A Quick Update

In 2010, we moved back to the small town in Colorado that I never stopped missing while we lived in Mexico. Now I sometimes miss Mexico, but I wouldn't travel as freely as we did when we were there, camping out in remote areas and so forth.

Mexico today is in a period of change, and in many ways it is more dangerous now. That said, I have plenty of American friends who still live there very happily, just taking a few more precautions than they did in the past.

Just to say!

Rosana

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Tripbase Blog Awards 2009

Tripbase Blog Awards 2009

Here’s an article by a woman whom I met when she came to Lake Chapala. She didn’t mention the name of the town she stayed in, but since she now lives in Ajijic, you can guess. This article is ©2006 Micki Wendt, and used with her permission. I’ve since seen the woman with the rugs and said hello to her. — Rosana

MY TRIP TO A-SMALL-TOWN -IN-MEXICO -WHICH-SHALL-REMAIN-UN-NAMED -BECAUSE-THE-REAL-ESTATE -IS-ALREADY-OUT-OF-SIGHT
By Micki Wendt

There are no “sights” to see here; no touristy attractions, just a few quaint little villages on a lake, which one can slowly and quietly savor with all one’s senses. As I tried to write emails to friends from local internet cafes, though, I realized that what I was experiencing on my vacation in this colorful, warm, and laid back town was too much to describe in cliché postcard language. I was in a different world completely, in spite of the presence of an expat community, and I want to savor that memory, as well as convey it to others.

The mountains of Mexico are home to numerous villages, towns and cities dating from the Spanish colonial era 400-500 years ago or longer. Since the Spanish didn’t completely obliterate the native cultures the way the English did in North America, there is a much stronger presence of these cultures, obvious in the colorful houses and crafts, music, numerous fiestas, other various local customs, in addition to the intangible vibes of the ancients.

My accommodations were in a lovely B&B, the likes of which I could never afford in the states. At low season, the place was nearly empty most of the time. Even the American owners were away on their own vacation, so I had a chance to meet and get to know the hospitable gardener and his wife, the cook (for breakfast only), who were managing in the owners’ absence, giving me a good chance to work on my Spanish. There was about an acre of land with lovely fountains, a swimming pool, lawn and patio, which I often had to myself. The décor included many fascinating Mexican art objects and each room had a unique and colorful décor in the Mexican style. No TVs! Bueno!!

Music was playing all the time in the main part of the house, as seems to be common in Mexico. Surprisingly, the 25-CD changer had such selections as Edith Piaf, Sarah Vaughn, and other big band artists, apparently the taste of the owners. I could have enjoyed doing nothing but hanging around this lovely abode, but I did want to get out and explore the town, and had to get to a local gym to practice for my upcoming audition. It turned out the gym was part of an old elegant hotel about a mile on the other side of town, a pleasant walk. One day, I decided to take the small local bus on the cobblestone streets, and experienced such a shaking that I could barely stand up long enough to reach my seat.

My mission each night was to search for a restaurant for dinner. Ambling slowly on the cobblestones and uneven and sometimes high sidewalks, I drank in all the sights and sounds that I could, while carefully watching my step. In the languid afternoons, I enjoyed the delicious Michoacan frozen fruit bars while sitting in the Plaza, watching life unfold in front of me, meeting people, unwinding completely. Ironically, some of the foreign residents that I met were not retired, but had galleries or websites which occupied their time. Still, they found the time to visit with me, and I appreciate their hospitality.

The Sights

The vivid colors everywhere jump out and truly wake up your mind and spirit, as well as your eyes. Houses are frequently painted in multi-colored schemes, sometimes with native style accents, or murals. From the streets you see long, high walls with gates, some of wrought iron that enabled you to peek into a courtyard, or solid huge doors, which hide everything. In addition to wrought-ironwork, another local specialty is colorful, custom tile work, used mostly in bathrooms and kitchens, floors, and occasional wall or door accents. The artistic touch is everywhere. Colorful tropical vegetation tumbles over many walls, adding even more hues and textures, a delight to behold. Every so often one sees a colorful and quaint shrine built to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico – my favorite Mary, with her gorgeous, expansive aura.

There are a good number of outdoor murals to be seen around town, on both public buildings and private homes. Many are mystical, some display historical aspects of the town or of Mexico in general, and some are just colorful folk art designs. Walking by one mural of a gigantic iguana, located on the wall of a bar, I made up a new word in Spanish – Iguanamente. To understand, you’d need to know your polite basics – (“nice to meet you”) “mucho gusto”, (“likewise”) “igualmente”. Some folks thought it was funny, but I’m still trying to figure out the meaning.

