Archive: 2007 3rd Quarter

A Good Hotel in Patzcuaro

We're staying at La Casa Encantada, a pleasant hotel a half block off Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga—just far enough to escape the noise.

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The hotel is housed in a restored colonial mansion. Two patios filled with plants offer soothing places to sit and relax.

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An excellent breakfast is included, served in the large dining room. It's prepared in the original kitchen. A collection of folk art adds to the ambience.

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A WiFi broadband internet access point is available in the dining room—a sine qua non for me.

Our bedroom is airy and light, and has wooden floors—a real treat in Mexico. For a wonder, the mattress is soft, unlike the rigid slabs we usually put up with.

Our room costs on the order of $1,000 pesos per night. La Casa Encantada is the #1 rated hotel in Patzcuaro by contributors to the TripAdvisor website. Jean and I highly recommend it as well.

Interesting note: The hotel is owned by a couple of Canadian women, whose marriage certificate is posted on the wall next to the kitchen. It's the first evidence I've seen of Canada's sensible and humane policy.

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Arriving in Patzcuaro

We're on a short visit to Patzcuaro. Here in the State of Michoacán, we have left the arid semi-desert of the Bajio, entering a region of mountains and lakes.

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The area is heavily forested. Jean says it smells piney, like Wisconsin. I'm reminded of high Sierra campgrounds: tall trees, the scent of wood fires, thin air—we're at 7,200 feet.

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We notice some architectural differences. Here the roofs are all pitched and tiled, unlike San Miguel where they're nearly all flat. Why? Heavier rains? Snow?

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Adobe is extensively used in construction. Soil here is deep, less rocky, so not as much stone is accessible for constructing walls. For some reason, there isn't much brickmaking, either.

I've mentioned in previous posts that regional color schemes influence the appearances of Mexican communities. In this part of Michoacán, buildings are painted white above, brick red below.

Much more wood is used for building. No silver mines, so Michoacán wasn't deforested by miners. Wooden columns formed from single logs attest to the availability of large pines. They give arcades a warmer, more rustic feel.

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An early morning walk yields a scene or two. Here a woman sweeps the street with her homemade broom. She seems to be lost in a sea of cobblestones. How will she ever sweep it all?

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An old man takes his morning constitutional. His sweater could have come from Scandinavia. People dress in layers because mornings and evenings are cold. We're sleeping under a comforter.

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An enterprising young man operates an informal panaderia (baked goods store) on the platform of a shrine.

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He's doing a brisk business. Street food vendors buy wholesale quantities of bolillos or pan dulce from him.

Few tourists seem to be here this time of year. School has started in Mexico. Many Americans have been scared away by reports of drug-related violence or political strife; others have changed travel plans owing to the quagmire created by the Department of Homeland Security's botching of passport requirements.

For Jean and me, it all means we have a beautiful, uncrowded place to explore.

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Phys Ed

Passing by the Jardín, I encountered a group of elementary school students racing around pylons while their classmates sat in the shade of the cylindrical Laurels.

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It's the beginning of the school year, and all the kids are wearing spiffy new uniforms. No holes in sweatpant knees, brilliant white new shoes—they almost sparkle.

I remember the soaring joy I used to feel when allowed to run flat out in P. E. class. The expressions on the kids' faces bring those same feelings back.

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Of course, we're all enthusiastic at the start of a race. By the third or fourth lap, the loneliness of the long distance runner sets in. We ask, "Why am I doing this?"

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This guy is supervising the races. Part of his job is to hand out lollipops to the winners. Looks like he's a winner, too.

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My favorite ice cream vendor, who usually hangs out at the Plaza Civíl, is targeting of the crowds of youngsters, setting up shop in the Jardín.

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He knows that kids are his best customers. Doesn't look like he's getting a whole lot of play today, though.

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Fresas

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Along with tropical fruits like papayas, mangos, pineapples, mameys, tunas (prickly pear fruit), and guavas, Mexican people like strawberries. Just try to get jam in any other flavor at your restaurant breakfast.

