Thursday, February 25, 2010


We stopped into an AutoZone on the way out of town, looking for a diesel mechanic who could resolve the issue of the van not starting in the morning. Every day begins with three or four minutes of black smoke and a lot of hand-wringing. We started at a place in Leon, then a VW dealer on the south side of Aguascalientes who sent us on to a place on the north side of town. We drove around looking for the Garcia Kubota dealership which ended up being the Garcia Bosch service centre. We emptied the van and went for a walk around suburban Aguascalientes to try to find some lunch. While we were gone, they checked the glow plugs, fixed some kind of relay and off we went. We've both had enough of big cities so we decided to give the city itself a pass. We'll be back.

Instead we drove on. We still can't get over the fact that so much of this country is at such high altitude. The high plains just seem to go on and on. The distant mountains that followed us to Zacatecas looked like they'd all had their tops lopped off. Closer to the road were gaping seams of red earth, the pale land covered in nasty-looking cactus and surreal joshua trees. It looked more like the landscape you find on the sea floor, like clusters of coral on a bed of sand. The only thing missing is the fish. A half moon rose over the plains as we entered the city, another colonial gem 8000 feet above sea level.

We made it up to the campsite, the parking lot of a hotel on one of the two peaks that flank the town. We jumped on the tiny gondola that links the two mountain tops and then walked the steep walk down into the Centro, using the cathedral steeples as our compass. A thousand steps down through narrow streets and alleys, the sound of distant music interrupted by a barking relay as the town dogs alerted each other to our presence, looking down on us from rooftops and balconies. The centro was beautiful. The cathedral's façade of carved pink stone ridiculously busy, in stark contrast to the white interior, stripped absolutely bare during the revolution.

We sat and watched the beginnings of a political rally for the Labour Party's gubernatorial candidate, Davi. A young woman stood on the stage and waited patiently for the technician to skip through a few songs before finally launching into her performance, with lots of clutching at the air overhead and pulling it toward her heart. The poor thing didn't realize her earnest emotion was being undermined by the technicians standing right behind her pointing past her discussing the best way to do something or other. We kept on walking through town passing the rest of the rally, five thousand people or more marching with a couple of bandas behind their candidate who waved at the passersby from horseback. Many of the marchers looked like they had been bussed in from the countryside, farm folk and labourers, white straw hats, chapped cheeks, babies bundled in piles of blankets. We found a good pollo asado in a cafeteria of sorts and then walked back up the steep hill to the van. We said good evening to some surly teenagers and instead of the snarled response we'd expect they offered some unsolicited advice about which set of stairs we should be on. It was the third time this week that someone had gone out of their way to keep us from getting lost.

We woke up to a cool sunny morning after a great night for all of us. When Wil pulled back the curtains he saw a familiar VW van parked across the way. The kids were thrilled to have their playmates back and we were happy to catch up with Lyne & Félix. It's always interesting to hear how different one's experience can be despite travelling the same roads. We made a tentative date to meet up at Cuatrociénegas to experience the desert hot springs together. Wil started (or rather tried to start) the van. Five minutes of anguish followed by the happy sound of the engine purring. Change of plans, we have to stick to the cities to try to find someone to fix this problem before we can go into colder climes. We retraced our steps trying to pinpoint just when the issue first arose, both of us secretly hoping that the elevation is responsible. Keep your fingers crossed.


A short jump back to San Miguel, this time thankfully in the sunshine. What a treat being able to lift my head and look around instead of walking around hunched over, dodging puddles and downspouts. We spent a lovely couple of days with my parents, doing nothing more than enjoying each other's company. We had some lovely meals and managed to get some good quality time in despite the fact that my folks were both feeling a bit under the weather. San Miguel may be full of older folk but it is not a city that is kind to people who aren't at the peak of their physical abilities -- the sidewalks are an obstacle course, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, sometimes high, sometimes non-existant. The cobblestone streets are no better, beautiful but fairly impractical. I can't even imagine with a walking stick.

I got to sit in on my mom's daily conversational Spanish class with Elvira, a tidy, handsome little woman with two long black braids that loop down and up her back. In a blue and white crocheted dress with matching serape and skin-colour stockings she sits and waits for her group of five to congregate in the sunny courtyard of the Instituto Allende at noon every day. She takes turns asking people questions about themselves, getting them to say something, anything in Spanish and then very tactfully correcting, illuminating. If our experience in San Miguel was anything to go by, this class could easily be the only Spanish many of her students speak in a day. I got to attend one of her classes last year and it was really satisfying to find that I finally have enough Spanish to at least describe the words I don't have. I only wish I had someone like her in Abercorn.

On our walk down the hill to dinner we walked into a moment stolen from an earlier time. Three grey burros stood on the narrow sidewalk, their backs laden with dozens of canvas bags. Downhill from the donkeys stood a woman in her late sixties, dressed in a hundred layers, beautiful round face brown and leathery from exposure, her hand on a rough rope knotted on the halter. She stood in the late-day sun (which is really something to behold in San Miguel) waiting with the animals as her husband crossed the narrow street to knock at a door with his walking stick. Too close quarters to pull out the camera but it is an image that will stay with me for a long time.

We had our last dinner on a gorgeous rooftop terrace, the sun setting over the mountains on one side, the steeples of the parroquia and a couple of tiled domes on the other. The wine flowed, Wil dug into my parents' past, drawing out tales of their early days together, stories I'd never heard before. After dinner we walked over to the jardín and sat down to watch a mariachi band do their stuff. Their main audience was a middle-aged couple sitting on the low stone wall sharing a snifter of tequila. The guitars and violins made a half circle around them. The trumpets, which were as flat as pancakes, stood ten paces back to balance the sound. After a couple of tunes, the couple got up to stand with the band and the man began to sing -- quite well -- sometimes being prompted by his wife when the lyrics eluded him. When the songs were done the man pulled a wad of money out of his pocket and handed it over to the band. His comfort with the notion of paying for music is a state that seems to elude non-Mexicans, who for fear of paying too little or too much or of bearing the discomfort of being the centre of attention, deprive themselves the joy of being truly and properly serenaded.

We said goodbye and walked the sad walk home. I think we also said goodbye to San Miguel which, as gorgeous as it is, is just too full of gringos for us. If it weren't for my parents I don't think we'd ever go back, the flavour of Mexico so diluted as to be almost unpalatable for us.

One of the reasons the town is so easy to look at, like many of the its colonial sisters, is the lack of garbage everywhere. Mexico has a weird relationship with trash that I find hard to understand. There are piles of it along the highway, in some places fields of trash, the beaches are littered with plastic bottles and bags. The streets of so many of the towns we've been to are strewn with garbage. I can't count how many times we've been driving behind someone and seen a hand emerge from the window of a car or bus only to launch a handful of litter on to the road. In Chetumal when we were filling up our little cooking tank with gas, the man took our receipt, ripped off the perforated printer edge and just dropped it on the ground. Wil and I looked at each other, aghast, and then looked around -- at the hundreds of streamers of green and pink printer paper scattered in the grass and the bushes and the trees for hundreds of feet around. In Puerto Arista, one of the men's chores of the day was to burn the garbage, plastic bottles and all. When we were in Troncones, using the internet at the school library, a girl who sat in front of a computer finished a lollipop, walked to the door and threw the stick on the ground in front of a dozen friends, none of whom said a word. All this despite the very active campaign of education and fines to counteract the reflex. Someone told Wil that it harkens back to colonial days when Mexicans were the labourers but never the owners (or caretakers) of the land, a situation that in no way encouraged a sense of responsibility. Ceci dit, it sucks. For us, it is the only consistently negative element of Mexico and it's tragic that one bad habit (and the lack of political will to reform) is allowed to mar the incredible physical beauty of this country.

In the morning we hit the road for Guanajuato, going first through Dolores Hidalgo. The map seemed very clear and yet we managed to get completely spun around, entering Guanajuato from the south when we were meant to be hitting it from the north. We weren't sorry to have done the extra mileage. The scenery was, dare I repeat myself, spectacular. Rolling hills of pale brush, the soil pale and pink, dried up rivers, donkeys scattered in the hills. Most of the trees were so dry they looked like they were full of dust bunnies and, with no undergrowth to speak of, the trees that DID have leaves looked like the fake clusters you find dotting an architect's maquette.

After confirming with a guy at a gas station that our van would fit through most of the tunnels, we made our approach. I wasn't feeling that confident about navigating the town without getting lost, especially with a hangover that made map-reading decidedly unpleasant. We waved off the half-dozen offers of guides and eventually managed to find the campsite which hangs over the valley that is the town, a cubist's colourful dream laid out on the opposite hill.

