Friday, August 26, 2011

fantasy island

Every tourist destination has at least one site where residents groan when visitors suggest a stop.

For Pátzcuaro, it is the lake island of Janitzio.

But it was not just another tourist site to me.  My first glimpse of the island was in one of those So-You-Think-You-Want-To-Move-To-Mexico books I started reading about five years ago.

I was sitting in the hot tub when the book fell open to a photograph of the interior of a boat approaching a dome-shaped island with a large statute perched at its peak.  Janitzio. 

I have always been entranced by islands.  That photograph was a clear siren call to me.  I knew that one day I would live there.

I should also tell you I tend to get my siren calls a bit turned around.  I misled myself as clearly as a reader of a Russian bride catalog.  I thought the island was off the Pacific coast of Mexico -- an error I quickly discovered as I read the text.  But first impressions often remain.

Even though it is not in the ocean, it is one of Lake
Pátzcuaro's major islands.

In the not-so-distant past, it was the center of the lake's white fish industry.  No longer.  White fish, overfishing, and pollution were not a good mix.  At least, for the white fish.  And for the island residents whose lives depended on them.

These fellows now pull out their butterfly nets only for the tourists -- and then request tips.  And that is how the island makes its way in the world.  From day trip tourists willing to part with a few pesos in exchange for an island visit.

On Thursday morning, I was one of those tourists.  I decided it was time for me to face another of my Mexican dreams.  The trip to the island takes about a half hour.  With the goal in sight the entire way.

And a tourist trip it is.  Complete with the usual loud trio of musicians and vendors of photo books and combestibles.

The primary reason tourists come to the island is to climb the statue memorializing one of Mexico's heroes of the Independence movement.  (Because he was a local boy, the people in
Michoacán believe he was the movement.)

To get to the base of the statue, a visitor needs to navigate the height of the island  -- up a series of narrow, steep stairs that would be familiar to any village in Andalucia.

The statue is in the heroic Socialist realism style we have met several times before.  A style that enchanted artists (and some politicians) in the first half of the last century.

In this case, though, the conical style is not merely form.  It actually assists the statue's content -- or lack of content.

The statue is hollow with narrow, steep stairs allowing visitors to climb to the top of Morelos's upraised clenched fist to peek out onto an astonishing view of the lake.  Along the way, murals tell the tale of the hero's life -- and death.

The art helps distract visitors from the fact that the climb is about 120 feet above the crest of the island.  There is only one way up and down, and the quarters get a bit cramped.  Sufferers of either acrophobia or claustrophobia will probably want to give the climb a pass.

From all I heard from local expatriates, I was surprised to discover a well-designed and maintained plaza around the base of the monument.  Peaceful enough to find a perfect spot at one of the local cafes to sit and read.

And perhaps just the place for an outsider to spend the day and enjoy the simple pleasures of island life.  Small island life.

On my way back to the launch, I stopped at the island's church.  I neglected to discover the saint to whom the church is dedicated.  But I know it is a man -- because there is only one bell tower.  And his effigy tops the altar.

The best word for the church is welcoming.  It was one of the best-lit places of worship I have encountered in Mexico.  And the women, whose duty it was on that day to clean and maintain the place, were not the usual Puritan-faced guardians I have encountered elsewhere.  They were laughing, gossiping, smiling.  And enthusiastically acknowledged my nod.

The reflection of the light proved to be a photography problem.  I had difficulty trying to avoid glare.  But whoever the church is dedicated to, he has a definite Mexican look.  The campesino apostle.

My visit to the island was too short to get a full impression.  After all, I only saw what most tourists would see.

I do know it is not the horrible place some expatriates have described.  And it is most likely not the island of my dreams.

But it will be worth another visit.  One of these days.


Felipe Zapata said...

You're a better man than I am. During my first and last trip to Janitzio, I climbed a ways up the incline, got discouraged (hot afternoon) and returned to the dock for a bite to eat at a greasy spoon. Gruesome meal. The island struck me as totally touristy. I never made it to the top, to the statue, to the church. Maybe I should give it one more try. Maybe.

