Tuesday, December 22, 2015

LI. Esta Mañana

This Morning

We must be now halfway to the Equator from our old home back in the States that snugs against the Canadian border. When today’s alarm goes off a little after 6:30—up early to go hiking—it might as well be in the middle of the night for only the darkness shows. Twenty minutes later, though, coffee in hand on our balcony, looking past the guava and palm trees we see a fire-colored sun beginning to rise into the lightening sky. For some minutes, the only noise we hear is from the roosters scattered throughout our pueblo: their many rousing greetings of old sol.  There’s one guy who’s closest, somewhere in the middle of the block across the street, another behind us must be located near the parish church by the plaza, and many more are indistinguishable—their hoarse, piercing, five-syllable calls come from out west away from the Centro. It isn’t long before the colibris—hummingbirds—join this cacophonous chorus from a tropical tree with a riot of purple blooms that rises out of the galeria’s garden across the street, sounding like a bunch of tiny typewriters according to my spouse…Then the parroquia's bells begin to ring for morning mass.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

L. Viva Las Vegas

"Viva Las Vegas"

Last night my fun-loving esposa and I attended a dinner evento among our sweet amigos in the centro cultural just across the street from where we live. The theme was “Viva las Vegas” with the music of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley sung by a 17-year-old kid from Guadalajara, and he didn’t do a bad job. We received many hugs from Alex and Alejandra, Imelda and Maria, even CC. Unfortunately, the meat was a little tough (Edgar was vastly apologetic and I’m sure they’ll get it right) but the magician with his card tricks, the many clever and well-done decorations, basket lights under the palms and stars, the two prizes we won—one of Alex’s necklaces para mi amor and free dinners from Imelda for us both—and most of all our fine new friends with their warm and sincere greetings, made it a memorable night in this little Mexican village.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

XLIX. Papá Noel y su Máquina de Niebla

Santa Claus and his Fog Machine

We're sitting in front of our laptops tonight in almost shutdown mode when we hear loud (but not LOUD) music, which isn't at all unusual here except it's more easy listening with a frisky beat, and somehow has a Christmas-y feel. We rush to the balcony and look up Constitución and what to our wondering eyes should appear--rolling smoothly down the cobblestones--but some radical conveyance like a stretch limo-cum-luxury flatbed, carrying Santa waving from his sleigh behind eight fiberglass reindeer, and more red/green/yellow/blue blinking LEDs than you can imagine. Slowing down at the corner with Castellanos someone trips the fog machine and Santa looks all gauzy as he throws candies at a few surprised people who are there just hanging out. The sparkly letters on the back of his sled read, "Feliz Navidad".

Saturday, December 5, 2015

XLVIII. Fiesta Patronal

Fiesta in Honor of the Patron Saint

A castillo, or "castle", so named for the towers on which the firework displays
are mounted. A different configuration is set up and ignited every night of the
nine-day celebration to honor the patron saint of the village. In the background
is our parish church.
Each town in Mexico has had a patron saint since the time it was conquered by armies of Spain and missionaries of the Catholic Church began proselytizing. The Fiesta Patronal is a nine-day celebration to honor, give thanks, and pray for continued blessing and protection from that saint. The fiesta culminates on the saint’s feast day, which for each of the many saints is always held on a particular date during the year. For example, for the nearby village of San Juan Cosalá, the patron saint is Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista), and the feast day is June 24th. In our little town of Ajijic, the patron is San Andrés, known in English speaking circles as Saint Andrew, protector of fishermen, and his feast day is November 30, meaning the nine-day novenario begins on November 22. This is the day-by-day record of Ajijic’s favorite celebration. We’ve heard a lot about it, now we’d see if it lives up to its gung-ho reputation.

A rare partly cloudy morning makes for a glorious sunrise. During the nine-
day fiesta we were always awakened early--usually in the dark--by the
explosion of up to several hundred cohetes, summoning the faithful to mass.
On this day this colorful sight was our reward and soon we would hear one of
the happy-sounding brass bands which always greeted the dawn.
21 Noviembre, Sábado
Saturday. We had read that the Fiestas de San Andrés would be preceded this afternoon by a procession to the parroquia, or parish church, featuring bands and religious-themed floats alternating with pre-hispanic style danzantes and hundreds of faithful parishioners. The day before, though— Friday—had been the Anniversary of the Revolution, a popular secular holiday whose parade hallmark is scads of school kids—the older ones stopping occasionally to display various feats of physical skill, and the younger children dressed as famous historical characters of the 1910 revolution, such as Emiliano Zapata, complete with fake mustache, or Adelita with her crossed bandoliers. Evidently yesterday’s celebration has sapped enthusiasm for another parade today because we see only one float—San Andrés with a net full of fish—no pagan dancers, and only a small gaggle of faithful. As an interesting sidebar we’ve noticed that on secular holidays the police make sure the streets of the parade route are clear of all parked vehicles; no such consideration is given to religious celebrations which have to crowd around stationary cars and trucks.

I discovered these wildly colorful carnival rides occupying most of Calle
Colón for several blocks above and adjacent to the plaza. Every night of the
celebrations--school nights, most of them!--they would be occupied by happy
22 Noviembre, Domingo 
Sunday. This morning there were—I started counting them but lost track!—more than 150—ONE HUNDRED FIFTY cohetes—those sky rockets that explode with a loud BANG!—beginning at o’dark hundred and lasting until after six—that’s IN THE MORNING. They wake us up, naturally, since we live less than a block from where they are ignited, at the plaza en frente de la parish church. Any doubts we had about whether this day might lack enthusiastic (or at least, noisy) support is immediately dispelled. The cohetes allegedly serve an additional purpose of awakening church-goers for the morning masses at 6 and 8 AM, as well as—perhaps—recalling the ancient Aztec belief that loud noises drive away evil spirits. The hullabaloo is followed half an hour later by una banda that parades through the streets brassily playing, of all things, “Deep in the Heart of Texas”. As if there were any further chance of racking up some Zs! The novenario for our patron saint, San Andrés has begun!

Every day of the novenario for our patron saint is sponsored by a different
group of townspeople; on Tuesday that was the Catholic missionaries. Every
night, representatives of the sponsors lead the parade to the parish church for
7PM mass. 
24 Noviembre, Martes
Tuesday. The first day and night of the nine day celebration for San Andrés is in the books. It happened to coincide with the feast day of Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, so there was a lot of late night boogying in the plaza, followed by the obligatory castillos—twirling, multicolored fireworks at the parish church. Yesterday, the early Monday morning cohetes—exploding fireworks—were as nothing compared to Sunday's; it felt so good to get a full night’s sleep. Much of the village trooped to the plaza again last night for more music, carnival rides, cervezas and Mexican street food at one of the many plaza-side pop-up bars and cafes, called terrazas. This morning—Tuesday—all was still and waiting for another night’s festivities. We’ll be there.

