Sunday, July 26, 2015

XXX. Un Teatro Espectacular!!

[No Translation Necessary]

Ready to play, listening to instructions. These six- and seven-year-olds are the
youngest among the performers.
This past week I’ve been hanging out with a group that's putting together a children’s theater production next weekend. It will tell the story of how the spirit of the lake made this land habitable for humans, and gave our village—Ajijic—its name. It's adapted from a legend passed down to a local artist, Antonio Lopez Vega, from his abuela. The kids are all local and have been attending a free summer camp at the ex-pat Lake Chapala Society (LCS). At a previous camp they had drawn pictures to accompany the story as Antonio read it.

Antonio instructs the young musicians.
Note the unusual instrument--rock
played on rock--a tinkling sound.
That experience inspired him and a couple of smart and energetic gringos, Jennifer and Thom Stanley, to see if the legend could be told in a more theatrical manner. They enlisted the support of the ex-pat Lakeside Little Theater where the production—whatever it would become—could be staged. One thing led to another. A ethnomusicologist from Guadalajara helped them create indigenous instruments. This fellow knew some specialists in pre-Hispanic dance from way down south in Chiapas. A travel grant from LCS brought them here. A professional puppeteer volunteered her time.

Again you can see the attention paid to instructions
The dancers created and began training a local troupe. Interest burgeoned. Some folks who had been volunteering at the Theater lent their various talents in lighting, sound, and costume and set design and building. Creating the performance became the focus of this summer’s LCS children’s camp. Jennifer’s skills are custom-made to organize and deftly handle communication among all the different stakeholders. I have been enormously impressed by how well organized and equipped the project is, and that’s down to her. The buy-in by the kids, their parents, and all the volunteers has been tremendous. 

The variety of props created was astounding testimony to
individual vision. 
In a couple of weeks, dozens of papier mâché and cardboard props—aquatic creatures, primarily, and masks—have been made and imaginatively painted by the children. As they work they are read and re-read the legend by Antonio, and they practice their lines. Some of the kids will be “puppeteers”, bringing the props to life as well as creating several shadow scenes. Others will play some of those fascinating indigenous musical instruments. A dozen will act as the chorus, responding to the narration. The fantastically costumed dancers will perform. Those original drawings from the first year will be projected onto the cyclorama throughout the performance.

At the theater which was very well
equipped. Premiere next Friday
All of this speaks to me on several levels. Working with the kids brings back the best parts of my experiences as an elementary school teacher. I feel at home in theater, find the people there smart and funny, and this experience has been true to form. Theatrical storytelling was what I did before teaching, including the use of puppets and special effects. I’m especially drawn to legends in creating these performances, and native-based mythologies share common elements whether they arise north or south of the border.

Rehearsing the titeroteros, or puppeteers, on how to bring the serpent to life. 
So far my involvement in this project has been as a cleaner-upper, a distributor of painting supplies, a photographer, very occasional opinion-giver, and I’m enjoying goofing around with kids and adults alike. I’m looking forward to doing more work with this group, whatever form that work, and the group, might take. 

In the meantime there’s lots of other fun stuff to do and see, and I’m really enjoying gardening at LCS. My socially conscious spouse has begun volunteering at a local “food bank”, and loves it—more about that soon. We still begin and end our day on the balcony among a growing number of potted plants, speculating and recounting, wondering if this is really the end of the rainy season after four days without...Na-a-ah.

Friday, July 17, 2015

XXIX. Llevando Santiago a La Cañada, Parte 2

Taking St. James to La Cañada, Part 2

Not long after we got to La Cañada, the horses began arriving. 
I think they were following a different agenda than 
Santiago’s faithful.
La Cañada was swamped with visitors, but the locals seemed well up to the task of greeting and taking care of our alimentary and sanitary needs. Both sides of the narrow, cobblestone, tree-shaded lane into town were lined with tables of food (especially fresh fruit) and drink as we arrived. The niño-sized toilets and urinals of the local primary school were requisitioned for our use, so long as we paid the customary four pesos for any paper products we might require. 

By now, the equestrian theme had asserted itself and everyone found themselves jostling along the crowded path with remarkably compliant horses who were arriving with their riders in an almost unbroken string. By this time I had unburdened myself, and then reunited with my fellow Hike-queros, who, incidentally, were the only obviously gringo faces in all that gathering throng. 

