Thursday, September 30, 2004

Finally...'s happened to me, right in front of my face, fabulous, can't describe it. OK, that's corny, but I am actually celebrating my first day in Mexico without rain, woohoo! Now that was one thing I wasn't expecting when I came. When you see all those Hollywood films full of cacti, deserts and locals taking long siestas in the shade of their sombreros you expect the place to be as dry as a bone. But instead I have been greetd with a green and fertile country with a temperate climate due to the high altitudes and even the deserts seem to be teeming with plants.

So here I am in Creel, which is close to the Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre) national park. There are actually six canyons in the park each of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. So I can't wait to get into the canyons and do a bit of trekking as the views from the bus were absolutely breathtaking, which is more than can be said for its speed, somehow I think it must have been suffering from a severe case of asthma. I think I'll probably be staying here for some time as it's so beautiful and the hostel is dead cheap: 4 quid for a bed, breakfast and dinner.
I was far less impressed by the city of Chihuahua on the other hand. The city is the administrative centre of the state of the same name (in which the Copper Canyon is situated) and I had to pass through there to get to Creel. Therefore I thought I might as well spend a few hours checking out some of the sites (there aren't many as Chihuahua is famed for being a bit of a dump, but there were still one or two that interested me). However I wasn't even given the chance to do that as the guy at the left-luggage counter in the bus station never turned up and so I couldn't pop into town (unless I wanted to trundle arond with a big backpack, a prospect which didn't make my heart race). On the plus side I did manage to spot a Chihuahua dog in Chihuahua city, which made me laugh. Small consolation I know, but you have to make your own entertainment sometimes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The past 2 days were spent in Zacatecas, a charming colonnial, ex-mining town and state capitol. Before I begin recounting my adventures I'd like to just make a quick advert for the hostel where I've been staying, which has to be the friendliest and most fun hostel I've ever stayed in (probably has something to do with my intake of beer and mezcal). It's run by a father and son (Ernesto and Ernesto) who are both incredibly helpful and make you feel right at home. So if anybody is planning to visit Zacatecas (which I would recommend) then you must stay at the Hostel Villa Colonial.

Well, that's enough of that. Yesterday I visited my first proper ruins in Mexico some 40km from town, called La Quemada (meaning "the burnt one"). The setting is absolutely spectacular: right in the middle of the desert on top of a series of hills, so you have a great view of the surrounding area. The ruins themselves were nice enough (although there didn't remain any really big structures) but what fascinated me more was the abundance of wildlife, especially insects and other various creepy crawlies (I even managed to get a few poisonous spiders crawling over my jumper but managed to brush them off).

Then today was spent looking around Zacatecas. I have begun to notice a rather annoying Mexican habit in town planning: they always seem to put their towns next to high, steep hills and put the youth hostels at the bottom, and anything I want to see at the top. Sometimes they outdo themselves by having 2 seperate hills on either side of the town, and such is the case with Zacatecas. But I must say I did have some fun climbing up the Cero de Bufa. (If you want to see some pictures have a look at the following site that I found from some people who visited a few years back.) Anyway, I'm leaving tonight and taking the night bus to Chihuahua, a place I've wanted to visit for years as it is filled with childhood dreams of packs of ravenous, yapping, midget dogs (probably not an accurate picture, but what the hell).

Monday, September 27, 2004

Perverted People

Nothing much happened today as I spent most of the time on buses, but something there made me think about stuff and has become the subject of today's rant.

On the buses today I got to see 2 films: one was The Full Monty (heart-warming comedy) and the other was The Missing (new film with Tommy Lee Jones, where he plays an Indian looking for his missing grand-daughter and dispatching any baddies that happen to get in his way). One of these films was quite heavily censored, and can you guess which one? that's right, The Full Monty. This film about friendship, acceptance and responsibility was deemed far more dangerous for the minds of young Mexicans than a couple of people killing right left and centre to rescue their (grand) daughter (which I admit, is worthy cause).

