Monday, January 11, 2010

La Boda en Janitzio

Guidebooks tell you no visit is complete to Patzcuaro without a day trip to Janitzio, a small island accessed by collectivos or public launches, a few minutes from town.  Its claim to fame is a gigantic statue of Jose Morelos, one of the heroes of the Mexican War of Independence, for whom Morelia, the state capital, is named.  Day of the Dead ceremonies are also legendary in Janitzio, when the faithful climb the winding streets by candlelight to the lone pantheon (graveyard) and spend the night graveside with their departed relatives.  Mexican tourists come from around the country to witness the vigil, which begins October 30 and ends on November 1.  So we braved the elements and took a ride to Janitzio.  We ended up on a boat by ourselves since, after 30 to 40 minutes, no one else showed up and the driver had to take off on a trip that had to be costing him money.  We motored through the lake choked with lily pads and bulbous green plants, their rhysomes branching out to nearly blanket the lake.  Blue herons and white garzas stood stiffly in the shallows.  The rain was actually letting up and ever so slightly, from under the sheet of dirty gray clouds, a sliver of blue sky tried to make a break.

When we docked, a bunch of little kids hopped on and immediately started trying to rummage through my bag for money, asking me for monedo.  It had a been a long weekend already (I actually kicked Mason on the ride over because he wouldn't stop running along the wooden boat seats) and I had no interest in my children, or anyone else's.  I angrily told them to beat it and then told Sam, "They picked the wrong mom today."

Janitzio is odd.  It's full of trash, over run by matted mutts scrounging dockside for food, completely impoverished, and chock a block with souvenirs not yet seen in our Mexican travels: most notably the boob and butt mugs.  Bo, not real accustomed to the tacky souvenirs (he's never been to Ocean City) asked, "Aren't these illegal?"   I'm not sure who the target market is for the tan ceramic coffee cup with the nipple protruding from the side or the butt cheeks as a handle, but I'm pretty sure it's not the American touring  Mexico's colonial towns.  Maybe that's why we were the only gringos there.

Still, the kids were starving and the boat wasn't coming to pick us up for another couple of hours so we sat for a meal of happily amazing caldo de pollo, a hot chicken soup with whole carrots and zucchinis, and the most thoughtfully prepared limonada we've ever had.  The kids scampered off to scale the island and find the Morelos statue, and Sam and I stumbled upon a ceremony taking place that made the whole weekend worthwhile: the local boda.  This wedding was one of those things that you'd long to witness, but could never plan, something that provides such an insight into local culture and traditions, and something that makes you feel like you've really left home.

From our lunch table we could hear music up the walkway so we followed the sound of the mariachis.  Outside of a stone church were a couple dozen men in leather jackets and fancy shoes, some sitting on cases of Indio beer. A line of women, all in local dress--long, colorful embroidered skirts, white peasant shirts, flat, black shoes, and blue rebozos around their shoulders--were sitting side by side on a low wall just outside of the church.  When you looked carefully you saw each had a bottle of beer between her legs and a tiny ceramic mug in her hand.  A group of younger girls appeared in a circle, carrying in the middle above their heads a huge plastic jug of tequila.  Each girl  held a ribbon coming from the jug so that it looked like a Mayfair pole. A few elders held more tequila with individual cigarettes tied around the bottle, a gift to pass out to the guests.  Children stood at the church door with large bags of confetti.  The musicians, all playing brass horns--French, tuba, saxophone--had outfits I coveted: black and gold striped pants and a matching jacket with their band name, La Costenita, embroidered on the back.

When the bride and groom stepped out of  the church, a second mariachi band started up, the confetti flew, and the drinks guys started passing around the tequila, pouring it into everyone's little mug. The cases of beer were opened and handed out (I was even given one and when I tried to pay for it my money was rejected decidedly.  I was, however, to return the empty as they needed the deposit back).  The couple stood on the threshold for all to view, and like everyone around them, was completely without emotion.  There was not a smile in the crowd.  Everyone drank for a while, had a smoke, then marched down the hill, around the corner, and out of sight.

