Archive: 2007 3rd Quarter

Antigüedades

Stop! Antiques!

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We pass many places selling country antiques, strung out along the Delores Highway. Roadside establishments selling farmhouse pine furniture are hard to find in the U. S. But they're alive and well here.

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The presence of these places is, for me, another throwback to the '50s; part of what makes living in Mexico so appealing to me.

Just try and buy an old farm wagon to adorn the entrance to your country property. In California's Sierra Nevada Foothills, they're almost unavailable and unaffordable if you do manage to find one. Around here, you can choose from dozens.

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Casa Reyna (Queen House) sits on the Celaya Highway, just south of the glorieta (traffic circle) at the edge of San Miguel. A large motorcycle sculpture catches the eyes of passers-by.

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The motorcycle illustrates the practice of converting antiques into decorator items, rather than conserving them. Although in this case you probably wouldn't want it in your living room. Two tractor wheels, some heavy-duty coil springs and an RCA public address speaker horn form a massive iron hulk maybe 12 feet long. Where would you put it?

The proliferation of these outlets is driven by the large gringo population in these parts. Few expats bring entire households with them when they move here. Like Jean and me, they sell most of their furniture up north, and shop here to replace it.

One of the larger establishments along the Delores Highway is Mexico Lindo. Virtually no piece in the place goes unmodified, usually by application of painted designs.

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Puertas (doors) are in demand, either for use in remodeling old houses, or to convert into tables. Many are handmade from iron-hard mesquite strengthened with forged-iron studs. They're heavy, strong and beautiful.

Carved wooden statues of religious figures, especially St. Michaels, are in ample supply at Mexico Lindo. This one is life-size.

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No telling if the painting on the figure is original, but the paintings on the door panels behind him are almost certainly new.

This 1930s-era panel truck has been converted into a... what? A hearse? A carriage? Whatever it is, we see here the first example of the whimsical, humorous painting that characterizes Mexico Lindo.

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Other vehicles have been subjected to the paintbrush. They're not for sale, they're for advertising.

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The bottom images are of the same panel truck: one side is painted as a coke truck, the other, Corona beer.

The pickup truck full of clay pots is resplendent with Mexico's coat of arms.

Decoration of the green pickup is problematical. Mexicans find my name, John, difficult to spell. What to do with that superfluous H? How do you get the J-sound? Chon? But with a J. Jhon. That doesn't look right. What the hell. Just leave it.

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Words with double Es are tricky as well. I often see Chesse Pay (Cheese Pie, AKA Cheesecake) on menus. Deere appears to be equally difficult.

A cigarette-wielding hooker beckons alongside the entrance gate. Against the other gatepost, a man in lingerie waves a rose.

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The presence of a public restroom at the rear of a courtyard is indicated by the figure of a man relieving himself.

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As he sits, he's happily reading...

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... a girlie magazine. Mexico Lindo's painter certainly is a free spirit.

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Mr. Sushito

I love Japanese food. Especially sushi. Good nutrition, low in calories. When I travel in the States, Japanese food is my favorite restaurant meal choice.

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Too bad I can't find any in Mexico.

I know it's here. Probably in Mexico City somewhere. I found a couple of places in Querétaro, but they were disappointing. All were operated by Mexican chefs who have a taste for more vinegar in the rice than I like. Smothers the taste of the fish.

There's a restaurant in San Miguel that offers pizza, paella and sushi. No thanks. A local Korean restaurant offers maki with cream cheese. Nasty. A new place called California Sushi opened up at La Luciérnaga shopping center, along with our first McDonalds. McDonalds is way better.

The other day, I stopped in at a supermarket in Delores Hidalgo for an ice cream cone. (Don't tell Jean.) Alongside the ice cream franchise was this:

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"Japanese Fast Food." A horrifying thought. I can't imagine trying it.

What caught my eye was the mascot: Mr. Sushito in a conical hat wielding chopsticks, one in each hand. His face is yellow, his eyes are slanted. This image would last for about a nanosecond in the U. S. before the protests and lawsuits would start flying.

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A Working Church

Conquistadors had two objectives: Find riches and save souls. Arguably, they succeeded wildly at both. As to the first, like obsessive overeaters they consumed so much gold and silver that they destroyed themselves, their bloated economy inflating until it collapsed, relegating Spain to second-rate status among nations.

