Monday, March 28, 2005

MEXICO, DAYS 4-6: Morelia & the Michoacan countryside

Naked women fountain and aqueduct in Morelia

Next we were off to the small city of Morelia (pronounced mo-RAIL-ya) and the surrounding regions of the beautiful west-central state of Michoacán. (mee-cho-wah-KAHN) Morelia itself was packed with vacationers, but we nevertheless enjoyed the picturesque Spanish-colonial architecture, the bustling pedestrian plazas, the beautiful towering old cathedral, and the large, forested park (Kina's favorite urban locale in Mexico so far). Carley’s favorite part of Morelia was without a doubt the Hindu vegetarian restaurant, Govinda’s, where we feasted on fresh fruit, granola, veggie stews and even a soyburger. A close second was our auto motel (no-tell motel) on the outskirts of town. These can be found in bigger cities and include a garage and room for discreet flings (most people just stay for a few hours) and for gringos with a car. It might sound seedy, but it was probably the cleanest place we’ve stayed.

Cathedral in Morelia

Morelia is another major destination for Mexican tourists during Semana Santa, and like a lot of towns & cities throughout the country, they apparently go big on the religious celebrations and parades. From the literature we were handed on Friday morning, it seems that the Good Friday evening procession would include people robed and hooded a la KKK, but in red. (We figured that the hood was probably at some point a benign religious symbol, like the swastika, before being bastardized by hate.) Then on Easter Sunday, we could have the option of viewing a burning of the effigy of Judas! Instead of staying in town for all this hooplah, we decided to save some money and go camping in the woods and enjoy the full moon for a few nights.

A couple of bumpy hours east of Morelia is the world-famous Monarch Butterfly Reserve, where we spent Friday afternoon. This is the winter resting and mating location for what seems to be the entire population of monarch butterflies. (They migrate to various parts of the U.S. in the summer.) After a seriously steep climb to the top of a pine-forested mountain, we were treated to a truly spectacular vision: thousands upon thousands of gorgeous monarch butterflies fluttering about a beautiful meadow and resting in large cocoon-shaped formations on the trees. If these had been any other kind of insect in this kind of quantity, it would have been truly frightening! Instead, it was very serene and inspiring.

After the hike, we were too exhausted to drive much further, so we decided to look for a campsite. The People’s Guide says of camping: “Camping in Mexico is easier after you accept the fact that almost anyplace can be a campsite.” On our first night we found a sweet little campsite off of an old logging road, only a 10-minute drive from the Butterfly Reserve. Had our site been situated by a clean river, it would have been perfect.

The next night, Saturday, our campsite was a little more difficult to come by. We had made our way to a more heavily farmed region, and all of the roads seemed to lead to farmhouses and ranches. We finally drove to the back of an avocado orchard, convinced that no one would come out and find us on Easter morning. We were right and the site was quite peaceful, except for the distant roosters crowing and dogs barking at the full moon.

Isla de Janitzio and Lake Patzcuaro, an hour west of Morelia

On to DAYS 7-10: Uruapan, Volcanos, and Colima

MEXICO, DAYS 2-3: Guanajuato


The next day we were full-on road warriors, putting as much distance between us and Monterrey as possible. Our destination was the touristy old mining city of Guanajuato, in the central highlands northwest of Mexico City. With Rob’s crafty navigation, we enjoyed many of the toll roads without enjoying all of the tolls. We made it to Guanajuato shortly before dusk and were quite pleased with ourselves – until we saw the traffic jam that was Guanajuato. The town is a maze of one-way streets and tunnels carved out of a labyrinth of impossibly steep hills – and it appeared that half the country had decided to vacation there this week.

Downtown Guanajuato

As it turns out, we entered Mexico at the beginning of “Semana Santa” which literally means “holy week.” It’s a deeply religious week leading up to Easter, celebrated all over Latin America, with many towns organizing elaborate processions and plays. But it’s also a bit like Spring Break for the entire country, since almost all companies and schools shut down for the week. Initially we thought this would be great since we like to party, but before long we realized that prices were doubled and hotels and streets were packed. We ended up paying way too much for a hotel room in Guanajuato this night, our 2nd night in Mexico, and the next morning we were determined to find a better deal. We tried a place near the city center, and sure enough success! (Or so we thought – more on that later). Then we were free to enjoy the city.

