Tag Archive: Lake Chapala, México


Street in Ollentaytambo, Peru

Street in Ollentaytambo, Peru

Machu Picchu is the first image which comes to mind at the mention of the word Perú, but any visitor who limits a tour of this incredibly diverse country to the iconic ruin will only scratch its surface.

Motorcycle taxi in Urubamba, Peru

Motorcycle taxi in Urubamba, Peru

In fact, the real dilemma in planning a tour of Perú is not what to leave in, but what to leave out.

The Andes Explorer stops at La Raya, Peru

The Andes Explorer stops at La Raya, Peru

Archeological sites in the Incas’ Sacred Valley which tell which the story of the Incas’ rise and fall are a tour essential, but a visitor could easily spend a month elsewhere without retracing any steps.

Floating islands near las Islas Uros, Peru

Floating islands near las Islas Uros, Peru

Peru is large enough to stretch from the U.S.\Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Terrain ranging from Pacific beaches to mountain peaks and rain forests has spawned dozens of micro-climates that produce a staggering and often unique array of plant and animal life.

Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Taquile, Peru

Lake Titicaca as seen from Isla Taquile, Peru

Pre-Incan ruins sit side by side with west coast beaches on the northern Pacific coast. the NAZCA lines score the surface of the arid south, and dugouts ply the jungle headwaters of the Amazon

Street in historic center of Cusco, Peru

Street in historic center of Cusco, Peru

The Quechua language spoken by the descendants of the Inca is only one of a dozen languages spoken by nearly 100 indigenous tribes and clans, each with their own distinctive dress and customs.

 

 

 

This trip is planned for two weeks, so the itinerary narrows down to these destinations:

  • The Incas’ Sacred Valley, from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
  • Lake Titicaca, arriving via stunning views from the Andean Explorer train, with service that hearkens back to the golden days of rail travel.
  • Perú’s oceanfront capital Lima, brimming both with Spanish colonial charm and glittering high rises towering above gardens, promenades, and world-class restaurants.

The trip begins here!

 

Some tips on travel to Perú:

  • Security is outstanding.  The streets feel safe and police are rarely out of eyesight wherever tourists most often gather.
  • Wireless is widely available in cafes, restaurants, and hotels in areas most frequented by tourists.
  • Electricity is 220 volts, so an adapter for 110 volt appliances is a must unless you intend to turn them into a toasters.  Consider whether you’ll also need a 3-to-2 prong outlet adapter; most electrical outlets are ungrounded (2-prong).
  • Take altitude very seriously unless you want to spend a day of your vacation in a clinic.  Thin, dry mountain air means less oxygen, faster dehydration, and less protection from the sun.  Make the going easier with a hat, long-sleeved shirts, sun block and sunglasses, lip balm and skin moisturizer and water, water, water.  Consider also taking along an altitude medication such as Diamox.  The coca leaves and tea which are widely available in hotels reflect the centuries-old practice and learning of Andean peoples, and they know what they’re talking about.
  • Not every site is ADA compliant. Visitors with mobility issues can have a fulfilling experience, but many of the archeological and many cultural sites require a good walk or climb to be fully appreciated.
  • Use of shared transportation or a taxi for ground travel anywhere in Peru is highly recommended;  traffic both in the city and in the countryside is an organized chaos, the rules of which defy comprehension by the uninitiated.
  • And, of course, take your camera; the stunning landscape and picturesque people make it practically impossible to take a bad photo.

Gone full circle

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The Jalisco villages of Cajititlan and San Juan Evangelista face each other across a couple of kilometers of lake, but on the day of my visit they’re also separated by 300 years of Mexican history.

I can’t take credit for planning this trip to Cajititlan on the Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas) but – as these photos show – the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 01

 

Candlemas observes the Biblical presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, but here it’s also the last observance of the Christmas holiday season.

Figures of the baby Jesus first displayed in Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve are given presents from the Magi on el Día de los Reyes (King’s Day, January 6).

On the Día de la Candelaria (February 2) they’re dressed in fine clothes and presented at the church for blessing.  Family and friends also traditionally gather on this day to eat tamales.

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In Mexico, this holiday is a follow-on to Kings’ Day, when children receive gifts and families and friends break share generous loaves of Rosca de Reyes, a special sweet bread with a figurine hidden inside.

Whoever finds the figurines in their portion must host a party on the Día de la Candelaria.

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We arrive in Cajititlan to find streets jammed with cars that surround blocks of the city center cordoned off for a great street festival.

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On the approach to the central plaza and the local parish church, the sound of drumbeats grows ever louder.

