Saturday, May 14, 2011

San Cristobal De Las Casas: An altogether different Mexico

Weeks passed and I left Mazunte, with it’s dry heat, crashing waves and palm trees, on a night bus headed for San Cristobal De Las Casas. I saw rolling desert hills passing by the window as I fell asleep. You can understand why I was surprised to wake up in Seattle early the following morning. I knew it before I opened my eyes. I could feel the cold, wet air which carried the smell of rain-slicked asphalt to me. My waking reverie was interrupted when I opened my eyes with a start and muttered curse as a fellow passenger slammed my travel-stiff knee with the bathroom door. How? Thanks to my seat at the back of the bus which included, aside from a reduction in reclining capacity, a stiflingly close proximity to the steamy bathroom and near constant foot traffic headed to it. I took a moment to get my bearings and look around. This proved to be harder than I thought as my eyes were blurry and nearly impossible to open thanks to the air conditioner/terror device that had been designed into the back of this particular bus. The curve of the back wall and the lack of an overhead luggage rack made sure that the winter chill of the air-conditioned breeze got a perfectly aerodynamic path to my upturned face in its reclined position on the bus. At this point, rubbing my knee and blinking, I decided that all bus engineers should be made to sit in the worst seat on the buses they’ve designed for no less than a twelve hour ride. This muttering and musing lasted only as long as it took to blink some water into my eyes. I continued blinking because I was surprised by what I saw, thinking I’d only been dreaming of home.

I stepped of the bus into the glare of a cloudy, grey Seattle morning. The wind was brisk and cold like one might expect on a March morning. The air smelled thick with promise of rain. Pine trees dotted the surrounding hills and low mountains, adding their soft aroma to the crisp air. Danny and I stared at each other in disbelief. It took us a half hour of walking around looking for a hostel to make us say it aloud. “Dude, we’re home.” said Danny. “Seems that way, huh?” I replied in some disbelief. Even the walk through the city had the feeling of a slow morning in one of the many neighborhoods of Seattle. Coffee shops and bakeries served up breakfast to commuters in cars, on bikes and afoot. We jumped over puddles from the previous night’s rain and wandered by kitsch little clothing shops. San Cristobal seemed to be just another cosmopolitan, western city albeit a very charming one. Yet, with each block we passed, it became clear that I was only seeing part of what defined this city and these people. Something else was there but, for the moment, the city itself enthralled me.

San Cristobal is a city of many colors and cultures, beautiful and enchanting. A city that proudly shows itself the way its inhabitants do. The market place is a menagerie of vendors, each one bearing the colors of their trade or village, calling out their wares in a beautiful, sing song Mayan dialect. Artisans bustle through the streets in a moving tapestry of varying, brilliant colors. The city is not outdone by these master tailors and crafters. It shows its soul through bright paints, in every nuanced building, in every unique doorway. Artsy signs decorate the outside of even the most humble establishments. Fruit stands tucked into buildings compete with each other block after block, each one displaying greater skill in arranging and decorating with their wares. The feeling that this is simply another westernized city quickly faded as I wandered down old streets, through markets larger than I’ve seen in Asia and past more than a handful of “Viva la Résistance” spray-painted tags on the wall.

In fact, once the strange sense of nostalgia passed, it became clear that San Cristobal was home to two contending cultures: Mexican and Mayan. It was as if colonial and modern Mexico had been superimposed again and again, with varying success, over the deep Mayan roots of the people who had lived there for centuries. The atmosphere of the town is a mixture of the cosmopolitan airs of the north with an undertone of strong indigenous pride. Resistance graffiti declaring allegiance to the Zapatistas and demands for the end of military law cover the walls of chic establishments. The pride the indigenous citizens show by wearing their traditional clothes is more like a challenge than just a sense of civic identity. In fact, even the language spoken on the street is more often Mayan T’zutuhil than Mexican Spanish. I was deeply enticed by what I saw in San Cristobal. Here was a culture, alive if not well, that lived alongside the rest of the nation but was not part of that nation. Here was a group of people who had resisted assimilation for hundreds of years even if they had to fight for it. I had wanted to see this side of Latin America since I’d arrived because it helped tell a deeper story of the country. A story with many actors and groups, one that didn’t have an easily definable set of “good guys” and “bad guys.” It felt like pulling back the stage curtain to see what is really happening in the wings when before, in the passive audience, the lights had been blinding.

This conflict of culture began when Columbus arrived in this country back in the 15th century but the modern rhetoric revolves around what happened much later at the birth of the independent Mexican nation. Just like any other nation, Mexico is a conglomeration of victors and vanquished, those who have a say in history and those who are kept quiet. The nations valuable resources were taken over by the newest conquerors while the hinterlands were left, as is so often the case, as they were: undeveloped, unrepresented and poor. Mexico’s victors consolidated themselves in the center, near the capital, while the vanquished moved to the edges. The Yucatan in the southeast, now Chiapas state but once home to the Mayans, is one of those edges. Here, away from the immediate reach of the state, the people have maintained a stronger sense of who they were before the conquest. Impoverished but proud, the fertile jungle soil seems to nourish rebellion and resistance even more easily than it gives up food.

One powerful form of resistance, as I see it, is the way the Mayan people have adapted Catholicism into their ancient practices, changing it to suit them without being changed in turn. Despite the best effort of the church to instill orthodox practices and beliefs in the populace most people have merely incorporated Jesus and the saints into the network of spirits and forces they work with when entreating the unseen world for favor. We had a chance to see these practices when we traveled to the town of Chamula, a short ride out of the mountains from San Cristobal. The town is small and rural, tucked away into rolling, pine covered hills and nestled into a valley. The center of the town holds a great square and pretty little white church. Looking at it from the outside, you would see no hint of difference from any other church in Mexico. I expected to walk through the doors to find quiet, pious locals making their rounds at extravagant altars inlaid with the customary gold-leaf and scripture. I certainly didn’t expect what was waiting for me past the great wood doors in the cool darkness beyond.

