Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two days travel.....

Getting home involved two days traveling. On Monday I hopped an ETN bus (super luxury) to Guadalajara. It was like being rocked to sleep in a soft cradle. Most buses have rows of four seats with an aisle. Not ETN. There are two seats on one side, an aisle, then a single seat. It costs $6 more to ride ETN. A movie played but my headphones didn't work. It was an American cartoon so I followed the plot with no trouble.  The rest of the time I worked on my computer and looked out the window at the green countryside. The entire trip took 5 hours. Mexico is quite beautiful this time of year, after all the summer rains, and especially lately with the overflow from the Gulf hurricanes.

I took a taxi to the little hotel where LuLu had promised I didn't need a reservation, but the hotel was full! She had a bunch of construction guys there, staying for the entire month. Mucho trabajo, (lots of work) she said. So she made a couple of phone calls and got me into a much nicer hotel with a pool and the price included a ride to the airport at 6:30 the next morning. It was perfect. Twice the price, but a long cab ride is fairly expensive in Guadalajara. In San Miguel every taxi ride within the city is 25 pesos, about $2. I wandered around Tlaquepaque for a while, got to go into several galleries that had been closed two weeks before. Only two weeks before....seemed like I hadn't been there in a month or more.

Tlaquepaque is an artists haven, lots of galleries, a real touristy place for Mexican tourists, and very high quality work. One artist Rodo Padilla, does these wonderful distorted but amusing figures. The people have proportional arms, head and upper bodies but from the waist down they balloon out like pear-shaped women (and then some!). He also has furniture that is a huge person shape sitting down and you get to sit in their laps. The jewelers are awfully creative too. But I was already loaded up on purchases.

The hotel room was decorated in a very sophisticated Mexican style with tile everywhere, a mosquito netting on the bed, old rustic furniture, leather couches, and a deep tiled tub that wicked the water's heat very quickly. Mental note, don't ever install a tile tub in future construction! The bed was comfy and I got a great night's sleep. Before dawn Victor, the owner, drove me to the airport in his nice new Toyota van. We had a long conversation about Guadalajara, his life as a single guy and owner of two hotels, his vacation shortly to Puerto Vallarta, the fact that he was born in Tlaqupaque and that his parents are disappointed that he's not married yet. But, as he pointed out, he can own the hotels because he's NOT married.

Getting through the customs and other rigamaroll in the US took almost all the time I had between planes, but I managed to get back to Albquerque on time. Yeah! I stopped on the way to Los Alamos to visit with my mother, give her Trini's shawl and some other little presents and then drove home. My son had the house clean, the cat was still alive and a little slimmer (guess he doesn't give her as many snacks as I do) and life is back to normal. Sigh. It's finally over. Oh well, there's always another Mexican trip. I think I'm hooked.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sunday, last day of the Bicentennial

The rains and cloudy skies continue from the hurricane. We enjoyed Miss Scarlet's company for breakfast and some of her great Cuban coffee, so strong it must be cut with 50% milk. She is a most interesting character. Her job consists of living somewhere (anywhere) in the world and checking in periodically with her company when she feels like being 'on call'. She uses a Vonage VOI (voice over internet) system. They forward calls to her from doctors and hospitals who need a medical translator. She is fluent in Spanish, almost fluent in French, and can switch on Italian in a pinch. She's been all over and has dozens of funny, multicultural stories to tell, in her charming Southern Belle accent. We've gotten into the habit of a large late breakfast, maybe some ice cream later in the afternoon, and then a light dinner or appetizers with wine later in the evening. I like that method of eating, but it doesn't do well when you have to be at work by 8:00 and have a hungry teenager at home for dinner. 

The Instituto de Allende is a large fortress on Ancha de San Antonio, just up the street from the apartment. We wandered through the craft fair again and this time I tried a 'tuna' ice made by a vendor from Dolores Hidalgo. I can't remember the exact name of the sherbet, but it's made from the fruit of the large cactus trees that are ripening now by the thousands. It was not a very strong flavor but it had a clear claret wine color and pleasant taste with tiny seeds that gave it some crunch. The 'tuna' I've harvested (carefully! They are loaded with spines and stickers.) in New Mexcio have large hard seeds that must be culled from the fruit before eating. Ours taste a lot like a cross between peaches and strawberries. This fruit had more of a tart raspberry taste. 

I had never been to the Mercado de San Juan. For some reason I'd walked past it several times but didn't recognize it as a market since it's inside a large building. It's John's favorite and it is huge. The selection of vegetables and fruit is not as good as the Nigromonte but it has a greater assortment of clothes, electronics, bootleg CD's and DVD's, and regular stuff like plastic containers, leather goods, pet foods, pet clothes, pet leashes and collars, poodle accoutrements (bows, perfume, nail polish!) and the like. It's fairly obvious that people in San Miguel love their animals!! In the little towns near Patzcuaro, there were also a large number of animal stores, but they sold vaccinations, insecticide, chickens, rabbits, Purina livestock chow and maybe a leash or two. Very different relationships with animals. 

We drifted over to Nigromonte too, though I was pretty 'shopped out' by then. My mesh bag was getting damned heavy. It began to rain again, a downpour just like the afternoon before at the bull fight. The thunder and lightning was amazing but they didn't lose electricity even once. A pleasant and charming last day in San Miguel, where there is still so much to explore, so many neighborhoods I've not walked through or past, and such a proliferation of artists and interesting people. It's a lot like Santa Fe in that regard. I tend to go to the same old places and forget to go visit the plaza and all the wonderful galleries and nice restaurants. Living here in February, I noticed that I had developed some habitual places and stopped branching out as much. It has been nice to have a different person who has different favorite places along for the challenge. I'm feeling sad that I have to leave tomorrow for Guadalajara.

Saturday, the Bullfight and El Bigote

Matadors arriving to much fanfare.
John used to go to Tiajuana to see bullfights when he was a kid and I had thought I would like to see one at least once in my life. My Cuban Spanish teacher taught us a lot about bullfighting, how it was an art form, how the matadors made the final kill, what distinguished them from each other, how the picadores worked and for what purpose etc. But in my lifetime I've never seen a bullfight. Today would be the day. 

I spent much of the early part of the day shopping at the artisans market at the Instituto and then at the Nigromonte market near the Jardin. I hadn't planned to spend most of my money but there were some very cool things so I did. I bought some necklaces, a painting on bark paper that I will hang in my Mexican bathroom, some little presents for relatives back home, soap dishes to match the Mexican sinks at home, copal incense for my incense loving son, etc. Many pesos later I returned to the apartment. The maid was there for the weekly cleaning. And indeed the sheets had been washed and hung on the roof and were back on the beds. The place hadn't looked that clean even the night we arrived. Good help is really good to find! 

The Queen and her court.

Hurricane Carl is beating up the eastern coast of Mexico and the clouds and rain from that have extended far inland. The clouds looked dark gray and laden with water. The wind blew gently but steadily from the east. We packed for the rain and headed to the Bullring. On the way, in the taxi, we saw a man running with two horses. I mean, the man was running, leading two running horses up the hill. After the taxi dropped us and we'd photographed the beauty queens and the Matadors who arrived by horse drawn carriages, we saw that same guy leading the horses up the hill and into the driveway of the bullring. It was funny to me that he didn't ride either one, they were both saddled. Maybe he liked the exercise. Or maybe the horses were worth more than he. 

The picador and his incredible horse.

Final moments for the bull
I have seen the bullring from the overlook up the hillside, and I knew what street must go past it, but I never saw the bullring itself. Turns out that it sits back from the street, there are houses and stores in front of it. To access it, there are large metal gates that open onto a steep driveway and at the top the land flattens out with the bullring built in a huge circle with buttressed castle walls. Inside the space between houses and the outside of the bullring horses were tethered to rings set into the walls. There were a bunch of guys dressed like matadors, but without the fancy gold and silver accoutrement's. I think these were the toreros, they 'play' with the bulls and distract them but don't kill them. The matadors are the ones who actually make the kill.  The Picador punches the bull with spikes to injure him, wear him out, make him fighting mad, and get him ready for the finesse of the Matador. The picador on horseback was pretty good, he spiked the bull almost every time and exactly where he intended. I felt sorry for the bull but this end to his life was brief. The entire fight only lasts about 20 minutes, 30 tops. I felt equally sorry for the horses. The first bull was quite energetic and went after the horse, jabbing the horse several times with his horns. The Picador finally went out the gate and came back with a bigger stronger horse who managed to keep himself out of harm's way. It began to rain a lot and we were getting soaked. We moved up under the covered portal at the top of the ring, and when I looked back the Matador was finishing off the bull with a final knife to the spinal column. So I missed the finale. A team of decorated horses came in and pulled the bull out of the ring with ropes tied to the horns. 

