Village life up close and personal

Note: This posting was written by Stacey,  but has been heavily edited by Andy for maxium interest and impact.

Take note, ladies. This blog post is going to make all of you incredibly jealous. I apologize in advance.

While on Facebook last night,  I read a post on the Artisans of Mexico page about colorful, embroidered shirts made by women in the tiny village of Santa Cruz, Michoacan, a place so small it’s not even on our maps. I decided I needed to get me some, so I asked captain Andy to take me to Santa Cruz today for some shopping. I love Mexican embroidery, I love the vivid colors they use and I love the way the clothes tell the story of the indigenous people.

Andy, somewhat perpelexed, using only a brief online description of one Santa Cruz artisan, saw the town’s location as being described as at a junction not too far from Patzcuaro, where we are staying. But on maps, he saw it not. However, as fate would have it, we picked up a freebie, Xeroxed map of the region Thursday morning at the tourist office while having coffee on the main square, and lo and behold, there was tiny Santa Cruz, far off the beaten path.

So we hopped in the car, turned at the junction and went off on a small country through cattleonstreetgorgeous pastures and farmland, cows a-grazing and majestic mountains in the background. We went past the tiny village of Las Cuevas (where, oddly enough, we had been for a party on Sunday, as some American couple who lives way out there invited us via a mutual friend). After about 7 or 8 miles, we hit Santa Cruz, only to run smack dab (well, not literally) into a herd of cattle being guided down the middle of the narrow country road. We’ve seen this several times now, as ranchers take their herds from their own property to a nearby pasture, then bring them back home again. We fell in behind the herd right as it was coming from the pasture, so going at about 1 mph, we spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the ambience (and the backsides of about 20 cattle) until the rancher finally turned his steer up his driveway.

By the by, as the cattle ambled past houses and a couple of small buildings, we saw no stores. We continued to drive to what was pretty much the end of the road, then up a perpendicular street that led to a dilapidated town square — more like a mound of dirt and a rusted basketball backboard, and one small tienda selling nothing but snacks and drinks. Still, we had a hunch clothes might be sold from peoples’ houses. We asked one woman sweeping the road in front of her casa (“Quieremes comprar,” I said, then grabbed a piece of my shirt). Her face revealed that she knew what we were after, and she pointed up the road and said “enfrente” and something else. But what? And in front of what? We didn’t catch it. Ahead about 100 meters,  we pulled aside a man selling vegetables from a truck and asked him where I could purchase a shirt. “Aqui,” he said — right at the house he was in front of. A girl of about 20 who was buying vegetables and bananas led us up a rocky, cobbled car path.

Inside there were four or five rooms, and many, many kids running around, playing with dogs and a kitten inside (and chickens outside). In Spanish Andy asked if they had any shirts to sell, and they said “si.”  They brought out three things for me to see, a shirt, a skirt, and a beautiful embroidered jacket.

black jacket

This is the first thing they brought me. A skirt, shirt and jacket. The jacket was a bit too fancy.

 One of the women told me she had another shirt at her house 15 minutes away, and asked if I wanted to see it. I said sure. We offered to drive her, but she didn’t seem interested, so she left and said she would soon come back.


As we tried to converse a little bit more, suddenly someone started translating for us in perfect English! It turned out that the daughter-in-law of the abuela — the grand dame of the family’s many embroiderers, the mother of 15 and the grandmother of 23 —  was visiting from Austin, Texas. She had ventured on her own, with her three kids, to visit where her husband had grown up, and to meet his mother and many of his brothers and sisters for the first time; hubby had stayed back home in Austin to work.

Two chairs were brought out for us, and there was a little table already there, in what was basically a wide hallway in the front of the house, with no furniture. What appeared to be happening was indeed happening, as we were asked if we wanted some food. We stressed that we didn’t want to be any trouble, not once but twice. But Andy, never being one to turn down food, especially when it’s an opportunity to sample something so out-of-the-ordinary as this, of course relented (even though we had each eaten a sandwich about an hour prior).

Then, as if this family had planned for us to be there, a styrofoam plate stacked with  corundas (triangle tamales) magically appeared, along with traditional Mexican sour cream and fresh tomato salsa to slather on top.


These tamales were delicious and freshly made!

The corundas, a  local treat, were homemade (of course) and were corn masa packed with carrots, peppers and cheese. Then came some homemade tortillas fresh from the griddle.







