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Living in the United States, there are many things we take for granted. Things like a refrigerator and stove in the kitchen, electricity at the flip of a switch, garbage collection on the same day every week, hot water flowing from the tap, or even running water itself. Those things may be common in a country like ours but in most of the world they are not.
Here in Mexico, life is a little more like camping, even inside the house. Most places do not have hot water. If you need hot water for something, you heat it on the stove or grab a bucket and put an electric heating element in it until the water reaches the desired temperature. Then you take the bucket into the shower, and using a smaller container, mix it with cold water, slosh it over yourself, suds up, and slosh some more to rinse. (It is really pretty efficient — you can wash your hair, body, and underwear all in one fell swoop with one bucket.)
Of course, you could take an ice cold shower if you prefer; many people do.
You may have a refrigerator or you may not; if not, you go to the market more often and make foods that do not require refrigeration of leftovers (one reason I think salsa is a staple here.) You may have a stove with an oven even, or you may have the equivalent of a camping stove – 2 burners that run on propane. You buy drinking water in 5 gallon jugs at the local shop around the corner or from delivery trucks. Wash water is a hit or miss affair, however; it comes from the government, neighborhood by neighborhood on some schedule that only they know. To make sure they do not run out (at least hopefully) every house has a tank or two on the roof, so when “the water is falling” they can capture as much as possible to use until the next time their neighborhood is blessed. Many people also install a cistern in their house to store even more water. (I am not sure if, in true cistern fashion, they collect rainwater as well or if this is just an extra collection vat.) Trash collection is dependent upon when the truck goes by, and if you miss it….
Everything here is delivered or hauled away by trucks, bicycle, or pushcart, and each has its own sound so the residents know who/what is coming down the street. It is quite a concert, though admittedly not particularly melodious. Water is announced with a loud, “Agua. Aqua.” The trash collector drives through the neighborhood ringing its bell and shouting “Basura!”on a recorded message over and over until it drives you crazy (but hey, you are not likely to miss them.) When you hear the bell, you take your trash out to the truck (or mule cart in some places) in whatever container you happen to have, and for 5 pesos (about 50 cents) they dump it in their truck and take it away somewhere. (A good deal considering that toilet paper cannot be flushed and there is a lot of human waste in those containers.) Propane is always delivered by truck (reasonable since even an empty tank is heavy). Crews drive around and around each block, filling the air with the scent of propane while honking the horn in 20-30 second increments, followed by the guy in back with the gas tanks yelling, “GAS!” If no takers, they continue up and down each street, repeating the honking/yelling routine, until they find buyers and the truck is empty. If someone hollers out that they want gas, the truck stops right in the middle of the street and traffic does not move until the full tank is off the truck, rolled into the receiving location, and the old tank rolled out and reloaded on the truck; impatient cars and combi drivers usually honking a not so subtle brass (horn) concert the whole while.
Close your eyes and imagine your morning wake up call — “Aqua! Aqua!,” “Clang! Clang! Clang! Basura!” “Honk! Honk! Honk! Gas!” along with the usual cars chugging, dogs barking, and people shouting. Quite a sound-acle, hey!
Now Irma is a classy lady, she has lived here for 50+ years and has all the vendors trained to come to her; water is delivered on Tuesday, trash is taken away on Thursday, and gas comes when she calls. All her needs are cared for like clockwork, well almost. Though she has a cistern and a tank for water on her roof, even she is at the mercy of the city as to when the “water falls.” She lives in an area of more well-to-do residents, tourist shops, and hotels, where water for those tourists should be available but whether due to the holidays, the extra vacationers in town, or some other reason, water “hasn’t fallen in a month” and we are running out.
This being a large, four story house, my “penthouse in the sky” runs on a different water source (the tank) than the rest of the house (the cistern.) The result is that Irma may have water in the kitchen but upstairs, where I stay, there may be none.. And that is exactly what happened on Christmas — the tank ran low so I did not have enough water to run the water heater (another rarity for Mexican households). “No problema,” I think, I can take a bucket shower using the cistern water, but no, the cistern is too low to provide water to the upstairs also. So for 5 days now I have been going down to the ground floor, heating a pot of water to near boiling and carrying it up three flights of stairs (the last one, a wrought iron spiral staircase is the tricky one) in order to have hot water (or any water at all) to wash with.
