Sunday, March 5, 2017

XCVII. ¡Carnaval!


Here in Ajijic, Carnaval seems mostly about the Sayacas. At least they, together with their consort Sayacos, are the engine that drove last week’s parade down at the end of the block, along Constitución, on its way to Seis Esquinas neighborhood. Sayacas are reputed to be inspired by, and descended from, in one way or another, a pre-Hispanic village matriarch. Nowadays they are represented by outlandish actors in garish masks and wigs, balloon bosoms and skirts, who—along with their ancient and bewhiskered partners—throw flour and confetti at anyone who catches their attention among the numerous crowd along the desfile route. They were interspersed among a sometimes motley group of floats, marching brass and drum bands, and finally the horseback riding charros. Lent is supposed to be a period of self-denial, charitable works, and pious reflection, but if past five days have been any guide, it’s also a time for cohetes—fireworks—and neighborhood fiestas.

These masked sayucas (females) and sayucos (males) are a popular feature at Carnaval time. They might grab you for a dance, or--more likely--throw confetti or flour all over you. The fellow on the left looks to have a traditional horse hair bead flowing from his mask. From what I've read, people playing these clownish parts enjoy the freedom of having virtually no one know who they really are.
These happy people are throwing flower at us spectators, and it looks like there's been some blowback, too...Uh-oh. The barded fellow, center picture, is looking right at me. I bet he's reaching in his bag for more flour to toss in my direction!
Always lots of brass in these street bands. The designated water carrier is taking a break.
La Reina--the Queen--of Ajijic's Carnaval.
You can always tell where groups of Sayucos are gathered by the clouds of harina, or flour, in the air.
Salsa dancers from a local studio provide a respite from getting clobbered with harina.
You ride the "bull" and get doused with flour. The fellow, center right, with the broad brimmed sombrero and white t-shirt wheels and bucks the contraption. The sayuco, left, with his right hand in the harina pouch might be aiming to throw some at the girl taking his picture. 
Lots of beautiful young girls--always a hit!
This is horse country! No parade is complete without the charros, who blessedly ride their steeds at the end of the desfile.
Another happy, warm and sunny day here in the heart of Mexico...but here comes 40 days of Lent, full of self-denial.

Monday, January 30, 2017

XCVI. De las Semillas a la Piel

From Seeds to Skin

Seed packet
The past couple of weeks some tree around here—possibly what is commonly known as a Flame Tree—has unleashed its seed packets onto our patio and even into the house. They are each about half the size of a postage stamp. The seed itself looks like a small oat flake; it’s enclosed in clear “cellophane” so thin the dang thing can blow in the wind for more than a block.

Exhausted from a recent morning’s exercises on the mirador, I lay on my back and watched one of these little gems appear around a palm tree, twinkling the reflected sun, blown by a light breeze to land near my mat. A minute later I was doing the pushup part of a burpee and as I’m going down I see a small centipede in front of my nose. Without my glasses I can just make out five of the fifty tiny legs, evenly spaced along each side of its body, moving in unison with the leg on the other side—like the oars of a boat. After a short stroke the legs in front of those five pairs move, and so on, in a wave-like motion that makes the bug appear to undulate as it moves forward.

And then—still in pushup position—I look down at what I’d been thinking was a remarkably fit belly, and see skin sagging like twin turkey wattles—another natural wonder.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

XCV. Día de San Sebastián

Saint Sebastian's Day

I danced with a man dressed as a woman yesterday. In the plaza, to a waltz from a live marching band. He was wearing a cheap wig and cartoonish papier maché mask. Big balloon bosoms. He treated me kindly. After a long minute I bowed out more-or-less gracefully and he picked another partner from the appreciative crowd. Then came the Aztec dancers. And then more oompah music. We were celebrating San Sebastian's Day here in our village. Four men would carry his effigy into the little capilla on the square, followed by two others walking with a plank connecting them, balanced on their shoulders with bowls of food on top. This is one of those nine-day--carrying the little saint around the village--holidays. Our friends emailed to say they had fun at the party's continuation later last night.

Three thousand miles away there was a tense inauguration of the USA's new president. Here, all was smiles and good fun. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

XCIV. Nuestro Viaje a México, Sexto y Último Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Sixth and Final Day

Day 6 - It’s been another tough night for mi querida esposa y su enferma, but at least no worse than the one before, and tonight we’ll sleep in our own bed. We dawdle after awakening, shower and go downstairs to Starbucks for a familiar breakfast. Back upstairs we pack and tidy, then Salvador stores our bags so we can pick them up after visiting two nearby museums that will prove to be among our favorites from the whole viaje.

