Wednesday, September 23, 2015

XXXVIII. Una Muerte No Natural

An Unnatural Death

R.I.P. Pepe Farias
Near where we live a fellow was killed just after noon yesterday. He opened his door and was shot four times. I heard the shots and passed them off as fireworks, I guess—didn’t believe them for what they were. It’s a dramatic event when someone is murdered, but I went by the house today, on my way home from the store, and nothing marked the spot where I had seen his covered body lay the day before*. A guy was working on his car’s transmission not twenty feet away.

The paper and webboards said Pepe had been playing fast and loose, selling drugs to ex-pats for one thing. People seem to reckon that was why he was targeted for elimination. That makes those of us who don’t do "bad" things feel relieved—stay out of trouble and you won’t be hurt, at least in this way. Some might call it a rough justice, but isn't there almost always a better option than killing?

Pepe was also a musician, a local character, and we’d heard him singing at the bar on the corner. He liked doing covers of 70’s  hits—"Born To Be Wild" was one of his favorites, and "Hotel California". So, he had good taste in music. The Bar El Camaleon was closed last night. I didn’t see any sign on the door this morning, but I like to think it was in memoriam for him. 

As I finish writing this I hear the bells of the church in our little town tolling the death knell. Those sad, slow bells—they say best what I feel.

UPDATE: I spoke to a friend of mine yesterday who lives on the corner across from Pepe's block. He told me police had already arrested a suspect who turns out to be Pepe's alleged supplier. Rumor is Pepe shorted him on a deal...Police reportedly found a pack of crystal meth in his pocket at the time of his death.

*On the sidewalk in front of the house there's now a table with a shrine in remembrance of Pepe. A half dozen chairs are at the side of the street facing the shrine. Walking by recently, I saw a woman leading a prayer for 5 or 6 mourners.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

XXXVII. El Grito

The Cry

It's raining in the plaza. I'm waiting for El Grito.
In Mexico  El Grito means “The Cry” or “The Shout” and it refers to Miguel Hidalgo’s call to arms against the country’s Spanish overlords delivered over 200 years ago on the night of September 15th. Every year on that date, at precisely 11PM, in the plazas of ciudades y pueblos all over the country, El Grito is repeated for all the people to hear again. Only trouble: no one knows for sure exactly what Hidalgo said. 

One thing is for sure, though, at least nowadays, El Grito, spoken by some politician or luminary, always concludes with, “Viva Mexico!” loudly shouted three times. We two gringos—my wife and I—listened pretty much uncomprehendingly last night to El Grito until we recognized those words. They were enthusiastically repeated by the folks crowded in our block-away plaza. Over and over again. Followed by fireworks, of course—at closing in on midnight. Thanks to the way cranked-up amps, it was stirring to hear even from our bed.

I had planned to be at the plaza then in person; left a little after nine to get a good seat. Found one, and then a much better one when some abuelas booked up and left. I figured they had gotten tired of waiting, listening to the interminable patter of MCs. But it was a different kind of patter that had them walking quickly to stand under the nearest awning. And it wasn’t long before that promise was proven by a downpour. We’re talking serious solid rain, here, folks. I ducked under a tree and thought myself lucky to be out of the worst of it.

Long story short: rather than get wetter and wetter as the deluge continued for who knows how long, after about fifteen minutes I opted to make a quick run home, from overhang to doorway, trying to keep out of the rapidly flooding street. Striped off my clothes. Laughing wife. Hot shower. The downpour ended half an hour later.

The shindig at the plaza though continued until 4AM. The huddled masses escaping the rain under restaurant awnings and vendors' umbrellas returned to claim their seats. Back home, after El Grito, we closed our windows, doors, and turned up the white noise. Even so—not much sleep.

Almost too much cuteness.
By 8AM this morning, the policia cars were running up and down our street loudspeakering and blatting their siren. Accompanied, for show, by the town’s one tow truck they were exhorting all coche owners to remove their vehicle from the Dia de Independencia parade's designated route. About 10AM the parade began, and it consisted almost solely of all our village’s schoolchildren, in uniform. I guess the idea is that almost everyone else is either just sleeping, sleeping it off, still hungover, or still drinking.

At least the charros we saw lounging on their horses when we went to the plaza for lunch today were still imbibing, as were a couple of cronies on benches. One fellow was sprawled asleep behind last night’s stage. 

By tonight, though, things are hopping again in the plaza. It’s 9:30 now—early. Our neighbor says the noise won’t be as late or as loud as last night. It's at least the same volume, though, now. No telling how late it’ll last. About time for that white noise again.

Monday, September 14, 2015

XXXVI. Regata de Globos

Regatta of Hot Air Balloons

Globos are unmanned hot air balloons about the size of a small garage, and Regata de Globos has become an Ajijic tradition to kick off Fiestas Patrias--a week of celebrations that commemorate Mexico's call to independence from Spain. About every two minutes for over three hours there's a launch from one of the many teams gathered in the fútbol field. Sometimes the balloon comes down in flames over one of the adjacent gated, ex-pat communities, but mostly it continues to rise and slowly recede from view into the high blue distance. The following is a pictorial chronicle of the event.

