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 cafĂ© 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.