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.