Friday, February 25, 2011

The Mezcal Dude

This morning, as I was engaged in my daily struggle with the new litho process I've been working on, the mezcal dude showed up at the print studio. I'd been told that he comes on Tuesdays and Fridays, but until now I hadn't seen him. He had a big white sack over his shoulder, kinda like Santa Claus, with a large plastic container and a length of plastic tubing inside. Mezcal is 70 pesos a liter (approximately a quart), bring your own bottle. Total cost--$5.83 at the current exchange rate.

I didn't have a bottle with me, but Julian (one of the studio gang) emptied a Ciel water bottle into the pan they use to make coffee and handed it to me. I gave my 70 pesos to the mezcal man and he siphoned a liter of clear liquid into the bottle. I tucked it into my bag, thanked him, and he went on his way. Julian says it's good mezcal, and having just tasted it we agree. The last time we bought mezcal it was 30 pesos a liter (including the container) in the Oaxaca region, so the price has gone up, at least around here--though this includes delivery.

That's not water in the bottle
 Mezcal is similar to tequila but is made from a different type of agave, and because it's distilled over a wood fire in small batches it tastes smokey. We bought our mezcal in Oaxaca from a family with small production, one fermentation vat, and a crude copper still. Those little places were everywhere in the countryside, mostly on back roads. If you went from one to another, with each one eager for you to sample their product, you would probably be unsafe to drive.

Many people prefer mezcal to tequila because they say it's more "natural" and less "chemical." I don't get that because the way I understand how tequila is made (and we've visited distilleries in Tequila), there are no chemicals added to the mixture. The agave is roasted or steamed, crushed, fermented in large vats, and then distilled one or more times. It's sold as blanco (white) or plata (silver) which is bottled immediately after distillation and which tastes most strongly of the cooked agave; resposado (rested), which is aged for up to a year in oak casks; and añejo, which is aged up to five years. The longer the tequila stays in the oak, the less it tastes of the agave and the smoother it is. We personally prefer the peppery sweetness of the blanco.

The next step--mezcal margaritas, in honor of the late, great Bob Howell of Rincon de Guayabitos, Nayarit.  Although he was a tequila man, his margaritas and love of Mexico inspired a generation of folks with similar passions, including us.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Shel Silverstein's sweet poem for children took on a very different meaning today in Pátzcuaro while walking home from the mercado with my 3 kilos of juice oranges. On the hilly streets in our neighborhood, sidewalks usually have steps at one end to allow them to be level. Now consider this one, on Francisco Javier Alegre:

If you take a moment to think about this from a U.S. perspective, perhaps in terms of building codes, public safety, homeowner liability, etc., you'll know everything you need to know about taking personal responsibility for one's own actions in México.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sierra Chincua, Monarch Butterfly Reserve

(This is a follow-on post to the previous one on our two-day trip to Tlalpujahua and the Monarch Butterfly Reserves in the pine-fir forests of eastern Michoacán state, in southwest México.  The mountainous reserves vary in elevation from 9,500 to over 11,000 feet, and are the wintering location for all the Monarchs east of the Rockies in the U.S. and Canada.)

There are several small reserves in the area accessed from different towns, so we opted for Sierra Chincua, the closest to Tlalpujahua. We had a good breakfast in the Hotel Los Arcos dining room and arrived at the reserve parking area about 10:15. We paid our 30 peso car and 35 pesos per person entry fees, were assigned a guide, and started walking at 10:45.  According to Mark's GPS, the parking area was at 10,700 feet, and we walked gradually uphill to about 11,000 feet before descending to 9,800 feet where the colony was currently encamped.

The government recently built a modern visitor's center with restrooms, food stalls and craft shops, and solar panels on the roofs to supply electricity to that remote region. I don't know whether the other reserves in the area are also so well equipped, but I'm sure they're equally cut off from electricity.

Georgia and Arcelia, our guide
 The reserve is managed by the local ejido (communally-owned property) and there are 30 guides, 5 of whom are women. Our guide, Arcelia, was a tiny but sturdy young woman who told us that today was her birthday and that she was 28. On the way back we sang both the American and Spanish versions of the birthday song, though only Georgia, who lives here, knew the words to "Las Mañanitas."

That's Mark bringing up the rear, and our guide in front
We walked for about an hour and a half, partly on an access road and then on a indistinct path through the woods that only the guides can find. As we got close to where the butterflies were on that day (they move around) we saw first one butterfly puttering around in the trees, then four or five, then a dozen, and then the air was filled with butterflies. They were clustered on the branches of the oyamel firs where they are so numerous they weigh down the branches and give the tree a brownish, dead-needle appearance.

It's hard to estimate the number of butterflies, but there are certainly many millions. The research biologists estimate population in terms of number of acres occupied by the colonies across all four reserves. This year's estimate is 10 acres of colonies total. Ponder that for a moment--all of the Monarchs east of the Rockies in North America are concentrated in 10 acres here during the winter. Now you see why this is such a vulnerable area and why it's a designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.

