On to Chignahuapan

I spent a few more days in Tlaxcala, visiting the museo de arte popular (or artesenias) where I discovered a live scorpion in a 200 year old “talaveras” mug, amongst other excitement. Lots of beautiful images and arts and crafts endemic to the area, including painted wooden masks for carnaval (carnval is a huge festival in Tlaxcala), woven textile belts (6 feet long, similar to those in Lithuania), alfombras (designs on the street in colored sawdust), regional costumes, woven baskets, tule thatching, carved and/or painted walking sticks, and ceramics. The costumes that locals used to don for Carnival look exactly like those still used in Villingen, Germany, the Tirolean regions of Austria and Italy, and other parts of Europe: men dressing as women, carrying umbrellas, riding a “hobby horse”, dressed as a charro (cowboy – a Mexican addition), and masks depicting smiling European-looking men with beards, blue eyes, and at least one gold tooth (apparently, to depict wealth). I don’t know the history behind the costumes, except that they were brought by the Spanish, as were many delectable varieties of fruit trees, vegetables, and livestock upon which the local culinary tradition now depends. Many flora and fauna were introduced by the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits, who recognized the value of the rich soil and temperate climate in this part of Mexico.

I had several long talks with one of the two old women working at the museum, who told me about the “good old days” of chemical-free food, water that you could drink, temescals (a kind of sauna or sweat lodge that most houses in this area had and some still do), no TV or other technology, and basically a healthier lifestyle. We talked for several hours as she embroidered beautiful ancient designs on white linen shirts. The designs reminded me greatly of those in Turkey and northern Chile. A possible diaspora (trade routes, nomads?). Who knows. The other woman working there put a belt on me and told me how much it cost. I told her I hadn’t brought any money with me, which was true, as I’d left it all in my backpack. She seemed a bit miffed. I watched her with Mexican visitors – she didn’t try to sell them belts. She probably figured I was rich, which is probably true, relative to her. I also went to the Museo de Memoria, which discussed the history of Tlaxcala from the baptism of the 4 important men of the Tlaxcala tribe to the fighting for indigenous rights which followed. Good information about the system of government used here, which was a forked representation (one directly from the Spanish crown, the other representing the primarily indigenous population). In the early 1600s, 400 familes from Tlaxcalans were responsible for populating a significant area north of Tlaxcala, extending into San Luis Potosí, Texas, and New Mexico. They brought their incredibly strong Christian faith with them, as well as their indigenous traditions.

I also stopped by the Escuela para Danza Regional Mexicana and watched the young people whirling, stomping, and prancing to various songs. They were preparing for a dance performance the following Sunday (tomorrow) in front of the museum in Tlaxcala. I also stopped by my friend Fernando Aguillar, who lives atop a windowless tower of sorts. He loves looking out over the countryside and surveying his kingdom. We watched his chickens and roosters roost in trees for the night, and he told me that the 9 windows will cost about 100 USD and that he is waiting for payment for a calf that he slaughtered. I will miss him most of all, his kind smile and good heart. I shared my bread and chicken with him, giving his dogs the bones, which they gulped down like wolves. I reluctantly bid him farewell – we joked that the next time I visited his house would be done. He is tired of sleeping with a shot gun and scaring away “ladrones” that almost stole his pigs, amongst other things. He decided to sell them at a loss rather than having them disappear outright.

I made friends with 2 of the staff at Quinta San Clemente and we exchanged Facebook info and email. They gave me a lot of good suggestions about where to go, including where to visit when I leave Tlaxcala. One of those suggestions was Chignahuapan, as well as Zacatlan. I took their advice and headed to Chignahuapan that Wednesday, fascinated by the rich countryside full of “milpas” (corn fields) and vegetables. I arrived and found a place to leave my backpack (mochilla grande), then walked to the laguna, where they construct a large pyramid for Dia de Muertos and reenact the beliefs of their “antepasados” (ancestors). Ancestral beliefs had it that the laguna was the place where people’s souls went after they died. They have fireworks, skulls, and the pyramid appears to rise from the water (actually located on an island in the laguna). I found a place to stay in a hospedaje or posada (a room in a house), settled my things, and walked around the small zocalo. I met the priest in the church (the following week is their ferria, a time when they celebrate their patron saint and perform a pilgrammage of the statue of the saint from one church to the next. July 25 is the day, and I plan to return to witness the dancing, cowboys, and general merriment. Of course, the mass proceeds the festivities, as is tradition here.

