Wednesday, August 31, 2011

for whom the bell tolls

"Well, it just goes to show you, it's always something -- if it ain't one thing, it's another."

Or so Roseanna Roseannadanna said.  And she was correct.

One of the interesting aspects of traveling is learning how to accomplish tasks we never think of.  How to find an internet café.  Where to pay the light bill.  What happens when there is no water.

Or –- how to deal with the garbage.

In Melaque, I bag up my garbage and place it in what looks like a very inefficient charcoal grill (to keep the scavenging animals away from the bag -- even though the clever grackles are very good at untying knots).  The garbage truck then picks it up in the morning.  Six days a week.  Great service.  And I never have to think about it.

On my first day in
Pátzcuaro, Felipe told me that is not the way things are done here.  I need to listen for the cow bell.

At first, I thought this was the highlands equivalent of a snipe hunt.  A little ribbing of the new guy.

It turns out, that is exactly what I needed to listen for.  The garbage truck drives through the neighborhood.  And like a reenactment of the Monty Python "Bring Out Your Dead" skit, the neighbors drag out their garbage bags that are then tossed in the truck -- and driven off to wherever the garbage is buried in Pátzcuaro.

The alternative is to take the garbage into town and navigate through the local market with your bags in search of the Holy Dumpster. 

I opted to wait for the peal of the bell.  But, in the four weeks I have been here, I never heard it toll for me.  I suspect I was either away from the house on my trips or deep asleep in bed when the truck came by.

But not Tuesday morning.  Well, I was still in bed because I had been on the telephone until 2 AM.  Let’s just call it my Martha Mitchell period.

For some reason I woke up around 7:30 and heard a bell.  Not one of the many church bells.  The garbage bell.  I had seen the truck around town.  So, I knew the sound.  But I was certainly in no position to run out the door.

I grabbed my shorts, a shirt, and my sandals.  Dug the door keys out of my long pants.  And dashed down the stairs to grab the two bags of garbage in the atrium.  Fumbled with the front door lock.  And rushed down the street to where the neighbors were gathering with their respective body bags.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a car window.  I looked like some crazed Santa Claus on vacation in the Caribbean -- who could not leave his work behind.

And, of course, the next door neighbors, who I had never met, were also bringing their garbage out at the same time.  It was hardly an Emily Post moment.  But we introduced ourselves, chatted a bit, and went our respective ways.

It was a good overture for the day.  Because I have started winding down for my eventual departure on Thursday morning.

Today was the day I was lunching with Felipe and Lady Zapata.  To thank them not only for the use of the condominium, but for their perfect host manners.  They were always available with information when I needed  it.  But they let me follow my own nose for adventure during August.  They are grand people.

I also made my rounds in the Grand Plaza.  Several people greeted me by name.  I stopped by the last performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.  The cast was lunching with the audience members.  It gave me a good opportunity to see several people I have met during my month here in Pátzcuaro.  People who have helped me feel part of the local social scene.

And that is going to make my assessment of what I want to do next in Mexico both easier -- and a bit more difficult.

But that is a topic for another post.  Maybe later in the week. 

For now, I have one more visit to make to Santa Clara de Cobre.  And when I have shared my experience there, I will be on the road to Melaque.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

to a dwindling few

Even though my time in Pátzcuaro is winding down, there is still plenty to see and do.

And Monday was a day to combine a number of events.

You may recall I met my blogger pal Todd for the first time in person while I was in San Miguel.  Today I had the pleasure of meeting his wife, Shannon.  

They are in the process of moving from Pátzcuaro to San Miguel.  But they both took time out from their busy schedules to accept my lunch invitation.

They picked the place.  And quite a place it was.  Rancho la Mesa.  With a stunning view of
Pátzcuaro.  Even though the day was a bit cool and overcast.

There was nothing amiss with the conversation, though.  They gave me some very good insight into life in both
Pátzcuaro and San Miguel -- some I had experienced myself.

I first met Todd through his blog.  He lived in a neighborhood development (Corazon de Durazno) in the hills above
Pátzcuaro.  I had been looking at a home in the area, and I was interested in a resident's viewpoint.

I never bought the house, but I did become acquainted with Todd and his various hummingbird, rabbit, and cat adventures.

After four years, I finally decided to see the neighborhood that once interested me.  So, up into the hills I drove.

