Discovering Mexico (sample chapters) by Swarupa


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Discovering Mexico (sample chapters) by Swarupa

  1. 1. DISCOVERING MEXICO By Swarupa N. Ovalekar Self-Published Edition Copyright © Swarupa N. Ovalekar 2010All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this publication may be reproduced,stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic,mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission ofthe copyright holder.This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not bere-sold or distributed. If you would like to share this eBook with another person,please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this eBookand did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then pleasereturn to or the author’s blogat and purchase your own copy. Thank you forrespecting the hard work of this author.
  2. 2. Warning/DisclaimerThis eBook is designed to provide information about the subject matter covered. Itshould be used only as a general guide and not as the ultimate source forinformation on Mexico. Every effort has been made to make the content of thisbook as complete and accurate as possible. However, there may be mistakes, bothtypographical and in content. No responsibility is assumed for errors or omissions. Please note that much of this publication is based on personal experienceand anecdotal evidence. It contains information relevant only to the period of theauthor’s stay in Mexico. This eBook is presented solely for educational and entertainment purposes.You should use this information as you see fit, and at your own risk. Theauthor/publisher shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person orentity with respect to any loss or damage caused or alleged to be caused directly orindirectly by the information contained in this book. Other titles by Swarupa N. Ovalekar: A Guide To Mexican Cuisine Mexico: The Country, Its History & The Maya World The Blue-Eyed Prince of Natlife
  3. 3. For my father
  4. 4. CONTENTS ABOUT THE AUTHOR i ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS v INTRODUCTION vi1 My Mexican Diary 3 PART ONE: QUINTANA ROO2 Day 1 - Arrival in Cancún 923 Day 2 - Xcaret 984 Day 3 - The Riviera Maya 1045 Day 4 - The Islands 1106 Day 5 - Last day in Cancún 114 PART TWO: YUCATAN7 Day 5 - Arrival in Mérida 1188 Day 6 - Chichén Itzá & Mérida 1219 Day 7 - Uxmal & Kabáh 144
  5. 5. PART THREE: CAMPECHE10 Day 7 - Arrival in Campeche City 16011 Day 8 - City tour & Edzná 162 PART FOUR: TABASCO12 Day 9 - Arrival in Villahermosa 187 PART FIVE: CHIAPAS13 Stunningly beautiful Chiapas 20314 Day 10 - San Cristóbal de las Casas 21015 Day 11 - The Waterfalls & Palenque 21516 Day 12 - San Cristóbal & the Villages 23317 Day 12 - Tuxtla Gutiérrez 25118 Day 13 - Tour of Tuxtla Gutiérrez 25419 Day 14 - Lagos de Montebello 261 PART SIX: OAXACA20 Day 15 - Arrival in Oaxaca City 26621 Day 16 - Mitla & Teotitlán Tour 27522 Day 17 - The Monte Albán Tour 288
  6. 6. PART SEVEN: VERACRUZ23 Day 18 - Arrival in Veracruz City 30124 Day 19 - Sightseeing at Boca del Rio 31325 Day 20 - Trip to El Tajin 317 END OF MY JOURNEY26 Day 21 - End of my journey 326 EPILOGUE 352 GLOSSARY OF SPANISH WORDS 392 GLOSSARY OF MEXICAN SPANISH PRONUNCIATIONS 406 PHOTO SECTION I 71 PHOTO SECTION II 328 PHOTOSECTION III 387 MAPS Political Map of Mexico 1 Geographical Map of Mexico 2 Map of the Trip 90
  7. 7. Map of Quintana Roo 91Map of Yucatán 117Map of Campeche 159Map of Tabasco 186Map of Chiapas 202Map of Oaxaca 265Map of Veracruz 300
  8. 8. ABOUT THE AUTHORSwarupa got into book writing in 2008. This was four months after her return from Mexicowhere she had spent nearly nine months, some of them travelling solo across the country. Shededicated a year and a half to her labour of love – an epic book on Mexico – which she finallycompleted in June 2010. Hoping to get her book ‘Mexico’ published in the traditional way, shewaited for over two years looking for a publisher who could do justice to her hard work. Her book received warm appreciation from H.E. Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico. While she waited for responses from publishers, she wrote a romance fiction novel ‘TheBlue-Eyed Prince Of Natlife’. In January 2012, she created a Facebook page for her book, got her book edited andconverted it into a three book series on Mexico titled ‘Discovering Mexico’, ‘Mexico: TheCountry, Its History & The Maya World’, and ‘A Guide To Mexican Cuisine’. In mid-September, she finally decided to self-publish all her books. i
  9. 9. Apart from her books, Swarupa is an intrepid traveller and a polyglot. She speaksEnglish, Spanish, German, French, Italian and Indian languages like Marathi and Hindi. She is apassionate foodie, a huge fan of salsa and ballroom dancing and a great lover of history,cosmology and world culture. She lives in Mumbai. CONNECT WITH THE AUTHOR Facebook: Twitter: Blog: OTHER TITLES BY THE AUTHOR Mexico: The Country, Its History & The Maya World is a comprehensive guide to the diverse aspects of Mexico, including its indigenous people, its long and colourful history and the mysterious Maya civilization. This excellently researched eBook offers a wide glimpse into the rich and varied cultural heritage of contemporary Mexico, detailing the country’s history, from the pre-Colombian period to modern times, and providing deep knowledge of the glorious Maya culture, ii
  10. 10. including the much-famous end of their calendar. With over 75 coloured photographs, and blackand white political and geographical sketch maps of Mexico, this insightful eBook will appeal toevery person interested in learning about Mexico – aficionados, travellers and scholars.A Guide To Mexican Cuisine is a small no-frills guide with a big purpose: to briefly describe everything about Mexican cuisine to the readers. Native Mexican diet, staple ingredients, foreign influences on Mexican cuisine, daily meals and customs, popular meals, regional meals, festive meals, drinks and beverages, desserts and candies, a few popular recipes…this eBook has it all! From native Indian cuisine to the current flavours, this guide tells it all like never before with more than 65 coloured photographs, two extensive glossaries – of Spanish words used in this book and their MexicanSpanish pronunciation – and a few simple and easy recipes of popular Mexican food and drinks. iii
  11. 11. A girl from Mexico City comes to Mumbai, discovers the joys of caring and sharing in a large house with seven other international trainees and falls in love with her suave Indian boss. 26-year old Mexican, Sara Velasquez, is the new international trainee at the corporate office of one of India’s top multinational companies, Natlife. Her blonde hair and good looks have always made most men treat her with benign condescension, unwilling to accept her managerial abilities. Experience has taught her not totrust men for this reason, but her tall and handsome Indian boss, the 27-year old blue-eyed SidOberoi, is different. He doesn’t question her intelligence only her impulsive nature. She findsherself battling a deep and irresistible attraction between them only to succumb to it whole-heartedly.A past incident has shattered Sid’s trust in women. Whenever his girlfriends get too close orserious, he bolts. He’s not interested in commitment. So why does he harbour strong, unfamiliarfeelings for the feisty Mexican? On learning about the bitter experiences of her past, he’sdetermined to ensure that she doesn’t get hurt again. Why does he feel so protective about her?When misfortune strikes, it brings them both closer than ever. Sid offers her a job in his newbusiness and room in his house. But, is he ready to offer her a place in his heart? iv
  12. 12. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSThis book is one of my three book series on Mexico, a labour of love and dedication that beganin 2008. The long and lonely period of this project saw me working endless hours at thecomputer and I owe my eternal gratitude to my family for understanding and accepting thiswithout a fuss. To my father who made my ‘Mexican Experience’ possible for me, withoutwhich the three books on Mexico would never have been born; to my mother, brother and sisters. My particular thanks to Shri Krishna Singh for his goodwill and belief in my work. I’m greatly indebted to H.E. Felipe Calderón, President of Mexico, and the HonourableGloria Guevara, Minister of Tourism for Mexico, for their warm appreciation and valuablesupport to my project. The photographs in this book have been used with the permission of their copyrightholders. Credits have been given to all the photographs, except those of my own. My specialthanks to the copyright holders for allowing me to reproduce their photographs: The MexicanTourism Board (CPTM), the State Tourism Board of Jalisco (SETUJAL) and Sahid Cervantes. Last but not the least, thank you to Writer’s Side for editing this book. v
  13. 13. INTRODUCTIONI began writing this book in August 2008, almost four months after returning from Mexico whereI had lived for nearly nine months. The idea of writing a book came about when I realized howmuch I missed the lovely country and how little the rest of the world knew about the ‘real’Mexico. This was my way of thanking Mexico for an incredible period in my life! The warm andfriendly people of this beautiful land showered me with exciting and memorable experienceswhich I will treasure for the rest of my life... Total strangers would smile and wish me ‘BuenosDias’ or ‘Buenas Noches’ as I wandered around the streets of the cities, towns and villages. One of the things that I really like about Mexican culture is the feeling of warmth andhospitability in their customs like greeting or saying good bye to a friend, acquaintance or co-worker with a kiss on the cheek; saying ‘¡Provecho!’ which means ‘Enjoy your meal!’ to thepeople seated at the neighbouring tables as you leave a restaurant; or saying ‘¡Salud!’ whichmeans health, when somebody nearby sneezes which is a way of wishing health for the personwho sneezed. Besides the graciousness of the Mexican people, what is impressing is the vitality ofcommunity life there. So much goes on in the plazas and parks, so many activities that bringpeople out of their homes and into connection with one another. Mexican food is spicy and amazing too, thanks to the large variety of chillies (chiles) in vi