Very nice photos.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

My one visit to Janitzio happened to be on the Feast of Corpus Christi.  As I was walking along all of a sudden a tuba band came around the corner and the women were dancing and flipping the tips of their aprons up. The fishermen were relatively somber.  There were no tourists that day - only my friend and I.  I felt touched to see a group of people enjoying their parade just for themselves.  A great memory

I agree with Felipe, it is not a place to go to eat.

Felipe Zapata said...

Always good to see women flipping their aprons up.

tancho said...

Thank you for your great description and photos. I will include that in my visitors tourist package, since one trip 15 years ago was sufficient to last me several lifetimes.
It is included in my been there done that item list, couple of lines above trouncing in the wet mud in the graveyards during the DoD.

Felipe Zapata said...

Tancho, the Day of the Dead experience can vary widely, depending on a number of factors. Just one visit is not sufficient. And mud is a rarity because the rainy season usually has departed by early November. Not always, of course, but usually. All of which is to say that a Night of the Dead trip to a cemetery can really vary, like a woman's face in the morning.

tancho said...

Yes it can very considerably, the last few times that we have gone to my observation it has been more garish and commercial with teenage kids running around, way too much loud music on the  outskirts of the cemeteries and just a general carnival type atmosphere.  In the smaller cemeteries it is always more solemn, respectful and a better experience, at least in my opinion. 

Felipe Zapata said...

What graveyard are you talking about? Janitzio?

Charles said... looks like there are houses on the island...are there folks who live there full-time?

Don Cuevas said...

Sometimes, Felipe, you can be so flip. 

Saludos, Don Cuevas

tancho said...

tzintzuntzan & tzurumutaro , the double "T's" bunch of wild and crazy guys....

Steve Cotton said...

If I was around longer on this trip, I would go back -- just to see the rest of the island.

Steve Cotton said...

Jennifer says the soup is good in the morning.

Steve Cotton said...

The next time I go, I will take you with me.

Steve Cotton said...

They do, indeed. That is where i got the idea I might want to live there one day.

Ric Hoffman said...

One if by land and two if be sea?  Where do you do your research?

"Two" is an important Christian symbol.  There is the "dual" nature ofChrist as God and man.  If an Orthodox Church has two domes, that iswhat they stand for.  And if a Roman Catholic church has two domes,that is what they stand for.  The symbolism is universal.  No suchuniversal symbolism for towers exists.  If it did, the tradition wouldbe more widespread.If the twin towers does have a symbolism, it must be localized, varyby region, and be fairly recent in origin.The same comparison can be made to all the major symbols ofChristianity.  Those which came about in the earliest church becameuniversal.  So we cannot date any tower symbolism from that time.  Theevidence would be there.Major traditions which came about later, about the time of the GreatSchism, became more localized divided between East and West, but theystill divided the world between them.  A strong twin tower symbolismevolving then would have dominated one or the other.  It didn't.  Sowe cannot date any major tower symbolism from that time.  The evidencewould be there.Even within the western tradition, with the exception of thoseisolated cases where towers were built, we are back to the Saxons. Other than in Saxon England, towers were of little importance in therest of the Christian world.  If they had a significent meaning, theiruse would have been more widespread.  So there was no major towersymbolism involved.  The evidence would be there.So the answer has to stand as is.  Church towers were utilitarian inorigin, whether as watch towers in Saxon England, architecturalinnovations as at Aachan, which also make a political statement, or assimple artistic preference. There is no ancient symbolism attached toChurch towers regardless of their number.Any symbolisms you may find regarding the subject would be ratherrecent in origin and an example of "symbol emerging from utility"rather than symbolism actually driving the original design.

Steve Cotton said...

I do not know if it is true throughout Christendom, but a church with two towers is usually dedicated to a female saint; one to a mail saint. The reason? No idea. I have a guess, though.