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30 Jun 2008
Need to catch up...

The Internet went out last night, so I couldn't update my Sunday activities, and we had a great day at Teotihuacan... which means I'm also really really tired right now. I'll try and get more up tomorrow morning so I can stay even with my blog and my trip. I've gotten behind before, and I don't like that.

Suffice to say, I managed to get up the third-largest pyramid in the world today, and Calvin was indispensable in helping me get down off it.

We also ate fried cactus. It was yummy.

by Dean Webb

29 Jun 2008
Day Seven in Mexico

Sunday. A day of rest, right?

Pretty much, yeah. We slept plenty
by Dean Webb

Day Six in Mexico

After we woke up, we took a look at the guide book and decided a little walkabout would be in order. After we looked at our financial situation, we decided the free places would be best. On Saturday, that meant the Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace, both adjacent to the Zocalo. A little walking around, and then back to the room.

But that didn't sound like enough, so we figured if we could find a place to eat that would accept credit cards, we'd go to the movies. "Super Agente Ochenta y Seis" was showing at the theater just across the street, so that seemed like the one to see after hitting the landmarks. We added up all the things we planned and figured we'd get back to our room, as usual, around 7 or 8. Maybe 9. For sure before 11. This is Mexico, of course, where time does not exist as it does in the USA.

We stepped out of the hotel, and I had to take a picture of the world at our doorstep:

That's a small garden right next to the Alameda Central, which we passed through on our way to the Zocalo. There's a famous Diego Rivera mural, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," but I suppose people have to dream there on other days of the week, as well.

We made our way through the holiday crowds and arrived at our destination for lunch:

Not the place with the big sign, but the one on the ground floor: Taco Inn. It's a chain in Mexico, but the food there was outta sight. We had fresh-squeezed orange juice...

... I don't think we can ever have too much fresh-squeezed orange juice... and we also had tacos with carne al pastor.

Oh man, they were good. Even better than the carne al pastor on the Domino's pizza. We also had some gordas, but ate them before I remembered I wanted to take a pic of them. After lunch, we had some nice cake. Why? Taco Inn accepts credit cards, that's why. We now have a place we can hit three times a day if we run completely out of cash and would rather not use room service. I don't see that happening, but the option stands. They're great little places to eat and I can recommend them to one and all.

After lunch, we headed up Tacuba and heard a street band, just jammin' away. I love when that happens.

We walked a few more blocks and then we were at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Even though it had to be built low to the ground due to the soil conditions in the area and the chance of earthquakes, it is nevertheless an imposing structure:

And, just outside, practitioners of native religions offer their cures:

One can tell what sort of cure will be offered based upon the dress of the curandero, but all involved copal. Anywhere else in the world, I would have said incense. In Mexico, however, the word is copal. I found the presence of these curanderos just outside the cathedral to be ironic, given how the Catholic Church worked so hard to have a complete conversion of the New World. As I reflected upon that idea, I noticed why I heard a constant drumming:

There was a drummer. As his dancers danced, they weren't Mexican. They were Mexica. The ancient ways were not all dead. I would realize this more than once during the day.

By the way, there's a really big flag in the Zocalo:

Some fans of mine had asked that I take a picture of it. There it is. And it's a fine flag, too.

After getting my shot of the flag, I had to go to the Cathedral proper and see its insides. While it has much of historical and artistic significance, it's also a working cathedral, so all its visitors are requested to show reverence in its premises. I have to say that both there and in the National Palace, there is a tremendous deal of respect shown to the national treasures of Mexico. Moreover, I felt deeply moved inside the cathedral. While I'm not a Catholic and I don't agree with all the methods used by that church to convert the natives of Mexico, I did respect the massive show of faith that went into the construction of such an edifice. Whatever its history, it stands today as a place where people approach God in ways both deep and profound, and I cannot pass over that without comment when such devotion moved me in my very core of being.

As I reached the back chapels in the cathedral, I heard the drumming outside: a new group of dancers had started up, no doubt. But I felt the drumming was more than coincidence: the drumming has always been going on outside the Spanish efforts to remake their nation on a new continent. The drumming is always going on, just outside, never to be fully controlled by forces outside the drums. Nothing ever silenced those drums, not completely.

As we moved from the cathedral to the National Palace, we couldn't help but be overwhelmed with the size of the palace:

It is HUGE. Not all of it is for public touring: it is a working building for government functions, and is guarded by Mexico's finest. It's also placed underneath the bell Father Hidalgo rung back on 16 September 1810 when he announced his fight for independence.

It's interesting to note that the building itself, like the cathedral, are built upon the ruins of the former Aztec religious and government centers. Nearby, the Templo Mayor serves as a reminder of those bygone days:

Inside the palace, the murals of Diego Rivera await:

I'll be writing more about these in my book, but I'll include a little commentary here as a prelude.

First of all, these murals are HUGE. You can see their size in comparison to my conquistador-sized son, here. You can also see they're packed with characters. Not only do you need great patience with a Rivera mural, you also need to be up on your Mexican history to get the full impact of his work. Why? Well...

Rivera painted to illustrate Mexican history to its people to celebrate being Mexican when, for so long, being European had been considered ideal. And while not knowing the who's who of Mexican history will reduce the ability to name-drop with other patrons viewing the murals, one can nevertheless learn of the cruelty of the European system imposed upon the native ways. To be sure, Rivera at times hints at native cruelties, but he allows those to pale in the face of the European onslaught upon the New World, as it resulted in the sort of economic subjugation that eventually triggered the Mexican Revolution.

Rivera imagined a set of murals that would surround the entire second floor of the palace, but never got further than the stairwell, south wall, and half the east wall. When he died, his project ended. Even so, they're overwhelming in their totality:

When I get back to the USA, I'll have more to put together about the National Palace, so I'll let these suffice for now. Except for a quick mention of the gardens in the back.

They're a wonderful place to rest after marching through a palace and a cathedral. Very cool, quiet, and relaxing. Be sure to see them during your visit.

As we left, we saw another group of dancers:

But the drumming we heard wasn't only coming from their drums... something else was happening... something nearby...

There was a Tejano group playing some Selena songs, but that wasn't it... there was more... coming our way...

