Play the Trump Card

It’s the beginning of Carnaval, popularized in Brazil but now celebrated in varying degrees worldwide.  We watched the opening ceremonies last night in Chapala.  There was a short night parade with your typical Brazilian Samba & Capoeira dancers, along with crazy lit-up robots on stilts.

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The feature of the night, however, was La Quema del Mal Humor, translated as “Burning of the Bad Mood”.  That doesn’t really capture it though.  I’d say “Burning of the Bad Vibes” is a better way to describe it.  Every year they choose something that represents those Bad Vibes, carry it as a surprise in a coffin that leads the parade, then they reveal what’s inside and light it on fire to dispose of the bad vibes.

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This year’s choice to represent Bad Vibes…Donald Trump!

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Here’s Donald Doll burning.

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Next came spinning fireworks on a metal structure seemingly made just for that purpose.  A couple posts ago I commented that Mexican safety rules are much different than in the US, and that I actually like that because I find it leads to self responsibility.  However, the problem is that I’m still conditioned to the safety protections in the US.  So when there’s a huge fireworks display five feet away from me I think, “well, if it weren’t safe they wouldn’t let me stand right here.”  Wrong.  Had we not taken off running at the first sign of sparks flying at us we would have had treatable burns, no exaggeration.  I saw a hunger games helicopter-esque spinning ball of flames flying toward Carrie’s head.  I yelled and she ducked behind a palm tree with the agility of a puma, not an eight month pregnant woman carrying a two-year-old girl.  Nice work, Wife.  We were standing to the right where the ball of flames is.

Next came big fireworks.  Have you ever stood 20 feet from commercial fireworks being lit?  Now I have, and it sounds like bombs going off.  So we moved and got these pictures instead.

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And that was the opening night of Carnaval.

On an unrelated topic, Google often weirds me out with what it seems to know about me.  I’ll get back from an outing, like our last one around the state of Michoacán, and Google Photos will notify me they have created a story about my trip to Michoacán, an auto-created scrapbook of sorts.  If that were an ex-girlfriend or something doing that you’d file a restraining order.  “Hey Ryan, I see you and your family went on a trip, so I went ahead and made a scrapbook for you.”  Um, creepy.  Anyway, I will admit once in awhile Google Photos makes really cool animations for me without even having to suggest that I need that in my life.  Here’s an auto-animation below from our recent trip to the Island of Janitzio.

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-Ryan

Strum a Ukulele

The northeastern part of Michoacán is famous for its Don Vasco Route.  Vasco instituted the idea that each town should have its cultural specialty, something still going strong today.  So one town specializes in furniture, another in ceramics, one in colorful textiles, & yet another in Catrina dolls (the skeleton dolls common during Day of the Dead celebrations).  Read more here about the Don Vasco Route.

We stopped by the town of Paracho on our way from Uruapan back to Chapala.  Paracho specializes in hand-made string instruments, mostly guitars.

We were welcomed into town by a giant guitar, but we didn’t immediately find the guitar district.  First we wandered around the huge street market going on.  The locals look very indigenous, both in features & dress.  Almost every woman is wearing a rebozo wrap for carrying babies, goods to sell, or just as a scarf.  We were the only outsiders we saw all day, and wow do we get the stares!  They’re kind stares, though, sometimes fascinated by my height, but mostly by iola.  If I had a dollar for every time we were told she looks like a doll!  People will literally stop what they’re doing, tell their friends what they just saw, and the whole group will try to catch a glimpse of iola.  They love feeling her hair and skin, which iola isn’t always a fan of!  A group stopped and asked to take her picture, and we obliged.  She’s like a celebrity here, it’s so funny.

Locals kept pointing me toward the guitar zone but we weren’t finding it.  I asked one older gentleman, and without saying a word, he waved us to follow him.  He led us to blue house, rang the bell, and motioned us to go inside with the lady that opened the door (who turned out to be his sister).  She welcomed us in, we still not knowing why we were there exactly.  She called her husband in.  We started chatting in their living room and he brought in guitars he had made.  To be honest I was quite skeptical at first, thinking maybe the locals ride the fame of Paracho being a guitar making town but really just import them from China.  Part of my doubt came from him pulling the guitars out of plastic bags to show them to me.  But then he proved me entirely wrong by taking me to his workshop!  He makes all sorts of cool instruments, all by hand.  He meticulously cuts out pieces of stained wood to create decorative inlays.  They’re like works of art.  I ask if he makes ukuleles, and sure enough, he goes and gets one that he made.  At this point we’ve talked nothing about prices.  I was assuming for sure a hand-made guitar or ukulele must cost hundreds of dollars.  I was wrong again.  He asked 500 pesos for the ukulele, about $30 US.  I couldn’t believe it!  I happily paid his price with no bargaining involved and now own a beautiful ukulele.  His guitars were about double, $60 US, or $180 for very intricate ones with seashell inlays.  If our car weren’t already jam-packed I would have bought every instrument he had.  In the background you can see his patterns for different kinds of guitars.  Check out the baby guitar he’s making behind iola on the workbench.

