Monday, January 26, 2015

skipping to dessert

It's raining.

That is a bit of exaggeration.  It was just a few sprinkles in the morning and throughout the day yesterday. 

But this is January.  At the Mexican beach.  Not what we expect for our tourist visitors.

Of course, we all know why it rained.  Construction is in progress on my house.  Considering the circumstances, I am surprised we were not subjected to a tropical storm.

I am getting into my Sunday rhythm.  Off I went to church to hear a well-developed sermon about Jonah and grudges from Pastor Ron; I almost expected Noah and floods.  Then a breakfast-lunch with my pals Wynn and Lou at Rooster's to catch up on the goings-on during the past month -- and to discuss what I need to get done here before I head north to get my visa for Red China.

That list includes paying my property taxes, water/sewer/garbage fees, and renewing my automobile registration.  There is nothing like paying fees to the government to make you feel part of a community.  I will tell you a little more about that process tomorrow.

I then settled down next to the pool to read Richard Brookhiser while eating a bowel of raspberries.

The Brookhiser piece could not have been more appropriate -- for its mood.

If you live in the woods for a few winters you learn how beautiful that season is.  When the trees are leafless you can appreciate their bark and their bending.  Spring, summer, and fall are fashion shows; winter is a parade of nudes.  Creatures without roots are also worth studying.  Birds sing less but they are seen more; animals leave tracks like sociologists' flow charts.
I, of course, do not live in the woods.  Nor is it winter in Barra de Navidad.  At least, not in the same sense that it is winter in upper New York state.  But the scene Brookhiser set was exactly where my soul was yesterday.

Content.  Nearly complete.

Especially, with the raspberries.  Patty bought them in Ajijic last week.  A large container in which the three of us had put a sizable dent.

They were incredibly good.  But, more importantly, they reminded me of the sweet joy of sharing time with Dan and Patty -- and the bitterness of seeing them go.  It also reminded me to thank Bonnie of Ajijic for her comments in our tour around Lake Chapala.

As I write this, I am listening to Peggy Lee sing jazz while I dine on duck while watching the lights that line our pretty little bay.

Brookhiser says it well: "Outside the stars see everything (or all that they care to see)."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

i got rhythm

After a month on the road, I had mixed feelings about returning to the house with no name.

For a month, I have awakened in a new place -- almost each morning.  And, each day, I really had no idea what I would see or where we would stop next.  It was the epitome of why I moved to Mexico.  To wake up each morning and not know how I was going to get through the day.

As I have said before: it was exhilarating.  Stephen Sondheim summed up the problem of living continually on the highs of moments.

Oh, if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments
Then you'd never know you had one.
Having lived in moments for the full trip, all three of us returned to Barra de Navidad exhausted.  I had hoped that Dan and Patty would stay a couple of days to recuperate -- and for me to enjoy their company.  But they needed to get on the road; they want to spend a few days in Mazatlán.

When we started the trip I thought I knew Dan quite well.  After all, we are cousins.  But sharing grandparents does not automatically mean that we would be compatible traveling partners. 

Dan is a year older than yours truly.  Whenever we visited his family, Dan was my hero.  He knew so much more about life than I did.  I even picked a favorite music style because my Mom told me it was Dan's favorite.  It turns out it wasn't.

We had great fun reminiscing about his chess genius friend; stopping by Portland coffee houses populated with beatniks emerging from their
chrysalides as hippies; joining him on his Oregonian route while his bag full of newspapers cut into my Bandon sunburn from our day at the beach the day before; his brief stay at our house while we cousins (including cousin Dennis) attended college together; and, of course, our respective girlfriends.

But a shared past does not guarantee a peaceful trip.  In this case, though, it did.  After all, Dan is still something of a hero to me.

It turned out all three of us had a thirst for new people and places, and learning as much as we could about what made Mexico tick.  We enjoyed the trip together so much that we are now talking about a trip to Colombia, Patty's original home country.