Some people rushed towards the noise, others stomped away, in disgust. I soon learned the reason for the radical division in the reactions to the approaching noise:

It was a Gay Pride Parade. I'd heard of them before, never been face-to-face with one up until then. And I realized, those drums are still pounding just outside the cathedral. Louder than ever, now.

The parade was enormous. Even though we were walking in the opposite direction, there was more and more and more of it as we walked on.

Back at the central part of the Alameda Central, Benito Juarez had the best seat in town for seeing the entire parade:

No parade escapes his view, it seems. He watches over all, but does not judge.

Calvin and I didn't judge, either. We certainly didn't want to see the cruelties portrayed in the Rivera murals inflicted upon anyone for any reason, and we knew they'd been used against all kinds of people that were too different from what the powers that be envisioned as the right and proper way to be. Nor did we bear any grudge about their blocking our way across Juarez to our hotel: we were going to the movies, anyway.

We saw "Super Agente Ochenta y Seis", as planned, and had a fine time. We can't wait to see it in English to see if the witty wordplay translates properly to our native language. I hear they changed the title for the US release, though...

by Dean Webb

28 Jun 2008
Day Five in Mexico

I really was nervous about this day. I'd have to drive back, and then into, Mexico City. Given my experiences of the first day, this did not seem like a promising and rewarding venture. The day began the night before, as I pored over Google Map screens, my tour guide to Mexico City, and my road atlas. I didn't want to fail for lack of preparation.

Friday morning, we packed, we prayed, and we checked out. We left around 11 AM so we could get a pizza from Domino's for lunch and dinner. Now, I know what some of you may be saying: "Boo! Domino's is CHEATING!" However, there were several reasons why it was the best choice. First, we had a coupon for a large pizza with two toppings for only 99 pesos. Second, pizza is famous for the way it holds up during the day, making it an ideal road food. Third, we ordered it up with some clever local ingredients not available in the USA: pineapple (OK, so we have that one) and carne al pastor.

Carne al pastor has a really clever blend of traditional Mexican and Middle Eastern spices that we both enjoyed greatly. If we eat pizza here again, we're getting a carne al pastor pie. Yum yum.

OK, so we packed up the pizza and had plenty of time to clear out the lunch half of it as we moved through Veracruz traffic. The traffic really wasn't bad or anything. It was just there, and we took advantage of it. Before I totally leave Veracruz, though, I do want to put in a good word for the Holiday Inn at the Historical Center (Holiday Inn de Centro Historico): the service there was fabulous and made us feel very welcome. The staff were eager to please and I'm gonna miss seeing those smiles as I came and went during the day. The room was comfortable. We couldn't chill the room with the old AC unit, but it sure did cut the edge off the heat outside. The room itself was clean, spacious, and very comfortable. If I went back to Veracruz and was set up at that hotel, I'd be very happy, indeed. I'd also hit the Museo de la Ciudad again, as well as Las Delicias Marinas.

As we rolled out of Veracruz, we saw a colossal head at the city entrance, but we missed the photo opportunity, as I had to turn hard to get on the cuota to Cordoba. Calvin took the loss rather philosophically. I expected him to be inconsolable, but he kept a stiff upper lip through it all. That day, my boy became a man.

Our rolling came to its first lack of roll when we came up to a MASSIVE police checkpoint. They had at least a dozen cars and trucks pulled over, maybe 50 police with M-16s, and traffic in both directions slowed waaaaay down. We pulled into the Pemex station near the checkpoint and the clerk had a police scanner turned on. That thing was more entertaining than a state fair, let me tell you. There was shouting all over the channel as we picked up the signals of what had to be a massive struggle or a high-speed pursuit. We bought some Carlos V candy bars and went on our way to Cordoba, glad that the police action was now behind us.

Part of my anxiety of the day was about where I'd score some more of those massive plantains. We'd eaten our last that morning, and I wanted to be secure for breakfast in Mexico City for the rest of my trip. These things don't go brown easily, so I felt good about them lasting ten days. We saw a number of mango stands on the way, but no plantains. Maybe about halfway to Cordoba, we spotted the delightsome fruit and I engaged the proprietor of the stand in negotiations to acquire a set of his prize plantains.

He made me an offer I could not refuse. I got a bunch of plantains - not an estimate, mind you, but a "bunch" as an actual measure - for 56 pesos. Those fruits had significant heft, so I got a great deal in terms of dollars per pound. There were nineteen of them on the stalk, so Calvin and I could each have a whole one for breakfast each day. They're delicious with frosted corn flakes, by the way.

Back on the road, we were again entertained by the signs along the way. There's one set of signs that says, "Obey all the signs" and another that says "Don't mistreat the signs", making them work together to protect themselves and all other signs in a sort of legal brain teaser for gifted students. Unfortunately, not everyone in Mexico (or anywhere, really) is gifted, so some signs had evidences of mistreatment - meaning both the aforementioned signs' dictates had been violated. Ah well, such is life in Mexico.

As we got to the high country, we remembered that on the way to Veracruz, a bottle of water that we'd drank dry at the top of the passes got crushed by the air pressure at sea level, with appropriately loud popping noises. That was cool, so we drank another water bottle dry in the passes. Sadly, the rest of the way ahead of us didn't have enough pressure differential to cause a crushing, so we'll just have to save it for when we get back to Dallas. Maybe then it'll get crushed.

My esteemed patrons at DemiDec need not despair that this day was empty of historical activities: I used the occasion of my transit from Veracruz to Mexico City to remark upon such similar moves of great import, viz. Cortes, Winfield Scott, the French Foreign Legion, the Porfiriato, etc. My son Calvin was handy enough to catch them all on video. Unfortunately, I'll need to get home before I can upload videos of significant video quality, so the less-good versions will have to suffice when I'm able to upload them.

A word on the Mexican toll booths: beware of the peddlers! Prior to reaching the toll window, one can expect a pack of salespeople to descend upon your vehicle with their wares. It's a crazy mess of people, lanes, cars, trucks, and trying to figure out how not to have any of them combined in a way that results in an accident report. I found most curious the cigar-sellers. Sweets and drinks, I understand, but cigars? We're talking big ol' humidors of the stogies. No thanks.

