Katy's Asia Adventures (plus Mexico!)

A haphazard chronicle of my inevitable misadventures during a year in Vietnam and points east.

p.s. I'll be pitifully grateful if you send me email during my exile: TravelerKaty@hotmail.com

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Sunday, May 21, 2006
Time For a Wrap-up!

I'll concede that it's actually two months past time for a wrap-up. Primarily this delay is due to my having no idea how to wrap up; secondarily this delay is due to an appalling level of procrastination despite constant (and yet justifiable) harassment from my father. But hey, here I am, better late than never.

First of all, if you're checking in for the first time, you may want to click here, scroll to the bottom of the page and work your way up, seeing as the trip is documented in reverse chronological order. Then you can come back to this page and do the same thing. That's assuming you're a committed reader, savoring every word of my engaging prose stylings. It's not required. There won't be a quiz later.

I left off on Day 8, and for the most part I don't have much to add since Day 9 was a travel day, which we all know are largely tedious and annoying, involving:

  1. Multiple modes of transportation (taxi, bus, plane, moving walkway, plane, car);
  2. Standing in excruciatingly slow lines (special note to American Airlines - you are On My List. Not the good list, either. The list where I put airlines who take 45 minutes to get through 20 passengers at check-in, delay the plane take-off 20 minutes for one person, and don't provide blankets or peanuts on their freezing cramped aircraft);
  3. Bag searching (should it really take 15 minutes to search my bag when I am STARVING TO DEATH???? I think not);
  4. Delays (ice storms in Dallas! What's the world coming to?); and
  5. Endless TSA checkpoints (full employment plan for officious assholes).
This may look like a mean, dumb ogre with bad teeth and a glandular problem, but he has a well-paying job with the Transportation Security Administration working the metal detector wand at Dallas-Ft. Worth Int'l Airport.

Now I'm all het up and cranky. I never should have mentioned the trip home. Deep breaths.

OK, all better.

All in all, it was a fabulous trip, and I highly recommend getting off the beaten path when traveling to Mexico, or indeed any other country for that matter. It's always more challenging and more rewarding to be the only tourists in town.

For me visiting Mexico was especially interesting because I haven't been there in about 20 years, though I spent a couple of months living in Veracruz when I was 15 (my parents must have been completely insane). I had never been to the central highlands, but Mexico in general was much changed from my memories, and you can see the influence of an expanding economy and returning Mexican-Americans.

On the plus side, the roads are much better, as are the cars. In 1983 when I was last in Mexico City easily two thirds of the cars were VW Beetles. They have graduated to compact Japanese cars now, with a smattering of vans and larger cars. SUV's, however, have not gained much of a foothold, no doubt due to the narrowness of the roads and the necessity of bold snake-like driving techniquest inthe city. Old buildings in the cities are being maintained and restored, but new ones are mainly of the speedy and cheap cinderblock/cement construction that blights the landscape across the developing world.

On the minus side, certain North American urban marketing techniques are in evidence, including roving pampleteers passing out flyers about chemical peel opportunities and the unbelievable over-hype of Valentines Day. Signage, always omnipresent on Mexican walls, poles, billboards, etc, is still largely political -- an election was underway during our stay, though our driver insisted all the candidates were crooks (likely true), but I was intrigued by a few additions. Anti-smoking signs had been posted in various places, as were exhortations encouraging recycling. Hypertention clinics and Alcoholics Anonymous chapters in small rural towns seemed to imply both modernization and the stressful price of modernization.

I guess that wraps it up! If you want more information about the cooking school, Puebla, or Tlaxcala, here are a few links:

Tlaxcala tourism (great site, but unfortunately in Spanish, and we know that translation isn't the Tlaxcala government's strong suit)

Mexican Home Cooking School

Tlaxcala tourism info in English (pretty weak, actually, but there's not much out there in English)

Puebla tourism in Spanish (Also not translated, unfortunately, since it's by far the best site for Puebla tourism)

Puebla tourism in English
(same lame site as for Tlaxcala)

Hasta luego! Or more accurately, Hasta el proximo viaje!

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Thursday, March 02, 2006
Day 9 - Extra Photos

Since I haven't decided what to write to wrap up this little vacation, here are a few extra photo for your viewing pleasure today!