The narrow street opens suddenly onto the plaza, where at least 40 dancers in full Aztec ceremonial garb move about in intricately choreographed lines.

The costumes are elaborate and the pageantry is stunning. The dancers are men and women of all ages, and even a few children participate.

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As I draw closer I can hear faint strains of a violin, and in a moment see a fiddler walking among the dancers, an impresario guiding the procession toward the church.

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The church is packed as the procession makes its way up the central aisle toward the altar, the drums continuing their steady beat.

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Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 10

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 11

It’s startling to see this spectacle of pagan-rooted pageantry occupy a place of Christian worship.

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As as the ceremony ends and the procession backs slowly down the aisle and back into the sun-washed plaza, though, its leader makes the sign of the cross and kisses his fingers.

I study the dancers more closely, and can see crosses hanging around the necks of many.

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Nearly 500 years after the Conquest, and 400 years after native artisans surreptitiously integrated icons of their native religion into the design of the church in nearby San Juan Evangelista, native tradition has re-emerged as such an integral part of mainstream Catholic ceremony in Mexico that it’s no longer possible to imagine one without the other.

Things have, indeed come full circle.


Read the 3 other posts about my trip around Lake Cajitlan:…

Made-from-scratch tortillas on a wood-fired, clay comal

Made-from-scratch tortillas on a wood-fired, clay comal

No less than for county fairs north of the border there’s both a sameness to Mexican village fiestas and yet always some feature that uniquely ties each to a single place.

 

Cajititlan’s fiesta del Día de la Candelaria proves itself no exception.

 

As the ceremony on the plaza ends we plunge into a street fair which begins at its edge, lining the curbs of a dozen or more square blocks that slope gently down to the lake.

 

Canopied booths line both sides of the cobblestone streets and the crowd threads its way through the narrow passages between.

A young fathers cradles his infant son

A young fathers cradles his infant son

 

 

 

 

The crowd is a mix of villagers and day-trippers from nearby Guadalajara; I seem to be the only gringo within eyesight and the sense of total immersion is a refreshing break from gringi-fied Ajijic.

An artisan prepares to apply color to plaster masks

An artisan prepares to apply color to plaster masks

 

Market stalls feature the predictable mix of street food, artisan crafts, household items, bootleg CD’s and DVD’s, and clothing.

Diners sit family-style at long tables where women hand-form tortillas from masa ground on-the-spot using stone metates and grilled on clay comals over wood fires.

Tacos don’t get any fresher than this!

Roscas de Reyes, King's Day bread

Roscas de Reyes, King’s Day bread

 

 

 

The very last of the Roscas de Reyes – the King’s Day sweet bread – sit forlorn on a baker’s rack in their final day-old sale of the year.

A street vendor cooks unshelled garbanzo beans

A street vendor cooks unshelled garbanzo beans

 

We pass a centuries-old building that once housed a convent.  It’s closed to the public on this holiday, but I make a mental note to see it on a future visit.

 

 

 

A street vendor cooks bright, unshelled garbanzo beans over a gas-fired griddle.

I buy a small bag and pop the steaming beans free of their pods, eating them by handfuls.  Delicious!

Corn roasts over glowing embers curbside.

 

Freshly roasted corn cool on a curbside grill

Freshly roasted corn cool on a curbside grill

 

Under expansive canopies pitched in the soft breeze along the malecon at the water’s edge, a guitarist strolls among families singing ranchera as his listeners share the season’s traditional tamales.

Families share tamales under a canopy along the malecon

Families share tamales under a canopy along the malecon

Weekenders depart from the pier on Cajititlan's malecon

Weekenders depart from the pier on Cajititlan’s malecon

 

 

At the pier along the malecon families board small launches for leisurely cruises on the lake.

A musician plays for the crowd on Cajititlan's malecon

A musician plays for the crowd on Cajititlan’s malecon

Nearby a musician absently fingers the keyboard of his accordion, squeezing out tunes so often played that his fingers move unthinkingly over the buttons and keys.

Parish church on the plaza in Cajititlan

Parish church on the plaza in Cajititlan

I can’t help but smile in satisfaction as we retrace our steps to my parked car, passing the now deserted plaza.

This fiesta has been a perfect ending to a perfect day spent driving the villages around Lake Cajititlan.

The bright lights of cosmopolitan Guadalajara are but 30 minutes’ drive away, but here in the country villages along the lake traditional Mexico is alive and well.


