Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Couple of Things About Mexico

One has to remember that Mexico is still classified as a Third World country. While we were travelling, we saw scenes like this donkey train in San Miguel. We read in a guidebook that garden soil was still delivered by this method, possibly because there are places too difficult to get to with a motorized conveyance. Whatever the reason, we saw several examples of timeless technology that I've never seen in the States; donkey carts moving hay, shepherds with their flocks between the lanes of the highway, a man with a scythe cutting grass for his cattle, and a horse pulling a plow with a man ahead of him sowing seed.
As you drive through Mexico you notice a country that can't keep up with it's population growth. Buildings are in all phases of construction, mostly unfinished and unfinished for years. There is hardly a bulding that doesn't have rebar sticking out of the top of the wall. Schoolkids go home at noon to make room for the second shift of young scholars to use the same desks and classrooms. In places, there is no trash pickup service. You're on your own to get it to the landfill, if there is one. A plastic bag caught on a bush, waving in the breeze, is probably the most common sight in Mexico. And sadly, the trash seems to consist of things that will never decompose; plastic bottles, plastic bags, and plastic toys. It's very sad to witness, but I saw the following a dozen times: people would roll down the window of their car and out would come a bag of junk, people standing on the street would toss away a recipt or a napkin from an ice cream cone, a plastic bottle would get tossed onto the roadside without a thought. Very typical. Very sad.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Goodbye to San Miguel

We made an excellent house exchange in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Our trading partners have a most wonderful, beautiful and luxurious house. The hacienda has a very unique entrance or approach off of a busy street leading out of the city. There is an archway that has, I believe, living quarters above. You go through the tunnel and up a steep hill (and you've already gained several hundred feet from central San Miguel) to the terrace.
Here's Nancy trudging up the final few feet with the house in the background. The owners call it "2010 territory", meaning it's 10 minutes down to the center of town on foot, and 20 pesos back up by taxi. Well, they were 5 or 10 pesos off the mark, but maybe we got the tourist rate.
There were three levels of terraces with doorways off almost every room onto one terrace or another. We spent a lot of time outside soaking up the sun and looking out at the city.
Nancy captured the moonrise one evening before we headed down into town for dinner.
Out of respect for the privacy of the owners, I won't post any pictures of the interior, but it was very beautifully and tastefully done, as you might imagine from the photos of the exterior. You can see the first, second and third level terraces in this picture, and all of them have green, lush plants everywhere.

Nancy also took this picture of the sun setting over the western mountains with San Miguel in the foreground. We had an interesting time, and here and there, met a few of the several thousand ex-pats, mostly American and Canadian, that live in San Miguel. We left early one morning and were not too far outside San Antonio, Texas that night. Two more days of driving got us home safely.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Visit to the Pyramids...of San Miguel

We took a day trip to the newly revealed pyramids near San Miguel de Allende, called Canada de la Virgen (there should be a tilde over the "n" in Ca-nhe-da but I don't know how to add it). Our guide was Albert Tyler Coffee, a Louisianan by birth but now with a Mexican wife and two kids, and living in San Miguel. He is a anthropolgist/archaeologist who helped with the archaeology and excavation work done on the pyramids. He told us many times during the day that these pyramids are not really newly "discovered", only newly unearthed and now known to Europeans. The indigenous people have known they were there all along and indeed, can point out other mounds of earth, here and there, that hide additional Mesoamerican structures.

We also were accompanied by "rangers" who were awarded jobs for their volunteer work in the archaeological process. In other words, they were the labor force. They watched us very carefully so that we did not remove artifacts or step where we shouldn't.

The pyramids were on private land, which is now owned by the Mexican government, but the approach is totally on private land. Therfore we had to walk the last kilomenter and a half to the site. You can see a shuttle van in the background.

There are four or five structures, only three of which have been uncovered. They date to 540 to 1050 AD. On the ride out to the pyramids I was talking with Albert and asking him some questions. I asked which of the many pyramids in Mexico were his favorites because he'd been to them all. He replied; "No bullshit, this one." The many features relating to the calendar and astronomical observations made it most intriguing for him. The pyramids are oriented on an East/West axis and on the equinox, the sun sets just about in the center of the notch, where the man is standing in the above photo. Other dates are marked as well, including the solstices, best days to plant and harvest, and other important dates in the Otomi year. These pyramids are the most northerly structures of the Mesoamerican culture and were abandoned quickly about 1200 AD due to drought or attack from the tribes to the north.

Skeletal remains of a human were found at the top of the above pyramid during excavation. Carbon dating showed the skeleton to be 770 to 440 BC. According to signage at the site, "...this means that the remains had been dead and mummified for 1033 years before he was buried in the Red Temple of the Canada de la Virgen." Whoever this person was, he must have been very sacred to the pyramid builders for them to haul around his carcass around Mexico for one thousand years before permanently planting him in his stone tomb.

