THE ANNUAL WINTER TRAVEL NEWSLETTER:

Travel, as well as being broadening (in all senses: eating out is hard on dieters), is exhausting. Especially if, as we did, you never stay more than two nights in any one place. The tradeoff is that you get to see more places. The downside is that you only get to gather superficial impressions. So that’s what you get here, folks: quick snapshots and quirky insights – just like always…

First, some general impressions. The roads in the north (we think of it as “north”, although it is actually the center) are in good shape, and there are a lot more four-lane divided highways than in the south. Mostly, the toll roads are worth it (they really don’t maintain the “libre” (free) roads that run alongside very well), with the possible exception of the road from Puebla to Veracruz, a 50-cent-a-miler. Periphery roads that skirt the towns that one used to have to go through are much more in evidence, avoiding a lot of boring, dusty, poorly marked trolls through uninteresting places.

The army checkpoints were few and far between. We saw four, got stopped twice, and had the van laconically searched once. No-one seemed very tense, and in one spot, we were asked by the Teniente if we had any dollars we would like to sell (we believed that this was the real reason they stopped us at all). We encountered no federal or state civilian police roadblocks, and one or two of the agricultural check stations we passed may have been open. Except for the stretch between Aguas Calientes and Zacatecas, gas stations were everywhere, and more and more of them have convenience stores and restaurants attached.

In general, the further north you go, the less “traje” (indigenous dress) you see. Except for a few artesania (craft item) sellers we saw – and only a few of those – everyone wears “modern” clothes. Seeing this made us more aware of how many fewer native costumes we see these days in Oaxaca, compared to even a couple of years ago.

We used a combination of guidebooks, and here are some general conclusions: For food and lodging, “Let’s Go Mexico” was most often the one that had the goods, although the Berkeley book was also useful. For detailed lists of attractions and sites, the AAA guide was most helpful, followed by Berkeley. For history and archeology, Fieldings was first choice, and Berkeley second. We did not take a Lonely Planet, simply because the one we had was so old and we already had the others. Berkeley covered more cities than the others, followed by AAA. Maps were uneven, but between them all we had all the major destinations covered.

As I said in the first Travel Edition, none of the books was even close on price (although the Fielding said “1997” on the cover); and we stayed in non-listed hotels more often than not, although the books did point us to the neighborhood.

We almost never ate in recommended restaurants, although here too the guides were useful pointers to areas where better choices existed alongside the recommended establishments.

Our expenses for the trip, including gas, minor car repairs, lodging and food, averaged 210 pesos per day (about 25 usd) per person.

As I believed it would, having a membership in the Infosel computer network made keeping up with our correspondence a lot easier than it otherwise might have been. With almost 20 local nodes, most of them in the cities to our north, we were never more than three days between connections. As we did during our first trip together, to the Yucatan, we experienced a blank stare at most Larga Distancia booths when we asked to plug in. We learned the importance of checking to see that our hotel room had a modular phone plug. As the tale of the trip unwinds, I will indicate which towns had the requisite facilities.

Finally, let me set the scene: Our friend Dan McWethy, a sailor, retired entrepreneur and itchy-footed seeker of the new and instructive, provided us with his even-tempered and sharp-eyed company, his laptop computer, and his well-traveled and even-better-maintained Chevy conversion van, and we set off from Oaxaca in the morning of January 11 in captain’s chair comfort.

TERCERA LLAMADA: EMPEZAMOS

[from the calls to sit down at the live performances: third call, we begin]

The road from Oaxaca to Puebla is cuota (pay) all the way. The driving time is about 4 hours, so leaving at 11 am put us in to town at about 3 in the afternoon, on a Sunday.

PUEBLA:

is four hours and light years away from Oaxaca. No doubt about it, it is The Big City: Sam’s Club, giant super stores and acres of shopping mall. However, all that is in the “new” city. In the Old city, a Oaxaqueno can feel right at home, except for the automobile traffic around the square.

The Zocalo, about the size of Oaxaca’s, was the site of a pro-Zapatista demo when we got there. There were “graves”, 45 of them, laid out in rank and file, and each bore the name (and age where known) of a victim of the December 22 Acteal massacre. There was a sign listing the number of dead, disappeared and arrested people in the area, and lots of singing and lecturing. I was reminded of the demos I encountered in Acapulco when I first arrived, 4 years ago.

We stayed at the Royalty, which is right on the Zocalo but suffers from her age, and lacks parking spaces. On the other hand, the hotel picked up half our daytime parking tab and all of our nights, at a garage about 3 blocks away, and gave us a complete breakfast valued at as much as 30 pesos each, all included in our $300p 3-person room. Using the modular phone connection in our room with a dialup number for the local Infosel service provider was easy and free.

On one side of the Zocalo is the “Cafeteria La Princessa”. For 30 pesos each, we got a delicious five course meal, efficiently and deferentially served, in a large room filled with happy diners being serenaded by a duo of fine local traditional musicians. The meal included everything but beverage (a pitcher of watermellon juice was 20p).

Iruarte, one of the old Puebla tile making families, still holds forth in a colonial-style building that displays some of their finest talavera tile work (not for sale). Prices on those items that are for sale, are higher than some other places, but the quality is very good, and you are guaranteed that what you are offered is not from San Miguel Allende or Dolores Hidalgo (which may or may not be a better deal). If you don’t want to spend what they ask, go to look, it’s free — and then wander down to the Pipian market and browse the stalls for bargains. Much of the lower-end stuff will be from Dolores Hidalgo, and while the work may not be as detailed, some quality stuff can be found.