For the second, you need only to look at the presence of the Church in Mexico to get the picture. The city of San Miguel de Allende, last time I counted, had 28 Catholic churches. That's for 80,000 people. Talk about your saturated market.

San Antonio Church is one of them; the heart of the eponymous colonia.

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Not the most ornate or historical church in town, it is one of the more active. Besides serving as a focal point for numerous festivals, it attends to the more mundane needs of its parishioners. One source of community services is the Notaria Parroquial, the keeper of church records.

This place is more important than some of us Norteamericanos might think. For example, not long ago, the most important identity document a person could have was a baptismal certificate, issued of course by the Notaria Parroquial.

Sometimes you'll see several people lined up at the office doorway, waiting to transact some sort of Church business.

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In fact, so many people visit the Notaria's office, it became prudent to post informational signs answering basic questions about office hours and the like.

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The sign reflects Mexican cultural norms. Office hours begin at 10 AM. Of course. Nothing starts in Mexico until 10.

Then the office closes from 2-4 PM for comida (lunch), which can be a lengthy affair. It opens again until 8 PM, so there's your full eight-hour day—just later than gringos are used to.

The office sets your appointments for baptisms or readings of banns. These are performed in the church at specific hours on specific days only, perhaps for the sake of efficiency, or maybe so everyone knows when to show up to denounce a proposed marriage.

The office is closed on Mondays. Note that the Notaria didn't think it necessary to mention that it's also closed on Sundays. Of course it is.

Now, you can't get baptized or confirmed or married without meeting a bunch of fussy requirements. The Notaria issues tickets when you've met them all, after which the church will perform the appropriate ceremony. No ticket, no wedding.

For example, to baptize your baby, you need a birth certificate, the godparents' marriage certificate, and religious training for the godparents. Says so there right on the sign:

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Almost as difficult as getting a Mexican driver's license. No wonder the Seventh Day Adventists are doing so well in San Miguel.

To have your banns read, you need a recent (?) baptismal certificate, a civil marriage certificate (?), and two witnesses, preferably your parents.

To a lapsed Protestant from California, the rules are draconian. That the Church can set such rigid requirements suggests that people accept them. And that the Church needs to maintain office hours to handle the traffic suggests that lots of people accept them.

The other day, I read that a Mexican Bishop spoke out against State restrictions on the Church and lack of religious training in public schools. Just making that speech is against the law. The fact that he would and could do it indicates the still-formidable power of the Church.

(By the way, the signs, like so many here, are hand lettered by skilled signpainters. Theirs is pretty much a lost art up north. I'm always fascinated when I watch them work, the letters flowing effortlessly from their brushes.)

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Portraits

Having your portrait made was serious business in the 19th Century. Photographers didn't ask you to smile. If you did, it would ruin the photo. This wedding photo, taken somewhere in Mexico of someone's great-great grandparents, is typical.

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They don't look like a happy couple, do they? My great-great grandparents look just as serious as these people, in our old family photos.

By the time I was born, fashion had changed. I remember a photographer who actually held a mechanical bird over the lens of his view camera to make me smile.

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"Watch the birdie!" Twitter, twitter.

(That's a genuine WWII cotton shirt, held together at the neck with a safety pin. Thanks, Mom.)

Modern Mexican people relax for informal snapshots just like gringos. But many still treat portrait-taking as solemn occasions. Getting a smile out of Teresa, here rigidly posing in her new school uniform, required ingenuity and the intervention of a Boston Terrier.

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I was reminded of the lingering Mexican propensity for grave expressions in portraits when I saw this display of the Management Team in our new Office Depot:

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Look like mug shots, don't they. The grim expressions are bad enough; the institutional blue shirts and name tags just make things worse. Had their shirts been khaki, these photos could just as well have been taken at the county jail, just down the road from Office Max.

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Misusing Public Funds?

Paul (El Guapo) tells me he read a story in the newspaper about an expenditure by the State of Guanajuato (San Miguel's state) for 800 89 billboards. Pictured here is one such.

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Paul is standing in front to it to give it scale. The sign actually is bigger than it seems, but I didn't have a normal-sized person to pose with it.