We walked down into the centro, through a tunnel that seemed to go on and on, with forks leading off in every direction. We emerged near the Mercado Hidalgo where we sat down for a yummy torta milanesa. Built in the Victorian era as a train station for the railway that never came, the building is full of gorgeous ironwork and sadly little else but cheap tourist souvenirs.

We walked up to the Mummy museum, a ghoulish display of preserved corpses. Apparently the deceased whose families couldn't keep up the perpetuity payments for the burial got dug up and relocated to a mass grave. When the bodies were being pulled out of the ground, the diggers found that many of them had remained unexplainably intact. Lacy frocks on the bodies of newborns, a pregnant woman beside the unborn child mummified inside her, socks hanging loose on shrunken legs, shoes and boots in leathery pieces, mouths agape, the body of a woman mistakenly buried alive, arms thrown across a face contorted in agony. I'm expecting nightmares tonight.

While Wil and I nursed our hangovers in the van, the kids explored the little alleys around the campsite, unearthing all sorts of "treasures" and building a "shelter for a poor person" out of bits of wood, an old t-shirt, a frying pan, a car freshener. They chose to do it fairly close to the middle of the road but, hey, it kept them quiet for a couple of hours. They talked about how they hoped that someone would be able to use it. Afterward we walked back down into town, this time veering left into a long stretch of squares. What a beautiful place. The windy little roads and alleys make you feel like you're on an adventure because you never know what's going to be behind the next corner. Narrow passages open up onto lively little squares lined with absolutely square ficuses and iron benches. We spent a few minutes visiting the Juarez theatre, with its bar full of wood panelling and stained glass, the smoking room with red velvet circular banquettes, the majestic staircase reserved for the VIPs, the five levels of balconies that curve toward the stage, the ceiling carved in a million hand-painted designs, the heavy velvet curtains sagging on the stage. It felt like I could step back in time -- standing in the smoking room, in some long black number, with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, flirting shamelessly with the men in tuxes until the lights flashed. A sad reminder of the scores of theatres Montreal once possessed. We stopped in to a pottery store with the loveliest dishes and pitchers and pots. I would've been happy to buy up the whole store but we restrained ourselves. The owner couldn't have been lovelier, a woman in her sixties who literally sprinted around the store giving us the prices of every item. When we commented on how expertly she wrapped our purchases, she tapped the table she was working over and said that her career started at this very table by her father's when she was eight. She told us both her parents had passed away two years ago. When I told her I felt lucky to have found her on my birthday she asked me to choose anything I wanted from a shelf of pretty things and then wrapped it very carefully for the drive home. She wrote Happy Birthday on one of her cards, making me promise that I would keep the gift for myself and gave me a big kiss on the way out. The kids were kissing away my tears on the street.

We poked around a few of the city's jardíns, being wowed at every turn, before climbing a hundred steps to our dinner spot. They set up a table for us in front of a pair of folding doors that opened on to a spectacular view, the city laid out before us, layer upon layer of primaries and pastels, like a lego city with domes. Our lovely evening ended with the familiar hunt around the restaurant, and then the neighbourhood, for change (cambio). Aside from toll booth attendants, no one in this country ever has cambio! You may be purchasing something for 45 pesos but if you hand them a 100 peso note they roll their eyes like you just kicked their grandmother. Then the long drawn-out, usually very dramatic search for change that inevitably entails screaming up or downstairs, through a door, sometimes followed by a dash to another stall or store which invariably triggers a whole new round of eye-rolling. Everyone hoards their small bills. When you ask if they have change or they ask if you have change it's often just a matter of stalling, bluffing until the other party reveals their secret stash of twenties.

We jumped in a cab for the ride home, back to our rocky, magical aerie. It was freezing when we woke up, the kids in tears because they'd slept so poorly because of the cold. Wil had opened the side door of the van to enjoy the view of the lights and to watch the morning sun slip down into the valley. It felt a bit like Rear Window, a glimpse of daily life from across the valley, seeing people set off to school, women sweeping their yards, hanging clothes out on the line, each of them oblivious to each other in their private spaces, the walls and streets that separated them seemingly collapsed in our view from the other side of the valley.

Villa Corona and Morelia

We spent a couple of nights in Villa Corona at a campground set in a Balneario, a Mexican water park. What makes Chimulco different is that all the water comes from underground hot springs. Every evening the pools are emptied and every morning they are filled anew with toasty 39 degree water. A few hours after our arrival another family in a VW pulled up in the space beside us. They were travelling with four kids (two girls aged 8 and 6 and two boys aged 3 & 11 months) in a popup! They're the only other family we've seen on the road and it made us realize just how easy we've got it with our kids. The four girls spent both days together at the pools, only coming back to the van to eat. Henri had found a gang of Mexican friends from Guadalajara who were staying in the bungalows on the grounds. The kids were in heaven and Wil and I took it easy catching up on some writing, puttering around the van and enjoying a couple of really nice meals with our neighbours.

Back through Guadalajara to pick up the repaired computer and on to Morelia for a couple of nights.
Morelia was a big surprise. The physical beauty of the city is astonishing. Gorgeous stone arches, cathedral, churches, libraries, squares abound.

We wandered around the town, admiring the architecture and also the gorgeous women, our friend Antonino should have come to Morelia. The kids had an ice cream and Wil got in line with a bunch of people at a gazpacho stand. Gazpacho in Morelia is not soup but diced fresh fruit -- pineapple, jicama, watermelon and mango in a plastic cup layered with salt, grated cheese, chile powder and a little dollop of orange juice. Fresh and sweet and savoury and salty, it hits all the pleasure buttons at once. We had a nice long walk on our way to find some supper, along the impressive aqueduct and through the Bosque. We got to see a torreador lesson in progress, an older gentlemen with arms folded across his chest giving advice to two boys about Henri's age, one hunched over with a set of bull horns, the other held the muleta and a toy estoque practicing his moves. A little further on we saw an amazing skate park, then a full BMX course and in between a fantastic park for the kids -- a dozen seriously high-tech climbing frames, exercise stations for the disabled, mini train and carnaval. The kids had a go while Wil and I talked about how liberating it is to play in a culture where safety doesn't come at the expense of any kind of fun. I can't imagine many North American cities willingly taking on the liability insurance required to host a BMX bike course.

We had a really nice supper and opted to take a taxi home. We talked to the cab driver about getting tickets for Saturday night's soccer game, a much-anticipated match against arch-rival Toluca -- the enmity between the two cities heightened by Morelia's Monarcas taking last year's championship in the Toluca stadium. He gave us some advice about what seats to get. He also told us the bonus of buying tickets for the Saturday night game were free tickets for the Wednesday game against the National team. He agreed to take us to the stadium to buy the tickets. We had to go twice because everyone misjudged the opening time but we finally got them and handed him the ones for the Wednesday night game. His son is in the junior Monarcas so I think he was pretty pleased.

We hit the market on the way back. The mercado independencia could only be disappointing after Oaxaca and Guadalajara but we had a good poke around. We stopped in the food section to try a birria de chivo, a goat consomme with chunks of meat and vegetable and a generous splash of chile sauce on top. We were on the lookout for the delicately-painted pottery I've been jonesing for but didn't find anything that caught our fancy, other than some little gifts for the kids' classmates and some soccer jerseys for the family. On our way out the kids spotted a table heaped with strawberries and we bought a big cup full of sliced strawberries with a shake of sugar, a big ladleful of cream and a big spoonful of strawberry marmelada.

Back to the hotel to dump our purchases. The Posada Don Vasco was our reward for doing a little footwork when we got to Morelia. It really pays to check out a bunch of places. We've found they're rarely what you expect and even more rarely how they've been described in the guidebooks. The one thing you can count on is being shown a crappy room first. A little perseverance and assertiveness usually lands you a very reasonably priced pretty room. We were in the only room on the third floor, a sunny space with a view of rooftops and the cathedral's peaks.

Back to the park at the kids' insistence. Henri's pitch was "it's as good as going to see Radiohead play all their songs for you, mum." How can I argue with that? All the rides were open -- a little train that choo-chooed around the periphery of the park, miniature versions of the pirate ship and a roller coaster, along with a few barf-inducing spin rides. There we even bumper cars. At forty cents a ride the kids had their fill and then we headed off to the game.

