Monday, February 6, 2012

La Gruta

South of San Cristobal, in the limestone mountains, there are caves. Some are dinky, dank, and home to small animals, but a few are large caverns reaching a kilometer or two into the mountain.

Entrance to the cavern.
One cavern is called La Gruta, the grotto. It's a live and growing cave with water constantly dripping down forming ever longer stalactites, and during the rainy season, a spring at the back of the cave feeds a rather deep stream.

Outside the cave is a park, owned by and guarded by the federal government. A military installation is just down the road. It's a wooded forest filled with picnic areas equipped with cement structures that double as picnic table and wood fired grill. Saturday I went there for the first time with new friends Laurie and Tom. Laurie is the other student in my Spanish class with Edith (pronounced eh-DEETH).

The place was populated with locals from San Cristobal and the surrounding area. We were the only Gringos. The entrance to the cave is a couple of kilometers through a beautiful and very tall pine forest, past picnic'ers, and children riding ponies. The cave is the reason for the park, but the entrance and ticket booth were well obscured by all the other activities.

Inside, looking out.

Two long buildings with an open covered patio housed a dozen food vendors, all pretty much selling the same food: quesadillas, tacos, fried bananas with liquid cheese squeezed over, potato chips with Valentina sauce, grilled meats and onions, roasted corn, corn kernels with chile and mayonnaise, and fried corn bread. Next door is a riding stable and for $15 pesos (about a dollar) you can ride a horse for half an hour.

Formations with Electrical wires....
Another set of two buildings facing each other across a patio housed the artisans who sell exactly the same stuff as in the markets: hand embroidered clothing, trinkets, plastic toys, painted ceramic animals, baggy drawstring pants, warm Mexican hoodies, wool capes and scarves. Behind that building was a restroom featuring the usual 3 peso entrance fee which entitles you to a small wad of toilet paper, and in front of the cave elaborate shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The cave entrance looks a bit like the entrance at Carlsbad Caverns, only not so deep. This cavern is not below ground at all, but a fairly level "tube" into the side of the mountain.  There had been no attempt to hide the electric lines which were strung up in a set of four wires pulled tight between insulators bolted to the stone walls. The bulbs were the newer tubular florescent bulbs sticking out of sockets, blinding if you looked directly at them. The cave has little color, but a lot of formations. Some of the larger stalactites are curved toward the back of the cave, telling of a constant breeze blowing in that direction as the water evaporated over the last few centuries. Seeing those was a surprise, since the entrance has a strong cold breeze coming OUT of the cave.

Very wet walls and growing formations.
A wide concrete walkway has been built above the "river" at the bottom of the cavern. In the far reaches there was water standing in pools, but it was dry closer to the entrance. The walkway itself was quite wet, pooled with water in some places, and the walls of the cave were slimy. Quite a bit more water in this cave than Carlsbad, but probably much more like Carlsbad was during it's growth in the Pleistocene. Children, around the age of 10 or 12 were guides in the cave. Each one was droning in a horrible monotone the memorized sequence of words for each stop along the walkway.  I asked one little girl-guide if the river ever has water flowing in it, and she said yes, during the rainy season.

Laurie and Tom
At the entrance are quite a few hand-lettered signs saying that smoking, eating, drinking and "making bathroom" are prohibited in the cave. We got a laugh out of that one, as many Mexican men seem to think peeing on things and over edges of cliffs (or in this case a railing) is a fun thing to do.

As we walked along, several chubby uniformed men dashed past us down the walkway. At the end of the raised platform, there was a crowd of people. Apparently some locals had climbed under the railing, gathered on the rocks at the back of the cave with candles and incense, and were holding a ceremony. The excitement was over by the time we got there, the authorities were gently escorting them back under the rail. The women had short (now dead) candles in their hands and were dressed in traditional indigenous clothing. Some children were with them, and a couple of men, but the ceremonial group was mostly women. From the silence and the body language, I gathered this might be a fairly common occurrence and no one was upset about it. This cave was probably sacred to the Mayans and the modern Mayans still use it for religious purposes, even though it's no longer "theirs".
The lovely forest in the Park.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Daily Life

I thought it might be fun to show a few pictures of daily life. Like pumping water.....

How we get water out
of the big glass jug. Notice
the balancing act with the pitcher!
Yesterday was cloudy and by midday it was raining, thundering, lightning and hailing. The air was cold and the streets almost deserted. It was quiet except for the occasional siren. We ran out of water.

Water is delivered in large glass or plastic bottles by large lumbering trucks that come down each street about once very two hours. Each company plays different music: Over the Rainbow, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, etc. If you want to exchange your empty bottle with a new full one, you must wait outside for the truck, because by the time you hear the music and get out to the stoop, the truck will have already passed.

So this morning, it was quite chilly after yesterdays' storm, and I sat out on the stoop reading a book until my butt was almost frozen to the step. An hour passed before the truck showed up, and it wasn't playing music. It was just luck that I happened to look up and spot it far down the street. If I were one of those drivers, hearing that same music all day long, I wouldn't last three days at the job. It would be a nightmare right up there with "It's a Small World After All" - that hideous ride in Disneyland.