You see billboards like this all over Mexico. Government officials use them to inform the public about new hospitals or highway construction projects or such. In my opinion, they're no more than blatant political advertising with a veneer of legitimate communications function.

What are 800 signs communicating? Their entire contents read:

Guanajuato
We go with you
Governor
Juan Manuel Oliva Ramírez

One could not fault an unsophisticated public for mistaking these signs as part of an election campaign.

Governor Oliva might want to clear this up. Assuming of course that his administration actually did put up 800 of these things. Otherwise he risks giving the impression of a rapacious politician co-opting public funds for personal gain.

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Great Expectations

On my morning walk, I passed by this store on Canal Street. I must have seen it a hundred times. Today, the name of the place leapt out at me.

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It's street Spanish for BH03

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The Water Works

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My friend Sergio called me las week to cancel a lunch date.

"What's the matter, Sergio?"

"Well, I haven't had any water for a week, so I have to wait for a water truck delivery."

(Interruptions in the municipal water supply are frequent, so most houses have tinacos (tanks) on the roof or cisterns underground to hold a local supply for use during outages. When they run dry, you call for a water truck.)

"Sergio, did you forget to pay your water bill?"

"No. There's a leak in the main somewhere. SAPASMA hasn't found it yet."

Below we see SAPASMA workers diagnosing Sergio's water main. Confidence-inspiring ¿No?

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All of the above is a set-up for me to bitch about the water department. But before I do that, I want to discuss some differences between the English and Spanish languages; in particular, where a horrible acronym like SAPASMA comes from.

(Sounds like a sneeze, doesn't it.

"SAPASMA!"

"Salud."

"Gracias.")

—§—

Spanish has twice the syllables and one-third the words of English. So you can't say something like San Miguel Water Department in four words and eight syllables.

First of all, you have to specify which San Miguel you're talking about. There's at least 30 San Miguels in Mexico.

Second, compound nouns are rarely used. So you can't just say San Miguel Water Department. You gotta say the Water Department of San Miguel... oops... of San Miguel de Allende, not some other San Miguel.

So now we're building up to a whole lot of words, and we haven't taken into account that SAPASMA is a bureaucracy, so its name needs just a little more spin.

The name of the water department, then, is the System of Potable Water and Sewers of San Miguel de Allende: Systema de Agua potable y Alcantarillado de San Miguel de Allende. Eleven words, 24 syllables.

Now, nobody can remember all that; at least not without effort. So here's where the Mexican pastime of creating acronyms comes in. SAPASMA is a whole lot easier to remember and say than Systema de Agua potable y Alcantarillado de San Miguel de Allende.

Acronyms are everywhere in Mexico. One of my favorites is ISSSTE: Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado. The Institute of Security and Social Services of the Workers of the State.

—§—

In the photo above, we see a sign informing us that SAPASMA workers are on the job. Let's look at it a little more closely. Here's what it says:

SAPASMA Working
To give you better service
Thanks for your support


We'll overlook the shabby appearance of the sign. Probably just an artifact of the government ensuring funds are spent on stuff that matters, not on cosmetics.

But the slogan is a little hard to take. Better service? In Sergio's case, better service apparently means any service at all. Thanks for your support? Sergio's support is to provide his own water, saving SAPASMA the expense.

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No one takes SAPASMA's fatuous slogans seriously.

Gangs have found a perhaps more effective use for the sign. The graffiti reads "Jotos los de la Cuesta. Por parte de los San Rafa."

"The Cuesta guys are cowards. From the San Rafael guys."

Apparently the boys who live in the neighborhood where the sign is located failed to show up for a fight, and they're being challenged anew by those San Rafa bullies.

—§—

So how is it that SAPASMA can't locate a water main leak, even after a week of looking? Consider this photo of a portion of the crew at the job site:

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Yep. Everybody's standing around, telling jokes. Not working. In case you missed it, there are six guys in the photo. Look below the feet of the man with the orange safety vest.

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That cowboy hat belongs to the only guy who is doing anything. He must have the lowest seniority.

Featherbedding crops up anywhere there's work to be done. And there's usually more of it when a department of a government is involved.

It's just that in Mexico, it's so blatant. You'll remember this post the next time you see a traffic cop with a can of coke in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, standing next to a double-parked car.

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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.

—§—

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.

—§—

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!

—§—

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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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.)

—§—

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