Others were selling wheat sprouts.
(Note that some of the plants are growing in cut off soft drink bottles, the default container in these parts. If you've got nothing else, use a plastic coke bottle.)
This woman is selling bitter oranges and herbs. All of this stuff: purple and white paper and ribbon, oranges, herbs, and wheat sprouts, has symbolic meanings.
These materials are being used to build altars for Viernes de Delores (the Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows); altars like this decorated fountain.
The holiday commemorates the Virgin Mary's sorrow at the torture and killing of Jesus—a difficult notion for me to comprehend. In San Miguel, a sculpture known as El Señor de la Columna is central to the Samana Santa events. It is one of the most horrifying images imaginable.
Altars constructed for this day often include agonized figures like this one, and grieving images of Mary.
Some memorials are very elaborate. This one, built against the wall of the Biblioteca Pública, includes a brass band playing dirges.
Families build beautiful displays and offer refreshments to those who come to view their work. This one includes a figure of Christ, jailed and guarded by two centurions.
Some altars are simply exquisite. This is a famous one, built by the family of Rubén Pérez. It is located just a few houses away from mine on Aldama. It includes precious antique figurines.
Visitors stand in front of each altar for many minutes, perhaps in prayer, perhaps meditating, or maybe just drinking in all the beauty. This one is built on the Aldama fountain, one of San Miguel's landmarks.
In general, the mood of visitors was incongruously festive. Except for a few moments in reflection followed by crossing themselves, people spent most of the time chatting with neighbors, eating paletas (popsicles) offered by their hosts while their kids ran around shouting and squealing, like kids will do on major holidays when school's out.
The altars I've shown so far are all located in wealthy neighborhoods. I felt more at home in working-class areas, where displays were more modest and welcomes were warmer.
A party rental business seems a good a place as any for an altar.
Viewings and visits went on until early the next morning.
By the end of it all, this family was dead on its feet. But they offered me a glass of orange juice with a smile.
Viernes de Delores is not really about mourning. It's a demonstration of perfect democracy, when wealthy and poor alike host one another and participate in common religious acts. It is a night when people greet one another, renew old friendships, make new ones, and revel in a powerful sense of community.
One of the signs looks a little different, doesn't it? Let's read the lettering.
Yes, in Mexico we respect our expecting mothers. For many people, Mexico is about having children, raising families. The Catholic Church, huge here, encourages procreation. The government is ambivalent. Families are good for the country. Children are good. Just not too many, please. But there's one absolute in this patriarchal society: a pregnant woman is a good woman, and should be given every consideration. Like her own parking spot.
In addition to disabled and pregnant people, you're allowed to use these spaces if you are a "person of the third age"; that is to say, old. I wonder, do I qualify? I get discount fares on the San Francisco Muni and reduced-price tickets at the movies. I belong to the AARP. But I don't feel old. For now, it's not an issue. I saw these reserved spaces after walking to Mega from my home—more than a mile. It's easier than driving in our horrible congestion and it's good for me, so I won't be parking there anytime soon.
This photo shows a couple of handicapped spots in an underground lot in Querétaro.
Look pretty much like those in the States, with the universal blue-and-white symbols and all. The yellow roll-away barriers are unfamiliar, though. They're there because parking enforcement is more difficult here than up north. Without computer tracking, Mexican police have to remove license plates to get violators to pay their fines.
The barriers discourage illegal parking, making the number of violations more manageable. Fewer plates to unscrew.
But, you ask, how does it help the handicapped if they have to struggle out of their cars and move a heavy steel barrier? Well, all Mexican parking lots have one or more attendants who collect fees, guide you in and out of parking spaces, sometimes even wash your car. When someone pulls up to a handicapped parking place, an attendant comes over and moves the barrier.
Back in San Francisco, I noticed signs encouraging drivers to obey the law. Signs like:
Encouragement by threatening, that's one way.
Here's another—the Mexican way:
"We respect these spaces;
Today for those guys,
Tomorrow for ourselves."
Sweet. Friendly. Fatalistic. Quintessentially Mexican.
I said, "What?" (I'm well-known for my witty ripostes.)
Paul said, "Water bags. See? They're to keep the flies away."
Paul, stylish in sandals with socks, points out water bags.
I said, "Yeah. Right."
"No. Really. You fill plastic bags with water and hang them around the house. Then you don't get flies."
I looked more closely.
Yep. Looked like ordinary plastic bags filled with water. Not believing Paul, I asked the restaurant owner: "Are you using water bags to keep flies away?"
He said, "Yeah. See? No fly."
Now, what bothered me about all this is not that people believe that hanging bags full of water repels flies. We are, after all, living in San Miguel de Allende, haven of the science-impaired. No. My issue is that here we apparently have a widespread, highly visible practice of which I am totally unaware. In nearly five years, I've never noticed water bags hanging around.
I'm still not sure I believe it. Maybe Paul cooked up something with the restaurant owner. I wouldn't put it past him.
So help me out. Have any of you heard of this practice? Do people up north do it or is it just a Mexican thing? And most important, does it work?
Smug Matt, with the world on a string, entertains his Auntie Jean.
You could tell we were in star country. I parked my rented Taurus between the Escalades, Hummers and Nissan Armadas, mindful that their owners, at the last Academy Awards, had just given a special award to Al Gore for environmentalism.
When we entered, I craned my neck, asking in a loud voice, "Is that somebody? Matt! Is that somebody?"
The glitterati jostle for tables at Nozawa Sushi. The night we were there, Patricia Arquette and her retinue (a child and a nanny) held court, dazzling the trendy supper club's sparkling clientele.
It's a place where trend-setters go for abuse. Master chef Nozawa-san, called "the Sushi Nazi" behind his back, decides what you'll eat, in what sequence, and at what speed. Don't for God's sake order a California roll or anything with cream cheese in it. You'll be ejected with a warning not to return, ever. Nor may you use your cell phone. He's been said to throw rice balls at patrons who do.
Jean: Do you believe what that guy's eating.
This is a real sushi restaurant. No frills. No dynamite rolls. What you get is fish on rice. Period. You want avocado on that, go down the street to Fishy Sushi. The hard-core aficionado behind Jean is drinking a mysterious olive-colored drink and is eating—I'm not kidding—salted fish guts.
Since we had stopped shoving sushi into our mouths, Nozawa-san hustled us out of his place. His motto: Eat! No talk! So we lit out for a late-night joint called Pinkberry. This incredibly popular place is... wait for it... a Korean yogurt shop.
Don't ask me. All I can tell you is the place was jammed, the yogurt was the best I've ever tasted, and even Kirstie Alley waited in line with a bunch of kids for a medium green tea flavor topped with blackberries, mango and Cap'n Crunch.
OK, I know that's a lot of name dropping. Jean made me do it. When you grow up in Rensselaer, Indiana, you're easily star-struck.
Tambaque is one such place. This is its main square.
Tough to find Tambaque on a map; it's northeast of Xilitla, if that helps.
Even a place this small has enough civic pride to erect the de rigueur monument in the square.
When you have money enough for only one monument, your choice of historical figures is limited to two. Just as you'd probably go with a statue of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the U. S., in Mexico it's Miguel Hidalgo or Benito Juaréz. This battered bust is of the former.
Most houses are modest. In a barter economy, there's not a lot of hard cash for manufactured building supplies.
This home doesn't have electricity, but you can see a pipe that supplies running water, a step up from the places farther from the road.
A nearby restaurant has a similar look.
The proprietor didn't fritter money away on extras like signs. It's the only restaurant for miles, so what do you need a sign for? Cooking gas is supplied from the gray bottle on the right. The place seems to have electricity, but it isn't wasted on lights. That's a galvanized washtub on the roof, keeping out the rain in the one spot that's difficult to seal with thatch.
No matter how poor a place is, children go to school. They may not be very good schools, but every child gets a more or less free education through fifth or sixth grade.
It's a little startling, amidst all that poverty, to see schoolchildren in clean, neatly pressed uniforms. Probably some of these girls' parents are illiterate. But in the new generation, literacy is essentially 100%. That bodes well for a lower birth rate, economic growth and the advance of a free, equitable society.
As in the United States sixty years ago, Mexico is becoming more urban. The pueblos are dying out.
"Welcome to San Pedro" the sign says. San Pedro is the next town down the road from Tambaque. The sign gives the population as 1500 in 1996. Someone lettered over it in 1998: 700 inhabitants. I doubt there's that many today. I wonder, do Mexicans get nostalgic for small town living?
There's some investment in real estate.
Here's a nice little rental that brings in maybe fifty pesos per week. Plus a chicken. Small, but what a view!
Someone else is thinking a little bigger. This place is going to be a hotel.
I dunno. The best hotel in town, the eight-bedroom Posada El Castillo, looks like it gets maybe 60% occupancy, if that. And this place probably is going to have to live off the overflow from the Posada, unless they're going to try to compete on price. It's probably being financed with out-of-town money. It's hard to imagine that anyone who really knows Xilitla would attempt it.
The region does boast an extraction industry: shale quarrying.
That man in the yellow shirt is quarrying blocks of shale with a chisel and hammer. He's doing it the old-fashioned way: one rock at a time. He's one of about a dozen independent operators in or near town. He doesn't own his quarry; it's on the highway right-of-way. Property of the State. But the government likes to have him there because he's removing rock that might otherwise slide down onto the road. I'm sure he makes substantially less than $5 per day.
If you want to make the big bucks, you have to go into retail. A produce market is a good entry-level business.
This one is housed under a black plastic tarp in a space that would ordinarily be used for parking along the street. Minimal start-up costs. I'm guessing that one of the proprietor's indirect expenses involves paying "fees" to someone in city government. Every night, the owner takes down his tarp and rolls a length of chain-link fence over his vegetables. By the way, when was the last time you saw wooden vegetable crates?
Those are unusual mangos behind and just to the left of the pineapples. They are small, yellow-orange with a rose blush. You can't buy them except in eastern tropical Mexico: too delicate to ship long distances. Too sweet to miss, too, so you should come here just for a taste. This guy is selling his for about 40¢ US a pound. How you eat them is you squoosh and squoosh one with your hands until the flesh liquifies. Then you bite off the end and suck out the insides.
There may be better margins in meat. This outdoor carnicería looks like a low-investment business. Apparently Mexican meat doesn't need refrigeration.
The guy behind the table is chilling out with his newspaper. The whole operation is laid back and surprisingly wholesome-looking.
As a contrast, carnicería shown below is indoors. The owner is paying rent and you'd expect a higher class store than one located out on the street.
But you would be wrong. I wouldn't knowingly eat anything that came from this place. The tub in front of the butcher is for cooking carnitas: pig boiled in lard. I love carnitas. And since the meat is boiled for a long time at very high temperatures, it's got to be safe, right? At least I keep telling myself that. Of course, it's not safe for the arteries. My coronary arteries are cringing just looking at the tub. The butcher, you'll note, is engaged in that activity common to all of Xilitla's butchers—reading the newspaper.
Selling shoes is good. Mexicans love shoes. Every small town has several shoe stores. In cities, shoe stores are often located in the high-rent district—jammed right up against the main plaza.
You can see what the big sellers are in Xilitla: huaraches. These are less than $5 US per pair. Real leather, too! I think.
The pinnacle of retail, though, is a hardware store. Mexico is a country where people make stuff, fix stuff. They buy hardware like crazy. Hardware stores are always mobbed. Although self-serve places like Home Depot are coming into the cities, their quality and service is just as bad as in the States: cheap plated screws in bubble packs, moronic clerks that didn't make the cut at McDonalds. But in small Mexican hardware stores, the proprietor assists you, and he knows his clavos.
This hardware store offers something you won't find just anywhere: a small, industrial-grade coffee mill. We're in coffee-growing country, and small operators grow, harvest, roast and grind their own. It's really good coffee, too, judging by what I was served at Posada El Castillo.
But not everybody comes into this place to buy a coffee mill or a heavy-duty flash water heater or asphalt floor tile. So the owner of this store is hedging his bet. Those shelves in the back hold a complete selection of liquor. You can always get sales with liquor.
Hardware stores are capital-intensive businesses. You have to lock up so darn much money in inventory. For those with essentially no working capital, service businesses are the answer.
Find a wide spot on a street, make yourself a tall chair and table, sling a tarp, and you have a barber shop. This is one in a row of three barber shops. A hand painted sign on the wall says the space is reserved for the barbers: no parking, cabron. More "fees" I bet.
If all else fails, you can always be a milkman.
It's probably the only job that pays worse than quarrying shale. But hey. It's a living.
If you didn't have a phone or couldn't afford one, you borrowed a neighbor's phone, or you went downtown to use the Caseta Telefónica—the phone booth.
A caseta telefónica in Tancanhuitz de Santos.
Casetas provide phones for making local, long distance and international calls. "International" means "USA." It's not like campesinos have a lot of correspondents in Tokyo.
More importantly, casetas are a place where you can receive calls. Telmex, a monopoly, charges exorbitant rates, so campesinos rely on their stateside relatives to originate calls. That way, they only have to pay for booth time.
An explosion of land lines and cellular networks is reducing the need for Casetas Telefónicas. But you still see them in remote areas. For some reason, they're usually painted blue and yellow (when they're painted at all) just as tortillarías are traditionally painted green and yellow.
A typical caseta contains a row of private booths, in each of which is located what Lily Tomlin called, an instrument. You sit in a row of chairs waiting for your call. When it comes in, the attendant routes it to an instrument in a booth.
Note that in the picture above, the lady in the chair is not waiting for a call. She is selling used clothing. (After you've lived here for awhile, it all kind of makes sense.)
A caseta telefónica in Xilitla.
It all seems so inconvenient. But Mexican people tolerate inconvenience like Norteamericanos wouldn't. I saw a sign by the highway that said "Teléfono 300 Mts." It pointed to a narrow dirt path leading straight up a steep mountainside. No way to drive there; you had to walk. I don't know about you, but I'd have to be pretty desperate to walk uphill the length of three football fields, even to phone home.
This region is full of rugged mountains, tropical rainforest, rivers, lakes, caves and wildlife.
Above is a view of the peña called El Cerro de la Silleta, shot from the lookout tower in the Posada el Castillo, my hotel in Xilitla.
Jungle-clad mountains loom over settlements and roads. You can tell you're not in Indiana anymore. Sure beats looking at milo stubble poking through the snow. (A credit to Doonesbury for that one.)
The Sierra Gorda is much greener than the State of Guanajuato where I live, only a six hour drive away. Frequent mists and low clouds keep everything green and lush.
Small farmers grow bananas and coffee beneath mountain peaks. (Those are coffee trees in bloom, visible beneath the lower banana leaf.)
There's exploring to be done in these mountains, enough to keep any Sierra Club backpacker happy. When I planned this trip I had no idea. There are actual campgrounds here, and wilderness trails. Next time I'll bring hiking and camping gear.
Spelunkers travel to Mexico for caving in unexplored grottos.
On my list for a future visit are caves that are home to hundreds of green parrots, and another to hundreds of thousands of swallows.
Beautiful rivers run everywhere...
... their sources sometimes are large springs at the bases of mountains.
Above, a large volume of water flows from a hole in the rocks—an underground river rising to the surface.
These waters are clean and clear, unpolluted. Tens of thousands of people drink them every day, without the ill effects so many suffer from municipal water supplies. Fish abound. I saw a teenager with a homemade bow and arrow catch his lunch. He looked like he was fresh out of Amazonia.
Along the roads, many signs point the way to waterfalls. Others are accessible only by boat or hiking trail.
Residants of the Huasteca live in a gorgeous, unspoiled part of the world. I'd recommend to anyone that they put on their hiking boots, grab their fly rods and come enjoy the wilderness. But then, if this place were discovered, would it remain the same? Nothing this beautiful will remain secret for very long, so see it while you can.
Along the roadsides on Mex 120 and 85, in the Sierra Gorda, wildflowers are blooming, too.
In San Miguel, wildflowers come in the rainy season, peaking in September. We don't get enough rain in the State of Guanajuato for seeds to germinate and grow in spring. We live in the rain shadow of the Sierra Gorda. Storms roll in off the Gulf of Mexico and dump their moisture on the Huasteca Potosina instead of on us.
Cultivated trees are blooming in profusion, especially coffee and orange trees. Their scent is everywhere and it is powerful. Other trees are in bloom as well.
I don't know if the pictured trees are cultivars or natives. I don't know the names of any of the wildflowers. Pathetic.
The red blossoms in the lower right photo are particularly interesting. Indigenous people harvest them to sell in the towns. Why? Are they a seasonal comestible? Brewed into some kind of tea? Or are they used in folk medicine?
One of the tree species used as living fenceposts is blooming as well.