As I drove around the neighborhood, I had a certain sense of ease.  Probably from all of the photographs and maps I have viewed, I simply had that peace of familiarity.

And I quickly discovered the neighborhood has a well-deserved reputation for friendliness.  The renters above the house I once wanted to buy came out to say hello.  And when I stopped to take some photographs, another neighbor came out to talk.  Amazingly, her recognized me from my blog.

After living in town for the last month, the drive to the neighborhood seemed like a long trek.  I think I made the correct decision to not buy.

During my first week here, Felipe took me on a quick drive to show me two interesting villages.  I decided to do an encore today -- now that I have a rather good sense of where the local roads lead.

One of the things I really like about this lake area is the ability to get on a road and end up in interesting countryside.  When I lived in England, I would often get in the car and head down hedgerow lanes to discover new villages.  I almost feel as if I am living that experience in Pátzcuaro.

The first village, Cuanajo, is well-known for its furniture shops.  When I drove through with Felipe, I was surprised at the varied quality of the pieces.  Some were quite nice.  Others were, well, not quite as nice.

When I went back on Monday, I fully intended to take some photographs to illustrate that point.  But I didn't stop at any of the shops.  In truth, furniture shopping (or shopping, in general) is just not one of my big interests.

What distracted me was a stage being constructed in the courtyard of the local church.  I also noticed that a couple buildings on the town square are being rebuilt.

For what?  No idea.  But I kicked into guy gear while watching the men construct their stage next to the church.  I even forgot to ask them what the occasion was.

But I think I may have made up for it at my next stop.  The village of 
Tupátaro.  Felipe made a point of showing me the village church.  The building is from the colonial era, but it did not strike me as unusual -- until he pointed out the ceiling.

The ceiling is not plastered.  It is wood planks.  And each plank is painted with intricate portraits or designs.  The entire ceiling.  Down the entire nave.  Almost like stained glass on wood.

When I was with Felipe, I wanted a photograph of that ceiling.  But a sign clearly stated that no photographs are allowed.

When I returned on Monday, I was prepared to ask the woman watching the church if I could take photographs without using my flash.  But I did not need to put both of us in that uncomfortable position.

Just as I arrived, two Mexican men were talking with her.  She turned on some low wattage lights, and the men started taking photographs with their camera phones.

I asked her if I could use my camera.  She nodded yes.

Without doubt, I was simply fortunate.  In the right place at the right time.  If she had not turned on the lights, even my great camera would not have picked up the subtle colors in the dark.

All in all, a great day.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

the importance of being louis

Saturday night was theater night in Pátzcuaro.

A local group (Left Bank readers Theater) was presenting a production of The Importance of Being Earnest.  The moment I heard about it, I grabbed a reservation. 

I'm glad I did.  The place was packed.

And I almost missed it.  I had just started watching Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman -- a mockumentary about community theater in Missouri.  I was barely into the film when I remembered.  I should not be watching a film about community theater.  I should be watching a community theater production.

It was ten minutes until curtain time.  Fortunately, this is Mexico, and I had plenty of time to find a seat.

The play appears to expatriate ears as a bit of fluff.  A series of Oscar Wilde aphorisms strung together to appreciate his amazing wit.

But, when he wrote it in 1885, the play was somewhat revolutionary.  The fact that he made fun of social station, marriage, birth, and the church was not new.  W.S. Gilbert had been doing it for three decades.

It was his tone.  Wilde's sense of irony treated each of his targets as trivial.  That was new.  Because his audience members were the very people he was trivializing.  It is one thing to be laughed at.  It is quite another thing to be told you do not matter.


For obvious reasons, American audiences and current British audiences are enthralled with the piece.  Probably because many of them miss the point that Wilde is ultimately trivializing them, as well.

But that is the joy of wit.  It works best when its target misses the whole point.

It is easy just to enjoy the aphorisms.  And to wait for the next wave of Wilde wit to engulf you.  That is what I did.  Unlike American television situation comedy where you are merely numbed.

Like all local productions, the quality of performance varied.  I expected to see a reading in costume.  I got much more -- even though a couple of the actors were tied to their scripts on stage.

I assume you know the storyline.  So, I will dispense with a synopsis.  But I was very impressed with three of the players. 