The three young boys in the belfry had been chosen to ring the bells as the 
Little Saint approached La Cañada’s church.
We had fallen behind the Little Saint, but knew he would be turning up sooner or later at the nearby church, so we headed there to await him and his attendants. We could see them in the near distance winding through the main street of this little hilly village. We stationed ourselves next to the stone arch and open gate leading to the chapel. Looking up to its tower we spied three boys grinning down at the gathering crowd from up high in the niches that each held a bell.

As the main body of the procession approached the church I saw a previously unseen figure marching before a drum and brass band that had recently joined the parade ahead of the tiring banner bearers. It was a young boy, maybe five years old, holding hands with each of his parents. He was
The young boy looks an awfully lot like the Little Saint, without 
the Kris Kristofferson beard.
outfitted all in white, a gold-fringed cape over his shoulders, gold trim at the cuffs of his perfectly tailored long sleeves, silver and gold sash at the waist, cowboy boots and hat. He seemed to be the living representation of the Little Saint who, in turn, symbolized long-departed Santiago. The boy’s mother had on a “Love Pink” jersey.

As the Little Saint approached the church, the young adolescents in the belfry commenced a raucous tintinnabulation. There was a general air of excitement and movement as spectators jostled for position in the small plaza surrounding a nearby gazebo. There, a red satin-gowned and ordained official of Catholicism intoned solemnly as Little Saint was lifted through the crowd to be placed in honor in the pavilion.

This is one of the few times we saw a horse spooked. This 
one was probably disturbed by the moto revving its engine.
Meanwhile a line of horses and spectators more interested in secular sights continued down one or another of the cobblestone paths to where the main action was starting to happen near the river. We followed them, and as the pavers gave way to dirt, the dirt gave way to mud—mud that would be stomped and kneaded and churned as the day wore on. It was now only just a little after noon.

In previous years, reaching the river and going past the wide variety of food (chiles, tortillas, quesadillas, burritos, frijoles, tacos al pastor or bistec or chorizo, etc., baked chayotes, nopales, barbecued pollo or puerco, etc., mariscos, all manner of local fruit, ice cream, cotton candy and hot dogs, hamburguesas, etc.) sold from under tents and awnings by many scores of small vendors—that was only part of the fun, not to mention the vast array of cervezas, both
The young man throwing his leg over the horse’s rump is headed 
for the other side of the swollen river. The fellow helping him
 up had just retrieved his hat from the water.
undiluted and with salsa added (called micheladas), y licores, the toy, balloon, and flower vendors and other booths hawking cowboy and baseball hats, handbags (!?), stuffed animals, and geegaws galore.

The sights! The sounds—drums, brass, toots and hollers! The smells—wood smoke, all that food, accumulating dung! The humanity!…The horses!

The latter would normally now be the main attraction of this shindig. After crossing the slow-flowing river on conveniently spaced rocks you would, under the usual circumstances, come to a large stone corral where riders would race and put their show mounts through tricky and impressive paces. I can’t even begin to describe it because I haven’t seen it. I didn't see it because I didn’t cross the river, and neither did almost everyone else there in La Cañada that day, unless they were on horseback. Blame it on the past two weeks of exceptionally rainy weather that had swollen the river to twice it’s normal depth and breadth.

As soon as the trio began playing their rhythm-heavy tune, the 
horses start dancing. This seemed to be an attempt to mollify the 
crowd that couldn't make it to the stone corral across the flooding 
river where such tricks normally are played out on a much bigger stage.
This time, the stream of horses took the normal route past the vendors, paused at the water’s edge to observe the flood, and then high-stepped it across muddy, waist-deep and swift running water some 50 meters or more, and thence to the corral—we could see them congregating on the far side—and then, because they had no audience there except themselves, many of them would cross back over to where a gathering throng was eating, drinking, trying successfully to figure out how to have more fun, and spending money. 

So, there would be horses moving in two directions through a group of people flowing downhill to the riverbank. Pickup trucks, going god-knows-where, would also be trying to navigate through this slow-moving mass in the narrow muddy space between booths.