Speaking of accident reports, we saw some massive traffic in Puebla:

About 10 km of road reduced to a near standstill by not one, but two of these:

This shot is the back end of a collision that involved five tractor-trailer combos, each with double semi-trailers. This was our first traffic stopper. The second was slightly worse: five double tractor-trailers and a bus. All told, this put a huge dent in our US-style timetable of getting to Mexico in four hours. We'd already had that dented by getting through the Sierra Madre, and this traffic put us at just over those four hours with another 120 km to Mexico.

But Calvin and I had gone native, you see, so we were quite prepared for this. We figured on the trip taking at least nine hours, so we were still ahead of schedule. More than halfway there in only half the time!

Further ahead, the mountains between Puebla and Mexico awaited us with more ear-popping action. To enhance the experience, we were in a cloud zone during a rainstorm with loads of "curvas peligrosas" at every, well... turn. We survived, of course, as we drove like Mexicans to get through it all. I realized then that maybe Mexico City traffic wasn't going to be all that bad. I had hope.

As that realization dawned upon me, the Valley of Mexico opened out in front of us. We took a picture:

and too late realized it was bleached out. We couldn't get another good shot, as the road ducked in between the rough apartments of the outlying slums of Mexico.

Mexico, like many cities in developing countries, suffers from hyperurbanization. Urbanization results as jobs in the city entice people from rural areas to come settle there, instead. Growth is pretty much manageable and steady. Hyperurbanization results from people abandoning their rural existence for a hope of any sort of life in the city. They just show up and start assembling homes where there's nobody around to drive them away. The poverty there is truly grinding, but it's better than what they had in the rural areas. But the infrastructure of the city simply can't keep up with the hyperurbanization and the slums remain that way.

Perhaps as much as a fifth of Mexico's population lives in Mexico City and surrounding areas. That's hyperurbanization.

It wasn't long before traffic slowed down enough for us to have supper. It was around 6 PM and we were on the edge of Mexico, so it was a good time to munch. We weren't worried about missing a green light, as every time a light turns green, somebody honks his horn. We finished the pizza and by then the traffic had begun to unsnarl and we were on our way.

... and I noticed that the road turned a bit more than I expected proper for the path we needed to take. Turns out, there wasn't a sign to let me know that I'd gotten on the ring road instead of the cross-town artery, but we didn't panic. We noticed landmarks and street names, hit the guidebook while at stop lights, and got on Insurgentes northbound to our hotel, out of Coyoacan. At 7:30 PM, we rolled into the Sheraton.

I will say right now that the Sheraton de Centro Historical in Mexico City is an excellent hotel. The water here is purified, the beds are excellent and the view we have:

Well, see for yourself. It's right next to all the history in the city, and said history extends for about 3-5 miles on all sides. It's a great hotel in a great location and we got it at a great price. Calvin and I nearly wept with joy when we saw our room and I decided to claim it for Texas.

We slept quite well and planned to have a nice stroll about the place on Saturday. Which is today. So I suppose I should stop blogging and start looking up where we're going to stroll.

by Dean Webb

26 Jun 2008
Day Four in Mexico

Today started out great: we didn't need to get ready to drive anywhere and my credit card company knows that I'm supposed to be spending money here. No worries, right?

Well, just a slight worry. Even though the folks in charge of my credit are cool with me using my card, so many places here are "puro efectivo": cash only. I mistakenly used cash to pay for tolls and gas when I could have - and should have - used a credit card. If we're going to eat in Mexico all the way to the 7th, we're going to need to preserve our cash. Calvin did bring some money with him, so I went to convert that. Turns out, even a slight tear on a 20 or a ripped corner on a 1 can cause it to be rejected by the folks in charge of money-changing. We got some more pesos, but we still need to be cautious.

So I guess the theme for today was "cheapskate": trying to get as much for free or on the cheap as possible. We walked all around the historical center of Veracruz and didn't pay anything to view museums or monuments. For food, we found cheap stuff for lunch and hit the mercado to score food not only for supper tonight, but for days to come. And, yes, I may be on an expense account, but something in me feels a twinge of pain whenever I think I'm spending too much of someone else's money for no good reason. Besides, if all I did was eat at the finest restaurants in town, I'd never have a chance to find the simpler delights involved with travel.

But enough of my philosophizing. Time to record the events of the day.

After dealing with a touch of Cuahutemoc's Kidding Around, I got on the Internet to plan out a route for our walking tour of Veracruz. I had no desire to bother people for directions. I was going to be prepared for our trip today.

Walking around a town is a lot easier than driving around one in Mexico. We got to our first destination, La Plaza de Armas, easily enough.

It's a pedestrian area lined with loads of restaurants. The colonnade here dates from the 18th century and the shade it offers is most welcome.

In the 18th century, Veracruz was the port that connected Spain with Mexico. As such, it was where the Mexican treasure fleets loaded up their gold and silver and where the slave ships discharged their cargoes. Since the 16th Century, Veracruz stood as the gateway to Mexico, the portal through which conquerors, missionaries, and royal officials passed.

Speaking of missionaries, the plaza is next to the cathedral:

Quite convenient, if you ask me. Next on our list was the Faro Venustiano Carranza - a lighthouse that was supposed to also house the Museo de la Revolucion. We strolled on down to the waterfront and found it easily enough. The statue of Carranza out in front made it a can't-miss landmark. That and the fact that it was the only building that looked like a lighthouse in the area...

And had the lighthouse actually HAD the museum in it, we would have had more to show of it. But when we tried to enter, a naval guard informed us that the museum was not there and was, instead, in a building two blocks to the south. Well, nobody else knew about that and kept trying to tell us to see the Naval Museum. We'd already been there and didn't need to go again, so we had to pass on the Museum of the Revolution. But we did see some cool stuff in the area, like a marimba band playing in the open air...

Turtles in the pond around Carranza's statue...

The coolest soft drink machine in the world...

(That's a television screen in the upper left corner of the machine...) A cell phone commercial being filmed in front of the fortress of San Juan de Ulua...

And a cool statue with a Hotchkiss machine gun...

So I guess all that made up for not getting into the museum. In our search for the museum, we found lunch:

It was tiny, but busy, so we figured what the heck. Getting in was crazy, though... there was a sliding glass door for the entrance, and the handle to operate it was only on the inside. After a few seconds of struggle, we managed to get in and order up some croissants with ham and chipotle on the insides. Quite tasty, and only 90 pesos for our sandwiches and drinks.