The actor who played John Worthing (Jerry Eagelbach) helped to bring his rather serious, but deceitful, character to life.  It is a tough role.  The character represents some of the stiffer personality traits of a Victorian gentleman wrapped in the clothes of tradesman manipulation.

Adela Farah played the 18-year old ingenue, Cecily Cardew.  The fact she is Mexican and a  bit over 18 did not matter.  She added just the right flair of comedy, naivete, and sexuality that brought a whole new interpretation to a part that it too often played as a cartoon figure.


And then there was Louis.  Louis Montonas.  You met him (more tidbits) when I first came to Pátzcuaro.  It was at his 90th birthday celebration that I learned about the play.

He nabbed the play's best part -- Lady Bracknell.  And he was great in drag.  Wilde wrote Lady Bracknell as a force of nature.  The type of social queen who dominates every room she enters.

It is a tough part.  But Louis hit all the right notes.  Just the right timing in Wilde's best lines.  A sense of outrage more social than internal.  The type of socialite who revels in her own ignorance.  Dame Edith Evans with an attitude.

Some people dislike the play because of its "artificial" coincidences.  I usually offer the excuse that they are artistic artifices.  But they are more that.  Coincidences happen all the time in life.

I already offered you the Waiting for Guffman example.  But that may be steeped in too much irony to prove my point.

Three weeks ago, I was siting in the Grand Plaza eating my corn fungus chicken when two friends from Melaque invited me to a Sunday brunch.  The wife in the couple is best friends with her former sister-in-law.  And that former sister-in-law is a neighbor of Louis Montanos.  It was through that connection I went the 90th birthday brunch.  And ended up in room watching a play where I knew quite a few members in the audience.

Coincidence?  Maybe.  But it is the stuff of which personal; relationships are made.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

morelia impromptu

Friday was  Costco day.

It didn’t start out that way.  I had planned on driving to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, to look around the colonial city and then have lunch with a friend.  It didn’t quite work out as I had planned.

I got a late start.  When I got to the west end of Morelia, my GPS told me to make a left turn onto a trunk road when I should have gone right.  But it was one of those mistakes that turned out all right.  It put me right in front of the Ford dealership.

I have not yet replaced my improvised battery bracket.  And I still haven’t.  The dealership did not have one in stock.  So, I will just wait for my return to Manzanillo.

They did help me, though, to get back on track for a visit to Costco.  I stopped there just to see what delicacies the store offered to the residents this part of the highlands.

I confess to a bit of jealousy.  There was thick ham.  Cherries.  Kalamata olives.  Tomato paste.  Turkey breast sandwich meat.  Pepperoni.  Tillamook extra sharp cheese.  It was like culinary heaven.

I also took a look at the high definition televisions.  In the past year. the price has come down to the point where middle class Mexican families can now afford to buy one.  A positive result of NAFTA.

But I didn’t need a television.  I needed lunch.  My lunch partner had picked one of her favorite restaurants (Parrilla y Canilla) in the hills surrounding Morelia.  The restaurant was formerly a residence on a nice piece of property overlooking the city.  Whoever designed it had an Italianate eye.

But the restaurant’s best asset -- as should be the case for any restaurant -- is not its view or its milieu.  Its food is marvelous.  I had a steak.  Once again proving that the myth of tough Mexican beef is just that.  A myth.  It was almost tender enough to cut with my fork.

Our lunch turned out to be one of those long conversation meals.  Just as meals with friends should be.

I was ready to head back to Pátzcuaro, but my lunch partner suggested that I might like to see the colonial part of the city.  I did.  And off we went.

Even though I took a walking tour through Morelia last February, this walk was much better.  She showed me the Palace of Justice.  The arguably oldest building in Morelia -- now a hotel.  An old exhibit hall.  The Templo de la Rosa.  A used book store right out of the 40s.  The Teatro Ocamo.  The Regional Museum.  The Cathedral.  The Regional Government Palace.

We took a quick break at the Museum of Candy for coffee and mineral water.  And then walked down to the aqueduct and the Tarascan fountain.  Stopping on the way at another used book store.

What turned out to be the best stop of the evening -- it was now well past 6 -- was in an alley of a former soap factory.  The alley is lined with small bars and restaurants -- and an occasional shop. 

We stopped at one of the shops because it had a curious mix of merchandise.  Candles.  Candy.  Canned fruits.

The owner showed us around offering samples of the foodstuffs.  I ended up buying a jar of quail eggs canned with various savories.  Something I certainly could not buy just anywhere.