25 Noviembre, Miercoles
Early in the evening--it's dark by 6:30--fast food stands that
surround the plaza are preparing for the deluge of celebrants.
Wednesday. Every day of the Fiestas de San Andrés is organized and funded by a different group of townspeople. Yesterday’s doings were sponsored by Catholic missionaries; that's them in the candlelit parade, above. We were evidently too early, though, to see much action other than the missionaries leading the way into the 7PM mass, and the terrazas beginning to fire up their grills. The castillo display didn’t go off until 10:30; we heard it when we were in bed…I awoke early this morning—about 6—to go hunting for haciendas south of Tequila's volcano, and in time to hear una de las bandas coming down our street with some loud drums and a lot of brass. Followed by those exploding sky rockets—cohetes—of course. The group underwriting today’s activities includes the teachers, hairdressers, domestic workers and barbers, so they were responsible for all that early morning sort of melodic, but definitely upbeat noise.

It's still early and vendors are arranging their stock while families take a look
at the rides, trying to decide which ones they will pony up for.
27 Noviembre, Viernes
Friday. The group of citizens sponsoring yesterday’s doings—which included MANY cohetes randomly dispersed morning, noon and night—was comprised of tienda owners, carpenters and barbers…Today, the sixth day of the fiesta to honor our village's patron saint dawns with an unusually colorful sunrise visible from our balcony. In the near distance we hear a fine brass band marching towards us down Calle Constitución announcing the beginning of another day's festivities. They will circulate through the village, stopping in the middle of each block to play a heavily brass-accented song that has to bring a smile to your face. Many thanks to the farmers and ranchers for arranging this entertainment two-thirds of the way through Ajijic's novenario for San Andrés. I think I’ll go wander among the many market stalls on the blocked-off streets around the plaza—that's a favorite daytime activity during this week-plus celebration—to see if I can find something appropriate to replace our moldy straw coasters.

28 Noviembre, Sábado
By 10PM during the nine-day fiesta for San Andrés, the plaza
is jumping. The brightly lit awnings behind the crowd above
are the roofs of temporary food booths, selling everything from
birria--a goat stew--to pizza.
Saturday. Nothing doing yesterday, with the coasters...Today's Fiesta Patronal is being brought to us by local construction workers and affiliated businesses, working hard to nail Ajijic's reputation as a party town. The day began with several hundred exploding rockets—to wake us up in time to attend morning mass—closely followed by a brass band that stopped to play a couple of songs opposite the house next door. Now at 2AM the next morning we have some heartfelt and very loudly amplified music still coming from the plaza a block away. The pictures above were taken much earlier in the evening when things were just beginning to warm up. That's Bob Marley on the carnival ride placard blessing the festivities...I'll go back to bed now, turn the white noise generator up a couple of notches and wonder what the gardeners and union workers have in store for us in a few hours.

A different band played until the wee hours of the morning on a stage set up
in front of the cultural center at the northeastern edge of our small plaza. On
the last evening both the band and the crowd were bigger than previous nights.
30 Noviembre, Lunes
Monday. After a bit of a lull yesterday—Sunday—tonight marks the end of Ajijic's celebration to honor its patron saint. This final massive blowout is sponsored by the 'ausentes', Ajijic natives who are absent from home sending paychecks back to family from their work in the US. We had read that it all peaks now, and we are not disappointed. The plaza is packed with a slowly milling throng, las terrezas are all doing a brisk business, as are the carnival rides and games of chance, the big brass boy band is playing at top decibel range, and the space in front of the parroquia is completely jammed with those of us who came to ogle the final castillo displays. As per usual, the raucous jamboree goes on—in this party town, on its favorite night to celebrate—until the wee hours…Muchisimas gracias, San Andrés!!

There were about a dozen circular, bamboo-framed firework displays on the twin towers of the castillo at the last night of our Fiestas Patronal. Each display is lit from a fuse that hangs to the ground. Sometimes that fuse does not work and an engineer has to climb the tower up to the display to set it alight directly by hand. The worker pictured here has just finished that dangerous task.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

XLVII. Feria Maestros del Arte

Masters of Art Fair

A detail from near the center of the Otomi wall hanging we recently purchased.
Last Saturday my folk art-loving wife and I attended the 14th annual indigenous art show held over the long Revolution Day weekend in the nearby town of Chapala. This fair gathers nearly 100 of the best artisans from all over Mexico who are masters of a variety of folk arts. Most are from remote areas where traditional styles and techniques have been passed down for ages within certain families. The fair offers them exposure in what is considered the most prestigious gathering of its kind, as well as a marketplace for their goods that allows them not only to continue their work, but to train and employ others in their hometowns.

A close-up of the detail above, showing the individual threads.
Before we left home we gave ourselves a budget and told ourselves that if we didn’t see anything we liked more than the etching we had recently bought from a local artist, Jesus Lopez Vega, we would put the money in a kitty to purchase a larger work from him. As it turned out, after touring all of the booths, we came back to the very first piece that impressed us. It was within our budget, and after consulting each other about where we could display it, we made the purchase.

The piece we bought was a six-foot long embroidered wall hanging made by a lady from the small village of San Pablito—in a hard-to-reach mountainous area of Puebla state, about 100
At about six feet in length and 18 inches width, our Otomi wall hanging found its
place in our dining area. We bought it for the equivalent of about $75 US
dollars, which is a good deal for all involved.
miles northeast of Mexico City. This is an area inhabited for centuries by the Otomi people, and the style of the piece we bought is particular to them. We were taken by the well-chosen variety of bright colors, the style and organization of the whimsical animal and plant figures on the unbleached muslin background,
and the accomplished embroidery.

The first step in making this piece is to draw the design in water-soluble ink on the muslinno stencils are used. Then the work is embroidered. The thread is not drawn through to the back, it is simply pricked part way through the cloth and returned, back and forth. Finally, the piece is carefully washed or soaked to remove the ink drawing. 

Our Otomi art now hangs next to our dining table and brightens our casa. We enjoy looking at it and imagining the care it took to create in the small and isolated village from which it came.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

XLVI. Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead

The cemetery is a happening place on All Soul's Night, November 2. This year,
from Ajijic's panteon our oldest daughter hiked the parade route to the plaza
where we joined her for the festivities. 
I’m not certain when I first heard of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead. Sometime over thirty years ago is my best guess. I do know that I was so straightaway taken with the name that it challenged me to learn more about the celebration. I gained a bit of knowledge: the cemetery vigils at makeshift shrines to commune with dead loved ones, the calaveras—decorated skulls usually made of sugar paste with colored frosting and spangles—and catrinas, the skeleton sculptures modeled on an old etching, dressed in clothing denoting all manner of lively and everyday occupations. 

On the street leading into the parish  Catholic church in Ajijic a
block-long "painting" of colored sawdust is just being finished.
It was a Phoenix museum display of life-sized catrinas made of papier mâché and dressed in costumes ranging from bargirls and society matrons to cowboys and businessmen, even with their skeleton dogs and horses, that sealed the deal of my infatuation with this holiday. The images were illustrating the truth that we are all just a collection of similar bones underneath the proud finery of our clothing, and the distinguishing covering of our often pampered skin, with its underlying layer of idiosyncratic fat and muscle.

