard walk but at the top, we were rewarded with a dip in some cool pools – very welcome.

Our last stop was the least interesting one. A Mezcal factory where a perfunctory explanation of the process was followed by a tasting and gentle sales pitch. Its not a bad flavour and the variations between different plants and processes are interesting but we resisted the temptation to buy a bottle.

A Mexican Poem
For every bad, drink mezcal
For every good, mezcal as well
If there is no remedy, mezcal is a medicine
Because if cure you don’t get, at least you forget

A lot of the route today was on parts of the Pan-American highway, this stretches from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego with only a small break in Panama. If you count it as one road its the longest in the world.

Back to the hotel for a quick shower before heading to town. We don’t have nearly long enough in Oaxaca but managed to squeeze in the textile museum and the Santo Domingo church before dinner.

We had dinner at Los Danzantes. Another excellent meal, more lovely flavours and interesting combinations of ingredients. We tried to convince the Maitre’d to open a branch in London – it just isn’t possible to get most of the food we’ve had here at home.

Mistico y Adonis

 

Today we said goodbye to Mexico City and goodbye to Diego Rivera who seems to have been with us for most of our time in the city.

We started off with breakfast, trying a few words and pointing at things on the counter created a very tasty bean, cheese and avocado sandwich.

We had another quick look in the cathedral but it still didn’t grab us; the main targets this morning were murals. The Supreme Courts of Justice are a large four storey building with a large stair-case in each corner. The walls of each staircase have been painted by a different artist. The first two are large-scale historical works, the third has huge faces of people, particularly children which are both simple and poignant at the same time. The faces are those of people struggling for justice. The most impressive was the last, it mixed themes of revolution, the holocaust, imprisonment and torture, the top floor windows were blocked by representations of riot police. Unfortunately no cameras were allowed.

Next was the Ministry of Education which has 120 wall panels by Diego Rivera. The scale of the work and breadth of subjects is incredible. Each image deserves close study, his style is flowing and fluent, figures appear out of almost abstract swirls and curves. His politics are never far from the surface, red stars and hammers and sickles abound; one image of a ‘Capitalist Meal’ leaves you in no doubt where his sympathies lie.

Time for a quick coffee before returning to the hotel to check out and catch a bus to Puebla. It seems to take forever to leave Mexico City, the traffic and endless small houses eventully petered out and we climbed into pine covered hills, in the distance dramatic clouds swirled around snow-peaked mountains.

The traffic was bad on the way into Puebla and the subsequent taxi ride which took us to our hotel.

Short walk to the Zocalo to get our bearings and time for a quick meal. We had a couple of local specialities. Tlacoyo are fried corn cakes with avocado, cheese and red or green chilli sauce and some fried cheese. The guide also asked for a couple of samples of local mole sauces for us to try. These are rich dark sauces that meats and vegetables are roasted in; each area has its own versions. Dinner was washed down by some local craft beers – very fine.

Finally the highlight of the day – Lucha Libre (Mexican Wrestling). The Puebla Arena holds about 300 people but it sounds like 10 times as many. The wrestlers are in teams of three and the bouts last three rounds each. For each fight one team of three are Tecnicos, skillful and playing by the rules, the other are the Rudos, the bad guys who cheat the most and seem to win more often (it seemed like the referee is on their side). One side of the arena roots for each team. Rules seem to be vague at best, the number of fighters in the ring varies from two to six and sometimes there are multiple fights going on at the same time inside and outside the ring. It’s very well choreagraphed and executed and great fun.

Anthropology and Ants

We started the day at the wonderful Museum of Anthropology. The museum has rooms for each of the major areas of pre-conquest Mexican civilization as well as sections on the lives of indigneous communities today.

The museum is large, spacious and well layed out, it seems to swallow a huge number of people without ever seeming busy.

Miguel, our guide on Thursday, had told us that two days would be sufficient to do it justice. We had 3.5 hours.

The museum has so many interesting artefacts, from tiny figures an inch high to parts of temples many metres tall.

Two things stood out, the quality and creativity of the workmanship at a time when Europe was still in the dark ages and the way that so many faces look like real individuals with personality and expressions that you might see outside on the street.

