Another Airport Post… 

  
Catching a red-eye to Miami as a layover and then flying out to the wonderful land of Read More »

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Mexico: On Culture and Latin Warmth

latin warmth in mexico

When I got back from Mexico, I was feeling blue for the first 2 weeks. It wasn’t the lack of sun, because New York has a wonderful summer. It wasn’t adjusting back to the horrendous prices in America, because I can get used to that fairly quickly. No, it was an awareness of social differences and feeling lost when approaching American people and dealing with social situations. Latin warmth is something found in Spanish-speaking cultures. It’s what I’ve been missing ever since I came back to New York .

When in Mexico, the most impressive thing I discovered (aside from the food) was the great way I was welcomed by my friends and their families. To take in an almost complete stranger for the duration of 2 weeks takes a lot of hospitality. And tolerance. While I had met my friends for one night in Heidelberg four years ago (those good old student days), I hadn’t seen them ever since and only stayed in touch via social networking sites. How great was my surprise when being offered a home for 14 days, after such a long period had passed.

I was impressed by how nonchalant my friends took time out of their busy schedules and showed me around almost every day. While one was working, the other one was a student pursuing her degree, and both had busy schedules to keep. But did this come through even once during my stay abroad? Not in the least!
From day one, I felt invited, welcomed, and like part of their families. The endless invitations did not only come from them. Their friends suggested several good events (such as Las Luchas), in which they happily participated in. Parties thrown at their houses, spontaneous elote- and quesadilla-sessions, driving on top of a mountain to get a breathtaking view from the city – it was all too good to be true. And yet, it is a crucial component of the Latin culture, or rather, the Mexican culture – to be as warm and welcoming to guests as you can (even when they are practically strangers).

After leaving the rude and sometimes mean individuals of New York, Guadalajara showed me a different type of people. I’d somehow forgotten how to say “please” and “thank you”. But in the Mexican culture it is very important to keep repeating those two phrases until the conversational partner is satisfied. After one week I had gotten used to the “por favor” and “gracias” expression. To such an extent that my friend jokingly told me: “But don’t say it TOO often, otherwise the people will think you’re a Chino (Chinese)!”

Latin warmth – dealing with personas who are friendly, open, and welcoming most of the time – displays how happy Mexican people are. In fact, this article illustrates the disparity between Mexico being one of the poorer nations but also one of the most satisfied (judging by its people). It confirms what I saw throughout the streets: Happy, smiling persons, chatting with each other and not being too bothered by life’s circumstances (the inequality, the long working hours, the great gap between rich and poor). 80 percent of the country’s population practically earns nothing and yet they are not bitter, sour, or mad. They are quite the opposite. How can this be? You see rich European countries who are less satisfied than this industrial land. Mentality and culture play a role in these two circumstances.

Giving so much when you have so little – a mentality I wish I’d see more in Westernized nations.
This is why my heard was broken for a long time after returning from my trip. Because I left a warm country like this and committed to the coldness of New York.

A Mexican Foodie Post (Part II)

proper taco at el tomato

On to round 2 of tasty Mexican eats in, well, Mexico!

5) Peculiar foods I’ve never heard of before my trip
One would be the jicama. The outside reminded me of a huge potato, but it tasted more like a turnip. The best part is that you don’t have to bake it, but you cut it up, slice it in quarters, strew some salt, pepper and chili (of course, what else?) over it and drench it in lime juice. Et voila, perfect afternoon snack (not to forget, healthy, too).

When in Guanajuato, I tried nopales y papas (nopales with potatoes) for breakfast. Nopales are the leaves of a pear cactus. They look green and taste like a fresh and crunchy veggie. I really liked them a lot but couldn’t find them after coming back to Guadalajara.

Jicamas, as seen on http://www.cookinglight.com
Jicamas, as seen on http://www.cookinglight.com

Of course guacamole was one of the standards eats. A great tip my friend gave me was to simply leave the avocado seeds (or bones, as Mexicans call it) in the guacamole. This way it lasts several days, not only a few hours (this past summer I made guacamole that I literally had to throw away less than 24 hours later. After using the seed trick, it lasted 3 days!).

6) The biggest Taco Feast I went on…
… was at La Tomate Taqueria in Guadalajara. Taco meat was cut straight from slabs (reminded me of the Kebab places in Germany), then served with several tortillas, different kind of salsas, onions, and herbs. The best ingredient: Pineapple pieces (this makes or breaks a taco, so pineapple will be a common ingredient from now on).

Different sauces to top your tacos off
Different sauces to top your tacos off
How to eat your taco at La Tomate
How to eat your taco at La Tomate

As you can tell, beans are not included in any Mexican meal, unless served on the side (another common misperception when it comes to Americans mixing Mexican cuisine up). And, does this look like a hella taco or not?

7) The best raw food I’ve tried…
… was Aguachile de Cameron.

Aguachile de Cameron
Aguachile de Cameron

Raw shrimp, which is covered in chile sauce, making it halfway cooked (because of its hotness). It’s served with lemon, onion, cream cheese, and cucumber. In this variation, we also had a strawberry, which made up for quite an exotic flavor altogether.

8) Regional variations
After being to Guanajuato and San Miguel, I have to admit that the food by far exceeded my expectations in Guadalajara. The foods in the first two cities were actually not as tastily prepared than in the capital of Jalisco. After traveling for the first weekend, we encountered an old woman who even told us so and then everything started to make sense. However, I did have a pretty decent breakfast consisting of nopales (an exotic ingredient I hadn’t tried before) in Guanajuato, so kudos go out to the mom’n’pop shop who served us.

Great breakfast in Guanajuato
Great breakfast in Guanajuato, nopales are in the second taco.

While the never-ending discussion with my friends at home had come to the conclusion that refried beans are strictly American and black beans are strictly Mexican, I was baffled when I had my first breakfast in Mexico. Chilaquiles served with refried beans on the side (and nowhere did I encounter black beans on my voyage). My friend pointed out that black beans are more seen in the South, whereas other areas serve pinto and refried beans (and laughed at my initial thought of these being American).

