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Watching the world go by in Pátzcuaro, Mexico


The masked “little old men” danced Los Viejitos in the main square, six of them all bent over. I didn’t know the real ages of these Purépecha males because all wore hats with jostling multi-coloured ribbons and grinning caricature masks and grey wigs. But at least three were children descending in size to six years old. They danced in hard-soled huarache sandals clacking fast and furious on the cobblestones, tata tata tatatatata, a representation of falling rain. Musicians energetically played violin, guitar and bass. This traditional dance was performed in white embroidered pants and blue, red and white patterned ponchos. It mocked and made fun of the Spanish conquerors, who carried sticks because they had difficulty walking up hills at high altitudes, and looked like old men all bent over. I watched the dancers behind their painted masks, using their canes as they kept a hand on conjured sore backs. These performing Purépecha lived in remote highland villages near Pátzcuaro, which at 2,175 meters is in the remote highlands of the state of Michoacán in Mexico.

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I often travel alone, usually in the grey of a Canadian winter, and arrived in Pátzcuaro as part of a four month meander through Mexico. I’ve travelled sola now for 20 years and find it opens up all kinds of experiences. I talk to more strangers, observe more detail, catch subtle nuances of human behaviour. Of course I can also be selfish in what I want to do, see, eat or when I want to travel to a new destination. I used to move on every couple of days but now I linger. More time allows a deeper appreciation of the uniqueness of each place but not too long of course, or boredom sets in.

This colonial town of Pátzcuaro houses 51,000 people and its appeal lies in whitewashed adobe buildings with a rusty-chocolate stripe, ornate black wrought iron windows, cobblestone streets and two lively plazas—Plaza Grande (Plaza Vasco de Quiroga) and Plaza Chica (Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra). I enjoyed sitting at a sidewalk café where children nibbled pink, blue or purple spun sugar, trucks with loudspeakers advertised events or goods, young lovers sipped iced frapés heaped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, small horses walked by carrying white bags of garden soil or corn, and street musicians entertained. Women sold delicious corundas, triangular tamales made with corn masa flour, steamed in corn husks and served with spicy red salsa and cream. Three flavours of churros were cooked right on the street, tasting and smelling like cinnamon-sugared donuts.

In the ten days I stayed in Pátzcuaro, I walked the town at various times of day and evening and found the high altitude light extraordinary. Colonial architecture, flowers and people changed colours from sunrise into late morning and again when the sun gradually set and infused the town with colour. It became a painting that changed and dazzled as the light shifted.

One day a photographer posed a wedding party with the bride in a multiple-flounced white strapless creation and the bridesmaids in sexy, clinging, long black dresses decorated with silver. In the noon sunshine, the men of the bridal party wore black suits and designer sunglasses, the sunglasses a gift from the casually poised groom. 250916dscn1011The bride was tense and had to be prompted to smile for the camera. The photographer, determined to get lively photos, had the bride fall back into the arms of the bridesmaids. Everyone shrieked with laughter and finally the bride flashed a spontaneous smile which made her family happy.

Tree shaded Plaza Grande, surrounded by gardens and 17th century buildings, contained two fountains and arched walkways which shaded outdoor restaurants; cafés with espresso machines; and shops selling wooden furniture and embroidered clothing. Catrinas, elegantly dressed “Day of the Dead” dolls, stood waiting for purchase. Catrinas take some getting used to. They’re skeletons who are usually dressed in stylish formal clothing which originally made fun of upper class Mexican women, dressed like aristocratic Europeans. The male and female dolls are now used in “Day of the Dead” ceremonies held at the beginning of November. Catrinas were inspired by a satirical etching by José Guadalupe Posada circa 1910 which showed the head of a laughing female skeleton in a large hat with flowers. Over time they’ve become endearing Mexican folk art. “Day of the Dead” is celebrated to honour deceased family and friends, by gathering at graves with food and drink and good cheer. Pátzcuaro and the nearby Island of Janitzio are particularly festive in the November ceremonies.

Superb coffee became my late morning ritual at Restaurant La Surtidora. Outdoor tables stood under a shaded portico where a guitarist serenaded patrons with love songs. The cafés, restaurants and food stalls of Plaza Grande were laden with coconut haystacks, meringues, pastries and cakes and vendors sold a tempting variety of ice cream including mandarin, pineapple, cookie, coconut, almond with cinnamon. Ex-pats and locals alike came to La Surtidora to talk and watch the world go by. In the evening families sat on benches along the treed walkways listening to lively recorded music from plaza speakers, or with a coffee and dessert at a sidewalk cafe.

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I talked with Cynthia Derozea, co-owner of the B & B Encantada and mentioned the number of new cars driving around Plaza Grande. Cynthia told me that most were bought on credit at 36% interest, that credit was a new concept, and people had not yet figured out how expensive it was. We discussed the railroad track running through Pátzcuro. Since the free-trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada was signed, Mexico’s largest deep-water port had been built at the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas with ships coming in from China. Goods were then transported on an exclusive rail link by Kansas City Southern Railway to Houston, Kansas City and Chicago.

