Posts Tagged ‘catholicism’

Panajachel to Cobán to the cloud forest

18 March 2010

We left Panajachel on Thursday, March 11th around 10:45 with Romuló in tow, who was up for an adventure and had some promotional business to do. Our intention was to take an old road that went from Santa Cruz del Quiché north to Sacapulas and then east to Cobán. According to the guidebook, it is the prettiest road in Guatemala.

Romuló initially intended to only go to Chichi, but he soon asked us if he could stay with us until Cobán as he had some business there promoting a concert, which we readily agreed.  We debated whether to eat lunch in Chichicastenango or in Quiché (further on aka Santa Cruz del Quiché). Romuló convinced us to eat in Chichi.

Picture taken by Marilyn from the restaurant of the Chichi market. Pretty soon after she was down there.

It was also market day, but Marilyn said she did not want to go to the market and swore she would not buy anything. Ha, ha! So we had lunch at a pretty good restaurant suggested by a guide with the waiters in traditional Quiché costumes. While Romuló and I chatted after lunch, Marilyn went down to the market “just to look”. When we went down we found her in deep negotiations and discussion with a neat market woman who was explaining how certain textiles were made.

In the meantime, Romuló had gotten a call about the possibility of a gig that night and the next day with a busload of French tourists. They were supposed to call him back to confirm by the time we got to Quiché. No call in Quiché so Romuló decided to continue with us. We stopped for gas and water in Sacapules, where Romuló got a call asking him to be in Pana that night and on the French bus the next morning at nine. As it was already 4:00 PM, he decided to head back on the bus. We said our good-byes and promised to get together again. He later told us he missed the last bus but he did meet a friend who was going to Chichi, where he met another friend who drove him to Pana. He got to Pana around 11 at night, so he was able to do the gig the next day. This kind of thing sounds really familiar to us Yukoners.

I had figured it would take about 5 hours to drive the 200 kilometres from Pana to Cobán, at an average of 40 km per hour. Ha! No way! We got to Uspantán around 5:30 after six hours of driving and decided to look for a hotel as I was quite tired from driving narrow twisty roads. We finally found the Hotel Don Gabriel. No hot water. Actually no water until 6:30 at night & it got shut off in the morning. But it was relatively clean other than the ants in a wall corner which we tempted with an empty beer can, comfortable, had a beautiful courtyard and a rooftop patio where there was a great view of the town. We had supper and then breakfast at a restaurant next to the hotel. It was run by a young Kaqchiquel from Pana, named Daniel.

Turkey in a basket

The central part of Uspantán seemed to be a permanent market. We walked around both on Thursday night and Friday morning and bought some hot chiles.

Goatskin pack saddles for sale, Uspantan

The next morning, we drove to Cobán. The road turned to dirt and a part of it was destroyed by a huge landslide. We had to go around through a very narrow farm road which switch-backed its way down and then up again around the slide. There were some uncomfortable turns where trucks had to go back and forth a few time.

We got to Cobán around lunch time where there was no one in the tourist information office. We had lunch at the Posada Hotel and decided to stay there. It turned out to be the best hotel in Cobán and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there as well as the conversations with Patricia the owner.

Cathedral in Copan

I decided to get an oil change, get the brakes checked as the brake light had started blinking rather than being steadily on, and to get the camper chain attachments to the vehicle chassis adjusted. Well, I got the oil changed, but the garage said they did not have time to check the brakes or adjust the camper attachment as the next day was Saturday. It was a pretty big service place, but I had hoped for a smaller place with real mechanics. I missed Carlos in Morelia or Pedro in Mérida. It also turned out that the air filters I had bought in Whitehorse do not fit the vehicle, at least according to the oil change guy.

I must say that the oil change people who were attached to the Texaco gas bar were more than helpful, it was the service centre that was not. On Saturday morning, I went to retrieve the truck and we put it in the hotel parking, trying not to destroy Patricia’s flowers and plants in the process.

We ended up staying in Cobán for 4 days nursing full-blown colds. That cold was going around Guatemala: my friend Lars had it and Patricia, the hotel owner, was just getting over it when we got there. The cold also gave me really serious photophobia in the morning; I can’t stand the sunlight and it takes me a couple of hours before I can take daylight without sunglasses and shading my eyes.

Cobán is a nice small friendly town, people say hello to us on the street even though we are obvious Gringos. The market sellers don’t negotiate much: they give you a slightly lower price, especially if you buy more than one item, but it’s not like Pana, Antigua or the Mexican Mayan Riviera where they usually ask double what they really want. I liked Cobán; it was really authentic with few tourists.

In the Xcape Koban store

Just like Antigua and Pana, the residents of Cobán (Cobaneros) claimed to have the best coffee in Guatemala. And like the other places, the authentic local coffee was superb. We really liked a store/restaurant/coffee shop around the corner from the hotel that sold fair trade foods and artisanal goods: Xkape Koban – Café Cobán in the local Kik’che language. In addition to coffee, chocolate, cacao, they also had cardamom which is grown in the area. On Saturday night, we had Kaq-ik (variously spelled kak-ik, cak-ik, kac-iq, etc. depending on the mood of the writer), a specialty of the Verapaz region. This is a turkey soup with tomatoes, onions, various spices and served with a big hunk of turkey on the bone. It comes accompanied by small plain tamales and rice which one can put in the soup. Really good. On Sunday night, we went to another restaurant, El Peñascal, where I had another superb kak-ik and Marilyn had a totally mind- and taste-bud-blowing steak in cardamom sauce.

Calvario church

Cobán itself does not have many tourist attractions, just a neat little private museum with Mayan artefacts mainly from the Classic period (Museo El Príncipe Maya) and an orchid nursery, the Vivero Verapaz just outside of town. There is also a small informative departmental museum that deals with the history of the region. And there is a continuous market just north of the church. I bought five wooden planes at the market, including a smoother, a rabbet plane and three moulding planes.

Juan Flores

Tree ferns

The Vivero Verapaz was a highlight for me, with hundred of orchids either growing under tree-ferns or in shade structures. Nero Wolf would have been in seventh heaven. Apparently, very few orchids were in bloom, so the place was not as spectacular as it would have been say in October. Nevertheless, I did really not notice the lack of blooms.  Our guide was the appropriately named Juan Flores, who managed the place and the plants.