Elote - tasty and easy to eat
Elote – tasty and easy to eat

To my amusement, we went out to grab some Elote every once so often, but not the corn on the cob variation known to me before. The corn was carefully scraped from the cob, collected in a cup, mixed with cream (not mayo), and then topped with cheese and chili. I was then handed a spoon so that I could stuff my face with this variation of esquitas. My friend pointed out that eating the corn directly from the cob turns out to be far too messy, so that’s why the stores decided to serve it in a cup. Makes sense, eh?

Elote served with chili chips (of course, how could it else be?)
Elote served with chili chips (of course, how could it else be?)

Overall, after providing you with this list, Mexican food might seem like one of the unhealthiest food options out there (heck , alone those 20 tortillas a day should make your body look like a bloated ship). But honestly, I’ve found some great options because Mexico also provides the entire country (and the US) with fresh fruits and veggies. Having an avocado presented on a silver plate together with oranges, mangoes, and papayas (smell bad, taste good) is a pretty nice morning routine. I’m sure not everyone eats this way in Mexico, but my friends kinda did (or at least their parents let them). Groceries were cheap compared to the US (even after converting them it into local wages). Of course tortilla and alcohol were even cheaper, but let’s put that aside.

This plate summarizes traditional Jaliscan cuisine in one glance
This plate summarizes traditional Jaliscan cuisine in one glance

A Mexican Foodie Post (Part I)

breakfast in guanajuato

Mrmph! Flautas, micheladas, enchiladas, guacomoles, tortas…!

I know my Mexican Adventure has been a while ago, but I couldn’t resist not letting you in on all of the delicious food I tried while down there. Mexican food is spicy, repetitive, and experimental at best. Those three points pretty much summarize my entire foodie experience, but of course there is so much more to it.

You see, Mexicans cannot be without their two main ingredients: Tortilla and Chile. I don’t know what people with a gluten allergy do if they are ever trapped in that country but I can tell you that it is a challenge to have any sort of allergy in Mexico. It is also very rare to encounter vegetarians, as my friends pointed out from day one (I am one of those rare people who didn’t know better). Most food truly consisted of chicken, pork or other kinds of meat and constantly requesting to have a substitute mixed in or rather getting a veggie version raised a few eye brows at first and then simply became annoying. You would assume that with all the vegetables going on in that country, vegetarians shouldn’t have no problem whatsoever. Unfortunately, most restaurants consider these vegetables more of a side order than a main meal.

Now, where to start in describing my typical food experience? Perhaps with the most obvious…

1) Tortillas
The main substance of Mexican food, as you all know by now. Tortillas come in all sizes and forms. They can be made of flour or corn (maiz), they can be fried or simply baked. They can be served grande when wrapped around a burrito or tiny, tiny small when processed into chips. I thought after seeing a few variations in Tex-Mex places in the US, I’ve seen them all, but that is not true. After a few days in the country, I’ve basically seen them in every way possible: Tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, flautas, chilaquiles… A quesadilla is a common breakfast, by the way. Just cheese, tortilla, and a delicious sauce.

Chilaquiles for breafast served with refried beans on the side
Chilaquiles for breafast served with refried beans on the side

Chilaquiles are more like a morning nacho, but much better. Fried tortilla chips with either mole sauce or different types of salsa, served warm. And flautas are mini-enchiladas, crisply fried and rolled up to preserve all the ingredients inside.

Traditional flautas served in Jalisco
Traditional flautas served in Jalisco

2) Drinks
Well, beer is good. Or even better: Micheladas! It took me a week to discover these. My friend also pointed out that they come with lemon NOT lime (as American places serve them), because lime is considered too bitter for this type of drink. Oh, and the real joy comes when adding clamato (a clam-like sauce) to the Michelada. This makes for one of the most exotic-tasting beers I’ve had so far (of course it’s spicier and saltier, too).

Michelada con clamato - dark perfection!
Michelada con clamato – dark perfection!

Aside from these two beverages, hard liqueur is big. Tequila, of course, what else could it be? Not always as a shot though (unlike college kids do throughout the world). Moreover mixed with a sweet soda or taken in slowly (like a good vodka).

Tequila poured into fruit water
Tequila poured into fruit water

Margaritas are actually not Mexican, at least my friend does not believe so. According to her, they originated in America but have been warmly welcomed in Mexico and kept as a standard on most menus (they are also easily prepared since Tequila is found in every restaurant). Researching the history of Margaritas has proven to be rather difficult, so let’s leave it at that.

3) Chili
Mexicans LOVE their chili. They put it on EVERYTHING. Even their ice cream (nothing like shaved ice with a few drops of chili sauce on top). Indeed, my stomach had a really hard time adjusting to the constant spiciness of practically every single food out there. Not that I mind chili, but my body did (it was all burnt out after this vacation). After a week into my trip I was experiencing severe cramps and other unpleasant side effects. Unfortunately, my stomach never really stabilized until after I came back. So the next time I go, I really have to take it easy when ordering food in Mexico. However, it is barely avoidable, just to be fair. Mexicans certainly put a fair amount of spices in their food, but there are always more added spices on the table to pepper up your plate. When I tried my first salsa in Mexico, I dropped my chip as my tongue was burning. Nothing I’ve tasted so far compares to Mexican spices, absolutely nothing.

Hello, I am a chili ice cream. For real?!
Hello, I am a chili ice cream. For real?!

4) Tortas
Here is one of my most favorite (and also cheapest!) foods I had in Guadalajara. Although tortas exist in the US, they are about 3 times as much. I kid you not! An average torta in Mexico costs perhaps around 35 pesos ($2.50). The last time I checked, I saw them sold for $8 in the restaurant around the corner.

Well, bitterness aside, tortas are simply amazing. I’m sure they are not healthy, either, but who cares about that. Huge sammiches which soft cheese, ham, a few peppers and white (baguette) bread – yum. Perfect instant breakfast, and that’s when you should be buying these anyways. Because when I once tried to get a torta at 3 PM, the place didn’t sell them anymore (a certain quantity is made fresh in the morning and sold off until noon). To top it all off, Guadalajara offers Tortas Ahogadas (drowned or flooded sandwiches).

"Drowned" shrimp torta for breakfast - simply the best!
“Drowned” shrimp torta for breakfast – simply the best!

Now this is truly the best variation I’ve found of tortas so far. And as a seafood lover, our place served an excellent shrimp-filled breakfast option drowned in delicious tomato sauce. I cannot describe how well all of this tasted. I hope the picture says it all!