I would have liked to sleep in yesterday.  But that was not to be.  While I was away, the house generated its periodic chores for me.  Just as the house cleaner arrived, I headed off to the laundress to drop off two weeks worth of soiled clothes; to the post office to pick up my accumulated mail (thanks for the birthday card, Colette); to Rooster's to pick up breakfast to go; to the bank to replenish my depleted wallet; and to the gas station to fill up that pesky slow leak in the rear left tire (the tire I need to get to my favorite tire mechanic before the month is out).

When I returned to the house, Dan and Patty were ready to leave.  When I saw them off, I returned to what passes for a daily routine.  Read the newspapers and my magazines.  Picked up the detritus from the landscaping.

But yesterday included something new for me to do.  While I was away, the former owner (and architect-contractor) of the house with no name had started repairs on my upper terrace.  To fix the leaks that showed up during the rainy season.
One trench was already dug on one side of the terrace; two on the other side.  Over the leaky portions.  The tile was removed and the concrete dug out in an attempt to seal cracks that have allowed water to go where it should not.

The trenches were sealed with a compound, covered by an impermeable membrane, and a second layer of the compound was added.
That is where the project remains.  On Monday, after the compound cures, the worker will return to complete the project.  My entryway currently looks like a tile bazaar.  I look forward to the final product.

For two reasons.  The first is to put an end to the concrete dust that has worked its way into everything in the house.  You can get an idea of its thickness in this photograph.
The second reason is far more personal.  I have the curiosity of an 8-year old boy when it comes to these projects.  I need to know every detail.  And, just like an 8-year old boy, I tend to get in the way.

And I did.  Somehow, I forgot that the first layer of compound had not yet cured.  This is the result of my negligence -- plus a trail of white goo across the terrace tiles.
The worker ran over to help me clean the prints off of the tile.  I told him: it was my error; it is my work.  Now and then, my Puritan side slips out.  I find redemption and rehabilitation in work.

And for dinner?  Papa Gallo's featured veal on its menu last night.  And that is what I had.  Enjoying a huge plate of thick veal while listening to Spanish, French, and English mingle together with a just a whiff of tobacco smoke in the air, and a heavy dose of waves slapping the sand.
I have experienced several magnificent vistas this past month, but nothing really trumped last night's food or ambiance.

It is good to be home. 

For a bit.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

closing the loop

Yesterday was supposed to be a travel day.  But, like so many of our days over the past month, it did not quite turn out that way.  To our profit.

Instead of loading everything into the truck, we decided to take a walk through Ajijic village -- and on to the malecon along the lake.  As I mentioned yesterday in my essay and in the accompanying comments, I was pleasantly surprised with the physical layout of the villages along the lake.  Especially, Ajijic.

The village has a lot of what I would expect from my readings.

A village plaza -- with a certain flair that says "there be Gringos here."  That is it at the top of this essay.

Or this bit of sculptural charm added to the side of a lake-front building.  I am still a bit baffled by the presence of a manatee on a Lake Chapala frieze.

Or the short malecon itself that could just have easily been in San Diego -- and there is nothing wrong with that.

But the village had sights I would not have anticipated.  If the place is a Gringo Ghetto -- as some of its detractors claim -- why would there be a skateboard park in the midst of the lake walkway?

How would you otherwise account for the number of decaying buildings along the highway that stretches around the lake?  The place does not have the neurotic air that things are out of place and must be fixed that one associates with northern expatriates.

Instead, I found a place for which the word "charming" is particularly designed.  What I did not discover is how the social fabric of the community works.  My experience in Melaque and San Miguel de Allende is that whenever a group of expatriates gather together, some rather odd anthropological faults appear in the social structure.  But I cannot comment on what I have not experienced.

I once considered spending the winters in Melaque and summers in Ajijic (or Guadalajara).  That notion was spiked when I decided to buy a house in Barra de Navidad.  But Ajijic is certainly a place I would consider for a sojourn of one or two weeks.

When the three of us gathered ourselves together, we headed down the mountain through Jocotepec (worthy of another visit) to Colima for lunch, and on to Barra de Navidad to put another sun to bed.

