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.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

CI. La Empieza de la Temporada de Lluvia y de Mi Taller

The Beginning of the Rainy Season and of My Workshop

Our short, but long-anticipated trip to visit daughters and friends in Seattle, shop and wander among old haunts, ended two days ago. Yesterday, on my first outing back home here in a week, I saw that the vegetation has finally begun to green on the cerros and the montañas that rise behind our lakeside village in central México. 

Alebrijes are a popular Mexican folk art form. They are brightly painted
fantastical creatures. This is a clay model for a much larger version that
will be my first project in the new workshop, or taller.
I hope and believe that the rainy season, after a fitful start, has finally begun. The past two months since Pascua—Easter—have been hot and dry, and I haven’t felt a bit like writing. Frankly, neither have I much wanted to be around people, although I usually managed to keep to my volunteer schedule at the garden and food bank. But during that time I only went hiking once with my group—usually a touchstone.

Waking up late in the still cool morning, I'd waste hours following the obsessively provocative soap opera revolving around that chump Comrade Cheeto's latest outrage. It seemed like it was not until the sweltering mid-afternoons that I would make the daily round of shops, switching sides of the cobblestone streets to stay in the usually scant shade of casas and tiendas  crowding the narrow sidewalks. My strongest memories of this period, though, involve lying on a couch under the dome in our sala, reading through the complete works of David Rosenfelt and Ann Cleves, about 20 lightweight mysteries, probably more. That activity would inevitably segue into a beer slumber until time to mix margaritas. In the few hours before and after, on a good day I’d be drawn back to comedians poking fun (Meyers, Colbert, Bee) at that loco, muy mal hombre referenced earlier. And in the middle of the night I’d plan and worry over Javier’s seemingly interminable renovations to turn our cochera—garage—into mi taller—workshop. 

Javier put the frames from two double beds one on top of the
other, with space for tools and supplies in between. This table
has lockable wheels and can be taken apart for bench seating.
He also made a framework for four adjustable lights on the
ceiling. Saul and JJ painted the walls to maximize brightness. 
Now, stage one of the workshop is complete. My first project there will be to fabricate Al the Alebrije. He is a large and friendly looking monstruo, inspired by smaller versions we saw recently in Mexico City's folk art museum. Al will loom three to four feet over our flat roof's cornice and wave at passersby on the street below. The current plan is to make him of styrofoam with wood and wire supports, cover with plaster cloth or celluclay, and paint him T-Bird turquoise with big black, red and yellow dots. I’ll weather-proof him as much as possible; I read that rooftop sculptures recently displayed at MoMA are finished with automotive paints, so may try that. I’ve already made a clay model of Al, so just need to proportionally increase his size about 10-12 times. The big challenge will be gathering materials. It looks like trips to Guadalajara will be necessary. I hope I can work something out with an amiable acquaintance who drives there nearly weekly to visit flea markets, looking to add to his art collection of hidden masterpieces. 

The proscenium frame hangs on a lightweight wall that shields
the laundry area. Its curtain opens to a small stage or scrim.
The screened wall to the right would let in rain during heavy
storms; rather than glass it in, Tony built an iron framework
over the breezeway that will be covered with glass panels.
There are still a couple of shelves to be painted and hung for the tallerhousekeeping goods to be bought: more tubs to hold supplies under the big table, broom and dustpan, a whiteboard for the wall. I’d like to have a wheel-able caddy to hold the tools I’m using as I work on Al. And soon I’ll need a small desk. 

Four of those heavy rocks I’d intended to carve (when that was to be my métier) are now balanced one on top of the other in a corner of the taller; handling rocks is grounding when I'm at loose ends. The proscenium frame originally from the traveling theater I had years ago is now hung on a wall as a reminder and a prompt; it's still useable—I can open the curtains onto a small stage or scrim. The works that are inspiring me right now are old black and white comedies from the golden age of Mexican Cinema, and William Kentridge’s fantastic “Shadow Procession”. That—whatever it becomes—is for the future though; I'm working on Al first…and then maybe his sister. That's an occupation I can see continuing for a long time. 

