Archive: 2007 3rd Quarter

La Independencia

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Spain's ham-handed colonial policy inevitably led to loss of empire. Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula, diverting Spain's attention just long enough to open the door to Latin American independence movements. The genie could not be put back into the bottle, and on September 16, 1810, in the nearby town of Delores Hidalgo, Father Miguel Hidalgo issued El Grito, calling his countrymen to rise up against Spanish rule. September 16, then, is the Mexican equivalent of the 4th of July in the U. S.

At the beginning of September, the first sign of the coming celebration is the appearing of flag vendors.

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Many flags wind up on buildings; some are draped across the hoods of cars.

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Civic decorations include portraits of Mexican heroes in tinsel frames, strung up over the streets.

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I think this one is supposed to be Benito Juárez, Mexico's greatest president. Or maybe a character from Night of the Living Dead. You decide.

Fireworks are nothing special in San Miguel de Allende. Something explodes here at least once a week.

"Ho hum. Rockets again tonight. What's on TV?"

The night of September 16th features the biggest fireworks display of the year. During the day, elaborate displays are constructed in the plaza in front of the Parroquoia; they're called by the Spanish word for castle: castillo.

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The Presidencia spends tens of thousands of dollars on these things, an expenditure questioned by some, given the social, health and infrastructure problems in our community. Bread and circuses, anyone?

Erecting the castillos requires skill and muscle. If one of these guys straining to stabilize a tower lost his grip on the rope, tons of steel and gunpowder could come crashing down on little kiddies crowding around toy vendors.

Just another example of this country's 1950s attitude toward public safety: risky, but curiously refreshing.

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I don't have the courage Billie showed when she visited Delores Hidalgo for El Grito Saturday night. So I didn't attend the fireworks Sunday night. My idea of a great July 4th or September 16th is to hang out in the Jardín during the warm afternoon or go find lunch in a quiet restaurant somewhere. As El Guapo says, "Thats just the way I roll."

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Independence Day is for dressing up. Saturday Jean and I went to comida at a friend's house. All the women being Mexican (except Jean), they were tricked out in festive outfits with ribbons or yarn braided into their lovely black hair. By comparison, we gringos felt kind of dowdy.

Mexican girls learn to dress up for festive occasions at an early age.

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I sat in a shoeshine man's high chair (shoeshines are one of Mexico's great inexpensive pleasures), when I saw this member of a drum and bugle corps walking by. He belongs to the selfsame drum and bugle corps that practices five days a week in Parqué Juárez right beside my house, treating me every evening at six to endless repetitions of bugle tunes.

I know 'em all be heart, now. I wish I didn't.

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I've never seen these guys in uniform before. I like the red yarn pom-poms dangling from his shoulders. Looks like a Napoleonic Hussar. Or a doorman for Leona Helmsley.

I sat at home around 9 PM, listening to explosions, holding shaking Rosita on my lap, and reflected on how disturbing all the noisy hoopla was when I moved here four years ago. Today it all seems so normal.

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Pepe's B&B

When last we visited Morelia, capital city of the State of Michoacán, we stayed at Villa Montaña (Link, but lots of annoying javascript), a moderately elegant Hotel owned by a French nobleman. Some years ago, this nobleman sold the adjacent mansion to an avocado farm owner whom I only know by the name of Pepe. Pepe in turn is a friend of my friend Clint, who advised me that Pepe had turned his mansion into a five-room B&B. Clint insisted we spend a night there, and he called Pepe to make the arrangements so that we would be expected when we arrived.

Pepe's B&B should be easy to find. But there's no sign, so you have to follow directions exactly, and knock on the first garage door on the right, just before the Villa Montaña entrance.

We did, and a woman came out and asked, "¿Day cleen?"

Hmmm. "¿Como?"

"¡Cleen! ¿Son ustedes amigos de Cleen?"

Oh. Clint. Are we friends of Clint.

(That high-temperature Spanish letter I and those soft final consonants sometimes throw me. Once I asked my English students what they did in their spare time. A woman responded "knee."