There was something kinetically disorganized about the mixture of clouds and light last night.  It could have been a late Braque.  Or the current state of my mind.

I must confess I feel a bit let down to be back at the house.  Getting up each morning with very little idea of where we would be going has been exhilarating.  As well as a little exhausting.

Over the next few days I hope to add some additional thoughts and photographs about the trip. 

At some point (very soon), I will sadly say good-bye to Dan and Patty, who have proven to be boon traveling companions.  There are not many people who you can spend a month with in the tight cab of a pickup.  But we did.  And we are all the better for it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

this ain't scottsdale

Back during my years as an attorney (when the earth's crust had begun to cool), I would tell people at work I was thinking about retiring to Mexico.

The usual question was: "Oh!  Are you moving to Lake Chapala?  I understand that is where all the Americans go."

It was an interesting question because I never once thought about moving there.  Somewhere along the line in my reading, I had come to the conclusion that Chapala was merely Scottsdale re-located south of Guadalajara.

It was a prejudice.  One I had garnered from reading descriptions of the bountiful life led by retirees beside the lake.  A life filed with morning walks, lunches by the lake with fellow expatriates, ready shopping at big box stores, and the occasional community theater. 

Most of the descriptions were written by real estate agents who made life on the lake sound about as interesting as waiting for death in a doctor's reception room.

So, the answer to the Chapala question was always:  "Not on your life."

Dan asked me yesterday if I was interested in driving to Lake Chapala.  I have done a lot of re-thinking about the place since I moved down.  "Sure," I responded.  But not until we had a chance to see Guadalajara in the daylight.

You may recall Thursday's post that included a photograph of Guadalajara's cathedral at night.  The photograph at the top of this essay is from the same angle in daylight.

Like many buildings, this one looks better at night.  Those steeples (that look disturbingly like a Lady Gaga bra) throw off the proportions of an otherwise architecturally-interesting building.  It should come as no surprise that even though the current cathedral was completed in 1618, the steeples were a later addition following an earthquake in 1849.  In a completely different style than the rest of the building.

The view is from Independence Plaza.  As you might expect from the name, the plaza is dominated by a large statute of one of the early martyrs of the independence movement -- Miguel Hidalgo.

In an attempt to portray Hidalgo as an advocate of independence, artists often leave him looking as if he had just crossed the line from passion into madness.  Or maybe it is his reaction to being reduced to a roost for pigeons.

But there was another reason I wanted Dan and Patty to see the statue.  There is a far more interesting portrayal of Hidalgo in town -- as the central figure of a mural painted in the main stairwell of the Jalisco Governmental Palace.

We have discussed this work before (on the road to guadalajara) -- when Kim and I visited Guadalajara's sights last August.

The painting is by José Clemente Orozco.  One of the giants of the Mexican muralist movement.

He captures Hidalgo as a righteous prophet meting out God's justice on a sinful world.  The portrayal has a nodding resemblance to Hidalgo's historical life and personality.

As interesting as the central Hidalgo figure is, I have always found Orozco's panel to the right of Hidalgo to be far more interesting.

Even though Orozco was a life-time supporter of social justice for workers and peasants, he was saddened by the violence of the Mexican Revolution.  His portrayal of Hidalgo's torch as a harbinger of freedom can just as easily be interpreted as Hidalgo's flame of violence offering succor to the forces of communism and fascism.

Orozco was one of the few artists who was brave enough to argue that fascism and communism are the same evil -- political structures that offer no better hope for the common man.  That is why I find the panel so powerful.  I have seldom seen that truth portrayed as well as it is in the government palace.  (That alone is an ironic layer.)

As interesting as Orozco is, we had other fish to fry -- at Lake Chapala.

Heading south from Guadalajara, the highway starts to climb over hills.  The road gets steeper until the the lake with its restraining mountains unfolds.  All in one view.

From a distance the lake is stunning.  On its shore, it looks a bit like an aging dowager whose makeup no longer covers certain short-comings.  In the case of the lake, its color gives away its less-than-thriving life.