The annual April/May piano festival was in full swing at the Teatro Emperador Caltzontzin and other venues and I attended a performance by Uruguayan pianist Edison Quintana who studied in Siena and Rumania and had performed in England and Argentina. He played Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Paganini, Beethoven, Villanueva, Lecuona and Rachmaninoff and his agile fingers reminded me of 10 elegant white spider’s legs, rapidly spanning the keys. The 1936 theatre, a former convent, featured a domed ceiling painted with flowers and light shone behind brightly-coloured glass parasols. Wall paintings included scenes of Lake Pátzcuaro with villagers selling masks, serapes, and musical instruments, as well as boats fishing, some with sails. My favourite decoration presented a row of dark blue and white fish swimming in a light blue river around the inner circumference walls. I also attended an evening of contemporary music with Luis Rosendo Vallejo Pedraza who played tangos from Argentina, Cuban son, and Brazilian bossa nova. Then came classical piano with duel playing by Laura Villafranca who trained and performed in the US, and Carlos Salmeron who trained and performed in Spain. The skill of these two playing one piano enchanted me with Schubert, Ravel, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Grieg and reinforced the extraordinary training and international performance experience these Mexican musicians had.

There’s a marked difference in activity between the two squares and Plaza Chica bustled with minivans, vendors, taco stands and the poor. The dynamic public market was located in one corner. My sidewalk table over looked jacaranda trees in brilliant purple bloom, white colonial buildings with red tile roofs and wooden arched windows, the theatre, and the library called Biblioteca Gertrudis Bocanegra. A former church with an impressive mural by Juan O’Gorman, the library was named after Gertrudis Bocanegra, the heroine who was shot in 1817 at the age of 52 for her commitment to independence from Spain. A statue of Gertrudis stood majestically in the centre of the square. Nearby, the excellent Museo de Artes Populares had a room devoted to Gertrudis who bore six children and lost her husband and one son to the cause.

I explored some of the small indigenous towns located around Lake Pátzcuaro which sits three kilometers north of town. The Spanish Bishop Vasco de Quiroga arrived in 1536 and was heavily influenced by Sir Thomas More’s Utopia concept. More’s ideals were based on education and self-sufficiency as well as village craft co-operatives. Bishop Quiroga introduced different crafts to each village including masks, pottery, hand knitted woollen sweaters, woven serapes, copperware, carved and painted wooden furniture and musical instruments. Guitars and violins from Paracho have become world-renowned.

I rode with amiable taxi driver Edgar Alexis Sabada Almanza to observe some of Bishop Quiroga`s legacy. The country road wound through pines, eucalyptus and nopal cactus and fields were surrounded by stone walls. Cement or clay garden ornaments stood for sale including turtles, frogs, owls, snails, fish, horses, lions and toadstools. Our first stop was the village of Capula which makes pottery with an exquisite fish motif as well as Catrina Dolls. I bought a female doll clothed in mauve and decorated with flowers and delicate monarch butterflies which sat on her hands. The village of Quiroga is famous for luscious carnitas—chunks of pork cooked slowly in fat and meat juices to ensure succulence. I sat at a rustic market table and Edgar brought l/2 kilo of tender finger-sized pork pieces in brown waxed paper, guacamole in a plastic cup, pickled jalapeños, spicy salsa fresca and a stack of steaming corn tortillas. Two men played guitars and I was in gastronomic heaven as we piled pork and condiments onto warm tortillas, squeezed lime overall and dined with our fingers.

Sitting in the front seat beside my taxi driver Edgar presented an excellent opportunity to ask about contemporary Mexico. How was the President, Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office Dec. 1, 2012, doing? Edgar conceded that he liked him so far and that the two things needing attention were employment and security. In my four months of meandering through Mexico I observed obvious security in tourist areas, provided by different levels of government. It had definitely been beefed up. In quaint colonial towns and cities like Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Puebla, Taxco and Pátzcuaro, tourism is a major employer. What Mexico needs now, Edgar told me, is positive press so that the tourists return in droves and help keep the economy strong. For me, travelling independently in various parts of the country and mostly alone, it has been an easy, friendly and safe country to spend four months of my life exploring.

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Back in Pátzcuaro, El Dia del Niño or Mexican Children’s Day was on April 30, and I noticed a truck driving around town with clowns, jesters, a gorilla and a princess. Excited children had been given time off school. I visited both squares where educational and entertaining activities were organized and take-home presents given out. On a long line of tables sat art supplies and games. Nurses weighed children, measured height, demonstrated vaccination and encouraged them to climb on a row of exercise bikes. Teachers painted children’s faces and applied glitter, children created masks, a bright green inflatable slide caused children to shout with excitement until a hole appeared, and it deflated into a giant heap of giggles.

So, these were highlights of staying for ten days in a colonial city in Mexico just relaxing, observing and exploring. When it was time, I hit the road once again on the local bus. Next stop, Guadalajara!

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