Buses in Mexico are wonderful…except…

Bus travel in Mexico is inexpensive—shockingly so at times—and the buses are extremely comfortable and welcoming. For trips longer than an hour you get a drink, sometimes water, sometimes your choice of a soda, often a cookie or other small snack. The seats are reserved, are often memory foam, they recline, there is space for carry-on. Larger luggage is carefully placed in storage under the bus—no tossing of bags or rough handling. It’s so nice.

However, it is ridiculously hard to ascertain schedules or even which bus company goes where. There are myriad bus companies which often have their own terminals and might have more than one in a single city. Sometimes you seem to be able to reserve seats and sometimes not. Sometimes you can buy a ticket online, sometimes not. In smaller cities there may be several terminals each for just one company, while in Mexico City the terminals are akin to airports in the US. Enormous, with arrivals and departures via separate concourses, restaurants and shops just like an airport.

Our only almost disaster was our trip from Puebla to Taxco. First, Abraham the guest services Superman at Meson Sacristia spent one morning unable to find any company that had a route to Taxco. Then, he found the company but was unable to reserve us seats so urged us to get to the terminal early. The second day of his efforts he got us a reservation, via the city of Cuernavaca, told us the time, and instructed us that we would be able to purchase our tickets to Cuernavaca and on to Taxco from the Puebla terminal. When we got to the terminal we attempted to do so, but the young lady, after checking with a co-worker, told us we would be able to buy the ticket when we got to the Cuernavaca terminal. Phew. All on a single company, Estrella Oro.

We arrived in Cuernavaca and went straight to the counter to buy our second leg.

“We don’t go to Taxco. You need to go to the Estrella Blanca terminal.”

Yikes. We hopped in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Estrella Blanca. He asked where we were headed, we answered Taxco, and he started a long and complicated explanation of routes and roads and different bus terminals as he drove through the city. I was finally able to slow him down as he seemed to be saying we wanted the “other” Estrella Oro terminal. This seemed weird, but okay. Then he assured us that there was a 3pm bus on Estrella Oro to Taxco. I am wondering how he would know this, and whether he was trustworthy as we drove on and on through the city—it was around 2:15 so a tiny bit of worry started creeping into my mind. If he was wrong, and we were at the wrong terminal…

He suddenly turned into an Estrella Oro station, saying again he was sure there was a 3pm bus to Taxco. We paid him and, still doubtful entered the station. There were a few people at the counter so as we waited we watched the rolling list of departures on a screen, which kept flipping from alphabetical to time of day order, back and forth. No sign of Taxco. Now we got really worried, aggravated by David’s discovery he had left his pullover sweatshirt in the taxi. I cautiously approached the counter. Could we buy tickets to Taxco?

Of course—the bus left at 3pm. All was wonderful! Why did the young lady at the other Estrella Oro terminal tell us they didn’t go to Taxco? We will never know.

Another thing about traveling in Mexico, there are surprise inspections that can be disconcerting if you are the panicky type. As we lined up to board the bus we were pulled aside by a federal police officer who wanted to check our passports and entry/departure forms. I had stashed the forms in a safe place but we offered our passports to be admonished, in an officious but not unfriendly way, to keep the forms tucked next to a particular page of the passports. He explained “Immigration!” But then he smiled and waved us on the bus. In 90 minutes we were in Taxco, after being stopped again by an official who wanted to inspect ID for anyone who had a discounted ticket. ?? The same man appeared on the bus out of Taxco to Mexico City, for the same purpose.

The next day when leaving Teotihuacan the bus was stopped by police—two men, one of whom video’d every person’s face, the other strode up and down the aisle looking serious. Then they said “have a good trip” and left.

Oh, one more oddity—the buses show movies, and what a hodgepodge! We laughed with our friend Christina, who lives in Mexico City, about the completely random movies that show up. For example, on the way to Taxco the movie was The Kindergarten Teacher with Maggie Gyllenhaal, an indie remake of an Israeli film about a 5 year old poetry prodigy with whom his teacher, Maggie, becomes obsessed. Hardly a mainstream offering. Whatever, the trip was scenic, fast, and we got where we needed to be.

Someone should start a travelocity-type service for bus travel here. It would make so much sense!

Taxco!

Eat, Drink, Party, Shop!

Hotel Los Arcos

I’m not sure how I selected this place but it turned out to be perfect. While there is no quiet spot in Taxco on a weekend, the location, just around the corner and down the hill a bit from the zocalo, was ideal. The room was large and comfortable and the central patio peaceful and picturesque. On the roof is a large terrace with gorgeous views of the town, which stretches way up the mountain and down into a valley. Walking this town requires stamina (it’s at around 6,000’), good shoes, and strong thighs and knees. We loved it.

Food highlights

Well, the food in general in Taxco is as delicious and inexpensive as elsewhere in Mexico but a few meals and restaurants stand out.

