And the answer is….

The person who guessed it was a tree with the bark shaved off wins the prize. Though she is the only one who made a guess. So she wins by default – not that there is anything to win really. Other than recognition here.

The odd object pictured in Tuesday’s blog is a “mula” (a mule.) Or that is what it is supposed to be. I think it looks more like an anteater with horns.

Mula handle, on a cane, Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoMula is short for muleta. Muleta, means cane or crutch, and due to the word association, they often carve the handles into mule shapes. Thus a mula. This one is definitely a crude, folk art rendition.

So why do I have a picture of the head of a cane on my blog? Welllllllll….

Spring has come to Taxco. Mid-day it is hot (for me), in the mid-80s, and much more humid than it has been. I fell victim to the fate of most foreigners at one time or another, I got overheated. But let me tell you the rest of the story.

I was just getting over a severe chemical sensitivity reaction, caused by the bus company now adding fragrance to their air handling vents. I had been dizzy for 4 days but by Saturday night felt OK. So Sunday morning I travelled to a small town about 10 miles west of town for a meeting. Afterwards, my friend, Lili, and I were going to a welcome back party for our friend, Vanessa, about 10 miles outside Taxco in the opposite direction. Another friend asked if she could some with us and since she did not know where the gathering was would we wait for her? I said, sure, no problem but that was before I thought about the fact that she is Mexican.

Now nothing against the Mexican people. I LOVE the Mexican people. They are warm, loving, family oriented and many other good things. One thing they are not, usually, is timely. For example, if you make an appointment, it is perfectly acceptable to be 20 minutes late, or not show up at all. It is just the way it is with most people. (It is that way in Hawaii and other parts of the States too, so it is not solely a Mexican attitude.

Back to my story.

So we waited while she cleaned the bathroom. Now I am not sure how she cleaned the bathroom but since it took “forever” I suspect it might have been with a toothbrush. Finally she appeared and I thought we were ready to go. Noooooooo. She had to take a blind woman home, on a combi going in the opposite direction we were headed, so we waited some more. While we were waiting, everyone else left the meeting hall and we were left standing on the side of the road , with only the skimpiest of shade in the hottest part of a very humid day. Sweating, I finally sat down on a rock about 6 inches high, and wished for water, which I always have in my bag, but not today.

Eventually, our friend returned with the combi going in the right direction and we got on. Inside was like an oven, hotter than outside but at least when it moved there was air, hot air, rushing past. Eventually the heat and the constant back and forth, back and forth as we wove up the mountain to Taxco had me feeling queasy. I told myself we will be there soon and I can get some water at a tienda (a shop) and the queasiness will go away.

When the combi pulled up to the last stop, we were not by the bus station as I had expected and there were no tiendas in sight. Not only that but there was a taxi driver protest going on so no taxis and no combis were running in town either. We had to walk a few blocks. Dutifully I put one step in front of the other looking for water and a shady place to sit down. Another friend, on the corner said, “Hello.” I said “Hello” back and muttered, “I’m going to go sit in the shade over there.” which I am pretty sure she did not understand since she does not speak English. And without stopping, I headed for an iron gate behind which were some cool looking marble steps.

I remember reaching out for the gate but the next thing I was aware of was lying on the ground with my friends calling my name, waving my hat over my face, and slapping alcohol on my neck and chest while a police officer looked on, shouting something in Spanish. I had passed out in the street, from the sun, the heat, and a lack of water.

Someone brought a chair and answered my request for water, then more water. I was starting to feel better when the ambulance arrived. Oh no…..I have been in foreign countries before when an ambulance showed up and  it is not often a good thing.

Visions of some B-movie dark comedy — with a slow motion, spin through a hospital emergency room,  where not only do you not understand a word, but you cannot speak, and  every thing seems to be going wrong — flashed through my head. In the brief moment it took them to get out of their vehicle and be at my side, all kinds of horrors caused by communication issues and cultural differences rushed through my mind. I might as well be abducted onto an alien spaceship!