Tzintzuntzan--Our Saving Grace

Even though the rain continued to fall we had to see the sites of Patzcuaro and its lake.  Each of the villages around its outskirts is known for its particular craft: Santa Clara del Cobre for copper, Palupa for finely painted pottery, Tzintzuntzan (with the accent of on the zun) for its straw weavings and baskets, etc.  None was done any favors by the rain and the gray skies: all looked a little dreary, unkempt and full of things you don't really want to buy.  On arriving in Santa Clara and finding a full block of butcher shops with the carcasses of pigs and cows, skinned and bloody, hanging in the doorways, one of the kids commented, "I thought you said we were going someplace special."  Couldn't say I blamed them.  The un-gentrified Mexican village is a little less charming in the wrong light, when its indigenous nature tends to shine through.  Nevertheless we forged on, dragging them here and there, when unexpectedly, on the horizon, rose a pyramid, high up on a hill.  Screech go the wheels as we peel sharply off the road to the left and start to climb up toward the ruins on the hill above us.  It's an honest-to-goodness Indian temple and fortress, wide open and ready to explore!  "Yahoozi," as the boys say.  We've got the place to ourselves so the boys ignore the signs telling them to stay off the yucatecas (stones? walls? walkways?) and start running rampant along the ramparts.  Sam's archaeological instincts and genes (his dad was an archaeologist, among other things: Lutheran minister, professor of Near Eastern languages, Arabic scholar) kick in and we make them get down.  But for a while they can run around without anyone telling them to be slow down and be quiet and they can feel like masters of their own little universe (until we get back to the B&B).  Yucateca, we learn later, is in fact, pyramid.

Into Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall

With an extra week off school for the kids, Sam and I decided to hit the road for a couple of days and explore Michoacan, due south of San Miguel about 3 to 4 hours.  With a New Year's resolution to make the kids more self-sufficient, I left their packing to them.  Redding: two bags containing three long-sleeved rugby shirts, a plaid button-down, white cotton stretch pants, his old gym pants and a pair of jeans, footie pajamas, a Ralph Lauren sweater with the American flag, four Spanish textbooks on Civics, Social Studies and History from his old school, assorted board and card games, an iPod, a wallet, 12 miniature toy horses, and his 14-in-one all-purpose tool with belt clip.  Mason: all his stuffed animals in ascending order (Cattie, Hedgie, Big Hedgie, Pandy, Gnomie, two felt mice filled with sand, and one ceramic bulldog), his Hugh Hefner monogrammed robe with plaid pajama pants and red henley top, a coloring book (no crayons or pencils), one Junie B. Jones book, a ball of yard and scissors, a sweatshirt, and several pairs of underwear.  Bo: the clothes on his back and Deltora Quest Volumes 5-8, which he has read now two or three times.

An auspicious beginning: I'm at the wheel, barreling through the gorgeous Mexican countryside, maneuvering successfully around loose livestock, street dogs, and the occasional young boy on a burro crossing the street.  Skies in San Miguel are nice, though not as blue as they usually are, but we're heading south to higher altitudes andPatzcuaro," one of the loveliest villages in all of Mexico," an hour southwest of Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, Guanajuato's neighbor.  Stalls selling carnitas and barbacoa (goat steamed in banana leaves and Sam's favorite Spanish word) line the road, alongside rows of terracotta pots, copper trays, and woven blankets.  We pull into Patzcuaro in record time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, and check into our lodging, the esteemed little B&B, La Casa Encantada, an adults-only inn that has made an exception for us and our three children under ten.  Times are tough in the tourist industry these days.

And then the skies open up.  The low, gray clouds that started following us right about the time we drove through a gauntlet of fir trees painted white along their bases and lining the main street  into the village have decided to empty themselves of all the water they've been holding since June when we arrived and the drought began.  The temperatures drop ominously and the drafty, street-side windows in our room, six feet tall and constructed in the 1800s, start to whistle.  Sam masters the gas fireplace in our room and we warm up.  There is no place we know of in Mexico with interior heating, and Patzcauro is no exception.  The room feels about 50 degrees.

We play some Scrabble, some Skip Bo and a lot of Michael Jackson on the iPod, all the while telling the kids they have to keep their voices down.  Eventually we brave the elements, run through the rain to the nearest restaurant under the portales that line the main square on four sides, and tuck into the local specialty, bocaneros, tiny fried fish, eyes and all.  Sam has a plate of them, about 100 strong; he makes it about halfway through before crying uncle.  I have the sopa Tarasco, a delicious smoked tomato soup with tortilla, avocado, and cheese.  Then we run back to our room.

The boys' clothes are so wet there's really no way they can go out again.  I have to pour the water out of their shoes.  So like a good camper I line up the shoes on the fake logs, monitoring their progress by the amount of steam rising off of them.  I get distracted and one of Bo's moccasins starts to smoke.  I have melted the top half of it into a shape that is now crispy and impossible to put on his foot.  Mason's scissors now make sense.  I snip an opening into each side of the shoe and make Bo wear socks.  Sam goes in search of a lavanderia to dry their coats and pants, and to buy a bottle of wine to get us through the afternoon.  He finds some awful Chilean red that eventually is poured down the drain, as well as a bottle of charanda, something like tequila, though twice as rough, but the laundromat tells him it will take three and half hours.  We don't have that kind of stamina, trapped in the room with three loud kids and a few board games.  I don my place at the flames again and hang their clothes onto the crucifix above the fireplace.