Monday, September 21, 2009

First days, Part II

Thursday I headed to Cholula, a smaller colonial city built right on top of pre-Columbian ruins on the western outskirts of Puebla. The puebla is an independent municipality—actually the oldest continually inhabited city in all of the Americas, since 500 BC— that is now part of the conurbation of Puebla, in other words, has become part of one continuous urban area, much like Dallas-Fort Worth. Although there is a ton left to see in Puebla, I was feeling antsy to start getting settled. Living out of a suitcase gets old after awhile. I also had no idea how to go about finding an apartment, what to expect to pay for rent, or what kind of life I could establish in Cholula.  

Immediately after throwing my bags in my hotel room, I went to the tourism office to get a map. On a whim, I asked about apartment rentals, although I had seen signs all over the city on the drive in (apparently they built a ton of new apartments right next to UDLA, la Universidad de las Américas, so the students moved out of the center of San Pedro Cholula). Turns out the director of tourism’s parents own rental apartments. And a bakery. And a dance academy. Alejandro, the tourism director, is the instructor (my first class is tonight).  At first, I was disappointed to see some dimly-lit, pretty charmless apartments, a little run down but clean. But then my sense of adventure took over and I thought, well if this is what living in central Mexico is like, then I’m going to take it in stride and make this tiny apartment with its tiny kitchen livable. It wasn’t that bad, but not great for 2000 pesos a month (about $150…my sense of what’s “expensive” has already shifted). I decided to take my time and look around.

The next departamentos I looked at were far, far worse. Two-room pieces of crap with broken plastic tile floors that made you feel poverty-stricken the instant you walked inside. I had to fight myself to feign interest and be polite to the wonderful woman showing me the different options. Also, I wanted to keep this connection because her family owns the Cholula equivalent of a funeral home, a sterile concrete space, almost garage-like, but with coffins parked along the walls instead of cars. They also arrange velatorios (wakes) and funerals. I knew she would be a great resource, but she wouldn’t end up being my landlord.

My new friend Mauricio, the owner of a nice local restaurant, took me jogging a couple of mornings ago to show me a public track. With the highlands climate, the early mornings are around 60 degrees and absolutely perfect for running outside. The track is on the other side of the Great Pyramid with the Iglesia de los Remedios on top, the most famous church of all the churches of Cholula. What more iconic symbol for this city than a colonial church on top of an overgrown pyramid, the largest pre-Colombian pyramid in the world, dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl? As we jogged up the stairs, I definitely felt the altitude, but was determined to prove I was still in decent shape despite the week’s worth of Mexican food, beer and tequila. 

From the pyramid, we had a fantastic view of the smoking Popo, one of two active volcanoes that separate Puebla valley from the Mexico valley. To his right is the mountain la mujer dormida, so called because the peaks look like a reclining woman’s profile. Mountain boobies! After a lap around the track down the other side of the pyramid, it was back, back up to the church at the summit. I thought it was only fitting to offer the measly two pesos I had in my pocket at the altar of the iconic church of Cholula as a way to start of this year. Don’t want to leave anything to chance.


After our “run,” it was back to el mercado for a late morning snack at one of the restaurant stalls. As you walk by the various stalls, wrinkled old women in blouses, skirts and aprons squawk at you, waving blue tortillas in the hope that you’ll take a seat at their picnic table. I ordered a quesadilla con huitlacoche. There are baskets of this corn fungus in basically every produce stall in the market. There was no getting around knowing exactly where my delicious meal was coming from, in other words. The ears of corn are covered in these grey-black growths, which are considered a delicacy. 

To the left, flor de calabaza. To the right, raw huilacoche

Ingredients for delicious quesadillas

The woman told us she cooks the huitlacoche herself, I think with lemon, salt, and some seasoning. I’ll have to order it again to investigate. The corn fungus, or truffle, if you will, turns very black when cooked. The woman takes the blue masa (dough), kneads it a little before putting it in her tortilla press. Then she tosses it back and forth to get the right thickness before putting it on her oiled grill. After flipping the slightly browning tortilla, she places stringy white queso to melt on the tortilla. Next comes the juicy, black huitlacoche and later the salsa of your choice (salsa verde, por favor!). The quesadilla is folded in half, with a few good pats with the spatula to make sure everything gets nice and melty, then handed straight from behind the grill to you, sitting at your table beneath her like a worshipper at the cheese-and-tortilla altar. I guess you could call it an “open kitchen.” The quesadilla was delicious, once I got my head around the fact that I was eating fungus, and not the mushroom kind like Mauricio. It dripped black juice down my chin and my fingers, getting under my fingernails. The mild flavors of the tortilla, queso, and earthiness of the huitlacoche were delicious. Definitely comfort food.


