Beautiful Puebla

Boy oh boy has this city ever changed in the 17 years since I took a day trip from my immersion school in Cuernavaca. It seems very prosperous, much larger, with a lot more going on everywhere we turn.

We are staying in Meson Sacristia de la Soledad, a lovely small inn with maybe 4 guest rooms (counting the tables set in the dining room that seems right). The owners live here as well, and are delightful, helpful, warm, welcoming. When helping us with the lost iPad I kept apologizing for the trouble, they kept telling me it was their job to help and make sure we were comfortable and happy.

I cannot recommend Meson Sacristia de la Soledad highly enough.  The location is great, the room is comfortable…the owners have several other properties, one of which has a full restaurant which we dined at one evening (delicious) but we are happy we are here instead—smaller, quieter, just lovely in every way.  I cannot wait to post reviews every place I can find.

The historical district was a Dia de Los Muertos celebration—happy friendly crowds everywhere—which continued into Sunday unabated.

Below are scenes from around the zocalo. Nice town.

Templo de Santo Domingo/Capilla del Rosario

When we were at the International Museum of the Baroque (see below) a couple urged us to visit this church, so we did. The main church is stunning, with an enormous wall of saints (?) and other people important to Christianity (we couldn’t identify a one), but when you reach the front and look to the left, the Chapel of the Rosary shines out at you and then draws you in. I have never seen such compelling faces in the decorations around the walls of this small, extremely tall, chapel. It’s a wow.

Museums Galore

We are museum lovers and Puebla has given us a slew to visit. I don’t think I can rank them so will just give you a snapshot in the order we saw them, more or less.

Museo Amparo

This is listed as a private museum, which is surprising because they had free days and also free nights at the museum. In any case the tickets are inexpensive. The audio guide is solely for the pre-Hispanic exhibits, and wow, they are great. Why great? They are arranged by aspect of life—music and musical instruments, artistic expression (first place I have encountered a discussion of the contrast between European art, which strove for realism, and pre-Hispanic art which is dominated by a more abstract representation of people and things), spiritual understanding of how the world works (rivers, for example, are the way the life forces communicate with each other)…so rather than a chronological march, everything is tied together to help you understand how they saw the world.

The special exhibits were no less impressive. An exhibit open right now features an American Jewish-African Ecuadorian woman, Karina Skvirsky, which blew us away. She works with photo collages, which were disturbing and interesting, but her short film that represents/recreates her great grandmother’s journey at age 14 from the Ecuadorian countryside to the city where she worked as a domestic was spellbinding.

The first view of the terrace through the glass walls seemed unreal.

Finally, the third floor, which we might have skipped because it’s the cafe and we weren’t hungry, opens onto a terrace that is exactly at the height of the many surrounding church domes and towers—which are so close, given the narrow streets, and of many colors, under a cloudy sky the day we were there that looked unreal. We gasped.

Museo Internacional de Barocco

This extremely modern, almost distractingly high tech museum about 20 minutes’ drive from the Centro Historico was a surprise in all ways. Puebla, founded in the 1500’s, is a baroque city with many obvious examples of the style in its churches and other buildings. The museum, though, explores everything about the baroque period—architecture, science, music, painting, etc.—around the world, using poblano examples wherever appropriate but is truly a complete picture of how the baroque period changed everything in western culture.

Bilbao-like on a huge site complete with rock lined pools.

The architecture of the museum is very modern designed by a Japanese architect, and stunning. On the inside the exhibits are arranged by subject (painting, architecture, scientific exploration, music…) and each room is filled with examples, explanations, multimedia presentations, narrations. It was wonderful and a bit exhausting. Well, well worth the Uber ride and typically low ticket fee.

In this room a narration and shifting pictures on two huge screens (you can see one here) discussed baroque buildings in Puebla, which is laid out in a scale model, lighting the building discussed in turn. Very elaborate!

Biblioteca Palafoxiana

Not strictly a museum, this is the first public library in the Americas. Bishop Juan de Palafox left his personal collection of 5,000 books to the Seminary of San Juan in 1646, with the stipulation that access not be limited to church personages but open to the public. It is small and gorgeous and the exhibit laid out in cases in the center is currently on the recording of indigenous languages by the clergy during the first several hundred years of the church’s presence in Mexico.

