KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Patzcuaro was the capital of the Tarasco people for almost one hundred years prior to the early 1400s. The western central highlands were too far to feel the influence of the Mayan and Aztec cultures and this allowed the Tarascos to develop a strong pre-Hispanic civilization. When the Aztecs finally entered into the Lake Patzcuaro region, the Tarasco people were able to fend them off, thanks to the strong copper weapons they had developed. When the Spanish arrived in 1522, they were warmly welcomed. Seven years later, the Spanish returned under the command of the brutal Nuno de Guzman, who brutalized the indigenous people. The colonial government recalled Guzman to Spain, where he was imprisoned for life and sent out Bishop Vaso de Quiroga, an honourable judge from Mexico City, to make amends.
Quiroga believed in the humanitarian ideals of Sir Thomas More and began to encourage agricultural self-reliance, handicraft co-operatives and education. He encouraged each village to specialize in a different craft to avoid competition and all villagers contributed to the community equally. Quirogo died in 1565, but his legacy lives on to this day. He is spoken of with reverence and is usually referred to as Tata Vascu.
We started our visit to the Lake Patzcuaro region with a stop at the little town of Quiroga, planning to end the day in Patzcuaro itself. Quiroga is a busy market town with a daily crafts market that specializes in painted wooden, ceramic and leather products. By making an early start from Morelia, we happened to arrive before many of the shops and stalls were open so we decided to head to the food stalls for a hot breakfast of blue corn gorditas. A small baby girl snuggled deep in pink blankets with a deep pink toque on her head, caught my eye and we sat down for breakfast at the stall next to her stroller.
The ladies were busy preparing the gorditas by hand but kept a careful watch on the happy little girl. Anil and Jesus called my attention to the small nook under the large metal griddle, where yellow and orange chili peppers were roasting along with little red roma tomatoes. What an efficient use of the charcoal the women were using. The coals were placed above the chilis but below the griddle so that the heat above and below the burning coals was being used. When the gorditas were almost completely cooked atop the griddle, one of the women would lift the metal pan and finish the gordita off by placing it directly on the coals. After dusting off any ashes that attached themselves to the pastry, a knife would be used to slit the gordita and the fillings would be stuffed inside. The second woman was busing crushing the softened chili peppers and tomatoes into a delicious sauce by mashing them in a bowl made of volcanic stone, using a pestle of the same material. I was struck at how much the stone reminded me of the rock we climbed over near the Paricutin Volcano.
Filled to the brim with gorditas and freshly squeezed orange juice, we said our goodbyes to the little baby. She was so tiny I was sure she was only about eight months, but when she waved goodbye back to us, her older sister told us she was one year old. It was hard to leave such a little cutie, but we had places to go and things to see. We walked through the crafts market and marvelled at the variety of things produced in the town. Travelling light does have its downside now and then, but we did pick up some local candy in one of the many sweets stalls. When I offered pieces to Anil and Jesus, they accepted, despite the fact that we had just eaten a big breakfast. When I popped a piece into my mouth, I was surprised to find it melting into a familiar flavour I had enjoyed in my teens. I don´t know how many of you remember the candy called ´’Sea Foam’, but this was the exact same taste and texture of that long ago treat. Come to think of it, I think that I tasted a Butterfinger chocolate bar not long ago and it is really just a piece of Sea Foam, covered in chocolate. Yum, I had inadvertently discovered the original candy here in Mexico.
On now to the next town along the route around the Lake. This one has the most delightful name. It looks like quite a tongue twister when you first see it, but if you break it up into its syllables it becomes easy to spell and easy to pronounce. TZIN-TZUN-TZAN. What a great name with a great meaning, it´s Purepecha for ‘Place of the Hummingbirds’. Quiroga established his first base here, not far from the ruins of the Tarascan temples. The Spanish, under direction of Guzman, had the temples demolished and the Franciscan monks built the ExConvento de San Francisco using some of the stones from the ruins. We visited the churchyard and walked along a path between dozens of five-hundred-year-old olive trees, planted by the monks. They are thought to be the oldest olive trees in the Americas.
