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.

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