As the guy on his belly, far right, holds the lit propane torch to heat the air inside the balloon, some of his assistants patch any leaks that have appeared. Others hold the balloon's side away from the flame, and the fellow with the combustible pad in hand stands ready to hand it over for placement just inside the balloon's neck, to keep the air heated and the balloon aloft.

The combustible pad is lit and attached in place and the 15 foot tall balloon begins to rise. The banner acts as ballast to keep the globo more or less upright. Otherwise the small flame may touch the side and the balloon quickly disintegrate in a ball of fire.
The balloon is on its way!

Uh-oh. A nearby group has interrupted their preparations for launch to watch something in the sky that appears to give alarm. What could it be?

It's not our Team Orange's balloon, but another that has caught fire!

This balloon is now just a burnin', churnin' hunk o' steamin' plastic, plummeting to earth. Will it land in some rich gringo's garden, or..?

Not. Fortunately, the balloon had not risen too high. It fell back to the fútbol field where one of the ambient gangs of young boys rushed to play with the flames and investigate the remnants of the fiery crash.

Meanwhile, other children assist with a launch of another grownup team's balloon, while still others...

Work on their own creation, perhaps dreaming of days to come when they will assemble...

Something grand of their own. It could be a weird character from a video game, or...

A character from another video game. Or, moving on to the real, as opposed to virtual, world, perhaps...
They will put together something that resembles their favorite luche libre wrestler. They might have higher aspirations, though, and taking their cue from mathematics they might create...

A polyhedron...But that might not be enough to satisfy the questing young mind. With the help of others now, the ambitious student might construct --

A dodecahedron! By this time, though, the young one may have lost faith in the material world and be reaching for something in the spiritual dimension, and so she sees--

A cross rising triumphant out of a cloudy and troubled sky...Or maybe not. Assuming the mantle of omnipotence himself, the now older young person could possibly even labor to construct...

A vessel that could hold his proxy self--a wee mousey passenger would fit (with parachute of course)...

Moving on: Young adults at this shindig, meanwhile, take selfies (memorializing their place in front of the beautiful globo while ignoring the crew frantically trying to launch it), or...

Take more selfies (ignoring an ominous globo on the rear horizon about to grab that new $600 iPhone), or...

Pose for someone else, or...

Just have fun!!!

Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

XXXV. Nuestro Viaje a Patzcuaro

Our Trip to Patzcuaro

Our recent trip to Patzcuaro, a large Colonial-era town in the adjoining state of Michoacan, was just over 300 km—about 200 miles one way. Most of the drive was on a restricted access toll road, like an Interstate highway in the States. About a tenth of the journey, though, was on pot-holed, undivided asphalt roads that traveled through small pueblos and across unfenced rangeland. 

Miles of these walls added a feeling of permanence to
human activities on the land. This is a rare example of
unrepaired damage, perhaps related to harvesting the nopal.
It is high country. Our home in Ajijic is the same altitude as mile-high Denver, and we traveled up to about 7500 feet. It is not mountainous, however. There are broad, broad valleys—and vistas—and plateaus sloping up the shoulders of ancient, widely spaced and much-eroded volcanic peaks. The countryside was green from the rainy season, but in no way tropical. Think of pine vying with cactus.

This is the geographical center of Mexico in a large area known as the Colonial Highlands. Inhabited for millennia by indigenous cultures, this area was seized by the Spanish conquistadores nearly five hundred years ago and its people subjected by the state as well as the Roman Catholic Church. In both poor pueblos and well-off cities you see many centuries-old churches that are still in use, and in most cases elaborately decorated.

At end of day, a flower vendor loads his wares at Plaza Chica's
market for the trip back home.
Aside from the churches, the other image that abides throughout all that country are the rock walls you see everywhere, up and down, and stretched across the landscape, delineating pastures and plantings. About four feet high, they are constructed of one or more layers of hefty, lichen-encrusted volcanic boulders. These walls give, to me at least, a sense of permanence to the lives that are lived among them.

My many rehearsals of this trip on Google Maps and Street View, which pictured even the most out-of-the-way roads, served me well. I never got lost on the way to Patzcuaro, or back. Nothing prepared me, though, for what a large bustling place it is, nor the way its boulevard entry of pines reminded me of a Montana mountain town.

The lobby of our hotel--notice the statue of the Virgin above
the fireplace. Our room was just out of the picture, top right.
The mental map I had imprinted allowed me to make the right turns as we headed for our hotel, but we were taken aback by the unending stream of small white vans called collectivos that crowded the Centro area, taking passengers to and from the many small villages that surround this market town. 