The cab driver was a fount of information about futból, the standings of all the teams as well as a myriad of other cool facts about Mexican culture. Thank goodness for cab drivers. Without them I'd be forced to pin down people on the street with my endless questions. On his advice, we ate before entering the stadium (for half the price) -- a plate of tacos dorados (deep-fried taco tubes filled with chicken served with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, crema & fried cubed potatoes) and a couple of bombas (bread rolls dipped in spicy chile oil and fried and then filled with chicken and sour cream or chorizo.)

The Estadio Morelos is surrounded by low mountains on three sides and the city below it on the fourth. We picked some seats on the centre line and put up little resistance to the vendors. "cerVEza, cerVEEYzaa, refresco, refressscos. Wil bought himself a beer in the only format available, a litre. We all shared cacahuates, toasted and salted pumpkin seeds & fava beans and passed on the steamed garbanzo beans in their pods. The kids had the Monarcas logo silkscreened on their cheeks. We watched the sun set and waited for the place to fill up. Forty-five thousand people is an astounding amount of people to fit into one building. We were treated to several parades of girls in matching skintight outfits & gogo boots carrying banners of the game's sponsors. They stood a bit awkwardly adjusting waistbands and flipping their always long hair. This kind of display would have been so different in the States. First of all, the girls would have been skinnier. I think Mexican men like their women with a little something to hang on to. Also, the girls would have been a precision unit. Here they stood in a variety of poses, at odd distances from each other, chatting or looking entirely bored until someone cued the first in line to get a move on.

About twenty minutes before kickoff our eyes were drawn by the sound of a bunch of drums beating in rhythm. The sight was something else. La porra (L'aporra sp.?) two thousand die-hard fans wedged into a corner, a sea of yellow jerseys bouncing up and down to the beat of the drums. They chanted, they whistled, they waved, they slam-danced, their energy & sound providing a constant throbbing beat to the action. I could not keep my feet still. Soccer pitches are enormous. A fitter bunch of athletes would be hard to find. Where they find the energy for those sudden sprints after eighty minutes of running is totally beyond me. Whenever the goaler put the ball down to kick, a deafening whistle was struck up by the fans and when he made contact with the ball everyone shouted "Buuuuurrrrrooooo" (donkey). All through the game, the action was telecast on a huge screen at the end of the field. The fans were invited to send text messages to a phone number and a few minutes later they would scroll across the screen. The messages of love were syrupy sweet "Gloria, we've been through so much but we will love each other for ever." I thank god for the little angel you brought into my life,

At half time, the Roshfrans girls ran out to the middle of the field and did a little choreography to Shania's Damn, I feel like a woman. Anytime they turned to face the Toluca side of the field the girls in the back (now the front) would get completely lost, only recovering when they did an about-face and could follow the one girl who had memorized the steps. While they danced, a couple of inflatable toys were erected midfield. When the dancing ended a race began between four fans from the stands. It started with a potato-sack race, then a climb over the inflatable toys, a run to the other end of the field where they spun in five circles with their forehead on a bat stuck to the ground, then a dizzied dash to kick a ball in the net. The very happy winner took home 10,000 pesos.

The game was a blast but sadly scoreless. We left ten minutes before the end to avoid the crush and to try to catch the light show at the cathedral in the centro. The show began the moment we arrived, a massive crowd of couples and families filling the wide avenue in front of the church. There was, of course, pounding music and an impressive fireworks display, each explosion marking another set of coloured lights illuminating the façade of the building (and what a building!) The kids got an ice cream cone and we wandered home, past mariachi bandmembers who had no doubt been working the crowd before the lightshow began.

Morelia, another winner.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


The drive from Guadalajara went quickly through pasture, low bushy trees and cactus, undulating golden fields, a patchwork of green and tan with seams of low rock walls, the whole peppered with weathered red brick, lowslung farm buildings. Cattle country. We drove into Janostitlán (the heart of the highlands), still unsure as to whether the mention of toros on an obscure website was going to translate into the bullfight we'd been so hoping to experience before heading home. The town was so dusty and sleepy it was hard to imagine that anything was going to be happening here anytime soon. We got closer to the Plaza de Toros and ran into a roadblock. We talked to the policeman manning the barrier. He motioned to a guy across the road and then let us through the barrier to park in an empty lot two blocks from the Plaza. "Can we stay here for the night?", we asked him. "No, but I'll sleep in the little cement bunker and watch your car for you." Excellent. We walked over to the taquilla and bought five tickets in the shade. We walked toward downtown to see about getting a room and quickly discovered why the road was closed as cyclists whipped by us toward the finish line. The first hotel we tried was full, the second only had one room with a double bed, the third had a room with two doubles. The room she showed us was small and claustrophobic. Do you have one with a window? Yes, on the second floor. Deal. 

In a schoolyard by the side of the road leading back to the Plaza were five men in fancy dress, red pants banded in gold and orange, white shirts covered with an embroidered sash that hung over one shoulder, little caps with a vertical triangular crest strung with colourful ribbons five feet long. One of them was playing a little flute and drum. Then we noticed the 30 metre post -- the Voladores from Papantla (our one regret about the drive down the Gulf Coast was having missed them at El Tajin and here they were in Janostotitlán!) We watched them haul themselves up the post to sit on this little square contraption that wobbled on the top. As they sat, they spun the square, winding four ropes around the pole as they went. The musician played a haunting little tune and then climbed past his friends to a higher little perch in the middle of the four. He played the tune again, an offering to the four winds, each time laying down to hang his head backward. When he was done, he stood up and did a stamping dance as he played and drummed. As he played, the four voladores threw themselves off the platform backwards, hanging upside down with their legs wrapped in the rope tied around their waist. They swung around and around, in widening circles around the post, ribbons flying, the little mirrors on their hats flashing, haunting tune from the flute, getting closer and closer to the ground, righting themselves at the last second to land on their feet.

We hurried back to the Plaza which had undergone a transformation in the hour we were gone. Along one side ran a large white tent with folding tables and chairs and a long bar chock-a-block with people. Just outside one corner of the tent were four walls of steel about 10 foot square and three feet high. In the middle was a raging fire and around the fire were vertical lengths of rebar sharpened at the tip, strung with coils of chorizo, rabbit, sheep, goat, beef, pork. The aroma was literally mouth-watering. We elbowed our way up to the bar and ordered refrescos for the kids, a little sipping Pueblo Viejo Tequila for  Wil and me and a mixed plate of meats. A variety of succulent bits were wrapped on a plate in foil for us, then on to the condiment lady for a plastic bag of chopped tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro, a bag of salsa and a bundle of warm tortillas. 

We moved around to the entrance, got frisked, and went through a short low passage into the arena. We weren't sure where to sit so we moved along to the edge of the shade section and sat in the front row just behind the really expensive seats. The place was bubbling with energy. Simple white concrete steps rose from the central ring, the even ground painted with circular white lines. Enclosing the ring was a five-foot high red wooden fence with a large gate at one end and several smaller ones that opened up on to the bull enclosures. Inside the ring were four evenly-spaced four-foot wide stretches of fence about two feet inside the main fence, a blind of sorts which protected escape routes for the torreadors. 

We opened up our bags of yumminess and made ourselves some killer tacos. There were, of course, a hundred vendors selling everything from seat cushions to cigars to keychains. The tequila vendor sold drinks by the vaso or the bottle. We couldn't resist a plate of freshly roasted peanuts with a squeeze of lime, then more Pueblo Viejo, nieves for the kids. Needless to say the mood was high. The place slowly filled up. The men wore cowboy boots, slacks or black jeans, and shirts, wine gourds strung over one shoulder and, on their arm, a lady dressed to the nines. Teetering on at least three-inch heels, lots of leg and bust, hair in loose curls or straightened but without exception long and down, clothes clingy and short and low-cut, made up with every colour of the rainbow and with so much of it. I think I probably stood out more for my unfeminine attire and lack of makeup than for my gringoness. The people here looked less what I think of as Mexican than any other group of people we've seen. This was definitely an occasion for the haves.

And then the other show began, the brass band struck up a march and through an opening in the arena emerged seven torreadors. Leading the group was a man on horseback, dressed in crimson bolero jacket and matching pants, high glossy black boots, and grey wide-brimmed sombrero on a horse that was the image of perfection. We found out later that he was the star attraction, Pablo Hermoso, a torreador invited from Spain who fights the bull from horseback. The toreros on foot were all in classic bullfighting dress -- short, heavily-embroidered jacket, short pants, hot pink socks and a mantera (the black bicorn hat). The first two, the matadors, wore blue & gold or purple & gold, the others were in more muted shades. All of them entered the plaza with an embroidered sash over one shoulder that held their left arm in a sort of sling. They walked straight across the arena to remove their hats in a bowed salute to the judge who sat in a high loft over the audience. They then shed the slings and were handed their capes -- hot pink on one side, yellow on the other. They walked around the arena gracefully swinging round their capes and then moved toward the four openings in the fence. 

