Saturday, January 7, 2012

Chiapa de Corzo -- The Cathedral of San Domingo

Chiapas, Mexico
(no camera)

George and I have spent nearly three weeks in the state of Chiapas, drawn here by my new work. While we are excited about what this job means for me, we have been very discouraged by the living situation. We are in a small, bright orange apartment in Tuxtla Gutierrez, a bustling city with almost no green space. I say that it is like living inside a traffic cone ... and that is actually a very good analogy. On previous weekends, we explored two outlying communities in hopes of finding alternative housing. The first, San Cristobal, offers a cooler climate and charming amenities but is at least a 1.5 hour commute each way, probably 2 hours each way given bus schedules. The second, Berriozabal, is a town with a small zocalo (green space) but no housing available. Today, we ventured to Chiapa de Corzo, about an hour away. Here is what we found.

A river runs through it. A big river. Grijalva formed the Sumidero Canyon which was, we are told, on the short list for an updated list of the world's greatest wonders. No wonder. It is truly breathtaking, and the river is beautiful in itself, wending along jungle-covered banks, lush green offset by snowy white egrets.

We, of course, are water people. Simply the site of the river calms us. If we were to find a home in Chiapa de Corzo there will, no doubt, be a boat building project in our future. Wood is plentiful here, and George comes alive when creating something. He has to assess the currents, but a double kayak would probably make sense.

The chicken bus (so dubbed by our friend, Louise) bounced us along to Chiapa de Corzo for ten pesos each. The town's "bienvenidos" sign marked the start of cobblestone streets, and we disembarked to find ourselves in a colonial town, a refreshing change from Tuxtla Gutierrez. Ahead of us was a 16th century Moorish-style fountain, and beyond that the river and cathedral. There was a massive carnival being set up, since next weekend is the town's largest celebration -- The Fiesta Grande -- which celebrates its three patron saints. (More here.)

We skirted the carnival and found our way to the glorious river. Dozens of high-powered skiffs stood ready to take tourists up river and through the canyon, where you're likely to see crocodiles and be allowed to peer into a few of the caves used by Mayan traders before the conquistadors' arrival. (Several are being excavated now, by archaeologists.) We walked the river's cobbled edge the short distance it extended upstream, then up a wide and winding stone staircase. Unfortunately, there was a stench. Nonetheless, we lingered for the view.

I mentioned the crocodiles to George, and he pointed to two men standing in the river, waist-deep. Apparently, no crocodiles; though we never did see the hombres' legs. They were assisting several men who, ashore, were winching up metal handrails that rose to the surface among great clouds of silt. (These appeared to have fallen from a boardwalk near the river's edge and lodged on the river's bottom.)

We strolled towards the cathedral, and were astonished at its size. A whitewashed building with a simple exterior, it is the largest church we have seen in Mexico. It extends about the length of an American football field. We were about to walk its length when a scene across the narrow road caught our attention. Several men were using adzes and smoke to work wood. Were they making dugouts? We crossed over and saw they were simply making rough-hewn wooden beams; using the adzes to peel the bark and the smoky fires to preshrink the beams.

We entered the cathedral and were impressed by its spaciousness and simplicity. Many craftsmen were at work. A man greeted us in Spanish, waving us towards a group near the altar, which is a vast, gracefully carved piece of work in unstained cedar. (They hope to gild it.) We followed his lead, passing several objects dated from the 16th century, and realized the bell tower was open for tourists. What a treat!

We climbed the winding keep, and I remembered hearing that they always corkscrew in a direction that gives advantage to right-handed soldiers who are above. In other words, when winding your way up the narrow, stone steps, your right arm will be close to the wall -- enough so that you couldn't thrust your sword upward very well if you weren't left-handed.(George and I would have had an advantage there.)

After about ten minutes we reached the top and exited onto a small rooftop. The views were lovely, and included a peek at the cathedral's main roof line, now below us. We could see where those rough-hewn wooden beams were headed: half the cathedral's roof had been fully removed. She was awaiting new stays in her corset. After several minutes spent admiring the view, I entered the belfry.

What a treat! Two massive weathered bells, one of them deeply cracked, and two smaller ones off to the side (all of them stoppered, of course.) Works of art and historical artifacts. I wish I could done a tracing of the raised text and fancily scroll-worked crosses that adorn them. One was cast in 1576. Imagine the church commissioning bells to be cast, and then the journey from Spain, across the Atlantic, and somehow (George thinks overland, but I wonder about the river) inland to this town. There's a story to catch the imagination!

Since our camera was lost a few weeks ago, I'll link here to another blog with photos of the place. (We plan to replace our camera while we're in the States later this month.)

We wound our way back down to terra firma and sought out the public market, where we lunched. Feeling tired, we hiked back through the town's streets, scouting for potential rentals. We like the town. It has character. Unfortunately, it gets even hotter than Tuxtla ...

Monday, September 19, 2011

In Search of English Books -- Puebla

(Note: this should have been posted around September 16, 2011.)