[to be continued in Part II, now off to get some overpriced tortas!]

Why Photography Was so Challenging in Mexico

See those speakers in the background...?
See those speakers in the background…?

One of the real challenges during my recent trip was photography itself (well, taken the language barrier aside). I had been prepared to take some awesome shots of traditional Mexican costumes, some exciting snaps of people on the streets, and of course breath-taking pictures of landscapes, beautiful colors of the houses and what not. But after a few days of being there I had re-evaluate my goals: Being a photographer in Mexico would be much more challenging than this!

The first “problem” I encountered was when my camera of choice simply gave up about a week before I was supposed to go on the trip. Yup, that’s right, the Canon T3i wouldn’t work and after bringing it into a repair store the only option was to send it to Canon since it was still under warranty – luckily.
Anyone who has done this before knows that it takes about 2 weeks until they return it so I was quite bummed about not being able to use it. Luckily I had a backup camera in my old but faithful Canon XT, which has around 8 megapixels (a crushing fall from the previous 18 megapixels) but has proven to be quite solid over time. The only problem with it was that the screen was a bit small and didn’t give much feedback on how a picture turned out.

Now, getting used to the new old gear took some time by itself but eventually I had more troubles adjusting to the light conditions than anything.

Guadalajara lies in a dry climate, meaning humidity was not so much of an issue. What did indeed comprise a problem was the glaring sun coming down at almost every time of day except for sunset. That’s right, even when avoiding those all-so-dreaded times between noon and 3 PM, I still had to fight the intense sunlight at 6 o’clock at night. The result? Washed out images, harsh shadows, and an unflattering picture in altogether. Boy, was I disappointed in the first few days!

Great motive but can you see a sky?!
Great motive but can you see a sky?!

After traveling to Guanajuato and San Miguel, I was able to shoot early in the morning or late at night. But another problem followed immediately: How is it possible to enjoy your traveling when you are constantly worrying about getting or missing that one shot? It is not possible!

So I had to set my priorities straight: I would either enjoy a great trip or I had to focus most of my energy on shooting. In both cities I devoted my time to walking around for one hour a day by myself and just seeing life as was in both locations. This also meant that I had to get up earlier than the other girls or miss out on an opportunity of dining with them. It did have advantages. Having to wait on them or them having to wait on me seemed more nerve-wrecking than setting my own pace and shooting as I went along. So in this case it worked out fine. In Guadalajara not so much, as I was always with one of my friends who were my designated tour guides.

Nothing special about this one
Nothing special about this one

A fourth problem was simply the tourist part: How to shoot candid images of Mexico’s everyday life if I am only traveling to tourist sites? This is why most of my images turned out to be from well-known landmarks and parts everyone is familiar with. The approach also goes hand in hand with a sense of comfort and awareness. Mexico is not the safest country in the world. Hence, going to poorer neighborhoods could prove to be dangerous (a risk neither my friends nor I were willing to take).

Severely cropped image of a girl celebrating her 15 years.
Severely cropped image of a girl celebrating her 15 years.

Then of course there was the language barrier and not knowing if I was able to take a picture of this activity or that person without being called out or having my camera destroyed. When getting this shot from a basket weaver in Tlaquepaque, I asked the lady beforehand. She said I was only allowed to if I were to buy one of her items. I ended up purchasing a wooden spoon for 5 pesos and snapped this image of her, not too bad after all.

5 pesos picture
5 pesos picture

Between gauging if this site was too touristy but another site was too dangerous, it also turned out to be pretty hard to enjoy myself with the camera challenges in my head. After noticing how stressed out I became and how this influenced my friend’s attitude as well (no one wants to get crap for showing a tourist around, simply put), I decided to give it a break and just shoot what came in my way.
And some night pictures did indeed turn out quite well. But Mexico also seems to have a short sunset and blue-hour-sky, so be prepared for this if you ever plan on getting cityscapes at night.

Night photography in Guanajuato
Night photography in Guanajuato

Overall, I think I made the best of my trip and I am very grateful for having had two awesome tour guides (as in friends) who were very patient in showing me around.

Luckily I didn’t have the problem my friend fought with in Tulum: His camera fogged up entirely because of the high humidity in the South of Mexico. So, unlike him, I was still able to get quite a few shots while he had to simply give up after his first day. I feel for everyone who has to go through this fail!

Martes de Luchas : Mexican Wrestling at the Arena Coliseo

luchas guy flying over fighters in ring

Of all the things I’d wanted to do in Mexico, there was one thing I never expected to see: Las Luchas! Mexican wrestling from its finest. I didn’t even know it existed until my friend told me about it. On one of those few overcast days we were experiencing, she shook her head and said: “You know that the Luchas are only on Tuesdays, right? I think we should try to go see a match before you leave!”
Luchas, really? The day before her cousin had made fun of us for being among one of the few females who will have macho comments thrown at them when they stand up and want to walk to the toilet. “Yes, it can be brutal,” he exclaimed, “but moreover you will have a great time!” Not without smirking and leaving the rest up to our imaginations.

So on the Martes de Luchas (Luchas Tuesday) we were on our way to Guadalajara, already stuck in a traffic jam. We were supposed to get to a bar right no time, and from there a bus was scheduled to take us to the Arena Coliseo. After arriving a bit late, we were able to relax because thanks to a rain downpour (one of those sudden storms that happen in a subtropical climate) we ended up being on time when catching the bus. Santos Diablitos offers Martes de Luchas every week. We paid the bar 150 pesos in total ($11), which is a true bargain considering the price included the transportation to the match, the match itself, and then a free drink at the end of the night.