Our bottle is glass, so it's even heavier and more awkward than the plastic ones which have a built-in handle. The strong young driver hopped out and I opened the gate. He lugged that monster bottle up to the house and put it inside. I always tip them at least 5 pesos for that, as they aren't required to do it.

Then Mike and I walked to the Mercado Organica around 10:00. They were just getting set up so we were able to get first crack at the wonderful vegetables and even purchased some whole wheat cookies that have very little sugar and are made from locally grown and roasted cocoa beans. Heavenly.

Just before the hail storm.

Drying vegies.
But, back home, it's always necessary to wash the vegetables and fruits in disinfectant. So here are some photos of life at home.....

Vegies in the disinfectant.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Sweet Bits (Dulces)

A sugar-addicted friend once pointed out that Halloween marks the beginning of the Sugar Holidays: Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter......A time-frame inundated with sugar, candy, special treats, but always punctuated in January with a plethora of new diets (that really work!) put out by women's magazines.

I think Mexico is on a perpetual sugar holiday. There is little distinction between holidays, Saint's days, national holiday celebrations, personal birthdays, birthdays of Mayan gods or's all about eating sweet treats.

Party supplies by the ton.
San Cristobal features an artesanal market south of the Zocolo, down la Calle de Dulces (not it's real name). I've begun calling it that because there is a Mayoreo (wholesale store) with every kind of candy, so many brands (all Mexican) that it would blow your mind, plus pinatas in hundreds of shapes and sizes, party supplies, and sweet alcoholic beverages like Sherry and brandy. Across the street from that store is a candy/sweets cafe that sells coffee to go along with whatever sugary confection you've chosen from their glass case. On the corner is the Michoacan ice cream store. That's my favorite, in spite of having gotten very sick on a Rompope paleta in Erongaricuaro (in the state of Michoacan)  That ice cream is the best in Mexico, at least I've not had better. Every week or so I buy a half-liter of the chocolate-coffee blend and we often have a small cup of it in the evening with Kahlua drizzled over. Heaven!!!

There are at least three bakeries on this street, one of which is French and makes the most delectable pan au chocolat, some also stuffed with banana. I'm drooling on the keyboard.

Inside the Mayoreo wholesale candy store.

At the indoor artesanal market, they sell hand-made clothing, beautifully embroidered shirts and soft drawstring pants from Guatemala. They'll tell you everything is made here and by hand, even though much of the thick embroidery is clearly done by machine. And in many of the stalls: traditional sweets. Bees abound in there, drawn by the sugar. Nobody bothers to shoo them away because they don't carry germs like flies. Serenaded by the buzzing, you may linger over crispy fried cookie shells stuffed with white cream or fist sized wads of baked merenge sprinkled with cinnamon. Chunks of squash that appear to be similar in thick rind to pumpkin have been stewed in brown sugar syrup. Dried coconut is blended with sweet goo and stuck together in piles that resemble haystacks. Cookies of every shape, size, and flavor have been coated with decorator icing or slathered in chocolate. Marzipan gets shaped into Mayan gods or animals. White sugar skulls and plaques of sugar painted with Catrinas (day of the dead skeleton people) and lovely crisp cookie layers drenched in honey and cut into rectangles sit next to ratones, those chocolate morsels in the shape of large brown rats.....

Did I forget anything? OMG. Just writing about it gives me a sugar high.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cultural misinformation

The casita is at the back of a property that includes two other apartments and another larger garden. Both places are substantially more expensive and quite a bit lovelier inside. The turnover of renters is frequent, most people stay from two weeks to two months.

When I arrived, the larger apartment housed a couple from England who are on a Round-The-World trip. They left a couple of weeks ago, and a couple from Buffalo, New York are there now. Their names are easy to remember:  Ben and Gerry!!  Neither of them are big fans of ice cream......

They also own a home in San Miguel de Allende. Gerry is a Unitarian, so we had an instantaneous connection as well as some acquaintances in common. Their home is rented until March, so they thought they'd try living somewhere else in Mexico for a while. Neither speak much (or any) Spanish. Gerry came with me to my class and now wants to take a beginner's class from one of the schools. I showed her the free Learn Spanish program on and she loved it. I think she'll make some real progress here as there are so few English speakers....except of course, those of us who rent in the same complex!

Ben and Gerry had been over to the Cinepolis the day before. It's a multi-screen theater in the only indoor shopping center. They wanted to see the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (with subtitles in Spanish). The show was to start at 1:30, so we hiked the 2 miles over to the theater only to find it closed up. No signs or anything...... That should have been my first clue that we are not in the US anymore!!

We asked around and were told it opened at 2:30. But Gerry was certain she'd seen the time inside posted as 1:30. Finally they opened and the girl selling tickets was almost blank when I asked why the theater had been closed. She told me they opened at 2:30, looking at me like I was an idiot. Well, yes, I pointed at the times posted (which clearly showed the movie starting at 1:30) and she continued to look at me blankly. Finally I asked, what happened to the 1:30 show? She said curtly, that's Saturday and Sunday.

Nowhere did any sign say the posted time was for weekends're just supposed to know that I suppose. We shopped at Chedrauhui for a bit and walked back home. If there'd been an early show we might have stayed but the next movie started at 7:40.

Oh well. I got some shopping done and put in a four mile walk. Plus, going there and back I got to know Ben and Gerry. The day was hardly wasted.