Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Mitchener tour of Mexico

James Mitchener’s epic ‘Mexico’, records the history of the country through a three-day bullfight. Although it has been fictionalized, many of the aspects depicted in his book are taken from real events, people and places. We were lucky to receive an invitation to visit the area where his story takes place, and spent a week wandering through the cobblestones and courtyards of the world heritage sites at San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas in the Mexican Highlands.

Our journey began at the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, one of the leaders in the rebellion of 1810 that led to independence. In fact, all three of the towns we visited represent turning points in the struggle, for which the whole country is now celebrating the bicentenary. Pretty streets named for the leaders are lined with their homes, many of which are now museums. Their graceful carved stonework and iron fretwork is crammed together without yards or space between, creating an architectural canyon of their fa├žades. Every few blocks, the narrow cobbled alleys open into typically European plazas, filled with monuments to commemorate people or events from that era.

We saw tiles, murals, spires, domes, fountains, frescoes, bells, arches, churches, and shrines that adorn almost every building in these lovely colonial cities. Guanajuato is particularly unusual, with its road system routed underground through elaborate tunnels. Above is a labyrinth of staircases and alleyways providing access to the vibrant, multi-colored homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. The steep hillsides, like those of Zacatecas, provide stunning views overlooking the town.

The weather had been cold and cloudy, and hailstones pelted us as we stood waiting for the bus from Guanajuato to Zacatecas. Whizzing past cactus shivering in snow dusted fields, we arrived at Zacatecas shortly after a small blizzard had dumped 5 inches of snow on the town. Children and grownups were all out making snowmen, since the last time they had the novelty was 13 years ago. The following day most of it had melted, and we were able to tour several of the excellent museums that had been closed in the storm. One provides an insight into the Huichol culture, their peyote hunting Shamans and beautiful beaded artwork. Another houses thousands of ceremonial masks, and the rebuilt 500 year old building also has a large collection of marionettes and some pre-Hispanic pottery. In Guanajuato, we visited the Museum of the Mummies, where hundreds of mummified remains are displayed in an eerie setting, the result of climate and minerals in the area.

The Spanish conquerors against whom the Mexican people rebelled 200 years ago transformed this area and defeated some of the greatest civilizations in existence. Their assignment was to bring silver and gold back for their king, and to convert the natives to Christianity. They accomplished both objectives with zeal, and the scars of their enthusiasm are just as vivid as the elegance of their cities. Murals in prominent public buildings depict the ruthless treatment of the indigenous Indians who worked the silver mines that produced almost half of the world’s silver. Carrying enormous weights of rock up primitive staircases until they were no longer able to make the journey, many spent their entire lives underground, and thousands died there. Young children were no exception, and many succumbed to the usual mining diseases of tuberculosis and silicosis. We toured the El Eden mine at Zacatecas, where the forth of its seven levels is open to the public. An interesting point in the story of Mexico, both as depicted by Michener and reiterated by a local fellow we met, is that the indigenous people could not be overpowered. Their downfall came through coercion when one of their own princesses believed the newcomers were gods that had been prophesied in folklore. Today, Mexicans are moving further out into the desert as their land prices skyrocket with the popularity of these towns with ‘Gringo’ homebuyers.

We wandered through markets stacked with fresh vegetables, scented with ripe aromas of spicy sausage, crammed with sellers of every kind of merchandise, we nibbled fresh boiled chick peas and fresh cut fruit drizzled with lime and sprinkled with chili. Indigenous rug makers demonstrated dye mixing for us, using as a base for their rich ochre tones the crushed insects that feed on cactus, lime juice, baking soda and indigo. We searched three towns for the illusive bull ring, and finally, at Zacatecas, found the ancient ruins of the stadium merged with the stone arches of an aqueduct, in the most unlikely setting of a 5 star hotel.

The snow curtailed our planned visit to the Aztec ruins at La Quemada to see one of the famous pyramids where human sacrifices were performed. There are many more of these ruins further south, so we hope that we will get another chance to glimpse this piece of the Mexican history puzzle.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico

Zacatecas, Mexico

Snow!! in Zacatecas