A few minutes later a man walked out on the field with a hand-painted sign announcing the name of the breeder and weight of the bull. A trumpet sounded from the judge's booth, one of the small red gates opened and seconds later out charged a massive snarling black bull looking for someone to kill. The half-ton bull lunged around the ring as the toreros flashed their capes over the side of the blinds. The bull circled and circled, occasionally ramming the wall which hid the toreros. After a minute or so, the toreros emerged and started doing their thing, taking turns calling the bull's attention to themselves and keeping him on the move. It became obvious pretty soon after that that one torero, the matador, was actually fighting the bull while the others only stepped in in moments of need, to keep the fighter from getting gored. 

I hadn't realized how very formal and structured the whole event is.  Very luckily, a very kind man who sat directly behind us seemed very happy to explain the happenings. Through the whole event, the banda played, highlighting the dramatic moments, signalling shifts in the action. There is a very set sequence and timing to the fight, all of which is managed by the judge. At his signal, his trumpeter sounds and the fight moves on to the next stage. After the initial introduction of bull to toreros, the trumpet sounds and out come the picadors, two men astride horses heavily wrapped in red padding and blindfolded. The picadors hold a long lance (a vara) and one of them sticks it into the bull's neck as the bull tries very hard to disembowel the padded horse. The thrust makes the bull bleed and also makes him angrier. Exit picadors. 

Next, the toreros invite the bull to charge them and then, at the last second, sidestep the bull and stick him with a pair of banderillos, three pairs in all. The toreros don't always manage to land all the banderillos. Cue trumpet and the matador exchanges the pink and yellow cape for a red one (a muleta) in which he hides a long sword called an estoque. Who he's hiding the sword from is another matter as the bull doesn't seem to pay much attention to anything but the cape. The matador does some more swishing of the cape, sometimes going down on his knees or turning his back on the bull, swinging the cape back and forth on either side of himself in a show of daring. The bull gets scarily close to the matador at times, leaving streaks of blood in the armpit of the matador's jacket. Sometimes when the cape is aflash, blurring the line between cape and matador, you are sure that the matador got clipped. 

Then, at what the matador deems the appropriate time, out comes the sword which he holds dramatically overhead, pointing at the bull. He gets the bull to charge him one final time, sinking the sword up to the hilt into the bull's back. In theory, the blade severs the aorta or pierces the heart, which is meant to bring him down fairly quickly. Once the bull goes down and will not get up again, another man enters the ring with a short blade which he uses to kill the bull instantly.

The matador from Spain was incredible, a dashing perfectly-coiffed figure atop these gorgeous beasts trained to overcome their fear of the bull to canter sideways, diagonally as close to the bull as possible. The matador changed horses between each sequence, planting a series of shorter and shorter banderillos (the last pair were a few inches long). Some of what the matador did was without benefit of reins, controlling the horse with subtle shifts of weight and leg movement, running tight circles around the furious bull.

After the death of the bull, the crowd goes wild waving white handkerchiefs at the judge who then waves one or two or none signalling how many of the bull's ears the matador's show has earned. If the crowd disagrees with the judge, they wave, they whistle or shout, and occasionally the judge caves and pulls out another flag. The matador salutes the judge and does a little victory tour of the ring. People in the stands launch their hats or their wine gourds down into the ring, the torreros collect them and hand them to the matador who then throws them back to the crowd along with a little bit of the bull's blood.

Bullfighting is a gory and fairly disgusting sport and, while I would never ever get in the ring with one of those bulls, in no way is it a fair fight. It is not a spectacle for the faint of heart but what a spectacle and, as they say, when in Rome.

The crowd poured out of the ring and headed toward the last night of the carnaval downtown. Well, we thought, this little town managed a crowd of three thousand for the bullfight, the fiesta might actually be fun. We were SO not prepared. The centro was throbbing with people and music. Getting through the crowds required some very hard hand-holding with the kids and a lot of little rocking steps. The zocalo was hemmed in with white tents set up as full bars and bandas, brass bands all doing their level best to outdo each other. And we're not talking about two or three bands, there were at least fifty, groups of ten men or more in matching suits of powder blue or lime green or yellow with the name of the band embroidered across the back -- a couple of drummers, a tuba, trombones, trumpets, clarinets and a singer or two. Can you say no volume control? Thirty bands playing at the same time, often within twenty feet of each other. Unless you were in the circle the banda formed to welcome dancers, you were listening to at least two songs at the same time (this for the woman who can't even deal with music on in my kitchen and hold music on the phone at the same time.) Right behind any performing band was another waiting impatiently for them to stop long enough to take over. The dancers were all young couples decked out in their friday night outfits doing the high-speed banda dance which is far more up and down than side to side. 

Of course, there was also lots of food, some little stands dishing out corn off the cob served in a styrofoam cup with mayo and cheese and chile sauce, but mainly taco stands with a row of clients on stools and another crowd behind them chowing down. After a snack and a couple of loud laps around the zocalo, Wil and I found a spot on a bench to watch the kids run in and out of the gazebo. The young guy beside us struck up a conversation and we talked a long time about Canada, the US, Mexico and then about the carnaval, which he was visiting with his brother because "las mujeres de Janostotitlán son muy guapas". I'd noticed the incredible number of young women, in spike heels and skin-tight outfits, dolled up in a way that would only suggest one line of work in Canada, most of them with a collection of roses in hand. Antonino pointed out a long line of the young ladies on the road around the zocalo  and explained that would-be suitors walk past and offer a rose to the girl that strikes their fancy. According to Antonino, if the girl says so, the young man has to follow up his advance with a visit to her home the next day to ask her father if he can take his daughter out on a date. "It's too old-fashioned for me, he said. You don't even go home with a kiss."

We finally had had enough of the sensory overload and decided to head back to the hotel. As we struggled through the bands and dancers and revel-makers, I started thinking about just how close our hotel room was to the action. In the afternoon as we headed off to the bullfight we didn't even know there was a fiesta. The usual advantages of being in the centro were suddenly looking like a major drawback. Antonino said that the partying on the last night often lasted until four in the morning. We walked two very short blocks and walked up the stairs to our hotel room. Only once we were inside with the door closed did the ridiculousness of the situation really hit home. I can only liken the volume to standing in the bottom of an empty swimming pool that is being used as a rehearsal space for marching bands. Hmmm. Should we make the kids get dressed and do the long walk back to the van only to perhaps find it in a locked lot? Should we leave the kids, sneak over, steal our own van, come back to collect the kids, drive ten blocks, park and sleep in the blessed quiet? Should we bomb the zocalo? And then, miraculously, one by one the kids fell asleep. Wil and I watched one of the Back to the Future movies, soundtrack by Banda Ruido Infernale. I finally drifted off. Wil lay awake forever listening to the bands peter out one by one. The last, he said, kept at it until four, going from one last slow, romantic number into a four-song speed banda marathon to kill the early morning.

For a look at what banda music & dancing is like check out

Monday, February 15, 2010


The drive was lovely through the high plains, across bridges 150 metres high, past the twin volcanoes, through the ranch country that spawned all the vaqueros we saw in Colima.

As we approached Guadalajara, we stopped at an Oxxo and took a few minutes with the three partial maps we had to try to find out just how to get to the Mac service centre for our ailing computers. A nice young guy stood with us for fifteen minutes showing us in detail how to get there, giving us his cell phone number in case we needed any more help in his city.

The approach into town was a real surprise. Guadalajara is much more modern than I expected. We tried out a campsite but it was just too far from the centre. We continued on into the city and found the road we were meant to be on but it was closed, as it is every Sunday, for cyclists and walkers. We finally got into the mall, a place that would look at home in any big city in the world. There is definitely some cash in Guadalajara. The mac folk were very helpful but it looked like we were going to be sticking around the city for a while as we waited for the new trackpad to be shipped from Mexico City.

We drove some more through bumper to bumper traffic, finally finding one of the hotels we were shooting for, a colonial building very close to the centre. Our room was unbelievably cheap and we said yes in our desperation to get the hell out of the car. We dumped our stuff in our room, fifteen foot ceilings, eleven-foot doors, incredible plasterwork ceiling. The big square room had been retrofitted with partitions to make a bathroom and a second bedroom, a nice treat, we thought, for Valentine's day. 