So what was cut from The Full Monty? well most of the final scene as well as several rehearsal scenes. So according to the Mexican censorship authorities seeing 6 male posteriors (scary as that might be) is more damaging to the moral fabric of society than seeing scores of people being killed in various imaginative ways. And that's the crux of my rant today: we seem to regard sex and the human body as some sort of horrible taboo, whereas in actual fact it is a wonderful thing that we all like doing and are (almost) without exception the products of; and on the other hand the depiction of indiscriminate cold-blooded murder and complete disregard for the value of human life is seen as normal. Why? Are we so sick and twisted that we would rather blow everyone away (in the killing sense that is) than see people enjoy themselves?

Personally (and I think this won't make me many friends) I place the blame squarely at the door of the Abrahamic religions (you know, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that know that someone, somewhere is having fun, and that it is their job to stop them. You know, the whole covering of one's body, no sex out of wedlock, and masturbation as one of the ultimate carnal sins. And yet none of these things harm anybody else. Ah well, such is life I suppose, but it doesn't mean I have to like it!

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Learning From Experience

Today I went to Real de Catorce (Royal 14?) and was seriously underimpressed. The ghost town moniker is a bit exaggerated (although there are some quite nifty abandoned houses) but the settings, nestled amongst the mountains and only accessible through a long tunnel, are pretty enough. The fact that today was the start of the Saint Francis celebrations probably didn't help much either: the town was packed with religious pilgrims and a plethora of stalls selling pretty much everything imaginable, except anything useful that is.

After wandering about the town for about half an hour I was already bored and so when a bloke came up to me and offered a horseback tour to the desert with maybe some peyote if we can find any (for the uninitiated peyote is a hallucinogenic plant used in indigenous shamanic rituals and the active ingredient is mescaline) all for 300 pesos, I thought why not. Bad decision. Not that anything wrong happened mind you, it's just that there are 2 things I will not be trying again in a hurry (or ever at all).

Lets start with the more innocent one: horse riding. Sarah (one of my housemates this year who used to go horse riding every weekend) has risen quite significantly in my esteem. I used to think that there wasn't much to horse riding: just point the beast in the right direction and let it do the rest. How wrong I was! Riding a horse requires you to be alert all the time and is physically quite demanding when the horse is doing anything but a gentle walk. After close to 4 hours in the saddle I don't think I'll be able to sit absolutely comfortably for a few days yet.

As for the second, peyote, for those of you thinking of trying it I'd recommend you try some prepared stuff (infusion, etc.) or just pop down to Camden market and get some shrooms instead, because peyote must be the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted. I is so horribly bitter that with every bite I was physically fighting the urge to throw up, and even now more than 6 hours later just thinking about it makes me want to retch. I don't think I was able to stomach enough of the stuff for a sufficient hallucinogenic trip and so all I got was a lingering urge to throw up.

Ah well, you live you learn. Hopefully the rest of you will learn from this and not make the same mistakes. On second thoughts, don't listen to me, make the mistakes yourselves, it's a much more effective way of learning than having me preach at you. So off you go my children, experiment away!

Saturday, September 25, 2004

San Miguel's Faustian Trap

This'll have to be quick as the internet cafe is closing soon. At the moment I am in a rather dire little town called Matehuala, but it's just a stop over before I head off to Real de Catorce tomorrow. But that's to come, what about what has happened.

Well, when I left you last I was off to sample Guanajuato's night life, however it turned out to be a bit disappointing and there wasn't as much on as the night before (I know because it kept me awake!). Although I did get to experience a traditional Guanajuato street band (called estudiantistes), which had the added bonus of being free (hey, I am Scottish after all). Anyway, from Guanajuato I travelled to a small town called San Miguel de Allende (I wasn't planning to originally but I was told that it was worth a day, so I thought what the hell).

