November passing

The month slips by before I can even appreciate that it has begun. And I haven't even finished writing about Mexico. So much not yet done.

Shocks Mill Bridge across the Susquehanna, hastily scribbled in a chilly gale force wind under ragged skies, a week ago Sunday.



For some, a vacation trip to Mexico includes the sandy beaches and resort amenities of Cancun, Acapulco, or Mazatlan, but Nora (my daughter who lives in Guadalajara) knew that I was interested in places more off the beaten path. So after enjoying the street scene and delicious barbacoa at Tacos Juan our second morning there, we loaded overnight bags into Monica's Jeep, bound for the mountain village of Tapalpa.

A drive of approximately 90 miles to the southwest, across the broad semi-arid plains, and climbing steeply winding roads to an elevation of 6500 feet, we arrived late that afternoon in a town that seemed removed by at least a century from the modern city we'd left a couple of hours behind. Navigating narrow cobblestone streets, we found the hotel, two stories of small, rustic rooms surrounding a sunny old courtyard, dropped our bags and freshened up. The main plaza, ringed by arcaded shops, terminates with two cathedrals, an old one of stone and stucco facing a larger, newer structure of brick built in historically classical style, the pair standing out stark against the deep blue sky. A wedding party gathered in front of the big one, the bride resplendent in her long white gown.

We drove just before dusk out to the colossal pile of boulders known as Las Piedrotas, a formation seemingly tossed into a high, grassy basin by playful giants, and climbed around until it was too dark to see. Making our way back to the village, we bundled against the chilly evening air and sat at an outdoor table at the far end of the plaza, talking over the cheerful din of mariachi bands circulating from table to table. The four of us lingered over drinks and spicy bar snacks until we could barely keep our eyes open.

Intent on getting out before sunrise, I was up early, walking the quiet Sunday morning streets encircling the center of town as the first rays illuminated the tower and dome of the main cathedral. I found a vantage point on a crooked lane just up from the plaza, whitewashed houses with terracotta tiled roofs leaning in and framing the view. In the distance, plumes of smoke curled from a volcanic cone. I did a quick sketch, half sitting on the bumper of a parked car, struggling to get an overall impression without getting hung up on too much detail. People trickled down the stone slab sidewalk towards the church for early mass, to the deep intonation of the cast bells in the open tower. Finishing hastily, I hurried to meet Ina to explore the side streets before meeting the girls for breakfast. We spent a few hours wandering shops and open air markets, everything so novel and different. Sunlight saturated the cool morning. Then, all too soon, we were on our way back down to Guadalajara for a meal of superb seafood before catching our breath and preparing for the longer excursion to Tzintzuntzan and the Noche de Muertos festival.

Third day in Mexico. Leisurely yet brimming with new experiences at every turn. Had we three months, we'd have barely scratched the surface.

photocopy of original 9B graphite pencil sketch, hand colored with Prismacolor pencils 


Dangerous territories, turbulent skies

When Nora went to Mexico for her sophomore then junior year in high school, I was wracked with inner conflict over her safety versus the opportunity to learn about and experience a different culture in depth. The small town of Guasave where the family of the Mexican exchange student (Monica, now her roommate and closest friend in Guadalajara) who invited her was in in Sinaloa, at the time one of the most dangerous states in the country for drug cartel violence. Although she didn't tell me so until much later, not only did she and her friends have a close scrape one night, when they'd accidentally strayed onto an unsafe street, but a close male friend of hers made a tragic choice when confronted under similar circumstances.

So when I found out that Tzintzuntzan, where we planned to witness the oldest and most traditional Day of the Dead celebration, Noche de Muertos, was in a region of Michoacan that the US Department of State along with many Mexicans warn both foreign and Mexican tourists against visiting right now for safety reasons, I had to think hard about the risk we'd be taking. Nora and Monica assured me that we'd be safe if we stuck to the main roads and used common sense, and they were likewise eager to see a place and special event they'd never been to, so we decided to go.

looking south of rt 15 in Michoacan from our fast moving car as we prepared to head into dangerous territory under turbulent skies

As we rocketed along main highway Route 15 across the vast landscape between Guadalajara and Mexico City, we watched fast moving and increasingly dense clouds begin to dominate the brilliant blue skies. Thunderheads began to pile up ominously over the distant mountains through which we would pass on less secure roads. Despite the potential dangers, instead we marveled at the stunning scenery, anticipating the event we would participate in the next evening.

After nightfall, we went to the cemetery portion of the celebration, and it was quite extraordinary, worthy of more narrative than I'm going to devote today. We decided to forgo traveling unfamiliar roads in the dark to watch the boat procession across Lago de Patzuaro, drawing the line at what felt reckless. We awoke on Dia de los Muertos with the lake under a dense shroud of fog, but by the time we'd had breakfast, gotten ourselves organized and I'd done a couple more sketches, we departed for Guadalajara in full and cheerful sunshine. The trip was well worth it despite our concerns going in and missing part of what we'd hoped to see.