We went straight out to the market and parked ourselves on some stools at a great taco stand. We walked around town and had a quick look through the courtyard of the regional museum. By some crazy coincidence, we managed to time our visit with the 468th anniversary of the city. The city is chock-full of colonial churches, pedestrian walkways, beautiful squares and jardins, all of it full of free cultural events to mark the day. We went down to the Mercado San Juan de Dios, touted as the biggest covered market in Mexico -- whole city block and more on three levels linked with red brick ramps and a central shaft of light. We were definitely on the seedier side of town. The boulevards were lined with strip clubs -- nondescript facades with hidden entrances and a steady stream of men skulking in and out. On the street corners, we saw dozens of mariachi bandmembers, jackets and pants beribboned in gold coins & chains. We were looking for the Coliseo for a little Mexican wrestling (lucha libre). We saw a crowd gathered and headed over. The line went around the corner, hundreds of families with young kids. We installed the kids in the line and went off to find the ticket booth. When we got there, we asked for advice about the best place to sit. On the floor close to the action was the answer but that meant another taquilla so we grabbed the kids. Aside from the entertainment value, it's easy to see why this event is so popular with families, tickets for niños only cost 5 pesos. We walked into the big concrete building, handing over our backpack & camera (after seeing the quality of some of the pirated videos for sale in Mexico it's understandable that they want to control the distribution of wrestling photos). We watched a cluster of kids surround a wrestler as he entered the building, looking much like someone making his way through an airport rolling a little black bag (except for the mask!) The luchador very patiently squatted beside every child, flexing his muscle to make for a good shot. Henri edged forward and very bashfully stood in front of him for me. Wil got himself a beer (two poured into one paper cup) and we headed to our seats on the aisle.

There was a vendor for every five members of the audience, hawking figurines, beers, wrestling photos, magazines, masks, popcorn and cotton candy. My favourites were the ones selling jicama, little chunks of raw veg with a squeeze of lime and a generous shake of salt. The piped-in music started, sadly there was no live band (unlike last year's match in Mexico City.) Behind the ring a ramp led up to a large screen. The smoke machine got going, a tacky little light show on the screen and then the announcer dashed down the ramp to the ring. A quick introduction of the refs (to boos or cheers) and the action began. To rabid whistling, down the ramp comes a young woman in a cherry-red skintight hotsuit, long black hair tucked behind a wide gold hairband, big hoops in her ears on black stilettos, with an extra inch of wedge under the ball of her foot for good measure. I was sure she was going to tip over. She stood at the bottom of the ramp and gyrated to the personalized intro music as each wrestler made his entrance. The wrestlers walk on stage to the middle of the screen, strike a ferocious pose and then stalk down the ramp, touching kids' hands as they go. 

The show was fantastic. Four matches, some two on two, some three on three. The trouble the wrestlers have gone to to create unique identities for themselves is astounding. As the matches progress, so does the quality of the show, the blows and the toll they take looking more and more real. Some of our favourites: Super Porky, a squat man with an enormous belly who struck down his enemies with a lethal belly buck; the mini-wrestler dressed all in white who looked like a shrunken superhero -- only four and half feet tall but he ran circles around his opponents, wrapping himself around an arm or leg and not letting go; there was the one who grossed out his opponents by spitting great gobs into the air and catching them in his mouth; and my personal favourite, Massimo, the chubby gay wrestler, pink mohawk, Roman-type togs who took obvious pleasure in being held or held down and whose ultimate weapon was a big juicy kiss.

The real beauty of Lucha Libre, aside from the fact that no one (including the wrestlers) takes it very seriously is the time the wrestlers take to sign autographs or shake kids' hands before and after the match, never walking away from a kid with a pad to sign. A boy who sat right in front of us ran down to the ring at the start of every match and always came back with something to show his family. We bought masks for the kids and they wore them through the whole match. A really fun way to spend an afternoon in Mexico, jeering, laughing and, after an especially good move, screaming "Otra, otra, otra! (another, another, another!)"

We walked back through Guadalajara's million squares, catching a glimpse of the headliner performing at the end of the evening's lineup in the main square. The place was packed. Couples held each other, everyone swayed and sang along to the oh-so-sweet love song. Mexicans sure do love love.

We were starving but everything but the Chinese restaurants were closed. Normally we'd be cheering for Chinese but when we'd walked past them earlier in the day we'd shaken our heads about how unreasonably cheap the all-you-can-eat buffet was. The lineups outside had been astounding and we couldn't quite believe we were actually going in. The atmosphere is rarely the focus of a Chinese restaurant and Wei Chan was no exception, but we were pretty happy to be mounding crunchy vegetables on our plates.

Everyone was exhausted by the time we made it back to our hotel. Our initial look hadn't been very thorough. Any charm the building had had in its heyday was very effectively erased by the fluorescent tubes mounted on the aqua walls. The air was awful, nothing like a smoking room with a carpet and no window, lumpy pillows, sheets with pills... Gross. Wil woke up at five and by the time I was awake, he'd made a new plan. Number one on the list was finding a new hotel. We fed the kids some dulces as we searched. We found a gorgeous place which has been an inn since 1610. Central courtyard with a stone fountain, above it a chandelier ten feet across and above the chandelier a stained glass ceiling that I kept expecting James Bond to come crashing through. A grand staircase led up to the rooms which were all off a a stone verandah which framed the courtyard. Our rooms were so pretty, ceilings high enough for two floors, in rich wooden beams, balconies with shutters looking out over the street. The kind of place that makes you feel you've stepped into another more civilized time.

We walked back to the market for lunch. We saw some ladies chowing down on a "buffalo"-- a burrito stuffed with meat and beans and covered in salsa and melted cheese. When the waiter brought it to us, he looked us up and down and then asked Wil if by any chance we'd been to the lucha the night before. Yes?! I sold your daughter some popcorn, he said. Five million people in Guadalajara, what are the odds? What a nice guy. I got the sense that what he really wanted to do was untie his apron, quit for the day and take us on a personalized tour. Instead, in five minutes, Pancho tried to convey a lifetime's worth of advice about his city. I felt ridiculous but I got all choked up when we said goodbye.

We went up the street looking for a place to get our new backpack and Henri's watchstrap repaired. We found a dusty little hole in the wall, banda music blasting, two guys lost in a sea of industrial sewing machines of all descriptions. Ten minutes later, all the seams of the backpack had been resewn, Henri's strap fit and we'd watched people of all shapes and sizes stand in one shoe or empty the contents of their bags as they waited for repairs. It was so refreshing to see the kinds of things that are too often seen as disposable treated with a little love and care.

We made our way back across town to see how the computers were faring. It was looking like we were going to have to be in the Guadalajara area a little longer than anticipated, but we were both happy about it. We went upstairs to take the kids bowling which was a total hoot. Bowling has changed a lot since I was a kid. The technician got me to type in all our names and asked which belonged to the kids, then rigging the lanes to lift up very discreet bumpers on the inside of the gutters to keep their ball in play.

We headed back to the market for a disappointing try at supper. Everything was closing up. Mexicans eat on a very different schedule than we do and obviously have different ideas about what should be served at particular times of day. The torta (sandwich) places, for example, are only open til about 2 in the afternoon, the ceviche places, too, don't seem to be considered dinner fare. We found Pancho there again, who was just getting off for the day, and he directed us to a soup stand where we sat and polished off a couple of bowls of caldo de pollo.
It started pouring on the walk home. We dashed from awning to awning trying to stay out of the rain. Once we were back at our hotel the kids went up to the room to watch a little tv and Wil & I sat in the courtyard sipping delicious margaritas, all the while being serenaded by a man strumming and singing old Mexican ballads.

Guadalajara rocks.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


This stretch of the 200 hugs the sides of the mountains that perch on the Pacific. The coastal side of the road began with a line of cliffs that plunge into the sea and, as we got further north, vast groves of orderly lines of 50 foot high coconuts. The inland side was marsh or scrub, all of it covered in a dense mat of parched vines. Later on, endless fruit plantations -- glossy, puffed up mango trees, pale green fruit hanging heavily on long stems that literally drip from the trees, papaya clinging to the their frail-looking trunks under an umbrella of massive fig-like leaves, towering coconuts with squat banana trees as ground cover, pale blue bags hanging from each tree to protect the ripening fruit. Where there were no bananas, there were cows grazing happily in the shade.

