Monday, December 5, 2016

SHELL GAME – The Ownership of Place and Culture


The first time I went to Costa Rica, my wife and I had signed on with a St. Paul travel company specializing in small, custom-made experiences in that amazing country.

The format differed a bit from the few “tours” we’d been on with other travel programs; we jumped from one group of fellow travelers to another, depending on where we were and how long we’d be there. But for most of our ten-day journey we were the charges of one tour guide: Jimmy.

Jimmy was friendly, helpful and well-versed in not only the varied flora and fauna of each of Costa Rica’s twelve distinct climate zones, but in his native country’s geography, geology, history, politics and social fabric. He was also charming and, at least in part because of his diminutive stature, lovable.

It’s certainly not very “adult” of me—I suppose you could call it a weakness—but I have a way of becoming ridiculously attached to people who guide and teach me. It’s a little like a kid’s adoration of a favorite camp counselor. And, sure enough, though he was young enough to be my son, I grew quite attached to Jimmy in that way.

I liked him not just because he knew so much about his country, but also simply because he was Costa Rican. I wanted to be more than his student, or even his friend; I wanted to be Costa Rican.

    I stood in front of Jimmy for what 
    seemed like a full minute searching 
    for the words I’d memorized.

Among his other gifts to me, Jimmy was kind and generous enough to help me a bit with my nascent Spanish. (I’ve always felt that learning at least a bit of a destination’s language and culture is essential to being fully present there.) So, as the end of our week together approached, it only made sense that I say my good-byes and express my thanks to Jimmy in his native tongue.

I crafted what I thought would be a manageable couple of sentences; I looked up the necessary vocabulary and grammar; and I practiced—on the bus, at night before bed, even in the shower—what I felt would be a perfect, accent-free little recitation.

I thought I was ready, but when the moment came, things were hectic. We all had buses to catch; other group members were lined up to thank and tip Jimmy; and the poor guy had all he could do to give everyone a few seconds to say adios and still manage his other responsibilities.

As our turn approached, I got stage fright. I stood in front of Jimmy for what seemed like a full minute searching for the words I’d memorized. After all that work, all those best intentions, I think all I managed was Muchas gracias, Jimmy.

    It just seems a little like ordering 
    the catch of the day, but expecting 
    it not to taste “fishy.”

I’ve regretted that awkward moment ever since—in fact, it has been one of my most powerful motivators in becoming a nearly-fluent Spanish speaker.

And there have been other such moments as I’ve traveled the world—other guides, teachers, folks who’ve welcomed me into their homes and families. I nearly always shed tears when I part company with new friends with whom I’ve shared a profound experience, and so it is when I bond with a place; I weep every year when Sally’s and my annual month in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico comes to an end.

Why do I—and perhaps you—become so attached to the people and places we’re privileged to visit? I suggest there are basically two kinds of travelers. The first are those who go places shielded in a shell of familiarity; the other, those whose main goal is to break out of that shell. 

Now I have nothing against the Cancuns or the Ocho Rioses of the world—those tourist enclaves where folks can go and spend a week or two with no surprises and all the comforts of home. Or those all-inclusive resorts designed to keep one even more contained, safeguarded from the locals and their ways of life.

But those experiences are not for me. It just seems a little like ordering the catch of the day, but expecting it not to taste “fishy.” Sure, spending your precious vacation time in that shell may ward off some unpleasant surprises, but it also deflects wonderful, potentially transformative ones.


For the past decade or so I’ve had a nearly insatiable appetite for travel in Latin America. This is due, in part, to my yearning for fluency in Spanish. But there’s more to it than that. I am coming to realize that, in a previous life, I was actually a Mexican fisherman. Though my rational side reminds me that I’m not prepared for the realities of that life, my romantic side says, why not?

I’d be close to the sea—that is, once I conquered my extreme susceptibility to seasickness. I’d have all those colorful, celebratory traditions, that amazing closeness of family that so many Latin Americans enjoy. I’d dance as if no one were watching. I’d be able to sit around a card table with my buddies drinking mescal and jabbering away in the kind of Spanish even quasi-hispanohablantes like me can barely decipher.

Yes, I know I can never be that Mexican fisherman—nor Jimmy’s compañero. But I can dream, can’t I?

Which type of traveler are you?

Thursday, March 31, 2016

HASTA PRONTO – A Farewell to Paradise

As we bid a wistful farewell to magical Zihuatanejo for another year, I share the fifth and final round of my Tequila Shots -- visual sips of this place I find so delicious and intoxicating.