A decade later I took a trip to Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, during the first two days of November when this holiday is celebrated. Altars dedicated to dead loved ones and sidewalk “paintings” composed of different-colored flower petals were the principal daytime features marking the occasion. It was at night, though, that the most distinctive moments occurred. A candlelight procession to a small town cemetery revealed families lounging, drinking, eating, playing, and quietly talking at the newly spruced up grave of their loved one. They brought to
An Ajijic plaza altar is visited by the lady in magenta pants who carefully
stepped over the marigold decorations being applied. Notice the small white
candles on the sidewalk in the shape of a cross, guiding the soul to the altar.
this occasion those things that were most memorable in the person’s life, and with which they might have decorated an altar—guitar, soccer ball, bottle of mescal, or recording of a favorite song might be some examples. 

I read that here, in Mexico, the celebration of these days is an amalgam of pre-Columbian observance of ancestral deaths and the three-day Catholic celebration of Allhallowtide, which includes the now completely secular Halloween. Probably typical of most Christian families in the United States, this playful comfort with death was missing from my upbringing. I enjoy having it as part of my new culture.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

XLV. Virgen del Rosario, 2015

Virgin of the Rosary

For the entire month of October the effigy of the little Virgin, who normally resides in the old chapel by our plaza, goes walkabout among the other churches in our small town. Every morning for the past four weeks these o'dark hundred processions have been announced by tolling bells and exploding sky rockets. That all ended last Saturday with a BIG parade that took her back home where she'll remain for the next eleven months. This tradition has been going on for--literally--hundreds of years. This time it was witnessed--wide-eyed--by me and our daughters who were here for the first day of a week-long visit.

Papales piscados--"chopped paper" flags fly from the old chapel's fence to belfry to welcome the Virgin back home.

Each barrio in our town had its own Catholic-themed float in the big parade that filed past our balcony (far left) for half an hour on its way to a chapel at Seis Esquinas--"Six Corners" neighborhood--and then to the Parish Church for an outdoor mass.

A troupe of fantastically costumed dancers preceded each one of the dozen or so religious floats. The contrast between the immobile "religious" actors and wildly gyrating "pagans" was striking.

These cute little girlfriends had their own place in the parade.

The little Virgin herself ended the parade, here solemnly carried past Bar El Camaleon.

Castillos--"castles"--are colored fireworks that spin from scaffolding. Here they are in front of the chapel, obscured by smoke. They are lit by their daredevil engineers who often climb the structures to reach the fuse. This was the final stage in the day's celebration. Moments later we went inside the chapel and there was the little Virgin mounted high above the altar. She'll stay there until next October when she goes around the town again, just as she has for--literally--hundreds of years.

Safety considerations are pretty non-existent here. Sparks showered down from the castillos on young boys darting among them with pieces of cardboard over their heads. Meanwhile, nearby, a band blared loudly from a strobe-lit stage.

On a neighboring side street, an empty carnival ride awaits youngsters on their way home from the festivities at the plaza.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

XLIV. Temazcal, Parte 2: Abre Tu Corazón

Sweat Lodge, Part 2: Open Your Heart

Temazcal is a Nahuatl word for “sweat lodge”—a Native American purification ceremony with spiritual underpinnings that’s performed inside a small, circular, often willow-framed “lodge” that is covered to keep the heat in and light out. Red hot rocks are brought in and water poured over them to make a very hot steam that brings out the sweat of the people seated in a circle around the shallow rock pit. A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Dionicio invited me to join him at the next monthly temazcal up at the ceremonial ground on a small saddle-like mesa about a thousand feet above our village. This is the conclusion of the two-part story of that adventure.

The offering tree at the Danza del Sol ceremonial grounds above the village of
Ajijic. This is where the temazcal is held. The picture was taken last
February. I didn't take my camera with me on this latest trip. 
When Dionicio and I arrive at the temazcal the others have already brought mats out of the shed to a little slope and are laying on blankets, acting like it’s a picnic without the food. There’s raucous laughter—Elicia the loudest, along with a young roly-poly bearded guy who’s giggling and guffawing like one of the ten year-olds I used to try teaching. But worse: he's continually playing with the strobe on his flashlight. It’s hard for me not to tell him to just stop! To curb my irritation I help Chuy and Dionicio—the elders among us—break up the wood into burnable pieces.

That done, I figure we’ve got several more hours sitting around—haven’t even started the fire yet—and it’s already closing on midnight. Not sure how I’m going to hold up, especially with Elicia and RolyPoly blabbing a mile-a-minute in a language I can’t understand. Plus the flashlight. But it’s not long before RP breaks out his drum and starts singing sweetly, and he suddenly adds another, more profound dimension to his personality. The few words of the song that I understand are meant to be inspiring, and refer to the upcoming ceremony—like “piedra”—stone—and “fuego”—fire. Gran espíritu—Great Spirit. 

Jorge, the young man who had politely—but I couldn’t help being annoyed, senior that I am, although loathe to claim the title—addressed me as “sir”, practicing his not-too-bad English—spells RP on the drum. 

As I lay back and take in the scene, I notice Dionicio nearby, inside a small tree, flailing his machete with one hand and a flashlight with the other. Grabbing and cutting bunches of branches. I don’t figure out what he’s doing until we’re all in the temazcal, but at the time, the craziness of the trembling tree and light swerving dizzily gives me a laugh.

Out of the brush, Dionicio takes something—I can’t see in the dark—out of his pack and arranges it on the ground. And then it’s suddenly time for us to stand in a circle around the ash pit where the fire will soon—I hope—begin to heat the rocks. We all quiet down and Dionicio starts to speak. Until this moment I hadn’t realized that he was the jefe here.

He talks quietly and with authority. I don’t understand much of what he says, but I’m reminded of the book he wrote full of stories and legends that he had heard as a child. He grew up on a rancho just the other side of the tallest ridge from where we are at this moment. In the book’s introduction he describes a magical childhood, always on the land learning its paths and plants, playing with friends, seeing fire balls in the sky at night, small beings called duendes, like elves or fairies. 

He tells of his first visit to the pueblo of Ajijic, how he was shocked at the fanatical rigidity of the Church, and its distance from the people who worked the soil and communed with Nature, as did his own padres and abuelos. At least that’s the way I laboriously translated it.

I imagine this background informs what he is saying to us gathered here on the mesa tonight. Plus the time he has spent with curanderos and the Huichols—along with the Cocas, the indigenous people of this region. The weekend trips he often still makes to spend the night alone in these mountains. His visits to the Lakota in the States.

As he is speaking, the horses that had been wandering around our camp approach, interested in the temazcal structure, most likely the straw of the mats that cover it. RP shoos them away but a minute later we hear the caballos crunching, deciding to make a snack of the mat Chuy has left on the ground. There’s a momentary lightening of the attentive mood. 