One aspect of this bullfight that John hadn't seen before, and that I'd never heard about were the 'clowns'. (I'm sure there's an official name for them.) In addition to the bullfighters and toreros, there were about 20 young men who were dressed alike, in similar stretchy pants, shoes and shirts as the bullfighters. We had seen them congregating, hugging each other, crossing themselves, and generally acting high spirited before we went in. After the bull was tired but still feisty, they lined up in a straight row, as if in a line to buy tickets. The front guy set himself up as a target and the entire column yelled and waved their hands. The bull charged the front man and hit him squarely in the chest with the broad part of his head, horns to either side of the man's body. The column collapsed as the bull forced the man into the ones behind him. Those hombres swarmed around the bull, pulled on his tail, grabbed at his horns and tried to extract their friend. Aside from entertainment, I'm not sure what the point of this exercise was, probably another test of manhood. The bull wasn't particularly happy with it either and quickly got away. The front man was bloodied up a bit but strutted out of the swarm to cheers from the crowd.  

The rain let up and another bull came into the ring. The fight went much the same, except the second matador was not as good and I think this bull suffered quite a bit more. It broke my heart. The crowd was not terribly enthusiastic about the matador and less so when the rain came down in earnest. We crowded up under the portal area and even that was not designed to withstand the downpour, the roof dribbled rain on us just about anywhere we chose to stand. The bullring filled up like a swimming pool and when the rain finally let up, men got out in the mud with long flat boards on the end of poles and tried to sweep out the water but it just kept rolling back in. The Matadors in their sparkling finery, red socks and little black shoes jumped around a bit, slid back and forth, and then I think, gave their recommendations to the judges, who called the whole thing off. There would have been 2 other bulls so it was a good day for them. 

El Bigote and the little bull.
However, the entertainment was just beginning. A vacillo, young bull, was let out into the ring and dozens of drunk men and boys as young as 10 years old entered the ring. They used sheets of paper, their shirts, big sombreros, etc. as capes to attract the bull's attention and pretend that they were bullfighters. Most of them stayed by the gates which have a large flat wooden shield to protect the bullfighters. They would pop in and out from behind the shield, taunt the bull, but never let him get too close. They were testing their courage, but they weren't stupid. Except for one middle aged borracho who was wearing a big black fake mustache and blue jeans. He took his shirt off and used it as a cape. He taunted the bull, strutted around, wiggled his butt and waved his shirt. He looked just like Cheech of Cheech and Chong fame. The bull came really close to goring him but he successfully used the shirt to detract the bull from his bare upper body. The more success he had, the cockier he became. Cheers bellowed from the remaining crowd who were still drinking up excess beer, probably now on sale for lack of customers. The crowd was yelling Bigote! Bigote! (mustache), urging him on. Then he made a mistake and turned his back on the bull after he'd successfully gotten the bull to pass. The bull lowered his head and charged. Bigote landed square across the bull's face, between the horns, and he was tossed up into the air. He landed face down and stayed there. I thought he might be dead. 

The other men quickly jumped into action waving and yelling to distract the bull while others grabbed up the injured man and drug him off to safety. A tall thin teenager with a huge white hat was the next brave guy but he had already witnessed the Bigote fiasco. He was a little too cautious so the crowd began to yell Puta Puta. (not a good name…) Meanwhile, Bigote recovered and came back into the ring, mostly to bow to the crowd and be cheered on. He left many fans and probably got dozens of free drinks at the nearest bar, not that he needed to get any drunker!!

The actual Bicentennial Holiday

There was no way to hear El Grito again in Delores Hidalgo at 6:30 this morning, but we did hop a bus and go later in the day. We got off at a Feria, kind of a county carnival with rides and booths. After much wandering about and visiting with vendors and photographing the sights, we hopped another bus to the Centro. The plaza there was decked out with flags, signs, colors and a big stage in front of the church where the first El Grito was given. I imagine the party the night before was even more crushing than San Miguel's. Their Jardin was equally crowded with vendors and people. John bought a couple more hats. I think he's up to 11 now. We wandered around checking out the town, then had a very late lunch, or early dinner at a hotel restaurant that had a buffet. The food was excellent. They had chicken mole, pork in a tequila sauce, Spanish rice, fruit salad, and one of my favorite local dishes: chile en nogada. (Sweet white sauce over a cheese filled Poblano pepper, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.) 

I had heard rumors that Dolores Hidalgo is famous for two things, the start of the Revolution, and weird ice cream. I have a recipe from my Cubano Spanish teacher called Elotes Domingo, which is green beans, but since discovered that elotes in Mexico is corn on the cob, or just corn. (Thanks Joyce Carlson!) Sigh. So no wonder the ice cream I tasted before didn't taste like green beans, it was corn flavored!! Anyway, as we wandered around the plaza looking at hats, trinkets and everything else for sale, I got a small ice cream, Beso de Angel, the kiss of an angel. It was strawberry with almond (paste I think) and dried dark cherries. It was really good. On the list of available flavors were tuna (in Mexico that's the fruit of a cactus, not the fish), elotes, tequila, mole (a chile/chocolate paste for meat usually), beer, avocado, mamay (not my favorite fruit - it tastes like tuna (the fish) to me!), shrimp, cheese and many others - some more disgusting than others. I suspect milk and sugar can disguise or enhance just about any flavor in the world. I also tried fried grasshoppers or some Mexican equivalent, they certainly looked like little grasshoppers. It was interesting, and not disgusting at all, a bit on the sour side, and of course it had been powdered with chile. I enjoyed the taste but didn't buy any. When I'm in adventure mode I'll eat just about anything, but I know, back at home, I wouldn't want to finish off the bag. Not like a bag of potato chips!!

The 45 minute ride back gave me time for a much needed nap. We landed back in the Centro of San Miguel and it was hopping for the night's festivities. We stood in one of the corners of the plaza as horses with riders lined up for the evening parade. There were official looking ropes across the street but nobody paid any attention and crossed over between and behind the horses. Suddenly a horse acted up and people backed up, pushing and shoving. It was all I could do to stay on my feet. After that scare I stuck close to the building and watched people, even ones with little kids, cross the horses. The crowd was drunker than the night before. There were many people from Mexico City and the bars were overflowing even though no one was selling alcohol on the streets. It felt much less like a family affair and much more like a drunk fest than the night before. We decided to bag it and head for the apartment. That was a trip unto itself. The bus we would normally have taken didn't show up. Lots of other buses came and went, but not the one that would drop us right in front of the hotel across the street. It was dark and crowded. No one seemed to know where that bus might stop, some said across the street, others said down the street. Finally we found a small crowd way down the street and on the other side. They were all waiting for the same bus so we joined them. What a strange way to run a bus system. There must be much more to it than the average Gringo can figure out. 

Back at the apartment we could see the sky bursts from the second night of celebrating. It went on for twenty minutes or more. I ran up to the roof but actually the view from our lower balcony was better since we could see under the treetops there; on the roof trees obscure the view. I had visited the roof earlier in the day. It's an interesting place. There are sky lights above rectangular columns that allow the bathrooms and kitchens in the apartments to have a source of light and fresh air. The gas tanks for each apartment are up there in the corners of the building with copper pipes running all over the place taking natural gas to each separate unit. In addition there are some odd looking small buildings that house the water heaters and also a corrugated sink and water tap. I guess you send your maid up there to wash the sheets and clothes, then she hangs them up on the lines that stretch from little building to little building. 