These images pick up on the theme of my previous post, Up Close and Far Away, which invites amateur photographers—in fact, anyone who wants to see the world and life in more nourishing ways—to always be aware of both the exquisite detail and the broader context of virtually everything we experience.

Friday, March 25, 2016

PARADISE LOST – How Vacation Photos Miss the Boat

When one is on vacation, as Sally and I are for a month here in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico, one tends to appreciate sweeping new vistas. In our case, it's a tropical climate, with its exotic flora and fauna, cutting in on what was proving a long, grudging dance with a northern-North-America winter. And a whole people with faces, words and customs perhaps different from our own.

We want to paint it all with a broad brush, taking long shots of the sea, the beach...maybe the bar.  Look, Facebook friends, I am here!—we want them to see as much as possible in one or two photos. About as close to details we come is when we take pictures of the people we're sharing that experience with. And too many of those are taken quite spontaneously, with no regard for a background that might impart even the slightest notion of specifically where we are.

I've finally come to realize...why the question, "Want to see our vacation photos?" elicits more lame excuses than "Can you help us move?"

Believe me, I've taken a few of exactly that kind of photo. But I've finally come to realize—most often weeks later when I show them to someone else—why the question, "Want to see our vacation photos?" elicits more lame excuses than "Want to help me move?" The reason? Most of those images have no soul.

So in recent years, though I still shoot the occasional "look where I am and who's with me here" landscape and portrait, I've found myself drawn to more subjects I hope will capture a deeper sense of place and culture.

Here are some of those soul shots I've taken this month in and around Zihuatanejo. Images capturing very specific places—some of them no bigger than a square foot; the colors, shapes and patterns of a certain natural environment and a particular culture. And people—most often not posing, but captured at play or on the job, perhaps in a joyous or pensive or poignant moment.

If you're still with me to this point, I think you can tell that, every year, I leave more here in this lovely town than a chunk of dinero; I also leave a piece of my heart.

The Holy Week crowd of Mexican tourists begins on Playa La Ropa

Yeah! Maybe that older guy with the limp and the camera!

Up and away!

Primordial patterns

The breezy colors of la Calle Adelita

Sign-painting crew about to add sponsors' logos to firemen tribute

To every season...even if it's only two

Still life with fertility goddess and re-bar

Proud mamá and her beautiful little girl

, I am zi one zat inspired Godzilla

She's kept an eye out for fashion trends along Juan Alvarez for nearly a decade.

Entrance to the Vega household

One of Zihuatanejo's excellent strolling minstrels - a dying breed

Yellow-crowned night heron

Who is this young man whose passport photo settled into this crude stairway?

Fish guts - one of Zihuatanejo's many stunning murals

Banded Peacock - Anartia fatima

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

PATZCUARO - Michoacán's Place of Temples

Sally and I decided to take our first major excursion from our annual month in hot, humid Zihuatanejo to Pátzcuaro, a charming town of 50,000 up in the high country (elevation 7,000 feet) of central Michoacán. It would be our first visit to what we've heard is a beautiful area.

We buy our tickets a few days in advance for La Linea's 9:30 AM first-class bus to Uruapan, taking the advice of friends and snapping up front-row seats in the bus's upper level, which affords us a spectacular, panoramic view all the way.

This first leg's about a four-hour trip, starting northwest on the carretera libre 200 and then connecting with north-bound federal highway 37, a fairly well-maintained, two-and-a-half-lane toll road. (Vehicles, including trucks and big buses, routinely cross the double yellow line to pass, assuming oncoming vehicles will swing onto the wide shoulder to make room.)

We soon pass from the palms and brownish, dry-season landscape of the Costa Grande through coconut and mango plantations, winding eventually out of the Sierra Madre Del Sur and toward the southern end of the Sierra Madre Occidental. The further north, the higher we go, and the greener the vistas turn with deciduous forest and eventually patches of large conifers.

Once in Michoacán, we can easily see that here the avocado is king. (In fact, Michoacán is the world's largest producer of avocados.) We pass one vivero (plant nursery) after another, each displaying hundreds and hundreds of potted, two- to three-foot tall avocado saplings for sale. And between the nurseries, fields of full-grown avocado trees.

From Uruapan, we pick up a second-class bus for the one-hour jump to Pátzcuaro. With windows that don't completely shut, we're soon shivering in the ever-thinner, chillier air.

