Central America | Mexico | Central Mexico | Michoacan – The Magic Town
The English brochure for Patzcuaro which I picked up at the hostel in Morelia called it “The Magic Town.” Disappointed that we could not follow through with plans to visit Oaxaca, we sought our next best option in the small colonial town of Patzcuaro, a beautiful city painted red and white, nestled into a lush green valley surrounded by mountains and divided by the lake. Our bus ride here was missing the end-of-the-world movies, the cushy seats, and climate control, but within six hours we found ourselves, indeed, in “The Magic Town.”
There are many reasons that Patzcuaro earns its nickname in my book, and most of them rest in the hearts of Patzcuaro’s residents. Here is a sampling of the magical encounters we’ve had thus far:
1. We arrived around 6:00 p.m. without a reservation but with a suggestion in mind. That hotel was booked, but a short walk down the street and we found ourselves on the most charming of small lanes at the doorstep of a hotel called “Hotel Posado del Los Angeles.” On the roof was a little black poodle (later we learned his name was “Oso,” or Bear). At the reception desk we were greeted by Miguel Angel, the sweetest and shyest host who immediately quoted us a price lower then the price published and put himself in our good graces. He showed us to our room which opens up onto a tiled patio with flowers, artwork, and wrought iron furniture.
2. We had dinner at “El Patio” restaurant on the main square. Our waiter was friendly and full of recommendations for our stay while the food was delicious (try: “Sopa Tarasca” or “Milenesa de Pollo”). As we left the restaurant, we heard what sounded like fireworks. The same sound that had unnerved me in D.F., found me looking up to the sky to fireworks exploding in Patzcuaro. As we stood looking up at the fire, a young boy came over to us from across the street and excitedly told us about the festival. We had arrived on the day that commemorates the Virgin of Health, apparently the celebrated virgin of the city. He offered to show us to the Basilica where the fiesta was winding down with such enthusiasm and welcome in his voice we just couldn’t trust it yet (By #6 below, we learn that it seems we could have followed him after all).
3. Instead, we sought out the Cultural Center behind us where hoards of people were leaving. Turns out we had missed a free play that night called “Maleta se Muerte,” which I translated as “Carry a big suitcase and it will kill you,” with memories of Suzanne lugging her gigantic suitcase through the London Metro five years ago. We were disappointed to have missed it, especially Kelley who majored in theatre. But we walked into the Cultural Center anyway. We were greeted by a man who worked there. Even though he was busy shutting down the center for the night, turning out lights, and ushering people away, he saw our disappointment in having missed the show and took us on a personal tour of the building. This meant climbing a flight of stairs where he turned on the lights and revealed three huge murals depicting the history of Patzcuaro. He explained them all to us and seemed happy to answer our questions. Then, he threw in a quick showing of the antique movie reels being housed in the next door room.
4. Without the ten year old boy as our tour guide, we walked over to the Basilica ourselves. We’d clearly missed the heart of the celebration but as we were about to turn back towards our hotel, a band struck a chord, a full band of brass which we followed the tune to find. They were tucked behind a fence by the Basilica walls and as a crowd gathered, they stopped playing. Turns out they were on for the next day and this was only rehearsal, but it filled the streets with music nonetheless. (Throughout our stay in Patzcuaro, there would be many impromptu musical moments: a group of teenagers singing a cappella in the square for no apparent reason and another group of brass practicing a march, both at dusk.)
5. Back at the hotel, we were immediately greeted by the owner of the hotel, a 60ish man with a jovial disposition. He wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of Patzcuaro. He told us about all the people he knew from Michoacan who had moved to California, and I told him about my students and my recent trip to Big Sur, a place he’s visited many times. He used to teach as well, math and science, and he seemed delighted to have us staying in his hotel. We conversed for at least ten minutes, all the while he had his warm hand securely grasping my right elbow. Normally I would have jerked my arm away, but he did it in a grounding way, as if to tell me I was safe here. Every day since we’ve been here, we’ve seen our host Dionysio and he has grabbed steadily onto my elbow and chatted happily, spouting off recommendations for our stay and showing disappointment in our upcoming departure.
