Friday, August 31, 2012

steve meets indiana jones

It really was a new dawn.

At least, for me on this trip to San Miguel.

Last year I wanted to visit the prime archaeological site of the area -- Cañada de la Virgen (Canyon of the Virgin).  It had just opened to the public last year, but I could not arrange a visit before I headed south to Pátzcuaro.

I was not going to make the same mistake this year.  Late last week I started the process of setting up a guided tour.

I only had two requirements. 

First, I wanted the guide to be Albert Coffee, who has worked with the archaeologists who restored the site. 

Second, I did not want to travel with a group.  I had a lot of very specific questions that I knew would simply complicate a group tour.

It turned out to be a wise choice -- both requirements.

Albert knows his stuff.  On the drive out, I told him that I was aware there were quite a few controversies about the site.  Just as there are about almost every mesoamerican site in Mexico.  And we will get to some of those.  Albert has some strong opinions of his own.

The site has severe restrictions on how long each tour group can be on site.  When we arrived, the director informed us that the on-site time had been reduced almost by half.  That meant that we needed to rush.

I was glad I had spent the time walking up and down Babs's hill for the past two weeks because there is a long, hilly walk to get to the site.  Last year my ankle may not have been up to the task.

The first controversy surrounding the site is who built it.  The early theory was that the site was associated with the Toltecs.  Of course, that simply left the place in the middle of the long-running controversy about the Toltecs.

The dates were dodgy if it was a Toltec site.  It was built between 300 and 1000 AD.  And abandoned in 1050.  No one knows what cased the collapse of the local civilization.  But like Teotihuacán and the Mayan city-states, the sudden collapse was undoubtedly due to a multitude of complex causes.

I could easily see the various building periods evident on each building.

They were built in three stages. 

The first was with colorful block stones that were transported from a quarry near Guanajuato -- over thirty miles away.  Without the aid of domesticated animals or the wheel. 

The second phase was built with local basalt.  This is a volcanic area. 

The third stage, that was interrupted, was built with ordinary brick.

One theory is that Otomi-hñahñu Indians were responsible for the construction. There appear to be Oaxaca influences -- such as the presence of sunken patios.

The truth is -- no one knows.

What we do know is the purpose for the site.  It is a giant astrological calendar.  And by giant, I mean massive.

The buildings are designed to track the cycles of the moon and planets.  For example, the major pyramid (the thirteen skies house) is a moon clock and a planet movement calculator.

But the surrounding hills are also part of the calculator.  They measured the equinoxes, when crops should be planted, when crops should be harvested, and when the rainy seasons were to begin. 

That means whoever built the complex had watched the seasons over a long period of time and then placed each building in a very exact position.

One of the most interesting aspects of the site is how the buildings reflect the shape of the surrounding topography.  The thirteen skies house reflects the outline of a major volcano from one side and a mesa on the other.  The house of the winds repeats a small hill on the horizon.

Archaeologists have discovered enough information to understand some of the ritual surrounding the site.  Only about 150 elite priests lived on the site.  But, during periodic rituals, others would participate.

A one kilometer causeway begins in a small canyon below the site -- representing the underworld.  The procession would then climb the hill to the sanctuary, stopping at least twice along the way to perform ceremonies.

The site also contains some interesting burials.  A man, probably noble, who was decapitated after death and had his hands and feet cut off.  A young woman buried in the trappings of a warrior.  A man, wrapped in a plant fiber bundle, buried in a chamber at the top of the pyramid -- a thousand years after he died.

Each burial raises more questions than it answers.  But the bundled man is evocative of Oaxaca -- and the Inca.  And the girl warrior shows the site had a feminine connection.

Both the thirteen skies house and the house of the winds have an interesting architectural attribute. Open patios face each building.  If each building was tipped into its respective patio, the building would fit exactly into the patio.

The symbolism is common in mesoamerican sites.  The masculine/temple/mountain sky finding completeness in feminine/patio/earth/cave.

