Saturday, July 16, 2011

Vive Puebla! Dia uno.


It was another early morning rise and an overcast day greeted us.  Today was our travel day to Puebla.  It would be back to the airport to catch the bus. Although our bus was not scheduled to leave for Puebla until 10:30am, Daniel had arranged for our hotel transfer at 8:30am. Too early I thought but then again, I didn't want to miss the bus to Puebla. Our driver arrived at 8:30 on the dot. It was early on a Saturday morning and the traffic was extremely light. The driver took us to Terminal 1 and then realized he had made a mistake and so he turned around and headed to Terminal 2. He deposited us there and gave us instructions to make our way to the bus stop. Once I was inside the terminal I recognized the restaurants and shops and recalled the way back to the Estrella Roja ticket counter. Even with having to spend extra time getting to the right airport terminal, we arrived barely minutes 9am.

So, we decided if we could get on an earlier bus and lo and behold, there were seats on the 9:30 bus!  The ticket salesman told us to wait in the lounge area til we were called.  Before we had a chance to even get to the lounge counter, they waved us to head to the bus.

We followed the line of people crowd heading towards a set of down stairs.  There, we had our tickets checked to make sure we were legit bus riders.  The stairs led to the covered bus lot. At the bottom, our tickets were checked yet again and based on destination, we were separated into two lines - one that for the bus that we boarding and the other line to another bus. There only a handful of people in our line.

An attendant came by to tag our bags for loading. Bro was a bit nervous about handing over his bag - concerned that it wouldn't make it on.  I told him it would be okay but he still kept careful watch over both our bags.

We then had to go through a security check.  It was a short wait before we boarded the bus.  The seats were assigned and bro had picked seats in the middle of the bus so we walked up the aisle until we found seats 20 and 21.

We settled into our seats which were very comfortable.  As my brother said, we had purchased tickets on the "de lujo" (deluxe) bus!

By the time the bus pulled out of the terminal station, there were barely a handful of riders on board, including the two of us.  The bus wound its way around the airport and made a stop at Terminal 1.  I guess we could have boarded there after all.  Anyway, two more people boarded and that was it.

We were in for a 2 hour ride.  As the bus chugged on down the road towards Puebla, I took out my netbook to catch up on my diary entries.  Bro catnapped.  He has to learn not to sit next to me and fall asleep :-)

It was 11-ish when we hit the outskirts of Puebla and a traffic jam.  We moved at snail's pace for a while.  The outer city of Puebla was nothing much to marvel at.  My first thought was I hope this was not going to be what the UNESCO World Heritage part of Puebla was going to look like.

It was not much past 11:30 when the driver pulled into the Estrella Roja station at 4 Poniente. By this time, bro was awake. 

We disembarked, picked our bags and I headed to the taxi counter to buy our ride to the hotel.

I had booked us rooms in a hotel that is located right on the zócalo.  I like to be in the heart of the action :-)  I had read that it was only about a 5 minute from the station to the hotel so I was expecting a short ride and it was though it was more than 5 minutes.

Hello zócalo! I recognized the hotel from the pictures I had seen of it.  We checked in and walked to our room.  I never try and guess what the room looks like on the other side of the door - it's usually a pretty standard layout.

What we walked into was very spacious room.  There were two full size beds, one twin bed, a small lounge area and two French doors that opened to the outside.


The bellboy drew open the curtains and it was then that I realized we had a view of the Basilica!!  I had him show me how to open the doors which led to small balcony.   We had two doors so two balconies.   After we tipped the bellboy, we stepped out on to the balcony to soak in the sights and the sounds of the zócalo.

Even the cloudiness of the day did not detract from the beauty of it all.  What an amazing view we had!  The Basilica was pretty much directly in front of us.  We could see it's beautiful yellow colored dome and the bell tower.  Fronting the basilica was the zócalo with its fountain and well tended beds.  Park benches were all about - perfect places for people watching.   Large containers held well trimmed potted plants. Colorful Spanish colonial buildings surrounded the square.  I couldn't wait to hit the streets!

Time to hit the streets!  We quickly settled in and headed out.  It was already close to noon and we didn't want to waste another minute hanging inside the hotel room when we had this charming city awaiting us.

It was late morning and there really wasn't much going on the square so we decided to walk the streets.  We didn't have a map with us so we just headed out the front door of the hotel and turned right.  At the first intersection, we looked down one street and it was packed full of people.  We decided that's where we needed to be.  In fact, we were on Calle 5 de Mayo which is the main pedestrian only street in the historic center.