Not even at Costco.  NATA or no NAFTA.

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.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

water and ash

Wednesday was a long drive day.

Several people had recommended that while I was here in Pátzcuaro, I needed to see Uruapan.  It was already on my list -- so, on Wednesday morning, I headed west.

You may recall from our trip to Tingambato (know thyself), the area around Uruapan was the home of an ancient civilization that disappeared.  In the 1200s, the Purépecha showed up to add the local tribes to their empire -- giving the area a name we now know as Uruapan.  Place of Fruit and Flower.

And an appropriate name it was -- and is.  The area is now known for avocados and macadamia nuts.  Yup.  Those treats your grandfather would bring back from his trips to Hawaii.  The nuts.  Not the avocados.

But there might not have been a city here but for a series of very unpleasant events.

When the Spanish arrived in Pátzcuaro, the Purépecha emperor fled to this area.  He was persuaded to pay homage to the Spanish.  And we remember what happened next.

Nuño de Guzmán showed up in the area.  Burned the emperor alive.  And raised enough havoc with the local Indians that they did the wisest thing.  They headed for the hills.

Don Vasco helped rebuild a Euro-centric Indian society around Lake Pátzcuaro by winning the confidence of the Indians.

Almost the same thing happened in Uruapan.  A Franciscan, Fray Juan de San Miguel, showed up to convince the Indians that not all Spaniards fit into the Nuño de Guzmán camp.

He organized a city with eight separate neighborhoods -- each neighborhood with its own festivals, cemetery, church, patron saint, and school.

That was 1533.  The place has been going strong since.  Very strong.  It is now the second largest city in the state of Michoacán.  And a busy city it is.

Uruapan does not have the village charm of Pátzcuaro.  Nor does it try.  It is a working city.  And its buildings reflect it.  From colonial houses and churches to functional 1960s office buildings.

It reminded me vaguely of Athens -- but with more colors.  There is history to be found.  But it is not frozen in amber.  Nor does it want to be.

Most of the historical buildings can be found around the city plaza.

When I was there, they were celebrating a health festival.  Tents were set up to show all types of medical methods -- centered primarily around natural remedies.

But health needs to be celebrated with song.  And dance.  And speeches.  They were all there.  But my favorite aspect was how last year's centennial and bicentennial decorations were recycled merely by adding a 1.  A very Mexican solution.

One of the churches on the plaza is well worth a visit -- the Parish Church of San Francisco.  Mainly for what you find outside.  The unique dome is visible throughout the town.  That is it at the top of this post.

The church was begun in 1533 and has been built and rebuilt.  The place is currently being meticulously restored.  At least the outside is being restored.  It is easy to see where new work and old work join together. 

But the interior is not a restoration.  The exterior is fifteenth and sixteenth century.  Inside the place is as up to date as the Crystal Cathedral.

The altar and the dome paintings could be Dali creations.  And if you look closely at the stained windows in the dome, you will see the likeness of a recently-late pope on his way to the Catholic Hall of Fame.

The building I liked most was Father Juan's hospital -- Huatápera.  Perhaps, the first in North America.

The building is now a museum.  Filled with some amazing pieces of local craft work.  But I mainly liked it for its Moorish architecture.  After all, it was only 41 years after the Spanish evicted the Moors from Spain -- leaving behind some of the country's architectural gems.

But the main reason I drove to Uruapan was to visit the National Park Eduardo Ruiz -- built on the the Cupatitzio River.

I am not a big park person.  After all, no one walks out of a Broadway show humming the scenery.  But this place is splendidly different.  It is on a par with the water gardens of Schloss Hellbrunn -- without all the Austrian fussiness.

The park begins with a pool -- the Devil's Knee -- as clear as a Mayan cenote. 

The stream then cascades down through the park's amazing plant collection.  I must confess I almost completely missed the plants and wildlife because of the clever water effects.

There are the usual bridges and waterfalls.  But the designers also incorporated a series of water feature fountains.  Each with its own characteristic.

You are never far from the sound of water.  One innovation worthy of Walt Disney himself are channels of water that run parallel with the walkway.  It is one of the most soothing places I have ever visited.  I sat down with my Kindle and enjoyed my environment.

I also wanted to visit the Paricutín volcano while I was in the Uruapan area.  It was another of those school boy memories of Mexico.