  14. 14. the country. Although most of their cuisine is based on beef and pork, their spicy seafood cuisineis very similar in taste to that of India. Like in Indian cuisine, their dishes too are accompaniedby red and green salsas (sauces), lemon slices and a mix of chopped tomatoes, onions and freshcoriander. Chillies and tamarind are used not only in the preparation of food, but also for makingsweets and candies. Although tamarind candies are very popular in India too, the variety as wellas the extent of their popularity in Mexico is unmatched. Looking back, I really miss the hot churros, the long stick-shaped sugar and cinnamoncoated fritters filled with chocolate sauce, and the delightful paletas de yogur (yoghurt lollies),the frozen white slabs on sticks dipped in chocolate sauce, with a sprinkling of a few of the wideselection of ingredients. For those who are not much aware of the country, here’s a brief introduction... Bordered by the United States in the north, and by Guatemala and Belize in the south-east, Mexico (‘México’, pronounced ‘meh-hee-koh’ in Spanish) has 31 states and a federaldistrict which is the country’s capital, Mexico City. It is the most populous Spanish-speakingcountry and also the second-largest Roman Catholic nation in the world. Mexico not only hasmany beautiful beaches, ancient pyramids, natural and ecological wonders, but is also home toone of the new Seven Wonders of the World and about 24 UNESCO-declared World CulturalHeritage sites. A majority of Mexicans are mixed-race mestizos, mainly of Spanish and nativeIndian ancestry. While there are about 63 legally recognized regional languages in the country,the official language is Spanish. The fine blend of indigenous and Spanish influences has vii
  15. 15. enriched much of Mexico’s art and culture. Ancient indigenous arts such as ceramics, sculpture,and weaving with intricate designs and bright native colours were blended with Spanish arttechniques to create a unique Mexican style. I have shared just a tiny bit of interesting information here, there’s plenty more ahead.Apart from my personal experiences and travels across the country, I have written a travelogueon my three-week journey through the south-eastern states of Mexico, most of which were partof the mysterious Maya World. Besides people and their lifestyle, food and culture, touristdestinations have been covered in detail to let this fascinating country tempt you. For me, writing this book has been an immensely invaluable experience. I shall now letyou get acquainted with this fascinating country called ‘México’ and to share my wonderfuladventures across this magical land. I have no doubts that when you have finished reading this book, you will want to enjoysome passages again. And I’m also sure that you will want to visit Mexico more than ever, toenjoy your own thrilling adventures. Happy reading!Mumbai, IndiaSaturday, June 12, 2010 viii
  16. 16. POLITICAL MAP OF MEXICO (Map Not To Scale)
  17. 17. GEOGRAPHICAL MAP OF MEXICO (Map Not To Scale)
  18. 18. CHAPTER ONE MY MEXICAN DIARYAugust 15, 2007. 2:00 am, Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, Mumbai.Boarding for British Airways Flight 243 to London was being announced. I prepared myself toleave the country for an internship with a Mexican company based in Guadalajara, the secondlargest city of Mexico. A year had passed since the day I emailed my Curriculum Vitae to the company. I wantedto experience the life and culture of Mexico, to travel around the beautiful country, and at thesame time, to improve upon my spoken Spanish. So I was elated when I received a reply fromthe company stating their interest in recruiting me. An international youth associationcoordinated the internship program with the company. Being the darling of my parents and the youngest child, I knew that my family was goingto miss me very much. As for me, I was quite enthusiastic about staying in Mexico for at leastsix months till I felt completely homesick. Anyway, I wasn’t travelling abroad alone for the first 3
  19. 19. time – three years ago, I had travelled solo to Spain and France on a three-week trip. And withinIndia too, I had travelled alone many times to distant places. So I was quite capable of takingcare of myself. The departure day was also worth remembering for another reason – it was India’s 60thIndependence Day!Arrival in MexicoAt 7:15 pm, my flight landed at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport. Someminutes earlier, I had my first glimpse of the enormous, sprawling metropolis from the plane. Itwas like flying over a vast sea of never-ending lights. The time difference between Mumbai andMexico City is ten and a half hours when daylight saving time starts on the first Sunday in Aprilwhile it is eleven and a half hours from the last Sunday in October when daylight saving timeends. So even though I left India in the very early hours of the day, I reached Mexico City in thelate hours of the same day. It had been a long, tiring journey. I had spent almost twenty hours inthe air and another six and a half hours at London’s Heathrow Airport, window shopping andhanging around the cafés while waiting for the connecting flight. In the Arrivals area, two members of the youth association were waiting to receive me. Iwas going to stay with them in their three-bedroom apartment for two nights. It was also 4
  20. 20. occupied by four others. One of them, a nice friendly Serbian made breakfast cereal for me thenext morning before leaving for work. While the others left for work, I left to explore the city centre – known as CentroHistórico (Historic Centre) or simply ‘Centro’. Armed with a map, I took the convenient Metro –for a mere two-peso fare, the French-designed trains quickly whisk away passengers to theirdestinations from any corner of the city on a given route. Mexico City, the country’s capital, commonly called ‘DF’ (dey-efe) or Distrito Federal(Federal District) is a vibrant, charismatic and extraordinary city. It stands at an altitude of 7,350feet, watched over by two mighty volcanoes. One of the oldest cities in the world, it was builtover the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (then situated on an island in the middle of alarge lake) which was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors) in 1521. Today it isone of the largest and most populous cities on earth. The Centro Histórico was once the heart ofTenochtitlán. Since the Spanish conquest, the city has sprawled in every direction and absorbedsurrounding towns, villages and natural areas. The Centro Histórico and the ‘floating gardens’ ofXochimilco in the southern borough, are two of the city areas which have been declared asUNESCO World Heritage Sites. I reached my destination, Zócalo, and walked up and out through the crowded subway tofind myself in the corner of a vast, paved, open square. This was the Plaza de la Constituciónalso known as the Zócalo or the Main Plaza. Zócalo literally means ‘the plinth or base’. Thename came about from part of a monument dedicated to the Independence that was planned in 5
  21. 21. the 1840s. But only the statues base (now no more) was ever built. That, too, was destroyed longago but the name has lived on. Since then, the main square in most of the cities and towns of thecountry is called the Zócalo. There are over 1400 colonial buildings in this area of over thirteenacres, making it Latin Americas largest main square. The huge plaza, with the capacity to holdmore than 100,000 people, has been a gathering place for Mexicans since the Aztec period. It hasbeen the site of various social and political ceremonies, including military parades and alsomajor political rallies. It has received foreign Heads of State and is the main venue for bothnational celebration and national protest. In the centre of the plaza, there is a flagpole with anenormous Mexican flag which is ceremoniously raised and lowered each day and carried into thePalacio Nacional (The National or Government Palace), an immense piece of colonialarchitecture that takes up the entire eastern side of the plaza. The Palacio Nacional was built in 1563 over the ruins of the royal palace of the Aztecking Montezuma and the first residence of Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador. It wasinitially the official residence of the President of the Republic but now the Presidential residenceis Los Pinos, situated south-west of the city centre. Every year on the 15th of September at 11pm, the President of the Republic appears on the balcony of the Palacio Nacional to give thefamous Grito de la Independencia or the Cry of Independence (the way it was voiced in the townof Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Guanajuato in 1810) and finishes with the golden words ‘VivaMéxico!’ which are echoed by tens of thousands standing in the Zócalo below, in an emotion-packed traditional annual ritual. This event is televised and broadcast on radio to every corner of 6
  22. 22. the nation and signals the start of the celebrations for the next day, the Dia de la Patria(Independence Day). Mexico is recognized internationally for the contributions of its twentieth-century muralartists, who created murals that reflected not only Mexico’s history and culture, but also itscurrent social issues. These murals grace the walls of public and private buildings throughout thecountry. The walls inside the Palacio Nacional contain huge murals by Diego Rivera, the mostrenowned Mexican muralist, illustrating the colourful history of the country. On the north side of the plaza stands the impressive La Catedral Metropolitana, thelargest cathedral in Latin America, which was built in 1563 over Aztec ruins. When I visited it,the cathedral was being repaired and reinforced as it had started to sink into the city’s softfoundations (Mexico City is built on the drained Lake Texcoco). Clockwise round the Zócalo from the Palacio Nacional, on the third side is theAyuntamiento, the City Council and on the fourth, the Nacional Monte de Piedad building whichhas long arcades lined with rows of shops selling jewellery, hats, etc. Just off the Zócalo, to thenorth east of the cathedral, lies the excavated site of the Aztec Templo Mayor (The GreatTemple), part of the sacred complex of Tenochtitlán, which was demolished by the Spaniards.The site contains the bare ruins of the foundations of the great temple and one or twosurrounding buildings. The site came to light in 1978, when electricity workers unearthed an 8-tonne stone disc of Coyolxauqui, the Aztec moon goddess. Further exploration revealed thatthere was an entire archaeological wonder lying beneath Mexico Citys streets. After a special 7
  23. 23. decree was passed by the government, many of the colonial buildings that stood above the ruinswere torn down to reveal the ruin of the Templo Mayor – and the place where it is believed, theAztec saw the sign given to them by their gods: an eagle perched on a nopal cactus, devouring asnake. Even today, it is treasured as the national symbol, and adorns the flag of Mexico. The sitemuseum displays all the excavated artefacts and a detailed model of the old city. The TemploMayor, one of Mexicos most important archaeological sites, is maintained by the InstitutoNacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) or the National Institute of Anthropology andHistory, the government organization responsible for the management of the country’s culturaland historical heritage and its archaeological sites. To celebrate the country’s Independence Day in the following month, the publicbuildings in Zócalo were dressed in patriotic decorations of greens, whites and reds – Mexico’sofficial colours! Walking along the nearby streets was a rich, new experience for me. It wasamazing to find the place flooded with thousands of people, even on a normal routine day. Ishuddered to think what the street scene would be like on Sundays, or on days when there wererallies or other major events taking place in the plaza! Walking further, I reached the La Mercedmarket located east of the Zócalo. The La Merced market is the city’s largest traditional retail market for a wide variety ofeveryday products like fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, toys, clothes, flowers and candy.Although the market is held in several huge buildings, the unofficial market continues outside onthe sidewalks and streets between the market and the Zócalo. It is illegal, but peddlers pay bribes 8