A lot of pottery artifacts were found, and these were the great clues to the archaeologists adding much information about the people and their lifestyle. These skeletal remains were long referred to as a woman who was a warrior, and later didcovered to be bones of a 9 - 12 year old child. Note the triangular-shaped object sticking out of the top of her skull. This would have been done at the time of internment.

We were allowed to climb up into the top of the pyramid up a very steep set of stairs. Not too long ago, when the pyramids were still coverd with dirt and vegetation, cowboys used to ride their horses to the top up a ramp of fallen stones, to look for thier cattle. The pyramids are constructed of stone, some of it dressed, which I think one or two men could carry. The Otomi had no beasts of burden (i.e. horses, cattle, llamas) and no wheeled carts (except as toys) so they built these structures by carrying the stones in their hands or on their backs.

Coming down the stairs was more precarious than going up. Some of our tour group opted out of the climb. About half of my foot fit on the steps. It is theorized the steps are so steep for three reasons. First, the people who built them were quite small and secondly, a sacrificed body would tumble nicely down the steps, and lastly, because the stairs are so difficult to navigate attackers would be very vulnerable.

After the tour, we were taken to a nearby hacienda, the headquarters for a cattle ranch owned by five brothers, to have a typical, traditional Mexican lunch. Frijoles and arroz, tortillas and a picante sauce, quesadillas, nopali, papas, sopa vegetal, etc. All very delicious and prepared by the Senora above and below.

The Senora had a very primitive kitchen. She had no electricity, a woodburning stove, no running water, yet she fed 12 or 15 gringos without a hitch. It was, to say the least, a very interesting day. On the van ride back into town, most of us caught a quick siesta.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ghost Towns, Independence and Tequila Ice Cream

We took a road trip yesterday to explore a couple towns generally north of San Miguel, Mineral de Pozos and Dolores Hidalgo. Pozos is more-or-less considered a ghost town of about 2,000 people today, reduced from its former status as a thriving silver city. The ratio of unoccupied to occupied buildings may be 30 to 1, or more. I commented that it is probably the "next" San Miguel and now is the time to start picking up those fixer-uppers, such as the one above (which is for sale). Doug didn't bite.

There are a couple restaurants, artisan shops or galleries, a mini-super market and vestiges of two once-splendid town plazas. An old church and this government building, both abandoned, spoke of a time when the economy was different. Our guidebook indicated that the old silver mines above the city are ideal for picnicking. But if you "go by yourself, be careful...some shafts are unguarded and easy to stumble into if you're not paying attention." We opted to eat elsewhere and more safely.

This horse was tied up outside the mini-super market on the main drag. Just as we were heading into the sunset, this caballero appeared and saddled up.

We made our way over to Dolores Hildalgo, a town famous for three important factors: birthplace of Mexican independence (el Grito); ice cream; and talavera tile. Putting history before eating or art, on September 15, 1810, Miguel Hildalgo, the local priest is said to have launched Mexico's fight for independence with the passionate call to arms "el Grito". There is a very prominent statute of him in the plaza principal, with arm raised in his cry.

As we wandered around the plaza, we noticed that every, and I don't mean just almost every, vendor cart was selling "Nieves el Rico". As best I can interpret this, it means something like "rich snow" or as we know it in the USA, ice cream. But this is no ordinary ice cream, at least some of it. The flavors they sell are unreal, bizarre, preposterous. Yes, they do have vanilla and chocolate for the timid, but who wouldn't want a tequila, shrimp or corn on the cob ice cream cone? Doug, for one.

I opted to be 50% daring: pistache on the top, elote (corn on the cob) on the bottom. Yummy and a suprisingly good combination. Doug had vanilla and chocolate, so I didn't include a photo.

While we were having our actual lunch, after dessert, these two young ladies were able to talk Doug into buying a $10 peso winning raffle ticket for some unknown prize. He had to write down specifics, including our phone number (which he had to get off of Fergus' collar), onto their clipboard, so we know it was surely on the up-and-up. Today we suddenly have four messages on the cell phone that we are unable to retrieve because we can't understand the rapid Spanish instructions, but I'm sure it is to tell us that we have won 1st prize and where to come to claim it.

I poked my head into a few talavera tile shops, but the one that looked most fascinating was behind a rickety chicken wire fence...and closed. Dust was thick. All the other stores were very glitzy with salespeople that wanted your attention the minute you walked in. I was disappointed that the rickety chicken wire place wasn't open, as it had good scrounging potential.

The cry for independence, ice cream, and talavera tile: that about sums up our toe dip into Dolores Hidalgo. I'm not sure what this woman was intently doing, but it appeared to be putting cut pieces of colored paper into a bottle???? But for what purpose? An Hidalgo mystery.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Durango to Zacatecas

We'll do another bit of time-traveling, and fill in the trip between Durango to Zacatecas. The road was a relative superhighway with no Espinoza del Diablo and daylight. There were small roadside vendors set up along the way, and this gentleman's rickety stand filled with baskets attracted our attention. We bought two baskets and he proudly posed for a photo.

