Waltzing Matylda

Matylda overlooking Taxco de Alarcon, MexicoThis is Matylda. She is a cute, little spitfire of a young woman from Poland, who is currently living in Central America. The son of a family of friends, who is living in Guatemala, met her there, and when he came back to Mexico to visit family, she invited herself along. Thus began a whirlwind tour of central Mexico to accommodate her insatiable desire to see and do everything possible. In a brief 48 hours in Taxco, she shopped the tianguis (super silver market) from one end to the other, hung out at the zocolo, tasted foods she had never tasted before, went to the top of one mountain to get the best view of Taxco from the base of the Cristo statue, then down to the bottom and up another mountain to the upscale resort, Montetaxco, where she climbed on the back of a horse for a photo op, then down to town again.

And that was just Taxco. I think she put more mileage on their car and more photos on their camera in 10 days than they do all year.

It was a blast getting to know you Matylda. No one can accuse you of waltzing through life.

 

The Springs of Buena Vista

Near El Ocotito is the town of Buena Vista San Juan or something like that. There are a lot of Buena Vistas in Mexico so most have a saint’s name attached but since that part is never used locally, if you are a visitor and especially a gringo like me, you are never quite sure.

Just outside of town is a spring that bubbles up out of the ground. As usual this “miracle” has been marked with a cross so that the blessing of water never dries up. A small catch basin holds enough for locals to come and collect the cold, clear water for drinking immediately or to carry home for later.

The rest of the water, flows under the rock wall of the basin and along a natural channel until it is corralled in a large catch basin or pool before it cascades over the edge and follows a natural channel again.

This larger pool is both the water supply for the town AND the local swimming hole. For a small fee, which goes to support the town, you can enter the grounds and picnic, swim, hunt crayfish, play in the water, or simply enjoy the surroundings and the sun setting behind the mountains.

A local  family who live adjacent to this unique natural water source, take the admission fees and run a concession selling roasted corn, snacks, drinks, and bathroom visits in exchange for free water and all the swimming they might like. Like the natives in Florida, they probably think the people who come here to swim in the winter are crazy, but they are happy to take their money.

Wet and cold at the springs of Buena Vista, MexicoShivering but still smiling, just a few of the crazy ones.

The River

One of the reasons that Tehuacalco was built on top of the mountain is because of the river that flows around the bottom. Afterall, what self-respecting god of water would bless a place without water?!!!

The river, with its tumbling rocks, quiet pools, and water slides, is a sort of natural water park. The tumbled rocks in the stream bed, above and below a relatively quiet pool at the base of a large rock mass, attest to the power of the water during the rainy season.

This being the dry season however, the water runs quickly but not dangerously over the rocks and fills the pool to a depth of about 4 feet. Large flat rocks offer a place for sitting, sunning, or sliding into the pool. The tumbled rocks offer a place to sit and listen to the music of the water as it tumbles, babbles and gurgles along its journey to the sea.

This is the tame side. On the other side of the road, the river drops over the large boulders forming small pools to splash in and many opportunities for the more adventurous folks to slip and slide your way down river.

People with property on both sides of the road are capitalizing on their prime location by offering a place to park, food, and refreshments, tables and chairs for picnics, and easy access, even stairs, to the water. Chickens, ducks, and dogs come to clean up any food that is spilled or left behind by visitors. This day, you could even buy a puppy.

Playing in the river at the base of Tehaucalco, MexicoThough the water here did not elicit any active diving or water ball activities, the youngsters especially had a great time. As the sun began to set and the air became cool though, it was time to return to nearby Ocotito.

The Ruins – Tehuacalco

Not too far west of Ocotito is an archeological site, the ruins of an ancient indigenous people, known locally as “The Ruins.” Tehuacalco, or sacred place of water, was discovered only recently and opened in 2008.The site interprets a center of government and worship, which ruled over a vast area roughly covering all of Guerrero state, and cities to the north, to the Pacific coast, and all the way to Jalapa in the southeast on the Atlantic.

It has a modern interpretive museum and bi-lingual (Spanish and English) signage, though as part of a group of 38 Spanish speaking friends, ranging in age from 3 on up, I had little chance to read the signs.

Tehuacalco archeological site, MexicoSince the ruins were discovered buried pretty much intact, rather than torn apart and the stones scattered, it appears that this site was abandoned by the people (for some unknown reason) rather than discovered by the Spaniards. Its location, high on a remote mountain, and a lack of silver or gold, may have played a role in that outcome.

One of the four points (directional mountains, Tehuacalco archeological site, MexicoThe people who lived here, worshiped the god of rain and water (essencial to life) and chose this location because of the abundance of water. They built a high temple, which faced the four points (or directions), where on each season’s solstice, the sun came up directly over one of four neighboring mountains. (This indicates to me that they may have worshipped the sun as well, though they could have just been marking the seasons.)

The building that housed their gods is gone now; all that remains is the temple mount. Below the temple is the government mount with some remaining ruins, several stellas (stone markers) which marked the passing of time (days, hours, and seasons), and the ball court.