The year was 1959.  Mr. Schaeffer's fifth grade class.  I remember reading in Your Weekly Reader of Dionisio Pulido plowing his field in 1943.  The ground started opening up and steam started rolling out.  He did what I thought was an heroic act back then.  Dionisio, his wife, and his son tried to push dirt and rocks into the fissure.  But nature was going to  have its way.

In front of his eyes, a cinder cone started to form.  Within six months, the volcano had destroyed two villages and covered 10,000 acres with ash and lava.  And then it went to sleep 9 years later.

In my boyish mind, I confused it with Popocatepetl and its 17,000 foot peak.  Paricutín is a home-size volcano, only about 1400 feet high.  But it was everything I expected.

I was told the best way to see the volcano -- other than hiking to it -- is a viewpoint in the Indian village of Angahuan.  It was a very easy drive.  Even though the last 10 minutes through the village was the roughest road.

At the far edge of the village, there is a little camp with cabins for rent.  But the scenery is the reason to go.  The cinder cone of Paricutín is clearly visible -- as are the twin bell towers of the village church -- partially covered with lava.

There were numerous village men ready to rent me a horse and to guide me to the church.  But not on this trip.

However, I would like to return to hike to the church and to the volcano.

But that will have to be another road trip.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

my beef in the evening

OK.  Enough of the history for a bit.

Let's talk about something I like almost as much -- eating.

It did not take me long to adjust to Mexican eating hours.  I usually have a light breakfast.  And in the late evening I will have something light.  A sandwich.  Leftover enchilada.  Or maybe a taco or two at the local stand.

But the big meal of the day is what my midwestern and southern friends call dinner -- and others call lunch.  That is when I get to fold into a big plate of whatever.  Usually around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

For a number of reasons that are not very important, I violated that rule on Tuesday evening.  I had not eaten much during the day, so I went looking for a good restaurant.

On my first day here, Felipe had recommended Restaurante d' la Calle Coss Galeria de Arte.  It is well-known for its fixed price meals.  But I was after something different.

The restaurant serves an Argentine-style beef dish -- churrasco con chimichurri.

I have been reluctant to order beef in Mexican restaurants.  Most of the beef here is range-fed with little feeding lot fattening.  As a result, it is very lean.  And very tough.

At least, that has been my experience on the coast.  I may have to change my mind after my dinner.

That is it at the top of this post.  Well, what is left of it by the time I realized I should take a photograph.  Just consider it as part of my
Willem Claeszoon Heda period.  If I had waited much longer, it would have been from my Clean Plate Club period.

The steak was cut thickener than most beef in Mexico.  To its benefit.  It was, without doubt, the tenderest piece of meat I have had here.  Not quite Morton's standard, but close.

And the chimichurri sauce (made of parsley, garlic, and oil) was a perfect complement.  Subtle enough to add flavor, but not overwhelming the beef's natural flavor.  It was good enough on its own that I did not touch either of the two salsas offered.

The fact that it came with a real salad of leaf lettuce (instead of the usual wilted iceberg) helped make it a very special meal.

I should have stopped there.  Enough is enough.  But I gave in to the dessert demon.

In this case a rather unremarkable flan.  But it was accompanied by one of Mexico's supreme gifts to the rest of the world -- hot chocolate with a slight twist of cinnamon.

During the month I have been here, it is not uncommon for me to be the sole guest in the dining room if I eat late.  And it does not matter whether I dine at 6 or 9.

Most of the restaurants have been quite good.  I hope that there main business is in the afternoon.  If not, I am not certain how they stay in business.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

voices of the night

The crickets were doing there best to be allies. 

To them, they were simply trying to find the elusive girl of their dreams -- sawing away on their spiny legs.  To the soul looking for easy sleep, they were white noise better than any recording purchased from a state fair hypnotist.

The quest was simple.  A good night’s sleep to prepare for an early trip to Uruapan.  The crickets, if crickets are even aware of such goings on in the human world, were six-legged angels ready to lift the sleeper through the clouds.

But there was no sleeper.  There are more than cricket voices in the night.

There are the guardians.  The protectors of hearth and home.  The dogs of rooves, streets, and courtyards.

The crickets may be spiritual guides, but the dogs are all about the material world.

To dogs the world is filled with danger.  They are brave enough to stand their ground and add voice to the voiceless terrors of the night.

