Saturday, November 30, 2013

Arayo's Mexican Hell

Pinwheels of fire light the church courtyard

The lights flashed, whirled, spit fire and screamed in high protest as the fireworks display splashed against the backdrop of the church.  The final display announced "Gloria" in flaming sparklers, and featured an outline of (we assume) San Andres and from them, showers of dancing sparks fell upon the crowd, sending those who were too near to dash for safety.

Families with toddlers, grandparents, and teens dressed to be seen, joined together to applaud the end of the display as skyrockets exploded in the night sky.

Our small group had been enjoying the evening which took place in the chilly Mexican evening.  We snacked our way between the booths, testing Mexican holiday sweets, drinks made of corn, stewed mixed fruit and cow eye and cow head tacos (blah!). Few people over-indulged in the beer and tequila, for this was a family affair with rides for the children, live music and dancing for adults.

Arayo accompanied us to the square for the festivities. She, too, tasted local hot dogs, greedily lapped a bit of Corona and had her photo taken by many, but when things got too loud, she was happiest under a table, putting a distance between herself and the confusion.

As the grand finale drew near, we made our way to the church to watch the fireworks display which featured visual messages of a heart, fish, cross and an outline of San Angelo. Finding a spot in front of the 40 foot tall display structure, we leaned against a wall while Arayo took refuge between the wall and our feet.

Ajijic's Saint Andrew in flames - an evening tradition of the festival
For 20 minutes pinwheels of fire and light filled the church courtyard and with the end of the event, we turned to go, but Arayo had found her spot.  Like a soldier who has sought safety in a foxhole, or a Kansan who dives for a tornado shelter when the skies turn wicked, Arayo had found her safe place and had no intention of leaving. For, between us and the wall was a 6" wide by 4" deep ditch.  Somehow, my 100 pound Newfoundland had managed to mold herself to this space and within it she had found comfort as the bombs of fireworks were going on around her.

My friends have come to adore Arayo and we had debated taking her with us on this evening or leaving her home alone to listen to the explosions which signify Mexican celebrations.  At least, with us, she could nestle near, we could collectively give her hugs and try to assure her that all was well.  As a group we nudged her from her hiding spot, and pulled her close to try to reassure her that all was well and she was loved.

Arayo, my sweet, the celebrations will not go forever. In fact, for this particular 9 day celebration, tonight shall be the end and things should be quiet for a while.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

San Andres Festival

The nightly procession to mass goes by our hotel nightly

In the distance, church bells ring, calling the devoted to 7 o'clock mass, and from the opposite direction of our cobblestone street, the sounds of shelling can be heard marking the beginning of the evening procession from Six Corners to the church.

As we wait each evening in the darkness, we hear the signature "fuiiiiit!", see the sparks shoot high into the sky, then the ending "boom" shakes the buildings and sends the animals rushing for safety.  The devices, cohetones, which resemble bottle rockets on major steroids, are thought to send evil spirits into hiding.  They may be right.

The procession leaves 6 Corners, three blocks or so from our hotel, and makes its way to the city center and the church, six blocks or so in the other direction.  Led by alter boys dressed in white robes, they are followed by the devoted, many carrying baskets of food.  The 9 days of celebration of the Ajijic city Saint, San Andres (Saint Andrew) are sponsored by area groups - the carpenters, the hotel owners, the agricultural workers and those who have left town.  One procession may be accompanied by a brass band, another by a drum corp.  A group is led by native dancers in costumes and feathers, yet another is silent except for the chanting from the priest and the echoing prayers of those walking with him.

The devoted carry candles, or offerings as they make the walk to church
One night, many of the walkers carried candles which were protected by large holders shaped like flowers.  They were followed by the accompaniment of a large Mariachi band playing guitars and violins.

The celebration of Ajijic's town Saint is the community's largest celebration of the year.  Spanning 9 days, the 'bombs' begin around 7 a.m. as the devoted head for morning mass.  At noon, the church bells ring and more explosions are heard.  At night, after mass, the town joins in celebration in the community square and the sounds of people enjoying food, games, carnival rides, beer gardens and pony rides mix with live music which is performed from the gazebo in the center of the square.

