DANCING WITH TURKEYS – Spirits Take Wing at a Small-town Mexican Wedding (part two of two)

  One Man's Wonder


(I'm attending a friend of a friend's wedding fiesta in Santiago Tenango de Reyes, Pueblo. We've been invited to the home of the groom's parents for an intimate family gathering just before the bigger party begins.)

Still working on the tamale course, I needed to take a break, and asked where to find the bathroom. Following the directions upstairs, I found myself with several rooms to choose from, each separated from the hall by a thick curtain.

For no particular reason I picked door number two and swept open the curtain. The young woman sitting on the toilet five feet in front of me scrambled to cover herself with a handful of toilet paper, but the damage was done. I exclaimed, backed gingerly away and waited nervously across the hall.

When she emerged, I gestured toward my heart with both hands and said earnestly: ¡Estoy tan embarasado! She seemed to accept my apology graciously, which must have been really hard for her, since—as I later found out—I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious false cognates in Spanish, and had exclaimed "I'm so very pregnant!"

I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious false cognates in Spanish, and had exclaimed "I'm so very pregnant!"

Eventually, we all returned to the main party and sat down at one of the long tables. As we made up for lost time with yet more bottles of tequila and beer, the volunteer servers brought each of us a gigantic bowl of chicken mole. (There must have been half a chicken in each bowl!)

The parents of the groom, sitting near us, were presented with even bigger bowls—each the size of a large casserole, filled with what looked like half a turkey!

The mole, with its complex blend of flavors, was very good, but none of us could even begin to finish such a portion. Apologizing, we were told not to worry; soon big plastic buckets were passed around and everyone just dumped in their leftovers. They offered us one of the buckets to take home with us, but we deflected the generosity to others whom we suspected would be far better able to use the food.

Now that it was dark, the mariachis wrapped up their gig and joined the party. Huge speakers and portable banks of equally loud colored lights had been installed right outside the dining area, under another big tarp. An endless flow of recorded popular and ranchero music started to blare, and people began to dance.

We'd heard somewhere about the wedding fiesta tradition of dancing with goats or turkeys, which then would be slaughtered for dinner.

We'd heard somewhere about the wedding fiesta tradition of dancing with goats or turkeys, which then would be slaughtered for dinner. (This, I guessed, might be a remnant of Mayan or Aztec sacrificial offerings.) Sure enough, after an hour or so of dancing, the floor cleared and four older men (I suppose they were the village's elders) walked out, each holding a huge live guajolote (turkey) in his arms.

A simple, rhythmic music started and each man danced with his turkey. It was a plain, elegant dance, just stepping, moving and turning with the music, and both the men and the spectators (and the poor birds for that matter) seemed subdued, even reverent.

By this time, I'd had several beers and probably five or six tequilas. I was honestly beginning to believe that the people I'd been trying to converse with could understand me and vice versa. While waxing more and more “fluent,” I looked up and suddenly there was a turkey in my arms. Apparently one of the men had singled me out as the "elder" of our group. Before I could object, I was being pushed by the crowd out on the dance floor and did the only thing I could: I danced with a turkey.

With the sensation of the warm, damp feathers on my hands 
and arms, I let the both the music and my emotions move me 
around the floor.

The bird was surprisingly docile, given what must have been, for him, the otherworldliness of the situation. There I was, with the other three men, being watched by half the village, and the reality of the situation broke through the fog in which the tequila had shrouded me. While I was very much in the moment with the sensation of the warm, damp feathers on my hands and arms, I also felt a transcendent sense of peace and contentment as I let the both the music and my emotions move me around the floor. Then a very conscious thought rose through the raw motion: a prayer that I would never forget this magical moment.

Eventually, the loud music and less serene dancing returned, and the turkeys disappeared. A few minutes later, four young men crossed the dance floor, unceremoniously carrying the now limp bodies of the big birds by their necks. But, since everyone already had eaten dinner, I was left wondering what became of them. Still in my reverie, I never thought to ask.