Here's Tony putting the final touches on installation of what
will be the framework for a glass roof. Panels of colored glass
will be interspersed in the rectangles among smoked glass to
temper the bright sun.  
Finally, there’s the glass roof, or techo de vidrio, to shield the open screened wall of the taller from heavy blowing rain. That still needs to be finished. Tony did a great job of putting together the iron framework from my design and installing it over our breezeway. Juan has agreed to work with me on choosing and buying the colored glass for the different-sized rectangular panels—another trip to the big city. If we can do that next week it should take Juan and Francisco only a day our two for the installation. Things are moving along. I'm getting off the dime.

Update: Next day, yesterday. I just stopped by Juan and Francisco's vidrieria, which is what we call a glass workshop here in Mexico. I made sure we were talking about one of them driving since I don't have a car. We arranged with Francisco to take me to Guadalajara tomorrow a las ocho.  I'll pay for gas, lo que es más igual. Back home I figure I'll need seven 2'X4' pieces of stained glasstonalidades de azul y verde, del mar—and six pieces of what I've always called "smoked" glass. There'll be cuts left over of course. Today I affirmed with F that he can haul back 13 pieces. Unbroken. It should be an adventure.

C. Ola de Calor

Heat Wave

Originally written over a month ago, and things have only just begun to improve:

It's been five weeks since Pascua, or Easter, and we've entered mayo--the hottest month of the year. In this heat I've been la sloth--every afternoon finds me lying on the couch in our sala, falling asleep before a fan, after a beer.  I seldom leave the casa in the stifling afternoons. No gumption, no energy--it's weighing on me. On mi esposa también y todo el gente del pueblo.

My mind can best be compared to a melting slice of cheddar cheese--once sharp, now sour and warm.

Monday, April 10, 2017

XCIX. Domingo de Ramos

Palm Sunday

This foot-high remembrance was sold to us by
a young girl, perhaps 7 years old. Later in the
evening the price was lowered from 20 pesos
to five.
There’s a full moon rising over the Mexican village where we live. Darkness has fallen on a warm Palm Sunday. We’ve just returned from several hours on the plaza where we were surrounded by an amiable, all-ages mix of town folk visiting, eating and drinking among friends and family. A dozen small children were flitting there around cafe tables, wrought-iron benches and more established vendors, selling images of Christ on a cross made of palm, straw and multi-colored metallic sprinkles. Twenty pesos. Earlier, a procession of faithful parishioners had passed at sundown on the verbena-strewn street just behind us at the end of their journey to the church. And not long before that a coffin, accompanied by a mariachi band, was carried from that same parroquia on it way to the panteón for burial. Semana Santa has begun…Ahhh, México.

Monday, April 3, 2017

XCVIII. Un Aguacero y un Estrépito

A Downpour and a Crash

Sala with tragaluz above. You can't see the tiles
because of the overexposure, but they fell just a
few feet away from the red pillow where I was
sitting.
It was hot the previous Sunday morning, surprisingly so for early in the day. And then it grew humid and clouds gathered. Mid-afternoon thunder began rumbling and not long after that a spatter of rain. Later—surprisingly—was a short deluge, with plinkets of hail thrown in for effect. But the already sun-heated flagstones soon caused most of the patio's puddles to evaporate. In the evening it became cooler, and stars began coming out all over the darkening sky.

