Monday, February 28, 2011

snows of guadalajara

So, there I am.

Sitting in a Burger King at the Guadalajara airport with the not unreasonable expectation that I would enjoy a quiet meal. 

(Yeah.  Yeah.  I know.  Quiet Meal.  Airport.  Mexico.  Not a great expectation.)

Our Lady of the Malt Vinegar had fallen into a petulant (but silent) mood.  But, just like a well-directed version of Our Town, the next cast member entered just as the smiling employee left the stage.

With a polite "¿Con permiso?," he sat down across from me in my booth.  I thought it a bit odd.  There were plenty of empty booths and tables.  But I am never above meeting someone new.

He was one of those middle people.  Middle age.  Struggling middle class.  Medium height.   That was my five second appraisal.

I was fully prepared for the "I'm stranded in the airport" story.  That is what all of the elements looked like to me.  And it was starting to look like a very boring play.  I was really hoping for something original.

Sometimes our wishes come true in spades -- and hearts.

We went through the usual pleasantries .  Nice day.  Beautiful airport.  Mediocre Burger King food.  All in Spanish.  I was rather proud of myself.

While we were talking, at least three other people in the airport greeted him -- as if he were a fixture.

When he reached for a folder sitting next to him, I thought I knew why they knew him.  I anticipated the next item to appear on the table would be a copy of The Watchtower.

I was wrong.  It was a California title for a late model pickup.  He looked up at me expectantly.  I looked back -- confused.

He said he was trying to get the truck registered in Mexico, but he had no luck for the last six months.

I had no idea where his tale was headed, but I could see the peso notes stacking in his eyes as he readied the next round of Bluff the Gringo.  So, I cut the dance short by choosing not to be able to understand even the most rudimentary Spanish words.  A technique I find useful with Mexican policemen and military checkpoints.  Polite, but ignorant.

He must have decided I was too slow to pick up on the intricacies of whatever financial transaction he had in mind.  Away went the folder.

He then asked me a question (that I honestly did not understand) while repeatedly brushing his collar as if he were a third base coach.  He lost me on the entire exchange.

But I saw his hand move under the table.  In the upturned palm of his right hand was a small cellophane wad enclosing some form of white powder.

I looked up at him, started laughing loudly, and said: "You've got to be kidding."  Both the hand and Señor Middle disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

I may be an advocate for the legalization of drugs, but I am not a user.  Never have been.  I do enough stupid things in life without getting involved with that silliness.

In 2001 I visited Vietnam.  While walking through the market in Da Nang, what looked like Marshal Ky's emaciated doppelganger hobbled up to me -- and hissed: "Want some marijuana?"  The last word pronounced as if it had between eight and ten syllables.

Some things have the distinct odor of police involvement.  And I had no desire to be part of either of those two events.

But the curtain was not yet ready to come down on this Thornton Wilderish layover.

There was still one act to unfold.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

polling the wit

Yesterday’s post caused most of you who commented to chuckle.  But not everyone.

A reader was a bit put out at me for -- .  Well, rather than paraphrasing (and running the danger of skewing the point), let her speak for herself.

”Why would you think it's funny for one person to call another person a fat cow? Yes, the woman behaved badly - but being unkind in response does nothing but create more ugliness. Seriously.....we have quite enough of that.”

It is a point not easily dismissed.  A fellow blogger and I spent part of an afternoon recently discussing the tendency on blogs (especially in comments) for people to indulge in some rather nasty name-calling.

Not the witty banter one would find at an Algonquin Round Table.  You never hear things like: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

Instead, the verbal equivalent of a medieval mace clutters the internet.  “Stupid.”  “Dolt.”  “Racist.”  “Fascist.”  All of them designed to merely terminate civil intercourse.

So, I stand in the dock accused of being – “unfunny,” “unkind,” “ugly”?  I am not quite certain.  But it is my blog so I will appeal to the dear readers to render a verdict.

There are two questions.  You will find them posted rather inconspicuously to the right.

The first is: what should I have done about the waitress?  Turned her in to see her get fired -- or sat there enjoying the performance (which is what I did)?

The second question involves my next two posts.  My stay at the airport offered up a wealth of stories.  I have chosen two more to share.  But I will warn you.  They have witty twists.  And I do not want to offend any sensitive souls out there.  The majority will prevail.

Your second vote will be on whether to spike the next two stories or to allow liberty to ring throughout the land.  (I didn’t spend my life as a lawyer for nuttin’.)

The poll will have a brief (but fulfilling) life.  So, get your vote in fast.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

cow lips

Someone once said life is about the journey, not the destination.

That is not only good theology, it is also good travel advice.

My two prior tours to Guanjuato and Morelia were bus tours.  Not so the trip to Mexico City.  As pleasant as the bus was, it would have been a brutal ride all the way to the capital.