While it is nice to be in San Miguel, I miss the quiet of Eronga. The nights there are silent with the exception of some animals dashing across the roof occasionally. Here one cannot sleep at all without closing the windows. The traffic noise on Ancha de San Antonio and Sterling Dickenson is incredible both night and day. Only from about 2:00 am till 5:00 am is it relatively quiet. In Eronga I was always awakened by roosters and donkeys braying. Here I'm serenaded to sleep by fireworks and awakened by trucks churning up the hill on Sterling. Needless to say, it does not make for a restful night's sleep.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

El Grito and the crush....

Wednesday, Sept.15th

We had purchased copies of Atencion to see the schedule of the festivities for the Bicentennial Celebration of the Mexican Revolution. El Grito, the very eloquent speech saying essentially "Lets throw the bastards out" is traditionally given in Mexico at 11:00 pm on the 15th, followed by fireworks, bands, and dancing. The next day, the 16th, is a national holiday when everyone can sleep in and sleep it off. Pretty smart way to do it, unlike we in the US who party all night of the 4th and then still have to return to work on the 5th if it doesn't fall on a weekend. 

The first El Grito was spoken (shouted) at 6:30 am in front of the big church in Delores Hidalgo on the 16th. They planned to re-enact that one at 6:30 am, but since we stayed up till way past 2:00 on the 15th, I wasn't about to jump on a bus and head to Delores in time for the 'real' El Grito the next morning, 

Wednesday was a beautiful day, as most are in San Miguel. We headed to the Jardin, John wanted to take care of Trini's paperwork problem but discovered the Consulate was closed. I went shopping for food for the next few days, breakfast items mostly. It was nice to be in familiar territory. San Miguel was all decked out for the holiday with huge banners streaming from the buildings, the streets washed and scrubbed, dog and horse poop cleaned up, and some of the teenagers wore goofy fuzzy red, white and green hats with fake mustaches. What revolutionary dressed like that?

Nigromonte market looked the same, smelled the same, and the best fruit and vegetable guy was still in his stall across from the meat section. When he saw that I was buying ingredients for Guacamole, he tossed in a couple of hot serano peppers with the avocados. Since I was on a mission, I skipped looking for ceramics to go with my new Mexican tiled bathrooms. Another trip….

I got half a roasted chicken from Pollo Brenda, and a stack of fresh corn tortillas from the tortilleria next door. Loaded with food in my giant shopping bolsa I headed back through the Jardin area. It happened to be 11:00 in the morning and the lady mayor of SMA (San Miguel de Allende) was giving a rousing speech that ended with El Grito. Finally I got to hear it! The Jardin was full and teenagers in identical running outfits were lined up like soldiers with their right hands in a salute over their hearts, elbows stiffly held upright, answering El Grito with Viva Mexico, Viva Viva.!! It was so patriotic (and quasi military!).

Back at the apartment, I whipped up the guacamole and put it in the fridge to develop the flavors. There's just nothing like guac made with perfectly ripe avocados, fresh fluffy cilantro, and a squeezed lime.  Then I went to find an internet cafe.

After a frustrating afternoon trying to stay online and upload photos, I returned to the apartment to find Bill, the downstairs neighbor, sitting out on the wide walkway in front of the apartments having a glass of wine with John and a woman who could be Charo's cousin. This lady was a trip. She was tiny and slim, perched like a bird on the arm of one of the outdoor couches, waving a glass of wine around as she talked a mile a minute in Spanish and English. She owns a B&B right off the Jardin that is quite beautiful Bill says. He was clearly enamored with her. We were shortly joined by other neighbors and pretty soon a party ensued. I brought down the Guacamole and some chips, Bill brought out another bottle of wine and some beer, and we sat around chatting the afternoon away. A lady from Florida with a heavy southern accent (she's also a DAR) refused to drink her wine from a tumbler and went home to fetch a suitable wine glass. I couldn't help but be reminded of our 'cousin Francis' an elderly southern belle. The major difference was this lady was fluent in Spanish and a fast talker. 

About 9:00, John, Alexa (the southern belle) and I hailed a cab and got as close to the Jardin as we could. It was filling fast. A parade passed in the street on the west side, Hidalgo, Morelos and other heros of the Revolution came through on horseback with a contingent of mounted riders and campesinos with swords and rakes. We ended up under the portal on the east side, but there were vendors all along the opening to the street so there was no passage except at the ends. People were already packed in with only a little elbow room. It wasn't to remain that loose. John chose to be up against the thick stone post holding up the portal and later in the evening I could see some wisdom in that, even if it blocked our view of the ground fireworks in front of the church. 

SMA has the most unusual Parroquia. It is a large parish church, made of pink sandstone and carved in a way that makes it look like a wedding cake. In front is a large stone fenced patio area, a paved street permanently cleared of cars and then the Jardin. The Jardin is a park the size of a city block with thick umbrella-like trees that cast a dense shade and are trimmed up to look like an English hedge. Usually it is filled with benches, walkways, flowerbeds and a few vendors. Tonight it was packed with vendors all facing the streets. Most were selling red,white and green 'stuff'. I purchased a stretch band for my hat and it came with a wrist band for my 'raised fist'. Little kids riding on their father's shoulders waved flags and blew horns. A band played, people shouted to be heard by each other, the noise was soon unbearable. Miss Scarlet, as John dubbed her, gave me some kleenex (clean she assured me) to put in my ears. She then informed us that she much preferred to be in the middle of it all and would find her own way home. I found out later she had gone over to the west side of the plaza, plunged into the crowd and was right under the balcony where the politicians and 'la Reina' gave their patriotic speeches at 11:00. The crowd there was body-to-body and at one point a bunch of gang members pushed their way through creating a terrible crush. She got behind one giant kid, told him he was to be her protector, and so got out of the crowd at the end without being trampled. I guess that southern accent is as charming in Spanish as it is in English!

On the east side, the crowd continued to grow. I was pleased to see that none of the vendors were selling beer or alcohol. The bars were open, but no one was allowed to go out with their glasses, though that's pretty typical most evenings. By the time of El Grito, I was pressed solidly up against the stone pillar. We also had a few minutes of crush that was quite scary. I thought I might actually be crushed to death and was glad I'd told Garret I loved him when we last spoke. I could feel the crowd swaying and pushing and I pushed back. John was in front of me, and a very tall man was behind. I put a foot out in front and one in the back for stability and used the pillar so I couldn't be swayed that way. Bodies pushed up against me and I was squashed into the wall. I thought we couldn't possibly go through the entire night like this! Then the wave passed. We must have had a gang pass through too, but I was too short to see the 'pressing reason'.  After that, we were still body to body but there was a little flex room. If I suffered from claustrophobia I would never have gotten into that mess in the first place. 

11:00 rolled around and the politicians appeared both on the balcony and on the huge TV screen which I could see from my vantage point. Miss Scarlet was right below them. She said she kept trying to back up for a better view, all she could see was up La Reina's nose. 

The crowd was on fire. They shouted Viva! Viva! on cue when some politician gave El Grito from the balcony of the Presidencia. All I heard was a roaring sound in a Spanish accent, punctuated with Ah's and O's. Then the fireworks started, shot off from the top of the Police Station on the north side of the Jardin. The sparks showered the crowd and many of them were still glowing. Some in the crowd had brought pieces of cardboard which they held over their heads. I was glad to be under the portal though it blocked the full view of the sparkling sky. The ground displays went off in between big bursts. I could barely see those with the post in the way. Not important, because I could see the most amazing display of all. From on top the building next to me, images were projected onto the wedding cake church. Images from famous murals of people in the struggle for independence, vines and leaves emerged from the bottom and grew, as Mexico grew as a nation. Buildings, cars, roads, animals and all kinds of human endeavors were projected in faint colors against the pink glowing carved walls. It was amorphous and indistinct but gorgeous. I'd never seen anything like it. Miss Scarlet told me later it was new this year and done by a French company. At various times the church seemed covered with runny frosting, at other times like it was decorated with ropes and flowers like a real wedding cake. Aside from the music and patriotic fervor, that was my favorite part of the festivities. 