Dionicio continues his homily which runs on for quite a while. It ends with us all sharing a pipe of tobacco, and then four of the others each place an offering on the ash where we’ll soon—I hope—put the stones and make our fire to heat them. The ofrendas represent those essential things the earth provides for us, for which we are thankful—agua, maiz, frutas y verduras.

Piling the piedras. The stones—each about the size of a cabbage head and volcanic so they can take the heat without exploding—have been lined up next to the once and future fire pit. Now, moving, still in a circle, one after another we pick up a rock, file past and hand it to Dionicio who chooses a place for it in a growing pile that rises to several feet in height.

Stacking the wood. This is a more free-form communal effort. Everyone participates. Simple job—get as much wood as you can comfortably carry twenty feet without dropping, and help create a stack surrounding the rocks. The resulting teepee shape is over five feet high.

Firing the madera. I realize now that I had never truly believed we would be able to catch the wood on fire—it’s too wet! The difficulty we are all experiencing—futilely fanning minuscule flames—is proving my doubts. My own lackluster attempt to help at this project is sussed by Chuy who tells me, in effect, that Mexicans never give up. So I keep trying, and—to much greater effect—so do all the others. I only become convinced that this temazcal thing will actually happen, and all the singing, invoking the gran espíritu, ofrendas, et cetera, not to mention the wood gathering, will see a “payoff”—in my materialistic way of thinking—when after at least half an hour of unflagging effort, the fire begins to blaze and take hold.

Heating the rocks until they’re red hot. Two hours, Chuy had told me this would take, which means it will be well after midnight before we begin to sweat. But at least the process has begun, and I lay down to relax on a straw mat, listen to Elisa, RP and Jorge drum and sing, and watch—mesmerized—as tracers of embers spark from the fire and spiral high, over and over until they join the stars of our night sky…

I stumble up from this fugue state when I see others begin to move with a purpose. Shimmy out of pants and into gym shorts, doff shirt and wrap a towel around my neck. Mujeres first through the small opening, its flap pulled back, into the temazcal (the word here used to mean the low, domed structure), everyone crawls clockwise over the mats until you butt up against the previous entrant. Sit on your bum in the pitch dark. There are eight of us; Chuy stays outside to pass in the rocks.

This small dark place is where we stay for more than an hour. Perhaps midway through,  it seems like our time here will never end. It lasts through four—or maybe five, I lost count—replenishments of red hot rocks passed in by shovel, grasped and placed in the center pit with deer antler tongs by Jorge, Arturo or RP. About ten piedras per round, each one greeted as abuelito or abuelita—“little grandfather, little grandmother”.

After the rocks, a bucket full of water is passed in and the flap closed. Dionicio, sitting by the door, uses that cluster of leaves he’s cut to sprinkle the glowing piedras. Each time, an explosion of steam. I try to concentrate on RP’s chanting, following the unfamiliar words as much as I can to take my mind off the searing heat. The toalla over my head, shorts, even the straw mat I’m sitting on—knees to chin—all become soaked with sweat. This is about perseverance, I tell myself.

Drumming, chanting, sweating, blessing some food—I think—that is passed from one to another, every round. Feeling a measure of relief when the door is opened and a small portion of heat dissipates. Once, Dionicio calls for la puerta and nothing happens, and I curse Chuy for not hearing the call. RP has been a stalwart through all—drumming and chanting, receiving the bucket of water, assigning the antlers, passing the offerings, and acting as Dionicio’s deputy. Total respect.

After three or four rounds a small ceramic cup of fresh agua is passed in. I start to take a drink and RP taps my hand—it’s supposed to be passed to the person at the end of the circle first. I can do that…I get it in my head that the water presages the end, but two more rounds follow. The last one, Dionicio asks for todas las piedras—“All the rocks”. “Omigod!” I think. 

That’s the round where I get up the courage to speak as others have before me. I give thanks for this night, the moon and the stars, the mountains, and all the people here—important but easy words that I can say in Spanish. Finally, I ask for help to open my heart. Gran espíritu, ayúdame a abrir mi corazón

I miss the call when it’s over—don’t know where my mind was. RP prods me to crawl clockwise around the circle of the now empty temazcal. I’m surprised I can even move, but outside I stand up slowly, and slowly walk to the same empty mat from where I had watched the embers several hours before. The fresh night air is delicious. The Pleiades—las siete hermanasla luna, Orion, have all moved from east to west in the clear dark sky. Dionicio lays down nearby, to check on me, I think. I’m OK, spread-eagled under the stars, on the moon-soaked ground. When my sweat turns cool, I dress, head for the kitchen and turn in. It’s nearly a quarter to four, Dionicio tells me.

I remember, as I fall asleep, the strong and automatic response to my appeal for an opening of mi corazón. “Fuerza!” were the spontaneous shouts of encouragement, almost in unison—“Strength!” To reinforce the message of support, RP had followed up with one of his songs. "Abre Tu Corazón" is the constant refrain—"Open Your Heart".  Judging by the enthusiastic way everyone had joined in, it was a popular plea.

Monday, October 26, 2015

LXIII. Temazcal, Parte 1

Sweat Lodge, Part 1

Temazcal is a Nahuatl word for “sweat lodge”—a Native American purification ceremony with spiritual underpinnings that’s performed inside a small, dome-shaped, often willow-framed “lodge” that is covered to keep the heat in and light out. Red hot rocks are brought in and water poured over them to make an almost unbearably hot steam that brings out the sweat of the people seated in a circle around the shallow rock pit. A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Dionicio invited me to join him at the next monthly temazcal up at the ceremonial ground on a small saddle-like mesa about a thousand feet above our village. This is the first of a two-part story of that adventure.

The offering tree up at the Danza del Sol ceremonial grounds. I took this
picture on a hike last February, during the dry season. I didn't take my
camera with me on this latest trip this past Saturday.

A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Dionicio (AKA The Artist) invited me to join him at the next monthly temazcal up at the ceremonial ground on a small saddle-like mesa about a thousand feet above our village and overlooking the lake. The place is used for an annual summer gathering, called Danza del Sol, of indigenous people from all over North America. Dionicio seems to be one of the people who helps maintain it.

Today—Saturday—he tells me we’ll leave at three, “mas o menos”. I expect that to mean about four; he’s ready a little before five. His daughter drives us a half-mile through the village, up the carretera a bit and then a few cobblestone blocks to the trailhead. On the way we pass a group of mostly gringos in the plaza, zombie-costumed for the annual worldwide re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance. Dionicio asks what’s going on; his daughter explains.

Turning the corner of a switchback on the way up to the ceremonial ground, I hear, then see a pack of dogs from uphill. Dionicio does not seem concerned. The six hounds, all of medium to large size, sniff my hand and then bark friendly-like. They lead us to Mauricio—a grinning wizened goat of a guy who is using his machete on trail brush. I know him from the LCS garden where I volunteer and he’s the hired honcho. He offers us maiz. Awfully tough, not sweet at all like our corn back stateside.