But all those thoughts were just a figment of an over active imagination. In reality, EMTs in Mexico are the same professional medical technicians as they are almost anywhere.  All they did was check my vital signs and finding everything normal, sent someone for a sports (electrolytes) drink, made me drink half of it, told me to go home take a cool shower and rest (all very reasonable.Unlike the US they are not required to transport when they are called. “Whew!”

As they packed up their gear and left  I asked if I owed them anything (hoping I had enough Mexican money in my bag.) The response, “gratis,”   no charge. Wow!!! For a foreigner (even someone from outside the city) just showing up would have cost a couple thousand dollars in the States!

I was free to go, but then we faced the question of “Now what do I do.”. The taxis and combis in town were not running; the only way I can get home and rest is to walk several miles in the hot, humid, sunshine. Not reasonable. So I decided the only sensible option was to continue on to the party! At least there would be food, water, and lots of people to watch over me. So we walked on  to the out of town combi station, a couple blocks away, no problem.

At the party, I was very aware of not exerting myself, so I sat on a chair, ate a little, drank a lot of water, along with some fruit punch, talked with a few people, and watched the festivities. A few hours later, I got up to head to the bathroom and I could barely walk. I figured that when I passed out, my legs folded underneath me and no matter how slowly I set myself down the weight of my entire body landed on my leg. Now my knee was complaining. By the time I had taken a half dozen steps, it loosened up and I got there just fine. So I went back and enjoyed the party.

As time went by, my knee got worse – it throbbed and started to swell, and I could not walk without assistance. I wanted to go home but how? I couldn’t walk up the hill to the combi stop and even if I made it that far, how would I get off and home when I arrived in Taxco. I certainly didn’t want to ruin the party for Vanessa, but of course that is exactly what happened.

The ever vigilant “mom” that she is (to everybody) found someone to take “us” home; she would not hear of not going; she wanted to make sure I was comfortably settled. But wait, someone came up and insisted I let their mother, “who does manipulations” take a look at my knee. Preferring a natural approach, I agreed. Anything to make this better sooner.

I am not sure what the credentials of this woman were, all I know is she knew her anatomy. It seemed that the muscles in my leg had gone into shock as a reaction to the fall, hours earlier, and had tensed up tightly and in the process, dislocated both my ankle and my knee. She pulled and pushed, smoothed and squeezed and eventually declared me fit to go home IF I would stay off it, and if possible, use a cane for the next couple days.

That is where the mula  comes in.

The next night, after 24 hours of hobbling back and forth to the bathroom using a collection of chairs as support, Vanessa showed up with this strange looking thing that I at first though was a sweet potato on a stick. By then, thanks to the treatment, hot saltwater compresses, and arnica, both topically and orally, the pain and swelling was mostly gone, and I could bear weight with only mild discomfort. Yet, she went out of her way to find it, and bring it to me, and reminded me that the therapist said to stay off it for 48 hours. OK, I will give it a try. But, I have no intention of taking it on the street with me. Sorry Vane. (If I really needed one, I would have.)

The following day, I declared myself able to walk. The swelling was gone, I managed the stairs to the ground floor without pain, and there is very little evidence of the original injury. My how we are marvelously made!

No one ever plans to have a medical emergency in a foreign land, however if I had to have one, I could not have been surrounded by better friends who treated me like family.

You know who you are. Muchas gracias!

 

And for those of you who might worry that I am all alone in this strange speaking land, never fear, I have papers on my person with local contacts and a durable power of attorney for health care in the local language to speak for my wishes if I cannot speak for myself. Things all foreign travelers should carry along with prescription medicines, eyeglass prescriptions, and  anything else necessary for your health and well being in a foreign country. I am well taken care of here; may you be also. For some ideas on what to pack for a stress free trip, see this article by my old friend Shelley Peterman Schwarz.

