Archive: 2007 1st Quarter

Viernes de Delores

On my walk yesterday morning, I ran across people selling purple and white decorations for an upcoming holiday.


Others were selling wheat sprouts.


(Note that some of the plants are growing in cut off soft drink bottles, the default container in these parts. If you've got nothing else, use a plastic coke bottle.)

This woman is selling bitter oranges and herbs. All of this stuff: purple and white paper and ribbon, oranges, herbs, and wheat sprouts, has symbolic meanings.


These materials are being used to build altars for Viernes de Delores (the Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows); altars like this decorated fountain.


The holiday commemorates the Virgin Mary's sorrow at the torture and killing of Jesus—a difficult notion for me to comprehend. In San Miguel, a sculpture known as El Señor de la Columna is central to the Samana Santa events. It is one of the most horrifying images imaginable.


Altars constructed for this day often include agonized figures like this one, and grieving images of Mary.


Some memorials are very elaborate. This one, built against the wall of the Biblioteca Pública, includes a brass band playing dirges.


Families build beautiful displays and offer refreshments to those who come to view their work. This one includes a figure of Christ, jailed and guarded by two centurions.


Some altars are simply exquisite. This is a famous one, built by the family of Rubén Pérez. It is located just a few houses away from mine on Aldama. It includes precious antique figurines.


Visitors stand in front of each altar for many minutes, perhaps in prayer, perhaps meditating, or maybe just drinking in all the beauty. This one is built on the Aldama fountain, one of San Miguel's landmarks.


In general, the mood of visitors was incongruously festive. Except for a few moments in reflection followed by crossing themselves, people spent most of the time chatting with neighbors, eating paletas (popsicles) offered by their hosts while their kids ran around shouting and squealing, like kids will do on major holidays when school's out.

The altars I've shown so far are all located in wealthy neighborhoods. I felt more at home in working-class areas, where displays were more modest and welcomes were warmer.

A party rental business seems a good a place as any for an altar.


Viewings and visits went on until early the next morning.


By the end of it all, this family was dead on its feet. But they offered me a glass of orange juice with a smile.

Viernes de Delores is not really about mourning. It's a demonstration of perfect democracy, when wealthy and poor alike host one another and participate in common religious acts. It is a night when people greet one another, renew old friendships, make new ones, and revel in a powerful sense of community.

More About Handicapped Parking

In Mexico, we have reserved parking spaces for the handicapped. We're not some uncivilized third-world country like some of y'all think. In fact, we have an easier, friendlier approach. Consider these spaces in front of the new Mega supermarket:


One of the signs looks a little different, doesn't it? Let's read the lettering.


Yes, in Mexico we respect our expecting mothers. For many people, Mexico is about having children, raising families. The Catholic Church, huge here, encourages procreation. The government is ambivalent. Families are good for the country. Children are good. Just not too many, please. But there's one absolute in this patriarchal society: a pregnant woman is a good woman, and should be given every consideration. Like her own parking spot.

In addition to disabled and pregnant people, you're allowed to use these spaces if you are a "person of the third age"; that is to say, old. I wonder, do I qualify? I get discount fares on the San Francisco Muni and reduced-price tickets at the movies. I belong to the AARP. But I don't feel old. For now, it's not an issue. I saw these reserved spaces after walking to Mega from my home—more than a mile. It's easier than driving in our horrible congestion and it's good for me, so I won't be parking there anytime soon.

This photo shows a couple of handicapped spots in an underground lot in Querétaro.


Look pretty much like those in the States, with the universal blue-and-white symbols and all. The yellow roll-away barriers are unfamiliar, though. They're there because parking enforcement is more difficult here than up north. Without computer tracking, Mexican police have to remove license plates to get violators to pay their fines.

The barriers discourage illegal parking, making the number of violations more manageable. Fewer plates to unscrew.

But, you ask, how does it help the handicapped if they have to struggle out of their cars and move a heavy steel barrier? Well, all Mexican parking lots have one or more attendants who collect fees, guide you in and out of parking spaces, sometimes even wash your car. When someone pulls up to a handicapped parking place, an attendant comes over and moves the barrier.

Back in San Francisco, I noticed signs encouraging drivers to obey the law. Signs like:


Encouragement by threatening, that's one way.

Here's another—the Mexican way:


"We respect these spaces;
Today for those guys,
Tomorrow for ourselves."

Sweet. Friendly. Fatalistic. Quintessentially Mexican.



My friend Paul Gross and I had just finished a couple of plates of Korean barbecued ribs at the new Asian restaurant in San Miguel. We were walking out when Paul said, "I always know when fly season starts because the water bags come out."

I said, "What?" (I'm well-known for my witty ripostes.)

Paul said, "Water bags. See? They're to keep the flies away."


Paul, stylish in sandals with socks, points out water bags.

I said, "Yeah. Right."

"No. Really. You fill plastic bags with water and hang them around the house. Then you don't get flies."

I looked more closely.


Insect repellant?

Yep. Looked like ordinary plastic bags filled with water. Not believing Paul, I asked the restaurant owner: "Are you using water bags to keep flies away?"

He said, "Yeah. See? No fly."


Now, what bothered me about all this is not that people believe that hanging bags full of water repels flies. We are, after all, living in San Miguel de Allende, haven of the science-impaired. No. My issue is that here we apparently have a widespread, highly visible practice of which I am totally unaware. In nearly five years, I've never noticed water bags hanging around.

I'm still not sure I believe it. Maybe Paul cooked up something with the restaurant owner. I wouldn't put it past him.

So help me out. Have any of you heard of this practice? Do people up north do it or is it just a Mexican thing? And most important, does it work?


Namedropping with the Stars

The last stop on our California trip is to hook up with Matthew, Jean's nephew, in Los Angeles. Matt is a musician, a member of the Hollywood anointed. He hangs out with the stars, intimidates headwaiters. He managed to score a coveted table at exclusive Studio City restaurant Nozawa Sushi.


Smug Matt, with the world on a string, entertains his Auntie Jean.

You could tell we were in star country. I parked my rented Taurus between the Escalades, Hummers and Nissan Armadas, mindful that their owners, at the last Academy Awards, had just given a special award to Al Gore for environmentalism.

When we entered, I craned my neck, asking in a loud voice, "Is that somebody? Matt! Is that somebody?"

The glitterati jostle for tables at Nozawa Sushi. The night we were there, Patricia Arquette and her retinue (a child and a nanny) held court, dazzling the trendy supper club's sparkling clientele.

It's a place where trend-setters go for abuse. Master chef Nozawa-san, called "the Sushi Nazi" behind his back, decides what you'll eat, in what sequence, and at what speed. Don't for God's sake order a California roll or anything with cream cheese in it. You'll be ejected with a warning not to return, ever. Nor may you use your cell phone. He's been said to throw rice balls at patrons who do.


Jean: Do you believe what that guy's eating.

This is a real sushi restaurant. No frills. No dynamite rolls. What you get is fish on rice. Period. You want avocado on that, go down the street to Fishy Sushi. The hard-core aficionado behind Jean is drinking a mysterious olive-colored drink and is eating—I'm not kidding—salted fish guts.

Since we had stopped shoving sushi into our mouths, Nozawa-san hustled us out of his place. His motto: Eat! No talk! So we lit out for a late-night joint called Pinkberry. This incredibly popular place is... wait for it... a Korean yogurt shop.

Don't ask me. All I can tell you is the place was jammed, the yogurt was the best I've ever tasted, and even Kirstie Alley waited in line with a bunch of kids for a medium green tea flavor topped with blackberries, mango and Cap'n Crunch.

OK, I know that's a lot of name dropping. Jean made me do it. When you grow up in Rensselaer, Indiana, you're easily star-struck.


Life in Tambaque

I guess that around half of all Mexicans still live in pueblos—small villages. Undeniably, migration to the great cities—Mexico, Monterrey, Guadalajara—is taking place. And millions have emigrated to the United States. But the heart of Mexico is still rural. I'm drawn to the tiny settlements, more than the great cultural centers.

Tambaque is one such place. This is its main square.


Tough to find Tambaque on a map; it's northeast of Xilitla, if that helps.

Even a place this small has enough civic pride to erect the de rigueur monument in the square.