The smell of pine needles drifted to me even before my eyes adjusted to the dim light. My eyes became used to the light quickly and as I looked around I recognized the small, colored statues of saints sitting in wood-edged boxes with glass on all sides. They sat shoulder to shoulder with each other, more than thirty in total, on wood tables surrounding the whole room. Each saint had a table in front of them with twenty or more candles a piece which meant that hundreds of candles burned brightly all around. This was where the similarity between this church and others ended. Now, I saw that the smell of pine came from the floor itself. In place of hard wood pews, in fact there are no chairs, there were thousands and thousands of pine needles. They covered the floor like a thick carpet from the back of the church into the alcove at the far end. Mayan families sat together, scattered about the floor, in front of clearings they’d made in the needles. The sections of marble floor which showed through were covered in hundreds of tiny candles, grouped by color, which were all ablaze like a bonfire. It wasn’t just the religious objects, added or removed, that made the church so different but the also the rites practiced and who performed them.

Each family seemed to take charge of their own ritual. No priest said a litany, in fact I never saw anyone behaving as a priest, and no group singing or repeating of hymns. From what I saw, grandmothers were the closest thing they had to any acting authority on what was happening. I watched one family for nearly an hour, trying to understand what was happening. A grandmother brought in a young boy, maybe five or six, and began clearing a space in the needles. She gently brushed the boy with the candles before she lit them, her voice a breathy, chanting drone. She arranged the candles, lit them, and then began the process again with bundles of small colored candles similar to the ones you see on a birthday cake but much taller. Eventually, more family members showed up to partake in the ritual. Grandmother blessed the sacred coca-cola over the flames, as well the fanta, before each member took their small cup from her. After about thirty minutes of this preparation she began brushing a large, healthy chicken across the boy. The chicken seemed rather resigned to this and didn’t make a motion to escape. The only complaint it voiced was during its time being waved over the licking flames of the candles. Still, all of this was done with tenderness and the chicken never looked overly fearful despite these happenings. Then, all at once, grandmother broke the chickens neck in a simple, fluid motion as she chanted towards the fire. Another woman who was there, perhaps an older aunt, smiled kindly at grandmother as she received the chicken in her arms. Grandmother continued for a while longer but soon the candles ran down and the family left the quiet, murmuring church with the child, now blessed, and a consecrated dinner for the night.

I was stunned as I watched this take place. Here was a group of people who practiced what they believed despite the efforts of so many generations of well-meaning missionaries and church authorities. I had actually seen a ritual that others might refer to as “pagan.” But what I really saw there was the same thing one might see in any holy space. People came there to try to mollify the forces that worked against them and entreat the more beneficial ones to aid them. The practice itself might seem alien to someone of another culture but the spirit of the ritual is the same as it is the world over. They wanted to speak to the gods and spirits they knew. They wanted to be comforted and supported in a world that can seem fickle and cruel. Above all, they didn’t want to be told they didn’t understand God just because they knew other names and forms for the same being. The ritual itself may seem inhumane or foolish to some but, while I sat in wonder watching them, I felt a deep and powerful energy in the pine-smoke air. As we prepared to leave, a band composed of traditionally-attired locals came into the church and began a slow procession between the groups. They played an otherworldly dirge with a wailing accordion, great thumping drums and a few stringed instruments that reminded me of guitars, except all of the strings muted and flat. On our way out we passed a censor-bearer, waving kopal incense in front of him, and emerged from the church in a cloud of sweet smelling smoke.

Of course, it wasn’t just a sense of resistance or difference that made me fall in love with the city. I think it was actually the market that made me want to return there again someday to live for a while. It spreads out in every direction, above and below ground as well as sweeping down side streets for five to six blocks in every direction. It was so tantalizingly alive and colorful, full of sounds and smells I hadn’t yet seen in the Americas. The vendors’ stalls where covered in all the colorful wares, whether they were finely woven fabrics, piles of ripe fruit, mounds of spices or multi-colored beans. The people, dressed in homespun fabrics with intricate patterns, pressed together in a chaos of Mayan and Spanish in a buzz of haggling voices. I started visiting the center of the market everyday for a pile of rice, beans, salsa and tortillas for less than a dollar. The vendors are friendly, smiling and they go out of their way to find what you are looking for. In fact, that is the impression I got of all the people in San Cristobal as well as the city itself. It may seem different to a foreigner at first but once you learn to see it right you realize that everything about it say, “Come in, enjoy and be at ease.” And with a wink, “Just don’t think you’re better than us. We’re all siblings here.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mazunte: A change of pace.

Danny and I eventually had to leave our secluded rural paradise in Nuevo Urecho and return to Morelia to start the next leg of the journey. We spent only three days in Morelia the second time through. That was long enough to go buy pounds of local sweets from the Mercado de dulces as well as see some friends that we’d met earlier. Our bags loaded and our goodbyes said we headed to the bus station. This happened to be at night, around 2 am, because of a party I’d been at that night. We assumed that we would rest on the bus and arrive at our next destination, Mazunte, by sundown the next day. Of course, since we are traveling, this proved to be a completely unfounded belief.

Our night ride to Lazaro Cardanes, a big hub city on the coast, was pretty uneventful. We had no trouble locating a bus to take us to Acapulco and we boarded it only an hour later. The ride to Acapulco is a fairly long one taking about 8 hours or so. Sadly, we managed to extend the trip by a few extra hours when we stepped off the bus in the middle of nowhere. Well, it was a town but not one I’d ever seen on the map. We had woken up passing a sign outside of town that pointed the way to Acapulco but at the time our travel-fogged, sleep-deprived minds assumed it meant Acapulco was coming up. We jumped off at the bus station and went inside to look for buses to Puerto Escondido, the next point of departure, only to find that there were none.

Still thinking this must be Acapulco I stopped a taxi and asked if he could take us around the corner to the next bus station, Ejido. He laughed and said, “That’s in Acapulco.” I said I knew that and wondered why he seemed shocked to be asked to go to a place that appeared to be around the corner from where we were now. I pressed the issue and he laughed again, calling his nearby taxi friend over. This man spoke a little English and I asked him the same thing. He told me he would do it for one hundred. “Pesos?” I replied. “No, in US dollars.” I asked how it could be so expensive and he said because it was two hours away. Oh my surprise when I later found out that we jumped off in Texpan and we ended up waiting 3 hours for the next bus to pass. I felt that, once in Acapulco, our luck would surely change. Wrong. We went to buy the tickets to Puerto Escondido, which left in an hour at 7 pm, only to be informed that it would actually be the 2 am bus we would take. So, we sat at the bus station for the evening after a meal on the street of canned refried beans, tostadas and vinegared chilis. We arrived in Puerto Escondido in the morning and finally made it to the last hub station in Pochutla. A taxi ride to Mazunte got us in at 4 pm Saturday after leaving Friday at 2 am. We were smelly, bedraggled and tired. Fortunately, our new home was close to the sea and the warm, wet air met us with a gentle touch as we gathered our bags from the taxi.