After all the pyrotechnic festivities the families left, little kids slumped over dads' heads….. and a rock band blasted away up on the big stage. The party was just getting started. We threaded out of the crowd and down the narrow streets looking for a taxi but none were to be found. We ended up walking all the way back to the apartment. The streets were thronged with cars and people. Up the street from the apartment is a little night vendor that serves up the best tacos. I think we ordered the last plate of four because there was no more meat in the warmer and none cooking on the grill.  A perfect end to the perfect night of El Grito. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Logistics Day

Street scene in San Miguel.
Today (Tuesday) we traveled via bus from Patzcuaro to Queretaro and then on another to San Miguel. Trini and Fidel took us to the Camionera Central and we rode on a super deluxe double decker to Morelia. Too bad it was only for one hour, it was fantastic, by far the nicest bus I've ever ridden on. A sign on the door said it also had WiFi, but if it did, it wasn't working.

My friend Barb calls the days when you change cities "Logistics Days". That was today. Constant toting, standing around, strapping, unstrapping, and surveillance of our luggage while one or the other hit the can. We got onto buses fairly quickly without a lot of sitting in bus terminals, but all the same, we left before 9:00 and arrived in San Miguel well after 6:00. The ride took us up out of the verdant lake region into a countryside resembling Santa Fe and northern NM. Except for the tree sized cactus forests, the landscape appears very similar. Along the way there were farming regions and a few swampy lake areas where cows stood 'udderly' immersed in shallow water eating water lilies. In other 'campos' sheep and goats held sway. I had heard that the Mexican corn industry had been wiped out by NAFTA, which allowed the US to dump super-cheap corn onto Mexican markets. That is probably true. I did see a number of fallow fields with weeds interspersed with corn stalks that sprouted on their own, but I also saw many fields with what is probably a second crop of corn since most of the ears are not quite fully developed and it's pretty late in the season if this were in the US. The markets are loaded with sweet corn and vendors sell corn roasted in its own husks then slathered with mayonnaise and chile powder all over the place. 

Teenagers dressed up for Independence Day.

It was interesting to come into San Miguel from Queretaro. I had only gone as far as the Tuesday Market, up on the flat area east of town last February. This time we came across that plain and down into San Miguel. Because of the Bicentennial there are fairs, carnivals, and festivities all over. The town is decorated with plastic red,white&green flags bearing the likenesses of Allende and Morelos stretched across the streets at intervals of about 10 feet. The Mexican flag is flying everywhere, and as we left Queretaro, there was one that must have been the size of a football field flying near the bus station. 

We had no trouble finding our little apartment, it's right across the street from Hotel Real de Minas where I spent a week in February at the Writer's Conference. There's an OXXO store right next door. It's the equivalent of a 7-11 in the US, only bigger with more real food available. The only problem is that we are at the junction of two major streets so there is a lot of traffic noise and party animals shouting and carrying on. I suspect much of that is due to the holiday. 

The neighbor, Bill, who had the key for us, came in and visited for a while. The woman we have rented from lives here, so I raided her fridge and fixed us some tea and cantaloup. The back wall of the kitchen/living room is painted blood red, and that color is reflected in some picture frames and a table top. Other than that, the house is fairly bland with dark wood furnishings and neutral fabrics. Tiny but comfortable. Bill recommended a Chinese restaurant down the street so that's where we went. The waiter spent much of his childhood in Pittsburgh, so a job waiting tables in a heavily ex-pat American town is perfect for him. 

I'm looking forward to the celebrations. Tomorrow evening the re-enactment of El Grito, the call to arms by the insurgents, will start at 8:30 pm and go on till two or three in the morning. There was an article in Atencion about the men playing the hero rolls. The choice of actor has more to do with horsemanship skills than with how much the man looks like a particular Hero. There have been several horse/people accidents in the past and so excellent skills are needed to keep the spectators alive. I expect the Jardin in the center of town will be packed solid. San Miguel was where the wave of machete armed peasants and a few guys on horseback came when they left Dolores Hidalgo at the start of the revolution. They quickly subdued the Spanish here, but not for long. Eventually all the Heroes were captured and executed, their heads displayed in a plaza in Guanajuato. The names proliferate in streets and towns: Hidalgo, Allende, Morelos, Aldama. It's going to be a blast. I'm so glad to be able to experience this rare occasion. 

Uruapan, the Eternal Spring

I've learned a lot traveling with John, how to ask the right questions, what things are called like the main bus station is not called estacion, but camionera. Centro and Central are two very different things, Centro is the center of town usually, and Central is the big intercity bus station. People are inordinately friendly, and willing to work with me asking questions. They seem to have infinite patience with my limited Spanish, and even compliment me sometimes. It always shocks me when they do because I feel so terribly inadequate and am often confused. 

I hopped a Combi in Eronga and it went less than two kilometers when it began to have difficulties. It sounded to me like it was coughing water from the gas line, but I'm no mechanic. The driver inched the vehicle along for about 30 feet, tried his best to get it off the road, which is difficult as the road is bordered by buildings. Finally the poor thing lurched to a halt and we all just sat there. I wondered when he would say something, or when people would ask if they should get off. A long period of silence passed when one of the women just got up and then everyone else followed suit out the door. The driver opened his own door and walked back up the road and flagged down a vehicle. It already had quite a few people inside but it was a Ford van, quite a bit bigger than the little Combis. We all piled inside and continued on down the road. I think what I witnessed was 'machismo' in action. The driver didn't want to admit failure of any kind and nobody wanted to embarrass him either. So nobody said anything and it all worked out in the way that it should. No one suffered adverse emotions. A very different culture than I'm used to. 

Many springs equal a river.

The road to Uruapan goes south from Patzcuaro over a high pass and down past thousands of avocado trees on every hillside. They are short, dark, ball-shaped trees, or maybe the trees are short because these were pretty young orchards. Uruapan is the avocado capital of the world. It makes S. California look pathetic in comparison. I can attest they are the best in the world too. When you buy them here, the vendors ask when you'll be using them because they want you to have the perfect ripe one. I purchased one last week for 'today' use and then didn't use it till two days later. Big mistake. It had gone bad in multiple spots. 

Uruapan is a fairly good sized town, maybe 300,000. It has a bustling Centro and a National Park smack in the middle of town. 500 years ago, the Tarascans had a sacred spot there, a magic pool which overflowed with water. It is a large pond situated in a low spot at the top of a deep canyon. The water comes up from the floor of the pond, but we're not talking a trickle, it quickly becomes a major river called the Cupazitzio. The spring at the top of the canyon is only the highest of many. By the time the river descends 100 meters it is joined by other major river/springs which makes it a roaring cascade of waterfalls. The entire canyon is carved out of basalt (a very hard rock but often porous) and there are smaller springs up and down the steep sides. The area has been a tourist attraction for a long time and people have built stone walkways and funneled the little springs' waters in culverts next to the walks. Diversion channels were also built to feed the fish hatchery, called a granja. I remember the word because I already knew the word for pomegranate: 'granada'…….a bowl of pomegranate seeds looks an awful lot like fish roe. 
Little girl washes her dolly in a spring.

Near the bottom of the canyon there is a kid's play area, lots of food and curio vendors, the 'sanitarios' (public restrooms) and offices. It cost me a whopping $1.00 to get in. I spent a couple of hours there, taking pictures and just sitting beside the roaring river, marveling at all the springs that cascaded down the lush canyon walls, some mere trickles, others were rivers almost as wide as the Cupazitzio. The walkways are mossy and slick. Just keeping my camera dry was a challenge.

Then I walked down a street toward the Centro. It wasn't terribly far but it was interesting. The shops are as densely packed as the ones in Quieroga, but the city is much cleaner and nicer looking. I got a strawberry 'ice' without any milk, didn't want a rehash of my 'revenge' experience. Then I tried to find a bus that would take me back to the Camionera. That was a challenge. Once again I got several answers, number 27, 33, 105, and 22. I finally found one where the driver assured me he went right past it, but it didn't have any of those numbers!!  The bus stopped numerous times and I really had no idea what the Camionera looked like from across the street. But when the bus stopped there almost everyone on the bus said "Senora Senora, la Camionera!" I couldn't have missed it if I'd tried. Such sweet people to look out for the clueless tourist. 

Re-routed spring water makes for beautiful displays.