Similar to other ball courts in Mexico and the Americas, this game, which was played by just two people, consisted of the players batting around a 5 kilo (about 11 pound) ball, made from a local tree trunk, using only their legs or shoulders (sort of like soccer or football if you come from these parts.) The object was to get the ball into a small opening in the wall at center court.

The ball goes here, Tehuacalco archeological site, MexicoThough the game was likely played every day, once a year, the two best players were selected to play to the death, literally. All the citizens would come to watch the match, standing above the court in the grassy area, one side rooting for each player.

The winner of the match was sacrificed to the gods (yes, I said winner), while the loser was ejected  from the society to fend for himself amidst wild animals and poisonous snakes —  live or die, never to return.

On the day of sacrifice, a procession moved along the sacred pathway and up the stairs and steep incline to the temple mount. Each level of elevation marking one step (level) closer to the gods. Only the priests, kings, and sacrificial victims were allowed to climb the stairway to the gods. The average person stood in a field below the temple and watched the spectacle as braziers lit up the night sky and shadowy human forms performed rituals and dances culminating in the sacrifice of the victim and his beating heart being offered to the gods.

I learned a couple of interesting things visiting this ancient site:

Ancient glyph, Tehuacalco archeological site, Mexico 1) What I have always thought (and been told) was a decorative way of building rock walls using small stones between the larger rocks, turns out to have a practical reason (though lost to most Mexicans today.) The small stones allowed for more movement in the wall during seismic events (earthquakes) and thus the walls were less likely to come tumbling down.

2) The interpreter told us that the original pozole, a special soup traditionally eaten on Thursdays, Sundays, and holy days in this area, was made using the arms and legs of the sacrificial offering. Each bowl was topped with a small piece of the sacrificial victim’s meat, which was supposed to bring strength and protection for the coming year to those who ate it. As the guide said, some of our customs today, have their origins in these pagan peoples.

After a hot, sweltering, but very interesting afternoon we headed down the mountain to cool off in the river. But that is another story.

Hasta luego (until later),

If it is Monday, it’s off to the Mercado

In Mexico, you don’t just go to the supermarket and buy everything you need (well, you can sort of, if you like your fresh fruits and vegetables a week old and tasting like the rubber tires in the next aisle over.)

Most people shop the mercado (fresh market) where vendors sell everything from “fresh from their garden” fruits and vegetables, to meats, eggs, cheese, dairy products, herbs, dried fruits and nuts, masa (for making tortillas), housewares, hardware, clothing, and even handmade shoes. If you need it, someone will sell it.

In my house, the day to go to the mercado is Monday, that is because in addition to the main mercado downtown, there is a small mercado just around the corner. It is much easier to buy and transport heavy fruits and vegetables home from there than halfway across town. We load up on everything we think we will need for the week. On Mondays we eat like kings but sometimes by Sunday it is slim pickin’s.

Shopping done

Shopping done

Here is a tour of a Mexican mercado.

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Cuidado

That is “Be careful” in Spanish.

One thing I am not fond of about Mexico is the drivers. The pedestrian does NOT have the right of way here. Oh, sure, a taxi or combi might stop and signal for the gringo to cross a busy street but that does not prevent someone behind from speeding around him and hitting you.

With all the processions clogging the streets these past two weeks and all the vacacionistas in town, it has been particularly peligroso on the streets. Cars, taxis, and motor bikes are more plentiful than usual and all are in a hurry to get somewhere, so pedestrian, be aware.

You might start crossing the street without a car in sight but before you reach the other side, a car comes zooming up and passes mere inches behind you. That is scary! What is even worse is when the driver misjudges or you slow just a bit to negotiate a pothole or curb and well….

I had a taxi hit my bag once and a few of those “give me a little space” moments but that is nothing compared to a friend who is currently laid up because a car hit his foot or the two friends of friends we lost this week because of a pedestrian/car accident.

Time and unforeseen occurrence may befall us all, however, it is always wise to be careful out there.

Motorbikes, Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

Calor

Studying Spanish in a hammockCalor is the Spanish word for hot when you are talking about the weather or climate.

April and May being the hottest months of the year – the sun is mighty strong at this latitude and there are few if any clouds to deflect its rays. That means that afternoons get very warm, well into the 80s.  However, houses are built to deflect the heat — it truly is 10 degrees cooler in the shade, and unlike August in Wisconsin, cool breezes come down from the mountain at night and make sleeping tolerable.

Many people here are complaining about the heat. Apparently no one remembers a year when it was so warm this early. Yet they still wear long sleeve sweaters and wrap their babies up in heavy fleece blankets with winter hats on their heads when they take them out. I don’t get it.

I could understand, light, long sleeved clothing to protect the skin from the sun’s rays, and even a light blanket swaddling a newborn, but if it is 80 degrees and you or the baby are sweating, let’s lighten up in the clothing department!

I know I am different. I come down here in the middle of winter, when it is truly FRIO (cold) for them, and I wear short or sleeveless tops, with perhaps a long sleeve shirt over my shoulders in the early morn and a sweater at night. I come from a much colder climate though and the mid-60s of December feels warm to me. Only two or three times did a cold front come through where I needed to put on socks, a fleece, or once, for the first time ever, even don a jacket to protect from the cold rain.