I pointed to my rodilla and said, "knee?"

"No," she said. "Knee. Knee."

"Knee? You knee? What is knee?"

The whole class chimed in. "Knee. Knee. She knee."

Finally someone made a hand motion like breaking dried spaghetti strands and I got it. "Oh! She knits.")

The unpromising, industrial-grade garage door opened up into one of those magical, labyrinthine colonial houses. A strangely organic structure that had evolved over the decades for one purpose or another, until the floor plan made no sense, but led to unexpected places, so that walking through it became an adventure.

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We were shown to our room by an energetic young woman who spoke only Spanish, but that at Mach 3.

Our room—more accurately, our rooms—were spacious and filled with interesting furniture, antiques and art. Pictured here is our huge bed, our couch and our coffee table.

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From another viewpoint, here's our fireplace and desk. Not shown are a couple of easy chairs and occasional tables.

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Downstairs, we had a private living room. Much of the art is for sale and some seems to be quite valuable. The small Madonna and Child on the stone wall to the right is priced in five figures.

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Also not pictured is our dining room and kitchen. Basically we were given a house, not just a room.

The next morning we sat in an outdoor sala beside a warm fire and were served a huge breakfast of sliced fruit, fresh orange juice, coffee, pan dulce (sweet rolls), eggs and chilaquiles (tortilla chips cooked in salsa). Pepe had returned from Mexico City during the night and joined us for breakfast. A gentle, cultured man, he shared stories about his life, about how a bumper avocado crop had enabled him to buy the mansion, and how after each harvest, he has money to invest in improving the property, a little at a time.

Cost of our room, including breakfast, was $1,000 pesos (U. S. $90). Compare that with Villa Montaña's rates next door: $2,000-$4,000 pesos.

Pepe's B&B is not publicized anywhere. He says it doesn't make a profit and I believe him. That his other guests that night were relatives staying for free no doubt contributes to the situation. But he says he makes enough to pay the upkeep and taxes, and that's good enough for him.

It's good enough for me, too. If any of you get serious about staying there, send me an email and I'll send you Pepe's phone number. Tell him Cleen sent you.

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Restaurant "Mitzi"

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Driving north along the eastern shore of Lake Pátzcuaro, we came to a string of a half-dozen restaurants out in the middle of nowhere, apparently all hoping to serve motorists making the trek back to Morelia. The first in the row was Restaurant "Mitzi." Signs announced: Cecina, pollo mole and tortillas hecho a mano. Hungry and looking for a meal, for us this place was a godsend.

Swinging into the oncoming lane to execute a Mexican left turn, I slewed into the parking lot while an officer in a passing Michoacán State Police cruiser nodded approvingly.

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The owner/waitress/cook brought us a tray with four kinds of salsa and a bunch of limes, a Diet Coke for me and an agua de jamaica for Jean. (Jamaica is hibiscus. Mexicans make a kind of sweetened tea from the dried blossoms.)

Jean ordered the chicken mole; I went for the cecina—thin slices of salted beef grilled over charcoal. Mitzi's was cooked to the consistency of crisp bacon. Wrapped in a just-cooked hand-formed tortilla, it was sublime.

I mentioned that Mitzi's was one of several restaurants, all right next to each other, all sharing the same parking lot. And all had signs offering cecina and handmade tortillas. So while about a dozen cars were parked in front, we were Mitzi's only customers; this on Sunday at 3 PM, the traditional time for a big weekend family comida.

I'll never understand the Mexican approach to business.

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Mitzi's is one of the spiffier roadside restaurants I've visited. Lots of natural light filtered through skylights. Maybe 16 tables, each with six or eight hand-carved chairs. A harmonious decor.

Dozens of identical wooden planks were carved with a singular motif. It looked to me like an rounded cast-iron frame with rivets supporting a pair of auction paddles.

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I had to stare at it for quite a while before the image resolved into a pair of horse heads eating a large, spotted mushroom. I think.

