Monday, August 31, 2015

XXXIV. En el Camino

On the Road

Aside from the time many decades ago when I crossed the border at Tijuana with a girlfriend and her toddler, trying to keep her VW bus alive, made it down to the beach at Ensenada where I bought one of those handwoven and popular-at-the-time hooded pullovers from which I got lice—aside from that brief adventure, tomorrow will be the first time I’ve driven in Mexico. 

We’re renting a 2005 Chevy compact from a guy up in Ixtlahuacan who’s having it delivered to our doorstep—$200 a week, all insurance included. It might have dents, he said, but it’s guaranteed to run well. A Brit by the sound of his voice.

I've rehearsed this particular interchange many times. We come
into Ocotlan on Hwy 35, about 75 km from home, cross the
river and look for an overpass, moving into the right lane. The
sign will say "MEXICO [as in City] Cuota". We take a quarter
cloverleaf onto the overpass and Hwy 6, trying to stay on that
road through the busy town, near where, six weeks ago,
federales killed 20 some reputed narcotraficantes...Yikes!
I’m driving some number of kilometers that are supposed to consume about 4 hours over mostly pretty good roads to a village in Michoacan everyone raves about. Here in Mexico there are toll roads called cuotas that are better than Oklahoma’s Turner Turnpike last time I was on it; of course, that was almost 20 years ago. About 2/3 of the way to Patzcuaro, we’ll be on a cuota. 

From recent experience as a passenger on several trips around Jalisco I know that it’s when you’re trying to find a connecting road that the trouble usually starts. The directional signs always say some city or road that you’ve never heard of, may not even be on a map. So you take your chances, most likely roll snake eyes and stop for directions from some nice señor drinking beer with his buddies about to climb into the back of a pickup. 

The damn sign should direct us left to Cerritos, not to the tiny
village of La Alberca (which translates as "Swimming Pool"
 referring to a nearby round-shaped pond), and it's totally
wrong for Morelia. 
He doesn’t want to disappoint you by saying he has no idea what you’re talking about so he speaks that rapid Spanish you hate but you don’t want to disappoint him and ask for him to speak un poco mas despacio—a little slower. He consults his compadres, yammers and waves and points and you hear a few numbers and maybe a left or a right. You repeat this dialog two or three or more times on down the highway and finally you stumble upon what you think is the right road. And if you’ve lived the good life, it is.

I’d rather not go through all that on this trip even though who knows what serendipitous happening we might be missing.

Our Destination! We're staring in Hotel Refugio de
Angel, right near Plaza number 9.
To forestall that experience I’ve been spending a lot of time on Goggle maps, zooming in way close to see exactly where that turnoff is, exactly how many kilometers it is from the last turnoff, and exactly how many kilometers it is to the next. I’ll be shit out of luck if this Chevy Corsa’s odometer runs in miles and not metric.

I took screenshots of the salient interchanges. That information in hand, still on Google maps, I clicked on Street View and virtually traveled down each stretch of dusty road until I saw the sign that announced my turnoff. And took another screenshot of that. Good thing, too, because, there were some towns on the signs that I wouldn’t have expected. I mean, instead of a bigger town at the end of a stretch of road, why does the sign instead give the name of a much smaller pueblo halfway there?

That’s the kind of question that gringos around here always answer with an affectionate shake of the head,  “Because it’s Mexico”. Wish us luck.

Friday, August 28, 2015

XXXIII. Hablar-ing Español

Speak-ando Spanish

My tools to learn how to speak Spanish: workbooks, dictionary,
flashcards for verb conjugation and constructing phrases.
In the several weeks since my last post our Spanish lessons have ended and we’ve been planning a road trip before our next session begins September 7. We’re going to a village in the highlands of Michoacan—about a four hour drive from where we live now. There’s a significant indigenous presence there, and the area is famous for its variety of local crafts. I’ll write about the trip after we return, but today I’d like to explore our insights and experiences with, and feelings about, studying español.

Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn. It has half the vowel and diphthong sounds as English (10 vs. 20), and each letter is pretty much always pronounced the same way. If you see a word, you can pronounce it; if you hear it clearly, you can most likely spell it. There are many cognates, or similar words, in both español and inglés. Today, for example, I wanted to say, in Spanish, the equivalent for the English word, “agent”. I guessed “agente”—pronounced "ah-hain-tay"—looked it up in the dictionary: correcto! And yes, “correcto” is the way a Spanish speaker might say “correct”.