This beautiful poem brought tears to my eyes. The panel to the right had the Nahuatl translation. The title is When a Language Dies. Use your google translate if you do not read Spanish. Vale la pena.

Museo Casa Alfenique

This was a surprise—we expected a restored residence (it is named for a confection made of egg whites and sugar and is embellished within an inch of its life) but it is a lovely history of Puebla and its role in Mexican history (you all know that 5 de Mayo celebrates the victory over the French invaders in Puebla, right?) as well as a lovely explanation of China Poblana, the creole/criollo indigenous/Spanish culture of Puebla revered in Mexico. Well worth the visit.

Casa De Los Hermanos Serdan

This place was a little gruesome—the bullet holes from one of the revolutionary struggles in 1911 remain on the exterior and inside, including a large decorative mirror with obvious bullet damage. The exhibit is about the Mexican Revolution in general, about which we realize we are insufficiently educated, and the slaughter in and outside what was the private home of the Serdan family. I cannot begin to explain what all this was about—read some history if you are interested. But do visit the museum when you come to Puebla. These events still resonate.

Mexican Pre-Thanksgiving Sojourn and Our Event Filled Departure and Arrival

The worst part of traveling is the night before an early flight. We slept poorly as usual. With a 6am departure we had scheduled a Lyft for 4:25am, having checked and double checked that we were set for such an early ride. I looked at my phone at 4:15…”Your ride will arrive in 45 minutes.” WHAT? Checked Uber–no cars available. Called Flywheel Taxi, “Open 24 hours” to get no answer. Called the Lyft driver to confirm he was going to be that late, saying “I have a flight to catch”…his initial response was “Hey, why the attitude?” He went on, very impatiently, “They just put this on my list and I still have to drop this guy off at SFO.”

Went back to Uber, still no cars available. Then a most welcome text appears, “Your ride will arrive in 15 minutes.” They had found a new driver, who did appear in 15 minutes. We were so grateful, and it turned out so was she. She had been out in Walnut Creek where she was getting calls for rides further and further out, and “I wanted to get back to Oakland, and I took this (our) request because I had already turned down 2 and they don’t like that.” Arrived at OAK in plenty of time, boarded, relaxed, and off we went.

The airport in Mexico City is big and pretty well organized. When David turned down a hallway to the men’s room a young man walking out said it was closed, and to follow him. We did, a long and complicated route, to an open men’s room. That left us a very short hallway from the bus counter where we bought tickets for a bus leaving in 30 minutes–David prodded me to ask for a senior discount. I did, happy to remember the word for “discount” but the the ticket agent was unsure there was one, that is until he asked if we would contribute to their fund for “ninos en Puebla,” which I gladly did and then voila, the senior discount was discovered and applied and after a short wait we were on the bus to Puebla. Took a taxi to the hotel, Meson Sacristia de la Soledad, through a mass of people which the driver complained about steadily. Then a police barricade was at our block so we walked the last bit. Dia de Los Muertos, with a major parade two blocks further which we ran to watch after checking in to this lovely, warm, hospitable little inn (meson=inn).

Our room is huge, colorful, comfy. We dumped our things and headed to the parade, and then to Las Ranas for supper. The zocalo (central square) was jammed with families, many in costume, many elaborately painted faces, vendors, a stage with a band playing, balloons of course, just happy madness everywhere. Supper was great–a half kilo of a meat/pepper/onion/cheese mass, hot off the grill, and a huge supply of tortillas. We ate until we could eat no more. With David’s beer and my jamaica the bill was $8. We wandered back through the crowds intending to fall into bed, but…

David: I can’t find my iPad!

Me: Relax, I’ll find it.

Ha. No iPad. David was of course very upset as he concluded he had left it on the bus, and I, realizing that calling the bus company myself would be futile as the conversation would be way too complicated, went downstairs to ask Paco for help. He roused the owner who, in his pajamas, called the bus company and after a very long and, yes, complicated, conversation, reported the missing item. We had our ticket stub so we knew what seat, which bus, etc. He gave them his cell number to call if they located the iPad. They gave him an incident number which we would need to retrieve the item if they found it. David had calmed down, we had setup “erase” on the iPad as soon as it connected to the internet, and got ready for bed.

