Monday, February 15, 2016

Morelia, Butterflies and Pátzcuaro Redux

We're back on Intermezzo after our road trip through the Michoacan highlands. Disturbing news from a close friend and a bout of food poisoning took the wind out of my sails for writing over the past few days. But things are now better on both fronts and there is a lot to write about, so I'm back in the saddle again...and clearly full of clichés.

We drove through pretty countryside from Pátzcuaro to Michoacan's state capital, Morelia, on Wednesday. We stopped at the small town of Tupátaro not far out of Pátzcuaro to visit a church that we learned about from a tourist brochure. When we entered the town, we were set upon by lots of young men in drag, apparently still celebrating Carnaval and quite drunk. At first they were pretty aggressive, but when I told them we had come to go to church, they backed off and seemed respectful. I pushed my luck a bit by telling one of they guys that he was a "muchacha bonita", but he took the complement well, calling me "Papi" (daddy). A bit weird, but all in good fun.

The church in Tupátero is from the 17th century and doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside however, is a beautiful baroque design, executed with fine craftsmanship and lovingly maintained. It seems to sit in the middle of nowhere, but I guess the Spanish landowner of the time wanted to have a church in his town that would compare well with the larger ones in Pátzcuaro and Morelia. If so, he succeeded by focusing his money and interest on the interior and creating an amazing space, even if the exterior is drab.  I'm sure many have gasped in surprise as they walked through the doors.

We arrived in Morelia in the afternoon and stayed in a serviceable Airbnb in the heart of the city's historic colonial center. We spent the evening and the following day walking around and visiting a few churches and several museums. The center of the city is filled grand churches, palaces, libraries, theaters, fountains, plazas, even an aqueduct,  all dominated by the massive cathedral. The pope is visiting Morelia on February 16, so between anticipation of his visit and all the goings on around Lent, local Catholicism was hopping in full swing.

I found Morelia historically interesting and the buildings impressive, but I also found the big, thick, heavy stone structures to be oppressive, like they were always looming over me. Maybe that was the intent, to remind the people that lived their that God was watching over them and they better behave...or else. Maybe it was overcompensation towards replicating, or even trying to surpass, the cities they left back home in Spain. In any case, the fixed aspects of the city all seemed very heavy to me. I found relief to this heaviness in all the young people around the city, laughing, hanging out in cafes, running to class, couples holding hands on the street and kissing while tucked away in an archway. Morelia is a big university town, abundant with students, and is the big city of Michoacan, the place to go if you want a good dinner or go to a play.

The next stop on our Michoacan itinerary was the Santuario Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary) about a four hour drive away. To give us most of a day in the sanctuary, we left Morelia on Friday morning to drive to the small town of Zitácuaro near the sanctuary to stay overnight and get an early start the next morning. We left Morelia a bit later in the morning than planned due to a dead rental car battery. My Spanish vocabulary is pretty good, but if does not include "I need a jump" or "jumper cables"  and I think that literal translation from English would come out as, "I need to jump rope". However, making squeezing motions with my hands while moving them back and forth in front of a car with its hood open seemed to be quickly understood and I was very grateful for the helpful assistance provided by friendly strangers. That is something you can count on in Mexico.

Zitácuaro is a unremarkable town. We stayed in a relatively nice hotel and had a great seafood dinner in one of the best restaurants in town. The owners of the restaurant also own the fish market, so everything was fresh, well-prepared and enthusiastically served, including some dishes we didn't order, "on the house". I enjoyed a couple of glasses of tequila reposado, a liquor for which I am growing a taste, thanks in no small measure to Intermezzo crew members Jeanne and Marci. We walked to and from the hotel and restaurant located across town from each other. On the way to the restaurant, we walked through residential neighborhoods and were surprised to see that many of the homes had electric fences installed on top of their perimeter walls and roof parapets. Now that's hardcore security! We walked back on the main road in the dark. Again, the whole security issue is a puzzle to me. Again, we never felt unsafe, yet the electric fences are unsettling, as was the bright red $80,000 Audi parked in a very modest neighborhood and police trucks with .30 caliber machine guns mounted on them, locked and loaded. I guess shit must happen sometimes.

The butterfly sanctuary was amazing. To give ourselves more time among the butterflies, we rented horses to help us up the steep climb up the mountain through the forest. We walked a good portion of the trail both ways, but the horses allowed us to keep moving when we would otherwise need to take a breather, especially on the steepest parts of the trail.  The trail winds through dense, mostly second-growth fir forest, very quiet and pleasantly cool. Our first exposure to the butterflies was when we arrived at a clearing and thousands were flying everywhere in the bright sunshine, their orange color flickering in the light. That sight in itself would have been impressive, more butterflies than I have ever seen in the wild.  But further up the mountain among the oyenal fir trees on which the butterflies feed and cluster upon, there were tens of thousands of butterflies in an area I estimate to be about two steeply sloped acres. Many were flying. Many more were resting, hanging in huge clumps together from the branches of the trees.