Just as we rounded the corner onto Calle 5 de Mayo, I caught sight of the ginormous clusters of helium balloons that we would soon find out are a common sight in this city.  Very colorful indeed!

The street was lined with stores selling everything under the sun though we noticed that there were a lot of zapaterias - shoe stores.  It seemed like that there was at least one on every block.  My brother came to the conclusion that Poblanos must really love their shoes.

People were out and about enjoying the day.  Shopping, eating.....the usual things that people when they're strolling along a commercial street like this one.

Soon we passed a bright red building.  Sign said it was a church.  El Templo Conventual de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.  Santo Domingo Church for short, in English.  It wasn't much to look at outside; I wondered if it was worth going into.  



To the mercado.  But a visit to the church will have to wait.  We were on a mission. We wanted to go to the market and so we asked for directions.  The instructions went something like this.  Keep going down 5 de Mayo for about two blocks, turn left and you'll see a shopping mall.  Go through the shopping mall and ???  turn right.   Go for ??? blocks and the market is *waving right hand in circular motion*, somewhere in that area.  Sure.  Those were accurate instructions.  No chance we're going to get lost :-)


We followed the first part of the instructions and to my surprise, we actually arrived at a covered, open air shopping mall.  No different than any other shopping these days.  Department stores, electronic stores, shoe stores, etc.  Nothing special.

First things first.  And then I saw it!!  A Michoachana ice cream shop!!  I thought it was just the name of that little place that we frequented while we were in Mexico City but here it was, in all it's Pepto Bismol pink glory!  And it was a h-u-g-e place!  It was calling me.  I had to go check out the popsicles.  They had the same flavors and more.  I decided to switch from coconut to something else.  Guava.  A pink popsicle with chunks of green.  No removing of skin or filtering out the seeds.  You basically get chunks of fresh fruit frozen inside pulpy guava juice.  So good.  So addictive.








We plopped ourselves down in the neon pink lounge chairs and enjoyed our ice cream.  At the rate we're going, we're never going to make it to market before the sun sets :-)










Guava popsicle down the hatch, we were resumed our mission to find the market.  Remembering the very rough instructions we had gotten, we walked in the direction that we thought we needed to go in.  Out on the street, we made a right turn and started to walk.  We found ourselves on a street with no tourists about....finally off the tourist path!

It was early Saturday noon and the streets were crowded with locals going about their weekend duties. 


Eating our way to the market.  It wasn't long before the Fruit Obsessed one spotted the one vendor and then another.  The jovial fellow was the source of a plastic cup filled with coconut for me and the woman, a pomegranate.  In Mexico, they sell pomegranates with green outer skin and the red one that we see in the markets in the US.  The green pomegranate has light red, almost pink inside.


Yes, at this rate, we're not going to make it to the market....wherever it is :-)

A quick stop at a local pharmacy to pick up some medicine for my brother and then it was more walking.

We didn't get far though.  The intoxicating smell of roasting chicken stopped us in our tracks.  After thinking about it for a split second, we realized we hadn't eaten lunch.  We decided to get some chicken for my brother and for me?  Roasted gizzards :-)  So good having been cooked in the sauce and fat that dripped from the rotisserie chickens.

This was a carryout place so we took our food and continued walking.  Along the way, we'd have to find some place to eat.  I was starting to look like a very awkward tourist - plastic cup of coconut meat in one hand, a small bag of warm gizzards in another, my big camera hanging around my neck and my backpack on my back.  So unbecoming :-)

It wasn't long before my brother decided to break into his chicken.  Finger food for him since he bought a drumstick.  I munched on gizzard.  We sipped on bottled water.  Toilet paper for napkins.  We're standing, just inside a store, on a street corner in Puebla. Odd way to eat?  Not if you're a Khoo.  That's how we roll.

The market!  After our "lunch", we continued on.  We walked on.  It was the smell of fresh fish that told me we must be near the market.  The seafood stores were doing a brisk business and the range of seafood they sell here is amazing - especially since Mexico City is nowhere near the sea or ocean.  There was also octopus and squid and several varieties of clams and oysters.  I would be very happy shopping on this street!

Some of the seafood vendors had set up stands where they were frying fillets of fish.  I was so tempted to buy a piece but I was already bogged down with food that I had yet finished eating so I decided against being greedy.  Oh, it was hard to walk away!

