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Life Arts

Caged Birds of Patzcuaro

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A lake, mountains, an ancient village, flowers, a good meal; one could be content with that.

What continues to surprise is often what we don't expect to see that, set amidst a new town or experience, can change a singular moment into a rush of memories. I suppose that is why I am compelled to travel; it always manifests into something other than the expected, becoming an amalgam of past and present.

The bus from Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, takes you straight to Patzcuaro. It is said to possess a unique beauty and charm, surrounded by slopes of volcanic mountains, pine forests, and especially rich in history, myth, and magic. But to be fair, most Mexican villages boast a rich heritage, charming squares and bustling mercados, at least one antique church and often, tales of supernatural and spiritual happenings - fantasmas or milagros that defy explanation by mere mortals.    

But even the most skeptical might be curious about a village believed to be magical.

Patzcuaro is such a town.   In Mexico, the Programa Pueblos Magicos (Magical Villages Program) promotes villages throughout the country that are deemed "magical" by possessing an abundance of cultural riches and historical relevance. However, it's more than just that.   Many of the towns bestowed with this honor are known for their "magical experiences," an element unique enough to set them apart from even the most captivating of Mexican villages.   

I wanted to see it all; ghosts weeping through tangled bougainvillea along ancient stone walls, the town square and its people, the local arts and crafts, but equally so, the vast lake and islands, the density of indigenous and migratory birds, and the terraced purple volcanoes. Lake Patzcuaro teemed with songbirds and waterfowl, some migratory, but year round was a cacophony of song, shrill and melodic, often haunting, echoing across its opaque green waters.   Legend said that the natives had long believed that the lake was the place where the barrier between life and death was the thinnest.   Later, when I stood at its edge and looked down into the darkness, I could imagine why.  

The plaza and surrounds were decidedly different. I was used to Mexican towns whose building facades were the colors of the homemade ice cream sold from carts in nearly every square; pastels of guava pink, pistachio, lilac, pina colada, pale tamarindo.   Or those villages, who for centuries, splashed adaptations of primaries in turquoise and indigo blue, mustard, mango, blood red.   So I didn't expect the prevailing wash of stark white paint on the centuries old buildings that stung my eyes from the reflecting sun. I averted my gaze, resting on the abundance of well-tended flowers and potted plants that the townspeople were known for. They loved their flowers and took great pride in their gardens.   Whether a single window box or grand courtyard, one magnificent calla lily or a patio jungle, blossoms were as ubiquitous as cobbled streets.  

Through a thin stand of ash trees my eyes settled on an old man in a wheelchair. Perhaps his brittle bones and equilibrium had adjusted to the constant jolting of rusted wheels being pushed over the undulating and unforgiving ancient stones; stones laid long before anyone here had put chair to wheels. He seemed oblivious to the lurching of his body and it reminded me of those long at sea who step onto land only to have their sea legs wobble and give way at the feel of solid ground. His pallid color, the dull gray of the chair, appeared out of sync with the colors of the Plaza Grande and the surrounding balconies of old haciendas and colonial era mansions whose windows pulsed with begonias, hydrangeas, and leggy geraniums. He seemed like a singular vision in black and white that had been spliced into a color photograph.  

Rounding the arc of the plaza I stopped at a small street market selling produce, straw goods, copper pieces, and birds.   The captive birds caught along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro were often sold at this marketplace, the Plaza Chica, by bird vendors and for the enjoyment of those who, in makeshift cages, liked to harness small hearts, colored feathers and morning song.

The songbirds reminded me of Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley of Kenya. My guide, Jack, an admirer of birds and amateur ornithologist, who loved his roasted meats, would often use his last few shillings to buy songbirds caught near the banks of Naivasha and the surrounding forests. They were sold on the main road that led out of town, and he would buy as many as he could afford for no other reason than to let them go. He worked as a safari guide and called all songbirds CAN-are-ies.   I remember him pointing to a tiny yellow bird hidden in the tall thicket of the bush.   CAN-are-ie, he whispered.   I didn't recognize the name. But then I realized his CAN-are-ies, were my can-ARIES.   He was a big man who loved small birds.

Travel and intense sun had stirred my appetite.   As I was new to the village I was unfamiliar with its many outdoor cafes that dotted the plaza, but it was a single potted plant of fragrant white blossoms that drew me inside a courtyard off the main calle. The smell of citrus blossom was seductive and a handwritten placard hanging on a stone wall read "comida 50 pesos." The restaurant was in the courtyard of an old hacienda that had sadly fallen into disrepair. The hacienda's crumbling stone walls, the columns dark with stains from the damp and cooking oils, and the chipped turquoise floor tiles, only hinted of the grandeur that once prevailed. One of the stone walls was dedicated to a dozen cages filled with birds. The splash of color of the songbirds looked like a rainbow that had been trapped in so many wooden boxes and nailed to the crumbling gray stone.

From upstairs came smells from the open kitchen that faced the inner courtyard and where eight tables sat ready; only one taken.   The comforting aromas of simmering chicken soup, ground corn, pungent garlic, and ripe fruit were as intoxicating as the tangerine blossoms and I couldn't imagine eating anywhere else. There was no menu, only the offering of the day, much of what I had inhaled before catching eye of the daily special; guacamole with totopos, sopa de pollo, enchiladas verdes, and gelatin de leche, a Mexican Jell-O of sorts, flavored gelatin made with milk. This version had been filled with fruit cocktail and cut into cubes of primary colors, like giant confetti, and splashed with sweet condensed milk. A pitcher of papaya water sat on a sideboard.

As I made my way to a table I nodded and smiled to the old man in the wheelchair and his wife, strangely enough the only other customers. The stack of dirty dishes on the nearby sideboard confirmed that they were well into their comida.   From the corner of my eye, I watched as the wife patiently fed each spoonful to her husband. They never spoke. He looked straight ahead as he chewed, his eyes alive, vibrant and belying his broken and motionless body. He concentrated on the wall of captive songbirds perched on fragile sticks or a single branch placed in their tiny boxes; for the most part silent, except when one would sing, a calling out, hoping only to hear another bird's reply, that it was not alone.

The man knew the birds and the birds knew the man.

When I first saw the old man being wheeled down the few streets of the plaza, I felt my body tighten as I remembered all too well the pain I'd seen from my past; the suffering of lifeless limbs and scraping bone being maneuvered in a wheelchair until the body disappeared. I braced myself against an old wooden door and forced myself to look up and admire the draping of pale blue plumbago from a mustard yellow window box.    

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A native Californian, Jan Baumgartner is a writer and book editor. After many years along the coast of Maine, she now lives full time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She's recently finished editing two books; one, a memoir for a non-profit in (more...)
 

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After a very long dry spell, only working as a boo... by Jan Baumgartner on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 12:20:03 AM
I'm sure everyone wants to read about place settin... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 6:00:21 AM
wow, beautiful, and what a gorgeous breath of fres... by Meryl Ann Butler on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 9:02:02 AM
Thank you so much, Meryl Ann. Your support is inv... by Jan Baumgartner on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 11:36:19 AM
so glad you "decided to walk."  ;-)... by Meryl Ann Butler on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 11:13:40 PM
I can only say it is a pity you can't read Constan... by Mark Sashine on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 9:09:41 AM
Mark, you've been both encouragement and a source ... by Jan Baumgartner on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 11:45:04 AM
There are things to celebrate on this earth that a... by Theresa Paulfranz on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 12:00:24 PM
Wasn't able to comment because it'd been so long s... by mikel paul on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 1:35:44 PM
     In the sixties I was told... by Umbagog on Saturday, Mar 2, 2013 at 2:33:57 PM