But that is a quibble.  The walk along the lake in the town of Chabala is charming enough.  The big selling point is its claim of year-round spring weather.  It was certainly true during our visit.

From the realtors' propaganda, I expected to be inundated with "active seniors" enjoying the "next chapter of their lives."  We saw no such thing.  There were a few tourists at restaurants along the lake.  But not in the numbers I anticipated.

When Marc Olson and I met in San Miguel de Allende a couple of years ago, he mentioned that he was surprised to hear so little English there -- a town well known for its American "art colony."  I had the same fear in Chapala.

I thought we would be greeted in English in shops and restaurants.  I was wrong.  Everywhere we stopped, Spanish was the currency of commerce.  As well it should be.

The Lake Chapala area offers several things I do not have available in Melaque.  Immediate medical care being the most obvious.

What it does not have is an ocean.  The lake is not really an adequate substitute for me.  But for many, it does quite nicely.

For a number of reasons, we did not see much of our next stop: Ajijic -- where we are staying the night in the second most charming room (for me) of this trip.

We will see what treasures we find on our way down the Sierra Madres Sur later today.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

land of contrasts

Mexico has taught us the lesson over and over this past month.  Mexico is not one country; it is a multitude of countries wrapped in one big serape.

The three of us commented several times on our drive yesterday from Atlacomulco to Guadalajara that a traveler could spend a lifetime trying to see everything Mexico has to offer. 

The words were still hanging in the air when we encountered a new experience.  A political road block.

The people who live in the state of Michoacán are far too familiar with the drill.  A group of teaching college teachers and their students board commandeered buses or set off in cars to congregate at some busy intersection where they hold traffic hostage to ideas they cannot otherwise convince people to adopt.  And, I suspect, build more political enemies than friends.

This particular "protest" was on the toll road just north of Morelia.  The protesters had liberated the toll booth and forced all traffic to stop to honor 15 minutes of "justice." 

To reward our participation in their otherwise meaningless act, we were allowed to proceed without paying a toll.  In other words, we were asked to show solidarity for the theft of our time and the theft of revenue from the company that runs the toll roads.

This little bit of street theater nonsense was played out at three toll booths along our route.  I am not the least bit sympathetic to the vested interests of teachers who are opposing any reform that will require them to -- well, teach -- rather than to agitate.

At the second toll booth, federal police had stopped a driver of an SUV for a traffic violation.  In the background, the police ignored the protesters.  I would call it ironic.  But that would give the absurdity of it all far too much credit.

In contrast, further down the road, I caught this shot of a fisherman on Lake Cuitzeo.

Due to a heavy mist, the lake looked as if it had been painted on a Japanese screen.  The lake.  The egrets.  The reeds.  The fisherman.  All added to the Oriental motif.

It was certainly a contrast to the protest louts.

But the contrasts did not end there.  Our first stop in Guadalajara was
Tlaquepaque.  Once a town unto itself, it has been absorbed by the Guadalajara Borg.  But, like most absorbed towns, it has retained a character of its own.

Part of that is due to its heritage as an artists' village.  Admittedly, the image has been diminished a bit by the number of vendor stalls selling popular versions of fine goods.

I am not being critical here.  I know plenty of people who have furnished their homes with pottery and glassware from these stalls.

But the artists in town offer much more.  And our visit gave me some idea for my new house -- the house with no name.

Take this horse, for example.

The simple (almost Chinese) lines and witty representation would fit in well with Ed Gilliam's paintings in what will soon be my dining pavilion.  That is, if I ever buy a dining table, rather than filling the place with art.

And for the living room pavilion, I thought this Sergio Bustamante piece would fit right in.

As some of you know, I am very fond of Octavio Paz's allegorical use of masks to describe the Mexican personality.  Matching philosophy and the plastic arts is difficult.  But Bustamante has the touch.

Patty came to
Tlaquepaque with one primary mission.  To hear mariachi music.

We had been told they performed in a large restaurant surrounding a gazebo.  They do.  But not yesterday.  That left us with the unsettling option that the only mariachi we would bag were portrayed in this sculpture.