Hanging on these plants alongside the pink blossoms are green seed pods about three inches long. This plant finds many uses in this region, so knowing its name is important. Perhaps one of you botanists know what it's called...
Nothing at all like the sere Bahío where I live.
Here in the Sierra Gorda, you occasionally see a traditionally dressed Tenek woman walking by, adding color to the scene.
This one is correctly dressed head to toe: petop, colorful caped blouse, dark, mid-calf-length skirt, huaraches and the de rigeur shoulder bag cross-stitched in authentic patterns. She is headed for the pretty little town of Huehuetlán, on foot; as was I, by car.
(I love going to places you can't google for squat. Try it. Huehuetlán. You'll get nothing useful in English, and very little in Spanish.)
Small towns don't have large budgets for monuments. But no respectable Mexican town can hold up its civic head without at least one. Huehuetlán's is a bust of Benito Juaréz.
Well, I've seen worse. The monument utterly fails to convey any sense whatever of dignity or honor, what with the cartoon-like features, the peeling paint and the outsized pedestal diminishing the bust itself. The Bela Lugosi expression doesn't help, either.
On a more positive note, Huehuetlán has a pretty central plaza and church.
When I arrived, I heard loud popular music. Something was going on. A band was playing, or so I thought.
A button box player was singing his heart out.
His suit would not have been my first choice, but his pale turquoise ostrich boots—My, my!
Several expensive video cameras were recording the performance.
I had come to Huehuetlán to explore an typical Huastecan puebla. What I found was a high-tech music video production from Mexico City.
The band was lip syncing to one of their recordings. I could hear a bass drum, but the drummer had only one trap and a cymbal. No cables connected the keyboard to an amplifier.
Only the guitar player gave any impression that he was actually grooving with the music.
The track played over and over again. Boring. Camera angles changed. When the group shots were completed, the crew moved in for closeups.
Everybody stood around a lot. I would have lost all patience before the first hour was up. These people were going to spend the entire day producing a single three-minute video.
Wandering around the plaza, I met the Morales family. When they saw my camera, they posed rather stiffly, and nothing I could say would get them to relax for a candid shot.
All three were born and raised in Huehuetlán. Artenio is mestizo; his wife, Liset, is Tenek; and the baby, Jimena, is Japanese.
That was a joke. Jimena is mestiza too, which means she will have more social acceptance and a more prosperous future than her mother. It's sad, but there it is.
Artenio works eight months a year in Nashville. He says he can earn the price of a television for a week's work there: the same TV would require three months' work in Huehuetlán. They love their home town and wish that Artenio could always be home with the family. They have no wish to emigrate to the States. Life in Huehuetlán is too good for that.
A guest worker program with a path to citizenship holds no value for Artenio. He doesn't like how Americans live. Too hurried, too stressy, too much of a rat race. What he wants is better economic opportunity in Huehuetlán. He told me if he could earn just half of what he makes in Nashville, he'd stay home.
Huehuetlán is a sweet, peaceful town. On hot days you can sit in the shade of 100-year-old laurels and look out at the spectacular Sierra Gorda. Artenio is on to something. I find myself dreaming about living here.
And yet, serious conservation efforts are going on here. Mexico has set aside large amounts of land as Biosphere Reserves. There are reforestation projects and efforts to save wildlife such as sea turtles.
Farmers in the eastern Sierra Gorda are using a method of fencing their fields that is cheap, effective, and environmentally friendly.
They make fenceposts out of living trees. They are planted by jamming green branches into the ground in a row along the desired fence line. Farmers use species that readily sprout roots from fresh prunings. After a year in the ground, the branches develop strong enough roots that they become firmly anchored and can be used to support barbed wire.
Eventually, the fence posts sprout new branches that grow large enough to be usable as poles themselves, so the farmers harvest them, a process that can be repeated indefinitely. The technique of repeatedly cutting trees is called coppicing.
Coppicing is practiced all over the world. Talking about coppicing seems seems to be a peculiarly British activity. Google coppice and you get a whole bunch of pages from the UK offering nuanced commentary on methodology.
Rural British homeowners cultivate coppiced woodlots: ten acres provides a family with all the firewood it needs. It's the perfect pensioner's solution. He tells his wife, "Bridget, I'm going out to check on the coppice," before nipping down to the public house for a pint or two.
In the Sierra Gorda, farmers coppice fences instead of woodlots. Harvested branches are carefully stacked, ready for replanting or use in house-building.
Some cuttings are used for firewood.
Since so many households use firewood for cooking, a renewable fuel source is essential for conserving the jungle.
Some farmers, having coppiced their fences for years, have stopped pruning them and allowed them to develop into mature trees, giving roads in these parts a unique look.
Progress in caring for the environment is not as advanced in Mexico as in the United States; nor is economic progress for that matter, an impediment to conservation. Environmentalism seems to be the province of rich countries: when the basic needs of the people are met, then it becomes possible to divert funds to conservation.
I have to curb my Norteamericano judgmentalism when it comes to the condition of the Mexican countryside. After all, not so many years ago the Detroit River caught fire and large numbers of dead fish washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Even today, Southern California beaches are routinely closed because of pollution from sewage.
So I'm impressed when I see Mexicans, lacking wealth, using ingenuity to keep their world green.
This woman is one of them. She doesn't look too happy with her difficult lot. Or maybe she's expressing disapproval of an annoying photographer.
Life is hard. Just doing the laundry looks like half a day's work to me.
Many women have to supplement the family income through small-scale commerce.
Both mom and the wheelbarrow-shop vendor are trying to get an undecided little girl to settle on one kind of nut or another.
A woman operates the smallest polloría I've ever seen.
Looks like she's got one chicken left, hanging by a hook through its head with its feet still attached. Yum. That chicken is fresh. (But I'm not sure about buying food from a place where a five-gallon bucket originally used for Bardahl gear oil is part of the essential equipment.)
Women organize most of the community activities, and because they've taken over the social agenda, it has changed. Here, a local women's council has organized a dog training class.
Why is this unusual? Well, most Mexican men wouldn't even think of training their dogs. Dogs are supposed to be wild, fierce and free. Just like the men. The women, however, want obedient dogs in their villages; ones that don't bite the children. Do you think this says anything about how the women would like to deal with the men?
While walking down a narrow track through coffee and orange groves, I ran into Felipe and Basilio who immediately attached themselves to me.
They are Tenek children wearing traditional Coca-Cola and Incredible Hulk tee shirts. (Don't judge Felipe's mom by the cleanliness of his shirt—he's a boy, after all.)
They are standing on ground littered with orange blossoms. The scent is thick and sweet. I thought, how lucky they are to live in a place so sunny and warm, and that smells so nice.
The boys appointed themselves my guides, leading me back into the jungle, naming plants as we went. (That's an avocado tree; that's a mujer mala—a bad woman.) They told me they were taking me to see a cave and entrance would cost five pesos.
A sign indicated we were getting somewhere.
We were approaching an eatery, Las Quilas, operated by Ecotourism Project Women's Group. Many groups of this type have sprung up, women raising money to protect the local environment. Sensitivity to environmental issues isn't strong in Mexico, so it's encouraging to see the women take the lead in doing something about it.
At Las Quilas, I found three little girls and a plastic tub of newly-picked coffee beans, but no food. No problem—I wasn't hungry anyway.
Eventually a woman emerged and wanted to know if I would like to tour the soltana (cave). I gave her a 20 peso bill, knowing she wouldn't have any change. I told her to keep it. Heck, I would have given her a $100 peso donation if she had asked for it.
She led me to the cave.
It was definitely a low-voltage attraction. We walked into the darkness about thirty feet and then she told me to stop because shortly ahead, the floor dropped away into a "bottomless pit."
I wasn't disappointed, because for me, meeting the kids was the real treat. Felipe and Basilio escorted me back to their settlement and asked me for a regalo (tip). I felt bad that I only had two one-peso coins, but they seemed satisfied with them. No sooner than I paid than I ceased to exist in their world as they walked off together, happily cracking jokes. (Now, before you condemn me as cheap, consider that two pesos amounted to a 40% tip.)
The women live long lives. If they make it past infectious disease and accidents, their active lifestyles and healthy diets keep them going for a long time.
This woman has no intention of composting in some retirement home. She's an elder in her community, a source of knowledge and experience for her family, a caretaker of her great-grandchildren. She's got way too much to do to "retire."
When her responsibilities require her to go to town, a grandson escorts her without complaint, with respect. It's the least he can do for a keystone of his community.
Rich folks own cars. The next lower economic tier takes the bus.
You can go all over Mexico on the bus. They have one of the best systems in the world: way better than the British one.
But buses ply the main highways. If your town isn't on an arterial, you have to get off at an intersection where taxis wait to take you into el centro.
The bus stop and taxis pictured above are at the Mex 85 intersection with the road to Tancanhuitz de Santos. It's typical.
By U. S. standards, buses are cheap, and the taxis cost only a buck or two. But for many here, that's still too expensive. Moreover, many live well off the beaten track, in places where no buses go and taxi fares would be too high, maybe even for gringos.
The ubiquitous Mexican form of really cheap passenger transport is the pickup truck. Here, a group of Guadalajara soccer fans accept a lift from a friend.
(Check that bottomed-out rear suspension.)
Illegal in the U. S. for safety reasons, I occasionally saw passengers in truck beds there anyway. Once I watched as a pickup truck with two illegal passengers had a low-speed rear-end collision with another vehicle. Neither car suffered any damage, but the impact bounced the rear of the pickup into the air, catapulting the two passengers over both vehicles. They landed on the road in front of the car that had been struck, which fortunately had been stopped.
Mexico appears to have no restrictions on passengers in truck beds. Any such regulation would be unenforceable, given that riding back there is an integral part of the culture.
Inhabitants of the Huastecan Potosí have formalized the use of pickups as public transportation.
Three-quarter or one ton pickup trucks are fitted with tall frames in their beds that allow passengers to hang on while standing. That way, twenty or more can fit into the back. Each pays the driver a few pesos fare.
You see them everywhere in the region, prowling the back roads and carrying people into the towns. They're often overfilled.
(They look like commuters on the IRT, don't they.)
Most don't look safe. They're often 25 years or more years old, and I imagine maintenance is a little thin.
Most frightening is encountering one on the open road. I snapped this image in the country north of Asquemón.
The driver was going at least 50 MPH. Those are schoolchildren up there. (Shudder.)
Owing to sluggish exploitation and development of the region, these tribes have hung on to some of their ways. This woman, in traditional blouse and headdress, is selling snacks near the central plaza of Aquismón, a primarily Tenek community.
Tourists rarely visit the region, so she is not costumed for the trade. She is wearing real clothes ordinarily worn by real tribespeople, although in this case, she's clearly in her Sunday best. Gotta look sharp if you're gonna move the merchandise.
Her headdress is called a petop. It's woven with yarn and her hair. One person told me the colors designate her marital status and age—apparently the presence of green means she's a widow.
You see a fair amount of women still wearing traditional dress, but men's clothing has evolved to Mexican Standard. Traditional loincloths were outlawed by the colonial Spanish; I'm told you only see them worn during festivals—with underpants!
This man is selling fruits and vegetables on the main street of Tancanhuitz de Santos. He grew or gathered them himself: bananas, oranges, chayote and the red flowers of a native tree for making a medicinal tea. He says he only does this when he need a little cash. Otherwise, he's a subsistence farmer.
Some Tenek live in huts made of sticks with palm thatch roofs, much as you see in Yucatán or Chiapas.
They're quaint, but they indicate poverty. No Tenek lives in one of these in order to preserve the old ways. She'll trade up to a cinderblock house in a heartbeat if she can scrape up the money for it. In fact her husband and sons probably are up north, sending back money for just that purpose.
The house shown below must belong to a relatively well-off Tenek: It has a tin roof.
Moreover the owner could afford paint. When these people cook, wood smoke pours out from under the eaves. Their houses have no running water. They have backyard privies. Many have no electricity. I saw one place that had a small solar panel. Boom box music thundered from inside the house. First things first.
Near every home I saw, people were growing their own food...
... plus a little to sell. Here we have papayas and bananas.
Teneks travel from small settlements of maybe a hundred people to cities like Ciudad Santos via pickup trucks converted into people carriers. They're the cheapest public transportation around, and they go out into the country on narrow, winding dirt roads where normal commercial buses don't. These women are waiting in a depot for a ride home.
The older woman is traditionally dressed in blouse, petop, and huaraches. The white garment on her head is (I think) called a quechquémitl. It's a shoulder-length cape usually worn to keep off early-morning chill, and here tucked into the petop to cover the head, to keep off the noonday sun. The young mother, every bit as Tenek as her seatmate, wears the traditional Huastecan blue jeans and running shoes.
Women make their own traditional dress. These styles aren't carried by Land's End. But making them takes time, and many women don't have that luxury. What young suburban mother races home from a play date and sits down to embroider a blouse?
This young mother probably has to race home and plant some corn. I mean, it's March, already. Her life is hard. She's probably all of sixteen years old. So she got married and pregnant when she was fourteen, judging from the size of the child she's carrying in her rebozo.
What kind of future does she have? Odds are she'll wind up carrying firewood during her retirement years.
Traditional dress is for company and fiestas and visits to the city. Jeans and a man's shirt are more practical for hard manual labor.
This woman was selling Tenek cross-stitch embroidery on the Aquismón plaza. I bought some of her work, some of which you can see in the background. Her designs are traditional and full of meaning, but her Spanish—and mine, were so bad I wasn't able to learn much about them.
In this close-up, you can see how her hair has been woven with yarn into her petop. Her toothy grin owes its charm to the absence of refined sugar in her diet, I'll bet.
In many ways, the lives of the Tenek seem so contented. They live close to nature, in a gentle climate, eating stuff that is good for them, in close-knit families. Thatch huts in a pastoral setting. What could be more romantic?
But then again, the villages are run largely by women because most of the men are in the U. S. trying to earn enough money to live on in an increasingly modern, expensive world. So the families are broken up. Children wear uniforms to public school. How to pay for them? They rely on the village shaman for traditional medicine—unless the patient doesn't get well. Then they have to go to the clinic in Santos. How to pay for it?
It's a joy to visit these people and admire their fine lives and distinctive culture. But travelers shouldn't let too much more time go by. The modern world is closing in on the Tenek. The kids want IM and ice cream. In twenty years, you'll have to look in Burger King to see the Tenek.
Many growers operate in this valley; most are fairly small, supplying local outlets. Roadside fruit stands line Mex 85.
This guy runs a fairly sophisticated outfit, for the genre. He sells pottery, some kind of unidentified stuff put up by hand in bottles, and several kinds of citrus that have that "purchased-from-a-large-wholesaler" look—all unblemished and bagged. Probably grown in Florida. Sunkist maybe.
Here's a more modest retailer. His fruit is ungraded—direct from the grower. Could be he's the grower himself.
Of course, if you build a stand, you're almost obligated to operate it all year. I mean, you got to keep all that capital working. That's not for everybody. Seasonal sellers let nature provide their storefronts.
"Over here, Eugenio. Just dump 'em under the tree. Bag up a few of the good ones for the gringos."
At the very bottom of the pecking order you got your street vendors.
This one appears to be selling windfalls—maybe a couple dozen of them. He's scrutinizing one closely. Is it good enough to sell? Maybe...
He has a sideline dealing in sugar cane. He gets one peso for a two-foot length. Sells 'em to school kids. Maybe his cousin is a dentist.
Looks like he has a dozen sugar canes. So today he's looking at grossing maybe three bucks tops. He probably could make more money begging, but he isn't old and wrinkled enough yet.
The really big producers, the ones that load up several 10-wheelers a day, sell their produce wholesale to processers.
Citrofrut, your local polluter, buys oranges for even less than the street vendor charges. Why they have to emit all that smoke (it's smoke, not steam) is beyond me. Maybe they burn the rinds. In Mexico, they still use incinerators, you know.
Watchiing Citrofrut saturate the air in Tazaquil with partial combusiton byproducts kind of took the charm out of the orange growing scene for me. So I moved on down the road to where the air smelled like orange blossoms again, where I found a very small vendor selling fruit from his single orange tree.
This operation is one cut above a lemonade stand. My kind of place. And his oranges are good, too—I bought a couple. Gotta vote with your custom if you want small businesses like this one to survive.
Looks like something Edward James might have designed, doesn't it? Well, he must have had some influence: his partner and construction manager for Las Pozas, Plutarco Gastelum, built the mansion with his own hands.
Today, it is owned by Gastelum's daughter, Graciela.
She grew up in this house. She left her hand prints in the concrete when she was eight years old. Today, she operates the house as an inn, using the income to preserve it.