6. But, perhaps the most magical part of our visit altogether happened not within those first hours in Patzcuaro but at the end of our second night here. We’d spent the day wandering through the Folk Art Museum, the 11 Patios of Artesian crafts, and to the lookout onto the lake. It was getting late and our last stop before returning to our hotel room was for another bottle of water before bed. Kelley had noticed a place near the hotel and suggested we go there. As we were buying our bottle of water, a gaggle of kids came snickering into the corner shop and struck up a conversation with us. They wanted to know where were from. When we announced, “Los Estados Unidos,” one of the smallest girls couldn’t contain herself; she burst forth, “That’s where my dad lives now.” (This outburst was much different than the earlier one in which a group of boys kicking a soccer ball down the street taunted us by reminding us that the U.S. lost the World Cup in the first round.) The shopkeeper filled us in by telling us her dad was working in Massachusetts since the little girl, Paola, had no idea how far away her daddy really was. Pretty soon all of the children were introducing themselves to us. I asked them if they were siblings and one of the smallest, Dahlia, said, “No solo amigos.” I couldn’t help but think of the group of friends we’d met in Playa Azul and imagine them as children like these. When we left them they were full of well-wishes and told us to enjoy our stay. We walked up the street a few doors and all five or six of them popped their heads out the shop window and waved enthusiastically at us.
All smiles, we entered the hotel and told Miguel Angel how much we loved these kids, how cute and welcoming they were. As he was agreeing, the gaggle arrived at our hotel and we were held captive by their energy and attention for more than hour. It was already nearing 10:00 p.m. but these kids were so delighted to have company and entertain. Spanning from the ages of 5 to 11, they did everything from handstands to clown acts, to sitting down on the curb next to us and putting a soft head on our shoulders to earn our love for them. They wanted to know everything, from how old we were to how tall. Several of the kids went to retrieve their siblings to talk to us also. Miguel Angel joined the conversation for a while, trying to explain to the kids why there were some things we couldn’t quite understand. The biggest in size of the group was Rafael who introduced himself as “El Capitan.” He liked to tell jokes that we just couldn’t understand as Americans. He also was unabashed about pointing out how fat his belly was getting these days. They circled around us making us dizzy, but we enjoyed them so much. Before we knew it the conversation turned to English as we’d let it slide that we were both English teachers. None of these kids spoke any English but they wanted to know everything. We were showered with hundreds of questions and thrown into what looked like a TPR exercise (if you aren’t an English teaching geek this means “Total Physical Response,” a method of teaching that uses a lot of body language and kinetics to make meaning). You can imagine them pointing at their ear and asking for the word in English, pointing to the roof, the headlights, their eyes, nose, teeth, and on and on. Two of the girls, Paola and Gabriela, asked if they could run home and get their “libreta” or notebook. Kelley and I could never have said no to such eager students. They returned skipping up the cobblestones and proceeded to sit next to us on the curb and write down English words, which I was certain they wouldn’t know how to read later thanks to English’s awful spelling “rules.” Their enthusiasm never dimmed and we just kept telling them as much as we could.
Unfortunately, child energy sucks adult energy away, and I can say for myself I was drained though glowing with having made friends with this group of children. They were so disappointed when we said we had to go to bed (at 10:30 mind you while they were still playing on the street). They asked us if we could meet them again tomorrow and go to the park for games with them, but we had plans to visit some of the lakeside villages and we told them we’d have to see.
It was hard not to think of my students back home, who I have to beg to bring pen and paper let alone to get them to do any of the work. Kindling a fire for their education feels like the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. Kelley and I both wondered what was so different here, besides the fact that we deal with teenagers and the aloof front customary at that age. No real answer has surfaced, but it seems safe to say that so many of our students have had to leave the places that are familiar to them. Mustering enthusiasm for the foreign when you are not anchored to the familiar is tiring. My own experience here in Mexico teaches me that after spending the last academic year navigating what felt like a foreign country to me, I am left with so little for exploring what is not familiar to me now. Despite the magic of this town, I long for home and the recovery I need from a year of wandering with eyes wide open and tongue tied. Without a doubt, the last two weeks here have reminded me of my students’ experiences, and with luck will keep ringing in my heart as I return to the classroom next month.