Over the course of the next few days, I walked to the Cascadas de Tuliman (3 lovely waterfalls with a 1000 foot descent overall), went to the banos thermales (akin to Harbin Hotsprings, but only $1 to enter the women’s indoor pool), hiked in the surrounding mountains, went to Tetela (a beautiful gold mining town about an hour’s bus ride from Chignahuapan. My first night in Chignahuapan I met a couple locking up the iglesia Santa Houngito. They asked me where I was going and invited me to visit them the next day for a walk, as they are teachers and currently have summer break (a measly 2-3 weeks, vs 3 months in the US). The next day I returned to visit after walking to the base of the Cascadas Tuliman and my ankle was really swollen and sore. They offered to drive me through the backroads of the Sierra Norte in their VW bug, me in the back with their daughter and son. We explored the surrounding pueblos, marvelled at the vistas, and finally arrived in Tetela, where we ate a “cena” (really almuerzo, lunch, as cena is usually bread and tea or coffee). We walked around the center a bit – I returned a few days later and walked to the Casa de Barrillo, an artist from Mexico City who settled in Tetela and painted many beautiful scenes of the surrounding countryside and pueblos in oil.

I felt really lucky to meet people like Maria Josefina and her family – I stopped by another day to give my regards to her mother. I ran into the kids in the main square in Chignahupan, and the parents at Hugoss Energia Solar, a very innovative solar energy outlet with solar exhibits. I was talking to the owner about solar energy, and the possibility of bringing solar cooking stoves to this area, as people primarily cook with wood and are denuding the forests. Of course, the bigger culprits are the companies that are clearcutting. There are reforestation programs, but erosion is still a problem and the large trees are a thing of the past. I also had the good fortune to meet the owner of La Condesa Panaderia, Edith, who became a very good friend. I had not planned to stay in Chignahuapan, but kept meeting kind people. Its proximity to the mountains, the waterfalls, and Zacatlan make it a very good location from which to explore the Sierra Norte. I stayed at a nice hotel, Hotel Chignahuapan, for 2 nights. The first night was ideal, as it was mid-week and I was one of a few people. It was raining cats and dogs, and I revelled in the rain on the roof.

The next night was much noisier, as it was a Friday night and is on the main drag. I heard cars (without mufflers of course) throughout the night, as well as noisy guests. I resolved to leave the next day for Zacatlan, and was in the process of doing so but wanted to say goodbye to my friend Edith. I went to the bakery, and ended up staying with her and her mom for 4 nights. During that time, a neighbor died (another resident died the Saturday before when I was staying at the hotel – I witnessed the funeral procession carrying the coffin through the streets to the “panteon” (cemetery)). I went with Edith and her mom to visit the neighbor’s house in the evening. The tradition here is that when someone dies, neighbors, friends, and relatives come and stay throughout the night for the 3 or so days that the coffin is left open in the home. People come and pay their respects to the deceased, pray and orate, while the rest sit outside the room, talking amongst themselves. People bring bread, pastries, coffee, tea, and soda, and the house keeps a fire burning outside throughout the night for the days until the mass and funeral. People smoke cigars to protect themselves from the malifescent forces that come when someone dies. Others put a sprig of asparagus fern (or something like it) behind their ear for protection.

I attended the mass the next day to honor the life of this 40 year old man who died choking on food. I was told later that he had a propensity to drink, and that he may have been drunk at the time. Who knows. I walked with the procession though the streets, trying to be respectful and removing my hat when necessary. We walked to the graveyard, with four men bearing the heavy coffin through the streets. People seemed to be fairly stoic, praying the rosary for the entire procession as is traditional. When it came time to put the coffin in its place (not in the ground, but sealed in a cement area), people started wailing. The brothers or sons of the deceased wrapped their arms around the coffin as if a person and cried. It was very sad and I started crying too, remembering all the people I have lost and imagining that it was my dad in the coffin. I wished that he had had a send-off like this one, being honored by all who loved him. I stayed for 45 minutes or so, and left when they placed the coffin in a cement enclosure and began to seal it off.