Read other posts about my trip around Lake Cajititlan:…

Mexico’s coded past

Cemetery and church in San Juan Evangelista

Cemetery and church in San Juan Evangelista

I’d have counted it a very rewarding day if it ended with my visit to the studio of barra (clay working) maestro Martín Ibarra Morales in Jalisco’s San Juan Evangelista.

I turned out instead that the studio visit was but a taste of what would soon reveal itself along the shores of Lake Cajititlan.

Spanish soldiers and Catholic missionaries arrived here on horseback within 50 years of Columbus’ first arrival in the New World and within 10 after Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) fell to Cortes, pressing toward the Pacific Ocean and ever in search of more gold.

From its first expansion beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, Catholicism has time and again promoted conversion of pagan peoples by incorporating aspects of their religions into its own imagery and rituals.

In few places is its chameleon bent as widely evident as in Mexico, and nowhere in my experience as pervasively as in San Juan Evangelista.

San Juan Evangelista 2013-02-15 02 stone arches

Stone arches at the church of San Juan Evangelista

Martín guides me and my Mexican artist and friend Jesús López Vega across the street to where a church dating from the 1600’s stands adjacent to a graveyard.

San Juan Evangelista 2013-02-15 03 church facade

Front facade, church of San Juan Evangelista

Like many buildings of the period in this part of the world, this church was constructed by indigenous craftsman under the direction of priests.

Martín explains the facade imagery to Jesús.

Martín explains the facade imagery to Jesús.

Church belltower in San Juan Evangelista

Church belltower in San Juan Evangelista

To the untrained eye it looks like many Spanish Catholic churches, but Martin knows better and he shares his insights as he points out features of the building’s architectural detail.  It becomes quickly apparent that things are not what they first might seem.

If the priests believed that ministrations backed by Spanish arms would quickly and irrevocably convert native peoples to Christianity, they were indulging far more in wishful thinking than they were ever to know.

Detail of church facade, San Juan Evangelista

Detail of church facade, San Juan Evangelista

Hidden within the elaborate stone façade are icons of the native religion, speaking in seditious code to a people conquered, but undefeated.

In Christian tradition the serpent is a personification of the Devil, but in native religion the plumed serpent is a deity that archeologists say first appeared in Mexico about the time that Christ was born.

Martín sketches in the dust

Martín sketches in the dust

Soon the artist in Martín can resist no longer and he stoops to reproduce the façade’s scrollwork in the dust, showing how its unusual double-scroll pattern is actually a serpent.

Doorway in carved cantera stone

Doorway in carved cantera stone

Feline faces that adorn drain spouts just below the roof line high above are decidedly un-Christian images of jaguars.

Worn and weathered church door, San Juan Evangelista

Worn and weathered church door, San Juan Evangelista

We enter the church through a side door that shows every sign of being part of the original construction, its edge worn smooth by worshipers’ hands over the course of more than 300 years.

Church door lock and hasp

Church door lock and hasp

Inside, Martín points out more indigenous icons hidden within the three-story-high carved imagery behind the altar, and in designs of carved cantera stone above the doorways.

He recounts a story long told in his village that priests discovered – years after completion of the construction – that the native workers had hollowed out statues of saints which adorn the interior, and placed within their hollowed spaces images of their native gods.

Church alter tableau in carved and gilded wookd

Church alter tableau in carved and gilded wood

Detail of church alter tableau, San Juan Evangelista

Detail of church alter tableau, San Juan Evangelista

It’s a remarkable demonstration of faith and passive resistance that can’t help but inspire.

If I concluded on the strength of this visit that such pagan imagery within Catholic churches was a thing of the distant past, though, my view was soon to be set on its ear by what I next saw as we rounded the western edge of the lake and doubled back on the other side toward the town of Cajititlan…

More on this blog about Mexico’s native artisans…

Maestro in clay

Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 01

Jesús enters through door in an adobe wall

I first met maestro Martín Ibarra Morales last November when – as one of the artisans invited to Ajijic’s annual Feria Maestros del Arte – he and his family were my houseguests.

Egg-shaped globes, clay virgin, and clay whistles

Egg-shaped globes, clay virgin, and clay whistles

Martín is a clay sculptor whose work is collected worldwide.  His renowned artisan father taught him his craft, and he’s most well-known for his intricately formed and painted virgins and globes.

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He lives on the shore of Lake Chapala’s smaller cousin, Lake Cajititlan, in the village of San Juan Evangelista which is – as the crow flies – not 15 kilometers from Ajijic.  The driveable route around the mountain is about twice the distance.