There are some -- Albert is amongst them -- who argue the patios were filled with water to act as mirrors and reflect that relationship.  Again, it is controversial.  But there is no disputing the spatial relationship between the buildings and the patios.

Time constraints keep us moving along at a brisk pace.  But I learned a lot about the site and got to experience its feel.  It is one of the sites that still allows visitors to climb its steep steps.  If the time constraints stay in place, that may be difficult for groups to accomplish.

I would gladly go back to the site to learn more.

All in all it was a beautiful day on Thursday.  Including the dawn.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

my trip to san antonio

Last Sunday in living the cliché,  I headed the post with a panorama photograph of some of San Miguel's churches.

The shot was from the parking lot of the community church I attend when I am in town.  I have always wondered about the large white church on the hill  in the center of the photograph.  Like a Las Vegas hotel, it is further away than it looks.

But I finally got up close and personal with the building today.

I am certain you remember Al and Stew from peace center.  They asked if I would join them for lunch on Wednesday at a food truck. 

Who could turn down an offer like that?  The taco trucks in Salem serve up the best Mexican food in town -- even though I cannot convince some of my acquaintances to eat there.

Rather than spending time looking for parking, I decided to hike down the hill and across town to our meeting place.  I made much better time than I had anticipated. 

So, I decided to take a look around the neighborhood.

When I turned up one street, there it was.  San Antonio Parish Church.  Sitting on that hill since 1620. 

But you can see in the photograph at the top of this post, it has had some recent face lifts.  Such as the giant Bulova wrist watch on its  façade.

Unfortunately, the church was closed.  The interior will have to wait for a future visit. 

And there will be future visits.  If nothing else to dine at Hierbabuena -- the "food truck."

My first impression when seeing the truck was that it looked a lot like the Salem taco trucks -- if a bit spiffier.  After all, how much variation can there be in kitchens on wheels?

The truck sat next to several tables and chairs under an awning.  Nothing ostentatious.

The breakfast menu looked like what you would expect from a small café in Mexico.

But we were there for lunch. 

The owners have wisely limited their specials for lunch each day.  They had a vegetarian dish the details of which escaped my attention.

However, the meat choice perked up my ears.  Meat loaf with mashed potatoes and a mixed green salad.  Comfort food maximized.

Any lingering impression that this was merely a taco truck were gone with the first bite. 

The salad was filled with tiny flavorful orange and yellow tomatoes.  I am not a salad fan.  But I could have made a meal of the salad alone.

The meat loaf was moist and subtly spiced, and the mashed potatoes were creamy smooth.  The meal was filling without leaving me feeling as if I needed to be rolled back up the hill to the house.

I was going to stop there.  But Al ordered a flan that looked too good to pass up.  And it was. 

Unlike many of the flans I have tested in Mexico that have enough flour to qualify as cake,  this was pure custard.  Even creamier and smoother than the mashed potatoes. 

The conversation was even more interesting than the food.  We talked about the Salvation Army.  The Kroc connection to Chicago.  The recent narco burning barricades in Guadalajara.  My benighted legislative race in 1988.  And the odd state of politics in The States.  We concluded we were content to be living our lives in Mexico.

But the chat was cut far too short.  Stew needed to get to appointment.  It is probably fortunate for them they had an exit strategy.  I could easily have monopolized their afternoon.

It is days like this that remind me of how much I enjoy the simple pleasures of intelligent conversation played against the background of good food.

It also turned out to be a very enlightening day.  On my way back up the hill I discovered one of Mexico's mysteries.  I now know how Our Lady of Guadalupe gets herself up on all those walls.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

hidden treasures of san miguel

Today was going to be merely a lunch day in San Miguel.

Babs gave me a tip on an inexpensive restaurant with a good menu.  I think she was a bit concerned that I was spending too much in restaurants and giving the impression that San Miguel is an expensive place to live.

When I headed down the hill, I was a bit too early for lunch.  So, I did as my blogger pal, Islagringo, always recommends.  I whipped out my camera  to see if I could find anything unusual.

