Travel and the Kindness of Strangers: An Unexpected Day in Puebla City

Experiencing the kindness of strangers in Puebla City

One of the most memorable and fulfilling aspects of travel is the kindness of strangers. Travelling solo in a new country can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety and vigilance since you recognise that you are, a lot of the time, in a vulnerable position: you’re struggling to get from place to place (and might be hopelessly lost sometimes), you don’t have anyone else to depend on for help, you don’t understand what people around you are saying, you may be limited in your ability to communicate, and you lack much of the vital knowledge that locals possess. This can make you prone to scams and other forms of exploitation. Indeed, your travel experience may turn sour if your vulnerability is taken advantage of, which can, in turn, make you feel cynical and guarded when interacting with strangers.

However, the lows of solo travel are equally matched by unforgettable highs, especially those moments when your cynicism about strangers is challenged, when someone acts in a genuinely kind way towards you, perhaps by going out of their way to make you feel welcome or by making sure you know where you’re going. The kindness of strangers has always made a strong impression on me during my travels: it has simultaneously made me feel grateful for how people can deeply enrich the experience of travel (or any experience), as well as inspired me to act towards others in a similar way.

The kindness of strangers can create a profound shift in one’s day – and this is something I’d like to illustrate by retelling one of my most exciting chance encounters. It took place in Puebla City, Mexico in 2014, nearing the end of my month solo trip in the country. (Throughout the following essay, I have linked to various photos from my trip.)

Arriving in Puebla City, Tired and Frustrated

I arrived in Puebla City – a couple of hours outside of Mexico City – after about three weeks of travelling through Mexico, undoubtedly experiencing some travel fatigue.

I began my trip in the Yucatan Peninsula, visiting the Mayan ruins in Tulum that sit overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. I then made my way to the colourful colonial town of Valladolid, which I also used as a base to witness the impressively well-preserved Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal (which features the gargantuan Pyramid of the Magician). I also made sure to cool off from the scorching heat by swimming in a couple of cenotes (deep, water-filled sinkholes).

I continued to the city of Merida, which was unbearably humid at the time (given it was rainy season), and then travelled to the mystical Mayan ruins of Palenque, as well as the ruins of Yaxchilan that lie deep in the Mexican jungle, located on the bank of the Usumacinta River and close to the border of Guatemala. I truly felt like Indiana Jones walking through the lush, dense jungle – howler monkeys screamed at each other in the treetops while I explored the crumbling Mayan ruins dotted about. Combined with Yaxchilan was a trip to nearby Bonampak, another Maya archaeological site. Here you can peer inside an ancient temple that features the some of the best-preserved Maya murals. These murals depict scenes of tribute, dancing, mummery, musical performance, battle, torture, human sacrifice, and ritual bloodletting. Based in Palenque town, I also checked out the paradisal waterfalls known as Misol Ha and Agua Azul. Departing Palenque, I caught a bus to the photogenic highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas, while also visiting the gigantic Sumidero Canyon and stunning El Chiflon waterfalls.

I then left San Cristobal and enjoyed a long, uncomfortable overnight bus journey, with Oaxaca City as my endpoint. This city is famous for its mole sauce, the origins of which go back to pre-Hispanic times. I discovered the incredible diversity of street art in the city, while also making trips to the archaeological site of Monte Alban, which sits atop a mountain ridge. The ancient Zapotecs – whose civilisation thrived from 500 BC to 1450 AD – inhabited the city of Monte Alban and used it as a centre for socio-political, economic, and ceremonial purposes. In addition to Monte Alban, I stopped off at Mitla, the second most important archaeological site of the Zapotec civilisation, the walls of which are adorned with striking geometric carvings. I then went to Hierve el Agua, a set of natural rock formations, which includes a petrified waterfall and a natural infinity pool.

My next stop after Oaxaca City was my penultimate destination, Puebla City (the last stop being Mexico City). Now don’t get me wrong, the natural and archaeological sites I had seen so far were spectacular, and what I had learned about the history and culture of Mexico proved to be incredibly fascinating. However, there was no getting around the fact that I was exhausted. I had experienced a lot in those three weeks and moved about quickly. My mind then wrestled with conflicting desires. On the one hand, I just wanted to rest and take a break from the stress of travel. But I was also cognizant of what I had in store for the rest of the trip (I knew Mexico City had a lot to offer) – and that kept me motivated.