Our informal Spanish teacher, Patricia, the owner of one of our
favorite restaurants, pointed out to us that Spanish words are
often longer than English. Here is an example formed by the
suffix -miento. When you add it to a verb, like estacionar--to
park--you form a noun--parking. The sign is on the wall of a
parking lot. That's 9 syllables in Spanish compared to 2 in
English for the same meaning. 
La educación, la información, la confirmación, la reputación—all easily understood by an English speaker, or a native of any country where a Romance language is spoken, especially if you consider the context. There are other words, of course, but they may be tricky. Emergencia is easily recognized as "emergency" when you see it written, but when you hear "eh-mair-hain-cee-uh" in the middle of an excited sentence, you might not be able to respond appropriately. The culprit here is our soft 'g' which is usually pronounced in Spanish like our 'h'. 

In addition to the many, many cognates, it helps to learn the suffixes that tell you whether a word is a noun (-ción, for example), an adjective (-idad is often used), or an adverb (-mente, as in completamente)

One of the things that confuses us, though, is the presence of gender in nouns and adjectives. Most of us know the Spanish male and female articles for our all-purpose “the”: el and la, respectively. Usually, male nouns end in “o” and female in “a”; so it's el contrato (contract) and el cuello (neck), or la cabeza (head) and la cerveza. But not always, by any means; for example, it’s ela and la foto—the opposite of what you’d expect. And there are tons of other nouns that end in neither “o” nor “a”, but still have been assigned (and you must remember) a masculine or feminine gender.

If you get the gender wrong, the mistake will be compounded because adjectives describing a noun have to agree with the noun's gender. A cerveza (beer, feminine) is not frio (cold), but fria.  And your sore cuello (neck, masculine) is dolorido, not dolorida. As if remembering and assimilating all that information is not enough, you also need to keep in mind that almost always the adjective follows the noun, not precedes it, as it does in English. So, a “sore neck” becomes a “neck sore”, or cuello dolorido. It’s enough to give you a headache which, unfortunately, is not a cabeza dolorida, but un dolor de cabeza—an ache of the head.

Another very common suffix you see is -eria, which describes
a place where something, as indicated by the root word, is
made or sold. In this case we have the barely recognizable
cognate "salchichon" meaning "sausages" as the root and
the entire word basically means "deli". "Pan" is "bread" and
the other letters before the suffix are added for ease of
Spanish seems to have much fewer words, in total, than English*. Take the verb “to hike” for example. I pestered my knowledgeable teacher for its Spanish equivalent. The best she could come up with is caminar which generally means “to walk”. For my volunteer work in the LCS garden I need hedge shears. I went into a second-hand store looking for one, mimed how I planned to use them en el jardin, the fellow showed me what they had, and I asked him what they were called. “Tijeras”, he told me—scissors. The same word covers a multitude of uses.

Thus, to understand the meaning of a word in Spanish you will more likely need to make an inference from the context. In other words, since meaning is often not parsed so exactly as in English, closer attention has to be paid to the intention of the speaker. True, en español, you can use more and simpler palabras to get that more concise meaning, but that same exactitude could be obtained in English with fewer, more precise words.

"Carne" (think carnal or carnivorous) means "meat".
I sometimes wonder how these linguistic differences might contribute to a mind-set or way of thinking by native Spanish speakers that is dissimilar to our own. 

Of course, all this supposition could be way off the mark, and just a function of my rudimentary level of understanding this foreign language. I mean, I only just graduated from Book One of our course. My studious spouse and I are both taking Warren Hardy Spanish which is derived from the author's work teaching ex-pats in San Miguel de Allende, a town several hundred kilometers away from here, and incidentally near where Kerouac’s buddy, Neal Cassidy, froze to death walking along the railroad tracks.

In four levels we move from functional to conversational Spanish. I’ve just finished the first level which means I can communicate my “needs and wants in short, often incomplete sentences in present time”. Sounds about right. After two more seven-week sessions I will graduate to the ability to “create short sentences with difficulty in present, past, and future tense” (emphasis added to help lower my expectations). 

