Polly Hope  2008



F R I D A Y  J a n u a r y   1 1 t h    G E T T I N G    T H E R E  

Late, everything late except queues. These run from East London to West Puebla. Leaving home is always sad. Am never quite sure why I do it, self-punishment I suppose…

Jozsef drives through the horrible downpour to Terminal 4 where a pair of lovely ladies, a big black one and an Italian,  change my seat for a window seat as I had requested. The plane is 2 hours late… Now I find out the significance of airport lounges… Endless coffee and croissants and booze for those with nervous disposition. Eventually we are off and a magic button beside me lowers me into a flat sofa and sleep and a dinky little window shuts off the chap opposite. Then surprise, surprise, brilliant food! As good as at the beloved Swan.

Many, many hours later Mexico City. Getting off the plane we have to walk at least half a mile through an immense shopping mall, full of the usual culprits, before getting to showing my passport. There the foreigners’ queue doubles back and forth like a local anaconda sleeping. The luggage takes an hour and a half to arrive. Why? I am told I am lucky it isn’t three hours.

Finally disgorge to find lovely German waiting, but alas another two hours by bus to Puebla…Oh my God…. The organisation of coach travel is extraordinary. Massive security, a ticket for each bag in the hold, a goodie bag of snacks and freezing air con. I sleep all the way.

At the bus terminal a taxi. This is paid for before leaving. A ticket is issued with the cab number. I remark on the organisation of travel, German says, “We are so many we have to be organised.”

I am promised a big surprise on arrival, oh please NO, I just need a bed…  a surprise it certainly is for a beautiful child of 13 months is produced, and unbeknown to my hosts what my real name is she has been called Marianne! Then two of the tiniest dogs I’ve ever seen, white poodles each smaller than Truelove my Burmese cat. A final surprise. A baby born a week before Sophia!  A little brown worm in her mother’s arms. Yes surprises, please save them for tomorrow…



  S A T U R D A Y   J a n u a r y   1 2 t h

The sun is shining and how ridiculously dopey one feels after 22 hours of travelling. I think about the Spanish arriving after weeks and weeks being rolled around in wooden tubs. I am spoilt.

My bathroom flood now extends well into my bedroom’s fitted carpet. Help has been summoned. It might take time it being Saturday. I have been given the biggest room in the house, which is so generous of my hosts. The room is totally empty except for one bed, though two sides of the room are fitted cupboards showing, when opened, that they are completed packed with neatly folded shirts, rows of nicely ironed shirts on hangers and shoes on racks. I unpack onto the floor in piles; books, drawing things, undies, t-shirts and so forth.

Plumber comes and goes, flood has abated but now no water in the loo tank…

The dogs and Marianne have decided that I am all right. Sophia has no comment; she lies in her yellow blanket, a wee brown slug full of Mama’s milk. Adorable.

But I am in Mexico! There must be wonders lurking.

German and I head off to the ceramic workshop in his new silver 4x4. I can hardly see the sky for crocheted electric wires overhead. B lack lace entanglements sprouting from house walls or immense wooden poles, which lean this way and that. How shabby these suburbs are. I am assured that planning permission has never been heard of anywhere in the country. Build where you like what you like. Ramshackle sounds a bit too formal for this mess of grubby buildings looking as though they’ve been piled up from a child’s box of bricks.

The pottery… we’ll see. All a bit arty and fearfully expensive produce. Beautiful craftsmanship but all repro 17th century stuff. It is good they also ask artists to come and make new stuff, some of it is excellent. I must try and think about how to use their splendid techniques.

Back to Puebla for lunch. Load their kiddies up into the silver wagon and head for the poshest hotel in town. Camino Real, once a vast convent, courtyard after courtyard emptying one into the next, all arched walkways and silence. The larger courtyards roofed in billowing sails, like galleons arriving from Spain. We lunch in the largest, soft filtered light plunging in through the sail ceiling. The children are extraordinary, nary a squeak out of either. Marianne sits in a high char guzzling tortillas and smiling the while. Perfect manners at 13 months old, a delight. We eat the same but stuffed with all sorts of things that we choose from a myriad of dishes on the table, meat and chillies, grilled cheese and, best of all, guacamole. Yummy stuff.

The historic centre of Puebla is laid out on a rigid grid. The streets are miles and miles long. The houses are beautiful 18th century Spanish colonial, but no grills in the windows here to keep the girls in. I suppose there just weren‘t any girls, posh Spanish ones, in the early colonial days Typical facades are red bricks laid in geometric patterns with blue and white small tiles forming part of the geometry. Ornate white plasterwork surrounds the windows. Vast wooden doors and nothing higher than two stories. No two facades have the same patterning. A lovely solution for brickwork, and how it glows under this overhead sun

Back at the house and I walk las perras on pink leads, read Alex’s play, [very good], do animal noises for Marianne and just give up…




     S U N D A Y   J a n u a r y   1 3 t h      P U E B L A

Slept long, long hours with Snappy and Cobi, the two miniature poodles, under the duvet keeping my feet warm Together they about make the size of my rather small Burmese cat Truelove.
Off to breakfast with my hostess Jacqueline’s parents in a suburban Marriot hotel. Okay it has a big garden and a dinky pool, but such places are the haunt of the bourgeoisie anywhere in the world. However the desayuno is pretty spectacular; the usual hotel buffet but loaded with local stuff: envelopes of banana leaves filled with patties of chicken and chilli. Maize husks stuffed with some sort of maize paste. Hot green worms (?) and tortillas of all colours and sizes. Some of them even blue! Fruits of all climes and colours. I try everything but my taste buds are chained to Europe. It all looks ethnic and handcrafted but the scrambled eggs lure me. Countries each have their own special taste; here it is maize and chilli.
To the Sunday flea market in mid-town. Parking is impossible but here there are plenty off street facilities where handsome young boys whiz cars back and forth in tiny spaces packing them ten deep. Watching their skill is fun, dodgems with real machines. Mercs and Jags and VWs whirled and skidded into place. I am much impressed.

The Ampharo museum, newly opened and very fine it is. A private collection in a grand house, the doyen of which hung up her clogs last year, though her portrait by Diego Rivera hangs in the front hall. He was a good portraitist in his naive style. Most of the museum is packed with pre Columbian artefacts, and weird they are. Skulls, stone ones, bone ones, ceramic and textile ones. Most are art works, some real and all with lots of teeth. And dogs. Hundreds of dogs, mostly ceramic Chihuahuas, kept to warm inside beds on cold nights, then, when sufficiently fattened, eaten.

The strange thing for Europeans is how NEW ancient Mexico is. Sure the culture goes back, but it never changed much. What a mess the conquistadores made, a strong and successful civilization just wiped out. Around 26 million inhabitants of Mexico when they arrived and in less than five years the population was down to less than two million. Slaughter and disease, the usual gifts of colonialists.

Finally we get to the flea market. The children still behaving like angels as we trundle them around in their strollers. Great stuff on offer, helmets, old coke bottles, light bulbs, ex-votos, flowers. It would take forever to go through all the old trunks looking for delights. And now baby Sophia requires the back seat of the car where she can consume vast quantities of her mother’s milk.

On the way home food is garnered, tortillas from the tortilla shop, a place full of 19thC  machinery, cogs and wheels, all turned by hand and doing the work of a hundred grannies. Then the roast chicken take away, a global look alike. Then the ice cream place where the stuffed is whizzed up with even more sugar and spices and poured into litre plastic tubs with holes in the top for straws.

