Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Salon De Fiesta

Fiestas, large and small, are an integral part of life in Mexico. However, they are rarely small, so hence the need for the ubiquitous “ Salon de Fiesta “.  Although I still have a lot of exploring to do in Mexico I have been to more than half the States in the country and one thing I have noticed that they all have in common is the salon de fiesta.

The salon de fiesta is simply a large empty, warehouse-like space, and you will see them everywhere from the smallest pueblo to the largest city. The larger the city, the more salons. In Canada, and probably the US as well, we don’t usually rent a hall for a party other than perhaps for weddings or a large graduation party or something of that ilk. A lot of people go through their whole lives and never use a facility like this.

The Venue
Not so in Mexico. Although parties here are very frequent, and often held for no greater reason than that the sun is out, there are specific times when a huge function is required to celebrate an occasion. When a girl turns three, and again when she turns fifteen, baptisms, and of course weddings, are some of those occasions.

Our first experience with one of these giant congregations was the baptism of the young son of two of our Mexican friends. There were about one hundred and fifty people there, mas o menos, ( more or less) and they were nearly all family. The father of the boy being baptized has 11 siblings and each of those has children as well. The average family here is so much larger than north of the border that a hall is usually required to have a family get-together.

The Guest of Honor

The main problem with these events is that they are very expensive and usually the party-givers don’t have any money to spare. The whole family, and sometimes the whole town, chips in to help with the funding. Because of this I have mixed feelings about these mandatory celebrations. You could feed a small town for a week on what it costs to throw one of these shindigs, and they are absolutely expected to do this for each of the milestones I mentioned earlier.

The party-giver must provide the food, drinks, decorations and music for these affairs. In the case of this baptism there were carnitas, a whole pig, spiced and  cooked for many hours in it’s own fat. Where I can see how this may not sound appetizing, it is absolutely delicious. This was accompanied by beans, salad and tortillas. There were plenty of soft drinks and the beer and tequila seemed bottomless. The music was recorded and the speakers very nearly reached the ceiling. I could feel my bones vibrating with the base notes of the music.

Of course there was much singing, dancing, shouting and merry-making and the joy of the whole family, or community, celebrating together is infectious. I particularly liked the dance where everyone got in a circle and did the “ Bull Fight Dance “. A man uses a chair as the horns of the bull and “ attacks” a woman using a rebozo, a large shawl, as the bullfighter’s cape. These props are handed off regularly as new fighters enter and leave the dance floor.

Too Cute!
The Proud Parents
The Matriarch
The Candy Toss
In lieu of a piñata, I guess there were just too many kids, someone stood on a chair and threw candy and small coins into the middle of a gaggle of screaming kids.

We lasted about four hours and even at that my ears were ringing for four days. Apparently the party went until the wee small hours of the morning. The Mexicans DO know how to throw a party!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

An Addendum to Finding The Feline

Recently we have had problems with cat fights in and around our house. We’ve yet to actually see the culprit but we assume it is coming in the cat-door looking for food. When it arrives it is confronted by three cats, none of whom wish to share their food or their home. They are actually quite territorial.

The last few days we have even heard these squalling events during the day, but by the time we get there, all there is to see are three  growling cats with big tails. For some reason when a cat is in a Fight or Flight situation every hair on its tail stands straight out. Perhaps they are trying to make themselves look big.

lion 2
Kashmere the Jester

As I mentioned in the post “ Finding The Feline”, Kashmere is the newest addition to our feline family. Until recently it has been very hot here, and so he is currently sporting what the groomers call a “ lion cut “, which makes him look ridiculous right from the get go. However this afternoon he really didn’t need the help of the hair cut to achieve that.

He is probably about ten months old and still has a lot of the kitten about him. He loves to hide around corners and wait for anyone, cat or human, to come along so he can leap on them, and he will chase just about anything short of the Santorini  (drinking water) truck.

This afternoon I was in my usual position in the dining room in front of the lap top and Todd was in the bedroom having a nap, when the squalling began in the back yard. What with my leg brace and walker I’m not the fastest thing on two feet, and since Todd had been asleep, neither of us got outside very quickly. But this time the yowling was still going on so we thought we might finally catch our cat burglar.

What we found instead were Bindi and Scooter sitting on the patio chairs, and I swear they were laughing. Kashmere was racing around the back yard hollering like a banshee with a fairly large lizard attached to his front paw. By the time we finally cornered Kashmere I guess the lizard was too tired to hang on any longer and he let go of the foot and lay sprawled on the grass, upside down, with his feet waving feebly in the air. By this time Kashmere was probably in the next colonia.

