Friday, November 17, 2017

CVIII. Nuestro Viaje a Morelia

Our Trip to Morelia

The Sanctuary of Guadalupe was constructed in the early
1700s, and the elaborate decoration added nearly 200 years
later. Every December 12, the day the Virgin of Guadalupe
is celebrated. hundreds of pilgrims come here to pray.
A couple of times a year we rent a car and take a trip to a place we feel would be interesting to visit, three or four hours away from where we live in central Mexico. The cool mountain village of Mazamitla is a popular place to go, especially when it's hot here by Lake Chapala. Larger cities, tourist spots that are further away--such as Pátzcuaro about 200 miles southeast of us--are also destinations. Last week we had planned to go to Zacatecas, a picturesque colonial silver mining town with an international street theater festival that may or may not have been going on at the time, but a few days before our departure we saw that it was forecast to have highs near 100°F. That wasn't for us, so we decided on a trip to Morelia instead; the capital of Michoacán, it's a city we'd talked about visiting for its large, attractive and mostly intact three to four hundred year-old centro historico.

The drive last week, along with the one to Patzcuaro and others I've taken with the Cazadores de Haciendas group, have acquainted me with the cuota (fee) road system--mostly well-maintained, divided and controlled access highways--that is expensive but much faster than the often potholed, speed-bumped and narrow, twisty roads that go to and through every village. It cost us the equivalent of about $30US each way on the 200 mile cuota between Guadalajara and Morelia, but it took us less than three hours and was a beautiful drive with long vistas in the high dry scrub of central Mexico.

We took a crash course on TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, etc. websites and planned a rough itinerary. It worked out pretty well. Over the four full days there we took one ten minute, $2US taxi ride to a half dozen sites--a rococo sanctuary to the Virgin of Guadalupe, several museums, a park, plazas, and 250-year-old aqueduct, plus an excellent Latin American fusion restaurant. The rest of the time we walked from our centrally located hotel to a cathedral, more plazas, museums, colonial-era architectural wonders, cafes and restaurants, fireworks and free music--lots of music, it's home to a several centuries' old music school and its students both present and past busk all over town. That's not to mention the artisans from all over the state of Michoacán who display and sell their fantastic folk art from a central mercado y museo. As usual though, our primary recreation was soaking in the vibe and people watching.

The rococo ornamentation was added to the santuario a hundred years ago by a local artisan. It is a combination of indigenous clay sculpture techniques along with European-style plaster work. The effect is mind blowing!  The large paintings along each side of the nave appear to show Franciscan friars overseeing converted indígenas. And then you think about the way they were converted-- 

After being awed at the Sanctuary we strolled across the street to Plaza Morelos, named for José Maria Morelos, one of the main heroes of the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s. He is the one usually pictured wearing a bandanna on his head. This city, originally called Valladolid, was renamed Morelia in his honor. Here he is on a horse leading his troops against Spain and its forces. In the left background of the picture is a small section of a 250-year-old aqueduct that our taxi driver insisted still carries water. Hmmmm.

The small Jardín de las Rosas was a relaxing daily stop during our trip. We snacked and bantered with a musician at one of the cafes under the green umbrellas. Parks like this, both small and large, abound in this civilized city. The Conservatorio de las Rosas, across the street to the left is the most prestigious music school in Latin America. We were graced with music from their students during our stay.

The trees over the Jardín de las Rosas are background left. This sculpture is on the pedestrian street
running two blocks to the town square with its covered archway promenade. The sculpture seems to
display two acrobats, limbs interestingly arranged, one half-hidden and supporting the other on the
 soles of his feet. The one on top arrests the viewer with her gaze and flyaway hair braid.

These two young guys played some good music while we ate breakfast inside the covered promenade across from the main plaza in background.

Looking toward site of the previous picture--notice the same green awnings--several days later. The fellow checking his cell phone is one of the musicians that accompany the traditional "Dance of the Old Men" in the main plaza. He is likely from the village of  Jarácuaro where the dance has been performed for hundreds of years. It features dancers wearing masks that depict old men who hobble feebly until the music strikes a more lively tune, and then they perform a very energetic tap dance...Behind us now, and pictured just below, is the main plaza with Andador Juarez park in the following photo.