As well as feeling quite fatigued, I was also feeling frustrated as a result of loneliness. Still not open to the idea of staying in hostel dorm rooms at the time, I opted for private rooms (either in hostels, cheap hotels, or guesthouses). Of course, I did have some interactions with locals and various travellers but I would say that most of my time was spent in my own company. At times, I immensely enjoyed the prolonged solitude, yet it also proved burdensome as well and led to further unpleasant feelings, such as irritability and negative thinking. In a way, experiencing this kind of loneliness was instructive, as it taught me how important social interaction was for my mental health. It also made me realise that I perhaps needed to learn how to be more at ease and comfortable with my own company.

During my first day exploring Puebla City, I felt fed up with travelling and exploring on my own. I didn’t like how bitter I was feeling about other travellers who were enjoying their trip alongside friends or their partner. In any case, I still made an effort to walk around the city and made my way to Puebla Cathedral, situated in the city’s historic centre.

Meeting Emilio, a Local Teacher

I sat down in the square where the cathedral was located, idly looking at the building and people watching as well. Then, I could see a man in loose-fitting clothing approach me. He started speaking to me in English but I felt distrustful and assumed he was probably a homeless person asking for change or that he might be trying to scam me in some way. Anyhow, he explained to me that he was a local English teacher and asked me some basic questions about myself. He followed these questions by asking me what my plan was for the day and I replied saying I had no specific plan – I just thought I’d check out the cathedral and walk around the city a bit. Emilio offered me an alternative.

He said that, if I were up for it, he would show me the best parts of the city, as it’s something he really enjoys doing with visitors. As a traveller, part of me was feeling slightly dubious about his intentions: is this really a smart thing to do? Another part of me, however, wanted to cast cynicism aside and be open to this unexpectedly kind gesture. And it was the latter attitude that I ended up acting on (perhaps my gut feeling told me that Emilio was genuinely being friendly and that it would be a mistake not to accept his invitation). And I was right. Accepting his invitation for a fortuitous, personal tour of Puebla City turned a miserable day into one of my most memorable travel experiences.

Exploring Puebla City With Emilio

As we left the cathedral square and started chatting, Emilio asked a few questions about my interests. I said I enjoyed writing, which then helped him figure out where the first stop on our excursion would be. He said he would take me to where the city’s local newspapers are printed – and seeing this process in the flesh was, indeed, quite fascinating. Emilio also got chatting with one of the staff members, asking if he could take us to where the archives of old newspapers were stored. And he was more than happy to do so. I leafed through newspapers dating back to the 1940s, which included accounts of the Nazi regime in Europe.

We then continued our explorations in the heart of the city, checking out the quaint, colonial architecture and also stopping by certain locations that were used in the filming of Frida (2002), a biopic of the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, starring Salma Hayek. Emilio said these were favourite spots for many tourists. He then pointed out to me to a disused factory known as La Constancia Mexicana, the very first and one of the biggest textile factories in Mexico and Latin America. Puebla City is still home to a thriving textile manufacturing industry, with most exports (over 95%) going to the United States. Emilio explained to me all the different sorts of textiles that were produced.

Emilio took me through so many different parts of the city, which gave me an insight into the daily happenings and culture of the people here. I saw the local bakers making fresh bread and tried some,  still warm from the furnace. We then stopped by a colourful church and a school, whose pupils had just been let out. I watched with amusement as one pupil, who can’t have been any older than 11 or 12, was smoking a cigarette. His (I assume) mother caught him in the act and – exasperated – yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and then scolded him fiercely.