  24. 24. to local bosses, who in turn pay bribes to local officials. The market place was colourful andbustling with activity. Street stalls and wandering vendors were touting everything from food andcurios to hi-fi equipment. Vendors tried to call me over with ‘Pasele’ (come this way) or ‘A susordenes’ (at your service), hoping that I would check out their goods and buy something.Mounds of dried chiles (chillies), all kinds of beans, fresh luscious fruits and a wide variety ofvegetables greeted me. I walked on and on. Till then, I was not aware that the market area is alsoknown for flagrant prostitution – women can be seen soliciting at all hours of the day and night. Iwalked further down the street to the Sonora witchcraft market, which offers all kinds of curesand enchantments, from herbs to voodoo dolls, to something for all those seeking wealth, or tokeep a loved one from straying. I retraced my steps back to the Plaza. I had seen so many amazing things in the course ofthe day which had left me completely overwhelmed – even doll shops, selling all sizes ofdresses, shoes and fashion accessories for dolls. The Plaza was filled with the pounding of drumsand other types of instrumental music. Since the late 1980s, due to efforts to revitalize thedowntown area, the Zócalo has become the scene of a number of artistic and cultural events.Street singers, musicians and entertainers take over the place in the evenings. There are dailyimpromptu shows of Aztec dancers dancing to drums, wearing feathered headdresses and ankletsmade of shells. The next morning, I took a taxi (a green and white VW Beetle!) for Mexico Norte busterminal, from where buses left for Guadalajara. The huge bus terminal resembled an airport 9
  25. 25. terminal. Inside the terminal, ticket desks belonging to different bus companies had long queuesbefore them. Mexico City is a central bus hub for many destinations in Mexico with its four main busterminals connecting travellers with all the regions of the country. Since passenger transport bytrain is almost non-existent, travel through Mexico is mostly by bus, car or air. With a number ofexcellent long-distance bus lines which are comfortable, frequent, reasonably priced and connectthe major cities, bus travel is very popular. Large cities have centralized bus stations used bymany bus lines, sort of like an airport terminal. On the most frequented routes, there is a choiceof three service levels: De Lujo or Ejecutivo (Luxury or Executive class), Primera clase (Firstclass), Segunda clase (Second class). The Luxury and the First class buses transport customers incomfort and safety, on high-specification, quiet, modern, air-conditioned buses for as little as10% of the equivalent flight cost. These buses run on time and only travel on the toll-roads,making the journey fast and efficient. The Luxury class buses offer the latest in bus technologyand comfort. They have 24 wide, comfortable seats on a 2+1 seat arrangement. Like inairplanes, each seat is equipped with blankets, back cushion and earphones for those interested inwatching movies or listening to music. There are flat screen TVs after every four rows, whichplay Hollywood movies dubbed or subtitled in Spanish during the entire course of the journey.While boarding the bus, the passengers are provided with complimentary snacks and a cold drinkas well as tea or coffee sachets to enjoy a hot beverage on board. Luxury class buses run non-stop to their destination; First class buses make an intermediary stop at a major town or city en 10
  26. 26. route; while Second class buses stop almost everywhere. First class buses provide many of theservices offered on the executive service including an on-board toilet, but the seat configurationis less comfortable as there is less room for stretching out. I had read a lot about buses in Mexico before my arrival in the country so I already knewby which bus I wanted to travel. I went to the ETN ticket desk, bought my ticket and checked inmy suitcase. The baggage check-in service is offered only by ETN to its passengers. It is themost upscale line, charging some 20% more than other lines for identical routes. Soon, I was on my way to the culture-rich state of Jalisco, famous for being the cradle oftequila, mariachi music (the emblem of Mexico’s cultural traditions), sombreros, charreadas(Mexican rodeos) and the jarabe tapatio (Mexican Hat Dance). Jalisco’s biggest pride is itscapital, Guadalajara which has bestowed upon the country most of the images which peopleworldwide associate with Mexico – like the famous wide-brimmed Mexican sombrero andmariachi music. Located at an altitude of 5000 feet, Guadalajara is the ‘most Mexican of all cities’ andembodies the soul of the country because of its rich, traditional culture and the typical Mexicanways of its people (called tapatios). One of the wealthiest urban centres in Latin America, the city was a colonial centre ofconsiderable religious, cultural and architectural importance. It was the centre of the CristeroWar (1926 – 1929), a rebellion by Catholic guerrillas against the secularization reforms ofPresident Plutarco Elías Calles. Today, Guadalajara is a major hub for commerce and industry. 11
  27. 27. Many hi-tech companies have made their presence in this city which is also called ‘the SiliconValley of Mexico.’ Many Mexico City residents (called chilangos) most of them tired of thetraffic, pollution, crime and the high-paced life of the capital have made their homes here. Thecity’s surrounding areas boasts of well-known places. The famous town of Tequila, from wherethe world-famous tequila liquor originated is 65 km away from Guadalajara while the country’slargest freshwater lake, Lake Chapala is just 50 km away. The 465 km-long journey from Mexico City to Guadalajara was completed in sevenhours by the ETN bus. It was evening when I hopped out of the bus at Guadalajara’s longdistance bus terminal, La Nueva Central Camionera, a huge complex with seven terminals, eachplaying host to the arrival and departure of two or more different bus lines. The terminal was 9km away from the city centre but there was a bus service just outside. The house meant for foreign interns was fully occupied, so the local member of the youthassociation had arranged for temporary accommodation which was only available for three days.There was a party at the house of the foreign interns, so I ended up passing my first nightpartying into the wee hours of the morning. The important things in my to-do list were – to purchase a SIM card for my cell phone, toregister my entry permit at the Immigration Office once my accommodation was fixed, and toopen a bank account. So at mid-day, I left for the city centre to purchase the SIM card. Stoppingby a nearby convenience store, I learnt my first typical Mexican expression, ‘hacer compas’,which means to make friendship. The amiable store owner gave me the directions to the Centro 12
  28. 28. and explained the bus routes, making it easy for me to find my way around. The green and white minibuses called micros are very convenient modes of publictransport. At 4.50 pesos one can travel to any place on its route. There are also other local buses,some air-conditioned, which operate on specific routes. Both, micros and local buses display theroute and major stops on the front windshield. At the bus stop, one has to wave at the bus for it tohalt. Since the ticket is issued on boarding the bus, it is better to have loose change on hand tomove in quickly. There is a stop button at the rear exit, and one can also get off from the front bytelling the driver ‘La esquina, por favor’ which means ‘The corner, please’ or ‘Aqui, por favor’which is ‘Here, please.’ The Centro attracts major tourist activity and is one of the most densely populated areasof the city. Still, most of the attractions lie within close range and it is a pleasure to walk aroundthe area. One of the main landmarks of the area is the city Cathedral, known for its emblematictwin steeples. The surrounding plazas and parks provide plenty of opportunities for food, leisure,shopping and entertainment activities. The city’s main cultural arts venues, the monumental19th-century building Teatro Degollado and the impressive regional museum, Museo Regionalde Guadalajara, are located here. So also, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of InstitutoCultural Cabañas and the beautiful 70,000 square metre Plaza Tapatia comprising of a centralesplanade, plazas, narrow cobbled paths and beautiful works of art. Guadalajara is the place where the mariachi tradition began, with musicians dressed insilver-studded charro (Mexican horsemen) outfits – usually black – and matching wide- 13
  29. 29. brimmed hats, playing melodies and singing traditional folk songs. The mariachis are hired toplay in plazas, at parties, restaurants and weddings; to sing Las Mañanitas (the Mexican birthdaysong); and during occasions like a quinceañera (a girls fifteenth birthday celebration whichfollows the colonial tradition of a coming-out party for girls). They are often hired to serenadewomen, as many of the songs are very romantic. The Plaza de Los Mariachis is a smalltriangular plaza in the Centro where one can be serenaded while relaxing at one of the smallcafés or restaurants. The ‘original’ mariachis play only stringed instruments and sing onlytraditional Jalisco folk music. However, many mariachi songs today are accompanied by at leastthree violins, two trumpets, a Mexican guitar, a vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar) aguitarrón (a large acoustic bass guitar) and occasionally, a harp. They also play music and folksongs from all across the country. By the end of the second day, I had learnt to move around the city with familiarity. Thenext morning, I took a micro to another popular zone, the Minerva-Chapultepec area where animportant city landmark is located – the Glorieta de La Minerva, a big statue of the Romangoddess Minerva surrounded by a large fountain. The city store of Librerias Gandhi, one ofMexico’s leading bookstore chains was just nearby so I spent some time there. Earlier, somebody had told me about a Hare Krishna temple in the neighbourhood thatalso had a vegetarian restaurant in its premises. I reached the place after a long search coveringthe entire residential area. To my surprise, I discovered that the more than 30-year old templewas run by Hare Krishna monks of Mexican origin. The idols were housed in a small room. 14
