Monday, November 16, 2015

Guanajuato, El Cervantino, and Dia de Muertos

We accepted an invitation from friends, Ken and Mary, to share an apartment in Guanajuato, Mexico (GTO). We chose to spend two weeks there, plus two travel days.

Ken, Mary (and innocent bystander)

Moby, our Shih Tzu puppy, was very kindly hosted by friends, Patrick and Kathy, for the 16 days we were away. They have two Westies to keep our Moby company. It is reported the dogs fought over Moby the first day and ignored him thereafter. But Kathy and Patrick gave him all the attention he could use.
Moby, the Left Behind One (Here Sharing Papa's Chair)
I studied Spanish for a couple of weeks before we left but was still hopelessly inept and relied on Ken, Mary, and Debby for communicating. Ken, a Spanish teacher, kindly wrote out some basic Spanish language sentences with pictorial cues that helped me a lot to grasp the basics.

Our stay overlapped the last week of the annual Cervantino fine arts festival in GTO, which hosts international performers and draws audiences from all over central Mexico. We also got to experience the local Dia de Muertos celebration.


A Central Cervantino Venue
Weather at the end of October was mostly clear, with temps ranging from 10°C (night) to nearly 30°C (day). While there, the strongest hurricane ever making landfall in the Northern Hemisphere took aim at us. But we were denied a disaster when Patricia weakened from Category 5 to tropical depression in less than 24 hours. Other than an afternoon rain, we had no clue such a storm was in our vicinity.
 


About Guanajuato

GTO is the capital of Guanajuato State in central Mexico. It is a university town located in a mountainous region. Its elevation is shown as 2000m, with surrounding hills to 2500m, and nearby peaks to 3000m; expect it to take a couple of days to adjust to altitude. The city proper has a population of about 70,000, and the greater municipality is reported to be 170,000 population.


The town center is Plaza de la Paz, home to the Guanajuato Basilica and the Legislative Palace, with the University a block north. Walking east, one reaches in two blocks the Jardin de Union and Juarez Theater, and a short walk further are the Plaza Ropero and Plaza Mexiamora and our apartment. Walking NE two blocks, one reaches Plaza del Baratillo, reportedly the oldest in the city, where we hung out a lot. Walking to the SW, one comes to the Mercado Hidalgo a short walk away and then on to the Tepetapa district and the large market Commercial (where it proved difficult to shop in the rain because the roof leaked so badly).


Guanajuato Centro Historico (L->R:University, Basilica and Plaza de la Paz, Jardin Union)
One Side Of Plaza de la Paz Close-up
GTO is not typically an international tourist destination, and Americans do not seem to flock there or choose to live there, choosing nearby San Miguel de Allende instead. Yet we encountered some single American women who had chosen to live in GTO, so it has a reputation as a safe city.


Local History

GTO was founded as a colonial mining outpost in 1548, called Real de Minas de Guanajuato. For the last thousand years the area has been reported to be a plentiful source of gold and silver. The oldest known indigenous name of the area means place of metals. The Aztecs called it place of straw (perhaps with intent to hide its importance). The current name’s meaning is hilly place of frogs. (That’s an even better disguise.)

In the 18th century, GTO was the world’s largest silver source, becoming Mexico’s richest city. The Valenciana mine alone supplied 2/3 of the world’s silver at its peak. Because of its wealth, the neo-colonial and baroque buildings of GTO have inspired its designation as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The city originated as barrios surrounding the important mine sites, then expanded and filled the narrow valley it now occupies. The valley runs approximately ESE to WSW (but don't quote me - I was never comfortable with directions there). Floods on the small river through the valley necessitated a miner's solution - large underground tunnels being bored to allow storm water to pass through.

Later, dams were built to create more permanent sources of potable water and to eliminate the flood dangers. This allowed the underground tunnels to be re-purposed as streets,  improving traffic flow. The few larger streets through city center are all narrow, supporting only one-way traffic. Our apartment was on the surface street Catarranas (E->W traffic), and also on underground street Miguel Hidalgo (W->E traffic).

Miguel Hidalgo Underground With Bridge to Mexiamora Parking
Underground Street Returns to the Sun

A scenic view street cut into the sides of the valley, called Panoramica, forms a loop around the Centro Historico district. Almost all streets within are walk streets called callejones. Many are quite steep as they climb the valley walls. These small walkways attract callejoneadas, walking serenades sung and played on weekend and holiday evenings by roving groups of estudiantinas. We heard a couple of serenades nearby in our first week.