Just over a week has passed now and that was our last rainfall. Not long after we awake the past four or five days, over coffee, we look at the already hot sun and say in unison, "Looks like it's gonna be another scorch-uh". I've moved many of the potted plants to more shady places; their leaves were being seared by el sol

It must be fifteen feet from the floor in our cupola-ceilinged sala to the top of the skylight (or tragaluz; literally, "bring light"). Late afternoon a couple of days ago when the sun's heat was at its daily peak and falling ferociously onto the tiles surrounding the skylight's hexagonal opening, I was lying in beer-induced muzziness on our couch, giving my ailing back a break. 

tremendous crash and clatter only several feet from where I was relaxing quickly brought me from my stupor. I threw my arms up and shouted in surprise. Dust and ceramic shards covered half the spacious terracota floor, even on to the beloved Oaxacan rug. Looking for an explanation I realized that a dozen tiles had sloughed off below the tragaluz. It's a good thing I wasn't directly underneath. The four-inch-square tiles are unexpectedly heavy and have sharp corners; it's not hard to imagine the blood and brain damage that might be caused by one of them falling nearly ten feet to land a pointed edge on your cabeza.

Our theory about the plunging azulejos is that water might have seeped in under them during the previous week's deluge, and when they expanded in the sun's afternoon heat they were loosened from their adhesive and fell. Or something like that. We're currently having work done in the cochera—garage—to make it useable as a workshop. I better ask Javier to also take a look at the remaining tiles under each of our three tragaluces, especially the one over the chandelier above our dining table—now there's a disaster waiting to happen

Until then our sala is a hard hat zone.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

XCVII. ¡Carnaval!

Carnival!

Here in Ajijic, Carnaval seems mostly about the Sayacas. At least they, together with their consort Sayacos, are the engine that drove last week’s parade down at the end of the block, along Constitución, on its way to Seis Esquinas neighborhood. Sayacas are reputed to be inspired by, and descended from, in one way or another, a pre-Hispanic village matriarch. Nowadays they are represented by outlandish actors in garish masks and wigs, balloon bosoms and skirts, who—along with their ancient and bewhiskered partners—throw flour and confetti at anyone who catches their attention among the numerous crowd along the desfile route. They were interspersed among a sometimes motley group of floats, marching brass and drum bands, and finally the horseback riding charros. Lent is supposed to be a period of self-denial, charitable works, and pious reflection, but if past five days have been any guide, it’s also a time for cohetes—fireworks—and neighborhood fiestas.

These masked sayucas (females) and sayucos (males) are a popular feature at Carnaval time. They might grab you for a dance, or--more likely--throw confetti or flour all over you. The fellow on the left looks to have a traditional horse hair bead flowing from his mask. From what I've read, people playing these clownish parts enjoy the freedom of having virtually no one know who they really are.
These happy people are throwing flower at us spectators, and it looks like there's been some blowback, too...Uh-oh. The barded fellow, center picture, is looking right at me. I bet he's reaching in his bag for more flour to toss in my direction!
Always lots of brass in these street bands. The designated water carrier is taking a break.
La Reina--the Queen--of Ajijic's Carnaval.
You can always tell where groups of Sayucos are gathered by the clouds of harina, or flour, in the air.
Salsa dancers from a local studio provide a respite from getting clobbered with harina.
You ride the "bull" and get doused with flour. The fellow, center right, with the broad brimmed sombrero and white t-shirt wheels and bucks the contraption. The sayuco, left, with his right hand in the harina pouch might be aiming to throw some at the girl taking his picture. 
Lots of beautiful young girls--always a hit!
This is horse country! No parade is complete without the charros, who blessedly ride their steeds at the end of the desfile.
Another happy, warm and sunny day here in the heart of Mexico...but here comes 40 days of Lent, full of self-denial.

Monday, January 30, 2017

XCVI. De las Semillas a la Piel

From Seeds to Skin

Seed packet
The past couple of weeks some tree around here—possibly what is commonly known as a Flame Tree—has unleashed its seed packets onto our patio and even into the house. They are each about half the size of a postage stamp. The seed itself looks like a small oat flake; it’s enclosed in clear “cellophane” so thin the dang thing can blow in the wind for more than a block.

