Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Village in the Sun ... a time warp on Lake Chapala

by Joyce Wycoff
I have just developed a severe case of writer envy.

Occasionally, you find a book that doesn’t tell you a story, but rather, gently lures you into a story, making you part of it until you see every color and detail, smell the pungent earth, know the cadence and quirks of each character, feel the air change with each season, experience the daily rhythms of life as if you were right there.

In the 1940s, writer Dane Chandos came to Ajijic, a true outback to his international friends and even to those in Guadalajara and Chapala who thought him a bit mad. He found a bit of land, decided to build a house, and in the year of construction, created a household and wrote about his daily life, month by month, beginning in June.

For those of us who have come later, reading his account is a chance to roll back the cobblestones, whisk away the gourmet restaurants, erase the colorful wall murals, turn out the lights, and sink back into the days when you might find three or four little pigs under a bed and eggs would be hand-delivered by a child, one at a time still warm from the hen.
Chupinaya trail (see footnote 1)

The book begins in June, when the author learns that if you go up the mountain you will find a spring called the Chupinaya which he was told had, “fresh water that comes out cool cool. If you drink some water from the Chupinaya, you will never leave Ajijic again.” At the time, he was not interested in never leaving Ajijic again. Interesting how plans change. 
"Bad Miles"

“It is only five miles from Chapala,” the author begins, “but they are bad miles. Between Chapala and San Antonio, the village before you come to Ajijic, there were four bridges. All had holes in them, and two of them were impassable, so that one had to go round them, coaxing the car down a steep slippery bank, fording a narrow stony torrent, and climbing up the bank again on the other side. It was, and is, no road for a low car or a good car."
The cast of characters

In this first month of his first year, Chandos begins to pull together his household.  He finds that, “In Mexico, anyone you want to contact is usually the cousin of a friend or the friend of the cousin of the friend. And if he is not that, he is the cousin of a friend’s wife.” 
In this month, we begin to meet the characters who gradually become family: Candelaria, the cook who is "middle-aged, plain and rather deaf” … and charmed by the ordinary things of life; Nieves (actually Mary of the Nieves (snow)), the shy housekeeper, and Eugenio, the house man whom Candelaria doesn’t hold out much hope for but doesn’t have a better recommendation. Not much later Eugenio “puts himself in a tremendous drunk" and is replaced by likable Cayetano, who earned a place in the household and the opportunity to wear a white coat and work in the shade, a very attractive employment benefit.

With this cast and and the constant comings and goings of minor characters, village folks and international visitors, life settles into the rhythm of life and death, trials and celebrations.  Many of the houses around the time Chandos was writing might have looked much like this old adobe which still stands in the midst of Ajijic.

Transformation of the rainy season
July begins with a description that all of us who have lived here through a rainy season recognize:
 “... violent rainstorms about every other night. And suddenly one morning I noticed that the mountains had ceased to be golden. As though the rain were some subtle blue wash mixing with the yellow hillsides, everywhere they had taken on a tinge of green.”
Chandos attention is wide ranging from what happens to unprotected adobe when it gets wet (it crumbles) to the types of fish the fishermen pull from the lake with what kind of nets, to the burros that are everywhere
“And, of course there is the burro," he writes. 
"All the donkey-using countries have a common aspect. From Syria to Mexico, there are the processions on the roads, bulging panniers of basket- or network, the same little family groups—probably with the man riding and the woman afoot—and from frontier to frontier, from dawn to dusk, you hear the clippety-cloppety of asses’ hoofs. Somebody ought to write a history of the burrow. The empires he has supported would make tame history compared to his. In Mexico you are practically never out of sight of a burro and a mountain.”

Huitzitzlin, traumatized by a cat but saved
No detail is too small for Chandos to find its charm. To attract hummingbirds, he “arranged several sugar water tubes for the hummers to come to. Any small glass tube, wrapped in a bit of tinfoil or a colored silk, will attract their attention. They like it attached to a small branch at an angle of forty-five degrees, and there should be another small horizontal twig on which they can perch between drinks. 
"They say that hummers can fly across the Caribbean, but in that case they must make, as do other migrant birds, temporary adjustments of their alimentary system, for ordinarily a hummingbird must feed every ten minutes of his waking hours in order to live, and he doesn’t want to stay far from his food. 
"Plant this branch in a flowerpot full of earth and keep the sugar water changed, and you will have plenty of visitors. It seems as if they cannot hear low notes, for I found that human voices did not disturb them at all, whereas the smallest movement did. Until, that is, they had become used to me. Then they didn’t mind my typewriter.”