But their warnings go unheeded.  No master comes to reward the faithful servant.
  Instead, the dogs -- because there is now a chorus of echoing warnings -- continue their rhythmic barks.  Like some car alarm that the owner ignores.  Just another layer in the urban milieu.

The unsleep walker seeks relief deeper in the dwelling.  On the couch where the proverbial recalcitrant husband seek relief.  But the sleeper, being neither a husband or recalcitrant, finds the couch to not be a place of peace.

The night slips by with its discordant notes.  To be replaced at the dawn with new voices.  The sirens of police and ambulances.

And so the dream of driving down the road to Uruapan slips away.

There will be other days.  Just as there will always be voices in the night.

Monday, August 22, 2011

desperately seeking gertrude

María Gertrudis Bocanegra de Mendoza de Lazo de la Vega.

Unless you live in Pátzcuaro or have an appreciation for Mexican Independence history, the name probably does not sound familiar.

But she is a star in this town.  The public library is the Biblioteca Gertrudris Bocanegra.  The smaller town square, commonly known as La Plaza Chica, is officially named La Plaza Gertrudris Bocanegra.  Plaques bearing her name pop up all over town.

And in the middle of the eponymous square is a statue of her -- looking just like her national myth.  A perfect example of Socialist Realism.  A defiant, heroic woman.  A heroine.  A secular Mary.

Even though it does turn a woman of substance into a substantial woman.  But who is going to follow Kate Moss in overthrowing the Spanish?


For all we know, she may have been a substantial woman.Like all subjects of heroic myths, finding the true Gertrudis is difficult.  But that is what I set out to do.


I wanted to get past the saint, the feminist, the egalitarian, the political martyr.  There had to be a real woman under those layered labels.

We know some basic facts about her.  She was born in Pátzcuaro in 1765 into a relatively wealthy Spanish family with a home on La Plaza Grande.  The home is still there -- as a hotel.


But the myth-building began young.  At an early age, she was standing on the balcony of her home and saw a mob beating a beggar in the plaza.  She cried out, but the mob ignored the little girl, who cried tears of saintly compassion.

Young women in Mexico, not even of Gertruduis’s class, had education expectations.  Their goal in life was not to be well-educated, but well-married.  Not our feminist heroine.  She was a voracious reader and took a great interest in the Enlightenment authors -- and the American and French Revolutions.

Such an interest that when she was courted by Pedro Advícula Lazo de la Vega, a handsome young second lieutenant in the Spanish army, she told him that she could not marry anyone in the service of Mexico’s oppressors.

A little side note might help here.  Pedro was a criollo.  A person of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico.  The Spanish Bourbon monarchy wanted to ensure its control directly over Mexico.  As a result, the Crown almost exclusively appointed people born in Spain to its administrative offices.

The only way for a criollo to gain social advancement was in the Spanish army.  Gertrudis was effectively asking Pedro to give up his life career for her.  But he loved her enough, he resigned his commission.


But that was only the first hurdle.  Gertrudis’s father then refused to allow the marriage because Pedro’s complexion and hair were too dark.  But Gertrudis would have nothing to do with such prejudice and insisted on marrying him.  Copies of their letters are currently on display in the Museum of Popular Art.

It was a productive marriage -- producing three daughters and four sons, and a rather successful business career for Pedro.

When the War for Independence broke out in 1810, Pedro and the couple's oldest son, Manuel, joined the insurgency as guerrilla fighters when the first battles went badly for the Americans, as they called themselves.

While they were in the hills, Gertrudis allowed her home to be used as insurgency central.  She raised funds, collected food, and picked up bits of intelligence.  She was a messenger between the insurgency groups.  Even after Pedro and Manuel died in battle, Gertrudis kept up her work.


And dangerous work it was.  The insurgents killed Spanish soldiers and sympathizers.  The Spanish responded in kind.  All the time, Gertrudis was under suspicion.  But she worked on until 1817.

But, as most Mexican tales of heroism end, this one took a very tragic twist.  Gertrudis had once saved a retired soldier from the gallows.  She trusted him enough to guard her home while she was gone.  When she returned, some valuables were missing.  She questioned him.  In turn, he ratted her out to the Spanish.