Up at the grounds—not too bad a hike, the trail, although it's seen some runoff from two days of rain thanks to Hurricane Patricia, is still remarkably well drained. I meet Elicia, whom I come to know as a robust and rowdy lass, in the camp kitchen, grinding chiles in a molcajete. Her randy dog keeps trying to hump me. I put my food offering on the table—apples and cheese.

Jesus—“Chuy” is the nickname for guys with this name—is the next to arrive, a fireplug-shaped fellow about my age. He's wearing an orange “Beavers” sweatshirt. I later learn he spent his entire working life in Portland where his kids still live—US citizens, speaking Spanish as well as English and living the American dream. Chuy returned here where he was born as soon as he retired.

To have something to do, as well as escape Randy trying to make me his bitch, I follow Chuy to hustle up some wood for the fire. It’s already approaching dusk, and he says it will take a couple of hours at least to heat the rocks for the temazcal. The brush wood is not easy to walk through, smallish multi-trunked “trees” remind me of hazelnut in their growth pattern. Wood that’s not rotten is wet from the recent rain. We wrest thin trunks from the wet ground, limb and throw them in rough piles—Chuy with his machete, me with an axe. 

Proving myself: As night approaches I make multiple trips dragging what we’ve gathered through the low woods back to the kitchen. Chuy ventures deeper into the brush making more piles. I really enjoy the physicality of this work, the wood and the dirt; it reminds me of my years as a gardener. I'm glad that Chuy seems impressed I can find my way back and forth in the dark. We both prefer not using a flashlight, except for locating where we’ve left our cuttings.

There’s an immense cow sitting along my back-and-forth path, looking more and more like a large boulder as darkness gathers. I help Dionicio tie up the brush and limbs he’s gathered. We move our firewood a hundred yards from the kitchen next to the temazcal frame which has been covered with straw mats, old blankets and plastic sheets by a handful of later arrivals.

By now it’s full dark, must be going on nine and I’m wondering when we’ll have the sweat. If it takes two hours to heat the stones…

An egg-shaped moon ducks through the clouds—la luna como un huevo y casi llena. I stop and appreciate the scene. Complete calm up here on the mesa, somewhere nearby the low bluster of a caballo or two, insects churring all around, moonlight on the higher montañas, their ravines mysterious and dark. Far below and stretching into the distance lights of villages string along the lakeshore. Stars breaking through; I see Orion’s belt pointing to the Pleiades, Cassiopeia—the only ones I know, and familiar. 

Crossing the ceremonial grounds it seems everyone is skirting the edge of a large circle of stones that has the offering tree as its center. Hanging from its limbs are many colored flags—red, blue, green, yellow, white—each tied around an offering, usually tobacco. Of course the colors aren’t visible now—shades of gray. I had been cutting through the circle but now I change my path.

Walking with Dionicio, on one of these trips I hear a huge boom. “Dynamite?”, I ask. He shakes his head. “Cohetes?”—fireworks. “Si”. Looking far down across the mesa, I see a burst of different colored fireworks from San Juan Cosala—the next village west of our own. We’ve been hearing a lot of cohetes the past month.

The firewood in piles, the temazcal frame now covered, we all head to the kitchen shack. It’s about 15’X20’, all a patchwork, one wall corrugated tin and fiberglass, another framed in wooden freight pallets. Chicken wire windows next to wattle and daub. A long wooden table in the middle, concrete ledge for seating along each side. Round metal sheets cover two small, built-up and semi-circular adobe fireplaces—these are our stoves. By now the only light is from a dozen or more candles, many covered against the wind by large clear plastic jugs set upside down, the bottom of the jugs cut off, tiny tops open above the flame, the plastic miraculously not being burned.

Our dinner is multiple helpings of tortillas filled with refried beans and cheese. Plus fruit. We help ourselves to salsa. They tease me that it may be too hot. “Solo un poco picante,” I mock smugly reply and then try to match my bluster. 

There are nine of us—three women and six men. It’s a cheerful mood but I feel lost against the language barrier until Chuy sits next to me. We speak mostly in English and exchange stories of who we are. Looking out for Mexico's reputation, he asks me what I’ve read in news from the States about the hurricane. Tells me the “Beaver” sweatshirt is a present from his son who graduated from Oregon State University. We’ve both worked as truck drivers. I delivered my load to Portland, he came up to Tacoma. Maybe we passed on the road—small world.

After comida people wander back toward the temazcal, to the long shed nearby. There we pick out straw mats from a pile on the dirt floor as pads for our sleeping bags. Chuy tells me to shake them good, to get the scorpions out. I’ve already figured out that he’s a teaser, but I do what he says and pray I won’t be bitten in the night.

Dionicio had suggested I might want to bed down in the kitchen where he’ll be. It looks like the others have staked out tents inside the shed. That might be a more social scene than I'd be comfortable with so I take Dionicio up on his offer, spreading my pads and bag out on the dirt floor next to the table, keeping an eye out for the damp, covered places where scorpions like to hide. 

It must be going on 11 by now and I figure the sweat will be in the morning, but when I have my sleeping pad all arranged Dionicio tells me it’s time to head back to the temazcal. It's time to begin the ceremony.

To be continued…

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

XLII. Patrón


This past Sunday, my sweet spouse and I strolled a block to the plaza, as is usual on that day of rest, to enjoy our weekly treat of a mocha frappe at Black and White Coffee. We like to linger under the cafe’s awning and watch the plaza action. The only problem that day was that I had forgotten to wear my brown Merrell walking shoes. As soon as I saw Arturo angling to meet me near the gazebo with his shoeshine kit, I remembered. I pointed to my unshineable Teva sandals and shrugged an apology. Not accepted. “You are my patrón”, I understood Alfredo to say. He was counting on the money from my usual weekend shoeshine, something I would never had remotely considered in the States. I apologized and pre-paid him for a shine on Wednesday. A patrón has responsibilities.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

XLI. Las Dos Galerías, Parte 2: La Peña de Santos Rico

The Two Galleries, Part 2: The Sorrows of Rich Saints...No, that translation's not right--although I like the contradiction inherent in a "rich saint" and the sorrow one might feel from the futility of trying to reconcile those two opposites. "Sorrow" is the definition of "pena", without the tilde over the "n", mistakenly also given by Google Translate for the word "peña", with the tilde. The latter word has several meanings: a rocky pinnacle and also a group of people with a common interest. "Santos Rico", according to The Artist, is the proper name of a picaresque character in a book he wrote, also pictured in the sign on the picture below right, riding on the back of some chump...

The end of a two-month plus saga--opening night for our
Backing up a bit in the gallery chronicle: the end of August, not long before we embarked on our scenic trip to much maligned Michoacan, we became aware of a new group coming and going, in and out of Axixic’s rusting turquoise double doors. We callously dubbed them The Neck Brace Family for the complicated apparatus worn by the tall, thin, shaven-headed father. The two young children were usually spatting, and the usual—unfortunate—expressive mode of the cute, three-year-old girl was to scream. Mom always seemed to have a lot on her mind. Like many visitors to the gallery they drove a sun-blistered car, which quality was offset by the brio of its Darth Vader gas cap.