Soon, a street came into view.  The color patio umbrellas was a tell tale sign that we were definitely in the neighborhood of the market.  The narrow street was that lined on both sides with produce vendors.  Adjacent stores sold everything else except for meat.  The one I noticed was that they sell a lot of things in bulk here - stuff that we would ordinarily see in individual packages would be sold out of large plastic trash cans......pet food, detergent, grains, and even spices.  In a way, it's so much less wasteful to see goods this ways there is no unnecessary plastic and paper to add to the landfill.  Measurement here is by *cup* or container so you just pay for how many ever cupfuls of something you need.  Bring your plastic container from home and simply refill from the store.  So much more environmentally sensible thing to do.  Ironically, I think the packaging is missing because the country is too poor to make it but on the other hand, they don't need to encourage anyone to recycle....they already do it out of necessity.


Chicken Guy.  Even though there were fruits a-plenty to tempt the Fruit Obsessed One with, he walked on by one vendor after another. I was surprised. We found an entrance the covered market and headed inside to check it out.  We entered in to the, for lack of better explanation, the "chicken section" of the market.  It was one chicken vendor after another.  Oddly enough, I found the hanging chickens amusing - they reminded of the large rubber chickens you see in novelty stores except these were real.  The guy in the yellow apron kept trying to dodge my camera lens until I begged him to let me take his picture.  Then, he flashed a wonderful smile.  People are so friendly here.




Past the chickens were the meat butchers and past them, the produce sellers.  The food in the market is plentiful and fresh.  The sheer variety of fresh food that is available is enviable.  I wish I had this much to choose from in my market.

For someone like me who loves to cook, I was walking through paradise!











Back outside, we wound our way through a narrow alleyway of vendors.  This time, there was fruit that called out to my brother.  Guavas of all things.  A bag for 10 pesos.  And a mango.  Everything so cheap, it was just too hard to resist.













Elote Girl.  My eyes settled on a young girl selling boiled corn on the cob or elote as they call it here.  It was an intriguing ear of corn, a mix of blue and yellow kernels. I couldn't resist.  Mexicans eat their boiled corn, not with a schmear of butter sprinkled with salt but instead with a spritz of lime juice and then a schmear of mayo sprinkled with grated cheese.  I just asked for mine plain because I just wanted to savor the corn.  Here, corn tastes like corn. It's not as tender and sweet as US corn but it's far more flavorful.  She handed me my piping hot corn cob on a piece of husk, a perfectly compostable dish!






Time to buy a knife. With all the fruit he had bought and all that I knew he was going to buy, I talked my brother in to buying a knife.  Of course, he had to buy as big a blade as he could for the money.....all of 250 pesos.


Caramel Woman.  There's another smell that's hard for both of us to resist and that's caramelized sugar.  Oh yeah, we smelt it.  A vendor selling caramelized pieces of pineapple.  She also sold caramelized sugared nuts.  A small swarm of bees was hovering around her and her sweets.  Bees and I don't mix.  One sting and I balloon up like the Goodyear blimp. So, this was going to have to be a fast buy!  The pineapple pieces were still warm.  It was really tasty but so, so sweet.  Water wasn't the right liquid to accompany it with.  Coffee would have fit the bill.


By the time we got to the woman selling the caramelized pineapple, it felt like we like we had circled the market.  I think we were suffering from a bit of sensory overload.




So, we decided to backtrack and eventually we made our way back to the covered shopping mall which we discovered was annexed to an old colonial style building.  It looked like a building you see on a street in a small city in Spain.







Dancing in the mall.  Back inside the mall, our tired feet begged us to take a rest so we found some steps to sit on.   A quick bathroom break later and we were back on our feet.  On our way out of the mall, we came upon a stage with a few rows of folding chairs set up in front of it.  My brother found out that there was going to be a dance performance kicking off in a few minutes so we decided to hang out and watch.  A pair of very kind women offered up a seat to me.  At first, I politely declined but they kept urging me to come and so I did.  The woman next to me told me that the dancers were from a local dance school and that they would be performing dances from Veracruz.


The seats were great for the beginning of the dance but midway, I decided to join my brother in the back.  I thanked the women, slunked out of my seat and stood beside him to watch the rest of the first dance performance.  After having seen the best of the best perform at the Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández, this couldn't compare of course.  But hey, we were in a shopping mall, in Puebla, on a Saturday afternoon and the show was free.  That's a hard deal to beat!

We made our way out of the shopping mall and back out onto Calle 5 de Mayo.  The plan was to head back to the hotel, drop off our purchases, rest for a couple of minutes and then head back out. 


 It was along walk back so we took stops along the way.  More ginormous clusters of brightly colored and patterned helium balloons to bring smiles to our faces.

Somehow, we ended up with one of our breaks outside the Santo Domingo Church.  I take that as a sign we must go in.....but not today.  We're were saving our sightseeing for tomorrow when Ayşe would be with us.