Mom is fortunate to have so much packing assistance.

Sunday Brunch at the Camino Real in Puebla.

Mini tortilla factory in Cholula. It's hard to see, but there's a Help Wanted sign behind her -- another job opportunity for me!

View from town of the Cholula pyramid and church on top.

Now that's a fruit basket!

Top of the Spriral Pyramid at Xochitecatl.

This one was taken from the top of the Spiral Pyramid. If you look very closely, you can see mom under that tree reading her book.

Why use a blanket when the dog chow bag is the perfect size?

(c) 2006 Katy Warren

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Day 8 - Part 3 - Tlaxcala 2/18/06

We took another shot at Tlaxcala city in the afternoon, hitting the overwhelming local Saturday market and doing some final shopping in the craft market just off the zocalo. The difference in atmosphere was interesting. The vast local market encompassed a huge high-ceilinged permanent structure and all of the surrounding streets for blocks around. According to Yair, very good prices are available for everything from luggage to lingere to refrigerator magnets to tripe, and in the early morning agricultural goods are sold wholesale. As a result, the presence of the big local market reportedly keeps prices down all over town. As A commented, it's the Wal-Mart of Tlaxcala.

The vendors at the market really wanted to move product, too, with loud and persistent sales pitches for any and all products. Did they really think a gringa with a camera was going to want to purchase a two kilo bag of meat or a clothes hamper? Issues of reality and practicality did nothing to dissuade them from their sales efforts. They obviously had no desire to re-pack unsold merchandise for the trip back home.

By contrast, the vendors of the craft market were so laid back I feared some might fall asleep during a transaction. And although we were ideal customers -- tourists on their last day in Mexico with pesos remaining and next Christmas to think about -- most seemed to have very little interest in our presence. The ones who did, however, had a very good day. Products purchased, errands run, a final Moka FriOreo Frappe (sob!) consumed, we headed back to the Zocalo only to witness a very strange performance by a group of drunken, dancing Sasquatches whipping the sidewalk in unison. Yeah, I don't know either.

We returned to our sunny little oasis on the hill (see, I'm learning new writing techniques from "Tlaxcala Loves You") to watch the sun set over Mt. Ixtacihuatl and contemplate the depressing prospect of packing and returning to the frozen north.

Some final pictures of Tlaxcala, many of them Mom's:

Tlaxcala's Palace of Justice. As you can see, the Mexicans are not afraid of using color on their buildings.

Need some clothes?

Fighting off the crowds at the craft market.

Check out those fruit baskets! I hate to think of what happens when you take the plastic off.

I'm not quite sure what these sticks are for, but they must be food, right?

Teeth-rotting goodness.

I must say I prefer getting my chicken pre-boned on little styrofoam trays.

And that goes double for pork.

Need to get your beer to the second floor? Why use stairs when you can toss it straight up?

I don't get it either.

© 2006 Katy Warren

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Day 8 - Part 2 - Mexican Home Cooking School

Our final day in the kitchen! I've learned many things from Mom about what pans and appliances and such I have in my kitchen. Frankly, beyond the toaster, saucepan and electric frypan I've never delved too far into the cabinets. You never know what might be lurking in there. Dangerous, raw ingredients, maybe, or unidentifiable cooking apparati. Better to keep those things mysterious.

On to the menu of the day:

Sopa de Lenteja (lentil soup). Honest to god, these soups were so delicious it was enough to make me swear off Campbell's® Healthy Request® condensed. Just throw a bunch of beans and garlic and whatnot in a pot and you've got a whole meal, for crying out loud. It's a revelation.
Mole Poblano. This official Mole, the delicious chocolate and chile sauce, is perhaps the signature dish of the Puebla region but posesses a fatal flaw. It has 21, count 'em, 21 ingredients, including three different kinds of nuts, two seeds, two chiles, mexican chocolate and a plantain, for pity's sake. This is a restaurant meal if I ever saw one.

Arroz con Perejjil (rice with parsley). There was a lovely green color in the rice. Not a great deal of flavor, but it looked great on the plate and was super-easy to make.