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Clay mask with an unforgettable face

Traveling with me is friend and Ajijic artist Jesús López Vega, who has an abiding interest in native artisans and is a welcome bridge over the gaps in my Spanish.

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Sol y luna motif

Our directions fail us just a few blocks short of our destination, but we park along the principal plaza opposite the church and graveyard and strangers direct us to a home walled in adobe brick; Martín is clearly also a local celebrity.

A small foyer opens into open air patio, its brick walls adorned with framed news clippings and certificates of recognition, and tables covered with some of the maestro’s work.

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Not an inch of unused studio space

Clay virgin, nearly finished

Clay virgin, nearly finished

We turn the corner into the studio, a Spartan room in aged brick and stucco.

On a table at its center sits one of Martín’s celebrated virgins, which looks to my untrained eye nearly finished.

Work in progress covers every inch of the studio

Work in progress covers every inch of the studio

Martin and his articulate hands

Martin and his articulate hands

Works in almost every stage of completion seem to take up every square inch of the room, ranging in size from clay whistles that rest easily in the palm to Aztec statuary nearly as tall as Martín’s diminutive frame.

Jesus and Martin compare notes

Jesús and Martín compare notes

Martín is soft-spoken, but not shy, and as he warms to the conversation he talks animatedly, punctuating remarks with his hands.  Often he’ll move the conversation to a quickly sketched explanation of his point.

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Joker or devil?

He and my artist friend Jesús quickly plunge into rapid-fire Spanish, comparing notes from old texts of art history that trace the origins of their work back to pre-Hispanic traditions.

Their Spanish soon races past me and I wander the studio as they talk.

Timeless theme

Timeless theme

A statue looking for all the world like a recently excavated museum piece stares at me impassively.

A devilish mask simultaneously smiles and leers at me from the wall behind it.

Finished work sits above the kiln

Finished work sits above the kiln

In one corner finished work sits on a mantel above a brick kiln, its face smoked black by decades of use.

Jesús and Martin

Jesus and Martin

Just as it seems that the visit is about to draw to a close, Martín points through the gate past the cemetery to the church beyond, and asks if we would like him to take us on a tour.

Church yard cemetery just across the street

Church yard cemetery just across the street

It’s a hospitality not to be refused, and we walk into the bright sunlight and across the street.  What he shows us there turns out to be as memorable an experience as the opportunity to see his workspace, and it’s the topic of my next post, so stay tuned…

More about Martin Ibarra Morales…

Glorieta Chapalita 02

Some of Guadalajara’s most memorable public art, like its monumental Minerva Fountain and the Niños Héroes statuary, are centerpieces for its traffic circles (glorietas).

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In the Colonia Chapalita, the glorieta appears as far more intimate public space at Chapalita Circle, a delightful pocket park that covers the space of a small city block.

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Glorieta Chapalita 05

Here seven streets intersect at the edge of a quiet and well-established residential neighborhood.

This glorieta is a verdant urban oasis of wrought iron benches painted immaculate white and nestled among fountains, beds of roses, and human scale statues.

At its center stands a classic gazebo.

Glorieta Chapalita 01

Palm trees tower above, and rows of Italian cypress screen much of it from the sights and sounds of circling traffic.

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In some spots only the top of the 42-story Hotel Riu, a kilometer distant, reminds that this place is not far from the heart of the city.

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On a typical Saturday visitors here might include pets and their owners, couples, and parents with young children.

On Sundays, though, it’s transformed into an open-air art gallery where artists display their canvases on easels and park benches.

Glorieta Chapalita 09

Glorieta Chapalita 10

Theme, genre, and scale varies, although on the day of my visit there were lots of contemporary pieces.

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It’s not uncommon to see some paint as they pass the time, and most are more than glad to chat with browsers about their work and their artistic journey.

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This art show pairs very well with a brunch before strolling through the art, or lunch or dinner after.

The restaurants facing the glorieta are but a few of the dozens within blocks, so you can park once and take in the entire day’s experience on foot.

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These eateries range from upscale to fast casual.

You can top off your meal with a cappuccino from a nearby café or pastry dessert from a neighborhood repostería.

Find out more on the Glorieta Chapalita’s web site.

For the more ambitious visitor, a Sunday at Chapalita Circle fits well into a day including a promenade on the Avenida Vallarta,or a visit to Guadalajara’s open-air antique market.

You may also want to check out also these posts for more things to see and do in Guadalajara:

 

Redeeming works

Santa Cruz de la Soledad is less than 4 kilometers east of Chapala, but by many measures it’s separated from Chapala by light years.  It sits back from the coastline, connected to a string of even more remote villages by a road that seems to shrink as it unravels, seemingly a road to nowhere.