We met our new Couch Surfing friend, Pete, at his RV which was parked in a coconut grove a stone’s throw from the beach. He was relaxed on a cushion that sat on the woven reed mat placed on the ground. He welcomed us to Mazunte and we fell to stripping off our northern layers to don the southern garb of swim trunks and sandals (shoeless in Danny’s case). Soon, we too reclined in the sun listening to the waves crash on the shore. The idea of leaving too quickly evaporated into a grey and bothersome mist that was washed away with the first headlong dive into the ocean. And herein lays the problem I’ve been having about writing this post. How does one describe a place like Mazunte in any linear way? All of my words merely grasp at the feeling of contentment I felt while I remained in that paradise, tucked away along the balmy coast of southern Mexico

Here, I’ll give you a few images to get you started. Imagine waking up each morning to the sun rising over the tops of coconut trees. Hear the rhythmic crashing of the waves only 50 yards away. Smell the salty air carrying the scent of lush fruits and flowers gently through the campground. You can hear that, as usual, some neighbors have stopped by with their instruments and are busy playing a morning reverie on guitars, drums and clarinets. You sit with your friends and new neighbors eating fresh coconut graciously harvested, husked and opened by Danny. You all laugh and tell stories, play songs and sing, eat fruit and impatiently await the arrival of the lady selling tamales. You laugh when you think about home, deadlines, rain and routine.

Days are spent splashing in the waves, running into friends throughout town and enjoying the pure beauty of the place. Warm sun bathes you as you stroll across the hot sand, making forays to the water’s edge to cool your feet now and again. No clouds mar the pure azure sky and rain is never seen out of season. The nearby point, Punta Cometa, is the perfect vista from which to watch the suns gentle descent beyond the waves of the horizon. Yet, despite this paradisiac landscape, there are few travelers who make the time to get out that way. If only people knew what they were missing they would be there even as I write this. You can have the whole beach to yourself in the morning, a lunch of fresh local fruits and tamales and top it off with a night of entertainment by whatever amazing group has formed over the previous week.

If you ask someone the time you are more likely to receive a laugh than an answer. The sun and the moon become the natural clock to follow while you’re in Mazunte. It makes no sense to set a firm timeline when everyone is watching those omnipresent celestial timekeepers as they keep a perfect rhythm day in and day out. Perhaps this is the reason that, without any schedule to follow, things seem to happen synchronistically. At least, that’s how it felt to me. No amount of planning would have led me to have the experiences I did while I was there. For instance, we happened to arrive when a gaggle of musicians, acrobats, jugglers and performers from Mexico and abroad descended on the town for weeks of performances and jam sessions.

Night after night we would all gather at some local haunt, sometimes a bar and others a hostel, to watch acrobats twist, jugglers amaze and clowns entertain. The audience was part of the show as well, jumping in to interject or participate as the need arose. A woman became an spur-of-the-moment prop and a little boy became the body for a clowns hands in a juggling act. The whole show was in Spanish but still all of the English speakers could figure out the jokes and laugh along with the rest. Following these hours of laughter we would all hang out to listen to whatever local band was playing that night. Each night a different musical style followed. Blues, Rock, Balkan and Gyspy bands kept the people moving in the warm still air of the Mazunte nights. These same musicians were the ones that came by to teach us and hang out with us during the day and it was amazing to watch them really let loose with others of their caliber.

As I mentioned, everything lined up with this sort of providential synchronicity. For instance, one day my E string broke on my guitar. Even as it happened a guy we’d met before, Deigo, came up to set camp in the same coconut grove as us. He was one of the amazing guitarists staying in town and he knew the music scene in the area. He offered to take me to a music shop in nearby Pochutla for new strings the next day. Not even ten minutes passed before our friend Manún came by carrying her guitar. She offered me one of her E chords for free and even offered to help tune it up. I couldn’t believe how quickly things seemed to manifest while I was there. Even latent talents manifested themselves in the weeks I stayed there. Which was good because I was starting to have an albatross around my neck due to the lack of developing musical talent.

Why did I feel I suddenly needed musical talent? Well, you see, I brought a guitar along with me that I didn’t know how to play on a long-distance, long-term trip. Because of this I get to enjoy some extra fun perks such as carrying a bulky instrument that gets in the way traveling and everyone asking, “Can I hear a song?” At the time I would usually mumble something about being a beginner and they would either ask to play it or ignore it. These awkward encounters were starting to really give me some motivation to figure it out and with all the musical talent literally walking by me every hour I realized I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask for some (read: all of the) pointers. Just like that, with the decision to have teachers, I was surrounded by a horde of instructors and well-wishers to help me on in my quest for chords. Jam sessions suddenly became the daily routine and I always found myself in the midst of spontaneous melodies and impromptu verse.

The travelers who come through Mazunte seem to have a similar vibe. In fact, there is a uniquely common language among most of them. If you go there be prepared to hear things referred to in terms of there “energy,” “vibration” and capacity to “resonant” with someone. Now I’m not making fun of that, in fact my speech is peppered with those terms now, but it made it clear the kind of soul-searchers, guru-seekers and spiritually-oriented people one meets there. Of course, this meant that people were very honest about their feelings and opinions but also with their sense of love. The whole community vibrated with a shared love between the travelers and one always found themselves making new friends each day. This was one of the many reasons that people tended to stay far longer than their itinerary had allowed for.