When you have money enough for only one monument, your choice of historical figures is limited to two. Just as you'd probably go with a statue of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the U. S., in Mexico it's Miguel Hidalgo or Benito Juaréz. This battered bust is of the former.

Most houses are modest. In a barter economy, there's not a lot of hard cash for manufactured building supplies.


This home doesn't have electricity, but you can see a pipe that supplies running water, a step up from the places farther from the road.

A nearby restaurant has a similar look.


The proprietor didn't fritter money away on extras like signs. It's the only restaurant for miles, so what do you need a sign for? Cooking gas is supplied from the gray bottle on the right. The place seems to have electricity, but it isn't wasted on lights. That's a galvanized washtub on the roof, keeping out the rain in the one spot that's difficult to seal with thatch.

No matter how poor a place is, children go to school. They may not be very good schools, but every child gets a more or less free education through fifth or sixth grade.


It's a little startling, amidst all that poverty, to see schoolchildren in clean, neatly pressed uniforms. Probably some of these girls' parents are illiterate. But in the new generation, literacy is essentially 100%. That bodes well for a lower birth rate, economic growth and the advance of a free, equitable society.

As in the United States sixty years ago, Mexico is becoming more urban. The pueblos are dying out.


"Welcome to San Pedro" the sign says. San Pedro is the next town down the road from Tambaque. The sign gives the population as 1500 in 1996. Someone lettered over it in 1998: 700 inhabitants. I doubt there's that many today. I wonder, do Mexicans get nostalgic for small town living?

Making a Living in Xilitla

Xilitla is economically undeveloped, to put it mildly. There's no industry here because transportation links are poor, there's no real skilled labor base and there's no capital. Income derives primarily from agriculture (coffee, oranges), and trade in goods and services to support farmers. There's a trickle of tourist dollars, but not enough to register on the econ-o-meter.

There's some investment in real estate.


Here's a nice little rental that brings in maybe fifty pesos per week. Plus a chicken. Small, but what a view!

Someone else is thinking a little bigger. This place is going to be a hotel.


I dunno. The best hotel in town, the eight-bedroom Posada El Castillo, looks like it gets maybe 60% occupancy, if that. And this place probably is going to have to live off the overflow from the Posada, unless they're going to try to compete on price. It's probably being financed with out-of-town money. It's hard to imagine that anyone who really knows Xilitla would attempt it.

The region does boast an extraction industry: shale quarrying.


That man in the yellow shirt is quarrying blocks of shale with a chisel and hammer. He's doing it the old-fashioned way: one rock at a time. He's one of about a dozen independent operators in or near town. He doesn't own his quarry; it's on the highway right-of-way. Property of the State. But the government likes to have him there because he's removing rock that might otherwise slide down onto the road. I'm sure he makes substantially less than $5 per day.

If you want to make the big bucks, you have to go into retail. A produce market is a good entry-level business.


This one is housed under a black plastic tarp in a space that would ordinarily be used for parking along the street. Minimal start-up costs. I'm guessing that one of the proprietor's indirect expenses involves paying "fees" to someone in city government. Every night, the owner takes down his tarp and rolls a length of chain-link fence over his vegetables. By the way, when was the last time you saw wooden vegetable crates?

Those are unusual mangos behind and just to the left of the pineapples. They are small, yellow-orange with a rose blush. You can't buy them except in eastern tropical Mexico: too delicate to ship long distances. Too sweet to miss, too, so you should come here just for a taste. This guy is selling his for about 40¢ US a pound. How you eat them is you squoosh and squoosh one with your hands until the flesh liquifies. Then you bite off the end and suck out the insides.

There may be better margins in meat. This outdoor carnicería looks like a low-investment business. Apparently Mexican meat doesn't need refrigeration.


The guy behind the table is chilling out with his newspaper. The whole operation is laid back and surprisingly wholesome-looking.

As a contrast, carnicería shown below is indoors. The owner is paying rent and you'd expect a higher class store than one located out on the street.


But you would be wrong. I wouldn't knowingly eat anything that came from this place. The tub in front of the butcher is for cooking carnitas: pig boiled in lard. I love carnitas. And since the meat is boiled for a long time at very high temperatures, it's got to be safe, right? At least I keep telling myself that. Of course, it's not safe for the arteries. My coronary arteries are cringing just looking at the tub. The butcher, you'll note, is engaged in that activity common to all of Xilitla's butchers—reading the newspaper.

Selling shoes is good. Mexicans love shoes. Every small town has several shoe stores. In cities, shoe stores are often located in the high-rent district—jammed right up against the main plaza.


You can see what the big sellers are in Xilitla: huaraches. These are less than $5 US per pair. Real leather, too! I think.

The pinnacle of retail, though, is a hardware store. Mexico is a country where people make stuff, fix stuff. They buy hardware like crazy. Hardware stores are always mobbed. Although self-serve places like Home Depot are coming into the cities, their quality and service is just as bad as in the States: cheap plated screws in bubble packs, moronic clerks that didn't make the cut at McDonalds. But in small Mexican hardware stores, the proprietor assists you, and he knows his clavos.


This hardware store offers something you won't find just anywhere: a small, industrial-grade coffee mill. We're in coffee-growing country, and small operators grow, harvest, roast and grind their own. It's really good coffee, too, judging by what I was served at Posada El Castillo.

But not everybody comes into this place to buy a coffee mill or a heavy-duty flash water heater or asphalt floor tile. So the owner of this store is hedging his bet. Those shelves in the back hold a complete selection of liquor. You can always get sales with liquor.

Hardware stores are capital-intensive businesses. You have to lock up so darn much money in inventory. For those with essentially no working capital, service businesses are the answer.


Find a wide spot on a street, make yourself a tall chair and table, sling a tarp, and you have a barber shop. This is one in a row of three barber shops. A hand painted sign on the wall says the space is reserved for the barbers: no parking, cabron. More "fees" I bet.

If all else fails, you can always be a milkman.


It's probably the only job that pays worse than quarrying shale. But hey. It's a living.

Phoning Home

Telephoning has recently become easy in Mexico, but it wasn't always so. A shortage of lines and switch gear meant long waits to get a phone installed in your new home. Entrepreneurs made deals with Telmex officials to "buy" blocks of lines on the rare occasions that they became available, which they then sold to homeowners and businesses at a substantial markup. This of course only made the problem worse.

If you didn't have a phone or couldn't afford one, you borrowed a neighbor's phone, or you went downtown to use the Caseta Telefónica—the phone booth.


A caseta telefónica in Tancanhuitz de Santos.

Casetas provide phones for making local, long distance and international calls. "International" means "USA." It's not like campesinos have a lot of correspondents in Tokyo.

More importantly, casetas are a place where you can receive calls. Telmex, a monopoly, charges exorbitant rates, so campesinos rely on their stateside relatives to originate calls. That way, they only have to pay for booth time.

An explosion of land lines and cellular networks is reducing the need for Casetas Telefónicas. But you still see them in remote areas. For some reason, they're usually painted blue and yellow (when they're painted at all) just as tortillarías are traditionally painted green and yellow.

A typical caseta contains a row of private booths, in each of which is located what Lily Tomlin called, an instrument. You sit in a row of chairs waiting for your call. When it comes in, the attendant routes it to an instrument in a booth.

Note that in the picture above, the lady in the chair is not waiting for a call. She is selling used clothing. (After you've lived here for awhile, it all kind of makes sense.)


A caseta telefónica in Xilitla.

It all seems so inconvenient. But Mexican people tolerate inconvenience like Norteamericanos wouldn't. I saw a sign by the highway that said "Teléfono 300 Mts." It pointed to a narrow dirt path leading straight up a steep mountainside. No way to drive there; you had to walk. I don't know about you, but I'd have to be pretty desperate to walk uphill the length of three football fields, even to phone home.


Back to Nature

I think of inland Mexico as being desert, and I think of its waterways as polluted, its highways as littered. Visiting the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve is a wonderful antidote for that kind of thinking.


This region is full of rugged mountains, tropical rainforest, rivers, lakes, caves and wildlife.

Above is a view of the peña called El Cerro de la Silleta, shot from the lookout tower in the Posada el Castillo, my hotel in Xilitla.

