Saturday, June 27, 2015

XXV. Una Excursión en las Montañas

A Hike in the Mountains

Looking back to our big lake, barely visible just above the notch
Yesterday I spent another day in the company of some amiable (for the most part) gringos, this time on a hike instead of a road trip. The hiking group, whose composition varies around a hard core of about half a dozen, meets mornings every Tuesday—martes—and Friday—viernes—at Dona’s Donuts on the carretera, about seis cuadras from where we live.

This was the first hike I’d been on since we moved, although I’d gone on several others during previous visits. The trails are of varying degrees of difficulty. Some we can begin by just walking the short distance out of town into las montañas, and others require driving, usually no more than 50 km, to the trailhead. Each hike is briefly described in emails sent out weekly by Jim Boles, indefatigable organizer for the “Hike-queros”.

Jim, Doug, and Lynn next to "Turtle Pond"--our lunch stop.
Befitting an area that’s been continuously occupied for thousands of years, and to which paved roads mostly arrived only in the past half century, there are numerous trails. Around here the main ones usually connect small villages separated by high ridges. Shorter trails branch off to isolated milpas, or tiny landholdings cultivated in cornmaiz. Many trails provide passage to pasturages for cows, so we are wary of where we step. Just out of town there’s also a trail to a hillside chapel that passes signs denoting the 14 Stations of the Cross.

Another nearby path follows a steep and rocky arroyo. I had hiked up this way last February en route to the ceremonial ground used for a late-summer gathering of Indians from all over North America. Yesterday’s hike ended coming down this same path, and since this is the rainy season, crossing and re-crossing a growing stream interrupted by numerous waterfalls and pools, all of which had not been there in the winter.

Ruben, second from left, in his milpa with month-old maiz. 
Note the espantajo, or scarecrow, to Steven's left.
Our hike yesterday started with a thousand foot elevation gain mostly steady up (without the many zig-zag switchbacks I expected from experience climbing in Washington’s Cascades). Along the ridge top there were vistas down a thousand feet to our village (and the gated communities, and the Walmart with the bird rookery and sanctuary behind it), and over the wide lake to the mountains of the far shore, all mostly hidden this morning in haze. Later, there were clearer views in the other direction up to higher greening ridges, sheer rocky cliffs and one long thread of falling water. 

These young men are cleansing themselves
in the water which is like the the blood of
the gods who live in these mountains. These
are the second and third of five major falls.  
As with the Hacienda Hunt, the joy is not only in what we see and feel in the natural setting, but in the people we meet. Jim had made friends about five years ago with Ruben, who farms a milpa in a saddle somewhere along one of the twisty trails we followed. Ruben was growing his maiz, not to sell, he told us, but it was all to cook and give to his friends who visited him there. We, of course, were invited to come back at harvest time in about two months. Perhaps we'll join him then when he climbs a high and precariously balanced rock to dance on its top—a yearly family tradition that goes back generations...or not. 

Along with telling us proudly about his son who is a successful lawyer in Houston, Ruben also invited us to join him on a Saint’s Day procession in a couple of weeks between two nearby villages. This will also be a gathering of charros, or cowboys, and of course their caballos. Jim is going to confirm that date—always an excellent idea—and perhaps substitute that adventure for one of our weekly hikes.

And finally, on our way down the waterfall path we passed many families and young people laughing as they enjoyed the refreshing agua. One young man, whom we had noticed standing under the shower at the base of a fall, and who spoke much better English than our poor Spanish, told us that these mountains were the home of the gods, and that their spirits were cleansing him as he stood washed in the water. A good thought to carry back home.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

XXIV. Cazadores de las Haciendas: El Luz

Hunters of the Haciendas: El Luz

Just off Highway 54 we headed down to the bottom of the 
canyon, stopping along the way for directions to 
Hacienda El Luz.
A couple of days ago I went on a long road trip with some amiable gringos. We headed north, taking the ring road around Guadalajara’s congested and funky flank, looking for a road sign to tell us where to go, but there were none that pointed our way. We had all manner of road maps, even a talking navigation system, but we still ended up trial-and-error backtracking, and then paralleling the road we were looking for, which was—like so much else—under construction. We finally made our way over to Highway 54, the latest incarnation of an ancient trade route, from which—twenty miles out of the city—we eventually found the cutoff to our destination.