The total count is down from previous years, partly because of devastating rain and cold temperatures in the area last winter that killed millions of butterflies, and partly because of a loss of habitat in the north. Monarchs feed on milkweed, and increased development and herbicide use has eliminated a lot of their food source. Illegal logging in the reserves also contributes to their decline, though the ejidos, who depend on income from visitors and receive no funding from either the state or national governments, are doing their best to control it. The terrain is rugged, however, and inforcement is difficult. The Monarchs are starting to recover from last year's rains, but they aren't back to previous numbers, and may never be.

Monarchs crowded around a stream to drink

A major difficulty for the species is that these reserves are not contiguous, and as we know many species depend on a large range for optimum habitat. It forces the butterflies into relatively small areas, which may also contribute to a decline in numbers.

One of the most remarkable things about this migration is that no one butterfly makes the entire journey in either direction. Adult butterfly live from two to six weeks. It takes three to four generations of butterflies to complete the northward migration from Mexico. Then in late summer, they hatch a "Methuselah generation" that lives seven months before sexually maturing. It's this generation that makes the entire southward journey, overwinters, and heads north around the Spring equinox. They reproduce and die partway north to start the cycle over again. I believe they're the only species of butterfly that migrates like birds; others overwinter as larvae, pupae or hibernating adults. What enables the needed four or five generations to navigate the roundtrip to a place none have ever been before is one of the great natural mysteries.

We spent over two hours, amazed and delighted, photographing the scene and laughing as the butterflies landed on heads and hats and sleeves, before making the long uphill trek back to the car. There were very few other people there, though on weekends the place is pretty crowded with visitors from México City and other nearby areas. On the return trip we hauled out 3 bags of trash, left by people who obviously don't comprehend that the rest of us aren't there to see their empty candy wrapper or plastic water bottle.

Mere words can never describe the experience. To stand in the middle of a shower of orange and black butterflies fluttering around you, and to see in the distance even more, is magical. We've put together some videos, which you can watch on YouTube, to see what I mean. 

Other short videos are at these links:

On the way home we drove through Angangueo, where massive landslides and flooding during last year's rains wiped out about 30% of the town. The government is lining the stream with concrete walls to avoid a repeat of the undercutting and collapse of the stream banks. The town is functioning, but the surrounding hills have large gashes where the soil was over-saturated and released. There now is a large sign listing potential levels of threat, with color codes like our former Homeland Security threat levels.
Warning sign in Angangueo
It took four hours to get back "the long way" from Sierra Chincua through Angangueo, but we saw new parts of Michoacán, high fertile agricultural valleys rimmed by the tree-covered remnants of extinct volcanos. A missed turn at the periferico coming into Morelia put us through bustling, colonial Centro at 8 pm, but as beauifully as the old cantara stone buildings are lit at night, we didn't mind.

For further information on the Monarch migration, the precarious status of the colonies, and current conservation efforts, here are links to some references:

Creating a feeding station for Monarchs by planting milkweed is one of the small things we can do to compensate for loss of habitat in the U.S. and Canada. Information on propagating milkweed, as well as many other facets of Monarch life and conservation can be found here:

On a lighter note, our visit to the reserve was on Feb. 14th, Valentine's Day.  Driving back through the town of Aporo, we got behind a car flapping with colored Post-It notes.  We stopped when one fluttered off and read "Te Amo" -- "I Love You."  A car covered in Te Amos.  We saw them later by a park, and a few others later in Morelia, so this sweet automotive-adaptation of Valentine's Day seems to be a feature of Méxican life here.

Te Amo encrusted car on Valentine's Day

We were dazzled by our butterfly experience and our new knowledge of the Monarchs' life cycle. We hope you enjoy this information too.

M & N

Friday, February 18, 2011

Tlalpujahua, Michoacán

On Sunday, February 13, we headed east to Tlalpujahua, to spend the night before visiting one of the Monarch Butterfly Reserves on the border between the states of Michoacán and México. We traveled with Georgia Conti, a master birder from a village near Pátzcuaro, and Klaus and Audra Willeke, visiting from California. Tlalpujahua is one of México's Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns) and was described to us as a miniature version of Guanajuato, which is north of us and someplace we want to visit on our way home. It's a very charming town of hills and cobblestone streets and 3,700 residents in 2005.

Mark and Georgia in the market

Sunday was market day (it often is in small towns) so we were able to explore the sprawling market, with vegetables and fruits, sweets, crafts and other items. Every time we turned a corner we found more of the market.

The main industry in Tlalpujahua, employing  thousands of people according to Wikipedia, is Christmas ornaments, and there's a large store devoted almost entirely to glass ornaments and other necessities for decorating a tree.