Eccentric features abound. Raised footprints form the entry path.
Honeycomb windows admit light and frame views of the mountains.
A Leonor Fini mural graces an archway.
I arrived without reservations. Graciela was kind enough to fit me in where she could. I was fortunate that for three of my five nights, I was given Room #5—Mariposa.
It is a long, narrow room, a corner room. The east and north walls consist entirely of magnificent cloister windows giving onto sweeping views of the countryside. Perched high above the street on a steep slope, the northern exposure is completely private even with the drapes open.
Mariposa (butterfly) is so named because of the ceiling light fixtures designed and made by Graciela's father.
I have come to think of Mariposa as "my room."
I was not always so lucky to be able to sleep there. On Thursday night there was no room at the inn—it had been booked solid in advance. Gabriela was able to provide me with a bed in an unnamed room. She said that for that night, I could sleep "abajo." Sure enough, a narrow, steep, dark stairway led down into the garage which was filled with exercise equipment and a cistern.
Off the garage was a plain but pleasant room containing two double beds arranged toe-to-toe. This arrangement was fine except for the painting that was hung over one of the beds.
At first, it appeared to be a mother and her daughter looking pensively out of a window. Then came the realization that their faces hold oddly amused expressions.
They are voyeurs! Mom stifles a giggle with her scarf; daughter looks on with undisguised fascination. "Whatcha gonna do next, Big Boy?"
(You won't see this in the Brainerd Holiday Inn.)
Posada El Castillo has a large living room with a video library and an eclectic collection of art objects. It has a game room and a swimming pool—triangular of course. It has a lookout tower reached by climbing a three-story circular stairway, crossing a bridge and ascending a ladder through a trap door. Kids must love this place.
A riot of tropical plants and flowers fills the atrium. Two parrots live here: the one named Bruno talks. The muchachas will make you excellent huevos rancheros in the morning.
The place feels more like a home than a hotel, full of charm and warmth. Just like its hostess. Gabriela is engaging, amenable to conversation and informative. And she's accommodating. She patiently spoke with me in Spanish even though her English is better, gently correcting the worst of my grammar and vocabulary. Great digs, great hostess and free Spanish lessons thrown in.
They look like lurid fungi from the swamps of Eridanus Beta IV. Maybe spores hitched a ride on the Enterprise.
From another angle they look like fanciful reptiles.
A sixteen-inch bronze of this sculpture rests on a table in my hotel.
The title of this work is Hongo o Dragon—Mushroom or Dragon.
I think it's neither. Just another curious growth shaped by the strange DNA in James's mind.
Viewing this place is a transforming experience—one you shouldn't miss. But it's not gonna last.
Las Pozas is owned by a private company that operates the gardens as a tourist attraction. But they're not keeping them up. A sign instructs visitors to take care of the place while they're enjoying it.
This place is an artistic heritage.
It is strictly prohibited
to cause damage with graffiti
or in other ways.
Don't cut the plants.
So far, so good. But the staff appears to consist of a single man who issues tickets. I saw no maintenance men at work, no rangers patrolling, no gardeners pruning.
I bought a bottle of water from a couple of guys watching TV in the snack bar, but there were no security guys arresting that little delinquent, José.
Above José's declaration of love, you can see exposed rebar where the concrete has eroded. Over the decades, structures are beginning to crumble.
Almost none of the electrical wiring appears to be functioning anymore.
Here and there, the soil is subsiding. Cracks are forming. Walls are coming apart.
Perhaps some foundation could step in and buy the place—fix it up. WIth the current trickle of visitors and a tariff of only thirty pesos a head, the place isn't exactly a gold mine. I would imagine its income-based value to be on the order of maybe a couple million dollars. Surely, the current owners would sell for, say, five. Operated non-profit, the present income stream would easily handle all the maintenance and security costs, and even allow for a little restoration.
Woke up this morning, started to sneeze,
I had a cigarette and a cup of tea.
I looked in the mirror, what did I see?
A nine stone weakling with knobbly knees.
I did my knees bend, press ups, touch my toes,
I had another sneeze and I blew my nose.
I looked in the mirror at my pigeon chest,
I had to put on my clothes because it made me depressed.
The Kinks, Superman
The land Edward James bought for his garden, Las Pozas, contains a natural waterfall. Imagine owing a waterfall! This photo was taken in March, five months into the dry season. You can see there's plenty of water in these mountains.
I want to return some September during the rains to see the falls in flood stage—a good excuse to miss the stupid Sanmiguelada.
While exploring the gardens, I met Ana and her two dogs—Sacha and Thor. Well, actually I met the dogs first. It was they who introduced me to Ana.
She was born in Seville, traveled all over the world, and finally chose Xilitla as her home. (What are the odds of that?) She makes silver jewelry and sells it in the Jalpan plaza most Saturdays. She works maybe 20 hours a week and makes enough to support herself.
(Boy, did I go wrong somewhere.)
She asked me if I had hiked to the top of the waterfall. "No? Well you must go. Here. I'll take you."
I quickly learned that there's no saying "no" to Ana.
We started up a dark, steep stairway,...
... an endless stairway. Ana and the dogs bounded up the path. I trudged and panted. The trail became a dirt track, steeper than the stairs, with boulders and roots to scramble over. Soon I was pulling myself up using tree branches. The jungle, semi-tame in the lower garden, became wilder as we climbed.
Thighs burning, gasping for air, I reached the top at last, just before I might have triggered another coronary. Ana and Sacha were waiting at the edge of the drop off looking relaxed and happy, like that excruciating climb was just an everyday event.
Well, it turns out it was an everyday event—for them anyway. Hiking to the top of the falls is how Ana exercises the dogs. And herself. Pretty much every day. At least Sacha had the decency to leave her tongue hanging out, no doubt so I wouldn't feel too bad.
(I like to think I'm blowing away all my San Miguel friends by walking up the hill to Gigante. I guess I'd better think again.)
I was too chicken to crawl out onto the wet rocks to photograph the cataract from above. I got as close to the edge as I dared and shot a few uninspiring frames of the pool below.
Man, that's a long way down. Looking for scale? The two vertical rectangular objects are not wooden planks; they're big concrete structures, each a couple of feet wide and maybe twenty feet long. Above them, where two other concrete structures make a roof shape, there are three UT Austin architecture students, sketching. That's the male one wearing a red shirt. You see him there?
I'm in better shape than I have been in for years. But Ana and her dogs showed me I have a long way to go.
Las pozas is indeed a fantasy, an outpouring of the creative mind of a person with resources to express himself without constraint.
James renders his visions in stone and concrete; the jungle responds with rioting vegetation.
Seven snakes represent the seven deadly sins; evil lurking in the undergrowth.
Bromeliads smother old trees; concrete fantasies mimic plants, thrusting upward toward the light.
A great flower blooms in a jungle clearing.
Rows of curved arches resemble remains of some long-decayed monster.
Mute creatures lurk in dark pathways.
A gothic structure futilely tries to impose some kind of order.
A cataract, maybe 100 meters high, falls in the dim light.
The gardens are large; they range over 60 mountainside acres. I spent an entire day shooting images, but I didn't have time to see it all. Some Xilitla residents regularly visit. One told me that after four years, she still makes new discoveries.
Las Pozas has been described as surrealistic, and I suppose it is. I would call it primal. Here, art amplifies nature. Like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Las Pozas reeks fecundity. Primitive, lustful things live in this ancient jungle.
For more images of Las Pozas, check out my Flickr photoset here.
From the above perspective, it looks better than it really is. Most of the sheet metal has been straightened at some time in the past. The Bondo has fallen off the left headlight rim. The Plymouth escutcheon is missing, removed no doubt to allow passage of the chain and lock securing the hood. The chain is what you call a battery saver. It saves your battery from being stolen.
In the photo below, we see the Valiant in its usual state—with the hood up. It's over thirty years old and it's been driven on Mexican roads most of its life, so it's a wonder it runs at all. The three guys looking under the hood (the owner is the one in the middle) are praying—for a miracle. They're saying, "Oh Heal, Valiant..."
On another day, I came across the Valiant's owner renewing the plastic sheeting and duct tape serving as the right front window. Looks to me like he did a very neat job. He keeps the passenger side door locked, because opening it would... you know.
The car is often parked across the street from my house. It lacks a muffler, so when it starts up, the whole neighborhood knows it. Moreover, it stalls unless the engine is raced for ten minutes or so to warm it up. Sounds like Sears Point on an NHRA weekend.
At one time, our bedroom overlooked the street, so if the owner fired it up in the early morning, we would be jolted into wakefulness. The roar of the unmuffled engine was accompanied by the odor of unburned gasoline fumes wafting through our open window.
All this was happening back when my attitude was, "Why don't Mexicans do things right?" "Why can't that idiot spend a couple of bucks and fix that heap!" I grumbled to Jean about how I was going to put sugar in the gas tank because I heard it would ruin the engine. I bitched about how inconsiderate the driver was.
One day, I stepped outside my front door and encountered him peering under the hood (as usual). I walked up to him, trying to remember the Spanish words for rude, inconsiderate, annoying. He turned to me, broke into a brilliant (if somewhat metallic) smile, stuck out his hand and said, "Buenos días. Mi nombre es Marce."
But but but but but...
I at once found myself helping my new friend Marce diagnose his engine problem.
Marce is a bachelor. He lives up the street from me in a large, junky house. It's lovely. It's worth more than a million dollars. It's run down.
His kitchen is classical Mexican, and is one of the most comfortable spaces I have ever been in. His is the home of a contented, warm person.
But he's land poor. He can barely afford to keep his car running.
He could sell his house to a rich gringo who would gut it and remodel it to Norteamericano standards. Then he could live comfortably on the proceeds for the rest of his life. He could afford a new car, one that would start the first time and wouldn't need new duct tape on the windows every six months. Life could be so much easier.
But the house has belonged to his family for generations. You don't just up and sell your patrimony. Anyway, then he would have to move. His dog would have to move. His well-ordered life would be disturbed.
Marce is a good guy. Anybody who overfeeds his dog and dresses it in a dainty red collar has got to be a good guy.
Moreover, I don't hate his car anymore. Every time I hear the startup roar, I get a warm feeling inside. Because I know my friend is nearby. Go figure.
Marce taught me a lesson: Contempt prior to investigation closes doors. The stranger I'm dissing today may turn out to be a friend I'll meet tomorrow.
In the U. S. during the '50s and later, billboards sprung up, despoiling the environment. People began to rise up in protest, and led by First Lady Ladybird Johnson, a campaign was waged to reduce the number of billboards. While she led the popular movement, the government responded with legislation and regulations to keep our highways beautiful. Call me a Liberal, but I think this was an entirely appropriate use of government. Even if it won't regulate rampant ugliness, the government should at least set an example.
Businesses in Mexico are erecting more and more billboards, but even today, there seem to be fewer than in the U. S., which supposedly has been limiting them all this time. Most Mexicans never get out on the highways, so billboard advertising isn't very efficient. Therefore, fewer billboards.
But there's one notable exception.
Meet Paco Garrido, Governor of the State of Querétaro. Apparently Paco wants to make sure that his constituency knows all about the good things he's doing, like building hospitals and health centers. So he erects, at state expense, huge billboards to keep everyone informed. Lots of them. All over the place. Even in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, a purported environmentally protected zone. In fact, all along Mex 120, most of the billboards you see are Paco's.
But hey, you don't want the people wandering around in ignorance, do you? Look at the billboard again. What leaps out at you? The hospitals? The health centers? I had to scrutinize it carefully to find mention of them.
No problem seeing Paco's smiling face, though. Looks to me like an election poster. Maybe Paco wants to make sure he has good face recognition—at least in the State of Querétaro. In case he runs for President in '12. How nice that it doesn't cost him anything.
I had stumbled upon a Celebration commemorating El Señor de la Conquista (The Lord of the Conquest), a 16th-Century figure of Christ now kept in our principal church. This image is supposed to commemorate the acceptance by Mesoamerican Indians of the Christian religion imposed on them by their Spanish conquerors.
Nearly a hundred dancers wore elaborate costumes consisting of capes, loincloths or dresses, and spectacular feathered headdresses made from pheasant or peacock plumes. On their ankles were rattles made from chalchahuite or ayayote seed pods; on their feet, leather sandals—huaraches. In a nod to modern sensibilities, they rounded out their ensembles with gym shorts and, in the case of the guy on the left, above, white gym socks.
These dancers are called concheros because they play conchas—mandolin-like instruments.
Traditional conchas are made from the shells of armadillos.
Tall drums, called huehuetles used to be made of wood. These ones appear to be made from steel oil barrels.
The fire underneath one of the huehuetles is warming and tightening the drumhead.
If you look closely, you can see that the drummer in the blue shirt is wearing iPod earbuds. Like teenagers everywhere, he can't be without his tunes.
Everyone gets to be dancers: young women...
... and children.
All are equal, but some are more equal than others. There's a hierarchy to the dance troupe. Pictured below is one of the officials: an alferece (standard bearer).
The standard he is carrying depicts Christ carrying a Spanish conquistador's banner under the slogan, "Union Conformidad y Conquista" (Joining of Acceptance and Conquest).
A Capitan (probably the "retiree" above) runs the whole show. A sargento in green headdress stands behind an altar bearing the figure of El Señor de la Conquista, guarding it. He looks a little like a Sepoy—formidable.
Scattered in front of the altar are conchas and incense burners. The woman in the red dress is a woman captain who supervises the other women. She looks to me like the right choice for the job—no nonsense!
These people are not performing for tourists: early yesterday most of the latter were still asleep in bed. I saw far fewer spectators than dancers.
What was happening on the plaza was a celebration of heritage and a demonstration of deep faith. The dancers were keeping alive centuries-old ritual and culture. You could see the solemnity of the occasion in their faces.
What a privilege it is to observe celebrations such as these, although I don't really understand them. How can they celebrate conquest by a foreign race, destruction of their culture, razing of their cities, the enslavement of their bodies?
The drumming, the costumes and the dancing distract observers from the realization that first and foremost, this is a Catholic celebration. Preserving the old culture is important, yes. But the dancing really is all about the acceptance of Christ. Conquest pales in importance when compared with faith.
They have lower prices and better selection than tienditas. They have actual grocery carts. And if you live in the neighborhood, you can walk to one. So they fill a niche.
Let's take a closer look at their sign.
Yep. That's the name of the chain. Go ahead. Say it out loud.
Did you pronounce it correctly? "KEE-kays?"
Just one of those little cultural potholes we expats have to negotiate. Like the name of everyone's favorite bread: Bimbo. That's "BEAM-bo."
All that digging brought up a lot of subsoil which, with the unfortunate coincidence of some unseasonable rain, created adobe that sticks tenaciously to the cobblestones. Passing automobiles raise clouds of fine dust which blankets everything in our house, and irritates our lungs.
Planet Engineering, however, is on the job, working to remove the caked mud and dust.
The Adobe Removal Department.
They have deployed this elderly man, a pickaxe, a shovel, a broom and a wheelbarrow. The man taps between the cobblestones with his pickaxe, gently loosening the adobe, which he then sweeps into a pile and shovels into his wheelbarrow. He carefully clears a section about ten by ten feet every day. I figure he'll finish our block by April.
This is a task that a street sweeping machine could polish off in about twenty minutes. But alas, San Miguel does not own a street sweeper, and apparently neither does Planet Engineering.
Clearly, I'm still caught up in my Norteamericano hurry-up mentality. I mean, the street is gonna be cleaned up eventually. What is my problem? The dirt is going away, and this nice old man has a steady job. Everybody should be happy.
I really am developing a more relaxed attitude. Every morning I go out and the first person I see is our street cleaner, patiently tapping away. And I think to myself: You know—everything is just the way it's supposed to be.
Today, invasion is not about political boundaries so much as corporate ones. In Querétaro we got Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Home Depot, Office Max and Radio Shack. In San Miguel, the Mexican supermarket chains Gigante and Comerciál Méxicana have built new mega-stores. Large commercial centers on the outskirts of town look the same as any in San Jose, California.
One measure of globalism is the presence of fast food chains. Domino's Pizza has operated from its location on the Ancho de San Antonio for years.
Up to now, the fast food presence has been tolerable. But the other day, we got some bad news. The following is a quote pulled from our English-language newspaper, Atención:
"It’s confirmed—MacDonald’s [sic] is coming to San Miguel. Posters and radio spots have for the past week announced that the largest “fastfood” [sic] purveyors in the world will be hiring locally for a store to be opened soon at the La Luciernaga shopping mall."
What happened to our little colonial town? What happened to our Mexican-ness?
Well, at least McDonald's will be out in a commercial center on the edge of town, next to the cineplex. Until they open their El Centro branch, that is.