And, in a scene that could only come out of Hollywood, Gertrudis was entertaining guests in her home at a chess party when the Spanish arrested her in front of her guests.  They then whisked her off to 14 Calle Ibarra, a house that still stands, where she was jailed and tortured for information.

The order for execution was summary.  On October 10,1817, a military guard took her to a small plaza near the San Francisco church where she was allowed to pray.
The execution squad intended to execute her there on a prepared gallows in the small plaza.  But the officer in charge changed the site to the Plaza Grande in front of the jail -- as an example to the other incarcerated rebels.

And this is where fact and myth intertwine.  The story is that the squad attempted to tie her to an ash tree in the plaza, but she protested so much at the humiliation of being trussed up, they left her standing front of the tree.  The trunk of the ash tree is preserved like a relic.

She gave her gold watch, hair comb, and shawl to the official in charge for her three daughters.  And then threw a gold peso at the firing squad saying: “Here’s all I have left.”


Having divested herself of her worldly goods in saintly fashion, the little girl, who had cried over injustice in the Plaza Grande, stood as an heroic 52-year old woman and started inciting the crowd.

If this was an American tale, the crowd would have overpowered the guards and saved Gertrudis from certain death.  But it is not.  It is a Mexican tale.

The soldiers dispersed the crowd, and with a singly volley, she died.

But the Spanish were not done creating a legend.  They left her body in the plaza for a day.  Her body was then taken away by her family.


Or so the tale goes.  I spent three weeks reading, researching, and asking locals where her body is buried.  No one seems to know.  Nor was it a question that seemed to bother them.  Perhaps in the same way that no Catholic asks where Mary is buried.

I cannot say I ever found the true Gertrudis Bocanegra.  Too much time has passed for her to be anything but what she has become -- a Martyr to the Cause of Independence.

And if you have to be remembered for something, that is certainly better than being remembered for your exquisite chess parties. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

cerebral calisthenics

Saturday, as Hercule Poirot would say, was a good day to exercise the little gray cells.

After I had lunch with Pat last week, she sent me an email that an author of a history of Mexico would be presenting a lecture on Saturday afternoon.  Philip L. Russell by name.

You already know how much I like Mexican history.  This was going to be an opportunity to ask some of the questions I have been waiting to ask for years -- especially the history of the ancient cultures.

His book is available on the Kindle -- for $46.  That’s US dollars.  Not pesos.  A little rich for my electronic book blood.

But there was a sample available.  A rather meaty sample.  I downloaded and read through it before I went over to the lecture.

I approached the book with a bit of reluctance.  The email had emphasized his work with the Sierra Club.  A rather odd credential for the author of a Mexican history book.

But I was very pleased with the sample.  His writing is dispassionate (if a bit dry).  He avoids the trap of playing cute with his facts -- as do quite a few writers of popular history.

He does suffer from one popular history failing, though.  His analysis tends to be anachronistic.  But only when it comes to climate issues.  He is fast to join the theory that a prime cause for the demise of several ancient civilizations was the destruction of local resources.

And that seems to be related to his background.  Because he gives a very even-handed treatment to some of the catastrophes that followed the arrival of the Spanish tribe.

I had hoped his lecture would be about early Mexico.  It was not.  Instead, he chose to give a lecture on globalization -- a talk I was certain would play to his weakness.

I was wrong.  His lecture was the very essence of historical professionalism.

He walked us through the major world change in trade that came with the discovery of the New World.  How Mexican silver funded Europe’s trade with China.  How Independence in the 1800s caused a collapse in world trade with the immediate disappearance of Mexican silver.

How Mexico became a big player in world trade during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  How that came to an end with the Revolution and then reignited with the start of World War Two and the subsequent years of the Mexican economic miracle.

He impressed me most with his discussion of NAFTA.  Setting out its positives and its negatives.  And being quite honest that no one can know for certain the causes and effects in economics.

The audience of 35 (almost all gringo with the exception of about five Mexican citizens) listened intently.  The first few questions were on topic.  But, as so often happens when the Mexican economy is discussed, it quickly degenerated into a discussion about the drug trade.

On the whole, it was a good afternoon.  Good enough that I am still thinking of shelling out the $45 to finish the book.  

Saturday, August 20, 2011

know thyself

My friend Roy claims to have The Big Book of Things Roy Doesn’t Know.

And I suspect his wife, Nancy, believes there is an even larger tome: Things Roy Thinks He Knows, But Doesn’t.

