Our First, and Last, Bullfight

(If you cannot tolerate cruelty to animals, read no further. ).

Growing up, and I date myself here, I loved James Michener’s books – Hawaii, Centennial, The Source, Texas,  – so imagine my delight when I was able to trade for two James Michener books at a camp ground a few weeks ago. One of the books was The Drifters, a Michener book I vaguely recall, which was about 60’s era trust-funder hippies drifting around Europe. Karen remembers absolutely loving it when she read it at the impressionable age of sixteen. After re-reading The Drifters, I told Karen two things: i) do not re-read this book; preserve your memories; ii) The Drifters has aged about as well as bell-bottoms.

The second Michener book was Mexico, which I had never read before. Mexico is not a great, or even a good book; this may be a strong statement, but the writing is poor – high school-ish. Ah well, despite all, Michener will still live in my memory as a great author.

Notwithstanding the poor writing, and more to the point of this blog, the book Mexico uses a bullfight as the main arc throughout the book; a good third of the book is about the intricacies of bullfighting. So when I saw a bullfighting poster in St Cristobal, I felt like I had to go.

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We had also made some new friends at the St Cristobal campground, one of whom, Juan, had been to a few bullfights before, and they wanted to go as well; so on Easter Sunday, off we went.

From right: H, Juan, Erin, and Linda

From right: H, Juan, Aron, and Linda

The stadium, ring ?, was small and intimate; even the cheapest seats were only a meters away from the bulls and toreros. And few gringos were on hand.

The Toreros enter - this is not a large stadium

The Toreros enter – this is not a large stadium

The picadores enter the ring. Note the blindfolded horses

The picadores enter the ring. Note the blindfolded horses

The program called for three toreros, or matadors de toros ( no-one who knows anything about bullfighting calls them toreados – that is only in the opera Carmen… ), each of which would get two bulls, for a total of six bulls.

Here’s how a bullfight goes: the subalternos (the torero helpers) get a few passes with the bull while the torero, whose bull it is, studies how the bull moves.

A subalterno practices his cape moves

A subalterno practices his cape moves

The torero may take a few passes himself during this warmup period.

The bull is then “led” to where it will attack the horses of the picadors; when the bull attacks, the picador will drive his spear into the neck of the bull weakening the bull’s muscles in a way such that the bull cannot fully keep his head up, or fully attack the torero.

The picador uses his spear to weaken the bull

The picador uses his spear to weaken the bull

Next comes the bandilleros, the multi-colored spears which are placed into the neck / shoulder of the bull to cause the bull pain, and further weaken his shoulder muscles.

The bandilleros are inserted. ( This subalterno was almost caught by the bull...)

The bandilleros are inserted. ( This subalterno was almost caught by the bull…)

Now that the bull is prepared, the torero steps into the ring. The torero will trick the bull into attacking his red mantel for two reasons: to further study how the bull moves, and to wear the bull out. This is the part of the bullfight that can be exciting, artistic, and frankly beautiful.

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But, once the torero understands how the bull moves, and the bull is tired enough, time has come to kill the bull. In a perfect world, the torero inserts his sword in a ways such that it severs the spinal cord of the bull, and the bull dies instantly. In the real world, this rarely happens.

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(The above is NOT how to do it)

Instead the torero makes multiple attempts at the perfect thrust, but fails, and the bull is eventually killed by an accumulation of imperfect thrusts and/or a knife stabbed into his spinal cord. I don’t care what Papa Hemingway thought or wrote. This is not death with honor – the bull has no f…ing clue what is going on.

Karen left after the first bull, but I decided to stay and at least watch each torero with one bull. I’m glad I did. The third torero started well.

The 3rd torero starts well - hand on hip, great posture. Muy machismo

The 3rd torero starts well – hand on hip, great posture. Muy machismo

But, after a few passes, the bull caught the torero a glancing blow with his horns and ripped his pants open.

Hard to look macho when your ass is hanging out...

Hard to look macho when your ass is hanging out… Is the bull chuckling?

Then, on the next pass, the torero lost his shoes.

Great face - but bare feet.

Great face – but bare feet.