Home and everyone eats a heap more. Am tired, the altitude, 2600 metres, takes some adjusting for us sea level residents. Am asleep before 10pm with the dogs behind my knees.



   M O N D A Y    J a n u a r y   1 4 t h      T A L E V E R A

Another nine hours sleep. It is excessive… Nobody can leave home until Signora Batitta arrives. She minds the house and cleans. She can’t get in. Actually nobody can get in, four locks between the street and the kitchen and neither Batttita or I have any of them. Impossible to get out ether. Security is immense. No windows open on the house. The street has a gate, albeit made of wire netting, and 24-hour watchmen. One of whom was killed last night by a Pemex petrol tanker roaring down the street. No heads will roll; some money will be paid to the family. Pemex is the government and who can sue the government?

We wait and wait; Jacqueline cannot be left alone as she is not very strong yet from the caesarean birth of Sophia. German explains that despite huge unemployment in Mexico it is impossible to find good reliable home help.

At Talavera, the ceramic workshop, it is difficult to know where to start. I am an idiot because I can’t speak Spanish and nobody speaks anything else except the owner Angelica and she’s on the phone. Am surrounded by exquisitely made objects all in 17th century mode. Plenty of contemporary Mexican artists come but… well, they do their best. Am not sure craft workshops are any longer for me. It is all a bit like looking at history down the wrong end of a telescope. I am hopeless at painting with glazes, it is a skilled technique, but that is what they want. Sculpting stuff is hard as there are no tools at ll. Am a bloody fool for not bringing tools. Mm… It is too dark to see in the clay room, and bitter cold. Outside the sun shines and come 10 am it is warm enough t work outdoors.

At 2pm German collects me, Talavera is in the middle of nowhere, and public transport doesn’t exist. We are gong to see his new office in Container City. What a delight. Container City is new and fresh and not at all shabby. Containers are stacked up in crazy piles, painted wonderful colours, pink, yellow, prussian blue, maroon, chrome yellow and so on and are inhabited by young designers. All is fresh and new. Lovely. Now I feel better. One bright young thing gets out of his container own a slide! He has a ladder for access.

Tacos, a smoothy, and an espresso in the container bar, I’ve found my world and I love it.  One of German’s assistants also has a minute white poodle, which he carries in his arms. It is never put down. It seems toy white poodles are de rigueur in Puebla! An odd local custom.

The hunt is on for clay tools. Odd Talavera has nothing, not even callipers or rulers, but everything is perfectly constructed so they have honed their system well what ever it is. Daniel, another of German’s helpers, a photographer, sweetly drives me into town to an art shop. We buy up their stock.

The clouds are banking up round the volcanoes. It is rather splendid having Popocatapetle in the back yard as it were. We drive a different route back to Cholula past vast new housing estates. Social housing, thousands and thousands of shoe box houses. Private development but the government is involved by giving the land and partially funding these vast projects. Cubist blocks painted vivid colours, mostly yellows and pinks. It all looks marvellous but the houses are tiny, packed too close and Mexican families are enormous so the occupants are not happy. A breezeblock or tin shed in the wilderness is thought better.

The architects and designers of Mexico are clever in their use of colours, extraordinary combinations, I doubt if I could put colours together quite so well.

Daniel brings me home in the gloaming. The house is swarming, mother, mother in law, Jacqueline and her sister, cleaning lady, 2 baby girls, two female dogs and me. Ten women and one man! Too much. I grab a cup of herb tea and vanish to bed.




   T U E S D A Y   J a n u a r y   1 5 t h      C H O L U L A

Wake a 5am but the dogs aren’t interested. Signor Bertoli, the taxi man, picks me up at 8 o’clock. Talavera is still shut when we get there so sit in the rather too cool sun until Chilia, the manageress, arrives with a whopper key and lets work commence.

I struggle with the swan goblet and after four hours the bugger totally collapses. I should have watched how the clay maestro did it yesterday but arrogance made me think I could improve on his work. So I take one of his goblets and add head, wings and webbed feet and send it across the courtyard to the mould makers. Must get these bloody dishes done before trying for something new, but this clay is, difficult stuff as it has no grog in it.

German picks me up. It is already 2.30pm and I need food. He says he has to stop for two minutes at an artist’s studio. Jose Lazcarros, a lovely man in blue overalls working away inside a huge industrial building where several assistants are etching and banging on metal frames for his paintings. In the middle of the studio stands a huge old kitchen table with a two-litre bottle of tequila on it. Behind the table and lashed to a rickety metal structure is the largest television screen I’ve ever seen. German and Jose settle into the tequila.
I dare not touch the cacti juice on an empty stomach. Instead wander about the studio enjoying the energy of the good work being produced.

I find a chair suitable for a one year old, a piece of furniture that has been used for generations. Nails are loose, legs are wonky. Jose inscribes it for me. I love it. Still dare not touch the tequila on a totally empty stomach. It is now 4pm and German and Jose are making the two minute stop one of two hours…

Finally we leave and go for lunch – A sort of Mexican stir-fry but it does make a change from Tortillas and Tacos. Back to Container City where the packaging for a new box of pencils is being developed. Achil has made the box. I don't know how he does it with Pearla the miniature poodle always under his arm. German tells me he has a wife and has never seen Achil without his dog and he also wonders what their love life is.

Fewer grannies around and the computer has frozen. BORING. Especially as everyone is out. Popocatapetle looms in the dusk.


 W E D N E S D A Y   J a n u a r y   1 6 t h      T A L A V E R A

Signor Britoil is here on the dot. Bad morning's work because as I well knew it will take a month before anything is fired. Stupid to come and work here. However they may be able to make the goblet and Swan dish. Nothing to do. Total waste of time. 

Daniel comes to start photo log but he has locked his camera in German's office so he has to use mine. We go to lunch. Expensive. We go to Puebla. Everything shut. My greatest problem is getting to see anything ordinary; everyone is embarrassed by their local colour and wants to go to Walmart. But I force Daniel to take me to Cholula mercato. It is of course lovely. All the usual stuff, twenty-five different bright coloured knitting wools, amazing hats piled high and men’s socks made up into gift packages with sparkly bows.

Even the vegetables for soup are assembled in transparent bags in perfect multicoloured mosaics. Wonderful to be able to take home everything chopped and clean and ready to cook. Brilliant idea.

Bloody computer, crashes everything again. See Snappy and Cobi have no food so go off with a granny to buy the poor little starving things something. The dog food is all too huge lumps for them. Granny says I mustn't buy cat food. I do and the dogs hurtle through a big bowl of cat chow. Amazing what you can write on the outside of a sack and everyone believes it. Find some cold rice for supper. Pretty rotten day. Could do with a drink but dare not help myself.


 T H U R S D A Y   J a n u a r y   1 7 t h      T A L E V E R A

Bad night as dogs wriggled the entire night – am not their favourite. German came home late and noisily watched football on the TV.

Paint dishes. Nothing else worth doing.  Two swans, one tiger. I want to go home. Time will pass no doubt. Have to pay for moulds. Don't think making stuff is worth it. Italy is close, can drive there. All boring.


 F R I D A Y  J a n u a r y   1 8 t h      T A L E V E R A

I now have on everything I own to keep warm. 'Will have to visit the market for a jersey and thick knickers. Didn't bring the ones bought in Tripoli market. Pity.