Jungle-clad mountains loom over settlements and roads. You can tell you're not in Indiana anymore. Sure beats looking at milo stubble poking through the snow. (A credit to Doonesbury for that one.)


The Sierra Gorda is much greener than the State of Guanajuato where I live, only a six hour drive away. Frequent mists and low clouds keep everything green and lush.


Small farmers grow bananas and coffee beneath mountain peaks. (Those are coffee trees in bloom, visible beneath the lower banana leaf.)


There's exploring to be done in these mountains, enough to keep any Sierra Club backpacker happy. When I planned this trip I had no idea. There are actual campgrounds here, and wilderness trails. Next time I'll bring hiking and camping gear.


Spelunkers travel to Mexico for caving in unexplored grottos.


On my list for a future visit are caves that are home to hundreds of green parrots, and another to hundreds of thousands of swallows.

Beautiful rivers run everywhere...


... their sources sometimes are large springs at the bases of mountains.


Above, a large volume of water flows from a hole in the rocks—an underground river rising to the surface.

These waters are clean and clear, unpolluted. Tens of thousands of people drink them every day, without the ill effects so many suffer from municipal water supplies. Fish abound. I saw a teenager with a homemade bow and arrow catch his lunch. He looked like he was fresh out of Amazonia.


Along the roads, many signs point the way to waterfalls. Others are accessible only by boat or hiking trail.

Residants of the Huasteca live in a gorgeous, unspoiled part of the world. I'd recommend to anyone that they put on their hiking boots, grab their fly rods and come enjoy the wilderness. But then, if this place were discovered, would it remain the same? Nothing this beautiful will remain secret for very long, so see it while you can.

Las Flores Silvestres

Spring is definitely in the air, with many plants in bloom already. It's one of the benefits of living below the Tropic of Cancer. I see Billie has written a post about blooming jacarandas and more.

Along the roadsides on Mex 120 and 85, in the Sierra Gorda, wildflowers are blooming, too.


In San Miguel, wildflowers come in the rainy season, peaking in September. We don't get enough rain in the State of Guanajuato for seeds to germinate and grow in spring. We live in the rain shadow of the Sierra Gorda. Storms roll in off the Gulf of Mexico and dump their moisture on the Huasteca Potosina instead of on us.

Cultivated trees are blooming in profusion, especially coffee and orange trees. Their scent is everywhere and it is powerful. Other trees are in bloom as well.


I don't know if the pictured trees are cultivars or natives. I don't know the names of any of the wildflowers. Pathetic.

The red blossoms in the lower right photo are particularly interesting. Indigenous people harvest them to sell in the towns. Why? Are they a seasonal comestible? Brewed into some kind of tea? Or are they used in folk medicine?

One of the tree species used as living fenceposts is blooming as well.


Hanging on these plants alongside the pink blossoms are green seed pods about three inches long. This plant finds many uses in this region, so knowing its name is important. Perhaps one of you botanists know what it's called...

Visiting Huehuetlán

The countryside in the Huastecan Potosí is incredibly beautiful: green meadows, tropical jungle, spectacular mountains.


Nothing at all like the sere Bahío where I live.

Here in the Sierra Gorda, you occasionally see a traditionally dressed Tenek woman walking by, adding color to the scene.


This one is correctly dressed head to toe: petop, colorful caped blouse, dark, mid-calf-length skirt, huaraches and the de rigeur shoulder bag cross-stitched in authentic patterns. She is headed for the pretty little town of Huehuetlán, on foot; as was I, by car.

(I love going to places you can't google for squat. Try it. Huehuetlán. You'll get nothing useful in English, and very little in Spanish.)


Small towns don't have large budgets for monuments. But no respectable Mexican town can hold up its civic head without at least one. Huehuetlán's is a bust of Benito Juaréz.


Well, I've seen worse. The monument utterly fails to convey any sense whatever of dignity or honor, what with the cartoon-like features, the peeling paint and the outsized pedestal diminishing the bust itself. The Bela Lugosi expression doesn't help, either.

On a more positive note, Huehuetlán has a pretty central plaza and church.


When I arrived, I heard loud popular music. Something was going on. A band was playing, or so I thought.

A button box player was singing his heart out.


His suit would not have been my first choice, but his pale turquoise ostrich boots—My, my!

Several expensive video cameras were recording the performance.


I had come to Huehuetlán to explore an typical Huastecan puebla. What I found was a high-tech music video production from Mexico City.

The band was lip syncing to one of their recordings. I could hear a bass drum, but the drummer had only one trap and a cymbal. No cables connected the keyboard to an amplifier.


Only the guitar player gave any impression that he was actually grooving with the music.

The track played over and over again. Boring. Camera angles changed. When the group shots were completed, the crew moved in for closeups.


Everybody stood around a lot. I would have lost all patience before the first hour was up. These people were going to spend the entire day producing a single three-minute video.


Wandering around the plaza, I met the Morales family. When they saw my camera, they posed rather stiffly, and nothing I could say would get them to relax for a candid shot.


All three were born and raised in Huehuetlán. Artenio is mestizo; his wife, Liset, is Tenek; and the baby, Jimena, is Japanese.

That was a joke. Jimena is mestiza too, which means she will have more social acceptance and a more prosperous future than her mother. It's sad, but there it is.

Artenio works eight months a year in Nashville. He says he can earn the price of a television for a week's work there: the same TV would require three months' work in Huehuetlán. They love their home town and wish that Artenio could always be home with the family. They have no wish to emigrate to the States. Life in Huehuetlán is too good for that.

A guest worker program with a path to citizenship holds no value for Artenio. He doesn't like how Americans live. Too hurried, too stressy, too much of a rat race. What he wants is better economic opportunity in Huehuetlán. He told me if he could earn just half of what he makes in Nashville, he'd stay home.


Huehuetlán is a sweet, peaceful town. On hot days you can sit in the shade of 100-year-old laurels and look out at the spectacular Sierra Gorda. Artenio is on to something. I find myself dreaming about living here.


Coppicing in Mexico

When I think about the Mexican countryside, environmental preservation isn't the first thing to cross my mind. In this country, you see once-pristine cenotes ringed with snack shacks and souvenir stands. This is a land where villagers take bribes to look the other way as illegal loggers cut old-growth timber in the Monarch Butterfly Preserve of Michoacan. An obscenity called Xel-Ha promotes itself as an ecological attraction, where visitors pay exorbitant fees to stomp around on coral heads and let their kids swim with captive dolphins.


And yet, serious conservation efforts are going on here. Mexico has set aside large amounts of land as Biosphere Reserves. There are reforestation projects and efforts to save wildlife such as sea turtles.

Farmers in the eastern Sierra Gorda are using a method of fencing their fields that is cheap, effective, and environmentally friendly.


They make fenceposts out of living trees. They are planted by jamming green branches into the ground in a row along the desired fence line. Farmers use species that readily sprout roots from fresh prunings. After a year in the ground, the branches develop strong enough roots that they become firmly anchored and can be used to support barbed wire.

Eventually, the fence posts sprout new branches that grow large enough to be usable as poles themselves, so the farmers harvest them, a process that can be repeated indefinitely. The technique of repeatedly cutting trees is called coppicing.


Coppicing is practiced all over the world. Talking about coppicing seems seems to be a peculiarly British activity. Google coppice and you get a whole bunch of pages from the UK offering nuanced commentary on methodology.

Rural British homeowners cultivate coppiced woodlots: ten acres provides a family with all the firewood it needs. It's the perfect pensioner's solution. He tells his wife, "Bridget, I'm going out to check on the coppice," before nipping down to the public house for a pint or two.

In the Sierra Gorda, farmers coppice fences instead of woodlots. Harvested branches are carefully stacked, ready for replanting or use in house-building.


Some cuttings are used for firewood.


Since so many households use firewood for cooking, a renewable fuel source is essential for conserving the jungle.

Some farmers, having coppiced their fences for years, have stopped pruning them and allowed them to develop into mature trees, giving roads in these parts a unique look.


Progress in caring for the environment is not as advanced in Mexico as in the United States; nor is economic progress for that matter, an impediment to conservation. Environmentalism seems to be the province of rich countries: when the basic needs of the people are met, then it becomes possible to divert funds to conservation.