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iola in workshop

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We said goodbye to the luthier (my newest vocabulary word), his wife, and her 102 year old mother sitting in their small courtyard.  We then found the main strip of guitar makers, with all sorts of gorgeous instruments.  My favorite was the “bajo sexto” a six string (double strung, so actually 12) bass guitar.

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UPDATE!  Remember when on Unsolved Mysteries they’d show the mystery but then surprise you with an UPDATE at the end?

I got home that night excited to play my new ukulele.  It was strung for left-handed players, so I took all the strings out to restring it.  In attempting to tune it I snapped one of my strings.  The next morning Carrie starts researching for me where I can buy new strings in the area and stumbles across a ukulele group in Ajijic, not far from where we’re staying.  I emailed the group, and members were fast to respond and very helpful.  Turns out they were meeting that very day, so I showed up to see what I could learn!  A nice guy Tim gave me a replacement string, I bought their song book to follow along, and had an awesome time. [Side note: being a small world as it is, Tim knows Castagna, the new owner of our 1968 RV Norma].  It’s such a fun instrument.  I didn’t go pro in a day but I was able to follow along a bit and learned a lot in just a couple hours.  It’s turning out to be probably the most fun $30 I’ve ever spent.

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-Ryan

 

 

Crap Not in the Woods

Uruapan is another fine city in picturesque Michoacán.  We stayed at a bed & breakfast where iola mostly loved the “kitty-cats” and (very old) “puppy”.

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Our favorite part of town is the Barranca del Cupatitzio National Park.  It was only a five block walk from our hotel.  How often can you just walk over to a national park?  The city has surrounded the park entirely by now, which makes it unique.  There’s this oasis right in the middle of lots of urban craziness.  So when viewing the pictures below, just remember, this is all within a big city.  But whatever you do, don’t take a dump in the woods!

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Park Bridge

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Despite being prohibited, guys do cliff diving and then spectators give them tips.  The water is very cold as you can see by his expeditious departure from the water.

I find the United States in general to be overly protective.  Handrails have to be at just the right height, steps must be uniform, there of course can’t be any unguarded ledges, etc.  Mexican public areas, for example sidewalks, and commercial spaces, such hotels and restaurants, would almost unanimously fail at passing any sort of US code inspection.  I’m not saying that as a positive necessarily for the US though.  I sense the US is working on taking away all opportunities for us to have to make decisions & use common sense.  But FINALLY, we found something Mexico is more stringent on!  Wait for it…you must wear a helmet when skating in the roller rink they’ve set up in Uruapan’s plaza.  It’s very rare to see a child in a car seat here and kids are frequently seen riding in the back of trucks going down major highways, so we thought it was funny that of all things they’d be concerned about helmets when skating.

Roller Helmets

Uruapan must have an affinity for skinny buildings.  Here’s a house sandwiched between two normal houses.  It was at one time listed by Guinness as the narrowest house in the world, although I think it’s been surpassed (or undercut?) by a narrow-er house in Poland.  And then there’s the smallest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.  They only sell desserts.

We ate one last great dinner in Uruapan at an outdoor restaurant area with probably 20 “restaurants”, each with its own menu, a small, open kitchen, and seating for probably 15 people.  The food is awesome in Mexico.  I think most people would be shocked if they went into kitchens at restaurants in the US, especially chain ones.  Here you almost always see your food being cooked right in front of you, with fresh ingredients, and I’ve only ever been shocked in a good way (like, wow, they’re making iola’s hot chocolate by heating milk in an old-timey kettle on the stove…not a microwave).