After lunch, which included a nice conversation with a chap from Argentina about Latin American history, we headed out to find Baluarte Santiago: the remains of the wall that used to surround Veracruz. We didn't have far to wander before we saw wall with cannons:

Wall with cannons is usually a good sign of old fortifications. We walked around to the front to see if there was a way up in there, and indeed there was. We went on up and saw that admission to the museum inside was 39 pesos per person. Fearing the museum guy might utter a cry of "ípuro efectivo!", we wandered the exterior for free. We found a spot outside of the view of the guys at the front and shot our videos dealing with attacks on Veracruz. As we finished the second video, this guy:

told us that video was not permitted there. I managed to wrap up the second video before his protests got too loud and we apologized for not knowing as we packed up and headed on down. Thank goodness he didn't have a Kalashnikov to wave at us to make us delete the videos...

After that, we headed on over to the Museo de la Ciudad, which was pretty dang awesome for a free museum.

That's a shot of the fountain in the interior. Even though the museum was free, the lady that ran the place was very happy to give us a full tour of the place, in Spanish. I amazed myself at how much of what she said I understood. She'd ask questions periodically to check if I was following what she was saying, and I was able to answer her questions properly. Dude. My Spanish is getting so much better after being forced to speak it all the time. Watching Nickolodeon shows in Spanish when we get back to the hotel doesn't hurt, either. Anyway, there were some cool exhibits there. I really liked this map of Mesoamerican civilizations:

Also the display of all the crazy currencies from the time of the Revolution:

Wait, no, that picture didn't come out... too bad, because all that money was colorful and loaded with historical implications. I learned quite a lot at the museum, particularly how the cultural divisions developed in Mexico, the full impact of the Porfiriato, and how the US and European powers tended to sort of pop up unannounced at Veracruz harbor to start shelling it for no immediately obvious reason. Sure, the US or European powers knew what they wanted, but they tended to let the Mexicans know about the imminent violence rather late in the game... Still, the Mexicans would resist, even though they knew they had little chance of success. They fought for what they knew to be right, and let that be their victory.

I can see where the traffic cops get their bravery.

After the Museo de la Ciudad, we struck out to the Mercado for to find us some nice things to eat. I'm happy to say that we did.

We got some tomatoes and some fruit cups: pineapple and mango. Man, those fruit cups hit the spot on a hot and humid Veracruz afternoon. On the way back, we picked up a bag of fresh bread - and Calvin had to get a donut - and we noticed an impromptu video dealer...

... which, again, reminded me of how much Mexico is like China. But there's a key difference. China has its colossal walls, and Mexico has its colossal heads.

Even a replica of a colossal head is still colossal.

Tomorrow, we will leave the land of colossal heads and drive up into Mexico City. If you're the praying type, pray that we don't get lost in the big city.

by Dean Webb

25 Jun 2008
First Round of Videos From Mexico

Olmec Colossal Head

La Antigua

The House of Cortes

Cempoala 1

Cempoala 2: The Thrilling Conclusion

And then, the bloopers...

Mexican Road

Why not to Climb

Enjoy. I'll upload more to my profile on YouTube, "Zzzptm". Subscribe to get more updates as they fly in.

by Dean Webb

Third Day in Mexico

Before heading out, we had to fix an issue with my credit card. In the future, I simply MUST remember to contact my credit card company to let them know that the hotel and flight reservations to an exotic destination that I book about a month before arriving there will imply that I shall use my credit card at said exotic destination... anyway, problem solved once I found out how to make an international call from my hotel phone.

The bravest men in Mexico are not the toreadors, but the traffic cops.

These guys have to stand in front of not three bulls, but thousands of raging cars. They do it all day long. They amaze me. We say fervent prayers when confronted with such traffic, and these men face it without pause or hesitation.

Also amazing was the massive traffic jam that affected my progress this morning. I had the route all figured out, but the main road I wanted to use was shut down due to both a wreck and construction. That's the full house of traffic problems, and all I had was an ace-high straight.

We figured out an alternate route and got on our way to La Antigua without too much ado. The road was great and the town very easy to find. As we entered the town, we noticed a sign pointing towards a restaurant that advertised riverfront dining. We passed over an amazing river scene as we approached La Antigua, so I hoped that would be the river this restaurant was next to.

It was.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You see, we were accosted a second time. This time, the bandit was a goat.

Fortunately for us, the goat was dumb and didn't stretch its line taut across the road we were on. We drove over his rope and didn't pay one red peso.

The next to accost us was a little kid that tried to get us to go to a different restaurant from the one we'd parked at, Las Delicias Marinas. The problem with his plan was that all the parking spots by the river were claimed by Las Delicias Marinas for its customers. I didn't want to start any trouble, so I told him we were going to eat at the restaurant that owned the places we'd parked at.

We got out of the car, shot some video, and I claimed La Antigua for Texas.

With the business out of the way, we got down to eating some lunch... the entrance was inviting...

I always love places with department store mannequins up front in chef clothing. That's something one doesn't see in your typical dive. Inside, we sat down and ordered something to drink and got some placemats. On the placemats were mentions of some cool buildings in town I didn't know to look for: the prize was Cortes' old house. Having been denied things Cortes back in Cuernavaca, I wasn't going to let this one slip by. The restaurant was also used as a setting for scenes from several movies, including Albert Brooks' "The Scout", one of my favorites. Once I read that bit, I realized that, yes, the place did look somewhat familiar, and felt like we'd made a major score in finding the place. I got Calvin to try out his Brendan Fraser look as we waited for our food.

It's also good we had the 100% DEET spray working for us. There were skeeters everywhere.

Anyway, we ordered. Calvin selected the fried chicken and potatoes:

And, yes, that's a chicken head there on the plate. Man, I love Mexico, and I'm not being sarcastic. That chicken was goooooooooood. They marinated it in something awesome, that's for sure. I scored majorly with this number:

That's "platano relleno de mariscos": a banana stuffed with seafood, then fried. It was epic. Jawsome. Full of win. The seafood was totally fresh and the fried banana complimented the cocktail inside beautifully. This restaurant is definitely worth a side trip for anyone hanging out in Veracruz.