So that the colorful decor wouldn't unduly brighten customers' moods, a crucifix hung over one of the entrances.

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I found myself staring at it as I munched my cecina while a fog of melancholy descended over me.

Mitzi herself exuded cheerful hospitality. She repeatedly brought us more tortillas, two or three at a time as they finished cooking. They were good enough to eat plain. Soon we were stuffed and back on the road to Morelia.

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Charales

We were eating dinner at a restaurant on Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga in Pátzcuaro. Scanning the menu, I asked the waiter what Charales con salsa de chile de arbol y guacamole was. "Little dried fish," he told me.

Seizing on yet another opportunity to gross Jean out, I ordered them.

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They were everything I'd hoped they'd be: Heads intact, little black eyes staring out, full of crunchy bones and very stinky.

As a kid, I wouldn't have gone near these things. Actually back then, I wouldn't even go near broccoli. Today, I try to expand my culinary horizons.

Charales are farmed in the lagoons of Michoacán—a local delicacy. Dried, salted and fried, you wrap some in a tortilla and add salsa to taste. Then it's crunch, crunch.

I saw similar tiny dried fish in markets in Tokyo. There I was told that a tablespoon of them would supply the daily calcium requirement. Well, all right, then.

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Embroidery

Embroidery is one of the more widespread handcrafts. A woman in Tzintzuntzan stitches away while waiting for a customer to buy one of the dozen finished pieces she has hung on the wall beside her.

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Her facial expression is dour. I'll spare you the frame where she glares at me as I'm shooting. It would ruin your breakfast.

Her work fails to rise to the level of art, nor is her workmanship fine. She's just cranking out souvenirs for tourists, like this scene of "the Fishermen of Tzintzuntzan."

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Four of her pieces contain the same image, hacked out in big, loopy stitches.

Most mercados have at least one vendor selling supplies for embroiderers. This one set up for business on the square in Erongarícuaro.

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It offers cloth imprinted with templates. Some embroiderers just like to do the sewing; their forté may not be design. Fair enough. Just because you're Purépechan doesn't mean you have a knack for sketching patterns.

The designs on offer are generic; stuff you can find anywhere in Mexico, including the familiar image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. None of them relate to the culture of Michoacán.

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So the patterns are sold to those who embroider for their own pleasure; not to those who are creating work for sale to travelers or decorators.

The point I'm getting to in this post is illustrated in the pattern shown below.

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These figures have nothing whatever to do with Mexico. Looks like a scene out of Cinderella. Disney's Cinderella. The vacuous faces with their treacly expressions I would find offensive anywhere I saw them. But to find them in Erongarícuaro is to view an act of cultural rape. Is there no escaping this crap?

The only (minor) satisfaction is that nowhere on the pattern is there any copyright notice.

After looking at these, I have a new appreciation for The Fishermen of Tzintzuntzan.

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A Fine Potter

A huge amount of pottery gets made in Mexico. Most of it is quite good but numbingly similar as you trudge from gallery to gallery in Delores Hidalgo. So it's always a great pleasure to find an outstanding potter.

Ernesto Bernardino Morales Garcia has a studio in Tzintzuntzan.

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To find him, you enter the courtyard of the Monastery of Santa Ana and walk through the ancient olive grove until the monastery buildings rise up before you. You then turn right and walk to a small, dilapidated building toward the right rear of the lot.

No signs tell you that you've found the studio. Peering through a sagging wooden door, you see a dim, mussy space. If you spot a kiln, you're in the right place.

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I told Ernesto the English word, "kiln", and asked what the Spanish word was. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said "horno".

Of course. Oven. How stupid of me.

Ernesto is carrying on in his father's footsteps. The two make pottery primarily for export to fine craft galleries in the U. S. They have no Mexican outlets, and none of the work in the Tzintzuntzan workshop is what you would call displayed. A dank cave lit by a single naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling has finished work stored on rough plank shelves. Ernesto will sell you some of it if you ask nicely.