Orchids growing in wine corks

Some small orchid plants grew in wine corks, but most were in a coir-like material obtained from the roots of the tree ferns. There were also some bonsai trees grown by Juan’s wife that had mini orchids growing on them. I don’t know how they manage to keep the place going as it is forbidden to export orchids from Guatemala, along with birds and mammals. Juan completely agrees with preventing the export of wild orchids, but these were grown in the nursery. Maybe we need some orchid certification program where the money would go to conservation projects, something like the rainforest t alliances uses for certified wood.

Monja blanca - Guatemala's national flower (Lycaste virginalis var. alba)

Ram Tzul dining/bar area

Fern tree with giant fiddlehead that would feed the average New Brunswick village. Our room/cabin in the background

On Tuesday we left Cobán for the Biotopo del Quetzal, a national preserve, about an hour south. Our original intention was to camp but we decided to stay acouple of days in a wonderful bungalow with a great view of the cloud forest to nurse our colds in the cool humid weather. The bamboo “eco-lodge” we stayed at is called Ram Tzul. I originally wanted to do some hikes and try to see the elusive Quetzal, Guatemala’s long-tailed national bird, but my state of health did not permit it and we just lazed around the bamboo lodge for a day and  a half.

This was written in Chiquimula in southern Guatemala and tomorrow will be heading for the Mayan ruins of Copán just across the border in Honduras. We tried going into Zacapa, north of Chiquimula where the best rum in the world is made. We wanted to visit the rum distillery and “soleras”, but Theroux was proved right: “It seemed a terrible place, as hot as any of the miserable villages along the railway line, if a bit larger.”

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En la playa de Pana

13 March 2010

Rómulo and his son Elder playing at the Bistro

The first night in Panajachel (Friday, March 5th), we went to eat at the “Bistro” after a recommendation from the hotel staff. I had asked for a typical Guatemalan restaurant and this one turned out to have an Italian menu. We looked around for something else more typical and then decide to go to the Bistro. There was an absolutely fabulous singer guitarist, Rómulo, playing and singing there. I left him a really good tip, telling him that artists are never paid enough. This entry’s title is from one of his songs.

On the way home we ran into a procession. A brightly lit statue of Jesus carrying the cross was being carried by a group of men towards the Panajachel church. The float was followed by a wire leading to a generator that provided the power to the lights.

The next day, we met Lars for lunch. He suggested going to the Bistro again where I had a great filet mignon and Marilyn had chicken. That night we ate at the Sunset Bar on the waterfront where the food was all “genuine” Mexican, supposedly just like in Mexico according to the menu but actually mostly Tex-Mex. The band played some rock classics including Marilyn’s favourite: Stand by Me. But they were nowhere as good as Rómulo. On the way back, we passed by the Bistro where Rómulo waved at us.

On Sunday, following Lars’ suggestion, we went to the famous market in Chichicastenango (a.k.a. Chichi), about an hour away by twisty road: half an hour uphill, 5 minutes on the highway and an hour down and then up twisty roads. Yes, that’s an hour away, but it took us an hour and a half to get there. I immediately bought a rather dandy straw hat for 50 Quetzales (about six or seven dollars) without bothering to bargain. I needed it as my head was starting to feel sunburned.

In Guatemala, the custom is to bargain, and not only for tourists. The sellers usually ask for about double what they want and one tries to beat them down. On the other hand, I still refuse to bargain with artists and artisans for their work, and if it’s double what they really want, well, good for them; they’re underpaid anyway. The market was overwhelming & I forgot what Marilyn bought. We had lunch at the fancy Hotel Maya Inn where the waiters wear a traditional costume that costs almost a thousand dollars.

Marimba players at the Hotel Maya Inn

That night we went to yet another place, called the Circus Bar. Italian food yet again: I had home made potato gnocchi with tomato sauce and Marilyn had tagliatelle with shrimp and cream sauce. There were some musicians playing there, but they were not that great and passed the hat after their set. The place was decorated with many circus posters from Latin America and Europe, some very old, as the founders of the place were former circus people.

On the Monday, we went on a boat (lancha) tour around the lake with Juan, the brother of Timoteo our hotel clerk. Marilyn & I were the only passengers on this tour. We went to Santiago Atitlán as well as San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó.

In Santiago, after visiting the church where the saints were all dressed in different colour cloths, we went to visit Maximon (pronounced Ma-shi-mon), the Maya deity protector of the people. The Maximon is portrayed as a man with a suit and a hat usually smoking a cigarette or a cigar. At the shrine we went to, there were four women kneeling and asking favours of the Maximon: one had a stomach ailment, the second was opening a new business and the other two needed help with passing their exams. A Mayan priest was reciting incantations to help them while everybody else was chattering, smoking & drinking. We had to pay for our entrance and for each photo we took. The money went into Maximon’s pocket. Marilyn did not want to enter the shrine or chapel as it was way too smoky.

Luigi in Maximon shrine in Santiago

Maximones at the Nim Pot store in Antigua

In San Antonio, we saw some weavers at work and Marilyn was happy to see that the fabric she liked a lot and bought a lot of was actually made with a pedal loom rather than by machine.

We then had lunch in Santa Catarina, where I also took some pictures of the perfectly safe scaffolding. (NOT!!!) It is amazing with what workers will put up with when they are poor and powerless: people spraying paint with only a handkerchief over their face, no ear muffs in sight when using jackhammers, and speaking of sight, I have yet to see any safety glasses in Guatemala. But the hardware stores are full of Satanley (sic) tools.

That night (Monday) we went back to the Bistro but Rómulo was not playing. However, he was there and we did talk to him. We arranged to meet the next morning at the hotel. At breakfast he told us about a project he was heavily involved in: building a school for special needs children. I went to the school with him.

Martha and Rómulo in the school showing one of the displays. The curtains in the background are the "doors" to the toilets.

The school was fully operational with 32 kids and two teachers, despite still missing interior doors and windows and having little furniture. They are responsible for 52 kids, but the others are in the regular school system; for example they got fitted with a hearing aid and can attend regular school. The school was built within the precinct of a kindergarten in Panajachel.

