Blog # 12 Vicky's Visit

Blog 12: Vicky’s visit                                                    1 January 2011

Whenever we go someplace we haven’t been before, a favorite family game is to jot down everything that strikes us as new or unusual. The game only works for the first couple of days or so, because after that what was novel has become routine as we begin to settle into our new environment. Zirahuén, Michoacán, and for that matter nearly all of Mexico has long since become our second home, so even while we are still struggling to make sense of the place, these days we are rarely gifted with a ‘Wow! Look at that!’ moment. Which is one (of the many) reasons we are so delighted to host first time visitors. Their remarks, their oohing and aahing , reminds us that what we now take for granted is really quite remarkable.

Our airport is about 90 km from Zirahuén, way on the other side of Morelia, the state capital, on what seems to be the only large chunk of flat land in the state. Vicky Venturini’s plane was not due until 7:50 PM, so Linda and I decided to spend the day birding in the marshes of Laguna de Cuitzio, about ten kilometers north of the airport. Vicky, a pre-pharmacy student at URI, shares our house in Kingston and takes care of things when we’re away, and we were eager to see her. Linda and I shopped in Morelia for a couple of

hours, and then drove north. With some effort we found an access to the lake, a cobbledydirt road leading to a narrow dusty causeway extending three km into the water. Lots of reeds; lots of wind; lots of dust. (Non birders can skip to the end of the parenthesis. Birders: among all the herons and flycatchers we did catch a good view of the Laguna’s endemic black-polled yellow-throat!) At 5:00 we found a restaurant near the airport. AT 6:30 we settled in to wait. At 11:00 the plane arrived carrying an exhausted Victoria, but not her luggage.

By midnight we had retired to our hotel in Morelia and tumbled into our respective beds. In the AM, after breakfast we made a quick tour of the cathedral, which was open and between masses. Hispanic churches seem so familiar to us —after all, we’ve poked around ten thousand of them over the years; minimum— but to a Rhode Island parish Catholic this was a new world. The towering baldochin covering the massive silver monstrance on the altar. The baroque statues of ancient saints lining the walls along with the photographs and paintings of the latest crop, martyred during Mexico’s Cristero Wars in the 1920s. The ornate confessionals in the aisles. The silver milagritos pinned to the altar cloths in front of the most miraculous saints and Virgins.  And the constant parade of people: moms with their kids wrapped into their Michoacán-blue rebozos on their backs; business men and women; silver-haired grannies with Indian features, their long braids dangling nearly to their waists, their designs on their embroidered blouses, worn over full skirts over equally voluminous underskirts, indicating to the initiated from which village they had come.

A half hour later we were back at the hotel, getting down to business: assembling and registering  the replacement phones that Vicky had brought with her, and tracking down her missing duffle bag. Heh, heh. I’ll spare you the details that filled the next five hours, the groping online for Verizon technical help to launch

our US + Mexico plan from here in Mexico. The unending queue to talk to a real live person with Continental Airlines in Houston. The reaction among the three of us when we heard that we’d have to return to the US personally to activate the phones. The frazzled scorn of the lost baggage people in Texas that Victoria had actually believed the stewardess who took her duffle from the bulging overhead and promised that it would be waiting for her at the baggage claim in Houston. The Verizon techies’ insistence that we toggle options that we couldn’t even get to appear on our screens in Morelia. Grrrr. At 3:30 we gave it up and drove back to Zirahuén.

So what, besides everything, opened Vicky‘s eyes wide in Zirahuén? The beauty of the lake and the mountains. The farm animals absolutely everywhere (and they’re so cute!). The chasm that separates life in 21st-century Zirahuén from the 16th-century town. The fact that even in the contemporary Zirahuén no paper goes into the toilet because

that’s what that plastic-lined straw basket is for. The friendliness of everyone we talk to. The cuddliness of Don Gato, who has staked his claim to Vicky’s lap. (Our landlady Lily threatens to sue her for alienation of affection.) The eye-popping artesanía in every market.

