Sacrificing to Xipe Totec

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The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel

Supposedly, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma believed that the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was a reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl and in the year 1519 AD, he handed over the Aztec Empire to the Spaniard. The Emperor recognized his mistake at the last moment and left behind a special curse for any Europeans who came after Cortes, which has come to be known as Montezuma’s Revenge—severe diarrhea that lasts for days and still afflicts travelers in Mexico.

This, of course, is nonsense. History is written by the winners, after all, so we can’t really trust the depiction of Moctezuma as a fool. And Hernan Cortes obviously wasn’t a reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl; the Spanish were interested in plundering the New World’s resources and spreading Christianity. But as Renée (my personal anthropologist) has pointed out, the old gods don’t go away when a new religion is imposed, they go underground.

So I think blaming Moctezuma (or Montezuma, the spellings vary) for this traveler’s affliction is probably incorrect. My guess is that Xipe Totec, the Aztec god of suffering, is actually responsible. It’s as though he said, “You really want to live in my land? I’m going to have to haze you first.” For the last week of our stay, we were actively sacrificing to Xipe Totec. Blood sacrifice is frowned upon in modern times, so he accepts shit instead.

I hope that the sacrifices we both made during the week are our initiation, and that he’ll accept us as new residents when the time comes. (And I hope he also pardons me for my extreme oversimplification of his role in Aztec cosmology, which I really need to learn more about.)

We did manage to get out of our sickbeds a couple of times by the end of the week, so our stay in San Miguel de Allende wasn’t a complete loss. Our fate this trip was to stay only at the top of hills; at least in this place it was possible to walk down to the central square. Possible, but not easy–if the steep and narrow streets had been ski slopes, they would have been marked with experts-only black diamonds. Getting back up to our room called for a taxi, especially in our weakened state.

San Miguel itself is lovely, and I really wish we’d been able to explore it more thoroughly. El Jardin, the central square, is a perfect place for people watching, with perfectly P1090644trimmed topiary trees that provide shade for the park benches; food stalls selling ice cream, roasted ears of corn, and tacos; vendors making flower tiaras; and mariachi bands serenading the crowds. The church opposite the Jardin, the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, is a confection of pink sandstone.

On our last afternoon in San Miguel, we encountered a splendid parade with loud music and half a dozen different groups of costumed dancers. We’re not sure what they were celebrating, but they sure did it with spirit!

Our host helped us arrange a taxi, and another bus ride returned us to Guadalajara, where I was glad that we’d reserved a room at a Holiday Inn Express, minutes from the airport. There was a Denny’s just steps from the lobby, and I have to admit that we appreciated a menu with a U.S. accent. We had a day to spend in Guadalajara before we caught our flight home, so we returned to the Tlaquepaque neighborhood for more exploring and some last minute shopping. (Renée found a perfect leather handbag for about $30!)

The next morning the hotel’s shuttle got us to the airport at 5:00 AM, and we negotiated the boarding process. (We probably should have stopped at the Denny’s before we left the hotel—airports aren’t real good about providing food at that hour, and we both really needed some. Especially Renée. Don’t try to talk to Renée when Subway is the only option for airport food first thing in the morning. Some hot soup on the plane finally revived her.)

Since we landed back home in California, we’ve been telling anyone who would listen how wonderful Mexico is, while we plan our return. I’m just hoping that Xipe Totec will remember that we’ve already passed the suffering part of our initiation when we show up again.

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Angels Of Guanajuato

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When we last saw our two old gringos, they were chasing a dog with a stolen goat and shouting, “Ayuda, por favor!” Help arrived in short order, and the kid’s neck was safely extracted from the dog’s jaws. He scampered back to his flock, which wisely exited the area.

The goat rescuer, who turned out to be one of our host’s employees, showed us to our room, at the top of a long, rickety spiral staircase. It was a good size space, with the door opening onto a spacious rooftop terrace and a picture window taking up the whole front wall. P1090183The view was magnificent, with the multi-colored city of Guanajuato strewn across the valley below, guarded by imposing cliffs. “Didn’t do half badly picking this spot,” I thought to myself. Renée said, “I’m hungry. Are you?”

And right at that instant we encountered one of the major challenges we’d be dealing with for the whole trip. We were both hungry. It had been a long time since breakfast in Guadalajara, and the snack supplied on the bus was a modest sandwich, digested long ago. We didn’t have any food with us, and as I mentioned above, Valenciana was pretty deserted at 6:00 in the evening.