By the time Calvin had demolished his chicken, it was time to go.

Our waitress was wonderful. Not only was her service great, but she gave us directions to all the antiquities in town. It didn't hurt that La Antigua is a tiny place to begin with, but she was very helpful, all the same. She told me next time I go there that she'd know more English. I told her next time I come there, I'd know more Spanish. She laughed and I heard her repeat the joke to the guys in the kitchen. Anyone that likes my jokes is all right in my book.

Now we had to get down to some history... we arrived at the historical area. It's hard to miss: there's a beautiful park in the middle of it:

And a 19th-century chapel at the north end:

So if you miss it, you're blind. And if you're blind, you shouldn't be driving around Mexico, anyway. The roads are not designed with blind people in mind. Anyway, at the south end of the park is a mosiac:

It shows the union of the American and European peoples in a positive way and points to La Antigua as the source of that positive connection. I suppose the city would want to accent the positive, since it would hardly want to claim fame as the place where the American Holocaust began on the continent. Just east of the mosaic is Cortes' home, or, rather, the remains of said home.

It's nearly 500 years old and the town grew up around it, not in it. Disused, the jungle took over:

I find it interesting that the major archaeological sites are kept clear of jungle, but those related to Cortes have been allowed to crumble. So it goes, I guess, in a nation that knows it is more American than European.

You can see more on this subject in the video I made there, so I'll move on with the travel info... we left La Antigua and headed up to Cempoala, with a slight detour through Cardel, where a massive lucha libre match was about to get underway:

But we weren't going to stick around for that. Our goal was to get back to Veracruz before 7PM, and we were well on our schedule, since I'd allowed about 4 hours for driving and another 4 hours for wandering around. Since we'd used far less than 2 hours on the way out, we were doing great. We pressed on to Cempoala and after asking a guy for directions, arrived at the ruins therein.

Getting in was a little tricky. The guy in charge didn't want to let Calvin in. I wasn't going to stand for it. First, he's my son. Second, he's my CAMERAMAN. I protested that he was 16 years old and very well behaved, The guy relented, gave him a cut on the standard admissions price, but only wrote a receipt for my admission. I just now realized that means I just paid my first bribe. I feel... dangerous...

This is a view from the top of the grand temple, looking out on two pyramids people aren't allowed to climb. While getting up those bad boys looks easy enough, the down will kill all but the most skilled of climbers. It's insane... but the monuments are there, though, centuries old, dreaming of bygone days when blood flowed, fires burned, and chants ululated through the day and night...

OK, so we got a little Apocalypto there, but we felt the monuments deserved a more active presentation than just... sitting there... waiting...

This is the "New Fire Circle" where important observances related to the Long Count calendar were observed, particularly the lighting of a new fire to signal the opening of a new calendar cycle.

This is the grand temple, where in Cortes' day three major gods were represented. When Cortes toppled them and replaced them with a cross and the Virgin Mary with Christ, it signaled the beginning of not one, but two conquests. The first was the military conquest of Mexico, which succeeded. The second was the spiritual one, which did not succeed as well as the military one. Somehow, Mexico managed to survive by adapting and merging with what it could not resist.

By the way, I need to salute the good work done by my son, Calvin. He's been a great help along this trip, not only in spotting topes, but as my camera crew. If I can't have a BBC crew following me around, I want someone from my family. Well done, Calvin!

At the museum, there's a cool series of exhibits, including one that caught our eye more than the others...

See the stitches on his chest? That's a clue it's a statue of Xipe Totec, the Mesoamerican god of maize. His priests wore skins of sacrificial victims. That's why there's a hole in the chest. It's also why it looks like he's got a spare pair of hands, hanging limply from his wrists. In the back, there are more stitches behind the skull and across the back. Very very American, not at all European...

... and neither were the bathrooms, which were designed for a people much shorter than I.

I wanted a souvenir of our excursion, so I headed into the nearby gift shop. One can spot it by its celebration of Cempoala's most famous resident, "The Fat Cacique".

This is the guy that Cortes roughed up to get his first native American allies in his quest to conquer Mexico. Inside, I bought a cheap replica of a Classic Veracruz head. I like the smile on it...

Mind you, I bought the copy, not the original.

Calvin and I also picked up some mango nectars and headed on home. The ride home was uneventful until we got to Veracruz. Then we went over El Tope Mejor: a massive bridge over a railyard with an impossible angle of incline on both sides. Daaaaaaaaaaaang.

Well, I'll upload the videos and we'll root around for a light supper. Tomorrow, we plan to roam around Veracruz, looking for cool history from Mexico's first century of independence. That such a timeframe also takes in the Revolution only makes the period that much more delicious.

by Dean Webb

Second Day in Mexico

I've realized that time as I, a citizen of the United States of America, understand it, does not exist in certain parts of the world. Mexico is one of those parts. Let me explain by illustrating the events of my second day here in contrast to my initial plan for the day.

At the start of the day, I planned to get breakfast early, then hop in the car and pick up a few things before whizzing out to Tres Zapotes, which looked to be about a two-hour drive. A little time there, maybe eat along the way back, and be back in Veracruz around 2 PM. We'd take a nap, then stroll around the city to find a nice restaurant.

That was my plan. Now for the reality.

We drove out to find breakfast and I realized we should have walked out. Parking is hard to find in the city center. But my fears were soon allayed when I saw both a nice-looking place to eat and a friendly chap waving at a parking space. The friendly chap had a squeegy, so I knew I'd pay for that spot with some sort of unofficial meter. 30 pesos to wash my car, but I figured I'd get a good deal when he brought in another guy and a bucket of water. They seemed to have an unofficial service on that street.

We went into "Plaza Gastronomica" - a food court - and enjoyed a tasty breakfast of ham 'n' eggs and refried beans. Calvin and I both chuckled as we remembered the John Pinette bit about breakfast... "And what else do they give you besides the bacon? They give you BEANS!"

Oh yeah, we needed a hairbrush. Forgot to pack one. Since I have my hair cut low, I didn't really think to grab one. Poor Calvin, though...

I should say, though, that the orange juice we had there was mind-blowing. 100% fresh as in made right there from oranges that were on a tree somewhere a day or two ago. None of this carton or can business. No frozen or refrigerated fruit, either. This stuff was liquid sunshine, baby. Too bad I can't upload any. Also too bad it'll all be just a memory when I get back home...