Anil and Jesus sat in the shady front courtyard, while I joined an English-speaking woman from Ecuador who acted as a guide for a tour of the convent. She allowed me to take a few photos, provided I didn´t use a flash. The community is working to restore the convent to its original condition, with the help of overseas donors and volunteers. It was here that I learned that the Franciscan monks lived a life of avowed poverty and worked to integrate the local populace into their world by incorporating some of their religious artifacts into the walls of the convent. They gained the trust and support of the community and lived peacefully under the guidance of Quiroga.
The guide was full of interesting information about the convent, but the story she told me of the olive trees piqued my interest the most. Apparently, the monks and the people of Tzintzuntzan, planted olive trees for two and a half kilometers beyond the rear of the convent. These trees were the female of the species and the males were planted in the front courtyard. At one point, the Spanish government overseas decreed that all female trees in the Americas were to be destroyed in order for Spain to maintain a monopoly on olives and olive oil. The male trees were left standing, with little to do but provide shade to the worshippers who came to pray in the neighbouring Church of San Francisco.
Before leaving the church premises, I wanted to visit the local potter, Manuel Morales. His studio is located in the converted missionary hospital, which is now a ramshackle ceramics studio. His work is sold in galleries throughout Mexico and is even in demand in California. He was happy to show us around and there was no pressure to buy any of this beautiful, unique pieces, as he knows there is a home waiting for each and every intricate article, he lends his talents to. He is a quiet, unassuming fifth generation potter and I took several pictures of his work for those of my friends who are also potters, to admire.
Before leaving Tzintzuntzan, we made a quick stop at the ruins of the temples, perched on a small rise overlooking the town. It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon, and after passing a small group of visitors, on their way out, we found ourselves alone at the site. Jesus had been there before, so he stayed chatting with the staff while we paid the admission fee and spend a quick half hour viewing the model of the site and walking around the reconstructed temples. The view of the lake was lovely from this elevation and the quietness of the place with no other visitors around made it especially meaningful. What makes this temple special is the unusual combination of both rectangular and round structures. They are all that remain of the powerful Tarascan empire.
Before leaving the town, we took a few minutes to enjoy the crafts produced en masse here. Tzintzuntzan is noted for the delicate woven articles made from a reed that grows in and along Lake Patzcuaro. As we arrived shortly after the Christmas season, we were greeted with hundreds of strings of tree ornaments, intricately woven to produce candy canes, wreaths, fruits and angels. Coloured ribbons were interlaced with the reeds to provide great bursts of colour. Behind the rows of hanging ornaments, I discovered baskets of all shapes and sizes. Some were decorated with colourful yarn in patterns easily recognizable as Mexican. Anil was sorely tempted to buy a cute little basket to keep tortillas warm. It´s unusual for him be drawn to handicrafts, he laughed and said we would have to come back once we settled down and had a kitchen again.
Editor’s Note: A few years ago, Audrey, on her way from Denver to Edmonton, bought us a tortilla basket. It was made from styrofoam, was not pretty, but served us well to keep our ‘rotis’ warm. I just felt it was time for an upgrade!
I have always loved things woven, so I poured over all the various articles in this captivating market and photographed many of the things I loved, but could not purchase. Just as we were about to leave, I saw some sweet woven animals that turned out to be ‘piggy-banks’ for children to deposit their peso coins. I looked without success, for an opening where the coins could be removed. When I motioned to the woman at the stall, she explained to Jesus that all you have to do is wet the animal figure, and the reeds will stretch enough that the slit on the top can be enlarged to take the coins out. Once the reeds dry, the animal will regain its original shape and can be used to store pesos once again. I couldn´t resist buying two of these delightful handicrafts. A horse with a soft wicker saddle for Jesus’s seven-year-old son Hansel and a little sheep for this two-month old daughter Gretel.
