Saturday, February 24, 2018

CVXII. Un Otro Desfile

Another Parade

It had been a quiet, warm and clear Saturday morning. Our patio garden green and peaceful. We had just sat down to breakfast. Then we heard the cohetes—sky rockets—exploding, then the brass and drum band. My wife said, “Parade”, and we hurried to the door. In front of our casa the first thing we saw was a big, wildly colored papier mâché elephant being maneuvered to enable it to pass under low hanging wires. 

We saw a float with the Chili Cook-off queen and her costumed attendants. Another carried a mariachi group and dancers advertising a neighborhood restaurant. Fancy cars and pickups with well-dressed passengers from local businesses and charities. A final energetic band. Everybody friendly and happy, smiling and waving, the two of us leaning out our front door.

The parade was heading up a couple of blocks to the carretera—the main road through town—on its way to the cook-off being held at Tobolandia waterpark where there’d also be the chance to pick up something handmade by local artisans.

The desfile would sure slow down traffic for the next half hour for all the gringo snowbirds in their rental cars, and rich Tapatios from Guadalajara down for the weekend, but what the hell. Slowing down is good for the heart and the soul.

This is a parade-loving village. I'm not sure how typical that is of other Mexican pueblos, but I can see how parades and fiestas contribute to this being one of the top rated countries for happiness, even with the poverty, corruption and cartel violence. Being able to walk out our door or go to the end of the block and hear this gratuitous music and celebration, to see someone we know, a neighbor, to smile at and greet by name helps keep us feeling connected to the things that bring joy. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

CVXI. Carnaval, 2018

Carnival, 2018

Written on Fat Tuesday, two days ago: 

I dodged warily among a half dozen horses at the cobblestoned corner of Aldama and Constitución as I waited late this morning for the Carnaval parade to began. The horses were itching for a chance to dance to a brass and drum band that was warming up. I also kept an eye out for the masked scrum eager to grab an audience member and toss him or her on a mattress on a truck bed full of flour. Congas and maracas practiced beating time for the Carnaval Queen.

An hour after the parade ended I stood in the middle of Constitución, beer in hand, and looked up five long blocks towards the mountains that edge our lake. A bus was bearing down on me, still at a distance, one of the white ones with red trim that announce it’s headed for Chapala. Nothing odd in that, but it was followed by a billowing white cloud, remains of the many kilos of flour thrown at today’s parade bystanders by the slightly scary, grotesquely masked sayacas.

And two hours after that, workers arrived at our casa to carry three huge full and planted terra-cotta pots—each about the size and weight of a burro, and at least as unwieldy—many back-breaking paces across the comedor and sala, through the patio and up twenty-three narrow steps to the mirador. Three small wiry guys laughed and humped their loads without incident—a typical Mexican job. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Tonight there will be music and fiestas all over town.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

CVX. Dos Días Antes de Carnaval

Two Days Before Carnival

Noonish—I still hadn't showered, still in my sweat pants, faded nine-year-old Obama t-shirt, brown knit cardigan for the chill. On my feet, the furry mocs I wear from bed to bathroom—not street-ready—so didn’t feel like going outside when I heard the noise. 

Outside—the sound of a brass band, most likely for one of the pre-Carnaval parades. Carnaval—literally, “Farewell to meat”. The grotesquely masked and costumed Sayacas would be wildly throwing confetti (if you’re lucky) and flour (if you’re not). The municipal delegate tried to calm them down last year. They grew rowdier with a vengeance, but still in fun, especially for the kids shrieking with their love of harmless danger. A tradition, like bullfighting. The parade still ends in Lienzo Charro, the old bullring. 

Not an hour after the brassy procession came the solemn double-noted death knell tolling from the nearby parish church. Someone in the pueblo died this morning. That about says it all from here: Life and Death intertwined and out in public.

Monday, January 1, 2018

CVIX. Felíz Año Nuevo

Happy New Year

From our mirador last night, just after midnight, I saw fireworks from all over our village and heard voices of celebrants in the streets around our house. Today, mid-afternoon, we watched a very good natured New Year’s Day desfile, or parade, that came out of the Seis Esquinas neighborhood and made a big loop through the village streets before returning for a traditional soccer match. On the three-block walk to the parade route we saw ashen remains of last night’s bonfires in the street. We imagined neighbors bringing in the new year together on their doorsteps, maybe some of the same ones I had heard in the night. 