And how long had we planned on staying? Well, initially we’d planned for 3 days but with each day we became more content to reply, “Mañana.” We found out that just about every traveler there was saying the same thing. Those who intended to be there a few days were always at the few week mark and those who intended a week-long stay had become near permanent residence by the time I spoke to them. When we finally started planning our bus ride out of there we realized that we had been in Mazunte for twenty days. Even now, a month later, I am still calmed and made content when I realize that I will someday pass through there again. How long will I stay when I return? Let’s just say I’m planning for a week.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nuevo Urecho: The Timeless Valley

This is where the trip began to resemble what I had hoped I would find while I traveled. We spent ten days in a warm, tropical valley just outside the highlands of the rest of Michoacán state. During this time we helped farm, cooked amazing local meals and had the opportunity to be a spectacle as the only white people to come to the region in a decade. This gave us a chance to interact with authentic Mexican culture without the veneer and lacquer of many tour destinations. As always, we found ourselves helped and supported by new friends in the community, a trait that rural Mexico exhibits perhaps even more than in cities. Of course, how we get to a place is often just as fun as arriving so I will recount our roundabout way to Nuevo Urecho.

Shortly after we arrived in Morelia our host family told us they would be heading to the farm for the weekend. We assumed that this would be a small farmhouse in the countryside nearby, perhaps it would have basic amenities but we anticipated a very simple existence for a few days. Oh our surprise when we got to Nuevo Urecho. After riding for many hours in the back of the pick-up, including a stop to collect 400 pounds of cow poop, we found ourselves slowly winding down the foothills into a warm, tropical jungle.

The pueblo of Urecho arises out of the jungle in a smattering of orderly avenues crossing the only two principal roads running through the town. It is dusty, rustic and ludicrously quaint. I kept thinking about Zorro swinging in to fight the corrupt mayor as I walked down the well-preserved roads built before the second revolution. In the midst of this town is a single great church which, at three stories tall, is the largest building in miles around. The villa we arrived at was directly across from this church. The great doors of the villa were thrown open and we walked into a great central courtyard which was filled by healthy fruit trees like lime and mamey. Hammocks were unslung in the vast walkways and we laid down to watch the afternoon sun pass by overhead in the shade of the trees.

I could talk a great deal about the villa, and I will later, but I want to go back to the reason we were there. We had come to help Elli and her family on her farm as she made a new compost pile for the Mangos and Guavas she is growing. This is why we gathered bags of manure beforehand and rode for hours leaning against them. We jumped into help wherever we could. Each visit we helped mix compost, chop down under growth and break up rocks to make a primitive road for cars to go up to the mango field. The sun beat down on us by ten in the morning and both of us found our strength sapped in the high heat. The great thing about working with Mexican farmers from the area was watching how they did their tasks. They moved in a slow, continuous way without any excess motion to accomplish every task. They would take time to consider the problem and then come at it from every angle until it was done. They also took turns with each other, and us, in a natural way to allow for time to regain strength and catch their breath. I loved to watch Juan, a 50 something farmer, get up from a brief rest to begin rhythmically smashing a boulder with a sledgehammer, each strike finding the right fissure to break away more stone. We always felt great after working a morning and afternoon out there.

The town itself was rustic and charming, a feeling of timelessness pervading the streets with the lush winds blowing up from the valley. Throughout the day you will find people stopping to chat as they go about their business. We often sat at the ice cream shop that faced the center of town. The jovial owner would greet us as amigos and talk about the day or perhaps something we ought to know about. We would chat with him while we ate popsicles and watched the guys playing volleyball or the children riding bikes in the oncoming evening. Everyone passes each other with a pleasant “Buenas dias” as they pass by, even to the strange gringo hippies in town. Speaking of strange, we became somewhat of a celebrity case by the 4th day of our stay.

Our host family had just left the night before and we found ourselves the sole inhabitants of this wonderful villa. Danny and I agreed that we would just take it easy that day and recover from the weekend. Danny went and took a shower, coming out very relaxed, so I decided that sounded like a good idea as well. The bathroom was not your typical half room deal but was quite a sight to see. It was the size of master bedroom with tiles covering everything from the middle of the wall down. A great bathtub dominates half of the room and could easily hold 10 people in it if it was filled. These days it’s not used as a bath and a simple showerhead does all the work. A showerhead, mind you, that has exposed wiring running to the element in the nozzle and all along the top of the plastic contraption. The shower went fine but as I finished, turning off the water, things began to go a bit crazy.

Electric sparks began to shoot out in all directions from the top of the showerhead and the room began to flicker like a strobe light. I shot across the entire expanse of the room in what I recall as being a single bound. Flames began to engulf the plastic and water sprayed across the electric wire causing showers of sparks to pour out every few seconds. I called for Danny. A few times actually. He later told me he thought I was hollering about a scorpion. When he arrived and assessed the situation he ran to the neighbors for help. They were nearby since they run a store out of one of the rooms of the villa. While they shut the power down I contemplated how one tells their new host family that they burned down their ancestral villa on the first day with a showerhead! Eventually, once the electricity was off, we were able to throw water on the fire and assess the situation/breath.

At this point Juan arrived and we showed him the damage. He nodded sagely, apparently unperturbed by what he saw, and began to look at the damage done. Meanwhile, I ran down the road to get the only English speaking person we knew so that I could explain what had happened to Juan. I found her friend and explained in halting Spanish. “The house. Fire!” “The stove?” she asked. “No. The bathroom. The shower!” I thought this would really surprise her but she seemed unperturbed like Juan and the neighbors. She even took the time to finish combing her hair in the mirror. All the while I stood awkwardly in the street until I heard someone yelling to me.

A group of drunk old men were sitting in a bar across the street and one of them was yelling in English. “Hey! Hey you! You come drink with us.” Not wanting to be rude I walked over and tried to explain the situation. “Thank you. I will. Later. Now, my house is the fire!” They looked at me through glazed and drunken stares, “You. Drink with us.” “Yes,” I replied, “but my house is the fire! I will return soon.” I went back to the house, having been out for maybe 10 minutes, to find the most remarkable thing. Juan had cut the wires, removed the showerhead and replaced it with a great looking silver showerhead in its place. To this day we don’t know how he did all that, or even found all of it, in the time he had. We still refer to him as Don Jaun, the wizard of Nuevo Urecho.