Our bus was jam packed with mostly Mexican adventurous chicas and chicos and even three German guys (who seemed completely out of place). A DJ was mixing some music and everyone was in an excellent mood, dancing while we were taking with every curve possible. We were able to get a few shots of Tequila for the expensive price of almost ten bucks before the bus arrived at our destination. There, one of our friends bought a Luchas mask (in pink, since she is a girl) and we took turns posing in that mask for some badass pictures.

luchas mask

Then the most absurd game I’ve ever seen started: The Luchas! I don’t know too much about wrestling, frankly. But the Luchas were one of a kind.

luchas game 1

We saw 4 different matches, and it started off with 2 teams which must have counted towards the lightweight class. Luchadores come in groups of 2 – 4 I believe, and in this round there were teams of 2 luchadores each. The wrestlers came up, were introduced and started beating each other up almost immediately. One of them performed some great aerial moves, which involved climbing up on top of the ring and jumping onto his opponent’s back. Once one luchador went down, he left the ring and his team member took over. The bizarre part was that the good team always seemed to lose in the beginning. Then they were beat up and made fun of by the bad team. Oh yes, there are players who are considered good and then players who are considered bad. The audience was given enough opportunity to loudly booh the losers. But pretty much out of nowhere the losing team made a thrilling comeback and beat the bad ones – at the end of the match.

Guy flying over luchadores' heads
Guy flying over luchadores’ heads
Wrestler being beat up outside of ring
Wrestler being beat up outside of ring

luchadores outside of ring

The third team involved women luchadores, about 3 girls on each team. One team had a particularly chubby woman and she was mocked by the winning team until somehow she managed to pull out and get her confidence back. So basically the two fighters are wrestling, as soon as someone slips out of the ring, another team member takes over. If someone is losing, the entire team gets to that person, and you can see up to three people beating the one “loser”.

The last match involved a few older guys. I would say one was around 60 and their opponents must have been 40 years and up. This one remained inconclusive, as the bad guys ended up winning (which only happened once over the course of the evening). The good guys were pissed and followed the bad guys out, not sure if further fighting went on behind the scenes.

Girl luchas
Girl luchas

luchas girl fighter in cat mask

girl figher

A few times during the match, the luchadores were hauled out of the ring and right into the audience. I feel sorry for the couple they always landed on but I guess if you sit in the front row you have to expect these things to happen. I cannot tell you how much of the Luchas was good acting and how much was actual wrestling. To me it seemed like an absurd showcase of guys (and girls) who were trying to give the audience the best show possible.

The Luchas masks and the different colors of it are an important component of the game. The losers had to take theirs off; this was seen as humiliation and verification of their loss.

Of course hot chicas were an important part, too. They were the ones holding up signs with the wrestlers names once a match was announced. The cameraman made sure to include many takes of scarcely dressed stripper-like show girls. But the highlight was certainly a lost-looking Chinese Mexican guy who kept flicking the players off. He was simply standing next to the ring, beneath the showgirls, and showing some agitated behavior. At some point the entire audience was making fun of him. Maybe he was on drugs, perhaps he was only drunk. Either way, a sight not to be forgotten.

hot girls during luchas

Yes, the Luchas were a lot of fun. And even though another girl and I had to use the restroom at some point, we managed to sneak past almost every guy without him yelling a few obscenities at us.

Then, the bus ride back: A full 1 ½ hours of dancing and listening to music while everyone started wondering why it took us so long for a 20 minute ride. Turns out that the bus was simply riding in circles through the entire city because that was part of their program: Providing a party for us. How nice! After 20 minutes most of us were exhausted and a bit tired of the constant beats ringing in our ears. I managed to sit for most of the time but my friends were shaken through every time we turned a corner. Not too stable, those buses.

Party Bus - way too long
Party Bus – way too long

We redeemed our one free drink at the bar afterwards and made sure to get the heck out of there. Las Luchas – an experience of a kind!

Visiting a Paradise of Drunkenness: Tequila!

Tequila Agave fields


Ever wonder where Tequila is from?
It’s from a town 40 miles from Guadalajara. Coincidentally, this town itself is called Tequila. Any alcohol that comes from this place has the typical name some of us may associate with wild parties, old student days, and puking over a toilet. Any alcohol that is similar but does not come from here cannot be called Tequila (hence so many different other types, such as Patron).

Tequila is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it attracts many tourists each year. This was indeed the only spot where I ran across fellow Germans and some Argentinian, French, and Dutch people. My friend and I took a bus from a hotel (after waiting 45 minutes, once again, punctuality is not seen as too important in Mexico). While on the bus, our tour guide mainly spoke Spanish, explaining a bit of the landscape and where we were going. She also spoke English after her Spanish introduction, but it was disguised in such a thick accent, I was glad I was able to understand a few of her Spanish words rather than being frustrated with her foreign language skills.

Agave fields in Tequila

Our first stop was an agave field. A gorgeous view came into sight as soon as the bus pulled up. Of course this part of Mexico is breathtaking no matter what, but nothing tops the blue plants surrounded by distant mountains and sugary white clouds in the sky. While taking in this panorama, we were introduced to el jimador Ismael. A jimador is a farmer that specializes in choosing and cultivating the blue agave plant. He showed us how to correctly slice these agave plants open. Of course it looked a thousand times more professional the way he did it with his sombrero covering his head and ax swinging over his body. After chopping up one plant, we were able to pose with his ax and the agave plant for a great picture. Mine looked goofy, but my friend posed well (she’s had practice, since she regularly brings tourists to this area). Ismael also made sure to give us a tiny bit of one of the richest body creams I’ve experienced. Made from the agave plant, it took quite a while to soak into our skins. I guess if you are out in the fields like that all day long, you need some extra precautions taken for skin care.

El Jimador Ismael
El Jimador Ismael
Awkward pose!
Awkward pose!

Our second stop was Tequila, the town itself. Here we were given an hour time to try our first margarita for the day. Our total bus tour price was 300 pesos ($23), this included a few coupons. One was for the margarita; another was a discount for our food. While trying our first drink, we met a nice girl from Monterrey, who was traveling by herself. We kept her company for the rest of the day, as we all know how awkward it can be to travel alone sometimes.

At first we were shown a short movie about our whereabouts and then we took the factory tour itself. Tours were divided among Spanish and English speakers (and I am glad they were, this time no funny accents, either). A nice guide told us all about the history of Tequila. He then gave us a juicy slice of the agave plant, wrenched in sugar. It smelled awful but tasted great. Tequila is made from agave so that was one of the first steps of fermentation. After trying a Tequila that had 55 percent of alcohol (which really tasted yucky, no one wanted to have another shot glass after their first one), we were then led into the final hall. Here we were able to see what the different types of Tequilas looked like: The silver one (also called blanco as in “white”) takes the least amount of time and is ready in less than 2 months of aging. The golden one takes anywhere from 2 months to 1 year. And the exquisite brown Tequila has the longest aging process, as it takes 1 to 3 years to ripen.

