Sunday, February 20, 2011

Trip to See Interior Mexico – The Trip to “Do Something”

It started on a fine, sunny day in the calm lagoon of Barra de Navidad.  The French Baker had just puttered through the anchored sailboats and had emptied his panga of moist breads and creamy croissants and pies.  The temperature – 80; the breeze -- just enough to turn the pages of a novel.  It’s 9:30 a.m. and we dine:  warm almond croissants and corn flakes.   Ten days now in the “laguna”, and a North American characteristic says, “Let’s do something” as if a perfect breakfast, in perfect temperature, in a perfect location lacked “something.”  “Remember that couple we met that said they are going to Morelia and up in the mountains to see the Monarch butterflies migrate…”  That thought ended our fine, 80 degree, sunny day in the lagoon where there was just enough breeze to turn the pages of a novel. 

Morelia is a Spanish colonial town, supposedly one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Mexico.  Lonely Planet says it’s, “the most beautiful town you’ve never seen…” 10 hours away from Barra de Navidad by bus including transfer time; that is, if you go through the big city of Guadalajara because “there are more transfer options.”  Not mentioned is the huge, winding mountain pass of 4.5 hours from “Barra” to “Guada”.   If you go First Class you’ll get a coke and two cookies and the rollercoaster ride of your life.   In the first three curvy klicks (kms) of the two-lane, mountainous ascent, our Sr. Maurio Andretti turned faces green and put more than a couple Coke and cookie bags to use.   Theme parks have found that humans can wedge and brace for about two minutes of torque and turns and exit with smiles.    Mexican “Primera Clase” estimates this endurance at about two and a half hours.   This is the half way point.   We arrive, and passengers turn to complete strangers and congratulate each other.   We however got out, removed our luggage, and booked the next bus back.   If Jonah had received a sign out at sea and ignored it, we weren’t chancing any whale’s belly for two more hours before getting spit out in “Guada”.   We stretched out in the terminal until a normal color returned to our faces and we could finally laugh.   

 Then, to test our readiness to depart, we ordered a couple plates of tacos and a chocolate shake (made with strawberry ice-cream -- no kidding), and we knew we were healed enough for the ride down the mountain to our peaceful lagoon where -- The French Baker delivers croissants, the temperature is 80, and the breeze…just enough to turn the pages of a novel.  Whether we had seasoned or the driving improved, we all slept on the return ride.   We’d take the seas any day over a Mexican bus and a mountain pass. 

Unfortunately a satisfaction-or-your-money-back, North American mindset wasn’t available at the bus depot that day and since it isn’t easy to swallow $350.00 in non-refundable tickets on a cruiser budget, certainly there must be other charming towns – no butterflies maybe – without mountainous barriers.  Our tickets could be transferred.   So, at a perfect beach, at a perfect temperature, and after another perfect French croissant, we thought about trip options to “do something”.   Hadn’t our friend, a travel writer, on the catamaran, Ceilydh, just the other day mentioned mariachi bands and free tapas at a quintessential colonial town just a quick jaunt away?  And for a skip more up the road, one could then see the festival, wooden mask maker who is the last of his line in this craft?  Cashing our tickets in at .50 to the dollar we reserved a First Class bus to make good a crazy American impulse to “do something.”  And again, setting out on a fine, sunny day, bellies full of almond cream croissants, at 80 degrees, and a light breeze that could be turning pages on the back of our 35’ yacht, we tromped off to the terminal.  Destination:  Colima.  Duration of trip: 2:46 minutes.  Terrain:  flat to mole-hillish.  And this is where our next adventure began.

Colima:  “Its art and history extend as far south as Peru and … as far west as the Gulf coast’s mystery-shrouded monument builders, the Olmecs…  (F)ell to the swords of 145 conquistadors in 1523.   Cortez appointed his nephew as mayor over the settlement of 100 Spanish colonists and 6,000 native tributaries.”  -- Moon’s MX Handbook.
When our very rotund and solidly seated hotel owner, Angelica, checked us in, we felt securely trapped.  She was a get-down-to-business, straight shooting, husky woman who had cut her teeth working three illegal jobs in the US to put four kids through school:  veterinarian, computer tech, doctor, and farm boss – all still in the US – while she returned to Colima to buy the family house and hostel from underneath the lazy noses of her eight siblings.  This night, she was going to put us in a room and we were going to have an itinerary and personal driver for the next day.  Although I could have paced 100 yards with family, luggage and one child on my back between us and her before she could rise and move a husky two steps, I knew we were staying put and signing on.  Her inn was full (guests from as far away as Korea and Hungary), but a two-story, three-bedroom, one bath apartment was all ours for 400 pesos (35 dollars).  How bad could it be? 

Henry sat on the steps and cried.  He looked down the street a half a block and said, “How about THAT hotel instead?”  Chandler took Mom’s arm.  Dad assured the troops, “We’ll pay one night and move on.  Let’s get food”.  