Pollo = Chicken
We are both motivated to complete this year-long course of study. Since our move to Mexico was spurred by love of the culture and appreciation of the sensibilities of the people, we plopped ourselves down—without un cocheright in the middle of downtown, not in a gated community on the fringe. So, knowing how to communicate at least on a functional level is part of a necessary skill set to survive. Trying to figure out the signs we see (A que no puede comer solo una on the side of a potato chip deliver truck—"I bet you can't eat just one"), or rehearsing how to ask for an oatmeal raisin cookie (Quisiera una galleta avena y pasa) also helps us feel more at home in this community.

Not quite sure about this one. We've seen bras for sale inside,
so what does the root word bone refer to? Go figure.
For another thing we want to get to know our neighbors, shopkeepers, and people we meet. They’re mostly really friendly people whose lives have been both very different, as well as similar to our own, and we’re curious about them. We’re curious about the happenings around us; we don’t like to be excluded from this knowledge simply because we don’t know how to ask the questions that will—sometimes literally—open the doors. 

We've both taken to our study, though in different ways. My gritty wife has really gotten her teeth into learning, adopting the near obsessive habits of her college days, and spends 2-3 hours—at least—on homework for every hour in the classroom. I’m not quite as committed to the workbook as she is, but find myself continually muttering words and phrases in Spanish as I walk around the village. And most of the time we like to quiz each other, although it's nice having this two-week break between class sessions.

One real bonus we derive from our course is the chance to ask our locally raised teacher, whom we both like very much, questions both about the language and local customs. We’ve found for example that the que le vaya bien often muttered by shopkeepers is the Mexican equivalent of “Have a nice day” (to which you respond with gracias, igualmente), and that you do not refer to people as hombres or mujeres, but as señors or señoras.

So, we’ll continue to struggle over the difference between the two “to be” verbs—ser and estar—and both words used to translate our preposition “for”—por and para: examples, each, of distinctions English doesn’t make, at least in the same way. And we’ll keep in mind this quote from a recent article in The Telegraph about learning languages : “Linguists have found that students with a low tolerance of ambiguity tend to struggle with language learning. Language learning involves a lot of uncertainty – students will encounter new vocabulary daily, and for each grammar rule there will be a dialectic exception or irregular verb. Until native-like fluency is achieved, there will always be some level of ambiguity.”

Update: A year on, I've discovered that it's really not very hard to deliver, in español, a moderately complicated line or two to the cashier, shoe repair man, waitress, driver, or whomever. Then, proud that I've successfully asked for a half pound of ground beef without stuttering and that I would also like a bolsa (bag) for my other groceries, I'm totally flummoxed to be on the receiving end of some rapid firehose Spanish, saying god-knows-what. It's when the mexicanos respond, that's when the gallos are separated from the gallinas.

I've learned to say, "¿Mande?"--not the rude "¿Qué?"--for "Say that again, please". Casting embarrassment aside, I'm also beginning to request that my Mexican amigo speak un poco mas despacio--a little more slowly--and then  to clarify what I do and don't understand. This is especially hard if you're one of those people like me who always wants to appear omniscient. So, we continue to practice and improve as we live our very enjoyable life life here in this beautiful and friendly country.

*This intuitive understanding is borne out by the following info obtained 8/28/15 from 170,000 words in OED, 2d ed. compared to 100,000 words 
in Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

XXXII. Ayer en El Panteón de Ajijic

Yesterday in the Public Cemetery of Ajijic

A few days ago we got the happy news that our daughters have made their reservations to visit us this fall. They will be staying with us over Días de los Muertos—November 1 and 2. I'm glad they're coming then, so I can share this amazing occasion with them. For me these days are a special time because my fascination with their art, meaning and celebration became my entry to Mexican culture. 

Many of the gravesites were partially
enclosed, like this one...
It’s been almost thirty years since I first saw the “Catrina” images of skeletons dressed in the same manner as the living, engaged in all kinds of mundane and riotous acts. They mocked the stodgy and uptight attitude towards death that is commonly held by the Western religions in which most of us were raised.