Walking toward the center of Morelia's main plaza with its fountains, benches, trees, and lawns. Paths radiate to all sides and corners from a central gazebo, always the site of children playing. The board at left of the picture advertises the concerts during a two-week long international music festival. We heard some excellent and free jazz by a group from Spain. 

Adjacent to the main plaza is Andador Juarez which comprises three tree-lined lanes for walkers that connect streets north and south of the 200 meter long walkway. The steeple in the center of the picture is part of the city's main place to worship, the Catedral de Morelia, seat of the archdiocese.

Every time we passed through the andador some clown was putting on a show to lots of laughter and usually rapt attention from the children and their parents alike. This picture shows lots of empty bench space because of the strong afternoon sun; most of the audience is on the shaded side of the walkway.

Vendors selling all kinds of cheap plastic toys are a common site around the cathedral, andador and plaza. Another way of making a peso or five is shown by the silver fellow in the center of the photograph, somewhat mimicking the statue's pose upper left. The miner guy stands immobile until people begin to ignore him and then makes a sudden, startling move. He seemed too intimidating, though, to attract much dinero.

On the other side of the cathedral, another toy vendor. Under a large awning behind me, about a hundred chairs were set out inviting passersby to stop and watch a movie--something artsy and in Spanish. The wooden doorway of the cathedral gives entrance to the transept. As people exit the church and pass through the gate they meet the outstretched hat of a beggar displaying his leprosy. 

Several years ago we visited the workshops in Santa Clara del Cobre, a village not far from
Morelia. As its name suggests--cobre means copper--the artisans there specialize in hammered
copper objects such as the plates, bowls and vases displayed here in the Instituto del Artesano
Michuacano.
 Both a museum and market, the Institute is housed in a large, nearly five hundred
year-old ex-convent.

This clay-sculpted statue, also in the Institute of Michoacán Artisans, displays a Shiva-like figure, a destroyer consuming and allowing for new creation. Notice the accompanying snakes. The same technique that creates such figures as this also was employed in adorning the Santuario de Guadalupe, pictured at the beginning of this post. Along one hallway of the ex-convent, fifteen former cells have been converted to salesrooms for a like number of villages, each specializing in a particular craft. I think past three and four centuries to those nuns and novitiates padding over these same stone floors.

Every Saturday night the lights come on at the cathedral following a fireworks display. The streets around centro historico are packed with people for an hour before.

Our final afternoon in Morelia we attended a free jazz concert by a Spanish group, Tempus Fugit Cuarteto. What a treat! It was one of the first concerts of a two-week long festival, mostly held here in a repurposed sixteenth century monastery. On two sides of the vast courtyard (out of the picture) were several dozen booths serving excellent quality and inexpensive food and drinks.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

CVII. Día de los Muertos

Day of the Dead


Someone must have died in the village today. We heard the death knell from the church this afternoon—slowly repeating the same low and then ascending notes for a minute or so. We immediately thought of Vicente and hurried to the front door to look down the block to his casa, relieved that there wasn’t the activity you’d expect if he’d just passed away. It’s been several weeks since we’ve last seen him sitting in his daughter’s store looking out at the street. We used to always greet each other when I walked by, but the last couple of times he’s been there his eyes were closed and jaws slack.

What a coincidence to die on Día de los Muertos.

Later in the evening, after a trip to the plaza visiting the ofrendas—offerings—to the beloved departed, we passed the person’s wake for whom the bells were earlier tolling, mourners sitting in folding chairs under an awning taking up most of the cobblestone street facing the house where the body lay. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

CVI. Construyendo Un Monstruo Gigante Pero Amable Que Se Llama "Al"

Building a Giant But Friendly Monster Called "Al"

Al to scale against the front of our casa.
He's looking down at a señora y niño.
The small model is made of clay. One
of the first steps in this project was
determining the size of the finished
piece, and thus the scale ratio: 1:12.
For the past three months much of the free time I'd previously used to write in this blog has been spent in my recently renovated taller, or workshop.  I've been working on a large alebrije, a fantastical creature of a type popular here in Mexico. Once finished--and its completion date keeps getting rolled back--Al will go up on our rooftop where he'll lean over its parapet looking down at the street traffic below.

Progress has been much slower than anticipated for several reasons. I've been scaling up from a small model, and have never before attempted anything of this size and complexity. Deciding upon, and then finding, the materials and tools I need has taken a lot of time, due to fewer and different things being available, the language barrier and my lack of a car.