I wandered through the milpas, corn fields, toward the road going to the banas thermales, and caught the combi for the baths. There I relaxed in the warm pool for women, which is enclosed in a concrete building. I much prefer the open air pools at Harbin. I made friends with a woman north of Huachinango, and she told me about her 2 kids studying to be chefs in Spain and France. After a while, I began walking up the driveway and up into the surrounding forest. I found a lovely apple tree and picked the biggest apple I’ve ever seen. They’re really delicious, reminiscent of Honey Crisps, and brought here by the Franciscans who recognized the rich soil and climate of this area. I walked for quite a while and had a nice conversation with a woman and her grandson who was selling apples. We joked around about the fact that I was taking her business because I picked an apple rather than buying one from her.

She lives on the hill above the road in an adobe house with dirt floors. She said it is a poor house, but I told her she is rich to have such a lovely vista (definitely a million dollar view) and delicious apples to boot. I walked to a church on a hill and then back through the milpas, taking the combi back to town. Because it’s the week of their ferria, the main plaza is full of rides, food stands, artesenal crafts, a huge stage (performances every night), and people walking or sitting. I wandered through every night, though most of the time the sound system was so loud that I had to leave after a short spell. They had rock bands, a beauty contest, dances from Oaxaca (which I missed), first communion, amongst other events. First communion dresses were over the top, with 3 and 4 year old girls dressed in white gowns as if they were at their own quinciniera. I bought a syrup made from agua de miel (nectar from the agave called maguey) – it is supposed to be safe for diabetics. I helped 2 diabetics with supplementation – there is very little alternative medicine here, and the only way one can access supplements is via the internet and at a great cost for shipping. It’s a shame.

I took the combi to Zacatlan twice. Though only 20 minutes away, it is another world. The ride there is beautiful, as you overlook a huge canyon full of trees, a waterfall, and a river below. I arrived and walked along “la barranca” (the cliff), and on to Cuahutilulco, where I met a very kind man with a hook arm. He lost his arm in a work accident in Mexico City and moved to the country side here for his old age. He showed me his garden and chickens, and I met his wife. We drank pulque together (I didn’t like the consistency of most pulque – sticky with an odd taste). We had a lovely conversation – his name is Dionisis Lopez Espinoza, and he wanted desperately for me to buy the neighboring cornfield and build a factory. I explained that as an environmentalist that was the last thing I would do if I bought land there.

When he first moved here 20 years ago his was the only house amongst acres of wilderness, but now there are many houses. I hope it doesn’t lose its beauty. He didn’t want me to leave and gave me his grand daughter’s phone # and facebook data. I bid them farewell and continued toward the cliff and river. I walked for quite a while, listening to the distant thunder and approaching storm. As usual, I revelled in the rain and checked out a few cabanas. They were beautiful and remote, just what I wanted to relax for a few days. The caretaker of Los Jilgueros (it means the European goldfinch, which are numerous in this part of Mexico) was particularly surprised to see me emerging from the storm, and laughed as I explained that I didn’t mind the rain. I also walked by a beautiful house that had private property written all over it, and wondered which Mexican politician used it as their country getaway.

I wandered back and found a tienda making quesadillas. As I was completely wet, I took refuge inside next to the large grill and had a nice chat with the owner Maria Concepion. She was very kind and had a good-hearted worker, a campesino who also works in the milpas. Her son Luis joined us and very kindly drove me to the main plaza in Zacatlan where we ducked into a few churches and looked around before I took the last combi back to Chignahuapan. I told him I’d try to visit for the fin de semana, when he had time off. He is currently as a doctor for Cruz Roja, having studied for 6 years.