The paint shop at Talevera is bitter. If only the chatter of girls was warming. A chap in the paint shop, what a difference, all is giggle, giggle. Am finally convinced that the meaning of life is reproduction. Nothing more. Life is about keeping the species going and possibly making it stronger: give me a better reason if you have one.

Paint another couple of dishes, am hopeless at getting glaze on. One of the girls is wonderful and makes the glaze flow like watercolour. Enviable skill. I suppose it can be learnt, but not by me.

Frustrating not to be able to paint nicely. I think tomorrow I'll do some watercolours.

Daniel picks me up and we head to town to change money. The posh sort-of bank place is closed, odd Mexican hours, but there you go. 'Lucky I still have a lot of pesos. Lunch in a vegetarian restaurant, 100 pesos for two. That's a fiver for two for 3 courses each. Best buy yet but am still hungry. Impossible to get out of this house to go shopping, and even harder to get in again. If prison is about curtailing movement, then this is prison.



 S A T U R D A Y   J a n u a r y   1 9 t h    N E W    P U E B L A

To the Lazcarros Show. Everyone is packed in the 4X4, grannies, kiddies etc. An old water purification plant is now The Contemporary Art Museum. The whole world reissues their industrial installations as museums. Globalization at a cultural level! The building is very well converted but of course despite it being Saturday no one is in experiencing modern art except us.

Jose's works are messy grey and brown abstracts with frames of metal. There is a sound track to the show of blaring theVenusburg music, something to do with a rusty VW installation of old beetles sprayed khaki and covered with barely visible text. The music is in the cars! Goodness how I miss such grand music, it makes me alive instantly, best part of the show. All a bit creepy with no one else about. But I have Sophia asleep in her pram next to me.

I suppose Beuys is responsible for all this stuff. Hell, that was a long time ago. The square room with one VW has elegant black text on the walls. I touch it. All hand painted. Hand painted texts are a great Mexican skill. Have only seen them used for commercial purposes until here. Entire house facades are often covered offering anything from wholesale sugar and tortillas to bathrooms and car spare parts. The writing is usually black or blue on white wash. Perfectly formed letters, always sans serif. Definitely foreign fonts and not European. The letters and fonts are square. In a way a feeling of Hebrew format.

This new area of Puebla is very good. It is how we all know contemporary Mexican architecture. The colours are stupendous, yellow, yellow ochre, salmon, Venetian red. It all works in the brilliant sunlight.

The new hotel Purificadora is as posh and smartly boutique as it is possible to be. An old stone industrial building gone modern.
Hopeless glass cantilevered balconies on each room, who could sit out on them in this climate? Heavy old wood furniture and stylish sofas whose colour alas has faded in this bright light. All totally international and global and boutique.  Memo to Diccon: we must invent a new style.

Visit the church of San Francisco, only the granny has been before, German and Jacqueline don't  ‘do' old buildings. Fantastic brick façade, with huge still lives of vases of flowers on giant ceramic panels set in the brick work. Pretty dull interior, only a granny comes in with me, the usual dressed up dollies and San Fran himself in a vast silver coffin with a glass side so we are able to see his anguish. In the church shop, [who can resist the possibility of finding treasure,] frightful holy rubbish. Except high on the wall great embroideries made of thousands of tiny silver ex votos.

To Angelica's hostelry Casa Reyna, also in the new cultural development area of the city. Looks better in its photos than it is. Okay, but really all the pots are a bit too much, expect to see thieves jump out of them. But we eat… well of course, some tortillas, then Into the car, a complicated business, load Marianne into the kiddie seat. Load Sophia into her seat, strap them both in. Load push chair. Load Jacqueline and kiddie snacks. Load Granny. Load me and the other granny. Phew. Push off into the afternoon sun towards the volcanoes.

St Maria Tonantzintla…..? Wow!! Miles beyond Cholula in a wasteland of coloured falling down bungalows this incredible church. Over the whole bloody top, Gold and more gold and every surface covered with bambini and dwarfs and saints and flowers carved in a wonderful indigenous local style. All constructed around 1700 by locals. The work actually reduces baroque to a human level. The saints are short and fat. The angels are podgy. The Madonnas look like local queens of the may. The church is packed for a wedding; the women are in long strapless satin evening gowns. The bridegroom in tails. The music of the sung mass has a definite Mexican lilt and rhythm. One can almost hear the angels, clinging to the roof, clap their hands. Outside a few jolly Indians have stalls of goodies. I buy a painted goat and a Winnie the Pooh hand woven plastic rattle for Marianne. A real ethnic reinterpretation of someone else's icon.



Back for 'lunch' at five o'clock; more tacos and tortillas. Into the car and off for coffee. We are going to one of the vast shopping malls where we even have to pay to park. Bluewater eat your heart out. This is ghastly – the entire mall given over to cafes of various grim styles. It all makes Starbucks elegant. We have three coffees, two small ice creams and a slice of nasty cheese cake and the bill is a tenner, which is considerably more than I paid for a hand turned and painted wooden bowl and all the other bits and pieces outside he church. There is really such a vast social divide between those that shop in malls and those that shop in the local mercato. Give me the latter any day. We meet Jose the artist, well into tequila, and his guests Mario Benedetti and wife – it is now 6:50 and they are into lunch. Much networking amongst artist/designers. Wish I could make out why this shoptalk gives me the creeps. But at least I get a tequila. Pretty yummy and served with a liquer glass of chilled tomato juice. Wish I sincerely enjoyed hanging out in kafs. Fractionally better than pubs but only by a hair's breath. Eventually, after tropical dark has dropped over the casinos, we off home to collapse in front of the tele and watch Mexican teams play the most incredible football where everyone kicks the opposite team, trips them up and even blatantly pushes them out over the line. It does make this boring game almost tolerable.

Late night statistic; Puebla has well over two million people and the richest are the Lebanese.


  S U N D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 0 t h       P L A Y    D A T E    I N    P U E B L A

I do wish it wasn't so cold in the mornings or I had some warm clothes and why did Jacqueline say it was hot? Can pile T-shirts and layers on top but the bum is really chilled.

German takes me sightseeing in town. It is strange he really doesn't know the place at all, neither does the police woman know where the Museo Santa Rosa is nor does the tourist office. No matter, walking the town at last is really rather good. Grid pattern in the 17thC plan, a large area neatly divided into streets, even more formal than New York. I suppose it was the logical way to build a new town. Some of the lovely 17thC mansions have become shopping malls their courtyards roofed and the usual plethora of baby Jesuses laid out on stalls. Feb 2nd is that kid’s special day, a day where everyone takes their own baby Jesus to church for a blessing. The shops are full of outfits for dressing your Niños Jesu. The poorer the quarter the more gold plastic bits and pieces are available for a few pesos. One shop at the shabby end of the fish market had what, in the right place, would be considered an art installation. Todos por el Niños announced the label on the vast transparent plastic envelope; yes, crown and earrings and brocade gown, slippers, even a baby's bottle and toys for Jesus! Incredible.

For the first time am allowed to drop into some churches; some are pretty good all dripping with gold and saints in glass coffins. One church has a couple of white marble hounds resting on a cornice above the main entrance. I like that. The cathedral reminds me of St Paul's, same period but smaller and very grey. Coffee in a posh kaf with a brilliant marimba music duo. Evelyn Glennie eat your heart out. Both playing on the same instrument they make it sound like ten of them. Terrific.