SMA turned out to be quite a pleasant town with some well preserved colonial buildings and quaint, steep cobbled streets and plenty of different styled churches. Unfortunately the reason for SMA relative good state of repair is also its downfall: gringos. The place was swarming with them. It turns out SMA is quite a hotspot for retiring Americans, so the town has entered into a sort of Faustian pact: the gentrification of the town comes at the cost of a Yankee invasion. I didn't really visit any museums or stuff but was content to just walk around and soak it up. I also met two guys from Guadalajara and we spent the evening together walking around. It was interesting to see the locals getting dressed up and promenading around the main square as live mariachi bands played. In the old days this was how young men and women would get the chance to meet and perhaps share a brief glance or a fleeting moment together. I also learned a bit of vernacular Spanish from the guys. Apparently chido is good, gacho is bad, and cachondear is very good. The next day I had a bit of time to kill before my bus left for San Luis Potosi so I decided to visit the jardin botanico (botanical gardens) and I was very glad I did. It isn't really a botanical garden in the sense that we might recognise at home, instead all it is is a well maintained piece of land beside a creek, but the enormous diversity of species was absolutely breathtaking. And needless to say I found quite a number of strange and exotic insects, which really made my day. I'm sure the place would also be an absolute heaven for any twitchers (like my former colleague David) but unfortunately I'm not much of an ornithologist. Anyway it was one of those places where you actually feel you want to pay the entrance fee and that they really deserve it.

And so tomorrow I am off to Real de Catorce, which is supposedly a spectacular ghost town up in the mountains, but unfortunately tomorrow is the start of the St Francis celebrations (that last about 3 weeks) which means that the place is probably going to be packed so I don't know if I'll be able to find a place to crash. I'll let you know how it turns out...

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Buses and Guanajuato

I am writing today's blog from a beautiful town NW of Mexico City called Guanajuato, but before I start talking about that I want to air my thoughts on buses.

Since Mexico doesn't have a well-developed railway system most people travel by bus, which means that Mexico has an extensive bus network. This also means that there are many different bus companies. Now this in itself does not pose any problems, however when you go to any bus station each bus company has its own desk with timetable and ticket information and there is no central desk to get this info. This means that you have to ask each and every bus company whether they go where you want to go and when their next bus is. Now in small towns this isn't a big problem, but in Mexico City's northern bus terminal there are more than 20 bus companies and it takes about half an hour just collecting all the necessary information! Now that said the buses themselves are very good. I have travelled extensively by bus in both Europe and the States, but the long-distance buses (local bus services are another matter altogether) in Mexico (so far) are far better: the seats are comfier, there is more leg-room, the "in-flight" movies are better (i.e. they actually show movies) and they even offered complimentary snacks!

OK that's enough about buses. Guanajuato is a smallish town (about 100 000) that straddles a ravine and so it's all narrow winding alleyways (which are great fun to get lost in) with houses built one on top the other. From the mountains overlooking the city it looks just like a big patchwork quilt. Guanajuato used to be a silver mining town, which means that the houses are pretty and well-preserved giving the city its well-deserved UNESCO status. Apart from the city itself the high point of the day must have been the mummy museum. Let me explain: since the town is built on a hill space is at a premium, this means that if people stop paying rent on their grave plots (by people I mean families and not the people in the graves of course) the bodies are exhumed and cremated. The soil around here is apparently very acidic and so the bodies are well-preserved, and so when the bodies are exhumed the "best ones" are put on show at the museum. Logical, and yet very morbid, which is why it appealed to me. Needless to say I took quite a few photos there! I must say these Mexicans have some very strange customs when it comes to death.

Well, that's about it from me. I'm off to sample some of Guanajuato's famed night-life (it's also a very important university city).

P.S. If anyone is planning to start a blog I have on piece of advice for them: before posting save the text that you have just written. I didn't and so this is the second time I am writing this entry. Aaaarrrggghhh!

Buses And Guanajuato

I'm writing today's blog from Guanajuato: a very picturesque town NW of Mexico City, but before I start I thought I might give my views on buses.