On the way back I sat across from a man who looked Quechua, from Peru. Turns out he is from Ecuador. He and his wife have lived in Patzcuaro for 15 years. They make embroidered clothing and sell it at the mercados around the area. He was chattering away to his wife but turned to me when she decided to take a nap. He was very patient and we had a wonderful conversation for the hour it took to get back to Patzcuaro. He has relatives in the states, doesn't everybody?? So we exchanged phone numbers and he promised to look me up when/if he comes to Santa Fe. You never know about these kinds of things. I've actually had some interesting follow ups from meeting people this way. And of course I'm to contact him if I should ever go to Ecuador, I have to stay with his family there. If I ever get there, I might take him up on it. Can you imagine how cool a trip like that would be?

Back home by 7:30, I was starving so I ate one of the chile rellenos that Trini and I had cooked. Yum. What a delicious end to a terrific day. 

Wood carver sells his wares next to a spring.
The fountain is merely a carved
rock put in place to deflect
the rushing spring water.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Moctezuma's Revenge and That Job Thing

Saturday and Sunday

On Friday evening, in lieu of dinner, I had a Rompope Paleta, one of those wonderful Mexican popsicles. Rompope is reported to be like eggnog, so that sounded like a good flavor to try. It tasted fine, but turned out to be a poor choice for other reasons. It gave me some of the famous Moctezuma's revenge. By Saturday morning John was full of energy after his day of rest and I felt like crawling into a hole.

We went to the little plaza here in Eronga after breakfast. John had some ice cream from the Italian restaurant (nothing like a little breakfast dessert!) and I had their oddly flavored espresso with foamed milk. The sign above the door says 100% Italiano, but they feature chiles and quesadillas on the menu. John planned to go to Patzcuaro and look for painted furniture. Since he's traveling home on the bus he can take all kinds of stuff. I'm trying hard to keep my purchases at a minimum, for financial reasons as well as lack of space in my luggage. I had wanted to go to Quiroga and look around, but instead went home, took a Lomatil tablet, and plunked down on the couch in the living room to rest.

A few hours later, after a decent nap, I did go to Quiroga. It was a 12 peso bus ride north, around the west side of the lake. Very pretty, and on the way I chatted with a friendly young man who was carrying a gorgeous flower in a vase to give to his mother. Neither of us knew the name of it, in English or Spanish. He told me that 'cuaro' which ends the name of many little towns means 'place'. Patzcuaro is the Place of Sky (though I've seen mostly clouds on this trip), Erongaricuaro is the Rich Land Place.

All around Patzcuaro Lake there are little villages of Purepecha descendants. Back in the 1500's a very enlightened priest was sent to this area to relieve a viscous one who had been torturing people, forcing them to become Catholic and 'civilized'. Vasco de Quieroga actually believed that the natives were more than just souls to save, he saw them as people with excellent skills in copper smithing, weaving, pottery, and wood working. He encouraged each village to develop the skills that made sense based on their natural resources and those activities persist to this day. He also laid out a number of cities in a grid formation. He was well-loved and there are many places named after him, lots of parks with his likeness in statues and paintings.

Quieroga is a town he built and used as his headquarters for a long time before moving to Patzcuaro. I wish I could say it was as pretty as Patzcuaro or Eronga but it's not. It's on highway 15, a major east-west road, and so has become a trading center. The main streets are packed with hundreds of tiny shops, there's a lot of traffic, the place is noisy, dirty, and smells of diesel. The main plaza is crammed with tents and craftspeople shouting for customers. I walked from the bus stop to the main street and bought a pair of decent 'tennis' shoes for walking around instead of using my heavier hiking boots. Then I wandered up the streets trying not to step on the little women with their wares spread out on woven matts, taking up half the sidewalk. I ate at a restaurant that was in the back of a 'shopping center', basically a strip of interior stores with a plastic roof to keep out the rain. I ordered the house specialty, Sopa Terasco (bean soup) while a Mexican Match Maker game show played on the flat screen TV. I'm always amazed at how different the people on TV look from the people I see around me. The ones on TV have blond, red and light brown hair, the women look like prostitutes with skin tight clothes and thick makeup, the men often look like thugs with piled up hairstyles and tattoos. The people I see everyday have black hair (unless they're older women - then it's dyed red), dress modestly, don't wear much, if any, makeup, often wear American tee-shirts like the lady in a green one that said "Kiss Me, I'm Not Irish", and certainly don't look like they would mug you if given an opportunity. But I suppose a foreigner coming to the US would have similar observations about American TV versus the people one sees on the streets in any given town.

On the way back to Eronga, the little Combi bus was packed. My body rebelled against the bean soup so I sat still and hoped I could make it back to the house without an embarrassing incident. It was early evening and the sky was overcast but glowing in the subdued sunset. The little towns took on a magical quality. Church towers rose out of the mists like silent candles.


A great day to sleep in. I think I drifted in and out of slumberland for two hours after I heard John rummaging around in the kitchen. By the time I got up he already had breakfast made; scrambled eggs with lamb and peppers, salsa, tortillas, mangos, and beans. We certainly do eat well around here. After my bout with the 'revenge' I only ate some beans and mangos, and drank a little coffee.

We started out early with the intention of going to Patzcuaro and then to TsinTsunTsan where the Tarasco nation (the Purepechas) had its huge pyramid. They were one of the few groups the Aztecs never conquered because they had copper arrowheads that could pierce the Aztec quilted cotton armor.

On the Combi to Patzcuaro, a young woman that John knew boarded the bus. We visited with her a while. She had a backpack with her and she was headed to Uruapan to see the eternal spring and Mexico's most recent volcano, Paracutin (which erupted back in the 40's). John had met her in Eronga the previous week. She is working for an elderly lady, helping her to categorize an extensive library of books in Spanish, English, French and German. The lady wanted someone who could write a grant and start a library here in Eronga. The girl said she wasn't really qualified to write the grant but she did help the woman for several weeks in exchange for room and board. Quite a nice gig. Then she asked us how long we would be staying. I said I had to be back in a week. She looked at me and with a perfectly straight face said, "Oh, do you have one of those job things?"

In Patzcuaro, I wanted to go back to a shopping area known as the Eleven Patios. It was a nunnery, built in the 1600's, with 11 open areas or patios inside, for the Dominican Sisters. Now it is full of little shops. We had gone there last week, but it was a slow day and raining, so few of the shops were open. I tried to imagine the sisters confined to such a place. I suppose it needed 11 plazas so they could grow some food and be outdoors a little without being seen by passers-by. The old bath room has not been converted to a shop. It is a small room with an adjoining area that is dominated by a large sunken tub and two spigots for water. The tub is basically a hole in the floor, about 2 feet deep lined with tiles and has a step down into it. There are no windows nor any natural light in the room if the door is closed. It must have been a dreary place to take a bath, or maybe it was magical, lit up with candles. I wonder how often they bathed……

The shops were filled with crafts from all over Mexico. I purchased two small folding mirrors with beautiful painted designs on the covers and a hot-mitt for the handle of a cast iron skillet. In the shops there were blown glassware, copper pieces both for utility and highly detailed in enamel paints, jewelry of every kind imaginable, ceramics, candles, figurines, cloth finely woven with embroidery, paintings, linens for dining and beds, wooden sculptures both painted and plain, furniture, basketry, and more. Most of it was good quality and with decent prices. I know you can go to the villages where this stuff is made and get it cheaper, but here it was, all in one place. This is Quieroga's legacy…….in a converted nunnery. How fitting.

I met John back at the plaza and we had those wonderful shrimp cocktails again at the two adjoining stands. I swear, Patzcuaro is heaven. In Spanish 'cielo' means both sky and heaven. Patzcuaro - Place of Heaven, aptly named! We then wandered over to the larger central plaza and looked around there a bit. More stores, more people, more things going on. Saturday and Sunday are the big shopping and socializing days. The town was busy everywhere.