Back to last week's market to buy a job lot of ex votos. Dated from 1917-43. The pictures are a delight. Someone is asking Santa Monica to stop his wife beating him, another to find his lost cow, or cars, bicycles, goats, roofs. Must translate the messages immediately. Such art is real, heart felt and innocent. Mind you wherever they came from must have been an ex-voto artist in residence in the way some countries have public letter writers.  Perhaps they are fakes, but what the hell, the stories certainly are not.

A wind band is playing merrily, classics, straight from Classic FM. March of the Toreadors, La Mer (odd that on brass). A Strauss waltz, Traviata. I go to put money in the box as they play well, they refuse – I think they must be members of the town orchestra –

 German's sister has come from Mexico for the day.

Lunch is the same pile of tacos and tortillas. Am looking forward to buying different food when we travel. I never want to see a taco again. Ever. But Snappy and Cobi love them –


 M O N D A Y    J a n u a r y    2 1 s t      B A D    C E R A M I C    D A Y

A nothing day. My work is quite horrible. I HATE ceramics. The glazes curl up and become something totally different. But we do eat enough. So go to bed no longer hungry. It is very cold…


 T U E S D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 2 n d       C H O L U L A    

I seem to have been in Mexico most of my life. But a better day. Worked in German's office and did a simple clear design of a couple of Jaguars tearing about. It should work either with a white background or with what they call a " plummed " one. Am pretty fed up with it all but felt better working alongside German's computers than in the ceramic workshop. Went for a long drive with German and Caeser in the back. I believe it was to look for 2nd hand iron to use as building stuffs in German's about to be built library. We drove miles and miles away under the shadow of a volcano. Extraordinary village, well a shambolic development along the roadside of bits of cars, piles of old tyres and metal dumps. The yard we went to had a shrine in the middle of the dump. Well it was more a glazed loggia attached to a vermillion house. The lady of the house wouldn't let me photograph the sky-high pile of smashed aluminium chairs. Great installation, but perhaps everything was stolen goods and she didn't want anyone coming around for their metal furniture. The man was carrying a baby about as Achil carries his poodle. They all smelt pretty horrid but the baby seemed cheerful as it was carried up and down piles of rusty iron.

Finally got back to Container City nearing five o'clock – it did feel a long time since breakfast! Ate in the Argentine eatery for a change. Some tortillas with sausages for starters followed by a very thin steak nearly as big as my plate and a wonderful surprise, cream and spinach. Perhaps Argentines eat greens, Mexicans certainly do not.

Tomorrow off on the trip. I hope it will be good. It will certainly be expensive! House full of aunts, the place swarms with women again…



 W E D N E S D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 3 r d       R O A D   T O    O A X A C A

Daniel turned up prompt. He even has some car insurance, bought on my insistence, it not being compulsory here. Gave him breakfast and we are off by 8:30am. Of course no petrol in the car, or drinking water. Stop at an OXOX, millions of them about, they sell stuff like water, coke, crisps etc. We load up. Finally out of this sprawling city, which does go on and on straggling across the Great Gombolian Plain, the great Central Mexican plain that is dry and dead. Daniel tells me construction workers work on building sites during the dead season. Daniel drives at a very sedate 80km an hour, neither more nor less. Odd in a young man. The landscape gradually turns from dead grey to green and red earth. Before long we hit  hills that are completely covered in extraordinary cacti. Theo and I must have seen them but I have no recollection. These cacti are anything from 20-50ft tall, completely vertical. Green telegraph poles, pale green if the sun is on them, dark if they are against the sky. Hundreds of thousands of them growing in no particular pattern, between 1 and 3 meters apart. It seems they are used for absolutely nothing, but I think this requires more research. Odd, not beautiful. There are really several very primitive looking species of plant life growing on this hostile soil, one has large green brillo pads at the end of thick branches. Pretty big as well. Then there are a sort of giant pineapple about 4ft tall with mad spikes and bright green hair. And vast tree cacti looking much like churchyard yews except wider and grey, not green.

The motorway is good. Only one lane in each direction but then there isn't much traffic. Yellow lines are beautifully painted and we pass rows of chaps in sombreros painting away everywhere. Good minimalist art.

Nothing much in the way of towns and villages to see. Cortez must have had a job of pushing through this landscape. For goodness sake, what did he and his men eat? Jaguars even then must have been shy. D tells me, when asked, that Mexicans don't hunt. A big plus. They don't smoke either so another big plus.

At 80kms and hour it does take a long time to get to Oaxaca. We find a hotel. Not easy with packed streets and a killer one way system, but eventually find one, an old house slipping down hill with a jolly lady in charge. We dump our cases and head off for grub. A buffet. Vast but not too delicious. Daniel eats about 7 courses… Oaxaca is another grid pattern town. Grand houses, all stone built and all with two or three interior courtyards. They must have been fine to live in. Coffee on the Zocalo, then walk about and see the recommended bookshop. It is pretty great and loads of super books at half price. Also a market outside the bookshop with beautiful embroidery on clothes but what a hideous cut to everything. Painted wooden creatures are pretty marvellous. Skilled work. Oh yes, we visited the Oaxaca contemporary art museum. D said we had to. Gorgeous old convent, but what a load of junk. Actually most of it is exactly that and held together with sticky tape.

Good photography show in yet another old fine building. Joel Pickleford – fine stuff. Haunting views of the American Deep South Then I insist on a Margarita. Have been dreaming of it for day after day so repair back to the zocalo. A real town centre complete with cathedral and surrounded by cafes.

A town dance is going on. Orchestra of 6 marimba players plus a drummer and saxophonist. A weird mixture, they play what is called 'DANZON' music, a  slow and decorous tango. All ages dance and dress is formal. Mixed sex couples holding each other in past times ballroom style. Two steps forward and one back in tango rhythm. So gentle and peaceful. No writhing and all pleasure. We walk up the hill and from the hotel terrace see that it is full moon is rising over the city.


 T H U R S D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 4 t h      O A X A C A

Bit of a hard on day. Shopping. To the Soledad Temple in the morning. Great space. Daniel takes hours photographing a falling angel, then on to the main market. Absolutely and totally VAST. Happily not yet crowded when we arrive. Alleyways in all directions. Toys n' fruit n' baskets n' radios n' eating stalls n' butchers & & &. We photograph & photograph. Daniel's are arty and fine. Mine might best be called snaps on a good camera. Coffee, cappuccino, at a price, in the Zocalo. Good to sit. Back to secondary market to spend n' spend. Don't buy too much, just bits of this and bits of that. It is all gorgeous, hours and hours of work. Heart breaking. Buy a ridiculous dress with red ribbons and lace skirt. Lots of temping STUFF all made by hand and almost free. Cheap yes but it still eats up the capital. Bookshop and lovely books. Fatal. They are so heavy. Lug everything back to hotel Casa del Solano. Head off for lunch. In the posh area by Santo Domingo. Great lunch 70 pesos ahead. About £3.50 each. 4 courses. All good. Amazing

Santo Domingo, gilded angels galore but not earth shattering. Museum of Oaxaca culture in ex monastery attached to Santo Domingo. WOW ENORMOUS. I think the first time in my life I have actually got lost in a museum. Corridors of cells hundreds of yards long, better counted in miles. History of Oaxaca from shards to cinema. At one point alone in a cell and exhausted I watch a film of the funeral of some president around 1900.