The People’s Guide to Mexico (an essential Mexico book if you’re going anywhere outside of the resorts) advises against going to the Museo de Momias (mummy museum) “unless you’re a hard-core horror fan.” So, of course, that was our first stop. The museum displays some of the town’s former residents in their grotesquely mummified versions, as well as boasting baby mummies, the world’s smallest mummy, a pregnant mummy, and, apparently, an epileptic mummy. Now if you’ve ever seen a “mummy movie”, it couldn’t possibly prepare you for seeing the real thing – truly grotesque! The mummies were first disinterred in 1865 when the residents needed to make room in the local cemetery, but instead of finding skeletons, the officials found mummies, and, realizing the Mexican culture’s fascination with death, decided to make money off of them. Our guide book claims the soil’s high mineral content caused mummification but our museum guide assured us that the residents were not buried in the soil but in crypts in the walls. We’re not sure how the mummification process takes place; all we know is that if one comes after you, make sure to sever its spinal cord.

Run for your lives!!!

We left the mummy museum feeling a bit queasy, so we decided it was time for some beauty, and found our way to the Museo de Diego Rivera. Diego Rivera is Mexico’s most famous muralist and the two-time husband of Frida Kahlo, an even more famous Mexican painter. Rivera was born here in Guanajuato, however the conservative town shunned their native son for years due to the fact that he was a pinko commie. The museum’s paintings included a series he did in the early 1930’s that resembled Mayan hieroglyphs and nudes of several women, including one of Frida. We also had the luck of catching the “Diego y Frida” photography exhibit that was at the museum for March and April. Most of the photos of the eccentric couple showed Frida looking austere and beautiful and Diego looking, well, rotund. One picture taken with another couple in San Francisco shows the men seated on chairs and the women seated on their laps – except that the wives swapped husbands. The photo was interesting in that you could see a gleam in Diego’s eye that hinted at his reputation as a womanizer.

A theater in Guanajuato

After walking around the hilly town, seeing its gorgeous theatres, plazas, and museums, we retired for a siesta, after which we walked Kina and had a late lunch. We came back to the hotel around 5:00 at which time, one of the women there informed us that we were no longer allowed to bring the dog in. Now, keep in mind that we had asked two different people, ostensibly in charge, at two different times if it was okay to bring Kina in the room. Both times, the reply was “no problema.” This was an unfortunate turn of events because there was no way we would find another reasonably priced hotel room that would allow Kina this late in the day. The woman got an earful from us, and it was the perfect time for Rob to learn the Spanish verb joder (to screw over). We lit out of town, thankful we hadn’t ever given them any money (even though we’d supposedly checked in hours before), and thankful to escape the crowds and traffic nightmare of Guanajuato. We ended up staying in Silao, a smaller town a half hour away, where we paid half the price for a hotel room, enjoyed the town’s Wednesday evening Semana Santa procession (a blind-folded Christ being led to the cross), ate fresh strawberries in the town square, and drank cheap beer in a seedy bar (which incidentally had the worst bathroom Rob has ever seen anywhere!). So, in the end, we think the lame hotel folks in Guanajuato are the ones who were jodido.

On to DAYS 4-6: Morelia & the Michoacan countryside

MEXICO, DAY 1: Monterrey

Our first meal in Mexico! Posted by Hello

¡Hemos llegado! We’ve finally arrived in Mexico! We crossed the border on Monday, March 21. With Rob’s masterful navigation skills and trusty road atlas, plus Carley’s rusty but solid Spanish skills, things have been going smoothly. We’re definitely starting to tap in to the rhythm of life here, and we’re getting more comfortable in our lily-white skin.

After crossing the border through Laredo, Texas, we made our way down to Monterrey, about a 2 hour drive south of the border. Monterrey is decidedly a “NAFTA” city – big, industrial, and full of trucks & pollution – not really the Mexico we were looking for, despite the picturesque backdrop of high, craggy desert peaks. Nevertheless, here we had our first meal in Mexico – at El Restaurante Vegetariano Superbom – a vegetarian restaurant! (This was short-lived bliss for Carley, who has since been eating lots of rice, beans, cheese and tortillas.) Since it was late in the day, we also spent our first night here in Monterrey. With our one special need in consideration – the hotel must be pet-friendly – we settled on a rather crappy (but cheap) hotel near the bus station, where Carley sweet talked the manager into letting Kina stay with us. (This has definitely been a motif, but despite lots of rejections, Kina has stayed in the room with us every night so far).

After we checked in, it was off to celebrate our arrival with some cervezas. We enjoyed a couple of beers at a dive bar near our hotel, where a local came over to our table to show us some photos in his wallet – the first one being a photo of President George Bush! When we gave him a hearty thumbs down, he turned to the next photo and asked (in Spanish), “So, you like him better?”, showing us a photo of an Arab man in traditional checkered head-scarf. We all enjoyed a good laugh over that. I suppose we should expect that most Mexicans don’t really understand U.S. politics.