Martha, the teacher, told me that it would be ideal to have another six small tables so the kids would have a place to work. (Hint, hint Luigi!) I asked how much a table would cost and she figured about 500 Quetzales each (about $65 dollars). I asked about chairs and she said it would be great to have some too, but right now the parents were asked to bring chairs for their kids to sit on. I got sucked in and agreed to get the tables made to a maximum of 3,000 Quetzales.

Canadian peas for Soupe aux pois.

I was happy to see that the school got assistance from a Canadian organization in Montreal and from Spain. They also had bags of pasta, gummy bears and dried split peas donated by a Canadian parish, but they did not know what the peas were. They thought they might be lentils, but I told them they were not and that they were used to make a traditional French-Canadian soup. I later looked it up in a Spanish dictionary and Rómulo now knows what they are called (guisante, alverja, or chícharo).

Planer and jointer in wood storage and planing area

Anyway, Rómulo and I head to the carpentry/cabinet making shop where they are already building some lockers for the school with money Rómulo raised. The owner is not there, so Rómulo and I agree that he is to look for the guy and call me after he talks to the owner.

Table saw

I go off shopping with Marilyn and I call Rómulo around 5 PM or so since he had not called me yet. He tells me the owner wants 675 Quetzales per table. I think, shit, he’s going to hit me for more money. Anyway, around supper time, Rómulo calls me to ask whether we would come to the Bistro for supper, I am ready to say no more money with Marilyn supporting me in my resolve. We sit down with Rómulo, and he tells me he found a cabinet maker in another village (San Pedro, IIRC) who is ready to make the six tables, and six chairs as well, for 3,000 Quetzales. I am truly relieved and maybe have been unjust with Rómulo who had every intention of respecting my boundaries. I owe him an apology for my misjudgement of his intentions. Anyway Rómulo does his gig which we truly enjoy, throws in a line about amigos de Canadá in his Playa de Pana song. He calls the president of their association, Marvin Quinoñez, who happens to be married to Martha the teacher and works as speech pathologist. I hand him half the money so he can pay the cabinet maker when the work is finished, and I am to pay the first half tomorrow directly to the cabinet maker so he can buy the materials. I also ask Marvin to look into the possibility of my getting a Canadian tax receipt for my donation. I tell Rómulo and Marvin that the tables are in honour of my good friend Todd Hardy, carpenter, unionists, former leader of the Yukon NDP and founder of Habitat for Humanity in the Yukon. Todd is dying of leukemia.

Ricardo at his workbench

We have every intention of leaving the next morning, but I want to go see the woodworking shop first. Rómulo shows up at the hotel and tells me he found someone in town to do the work. Ricardo shows up after a while and we go to his shop to discuss design. He already has some sketches done, and he intends to use round tenons for the chairs and regular mortise and tenon for the table. His shop is really simple; a small metal table saw, and a workbench and a bunch of hand tools in the yard.

Ricardo's table saw

Anyway, Rómulo says he can’t make a decision about the design, he has to ask Martha. We go to the bank and I hand Ricardo 1,500 Quetzales and go with him to the lumber dealer to buy the wood. The pine lumber to be used for the table is sold in 12-inch wide planks, 8 to 10 feet long at about 65 cents (5 Quetzales) a board-foot. Cypress is a little more expensive at 8 Quetzales per board-foot. Ricardo picks his planks and some 2X3 rough material for the table legs. He tells me to be at the entrance to the callejon (alley) near his house at 2:00 PM to help unload the lumber.

Ricardo slecting wood for the tables

I show up at around 2:10 and Ricardo has a box on his shoulder and is obviously weaving. The man is totally pissed. I think to myself, “Uh oh! We have a problem here.” He insists on carrying the box back to his place. Luckily the alleys are quite narrow and the walls help keep him staggering in the right direction. He is quite proud to tell me numerous times that he has bought the glue, contact cement, varnish and screws needed, which are in the box he is carrying. I get to his place and meet his wife who is rather shy and maybe a little ashamed. He hands her 400 Quetzales and to my relief she tells me he has already paid for the wood. I call Rómulo, who had been there before when no one was there and I tell him that Ricardo seems to have had quite a liquid lunch.

Rómulo shows up, tells him he expected more professionalism from him. Ricardo excuses himself. We decide to go get the wood. Ricardo and I walk there and Rómulo goes on his bicycle. Along the way, Ricardo alternates between being my best friend and ashamed of himself. He had to stop to relieve himself along a wall on the main drag of Panajachel. He meets another guy along the way who wants him to do some work. I introduce myself to him and he tells me his name is also Rómulo. I ask him about Ricardo. Rómulo No. 2 tells me he is a very good worker but has an alcohol problem. No shit!

Cypress & pine planks at Sebastiano's lumberyard

Anyway, we decide to get the lumber delivered the next day as the alleyway is currently blocked as workers have dug it up to install a water main. Ricardo later told Rómulo that he gets really happy because he got a job. I told Rómulo that allegro (alegre in Spanish) also means happily drunk in Italian. Anyway, Ricardo is obviously a drunk, as he is too poor to be an alcoholic.

We decide to stay in Pana one more night, go have a light supper of ceviche and salad at a waterfront restaurant. We then go to the Bistro to see if Rómulo is still there, but he has already left. I also happen to see a place where they make housecoats, but they don’t have any my size (Surprise, surprise!). I start walking away, but then I ask them if they could make one for the next morning. The tailor says he can have it for nine in the morning, so he takes my measurements and I put a deposit down.

The next morning, I call Rómulo to let him know we are leaving. He tells me he is going to Chichicastenango. Since it is on our way, I offer him a ride. I tell him to meet us at 10:15. We are late as we are doing some last minute shopping (I need to get my housecoat, Marilyn wants to buy me another shirt, I need to get a map of Honduras and we decided to buy some Huehue coffee which just came in from Mike at the Crossroads Café). Then off on another adventure with Rómulo.

Anyway, we’ll see if we can get Rómulo up to the Yukon to play in one of the music festivals.