While we waited at the corner of Constitución and Galeana for the parade, Saul, our neighbor and handyman, came by, shook hands, and introducing us to his sister wished us “Felíz Año Nuevo”—Happy New Year. It wasn’t long before the brass band and exploding cohetes signaled the parade’s arrival. Young girls carried a banner announcing the first “float”—it said something about a gift—regalo—for Sr. Trump. What followed was a papier mache figure in black suit and trademark yellow hair, accompanied by two dancing, grinning attendants, one of whom was our friend Mauricio. On the buffoon’s back was pinned a sign—“Hit me”. 

The theme for the rest of the goofy parade relied heavily on the recent Disney movie “Coco” which is set in a small Mexican village: I counted three different pickups with kids in skeleton face makeup striking tableaux with their little abuelas while crooning and pretending to play guitars. Then there was a gang of bicyclists in clown masks and rainbow afro-wigs. More bands.  A "slimer" from "Ghostbusters" rode in another pickup--evidently a holdover from parades past. Dancing girls threw candy and confetti. It seemed nearly every tall float got hung up on a large ficus tree draped over Galeana. The winner for high-concept was nearly a full deck of those Mexican lottery cards with each one come to life in costume and props. The desfile ended with a final brass band and two guys shooting exploding fireworks into the sunny afternoon sky. Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, November 17, 2017

CVIII. Nuestro Viaje a Morelia

Our Trip to Morelia

The Sanctuary of Guadalupe was constructed in the early
1700s, and the elaborate decoration added nearly 200 years
later. Every December 12, the day the Virgin of Guadalupe
is celebrated. hundreds of pilgrims come here to pray.
A couple of times a year we rent a car and take a trip to a place we feel would be interesting to visit, three or four hours away from where we live in central Mexico. The cool mountain village of Mazamitla is a popular place to go, especially when it's hot here by Lake Chapala. Larger cities, tourist spots that are further away--such as Pátzcuaro about 200 miles southeast of us--are also destinations. Last week we had planned to go to Zacatecas, a picturesque colonial silver mining town with an international street theater festival that may or may not have been going on at the time, but a few days before our departure we saw that it was forecast to have highs near 100°F. That wasn't for us, so we decided on a trip to Morelia instead; the capital of Michoacán, it's a city we'd talked about visiting for its large, attractive and mostly intact three to four hundred year-old centro historico.

The drive last week, along with the one to Patzcuaro and others I've taken with the Cazadores de Haciendas group, have acquainted me with the cuota (fee) road system--mostly well-maintained, divided and controlled access highways--that is expensive but much faster than the often potholed, speed-bumped and narrow, twisty roads that go to and through every village. It cost us the equivalent of about $30US each way on the 200 mile cuota between Guadalajara and Morelia, but it took us less than three hours and was a beautiful drive with long vistas in the high dry scrub of central Mexico.

We took a crash course on TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, etc. websites and planned a rough itinerary. It worked out pretty well. Over the four full days there we took one ten minute, $2US taxi ride to a half dozen sites--a rococo sanctuary to the Virgin of Guadalupe, several museums, a park, plazas, and 250-year-old aqueduct, plus an excellent Latin American fusion restaurant. The rest of the time we walked from our centrally located hotel to a cathedral, more plazas, museums, colonial-era architectural wonders, cafes and restaurants, fireworks and free music--lots of music, it's home to a several centuries' old music school and its students both present and past busk all over town. That's not to mention the artisans from all over the state of Michoacán who display and sell their fantastic folk art from a central mercado y museo. As usual though, our primary recreation was soaking in the vibe and people watching.

The rococo ornamentation was added to the santuario a hundred years ago by a local artisan. It is a combination of indigenous clay sculpture techniques along with European-style plaster work. The effect is mind blowing!  The large paintings along each side of the nave appear to show Franciscan friars overseeing converted indígenas. And then you think about the way they were converted-- 

After being awed at the Sanctuary we strolled across the street to Plaza Morelos, named for José Maria Morelos, one of the main heroes of the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. He is the one usually pictured wearing a bandanna on his head. This city, originally called Valladolid, was renamed Morelia in his honor. Here he is on a horse leading his troops against Spain and its forces. In the left background of the picture is a small section of a 250-year-old aqueduct that our taxi driver insisted still carries water. Hmmmm.

The small Jardín de las Rosas was a relaxing daily stop during our trip. We snacked and bantered with a musician at one of the cafes under the green umbrellas. Parks like this, both small and large, abound in this civilized city. The Conservatorio de las Rosas, across the street to the left is the most prestigious music school in Latin America. We were graced with music from their students during our stay.