And I did.  I do not know how many times I have looked at the spires and domes that peek over the trimmed trees of the Allende Plaza.  But I noticed something new in the photograph at the top of this post.

The dark gray block in the center is the bell tower of Nuestra Señora de la Salud.  But I noticed something new -- to me --just to its right.  A dome.

The dome is the cuploa of the church.  But I have never noticed it before.  I tried walking around the blocks surrounding the church.  There is no better vantage point.

That is a shame.  As you can see, in a close-up shot, it is beautiful.  With its horse guards evocative lantern and intricate tiles.

But I guess it was built to glorify God.  Not us.

That got me to thinking what else I might be missing by passing through too quickly.  So, I took my time sauntering about.  And this is what I found.

The doors of the San Francisco church are as old as the building.  Massive.  Well-crafted.  But I never noticed that the inner doors each have a stained glass panel at the top.

Stained glass is not very common in Mexican churches.  And these panels are not old.  This one, for instance, was created in 1999.  But it is really unique.  A cross between medieval and Byzantine -- with a contemporary twist.

As I was wandering through the plaza in front of La Parroquia, San Miguel's odd landmark church, the bells started ringing. 

"Ringing" is the wrong word.  Pealing.  As loud as any church bells I have ever heard.

I looked up to the bell loft to witness two men creating the noise.  One was pulling a rope attached to the clapper of a large bell.  The other was spinning a smaller bell.

My workers' compensation background went into full action -- wondering if they were wearing ear protection.  It is easy to understand why Quasimodo's favorite word was "Que?"

It appears even the pigeons were startled by the bells.

The bells are intended to call the faithful to mass.  But it can attract those of a different faith as well.

I sat down to watch a small company climb the stairs from the street.  Young people.  Several more attractive than the others.

Beautiful women.  Fashionable clothes.  Young men with cameras.

I have seen the mix before on the Melaque beach.  It was a fashion shoot.  From the clothes, it appeared the client must have had a heavy investment in denim -- and slightly dangerous shoes.

If you want to sell clothes, put them on an attractive young woman.  If you want to sell sculptures, put them on the balcony of your gallery.

With all of my slow walk gazing, I almost forgot why I had come down the hill.  But my stomach reminded me.  It was lunch time.

Babs had recommended that I try Ole Ole.  It was easy enough to find on Calle Loreto.  Near the covered market.

As you might deduce from the name, the restaurant's theme is bull fighting.  There are bull heads, matador posters, and a suit of lights to round out the theme.

I had a huge portion of chicken fajitas with some of the best salsa verde I have enountered in Mexico.  (My brother makes the best that I have ever tasted.)

And Babs was correct about the price.  The meal with two Coke Zeroes set me back $115 (MX) -- about $8.70 (US).

It was a day of small observations. 

They may not have been as hidden as the dome.  But each one added a bit more to my enjoyment in San Miguel.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

from the sublime --

Having undergone a Lourdes-like experience with my right ankle, I decided to put it to the test.

By visiting El Charco del Ingenio -- San Miguel's botanical garden.  220 acres stretching across dry chaparral, wetlands, and a canyon.

I chronicled my visit last year in going wild in san miguel -- concluding: "I will not get back to the reserve before I leave.  But when I return to San Miguel, it will be top on my list to simply spend a day enjoying the type of day that requires no opera glasses or forks."

When I visited last year, the reserve was not in its best shape.  Rain had been spotty and a large portion of the reserve had been burned in a wild fire.

This year was different.  The entire reserve was in high form.  The reservoirs were filled.  The recent rains had turned the plants into incredibly varied shades of green.  And the desert had recovered from its burn.

I did not take a guided tour on this visit.  I wanted to take my time in each area of the reserve.  And I did.  For five hours. 

The reserve's beauty is rather stark.  And often subtle in its contrasts.  There are plenty of cacti.  But delicate wild flowers grow in their shade.