I left Renée in the room, as her legs had about reached their limit for the day, and struck out to try to find something to eat. I wandered into the center of Valenciana, where all the shops had closed their shutters. It didn’t look good—no restaurants or grocery stores that I could find, and I didn’t think I had the energy to look much farther. Dinner might not happen without some kind of miracle.

I retraced my steps to the plazuela, where a single door was still open. I hadn’t even noticed it on my way out. There was a Coca-Cola sign on the door, and when I stuck my head inside I found an angel. Well, actually just a woman, sitting alone at one of the four or five tables, but she sure looked angelic to me. I sign-languaged what I hoped would convey that I wanted something to eat. “Hamburguesa?” she asked. It seemed that was all they had left for the day, so I held up two fingers and said, “Dos, por favor.

I waited for the hamburguesas to cook, added a can of beer and a diet Coke from the cold case by the counter. My guardian angel helped me pick out the right Mexican bills to pay for the meal, and I thanked her profusely as I left the little hole-in-the-wall lunch joint, carrying my dos hamburguesas back to the room. We passed by the place regularly over the next week, but I never again saw it open in the early evening—just that one time when we really needed it.

The burgers tasted good, and were enough. We sat on the terrace finishing our drinks as the sunlight began to fade and the moon rose. Below us, the lights of Guanajuato sparkled like the stars above, and we tucked ourselves into bed for the night, exhausted.

***

P1090560Next morning, feeding ourselves was once more at the top of our agenda. We got cleaned up and ventured out to Valenciana’s central plaza, right next to the Templo de San Cayetano. At this hour, there were several food stands set up there, offering things we didn’t recognize. We weren’t quite hungry or brave enough to just jump in and point at something, so we were wandering, looking clueless, in search of options we could comprehend.

And an angel showed up to rescue us again. This time it took the shape of a 12-year-old boy, who caught our attention with a word we’d just looked up. “Desayuno?” he asked. Breakfast?

We nodded enthusiastically, saying, “Si, si!”, and he gestured for us to follow him, down a set of stone stairs and onto the narrow shoulder of the main road into town. A few yards farther along was a door, with a plastic banner strung above it: Lilo’s. Cuisine Mexicana.

It was a little family-owned restaurant, with three generations involved. Abuela Lilo cooked, her daughters waited tables, and the grandkids bussed the dirty dishes and wiped down the tables. One of the daughters, Jessica, spoke a little bit of English.

We put ourselves in Jessica’s hands, and two plates appeared. I don’t remember what we ate, but it sure tasted good. We dug in. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed our angel having his own breakfast, so he might have been a son or nephew or local kid sent out to drum up some customers. But you gotta take your angels where you find ‘em, right?

We had a big meal at Lilo’s most of the days we stayed in Valenciana. After the second or third one, Jessica insisted on taking our picture to post on their wall.

***

Other angels appeared when we needed them, although they might not have appeared quite as much like divine messengers. Memo, our host in Valenciana, provided rides into town and recommendations. Paty, our hostess in San Miguel, showed up at exactly the right moment to give me a ride to the farmacia for supplies to combat our bouts with Montezuma’s Revenge. And when Renée fainted at the shopping mall, a whole flight of angels appeared to help take care of her. The people we met were unfailingly kind and helpful. I have only good things to say about the people of Mexico.

And the churches were full of angels too. As I wandered through Guanajuato with my camera, I soon learned to enter the churches. The style that was popular in the late 18th Century when they were built is called Churrigueresque, which out-Baroques the Baroque, adding ornaments to ornaments until there’s just no room for anything more. Angels of all ranks peek out from every intricately carved surface, along with saints, apostles, Christ himself, and atop them all, the Virgin Mary. I guess if I can be a temporary Baptist for Gospel music, I can be a temporary Catholic for the art and architecture.

 

I’ve come the long way round to introducing the city itself. Guanajuato is a labyrinth of streets and alleys and tunnels. (Yes, tunnels. Much of the automotive traffic runs through tunnels beneath pedestrian-only streets.) I remember feeling that the historic Centro district was funnel-shaped, with the Jardin de la Paz and Teatro Juarez at the bottom. Every time we headed off on a walk, we started out uphill; the streets and alleys, narrow and twisting and setting off at crazy angles, walls washed by unexpected colors, would lead us on a circuitous route until gravity took over and pulled us back down, and we’d discover we were back in the Jardin.