I go barefoot and sleep with my door open for fresh cool air. To the typical Mexican, this behavior is asking to develop a cold. They always wear shoes because the tile floors are “muy frio,” and sleep with their rooms closed up to avoid drafts.

This is just another one of those cultural differences (though it doesn’t necessarily apply everywhere —the children of the indigenous people run around barefoot most of the time even in the snow) that makes life interesting.

One culture’s customs and traditions are neither right nor wrong, they simply are what they are. To me, the differences are what makes life more enjoyable. Do you agree?

25 Bottles of Mezcal on the Wall

25 bottles of mezcal on the wall, 25 bottles of mezcal

take one down, pass it around,

24 bottles of mezcal on the wall

Forgive me for adapting that old drinking song to the occasion. I walked into a grill to get some dinner and found this lovely collection of one of Mexico’s traditional spirits.

Mezcal, a relative of  its smoother cousin,Tequila, is distilled from the heart of the maguey plant (a form of agave). In a process that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries, the heart of the plant is cooked in an earthen mound over hot rocks, for about three days. This gives the mezcal its distinctive smoky flavor.

The roasted agave hearts are then crushed and fermented in large vats with water. When fermented, the liquid is distilled in clay or copper pots, and sometimes mixed with fruits and spices, such as apple or cinnamon, or other ingredients as family recipes dictate. Then it is distilled again to raise the alcohol content.

It can be consumed raw at this point, or allowed to age anywhere from 3 months to 4 years, the alcohol content growing yet the liquor becoming smoother with age. The raw liquor is called white due to its color, and reminiscent of “white lightening” in the hills of Appalachia, this aguardiente (literally fiery water) reportedly burns all the way down. And due to its high alcohol content is highly intoxicating.

Mezcal is so much a part of the culture that there is a saying which says something to the effect of “Para todo mal, mezcal; y para todo bien, también., which means “For everything bad, mezcal; and for everything good, the same.”

What goes up…

It is said of Taxco, that the only streets that do not go up are those that are going down. And that is very true. With the exception of Benito Juarez, the main tourist street that winds along a ridge halfway up and halfway down one of the mountains the city is perched upon, the streets climb steeply up or down. And, even Benito Juarez heads significantly uphill as it reaches the zocolo in the center of town.

Originally designed for donkey carts, everywhere there are streets so steep that I wonder how the cars and taxis get up them. Sometimes they don’t and they have to back down, rev their engines, squeal their tires,and burn rubber before succeeding. (This is a common occurrence at my corner.)

Once, I was climbing up one of these roads, with a hand rail attached to the house wall to help pull myself up, when a taxi came down. In navigating the 90 degree turn, it locked its brakes and slid on the oil and rubber slicked and smoothed cobblestones, diagonally across the street right toward where I was standing. Suddenly, the wheels caught and the taxi veered away from me. (Whew! I thought I was a goner for a moment!)

You get used to walking up and down, sometimes on the cobble stone streets, and other times on cement ramps, and if you are fortunate (or not) a set of steps. Coming back into town the other day on our way to a lunch invitation in Los Jales (at the bottom of town), we had to negotiate this set of stairs.

Yeah I know, gave me vertigo, just looking at it. It is a loooooonnnnnnnng way down.

As the World Turns

Back a while ago, I was posting pictures of spectacular sunrises over the mountains. Flaming reds, oranges, and golds dashed across a molten sky. They were awesome and took my breath away. Waking up in the morning was a feast for the eyes and a boost for the whole day.

Sunrise, Taxco, Mexico

At the time there were discussions about what made the sunrises here so spectacular. Was it ash from the volcano or other debris in the air? Was it the location of Taxco? The location of my house on the side of the mountain? The angle of the sun? What? What? What?

In late February, the sky became mostly cloudless. Without clouds to add their puffy, rolling, or roiling influence, most sunrises were a calm, pastel rainbow of shades from pale yellow to coral to pink to violet.

Sunrise, cloudless sky, Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

I was away much of March and when I returned to Taxco I noticed another shift in my sunrise watching. No longer could I see the sunrise from my door; I had to go outside. And even then, the view of the sun rising in the valley below was obscured by one of the mountains of Taxco.

Sunrise, Taxco de Alarcon, Mexico

And so it remains.  Each day, the world turns a little more and with that so has the location of the sunrise. Oh I can see the sunrise from here, but only the afterglow IF there are clouds high enough above to reflect the rays. The colors are more muted and last just a moment; it is not the slow awakening of the day it once was.

And if no high clouds? The light just gets brighter and brighter until the sun itself rises above the buildings.

But there are enough of those special moments to keep me watching. Here’s a glimpse of a few of those “high clouds” days over the last few weeks.

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With the change to daylight savings time and the continued movement of the sun around and behind the mountain, I fear there may be few sunrises to share with you before I leave. But, rest assured — if a spectacular sunrise comes along, I will certainly do so.