Knock, knock, knock at our door maybe 45 minutes later. It was Paco, to report they found the iPad and the owner would drive us to the terminal the next morning after breakfast. I think I said about five times “Es verdad?” The next morning I assured the kind owner (Lulu) we could go whenever it was convenient for her, but she graciously said “David will not be able to relax until he has it in his hands” which was true, and within a little while we had retrieved the iPad and everything was wonderful again.

Seoul to Busan

September 30

Saturday morning Gideon and Yoojin, and Birdie, their whippet, picked us up bright and early (6:45) and we headed south to Busan. Birdie is gorgeous and regal, and while at first she seemed spooked by the situation and us, Gideon and I sat in the back seat with her and before long she was sleeping/meditating with her head in my lap. Doggie fix!

This is a mountainous country, and we drove right down the middle from Seoul in the northwest to the second largest city, Busan, on the coast in the southeast. Blue-green mountains on all sides, and the most modern and well-kept freeway the entire route. David read that Hyundai built the freeway in under 3 years. Amazing. We arrived in Busan after about 5 ½ hours, hitting rather horrid traffic as we approached the city and then went in fits and starts through downtown and over to the southeastern edge where our airbnb was. This time we were in a modern highrise, though not so high by Busan standards (18 floors or so) and we were on the 15th. Lovely apartment with two bedrooms, very roomy, overlooking a small lake surrounded by a park.

We parked our luggage and headed out for some walking for us and for Birdie and a little sightseeing. The weather was warm to hot, but a seaside beachy heat, so we went to a nearby beach and walked looking for a place to eat. Finally we settled on a place with outdoor tables since we had Birdie with us and ate truly delicious fish and chips, then headed back to chill, watched a little Korean TV and went to bed.

Sunday we woke to a little bit of a cloudy morning. Luckily the airbnb owner had stocked the kitchen with breakfast food—two loaves of Japanese style bread (white, thick, fluffy), apples and oranges, juice and milk and cornflakes. We devoured breakfast and headed out. Our first stop was the Haedong Yonggungsa temple which is right on the coast, in a dramatic setting of rocks and hills. Due to the holiday weekend it was jammed with a cheerful crowd and much pointing and fussing over Birdie (typical Korean response to dogs, especially unusual breeds since most dogs we see are toys and often are being carried in arms and tote bags). We were perhaps among 8 total westerners in the crowd.

Next was Beomeosa, in central Busan but way, way up a mountainside, and finally downtown to the fish market where we had supper around 4:30.

The Busan fish market is well known, quite large and nothing like we’d ever seen. Stall after stall, many with tanks of live shellfish of all kinds including hundreds of abalone, a little shocking to a Californian. Clams of all sizes, and lots of things I could not identify. The deal is you select fish and shellfish from a stall, and that stall proprietor calls upstairs to the associated restaurant. A short discussion about how things will be prepared is conducted (sashimi for the larger fish, smaller fish grilled, and the giant clams steamed in our case), you pay (came to about 80,000 wan) and a young woman comes down to take the fish up in a bucket and lead you to a table. Banchan appears, then the various dishes and accouterments (e.g., soy sauce and wasabi for the sashimi), drinks are ordered, and we start to eat. And eat. And eat…and then the soup comes which is made from the fish bones and veggies and is boiled on a little gas burner that is placed on the table.  We ate most of that, too.

We were stuffed. As we left it started to rain, and I didn’t think I personally could look at food again, but ha, we went across the street to a bustling, nay jammed couple of blocks filled with street vendors and people, umbrellas and commotion, and proceeded to eat some sweet little buns shaped like peanuts and fried dumplings filled with nuts and something or other that was also sweet, Delicious! It was really raining by then so we hustled back to the car and headed back to our apartment. With traffic this turned into a 90 minute drive…we staggered upstairs and fell into our respective beds.

