A City of Charm and Charcoal

Jerry Wright wanted to experiment with renting a car and driving somewhere, so Friday afternoon we took off with the Wrights for a little town called Villa del Carbόn. It’s a couple of hours north of us and a little over 1,000 feet higher. The hardest part of the drive was the part in Mexico City. At least half of the time it took to get to Villa del Carbόn was spent just getting out of the city. Once we did that, it was a lovely drive up into the forest.

Villa del Carbn is a vacation town, but not one Americans frequent. It reminded me a little of Island Park, because it is a small city in the mountains where people from the nearby large cities go for a quick getaway. I was looking at all the cute buildings as we were driving around trying to find the zocalo, when I saw a familiar sign. I exclaimed, “That was one of our churches!” It was only a couple of blocks from the zocalo, so we walked back to it later. It was fun to see that we have a presence even in a little place like that.
This is the church building in Villa del Carbon

As a culture, people in Mexico tend to be open and friendly, and the people in Villa del Carbn are no exception. In fact, they are probably the friendliest people we have run into! We stayed at a little hotel right on the zocalo. The man who owns it is named Raul. When we arrived, he greeted us with hugs and the traditional “put right cheeks together and kiss the air” which almost all women and many men here do when they greet a friend. Then he introduced us to the woman who ran a shop by his hotel. She was his cousin. He told us the hotel had been his grandparents’ home and he had grown up there. Staying there felt a bit like we were his guests and were staying in the bedrooms upstairs. The house was built around a small inner courtyard, which was full of plants and flowers. As far as American standards, the hotel lacked a lot--the bed was hard, the shower was as best lukewarm, the room was small—but we were only staying one night, and the warmth of the host and the charm of the house made up for the minor discomforts.


I feel bad we didn't get a photo of Raul, but this is the entry to his hotel.

The hotel lobby. The window you see looks into the courtyard in the center of the house.
     
The courtyard from the ground level
    
The courtyard from the upper level right outside our room.
     
Ron on the bed in our room. To give you an idea of how snug it was, I had to stand in the bathroom to take this picture.

    
    
When we walked out of our hotel and turned left, there was this cute little lane.
     
The church across the street from the zocalo.
     
We came upon this restaurant as we were exploring. This is their "hours" sign. It says, "We open when we arrive and we close when we leave."

     

     After walking around the Zocalo and up a few of the streets, we decided it was time to eat. Raul recommended El Águila, a restaurant on a balcony overlooking the Zocalo. As we explored the city, a few other people we spoke with recommended it as well, so we walked there. The entry door was closed but not locked, so we went in and up the stairs to the restaurant. No one was in the dining room, so Ron walked further back in and found some of the workers cleaning up. They said, “Sorry, but we closed as 6:00 tonight.” (It was about 6:30.) These people recommended we go to a restaurant which was right beside our hotel. It was the second restaurant Raul recommended. He said it was their anniversary and that evening they were going to have a big party and serve free Pozole (a kind of soup.) We went there and sat down at a table, but a waitress told us we couldn’t sit there because that table was reserved. So we chose another table. This time a waiter came over and told us that table was reserved and pointed out two tables for us to choose from. We sat at one of them, and the waitress brought us a menu. We looked at it a few minutes, and then she came back and told us they weren’t serving anything off that menu that evening because of the party. However, we could have Pozole for free, we just had to order drinks. We ordered our normal—bottles of water for me and Pat and soft drinks for Ron and Jerry. The waitress left, but came back a few minutes later with the manager, who told us “A thousand apologies,” but the tables and free pozole were for customers who were going to order alcoholic drinks. So we left and found a different restaurant. I found it ironic that a restaurant was celebrating its anniversary by NOT serving food to people who were willing to pay. The party at that restaurant got going a little while later. A band was playing, and people were dancing. The band was loud and a little off key and played until 4:00 in the morning. Since the restaurant was right by our hotel, that meant we could hear it very well. That wasn’t a problem for me because sleeping is one of my talents, and I do it well. However, the other three had trouble sleeping because of the music. Pat got a video of the band, so here’s an idea of the lullaby we had.


Carbn means charcoal, and Villa del Carbn literally means town of charcoal. It is a place where they make charcoal. The food at the restaurant where were finally able to eat was great. Ron ordered a soup. They brought out a bowl which had raw shrimp and some veggies in it. They poured a broth over it and then put in a hot charcoal rock. When a cooled a little, they took it out and put in another. Each time they put in one of these rocks, the broth boiled. We could literally see the shrimp turning pink as it cooked. After dinner we walked to a place where they served churros and crepes for dessert. It was a fun little shop that had the original adobe bricks exposed on the walls and games on every table. So we played Jenga while we waited for our order. 


