Sunday, May 20, 2007

May 18, 2007

May 18, 2007

Here’s the rest of our Mexican trip:

The third city we visited was Querétaro. This is an important city, historically. It is where Emperor Maximilian was executed, among other things. Previously, Robert had us booked at a fancy hotel, but there were no rooms available when we had to reschedule the trip, so we stayed at someplace that SOUNDED like it might be interesting. It was touted as an eighteenth-century former convent, but they managed to cover up or destroy any vestige of that past when they turned it into a hotel. Our room was literally four times the size of the one we had in San Miguel, and four times as expensive. It was like a McMansion hotel room, with soaring ceilings, a second floor “loft,” and a whole lot of wasted space. It also had two TVs and two leather couches. It seemed to me they designed over all the things that might have made it interesting. There had originally been a huge central courtyard, but now they use it to drive cars through, so it wasn’t very pretty, and they installed a lackluster bar and restaurant in the middle. Although some of the rooms opened onto little courtyards, with perhaps a small tiled fountain in the middle, all the window glass was frosted, so you couldn’t look through them. There were topiary trees in pots, but hardly any flowers. Even the tulips in vases on the restaurant tables were fake. There was no place to sit down in the courtyards, to enjoy them, and no shade plants on the roof.

We went for a walk and saw more plazas and churches, and a very ancient and impressive two-mile long aqueduct. We also walked around the Pantheon of Heroes, with statues of famous people who’d lived in Queretaro. It made us wish we knew more about Mexican history. My impression of the town was that it is about as interesting as downtown Fresno. I especially didn’t care for our hotel, and I think we paid way too much for it. However, on a walk we passed by an intriguing place that looked like a Moorish palace inside, with a courtyard filled with flowers and fancy tiled walls and fountains. I commented to Robert about how lush and gorgeous it was, and he told me that was the place he had originally intended us to stay. Pooh! I bought some postcards of it. It would have been fun to stay there.

We visited a museum called Casa de la Zacatecana. It is an old hacienda that had belonged to a wealthy couple from Zacateca, a nearby city. There’s a rather dramatic history to the house. The woman’s husband went away on a business trip and never came back. Later, she was found stabbed to death in the street. She had been murdered in the house, and hauled outside. People didn’t like her because there had been a rumor that her husband didn’t just disappear–that she had actually convinced her servant to kill him for her. So the neighbors strung her body up in front of the house and more or less let her rot there, as a warning to others about being evil. Years later, when someone bought the house, they dug up the garden and found the remains of both her husband and the servant, so I guess la Zacatecana deserved her post-mortem shame after all. Now her house is supposed to be haunted. The docent showed us a place where, if you look up at a reflection from a little round window in a tower, you were supposed to be able to see her face. (We didn’t.)

Anyway, the place is now a museum featuring antique furniture and decorative objects. We started our tour watching a fairly high-style movie of the story of the Zacatecana, then walked through the house. Rooms were done up in different styles and time periods, and a couple rooms held collections, such as one with was completely covered with crucifixes. The darkened rooms lit up as you approached the doors, so it was rather spooky to approach one with 120 antique clocks in it, because you could hear all the furious ticking before you ever saw the contents.

We walked into several impressive churches, including one I really liked that looked as if it had been wallpapered throughout with pink and red patterned paper. It was really stenciling, but looked very nice. I think that church was called San Antonio. We also saw one that didn’t have an impressive main altar (it had been “improved” and modernized) but there were five older altar retablos on the side walls that were absolutely amazing. They were roiling with life-sized saints and angels, and cute little cherubs who were playing peek-a-boo with one another.

We decided to cut our visit to Queretaro shorter, to spend a little more time in Mexico City. We took a bus, then a taxi to the airport, where our hotel was. It was too early to check in, but they held our luggage for us, and arranged for a driver (Enrique) to take us to Teotihuacan. Enrique was a big guy, very nice, and he and Robert talked about religion and cannibalism in Spanish on the way there (about 55 miles). He took us to a small anthropological museum on the way, where we saw 12,500-year-old skulls, then to the ancient city. I had been there once when I was a little girl. My Dad was curator of exhibits at the MSU Museum, and he made a diorama of one of the pyramids, with hundreds of teeny little Teotihuacanians climbing all over it. I didn’t remember much about the actual place, except that there were pyramids and scary snake heads made of stone.

We walked to the top of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. This gave us good views of the two-mile-long Avenue of the Dead, lined with hundreds of smaller buildings, and two large Pyramids at the far end. Instead of being made of big chunks of stone, like at Chichen Itza, these pyramids are fashioned out of smaller, irregularly shaped stones, mortared with lime. In the mortar joints, tiny red stones have been pressed in a design, so it is very colorful and pretty. Over that, there had once been a thick layer of lime, brightly painted. The pyramids are very attractive and architectural.

