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.


Anonymous said...

Maybe William should have bought himself one of those colourfully embroidered aprons in San Juan Viejo, instead of trying for the Michoacan hat! How are you handling the stuff you buy while on the road -are you mailing it home?

A Friend Indeed said...

Just catching up with you. It's sunny here but still unseasonably chilly ... hope it warms up soon and that you will find time for Guanajuato and us!!