NBF’s first visits were notable because they seemed designed to deliver the children to The Artist’s care. He would gamely try to corral the two away from the edge of the rooftop outside his studio as they gamboled among its detritus. Considering the familiar manner with which he handled them, we speculated that the children might be his own, delivered for safekeeping by a former inamorata. But—several weeks later—after an up close and friendly encounter with The Artist when I clocked his wrinkles, we realized there was at least a thirty year plus age gap between him and the children’s mother. Our initial hypothesis of the relationship was revised to assign him the probable role of grandfather…meaning Mom could well be The Artist’s daughter.

Quick progress by Augie and Jefe after a long anticipated
beginning--September 8
On September 6, the day after my birthday, we rolled up to our casa from a week-long sojourn in picturesque Patzcuaro.  Before moving on to what we found out (or didn’t) about Galería Axixic’s possible renewal upon return home, I should introduce Augie. He uses this nickname, he laughingly told me, because his proper first name sounds very much like slang for “diminutive penis”. Augie is a friendly fellow who has the weekend car washing concession on this block of Calle Constitución. Our first interaction was several months ago when he noticed me carrying a leaking pot of posole stew home from the dispensa up on the corner of Ocampo and Morelos. He offered a plastic bag to contain it.

Now—returning to what we saw that Sunday afternoon at Galería Axixic: Nada. No change. Exactly the same sight to which we had said, “Hasta luego” six days before. Same peeling paint, hanging wires, et cetera, et cetera. Needless to say we were disappointed. But we had other troubles—a horrible case of Montezuma’s Revenge that would keep us trotting for most of the week.

Next day, September 7, 2015. Monday morning—beginning of the work week. We dragged our depleted and complaining bodies out of bed late. Staggered groaning to coffee and balcony, when what should our wondering eyes behold?!: Nuevo amigo Augie at work scraping the peeling paint from Galería Axixic’s front wall. He would continue to mine the veins of rotten stucco with a vigor that brightened our leaden mood. And it wasn’t going to be just a surface job; it was going to be deep.

Hallelujah!! Or however you would say that en español.

As the days passed, prep work continued. Extensive gouges were made all over the surface of the wall. Augie arrived early (for this street)—about 8:30—each morning, rang the timbre patiently until one of the gallery denizens roused to let him in. Harrowing ladder work ensued— standing on steps forbidden in more safety-conscious states. Frightening stretches with sharp tools. Less than a week after this dramatic (at least for us) beginning, Augie was joined by another hired hand who appeared to be his jefe
For nearly three weeks, this clean visage is all we saw, but
work continued on the inside.

The fill job followed, mortar mixed as usual directly on the sidewalk, slathered into place in the stucco arroyos, and smoothed. By now, El Otro Guapo and La Novia had become involved in the project while still maintaining their daily jewelry table at the plaza. She would pick at the wall’s overlooked scabs; he would help haul heavy loads—bags of cement and buckets of dirt to be sifted through screens to the consistency of sand. 

All these materials would have to be delivered, of course, which meant saving a parking space in front of the gallery. The usual way of accomplishing this is by placing some large object (chair, box, tree trunk) in the street as a placeholder. One day we noticed our new favorite (and very attractive) couple trying to decide what this object would be; nothing was at hand. La Novia shrugged and flung herself down on the dusty cobblestones spreading arms and legs wide like a snow angel in the street. We found this incredibly endearing.

Preparation complete, we impatiently waited through a fallow spell before painting began. And then there was another period of seeming inactivity after the white base coat was applied. Augie departed back to his regular, irregular job of cleaning a church in Chapala. Meeting Otro Guapo on the narrow sidewalk on my way back home with some huevos from the Little Girl dispensa, I congratulated him on the accomplishments and asked what plans they had for completing the painting, and especially if all this work portended a rebirth of the gallery.

Experimenting with straw application, left to right--Otro
Guapo, La Novia, Trabajador, The Artist, (original) Guapo.
OG was effusive and friendly—his natural state, as we were discovering—and excitedly described something that, because of the dratted language barrier, was mostly incomprehensible to me. His enthusiasm was catching, though, and I conveyed same to my always curious-as-a-cat wife. There was something about a mural, I thought he had said, of many colors, perhaps, and Galería Axixic  would definitely be opening anew!

By late September, mysterious work was also going on deep in the gallery interior, even in the courtyard garden whence large loads of plant material were removed and hauled off to wherever that stuff goes. Regular deliveries of building supplies—buckets of paint, paving stones, reinforcing fence and copious amounts of cement. More sidewalk mortar mixing. More workmen. 

Through all this, NBF continued to provide vehicular support and receive childcare; the tiny hellion continued to scream fitfully. The Artist kept up his weekend sojourns wherever, leaving and returning with pack on his back. El Guapo became more and more scarce. Worried Man was a distant, slightly unpleasant memory, whom we later heard had gotten a job delivering decorative plants to institutions. The Crabbies continued to live up to their name; one of them developed a from-out-of-town boyfriend, but really, who cares? And the young couple, El Otro Guapo y La Novia, continued to ingratiate themselves with such acts as the latter painting hearts on the bare leg of the former as he balanced tip-toe on the top rung (natch), slapping whitewash as high as he could reach.

We still did not know what vibrant color(s) would fill the canvas of the gallery’s blank white face. On the morning of September 29th, a bale of hay (!) was delivered to our new friends and La Novia set to work, cutting the dried stalks into three inch-long pieces (?). A couple of hours later, my animated wife called me to the balcony to see the scene for which we had been waiting. The neutral white was finally being covered…with a muddy, adobe-clay tan color, only a tad less bland. But wait. As the first section was being brushed on under The Artist’s direction, he flung handfuls of straw that stuck to the still-wet paint (???).

The gallery, now cultural center, on the afternoon of its opening--all
painting complete and the sign just installed.
This unusual process gradually came to feel like a stroke of genius. The bits of straw gave a rustic look and inviting texture to the forty foot-long wall. Passers-by were irresistibly drawn to run their fingers lightly over the rough surface. As I was predicting that this attraction would result in the pieces of hay being pulled off, a second coat of the tan paint was mixed and applied to cover and stick the straw more securely. And just as I was grousing that the color was OK, but totally unexceptional, The Artist oversaw application of a coral trim that both warmed and brightened the look as well as perfectly complementing the turquoise windows and doors.

Ah, those windows and doors! For the next week or so, they would be the object of our attention—but seemingly ignored by everyone else. La Novia was the only one who appeared to care at all, scratching and sanding at the rust and crusty paint on occasional evenings. It was about this time that NBF—the father (who later introduced himself as Edgar), happily now relieved of the neck brace that gave the family its name—came to the gallery one afternoon with a printing of invitations to the opening—October 17th it would be. Our interest by now was completely unabashed, and we were honored to receive the very first invite. 

