Friday, September 28, 2012

San Miguel de Allende


In recent posts I have spoken often, and fondly, of Patzcuaro and the surrounding areas in Michoacán. I think it is now time to leave the nostalgia behind and focus more on Guanajuato where I have been living for almost a year now. Guanajuato is home to some wonderful cities and has some fascinating history. It borders Michoacán in the mountains of central Mexico, and San Miguel, where we live, is about 280 km northwest of Mexico City. One of the things that appealed to us about living in this area is that it is very central. We are within an easy drive of Dolores Hidalgo, Querétaro, Celaya, San Luis Potosí, Morelia and Guanajuato City.

San Miguel is not large, but I have discovered that it offers many of the amenities found in larger cities, while still maintaining the laid back feeling of a small town. Hank’s (formerly Harry’s) Louisiana Grill is one of our favorite haunts. The atmosphere and great food also draw the folks from Mexico City, who flock to San Miguel for weekend get-aways. You definitely won’t find the likes of Hank’s in Patzcuaro!


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Our choice of world class restaurants includes Chinese, Indian,Thai, French, Italian, Argentinian, Uruguayan, Brazilian and Lebanese as well as the traditional Mexican fare. There is also a great insert in the weekly bilingual newspaper called Que Pasa.  Here you can find out what is happening in town every day of the week. It is chock full of restaurants with dinner music, concerts and special events like the Jazz festival, chamber music festival, Cervantes festival, art gallery showings and a plethora of wonderful local events such as horse shows, rodeos and the annual Chili Cook-off, in which chili makers from all over North America compete.

Now having said this, it is necessary to point out that San Miguel is a town with a split personality. Where there are wonderful restaurants, night life and culture, there is also a relatively small Mexican town with all the warmth and charm I have come to associate with small towns all over Mexico. I was a little afraid that this aspect of life here might become lost or overshadowed, but I had nothing to worry about. The two lifestyles coexist side by side almost seamlessly.


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Shop Keeper Beginning Her Day


The Mercado de Artesanias, the artisan’s market, is at least a kilometer long and offers arts and crafts from all over Mexico.


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 El Mercado



Pottery from Dolores Hidalgo



Amate Paintings, Done on Tree Bark, From Guerrero


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Making Dried Flower Arrangements


I know I have gone on at length about Plaza Grande in Patzcuaro, but San Miguel’s  El Jardin, the garden, is also one of my favorite zócalos in México. Families come to sit and chat, young folks come to flirt and snuggle and visitors come to watch it all and listen to the Mariachis play.



Almost An Every Day Occurrence


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El Jardin


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And, Of Course, La Paroquia


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El Zócalo, The Heartbeat of a Mexican Town


San Miguel is a place of timeless tradition, the old ways revered, but it is also a place of modern life, where the new ways are embraced by the young. In the homes TVs and cell phones war with evening stories told on the hearth. In the streets, laden burros and, occasionally livestock, vie with cars for position on the narrow traffic corridors. You can buy corn cooked on a comal over a fire on the street corner or sip your cabernet alongside your chateaubriand, by candle light on a rooftop patio.



 The Old



And The New


I have never before lived in a place of such diversity and it has taken me some time to both understand and appreciate San Miguel de Allende.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mexico And The Turtle

This time of year is nesting or “clutching” season for sea turtles and I am reminded of a wonderful day spent on the beach at Tronconus, just outside Ixtapa . Todd and I were invited to a party at a cute little casita right on the beach. It was a small casual party with a diverse group of people and the conversation was lively and very interesting. One of the Mexican guests brought ceviche, made from a family recipe, that was incredible and  a lady from Alaska brought smoked salmon.

There was also a fellow there who was a bit of an expert on reptiles which, as the day progressed, turned out to be very fortuitous. Shortly after our party began there was a commotion at a cabana up the beach a little ways. Someone was hollering about una culebra, a snake. Hunter, the reptile expert, was off in a flash and returned with a lyre snake, pronounced “liar”. After we had all oo’ed and aw’ed over and petted the lyre, Hunter put it in a bag to be returned to the jungle sometime later.