  30. 30. Another room housed a souvenir shop selling various Indian arts and crafts including idols ofdeities and incense sticks. The food served inside the dining area was simple and purevegetarian, prepared by one of the resident monks. But at the entrance of the main door, therewas a kiosk selling non-vegetarian savouries. Like all the ISKCON temples around the world, this temple too hosts a free vegetarianSunday feast for all, personally cooked and served by the senior resident monk who founded theplace. The Sunday programme includes chanting of the holy names of the Lord (Hare Krishna)and a Bhagavad Gita class during which philosophy is discussed. I enjoyed the simple Indianmeal of chole (chickpea dish) and rice, followed by gulab jamun (a sweet dish) served by afemale monk, who told me a bit about the tight-knit Hare Krishna group and their religiousactivities. She invited me to join them in the celebrations of their annual fall festival, RathaYatra, for which they had lined many programmes including outdoor processions, music,costumes, devotion, dance, theatre, and free vegetarian feasts. Besides the few Indians who livein the city, many Mexicans visit the temple because as the monk put it, ‘Guadalajara is moreopen than other parts of Mexico.’ Later, in the course of my city exploration, I realized the truth in her words. Despite itspredominantly Catholic population, Guadalajara has many yoga and Buddhist centres. After twodays of travelling around the city, I had learnt a lot of things which widened my insight. I hadalso experienced my first rain in Mexico. Fortunately, I had carried a pocket umbrella with mesince Mexico, like India, has a rainy season from late June to early September. 15
  31. 31. The following Monday, I was ready for my first day at the office. I was looking forwardto working with the globally well-known nutritional supplement company, part of a hugeconglomerate of 30 companies in Guadalajara and ranked as one of the 200 top corporations inMexico. I had ‘googled’ the company in the internet before leaving India and had discoveredquite a lot of interesting information which left me totally impressed. I learnt that the company’smore than hundred natural dietary supplements were distributed in 22 countries worldwidethrough a person-to-person multi-development system comprising of around 4.5 million people.Besides manufacturing proprietary nutritional food supplements and cosmetic products, thecompany’s sister companies were dedicated to the field of education, soccer, cinema, music,insurance, multimedia, charitable foundations, art, etc. It boasted of a 750 million-dollar Culture,Convention and Business Centre on the outskirts of Guadalajara and was also the proud owner ofone of the city’s soccer teams – a national favourite among all the soccer teams of the MexicanFirst League Division – and a few international clubs. On arrival, I was given a tour of the sprawling premises and introduced to some of themore than four hundred employees. The sprawling office had a large canteen which serveddifferent types of dishes, including a wide array of salads. The food came from the centralkitchen located in the premises of the company’s educational institution, an exceptional placeproviding wide facilities and opportunities for children. The employees enjoyed many benefitsand conveniences including in-house yoga classes and haircut services. I was to begin work in September. Till then, I had to attend training and discussion 16
  32. 32. sessions to acquaint myself with the company’s business, its diverse activities and the group’sresponsibilities, in general. The training sessions gave me an opportunity to meet the variousDepartment Heads and their personnel and learn about the work carried out by each departmentof the company. The induction training also included visits to the different offices of theconglomerate, its factory, centres of distribution and various group institutions in the city. Withme, there were other new recruits too, including some from South American countries. Thankfully, my new ‘paying guest’ accommodation was fixed by the end of the three-dayperiod. By the following week, I had registered my entry permit at the Immigration Office andopened a bank account, all by myself. One Saturday, I went to the soccer match at the EstadioJalisco with a few office colleagues. The match was between the company-owned team andanother local team. The atmosphere was incredible. Our seats were quite close to the field. It feltexciting to be among the thousands of soccer fans drinking beer and munching on popcorn andpotato chips topped with lime and chile. I got to see how soccer can emotionally divide thecountry, especially when rivals meet each other. The biggest rivalry in Mexican soccer is theClásico de Clásicos, the football match between Chivas (‘the goats’) or Club Guadalajara andLas Aguilas (‘the eagles’) or Club América from Mexico City, which attracts the biggest crowdand the most attention. Both teams share the distinction of being the two most successfulMexican soccer clubs. One day, during the week, the head of the HRD introduced me to the founder andchairman of the huge conglomerate. He was hardly around in the office, as his job kept him in 17
  33. 33. business meetings or travelling to different places around the world. So I was lucky to meet thedynamic leader, an overwhelming and captivating personality, in his simple yet very tastefullydone office. Time passed very quickly and by the end of the month, I had attended around fourparties, including an office party with sushi dinner. Mexicans are party-lovers for whom musicand dance are an important element in their daily life. No party is complete without a pulsingdance floor. Nightclubs are allowed to serve drinks all night and people start arriving only after11:00 pm, to leave between 5:00 and 7:00 the next morning. Music, like food, is a mainstay of Mexican social life. Besides mariachi music,traditional music styles include banda which uses brass instruments and cumbia, which isheavily influenced by music from the Caribbean islands. Internationally popular Mexican songslike Bésame Mucho, Cielito Lindo, El Rey, La Bamba, and many more are part of the Mexicanculture. But when it comes to popularity, Ricky Martin is everyone’s favourite. Top Mexicansingers include the iconic Luis Miguel, the flamboyant Alejandro Fernández and bands likeManá, Timbiriche, Belanova, among others. English tunes are immensely popular too with themusic band U2 topping the list of favourites. Most of the popular English songs also haveSpanish versions which are quite a hit with people of all ages. Still, the youngsters are verypassionate about traditional music. Most of my Sundays went by in shopping, especially, at the nearby commercial centre ofPlaza Patria through which I passed every day on my way from the office. I often stopped there 18
  34. 34. for a mouth-watering hot churro, a sugar and cinnamon coated fritter in the shape of long stickfilled with chocolate sauce. On few Sundays, I pampered myself at the beauty salons. The firsttime I visited a beauty salon, I was quite surprised. I expected the Mexican salons to be well-versed with the Indian practice of shaping eyebrows with a twisted thread; but to my surprise,Mexican women used either wax or tweezers, they had never heard about ‘threading’! So I endedup getting my eyebrows waxed – for the first and last time! The streets, too, provided a colourful insight into Mexican life. Peddlers trying to selltheir wares to cars waiting for the next green signal, are a common sight, like the windshieldcleaners. Likewise, clowns and acrobats enact short performances before the first row of waitingcars before approaching each car for tips. Slow-moving cars blaring advertisements over tinyloudspeakers mounted on their roofs, or through a megaphone from the window, is anothercommon mode of publicity and information dissemination. On the last day of the month, there was an annual company event, attended by more than3000 distributors from the American continent. I was one of the volunteers who assisted ingiving them a tour of the entire office premises. I had the novel experience of being besieged byrequests from excited distributors to stand beside them for a photograph, even when thechairman was around. Some requested me to speak a little about India in Hindi for their videoshoot. The next day, my ethnic Indian wear – a beautifully embroidered black salwar kameez –and the stylish black ‘bindi’ on my forehead, attracted plenty of attention. 19
  35. 35. SeptemberOn the first day of the month, I began work in the Department of Ethics, which dealt with thehandling of any unethical practices carried out by distributors. We had to contact thosedistributors, seek a written clarification from them and if found guilty, warn them againstcarrying on with the malpractice in the future. If the warning was ignored, they risked therevocation of their contract which entitled them to be independent distributors. The entireprocess required co-ordination with the distributors (both, the complainant and the personcharged), the centres of distribution (of the products) and other departments in the office. Weworked in a totally computerized environment where all the data and actions taken had to beentered in the system. During the weekend, I saw long colourful parades and floats passing along the road withmen and women on horseback, dressed in colonial-style dresses. They were the participants ofthe two-week long Encuentro Internacional del Mariachi y La Charreria, an annual celebrationof mariachi music and charreria, a traditional custom and sport. There was excitement allaround as people stopped to greet and wave at the participants who had arrived from all over thecountry. I was looking forward to the charrería whose central component is the charreada, afestive event that incorporates equestrian competitions and demonstrations, specific costumesand horse trappings, music, and food. The male participants called charros compete in roping 20
  36. 36. and riding events while the women execute daring feats and precision maneuvers while ridingsidesaddle. By the end of the first week of September, the rains had stopped. It was time for a changein footwear. So one evening, I shopped at Galeria Del Calzado, an upscale footwear mall, not farfrom my office. Tempted by the beautiful variety of shoes, I ended up buying a pair of highleather boots and two pairs of high-heeled shoes. Guadalajara’s modern shopping malls and specialized malls had begun to impress me somuch that I found myself spending a lot of my spare time doing window shopping. A visit to theCentro was always a colourful experience, especially during festive celebrations. During theIndependence Day week, the main squares, commercial centres, etc. were covered with green,white and red coloured decorations. I could see the patriotic passion people displayed byflaunting green-white-red Mexican flags on their cars even weeks before the D-Day. On that day,the streets in the Centro were closed to traffic for the Independence Day parades and floats.Thousands of people had gathered around to watch the exciting event. On the day of Ganesh Chaturthi, celebrated in India in honour of Lord Ganesha, Idistributed my preparation of ‘gajar halwa’ among the people working on my office floor (over60 of them!). The previous evening, I had shopped for the ingredients at Wal-Mart and a grocerychain store called Mama Coneja. The latter sold various kinds of spices normally found in Indiankitchens including turmeric powder, jaggery, bay leaves, etc. I had to grate almost three kilos ofcarrots, although the preparation was easy requiring just sugar, milk, cardamom, saffron and 21
