Amongst the Volcanos (Patzcuaro)

As in most points of view there are several, depending of where the viewer stands. It can be a wide panoramic view or a revealing close up, the bird’s eye or the dark underbelly view. Also there are usually two sides to an issue, two sides of the same coin. In order to do my Mexico impressions justice I need to break them up, into at least two categories: the touristy one, which is for the most part a surface experience, visual and sensual, maybe spiritual, set apart from the culture I drop into, like looking into a house through a window. The second part is more visceral, like being in the house, invited into the peoples lives, listening, watching, participating and seeing their culture through their eyes rather than mine. It’s a more immersed point of view, which has to take into account some unpleasant realities like politics, poverty, inequalities and other limitations.

Parzcuaro is the popular Pueblo Magico, nestled along the shallow lake by the same name amidst the volcanoes in the heart of Michoacan, located on the Tierra Alta Plateau at 2300m in central Mexico. The present town dates back to the 16th century and features the second largest colonial plaza in Mexico. It’s long been a favourite destination of mine, ever since 1984, when I first drove into the town. (in a 1962 Ford Galaxy 2-door hardtop, pulling a tent trailer with both kids (4+5) on a piece of plywood with some blankets and toys in the back seat). Patzcuaro has changed little in the past few centuries, let alone in the past 30 years. More taxis, collectivos (mini vans) and cars clog the cobble stoned streets, and today cappuccinos, pizzas and Internet are available everywhere.

In the Centro Historico, the colonial street-walls are painted a reddish brown for the bottom four feet and white washed up to the beamed and tiled roofs with all commercial lettering in the same classic newsprint font. The streets all converge around the larger Don Vasco de Quiroga Plaza and the smaller Gertrudis Bocanegra Plaza. Both these central parks are surrounded by ancient ash trees and 500 year old palaces, converted and restored to their authentic original splendour, furnished by local artisans and operated as hotels and restaurants. Our morning walks take us up to the Cathedral and down to the Plaza Gertrudis, then through the market, and back around the main square, Plaza Quiroga, where we usually stop at El Surtidoro’s under the covered arches for a cappuccino or freshly squeezed juice, taking in the morning sunshine. Sometimes I treat myself to a cinnamon churro, a delicious sugar and corn concoction. I buy it from Chico, a regular street vendor, who is all of five feet tall and always laughing, showing off his silver capped teeth.

The panoramic canvass of a ring of volcanoes surrounding the jade coloured lake with the island of Janitzio in its centre is breathtaking, especially from the top of the Estribo Grande, a volcano a few km west of town. Janitzio is a touristy island with steep cobbled steps leading past dozens of souvenir shops to the top where the 80’ high and hollow statue of General Morelos thrusts his granite fist into the ethereal blue sky. You can walk up the circular stairs inside the soviet style statue, past the dozens of murals of Morelos’ life, up into the fist from which you can look out over the lake and the new 1.2km long zip-line. For about $ 20 you can zip across part of the lake to the smaller island of Tacuero from where they bring you back by boat.

We hired a rattle trap taxi for the rough cobble stoned ride up to the Estribo Grande and almost died because of the defect muffler, the heat and the permanently shut back windows. After we scrambled from the cab, hacking and heaving and regained our equilibrium we climbed the 400 hand hewn stone steps to the top of the crater. Now, that is a workout, but worth every breath and step. We truly felt like we were on top of the world. And I could have sworn I saw Arbutus trees growing on the side of the road on the way down. No, it wasn’t the tequila or the altitude.

Patzcuaro, as all of Mexico, comes alive during Semana Santa, the week before Easter. Buildings and streets get decorated with purple bunting and palm fronds, street markets spring up around the two main plazas and shrines appear in nooks and crannies, in every hotel lobby and many stores. Dolores, a variation of Mary, takes the spotlight, revered for her seven major pains, at other times she appears in the guise of the Virgin of Guadeloupe but she is always vested and garishly dressed, her eyes piously downcast. Religious parades with pagan overtones fill the streets every evening from Thursday right through the Easter weekend. Icons of every size, dozens of wooden Cristos on crosses, held aloft by colourful robed and attired parishioners, or gilded coffins with glass lids offering the view of a saint or a bust file by hundreds of spectators lining the streets. An unending procession of medieval, religious pageantry. The best display happens on Saturday night. The ‘Walk of Silence’ features a couple of hundred purple and grey hooded, silent and barefoot marchers, in a display of repentance and atonement. I looked at some of their feet and they didn’t look like they were used to walking the rough cobbled streets without shoes. Rumour had it that many of these hooded marchers were narcos and politicians doing penance for the past year of evil deeds or maybe they were paying it forward.

