by David P. Stern        
A journal of a 2006 visit


September 10, 2006

    A day of travel, with a layover in Houston lasting close to 8 hours. Samir Chettri--God bless him--took us to the airport a hefty 3 hours early, as rules demand, but the security check was a breeze and left us with hours to kill. Luckily Audrey had her "sudoku" puzzles, while I had Carl Franz's "The People's Guide to Mexico," a priceless book picked up for 50 cents at the PTA sale on Labor Day. It provides unique guidance, the distillation of 25 years of travel, aimed (it seemed) at much younger travelers, riding an old WW bus, well supplied with beer but less so with cash. Not your conventional guide, more of a travelogue loaded with experienced advice, well told and often rather funny.

    The Houston airport is gigantic, Houston can just be dimly glimpsed from it, distant tall buildings shrouded in mist. The terminal contains several independent hubs connected by a small train, and the one we rode unexpectedly got stuck by some malfunction. But we had plenty of time, enough even for a lunch at "Chili's", not half bad. The final leg of the flight was on an "Embraer" jet built in Brazil, a narrow cabin with 2+1 seating, arriving in Chihuahua at 10:05.

    The terminal was rather small and our flight appeared to be the last of the day. All counters were closing down, but no Horacio! A fellow passenger volunteered to Audrey to help if wegot stuck--a young lady engineer with freckled Oriental face, meanwhile I looked vainly for an Anahuac phonebook; that town turned out to be more distant than I had thought, not 40 miles but maybe 80. Then around 10:30 Horacio appeared and suddenly, no more panic. He immediately and cheerfully took charge of the situation, packed us into his SUV and soon we were skirting Chihuahua and heading for the toll road to Cuauhtemoc.

    Some numbers: Chihuahua has about 700,000 people, is capital of its eponymous province and its second largest city (trailing Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso). Cuauhtemoc used to be a small city named San Antonio (one of many by that name), at a time when practically all cities were named for saints, legacy of Spain. In 1924 the government instituted sweeping changes and renamed it after the last Aztec emperor, successor to Moctezuma, whom the Spaniards also murdered. Now it was growing rapidly, with about 125,000 people making it (I think) 3rd in the state. Anahuac, some 10 or 15 km towards Chihuahua, had 15,000 people and the COPAMEX paper mill.

    "Anahuac" is also the wide valley where Mexico City stands, both places are about a mile high and altogether Mexico has 7 communities named "Anahuac." This one sits higher than Chihuahua, is greener and rainier with about 400 mm rain falling (mostly) in August-October and fluctuating considerably year to year. North-west of it is a muddy shallow lake, about 5 miles long and quite wide, shrinking and expanding with the rainfall, a bit like Mono Lake in California. Mexico City was founded on an island in a similar lake (but much bigger), a high lake formed when volcanoes cut off its outlet to the sea.

    We see our first Mexican money: 11 pesos make one dollar, more or less, though the peso is still denoted by the $ symbol. About 10 years ago inflation had reduced the peso to 1/10 of a cent, but then the government lopped off three zeros to make it again equal to the dollar. Since then it had eroded again: will it stabilize? Hard to tell. Mauricio whom we asked about the future of Mexico was not sure. Supposedly, in the south of the country conditions are much worse off than in the north.

    Anahuac, 11 September 2006

    Busy day.. Audrey and I sleep on the pull-out couch bed in the living room (we'd rather not displace Cesar). We could have slept longer, but at 7 Eva gets up to prepare breakfast to allow Cesar to leave around 8 for school in Cuauhtemoc. Then she gets her daughters Eva Laura and Claudia Sophia ready for their school, Horacio leaves around 8 for the nearby factory, and Eva herself goes to work at 9.

    So we start the day tired. Took a shower, then walked to town, to Eva's new accounting office, next to a bank, within easy walking distance. The buildings sloping walls give it a pyramid-like slant, the sign says "Depacho Contable" and under it is Eva's title and full (maiden) name "L.C. Eva Yolanda Parra Rascon." In the room next to hers she maintains an "Internet Caf" with 3 computers and vended snacks.

    Their house is quite nice--3 bedrooms, a room for storage and laundry, big living room,plus kitchen and dining--it is owned by the paper mill, which charges about $60 per month. Later I wondered why it stayed warm in the late afternoon, and was told it was built of adobe--a cover of watertight stucco makes it look like any conventional home. Had the Chavez'es owned it, they might perhaps have fixed its worn floors and sticking doors, but those are minor blemishes. In the middle of the central hallway is an opening for a chimney--perhaps in winter a stove is placed there to keep the house warm, or one used to stand there.