Later, I did return with Danny to make good on my promise to the drunks. At first we assumed they were a little drunk. We were wrong. They were a very drunk. Like really, really drunk. The first few minutes passed with a mixture of our terrible Spanish and their piecemeal English. They decided that our Spanish was pretty good after all. So good that they stopped even trying to speak English and we found ourselves bombarded in slurred Spanish by three outrageously drunk men. It took us over a half an hour to convince them to let us leave. Not, of course, before they could force Danny into the street to be awkwardly propositioned to a passing young woman. Oddly enough, she seemed to like him despite all of this and the town gossip mill soon decided that the two were somewhat of “an item,” despite Danny’s protests to the contrary. Thus, by day four in town we were the most juicy piece of gossip they’d had in a while.

We heard a lot of very interesting stories during our stay in Urecho and I thought I should share a few of the best. The very first day we arrived we noticed an interesting, dilapidated building on the hill overlooking town. One day, early in the morning, Elli asked if we would like to go see the place on the hill we’d been asking about. It was known as La cruz, the cross, she informed us. She told us the story as we hiked to the end of town and up a hillside of mango trees. Her great-grandfather had been a fairly wealthy man before the revolution and had not only owned the large villa in town but also a three story house on the hill. In this house he kept a mistress in good style. Apparently though, she was unhappy with him for some reason. One day, she poisoned him after having previously gotten him to sign over the house to her and her descendants. This lasted for a generation of so but as time passed she and her family stopped living in the house. Eventually, no one claimed it as their own.

Elli’s family has never pushed to open a case for reclaiming the land but everyone in town knows who it belongs to. The few gringos who have tried to buy it have been told that it is not possible to sell it although they are not told truly why. Now, the house sits in semi-ruin among a lush orchard of sun-ripened mangos that have covered completely the stone steps that once reached all the way down the hill to town. The house now serves a surprising, or perhaps not so surprising, function as a lovers lookout. The walls bear witness to the lovers passing with deep carved letters that have etched away the adobe all around. One can see the words “100% Amor” scrawled down the posts that surround the building.

Another great story was told to us one day after we’d offered to help clean up some stone rubble in the back of a store room. While we were busy scooping up rock for the wheel barrow Elli told us how it had gotten there. It seems that before the revolution many of the people in town buried away gold under the floor. For over a generation it was not talked about or touched. In recent years, one of the uncles had heard the stories about buried treasure under the floor. He did what any person might do in that situation; He broke into the foundation and searched below the families house for ancient wealth. Not finding any, as is so often the case when an uncle does something like this, he left the hole in the floor and resigned himself to looking elsewhere for family treasure. So, we finished piling the rubble in the back of the truck laughing about greedy kids and wondering where the gold was really buried.

That is enough stories for now. How many tiny things could I tell you about Urecho before you could see it like me? Could enough stories make you feel the warm winds blow through the open windows in the dawn? Hear the sound of men on horseback clopping up the cobbled street at dusk? Taste the cold, sweet juice of the popsicles in the noon sun? I think I will have to let my meager stories rest and let your imagination carry you to those sun-drenched, lush hills in the valley that slopes from the high hills above. It will do more justice to this timeless pueblo than I can.

Friday, February 25, 2011


This town has this amazing feeling of foggy recognition. You feel like you’ve been to it before or have seen something almost exactly like it. The streets call up images of Spain and coastal Italy. The art and fashion might make one think of Paris or Rome. The architecture is a blend of many centuries and styles, Baroque to Neoclassical. In the center, well-dressed business people bustle about jostling against hippies with drums and guitars. As a visitor I felt transported between different worlds as I walked through the city.

In the center of the town the great cathedral dominates the view. Surrounding it are the beautiful buildings of the colonial times now turned modern. Families quietly pass into the warm, calm air of the cathedral while across the street well-dressed teenagers enjoy some fine food or perhaps some icy treats. Down the street a few blocks is the enchanting garden of the roses (jardin de las rosas). Here, one is transported to the feeling of a café in Paris. Patrons sit outside at all hours of the day under the shade of the umbrellas. They sip fine coffees and enjoy delicious sweets while facing the seasonally changing garden laid throughout the square. Since it is winter we enjoyed looking at the carnations which happily bloomed in the hot noon sun of Mexico’s winter. In the midst of the cafes is a music conservatory and students spend time playing music in the garden before and after classes. The style is reserved yet eclectic with students, professionals and raggedy music hipsters elbow to elbow throughout the garden.

Just down the road was a market that Danny and I visited more than any other place in the city. El Mercado de Dulces, the market of sweets. Throughout the halls of the market, which was a city block itself, one found sweet sellers with one nearly right upon another’s stall. The treats were traditional recipes from Michocan, each one a unique flavor and texture. Sweet pressed coconut, tamarind pastes, sweetened amaranth, honey fried coconut, marzipan and sweetened drinks made form eggs and agave. Each vendor had a little something different to offer but mostly it was the same kinds of candy. It was overwhelming trying to figure out which place to buy at as well as what one might buy this time around.

Many of our favorite times in Morelia revolved around a cool, hole-in-the-wall bar called Cactux. The walk to get there covered many blocks of the historic city. Each time we had new friends to chat with on our way to the bar, sharing stories and laughing about our language skills. I was always surprised when we got there. I kept hoping to recognize it but people would have to catch me as I continued down the street. The bar is super low key. It’s tucked back into an old building in the middle of some nameless neighborhood. The entrance is a tiny adobe-walled saloon that can hold about 20 people in it. The mood is always very relaxed up there and the lights are low. We head through to the side alley. It’s dark and the ground is a mixture of stones and dirt. Ahead, light is coming through and we come out to find ourselves in the open-air, stone-and-sand floor back patio of Cactux.

Here the music is loud and very good. Most nights a band or local amateurs take the tiny stage inside the adjoining converted store room. We listened to blues one night, some rock the next and the last time we visited we danced for hours to a two man band that played salsa like they meant it. Everyone seems to recognize each other and small groups grow larger as the night progresses. A few foreigners find their way here with the help of local friends and they are quickly added to the circle. We loved to drink polque, a slightly sour smelling beverage made from agave. $2.50 buys you a liter of it. Every night they like to add things to it. Some nights it is peanuts while another night it might be fresh blackberry juice. We spent hours there talking, dancing and laughing. Once, during one of our many visits to this favorite watering hole, we both stopped to recognize that we felt as at home at this bar and among these people as we did in our own city.