The Michoacán coast seems to be one endless string of playas, some tiny sheltered coves of white sand, some miles-long stretches of perfect beach. So many places to look into when we return. It wasn't easy to admit that we'd had enough of surf and sand. We were aiming for one last night on the beach, a hillside campground just outside Colima. The plan was to spend the night and then do the climb to Guadalajara in the morning. Strung across the end of the little dirt road was a padlocked chain — change of plans. With only a couple of weeks left we still had a few things on our wishlist: a charreada (Mexican rodeo), lucha libre and a bullfight, some of which we were hoping to find in Guadalajara. We pulled into Colima mid-afternoon but there was no campground near town. We sauntered up to the check-in desk. Yes, we have room for you but all the rooms with balconies are booked because of the cabalgata. What is the cabalgata? The start of the weekend's charrotaurinas, Colima's version of the charreada. It might be a bit noisy, the bellboy warned us, lots of horses and even more loud music. Yeehaw! While Wil and I sorted out the car, the bellboy led the kids up to the room and told them there would be a thousand horses. I think he was exaggerating, Colima is not that big a town. Found dinner at a little place on the Jardin. Wil ordered sopes, thinking it was a sopa (soup). Instead came a threesome of chubby little tortillas, smothered in shredded pork, cheese, onions, cilantro, crema, hot sauce on the side. Mmmm.

People started to gather, crowding the sidewalk cafés and balconies and lining the street. We waited patiently, checking down the right hand side of the road to see if anything was coming. Dozens of horses rode by in the opposite direction in twos and threes, young cowboys in their finest, white striped collared shirts, white or black cowboy hats, chaps, spurs sparkling, finely-tooled wooden saddles, horses glossy, manes and tails braided or brushed. Many of the riders took their steeds through their paces on the way by, highstepping, dancing, bucking and bowing. Some of the cowboys had obviously seen fifty or more cabalgatas; elegant caballeros who took advantage of the spotlight to show that the young bucks had nothing to teach them -- getting their horses to goose-step a little higher, bow a little lower. Whether the vaquero was on a mule or an arabian, pride was as much on display as the horses.

We waited. Police cars marked the start, behind them a truck sagging under the weight of a full brass band with girls and guys dripping over the high sides, deafening banda music blasting. As though the music weren't loud enough, a massive tower of speakers on the tailgate. Inches away from the back of the truck, fifty or so horses crowded the street, cowboys with one hand on the reins, the other clutching a can of beer, the horses completely unfazed by the pumping music or the crowds. I jumped back a dozen times to avoid rumps and hooves -- pretty quickly regretting having chosen to stand in front of the low hedge. Behind that group of horses another truck and another group of horses. It went on and on and on. Turns out a thousand was no exaggeration. We ended up heading up to our room and listened to the end of the cabalgata as we drifted off after 11.

Woken by the bells of a nearby church. the significance of the repeated rings in sequences of one, two, then fifteen or more rings lost on us. The morning began with a search for yet another mofle man, the familiar routine of following vagueish directions, around this corner, around that corner... Finally got sorted out by a man with an atrophied arm that hung loosely from his shoulder and his one-eyed assistant in the cool goggles who had us set to go in 10 minutes for 150 pesos.

The fair/charrotaurinas, was set to start after noon with another cabalgata that ran from the jardin to the fairgrounds and Patetera in Villa de Alvarez, the town next door. Henri got chased around by a group a girls and ended up ripping his shorts off. We hailed a cab but when we told him where we were going he dropped us off a block later and said the only road was blocked by the cabalgata so we should try again later. We walked and walked in the sun and finally found a cab who took us to the entrance at the other end of the grounds. "What is the petatera?", we asked him. The Petatera is the place full of petates. Thanks for clearing that up for us. He dropped us off and we walked across a field to the fairgrounds, the twin volcanoes of Colima and snow-capped Nevado de Colima visible through the ferris wheel. To the left of the fairgrounds was a plaza de toros built of rough planks and strung with a a thousand palm-woven mats (aka petate!). Outside the arena were red circles painted with big white numbers, each a section with a different keeper, ours a very old, very deaf man and his young assistant who shouted into his ear and showed us where we were allowed to sit. 60 pesos for the family. We climbed up and sat down but still no idea what we were in for. In the arena were the hundreds of cowboys we'd seen. Many sat on their horses in a long line with rumps to the outside of the ring in the shade. Above the arena a handful of rows of folding chairs, behind the chairs an aisle of sorts and then a dozen or so benches of rough planks, all of a various widths and lengths that rose to the top. Beneath the planks, more petates or perilous drops into the steep steps. On one end of the arena was a banda playing loudly to get everyone riled up. The riders who weren't stuck to the wall trotted and cantered around the arena waiting for something. A few minutes later, without announcement or fanfare, a red gate swung open and out came a very angry-looking white bull, bucking and kicking. Suddenly a hundred lassos were in action. The bull cut a path through the horses, the vaqueros took aim and in short order had the poor beast on its side. The challenge was releasing it and guiding it back through the red gate. In the stands families sat eating chips doused in hot sauce, plastic cups full of sliced cucumber, pineapple and jicama sprinkled with lime and salt, cans of beer served with rock salt and half a lime on the can. Vendors screamed, music blared, cowboys circled, bulls bucked. For us, the show was as much in the stands as in the arena. A very drunk cowboy walked past us in the aisle and jumped down into the arena, finding his way through the horses to the gate. I lost sight of him before he made it.

A few more bulls made their entrance and exit and then everyone was invited to go get something to eat before the fair rides began. Right outside the exit was a long row of temporary bars, buxom painted girls serving up drinks, horses tied to posts outside. We headed toward a big tent where everyone seemed to be going. One end was a huge dance floor and a fifty-member brass band going strong, the rest was folding tables and chairs full of cowboys in their finery — all of Colima's caballeros and their damas. People had set up their coolers in the corners, selling homemade ceviche and tamales. We bought a plate de carne asado, the kids bought refrescos. People wandered around greeting each other, the men in jeans, cowboy hats and white shirts, the ladies squeezed into their best outfits pulling along their polished kids dressed in mini cowboy hats and boots.

As we approached the exit I saw the drunk cowboy again, his nose mashed, his white hat streaked with blood, arm strung over his wife's shoulder and young son by his side.

We spent a few lovely hours in the zocalo, Henri played soccer with a couple of boys, the girls watched a man and his son in matching clown suits put on a what seemed to be an endless show. And to bed.


We headed south on the 200, aiming for Zihuatanejo. The wheels on the left side were feeling a bit wobbly to Wil so we were on the lookout for a VW mechanic. The plan was to be in town to wait for the part Wil was sure we were going to need. We kept our eyes peeled as we entered town and found one on the service road of the carretera. After a quick pit stop and a tightening of the wheels (which we weren't charged for), we had a yummy sopa de mariscos at the market. While we were driving around Wil noticed that the noise was gone, which totallly changed to itinerary. No part to wait for, no reason to stay in Zihuatanejo. We headed back toward Troncones. The kids and I were excited to see the town again. I think Wil was more anxious than anything, worried that the town would not fare well in light of all our new and more genuine experiences of Mexico. Either way, it is where the seed of this year's road trip took root and we were all curious to see it again. So much of it was familiar and, sadly, totally underwhelming compared to last year's perfect two weeks. We drove along the beach road looking for a likely place to camp without much luck. We were very sad to see that Doña Nica didn't have her pollo asado stand on the main road anymore. We cruised along the string of restaurants on the beach and there she was running her own place. None of us had any expectation of being remembered but she did, and her husband Ramiro, a cab driver who'd given us a tour of his salt laguna remembered us, too. She very kindly agreed to let us pull up in front for a night or two. All we had to do was eat supper in her restaurant. Well, if we HAVE to. Our memory of her cooking was the only thing that didn't suffer in comparison with the rest of our trip. The first night she made us the most amazing chile relleno, stuffed with mashed potato and cheese with a side of albondigas (meatballs with a little chunk of hard-boiled egg tucked in the middle) all served in a zingy tomato sauce with rice, frijoles and blue corn tortillas. Watching her cook was half the fun of being there.

After the lovely waves of Caleta de Campos, the crashing surf and killer undertow of Troncones kept the girls (big and small) out of the water entirely. The town had three days of rain last week, washing everything out of the river on to the beach. The town and the government were in a bit of a power struggle over who was going to take responsibility for the clean up. In the meantime there was a three foot wide barrier of waterlily greens between the water and the shore. The beach certainly didn't look the same. Fortunately Doña Nica had a little pool that kept the kids more than entertained while Wil & I watched the ladies -- Doña Nica, her tortilla lady and her daughters, Brenda and Gardenia, get lunch and supper ready every day. All the cooking was done outside, on a variation of what we saw in Punto Maldonado, an 8-foot long low wooden table covered in clay with four keyhole-shaped slots of differing sizes notched about a foot deep into the clay. The narrow slot of the keyhole for feeding the fire, the closed side a place for the cook to stand without any of the heat of the fire. In the biggest hole sat the comal, a slightly concave earthenware disk where the tortillas got cooked and the jalapenos got toasted. The next biggest notch held a big wok where the chiles rellenos and pescadillas got deep fried.