  37. 37. almonds. There were mixed responses to my sweet preparation – some liked it very much whileothers found the new flavour strange. By the third week of September, I had shifted into a new accommodation in one of thebest posh localities of the city (and one of the quietest too!), surrounded by plenty of greenery.The condominium was beautiful and so was my room in the two-storied house. My new addresswas all thanks to Alejandra (‘Ale’), my wonderful colleague-cum-friend, and her mother. Thehouse was occupied by the landlady and her son. Although the rent covered the use of thekitchen, including gas, I didn’t fancy cooking after a tiring day. I lunched at the office, so forbreakfast and dinner I had milk, fruits, cereals or healthy oat biscuits and bars. Besides, theneighbourhood had many nice restaurants and there was a Soriana supermarket just two blocksaway for my monthly purchases. Just down the road, there was an Oxxo, the country largestconvenience store chain. The state governor’s residence, a huge sports centre, a very goodhospital, many clinics and the pharmacies which doubled up as convenience stores were in theneighbourhood. And, the house was near to my office – I couldn’t have asked for a betterlocation! For over a week after moving into my new residence, I started suffering from very severeinsomnia. It was a very serious problem for which I had tried various remedies from countingsheep to reading boring books in bed. Finally, I decided to get out of the city for a change of air.On the last Saturday of the month, I took the early morning bus to Chapala, leaving from the oldbus station in the Centro. I stayed at the picturesque town of Ajijic in the Nueva Posada Hotel, 22
  38. 38. one of the fanciest hotels located alongside Lake Chapala. This beautiful town has a thrivingcommunity of American expatriates (who are called ‘gringos’ in Mexico), mostly retired. Therewere many shops and boutiques selling beautiful designer beaded jewellery as well as stylishdresses made from manta cloth. Manta is a traditional hand-woven cotton fabric and is the prideof the Mexicans just like the people of India take pride in their hand-woven cotton khadi cloth.The next day, I took a tourist car to the pristine village of Mazamitla located high in themountains. The beautiful journey from Ajijic to Mazamitla passed through Jocotopec, a town knownfor beautiful resorts and spas. Mazamitla is an amazing hill station. I walked for hours throughthe beautiful wilderness to reach a lovely waterfall. By early afternoon, I was back in Chapala. Idid a walking tour of the main area and then boarded the late evening bus back to Guadalajara.Thankfully, the trip helped in curing my insomnia.OctoberMy birthday was at the end of the first week of October. I wanted to celebrate it at one of the bestdiscos in the city. I zeroed upon one which played Cuban salsa music. It was a Friday night andby midnight, there were around fifteen of us enjoying the beautiful atmosphere. There was asuperb Cuban salsa show after which the floor was flooded with dance lovers. I had great fun and 23
  39. 39. the time passed rapidly till it was time to leave, around 2:30 am. Among the birthday gifts that Ireceived was a bottle of Ponche de Granada (Pomegranate Punch), a local aperitif which tastedsomewhat like port and sherry. From the first Saturday of October, Guadalajara celebrates its annual Fiestas de Octubre,a month-long period of fun, entertainment and all kinds of cultural and artistic events running tillthe first Sunday of November. I was told that the cultural events included traditional music androck concerts, dance performances, special movie shows, art exhibitions, ballet, workshops andtraditional cockfights, among many other activities. The popular attractions also included games,food, exhibitions, sale of products and arts and crafts, sports activities, the coronation of theBeauty Queen, an Agriculture Expo, a monumental and impressive parade, extreme games, and ahuge ice rink. I visited the funfair with a friend and her little sister. I had never taken a ride on theRussian Mountain, but that day I was game for it. I thought it was going great, till the carriagestarted rolling up and down. From then on, I couldn’t stop myself from screaming throughout theride! When the ride came to an end, I realized that my voice had become hoarse! I tried my handat one of the games and won a stuffed toy, a big white cuddly rabbit which I gifted to my friend’slittle sister. There was plenty of food (some very oily and unhealthy!) and entertainment around.We took in a bit of everything around from music and dance to just window shopping. It was acommercialized event that had all sorts of fun activities for all ages and tastes, including late-night strictly adult entertainment shows as well! 24
  40. 40. In October, Guadalajara also attracts religious worshippers from all over the country.People crowd to the Zapopan municipality (the largest in Jalisco) which is one of the mostimportant religious centres of the country. Most of Guadalajara’s attractions are actually inZapopan. Its centre, dominated by the beautiful Basílica de Zapopan and the lovely main plaza,witnesses great festivities. At the beginning of every rainy season, an image of the Virgen deZapopan, the patron saint of Jalisco, is taken to Guadalajara on a tour of all the 130 parishes inthe metropolitan area. This is believed to protect the city against heavy rains and floods. Then,on October 12th, the image of the Virgin is brought back home. On her return, a large crowd(over a million people) gathers to welcome her back to the church with a large festival. One Sunday, I visited the nearby district of Tlaquepaque, a shopper’s paradise designedto look like a Mexican village. This highly fashionable district boasts of trendy shops, sidewalkor patio cafés and restaurants lining colonial-style streets and alleys, plazas and gardens. Themain shopping area is closed off to traffic and with good reason – there are over three hundredquaint shops with an incredible variety of quality handmade goods, including traditional arts andcrafts, pottery, decorative home furnishings and everything from fine blue blown glassware (forwhich Jalisco is very renowned) and hand painted tiles, to up-market furniture and bronzesculptures. I satisfied myself with doing window shopping since the place was the ultimatedestination for furnishing and decorating homes, restaurants or hotels and I didn’t own any ofthem in Mexico. I passed by a large plaza called El Parián, flanked by columned arcades and surrounded 25
  41. 41. by many restaurant-bars. In the centre, there was a traditional kiosk where most of the mariachisgather to play for their patrons. But they are also found in many of the restaurants andplazas. Luckily for me, it was a festive day when I visited the suburb. There were numerousgroups, each dressed in traditional colourful feathered costumes and headdresses. The air wasfilled with the continuous beating of drums and folk music. After performing their dance, eachgroup moved in procession towards the church to pray to the Virgin. The place was throbbingwith excitement and enthusiasm. Strangely, on the same day in India, people were celebratingDussehra, the last day of the nine-day Navratri festival dedicated to the worship of Goddess Kali.The coincidence was very touching and I was glad that I visited Tlaquepaque that day. Right after my arrival in the city, I had purchased road maps of Guadalajara, Jalisco andMexico; a thick book containing the complete city information; and the visitor’s guide of Jalisco.Along with all these guides, travelling by bus got me acquainted with the different parts of thecity. I was always on the move. When I wasn’t working, I was always out exploring the city orvisiting the plazas, attending parties and other social occasions. So, in no time I knew more aboutthe city than my Mexican friends and colleagues! At the office too, very soon, I became verywell-versed with the new work. Many times, I felt like I was treated like a Mexican employeerather than an international trainee. However, what irked me was that I was doing plenty ofwork, but I was getting paid half the salary of the employees since I was an intern. Besides doingthe departmental work, I was also doing Spanish-English-Spanish technical translations andinterpretations. I used to return home from the never-ending, heavy workload. Since my arrival 26
  42. 42. in Mexico, I had been communicating with people only in Spanish and, speaking in a foreignlanguage throughout the day can be very tiring! At first, I could not understand Mexican Spanish because some of the words used werenew to me and people generally used typical Mexican expressions while communicating. MyCastilian Spanish (Spanish spoken in Spain) was sometimes confusing to them too. Imisunderstood what people said and they in turn misunderstood me. But I soon got the hang ofthe Mexican words and expressions and was using Mexican colloquialisms like esta padre orchido to mean ‘it’s fantastic.’ I was well-versed with Spanish cuss words (the ones normally usedin Spain), but in Mexico I learnt many more which were much more colourful than the ones fromSpain. Then, there were verbs like ‘coger’ and ‘agarrar’ both meaning ‘to take’ in Spanish. Butin Mexico, the first word is a bit vulgar and the second is commonly used, whereas in Spain it’sthe opposite. So I often had to mind my language. There were many trying times and experiencesof being ‘lost in translation.’ Mexican Spanish makes frequent use of diminutive suffixes such as -ito/ita to indicateaffection. Ahora (now) is ahorita, poco (little) is poquito... Even names get transformed – Sarabecomes Sarita and Carlos becomes Carlitos. I learnt another thing -- when asked how long itwill take to get something done, people generally respond with ‘en un ratito’ Literally, its adiminutive of the word rato which means in a short time. If you are lucky to meet the right kindof people, it will be done in a short time, literally. Otherwise, it is usually implied that the thingwill be done when the person feels like doing it – after a long time, or perhaps, never. 27