We started seeing prickly pear cactus growing in all sorts and forms: small shrubs, tall trees and cultivated patches covered with nets. We have subsequently learned that as a culinary crop
they are called nopali. The pads are sold either "as is" or de-spined and smoothed. In the markets in San Miguel we also saw women cutting them into narrow slices and bagging it for resale. It is used in numerous Mexican recipes and is apparently very valuable for its nutritional properties.
We arrived in Zacatecas mid-afternoon and found our hotel without too much difficulty. No, the photo above is not our hotel. However, our couple-star hotel complex did "occupy" an entire hillside, had 244 rooms, 56 apartments, who knows how many suites, a restaurant, gymnasium, beauty shop, entire road system, and only about 10 occupants total (including us). And, not one blade of grass. Zacatecas sits at about 8,000 feet elevation.
After getting settled in, and watching Mexican TV for awhile, we took a taxi to el centro for dinner at the Acropolis. Zacatecas is one of the "silver cities" in colonial Mexico, founded in 1546. The architecture, the Churrigueresque style similar to that we saw in Durango, is profoundly evident in the three-tiered facade of the cathedral.

Apostles, angels, flowers and fruit adorn the pillars, pedastals, columns and niches in a rather exuberant excess---that's from our guidebook. It was almost like a "Where's Waldo" looking at it, to my untrained eye.

The cathedral was constructed between 1730 and 1775. We did not go inside the cathedral, but our guidebook indicates that the exterior contrasts with the interior in that all of the treasures were lost during the turmoils in Mexico, the Reforma and the later Revolution.

I am assuming that the grandiose architecture in Zacatecas must be representative of a lifestyle that was present at one time during the age of silver. The number of remarkable Baroque limestone buildings speak for themselves.

We Stumble Upon a Charreada

On Sunday we set out in the morning for a visit the the Toltec Pyramids that are near San Miguel. We got there after getting lost and when we arrived at noon, the pyramids were swamped with local Mexican families on their day off. We decided to head back to town and make another stab at on another day. Lo and behold, just as we got back to San Miguel, we stumbled upon a Charrreada just as it was ready to kick off at 1:00 pm. It was as if it was meant to be, that we weren't supposed to go to the pyramids that day. If you really want to know more, look it up on wikipeda, otherwise, you'll have to just take a gringo's word on what happened. It's not really a rodeo, but the predecessor to a rodeo, more like an exhibition of the talents of charros, or Mexican cowboys, the ancestors of the North American cowboy.

Half of the pictures and videos are by Nancy and the other half are by me.

This "chica" was dressed to the nines for the event. Here she's just gotten her parents to buy her some churros (I think) upon which the vendor squeezes a lime and some hot sauce.

The charros kept riding over to the edge of the ring where their families sat, and they would be handed a new rope or tossed a bottle of water. Sometimes the charros would climb off the horse into the stands to deal with the situation themselves, and then jump back on the horse.

It was a total family affair, someone's "Abuela" or Grandmama was there. What an amazing profile.

In one event the charros would perform a stunt similar to what we in the states call bulldogging. This would not entail leaving their horse however, but the charros would grab the bull by the tail and then use their boot to topple the critter. You can see videos of the event below. Watch for the charro examining his hand after it has picked up who knows what from the bull. The interesting thing, however, was after the bull had been dispatched, they would ride hell-bent-for-leather for the opposite side of the ring, and reign in the "caballo" only to stop inches from the concrete wall. See the videos, which, for some reason did not capture the actual suspense of the activity.

A detail of the opening ceremonies, the salute.
Now, here are the videos. There is a bull riding event which then morphs into an event where three charros take down the same bull with lassos, head and find feet. It was pretty boring compared to the team roping event we know in the states, and not as not as exciting as riding a brahma, either. You can click on the bulldogging event which is so different that the gringo version, and see the quickstop ending. Let's see, there's the event where the horse turns on a dime, or a peso, which is rather interesting. And the event where the purpose appears to be - how fast can you stop a horse going full speed. And there is one of the opening ceremony, where the charros divide into four groups and ride into the ring. Enjoy the videos and remember to enlarge the pictures with a click.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Durango and Dolores del Rio

After our very brief foray into and through Mazatlan, we broke the golden rule of driving in Mexico: DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT. We headed for Durango, over a mountain road that defies logic in the USA. Twists, turns, lots of 18-wheeler truck traffic, no shoulders, no lines, narrower than any we'd ever been on, steep drop-off, but drop-dead gorgeous views (the little that we saw). Sorry, no photos. The road crosses the Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil's Backbone, and there were times I wish we had a car with even a shorter wheelbase. A few times an 18-wheeler rounded a curva peligroso (dangerous curve, as if a sign was needed) well out into the on-coming lane, and the approaching car had to back up to give clearance. The most amazing part was when we would come up behind an 18-wheeler chugging up a hill at a snail's pace, the driver would put on their left turn signal to indicate it was OK for us to pass. Yeah, right, like they could see around the curva peligroso dead ahead. It was one of those "had to check your shorts" drives...and I was only the passenger.