He even explores the words for hummingbirds. “In Nahuatl the hummer is called huitzitzlin, and it is the most perfect name for him. It shimmers and it almost catches the whir and time beat of his wings, which move so swiftly that they are always a blur. In Spanish he has many names, charming but less graphic, such as chupamiel, chuparosa—honeysucker, rosesucker—or sometimes picaflor—flowerpricker. But unfortunately he is more frequently called colibri, which is far less attractive.”
The new household draws Chandos into its rhythms, engaging him in a million details such as buying material to create “shakers” (dust cloths), how and where to buy a tin of linseed oil, deciding on which fish to buy from which fisherman, and installing mosquito netting when a scorpion falls on him in the middle of the night. There is always a drama that requires much hand wringing and discussion, at the end of which, it usually evaporates and life goes on.

“In Mexico, just when everything seems impossible, 
where there seems to be no solution at all, suddenly a door opens, 
everything its arranged quite quickly, 
and everybody behaves as if there had never been any difficulty at all."

Of course, the painted pier wasn't there then, but the lake in September!
Chandos was trying to buy land that belonged to a family, each owning their own piece and having their own issues and ideas about what should happen. Some were gone or never replied, some wanted more than the author could pay, some didn’t want to sell at all. Now, after months, it all came together and he could begin to build his house. It was September.

“The month opened with delightful weather, cool, rain-washed, and fine. Everything was growing, thrusting up greenness with every handful of dirt. Usually, if the rains are mild, they will be long, perhaps starting early and going right on into October. If they are violent, then they are of shorter duration, and September will see them out. We have had fierce drenching storms this year, and now there is a little lull. Whatever the weather is like, it will probably go on being the same for ten days or so.” 
Lake Chapala from Jocotopec - October
Chandos makes me hear the family's daily conversations, each member coming alive gradually, each voice distinct, such as Aurora, the downtrodden washerwoman.
My compadre’s sister-in-law, Aurora, washes very nicely,’ Candelaria had said, so Aurora came to see me. She looked sixty and was probably forty-five or less, a little shrunken woman with a wrinkled face, the color of potato peel, dusty wispy hair, gnarled hands and arms and a slight limp. She smiled perpetually with the look of a dog that cringes for fear of being kicked. She had been abandoned by her husband and had five children. She had a thin whining voice.
'Yes, of course I know how to wash and starch and iron, but who knows if it will be done the way you like it. We can only see.'

When asked what wage she wants, she answers, 'Pues, you will see, whatever you think right, you will see what you will pay me when you see my work. Maybe you will like it and maybe you won’t, but what shall we do pues?' 

A little later, still smiling ingratiatingly and sighing despairingly, she limped out of the house with a big washing basket on her tousled head.
Lake Chapala - March
Great writers show you something you’ve never seen, even if it’s something you look at every day. A Village in the Sun isn’t War and Peace, but it revolves around life and the lake we see every day and, at least for me, lets me look at it with new eyes and helped me realize how little I stop to really see it and it’s ever-changing beauty. At one place in the book, the author tells a story about a rich man who bought a big sailing canoe and outfitted it somewhat like a houseboat, and began to travel around the lake. 
The story is told by Primitivo, a prominent character in the book. The author asked Primitivo what they would do when the boat was becalmed and Primitivo answers:

“Nothing. They just waited. They would make a fire and cook and the gringo gentleman fished. He was like us, he didn’t have to be doing something all the time. He knew how to sit still.” 
For some reason, those words really struck me: He knew how to sit still.
After reading this book, I have a powerful sense of Dane Chandos as a person. I know what I’d want to talk about if we sat down to lunch; I think I’d even know what he might order. I would feel comfortable hanging out on his new mirador with him watching the changing colors of the sunset and can imagine the slow conversation, languid with pauses as we just sat still absorbing the world around us.