At his point in time, some of the ladies who were seated behind us starting chanting “Otra ropa! Otra ropa!”. (Other clothing!).

Despite his diminishing set of clothing, the torero continued on. And with style – the crowd awarded him an ear of his bull as a token of a job well done.

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I do not regret going to a bullfight – now I know what I am talking about – but I will never go to another one. Overall it is not an artistic experience; it is animal cruelty, and the way it is performed should be stopped. To me, the sublime moments of the bullfight, and there are quite a few, can be preserved without killing a beautiful animal in a cruel and clumsy way

The Burning of Judas

The night before Easter Sunday, the Burning of Judas takes place in St Cristobal de las Casas. We had imagined this ceremony to be similar to the one we saw in Alamos during the start of Lent; it was, but tangentially.

Prior to the Burning of Judas event, there were Mayan dancers on the square

Prior to the Burning of Judas event, there were Mayan dancers on the square

The dancers

The dancers

The expectant crowd. We were wondering why they didn't try and get much closer

The expectant Burning of Judas crowd. We were wondering why they didn’t try to get much closer

In St Cristobal instead of burning Judas, they burn numerous effigies, where the effigies represent something “bad”, eg political corruption, oil dependency, environmental destruction of rivers, et al. The team-built effigies are large papier mache sculptures with a twist: the sculptures are filled with firecrackers and fireworks…

One of the effigies - it spoke to oil corruption

One of the effigies – it spoke to oil corruption

There were 10 effigies in all

There were 10 effigies in all

Now I’m sure that each effigy team had a plan for how they were going to light their effigy, and then how it was going to subsequently burn and, most fun of all, light off the firecrackers and fireworks in a orderly fashion ending in a spectacular crescendo.

Lighting the first one went OK, but note the sparks flying into the crowd

Lighting the first one went OK, but note the sparks flying into the crowd

The effigies burn!

The effigies burn!

Well, that didn’t happen.

Lighting the second one started well...

Lighting the second one started well…

The first flaw was likely due to over-enthusiasm: given the size of the crowd, and the one hour delay in getting started, each team was rather pumped up, and poured a liberal dose of gasoline over their effigy so it would start well.

The second, and more fatal flaw, was due to the spacing of the effigies: a distance of 3 feet is no match for the flames coming from a paiper mache sculpture drenched in gasoline (with large pieces being blown into the air as its firecrackers exploded, and fireworks shooting in every direction) , to light its neighbor papier mache sculpture on fire.

But then, the two adjoining ones caught fire as well

But then, the two adjoining ones caught fire as well

The smoldering remains

The smoldering remains

As the effigies were exploding, Karen was crouching down and covering her head with her scarf. As the rockets were bouncing off the building behind us, then landing amongst the crowd, and as the firefighters were pushing the crowd of 1,000s back from the effigies, I was happy that I was at least wearing my glasses as eye protection.

But all’s well that ends well; as far as we could tell, no one was seriously injured. With all the travel warnings that are on the US State Department’s travel website about Mexico, the Burning of Judas was by far and away the most dangerous thing we have experienced in this beautiful country…

Semana Santa – Easter Week

Mexican travels

Mexican travels

K and I are in San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of the Mexican state Chiapas, not far away from Guatemala. San Cristobal is known, amongst other things, for its indigenous population, the indigenous villages which surround it, and for being the locus for the revolutionary Zapatistas, and their Che Guevara-esque leader Subcommandante Marcos. The Zapatistas, who started a brief revolution on 1994, are still alive and around in this area, but have lost much of their power.

We will be staying here through Easter Sunday in order to enjoy the city and its surroundings, to take in a bullfight (Easter Sunday), and to experience Semana Santa, Easter Week, in the second largest Catholic country in the world, after Brazil.

For us, Semana Santa started on Wednesday when K and I went on an organized tour of two of the indigenous villages close to San Cristobal: San Juan de Chamula and Zinacantan. Chamula is inhabited by the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people, and is similar to a US indian reservation – the inhabitants of Chamula have a great deal of autonomy. The inhabitants also have a unique religion, incorporating a blend of Catholicism, Mayan beliefs, and shamans. When we visited them on Wednesday, they were in the process of preparing their saints – I believe they have 128 of them, derived from the catholic church. Each saint has a spiritual leader assigned to him/her, and along with the spiritual leader, a related group of people. Preparation involves many rituals, most of which I did not understand, but also involves cleaning the statue of the saint, cleaning and ironing his/her clothes, burning of much incense, vast quantities of fireworks, and drinking of much alcohol !!