The town (full name: Jalpan de Serra, about which more later) is the commercial center for this part of the Sierra Gorda, the big city for hundreds of tiny pueblas. A real working Mexican town, it's visited by relatively few tourists.
We spent a night in the Hotel Inn Misión Jalpan, right on the central plaza, the yellow building in the photo below.
Ordinarily, we try to stay at hotels at some remove from town centers because they can be noisy, but being a Thursday night, we figured it would be fairly quiet, and besides the tree-shaded plaza looked inviting and peaceful.
We wanted to visit the well-regarded museum—the terra-cotta building just beyond the hotel—but a sign said it was closed for renovation for the next month. (We seem to run into that situation frequently. Recently, museums in Guadalajara, Mérida and Campeche have all been "closed for renovation" when we arrived. Forces us to become more accepting in our way of thinking: "Not to worry. We'll see it the next time we come here. Unless it's closed again. Which it could be. ¿Quién sabe?")
Jalpan is important to us expatriates from California because it is where Father Junipero Serra founded his first mission. (Hence, Jalpan de Serra.) Actually he founded five of them in the Sierra Gorda before going to California to build the famous string of missions along the Pacific Coast. Because of its historical significance, Jalpan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Father Serra is Honored in Jalpan with a statue.
Of additional interest to Californians is the bell-shaped structure next to Father Serra's statue. It is one of the "Mission Bells" that mark El Camino Real (The Royal Highway) that runs up the California coast. Anyone who grew up in California fondly remembers these bells.
All five of Serra's Sierra Gorda missions have been restored. The Jalpan Mission has a beautiful baroque façade.
Sculptures of important religious figures reside in niches; among them, the ubiquitous Virgen de Guadalupe, the Madonna of Mexico.
Some of the walls appear to be constructed of beautifully dressed stone blocks, but they're not—it's trompe l'oeil.
The yellow nylon lines dropping across the window are bell ropes, hanging right outside where anyone could pull them. I watched a young woman walk over and ring the bell to announce mass. Can you imagine the mischief American teenagers would do in this situation? I can. Fifty years ago I would have been out there at three in the morning ringing for all I was worth.
The Misión Jalpan is not a museum. (Well, neither is the Jalpan Museum, come to think of it.) The mission is an active church, serving the spiritual needs of hundreds of parishioners.
The exterior of the church belongs to the State, which renovated it in its bid for UNESCO recognition. The interior belongs to the faithful. Anymore, these appear to be mostly the elderly. Young people head for the cities or the U. S., attracted to more lucrative, more secular lives.
We moved on to a place called K'puchinos Restaurante-Bar. It was popular and crowded, but serviced again by a single, frazzled waiter. A glance at the professionally produced, laminated plastic menu full of unrealistic photos of meals told us we were in a Mexican Denny's.
(Apparently franchise restaurants have reached Mexico, and people are flocking to them. They have no idea what they're doing to themselves.)
Finally we took a chance on a modest, four-table restaurant called El Regocijo—Alta Cocina Mexicana. I didn't for a minute believe the claim to "haute cuisine," but the place looked clean, and while yet again there was only one waiter, he at least showed interest in actually waiting on us.
The food was reasonably good and it came quickly. I ordered a new dish—Filete Tabasco—which turned out to be steak served with refried beans and fried bananas. I suspect Filete Tabasco is supposed to contain fried plantains, but obviously the cook didn't have any, so I got bananas instead. Sssswwwweeeet!
While visiting Tequisquiapan, we stayed at the Hotel Las Delicias, an elegant resort with three huge pools, scores of lounge chairs set on beautiful lawns, a dining room, a kitchen for guests, a rec room, a bar, a snack bar—you name it. We knew it was elegant because it was expensive. I think we were the only guests staying there, midweek in the off season.
Jean hauls her new baskets to our hotel.
The hotel grounds were immaculate. Our room would have been OK at half the price. We got settled, then prepared to return to the front desk to get toilet paper when the desk clerk rushed breathlessly in with two rolls. They apparently have a policy of not leaving TP in the rooms because somebody might steal it. Guests could walk off with a hundred rolls and they'd still make a fat profit.
At the same time, the clerk brought us a remote for the TV, which they also don't keep in the room because somebody...
The main pool and surrounding lawn looked inviting.
Watch your step.
It would have been even more inviting if the pool contained some... uh... water.
Well, at least breakfast was included. We showed up at 9 AM and asked where it would be served. The manager looked panic-stricken and rushed off to the kitchen to see if there were something he could rustle up—there being no cook on the premises. I'm sure it would have been delicious if there had been any... um... food.
Hotel Las Delicias has the potential to be a great hotel, if they could get a handle on that water and food thing. Then perhaps, they might even attract some... you know... guests.
If you decide to visit Tequisquiapan, try the Hotel Reloj. "Internet in every room." And judging from their parking lot, people actually stay there.
What puts Tequisquiapan on the map are thermal springs. People come here to "take the waters." City dwellers from Mexico City, San Luis Potosí and Querétaro come to this resort town to relax and play. A surprising number of water parks with corkscrew water slides are scattered across the surrounding countryside.
Hotels in town cater to adults with soak pools and margarita-toting attendants. Tequisquiapan even has a conference center "with internet in every room." Whoopee. (If I ever see the inside of a conference center again, it'll be too soon.)
Many of the hotels are large, to handle large crowds of weekenders. I'm told the town is jammed during vacation periods.
We arrived on a February Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—and found we had the place to ourselves. Expecting a crush of tourists, and gangs of street hawkers toadying up to us, we were delighted to find the place peaceful. Well, almost deserted, really.
Restaurants and shops selling wicker furniture lined the arcades, but with few customers, proprietors took it easy. Residents ignored the few tourists in town. They had more important things to do. Like march.
Even after living here for four years, I'm often surprised by the importance Mexicans put on holidays. As a lapsed Episcopalian, Ash Wednesday isn't even on my radar anymore. But in Tequisquiapan, celebrating this holiday was the thing. Streets were decorated.
Indian dancers performed in the plaza.
That night, a large crowd lined up to attend services.
The only commercial activity was at a stall alongside the church, where a woman sold cheap toys.
We were lucky to happen across Tequisquiapan at a time when we could see the actual town instead of crowds of tourists like ourselves. It's worth a visit for a day, but if we return, it won't be during high season and weekends. We could see that those hotels were set up to handle a lot of people. A lot. And unless you've been around Mexicans at play, unless you're ready to really party, like us you'll be happier visiting on a Wednesday.
Mexicans expect individuality in the looks of the small businesses they patronize. An amateurish storefront is no deterrent. Actually it's an asset, because you're assured that you're dealing with a low-overhead, proprietor-run business. You're transacting with the owner, not some bored minimum-wage teenager. And a Mexican small-business owner probably spends more time thinking about taking pride in his work than tailoring his "look" for that all-important under-30 demographic.
For this reason, you see a lot of lemonade-stand-grade signage, some of it quite delightful. Take Herreria "Rameriz" for example.
A herreria is an ironworking shop, a smithy. This is a sign to emphasize these services. I assume the figure represents Sr. Ramirez. To his right there's an oxyacetyline torch, to his left, an arc welder, and a hammer and anvil. A fancy railing illustrates the type of work he does, as does a muffler.
Sr. Ramirez is a stickler for detail. The oxygen and acetyline bottles are the correct colors, the arc welder is properly grounded to the railing he's working on, and he's holding an electrode in his left hand, a welder's mask in his right. Safety first; the mark of a true professional.
The sign painter wasn't as careful: notice how he changed the style of the letter "E" in the middle of a word. I think this just adds to the charm.
But the best part is the figure of Sr. Ramirez himself.
His shirt is smeared with soot, as is his face and arms. His pants are wrinkled. This is a guy that's not afraid to get his hands dirty. Best of all, his shirt is riding up over his ample tummy, exposing his belly button.
This image leaves no doubt that Sr. Ramirez is a serious ironworker. Nor can anyone doubt that he has a playful nature and the humility to poke fun at himself. He's no humorless techie; he's not a egotistical artist. As far as I'm concerned, his sign is all the reference he needs.
Strung out along the Delores Highway are a number of warm springs that have been developed into resorts. La Gruta (The Grotto) is arguably the best of them. It's a great place to go for lunch and a swim and maybe a siesta in the shade of a palm tree.
Warm waters from deep underground fill a series of pools. Since these are springs, the water is changed frequently, so there is no need for chlorine. Grandma can play in the water without worrying that she might be exposing her granddaughter to powerful oxidants.
The various pools are surrounded by tropical gardens planted atop stone-walled terraces. Chairs and umbrellas dot grassy lawns. A modest restaurant provides food—and piña coladas. Yesterday we spent a relaxing afternoon here in the warm winter sunshine.
In the middle of the week, La Gruta is uncrowded, peaceful. An old man floats in the water, sound asleep. He really knows how to relax.
One feature of this resort is a tunnel that leads to a domed room. My friend Paul Latoures reacts with disappointment to a sign telling him he can't smoke while in the tunnel. In the pool it's OK, Paul. In the tunnel—well, sorry.
Intrepid Paul enters the tunnel leading away into the darkness.
(I've noticed that Mexicans often whitewash stone walls. And tree trunks. They're really into painting natural objects—another cultural mystery.)
The darkness grows. A room appears out of the gloom, the roof supported by a strangely lit column.
The temperature and humidity rises. The lens fogs up. My glasses fog up. I can't see what's ahead. I snap off a photo. Light pours in from a hole in the roof. I decide to retreat to save my camera from the dampness.
Turning around to make my way back, I see light at the end of the tunnel. Banana trees are a welcome sight.
Back outside, people are playing in the sun. I feel reborn. Why did they build this tunnel? It's not really all that pleasant.
Paul tells me that years ago, on night visits, he would hear moaning from the tunnel. Could it have been ghosts? Probably not. There's a more pedestrian explanation, don't you think?
There's a lot of old hippies living in San Miguel. Apparently some are still embracing the free living of the '60s, because the management found it necessary to erect this sign.
Yep. "Every person should use a bathing suit." You sure wouldn't need to say that in Sun CIty, would you?
Say you lose your gas cap. You accidentally leave it at the gas station. Or somebody steals it. Or maybe you run into that perennial problem; vibrations from topes and cobblestones make it fall off. What would you do?
Well, what I'd do is go down to Grand Auto and fork over five bucks for a new cap. I mean, a tank of gas costs $20-$40. What's a five-dollar gas cap in the scheme of things? A minor inconvenience at best. If I can afford a car, I should be able to afford a minor repair.
But then I would be guilty of that wasteful Norteamericano mentality that says, "If it's broken, replace it with a new one."
The other night, I read a guideline issued to all Hewlett-Packard field technicians to the effect that if it takes more than 20 minutes to fix a printer, they should just quit and replace it. Otherwise, they're wasting the company's money.
That kind of thinking is incomprehensible to Mexicans. The idea in this country is that anything can be repaired, and it should be repaired as cheaply as possible. High marks are awarded for managing to fix something without actual expenditure of cash. The gas cap on this jeep is a quintessential example of a zero-cost repair.
Mexicans know that plastic coke bottles have an infinite number of uses when cut in two: for mixing paint colors, starting plants, as safety caps on rebar stubs, driveway markers, water pumps—and now, as we can see, as replacement gas caps. An ideal solution: no cost, high-value recycling, and one less piece of roadside litter.
Two years later, I met my friend Michele who was in fact, quite fluent. I asked her how she did it. She said that she had been living in Mexico now for twelve years, and that every week, she took a one-hour Spanish lesson—even to this day.
This was an epiphany. I didn't have to be in any hurry. I was going to be living in Mexico for a long time. Learning Spanish didn't need to be a goal; it could be an ongoing part of life.
So I began taking lessons for one hour a week, and today I can get along in Spanish reasonably well, although I would hardly call myself fluent yet.
One of my Spanish teachers was the unforgettable Cristina.
At first sight, Cristina frightened me. Her stern expression, her rigid posture, her no-nonsense straw hat squarely jammed on her head, she reminded me of a drill sargeant.
She asked me to say a few words in Spanish. "Hable algo en español." Nervously, I mumbled something.
She said, "You have bad habits! You must not study Spanish on your own. You need a teacher to correct you!"
Sheesh. I could see that I wasn't going to be allowed to slide. But progress up to then had been slow. I figured maybe she was just what I needed.
Over some weeks we ground through verb conjugations and struggled with the difference between por and para. Cristina was tough, but I grew to enjoy her visits. I became more relaxed in her company, and often talked with her about cultural differences between our countries and current events in Mexico.
December 12, Guadalupe Day was approaching and during one lesson I chose that subject for discussion.
Knowing I was dealing with a liberal, educated person, I began with the notion that Guadalupe was derived from the native goddess Tonantzin.
Cristina replied, "Well, if you wanna believe that..."
Being no fool, I quickly covered by asking her, "Christina, would you please tell me the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe?"
She spent the next ten minutes reciting the story of the Virgin appearing to the peasant Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoazin, of how the bishop wouldn't believe his story, of how Guadalupe showed him bushes bearing roses of Seville (impossible in Mexico in 1531) which he gathered in his cloak to show the bishop, and the miracle of the image of the Virgin appearing on the inside of Juan Diego's cloak, which today hangs in the cathedral in Mexico City.
As Cristina's story drew to a close, tears were streaming down her face. I was so moved. I'd never been in the presence of so profound an expression of faith.
Cristina taught me more than just Spanish. She introduced me to the powerful beliefs of many of, maybe most of the Mexican people. I may not share their faith. But thanks to her, I now see that I have to understand and respect the power of their faith or I won't really know Mexico.
This post is not about that place.
It's about another Tequisquiapán, this one in the state of Guanajuato. An entirely different kettle of goats.
Tequisquiapán, Qro. has a beautiful church and plaza, fine hotels and restaurants and restorative hot springs. Tequisquiapán, Gto. has more poverty than you'll ever want to see.
The town square is the nicest place in town, but that's not saying much. Bordering the basketball court cum soccer field is general store; to its left is a place that sells cement—and judging from appearances, not much of that.
Opposite the general store stands the church...
... or what's left of it. Looks like some deferred maintenance here. See where the Cholos have tagged it? The hick kids who live here have picked a totally uncool name. Cholos indeed. That went out with Cheech and Chong.
Ruined churches in small villages often are still used for services, but not this one. The floor of the sanctuary is heaped with rubble from the collapsed roof. There's no place to sit.
The chapel's last link to the mother church is a fading image of La Virgen de Guadeloupe, now sharing wall space with an old advertisement and more graffiti.
It never was much of a place. Tequisquiapán has been going downhill for the last fifty years. Back in the '30s, a railroad came through here. Railway maintenance workers lived in blocky company-built houses.
These are the most durable buildings in town. My friend Paul Latoures asked a woman if she owned or rented this house. She told him the railroad had "loaned" it to her. Translation: Her family (and her pig) are squatting there.
Hers is one of a row of identical houses lined up along what once was the railroad right-of-way. The tracks and cross ties are long gone, but the raised roadbed remains, providing a superbly-built unpaved road leading to Adjuntos del Rio. Some might call it a road from nowhere to nowhere.
The woman is one of the lucky ones. Many people here live in more modest houses.
No electricity, no water, no sewer, no washline. That's laundry hanging on the bush to the left. Cooking is done on open brush fires. This kind of living is not much better than camping.
Departure of the railroad left residents with two options: Go north to the U. S. or fall back on subsistence farming. They did both.
Everyone here raises animals. Chickens scuttle across the road. Flocks of sheep and goats wander through town. Boys gather dried cornstalks for fodder, hauling them out of the fields on horse carts. Lose the red baseball hat, the stylish haircut and the rubber tires and this could be a scene right out of the 19th century.
The most direct route to this place is a feeder road from the Delores Highway. Several years ago a flood of the Rio Lata which runs through the middle of town, carried away the bridge connecting the two halves of Tequisquiapán. The state replaced it with a suspension bridge for pedestrians, I guess on the principle that most of the time, vehicular traffic can ford the river, and when it's flooded, at least people still can walk over for groceries.
There's not enough people left to justify rebuilding the highway bridge. But no highway bridge means Tequisquiapán is dying. In the modern world, if you can't drive there, it doesn't exist.
Nobody comes to live here anymore. A crumbling bus stop on the Dolores Highway marks the access road to Tequisquiapán. If you wait there, you can catch the Flecha Amarilla bus to San Miguel. Probably not a bad idea.
If you look a little more closely at this guy's wares, you'll see the image of a Warner Brothers' cartoon character on some of the balloons. Yes, nothing says "I love you" like Tweety Bird.