Our hairnetted tour guide
Our hairnetted tour guide
Tequila barrels
Tequila barrels

The entire tour took perhaps an hour. Unfortunately no pictures allowed, so no image insights here.
However, it was interesting to take in the factory and work process. Our tour guide also pointed out that most people drink Tequila wrong: Only a few types are meant for mixing and only a few are designated to drink neat. Which one, depends on the amount of alcohol volume in it.

After the tour we were able to get two tequilas for free in addition to another margarita. As you can tell, a lot of drinking was going on that day. Around 2 PM we got hungry and decided to get our coupon’s worth in a nearby restaurant. While sitting down, a show started just next to us. I guess we were at the right place to the right time. First, the dancers dressed up like Native Mexicans and performed an Indian tribe dance. Then a father and son showed a traditional cockfight. No bloody roosters, here, luckily. The same performer also swung his lasso around. Finally the show ended in a nice flamenco dance.

Rooster fight
Rooster fight

Tequila performance

Flamenco
Flamenco

Tequila was among one of the most fun adventures I had, albeit pretty touristy, I have to admit. Now every time someone tries to sell me crappy Tequila at a bar, I have to cringe and think back at the time I was in the city of cities (at least in this aspect). If you are in the area, it is certainly a must see. I also heard that the 1500-pesos-train ride ($113) is probably not worth it and that drinks are watered down to the point they only contain a few percent of alcohol. The bus tour, on the contrary, was pretty legit and we spent a decent amount of time in the town itself.

Guadalajara: The Pearl of the West

Guadalajara catedral

Guadalajara is the second biggest city in Mexico (right behind the country’s capital: Mexico City). Yup, and you know what? It doesn’t get credit for that, at least not from people who visit Mexico, which is kinda disappointing. When I told my friends where I was going, they at first didn’t know where that city was. “Do they have a beach?” I was frequently asked, since most Westerners need a beach to relax, especially when they go to Mexico.
No beach here, and aside from Ajijic, it isn’t really close to the water either. True, Puerto Vallarta is only a 4-hour-drive away. Together with other great cities, too (such as Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende). But by itself, this town has a lot to offer, especially for people who are interested in culture and arts.

I do have to say that it is best if you own a car or know someone who does. “What? I would never recommend public transport!” my friend cried out when I suggested to her to go easier on her responsibility of driving me around and telling me where the next bus station was. And sure enough, after seeing the overcrowded “chicken” buses on our way into the city, I wasn’t too eager, after all.
In total, I spent a good 2 weeks in Mexico, and my main stay was close to Guadalajara. So over the course of 10 days I got to see quite a bit. My first trip involved taking the tourist bus with my friend.

“El Tapatio takes you to all the old sites worth seeing. We could do the same in my car but then I wouldn’t know what to say about the buildings!” my friend announced when we were planning our few days together. So our first trip involved taking the local tour bus. After parking at a mall, we actually waited a full 1 ½ hours until El Tapatio showed up. Even after calling the agency every 20 minutes, we got the same answer: “You just missed the bus, the next one will pick you up in 30 minutes,” an impatient female voice answered our question. At first we thought we were turning crazy. “We missed it? How could we have missed it?” we kept questioning ourselves. And then, finally, the red, two-story bus came raging down the busy road. Once we saw it, we knew there was no way we could have missed the London-type bus, not even from a mile away. So be aware that Mexican tours are not very… well, punctual, at least not this one.

After paying our 120 pesos ($9) for a ride on the exotic Tapatio tour, I was handed a German headset (yes, they had quite a few languages), and we drove past some of the landmarks in the city. The Minerva, a warrior woman with a harpoon surrounded by a fountain, one of the city’s symbol, was our first stop. Then the University of Guadalajara and a street in which you can see the oldest buildings in town. We stopped at the Plaza de la Liberacion and went to check out the Catedral. In it, you will find a child’s mummy of a young girl, sent here in 1786. The girl’s remnants are said to stem from the third century and her story is that she died while protecting her virginity. The Cathedral also hosts many other things, such as old Roman-Catholic statues, a white Altar, and beautiful ornaments.

Girl mummy
Girl mummy

The church tends to attract many beggars and street kids, who try to pin a heart-shaped sticker onto your arm and then demand money. I once didn’t even notice that a girl had done so and was vehemently telling her that I didn’t have any money before I noticed she just wanted to retrieve the pink heart from my arm. It is tough to say no, especially to the young ones, but in the end we all know that the money won’t go directly to the kids but rather their parents. My friend also pointed out that it would be better to give them food than any valuables, but we had neither with us that day.

Street Art
Street Art

While walking through the city, we stumbled across a few street artists here and there, one of which was drawing a woman’s eye onto the pavement. After a while, we decided to take advantage of our tour ticket. It was valid all day long and went to Tlaquepaque and Zapopan at no additional cost. Since it was 4PM, we could only do either and opted for Zapopan, which wasn’t necessarily on our list in the following days. Our ride there was already adventurous: The bus was too tall to account for all the trees and branches standing in its way and at times the entire crew had to duck heads to avoid being hit in the head by yet another tree branch.

The Tapatio bus took us past a rather hideous neighborhood and my friend was already contemplating about why they would even do that, when we stopped in front of the zoo and were able to check out parts of it from high above. We then rode past some more street beggars at the Olympic stadium, which hosted the Pan American Games in 2011. When reaching Zapopan, I was barely able to get a picture of one of the most beautiful churches I’d seen on my entire trip. The bus raged past it, turned, then drove past it again, stopped briefly to let a few tourists in, and then transported us back to Guadalajara. On this tour, there was no translation available, so I was dependent upon my Spanish-speaking friend to translate the few bits and pieces she could make out coming from the speaker.

Sombreros
Sombreros

Luckily, I was able to check out more sights in Guadalajara during my second week. Another friend brought me here on Tuesday. Tuesday equals free days for museums. We first went inside the Teatro Degollado. Here again I was lucky to be with a local as she was able to convince the doorman to let us in, even though there was a rehearsal going on inside. We snuck in, checked out the beautiful ceiling, and snuck back out. My next stop was a sombrero store, where I was able to acquire a traditional Mexican sombrero for only 31 pesos ($2). We then went on to the local market and observed a salesperson with baby iguanas.