I have to curb my Norteamericano judgmentalism when it comes to the condition of the Mexican countryside. After all, not so many years ago the Detroit River caught fire and large numbers of dead fish washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Even today, Southern California beaches are routinely closed because of pollution from sewage.

So I'm impressed when I see Mexicans, lacking wealth, using ingenuity to keep their world green.

Women of the Huasteca

Women keep the Huastecan Potosí functioning. Many of the men have gone north of the border seeking employment. Relatively few remain to participate in the day-to-day work of maintaining homes and raising families. So the work and the responsibility falls mainly on the women.


This woman is one of them. She doesn't look too happy with her difficult lot. Or maybe she's expressing disapproval of an annoying photographer.

Life is hard. Just doing the laundry looks like half a day's work to me.


Many women have to supplement the family income through small-scale commerce.


Both mom and the wheelbarrow-shop vendor are trying to get an undecided little girl to settle on one kind of nut or another.

A woman operates the smallest polloría I've ever seen.


Looks like she's got one chicken left, hanging by a hook through its head with its feet still attached. Yum. That chicken is fresh. (But I'm not sure about buying food from a place where a five-gallon bucket originally used for Bardahl gear oil is part of the essential equipment.)

Women organize most of the community activities, and because they've taken over the social agenda, it has changed. Here, a local women's council has organized a dog training class.


Why is this unusual? Well, most Mexican men wouldn't even think of training their dogs. Dogs are supposed to be wild, fierce and free. Just like the men. The women, however, want obedient dogs in their villages; ones that don't bite the children. Do you think this says anything about how the women would like to deal with the men?

While walking down a narrow track through coffee and orange groves, I ran into Felipe and Basilio who immediately attached themselves to me.


They are Tenek children wearing traditional Coca-Cola and Incredible Hulk tee shirts. (Don't judge Felipe's mom by the cleanliness of his shirt—he's a boy, after all.)

They are standing on ground littered with orange blossoms. The scent is thick and sweet. I thought, how lucky they are to live in a place so sunny and warm, and that smells so nice.

The boys appointed themselves my guides, leading me back into the jungle, naming plants as we went. (That's an avocado tree; that's a mujer mala—a bad woman.) They told me they were taking me to see a cave and entrance would cost five pesos.

A sign indicated we were getting somewhere.


We were approaching an eatery, Las Quilas, operated by Ecotourism Project Women's Group. Many groups of this type have sprung up, women raising money to protect the local environment. Sensitivity to environmental issues isn't strong in Mexico, so it's encouraging to see the women take the lead in doing something about it.

At Las Quilas, I found three little girls and a plastic tub of newly-picked coffee beans, but no food. No problem—I wasn't hungry anyway.


Eventually a woman emerged and wanted to know if I would like to tour the soltana (cave). I gave her a 20 peso bill, knowing she wouldn't have any change. I told her to keep it. Heck, I would have given her a $100 peso donation if she had asked for it.

She led me to the cave.


It was definitely a low-voltage attraction. We walked into the darkness about thirty feet and then she told me to stop because shortly ahead, the floor dropped away into a "bottomless pit."

I wasn't disappointed, because for me, meeting the kids was the real treat. Felipe and Basilio escorted me back to their settlement and asked me for a regalo (tip). I felt bad that I only had two one-peso coins, but they seemed satisfied with them. No sooner than I paid than I ceased to exist in their world as they walked off together, happily cracking jokes. (Now, before you condemn me as cheap, consider that two pesos amounted to a 40% tip.)

The women live long lives. If they make it past infectious disease and accidents, their active lifestyles and healthy diets keep them going for a long time.


This woman has no intention of composting in some retirement home. She's an elder in her community, a source of knowledge and experience for her family, a caretaker of her great-grandchildren. She's got way too much to do to "retire."

When her responsibilities require her to go to town, a grandson escorts her without complaint, with respect. It's the least he can do for a keystone of his community.

Getting Around in the Huasteca Potosí

East of the Sierra Gorda many hundreds of tiny settlements are spread out over a huge area. They are served by a sprinkling of larger towns with populations on the order of 20,000 and most importantly, commercial centers. People in the settlements need to get to town to buy shoes or seeds.

Rich folks own cars. The next lower economic tier takes the bus.


You can go all over Mexico on the bus. They have one of the best systems in the world: way better than the British one.

But buses ply the main highways. If your town isn't on an arterial, you have to get off at an intersection where taxis wait to take you into el centro.


The bus stop and taxis pictured above are at the Mex 85 intersection with the road to Tancanhuitz de Santos. It's typical.

By U. S. standards, buses are cheap, and the taxis cost only a buck or two. But for many here, that's still too expensive. Moreover, many live well off the beaten track, in places where no buses go and taxi fares would be too high, maybe even for gringos.

The ubiquitous Mexican form of really cheap passenger transport is the pickup truck. Here, a group of Guadalajara soccer fans accept a lift from a friend.


(Check that bottomed-out rear suspension.)

Illegal in the U. S. for safety reasons, I occasionally saw passengers in truck beds there anyway. Once I watched as a pickup truck with two illegal passengers had a low-speed rear-end collision with another vehicle. Neither car suffered any damage, but the impact bounced the rear of the pickup into the air, catapulting the two passengers over both vehicles. They landed on the road in front of the car that had been struck, which fortunately had been stopped.

Mexico appears to have no restrictions on passengers in truck beds. Any such regulation would be unenforceable, given that riding back there is an integral part of the culture.

Inhabitants of the Huastecan Potosí have formalized the use of pickups as public transportation.


Three-quarter or one ton pickup trucks are fitted with tall frames in their beds that allow passengers to hang on while standing. That way, twenty or more can fit into the back. Each pays the driver a few pesos fare.

You see them everywhere in the region, prowling the back roads and carrying people into the towns. They're often overfilled.


(They look like commuters on the IRT, don't they.)

Most don't look safe. They're often 25 years or more years old, and I imagine maintenance is a little thin.

Most frightening is encountering one on the open road. I snapped this image in the country north of Asquemón.


The driver was going at least 50 MPH. Those are schoolchildren up there. (Shudder.)

The Tenek

Drive farther east from Xilitla on Mex 120—maybe thirty minutes—and you come down off the Sierra Gorda into a region called the Huasteca Potosí. Here is where live tribes of indigenous people: the Pames, the Nahua and the largest tribe, the Tenek. Each has its own language, although most speak Spanish as well as their tribal tongue. The people of the Huasteca Potosí are thought to be descended from Mayans, cut off from their Yucatecan brothers when the Aztecs expanded their conquest of Central Mexico.

Owing to sluggish exploitation and development of the region, these tribes have hung on to some of their ways. This woman, in traditional blouse and headdress, is selling snacks near the central plaza of Aquismón, a primarily Tenek community.


Tourists rarely visit the region, so she is not costumed for the trade. She is wearing real clothes ordinarily worn by real tribespeople, although in this case, she's clearly in her Sunday best. Gotta look sharp if you're gonna move the merchandise.

Her headdress is called a petop. It's woven with yarn and her hair. One person told me the colors designate her marital status and age—apparently the presence of green means she's a widow.

You see a fair amount of women still wearing traditional dress, but men's clothing has evolved to Mexican Standard. Traditional loincloths were outlawed by the colonial Spanish; I'm told you only see them worn during festivals—with underpants!


This man is selling fruits and vegetables on the main street of Tancanhuitz de Santos. He grew or gathered them himself: bananas, oranges, chayote and the red flowers of a native tree for making a medicinal tea. He says he only does this when he need a little cash. Otherwise, he's a subsistence farmer.

Some Tenek live in huts made of sticks with palm thatch roofs, much as you see in Yucatán or Chiapas.


They're quaint, but they indicate poverty. No Tenek lives in one of these in order to preserve the old ways. She'll trade up to a cinderblock house in a heartbeat if she can scrape up the money for it. In fact her husband and sons probably are up north, sending back money for just that purpose.

The house shown below must belong to a relatively well-off Tenek: It has a tin roof.


Moreover the owner could afford paint. When these people cook, wood smoke pours out from under the eaves. Their houses have no running water. They have backyard privies. Many have no electricity. I saw one place that had a small solar panel. Boom box music thundered from inside the house. First things first.