Tamales. Crisis!!!! The tamales were surprisingly easy to make -- just dump a bit of tamale dough (very wet stuff) and some salsa and leftover meat or cheese into the cornhusks and steam for a half hour. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? We were scheduled to eat the tamales for dinner, but as the usual dinner hour faded into the distance while we continued to nurse our lethal margaritas, it became obvious that something had gone wrong.

When we finally sat down it was to taquitos, beans and rice instead of tamales. Jon, who had been left in charge of dinner as Estela and Maria deserted him for a family party in Puebla, had found the tamales soaking in the bottom of the pan, rather than sitting in the steamer above the water. After a failed attempt to cook them in the pressure cooker and later in the microwave, and unable to reach Estela by cell phone (helps if it's turned on), he raided the fridge, finding only thef ood intended for breakfast. This was a bit of a disappointment ot us, since mom especially is not a fan of the often heavy flavorless tamales common in the States, and was very much looking forward to trying Estela's Poblano version seeing as all the other food that week was so fabulous. So we hoped something of the damp, beleaguered tamales could be salvaged for breakfast.

It was the next morning when stories began to diverge. According to Jon, Estela took the rap for the disaster and was salvaging what she cood and making new ones as well. According to Estela, whose usual mannerisms of throwing her arms up, rolling her eyes, and smacking her forhead with her palm were very much in evidence here, the tamales from the night before were perfectly fine, not at all undercooked and Jon was a big old drama queen (note: this is a very lose translation, but if Estela had known "drama queen" in English she surely would have used it). Whatever the truth of the situation, we were able to have a whole pile of light, flavorful tamales for breakfast the following morning, so no harm no foul.

Suspiros de Novia (sighs of the bride). Our desert on our final day was a recipe with a nice legend attached. Back in the colonial days when the Spanish colonists took trips back to Spain they would leave wives in the convent (possibly a mistake according to Jon, as the priests were more than willing to, er, console them). Each convent was known for different candies or specialties, and at one convent the lonely wives traditionally made this dessert. While stirring the Karo syrup, lime, cinnamon sticks and sugar over the fire they would sign the name of their absent husband, giving the dish an extra flavor. We tried to get Mom to sigh "Oh, Tom!" while stirring, but she appeared to lack the requisite melancholy. In any efent, the dessert is quite good -- it's hard to go wrong with deep-fried dough covered with Karo and lime syrup. A bit too sweet for me, but then I am a cretin who considers almost any dessert that lacks chocolate to be slightly sub-par. Except those stuffed pastry rolls from earlier in the week -- those were top notch.

Other photos around the MHCS:
What in the hell is this thing? It's sticking up out of the middle of the cactus, a flower 15 feet high!

Mom's room at the MHCS.

Ivonne the smiley gardener and dishwasher at MHCS.

Look how clean and neat everything is before class!

Every day we were at the MHCS more flowers would emerge --
I'd love to return some time in the spring when the grounds would be in full bloom.

© 2006 Katy Warren

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Day 8 - Part 1 - SUNRISE!!!!!

Saturday morning I did something highly out of character. I woke up early and rather than roll over and dream of chiles, I got up to see the sun rise over La Malinche. Yes, the sunrise. The rise of the sun! The beginning of the day! A daily miracle previously unknown to me!

I went outside hoping it would rise already and be done with it so I could get back under the covers. It was damned cold out there, and I don't really believe in suffering for a photo. I'm not much of a sufferer in general, really. Anyway, I'm posting this photo because I was out there for a half hour freezing my ass off. It was so cold I couldn't even write -- I simply huddled geriatrically, wishing I had had the sense to wear socks, and wondered if anyone had ever contracted frostbite in Mexico. You people damned well better appreciate the pain I go through for you.

© 2006 Katy Warren

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Day 7 - Part 3 - Moonlight Serenade

Our evening featured live entertainment, a nice departure from our sedate style in which I had to harass people (especially D, a major sleeper) to stay up past ten. Gabriel, a fabulous singer, whistler, and all-around Mexican Cheeseball orignally from Veracruz, put on an excellent show serenading Mom on Dad's behalf with super-romantic Mexican ballads, organizing sing-alongs for the few songs we actually knew (Cielito Lindo, La Cucaracha, and Guantanamera) and liberally peppering other more comic songs with references to "El Juez" (my father's a judge) and his eternal devotion to Mom.