The only problem is that Dane Chandos isn’t a person. 
He is a pseudonym for three men: Peter Lilly and Nigel Millet who collaborated on A Village in the Sun and House in the Sun. After Millet’s death in 1946 (he is buried in the Ajijic cemetery next to his father), Lilly collaborated with Anthony Stansfield on other books.(2) 
I truly don’t understand how a collaboration can have such a singular and powerful voice, but I still feel like I know someone named Dane Chandos, a man accustomed to creature comforts yet still able to accept, appreciate and enjoy a world significantly different from what he has known.  
The book is available in the Lake Chapala Society library. Obviously, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand a bit more about this special place we live. 

An Invitation:

On the Day of the Dead this year, I was walking through the Ajijic cemetery putting flowers on unremembered graves when I found the grave of Nigel Millet. Later I found out that Antonio Ramblés, creator of the amazing Riberas Authors, had cleaned the grave of weeds and debris but didn't have time to replace the broken grave stone. We've agree to do so by Day of the Dead, 2019. If anyone would like to help with this project ... either with money or time next year to make sure that he is remembered as a creative contributor to our community, please PM me on Facebook or Antonio at Riberas Authors.

More information:

(1) There is a Facebook page: Chupinaya Ajijic, about an authentic and traditional mountain race, called the Queen of the West Test.
(2) For more about Dane Chandos and other local writers from the Lake Chapala area, see Riberas Authors.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Ajijic's "Wall of Skulls" deserves to be a designated landmark

Muro de Los Muertos by Efren Gonzalez
Last night, I met a couple who were taking photos of a specific area of the Wall of Skulls. They told me the skulls were in honor of his mom and dad. There were hundreds of people gathered for the annual lighting of the candles. Young men were hanging off the roof to light the top ones; a young boy was clinging to a ladder lighting some of the middle ones.

I often pass this work several times a week and, generally, there are people there, reading the names, taking photos, slowing down from their comings and goings to absorb the work and its meaning to them. The immensity of it captures the imagination as it continues down the wall of the Marcos Castellanos School and then wraps around the corner and continues onto a huge mural, also by the artist.

Efren, getting ready for the lighting, stops to chat and for a photo
By my estimation, there are close to a thousand skulls on the wall created by popular, local artist Efren Gonzalez and titled Muro de Los Muertos intended as a way to honor ordinary folks. Each skull on the bas-relief plaques are inscribed with the name of the real person to whom it is dedicated. This uniquely modern (2016) artistic creation, located on the wall of a school and across from the central San Andres Church, honors the ancient traditions of Mexico, the living as well as the dead. It deserves to be designated an official landmark.

Stunning both during the day and at night, it touches a deep well of emotion about life and death. The picture below and a lovely blog post by Barb Harmon, offers one tribute to the power of the wall. It stopped her as she approached the second anniversary of the death of her son and she asked a man on the street to tell her more about it. He told her, "By having this on a school you are teaching kids from a young age that this (death) is a beautiful thing, something to cherish and not fear." She cried what she called "ugly tears."

One of the aspects of the wall that receives less attention than the skulls themselves, is the bas-relief sculpture honoring the history and symbology of Mexico. Like all good murals, you could study this part of the wall for a long time.

Mexico 1810 1910 2010 Libre
Detail of the sculpture
The words begin ... En la noche de 15 Sept. de 1810 Don Miguel Hidalgo ...

And, if that were not enough, Gonzalez embedded a poem, titled "Death." Local poet, Susa Silvermarie offers us an artist-approved translation:

All that lives will die.
All the good, the bad, will be finished.
All that is strong and all that is weak will have an end.
Everything that breathes in, has to breathe out, to expire.
Everyone who is famous will be forgotten.
Everyone who believes himself indispensable, will perish.
Every creator, the ones who sing, the ones who dance—
those that admire, those that underestimate and criticize—
will stop existing.
And if someone is lucky, they will put his name on the wall 
and thus he will be remembered a little longer.
And they will be sung and danced, or underestimated and criticized, and then,
finally, along with the wall,
they will cease to exist.

Eat, child. Sing, Dance, Love. 
You won’t live forever.
Make art for which you will be remembered.
Do it now, you don’t have much time.
Say what you have to say, even if
you have to shout to be heard.
Fight to defend yourself!
Ask forgiveness, or forgive,
whatever you need to do
to keep going forward
Live.     Live! 
-- Efren Gonzalez

Gonzalez has definitely made art for which he will be remembered. This wall, this unique piece of art, is definitely part of the cultural patrimony of Ajijic.  He has been added to the "Heroes" page... see tab above.