This morning I awoke to the sound of water falling — and what a glorious sound that is. Ah, the little things we take for granted.
The Zocolo is the center of activity in most Mexican towns and Taxco is no different. There is usually a landscaped, park in the center, with flowers, trees, shrubbery, benches to sit upon, and a “kiosk” (bandstand) for musical and other presentations on special occasions. There is a casual, relaxed fiesta atmosphere about the place — vendors sell popcorn and candy, blow up toys and Mylar balloons; there are artisans selling watercolors, indigenous peoples selling sombreros (hats), colorful baskets, painted leather or pottery, embroidered clothing, and the ever present street urchins with their packs of Chicklets. Of course, a Zocolo would not be complete without a shoeshine chair on every corner. They do a brisk business, too. Mexicans love shiny shoes.
You might find many of these things or their equivalent in almost any larger American city. Madison, Chicago, Austin, Boston, Manhatten, Brooklyn, all seem to have their version, whether in the city center or a central park of some sort. However, only in Mexico will you find a true Mariachi band.
You can tell the Mariachi (the most distinguished of street musicians) from the rest of the bands by their black suits, red ties, and shiny silver buttons and chains adorning their jackets and pant legs. There are usually about 7 in the group — several violins, a viola, a couple guitars (one a bass), and a trumpet or two. They tend to gather at the Zocolo on weekends and in the early evening when people are strolling about, warming up, practicing riffs of new songs, and generally waiting for some lucky woman to come along whose escort treats her to a performance. After the negotiations over price, the band gets off their park bench, and with great aplomb seats the couple and gathers around to serenade her. One song turns into another and then another — like true musicians everywhere, they love to practice their craft.
I recorded video of one song, however I cannot seem to upload it to Youtube in a timely manner so you will have to be satisfied with pictures for now. If I do not figure it out and post it later, when you see me, ask to see the video. It is truly a treat.
I spend most of my time in the central city, though I go up to the zocolo, at times quite steeply, and down to Las Jales where Vanessa lives, another long climb back up. But since this city is built on several mountains, at times I go up, up, up, and then up some more. Such was the case, today, when I accompanied Irma to visit Rosie and her daughters Denise and Rubi in Casahuates in the “nose-bleed” section of town, high above almost everything except the “Christo” (Christ) statue at the very tippy-top.
To get there we take a combi, a micro van fitted out as a taxi. Imagine a passenger van with all the seats removed and replaced by narrow benches, one on each side (behind the driver facing backwards, along the back, and lining both sides).
They seat 12-16 comfortably (depending on the size of the people) but have hand rails attached to the ceiling for extra passengers to stand in the middle (if short enough to do so) raising the capacity to 20 or more (however many can or want to squeeze in.) Got the picture? Sort of a sardine can on wheels.
Now combi drivers are a wild lot, somewhat akin to kamikaze pilots but with their wheels on the ground (well, most of the time anyway.) You know this because the ceiling above the driver is filled with icons of Mary and other saints, presumably providing protection from anything bad happening. I think they get paid by the trip because they seem to fly through town, weaving and dodging, stopping just long enough to let passengers on or off, and off they go again, making change on the fly. Perhaps they even wish they had the wings of their kamikaze brethren so they could skip the traffic all together.
Combi rides through town are exciting enough but when they start uphill it gets even more exhilarating — twisting and turning along narrow cobblestone roads designed for donkey carts not cars, weaving around people, stray dogs, front steps, taxis, and other combis with mere inches to spare. There are houses built to the edge of the road on one side and a concrete wall on the other designed to keep you from falling off the edge of the mountain. Though the paint scrapes all along the length of it did not inspire much confidence in me, I have to admit the wall IS still there, and where it isn’t, the view is spectacular, though a loooooooong way down. I digress though —
The truly exciting part is the ride down; it is as exhilarating as any roller coaster at Great America only remove the seat belts! It had me holding on for dear life as every twist, turn, or bump in the road meant sliding off the plastic covered seat, flying out into midair, and desperately scrambling to grab whatever was within reach (which was not, for some reason, the handrails) to keep from landing on the floor. I would, hand over hand, inch myself back to my seat only to fly around the next curve or over the next bump and repeat the process all over again. I guess there was a reason that everyone on the combi had already claimed the undesirable seats (behind the driver where you ride backwards or in the back where you jamb your knees against the wheel well.) Wheeeeeeeeee!!!!