The two potters do a lot of commission work, like this set of large faces, each more than two feet tall.

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Decorative glaze patterns are applied freehand, with small brushes.

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Jean unearthed a few pieces. A former craft gallery owner, she inspects the work with her sharp eye.

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Nothing tempts Jean like pottery. A few interesting and unique pieces came home with us.

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My friend Clint sniffed out this workshop. How he found it I'll never know. But it's fun to visit places off the beaten path, places that are not part of the masses of aggressive vendors lined up along the main drags, all selling charmless, commonplace items.

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Tzintzuntzan

For your typical American tourist, the name Tzintzuntzan isn't exactly up there with Cancún. But it's an important place in the history of Mexico. Founded in the 13th Century by the indigenous Purépecha people, Tzintzuntzan became the seat of the Tarascan State, a region roughly equivalent to present-day Michoacán.

In 1522, a mere 30 years after Columbus landed in the West Indies, the Spanish reached Tzintzuntzan. Its chief, Tangáxuan II submitted to Spanish rule. A bad move. The odious Nuño de Guzmán arrived in 1529, and tried to induce Tangáxuan to tell him where all the supposed gold was by burning him alive. I don't know if that worked, but Guzmán so badly damaged Spanish relations with natives that he was recalled to Spain and replaced by Vasco de Quiroga, a relatively nice guy for a conquistador.

What's left of the the Purépechan site is today called Las Yácatas. I gave the ruins a brief look and was profoundly disappointed by the rampant reconstruction which, it seems to me, has turned the archeological site into Disney World.

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Photo: Hajor, Mar.2005

The place looks like an Aztec-inspired Holiday Inn. All it needs is some animatronic Purépechans to thoroughly trash its authenticity. Or maybe one of those pathetic light shows like they've inflicted on Chichén Itzá.

I suspect that most of what we see today of Las Yácatas is modern construction, because it was razed by the Spanish to obtain building stones for the Monastery of Santa Ana and other structures. The Catholic churches are still standing, so they probably had to buy new stones at Rocks 'R' Us.

The grounds of the monastery have been maintained through the centuries and are today, a quiet, contemplative space.

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They're also remarkably litter-free, perhaps because of the threat carried in this sign, that those who throw trash here will be rigorously fined. Rigorously. Whoever wrote that gets top marks, if you ask me.

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Among the many achievements attributed to Vasco de Quiroga was the planting of the first olive trees in the Americas. Well, he didn't exactly plant them; he had them planted, I'm sure. Probably by some Purépechan converts who'd managed to survive the smallpox epidemic.

Those trees, now more than 450 years old are still growing in the grounds of the Monastery of Santa Ana.

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This massive specimen is one of perhaps a score of trees. They all show the ravages of great age, but at the same time look as if they'll continue to grow indefinitely.

The restorers have treated the Monastery of Santa Ana more gently than Las Yácatas. I was captivated by this wonderful old building, held in a state of arrested decay. I like the plants sprouting from the eroded wall.

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I'm more dubious about the murals undergoing restoration under this arch, where a community meal is in progress.

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We spent only a few hours in Tzintzuntzan. It deserves more time, maybe more than a day. What's so nice about living in central Mexico is that it'll be easy to return.

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Stone Carving

We're on our way to another town and craft center near Lake Pátzcuaro—Tzintzuntzan. It's fun to say the name: Zin-zun-zan. You can get by without voicing the tees.

One of the crafts practiced here is stone carving. This stretch of highway is occupied by Artesanias "Hnos. Lopez," the Lopez Brothers.

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The brothers are unconcerned about inventory control. Both sides of the highway are lined with hundreds of carvings. Some are mossy with age. I'd say they're lucky if they manage to turn their inventory in ten years.

But that's not what the Hermanos Lopez are about. They're about the pleasure of turning chunks of stone into art. You wanna buy one? OK. You don't? OK. Go away. I got another rock to carve.