After the turkey dance, people seemed to look at me differently, with approving smiles, I thought. I did my best to engage in small talk, but couldn't make out much of what they said above the thunderous music and my re-thickening fog of inebriation.

About midnight, we decided that, after such a long day, we'd find the hotel Silverio had booked for us along the road back to Puebla. But one of the wedding couple's relatives wouldn't hear of it, insisting we stay at his home. So we got our bags from the van and ambled off with him down the street. The music abated long enough for an even noisier round of fireworks.

A deafening aerial bomb went off, rattling the few religious 
trinkets decorating the walls.

The house was relatively nice compared with most of the working-class Mexican homes I'd seen, with several sparsely decorated, apparently unused, small bedrooms. Kip and I shared one of them. The beds were quite nice, with decent mattresses, but, as in so many Mexican homes, the room cringed under the harsh light of a single bare bulb.

Just as we'd settled in, turned out the light and closed our eyes, the music started again at the party, blasting as if it were coming from the next room. At the same instant a deafening aerial bomb went off, rattling the few religious trinkets decorating the walls. Kip and I both burst into laughter at the amazing experience...and the obvious futility of trying to sleep.

DANCING WITH TURKEYS – Spirits Take Wing at a Small-town Mexican Wedding (part one of two)

 One Man's Wonder

(from onemanswonder.com)

My wife and I have taken a couple of tour-type vacations. You know, the ones where a guide takes a whole group of you around on a big tour bus. This kind of trip has a few distinct advantages, but experiencing authentic, unscripted local culture is not one of them. Generally, you're steered to events that appear to be staged especially for tour groups and, uncannily, they always manage situate you so you can’t get back to the bus without a trip through the gift shop.
     Traveling on one's own, especially if you can do so with someone who lives there, often proves richer and more memorable. For it’s one thing to witness the culture of a place and a people; it’s another to live it. It’s a rare opportunity, one that seldom occurs without a convergence of effort, connections, and timing. Oh, and sheer dumb luck.

                                                        *     *     *

The weather in Mexico City was sunny and clear, but for the usual blanket of brown smog pressing down on this, the sixth largest city in the world. It was clear enough, though, to see Popocatepetl, crowned with clouds. Popo, Mexico’s most active volcano, is only 45 miles away from the center of Mexico City and her 20 million inhabitants and about half as far from Puebla, with another two million. It is within striking distance of all of them, a cataclysm-in-the-making, since eruptive activity has occurred as recently as January, 2008.

I was traveling with my Mexican-American friend and Spanish tutor, Silverio, along with two of his other students, Anne and Kip.

Silverio’s friends, Ignacio (Nacho) and his wife Martha, picked us up in the van he’d rented for us for the week. We drove right from the airport about 80 miles southeast to the state of Puebla and the small village of Santiago Tenango de Reyes, where we were to attend the wedding fiesta for one of Nacho's friends.

We three unusually tall, unusually pale norte- americanos) walked in to what seemed only slight curiosity from the 100 or so locals.

As we drove into Santiago, we realized just how small a town it was—only about eight blocks long and maybe three or four wide. Its population couldn't have been more than a couple hundred. We parked the van and walked a couple blocks on nearly-deserted cobblestone streets before we came to a broad alley between two cinder block buildings. There the stark space had been converted into a cheery hall by a huge bright yellow-and-green-striped tarp strung between the second stories above.


The six of us (Silverio, Nacho, Martha and we three unusually tall, unusually pale norte- americanos) walked in to what seemed only slight curiosity from the 100 or so locals—evidently half the folks in town—sitting at long rented tables. Within a minute, though, Nacho was proudly introducing us to the bride and groom (the groom Nacho’s co-worker in Mexico City), to the groom’s parents and to the couple’s padrino (something like a godfather). Pony beers and tequilas were in seemingly endless supply, and for the rest of the evening were cheerfully placed into whichever of our hands happened to be free at any time.

A ten-piece mariachi band dispensed its energetic music from the far end of the hall. The charro, or lead singer, is one of Nacho's cousins. Before I knew it, he was announcing something into the microphone about guests from far away and then something more familiar: “...por Cheff, de Meeny-sota…” Suddenly, I was aware that all the guests had now stopped talking and turned to look at us.