I think it is true, what Vanessa says, that “Mexicans must have special glue on their butts.” How else do you explain how they sit there nonchalantly as I fly?
The government has designated it a heritage site. I’m not sure if that is the official name or not, but the result is that all the houses and business have to maintain that colonial appearance – circa 15-1600s. There are no neon or other lighted signs, only black lettering on the whitewashed walls allowed, even at McDonald’s (though they managed to put golden arches graphics on the inside of the windows, how very out of place they look in this snapshot out of time.)
Built on and surrounded by several mountains, where they mine silver, cobblestone roads zig, zag, and wind steeply up and down the mountainside. Streets are narrow, the equivalent of an alleyway in the US, and accommodate moving cars, trucks, mini-van buses, people walking, steps into houses and shops, and sometimes parked cars as well — all at angles that would give you vertigo. It is an adventure to say the least to walk up or down the street trying to avoid rocks and potholes and have a delivery truck come along, causing you to brush along the wall of the houses with mere inches to spare, or a taxi swing far to your side of the street in order to make a tight (280 degree) turn, then jam it into low gear and growl its way up the hill. When you see them do this, or you are riding in a combi (a shared ride van) shuddering up a steep hill, you wonder how it is possible. It is even more interesting watching the taxi dances, when one is coming down the hill and another wishes to go up — somehow they all manage though.
As with most of Mexico, the cars spew fumes. Thankfully my accommodations are on the 4th floor, above it all; I usually go out early, retreat to my room mid-day for siesta or work, and go out again in the early evening when the traffic dies down, or I just sit on my patio and enjoy the quiet, the breeze, and the beautiful view. I have a fabulous room in a private home with a private bath, hot and cold running water ( luxury in these parts), a balcony overlooking the alley on one side, a patio on the other side overlooking the valley between three mountains, and a big king sized bed in between (must have been a sight watching them get that bed in here; had to have been lifted in from the alley below through the balcony door, since the steps to this level are a wrought iron circular stair that I have enough trouble negotiating with a little something in my hands.) There is even an automatic washing machine for my clothes though I use the cistern water to run it, so I won’t run out of clean water for my bath.) It is as good or better than a room in a luxury hotel especially since meals are included. And the bonus — every morning I awaken to a view of the sunrise over the mountains from my bed. Bueno!!!
My hostess, Irma, a sprightly and beautiful (inside and out) 70-year-old Mexican woman (a sister, who looks 50) does not speak much English and my Spanish, though better (I know many more words but have difficulty putting them together) is still woefully adequate for conversation. I muddle my way through with a little help from my offline English/Spanish dictionary and translation program (Jibbigo) on my phone. It is not perfect, sometimes the word for word translation makes no sense, but I try another word or phrase and eventually we get close enough. Irma thinks my “talking phone” is a little brusque; she calls it the Sergeant because it barks orders. Yet if I do not have my phone on me, she sends me off to get it.
The weather here is beautiful — warm sunny days and cool nights. I (as most people, there is no where to park a car) walk everywhere unless we have far to go, then we take an autobus/combi, a large van fitted out with extra seats as a taxi that whisk around from place to place on a specific circuit. If the seats wrap around the outside of the vehicle (most do) and they are covered in plastic, it can be a wild ride if you are sitting sideways. I love to walk the winding streets to the Zocolo (central square of most Mexican towns) of Taxco where the locals come to gather in the evening and shop the local fresh market, where you can get just about everything if you look hard enough, and probably get lost doing so. It always amazes me what the local commercial market, sort of a mini-super Walmart grocery selling everything from soup to nuts literally (and I do not mean the kind you eat), even tires, plaster and pots and pans, and what it doesn’t. Certain things are only sold in specialty stores.