Antigua to Panajachel: Part II

12 March 2010

We stayed in Antigua until Friday when we drove to Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. On Thursday, we went to Philip and Christina Wilson Finca el Pintado organic coffee farm to retrieve the truck and camper. In the morning, I had intended to go to the Santo Domingo Hotel/cloister/church/museum, but we stopped at too many shops along the way so it was too late to visit the museum by the time we got there if we were to meet Philip at 1:45 as we had agreed.

We met Philip at the Texaco station at the south end of town and he drove us to the Finca. The coffee harvest was near its end and they were picking everything, including the green berries. Philip told us that the harvest was about 35 per cent down from the previous year. Although there was a slight increase in prices it did not compensate for the reduction in harvest. We had an excellent lunch with Philip and his mother. Philip’s father had been in the oil industry and they had lived all over the world. His mother now lives in Washington DC.

The last of the beans

The talked ended up on the Canadian health care system: Mrs Wilson asked us how we liked it. We, of course, replied we loved it. She was sceptical of state-run health care after her experience in England when she would have had to wait for three weeks to see a doctor, but when she agreed to see the doctor privately, all of a sudden he was available the next day. She asked us what the waits were like in Canada. We had to correct yet again the many lies spread by the Republicans in the States. We told here that there was no wait for urgent procedures, but some elective surgery could wait as more urgent cases took precedence. Essentially, I pointed out, that one’s doctor acted as one’s advocate with the hospital system. She asked us whether there was no private system. I explained that until recently, at least, a doctor was either in the system or out of it. But if he was out, he had no access to the hospitals which are all non-profit institutions run by community boards (none are for-profit).

Coffee bean waste being partially composted

Philip gave us a tour of his worm farm: 24 million worms who turn the waste from the coffee processing into fertilizer. The finca is also planting legume trees so that they can fix nitrogen in the soil.

Worm farm bins (note bird netting)

Ecofiltro filters being painted with colloidal silver

We then visited the Ecofiltro factory run by Philip. The Ecofiltro is a low technology water filter that can be used to purify drinking water. It consists of a flower pot shaped ceramic and sawdust filter impregnated with colloidal silver which fits into a plastic or terra cotta container. I think it would have many applications in many places in Canada (mining camps, outfitters, First Nations communities, Walkerton and other places that depend on privatized water inspection services, etc.). Anyway, it is something worth exploring. We retrieved our truck & camper and drove it to the hotel parking lot.

Luigi cradling Malbec bottle

On Thursday night, we went to a rather fancy parillada (steak house grill) restaurant. Marilyn ordered the filet mignon and she got—get this—two tournedos at least one inch thick wrapped in bacon. And they came rare rather than medium as she had ordered. They do not stint on the meat in this country. She was not able to finish them & I had to help her. On the waiter’s recommendation we had an absolutely superb Norton Argentine Malbec. Actually we had two bottles, one in honour of Deb Pitt who asked me to have a glass of vino for her.

The next morning (Friday) we visited the Casa Santo Domingo museum, a former Dominican church and convent that included a number of crypts, a broken down earthquake-damaged church, a regular church under a tent, and a number of museums all within the precincts of a hotel, not to speak of a patio full of parrots. We found all quite interesting, especially a museum of ceramics and glass which compared modern art glass with Mayan ceramics. Each exhibit juxtaposed Mayan art with glass art work from all over the world (but mostly from Sweden, France and Canada). There were sections on different animal representations, human figures, plants, etc. Really cool and well done. There was a museum dedicated to contemporary Guatemalan art, one with painted religious statuary, and another on artisanal work. All very well done and we appreciated having a guide. It is quite impressive that the hotel manages to do this.

Fruit offerings with flower carpet above

We had a very bad lunch of tacos (the second worse after Mexicana Airlines) and then went to Jocotenango just outside of Antigua where they had made a flower carpet on the floor of the church. The flower alfombres are a typical Lent activity in the Antigua area. Quite attractive and there were a lot of food vendors outside. We bought some mangoes and sweets but could not find coffee. It was really stupid of us not to have waited to eat and being subjected to the barely edible tacos.

Jocotenango church

We then drove back to the Pan-American Highway on a narrow twisty road and turned towards Whitehorse – the Alaska Highway is theoretically part of the Pan-American. We turned off the highway and drove down another even narrower and twistier road to Sololá and then another 10 klicks to Panajachel. By that time I was pretty burned out and stopped at the first decent looking hotel we saw, the Rancho Grande Inn. It actually turned out pretty well, with a fairly cheap room with fireplace and bath, a gorgeous garden, and a great breakfast with one-inch-thick perfectly-cooked pancakes. We could not have the nicer room because it was already reserved for the Saturday night.

Morelia

23 December 2009

Sunday 6 December

I already recounted what happened on Saturday the 5th in the “Shit happens” posting. I stayed at a Best Western Hotel, or one of these chains and paid by credit card and discovered I had lost my bank card. Knowing myself, I also carried travellers cheques and still had a few hundred US dollars. The next morning, the hotel would not change travellers’ cheques but told me that there might be a foreign exchange office open at a nearby shopping centre. I couldn’t turn into the shopping centre parking lot because there was a height limit at the gate, as is often the case in Mexico.

So I turned left on the next street, went over a tope (f…ing speed bumps that are all over the place in Mexico and destroy numerous suspensions and mufflers judging by the number of repair shops that advertise mofles y muelles – mufflers and springs). My drive shaft fell off and made a horrible noise. I immediately stopped to see what was wrong and saw the driveshaft with one end on the pavement, with a completely broken U-joint. Shit continues to happen! But then I should have got it checked before, as I was hearing a loud “clack” noise every time I accelerated or changed gears. I had just thought of waiting until Cancún to get it checked out, along with getting a tune-up done.

I thought: “Hey! I’ve paid all this money for the BC Automobile Association membership, including extra for camper coverage. They should be able to help me.” I look all over, but I couldn’t find the phone number except for a 1-800 number that doesn’t work from my cell phone in Mexico, even though it is still a US number. So I try calling Ariel in Vancouver, but there is no answer. I then try Janne in Calgary. She immediately answers, asks me why I don’t look it up over the internet, I told her I was out of the hotel. She looks up the number and I call them. After being put on hold to investigate, the BCAA person tells me they have no Mexican affiliate and don’ know anyone in Morelia who could help me. But the she tells me they will reimburse the towing fee and repair costs when I get back to Canada.