The Chamula procession is about ot leave the church

The Chamula procession is about to leave the church

The Yeti like coats are very traditional - coats for men, skirts for women

The Yeti like coats are very traditional – coats for men, skirts for women

The procession underway. No more photos allowed (see the elder on the left...)

The procession underway. No more photos allowed (see the elder on the left waving us off…)

The religious beliefs in the village of Zinacantan, even though its only 15 min down the road, are different, as is the clothing and the rituals. Here we were fortunate enough to see a procession which brought a few of the saints our for a tour of the church plaza. I’m not sure if this was directly related to Semana Santa, or if the saints were brought out to quell unrest in the village and restore harmony – apparently this is done as required during the year.

The procession walked on a path made of pine needles and rose petals - very pretty

The procession walked on a path made of pine needles and rose petals – very pretty

For some reason, the faces of the saints were covered

The faces of the saints were covered in order to protect them from the devil.

No yeti coats here...

No yeti coats here…

A bier containing Jesus

A bier containing Jesus

That was Wednesday; today is Good Friday, or Long Friday as we say in Sweden, the saddest day in the liturgical calendar. Give how Catholic Mexico is, I was surprised that all the shops and markets were open, I had expected everything to be closed.

The market was open for business

The market was open for business

A pickup full of dried fish. Didn't buy, nor taste, any, but the smell was rather strong

A pickup full of dried fish. Didn’t buy, nor taste – the smell spoke for itself

Starting at 9 am, there were processions carrying statues of Jesus, Mary, and various saints, through San Cristobal. Apparently there was also a live re-enactment of Jesus’ path up to Golgoha – horses, Roman soldiers et al – but we missed that one. The processions we did see, there are numerous ones, sang as they walked down the streets, and would stop at shrines that people had put up along the streets, or at important corners, where the pastor would say a few words before the procession moved on.

One of the processions

One of the processions

Jesus
Jesus

Jesus and Mother Mary

Jesus and Mother Mary

Not quite sure who the saint with the wine glass is. Any Catholics reading the blog?

Not quite sure who the saint with the wine glass is. Any Catholics reading the blog?

Shrine along one of the streets

Shrine along one of the streets

The religious festivities continue, I’m curious to see what Sunday brings. Although one thing I know Sunday brings is a bullfight – should be interesting…

We're going!

We’re going!

Oaxaca – Just For Marcy…

One of our faithful readers, Marcy, made a comment on a previous post, a post related to the town of Oaxaca. Marcy’s comment said, in part: “oh more more more on Oaxaca!”… So, in a shameless attempt to suck up to those of our readers who make the effort to comment, here’s more on Oaxaca.

First, let me describe where we stayed. Our home for the eight days we were in Oaxaca was the Overland Oasis, a park owned and operated by Leanne and Calvin, a Canadian couple. Leanne and Calvin have spent the last six or so years living in their 1957 bus. Roughly a year ago, they bought a piece of property in Tule, right outside (as in a 10 peso collectivo ride) of Oaxaca. Leanne and Calvin’s house is built around, literally around, their bus. And next to their house, The Overland Oasis has room for three, maybe four, small vehicles.

We had a great time with Leanne and Calvin and the other overlanders / guests that were there at the time.

Build a house around your bus...

Build a house around your bus…

Our spot - the Casa is in the background

Our spot – the Casa is in the background

Potluck with the other Overlanders and guests

Potluck with the other Overlanders and guests

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The after-dinner fire

Oaxaca kind of has it all – culture, markets, booze, works of art, food. The previous post showed pics from the markets in the small towns surrounding Oaxaca, and some of the superb street food. Here are additional pics showing some of the other attractions.

We stumbled upon a wedding about to take place in the central cathedral.