Music was everywhere: In the Plaza Grande, on a makeshift stage, various regional bands played traditional music as well as dancers, jazz musicians and even opera singers, all paid for by the ministry of culture, entertaining loud and late into the night. Many restaurants also featured talented and unique musicians. We were lucky to listen to Joaquin Pentojo, one of Mexico’s best troubadours and guitar virtuosos engaging the crowd in the main plaza. A musical and cultural treat, free and in a grandiose setting, amidst the beautiful surroundings of the Plaza de Quiroga.

No visit to the heart of Michoacan is complete without a trip to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in El Rosario in the trans-volcanic Sierra Madres in Central Mexico. The10 acre patch of pine forest at 3300m is where the Monarch Butterflies migrate to all the way from Point Peele in Ontario. Dr. Fred Urquhardt and his team from the UofT discovered the final destination of the Monarchs in 1975, after searching for them for over 40 years. The way and the fact that he found them at all, has been well documented in National Geographic, movies and documentaries. We gazed in wonder at the thousands upon thousands of orange butterflies filling the air against the pale blue sky and gathering in large clumps like beehives, hanging in the pine trees. It’s an awe inspiring sight, mysterious and mystical, much like the salmon returning to their spawning grounds. “I hope the Monarchs do not bump into the Trump wall on their migration north,” Nacho, our driver, said with a twinkle in his eye.

*   *    *

“Politically, Patzcuaro is a quagmire”, Arturo, my Spanish teacher said, “as is most of Mexico. Mayoralties and political offices are passed around the same powerful families for generations. Yes, we vote but the establishment candidates are usually pre-ordained and perpetuate a corrupt, self-serving culture of entitlement. Once in a while they impale themselves on their own swords as did the former Mayor of Patzcuaro, Salma Cernvates, who got caught on video with Tony, the crime boss of the Nights Templar syndicate. She was removed from office and jailed in a federal prison in Morelia. On the other hand, 82 mayors, retired, and mayors-elect have been assassinated in Mexico since 2006 for their opposition to corruption and the cartels.” This I learned in one of my Spanish lessons with Arturo, a forty year old cool cat, locally born and raised, who never took of his backward baseball cap with sunglasses perched on top or his leather jacket, despite the balmy temperature.

My Spanish lessons at CELEP consisted for the most part of conversation. I babble on in my infant Spanish and Arturo corrected me. Sometimes when it was obvious that I didn’t understand, he scribbled a conjugation or a word on the blackboard. For one of my two hour long classes he took me for a tour of a subdivision, “strictly for foreigners or rich Mexicans,” a few minutes outside the town, up a hill. We passed a decorative gate, and entered a large subdivision laid out in cobbled streets with names like Galaxya, Luna and Sol. The several hundred, overgrown view lots, 10m by 25m, are all serviced, with street lamps, half of them still working. There are about 50 houses built, some odd wooden A-frames, but most are box like concrete and cinder block cubes. None have windows on the sides because a neighbour could build an adjacent house or even share a wall. The views are spectacular. Most lots look down on the town with the cathedral in its center, and in the distance the clay coloured lake; on the other side of town the Estribo Grande and more misty volcanoes in the distance.

“For about Can$ 70’000 you can own a brand new house here, ca. 100m2 including the lot,” Arturo pointed out. “Why isn’t there any advertising for this subdivision, no web page, no agents?” I asked. “It could be you Arturo. No investment, just a sign on the side of your car with your phone number. Think about 5% for every sale.”

Arturo just laughed and slowly shook his head. “You forget one thing amigo.”

“What’s that?”

“The cartels. If I make money, the cartel comes and wants in on it. If anybody makes a successful business, the cartel demands mordida, for protection. Best to keep a low profile, not draw attention. You stick your head above the crowd, they come and chop it off.”

“That’s terrible Arturo. That stifles any kind of entrepreneurship, since any kind of success is immediately curtailed.”

“Yes, you have three choices: Either join them, pay them or stay at the bottom so there is nothing to take. That’s why I’m a bartender at night and a language teacher in the day. I have a family to protect and cannot risk poking my head above the crowd.”

We drove back to the school in silence. This explained, in part at least, why everybody has a hand out for propina (tips) or mordida (bribes). No wonder the majority of the people are so poor. They don’t have a chance being squeezed by a corrupt government on one side and the ruthless cartels on the other.

“You want to see my father’s house?” Arturo asked, “that’s where we live: my wife and eleven year old daughter, my mom, dad, father in law, niece and aunt.”

The front of the house is nondescript, along the main road close to the historic center of Patzcuaro, next to the funeral parlour. We entered through a metal door into a low foyer that doubles as a small candy store. “My mom’s tiendretta,” he said. Next he led me through a maze of levels and rooms, up and down stairs, in and out of open and closed spaces. Everything was either concrete or cinderblock, some painted, some bare, some floors tiled, some not. I realized now that the two adjacent buildings are built on a steep descending bank towards a putrid memory of a creek, connected by a set of open stairs without railings. We came to a landing and a further few steps on we entered Arturo’s house. “You have to walk through your dad’s house to get here?” I asked. He nodded affirmatively.