A week later, back here in the U.S. the morning after what regardless the outcome was destined to be a nail-biting Presidential Election night, I find myself musing on some parallels between that excursion into that literal danger zone and and the figurative, nonetheless real one,  in which we find ourselves today. We are under turbulent and unpredictable skies with Donald Trump as President-Elect. Had Hillary Clinton prevailed, we would have faced some of the same and some quite different challenges and threats, but still there'd have been significant reasons for concern. No matter how we each feel about where we are, along with the inevitable dangers and turbulence, there will be opportunities for us to experience new perspectives and wonderful moments. Reflecting on our memorable visit to Tzintzuntzan, I intend to choose my path forward in the days ahead with some caution, but not to let that cancel out my hope, optimism, and sense of adventure.

 Nora and Monica at the candlelight vigil on Noche de Muertos, Tzintzuntzan



Tacos Juan

Months before we departed for our visit to Mexico, my daughter Nora told me that we would enjoy the best food we'd ever eaten. So upon our arrival, little more than an hour after she and her roommate Monica picked us up at Guadalajara's international airport, they transported us to a modest looking neighborhood corner restaurant, brightly lighted inside with customers spilling out onto the sidewalk on both sides. It had to be 10pm, but the place was filled with couples, families with young children, young hipsters and old locals. We jockeyed our way to one of the few open tables, sat down on cheap plastic chairs, and within minutes were savoring several types of little soft tacos, smaller than CDs. I had to withhold ecstatic crows of delight with each mouthful, but the goofy grin on my face after every bite gave me away. A very promising first taste of real Mexican food.

After a busy first day (maybe the subject of an upcoming post) when we were all finally awake on the second morning (Saturday 29 October), Nora announced that she and Monica were going to take us to "the best barbacoa taco spot in Guadalajara" for breakfast. Never mind that it was late morning by the time we actually got under way and that I'd have been grateful for a McDonald's Egg McMuffin three hours earlier. The girls navigated us into a zone of narrow streets with little shops cheek by jowl, packed with slow moving traffic. We passed what looked like a street fair food stand under a colorful banner with a Pepsi logo at one end, barbeque smoke wafting over a crowd of people surrounding it, and eventually found a tight parking space. We got out of the car, jostled our way down the sidewalk, and Nora shouldered her way to the front of the line and ordered. She came back rolling her eyes, saying we were number ninety something and they were calling out orders in the fifties, so we'd better go to the hole in the wall juice stand next door for drinks while we waited. With no place to sit (people were standing around in the street, leaning on car fenders, eating from paper plates), I sat down up against a stucco clad building on the opposite sidewalk, behind a pickup truck with a huge covered stainless steel vat of barbacoa sauce in its bed, and distracted myself from my growling stomach with sketchbook and pencils.

The wait was worth it. I don't know what I thought barbacoa was, but when Nora handed me four tacos hot off the griddle and I took a first juicy bite, I knew instantly that it was indeed the most delicious street food I'd ever eaten. Better than most meals in fancy restaurants. And CHEAP!! Had the line not been so long and were I not struggling to exercise some restraint, I might have asked for another quadruple order. But more new experiences awaited in the form of an afternoon drive out of the city and an overnight stay in the mountain village of Tapalpa, so onward the agenda.

Tacos Juan, Santa Teresita, Guadalajara, Mexico



Mexico: Guadalajara and Tlaquepaque

As I was reminded by a TSA official at Reagan National Airport that I needed to sign my unused passport to validate it, I realized it's been 22 years since I was last out of the US and Canada. Our 12 day trip to visit my daughter Nora in Guadalajara began with a series of little mishaps, (setting off for the wrong airport, Ina having to bandage the hapless Uber driver after he slit his wrist breaking the handle on my new suitcase, then directing him turn by turn to National since he couldn't follow the GPS directions), then settled down to an easy two stage flight for my first real vacation since 2011. 

Nora and her close friend and roommate Monica met us outside of customs Thursday night and whisked us across the sprawling megalopolis to drop our bags at their apartment then treat us to our first Mexican meal, tacos like we've never eaten at a busy neighborhood joint. Bedtime came late.

While Nora was in class the next morning, Monica took us to breakfast at an outdoor cafe near University of Guadalajara, and we realized we would be going home needing to lose a pound or two ... a short walk deposited me at the back of a massive stone cathedral with my sketchbook while Ina discovered the university's wonderful art museum, where we saw a brilliant contemporary exhibition of paintings by a modern Mexican surrealist juxtaposed with a breathtaking Orozco wall and dome mural from the 1930s. 

Swinging by the apartment to pick Nora up, Monica drove us through the Friday afternoon rush hour to Tlaquepaque, a neighborhood of restaurants, shops, and galleries featuring traditional Mexican artisanal crafts. After a fabulous meal in a large courtyard, serenaded by mariachi, we waded through the streets as dusk fell and vendors and contestants assembled their Dia de los Muertos booths along the narrow sidewalks. Another cathedral riveted me to a stone perch for one more sketch before we headed home at the end of a perfect first day in Mexico.