  43. 43. Meanwhile, I was beginning to miss my salsa and ballroom dance routine which I used tofollow in Mumbai. So I signed up for a two-month belly dancing course, twice a week, afteroffice hours. It was fun and kept me slim and slender for the next two months. But I didn’t feellike renewing it because the dance studio was far from my residence. From my office a colleaguewould drop me till the place, but after the class I had to walk for some twenty minutes to reachthe bus stop and then I had to change buses twice. Sometimes, I would reach home past 9:30 pm.The high bus speed, the dim-lit empty roads and the dark surroundings would often make itdifficult for me to sight my bus stop. Once, I even lost my loose change pouch in the bus in ahurry to reach for the exit door before the bus moved on.My Diwali MandapA new Managing Director had been appointed by the company sometime in August. By mid-October, a wave of changes had been implemented in the company to cut down costs andincrease operational and process efficiency. Many of the directors were getting sacked and therewere major reshuffles in each department. As the days passed, people would wonder who wouldbe the next person to get axed. Then, one day, the Director of Commercial Operations asked me to organize a small dofor the Diwali festival which was in November. He wanted me to share with the office staff a bit 28
  44. 44. of the colourful Indian culture which he had experienced during his two-year stay in India in hisyounger days. To present Indian culture and traditions to the more than 400 employees seemedlike a challenging task so I was very enthusiastic about the whole thing. I thought about putting up a Diwali mandap (altar) in the reception area of the office forthe 9th of November, the day of Lakshmi Pooja – the day during Diwali when Hindus worshipGoddess Lakshmi. I planned to conduct a pooja (worship) ceremony at 9:30 am on that day.There were many things to be done – the layout and designing of the mandap, sourcing idols ofLord Ganesh and Goddess Lakshmi, purchasing decorations, flowers, fruits, candles, lighting,etc. But I was determined to create a very rich and classy looking décor for the mandap, toconvey the message that India was not just about poverty and cow-worship. Very few knewabout India’s rich cultural heritage. Three weeks before the event, an e-invite was circulated within the office. Information onthe importance of the festival was uploaded on the company’s website. I made arrangementswith the company’s central kitchen to serve Indian vegetarian food on that day. For that, I had totranslate the recipes of the starters, main dish and dessert into Spanish, and explain therequirements of the taste and flavour to the kitchen in-charge. The company had authorized a budget of six thousand pesos to cover all the expenses.Unfortunately, just two weeks before the event, the Director of Commercial Operations wasrelieved from his job. Many others gradually followed, but I was assured that there would be nochange in the plan to hold the event. 29
  45. 45. Finding Indian goods in the city proved to be a tough proposition! I would spend myweekends visiting the various commercial centres and shopping zones for stores selling Asianitems. This helped me discover various hitherto unknown barrios (neighbourhoods) of the city.One day, I remembered the visiting card that a shop owner in Ajijic had given me. She regularlysourced Asian goods from someone in the city. I contacted her and got the details of a shop in theCentro which sold many items from India. I managed to persuade the shop owner to rent me afew of the displayed items for the day. I selected two beautiful bronze idols of Lord Ganesh andGoddess Lakshmi, four Pashmina shawls, a batik bed sheet, two decorative traditional hangingsand a long metal necklace. With Christmas just two months away, stores selling decorative goods had stockedvarious types of eye-catching items – I purchased sandalwood incense sticks (which are verypopular in the city), a cascade-style decorative lighting, plain candles, floating candles, feng shuicrystal hangings, a small bronze bell and a small beautifully carved bronze ashtray (it was perfectas a pooja thali to place in front of the gods, with a lighted candle and a few flowers around), redchart paper, crepe paper, red & golden decorative sticks, red chenille fabric and red satin fabric. A day before the special day, I visited the wholesale markets at 7:00 am to shop forlovely colourful flowers and luscious fruits. Later in the day, my Departmental Head let me offtwo hours early so that I could start with the mandap work. The important part was building upthe structure as per my design, so that I could start with my work of putting things together. Theguys from the office maintenance department worked on it and did a perfect job. Two tables 30
  46. 46. were tied together while bamboos were placed at the four corners and on the top, to create theroof for the mandap. The tables were covered with red chart paper. Square blocks covered withred chart paper were used to create two levels. All this was then covered with red crepe paper.The roof was covered with the red batik bed sheet and the decorative lighting was then tiedaround the roof so that it fell in a proper cascade. It was 6:00 pm by the time all this wascompleted and my efficient helpers had to leave for home. I was left alone, with plenty of work to complete. I had made two-coloured decorationsfrom the different shades of crepe paper, which I hung inside the mandap along with the otherdecorative hangings. Two red Pashminas were spread on each level and the idols of the twodeities were placed on the top level. I had taken coloured print-outs of the Indian map and somebeautiful photos of India – snow-capped mountains, sandy desert, white beaches, wildlife, danceand yoga – I stuck these on the beautiful red satin cloth which was the background for themandap. The Indian flag, two photo frames of the deities and two traditional dupattas formedpart of the décor. Friends and colleagues helped me by lending a few items like a broad round glass standto place the floating candles, a glass fruit bowl and vase for the long-stemmed, beautiful flowers.One colleague (a devotee of Shri Sathya Sai Baba) had a small jar of red ‘kumkum’ powder,which she had purchased on her trip to the famous god man’s ashram in India. She lent me thejar for the day so that I could adorn the foreheads of the two deities with kumkum. Anothercolleague lent me her incense stick holder for burning the sandalwood incense. 31
  47. 47. I made garlands of yellow and purple Aster flowers and arranged red Hibiscus flowersand yellow flowers neatly around the idols. Some red and yellow flowers and rose petals werelaid out into the water-filled glass stand, along with the floating candles. With white ‘rangoli’powder, I made the religious symbols of ‘AUM’, ‘swastika’ and some decorative designs on thered layout. It was past midnight when I added the finishing touches to my mandap. I experienced adeep feeling of joy and happiness when I saw the beautiful vision before me. It looked somagical! The illuminations glowed softly on the beautiful red mandap bedecked with flowers;the gods were seated amongst the loveliest flowers surrounded by luscious fruits; while thebeautiful floral arrangement, colourful garlands, candles and floating candles added apicturesque touch to the ethereal scene. When I started work on the project, I fervently prayed to Lord Ganesh to help me put upthe most beautiful mandap. The task was a bit difficult and I was falling short of time in makingall the arrangements. Burdened with plenty of office work during the day, I used to spend the restof my time thinking about great ideas for the mandap. Only two months had passed since myarrival in the city and organizing something grand required information of the best and the rightplaces to shop and look around, especially items from India. But I had deep faith in the Lord andknew that he would make the perfect altar for me, in spite of the limited time on hand. The finalresult was all out there for everyone to admire, on the day of the event. On that grand day, I arrived at the office at 8:00 am, dressed in my favourite red and gold 32
  48. 48. sari which my father had couriered to me from India along with matching coloured bangles,earrings and a necklace (the jewellery never reached me due to pilferage in the passage!). One byone, I lit up all the candles and at the end of it all, the mandap looked so breathtakingly beautifulthat I couldn’t take my eyes off it! When I burned the incense sticks, the rich, earthy fragrance ofsandalwood wafted through the air. It was absolutely lovely! Everyone including the company chairman stopped to admire the glowing mandap ontheir way into the office. I had made arrangements for background music to be played throughoutthe day. The soulful music and the powerful mantras of the Gayatri Mantra CD were very wellappreciated by all. A colleague had brought a few boxes of Mexican milk sweets (which taste just like theIndian pedas!) which I arranged in a glass dish to be placed in front of the deities as an offering.At 9:30 am, I started the pooja and recited a few aartis (prayers). All those present stood insolemn silence, patiently listening to my ten-minute aarti recital, without understanding a wordof it. After the pooja, as is the Hindu custom, I let each of them lightly touch the flame of thecandle in the pooja thali. The milk sweets were distributed and then everyone returned to theirwork. Everything had gone well including the special Indian lunch which was also wellappreciated! Besides the usual wide array of salad, there were stacks of corn tortillas. Tortilla isMexico’s traditional daily bread made from corn or wheat flour. The wheat tortillas are the sameas Indian ‘chappatis’, but most Mexicans prefer corn tortillas over wheat tortillas so I settled for 33
  49. 49. the corn ones. The starter was a delicious lasagne dish of corn and spinach, which was followedby the chickpea dish, ‘chole’ and the cumin-seed flavoured rice ‘jeera rice’, ending with ‘shahitukra’ (a rich dessert of bread and nuts). Some of the directors in the commercial area had travel plans for the week including theday of the event. But strangely, the trips got postponed and that day, almost all of them werepresent in the office. And to my pleasant surprise, even the chairman! Since the mandap was inthe reception area, everybody stopped to have a look at it and I received plenty of compliments. The next day was Saturday; I had to return the rented items. I felt terribly sad whileundoing, one by one, all the hard work which I had done during the last two days. The photosand the video of the ceremony were the only reminders of the beautiful experience. The total costfor putting up the mandap was 3063 pesos (around 300US$ in those days), barely half theamount which the company had sanctioned to me. This was because I had got each item at a verygood bargain! I was glad to have spent the company money very carefully, resulting in therefund of almost half the amount allocated to me for the festival.NovemberOne of Mexico’s most important religious holidays, celebrated throughout the country, is the Diade los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The roots of this tradition go back to ancient times. The 1st of 34