Instead, we took a bus to Guadalajara and flew from there.

With the exception of the Manzanillo airport (which is the equivalent of a regional airport), I have not been in a Mexican airport since the turn of the millennium.

And I was pleasantly surprised.  The Guadalajara airport is sleek and efficient.  Almost germanically sparkling.  With nearly every food offering you could find at the Dallas airport -- and some of the same.

I must have been in a retro mode because I decided to refuel at Burger King.  Who knows why?  Maybe it was the memory of the only time I would stop at Burger King in Salem -- when I took Jiggs to the veterinarian.

Now and then, it is as if life decides to amuse us with a play.  In Guadalajara, it decided on a three-act playlet.

I barely sat down when it began.  A smiling young Burger King employee came on stage delivering an order to a woman of a certain age sitting two tables away from me.

In an English accent (somewhere near Sussex, I would surmise), the customer abruptly said:  "Vinegar."

The Burger King employee answered politely in Spanish:  "No, señora."

English Woman:  "I didn't ask a question.  I want vinegar."

BK:  "No, señora."

EW:  "You don't have vinegar?"

BK:  "No, señora."

EW:  "Certainly you have malt vinegar."  [Perhaps thinking that if an entire category is not available that a subcategory might be.]

BK: "No, señora."

EW: "Intolerable. The Burger King at home has malt vinegar. Are you certain?" [With rising exasperation.]

BK: "Si, señora, vaca gorda."  [Delivered quickly, but with the same smile she had worn throughout the encounter.]

It was like watching Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude appear in human form.  The Mexican smile covering resentment of the irrational demands of the powerful -- but with a well-aimed dart at the center. 

I suspect the Burger King employee had no idea by using "fat cow" she had chosen the very term that will deflate or madden any English woman ahoof.

I felt like jumping to my feet and giving her an ovation.  A first rate performance.

People sometimes wonder how places such as Egypt and Tunisia can erupt so quickly and overthrow their rulers.

The answer is easy.  Many people throughout the world are forced to wear similar masks.  And, sometimes, the masks crack.

But tourists will continue to make stupid comments.  The Mexican smiles will go on.  And the tourists will go home telling tales of how the Mexican people are so happy with their lot.  (Well, maybe not the English Impatient.)

And, as long as all that keeps happening, this blog will live forever.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

sounding the cannons

I have spent the day trying to put together my thoughts on the Mexico City trip.  But to no avail.

On our second to last day in the city, I came down with a nasty case of what doctors euphemistically call "intestinal disorder."  Without going into detail (because Beth Smith and Nancy Miller will have a fit if I even hint at the D word), let's just say that it sounded as if I were auditioning as the specialty percussionist to perform the Overture of 1812 -- from both ends.

I have been able to keep food down the last two days, but it disappears just as fast.  That makes trying to concentrate on writing more than difficult.

More than once I have dreamed of having some mild illness that would keep me house-ridden.  I could then do as much writing and reading as my heart desired.

It has not turned out that way.  I am dehydrated enough at most times that focusing to read is even an issue.  My doctor has me on a series of pills.

To let you know just how bored I am getting, I put Star Wars: The Phantom Menace  (the 1999 release that heralded the decline of the Star Wars epic) on the DVD.  I needed to get some sleep, and I knew it would work.  Its script (written for fourth graders) put me to sleep in the theater -- and it worked again.  But this time I slept for 14 hours.

As soon as I am not losing all of liquids through the incorrect exit, I will be back.  And I hope that is soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

mural, mural on the wall

Now and then I see a piece of art that connects with me.

The first time I saw a plate of my favorite art piece -- Donatello's Mary Magdalene -- I knew I had to see it in person. And I can still remember how awed I was when I saw it in Florence.

Juan O'Gorman's work is definitely not in that category. But there was something that connected with me when I saw his mural of the history of Michoacán in the Gertrudis Bocanega Library.

Mexican muralism is world famous. Mostly through the work of Diego Rivera, a man who may have had talent but failed to prove it as a lackey to political power.

O'Gorman's mural covers the full north wall of the former church that serves as Pátzcuaro's public library. The space needed to be monumental because the subject is the full history Michoacán's history from creation to 1917 -- with two anachronistic touches from the 1940s.

It is easy to guess the artist's politics. The piece is set up in an Hegelian dialectic -- with thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And it is painted in blatant Socialist Realism -- admittedly with a Mexican touch. If that leads you to the conclusion he was a red, you would be correct.

O'Gorman is an interesting guy. Trained as an architect, he tried his hand at several monumental murals.

His Marxism screams out in his work -- like most of the Mexican muralists.   Well, maybe not as bad as Diego Rivera with his idolization of Marx and Trotsky. 

But he was also a humanist. And, I suspect, a bit of a libertarian at heart.