We stumbled upon a wedding about to take place in the central cathedral.

To celebrate the event, a mariachi band and a trio of dancers were hired

To celebrate the event, a mariachi band and a trio of dancers were hired

You try dancing with something like that on your head

You try dancing with something like that on your head

The happy, newly-married, couple

The happy, newly-married, couple

Surrounding Oaxaca are small villages specializing in different types of folk art. In one of the villages, Rosario gave us a great tour of how she and her family make traditional weaving – everything from how the wool is spun, dyed, and woven. Luckily we do not have a house at this time, otherwise we could have easily spent a few thousand dollars on some of the gorgeous weavings.

Rosario instructing Karen on how to spin ( not very successfully, I might add...)

Rosario instructing Karen on how to spin ( not very successfully, I might add…)

Showing the different plants and animals used to dye the wool

Showing the different plants and animals used to dye the wool

Another small village specializes in making Mezcal – a cousin of Tequila. As we drove into the small village, the Mezcal distilleries were lined up on both sides of the road. Of course, we had to buy some.

There are 30+ places like this in a village that may have 1,000 inhabitants

There are 30+ places like this in a village that may have 1,000 inhabitants

El Famoso ? Not so much

El Famoso ? Not so much

The high-tech process

The high-tech process

In another direction, no more than 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca, are the ruins of Monte Alban, a pre-hispanic mountain top fortress / village, that dates back to 500 BC. Very cool. Also, little known fact, an etching of Monte Alban graces the 20 peso note.

Parts of the site. Compare to 20 peso note...

Parts of the site. Compare to 20 peso note…

Our guide, Abraham, explaining parts of the site to K

Our guide, Abraham, explaining parts of the site to K

K and H inside one of the tombs that were excavated on site

K and H inside one of the tombs that were excavated on site

There you have it, Marcy. Get your plastic out, buy a ticket, and go – you won’t regret it.

Oh, and after you tire of the markets, weddings, culture, weaving, Mezcal, and unique archaeological ruins,  Oaxaca lies only 250 km from some beautiful beaches. Though to be truthful, the 250 km took us almost 6 hours to drive. As k d lang used to sing: constant curving. But it was worth it when we arrived.

Note the scale of our GPS - 300 m !! That is one curvy road

Note the scale of our GPS – 300 m !! That is one curvy road

We pulled up to this palapa restaurant on the beach and stayed for free, in exchange for eating dinner at the restaurant

We pulled up to this palapa restaurant on the beach and stayed for free, in exchange for eating dinner at the restaurant

Happy hour site. Not sure of we were in a Corona, or Cialis commercial

Happy hour site. Not sure if we were in a Corona, or Cialis commercial

Say goodnight Marcy...

Say goodnight Marcy…

One Border – Two Very Different Countries

We are currently in Oaxaca – in the southwest of Mexico.

Our travels, so far

Our travels, so far

We spent the last week in Teotithuacan, site of some of the largest pyramids built-in pre-hispanic Mexico, and then Mexico City itself. Mexico City, by the way, was not at all what I expected: there was hardly any smog, the traffic was manageable, the streets were clean – a great visit !

Oaxaca is known for its food, its indigenous population and their cultures, crafts, and folk arts. Karen and I love the city and the surrounding area, and, as has become a hallmark of this Mexican trip, we have extended our stay, and will be in the area for around two weeks.

If you are in Mexico, we highly recommend Oaxaca, but that’s not what I wanted to write about. Since we entered Mexico, and in particular since we left the beautiful beaches and headed inland, Karen and I have been discussing whether there is anywhere in the world where one border separates two so dissimilar countries. Sure, crossing any border takes you from one country to the next. But. You have border crossings like US / Canada, or Sweden / Norway, where yes, the countries are different, but not that much. And then there is the US / Mexico border. Wow.

Mexico and the US are just so different – culture, people. income levels, cleanliness, traffic, food, markets. This is Karen’s second visit to Mexico; her first was a spring break trip in college to Cancun (or Miami Beach with a different Spanish accent…). If you, dear reader, have no other experience of Mexico than Cancun, then, as Bachman Turner Overdrive would say: You ain’t seen nothing yet. Come to Oaxaca.