So I call the insurance company who put me in touch with the tow truck company, who ask me if I am the same guy as last night. I say I am, and they say a tow truck will show up within an hour. Of course, that is a Mexican hour, which is more like two hours, same as in the Yukon. Good thing I’m on anti-depressants. Anyway, the driver gets there loads up the truck with some difficulty. I did ask him if he also wanted to use my winch to help, but he really didn’t need it; the problem was with the length of the truck. I learned two new Spanish words: crucetas (little crosses) for the U-joints and güinch for winch (OK, the last is a Mexican Anglicism).

So the driver asks where I want to bring the truck. I say: “I don’t know, does he know any good mechanic?” He tells me about a friend of his who supposedly speaks English as he spent a few years in the States. I tell him: “I don’t care what he speaks, is he a good mechanic?” So he calls Carlos to let him know we’re coming. We drive right around Morelia to Carlos’ shop near the football stadium. He only charges me $M350 for the tow. I discuss the situation with Carlos. He offers to fix it right away—this is Sunday, remember—by welding it, which should get me to Cancun. But we agree that it is better to replace it as well as the other U-joint. He can’t get the parts until the next day, but he figures he can get it done by the end of the day on Monday. I also ask him to do a tune-up (called tunap in Mexican) and check out the speedometer (velocimetro), which has stopped working (I have been using the GPS to check my speed). Other car words are bujias (for spark plugs, same as the French bougies, unlike the Italian candela; they all mean candles), cambiar el aceite for change the oil, filtros for you know what.

Aceite is one Spanish word that is really weird to me, and probably to most Italian speakers. In Italian , aceto is vinegar, generally served with its opposite which is oil (olio). To use a word so close to vinegar as the word for oil is strange, especially since most word in Spanish are close to their Italian equivalents. Cambiar el aceite sounds too much like change the vinegar to me.

I ask Carlos to call me a taxi, but instead he drives me to a taxi stand a few kilometres away, saying that it would take too long. The taxi first takes me to a Banco Azteca which is inside the Elektra furniture store. Kind of strange: a furniture and appliance store and bank all in one, but this store seems to be common all over Mexico. I guess you can get your loan right away. They won’t change travellers’ cheques, but I do have some US dollars they do exchange, so I can pay for the taxi at least.

Armed with my tourist guides, I look for a hotel downtown near the cathedral. One guide suggests the Hotel Valladolid right on the central square. I investigated it along with two other hotels in the same block across from the central square. The taxi driver suggested a cheaper hotel, not far but it was a little too grungy. I’m getting picky in my old age; I’d rather stay in a nicer hotel even if it’s a lot more expensive. In my younger days, I stayed in a lot of grungy places with the dirty toilet down the hall just because they were cheap. Not anymore, except when I go to Ross River. Anyway, I ended up staying at the City Express hotel—Hotel Valladolid in the guidebook—which was the cheapest of the three in the main square, but did not have a view, actually no window in the room.

As a bonus, there was a “The Italian Coffee Company” right below. Finally, the prospect of decent coffee in the morning! Despite living in country that produces good coffee, Mexicans drink Nescafe, with a lot of sugar and milk—to kill the taste, I presume. I like to call it “No es café” (It’s not coffee), but Mexicans don’t seem to get it. I immediately ordered an espresso, extremely short. They were surprised I did not add milk to it. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess. And there is a lot of good food and drink to make up for the lousy coffee.

Clown show main square

Morelia is a beautiful and exquisite colonial city whose historic centre has been mainly restored. There are a lot of worse places I could have got stuck in; if you are to break down anywhere in Mexico, I definitely recommend Morelia. It was originally known as Valladolid named after the Castilian city, but was renamed in 1821 to Morelia to honour Jose Morelos, a hero of the initial Mexican war of independence who was born there.

José Morelos' house

It is quite rightly a UNESCO World Heritage site. I walked around the centre for a while, looked into the cathedral and into another plaza (Saint Francis). I tried to get on a tour which uses a streetcar. They told me the next tour was at 4:30. I got there at 4:25, but as I was the only one there, they decided to wait until 5:00 and then 5:15. I taught the tour booth person some words and expressions in French and Italian. By 5:15, I gave up and came back at 6:00 PM. Still not enough people; the reason they gave was that it was too cold. It was in fact maybe 12 degrees or so and all the Mexicans were wearing sweaters and jackets, which I noted in my smug Canadian way while I was in shorts and a T-Shirt and commented it was a nice summer evening.

I had read in a guidebook about the best taquería in town, which was near the aqueduct. Ah, yes, Morelia also has a Roman style aqueduct with very many arches. That place was closed, but there was another small taquería next door where I ate. Back to the room for some blogging & a Skype call to Janne to try to find out what was happening to Marilyn and whether she made it to the apartment. I also note my phone had stopped working. I go on AT&T’s internet site to try to put more time into it and it tells me the number no longer exists. Which is weird, but it might have happened when I accidentally started downloading  a bunch of games into the phone and I tried to stop it by randomly pushing buttons. It eventually stopped, but I must have screwed something up. $US50.00 of time down the drain.

Monday 8 December, Morelia

Carlos had asked for an advance to buy the parts, but I did not have any cash on Sunday. So I changed some travellers’ cheques at the Scotiabank branch. Yes, they are all over Mexico and brag about being one of the world’s best banks. What they don’t say was that it was politically impossible for Canadian governments to deregulate to the extent the banks would have liked, so that kept them safe.

I had breakfast at the hotel where I got to make my own porridge rather than the watery stuff the Mexicans serve, probably because they heard it was good for cholesterol. The Great Italian Coffee Company was closed in the morning!!! Anyway, I took a cab to Carlos’ garage, gave him $2,000 and went back downtown. He told me he would call around 4:00 to let me know how it was going. Back downtown, I went back to the streetcar tour company and they told me there would be a tour around 2:30 pm and every hour after that. He also told me of a restaurant where to eat typical Michoacán food, near the other side of the plaza. I don’t find the restaurant, but there are a whole lot of small open-air restaurants inside the porticos around a square (San Agustín). I ate at one of them, some kind of enchilada with tomato sauce and cream, quite good along with a bottle of “sangría”, which was a grapey juicy pop rather than the Spanish combo of wine, brandy and fruit juice. For some reason most of the small outdoor restaurants don’t serve alcohol, not even beer.