Diana, who lived in Puebla in 1970, took us to visit the old Victoria Market, where she used to buy her produce, clothing and kitchen supplies. There still is a Victoria Market, but the old one is gone, replaced by a glass-and-steel atrium full of upscale tschatchke (a yiddish word, meaning knicknack) shops and fast food booths, serving the tourists and the upper middle class. The workers that frequented the old market probably shop at the supermarkets now.

VERACRUZ:

is hot, humid, and bustling. Like most coastal cities under a tropical sun, it is part modern buildings built with modern corrosion-resistant materials, and traditional buildings struggling against the effects of sun and salt. The port and the Navy are the two most significant sectors of the economy.

The Zocalo is everything it has been cracked up to be: a noisy, colorful celebration of music, free enterprise and food. The sidewalk cafes fill up with revelers every night. When we went there, we were constantly – and I use the word advisedly – solicited to buy [fill in the blanks]. The products we were offered in a single night included: flowers (roses and carnations), varieties of nuts (peanuts, cashews, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), etc), cigars, model sailing ships (one looked 5 feet long and was quite a handful to carry around, being fully rigged with sails), magic tricks, toys, cigarettes and candy, music cassettes, bracelets with your name on them, hammocks, lottery tickets, baked goods, necklaces, balloons, shoeshines, wooden carvings, pottery turtles and toucans, plastic flowers, straw hats, cologne, leather goods, cheese, painted shells, painted plates, perfume, clown performances, and blood pressure tests by ladies dressed in nurse-looking uniforms. Free enterprise and entrepreneurship are alive and well in Veracruz. We hardly had time to eat with all the looking, and saying “No thanks”. In addition to mariachis, harpists, clowns, jugglers and marimba bands, there was also had a concert by the Navy Band, with many couples dancing under the full moon. We went both nights we were in town. It was highly entertaining for a short time, but much too frenetic for a set of Zocalo lizzards like ourselves, who like to lounge about four evenings a week.

Coffee at La Perroquia on the Malecon proved to be excellent, although there are no combination breakfasts offered, and while the food we were served was good, we were not happy with the total on the bill. If you sit in the front windows, you can watch the freighters being unloaded in the harbor. At Parroquia, they serve you coffee in a glass, and you tap your spoon on the glass for the roving pot carrier to come fill you up with hot milk (or more coffee, if you can stand it: it is STRONG).

We found a delightful marisqueria (sea food restaurant) in the heart of the Naval district, at the corner of Morales and Figueroa. Simple seafood empanadas and cocktails, cheap. Nothing fancy, but filling and delicioius. There are plenty of inexpensive seafood places in town, but the quality will vary considerably, even while the prices remain roughly the same.

The beaches in Veracruz are not anything to write home about, and neither is the aquarium. We headed south, for a comida at Casa Uscanga, on the lagoon at Mandinga, recommended to us by Oaxaca neighbors and travel writers Lynn and Larry Foster. We then we made an easy mistake: we went to the wrong restaurant. Next door, the “Mariscos Uscanga” appears to be part of the same restaurant, but is in fact owned by relatives and has a different kitchen. Now, it may be that the food where we ate was just as good (it was good, but not exceptional), although, knowing our friends, it almost certainly was not. Next time, we will try the “right” one — it’s the first Uscanga establishment as you come to the water.

While we were there, Dan got his fortune told by a “gypsy”. The first reading cost 10p, but when it was done he got a hard sell to buy a “good luck talisman” that kind of spoiled the deal. After we ate, we took a 40 minute boat ride on the estuary outside the restaurant. At that point, about 40km upstream from the ocean, the water is still salty. About a half mile up, it becomes fresh water. We spent our time gawking at egrets, crab, and shrimp traps, at a cost of $100p for the three of us.

Internet enthusiasts will want to know about the service at Zamora 410. We discovered it when we checked in to the Baluarte Hotel without first checking to make sure their phones were modular (they were not). When I explained to the shop’s owner that we had everything but a phone line, he pulled the plug out of one of his computers, plugged into ours, and charged us two pesos for the two minutes we tied up his line (Infosel has a local dial-in number).

MORE LATER:

We were in so many places, that it would be overkill to talk about them all. Instead, for the next several newsletters, I will include a “travel” article or two. Meanwhile, there are other developments you should know about.

TELMEX ENTERS THE INTERNET MELEE:

Finally, our national phone company is offering complete internet services to phone owners. It isn’t cheap (200p per month, roughly $25 usd), but it’s all you can use, and they are rapidly wiring local nodes all over the place. Folks here who are using it say that they have true 56k modem hookup, and while their mail service doesn’t seem any faster, their Web download speed is truly awesome. You pay on your phone bill, a nice feature. I still have a ways to go on my current Infosel account, but as soon as I run out I intend to make the switch.

CUSTOM BUILT COMPUTERS ARE CUTTING DESKTOP COSTS:

We are now the proud owners of a new desktop computer. We had it made for us out of standard components, and saved a lot of money over the cheapest available package deal. Even though it is higher priced than comparable devices being sold in the US, it is cheap by local standards — and I know where to go (the seller) when I need something fixed.

Our mini-tower has a 56k Motorola modem, Samsung 14″ monitor and 2 gb hard drive, 32 megs of memory, Genius floppy and mouse, and 24x cd-rom with a Yamaha multimedia controller; and all the software we will need. The cost was under $1,500 usd. Since it was delivered, the vendor has spent about 10 cheerful hours ironing out all the bugs, replaced the mouse, and otherwise more than lived up to his agreement. Because he is an independent, we don’t have to mess with store mentality or corporate rules.