Thursday, February 11, 2010


Rain, rain and more depressing rain. San Miguel isn't the only town struggling with the excesses, the highway is surrounded by fields of water. The roadside is being scoured by herons feasting on everything that has been flushed out of the ground. We took a wrong turn on the way to find the campsite in Patzcuaro and ended up finding lunch at a little quesadilla stand. Shredded pork in a delicious red sauce with oaxacan cheese, great salsa verde with minced onion and cilantro and lime wedges for squeezing. Across the road was a little cheese factory where we picked up the Mexican version of Manchego and tasted some fresh Mexican butter which was actually kinda gross. We made it to the campsite, a pretty little string of redbrick cabanas with a field behind about twenty minutes from downtown. We braved the rain to take a collectivo into town for supper. We had a quick wander around the market, most of it was boarded up for the day, and then had a look around for dinner. We finally settled on a place off the Zocalo, a gorgeous colonial building, high ceilings, heavy beams, walls three feet thick, carved shutters, all the wood aged a deep, shiny chocolate brown. We were alone in the restaurant except for a very friendly man from Mexico City. We had to try the specialty of the house, churipu, a beef & garlic stew which came in rough, brown ceramic bowls. Perfect for the weather, it was served with corundas, tamales that were a bit sweet on their own, but broken into bits into the salty stew made for a hearty, yummy meal.

We got back late enough to see the wind push the heavy clouds away. The night was cold, the stars were at their crispest, the weather it foretold so very welcome. The sun woke us up and the mood was high. Four days of straight rain was demasiado, more than enough. We skipped a real breakfast at the campsite and headed right into town to see what we could find. We wandered around the market for a little while and headed toward the food section. We opted for taquitos for breakfast, the kids had sausage, Wil and I had chopped beef. Totally yummy. When we turned around there were tables of people chowing down on a delicious looking soup. We couldn't resist. A ladleful of salsa verde in the bottom, some chopped beef, minced onion and cilantro, a few cupsful of beef broth and a squeeze of lime. Birria de res. Mmmmm. There is a special friday market in Patzcuaro where all the people come in from the countryside to sell their wares -- an interesting assortment of well-worn shoes, old barbies, cool handmade blades for every imaginable form of machete and, of course, food. We did all the aisles of both markets and then hopped a collectivo toward the pier for the boats to Isla Janitzio, the biggest island on Lake Patzcuaro and also home to a huge statue/museum in honor of Morelos, a big cheese in the Mexican War of Independence.

The ferry ride was an experience. A whole busload of very happy Mexican ladies got on just after us, the driver looked like he was about 15 and managed to get the nose of the boat into the opposite shore twice before leaving the dock. We were serenaded on the way over by a talented trio of silver-teethed musicians playing all the ladies' favourites on accordion, guitar and bass. The lake was brown, probably the result of the recent downpours, and speckled with water lilies and herons. As we approached the island we came upon a group of six fishermen in vessels no larger than themselves, all wielding huge delicate butterfly nets. The boats formed a circle around what we assumed was a school of fish, they feathered their paddles to come together and then all lifted their nets in unison. It was lovely to watch. The nets, however, were completely devoid of fish. Perhaps not the most gifted fishermen we thought until they proceeded to signal the driver of the ferry, who slowed down enough for the fishermen to come alongside where they held out their hats for their "reenactment". Classic Mexico.

Moments later, when the "captain" shifted the boat into reverse to dock, the motor stalled, never to restart. A man very kindly threw me a rope from the dock. Having very cleverly wrapped my camera around my wrist to avoid losing it, I was catching (very poorly as it happens ) with my left hand. He threw it again, this time to Henri, who caught it with his forehead before it again fell into the deep. Poor Canadian showing. It looked like we were going to hit the shore a third time in one day 'til the captain ran down toward us to retrieve a very long piece of wood that looked like it had seen a fair bit of service. He punted us to the dock. We spent the next twenty minutes climbing the side of the island toward the massive statue. It was easy enough to find our way as the path was lined with restaurants and shops selling mugs and bags and souvenirs of all kids. As soon as we strayed from the path the stalls disappeared. We figured the half of the island that wasn't on the path must be hard at work providing the side that is with merchandise. The climb provided a lovely view of the lake and incoming ferries, and the funny sight of the fishermen paddling furiously toward it to stage a new fishing expedition.