The GTO area provided the initial spark for the Mexican revolution, which sought freedom from Spanish rule. Miguel Hidalgo was a priest assigned to Dolores, a town 35km NE of Guanajuato. Appalled by the poverty and inequity of the lives of the peóns he encountered in the area, he gave a rallying speech and incited the common men of his parish to rise up and fight with him.

This event on 16 September 1810 is remembered as El Grito de Dolores, the Cry of Dolores. It is the day now celebrated as Mexican Independence Day, although Hidalgo was captured and executed in 1811, and Mexico did not finally throw off Spanish rule until ten years later. The town was later renamed Dolores Hidalgo, and the state of Hidalgo also honors his name.

GTO has its own local hero, known simply by his nickname Pipila (the turkey - something about him reminded people of a hen turkey). When Hidalgo and his ragtag army came to GTO 12 days after El Grito, 400 loyalist troops and sympathizers of Spain went into the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a large grain warehouse, wherein they thought they could withstand the assaults of Hidalgo’s then 20,000 man army, armed mainly with clubs and machetes.

As legend has it, Pipila, a local miner, thought of a way to successfully assault the building. Strapping a long flat rock to his back to defend against missiles from the garrisoned loyalists, he crept to the large wooden door of the building carrying a pot of tar and a torch. Coating the door with pitch and lighting it afire allowed the entry to be breached. Hidalgo’s men entered and killed all inside. A statue of El Pipila and his raised torch now dominates the central district's southern skyline.



Although thousands of revolutionaries had been killed by the loyalists, this did not excuse the barbarity of this execution of loyalists (women and children were among the garrisoned). The act shocked many revolutionary supporters, as did the massive looting of the area that followed. Perhaps Father Hidalgo himself, who could not control his army, had second thoughts about turning his troops loose on other communities.

 

Our Lodging and Observations of City Life

Our apartment was two stories plus a roof terrace - living room, kitchen, study, bath down; three bedrooms and bath up.


 

 
 
Dia de Muertos flowers for decoration

The apartment was convenient to everything but had a small downside. We learned that in Mexican towns, there appears to be no legal right to quiet.

Our lodging was next to a cafe that blared music from outside speakers from 10AM to 1AM. On one side was a callejone that admitted motorbikes. Also, the gracious tradition  of callejoneadas seems to have been co-opted by roving bands of drunken youth, shouting and cavorting along the callejones in the early mornings during festival. One could equate their sound with that of the dogs (several strays seen in town) that we heard barking late into the nights.

We also fronted on a through street on which motorcycle riders would rev and rumble at all hours of the night. They make a terrible racket in the confined spaces of stone and tile building surfaces in the city.

In spite of the unwelcome night noise, I never wore the earplugs I brought. The worst night noises were episodic, and I managed to fall back asleep quickly. Again, some of this was likely drunken behavior related to festival. But living in Guanajuato might be a challenge for those of us who revel in quiet and those others who are light sleepers.

Bottled water was pumped to a spigot on the sink for drinking. All vegetables were rinsed in a tub of water mixed with a small amount of microdyn. In spite of precautions, I got revenged after a week. But Debby had thoughtfully brought us each a prescription of Cipro, which, together with Pepto, knocked it out after only a day.

The view from our roof terrace extended from the University on the west past El Pipila on the south to the Embajadores on the east and beyond to the hills of the northeast.





View Toward NE
View South Toward El Pipila
View Toward GTO University
Top Of Large Laurel in Downstairs Plaza On Catarranas Street, From Rooftop
View From Rooftop
View From Rooftop
View From Rooftop
Cerro de los Leones
GTO is the most bicycle-averse place imaginable. We never saw a bicycle in the vicinity. They would be too dangerous on the narrow surface automobile/walking streets, even more so in the ill-lit tunnels, and entirely useless on hilly, stepped callejones.


Jardin de la Union

The best people watching venue and GTO tourist central is this small triangular plot with border walk, lined with benches and open-air restaurant patios, with an inner border of large old laurel trees.







It was here that two local English-language students stopped us and asked us to help them complete their English assignment, to interview an English-speaking person in English. It was delightful to converse with them.





The Old Ways

One is never too far from the old ways of living here. People still use wood and coal for energy and carry it on animals through town. We also passed three cows in a small triangle of grass in the middle of a busy intersection.



 

Mining 

Several silver mines in the area are still working. We toured the experimental mine run by the University. It serves as both a tourist attraction and a working model for teaching the technical curriculum of geology and minerals extraction. Both students and tourists get to see how mining was performed centuries ago.