Iguanas
Iguanas
Leading towards the Hospicio Cabanas
Leading towards the Hospicio Cabanas

The Cabanas Cultural Institute was a highlight on that day: Formerly used as an orphanage, it was turned into an art institute with beautiful paintings by Orozco on the walls and ceilings. A beautiful fountain leads towards it and on that particular day an artist was displaying automobile-related works (such as a tires piled on top of each other). It is certainly worth checking out on the free Tuesdays. More paintings by Orozco can be seen in the Government Palace, which was also free to get in. It was here that we saw a traditional Parliament room, still in use sometimes. The entire history of Jalisco’s governors together with their portraits are displayed in the palace. Together with this fancy assortment of old Tequila bottles. Since a trip to Tequila was planned the following day, I was excited to snap pictures of these.

Orozco drawing at the Palace
Orozco drawing at the Palace
Government Palace
Government Palace
Tequila bottles
Tequila bottles

Another great thing about Guadalajara are their car-free Sunday mornings. From Sunday morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, cars are not allowed to drive, starting from the Minerva towards the downtown area. My friend, her sister and I checked it out on one of my last days here. It was great to see so many happy faces riding their bikes, skateboards, or simply walking down the car-deserted streets of the city. I don’t know why it only lasts until 2PM, but they have it every week, which is a good thing.

Guadalajara – the Pearl of the West – has not failed to impress me during the time I spent close to Jalisco’s capital. What really astonished me was that I seldom saw any English-speaking tourists, but more so from other states in Mexico. Or rather, my friend pointed out to me that this and that person had a different accent (Ugh, they speak ugly in Mexico City!), of course I myself would never be able to tell with my sparse Spanish knowledge. I don’t know if this is true throughout most of Mexico, but it was rather nice to be close-up to the country’s culture without too much interference from other cultures. Of course you are always treated like a guera (a white person; and sometimes like a gringa, too) and ripped off when purchasing goods on the local market but it didn’t bother me as much as it should have. If that is the trade-off I get for authenticity, I am willing to take it.

San Miguel de Allende: Home to the Pink Castle (El Castillo Rosado)

Market Place
Market Place

Part two of our Weekend Trip was the town of San Miguel de Allende. Only one hour by bus from Guanajuato, and in the same state, it spreads out over a hill-like area. Once we stepped foot into San Miguel, I was in love. Unlike Guanajuato, the vibes were all right here!

The town is certainly more touristy. And even though it has slightly less people living here than in Guanajuato, the streets are certainly busier. Tourists come alive in this place, and it is more populated thanks to people visiting mostly from America, Canada, and many more countries.

San Miguel was gorgeous during the evening hours when we arrived. After checking into our hostel, this time with more visitors in the lobby than in our other one, we set out to explore the town (by foot, of course). Our location was in the middle of the busy downtown area, so we strolled along, stopping here and there to compare restaurant prices. Not being satisfied with the first street, we turned corners and were facing a grand market area, which is probably where most of San Miguel’s action goes down, period. Among local ice cream carts, street musicians, and gift vendors, I finally found what I had missed out on in the week before: Mariachi! Albeit not totally local, since they stem from the state of Jalisco, a group of elderly men was performing in yellow costumes and having a lot of fun by singing as loud as they could.

Blurry picture of my first Mariachi
Blurry picture of my first Mariachi
Church close to the market
Church close to the market

Cobble-stoned streets, ugly masks in front of night clubs, drunk people tumbling around downtown – we were certainly ready for another party night. After having dinner and getting dressed back at our hostel we decided that 11 PM was a decent time to start off with a rooftop bar. And the bar was awesome except for the fact that they didn’t have enough room for 4 girlies… Say what? Instead, we went to a neighboring rooftop, less populated, with a DJ and an older crowd (think 40 years and up) and I became addicted to Micheladas after having my first one here. Well, one hour in, and we are starting to feel like dancing so we set off for a night club. El Grito had a hideous mask outside of the club (it translates into “The Scream”), but we got in in no time. And were among a crowd of mostly teenage early twens a ton of people! So many, actually, that my friend got annoyed with being pushed out of the way every three seconds by yet another disrespectful Mexican guy who just wanted to demonstrate his power. 30 minutes later, we were back on the streets and headed to the rooftop bar of our choice (yes, the same one that didn’t have room for us earlier). Here we met my friend’s cousin and her group. After a quick midnight meal (or early morning snack), we headed on to a less crowded night club. While we did pay a cover for our first one, this one was free. The DJ played Mexican hit songs, mostly Molotov rock. Overall, I have to say that Mexican club music resembles music you would hear all over the world plus some native tunes in between. At 5 AM we called it a night and finally went to sleep off our exhaustion.

Night View
Night View

Sunday, our last day of this lovely Weekend Trip: I parted from the other three girlies, who bought a lot of Tortas (Mexican sammiches, so great!) for breakfast, and I made the mistake to buy a bagel, which ended up tasting like cardboard (and being completely overpriced). While the others were probably wandering around on their own, I set off to go up and downhill, until I felt I was almost lost. The further away I went from the crazy busy market place, the more beautiful the town became. Unlike Guanajuato, the streets were totally walkable here and I didn’t have to worry of being run over by a mad cab driver. Passing the market place once more, a horse was being lead around for people to sit on and take pictures together with a Mexican dressed up as a Cowboy. Or as Karla put it: A typical Charro. Because Mexican cowboys look a teeny bit different than American ones, do.
And while we are at it: I also ran across lots of Cowboy errr Charro boots, since the state of Guanajuato is known for making the best shoes in Mexico. Indeed, over half of the shoes produced in Mexico are made in Léon, which is not too far from San Miguel.

El Charro with his horse....
El Charro with his horse….
... and some charro boots.
… and some charro boots.

Anyhow, when I almost got lost, I asked a girl where the pink castle was. You know, that Disney-like building, that is the landmark of the city. She didn’t know what I was talking about at all, and I am sure my foreign accent wasn’t that bad. But then Karla told me later that it is actually a church (she just likes to call it a castle). So to get this straight for any future visitors: The church looks like a castle, is in the middle of the market place and is actually called La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. It was built in the 17th Century and it looks quite stunning!