Very weird. Hardly anyone in the museum, it costs a fortune to enter but is pretty well maintained, with somewhat malignant guards outside each cell. Windows open at the end of each corridor. No actual windows – just big rectangles open in the stone and giving onto views over the amazing surrounding countryside. So clear and bright in this wonderful air. The grandeur and cost of installing a new regime by the conquistadors is mind-boggling. Talk about oppressing the natives. The entire task is unimaginable. A totally new complete culture. The Brits didn't build like this in India until Lutyens and by then there was a certain amount of technology available. Here not even horses to help except imported ones from Spain. What an achievement and the Spanish held the terrain about as long as we held India. To the Camino Real, a vast old monastery and now a very posh hotel, for a margarita. Yummy. Totally delicious. Plan out tomorrow and the rest of the trip sitting on our hotel balcony, where I find the charming single waiter of the hotel can make fine margaritas at half the price. And so to bed after too much shopping. Early start for Monte Alban.


    F R I D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 5 t h      M O R E    O A X A C A

Extraordinary bad night. Was frozen so put a long cardie on bed, woke up from terrible dreams at 3am. Threw cardie off – alarm rang 5:30am. Am bonkers. Yet again. Alarm should have been set at 6:30am…Only discover wrong time after shower and dressing – go on terrace and wait for breakfast to open at 7.30. Bitter cold. After such hot days weird how cold the nights get. Height I suppose.

Collect car after breakfast. D worries about his little Opel. Not too nasty a car as it does have air con. We head for Monte Alban. Like all heritage towns Oaxaca has a perfect centre and is surrounded by sprawl. Even shopping malls! Car shops, rubbish dumps, hovels and stinking water holes and noise and more noise..

Monte Alban. Nothing has changed since I was here with my beloved Theo. Huge empty football patches – hideously steep steps – how did they manage them? What a place to hang out even if one did have a herd of llamas for comfort. A bitter wind sweeps across the Aztec football pitches. Am as always convinced that trippers suck the soul out of spaces. Pilgrims don't, though even quantities of them are pretty dodgy.

All noisy – and chaps in sombreros selling repro ceramic masks. I feel sorry for these chaps – what a life flogging rubbish to twits.

D takes ages doing clever angle shots of stones while I snap postcard pix and find nooks out of the atrocious north wind. You can see for miles, Oaxaca rests below in its bowl of pollution. Okay, it is magnificent to be on top of the world but I would rather be warmer.

A coffee and back to Oaxaca to find the road to Tilcajete, where the Alebrijes are made. Small creatures mostly made form a local wood farmed for the purpose called COPAL. It is a curious and rather fine industry of recent invention and some of the beasts are fantastic. Extraordinary rabbits with enormous blue ears – Jaguars (here in Mexico call Hagwars) in incredible poses taken from the way the wood grows. Some of the makers are really stunning artists. After carving the works are painted with flowers and patterns. Some of it very repetitive. Livings have to be made. Some of it truly original. The figures serve no purpose whatsoever, and the whole craft came into being a decade or so ago. A true tourist craft and, most surprising of all, some brilliant artists are growing with the craft. Buy a couple of small pieces. Getting stuff home is going to be a pill. Photographs will have to do. Shame on me. Obviously the trade is helping the locals enormously to have a decent life. Houses are being built. There is street lighting in the village and everyone is making stuff, the men carve, they use only a large knife and a small one, and wives paint and kids learn. The front rooms of the houses are shops and the entire family is in the business from grannies to toddlers. We are the only visitors today.

Back to Oaxaca and circumnavigate the edges of town, and make for Tule to be awed by the so called biggest tree in the world. Cortez is said to have stood under it and it is somewhere between two and 3000 years old.

It is 58 metres in circumference, the trunk that is, and weight's 618.107 tons, (how do you weigh a tree?) It is a sort of Cyprus, and it is said it will die unless something is done about the 110 sq kms of surrounding industrial mess, which is interfering with the tree's water needs.

The church, in whose yard it grows, makes a nice little business of letting people in at three pesos each. 30p.

We lunch next to the tree. D says we won't be poisoned. It is pretty disgusting , but for a couple of courses each £1.50 is a bargain.

Final sight, which I think will be the big success, is a museum of graphic design. It isn't. It is a library in an old house. An art library. I find a wonderful book about Ottoman ceramics so am perfectly happy while D photographs cacti in the courtyard.

Tomorrow to dip our feet in the Pacific. Daniel is a dear andate at night brings me a prezzie of an almost life size straw pig with an embroidered blouse in its belly.


 S A T U R D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 6 t h      T O    T H E    P A C I F I C 

A driving day. Now we know the way out of Oaxaca it is easy. Stop at St Martin, where the wooden creatures are made to buy a cow I saw yesterday. Seems a pity to leave her there when she'd actually said she was coming with me. Goodness knows how I will get everything back to London. Kilos of overweight. Wondered a bit why the man says six hours to Puerto Angel and it is 249 kms exactly. A mere slow 2 hours. But map is right but it didn't show a 10.000ft spot height that has to be mounted and descended several times. A very well laid 249 kms of asphalt. From the foot of the mountain until Puerto Angel the yellow line in the centre of the road is unbroken. In other words imagine a continuous S bend 249 kms long.. Relentless. I am about to throw up when we reach the summit. Gruesome, and D is driving incredibly carefully.  I insist on driving. That makes the bends, vomit wise, just tolerable, but then Daniel gets car sick, of course I have insisted on the worse by taking the wheel of a Mexican’s precious baby, how will he ever hold his head up again in front of the chaps? Seeing a roadside shack selling Coke we stop and I buy gobstoppers hoping by sucking something sweet will alleviate nausea. Horror of horrors, the gobstoppers are made of chilli! Going down the mountains we stop at another shack to use the banos, not nice but D doesn’t piss in nature. He buys me a travel sickness pill. I refuse to take it not wanting to be knocked out for 24 hours. Fascinating that a wayside shack sells travel sickness pills. I dread to think what the inside of the buses must be like!

I let D take the wheel again before we arrive at Puerto Angel. After all his pride is very important to him. We try for a hotel on the beach in town. No go. I find one in the trusty Lonely Planet guide book which so far has not let us down. Must tell them. We take road down from the hilltop that would make even an Afghan tremble. Odd to have a posh resort at the bottom of such a series of sandy trenches axle deep.

A glorious cove is reached facing straight out into the Pacific. Such a deep cove is clear of surfers. Mud huts with straw roofs and a bare footed super annuated hippy man lolls about in reception. Bloody place costs a whole bomb of money and they don't take plastic. About 10 foreigners littered on the beach. It is 4pm and we are starving. A bare footed younger Mexican takes an order. D gives one without asking. This won't do, toy boy, he must mind his ps & q's.

No rooms left except a luxury double hut. So no choice. Don't really fancy sharing a room though he is pretty enough. Have a dip, the Pacific is freezing and the undertow scary, but guess that the sea will chuck me out on the beach where one must scramble quick up the sand bank before being dragged out again. Only cold water in the shower, which is a bit rough at the price. Still sticks to hang ones towel on and a tiled floor. All visually very nice. A day will be ample.



  S U N D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 7 t h      O N    T H E    R O A D

Sleep like a log and never heard Daniel come to bed. Then he sleeps like another log and doesn't wake when I start creeping about well before dawn.