Gabriel was awesome, singing directly to each of us, making hilariously appalling coments about the bible confirming that men need many beautiful women simultaneously (I don't think Gabriel is much of a monogamist), and generally exploding with amusing personality and patter. Not to mention he was a beautiful singer. All in all, a great evening.

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay! Canta y no llores . . .

© 2006 Katy Warren

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Day 7 - Part 2 - La Malinche Hike

Cooking and eating completed, D, A and I decided we needed some major exercise, and headed to La Malinche, one of the three nearby volcanoes, with Yair the formerly quiet cab driver. The hike was not exactly what we expected. For one thing, the guidebook, under the "Ecotourism" section, detailed the spectacular ravines, unforgettable panoramic landscapes, and hares and armadillos practically sharing lunch with you. To be honest, we read this description after our trip, and were aware that we were basically just taking a forest hike. We were, however, promised by the long-suffering Yair that when we reached the top of the trail there would be a view of the mountain itself. Like much of Yair's commentary, this prediction turned out to be somewhat fictional.

To back up a little, La Malinche, which also has one of those unpronounceable Nahautl names (Matlacueitl), is a dormant volcano about 13,000 feet tall named after the earlier referenced mistress/interpreter of Cortes. Like Tlaxcala, Mexicans have a conflicted view of her -- one article I found was entitled "La Malinche - Harlot or Heroine?". She is considered a traitor to some, having played a central role in enabling Cortes to conquer the Aztecs. At the same time, as the mother of the first mestizo child, she is a symbol of the mix of cultures that Mexico became.

Her background, as reported by Cortes' official biographer and other conquistadors (and as a disclaimer, I have no reason to believe they are any less prone to fictionalizing than our cab drivers) was impressively operatic. The only daughter of the lord of Palanya, a region between the Aztec and Mayan empires, she was in line to take control of the province after his death when she fell victim to that age-old dilemma of step-families. Her mother remarried, and she and the Evil Stepfather decided that the new son should be the leader. So to clear the way, they sold or gave the teenaged La Malinche (also known as La Malintzin) to Mayan slave traders. Ah, the good old days, when you could get rid of your obstreperous step-children by selling them into slavery.

She ended up one of the chief's slaves in Tabasco, and along the way learned Mayan. When Cortes arrived on the Yucatan peninsula in 1519, she was one of 20 young slave women given to him by the chief as a result of his conquest of the region. She got her big break when Cortes learned that one of the slave women spoke both Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and Mayan. Thenceforth she served as an interpreter, translating Nahuatl into Mayan, while his other translator, a Spanish priest who had been a prisoner in the Yucatan for years, translated from Mayan into Spanish. She picked up Spanish quickly, however -- by the time they arrived in Tenoctitlan at the end of the year, she was translating directly from Nahuatl without intermediary.

The benefit to Cortes of having a reliable translator should not be understated. La Malinche, or 'Dona Marina' as she was known to the Spanish, was born to the role of leader or consort, and served as advisor to both sides in negotiations as well as translator. It is thought by many that the conquest would have been far more bloody and violent but for her efforts. In contemporary art Cortes is rarely shown without her at his side, and she is also shown on her own, independently directing events. The two were considered a ruling unit by many natives, rather than conqueror and interpreter, and La Malinche remains a central and controversial figure in Mexican history and culture.

But enough of the historical digression! After a generous double-application of A's Incredibly Expensive Banana Boat, our hike began at La Malintzi Vacation Center, a "family recreation paradise with all the attractions and comfort needed for endless entertainment". [Further digression: words can't describe how much I love the "Tlaxcala Loves You" tourist guide provided by Jon and Estela. Any guidebook that can describe Tlaxcala as an "aquatic paradise" because of its single lake (complete with "Apache Fort" for the kids!) earns my Hyperbolic Copywriter Seal of Approval. ] The LMVC services, I can report first hand, included cabins, basketball court upon which people play soccer, kids play area, and a parking lot with what would be a very nice view of La Malinche if they hadn't erected two cell phone towers right in the middle of the view.