So much so that I went back the next day to try the quesadilla con flor de calabaza. This time, she cooked the squash-blossoms on the grill with salt before adding them on top of the wonderfully melting stringy cheese. The flowers also had a subtle flavor, and retained a bit of a fibrous plant texture that made it difficult to keep entire flowers from sliding out into my mouth when I took a bite. She really loaded that thing up. While watching an exchange between the goddess of the quesadillas and a young guy in charge of her refrescos delivery, it dawned on me that I could do some research on the market, a la Tsukiji (a food and culture professor of mine wrote a fantastic book on Tokyo’s fish market. He got deep into the economics of the place as well as the customs and workings of the market. This observation of how the refresco-delivery system works on credit is about as far into the economics as I’m going to go—I never did take that introductory economics course). So part of my plan is to visit the market at different times and hopefully almost every day, getting to know the vendors and how the market operates. I’m going to be there every day anyway to get produce, meat, beans, fish, you name it, to cook at home. I love that the market is my most convenient option, as opposed to the Superama at the outskirts of town. I’m a romantic about my food I guess.


Sundays are market days here in Cholula. The streets surrounding the market that are normally empty save for normal foot and car traffic became pedestrian-only extensions of the market. Tarps covered whole blocks of streets, and tons of vendors lined both sides and the middle of the street. Organized chaos. Shouts of “¿Qué vas a llevar?” and “15 pesos por medio kilo” rang out from stall tables, or merely tarps spread out on the sidewalk. Other vendors strayed from their stalls, carrying small amounts of their offerings and winding through the crowd in hopes of finding additional customers. I was a little overwhelmed at first, being pushed around if I walked too slowly, soakin in all the sights, sounds, and smells and trying not to look like a deer in the headlights. But it was also nice to be treated just like everybody else, being prodding into buying this or that. 

Bananas, plantains, red bananas, small bananas, all kinds of bananas, apples, prickly fruits, tomatillos, tomatoes, chives, herb after smelly herb, peppers, dried chiles, dried camarones, huitlacoche, fresh nopales de-spined with rapid knifework, fish heads chopped up and weighed, chicharron (pork skin) crunched into pieces, bread torn and offered to sample, the food offerings and action were endless. Not to mention the underwear, shoes, clothes, batteries, kitchen sponges, toys, grains, rice, even dirt being sold. I was dying to buy something, but no kitchen yet. I’ll have to wait for next market day to really get into the action. Although I did sample some grasshoppery-looking bugs cooked with lemon and salt. An acquired taste, but not bad, really. Like a healthier, meatier potato chip.


So what does $192/month rent get you in Cholula, Mexico? After some scouting, an adorable two-bedroom apartment off a central garden with exposed tile and wood beam ceilings, white walls, wood furniture, trim and doors, a kitchen with blue tile counters, a back patio to wash my underwear and a parking spot for my nonexistent car. Oh yeah, it also includes utilities and internet. So maybe my floors are the same cheap plastic tile kind, like every other apartment I looked at in Cholula, but they are all in one piece and I’m thrilled. I’m starting to feel very home-makery, which is a little sad for someone twenty-two years old. But I think everyone enjoys the experience of setting up their very first apartment after college. I spent the few days waiting to move in strolling through the feria in the zócalo. The feria comes to town once a year for the biggest festival in Cholula on September 8th. The tented stands sold blankets, bedspreads, ceramic-ware, candies, pirated CDs, and the same kitschy fair crap you see everywhere. But I enjoyed comparing prices and buying beautiful blue and white painted bowls for my kitchen at a $1.50 or so a pop. I even bought a gardenia yesterday, which is now sitting in its sad plastic bag of dirt waiting to be potted in my new (old) apartment. They’re finishing up some work on the wood, and I move in tomorrow (fingers crossed).


My landlords are a nice older couple who love to chat. We'll get along great. Sra. Senela is apparently a fantastic cook (her husband tipped me off). She also has three full libretas of family recipes from both his and her side. She offered to help me learn to cook la cocina Mexicana. Both of them starting jabbering away to me about different little mountain towns where they still uphold the “true pre-colombian” customs, as well as about a million different dishes and drinks from the region. Sra. Senela brought out a bar of chocolate from Oaxaca. This authentic chocolate is made of only cacao, sugar, almond and vanilla. It looks like solid hot chocolate mix, which is fitting, because that’s exactly what it is. You crumble it up and mix it with water or milk in a big olla. As Sra. Sanela described, you rotate a wooden molinillo (blending tool) back and forth to create great volumes of chocolate-colored foam to about the same volume as the liquid underneath! I tried a cold version of the drink later in the feria. The woman who sold it explained that this version was made with the chocolate, water and corn masa. It was good, with a very basic chocolate flavor and slightly sweet, with a touch of grit of the chocolate powder remaining in the foam.


