Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Life at the edge of the water

Friends hangin' out. I love to walk along the Lake Chapala shore, camera in hand, capturing images of our wildlife as the animals move about, swim, fly, and feed in their own little piece of paradise. Sometimes, like the egrets above, they simply stand still, seeming just to enjoy the quiet beauty of sparkling water and golden sun all around them. These two egrets are among some of the most common birds along the shore. They look alike, except for their size, and pairs like this can often be seen together, leading to the mistaken impression that they are mates. When I finally got around to preparing this posting, I decided to find out a little more and, to my surprise, I discovered that they are entirely different species, although they are both part of the overall heron family. The large bird is the Great White Egret, while its smaller friend is the Snowy Egret. Aside from the size difference, they can be distinguished by the color of their beaks, and by the yellow feet of the Snowy Egret (not visible in the picture).

Prime egret real estate. Unlike some of the other local water-oriented birds, which swim and fish some distance off shore, the egrets like the edge of the water. They perch on a ledge or wade with their long spindly legs at the edge of the floating water hyacinth gathered along the shore such as that found at the intersection of the Ajijic pier and the seawall protecting the lake front park shown above. In these areas they find small fish, water snakes and insects.

Fishing buddies. Another pair of egrets fishes off the seawall of the lake front park. Once again, a Great White and a Snowy Egret have paired up. I may be misunderstanding the interaction, but it certainly appeared that the Great White was giving a few fishing tips to its smaller buddy. These two stayed together for some time, with the Great White uncoiling its long neck and peering into the shallow depths, while the Snowy Egret observed the action closely. Because they were so concentrated on their project, I was able to get rather close to take the picture.

Score one for the egret. A Great White Egret has captured a small water snake at the edge of the water hyacinth. Now the task is to position the snake so that the egret can tilt back its head and swallow it, a maneuver that the egret will find surprisingly difficult.

Now what? The snake fights back, wrapping its body around the egret’s beak, preventing the swallowing maneuver. I wonder if this is an example of what is known as a “Mexican Stand-off?” I took these shots with a telephoto lens, and didn’t see clearly what was going on until I put them on the computer and zoomed in close. I was instantly reminded of the old cartoon, titled “Never give up!” In the cartoon is a frog, half-swallowed by a pelican, which reaches out with its front paws and throttles the bird, preventing the pelican from swallowing, creating a similar Mexican Stand-off.

A breezy afternoon on the waterfront. A cool breeze ruffles the feathers of this Snowy Egret. Another way of distinguishing the Snowy from the Great White is the tuft of feathers along the back of the neck. Also, although it has a similar s-curve, the neck is much shorter than that of a Great White. The Snowy does have the same beady-eyed intensity of its larger cousin as this one surveys its turf for lunch.

Friendly competitors. Some of the other birds I found with egrets include these seagulls and a solitary Blue Heron. Oregonians will recognize the Blue Heron from the label on the bottle of the local brew pub ale they may be quaffing even as they read this. Although we can’t get the ale this far south, at least we do get the bird.

Big Blue. The Blue Heron looks very similar to the Great White Egret, except for the color. They are related, but apparently not as closely as the Snowy Egret. The Blue Heron’s feathers are a variety of colors, in addition to blue. I may well have seen this very bird wading in the creek behind my former home in Salem, Oregon.

Up and away. When the Great White takes off, unfolding and flapping its broad wings with rhythmic grace, it is breath taking. The white feathers show their translucency in the afternoon sun. The egret holds its neck and legs in the most aerodynamically advantageous position and simply soars.

Into the distance. The egret glides along just above the water, taking advantage of air currents as it looks for fish. The volcanic mountains lining the south shore of Lake Chapala show in the background. Because human settlement is much less intense along the south shore, the bird population is reported to be much greater. Soon, I will visit Petatan on the south shore to see the mobs of white pelicans that gather at the fishing village when the catch is cleaned.

Liquid gold. A solitary egret wades and fishes as the late afternoon sunlight turns the water to liquid gold. The egret’s long neck, extended from its usual s-curve to full length, gives the bird a great visual advantage for both hunting and defense.

For more detailed information about egrets and herons, click here.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Fiesta de San Andres: Ajijic gets down

Mexicans do like to party! Immediately after el Dia de la Revolucion, the Fiesta de San Andres (Saint Andrew) begins and runs for nine non-stop days. San Andres is the patron saint of Ajijic. Every town in Mexico has one, and usually the local parrochia is named after the saint. A town saint’s fiesta is usually the biggest, longest, and liveliest of the year. Cajititlan, a small town between Ajijic and Guadalajara, has one that in the old days ran for 3 months! In modern times, it was cut to about a week. Officials called it “progress.” Seems a shame. For a calendar of major Mexican fiestas throughout the year, click here.