But life has a way of handing out contradictions.  While art browsing, we stumbled upon the sounds of mariachi music coming from a restaurant.  So, in we went.

You probably have a favorite place where you eat and find entertainment.  There is something in the atmosphere that makes it inviting.  Something that cannot be easily analyzed.

The Patio was one of those places.  The big surprise was the sex of the mariachis.  They were all women -- in an historically man's world.  And they were good.  Really good.

We did not stop our search, though.  We are staying in a hotel in the central area of Guadalajara.  The desk clerk told us that the mariachi perform in an alleyway a few blocks away.

Indeed, when we arrived, there were mariachi.  Sullingly milling about.  Some eating.  Some chatting.  But none singing.

But, remember, it was a day of contradictions.  We settled for snapping photographs of ourselves looking very festive.

And a bit goofy.

Who says I never publish photographs of myself?

At the end of the day, we may not have found everything we were looking for in life.  But we certainly learned to live in the moment offered to us.  For such a fun day, that was joy enough for us.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

get me to the church two times

Jennifer commented yesterday: "But you're spending less time in each venue than a fully escorted tour group would.  If it's Wednesday, this must be Cholula?"

She is correct.  But there is a method to our traveling.  We wanted to see as much of Mexico as we could on this trip.  To do that, we have not indulged in the usual culture vulture routine of stuffing as many sights as possible into each stop.

Instead, we usually pick one or two places that interest the three of us, and we focus our time there.  Yesterday it was churches.  Or, two churches to be more precise.

The first was in Puebla -- the Church of Santo Domingo.  I had searched for it on Monday, but it was closed when I found it.  So, the three of us returned yesterday morning.

The church itself is a rather odd combination of styles.  It is a former monastery, and the chapels along the nave show that.  They are simple.  Almost austere.

The chapels at the front of the church and the altar are superb -- with gilded wood carvings.  But it was not the church we had come to see.  We were interested in a chapel to the left of the main altar.

And not just any chapel.  When I rounded the corner, it took my breath away.  That is not merely an old metaphor.  I literally gasped.

It was the Chapel of the Rosario -- one of Puebla's most popular stops for travelers and believers.  My eye was immediately drawn to the rectangular altar at the front of the chapel.

The fact that the place is covered in gold leaf has an immediate impact on the eye.  But it is what the gold is covering that makes it such a special place.  For instance, this dome.  The detail is beautiful.

But the detail is more than merely interesting.  The details are the place.  And part of that mystery is found in the chapel's name -- rosary.

The small room is filled with more symbolism than a Dan Brown novel.  Take these angel heads that encircle both sides of the chapel.  Each face is each separated by a tile with a round shape.

On its face, it all looks quite lovely.  Customized figures topping a base of talavera tile.

But, like most art, there is a fuller meaning beneath the surface.  Each of the linear tiles represents a bead of the rosary. 

Similarly, the figures in the dome represent the various natures of the holy spirit.  If you look carefully at the figures, you will see that they perpetuate the santa sophia myth dressed up as orthodox Catholic theology.  At one point, artists were burned for such heresy.

The place is also filed with whimsy -- such as this figure and her colleagues who hide in the picture frames.

The chapel was originally built in the seventeenth century and underwent a major restoration in the 1960s and 1970s.

I have seen many gilded chapels over the years, but this one may top my list.  The guide books were correct.  It was not a stop to be missed.

Nor was the second church on our Tuesday tour -- Our Lady of the Remedies Church in Cholula.

When our buddy Hernán Cortés showed up in Cholula during his conquest days, he declared it to be the loveliest city in the world -- outside of Spain.  He was probably wrong about the qualifier.  Cholula was known throughout Mesoamerica for its size and beauty.  At its height, the city may have had 100,000 inhabitants.

In the center of the city was the Great Pyramid.  (Now, we all know the Mesoamerican structures called pyramids were nothing of the sort.  They were foundations for other buildings, such as temples.  But that is what we are going to call it.)