I turned the lizard over, carefully, as by now I knew that he had teeth and a very strong jaw, and he was really beautiful. Oddly, only yesterday I was mentioning to Todd that I hadn’t seen a lizard since we moved to San Miguel and we were inundated with them in Patzcuaro.

Although this one was like nothing I had ever seen in Patzcuaro. Firstly it was quite large, at least 6 inches long, with a very long tail, and secondly, it was much more colourful than any of the lizards I had seen in Mexico previously. I tried to find out on the net what it was, and it may have been a collared lizard or a whiptail. It had a beautiful turquoise blue design on its back and kind of a long pointed face.

Unfortunately in the commotion both of us neglected to get a picture of the lizard. However, I reiterate…cats provide hours of entertainment.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Girls of Esperanza

I’ve been in Mexico for six years now and my life has been enriched in so many ways, but one of the greatest gifts of all was meeting and getting to know the girls from the Esperanza Orphanage in Mexico City.

We have a friend with a wonderful property out in the country beside a lake and surrounded by fields and hiking and horse trails. She has two trojes, which are small purépecha-style cabins, a gazebo, and a lovely rustic country-style house. She also has cats, dogs and horses. Her little bodega, tool/storage shed, has bicycles, life jackets, kayaks, horse tack and tents. The gigantic tree in the middle of the front yard sports a long swing.

Now I ask you, is this the perfect place for a camp for kids or what? It most definitely is and our friend kindly hosts a group of 30 girls from an orphanage in Mexico City for one week every year, the week after Easter. When she told us that she needed volunteers we were a little unsure because back then our Spanish left a lot to be desired, but she assured us that it wouldn’t matter.


Our friend was absolutely right. Kids are kids no matter where they are from and have their own way of communicating. A smile and a hug are universal!

todd angie
Todd and Angie

With each successive year our Spanish improves and we get to know the girls more intimately. Their backgrounds are varied but the one thing they all have in common is that they come from bad beginnings. We are not encouraged to ask questions about their past but if they wish to share things with us it is up to them. Some do and some don’t but we know enough about them now to be amazed at how grounded they are now.

This is due mostly to the two nuns who run the orphanage and Veronica, the social worker there. Madre Roble and Veronica are mostly concerned with the children and the other nun, whom I have not yet met, is the administrator. This is the entire staff of the orphanage. The girls are never adopted out of Esperanza and know that they will grow up there together as a family.

Madre Roble and Veronica

They get kids with special needs that may need different schooling or physical therapy. Madre Roble takes this in stride and loves them all equally. Everyone has something to bring to the family and they are all very close and protective of each other despite their differences.

 Looking out for the little ones



The kids range from about 4 to 19 or 20 years of age. Out of necessity they lead a pretty structured life in Mexico City so at the camp we want them to be free to do what they want, when they want. This requires a lot of volunteers and preparation on our part but what ensues is sort of organized chaos. The kids can make crafts, go bike riding, hike, go horseback riding, swimming and kayaking. We also take little side trips when we can.

A Day at the Waterfalls


mud pies
You can see where this is going!


Uh huh



lunch time

We’ve been doing this for several years now and have watched these kids grow and thrive. Todd has made trips to Mexico City for the quinceañeros, the HUGE celebration that happens when a girl turns 15, as several of the girls have adopted him as their dad and he must play that roll at the celebration. They do these celebrations for four kids at a time because it is very costly and money has to be raised for the party.

Needless to say we have come to love them all and look forward every year to camp week. We keep in touch in between by phone and email and Facebook. Although teenagers have their own language, no matter what language they actually speak, and sometimes I have absolutely no idea what they are saying. I’m just always glad to hear from them.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Finding The Feline

One cold October evening, a couple of months after our arrival in Mexico, Todd and I returned home to our rented house in Corazon de Durazno to find what we thought was a dead kitten on our doorstep. I know that some of you who read Todd’s blog, Life in the Corazon, will remember this. Todd went to sweep the dead kitten into a dustpan and it squeaked….. and we panicked. “OMG, OMG, OMG what do we do?”

The kitten could not have been more than 7 to 10 days old and was very near death. I was all in a dither as I scooped it up ( it fit in the palm of my hand) and ran to my neighbour Joan, who had cats. She gave me a soft blanket, a little cat bed and an eyedropper and told me to feed it some warm milk and a little honey and see if it lived through the night. The next day he was still alive so we went to the vet and got formula and a bottle and fed him around the clock. For weeks.