At 10:30 (give or take a few minutes or an hour - this is Mexico, after all!) the nightly fireworks display takes place in front of the church - the day's sponsors vying for the most spectacular display of the festival. 

In Mexico, life seems to be lived outside and festivals are a vital part of community life.  As one woman told me, "if we don't have a festival going on, we make one up!"

Friday, November 22, 2013

Running in the Rain

Little one - before the rain

The music was fabulous and much of the town was there.  Children, parents, grandparents, teenagers.  Most people were Mexican with a few gringos scattered about. Some dancing, some sitting along the short walls that surrounded the raised gazebo/stage in the center of the square.

A strangely dressed person in an odd pink dress with a wig and mask danced around the stage.  She'd chase the young boys that came near and they'd scatter as though she was breathing fire.

I felt in the way, as there was no place to stand to watch where I wasn't blocking someone's view, but Arayo took care of that problem.  Quickly she became a magnet for the adults, but mostly children, that wanted to pet her or have their photo taken with the big black Newf.

One little girl, perhaps 2, became attached to her and posed for photos with this creature that was 3 times her size.  When her mom was finished, the little girl came up to me and insisted on giving me a thank you kiss.  THAT doesn't happen in America!

The band had just finished a number when something flew from the sky.  I thought maybe someone had tossed a water balloon off the gazebo as the crowd gave a collective gasp and everyone began running. 

Perhaps the size of the wet splatters on the pavement should have tipped me off.  Used to the rains of the Pacific Northwest, when a bit of water falls from the sky, you just keep on doing what you are doing.  But these folks were scrambling as though threatened with machine gun fire.

30 seconds later, I got it.  The skies opened and a flood poured on the group.  People headed for the streets, crowded on the stage and some of us got as close to the gazebo as possible to take advantage of a small overhang.

After the rain
The lightening and thunder began and unbelievably the rain got stronger.  For 10 minutes we waited but there was no sign of it letting up, so covering my glasses with my hand and pulling Arayo tightly to me, we dashed towards the street and home.  

It is about 6 blocks from the square to my hotel. As we zipped past overhangs, water ran off roofs in sheets and drain spouts shoot water into the street that could easily be coming from a fireman's hose.  

I couldn't help it.  The entire thing cracked me up and as we waded raging rivers that had once been cobblestone streets, I was laughing like some kind of maniac!

Occasionally we'd stop for a second to catch our breath, and, like kids, I'd giggle with others also trapped in the rain. Though we shared no spoken language, the camaraderie of being caught in this sudden storm helped form a short bond.

Back at the hotel, still laughing with glee, we opened the door, raced through the lobby and out across the garden patio, only to find a couple inches of water in front of my room, and water making its way inside. But, before damage could be done, the rain tapered off. 

Tonight I must say I'm glad I'm not sleeping in a tent.  But oh, how I love travel!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Catrinas: or You, Too, Shall Die

Arayo with  her new Mexican amigos!
They stare at you from all directions. Bleached skulls, teeth intact. Soulless voids, once filled with seeing eyes.

Dressed in finery - a skeletal bride and groom.  An extravagant damsel ready for a ball.  Another adorned in the most beautiful of hats with matching flowing long dress, as though the queen were about to pay a visit.

Throughout the Ajijic community square and along the walk by the lakeside, the skeletons pose, holding court over the Day of the Dead festivities.  Silently, they watch as the living ride their bikes, stroll with their children, dance, eat and play.  For all their finery, no longer can they participate in these earthly endeavors.

They are Catrinas, designed and decorated by area artists, groups and schools.  Most are made of recycled materials. Look closely at the elegant  dress or the flowers the woman is holding and you will see that they may be made of pop bottles which are cut, shaped and painted.  
Catrinas adore the village square
Old trash bags are stuffed and combined to form a puffy black skirt.  Small shells become teeth.  Fishing nets, a mop of hair.

Originally created 100 years ago by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, the skeleton in her elegantly dressed attire satirizes the life of the upper classes.  The art is a reminder that no matter what one may have in this life, death will, indeed, find you, too.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Day of the Dead

Graves are decorated the celebrate Day of the Dead

As an American, the Day of the Dead seemed like the strangest of events.  But, having experienced one, I think this is another tradition that we could learn from. In Mexico, November 2 of each year is the day set aside to commune with loved ones who have passed on.  With roots going back 2,500 - 3,000 years, the modern celebration begins on November 1, celebrating deceased infants and children. The passing of adults is honored the following day.