Big Al will primarily be painted turquoise, span over 4 feet
from hand to hand, and rise almost 3 feet above the parapet,
sticking several feet over its edge.
The primary medium I finally decided on is one-inch thick, pink polyurethane insulating foam in 4' X 8' sheets. It took awhile to find it. After some rigorous math to determine how much was needed I ordered ten sheets delivered from the nearest of five Guadalajara Home Depot stores found online. I would have preferred three-inch thick sheets like I've used in the States for carving, but insulation requirements here are not as severe as up north and this was lo más grueso (the thickest) available locally.

Some friends brought back a half dozen glue cartridges (cartuchos de pegemento) from Texas, but that was soon used up. Fortunately local ferreterias, AKA hardware stores, carry a similar product called No Más Clavos that seems up to the task of bonding the insulation sheets into a secure laminate. Likewise I bought a utility knife with a blade that can be extended far enough to be useful cutting multiple sheets. A cepillo de alambre (wire brush) has proved a very excellent tool for shaping the foam. Plus, toothpicks have been indispensable.

Big Al's body composed of 25 sheets of
glued together pink foam
Now that a good deal of the sculpting is finished it doesn't seem like much of a big deal, but at each new step along the way I've been consumed by consideration of all the practicalities. The decisions about what needed doing next and how to do it originally assumed monumental proportions in my obsessive 3AM mind. As the work has progressed though--and of course I've made mistakes--each miscue has helped me loosen up a bit and realize that que sera, sera, which is Mexican for "No worries".

Creating the blocky laminate of Al's body and arms has mostly involved numerous measurements of the small model and an equal number of multiplications by twelve to achieve the same look at a bigger scale--all very left-brain type of activities. And then cutting to measure through many meters of foam taking care not slice off part of a finger.

The wire brush, upper right, is the primary tool for shaping the
foam. I got carried away and removed too much around where
the PVC shoulders jut out from the body. The channels around
the pipe were filled will spray foam and a 4" top added.
After I finished the body's laminate, and before attaching the arms, I used the wire brush to smooth the many overlapped edges and create the shape of Al's upper torso. Viewing the sinuous convex and concave lines was almost shamefully satisfying, but I soon discovered that I should have postponed this gratification until the entire figure was finished and looking like some kind of Lego creature. As it was, I took off too much foam so had to apply additional cuboids of polyurethane where the PVC armature attaches to the body.

I've just finished covering those arms with oblongs of foam sheet, each about the size of a large paperback book. This involved challenging calculations to determine the odd angles at which I needed to cut in order to accommodate the twists and turns of the arm "bones". And then actually making those cuts on cubes of foam. All that remains of this portion of the obra, or piece of work, is to complete the laminate for Al's elongated neck and head--about 1' X 2' X 3'. Then I can indulge myself shaping and smoothing the contours, creating the expressive details of the mouth, eyes, and hands.

This is about where I am now. Note the small model on top of
Big Al. Al's neck and head will be skewered by the protruding
PVC pipe.
When I'm satisfied with the sculpture and feel good about Al's size and look--including how he'll fit at the parapet--I'll try to figure out a coating for the water-resistant foam that will provide a good base to begin the painting part of the project. Alebrijes achieve much of their effect from intricately painted designs and wild colors as the one pictured below can attest. That will be a whole new and fun thing to learn and practice.

I figure the finished whole will weigh about fifty pounds. Hoisting it up to the roof will be done with block and tackle. I'm eagerly anticipating that event!


This is an carved wooden alebrije made by Antonio Mandarin from Arrozola, Oaxaca. I've had him for about twenty years.
He's about six inches tall.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

CV. Día de Independencia

Independence Day


Late last night most of the people in Mexico could have been found in the plazas of their respective cities and villages. We were gathered among them in our little town to hear reenactment of El Grito, Father Miguel Hidalgo's 1810 shout out to his congregation to throw off oppressive Spanish rule. We were in a block-long full-body jam in front of the cultural center as our local delegate to the municipal assembly rang a bell and recited a call and response homage to each of the leaders of the revolution ("¡Viva Morelos!" "¡Viva!", etc.) ending with "VIVA MÉXICO" shouted three times.