Outdoor restaurants

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-Ryan

Spend Two Hours on an Island

On the way out of Pátzcuaro we went to the pier to catch a boat to Janitzio Island.  It’s the southernmost of a series of islands in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro.  Our boat to the island carried about 30 humans plus hundreds of rolls, buns, and other various kinds of bread that smelled delicious.  I was hungry, and to my delight different food vendors hopped on board to sell treats before the boat left.  I bought honey roasted peanuts and tres leches flavor ice cream.

The boat ride took about 30 minutes each way, with a few minor splashes of waves over the low sides of the boat.  There’s a huge statue (about 130 feet tall) on top of the island of José María Morelos, the guy the city of Morelia was named after (a leader of the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain).  What I wasn’t expecting was for the island to be so inhabited…it definitely was.

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Boat ride 1

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Here’s the statue as we neared the island in the boat and then hiked up the steep incline of the island toward the base of the statue.

 

Vendors lined all the routes going to & from the statue.  We just kept talking about how almost everything you see must have come on a boat…clothes, trinkets, ceramic mugs, etc., with the funny part being that most of that stuff will end up back on a boat leaving the island in tourists’ hands.  Then there’s all the materials to make the houses built with concrete walls and clay tile roofs.  Crazy.

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This is the inside of the base of the statue looking straight up.  I’m not a fan of “open” heights.  If there’s a wall, even a glass one, I’m fine, but once there’s open space between me and a big fall my knees start shaking.  I was nervous before I even went up the first step.  I carried iola in the carrier on my chest, where she’d been passed out asleep since we stepped foot on the island.  It didn’t make me any less nervous having a baby strapped to me while climbing, however the railings left quite a bit to be desired and there’s no way I would have let iola walk even if she had been awake.

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Once at the top of the open part, there was a small spiral staircase leading up into the raised fist of the statue, where an observation area awaits at the top.

Spiral Stairs

The views were stunning for sure and I’m glad we did it, but would I climb up it again?  No way in hell.

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There was an open air connection via tiny doors across the statue’s shoulder in order to walk from the arm over to inside the head, where there was just a small room with a shrine of sorts for Morelos.  Look at the pictures above from the outside of the statue and you can see the outside portion.  Below is Carrie standing on it.

Carrie Statue

Relieved to be back down, we had a leisurely walk back down the island incline and toward the pier.  More snacks were offered before the boat ride back to the mainland.  I went for potato chips with salt & lime, although I pass on the chile powder most Mexicans would also add.

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Ryan iola Boat

-Ryan

Compare Quaint Mexican Mountain Towns

There are so many sides to Mexico, way more than we had ever imagined!  Of course we northerners love to think about the Mexican beaches, which are indeed wonderful, however what we’ve been most pleasantly surprised by are the cool mountain towns, like Mazamitla, where we’ve been twice since we loved it so much the first time.

But this time it was the town of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.  It’s yet another fun mountain town with tons of charm.

iola insisted on carrying her monkey in the baby carrier…really her scarf with clever design by Carrie.

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Most time in these towns is spent wandering around, seeing the nice plazas, admiring cool buildings, perusing neat little stores, and eating at small, mostly empty restaurants or trying street food.  We usually find time to warm up with a hot cocoa.  99% of the shops & restaurants we see are what we’d call good ol’ ma & pa establishments.

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Pátzcuaro’s city market.  It doesn’t get any more ma & pa than this!

Market Patzcuaro

Carrie loves libraries.  Pátzcuaro’s is in an old church.  Unfortunately libraries aren’t as common in Mexico and even when found, they appear to be hardly used.

Library Patzcuaro

This is a funeral procession, much livelier than our “drive in a line but turn on our headlights” ritual in the US.  The casket is being carried on shoulders down the street.  There are large puppets being carried in an almost dancing sort of fashion, arms swaying all around.  A member of the group was shooting off loud fireworks.  Note to anyone who might attend my funeral if I die before you:  please, please, please, please, PLEASE show up with gigantic puppets & fireworks and don’t feel one ounce of shame!

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-Ryan

Roam Some Ruins

If you’re fascinated by any sort of archaeology or anthropology, come to Mexico.  There are so many fun options for experiencing history here.  This time, for us, it was the Tzintzuntzan (good luck) Archaeological Zone, just off Lake Pátzcuaro.  Instead of driving directly from Morelia to the town of Pátzcuaro, we took a detour to see the site.  I won’t begin to do history justice by trying to explain further, but you can read more here, and it is worth a read in my opinion.  The short story is that it was still an inhabited site when the Spaniards arrived.  The emperor surrendered to the Spanish and the mix of cultures even managed to co-exist for some time until the Spanish burned the emperor at the stake anyway.  The population of the site slowly declined thereafter.