Diego Rivera's huge mural, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central", shows a melange of mostly historical characters. There are so many details that one can examine the painting for an hour or more, as we did. 
A detail from the center of the picture showing from left to right: in blue, the
daughter of longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, next to her stepmother
in red; José Martí doffing his hat--Cuban poet, writer and intellectual, his
socialist writings inspired Mexicans; Diego Rivera as a young boy, appearing
a little too brainy and way immature, which I think of as his self image;
behind him with her hand protectively on his shoulder is a sensual Frida
Kahlo holding a yin/yang symbol; holding little Diego's hand is La Calavera
Catrina (calavera means "skull", Catrina was slang for a Mexican upper class
woman putting on European airs) who is being eyed by that daughter in blue;
finally, arm in arm with Catrina is her creator, José Guadalupe Posada, a social
commentator and political cartoonist.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera primarily contains one monumental piece of work by the master—a fifty foot long by fifteen foot high mural entitled, in English, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central”. Alameda is a Spanish word for tree-lined walkway referring to the park next to where we’ve been staying, and adjacent to the museum itself. It’s also a place where Diego Rivera used to play as a child, and where all of the mostly notable individuals pictured in the mural might have strolled or strode themselves at some time over the 400 years before it was completed in 1947. 

As his title suggests, Rivera’s work invites comparison to Seuret’s iconic pointillist painting. The setting is similar, but the former piece is much less mannered and vastly more populated.
Another detail from the mural, showing a
variety of historical (and other) figures
including conquistador Hernán Cortés, with
blood on his hands; Mariana Violante de
Carbajal, a Jew who was burned at the
stake for heresy on the ground of what is
now the Alameda Park; and Benito Juarez, a
popular and liberal early president of the
The mural is worthy of long contemplation. Even though it is immense and crowded, it is pleasing to the eye from a distance. The soft colors and sinuous branches of the park’s foliage in most of the top half of the painting contrast, yet balance, with the crush of humanity at the bottom. But more than anything, the detail and particularity of each individual portrait, as well as the interaction among them, invite close inspection and discovery.

“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon…” was originally a commission to hang in the restaurant of the elegant Hotel Prado but that building was damaged so heavily in the 1985 earthquake it had to eventually be demolished. The 70-ton mural with its plaster base and steel girding was rescued—pulled out a second story opening using casters and cranes, and trucked across the street to the museum that had been purpose-built to display it after restoration. What a sight that would have been!

As we leave the museum, and the Alameda Park itself, we recross the street and pass by the site of the old Hotel Prado where a modern Hilton now stands. In retrospect I’m amazed anew at how much history of consequence has passed on these grounds. At the time, though, we were just trying to keep it together until we got on the plane for home.

Next stop is the last stop: Museo de Arte Popular. Whereas the previous art works we have visited were completed by masters whose names are well-known—Kahlo, Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco—the pieces we see now are created by virtually anonymous craftspeople, but no less accomplished for that. They are most often much smaller than the grand works mentioned previously, thus requiring less expense in materials and hired help, but their imagination and execution do not take a back seat.

Detail below.

Greeting visitors to the Museum of Popular Art is this VW Bug completely covered in beadwork, both inside and out. The patterns recall Huichol Indian designs that are popular handcraft items.
A variety of indigenous traditional dress, or ropa típica, from throughout the country. Many are still worn today.
Wooden and ceramic pieces featuring El Diablo, either getting his way or being undone, are popular items. I regret I did not get the names of these artists.
Colored paper and foil, yarn, and bric-a-brac are the mediums in this piece. Detail, below.
Detail of above piece
These fantastical papier maché creatures from the State of Mexico are called alebrijes. Both the idea and name for weird beings such as these came in a dream to a Mexico City artisan, Pedro Linares. Craftspeople in Oaxaca adapted the style to their copal wood carvings. 
Large alebrijes left over from the museum-sponsored La Noche de los Alebrijes, a yearly parade and celebration held the end of October just before Días de los Muertos. In addition to the parade with its accompanying bands, there are Alebrije Puppet and Alebrije Short Story contests. Sounds like a whole lot of fun! 
This final visit is a suitably surrealistic ending to our adventure in Mexico City. The flight home is thankfully short and Paolo, one of the Miramontes sons, greets us at the airport. The next day our dear, but bossy, housekeeper drives my ailing wife to our doctor who confirms her pneumonia. Now, nearly three weeks later, she is doing fine.