The mural is divided into three distinct horizontal bands reflecting the historical determinism of chaos to revolution.

The top band is merely an introduction reflecting the chaos of creation.

You won't find Michelangelo's God composing an orderly earth. O'Gorman's state of nature is far more Hobbesian -- all blustering volcanoes and destructive lava.

The first historical band (the thesis) shows the arrival of the P'urhépecha.

As a communist, O'Gorman is not a sentimentalist. Unlike many of my expatriate friends, who believe the Americas were a place of utopian harmony before the Europeans arrived and ruined everything.

O'Gorman does slip into a bit of Rousseuian "noble savage" imagery. We see family groups cavorting with imps. Women dancing naked before their god. And other women lolling beside a pool -- with an obvious tip of the beret to Gaugin.

He even shows the barbarity of tribal life by depicting in graphic detail the mass execution of Aztec warriors taken in battle. The P'urhépecha were determined to survive. And to do that, they needed to be as cruel as their neighbors.

 And, because this is a tale of political power, he depicts the first P'urhépecha emperor, Taríacuri, as a proto-Marxist hero, uniting the various villages into what would be one of Mesoamerica's great empires.

But historical determinism cannot stop with such a flawed character. Thus arrives the antithesis (in band two) -- the invasion of the Spanish. Because this is the history of Michoacán, the invasion means the arrival of Nuño de Guzmán.

And here O'Gorman slips into comic book reductionism. (Of course, no story is good without the arrival of pure evil.)

We have already met the Spanish commander who is still loathed by locals. Thus, O'Gorman could feel free to portray him as a beast with fangs -- because that is exactly how Nuño de Guzmán saw the Indians.

There is no glory of humanity in this land. Only torture and murder.

And we can see a little bit of O'Gorman's political view of his own time.

At the far right in the antithesis band appears a familiar face from the 1930s and 1940s. Small moustache. Swooped hair. Roman salute. Brown shirt. It is the unmistakable visage of a creature equally as evil as Nuño de Guzmán -- Adolf Hitler.

Of course, this was after Hitler had betrayed Stalin in their anti-aggression treaty when they divvied up Poland between them. Only one party to that dirty deal appears on the wall.

Being a Hegelian, O'Gorman must resolve the conflict between the thesis and antithesis with a synthesis. And that he does in the third historical band.

At the far left, the Franciscans arrive with Christianity and charity. But that does not improve the material lot of the Indians.

The next panel is of the local savior, our old friend Don Vasco. With Thomas More whispering in his ear, he brings crafts and trades to the P'urhépecha.

But O'Gorman could not let a Jesuit lawyer stand as the ultimate hero. After all, Don Vasco stood for Spanish colonialism as much as Nuño de Guzmán.

O'Gorman's coda is symbolised by Jose Maria Morelos, leading the Independence movement, and Emilio Zapata, bringing land reform to Mexico through the Revolution.

The drawing in the mural can be pedestrian. But the mural, as a whole, has a humane quality missing in much Mexican muralism.

There is one additional piece I cannot pass up. Most red art reduces the artist to a mere tool -- the method to convey the "truth" of the class struggle. Not so this piece.

 O'Gorman's personality is everywhere. And not just in his choice of sinners and saints.

If you look at the lower left side of the mural, you will find a modern-dressed couple -- O'Gorman and his wife (who looks jarringly like Eva Peron).

That type of individuality would have got him shot in most communist countries. Not to mention his failure to show the ultimate historical inevitability of the Revolution and its creation of the workers' utopia.

Is it a perfect piece of art? Of course, not. In places it can be as two-dimensional as a DC Comic. But it caught my interest and made me think.

What artist could wish any more for his work? To get a libertarian to at least listen to a rather eccentric communist.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

street faith

Yesterday I mentioned I visited the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud, the church Don Vasco built for his flock in Pátzcuaro.

The man was not just a social planner.  He had big plans for the political and religious life of Pátzcuaro.  Including a big cathedral.  After all, he was the bishop.

It didn't happen.  After he died, the bishopric was snatched away to Morelia, and Don Vasco's massive five nave cathedral never got past the stage of being a one-nave parish church.

But its architecture did not interest me as much as two other reasons.

The first was Don Vasco himself. 

The bishop's remains are buried there in a plain tomb -- and worshipers still bring flowers in his memory.  The man is bigger than Juarez or Zapata in these parts.  Considering what we know of him, that devotion is understandable.

The second reason is more personal.  I try to attend church services during my travels.  After all, that is why the buildings were constructed.  Not just for half-naked tourists to traipse through.

In Protestant countries that is a bit problematic.  They usually have services only one day a week, and, in Europe, those services are attended by a demoralizing small number of congregants -- to the point where services are often held in corners of massive churches.

Not so in Mexico.  Mass is celebrated each day -- often several times a day.  It is the Burger King of churches.