I wouldn't have thought that strawberries would be popular in Mexico. They're a European fruit after all, and Mexico is blessed with so many others. Besides, strawberries are labor-intensive and don't keep well.

Strawberries aren't particularly prevalent in the mercados, but on the highways and in the plazas, vendors sell walk-away cups of fresas con crema.

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In San Miguel de Allende, if you have a hankering for strawberries and cream, you go to this cart on the east side of the Jardín. The nice vendor will fix you a large cup of strawberries with however much sugar you want and lots of sour cream.

Yeah. That's sour cream. You can get strawberries with whipped cream in Mexico, but this dish is not as commonly available: if that's what you want, you have to ask for fresas con chantilly. Fresas con crema means strawberries with sour cream.

A word about sour cream in Mexico (where it's called crema acidificada). It's not as sour as sour cream in the U. S. There's just a hint of sharpness to it—enough to keep the cream from being cloying. We spoon it onto various fruits, on leek-and-potato soup, fajitas and, I'm embarrassed to say, Jello. (Yes, Jean and I have rediscovered Jello (gelatina), which, with crema acidificada on top, is really, really good.)

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There's an eatery in San Miguel called La Fresa—The Strawberry. But the name in this case isn't referring to fruit. It's referring to the shapely woman in the high-style hat, a fashion plate from the '40s.

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The Urban Dictionary gives fresa as "a social slang term used in Mexico ... to describe stuck up ... girls or boys that have picky tastes, are extremely spoiled and always get their way, have little concern for the needs of others, and are snob[s], rude, and ... obnoxious." I mentioned this usage of the word fresa to my artist friend Brian. He said (sounding as he does like Richard Simmons), "OH the FREsas! You SEE them in the caFÉS with their CELLphones and their CIGarettes. They're SO SPOILED, they just make me SICK!"

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The fresas we see in San Miguel tend to be visitors from Mexico City. They arrive in expensive new cars, dressed in high style. They diss the locals. They're abusive to waiters. They're generally annoying.

The pouty-looking girl in the picture is an example. Her stylishly ripped jeans, hipbones poking coquettishly above the waistband, her long, perfect white fingernails, her throwaway $200 haircut, her makeup just so—all shout fresa. Exactly the way she intended.

As Brian said, you see them in the cafés—ripe and tempting, just waiting to be picked.

[Note: You may have noticed what appear to be ears of corn under the wheels of the fruit vendor's cart. Well, that's what they are, borrowed from a nearby corn-on-the-cob vendor's cart. This is an example of Mexican flexible thinking. Use whatever's handy to stop the cart from rolling down the slope. No rocks nearby. Hmmm. What to do? I got it! Gimme a couple a those ears of corn.

I absolutely guarantee you that tomorrow, some tourist—maybe a fresa—is gonna be served that corn, and a couple of fresh ears will be chocking the wheels. Waste not, want not.]

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An Eyesore

I've been walking past this beat-up building for at least four years. It's located about a block from my house.

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I kind of like the place. There it sits, slowly decaying. Its appearance gives it character and interest.

The structure is unoccupied. That San Miguel has so many vacant buildings mystifies me. The lot this one stands on is quite valuable. The owner isn't deriving any benefit from it. Why doesn't he sell it or fix it up?

Visible on the right is the power meter, or more accurately, the hole where the power meter would go if there was one. A gray column of new plaster rises from the sidewalk to the hole, covering the conduit for the new underground utilities. I point this out in ironic appreciation of our city's beautification efforts, removing all those ugly overhead wires.

I've always wondered what the words on the front of the building meant: El Golpe de Vista. Transliterating with my limited Spanish, I came up with "The blow of the view." Of course that's not right.

I called Patty, my consultant in all things Mexican. She said, "I know exactly where you are. You know, that place used to be a cantina."

Oh great. My neighborhood apparently is seedier than I thought when I moved here.

