Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Patzcuaro, Mardi Gras

We embarked upon another land trip this morning, leaving Intermezzo in the marina, picking up a rental car at the Ixtapa airport and setting out for the village of Patzcuaro up in the Michoacan highlands.

We drove alongside several large lakes through arid hills on the cuoata (toll) road. It's the main highway in this region, only a two lane road, but with wide shoulders. Faster vehicles are constantly passing slower vehicles in both directions, pretty much regardless of curves, double yellow lines or no passing signs. You would think it would be terribly dangerous, but it's not. Slower vehicles pull to the right and indicate with their left turn signal that it's safe for you to pass, although sometimes that means there is a hazard ahead on the shoulder and they are going to veer into you. Situational awareness is essential. Two trucks and two cars (one of each going in opposite directions) can fit simultaneously across the right-of-way without the passing cars hitting each other head on, if everyone steers skillfully and cooperates. I know this from firsthand experience.  I appreciated that nobody was texting while driving on this road.

Patzcuaro is a beautiful small colonial town. It was the capital of the Tarasco people from 1325 to 1400 AD. The Tarascos developed one of Mexico's most advanced civilizations which successfully repulsed invasions from neighboring Aztecs, but like many others, were no match for the Spanish when they arrived in 1522.  The local indigenous people who live in this region, the Purépecha, are their direct descendants. The indigenous origins of many of the people in town are apparent in their complexion, facial features and short stature. The city's colonial streets, plazas, churches and buildings are well-preserved in a very authentic, utilitarian way.  It's not like the restorations of old towns you often see that result from gentrification or for Disney Land tourism.  The streets are filled with local people and we saw only a few tourists as we walked around town.

We are staying at Casa de Nana Ree booked via Airbnd. It is a beautiful house and we have the whole place to ourselves- living room, kitchen, patio, rooftop terrace- as well as our own huge bedroom and bathroom, all for $60.  The furniture and decor is all in the local rustic style, very colorful with lots of rough sawn wood and handmade tiles. I could definitely enjoy living here!

It's cold though! Yesterday we were sweltering as we walked the streets of Zihuantanejo in 90 degree sunshine to check in Intermezzo with the Port Captain. When we arrived in Patzcuaro at 1:30 pm today, it was only 58 degrees...and it will fall to 43 degrees tonight. That's quite a difference and, while we packed long pants and sweaters, we could do with jackets and Renee's feet are cold as she only brought sandals, no shoes or socks.

We visited the Biblioteca (Library) Gertrudas Bocanegra, housed in a former 16th century convent. The library has a very small collection of books and is a throwback in time. I haven't seen a paper card catalog in a library in years. There was a very fine set of encyclopedia, with impressive color pictures and foldout maps...published in 1922. The main reason for our visit, though, was to see the mural depicting Michoacan history from the Tarascan creation myth through the Mexican revolution. It is a very interesting mural by an Irish-Mexican architect-painter, Juan O'Gorman. The story of how the mural ended up in this library is also very interesting.

Edgar Kaufmann was the prominent Pittsburgh businessman and philanthropist who commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design his famous Fallingwater house. Kaufmann paid O'Gorman 9,000 pesos to paint a mural for Fallingwater. However, O'Gorman's leftist politics somehow prevented him from being able to paint the mural there. So Kaufmann told O'Gorman to go ahead an paint a mural wherever he wanted to in Mexico. He chose to paint one in the Patzcuaro biblioteca. I think that was really nice of Mr. Kaufmann.

As we were resting in our room after an early dinner, we started hearing bangs from fireworks. That isn't so unusual in Mexico on any given day as they seem to be set off at random as well as for weddings, fiestas and church processions. When we ventured out for a walk, we noticed lots of people heading to the main plaza that's just a few blocks from where we are staying. When we arrived there, there was a stage with a band playing and he place was packed with people waiting in excited anticipation.

I asked the guy next to me, "Cual es el nombre de este fiesta?" He seemed a little surprised at my question, but answered politiely, "Es Carnival." Duh. Today is Mardi Gras, Carnival in Spanish-speaking countries.

In Patzcuaro they celebrate Carnival with processions centered around a colorful bull and featuring men dressed as sexy women in tight tops and short skirts.  There are eight competing bull processions with, in addition to the hot lady-men, people dancing in a crazy array of costumes including clowns, military commandos, banditos and even "El Chapo", the recently recaptured Mexican drug lord. Lots of fireworks and firecrackers are set off as the processions dance their way through the crowd of spectators. It is certainly unique and fun to watch.

After watching the Carnival, I bought Renee a hot chocolate to warm her feet and we took a short walk through the dark streets near the cathedral. Again, it is hard to get a grip on the reality of security in Mexico. Here we are in a state regarded as one of the most dangerous in Mexico, yet the streets of this town are safe to walk and park your car on at night with no worries. We drove for hours the through peaceful, normal countryside. But then twice on the way driving here we saw heavily armed squads of military and paramilitary forces on the side of the road. My gut sense is that it is very safe here if you stick to main towns and thoroughfares, avoid traveling the roads at night, keep your eyes open and don't linger if things look sketchy.

What I am sure of is I really like this country and its people.

Pitzcauro street

Courtyard of Hotel Ibarra, where we ate dinner

Classic espresso machine at Hotel Ibarra, in daily use
Plaza Grande, Patzcuaro

Juan O'Gorman mural depicting Michoacan history in the Biblioteca
The card catalog of the Patzcuaro library

Teaching chess in the biblioteca


Carnival spectators

Lady-boys and fireworks

Beautiful Purépechan profile
One of the eight Carnival bulls

Patzcuaro streets at night

Patzcuaro at night

Patzcuaro at night