Tweety appears frequently on shirts and signs. A polleria on Canal Street features him (her?) on the front of the building. Makes me a little queasy, Tweety and chicken breasts side-by-side. Don't get 'em mixed up...
Cartoon characters on balloons: do you think they're used by permission? I wouldn't bet on it. This is a country where today you can get a DVD of Apocalypto for thirty pesos ($2.70); that is if you don't mind an occasional silhouette of a theatergoer's head wandering across the image.
But today isn't about intellectual property. Today is for romance, and nobody does it better than Mexicans. When evening falls, embracing couples inhabit the shadows, somehow simultaneously steamy and innocent. On park benches, they become intertwined in ways I can only marvel at.
I noticed that mostly women are buying balloons. Cute. Men are buying flowers, wheeling out the big guns. Valentine's is indeed a big holiday here, and maybe an even bigger night.
During the Colonial Period (1521-1810), Mexican artists drew heavily on Spanish subjects and styles. I usually find such work to be dark and passionless.
Indigenous artists were trained in the European style and received commissions from Spanish nobles, who had no interest in Mayan or Aztec art forms. This painting of St. Joseph, and the portrait of a nobleman, below, seem to me to have little to do with anything that is Mexican.
After the Mexican Revolutionary Period (1910-1920) came an explosion of nationalism and revival of Mexican culture. The great muralists, like Diego Rivera, created works that reflected an optimistic view of the national character, and incorporated ideas from the lives of the Mexican people and their indigenous ancestors.
The ceramics at the Cabañas were examples of high craft, incorporating the playfulness and color of Mexico.
I was particularly struck by how these 20th-Century artists echoed the work of their Mayan forebears.
The works depicted in the pair of images above were created a thousand years apart; likewise, the pair below. But to me at least, they couldn't be anything but Mexican. If the effects of aging weren't there, I might find it hard to know which of them were created in the 20th Century.
I was completely captivated by the Post-Revolutionary ceramics at the Cabañas. For more images, check out this Flickr photoset.
Well, yesterday I discovered that here in San Miguel, if you can't go to church, the church will come to you.
It's the Chapelmobile.
Now, it seems to me that the Chapelmobile would draw little interest here. We have 29 churches in San Miguel, 28 of them Catholic. Last time I counted, anyway. All this for maybe 80,000 people. I'm sure the existing churches handle the spiritual needs of our residents.
Maybe this itinerant ministry is just passing through on its way to small settlements in the countryside. Even then, almost every village seems to have its little church.
There are places in Mexico where very few people live, that can't even be called villages. These people live off the land, with shacks in tiny clusters without power or paved roads. Being that Mexico is a very religious country, I'm sure there's a demand for services in these small places.
So I guess there's a real need for the Chapelmobile.
The odd blue light in her left eye suggests she has a mind that sees things we don't. Missing half her teeth, she clearly hasn't received a lot of care. But for all her disabilities, her face is untroubled. Her world is a benign one.
Her place consists of a banco (workbench) where she sands furniture, and a recamera (bedroom), a small, windowless closet in the workshop where she keeps her few possessions and sleeps. She says she has no parents. The woman who runs the furniture workshop gives her food and a place to stay. The workmen accept her as part of their family, treating her with respect and providing her with security.
Julieta is a straightforward person. She speaks without guile; she projects a kind of fierce innocence.
Almost three months had passed since I took her picture. My friend Paul Latoures visited the workshop several times in the interim. Each time, Julieta asked him about her photograph. When would she get it? She remembered my promise even if I didn't. Apparently, posing for me was a highlight in her circumscribed life.
Today I returned with Paul to Adjuntos del Rio to give Julieta her portrait. Paul had a camera ready to record the moment. I tried to hand her the picture, but she pushed it away! Then it dawned on me. Julieta thought she was posing for Paul and that I was ruining the shot by shoving the picture into her hand. She was taking her posing responsibilities very seriously.
Julieta Rejects Her Photograph
Reluctant at first even to look at the photo, eventually she began to accept it. She said she didn't think her face was beautiful; we assured her otherwise. Finally she took the frame out of my hands, and scuttled back to her room.
Maybe She'll Accept It After All.
Julieta was overwhelmed. I don't think she has had many special days like this one. She was shy, confused and reluctant. She needed to get off by herself to admire her gift. Her "family," the woodworkers, laughed and applauded, sharing her happiness.
Up north, I ran into people like Julieta in OSH, industriously dusting shelves. I saw them on buses, on their way to work or returning to their group homes. They receive special education and live comfortable, subsidized lives.
Julieta doesn't have any of that stuff. But she is surrounded by people who care for her. She has work that gives her purpose. And she has a couple of Gringo friends who like to visit her.
I know it has arrived because the annual Calendaria Plant Sale has come to town. Every year, in the first week of February, dozens of nursery plant vendors come to town and set up their stalls. The weather usually cooperates by shaking of the worst off the winter chill (although it's not doing so well this year).
My spirits pick up during the sale. I get out in the sunshine and wander up and down the rows, meeting friends and buying plants. But it's a tough life for the vendors. They're true nomads. They sleep in their trucks and eat on camp stoves. They shiver in the early mornings. Some even bring their dogs for companionship.
I always am on the lookout for unusual plants—at least unusual to me. This blooming succulent caught my eye.
I asked the vendor, "¿Qué es esa planta?"
He said, "Doscientos pesos."
Then he began a high-pressure sales pitch that left me no opportunity to explain that I didn't want to know what the plant cost; I just wanted to know what kind of plant it was. So I don't know what it is, but it sure would be nice if it cost more like cientos pesos.
Some vendors buy their plants from wholesalers. Others grow their own. It's not unusual to find starts grown in milk or beverage cans. These growers sweep up pine needle duff from the forest floor to use as a growing medium. None of that effete sterilized potting mix for them.
It's fun to learn a few more Mexican names for plants. The name of this sedum translates to Baby Jesus' Little Fingers. Yours for a buck.
You also can buy compost, potting soil (adobe), fertilizer and pots.
Young men and boys with wheelbarrows follow you around to help you transport your purchases. When they don't have customers, they transport each other.
This vendor is dangerous. I'm avoiding him this year. In the past, he has extracted considerable money from my wallet, and I'm not taking it anymore.
He specializes in desert plants, and unfortunately, so do I. Every year he has some rarities or specimens that are almost impossible to resist. This year he has a yucca that looks older than Methuselah. Only $6,000 pesos. Gulp.
The Good John says, "You should save that money for your granddaughters' college educations."
The Bad John says, "You're gonna totally frost Terry when you beat her out for that yucca."
A couple of years ago, when our house was new and relatively plant-free, I bought a few cacti from him. He asked me if there was anything else he had that I wanted.
I said, "Gee, I'd like everything, ha, ha."
With a dead serious look on his face, he said, "$20,000 pesos."
What started as a joke suddenly turned into a negotiation. I mean, $2,000 was a helluva good price for his entire stock. But jeez, that's a lot of money.
I looked at his plants. Cactus: small ones, big ones, gigantic ones, common ones, rare ones. Succulents in bloom. Pachypodiums. Venerable yuccas. Huge bottle palms. Rosas del desierto. Weird plants—stuff I've never seen before.
I was over the edge. An offer was on the table. A counteroffer was crying out to be made. I made it. Twenty minutes later, I was the owner of a roof garden full of plants. Jean was totally pissed off.
Elementary school classes troop through the plant sale. Each kid is clutching a few pesos to buy a plant for her mother. Chia pets are big sellers.
Also popular are tiny cacti and succulents salted with miniscule artificial flowers. I always wondered who bought these things.
I think the average sale per kid runs about $5 pesos. Vendors cooperate by offering deep discounts.
Shopping done, it's time for lunch. For the field trip, a loading zone curb serves as a cafeteria.
They're so darn cute, aren't they? You can never go wrong photographing little kids.
UNESCO doesn't care if there's a Costco out in the 'burbs, or if effluent from the slaughterhouse runs down an open sewer into the presa (reservoir). What they do care about is that the downtown looks the way it did in the 18th century—tough to do with all those utility lines overhead.
This view is looking north on Aldama Street from near my doorway toward San Miguel's signature church, the Parroquoia. You can just make it out through the tangle of wires.
UNESCO said the overhead wires have gotta go. So the city went out and bought a bunch of orange plastic tubes, which they're burying underneath the cobblestone streets. They'll run the power lines and phone lines and TV cable lines through the tubes, and then they'll remove all the ugly overhead lines and power poles.
Much of the work is being done by hand. Nobody has invented an automatic cobblestone paving machine, so a skilled mason does it, one rock at a time. He's setting cobblestones in concrete (not authentic) for durability, so he needs a concrete mixer. That would be the man to the left in the photo, who is mixing sand and cement with his shovel.
Street-building has advanced since the days of the Aztecs. We do have a few machines, to reduce the amount of backbreaking manual labor. Here, labor is being saved by using a loader to transport laborers to a new worksite, half a block up the street.
The scene on my street is chaotic. A recent rainstorm has turned it into a morass of greasy mud. Heaps of dirt are moved from place to place, seemingly randomly. Tubes are buried, the street gets repaved, and then dug up again.
So it's confidence-inspiring to see that the project leadership is on the job. Despite appearances, everything is under control. Here, three bosses are evaluating this mason's macarena.
But despite their best efforts there are mishaps. Below we see a dump truck sliding sideways into a partly filled ditch. Several hours of digging and a push from one of the loaders will be needed to extricate it.
Back in the USA, occupational safety regulations and liability laws protect workers and the public. Not so in Mexico. Hence, we have a situation where residents must walk planks. Above, a homeowner teeters across a ditch with his garbage can. Below, a scary ramp leads from a doorway to a heap of loose dirt. Ladies, try crossing that in heels.
Every few days, water mains and sewer lines get broken. Here's one that has been patched, after leaking for maybe a week.
Remember that backhoe? It ran into a telephone pole, snapping it off. You can see the leaning pole below, held up only by the wires. People unconcernedly walked under it for days. No sense of caution, of risk. It's all in God's hands.
Whoops! Looks like they wiped out all the telephone lines in my block. The technico hasn't been able to get things working for three days now.
The process of putting our utilities underground is painful. But anyone who moves to Mexico expecting a smoothly-running infrastructure is headed for disappointment. Successful expats learn first to accept Mexico's shortcomings, and in time, to even love them. They are part of the whole package that makes living in Mexico an adventure.
Besides, if this job was being handled efficiently and quickly, we wouldn't have anything to bitch about at our morning coffee klatch.
In the end, our city may become even more beautiful. My friend, Anamaria, painted her vision of Aldama street.
She captures the warm colors of colonial houses lining the cobblestone street, the public fountain at the end of Aldama with the rear of the Parroquoia rising above it. Anamaria exercised artistic license, by omitting the network of overhead utility lines. We're all hoping her vision becomes reality.
Of course, nobody actually obeys speed limits in Mexico. Wealthy aristocrats in Lexuses see them as suggestions that don't apply to their caste. For campesinos in smoking '59 GMC pickup trucks, speed limits are mere aspirations.
To deter speeders, the authorities sometimes resort to threats.
Obey the speed limit or we'll put in speed bumps. Ah, topes. You'll go over dozens of them on any trip. Speed bumps on steroids, someone called them. You'll leave your running gear in a tangled heap on the road behind you if you don't see one coming and slow down for it.
A lot of signs give advice, like "Don't drive when tired."
"Use your seat belt."
"Drive carefully. Your family is waiting for you."
Oh puh-leez! Whose idea was that one? Like it never occurred to me that my family might miss me. Like I even think about them when I'm trying to pass that Flecha Amarilla bus. Thanks for reminding me.
(OK. I'm probably judging a little harshly due to my lack of acculturation. Families are very important in Mexico, and maybe this sign does a good job of tweaking consciences. Or not.)
Mexico is trying to reduce littering just like other countries. Many signs say "No Tire Basura" (No littering), but Spanish is a language of many syllables, the more the better.
This sign says "No Littering" in fourteen syllables, but nevertheless manages to leave a loophole: It prohibits throwing garbage in the right of way, but if you've got a good arm...
I found the sign below posted just over the line of the State of Yucatan. It appears to imply that those slobs from Campeche don't give a damn about their highways, but Yucatecans do.
If you're not willing to follow "no littering" regulations, and you can't be shamed into complying, then maybe you'll consider this more philosophical argument:
Yes. A clean highway is a safe highway. If you keep the litter off it, then all you have to worry about is the goats, and cattle and tricicladeros and the broken down truck in the fast lane and the bloated dog carcasses and the giant tire-eating potholes and the goddamn topes...
Uh... Sorry about that.
Up until now, the highway signs we've discussed have offered a small amount of useful information (such as speed limits) and a lot of gratuitous advice. Note that none of them tell you where you are or how far it is to where you're going, or if you should turn left at the next intersection for the road to Jalpa. We don't have those kinds of signs in Mexico.
But we have signs about signs. Like this one.
Observe the signage.
Obey the signs.
Observe and obey the signs. (A twofer, that one.)
Observe and preserve the signs. Everybody is getting sick of the signs. Better ask people to take it easy on them.
Yeah. Don't mistreat 'em. Or they'll sulk.
Don't destroy them either. (You need a sign to tell people this?)
Ah. I see. The signs are to help you take care of us. (Are you getting the impression by now that the department of highway signs is just a leetle paternalistic?)
And now we're back to the philosophical appeal. "The signs are symbols of security." Surely that'll deter spray-can-wielding cholos.
I found the mix to be roughly 50-50: fifty percent signs hectoring us about driving and fifty percent signs about signs. The latter convey no useful information. They're content-free. A waste of metal and paint and posthole digging. On the highway between Uxmal and Mérida, I saw eight in a row about obeying and not messing with the signs. You could destruya them all without effect.
How, you may ask, does a government working in the best interests of the governed wind up doing something like this?
My guess is that some Senator's nephew needed a job. So the Senator got a bill passed forming the Department of Advisory Highway Signs of the Republic of Mexico. The nephew got a fancy high-rise office with secretaries and staff and a limo and a driver, and then he set out to design signs. Never having driven outside of Mexico City, he had no idea what signs were needed, so he just used his feeble imagination and the result is as you see it.
You may think I'm being snide, judgmental. Consider then the words of Carlos Hank González, formerly Mayor of Mexico City and Governor of the State of Mexico. He said this for publication: "Show me a politician who is poor, and I'll show you a poor politician." Carlos Hank González was a public servant all of his life. He received no inheritance; only his government salary. He is a billionaire.
Here's one last sign which, when I first saw it, bent my mind:
"Don't Leave Rocks On The Pavement." Uh... Oookay...
Why do you even have to say that? Who would put rocks on the pavement?
I saw those signs for a couple of years before they made sense.
When in the U. S., we have a breakdown and block a lane, we put out flares. In Mexico, any breakdown blocks a lane because highways have no shoulders. Those drivers most likely to experience breakdowns are unlikely to have flares: they can't afford them, just like they can't afford to maintain their vehicles. Moreover, the lane may be blocked for quite a while because most people can't afford a tow, so repairs have to be effected in situ. To divert traffic, drivers collect big rocks and arrange them on the pavement in a "V" pattern behind the stalled vehicle. Plus maybe a couple to block the wheels, because the parking brake hasn't worked since 1983.
These rocks are dangerous. You hit one of them at 60 and you're gonna be blocking a lane yourself. So of course, any responsible driver would remove his rocks after he got the car running, right?
Not always. Every so often, I've had to swerve at the last minute to avoid a "V" of rocks just sitting there, no stalled vehicle anywhere near. So I guess those signs are necessary. We can only hope they're more effective than the "No Littering" ones.
I once saw sign that said "Don't build fires on the roadway." Because people build bonfires for those nighttime stalls. Fires, of course, at into the macadam, making huge potholes. Causing more breakdowns.
Everybody hates them. Well, the people who depend on them don't hate them. But people who drive, take taxis or walk hate them, because they're noisy, smelly and add immeasureably to the congestion in our narrow cobblestone streets. There's nothing like walking up Hernandas Macias and suddenly having a bus brush your shoulder (giving you a mild heart attack) followed by a few lungsful of diesel fumes.
The drivers seem to have a proprietary connection with the buses they work in twelve hours a day. You see their vehicles parked overnight in residential areas where the drivers live. Sometimes you run across a driver lying underneath his bus making repairs. And many buses are personalized to suit the whims of the driver. Such as this one:
A Christian, this driver wants you to know that God gives you double. Kind of reminds me of the bathroom graffiti I saw as an undergrad at UC Berkeley (to be sung to the tune of the old Pepsi-Cola jingle):
Christianity hits the spot,
Twelve apostles, that's a lot!