...and this one, with riotous colors, and recent balloons added
to mark the deceased's recent birthday, and...
This cavalier attitude was anathema to the Catholicism that found it in the ancient traditions of the native Aztec and Meso-American people who were conquered in the name of the Cross. The Church here in Mexico tried for centuries to wipe out this celebration which entwined life and death. Finally, the friars gave up and co-opted the old customs, moving their observance from summer to fall, to coincide with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.

this one, much more plain.
With these thoughts in mind, and mindful of our upcoming visitors, I paid a visit yesterday to the panteón, or public cemetery, here in Ajijic. It’s about a mile walk down Ocampo from our house, just after you pass Calle Rio Bravo, as houses become more sparse and the road turns from cobbles to mostly packed dirt.

The first impression I had here, even more so than in Yelapa’s cemetery, was how well tended it was, and how copious and fresh—if you can call them that—the plastic flowers seemed. There were splashes of color everywhere, and heartfelt expressions of love and remembrance that would have seemed mawkishly sentimental up north.

All of the grave markers faced south with the nearby hills
behind them, except for one that was in the far corner, facing
north. Was this exception for some reason?

This is one of the saddest remembrances I saw of a young man who died just four days after his 18th birthday. In the small lawn in front of the dalmatian statues are four soccer balls. The plaque ends with the words, "God has taken your soul, but your memory will live in our hearts forever. We will never forget you."
I found it a place of sadness and joy, kitsch and beauty, both crowded and well-kept. And peaceful. As I was leaving, heading out to the open gate and highway, with cars whizzing by, a man about my age passed before me and silently raised his hand in greeting.

Walking home along the carretera, I made my way back to Ocampos and Constitución, to our casa. It was siesta time and hot. The few señoras y señoritas on the street were carrying paraguas to protect themselves from el sol.
The cemetery is fairly large, about 100 meters square, and there are numerous views and feelings one gets wandering through.

The gaudy orange tombstone marks the final resting place of a 73-year-old man with an Anglo name, remembered by his
wife and children. The plastic flowers are recent additions to the remembrance.

Friday, August 7, 2015

XXXI. Cazadores de las Haciendas: La Estancia

Hunters of the Haciendas: La Estancia

A cazador de las haciendas passing the portal from the plaza
to the church. He is easily identified as one of the only gringos
in town by literally any piece of clothing he is wearing.
Just over a week ago today the Cazadores de las Haciendas—the Hacienda Hunters, a collection of adventurous, if aging, gringos who have made the Lake Chapala area their home for, in some cases, more than a decade—launched a three day excursion to the far northeastern corner of Jalisco state. We had five haciendas and two colonial towns in our sights. 

Our motive was to explore remnants of some iconic times in Mexico’s history. That some of the haciendas have fallen into such disrepair that the location of their ruins is not clear, encourages us to ask invariably helpful citizens for directions. For most of us, this friendly engagement is what makes our quest most meaningful.

At Hotel de los Cristeros our twinkly-
eyed host gestures to the cell where
Catorce was once incarcerated. Our
guide, Ulises, is to his left. 
Leaving Chapala, negotiating Guadalajara’s crowded and confusing freeways, we got on a fast moving but expensive cuota, or toll road, most of the way to our first destination, San Miguel el Alto. After turning off the highway we traveled through a countryside that reminded me of the high juniper-covered desert of northern New Mexico. Five miles of sparsely populated road did not prepare us for the beautiful and sophisticated small city we would encounter.

The beautiful gazebo in the center of San Miguel's plaza
attracted other tourists, although we were the only gringos.
Founded over four hundred years ago, San Miguel was much more recently at the epicenter of the church vs. state Cristeros War that ended in 1929. In fact, the restaurante at Hotel de los Cristeros where we were treated to a history lesson by the owner (and ate a tasty lunch), is simply called “14”, or “Catorce” after the nickname of a legendary Cristero fighter who supposedly killed that number of federales in one epic battle.

The main parroquia of Lagos de Moreno
across the street from the plaza
Our group was also taken under the wing of San Miguel’s public relations director, Ulises Gutierrez, who practiced his already-good English on us while we toured the municipal building and were introduced to local dignitaries. Ulises then commandeered a city van and drove us all over town, to a subterranean area under a temple where “14” is entombed, the local quarry—source of the city’s distinctive pink stone—and to the nearby reservoir and its waterfall view. What a helpful, sweet and friendly guy!