Near every home I saw, people were growing their own food...


... plus a little to sell. Here we have papayas and bananas.

Teneks travel from small settlements of maybe a hundred people to cities like Ciudad Santos via pickup trucks converted into people carriers. They're the cheapest public transportation around, and they go out into the country on narrow, winding dirt roads where normal commercial buses don't. These women are waiting in a depot for a ride home.


The older woman is traditionally dressed in blouse, petop, and huaraches. The white garment on her head is (I think) called a quechquémitl. It's a shoulder-length cape usually worn to keep off early-morning chill, and here tucked into the petop to cover the head, to keep off the noonday sun. The young mother, every bit as Tenek as her seatmate, wears the traditional Huastecan blue jeans and running shoes.

Women make their own traditional dress. These styles aren't carried by Land's End. But making them takes time, and many women don't have that luxury. What young suburban mother races home from a play date and sits down to embroider a blouse?


This young mother probably has to race home and plant some corn. I mean, it's March, already. Her life is hard. She's probably all of sixteen years old. So she got married and pregnant when she was fourteen, judging from the size of the child she's carrying in her rebozo.

What kind of future does she have? Odds are she'll wind up carrying firewood during her retirement years.


Traditional dress is for company and fiestas and visits to the city. Jeans and a man's shirt are more practical for hard manual labor.

This woman was selling Tenek cross-stitch embroidery on the Aquismón plaza. I bought some of her work, some of which you can see in the background. Her designs are traditional and full of meaning, but her Spanish—and mine, were so bad I wasn't able to learn much about them.


In this close-up, you can see how her hair has been woven with yarn into her petop. Her toothy grin owes its charm to the absence of refined sugar in her diet, I'll bet.

In many ways, the lives of the Tenek seem so contented. They live close to nature, in a gentle climate, eating stuff that is good for them, in close-knit families. Thatch huts in a pastoral setting. What could be more romantic?


But then again, the villages are run largely by women because most of the men are in the U. S. trying to earn enough money to live on in an increasingly modern, expensive world. So the families are broken up. Children wear uniforms to public school. How to pay for them? They rely on the village shaman for traditional medicine—unless the patient doesn't get well. Then they have to go to the clinic in Santos. How to pay for it?

It's a joy to visit these people and admire their fine lives and distinctive culture. But travelers shouldn't let too much more time go by. The modern world is closing in on the Tenek. The kids want IM and ice cream. In twenty years, you'll have to look in Burger King to see the Tenek.


Eastern Sierra Gorda farmers grow a lot of oranges. Whenever I get out of my car, the scent of orange blossoms almost overwhelms me. The air is clear and sweet—a good reason to live here.

Many growers operate in this valley; most are fairly small, supplying local outlets. Roadside fruit stands line Mex 85.

This guy runs a fairly sophisticated outfit, for the genre. He sells pottery, some kind of unidentified stuff put up by hand in bottles, and several kinds of citrus that have that "purchased-from-a-large-wholesaler" look—all unblemished and bagged. Probably grown in Florida. Sunkist maybe.


Here's a more modest retailer. His fruit is ungraded—direct from the grower. Could be he's the grower himself.


Of course, if you build a stand, you're almost obligated to operate it all year. I mean, you got to keep all that capital working. That's not for everybody. Seasonal sellers let nature provide their storefronts.


"Over here, Eugenio. Just dump 'em under the tree. Bag up a few of the good ones for the gringos."

At the very bottom of the pecking order you got your street vendors.


This one appears to be selling windfalls—maybe a couple dozen of them. He's scrutinizing one closely. Is it good enough to sell? Maybe...

He has a sideline dealing in sugar cane. He gets one peso for a two-foot length. Sells 'em to school kids. Maybe his cousin is a dentist.

Looks like he has a dozen sugar canes. So today he's looking at grossing maybe three bucks tops. He probably could make more money begging, but he isn't old and wrinkled enough yet.

The really big producers, the ones that load up several 10-wheelers a day, sell their produce wholesale to processers.


Citrofrut, your local polluter, buys oranges for even less than the street vendor charges. Why they have to emit all that smoke (it's smoke, not steam) is beyond me. Maybe they burn the rinds. In Mexico, they still use incinerators, you know.

Watchiing Citrofrut saturate the air in Tazaquil with partial combusiton byproducts kind of took the charm out of the orange growing scene for me. So I moved on down the road to where the air smelled like orange blossoms again, where I found a very small vendor selling fruit from his single orange tree.


This operation is one cut above a lemonade stand. My kind of place. And his oranges are good, too—I bought a couple. Gotta vote with your custom if you want small businesses like this one to survive.

Posada El Castillo

Everybody knows that when you visit Xilitla, the place to stay is Posada El Castillo.


Looks like something Edward James might have designed, doesn't it? Well, he must have had some influence: his partner and construction manager for Las Pozas, Plutarco Gastelum, built the mansion with his own hands.

Today, it is owned by Gastelum's daughter, Graciela.


She grew up in this house. She left her hand prints in the concrete when she was eight years old. Today, she operates the house as an inn, using the income to preserve it.

Eccentric features abound. Raised footprints form the entry path.


Honeycomb windows admit light and frame views of the mountains.


A Leonor Fini mural graces an archway.


I arrived without reservations. Graciela was kind enough to fit me in where she could. I was fortunate that for three of my five nights, I was given Room #5—Mariposa.


It is a long, narrow room, a corner room. The east and north walls consist entirely of magnificent cloister windows giving onto sweeping views of the countryside. Perched high above the street on a steep slope, the northern exposure is completely private even with the drapes open.

Mariposa (butterfly) is so named because of the ceiling light fixtures designed and made by Graciela's father.


I have come to think of Mariposa as "my room."

I was not always so lucky to be able to sleep there. On Thursday night there was no room at the inn—it had been booked solid in advance. Gabriela was able to provide me with a bed in an unnamed room. She said that for that night, I could sleep "abajo." Sure enough, a narrow, steep, dark stairway led down into the garage which was filled with exercise equipment and a cistern.

Off the garage was a plain but pleasant room containing two double beds arranged toe-to-toe. This arrangement was fine except for the painting that was hung over one of the beds.


At first, it appeared to be a mother and her daughter looking pensively out of a window. Then came the realization that their faces hold oddly amused expressions.


They are voyeurs! Mom stifles a giggle with her scarf; daughter looks on with undisguised fascination. "Whatcha gonna do next, Big Boy?"

(You won't see this in the Brainerd Holiday Inn.)

Posada El Castillo has a large living room with a video library and an eclectic collection of art objects. It has a game room and a swimming pool—triangular of course. It has a lookout tower reached by climbing a three-story circular stairway, crossing a bridge and ascending a ladder through a trap door. Kids must love this place.

A riot of tropical plants and flowers fills the atrium. Two parrots live here: the one named Bruno talks. The muchachas will make you excellent huevos rancheros in the morning.

The place feels more like a home than a hotel, full of charm and warmth. Just like its hostess. Gabriela is engaging, amenable to conversation and informative. And she's accommodating. She patiently spoke with me in Spanish even though her English is better, gently correcting the worst of my grammar and vocabulary. Great digs, great hostess and free Spanish lessons thrown in.

Mushroom? Or Dragon?

These sixteen-foot creatures await you in Las Pozas; two of Edward James's—what? Nightmares?


They look like lurid fungi from the swamps of Eridanus Beta IV. Maybe spores hitched a ride on the Enterprise.

From another angle they look like fanciful reptiles.


A sixteen-inch bronze of this sculpture rests on a table in my hotel.


The title of this work is Hongo o Dragon—Mushroom or Dragon.

I think it's neither. Just another curious growth shaped by the strange DNA in James's mind.

Las Pozas—Going, Going, Gone

If you want to see Edward James's otherworldly gardens, Las Pozas, you'd better hurry.


Viewing this place is a transforming experience—one you shouldn't miss. But it's not gonna last.

Las Pozas is owned by a private company that operates the gardens as a tourist attraction. But they're not keeping them up. A sign instructs visitors to take care of the place while they're enjoying it.