Jesus Christ and a Virgin, too.
Christianity is the one for you.
I apologize. The Devil made me do that.
Speaking of the Devil, I just love this bus:
Yes, he's the Bandit of Love. Don't believe him? Look closely. Those are two bullet holes in the windshield on the driver's side.
Just in case you miss the point he's making, he included a couple of pictoral decals:
Obviously he's a man of discernment and refinement.
Why don't we give San Francisco Muni drivers the freedom to express themselves like this? Loosen up, people!
(Tamarindo is a derisive term Mexicans apply to traffic cops who wear tan uniforms; the color of tamarind pods.)
While the skinny guy stood on the street as lookout (in case some real cops came along), the fat one reached his hands into the passenger side window, four fingers raised on each hand and said, "Ochociento pesos." 800 pesos. About $80 U. S. at that time. Nothing about any violation. Nothing about how we'd have to go to court. Just "Ochocientos pesos."
Being new to driving in Mexico, and wanting nothing more than to get the hell out of Gomez Palacio, I negotiated a "fine" of "doscientos pesos:" about $20.
Today I don't pay bribes. Extortionist policemen usually give up if you're firm in refusing. Just demand your ticket. They hate that because they can't be on the road extorting others if they have to testify, so they let you go with a "warning."
According to one study, Mexico has about 350,000 police officers divided into a bewildering array of about 3,000 different forces, characterized by "their corruption, growing militarization, poor preparation and ineffectiveness in the face of increasingly severe crime."
During the time I have lived in this country, I've seen signs that the situation is improving. I have seen little evidence that San Miguel's traffic police are corrupt, even though they are paid poorly.
Our police received spiffy new uniforms a couple of years ago. Here's a couple of patrolmen modeling theirs.
Kind of looks like they're posing for GQ.
Every morning at 7:00 AM, our force of traficantes forms up to receive their daily briefing and instructions.
The ratio of three jefes (chiefs) to twelve cops seems about right...
The briefing takes about a half hour. Sometimes it is a little wearing.
Note that the officer to the woman's left is wearing a "diamond" earring. Have dress codes of U. S. police forces become similarly relaxed?
After getting their marching orders, they... uh... march.
The marching ends with a little playfulness. Then it's time for... a coffee break.
It's a little disconcerting at first; police officers walking the streets carrying coffee or cokes, smoking cigarettes. You'll see the same in Paris except that there, they drink and smoke in threes, reducing police coverage by 67%. It's a union thing.
You may not have noticed, but in none of these pictures do you see any of the traficantes carrying firearms. That's because they're not armed. We have a different police force for crime deterrence. They get to carry guns. And there's yet another force for crime investigation. All three departments' jurisdictions overlap with various state and federal police forces. You can be assured that if you bring an issue to a policeman, he'll tell you it belongs to a different department.
Lack of firearms shows you how far down the pecking order traficantes are. But all is not lost. The traffic cops do wear holsters...
... containing pliers and screwdrivers. Phillips and flat. Here's why:
If a Mexican driver got a written ticket for illegal parking, he'd never pay the fine, nor would any jurisdiction in Mexico have the capability to collect. There's no computers, no linking of municipalities with the DMV. Even if someone in law enforcement actually managed to catch up with a scofflaw and collect, he'd probably just pocket the fines, anyway.
(Nobody in the Mexican government would ever authorize a policeman to handle money. When you get your dirver's license, you have to take the appropriate forms to a bank, get a receipt, and take it back to the DMV to get your license. Any other way, license fees would never reach the government.)
So how San Miguel, and every other city and county in Mexico forces car owners to pay their fines is to remove their license plates. That's why cops have tools on their belts. (I have fantasies of screwdriver quick-draw contests.)
Here a traficante removes the license plates of this double-parked truck while the owner looks on. The owner arrived just as the policeman finished writing out the ticket. Fishing out his wallet, he offered the cop $50 pesos to forget about the violation. Being one of our honest San Miguel cops, he refused the bribe. (Or maybe he refused it because I was standing there with a camera. Whatever.)
A friend of mine told me he tried to talk (or bribe) his way out of a parking ticket. The cop took his plates in the end, and my friend told him he'd move his illegally parked car right away. The cop told him he could stay there because he had already received a ticket, so he was good for the whole day. Think about it. My friend only had one set of license plates.
You have to redeem your plates within a couple of days or the fine goes up. But until you do, you can park anywhere you want, because they can't give you another ticket. If you're stopped while driving without your plates, your car may be impounded, so people are pretty good about paying up. Eventually.
The system for identifying frequent violators is simple. When your plates arrive at the Presidencia, a clerk writes the date on the back with an indelible laundry marker. If your plates arrive with one or more dates written on them, the fine is higher. Of course, everyone knows to remove the dates with fingernail polish remover. There's a workaround for everything in Mexico.
On the highways, traffic laws are enforced by state or federal police. I found this picture of some federales on the internet.
Federales are notoriously corrupt, so letting them sleep on the job actually reduces the crime rate, probably.
We expats complain about the police. Hell, Mexicans complain about the police. Many are extortionists. But most are good guys, just trying to support their families. We all need to be thankful that we don't have Russian police.
I'll take our traficantes over these guys any time.
That wasn't fair. But you gotta admit there's an element of truth for those who see archeological sites as theme parks—the same people you see in bumper-to-bumper rafts on the Snake River.
OK. I'll stop now. I promise.
The upside is that Edzná receives few visitors: some Mexican families showing their children something of their heritage, perhaps a scattering of Germans interested in ancient cultures.
The site is huge.
That's Jean standing down there, dwarfed by the ruins. The main pyramid behind her is the Templo de los Cinco Pisos because it has... uh... five floors. Nobody knows what the Mayans called it. Note the lack of crowds. No dueling tour guides like you get at Uxmal.
Another advantage of visiting lesser-known sites is that you're allowed to climb the pyramids. Climbing is prohibited at the popular ruins because it's dangerous, and the law of large numbers ensures that some members of the crowds are gonna fall and get hurt or killed if they were allowed to.
The stairs to the top of the pyramids are steep. In the photo above, I was shooting down at about a 60° angle and even so the individual steps are still obscured by the edge of the floor I was standing on. Each step is maybe 16" high and only 8" wide—much narrower than my shoe is long. Most visitors descended using the "butt-scoot" method. Out of pride, I walked down, but I was terrified.
I wanted to experience this site in awed silence, and I would have except for this man.
In a booming voice, he held forth from the apex, pretending to be a Mayan priest or king. I petulantly endured his ranting, thinking scornful, dark thoughts. As I continued my ascent, I met up with him and we talked. He turned out to be a sweet, cheerful man, proud of his country's history and anxious to explain it all to me as we stood on the narrow steps.
I felt ashamed that once again I had allowed cultural differences to color my opinion of another person. I'm less prejudiced than I used to be, but I still fall into an attitude of superiority from time to time.
From the top of the Templo de los Cinco Pisos you can see the jungle canopy stretching to the horizon as well as the plan of the city of Edzná.
Here, we're looking down on the Templo del Noroeste, so called because it's located to the northeast. (The naming conventions for buildings here aren't exactly inspired, but better than, say, at Palenque, where they have names like Templo XIV, Templo XIX, Templo XXIV...)
Mayans didn't discover the structure we call the Roman Arch. Instead, they used the Corbeled Arch, rendering their interior spaces narrow and dark. I found a great example of one at Edzná.
You can see how the width of the arch is limited by the length of the capstone. A longer stone would break.
This photo contains one other item of note. That's a computer-controlled red/green/blue spotlight in the lower left corner of the image. It's one of about 200 on the site. At times when there are more visitors, they put on a light and sound show after dark, illuminating the ruins in flashing colored lights, playing hokey recorded music, and narrated by a bombastic announcer trying to inject a sense of drama into ancient history. Most pathetic is the flashing of lights to simulate lightning. You could do it just as well yourself with a desk lamp.
Archeological sites as theme parks: most of the ruins now have these shows. They're embarrassing. They're pointless. The gullible (myself included) go to see one of these shows one time only. But I'm never going to bother seeing one of the cheesy things again. I suspect most other people feel that way, too.
But the ruins are best seen in the daytime anyway. The sound and light gear isn't obtrusive then. Nothing modern can diminish the greatness and mystery of these buildings.
(There's something ironic about keeping Mayan artifacts in a colonial Spanish military facility, don't you think?)
The fort occupies a beautiful hilltop a couple of miles south of the city and offers a panoramic view of the Gulf of Mexico. Eighteenth-century cast-iron cannon stand at gun slits. During its time, this place was impregnable. The only significant military action against the city, a raid from Mérida during the War of the Casts, failed.
A small but stunning collection of Mayan art and objects is housed in a half-dozen rooms inside the fort.
These faces, with their dignified expressions, come from no primitive jungle tribe culture. The sophistication and skill of their creators is evident. Their impact took my breath away.
No one can doubt these faces are Mayan. Canted, almond-shaped eyes, long arched noses are all around us today as we travel through the Yúcatan.
Technical Note: Photographing the exhibits was difficult: I had to increase CCD sensitivity to ASA 1600 to photograph without flash or tripod (not permitted) and I had to shoot through glass cases. Some of the best pieces were in curved cases which made viewing them (much less photographing them) nearly impossible because of unavoidable reflections off the glass.
Nevertheless, I got many, many images of stunning objects: See them in this Flickr Photoset.
This marvelous house in Tikinmul, southeast of Campeche is not distinctively Mayan, although the two pitched-roof houses flanking it are. The false arches and the scalloped parapet with Dairy Queen ornaments caught my eye, as did the Christmas decorations (four weeks after Christmas) capped with a plastic Santa Claus.
(I find the image of Santa in his fur-lined coat and hat particularly incongruous here in the tropics.)
Traditional Mayan houses are less common than concrete ones, but you still can see plenty or them.
Walls consist of a palisade of thin poles cut from the jungle, often caulked with mud and increasingly, in modern times, plastered and painted. Roofs are palm thatch. Floors often are dirt. Many have no running water or electricity.
I find it jarring when I come across one of these huts with a TV antenna. What must the inhabitants think, watching telenovas while swinging in their hammocks. And hammocks are what they sleep in. They're the only sensible bedding in tropical heat.
Inside this house above we see a dirt floor and a hammock and, if you look closely, a large stereo speaker. Gotta have tunes, man.
Mayan houses typically have doorways on both of the longer walls, providing much-needed cross-ventilation. Many do not have actual doors that shut, although some have fabric hanging over the entrance—for privacy I guess. On the right, you can see where the red mud of the Yucatán was mixed with dry grass and used to fill gaps in the walls. Sort of. On the left, you can see where the mud was once whitewashed. What realtors call pride of ownership.
These people live in circumstances more primitive than I do when I go camping. Yet they stay spotlessly clean.
I have no idea how women keep their huipils looking so crisp and fresh. This woman looks more prosperous than her hut-dwelling campesinas, but I never saw any women in dirty clothes. When I go camping, I look like one of the homeless in Santa Monica after 24 hours.
I am intrigued by the notion that these houses are built by their occupants, working with only shovels and machetes, using whatever materials they find on the land. Below, we see a homeowner and his son edging cautiously into modern times, using the advanced technology of tricicletas to transport materials.
Mayan homes don't have kitchens. No stove, no gas, no refrigerator, no sink. Mayans have to cook over open fires. So Papá is toting firewood for cooking. He's also carrying palm fronds, for patching his roof.
If you look closely, you can see that el hijo is carrying a shotgun. These people don't go down to the local carnicería for meat. In fact, they don't even live anywhere near a carnicería. If they want meat, they have to hunt. Pheasants and quail are plentiful. The sacks in the son's tricicleta appear to be full, so I guess the day's foraging was successful.
Hunting is so important that along the highways that you often see dozens of men pedaling along, shotguns slung across their backs.
These guys didn't forget to collect firewood to cook their game.
I'm not particularly a fan of hunting for sport. But these men are not out for sport or trophies. They're trying to put some protein in their diets.
If town is far away, Mayans who need to go there take the bus. Ratty old buses ply the back roads all over Mexico and they're dirt cheap. There are no real bus stops; you flag one down and get the driver to stop when you reach your destination.
One problem in the Yucatán is that along the highways, one place looks pretty much the same as any other. The road passes straight as an arrow through level terrain, monotonous dry jungle crowding in from the sides.
So, if you live out here, how do you know where home is? How can you tell the bus driver where to stop?
What you do is, you build a bottle tree.
Then you tell the bus driver, "Let me off at the three clears and one green bottle tree." You see them all over the back roads, each one unique. Obtaining bottles is no problem: any twenty feet of Mexican highway will yield a half-dozen. Mexicans are unreconstructed litterers.
A kind of Mayan-Catholic fusion religion provides moral and spiritual structure, in sharp contrast to the growing secularism of the cities. Every pueblo has its little colonial church. (The Spanish needed to do something with all those stones after they tore down the great Mayan cities.) I found an abandoned church near the settlement of Telchaquillo, south of Mérida.
No doors or windows occupy the church's openings. Holes in the roof let in sunlight and birds.
So I was surprised to find a Virgin and flowers inside. It looks like this church isn't abandoned after all. A few Mayan families worship here. Christmas decorations are still up. Apparently people here like to extend the season. A Christmas tree stands in front of the altar.
The stand is an old tire. Some of the festive red ornaments are—Coke cans. Mayans are poor. They make do with what they have.
The plan was to surround the city with a hexagon of ten-foot-thick walls. All of today's restored historic center is situated within the original outline of the fortifications.
At eight points along the wall, bastions were built to house artillery with interlocking fields of fire, protecting the curtain walls in between. Large bronze cannon provided firepower.
Pictured is one of the two bronze cannon remaining in Campeche, here displayed inside one of the city gates rather than on the ramparts of a bastion as originally placed.
Seven of the original eight bastions survive, along with some sections of wall. One is used as a museum with a small exhibit of Mayan stone carvings, such as this exquisite pair of Chac masks.
The seaward walls once plunged into the ocean. Over the years, land was reclaimed from the Gulf so that today, the walls are well inland.
One of the bulwarks has an intriguing narrow doorway.
What could be inside?
Ah. The facilities. A one-holer for what, maybe a hundred men? I imagine the defenders had to hold off more than pirates. It doesn't appear to be any cleaner than restrooms on the autopistas. Mexican baños have been consistent over the centuries.
Later, other defenses were added. Two 18th-century forts were built to the north and south of the city.
This is the northern fort, now a museum: The Fuerte Museo San José del Alto. Note the beveled apertures to allow swiveling of cannon, and the sinuous, easily defended passage to the gate. At the end of the passage, there's a working drawbridge over a dry moat. Forts such as this one were already outmoded in Europe, but during colonial times, no enemy power had siege cannon in the Americas to reduce the walls.
Pirates no longer plunder in Campeche, but they spread evil here even today. Tee shirts with skull-and-crossbones stencils infest shop windows, and the waiters at the disco across the street from our hotel are required to wear buccaneer costumes. They look stupid.
We were in Campeche for five days, and I didn't have time to explore even half of the old fortifications and the museums they now house, making the city a candidate for another visit sometime.
Hundreds of small-time fishermen go out at night or in the early morning. Their fleet is ratty, but they provide much of the food for the city.
Mostly nets are used—except for the shark fishermen. The nets are suspended from crude poles cut in the mangroves.
The fishermen catch squid, and small white fish; for example, dorado and sea bass. Some drag for octopus, conch and shrimp. Those are the main choices on every menu in town. Ever try octopus and conch ceviche? It's quite good, actually.
Carlos here wanted to pose for me. He was well along in the process of drinking away the day's cares when I met him.
He told me, "That's another photo for your collection." Thanks, Carlos.
Fishermen build shacks for cleaning fish, to provide shelter for the guy watching the boats overnight, for just hanging out and drinking beer.
This shack is luxuriously furnished with an old overstuffed chair.
Gulls hang out, too. They like this particular boat. I saw them perched like this several days in a row.
Rich fishermen have larger boats, some with cabins built on the sterns.
Poor fishermen, like these cormorants, use more modest gear.
Yep. It's the SS For Women Only.
Small fishermen find it hard to make a living anymore. Rents are high, gas costs too much, competition from other food sources is tough. They're a dying breed. In a few years, they'll be gone. Better see them while you can.
The Málecon runs for several miles along the Gulf, giving everyone access to the shore. The waterfront is not blocked off by high rises like Cancun or Miami. Obnoxious discos like Señor Frogs are mercifully absent from the coast road. Residents run, walk, bicycle or skate along the Málecon, giving the populace a youthful, wholesome character.
Every morning, eight kayaks race down the waterfront. They time their races to correspond exactly with the time that Jean takes her shower, giving me time to observe and photograph the contest.