Patty explained that El Golpe de Vista means "a relief," as in a desert traveler coming across a waterhole: What a relief!

Good name for a bar. After a hard day at work, it's a relief to visit a cantina.

El Golpe de Vista has one other meaning: "An eyesore". Which this place most certainly is.

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A Dubious Enterprise

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I usually do the driving on our trips to the neighboring town of Delores Hidalgo, on account of our roomy car comfortably accommodates two or even three couples. We have lots of reasons to go there: to peruse the colonial-era sights, to buy Talavera pottery, to eat nopal ice cream in the plaza.

I don't get to see much of the countryside on these excursions, what with the narrow, shoulder-free highway, stray animals darting onto the road, potholes, and Mexico's weirdly erratic drivers to contend with. Safe driving requires intense concentration.

On a recent carnitas run, though, Paul (El Guapo) was driving, so I got to look at the passing scenery. On the right, there appeared a building painted in colors lurid even for Mexico.

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As we passed the gated entry under the tiled roof, a startling image flashed in the corner of my eye. I asked Paul to stop so I could take a closer look.

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¡Hola Mamacita! I guess this place isn't selling cantera fountains after all.

It appears to be some sort of night club or roadhouse, sitting there isolated out on the highway. An out-of-town place to go, maybe, if you don't want to be seen visiting a strip joint by your neighbors or your wife.

The slogan at the top of the banner reads, "We want to see you happy." Indeed.

The previous images fail to fully convey the horrid color scheme. Here's the front door, clashing unforgettably with the stucco wall.

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The orange broom with the green handle only adds to the chromatic cacophony.

The place was closed indefinitely for remodeling. I had to peer at it through locked iron gates. I wondered what the Lucite sign beside the door said, but it was too far away to make out. So I zoomed my point-and-shoot Olympus to the max and shot it for enlarging and reading at home. The effort was rewarding.

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The sign announces some restrictions. Minors are denied admission. That would be 18 in Mexico. Sort of. Wouldn't want to compromise the morals of teenage boys, would we?

The second regulation provides a really interesting Spanish lesson. Persons in an "inconvenient state" are not allowed. That one sent me scurrying to my dictionaries. Turns out Inconveniente is a polite way of saying "drunk". I guess the equivalent English term would be "intoxicated."

That's gotta be one of the more politically correct expression I've ever seen.

The third rule is a mystery. You're not allowed in if you're wearing pants or shorts. (I didn't think pants or shorts were Spanish words.) But the real question is, if not pants or shorts, then what should you wear? Kilts? Nothing? What the girls in the poster were wearing?

Just what kind of a place is this, anyway?

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A Last Look at El Charco del Ingenio

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I know I've had a lot to say about our botanical gardens, El Charco del Ingenio. I've written an overview of the park. I posted about the incomparable collection of cacti in the Conservatory of Mexican Plants. Then there's the surprising and delightful waters, habitat for so much wildlife. And most recently, wanting to leave no subject untouched, I covered the bathroom situation.

Let's see. That leaves the plants. I mean, since El Charco is a botanical garden, I should be discussing the plants, no?

Much of the grounds contain natural plantings. In some places, gardeners have pruned, improving the esthetics of small trees such as this Huizache Chino, a native of central and northern Mexico.

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Huizaches have yellow, ball-shaped flowers, creating a heady fragrance in the spring. The fuzzy seed pods appear in the summer. I love sitting in the shade of these plants on a sunny day, breathing their scent.

An apparently related plant—tough and woody, feathery leaves and ball-shaped pink and white flowers—blooms in the summertime.

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I don't know what it is called, nor the names of the blooms pictured on the right and the bottom. I include them because they're interesting, and sooner or later, I will learn their names.

All the above are dryland plants. In the wet canyon, the flora changes.

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A mat of algae grows on the surface of a pond, wildflowers grow at its edge. There seems to be a lot of nutrients in the water—a subject I'll cover in a future post.