I stopped at the basilica on my morning walk.  Mass had just begun.  So, I sat and participated to the best of my ability. 

Meaning, I just sat.  I am not Catholic and I do not speak Spanish well enough to fully participate in the service.  Nor am I convinced that Benedict XVI would have approved of me taking an active role.  That left me feeling a bit like George Spelvin in The Actor's Nightmare.

When mass was completed, I looked around the church, and left in front of a middle-aged woman.  As she came out of the church, into the Pátzcuaro morning, she began singing.

Not loud.  More like a conversational tone.  I know enough Spanish to recognize she was singing about God and love.

In The States, people would most likely have stared and wondered what was wrong with the woman.  The eccentric tends to attract reactions like that.

Not in Pátzcuaro.  People greeted her.  She greeted them and kept on walking down the hill as she sang of God's love.

I don't know about her mental state.  Maybe she was a bit slow.

What I do know is that she had the sincerity of someone who lived with the comforting knowledge of what she sang.

And I thought that was a darn good way for anyone to start the day.

Monday, February 21, 2011

searching for pátzcuaro

Don Vasco succeeded beyond his fondest dreams.

He wanted to create a P'urhépecha society where the Indians could support themselves.  If he could walk the morning streets of Pátzcuaro these days, his Jesuit lawyer heart would swell.

It seems as if everyone in Pátzcuaro is selling something.  Fruits.  Vegetables.  Fish.  Chicken.  Things I have never seen before and I have no idea what I would do with.

It is all there.  Just begging to be photographed by a tourist -- or, better yet, purchased and consumed by a local citizen.  After all, Don Vasco did not set out to set up a tourist town.  He was interested in commerce and self-sufficiency.

Don Vasco did not succeed in creating More's Utopia, but he came awfully close to forming a branch of the Adam Smith in Action Club.

And I almost missed all of it.

We pulled into Pátzcuaro in the afternoon and jumped into a brief walking tour of the town's historical highlights.

The historical area is quite compact.  There are two plazas.  The largest (Plaza Grande) is presided over by a statue of Don Vasco.  The smaller square (Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra) is named in honor of a local independence heroine.

Both plazas give the town a sense of Spanish order and tranquility.  Even though they each have their individual personalities, they were filled with people living their lives. 

No bustle like Morelia.  No self-important preening like Guanajuato.  Just country folk getting on with the day.

Pátzcuaro, like every Mexican town, has its usual array of churches.  And there is nothing special about any of them (with one exception).  What is unusual in Pátzcuaro is that there are no churches on the main plaza.  Most Mexican towns place their major church in a place of prominence on the town square.

Not Pátzcuaro.  Apparently, that was another Don Vasco innovation.  He wanted the church to be somewhere other than near the secular power of the city to draw a line between his work and the evil of Nuño de Guzman.

That sounds very romantic.  But I have doubts about its accuracy.  After all, the same Don Vasco ordered a chapel to be built where the last leader of the P'urhépecha knelt in humiliation to the Spanish conquerors.

Pátzcuaro's greatest visual attraction is not its monuments.  After it lost its attempt to be the area capital, it fell back into being a sleepy Indian-colonial town.  The most obvious proof of that are the buildings.  Mostly made of wood and adobe with tiled roofs.

But, it does have its stories.  One of the most romantic is the story of Gertrudis Bocanegra.  She was one of those heroines who pop up in national histories.  Joan of Arc.  Boudica.  Molly Pitcher.

As a supporter of independence from Spain, she provided two sons to the effort who died in the cause.  She continued to support the movement until a friend betrayed her efforts to the Spanish, who then shot her in the Plaza Grande, and left her body to the flies for a full day.

Instead of acting as a warning to others, her bravery inspired the rebels.  Proving that arrogance cannot trump liberty.

She is now honored not only by having her name on the square, but also having the public library named after her.  The library is a converted church.  And there is nothing special about it -- except for the rear wall.  And I will write about that in a separate post.

All of that was interesting.  But it still did not give me a feel for Pátzcuaro's soul.  I had a good feel for what the town had been, but not what it was today.

I got up early the next morning to climb up to a viewpoint, recommended by our guide, to watch the sun rise over the town. 

A fellow blogger often writes about the light of Pátzcuaro.  And he is correct to do so.  Watching the dawn creep over the town bit by bit was better than a Broadway show.

I then decided to see the one church in Pátzcuaro that is unique -- the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud.  Don Vasco had great plans for the church.  It was going to be his cathedral.  A massive structure with five naves that would proclaim the glory of God.

Those building plans never quite worked out the way he wanted.  The bishopric was moved to Morelia, and the church in Pátzcuaro was left with only one nave.  But it is surrounded by Don Vasco's labors -- stalls where Indians sell their handicrafts.