There are buses that will take you any place, you just have to find the right one. After a lot of walking around, we found the right place for the bus to TsinTsunTsan. John told me a story of being in Mexico years ago with his wife. He told her to watch closely, then he asked four different people for directions to a place he already knew, and he got four different answers. Today, we asked three different people where to catch the bus and got three different answers. The last person was the woman selling tickets and she pointed us back to the first place where we'd already waited a while. The bus did come eventually. Now THIS bus was the kind you see in the movies. While there weren't any people with chickens in cages on their laps, we did have to step over a huge sack of corn somebody had put in the aisle because there was no room for it anywhere else. We put our stuff in the first seat, behind the driver. Why? Because it wasn't possible to sit in those seats, there was a metal rack across the place where your legs would go. Only a tiny child could sit in those seats, or (lucky for us) our bags. Now who would put a seat where there is absolutely NO leg room?

TsinTsunTsan is a charming little village. The Archeological site is right on the edge of town. John isn't much into climbing, so I hiked up there. The pyramids sit on top of a huge artificial plaza twenty feet or more above the surrounding landscape. I've never seen any shape like these. The floorplan is a rectangle with a half circle bulging out of one side. There are 5 of them spaced only about a foot apart. The whole complex is half a mile long and about 15-20 feet high. It's a ruin of course, I have no idea how tall they were in their heyday. Or what use they had. I doubt they were used for human sacrifice. There was no mention of that in the signs around the park. But the views of the lake and surrounding countryside is extensive. I can see why they picked this spot to be their sacred place. Plus it's probably more defensible. The backside of the complex is a relatively tall and rugged mountain.

Again, it poured rained. I slogged back down the hill to the plaza and found John with two more new hats. I think he's up to 7 or 8 now. These were 'winter' hats, nice knitted wool. I bopped around the plaza for a bit as we waited for a Combi or bus to show up. This market featured mostly woven crafts (lots of Christmas bells and wreaths woven from yucca and palm fiber) and pottery. My favorite dark green glaze on red clay must be made near there because there were dozens of vendors selling it. It didn't look like a bus back to Patzcuaro would be coming anytime soon, so we opted for one to Quiroga. It would be possible to catch another Combi there and circle the entire lake that way. I was lucky to have been to Quiroga only the day before, so I knew exactly how to walk across the town from the place we were dropped off to the place we could pick up a Combi back to Eronga. It was only six or seven blocks but it sure beat getting the run-around from half a dozen people who didn't know what they were talking about.

Back in town we decided to eat at the 100% Italian restaurant. We ordered a small pizza and then discussed sharing a medium instead of getting a small one and spaghetti. Some of our conversation was in English, some in Spanish. The waitress understood that we wanted a medium and a small pizza. So we ended up taking a lot of pizza home. Plus, midway through the meal we spotted Trini walking across the plaza and invited her to join us. She expressed surprise to find us eating out, she'd just delivered tamales and salsa to the house for our dinner. I guess she forgot to tell anyone she was going to do that. Oh well, tamales are great for breakfast too!!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chile Rellenos

Friday, Sept. 10, 2010

Friday. Chile Relleno day. I cleaned up the kitchen, made a list of food items we might need for the next three days, and wrote all morning. Trini showed up around 11:30 for my relleno lesson. But first we had to go to the plaza to get the cheese and chiles. We also got lots of other stuff: onions, garlic, tortillas, a can of tuna (for Trini), and those wonderful green juicy oranges. Five places. Each one has a specialty. Tortillas are made and sold hot off the griddle by the kilo in a hole in the wall next to the church, a tiny fruit stand where Trini and the vendor argued over which two avocados I should buy, a larger store with canned goods and the oranges, cheese at a different little store and yet another for a kilo of eggs, handed over to me in a plastic bag. Of course she knew exactly what to buy where, which had the best prices, and I spent a whopping twelve dollars. We have enough food to last most of the week. Back at the house she chided me for putting fruit in a basket that was intended for tortillas, and again for putting the eggs in the refrigerator. If eggs have never been refrigerated, they don't need to be. It ruins them she said. Wow. For my entire life I've been eating ruined eggs and didn't know it.

On to the rellenos. We spent half an hour roasting them over the open flames of the stove until they were quite blackened. She put them into a plastic bag to steam for a while, and then we washed the roasted skins off in the sink. A slit up the side and a few cuts dumped all the seeds out and they were put over a little rack to dry. She heated about 1/8th of an inch of vegetable oil in a skillet. Meanwhile she poked a big hole in each of six eggs and poured the whites out. She whipped them to stiff entirely by hand with a fork, then added the yokes into the foam and stiffened it up again. Meanwhile I put a big chunk of the crumbly cheese inside each chile and secured it with a toothpick, then powdered them with white flour. She took each chile by the stem and dunked it into the egg mix, then quickly transferred it to the oil. After a minute or so she rolled it over very carefully. Using her bare fingers and a fork she rolled them around and round until the coating was 'yellow' and starting to brown slightly. After they were a nice rich brown she pronounced them Ratones, rats. And indeed, they did resemble rats with a stiff tail sticking out.

Then, in her speed of light fashion she cleaned up the kitchen, swept the floor and said goodbye. I added some fruit, rice and guacamole to the rellenos and we had a incredibly good lunch around 2:00. John wasn't feeling very well, so he went off to nap, and I wrote for a while more. It was time to get some real exercise. I hiked up the road leading west for a couple of miles, to the most rural area. Wide open fields, planted in almost mature corn, alfalfa hay, and some vegetable gardens spread out over the verdant rolling hills as the road climbed up into the mountains. This day, the weather was intermittent, spitting rain and then bright and sunny. I had not taken my camera and it was a shame. The views from up there took in the entire lake region, and the volcanos to the east were fully visible, much taller than I had imagined when all I ever saw were their flanks disappearing into shawls of dark clouds.

John thought there might be some activity in the plaza in the evening since it is Friday. We didn't hear music coming from that direction so we sat around and talked, uploaded photos on the computer and he went to bed early. A very laid-back day, and in some ways a much needed rest. Newness and strangeness can make you feel tired, the brain can only take in so much at a time. I think that's why little kids need so much sleep. And this old brain of mine has been working out like Arnold Schwartzenegger getting ready for the Mr. Universe contest. I needed a day off!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Real Mexico

Thursday, Sept 9, 2010

Next month, an old boyfriend of mine, Aroop Mangalik, turns 75 on 10-10-10. I thought of him today, not because of his birthday which I didn't think of until just now, but because traveling around with a fluent Spanish speaker reminded me of traveling in India in 1985 with Aroop. John is also gregarious and loves to walk up to people and begin chatting. I do too, and have tried doing that in Mexico fairly successfully, but I'm not as fluent and it's difficult to have an easy conversation. Today, because of his people skills, we experienced two villages we both thought were the Real Mexico.

I woke long before dawn and went outside. It's like being in Los Alamos at this altitude, the stars sparkle and the Milky way arches across the black sky. A good day to do laundry since I only brought about four days worth of clothes and I've been here six. That is quite a process. The washer has only cold water, and the water drools out at a pace that takes about an hour to fill the machine. A utility sink next to the washer has twice the pressure so 4 filled buckets help fill the basin. In twenty minutes I had the wash going. I had accidentally put the machine in the wrong mode (my limited Spanish at work again) and it wanted to rinse twice. So two more times I was in the laundry house filling buckets with water. About 9:00 the sun finally peeked out from behind low gray clouds and I hung up the clothes in a gentle breeze. Between washing and making breakfast, the morning was almost gone.

Then Trini came over. She and her husband work for El Gringo Roberto. She chatters rapidly and moves around close to the speed of light. But she surprised me by bringing over a reboso that she had embroidered with blue and green floral designs. She wanted to sell it to me, and of course I bought it. It's a long cream shawl made from the local manta, cotton cloth. The workmanship is astonishing. The design is visible on both sides because of the way she sewed it. Flowers on one side are bright and thick, the other side has a subtle delicate design, but still distinct. The ends are braided together for several inches to make a nice end to the shawl. Needless to say, it had to be very time consuming. Who would have thought she could sit still long enough to have completed such a work of art?

She will return tomorrow to do her regular cleaning and cooking. I asked her if she would teach me to make mole and chile rellenos. I know mole is a multi-day process, but John said it didn't take her that long last time she made it. I would bet she starts with some kind of pre-made paste. So I'm looking forward to that lesson on Monday. Tomorrow we make chile rellenos.