On this day, the cemetery comes alive.  It is packed with people - young and old - carrying flowers, banners and candles. Alters are built displaying photos of those honored and adorned with favorites - food, beer, milk and cookies. For one man - paint brushes, a sample of his art work and gifts of his favorite foods were arranged around a large photo of him. There are crosses made of marigolds, thought to attract the souls of the dead.  In a tree over a grave, someone had hung a music CD, a broom and some chocolates. Bands roam the area, playing at the graves.
Young and old alike gather at the cemetery

There are hundreds of people.  Some are cooking and feeding their families in the cramped space by Grandma's grave.  Others sit quietly.  A couple of men string banners of flowers from a grave to the edge of the site.

Everyone comes to honor loved ones
I don't believe my loved ones rest in a grave so I rarely visit there.  But even so, how nice would it be to come spend a day with everyone else in town, celebrating the lives of the people you loved the most?  I pondered what I'd bring to share with my parents.  Cookies, donuts, yogurt, Arby's sandwiches.  A ham radio for my father, some sun screen and perhaps a toy airplane.  For my mom, a book, a basketball jersey from Kansas University, some red lipstick and anything that says "Oswego, KS".  We'd sit around and play Big Band music and tell funny stories about our lives with them. 

As night comes on around the cemetery in Ajijic, people begin to congregate.  Most are dressed up - adorned in all black, though a couple are in wedding dresses.   Their faces are painted like skeletons.  After dark, they parade a mile or so down the dark cobblestone street in front of my apartment towards another celebration in the community square.

I'm becoming a big fan of the Day of the Dead.  Next year - I'm celebrating!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Celebrating our Arrival!

Drum corps lead procession past our hotel
The bombs woke me.  5 am - maybe 5:30.  A series of explosions rocked the little town of Ajijic Mexico.  I knew that the Day of the Dead was gearing up and thought perhaps it had something to do with that so I went back to sleep.  After all, we'd had little sleep the night before and a grueling 14 hours of getting lost, getting into Mexico and that long long long drive south.  I needed the sleep.  But, when another barrage of explosions sounded about 3 hours later it was time to investigate.  In the distance I heard music.  Time to start pumping coffee and go see what was happening!

Every October the Virgen del Rosario makes a journey to the San AndrĂ©s Church.  She remains there for the month, then on the 31st she is returned to her home at the old stone chapel on the Ajijic plaza.  The day is full of celebrations and enormously loud "bombs" are deployed to help send prayers heavenward.

Native dancers accompany the Virgin home
Arayo and I walked from our hotel along cobblestone streets to find the the plaza 6 blocks away.  Receiving her normal attention, Arayo was still on edge.  Periodically the bombs would blow again.  As she sat and trembled, I knew it was time to get her back to the hotel and hug her a bit.

The procession to return the Virgin to her home came down the street in front of the hotel late in the afternoon.  A uniformed drum corp was followed by other Mexican bands, Indian Dancers in stunning ceremonial dress, many floats featuring children dressed as the Virgin, and possibly my favorite float - one with a cross and a half naked man at the base of it - painted to look like he had wounds from being on the cross.  He lay in a woman's lap.  It was all very life-like - until he cracked a smile.  I think he'd been laying there half naked for too long.

"Jesus" was life-like.... until he cracked a smile!
Finally, the Virgin came, followed by masses of people who had made the walk to retrieve her and return her to her home.  Some carried babies or small children, at least one old women did the walk in bare feet (and these are NOT comfortable to walk on, even in very sturdy shoes!).  I saw one woman doing the walk blindfolded - led by two other women.

At night, a celebration was held in the plaza with live music and fireworks.  Told the fireworks would happen at midnight, Arayo and I walked down, only to find we were the only Americans there and we'd missed the big event.  Ah, well - it was fun to see the Mexican families and couples of all ages, dancing, playing and enjoying life in the perfect midnight air.

As we walked through the darkened street back to our hotel, we were thrilled to have come at this time of year and to experience these special Mexican traditions.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Troubles at the Mexican Border

Mexican Mountains

As I sat looking at the blockade in front of my car, I should have realized that things were not going to go smoothly on my venture into Mexico.   

