travelog 95

Judy & Bob's Visit in Mexico

For many years we have been trying to convince Judy and Bob, good friends from San Francisco, to visit Mexico. Decades ago they vacationed in the big beach resorts but this, as is well known, has very little to do with the real Mexico. In his youth Bob also travelled through Mexico with a backpack and riding public buses, but he could not have possibly seen everything. Finally we find THE opportunity: Judy's 65th birthday (sorry for letting it out, Judy!). At the same time we could also celebrate Valentine's Day. February is the perfect month to see the Monarch butterflies as well. Now even Bob could not find any counter-arguments anymore although he had planned to travel through Mexico only in old age when he would be unable to master the real adventures like China and Tibet.

February of 2010 turns out to be a very unusual month. It rains incessantly for four days and four nights. Where corn and sorghum are normally grown, it looks more like ideal terrain for rice plantations. Rivers and streams burst their banks. Huge areas in central Mexico are flooded. The Monarch butterflies have not only had to endure freezing temperatures and snow in the winter, but now they have to suffer torrential rains on top of that. Half of the village of Angangueo, one of the starting points to see the butterflies, is buried under mud avalanches. In the eastern part of Mexico City, part of a sewer dam collapses. Square kilometers of houses stand a meter thick in brown, stinking sewage. In the middle of all this Judy and Bob arrive at 6AM in Guadalajara. The bad weather at least gives us a good reason to quickly go and visit a tequila factory. After tasting the different fire waters that in the end become Tequila Siete Leguas, we all feel warmer and better.

Slowly the rain eases and finally it stops completely. We wake up to an almost cloud-free, blue sky. Immediately we pack our things and head out. Our little car is almost full with Judy's luggage although we have not yet really set off. Our plan is a short round trip through Michoacan where we want to visit many villages famous for their craftwork where Judy will certainly purchase someother things to fill the car even more. Our first destination is Ocumicho on the Meseta Tarasca where we visit Doña Teresa. The family lives in wooden houses in very confined spaces. Every member of the family works on the production of the famous "diablitos", the little clay devils. Of course they not only make devils, there's no end to the fantasy. The clay figures are colorfully painted and come in all sizes. We especially like little chickens that you can pick up by their combs to find a couple involved in various kinds of sexual acts on the plate below. Doña Teresa does not like these little works of art produced by her cousin but they sell like warm bread. Instantly the women have discovered that Judy likes almost everything in the room and that she has a hard time deciding on something. And so they bring more and more things to show to her. As soon as it gets around that potential clients have arrived, the neighbors, wanting to sell as much as possible, show up with baskets of their pieces. After we have filled two large boxes we decide to leave them for pick-up on the return trip due to lack of space. Next we go to different villages on Meseta Tarasca where we visit the famous for their small temples. Through Cocucho we drive to Nurio where we find two very old Yucca filifera next to the church. They look like they were planted centuries ago by the Spanish monks, that's how enormous they are. Late in the afternoon we arrive in Paracho, the guitar capital of Mexico if not the world. The main road is lined with shops sellings guitars and similar instruments. Some of them even make their own guitars in the shop. At night we stroll over the main plaza and peek into the cook's pots. Judy and Bob are easygoing travel companions. They eat everything we order with relish. After tasting tacos at different stalls, having eaten tons of spicy chile, we're completely stuffed. On the way back to the hotel we stop at a guitar work shop where a group of young people sing and play with their maestro. After telling them that it's Julia's birthday, they serenade her beautifully. It's a peaceful ending of a beautiful day.

On small roads we now drive on to Patzcuaro. You can linger in this "pueblo magico". As usual, we first visit the market. Women offer fruits, vegetables, herbs and plants from their gardens in front of the roofed market. Just next door is the food section. From every stall people shout what delicacies they have to offer and they encourage you to just sit down. We decide on huge "quesadillas" stuffed to your liking with cheese, meat and vegetables. Then they're deep-fried and served with sour cream and spicy salsa. After strolling through the entire market with visit the many churches, gardens and museums that are the sights of town. We enjoy our apertitif, a tequila that we have brought along, in the hotel's green patio. Then we're off to the market again. At night there are other food stalls installed, but they attract their customers as loud as the ones around noon. We end up at a place where pieces of chicken, potatoes, onions and chiles are fried in a huge pan. The food comes on a large plate, garnished with spicy pickles, tomato slices, enchiladas and of course tons of hot salsa. You sit on long tables with all the other guests and soon get into conversation with your neighbors.