[Cue the fireworks]

We enthusiastically joined in and then shuffled through the crush to a place where we could enjoy an ice cream cone, marvel at the number of busy late night fast food and gee-gaw stands, and feel empathy for all the roving adolescent tribes in pursuit of who-knows-what. Then, holding hands as the banda started up, we slowly walked back home to bed and a very late morning wake-up. Today is Día de Independencia, celebrated here by a parade of school children and charros on horseback. It'll mostly be quiet during the day but you can bet there'll be music and parties tonight.

Monday, September 11, 2017

CIV. Globos en Fuego

Hot Air Balloons on Fire


--Evening, Saturday, September 9

I just walked outside to look at a globo floating away up in the night sky heading across the lake in the direction of Jocotopec. A "globo" is a hot air balloon that can be as big as a small kitchen, made of colorful tissue paper and kept aloft by the heat generated from a burning cup of paraffin held inside. The fire in this one is casting a red glow on the globe slowly ascending against the stars that are out clearly over the mountains to the south. From a line of clouds above their peaks lightning is flashing too far away for us to hear its sound.

Our Regata de Globos started mid-afternoon in the soccer field at the edge of town. A number of beautiful creations were successfully launched at this big event, but we saw half a dozen balloons that were barely airborne before they burst into flames and plummeted to the crowded field. The burning remains of one crashed into the stands not more than twenty feet away from us amid shouts of alarm and laughter that interrupted a mariachi band.

The flimsy paper globo burns away quickly and no one is more than superficially hurt; the price pay.

The bomberos--which is a great name for firefighters--are around somewhere. On the field self-appointed Junior Bomberos race after every falling corpse of a globo, grab its wiry frame and stomp out its flames. The many adults milling about chatting, eating, drinking among the globo handlers' work "pits" are mostly oblivious to the earthbound missiles en fuego.

Ahh, beauty and lax safety here in Mexico. Fortunately we saw no one fall to the ground with flaming hair or clothing and a concussion.

Here is a description of the regatta's celebration two years ago, accompanied by a number of pictures.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

CIII. Subiendo Chupinaya

Going Up Chupinaya


From our rooftop Chupinaya is the peak top center.
We live near the center of Mexico in the village of Ajijic which stretches for several kilometers along the northwest shore of the country's largest lake—Lago de Chapala. In ten minutes you can stroll from Ajijic’s waterfront, or malecón, up any of a dozen streets to road’s end at the foothills of the Sierra de San Juan Cosalá, a short and narrow range whose highest peaks are scattered along an undulating ridge, parallel to and rising from the lake, and looking down on our village and several others strung out along its shore.

The rumpled topography of the range, now brilliant green in the rainy season, invites longing looks that ultimately seek out the highest spot—Chupinaya—which is about two miles from our house as the turkey vulture flies. At just under 8000 feet, it rises almost exactly 3000 feet from the elevation of our rooftop. Those mornings up there when I can get it together to do my “daily” exercises, it is a solid, familiar presence behind the nearer cerros that are partitioned by arroyos which at this time of year bring lots of water down to the lake.

Our first stop was at "The Saddle" where we were joined by a
half dozen vacas, or cows.
I hiked up to Chupinaya for the very first time last Friday, one of a party of eight. Except for the altitude gain it’s not at all a difficult trek. I think I was the oldest in our group although there were a guy and two gals just a year or two younger than me. Two Canadians, a German, Italian, and the rest were Americans from the west half of the country. Three women, five men.

Almost exactly a year ago I had ventured a climb to Chupinaya but had to give it up about two-thirds of the way to the top; my legs felt okay but my wind was shot. The pace was too quick for me. I encouraged Jim B, the incredible mensch who organizes these adventures, to schedule a hike to the summit at a more relaxed pace. He obliged—twice—but each time I had previously made other plans I didn’t want to change. Last week was my chance.

We've reached the ridge and are relaxing at "Three Crosses".
Jim, our leader, is at left.
It took us four and a half hours to reach the summit, two to return to our base at the coffee shop called “Donas Donuts” (the first word of which until recently I thought was the possessive of a woman’s name—‘Donna’s’—but instead simply means ‘donuts’ in Spanish, so “Donuts Donuts”), where the hiking group gathers every Tuesday and Friday morning to split roughly into thirds based on difficulty of the planned outing, and leave for las montañas. This informal group is composed almost exclusively of ex-pats, their visitors, and others putting their toe in to see what life here has to offer. Among us all, there’s a definite cachet to climbing the highest point on the ridge.
The picnic spot at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe has
been a gathering spot for ages. A trail leads down the back
side of the ridge to another village, Las Trojes.