Exhausted from a recent morning’s exercises on the mirador, I lay on my back and watched one of these little gems appear around a palm tree, twinkling the reflected sun, blown by a light breeze to land near my mat. A minute later I was doing the pushup part of a burpee and as I’m going down I see a small centipede in front of my nose. Without my glasses I can just make out five of the fifty tiny legs, evenly spaced along each side of its body, moving in unison with the leg on the other side—like the oars of a boat. After a short stroke the legs in front of those five pairs move, and so on, in a wave-like motion that makes the bug appear to undulate as it moves forward.

And then—still in pushup position—I look down at what I’d been thinking was a remarkably fit belly, and see skin sagging like twin turkey wattles—another natural wonder.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

XCV. Día de San Sebastián

Saint Sebastian's Day

I danced with a man dressed as a woman yesterday. In the plaza, to a waltz from a live marching band. He was wearing a cheap wig and cartoonish papier maché mask. Big balloon bosoms. He treated me kindly. After a long minute I bowed out more-or-less gracefully and he picked another partner from the appreciative crowd. Then came the Aztec dancers. And then more oompah music. We were celebrating San Sebastian's Day here in our village. Four men would carry his effigy into the little capilla on the square, followed by two others walking with a plank connecting them, balanced on their shoulders with bowls of food on top. This is one of those nine-day--carrying the little saint around the village--holidays. Our friends emailed to say they had fun at the party's continuation later last night.

Three thousand miles away there was a tense inauguration of the USA's new president. Here, all was smiles and good fun. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

XCIV. Nuestro Viaje a México, Sexto y Último Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Sixth and Final Day


Day 6 - It’s been another tough night for mi querida esposa y su enferma, but at least no worse than the one before, and tonight we’ll sleep in our own bed. We dawdle after awakening, shower and go downstairs to Starbucks for a familiar breakfast. Back upstairs we pack and tidy, then Salvador stores our bags so we can pick them up after visiting two nearby museums that will prove to be among our favorites from the whole viaje.

Diego Rivera's huge mural, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central", shows a melange of mostly historical characters. There are so many details that one can examine the painting for an hour or more, as we did. 
A detail from the center of the picture showing from left to right: in blue, the
daughter of longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz, next to her stepmother
in red; José Martí doffing his hat--Cuban poet, writer and intellectual, his
socialist writings inspired Mexicans; Diego Rivera as a young boy, appearing
a little too brainy and way immature, which I think of as his self image;
behind him with her hand protectively on his shoulder is a sensual Frida
Kahlo holding a yin/yang symbol; holding little Diego's hand is La Calavera
Catrina (calavera means "skull", Catrina was slang for a Mexican upper class
woman putting on European airs) who is being eyed by that daughter in blue;
finally, arm in arm with Catrina is her creator, José Guadalupe Posada, a social
commentator and political cartoonist.
Museo Mural Diego Rivera primarily contains one monumental piece of work by the master—a fifty foot long by fifteen foot high mural entitled, in English, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central”. Alameda is a Spanish word for tree-lined walkway referring to the park next to where we’ve been staying, and adjacent to the museum itself. It’s also a place where Diego Rivera used to play as a child, and where all of the mostly notable individuals pictured in the mural might have strolled or strode themselves at some time over the 400 years before it was completed in 1947. 

As his title suggests, Rivera’s work invites comparison to Seuret’s iconic pointillist painting. The setting is similar, but the former piece is much less mannered and vastly more populated.
Another detail from the mural, showing a
variety of historical (and other) figures
including conquistador Hernán Cortés, with
blood on his hands; Mariana Violante de
Carbajal, a Jew who was burned at the
stake for heresy on the ground of what is
now the Alameda Park; and Benito Juarez, a
popular and liberal early president of the
Republic.
The mural is worthy of long contemplation. Even though it is immense and crowded, it is pleasing to the eye from a distance. The soft colors and sinuous branches of the park’s foliage in most of the top half of the painting contrast, yet balance, with the crush of humanity at the bottom. But more than anything, the detail and particularity of each individual portrait, as well as the interaction among them, invite close inspection and discovery.