If you come here, you need to ride the teleferio (cable cars) to the fancy Hotel Montetaxco (resort and country club) on the mountain overlooking the city where you will find spectacular views of the city and countryside. The ride up and down is pretty exciting too. Don’t come between Dec 12 and Jan 6 though or you may find “no room at the inn” as it is filled with “vacaciones.”
The holidays in Mexico are an interesting mix of indigenous, colonial, and modern somewhat international customs and traditions. I am told that the evening of December 24 is more important than the 25th here and that certainly seems to be the case.
Between December 12 (the Festival of Guadalupe, the Mexican virgin) and December 24, people are busy visiting neighbors delivering gifts of flowers and food, enacting las posadas, and feasting with family. There are solemn candlelight processions, raucous parades, wandering bands, pealing church bells, airworks (fireworks with just the boom), and, of course, children battering pinatas until treats shower down upon them.
Being a stranger to these traditions, I watch with curiosity.
I was puzzled by a group of people that gathered before the “la purisima virgen” (the purest virgin) shrine one night. Usually people gather before the shrines to pray to the virgin or ask blessings, but this group set up a TV for video and blasted American style country western music while a mass of human bodies, jumped , writhed, and shouted to the beat and the direction of a microphoned emcee. I wondered if the shrine was just a good landmark at which to meet because any religious significance escaped me.
Though there are signs of North American Christmas traditions, colored lights, Christmas carols (en espanol of course), and even decorated trees mostly in more well-to-do houses, the pinata is the traditional Mexican decoration and hangs everywhere.
They are very different from the cartoon character type pinatas sold in the States. These have seven pointed cones that, in the Mexican Catholic tradition represent man’s struggle against the seven deadly sins; the beating with the stick represents the struggle against temptation and evil, and when it breaks the rewards of keeping the faith. As with many traditions, this one had its roots in the Mayan celebration of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, which was celebrated in mid-December, and was adapted into the Catholic traditions in this area by Augustinian monks in the late 1500s.
Several nights, a group of children gathered in the alley behind my house to sing, shout, and take a whack at a pinata dangled above them by one of their parents. Their faith kept for another year.
Poinsettias are also prevalent. The Aztecs called them “Cuetlaxochitl;” the sap was used to control fevers (Mexican willow bark?) and the bracts were used to make a reddish dye. The first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, is credited with introducing the plant to America and since “Cuetlaxochitl” was so hard to say, as it became a popular Christmas decoration, the name was changed to honor him. Thousands of potted poinsettias, creating one giant poinsettia blossom, fills much of the street at the zocolo (the park/plaza at the center of town.) Though beautiful to look at, it hampers traffic (both foot and vehicle) even more than usual. With thousands of “vacaciones” in town, that is not necessarily a good thing; the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets are often filled, but the past couple weeks, the mob of bodies and cars often brings all movement to a standstill. Just the normal act of going to the market is nearly impossible due to the crowded conditions.
The zocolo is also the center of culture and entertainment. It is where everything important happens and where everyone gathers — to sit and feed the birds, play chess, see and greet friends, and watch the mariachi band serenade a special girl or teenagers posturing and giggling. This is also the center of entertainment both formal and informal — political presentations, musical performances, dancing troupes, and other activities.
Saturday afternoon, the local Rotary Club sponsored a fund-raising campaign that may or may not have been related to a pile of blankets, the Red Cross, and a shiny new car. There was a dance contest, some local kids performing traditional dances, minstrels, masked harlequins on 6 foot stilts, balloons, racing cars with nowhere to go so they just revved their engines, and more. I really felt for the clown, on stage in the direct and very hot sun, keeping up non-stop banter and dancing the gorilla song (whoot, whoot, whoot, whoot) with contestants, while readjusting his red nose every 30 seconds to keep it from sliding off. His partner was doing much better; she painted her red nose on.
As promised on December 12th, all the celebration came to a head last night, with many parties, much music, singing, and laughter floating through the air. There was also much shouting (pinatas?), cherry bombs, airworks, agitated dogs barking, church bells ringing, and generally noisy festivities into the wee hours of the morning. Today all is quiet. At least until Three Kings Day on January 6th.