Alberto in the carpentry shop:  Contagious enthusiasm

Alberto in the carpentry shop: Contagious enthusiasm

The villagers here have fished or farmed for generations, but these days more of Santa Cruz’s 1,700 souls farm maiz, calabasas, and frijoles than fish the lake.

It’s not a lucrative occupation, and it only takes a quick walk through the village streets to confirm that prosperity has largely passed this place over.

I’m here with my Cuban-American friend Alberto to see in action a program that teaches carpentry skills to at-risk youth, and which he has helped to jump-start.

A modest home for the carpentry shop

A modest home for the carpentry shop

Upon arrival we pass through a modest house and small courtyard to reach the carpentry shop.

Carpentry instructor Joel with students

Carpentry instructor Joel Morando with students

Here Joel Morando, carpenter and volunteer instructor, patiently watches and coaches a dozen children doing everything from operating a jigsaw to painting items that they’ve fabricated.

Their finished work is sold to the public, both to help make the program self-supporting and to teach the children not only how to make their products, but also to market them.

The kids are singularly focused

The kids are singularly focused

These children are 9 or 10 years old, but there are no childish hijinks going on here.

All are intently focused on the work at hand, watching earnestly as each takes a turn at working the power tools.

About one-third of the students are girls

About one-third of the students are girls

About a third of the students are girls.  Alberto tells me that there’s a waiting list of students hoping to enroll in future classes.

The kids are at first a bit shy.

The kids are at first a bit shy.

The children seem at first shy as I begin to snap photos, but then one asks to see the digital image on the camera screen and suddenly I’m surrounded by others asking me to take their photos.

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After each shot I’m obliged to turn the camera around so that all can see each image, and there’s lots of laughter and chatter as each portrait is revealed.

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As a parting gift Joel is presented with the donation of a first aid kit that’s been on his wish list.

Older kids are just beginning to arrive for their advanced apprenticeship as we depart.

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Antonio Morales.

Alberto next takes me a few doors down and introduces me to community advocate Antonio Morales, where in short order I come to understand that the children’s carpentry program is only the tip of Santa Cruz’s self-help iceberg.

Antonio is quick to laugh and his compassion for his neighbors shines through when he talks about projects – some already launched and others not yet hatched – for their betterment.

There’s also a steadfastness about him that leaves no doubt about his willingness and ability to drive hard bargains where the welfare of his neighbors is concerned.

On this day it’s less than a week after the Dia de los Reyes Magos – Three King’s Day – and as we pass through the plaza a life-sized nacimiento is still arranged there. These figures were annually borrowed for many years until Antonio talked the owners into donating them to Santa Cruz.

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Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 11

The features of thes statuary are predictably, if incongruously, European. The village, though, has placed its own subtle stamp on the tableau: At the edge of the scene beneath a Mexican clay pottery basin hangs a hand-woven blanket that Antonio tells me is nearly as old as the village itself.

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In Antonio’s nearby house it becomes obvious that the nacimiento gift pales in comparison to donated goods of every kind that he’s collected.  Clothing.  Walkers for the disabled.  Books.  Children’s toys.

It resembles a flea market except that nothing’s sold here, but rather freely distributed within the community on the basis of need.

On a table in the jardin out back sits a bottle of Antonio’s favorite tequila, and as our visit draws to a close we’re obliged to accept his profered hospitality.  Purists may drink it straight up, but for everyone else he has set out mixers:  There’s the perennial Squirt, which makes a sort of lazy man’s margarita, or (the first time I’ve seen this) Coca Cola!

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As we sip the elixir, the air is suddenly split by an announcement in blaring over a loudspeaker, and it recalls for a moment the recurring P.A. announcements in countless episodes of M.A.S.H.

In a town without its own newspaper, loudspeakers perched on poles strategically situated throughout the village are the way that folks get their local news. It’s a low-tech solution perfectly suited to the need.

It’s almost time for us to leave as Antonio begins talking enthusiastically about another unfolding project that will teach local farmers how to raise moringa trees, the leaves of which are so rich in vitamins, minerals, and proteins that they’re often called “the super food”.

The fast-growing crop fetches a healthy price on the world market, and promises to help even more of Antonio’s neighbors pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. A few local farmers have already sprouted the first moringa seedlings, learning how best to cultivate and care for them so that their experience can be shared with others.  Hopes are for a first crop before this year’s end, and I’m eager to return and see the result!