Next, we walked through one of the city’s parks containing a famous sculpture, called “El Hombre Azul” (2006), made by the Bolivian artist José M. Bayro Corrochano. The monumental sculpture depicts a man leaning on a chair, made out of blue-coloured Talavera ceramic (a traditional form of Spanish and Mexican pottery). The style of this sculptural work was certainly unusual and interesting. But what grabbed my attention more about this park was the abundance of teenagers making out. Something I noticed generally in Mexico was how much more culturally acceptable and normalised public displays of affection were compared to the UK, especially the more in-your-face kind of making out. According to Emilio, this is where young couples go to be intimate (including, apparently, even having sex here) since the religious background of their family and upbringing prevents them from engaging in such intimacy in their family home. Catholicism is the dominant religion in Mexico, with 83% of the population as adherents, which means that sex before marriage isn’t viewed too favourably by many families.

Leaving the park, Emilio said he would now take me to a viewpoint, where one could see the entire city. And off we went. It was a steep walk to get there but totally worth it. Arriving at the viewpoint, Emilio pointed out all the important landmarks, as well as some more intriguing aspects of the city that I would otherwise be unaware of, including (so he said) the residences of a lucrative drug cartel, which were situated right next to where the mayor of Puebla City lived. Emilio noticed someone else admiring the view, walked up to him, and the two started talking. Eventually, Emilio came back to me, saying that this guy had offered to drive us to a part of the city full of street art. Like when meeting Emilio, I had an initial, knee-jerk feeling of worry: is it a good idea to get into the car of a complete stranger? Nonetheless, I decided to go along with the momentum of the day and agreed to go. After being introduced to this guy, who spoke fluent English, I felt at ease. He was extremely friendly, open, and interested in knowing more about me, as well as my trip through Mexico.

Getting in his car, we spoke a bit more, and Emilio asked him several questions, too. As it turned out, this guy was the son of the owner of a big textile manufacturing company. Somehow, me and him also ended up on the subject of psychedelics and I showed him a book I was currently reading, Manifesting Minds: A Review of Psychedelics in Science, Medicine, Sex, and Spirituality, an anthology of essays and interviews published by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit which helps to fund research into psychedelic substances, as well as raise our understanding of these chemicals. We both instantly connected over this common interest.

After driving for about 10 to 15 minutes, we arrived at this neighbourhood, which was completely different from every other part of the city I had seen so far – and had I not met Emilio, there is simply no way I would have stumbled upon here. This neighbourhood was full of colourful houses, each painted with its own hue, and many (if not most) painted with some kind of street art. The street art spanned many different kinds of styles and themes: there was religious iconography, surreal images, psychedelic creatures, colourfully painted animals, nature-inspired pieces, and representations of local people and their culture. The streets were quiet and empty, with only a few locals about – and certainly no other tourists. As a street art enthusiast, it was, of course, a fantastic experience to be able to explore this neighbourhood pretty much all to myself.

Moving on, our new friend said he was driving back to the city centre and that he could drop us off there. Once we arrived, me, Emilio, and the other guy (his name still escapes me) stopped by to visit a local artist and one of Emilio’s good friends. Standing outside the shop where his friend sold his colourful paintings, Emilio called to his friend who came out and shook hands with me. Emilio, his friend, and our new friend began talking away in Spanish and I listened (unable to understand) with interest. During a pause of silence, his friend gestured towards me, clearly aware that I could not speak very much Spanish, and we laughed about how oblivious I was as to what was being spoken about. I did, nonetheless, speak with my fellow psychedelics enthusiast about certain altered states of consciousness (I think the conversation steered in this direction after Emilio asked me to show my book to his artist friend). He retold some of his experiences with ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic brew that originated in the Amazon rainforest, although he said his experiences during the ceremonies were quite underwhelming – quite different to the other participants, many of whom were vomiting and crying, as he recalled.

Bidding farewell to Emilio’s artist friend and the new friend we picked up, we then went to the Amparo Museum, which contains one of the largest collections of pre-Hispanic art in Mexico. But we didn’t go there for the art. Emilio took me to the rooftop café of the museum, where you can enjoy outstanding views of the city, with the cathedral being most prominent. The museum itself is also architecturally impressive, uniquely constructed out of glass and steel. Leaving the museum, we decided to get some dinner, which was very much welcome, given I had only really eaten a piece of that freshly baked bread during lunchtime. The nonstop, fast-paced walking had worked up a serious appetite in me. The place we arrived at was a vegetarian buffet-style restaurant – and had I not met Emilio, I doubt I would have discovered this place. There was a wide range of new, interesting, and colourful dishes to choose from, including cactus, which was surprisingly tasty. During dinner, I started to practise some Spanish with Emilio and showed him my phrasebook I had been using. He found the section on pick-up lines particularly amusing (yes, there is a section on that in Lonely Planet’s Mexican Spanish phrasebook).