It is actually quite nippy pre dawn, which does take the edge off the midday humidity. Breakfast doesn't start coming until 9am – just bread and sort of guava spread. Fruit is always fine – tasty. Cool coffee and as always the dreadful long life milk. This could be such a marvellous secret place but there are 2 options. 1. keep as is and cut the price at least in half or, 2. get their act together, hot water, breakfast from 6am and so on. Some stones in the road, potholes would help considerably. We actually get away at 11am. Thankfully D's car has air con. Also thankfully we didn't drive on and arrive at a nightmare resort development next stop down the road to Juchitan

A truly vast great resort area – could be Rodos, could be California or Phuket. The Lonely Planet guide did warn…too much development. Enormous empty boulevards. Clean policemen leaning against palm trees. Vast hotels in the middle of golf courses… and so on. We stop at the Italian Coffee Shop, Mexico's Starbucks.  Fair cappuccino price, about like the Ritz Londres.  Prize D away but can see he has a sneaking wish to be part of all this grade luxe.

Phew, what a relief to be back on the road with coconut matted ’Comida’ stops. Urchins and dogs on the roadside and ladies washing under what must be the village fire hose. God, I’d rather stay in one of these places, well for a bit.

Distances are huge . I think our map must be 50 miles to the inch. D will still not exceed 80 kms an hour speed and I dare not ask why as he just might start showing off and better safe than sorry.

Goodbye Pacific, you are a great ocean, but so bleak. Too big. Too cold. Looking at you as we drive along I realise the next land fall is Sri Lanka; too far for cosiness.

We turn left onto the ‘autopista’, a posh highway leading from Salina Cruz to Guatemala. 26 pesos for 30 minutes and we are the ONLY car. Quite creepy. No, very creepy. Just the perfect double yellow line snaking down the centre of the asphalt. All the motorway pay stations are in place and full of chaps in caps ready to take money but no cars… How are they ever going to pay for this with only us as customers?

We turn off for Tehuantepec, by pass it,  then 30 kms of dead straight road over a vast plain to Juchitan. It is just like it name, (pronounced Hoochytan) a chaotic wild west sort of place. The market is closing as we arrive, am surprised it is even there on a Sunday at 4pm. An amazing mess of rubbish with dogs scurrying and peeing, stinking fish, ladies in national costume, men sitting in circles round trees just being men. Had to buy a petticoat as D needed to borrow some change.

D buys tortillas something very nasty looking n a banana leaf. No doubt chilli will sanitize this horror. D says Juchitan is very much a hub, could be as the place is stuffed with hi-tech shops.

We clock into the best hotel in town. The price for two rooms is exactly one tenth of what we paid at the hippy beach doss house. There is even hot water and my own en suite. All is spotless. Get the air con turned off and they even find me a beside light, dreadful long life bulb but at least I can read. We eat at D’s friend’s restaurant on the corner. Umm… less said the better, but the chicken soup is sort of okay, at least not a single gringo in sight. This I like.

Tomorrow heigh ho for the Atlantic. I get to admire old Cortez more and more pushing his way across this inhospitable rugged terrain and all the time wearing a heavy sardine tin of armour. How he built cities as well. An incredible feat of sheer determination and organisation.   

ROAD HUMPS  A Mexican specialty. Almost invisible ‘Reductores’. They are everywhere and will break your axel if you are stupid enough to ignore them. Watch out! They come in pairs, sometimes visible and painted with yellow stripes, often just lumps of any old stuff lying around, stones, bricks etc. Smart persons, who have merchandise to flog like tambales or honey, stand by these humps, as cars have to slow to walking speed to navigate them. They appear everywhere, main roads, village roads, high streets, parking lots and so forth. Not on motorways but this makes little difference, as there are only three in all Mexico.

A hold up. In one mountain village four girls hold a rope across the road with paper flags attached. To hold the rope and the other two push collecting cans through the window. A local festival needs funding… Charities could try this here.

Floor washing is a national obsession. Courtyards, stairs, floors. Night and day the rattle of buckets, especially prevalent during the hours of siesta. But then Mexicans don’t siesta…


  M O N D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 8 t h       J U C H I T A N

Hotel Lena Lopez Palacio, just what one might expect in a Wild West township. Plenty of noise and instead of men totting pistols the chaps are playing the Internet in the lounge. Glorious long hot shower. Am ready for a new day. Last night read Mexican history until late. What a tangle of politics. Would have to read the book three times to understand it.

Breakfast is pretty disgusting. D homes in on most expensive item on the menu and then eats my tortillas as well. He is a youngish man and is hungry. Can’t leave town as D insists on having the car washed. Inside and out. Is this vanity or machismo or have I spilt too many peanuts on the floor? Result, shiny vehicle and a lost couple of hours of daylight.

God, the villages are awful. I never want to see scruffy again. I want to live I Switzerland or Gloucestershire. Ramshackle buildings with no charm, no planning, no centre, just ugly strips of nothing. People, as always, lovely.

We drive through the bumpy landscape of the tropical south. Very like Sri Lanka without the elephants. Coconut thatched shacks selling Coca Cola, so what’s the difference, except of course half the world? But what a big but. Here the tropical forests have been removed to make space for farting cattle. Vast patches of cleared ground for cows. Removing the lushness is no good. I suppose this is what is happing in Brazil but here on a smaller scale.

CATEMACO, was told this is a ‘must’ to visit. A town sprawled along the side of a sweet water lake just inside the Atlantic. What a hole. Okay the landscape is a bit like Gloucestershire but more bumpy. The Lonely Planet warned about hasslers. On every corner they try to stop us and sell us boat rides to see the monkeys, imported from Thailand years ago. We were warned and as usual the Lonely Planet is right, as always a miracle of exactness everywhere.

It has been raining. Actually it has been raining everywhere since Juchitan but not on us. Heavily, like Portmadoc in August.

Catemaco is for tourists only, but no one here today. Dismal. Eat lunch hanging over the lake in a pretty restaurant, not bad, but why eat shrimps doused in chili? Lovely parrot, Pepe, bored out of his mind and green feathers imprisoned in a cage far too small. I talk to him as long as I can but he gets so excited the proprietor puts a grubby cloth over his cage to stop our conversation. Awful. We search the town for an espresso; find the zocalo, awful as well. Find our coffee on the porch of a dreadful modern hotel with filthy windows and rusty chairs and then it took them half an hour to wind up the espresso machine. D says the town is exotic. I say wrong use of word. Gloomy is correct. Get me out of here!

The Tuxlas. Forget them. Eventually make Tlacotalpan at dusk. An up river colonial port of the conquistadores. Now long out of use for ships of today’s size. One-story houses running either side of palatial streets and each house painted an extraordinary colour. Purple and orange, green and navy blue, primrose and vermillion. The advent of acrylic paints has devastated the town. It looks like a comic book or half-baked Disney World but unbelievably is a World Heritage site. When it was built, mostly in the 18th century, the available colours probably looked quite marvellous, earth colours, some ultramarine and maybe terre-vert and some yellow ochre. The electrics as always are very extreme.

Big party promised for the night and am advised to check into a back room at the hotel. The Mexican problem is that the people are always a delight, helpful, smiling and trying so hard to be nice. But where is the architecture? The buildings are a mess? The original Spanish built wonderful stuff, as did the Aztecs, so what happened? The buildings now, even rural ones, are breezeblock shacks half finished and unpainted. Surely there must have been a few country stately homes. I simply can’t believe six hours of driving and nary a stylish edifice. Goodness, Europe really is a miracle.



  T U E S D A Y   J a n u a r y   2 9 t h    T L A C O T A L P A N

The dawn chorus sounds like a zoo. Shrieks and mutterings. Solos and then the whole lot together. Most of the noise comes from long legged  blackbirds, zanates. Water everywhere but these are not water birds. Thousands and thousands of them lining up on rooftops and electric wires. They behave like starlings but are bigger and thinner.