I should point out that when I say Mexico is different, that different does not imply bad. Many times, different implies good, and as some previous blog posts have described, there are  places in Mexico where we have spontaneously said: “We could live here” – we’ve added Oaxaca to that list.

Here are some pictures showing the difference – the pics are from the Friday market in Ocotlan, and the Sunday market in Tlacolula – small villages close to Oaxaca. Can you imagine these markets in the US?

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Shopping for veggies

Bread

Bread…

A meat stand. I love the meat, but do have a hard time looking at it...

Meat… (I love the meat, but do have a hard time looking at it…)

Buying flip flops

Flip Flops…

Birds...

Birds…

As always, the street food is great…

Street food

Street food

A tostada - street food

A tostada – street food

The meat aisle

The meat aisle

After you buy your meat, you can have it grilled on the spot

After you buy your meat, you can have it grilled on the spot

Som of the indigenous faces…

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The differences are extraordinary, and we are lucky that Mexico is so close. Hopefully more Americans will look past the grim news about the drug violence and come visit this amazing country.

Mariposas

If you haven’t seen the episode in the BBC series Life that shows the Monarch Butterflies, stop reading. Do not pass Go. Rent the episode, watch it, then come back and read the rest of this blog post. (For those of you who are too lazy, here’s a link to a brief video…)

The Monarch butterfly. Tthe two black dots on the smaller wings shows that the one on the left is a male.

The Monarch butterfly. Tthe two black dots on the smaller wings shows that the one on the left is a male.

The Monarch butterfly has the craziest life-cycle migration scheme of any butterfly, perhaps of any animal. Here’s roughly what the life cycle looks like for the Monarchs that winter in Mexico:

1   Around the spring, vernal, equinox, the Monarchs leave their winter home on Mexico and fly to South and North Carolina, where the females lay their eggs. And then die.

2   The new generation flies to their summer homes in Canada, where the females lay their eggs. And then die.

3   Another generation of females lay their eggs in Canada. And then die.

4   The new generation, the 3rd, at times the 4th one, leaves Canada around October and fly to a very small area in the Sierra Madres of Mexico. Here, millions, perhaps billions of butterflies hang out together in colonies over the winter. Then when spring comes, and the weather warms up, they mate, and the cycle starts over again.

Just amazing: a migration that lasts over 3 to 4 generations, no one butterfly will make the whole journey, and with widely varying lifespans. The generation that is born in Canada, migrates to Mexico, mates, and then migrates to the Carolinas has to do most of the flying work, but on the other hand, this generation gets to live for 8 to 9 months. The other generations have lifespans in the 1 to 2 month range.

The Sierra Madres

The Sierra Madres

Beautiful, curvy road. The butterfly reserve is at 3,000 m.

Beautiful, curvy road. The butterfly reserve is at 3,000 m.

Our pictures of the Monarchs do not come close to conveying what it’s like to see millions of butterflies huddled together, and then, as the sun heats them up, and the wind picks up every so slightly, see hundreds of thousands of butterflies milling around in the air. As Karen said: “This may be the most magical thing we have seen on our travels!” Click on the picture below to blow them up, it’s worth it.

The Monarch cluster in bunches

The Monarch cluster in bunches

Close up of one of many bunches

Close up of one of many bunches

What looks like orange moss is butterfly stacked next to butterfly

What looks like orange moss is butterfly stacked next to butterfly

A Monarch bar scene...

A Monarch bar scene…

We took some video as well, but are having difficulty uploading it to the blog. Stay tuned…

Our “camp site” for the night was right outside the entrance to the Butterfly Reserve (a World Heritage Site), parked in front of Veronica and Alejandro’s palapa style restaurant. The site was a dirt parking lot for the locals who work at the restaurants outside the reserve. In exchange for eating dinner at her restaurant, Veronica had no problem with us parking in front.

We parked there together with a Canadian couple we had met in Patzcuaro – nice to have company for the evening, and we hiked in to see the butterflies together the next day.