Ron's soup cooking
      


The churro shop. Notice the cool walls.
    


The next morning, we were up just as stores were beginning to open and vendors were putting out their wares. We walked to a bakery we had seen the evening before. We got there early so we could get bolillo rolls just as they were coming out of the oven. We tried one, and Jerry said they were the kind of bolillos he remembered from his mission to Mexico when he was young. He asked the baker why we can’t find bolillos like that in Mexico City. The baker took us back into his kitchen and showed us his brick lined oven. He said that was the secret. After eating bolillos and pan de Muertos (the best I’ve had), we passed a tortilleria where two women were making fresh corn tortillas. We told them we just wanted two tortillas, not a whole pack, and they handed them to us. They would have just let us have them, but we gave them a few pesos. They were delicious! Next we headed towards a place we’d heard made good liquados, which are basically smoothies. On our way we ran into two guys with guitars. Ron asked them where the concert was, and they replied, “Right here.” Then they serenaded us right on the spot, standing in front of the Baos sign. (Baos are bathrooms.) We took photos and video of them there, but later we ran into them by the zocalo and Pat got a better picture with a better background, so I got it from her.


The baker and his oven
     

     

     

     

Freshly made tortillas
     


     


Besides charcoal, Villa del Carbn is also known for its leather products. We’d shopped a little in a leather store called de Piel the evening before, and we asked the people if their products were actually made in Villa del Carbn. They said yes, told us where the factory was, and said we could go see it. So after our wonderful breakfast of fresh baked goods, tortillas, and smoothies, we went to find the factory. We found a smaller store with the de Piel logo and went into it. The factory was supposed to be right by it, so we asked if we could see it. The woman made a phone call, and a few minutes later the owner came in. He led us through a door and up some stairs, and we realized we were in his house, which was right over the store. His wife, his mother, and his children were all there having breakfast as we traipsed through. He took us out the back door and up some outside steps to the factory, which was on the third floor of the building. There were two women in there sewing leather coats. He explained the entire process to us, but he was speaking Spanish, so I only caught part of it. Still, it was very impressive. Afterwards, we had fun shopping in the little store and then went to the larger store we’d been in the night before. When we arrived there, one of the women gave me and Pat little leather purses. She said the owner had called and told her we would be coming and to give them to us. That is how friendly and generous these people were—we interrupted his breakfast, and he rewarded us with leather goods!

The family whose breakfast we interrupted. The man in the middle is the leather factory and store owner.
     

     

     

     

You can find anything made out of leather in Villa del Carbon
     
Walking down the street we passed this woman's house. She had a plant nursery and also sold fruit. I told her, "Me encanta plantas y flores," (I love plants and flowers), which made her think I could speak Spanish, so she started talking to me. We had a long conversation of which I understood very little.

One of the reasons Villa del Carbn is a popular vacation site is that there are two reservoirs and a couple of lakes near it. On our way home, we decided to go see one of the reservoirs. It took a little driving around to find it, and we felt very free to be in a car that wasn’t an Uber or a taxi and in which we could go wherever we wanted! When we arrived at the reservoir, we could see the results of three years of drought. We are about to the end of the rainy season, and the reservoir was not even close to being filled. A tower, which is normally surrounded by water is now surrounded by grazing cows and corn fields.


Boats along what used to be the shoreline

Normally water reaches up into the white area of this tower.
     
The purple flowers are cosmos, which grow wild there

     Driving through a small town on our way back to the city, we came upon a group of men on horses. Up ahead we could see a girl wearing a white cape leading the group. As we drove up alongside the men, Pat rolled down her window and asked if it was a wedding. They said no, it’s a quinseaera. When we got ahead of the group, we pulled over so we could get out and take photos. It was such fun to see!


     

     


Our trip to Villa del Carbn was a quick one, but we packed in about as much fun and experience as we could get into twenty-four hours.

We had to say good-bye to two of our districts as the CCM on Sunday. One group was all leaving for their mission areas today and tomorrow. The other district doesn’t leave for a week, but with General Conference next weekend, we won’t see them again. They are such sharp young people! It is a joy to work with them.


     


Most of my blog posts talk about the fun things we do. However, we don’t spend all our time playing. One of my favorite assignments is helping Michelle track the humanitarian projects. I was able to write articles reporting on some of them this week. There is so much need, and it is so good to hear about what is being done to help. I’ve really come to recognize how something as basic as access to clean water is an issue for so many people. When they get it, people’s lives change for the better. I realize what a pampered life I’ve lived. Being able to linger in a shower or have immediate access to water with the turn of a tap are things I take so much for granted that it doesn’t even occur to me to be thankful for them. I am becoming much more thankful now as I learn about more and more people for whom those things would be a luxury.







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