Color-coordinated ornaments
 It was a slightly surreal experience to see variations of Santa Claus surrounded by elaborately-decorated artificial trees in a small Mexican town. The town is full of workshops making the ornaments. You can read more about Tlalpujahua and its history at this Wikipedia link. It's quite interesting to find that this little place was México's major producer of gold until a landslide buried the mine and part of the town in 1937, played an important part in the Independence movement, and is now a leading manufacturer of Christmas ornaments.

After wandering around the hilly streets that curve and twist to accommodate the terrain, we found ourselves at a pleasant Argentine restaurant where we had comida. I don't think there is a single straight street in the entire town, and hiking the hills would definitely keep you in shape.

Tlalpujahua street scene

Palm trees at 8,400 feet

Powdered mole
  One unusual specialty of the town is powdered mole, which can be reconstituted with either water or chicken broth. The proprietors were eager to let us taste the various kinds, but after the third or fourth they all started to taste the same--spicy. However we did leave with 3 different kinds, plus a mixture to sprinkle on fruit.

During Mass

The dome
 When we first arrived there was mass in the church, so we came back in between services to see the interior, which has a spectacular dome. Because of Tlalpujahua's importance in mining history, it has an elaborate interior befitting a town that produced so much wealth, and the exterior is intricately carved.

We stayed at Hotel Los Arcos, an immaculately-clean 3-star hotel up on one of the hills overlooking the town. After buying a bottle of wine and getting plastic glasses from the hotel, we settled in to Klaus and Audra's room with a dramatic view of church and the lights of town, and planned our trip to the reserve.

The next morning we breakfasted at the hotel and headed for the Sierra Chincua reserve.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Buying Meat

Dislaimer: Buying meat in Mexico is not for the squeamish. It involves much larger chunks of animal than we are used to seeing.

Today I stopped at Carneceria La Norteña in the mercado to buy a kilo of pork shoulder and some chorizo. Recently I made a batch of a good-looking recipe for ancho chile sauce and I wanted to braise the pork in it. This carneceria (meat shop) was recommended to us by someone who has lived here for a long time, and their meat is quite good. Last time I bought pork belly, which is a favorite of mine--it's so "porky"--and it's hard to find in Salida unless you pre-order it from Scanga. But here you can just point to it and the butcher cuts off what you want. Because it's what becomes bacon it's best to slow roast or braise it.

So I asked for my selection and the butcher turned to his helper. The young man returned with half a pig (minus the head, which was hanging above the counter already). The butcher removed some skin with his impeccably sharp knife, asked me if I wanted it (no), and then removed the entire shoulder from the carcass. He carved off a chunk, weighed it, and added a bit more to bring it up to a kilo.

"Algo más?" (anything more) he inquired. I asked for chorizo and held up my hands to indicate about 2 feet. "Un metro y media!" (a meter and a half) he quipped, and we both laughed. After I paid him, he said, in English, "Thank you, my lady."

These little casual exchanges are part of what I find so charming about Pátzcuaro. Most of the vendors are very good natured and friendly, and are happy to tell you about their products and how to use them. We have discovered some new delicious fruits that way.

Except for the largest grocery stores, all meat and chicken is bought in mercados or carnecerias. Shops that sell meat do not sell chicken, and vice versa. Men sell meat and women sell chicken. Don't ask me why.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Unexpected Mexican Talents


When we buy a certain amount of dry beans, or potatoes, or fresh pork, the vendor measures out the product into a plastic bag and then ties a knot to close the bag. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but when we get the stuff home we often have difficulty untying that knot. Mexican women, in particular, can take the tiniest stub of plastic and turn it into something impenetrable. Twisties are unknown in the mercado. It's just one more thing for a vendor to buy, and they don't need it when there's a perfectly good little bit of plastic for a knot.


Whether it's the man in the parking lot whistling to help you back out of the parking space or the teenager on the street, Mexican men are experts at the piercing, ear-splitting, through-the-teeth whistle. In the Morelia Wal-Mart parking lot each row of cars is attended by whistlers, and it's expected that you will tip them a few pesos for their (unnecessary) assistance. It's hard to make a living in Mexico and people do what they can to make money, so we usually comply.

A young man who wants to catch the attention of the departing car that was supposed to take him home will produce a shrill whistle that could wake the dead and split the ear drum. No need for a plastic whistle or even fingers--just through the teeth. And the car stops, and the young man gets home.

The transitos (traffic police) stand on busy street corners, whistle in mouth, creating a variety of music-like sounds to indicate when traffic should proceed (or not). Each one has developed a unique style, and I suppose if you lived long enough here you would be able to recognize individual patterns.