The forty-metre statue was incredible. Set in the only flat part of the Isla, Janitzio's rundown Zocalo, it dwarfs anything else on the island. Inside is a depiction of Morelos's life, a series of 56 murals which line a walkway that circles and climbs the inside of the statue and end in a tiny, treacherous circular staircase in Morelos's head. The view was lovely, only impeded by the fear of falling into the hole in the floor that is the stairs.

We managed to get the same driver on the way home. He only hit the dock once on departure. We enjoyed watching the next ferry come in, with a dozen boys racing to assist older passengers onto land for a peso or two. The smaller kids took a more direct tack, tapping the passengers to get their attention then holding their hands out. The silver-toothed trio were on the same ferry back. Sadly, there wasn't enough of an audience on this leg to make it worth their while to play. It was almost as good listening to the guitarist strum and hum quietly to himself. When we docked in Patzcuaro, another ferry was leaving with a different trio of musicians aboard. On the dock were three more trios waiting patiently for their turn to serenade the passengers.

We hopped on a collectivo back to the market. A few minutes later a threesome of young men in white shirts and ties got on, two Mexicans and an American, holding a stack of books and looking very earnest. Witnesses was my first thought. Not a minute later one lifts up a book and begins his spiel about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints while the other two look around meaningfully. The spiel ended and our kids were just fascinated. Alice, interested in their very clean white shirts, asked them if they were going to work. "Well yes, in a way" came the answer from the American. "We're missionaries." I couldn't resist "Perhaps you could explain to my daughter what a missionary is?". "Well, sure, said the young man. We travel around Michoacan helping people. Helping them to become closer to Jesus Christ." Alice tried very hard to absorb this information, probably trying to reconcile the idea of getting closer to someone she has seen in a hundred churches all over Mexico, hands and feet nailed to the cross.

Back to the mercado to catch some of the stalls we didn't have room in our bellies for at breakfast time. The first stop was a ceviche stand in the Zocalo. A clear plastic cup of heaven -- shrimp and seafood in tomato, onion, cilantro, avocado, lime and chili with a big bag of totopos and saltines. We reluctantly shared with the kids. One wasn't enough. Then to a quesadilla stand we'd ogled earlier, for a couple of quesadillas which she flipped back and forth in a puddle of hot oil. Ours were filled with sliced hotdogs (which, for some as yet unexplained reason, are almost all turkey in Mexico) and shredded oaxacan cheese. On the table, a huge vat of shredded lettuce, two kinds of salsa and crema. Henri was still hungry so he downed a torta milanesa (a sandwich of breaded pork, mayo and lettuce.)

We walked back toward camp to unload some of our gear, stopping in at Bodega Aurrera (Mexico's Wal-Mart grocery store) to pick up some supplies. The merchandising in Mexican grocery stores is entirely different from ours. The shelves are the green, industrial variety you find at Home Depot, the stock as artfully displayed. Perhaps a reflection of the fact that most people buy produce in the market, the selection of fruit and veg is invariably crappy and you cannot, for the life of you, find a breakfast cereal less sweet than Frosted Flakes.

Back to camp, then back to the market for supper where a whole new slew of stands had set up. We did the math and realized that even with transport to and from the market, it is cheaper to eat out for every meal (boo hoo!). We've slowly become accustomed to the hard sell that greets us whenever we walk through the market. Vendors not five feet away from each other use their menus to flag you toward them, pitching their wares and not stopping until they are acknowledged or you have gotten too far away. We used to hurry by, afraid to offend by looking interested only to change our minds. Now we stroll, looking closely at what's on the go, what everyone else is eating, often asking questions about what's in what pot and what a so-and-so is. There is nothing worse than eating a big plateful of something only to find a dish that looks even better when your stomach is full not ten feet away.

Henri asked for some tacos dorados from a stand that was making the most incredible take-away platters ever. Out of the comal, the man pulled chicken in red salsa, little fried cubed potatoes, a heap of shredded cabbage and salsas, and piled it all together onto a big piece of butcher's paper, corners folded in and stuffed into a plastic bag. Mmmm. We stood around watching the news while Henri ate. I suddenly felt very guilty having whined about a few days' rain when we saw the devastating effects the weather has had all over this country.

Patzcuaro is a very pretty town, undergoing a lot of the same work as San Miguel de Allende. There are orange conduits popping out of the ground in front of every building, all waiting for the wires that are going underground. The dozens of masons we saw chipping away at new sidewalks attest to the money that is being poured into the infrastructure here. If our quick look at the town is any indication, it's a place that merits the investment.

1 comment:

Peter C said...

Culture and tamales what a combination ! Still enjoying the entries immensely - although I am always dying for tacos when I'm finished !