Most of the reserve is wild.  "Wild," of course is a relative term.  The entire reserve is protected.  So, even the wild plants in the chaparral are cultivated to a degree.

One of my joys is to discover the unexpected.  Such as, how clever the local wildlife is.  To protect its eggs and young from desert predators, this bird built itself a cozy condominium with its own security system.

The reserve has set aside one area to nurture plants that seem to be more comfortable with the manicuring hand of a gardener.  It also gives an amateur, like myself, an opportunity to compare the interesting variations in broad plant families.

With all of these plants, there were plenty of bees, butterflies, and birds about.  The bees and butterflies were quite visible.  But the birds managed to stay concealed.  And they were one reason I was there.  I could certainly hear plenty of songs from the shade.

The birds I did spot were extremely camera (or people) shy.  This was my best (and almost only) shot.

The true glory of the reserve is the canyon formed by water cutting through two layers of volcanic rock.  Without the water, this would be a far more desolate land.

But there is water. And it seems to play well to the whimsy of the volunteers who care for this gem.

After walking and watching for about two hours, I stopped at one of my favorite spots in the park.  Just on the other side of the reservoir dam is a series of step waterfalls that form a natural amphitheater.

The caretakers have added a bench in the shade of a mesquite to allow hikers to sit and allow the sound of rushing water to wash over and sooth the souls of those who are thirsty. 

I sat there for over an hour.  Reading a bit of Billy Collins's poetry and a few pages of Nien Cheng's classic Life and Death in Shanghai.  Both books seemed appropriate to the experience.

Refreshed, I hiked on to the end of the canyon where the water empties out into San Miguel.  This is the view from the edge of the canyon.  If you look carefully in the lower left of the photograph, you will see my temporary abode.

On my walk back to the center, I found this shot that manages to catch all three ecosystems in one view. The canyon (with its amphitheater waterfall) to the left.  The wetlands to the upper right.  And the chaparral to the lower right. 

The reserve is not the most dramatic scenery I have visited.  But there is something about the place.

The local Indians believed that a spirit, el Chan, lived at the bottom a pool fed by an underground spring in the canyon --and highly revered this area.  The reserve takes its name from the spirit.

In my faith, God is omnipresent.  But there are places where He seems to closely connect with his creations.  For me, this is one of those places.

Where beauty can be found in the most unusual places.

-- to the sublime

After spending a day playing nature boy, I decided to put away the bucolic in favor of the urbane.

And that meant spending the evening in one of San Miguel de Allende's fabled restaurants.

One of the joys of coming to the highlands -- and to San Miguel, in particular -- is the availability of various cuisines.  You name it, San Miguel either has it -- or it just closed a month ago.

But availability does not always equal quality.  Just because there is world food does not mean that it is world class food.

Monday night was dinner at Hank's.  Some of  you may know it by its former name -- Harry's.  I often wondered how the restaurant got away with placing the genitive "Harry's" so close to the noun "bar."  But it is now just Hank's.

I am always a bit nervous when a restaurant in a foreign country announces itself in English.  In this case, as "New Orleans Cafe & Oyster Bar."  But I had a hankerin' for all things Cajun.  So, in I went.

The decor of the dining room hits the right notes.  As posh and understated as a New Orleans drawing room.  With French doors opening to the street to allow the breeze to clear the air.

I could have done without the music that drifted in from the bar.  Mainly golden oldies like "Pretty Woman."  The type of tunes you would hear at the airport hotel bar in Spokane.


But I did not come here to chew the scenery.  (I reserve that for my theatrical appearances.)  I came for the food.

The restaurant offers a wide range of dishes.  But the daily special menu caught my eye.  I ordered what I thought would be a simple starter (tomato and bell pepper soup) and an intriguingly titled "grilled pork tenderloin with lime and kalamata reduction sauce."

Before the soup arrived, a basket of bread was ceremoniously presented to me.  I am not a fan of most Mexican breads.  As a rule, they taste like hamburger buns.