Duckweed colonizes the surface of water standing in a granite crack.

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I fondly remember rambling beside ponds in New jersey's well-watered countryside. I was pleasantly surprised to find I could do it here in arid Mexico, too.

Many of El Charco's plants were collected and placed in grouped plantings.

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Yucca, agave, cactus and succulents combine to make an eye-pleasing landscape. Artificial, yes. But you'd have to travel for years to see all the varieties gathered here.

Golden Barrel Cactus were rescued from a canyon which was flooded when a dam was built. They're thriving in their new home.

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Another large type of barrel cactus was rescued from the same site. These visiting children give it scale. (Also a little awwww value.)

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A tiny fraction of the plants growing here are pictured. You simply have to come and see them for yourself.

And doing it soon would be a good idea. Development on its borders is affecting the park. Instead of vistas of a natural countryside, we're beginning to see new, large houses.

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Some were built in violation of zoning ordinances, but in Mexico, the law is a flimsy reed when attempting to block entrenched interests.

But for today, the park remains a magical place, attracting botanists, tourists and photographers.

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Here, Paul (El Guapo) peers through his battered Nikon FM2, attempting to capture the wily Ocotillo. El Charco is indeed a blessing, in that it keeps him off the street.

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School Photos

The elementary school kids went back to classes yesterday. Our housekeeper's daughter, little Teresa, is starting third grade. She showed up at our house wearing her brand-new uniform.

"Oh Teresa," said Jean, "Tu uniforme nuevo, ¡Que bonito!"

I said, "Quisiera tomar un foto."

So Teresa stood in front of our fountain and assumed her formal portrait expression.

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What a sweetie, eh?

Trying to get her to smile, I stupidly said "Teresa ¡Sonríe!" No luck.

Finally, Jean came over holding Rosita, our Boston Terrier.

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See? Everybody's smiling now. Except Rosita, who is barely tolerating the indignity.

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El Charco Scatology

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The fruit of the Nopal (prickly pear to us Norteamericanos) is an important food in Mexico for both animals and humans. They ripen here in El Charco del Ingenio around this time of year. Large, cultivated-looking fruits, called tunas (see note), are offered in the mercados and by roadside and street vendors. Cheapskates hike out into the campo to pick the smaller wild ones, like those shown below. They're free and they have a much more intense flavor, but you have to peel a lot of them to get a serving. They taste to me a little like watermelon, and they have lots of tiny seeds which you have to swallow.

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Photo: Paul Latoures

Birds peck at them, hollowing them out. Beetles and ants follow along, taking advantage of holes made by the birds in the fruit skin to get at all that sugar.

Small mammals and reptiles apparently eat their fill of them, too. I've never seen them eating, but their scat tells the tale.

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That red coloring and those seeds came from tunas, still identifiable after passing through some creature's alimentary canal.

Fox and lizard droppings lying on the ground are acceptable to those who walk in the botanical garden, 'cause it's natural, you see. The same is not true for human scat. In response, El Charco's directors provide sanitary facilities.

A few years back, the main restroom was a shack walled with the reed called carrizo, which grows plentifully in riparian zones and is widely used for fencing and privacy screens.

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The privacy afforded by carrizo is marginal, but probably adequate for most people's needs. Certainly someone so inclined could peer at bathroom occupants through the screen. But I imagine few peeping Toms visit El Charco.

But at least one visitor would disagree with me. Leafing through the visitors' log, I encountered a statement by an outraged woman who claimed that the caretaker had peered at her through openings in the carrizo while she was using the facilities. Her entry was made in 2002. She called the man a pervert and demanded the directors do something about him. She strongly suggested a new, more secure bathroom was in order.

A couple of pages farther on in the log, an architect drew a sketch of a possible new bathroom for the gardens. (We have such talented visitors in San Miguel.)

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A while later, a new bathroom was built, with flush toilets, vanities, and much better privacy.