On my second visit to Zacatlan, I had the good fortune to meet a really kind (and funny) family in a pizzeria. I had asked the owner if he was German, as he looked German and had a different accent. He said that he was from here, but his brother, having heard my question, thought I was German and told his son to speak German. I said “que?”, meaning come again, and then he laughed and we spoke Spanglish (he speaks some English). He told me they were going to Piedras Encimadas, and I said I really wanted to go, as I’d heard it was beautiful and mystical. I didn’t mean to invite myself, as I didn’t realize they were going as a family – I thought they were some friends planning on taking the micro. They kindly took me along and we stopped by their relatives in town on the way to Piedras. I felt very lucky and enjoyed listening to them – it turns out that the son and father are pilots, as are the 2 cousins (brothers). I invited them to visit me back home – Josue said he probably would, as he really likes San Jose. We had a lovely meal of fresh tortillas, avocado, cilantro, barbeque chicken, rice, and ice cream and bunuelos for desert. Angel is a vegan and his aunt asked him why and what he could eat. His dad was very funny and it felt like a scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when the vegetarian was offered pork as an alternative to meat.

We arrived at 6pm and were given 30 minutes to visit. The 200 hectare site is probably an old lake bed – the standing stones, as they appear to be, appear as if giants loitering in a meadow. The area of the stones, probably 10 acres or so, is bordered by pine trees. We walked for an hour or so, ignoring the 6:30 closing time. We laughed, ran, joked around about the monster of Piedras Encimadas, took photos, found a chameleon, and generally enjoyed ourselves. I was so happy to find a place like this – it reminded me of places near my dad’s house in Colorado Springs. I wondered whether we’d have to scale a fence to get out. I felt so lucky to meet this kind family. We also saw a man getting aqua de miel from a mague, and stopped to talk. He gave us a taste, and explained the process of extracting sweet liquid from the mague, a type of agave (ironically we had 2 growing in our yard in Sunnyvale). We drove back to Zacatlan and I bid them farewell. The kindness of strangers, specifically Mexicans, is impressive and deserving of much praise.

I didn’t want to leave Chignahuapan, as I finally felt like I belonged and was going to miss Edyth and her family. For the 4 or 5 days that I stayed with her and her mom, she told me about various traditions and legends, including how people mourn recently deceased, how bread and sweet breads are made, and various local legends. One that stands out is the legend of the “duendas”, trolls or elves that were greedy, didn’t believe in god, and got inundated with rain as a result. Every June 24 they emerge from the lagoon, and their treasure is visible (gold? not sure). Another local, Miguel, who makes and sells tamales as his second job, told me that another local, who was “bien borracho” (very drunk), fell asleep near the lagoon on the 24th of June and awoke to 20 or so voices coming from somewhere near the ground. People here seen to be full of superstitions, as much as they are devout catholics.

Reluctantly I said goodbye and made my way to Zacatlan. I wandered into the Casa de Cultura, where women were making artesenias out of corn husks. An indigenous woman was weaving baskets. I spoke with Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo, the committee organizer for an event in early September honoring corn (international festival of corn in Zacatlan). I told her about the research of Ignacio Chapela, assistant professor in microbial ecology at UC Berkeley. His research revealed the presence of transgenic DNA in corn in Mexico. He is very concerned about protecting heirloom corn from transgenic contamination. As Mexico is the origin of corn, it is particularly important.

We exchanged information and I left my pack there. Not having drunk coffee for weeks, I lusted after a mocha, and found one at Empanadas “El Che”. I had met the owners of a cafetera (a coffee farm) located in Morrelos at La Condesa Panaderia. They told me I could find their coffee at El Che. After drinking a lovely mocha and eating a piece of lemon cake and vanilla/rum pudding, I spent a few hours catching up on my blog. During the course of my visit here, I found out about an upcoming showing of Il Postino and La Vita e Bella, both of which I love. I also met the coordinator for the cultural house, who invited me to a special presentation on local poetry, art, music, and writing. I gave him the email for Ignacio Chapela and suggested he invite him to present at the international festival of corn, perhaps via Skype. I also met a kind gentleman who lived in Paris for a bit and frequents “El Che”. Listening to relaxing music, smelling the odor of empanadas, I relaxed and enjoyed the atmosphere of this lovely town. The owner of “El Che” was a teacher in Bariloche, Argentina, a beautiful mountain town reminiscent of Switzerland. He came here to visit his brother and fell in love with Zacatlan. After a bout of teaching, he opened up this cafe.


3 responses to “On to Chignahuapan

    • Thank you Geri, and sorry I just saw these comments now. I didn’t realize how to see or read comments. Thank you for inviting me to your bday dinner. It was really nice to see you. I like your friend – he seemed very sweet.


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