It says:

This place is an artistic heritage.
It is strictly prohibited
to cause damage with graffiti
or in other ways.
Don't cut the plants.

So far, so good. But the staff appears to consist of a single man who issues tickets. I saw no maintenance men at work, no rangers patrolling, no gardeners pruning.

I bought a bottle of water from a couple of guys watching TV in the snack bar, but there were no security guys arresting that little delinquent, José.


Above José's declaration of love, you can see exposed rebar where the concrete has eroded. Over the decades, structures are beginning to crumble.

Almost none of the electrical wiring appears to be functioning anymore.


Here and there, the soil is subsiding. Cracks are forming. Walls are coming apart.


Perhaps some foundation could step in and buy the place—fix it up. WIth the current trickle of visitors and a tariff of only thirty pesos a head, the place isn't exactly a gold mine. I would imagine its income-based value to be on the order of maybe a couple million dollars. Surely, the current owners would sell for, say, five. Operated non-profit, the present income stream would easily handle all the maintenance and security costs, and even allow for a little restoration.

Any takers?


A Hike to the Top of the Waterfall


Woke up this morning, started to sneeze,
I had a cigarette and a cup of tea.
I looked in the mirror, what did I see?
A nine stone weakling with knobbly knees.
I did my knees bend, press ups, touch my toes,
I had another sneeze and I blew my nose.
I looked in the mirror at my pigeon chest,
I had to put on my clothes because it made me depressed.

The Kinks, Superman


The land Edward James bought for his garden, Las Pozas, contains a natural waterfall. Imagine owing a waterfall! This photo was taken in March, five months into the dry season. You can see there's plenty of water in these mountains.


I want to return some September during the rains to see the falls in flood stage—a good excuse to miss the stupid Sanmiguelada.

While exploring the gardens, I met Ana and her two dogs—Sacha and Thor. Well, actually I met the dogs first. It was they who introduced me to Ana.

She was born in Seville, traveled all over the world, and finally chose Xilitla as her home. (What are the odds of that?) She makes silver jewelry and sells it in the Jalpan plaza most Saturdays. She works maybe 20 hours a week and makes enough to support herself.

(Boy, did I go wrong somewhere.)

She asked me if I had hiked to the top of the waterfall. "No? Well you must go. Here. I'll take you."

I quickly learned that there's no saying "no" to Ana.

We started up a dark, steep stairway,...


... an endless stairway. Ana and the dogs bounded up the path. I trudged and panted. The trail became a dirt track, steeper than the stairs, with boulders and roots to scramble over. Soon I was pulling myself up using tree branches. The jungle, semi-tame in the lower garden, became wilder as we climbed.


Thighs burning, gasping for air, I reached the top at last, just before I might have triggered another coronary. Ana and Sacha were waiting at the edge of the drop off looking relaxed and happy, like that excruciating climb was just an everyday event.


Well, it turns out it was an everyday event—for them anyway. Hiking to the top of the falls is how Ana exercises the dogs. And herself. Pretty much every day. At least Sacha had the decency to leave her tongue hanging out, no doubt so I wouldn't feel too bad.

(I like to think I'm blowing away all my San Miguel friends by walking up the hill to Gigante. I guess I'd better think again.)

I was too chicken to crawl out onto the wet rocks to photograph the cataract from above. I got as close to the edge as I dared and shot a few uninspiring frames of the pool below.


Man, that's a long way down. Looking for scale? The two vertical rectangular objects are not wooden planks; they're big concrete structures, each a couple of feet wide and maybe twenty feet long. Above them, where two other concrete structures make a roof shape, there are three UT Austin architecture students, sketching. That's the male one wearing a red shirt. You see him there?


I'm in better shape than I have been in for years. But Ana and her dogs showed me I have a long way to go.


Edward James's Gardens—Las Posas

The main reason Norteamericanos visit Xilitla, an orange- and coffee-growing town in the Sierra Gorda, is to view the fantastic gardens built by Scottish artist, Edward James. And I have to say, they're well worth the six-hour drive east from San Miguel de Allende.


Las pozas is indeed a fantasy, an outpouring of the creative mind of a person with resources to express himself without constraint.

James renders his visions in stone and concrete; the jungle responds with rioting vegetation.


Seven snakes represent the seven deadly sins; evil lurking in the undergrowth.


Bromeliads smother old trees; concrete fantasies mimic plants, thrusting upward toward the light.


A great flower blooms in a jungle clearing.


Rows of curved arches resemble remains of some long-decayed monster.


Mute creatures lurk in dark pathways.


A gothic structure futilely tries to impose some kind of order.


A cataract, maybe 100 meters high, falls in the dim light.


The gardens are large; they range over 60 mountainside acres. I spent an entire day shooting images, but I didn't have time to see it all. Some Xilitla residents regularly visit. One told me that after four years, she still makes new discoveries.

Las Pozas has been described as surrealistic, and I suppose it is. I would call it primal. Here, art amplifies nature. Like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Las Pozas reeks fecundity. Primitive, lustful things live in this ancient jungle.

For more images of Las Pozas, check out my Flickr photoset here.

My Friend Marce

This Plymouth Valiant is what we, as California teenagers, uncharitably called a taco sled.


From the above perspective, it looks better than it really is. Most of the sheet metal has been straightened at some time in the past. The Bondo has fallen off the left headlight rim. The Plymouth escutcheon is missing, removed no doubt to allow passage of the chain and lock securing the hood. The chain is what you call a battery saver. It saves your battery from being stolen.

In the photo below, we see the Valiant in its usual state—with the hood up. It's over thirty years old and it's been driven on Mexican roads most of its life, so it's a wonder it runs at all. The three guys looking under the hood (the owner is the one in the middle) are praying—for a miracle. They're saying, "Oh Heal, Valiant..."


On another day, I came across the Valiant's owner renewing the plastic sheeting and duct tape serving as the right front window. Looks to me like he did a very neat job. He keeps the passenger side door locked, because opening it would... you know.


The car is often parked across the street from my house. It lacks a muffler, so when it starts up, the whole neighborhood knows it. Moreover, it stalls unless the engine is raced for ten minutes or so to warm it up. Sounds like Sears Point on an NHRA weekend.

At one time, our bedroom overlooked the street, so if the owner fired it up in the early morning, we would be jolted into wakefulness. The roar of the unmuffled engine was accompanied by the odor of unburned gasoline fumes wafting through our open window.

All this was happening back when my attitude was, "Why don't Mexicans do things right?" "Why can't that idiot spend a couple of bucks and fix that heap!" I grumbled to Jean about how I was going to put sugar in the gas tank because I heard it would ruin the engine. I bitched about how inconsiderate the driver was.

One day, I stepped outside my front door and encountered him peering under the hood (as usual). I walked up to him, trying to remember the Spanish words for rude, inconsiderate, annoying. He turned to me, broke into a brilliant (if somewhat metallic) smile, stuck out his hand and said, "Buenos días. Mi nombre es Marce."

But but but but but...

I at once found myself helping my new friend Marce diagnose his engine problem.


Marce is a bachelor. He lives up the street from me in a large, junky house. It's lovely. It's worth more than a million dollars. It's run down.

His kitchen is classical Mexican, and is one of the most comfortable spaces I have ever been in. His is the home of a contented, warm person.


But he's land poor. He can barely afford to keep his car running.

He could sell his house to a rich gringo who would gut it and remodel it to Norteamericano standards. Then he could live comfortably on the proceeds for the rest of his life. He could afford a new car, one that would start the first time and wouldn't need new duct tape on the windows every six months. Life could be so much easier.

But the house has belonged to his family for generations. You don't just up and sell your patrimony. Anyway, then he would have to move. His dog would have to move. His well-ordered life would be disturbed.


Marce is a good guy. Anybody who overfeeds his dog and dresses it in a dainty red collar has got to be a good guy.

Moreover, I don't hate his car anymore. Every time I hear the startup roar, I get a warm feeling inside. Because I know my friend is nearby. Go figure.

Marce taught me a lesson: Contempt prior to investigation closes doors. The stranger I'm dissing today may turn out to be a friend I'll meet tomorrow.

Where is Ladybird Johnson?

One blessing of anemic commercial development in Mexico is large tracts of unspoiled countryside. Road trips yield breathtaking views.