 Falling in step, we broke from Angelica’s prescribed dinner plans and followed the Moon Tour Book (the same guide book that recommended Angelica’s Inn).   The most favorably recommended eatery wasn’t close, but each block put distance between the lodging place and eating place.   It had great interior colors, a smiling waiter, clean toilets and the best goat I’d had in months. 
Decorations from Valentine's Day still hung from the ceiling

Although delicious food was served, the restaurant never saw more than one or two tables full while we were there

Unwrapping a tamale

Birria (goat) tacos and delicious tostada

 The troops were refreshed, and we marched back to “el centro”.  The night was young, on Mexican time, and we could still pull off a Cultural Event and visit a large mural in a government building stairwell.   Why are such remarkable paintings so unknown to the local population?  We pointed out Moon’s page to several uninformed Mexicans.  No luck.  Tired, we found Magnum ice-cream bars – the great international culture bridge -- and watched a wedding party enter an ornate, rock cathedral off the central plaza.   And, unbeknownst to any travel book, there was a clown performance in the plaza, and Chandler and Henry skipped into the front row to enjoy cultural slapstick and balloons.  

Back at the hotel, the overhead and floor fans blocked out most of the droning of a nearby piano bar and street traffic below so we could sleep.

A new day ahead, showers under our belts, we checked into an up-graded hotel, coincidentally the one Henry saw the day before, and met our taxi chauffeur after breakfast.  We gave him Angelica’s list of places to see for the next eight hours:  2 country lakes, a view of the area’s active volcano, the mask-maker factory in Suchitlan, the house and artwork of artisan Alejandro Regando Hildago (the 1963 Unicef card designer who outsold all previous Unicef greeting cards one Christmas); mariachi bands and tapas in the colonial square of Comala … and all fairly close, within 30 kilometers, on country roads and rolling hills amidst sugar cane fields.   It was about an hour when our driver stopped a bike rider for directions.  Yes, that sign back there was the way to the scenic lake and camp grounds of Lake “Lago” Cerrazilillo.   Burning North American daylight, we finally pulled in and walked to the shores of Lake Cerrazilillo.

Some perspective is necessary here.  There are salsas we would call hot that another culture considers mild.  In the same way there are some scenic areas that could be described as “hot” or “mild” depending on one’s experiences.  For example, my first camping trip in Japan:  My friends (tomodachis) planned this event.  They had first class gear and Patagonia digs.  The wilderness we arrived into however was a gravel lot roped off in 8x8 squares for each tent in neat rows.   Ball park lights for safety flooded the area until 10:00 p.m.  Music blared and cautionary announcements were made reminding us to extinguish hibachis, be aware of drifting smoke into your neighbor’s camp site, and check out at 10:00 a.m. sharp.  Okay…there were trees and day hikes. So, if riding a packed train six days a week through terminals where more passengers than the population of the state of Colorado commute, then yes, this is camping.  Back in Mexico…Our surprised driver popped up from just settling down on a log.   We explained that we saw the tent, an egret, and five ducks, and the next lake could be skipped.  Thanks anyway.
Suchitlan – just up the road.  
A small, hilly town with lots of broad, dusty trees and cobblestone streets.   We ask a few folks for directions but their discussions about the possibilities took longer than if we had gone over all the available streets on foot.  

 No one knew of the village’s famous wood mask carver written in the North American tour book.  Finally we got a confident finger-point instructing us two blocks one way and then a block to the left.  We arrived, got out, and walked around the four corners of a small, dirt road intersection.   We called up to a laborer stacking cinder blocks on a roof.    

He said, “Here” and he’d be right down and his uncle would be back shortly.   He invited us down the steps into a back yard shaded by laundry and trees and pointed us to an open work room.   Stumps of logs were stacked (the kind of wood called “tourist wood” because the trees’ bark is red and peels in the summer like the shoulders of tourists), and there was an assortment of tools: chisel, hammer, chainsaw.   
semi-carved out wood

tools of the trade

Colorful, shiny masks hung on nails or dried on a wooden work bench.  There was no exterior sign or advertisement of his craft.  You’d think his work was in hiding, but the uncle, the famous carver, welcomed our questions on this Sunday afternoon shaded by trees and colored by brilliantly painted masks and a full line of laundry.    

The children’s many questions surprised him: which tools he used, where the wood came from, when the masks were worn (Christmas and Easter mostly); how long they took to carve (a week for a big mask).  Henry bought a small bird mask and asked him to add two more painted lines.  We found a striped lynx we liked, and he signed them both.   

We felt like honored guests glimpsing a skill and thought process in a village of time long gone.   Angelica’s plan was looking better.   Now off to second base – Comala and the mariachi’s … just down the road.

Comala:  Moon’s guide says, “…where cares seem to float away in the orange blossom-scented air around the picture-perfect old plaza.”  

Quintessential.  The central park with gazebo, the large white church facing the park, the rows of tables running out to the street and under the shadow of the restaurants’ balconies.  Mariachis circle through.  The tables packed.

Tapas are free every day from 2 - 6:  avocado on chips, taquitos, cerviche and tortillas, cheese enchiladas…  They bring it all out, and take your drink order.   Trumpets blasted, voices crooned, guitars filled any void.   All you could do was smile, lean back, enjoy the view, food, and cold beverages. 

That evening we returned to Colima and found an orchestra playing in a gazebo in the center of town.  Folks danced around the park where the band played, and  the breeze wafted around us as we took in the very traditional, local setting.  Chandler and Henry hid their faces when their mom and dad danced alongside the locals.  It was Sunday night, the weekend was winding down and we were enjoying the whole of it.

Our land tour was a bit like making a bean dip too lopsided with one ingredient and throwing in 3 or 4 more to bring it to life.   We rode the bus home full of the variety of events that flavored the trip.   We headed back to the lagoon, a French Baker’s delivery panga, perfect temperatures, and breeze just enough of turn the pages of a novel. 

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