Quick break in the hotel room and then it was back outside.  We only have two days in Puebla so we have to make the most of what little time we have :-)

And our street wandering continues.  This time, we decided to take our walk in the opposite direction so we headed out of the hotel and crossed the street.  We made our way around the Basilica and there, we found an Information Center.  We went inside and got ourselves a map and the very helpful guide gave us some suggestions on things to see and do.  Basically, unless we wanted to take a cab to the outskirts of town, we needed to focus on the areas around the Basilica.

We ended up on Calle 16 de Sept which is named in honor of the day that Mexico declared its independence from Spanish rule.  The street is cobble stoned and lined with colorful Spanish colonial buildings. So pretty, even against the dark, ominous clouds hanging in the sky.


More eating! We didn't walk but may be two or three blocks before we happened upon a crowded street fair.  Of course, we dove right in.  There were vendors lining the street as well as running down its center.  The vendors were mainly selling food including one that was making chocolate Mexican style, in a large clay pot with a good topping of froth made using a molinillo.  I was tempted to get a cup's worth but I was so stuffed, I passed on it.  Maybe on the way back.







But bro couldn't resist the "Grilled Shrimp on a Stick" vendor :-).  They were tasty, shell and all.  Okay, I wasn't so stuffed I couldn't take one bite.  Very tasty....smoky, briny.  Good snack.






Cemitas, at last.  Up until now, we had not seen the signature street food of Puebla - the cemita.  But, it was our lucky day.  One stretch of vendors sold nothing but cemitas.  The enterprising ones had set up plastic tables and chairs so their customers could seat down and eat.

We peered into vendor stalls and over people's shoulders to see what was being cooked and what people were eating.  Every stall was filled with people eating so we couldn't pick a stall based on popularity.

I decided that stomachs full or not, we had to have a cemita.  Can't come all the way to Puebla, Mexico and not have one.  We decided to make our pick based on fillings.  My brother was the first to spot the plastic container of huitlacoche ("wheat-la-co-chey") which is a food delicacy unique to Mexico.  Technically speaking, it's corn smut - basically, a fungus that grows inside the corn.  I had yet to try it so this was my opportunity.


The young woman behind the stand was working alongside her father.  Her job was to take the orders and to crisp up the cemita which is the bread that the sandwich gets it's name from.  I placed my order of a cemita filled with huitlacoche and nopale which is cactus.  Oh yeah.  We're going Mexican!

In Mexico, the street vendors do a very sensible thing.  They give you a plastic plate that has been lined with a large piece of plastic.  The food goes on top of that.  When you're doing, the plastic is taken off and the clean plate reused.  No need to wash the plate between customers.

We sat down and ate our cemitas in view of the Templo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Church of our Lady of Carmen).  It was the monks of the Carmen order who built this church in 1586.  After lunch, we would learn what the street festival was all about.

For now, we would enjoy our cemitas.  So how was the huitlacoche?  It had the texture and the delicate flavor of a very mild mushroom, like an oyster mushroom.   The nopales has a slimy texture to it - like okra.  I didn't mind the sliminess of the nopales though I think it overwhelmed the huitlacoche.  Next time I have huitlacoche, I'll have it served simply on it's own so I can better appreciate it.  Cemita with huitlacoche plain with lettuce and a teeniest smidge of chili to give it some punch. Has to be served on piping hot bread that has a crisp interior to soak up the juices.  That would be a delightful meal.

It's a festival but what are they celebrating? After filling ourselves with cemitas, not that I wasn't already stuffed before I had my cemita, we crossed the street to the other side to check out the bread vendors who were all selling a very similar looking bread that had sesame seeds sprinkled on top.  We guessed it was some sort of festival bread and we got our confirmation from two women who were there to buy their loaves.  I've not figured it out but for some reason, the bread comes from the nearby town of San Juan Huactzinco which is a municipality in the neighboring state of Tlaxcala.


Just at the end of the row of bread vendors was the plaza that fronted the church.  We decided to head there to sit a bit.

We sat on the edge of a flower bed and in front of was a line of people queuing up to go inside the church.  Something is definitely going on but we still had no idea what.

Two friendly Poblanos and one important question answered!  No sooner had we sat down than two local woman joined us and as we have encountered all along our trip so far, Mexicans are so friendly.  These two women didn't hesitate to strike up a conversation.  Started with the usual questions, tourists get asked.  Where are you from?  Is this your first time in Mexico?  Where have you been so far? Is this your first trip to Puebla?  How do you like it?  etc.  I could understand bits and pieces of the conversation but my brother is fluent enough in Spanish that he was having himself a wonderful time chatting with them and from the laughter, it was obvious they enjoyed chatting with him.  I just smiled because it was nice seeing everyone having a good time.