We reached our main destination, Lagos de Moreno, in the late afternoon after making it back to the cuota and being socked with another $10 toll. As we drove into this larger city, aiming for our hotel that was right on the plaza, we got caught in detours around the parade that was forming, composed of brightly costumed dancers and bands. We had arrived right in the middle of Lagos’ yearly two-week long feria, or fair.

We had a full agenda the next day but I was too excited in this new place to get to bed early. A few of us stayed up with the locals in the town’s leafy and well-proportioned plaza as the sun set and lights came on to illuminate the towering baroque parroquia, or church. After my compadres hit the sack, I took a stroll through the riverside gardens and eventually found myself in a colonial
Once a convent, now a cultural center, a violin and piano
concert was in one of the smaller rooms while we were here.
building housing the cultural center of this 450-year-old city. In the old days it had been a Capuchin convent. The next day I noticed that the presumably religious statues adorning its facade had been beheaded, cut in half, or removed altogether—casualties, I imagine, of the high anti-church feelings during the Cristero War.

Lagos (Spanish for “lakes”) de Moreno is located in an area that is remarkable for its year-round greenery thanks to an exceptionally high water table. The city site was originally occupied a thousand years ago by the indigenous Chichimeca. The Spanish arrived five centuries later and made this the center of a region of many haciendas. The agriculture that they established in this fertile area is today represented by many large and healthy fields of corn.

The walls of this 430-year-old hacienda are about 10 meters tall
The first hacienda on our list was San Rafael, but as it seems so often happens, we missed the turnoff. We exited the main highway to look for it, but couldn’t make our way back. Seeing a—albeit not exactly confidence-inspiring—sign to another hacienda, La Estancia, we decided to see if it was worth following. The road to which we had been directed roused even less excitement; it was narrow, rutted and dusty, and we’d been on it less than a mile before we ran into a slow-moving herd of healthy-looking cattle coming our way. Their minders reckoned La Estancia was probably about 7 1/2 kilometers ahead, and after a lot of dithering, one of our more decisive cazadores said, “Let’s just go for it!” That struck a responsive chord and we lurched forward.

Rosalinda rings but no one answers.
Another herd of cows, a one-lane bridge, numerous—thankfully, signed—desolate intersections, a lot of bumps and dust, and we finally sighted an impressively high and sturdy looking stone wall with an ancient crenelated corner tower—both proof of the guard kept against the fearsome and aforementioned Chichimeca. We had arrived at La Estancia, but now a formidable, much more modern, closed and chained gate blocked our way. We all groaned.

The Jims and Rosalinda exploring a long arcade. 
Our leader, Jim Cook, shrugged, suggested, “Maybe it’s not locked”, and slowly unbent himself from the car to test his optimism. It proved to be well-founded and we continued past another old wall of the hacienda until we turned a corner and encountered a second, much older, chained gate that also yielded to our positive attitude. Here, though, we were uneasy about entering without permission even as the well-tended grounds of the hacienda were before us just on the other side of the puerta. From nearby we heard the whinny of a horse.

There was a bell to ring and we rang it, but no answer. “Hola!!”, we hollered, paused and hollered again, louder. No answer. What we could see of the grounds looked mighty promising, though, and after being thwarted at San Rafael we’d come a long way. We opened the gate and hollered again. No answer. We entered slowly, trying to appear confident, but feeling—more than anything else—like kids breaking into Disneyland after hours. 

Looking into one end of the large hacienda garden from in front of the chapel
We gaped at a tail-switching white stallion in an otherwise empty stable, nineteenth century farm machinery below a flowered wall, picturesque and well-tended terraces, large and empty swimming pool, passed through one garden gate and colonnaded arcade after another—continuing to announce our presence as we digitally recorded our impressions with innumerable clicks—and gradually gained confidence in our solitude and gave ourselves over to happy and exultant exploration. There was only the familiar ticking and shushing sound of an automatic sprinkler to serve as a continuous and slightly eerie reminder that we were not alone.

All this and it wasn't even lunch time yet. We continued to Matanzas, Ojuelos, Cienega de Mata, and finally back to Lagos before dinner and bed. And then there was breakfast the next morning at Hacienda Sepulveda and the road back home—the rest of our trip will be told in the next post or perhaps simply remain a happy memory.