Lunch on day two was a sopa de mariscos with the tail end of a huachinango, a small lobster cracked in two, a few massive shrimp and a bunch of octopus bits in a flavourful tomato-based broth. The kids got blue corn pescadillas stuffed with fish in a tomato base for the kids. The kids polished off their pescadillas and then begged for seafood scraps from the soup.

We ordered margaritas for our first sunset. Maybe the best we've ever had. When Wil asked for the recipe, Gardenia flashed a cheap liqueur de naranja, a couple of limes, no sugar ... and RUM!

We spent a lot of time chatting with her oldest daughter, Gardenia, who was (as she put it) suffering through her first year back in Troncones after five years in California. A 34-year-old mother of two boys, married at 15, mom by 17 and now back living with her mother, one of her sons and all her extended family while her boyfriend stayed on in California, unable to visit her or she him for lack of papers. Her ex-husband was in Zihuatanejo living with another woman. She loved her life in California and it so obviously pained her to have her 10-year-old son struggling with the adjustment of living life in a minuscule Mexican village, learning how to read and write in Spanish after five happy years in a U.S. school. The poor kid was so painfully shy. The kids and I sat with him for half an hour and the only words that came out of his mouth was the proud naming of the Elementary School he had attended in Vista.

Later on in my conversation with Gardenia she asked me if "los hombres canadienses son fieles?" Are they faithful to their wives? "I can't speak for all of them, but most of the ones I know." She sighed, Mexican men have a wife and at least two women on the side. Wil asked me about the math. Either there are a lot more men than women in this country or some of the women on the side have men on the side. The men of Doña Nica's household only appear when it's mealtime, along with a ragtag bunch of near and distant relatives. They sit down at the table, a plate of amazing food appears before them and is swept away as soon as the last bit is eaten. I never saw one gracias or any kind of compliment about her incredible cooking. In contrast, she seemed to love watching the kids eat her food with relish (they don't complain, she marvelled, and they eat everything!) She also watched Wil watching her cook and asked about whether, like many norteamericanos that she'd met, he cooked. Oh yes. The only thing MY husband knows how to do in the kitchen, she said, is to sit on his ass and wait to be served.

Doña Nica's second daughter Brenda's 4-year-old daughter Paola was a piece of work. Gorgeous little thing, always primped to the nth degree, sporting all the ridiculous footwear we've been seeing in the market. -- silver sandals with a four-inch wide ankle strap attached to the back of the sandal, Converse lookalikes that go up to the knee. The afternoon we met her she approached us holding a can with a slot in the top. Glued to the side of the can was a colour picture of her decked out in a tiara and one of the gawdy princess dresses that hang in half the shop windows in Mexico. What's the cause? "I want to be Spring Queen, whomever collects the most cash wins." After dropping in a few pesos we found out that Paola's can got a cut of every chile relleno that Doña Nica serves in February. Serious business. And like so many of these hidden ingredients of Mexico, now that we are aware of this phenomenon we keep seeing it everywhere -- usually a grandparent dragging around a pretty but sullen granddaughter wherever a crowd has gathered and hitting up anyone with a peso to their name.

Wil noticed that there wasn't a single lancha on the beach and no fishermen to speak of. When we asked Doña Nica about it she stated that the town is only 30 years old, that the village is just a bunch of farmers who relocated to the beach to service the tourists. It certainly explained a lot about what we did and didn't find there.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Caleta de campos

In the morning, we headed south out of Uruapan toward the Tsararacua Falls, a dozen or so kilometres south of town. We went down hundreds of stone steps into the mouth of a beautiful gorge. The cliffs towered above us, water licking the surface of the mossy rocks. The falls themselves were spectacular, 25 metres high, the water gushing through a cleft in the rocks, the spray creating a constant rainbow on the valley floor. While we stood there admiring the spectacle a man came hurtling toward us overhead on a zip line. Henri's first reaction was, "Can I try?" Sure. He bolted across the little arch bridging the sides of the valley and dashed up the steps clutching his fifty pesos. We watched from the water's edge as the man attached his harness and strapped on his helmet. Henri acted out a string of gestures as the man explained (lean back, knees up, elbows in). A minute or two later Henri came flying toward us with a huge grin on his face.

Back up the steps, I sat and watched the kids play on a hebertism course (which for non-Kanawanians is a wood & rope obstacle course) while Wil fiddled with the engine looking for the source of various noises which were troubling him. It seems the muffler was the culprit and as we headed back toward Uruapan to jump on the toll road toward the beach we found a mofle shop. We pulled in and were approached by a man/boy, sixteen at the outside, peachfuzz on his lip, no more than five feet tall and his gangly sidekick. We told him about the muffler problem. He appeared pretty confident that he could fix it inside of twenty minutes. New muffler, installed, for 500 pesos. Deal. He jumped down into the pit and got started while the kids worked on homework and I typed. An hour and half later he was done, we crossed the street for a pollo asado (butterflied barbecued chicken) with all the fixings — rice, frijoles, pickled carrots & cauliflower, salads, salsas, tortillas made before our eyes and a big pitcher of agua de jacaima (hibiscus flowers and sugar in water).

The drive was painless. Because they cost money, toll roads are essentially devoid of traffic and in fantastic shape. Highway 37 drops off the edge of the high plain, through the ridiculously picturesque Western Sierra Madres, and crosses a series of massive rivers on its way to the coast. We only saw two villages from the road and a huge hydroelectric dam. The land seemed practically uninhabited but as soon as that thought crossed my mind a threesome of boys appeared alongside the road, sitting on the curb playing with sticks. A minute later another cluster of kids appeared, hanging out under an overpass. One boy stood slightly apart from the others, a long green iguana hung in the hand he held overhead for us to see. To sell? Under the next overpass was another group of kids, one of whom also held an iguana aloft. Is iguana edible?

To our relief, the temperature climbed as we approached the coast. The first glimpse of the Pacific was met with cheers. We hung a right and got on the 200, the coastal road that runs all the way from Guatemala to Puerto Vallarta. After Wil's weather check in Uruapan it looked like heading north first was the best way to maximize our days of sunshine. We went to Caleta de Campos, a little town about 50 km north of Playa Azul. We turned down off the 200 and followed a road that ended at the beach and asked around about where we might camp for the night. The owner of one enramada pointed us toward a field, "Donde hay los gallos (where the roosters are) a block away from the beach. We had a look and chatted with the owner, 200 pesos a night. As we walked back to the beach we noticed just HOW many gallos there were. Visions of manic cockadoodledooing at all hours put the kibosh on that place. Then we tried the other side of the beach road, a couple of palapas fronting a spick and span restaurant manned by a very busy-looking group of women. Sure! was the answer. 100 pesos a night. We pulled up beside the palapa and set up. We spent the rest of the afternoon sipping wine, watching the kids make friends in the very mellow waves. There is no sunset in Caleta de Campos, a horseshoe bay that has its back turned to the Pacific. The long narrow beach hemmed in by high cliffs is peppered with massive red boulders, the opening of the bay points almost due east.

After dark, we sat around outside the kitchen with the semi-permanent guest here, José, a retired musician/upholsterer from Albuquerque, who was parked in a hammock sipping Modelos in front of the SuperBowl. Watching television outdoors actually makes it somewhat interesting. Explaining the game to the kids made me realize just how much of my childhood was spent watching sports and learning the minutiae of the game. And how strange to find I have a favourite team when I haven't seen an NFL game in twenty-five years. Go Saints. We asked Gloria, our hostess, if we could have some supper. During the last quarter, a couple of fried red snappers and the strangest ceviche with green peas was set down on the table.

The kids discovered the highs and lows of Video Bingo with the kids who live here. Alice made twenty-five pesos on her first go. We had a late night stroll down to the surf and introduced the girls to the beauty of the Milky Way.

We spent the morning hunting down a welder to fix Junior's mistakes. Gloria's oldest agreed to show us where to find the welder "temprano". Early is a relative term. For Wil, it's six, for me it's 8, for Carlos it's 10. We finally got there and waited around for him to finish his breakfast. A few minutes later it was sorted. The other noises will have to wait for a bigger town, one with a diesel mechanic and VW parts, perhaps Zihuatanejo.