In addition to building a gorgeous waterfront, Campechanos have renovated the historical center, restoring buildings and painting them in pastels. (Pastels? In Mexico?) As a result, the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, something San Miguel has yet to achieve.
The city is not a "living museum" like Williamsburg VA. It's not overrun with souvenir shops and galleries like San Miguel. Behind Campeche's beautiful façades are gyms, language schools, banks, tienditas, juice bars and bookstores. This is a working town where people live real lives.
Surprisingly few tourists visit here, although the city is hoping for more. (They should be careful what they wish for.) Mexicans or Europeans come here for proximity to Mayan ruins. Americans mostly want sun, sand, suds and sex, so they go to Playa del Carmen instead.
Behind doors fronting sidewalks we saw gracious courtyards. Unlike San Miguel, where colonial residents drew water from public fountains, 18th-century Campechanos channeled rainwater from their roofs into cisterns, so most courtyards have old-fashioned well-like structures.
An old converted public building on the square houses a balcony restaurant where Jean ordered Café Americano. The waiter brought her a demitasse of espresso. Jean said, "¡Señor! Con agua caliente por favor."
The waiter went out and came back with a coffee cup full to the brim with hot water. Hmm. No room to mix in the espresso. So Jean said, "¡No señor! Quiero un tea pot." (Yeah. She really said that.)
So the waiter brings her a cereal bowl full of hot water and sets it down alongside the full coffee cup and her rapidly cooling espresso. Finally I take pity on her and say, "Una taza más, por favor, sin agua."
The waiter brings an empty cup and she makes Café Americano, pouring hot water from her cereal bowl into her cup.
(Jean has just got to work on her Spanish.)
Jean waits patiently for hot water.
San Miguel has approximately one museum. Campeche has approximately ten. This small museum consists of three rooms in a restored colonial mansion, decorated in the Cuban furniture favored by the rich of that era.
At least two museums have excellent exhibits of Pre-Columbian Mayan objects. This figure from a temple frieze is housed in a bastion (part of the city's old fortifications) called Baluarte de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad.
Churches are undergoing restoration, too. This gilt altarpiece is in La Parroquoia de la Purísima Concepción del Sagrario.
Seven bastions survive, most surmounted by the type of guard cupola found on forts all over the Spanish Caribbean; yet one more example of Campeche's fine preservation and restoration work.
The cathedral is not as ornate, inside and out, as San Miguel's parroquoia, but lighting does a lot for its nighttime appearance, especially as seen from a bench in the plaza.
Campeche has a lot to offer, and the best can't be described in photographs. For example, one night Jean and I were walking down the Málecon, getting a little exercise. Jean asked two middle-aged women if they knew of a restaurant nearby. She suddenly found herself involved in an animated conversation. Minutes later, two of their adult children joined us. After an extended discussion of our plight (our pitiful hunger and what to do about it), we were hustled into the back of a subcompact car (Four of us in the back seat!) and driven to a palapa restaurant. They were so friendly and helpful, treating us like old neighbors they'd just run into in the street.
The following night, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant. Our waitress wanted to practice her English, so she talked to us through half the meal. She told us about her American boyfriend and her hope that he'll marry her and take her to the U. S. She talked about her parents' concern that she's 23 years old and still not married and having babies. She was open and sweet and gave us hugs and kisses when the meal was over.
Campechanos have a reputation for friendliness and generosity and we ran smack into it without even looking for it. Of all Mexican cities we've visited, Campeche is one of the best. It's attractive, interesting, and friendly.
But all cities have problems, and Campeche has some that are disfiguring and avoidable. A city that has done so much restoration and beautification should not allow lapses to spoil the ambience.
For example, our hotel is no beauty.
A expansion project has left it looking like a scene from Bagdhad. The work is stalled—no workers are on the job. As is so common in Mexico, the money ran out, or the permit was capriciously revoked. The top two floors are finished and inside they're quite nice. One of our room's windows appears just below the lowest palm frond on the left. We have a balcony around the corner overlooking the málecon and the ocean.
The design of the hotel is utilitarian and has a sort of Stalin-era Soviet feel somewhat mitigated by the brick-red paint. It's definitely not going to win any architectural awards. But there are worse buildings here.
For sheer ugliness in a major downtown building, this one stands out. How any city would allow something like this to be built is beyond me. It would be condemned in Newark, New Jersey.
And those antennas! They loom over the historic center, marring the skyline to the south. We have similar antenna problems in San Miguel's Centro Histórico, but nothing as massively ugly as these. Mexicans gotta have their cell phones and walkie-talkies, so they gotta have antennas and they apparently don't care if they make their cities look crappy so long as they can stay connected.
It's hazardous to swim in the Gulf of Mexico: a real shame in a city with such a gorgeous waterfront.
Raw sewage discharges into the bay. Near the city center, the sewer lines run far out into the gulf so that inshore waters seem clean. But at the edges of town, rivulets of nasty fluids run down the mud flats and into the Gulf. The stench is overpowering.
Campeche does not have a sandy beach, just a rocky shore and mud flats. People throw trash off the seawall. It's best not to look over the edge while walking on the málecon.
Some time ago, this sign was erected to encourage cleaning the shore and keeping it litter-free. It failed to reduce the amount of plastic bottles, styrofoam takeout containers and general garbage dumped here. The sign itself is rusting, deteriorating into another piece of shoreline trash.
While we're on the subject of hazards, take a look at these power meters.
These are so wrong. First of all, my shoulder brushed against these wires as I walked by. The electrical tape is unraveling and it's just a matter of days before hot, uninsulated wires will be exposed. Secondly, somebody is blatantly stealing power. Apparently the power company or the police or whoever is supposed to care about this is so corrupt that you can do this kind of thing right out on a busy street with impunity.
Remember that gilded altar I wrote about yesterday? The restoration work is perfectly lovely. And the Church is asking the parishoners to support the work. Fair enough.
But this notice seems a little pushy to me. It's implying that Jesus is personally tracking your contributions. Sounds to me like we're just a couple of steps away from going back to indulgences.
The real crime here is that the pressure will affect poor, ignorant people the most. Educated, well-off parishoners know better and won't be pushed around. But those who can least afford to contribute will do whatever they have to to avoid the displeasure of the Lord.
I've written about bad civic art in these postings. Campeche has some doozies.
You got to have your inspiring monuments at the entrances to town. This one is at the south entrance to Campeche. A huge naked Mayan is erupting through the pavement, holding a torch which is burning his fingers. Looks to me like a still from a horror movie. They Came from Beneath the Earth.
If that isn't bad enough, check out the Mexican eagle with the snake in its beak.
Why this modern sculpture is incongruously placed beside a 17th century bastion is beyond me. But juxtaposition aside, this sculpture is just simply bad. Probably some mayor's nephew went to art school for a couple of semesters and then was awarded a cushy contract to create this unnecessary and execrable work. I mean, surely nobody who actually knows something about civic monuments had anything to do with this piece of crap, did they?
Lastly, we try to keep 'em out, but it's like trying to stop cold germs. There's no truly effective defense.
No American city has allowed one of these to be built in the last 30 years, I think. I hope. I know McDonalds got their ears pinned back when they tried to put a few feet of neon lighting on the roof of their otherwise wine-country-esque store on the outskirts of Sonoma.
City governments everywhere are at best, semi-functional. Bad decisions get made every day. Influence is peddled. Campeche is no different than San Miguel or Sonoma in this respect.
Despite what seem to be almost deliberate efforts to ruin the city, Campeche's beauty prevails. Efforts in the past 10-20 years appear to be turning the tide against creeping ugliness. Good for the campechanos.
On Sunday, families come to the plaza to relax, to buy a treat, maybe to attend mass in the Santuario de la Virgen de Izamal or one of the barrio churches.
It's hot here. Year-round high temperatures are in the 80s-90s. Ice cream is a big seller in the plaza.
Ice cream sellers clank on gongs to attract attention. Traditional Mayan men commonly wear light-colored clothes, sandals and straw hats. For some reason, they roll up the cuffs of their trousers.
Women wear huipiles (colorfully embroided short dresses) or the gala terno (a white dress embroidered with white lace), often with lace-hemmed slips that hang below the dresses.
Half-hour carriage rides cost gringos $50 pesos ($4.50 US). Local people probably pay less than half that.
This guy's handsome green carriage carries an advertisement for the No Name Broiled Chicken Company.
Only on Sunday, you can get charcoal-grilled chicken with soup or rice, delivered to your home. Order by telephone. I bet it's the driver's wife's business.
Speaking of chicken, in the neighboring town of Tixcocob (the hammock-making center of the Yucatán) I found Bobbo's chicken stand.
I love the cartoon of the chicken getting a hot foot.
So many independent, proprietor-run businesses thrive in Mexico, each with its own unique approach. The claim to fame of the Delgado Mortuary is 24-hour service—probably a strong selling point in a tropical country.
The hearse is a minivan with landau irons artlessly painted on the rear windows. I like the Delgado Mortuary. I'd use them.
Jean and I ate comida at a restaurant called Los Mestizos, the owners proudly announcing their mixed Spanish-Mayan ancestry. That kind of pride is refreshing in a country dominated by snooty criollos claiming pure Castillian blood, as if that were an asset.
Jean wanted to know who their decorator was.
This restaurant was, shall we say—colorful, even by Mexican standards, where hot pink is a neutral. It was a bustling, friendly place with excellent food including many Yucatecan specialties. I ordered Dzoto-Bichay. Reaching out to English-speaking customers, the menu described this dish as "Chaya tamale with hard boiled eggs and moiled [sic] seed served with a tomato sauce." It was delicious.
What we're looking at here is not the entire pyramid. It's only the pyramid on top of the pyramid. The actual base, not pictured here, covers an area equivalent to eight football fields.
Only three pyramids remain in Izamal. The Spanish conquistadors did not see them as valuable archeological sites that should be preserved. They saw them as symbols of pagan culture that needed to be eradicated. They enslaved the indigenous people to destroy their patrimony and used the stones to build this:
Construction of the Convent of San Antonio de Padua began in 1533 by tearing down the major Mayan temple, the Ppapp-Hol-Chac pyramid, and reprocessing the stones. The Spanish succeeded in replacing Mayan temples with Catholic ones, but they failed to completely replace the Mayan gods with a Christian one. People here still pray to Chac when they need some rain.
Where the convent walls are plastered, they're painted yellow, as is most of the town.
Inside the walls, cool arcades bound the Atrium, a huge grassy forecourt.
On the west side, the Santuario de la Virgen de Izamal dominates the forecourt.
The Virgin of Izamal is one of a seemingly unlimited number of Mexican Virgins. I like to think of them as the Mayans' revenge. "OK. We'll accept your religion. But first, you gotta make it a lot like our religion. And we like lots of Virgins."
Inside the church (which I couldn't photograph because of services) there's a life-sized stature of the Virgen de Izamal, costumed in satin robes and jewelry. She looks like a fine doll. When Pope John Paul II visited Mexico in 1993, he brought a silver crown for her which she now wears. In exchange, the good sisters of the convent erected a bronze statue of the Pope outside the entrance to the church.
A few years ago, a worker was scrubbing the walls of the church when he made a discovery.
Sometime in the distant past, someone had whitewashed over 16th-century frescoes. Perhaps the whitewash protected the images through the ages: The colors seem fresh enough. Whatever the case, we are fortunate that they were protected until a time when preservation has become a priority.
I'm not sure who this painting represents: The Virgin of Izamal? Or some other holy figure? The setting may be tropical; a palm grows to her left. But mountains in the background mean this scene cannot be in the Yucatán. And what is the picture she's holding? It's either of three standing figures or a molar with three cavities.
In the end, we're left with a mystery. Nobody really knows who painted this fresco nor who he was painting. Then again, we don't know for certain who built Kinich-Kak-Moo or what it was used for. So soon, knowledge slips away and we're reduced to guessing. In a decade or two, this blog may become unreadable by the communications machines of the future, just as 8" floppy disks are unreadable today. In the end, it may well become a mystery, too.
I saw my first tricicleta on Cózumel. A group of them were waiting to offload goods from the ferry. They were operated by a bunch of guys wearing identical tee shirts identifying them as members of something like "The Union of Tricliclederos, Local #264." Longshoremen. Harry Bridges would have been proud.
Your basic tricicleta hauls freight.
It consists of a steel frame with a pair of bicycle wheels. This rig replaces the forks, front wheel and handlebars of an ordinary bicycle. You steer by twisting the entire front assembly.
Many are used as taxis. An actual automobile-type taxi is gonna cost you at least three bucks. A tricicleta is more like fifty cents. Moreover, cabs aren't air conditioned. Tricicletas have surrey-like tops and fresh breezes. Gringos and upper-class Mexicanos take taxis. Everone else goes for the enviornmentally-friendly option.
A small front sprocket facilitates pedaling heavy loads. Braking is accomplished with whatever the original bike had: a single rear hand brake or a coaster brake. They can't stop quickly. I can only imagine what happens to the passengers if the driver runs into something. That front seat looks sort of like a launching pad. No seat belts, of course. Poor braking and maneuvering probably are the reason you see triciclederos drive so cautiously.
They make good platforms for selling stuff. This guy sells ice cream and brings in a little extra revenue advertising for Willy's grocery—"It's cheaper."
In Izamal, this huipil-clad Mayan woman sells fruit snacks from her tricicleta. She's holding a mango that she's cut into delicate petals and thrust onto a pointed stick. Her husband is peeling jicama.
Eight years ago, all I saw were pedal-powered tricicletas. Today, technology is coming to the Yucatán. Bicycle frames are being replaced by motorcycle rear ends.
They go faster with less effort, but it's still one-wheel braking and no seatbelts. I think I'll stick with the manual model.
About halfway between Mérida and Izamal, tricicletas swarm in the hammock-making town of Tixcocob. They appear to be the most popular form of transportation there, and they come in every imaginable variety. Here, someone welded the motorcycle onto the front.
The owner is a forward-thinking guy, wearing shorts and wraparound sunglasses. Younger Mayans dress like he does. Older men would never wear that stuff. Despite the heat, I always wear long pants in the towns so I won't feel out of place.
In Guadalajara last month, I saw a delightful tricicleta used for delivering drinking water.
It has "kluge" written all over it. Yet it seems perfectly suited for what it does.
This vehicle was pieced together. Literally.
Rusting tack welds hold a plastic BMX bike seat to the frame. Gasoline is gravity-fed into the carbuerator from the dented gas tank via a red plastic hose.
There's something—a rag maybe—wrapped around the joint between the header pipe and the muffler. Why? Surely it isn't holding them together. Looks to me like it's protecting the bailing wire that's holding up the exhaust system. And yes, you sharp-eyed mechanics, that's a pair of vise grips clamped onto something on the front sprocket housing—we can only wonder what.
It doesn't look very sturdy, but that's not the point, is it? In Mexico, you use it until something breaks, and then you fix it with whatever is at hand. You can make stuff work indefinitely that way.
Finally, in this noisy country, people are always seeking ways to increase the decibels. Near the mercado in Izamal, there's a cacophony of competing PA systems. Here's a trike adding to the din.
The modern world is reaching the Yucatán. The pace of life is accelerating. I'm sure that people here appreciate the benefits of mechanization.
But somthing is being lost. I remember years ago seeing a patient grandmother in her huipil, two scrubbed and starched grandsons beside her on a tricicleta bench, being pedaled to school at something less than walking speed. You see fewer of them today.
Twenty minutes later, Dr. Oswaldo Basto Moguel [sic] arrived. A warm, open-faced man sporting a bushy mustache, he quickly reached a diagnosis: conjunctivitis caused by a bacterial infection. He then opened his tackle box and searched for an appropriate medicine.
That's right. His little black bag is a large plastic tackle box with fold-out compartmented trays. It's filled with all kinds of medicines, a selection, he told me, that treats 95% of the conditions he finds on house calls.
Rummaging in the depths of the box, he fished out a tiny bottle of Biodexan antibiotic eye drops. He instructed me to put a drop in each eye three times a day for five days and assured me I was going to feel better immediately.
I asked him what his fee was. He told me $600 pesos ($55 US) for the house call and the medicine. I only had bills to make up $550 pesos or $1,000. He said, "That's OK" and took the $550. I suspect that he charged me half again what he would charge a Mexican patient, but I'm always grateful to be in a position to pay a little more in this country. Besides, it was a lot cheaper than an office call in the US, and I didn't have to drive to the clinic and then to a pharmacy.
And in fact, I did feel better immediately.