What would it take to have it declared a Cultural Landmark of Mexico?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Patamban: Fiesta de Cristo Rey

Patamban Fiesta
It was a stunning, flower-filled trip in all ways. Wild flowers were everywhere and we could have added days to our trip if we had stopped at every field of vibrant color. However, we were on a mission to get to Patamban for the Fiesta de Cristo Rey, the day when Christ was embraced as the son of God.

Patamban Circle

We were lucky enough to have Xill Fessenden as our leader. Xill has lived in Mexico for 33 years and started the Purépecha festival that is held in Ajijic. (The next one will be in 2019.) She seems to know everyone and everything about this part of the world. On the way back, she wanted to show us the church with painted ceilings in Nurio but it was closed.

Some of the indigenous towns have loud speakers that function somewhat like the internet or Facebook. Not long after we arrived, we heard words booming across the village. The language was Purépecha so we didn't understand anything except ... words, words, Julia, words, words, words, Julia. Repeated several times. Turns out that Xill goes by Julia in the villages and they were announcing her arrival and telling everyone that she wanted someone to open the church. Soon, someone arrived and did just that. Everywhere she went, doors opened and we experienced things that we wouldn't have been able to without her. Thanks, Xill! (She is a Wonder Woman and you can read more about her here.)

Our plan was to have lunch at Lake Camécuaro and then go on to Patamban for the fiesta. I could have stayed forever at that incredibly beautiful, spring-fed lake surrounded by an ancient ahuehuetl (cypress) grove. There will be a separate post about this place, but here's a peek.
Lunch at Lake Camécuaro
Next stop: Patamban for a the regional festival that attracts thousands of people from Zamora, Guadalajara and other surrounding towns. Very few gringos. In an article by Allan Cogan (referenced below), he states,
"... although Patamban's parade and all of its preparations have religious connotations it should be explained that there is no historical significance to the event. If anything, the reason for the Fiesta is economic. Rather than originating 500 years ago, it is just over 50 years old and is done to attract people and money to the town. In that regard, I would say it was an outstanding successful." (Written in 2001)
We knew it would be crowded so we weren't surprised when traffic began to creep past hundreds of tiendas that formed the mercado on both sides of the road. We had to park a couple of kilometers from our base destination ... a family Xill is friends with and who were preparing dinner for us and providing a place to rest in between outings.

Beautiful country seen from our hosts' roof
 Soon we began to see the carpets of flowers and the families still working on them. The carpets begin with a strip of sawdust about 30 inches wide. Some people use stencils to create the patterns and some seem to do the designs free-hand using flowers, petals, acorns, leaves, seeds, moss, and any other plant with interesting colors and designs. Only pictures can convey the beauty, creativity, and color of this event. If you think I'm over sharing, you should see the 174 photos I didn't share.

One of the things that intrigued me was the many alternatives to papel picado they created.

However, as always, the most fun part of these events was the people. I found a quote this morning from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about how we're losing the power of celebration and expecting to be entertained. For many of us attending this fiesta, it was about entertainment. However, as we watched the families with their buckets of gathered flowers, pine cones, and seeds, carefully creating beautiful symbols in the streets, beauty that would be destroyed only a few minutes later, it was clear that they were celebrating life, family, faith and abundance.

Here are some of the people we met on the trip.
Cooking blue corn quesadillas for us

Our hostess

When traveling companion Maureen Clark asked this woman if she could take her picture, the woman suggested a trade ... a picture for a soda. We couldn't get to a store but she accepted a few pesos. With that smile, I'm sure she would have let us take the picture anyway.

Such amazing handwork
Bottling golden honey

These bikers wanted their photos taken and the one in the green vest spent a lot of time trying to help me to pronounce Lake Camécuaro properly. Young Mexican men are always very sweet to little old ladies.
And, of course, the children

A tienda in the street. This is a one day festival so all this merchandise has to be set up in the morning and then taken down at night. A long day for these people.

A sense of how crowded it was
 And, of course, how would any of this happen without power?