Our first view of the hacienda’s walls didn’t offer any clue 
of its former status.
This was the beginning of my baptism in the “Hacienda Hunt”. An ex-pat labor organizer from Oregon and well-read local historian named Jim Cook started this benign madness several years ago and now the group of cazadores de las haciendas numbers about a dozen. Once a month they—“we”, now—go into the countryside within about a hundred miles of Ajijic to look for the remains of several of the four hundred or so haciendas that enjoyed a heyday lasting some 250 years until early in the last century. 

A former anteroom of the casa grande now serves as a pig sty.
These remains have occasionally been lavishly restored and the group has been given a grand tour and feted in sumptuous style. The usual drill, though, runs something like I experienced on Thursday. Jim had read a couple of books that described a hacienda begun on land seized in the typical manner from los nativos in the late 1600’s. It had passed through numerous greedy hands over several centuries of exploitation until the last owner fled and the casa grande with its high walls, many outbuildings, and chapel slowly began to decay.

Descendants of the people who had worked this land, both free and enslaved, for countless centuries, still live in the general area around the ruins of the hacienda. They were the ones we counted on to give us directions to the exact location. Part of the motive for this exploration is to walk the grounds, put our hands on the iconic sites in this nation’s history and imagine how it might have been three hundred years ago. Part of it is the questing nature of the hunt itself with the prize being the discovery we signify in photos, and the sustaining part is the connections we forge, using our smiles, interested good intentions, gestures and pidgin Spanish, with the invariably welcoming people we meet.

The stone, adobe, and brickwork of the chapel’s 
exterior hint at past restorations and/or interrupted
From Jim’s research we knew the general area where Hacienda El Luz had been located as a working “plantation” and way station along the four hundred-year-old road between the fabulous silver mining town of Zacatecas and the center of commerce in Guadalajara. After we descended from modern Carretera 54 into the barranca, or canyon, formed by Rio Santiago, we began stopping to ask for directions. We bumped our way along a winding dusty road on an undulating terrace above the river until we found a small, scattered settlement and lots of wide-eyed stares and hesitant responses to our smiles and waves.

After we stopped a friendly-looking fellow standing next to his pickup, announced to him our intention, were given understandable directions and assurances of where we could park, we felt that our welcome had been largely secured. We piled out of two dirt-streaked cars, arranged to satisfaction our clothing, cameras, agua, fanny and back packs, and headed down the rutted track to which we had been directed. It wasn’t long before we saw, across a cultivated field, a red pickup parked in front of a worn adobe structure that the more knowledgeable among us sussed out as our destination.

The week-old offerings and flowers at the chapel’s altar 
are to honor the nearby village’s patron saint, San Antonio.
It didn’t look like much to me. The packed-earth blocks appeared indeterminably old, or viejo, but it wasn’t until I saw the rusted metal grillwork still attached to a very worn wooden window frame, that I became convinced that this might well be the Hacienda El Luz Del Salto we had been hunting. The walls that had once housed the casa grande were still standing on two sides and their vestibules were put to use housing farm equipment and a pig sty. Inside a makeshift barbed wire gate we saw the chapel where for two centuries or more the haciendado, his family, the estate foremen and their families worshipped, and perhaps—on occasion—even the peons, who had once considered this land their own, and who provided the back-breaking muscle power for their new overlords.

The twin waterfall, or salto, that gave this hacienda its name 
is visible in the notch at the top of the plateau above the canyon. 
Far below it are fields of nopal, a cactus cultivated for its edible 
paddles, or leaves, and fruit.
All things pass, and it wasn’t long before we were greeted by Cristóbal, the current farmer of this land who graciously, with good humor and hospitality, confirmed our find and showed us around. He unlocked the chapel, or capilla, which even after all these years and changes was still in use. It had recently been decorated, in fact, to honor San Antonio, the patron saint of the village. Behind the chapel was the maiz field Cristóbal and his sons had just been cultivating to plant the new season’s crop. Surrounding this field were rows of nopal cactus which they were raising for the edible leaves and bulbed fruit. And far above the cactus, falling from the high plateau above the barranca, was the waterfall, or salto, from which the hacienda had derived its name.