I wanted to take a photo of the two women with my brother.  One was definitely not shy.  She decided to give me her *sexy* pose.  When I looked at these two photos afterwards, all I could do was smile and shake my head.  A very memorable encounter with two very friendly Poblanos!


We did find out from the women that the festival was in honor of the Virgen del Carmen who is venerated inside this particular church.  The Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen takes place July 16 in the Barrio del Carmen in Puebla.  It finally all made sense!! I only wish we had figured it out earlier!

Fun for kids and adults alike. Soon, it was time for us to bid goodbye to our lovely companions.  We made our way across the plaza and happened upon the street carnival. 


If not for the fact that we hearing and seeing Spanish words and letters around us, we could have been in a fair in the US.  Even the games were the same.  You know, the point and shoot games, the ball toss.....win and you get a stuffed toy.  Cotton candy and other sweets for sale.  Kids squealing with joy.  Oh....and they had rides to but this is a fair in heart of the historic center of Puebla so everything was appropriately scaled down but it was still all there. A lot of families just out having some fun and when they got hungry, they could just head across the plaza to all the food stalls that we had just left behind.

Laughter in the air. We made our way back to the Basilica and heard the sound of a crowd laughing and clapping.  There, in shadows of the magnificent building was a small troupe of clowns entertaining doing their comedy act.  More fun times in Puebla!


We found ourselves spots to stand among the crowd and watched the performance for a while.  We were a bit too far away so I had a hard time hearing the clowns.  I was amused by their antics nonetheless.  We left after awhile.

Where the clowns were performing was just steps down from the zócalo.  That's where headed to next.  Didn't get far though.  This not going far is becoming a pattern for us :-)

Rambutans!! We bumped into a guy carrying a bucket of rambutans!  Yes, rambutans....here in Mexico.  Rambutans are native to Southeast Asia so it's a fruit we're both familiar with having grown up in Malaysia.  I've not had a rambutan since the last time I was in my home country during rambutan season.  I can't remember when that was.


So you can imagine my excitement at seeing a bucket full of them!   Needless to say, the Fruit Obsessed One had to ask how much to buy a bag.  25 pesos.  Cheap!  Here they seem to sell things by the kilo so we bought a kilo to try.  One fruit each later and we decided we should have bought more.....who knows if we'll find any more as we travel along.  Though we both suspect that once we get to the tropical areas, there will be plenty more rambutans to eat.

Fire in the air.  On we went and again, we didn't far.  On the side of the plaza, next to where the clowns were performing, as another group of street performers - fire jugglers!


Four drummers provided the background beat.  The guy in the black tee-shirt and jeans was the best of the jugglers.  There were a couple of guys dressed up as clowns who weren't half bad.    There was also a talented young teen age boy juggling as well.  Someday, he'll rival the guy dressed in black.

One of the clowns passed by with a collection bucket.  I had my camcorder glued to my face so bro had to give the tip.  A very small price to pay for the entertainment we got in return! 



Our first day comes to an end.  By now, it was early evening.  The street lights were coming.  It was time to head back to our hotel for a short rest.  Back in our room, I threw the French doors open and we enjoyed a view of the zócalo as night started to fall.






Though it had been a long day, our day wasn't quite over.  Ayşe would be arriving tonight.  We exchanged text messages earlier in the afternoon and her plane would be leaving Houston on time which meant she would be arriving into Puebla on time.  She had the hotel address and I had told her that we were in room 105.  Shortly after 9pm, I heard the knock on the door.  I ran to the door and opened it to see her smiling face.  I think we were both relieved that she had arrived safely.

A quick introduction between her and my brother and then we had to show her the amazing view we had!  Have to say, she was more than impressed!!  She was also keen to get out and see a bit of the place.  Since none of us had eaten dinner.....not that I was hungry or anything, we decided to head out and something to eat. We gave Ayşe a few minutes to get settled in and freshen up.

Back downstairs, we walked around the perimeter of the zócalo until we got to the section filled with restaurants.  It was a beautiful night so all the restaurants were serving outside.  With our help translating the menu, Ayşe had her first taste of real Mexican food.  We just all relaxed over our meal....a chance to do a bit of bonding.  A lot of talking, a lot of laughter.  The perfect way for all us to unwind from our respective, activity packed day!

By the time we finished dinner, it was after 11pm. Believe it or not, the restaurant was still serving food - hungry people were arriving just as we were leaving!!

Buenas noches Puebla! We headed back to the hotel.  I think we were all getting tired by now.  But before I would hit the sack, it was one last view of the