We'd heard that, due to its elevation, this part of Mexico would be a bit cooler than the Pacific coast. We feel prepared with light sweaters. But even Zihuatanejo had been unseasonably cool and rainy when we left, and when we start passing patches of fresh snow along the road, we know Patzcuaro will be upping—or should I say downing—the ante. In fact, the low temperature reaches the mid-30s both nights we're there.

As we near our destination, we catch glimpses of Lake Pátzcuaro, with its largest island, Janitzio, and its signature stone-block statue of José Maria Morelos, a great leader in the Mexican independence movement, towering 132 feet above the island's highest point. The lake's turbid khaki-color waters, full of silt and poorly treated effluent from the surrounding towns, are a less-than-appealing backdrop.

Instead of ending up at a centrally located bus station, we're dropped off along a street some distance from Centro Pátzcuaro. So we grab a crowded combi which takes us to La Plaza Chica, the smaller of central Pátzcuaro's two main plazas. From there, with help from a couple of nice locals, we walk the remaining blocks to our lodging for the next two nights, La Casa Encantada.

We're met at the rather inconspicuous entrance by manager Luis, who shows us to the Colonial, our lovely room—one, we're delighted to find, that features a beautiful gas fireplace. Luis then introduces us to the Casa's lovely owner, Victoria Ryan, who gives us the two-bit tour, showing off her wonderful collections of flora and art works—a number of which are of her own creation.

We spend the rest of the day walking around central Pátzcuaro, shopping the many excellent little artesianías galleries, taking in the unique art and architecture, and appreciating the handsome, friendly faces of the Patzcuarenses, many of them appearing still quite close to their indigenous Purhépecha roots.

Next morning, after a wonderful breakfast, made to order by La Casa's superb cook, Concha, we meet up with our handsome, capable guide, Jaime Hernández Balderas, for a counter-clockwise circle tour of the many interesting villages surrounding the lake.

Up the eastern shore to Ihuatzio, place of coyotes. Cucuchucho, place of shallow clay bowls. And my favorite—if for nothing but it's lilting, onomatopoeic name—Tzintzuntzan, place of hummingbirds, and one-time capital of the Purhépecha Empire.

In Tzintzuntzan we visit the archeological site of Las Yácatas, the Purhépecha ceremonial center, with its huge platform and five unique, key-shaped pyramids overlooking the lake.

Then it's on to the 16th-century Monastery of San Francisco, constructed, in part, from stone blocks re-purposed from ancient temples. (Some still bear carved symbols from that original use.)

The monastery also features many beautiful, partially-restored frescoes and sculptures. And nearby, artisans display the area's unique green-and-brown-glazed pottery, woodcarving, woven straw and basketry.

In Quiroga, just off the northeast corner of the lake, we'd been counting on a lunch of the town's famous carnitas. Turns out the only carnitas place serving meat on this, a Friday during Lent, is, aptly, El Rey de Las Carnitas, The Carnitas King, famous throughout the region. Mm-m-m-m, ¡Sabroso!

In Santa Fe de la Laguna, we meet Manuel Jerónimo Reyes, a craftsman who makes elaborate, black-glazed pottery, including amazing candelabras. We buy one, hoping it can survive the trip back home to Minnesota with us.

Finally, heading around the top of the lake and down the western shore, more villages, more evocative, tongue-twisting names: Chupícuaro, San Jerónimo Purenchécuaro, Oponguio, Eronguarícuaro… 

Besides the constant, unifying presence of the lake, the landscape seems stitched together in a latticework of stone walls, their volleyball- to basketball-sized stones, stacked with no mortar and no attempt to fill in spaces with smaller rocks. Painted with age and several colors of lichen, they are surprisingly colorful and airy.

In Tocuaro, the last stop on our tour, woodcarver Don Juan Horta is not home when we come, but his wife shows us his incredible, finely carved and hand-painted masks. We buy an unpainted mask for one of Sally's art students back home—who loves masks—to finish.

Back at La Casa Encantada, we find we're still too stuffed from our late lunch to go out for dinner, and opt for a cozy—again, it's headed down to the mid 30's outside—instant ramen snack and reading by the fire for our last night here.

Heading up the block to the nearest miscelánea for the ramen, I'm drawn out of my way to the Plaza Grande and the sound of music. It's a wonderful, peaceful scene – people walking and sitting on benches talk quietly; teenage couples hold hands; a few kids play; and an adult chorus gives a concert for an audience of 20 or 30 folks.

Next morning, as we taxi back to Uruapan for the bus leg home to Zihuatanejo, that image plays back again and again as I commit this sweet, deeply-historic, richly-cultured place, Pátzcuaro—place of temples—to fond memory.