Afterwards as we head back through Chapala, I reflect on the amazing enterprise demonstrated by people who so ably apply what little they have to better themselves and their community. There’s little here by way of a social safety net except the support that these villagers readily give to one another… but which is clearly priceless.

Few contrasts between American and Mexican cultures are more striking than the way in which each views and treats its senior citizens.

Two old acquaintances share a bench on Ajijic's plaza.

Old friends share a bench on Ajijic’s plaza.

 

America’s seniors are often cloistered in assisted living facilities or nursing homes far from family and friends.

 

Mexico’s oldest – los ancianos – seem more often vibrant alive and interactive, and are notably present in its public life nowhere more than in its villages.

 

 

 

 

A ritual gathering of viejos on Chapala's plaza.

A ritual gathering of los viejos on Chapala’s plaza.

 

 

It’s hard not to see the paradox in these contrasts.

 

American has a far superior capacity to maintain its seniors’ quality of life, and has taken great pains to make transportation and public use facilities accessible to its disabled.

 

It has also segregated its seniors from the social mainstream on a wide scale.

 

 

Two old friends await the start of Good Friday's Passion play in Ajijic

Two old friends await the start of Good Friday’s Passion play in Ajijic

The paradox is a reflection of the two nations’ cultural perspectives.

 

In Mexico, ‘family’ trumps ‘generation gap’.

 

Mexicans are far more likely to respect and cherish their oldest generation and revere it for its wisdom and life experience.

Three generations walk arm in arm along Jocotopec's malecon

Three generations walk arm in arm along Jocotopec’s malecon

 

Many among the current crop of los ancianos are the children of those who participated in the century-old Mexican Revolution.

 

They’ve witnessed and lived history as it’s unfolded through the greatest social transformation in the nation’s history.

Two generations sit in Chapala's plaza

Two generations sit in Chapala’s plaza

 

American media’s fixation on youth marginalizes its oldest save for the rich, powerful, or otherwise famous.

 

The result is that America’s aged seem more often perceived by their offspring as an unpleasant reminders that they, too, will in due time grow unfashionably old and less socially relevant.

A vieja labors over her craftwork in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

An abuelita labors over her craftwork in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

 

Particularly in Mexican village life, los ancianos remain connected to lifetime friends and many live within their extended families.

 

 

The artisan looks up from her work in satisfaction.

The artisan maestra looks up from her work in satisfaction.

 

There’s a lot to suggest that this lifelong connectedness affords them greater comfort in their advanced age.

Americans move further and more often from their place of birth than do those living in any other First World nation, with the result that they more often live far from the oldest among their living relatives.

A sister with walker on a sidewalk in San Juan Cosalá

A sister with walker on a sidewalk in San Juan Cosalá

Affordable senior care facilities make it far easier for American families to live separately from their aged relatives.

A vieja waits patiently for a ceremony to begin in Ajijic

A vieja waits patiently for a ceremony to begin in Ajijic

Maybe there’s also something also to be said for lifestyle when it comes to keeping Mexico’s ancianos animated and mobile.

A viejo walks a cobblestone street in Chapala

A viejo walks a cobblestone street in Chapala

 

A viejo walks his bicycle along the street in Chapala

A viejo walks his bicycle along the street in Chapala

Economic necessity and a thinly stretched social safety net keep many Mexicans working into advanced age, but the work seems to leave many no worse for wear and sometimes even to hold disability at bay.

A lifetime of meals simply and sparingly prepared has left many lean wiry.

A vieja shrouded in shawl crosses the plaza in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

A vieja shrouded in shawl crosses the plaza in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

 

 

 

It’s not unusual to see these ancianos navigate dauntingly high curbs and cobblestone streets to remain a daily village presence on its sidewalks, in its public spaces, and at its public events.

An abuela eyes a pinata at her grandaughter's quinceañera

An abuela eyes a pinata at her grandaughter’s quinceañera

 

In the end, though, nothing can better capture the special place that Mexico’s ancianos occupy in its social fabric than their images.

She lights up when her granddaughter enters the room

The abuela lights up when her granddaughter enters the room

Home grown arte

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 09

The moment that I walk through the doorway of Colon #15 only a few blocks from San Cristóbal Zapotitlán’s central plaza, I realize that the Ostrich Ranch tour is about to be displaced as the high point of my trip.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 08The house is unassuming, a stucco home not unlike many others on the street.   Only a hand lettered sign next to the front door gives any hint of what’s within:

CANASTAS de PALMA y MANUALIDADES CON HOJAS de MAIZ

Palm Baskets & Corn Husk Crafts

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The rooms are typically small, the walls stuccoed and the floors tiled.