Parked next to Veronica's and Alejandro's restaurant

Parked next to Veronica’s and Alejandro’s restaurant

Veronica's restaurant. Note the wood fired stove on the right

Veronica’s restaurant. Note the wood fired stove on the right

The stove is a cut-in-half oil barrel with a welded on flat surface. The fire is inside the barrel - the flat surface is where all the cooking is done.

The stove is a cut-in-half oil barrel with a welded on flat surface. The fire is inside the barrel – the flat surface is where all the cooking is done. Chicken milanesa is what’s for dinner.

Pueblo Magico

Over the past 20 months, we have been to many towns / cities that are gorgeous – right on the beach, next to spectacular mountains, or have a world famous attraction. But while all of these cities are incredible, and we are fortunate that we have been able to see so many of them, most of them are not cities where we would want to live.

But a few times during our travels we have stumbled upon cities / towns where the feel has been right – a buen onda as we Spanish speakers (right!) would say. Cities such as Tarija and Sucre, Bolivia, Arequipa, Peru, Mendoza, Argentina, Alamos and La Penita, Mexico, and now Patzcuaro, another one of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos. These are cities where we sit at the plaza – odds are good that there is a cerveza in hand – look around, and say: “You know, we could live here”.

One of two main plazas

One of two main plazas in Patzcuaro

View over the roofs of Patzcuaro

View over the roofs of Patzcuaro

Mixture of modern and old

Mixture of modern and old

Sitting on one of the two main squares in Patzcuaro, that is what we said to each other. Not real sure what it is that makes for the buen onda. Some of it I’m sure derives from where and how we are staying in the particular town – having a great campground makes “la onda” much better. And the campground (RV park is too strong of a phrase), Villa Patzcuaro, is a delight. It has a narrow access road, which in turn makes it very difficult for large RVs to enter the grounds. And we have found that folks who travel in smaller RVs tend to be part of a self-selecting crowd: a little quirkier; and it is easier to get to know folks as smaller RVs make it harder to isolate yourself inside.

The RV park is tucked away on a side street

The RV park is tucked away on a side street

It even has a pool

It even has a pool

The camp sites

The camp sites

The campground is small and only accommodates ten vehicles, the bathrooms are clean, the showers are great, there is a small pool, the lavanderia (laundry shop) is right across the street, the super mercado is a five minute walk, and it is a pleasant 30 minute walk into town, just perfect for our daily exercise.

The street we walk into town. Note the small taco stand on the left - just in case you get hungry on the way.

The street we walk into town. Note the small taco stand on the left – just in case you get hungry on the way.

Patzcuaro is centered on two squares which are two blocks apart. The squares are clean and tidy, appropriately bustling, one of the squares has a market, and both squares have a plethora of restaurants and cafes surrounding them. The architecture of the houses downtown is interesting, often colonial, and many of the houses are in great shape. And located on one of the squares is a rockin’ library.

The outside of the library; located on one of the primary plazas

The outside of the library; located on one of the primary plazas

Cool library, or what?

Cool library, or what?

Everyday, the market has fantastic street food, a beautiful vegetable and fruit “street”, and on Fridays, the weekly market is rather big.

Tacos are US $0.50 each. Delicious.

Street food – tacos are US $0.50 each. Delicious.

US $2.50...

US $2.50…

Patzcuaro is the centerpoint for a region which has a significant indigenous population so there a plenty of folks in traditional dress on the streets, and the arts and crafts on display are traditional as well. And if that isn’t enough, there are numerous villages close by that specialize in various arts and crafts.

One of the villages is Janitzio, located in Lake Patzcuaro which is located just outside town. Janitzio is famous as the place to be in Mexico for Day of the Dead festivities, and for the the “butterfly net” fishermen who fish the lake.

The island of Janitzio

The island of Janitzio

The boat ride to Janitzio comes with entertainment

The 30 min boat ride to Janitzio comes with entertainment

The famous "butterfly net" fishermen on the lake. The only thing they fish for nowadays though, are tourist pesos.

The famous “butterfly net” fishermen on the lake. The only thing they fish for nowadays though, are tourist pesos.

Beautiful town, nice walking, great food, culture and history, in an interesting region, and, so far, few gringos. My guess is that this will change in the next ten years.