(By the way, if you think the scene above is ugly, what with the tangle of power lines, I agree with you. Where is Ladybird Johnson when we need her? Marta Sahagún, President Vicente Fox's wife, could have taken a shot at cleaning up the landscape, but she was too busy enriching her sons through her influence.)

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Along with columns and Guadalupes and stone spheres, there are many fantastic figures: A monkey seeing no evil, Neptune peering over the tentacles of an octopus, Bacchus's face intended for use in a fountain, a reproduction of an Olmec head. Most of the figures are quite large. I'd have a hard time finding space for one of them in my small house.

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A figure of Chac Mool reclines beneath a directional sign. The pyramid designates the presence of prehispanic ruins.

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Someone scraped away the arrowhead pointing the way to Tzintzuntzan. An alert motorist might notice the alteration and incorporate the data into his navigation. I didn't.

Sure enough, taking that right turn leads to a road that peters out into a muddy track a kilometer or so on. We performed a K-turn at a wide spot where tire tracks indicated many others had done the same, and took the other, correct fork in the road.

For any who haven't driven in Mexico yet, please understand that this kind of official misdirection is normal. Directional signs, when present at all, are often misleading and sometimes flat wrong. Rarely have I driven in a new place without getting lost at least once. It used to frustrate me. Now it's just part of the experience. Ho hum. Lost again. Big deal.

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Santa Clara del Cobre

Copperware, beaten to shape by hand, has fascinated me since, as a sixth-grader in shop class, I pounded a sheet of copper into an ash tray (!) for my father's birthday. Making copper vessels is a major craft in Mexico, the finest works finding their way to museums or commanding breathtaking prices in galleries.

Shown below are three more modest pieces Jean and I have accumulated over the years: On the right, a soup-bowl sized vessel of thin copper, on the left, an antique cauldron, hard-used over the years, holes in its bottom patched with crudely-shaped pieces of copper held in place with copper rivets.

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In the center sits a large kettle with a heavy brass handle to permit hanging over a fire, that Jean found in Santa Clara del Cobre (copper), near Pátzcuaro.

Santa Clara, like all good Mexican towns, has a central plaza featuring a small bandstand. Theirs is covered, appropriately, with a copper roof. The cast-iron lamp standards have been painted with cheap-looking metallic copper paint. The treatment of the cast-iron benches is slightly more successful, painted green to look like verdigris. It doesn't, but the green looks nice anyway.

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Scores of workshops in Santa Clara del Cobre make and sell copper objects. Most are inexpensive decorative items or souvenirs for tourists, sold in stores or galleries lining the main street. Along the side streets is where you find the true artists in their workshops, where you can shop for significant pieces that cost an arm and a leg in San Miguel de Allende, but cost only half an arm and a leg here.

Most of the fine pieces are "raised from a single ingot." That is to say, the craftsmen start with an ugly lump of copper like the squarish black one shown on the left, below, and by repeated heating and hammering, turn it into an object like the pot on the right.

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You can see how thick are the walls of the pot above. It's about 18" in diameter and it's very heavy.

In my imagination, the workers of Santa Clara went down into copper mines, refined the ore, and tapping patiently for weeks, created these masterpieces. Of course, that's not what they do.

I saw a pickup truck on the street, in the bed of which were coils of thick copper wire; material perhaps purchased from a scrap metal dealer. Just as likely, some small community recently experienced an interruption in its electricity supply. There have been reports of such theft, along with the disappearance of manhole covers, taken for scrap iron. A worldwide rise in commodities prices due to soaring demand fueled by the rapid growth of manufacturing in countries like China has made stealing copper and steel remunerative—and made acquiring raw material difficult for the coppersmiths of Santa Clara.

Whatever the source, scrap copper is melted down and poured into ingots. The ingots are reheated and the hammering begins. Here, one worker holds a red-hot plate of copper while three men beat on it with sledgehammers.