We had a beautiful, sunny day to leisurely walk around on our own.  Next time we’ll pack a picnic lunch, a blanket for a nap, and stay a few hours.

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Many artifacts were uncovered at the site, including decorated stones, sculptures, pottery, and even metal tools for farming, cooking, & sewing.

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-Ryan

Get Wet at a Zoo

Our last full day in Morelia was a rainy one, but we took a shot at the zoo anyway.  It was a wonderful zoo, even in the rain!

I’m torn on zoos.  It breaks my heart to see beautiful birds with nowhere to fly, huge elephants with hardly any space to roam, and polar bears with not much more than a pool for a home.  On the other hand, if it weren’t for zoos, I’d likely have much less appreciation for these gorgeous animals.  Seeing them in person makes me start thinking about what a beautiful earth we get to live on, which then leads me to think about how I can do my part to protect it.  Maybe enough people have this same experience that it’s worth the cause of awareness to keep the animals confined for our viewing pleasure.  I don’t know for sure.

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The polar bear was a show-off!  She was having fun interacting with the visitors.

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-Ryan

Meet the Mariposas Monarcas

The main reason we left for Michoacán was to visit the monarch butterfly reserve.  Every winter, monarchs from east of the Rocky Mountains travel to Mexico on a months-long journey from Canada.  The science of all this is largely still a mystery.  The butterflies heading to Mexico have never been there; they were born up north.  Even their parents weren’t ever in Mexico.  The journey north in the spring and occupation of the US & Canada is done multiple generations before the generation that travels to Mexico in the fall.

We traveled a little over two hours by car to the east of Morelia to El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary.  The drive was gorgeous & at times, scary.  Curves on high mountain roads with no guard rails meant if you went over…that would be it.  At one point locals pulled up a rope crossing the road to block our passage.  They can spot a gringo from a mile away.  They gave us an official “car permit” and said it was 40 pesos to travel on the road to the butterfly reserve.  I paid with a smile and they lowered the rope to let us proceed.  I strongly suspected and later confirmed it: these people are acting in no official function; they’re essentially charging for nothing because they have nothing to do with maintaining the road.  But, they’re surviving how they can and as Carrie pointed out, the alternative might be them deforesting the mountain in order to make a living, destroying the butterfly habitat altogether.

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It was 45 pesos per adult to enter the sanctuary; iola was free.  We hiked with an included guide (I gave a 50 peso tip) up to approximately 10,000 feet above sea level.  I had iola on my back and Carrie is eight months pregnant…we were both huffing and puffing in the thin air.  It took us about 45 minutes to reach the butterflies toward the top of the mountain.  I would have walked right past them had the guide not said something.  When the sun is shining the monarchs are flying all around, but on a cloudy day like during our visit, they huddle together in the pine trees.  They’re so densely packed that you can’t see their vibrant colors.  Instead they look like dark moss or thick brush in the trees.  A big clue though is all the wings of dead butterflies on the ground.  Certain birds eat the monarchs’ bodies but leave the wings.  The guides told us not to even pick up the wings because a theory is that the butterflies migrating to Mexico choose the same spot each year because of the monarch wings on the ground from the previous year.

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Below are the butterflies crammed in the trees.  There must be 100,000’s per tree, maybe per branch?

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Look at the tree branches to the left to see what the pines would normally look like, then at the tree in the middle of the picture where the butterflies are packed in.

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In the video you can hear a rain-like white noise in the background in between iola’s commentary.  That is the sound of butterflies!

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-Ryan

Meet Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico

We’re staying in Morelia, capital of the state of Michoacán.  Morelia was originally named Valladolid but was renamed in honor of José María Morelos after the Mexican revolution.  It’s a gorgeous city with a very European colonial feel.

Our hotel in the historic center only has eight rooms, each named after and containing art from a different famous artist.  We’re in the Alfredo Zalce suite, named for the Mexican muralist, a less-famous contemporary of Diego Rivera.

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This is the birthplace home of José María Morelos, hero of the war for Mexican independence (and executed by firing squad for treason against the royal crown of Spain). Note the individually placed small rocks in the mortar between the large stones.

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Look closely and you’ll see this gal is carrying an infant in a baby carrier on the back of the bike.  Gives true meaning to Motorcycle Mama (in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico).

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-Ryan