The dead-quiet aftermath

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All that remains of the artisan market on Monday was the canvas roof circling the plaza.

I WAS A FAN of the Day of the Dead long before I moved to Mexico.

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Catrina

There was a ceramic Catrina that stood on the bathroom counter in my Houston condo on Braes Bayou. I had purchased it at a Mexican artisan shop in a trendy area called The Heights. The place was owned by a real Mexican who charged me $200 for it.

When I moved down here, I discovered the same thing was easily available for the peso equivalent of $20 U.S., so I wuz robbed.

It was sheer coincidence that I moved to what is likely the most famous Day of the Dead town in Mexico. Oaxaca gives us competition. Never been there.

When I moved here 19 Days of the Dead ago, there was, and still is, an artisan market on our big plaza. It was haphazard, poorly organized, and many of the offerings were sheer crap that you might find in a Five & Dime.

Things have really changed. The artisan market years back was open to the vagaries of the weather, i.e. rain. Now the whole shebang sports a canvas roof. And the offerings have improved 100 percent. The junk is gone, and spectacular, high-quality goods are on sale. You should see it.

It lasts a week, going up the weekend before the Day of the Dead and coming down the weekend after.

* * * *

Two ways to do it.

We have two ways to experience Los Muertos, as the Day of the Dead is called in Spanish: the traditional and the carnival, what I call Party Hearty. The latter appears to be the more popular option, which is unfortunate.

To experience the traditional, visitors have many options. There are numerous small towns and villages in the area where residents do what’s long been done. They clean up the cemetery, decorate the graves with flowers, mostly marigolds, light candles and sit through the night, the theory being that the spirits of the departed return to visit.

What this produces is an eerie, incredibly beautiful, silent scene. It’s what takes place in my neighborhood cemetery, which we’ve visited on the Big Night a number of times, but not the last two years out of laziness. It’s walking distance from the Hacienda, which is great since traffic in the area all week, and especially on the Big Night, is beyond belief.

The second way to experience Los Muertos is Party Hearty, and it goes like this: You go to the island of Janitzio, which floats out in our large lake. The only way to get there is via motor launch. For some reason, Janizio is incredibly famous throughout Mexico and beyond for Los Muertos, even though their cemetery is like other cemeteries, and the locals do what locals do at other cemeteries.

I think it’s the novelty of the boat ride and the fact that it’s an island that’s given Janizio its celebrity. But whatever it is, tourists flock there is droves, mobs, hordes, incredible quantities of people. And they visit the Janitzio cemetery and more. There is music, dancing, food! And all is experienced while rubbing elbows with swarms of other sightseers.

It is not an “authentic” representation of the Night of the Dead. It’s a party. If you want a party, go to Janitzio. If you want to have a more traditional experience, go to one of the other villages. There are quite a few. But traffic will be bad wherever you go on the Big Night.

The artisan market on the big plaza of my mountaintop town lasted till Sunday. The next day, I drove downtown. Most of the tourists had fled. The vendors on the plaza had packed up and gone. It was peaceful again, as I prefer it.

* * * *

The aftermath

I sat with a café negro Americano and a sugar donut, looked toward the plaza and shot the photo at the top. The only thing remaining of the jam-packed artisan market was the canvas roof that will come down this week.

Later I walked to my car, which was parked just two blocks away on the street you see below, drove home and breathed a sigh of relief that peace has returned till next year. The market will appear again on Easter Week. The crowds will be big, but not quite so big as Los Muertos, and there will not be two ways to do it.

Just one. It involves Jesus.

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Walking back to my car, two blocks from the plaza, amid the sounds of silence.

That time of year

RETURNING WEDNESDAY from three nights on the road, it dawned on me that it’s that time of year. It hadn’t seemed so obvious when we departed Sunday morning.

That time is the season shift, which is pretty stark here on the mountaintop. The rains have gone — we may still get a surprise, but it doesn’t matter — and I need to water yard plants, a chore.

I have no warm spot in my heart for chores.

And the hour changes next weekend in a good direction. I can never keep it straight which is correct, and which is man-made.

The end of Rains from On High comes almost always with the arrival of the Day of the Dead. Perhaps there is some celestial connection.

Candy-Skull-01b-1As some passers-by know, my mountaintop is one of Mexico’s hot spots for the Day of the Dead.

After so many years here, I’ve grown a bit weary of it, jaded, mostly due to the tons of tourists.

After 18 years in New Orleans, long ago, I had also grown weary of Mardi Gras, another massive tourist draw. But it’s good for the economy, and I love capitalism so very much.

It gives one the opportunity to be a One-Percenter, something communism does not do and socialism discourages. Even though I am not a One-Percenter, I want that path open for me, for everyone.

It’s only fair.