“Here is where my room is.” An open space with a concrete ceiling and two walls filled with motorcycle posters, a rough wooden bar with a collection of booze bottles and a couple of bar chairs. “You want a drink?” he offered.    “No thanks, it’s too early.”

Next, we entered another kitchen with a large table and chairs. “My kitchen,” Arturo proclaimrd proudly. I’m the cook in the family.” Through the kitchen, up three steps into a hallway with curtained steel framed glass doors on either side. “My wife’s room, and sometimes mine,” he laughed, “my father in law stays in this other room.” Then we’re at the back of the house where his daughter has two adjoining rooms, with actual windows looking out at the sad little filthy creek and some rough grasslands beyond.

“This is a labyrinth,” I said and he proudly nodded. “And your daughter has to go through all these rooms, kitchens, hallways and up all these stairs to get out?” Again, he nodded. “Isn’t it great,” he grinned. I could do nothing else but agree. “Fantastic,” I said.

On the other hand there are some incredible villas behind the generic exteriors and doors of the colonial town, many of them owned by extranjeros, foreigners, mostly Americans or Canadians. Some have been here for many years. Intricate, tiled courtyards adorned with large pots full of exotic plants, avocado, figs, lime and orange trees, birds of paradise, bougainvillea cascading over high stone walls, with clay tile covered terraces, large modern kitchens and spacious rooms with fire places and en-suites, furnished with leather and carved wooden tables and beds, hand woven rugs and local paintings, all within secure walls, wrought iron gates and heavy wooden doors.

We also met many professionals, the spine of Mexico, teachers like Franzisco who is proud of his town and country, doing his very best to impart his knowledge of history and language to many people; there are nurses and doctors who uphold Mexico’s healthcare system, teachers, architects, artists and innovators, modern and optimistic man and women who give hope to a better future in spite and despite of all their political and economic obstacles.

Mexico is, if nothing else, a country of contradictions. The rich are filthy rich, the poor dirt poor; the indigenous people like the Purèchepas are left behind by modernity, ignored by the authorities and marginalized by the other Mexicans. They pay homage and lip service to Mayan and native peoples, proudly display their history and artefacts but do not support the people and their culture or language. Everyday we are inundated with weathered and barefoot Indios, their scrubby kids in tow, selling their marginal wares, mostly weavings, straw or stitched cloths, some candy or sweets or mysterious medicinal concoctions.

We love shopping in the street market maze, dodging shoppers, porters and vendors amongst mountains of fresh vegetables, bins full of fresh fruit and buckets of white fish, sides of beef, goat, chicken and pork and all parts thereof. Everything is for sale here: kitchen utensils, electronics, dvd’s, cothes, shoes, straw hats, firewood, baskets and everything woven, carved, formed, shaped and stitched.

To give you an idea of the cost of items here is what we bought today: 8 juicy oranges P$ 10, a litre container of fresh strawberries P$ 5, a kilo of tomatoes P$ 10, 2 corn fed chicken breasts P$ 35, 1 liter of milk P$ 13 to a total of: P$ 73. (1 Can$ = 15 Pesos and 1 litre of petrol is $P 18).

For dinner we enjoyed a large wood fired pizza, a large mixed salad and a bottle of imported wine at Casa Naranja, an upscale restaurant right on the plaza. The bill came in at around P$ 500 or Can$ 30. The average hourly wage in Mexico (home of the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim) is ca. P$ 35 while the daily minimum wage set by the government is P$ 70, which is not enforced.

Yes, many common Mexicans seem disheartened with their government and their lot in life, resigned to their fate and looking to the church and their patron saints for solace and peace. Many young men and women who don’t accept their marginalized existence and uncertain future, resort to protests or try to flee north despite the present threat of a hostile US administration. Trump’s rhetoric about sending millions of undocumented Mexicans back, even though they have grown up and gone to school in LA or Phoenix is only stirring the pot with a witches brew of fear, hatred and prejudice. A lot of people here are very worried since one of rural Mexico’s main economic pillars is the US$ those expats send home.

Why do I return to this part of Mexico even if it’s politically and economically much more stressed than, say ten years ago? I can disregard the crumbling sidewalks, the sketchy infrastructure, the rough roads, the barking dogs at night, the road side garbage and plastic drift and still be drawn to this town. Despite it all, I love it here: the smells, the climate, the music, the history, the people, the beer, the affordable prices and did I mention the weather? Balmy and sunny every day with cooler, lovely evenings, like an endless summer.

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