I attended mass out of curiosity, and then walked down the hill.  I had noticed a church at the end of the street that I wanted to see.  But I never got inside the doors.  Because I discovered what I had been looking for -- the soul of Pátzcuaro.

Just outside the church gate were the merchants I mentioned at the start of this post.  The market stretched for blocks and was crowded with early morning shoppers.

Those of you who live in the Mexican highlands are accustomed to this kind of thing.  We coastal yokels have nothing like it.

Instead of our cull fruit and vegetables, the merchandise on sale was plump and fresh -- and offered the appearance of choice.

I came to Pátzcuaro thinking it might be a good place to spend part of my summer.  After all, it was near the top of my list for places to live in Mexico.

If I had any doubts they disappeared when I had cafecitos with the light-poet of Pátzcuaro, "Felipe Zapata."

For all of his protestations of not being a very social fellow, "Felipe" is the type of company you look for to share a cup of Joe.  Well-read.  Better-spoken,  And intelligently frank.  He managed to put up with my ramblings.

When I decided to move to Mexico, I made the amateur mistake of wasting my time looking only for climate and infrastructure that would please me.  "Felipe" and Jennifer Rose have reminded me that nothing trumps relationships -- relationships with the soul of a town and with its inhabitants.

And I think I could have a summer fling relationship with Pátzcuaro.

Note -- The photograph at the top of the post is not mine.  It is the work of my pal Kim G. of Boston, a frequent commenter on these pages, and found its way here through the good graces of Felipe Zapata.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

modern tzintzuntzan

When we left our Michoacán historical narrative, the evil Nuño de Guzmán was being led off stage in chains.  Leaving behind the decimated P'urhépecha society.

Actually, it was the opposite of decimated -- where only one in ten is killed.  Ninety per cent of the P'urhépecha were dead -- through disease, war, execution, or slavery.

Some of the "bad Spanish" tales have been exaggerated to serve political ends.  But not this one.  The P'urhépecha were in terrible shape.

The new bishop (a Jesuit lawyer), Vasco de Quiroga, was a perfect anti-Guzmán to turn the P'urhépecha into good colonial subjects. 

And let's not fool ourselves.  He was there as a colonial functionary.  Admittedly, to do good.  But he was not a liberator.

Don Vasco wanted to remake society on earth while saving people's souls.  He admired Thomas More's Utopia, and believed it could be the basis for restoring P'urhépecha society.  A society that would be peaceful, Spanish, and -- Catholic.

Each village under his care would have a specialized trade.  The villages would then trade with one another.  Creating a larger self-sufficient community.

Even today Don Vasco is revered by the P'urhépecha.  And the results of his experiment are still evident in Michoacán.

Don Vasco assisted the P'urhépecha in building a Spanish town on the ruins of old Tzintzuntzan.  That portion of modern Tzintzuntzan has changed little since then -- except for the hordes of tourists toting off chairs and chests.

Tzintzuntzan's specialty was (and is) carved woodwork.  I did not take any photographs of the woodwork shops.  Frankly, the pieces struck me as being rather pedestrian.  Especially, considering the town's reputation.

But there were some interesting (and colorful) woven reed pieces.  The type of thing you buy your mother-in-law to enjoy watching her figure out just what to do with it.

The only other attraction in town is a Franciscan monastery and church.  The grounds and the buildings are currently going through a major renovation.  And an honored site because it is where Don Vasco began his project.

I have often wondered why Mexico, as a Spanish-based culture, did not use olive oil in its cooking.  The obvious answer is because Mexico is a maize-based culture.

But Don Vasco tried to get the locals to switch to olive oil.  The church courtyard has an orchard of olive trees, the oldest planted by Don Vasco's hand (or at least at his command) almost five centuries ago.  Living proof that Mexico's history still impacts its daily life.

In the photograph, you can see one of the newer olive trees in front of the church.

Modern Tzintzuntzan is an interesting stop, but it was not enough to hold my interest for very long.

So, off we went to Pátzcuaro -- where my interest did not wane.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

old tzintzuntzan

On our way to Pátzcuaro, we stopped at Tzintzuntzan on the banks of Lake Pátzcuaro for two purposes:  to see the ancient city of Tzintzuntzan and to look at the handicrafts of modern Tzintzuntzan.

When the Spanish arrived, Tzintzuntzan was the capital of the Tarascan state.  It had a population of 100,000 -- most of the people living in the area of modern Tzintzuntzan.  The political and religious functions were on the hill above the main settlement.

Not much of the political center remains today.  The Spanish took some of the stone to build their own buildings.  The elements handled the rest.  Like most sites, only a portion has been uncovered and restored.

The center sits atop a large stepped wall.  On top of that are five yacatas (platforms) that once housed a temple.  The current structures were built on older structures.  After all, the city grew for over three centuries.