“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon…” was originally a commission to hang in the restaurant of the elegant Hotel Prado but that building was damaged so heavily in the 1985 earthquake it had to eventually be demolished. The 70-ton mural with its plaster base and steel girding was rescued—pulled out a second story opening using casters and cranes, and trucked across the street to the museum that had been purpose-built to display it after restoration. What a sight that would have been!

As we leave the museum, and the Alameda Park itself, we recross the street and pass by the site of the old Hotel Prado where a modern Hilton now stands. In retrospect I’m amazed anew at how much history of consequence has passed on these grounds. At the time, though, we were just trying to keep it together until we got on the plane for home.

Next stop is the last stop: Museo de Arte Popular. Whereas the previous art works we have visited were completed by masters whose names are well-known—Kahlo, Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco—the pieces we see now are created by virtually anonymous craftspeople, but no less accomplished for that. They are most often much smaller than the grand works mentioned previously, thus requiring less expense in materials and hired help, but their imagination and execution do not take a back seat.

Detail below.

Greeting visitors to the Museum of Popular Art is this VW Bug completely covered in beadwork, both inside and out. The patterns recall Huichol Indian designs that are popular handcraft items.
A variety of indigenous traditional dress, or ropa típica, from throughout the country. Many are still worn today.
Wooden and ceramic pieces featuring El Diablo, either getting his way or being undone, are popular items. I regret I did not get the names of these artists.
Colored paper and foil, yarn, and bric-a-brac are the mediums in this piece. Detail, below.
Detail of above piece
These fantastical papier maché creatures from the State of Mexico are called alebrijes. Both the idea and name for weird beings such as these came in a dream to a Mexico City artisan, Pedro Linares. Craftspeople in Oaxaca adapted the style to their copal wood carvings. 
Large alebrijes left over from the museum-sponsored La Noche de los Alebrijes, a yearly parade and celebration held the end of October just before Días de los Muertos. In addition to the parade with its accompanying bands, there are Alebrije Puppet and Alebrije Short Story contests. Sounds like a whole lot of fun! 
This final visit is a suitably surrealistic ending to our adventure in Mexico City. The flight home is thankfully short and Paolo, one of the Miramontes sons, greets us at the airport. The next day our dear, but bossy, housekeeper drives my ailing wife to our doctor who confirms her pneumonia. Now, nearly three weeks later, she is doing fine.

Along the jagged shoreline of Lago de Chapala, near where it
meets the horizon, is our little village, and somewhere in its
midst is our casa preparing to welcome us home.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

XCIII. Nuestro Viaje a México, Quinto Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Fifth Day

Organ grinders work the downtown streets about one two-man
team to a block. One guy puts his hat out for money among the
people crowding by, while the other turns the crank. They're
always dressed in this quasi-military uniform 
Day 5 - It’s a hellish night during which my spouse and I share the same fear without speaking of it—that she has pneumonia. At least we’re able to get a little bit of much needed sleep, and she feels well enough in the late morning to reject the idea of finding a doctor; tomorrow we’re coming home to Ajijic and she’ll see her physician then. We make a plan for her to rest today in our room for a couple of hours while I explore the Centro Histórico.

Two or more of these teams are on
each Centro Histórico block.
I don’t really see much new on this adventure but am able today to investigate this area in more depth. For example, in the block-wide, mile-long strip between our hotel and the zócalo I count five Starbucks shops but only two of the elusive WCs. No shortage, though, of lethal equipment-laden policia with their protective, hard plastic shields, nor of those ubiquitous organ grinders whose music is part of the downtown soundtrack. Later, quizzing one of our taxi drivers, I am disabused of my notion that they are strictly a seasonal addition to the scene.

My new dicho, or saying, "Un sanitorio publico is como oro".
The zócalo's giant Christmas tree is in the background, upper
left. This scene gives an idea how crowded downtown is.
I discover some leafy side streets reserved for pedestrians that are out of the punishing flow of foot traffic moving to and from the zócalo. That huge plaza itself is only slightly less crowded than on the past Navidad weekend; the rink and toboggan slide are still doing a booming business, and towering over all, in place of the mammoth Mexican flag that’s easily visible from outer space is a hundred foot tall fake Christmas tree decorated with balls as big as weather balloons. 