The trees over the Jardín de las Rosas are background left. This sculpture is on the pedestrian street
running two blocks to the town square with its covered archway promenade. The sculpture seems to
display two acrobats, limbs interestingly arranged, one half-hidden and supporting the other on the
 soles of his feet. The one on top arrests the viewer with her gaze and flyaway hair braid.

These two young guys played some good music while we ate breakfast inside the covered promenade across from the main plaza in background.

Looking toward site of the previous picture--notice the same green awnings--several days later. The fellow checking his cell phone is one of the musicians that accompany the traditional "Dance of the Old Men" in the main plaza. He is likely from the village of  Jarácuaro where the dance has been performed for hundreds of years. It features dancers wearing masks that depict old men who hobble feebly until the music strikes a more lively tune, and then they perform a very energetic tap dance...Behind us now, and pictured just below, is the main plaza with Andador Juarez park in the following photo.

Walking toward the center of Morelia's main plaza with its fountains, benches, trees, and lawns. Paths radiate to all sides and corners from a central gazebo, always the site of children playing. The board at left of the picture advertises the concerts during a two-week long international music festival. We heard some excellent and free jazz by a group from Spain. 

Adjacent to the main plaza is Andador Juarez which comprises three tree-lined lanes for walkers that connect streets north and south of the 200 meter long walkway. The steeple in the center of the picture is part of the city's main place to worship, the Catedral de Morelia, seat of the archdiocese.

Every time we passed through the andador some clown was putting on a show to lots of laughter and usually rapt attention from the children and their parents alike. This picture shows lots of empty bench space because of the strong afternoon sun; most of the audience is on the shaded side of the walkway.

Vendors selling all kinds of cheap plastic toys are a common site around the cathedral, andador and plaza. Another way of making a peso or five is shown by the silver fellow in the center of the photograph, somewhat mimicking the statue's pose upper left. The miner guy stands immobile until people begin to ignore him and then makes a sudden, startling move. He seemed too intimidating, though, to attract much dinero.

On the other side of the cathedral, another toy vendor. Under a large awning behind me, about a hundred chairs were set out inviting passersby to stop and watch a movie--something artsy and in Spanish. The wooden doorway of the cathedral gives entrance to the transept. As people exit the church and pass through the gate they meet the outstretched hat of a beggar displaying his leprosy. 

Several years ago we visited the workshops in Santa Clara del Cobre, a village not far from
Morelia. As its name suggests--cobre means copper--the artisans there specialize in hammered
copper objects such as the plates, bowls and vases displayed here in the Instituto del Artesano
 Both a museum and market, the Institute is housed in a large, nearly five hundred
year-old ex-convent.

This clay-sculpted statue, also in the Institute of Michoacán Artisans, displays a Shiva-like figure, a destroyer consuming and allowing for new creation. Notice the accompanying snakes. The same technique that creates such figures as this also was employed in adorning the Santuario de Guadalupe, pictured at the beginning of this post. Along one hallway of the ex-convent, fifteen former cells have been converted to salesrooms for a like number of villages, each specializing in a particular craft. I think past three and four centuries to those nuns and novitiates padding over these same stone floors.

Every Saturday night the lights come on at the cathedral following a fireworks display. The streets around centro historico are packed with people for an hour before.

Our final afternoon in Morelia we attended a free jazz concert by a Spanish group, Tempus Fugit Cuarteto. What a treat! It was one of the first concerts of a two-week long festival, mostly held here in a repurposed sixteenth century monastery. On two sides of the vast courtyard (out of the picture) were several dozen booths serving excellent quality and inexpensive food and drinks.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

CVII. Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead

Someone must have died in the village today. We heard the death knell from the church this afternoon—slowly repeating the same low and then ascending notes for a minute or so. We immediately thought of Vicente and hurried to the front door to look down the block to his casa, relieved that there wasn’t the activity you’d expect if he’d just passed away. It’s been several weeks since we’ve last seen him sitting in his daughter’s store looking out at the street. We used to always greet each other when I walked by, but the last couple of times he’s been there his eyes were closed and jaws slack.

What a coincidence to die on Día de los Muertos.