One truly unexpected sighting one afternoon, was that of a large circus parade slowly coming down the carretera, or highway (2-lane), which links several local towns (like pre-freeway USA). I had just purchased another disposable camera and was walking around, exploring, when I heard a siren. Seeing a large vehicle with flashing lights approaching slowly in the traffic, I assumed it was a fire truck. As it went by, I saw that it along with other trucks behind it, were towing large cages of wild animals – first zebras, then various wildcats and even a giraffe. The circus was being announced over a large audio system in the first vehicle. I don’t particularly care for wild animals in cages and circuses, but I must admit, I was so stunned by this incongruous sight, that I couldn’t manage to reach into my bag and unwrap the camera and take pictures. I just stood there and stared.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the poverty that I saw – crumbling old stone and brick houses that were never painted, and a certain amount of litter strewn about in some areas. The town is a hodge-podge of nice homes interspersed with poor ones, or vice versa. There is no zoning as we know it. However, there was always a feeling of simple dignity even in the poor areas. I never felt threatened, as I would in a poor neighborhood in the states.

The Sounds

Between the busy winter and medium busy summer gringo seasons, the village was probably at its quietest. Very little car traffic, as most Mexicans do not own cars. Upon arriving around 6PM on a hot day, I needed to stretch my legs and find someplace to eat. Having memorized the basic layout of the town from seeing maps on the internet, I set out. As the evening light slowly dimmed, people were at home, the typical cheerful up-tempo Mexican music was coming out of many different homes, happy kids were playing on the streets. In spite of all the walls, the balmy climate has inspired a very indoor-outdoor lifestyle with open-air rooms, so you can hear what is going on in many houses as you walk by. I decided I would smile and say hola to everyone I saw, and usually got a friendly and warm response from people of all ages. A soft breeze gently came up, and I eventually arrived at a restaurant which catered mostly to gringos. (Strangely enough, it was actually difficult to find Mexican food in the evenings, since that is family/home time to most Mexicans, who don’t go out to dine at night.) The restaurant was pleasant enough, open air, with a small stage for live music. An American solo-singer-guitarist played American MOR hits, which put me into a little shock, after the lovely cultural immersion I had just experienced. Another single woman came in looking for someone she was supposed to meet, who didn’t show. So, I invited her over and we started talking (over the loud gringo music, which was gradually getting on my nerves. Not what I came to Mexico for!) But I saw how easy it was to meet people there.

Later, I walked back to the B&B around the block, around dark. With no media to distract me, and having had a very long day travelling, I lay down in the grass and looked up at the stars. At this point I simply tuned into the soft, gentle, and most agreeable cacophony – exotic songbirds in the trees, church bells a few blocks away, cicadas which sounded like they must be a foot long (they’re not), the stereo gurgle of two fountains on either side of me, a gentle breeze in the trees, the clip-clop of horses sauntering by, music wafting over from different houses, a mother and child speaking to each other in sweet tones, the very occasional car going by. I was in pure bliss. A little later, all the dogs in town would routinely start barking, at what, I don’t know. Maybe there was a burglar. Maybe it was the dogs’ social hour.

During the day, a common sound was that of the recorded voice of a man who sells fill-ups for the propane gas tanks that everyone has – no city gas lines there. He would slowly drive around the town with his loudspeaker, saying ga-a-a-as, ga-a-a-a-s. I would also hear various political advertising done in the same way, a car driving around with a recording going over a loudspeaker. At least I hope it was a recording, otherwise the speaker would get quite hoarse calling out all day!

Many fiestas in Mexico start off at 5am with firecrackers and church bells waking people up for Mass, before they celebrate with parades, processions, food and live music and dancing for the rest of the day. I only heard firecrackers once while there, coming from the neighboring village, so it wasn’t too loud. Knowing that the boom-boom was celebratory in nature, it didn’t cause the usual alarm one would feel in the states. Many roosters live here and there in the town, and you’ll hear them early on, also. I walked by a loud party one Sunday afternoon, which I could only hear over the walls, but not see. Big loud parties in Mexico are usually family affairs, with all the generations together laughing, enjoying music, dancing and dining. Again, no cause for alarm.

The weather

Far from being bland, the lovely and temperate weather had a dynamic of its own. When I arrived in late May, the hottest time of the year, the temperature was around 85F, but dry, with nice breezes in the evening. Many shops and restaurants have a completely open wall to the street, so that being inside the building is still like being in a sidewalk café). The distinction between outdoor and indoor is most pleasantly blurred.

The rainy season usually starts in mid-June, and I happened to experience a passionate and sudden windstorm one night, which lasted exactly two hours. It was almost dark and the power went out, and the handsome son of the gardener, who was acting as night watchman, brought me a couple of candles. Nothing else happened – we just chatted in our broken Spanish and English, and enjoyed the fury of the storm, which ended suddenly, and then, all was perfectly quiet.

