I arrived at Puebla’s international airport last Sunday night. I was relieved to see Andrés de la Concha waiting for me when I passed through customs, baggage claim, and security. Andrés is Emily Simon’s friend from elementary school and has been such a great resource while preparing to move to Puebla. Andrés willingly offered tips and advice on the drive to my hotel. This advice, however, included warning me off of all street and market food, salads or strawberries, and anything that couldn’t be boiled, peeled, or roasted. Given my love of discovering food off the beaten path, I was dismayed. Thankfully, I soon discovered that many of Puebla’s restaurants are nothing more than small, basic operations offering the same variety and more of all the tempting food offered by street vendors, and for the same prices. I was also relieved when Andrés clarified that I would be able to eat something green during this year, but only by preparing salad and other produce myself by first soaking them in water with disinfecting drops.
I started Monday morning with a wonderful breakfast of huevos toluqueños, scrambled eggs on top of a corn tortilla, all smothered in salsa verde, crema, grated queso fresco and avocado, a perfect combination of cream and spice.
Afterwards, I explored Puebla’s centro histórico. With the preparations for la Día de la Independencia on the 16th and for the grito at 11 pm the night of the 15th, I was happy to discover that while I am one of only three non-Mexicans I have encountered so far, I was far from the only tourist.* Mexicans from all over Puebla state had traveled to the capitol city to experience the grito from the state palace. The zócalo was full of workers setting up stages, vendors selling clappers, balloons, whistles, light-up headbands, anything and everything in the colors of la bandera and visitors snapping photos and soaking up the anticipation and atmosphere.
Tuesday morning, the ladies from Georgia I met the day before (the other two non-Mexicans) invited me to tag along with them to Mexico City for the celebration. When a sixty-something year old woman tells you to sack up and be spontaneous, you have no choice but to say what the heck and go for it.
While waiting to meet Carol Anne and Laura for the bus to México, I enjoyed the festive atmosphere of the zócalo and tried chiles en nogada (chilies in walnut sauce), a dish supposedly created by some nuns in Puebla in the late 19th century to commemorate la Día de la Independencia. The red, white, and green dish is only offered from late-summer to early October.
Chiles en nogada is a dish of contrasts, balancing disparate flavors, textures, and sensations. In other words, it sounds like a terrible mess when described. A chile poblano is stuffed with a picadillo (mixture) of candied fruits, nuts, meat and spices, then fried and topped with a creamy walnut sauce, pomegranate seeds and cilantro. Before I tried it, I was tempted to believe the nuns must have picked the ingredients paint-by-numbers style, just to end up with a dish with the colors of the Mexican flag. I was prepared to not really like it. But somehow, the combination of sweet, nutty, creamy, savory, and spice works. On top of that, each bite offers contrasting textures: the pop of a juicy pomegranate seed, a layer of fried breading soaking in creamy yet gritty sauce, a layer of slippery, roasted pepper, and a stuffing that sometimes melts in your mouth, sometimes crunches when you bite into a nut or piece of dried apple, and sometimes requires some chewing when you find a hunk of meat. You have to eat the whole thing just so your mouth can figure out what to make of it!
Chalupas with salsa verde or salsa roja, pulled chicken, and queso.
Chalupas are popular street food for September 16
This year marks the 199th anniversary of the independence of Mexico, and everyone is incredibly excited to begin preparing for the bicentennial, meaning more crowds, despite the rain forecast, and therefore more security. After dinner, we ventured into the streets to join in the fun. We waited to pass through metal detectors, and finally, we were at the heart of the celebration. We arrived to the jam-packed zócalo just in time to watch an incredible visual effects show that used the Palacio Nacional as a screen! The three-dimensional effects, lights, and fireworks show symbolized Mexico’s proud history, ending with VIVA MEXICO! flashing across the façade. Definitely made waiting in the rain standing amongst 800,000 of your closest friends a lot more entertaining. Exactly at midnight, President Calderón emerged, waving the Mexican flag. He delivered the grito in a booming voice. After each phrase, the crowd chanted VIVA!! The call and response format was really incredible and moving to see this sea of people chanting with so much hope and pride. I definitely had chills. After the final repetition of Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! VIVA! VIVA! VIVA!!, Calderón rang the huge bell and everyone cheered as more fireworks followed almost dangerously close above the crowd.
While my Georgia friends decided to call it a night, I was fortunate enough to meet two British girls spending their last night of a ten-month around the world trip in Mexico and two Mexican guys. We chatted and walked down the street, where the party was never ending. Vendors sold confetti and cans of foam. I got completely soaked with foam when I got into a battle with a little boy. His mom donated some confetti to my cause, but to no avail. I definitely lost the war. Finally we made it to Plaza Garibaldi where dozens of mariachi groups of all different styles from all over Mexico gather. It’s basically just a concrete patio where you can drink outside and pay the mariachis to play whatever you want. But all the ingredients to a really great time: live music, alcohol, friends and family, and the cool outdoors. Partiers gathered around their band of choice, singing along and toasting VIVA MEXICO! Antonio and Fernando treated us girls to micheladas, an entire liter of beer poured into a large movie-theater size Coca Cola cup with lemon and salted chile powder around the rim. Some micheladas come with various unidentified red salsas, but this version came with Clamato. My kind of drink. It reminds me of my mom’s “bloody beers.” Tequila shots shared with a family standing next to us eased the walk home around 4am. It was a little eerie walking past hummers and tanks filled with Mexican soldiers in full gear driving down the empty streets to prepare for the morning’s parade.
Nine am came early, when families started lining Cinco de Mayo, the street outside our hotel and the main parade route. We had a great view of the military parade from our fifth-story room. I now have a very thorough grasp of the range and extent of Mexican military uniforms and face paint. Not only was the entire military on display, there were also choreographed fly-overs by helicopters, jets, cargo planes. The marina even had their inflatables and men in full scuba gear! I couldn’t help but chuckle at this particular display of sea power. After the parade, the zócalo filled up with families and food vendors. Everyone was having a blast, bouncing pencil shaped balloons around and getting in the last canned-foam-attacks. Antonio showed the British girls and me around the city before we all headed back to wherever the heck we were going. I didn’t think I would end up visiting Mexico City so early in the year, especially after hearing so much about the big, dirty, dangerous city. But I had a great time, and I am so glad I didn’t miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The city was full of beautiful sites, the national celebrations turmoil-free, and the people kind, polite, and genuine.
Part II comes tomorrow, the part where I actually start figuring out where I’m going to live and stop pretending like I’m on vacation. It also includes eating corn fungus quesadillas, bugs and foamy chocolate, squalid apartments, picturesque apartments, the only church on top of a pyramid and a smoking volcano. A lot of firsts!
*The grito de Dolores is the battle cry first given on September 16, 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo. The grito is repeated every year, given by the president from the balcony of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. Each state governor also gives the grito at the exact same time, 11 pm the night of the 15th