Around 2:30 David and I both woke up and went to pee.  The moment we finished an alarm started screaming, bells ringing, and the repeated instructions in Korean telling us, apparently, to get out.  Of course our first thought was “what in the world did we just break?  By peeing?”  Yoojin ran into the living room as we all were totally confused and freaking out. She said “A FIRE??” and we all started getting dressed, still in a daze. It was freaky but not that frightening, as 1) this is a concrete apartment building and 2) it was POURING rain, and had been for at least 5 hours. How could the building possibly be on fire? Gideon went into the hall and a man was fiddling with some box on the wall and mumbling there was a problem with the alarm, as if this was not unusual. Nonetheless the alarm continued, so Gideon and I decided to go down the stairwell and see if we could find someone to explain there was no need to worry. We walked all the way down (15 flights) and did not see a soul. As we walked down it was increasingly obvious we were the only residents with any concerns since we never found anyone else up and about.  We got in the elevator and went back up. Into bed, everyone. This was actually the second time on this trip we have been awakened in the middle of the night—a few nights after we arrived David got a phone call at around 3am, a wrong number from Berkeley. Okay, let’s have this be two of two.

Monday morning we were all back in the car at 7am, as Yoojin and Gideon dropped us at the Central Bus Terminal. We took the bus to Jeonju and they drove on back to Seoul.

Meeting Jay

He seemed like a nice enough young man, teenager, a little removed and grumpy but who isn’t at 6:30 in the morning and already at a boring job?  His name is Jay, and he was there to help out our housekeeper, house sitter, friend, on a Friday morning.  Our rude dogs were uncomfortable with him; Hops got a little snippy, and Pumpkin too barky, while Barley just avoided him.

I totally trust our friend to bring only good people into our home, and so I immediately trusted Jay but didn’t think he and I would ever have much interchange.  Does it matter that we’re white and he’s African-American?  Sort of…I could label him if I saw him on the street as surly or unfriendly or even a little frightening, but he’s just a young man who happens to come from a different background.  I was cordial but distant.  He was hard-working and reserved.

One morning a few weeks ago, as I sat at my desk while he and Wendy cleaned around me I saw him standing aside, looking at his hand and frowning.  “Jay, what’s wrong?”  “I have a splinter.  Ugh.”  I went to get the tweezers, and then held his hand to the light while we tried to get it out and he flinched, telling me he had had a foster mom who was too aggressive with the tweezers and they scared him a little bit.

Such a tiny encounter.  Such a very brief moment.  An intimate touch.  A shared fear.

What about this experience made it so powerful for me?  Is it simply that I look for chances to be a mom, to be needed, and here was one of those sudden opportunities?  Almost.  But as I took his hand I thought I heard a soft, short, pinging sound, that sound when there is an almost imperceptible break, a crack, or a tiny hole in the protective coating we present to the people around us.  A breach that can let humanity in, even for a second, and resonate through a day, a week, or forever.   Too poetic?  And yet that moment of holding Jay’s hand, helping him deal for a minute or two, it changed me just like every one of those moments in my life has changed me, nudged me closer to being the person I want to be.

Toilets for Bihar

I was thrilled to read this article today on some (small but real) progress in bringing toilets to Bihar state in India, where we visited Patna and rural regions in January.  This was a specific request from the women we met with–we need sanitation and toilets, because we all use the fields.

Amateur Sociologist

I have been to two Asian countries, 3 weeks in each–Japan in 2013, and our just completed visit to India.  Two crowded countries of mega-cities, each with population issues, commute issues, vast investments in infrastructure.

