Monday, December 27, 2010

Pátzcuaro’s Marvelous Mercado and the Plaza Chica

Imagine a dark warren with cracked, uneven concrete, sprawling into adjacent blocks under plastic tarps outdoors. Imagine that it’s one very large square city block, not counting the side streets. Imagine that the aisles are narrow and constrained by products encroaching into them. Now fill those aisles with hundreds of people buying and selling, standing around chatting or examining merchandise (and blocking the aisles), wheeling bicycles or hauling heavily-loaded pushcarts, all trying to squeeze through to their objectives. Add the sound of vendors soliciting customers in Spanish, either at top volume or too low to be understood by this gringa. Throw in a few beggars and slow-moving elderly women in ethnic dress. That’s Pátzcuaro’s mercado.

It's a crowded place!
There’s the old man selling blackberries the size of your thumb, or passionfruit, or plums, standing at the same place every day just outside. Near him is the woman who sells wonderful corundas, a specialty of Michoacán, a sort of “blind tamale” of fluffy masa rolled into fresh corn leaves (not husks) and steamed, served with a righteous green chile sauce and crema, Mexico’s version of crème fraiche. This time of year every stall is piled high with mandarin oranges, 2 kilos for 8 pesos (about 70 cents), which qualifies as almost free.

There are sections for meat, chicken, fish (open air and unrefrigerated, unfortunately), clothes, kitchen items, underwear, hardware, shoes, pirated DVDs and CDs, sweets, beans, rice, nuts, seeds, countless taco stands and food stalls—not to mention all the produce, which is abundant and very fresh, and cheap. Surely I’m forgetting something.

Mark about to eat a large shrimp cocktail
At this time of year there were vendors with Christmas items, including stables roofed with Spanish moss along with the sparkly tree-decorating stuff and strings of lights. Christmas is mercifully restrained in Mexico, but there were still decorations and figurines large and small to buy for family crèches. Electricity is very expensive, so outdoor lighting decorations are modest and turned on only for a few hours a night. Poinsettias originated in Mexico, and they grow into huge bushes in this climate.

Plaza Chica (the small plaza, as opposed to Plaza Grande, the large plaza) commemorates the heroine of the Independencia, when Mexico broke away from Spain 200 years ago. Despite being imprisoned herself, Gertrudis Bocanegra was able to get word to the men who plotted the revolt that they had been betrayed and that they should flee for their lives. They were caught and executed in the end, but not before they launched the successful independence movement. For her part, she was shot by firing squad in 1817, and the crumbling remnants of the tree she was tied to is displayed in the Ex-Colegio Jesuita, a 500-year-old former Jesuit school. She was born here but is commemorated all through Mexico.

Despite a remodeling effort a couple of years ago, the plaza has been filled with more outdoor vendors who sell the same stuff as the folks inside. The town tried to make the plaza more attractive by clearing out the vendors, but until recently (last week) they were still there. We notice now that only a handful of food stalls remain, along the outer edges, and the rest are gone. Where?
Combis and taxis in Plaza Chica

Plaza Chica is also where one catches a combi, VW-sized vans that carry people all over town for 5 pesos a person (about 40 cents). They swarm around one side of the plaza, loading and unloading, cutting off cars and pedestrians, contributing to the total chaos. In Mexico they exist in small towns and big cities, and in rural areas go from town to town. If only we had such a thing in Salida—I’d use it!

Friday, December 24, 2010

An Opening in Patzcuaro

Last night (December 23) we attended an opening reception for Victoria Ryan, an artist I met briefly at the monthly women’s breakfast. It was another opportunity to meet some of the expats, and it proved to be a fun, interesting evening. This reception was held at Mistongo, a restaurant that is very supportive of local art and artists, and is a focal point for the regional expat commnity. When we were here in April we attended a performance by a flamenco group based in Mexico City, and had a wonderful evening.

Victoria’s work is very professional, focusing on her life both here in Pátzcuaro and in Caleta de Campos, a small beach town on the Michoacán coast. Her subject matter is views of the town, indigenous rituals of the area, and views from her studio on the beach. Unfortunately we were so busy talking that we neglected to buy the painting we both wanted. There were a lot of red dots on labels when we left, which always makes an artist smile.

In the process we met the local birding guide, several people who apparently live in our neighborhood, and a woman who invited us to her Christmas party on the 25th. Everyone here is very interested in newcomers and very friendly.

Mark commented that it reminds him of Salida in the early days. I met a woman who also grew up in Boulder, and we said, almost in unison, “What high school did you go to?” For her it was Boulder, and for me it was Fairview. She went to Casey Jr. High and I went to Douglas. Small world.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Demonstration in Patzcuaro

This morning (Friday, December 17), as I was going to the weekly organic market at a lovely B&B about 2 blocks from the Plaza Grande, I encountered a demonstration. It was led by a municipal police truck and the police brass band. Drums predominate in Mexican bands, and I must admit the bugles and/or trumpets were not well played, but it did get attention.