Preparing the Castillo. Each of the nine days is different, but certain activities are common to all. There are always lots of fireworks. In the picture above, workers prepare a section of the Castillo, a thirty-foot high tower with spinning wheels of fireworks set off each night near midnight. But that's just the finale. Fireworks start about 5:00 AM with rockets that take off with a whoosh and end with a tremendous boom high in the air. These rockets, called cohetes, go off all day and most of the night, but reach crescendos resembling the siege of Stalingrad at 6:00 AM, noon, and from around midnight to o’dark thirty. The cohetes are a little unnerving at first, being unguided, highly flammable missiles capable of reaching 300-400 feet in altitude. People don’t appear to bat an eye and a good time is had by all.

View from our home. Groups of people led by bands march through the streets at various times of the day, but we had the good fortune to live by the launching point for each evening's parade, which originates at Seis Esquinas, about 1 1⁄2 blocks down the street, and proceeds past our house along Calle Hidalgo.

Packed Parrochia. The parades all finish at the Parrochia, about 1⁄2 mile away. The parades display an unusual mix of the sacred and secular, the traditional Catholic and the pre-Colombian Indian religions, the serious and hilarious.

Altar boys lead off. The marching group is often led by a priest in his vestments or by altar boys carrying tall crosses. It often seemed that the church was struggling to keep a Catholic veneer on a pagan harvest festival.

Local military gets in the act. A marching band is always included, sometimes a drum corps, but most often very heavy on the brass. The military leader (not in picture) of this troop of largely female drummers looked very stern until I realized his tiny grandson, also in military uniform, marched beside him, tootling on a horn.

An ancient heritage. Several nights, groups in elaborate and beautiful pre-Colombian dress accompanied the march, dancing and shaking rattles, their high feathered headdresses bobbing and waving above them.

Relaxing after the march. Unlike many of the traditional Indians in the area who turn away when approached, these dancers are proud to be photographed in their finery. Once they reach the Parrochia, their serious mien drops away and smiling young girls and impish little boys emerge.

Gremios on the march. Always a part of each march is a group of people carrying a large banner or picture. These are the sponsors, or gremios, of the evening’s march, sometimes employees of a local hotel, or carpenters, or maids and gardeners, or other group.

Lighting the way. Following their banner, members of the gremio carry paper-shielded candles, creating a lovely glowing procession in the early evening darkness. Each gremio sponsors a night and contributes all year to the expenses of the night’s festivities including the bands and the fireworks. Most agree that the construction workers, or albaniles, kick in the most and their night has the biggest fireworks, and the best bands.

Gettin' down. By the time the early evening march reaches the Parrochia, the party on the plaza nearby is kicking in bigtime. On most nights, a large stage is erected for the main band, which can have as many as twenty performers who really get the crowd cooking.

Waiting their turn. When the main band takes a break, many other small bands hanging out on the fringes will strike up a tune for a few pesos. Sometimes the various small bands and the main band overlap in a deafening roar not lessened by the boom of the cohetes and the cheers of the crowd. Fiesta time is not for those with over-sensitive ears.

Taco Bell, eat your heart out! Street food is usually available most times, but the fiesta brought the vendors out in droves. This man is carving up a large chunk of roast pork, from which he made me some very tasty tacos. He seemed puzzled that I would bother to take his picture, but he was willing to demonstrate his technique for me.

Wall-to-wall bars. The bar scene was incredible, with outdoor bars set up side-by-side all around the plaza. One of the more elaborate of the temporary bars was Paradise Tropical Drinks.

God in Paradise. Tending bar in Paradise was a ten-year old boy, wearing a startling t-shirt. Perhaps he was just warning his customers against their wayward behavior.

A different marketing strategy. For some reason, this particular bar usually seemed to get more than its share of business. I was lucky to catch these two bartenders at a quiet moment.

Party hearty! One night at the plaza party, I was adopted by three young Mexicans who demanded to know where I came from and how I like Ajijic and Mexican fiestas. Their English, while pretty sketchy, was much better than my Spanish, but the language of a party is pretty universal. The scene reminded me of Mardi Gras. At one point, apparently to demonstrate the good feelings of the evening, one of my new friends grabbed the nearest girl and gave her a big smooch on the lips. She looked surprised but not offended, and I suddenly realized she was there with someone else and didn’t even know the kisser.

Mexicans do like to party!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Viva la Revolucion

Here comes La Revolucion! I was in the shower when I realized el Dia de la Revolucion was erupting in my neighborhood. A rhythmic, thumping base vibrated the painted tiles in the shower stall. I couldn’t quite zero in the source or direction, so I quickly dried and dressed, realizing as I did that the sound was very close--on the street in front of my house! Then I remembered reading that this was November 20, Revolution Day, and that the parade would come through Seis Esquinas (Six Corners), a small plaza just down the street and pass in front of my house on its way to the Parroquia along Hidalgo Street.