What is unusual is the shape of the yacatas.  The rounded sides and the absence of mortar between the dressed stone is unique in Mexican architecture.  The only similar structures were built in Peru. 

Several pots have been found on site that have Inca markings -- and the P’urhépecha language is very similar to the language of South American Indians.

The generally-accepted anthropological theory is that the P’urhépecha and the Inca traded with one another.  But, there is a more eccentric theory -- that the P’urhépecha are actually Incas who migrated north.

There is a building on the grounds whose purpose is unknown. 

When it was restored, archaeologists found thousands of human bones in the structure.  The building probably served the same the same function as similar public buildings in the Aztec and Maya civilizations -- public or ritual display of the remains of enemies of the state.

I was impressed with the site.  But our visit here was the first time during this series of bus trips that I disliked being on a tour.  When Islagringo and I took our road trip through the Maya sites, we stayed as long at each as we both wanted.  On a bus tour, I could not do that.

I would like to return to Tzintzuntzan and spend more time examining the site.  Thinking through the implications of the Peru connection.

And then I would like to drive over to another P’urhépecha site -- Ihuatzio -- about five miles away.

But that will have to wait for another day.  As will our visit to modern Tzintzuntzan.

Friday, February 18, 2011

mister peabody's wabac machine

I love history.

If you have been reading this blog for very long, you already know that.  But, I love history for a very specific reason.  It is all about stories.

And I am about to tell one of those stories.  To understand the area around Pátzcuaro, it helps to know who its people are.

I have always been amazed at how quickly Hernán Cortés was able to conquer Mexico.  He started the conquest on the east coast in 1519 with about 500 men, 13 horses, and a few cannon.  Barely a decade later, he was establishing cities on the Pacific coast.

We all know the story of how quickly he defeated the Aztecs -- with the aid of Indians who were glad to be rid of Aztec rule.  The destruction of the Aztec Empire made the next step for Cortés a lot easier.

The second largest Indian political organization lay between Mexico City and the Pacific coast -- the Tarascan state of the P’urhépecha. 

In the early 1300s, the P’urhépecha were scattered bands of individual communities.  A tribal leader, Taríacuri, joined the various bands together -- eventually establishing a political entity consisting of the current state of Michoacán, and about half of Jalisco and Guanajuato.  The second largest empire in Mexico.

The largest, of course, was the Aztec Empire.  As was inevitable, the P’urhépecha and the Aztecs became sworn enemies fighting a series of battles -- battles that the Aztecs lost. 

The P’urhépecha were fierce warriors.  But they also had geography and technology on their side.  Their empire was mountainous and they knew how to forge copper and bronze into weapons.

When the reigning king, Tangáxuan II, heard of the defeat and destruction of the Aztecs, he decided to salvage as much of his empire as possible by entering into a peace treaty with Cortés.  Whether that was a wise move or not, we will never know.  But it did not turn out well for the P’urhépecha. 

The Spanish decided the P’urhépecha had far too much autonomy.  And, at this point, one of the most infamous characters in the conquest comes on the scene -- Nuño de Guzmán.  In a melodrama, he would play the role of the top-hatted villain.

Guzmán was appointed as governor of the region.  He treated his Spanish enemies harshly.  But he reserved a particular hatred for the Indians.  With the help of a traitorous P’urhépecha noble, Guzmán overthrew the P’urhépecha political structure, tortured and burned alive Tangáxuan II, and enslaved the Indians he did not kill.

To the credit of the Spanish crown (and that is not saying much), in 1536 Guzmán was arrested, stripped of his offices, and shipped back to Spain in chains because of his reign of terror. 

And, in an almost Zen-like balancing of yin and yang, one of the white knights of the conquest arrived as bishop of the area that same year -- Vasco de Quiroga.  A student of Thomas More, Don Vasco saw an opportunity to do a little nation-building based on More's Utopia.  The Spanish had stripped the Indians of their social structure and economy.  Don Vasco provided it.

The Tarascan state was built around areas that specialized in certain crafts or products.  Don Vasco built on that concept by finding teachers in each craft and then creating a monopoly for each village in that skill.  Such as woodworking or copper forging.  When he died, Don Vasco left a legacy of communities that were self-sustaining.

Tomorrow we will put these pieces to use by starting our journey through ancient Tzintzuntzan, and then take a quick stop at modern Tzintzuntzan.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

questions about angels

I have no idea if the poet Billy Collins has visited the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.

But as I stood there last week watching thousands of butterflies fly above me and millions rest around me, I recalled a couplet from his Questions About Angels -- questions people never seem to get around to asking about angels.

Do they fly through God's body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors? 

Seeing the Mexican winter home of the Monarch butterflies has never been a big ticket for me.  It certainly was not on my "Bucket" list (if I have one) -- or even on my "B" list.  It might have made my "If you're going there, I won't jump out of the car" list.