In the U. S. during the '50s and later, billboards sprung up, despoiling the environment. People began to rise up in protest, and led by First Lady Ladybird Johnson, a campaign was waged to reduce the number of billboards. While she led the popular movement, the government responded with legislation and regulations to keep our highways beautiful. Call me a Liberal, but I think this was an entirely appropriate use of government. Even if it won't regulate rampant ugliness, the government should at least set an example.

Businesses in Mexico are erecting more and more billboards, but even today, there seem to be fewer than in the U. S., which supposedly has been limiting them all this time. Most Mexicans never get out on the highways, so billboard advertising isn't very efficient. Therefore, fewer billboards.

But there's one notable exception.


Meet Paco Garrido, Governor of the State of Querétaro. Apparently Paco wants to make sure that his constituency knows all about the good things he's doing, like building hospitals and health centers. So he erects, at state expense, huge billboards to keep everyone informed. Lots of them. All over the place. Even in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere, a purported environmentally protected zone. In fact, all along Mex 120, most of the billboards you see are Paco's.

But hey, you don't want the people wandering around in ignorance, do you? Look at the billboard again. What leaps out at you? The hospitals? The health centers? I had to scrutinize it carefully to find mention of them.

No problem seeing Paco's smiling face, though. Looks to me like an election poster. Maybe Paco wants to make sure he has good face recognition—at least in the State of Querétaro. In case he runs for President in '12. How nice that it doesn't cost him anything.


Yesterday began with insistent drumming emanating from the Jardín. Instead of turning into Posada Carmina to join my friends for breakfast, I hurried up Cuña de Allende and across the plaza in front of the Parroquoia to find this:

I had stumbled upon a Celebration commemorating El Señor de la Conquista (The Lord of the Conquest), a 16th-Century figure of Christ now kept in our principal church. This image is supposed to commemorate the acceptance by Mesoamerican Indians of the Christian religion imposed on them by their Spanish conquerors.


Nearly a hundred dancers wore elaborate costumes consisting of capes, loincloths or dresses, and spectacular feathered headdresses made from pheasant or peacock plumes. On their ankles were rattles made from chalchahuite or ayayote seed pods; on their feet, leather sandals—huaraches. In a nod to modern sensibilities, they rounded out their ensembles with gym shorts and, in the case of the guy on the left, above, white gym socks.

These dancers are called concheros because they play conchas—mandolin-like instruments.


Traditional conchas are made from the shells of armadillos.

Tall drums, called huehuetles used to be made of wood. These ones appear to be made from steel oil barrels.


The fire underneath one of the huehuetles is warming and tightening the drumhead.

If you look closely, you can see that the drummer in the blue shirt is wearing iPod earbuds. Like teenagers everywhere, he can't be without his tunes.

Everyone gets to be dancers: young women...


... retirees...


... and children.


All are equal, but some are more equal than others. There's a hierarchy to the dance troupe. Pictured below is one of the officials: an alferece (standard bearer).


The standard he is carrying depicts Christ carrying a Spanish conquistador's banner under the slogan, "Union Conformidad y Conquista" (Joining of Acceptance and Conquest).

A Capitan (probably the "retiree" above) runs the whole show. A sargento in green headdress stands behind an altar bearing the figure of El Señor de la Conquista, guarding it. He looks a little like a Sepoy—formidable.


Scattered in front of the altar are conchas and incense burners. The woman in the red dress is a woman captain who supervises the other women. She looks to me like the right choice for the job—no nonsense!

These people are not performing for tourists: early yesterday most of the latter were still asleep in bed. I saw far fewer spectators than dancers.

What was happening on the plaza was a celebration of heritage and a demonstration of deep faith. The dancers were keeping alive centuries-old ritual and culture. You could see the solemnity of the occasion in their faces.


What a privilege it is to observe celebrations such as these, although I don't really understand them. How can they celebrate conquest by a foreign race, destruction of their culture, razing of their cities, the enslavement of their bodies?

The drumming, the costumes and the dancing distract observers from the realization that first and foremost, this is a Catholic celebration. Preserving the old culture is important, yes. But the dancing really is all about the acceptance of Christ. Conquest pales in importance when compared with faith.

Watch Your Mouth!

You see this chain of small "supermarkets" here in the State of Guanajuato. They're about as "super" as the Boonton A&P Market where I worked as a New Jersey teenager in 1957.


They have lower prices and better selection than tienditas. They have actual grocery carts. And if you live in the neighborhood, you can walk to one. So they fill a niche.

Let's take a closer look at their sign.


Yep. That's the name of the chain. Go ahead. Say it out loud.

Did you pronounce it correctly? "KEE-kays?"

Just one of those little cultural potholes we expats have to negotiate. Like the name of everyone's favorite bread: Bimbo. That's "BEAM-bo."

Cleaning Up Aldama

Earlier this month I wrote about the incredible disruption in front of my house as Planet Engineering dug up the street to run conduit for underground utilities. All of that work is done now. The huge crews and the backhoes and trucks are gone. Aldama has been reopened to traffic. Life is getting back to normal. Almost.

All that digging brought up a lot of subsoil which, with the unfortunate coincidence of some unseasonable rain, created adobe that sticks tenaciously to the cobblestones. Passing automobiles raise clouds of fine dust which blankets everything in our house, and irritates our lungs.

Planet Engineering, however, is on the job, working to remove the caked mud and dust.


The Adobe Removal Department.

They have deployed this elderly man, a pickaxe, a shovel, a broom and a wheelbarrow. The man taps between the cobblestones with his pickaxe, gently loosening the adobe, which he then sweeps into a pile and shovels into his wheelbarrow. He carefully clears a section about ten by ten feet every day. I figure he'll finish our block by April.

This is a task that a street sweeping machine could polish off in about twenty minutes. But alas, San Miguel does not own a street sweeper, and apparently neither does Planet Engineering.

Clearly, I'm still caught up in my Norteamericano hurry-up mentality. I mean, the street is gonna be cleaned up eventually. What is my problem? The dirt is going away, and this nice old man has a steady job. Everybody should be happy.

I really am developing a more relaxed attitude. Every morning I go out and the first person I see is our street cleaner, patiently tapping away. And I think to myself: You know—everything is just the way it's supposed to be.


La Conquesta Continua

Mexico has long suffered from depredation by its muscular neighbor to the north. Texas was lost, then California and New Mexico, finally the Gadsden "Purchase."

Today, invasion is not about political boundaries so much as corporate ones. In Querétaro we got Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Home Depot, Office Max and Radio Shack. In San Miguel, the Mexican supermarket chains
Gigante and Comerciál Méxicana have built new mega-stores. Large commercial centers on the outskirts of town look the same as any in San Jose, California.

One measure of globalism is the presence of fast food chains. Domino's Pizza has operated from its location on the
Ancho de San Antonio for years.


Up to now, the fast food presence has been tolerable. But the other day, we got some bad news. The following is a quote pulled from our English-language newspaper, Atención:

"It’s confirmed—MacDonald’s [sic] is coming to San Miguel. Posters and radio spots have for the past week announced that the largest “fastfood” [sic] purveyors in the world will be hiring locally for a store to be opened soon at the La Luciernaga shopping mall."


What happened to our little colonial town? What happened to our Mexican-ness?

Well, at least McDonald's will be out in a commercial center on the edge of town, next to the cineplex. Until they open their
El Centro branch, that is.



Five mission towns dot the Sierra Gorda in eastern Querétaro State. We visited the most accessible of them, Jalpan, a little more than four hours drive from San Miguel de Allende, over some serious mountain ridges.


The town (full name: Jalpan de Serra, about which more later) is the commercial center for this part of the Sierra Gorda, the big city for hundreds of tiny pueblas. A real working Mexican town, it's visited by relatively few tourists.

We spent a night in the Hotel Inn Misión Jalpan, right on the central plaza, the yellow building in the photo below.


Ordinarily, we try to stay at hotels at some remove from town centers because they can be noisy, but being a Thursday night, we figured it would be fairly quiet, and besides the tree-shaded plaza looked inviting and peaceful.