    Audrey and I walk down the street and cross the railroad, to the main street which parallels it. Many stores there, clean and orderly, but customers are few, the town depends on jobs at the COPAMEX factory. The factory itself has shrunk from 900 to 500 employees after its owners decided it was cheaper to import the raw material, paper pulp, from Canada or from the US. Many cars are on the street, but a lot of them look worn and smell of emissions. And the sidewalks seem to be the responsibility of storefront owners: each frontage seems to choose its own preferred height, so one constantly steps up or down, and also must look out for sloping concrete ramps, crossing the sidewalk from the street to some doorway.

    The main meal of the day is at 3 pm, after Cesar returns from school--some days he gets a ride, other days he takes the bus, about 10 km. Today is a special occasion, Cesar's 14th birthday, and Horacio's mother Yolanda has also come from Cuauhtemoc. She is 67 and used to teach English for 25 years--an energetic, upbeat, talkative lady, proud to be Mexican. With her came her husband Roberto, Horacio's stepfather, who is 80 and a bit slower.

    After the meal Roberto drove us to the lake below Anahuac, which has recently expanded, following a heavy rainfall. The rain had also interrupted service on the Copper Canyon rail line and the headline said (I think) the schedule was "in God's hand." On the way we passed ponds where the paper mill aerates and recycles its waste water, a large conservation effort.

    This is the rainy season and the valley is green and looks fertile. Not the Mexico we had expected--so unlike the deserts of the southwestern USA! The road passed green fields in which stalks of corn grew randomly among wild oats: they used to be cultivated, we were told, but after 10 years of drought, farmers abandoned them and went north, crossing illegally into the US to find farm work there. This year the drought has ended and clouds on the horizon suggested more rain coming this way.

    Then we drove through Anahuac to the lone hill rising in its midst, topped by a large stainless steel cross erected two years ago. No regular road leads to the top, you just must take the right unpaved street (Roberto tried a few before hitting the right one) and follow it as it degenerates to a track lined with stones and gravel. Somehow the car got to the top, though walking may have been simpler. Most roads in Anahuac--and even in Cuauhtemoc, a much bigger city--are unpaved. They are quite wide, (another reason the city cannot afford to pave them), and rainwater may sculpture them or sweep stones onto them.

    Like so much else, money is probably involved. The toll road from Chihuahua to Cuauthemoc is in great shape. Federal highways are fairly good, too, just a bit narrower--after all, the federal government has its oil money. State roads depend on state funds, apparently more skimpy, and city streets seem last in line. Similarly, state schools up to 6 th grade have uneven quality, above that the federal government takes over, and they get better. All are free.

    A family was visiting the cross, and a rather wolflike half-grown gray puppy roamed around, apparently nobody's. The view of lake, mountains and hills was great. Yolanda stood by the cross, looked around the land and said, "I love this land, I love Mexico." Off to the side was a tiny shrine, perhaps 4' high with a barred door in front. Inside were a small chipped Madonna doll, plastic flowers, candles and a placque "Sgdo. Corazon de Jesus" (Sacred heart of Jesus) and under it "Te Rogamos Seor Benedigas Este Hogar Para Que Nunca nos Falte Paz, Sau... Amor",

    We went back to Eva: the two girls had come back from school, as had Cesar, and all computers were busy--Cesar seemed to play a game, Eva Laura googled for homework, and Claudia Sofia was looking up pretty dresses. That little one is all heart--such a joyful personality, such big soulful eyes, had she looked at you and asked for the Moon, you would probably have done all you can to provide it.


    These notes were written in the backyard, which has grass and a treehouse. The trees looks pollarded (big trunk, with similar branches radiating from the same height) while next door, in the yard of a house provided by the paper mill for visitors (according to its sign), a big pine has been cut off rather crudely about 20 feet above ground. I suddenly notice that the tree in front of Horacio's house, perhaps the tallest of the lot, has many big birds on it. They turn out to be turkey vultures: Horacio does not like them, they litter the front with foul droppings, but so far they are too few to be bothersome, and anyway he never uses the front door since it sticks badly to its frame. The big pine tree next door, he said, had some 100 vultures nested in it, which was why it was finally cut off.

Copied from notes:

        Strange land, Mexico. Lots of adobe: as one moves away from the main street, adobe fences abound, and houses reveal adobe bricks through gaps in their stucco. Electric connections look improvised--every house has an electric meter, but I doubt many would pass the Maryland inspection code.

    The 3 pm dinner is a sumptuous meal--chicken, tortillas, rice, broccoli in cheese sauce, hot sauce for those who want it. Cesar reads grace from a laminated card kept in the holder of paper napkins, on which a different prayer was printed for each day of the week.

    Then came the birthday celebration. Eva had bought a cake with special basket-weave frosting, then heaped fruit on the middle, and of course, put little candles all around. Cesar tried to blow them out in one puff, but Horacio--who set up his camera on a tripod-- was not happy with the photograph, so all were relit and Cesar tried again.