I really wish that popular archaeologists knew their work as well as Roy knows himself.  I remember a history lesson in Mrs. Dix’s sixth grade class.  The textbook showed a picture of the Teotihuacán pyramids and described them as Aztec structures.

That was a common myth.  But by the 1950s, archaeologists knew that was not true.  It was a bad guess.  Like the myth the pyramids were built by the lost tribes of Israel.

Like other tribes before them, the Spanish destroyed many of the historical documents of the Aztecs and Maya.  Just as the Aztecs had done to the people they conquered.  The cycle of destruction spirals back through each of the conquering tribes in Mexico.

The further back in time archaeologists dig, the more mysterious the older cultures become.  We know almost nothing about the people of Teotihuacán or the Toltecs.  But that has not kept archaeologists from guessing.

To be fair, academic archaeologists are usually very precise when they start speculating.  They pepper their work with terms like “probable” or “possibly.”

But journalists and text book writers prefer far more certainty.  So, the precatory language tends to turn into the dictates of scripture.

On Friday, I visited a site where next to nothing is known about the civilization that built it.  Tingambato is 23 miles from Pátzcuaro -- just on the other side of the mountains to the west of the lake.

The site was originally presumed to be another Purépecha city.  But when archaeologists began excavating it in the late 1970s, they discovered it to be far older.  The oldest part of the dig was built around 450 AD.  The second phase was built between 600 and 900 AD.  That predates the Purépecha by between 900 and 400 years.

The site is very small.  Smaller than Ihuatzio.  But its scale is very human.

Like Tzintzuntzan, the city sits on an artificially leveled grand platform.  But unlike Tzintzuntzan, it was greatly modified over the years with new construction.

We can tell that this was not merely a ceremonial city -- though ceremonial it was.  There is a series of rooms, mistakenly nicknamed “the palace,” though there is no proof that the place was a royal residence.

”The palace” overlooks a sunken plaza that appears to be an atrium to the modern eye.  It isn’t.  The two structures in the center that look ornamental are actually altars.

What, if anything,  died on the altars, we do not know.  There is very little evidence to determine the city’s ceremonies.  However, there is circumstantial evidence that human sacrifice cannot be discarded as a theory.

And, of course, there is the ever-present ball court.  This one is well-persevered, because unlike most ball courts that were built between other structures, this one was constructed as a sunken court in the great platform.

No Mesoamerican site would be complete without a pyramid.  And this site has quite a nice one.  The construction of the pyramid and the arrangement of the buildings and spaces around it would indicate a heavy Teotihuacán influence.  And because we know so little about the people of Teotihuacán, it is not surprising we know little about the people of Tingambato.

What we do know comes from a tomb discovered on the site during excavation.  Five feet high and about eleven feet square, the tomb consisted of a sitting skeleton, and 32 skulls with respective offerings.  No one knows exactly what to make of the combination.  Reuse of the tomb?  Ritual sacrifice?  Trophy skulls?  Based on the evidence, any conclusion would be mere speculation.

Tingambato is just my type of site.  A place with mystery.  But a mystery built on a human scale.

The city is built on a grid street system.  I should probably put “street” in parentheses because I could reach the walls on each side of the street and still have bent elbows.  But they were as big as they needed to be.  After all, prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Mexicans did not have animal-powered carts.

I still had a bit of time left in the day to explore, so, I decided to take a look at the area’s other lake -- Lake Zirahuén.

The lake is a bit higher than Lake Pátzcuaro.  And its setting is far more dramatic.  The surrounding mountains come right to the edge of the lake.  And the lake is blue.

My travel guide indicates “[a] rough but passable road circles the lake.”  The guide is dated.  Because the road that circles the lake is not only a beautiful brick and cobblestone construction, it is far better than most roads I have encountered in California these days.

And it was well worth taking a trip around the lake for the varied scenery.  It also proved how fickle I am. Yesterday I was in love with the water of Lake Pátzcuaro.  Today I am in love with the alpine beauty of Lake Zirahuén.

My friends Roy and Nancy have a very nice condominium on Lake Tahoe -- where I stayed for a few days on my return trip from Rome.  They believe Lake Tahoe is the most beautiful place in the world.

After my visit to Lake Zirahuén, there may be another entry in that The Big Book of Things Roy Doesn’t Know.