Diego, Our First Born

Prior to coming to Mexico neither my husband nor myself had ever owned a cat. To be honest neither of us had much interest in them. We had both had dogs all our lives and believed them to be much more interesting pets. While dogs are loyal, affectionate and fun-loving I had always had the (somewhat misguided) impression that cats are aloof, contrary and boring.

Since then we have come to know cats very well. Diego went from small to medium to large to panther-size in what seemed like over night.




As a kitten Diego had no role models around and so he decided that Larry the rabbit would be his mentor. Much to Larry’s chagrin, Diego followed him around relentlessly and cleaned himself when he saw Larry grooming himself, went to the litter box when Larry went to the litter box and generally made a nuisance of himself. Try as he might, though, he just didn’t get the whole lettuce eating thing. He sure gave it the old college try though.

When he reached panther-size and was terrorizing the neighbourhood, quite literally, as some of the neighbours and all of the workmen were afraid of him, we had mostly gotten used to having a cat around. However, truth be told, he scared the bejaggers out of me from time to time too.

Never having had a cat before I wasn’t sure what was, and was not, normal cat behaviour. I have since learned that Diego was a very unique animal. He lived his life on his terms, which I guess is very catlike, but he would not back down from anything or anyone, including the boxer next door, who got a bloody nose for trying to play with him.

When Diego was about two years old Bindi came along. We had heard a new neighbour calling for her cat earlier that day so when we found a kitten treed by Tau, the boxer with the bloody nose, we assumed it belonged to the lady with the missing cat. Todd got out the ladder, rescued the cat and we presented it to our new neighbour Terry, who told us she had found her cat several hours earlier and this one was not hers.


After canvasing the neighbourhood and posting a request for a home for her on the local message board, all to no avail, we realized that we had just adopted another cat. For me it was love at first sight when I saw her on the end of the branch frozen in fear, and we bonded immediately. She is my cat to this day guards me jealously from the others.

Two weeks later along came Scooter. I found her at about 4 weeks old, alone, wet and cold on Plaza Grande where the Tianguis, a huge fair for Day of the Dead, had been set up.


Again we went through the process of looking for a home for her. Again to no avail. We had adopted another cat. Todd told me that the next one would be named Divorcio, self-explanatory I think, even for those who don’t speak Spanish.

pillow b 
Our Little Feline Family

Unfortunately not long after this picture Diego went out one night and never came back. I guess he finally met his match. We still miss him tremendously.

Somewhere along the way we realized, to our horror, that we had become “cat people”. We actually liked them. We had discovered that each and every one of them was as different as night and day. Like dogs, they all have their own personalities and provide hours of entertainment, not only for themselves, but for us as well.


When we moved into the house in San Miguel we found a skinny little kitten sneaking in and eating out of our cat’s bowls every chance he got. Guess what? We’ve adopted another cat.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A House In My Stocking

Wise and Wonderful

This is Petra. I met her at El Sagrario, ( from the post, A Wealth of Knowledge ) and immediately fell in love with her. She is always regal and elegant beneath the dirt and well worn clothes and although she can neither read nor write, she is very wise. When I met her she was 82 years old, at least she thought she was, I guess it ‘s a little difficult to be sure. She is very soft spoken and gracious, with a ready smile and a mischievous glint in her eye.

The other folks at El Sagrario thought that she had money because she always seemed to have a lot of clothes and she has such a regal bearing. She chats politely with the others while waiting for food but seems a little aloof and never joins in the gossip. For these reasons the others gossip about her and say that she has money and that she puts herself above them. They could not possibly be more wrong.

My friend, neighbour and fellow volunteer, Doug Butler drove Petra home one day after lunch at El Sagrario and discovered the truth about her living conditions.

Petra's house previously
The Mansion

The house, and I use the term loosely, was about 8 to 10 feet square. The walls were cobbled together from bits of wood and small tree trunks found here and there and there were holes in them large enough to stick your arm through. There was only half a roof, the rest having fallen away and been used as fire wood long ago.

It was the beginning of December and unseasonably cold. Normally there is no rain in Patzcuaro between the end of October and the beginning of June, but for some reason it was also wet and that meant damp cold as well. Actually that winter you could see your breath in the air inside MY house. The floor of the house is dirt so it was just a puddle of mud on the side that had no roof.