I pass several museums but all are closed, as is usual on Mondays. Before we left home a friend told us there are 500 museos in the city. I doubt there are that many, but it does seem like there are several on about every block, at least in the centro. There are some unexpected themes: Museo del Perfume, de Caricatura, del Tequila y el Mezcal. The latter two are even open today and not too far away, but I want to get back to mi esposa.

This andador, or pedestrian street, runs parallel and two blocks from the one
in the previous photo. It's not on a direct route to the zócalo.
We had originally planned dinners at a few highly recommended restaurants that prepare interesting dishes we might not find elsewhere, but that’s more than we can handle with this illness. We’re not really foodies so this is a loss we can easily shrug off. Instead we make the short trek to Chinatown, confine our daring to trying the eatery next door to the one we ate at two nights ago and opt for chicken stir fry again. That's a mistake; I still gag at the memory of those gristly, unidentifiable chunks.

It’s a slow slow walk back to our hotel. We celebrate our arrival with a big scoop of nutty pistachio (cone—me, cup—her) at the boutique ice cream shop in the lobby, elevator straight to our room and get in bed. We’re both glad we go home tomorrow, and that we can sleep in. There are two more art museums we’ve been looking forward to visiting—each only a block away—before we catch our short, late afternoon flight.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

XCII. Nuestro Viaje a México, Cuarto Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Fourth Day

Day 4 - After a rough night there is no doubt that the exhaustion and malaise my companion has been feeling is not the result of altitude, pollution or common cold. It has all the markers of the infamous la gripa—the flu—and it’s hitting her hard.

Although we drag out of bed late, when we look out the window not a soul is visible down on the street. There was a lot of partying last night—Christmas Eve—and it shows. After breakfast at our new go-to place—Starbucks in the lobby—we hail a taxi. It’s another warming and sunny day, and we have to backtrack off usually busy Avenida Juarez where the only traffic is a smattering of bicycles. Every Sunday—and not just on holidays—we learn that cars, trucks and buses are all forbidden on some of the city’s main streets.

About where we’re going: Every single person we’ve asked—and all the online advice—say the one thing you should definitely not miss when visiting Mexico City is the National Anthropological Museum. You can see other famous artists, embark on other fascinating boat rides, view other incredible architecture, but—by popular acclaim—no where else can you see the history of a people so clearly and imaginatively depicted and explained. We agree. And the setting is spectacular.

Voladores descending with a rope attached to a
belt at their waist. When they are about to
reach the ground, they put their feet down.
As we approach the museum we are pleased and surprised to see Danza de los Voladores being performed. Four "dancers" are attached by rope to a spool at the top of a hundred foot pole; as they twirl around, the rope plays out and they descend head first. Meanwhile, a fifth participant plays the flute while standing on the revolving capstan. This ceremony—which possibly began as a way to implore the gods for rain—originated about 500 years ago in central Mexico, and is now a UNESCO recognized "intangible cultural heritage". For most of us, just the thought of what the voladores—meaning "flyers"—endure, raises all sorts of personal red flags, and I guess that's a big part of the attraction.

The museum itself has a long central courtyard enclosed on three sides by two stories of exhibit halls, or salas. Salas on the bottom level are each devoted to a particular pre-Hispanic culture; those above show how each of these cultures has carried their traditions into today's world. The salas are organized roughly chronologically so that it's best to visit them in counter-clockwise direction.

The relief sculpture on the column represents the merging of
indigenous and Spanish cultures to create a new nation.
Photo from U.S. Dept. of Treasury website.
When you enter the courtyard from a spacious admissions area, the first thing that catches your eye is a vast roof seemingly supported only by a single sculpted column from around which a curtain of water falls. This is a popular place for kids to play at seeing how near they can approach without getting too wet.