  50. 50. November commemorates the deceased children, while the 2nd of November honours deceasedadults. On both these days, the graves in the cemetery are cleaned and adorned with offeringswhile in homes, altars are erected, decorated with offerings and food such as caramelizedpumpkin, pan de muerto (‘bread of the Dead’) and small sugar candy skulls called alfeñiques orcalaveras de azúcar. The decorations include all kinds of skeletons, intricate tissue paper cut-outs called papel picado, elaborate wreaths and crosses decorated with paper or silk flowers. Thefavourite things of the deceased including trinkets, food, candy, etc. are placed on the altar. Thetraditional decorations are the orange Marigold flowers called cempaxochitl, or Flor de Muerto(‘flower of the Dead’). Although the day is passionately celebrated throughout Mexico, thetraditional fervour is high in small towns. Pátzcuaro, a town in Michoacán, celebrates thisreligious event in a very traditional manner, attracting visitors even from abroad. Oaxaca City isanother place which attracts many visitors on this day. I got an opportunity to witness thefestivities during an event held at the company’s educational institution. The students had madevery attractive presentations for that day, with skeletons and creepy, scary themes. And I waseven gifted a big alfeñique with my name painted on it! I spent two consecutive Sundays watching bullfights at the Plaza de Toros (BullfightingRing). This sport attracts thousands of enthusiasts, many of them attired for the occasioncowboy-style, complete with hats and boots. When I watched the show for the first time, seatedin the upper stalls, I found it very exciting. The atmosphere surrounding the bullring wasamazing and typically Mexican. The charros and the mariachis performed during breaks, and 35
  51. 51. food (including botanas – savouries such as spiced, salted peanuts and cashew nuts, etc.) andbeverages were available in plenty. The funny comments and the jeers of the audience wereamusing. But the second time (also the last time!) I watched the show, I was seated in the frontrow. I shuddered each time I heard the painful cries of the bleeding bulls and felt veryuncomfortable watching the scene. By then, I already knew the intricacies of the sport. Each bullfight is divided into three suertes (acts) or tercios (thirds), each signalled by atrumpet blast. During the first tercio, several toreros or bullfighters with large capotes, capes thatare a pinkish-mauve colour on one side and yellow on the other, tire out the bull in preparationfor the picadores who, from their mounts atop heavily padded and blindfolded horses, attempt toforce a lance between the bulls shoulder blades to further weaken him. The toreros then returnfor the second tercio, in which one of them (and sometimes the matador himself) will try to stabsix metal-tipped spikes, called bandilleras into the bull in as clean and elegant a manner aspossible. Exhausted and frustrated, but by no means docile, the bull is considered ready for thethird and final tercio, the suerte suprema. The matador continues to tire the bull using themuleta, a red cape draped from a stick, while pulling off as many graceful and daring moves aspossible. The crowd, sensing the bravery and finesse of the matador and the spirit of the bull heis up against, shout ‘olé’ which reverberates around the stadium with every pass. Eventually thematador entices the bull to challenge him head-on, standing there with its hooves together. As itcharges, he thrusts his sword between its shoulder blades and, if it is well executed, the bullcrumples to the ground. It may seem gruesome, but successful matadors are awarded with a 36
  52. 52. bull’s ears or tail, based on their skills and consistency during the bullfighting season. Mexico celebrates 20th November as Dia de la Revolución Mexicana or the MexicanRevolution Day. The day fell on a Tuesday, so we had a puente (literally meaning ‘bridge’); thismeans that when a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, the Monday or the Friday is alsotaken as a holiday which results in a four-day long weekend. I had been under severe stress andwas looking forward to a long holiday. Since I wasn’t allowed any leave, I was glad to get thelucky break. I had planned to visit Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Dolores Hidalgo andLeon in the state of Guanajuato. So on Saturday morning, I took the bus for the state capital,Guanajuato, one of the most charming colonial cities in Mexico. On the way, while nearing thecity, the girl in my neighbouring seat pointed out a hill, crowned by a large bronze statue of JesusChrist. ‘It’s the worlds second largest statue of Christ, after Rio de Janeiro,’ she said. I had readthat the statue was one of Mexicos most important religious monuments and that the areasupposedly marked the geographic centre of the country. On reaching Guanajuato, I realized that the entire city had been overrun by tourists. Foran hour or more, I looked around for hotels with available rooms. Walking along the narrow,cobbled, pedestrian-only streets was a pleasant experience as each of them opened ontocharming, fountain-filled plazas. Due to the long holiday, this charming colonial city was nowoverflowing with people. At one of the hotels, a manager told me about an old lady who let out afew rooms in her house to tourists. We left for her place immediately after I had booked anorganized tour for the following day. The tour covered the surrounding areas including the 37
  53. 53. nearby cities of Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende. The house was located in a nice, quiet alley. The price was good too, so I took the roomand later left for my exploration of the city. Initially, the intricate and complex network ofcobbled streets and narrow alleys got me confused but later with the help of a city map obtainedfrom the tourism office I managed to get around quiet well. There were no traffic lights or neonsigns and the streets were impeccably clean. At each corner, I sighted a church. The city amazedme with its beautiful atmosphere. No wonder many Mexican as well as foreign couples come toget married here, in this city which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Situated at a height of 6649 feet in the silver-mining highlands of central Mexico,Guanajuato is known for its rich history and cultural heritage. The city as well as the nearbycities of Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende, were centres of the revolutionaryindependence movement. Today, the high population of students and youth has resulted in ayoung and vibrant atmosphere in Guanajuato. In October, the city holds the annual internationalcultural festival, the Festival Cervantino, which attracts thousands of young visitors, mostlyartists and musicians, from all over the world. Guanajuato also boasts of several museums,including the Diego Rivera Museum (the city is the birthplace of the internationally renownedmuralist). I boarded a bus for a quick look around the city. Beneath the city, the bus passed througha series of amazing underground tunnels connecting one side of the town to the other, creatingsubterranean thoroughfares. This left the cobbled streets traffic free. Sometime later, I took 38
  54. 54. another bus to visit a strange and unique museum, Museo de las Momias where more than ahundred mummified human corpses exhumed from the local public cemetery, are lined upagainst the wall in glass cases. When I reached the place it was late evening and the thought of looking at dead bodiesmade me hesitate at the entrance door. But I carried on and joined the people waiting for the tourof the place. A guide led us through the dark passage with just enough light to see the exhibits onboth sides and creepy music filling the air. We were told that the mummies were formednaturally in the local cemetery due to the areas arid climate. The mummies were residents of Guanajuato who lived roughly from 1850 to 1950. Thereused to be a law in Guanajuato in those times which required family members of the deceasedinterred at the cemetery to pay an annual fee. If the fee was not paid for five years in a row, thebody was exhumed and the crypt would be re-used. In 1865, cemetery workers exhumed theremains of a body and discovered that it had not decayed, but had mummified. Over time, morebodies were found in this state, and they were placed in the cemeterys ossuary building. As wordspread, people began to visit the mummies and the museum was set up. The mummies ranged from children to adult men and women, some of them having theirclothing intact others with just their socks on. But the museum’s pride was ‘the smallest mummyin the world,’ a foetus. It was truly a strange sight! I didn’t spend much time around and quicklyleft the place. The bus ride back to the Centro was hilarious too. I got a free tour of the town in a local 39
  55. 55. bus, courtesy the driver, before his duty for the day ended at 7:00 pm! This was after I told himthat I had missed the last tour bus of the day for the tour of the town. Back in the Centro, I wassurprised to see thousands of people on the streets. It was as if the entire town had got down tothe streets and not without a reason - there were food fairs, and many more activities happeningin every nook and corner of the town. I sampled few of the dishes and basked in the partyatmosphere. When I returned back to the house, I met my landlady’s daughter, Laura, who had comeover to stay with her mother for the long holiday. The cool and stylish girl in her 30s, offered toshow me the attractions of the Centro, including its nightspots and acquaint me with the city’smain tourist draw – the organized callejóneadas or walking tours. I was thrilled! We walkedaround for almost three hours and I discovered many interesting things about the city and itslandmarks. The uniformly colourful-dressed student minstrel groups called estudiantinas led thecallejóneadas singing and performing rituals along a traditional route winding through the sidestreets and back alleys. This is a daily happening started in 1962, by a few local youths who wereinspired by the centuries-old estudiantinas of Spain. The city’s nightlife was booming. We entered a popular disco for some drinks andpartying. When we left the place past 2:00 am, I was surprised to find people still on the streets,some gathered around the charming small plazas dotting the town. The next morning, I took an organized tour of the surrounding areas including DoloresHidalgo and San Miguel de Allende. The parish church of Dolores Hidalgo is of great 40
