TLAXCALA: A WONDERFUL DISCOVERY
Just five to six hours from Oaxaca city, in the mountains above Puebla, is the smallest state in Mexico: Tlaxcala. Like Oaxaca, the capital city has the same name; and unlike Oaxaca, where he owned a land grant but never actually lived, Cortez had a house in Tlaxcala. There are a great many similarities, aside from the weather (cooler) and the smaller number of gringos. The Zócalo is as charming, the buildings have a “colonial” look and feel, the culture scene is driven by the state University, there are sidewalk cafés. The only downside is the traffic flowing on three sides of the square. There is no graffiti on the buildings, and all that are on the plaza are recently painted. There is a big project going on to reclaim the magnificent murals in the government palace, all depicting indigenous themes; and the “new” city government building contains lovely gardens, and has an open feel to it that makes the city hall in Oaxaca look shamefully shabby by comparison.
The Zócalo in Tlaxcala. The thing that struck us about this square was how "finished" it was: no bare patches, no untrimmed growth.
We stayed at “Posada Mary”, a VERY basic motel with a concomitant low price of 100 pesos per night. It was OK, but next time we'll probably go for one of the more “intermediate” hostelries. We looked for the vegetarian restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet, but it was no longer there. Instead, we ate two meals – a comida and a breakfast – at the Zócalo. Dinner at the Jardín Plaza, where the comida corrida was 45 pesos, and included a choice of rice or (not spaghetti!) ratatouille, and main dishes like chicken cordon bleu and pork chops in chilpotle sauce; and dinner rolls were served. Breakfast at the Restaurant Portale included both juice AND fruit, at prices slightly lower than Oaxaca. Both Diana and I were impressed with the “upscale” ambiance of Tlaxcala. We are definitely going back to do more exploring; one sleepover just wasn't enough.
Getting to Tlaxcala from Puebla can be a painful experience, especially if you are driving you own car: the topes are vicious, numerous, and interspersed with sections of roadway often spotted with potholes. We discovered that there is a “back door” that comes in from the northeast that is much more user friendly.
The state government building occupies one side of the Zócalo, which is blocked off from traffic. We saw no demos while we were there.
Braving the bad pavement between Puebla and Tlaxcala is the only way to get to the ruins at Cacaxtla. Surrounded by vast acreage, the mound after which the site was named - once climbed using wooden steps built for the purpose – offers magnificent views of the nearby peaks of Orizaba and Popocatepetl as well as the surrounding valleys. The hilltop is covered with an immense modern “roof” (it rains a lot, here).
In general, we were not overwhelmed by Cacaxtla as a ruin – but as a site, it is magnificent. The museum is small, the souvenir shop was not compelling, and the restaurant appeared to be about average.
The Tlaxcalans were allies of Cortez in the attack – and eventual sack – of Aztlán in the valley of Mexico. They weren't just Quislings: they genuinely hated the Aztecs, who had extracted heavy taxes in goods and slaves from them, and were pleased to be getting a little of their own back.
The Parroquia of the Virgin of Ocotlán reflects the rococo face of the government building. The inside is covered in gold leaf and intricate carvings, so much so that it is extremely difficult to get a good picture without using (prohibited) flash.
A very arduous six hour drive over the mountains separates Tlaxcala from the coastal plane city of Tuxpán - pronounced tooks-PAHN or toosh-PAHN, depending who you talk to - tucked away in the northern reaches of the long and narrow state of Veracrúz. A river town (it reminded us very strongly of Tuxtepec, on the Oaxaca / Veracrúz border to the south. There is a very nice river walk. Still, after Tlaxcala, the town felt a little seedy, and sort of second rate.
There is a church on the main street with Greek writing on the tower: a Greek Orthodox prayer. Oh, boy, we though, if there are enough Greeks here to have a church, maybe we can score some Greek food in town. When we asked, however, we were informed that the church is Roman Catholic, and that the writing was a gift, many years ago, from a convert.
CROSSING THE RUBICON
Driving through northeast Mexico is kind of like driving through Nebraska: endless miles of endless miles of flat and unvaried landscape. The road, generally good, has sections with potholes big enough to swallow a motorscooter or ruin a car. Some, particularly around the town of Aldama, north of Tampico, have to be being deliberately maintained in an advanced stage of deterioration. They couldn't be that bad by accident. Still, after eight hours behind the wheel, we made it to Matamoros just after dark.
This is a picture of the ruin at Cacaxtla. The ceramic figure at the very top of this Newsletter is displayed at the small but very nicely done museum on the site.
Matamoros would have been a nightmare without advice and mapping from subscriber Billye Timbes, and a very fortuitous meeting, just south of town:
We started noticing this Chevy “Scooter” with TELMEX markings, whose driver kept looking at us, not too far south of a detour near Matamoros. When we almost missed the turnoff back to the main road, the Chevy pulled up alongside us. “You're from Oaxaca?” he asked. We nodded yes.
”Me too” he said. “Follow me”. With a stop at a PEMEX station to get acquainted, our friend, who had been living in Matamoros for 25 years, led us right to the entrance to the international bridge. When we thanked him, he replied “I wouldn't want anyone to be able to say that one Oaxacan failed to come to the aid of another Oaxacan, no matter how far from home”.