Soon we decided to find another bar. We passed up a bunch of seedy joints until we were lured inside a promising establishment by a man outside who assured us there was great live music inside. It turns out that “great” is a relative term, as we should have expected. The “band” consisted of a man and a woman: the woman singing, and the guy playing a synthesizer contraption that produced cheesy renditions of a variety of instruments, including programmed “drums”. (kind of like a karaoke machine) The songs this duo churned out are best described as Mexican romance music, if you can imagine that. Despite the nauseating effect of the music, we decided to endure for one round of cervezas. Then Carley made the fatal mistake of politely applauding after one of the songs, catching the keyboardist’s attention. Suddenly, Carley was the center of the whole room’s attention as he pleaded with her to come up on stage and sing with him. Shortly, the soundtrack to Eric Clapton’s 90’s ballad “Tears in Heaven” started up, and with some more prodding, Carley finally conceded and took the stage to sing the second verse. (Rob is still kicking himself for having left the camera in the hotel room!) Carley offers Mexico Lesson #1: Under no circumstances should you applaud or make eye contact with cheesy musicians unless you want to stay for longer than you’d like!

On to DAYS 2-3: Guanajuato

Leaving the USA!

After a 10-day stay at Carley’s parents’ house in Tupelo, MS, we were really eager to hit the road! Despite all the good things we accomplished in Tupelo – securing a reliable vehicle, wedding planning, paperwork, family time, etc – the true purpose of our visit was constantly lurking just beneath the surface and tugging at our consciousness. We finally hit the road on the afternoon of Thursday, March 17. It was St. Patrick’s Day, but we didn’t think twice about it, as we had other things on our mind.

We didn’t drive very far that first day, spending the night in Starkville, MS (home of the Mississippi State Bulldogs) with one of Carley’s best friends from childhood, Susan, plus her husband Bill and their new daughter, the adorable Harper. We were treated to a delicious lasagna dinner and the coziest bed we’d slept in for the past month.

Susan and sweet baby Harper in Starkville Posted by Hello

On Friday morning we headed south, and late in the afternoon we rolled into one of our favorite cities in the US, the musical heartbeat of the country, a world unto itself, the Crescent City, New Orleans. This place never ceases to amaze us, with its vibrant & laid back culture, and the astonishing plethora of good music pouring forth from every nook & cranny. We checked into a reasonably priced bed & breakfast on Esplanade, on the edge of a seedy neighborhood just outside the French Quarter. The room was in a large, converted old house, and included a very satisfying breakfast in the dining room the next morning. After some large beers and tasty New Orleans grub, including crawfish etoufee, we met up with our guide for the evening, local resident and music aficionado Cathy Hughes, with whom Rob had corresponded on the on-line discussion list for one of our favorite bands, New Orleans’ own Galactic. We were hoping that since Galactic weren’t on tour, we might encounter one or more of the band members sitting in with one of the other local bands, but it turned out that the local music we found was quite entertaining in its own right – especially since we had been completely starved of good live music for almost a month at this point. Cathy steered us first to the intimate Funky Butt on Rampart St., at the edge of the French Quarter, where New Orleans legend and founder of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Kirk Joseph, was performing with his latest incarnation. The band consisted of several excellent horn players, plus two guitar players, and they entertained us with modern brass band renditions of old standards and familiar covers. Next Cathy took us over to the buzzing locale of Frenchman St., just outside the Quarter, where all kinds of good music poured out of the rows of bars on either side of the street. Eventually we settled into an unassuming joint with no cover charge (we can’t remember the name now due to the many large beers & hurricanes) where a young band with no mics or amps swung our hips to some Louis Armstrong-style jazz. Finally we were ready to drop from exhaustion (even though it was still early for New Orleans standards) so Cathy dropped us off at our room. Big thanks to Cathy and New Orleans for sending us off on our trip in style!

After that it was off to Houston, TX, to catch up with a couple of Carley’s friends: her high school friend, Carisa and her college roommate, Rachel. Although Carisa’s fiancĂ©, Clay, was away at his bachelor party that weekend, he gets an honorable mention for his toys including a Mercedes convertible that we cruised around in and a boy-room complete with a huge plasma TV and massage chair (that Carley seldom left, even when she spilled hot tea all over herself while in “pulse” mode). That night we sipped wine at Carisa’s and then sipped cocktails at a local bar where Rachel’s friend’s band was playing. The next morning we were treated to a yummy tex-mex breakfast by Rachel’s mom Maryann, and then we were off to Laredo.

Rob relaxes in Carisa and Clay's massage chair Posted by Hello

Carley and Carisa in Houston Posted by Hello

Rachel and Carley in Houston Posted by Hello

Laredo is a dumpy border town, and the only upside for us was whetting our appetites for authentic Mexican food and practicing Spanish. We did get caught inadvertently in the town’s Sunday night cruising ritual, which was pretty comical. Somehow our bass just wouldn’t go loud enough to compete with the other folks. This was the last stop in the good ole U.S. of A. ¡Adios Uncle Sam!

On to MEXICO, DAY 1: Monterrey