Yair, a roly-poly gentleman with inappropriate shoes and the air of a man who prefers wheeled transportation, assured us that he had climbed the mountain before and very much surprised us by insisting on joining the hike. Sadly for him, he seems to have volunteered under the misapprehension that we were like other more feeble ladies he had taken to Malinche, who would take a leisurely 30 minute stroll in the forest and turn back for a refresco and a bit of shopping. We, however, had spent the previous afternoon in the car and were in the mood for some strenuous exercise, and thus set a pace that had Yair panting and all of us feeling the altitude.

Not being the adventurous sort, Yair guided us along a paved road that switchbacked up the mountains for about 5 km to a phone tower. He had never taken the well-trodden trails leading into the forest, and indeed had informed us that people lived up those trails in little houses. Clearly "I don't know" is not an acceptable answer to a direct question to a Mexican driver/guide. After 40 minutes of uphill we took a rather longer rest than usual. At this point we were thinking about turning back, or maybe walking another 20 minutes then returning. It was all forest, after all, with no view to speak of and mostly paved road apart from the times we ignored Yair and took off on one of the forest paths. It was a very nice forest walk, don't get me wrong, with aromatic pines and just enough breeze to make it pleasant. Of course, the Banana Boat wasn't getting too much of a workout, but at our power pace we certainly were.

This was the point at which Yair, who was already trailing behind, made his Critical Male Error. When asked whether most tourists made it to the top, he guilelessly replied that usually the men made it to the top and the women waited half-way up. Well. We knew a challenge when we heard it -- it was obviously our responsibility to stand for the Power of Womanhood. No longer would Yair be able to say that only men made it to the end of the trail.

And so we continued up. And up. And up. Seriously, that hike had to be more than 6 km. In the end, we left Yair on the side of the trail and continued to the end, only to discover that it ended in a thick forest well before the mountain was visible. We would need to blaze our own trail to get over the next rise, and at that point our situation was so uncertain (would there really be a view from up there?) that we couldn't summon much energy for it. After snacks (thanks, Mom!) and a photo op we headed back down, and since I was in the lead this time (I'm much better at down than up) I took every little woodsy path available to keep us off the paved road. Yair, delighted to learn all these new paths (despite the fact that we now knew how full of hooey the "little houses" story was), told D that he should offer me a job as his new guide. Mom and Dad should be pleased that I have so many and varied employment opportunities.

Pleasantly exhausted, we headed back to the house. It was a delightful drive, due to the unfortunate (to others) accident on the highway forcing us to detour through a serious of picturesque little villages between the volcano and Tlaxcala city. And even though we didn't get much of a view on our hike, at least we burned off enough calories to justify those strong margaritas and deep fried dinner.

La Malinche as seen from the yard at the MHCS.

© 2006 Katy Warren

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Day 7 - Part 1 - Mexican Home Cooking School

Without further ado, here's a summary of cooking class:

Sopa de Tortillas (tortilla soup). This is a bit of a Mexican official dish. For the most part it's a tomato soup with garlic, onions, and serrano chiles, and its final presentation is supposed to evoke the Mexician flag -- red in the soup, white sour cream and cotija cheese sprinkled on top, and green avocado slices and fresh cilantro for garnish. Crispy dried corn tortilla chips are generously mixed in. Not Doritos. Real tortilla chips. That's what actual cooks use.

Filete de Sierra en Adobo (whitefish filet in Adobo sauce). I was happy to learn that this Adobo sauce is also good on rabbit, since I do a great deal of cooking with small furry animals. Adobo sauce, a very yummy thing, has lots of chiles, garlic, oregano, cumin, etc. I have no further comment and have determined that I can never become a food writer.

Chiles Rellenos and Chiles en Nogada (stuffed chiles with walnut sauce). Both the stuffed poblano chile dishes involved the usual pain-in-the-ass chile prep of cutting and de-seeding, charring over open flame or "comal", cool and peel. I love stuffed chiles, but as Estela says this is not an everyday exercise. These dishes were also both fried with flower and egg coating, giving them a look of tempura.

The traditional chiles rellenos were the easiest -- stuff them with cheese and toothpick the sides closed, then drop the battered chiles into the hot oil (they'd love the fry-daddy down there). Pour a little home-made tomato sauce over the top and you're good to go.

The second recipe, Chiles en Nogada, was slightly more complicated, involving a stuffing mixture of pieces of fruit, raisins, almonds, garlic (as usual) and ground beef. The chile was then battered, fried, and topped by a delicious walnut (or pecan) sauce. Very very good, and not something I'd tried before.