The next day is spent in the surroundings of Patzcuaro. Tzintzuntzan is a beautiful little town with an ancient church and a park surrounding it with 400 year old olive trees. Under shady trees, local craftwork is presented and awarded with prices. Judy and Bob disappear with the crowd in the church where mass is held and are not back for an eternity. Then we drive on to Capula where we see the famous "catrinas", the clay skeletons. The streets are lined with small shops and ateliers where the delicate figurines are made. In front of the community shop where all the village artists exhibit their things we visit a small gallery and workshop. Judy is enraptured by the colorful skeletons that are very nicely presented. Women wear the most extravagant hats, clothes and handbags. They have feather boas wrapped around their necks or a parrot sitting on their shoulders, but a look deep down into their plunging neck-line or under the slit of their tight-fitting skirt always reveals a skeleton. Men are pirates, Fathers or gentlemen in black tails and top hat, but their face is always a skull. Hands and feet with delicate fingers and toes are the most fragile. No wonder there are signs all over the place asking you to look with your eyes only. Again, Judy has a hard time deciding on a selection of "catrinas". The first problem is now that we have to travel on with 7 fragile clay figures in the car. The second problem will present itself before their flight back, because how do you transport these figures on an airplane to San Francisco? But we are in Mexico right now and our friends have already made the local motto of "mañana" is another day a little bit to their own. We stop at Juan Torres' house, according to the Lonely Planet Handbook the best "catrina" artist. The gate is wide open but there's nobody in sight. Finally we find the artist in person. He kindly receives us although we have just driven up to his house on a Saturday afternoon. It turns out that his wife is the genius making the fragile clay figures. He himself prefers to paint huge paintings that he shows us in a small chapel next to his house. Then we get a tour of his greenhouse where he gives us many plants. The day draws to its close too quickly and we have to get back to Patzcuaro. At night we're off to the market as usual. Tonight we decide on a taco stall with tables and chairs. They even bring beer from a nearby store. We feast on "tacos al pastor", meat grilled on a spit that looks a little like the Turkish kebab.

We have a surprise for Judy's birthday. Arriving in Patzcuaro we had ordered a cake with sugar lettering at a "pasteleria" when our friends were not watching. In the morning we sit down at our regular café while Julia gets the cake. It's a delicious cheese cake with strawberries and tons of whipped cream on top. The waiter brings plates and forks without having been asked for it. In return we leave what we could not devour of the cake to the employees of the café. Now we first drive towards Morelia and turn in to Tupátaro, the so-called Sistine Chapel of America. It's Sunday morning and women offer mole with turkey and "gorditas" around the small plaza. Unfortunately, we have already had breakfast! The small chapel stands inconspicuously behind thick stone walls but what hides inside is worth seeing. A guide offers his services in Spanish. Only with a guide you can enjoy and understand all the details of the paintings and figures. Then we drive back to Patzcuaro, on to the lake and to Tócuaro where we stroll over the cobblestoned streets. At almost every corner we're asked if we would like to see carved wooden masks. Finally we end up at Orlando Horta's house, who clearly is the best mask maker in town but who also has the highest prices. The woman who opens the door does not negotiate prices but finally the great artist brings himself to come down into his showroom. This makes it a little easier for Bob to buy Judy's birthday present, one of many, by the way, personally from its creator. Then we pass Uruapan and drive on west. Again we come through the Meseta Tarasca and reach Angahuan, one of the access points to the Paricutin volcano. The only thing we want to do is see the beautiful church but every other minute a rider asks us if we would like to ride up to the volcano. After that much rain people desperately look out for tourists to earn money again. The road snakes through avocado plantations until we reach Los Reyes de Salgado. On the back side of the market, on a very busy street corner, it smells temptingly from all the food stands. They serve "barbacoa", lamb meat simmered in its own juice, served with limes, chopped onions and cilantro and of course different spicy salsas. We get the beer at a nearby supermarket. Our plates are always instantly refilled. We're surprised every time how much meat our formerly vegetarian friend Bob can devour!