I have been trying to recall when I first heard about the Monarchs.  I think it was sixth grade science.  One of the examples of migratory animals.  Swallows heading back to the mission.  Terns flying from pole to freezing pole.

To me, they were simply an exotic insect with a gypsy gene.  Exotic because I had never seen one.  We don't have them in the Willamette Valley.

What I knew I had seen in documentaries.  You know the type.  The Nova specials narrated by a sultry-voiced actress who tells us all about the risks the Monarchs take merely to meet up at the butterfly singles bar.

None of that piqued my interest.  But a visit to the sanctuary was part of our visit to Morelia.  And, at least, it would be a nice hike in the mountains.

Here is the short story.  The Monarchs can range as far north as Canada in the summer.  At some point, a special generation of Monarchs will hatch as fall approaches.  A truly Nietzschean generation of butterflies. 

Each butterfly of that generation will live for eight to six months -- assuming it does not end up decorating the grill of a Peterbilt.  Long enough to head south to Mexico.  Spend the winter.  And fly part way north again.

That generation will never see Canada again.  It will take three additional generations of butterflies in a single season -- most living a few brief weeks to mate and die -- to complete the cycle.

What we were going to see on our visit was the super generation.  Those who had made the full trip and were having a nice stay in Mexico -- just like some of their fellow Canadians on our tour.

The trip was about a three hour drive east of Morelia -- high in the mountains.  But that just got us to the parking lot -- where the local Indians sell food, drink, and butterfly-adorned gewgaws.

But all of that could wait.  We had climbing to do.

About eight of us met up at the entrance to start the trek with a local guide -- who patiently waited for his huffing and puffing charges.

At almost 10,000 feet, with a gimpy right ankle and being seriously out of shape, I started wondering if the hike up the mountain was going to be worth it.

I really have no idea what our altitude gain was or how long it took.  I just know it was a tough climb.

But nature can be kind.  We struggled over a ridge into a meadow filled with more butterflies than i have seen in one spot.  All enjoying a nice bit of nectar.

That was merely the starter.  A few hundred feet on, we saw butterflies gathered around the equivalent of a Kalahari water hole.

The trail ended in a grove of oyamel fir trees.  At first glance, they looked like oaks in the autumn.  A forest of brown leaves.

But they weren't leaves.  They were butterflies. 

Millions of butterflies on the fir needles and the tree trunks.  Butterflies that were in Canada or the northern United States six months before.

And then something marvelous happened.  As the sun played hide and seek with the clouds, the butterflies started soaring.

I wish I could describe the sight.  The local Indians believed the butterflies were the souls of their ancestors returning to their mountain homes.

The analogy worked for me as I stood there with my mouth open like some slack-jawed yahoo. 

The grace.  The beauty.  And the sound.  Like the whisper of seraphim wings.

Take a look for yourself.

I doubt I will ever visit again.  But I don't need to. 

I think I have learned some answers to those questions about angels.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

pass the buck fever

When I was in grade school (back during the Punic Wars), my father took my brother and me to a hunting class.

I cannot recall if he thought a gun safety course was a good idea or if the meddling hand of the state had intervened in our lives. 

But there we were.  Learning all about gun safety and respecting the wildlife we were about to put on our dinner table.

Most of the information is a blur -- with one exception.  Buck fever. 

I can still see the instructor telling us that even the best hunter will at one time see the perfect target and be so overcome with excitement that he will be unable to remember how to properly fire his rifle.  I think he called it God's way of preserving beauty.

I wondered if our hunter-predecessors, the Coos, froze up on their bows now and then?

But I saw it happen only once.  With a friend of my father's.  Perfect buck.  Complete brain lock.

That is until Monday night.  I was closing up the house to head off to Mexico City.  I decided to walk through the garden and out onto the malecon to see if the leaf cutter ants were preparing any encroachments.  Like bad boxers, they telegraph their punches.

The ants have established a network of nest openings between the pavers -- leaving large gaps where there once was sand.  In one of the larger gaps, my flashlight caught bright colors -- red and yellow.  What looked like a large colorful worm about 8 inches long.

When I walked closer, I could see it was a black, red, and yellow body.  A snake.  But I could not see the head.  But I immediately knew it was my first sighting of a coral snake or a scarlet king snake. 

I started searching for rhymes.  Was it "Red on yellow, kill a fellow" or "Black on yellow, kill a fellow?" And why do these rhymes have to be so unhelpful?  "Red sky in morning, something something something."

Whatever it was, it was obviously hunting for prey in the cracks between the pavers.  Probably a tasty lizard.

I rushed back in the house and grabbed my camera.  When I came out, it was still there, but it was moving on to search for other prey.  And my flashlight caused it to speed up.