Petra does have a lot of clothes. She loved to sew when she could see better and they are all made by hand. Now her eyesight is so bad that she sees very little clearly. All her clothes were stuffed in bags and had become moldy with the damp. She was sleeping on a bag that had been rags sown together and stuffed with more rags. It was filthy. She did have a few warm blankets, probably gotten from donations to El Sagrario. She had a little stone ring for a cooking fire in one corner but it was too wet to do anything with.

When Doug saw this, he and his wife Kathy decided to build her a proper house and  when they told us about Petra’s living conditions we wanted to help. Todd and I decided that the money we would spend on the house would be our Christmas present to each other.

Petra's house being repaired
A New Roof

We hired a couple of local workmen, both of which had worked on our houses in Corazon de Durazno. They basically tore down the entire house and started over.  Poor Petra was terrified when we started hauling everything out and dismantling her little home. David and Jorge worked quickly though and soon she was able to see that everything was going to be alright. They put in strong beams on all four corners and the roof and then put the walls back up with no holes. Then they made an inner wall of plywood with about 4 inches of air space between the inner and outer walls for a bit of insulation. The entire house was then covered with laminate and Petra was so proud. She said she had the shiniest house on the block.

Kathy and I gathered up all of Petra’s clothes and took them to our respective homes to wash and mend. It was unreasonably difficult to part Petra from her clothes even for long enough to wash them. I think she was afraid she wouldn’t get them back and they were really all she had. It broke my heart.

Then we went shopping. We bought her a mattress and flannel sheets and flannel pajamas. We also bought a small wardrobe for her clothes that had an area for a washstand, a small desk and stool, a cute little bench and some reed mats to cover the dirt floor. We also bought a chiminea, a little ceramic fireplace that David and Jorge put a chimney on and vented outside. You can see the hocote in the hanging basket in the picture below. It is wood, sticky with sap, that lights a fire very quickly.

Petra's house cleaned
The New Mansion

Petra in her- (3)
Petra at Home

Petra with her-
Defending the Homestead

The rifle isn’t real, I think her son made it for her. But from a distance she does look like she’s defending the homestead doesn’t she?

Probably the most difficult thing for me about living in Mexico is seeing the poverty. I’ve met so many wonderful people here and I want to do something to help them all. Unfortunately I just don’t have enough money to do that. However, I have discovered, that there are a lot of things that we can do without spending a lot of money and the rewards are unending. I know that I can’t save the world or even Mexico. But I can try to make a difference in my little corner of it.

Once again these wonderful photos are compliments of Kathy Butler.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Wealth of Knowledge

Some of life’s most important lessons come from the least expected places. When I became a volunteer at the soup kitchen in Patzcuaro I expected to meet some local people and learn a little about the culture here. I did not expect the incredible font of wisdom and life experience that I actually got.

Majestic Architecture

sg arBS
El Sagrario in Patzcuaro

I think that the average age of most of the people who come to El Sagrario, a four hundred and fifty year old church, for their daily food, is somewhere around 70. It’s hard to tell for sure with poor people who have worked in the sun all of their lives. A lot of them don’t read and write and have only enough grasp of numbers to deal with a little money. Some are younger and some are older and some have no idea how old they are, but as a generalization I think that most are likely septuagenarians.

Some of these people are also Purépecha, the indigenous folk who preceded the  Spanish and also hold the distinction of being the only tribe not conquered by the Aztecs. Spanish is their second language as well and if you travel far from the larger cities in Michoacan you will see signs in some of the small pueblos in the Purépechan language. One town I know of even has a Purépechan radio station. Where I am going with this is that it was darned hard to understand these people at first, but it was definitely worth the challenge! Many have few, or no teeth, which also adds to the pronunciation issues.

When I was at the kitchen in El Sagrario we fed anywhere from 25 to 35 people a day and I understand that now it is up to about fifty. Somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 Mexicans have returned to Michoacan from the US because of lack of work and unfortunately there is little to be had in Michoacan either so we are starting to see more younger women with children as well.

Shannon with woman & children

Eventually we were able to stop talking in sign language as I gradually began to understand what they were saying and then my education really began. These folks who had nothing were so full of fun and life and laughter that I was humbled in their presence. I felt foolish for having whined about silly inconveniences in my life, which in retrospect was truly blessed. They taught me that happiness comes not from things but from people, and from living each day to the fullest.

Lunch Time!

Maria de Jesus, or Chuchita as she is nicknamed, is the gossip of the group. Well maybe just the most accomplished gossip of the group. She is the white haired lady in the middle of the table on the left in the photo above. She is also the randiest old woman I have ever met. As she peeled carrots or potatoes she would comment on their phallic shapes. She often helps with the food prep and loves to tell stories while we cook. She’ll look around surreptitiously to make sure the folks in the story are out of earshot and jump right in. My favorite story is the one about Alicia and the Maesto, a LONG retired professor. She told us that the professor liked it hot so Alicia had rubbed peron pepper (VERY HOT) on his penis. She showed us how he had reacted by jumping all over the kitchen and practically had us all on the floor laughing.