For people who like to walk and climb through more or less unsullied nature, this is a great place to live. You walk for a few minutes from the lakefront up to the end of one of the score of cobblestone streets that cross the highway at a perpendicular angle from the lake to the mountains and you’re there. You enter the outback by following a trail crisscrossing some arroyo, hike up to where it switchbacks to a ridge that winds its way to the crest. Jim B has this idea of a two-day jaunt following the skyline from San Antonio Tlayacapan to Jocotopec, about fifteen kilometers; we would camp overnight at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, pictured left and below, located in an oak-shaded saddle before the final ascent. 

Pivoting from the previous shot, I took this
picture of the shrine itself.
The word Chupinaya can be translated as “stone to be worked”, perhaps referring to the shale near the peak which has incidentally been used to make a barbecue at the shrine. Mi amigo Dionicio is one of the leaders of the local indigenous community; he, Jim B and I have been talking about locating and annotating the traditional locales in these parts. I was visiting Dionicio a few days ago and he told me that a particular high point on the crest trail is known to the native people around here as “mesa del ocote", for the name of a tree popular for kindling that used to grow on that small, high plateau. In pre-hispanic times it had a different-meaning Nahuatl name that I wrote down but can’t remember right now. 

To those revisionists in the hiking group, however, that point is named in honor of a Canadian retiree who—not too long ago—was the first gringo to popularize hiking in these mountains. 

The view from the top was socked in when we arrived, but on the way down the clouds lifted enough to allow this shot about 500 feet below the peak. Our village center is located along the shoreline, at the left.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

CII. El Techo de Vidrio

The Glass Roof


That's Franciso, all 6'3" and 210 lbs of him, laying the first pieces of vitral--
stained glass. He did an outstanding job from cutting precisely to finishing
completely and carefully.
June 28. Rainy all day here in Ajijic. Got back home from Guadalajara just after noon. Tons of traffic on the city streets, the industrial zone, bumps, holes in the asphalt, trucks stuck in traffic. Chose the stained glass—vitral—out of a limited selection, but good colors. Just outside the city, I check our load. "El vitral es un poco roto—broken.” We pull over to the side of the pereferico just before the airport. Now twice as many pieces of glass as before. F offers to make good on the loss, but I figure out a new design where he won't need to go back to the big city, one that also takes into account both the fragility of the vitral and the sizes of the remaining pieces by using it mostly to fill smaller rectangles of the framework.

The plans I drew up from which work followed.
Areas that are not colored were filled with a
lightly tinted glass.
Early July. For the past week I've been waking up every couple of nights at 3 AM imagining scapel-sharp shards of glass falling to embed in the unsuspecting skulls of household guests--I guess members of the immediate family are exempt in my bloody fantasies. No matter what the odds are against it happening at any particular moment, sometime in the next quarter century or so it’s bound to occur, no? After much tossing, turning, and getting up to roam the darkened premises, I’m finally able to picture a solution: two layers of thicker glass sandwiching the fragile vitral. Sharing this idea with Juan, I am relieved that he seems to agree.

Julio 12. Two weeks to the day after the Saga of the Broken Glass, I've received assurances anew about both the security of the redesign and that the work may actually have an end date soon. This morning Francisco called to say he was ready to come over with his crew. I'll be out of the house then, I told him, but back by mid-afternoon. We settled on a las tres--three o'clock. We'll see how that goes. Over the past two weeks I've been told two or three different times that someone will come by our casa to work right nowahorito. The visits seldom came to pass at the appointed hora or even día

July 13. Whoa! All of a sudden, in a matter of hours, the work is complete. Juan, Francisco and a helper have carefully laid a protective overlay of three 80-pound pieces of 6mm clear glass on a layer of the 2mm stained, or lightly tinted, glass all sealed and cushioned by silicone. They did a fine job. And the bonus is that they're also neighbors; I'll see them several times a week, at least, probably for the rest of my life, sharing the memory of this creation into which we all put our best effort.

Looking through the completed techo de vidrio. The protective overlay layer  is over twice as thick as the colored layer, and very heavy--more than 200 lbs. Fortunately it's in three pieces, but even so, watching the trio of workers lay it was a little nerve-wracking.