Huge beautiful breakfast. D again picks top slot, lots of everything, juice and coffee and toast and honey and eggs with olives and shrimps and baskets of tortillas and all the rest of the Mexican stuff fried in lard.

Paid heavily for all above and a not too bad room. The flat landscape is shrouded in fog, which slowly lifts but not good light for photography. Despite its rough colouration Tlacotalpan is good. There are so few decent towns with churches and piazzas and cafes and bustle. Central Puebla, Oaxaca, and now this. All of course colonial outposts. Tlacotalpan is on flat lands beside a really vast river, though it is hard to make out what is river and what is lake, everything merges into a lost horizon. Until late 19th it was a port of some importance. Decent houses with street facades and huge courtyards to the rear. Columns and arcades, bowed windows and iron trellises. Posh plastered façade all rather grand but always a single story. Peeping through the iron grills I see grand but seedy bourgeois rooms packed with cane seated rocking chairs, glass cabinets of china, lace dillies, family photographs and sideboards full of gew gaws. Beyond the reception rooms every house has a really large courtyard garden. From the street the buildings look like rows after row of terraced houses. Perfect plan for living, both private and social. You can sit on the street under the arcades and chat to neighbours, or retreat into private gardens.

As said before, the triumph of Tlacotalpan are the crazy colours. The town hall is bright green with maroon decoration and the next building is chrome yellow, pink dado and chestnut surrounds to widows and doors. And so on, street after street. Impossible to photograph as the streets are so long and it is the juxtaposition of the colours that is so extraordinary. If only they would remove the electric wire and poles, overhead cobwebs crocheted for miles, the town would be staggeringly wonderful. As a World Heritage centre surely they can get the money to do this and bury the cats cradles underground.

Pretty churches looking like children’s birthday cakes are scattered about. Lovely Latin American style music being sung during mass. We go in to listen and are told it is a funeral. Hope they bury me to such jolly songs.

 Lovely dog of no particular breed joins us for the entire morning. Sits quietly as we photograph, looks well fed. Of course I think of loading him into the car but when we put our cases in the vehicle he wanders off. Just enjoys company for a bit. Sensible dog.

Onto Vera Cruz, a 100 kms drive along a sand bar separating the river and lake from the Atlantic Ocean, though can’t see the sea much as it is behind sand dunes. However it peeps through here and there and looks very big and very grey and very flat.

D is determined to seat me in a special café in the zocola at Vera Cruz and drink a very special coffee. The odd thing about Mexico is how awful most of the coffee served is, despite the fact they grow the stuff. Vera Cruz is a wandering kind of city and it takes time to weave our little car though the docks and lorries. Eventually we hit the zocalo, one side of which is the main harbour. Huge ships are coming and going and it is good just to sit and watch them as they slide past the town centre. One vessel, flying I think the Peruvian flag, has BBC painted in vast letters on its hull…

The coffee is totally delicious. A waiter arrives at our table with two huge aluminium kettles, which he raises high and pours a river of coffee from one and milk from the other into tall glasses. This stuff doesn’t taste like Starbucks cappuccino. It is rich and luscious. D was right, it is special.

Walnut brown small boys dive for coins into the harbour.  No health and safety here. No security seeing them off from the harbour front. All rather refreshing. We photograph statues of past dignitaries on plinths in the middle of a mosaic-decorated pool. The pool is packed with water turtles!

It is broiling in the car and the air con is a relief as we fight our way out of town to the autopista towards Xalapa.

At first sight Xalapa does seem to have charm. It spirals about several steep hills. Its roads re packed with traffic so navigation is not easy. We find Posada a Mariquinta as recommended by German. It is nice, an 18th century house with a large garden around which are comfortable bedrooms. Flowering trees, splashing water, shaded terrace, and all this right in the centre of town! Silent rooms and the zocalo only five minutes walk away.

Don’t feel at all good; Mexican grub is definitely for Mexicans and not me. I take some of Monique’s magic medicine and hope for recovery come the dawn.


 W E D NE S D A Y   J a n u a r y   3 0 t h      X A L A P A

D is a pill. He must have met up with friends and gone on the razzle. Twice tried to wake him, but to no avail. Could he be sick? Doubt it. Will wait another half hour…  12.30 pm, peer into his room again and the bloody boy has gone! No matter, except I have no books to read, no drawing stuff, everything is in the car and he has the keys and I’ve no idea even where he parked the car.

To the museum, it is what we’ve come for. D can find his own way. A taxi ride up and up the hill above the town and out of the chaos. The museum is a really fine concrete building, which looks like a concrete Lego set sliding down the hillside. Elegant landscaping and finally a place that is beautifully maintained. The museum is vast and I am the only visitor, the marble halls are for me and a Mrs Mop who single-handed is diligently wiping down the marble acreage.



 A N T R O P O L O G I C A L     M U S E U M     X A L A P A

This museum is a wonder, Built the 70s and early 80s, it has aged fine and is a pleasure to be in. Built on a steep slope it drops downwards, room afer room. The entire space is visible from where one enters, yet as the building descends, each room is a few feet below the last, one doesn’t feel one is looking down a tunnel. The building entices visitors towards the wonders are waiting to be enjoyed.

The pre Columbian artefacts of Mexico are extraordinary. Pottery without a wheel and stone carving without metal tools. It must have taken slaves months and possibly years to carve these huge statues with just obsidian tools. Okay obsidian is volcanic glass and very hard, but it isn’t titanium. The terra-cotta figures are also incredible. Many are life size, mostly built up from flat slabs. The cultures on display span time from the Homeric period to Shakespeare’s day. Differences do appear but considering the length of time these artefacts were made over not much changed. The craftsmen really did have time to perfect their style.

It is all peaceful and quiet in the museum. Such a pleasure to be able to sit and look at the works without the pressure of hordes so often found in all museums in Europe.

I snooze outside on he Bermuda grass. Still no D, so taxi back into town and take myself to lunch. The lunch hour in Mexico is anything up to 6pm. I like this. I eat at the restaurant we ate at yesterday and the old man with his harp is still there. Food is pretty so and so but the menu is only about a £1 and that includes a jug of freshly squeezed fruit juice.

Then a trot to the cathedral, houses of religion are usually places of peace and quiet. Check 336 pix in the camera whilst sitting in a pew. Not too many duds. Not many brilliant ones either. Real me stuff, middle of the road. Medium, that’s me. Medium dress size, medium priced hotels, medium good at stuff… I could scream at being so medium.

D materialises at 5pm. He had got to bed at daylight, e.g. 7am. His film director chum must have been a relief after days struggling with the English language in the company of an old bat. He bought me a CD so I suppose all is forgiven. Just.

We go out and find a bar and down a couple of margaritas and share a dish of guacamole. And so to bed, but the alcohol keeps me awake for hours…


 T H U R S D A Y   J a n u a r y   3 1 s t      H A C I E N D A    E L    L E N C E R O

Early start this morning, D even got up in time for coffee. This posada has been a good place to stay. The perfect argument for courtyard housing.

My idea is we visit a place called the Ex Hacienda Lencero. I much would like to see just one old hacienda and check out the lifestyle of the old Mexican upper classes. We find the right turning off the autopista after a couple of attempts and bump down a dozen kilometres on a side road. We are too early so sit in the sun outside the gate waiting for the security chap to bend the rules and let us into the garden. Mostly rules can be bent a bit in Mexico.