Cristóbal, the farmer who currently cultivates the area 
immediately around the old hacienda ruins lives nearby. His 
young son holds the seed corn they are planting using an old 
hoe-like tool called a coa, similar to the way maiz 
has been planted for centuries.
After many photos, lively if ill-understood conversations with Cristóbal, and much tromping about, we made our way back to the cars where one of our number had retreated to suffer in silence (well, not quite) from an awfully uncomfortable case of stomach malaise. We headed posthaste for a baño and our next destination, the village of San Francisco Ixcatán, another way station on the old silver road. As all but one of us lunched well at its immaculately maintained plaza, we admired the local church which was being built, someone pointed out, just as the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth rock.

After visiting with Cristóbal and taking pictures as we explored
the ruins of 
Hacienda El Luz, we traveled about 20 km to the
village of San Francisco de Ixcatán where we had lunch at this
well-maintained plaza overlooked by a nearly 400 year old chapel.
The expedition for the next two haciendas on our list continued for three more bumpy, hot and dusty, up and down hours, following stops for directions from a matron we accosted on Ixcatán’s main street, several groups of impossibly young teenagers driving trucks through the outback, lots of workers in countless pickups, men loitering on corners, families out picnicking, and trabajadores from Guadalajara picking some of the legions of ripening mangos in a shady and incredibly isolated arroyo. They each invariably had an opinion about how to get to our destinations. That’s not to mention the “guidance” of our own xeroxed copies of hand drawn maps, published maps both large and small scale, both spiral bound and intricately folded, several hand-held GPS trackers (one running low on batteries), and an even-tempered, if robotic, female voice from our onboard navigation system. 

All to no avail…not to mention the suffering of a proud and sympathetic member of our team who'd been stricken with Montezuma’s Revenge. True, we didn't find everything we were looking for, but we’ll be back next month, for we are (cue the trombones!) Los Cazadores de las Haciendas.

Friday, June 12, 2015

XXIII. Tamales Calientes!

Hot Tamales!

The Ice cream Man Cometh! His shout is "Nieve nie-VEEES!"
One of the joys and occasional irritants about living here in el centro, right in the middle of this small Mexican town, is the not too often, but regular, loud-voiced commercials from some of the traffic that rattle under our balcony every day. 

My discriminating wife can instantly name the vendor, whether she’s hearing a garbled rasp from a loudspeaker that dangles from the junk man’s bailing-wired-together truck, or the annoying “Happy Chicken” jingle blaring from one of Feliz Pollo's shiny new delivery cars. The only thing that gives her pause is the synthesized "dit-dahta-dahta-dot-dit-dah" chord that precedes both the propane gas and the mango trucks’ further identifying messages.

Gas Milenium wins the prize for catchiest jingle.
Some sellers specialize in guavas, strawberries or cantaloupes, others vend a variety of fruit. One fellow will haul away your junk. There's the roasted yam man with his distinctive whistle. We only occasionally hear, and then see, the fellow selling ice cream; the rest have been coming by most every day. Some you can almost set your reloj by; others, not so much. Most of the automated vendors drive some kind of mid-size 90’s vintage pickup. They all have their distinctive amplified, almost always pre-recorded, ditty or spiel. We especially like the jaunty jingle of one of the other propane gas dealer, punctuated by a stentorious voice announcing “Gas Milenium”, repeated over and over and over and over again until, fortunately, it gets too far away to hear.

This enterprising fellow--hell, they're all enterprising--is selling--
near as we can tell--roasted yams, stoking the fire with sticks of 
wood, heating the canister so he can use the steam inside to blow
a distinctive whistle.
Calls of the tamale vendors come in contrasting styles. There’s the dolorous staticky drone of the woman who sells hers from a big aluminum kettle in the back of a pickup. Her fellow tamale purveyor, though, really does it Old School. He carts a big pot—containing what must be more than a hundred of those plump morsels—in a wheelbarrow, and doesn’t rely on any amplification other than an incredibly loud and piercing voice. His call, “tuh-mah-LAAAAYS” can be heard for blocks.

We love tamales but they’re curiously hard to find in restaurants here. We’ve been meaning to try one of these itinerant vendors for the past couple of weeks. Their early evening schedule seems to vary, though, and we’ve yet to figure out if they come on regular days. Last night we made a deal with ourselves: we’d hold out for one of the vendors until 6:30, and if no one came by then, we’d hie ourselves up and over to Perry’s Pizza about which we’d heard good things.

Six-thirty came and went. We weren’t really so hungry; there’d been a downpour earlier in the day, and we didn’t want to get caught blocks from home in a heavy rain, so we decided to wait a wee bit longer. We were soon rewarded by the faint but distinctive holler of Tamale Man somewhere in the far distance. We didn’t want to take a chance on him selling out or missing our street so I went out looking for him, listening again for his call.