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Mexican Traditions – Dancing Kings

The civil “Flag Day” ceremonies over, the afternoon was quiet, then as the sun just started to drop behind the mountain, some merry music made its way closer to my door. I looked out just in time to see the dancing kings entourage go by.

Apparently, as they do during Navidad and Las Posadas, each church in town takes a turn hosting a special Lenten event. Tonight, the Ex-Convento took their statues of Mary and Jesus out of the church and paraded them through town, to the accompaniment of merry music and dancing kings.

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I wonder how the dancers in their heavy costumes and full face masks, and the musicians too, manage to keep this merry pace up for over a mile all the way through town. They wear me out just watching them skip and dance down the street.

As the sun began to drop behind the mountain,  the music paused at the local church where airworks and church bells filled the air. Then the music and festivities began anew culminating in some beautiful fireworks, the real thing this time, with fire.

Oooh, ahhhh!

It appears that in addition to the marching bands and celebrations on all the Fridays of Lent, I have a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth Tuesday to look forward to as well.

 

El Ocotito

I just returned from El Ocotito, where I spent 6 very laid back days with the family of mi amiga, Lilibeth.

Elizabet,Tomi,Rodrigo, Lilibeth (Omar not pictured)

Elizabet,Tomi,Rodrigo, Lilibeth (Omar not pictured)

A small town, about an hour from Acapulco via autopista (the equivelant of our Interstate highway) or longer via the carretera federale (the federal highway that goes through all the small towns between here and there), Ocotito is lower in altitude and closer to the coast, so it is hotter, more humid, and much greener than Taxco. The name comes from a kind of tree (el ocotito) which used to cover the hillsides but has pretty much been eradicated in this area now.

Ocotito is a regional town (or center) for many even smaller towns around it and thus has a bustling highway strip business area where people come to buy construction materials, car parts, American clothing, and other things they cannot make or grow themselves. (See Cerro de Indio, Indian Hill in the background?)

Street scene, El Ocotito, MexicoThere is even a bull ring in town.

Bull ring, El Ocotito, MexicoIt doesn’t look like much here, but they host some major events several times a year. In July, when they run the bulls in Pamplona, you can be assured, their are bull fights here in Ocotito.

Unlike Taxco where most houses tumble up and down the hillsides, butting up against one another with barely an inch to spare, Ocotito is a typical colonial town where many live in family compounds fenced in by brick, stone, or metal walls.

Even in the center of town, what at first appears to be a really large house, opens its gates to reveal a large courtyard area with a more modest dwelling inside.

The courtyards often contain an outdoor cooking area, a dish washing and laundry area, and out back, separate stalls for toileting and a shower. They may also have a place to park cars, scooters, and bicycles, a work area with a collection of this and that that might be useful someday, perhaps a garden, a few fruit trees, and definitely a collection of dogs, cats, free range chickens (with free range of the entire house), and even a horse or burro or two.

The house might be adjacent or totally above a portion of this area or have a living/sitting area and even an indoor kitchen eating area on the ground floor, especially if they sell something from their home (and most do.) There may also be smaller dwellings along the outside walls that house grown sons and their families — sleeping areas primarily as all other activities are communal. This communal space makes a great place for parties and gatherings, which Mexicans love. Almost anything, like a visitor coming to town, can be an excuse for a party.

Even the most humble abode has at least a porch, perhaps enclosed by a chain link fence, where the family gathers most nights and on weekends. Other compounds, as judged by the ancient adobe walls of their dwellings, have been a rural compound for centuries and remain that way, as the town grew around them.

Old adobe house compound, Ocotito, MexicoHouses are designed for practical use. Sleeping rooms are just for sleeping; there is a bed, a dresser of some kind for folded clothing and a bar in the corner for hanging clothing. A single electric outlet and light bulb in the middle of the ceiling, do not encourage lingering but rather gathering with family in communal areas. (Maybe that is part of why Mexican families are so close.)

Colorful curtains serve as doors or simply a division between children and parents or cooking and sleeping areas. There is no hiding out behind closed doors. Privacy is achieved by asking permission to enter someone’s sleeping/dressing area.