Meeting Rocio – and Experiencing the Kindness of Strangers Again

After sufficiently stuffed from the buffet, I was, in all honesty, ready to flop onto my bed and enjoy a deep slumber. But Emilio had other things in store, apparently. He thought I should go with him to visit a fellow English teacher and friend, who was in the middle of teaching a class. Instinctively, I wanted to decline the invitation in the name of rest, but I ended up agreeing to go, which – like every other acceptance of an invitation so far – proved to be a rewarding decision. Leaving the restaurant, we made our way to the school Emilio’s friend was teaching at. The school seemed pretty much empty, so I suppose there aren’t many classes going on during the nighttime. We found the right classroom, Emilio knocked on the door, and a voice called us in. There were about 20 students sitting on individual desks, ranging in ages from, I would say, 15 to 25. The teacher had her own desk adjacent to a whiteboard covering most of the wall. The students and the teacher briefly acknowledged us as we walked in and sat down at the back; then the class continued.

After a short while, Emilio ushered me to go to the front of the class, introduced me to the teacher, Rocio, and spoke with her about how I could speak in front of the class and help them practise their English. As someone who naturally dislikes being the centre of attention and having all eyes on me, especially with the expectation to improvise, I felt uncomfortable, to say the least. Emilio sat at the back of the class and shouted some suggestions of topics I could discuss, such as asking the students some questions about my country. Feeling a bit more relaxed, I enjoyed leading the class for a bit and chatting with some of the students, one of whom noted my apparent resemblance to Spiderman (or Tobey Maguire), which isn’t the first time it’s been pointed out to me. Emilio also asked me to show my book on psychedelics to Rocio, who then translated the blurb into Spanish and told the class what the book was about. While I was unsure whether anyone would be interested in the subject, as well as worried that it was an unsuitable topic, one older student did initiate a conversation about his interest in such things.

At one point, Emilio came up and pointed out a woman around my age sitting at the front and suggested quite cheekily that I should try out one of the phrases from the pick-up lines section of my phrasebook. There was one phrase, in particular, he wanted me to say, which we had laughed about during dinner. He then got the woman’s attention and told her I wanted to practise Spanish with her. As she looked over at me and the class fell silent, I uttered the words, “Vamos a la cama” (meaning “Let’s go to bed”). Immediately, the class erupted in raucous laughter; then I looked over to Rocio who was just utterly gobsmacked, although still clearly finding it funny as well. Eventually, she composed herself, quieted the class, and wrapped the lesson up. As the class ended and some students left, I stuck around with Emilio, chatting a bit with Rocio and some of the students who stayed behind. We made our way to the exit of the building, continuing the conversation, and then as the students went their separate ways, Emilio and I walked Rocio to her car. After talking some more, Rocio invited Emilio and I to her home – and so off we went. On the way, we stopped by the Estrella de Puebla Observation Wheel, similar to the London Eye. It was quite impressive to view at night since the whole wheel was brightly illuminated.

At Rocio’s home, I was shown a great deal of hospitality. I was introduced to her daughter, her daughter’s newly born child, and her partner, who were all very warm and welcoming. Certain things we talked about stuck out to me. I listened with amazement and interest as Rocio’s partner retold his difficult journey to the US, climbing into the sewage system that crosses the US-Mexico border in order to get there. If that doesn’t show resolve then I don’t know what does. He worked in the US for many years, sending money back to his family in Mexico, but eventually decided to return.

Rocio’s daughter, who was 16, had her quinceañera the year before. This is a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday and a mark of girl’s passage to womanhood, similar to the sweet 16 celebrations you see in the US and the bat mitzvah of the Jewish tradition (which a girl has on her 12th birthday). The quinceañera, which also refers to the girl herself, is celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, the Caribbean, as well as in Latino communities in the US. The tradition can be traced back to the Aztec civilisation, where young girls were considered ready for marriage at the age of 15. The Aztec ceremonial rites of passage were eventually intermingled with European influences, which came from the Spanish colonisers who overthrew the Aztec people in in the 1520s. This admixture is the likely origin of the quinceañera. Rocio’s daughter brought over some of the photos taken at her quinceañera and it was fascinating to learn how much of a big occasion the ceremony was for many families in Mexico.