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The four work in an elegantly coordinated fashion. The hammer-wielders beat out a waltz—BAM-Bam-bam—while the man with the tongs rotates the piece once each measure. BAM-Bam-bam(turn) BAM-Bam-bam(turn) BAM-Bam-bam(turn).

Somehow, I'd expected more finesse, more delicacy in the process. But, after all, we're shaping thick metal here. These guys hit that copper plate hard, and after a couple of minutes of vigorous hammering, I couldn't see any appreciable thinning or widening.

The plate cools and work-hardens, so it needs reheating. Back into the open-hearth charcoal fire it goes. Hechizos (bellows) provide air to obtain the intense heat needed. The young man on the left is pushing on the handles of the hechizos. The little boy helping him is training to become a zorrilo (little fox), a bellows operator. It's the entry-level position for coppersmiths.

The guy on the right has his hand on the switch controlling an electric blower that augments the airflow from the hechizos. The system is ugly, but it works.

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At some point, the plate becomes wide enough, and a senior craftsman takes over to begin raising the walls of the vessel. He uses no forms to shape the work; he works entirely by eye.

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Eventually he has to bring the walls of the pot inward. He hammers against an anvil that reaches through the neck of the vessel.

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Looking at the beat-up pot above, it's hard to visualize that in the end, he will produce a beautiful piece, perhaps one like this prize-winning fluted pot

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Works of this size (24") and caliber sell for many hundreds of dollars at the workshop. But a significant portion of the cost is in the value of the copper it contains. It took several workers months to produce it, so none of them receive a lot of money for all their work and skill.

Mexico has a serious unemployment problem: witness the hundreds of thousands who brave the deserts and the Minutemen and the Border Patrol for the opportunity to go north and clean chickens on an assembly line. Some, though, develop skills and are lucky enough to find a niche as craftsmen and artists. Then, as sometimes happens, out of poverty comes beauty.

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A Day Begins and Ends in Pátzcuaro

Seems like Mexican people don't eat breakfast at home much. Walking the streets in the early morning (that would be around nine in Mexico), I see many people sitting at tables under arcades, eating tamales or tacos; occasionally even scrambled eggs and bacon.

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Restaurant food is expensive. Might cost you as much as $30 pesos ($2.70 US) for breakfast. These young women are economizing, buying a bowl of pozole (pork and hominy stew) for $10 pesos from a vendor at up an informal setup on the sidewalk. Her prices reflect the low overhead.

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It's socializing time, before the workday begins at ten. Assuming there is work, that is.

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Friends stand or sit together spreading gossip, the glue that holds a community together.

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You don't see faces this careworn in the USA anymore. Our lives have become so much easier since the dust bowl days.

On a small square, a weekly pottery market sets up. No tourist items are for sale here—just utilitarian ware intended for use in the homes of ordinary people.

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Utilitarian or not, Jean is there, looking for pots to use with her new parrilla (grill). Jean allows no shopping opportunity to slip by.

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This evening, we order salads in a restaurant decorated with a mural of typical Lake Pátzcuaro life.

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OK, it looks like a scene from 1948, the mustachioed man serenading the shapely woman in dishabille, her four-inch heels improbable for hiking to the bank of the lake.

A romantic view of a Mexico that never was.

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Later, sounds of sirens and a drum and bugle corps announce the arrival of torch-bearing runners in Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga.

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They're getting a head start on the celebration of Mexican independence, the anniversary of which falls weekend after next.

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The runners make a spectacular show. But after they form up on the plaza, they have to stand and listen to a long, boring speech by the Mayor. We watch the youngsters wilt.

Seems like whenever the people do something creative and noteworthy, politicians horn in, grabbing a share of the glory.

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Pátzcuaro's Woodcarvers

Our excursions out of Pátzcuaro usually begin by driving toward the muelle, the dock where boats that ply the waters of Lake Pátzcuaro are stationed. On our way, we pass a row of woodcarvers' workshops. There must be a dozen of them.

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Carved wooden columns and lintels, some quite massive, line the street for a hundred yards or more.