 

The city is full of art, from the ever-present murals on the walls to bronze statues in the little plazuelas, to the museums and galleries and markets and even the restaurants. Guanajuato has adopted Don Quijote as one of its secular patron saints, and his image is everywhere. The city honors the Don and his creator, Miguel Cervantes, with a festival every year.

Mariachi bands play in the cafés that surround the Jardin, and Renaissance-costumed musicians known as callejoneadas lead groups of revelers around the historic district, singing and playing as they go. One evening, a swing band was playing in the gazebo at the Jardin. Exploring on another afternoon, I encountered a group playing bagpipes like none I’d ever seen before.

I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Guanajuato, and I’m eager to return. Yes, we visited museums. Yes, we saw the famous mummies. Yes, we rode the funicular railway up to El Pipila. But we didn’t really have the capacity to absorb everything that was before us. Perhaps next time around I’ll be able to see deeper into this magical place. Renée and I know now that we have guardian angels there.

Still more to come, I’m writing as fast as I can!

 

Falling Under the Spell of the Bajio

Guanajuato sprawls across the landscape, in this view from Valenciana

Central Mexico’s Silver Cities, Part 1

Falling Under the Spell of the Bajio

Valenciana, Guanajuato, Mexico—The taxi pulled up to the green gate at the end of the plazuela. We tumbled out, extracted our bags from the trunk, negotiated payment with the driver somehow. I found the lockbox, punched in the code and got the key. “We’re in!” I thought, a feeling of accomplishment at having navigated to a new and unfamiliar place starting to grow in my mind.

The garden at our lodgings in Valenciana. Just add dog, goat and frantic gringos.

I turned the key and the door swung open. At that instant, a 75-pound Belgian Malinois burst through, charging into the hitherto-unnoticed flock of goats grazing a few feet away and seizing a fuzzy bleating creature by the back of the neck. The big dog slung the little goat over his shoulder and crashed back into the compound, playing “chase me!” at a highly advanced level, with Renée and I alternating between dumbstruck stares at the unexpected drama and frantically waving our arms shouting for somebody, anybody, to please come help us. Ayuda, por favor!

Welcome to Mexico.

Dumbstruck stares and frantic cries for help remained our most prominent responses to our visit in Central Mexico’s Bajio region, to the colonial-era cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. We were consistently struck dumb by the beauty and vitality of the culture we discovered, while often finding ourselves unexpectedly over our heads and calling for a lifeline. It was a hell of a trip. Sometimes it was hell, and sometimes it was a trip. But after it all, we can’t wait to go back.

Why Guanajuato?

But let me back up and start somewhere closer to the beginning of the story, to explain how two old gringos with no espanol came to be chasing a dog with a stolen goat around a dusty plazuela in the little town of Valenciana, high on the mountainside above Guanajuato.

Retirement is in the immediate future for us both, but like so many of our fellow baby-boomers there’s not a lot of income associated with that state of affairs. We need to stretch our pittance until every nickel screams bloody murder. So we’re looking to relocate ASAP.

Mexico comes up near the top of the list when you google “retire cheaply abroad” and our research indicated that the Bajio was an expatriate magnet, with low rents, cheap eats and a year-round comfortable climate. It’s also within easy reach of family in California and New Orleans, so getting back to the States for family visits would be straightforward.

Not having been born yesterday, we realized that however good Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende looked on paper, we’d need to check them out before we made a commitment. We figured that we could book cheap lodgings in cool places with friendly hosts, explore the area at our leisure, and maybe even connect with some Americans who’d already made the transition. We set up a three-week visit.

One night in Guadalajara…

Flying from San Jose, California, to Guadalajara, Mexico, was an easy 4-hours-or-so direct flight, even if it wasn’t the closest airport to our destination. I’ve learned when traveling with airplane-averse Renée that keeping takeoffs and landings to a minimum is the best strategy. We had booked a night at La Casona Tlaquepaque, a funky little place in an upscale Guadalajara neighborhood, for our first stop south of the border and there we walked into our first encounter with the local secular patron saints, the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Our room was dedicated to and decorated with Frida, and the small (unfortunately closed) restaurant on the premises had a reproduction of Diego’s most famous mural covering the length of one wall.