Señorita Angelita was one of the greatest characters to visit the kitchen. She always wore a Canadian snow hat no matter what the weather. It was the red plaid kind with the ear flaps and lined with sheepskin and she always said “ Chao “ in a gravelly voice after receiving her food. Sadly she was hit by a car one day and I went to see her in the hospital. She looked so small and frail and I asked her what I could do for her, if she needed anything. She replied “ I could use a car. Have you got a car? “ She had a wicked sense of humour and kept the whole hospital room (8 beds) laughing, mostly at my expense. Unfortunately she died of her injuries and we all miss her every day.

Our workspace/serving area

I have since discovered that living for the day is a nationwide phenomena and not just with the poor. Priorities are just different here. If someone is on their way to an appointment and runs into a friend, you will never hear “ sorry, busy got to run”. Who knows when, or if, you will see that friend again so the appointment gets shoved to the back burner, so to speak. If your daughter is sick, if your mother had an accident (if your brother is in jail) this certainly takes priority over whatever obligations you may have had for that day. I have come to understand that this is why I spend so much time waiting for the plumber, the phone guy etc. and I am a little less frustrated and a little more forgiving when they may not show up when they said they would, or even on the day that they said they would. I believe this is the crux of living on Mexican time.

The pictures of the folks at El Sagrario were taken by my friend Kathy Butler, a great photographer and a volunteer at the kitchen. The architecture shots at the top are my husband Todd's, also a great photographer.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Communication Skills


In about October of 2006 we purchased a lot in a beautiful wooded area above Patzcuaro called Los Tanques, for the large water tanks maintained in the colonia there. Our lot was in what used to be a huge peach orchard and would one day be a gated community. The development was called Corazón de Durazno, heart of the peach, or the peach pit as it came to be affectionately labeled by those of us who lived there.

The house was planned to take six months to build, although it actually took ten, and we were renting one of the few other houses in the development so that we could be close to the project. The founder of this project was an architect by the name of José González Alcocer. He was a very nice man, and a talented architect with great vision and versatility, but his interests lay more in art than business. He left that end of things to his foreman, a young man called César. César was a happy, smiling, likable young man that quickly became the bane of our existence.

It was truly impossible not to like César but to be frustrated with him was very easy. At one point during the building of the house we went to El Paso Texas for one week, just seven days, and when we returned there was a brick wall where a window was supposed to be and the foundation for the garage had been laid in the middle of the back yard. If the weather in Los Tanques had been amenable to it, we might have turned it into a swimming pool, but we did eventually turn it into a patio with a French drain underneath which was ultimately more suitable.



The Solution


By this time our one on one language skills had improved and if people spoke slowly enough we could understand. We had also purchased an English/Spanish dictionary of building terms which was very helpful. Under these circumstances one would think that communication with César would have been relatively easy. However, this was definitely not the case, as is evidenced by the ongoing struggle that ensued to have a window put in where a brick wall now resided.


No window

Still No Window


Each day César greeted us with a huge smile and a “¿Cómo están en este buen día?”, how are you on this fine day? We greeted him in kind and said that it was, indeed a fine day and perhaps today he could begin hollowing out a space for a window in the dining room. His response was, “ oh, you wanted a window there?”, or “ are you sure you want a window there?”. This repartee continued for three to four weeks and we were beginning to think that either he or us was completely crazy. We just weren’t sure which.

Then one morning we arrived at the building site to see a hole in the wall where the window was supposed to be and just stood staring with our mouths hanging open. César greeted us in his usual happy-go-lucky manner and explained that he thought this was a good place for a window. I simply agreed and said “ what a good idea César”.



Good Idea César, What a View!


I have since learned that most Mexican men will never admit to making a mistake. Even the language works that way. For example, mi vaso se cayó. This actually translates as my glass fell itself, or spilled itself. I certainly am not responsible for that! I am continually seeing these differences in our cultures and with each new example that I discover, I realize how far I still have to go to really understand them. I am still far from fluent in the Spanish language but I can carry on a conversation, in person or on the phone (which initially was very difficult) and yet from time to time I still have trouble communicating. Luckily the Mexican people are very open and willing to discuss these differences and to try and help me understand.