Following the band were perhaps 200 people—men, women and children—carrying white balloons and signs reading “Basta la violencia,” and “Mexicanos desean la paz”—Enough violence, Mexicans want peace. (Some of the words weren’t spelled correctly, unfortunately. It’s a sad commentary on the state of education in Mexico when this gringa can spell better than native speakers.) They marched around the central area and ended up on one side of the Plaza Grande, where people started making speeches and the crowd responded enthusiastically.

Now, under some circumstances I might think that this was organized by La Familia, the local drug cartel, in order to discredit the government. However, given the police escort, possibly this particular demonstration was not. But in Mexico, no one can be certain of anything.

Of course I did not have my camera, for which I apologize.

Las Posadas

Posadas in Mexico begin on December 16 and continue for 9 nights, ending on December 24. They are said to represent either the 9 months Mary carried Jesus, or the 9 days of journey to Bethlehem. (I learned this from the Internet.)

Tonight we were upstairs in the office, with a nice fire in the fireplace, when we realized there was a large crowd of people in front of the house holding candles, singing. So we rushed downstairs and went outside, where we were greeted by a friendly crowd of several dozen, with a representation of Mary and the donkey in the center of the group. We made prayerful gestures and smiled, and they invited us to continue on with them. I said I wasn’t wearing shoes (slippers) and we begged off, and they went on down the street. It was our neighborhood posada, and they will continue every night until Christmas Eve.

Now they are launching cohetes, the noisy rockets, right out on the street. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised—cohetes are part of every religious celebration in Mexico. They’ve just always been farther away before now…

Our First Week in Patzcuaro

The back of the house from the garden
With a beautiful garden and 3 fireplaces, we are very comfortable in the house. It is owned by a couple who appreciate the rich variety of local arts and crafts, and the house is full of beautifully-made objects. Dan and Becky Brawner are artists and designers, and their influence shows in every room. We are still finding lovely new things either in the house or in the garden, including many orchids. One of them is blooming now and another will bloom shortly. There are bougainvilleas, lavender, flowering vines and fruit trees throughout the rather modest outdoor space. The gardener is very dedicated and comes every Wednesday and Saturday.

The little devil who greets us
The master bedroom with fireplace and bath are downstairs, separated from the living-dining-kitchen area by an open-air stairway leading up to the office and second bedroom.  One of the fireplaces is in the office, and we spend most of our time there, either reading or using our computers. Unfortunately the fireplace in the living room smokes badly because the chimney is much too tall to draw properly. Despite Judith (pronounced “WHO-Deet”), the maid, laying a nice stack of wood there, we won’t be using it. So we “make do” with the fireplaces in the office and bedroom.

There are more photos of the house here, and some street views of the town here.

The neighborhood is a little noisy during the daytime, but by about 9 or 10 at night it’s very quiet, and our bedroom is in the back anyway. People are friendly and greet us on the street. For 5 pesos apiece we can ride the combi (van-sized bus) up from the center of town, but it’s also just a 10-minute walk. The combi drops us off right in front of the house, so when I come back from the mercado with several kilos of produce I can hop on and get a ride home.

Los Viejitos
Wednesday was the last day of the Festival of Nuestra Senora de la Salud (Our Lady of Health) at the Basilica, so we went down to observe some of the festivities. There were lots of folkloric dancers, including my favorites, Los Viejitos (the little old men). These are young men who dress as old men, complete with old-man masks and canes, and who begin their dance bent over and limping but soon start whirling and jumping and dancing wildly at great speed. They wear wood-soled sandals that clack on the pavement, so it's a form of tap dancing. It's a traditional dance of the area and a real crowd pleaser. They pass the hat after a few dances, and the crowd is usually pretty generous.

We watched as the bishop from Morelia entered the courtyard, blessing the crowd, preceeded by incense and crosses and a bunch of lesser prelates. He had a lovely twinkle in his eye, I must say. Then the procession entered the Basilica, which was jammed. The entire congregation was singing some sort of repetitive chorus, and the sound of all those voices in that grand vaulted space brought tears to my eyes--it was so beautiful. Despite my personal lack of religion, I find the sincere expression of faith very heartwarming, and I see it every day in Mexico. People cross themselves as they pass a church, for instance, or when they encounter a nun or priest on the street.

Buiding the castillo
At the same time the guys outside were setting off volley after volley of cohetes, aerial rockets. You hear a "whoosh" and a couple of seconds later there's a huge "bang," one for each "whoosh," so you count the number of "whooshes" to know what's coming. The bells were ringing madly at the same time, which made for a real auditory experience.