The center of all this activity was at one corner of the smaller of the two main plazas in the town. Our Catholic-themed hotel (large picture of the Virgen as you entered, Christ on a cross facing the front desk) was at the opposite corner in a stucco two story, portaled, three hundred year-old building. Each room was named for a religious figure, in our case, Archangel Jehudiel. It was an attractive room, with a small balcony out over the street, but the bathroom was ridiculously small and had a large step up that was particularly challenging at night. 

Plaza Grande at dusk
Patzcuaro’s main market was the reason for all the bustle around this small, or chica, plaza. Every day of our stay, countless vendors set up their stalls selling all manner of goods on the streets surrounding the claustrophobic warren of shops in this mercado. At the end of another street leading into Plaza Chica was a second large cluster of plastic tarp-covered stands and more permanent—but only slightly—wooden structures with even more vendors. 

Between about 10AM and 10PM the place was abuzz. And people in Patzcuaro don’t so much stroll, as they do in our little village of Ajijic, but stride. We were unused to this pace that we hadn’t seen since our last trip half a year ago (another lifetime!) into downtown Seattle. There was another thing that—at times—reminded us of our old home in the States—the cool and often cloudy weather.

Very peaceful just to sit on a pew as a few people moved
quietly about.
Regardless, it wasn’t long before we had found an amiable place on Plaza Grande, a block away from our hotel, that served excellent coffee and decent breakfasts, and we made that each day’s first destination. This plaza truly was large, and all around it, in addition to restaurants, cafes and hotels, as well as on the streets leading into the plaza, were numerous small and fairly upscale stores. Especially zapaterias! We’ve never seen so many shoe stores in such a relatively small area in our lives.

After breakfasts, we would take in the sights, either in Patzcuaro, or on several days, in the villages and countryside nearby. Our favorite two places in town were the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud and the Casa de los Once Patios. Both were beautiful, the former with man-made elegance and the latter because of it’s simple design and variety of eye-candy plantings. As much as the beauty, though, we appreciated the peace and quiet of each.

The House of Eleven Patios is down to five now. Regardless,
it is a great place to relax, as well as shop directly from some
talented artisans.
One striking thing about Patzcuaro is its strict conformity in the style of the buildings and the way they are painted. It seems that no construction, except for churches, is more than two stories high, nor painted any colors except whitewash with brick-red bottom trim. Even the style and size of lettering for store names is unvarying. Except for churches, again, everything is stucco with tile roofs and extended beams. What a contrast this is to Ajijic where every stucco housefront seems to be a different color scheme, with gratuitous textures and designs, borders, sculptures, murals and flourishes everywhere. We prefer the latter.

 One thing that did enliven the atmosphere were the national emblems and seals, and red, white and green banners and bunting strung up around the plazas, especially, as well as all over our hotel. At night, at Plaza Grande, the decorations were illuminated. This was the ramp up to Fiestas Patrias—the week beginning in just a few days when Mexico’s independence is celebrated. Viva Mexico! Libertad! Oh, days of glory to soon come!

An ice cream vendor counts his take at Santa Clara de Cobre's
plaza. Notice the huge copper pot hanging in the gazebo.
Our two trips out of town were to the villages of Santa Clara de Cobre and Tzintzuntzan. Each specialized in a different craft. Santa Clara featured all manner of handmade copper work, at unbeatable prices. We bought a small, classically simple urn. The strange name of the other village comes from a Tarascan word describing the flight of a hummingbird. This place makes more types of straw items than you can imagine. A large grass footrest shaped like a pig? No problem. We settled for a straw hat and a small wastebasket.

One of the other things we loved about TeeZee was the nearby archeological site with its partly rebuilt, semi-circular pyramids on a vast platform overlooking the village. The perfect temperature, dark blue sky with flocks of fluffy clouds, vistas over the northern part of Lake Patzcuaro to distant mountains, and the silence all made this a relaxing and inspiring place to spend my birthday.  

Tzintzuntzan pyramids with Lake Patzcuaro in background.
We also found peace, as well as some of our favorite music, in the mostly quiet park whose cantera stone portal was hidden behind the village marketplace. Four hundred year-old olive trees are planted inside the walls. We followed some well-dressed familias, with young’uns, down a path leading to several more ridiculously old and picturesque religious buildings. We’d stumbled across some christenings, it seems, as well as the cause of the mariachi music—a quinceanera, marking a young lady’s coming of age, at fifteen.

Those last memories of Tzintzuntzan are a good place to end this account. We’re back in Ajijic now. This trip marked the term break between Spanish classes. We’ve just begun our new seven-week session, which means our next vay-cay will be during the two weeks around Dias de los Muertos when our sweet daughters will be visiting. I’m not sure how things will fall after that, but sometime around the beginning of the year we will be off to Zihuatanejo, on la playa, on the ocean. And then? Who knows, but loving this life.

A mariachi belts out "Mexico, Querido y Lindo" at quinceañera
in Tzintzuntzan.