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El Charco, however, is big. It's probably a couple of miles from end to end, especially if you include Parque Landeta, the municipal park on the eastern border that is under the same stewardship as El Charco itself. Parque Landeta solves the sanitation problem with a couple of trench latrines with—you guessed it—carrizo screens.

At the west end of El Charco, a second public bathroom was constructed on the reconstructed ruins of the old mill after which the botanical garden was named.

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The building is nice, although our sensitive visitor would probably have been dismayed at the lack of signs for gender assignment. The toilets are the vault type—never pleasant, but welcome when needed.

But these lack stools. They're squatters. Now, probably five billion of Earth's six billion people use squatters. But we Norteamericanos don't. Moreover, Norteamericanos like me have long lost the flexibility to use one. When I try to hunker, I fall over.

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Anticipating this, the management presciently provided a length of pipe secured to the wall and floor, to be used for support while squatting. You won't find one of these in an old-fashioned Japanese toilet. You will at least find toilet paper there, but you won't find a grab bar.

(Note: In Spanish, a prickly pear fruit is a tuna; a tuna fish is an atun. Go figure.)

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Corruption and Illiteracy

A while back, I tangentially mentioned the effects of corruption on the standard of living of Mexican people. Extortion by crooked cops preying on their countrymen is bad enough for individual citizens. But the real impact of rotten government and avaricious business cronies is discouragement of investment, stifling economic growth.

Transparency International ranks Mexico at 3.1-3.4 on a corruption perception scale of 0-10, putting it in the same company as Ghana and Senegal. In other words, pretty corrupt. Smart investors will look elsewhere. Like maybe Slovenia.

Today, our bilingual newspaper, Atención, ran an article on illiteracy in San Miguel and Mexico. Reporter Jesús Ibarra gave Mexico's illiteracy rate as 6%.

One might think that this isn't too bad. But to enjoy First World incomes, a country's illiteracy rate needs to be less than 1%. The reason for this is that illiteracy rates reflect the overall quality of schooling. Less than 1%—your schools are OK; 6%—your schools suck.

Actually, Ibarra's figures are optimistic. Wickipedia puts Mexico's illiteracy rate closer to 10%—little better than Zimbabwe's. Even more horrifying, he cites San Miguel's illiteracy rate as 17%.

San Miguel's teachers are paid $3,600 pesos per month. A typical housekeeper makes $3,000. Get the picture? How can Mexican children learn when taught by people worth only 20% more than illiterate (probably) housekeepers?

Why aren't Mexican teachers paid what they're worth?

You guessed it. The whole system, from taxation to school funding to teachers' unions to school administration is hopelessly corrupt.

Have a nice day...
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Nathaniel Meets El Guapo

El Guapo has a godson, Nathaniel. Nathaniel brought his parents down from the States to visit in San Miguel not long ago.

I've never met Nathaniel, and none of you have either. Which raises the question: Why am I writing about him? Well, El Guapo sent me his picture, and I feel like I have to do something with it. But what?

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Photo: Grace Brown

The image of Paul holding this baby says something profound to me. I'm just not sure what. There's something about El Guapo's face, bearing all those physical scars and reflecting all the injuries and injustices of a long, hard life, looking down at Nathaniel's placid expression. The baby rests contentedly against Paul's comfy tummy, quietly observing his benign world.

Nathaniel, I imagine, is living entirely in the moment, something I have pretty much forgotten how to do. And Paul, too, seems to be immersed in the aura of his godson.

But words like these don't really explain why this photo so fascinates me.

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Waters of El Charco

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Growing up in the New Jersey 'burbs, I imagined Mexico to be unrelieved desert. I think for all of us, the image of a man leaning up against a cactus, slumbering under his sombrero means only one thing: Mexico. Nobody tries to convey this idea using a palm tree as a backrest, much less a maple. The message is: Mexico means cactus, means desert.

But here in the Bajío, where we live, there is water, plenty of it. As much rain falls here as fell on my home in the Sonoma Valley, where fine wines are made. Enough for rivers to flow year-round. Enough to irrigate row crops such as broccoli. Enough to dry-farm corn.