We wrapped up breakfast and headed back to the car. The guy wasn't done washing it, and we noticed a band tuning up to play.

It was the Mexican Navy Band, there at the Museum of Mexican Naval History. I looked at Calvin and said we might go in and have a look and then the car washing guy said, "Sure! You go in while I finish!" so we went on in.

I mean, it was a museum, after all. But already I felt the influence of this timeless country upon my plans for the day. Maybe we would get back around 3.

I'm glad we did hit that museum, though. There were some totally cool exhibits there.

Just outside was a memorial to all the fallen personnel from the Mexican Navy in its history. Don't laugh: a lot of those names were from recent years, fighting drug smugglers. And all of them died in the service of their nation. I may not be a Mexican, but I salute their bravery, all the same.

Inside, we found a real treasure trove of neat stuff and displays. The model-making on display was stunning in every case we looked into, such as this one of Columbus' three ships:

(The guy on the crutches in the background was from Tucson, Arizona and looked a lot like a fellow AcDec coach I know there, Chris Yetman. If they're related, I'll soon find out.)

We saw a suit of conquistador armor and I realized that my son is conquistador-sized.

It was hot, though, so we elected to not swipe the armor for our adventures in the jungles and swamps later in the day. Ironically, that's just what the Spanish decided to do, ditching their metal for more comfy quilted cloth armor, such as the Mexicans used. Cotton breathes, you know, and that's important when dealing with la tierra caliente. The climate around Mexico City is cooler, so they could go metal up there once again.

Speaking of fighting around Mexico City, there was a totally awesome diorama of the fighting on Lake Texcoco when Cortes assembled a number of boats to take on the Aztecs.

I loved it. Epic. Win. Jawsome. Come to Veracruz to check this out for yourself.

By the way, the interior of the Naval History Museum looks just like the interior of the Holiday Inn Centro Historical, except there's a pool at the Holiday Inn instead of a deck gun.

We strode out of the museum and I checked my watch. OK, so we'd be back around 4. 5, if the roads were tricky. We got in the car and went to go find that hairbrush and some bottled water. We needed to stock up, you know. We found a nice little strip mall with a nice little food court and we bought 8 1.5 liter bottles of water at VIPS, which seemed to be a bookstore once we looked at all its wares. But it also had hairbrushes, so Calvin picked out a nice black one and we went to pay for our stuff. The clerk tried to put all 8 bottles in one bag, but I asked for another and they were happy to oblige. That was good. Water is heavy.

We took our stuff to the car in the underground parking lot which cost 10 pesos per hour and I said to Calvin, "Well, we might as well have lunch here since we paid for the parking and we have a lot of driving ahead of us." Calvin, being a hungry teenager, was quick to agree and we found a suitable location in front of where we ordered to both wait for our food and to take a commemorative photograph. Please do note the well-brushed hair in this picture.

We ordered fish, and the fish was out of this world. Very fresh. As in probably hanging out with its homies last night fresh. We did NOT order anything that came with "Espaguetti Kentucky" which I knew to be "Kentucky Chili", and had no desire to taste. I've heard it said, "If it looks good, eat it," but espaguetti did not look good, so I did not eat it. By the way, the view from our eatery was quite colorful, as well.

What a lovely, cheery place Veracruz is. Reminded me a lot of Corpus Christi, Texas, with an LDS temple added for good measure. I'm LDS, so this is a big deal.

Yes, if I ever had to flee the States and hide out somewhere, I could do a lot worse than picking Veracruz. So many sights and pleasant people and OH MY GOSH I STILL HAVE TO GET TO TRES ZAPOTES!!!

Veracruz got very distracting, I admit. By the time we rolled out of the garage, it was close to 1 PM. OK, so we'd get back around 6 or so. 2 hours in, 2 hours out, an hour to look around the site, no problem. We were so full from breakfast and lunch and had extra tortillas, we didn't really plan on eating a supper.

As we rolled down the highway, we grumbled as we rolled over small ruts and growled as we hit speed bumps in every teeny tiny town. We did learn a trick, though: get behind a bus when going through town. The going is slower, but I guarantee that if you go as slow as the bus, you'll never have your spine shattered by accidentally hitting a speed bump too fast. There are advanced speed bumps in Mexico, so beware of them.

Beware also las vacas del diablo. On the road out, we noticed a bit of a bovine odor that became much stronger. Then it became intense. Then it defeated our security precautions and threatened our very lives. I kid you not. It was an industrial ranch outside of Lerdo de Tejada.

There were acres of cows penned up and feeding, with a lake of cow sewage in the middle of it all. I did not like it. I've seen big ol' herds of cattle before, but never all penned up in such conditions. I know, them being cows, they probably didn't know or mind any better, but that's still no way to raise a hamburger. It's a hazard to navigation, anyway. I think the smell did peel paint on our rental. Not a lot, but in spots along the driver side.

Now, I'd looked on the Internet about getting to the Olmec site at Tres Zapotes. One person described getting there via Santiago Tuxtla on a bad road, but that was on the other side from where I was approaching. I looked at my map and there was a nice little yellow line going from Lerdo de Tejada to Tres Zapotes. I had driven on nice yellow lines yesterday. It was the same kind of yellow line extending from Santiago Tuxtla. How bad could it be? The nice yellow lines had some potholes and rough patches, but weren't all that bad, right?



This was no nice yellow line. The yellow line was a lie. Here is a shot of one of the BETTER patches of road we traveled.

We had about 20 kilometers of this and worse - we had stretches so bad, we were driving in between the potholes because we could at least see that part sticking up above the water and had no desire to see how deep the pothole caldera actually was. No road markings to guide us, we had to stop and ask locals frequently if we were on the right road to Tres Zapotes. Once, we saw a guy filling in the potholes. We asked him for directions and he started babbling on about how hot it was. Apparently, only the insane attempt to fill in potholes in this part of the world.

We came across speed bumps the size of horses on that road: clearly, they were remains of ancient Olmec speed bumps designed to slow or halt the advances of ravaging barbarians from the north. If we got 20 meters without a jar to our innards, we considered ourselves lucky. Our sparkly-clean car became coated with a thin slurry of mud. I can still hear the bams and thuds of the road and I can still feel the rattling and grinding as I type this. There's an expression, "You look like 10 miles of bad road." Well, I now know what 12.4 miles of bad road look like, so I can bring an informed opinion to bear.