A canvas shelter, broad porch, or the house upstairs provide shelter from the sun and rain, and a place to gather and catch the breeze. Though nights are cool, afternoons get quite hot and indoors, without cross ventilation, can be suffocating. Thus the ever present hammock hanging between the trees.

The people live simply, doing most everything by hand — cooking, cleaning, washing; using resources that are available — tree branches hold up lines of clothes drying in the sun, discarded vinyl posters shade laundry areas, recycled metal roofing covers the cooking area, an old, cracked bathtub catches water for the plants. Akin to America during my grampa’s time (the Depression) — nothing goes to waste.

The yard, outside any garden or fruit tree area is usually bare ground. Instead of mowing the lawn each week, daily they water down the soil by tossing bowls or small buckets full of water over the top, and then rake any fallen leaves or other refuse, which is burned, along with the garbage in a pit out back. This process tends to keep the dust down.

Occasionally you come across a large house, with tall metal fencing, and green grass. When I asked about those places, the answer was always that the people who own them live in the US. Since the dollar is worth quite a bit more than a peso right now, you can build a lot of house with just a small portion of your American earnings. These people, usually employ a couple that live in the house full time and serve as maid and caretaker, as well as a measure of security when they are gone.

Here are a few more photos from a walk around the neighborhood.

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Well that is your tour of Ocotito. I hope you enjoyed it.

Coming next: A walk in the country.

Mexican Traditions – Flag Day

The house where I live is just off of Calle de Benito Juarez, the main street of Taxco. Every, and I mean EVERY, parade, procession, or protest marches right past my balcony.

Last Friday was the first Friday of Lent, celebrated with airworks boomers and bandas roving the city to remind people of this sacred time.

Street band observing Lent, Taxco de Alaracon, MexicoBut there were more bands on Saturday, then Sunday marked a taxi protest clogging the streets with taxis with nobody inside them, and yesterday, more bands, one with children in 3 kings outfits (like those below) skipping down the street.

Three kings parade participants, , Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

Parade, Taxco, Mexico

What is going on? I thought all this was reserved for Fridays?

After a weekend of boomers and parades marching by day and night, I thought things were finally settling down when a somber drum cadence could be heard marching closer and closer.

It is February 24, Mexican Flag Day and every school drum and bugle corps with their honor guard is marching toward La Garita to observe a flag honoring celebration. It was a solid hour and a half of snare drums bang, bang, banging a slow march cadence past my door.

Talk about a headache!!!!

Tamal

Learning a language can be quite comico at times.

I was at a meeting recently, struggling to understand what was being said. I had recently learned that unlike in the US where tamales is plural and tamale is singular, in Mexico, you have one tamal.

Tamales, MexicoWant some salsa with that?

As I was listening to the speaker, I kept hearing the word tamal. “Tamal” here and “tamal” there, “tamal,” “tamal,” “tamal.” This was a serious discussion though and I could not figure out what tamales had to do with it. Finally I asked my companion, “Why is he talking about food?”

She looked at me quizzically and asked, “What?”

I replied, “He keeps saying ‘tamal.’ What does food have to do with the discussion?”

She had to stifle a laugh, then explained that he was saying, “esTA mal.” “It is bad.”

Sounded like tamal to me.

Mexican Traditions — First Friday

This morning I was awakened before dawn by airworks – those booming cannon shot sounding fireworks (with no fire.) They continued throughout the day culminating in special church services, bandas parading through the streets, people singing, jumping into fountains, and other festivities.

Street band, Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoWhen I asked why, the only answer I would get is, “First Friday,” like I should know what that means. Since I am not Catholic and the only thing I know about Lenten traditions is that it is a time of penance, that follows the all out debauchery that is Carnival/Mardi Gras, and lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, I decided it was a good time to find out.