Eyeballing the map of our marvelous botanical garden, El Charco del Ingenio, about 10% of the surface area is water.

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Map: El Charco Del Ingenio AC

Most of the water is impounded in a reservoir, the Presa las Colonias. It's silted up now, which makes it an ideal refuge for waterfowl. Small islands have been built in the water for use as nesting sites.

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The brown color of the water is caused by suspended fine clay particles. They are a sign of erosion, caused by deforestation and primitive farming methods. Little topsoil remains; mostly clay subsoil that washes into the waterways with each rain. The suspended particles would take years to precipitate out of the water.

Las Colonias Reservoir is formed by a dam constructed of stones and mortar by hand early in the 20th Century.

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This rare view shows water cascading over the spillway, owing to recent rains.

Originally, water was carried in the long pipe running near the top of the canyon leading down from the dam. It was used to generate electricity at the Aurora fabric mill in town, an early application of hydroelectric energy in Mexico.

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The factory no longer makes cloth. It has been recycled into a posh collection of galleries and boutiques. The great pipe that once carried the water down into town is broken.

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The waters in this canyon had much earlier power-generating use, though. A mill, built at the end of the 16th Century, was used for grinding seeds and fulling wool cloth.

Actually, the name of the botanical gardens derives from this old mill. When I first tried to translate Charco del Ingenio, I was flummoxed by my Spanish-English dictionaries. The word meanings I found meant something like "mechanism puddle." Hmmm. That can't be right.

Charco del Ingenio probably means "mill pond." The Spanish words undoubtedly carry Mexican meanings, a situation that has tripped me up frequently. (Is there such a thing as a Mexican-English dictionary? I could sure use one.)

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The old mill building still stands, but it has been converted to another use which I'll discuss in a future post.

The canyon below the dam is a lovely spot with sheer rock walls and year-round pools—a shady place to relax by quiet waters on a warm day. Here's how it appears during the dry season.

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During the rainy season, small waterfalls cascade into and out of the pools.

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The natural amphitheater formed by the canyon walls is occasionally used for concerts and other gatherings.

[Siesta image: Don and Carmen Sellers, Our Retirement to Sayula.]

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Esferas del Jardín

Driving down the Delores Highway a while back,
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Paul (El Guapo) and I were headed for carnitas at Vicente's. Suddenly he slammed on the brakes, swerved into the oncoming lane, drove down the wrong side of the road for a couple of hundred yards bearing down on a terrified paisano in a battered pickup truck, and rolled at the last minute over the left shoulder into a parking lot.

This is known as a Mexican left turn.

I assumed it was the brightly colored glass balls that inspired the sudden detour.

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I was wrong. It was the huge inflated bottle of Sol beer that drew Paul—unsurprising once you get to know him.

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Photo: Paul Latoures

Something in the juxtaposition of a glass ball and the beer bottle inspired Paul. Much later while examining the image he shot, it realized that I had seen this composition before.

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Yes, it's the Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 World's Fair. The fair was held a couple of years before I was born, but my father attended it. As an avid stamp collector when I was a boy, I was fascinated by the futuristic images of these buildings depicted on a postage stamp of that era. I still own that 3¢ stamp, pictured at the top of this post.

The glass balls—esferas del jardín—are decorator items introduced by famed architect Luis Barrigán sometime in the 1940s. He was said to have seen a few hanging in a pulqueria in Tonala, Jalisco. Barragán placed them in clusters on coffee tables. Today, they're ubiquitous and trite. There were five of them in my house when I bought it. I hid them away on a high shelf somewhere, out of sight.

Paul engaged the proprietor of the glass ball emporium cum beer bar in a protracted discussion about methods for drilling large holes in the balls—a project he later claimed had been on his mind for decades but which, I suspect, occurred to him just in that moment. Whatever the case, he and she found lots to talk about, and I found myself idly looking for ways to entertain myself beside the dusty highway.