The next song, apparently just dedicated to me by Nacho, was Como Quien Pierde una Estrella (Like One Who Loses a Star), my favorite of the songs Silverio had taught us in class. I always love mariachi music, but I was especially moved by this rendition and Nacho's thoughtful gesture!

I kept wondering if I'd be so generous and thoughtful if roles were reversed. 

 After about an hour the parents of the groom asked us to join them. Leaving the other guests to their dinners, we walked about a block down the street to their home. Waiting for us inside were the bride and groom, still in their wedding finery, five or six other adult members of the immediate family and a few kids.

We sat down at the dining room table and were served what Silverio explained is a sort of appetizer course traditional for weddings: two types of tamales freshly steamed in corn leaves, two bright little gelatins which tasted like they might have been flavored by chiles, a sweet, crispy, deep-fried sort of cookie, and atole, a hot, creamy, corn-based drink flavored with chocolate, cinnamon or other notes.

It was already the experience of a lifetime just to attend the fiesta, but this—being welcomed like this into this dear family—made us feel deeply honored. I kept wondering if I'd be so generous and thoughtful if roles were reversed.

Leti's Restaurant

Best truck stop weather. It's handmade tortillas, fresh cheese, goat stew, rubbed chicken and a cold beer. Letitia does it right!

Renting a car in Mexico: What you need to know

Christine Delsol, Special to SFGate
Updated 9:00 p.m., Tuesday, August 14, 2012 


 Renting a car in Mexico is much the same as renting in the United States, and you'll find most of the major players Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget, Thrifty, et al. as well as local companies, but navigating the country's notorious mandatory insurance can take some careful research.