I also saw a cell phone repair place on the other side of the street from the Plaza. I walked in and started talking to a guy by the name of Hugo who was behind a steel grate, as many of these cell phone places in Mexico sport. Hugo speaks perfect English, having lived in the States for a few years until he got kicked out. (Hello Hugo, if you’re reading this.)

Hugo asks, rhetorically: “What is wrong with someone trying to earn a decent living to feed his family?” Nothing, of course, except for some stupid laws. Here is someone obviously talented and intelligent who would b useful in any country. It is the US’ loss. But then, I might be prejudiced because my father came to Canada illegally in 1952 and made a good citizen and someone who literally contributed considerably to building our country.

Canada needs to start attracting more people like Hugo so they can pay my pension when I retire. And I think Mexicans would fit in much better than others: they are North Americans after all and despite all the superficial differences, our cultures share very much. They have Christmas trees and Santas and red-nosed caribou and we have Mexican poinsettias; we drive the same cars that come from the same factories; our supermarkets are full of taco chips, tortillas and salsas while the Mexican ones are full of the same ketchup and cereals as ours; nachos are as common as hamburgers. The regular coffee is equally bad in all three North American countries. The US sneezes and Canada and Mexico catch the same cold.

Canada should to install immigration officers at the US-Mexico border and interview and invite all the useful deportees. I talked to other Mexicans about their experience in the US. One was a gas jockey at a PEMEX station who had just come back from Minnesota where he got laid off. He worked as a roofer (legally) for—get this—$12.00 per hour! This was a legal immigrant with his green card. No wonder so many Americans can afford McMansions. “Hey, come to Canada,” I said, “you would earn well over $20.00 per hour.”

Another person I talked to was a snorkelling guide at Puerto Morales south of Cancun. He was a fully qualified master stonemason, but there was no work, so he helped his brother out guiding tourists on the coral reefs. He tried going to the US, but after paying the equivalent of two years’ income, he was immediately caught and shipped back. Canada needs stonemasons, bricklayers and other trowel tradespeople as the old Italians and Portuguese who did that work are now retiring. Let’s bring some Mexicans, they are equally qualified and just as hard working. I gave him my card and encouraged him to consider emigrating to Canada.

While Mexico’s official unemployment rate is quite low, there is clearly a massive amount of underemployment. Usually this term is reserve for poor little university graduates who can’t find work in their field and have to take “menial” jobs, such as taxi drivers or waiters. But in Mexico, it affects others too. In the Plaza in Morelia, there must have been at least 20 shoe shine stands licensed by the municipality. How many people need their shoes shined everyday, in a country where most wear sandals or sneakers? And all the vendors (ambulantes) of just about everything, some of whom are at street corners with a bag of oranges or a few bottles of (very good freshly squeezed & cold) orange juice, peanuts, pineapples, newspapers, windshield washing, etc. And all the very small taco stands, sellers of coco frío (cold coconut), etc. Since this is the 21st Century, there are now also vendors of cell phone recharging cards. In the tourist areas, they hassle foreigners by trying to sell them selling crappy souvenirs or artisanal works, but they are also present everywhere else in Mexico, albeit much less bothersome. Despite Mexico’s apparent prosperity, the minimum wage for manual occupations and trades ranges from $M65 to $M85 per day (that’s pesos, not dollars), that is five to eight dollars PER DAY. The average worker maybe earns 10-12 dollars a day.

Anyway, back to Hugo and the cell phone, him and his boss (José, IIRC) check out my phone and suggest getting a more time from AT&T. I tell them it doesn’t work and ask them to put in a Mexican chip and I will get a Mexican number. They tell me the phone will be ready at 4:00 or so. So I figure 4:30, and be there for the 4:30 tour which probably wouldn’t start until 5:00pm anyway. Mexican time is very much like Yukon time, so I’m used to it.

I wander around the city once more, then go have a beer under the porticos where I wrote a blog entry. At 4:25 or so, I go get my cell, buy more time $M500 for $M1000 worth of time as there is a special on from Telcel, who Hugo assures me is the best provider and I can also use the phone it in all of Latin America.  As soon as I got the phone, I called Carlos just in case, and, of course, the truck was not ready but he promised it for 10 AM. My new Mexico phone number is +52 (Mexico’s country code) 443 104 01 36. Telephone charges are very high in Mexico, up to $M3.50 pesos a minute.

In case you’re wondering why I and Mexicans use the dollar sign for pesos, it is because the Peso is the original dollar. After the conquest, the Spanish started minting “Pieces of eight” Reales in Mexico (using Indian slave labour in the mines). These became a very common currency and were used in the French and English colonies to the north. As it was similar to a Bohemian coin called the Joachimthaler or Tahler, it became known as the “Spanish dollar” in the English colonies, while the French called it une Piastre, a word that is still used for the dollar in the Quebec, Acadian and Cajun dialects and in Haitian Creole. The “two bits” expression for a quarter comes from the fact that the peso was divided into eight reales, and was often actually split in eight. So two of those “bits” were a quarter dollar. The dollar sign was originally a superimposition of an S over a P, short for, of course, PeSo.

I finally got my tour at 5;30 or so,as a Polish couple, another Chilean and Polish Canadian couple and a Mexican showed up and paid their 50 pesos. The tour was quite interesting. It started in front of the Cathedral, where a large number of people had assembled. The tour guide told us they were going on a pilgrimage to the Church of the Virgin of Guadelupe and that we would be visiting the church as part of the tour. We saw first the fountain and statue to fertility, then the aqueduct, which was in use until the 1970s.

Morelia church of Our Lady of Guadelupe, main altar

We then stopped at the church of the Guadelupe close to one end of the aqueduct for 10 minutes. As I entered the church, the Hail Mary’s in Spanish got to me and I automatically started to recite them in French and Italian. The impulse was stronger than me. As a traveller, I decided I needed a medal of St. Christopher (the patron saint of travellers), so I asked for one at the small souvenir stand at the back of the church. They didn’t have a medal, but I got an image instead, which I duly put on the dash of the truck the next day. My godmother and aunt Nicolina will be very proud of me once my cousins Louis or Mike relate this to her.