© 2006 Katy Warren

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Monday, February 27, 2006
Day 6 - Part 3 - Pulque-making Hacienda & Tlaxco

The purpose of our second Hacienda of the day, located near Tlaxco in the far northern part of Tlaxcala state, was the production of pulque, the revolting fermented cactus juice, in the traditional way. The hacienda structure was a far cry from the traditional Mexican/Spanish elegance of La Laguna. This was more of a mini-brewery in a traditional (if very colorful) adobe building, surrounded by high walls. The living areas were not visible from where we were, and the walled area was strewn with crumbling bricks and rusty farm implements and vehicles. This walled area was surrounded by fields of maguey, the cactus (or agave, according to the nitpickers over at Wikipedia) from which the raw "honey water" is harvested. Mezcal and tequila are also made from this plant, though the latter seem to be made from the heart of the maguey rather than just its juice.

Luck continued to be with us -- on our way up the drive we happened upon a ranch worker in the process of siphoning out the juice from a large maguey, using a bright blue fiberglass device shaped like a rounded, oversized horn. He would stick the smaller end into the center of the cactus where a bowl had been created, scrape out the excess vegetable matter, then suck on a hole in the round end of the horn. After plugging the smaller hole at the bottom, he would walk over to his burrow and empty the liquid into one of his two barrels. The worker was very friendly and helpful, particularly considering he reportedly got paid by how much he could harvest during the day, and we were pretty much burning up his time.

The pulqueria itself was a bit lacking in food production hygiene standards, though I guess the fermentation process may vanquish all ills. The smell when the doors were opened damned near knocked us over. Fermentation apparently smells similar the world over - we felt like we were in a particularly poorly ventilated brewery. At one end was a festive shrine to the Virgin (patron saint of booze?) and the rest was lined with vats of various types, fiberglass, cowhide (still furry!) and wood, in which the maguey juice was placed at various points in the month-long fermentation process. Pulque was once the alcoholic beverage of choice in Mexico, indeed it has been around for a thousand years. Ruben reported that his grandmother drank it every day and lived to the age of 92 in perfect health. But World War II, and the return of soldiers who had developed a taste for beer, eventually put paid to the age of pulque. Now beer is the predominant beverage, and pulque, which is difficult to store and preserve, is very much on the wane.

The hacendado of the pulque hacienda could not have been a greater contrast to The Mustache. We waited around for ten minutes before one of the workers clued us in that the grizzled geezer in the cowboy hat leaning against the pickup was not an elderly farmhand but the owner of the establishment. He clearly needed attitude and costume tips from his opposite number at La Laguna.

We did, of course, try the pulque in both its raw honey water and fermented forms. Straight out of the maguey it was sweet and mostly tasteless. Fermented it was sweet and mostly revolting, with the added detriment of being a bit stringy. A and D immediately re-thought their plans to bring some pulque back to their husbands.

The remainder of the day was punctuated by aborted efforts -- we were unable to find the lady who sold silver out of her house in Tlaxco, any open restaurants on the Tlaxco plaza, or a useful pharmacy. On the more successful side, we got the GSM celle phone to work finally (it helps to use the correct prefixes when making your calls) and we visited the Gigante supermarket, at which I marveled at the vast amount of cooking oil and A purchased the most expensive tube of Banana Boat sunblock in North America.

Pulque Harvesting:

Scrape out the middle and suck out the juice. Pulque of the future. Hold the bottom of the blue horn closed -- don't want to have sucked in vain. Off to the next plant.
What, doesn't your distillery have it's own altar? Mmmm, stringy foamy liquid that's been soaking in a hairy cow for a month. Who wouldn't love pulque? Tasting time. A's facial expression says it all.

Do you see what I mean about the debris and old farm equipment?
The Mustache would never tolerate it at his place.

Is it just me or is this church a little unbalanced?

I took this photo especially for my aunt Carolyn who is an anti-smoking crusader. This is a sign in the Tlaxco zocalo that says: "Smoking causes emphysema. Take care of your health"

And if any Tlaxcoans choose to continue smoking,
just around the corner there's a 24-hour funeral parlor.

© 2006 Katy Warren

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