“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions."
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

More information:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Day of the Dead #12: Beauty, grace, and an unexpected hollowness

This post was written in 2017. I've made a few additions as I continue to learn from this amazing country and its peoples.

"If nothing saves us from death, at least love saves us from life."
I am beginning to think I might possibly know why I’m here in Mexico. 

Looking through U.S. eyes, there are many things that fall short here. It is not a place designed by a rational person, perhaps not even a place that cottons to the term design but rather more nearly resembles evolution with it’s relentless drive toward diversity.

Street altar in Ajijic
Trying to find a metaphor, I waffled between rabbit warren and ant colony, but finally settled on the mound-building termites which build complex structures several times taller than an adult human and are now being studied for their ability to maintain a constant temperature in the mound in spite of the harsh African conditions. (If you have never read about these mounds, this article will bend your thinking.)

While the mounds lack blueprints and building codes, the individual termites follow their own paths and, somehow, build a complex, effective and, in its own way, beautiful structure that supports the colony and plays an important role in the surrounding habitat.

Another Ajijic version of an altar
This is somewhat how Mexico appears to me. People each doing their own things, living their own lives, raising their families, painting their houses whatever color strikes their fancies or budgets, and, in the process, creating a village, a town, a culture, a country.

Here in Mexico, fireworks are illegal, yet they are also deeply ingrained in the culture. Yes, some people get hurt, some are even killed, but each person makes his or her own choice and everyone else makes space for those choices. Which means we put up with a lot of rockets, barking dogs, middle-of-the-night crowing roosters, and lots of music ... loud, throbbing music. Apparently, this is the price of freedom: tolerance of individual differences and eccentricities.

Here in the lakeside villages, cars seldom honk at each other. So what if you’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street or stopping to talk to a friend or unload a pickup truck full of stuff? And, only the gringos seem to carp about the piles of trash that come and go on a schedule none of us comprehend. Priorities are different here. Talking to a friend is more important than arriving at a destination a few minutes late.

Here in Ajijic, we live in a boundary land: three cultures swirling together like a river running into the ocean. US and Canadian expats accustomed to rules and regulations, law and order, as well as smooth sidewalks, yearn for peaceful perfection while the locals grab onto the gritty imperfections of life, revere Church and family, help stranded strangers, and mock death with endless color, noise and skeletal costumes. In the best of worlds, we learn from each other and don't lose the beauties of each culture.

Mexico is a feeling place. With a long history of death, destruction, and devastation, it trusts only family and has few expectations of government. It would rather dance and sing and make each moment of life as colorful as possible than worry about potholes, killer speed bumps or keeping up with the neighbors. Mexico is rapidly developing ... may she keep her color, beauty, and enormous generosity.

Having lived a thinking life, striving for perfection, expecting the world to be a rational place, and willingly ceding personal freedom to the lure of safety and predictability, I am now looking through completely different eyes and what I see baffles, charms, startles and delights me. Living in this feeling world is changing me.

Halloween morning was announced with endless rockets and church bells. By evening the plaza was full of families, excited children running high on sugar and adrenalin. A parade of devotional neighborhood floats, musicians and Aztec dancers proceeded The Virgen as she was carried through the streets to an open mass and back to the old church, followed by music (loud, of course) and then the lighting of the giant castillo (castle of fireworks).
A quiet morning in Ajijic
November 2nd dawned quiet and peaceful. It’s a day for altars, reflection and honoring of the lost loved ones. Later today tour groups will pass through the cemetery, but I wanted to see it before it was crowded with visitors having no connection to the people buried there. I went early thinking it would be empty, but it was already bustling with families adding decorations to the graves, arranging additional flowers, visiting quietly with each other. 
Early morning at the Ajijic cemetery
Walking through the narrow paths between the graves, my heart felt the sorrow, but also yearned for the sense of family and connection that pulsed through the bright flowers, decorated crosses, and murmured prayers. I was clearly an outsider, accepted but not part of the family. Beyond the wonder and grace of the beauty, there was a hollow feeling of having missed something somewhere along the way. 
One of the grave decorations.
All of this made me wonder: who would I be if I had been raised in this very different culture?

Caveat: As someone who has been here a mere six months, I do not expect these musings to represent the truth of an entire country or culture. This is only my current take on what I’m experiencing. I’ll try to do another post this time next year and see how much my understanding has changed.