We rolled into Tres Zapotes around 4 PM. I despaired of getting home before midnight. Time had been annihilated in the jungles of Veracruz.

But we got there and we went into that museum.

There's a charge to get in. There's another charge to shoot video there. We found out about that second charge in between our first and second takes of a video. The curator explained that the charge was because if we shot the video, it would keep people from coming there.

After the road I'd been on, I felt that to be an honorable thing to do. I also wondered how in the world he got there every day for work, because he didn't look anything at all like the people that were there.

Maybe the "bad road" that tourist had complained of wasn't bad at all... I was so ready to ditch the devil I knew for the devil I didn't.

Still, we had to finish up around the site. There were some cool Olmec-y things there, including the earliest date on an Olmec stele, showing that the Mesoamerican "long count" calendar system goes back to at least 32 BCE in usage.

There was a cool Olmec were-jaguar:

Some unexplained bumps in the ground:

But for my money (which was actually DemiDec's money), the best thing there was the colossal head. It really was colossal. It was worth all that drive just to see something from deep within America's past right there before us. It wasn't the colossalest of heads: those were in museums. It was, though, at the place where it was found.

It belonged here as much as it belongs anywhere. While there are many unanswered questions about it, it's nevertheless humbling and impressive to be among such an antiquity.

We spent about an hour at the museum and I can safely say that a good time was had by all.

Back in the car, I headed down a rough road that was actually a road and not a series of interconnected potholes. We shot a video of going over that road. Even though it looks like we're being tortured in that ride, we found it, on the whole, to be a pleasant relief to what we'd just been on.

But that wasn't the road to Tuxtla. We doubled back and got on the correct road, the one the tourist had complained of being "bad".

It was not "bad". It was good. Sure, there was an occasional rough spot, but the thing was actually PAVED. That right there, my friends, is a GOOD ROAD.

Granted, we were held up by bandits along the way, but that's hardly anything compared to what we endured on the road into Tres Zapotes.

To be sure, the bandits were aged 6 and 7 years old and their scheme consisted of stretching a string across the road and holding out their hands. I paid 'em each 2 pesos and laughed about it with Calvin all the way back. So, yeah, if you see those bandits again, say hi and be nice to them.

An hour after leaving Tres Zapotes, we were in Lerdo de Tejada. We'd driven further than the way in, but covered it in the same amount of time on for-reals roads. After what we'd been through, Calvin and I no longer referred to speed bumps as such. "Speed bumps" implies a negative connotation, which they do not deserve. They regulate unnecessary speed in this timeless part of the world and they provide a pleasant diversion to the monotony of the long road, when addressed properly by the oncoming vehicle. We now call them by their proper Mexican name, "topes." We have an inside joke about topes, but if we told you about it, it would be out, and then we'd have an inside-out joke. Our road trip isn't over, so we'll keep the joke inside for now.

We were a bit peckish on the way back, but not actually hungry. When we saw a fruit seller by the side of the road, we had to score some bananas and pineapple.

30 pesos, and we had fresh bananas and pineapple. They tasted just like store-bought bananas and pineapple, but more banana-y and pineapple-y, respectively. They were heaven, and a fit reward after driving past las vacas del diablo, which we had to pass on the way back.

We got back to the hotel around 8 PM and watched Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide and Bob Esponja on the Spanish-language Nickelodeon channel as we dined on a banana and the rest of the pineapple. Oh my gosh that stuff was good.

I figured I'd blog in the morning before heading off to sites pertinent to the Spanish conquest of Mexico: La Antigua and Zempoala.

by Dean Webb

24 Jun 2008
First Day in Mexico

We got to the airport yesterday and there were 7 kids from Oklahoma City that were just out of high school and on a summer trip to Cancun. They had gotten to the airport around 3 AM and were awake only because of all the Red Bulls and Monsters they'd consumed. Very giggly, but very fun to talk with while we waited for the plane. One had been to Veracruz and gave some tips about the city, so that was cool.

They made a lot of jokes about a certain dollar... they were on a road trip, and one of the rules of a road trip is that each one develops its own inside joke. It was not our joke, so I won't bother to try and explain it to you. But it was funny.

We landed and there wasn't anyone from Mexicana with a wheelchair... I'd kinda hoped for one to whisk me through customs... but there wasn't anyone at customs, either. We pretty much breezed through that. We changed our money, got a road atlas, got our car and then...


They have no names. They go no where. They just... exist. We got lost for 90 minutes until we found out we were on the road to Cuernavaca, which had some historical stuff in it. I hadn't planned to go there, but we went, anyway. It was a beautiful drive up among the greenery and evergreens and we hit an elevation of around 3100 meters. Our ears continued to pop all day, by the way...

We got to a service station because I had to pee so bad it hurt. That's when I noticed there was no paper in the stalls. You want paper there? 2 pesos. Meh. We got into Cuernavaca and found Cortes' palace. We went up there and I REALLY had to go then, but I'd forgotten the TP. So I paid my 2 pesos.

It wasn't enough. Oh mercy sakes, but that was nasty. Those beans really did a number on me and I wish I'd gone into that bathroom better prepared - no running water, either - so thank goodness for hand sanitizer and my own tp, which I promptly put into a backpack.

But the damage was done.

So, yeah, the castle of Cortez in Cuernavaca... Well, the castle is closed on Mondays, so we just took some pictures.

There was a cool statue out front that wasn't closed, so we took pictures there, too.

There was an old Aztec glyph on display, as well. Not closed, so we snapped a pic. Hahaha.

We went back to our car via the markets on the south side of the castle and I snapped an opportunistic picture. If it's not closed, I'mma snappin' up a pic, I tell ya!