When it got quite late, around 11 pm or close to midnight, Emilio and I decided it was time to head off and end the day. I began the day, sitting outside the cathedral in Puebla, quite early, perhaps at 8 or 9 am. I had, therefore, spent upwards of 12 hours walking and exploring the city non-stop. Without a doubt, I was ready for bed. After getting a group photo of Rocio’s family and myself, Emilio and I made our farewells and got in the car with Rocio’s partner, who kindly offered to drive me back to my hotel. He dropped Emilio and I off where I was staying, then headed back home. Either at my hotel or earlier in the day, Emilio discussed with me about spending the next day at Cholula, a city near Puebla City and the location of the Great Pyramid of Cholula (also known as Tlachihualtepetl).

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I found out that this is the largest pyramid in the world in terms of volume (it is twice the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza), and is also the largest monument ever built. Which is pretty astounding, especially since this isn’t common knowledge. This Aztec pyramid does not draw as large a crowd as other famous pyramids, however, since it is largely hidden inside a mountain. The temple-pyramid complex was built from the 3rd century BC through to the 9th century AD and was dedicated to the deity Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god (this a prominent supernatural entity found in many Mesoamerican religions, including those of the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilisations). On top of the pyramid now sits the Church of Our Lady of Remedies built by the Spanish in 1594.

In all honesty, the prospect of another early start and busyness didn’t get me feeling very motivated. My mind and body were calling for a long period of rest. Nonetheless, I agreed that I would join Emilio for this excursion the following day and agreed to meet him outside my hotel early in the morning. I was incredibly grateful towards Emilio for his friendliness and generosity, for his willingness to spend the whole day giving me – a complete stranger – a personal tour of his hometown. I couldn’t thank him enough. We said our goodbyes, then I went off to get some much-needed shut-eye.

A Day in Cholula

In the morning, I met Emilio outside my hotel, giving myself no time for a proper breakfast, and then we made our way to the bus station. We then got on a local bus to Cholula, only about half an hour away. Emilio told me that he had arranged to meet one of his students in Cholula but that we were short of time so would need to hurry; in fact, he said we would need to start running as soon as we arrived in Cholula. And so we did. Getting off the bus, Emilio picked up the pace, telling me to follow suit – and so I started to run, getting ahead of him. In a half-joking manner, he stressed not to yell “Help!” as the police would think he was trying to rob me, a vulnerable tourist. So, of course, I started to shout for help. He then tried to catch up with me, demanding that I stop. I just found the whole thing hilarious.

Running in the heat wasn’t what I had in mind for the day. But it was only a short run. Soon, we made it to the city centre. We waited for a while at the agreed location to meet the student. We were there on time. Yet there was no sign of the student. Emilio thought the no-show was a shame, as he wanted his student to be able to practise some English with me. In any case, we continued the rest of the day as planned and went to visit the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the church that sits atop the pyramid. Since the pyramid is hidden under a mountain, it is not palpably striking, yet being able to partially see the pyramid – and knowing the sheer size of the whole structure – was undoubtedly an interesting experience. We then explored some of the passageways inside the pyramid, which zigzag in a labyrinthine fashion. These tunnels were built in the 1930s so that the structure of the pyramid could be better understood.

At the base of the pyramid is an insane asylum. Why – you may ask – is there an insane asylum there? Well, in 1910, the asylum was being constructed and this was what led to the discovery of the pyramid. Once discovered, archaeologists began surveying and excavating the site. Interestingly, the asylum is still active. It was after hearing some quite disturbing shouting coming from the building that Emilio alerted me to the fact that it was a psychiatric hospital. According to a journalist writing in 2005 about the asylum in Cholula:

Every once in a while an inmate escapes and they get out an old VW Beetle with a great big loudspeaker on top and drive through the streets saying, “Attention. A lunatic has just escaped. He was last seen wearing a blue shirt and brown pants…”

Just another day in a town that has seen it all, many times over.