Touring the Yácatas at Tzintzuntzan wasn’t bad either. Or scrambling in the weeds for bits of ancient obsidian knives


New Year’s eve we dined across the street with Lily, her historian friend Patricia, here from DF for a visit and a respite from her thesis; Mel and Josefína (née Josephine) who have a house down by the Embarcadero; Miguel the doctor, teacher who hangs out in Greely and is enthusiastic about Graceland; Teri and her husband who live up the hill someplace and is the only non-local member of the Zirahuén Women’s Aerobic Club (!!), and assorted cats and dogs. It seems that most of the folks we know in contemporary Zirahuén and its equivalent in Pátzcuaro are highly educated, multi-lingual, bi- or tri-cultural, and, mostly, of an age far closer to us than to our guest. They are unfailingly warm, welcoming, and fascinating to talk with. And impressed with Vicky’s Spanish, which is really pretty good. She studied it for eight years, and has a more than adequate comprehension level in most circumstances. After a moment or two of reticence, she jumped right in to speaking, and even if the occasional verb is inovatively conjugated and the odd cognate strays from its habitual semantic field, she has very little trouble in making herself understood.


New Year’s day, we decided before going to bed on New Year’s eve, Vicky and I would climb the mountain north of town that rises to 10,000 feet, some 3,000 feet above the lake shore. Norbert and I climbed halfway up it last year before rain, encroaching twilight, and, to be fair, exhaustion, turned us around. Vicky and I vowed we would get an early start and make it to the top. Unfortunately, even in the new millennium things still take longer than they do (like getting up in the morning), and we got a much later start than anticipated. Still, the mountain didn’t look all THAT high.

Note: Rhode Island doesn’t have mountains. It does have several flights of stairs, a few hills over along the Connecticut border, and, in the north, the towering Johnston Landfill. Walking to work in Rhode Island does not generally prepare a person for hiking up a Mexican mountain.  Still, our first steps up the hill were buoyed by our confidence.

After a hundred yards or so we stopped to pant and savor the view. Another hundred yards brought us to a house with a cute burro, so we paused for Vicky to take its picture. Two hundred yards beyond that we passed Zirahuen’s last house and waved goodbye to the six-year-old standing by the government plaque that proclaimed that her house now had a concrete floor. The cobbled road, however, had turned to ankle-deep dust. For the next hour the road alternated between dusty ruts, and hard packed volcanic tuff. We passed a pitch-pine forest, the mossy trunks hung with pitch pots to collect the sticky sap. We passed a clear cut field that would soon be an avocado grove, and another couple of fields that already were, the

new trees shaded with little cloth umbrellas or cut pine boughs. Birds flitted by often enough that I could whip out my binoculars to try to identify them while simultaneously catching my breath, and resting my legs: geek, not wimp.

We reached the plateau, crossed a kilometer of dusty flatland, and finally reached the base of the volcano proper. While previously we were puffing up a 20% grade, now we were on a 45% grade. The road was now a path, up leaf-choked gullies, through thickets of sticky blue flowers buzzing with humming birds, stands of pitch pines blackened by fire, towering oaks and three or four other trees I didn’t recognize. With the altitude

we began to get a little light headed. Way behind us, over the lake, the sun was flirting with the horizon. The temperature dropped. We reached the mountain’s high shoulder that we thought was the summit and realized that we had another hour’s climb ahead of us. I consulted my mental clock, glanced again at the sinking sun, and, reluctantly, we turned back. We were only 300 or so vertical feet from the summit, but night comes fast below the Tropic of Cancer, and, this time, discretion trumped enthusiasm.

Maybe next year.  Maybe next month, if I can find another climbing buddy. Meanwhile, there’s enough to keep our sense of wonder engaged down here at lake level, which, even though it is at the bottom of our little valley, is still higher than any American peak east of the Mississippi.

Until the next,

David & Linda & Vicky