I experimented with shooting the proprietor's reflection in a ball Paul was holding.

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When shooting, I didn't notice that a fly was resting on the ball. (Apparently flies can be a hazard when photographing in Paul's vicinity.)

Next, I took a self-portrait. (See? No flies.)

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Shooting into reflective spheres is like using a 180° lens. Forget framing. You get everything. The sky looks like another planet hanging there above me.

A sphere makes a cheap fisheye lens. The only problem is, you can't avoid getting an image of the photographer whenever you use it.

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Bomberos Morelia

Just so y'all don't think we're a Third-World country or something, check out this snazzy fire engine owned by the city of Morelia. It's a little dated, but it's way better than any equipment I could afford when I was Treasurer of the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department in California's Sonoma Valley.

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Photo: Clint Hough

Recently, Clint took a short trip to Michoacan to do some trading with artisans of the Lake Patzcuaro region. Driving through the state capitol, Morelia, he photographed this fire engine. Why?

Firefighters in Mexico are called bomberos—pumpers. One of the Bomberos Morelia apparently backed this pumper into a phone pole or something because some bodywork has been done. You can tell because the paint on two of the rear equipment hatches doesn't match the rest of the truck.

Nor has the lettering on the side been re-done yet, resulting in an unintended statement for those fluent in English.

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Photo: Clint Hough

Given the (literally) explosive civil unrest in this country, if Morelia's city fathers understood this message, they'd fix it pronto.

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Takeout from Pollo Felíz

That's Jean leaning on the sill of the takeout window at our new Pollo Felíz, pickin' up chicken to bring to Anamaria's house for lunch.

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Pollo Felíz is the ultimate restaurant franchise in Mexico, a sign that our adopted country is moving inexorably into the First World. That logo, with a mouth-watering feathered chicken giving us the thumbs-up, is as familiar here as the golden arches up north.

Our outlet is a huge store. I bet it seats 500. It's run with unusual attention to procedures and detail. Very Un-Mexican. Here, the troops fall in for their morning briefing.

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Pollo Felíz sells pollo asado—grilled chicken. Happy grilled chicken.

This young man is cooking about 300 orders on an industrial gas grill. He's using a custom-designed tool to manipulate the chicken; he's wearing his logo-bearing shirt and hat. He has spiffy black boots to keep liquids off his feet and he's wearing a mask to prevent either exhaling of germs onto people's food or inhaling of greasy smoke into his lungs or both.

Are you sure we're not in LA?

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The grill hood contains a fire-control system. Huge extractors whisk smoke out to a chimney on the roof. The resulting savory cloud drifts across San Miguel de Allende, bringing hungry patrons on the run.

The cooking philosophy is the same as in the hamburger chains up North: cook the hell out of it in the hopes that no customer gets sick. So Pollo Felíz chicken tends to be a little dry. Chicken jerky, actually. Even so, it tastes surprisingly good.

Jean picks up four half-chicken orders, five bucks each.

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A smiling señorita gives Jean her change.

What a concept: Uniformly prepared product quickly and courteously served in a clean facility at low cost. No wonder Mexicans flock to Pollo Felíz.

But you don't get something for nothing. As the franchises take over, they displace the mom-and-pop restaurants that make each dining experience different.

Knowledgeable Sanmiguelenses don't buy their pollo asada at Pollo Felíz. They go down to the ratty-looking outdoor grill near the bus station, where chickens are cooked not over gas by some teenager, but over charcoal by the proprietor, who has been grilling there for years, turning out juicy, perfectly-grilled meals every time.

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Broken Arches

I like ruins. They provide a look at how people lived in the past, and their incompleteness imparts mystery. So it's a good thing to live in Mexico because there are so many here.

Ruined arches I find particularly intriguing because they show disintegration suspended. The arc of stone reaches out, but to where? And for how much longer before erosion wins and collapse becomes complete?