The people we met in Morelia were wonderful and generous. Each one is worthy of description but especially our friend Elli. Ellanora hosted us during our stay in Morelia as well as Nuevo Urecho. I’d spoken to her on couch surfing before we arrived and I was impressed with what she was doing since it related to our own project down here. Currently, she is going to college for agronomy and she studies permaculture/sustainable farming. I later found out that she worked for many years picking fruit in Canada to buy herself farm land in Nuevo Urecho and she was already starting the process of the sustainably harvesting of mangos and guava on her land. She and her parents took us into their house and treated as family, albeit a set of two weird boys in the family.

Our food preferences/allergies were a bit strange to them and often times I think they thought we didn’t eat since we couldn’t join in with their meals for the first few days. Elli’s father was a sworn carnivore and was always asking if the food Danny and I made(loads of veggies and no meat) was “all we were eating?” Still, despite our different preferences, they trusted us implicitly. They gave us keys to the house and after only knowing us 5 days they gave us the keys to their ancestral villa in the hills of Neuvo Urecho as well. Don Miguel, Elli’s father, took us out to dinner many nights to get tacos at a nearby house/restaurant. He loved to brag that we enjoyed spicy food and that they could pile the chili sauce on ours. He even took me to his leatherworking shop one day so I could make a pair of traditional Mexican sandals known as huaraches.

A lot of local people asked what we were doing in Morelia. They wondered why we weren’t at the beach or father south. We were really surprised by this. If anyone visits Mexico they should take a trip to see Morelia. The busy pace of Mexico city is left behind and the cosmopolitan, artistic air breaths a little easier here. I hope to see Morelia again and see even more of its hidden gems.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Adventures in the highlands: Eronga, Patzcuaro and Urupan

I had the opportunity to spend several weeks in the highlands of Michocan state. Much of it was near lake Patzcuaro and its surrounding environs. There is something very amazing about this area of Mexico. It’s got a mixture of desert and alpine mountain terrain that blends together to make a very breath taking landscape. Every time I had a chance to see the landscape unfold into the distance with dry, yellow grass set against the receding layers of hazy blue mountains it left me stunned. It reminds me a little of eastern Washington or Oregon except, of course, for the ubiquitous cacti and other tropical flora that dot the land. In all honesty, my words will do little justice to the beauty of the land so I will speak more about the places we saw while we traveled around.

First, though, I want to mention the fun way that Danny and I have begun to travel around here. At home, hitchhiking is not only looked down upon as unsafe it is also illegal in most of the state. This is not the case in Mexico. In fact, most people get around by simply sticking their thumb out when a passing pickup rolls by. We got our first experience with it while we were going to and from the Bosque. We would catch rides up or down the long hill from Eronga to Yotatiro or vice versa. One of the best times was in the morning after we’d gone down to the market. As we were heading out of Yotatiro Danny happened to smile and nod to the guy driving the gas truck. It was this guys job to drive up and down the length of the hills to sell large canisters of cooking fuel to all of the households. When he was in a town he would turn on a very loud speaker that exclaimed, “EL GAAAAS!” It would then play the song we all know from the baseball field, the one I simply know as “Charge!” You know it, dun da dun da dun da dun da da! Well, we heard him passing by as we walked up from Eronga and he recognized us. He let us climb in the back amongst the fuel canisters and we raced up the hill laughing and yelling along with the speakers as we flew by bewildered townsfolk.

We have been greeted fairly often by bewildered looks as we traveled around up in the highlands. There are very, very few white travelers in this area and some of the smaller towns we’ve visited haven’t seen a white person in over a decade. Once, as we rode by in the back of our friends work truck, a tortilla selling lady was so perplexed to see us that she stopped catching the fresh tortillas coming out of the machine. She just sat there staring at us as more and more tortillas piled up in front of the machine. We couldn’t help but laugh since we were the reason for her dilemma. While people may be surprised they are no less nice to us. Everyone is still so helpful to us, always willing to offer whatever they can even if they can’t communicate with us.

There are many surprising gems hidden throughout the highlands. One day we went on a little sight seeing field trip to Urupan, north and west of Patzcuaro. We drove through miles and miles of dry, yellow landscape on our way out there only to be surprised by the most lush and tropical of environments when we reached our destination. Before we went to the town we traveled to a huge waterfall some miles away. This waterfall seemed to sneak out of the surrounding desert as it tumbled down out of the dry hillside above. Once we got down into the canyon the air became thick and humid which reminded Danny and me of our time in southeast Asia. The water poured out of the wall of rocks all around, filling the air with warm and pleasant mist. While this was beautiful it also seemed perdictable. If you have a tropical watefall you have a tropical enviroment. What was unexpected was the tropical gem we found in the town of Urupan.

We spent a good portion of the day traveling around the hot, colonial streets of the city looking for interesting history and delicious food. Once we had found plenty of both we decided we needed to find a place to rest. We decided to walk to a park that sat on the edge of town because our friend had heard of it before and had wanted to see it. I was thinking it would be a space with some trees and grass with maybe a few food vendors lounging around. Instead, we found ourselves in a Mayanesque water garden. Water flowed down channels around every walkway and enormous palm leaves, twice my height, loomed over us as we walked through the park. Everywhere we could hear the sounds of tropical birds and the gentle splashing and tinkling of water. The temperature was suddenly cool and pleasant, the air was filled with the thick smell of wet tropical plants. What a wonderful respite it was to the baking streets of the city just beyond the fence of the park.

The sights and surprises of the beautiful colonial towns of Eronga, Patzcuaro and Urupan were wonderful. Each town had such an amazing mixture of colonial and modern sights. Patzcuaro was quite a trip. As we walked down cobbled stone streets we were surprised to see electronics shops selling their wares from within adobe walls coated in simple lime based paints. We saw men dressed in ultra modern business suits taking an afternoon coffee amongst wooden and stone pillars outside of what might have once been a colonial governors villa. Ice cream shops sat next to ladies selling traditional sweets and candies from the time of the first conquistadors. The pace of life in these towns is also dichotomous. We saw enormous construction equipment tearing away at the hillside in town, cars and motorcycles racing around the ancient city center and well dressed people talking into the headset of their iphones. Yet we also saw families slowly walking in that same city center, buying treats and strolling past lush green plants. Many people were simply sitting and enjoying a pleasant afternoon while discussing what they wanted for dinner that night. The highlands is home to such a mixture of culture and climate. You can find everything from desert to tropical paradise in a few miles or a few meters. The people are also a mixture, a blend of old world attitudes mixed with modern gusto. It felt like a truly and uniquely Mexican place and I loved my time there. I hope to return again to see this landscape and the people more.