But I had hope.  This looked like a thickly-sliced baguette.  It was not.  And either it had been toasted or it had been sitting out for some time because it had the texture of zweiback.  What saved the course was a creamy garlic butter that helped restore some moisture to the bread.

And I was wrong about the soup.  It was anything but simple.  And that is a compliment to the chef.

The tomatoes and bell pepper were pureed into a perfect velvety soup.  But, with the first sip, I knew there was a more complex layer.  There was a delightful peppery taste that could not have been squeezed out of a bell pepper.  The chef had mixed in just a bit of smoked chipotle to make the soup a hit as the opening act.

Serving a home run starter can be dangerous.  Everything that follows may suffer.

That was not the case with the pork.  Its presentation was just right.  This is Cajun food.  A rustic approach hit the right chord.

The pork was cut in three large portions, served over couscous and surrounded by wild mushrooms.  It had the feel of a hunter's meal.

With the exception of the reduction.  There was only a hint of lime.  But every bite that included a kalamata olive exploded in my mouth.

I attended officer training school with a Cajun from Lake Charles.  We were tklking about subtle tastes in haute cuisine one day, and he said: "My daddy once told me if you don't want to taste something in your food, don't put it in.  If you put it in, you better taste it big."

And that was exactly what this pork dish was all about.  Tender meat wooed to give up its pork-ness.  Ad then infused with a melange of tastes that complimented every bite.

What was even better, I took half of it home for my lunch.

I could have -- and should have -- stopped there.  

I am not a desert fan.  I generally do not appreciate sweets.  And I do not care for the taste of cream cheese or chocolate.  That just about puts most desert menus on the do not disturb list.

But I was interested in the bread pudding.  It turned out to be an okay choice.

It was moist with raisins and a dash of nutmeg to make it interesting.  And the chef was wise enough to add his hard sauce in a pool around the pudding, instead of drowning it.

It would have been a better evening had I left the meal on the high note of the pork.

For all of that (and two cans of Coke Zero), the bill was $410 (Mx) -- or about $31 (US).  On par with what I would pay in Salem, but far less than a similar restaurant in New Orleans.

World class food?  No.  But it could hold its own in almost any city in the world.  With the exception of southern Louisiana.

Monday, August 27, 2012

living the cliché

Yesterday while waiting for church service to begin, I wandered to the edge of the parking lot to see if I could capture a panorama of some of San Miguel churches.

Oxford may be the city of dreaming spires.  But San Miguel is the town of Freudian imagery.

Of course, the weather was not going to cooperate.  I either had a blotchy shade or sun with washed-out clouds in the background.  I waited patiently for the shot.  And this is what I got.

When I saw the final product, I remembered my blogger chum Billie complaining that she felt most of her photographs had turned into one cliché after another.  If you have seen her work, you know how wrong she is in her self-criticism.

But I know what she means.  It is really difficult, when wandering around with a camera, to avoid getting caught in the Mexico of clichés.

Anyone who has ever tried to capture the spirit of Mexico with a camera understands the problem.  Old man with burro.  Piled pottery.  Peculiar church façade designed by an amateur and inexplicably loved by tourists and locals.

All of that is Mexico, of course.  But Mexico is also an amalgam of its less-celebrated parts.

For example, take a walk through my favorite church in San Miguel.  Santa Ana.  It gets no rave reviews from tourists.  In fact, it does not appear in most tour books.

Its exterior looks like one of those sixteenth century churches built in Yucatan by the first wave of priests.  Part ark.  Part fortress.

But it is a relatively new addition to the local church community.  It was built in 1847 -- right in the middle of the Mexican-American War -- as the church for a homeless children shelter.

When I was here last year, the church struck me as a very special place (faith, friends, fiesta).  And it is.

Part of it is the reverence people show when visiting.  It is a place of worship.  I was the only overweight white guy with a camera in the church during both rather lengthy visits.

But there are other reasons.  I admire the plain exterior.  No windows.  No steeple.  Just sturdy plain walls -- looking as if they may have been painted by the local French's mustard representative.