El Nopal Experimental and Tourist Mine (with Dal and Donna)
Just up the street from the Templo Valenciana is the Guadalupe Mine, one of the original mines that retains its above ground buildings and now hosts weddings and offers other tourist destination facilities.  

Guadalupe Mine (aka Elephant Mine, now a destination tourist attraction)
We also see tourists involved in silver mining. Here is Debby mining for silver at a shop next to Templo Valenciana.




   
Speaking of Templo Valenciano, here are some details of the church that silver provided. As can be seen, the silver ran out before it was finished.


  

The 43rd Cervantino International Arts Festival

We were in GTO for the final week of 2015 El Cervantino.



From Wikipedia: The origins of the festival are from the mid 20th century, when short plays by Miguel de Cervantes, called entremeses (singular entremés), were performed in the city’s plazas. In 1972, this was expanded with federal support to include more events to add a more international flavor. Since then, FIC has grown to become the most important international artistic and cultural event in Mexico and Latin America, and one of four major events of its type in the world. It is a member of the European Festivals Association and the Asian Association of Theater Festivals. In addition to government support, there are also private corporate sponsors.

We attended three ticketed concerts and availed ourselves of whatever free street performances we happened upon. The first concert was comprised of the top four judged compositions from an International Composition Contest sponsored by the Festival and by the Museo Iconografico del Quijote (the venue for the concert). This sixth contest in the competition series requested compositions of 10-15 minutes length, written for a mixed quartet (piano, violin, cello, clarinet). Overall, the concert was successful for me because it afforded the opportunity to hear these four musicians. They were challenged by the demands of these young composers, but they met every demand with displays of great musicianship.

The first two compositions were too abstract for our limited understanding. They stretched the capabilities of each instrument, employing extended piano performance (prepared piano), bows turned upside down on violin and cello, lots of finger sliding up and down the strings, and a breathing technique on the clarinet that defies my musical description. The two major winners resorted less to such incidental effects. Their music was generally more accessible, to the point that certain passages were enjoyable. Yet all were seemingly mired in the early 20th century atonal idiom, leading me to wonder why, in the academics of music, did this century-old practice become the last word in music?

For something completely different, we next attended a concert of baroque music of Delalande and Telemann, specifically music composed to accompany the King’s supper. The performers were the French group, La Simphonie du Marais, directed by Hugo Reyne. Reyne and his group have done considerable research into Delalande’s music and in 1990 made today's definitive recordings on period instruments. Because Delalande’s published editions only rarely specify scoring for specific instruments, the educated guesses of Reyne greatly influence the sound of these pieces. He introduces percussive effects from both Spain and Asia in the recordings, and one piece (likely a spoof) is a symphony comprised of duck calls.

Our concert was enlivened by a king seated at his virtual dining table, more of Reyne’s light-hearted showmanship. We learned that a man from Germany had attended a rehearsal, was deemed in possession of a regal-enough countenance, and was enlisted to be the evening’s king in residence. They even made him a red paper king hat. The music was s(cr)umptuous, made more so by the Templo Valenciana setting and its golden alter backdrop, truly fit for a king.


Delalande: Supper Music For A King; Templo Valenciana
For yet another something completely different, we visited the Ex Hacienda de San Gabriel de Barrera for our final concert, by the guitar ensemble Ramita de Cedro from the Vera Cruz area. They play Son Jarocho, a style of folk dance music from southern Vera Cruz state (think La Bamba). Toward the end, a downpour scattered the audience from the open patio area, sending us to the covered verandas. The group invited many onto the covered stage. The sun again reappeared as the concert ended.

Ramita de Cedro Performing During Rain, With Audience Members On Stage
Jarocho style dates from the 18th century and combines Spanish, indigenous, and African rhythms, typically a 6/8 rhythm with a 3/4 syncopation.The various guitar-like instruments are likely modeled on variants of instruments that preceded the modern Spanish guitar in the Americas. They are made of cedar, hence the group's name.

Similar to jazz in inspiration, Jarocho music usually is based on a verse with some harmonic structure and rhythmic motif, repeated with improvisation, with intervening chorus, and punctuated with call-response among the singers to liven the performance.

The music is to dance to, and the group has a dancer. The dance utilizes a heel-strike staccato (zapateado), perhaps a precursor to clogging. The movements of the dancer’s upper body were slight, a sinuous and sensual swaying that was enticing to watch (our attention was usually directed toward the dancer). She wore the traditional Vera Cruz white with red and accepted dance partners from the audience as well as from the band.