Next up, the icing on the highland cake, Morelia!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Bosque Experience

So, Danny and I just spent 10 days out at the Bosque foundation. Before I go any further I want to give people an idea of where that is and how we got there because it is not as simple as we had guessed. First we arrived in the capital of Michocan state, Morelia. We then hopped a bus to the town of Patzcuaro, which is about an hour away to the west. From there we took a combi, which a small van/bus, to the little town of Erongaicuaro. Once in Eronga we crossed the small central square to where the next combi waited. This took us up the hill to the village of Yotatiro.
Calling it a village is being pretty generous. It’s actually just a single road running up and down a long hill. This is why we got such funny looks when we asked where the church was. The person we asked just stopped, stared, and said “it’s where the church is.” This became really obvious to us once we started walking up the hill. It’s got to be the biggest building in town, which is to say it was two stories and had little steeples. Once there we met out guide, Enrique, who took us down a small road and into the woods. We trekked uphill for the next 20 minutes or so, the whole time complaining to each other that we clearly owned too much gear. Finally, we crested the hill and found small log houses scattered about around a central lodge.
To say that we were secluded would be quite an understatement. It felt even more secluded because we were two of four campers that were currently staying there. We got our tent set up as night set in and we went to the small common house called la casita. We were immediately struck by one of the key features of the Boque foundation; no electric lights at night. Our dinner, which we found out was always a soup, was served by candle light and in relative silence. Then, we sat by the fireplace trying to get warm as the night progressed. At 2400 meters, or 7,874 feet, we were really high up there. The temperature was very brisk at night at somewhere in the 40’s. I was very glad to have packed long johns, a long shirt and thick sweatshirt. Those items seemed unnecessary to us in Mexico city but they were a life saver out in the hills.

So, what was happening up there that made it worthwhile to go so far from civilization? The answer is; surprisingly a lot. The Bosque is a project put together by Brian, who owns the land and gets all of the projects started. His goal is to see how little we as people need to survive, if and when we run out of essential aspects of modern society such as fossil fuels, arable land and potable water. Some of the things that are being experimented with out there are:

Composting toilets: Human waste is mixed with sawdust as opposed to water. This means that no valuable water, especially in a place that is off the grid, is used to get rid of offal. In fact, the waste product is broken down over a few years with worms and natural processes to become a non-contaminated source of fertilizer. The toilets don’t smell and everyone who saw them was quite impressed with their simplicity and usefulness. Once you get over the natural “eww” factor related to human waste, that is.

Solar energy: We were able to go online and communicate with the rest of the world through out the course of the day using only solar energy panels. Hot water was also available through simple solar panels set on roofs that heated water to near boiling all day long. Nothing large, like power tools, were able to tap this power but that was mainly a matter of available solar panel capacity. Batteries allowed for the potential to use the energy at night but they were getting old and this was discouraged.

Earth and cob building: Many of the houses involved some aspect of natural earth block and cob building material. In fact, we enjoyed a wonderful sauna in a building created solely from logs and cob material. Cob is a mixture of earth and clay that sets up much like any other cement, although its properties changed in the rain we were told. This is why large overhangs are critical to these buildings.

Plant propagation and non-irrigated farming: The Bosque is set in a forest now but this was not always the case. Only sixty years ago the land was barren and open due to poor agriculture techniques that destroyed forest for pasture land. Now, the foundation is repopulating the area with local plants that are usable by humans and animals alike. The goal is to create a healthy biosphere with indigenous animal and bugs species to help it thrive. Brian is also very interested in experimenting with which plants can grow without irrigation since the rainy season is only three months long in that area. Various cacti and local flora have shown that they need very little water in order to propagate and thrive.

The people who visit the Bosque are also part of the experiment. Each visitor is asked to contribute in any meaningful way to the project. The idea is to find out what social dynamics work when there is no preset culture or expectation. Everyone is encouraged to be creative and start whatever they feel will contribute to the overall culture present in the Bosque. One camper put up an amazing mural while we were there as well as a beautiful candelabra made from a local madrone branch. We took part in paper making and book binding, as well as star gazing and fire twirling.

Overall the experience there was peaceful and reflective. I found ample time to read about sustainable villages and farming practices as well as opportunities to sight see around the area. It made me ask a lot of question about what was really necessary for a happy and meaningful life. I realized that I could be very content with a lot less than I had previously considered necessary. It also made me realize how much I love to have electric lights at night. Candles and fire light are only so much fun before you start to want a little switch in the kitchen that makes dinner easier to see. Still, the overall experience is one I will be digesting for a while. Next up on the blog role: Around the Highlands of Michocan.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mexico city: Thoughts and impressions

To begin, I must say that I knew very little of Mexico city before I came here. Oh sure, I’d heard a lot of stuff about it. Like the things I saw on speedy Gonzales or the nightly news telling me about the death rate that just climbed and climbed. Honestly, I was surprised that I wasn’t shot down by drug lords on my way down or that I was able to get around with all of the bodies I expected to see littering the street. I’m kidding, but only a little. Everyone got such a look of fear in there eyes when I mentioned I was going to Mexico city. The death toll was quoted to me by everyone I knew and I think if they had it there way I would only be on the street from 12:00 pm until 1:00 pm or so. I knew a little about Mexico as a country though, at least up until the era of indepedence. I had studied Latin America in College. I knew about the history of the conquests, the loss of indigenous culture to the Spaniards and the tentative place Mexico has in the new “free” world due to politics and economics. That being said, let me tell you what I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that the people of Mexico city were so very generous and kind. For example, I arrived an hour and half late to the city at midnight. The man we had contacted to meet up with, Marco, had been sitting at the airport for a few hours at that point. When we arrived he was not angry, just concerned. He said that his brother in law had gone home but that he’d gotten us a taxi. We offered to pay but he wouldn’t hear of it. Also, just before all of this, I had called his cell phone which he had left at home and had spoken with his niece. So as we walked to the taxi we were all surprised to see his brother in law’s family drive up at one in the morning! They took us to their house and put us up in a great room, offering us anything and everything we might need. Of course, all of this was free I might add.