Since Mexico doesn't really have a railway network everyone travels by bus, and so the bus network is really well developed and so there is also a very large number of bus companies. Now this in itself is not a problem; the problem lies in the fact that at the bus stations each bus company has its own sales desk and there is no central timetable. Therefore you have to go to each bus company and ask whether they happen to go where you want to go and when the next bus is. Now in small towns this shouldn't be a problem, but in Mexico City's northern bus terminal there are about 20 different bus companies and it takes 15 minutes just to walk from one end of the terminal to the other. Anyway, that aside I am very impressed with their actual buses. Having travelled by bus both in Europe and the states I can safely say that Mexico's long-distance buses are much better: comfier seats, more leg-room, better "in flight" movies (i.e. they actually have them) and even complimentary snacks!

OK that's enough about buses, let's talk about Guanajuato. The town straddles a ravine and so the centre is all houses one on top of another with narrow winding alleys between them in which it is easy (and fun) to get lost. From the surrounding mountains the town looks like a multi-coloured patchwork quilt. The town used to be a silver mining centre and so was very rich and so the buildings are beautiful and well preserved (hence the city's UNESCO status). It was also the site of the first battles of Mexico's war of Independence from Spain in 1810. Apart from the beauty of the town the best touristy bit is the mummy museum. "¿The what?!" I hear you exclaim. Let me explain: since there is very little room in the town (being built of sheer slopes) if people don't keep paying rent for their grave plots, the bodies are exhumed and cremated to make way for new graves. Now the soil around here is apparently very acidic and so the bodies are very well preserved, and the best specimens, instead of being cremated are put on show at the mummy museum. Logical... and very morbid, which makes it all the more appealing to me. I took quite a few piccies there(including the "smallest mummy in the world"). Let me tell you you've got to hand it to these Mexicans, they have some very unique attitudes and customs when it comes to death.

Apparently the night-life is quite good here as it is a major student town so I plan to sample that tonight. Well, that's it from me for today.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Mi Gusta La Comida

It´s been a week now and I've seen quite a bit more of Mexico City. The centre is very impressive, especially the main boulevard (Paseo de la Reforma) which is modelled on the Champs Elysees and so is very wide with many modern high-rise buildings and trees along the pavements, and it certainly wouldn't look out of place in any major European capital. I also visited the Templo Mayor, which was the main Aztec temple in Tenochtitlan (the ancient Aztec capital on whose foundations Mexico City was built) and was, for them, literally the centre of the universe. Only the foundations remain as the building blocks were used by the Spanish to build their own buildings, which is a pity as it must have been a sight to behold. I'm also glad I've kept my old student card as it allowed me to get in for free (at the Templo Mayor as well as the fine arts gallery) even though I haven't been a student for more than 2 years, but hey, you've got to milk it for all it's worth.

Yesterday my cousin Kamiar invited me to a restaurant where they had live mariachi music, which was an exciting experience. Although what probably impressed me most was the food, or more precisely how they cook it: it's called barbacoa (where our word barbecue comes from) and they wrap the meat in maguey (agave) leaves and place them into ovens dug into the ground ... and then leave them slowly cooking there overnight. This makes the meat really really tender (although unfortunately I wasn't feeling too hot so couldn't eat much) and tasty. That definitely has to be something that has been a revelation: Mexican food is much more diverse and interesting than what we are peddled as being authentic Mexican fare back in Britain (where it's basically enchiladas, tortillas, burritos and the ubiquitous chile con carne; none of which, apart from the tortillas, I've actually seen here). Instead here you have delicious tacos (corn tortillas wrapped around some sort of stuffing), my favourite being al pastor - with pork (just don't ask which part), coriander, onions and plenty of lime; or tortas, which are very filling sandwiches that can be served with an almost infinite number of fillings (all of which seem to contain jalapeno peppers); tamales, which are patties of corn paste mixed with meat and chilis, wrapped in corn husks and steamed; and my favourite of all, elotes. Elotes are basically corn on the cob, usually lathered with mayonnaise, sprinkled with cheese and perhaps a dash of chili powder. Nothing special perhaps, but the corn here in Mexico is the most delicious I have ever tasted, and no wonder because it originated here. But best of all is that the food is everywhere: on every street corner you can find a stall selling some tasty morsel at bargain basement prices.
Other things on my "to do" list included visiting the city's main university (UNAM) with a friend of my cousin (thank you very much Ana Paula) who studies psychology there. As universities go it is absolutely enormous, with about 300,000 students it totally dwarfs all the London universities put together. It also has a very strange mandate as the police are not allowed to enter into the grounds of the university and it is completely independent from the government, which means that it is full of lefties and commies. A few years ago this led to a mass strike that shut down the whole university for a whole year, just because they wanted to increase fees from 50p to less than 4 pounds! You certainly wouldn't get that from our apathetic students back in the UK whose only worry is that the beer at the union is sufficiently cheap.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