This crumbling wall is part of the stonework that housed the mill after which El Charco del Ingenio was named.

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For me, part of the charm of this arch is because no one has tried to restore, or to even preserve it. It is what it is. Authentic.

One problem with ruins, though, is they're often not where you want them. Maybe you want to create a faux hacienda out in the Golden Corridor, on the highway to Delores Hidalgo. What could give a more immediate sense of antiquity than a broken arch?

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Their artful appearance makes them popular. You see them all over Mexico, wherever someone wants to evoke the image of a simpler age: of courtly haciendados giving employment to campesinos, of brown-robed sacerdotes uplifting heathen Indian hearts.

I guess they look nice, sort of like a federal-style façade pasted onto the front of a McMansion in a Boston suburb.

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Wayne's New Blog

Down on Isla Mujeres, Wane has started a new blog: Explore Mexico With Me. It's already my favorite.

Wayne has kept a journal of his travels for the last few years. In his new blog, he's posting original entries from that journal. They capture all of the bewilderment, frustration and humor he was experiencing while first moving to Mexico. There's no way to recapture these kinds of memories after the fact. This is a contemporaneous account. That is what makes it so compelling.

In yesterday's entry, he recounts his revulsion at being offered "hot dog pieces floating in what looked like tomato soup" as part of his complementary breakfast at a hotel in Matamoros. So much for salchichas en salsa roja. But what makes this episode stand out is his editorial comment about how he has grown to like Mexican food and today "would load [his] plate with some of everything" from the buffet.

We expatriates have all gone through the learning curve. Today, I'm a little embarrassed at my former chauvinism. Wayne does us all a service by recounting the way it really was, no punches pulled. Makes fascinating reading.

Readers of my blog will enjoy Explore Mexico With Me. And if you haven't checked it out, his other blog, Isla Mujeres: Gringo in Paradise, documents his current adventures in Quintana Roo.
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Choppers

Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way

—Mars Bonfire

—§—

Three days a week I walk down a shady, tree-lined street to Lobo's Gym. A few weeks ago, a couple of bizarre machines were parked there. They've not moved since.

CH02

Pictured above is one of them: a chopped Yamaha. We've all seen lots of chopped Harleys, but I've never seen a chopped Japanese motorcycle before.

Somehow it just doesn't seem right. Harley-Davidsons reek of attitude—even stock machines do. When chopped, they're the ultimate bad-boy ride. Japanese bikes, by comparison, are like family sedans: sedate, unremarkable, well-mannered. Chopping one is like dropping a Chrysler hemi into a Nash Rambler—kind of cool, but you get no respect.

The other machine is a Volkswagen trike: a vehicle that can hold its head up at any chopper rally. Many years ago I knew guys who made these things. They bored out 1200 cc VW engines and improved the timing and aspiration until the horsepower tripled. And since the trike weighed a third of what the original car did, the horsepower-to-weight ratio increased by a factor of ten. Dangerously overpowered, these things are.

CH01

In the States, you could never have driven this trike on the street. Those are straight exhausts, one per cylinder, completely unmuffled. The noise it makes must be shattering. Ticket city in L. A.

CH03

If it looks a little worn to you, that's because it is. This thing looked hot in 1987. But time and weather have been unkind to it. The flames cut into the steel floor plates look particularly forlorn. The parking brake lever is missing. The battery is gone. Scraps of electrical wire and pine needles litter various surfaces. It's no longer the pride of Jalisco.

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Nor is the Yamaha bike. The seat and saddlebags are composting, sagging. Black plastic garbage bags are protectively draped across vulnerable components. It's rusty.

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They're not the chick magnets they once were.

I wonder if their owner looks the same. Or if, like me, he looks a little sloppy, a little out of date. Forty years ago, Steppenwolf urged us to get out on the highway. These bikes would have been the way to go then, but today they are as dated as Born to Be Wild.

All I want anymore is a quiet dinner out with good friends and bedtime by ten. And to delay the inevitable decline. Better get down to the gym.

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