The next day when we woke up we found the house empty except for Marco’s mother who was busy in the kitchen. She doesn’t live with them but travels to their house everyday to cook and help the family out. Now, she found two vagabond boys from the U.S. with no Spanish and hungry stomachs. She decided it was time for us to go to the market and through signs and rapid Spanish made it clear we were to follow her. Marco had mentioned that in the area we were staying in, Los reyes La Paz, had no English speakers that he knew of. Yet, as we bumbled through the market we found that a few vendors spoke great English.

One large young man came up to us saying, “Whatchu looking for, eh?!” “oh, we’re just trying to buy some spices and food for today.” we replied. He then proceeded to lead us around getting the ingredients we needed at various stalls, the whole time pleasantly peppering his speech with English cuss words. He asked us in a concerned way, “you want some f***ing spices? Ok, lets go over here. Oh, you need some f***ing vegetables? Sure, let’s go here.” So, with his help and Grandma’s assistance we were able to get around just like home.

Well, not just like home. The market was far more fun than any sterile supermarkets we go to. Yes, even more so that Walmart, with all of it’s “interesting” characters, although they have these as well. All around us we saw fruits and vegetables pressed up against images of the baby Jesus or the saint of death. Electronics stands shared the same wall as the butchers, with pigs heads swinging ominously close to new Walkman or cell phones. You might be buying some dried beans at a stand only to look over into a twilight lit alcove containing the image of the the mother Mary, tiny cherubs dotting the wall and candles perpetually burning. Even in all of this chaos of color and sound it is amazing to realize how clean it all is. Everyone is always sweeping, washings, throwing water on the ground.

I also thought that Mexico city would be very dirty because of what people told me. I was wrong. The streets are cleaned daily and people wash their houses out all of the time. You see sweeping, washing and cleaning more here than you do in the U.S. I feel. Oh, also, the smells are wonderful! Breads baking, spices cooking, tortillas pouring out of the large machines in which they’re cooked. Clean linens, fresh herbs and holy sacraments mingle to create the most pleasant aroma as one walks through the seemingly endless lanes of the market. Many of the worst areas, in terms of dirt and smells, are near the city center where poor people gather to beg for money from the rich and well-to-do.

We met two young ladies who became our guides, as well as my traveling companions impromptu girlfriends. I learned something else that I know love. Everyone, and I mean everyone, kisses wherever they want to. No, not just kissing, really going for it. Pressed against the wall, kissing and tugging the others hair. Laying the park on a sunny afternoon, lazily caressing and tasting the other lips. Every alcove in the subway has some lovers in it, both young and old. The city is full of love and passion. When friends meet they happily kiss each other upon the cheeks and give warm hugs. Everyone touches each other, maybe to steady oneself on the subway or perhaps just to hold their friends arm as they cross the street.

Generosity is also a huge part of the culture here. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with new friends to enjoy something only to have them jump to grab the bill or buy the ticket. I spent more time putting my money away than spending it on some days. Fortunately, they are happy to receive gifts as well. I have been able to cook meals for friends here that they have never had before such as Indian and Thai food. It has been so nice being able to share and share alike with all of the new people I have met in the short time I’ve been here.

Ok, there are some down sides. For one, this city is way, way too big! We spend an hour jostling between metro trains in the subway just to reach the middle of town. If you want to go to the outskirts you should plan for a two hour commute. There are no chairs available on the metro most of the time so you end up standing a lot. I’ve really come to love the luxury of sitting on something even remotely soft throughout the course of a normal, touristic day. It’s worth it most days though. The neighborhoods of this city are so eclectic that you feel like you are traveling to new towns all of the time. In fact decades ago that’s exactly what they were. A whole assortment of towns that surrounded the growing metropolitan that is Mexico city. Coyocan is the coolest neighborhood by far with hippy markets and awesome coffee shops tucked in everywheree.

Another surprising aspect of the city is people here show a conspicuous lack of interest in strangers well being. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just not their problem. When a friend I met down here tried to show me a cool coffee shop we found that we couldn’t enter. Two costumers were fighting in the doorway. Actually, one person was fighting and the other person was just bleeding everywhere. Onlookers and staff stood by as this whole tragic affair unfolded. When we tried to return later we realized we would not be drinking there that night since police blocked the sidewalk and blood covered the ground. I didn’t feel that I was unsafe at any point but I did feel bad for the poor guy who sat there explaining the situation to the cops covered in the aftermath of his beating. It was a startling awakening to the realities of having 8.8 million people packed into such a small space. Maybe there’s just no room for compassion for everyone or perhaps it would be impossible to help everyone out. I’m not sure I know yet.

I also met a young man who had moved to Mexico city with his family from Texas a few years back. His father had been a drug runner and had killed twenty people according to him. Now no one in the family could get papers to go back across the border. He told me that violence and drugs were very prevalent in many parts of the city, especially the area we were staying in. Then again, he may have been trying to impress or scare me. I walked home late many times and never once did anyone think to bother me. It’s hard to tell what’s true since everyone experiences this city in such different ways.

So, in the end, I realize that Mexico city rests between two worlds. The world of art and museums, high fashion and gaudy lifestyle. On the other hand, a world of poverty, violence and callous attitudes to human suffering. In fact, I think these two worlds are more connected than we would like to think. The same world that allows for huge disparities in wealth is also the one that allows for the violent outburst against this injustice. I have no answers but it left me with a lot of questions about the cost of extravagance for some and grinding poverty for the masses.

My final thoughts on the city are this: You get out what you put in. I have acted with love and open attitude to what I’ve seen. In return I have been treated well by everyone I’ve met, from friends to strangers on the bus. I would gladly come back again to get to know the city better and spend more time amongst the people. I think there is still a lot of the city and culture I have not encountered in the ten days I’ve spent here. From what I’ve seen though it would be well worth it to keep learning more about this amazing cosmopolitan city.