With my n=2, I will now make some only very lightly-informed pronouncements and over-generalizations on societal coping strategies in crowded urban settings.

japan 13  (122)

National Sumo semi-finals

In Japan you can almost physically feel the stress, especially in the subways and, oddly, in elevators.  Japanese are very polite, very contained, very regimented.  They rush through train stations without eye contact.  They are impeccably dressed.  Everything in the commercial world we encountered was hyper-organized: lines of bowing clerks at opening time in department stores, perfectly timed trains, over-engineered public bathrooms (including the option of having music or sound effects play so no one is disturbed by the sound of your peeing).  Yes, of course there are messy edges, but in general it seems to the traveler that everything works.  99% of the restaurants have plastic food displays, so you know EXACTLY what you are getting–an example of a regimented, organized, planned-in-advance way of doing things.  Stray animals?  Other than the wild deer, none.  Dogs running along the street?  Never.  Though in Tokyo you can see a lot of the quirky teenage fashionistas and costumers out and about, for the most part the homogeneity is striking.  The obsession with cleanliness is delightful as a traveler–I could walk all day, and did, in Tokyo in hot steamy weather in sandals, and come back to the hotel with clean feet.  Private life–it’s invisible.

In India, everyone is just as, probably more, crowded, but everyone lives life in the open.  Bathing.  Changing clothes.  Men getting shaved, or shoes getting repaired, or clothes being ironed–it’s all on the street.  Homogeneous?  Not even close.  Every variety of sub-continent apparel and manner is available.  Colorful is an insufficient adjective.   Animals everywhere.  Broken sidewalks, people and dogs and beggars and cows and goats, wandering in and out of traffic, on and off the pavement, groups of people standing around everywhere eating, talking, hollering–your impression is that nothing is hidden, life is an open, communal, shared experience.  People clothe stray dogs.  People feed the cows by tossing fresh greens on the sidewalks in the afternoon.  People throw bananas to the wild monkeys.  And messy around the edges?  India is profoundly messy in so many ways.

When we returned from 3 weeks in Japan, we walked into our house and decided it needed some upgrading–and began planning a major remodeling project.  We laughed–compared to the cleanliness of Japan, our life looked a bit shabby.

When we returned from India it felt as if we were entering a surrealistically quiet, peaceful, clean, organized, and maybe a bit dull, world.


When we travel internationally we try to book 3 weeks, given the typically long flights  involved.  By the time I get to the middle of that last week I am usually beginning to feel homesick for my dogs, bed, food, cool breezes at night coming through open windows–all that good stuff of normal life.  Sometimes I’m even beginning to miss work!

Reentry is usually a fog of jet lag and general fatigue for a few days, and then I’m back, with all kinds of resolutions to organize my photos (rarely done), a big box of souvenirs and gifts to be distributed in the corner of the bedroom, and a return to digestive and sleep normality.

Coming back from India had a few aspects that surprised me a little.

To be clear, we don’t live out in the country, but rather in a medium sized city that sits in the middle of a pretty large metropolitan area.  Traffic, trains, and the rest of the urbanized commotion are the background of our lives.

  • I never realized before just how quiet it is here.  Coming back from the airport was like gliding along in a dream, seemingly silently though I know there were real noises–they just couldn’t penetrate my armored consciousness.  Cars changed lanes, melding into the flow of traffic without scary near misses or horn announcements “I’m about to move;” “I moved;” “I am now past you.”  Eery.  When you honk your horn in the US it’s because someone is backing out into your car, not because you’re, well, driving.  And after five days, we are still noticing the peaceful state of the streets and freeways.
  • I was struck by how intrusive it is to understand what people around me are saying.  Walking through the farmers’ market the day after we arrived, snatches of conversations interrupted my thoughts, my interior monologue, and my conversation with my husband.  English words kept barging in on us.  Parents talking to their kids, questions to vendors, adult conversations around us seemed almost rude!  Jee, keep it to yourself, would you?  Our last few trips abroad have been to Spanish-speaking countries where I do catch a fair bit of the talking around me, but in India the only words I understood were greetings, yes, and no.  The rest was atmospheric, not communicative.  I miss that privacy–not following what everyone is saying around you means you concentrate thoroughly on your own experience.
  • We surely missed home-cooked and just plain homey food, and one of the first things I had thought I craved was a tunafish salad sandwich.  But it didn’t really taste that good–mild and salty at the same time.  Last night I made pad Thai for the first time because I wanted something “different.”  I am going to go for roast chicken tonight, our most typical dinner.  Maybe that will snap me out of it and get my palate back to normal!

All that aside, it sure is nice to be greeted by wagging tails and licks every time we enter a room and, it appears, our dogs are happy all over again to see we’re home.