Along the jagged shoreline of Lago de Chapala, near where it
meets the horizon, is our little village, and somewhere in its
midst is our casa preparing to welcome us home.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

XCIII. Nuestro Viaje a México, Quinto Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Fifth Day

Organ grinders work the downtown streets about one two-man
team to a block. One guy puts his hat out for money among the
people crowding by, while the other turns the crank. They're
always dressed in this quasi-military uniform 
Day 5 - It’s a hellish night during which my spouse and I share the same fear without speaking of it—that she has pneumonia. At least we’re able to get a little bit of much needed sleep, and she feels well enough in the late morning to reject the idea of finding a doctor; tomorrow we’re coming home to Ajijic and she’ll see her physician then. We make a plan for her to rest today in our room for a couple of hours while I explore the Centro Histórico.

Two or more of these teams are on
each Centro Histórico block.
I don’t really see much new on this adventure but am able today to investigate this area in more depth. For example, in the block-wide, mile-long strip between our hotel and the zócalo I count five Starbucks shops but only two of the elusive WCs. No shortage, though, of lethal equipment-laden policia with their protective, hard plastic shields, nor of those ubiquitous organ grinders whose music is part of the downtown soundtrack. Later, quizzing one of our taxi drivers, I am disabused of my notion that they are strictly a seasonal addition to the scene.

My new dicho, or saying, "Un sanitorio publico is como oro".
The zócalo's giant Christmas tree is in the background, upper
left. This scene gives an idea how crowded downtown is.
I discover some leafy side streets reserved for pedestrians that are out of the punishing flow of foot traffic moving to and from the zócalo. That huge plaza itself is only slightly less crowded than on the past Navidad weekend; the rink and toboggan slide are still doing a booming business, and towering over all, in place of the mammoth Mexican flag that’s easily visible from outer space is a hundred foot tall fake Christmas tree decorated with balls as big as weather balloons. 

I pass several museums but all are closed, as is usual on Mondays. Before we left home a friend told us there are 500 museos in the city. I doubt there are that many, but it does seem like there are several on about every block, at least in the centro. There are some unexpected themes: Museo del Perfume, de Caricatura, del Tequila y el Mezcal. The latter two are even open today and not too far away, but I want to get back to mi esposa.

This andador, or pedestrian street, runs parallel and two blocks from the one
in the previous photo. It's not on a direct route to the zócalo.
We had originally planned dinners at a few highly recommended restaurants that prepare interesting dishes we might not find elsewhere, but that’s more than we can handle with this illness. We’re not really foodies so this is a loss we can easily shrug off. Instead we make the short trek to Chinatown, confine our daring to trying the eatery next door to the one we ate at two nights ago and opt for chicken stir fry again. That's a mistake; I still gag at the memory of those gristly, unidentifiable chunks.

It’s a slow slow walk back to our hotel. We celebrate our arrival with a big scoop of nutty pistachio (cone—me, cup—her) at the boutique ice cream shop in the lobby, elevator straight to our room and get in bed. We’re both glad we go home tomorrow, and that we can sleep in. There are two more art museums we’ve been looking forward to visiting—each only a block away—before we catch our short, late afternoon flight.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

XCII. Nuestro Viaje a México, Cuarto Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Fourth Day

Day 4 - After a rough night there is no doubt that the exhaustion and malaise my companion has been feeling is not the result of altitude, pollution or common cold. It has all the markers of the infamous la gripa—the flu—and it’s hitting her hard.

Although we drag out of bed late, when we look out the window not a soul is visible down on the street. There was a lot of partying last night—Christmas Eve—and it shows. After breakfast at our new go-to place—Starbucks in the lobby—we hail a taxi. It’s another warming and sunny day, and we have to backtrack off usually busy Avenida Juarez where the only traffic is a smattering of bicycles. Every Sunday—and not just on holidays—we learn that cars, trucks and buses are all forbidden on some of the city’s main streets.

About where we’re going: Every single person we’ve asked—and all the online advice—say the one thing you should definitely not miss when visiting Mexico City is the National Anthropological Museum. You can see other famous artists, embark on other fascinating boat rides, view other incredible architecture, but—by popular acclaim—no where else can you see the history of a people so clearly and imaginatively depicted and explained. We agree. And the setting is spectacular.