Dicing Vegetables in the Mercado

This may not seem like an unusual skill, but try it without a cutting board. All day long women sit on short stools or upturned buckets, dicing tomatoes and onions for salsa.. They hold the tomato in one hand and cut down toward the palm one way, then 90 degrees in the other direction, finally cutting horizontally so that little cubes of tomato tumble into the bowl. Same with a bunch of cilantro to add to the mixture--held firmly in one hand while the knife slices through the stalks, just missing by a whisker the thumb below. The knife has to be sharp enough to cut cleanly, but after years of training women know just how far down to go without injuring themselves. We've tried this at home with absolutely no success. I guess we're just too worried about the opportunity for blood and what my mom used to call "a little extra protein."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Casa de Artesenias, Morelia

Over and over we have been astonished by the quality and variety of Michoacana craft. We spent a little time in Morelia on Tuesday and wandered through the incredible display of workmanship at the Casa de Artesanias from the many artisans who work in this area.

In addition to the crafts always available for purchase, there were many items with ribbons from the recent annual competition of artesania. Artisans plan for months to produce their finest efforts for this competition. Michoacán is known throughout México for the quality of their crafts, and the best of the best is displayed here.

Here are some photos of a few highlights.

The whimsical clay figurines from Ocumicho, depicting everyday events

An unusual airplane carried by a serpent
A devilish wedding

Who wouldn't want this headboard for their bed?

An outdoor hall with some of the beautiful urns from Capula

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Music, Music, Music

It's a cool, windy, cloudy day here in Pátzcuaro, so I am taking the opportunity to catch up on this blog. There's a fire in the fireplace in the office, which has made it quite cozy despite the gloom outside. The gardener, Gerado, thinks it may rain.

We have been gratified by the quality of music here in the area. Three concerts, all free, have demonstrated the commitment of Michoacán to the promotion of music. In general we've found Mexico to be very interested in the arts, to the extent that both the state and national governments provide financial and logistical support to artists and communities.

The first two concerts were in Morelia, in the theater of the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, an attractive venue with comfortable padded seats and ample leg room (something we often wish for, in theaters and airlines) in the center of Morelia. These were performances by the University's Chamber Orchestra, and both concerts had an overflow crowd with dozens of people standing at the back of the theater and more sitting in the aisles. We met friends in Morelia for a quick early meal and then walked the short distance to the theater.

In contrast to the concerts we've attended in Salida, a large percentage of the audience was young. This can be attributed to the fact that the Conservatorio de las Rosas, in Morelia, was the first music academy in the Americas and still produces a quantity of excellent musicians. The Conservatory is a pleasant place to visit, and  while strolling around the central courtyard you can hear music from the practice rooms. True to its name, there are many rose bushes growing there and, unlike the blowsy hybrids we're used to, these have fragrance.

Both concerts were expertly conducted and performed, with gusto and great skill. Soloists at the first concert were a young trumpeter from the State of Mexico and a soprano from nearby Irapuato, but the second concert's soloists (violin and guitar) were all from the Conservatory and had a large local (and vocal) following. We've heard music from both Mexican composers and more familiar ones like Bach, Mozart, Purcell, Vivaldi, Handel, and Boccherini so far.

The next chamber orchestra concert will be on February 16, but our dilemma is that the State Orchestra is having its 2011 debut performance on the same night. Decisons, decisions.

A capacity audience
The third concert, last night, was held at the Basilica here in Pátzcuaro, a performance of the Coro de los Niños, the Children's Choir of Morelia, established in 1944. There are 42 children, between the ages of 8 and 14. As you can imagine, this was a well-attended concert with an audience that covered all age groups, from little kids on up. The choir has a great reputation in the region, well deserved. You can see from the photos that the Basilica is a beautiful space with elegant decorations.

Photo by Klaus Willeke
First there was a poem about Pátzcuaro, and a speech outlining the history of the choir, and then the children filed in, with the shortest, youngest kids in the front row, in rather surprising dark pink robes. They stood in front of the altar, dwarfed by the vast space around them, and their sweet voices filled the room. They performed 16 songs, including crowd favorites, like "Cielito Lindo," that the director encouraged the audience to sing along with. Another favorite was "Que Lindo es Michoacán" (How Beautiful is Michoacán), which seems to be an unofficial state anthem. Mexicans are very proud of their country, and Michoacanas are especially proud of their state, feeling that it's the most beautiful in the country.
Attentive young audience members

Through the miracle of modern technology, Mark used his Droid to record some of the concert, and you can listen to some songs below. You can hear how the acoustics of the space affects the sound.

Anon en swing - Reeks Veenker

Te invocamus Motete a 4. Para la procesión de la Satísima Trinidad - Cayetano de Perea

Canción de cuna para una princesa negra - Canon catalán

Alegres Pastorcillos - Ya vienen caminando - Miguel Bernal Jiménez

Cielito Lindo

Afterwards we went out for hot chocolate and dessert with friends who had also attended the concert.