Church of the Guadelupe and outside vendors

To those who want to point out that St. Christopher was desanctified by the Pope a while ago, I can only say that you understand nothing about what it means to be a Catholic, even an atheist one.

Outside the church was a big fiesta with all kinds of food stands: fruit (oranges, mangoes, papaya, apples), sugar cane, tacos and other fast food, religious souvenirs. The Virgen de Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, like St. Patrick for the Irish or St. John the Baptist for the French Canadians. In true catholic tradition, the Saint’s day (December 12th) is an occasion for not only religious veneration for also for joyful partying and feasting.

I was the last one on the tram car; they were waiting for me. Back to the other end of the aqueduct was the taco restaurant I mentioned that was closed last night. I asked the driver/guide if it was true it was the best in Morelia, and he begged to differ. He then went on to describe the cuisine of Morelia and especially carnitas, which are basically pork trimmings and innards cooked in lard. We happened to pass by the office of a cardiologist just then and I said: “¡Y aquí está el cardiólogo! (And here is he cardiologist!)” to general hilarity. The driver made a sarcastic comment about people on diet pigging out on carnitas and drinking a Coke Zero (Mexican version of diet Coke) to lose weight. We also went right to the end of the aqueduct where it originally petered out and went underground. It had been covered up in the 1970s when a more modern water supply system was installed and before they got the idea that it would be nice to preserve their unique heritage.

We also passed by the University Library which was originally the Jesuit college. The Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its possessions in 1767-68. The guide’s explanation was that the Jesuits were preaching human equality (I should say equality among men, I don’t think they even thought of the equality of men and women at the time) which implied an end to the slavery and inferior position of Indians the Spanish empire depended on. This was certainly the case in other parts of the Spanish and Portuguese empire like what is now Paraguay. The Jesuits were showing their progressive stance even then. Their special oath of obedience to the Pope meant that they could ignore the local religious authorities and do whatever they wanted, which is want they continue to do in their support for left-wing causes. I once read that Jesuit priests had the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, which is not surprising as their vow of celibacy prevents them from entering into long term relationships while the priesthood has always been the way the Catholic Church co-opted gay men and the nuns’ convents for gay women.

After the excellent tour, I wanted to stay in Morelia for a few more days to explore everything I learned. But I went for supper instead. I had seen a chocolate place advertising Mexican coffee as well as the restaurant the tramway guide guy had told me about on the Portal Hidalgo off the main square. I went to the coffee place and bought three pounds of coffee (ok, a kilo and a half) from different parts of Mexico: Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca. They recommended another restaurant across the street for typical Michoacán cuisine so I went there. I asked the waiter what was typical and what he liked best. I also asked for a recommendation about a Mexican wine. He turned his nose up a bit without saying anything or recommending any wine. The message was clear and I asked if I was better off drinking beer, which I ordered. He was right, Marilyn had what was supposed to be a pretty good Mexican wine tonight and it wasn’t. But then the grocery store clerk tried to steer us to Spanish wines. I had a pretty good meal but not spectacular but I remember the dessert, a corunda which was a sweet tamale covered in cream. I then went to the hotel, posted a blog entry and tried to get psyched up for the long trip to the Yucatán over the next few days.

Getting to Morelia, Part II

17 December 2009

Dear readers, sorry about the delay. I am with Marilyn in Sophie’s wonderful apartment in Puerto Aventuras, a resort community between Playa del Carmen and Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán peninsula. I reached Puerto Aventuras last Thursday—a week ago. Marilyn has been keeping me away from my blog. I know it’s not her fault, but I need someone to blame. Continuing with the narrative based on my notes and fallible memory.

Note that the subsequent day of this  narrative (December 5) has already been published as “Shit happens”.

Friday, 4 December, Culiacán, to Tepic, Nayarit

After the usual skimpy included-in-the-room-breakfast at the hotel (bad coffee and a brioche), I went looking for a bank machine first thing in the morning. I decided to walk down the main shopping drag in Culiacán. Well, I found the market. I was somewhat surprised to see that most of the stalls were butchers’ stalls with some fish mongers for variety, very few vegetable and fruit stands. I bought some oranges and mandarins at one and had a licuado de papaya at another, which is a sort of milkshake with papaya.

The Mexican diet seems to be very meat oriented, perhaps making up for the thousands of years when protein was scarce; other than beans and corn, protein sources included only small dogs, turkeys and the occasional prisoner who was ritually sacrificed and eaten. At least that is anthropologist Marvin Harris’ somewhat disputed thesis. We of Christian heritage should not be shocked or disgusted by ritual cannibalism, after all what is communion? And if you’re a practicing Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Lutheran, you believe in some form of transubstantiation where you are actually eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God.

The climate is definitely getting more tropical and the desert is gone, as the many palm trees attest.

I stopped for lunch in Mazatlán at yet another roadside restaurant, this time a seafood one. I wanted ceviche (raw fish in lime juice) and that’s what I had. The choice was camarones (prawns) or polpo (octopus). I would have preferred fish, but those were the choices, so I had the octopus. The owner also asked me if I wanted some camarone caldo. My Italian brain kicked in: “No I want ceviche, it’s supposed to be raw not hot! Anyway, I want octopus, not shrimp.” The owner and I try to discuss this –quite politely and pleasantly—but, obviously to both of us, misunderstanding each other.  Finally, I admit defeat and tell him just to serve me as he normally does, since I don’t understand and am interested in learning. So I get a bowl of shrimp consommé or broth. It finally dawns on me: “Luigi, you dumb wop! Caldo is hot in Italian, but not in Spanish; it means broth. Caliente is hot in Spanish. You knew that!”

It was an excellent ceviche, made right in front of me. The owner washed his hands, chopped the tomatoes, onions, octopus, put it all in a bowl and squeezed a bunch of lime on it. And it was immediately served to me with taco chips. It was perfect and done in a minute. And the octopus was tender. An orange soft drink completed the meal as those small restaurants do not serve beer.  I had the usual discussion about how cold it is in Canada, especially in the Yukon and how much I liked Mexico. Most people have no idea what freezing weather is like, never mind 40 below.