Our new Canadian neighbors, Clarence and Gail, were already peering out the gate as I raced up the stairs to the broad terrace of the apartment above ours to get an elevated view of the festivities. Dan, our other new neighbor, strolled out to join me in his bathrobe. At this point the drum and brass noise of the marching band was deafening and we could see rank after rank of children formed up in the uniforms of the schools they attend. School children appear to make up a large proportion of marchers in Ajijic fiesta parades.

Grabbing my camera, I headed to the street for a close up view. I quickly realized that each group of identically dressed children was not only going to march, but most would carry on some sort of performance along the way. A photographic gold mine!

Paddling for La Revolucion. The first group carried semaphore paddles, making it appear for a moment that they were propelling invisible kayaks. Given their youth, their synchronization was surprisingly good.

Hoola Hoop review. Other groups carried jangling crescent-shaped tambourines, or multicolored flags, or hula hoops which they twirled on their arms or over their heads.

Charros on parade. Charros are Mexico's gentlemen horsemen. On their beautiful horses, they were dressed to the nines in tight-fitting pants and short jackets, stitched in striking patterns. These two looked like they could have ridden with Zapata.

Proud Papa. This proud charro father brought his lovely daughter, who seemed as much at home on a horse as him, even in her full skirts.

Eat your heart out, Mister Ed. Charro horses are noted for their skillful dancing in tune with the mariachi bands, something that must be seen to be fully believed.

Viva los ninos de la Revolucion! But the stars of the show were the tots from the jardine de los ninos (kindergarten). Everyone I talked to, Mexican or Gringo, remarked upon their wonderful period costumes, and the carefully choreographed dances they performed every time the parade halted. Heavy with their responsibility for carrying the essence of the day, they wore grave expressions, and their tiny voices periodically piped out Viva la Revolucion! The boys waved their carved wooden weapons in the air, crossed bandoliers sparkling on their chests, while the girls flourished their full skirts.

Painted Pancho Villa mustaches gave the boys fierce expressions. The girls were a little more demure and flashed shy smiles a the cameras of hovering parents and entranced onlookers.

As I examined the photos later, I realized that the parents had gone to great trouble to create these obviously handmade costumes. The boys’ clothing closely matched photos I have seen of the actual revolutionaries. The girls wore long colorful skirts and beautifully stitched cotton tops, with miniature rebozos over their shoulders sometimes containing a doll, dressed in identical fashion. These were not plastic-velcro-polyester creations, picked up on a rushed trip to the local Walmart. They were lovingly hand-sewn, with many personal touches, by parents who, for the most part, cannot afford the Walmart shortcut.

Spectators jammed the narrow sidewalks so tightly along the half-mile from Seis Esquinas to the Parroquia that I had to take a parallel street to reach the main Plaza where the parade would end and I could get a good vantage point for photos. At one of the most crowded points, I suddenly saw the packed mass start to heave and jump. People were shouting, laughing, and shrieking, barely able to move but scrambling to get out of the way of...something. I was baffled until a Mexican woman standing next to me explained with a grin, “ratta!” Somehow a confused rodent had raced around the ankles and over the feet of bystanders, certainly an unsettling experience for them with nowhere to go but up. They were remarkably good-humored about it, but that’s Mexico.

For the record. Mexico has had a long and tragic history of conflict, much of it in struggles against foreign domination, especially by the United States which expropriated half of the country in the 1840’s in a war that many US citizens at the time felt was illegal and shameful. Mexico’s Revolution began November 20, 1910, and officially ended in 1917, but armed conflict and revolts persisted until the late 1920’s. The real end was probably in 1936 when Gen. Calles, the last of the revolutionary generals, was arrested and deported by Lazaro Cardenas. President Cardenas nationalized the oil industry, taking it away from foreign control, and established a wide array of social programs and reforms which helped keep his party in power for the next sixty-four years. For wonderful period pictures of La Revolucion, click on this link and for detailed information, click on this link.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A quiet morning stroll through Chapala

The Chapala Pier. Early on a recent morning, I found myself with three hours to burn in Chapala, the Lake’s namesake town. Chapala lies along the north shore of the Lake, less than ten miles east of Ajijic. Carole was off to Guadalajara to get her FM3, the “resident, non-immigrant” visa which transforms us from mere visitors on a tourist visa into full-blown residents of Mexico with many new rights, most important of which is to become members of the Mexican national health plan, called the IMSS. At any rate, I brought her to Chapala to meet a group of fellow Gringos heading to the Immigration office with the same goal in mind. Since she would not return for hours, I took the opportunity to drift around Chapala with my camera to see what might turn up. Mexico never disappoints in this respect.