In Mexico, the word for Lent is Cuaresma, which comes from the word for 40 representing the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. With Mexico being one of the most Catholic countries in the world, Lenten observances are an important part of the culture, filled with solemn observances, processions, and merriment. It is a time of church and family activities, sobriety and abstinence, with most Mexicans giving up eating meat on Fridays.

So what is this First Friday all about? On the first Friday after Ash Wednesday,  processions of “The Lord of Mercy” goes through the main streets of town, imploring mercy for sins. Rag tag bands of all sorts, wander the streets, which usually attract more of a Pied Piper following than any kind of solemn observance.

Street band, Taxco, MexicoMy first year here, before I knew about First Friday and all the other Fridays that follow, I was told that the bands were to remind people that it was a holy time, which was really amusing considering they came marching over the hill playing Roll Out the Barrel, a quintessential drinking song.

I now know that each Friday from now until Easter I will be awakened with airworks and serenaded to sleep by brass bands, each marking a special observance such as Dia de la Samaritana or Viernes de Dolores, the Friday of Sorrows, observed on the last Friday before Easter week in recognition of Mary’s loss of her son. All of this leads up to the influx of thousands of penitents and onlookers for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Taxco.

Holy Week in Taxco de Alaracon, MexicoEnough of a lesson for now. More later. Or visit the GoMexico Website.

Amigos

The word of the day is amigos – friends.

If this guy took a bath once in awhile, we might be grande amigos.

Two bearsFYI – If your friend is female, she is your amiga. But if your group of amigas includes just one muchacho, then they are all amigos.  Just one of the frustrating things about learning this language, not only do you need to know different verb tenses but all the words change (including the pronouns) depending on who is the subject of the sentence, not just singular or plural but feminina and masculina as well.

Would somebody please tell me why a man’s tie (la corbata) is feminine and a woman’s dress (el vestido) is masculine?

You don’t know what you are missing

It is said, “That you do not know what you have until its gone.” In other words, take nothing for granted.

I was very aware that I could not see the sunrise in Ocotito, mostly because I did not know where to go to see it. Lil’s parent’s house was on the wrong side of the hill, the house was dark until well after sunrise, and the yard was too obscured by trees to see much of anything anyway.

Even the one sunset I managed to catch was a bit mild mannered.

So imagine my joy and wonder as the sky welcomed me back to Taxco with riotous color this morning!

There was even color over the Zocolo!

Sunrise over Zocolo, Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoOh sunrise, how I have missed thee!

Makes me realize just what a wonderful vantage point I have to view this glorious show each morning.

I will never take this view for granted.

Mexican Traditions – Ash Wednesday

I arrived back in Taxco from my week in the country (in El Ocotito with Lili’s family) and the first thing I noticed after stepping off the bus was that a guy had a smudge of dirt on his forehead. As I continued home, I saw another person, and then another but this time the smudge looked like an X.

Ah, it dawned on me, it is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season for Catholics around the world. That’s why there was so much coverage of Carnival (in Rio), Mardi Gras (in New Orleans) and party celebrations in other locations on the television last night! (Not speaking Spanish I had no idea what the announcers were saying, I just recognized the partying and city captions; it didn’t even dawn on me that it was Tuesday.)

Though, in Taxco, there were likely some parades and partying, church bells and airworks (fireworks with only the boom) until midnight, then church bells and more airworks at dawn…

Night life, El Ocotito, Mexicoit was amazingly quiet in our little town.

I didn’t even see any ashes on foreheads until I came back to Taxco. And that is saying something since I traveled through Ocotito, Chilpancingo, and Iguala, in a truck, two buses, and a taxi.

Tonight the church bells are ringing and the airworks booming but when the day is done, it will be quiet at least until Friday when parades and bandas will roam the streets to remind people that it is a sacred time (see photos and read more about Fat Tuesday traditions here). This scenario will repeat itself every Friday as it all leads up to what a student of mine calls “the big show,” semana santa or holy week, when it is really crazy in Taxco.

Stay tuned. As my student says, you really do not want to miss the show.