La Parroquia
La Parroquia

In the afternoon, our stay was already over. We took off, this time with a cab that was punctual, and soon were on our way back to Guadalajara. Two days spent in a different state = two days over way too soon.

[For more pictures, go to: This is Mexico: San Miguel de Allende]

Weekend Trip: The Small Town of Guanajuato

Guanajuato

Guanuajuato is a 4-hour-bus ride away from Guadalajara. On my first weekend here, my friend Karla suggested that we check out a few towns worth visiting and our first stop was this quaint city located in the same named state. It is close to Leon and San Miguel de Allende, so we had a few options on what to see next. Our bus ride was with the well-known company ETN and, since we paid with a student discount, well worth the sometimes tedious ride (more on Mexican buses to come soon).

We arrived in Guanajuato at 8 PM at night, and by then the sun was slowly setting over the city as we wandered around the station, looking for a cab. The taxi drove us to our destination and took about 20 minutes at this time of day. Taxis are dirt cheap in both towns: Guanajuato and San Miguel. We ended up paying 40 pesos (equivalent to $3) for a ride that would have probably cost me 20 bucks in the US and way more Euros in Germany.

Hostel Life was both affordable and convenient. In the two hostels we stayed at I only paid $15 and $10 a day – so far the best deal I’ve ever gotten anywhere. When we arrived at our inn, we found out that we were the only guests for the night, so we had the bath, the terrace, and the kitchen area to ourselves. The place was called Hostel Al Son de Los Santos and conveniently located only 20 minutes by foot from the city center (and everywhere we had to go).

Our hostel
Our hostel
The awesome view from the terrace
The awesome view from the terrace

Since I was with 3 other girls, it took us quite some time to get ready for our first night out. We set off to explore the town by foot. The chicas were hungry and we decided to stop at a random (Mexican-owned) pizza place in town. I guess this was our first mistake for the night. The chili (nothing goes without chili in Mexico!) that the waiter gave us was so spicy that all of us had tears to our eyes and upset stomachs afterwards. Fine, the food was no bueno but perhaps the drinks would be decent, right?

After our not so successful meal we walked further into the town center and I came across the Teatro Juarez, which offers a beautiful sight at night when being well-lit. . It was built in 1903, more than 100 years ago, but it certainly looks older and has a lot of style. It still hosts shows, supposedly, and during the day it is a main hub for social entertainment and life with people sitting on its steps.

Teatro Juarez by night
Teatro Juarez by night

We ended up at a 4-story-bar, which looked promising from the outside. First, we went downstairs into the cellar and I took my first mescal shot ever. Sweet, but not too strong – a perfect mix for our sore stomachs. We then continued with drinks on the bar’s rooftop, which was almost abandoned except for a group of Mexican guys who were constantly seeking our attention. I ordered a Margarita and the others got a blue-colored drink. Both practically contained no alcohol and were certainly not worth the 60 pesos ($7) we ended up paying for them. My friend Karla was perplexed at how the bar she had gone to only a year ago was now deserted and unpopular, but after the drinks we had, we think we know the reason to that.

The drink was awful but made for a blue picture!
The drink was awful but made for a blue picture!

We didn’t feel in the mood to fool around with another bar, so we took off and wound up at a busy night club in Guanajuato. My night ended at around 2 with one of the chicas but the other two stayed out until 4 AM while rocking the dance floor.

The other day was yet another beautiful, sunny Saturday in Mexico. While wandering the streets at 10 AM, the markets were already in full swing, the tourists not yet awakened. One thing about Guanajuato is that the streets and sidewalks are… narrow! So narrow, indeed, that passing another person is not possible without stepping onto the street. Beware of cars speeding by, though. The entire experience reminded me of a typical town in Malta or Italy for that matter, only that the people spoke Spanish.

The narrow streets
The narrow streets

After a quick lunch in a mom and pop owned shop, we strolled along. The town was now fully awakened and we even saw the occasional tourist (who was lacking the night before). Attractions worth seeing are the University, which resembles a church from the outside but offers a beautiful façade. Guanajuato is known for its mummies but unfortunately we were running out of time, as we were there for one full day only. I did manage to snag this picture of a touristy mummy, which was fine with me.

After entering a traditional Mexican candy shop (coated nuts, caramelized coconut flakes, and many more goodies), we slowly made our way through town, taking in the sight of the yellow Basilica Colegiata and street vendors selling yet another must-have to visitors.

guanajuato mummy

Basilica Colegiate and a wedding couple
Basilica Colegiate and a wedding couple

Overall, I have to say that my impressions of Guanajuato were rather mixed. The town is poor and I got that vibe from wandering around by myself while trying to get a good picture. I also didn’t find a crazy amount of tourists, which usually is a good thing but in this case I just felt like an outsider and subject to prey. It was great to check this town out but I don’t think I would have much reason to return here. Except for the mummies, perhaps, I am still eager to see those!

Karla and her friends wanted to check out the Kissing Alley (Callejon del Beso), so we flocked over there and were in the middle of one of the busiest spots in town. Here, indeed, you had all of those foreign-speaking tourists wished for. You can find the story behind the balcony here, I consider it the Mexican version of Romea and Juliet (although with a different and unhappier ending).

The Kissing Alley
The Kissing Alley

After feeling like the ultimate tourist, we had no time for more sightseeing and we grabbed our bags from our hostel, waving Guanajuato farewell. It took us almost 30 minutes to hail down a cab. Since taxis are extremely cheap over there, many people use them and therefore most were occupied. We were a bit in a rush to get to our bus to San Miguel but luckily the bus was half an hour too late so we had to wait at the bus station. Our next destination? San Miguel de Allende, one of the most gorgeous towns on my visit to Mexico!

Some street vendors during the day
Some street vendors during the day
Us in front of Guanajuato's Universidad
Us in front of Guanajuato’s Universidad


[For more pictures on Guanajuato, go to This is Mexico: The Town of Guanajuato]

First Day: Exploring Chapala and Ajijic

It was hard to start somewhere and not get caught up in side notes on tourism, Mexican hospitality, food, and the hassles of photography. I’ve therefore decided to dedicate a separate post to each, still in the making. For now, it’s according to days and weeks. Salute!