He also told me he believed in the bible, which he duly pulled out. I asked him if he was Catholic, and he told me he was Pentecostal. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to offend and he was happy not to discuss religion either. I don’t understand the attraction of the fundamentalist Protestant churches to the Mexicans and other Latin Americans. The bible thumping seems rather sterile after the beauty of the rituals of the Catholic church and the adaptation to local cultures, to the point that Catholicism may be accused of providing a thin veneer over the original paganism. But then, I never understood Protestantism: why give up on 1600 years of Christian tradition and only go by the parts of the bible that appeal to one’s prejudices: a bible that was written by Catholics (in the broad sense of the word, before the filioque East-West schism) and whose canon was only decided upon 400 years or so after the founding of the religion. I guess I should mind my own business as I am a non-believer: a Catholic atheist as I like to say. But, as I discovered later in Morelia, you can take the boy out of the Church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy.

I continued on, hoping to get to Guadalajara by the evening. By then it was obvious that I would not make it to the Yucatan by Sunday. Marilyn was scheduled to arrive in Cancun on Sunday the 6th. I decided to call Marilyn and Janne in Calgary to let them know I would be late just after a toll booth on the autopista.

Calgary blizzard

They had just walked in the door and had a harrowing time driving from the airport in a blizzard.Now Janne lives just a few minutes from the airport in normal times. While they were fighting the snow and wind, I was looking at palm trees and flowers.

Autopista toll booth

Autopista toll booth

The last time Marilyn had been in a blizzard like that was in 1990 in Haines Junction where we spent a couple of days in Mom’s Cozy Corner Motel. It was a lot of fun. The one drive I remember was in 1987 or so when it took us 9 hours to drive from Montreal to Quebec City.

I stopped at a roadside vendor for coco frío (cold coconut). The vendor pulled a green coconut out of a cooler with ice, used his machete to cut a bit of the top and some kind of drill to poke a hole in the top, stuck a straw in it and handed me the coconut. I drank the milk which was quite refreshing. He then took his machete, chopped the coconut in four pieces and used a curved spatula tool to get the meat out. He put it in a plastic bag, asked me how much chile powder I wanted (I said not too much), and squeezed a lime in it. So I had coconut for the rest of the day. Put the lime in the coconut…drink it all up 🙂

Tepic cathedral

Tepic main square

Since I wasn’t going to make it to meet Marilyn on Sunday, I decided to stay in Tepic, a rather nice colonial town instead of trying to make it to Guadalajara. Using the Sanborn guide, I decided to stay at the Fray Junípero Serra hotel, downtown right next to the main square near the cathedral. The Blessed Brother Juniper Serra, the Apostle of California, was responsible for the creation of numerous missions in Alta California including Monterrey, Capistrano, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and San Diego. Given my experience the previous night in Culiacán, I decided to call ahead to reserve a room. It really wasn’t needed. I had a problem with the parking and had to go around a couple of times as taxi drivers refused (understandably) to let me park in their stand which was next to the occupied hotel street parking. We finally resolved matters with the help of a traffic policewoman who gracefully allowed me to park illegally on the other side of the street while I got my hotel room, while she went to investigate the people who were illegally parked in the hotel’s space.

At the desk, I met Giovanni, a bellhop who was much more like a concierge. He spoke perfect English: he told me he lived in the States for a number of years and got deported for being there illegally. A “wetback” in his words. I think his expulsion was a net loss for the US and I would be happy to have people like him come to Canada. Anyway, my camper was too high for the hotel’s underground parking lot, so I had to bring it to another lot a few blocks away. Giovanni came with me, helped me with my bags (quite heavy as they had many books). I gave a really good tip ($M200) and I said this was an American style tip. I also told him the old Florida joke about the difference between Canadians and canoes: canoes tip; and enjoined him to testify it is false.

I went out on the town, which was still busy and found a taquería that used home-made tortillas. The young waitress was rather indifferent but the older women who were making the tortillas and serving were quite friendly. I had a couple of tacos and a couple of quesadillas and three beers. I asked them about beers they had and decided to try a few. One of the women sat at my table to eat her tacos, ostensibly to keep me company since I was alone. She was subject to quite a bit of teasing by colleagues, but I defended her and said I was quite happy to have some company. We talked a bit and I told her I was meeting my wife in Cancún, so things did not go anywhere. She eventually had to get up to serve another set of customers.

I went back to the hotel, wrote a bit on the blog, which did not get published until much later.

Observations on previous entries.

I forgot to mention a couple of things on previous entries.

On the Getting to Morelia, Part I entry.

I handed the chicken restaurant woman a 500 peso note instead of a 50 and told her to keep the change. She could have just kept it, but she pointed out to me that it was a 500, not a fifty. I did leave her a good tip. A few metres away was a stand that sold horchatas. I asked the seller what it was and he made me one. It was a very good thick drink, tasting of rice and milk but sweet.

On the Shit Happens entry

I forgot to mention I got a bottle of tequila in Tequila from an ambulante (street vendor) at an autopista toll booth. It all looked official as the four or five vendors had identification tags from the municipality of Tequila. I paid $M200 for a really tacky and ugly wood covered bottle. I asked the other vendors which one was the best. Then the vendor tried to sell me a 3-litre plastic bottle, first for $M500, then 500 pesos for both, and finally, as I was driving away, 200 pesos for the 3 litres. I guess I paid a little too much for the first bottle, but $CDN18 for a 26-ouncer isn’t all that bad.

While stuck in traffic in Guadalajara, I noticed quite a few gated communities. I reflected that this is not a good thing for citizenship. If the upper middle class and the upper class lock themselves away from their fellow citizens, where is the impetus or support going to come to improve lives, reduce crime and generally improve community conditions. Many social improvements—and as a social-democrat I might not like it but I recognize the reality—happen when the better off people recognize that it is in their interest to improve the conditions of those who are less well off or are motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige toward their community. If these gated communities expand, we might end up in a Randian dystopia of every man for himself and the death of heterogeneous human communities where all are more or less accepted, or at least not denied the right to be part of the community. This is somewhat ironic as I am currently staying in a gated community where locals get checked out before they are allowed in, but somehow one one for tourists does not seem as bad.