The braided mane and fancy tack seen here was not unusual. 
All the horses were well groomed, if not this dolled-up.
One of the attractions of past years, I had heard, was the dancing horses. All those gathered there last weekend were not denied this amusing and impressive sight. A snare, bass drum, cymbals and trumpet trio began holding forth on the gooey verge of the already crowded path, and bystanders gathered to gawk and applaud a stallion and his cerveza-swigging rider as the horse pranced to the music. Several other horses trying to sidle by were seized by the rhythm and surprised the audience with their own fancy impromptu steps. Shouts of alarm at this potentially dangerous choreography attracted other rubberneckers. Many in the crowd angled for pictures past a pickup truck stalled in the “road”. 

But it was all in good fun, and everyone kept their senses of humor. Any disappointment at being denied the usual rodeo jamboree was transmuted into—for one thing—appreciation of the spectacle of lines of horses crossing the river, while friends tried to cadge a precarious lift clinging to the back of a rider, clutching an impossibly large cooler of drinks or squeezing a child in front of them. When one such hitchhiker missed his swing onto a mount’s ample rear, barely—with help—kept from plunging into the muddy water himself but momentarily lost his hat in the flood, there were whoops, hoots and cheers from the many observers. Every such attempt was an occasion for suspense, and then applause.

These fine musicians were the only mariachi band we saw. Doubtless, others 
would arrive later and the place would really start jumping after we left, as 
evening fell.
We six gringos gathered together, took all this in, though mostly with photographs, joined in the more universal humor, and sat at a table drinking crevazas and soft drinks while chowing down on some tasty tacos. A little more time there, another visit to the river bank, and baños, and we would head back home. Two of us would catch an expensive ride to Ixtluhuacan in a tuk-tuk. The rest of us would be fortunate to get a free ride back on the bumpy and nearly gridlocked road in the bed of a pickup from a family we had recently befriended.

Not being a Catholic or a horse fancier myself, my enduring image from this day was from not long before we left La Cañada to go back home. I had stopped to watch a mariachi band perform for some folks in their backyard. As each player took a turn on their instrument, those few of us in the audience— including the rest of the players themselves—would nod and smile from the thrill we felt at the musician’s skill. Behind us, on the cobbled path, more horses made their way slowly down to the quickening throng by the river.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

XXVIII. Llevando Santiago a La Cañada, Parte 1

Taking Saint James to La Cañada, Part 1

The procession begins in Ixtlahuacán with the faithful carrying 
the representation of the patron saint of this small city on the 
first leg of the round trip to all the churches in the parish.
A couple of weeks ago, Ruben, a really sweet guy we met up in the hills above Ajijic, invited us to a fiesta in a little town nearby called La Cañada. The fiesta, which was last Saturday, celebrates the end of a five mile procession from the parish church (Catholic, of course) in Ixtlahuacán (pronounced isht-la-wah-KAHN). 

This was the beginning of a weeks-long celebration to honor the parish's patron saint—Santiago, or St. James—and leading that day's procession was the representation of said saint who normally resides in the Ixtlahuacán church. Over the course of the next two weeks "he"—it seems discourteous to call that little doll-like fellow "it"—is taken to all the churches in the parish. And finally, back to the main church and an even bigger blowout on July 25th. At least, that’s my understanding.

The procession stopped a half dozen times along the way to 
Los Cedros—the halfway point—to let stragglers catch up 
and give the excitable a chance to set off some fireworks.
So, a small but intrepid group of gringo Hike-Queros met in Ixtlahuacán’s plaza where we joined a file of three or four hundred faithful and curious behind the little proxy saint who was borne all that way to La Cañada on the head of one or another of a dozen of the male elders of the church. They were, in turn, preceded by a cadre of faithful women carrying a banner which I did not see closely but doubtless announced the presence of the saint in complimentary language.

A small number of faithful made the 
entire journey barefooted.
Jalisco is home to the Mexican horseman, or charro, who has a much more refined image than an American cowboy. Little Santiago—the representation— is on horseback, and, at a glance, brought to mind nothing so much as something this fan of Hopalong Cassidy and The Cisco Kid would really liked to have received for Christmas about 60 years ago—a jut-jawed, white-hatted, cross-waving (well, that makes sense) hombre on a studly looking, magnificently outfitted white stallion. Definitely one of the good guys, and horses.

At Los Cedros, the procession devolved, the little saint took a 
break, others climbed into the back of their family’s pickup 
or cadged a ride in one of the little tuk-tuks like the one 
pictured above.
Some of the faithful followers were barefooted in the soggy weather. A few were singing hymns. Most, though, were wearing sneakers, pushing strollers, carrying water bottles, eating snacks, spacing out, chatting as one would on any such pilgrimage in the outback between villages. Banner and saint were preceded by the flashing lights of a police car, and another one brought up the rear. Just in front of the final policia were the real enforcers, though—a dozen actual-sized riders and mounts, modern day charros— harbinger of much, much, much more equestrian muscle to come.