Many of the signs here are in English as well as Spanish. With the high ceilings, generous and varied spacing, frequent access to garden exhibits, and variety of styles of displaymurals, different kinds of maps, artifacts, fantastic reconstructions—make it easy to spend four hours here, although we only make it through a quarter of the salas

Looking back at the entry from the far end.
The sala devoted to the Teotihuacana shows here a reconstruction of one of their pyramids (which you can visit about 40 km northeast of here) plus a relief map of that site, c.500AD at which time the city had about 125,000 inhabitants, making it then the sixth largest city in the world. Note the high ceiling here that gives way to a small room holding original artifacts, past which you can see some more, larger sculptures in the garden outside.
A continuation of the previous picture. After exiting the small room with original artifacts, and coming out of the garden, you walk past the far left side of the reconstruction, under a mural, through the far doorway and into another small room with a few more artifacts and a summation of what you have seen.
A large (3'X3'X5') rattlesnake carved from volcanic rock c.1400AD. This and similar sculptures guarded the temples of the deities on the pyramids of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. At the time the Spanish arrived in 1521, the Valley of Mexico had about a million inhabitants--the largest population concentration in the world. 
The head in the foreground is of the Aztec goddess, Coyolxauhqui. Her death and dismemberment by her brother set in motion the eternal cosmic conflict between opposites. In the background is the most famous artifact in the museum--the Aztec Sun Stone. It is not strictly a calendar but rather shows the four ages of Aztec cosmology that had passed at the time of the stone's creation about 1500. Originally possibly used as an altar or stage for gladiator contests, it was buried at the time of Spanish conquest and not rediscovered until almost 300 years later when Mexico City's main cathedral was being remodeled. The stone is huge--about twelve feet around and three feet thick--and weighs 24 tons. As with many of these artifacts it was originally painted bright red, yellow.
Back at the hotel we order room service dinner and go to bed early. My spouse is suffering. While I read a book, she sleeps fitfully. I find a TV channel that just plays sounds of nature, and that seems to sooth her. Tomorrow we have left free—almost all museums and public buildings are closed on Monday.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

XCI. Nuestro Viaje a México, Tercer Día

Our Trip to Mexico City, Third Day

A canal in Xochimilco, late-morning, as we return to our mooring.
Day 3 - We do not have time this morning to go out for breakfast before our guide arrives, so it’s coffee and not much more than a croissant at the Starbucks in the lobby. At nine, the hotel pickup for the tour goes smoothly belying my middle-of-the-night worries about how we would connect, and before ten we are pulling into a parking lot in the suburbs, about 20 km south of Centro Histórico. There’s only my grin-and-bear-it wife, myself, Carlos—black leather-jacketed, sunglassed guide—and Ana, our chofer.

Isla de las Muñecas, "Island of the Dolls", a chinampa with a
macabre story. For whatever reason, a crazed individual who
"owned" this land on a Xochomilco canal began hanging old
and broken dolls from the trees facing the water, to ward off
evil, perhaps, or to honor a dead child.
More than fifty years ago I saw a picture in my high school Spanish language book of colorful boats being poled through flowery, tree-lined canals—“Floating Gardens”, the caption said, “—of Xochimilco”, outside of Mexico City. That image isn’t too far from the reality we find this morning. Here is all that remains of the interconnected lakes, artificial islands and canals that filled the whole Valley of Mexico when the Spanish arrived 500 years ago. 

We begin our trajinare ride by hopping onto a half dozen of these flat-bottomed boats, carefully traversing the length of each, and then jumping onto the next one that is a little further from shore and less hemmed in by its fellow craft. We finally make it to Armando’s boat and he skillfully poles us into the canal, dodging a few other screamingly vibrant boats headed the opposite direction in this, now impossibly narrow, channel. In the clear, we settle in to gawk and listen to Carlos. It’s a crisp, clear morning and we’re one of the few trajinares—of hundreds of others still at their moorings—already out on the calm water. 

