The weekend before last, I headed to Puebla and Cholula, twin cities with a combined population of just over a million that lie in the Eastern shadows of DF. Like most weekend trip experiences, sojourners and plans coalesced at the last minute, but I didn’t mind. Is it possible to be a Meyers-Briggs “J” while on the clock and then let plans and paths unfold in extracurricular explorations? Chris, Holly and I were led by the doodling hand throughout the weekend, and I learned meandering hands-open is the best way to see these cities. We started in the zócalo, downing Mexican coffee and omelettes while the poblanos ambled, talking gently, letting a street violinist make the entire veranda his auditorium. Naturally, I participated in this moment by running through a flock of pecking pigeons to “get a good picture”, but I just confused myself and other plaza-dwellers in the process. I promise that I try to lay low as the stray gringo here in Mexico…most of the time.
The central cathedral both warned and beckoned from its bell-tower, somehow maintaining alleys of shadow in the morning sun. We started our guidebook adventure with a cathedral tour from an unassuming clergyman. The word cathedral captures all of the grandness that the building contained; the word sounds like it comes from Narnia, not Latin. Bigger inside than out, the pillars and stone walls and gold plating and art stood against everything that characterizes modern Protestant architecture: pleasingly neutral, level walls, plumb corners, PowerPoint screens, ventilation, fluorescent lighting, eternally-tacky upholstered pews. The chandeliers spiraled as you looked up, and hollow footsteps cued a monologue in your mind: The pews are not here for your comfort; they are here for you to kneel. The art is not here to please your current aesthetic sensibilities; it is here to remind you of hands, now bone and ash, that moved color and palette for His name’s sake. Light and gold and beauty in every detail are not here for you; they are here for the glory of God. I think of church back home as familiar, cozy, pleasant, accessible. But what of holiness in the place where saints come to congregate and find union with Christ? The Lord looks at the heart, I know, but I found it easier to put it in a posture of awe and worship when centuries of intercession had seeped into the mortar.
I read that Puebla had been one of the Aztecs’ holiest sites prior to the Spanish conquest, with altars populating the yellow-green fields so densely that they must have looked like anthills when viewed from Tepatocapetl, Puebla’s still-active volcano. For every holy site they found, it’s said, the Spanish built a church, and no two are alike. This transference is most obvious in Cholula’s Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, built at the city’s highest point atop ruins of an elaborate Aztec amphitheater and altar. Now, the city is all steeples, rallying points for neighbors who gather under their beams to carry out the daily work of a superseding Kingdom.
The thinness I felt at Balderas Plaza hovered over each of the chapters of the weekend. After the cathedral, we accidentally attended a neighborhood ballet folklórico performed by twenty middle schoolers with such skill and gusto that I couldn’t help but breathe in time to their stomps and taps. The stage was timeless, and save for modern-era speakers and cameras, I realized that the intricate steps, women throwing their skirts up like flowers, men showing off by stepping over a bottle again and again, and everyone in a frenzy at the end only to end in concert with syncopated shouts and stamps, formed part of a scene that had never really changed. The three of us exchanged knowing smiles as we walked out. This was why we came, why we filled out duplicate paperwork, why we stammered and fell silent and dark into the language gap, why we missed home and everything that made sense around our tables and on our streets: to learn from and affirm and participate in a culture full of joy and cohesion that, each in our own way, we had all grown to love.
After stealing down some sidestreets and taking pictures of more steeples and old doors, we refueled with churros and bought photos and postcards from vintage dealers at El Callejón de los Sapos. By then, the city was in full motion, so we plugged our noses and rode the wave on the main drag leading away from the central plaza. Again, by happenstance, we ducked under a balloon stand to find a church that took up a block and walked in only to find ourselves under La Capilla Rosario de la Iglesia de Santo Domingo, one of the most famous churches in the world. In the main sanctuary, life-size icons of heroes past formed a gallery wall that faced the sanctuary, witnessing to and seeming to magnifying parishoners’ praises. The actual chapel was an exercise in excess; gold on top of gold spiraling and oozing down from the ceiling like stalactites. The gold swallowed up echoes of admiration from the tourists; I imagine that the sound waves were sanctified as they ricocheted to the chapel’s apex.
After a long, late lunch that changed my mind about mole sauce (after all, nuns from Puebla invented the concoction, which can reach more than 100 ingredients), Holly headed back to DF while Chris and I found a bench and a strip of sun in the zócalo, me trying to perfect my lens flare at golden hour and Chris cracking jokes about couples around us caught up in various stages of love’s birth or death. There was nothing to do but breathe and listen. When we had had our fill, we hailed a taxi, grabbed a hotel, acted like teenagers in the local budget department store, caught a movie, saw a jazz combo at a hole in the wall bar, and slept in. The next morning was more walking, getting our intake of sun rays and bidding farewell to the weekend with sangrias and a soccer game on a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Though I’ve filled my calendar with weekend trips to other cities and sites (a “J” at the core, after all), I have to imagine that Puebla and Cholula will find me again. Next time: more churros, more churches, less running through the central plaza in the name of creativity.