At the time, it was (and is) the largest pyramidal structure in the world.  Even though the pyramid was disused and partially overgrown with plants when he arrived, it is easy to see why Cortés was so impressed.

He was less impressed with the leaders of Cholula.  Believing they were going to attack and kill him and his men, he called the Indian leaders to a meeting, where his soldiers murdered up to six thousand.

The Indians had worshiped their rain goddess on the heights of the pyramid.  The Spanish saw an opportunity to usurp that worship by turning the pyramid into a base for a church to the virgin Mary -- in her guise as Our Lady of the Remedies.

And usurp they did.  The first sanctuary was built in 1594.  But it has been replaced by several successive churches.  The current version was built in the 1800s. 

Photography is prohibited inside.  But here is a peek.  Completed with tracer lights on the altar.

To my untrained eye, it looks less like a sanctuary than a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

We did not visit the small portion of the pyramid that has been uncovered and reconstructed.   But it was possible to see the base from the church side -- as well as the large complex that surrounded the structure in its heyday.

The best way to see the size of the pyramid is to view it from the town.  It is as omnipresent as the Eiffel tower is in Paris.

With a bit of daylight to burn, we headed off on the next leg of our trip.  Guanajuato is now off of the non-existent list. 

Instead, we headed to Guadalajara, and made it to the unremarkable town of Atlacomulco -- northwest of Mexico City.

I suspect we will stay in Guadalajara a couple of days before we close our travel loop in Barra de Navidad.  That is, I will close the loop.  Dan and Patty will be heading north after a couple of days of rest.

But, there I go rushing the process.  There is still plenty to see in Jalisco.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

my favorite mexico city -- so far

We have entered the world where Cinco de Mayo is more than just an excuse to drink beer.

Yesterday we drove over from Xalapa to Puebla through countryside that was constantly changing.  That is what happens when you climb thousands of feet in altitude.

Puebla is a land that celebrates its history as one of the few instances where Mexican valor defeated foreign forces (in this case, defeating the French in 1862; in The States it is an excuse to celebrate intoxication). 

We did not drive out to the forts to review the site of the glorious Mexican victory.  We were content to see that bravery immobilized in street signs.

But we did spend a good deal of time wandering around in the main square of the city -- conveniently named the zocalo in honor of of the square in Mexico City.

Puebla has turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Mexico.  I suspect that discloses a certain prejudice.  The town square could be almost anywhere in Italy or Spain -- with the exception of the distinctive obelisk decorations on the cathedral.  More than once I thought I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Europe.

Speaking of Europe, I know that Porfirio Diaz and his gang were very fond of French Positivism and French styles, but can anyone tell me why these Welsh dragons keep showing up on lamp posts and gazebos from the early twenthieth century?  It makes no sense to me.

Patty, Dan, and I wandered off into one of Pubela's many pottery markets.

The city is famous for its colorful pottery designs it copied from Talavera in Spain and its blue and white pottery it copied from Chinese imports brought across the Pacific on the Manila galleon.

Both are prevalent here.  Ironically, some of what passes for local pottery was manufactured in China.  That is only fair since local artisans copied the blue and white pottery designs from Chinese originals.  Global trade does have a way of evening out the mountains and valleys.

While wandering through one of the shops selling a better quality of pottery, I conjured up an interesting idea for the new house.  Even though Talavera pottery is not very compatible with the contemporary lines of my house, I considered commissioning a set of dishes containing the colors of the paintings in my proposed dining area.  That just may work out. 

I need to investigate a little bit more.  But the dealer ensured me that the artisans could produce traditional dinnerware in contemporary colors for twelve.  All for a "good price."

It is worth looking into.  After all, a return trip to Puebla would certainly be a nice diversion.

After wandering through Puebla, we spent the evening with Patty's niece from Colombia who is doing missionary work in Mexico.  It was a perfect evening of family bonding.  Cousin to cousin.  Aunt to niece.

Tomorrow?  Who knows?  Puebla?  Cholula?  Guanajuato?  Your dart board is as good as ours.