The girls made a new friend and went down to the beach with Aline and her two teenage cousins. Can we go swimming? Sure. I took it easy. Wil got a yummy lunch of shrimp salad together and we waited for the girls. And waited. And waited. We went to look for them and they were nowhere in sight. The beach is a couple of kilometres long but most of it is visible from where we are. I was sure they'd wandered off the beach to check out a puppy or something but an edge of mild panic set in as we walked up and down. I walked back up the road to ask around at the hotel where Aline was staying. 45 minutes later I crossed a woman on the beach. So, did you find them?, she asked. No, I said, do you know the little girl? She's mine. Do you know where she is? I'll just call her cousins to find out (a teenager is not a teenager in Mexico if he/she doesn't have a cell phone). The girls pick up and yes, they're at the absolute other end of the beach behind a big rock. Wil starts breathing again. We eat lunch and head along the beach to find them. After firmly explaining that going for a swim should never entail an unannounced 2 kilometre walk, we all walked into the waves together for a beautiful swim. Caleta de campos has the most family-friendly surf we've seen on this coast. No riptides, no massive waves, an oh-so-gentle slope that leaves a little film of sea on the beach for the longest time (undoubtedly amazing skimboarding)

Henri's initial joy at having a household full of boys was soon dampened by the realization that all they wanted to do was play the two old arcade games. Literally spending every single minute until having to get dressed for school at 1:30 in the afternoon in front of The King of Fighters. It made him all the happier to find a new pal in Carlos, the hotel manager's son. They spent the afternoon playing lucha libre in the waves and made a date for the following morning.

In the afternoon, I swam out past the crashing waves and lay on my back with my ears below the surface, the faint clicks and pops of the underwater world washing away all the sounds from above. Bobbing effortlessly in the warm swells, a pale blue sky lined with threads of wispy clouds overhead. My own perfect bliss.

It's been fun watching the fishermen gear up their boats and head out. Every beach seems to have its own notions of the best way to bring a boat up on shore. Mazunte was by far the most dramatic, riding in on a massive wave at full throttle and getting air before descending on the beach above the tideline. The common thread seems to be the hurried scramble (often failed) to get the motor up before making contact with the beach.

My fantasies of garroting roosters were getting the best of me, time to move on.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Paricutin and Uruapan

We hit the road bright and early, right after Wil exchanged a Canadiens jersey for a Rough Riders t-shirt with the biggest Habs fan Saskatchewan has ever produced.

We tried the free highway to Uruapan, only to find it blocked by a Pepsi truck that had flipped on the road, probably due to a hard frost that can't be very common here. A quick u-turn and back through Patzcuaro to the toll road. The rains have pushed the deep red soil onto the road in many places. I just hope they manage to clear the earth out of the drainage ditches along the road before the rain is set to start up again on Wednesday.

We drove down a pretty road that could have been New Hampshire, rolling green hills with mountains hazy in the distance. It was a quick drive which got us in to Uruapan mid-morning. We went through the town and on to Anguhuan. The village marks the beginning of a trail that leads to San Juan Viejo, a town that was destroyed by the eruption of a brand new volcano in 1943. When we turned off the highway on to the bumpy road toward town, we drove through a cluster of men on horseback. They sidled up to the car to talk to Wil about riding down to the site. We waved them off thinking the walk would be good exercise. A few minutes later, the same guy came galloping down the road after us. "The road isn't passable since the heavy rain, we'll give you a good price, we'll show you the lookout and you can see how far it is and then decide." They escorted us through town, laying claim to the gringos for all the other guides to see. The drive through town was incredibly slow, no speedbumps necessary with this road. All the women wore traditional Purepecha garb -- colourful satin skirts with a thousand pleats, sashes bundled in a roll around their hips, embroidered aprons and bright sarapes. This in stark contrast to the boys through the doorways behind them, playing ancient arcade games in their livingrooms.

We crossed a carload of policemen and I asked them to confirm the story about the road being out. The road isn't recommended, they said. We talked it over as we drove toward the lookout, the horses looked healthy (unlike the pitifully scrawny beasts that trawl the beaches), the kids would love it, the price was right. The lookout was impressive, a view of white-capped Colima volcano in the faraway, in the midde distance but too far for us was the new volcano and, in the foreground, the steeple of the church of San Juan Viejo. We agreed to the price and two minutes later five horses were there waiting for us. We jumped on and our two guides, Roberto, 14 and Andres, 10, walked alongside us. They spoke to each other in Purepecha, a language that sounds nothing like Spanish and something like some of the North American native tongues I've heard. I tried to learn a few words "Dios mayamoc" is thank you, bread is "corunda" (the sweet tamales that came with our stew in Patzcuaro). The ride down was pretty steep in spots (not my favourite place to be on horseback) but the kids were oblivious and loving it. The trail snaked through a pretty pine forest, the ash mixed with pine needles on the forest floor the only hint of what was to come. The sights and the smells all felt very familiar until the first lumps of lava appeared. Suddenly the trees were behind us and the whole landscape opened up to craggy mounds of jagged black rock. The horses took us as far as they could, to a dozen simple shacks of tin roofs on posts. We walked through the shacks, the familiar call of the aproned women beckoned. These ladies took it a step further, offering samples of their delicious blue corn cheese quesadillas. We wanted to see the church first.

There was a narrow path through the lumpy walls of lava, around a corner and there it was, a gorgeous steeple reaching for the sky in a puddle of black lava. Parallel to the steeple fifty feet away stood the remains of the altar. Where the pews once stood, nothing but matte black, pitted rock. A bit ghoulish. The volcano, a stark mountain with its top lopped off seemed much too far away and yet it had all but erased this town of 8000 from the face of the planet. We clambered around on the unfriendly rocks for a while, finding our way through archways half submerged in lava. We headed back to the shacks for lunch. We went from shack to shack, asking the ladies what was on offer. I could've done it all day, all in Purepecha togs, they pulled the lids off their blue ceramic pots to reveal variations on the same theme, guisado (stew, in this case churipu of beef and veg), potatoes and sausage, frijoles, one lady had a great-looking mole. The one we settled on had a dish of caja & hongos (sautéed chopped chiles and mushrooms) that we couldn't pass up. She also had some lovely embroidered aprons for sale. We sat down on the long narrow benches and feasted. Andres surprised Henri on the ride back by hopping on the back of his horse for the climb. They spent the rest of the ride chatting and teaching each other words in Purepecha and English. Roberto jumped up with Alice and he held the girls's horses back and then trotted a bit, much to their giggling delight.

Back to Uruapan to our campsite in the green parking lot of a pretty hotel set around a courtyard and pool. The kids donned their suits and gingerly played in the freezing water while we worked on the itinerary, starting with the depressing process of counting back from our arrival in Abercorn. Later we took a taxi into town to check out the zocalo and market. We talked to the taxi driver about the rains and he said that Uruapan always gets rain so the last few days were no big deal here. The market, although large, was much less charming than most because of its new digs on four levels. It felt more like a Mexican mall. It was somehow too organized, not enough food interspersed with the stuff to make it interesting. We finally realized that the food was in an altogether different mall a block away, the mercado de antojitos. We sampled a pozole, a dish that neither of us recalled with much fondness (some of our housemates from Cuernavaca may remember.) It was surprisingly good -- tasty broth, massive kernels of corn that were not at all pasty, little chunks of moist pork, covered with a handful of shredded cabbage, sliced radish, lime wedge and hot sauce. We ended up taking a seat and having another while being serenaded by a seriously tacky Mexican cowboy on guitar. Wil took a shot at finding a classic Michoacan hat for his oh-so-not-Michoacan head. No joy there.

The kids nursed an helado and had a blast chasing each other around the Zocalo with all the other Mexican kids. The marked absence of anything that could be construed as a lawn in most of the cities we've visited is, I suppose, another reason why the zocalo is so popular with families. On our walk around town we saw women walking with little statues of baby Jesus cradled in blankets in their arms, something we'd seen on Christmas eve in Papantla. I asked the taxi driver about it on the way home. I didn't understand half of what he said but it was something like on Christmas eve someone takes the statue home and cares for it for 40 days until Candlemas, when the women carry jesus around to symbolize Mary going out to be cleansed after the birth? It is a very unsettling sight when you see a woman, like a hundred other women, carrying a baby around (forget about strollers in mexico) and when you lean over to have a look (to, of course, comment on how beautiful the baby is) you find a statue of a little white baby with a crown.

Back to the campsite and a late night introduction to the basics of pool with the kids in the games room. Another cool night but at least we didn't have to turn the furnace on in the early hours.


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.