The Beautiful Lyre Snake

The party was definitely off and running, and shortly thereafter, so were we. Not long after the snake went into the bag someone noticed a large sea turtle climbing up a sand dune not far from the casita. Naturally, beers in hand, we all had to rush to check it out. As it turned out the turtle was completely oblivious to all the watchers and continued on until she had found what she felt was the right spot for her nest. She began to dig.

Maternal Instinct

The next couple of hours proved to be really fascinating, and made all the more interesting by having someone with us who could explain about turtles as the process progressed. To our amazement mother turtle dug a hole about 12 to 18 inches deep. When this was done she then started to dig a smaller hole, cupping her rear flippers like a sand spade. This was incredibly slow and arduous work and I was amazed by her unwavering determination. I’ve heard that sea turtles go into a kind of trance during nesting and can’t be disturbed by anything around them. Apparently this is not actually the case, but it definitely looked that way at the time.

Kids learning about conservation

I learned that 6 of the 7 species of sea turtles are found here in Mexico, that they are found in all the world’s oceans and that most of them are endangered. I knew that sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean and that they lay their eggs on land but I didn’t know that they always return to the place where they were born, to lay them. They can live up to 200 years and apparently have an extraordinary sense of time and location, possibly due to the fact that they are very sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field. This also may be how they navigate.

Watching this process, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that turtles have lived for 100 million years and are now being pushed to extinction. There are many reasons for this but probably the main one is living with humans and the changes we have wrought in their environment. Turtles and manatees are about the only animals that eat sea grass, which like our lawns, needs to be cut short to thrive and spread across the sea floor rather than just growing tall in clumps.

You’re probably thinking, “ and this is important because?”  I was. It is important because these sea grass beds provide breeding grounds for many species of fish, shellfish and crustaceans. A small change in the ecosystem can create a domino effect. I think the scuba diver in me is surfacing….so to speak.

However, I was very happy to discover that conservationists all over Mexico are working to keep the sea turtles from extinction and some of them were just down the beach from us. We all stood around watching and waiting for momma turtle to finish her task and then ours would begin. Finally she had carved out her second, smaller hole where she laid her eggs. They are like soft warm ping pong balls, and flexible so they don’t break as they fall into the hole. Then she began to slowly refill the hole and pack down the sand.

And Then She Was Gone

Turtles lay about 80 to 120 eggs per clutch depending on the species. In this clutch there were 90. There was a turtle nursery about 100 yards down the beach from the nest and we planned to dig up the eggs an bring them to the nursery where they would be reburied in a fence enclosed area and watched by the conservationists there. The incubation  period of the eggs is about 45 to 60 days, with the temperature of the sand governing the speed of the embryo’s development.

The survival of an egg clutch is precarious to say the least. Overhead the sea gulls and pelicans were circling and on the beach a few dogs were doing the same. Thankfully a couple of people from the nursery arrived to guide us through the extraction process. Even though we had all watched the birth we had a hard time finding the actual egg bundle. Mother turtle had done an excellent cover-up.

The eggs were right under that can of beer

 Pay Dirt!

90 Future Turtles

What? No Leftovers?

Without the help of the conservationists, and bystanders, the chance of even a few of these eggs making it to adulthood is very slim. And for those few that do their future is uncertain.

Sea turtles are actually a part of 2 ecosystems. The beach/dune system and the marine system. Turtles will lay 3 to 7 times during the nesting season and over a 20 mile stretch of beach leave about 150,000 pounds of eggs per season. Not all the nests will hatch, not all the eggs in a nest will hatch and not all the hatched turtles will survive.

This all leaves nutrients in the dunes which are hard pressed to get them in other ways.
With these nutrients dune vegetation becomes stronger providing a root system that helps prevent sand erosion on the beaches. Sea turtles play a large part in supporting both these fragile ecosystems.

This concludes the science portion of this post and we now return you to the party. No, wait… the party sort of degenerated from there so I think we’ll leave it at that.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Another Day In The Life…


It is amazing how one day can be so bad and then the next one dawns with such glory that it is hard to imagine it was ever any other way. In my last post I whined about my, somewhat accident prone, existence but today I am inspired by Barbara of BABSBLOG to share the joy that I am currently experiencing.


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Last night we had a magnificent and violent electrical storm with thunder that actually drowned out the cohetes, the rockets that are still exploding overhead in celebration of Independence Day. The rain sheeted down creating a pond on the covered back patio which seeped into the living room, leaving puddles on the floor.

Today the air is crystal clear, the sun is shining and the sky is incredibly blue. The birds are singing and a beautiful lizard is sunning itself on the garden wall. The cats are basking in the too long grass and a vermillion fly catcher sits on the wall, starkly red, against the blue of the sky.


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Today the soccer fields behind the house are uncharacteristically quiet and the sound of church bells can be heard in the distance. In the vacant lot across the street a few wild flowers are starting to appear and an electrical wire sports a row of little birds with bright yellow breasts. A neighbourhood cat is eying them with bad intent.




Alright, perhaps I wax a little too poetic, but all these things combine to create a magic that is difficult to describe and I find that I am very happy. Maybe living in Mexico has taught me to take the time to appreciate these special moments or maybe it is simply because I now have more free time than I did in the past. However, I am less inclined to delve into the psychological reasons for this than to simply enjoy the moment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Day In The Life


I am a very positive person and I rarely allow self pity to enter my life. Today I am not only indulging myself I am sharing it with the world. Many of you know that as a result of a serious accident 27 months ago, my life has been a bit of an ordeal. As a rule I find that reminding myself of how lucky I am to be alive sufficient to ward off the blues. However, it doesn’t always ward off the frustration.

A couple of weeks ago my husband Todd purchased a used freezer. I was very pleased about this because the one we used to have was sold with the house in Patzcuaro, and we really did use it a lot. I am somewhat incapacitated, and everything I do takes three times as long as it used to, so I thought it would be a good idea to, every now and again, make large amounts of food and freeze several portions so that it would be available, for Todd or myself, if I am having a particularly bad day and don’t want to cook.

I am currently on the Weight Watchers diet and eat a lot of zero points vegetable soup, well known to all who have ever been on Weight Watchers, I am sure. What better way to begin my freezing project? On Sunday, after a trip to the mercado, the market, for mountains of vegetables, I set to work and made a huge pot of soup. As I had Spanish class yesterday, the soup was still in the fridge today, and I decided this afternoon to go and get myself a bowl for lunch.

Once my bowl of soup was in the microwave a somewhat slap-stick turn of events ensued. It occurred to me that since I had the huge pot out of the fridge, no easy task, that I might as well put the soup in plastic containers and stick it in the freezer. After portioning out the soup I had ten 500 mil. containers and two liter containers that I, somehow, had to get to the freezer which is in an unused bathroom on the other side of the service patio.

No problem says I! Todd had gone into Celaya today and it did occur to me that perhaps I should just put the soup back in the refrigerator until he got home and let him take it out to the freezer. That would have been the smart thing to do, but since no one has ever accused me of high intelligence, I decided that I could manage it myself.

I put all the containers of soup on the seat of my walker and thought, this is a piece of cake. There is a small step, only a couple of inches, from the kitchen door to the service patio. As I was lifting the walker (and soup) down, one of the wheels caught on the lip and all the soup slid off onto the patio floor. The tops popped off some of the containers and a  couple cracked.

It was a very hardy soup….. Mounds of carrots, turnips, asparagus, cauliflower and numerous other green things started to float away on the tide of broth. The service patio is small and cramped and full. Soup ran under garbage cans and buckets and into every nook and cranny.




Since my goal, when this began, was only to get a bowl of soup for lunch, I wasn’t wearing my brace. I am smart enough to know that being alone in the house and trying to clean up that mess without my brace was not a good idea. At this point in time my walker and I were standing in a sea of soup. Since the diet is working and I have lost 25 pounds the house pants that I was wearing were dragging on the ground….. in the soup. This is also the point at which the cats arrived, all three of them, to investigate the commotion. Anyone who has owned cats knows that they are nothing if not curious.

My brace was in the master bedroom which is through the kitchen, dining and living rooms. I slipped my thongs off at the kitchen door but there was still enough broth and squashed vegetables on my feet, pants and the wheels of the walker to leave a pretty good trail through the house.

After changing my clothes and putting on my brace I returned to the scene of the soup avalanche with a damp towel and removed the intact cartons of soup from the floor, cleaning them with the towel, and returned them to the walker seat for the rest of their journey to the freezer. Once there, with the soup safely in the freezer, all that remained was to clean up the mess.




I had to first recover all the recalcitrant vegetables and remove everything from the service patio before I could mop up the broth and begin the floor washing process. I think this took a couple hours and when I was done I was soaked with sweat and my much unused limbs were shaking with fatigue. I was now definitely feeling sorry for myself!

I decided that all I wanted to do was to go and lay down on my bed, put a movie in the DVD player and relax. I was about to do just that when the power went out.

It would be impossible not to see the humour in all this, but at this moment I think I will appreciate that aspect of it more tomorrow. Now I am going to go and take a hot bath.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Art And Artisans Of Michoacán, México

Michoacan is a large state that ranges from the Pacific Coast to about 10,000 feet in the mountains of central México. While living there we became enamored of the incredible artwork created in the many small towns situated around Lake Patzcuaro, and I would like to share some of that in this post.

But first, I would also like to share some history of the area, with the story ( and I promise to keep it brief ) of Don Vasco de Quiroga and his amazing accomplishments in Michoacán. In 1530 Don Vasco arrived in Mexico from Spain and immediately became the champion of the Indians, and because of this, to this day he is still looked upon as a saint in many Michoacán communities.

He founded two towns, one just outside Mexico City called Hospital-Pueblo de Santa Fe (Hospital-Village of the Holy Faith) and one near Patzcuaro, called Santa Fe de la Laguna. In 1536 he was appointed the first Bishop of the newly appointed diocese of Michoacán, and in Patzcuaro he founded the basilica and the Colegio of San Nicolas.

The Tarascan territory, home to the P’urépecha Indians, had been ravaged by the Spanish and Don Vasco worked to gather the surviving Indians into towns around Lake Patzcuaro and endeavored to teach them religion (whether they wanted it or not) and the fundamentals of self government. Don Vasco’s favorite author was Thomas More and in the manner of his novel Utopia, De Quiroga taught new crafts to the people in each of these new towns. Also in the Utopian way, everyone in the town worked and contributed equally to the common welfare of the whole.

Other than making a couple of trips to Spain to campaign on behalf of the Indians, a couple of which travelled with him and were introduced at Court, he lived out the remainder of his life in Patzcuaro . He died in his 90’s in 1565 and his body is interred in the basilica of Patzcuaro. The skills that De Quiroga gave to the P’urépecha have been passed down through generations and today they are considered to be among the greatest artists in México.

The town of Capula makes beautiful ceramic-wear and their crafts adorn many a home and restaurant México.



Tocuaro is famous for it’s traditional masks and carvings.

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This is Enedina Castillo, of Tocuaro, in the picture above. She sells her carvings and hand crocheted rebozos, shawls, in the Plaza in Patzcuaro. I personally have a gallery of her work in my home. Behind her you can just see some of the beautiful copper work from the town of Santa Clara del Cobre.

Zinapecuaro creates some of the ( I think ) most beautiful pottery in the world.

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The town of Santa Fe de la Laguna, mentioned earlier in the story of Don Vasco, makes wonderful black glazed vases, candle holders and figurines, among other things.

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In Ocumicho they produce these lovely whimsical figures in clay, going about the business of everyday life, or portraying  Bible stories, or simply acting out scenes from some very vivid imaginations.

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You may be familiar with the pineapple creations from San José de Gracia as they are very popular and are shipped all over the world.

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The little P’urépecha town of Cucucho produces the fabulously rich toned cucucha pots and chimineas, free-standing fireplaces.

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In Tzintzuntzan, yes that really is the name, they make pottery, woven baskets, mats, hats and Christmas decorations. The market there is delightfully colourful.



I could go on and on, but really I already have, so I’ll end with Patzcuaro where you can find a little of everything!

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Gardening 101 San Miguel de Allende


For those of you who read my earlier post,  Patzcuaro Gardening 101, ( you might think, as I did, that I finally had it figured out. We would all be wrong in that assumption.

Our rental house here in San Miguel opens in the back to a nice tile patio and a small patch of lawn surrounded by high cement walls. When we first arrived the grass was about half a meter tall and the ledges built into the wall held a few unadorned ceramic pots with sad dry flowers struggling to survive among the weeds.


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Back Patio


This was just as well as Todd had made perhaps five trips between Patzcuaro and San Miguel, with our little trailer, transporting about fifty assorted potted plants, trees and shrubs from our house and gardens in Patzcuaro. During the building of our house we made many trips to Dolores Hidalgo, famous for their Talavera ceramics, for tiles, light fixtures, wall decorations and, of course, flower pots.

Over the ensuing years we also bought pots in Patzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan, Capula and many of the other towns around Lake Patzcuaro that produced beautiful pottery, and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave them all behind. The transport went well on the cuotas, toll highways, but once we got into San Miguel it was a different story. All the roads are cobblestone and there are a couple of places near our house that more resemble a dry riverbed than a road. Todd managed to traverse these areas unscathed on all but one fateful trip. He hit a deep hole and most of the pots in the trailer broke.


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A Plethora Of Pots


It wasn’t so much that we really needed all those pots but now we had plants with no homes, so off we went again to Dolores Hidalgo. At least this time it was only a half hour away rather than four. We cut and fertilized the brown straw that was our lawn, weeded and watered the existing pots, transplanted the homeless flowers into our newly purchased pots, distributed our plethora of Patzcuaro plants around the property and sat back to admire our work.


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A Feeling Of Accomplishment


A couple of weeks later we had a rare, and severe, early frost and everything died. The huge coleus that we had carefully nurtured on our covered bedroom patio for four years became a twisted brown stick over night. Two of the three large ficus trees on the front patio died and the gigantic laurel tree outside the front wall shriveled and dropped about twenty kilos of brown leaves in front of the gate. We were stunned. All over town dead bougainvillea and Virginia creeper drooped pathetically over garden walls.

That was our first lesson in dessert gardening. Temperatures fluctuate even more dramatically here than in Patzcuaro. Plants, like herbs, that were desperate for warmth and sunlight in Patzcuaro shriveled and died under the unrelenting sun of the San Miguel dessert. Suddenly we were trying to find enough shaded areas to hide all the plants that used to be happy out in the middle of the yard. I still have not found the right place for my beautiful Australian tree fern, which flourished in the damper climate of Patzcuaro.


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My Poor Baby


The next, and much happier lesson, was that after a serious frost most of the plants will have miraculous resurrections and become even more lush than before their “deaths”. In a surprisingly short period of time we discovered green sprouts everywhere and were truly astounded by the resilience of nature.


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Amazing Rebirth


We have had to learn to garden all over again, but finally through trial and error (mostly error), we are finally having some success. With the onset of the, somewhat sporadic, rainy season our little lawn is thick and green, with a growth rate such that you can almost watch the progress from hour to hour. Unfortunately it is also covered in wasps, for what reason we have yet to discover, but that is probably another blog post. With a few exceptions, the potted plants and trees have settled into their new lifestyles and the cacti are flourishing as never before.  


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Rooftop Cactus Garden