Today I started scouting out churches. I had decided awhile back that joining a church, maybe even a bible study group, would be one of the best ways to become part of a community. I also thought it would open up a different window into my research on death, mourning and remembrance. So I set off early this afternoon with a tourist map of Cholula in hand, starting with the churches (out of the sixty-plus) closest to my apartment. I couldn’t even find the first one, but I decided to keep walking and look for the next one on my route, Santo Ecce Homo. I noticed that the church was full, with people standing outside the open back doors. I worked my way inside the back of the church. The modern chapel of this seventeenth-century church immediately struck me. The interior is fairly simple, with sky blue walls, medium-light varnished wooden pillars, tons of glass windows and beautiful crystal chandeliers. This in contrast to the elaborately decorated and gold-encrusted interiors of most early modern cathedrals, dimly lit through stained glass or no exterior lighting at all. It felt like a living, breathing community church. Especially with all the babies crying and toddlers venturing out of the pews into the main aisle. I also really enjoyed the level of the congregation’s participation in the mass, as the padre asked them (us?) questions during his sermon. 

I only realized at the end of the service that I was attending a funeral! A large portion of the congregation lined up to give their condolences to the surviving family members. I knew he was talking about la muerte as I walked up for some reason! As I passed through the church gates, a young woman holding a baby invited me to join the family in their home. Now, I know that she was just saying that to every José and María passing through the gate, but I decided this was an incredible opportunity and exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I was a bit nervous as I walked slowly down the street following the crowd, really doubting whether this was appropriate, if I would be disturbing the family and friends who had lost this loved one, if I was prepared to really throw myself in. But this year is about pushing my boundaries, so I convinced my feet to keep moving, one after the other, until, a few blocks later, we arrived at the family home. Two tarps, bright pink and blue, were strung between two modest homes. A long table with metal chairs was set up in the shade beneath. The table was full, but the rest of the crowd just waited patiently across the street. I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me, Sra. Angeles, and told her I was looking to join a church. She didn’t look at me like I was a crazy gringa, just asked where I was from in the United States. As the other mourners emptied their plates, said their goodbyes and left to do whatever else was left to do on a hot Monday afternoon, my compañeras said “Vamonos” and we went to take our seats at the table.

 Everyone friendlily greeted me, seemingly pleased I was there, and we began to chat about what I was doing here. Everyone assumes I am a student at UDLA nearby, but I happily respond that I don’t have to take a single class, I’m just living here. The family served us mixiotes, stewed beef on the bone with spices and onions wrapped up like presents in parchment paper and tied up with a string, with rice. The dish gets its name from the Maguey leaf, which is traditionally used to wrap up the meaty bundle. Now, parchment paper is often substituted. Everyone served themselves from the corn tortillas, beans, and salsa verde on the table. I thought it was interesting that the family members, as far as I could tell, were the ones serving their friends and neighbors. They were very attentive, as if we were the ones who needed the comfort of home-cooked food. As we enjoyed our meals, another woman asked me if I had a Mexican novio yet, and started to point out the single men (and some married men with children!) at the table. It was nice to laugh, it definitely dispersed any awkwardness I felt. Carlos commented that laughter helped with the stress of grief. That’s something I can definitely agree with. Sra. Angeles and I exchanged numbers, and she graciously said I could visit her “pobrecita casa” whenever I wanted. I felt elated as I left the table, not exactly the way you should feel leaving the family home of a difunto, but I was happy that I had stumbled into exactly the kind of experience I’ve been hoping to have in Mexico. I thought to myself, here we go, death and food, starting with a funeral and mixiotes.


With a view of the Iglesia de los Remedios atop the Great Pyramid, here ends the realism-novel-like version of this blog. I promise to fight my tendency to be long-winded in the future. 


  1. No, keep it long-winded! I love hearing about your life and all the wonderful things you're doing. Plus, the length of this blog is negligible compared to that thing you wrote last February...

    Love & miss you!

  2. glorious! i am loving the novella format. we all wish we could be there with you. sending love your way, and can't wait to hear more about the next adventures!


  3. Keep writing the way you are! (as long as its not too time consuming for you) I'm so incredibly happy for you. This is already an amazing experience and I can't believe how well you're already meeting people... well, yea I can. It reminds me of anthropology ethnographies, I love it!!! I miss you and love you, keep taking care of yourself chiquita!! MUAH!