Then they foisted a huge bowl of chicken soup, complete with a drumstick in the middle, on Andy, even though he asked for only “un poco.” He ate it, of course, saying the only thing missing was a matzah ball!  But then one of our dining companions suggested that the corundas go great in the soup … so he dunked a big piece in … instant matzah ball! Sort of. Anyway, he was a happy camper.


Andy says it was only missing a matzoh ball

While he was packing it in, I tried on the clothes. The skirt was way too big,  like by five sizes, but they told me that they could make it smaller for me. Which they did, right there while I waited. Fifteen minutes later, just like she said, the other lady (who turned out to be one of the abuela’s several daughters who are following in her artisan embroidery footsteps) came back with another shirt, which I also ended up buying. It’s a beautiful green color and I like the embroidery. Adding to the experience, the shirt wasn’t quite finished … so she took out needle and colorful thread and finished it right there in front of me!  I think she added some hair to one of the shirt characters.


My clothes are still being worked on!


Each piece is handmade, of course. The abuela (freehand) draws each pattern on the fabric with a special white pencil, be it a drapery, a blouse, a skirt or a pillow cover.


A white pen was used to draw the patterns.


The daughters then embroider each piece, meticulously. Each one tells a story, mostly of typical tasks that the people in that region have done for years on end, such as picking the fruit off a tree or tending to the chickens. If you look closely, you’ll see chickens and cows and other scenes of indigenous life in the patterns.


Two things struck me about our fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience: (1) Once again I was blown away by the hospitality we received by a family of strangers.  They lived a very, very modest farm life. I would say that they were fairly poor, as their house was meager and the furnishings quite sparse, but they shared everything they had with two total strangers. (2) Through the intrepreter, we told the abuela that she should take her clothes to Zihuatanejo and sell them at a Saturday morning “eco” market frequented by tourists who LOVE this kind of clothing (and will pay good money for it). Neither the mother nor her eldest daughter had heard of Zihuatanejo — a pretty major city four hours away.  I was somewhat surprised.

I can’t wait to wear my new clothes!


My lovely new green blouse


My new cool skirt. Fancy!








When words fail

Completely wordless. Damn.  Every time I sit down at the computer, I mostly see a blank screen. Try as I might I can’t get my brain to synthesize the last nine weeks and what they have meant to us.  It’s the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever encountered, and it’s really starting to piss me off.  How do people write for a living? I want to describe so much to you and my words just seem so trite!

This morning I woke up with a continuing horrible cold, and  I’m not at my very best, but I really wanted to try to share with you what these last nine weeks have been like.

The last nine weeks have been the best nine weeks of my life. Andy concurs. We are having an absolute blast. Most mornings we wake up and the day is ours, with the exception of the two days a week Andy works. We like to start each day with coffee out of the house. We sit on beautiful colonial squares, we bask in the sunshine, we listen to music pouring out from the windows of the local music academy. We read. We pinch ourselves and ask, “Did we really make this happen?”

We return home for a simple lunch of egg salad or tuna, or eat a $1.35 quesadilla out. And we wander, and wander, and wander. Falling, falling, falling for each colonial church, for each child we see selling trinkets, for every schlocky  vendor vying for our attention. Perhaps we’re still in the defined “honeymoon phase,” when everything about a country seems new, fascinating and jaw-dropping. I’m certainly not discounting this as a possibility. What I can say is that I have absolutely zero regrets about making the decision to do this. We’re completely enthralled with Mexico and we are slowing falling more and more in love with the Mexican people.

This country is about the people. A people who rarely stop smiling and who exude warmth. This country is about people who love to party and who don’t need an excuse to celebrate life.  A large part of Mexican life revolves around town squares with restaurants, bars and park benches outlining each perimeter. We love watching Mexicans enjoying their squares. They celebrate life by having coffee on the square, and by taking their families to enjoy free musical celebrations. By drinking beers with their friends, and by packing  local bars and restaurants.  We feel happy to be among them and we are greeted with warm hospitality that goes above and beyond the treatment we would receive in many other places.

Let me give you just one example about Mexican hospitality a la sparkling water. I like sparkling water and I order it often. Three times out of five, the sparkling water takes forever to arrive.  I chalked this up to slow Mexican service. Then one day I looked down the street and I saw that our waiter had walked down the way to purchase a can of mineral water from a local tienda. The restaurant didn’t have sparkling water, but since I ordered it, they went out of their way to make it happen. This has happened time and time again. If a restaurant doesn’t have something, the staff will go out of their way to get it. Always with a “no problema.” Talk about feeling welcomed!  As a tourist, can I get this type of hospitality in Paris?  I think not!