So get in your car and drive up here. Bring cash for hotels, tacos, sugar skulls and souvenirs. The enormous tree-lined plaza will be full of art, some quite stunning, lovely and affordable.

On the Big Night, head out to one of the cemeteries to marvel at the candles, the marigolds, the old women in rebozos, the men with tequila, lime and salt, the babies crawling about. The spirit guests.

Some of the cemeteries have surrendered to tourism. Others haven’t yet. Your task is the find the latter, avoid the former.

* * * *

Yes, we just returned from three nights away. We had planned for months to spend this week at Palenque, down in the Maya area of Chiapas. But at the last moment, we just did not want to.

So we got into the Honda and drove four hours to Mazamitla in the State of Jalisco, just south of Lake Chapala. Mazamitla is a mountain town that puts on airs of being Alpine. Lots of wood and A-frames.

A Mexican Twin Peaks without the weirdos.

We spent two nights in the Hotel Huerta Real, and decided Tuesday morning to drive the short distance north of Lake Chapala to spend a night in Ajijic, a place absolutely crawling with Gringos, mostly of the geriatric variety. We slept at the Hotel Casa Blanca.

There are two famous places in Mexico where Gringos love to gather. San Miguel de Allende is one, and Ajijic is another. I’ve spent many nights in San Miguel, but this was only my second in Ajijic.

The best reason to go to one of these Gringo havens is the abundance of good restaurants. In Ajijic we discovered the Meson Don Quijote, which is run by an actual Spanish gentleman.

I am a fan of paella, which is a Spanish dish, not Mexican as some less-swift people sometimes think. My second ex-wife and I ate superlative paella often at a Spanish restaurant in Houston.

Since moving over the Rio Bravo almost 16 years ago, I’ve encountered paella occasionally on menus. I have ordered it three or four times, and it’s always been disappointing. Mexicans cannot cook paella.

But there we were, standing in the lovely patio of the Meson Don Quijote talking to the Spaniard owner, when I saw paella on the menu. I decided to risk it once again. Call me crazy.

It was very good paella. Not quite what the Spanish joint in Houston served, but it easily merited four stars out of five.

While conversing of food, let us back up a bit, to Mazamitla where I had a culinary religious experience at a place called La Troje. The religious experience manifested itself in salmon. Yes, fish.

We had lunch at La Troje both days. The first day, by pure luck, I ordered that salmon and, Good Lord Almighty, that was some fine salmon.

If you ever find yourself at La Troje, know there are two styles of salmon on the menu. One is called Mediterranean, which is what I ordered. The other is called something else. I do not remember.

* * * *

And we’re home again. The salmon is gone, and so is Twin Peaks. Gringo-crowded Ajijic, which sounds like a spice, likely won’t be visited for another decade. And I may never eat paella again.

* * * *

A tip of the sombrero to Bonnie and Bill Garrison who pointed me toward Mazamitla, the Hotel Huerta Real and La Troje restaurant.

The blooming rain

aloe vera

THE INTERMINABLE rain should begin winding down in about a month. It started in June, as it almost always does and should, and it’s continued daily till now and onward. It’s a blessing.

But in September, one starts to think: Enough already.

Every year the yard plants increase in size, which is not good most of the time, especially since I’ve grown weary of controlling them. Take this aloe vera, for instance. When we moved here in 2003, I snipped a twig from an aloe vera in the yard of the rental where we lived before.

I stuck that twig in the soil next to the downstairs veranda. It grew. How nice, I thought, so I yanked off some pieces and stuck one against the property wall between us and the neighbors, not the sex motel, the other way where the grumpy people live with their nasty kids.

Another piece went into the ground next to the bedroom. That’s the “twig” in this photo. Just around the corner, out of the photo, is where I planted the fourth twig. It is the smallest of the quartet. But growing.

Well, here’s what happened: The one next to the veranda had to be removed last year due to its monster size, which reminds me now of what my second ex-wife, an avid gardener, often mentioned. When you plant something in a spot, think about its eventual size.

Neglect this step, and you may be sorry in time.

The one against the property wall grows daily, but it’s still smaller than this baby in the photo. I chop off a limb or two each year in part just to show it who’s boss, that it’s my bitch, not the other way around.

In the 1990s, I planted a little aloe vera next to my house in Houston. It never did a dang thing, just sat there like a wart on a log. I also planted a nopal cactus in a whisky barrel. Never did much either, and my then-wife removed it after she kicked me out because it was unfavorable feng shui, which is not something you want to mess with, she said.

Here at the Hacienda some years back, I planted a little piece of nopal. It’s now about 18 bristling feet high. I know squat about its feng shui, but it is not something you want to mess with either. Wish I had not planted it.

But the rain will end next month, which is the introduction to our most glorious period: November, which kicks off with a long night in the cemetery with candles, marigolds and memories of dead relatives.