There would be lots. Of. Horses.

Muchisimos caballos. 

Unless you’re imagining more horses than you’ve ever seen in one place in your life, and you live on a horse ranch surrounded by other neighborly horse ranches and everyone likes to party and bring all their horses to the parties and invite their horsey friends in other counties, and maybe even states, who have horses…you have no idea.

The procession strung out along the cobblestone road from Los 
Cedros to La Cañada. The sun came out and we passed well-
tended maiz fields.
But it was still some miles yet to La Cañada, and in those initial muddy miles, I had no idea. We were just a bunch of people being led through some kind of seedy rurality by a big toy-mounted cowboy with a few real HORSES bringing up the rear.

In Los Cedros, the halfway point, our pot-holed gravel road from Ixtlahuacán turned west into a cobblestone way, and the scenery became more lush, with high ridges on both sides of the road, green well-tended fields of maiz in between, and an occasional fancy gate and fence, decorated with an equestrian motif and enclosing a large pasture and paddock, announced un rancho grande.

The entry to a big rancho not far from La Cañada
After Los Cedros our company became larger, more strung-out (perhaps in both senses of that hyphenated word) and secular. Pickup trucks carried families in the bed. Small conveyances for the footsore that each looked like a combination smart car and moped, called tuk-tuks, were more common, and little Santiago somehow lost his place of primacy, but was still surrounded by a faithful core singing hymns in a low key.

As we got closer to La Cañada, the procession began to jam up. Saint, banners, friendly vendors, pickups, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, bicycles, families of multiple generations, guys in a hurry trying to outflank the jam by skirting the muddy verge of the road, and others loitering and chatting. All that and...HORSES. They were beginning to make their presence known.

To be continued.

Monday, July 13, 2015

XXVII. Pozole...Aaah!


At the corner of Ocampo and Juarez, just a block and a half from where we live,
is the abarrotes where you can buy pozole every Sunday after 1:00ish. The
owners nice young son may even bring out a little chair for you to sit on.
You've got to take your own pot to the abarrotes where they sell pozole every Sunday. Make sure you get there no later than 1:30, since this hominy and pork stew is allegedly ready by 1:00, which really means 1:30, and there'll be at least three people already waiting on the stoop when you get there. If it's a day like yesterday, one of them will be me. 

We’d been talking about it for weeks, but it took us awhile to get up our nerve to buy soup cooked in the home kitchen belonging to owners of the little corner convenience store. I first stopped by there last week a little before 4PM, but the pozole was long gone. That’s when I ascertained that it was necessary to bring mi propio olla—my own pot—to take it back home in.

This Sunday, I gave my order and handed over my pot okay, but when the nice young woman then hit me with an unexpected question, rather than shrug and say I didn’t understand, I nodded like I knew what she was talking about. Then I fretted I was requesting an extra helping of horns and hoofs or some gaggable organ meat. No worries, though. She was only asking whether I wanted a side of slaw and radishes. 

Pozole, which is gringo-spelled with an 's', es muy rico--very rich. That's common wisdom around here, and it's true: after refrigerating, the broth turns gelatinous from all the fat it contains. But it's not expensive. My gastronome spouse and I got enough for both of us for dinner (plus that side of col y rábanos), and we enjoyed it again today at lunch. Total cost: 80 pesos--just a few cents over $5. 

Lifting the lid on this pot of lip-smacking goodness: Mmmmm
Make sure, though, you don't bust the bag of accompanying salsa when you put your now-full pot in a bolsa to take home. That's what I did, leaving a trail for dogs to follow and sniff, and one fellow to question the awkward way I was carrying the load. 

"Pesado [heavy]?" he asked. 

"Si, pero es pozole.

"Ah, pozole--muy rico." 

Si, y tambien muy delicioso!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

XXVI. De Establecerse En

Settling In

About a week ago, the Customs Snafu Shipping Saga ended with DHL—after initially denying— finally acquiescing to our claim for a full refund of the cost of shipping two boxes to Guadalajara and then delivering them back where they came from—in Seattle. So, except for the many hours spent carefully packing, then dunning them for delivery and then redress, we’re more or less square. Don’t have our stuff, but we’re also not out $600. That sorry adventure is behind us now.