Emilio informed me that families would send loved ones experiencing mental illness here because they were too ashamed to have them live at home. This underscored to me how much mental health stigma can vary between different countries and cultures. Moving on from the asylum, we made our way back to the city centre, found a bench and just watched the activity of the city for a while. Where we were sitting, I could see a giant pole in front of me, with brightly-clad men climbing it, making their way to the top. Wondering whether some circus-type performance would unfold, Emilio told me the men were about to perform a traditional form of acrobatics. It is known as the Dance of the Flyers and dates back several centuries. The indigenous peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador practised it as a way to connect with their respective gods – but the tradition was partially lost after the Spanish colonisation of the Americas. However, it is still kept alive in isolated pockets of Mexico and Guatemala to this day. And I was fortunate enough to get to witness this ancient Mesoamerican ceremony in action, albeit in a modified form.

During the death-defying ritual, one man, known as the caporal, sits on a small wooden platform at the top of the pole (nearly 100 feet high), playing the flute and drum. There is nothing to support him. And no safety nets to catch him, should he fall. There are four other participants, known as the voladores (or flyers), with all five donning the same traditional, colourful garb. Each flyer positions themselves on one side of a square frame at the top of the pole, just below the platform that the caporal sits on. Suspended by ropes, the four flyers launch themselves off backwards and upside down, each twisting around the pole in an acrobatic fashion. The flying men circle the pole 13 times each, spiralling towards the bottom of the pole. I watched this ceremony with amazement, with the participants majestically and hypnotically spinning around the pole, gradually descending to the safety of the ground.

When the ritual had finished, we had one final stop in Cholula left: Templo de San Francisco Acatepec, a 19th-century Catholic church that Emilio told me was much loved by visitors. I’m not sure if getting a bus there wasn’t an option, but we ended up hitchhiking. Emilio caught the attention of a man in a pick-up truck and he was more than willing to give us a lift. When we arrived at the church, I could see what made it a unique site. The building’s façade is incredibly ornate, adorned with a panoply of vivid colours and intricate details. A church unlike any other I have seen. Walking along the path towards the church entrance, I was fixed looking up, mesmerised by the church’s design and ornamentation, admiring and soaking up all of the detail. We didn’t go inside initially, however, as a wedding was taking place. But when the ceremony ended and the guests started to filter out, I went inside briefly to see the interior, striking in its own right, with the pillars, ceiling, and altar covered in gold leaf.

Going back outside, I sat down next to Emilio and ate some bananas while proceeding to apologise for my grumpiness throughout the day. It was due to hunger, I explained. Emilio knew this already. As more people spilled out of the church, Emilio told me these were all people from an upper-class background – and, to be honest, this was apparent if I was simply going based on appearances alone. All the women were luxuriously dressed and wearing (seemingly) expensive jewellery, while the men looked sharp in pristine, tailored suits. A lot of people looked like models. It kind of felt like we were crashing the wedding – and I’m sure, juxtaposed with the guests in the church courtyard, that we stuck out like a couple of sore thumbs. After people watching for a while, we decided to call it a day and we made the short journey back to Puebla City.

On the Kindness of Strangers

The couple of days I spent with Emilio was quite eye-opening. It’s curious how guarded, suspicious, and distrustful I was initially when Emilio approached me and began asking me questions. For me, this reaction brought into focus culturally-specific attitudes I held, those born out of the milieu of London. For us Londoners, we seem to share a collective mentality of don’t look at me, don’t talk to me. And if a stranger does initiate a conversation out of the blue, your first thoughts may be what do they want? Why are they talking to me? Leave me alone. It can be difficult for a Londoner to think that a stranger can strike up a friendly conversation without being weird or having some ulterior motive.

Experiencing the kindness of strangers has helped me to shed these sorts of cynical attitudes. Of course, it would be naïve to immediately trust the motives of every stranger. Gut instinct and common sense have to be relied upon, too. However, my general feeling – bolstered by travel experiences like the ones just described – is that the most meaningful experiences and connections can be had when you assume the best – rather than the worst – in others.

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