Along one side of the courtyard a group of men were constructing a castillo, a castle made entirely of fireworks that will be set off tonight. I'm not sure if we'll go back into town to see it. (Mark commented that as they were building it one of the guys was smoking...) They construct the fireworks segments ahead of time and then mount them on wood frames with one piece on top that either rotates or shoots upward (or both). As they complete one frame's worth they jack up the entire structure to put another frame underneath. It's a very elaborate but well thought out. We could hear the cohetes from the basilica at the house, and they fired them off all night. Fortunately they don't bother me anymore. I know some folks hate them, but it’s all part of being in Mexico.

Photos from the celebration here.

One thing we've noticed is that the Mexicans are generous with beggars, like old women and handicapped men, and usually give them a peso or two. It's the gringos who are stingy about it, perhaps from years of developing an impassive "city-face.". We tend to give a few pesos when we have change with us. I have a harder time with the children, who should be in school. Mexico has compulsory education up to a certain grade level, but the financial entry requirements are sometimes too high for poor families, and unfortunately there still is resistance to educating children who could be working to help support the family. It takes time for a society to value education the way more prosperous societies do, and I’m confident that Mexico will catch up one of these days.

On the Road South

We arrived in Patzcuaro on Sunday, December 5, after an uneventful trip. As usual, our departure from Salida was fraught with anxiety, last-minute problems, and uncompleted tasks. We made it only as far as Alamosa and spent Wednesday night at the Super 8, after dinner at the  always-marvelous East-West Grill.
The Sangres were beautiful in the setting sun

One of our dilemmas was over which vehicle to take. When we'd piled up everything we realized it would fit into the Subaru, so despite almost a quarter million miles on the engine we stuffed the trunk and back seat with our gear. As Mark said, the round trip is essentially the same number of miles as an oil change. We're glad we did, because the Sube is a pleasure to drive--fast, responsive, and unobtrusive. It's just another red car, although as we found out it is unusual enough that a federale (Mexico's federal policeman) was curious about it. More about that later.

Thursday night found us at Pecos, Texas, and on Friday we arrived at Eagle Pass, Texas, ready to cross at Piedras Negras, the small crossing that we used last May. On Saturday an early breakfast and no special problems at the border had us heading south a little after 9am. One of the reasons we like this particular border crossing, other than its manageable size, is that the road surfaces on the route are good, most of the road is libre (free, i.e., non-toll), there are bypasses around the major towns, and for some reason it has less heavy truck traffic than other libramiento routes.

On the bed at the sex motel
As a result of that early departure, we pulled into our overnight destination, Matehuala, around 4pm, ready for a nice meal at Las Palmas, a hotel with a restaurant and RV park that is a favorite among many travelers. But rather than stay there we opted for the local "sex motel," with a comfy bed, a shower built for two, and an enclosed garage for complete security.

For the uninitiated, Mexico is full of these motels on the outskirts of all major and some minor cities, recognized by high walls surrounding the entire property and entrances that don't allow passersby to see inside. The best are one-story with garages between each unit for maximum privacy, to put it delicately. One pays for either 12 or 24 hours via a pass-through in the wall, and while we might believe they are designed for men and their girlfriends, they also accommodate married couples who need to get away from the rest of the family once in a while. They are economical and generally immaculate. Because we arrived at 6:30pm we were obligated to leave 12 hours later, so that got us on the road very early once again.

Driving on the autopista is expeditious but as boring as our interstate highways, so Mark picked out a smaller road on Sunday that took us through little towns and more interesting country. Because of that, we found a marvelous country restaurant that serves an excellent breakfast buffet every day for the ridiculously low cost of 55 pesos, about $4.50. Eggs and omelets al gusto (as you like them), juices, fruits, many side dishes, all for the same low price. They also serve an arrachera (grilled beef) buffet for comida, which is the main meal of the day in Mexico, usually between 2 and 4pm. The restaurant was open air and full of families, all bundled up against the cold.
The omelet lady

Now, about the federale--We were leaving Monclova, the first large town south of the border, passing through magnificent mountain scenery, when Mark, who was driving, noticed a black and white patrol car right behind us. It got closer and closer, and then the red lights went on. We thought for sure it was going to be our first ticket in Mexico, but when the officer arrived he extended his hand, smiled, said "Do you speak Spanish?" and asked to see the engine compartment. Slightly amazed, Mark popped the hood and we both got out of the car. He touched a few things on the turbo engine, said something about being an admirer of Japanese technology, kept asking if it was fast (I said, "It can be..."), and inquired where we were going. When we said "Pátzcuaro," he said, "Es muy feo," (It's very ugly). We said, "Pátzcuaro?" and he said, "No, la situación" (the situation in Michoacán). He then shook hands with both of us, wished us a safe trip, and told us to be careful. We drove away--slowly, as you would expect under the circumstances.

More photos of the drive here.