Just inside the gallery--uh, cultural center--the jewelry showroom
is to the right, paintings are hung all around the covered areas
of the courtyard.
Only a few days later, during my Spanish lesson at the biblioteca, my friendly wife accepted an invitation to tour the still incomplete interior and spilled this information into my envious but tell-me-more ears. She also earned a major coup by learning the names of the couple to whom we had been shouting daily encouragement—Alejandra and (yes, true!) Alejandro, or Alex.

The doors and window frames slowly changed in an unexpected way that spoke volumes for the vision behind their transformation. Where the paint had been removed, the oxidized metal became the finished product. Where the turquoise still stubbornly clung to the surface, it was partially covered with a combination of colors that perfectly mimicked the rusty, distressed metal surface. The finished work spoke to the process of industrial decay offset by the timelessness of the rough adobe-appearing wall. 

I volunteered one afternoon a few days before the opening and dabbled a bit in this part of the job (unfortunately also spilling some rusty paint on a thankfully less visible part of the coral). I spoke to the welcoming Artist and learned his name is Dionicio. I complimented him on his work and we exchanged information about our past. His weekly overnight trips are to camp in the mountains above the village. About once a month he also organizes a day trip to a sweat lodge, or temazcal in the previously mentioned ceremonial grounds. I was honored to receive an invitation to join him on these ventures.

We are proud of the fine work of our vecinos--neighbors
During the last days before The Opening, the only piece not in place was a sign. A mere few hours before the appointed time it was installed—a large unfinished iron slab with the gallery’s new name, La Peña de Santos Rico, and the outline of the two figures (see accompanying photo) etched through the metal plate. Backlit, the light shines through. It couldn’t have been better conceived or executed, we decided. With tears in our eyes, Dionicio, Alejandra and Alex, and Edgar received our appreciative applause. The opening party last night was a love fest and smashing success. 

FLASH: We have confirmed that Alejandra, AKA La Novia, is also the daughter of Dionicio, AKA The Artist. This is in addition to her sister, the still unnamed mom of the group formerly known as NBF. It's a family affair!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

XL. Las Dos Galerías, Parte 1

The Two Galleries, Part 1

The shabby looking face of Galeria Axixic especially irritated my
fastidious spouse.
One of the distinguishing features of our departamento's (apartment’s) location here in downtown Ajijic is the two galerías directly across the street. They are the backdrop for the human stories we make up to entertain ourselves as we sit on our balcony sipping beverages—in the morning, coffee, and in the late afternoon, margaritas. When we first arrived in this village one of the galleries was clearly on the way up, and the other on the way down—way down—Galería La Mestiza and Galería Axixic, respectively.

The front wall of the former had been painted last winter with a sage and green geometric design around windows and doors, a devilish little chupacabra with its talons bared against a crimson background, and the huge face of a baleful-looking mestiza (half-breed woman) who, unfortunately is the first thing we see as we blink our eyes open to the AM sun. Investigation revealed that this galería had only opened last diciembre with an elaborate fête, but it was closed when we arrived here in May and we have seen no sign since of a re-opening…perhaps, we thought, that would happen in noviembre when the snowbirds return from their summer nests in Toronto, Vancouver, Denver and DC. 

The investigation I wrote of came about because we wanted a local place to hang out, and you can’t get much more local than right across the street. An open gallery would also be a rich mine of human traffic—more fodder for fertile imaginations fed by an insatiable itch to create sense of our surroundings. La Mestiza has a Facebook page that features a video of its opening last winter but no word on if/when it will reopen. But, considering what we had been seeing at Galería Axixic, Mestiza seemed by far our best shot.

We held out little hope for Axixic for several reasons: its scabby paint job, for one thing, and dangling wires. Trash on the sidewalk was often a problem. The plastic letters spelling its name were broken or missing, and a sign advertising its wares sun-faded. At least it was occasionally open in an unscheduled way—although no longer serving food as advertised—but rarely did anyone venture inside the darkness behind its doors.

The one employee (owner? who knew?) we ever saw was a shambling fellow who couldn’t sit still, kept stepping outside, looking up and down the street with a squint and frown, returning to the interior gloom for several minutes before repeating this drill. We dubbed him El Hombre Intranquilo—The Worried, Restless Man. And he was much less than welcoming to us. My few forays inside were met with indifference and the art I saw was uninspiring.

Within several weeks of our arrival we also identified The Artist who had a studio—and perhaps lived—above Galería Axixic. We could see a bucket of paint brushes through his door which opened to a cluttered and unkempt rooftop of dying plants, broken chairs and huge containers holding who-knows-what. At least he was friendlier than The Worried Man, and would return our greetings and wave to us as he hung his laundry. 

Several different Huichol Indian families—identified by their small stature, polished mahogany complexion and colorfully embroidered clothes—would occasionally camp out in the gallery, from there carrying their bundle of sale goods to and from tables set up in the plaza or malecón. That gave the place some cred, in our eyes, and we gradually gathered that The Artist was the moving force behind at least this activity. Meanwhile, El Hombre Intranquilo continued his obsessive vigil, customers few and far between.

Another month and we were able to recognize another pattern—a young fellow we dubbed The Handsome Man (El Guapo) also seemed to use the gallery as a staging point for forays to and from popular tourist spots around the village with a pack full of jewelry for sale. Then, in mid-summer, for a period of 2-3 weeks, a young greaser gringo with a pickup-sans-working muffler and a skinny, skanky-looking female companion—plus three ill-behaved children—began making multiple daily stops at Galería Axixic.  A lot of interminable parking, loud conversations, and incomprehensible (to us) commerce would always ensue. In our eyes, presence of this motley group, including El Guapo's participation, would mark the low spot of the gallery’s existence.

The sinister face of the eponymous mestiza stares at us each morning. It took
awhile for me to be able to ignore those baleful eyes and that skull necklace.
Over at Galería La Mestiza, meanwhile, we had figured out that the crabby woman we occasionally saw wielding a broom in the the carriageway actually lived somewhere in the warren of rooms we imagined were below the rooftop we could see extending back a hundred feet from the street—the rooftop where the cats gather to sun and preen. After about a month this woman was joined by her sister, Crabby Two, and between them they rivaled the eponymous Mestiza for bad energy—rarely a smile or friendly gesture to anyone that we could see. Nor did they ever seem to walk the barrio—just got in their shiny red Mazda and left periodically for what we assumed was the big city—Guadalajara—whence we had heard they came. We also were told they were the owners of this gallery. These were the people who had invited the music, art, food and lively scene pictured in the Mestiza video? It was hard to feature.

Back at Galería Axixic, The Worried Man continued his fretful vigil throughout most of the summer, but did nothing about the peeling paint, wires trailing over the entrance, or empty cups that had contained Coke or Corona and always seemed to find their way to Axixic’s window ledges. We would place bets on how long trash of this type would remain in place; ten days was about average. Sometime in the dog days, El Otro Guapo—The Other Handsome Man—came on the scene, and the Huichols gradually faded away, as did Greaser Gringo and Skinny Skank and her Skimpy Tank Tops (which, to be truthful, I really didn't mind). 