We wanted to visit the well-regarded museum—the terra-cotta building just beyond the hotel—but a sign said it was closed for renovation for the next month. (We seem to run into that situation frequently. Recently, museums in Guadalajara, Mérida and Campeche have all been "closed for renovation" when we arrived. Forces us to become more accepting in our way of thinking: "Not to worry. We'll see it the next time we come here. Unless it's closed again. Which it could be. ¿Quién sabe?")

Jalpan is important to us expatriates from California because it is where Father Junipero Serra founded his first mission. (Hence, Jalpan de Serra.) Actually he founded five of them in the Sierra Gorda before going to California to build the famous string of missions along the Pacific Coast. Because of its historical significance, Jalpan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Father Serra is Honored in Jalpan with a statue.


Of additional interest to Californians is the bell-shaped structure next to Father Serra's statue. It is one of the "Mission Bells" that mark El Camino Real (The Royal Highway) that runs up the California coast. Anyone who grew up in California fondly remembers these bells.

All five of Serra's Sierra Gorda missions have been restored. The Jalpan Mission has a beautiful baroque façade.


Sculptures of important religious figures reside in niches; among them, the ubiquitous Virgen de Guadalupe, the Madonna of Mexico.


Some of the walls appear to be constructed of beautifully dressed stone blocks, but they're not—it's trompe l'oeil.


The yellow nylon lines dropping across the window are bell ropes, hanging right outside where anyone could pull them. I watched a young woman walk over and ring the bell to announce mass. Can you imagine the mischief American teenagers would do in this situation? I can. Fifty years ago I would have been out there at three in the morning ringing for all I was worth.

The Misión Jalpan is not a museum. (Well, neither is the Jalpan Museum, come to think of it.) The mission is an active church, serving the spiritual needs of hundreds of parishioners.

The exterior of the church belongs to the State, which renovated it in its bid for UNESCO recognition. The interior belongs to the faithful. Anymore, these appear to be mostly the elderly. Young people head for the cities or the U. S., attracted to more lucrative, more secular lives.


The Downside of Tequisquiapan

Visiting Tequisquiapan in the off-season has disadvantages. For example, getting dinner can be a challenge. At one of the nicer restaurants, La Valentina, we stood in the middle of the room while the lone waiter studiously polished plates and set them out, obviously hoping we'd go away.

We moved on to a place called K'puchinos Restaurante-Bar. It was popular and crowded, but serviced again by a single, frazzled waiter. A glance at the professionally produced, laminated plastic menu full of unrealistic photos of meals told us we were in a Mexican Denny's.

(Apparently franchise restaurants have reached Mexico, and people are flocking to them. They have no idea what they're doing to themselves.)

Finally we took a chance on a modest, four-table restaurant called El Regocijo—Alta Cocina Mexicana. I didn't for a minute believe the claim to "haute cuisine," but the place looked clean, and while yet again there was only one waiter, he at least showed interest in actually waiting on us.

The food was reasonably good and it came quickly. I ordered a new dish—Filete Tabasco—which turned out to be steak served with refried beans and fried bananas. I suspect Filete Tabasco is supposed to contain fried plantains, but obviously the cook didn't have any, so I got bananas instead. Sssswwwweeeet!

While visiting Tequisquiapan, we stayed at the Hotel Las Delicias, an elegant resort with three huge pools, scores of lounge chairs set on beautiful lawns, a dining room, a kitchen for guests, a rec room, a bar, a snack bar—you name it. We knew it was elegant because it was expensive. I think we were the only guests staying there, midweek in the off season.


Jean hauls her new baskets to our hotel.

The hotel grounds were immaculate. Our room would have been OK at half the price. We got settled, then prepared to return to the front desk to get toilet paper when the desk clerk rushed breathlessly in with two rolls. They apparently have a policy of not leaving TP in the rooms because somebody might steal it. Guests could walk off with a hundred rolls and they'd still make a fat profit.

At the same time, the clerk brought us a remote for the TV, which they also don't keep in the room because somebody...

The main pool and surrounding lawn looked inviting.


Watch your step.

It would have been even more inviting if the pool contained some... uh... water.

Well, at least breakfast was included. We showed up at 9 AM and asked where it would be served. The manager looked panic-stricken and rushed off to the kitchen to see if there were something he could rustle up—there being no cook on the premises. I'm sure it would have been delicious if there had been any... um... food.

Hotel Las Delicias has the potential to be a great hotel, if they could get a handle on that water and food thing. Then perhaps, they might even attract some... you know... guests.

If you decide to visit Tequisquiapan, try the Hotel Reloj. "Internet in every room." And judging from their parking lot, people actually stay there.


The Other Tequisquiapan

Unlike the decaying Tequisquiapan in Guanajuato, the one in Querétaro is a substantial, vibrant community. Like San Miguel, its signature image is the church.


What puts Tequisquiapan on the map are thermal springs. People come here to "take the waters." City dwellers from Mexico City, San Luis Potosí and Querétaro come to this resort town to relax and play. A surprising number of water parks with corkscrew water slides are scattered across the surrounding countryside.

Hotels in town cater to adults with soak pools and margarita-toting attendants. Tequisquiapan even has a conference center "with internet in every room." Whoopee. (If I ever see the inside of a conference center again, it'll be too soon.)

Many of the hotels are large, to handle large crowds of weekenders. I'm told the town is jammed during vacation periods.

We arrived on a February Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—and found we had the place to ourselves. Expecting a crush of tourists, and gangs of street hawkers toadying up to us, we were delighted to find the place peaceful. Well, almost deserted, really.


Restaurants and shops selling wicker furniture lined the arcades, but with few customers, proprietors took it easy. Residents ignored the few tourists in town. They had more important things to do. Like march.

Even after living here for four years, I'm often surprised by the importance Mexicans put on holidays. As a lapsed Episcopalian, Ash Wednesday isn't even on my radar anymore. But in Tequisquiapan, celebrating this holiday was the thing. Streets were decorated.


Indian dancers performed in the plaza.


That night, a large crowd lined up to attend services.


The only commercial activity was at a stall alongside the church, where a woman sold cheap toys.


We were lucky to happen across Tequisquiapan at a time when we could see the actual town instead of crowds of tourists like ourselves. It's worth a visit for a day, but if we return, it won't be during high season and weekends. We could see that those hotels were set up to handle a lot of people. A lot. And unless you've been around Mexicans at play, unless you're ready to really party, like us you'll be happier visiting on a Wednesday.

Herreria Ramirez

In Europe, Japan, the U. S., you hire a graphic designer to create your look: a clever logo, professionally rendered lettering, perfectly coordinated color schemes. The result looks about as interesting as a Form 1040: slick but no soul.

Mexicans expect individuality in the looks of the small businesses they patronize. An amateurish storefront is no deterrent. Actually it's an asset, because you're assured that you're dealing with a low-overhead, proprietor-run business. You're transacting with the owner, not some bored minimum-wage teenager. And a Mexican small-business owner probably spends more time thinking about taking pride in his work than tailoring his "look" for that all-important under-30 demographic.

For this reason, you see a lot of lemonade-stand-grade signage, some of it quite delightful. Take Herreria "Rameriz" for example.


A herreria is an ironworking shop, a smithy. This is a sign to emphasize these services. I assume the figure represents Sr. Ramirez. To his right there's an oxyacetyline torch, to his left, an arc welder, and a hammer and anvil. A fancy railing illustrates the type of work he does, as does a muffler.

Sr. Ramirez is a stickler for detail. The oxygen and acetyline bottles are the correct colors, the arc welder is properly grounded to the railing he's working on, and he's holding an electrode in his left hand, a welder's mask in his right. Safety first; the mark of a true professional.

The sign painter wasn't as careful: notice how he changed the style of the letter "E" in the middle of a word. I think this just adds to the charm.

But the best part is the figure of Sr. Ramirez himself.


His shirt is smeared with soot, as is his face and arms. His pants are wrinkled. This is a guy that's not afraid to get his hands dirty. Best of all, his shirt is riding up over his ample tummy, exposing his belly button.

This image leaves no doubt that Sr. Ramirez is a serious ironworker. Nor can anyone doubt that he has a playful nature and the humility to poke fun at himself. He's no humorless techie; he's not a egotistical artist. As far as I'm concerned, his sign is all the reference he needs.