Sometimes I wonder if I’m waiting for the honeymoon period to end so I can start missing the states. And I do miss it. I miss having lunch with my friends, and taking walks around Oakland. I miss meeting girlfriends for cocktails at the local watering hole.  I miss store-bought hummus and artisan bagels. I miss listening to the top-of-the-hour news on the radio. But both Andy and I agree that this has been the best nine weeks of our lives. We feel free. We feel deliriously in love. All of these beautiful colonial cities have turned us back into hand holders (plus the pavement is so uneven,  I’m doomed to trip if not holding onto Andy tightly). We feel liberated and we feel SO blessed that my health continues to allow us to continue this adventure. I finally found an oncologist that I love! His name is Miguel Flores and he speaks great English. His office can administer the tests I need every three months and out out-of-pocket costs are low. In fact, both the test and exam cost about $70 USD. His office is 3.5 hours away from Zihuatanejo in Morelia, so we’ll mosey to the big city once in a while for a weekend outing and stock up on things we can’t find in Zihuatanejo. The toll road is a straight shot and it’s an easy journey.

We’re now in Patzcuaro, Mexico, another beautiful colonial city with a population of 52,000. It’s simply beautiful. It’s near Lake Patzcuaro, and the many indigenous Mexican communities around the lake produce local crafts. We arrived on Friday and we’ve been sick with colds for most of the weekend, so we haven’t had much time to check it out, but we’ll be here for the next two weeks, plenty of time to wander. In the meantime we spent July 3rd at a fun ex-pat party and on July 5, while Andy worked, I tutored two ex-pat senior citizens on how to use their iPads and cellphones!  Patzcuaro has way more ex-pats than Morelia. We often see them walking, shopping and sitting at a cafe on the plaza everywhere; in Morelia, would could spend all day walking all over the city and not see one gringo.

In Patzcuaro, we’re staying in a funky two-bedroom, two-bath casita located out the back of a furniture store/art gallery. Our only access to our little front door is through the shop! It’s unlike any place we’ve ever stayed. And the best thing … it’s only $11 USD a night! A very low price even by Mexico standards. We found this place by happenstance. When we were here two weeks ago having coffee, we met a  Canadian couple that lives here. Asked by us if they knew of any local rentals, they told us about this art gallery, and even led Andy there (in a rainstorm) as it was too difficult to describe the route to two people who had no knowledge of the town. After the storm ended, we went there together and stumbled through some Spanish with the shop worker, who led us through the store, out the back door and into a tiny, little courtyard. There stood a lovely, free-standing, two-story casita with wood beams, a fireplace and a decent-sized kitchen. It’s a bit worn around the edges, but good enough for two weeks. Especially at $3,000 MX for two weeks, a steal (from our perspective) for something just  1.5 blocks off the main square! It has a fridge and a stove and an oven (rare in many Mexican rentals), but when we moved in, I was disappointed to find it so dirty. A few waste baskets had some trash in them, the bathroom mirrors were dirty and the floors looked as if they hadn’t been cleaned in weeks … not what one expects when starting a rental. There were even a couple of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Disgusting!!  So we inquired about a housekeeper and signed one up; she arrived with one helper, then suddenly another appeared. The three of them  scrubbed and mopped and wiped down everything, and three hours later the place was gleaming. And the total cost? The pre-arranged price was a mere $200 MX (about $11 USD), but we gave them $300 because they did such a bang-up job. Now our little casita, with its slanting roof, tiled floors, and little wooden doors that look like they’re at least 100 years old,  is both cute and clean! We’re happy campers.

We are finding the “real Mexico” via living in these colonial towns, and we are so mesmerized by their beauty. After Patzcuaro, we’re going to meet up with my mom, sister, and her husband, Paul, for a week back in Zihuatanejo. Then Pam, Andy, my mom and I will travel to the state of Guanajato and one of its well-known cities, San Miguel de Allende, where some 10,000 Americans and Canadians live. On our way, we will visit and stay in Patzcuaro and Morelia, and explore other “pueblos magicos” as they are officially designated … magical towns, indeed.

Here’s a link to some photos of our pad that Andy posted via Facebook.

So much to look forward to and so much to share with you!