Museo Anahuacalli. Photo taken from the net, unattributed
Those plying their traditional livelihood on and around the canals have a family history here that often goes back centuries. The basic boats themselves have remained unchanged since before the time of the Aztec. The “floating” gardens, called chinampas, are actually formed by building a sort of fence to enclose an area of the shallow lake bottom, adding silt and mud to lift it above water level, and anchoring it by planting the indigenous juniper tree to the edges of the plot. In some areas, even today, transport is solely by means of a dugout; narrow channels link interior chinampas to the main canals which are often fronted by plant nurseries and restaurants serving water-borne tourists, mostly Mexicanos celebrating a wedding, family gathering, or a chance to get away from the crowded city.

A display at Museo Anahuacalli. Photos of Rivera in
middle.
After this idyl we head back north toward that city, but not before giving a substantial propina to our gifted gondolier.

Museo Anahuacalli entrances us as soon as we see it. It’s quiet here in this part of Coyoacán. A winding, tree- and village life-lined road leads to the entrance across a shady ravine. The black volcanic rock and glass museum itself is stark and oddly handsome. That we come here with no knowledge or expectation of what we will find makes its discovery all the more magical. Dedicated to displaying Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic art collection as well as showcasing some of his own work, it is a building that he jointly designed with architect, friend and muralist Juan O’Gorman.

Our hipster guide gives us the tickets and says he’ll wait outside. The crypt-like level on which we enter is only illuminated through slits of transparent carmel-streaked marble, and feels like it’s hewn of solid lava. The black and gray rocks on the dim ceiling form murals of Aztec designs. Backlit stone artifacts are framed in dark volcanic niches. Presentation is everything here. Papier mâché skeletons labelled Trotsky, Kahlo, Orozco, and other friends and artists converse through cartoon bubbles. There is a photo triptych of Rivera making faces at the camera. It’s all like a private joke, as if we’re in the basement of Diego’s clubhouse. 
Artifact on display at Museo Anahuacalli

Unfortunately, the basement is all that we see. We’re edged on to the next tour stop without being informed that this museum’s upper level contains many of the artist’s own works, including illustrations, writings, and drawings, such as early sketches for the “Man the Controller” mural we saw two days ago at the Palacio de Bellas Artes

Casa Azul—now Museo Frida Kahlo—was her childhood home; she moved back into it when married life in the two nearby co-joined houses—of which hers was much smaller—became untenable. Today this place is packed with tourists. Once inside, we are limited by ropes and docents to inch along a one-way path through the rooms, the most interesting of which houses Kahlo’s day bed with her death mask on the pillow, one of her painted corsets at the foot. There are several photos of her painting from this same bed. Its canopy is a mirror that allowed for plenty of self-reflection.

Street view of Museo Frida Kahlo, Casa Azul
It’s too crowded to comfortably see the displays, my boon companion is bearing up but has become increasingly exhausted (the 7000 foot altitude?), and now, well into the afternoon, neither of has eaten since our light breakfast. We have half a hope that a visit to a nearby cafe is in the offing, but no. We gamely stumble through two more stops—the church and market at the center of this arty little urban village and a distant view of the 1968 Olympic Stadium, of all things. 

The most notable thing at the market happens when we throw our tiny plastic tasting spoons into what we think is a waste basket and are brought up short by the stall owner who—I think—accuses us of behaving like typical entitled americanos. I could have said a few things about Mexicans and trash, but don’t. And then, at the stadium, our guide seem uninterested when we tell him of the controversy around the 1968 US track winners and their black power salute.

So, things end a little on a down note, and we’re hungry and exhausted when we return to our hotel on Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, especially since this is The Night, we are friendly and generous in parting with Carlos and Ana; we saw some amazing sights. The Chinese barrio is only a few blocks away from our hotel and we each order a good chicken stir fry for dinner. Fortunately there is no reason to get up early in the morning and we only have one thing on our Christmas Day agenda.