Ajijic and Art
Ajijic and Art

Guadalajara is surrounded by mountains. Strong, tall, dark, green-forested mountains. And if you drive further out of the city towards the South, you will be able to explore a not-so-hidden gem of the Mexican state Jalisco: Chapala and the smaller town Ajijic. Both towns are located on the sweet rims of Lake Chapala. They are surrounded by the foresty and hilly area of the Mother Mountain (also named Sierra Madre en español).

While Chapala seems to be the commercially thriving and also uglier of the two, Ajijic displays the charm of a hidden village, despite its population of 15,000 citizens. Many tourists actually visit this area. Because of its consistent mild climate (a constant temperature in the 70ies F (25 C) year round, who wouldn’t love this?!), a few Canadians, Americans and perhaps also Europeans have rented or even bought houses in this area to spend their vacations at.

And indeed, while walking down the quaint and painted streets of town, we discovered a souvenir shop owned by an elderly American lady who is an artist at night and a seller of her art during day time. Despite a few English-speaking citizens, not too many Mexican people know English here. So I guess all those Canadians and Americans had to learn Spanish to get by. I believe I heard some harsh accents while rooming through other stores. Which by the way were all small, family-owned, and with tons of Mexican souvenirs or traditional items.

Street paintings
Street paintings

But first we checked out the gorgeous lake, which at that point was a little dried out since it hadn’t rained in a while. After the gorgeous lake and the escapade with a random donkey grassing in a field nearby, we went on to see one of the most colorful streets I have experienced. Every single shade was represented; pretty much anything but black and white. In addition to random street art and paintings found on almost every street corner. It makes out the flair of this town and it is hard to put in words. Yes, it might be touristy, but more of a hidden touristy, if you get what I mean. Not the open blank touristy of the bigger cities. Just imagine touristy mixed with people who live off of owning their business and you have your mental image.

My friend and I were entering a few stores with handmade Mexican clothes. Mexican traditional costumes are very colorful, as is about everything else in Mexico. She tried to convince me that some these pieces would look great on me but I wasn’t too sure after all. What is the sense of buying something and not wearing it after your vacation? “I’d rather just take a picture of it,” was my initial thought, but eventually I caved in and purchased a beautiful Mexican necklace at a market in Guadalajara.

Street dog
Street dog

Not on my first day, though. On this first day we strolled along and were followed by the occasional street dog or two. Yes, you have them in warmer countries, Mexico is not an exception to this rule. At one point we entered a restaurant and the waitress shrieked because of “our” dog. It took some effort and sho-shoing to get him away from us, but in the end he is probably better off in Ajijic than anywhere else.

Since it was the middle of the week, the restaurant did not play any Mariachi. Mariachi is the traditional music from the state of Jalisco, believed to have originated around Guadalajara. Although the noun seems to have French roots, the songs certainly do not. Back in the days (we are talking hundreds of years back), mariachi was used to vow a woman and to get her to marry the singer. Sort of like singing beneath a balcony, I guess, just the Mexican version of it. Anyhow, the music was lacking in flavor but the food made up for it. Fresh seafood and a hefty portion of chili – I couldn’t say no to this!

After the meal we drove around a bit and my friend pointed out a cute market selling huge hammocks, hand-made baskets, brooms, and other fun stuff. We then went on to the “Beverly Hills” of Ajijic, which is basically were the richer people live (in addition to many foreigners). It was here that thin and unhealthy-looking horses were kept so that passerbys could ride around in a circle on them for a small fee. I wasn’t thrilled, neither was my friend, and we went on.

Spa view
Spa view

Since I was with locals, they knew all the cool places. Our next and last stop was up the hill near Chapala towards a spa called Monte Coxala Spa. If I ever were to get a massage in Mexico, this would be the spot! It has fake little Mayan stones all over the territory, artificial hot springs, and a gorgeous panorama overlooking the entire lake and mountains in the distance! We stopped by for a coffee and dessert, tried to wander around the premises, until someone told us we needed to be spa guests, and then left after an hour or so. I believe you actually cannot just enter the security gates without a good reason, but my friend knew a few people who lived in the area, so we were good to go. It is also here that a few (and I am sure expensive) weddings are held just because of the stunning view and the nice reception area.

Restaurant bliss
Restaurant bliss

While wandering around, we happened to run into a naked Mexican dog – the first time I ever saw such a creature. The poor thing was shaking as it seemed scared of us but the owner told us we could pet it and pick it up.

The Mexican dog
The Mexican dog

Ajijic and Chapala – a great first day to start the authentic Mexican adventure.

[For more pictures on Ajijic, go to: This is Mexico: Ajijic and Lake Chapala]

Mexico – Ahhh, Where Should I Start?

Coming back to New York has been not so … great. I’ve been here for less than 72 hours and have already gone through a financial nightmare, a fight with my love, and arguments with some unsupportive friends. Ah yes, a weird welcome to being back in New York. A city I didn’t really miss while gone.

While less than 3 days has somehow changed my initially good mood, some great memories of my trip remain in the back of my head. And a strong sense of reassurance that somewhere out there I can count on my two good Mexican chicas who helped me go through the worst and best in the past 2 weeks.

This is not a whiny post. This is a culture shock post. And a travel post: From Ajijic over Guanojuato and San Miguel to Guadalajara, from Tlaquepaque to Tequila – I’ve seen a crazy amount of this wide, vast country in only 14 days. I’ve been forced outside of my comfort zone because comfort can only be found when there is no adventure. I’ve improved my Spanish because in this part of the country no one spoke English. I’ve also been surprised at the warmth and welcoming attitude of people I hardly knew. And dumbfounded when finding out that Mexico is among one of the happiest country in the worlds.

How can a nation with so much poverty be among one of the most satisfied? 80 percent of Mexicans live in poverty. A middle class basically does not exist. And yet, you see smiling folks on the streets, people who really want to help YOU (as a foreigner, an outsider), and individuals who struggle every day to get by but keep their spirits up. A slap in the face to our industrialized countries who could cut a fair slice from this developing country and its attitude.

So yes, Mexico – where do I start? I will ponder over the weekend and have some new posts for you next week! Until then, hasta luego! Enjoy the end of the week!

Is this what your weekend will look like?
Is this what your weekend will look like?