Voladores descending with a rope attached to a
belt at their waist. When they are about to
reach the ground, they put their feet down.
As we approach the museum we are pleased and surprised to see Danza de los Voladores being performed. Four "dancers" are attached by rope to a spool at the top of a hundred foot pole; as they twirl around, the rope plays out and they descend head first. Meanwhile, a fifth participant plays the flute while standing on the revolving capstan. This ceremony—which possibly began as a way to implore the gods for rain—originated about 500 years ago in central Mexico, and is now a UNESCO recognized "intangible cultural heritage". For most of us, just the thought of what the voladores—meaning "flyers"—endure, raises all sorts of personal red flags, and I guess that's a big part of the attraction.

The museum itself has a long central courtyard enclosed on three sides by two stories of exhibit halls, or salas. Salas on the bottom level are each devoted to a particular pre-Hispanic culture; those above show how each of these cultures has carried their traditions into today's world. The salas are organized roughly chronologically so that it's best to visit them in counter-clockwise direction.

The relief sculpture on the column represents the merging of
indigenous and Spanish cultures to create a new nation.
Photo from U.S. Dept. of Treasury website.
When you enter the courtyard from a spacious admissions area, the first thing that catches your eye is a vast roof seemingly supported only by a single sculpted column from around which a curtain of water falls. This is a popular place for kids to play at seeing how near they can approach without getting too wet.

Many of the signs here are in English as well as Spanish. With the high ceilings, generous and varied spacing, frequent access to garden exhibits, and variety of styles of displaymurals, different kinds of maps, artifacts, fantastic reconstructions—make it easy to spend four hours here, although we only make it through a quarter of the salas

Looking back at the entry from the far end.
The sala devoted to the Teotihuacana shows here a reconstruction of one of their pyramids (which you can visit about 40 km northeast of here) plus a relief map of that site, c.500AD at which time the city had about 125,000 inhabitants, making it then the sixth largest city in the world. Note the high ceiling here that gives way to a small room holding original artifacts, past which you can see some more, larger sculptures in the garden outside.
A continuation of the previous picture. After exiting the small room with original artifacts, and coming out of the garden, you walk past the far left side of the reconstruction, under a mural, through the far doorway and into another small room with a few more artifacts and a summation of what you have seen.
A large (3'X3'X5') rattlesnake carved from volcanic rock c.1400AD. This and similar sculptures guarded the temples of the deities on the pyramids of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. At the time the Spanish arrived in 1521, the Valley of Mexico had about a million inhabitants--the largest population concentration in the world. 
The head in the foreground is of the Aztec goddess, Coyolxauhqui. Her death and dismemberment by her brother set in motion the eternal cosmic conflict between opposites. In the background is the most famous artifact in the museum--the Aztec Sun Stone. It is not strictly a calendar but rather shows the four ages of Aztec cosmology that had passed at the time of the stone's creation about 1500. Originally possibly used as an altar or stage for gladiator contests, it was buried at the time of Spanish conquest and not rediscovered until almost 300 years later when Mexico City's main cathedral was being remodeled. The stone is huge--about twelve feet around and three feet thick--and weighs 24 tons. As with many of these artifacts it was originally painted bright red, yellow.
Back at the hotel we order room service dinner and go to bed early. My spouse is suffering. While I read a book, she sleeps fitfully. I find a TV channel that just plays sounds of nature, and that seems to sooth her. Tomorrow we have left free—almost all museums and public buildings are closed on Monday.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

XCI. Nuestro Viaje a México, Tercer Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Third Day

A canal in Xochimilco, late-morning, as we return to our mooring.
Day 3 - We do not have time this morning to go out for breakfast before our guide arrives, so it’s coffee and not much more than a croissant at the Starbucks in the lobby. At nine, the hotel pickup for the tour goes smoothly belying my middle-of-the-night worries about how we would connect, and before ten we are pulling into a parking lot in the suburbs, about 20 km south of Centro Histórico. There’s only my grin-and-bear-it wife, myself, Carlos—black leather-jacketed, sunglassed guide—and Ana, our chofer.

Isla de las Muñecas, "Island of the Dolls", a chinampa with a
macabre story. For whatever reason, a crazed individual who
"owned" this land on a Xochomilco canal began hanging old
and broken dolls from the trees facing the water, to ward off
evil, perhaps, or to honor a dead child.
More than fifty years ago I saw a picture in my high school Spanish language book of colorful boats being poled through flowery, tree-lined canals—“Floating Gardens”, the caption said, “—of Xochimilco”, outside of Mexico City. That image isn’t too far from the reality we find this morning. Here is all that remains of the interconnected lakes, artificial islands and canals that filled the whole Valley of Mexico when the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. 