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Most workshops are a jumble inside. Headboards, pedestals, busts, dolls, crucifixes, doors, spoon racks, clocks, murals—if you can carve it out of wood, it's here.

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It's always dangerous to bring Jean into a place where handcrafts are for sale. I don't know what she's considering here, but I do know it's probably coming home with us.

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Oh no! She chose this banal cute carving of a besotted friar.

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This figure is common, like the trite sculptures of Don Quixote you see in every workshop. You see him everywhere. Looks like something out of Disney. It must be a character in literature. Anybody know who he is? Friar Tuck?

He's a cliché, and, thanks to Jean, he's now my cliché.

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More about Erongarícuaro

Reader Barbara commented on my impressions of Erongarícuaro, which I posted on Saturday. She writes:

"One of the most well known "high-end" custom furniture manufacturing companies in Mexico is in that town. They manufacture for Disney and other high-end users. The Rosenthals', who own MFA Eronga are responsible for the redevelopment in this area of the carved, highly painted furniture industry. There are many articles about them."

My friend Clint had told me about the Rosenthals' factory. He gave me explicit instructions for finding it. "When you get to the top of the hill looking down onto the plaza, turn right and that's where it is."

Well, I did that. The narrow street ran only for a block and dead-ended. I had to back out to the main road. No sign of any factory.

Clint probably told me the place didn't have any signs indicating its presence, but I didn't remember that. I just figured I was lost and wasn't going to get to visit the place. When I talked to him later, he said: "You mean you went all the way to Erongarícuaro and didn't see the furniture factory?" Well. Uh... No.

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I also mentioned on Saturday the bizarre sign in the Erongarícuaro churchyard telling people not to defecate in the churchyard. In another churchyard on the other side of Lake Pátzcuaro, in Tzintzuntzan, I found another sign.

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"The person caught 'making the bath' in this area will be fined $500 pesos."

What's going on here? I'm getting the impression that there is a runaway problem with churchyard pooping in the Lake Pátzcuaro area.

This has gotta be more than a simple problem of incontinence. Perhaps people are making some sort of political statement? Are these signs evidence of government trampling the people's rights of free expression?

I also note that the cost of relieving oneself in the Tzintzuntzan churchyard is only half of that in Erongarícuaro.

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Campestre Alemán

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Driving along the highway from Patzcuaro to Erongarícuaro, we came across a woodsy estate that contained a restaurant on the grounds. A German restaurant. A Bavarian restaurant. The place could have come straight out of the Black Forest.

Clint had recommended it. Restaurante Campestre Alemán. We were hungry coming back from Erongarícuaro so we pulled up underneath the Freistaat Bayern coat of arms, and humming Ach du lieber Augustin, we walked into the place, hankering for some Sauerbraten und Spätzle.

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Passing under the reindeer antlers (or moose or whatever), we found ourselves on the shore of an artificial lake. Tables on decks overlooked the water. The scent of pines filled the air in this charming and peaceful, if unexpected, place.

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A young Mexican waiter wearing a pleated white shirt and black bow tie seated us at the water's edge. He handed us menus.

Lets see... Arrachera. Guacamole. Sopa Tarasca. Hmmm. This is a Bavarian restaurant?

Turn the page. Trucha (trout). More trout. Fried trout. Stuffed trout. Smoked trout. Trout paté. Trout soup. Truite en Bleu. Half the menu is devoted to some kind of trout.

Got salmon? No. Whitefish? No. Huachinango? No. Just trout.

Campestre Alemán is a trout farm. From our table, we could look down into the murky green water and see hundreds of them floating lazily just below the surface.

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Not exactly your sparkling Alpine lake, is it?

Somewhat reluctantly, I ordered the... uh... trout. On the principle you should always play to a restaurant's strengths. I also asked for another of their specialties: shiitake soup. A kind of Japanese-German combo, I guess. Axis fusion cuisine.

"Sorry. We're all out of shiitakes."