Later in the evening, after a trip to the plaza visiting the ofrendas—offerings—to the beloved departed, we passed the person’s wake for whom the bells were earlier tolling, mourners sitting in folding chairs under an awning taking up most of the cobblestone street facing the house where the body lay. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CVI. Construyendo Un Monstruo Gigante Pero Amable Que Se Llama "Al"

Building a Giant But Friendly Monster Called "Al"

Al to scale against the front of our casa.
He's looking down at a señora y niño.
The small model is made of clay. One
of the first steps in this project was
determining the size of the finished
piece, and thus the scale ratio: 1:12.
For the past three months much of the free time I'd previously used to write in this blog has been spent in my recently renovated taller, or workshop.  I've been working on a large alebrije, a fantastical creature of a type popular here in Mexico. Once finished--and its completion date keeps getting rolled back--Al will go up on our rooftop where he'll lean over its parapet looking down at the street traffic below.

Progress has been much slower than anticipated for several reasons. I've been scaling up from a small model, and have never before attempted anything of this size and complexity. Deciding upon, and then finding, the materials and tools I need has taken a lot of time, due to fewer and different things being available, the language barrier and my lack of a car.

Big Al will primarily be painted turquoise, span over 4 feet
from hand to hand, and rise almost 3 feet above the parapet,
sticking several feet over its edge.
The primary medium I finally decided on is one-inch thick, pink polyurethane insulating foam in 4' X 8' sheets. It took awhile to find it. After some rigorous math to determine how much was needed I ordered ten sheets delivered from the nearest of five Guadalajara Home Depot stores found online. I would have preferred three-inch thick sheets like I've used in the States for carving, but insulation requirements here are not as severe as up north and this was lo más grueso (the thickest) available locally.

Some friends brought back a half dozen glue cartridges (cartuchos de pegemento) from Texas, but that was soon used up. Fortunately local ferreterias, AKA hardware stores, carry a similar product called No Más Clavos that seems up to the task of bonding the insulation sheets into a secure laminate. Likewise I bought a utility knife with a blade that can be extended far enough to be useful cutting multiple sheets. A cepillo de alambre (wire brush) has proved a very excellent tool for shaping the foam. Plus, toothpicks have been indispensable.

Big Al's body composed of 25 sheets of
glued together pink foam
Now that a good deal of the sculpting is finished it doesn't seem like much of a big deal, but at each new step along the way I've been consumed by consideration of all the practicalities. The decisions about what needed doing next and how to do it originally assumed monumental proportions in my obsessive 3AM mind. As the work has progressed though--and of course I've made mistakes--each miscue has helped me loosen up a bit and realize that que sera, sera, which is Mexican for "No worries".

Creating the blocky laminate of Al's body and arms has mostly involved numerous measurements of the small model and an equal number of multiplications by twelve to achieve the same look at a bigger scale--all very left-brain type of activities. And then cutting to measure through many meters of foam taking care not slice off part of a finger.

The wire brush, upper right, is the primary tool for shaping the
foam. I got carried away and removed too much around where
the PVC shoulders jut out from the body. The channels around
the pipe were filled will spray foam and a 4" top added.
After I finished the body's laminate, and before attaching the arms, I used the wire brush to smooth the many overlapped edges and create the shape of Al's upper torso. Viewing the sinuous convex and concave lines was almost shamefully satisfying, but I soon discovered that I should have postponed this gratification until the entire figure was finished and looking like some kind of Lego creature. As it was, I took off too much foam so had to apply additional cuboids of polyurethane where the PVC armature attaches to the body.

I've just finished covering those arms with oblongs of foam sheet, each about the size of a large paperback book. This involved challenging calculations to determine the odd angles at which I needed to cut in order to accommodate the twists and turns of the arm "bones". And then actually making those cuts on cubes of foam. All that remains of this portion of the obra, or piece of work, is to complete the laminate for Al's elongated neck and head--about 1' X 2' X 3'. Then I can indulge myself shaping and smoothing the contours, creating the expressive details of the mouth, eyes, and hands.

This is about where I am now. Note the small model on top of
Big Al. Al's neck and head will be skewered by the protruding
PVC pipe.
When I'm satisfied with the sculpture and feel good about Al's size and look--including how he'll fit at the parapet--I'll try to figure out a coating for the water-resistant foam that will provide a good base to begin the painting part of the project. Alebrijes achieve much of their effect from intricately painted designs and wild colors as the one pictured below can attest. That will be a whole new and fun thing to learn and practice.

I figure the finished whole will weigh about fifty pounds. Hoisting it up to the roof will be done with block and tackle. I'm eagerly anticipating that event!

This is an carved wooden alebrije made by Antonio Mandarin from Arrozola, Oaxaca. I've had him for about twenty years.
He's about six inches tall.