 

The house is sparsely furnished except for a well-worn display cabinet and shelves on which stands a virtual army of intricately fashioned miniature figures, dozens of woven baskets, and vibrantly lifelike artificial flowers.

 

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A bride and her entourage stand in immaculate sepia before an unseen altar.

 

 

Lambs stand at the side of the manger in a Christmas crèche.

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In the next room bundles of palm leaves, sliced into narrow strips as tall as a man, stand drying.

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San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 19

Another doorway opens onto a softly lit room with a ceremonial feel.  Selections of the handiwork sit on covered table and I move toward them for a closer look.

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Just to the side of the door behind me an ancient woman seated on a low stool is weaving the palm strips into a basket.

Her shoulders are stooped and her head bowed over sturdy fingers.  She wraps the palm tightly and densely to fashion trays, baskets, and vases that are at once pliable and sturdy.

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Two women seat themselves on a bench behind the table and a pile of dried and brightly colored corn husk leaves – hojas de maiz – and begin before my eyes to fashion the kinds of miniature figures seen in the front room tableaus.

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They work with a quiet intensity, their fingers so automatically folding and twisting and wrapping the leaves that their eyes seem less to guide than to observe.

Three generations of women have built and continue to work this cottage industry artisan enterprise.  Some of their photos hang on the wall of this room.

Back in the entry room Herlinda (I know her from Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market), is joined by a young woman and the two of them quickly begin another demonstration of their craft.
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The young woman threads small bits of violet corn husk together much as a sportsman might craft a fishing fly.  It turns into a flower, followed by another and another until she has crafted a small bouquet.

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Herlinda, beginning with a lollipop stick bit of palm and folded corn husk, fashions as I watch a tableau of a woman rowing a flower-festooned boat made of woven palm leaf.

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It’s clear that each of these women has developed a particular skill, and that the success of this cottage industry rests upon their ability to orchestrate their individual efforts to produce endless combinations of artisan eye candy that delight and inspire.

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All of this is accomplished with apparent effortlessness, a genuinely collective spirit, and an obvious joy in the work.  It employs only human energy, and uses only natural, sustainable, and readily available raw materials.

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Once you’ve seen the women and the work behind these artifacts, you’ll see their craftwork through entirely different eyes.

Click here for a map to San Cristobal

Click here for the account of my trip to San Cristobal’s Ostrich Ranch.

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San Cristobal Zapotitlan

Friday Artisan’s Market Ajijic, where you can meet some of these artisans and purchase their work weekly.

Sandra Luz, Friday Artisans Market Ajijic

Sandra Luz at Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market

I first meet Sandra Luz at in her market stall in Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market surrounded by a seemingly eclectic combination of brightly colored feathers, candles and planters made of something too perfectly shaped to be gourds, and vials of something that looked like they came straight from a cosmetics counter.

She speaks even less English than I do Spanish. No surprise, then, that it takes conversation strung across a couple of market days before I fully understand that the brightly colored feathers are hand-dyed ostrich plumes,  that the curiously shaped candles and planters are emptied ostrich eggs sliced neatly in half, and that the vials contain a healing skin serum are made of essential oils rendered from – you guessed it – ostriches… las avestruces.

Then the story gets even more interesting.  It turns out that Sandra Luz and her husband Francisco raise the ostriches just outside the village of San Cristóbal Zapotitlán on the opposite side of Lake Chapala, and I soon find myself invited to visit the “Rancho de las Avestruces”.  I confess that for a moment an improbable image of sombreroed vaqueros herding a legion of Big Birds flashes through my head.

On the appointed day I stop in nearby San Juan Cosalá to pick up Martín, another Friday Artisan Market merchant who’s fluent in both English and Spanish, and soon we round the end of the lake and turn off the highway at a spot I’ve passed before without note.  In minutes the village of San Cristobal Zapotitlán appears, hugging the coastline unseen from the highway.

The town is neatly laid out around a plaza at one end of which omnipresent street vendors sell clothing, CD’s, and DVD’s.  At the opposite end a mother and child browse a florist’s stand  awash in Mexico’s native poinsettias, las flores de Nochebuena… the Christmas Eve flower.

 

Florist on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Florist on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Weaving a fishing net on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Weaving a fishing net on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

 

Next to a canopy that covers an open-air foosball parlor made up of vintage tables, a man painstakingly weaves a fishing net from a spool of nylon line as deftly as if he was making a rug.