¡Hola Gringos!

Hey everybody. So here I am in Mexico City and my first impressions of it are good. So far I've gone to the central square (the Zocalo) and the markets behind it which are absolutely packed with little stalls selling all kinds of cheap kitsch, pirated DVDs and tacky clothes, as well as a plethora of food stalls. I've also visited the anthropological museum, which is absolutely hayuge and needs a whole day to give you even a remote chance of seeing most of it, and it taught me that there was a far greater variety of indigenous people here in Mexico than I had previously thought. And finally I also visited the house that Trotsky lived in when he was in exile here and where he was eventually assassinated (with a pick-axe to the back of the head).

Today is also Mexico's independance day and so there are street fairs and processions and music and all sorts of other stuff going on. Then in the evening apparently ther are fireworks and more music and drinking, so I'll let you know how it pans out.

Oh yes, one final thing that I like about Mexico: it is the first country that I have ever visited where I am of above average height, wahey! I´ve never seen the tops of so many heads before.

Sunday, September 12, 2004


It's Saturday night and tomorrow afternoon I'll be in a plane over the Atlantic heading to Mexico. I can't wait to be heading off, not that I don't like to be with my Mum (with whom I've staying this past week), but I just want to start doing something constructive because I get absolutely nothing done at home due to the innumerable distractions on hand. I've packed my rucksack and am proud of the fact that there's still a good deal of room, although it may also mean I've forgotten something very important (not that unlikely a possibility either!). Which is what worries me most about this trip: that due to my scattiness I'll end up forgetting something vital somewhere, or will just make some really obvious, stupid faux pas. It's at times like these that I wish I was one of those anally organised people (like you Adrian), but then, we can't have everything.

Friday, September 03, 2004

So Long And Thanks For All The Pressies

I have finally finished at work and on Thursday I had my leaving do. Now I'm not one to get overly emotional or maudlin but it has been fun working at Abbey (in the most part at least) and I will miss the other teachers who have always been very friendly towards me (and I'm not just saying that because they're going to be reading this!). It also reinforces a deeply held belief of mine, that to be happy/content it doesn't really matter where you are or what you do, as long as you have friends there. Sometimes the most fantastic job can seem hollow if the people you work with are obnoxious and even the most menial employ can be rewarding (although don't worry Dad, I'm not about to become a street sweeper just yet). Anyway, we ended up going to a comedy club, which I found very entertaining (so much so that the next day my jaw was still aching slightly from the laughter). I would also like to thank the people at Abbey (especially Adrian for picking them out) for the very generous gifts that they gave me as a leaving present and I am sure that I will make full use of them on my trip. However Adrian did make up for it by being a bastard and making me drink a tequila, which, I am sure, was the reason I spent Friday morning praying to the altar of Armitage Shanks.

So, so long everyone at Abbey (even those that couldn't make it out on Thursday like Cherie, Don, Debbie, Marsha, Vanessa, Michael and even Thalat) and good luck for the coming year!