Looking almost as good as Tamale
Man's--these are purloined from the
55 Fresh Farmers Market website. 
I might have passed him by if I hadn’t stopped to chat about Johnny Cash with La Tia’s old hippie barkeep. 

I found TM half a block from the bar, where Morelos runs into the malecón. When I hustled up to him, he was doling out what looked like horchata—a cinnamon rice drink—into a cup for a young man who’d just run out of an abarrotes. I ordered seis tamales, was given the choice of puerco or pollo and took three of each (54 pesos total, or about $3.60US—outstanding deal!).

TM is the type of friendly, smiling guy you’re happy to be doing business with. And the tamales! Dios mio! They are everything you want in that squat tube of piquant goodness. Wrapped in a corn husk, of course, is what you first notice. The masa harina casing is soothing to the soul, moist and perfectly salted. My pork was slow cooked, shredded and lightly seasoned with chiles and a hint of cinnamon. Mamá mía, it was good! 

By acclamation we proclaimed that this would become a once-a-week dinner treat for the two of us. 

UPDATE: A couple days after the tamales, we heard yet another vendor call, "lo-lo-lo-LO-na....lo-na-lo-na-LO-na". It was a fellow walking down the middle of our calle with colorful, grommeted canvas tarps over each shoulder, wearing them like a serape. He was capitalizing on the felt need by some, I am sure, for extra protection after the wakeup call of heavy rains the last two nights. Google Translate tells me lona is Spanish for "tarp".

Thursday, June 4, 2015

XXII. Un Rascaespalda y También la Cabeza

A Backscratcher and Also the Head

Yesterday I was returning from the tianguis—the street market where you can find all manner of goods except, evidently, the bread which continues to elude us. Anyway, I had picked up un regalo there, a gift for my soon-to-be-birthday-girl wife. To complete the present I had stopped by another location just off the busy highway—carretera—that bisects our little town, and I was heading home heavily laden.

Un rascaespaldas with vertebrae massager embedded in handle.
The missing tine is to make this also a double-duty tool for
pulling the high chain that controls the ceiling fan's speed.
Stopping to rest on this sunny, unusually humid day in the shade of Café Gran Café’s awning, I commented on the weather and the load I was carrying to a well-dressed older gringo woman who was waiting there for some reason I didn’t catch. We had exchanged a few pleasantries when my attention turned to a small mujer from whom I had purchased a bamboo backscratcher a day or two after we arrived here in Ajijic several weeks ago. Thirty pesos, if I remember correctly.

She was approaching from the plaza around the corner, backscratchers and tchotchkes in hand, followed by two much larger people—a couple in their fifties, a little sweaty and looking confused, ergo gringos. The little vendor woman latched onto me and I was about to give her the standard, “No, gracias” when it became clear there was something else afoot.

Numbers were being thrown about en español. It was a confusion about money. I noticed the heavy-set wife was clutching a woven purse similar to several others in the vendor’s hand. Possession of this was the point of contention, and I was suddenly both the interpreter and the expected advocate for both sides in a negotiation as old as commerce itself. 

I presume that I was chosen because of the impression I had made in that prior experience with the backscratcher.

Ciento ochenta,” the Mexican said. “A hundred eighty pesos”, I translated. “About twelve dollars”, I explained to the quizzical hombre blanco. I looked over to the elder (and I guess some might put me in that category as well) with whom I had been chatting a few minutes earlier, and suggested that her Spanish might be better than mine, but she shrugged and looked away. 

We went back and forth, the gringos looking for a bargain—as we’ve been taught to do with these people. It’s part of the game—we’ve been told—but for the relatively few items I’m interested in buying from street vendors, I usually pay the asking price, which is almost always incredibly borato, or inexpensive. Plus, I figure that I’ve been fortunate by birth and it’s good to spread a little of that luck around.

Anyway: down to one fifty, up to one seventy, and with each offer and counter offer in pesos I mentally divided by fifteen to give the rough dollar equivalent. We were stuck for a moment or two when the gringos expressed doubt they even had enough pesos. Where was the nearest currency exchange for their dollars, they queried. But I think that was a ruse. If so, it worked, and the vendor gave an offer in that tone of voice and a petulant expression that’s meant to express finality. A bargain was struck at one sixty—not quite $11, I translated.