The sun shines from a gloriously blue sky the next morning. The rain has finally moved away and it's the perfect day for a small excursion. On a newly paved road we drive to the entrance to the "Chorros del Varal" waterfall. We are the only visitors. Over 786 stairs you climb down into the gorge. Only all the way at to the bottom and on the suspension bridge can you see the waterfall for the first time. In fact, it's several waterfalls that drop out of the cliff. We linger around at the cool water and also pay a visit to Graptopetalum pentandrum growing in the shady cliffs. Unfortunately we have to climb the 786 stairs back up, a task that is a little more strenuous than the descent but at least the path lies in the shade of huge wild fig and avocado trees. There are many colorful butterflies and birds and from time to time we even catch a glimpse of the many small green parrots making a scandalous noise.

Back in Jalisco the many boxes are unloaded and stored. Julia then drives to Guadalajara along the Chapala lake with Judy and Bob. A visit to Don Nacho in San Juan Evangelista is a must. Don Nacho is the most talented stonemason in the entire village. He makes "molcajetes", stone mortars, with his many chisels. He decorates them with animal heads or makes them in the form of doves or hearts. Judy decides to make her Mexican salsa from now on only in a "molcajete" and to give up the comfort of an electric blender. That's the only way she can convince Bob of buying her another birthday present. In San Lucas Evangelista, the neighboring village, the craftwork is "barro bruñido". Then we're off and on to Guadalajara where we visit the city center with its beautiful colonial buildings. The Cabañas Hospice has to be visited too, after all it's on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The building is impressively big. Apparently it's one of the largest buildings of its kind in all of North and Latin America. Orozco's murals are equally impressive. With a knowledgeable guide you can even discover all the visual tricks and deceptions of the murals. Then we drive on to Jean-Marc and Lupita where we can kindly spend the night. At Lupita's sisters unconventional restaurant we have "pozole", a specialty from Jalisco, for dinner. The "cacahuatzintle" maize is watered and cooked with lime. The red soup comes with pork meat, typically almost everything from the curly tail to the muzzle is used, and is cooked with many spices, cilantro and chile. At the end of the cooking process the maize is added. On the table there are little bowls with chopped onions, spicy red sauce, dried oregano, sliced radishes, lime wedges, avocado, julienned cabbage, and crispy tostadas. "Pozole" is served in deep bowls and everyone takes whatever he likes from the sides. Lupita's sister Mela and her team start to cook 80 liters (21 gallons) of broth at 8AM. At 6PM they open their "Pozole" joint that really is not more than their garage turned into a "restaurant". They serve "pozole" and "tacos dorados", deep fried tacos, and other delicacies until 11PM. They are closed on Mondays. Due to lack of room in the restaurant we sit in Mela's dining room from where we have a good view over her business where the clients stand in line on this Saturday night.

The next day Judy and Bob rent a car and take off on their own. Their list of places is endless and the time too short but somehow they manage to check off everything on their list. With a car stuffed to the top with Mexican craftwork they come back to Jalisco after two weeks. They were in Dolores Hidalgo, besides many other places, where Judy could not resist the beautifully colored flower pots and the kitchenware. In the shop of the state museum of crafts of Michoacan in Morelia she found a few bigger vases and bowls. They even stopped again in Paracho on the way back to buy a guitar for Bob. Now the happy packing begins. First everything is unwrapped from the newspaper and then rewrapped in more paper and bubble wrap. They stuff bags and suitcases and measure boxes, always hoping that Aero Mexico would not interpret the luggage limitations too strictly. The culmination of all the packing is the loading of their tiny rental car. In Guadalajara they even have to make room for a third person that will drive them to the airport. Aero Mexico shows quite some understanding for our friends. They let them through without examining their boxes too much. Except for one catrina, everything arrives in San Francisco in one piece which is nothing short of a miracle.

We will certainly see the two of them again sometime soon because they still have a huge flower pot and a heavy "molcajete" in their interim storage at our place in Jalisco. Then there are many more listings on Bob's Mexican UNESCO World Heritage Site paper to be checked off. Who knows, we might try for Julia's 50th birthday!

February-March 2010

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen