Friday, 5 October 2007

Cuernavaca for Fiestas Patrias, and Xochicalco (2005)

On September 14th and 15th, Mexicans celebrate the Fiestas Patrias, the National Days celebrating Mexican Independence. While Bev and Judy were here, the red, white and green decorations and the lights for the Fiestas Patrias were still up. I told them a bit about how these festivities are conducted in Mexico, and Bev reminded me that I had sent out an email about our celebrations of the National Day in Cuernavaca two years ago. Though I was in the US this year and missed the fun, she suggested I could post the old email if I still had it, in case people were interested. I will edit it in below and try and post some of the pictures Barry took then also.

Our long weekend in Cuernavaca (from September 2005)

It was Mexican Independence Day last Thursday, so we had a 4-day weekend, and were invited by a colleague of Barry’s, Ricardo, to spend the long weekend with them at their home in Cuernavaca, known here as the city of eternal spring. Still quite elevated at about 1800 metres, it is lower than Mexico City’s 2200m, and is surrounded by wonderfully craggy mountains which are quite heavily forested and very green indeed at this time of year. Most days I no longer notice how polluted Mexico City is, but the sense of clean air and clarity of vision when you leave the city reminds you. Ricardo picked us up on Thursday morning and drove us down there – it took less than an hour on the tollway (on the bus last week, it didn’t take much more than an hour).

Mexicans eat their main meal in the afternoon; it seems more likely to be at 4 than much earlier, which I find difficult because I get hungry earlier, though I always eat a big breakfast. Sitting around talking with drinks and nibbles seems to fill the hours, and as I try to avoid most snacky things and keep my alcohol consumption very low, these are trying times for me. Ricardo invited another historian over and he joined in the general conversation, nibbling and drinking. It was a glorious day and I wanted to get out amongst it, so I suggested a walk so I could check out the neighbourhood. To my surprise, Barry, Ross and Ricardo joined me, never stopping the conversation for even a minute. I surged ahead and did stretches at the corners while I waited for them to catch up.

They live in a secure community – boom gates with armed guards at the only vehicular entry and exit point. The neighbourhood is nice, hilly, curvy cobbled streets, tropical plants everywhere, lots of interesting tiled facades and stuccoed fences, gates offering tantalising glimpses of pools, waterslides, manicured gardens, lots of 4WDs. (Not as fancy a neighbourhood as the part of Cuernavaca we had visited the previous Sunday, not too far from where the Governor of Morelos lives. There we had visited friends who have a time-share arrangement with various other families. For about 10 weekends scattered throughout the year they get use of the 8 bedrooms/ 8 bathrooms, huge and lovely living areas, library and kitchen complete with servants, large heated pool, extensive and beautiful gardens. Formerly the weekender of a large and wealthy family, as the kids grew up and moved on it was not being used, so they sold it off as a kind of time share, but very different from the high rise large apartment blocks I had always associated with time shares before.)

Not all the houses in Ricardo’s area are huge or fancy – not Ricardo’s, where there are 2 family houses on the one moderate-sized block, with a shared unheated in-ground quite shallow pool. They moved here from a larger apartment complex when 28 of the 40 families living there had suffered an actual or threatened kidnapping – Ricardo also had some amazing tales to tell about buying and renting property in the state of Morelos, where there is an enormous amount of drug money to be laundered, and property, commercial or residential, is often the means of doing this. If you turn a blind eye you can easily end up with a lot of property – the titles may be a bit questionable, but there is a law against evictions.

Ricardo and his wife Hilda are from Peru, and though they have lived in Mexico for about 28 years, they still think of themselves as Peruvians. Manifestations of this include Hilda’s Spanish accent, speed and manner of speaking – I found it virtually impossible to pick up anything she said at all, regularly registering a complete blank when she addressed any remark to me - e.g. asking how I slept or if I wanted a shower. She must think I am a total idiot. The other manifestation was a lot more positive - for lunch, which we started early- around 3.15 - she had made 3 Peruvian style pies, 2 vegetarian and one with some chicken as well as corn as major ingredients (a bit like the Chilean pastel de choclo, it included the odd olive, raisin and hard boiled egg). A salad also appeared, a very welcome sight. Their 2 kids arrived from Mexico City shortly thereafter and joined us at lunch. Some of you will remember that we had a young Mexican girl staying with us in Melbourne for a couple of weeks 2 years ago; this was Dahil, their now 20 year old, who had been at an English language school in Sydney. She is having English lessons again here as well as studying anthropology at UNAM and doing a papermaking craft course – busy life. She shares a flat in Mexico City with her 25-year-old brother Emiliano, and they drove down together. It was great to catch up with her, she’s a real sweetie, and so good to have someone who spoke English! (Many of the others we met over the weekend can speak English, it is just that no English was spoken around the table, even by the native speakers, which was great for everyone but me).

In the evening the whole family plus the two of us crammed into one small car to go into the zocalo in Cuernavaca to hear the grito (literally, the cry), when dignitaries (Governor of the State of Morelos in this case, widely reputed to be a drug trafficker) shout out Viva Mexico! and Viva a lot of other important things, and the huge crowd replies with a crescendo of Vivas to each cry. Very passionate, 11PM at night, attended by everyone and their kids and grandmothers, all dressed for the occasion, often in regional costumes but at least with some symbol of Mexican-ness: and followed by excellent fireworks. We got a table at a restaurant along one side of the zocalo at around 10.15. I had a margarita and some delicious enchiladas verdes, and we watched and participated from this vantage point.

A huge market filled much of the zocalo and some surrounding streets, which had been closed to traffic. There were stalls selling every conceivable national food for the season, plus the usual stuff you'd see at a fair, plus kitchen goods, brooms, make-up, CDs, jewellery, clothes of every type, way beyond the expected T shirts, all absolutely mobbed.

We returned to the city centre, squashing up again, the next afternoon, to eat the traditional pozole, a seasonal specialty which is a broth with chicken and other meats if requested, a special type of corn (called hominy in the US), a few veggies, and side dishes of raw onions, herbs, chiles and salsas of various types to add flavour. We also ordered various types of tacos and little empanada-type things with tuna as starters. Their favourite place was closed, but we found another. My verdict: I prefer Vietnamese soups – I don’t think pozole is a goer for the fast food market at home with such august competition in the soup trade! Then we legged it back to the zocalo, where most of the stalls were still functioning, and on to the artesanias market, where we browsed and I started to think about what things I might not be able to live without when we visit the local markets on future weekends away. We ended up going to the palace of Cortes, a XVI Century 2-storey stone building he put up on top of a pyramid, intentionally destroying this place of worship of the former inhabitants. Parts of the pyramid can still be seen in excavations at ground level. It now houses a museum where we saw a temporary exhibition on a particular tree used in handcrafts, furniture and for oil, curated by a friend of Ricardo’s. Then we whizzed through the regular exhibition to have a little time to view the famous Diego Rivera murals covering the history of the conquest, emphasising its cruelty, oppression, violence and the role of the Church.

I have chosen a few of the photos Barry took in the zocalo and made them into an album on Picasa. The guy up in lights is Hidalgo, a hero of Mexican independence, and the lit up building shows the balcony where the Governor did the grito. This is a link to my Picasa album:

Emiliano was part of the excavation team for the most recent work at Xochicalco, a large pre-Colombian site less than 50 km from Cuernavaca. He did his prize-winning honours thesis on some comparative aspects of the site, including diving off the Yucatan coast to discover artefacts and types of shells which indicated trade between regions in the period of Xochicalco (500-800 AD, it was built after Teotihuacán, the most visited site just near Mexico City, was abandoned, and was abandoned in turn after what seems to have been a revolt of the lower classes/slaves against the ruling classes). There could have been up to 200,000 people living there, far bigger urban centres than anything they had in Spain.

We were really privileged to have him give us a guided tour of the site on Saturday morning - absolutely fascinating. (Only 4 of us went, comfortably this time in a somewhat less ancient car.) There is an observatory in a deep cave they excavated which has a small hole/skylight at ground level, into which a bright beam of sunlight enters and moves in a spiral between the 2 equinoxes, and this guide to the seasons was used, apart for other religious purposes, to judge when to sow and when to harvest the crops. We got all kinds of information which wasn’t on the explanatory signs, and a detailed explanation when I asked about the “ball game” – there are several ball courts at this site, aligned due East West or North South.

When we got back home, there was another prolonged session of drinking and nibbles before various friends arrived for lunch at about 4. We ate in the outdoor shaded area they have near the pool. Again, I found the conversation heavy going, and managed to wander off for a walk on my own and avoid the cake and ice cream – and skipped the alcohol too. But the bits of conversation I was able to follow were pretty interesting. Mexican elections are preceded by a period where they choose the candidates – a bit like the US Primaries – and they are doing this now with much jockeying between individuals and parties. Between talk about this and bursts on the various research projects of the people around the table, quite an education for me. Dahil had gone back to the city by then, so it was back to pure Spanish again.

Eventually as it got later, the mozzies started biting so we went inside, where supper was served – again, I avoided the sweet stuff, which is mostly what the Mexicans eat when they want something “light”. People left around 9 or 10, and we returned to Mexico City mid morning Sunday, before the traffic got too heavy. The road from Acapulco passes Cuernavaca, so traffic is pretty heavy even on normal weekends, let alone after the Fiestas Patrias or other long weekends. It was great to get a lift door to door, and I have been eating salads and a veggie soup I made ever since we got back to try and minimise the damage done.

It is taking a long time to sort through the dozens of photos Barry took at Xochicalco, so I am going to post this without a link, and add the link as a separate post when I manage to get a few of the photos organised. For my next posts it will be back to 2007 and my current adventures, particularly the sight seeing with Bev and Judy.

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