So, there I was.  With bare-toed sandals within inches of the snake's head; balancing my flashlight; remembering phrases like "related to the cobra," "North America's most deadly venomous snake," "high probability of fatality"; and trying to figure out how to turn on the flash while focusing.  And I simply could not remember how to do either.

Snake fever, I guess.

This is the result.  Not very satisfying.  Even when you enlarge it.

The photograph may be blurry.  But I suspect this is going to be one of those memories that sticks in my mind.  It was one of the coolest animals I have ever seen.

It slithered to sanctuary under a treacherous maguey where it was protected by the spines.  Even after I recovered from too much excitement, I still could not get a better photograph.

If nothing else, I learned not to go walking around at night with my sandals.  It very well may have been a king snake.  But the last thing (or one of the last things) I need is to startle a coral snake by stepping on it.

For those of you who thought you were going to be reading about butterfliues today, I promise tomorrow will be devoted solely to mariposas.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

third time's a charm

Well, I am off on a third trip through Mexico.  This time to Mexico City.

The group is the largest of the three I have been on -- 42. 

We take a bus to Guadalajara and then fly to Mexico City.  For a stay of six days.

You have already learned that I am not very good at putting together reports while on the road.  And I have not been very good at wrapping up the trips I have taken so far.

But there are a few tales still in the queue for you while I am touring the capital of the highlands.

So, stick around for the tales of butterflies, Tzintzuntzan, and Pátzcuaro.

Monday, February 14, 2011

a thought

One last note before we retreat to the beauty of the butterflies.

Morelia made worldwide news in 2008 with the type of incident most citizens fear -- and resent.

On the evening of September 15, all of Mexico was celebrating the 198th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Spain.

Crowds packed the plaza between the cathedral and the state government palace.  There were rumors that the drug lords were going to place a bomb in the crowd.  But the people of Morelia were not going to be deterred.

Governor Godoy had just finished shouting the traditional
grito -- pulling the crowd into a political high.

Then there was an explosion.  Followed quickly by a second -- four blocks away.  Someone had rolled two hand grenades into the midst of the celebrants.

Eight people were dead.  Over 100 were injured.

This is where it happened.  About in the middle of the photograph.  The governor was standing on the balcony of the building in the background.  (You can see a more detailed view at the top of this post.)

I debated whether to mention this incident.  After all, but for some excellent field work by the FBI, my former hometown of Portland could have had a far more destructive disaster this last November.

I point out the comparison because terrorism can happen anywhere.  But a lot of people have a pretty good idea what is driving the narco-terrorism -- and how to resolve it.

There is violence in Mexico.  Most of it caused by drug prohibition policies that will continue to result in more drug-related murders.

I would love to go through life appreciating only nice things like the pottery displays in yesterday's post.  Fortunately, most of our lives are never touched by the drug trade.  But lots of lives in Mexico, Canada, and the States are.

Maybe the American and Canadian governments will eventually see that drug prohibition is as dangerous to lives and liberties as was the American experiment with alcohol prohibition.

Then we can stop talking about this issue.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

morelia mordidas

Our next stop will be the butterfly sanctuary. 

But, before we head off to the mountains, I want to share a few Morelia photographs with you.

Bus tours have a tendency to drop passengers off at handicraft shops filled with souvenirs indistinguishable from offerings at Import Plaza. 

You could have colored me suspicious when our guide announced the next stop on our walking tour was a center offering handicrafts from each region of Michoacán.

My boredom meter pegged.  But I was wrong.  What could have been a garage sale on steroids turned out to be a cross-cultural cornucopia of writing and photographic opportunities.

The Casa de Artesanias is located in a former convent that ended its religious days when the Juarez government seized it.  It is now filled with all types of handicrafts -- of varying quality.

Most of the pieces were either pottery or carved woods.  Some very simple.  Others extremely complex -- incorporating pottery pieces into huge woven tapestries.

The photograph below is a typical display.  Furniture and pottery.

The tables are carved and then most are painted in primary colors.  I liked this one because it was unique almost as linear as an Italianate bed frame. 

Pumpkin and squash pottery pieces are a common motif.  And very well-crafted.  They manage to be concurrently massive and delicately detailed.

There are a few smaller pieces.  Such as this pottery chess set.  You may want to click on it to see a larger version.  The pieces are quite clever.

Not everything managed to ping my cultural bug.  Some of the presentations looked as if they were masquerading as a Pottery Barn clearance sale.

Or you might considering buying this.  Your very own IKEA crucifix kit.  (I rather liked it -- as a piece of art.)

My cultural association with the next piece is a reach.  But any of you who remember Laura Petrie's infatuation with the Thing she purchased at an auction would be tempted to buy one for your living room.

Now, you will need to excuse me.

I need to get back to assembling my IKEA crucifix -- while watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show.