My facilitator role in this bilingual exchange, as well as the recent and successful purchase of gifts for my wife, momentarily lifted my spirits and took my mind off the customs debacle over which I have been hassling and fretting the past couple of weeks. The day before I had found out that our household belongings—that we had had shipped here to Mexico, and for which we’d expected delivery soon after we arrived—we being summarily returned to Seattle. End of story.

Well, not really. We filed a claim for a refund of the cost of shipping—and are awaiting resolution of that—and we still have to decide what to do with the contents of those two boxes, most of which are feeling less and less necessary to our new life in Mexico. Fortunately, the helpful daughters back stateside have agreed to receive and house them for the nonce.

Monday, June 1, 2015

XXI. Un Poco de Esto y Algunos de Ese

A Little of This and Some of That

Some traffic at Seis Esquinas--the woman to the left is arranging 
red roses to sell. There are some customers heading to the neveria
for some ice cream, and the boomboxed compact is blaring out 
political ditties and songs for the upcoming election. 
This past week when there's been nothing else that seemed to need doing, I’ve strolled down Calle Ocampo, which, when it crosses Calle Colón turns into Constitución—the street where we live. I enjoy the immersion in Mexican culture as I stray away from the more anglicized area around the Centro. I took these photos of the tiendas, casas, murals and shrines as I passed. They each speak to some discovery about a way of living that is different from the city life stateside that I'm used to. 

Zapateria y abarrotes
A vivid orange building houses the zapateria, or shoe store. The fan-shaped ornamental spikes serve double duty as security for the second floor residence of the store owner. Security here can also be much more obvious, and its imagined violation more cringingly scary, as in the broken glass or concertina razor wire you occasionally see guarding the top of a wall. 

Frutas y verduras—this one is on the highway, 
or carretera. Notice all the cognates—words in 
Spanish that are suggestive of their English meaning. 
The little tienda to the right of the zapateria is a typical abarrotes, or grocery convenience store, you find every couple of blocks. Sometimes they also advertise "Vinos y Licores". You'll usually find not much more than soft drinks, snacks and candy, plus a cooler for yogurt, and milk and there's often barely room inside to turn around. If you want to expand your choice of vittles to include fresh fare you'll have to go to a place advertising "Frutas y Verduras"—"Fruits and Vegetables".

You occasionally come 
across a wall, or in this 
case, a fragment of a wall, 
that is decorated like this. 
Among—and sometimes above—all these shops are residences, most offering some visual idiosyncrasy that sets them apart. It may be a mural, a shrine—almost always to the Virgin of Guadalupe—or simply a style of ironwork or vibrant color of paint that distinguishes them from their neighbor.

Just after I cross Calle Libertad, I run into what we would call in The States a "pocket park"—formed to accommodate the angle of Calle Hidalgo's intersection with Ocampo, as well as the home of un árbol muy grande.

This is Seis Esquinas, or Six Corners, a mini-plaza surrounded by numerous shops each providing a different necessity—a polleria for chicken and a carnicería for meat, a loncheria for lunch and vinos y licores not to mention the Centro de Salud for what ails you. You'll also find a reparación bicicleta for bicycle repair, not to forget the nevería where you can pick up an ice cream cone, and next door is a papelería for office supplies and copias, or copies. The estética across the street tends to your beauty needs. Add to that the benches and ubiquitous shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, the basket lights hanging from the arbol and you've got yourself a fine place to gather day or night, to chat, wait for the bus, and greet or just watch the many passersby.

Admittedly, this shot is a block off Ocampo and expresses a
style that is not traditionally Mexican, but it definitely wakes
you up, and that's what we moved here for. Note the security
features at the roofline. 
Taken together this stroll takes me past places expressing their individuality in colorful and unique ways. Interaction is encouraged by the narrow sidewalks where you literally rub shoulders as you meet and pass, often with a friendly, "Buenas días". A quick step into the street to accommodate a mother and child or elderly woman with cane will usually elicit a gracias.

Most all of the tiendas are small owner-run businesses, and many enterprising people set up shop right on the street, in front of their casa, selling barbecued chicken or posole maybe only on two or three afternoons or evenings a week.

Rather than going to a Walmart or Krogers for one-stop shopping, you wander inefficiently, but more leisurely—and socially—around your neighborhood on a daily round to gather a little of this and some of that. In the interest of full disclosure, though, "this and that" has not so far included raw chicken or meat from one of those streetside shops.