Part of the garden at Lake Chapala Society, about a block from where we live.
LCS's mission is twofold: to provide support and resources for ex-pats in the
area, and make a positive difference in the lives of the native people here.
A few days after that good news we went to the immigration office in the nearby “county seat” of Chapala and came away with laminated, holographically enhanced Residente Temporal cards we can flash on demand to prove we’re legally here. Next step is to get our CURP—sort of like a Social Security number—so we can apply for a country-wide senior discount card (INAPAM) that is as the name suggests, with big breaks on various tickets, goods, fees, etc.

We’re beginning to look ahead to venturing into neighboring states of this incredibly diverse country. The first trip will probably be to a high altitude colonial village in Michoacan called Patzcuaro, which is on a picturesque lake surrounded by smaller villages, each with a distinctive craft. Thus, the interest in INAPAM to save us money on our bus tickets there and back. Mexico City and it’s awesome museums is also in our future, and Vera Cruz is supposed to have a Mardi Gras to rival New Orleans. 

Popular Spanish course among
I’ve settled into a volunteer gig at the nearby ex-pat society gardens, doing the pruning and thinning that I enjoy. Paying for the privilege by also turning a few cubic meters of compost. Good exercise, plus hands in the soil, and beauty. A Friday hike is on my regular schedule, as is kayaking on the lake, usually into the bird sanctuary, every other Saturday. Plus, the once-a-month Hacienda Hunt further afield.

Tomorrow we begin twice-a-week Spanish classes. The first seven weeks focus on us becoming proficient with the 6 “power verbs”—need to, want to, like to, going to, have to, and can. As we become accustomed to the demands of that course, we plan to attach ourselves to some deserving and rewarding volunteer activity. My worthy wife has a history working to feed the hungry, and, unfortunately, there are a lot of people around here who often don’t even get one square meal a day.

I’m not sure where I’ll put my energies. Until last night I thought I’d be joining my socially minded spouse. But after attending a show at the Ajijic Centro Cultural, and hearing about the work they're doing with local children in theater, I’m thinking that might be more up my alley.

Dancers from the southern State of Chiapas, enact a Mayan
myth at the Ajijic Centro Cultural
We continue to broaden and deepen our relationships with local shopkeepers. There’s the sweetest young girl at the abarrotes just down the street where we get eggs and juice. The nice lady at El Barrilito Vinos y Licores has begun to special order our favorite yogurt and have it ready todos los viernes después de las dos. My good-time wife has cracked the reserve of the deli guy who bakes our pan and slices our jamón.  And I’ve become known by the itinerant coffee vendor to the extent that he tells me when he’ll be on vacation, so I can pick up an extra kilo of finely ground oscuro in order not to run out. Even the couple selling plants on Sundays at the plaza now recognizes us as regular customers.

Perhaps the biggest news is that there's an energetic and ebullient woman named Lupita who now comes into our apartment twice a month to give it some deep cleaning. My DIY wife and I have never before even begun to contemplate having a maid; it's not something our kind actually does. In fact, frankly, it seems kind of decadent. Or, used to. No longer, though. Lupita is such a sweetheart, and so grateful for work that's easily affordable for us, and so helpful, it seems like win-win all around.

Looking toward Bar El Camaleón from our balcony during a downpour that
floods Calle Castellanos under the near streetlight.
We’ve begun renting movies, and snuggling up on the couch on stormy, rainy evenings to watch such as “The Imitation Game”, “Birdman", “500 Days of Summer”, and—currently—BBC’s recent Worricker Trilogy with the enjoyable Bill Nighy who seems to always—but never quite—have a smile about to crack his lips.

We are well into the rainy season here. The first three days of julio we got half the precipitation normally expected for the entire month. The rain is generally preceded by some spectacular displays of lightning, and rumbling, occasionally crashing, thunder. We enjoy watching this show as we have a nightcap on the balcony. And the rain falls when it should fall—at night, almost invariably—in a deluge that comes rushing straight down from the foothills on a half dozen high-curbed streets in this village, turning them into nearly impassable, if temporary, streams of water.  Enough so that you don’t want to be parked on the wrong side of Castellanos when you come stumbling out of the Bar El Camaleón, just down the street.

It's having that kind of insider knowledge lets us know we're settling in.