Once we arrived in Durango, several hours past our anticipated ETA, our vague map had us driving in circles. We kept narrowing it down, but realized that several streets surrounding the Hotel Don Miguel were blocked off and Policia were standing guard. I took my reservation sheet up to one group of policia and asked them "donde esta Hotel San Miguel?" Between gestures and a few words, a female officer asked where we were parked. She accompanied me to our car, and indicated that she would personally escort us through the barricades to the hotel. I crawled in the back with Ferg, she in the front and off we went. I kept hearing izquierda, derecha, again and again to tell Doug to turn left and right. Then, miraculously, we were there. I, of all people, was ready to praise the saints! She may have been one of the corrupt policia we always read about in Mexico, but at that moment I was singing her praise.

For a city that doesn't even get a mention in Fodor's and only a few paragraphs in other travel guides, we found Durango Mexico a charming colonial place that has been neither discovered nor abused by gringos.

Durango seems to have two claims to fame: Hollywood in Mexico and Dolores del Rio. Many Western movies starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and Jack Nicholson were filmed in the area. Dolores del Rio, star of both Mexican and Hollywood cinema, was born in Durango. The sign confirms her great beauty, claiming something to the effect that in the history of photography, the two great beauties were Dolores del Rio and Greta Garbo.

The downtown or "centro" area is studded with high-end shops, restaurants, and a pedestrian street. Brightly colored facades on a crisp clear morning were very welcoming after the harrowing drive from Mazatlan, and we never strayed far from the hotel that day.
The only written English I saw in Durango was the plaque across from their famous Catedral. Read the story of Beatrice the Moon Nun, and you can decide for yourselves whether you believe it or not. Since we weren't there during a full moon, I can't confirm. But it is one of those stories that a veteran guide loves to be able to tell her group just when everybody is starting to fall asleep on the bus.

Beatrice the Moon Nun chose a fine church. It's architecture exemplifies the Churrigueresque style, which is characterized by "dazzling surface ornament that conveys flowing movement and obscures the form beneath." Thanks to the DK Eyewitness Travel series for that explanation. We concluded it was pink sandstone.

House #89, not particularly important, just a strikingly beautiful, though well eroded entryway, I thought.

Mexico's history is quite convoluted. The first uprising (unsuccessful) was in 1810 with the famous call to arms El Grito (The Cry); another four years later led by Jose Maria Morelos, also unsuccessful. Independence from Spain was finally achieved in 1821, but Mexico suffered quite a shady series of presidents until the Reforma in 1857. The Mexican Revolution was launched in 1910, and in 1917 the revolutionary constitution was passed. This woodcut, which was approximately 15' X 10', depicts several of these historic events as noted on the plaques in some of the angels hands.

We wandered into the Mercado Gomez Palacio, a huge, enormous, covered market. We took Fergus with us, which was a scary proposition for both him and everyone he encountered. The aisles were barely wide enough to squeeze through, it was noisy, there was absolutely no organization, rows of stalls veered off in all directions like spokes on a bicycle, and merchandise was displayed from floor to ceiling (12' tall). This shoe and boot repair individual must have been rather religious, based upon the posters hanging on the back wall.

The woman was furiously stirring some sort of seed or bean in a galvanized pan over a burner. I have no clue what the end product was to be.

There were lots of kids hanging out with family members, some even riding bicycles or tricycles through the maze of aisles in the market---little Tour de France competitors in the making.

Karla was very proud of her kitchen. I love the bowls in the foreground. Around the corner was the counter where she served all her patrons.

I don't think there was anything you couldn't buy at this market. The big problem was finding it. Leather chaps hung on display for Mexican caballeros. These things were thick.

We ended our evening with a nightcap at the Belmont Bar. We were definitely the only gringos in there. The wall behind the bar was plastered with photos of Hollywood movie stars and other famous folks. There's even a huge photos of the Beatles. Not sure if the Beatles ever played the Belmont Bar, but I doubt it.

At one point in the Belmont, four strumming musicians entered and started playing a little. They sounded real good and we wanted them to continue. Doug went up to the bartender, asked him to turn off the radio, paid to buy each of the band a drink and asked them to play. The radio was turned off, they drank their drink, but they never played. We finally left. But we did get to sit under a great photo of Dolores del Rio (on the left).