We begin our trajinare ride by hopping onto a half dozen of these flat-bottomed boats, carefully traversing the length of each, and then jumping onto the next one that is a little further from shore and less hemmed in by its fellow craft. We finally make it to Armando’s boat and he skillfully poles us into the canal, dodging a few other screamingly vibrant boats headed the opposite direction in this, now impossibly narrow, channel. In the clear, we settle in to gawk and listen to Carlos. It’s a crisp, clear morning and we’re one of the few trajinares—of hundreds of others still at their moorings—already out on the calm water. 

Museo Anahuacalli. Photo taken from the net, unattributed
Those plying their traditional livelihood on and around the canals have a family history here that often goes back centuries. The basic boats themselves have remained unchanged since before the time of the Aztec. The “floating” gardens, called chinampas, are actually formed by building a sort of fence to enclose an area of the shallow lake bottom, adding silt and mud to lift it above water level, and anchoring it by planting the indigenous juniper tree to the edges of the plot. In some areas, even today, transport is solely by means of a dugout; narrow channels link interior chinampas to the main canals which are often fronted by plant nurseries and restaurants serving water-borne tourists, mostly Mexicanos celebrating a wedding, family gathering, or a chance to get away from the crowded city.

A display at Museo Anahuacalli. Photos of Rivera in
After this idyl we head back north toward that city, but not before giving a substantial propina to our gifted gondolier.

Museo Anahuacalli entrances us as soon as we see it. It’s quiet here in this part of Coyoacán. A winding, tree- and village life-lined road leads to the entrance across a shady ravine. The black volcanic rock and glass museum itself is stark and oddly handsome. That we come here with no knowledge or expectation of what we will find makes its discovery all the more magical. Dedicated to displaying Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic art collection as well as showcasing some of his own work, it is a building that he jointly designed with architect, friend and muralist Juan O’Gorman.

Our hipster guide gives us the tickets and says he’ll wait outside. The crypt-like level on which we enter is only illuminated through slits of transparent carmel-streaked marble, and feels like it’s hewn of solid lava. The black and gray rocks on the dim ceiling form murals of Aztec designs. Backlit stone artifacts are framed in dark volcanic niches. Presentation is everything here. Papier mâché skeletons labelled Trotsky, Kahlo, Orozco, and other friends and artists converse through cartoon bubbles. There is a photo triptych of Rivera making faces at the camera. It’s all like a private joke, as if we’re in the basement of Diego’s clubhouse. 
Artifact on display at Museo Anahuacalli

Unfortunately, the basement is all that we see. We’re edged on to the next tour stop without being informed that this museum’s upper level contains many of the artist’s own works, including illustrations, writings, and drawings, such as early sketches for the “Man the Controller” mural we saw two days ago at the Palacio de Bellas Artes

Casa Azul—now Museo Frida Kahlo—was her childhood home; she moved back into it when married life in the two nearby co-joined houses—of which hers was much smaller—became untenable. Today this place is packed with tourists. Once inside, we are limited by ropes and docents to inch along a one-way path through the rooms, the most interesting of which houses Kahlo’s day bed with her death mask on the pillow, one of her painted corsets at the foot. There are several photos of her painting from this same bed. Its canopy is a mirror that allowed for plenty of self-reflection.

Street view of Museo Frida Kahlo, Casa Azul
It’s too crowded to comfortably see the displays, my boon companion is bearing up but has become increasingly exhausted (the 7000 foot altitude?), and now, well into the afternoon, neither of has eaten since our light breakfast. We have half a hope that a visit to a nearby cafe is in the offing, but no. We gamely stumble through two more stops—the church and market at the center of this arty little urban village and a distant view of the 1968 Olympic Stadium, of all things. 

The most notable thing at the market happens when we throw our tiny plastic tasting spoons into what we think is a waste basket and are brought up short by the stall owner who—I think—accuses us of behaving like typical entitled americanos. I could have said a few things about Mexicans and trash, but don’t. And then, at the stadium, our guide seem uninterested when we tell him of the controversy around the 1968 US track winners and their black power salute.

So, things end a little on a down note, and we’re hungry and exhausted when we return to our hotel on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, especially since this is The Night, we are friendly and generous in parting with Carlos and Ana; we saw some amazing sights. The Chinese barrio is only a few blocks away from our hotel and we each order a good chicken stir fry for dinner. Fortunately there is no reason to get up early in the morning and we only have one thing on our Christmas Day agenda.