(Darn.) "OK. Bring me the Sopa Tarasca then."

Following Clint's advice, we ate lightly, leaving room for Apfel Strudel mit Eis. It was very good, as were the smoked trout and the bean soup. In all, a great place to stop for a moderately-priced meal. Beautiful setting, attentive service, good food. If you like trout.

And for $10 pesos you can rent a fishing pole, to catch your own dinner.

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Erongarícuaro

Tourists drive the road that encircles Lake Patzcuaro in search of the little towns where artisans live and work. The route to the east of the lake yields many fruitful places, but the road to the west contains little of interest to those bent on acquiring folk art. That's as good an excuse as any for traveling out that way, if you ask me.

Thirty kilometers or so northwest of Patzcuaro lies Erongarícuaro, a small county seat. That's A-wrong-gah-REE-kwa-ro; a toughie. No galleries here, no museums, nothing for tourists to do. Just a quiet, sunny Mexican village where ordinary people live out their lives.

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At the Jose Mamorelos Elementary School, mothers gather at noon outside the security bars to pass hot lunches through to their children. Heaven forbid the kiddies should have to eat sandwiches.

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Erongarícuaro boasts a couple of churches. This modest one, framed by strings of papel picado, is the largest in town.

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It's hardly worth mentioning but for a sign on one of the walls.

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The annoucement roughly translates as: "People who poop in the church will be fined $1,000 pesos."

(OK. It doesn't use the word, "poop." It actually says, in that delicate Spanish way, "... persons who would make their necessities..." But the meaning is unmistakable.)

Here and in other small towns along the way, I saw signs warning about cholera.

Cholera! I thought we'd beaten that disease—except maybe in places where there was severe flooding or some other disaster.

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Around Lake Patzcuaro apparently, cholera is still a fact of life. The sign advises residents to boil their drinking water and cook their food well. The tag line reads, "We worry about your health."

Another sign I saw orders people to dispose of excrement in their houses. I guess that means not outside where it can get into the water supply. Sheesh!

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What's unique about Erongarícuaro is the central plaza, one of the few remaining vestiges of old, real Mexico. My friend Clint insisted I come here to view it before it disappears.

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The center is inviting: beautiful plantings, fountains, benches.

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Virtually every business and government institution needed by the residents of Erongarícuaro is located behind the arcades that surround it. Not a single souvenir shop, tour company or tourist hotel dilutes the Mexican-ness of the place. Nobody selling foam puzzle maps of Mexico. No kids selling Chiclets.

Vendors, like this woman selling whitefish, set up makeshift tiendas under the arcades.

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Flores de las calabasas (squash blossoms) are a common food in Mexico. Rosario frequently makes us soup or quesadillas using them.

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The old woman haggling with the squash blossom vendor has bowed legs—often a sign of childhood rickets. Nutrition wasn't so good sixty years ago.

A carefully made up young woman completes a call on her cell phone before returning to frying gorditas. The younger generation is more ready to adopt 21st-Century technology than their elders.

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Anyone unsure about the concept of Asians crossing the Bering land bridge to inhabit the Americas need only look at her face. High cheekbones and almond eyes tell the story.

All over this part of Michoacan, signs are lettered in this font with odd serifs and spurs, the letters always in black except for a lone red one at the beginning of each word.

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This carniceria (butcher shop) entices customers with a mouth-watering picture of a steer head.

Perhaps the meat from the butcher's cabezas (heads) finds its way into this woman's tacos, as advertised on the wall behind her.

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Erongarícuaro is a take-no-prisoners Mexican town. Nobody speaks English to you here. You won't find any galleries to peruse. No sit-down restaurants. There isn't even a bar—at least not near the plaza. And because there's no tourists, there's no beggars. Even the poor manage to find a productive way to make their livings.

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The pace of life is slow and pleasant. Shopping in the arcades is a time-consuming social event. If you need a little rest, you can always kick back and relax on one of the plaza benches.

Sometimes I get the feeling that I've been living my life all wrong.

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