My Quaker soul is always pleased with humble worship space.  But it is more that that.  The church is a bit like the less-attractive sister who develops genuine charm rather than a shallow façade.

On this trip, I took a closer look at the church.  The church has a small courtyard with what looks like a columbarium.  I found that a bit surprising because I thought the Catholic church was opposed to cremation.

A man was sitting at a desk near the back of the church.  When I asked if he could speak English, he looked up me with that type of glare designed to deter curious tourists.

But I persevered and tortured him with my Spanish.  And that was good enough for him.  He joined me in the courtyard to answer my inartfully-constructed questions.

From what I understand, the courtyard is a sanctioned columbarium.  The church's position on cremation is -- well, how do I say this diplomatically? -- complex.

While I had his attention, I asked him about the modified flying buttresses on the church's courtyard wall.  They looked structural to me, but I thought they might have been archways for a demolished portion of the orphanage.

My helpful guide informed me they were structural.  When I asked him why there were no buttresses on the street wall, he took me outside to show me the brick pillars that perform the same function, but through different engineering dynamics.

I may have missed a few of the subtleties due to my limited Spanish skills.  But he taught me two new things about Santa Ana.  Both its function and its form.

And, of course, that is how we avoid cliché in life.  By learning something new about our surroundings each day.

If my photographs reflect nothing but cliché, that is fine with me.  As long as the life I live can rise about it.  Now and then.

But also to remember that these buildings serve a real purpose in offering care to the needy.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

peace center

I am not a planner. 

It is just not in my nature.  And when I do it, I sound like an obsessive-compulsive in a 12-step program.

Choosing where to live in Mexico is just one example.  I have drafted several posts (making the grade), complete with lists and charts, chronicling the thought process that led me to Melaque.

Of course, it was all baloney.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc baloney.  All I was doing was justifying my decision after the fact.

Not that it matters.  I have found joys in Melaque that I never could have predicted.

When I travel, I realize there are activities I thoroughly enjoy; and I miss not having them in Melaque.  The cultural events of San Miguel are the most obvious.

But some sneak up on me.

On Friday night I had dinner with Al of Rancho Santa Clara and Stew at -- where else? -- Rancho Santa Clara.  I rode out with two of Babs's long-time friends, Fred and Ron, who I had met in Melaque.

Rancho Santa Clara is a thirty minute drive from San Miguel.  But a world away.  I think of Melaque as being in the country.  But this was the real country.

A harmonious balance of traditional adobe and Wright-inspired Prairie details, the house takes advantage of the panoramas -- one of the virtues of country living.  But the chief virtue, for me, is the sense of solitude.  Not monastic solitude.  But that feeling of being content with one's place in nature.

Nature there is aplenty.  The first thing I wanted to see was Stew's bee hive.  Al has written eloquently of Stew's relationship with his bees.

I was not disappointed.  I have long been fascinated with bees.  My grade school friend, Neil, had a bee hive on his property -- along with a pet skunk.  Watching the bees shut down their home for the evening brought back a lot of misspent youthful adventures.

As we sat on the patio dining on cold beet soup, a mixed green salad with tomatoes fresh from the garden, grilled salad, and a tangy potato salad, I realized how much I enjoyed a style of life I do not have in Melaque. 

And it was not just the view.  Or the food.  Or the company.  Or even the scintillating conversation.  It was the feeling of belonging in a place and time.  What we Quakers call finding peace at the center.

Of course, I did not really want to be the lord of Rancho Santa Clara.  It is not a place for a single guy.

Sharing the experience was enough for me.  But I need to file it away in my "what do you really want?" file.

And, like every place, Rancho Santa Clara has its thorns.  In this case, real ones.  I suppose as defensive mechanisms against grazing animals.  And very effective on the arms of unwary visitors.

Perhaps those scratches were simply a reminder that there is no perfect place to live.  But we can continue enjoying the pursuit.

And to thank people like Al and Stew for graciously sharing the peace they have discovered.