First stop, Mexican Immigration. There, a cheerful and flawlessly polite official stamped our exit visas into our respective residence permit books. There was no customs check: another missed opportunity to abscond with a trunk full of antiquities…
At the U.S. customs and immigration check, we were greeted by a young, beefy ex-M.P. sort of guy with a very aloof but unthreatening golden retriever. We presented our passports, opened the trunk, declared our few bottles of wine and liqueur, and were directed up the road to the Texas tax authorities to buy our import stamps.
Driving through New Orleans, we unexpectedly came upon a parade, a phenomenon which our friend who lives there assured us is quite common. The Mardi Gras "crews" are often available for birthdays, weddings, church or neighborhood festivals, and New Orleanians love any excuse to strut. Note the apropos name on the banner...
Before driving on, I asked the G-man where I needed to go to get an import permit for our Tsuru. He immediately became very officious. “U.S. citizens aren't allowed to bring in Mexican cars”, he said: not true, as I had determined through assiduous research beforehand (I had asked traveling buddy Dan McWethy to check it out for me, and he had). “How long are you going to be in the country? Two weeks? And you'll be returning through Brownsville? You sure about that? Well, what the heck, why don't you just go ahead? You look like honest people. Oh, don't thank me, I'm just doing my duty”.
Oh, yeah? A junior scout, with the power to make on the spot assessments and confer exceptions? Gimme a break, o.k.? This guy just had no clue; no-one had ever told him what to do. But, far be it from me to turn down a free ride… Meanwhile, here we are, free roaming lawbreaking anarcho-gringo-Mexicanos con coche, and NOBODY knows we are here…
One of the many street performers busking for a living in New Orleans, this young woman joins a raft of jugglers, musicians, acrobats and sketch artists competing for tourist bucks. There is even a whole block of tarot readers and palmists on the north side of Jackson Square.
That night, we stayed in an all-American freeway motel outside of Brownsville on the Harlingen road: Hugebed, big screen TV with HBO, lots of towels and shampoo and soap, and a table and a recliner chair. To celebrate our successful crossing, and to complete our immersion into the American Experience, we went to Denny's for dinner…
Galveston is a town that lives on fishing and tourism, a combination that guarantees a plethora of good seafood dinners and slightly overpriced hotels, but nothing prepared us for the high price of internet. According to the tourism lady, there are only two cybercafes in town, and they charge $5 dollars for a half hour, which – after Mexico, where nobody charges more than a dollar an hour – struck us as exorbitant.
The highlight of our stay in Galveston was the way we left: by ferry. The Texas Department of Transportation runs a shuttle across Galveston bay, leaving every fifteen minutes, and the passage is free!
The capital of Cajun Country is all about music and food, both dear to our hearts, and we were fortunate enough to encounter copious quantities of both in one club. Randol's is an old institution, mostly patronized by local folks come to dance to Jambalaya, a band that is a Friday tradition. Unfortunately, the menu doesn't include jambalaya, even though the internet site they maintain claims that they provide it.
Randol's is a sort of throwback to an earlier era. Families, including children, dancing the two-step to melodic Acadian music, in a place that is well-lighted and clean made me look around for Ronald Reagan and Betty Furness.
After taking the back roads along the river, we ended up in the “suburb” of Harvey, a very urban, gritty place divided by an elevated freeway, on the other side of the Mississippi from New Orleans proper. We considered ourselves lucky to be there, as all the places we called for reservations from Galveston had been full for our first night. Unbeknownst to us, the Halloween weekend draws a huge number of freaks from all over the world, looking to mingle with “the Vampire” in Anne Rice's town on the most powerful night of the year for the “superhuman”.
Fortunately, there is a bus which stops just in front of our motel and ends up just outside the French Quarter, so we crossed the Charles de Gaulle bridge with no parking worries. The second night, a Sunday, we were able to move to a small motel near the center of New Orleans, which was both cheaper and quieter. During our stay, we rode the Charles Street trolley, saw the house and studio of Fats Domino, watched acrobats performing on the levee, ate Caesar salad and muffaleta, and caught a quartet of young jazz virtuosos at a club called Funky Butt, and a couple of sets at Preservation Hall.
Blues on the street. In a brief stroll around the night-time French Quarter, we counted a half dozen such offerings. Infamous - and to me, rude and tedious - Bourbon Street holds little of charm, but once you get off it and away from the tawdry, crowded drunken thoroughfare there are many delights to be encountered.
On Sunday, we had breakfast at Anita's on Tulane Street. Anita's is a temple of great importance in the church that reveres cholesterol. Huge portions of already buttered grits covered with eggs and breakfast meat are the standard fare there.
Now we are in Pensacola, staying with Diana's daughter and her husband, and stuffing ourselves with gulf shrimp and seafood at – for us – unbelievably low prices, and planning our trip back in a few days.
THE OAXACA THREE
Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Sanger and John Barbato remain in prison, while rumors of official intervention abound. The latest is that the (state) judge in the case is getting restive and wants to release them, but the University refuses to co-operate. We were told before we left that there was to be an appeal hearing on the 6th before a federal judge but so far no news about what happened. When we know something definite, we will put out a “special” Newsletter.
BACK ON THE ROAD
We head for home on Monday, and hope to arrive sometime on Friday or Saturday, with stops in Lake Charles, LA, Ciudad Victoria and maybe Las Pozas. When we get there, we – and our car - will be several pounds heavier and a few hundred dollars lighter. Eating and shopping…