OK, so we had to get out of there. The traffic was very bad. Like this bad:

That is really bad traffic. Believe me. We tried to get out of there and on to Veracruz. Somehow, we got to Cuautla. Maybe it was on the way to Veracruz, maybe it's what the flow of traffic forced us into, or maybe it was the spirit of Emiliano Zapata drawing us closer to his old stomping grounds. We got to Cuautla and saw this cool statue:

It commemorates the beginning of the Mexican Revolution or something in Morelos, but we couldn't get out of our car to see. Traffic, you understand. We got kinda close to Zapata's birthplace, but it was getting really late, and we decided to ditch finding Zapata's birthplace in favor of getting the heck outta there and on to Veracruz. First, we had to drive behind really cool looking VW Microbus taxis such as this one:

But things soon became tiresome when we hit a gazillion speed bumps along the way and got stuck behind this sweet ride:

We finally got on the toll road to Puebla, and that was very nice. Very mountainous and ear-popping, but nice. We had a great view of Popocatepetl on our left as we drove in. Unfortunately, our shots of it are all blurred. You'll just have to take my word for it that it was a stunning, majestic sight.

Puebla is a pretty town, but also confusing.

It's not like Gettysburg or Vicksburg, where the history is pretty dang easy to find. It's hidden in and among the throngs and tight streets of the historical center. It was late and raining and Mariachis stalked the streets on their way to paying gigs, so we opted to find that toll road to Veracruz instead of hunting down the site of the Battle of Puebla. We got on that toll road, and we never got off it.

When we crossed the Sierra Madre Oriental, we drove through clouds and tunnels. It was beautiful and surreal, like driving off the edge of the world. We'll do it again on Friday, when we return to Mexico City. Don't ask for pictures. How does one take pictures of fog? No, it just doesn't translate to the photographic medium all that well.

Coming down, though, we were in the dark. Thankfully, we were on the toll road, which is in pretty good shape. If we had to deal with speed bumps at night... ::shudder::

We got into Veracruz and looked for Morelos street. Turns out, there are two, and we had found the wrong one. Strangely enough, there was one handicapped space available where we were searching. I put my placard up and parked. Calvin and I locked the car and asked someone if she could help us find the Holiday Inn.

I should note that nearly all my conversations yesterday were in Spanish. Sometimes, I had a lucky few words of English, but 99% of my communication yesterday was en Espanol. I did good. Most of the times when I asked for directions, the advice given to me began with, "retorno", and this was no exception. The lady showed us the street to get on, we figured out how to get there, and hiked back to our car. We got in, drove up, and there it was.

We were SO happy. Even happier that the restaurant didn't close until 11:30. I had an enchilada that tasted suspiciously Chinese and Calvin had a chicken something that was breaded and fried. We ate, showered, and crashed. Tomorrow, we would discover the country of the Olmecs...

by Dean Webb

23 Jun 2008
The Big Day Has Arrived...

The next time I do a lot of things, I'll be doing them in Mexico. See you there! :-)

by Dean Webb

22 Jun 2008
Off to Mexico

"Good-bye - if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico-ah, that is euthanasia!" - Ambrose Bierce

To be sure, I expect to return, but I also expect quite a few adventures. Last night, we had some Chinese food and my fortune cookie told me to expect a wonderful trip abroad in my near future. I hope that cookie is on the money... Should be great fun and I'll have stories to tell here, that's for sure.

Until then, I gotta pack. Plane leaves at 7AM, so I need to be at the airport around 4AM... yeesh!

by Dean Webb

05 Jun 2008
What I Like to See in the AP Answers...

First of all, correct responses that are phrased effectively. They're easy to grade and make me feel right about the universe.

Next, compliments about my appearance. Telling me I look sharp is the way to go. No, it won't get you any extra points, but it will make me feel good... and maybe forgive your poor penmanship... After that, draw a nice beach scene if you have any remaining time. The AP graders for AP Economics have to work in the exposition building of the Nebraska State Fair, a building that smells faintly of horse manure. A lovely palm tree drawing can do wonders to take us away... Finally, shout outs to your teacher. If you know your AP teacher is going to be a grader, shout out to him or her. While the teachers can't grade work belonging to their students, they like to know how they're doing on the tests and it's fun to talk about our students and what they were like to have in class. Most students were wonderful, so a shout out from you would be another great thing to liven up our day of grading.

by Dean Webb

04 Jun 2008
This Is Sparta!

That's what all the cool kids are putting on their AP exams this year. It's a line from 300 that goes with a particularly gripping scene.

The line's starting to get a little old.

But today, I perked right up when I graded a paper with "Jack, I'll never let go!" and a picture of a capsizing Titanic. The kid also drew a beach scene. That beach scene was very pleasant. I hope more kids draw beach scenes in the future.

by Dean Webb

03 Jun 2008
Grading, part two...

There is a coal train that passes through the campus every hour on the half hour. It is loud and wakes people up in the middle of the night. If you are a light sleeper and in Lincoln, BEWARE!

Had another fine day of grading. Today's craziest answers included, "To the grader: You look SO good today!" and "I love Economics and Crawfish!" I also had a kid that made a word find in his test booklet and another that complained about having to take Economics for high school credit when he'd already taken a college class in it and gotten credit.

But the best answers of all were the ones that were brief and to the point. Kids, if you're taking an AP exam, just answer the question to the best of your ability. Don't ramble on and dump out everything you know: often, that can contradict something you may have gotten a point for earlier. If it's a yes or no question, answer yes or no and then move on. If there's an explanation asked for, give it in the most succint way possible. Your graders will love you for that.

by Dean Webb

02 Jun 2008
Grading the AP Exams

I'm in Lincoln, Nebraska right now. The weather's nice and it's a great day for grading a bunch of AP Economics free-response questions.

This also means grading tests from students that decided to put things in that really aren't responsive to the questions being asked... had a few totally blank answers, some complaining about their teachers, a guy next to me had a hand turkey, another guy got a kid who wrote a lengthy Hunter S. Thompson quote and I had a few with song lyrics. One paper included a football play. That was unusual, I thought, and then I saw the weirdest one of the day...

... Oompa Loompas... on an Economics question... totally written into the response and the student wasn't just giving up: he was really answering the question as he wrote his narrative! It was hard to read, but I found the answer in and around the silly things.

So, yeah... Oompa Loompas... crazy stuff here... I wonder what I'll encounter tomorrow?

by Dean Webb

Posted at:10 Jan 2009 06:22:19 PM

No Words portraits and romantic illustrations.

What's there to say?

I got words and pictures.

I got a message board.

Like I said, what's there to say?