A couple of showers came up, as usual, in the evening or at night, which leaves the days mostly sunny. How convenient! One night I was in a charming little restaurant, with open eaves, located behind a small boutique. A sudden heavy rainstorm came up around the time I finished eating, and I was unable to leave. The senorita who had been my waitress insisted that I stay until the rain died down. Since the owner was a gringo (whose wife was from Oaxaca), there was American R&B playing. I ordered a hot chocolate, sang along with the Raelettes, and managed to ask the two senoritas (in Spanish!) if they would like to learn how to dance to this music. So, I showed them. We danced around together in the shop, and had a wonderful time. They were just darling, so kind and friendly. Eventually, the rain died down enough so I could walk home, the dusty cobblestone streets now washed clean and the air fresh and moist.

The people

As in small towns everywhere, people are friendlier than in big cities. Various gringos would stop and chat. The pace of life there is so easygoing, that people normally do that, instead of rushing off in their busy, busy lives. I met an excellent photographer who has been in town for 20 years, had a gallery, and was very blended into the community. I met a naturopathic doctor and his wife who were managing a nearby B&B. We spoke of health matters and the state of things in the states, agreeing on much. I made several other acquaintances whom I would love to see again when I move down there.

It was always a little adventure to relate to people in a new and foreign language, a humbling experience, but one that always gave me a little rush. I found that my zany side seemed to be well received there. Laugher seems to come easily to Mexicans.

One remarkable woman I met was Conchita, who sat out on the beach every day, weaving and selling beautiful blankets and rugs. Every day, she would have to tear down her display and haul her stuff – somewhere – wherever she stayed. Obviously poor and shabby, she was walking up the sloping street from the beach one evening, pulling a huge load of her stuff in old plastic garbage bags on some sort of furniture dolly. I couldn’t believe she was doing this alone, so I got behind her and helped push. Finally, we got to her destination, where she paused and we tried to talk. Two young local men came along and joined us. One of them knew a little English, and I asked him why no one helped her. They chatted in Spanish, and he told me he couldn’t understand her very well because of her accent. She told him of her tragic story, how she had no children (anymore?) and her son had been killed in a car accident. The thing that amazed me was that she could still laugh and smile, and that she conveyed a true sense of inner peace. I told the young man to tell her I thought she was a saint.

My photographer friend knew her and filled me in on her story. She was from Oaxaca, and had been driven off her ancestral land, and sat on the street corner and cried every day for six months after her son was killed. She showed up in a postcard that I bought, her picture was in a local magazine in an article by a therapist, and a painting of her was in a book given to me by my photographer friend. Sometimes it feels like a real blessing to meet someone. Later that evening, while walking around, the two young men passed me on the other side of the street, saying hola like friends. I kept having these delightful chance encounters there – one of the big reasons why I want to return. On the the slightly scrubby lakeshore one Sunday, I saw kids playing in the water and mama rocking her husband in a hammock, smiling sweetly at him…such a peaceful scene.

The children

Mexicans have a very strong love of family, and it shows in the happy and exuberant children I would see playing in the streets in the evening. Many of them looked almost too thin, but their energy at play seemed to indicate that they were indeed healthy. I saw a number of young girls who looked like budding high-fashion models, with their slender, elongated limbs and high cheekbones. Kids would be playing soccer on the cobblestones with great gusto, girls as well as boys, but not the two together. Since the cobblestone streets were being repaired, there were piles of dirt here and there around town. I came across a group of young girls playing Queen of the Mountain, running up and down the pile of dirt with delightful and giddy, giggly abandon. I saw young teenage mamas nursing their babies. I saw teenagers out with their grandmas. Two young girls were expertly riding horses on the beach with their father.

The day after the big windstorm, there was debris to be cleaned up. In the street, I saw a young girl with her little brother who was proudly pushing a full size wheelbarrow, probably on their way to help clean up. Kids do work there, especially when poor. But the little boy had a great big smile on his face. Hey, it’s fun to help the grownups do something useful! Had I had my camera handy, I’m sure the kids would have been mystified as to why I would photograph such a simple, but delightful moment.

The Upshot

My retirement can’t come a day too soon! I find myself yearning to be in the land of the real Counter Culture to the U.S. It’s only recently dawned on me what a strong link there was between Mexican culture and the 60’s psychedelic scene in San Francisco. Various hipsters were hanging out in Mexico and bringing back elements of the culture – the colorful beads, the embroidered clothes, the relaxed attitude, enjoyment of music, dance, festivities, some mind-expanding native plants. Now I realize why people started painting the Victorian houses in bright multi-colors. Obviously, someone had been to Mexico, and wanted to put a little color into our neutral-toned cityscape. What a concept! Things don’t have to be drab! Colors live!

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