First, I headed for the waterfront which, in many ways, defines Chapala. This has always been fishing town, from boats or shore, and with pole or hand net. Many fishermen anchor their boats in the lee of the Chapala pier. The vegetation seen the foreground of the picture is water hyacinth, a floating plant that drifts in and out with the waves and wind.

Bringing home the catch of the day. Fishing is still practiced here, although it is unsafe to eat most of the catch because of pollution from factories located on the rivers that feed the lake. Not to be deterred, the fish restaurants have largely shifted to catch brought in from the Pacific Ocean ports such as Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

Tourist transportation. Many of the fishermen (I’ve never seen women crewing a boat) get a big portion of their income taking tourists out for rides on the lake. Carole and I have yet to see life jackets or any other safety provision, so we’ve been a little hesitant to go for a ride as yet.

Fishermen at work. The fishermen's fountain commemorates the history of Chapala as a fishing town. The statues in the fountain very realistically portray the strength and effort needed to handle the nets. I have seen this very activity along the north shore of the Lake on many an evening walk.

Lake front elegance. While Chapala has spread out and up the sides of hills which are extinct (hopefully) volcanic cinder cones, the heart of the town lies within a few blocks of the lake shore. Included are the Parroquia (parish church) named San Francisco, the main plaza, and the line of elegant old lake shore haciendas. Some of these homes are still residences, others have become restaurants such as Los Cazadores which was originally the home of Albert Braniff, who founded Braniff airlines. The steeples of San Francisco can be seen behind Los Cazadores.

Kiosco, the center of the center. The plaza is the heart and nerve center of most Mexican communities, and in the center of nearly every plaza is the bandstand, called the kiosco. It functions as center stage for fiestas, political rallies, and other community events, as well as providing a shady spot for the elderly and young lovers. The Chapala kiosco is quite elegant and well-cared-for, obviously a symbol of community pride. In the background is one of the extinct cinder cones.

Meet the newlyweds, Mr. & Mrs. Death. The recent Dia De Los Muertos fiesta left behind a fine example of Mexico’s humorous, lighthearted attitude toward death and the dead. The two large figures in the picture were in the main traffic intersection near the plaza.

Life in miniature. The plaza is a vortex of activity. Sidewalk street vendors sell clothing, fresh produce, hot food, and handicrafts such as this finely carved set of doll's furniture. Some of these vendors seem to have regular spots, and I picked up a strong sense of community among them. For all America’s talk about free enterprise, most Americans work for somebody else, usually a corporation. Mexico strikes me as a far more entrepreneurial society, no doubt out of necessity. As multinational corporations penetrate further, this will probably start to die, but maybe not.

Chapala harpist. Street performers and musicians are also part of the daily scene. The harpist pictured must be pretty enterprising given the difficulty of hauling the instrument around as well as playing it.

The Portales. Another typical aspect of a Mexican plaza are the colonnades, called the portales. Usually at least one side of a plaza has this feature. Generally there are vendors or open air restaurants nestling in the shade of the portales. In Chapala, the portales extend perhaps 50 yards and provide a nice breezy place to eat lunch and view the kiosco and the activity around the plaza.

Chicharrones, anyone? One of the most popular hot foods available from side walk vendors, and sometimes directly sold by butchers out of their carnecerias, are chicharrones. These are chunks of pork, boiled in oil in a huge wok-like pan over a wood fire or perhaps a rigged-up gas flame. The meat and the way of cooking it would give both US health experts and fire inspectors heart attacks, but the Mexicans seem to love it and it smells great.

Blessed shade for an incandescent day. As you move away from the bustle of the plaza and the waterfront area, Chapala becomes quieter, but has other charms, including some wonderful shady cobblestone streets. Mexicans seem to love their trees, particularly the big ones with spreading branches providing welcome shade from the sometimes intensely bright sun one encounters most days at our 5500 foot altitude. Rather than cut down one of these great old trees, Mexican builders tend to incorporate them right into walls or just build around them.

Everyone an artist. Chapala homeowners, like those in Ajijic, employ vivid, often contrasting colors. A walk down a side street can be startling, amusing and a revelation on what colors actually work well together.
A gate both draws in and keeps out. Another very common architectural feature is placement of a door or a gate at the corner of a block. Wood, wrought iron, archways, clay roof tiles, vegetation and many other features are used to catch and please the eye. The owners seem to enjoy making a statement with their doors and gates, even as these features help conceal what is behind.

New and old on Cinco de Mayo Street. As usual in Mexico, I found new and old juxtaposed in Chapala. Racy looking scooters are a very popular low-cost form a transportation. I often see adobe exposed on walls of older buildings where the plaster has chipped away. The mud bricks were manufactured in the same way, with the same materials, that people in pre-Columbian Mexico used.