It is good finally to see a proper house with a lovely garden. Fine lawns, fountains and vast trees, some getting on for the size of the Tule mammoth. There are two houses on the site and the original house was on the main road from Vera Cruz to Puebla. This 18th century building is a long rectangle with wide overhanging eves supported on pillars sheltering terraces. The house is an inkblot test, one half a replica of the other half. One terrace on the north side and one on the south. At this latitude the sun is almost vertical overhead so the wind direction would make the choice which side you sit on to sip tequila.  Wonderful vast central room and a couple of smaller salons at either end. A lovely space for living in. The air wafts throughout the entire building. There are folding doors for shutting out hurricanes. The second house is newer and bigger and rather grandiose with two long arms reaching out towards the gardens. It is packed full of Victorian furniture. Double beds in every room, pianos, harps, chandeliers, mirrors, shelves stuffed with nick knacks and about six dinning rooms. Claustrophobic in this climate. The place was lived in until a couple of decades ago. A grand upper class house such as is so beautifully described in A VISIT TO DON OCTAVIO. No postcards, Mexico misses a trick here as there are no cards anywhere. My collection on this trip is a mere small envelope full. Thank goodness for digital cameras.

On to Coatepec. A perfect little colonial town that smells of coffee.  Lovely gentle colours, burnt siena, yellow ochre soft pinks and the like. The town is surrounded by hills covered in coffee plantations so there are shops roasting coffee on all the streets. The buildings all fit tight together, no alleyways between them. Even the churches are not free standing, but packed in like shops. Well, I suppose they are selling something. It makes for a very coherent town.

We buy coffee, the smell is irresistible. I even buy a rosary made from coffee beans for a church minded friend. Maybe coffee is manna from heaven? A surprise; quite a nice lunch in an eatery on the zocalo. Excellent soup as always, then I go for the fish but they’ve wrecked it, dropped it in eggs and deep-fried it with, guess what? Chilies of course. I might as well have eaten stewed plastic bags. But the fruit is exquisite an the cake delicious.

We take the long route back to the autopista. And long it certainly is. We must climb up to 5000 metres, a desolate stony landscape where bleak huts full of Indians and horses lug logs about. Mexican horses are very pretty. Light build and about 14 hands. Direct and unsullied descendents of what the Spanish brought with them. All horses in Mexico look well and I would definitely fancy riding them. Up in these mountains the 4x4s haven’t yet arrived.  We pass from tropical to high alpine in a couple of hours. Driving is incredibly slow, curves, holes in the road and endless ‘topes,’ speed humps. We cover less than 20  kms in an hour; still that is faster than Cortez. D drives well as we navigate black ravines and astonishing high peaks.

Finally we get back to Puebla. There D loses his way and it takes more than an hour of getting lost to find the Montalvo house. Big welcome from everyone, especially the dogs.



    F R I D A Y   F e b r u a r y   1 s t      C O N T A I N E R    C I T Y

Today is the Big Opening of Container City. German has got a bookshop together in the time we’ve been away. He’s cut a container in half, lined it, and painted it. Sliding doors and a sign saying ‘Book Store’, a striped awning but a distinct lack of books. It is Jacqueline’s first day out since giving birth to Sophia. She looks great out of her house pyjamas and with her hair done. The sun is almost setting as we arrive and all is en fete. A steel band is warming up on top of a container overlooking what might be called the town square. All the little posh shops have got themselves cleaned up and decorated. Plenty of designer stuff on offer at vast prices.

This new development shows, in a nutshell, or rather tin can, the Great Mexican Divide, affluence versus poverty. The sick joke is that all this designer gear, shoes, handbags, executive toys etc is exactly as what can be bought in Spitalfields market. The real market in Cholula is full of original and beautiful things, embroidery to die for, ceramics ditto, paper toys and so on. I am told here everything s to do with fashion, therefore all the girls are in tight jeans and bare mid-drifts, sexy tops and stilettos. Such a herd instinct. Even the boys have falling down trousers. Some of the boys are so very beautiful, Mayan, slim, dark skinned with huge eyes. So sad that everyone has to go for identical global culture. Puebla is now surrounded with shopping malls that make Bluewater look like a corner shop.

Waiters rush about with drinks, rum and coke is the most popular. Food circulates, can’t say tamales are my favourite, soggy maize wrapped in the husks of sweet corn. It is unbelievably cold. The altitude here makes curious heat patterns for us Europeans. Hot midday, bitter as soon as the sun sets. I shiver and retreat to German’s office. No heating here either but at least the windows close. Hours pass. I shiver. Eventually Jacqueline decides we can go home. Oh the bliss of bed with a couple of tiny warm dogs for the feet.

Container City is good. Brilliant clever architecture with containers piled up at this and that angle and painted clever bright colours. The interior of containers makes for curious spaces but they could be quite liveable. Even one of them makes workspace for four designers. All is modern and proved because in German’s office I cannot find a single piece of paper. Computers do all. Truly welcome to the paper free world. Except for food which of course comes wrapped in vast quantities of paper. The packaging piles up as nearly all the time we eat take-away…


 S A T U R D A Y   F e b r u a r y   2 n d      A    N O N    D A Y

A wipe out day. Think I caught a horrible chill at last night’s bash. Nausea and a splitting headache. Monique’s medicines to the rescue. Sleep 16hours…




     S U N D A Y   F e b r u a r y   3 r d      P U E B L A    A G A I N

Ninos day, everyone takes their Baby Jesus to church and gets it blessed,

We set off after breakfast, lots of people in the house, I’ve no idea where they all slept. Jacqueline’s sister and her chap, who is wearing the tightest pair of jeans I’ve ever seen on the biggest bum. To the Amparo museum again, such a very decent place. Two shows of new art, or newish. Garcan I think his name is, showing room after room of huge surrealist paintings all done between the late 80s and 2006 when he hung his clogs up. Don’t much like them, but should, as they are all stories, but all utterly airless. Preferred the second show of Pauline Santiago. Tiny doll’s dresses embroidered with hair and displayed in big glass cabinets on marble bases. Display, how important it is. Pinning up paper is just not the answer.

Am taken horribly ill and almost faint. I think the promised seafood lunch would finish me off. Don’t know where this horrendous headache has come from. German has to drive me home where I climb into bed feeling mean, as today’s lunch was to have been my treat.


     M O N D A Y   F e b r u a r y   4 t h      L A S T    D A Y

All the world is the same…we re sitting in a tail back on the autopista to Mexico City airport. More than half an hour now and ahead snaking over the plain for miles and miles ahead nothing but lorries and buses and cars. What a way to mss my plane! A traffic jam on a motorway sitting in a bus in the slowest lane of all…

Bad night last night, headache and vomiting. Keep a very low profile except for going to the local equivalent of B&Q to buy rope to tie up suitcase thereby hoping that little hands will not be able to undo zips and get into luggage. D is taking me to check in. Nice of him and I am grateful.

Am longing to be home but sad to leave this warm and smiling family who have welcomed me in, given me the best bedroom, lent me dogs to keep me warm and been always so gentle and kind. The sun shines and Popacatapetle smokes away on the left. Last day, and to spend it in a traffic jam! How weird!

Last bit. In the lounge at the airport I sit down next to a charming couple who roar with laughter at the sight of my hand luggage: a large straw pig under one arm and a painted red cow under the other…


 Polly Hope  ©  F E B R U A R Y   MMVIII