The Mayans were particularly advanced in mathematics and astronomy, they had a detailed calendar and had invented the concept of a zero long before Europe had imported it from the Arabs.

We treated ourselves to lunch at Quintonil, if these things mean anything it’s currently rated twelfth in the world. The food is as far from any stereotype ideas of Mexican food as you can get. It was subtle, original and beautifully cooked and served. The theme of insects and guacamole continued – although highlighted as vegetarian by the waiter it comes with ants so again it was a no.

Last attaction of the day was Diego Riviera’s murals in the Palacio National. These huge works have many themes in them from the lives of pre-conquest Mexicans to the workers of Mexico’s Socialist struggles. His exuberance and confidence come through all of the work but at the same time his Socialist beliefs and dislike of foreign powers from the Spaniards in the past to the US at the time are also clear.

In the centre is an Eagle with a snake in its beak; Aztec history says that this is the sign that showed them where to build Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

We return to the hotel to meet Valeria, our tour leader for the next fifteen days and the rest of our group – both of them!

Thank God it’s Frida

Frida Kahlo's studioFrida Kahlo's kitchen

 

Detail from Frida Kahlo PaintingTrotsky's desk

 

Trotsky's MausoleumMexico City Car

 

Mexico City CarTaco Gus

 

Mexico City

 

Today was a really good day, yesterday was a fascinating place but we were tired from the flight and it was hot and hard work. Friday was museum day, which in comparison to yesterday means no steps, air-conditioning and shade.

The day began with a ride on the Metro, it works, it’s cheap and it’s very busy.

We started at Frida Kahlo’s House; she lived there for many years, mainly with her husband, artist Diego Riviera and a steady stream of visitors and guests, mainly other artists and left-wing intelligentsia.

The house, her life and her art are all intertwined, she suffered serous illness and injury as a child which led to her being disabled the rest of her life, unable to have children and ultimately to dying at the age of 47. She wore traditional Mexican clothing to hide her disabilities, this developed into living a traditional Mexican life, the kitchen had only a wood stove and no attempts at modernity. Everywhere in the house the two artists left their mark, in the kitchen their names are written on the wall in what appear at first to be small dots but are actually tiny dolls house size pots. The house is coloured in typical bright Mexican colours, predominantly a rich blue with red and green details. It’s an inspiring place that I think would make an artist out of all of us.

Next stop was the house of a near neighbour and close friend of Kahlo and Rivera, Leon Trotsky. He came to Mexico in 1936 after being exiled by Stalin, who after one failed attempt on his life ultimately had him assassinated in 1940. Trotsky was assassinated by a Catalan working for Stalin; the murder weapon of choice? An ice axe. In contrast to Khalo’s vibrant house, Trotsky’s was functional and austere. A simple memorial in the garden marks where his and his wife’s ashes lay. Of the many images of his life on the wall one from 1937 stands out; 24 members of Lenin’s ruling committee of 1917 are shown, all were now dead, mainly at the hand of Stalin, except Stalin himself and Trotsky who soon would be.

Next was a very good lunch at Taco Gus – small tacos with many different fillings, four of which were vegetarian, two each proved to be just right.

Lowlight of the day was the Modern Art Museum, we’d been promised Kahlo, Rivera and other leading lights of Mexican art but the nearest to any of these was a copy of one Frida Kahlo work. The rest was poor copies of other artists, like a local art fair Rothko or Braque, and some splashes of colour with no apparent idea behind them. Did we get the wrong museum?

As the sun was slowly going down we ended the day in the top-floor bar at the Latin American Tower, a 47 story skyscraper that has taken more than a little of its design from the Empire State Building. The views however are incredible, the city is surrounded by mountains, some with snowy peaks, even from this height it goes on further than you can see. The sun slowly dipped behind the hills, the city lights came on and we enjoyed a cold Mexican craft beer.

On the way back to the hotel we walked through a small street which appeared to be a small Chinatown, all the shops and restaurants looked just as you would expect but were entirely staffed by Mexicans.

Nice little restaurant for dinner next door to the hotel, two mezcals to start. Having told our waiter we would like vegetarian he asked whether we would like crickets with our Guacamole; we politely declined.