We managed, between sign language and Google Translate, to get directions toward the central area of Tlaquepaque from the young man at the reception desk, and soon found El Parian, a large square structure with a central courtyard and several different restaurants around the perimeter. After much guessing and pointing at menus, we ate a nice and not-too-expensive dinner, while listening to the strolling mariachi bands and fending off peddlars. (Entrees in most of the full-service restaurants we visited ran somewhere between 130 and 170 pesos—about $7.00 and $9.00 US. A Corona beer was usually 40 pesos, about $2.00. I think our most expensive meal, including tip, came to about 600 pesos, or just over $30 US.) We paid up, took a short shopping stroll through the vendors around the square, then decided to call it a night and made our way back to the Casona.

Climbing to Valenciana

The next morning, we caught a taxi to the bus station for the next leg of our trip. The long-distance Mexican buses are almost everything you could wish for in an airplane, without the speed and altitude. The seats are comfortable with plenty of legroom, and they recline deeply, with leg rests so you can raise your feet and a TV screen on the seatback in front of you. And they’re a bargain, to boot. The 4-hour ride from Guadalajara to Guanajuato cost us about $7.00 each.

From the Guanajuato’s bus station, we hailed another taxi for last lap for the day, the ride to Valenciana. It’s a small village renowned for the silver mines that brought great wealth to the area in colonial times, and the site of the Templo de San Cayetano. It’s also a popular place for Mexican tourists to shop for silver jewelry.

I pulled out my phone and opened the Airbnb app, showing the driver the directions our host had sent us in Spanish. He nodded, and we loaded the bags in the trunk. What we hadn’t realized when we booked our stay was how steep and switchbacked the climb up from central Guanajuato is. Our driver was enthusiastically shifting gears as he took the curves, and Renée’s eyes kept getting rounder and rounder. I could practically hear her thinking, “What have you gotten us into, you idiot?” except it was couched in much more explicit language.

We made it up the mountain in one piece. Valenciana, we learned, is pretty much deserted at 6:00 on a Thursday evening. Our driver had to stop twice for directions, but finally he found the Plazuela de las Minas and we spotted the green gate. And now you know how two old gringos wound up chasing a dog with a stolen goat around a dusty plazuela, high above the city of Guanajuato.

To be continued, as we explore the unique cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, learn of the local obsession with Don Quijote, and commune with the muses at Teatro Juarez. Part 2 coming soon!

A Pot Smoker’s Pilgrimage

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Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt

It was a gesture, really. A symbolic act, coming out of the cedar-lined secret stash closet where all of us baby-boomer potheads grew up.

I’ve smoked marijuana since I was in high school, and now, in my 60s, it’s still my consciousness-altering substance of choice. Now, I’m a white guy from suburban Connecticut, so even if I’d gotten busted back in the ‘70s the consequences wouldn’t have included much prison time. But the fear of discovery by parents, teachers, coaches or the cops forced all of us freaks (the accepted term for pot smokers in my high school years) to be sneaky. And to distrust authority, because we knew the authorities were all lying to us about weed’s effects. (The old “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” slogan was all about the wacky tabacky, kids.)

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The entrepreneurial spirit was in evidence everywhere.

So I’ve been very happy that last January California made it legal for adults to purchase cannabis products for recreational use. I can walk into my local pot store and choose from an incredible variety of marijuana strains and delivery systems, with effects calibrated to suit any activity. It’s fucking weed wonderland in the Golden State, folks. (And in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. The West is Green!)

Ever since “420” became the area code for weed, April 20th has become a folk holiday. One of the prominent gathering spots for the celebration is the area of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park known as Hippie Hill. In 2017 the city decided it was easier to join ‘em than to beat ‘em, so the event is now sanctioned and sponsored. This year some 15,000 people showed up.

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Sponsorship has helped the event clean up its act.

To steal a slogan from an old advertising campaign, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

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Here’s to legal weed! May everyone enjoy it soon.

So I had to make the gesture. I had to go to Hippie Hill on 4/20/18 and burn a legally acquired joint. I remembered friends who’d been caught and tossed out of school, or arrested and thrown into the (in)justice system. I blessed all the activists—especially the AIDS activists, whose fight for medical marijuana turned the tide—who worked to change the state law. And I’ll support anyone who works to make it legal everywhere. Like alcohol prohibition before it, marijuana prohibition has always been a tool of oppression and a breeding ground for crime. Let’s end it now.