Come Fandango With Me
Impromptu music is provided in town by mariachi groups, year-round on weekends and holidays along the Jardin Union walkway lined with open air restaurants. Also, musical acts frequent cafes such as Midi, upstairs in Casa Cuatro off Plaza del Baratillo, where we had drinks and heard some more Son Jarocho (sans dancer). The food there looked great also.

An open-air cafe by Juarez Theater sometimes offered live music in the day, as well as tasty sangria. Dal and Donna, friends of Mary and Ken, visited for a few days from Baja while we were there. Dal, a jazz guitarist, heard an accomplished jazz tenor sax player entertaining at this cafe and asked if he could sit in. The sax player agreed to bring a guitar the following day. They played well together on many old standards.
 

Our overall impression is that El Cervantino may be outgrowing its venue. The streets were so packed that one could barely move. The mayor brought in a contingent of ‘Federales' to assist the municipal police, although they seemed called on to do little except perhaps mediate behavior by their visible presence.

This year, the festival seemed to go smoothly in spite of crowds. We found the people very polite, even when cars attempted to push through the crowded streets. No harsh words were overheard. So we would happily return. But we think the future might become problematic.

One jewelry shop owner we talked to said he was forced to close his shop in the evenings because he was unable to prevent theft due to the large numbers of people entering his store. We are sure his experience is not unique. This problem seems to offset the civic benefits of the festival.


Faced with controlling increasingly growing crowds going forward, perhaps festival towns like GTO will pool their experience and devise successful crowd controls. The festival attendance is quite young, and at night, judging from the noise we heard, likely some portion is quite drunk. As always, sadly there is risk that a small, hell-bent element will be attracted to, and can often succeed in, co-opting a large, well-meant gathering, whether it be a political protest or an arts festival.


Public Art

There are bronze sculptures throughout the city, both abstract and commemorating historical figures and colonial life.

Teatro Juarez Scene - Unlikely Bedfellows


 
Diego Rivera (and Innocent Bystander)

 
Jorge Negrete (and Female Admirer)



























GTO also boasts a number of large bronzes from surrealist artist and sculptor Leonora Carrington.







This photo by the University steps shows posters of the 43 missing students from Guerrero State who were disappeared, reportedly through collusion between criminal gangs and local officials.



Other Carrington sculptures are found in the GTO Museum of Modern Art.






We went to the Diego Rivera museum, located in his childhood home. The house is itself an exhibit of his early lifestyle, and the upper floors have some of his early work on display. There is also an exhibit on the history of calculators, an odd juxtaposition.

Rivera Museum Exhibit

Dia de Muertos
 

Closely following the end of El Cervantino is Dia de Muertos, a Mexican national holiday. Originally, in ancient indigenous culture, there was a month-long celebration in summer. Colonialism transformed it into a syncretic Catholic holiday aligned with All Souls Day. Families gather at the cemetery, some traditionally spending all night. Marigold is the flower of the day.

The eve of Dia de Muertos saw a lighting of candles on the University steps by students in Muertos masks.



A parade with larger than life Catrina figures (fashionably-dressed skeletons) winds through town.













Many stalls in Plaza de la Paz sell sugar skulls and Catrina figures, aka scary sweets.





The streets are then decorated with ephemeral art done in seeds and other natural materials, colored as needed. Although very elaborate, they last only for the day, or until the first rain, perhaps mimicking the brevity of life itself.






 


My favorite street creation offered an insightful metaphor: life is a mask that death wears, or as the art itself describes its subject, Death Disguised as Life.




Food

Mary is an experienced cook of Mexican cuisine and did a lot of our cooking and shopping. Her tomatillo sauce and soups were amazing. A shop around the corner had fresh bolillos each morning, and a vegetable shop on Baratillo Plaza had fresh strawberries for our breakfasts. Mary found a vegetable stall lady that provided avocados and papayas at the just the ripeness for immediate use, a valuable asset.

Mary is also connoisseur of mole, which means simply sauce. It is a national Mexican heritage whose origin is not known. There are many different kinds, of which Mary mentioned red (poblano), verde (tomatillo), and pipián (pumpkin seed; can be red or green). Most varieties contain just enough chocolate to quench the fire of the chiles, but not enough to dominate the flavor. Pipián does not contain chocolate.

Most mole sauces can be made using pre-prepared dry ingredients, as with curries. Mary’s mole source sells dry mole spices from a building with a simple wooden door and no markings. Even knowing where she is, finding her open for business was a challenge (reminds me of 'knock three times and whisper low ...').