We had two fantastic, and typically enormous, breakfasts of chilequiles with eggs. The restaurant that serves in the hotel patio is terrific and highly recommended for convenience, service, delicious food. One of the “jams” they serve is a sweet chipotle that was memorable…not spicy, just a smoky, just sweet enough condiment. For the view—though the servings were overwhelmingly large so eating was almost discouraging, we went to Del Angel, a hotel behind Templo de Santa Prisca, the huge central church on the zocalo. The restaurant has several outdoor terraces, all with sweeping vistas of the town. Don’t get me wrong, the food was great—but entirely too much for a normal human being to consume in the morning.

Two of our three nights in town we went to La Bendita, a small cantina-like place for drinks and small plates such as tacos, tostadas, quesadillas. The ceviche tostadas were what called us back for a second time, and I highly recommend the chicharron pescado (fried fish) tacos as well. My mojito(s) were delicious, and both nights David had the liter of beer. Sitting at a tiny table on a tiny balcony overlooking the zocalo madness was entertaining. The second evening the moon rose over the bell towers to give us a magical picture.

Finally, on the Taxco food front, we went to the famous Tia Calla, a basement level pozoleria. David isn’t a big fan of pozole but I am—and he had the chalupas, four little tortillas with chicken and chipotle. By the end of his snack he said his mouth was tingling but they were not the killer heat we know from chipotles in the US. The pozole was the best I’ve had.

Plata

I really wanted to be in town for the Saturday market, a truly insane explosion of silver puestos (little stands) that seemingly filled every bit of space in the town—buildings that were closed on Friday opened to be consumed by hundreds of vendors each with approximately a card table’s worth of display. While many vendors sell the same things, as you walk each aisle you see that from one to the next they have a particular type of jewelry or a distinct style. My plan was to leave with enough pairs of earrings to last me for years, and I did. We also bought a few little gifts which will not be shown here as we want to surprise the recipients. The prices are absurdly low and the experience always “muy linda.” I had tried to describe Saturdays to David—there are always hundreds of vendors in stores and on the streets in Taxco—but he was shocked at the sheer level of commercial enterprise.

Simply too picturesque

We wandered the town every day, and at every turn enjoyed the beauty of this amazing town, one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos.

The biggest pyramid in the world is in Cholula

Cholula is maybe a 20 minute Uber from the historic center of Puebla, and yes, it has the very biggest pyramid on earth. It is also a lovely town easily navigated on foot, and we spent several hours in the archeological zone, as it is known, walking through the slightly scary tunnels, wandering the ruins that have been excavated, and then took a walk through the ‘downtown’ where we had a delicious lunch and a walk through an odd church right across from the zocalo. It made for a good day trip.

The pyramid was for centuries thought to be a big hill with a church on the top that was built in the 1600’s. A thing about Mexico—it is so much older than the US, with many buildings and churches still standing that were built in the 16th and 17th century. Bits and pieces were unearthed over the last 100 years or so, and now there is even a small museum (very small) that discusses the history of the area, once a marshy lake, and what they have been able to decode about the different groups which lived, died, and moved on over the centuries.

Puebla For The Food

Where we try to taste everything!

Cemitas

Cemitas are the Puebla version of an oversized, overstuffed sandwich.  They are everywhere…from tiny puestos, holes in the wall with rickety card tables and often waves of heat coming from gas fired flat grills of beaten steel, with shallow depressions that are filled with cooking oil for frying potatoes and nopales, stand alone puestos on the street where buy your food and eat out of hand on the sidewalk, to full restaurants that serve cemitas from a menu.  

Our last afternoon in Puebla we knew cemitas were on our menu for lunch, and as we left the Casa Alfenique we asked the group of students at the entry where we should go for cemitas—they recommended the neighborhood El Carmen, which was very close to where we had stopped for chanclas the day before.  It was about a 20 minute walk, and we were en route when we passed one of the tiny holes in the wall, the grill in the doorway, 3 women cooking like mad, and a sample cemita displayed on the edge of the grill as an advertisement.  The sample cemita was enormous—and the smells of the frying potatoes and nopales was enticing.  Also, only one of the 4 card tables was empty.  David said “let’s just go here” and as it was 2 blocks from the hotel and we were hungry from all the work of visiting museums, in we went.

As we sat down at the empty table we were able of course to watch all the cooking—it was literally right in front of us.  One woman was making tortillas from a pile of masa harina that must have been a foot tall and a foot wide.  As she removed the tortilla from the press she passed it back and forth from hand to hand—exactly the same technique I had watched recently in a video about making naan.  Each tortilla puffed up as she moved them around the grill.  A second woman was chopping onions with an enormous knife.  The third was cooking cemitas—she took 3 paper thin pieces of meat, probably pork, and slapped them on the grill.  While the meat grilled she prepared the rest of the filling. The bottom of the roll was covered with avocado, strings of Oaxacan cheese (the only cheese we saw in Puebla), slices of onion, an herb papalo which is kind of similar to cilantro though unrelated, a good flavor and quite strong, and a handful of French fries.  As you can see from the picture, it is enormous. I was unable to finish my half and I was so very hungry when I started!  Anyway, this little place turned out amazing food and was always full—there was a “nicer” cemitas place next door which was empty as we walked by.  What a treat.  And our 100% good luck eating street food held—no after effects at all.  