But it is today. I want miles of deserted, palm-fringed white sand, clear turquoise water, waiters in white bringing me drinks in hollowed-out pineapples and pelicans drifting across the setting sun. Places like that are out there. It's just that the only ones I've found are either expensive or hard to get to. Progreso is neither, so it doesn't have to try very hard.
Stepping onto the málecon, the first thing you see as your gaze sweeps west is not the sea, not the beach, not the marine sky. You see the pier.
It's the longest pier in Mexico, and it's not there for the pleasure of tourists. Actually, I don't think tourists are even allowed on it, and if they were, there's nothing out there for them. The pier serves as the shipping terminal for the entire Yucatán Peninsula. Semis roll up and down all day and night, hauling loads to container ships. It gives the waterfront a gritty, industrial feel.
The beach in front of the málecon is pleasant enough, uncrowded with gentle, safe surf. But as on any popular Mexican beach, the vendors are out there.
You can't really lie out in the sun and doze because someone is always coming up hawking their wares. This woman wasn't pushy and actually was sort of sweet, but if I had been sitting there daydreaming, she would have annoyed me.
(I love it that the Spanish word meaning "to bother" is molestar. Por favor no molestarme, Señorita. Hey! Don't be molesting me!)
Beachfront businesses have the typical sleazy look. Apparently, when you start a seaside souvenir store, you're advised to make it good and tacky, and to be sure to skimp on the maintenance. Here it's even worse: something about Norteamericanos vacationing on Mexican beaches brings out the worst in both cultures.
Fishermen still go out in the early morning, bring in their fish and sit around drinking beer in the afternoon.
You can get the day's catch in the local restaurants. Unlike the previously-frozen "fresh" fish that you get most everywhere else, my lunch consisted of a whole sea bass that had been caught only hours beforehand.
But the fishermen's days are numbered. To the east of town, the seafront is being bought up by Canadians, Americans, Europeans, and wealthy Mexicans, bent on building vacation or retirement homes. Living on the coast is becoming too expensive for fishermen.
The Government of the State of Yucatán is building a modern, limited access highway from Mérida to Progreso. It will expedite transport from the growing Yucatecan industries. And it will facilitate access to seaside hotels and vacation houses from the airport. The fishermen will be driven off the coast. Well, they can always go work in the factories. Or as gardeners for your McMansion. Or they can reopen El Cheapo.
Years ago, we checked into El Gran Hotel, chosen because it was very close to La Plaza Grande, the central square where everything happens. Big mistake. We've learned that you never stay anywhere near a central plaza: not if you want to get any sleep anyway.
We were shown the best room in El Gran Hotel. It had wide windows opening onto a narrow balcony overlooking a noisy street. Similar windows on the opposite side of the room gave out onto the parking lot of a disco. The ambiance could be described as deafening.
Inside, a semi-circular headboard composed of wedges of alternating clear and deep blue pebbled glass loomed over an sagging double bed. Behind the glass, a dozen fluorescent tubes radiated like a sunburst from the center of the headboard, casting lurid blue and white light over the grimy room.
Horrified, we dragged our luggage downstairs, grabbed a taxi and bolted for the Hyatt, a soulless glass tower that at least had the advantage of being bland and predictable. Even so, the beat from a night club pulsed in our hermetically-sealed tenth-floor room. We had yet to learn that Mexico is a noisy country.
We selected the Hacienda Xcanatún for elegance, comfort and peaceful isolation; it's located twelve kilometers north of the city center well away from any hoorah.
Jean, showing off her fanny pack.
Our hacienda has lots of arches and columns, polished limestone floors, 20-30 foot ceilings, our own private hot tub and six ten-foot double doors in our room alone, permitting cross-breezes and unimpeded passage of mosquitoes. It has a nice patio restaurant that serves exotic Yucatecan dishes. Eco-touring it's not. Water runs constantly to keep the gardens fresh, green and cool. It uses more electricity than the nearby village. But it sure is comfy.
We hacienda owners—or renters as the case may be—have to be appropriately dressed, and for hombres, that means a Panama hat. One place they're made is in the little town of Bécal, just over the border in the neighboring state of Campeche. There, Mayan weavers crouch in limestone caves, where humidity keeps the palm fibers supple for weaving.
The Señor walks the hacienda grounds, in his new panama hat.
The man at Artesanías Bazar García Rejón who sold me my hat, cut a black band for it, saying that for women, bands could be any color, but for hombres, only black. I'm glad he straightened me out on that. Imagine my embarrassment if I had been caught wearing a red one in public. He showed me how to fold and roll my hat. It's amazing that you can do this, put them in your suitcase and when you unpack, they unroll into a perfect shape.
Panama hats became popular when Ferdinand DeLessups (builder of the Suez Canal and initiator of the Panama Canal) was photographed wearing his. At last I have one too, one engineer following the example of another.
Tonight there's a fair and fiesta in the tiny village outside the walls of our hacienda. Fireworks are exploding overhead. The bass from a band is making our windows vibrate in resonance. An excited voice is yelling in machine-gun Spanish over a PA system. Mexico hasn't changed; it's noisy wherever we go.
But we have changed. The noise from the fair doesn't seem as intrusive as it once was. Actually, it's kind of comforting. I fell asleep to the lullaby of the bass player.
A number of small ruins dot the Puuc Route, a hilly part of the generally flat Yucatán Peninsula. Because we arrived late, we visited only one site; Sayil.
The minor sites have been left in a state more like they were when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled here early in the 19th Century. As I walked through Sayil, I tried to imagine what they must have thought, peering through the dry jungle, as they first glimpsed unnatural piles of rocks...
... that on closer inspection bore carvings of glyphs, cut into rubble-blocked doorways by an unknown people who used an alphabet.
Clear away enough trees and underbrush, and entire buildings emerge from the jungle. Catherwood drew them almost two centuries ago, inspiring travelers down to the present day to explore the Mayan World.
Tulum. Frederick Catherwood
This small pyramidal temple is known as El Mirador—The Lookout.
The structure on top is called a roof comb and is purely decorative. Trees and plants have been allowed to remain growing on the roof. In time, roots will surely tear the stones from the roof comb.
The main ruin at Sayil is El Palacio, which had 90 rooms and is thought to have housed on the order of 350 members of the ruling elite. It was built more than a thousand years ago, while European culture stagnated in the dark ages.
A half collapsed room provides a cutaway view showing how Mayan buildings were constructed.
Interior spaces were narrow because Mayan builders had not discovered the keyed arch. Without a keystone, they could only be made as wide as a corbeled arch (cantilevered stones) would allow.
El Palacio has several Chac (rain god) masks and other carvings in fine condition.
The elephant-like noses of most Chac masks have been broken off, so it's exciting to find one intact. You're more likely to find whole Chac figures on friezes.
Mayans lacked the arch and the wheel, but they were better astronomers and calendar-makers than their European contemporaries. Their culture collapsed before the arrival of the Spanish, who nevertheless did their best to eradicate any surviving traces of Mayan culture. Still, much was protected by the jungle, hidden from the eyes of Spanish hacienda owners and Catholic church-builders.
We received two invitations to Christmas Eve parties. One was a large, fancy event for the glitterati, mostly gringo, at a mansion at the country club. The other was a gathering of Rosario's family in her modest home. We chose option #2.
Rosario is our cook. She is illiterate, as is often the case with girls in her generation that come from poor families. Ana Maria, Rosario's daughter, works as our housekeeper. Rosario is thirteen years older than Ana Maria, another reason Rosario couldn't go to school. Ana Maria did go to school; she reads and writes for her mother when needed.
Ana Maria's eight-year-old daughter, Teresa, often comes to our house before school, where she draws or watches TV or plays with Rosita, our Boston Terrier. On Christmas Eve, she dressed as an angel.
I love the intimacy of Mexican people. Boys hug each other. Girls hold hands or link arms as they walk down the street. Teresa automatically includes her cousin, Humberto, in her photograph, draping her arm around his shoulder, he with his hand around her waist.
A huge, round table had been set up in the living room for Christmas dinner. A dozen chairs, no two of which matched, were pulled up to it. Jean and I were asked to sit, and dish after dish of food was brought out. The women had cooked all day. Cousins, nephews and nieces drifted in and out of the room, sitting to eat and then moving on, making room for others. Rosario didn't own enough dishes for everyone, so some of us used plates, others, bowls, and as each person finished, dishes were cycled through the kitchen for washing and drying for the next person.
Dinner was festive and delicious. Jean had prepared a Costco-sized box of Duncan Hines brownie mix which was a big hit.
There was to be a posada in Rosario's fracciónmiento, and three of her grandchildren had major roles.
Teresa was, of course, an angel.Two of her cousins were Mary and Joseph. Their mothers made their costumes. Mary, Joseph and the angel rode around in the back of a pickup truck (what else?) leading a procession of neighbors from house to house, singing and asking for room at the inn. Afterward, the kids broke open a piñata. Then everyone drank ponche (punch made from cooked fruit) or atole (a thick, hot drink made from ground corn).
Here's what we got for Christmas: Talking in Spanish, a delicious meal that cost maybe twenty bucks for twenty people, the warmth of a nice family, lots of hugs and kisses, and a Christmas Eve that was about the birth of Christ.
Here's what we didn't get: Champagne, designer gowns, canapes, one-upmanship and Burl Ives singing It's a Holly Jolly Christmas.
Good deal, huh?
No, they are not. What they are doing is lying in wait. They are waiting for a nice fat fish to swim by.
Mexican drivers call these cops tiburones (sharks). They are criminals.
We encountered them on our way to the airport in Mexico CIty. Our friend, Elena, a bilingual woman born and raised in Mexico City is chauffeuring us in her van. She knows how cops work in Mexico. Good thing, too.
A few miles past the toll gate, two cops pull us over. It seems we have committed a violation. Our minivan's license plate number ends in a seven (or maybe it's an eight). It is illegal to drive in Mexico CIty on a Tuesday if your license plate ends in a seven or an eight. Really.
[Well, it's not entirely crazy. Mexico City does have a major congestion problem, and world-class air pollution. In an attempt at mitigation, driving is prohibited one day a week. Your no-drive day is determined by the final digit of your license plate. A seven or eight means never on Tuesday. I'll leave the practicality and effectiveness of this system to your imagination.]
The policeman tells Elena she has broken the law. She may not drive her vehicle any farther. We must all get out on the narrow shoulder of the Interstate Highway, where speeders are screaming by unmolested. The car will be impounded. Elena must return to Mexico CIty tomorrow, pay her fine and the tow charges, and then she can recover her car. On Wednesday. When it's legal to drive it.
Elena and the policeman engage in a lengthy discussion. It becomes evident this stop isn't about license plates. Nobody impounds cars for driving on a no-driving day. People aren't left standing on an interstate highway to find their way home.
The cop asks Elena to step out of the car. (He doesn't want Jean and me to witness the conversation.) Elena instinctively responds that her mother told her never to get out of the car if stopped—a brilliant riposte. In Mexico, Mom's law trumps State law every time.
Now going on the offensive, she asks the cop for his name. He replies with a grin, "Augustín Lada." Augustín Lada is the name of an enormously famous singer. The cop, whose badge and name tag are not visible, isn't going to identify himself. Game over man, game over.
Since no bribe is forthcoming, the cop tells Elena that, seeing as she's willing to drive back to San Miguel, he's gonna let her off with a warning. What a nice guy. So we're not going to be fined, and the car's not going to be impounded. But how are we going to get to the airport?
We turn around and return to the toll gate where I took the picture of the tiburones. Elena finds a policeman who is not a state cop (he's wearing a different color uniform) and asks him about the no-drive rule.
What a surprise: Yes, she cannot drive in Mexico City today, but no, the road we are on is not controlled. It's OK to drive on it any day. The State Police had no right to stop her. She describes them. He says he knows who they are and will report them. Sure he will.
Elena drives through the toll gate in the homeward direction. Just for the hell of it, she asks the toll taker what numbers are prohibited today. He tells her three and four. Hmmm. Who should we believe?
She decides to turn back toward Mexico City, taking a different highway, one she's taken many times without ever being stopped. After a few miles, we come to another toll gate. Some Federales are parked there. She asks one about the no-drive rule.
He asks, "What day is it?" (A crack interrogator, he is).
She tells him, "Tuesday."
He says, "Wait a minute." Then he gets on his radio. He doesn't know the rule and he has to ask his jefe. Finally he announces, "Seven and eight. You can't drive if your plate is seven or eight." All right then.
Just past the toll gate, on the Mexico City side, there's a taxi stand. For $300 pesos ($27 US), the taxista will take us the rest of the way to the airport. His license plate doesn't end in seven or eight. So we thank Elena and get in the cab. At this point, the limited-access highway ends. The road becomes a wide surface street; six center lanes for through traffic, and six outer lanes for local drivers. Immediately we see a sign:
"NO HOY RECIRCULA"
Yep. You can drive any day of the week if you stay in the center lanes. Because, how in the hell would you get to the airport if you couldn't? I look at the cars around me. Sure enough, about 20% have plates ending in seven or eight.
Nearer to the airport, traffic grinds to a halt. Our driver pulls off onto side streets and winds through small commercial districts, trying to get around the jam. In the twenty minutes it takes to reach our destination, I see lots of sevens and eights: drivers ignoring the "no driving today" rule, driving anywhere they damn well please, whenever they please. Of course.
This man entertained us at Vicente's in Delores Hidalgo, where we'd gone for the excellent carnitas. His music was so execrable it was entertaining. He earned very good tips from us, for his music and for letting me film him.
We say there are two types of wandering minstrels: those you pay to serenade you, and those you pay to leave you alone.
Therapist Sergio Ortega demonstrates head reattachment.
Of course, just like Hugh Hefner, he made me take my shirt off for most of the shoot. You know how that is. I had to fight to hang on to my towel. The photographer kept yelling "More bush! More bush!"
(Thanks and a credit to Pern for that line.)
Check out Sergio's site here. And for real beefcake, click over here.
He's famous for his murals, and he's first in a country of muralists. No city with a modicum of pride is without them in their public buildings. In Guadalajara, I was introduced to another painter: José Clemente Orozco.
Photo: Edward Weston
Orozco's (oh-ROSE-ko's) vision is darker, less optimistic than Rivera's. Concerned about the direction Mexico was taking after La Revolución, he painted cataclysmic murals and drew cynical caricatures of politicians, soldiers and clergy.
An extensive set of his murals depict the Spanish Conquest, in the Cabañas Instituto Cultural. As I walked through the main hall, I saw a group of students lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling of the rotunda. I lay down with them and took this photo:
Here, although we are looking up, we find ourselves seeing down into an inferno, bodies falling into a hell of conquest, of enslavement. We are disoriented, horrified, as must have been those warred upon by the Spanish. This image represents the essential Orozco. No dancing campañeros here; no abuelas (grandmothers) in their huipils, grinding corn on metates.
Elsewhere in the Cabañas there's a gallery of Orozco's drawings, most of them studies for murals.
Malevolent caricatures of military officers gleefully gesticulate. What are they so happy about? We really don't want to know.
Miguel Hidalgo (wiki) was one of Mexico's heroes, a priest who helped start and lead the fight for independence from Spain. He is remembered for uttering El Grito (The Cry) which can be considered Mexico's Declaration of Independence, and he did it right here in nearby Delores Hidalgo. He is usually depicted standing heroically erect, with a stern, noble look on his face. Some images show him issuing El Grito. Here's a statue of him on the great plaza in the center of Guadalajara.
It's typical melodramatic State art. He shouts furiously at the Spanish. His outstretched hands hold the broken links of imperialist chains. No elementary school student could be so dull as to fail to get the message.
Orozco's vision of Hidalgo is different—and characteristically, more disturbing.
The good father shouts -¡Viva México! He flails with his left fist; his right holds a burning brand. Below him, a sea of red banners, a mob fighting, people impaled on blades.
What is going on here? Is this the heroic army Hidalgo led to an early near-victory over the Spanish? Where is the patriotism? The glory? This is a brutal orgy of violence. There are no ideals here; only agony, only death.
Hidalgo's image is the focal point of a huge mural. It is impossible to take it in with a single view. It cannot be photographed in its entirety. As the gaze shifts away from the center, the message becomes more obscure, more frightening.
Buttressing the figure of Father Hidalgo is a scene from an insane asylum, or perhaps from Hell. Society's evils wreak havoc. The isms are caught up in a terrible struggle: Fascism, Communism, Capitalism, Catholicism, all jumbled together. Demons catalyze the fight.
Is this what Miguel Hidalgo set loose? Or is it what he was fighting? One thing is certain. Orozco is not allowing us reassuring thoughts of a world made better by one of its heroes.
[Orozco painted for many years in the United States. You can see his murals at Dartmouth and Pomona College, among other places.]