Mary prepared a delicious red mole that was served over chicken. She explained to me how to make various kinds of mole, but I will need a review lesson. Mole sauces can contain over 20 separate ingredients, and it is a two phase process.

There are many restaurants in town. Several we tried serve dishes with heavy red sauce, so a fish dish looks like a chicken dish looks like an enchilada dish. The ones I tried tasted somewhat alike. We visited a couple of restaurants that had lighter, less formulaic fare: Cafe Santo (I liked their crepes and went back twice) and Los Campos (their chile relleno was made with a dry chile).
 


Hiking to Panoramica and Beyond

Dal suggested a morning walk up to Panoramica. We used no map, but explored the callejones that headed upwards and arrived at the view street with only having to retrace once from a dead-end. Inspired by this walk, I did another on my own, exploring a longer stretch of Panoramica with my camera.


GTO Valley looking WSW
El Pipila and Basilica
South Toward El Pipila, With Funicular Tracks to Panoramica (not operational)
Later, Ken and I took a bus up to the reservoir Presa de la Olla, and then took a path up the big hill behind. We wanted to get to the top, but the poor trail helped us to mutually decide there was too much risk for the expected reward. We retraced and found a road that went up a ways to an observation platform, offering good views. The University is visible slightly right of center, marking the location of Centro Historico.

Wide GTO View From Cerro de los Leones Above Presa de la Olla
Cerro de los Leones
Just above the platform, I had a moment of carelessness and allowed my camera strap to slide off my shoulder. The camera bounced perhaps five times down a steep rock embankment, coming to rest in grass at the base of a small tree. If the tree hadn’t been there, the camera would still be bouncing down.

The first picture I attempted with the retrieved camera was of Ken standing with fingers crossed. Amazingly, it worked as new. The battery door and lens hood casualties simply popped back on. Thank you, Nikon. Very impressive build quality.



I convinced Ken to follow the road all the way back down to the bus stop, from appearance a far safer way to descend than the goat trail we came up. This meant we had to climb through barbed wire past a gate with a sign stating prohibited entry in large lettering, and then more barbed wire and a drop from a five foot wall at the bottom street.

Just as Ken mentioned that he was concerned there might be dogs, two dogs began barking as they ran through the brush toward us. But they were small and just curious, and paid us no attention.

 

San Miguel de Allende

Debby and Mary took a day trip to San Miguel de Allende, a popular tourist town over an hour’s bus ride from GTO. It is where ex-pats congregate; many have homes there (up to 10% of the population has USA-Canadian roots).
 

It is popular because San Miguel is one of Mexico's most beautiful cities, a mecca for artists and musicians, offering great restaurants, galleries, museums, and shopping (but not bargain prices). It is easy to get around; unlike GTO, San Miguel is laid out in regular square blocks of cobblestone streets.

Gothic Inspiration

Artistically Decorated Doors
Peaceful Inner Courtyard
Restaurant With Art Decor

 Examples From Artists' Studios:
























Home Again

On returning from San Miguel, Debby and Mary took a cab back from the bus station and Debby arranged with the cab driver to pick us up the next day and drive us back to the airport. Ken, our fluent Spanish speaker, called him to ensure it was going to happen. The driver showed up with his female cousin, also a taxi driver (very unusual in Mexico), and they got us to the plane on time. We thought it was smart that the two relatives decided to drive together and catch up on family affairs during the drive.

Our plane was late, compressing our allotted time slot for customs in Dallas. But we made it and even had time for a hamburger in Dallas. I had my heart set on a big fancy burger, but Debby said we only had time for a McDonald's. Sigh.

We picked up Moby the following morning. It took him a couple of days to adjust to being back home, and to snap out of what appeared to be depression. Either he was sad to leave his new family and friends, or he was sad because he really thought he had lost us, or probably both. It was too long a first absence to inflict on a five month-old puppy. But he has since gotten back to his old self.



Random Remembrances 

Sidewalks Grow Businesses

Buenos Tardes

A School Near Our Apartment

New Shawl Crafted in Guanajuato

Baratillo Plaza Flower Lady

Nice Wall

Hacienda Flowers

Having a Good Day

Coffee Junkie

Waiting For Lunch Table

Vegetable Stall at Mercado Hidalgo

Turistas

New Rug Crafted in Oaxaca

Templo de San Francisco At Night

Plaza del Baratillo At Night


Balcony Art

Another Town, Another Bar




Waiting At Stand For Crepe with Fresa and Crema


Cafe Tal Art
Dia de Muertos Art
Santuario de Guadalupe
Templo San Diego Organ

Templo San Diego Interior

Templo San Diego Front Detail