Around 11:30 I got my almost dry clothes in and we headed to Jaracuaro, just up the road a few miles. I had seen the turnoff but didn't expect it to be so beautiful. The little town is built on what surely was an island at some time in the past when the water levels of the lake were higher. The road is elevated somewhat with a small bridge over the deepest part. At the highest point church bell towers dominate the tightly packed town.

The Combi driver dropped us at the farthest east point on the 'island' and we walked uphill to what we hoped would be a plaza with at least a street vendor serving some kind of food. Instead there were two churches, the 'Templo de San Pedro' and the 'Capilla'. The churches both looked pretty run down. A large clock on the wall said it was 8:00. It's probably been 8:00 in Jaracuaro for years. No businesses, no commerce surrounded the large open plaza paved with stone and surrounded by a wall. A tiny old woman sat on a woven matt weaving palm fibers into strips just inside the church entrance. John chatted with her, and she told him the strips were used for making hats. She pointed at me. I was wearing one I'd purchased for $2.40 in Patzcuaro. She had about a hundred feet of strip wound up like rope. She said it sells to the hat makers for 7 pesos. All that work done by hand, many feet of 'strip' and it sells for 64 cents! So John purchased half of what she'd made. I don't know what he intends to do with it. Then she took us over to her house down a narrow street. I watched her dash home, barefoot, down the cobbled street, almost running.

We stood outside on the stoop while she fetched hats for us to look at. Her husband sat inside on a chair. He barely moved and never said anything. He seemed old and decrepit. The 'house' was one windowless room, maybe 8' x 10', dark, with a single door that opened directly onto the street. Other than the chair, it was furnished with a single mattress on the floor, no sheets, but a woven cotton blanket was neatly pulled over. Acroos the ceiling, ropes had been stretched for laundry and clothing, and along the back wall were stacks of straw hats. In front of the house the street was torn up. It looked like the water/sewer system was either being replaced, or perhaps installed for the first time. The whole town was a mess in the streets with crews digging and piles of dirt all over.

I bought a cute little straw hat with a red band and holes in a design around the top. She asked 30 pesos and gave me 20 in change for my 50. I handed her the twenty back as a tip and she grinned from ear to ear. 50 pesos is four dollars!

Down the street we stopped in at a tiny store that sold soft drinks and staples like bags of rice and flour. It was also the entrance to a house. This is very common, to have a business in the front part of a house. John chatted with a woman in her thirties who offered to take us to her hat factory. It turned out that the store/house belonged to her parents. Her house and hat factory was down the street. I'm not sure what I expected the factory to be like, but what we saw wasn't it. The muddy courtyard had a roof over one side that looked like a carport or animal shelter. Part of it was closed in but only on the outside wall, the rest was open. In the dark interior three men were working at sewing those long strips, just like the old woman made, into hats. The basic hat shape looked exactly the same and there were stacks of them. We visited with the workers and then the woman took us upstairs to the machine that shapes the hats. It's a steam process. The raw hat is coated with 'hat chemical' (probably some kind of glue) then placed on a mold and pressed with the matching mold into the desired shape. It steams for a couple of minutes, then presto! It's a Panama hat, or a small sombrero, or a bolo. It wasn't running, but I could imagine the stacks of raw hats along the wall being processed one after the other. Each mold has a number so the hats will come out in different sizes. She said the hats range from "Barbie" size to X-Grande. John asked where all the molds were and she explained that they couldn't afford to own all the sizes and styles so they just had a few of the most popular. John bought two from her.

There were several men working upstairs, but not on hats. They were building on to the lady's house. She proudly showed us her new kitchen, still just concrete walls and open spaces for windows, and her view was incredible. Spread out below was the green swampy area where cows grazed, the lake beyond, then forest and cloud enshrouded volcanos in the distance. It is unlikely that anyone would ever build to block her view because directly below sat the Bull Ring. She told me that they have bull fights for 3 days in January. The rest of the year the ring sits empty. For three days she has noisy neighbors, the rest of the time, 'tranquilo'.

By 2:00 in the afternoon we were very hungry, but apparently the town has no restaurant, not even a food stand. The lady told us there was a polloeria, a tortillaeria and several tiny tiendas down the street from the Church. At three shops we bought half a chicken, already cut into small pieces and re-roasting over coals, a half kilo of tortillas (about 25!) and some orange sweet stuff that claimed to be juice. At the plaza in front of the church we found a bench in the shade and sat down to enjoy our lunch. The chicken roaster had included napkins and two plastic bags of salsa, plus four roasted peppers with our chicken. One bite of those peppers and my taste buds were fried crisp. John spotted the little old lady chatting with friends in the shade across the plaza. I took the pile of tortillas and the salsa over to her when we had eaten our fill and told her we couldn't take them home with us. Would she like to have them? She was thrilled to take them off my hands. I cannot imagine how incredibly poor these people are. It was a good sized town without even a food stand. Most people cannot afford to eat at the cheapest of cheap places.

We went back to the first little tienda. The hat-factory lady had invited us to come back when her children were home from school so they could sing for us. Her father brought out his guitar, her mother was in the kitchen cooking lunch (Mexicans eat a big meal late in the afternoon and then a light supper), and the two daughters were entertaining the one-year old baby brother. They sang several songs for us, old traditional Purepecha songs with some Spanish words thrown in. The older girl and the grandfather sang very well and on key. The younger one knew the words but threw all the music off kilter. I found them very amusing and entertaining. Since the whole family was involved in making hats, they had stacks of the same strips the old woman had been making piled up against most of the walls in the house. The grandfather and the girls lounged on those stacks as if they were couches. Then the grandmother emerged from the kitchen and  invited us to lunch. Such incredible hospitality. After John bought his hats, they weren't obligated to us in any way. The invitations to come back and to have lunch were from the heart.

We hopped on a Combi and went back toward the main road. At the turnoff, we decided to check out another little town. The driver told us there was a bull fight happening later in the afternoon. Perhaps we misunderstood. It was more of a rodeo with bull-riding as the event. Up a very steep hill, the little town wound around a small mountain. The views from every street were gorgeous.

The bull ring reminded me of a very small Roman colosseum. It is built deep into the ground, the seating in stair fashion around the perimeter with entrances on two sides. A smaller ring had been created with posts and fencing. Men set up the chute and the whole process was interesting to watch. Meanwhile people drifted in, vendors set up, young people walked around in the growing crowd selling potato chips with salsa and lime, french fries in white styrofoam bowls with pieces of hot dog placed on top, cotton candy, cookies, popcorn, frozen fruit ices, ice cream, cold drinks and beer. Lots and lots of beer. There was so much beer that cases of the stuff were the 'legs' of tables where it was sold.

A small black bull was brought into the ring and stuffed into the chute. He didn't like it one bit, but he also clearly knew the drill. He knelt on his front legs, then flopped down inside the chute and refused to get up. The men poked him with what looked like a miniature trident so he stood up for a minute or two, then down he went. Up, down, up, down. This went on for half an hour. I was beginning to think the bull was hurt or sick. Finally a young man with padding on his legs jumped down onto the bull's back and they opened the chute. The bull burst out and bucked three or four times, then he stopped and wandered over to the fence where someone took the pads off his horns. The rider hopped off and they led him out. I didn't think this was going to be much of a rodeo.

By now the place had filled with spectators, an MC made some announcements, a band and a group of brightly dressed young ladies entered the ring and the event was in full swing. Each rider was introduced to much fanfare. They strutted into the ring, picked up a piece of paper off the ground in front of the announcer and were thus informed of their position in the competition. They were dressed in rodeo finery: chaps with colorful designs, hats, fat belt buckles and fancy pointed boots. The band played Mexican Banda music, off key and loud, then marched out of the ring and up to a stage where the music was then amplified by huge speakers aimed at the crowd.