Another man sitting next to him watches, but hardly a word is spoken and I get the sense that they have long ago talked each other out during uncounted hours spent here together.

Open air foosball parlor on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Open air foosball parlor on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

The worn and weathered mechanical gaming tables are a nostalgic anachronism in an era of video games, and they remind me of my mis-spent college days.

Campanario of the parrish church, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Campanario of the parish church, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Towering above this entire scene is the campanario –the bell tower of the parish church – tiled in a distinctive checked pattern of blue and white.

Dyed ostrich feathers, Sandra Luz's workshop,San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Dyed ostrich feathers, Sandra Luz’s workshop,San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

We stop by Sandra Luz and Francisco’s modest home, where she shows us the workshop corner in which she crafts her ostrich feather art and ostrich egg arrangements.

Ostrich egg incubator, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ostrich egg incubator, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

In an adjacent room, ostrich eggs the size of footballs sit in an incubator.  They weigh a hefty kilo or so. Francisco tells us that one of them is equal to 18 chicken eggs and makes an omelet which can feed an entire family.  He holds one of the eggs up to a light so bright that it shines through the shell to reveal if it’s to become an ostrich or an omelet.

Three-day-old ostrrich chick, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Three-day-old ostrich chick, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

I’m still peering into the incubator when he suddenly appears holding an ostrich chick only three days old and already as big as a small chicken.  My curiosity whetted, I’m ready to see ostriches grazing on the open range… or whatever it is that ostriches do.

Back on the main highway we travel only a short distance before turning toward the mountain on a dirt road that even in this dry season is so rutted that my SUV creeps along behind their pickup truck.  Gates are unlocked and relocked as we pass through, ascending almost continuously for 20 minutes before the big birds suddenly appear, corralled in fenced pens that cover a space the size of a basketball court.

We step out of the car into a bracing breeze, and Francisco tells us that we are now 1,700 meters above the mile-high lake. There are more than a dozen of the birds, their long necks already craning in our direction as we approach.

The ostrich ranch, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

The ostrich ranch, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Macho ostrich, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Macho ostrich, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

One particularly large specimen quickly sets us straight on who rules the roost, dropping to his knees and swaying back and forth as he spreads his wings in a macho display.  The birds will peck harmlessly at a stranger who ventures too close to the fence, but Francisco tells us that it’s the kick from their 25-pound-drumstick legs that can easily injure an inattentive human. He also tells us that the rancho is self-sufficient; the family grows the corn and beans that feed the winged herd.

Ostich pen, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ostich pen, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

I slip around to the back side of the corral for a better photo and that’s when I see behind the feathered herd the lake beautifully spread out below from its western end to its vanishing point on the eastern horizon.

Ajijic, from mountainside above  San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ajijic, from mountainside above San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

 

 

 

Ajijic and the other villages across the lake appear as specs along the shoreline, villas climbing the mountainside behind them until the steep grade gives way to the wild.

Here at the rancho the mating season is just beginning.  Each female may lay up to 40 eggs in a year, burying them in the earth.  If December days are cool at this altitude, December nights can be bone-chilling; the eggs are exhumed and placed in an incubator.  The family breeds the ostriches for sale to other would-be ostrich ranchers and it also sells ostrich meat, which Francisco tells me is very lean.  Each bird can yield up to 35 kilos of meat… none of it white meat… and grow to full height within a year.

Firing up the comal at the ostrich ranch

Firing up the comal at the ostrich ranch

Sandra Luz has already lit a wood fire on a brick grill.  We dip glasses of Jamaica-flavored beverage out of a barrel-sized jar as she lays out frijoles, white corn tortillas, and a bowl of salsa.  In a few moments the aroma of meat grilling on a comal drifts over us and we’re soon eagerly dropping the seared beef onto tortillas and scooping up frijoles in the open ends.

Sandra Luz enjoys the view behind me

Sandra Luz enjoys the view behind me

As the visit draws to a close and we head back down the mountain, I reflect on the unconditional hospitality that has again marked my Mexican experience.  The mountainside picnic alone was worth the trip, but it also crosses my mind that upon my return I need to try my first ostrich steak.

Ostrich art, though, is only part of the story of the artisans’ cooperative of San Cristobal.  Follow me on my next post to an artisan workshop back in the village where local women craft elaborate art from nothing but simple corn husks and palm fronds.

Click here for a map to San Cristobal

Facebook users can see more photos and get more details by clicking on these links:

San Cristobal Zapotitlan

Friday Artisan’s Market Ajijic