Puebla, Mexico
After checking into Casa de Palma and having a rest, we headed out into the drizzly night in search of English books. We've been dying for them, feeling like nomadic people lost in a desert without water. The desk clerk stopped us and offered us a paragua (umbrella), which is such a sensible word; literally "for water."

With paragua in hand, we marched up the cobblestone streets, admiring the 16th, 17th, and 18th century architecture. With the celebration of Miguel Hidalgo's fiery revolutionary speech set to take place at midnight, the streets were alight with glittery banners and the happy faces of thousands of Mexicans ready to honor the forefathers who helped liberate their country from Spain.

We were on a high, with all the happy expectations of at last refreshing our small library! Alas, the store was closed. We asked directions and trekked off to the next possible store. It too was closed, but there was another a half block away, just outside the security zone. We didn't hesitate. Doors locked. Drat! One more ... we trekked another half mile. Although it was closed, we'd left our bread crumbs so we'd know how to find the stores in the morning.

We headed back towards the zocalo (town square in colonial towns, usually green parks bordered by the cathedral and city hall or government palace). Oops! No paraguas allowed past the security scanners when returning to the town center. Chagrined, we both knew we had to make the best effort to return the hotel's generously loaned umbrella. Off we went, hiking the extra mile or so to skirt the security perimeter so we would come up next to the entrance point closest to our hotel. (You may recall there was a battalion of armed officers parked under the windows just outside our hotel.) We figured if we got that far, one of us could go through the checkpoint and get the hotel desk clerk, who could plead the case for their umbrella.

It worked! It only took us about an extra 90 minutes, but we restored the paragua and established goodwill. Then, hungry, we headed off for a late dinner at a recommended restaurant bordering the zocalo.

Exhausted and satisfied by a simple, Mexican (delicious, or riccissimo) dinner, we collapsed into our comfortable bed long before the midnight celebrations began. We awoke, though, to fireworks and revelry. All across the country, Mexicans were celebrating El Grito de Dolores, the speech of Miguel Hidalgo, which served as a spark for revolution in 1810. (More here:

Refreshed by sleep, we set forth in the morning hoping for books the way a fisherman hopes for results. Alas, the only English books we could find were language instruction texts, and those, while tempting for Celeste, were very expensive. Books generally are, in Mexico; something Celeste hopes will change with the digital book revolution.

Fortunately, we had something else to look forward to: a trip to Cholula, which boasts the world's second largest pyramid. Undaunted, we headed for the bus terminal to continue the adventure.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Wedding Anniversary in Puebla

Our 4th wedding anniversary arrived on August 31, but George and I celebrated it in style this weekend with a 3-day stay in Puebla. The city of Puebla is 2 hours west of Orizaba by bus and is the fourth-largest city in Mexico.

We scheduled our celebration to coincide with the 3-day weekend honoring Miguel Hidalgo's call for independence from Spain. This is the 100th anniversary of that event, and big celebrations were happening all over the country. At CEICO, the school where I'm teaching, the fiesta included reenactments of Hidalgo's declaration and the serving of much food to parents and students alike. Thankfully, I was granted permission to leave before 7pm, so George and I could catch the 3pm bus.

After a short but typically exhausting work week, it was a relief to sit aboard a comfortable bus and watch the road pass by. We saw several shepherds, and a horse-drawn hay cart along the way. Those pastoral sites provided great contrast to the traffic jam that held us up ...

At last we arrived. Puebla's bus terminal is the largest we have ever seen, with hundreds of buses arriving and departing. Our terminal was well-organized, though, and we easily rolled our luggage to the booth for a prepaid, secure taxi. The prepaid fare to our hotel was 55 pesos (about $5.00 U.S.) Within 5 minutes we were underway, traveling through depressed neighborhoods covered with graffiti. The driver had to detour several times due to street closures, consequences of the holiday, but eventually wound his way into the historical district.

The phenomenal 17th and 18th century architecture moved us instantly from fatigue to anticipation. Towering stone and tile buildings with "gingerbread" facades drew our eyes hither and thither. Mine stopped on a machine-gun wielding figure atop the hotel two blocks ahead of us. The taxi stopped at about the same time, the driver explaining (in Spanish) that he could go no further due to the security. We would have to roll our luggage the rest of the way, past the barricades.

Fortunately, we had wheels. (We had packed light, but our hiking boots had required a separate bag.) We hauled our things from the cab to the nearby checkpoint, where we passed through a metal detector and police in bulletproof vests had us open our items for inspection. After about 10 minutes we were on our way with an amiable thanks from them. We rolled our luggage over the cobblestones, past media trucks and over their cables, to the zocalo -- the name for the central square in most Mexican towns, which typically hosts the main cathedral and the government palace. This was no exception. The municipal palace was decked out in spangles and flags, and the central square (a spacious greenbelt with fountain and benches) was home to a large, temporary, tented performance area equipped to seat about 100 people. Everyone else would have to see events via one of several large screens set up along the perimeter. Fortunately, the crowds had not arrived and we were able to wheel our luggage the short block to our hotel without bumping or elbowing others.