Barely in Taxco a day and a half, and I boarded another bus, with my friend Vanessa, for Chilpancingo to visit mutual friends from a couple years ago (when I visited her there). It is a long and winding road through the mountains to a lower altitude and about 10 degrees or more increase in temperature. (Mas caliente!!! Or calor, if you are talking about the weather.) Along the way, there was evidence of the severe flood damage this area received from the torrential rains associated with the hurricane that hit Acapulco this fall. Actually Chilpo and the surrounding area suffered more damage than Acapulco (sort of like the Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire that destroyed more property and lives on the same night as the Chicago fire — the big sister got all the attention and sympathy.)
The highway showed evidence of having been washed out by the raging river as we traveled over smooth new asphalt in many areas, with a sharp drop on the edge to the river bed below. There were topless trees that once marked the river’s edge that now stood mid-stream looking like a line of 4-foot fence posts waiting to be strung with barbed wire. The opposing bank showed a water line 20 or more feet above the river bed and parts of the mountains had washed away giving them the appearance of a very large, somewhat haphazardly designed ski hill. Our friends told us that at least one friend had died in the flood and a whole town was washed away.
Chilpancingo itself appears to be returning to normal, though the concrete basin that channels the river through the center of town is broken and rubble strewn. Maintenance crews are still working to repair the hardest hit area which washed away the road and several houses and businesses in the main business district.
As devastating as the flood was, and as quickly as the Mexican authorities responded to help the people affected, our brothers came to the rescue of those in need and within a few weeks, all the friends who were displaced were back “home” either in their own repaired property or relocated, with the necessities to start anew. It was a heart-warming and faith strengthening experience for all. Now people just need to get over the shock of what happened and refocus their lives with some routine.
It was so good to see old friends again, many smiles and hugs all around. They asked when I would be back and begged me to stay and help there; believe me it is tempting (hearing the meeting in my own language instead of totally incomprehensible espanol was sooooo nice) but the location of the city, in a bowl surrounded by mountains, makes the air quality level way too poor for me. (As soon as we turned the bend and Chilpo was in sight I could see the haze settled over the city.) We stayed with a sister a little outside town which was much better than the city itself, but 5 days in the smog of the city was enough.
So for this year I guess it is learn Spanish or bust. Though Vanessa, who has lived in Mexico for more than 5 years now and is fluent in Spanish, says it was hard for even her to understand the meeting, so bust it may be. I will continue my search for an affordable location with an English congregation.
I have been given contacts in Cuernavaca, San Miguel de Allende, and Huatulco. One is likely too hot (described as like Gehenna in the mid-day), one is likely to big (700,000), San Miguel may be too Americanized — but all worthy of a visit at least.
Like Goldilocks, I am sure I will find my just right.
I never quite understood the idea of the 12 days of Christmas until I came to Mexico this year. It seems that the biggest day of the whole Feliz Navidad (Happy Nativity, aka Christmas) season is December 12, when Mexican Catholics commemorate a feast day for Guadalupe (the Mexican virgin and mother of Jesus). They go on to celebrate the season day by day until its culmination on December 24.
Little did I know when I made my travel plans from Mexico City to Taxco that travel would be hampered by roads clogged with shrines on the back of pickup trucks followed by ardent believers called pilgrims on foot and bicycle slowly making their way to the main Cathedral of Guadalupe in downtown Mexico City, and in smaller numbers to other towns with churches dedicated to her, like Taxco. (Sorry I don’t have pictures.) So what are usually 4 lane highways clogged with traffic racing to and from town become one lane slowed to the pace of a burro (walker or bike rider) trying to get out of that lane and into the one next to it so they can race on by the “obstruction” only to get caught up in a similar situation a few miles further along. Not only are the roads clogged with the faithful but school is out for a month and everyone is trying to get “home for the holidays.”
The trip to Taxco which usually takes 2.5 hours, took over 3. But, I arrived safe and sound to Irma’s house where my room and a joyous reunion with her and her grandchildren and later on my English speaking friends commenced. Sleep was a bit disturbed due to the revelers, the bands, and the “airworks” (fireworks without the fire, only the boom) into the wee hours of the morning. I was so exhausted from traveling though that after midnight when most of the noise settled down, I slept soundly.
Time to leave Mexico City. Traveling – will catch you up in a few days.