Chanclas

These were described to us as a kind of sandwich, but though there is bread involved these are nothing like a sandwich.

Small white rolls, which are somehow hollow, are cut in half.  The place we went—recommended by our Uber driver, letting us off there instead of taking us back to the hotel as he told the owner “I have some tourists here who want chanclas”— was of course tiny so I could watch the assembly which included shredded chicken, slices of avocado, the top of the roll and then the entire plate is filled with a thin red sauce similar to the red sauce we know from red enchiladas in the states.  One order is four chanclas—I ALMOST finished mine, though David had no trouble with his four.

Moles (that’s mo-lays, not the rodent)

Every region seems to have its own specialities when it comes to moles and we had several different such in Puebla.

The dark mole, almost always served over chicken or a chicken wrapped in a corn tortilla, is sprinkled with sesame seeds and is intensely flavored with a very definite chocolate undertone.  A little too sweet for me, but David loved it.  We also had a mole “house specialty” at the sister hotel Meson Sacristia de la Compania which was not at all sweet, even a bit sour/tangy. I loved that one.  The other common mole in Puebla is pipian, ground squash seeds which I liked as well, lots of cumin and a hint of tahini-like flavor.   We had this trio at Fonda de la Santa Clara over beef—we were a little tired of chicken on our last night.

Tacos al pastor and tacos arabe, and the grilled mix alambre

Tacos al pastor and tacos arabe are both specialties of Puebla and so good.  Arabe means the meat comes wrapped in a flour tortilla, well, halfway between pita bread and a tortilla.  The default meat in a taco arabe they call “carne blanco” which means it’s not reddish brown with spices as al pastor is.  Simple and delicious, especially with the bright green tomatillo salsa usually on the table.

Al pastor is what we see in the US if you are lucky enough to live near good taquerias: stacked meat, heavily spiced, turning in front of a roaring vertical grill, sliced off in thin pieces and served on corn tortillas with pineapple, onion, and cilantro.  OMG so good, almost refreshing with the fresh pineapple on top.  I could have eaten those every day if there hadn’t been so many other things to try!

(At the central bus station, which is like an airport with all the companies in one place and a large waiting area surrounded by food stands, the “Rincon Poblano” (Puebla Corner) had tacos arabe and cemitas—but we were on an morning bus and passed, reluctantly.)

Our first night we went to Las Ranas where we ordered the .5kilo of meat with a stack of tortillas.  It turned out to be a mix of meats—not sure what all—with peppers and onions and a cover of melted cheese.  So delicious and we could not finish, as hungry as we were after a long day of travel.

In conclusion—

Every single place we went was so friendly, so helpful, and so welcoming it was easy to jump into foreign foods with happy confidence.  For a food festival, go to Puebla!

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.

A Certain Type of Executive

I had lunch today with a long time colleague and friend in the health care tech business.  She works for a company recently acquired and had some stories about working with the new management.

This got us around to musing about executives, yes, male, and a personality trait we have both run into many, many times.  This is the trait of “must be handled carefully” and I’d call it epidemic if I weren’t pretty sure this trait has been around forever.

Why, you say, should a senior executive with lots of power (and lots of compensation) need to be “handled” by subordinates?  Gosh, you tell me.

The handling rules center around preserving his status, never making him look bad, inviting him to meetings that he routinely snubs or, worse, joins late and disrupts or sidetracks the discussion, couching all disagreements in the soft cocoon of words like “I am probably off base here, but…”  The handling includes chasing him down for decisions, but of course nicely and respectfully no matter how late, how urgent, or how many times you’ve been put off because he is “too busy” and “too important” to address the issue.

The handling includes moving meeting times because “He’s just landing” or “He’ll join later” (rarely does, and never apologizes for the commotion he’s caused).  The handling includes smiling sweetly when he lectures or rants based on his lack of understanding of basic facts.  The handling includes huddling in the hallway with colleagues to come up with “how” to present bad news or news that conflicts with his beliefs.

So what?

There are a host of ethical, political, and emotional reasons why this behavior is dumb.   But it’s the cost to the organization that is especially maddening–where are the hard-nosed cost hawks when you need them?  Calculate the difference in prep time between outlining the facts and recommendations in a few bullet points versus figuring out how and when to gently introduce the concept that the executive is or is probably wrong.  Calculate the time spent in meetings where a decision isn’t made, freezing action while the “too busy” executive tries to find time to make up his mind.  Calculate the wear and tear on subordinates who must guard against speaking the truth, or even against raising a controversial idea.

Dear executives, GROW UP.  Act like a person with a brain who is aware there are other persons in the world, also with brains.  Stop being such a baby.  Surely your ego is strong enough to take a little blunt talk and a little disagreement, and if you cannot defend your ideas, maybe they’re indefensible.