It wasn’t long before we noticed that El Otro Guapo had a girlfriend, whom we cleverly dubbed La Novia, The Girlfriend. The two of them exhibited an industry not previously noticed among Galería Axixic’s other denizens. Every morning they would take tables and packs from the gallery to the plaza where they would spend the day making and selling some fairly attractive jewelry. We liked this commitment as well as the good-natured affection they shared.

It was during this period, also, when we first noticed the occasional presence of unlikely looking gallery guests (read: men with shirt sleeves or jackets, women wearing dresses) gathered for a handful of sit-down confabs that would last for hours. Artist would always be there, often with both Guapos, but El Hombre Intranquilo was only lurking around the edge. We welcomed any activity, and this seemed somehow portentous. We imagined negotiations. Could the Galería Axixic be changing hands!? Was a renaissance its future?! Each of the half dozen or so meetings heightened our anticipation and hopes.

Mid-August, though, all such activity ground to a halt. A gathering of indigenous people from all over North America was taking place up in the mountains above our town. We had seen a poster announcing this event on the gallery’s door, and when the day arrived for preparation of the ceremonial site, all the Guapos, The Artist, even Worried Man, plus bewhiskered newcomers arriving with backpacks—all of them booked up in several scruffy vehicles and decamped for the hills. 

They were gone for ten days. No sign of life at their gallery. Next door, at La Mestiza—no change. We left town for a week at the end of the month, telling ourselves that upon return the promise we had predicted would be kept and an overhaul of Galería Axixic’s exterior—at least—would have begun. Wishful thinking.

To be continued...

Thursday, October 1, 2015

XXXIX. Dinero Divertido

Funny Money

Upper left clockwise: Frida Kahlo, 500p; Nezahualcoyotl, 100p,
Sister Juana de Asbaje, 200p; Jose Maria Morelos, 50p
No disrespect intended but compared to the stodgy hunter-green, tan and black of Yankee dollars with their elaborate scrollwork reminiscent of a 19th century death certificate, just looking at a Mexican peso bill can make you feel a little giggly. They’re all smaller for one thing, and instead of that heritage, counterfeit-befuddling linen paper, pesos have a crisp plastic feel, each one a different, pastel color. And not just engravings of a bunch of dead white politicians either—you’ve got a pre-Columbian poet-warrior with an unpronounceable name that means “Coyote something or other”, a 17th century nun and writer who was the subject of a weepy telenovela, and the iconic Frido Kahlo, although admittedly on the flip-side of Diego Rivera—both artists, though.

So, there’s the appearance for one thing, and the value, for another, that make you want to shout “¡Olé!” as you spend them left and right. At least that’s the initial feeling we had when we arrived with a thick stack of Mexican currency in this balmy land of rustling palms.

You've got that $8 US bottle of tequila; $2 US more buys you
all the the ingredients shown for some guacamole, plus limes
to go with your margaritas.
Getting down to brass centavos: it wasn’t too many years ago when we would “only” get a little over 11 pesos to a dollar. When we moved here in May the exchange rate was 15 to 1 and we counted ourselves lucky; now it’s up to a little over 17. That’s half again more bang for the buck than it was when we began coming to Mexico. Makes you giddy, if you’re a Yank. (For Canadians the past few years have been less than kind, and of course for the locals—not so good; they receive fewer dollars for things they make, and it costs them more dollars for things we make.) But, an important note: we haven’t noticed any inflation in peso prices.

This money takes some getting used to—the color, feel and size—and it’s not only the exchange rate, either. When you were holding $6 the day before you got on the plane in Seattle and once you landed in Guadalajara that translated to a hundred pesos, you felt richer. And then when you realized that same hundred pesos could buy you a tasty breakfast for two (as long as it wasn't in the airport), including a couple of fine cups of coffee— Well, throw it down! 

Our favorite restaurant has a standing menu plus
weekly specials. The prices listed range from
So, it’s not only that you’ve got more zeros behind the whole numbers in your pocket, it’s also that the price of most everything is cheaper here than it would be in the States. For example, when you convert from peso to dollar and compare with prices back home, our rent is 2/3 what it was in Edmonds, Washington for similar size and better quality. And we’re paying about 1/2 what we were for utilities. Our $12 a month for electricity is considered profligate, as is the $30 monthly we spend on propane, from which we get heat, shower, stove and dryer. On the other hand, internet and telephone are not too much less than US prices.

A recent eye exam with a highly recommended ophthalmologist was 1/4 what we would have paid en los Ustados Unidos. An excellent haircut is about $8 for him, $10 for her, comparable to $30 and $60 US, respectively. When my stylish spouse wants a good, relaxing pedicure from the shop around the corner? Seven dollars including tip. Bottom line: almost anything from the service sector is greatly discounted.

We enjoy eating out much more often than we ever did in the States, about twice a week, at least, although it still feels a little shameful. Most excellent lunch entrees go for about $4 US a serving, dinner dishes about $5-8. Add $2 for una copa de vino. Our regular Sunday afternoon treat of two extra tall mocha frappes at Black and White Coffee on the plaza sets us back $5, including tip.

We buy our house coffee by the kilo from the young man who hand grinds the Vera Cruz beans and vends them from a wheelbarrow in the plaza—140 pesos, which translates to less than $4/lb. Antonia at the dispensa up at Colon and Hidalgo orders eight small containers of greek yogurt (coco flavor) for us to pick up each week at half the price we’d pay for the same brand at Krogers.

Here's a picture of that $5 Chicken Satay
In this land of tequila, a regular-sized bottle seems overpriced at about $7.50 US (though still only 1/3 what we pay back home), but those big limes (confusingly called limóns) only set you back two pennies apiece. If you’re making a guacamole botana (appetizer) to go with your margarita, you’ll want aguacates (avocados), of course. They always seem to be perfectly ripe at about 50 cents each. Roma tomatoes were recently on sale at Surly’s (our name for the perpetually dyspeptic proprietor) Frutas y Verduras for the clearance price of less than half a buck a pound. 

It’s not everything that is so inexpensive, though. The price of gasoline at any of the State-owned Pemex stations is currently $3.10/gal—about the same, I imagine, as it is in most of the US. And cars are no bargain, although our recent rentals have cost less than they would have back home—$200/wk including all insurance. Electronic goods, though, are on a par with what we’d pay Amazon.

Of course, all these prices that I’ve converted to US dollars would be un poco mas caro (a little more expensive) if the exchange rate were to fall. That extra two pesos we’re getting over what the rate was when we arrived in May has added almost 15% to our Yankee purchasing power. I expect that as this rate stabilizes we’ll gradually stop automatically translating everything into dollars as we shop or eat out. 

Meanwhile, we're three weeks into a three month period keeping track of all our expenses, trying to set up one of those whatchamacallit—budget thingys—now that we're dancing around the edge of End Game, seeing how far we can push things here in our inexpensive paradise. In the meantime we'll continue to enjoy for free all the things that really make this a special place—the friendly and fun-loving people, the near-perfect weather, vibrant colors and culture.