The Casa de la Palma is a converted 18th century mansion with a modest entrance. We might have missed it except for the parking signs just in front, because its door was blocked by twenty police officers in riot gear. It turns out our hotel was adjacent to another security checkpoint. Stepping past the officers with a quiet "Buenes tardes," we entered a different world.

George had booked us a spacious suite with balcony. The English-speaking clerk provided us brochures and a map, and helped us up the curved stone stairway to our room "The Persian Suite." Decorated with prints and statuettes from India (think "Kama Sutra") the room is naturally lit through glass doors that lead onto the balcony, and comfortably furnished. It has a massive bathroom with modern plumbing (which means that you can place tp in the toilet) and twenty-foot ceilings throughout. George had outdone himself!

(... more to come tomorrow)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The View from Up Here

We made it!

Saturdays are becoming great fitness days. The hike up Cerro de Borrego takes us about an hour, which includes a few good rests and a bottle of water.

You can see that the rains have washed out part of the slope, but maintenance crews have cleared the stairs. (The hike is partly on steps, partly on dirt, and partly on rock.)

Once we reach the top, we spend an hour or more exploring the ruined fortress and the trails that lead around the hilltop. We still have quite a few left to explore, which leaves us looking forward to many more Saturdays.

This week, a rarely trodden path gave me the chance to photograph butterflies which have remained elusive at lower elevations.

And, we saw some butterflies-to-be.

It's beautiful up there! Happy trails.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Climb Every Mountain?

George and I are living near the base of Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico and third highest in North America, which peaks at 18,491 feet. Now that's a mountain!

Having lived in the glorious Pacific Northwest we are accustomed to the comfort of a mountain's glory. By that I mean that "it is there." A mountain is dependable. You walk outside and it is there. It is big, and beautiful, and usually snow-capped. It is also inspiring. And one of the things it asks you to do is climb it.

George and I ARE NOT going to climb Pico de Orizaba. But, we have begun hiking up a smaller slope. About 15 minutes from our home is the base of a path that leads up a hillside to a historic battle site.

The path starts with wide stairs and transitions to dirt. There are peekaboo views and vistas, and sunny patches where butterflies flit among the flower-bearing trees. There are resting places along the way, and several shrines to The Virgin Mary.

Each week we are pushing ourselves a little further along. Eventually, we'll reach the cannons and flagpole at the top. When we do, we'll give a whoop! and hope that you can hear it (and we'll post to the blog.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Saturday in the Park

We live about a block from Bicentennial Plaza, a compact sunken park with playground, coffee kiosk, ping pong tables, and stages. It's one of our favorite places to spend an afternoon, or even an hour in the morning playing frisbee. This Saturday we stopped in our tracks when we saw tribal dancers preparing for a ceremony.

We can't tell you much about them, but it appeared this was a ceremony of thanksgiving. They laid out flowers and foodstuffs on cloths, then two women used smudge pots to draw smokey circles above those items, which remained at the center of their group dance.

The dancing commenced with the sound of a conch shell being blown, around which they then danced, to drumbeats. Periodically, a leader would recite a long string of words, which we took to be thanks.

One of our favorite aspects of this was the involvement of all ages: from one-year to seventy-something.

And, of course, the costumes were spectacular!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Floods & Fire

Phew! We've just finished moving things from the temporary apartment to our new abode. It's been an adventure preparing this new place for living.

Orizaba is a wet place. We're near Pico de Orizaba, which has snow on it even now, and its runoff stokes a river that winds through town. It's the rainy season now, and there have been a lot of tropical storms fueling the clouds. The sky splits open, lightning strikes and makes the lights blink, thunder rolls through the air -- 4 or 5 seconds after the light. The delay surprises us; it seems the lightning is much nearer. Water pours from the sky as from a bucket, usually for about two hours, swelling the river and causing mudslides upstream. We see the results in the river, which looks like a it's full of melted chocolate. (If only!)

All that wet had taken a toll on the walls and plumbing of our new abode. We sanded, spackled, and painted every wall we could reach (some of the ceilings go about 30 feet -- those we half-painted). It looks great!

The plumbing is still problematic. We've replaced the faulty PVC that leads from faucets to drains in two locations, with success. A third still needs replacing, but first we have to figure out how to secure the sink to the wall. It fell off while we were painting, the plaster that had been behind it having dried and fallen away. (A re-reading of our rental contract confirmed what we already thought--that we are on the hook for all these repairs.) But ... after two floodings of the kitchen, we have the water under control (except for the upstairs bathroom. At least we have an alternate.)

Then there is the odor. I won't go into it. Suffice it to say that this must be a result of both aged plumbing and a very wet environment. But, we're getting that under control as well.

Don't let this deter you from coming! It's really quite a cozy home. It just has been an adventure getting it ready. We had two floods in the kitchen before we finally tracked down the right parts and got that system working. And the day the electrician was coming to install light fixtures, we had a flame come shooting out of the kitchen bulb! Thankfully, Angel took it in stride.

So ... no more bare bulbs (except for in the upper hall, where, again, we cannot reach), and a pretty dry interior (except for the utility area, which we'll be working on tomorrow) (oh, and that upstairs bathroom).

Good thing we're young ...