I crossed into our southern neighbor's jurisdiction in the dark of very early morning. After wishing that the gigantic Mexican flag flying over the border was lighted so I could photograph it, I proceeded towards a series of gates - some sporting green lights - apparently to let you know you should enter "here".  Seeing an option open I drove into the stall to the right of a light and realized - as I sat looking at a big yellow and black barricade, that the light must have indicated "enter the spot to the left".  Dang.

Well, I didn't relearn to drive in Sicily for nothing.  After a moment of panic, I prayed no officials were watching (although there were tons of cameras trained on my car), backed up and drove through the stall to the left of the light.  Here, I was forced to stop while the car and I were photographed, then we were moved along to the next series of options - where once again I managed drive into a shoot that was blocked. Dang, dang!

This time, as I sat pondering my predicament, a young soldier walked to the car and asked if I spoke Spanish.  Assuring him I didn't, he inquired where I was going. "I'm trying to get into Mexico" probably wasn't the best choice of answers, but he was patient and asked for more specifics and for the purpose of my trip.  He then led me through a convoluted maze and left me parked, watching a group of border officers tearing apart a van.  Their possessions were all over the pavement.  I REALLY picked the wrong gate, I thought.

After conferring with some of his pals and realizing, I guess, that I was starting this journey off with some directional challenges, he returned to the car and pointed to another man saying "follow him".  This man led me out of the inspection area and pointed to a sign that read MODULO CIITEV.  "Follow these signs," he said, and I drove off, thinking the worst was behind me.

I'd been warned that this part of the trip was through a business area of Nuevo Laredo, but what I hadn't been prepared for were the soldiers armed with automatic weapons that lined these streets as I crawled along.  I found myself in the right lane when suddenly there was a sign on the left informing me that I needed to flip a U-turn to go where I wanted to go.  "Oh, shit......"  I thought, as I passed it and found myself on a divided highway with no legal place to turn around for miles.

Cursing pretty enthusiastically at this point, and expecting those armed guards to pull me over, point out I was in their country with an illegal car and haul me to the pokey, I found a place to make what was undoubtably an illegal U-turn and headed back the way I had come.

The next guard wasn't ready for me at all.  Seemed I was headed with tons of other people across the bridge into the US.  I explained to this man, who didn't speak English, that I was supposed to go get my car registered for Mexico and I could not possibly go back to the US.  Dumbfounded, he called over 3 or 4 other gate keepers until he found one that could speak English.  I again explained the problem and they huddled, discussing this problem.

Undoubtedly, the consensus was that if they left me to cross into the US and try entering Mexico anew, they would be confronted with me again in 30 minutes with the same issues anyway, so better to find a solution and let me become someone else's issue. 

"Follow him," I was told again, and with lines of cars behind me I was informed I needed to back up.  Since I couldn't see out my back window, I prayed I wouldn't run over the guy - compounding my border problems.  He walked across 6 lanes of traffic and instructed me to drive INTO this line of cars, then turn and cross all the lanes as he moved aside ANOTHER barricade and motioned me to pass down a hill and under a bridge.  It occurred to me this was probably in a guide book as a way to get mugged in Mexico (or any place for that matter), but I was out of options.
Arayo and her bodyguard/driver, Luis

Once into a dark area, he came up to the car and told me to follow yet another man.  "Tip him well,"  he said.  "This has saved you about 5 miles of driving and going through these checkpoints again."  What was I to lose?  I was in the middle of nowhere.  I followed the new man, my wallet at the ready.

This man walked me down a road and pointed to entrances into a parking lot beyond.  "Go.  One, two, three. Drive." 

The second entrance did the trick and deposited me into a fairly unlit lot.  Nowhere did the building show the name of where I was supposed to meet my driver, Luis, and though I walked Arayo in the darkness in hopes Luis would see me and come to my rescue - the only man to approach seemed to be up to no good.

Then, from the street, up walked a man who greeted me and acted like he could be my guy!  Hoping I had the right person and wasn't turning my life over to a drug lord, I followed him into the building, we began the registration process and were soon headed away from the border and into the heart of Mexico.