  56. 56. significance. On 16th of September, 1810, it was here that Father Miguel Hidalgo raised the‘Grito de Dolores’, the cry of rebellion against the Spanish, and with 80,000 armed supporters,commenced the independence struggle. Apart from being known as the cradle of theIndependence movement, the place is also famed for its Talavera pottery. I also remember theplace for its mouth-watering ice creams which are sold around the centre square. Besides thevarious fruit and nut flavours, I sampled some unimaginable flavours like tequila, cerveza (beer)and jalapeño! A short distance away from Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful colonialcity with the highest influx of foreign expatriates (mostly gringos) in Mexico. The charming cityhas all the trappings of a genuine tourist destination with narrow, cobbled streets, lovely tree-lined squares, a stunning colonial architecture and elegant colonial-style houses and patios. LikeI had seen in the town of Ajijic, in San Miguel too, there are many beautiful spas, art andlanguage schools, chic boutiques, classy restaurants and numerous art & craft outlets, all thanksto the high population of American expatriates. To me, San Miguel seemed to be a truly beautifulplace to live. I really felt disappointed at being able to spend just a few hours here. When I returned back to Guanajuato at night, I was fascinated by the party mood of thecity. In addition to the activities of the previous night, there were rock concerts, and fireworkdisplays. Thousands of people flooded the streets. The restaurants were overflowing with people,the plazas were overcrowded, deafening rock music filled the air and beautiful firework displayscovered the skies. 41
  57. 57. That night, I met up with a local member of the youth association, a young girl calledLaura. When I recounted to her my previous day’s experience of not finding a good room in anyof the good hotels she told me that I was lucky to get a room in a nice house as most houseswhich let out rooms to tourists also ran out of rooms during the holidays. I wasn’t surprisedbecause all the rooms at my landlady’s place had got occupied by the first night itself and sheeven had to turn away a young English family due to lack of space. The previous night, Laurahad told me that hundreds of late arrivals in the city sleep in their vehicles or on the streets due tolack of accommodation. Even the luxury hotels face the problem of unavailable rooms during theholidays. Next morning, I witnessed a parade of little children and youngsters in colourfulcostumes with music bands, dancing and more. The entire town was in a celebratory mood.Laura had offered to take me to the 18th century church, Templo de San Cayetano de Valencianaknown for its extraordinary architecture; and the Boca Mina San Ramón, one of the oldest silvermines open to public. Guanajuato was for centuries the wealthiest town in Mexico – silver was discovered herein 1548 – its silver mines pouring out the bulk of silver that was sent to Spain for royalty. Ibought a few crystal and other stones from a rock-seller; and a silver pendant in the shape of aneagle at a shop near the Boca Mina San Ramón. The mine had some wonderful displays andpieces of old mining equipment, but the most exciting part was descending the steps into a mineshaft 60 meters deep. 42
  58. 58. Guanajuato is an extremely enjoyable and peaceful place, yet bursting with plenty of life.Even after a three-day stay, I longed to return back for more! The large city of Leon is locatedbetween Guanajuato and Guadalajara. So I took the bus till Leon, deposited my bag in theluggage storage room at the bus terminal, and went to shop for leather goods -- the city beingMexico’s number one destination for leather goods. Just opposite the terminal, there were specialmalls and numerous shops selling all kinds of leather accessories. I purchased a mustard leatherjacket, black knee-length leather coat and matching gloves for the cold winter. Back in Guadalajara, my social life was going very well. Between attending small get-togethers and visiting discos, I had also become part of the soccer-crazy world. Sometimes, I gotto watch the matches at the Estadio Jalisco when the company-owned club was playing. My most memorable day in the country was the 24th of November. At the invitation ofthe director of one of the company’s charitable associations, I had attended the inauguralfunction of the Feria Internacional del Libro (or FIL for short), the International Book Fair ofGuadalajara at the Guadalajara Expo Centre. Started in 1987, the nine-day FIL is the second largest book fair in the world after theFrankfurt Book Fair in Germany, attracting more than half a million visitors, nearly twothousand publishers, and hundreds of authors. Held every year from the last Saturday inNovember, it is the largest and most diverse international offering of publications in Spanishlanguage and the most important annual event of its kind in the Spanish-speaking world.Traditionally, a country or a region is made the FIL guest of honour, giving each an opportunity 43
  59. 59. to display the best of its cultural and literary heritage. And that year, the guest country of the FILwas Colombia. I was thrilled to get the opportunity of attending the inaugural function which was openonly to a selected audience. The previous day, I had heard that the prestigious book fair was to beinaugurated at the hands of the Mexican president – a first in the fair’s history! What I didn’tknow then, was that I was going to greet the President with a peck on his proffered cheek! Besides the Mexican president and his wife, the important dignitaries to be present at thefunction included the state governor, the internationally well-known Columbian writer andMexico City resident, Gabriel Garcia Márquez (affectionately called ‘Gabo’), leading Mexicanwriters (including the internationally renowned author Carlos Fuentes) and educationists. I was glad that I was going to sit in the special enclosure close to the podium. However,there were many early arrivals and I ended up getting a seat in the last row in the specialenclosure. It was a blessing in disguise because when President Felipe Calderón entered the hall,he chose to walk his way to the podium right through the passage which separated the last row(where I was seated) of the special enclosure from that of the rest which included other inviteesand the press. I was naturally thrilled to see the president in such close proximity. And more so,when he caught my eye and gave me a sunny smile. Being a little over enthusiastic about taking photos, I was ready with my camera whenPresident Calderón rose to deliver his speech. I had already taken permission from his securitystaff who allowed me to go close to where he was standing. I was the only lucky person taking 44
  60. 60. photos of the president at close quarters while the press photographers clicked from theirenclosure. After all the speeches were over, I wanted to take a close-up photo of the president whileleaving. So when he walked down the other aisle, I quickly rushed over to that side to stand closeenough to do a video recording of him as he approached closer, greeting the organizers standingto the opposite side of me. And then something happened that I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Agentleman standing next to me called out to the president as he neared us. President Calderónimmediately came over to our side and shook hands with the gentleman. When he came to myside I too extended my hand and greeted him with a sweet ‘Buenas Tardes, Sr Presidente’.Accepting my hand, he greeted ‘Muy Buenas Tardes’ and did something which took mecompletely by surprise! President Calderón turned his right cheek to me in an open invitation to plant a cheekkiss. Well, it’s a Mexican custom to kiss the right cheek of a woman (or man) in a greeting orgoodbye. I was numbed for a second and almost kept the president waiting! Mustering mycourage, I lightly brushed my cheek against his proffered cheek. I guess at that moment I musthave caught the attention of almost everyone present in the hall. The state governor, Emilio González Márquez, who was walking behind in thePresident’s entourage, also turned to greet me with a smiling hola while passing by! It was alsoat this event that I met two lovely people who soon became my wonderful friends – Consuelo 45
  61. 61. ‘Cony’ and Roxana ‘Rox’. After the inaugural function, a banquet lunch had been organized for the special inviteesat the Hilton Hotel which was just opposite the venue of the book fair. A sumptuous eight-courseColombian lunch had been specially prepared by some of Colombia’s finest chefs who weregoing to present their country’s specialties during the festival. At the banquet, I got to meet Gabriel García Márquez (Gabo). Just a year and a half ago, Ihad been assigned to prepare a presentation on the acclaimed writer when I was pursuing myadvanced Spanish language studies in Mumbai. So I was quite well-versed with his life historyand literary work. Gabo was Rox’s favourite author so we both were equally thrilled to meet andtake photos with him. On leaving the banquet, we were presented with a bag full of Colombian souvenirs whichincluded among other beautiful things – a pack of Colombian fine coffee. We returned to the fairvenue to visit the various stalls and take a look at the available book collection and get an overallview of the books displayed in the fair. And of course, we purchased a few books too. Later, weattended the press conferences given by Mexico’s top literary figures including Carlos Fuentes. Ifelt really lucky that day! Cheek kissing the Mexican president, meeting international writers,literary stalwarts...and all this at a prestigious international book fair! Rox was from the city of Pachuca in the state of Hidalgo and it was her first visit toGuadalajara so she wanted to see a bit of the city. But since it was night time, we could only visitthe city’s second largest mall, Plaza del Sol, which was near her hotel. Later however, we had 46
  62. 62. great fun at a really different sort of night club where people were swinging to a dance set tobanda music. Looking at the place and the ambience, for the first time I felt that I was really inMexico. It was like a scene straight out from the Wild West movies of Clint Eastwood or JohnWayne. Although I had watched the songs on TV many times over the past few months, andeven knew the lyrics to most of them, the dance was new to me. There was no shortage ofpartners, all of whom looked like typical hot-blooded latinos. I got the dance movements rightpretty soon – very Mexican-ranchero (ranch) style, the ‘swing’ dance is all about twisting,turning, swaying, lifting and spinning. The girls are lifted and spun around like dolls, but it wasfun. I was very sure that many of my Mexican friends themselves were not well-versed with theenergetic dance. The next day we went sight-seeing around the city. Rox wanted a ride in the horse-drawncarriages called calandrias, so we took a forty-minute colonial-style tour of the city. We visitedthe Mercado Libertad, the largest enclosed market in Latin America. Popularly known as the SanJuan de Dios market, this multi-storeyed market houses all sorts of merchandise and almosteverything saleable under the sun including a butchers’ aisle where every part and organ of theanimal is displayed for sale – head, intestines, feet, etc. All this under one large roof! The huge food court has numerous stalls offering a variety of Mexican dishes includingthe city’s favourite tortas ahogadas which are bread rolls stuffed with pork dunked in a savourychile-tomato salsa (sauce), pork stews like birria, carne en su jugo and pozole; the immenselypopular corn tortilla-based antojitos (‘appetizers’) like tacos, smallish tortillas topped with meat 47