Instead of walking (which we could have done, because it was pleasantly cool) Enrique drove us around the compound to the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest one. The steps varied but most of them were about 12" high, so that was hard on my “old lady” hips. We went up to the first level. I told Enrique that was far enough–we had no desire to climb it, but he grabbed my hand and HAULED me up to the next level. I was glad he did, later. The views were great, and we walked around to the back of the Pyramid. Going back down was scary, in general, but not so bad if Robert and I held hands, and only looked at the next step we were stepping on, otherwise–aaaargh! There is a sort of optical illusion you experience staring down from the top of a pyramid–it feels as if you are on a sheer cliff, even though you know you aren’t. So even though the steps here are wider than those at Chichen Itza (about ten inches wide as opposed to about eight) and there was a raised handrail you could use, not just a chain lying on the steps, it still caused increased heart-pounding.

We got back in Enrique’s van and he drove us to a factory where they made obsidian objects and silver jewelry. A woman showed us the different colors of obsidian and explained how they carve and polish it. She also showed us how they smelt silver and make tiny chain links, and later we watched an artist put them together to make chains and other jewelry. The most interesting thing she showed us, however, was the maguey.

A maguey looks like a six-foot-tall aloe plant. When the plants are eight years old, people cut out the newest growth in the center, and use a tool to scrape the inside. The cavity fills up with sap, providing about two liters a day for each plant. In a matter of only a few hours, the nectar ferments into a kind of natural beer called pulque. A few hours after that, it’s spoiled, so it has to be drunk fairly quickly. After about three months of being used to make pulque, the plant dies.

Then the leaves are crushed and the fibers woven into fabric. There is a transparent layer inside the leaf that can be peeled off and used as a type of nearly indestructible waterproof paper. It dries hard and feels a lot like plastic. Also, the spine on the end of the leaf can be cut off in such a way that a few long fibers are left attached, and they use this as a pre-threaded needle! What a useful plant! We each had a tiny sip of pulque–very good! The nectar of the Aztecs tastes quite a bit like champagne.

We visited a very nice museum that explained all the phases of habitation of the area. It went from a population of 85,000 at its heyday (one of the largest cities on earth at the time!) down to about 2,000 when the Aztecs finally took it over. There were a lot of beautiful pots and pieces of murals on display, but the most impressive exhibit was a model of the entire complex, completely filling a room about 60 feet long by thirty feet wide. You crossed the room by walking across a glass bridge, so you could look down at the little temples under your feet. It was the same thing my Dad made for the MSU museum, multiplied eight-hundred times. Quite amazing!

We arrived at the Pyramid of the Moon just as it was closing. There, it was possible to go inside the pyramid, but all we could do was peer through roped-off doorways at some murals and beautifully-preserved carved columns. Oh well, next time.

We were starving by then, and Enrique suggested a restaurant. I had been noticing the topography as we were driving around. It looked as if there were dry stream beds running alongside the road, with the sides pitted with small caves. We arrived at the restaurant–that appeared to be the size of a two-car garage, until we walked up to it. Rather than being a hole in the wall, "El Gruto" is a hole in the ground. It is a 100-plus-year-old restaurant situated inside a giant cave. What a fun surprise! The floor of the cave was filled with tables, covered with bright pink, orange and green tablecloths, and the chairs were painted very bright colors, too. It was too dark to take a good photo. Too bad, because it was a marvelous sight. Waiters were running up and down long flights of stairs, carrying trays, and there was a stage where native dancers perform. This time, however, the stage had been taken over by a bunch of energetic little kids, who were showing off, dancing to the Jalisco music. They were cute and funny.

The menu was interesting. For thirty dollars we could have a small serving of "Mexican caviar." Robert said this was actually ant eggs. Enrique did his best to get us to order some, but it was a little too expensive for us, even for a special treat. We had great meals, perhaps the best of our whole trip. Robert had lamb, cooked in a pulque sauce in a buried clay pot. He said it was very tender. I had beef with mole sauce that was extremely chocolatey, and also delicious. It began to rain while we were there, and when we left, we saw a neon-orange sunset–just huge–with bands of navy blue across it.

We drove back into Mexico City at dusk. The traffic was tight. You couldn’t pay me to drive there. We saw what looked like a bad accident–a little car more or less embedded into the front of a bus. Earlier in the day we saw three police cars and six policemen trying to capture a scared little spaniel dog that had gotten onto the freeway. He was cowering in a corner while they tried to coax him out of danger.

It was a treat to see Mexico City at night. It’s the second largest city on earth now, I think (up there with Sao Paulo and Shanghai). Little lights covered the entire floor of the valley, and completely covered two mountains. The air was less polluted than I remember as a child, but maybe we were just there on a good day.

We went to the hotel and got checked in. Our room was nice, but I didn’t sleep well because I was worried about whether we’d make our flights from Mexico City to Acapulco, and from there to NYC. Rather, I was nervous that our luggage wouldn’t make the flight. We only had about an hour and a half to get our stuff off the domestic flight and onto the international flight. I was worried about being stuck in Mexico (during Spring break–God knows when there might finally be room for us to get on another flight) and about not finding our car keys and all sorts of stuff like that. I kept waking up. But when we got to the gate in Acapulco with NO TIME TO SPARE, we found our departing plane had not even arrived yet. It had been delayed. [Robert cannot help interjecting: It was an airline flight in the 21st century, yet somehow it had been delayed! Who would have guessed!?] There is a God! Our flight home was hitchless.

Well, it’s late now, and I’m going to bed! I’ll let Robert read this in the morning and add comments if he wants. As ever, we hope you are feeling well and happy.

Love, F (and R)

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