For the most part, bus travel is an ideal way to get around in Mexico, but there are times when driving makes the most sense. If you're on a tight schedule, you can cover more ground in less time. If you're not on any schedule, you might want to explore and make up your itinerary as you go. And even the second-class buses don't always cover every place you want to visit. The Yucatan, for example, is especially suited to driving: Many beaches, barely developed ruins and intriguing villages lie a good distance from the main road. Highways are well-maintained, constantly being improved, and so straight that the slightest curve bristles with warning signs and reflectors.
Car rental: Easy, but with one big "gotcha"
Arm yourself with some knowledge about prevailing driving habits and road signs, and driving in Mexico is nowhere near as treacherous as its reputation would have you believe. Renting a car is much the same as renting in the United States, and you'll find most of the major players — Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget, Thrifty, et al. — as well as local companies. Similar rules and advice apply: You need a major credit card (or a boatload of cash for deposit), driver's license and passport; book online at least a week in advance for the best price; drivers under 25 pay more; airport pickups and drop-offs cost about 10 percent more; always inspect the car with the agent to mark every existing ding or scratch so you won't be charged for it, and check to make sure the headlights and windshield wipers work as well.
Renting a car in Mexico has one big "gotcha," though, and that is the minefield of the country's famously mandatory insurance. Mexican car rental rates look wonderfully cheap on comparison websites, but they don't include insurance, which can easily double, and in some cases triple, the cost. Declining to buy the insurance (some of which is mandatory, anyway) is foolhardy to the extreme, but buying the full package without knowing what you're buying is only slightly less so.
Penetrating the insurance thicket
Mexican car rental companies offer various levels of insurance, and only one is mandatory. Here are the basics (costs listed are typical but variable):
Basic personal liability: Sometimes called third-party liability insurance, this is the one, incontrovertibly mandatory insurance. It covers claims for injury or damage you cause to another driver, car or other property damaged in an accident, but it does not cover injury to you or damage to the rented vehicle. Mexico does not accept liability coverage from U.S. auto policies or credit card insurance. You simply cannot rent a car without buying Mexican liability insurance. But here's what most renters don't know: By law, the mandatory liability insurance is already included in the rental price. Cost: Included in rental rate.
Supplemental liability insurance (SAI): Sometimes called additional liability insurance, this is not mandatory, though many rental companies will tell you (or let you assume) it is. Still, it's worth considering. The basic liability coverage is usually 50,000 pesos, or about $3,800, which won't go far in anything beyond a fender-bender. Cost: $13 per day.
Loss damage waiver (LDW): Also called collision damage waiver (CDW) or LDW/CDW. This is actually not insurance, but the rental agency's agreement to waive some of the cost of theft or any damage you inflict on the rental vehicle. This one requires some research and some careful thought. If your own auto policy or credit-card insurance benefits cover collision damage, you can pass on LDW/CDW, but keep some caveats in mind.
You are responsible to the rental company for any loss or damage to the vehicle no matter what the cause is or who is at fault. You will be detained until money matters are settled, and if you lack liability coverage, your most memorable vacation sight could include the inside of a Mexican jail until you pay off your obligation. Before you decline LDW/CDW, verify that your auto policy or credit card insurance is valid for rentals in Mexico, and that it includes loss of use. To collect on your credit-card insurance, you must use that card when you rent the car and when you pay the final bill. Carry proof of coverage with you, though rental companies don't always require it. You must also explicitly decline the offered insurance, which is not possible with companies such as Avis or National, which include LDW/CDW in their rates or bundle it with the required liability.
Besides saving a bundle, your deductible will be limited to the amount stated in your personal policy — credit card insurance often has no deductible — while the rental agency's LDW/CDW insurance usually carries a deductible equal to 10 to 20 percent of the vehicle's value. (Many offer a deductible reduction or complete coverage option, which will add $15 to $35 a day to the cost.) On the down side, some rental companies put a hold on your card for the amount of the deductible. And in case of an accident, you will have to carry the full cost of damages on your credit card until your bank reimburses you, so you will need a hefty credit limit. And your insurance won't cover every situation; clauses excluding damage to cars driven off-road have been used to deny a claim for a car damaged in a dirt parking lot. Read the exclusions carefully. Read them twice.
It can also take longer to sort things out if you don't have insurance purchased by the rental car agency. A few years ago, I bought full coverage because I had just changed credit cards and insurance carriers and hadn't had time to research my coverage in Mexico. My rental car was later smashed to bits by a drunken driver on the street in front of my hotel. I filled out a police report in the morning, called the rental agency, and was on my way in a new car 90 minutes later. It might have been worth a delay and some additional paperwork to save the money if I'd known I was covered, but it's one factor you have to weigh. Cost: $15 a day.
Personal accident insurance (PAI): Neither the included nor the supplemental liability insurance covers injury to you or your passengers. This optional insurance does, including ambulance, doctors and hospital. This might be covered by your health insurance — again, verify — and it is not required. Cost: $4-$7 a day.
Good to know 
—Mexico's Secretary of Communication and Transportation offers an excellent online  "Point-to-Point Routes" tool that can make the difference between an itinerary that works and one that messes up your entire vacation. Select your starting and ending points, add some intermediate stops if you like, and click "Find Route" at the bottom of the page. The map where your best route appears is a bit clunky; the real payoff is the detailed itinerary showing distances, driving times (evidently Mexican driver times; I always add 10 to 15 percent), toll fees and estimated fuel costs. 
—You'll rarely, if ever, find an owner's manual in the glove box, so ask the stupid questions before getting behind wheel: What makes the car alarm go off, and how do you stop it? Any tricks to removing the key from the ignition? How do you put the car into reverse if it's a manual? Add anything else that isn't obvious from a quick glance at the dashboard.
—Make sure a copy of the insurance policy is in the glove box and is up to date.
—If you book online, print out the confirmation and show it when you pick up your car to be sure they don't try to charge you a higher rate.  
—Try to get your rate quoted in pesos. Prices quoted in dollars will be converted to pesos for payment, usually at more than the going exchange rate.
—The rental agency will give you a 24-hour, toll-free number to call if you need help. U.S. cell phones often can't dial Mexican toll-free numbers, so if you're traveling with your own phone be sure you have a local number as well.