The first real bull (not a 'test' bull) was a nasty hombre. He was a big white Brahmin that fought the handlers every step of the way into the chute and then almost broke the chute open several times before the rider appeared. The rider knelt in the center of the ring, took off his hat, placed it over his face and prayed. Then he crossed himself multiple times. He mounted the chute and just as he was in the air, dropping onto the bull's back, the bull bucked hard and knocked him head first down into the chute. Some men grabbed at his clothing. I was sure the bull would kill him the way he was smashing around in that narrow metal box. Somehow the rider managed to get back out of the chute and onto the ground. He was hurt, he favored his shoulder, but after a few minutes he tried again. This time when he dropped, the bull shot out of the chute and gave him a ride. The young man didn't hold onto the rope cinched around the bull's belly at all. He rode it waving his hat and giving the crowd a show. The Brahmin was one energetic bull, he bucked and dashed around the ring, bucked more, tried to rub the man off by crashing into the fence, but couldn't shake the rider. Finally men roped the bull and the young man hopped off to cheers from the crowd.

We watched one more bull rider and then decided it was time to head home. The Combi's quit running about sunset, and it was already after 6:00. What a wonderful day in 'Real' Mexico.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Street medicine and island views

Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2010

The morning dawned clear with clouds hanging over the mountains on all sides of the lake. It was cool and moist, but the sun shown for a while. John said he looks every morning to see if there's any sunshine, then quickly does a load of laundry so his clothes have a little time to dry. It was breezy this morning too, which speeded up the drying process.

We both slept better with the cat locked up, and even the cat seemed to have a better attitude, not quite so aloof and haughty. Contrite would better describe him. Perhaps he learned his lesson. Probably not. He yowled when there was someone to bother. Locked up and alone, he probably didn't let out a peep. But who would know? He was in a little building not attached to either of our rooms.

Around 10:00 we headed into Patzcuaro for business purposes. We decided to go to the seat of the revolution for El Grito on the 16th of September. This is Mexico's 200th anniversary of the revolution when they broke away from Spain. It all started in Dolores Hidalgo, so we suspect the party there will be huge, the fireworks innumerable, and the crowds giddy. It will be like being in Boston or Philadelphia in 1976 on the 4th of July. John knows a woman who will rent us a little apartment for the week, and we had to transfer money to her account in order to secure the rental. I also wanted to take advantage of the fact that Bancomer here would cash my traveler's checks, so I cashed the rest of them.

From now on, I will keep traveling money in a separate account and transfer money to it when needed. That way, if someone were to get my account number and password from an internet transaction, the most they'd get would be the little amount in there at any given time. Security in Mexican online banking is not what it should be. When I was in San Miguel, I joined an online Yahoo group that consisted of mostly ex-pats. The horror stories were numerous. Some people had their checking accounts cleaned out and attached savings accounts as well. It scared me. But taking a large amount of cash on vacation is equally stupid, so I opted for traveler's checks. Who knew it would be such misery to get them cashed?

Janitzio Island as seen from Eronga.

Once all the business was attended to, we had lunch at two seafood stands that were next to each other on the edge of Plaza Chica. We got a shrimp cocktail, one from each vendor. Mine was exquisite. It was served in a large glass like they used to make hot fudge sundaes in, tall and tapered at the bottom. It was filled about three quarters full with cooked shrimp, topped with onions, hot peppers, a large chunk of avocado, and then filled to the brim with tomato sauce that was tangy and sweet. At the other stand, John ordered a smaller version that was not sweet at all, his was peppery and had a stronger tomato flavor. They were both delicious, but I liked mine a lot better. The peppers were hot enough to make me sweat and I have quite a tolerance for spicy food. It was the best meal I've had here so far, and it was from a street vendor!!

Janitzio Island with fisherman.
When I took a shower yesterday I had a muscle spasm in my neck. It was probably caused by toting luggage or carrying around heavy bags. My neck was stiff and sore most of yesterday and this morning it was so bad I couldn't lift my right arm above my head. So after that wonderful shrimp lunch we went in search of a masseuse, or maybe a chiropractor. The owner of the stall where I bought my jacket the day before walked past, so we asked him if he knew of anyone who could help. He took my by the hand and led me out onto the street. He looked up and shouted to some guys who were hanging a sign on the balcony. He pointed at me, told one of those guys I needed some attention and shortly thereafter, the guy showed up downstairs. He asked what I needed, assured me that he could fix it and then we went into an electronics store where he parked me in a chair behind the cash register. He grabbed a bottle of some liquid from under the cabinet and began to do a deep tissue massage on my neck.  After a few minutes of massaging, he took hold of my arm and said "Suav-vey, suav-vey…." several times while wiggling my arm up and down. Then wham, he jerked it hard. It felt like my arm came out of the socket! Not only that… it had strings attached directly to my neck and those ripped out as well. I was stunned. But immediately the pain felt different. He massaged some more and did a few more 'cracks' to my neck and arms though nothing like that first one. In a few minutes I could lift my arm over my head with no pain whatsoever. And all this behind the cash register in an electronics store!!

A resort seen from the boat to Janitzio Island.
Feeling much better, I told John I'd like to go see Janitzio Island after all. We hopped on a Combi and went to the pier to catch a boat out to the island. The boats are long and almost flat-bottomed with long benches on either side. About 20 of them were lined up at the pier, but Wednesday is not one of the big visitor days so all but one were empty. The boats have a roof and plastic curtains that can be pulled down in case of rain. The trip took about 30 minutes. Janitzio is further away than it looked, and quite a bit bigger than I expected. On the way across the lake, a  4 man combo played traditional Mexican songs and then passed the hat for tips. Since the island is inhabited by mostly Purepecha Indians, the boat was full of people returning home, some from working in Patzcuaro, some school kids in their uniforms. The women were all doing embroidery work, and they wore beautifully stitched skirts, aprons and blouses with colorful edges and flower designs. The guide book called Patzcuaro lake "impossibly blue" but with so many little towns surrounding it, and none of them with adequate sewage treatment, I found the lake to be "impossibly brown". However it doesn't have an odor. I have no idea if it has fish in it or if they're edible.

Women on the boat, doing embroidery.

I think the island might be a volcanic spatter cone based on it's shape and the color of the exposed rocks. On the flattened top of island is a monument to Jose Maria Morelos, a hero of the revolution. It is a huge statue of the man with his right arm raised to the sky in a fist. John had no interest in climbing up to the statue, an elevation of about 500 feet, so I left him in a restaurant where he ate little fried whole fish that resembled french fries and drank a beer. The route was up staircases and sloping streets. There are no motorized vehicles on Janitzio, so I have to assume that people carry everything to the top by hand or with the aid of donkeys, all their home furnishings and goods for the little stores. Weekends the island is packed with tourists, but on a Wednesday the vendors are hungry. Each one of them attempted to sell me something as I huffed and puffed up the steep hill. Entrance to the monument is $6p, about fifty cents. The thing is huge and views from the base are amazing. Rain clouds were moving in and there was lightning off to the southwest. I entered the statue through a narrow door and inside were six levels accessed by staircases. On each level there were 10-12 murals depicting Morelos' life from birth through his life as a revolutionary leader, to his trial and execution. The Mexican revolution didn't go quite as well as the American one. All of the leaders were executed before the war was over, and their heads were displayed in cages for years in a plaza in Guanajuato. I saw two of the actual cages, skulls long gone, in a museum there last February. In the raised arm of the statue, a staircase leads to the 'cuff' of the statue's jacket, and from there one can see unfettered views in all directions. I was alone inside and the stairs were steep and narrow. It felt like I could fall backwards at any moment. The staircase inside the arm was more dangerous, there weren't even rails to hang onto. Finally at the top, I was too short to actually see over the cuff edge, the lightning and rain drove me back downstairs. The area around the base is filled with stalls and small restaurants, most of which were closed. The rain came down hard and I was fairly drenched by the time I got to the bottom. These middle-aged knees don't care much for downhill walking and with cobblestones wet and slick, it was slow going. The ride back was bumpy and the water choppy, but the little band played valiantly and I hope they got plenty of tips.
Bass player in the boat band.

John headed back to the house and I went again to Patzcuaro to check out the Aurrera grocery, which he said is the equivalent of Walmart. Not quite but close. I wanted to purchase soy milk, olive oil, and parmesan cheese, none of which are standard fare for Mexican markets. After an hour looking I managed to find all three items and a few other things including green oranges from Veracruz that turned out to be the juiciest oranges I've ever bought. A Combi ride home to make squash with parmesan cheese for dinner, and it was time to hit the sack. Whew.

Fried whole fish,
called Charales.

John about to down a fish.
Down the hatch!!!