These Mexican highlands are where the monarchs spend their winter hibernation, after their long migration from the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. It takes three to five generations of butterflies, living one to eight months each, to complete the entire 5,400 mile round trip journey each year,  considered to be one of the most complex animal migrations in the world.

The site of so many beautifully colored creatures, fluttering in and out beams of sunlight filtering through the trees is a magnificent display of nature's beauty and their annual migration is deserving of the term epic to describe it. Yet what left the biggest imprint on me and I will always remember is the sound that tens of thousands butterflies make when they fly. It is a gentle, quiet hissing sound, a very quiet white noise, very peaceful and calming. It is to me as if the butterflies make their migration so as to gather and create a temporary living work of art, flickering like little golden-orange tapestries among a background of dark green firs and bathing the forest in the gentle sound they make together. No still photograph can capture this spectacle. Videos gives a sense, but fall far short; I posted a couple on Youtube, here and here (they are low resolution due to limited bandwidth to upload). It's a performance to be experienced live.

We made our way back down the mountain on combination foot and horseback in the afternoon to get back to the car and start our drive back to Ixtapa, with an overnight stay back in Pátzcuaro along the way.  We were really dusty from the trail and an old woman helped us access a pipe to wash up a little before we got in the car. Renee wanted to show our gratitude for her help and bought two tamales from her little stand. We should have considered all the circumstances before we ate those tamales- the source of heat for the pot was only a small fire, it was late in the day, the tamales weren't hot...basically they had been incubating all day. They didn't taste good but since we paid good money for them (10 pesos, 0.60 cents), we ate them anyway. Idiots. I started feeling a bit sick about an hour away from Pátzcuaro and nearly didn't make it to our lodging. As soon as I arrived, I was violently sick. An hour later, I heard Renee wretching with gusto. Thankfully, I recovered fairly well by morning to finish the drive to Ixtapa. Renee is taking longer and is still feeling miserable as I write this. Hopefully she will be better soon. Lesson learned, the hard way.

One final story about Pátzcuaro, before I end this blog post. There is a place in town called La Casa de los Once Patios (House of the Eleven Patios). This former convent is a showplace for regional artisanal handicrafts and and folk art, each patio specializing in a particular craft. It's a nice place to visit, but more significant to me, it is a reminder of a period of local history where good triumphed following evil, a story that takes up a good portion of Juan O'Gorman's historical mural in the library (described in my previous post). 

Nuño de Guzmán arrived in Pátzcuaro in 1529. He was a very cruel conquistador who inflicted terrible pain and suffering upon the local indigenous people. He was so inhumane that he was sent back to Spain. Bishop Vasco de Quiroga was dispatched in 1536 to clean up the mess Guzmán left behind. Influenced by the humanitarian ideals of Sir Thomas More's "Utopia", Quiroga pioneered village cooperatives and encouraged education and agricultural self-sufficiency among the local people to lessen their dependence on Spanish mining lords and landowners. He also helped each village in the Pátzcuaro region develop its own craft speciality. Thus, the historical connection with today's La Casa de los Once Patios and an uplifting story of a man doing good after another's cruelty, albeit with the motivation of converting the indigenous population to Christianity.  Bishop Quiroga is venerated for his accomplishments in Michoacan and there are lots of streets, plazas, and buildings named Vasco and Quiroga. Needless to say, I haven't seen any named Guzmán.

The exterior of the church in Tupátero with the amazing baroque interior (no photographs allowed inside)

Michoacan landscape on the drive to Morelia

Getting the streets prettied up for the upcoming Pope's visit to Morelia 

Morelia street

Santuario de Guadalupe, Morelia

Dome of Sanctuario de Guadalupe

Morelia pedestrian thoroughfare

Enjoying a local IPA beer while gazing in amazement at bottles of mezcal at Tata mezcalaría

Morelia cathedral at night

Plaza San Augustine on Ash Wednesday

Painting by Rafael Flores in the Palacio Clavijero museum

Morelia through a window

Electric fence home security in Zitácuaro
Palm flower in Zitácuaro

On the trail in the Monarch Sanctuary
Renee on horseback in the butterfly sanctuary
Monarch tapestry in the firs

Monarch's clumped together to rest and stay warm

Casa de los Once Patios, Pátzcuaro

Casa de los Once Patios, Pátzcuaro

One of the patios with specialized handicrafts, this one locally built guitars and other instruments.

Section on Juan O'Gorman's mural depicting the barbarity of Guzmán and the humanitarian efforts of Vasco