That´s right, his children are named for the famous fairytale. When curiosity got the better of me, I asked Jesus why his children were given non-Mexican names. He told me that his wife liked the clever boy in the story and hoped her new son would grow to be as intelligent. When Hansel started school, the other children would tease him by constantly asking “Where is Gretel?” When is sister was born not long ago, she was named Gretel and now he has a great comeback the next time anyone asked him the same question.
Time to pile into the car again and head straight for Patzcuaro. I had read about the town, and our friends Sherry and Suresh Gurjar had mentioned that they liked it much more than Morelia, so I was anxious to visit the picturesque centre of Purepecha culture. The colonial centre is well-preserved and I was surprised to see that all the buildings are painted in simple colours of reddish-brown and white. Even the letter on all the shops and restaurants conform to a similar style, where the words are formed in black and the first letter of every word is capitalized in red. There are two plazas in the centre, one with a statue of Vasco de Quiroga and the other with a dramatic statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra, a woman who was shot by firing squad in 1818 for her support for the independence movement.
The plazas were relatively quiet mid-week but parking space was still at a premium. Jesus was delighted to find a vacant space immediately in front of the most popular ice cream stall, in this ice cream-mad town. I just laughed and reminded him once again that he was touring with the Kapoors and their unusual luck. After walking around the plazas and having a light lunch of tortilla soup, we indulged ourselves with a scoop of the delicious ice cream. The afternoon light was beginning to diminish and we knew it was time to set out for a view point high above the town in order to get a great view of the lake. We turned off one of the main streets at the edge of the residential area and began to climb a cobble stone road lined with tall trees, each of which was painted with white paint near the bottom.
The road twisted and turned past small homes and little farms and we continued to climb higher and higher. At times the cobble stones were washed out and we had to be careful not to damage the underside of the car. At times, the road was so steep I couldn’t imagine anyone driving up the narrow road. We learned that Jesus’ grandmother lived in Patzcuaro, and I was sure this was why he knew about this back road and the view from the top. Along the way, we passed a couple of groups of middle-aged women dressed in jogging suits, hiking up the edge of the road.
At last we reached the top and discovered a large covered building perfect for family picnics and a few others cars parked facing out towards the lake. The view was well worth the effort we made to drive so far up the mountain. We could see the border of Lake Patzcuaro far into the distance and the buildings of some of the small towns that we had visited earlier that morning. What a great way to end the day. Just as we were preparing to leave, the women we had seen hiking along the road finally reached the top. We expected them to look tired, but instead looked ready to tackle the four hundred steps on the staircase that had been built to take people to an even higher viewpoint.
We decided that we had packed enough into our last week in and around Morelia and it was time to return to the city. Jesus had graciously invited us to dinner in order to meet his family and we didn’t want to keep them waiting. Within an hour, we were pulling up to his in-law’s house, surprisingly close to our own Casa Neuva apartment. Jesus’ wife was busy cooking food for us, and after introductions, we played with his young son, Hansel and I took a great deal of delight holding the little Gretel. Jesus spent the evening translating our conversations from Spanish to English and vice versa and didn’t seem to tire after the long day of driving. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting his extended family, what a delightful way to end our stay in Morelia.
Time to pack up once again and set off for a new destination. Although Morelia has an international airport, flights to South America, and Chile in particular, originate out of Mexico City. This meant that we would need to spend a few days in the capital city to arrange for our flights before saying good bye to Mexico. With all we had heard over the years about the traffic problems and the high levels of pollution and crime, we were somewhat concerned about venturing into the heart of the city of over twenty million residents. It continues to be hard to say goodbye to places where we have enjoyed ourselves and made new friends, but we can’t begin to see more of the world if we don’t take the next step forward. Somehow, Morelia has gotten under our skin and we know we’ll be back one day in the future. We can no longer say that Morelia is the ‘coolest place we’ve never been’.