    Then Eva removed the fruit and the cake was cut. First, a circle was cut out in the middle as Cesar's special piece, and also to make it easier to divide the rest into wedges. A tasty fragrant cake, its remainders ended up in the refrigerator. We gave Cesar the birthday present we had brought, a "20Q" game in Spanish, the electronic game of 20 questions. It was ordered over the web from Quebec, and Cesar loved it.

    The house is nicely decorated, trophies of a lifetime of which each probably tells a story. Yolanada's home is even more so, with a stuffed cat (yes!) resting lifelike on the sofa backrest, also a wooden carving of an eagle ("I love to watch them flying gracefully"), a huge collection of commemorative spoons ("Cucharas", a word to remember) and a lot more. The entrance wall to Eva's kitchen has a little display-plaque of her family, each with a button-like face, painted and varnished with names burned in--it came from the WalMart in El Paso where the family goes for shopping, a 5-hour car trip. Among other things, El Paso is the only place where Eva can find pants to fit her daughter Eva-Laura, who has the slim figure of a Barbie Doll.

    The living room where we slept on the old sofa-bed has a nice display case, also a computer (often occupied by Cesar) and above it two clocks--one a stylish modern pendulum clock and one (probably from El Paso too) with a plastic frame in which commemorative US quarters are embedded, all but the two most recent ones.

    Many of the decorations are Christian. Church and state are separate in Mexico, but Catholic devotion runs deep. Every night before the Chavez kids go to bed, the family meets in the parents' bedroom, sits in a circle on the bed, holds hands and prays together. A touching display of faith, no matter what one's own beliefs are.

    Anahuac, Tuesday 12 September

    Eva asked me--what did I want for lunch? I said "Huevos Rancheros," thinking of the simple dish at the "Alamo", eggs and tortillas. Not here: Eva whipped up a huge omelet with peppers and tomatoes (giving it the colors of Mexico's flag, incidentally), and of course, tortillas, which are always good, real masa taste. On main street the previous day we passed a tortilla bakery, a woman was weighing packages and wrapping them in wax paper.

    Later Horacio (who had taken the day off) drove us to Cuauhtemoc, a large, sprawling town, one-story buildings and a few factories at the entrance. First he visited an uncle, who runs some workshop to repair electronics, and after some conversation there took us north to visit the Mennonite colony.

    The Mennonites are named for Simon Mennon (1496-1536), the Dutch founder of an independent church which abhorred any form of violence, in a period when violence was widespread and the church not always was a haven of peace. Other parallel movements originated then--the Quakers with George Fox, the Amish (who I think split from Mennonites), Hutterites, Moravians etc. The Mennonite Museum which we visited had a big wall chart which traced all the streams and their many splinters. Mennonites differ from the Amish mainly by willingly using machinery, though both are mainly farmers.

    The Mennonites in particular abstained from violence, and after the governments tried to conscript them, asked Katherina the Great for permission to settle in Russia (Ukraina?) in return for being freed of any conscription, and also allowed to speak their low-German dialect, a bit similar to Dutch. Katherina agreed, but a century later some successor reneged on the promise, triggering a second exodus to Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They thrived there--since they were Germanic, few wanted to conscript them for WW-I, anyway--but around 1920 the provincial government demanded that their kids attend public schools. Some obeyed and are still there, but others appealed to the president of Mexico, who allowed them to come on their own terms. This was shortly after the Mexican revolution which restricted land ownership to 200 acres, and while many families sidestepped this by deeding land to wives, children, uncles etc., a lot of land was still available at a good price.

    So the land north of Cuauhtemoc now has about 300 Mennonite "camps", proliferating rapidly (families have 8-12 kids), growing miles and miles of apple trees, shielded by a zig-zag roof of black netting, also having machine workshops and importing goods from Canada. Their museum is built of wood, in the old style--old tractors stand outside, while inside are old-style Mennonite farm rooms with chests brought from Russia, wardrobes and clever kitchen implements, e.g. a primitive wooden washing machine.

    We spent some time there and then returned to Cuauhtemoc to visit Horacio's mother Yolanda, whose house is right below the hill overlooking the city. Cuauhtemoc has just built a beautiful colorful public park on that peak, with pools, falling water, stairways, shaded benches and a railing allowing visitors a 360-degree view. Horacio however remembers the time when the hill was bare (now it's all built up), he and friends used to play on it and Yolanda's home below was at the end of town, not in its middle. It is a small, quiet, tasteful house, from the gecko sculpture climbing the outside wall to the inside yard, where Yolanda grows tomatoes along a wall.

    Yolanda's father, Fidencio Sánchez Trillo, was the second doctor in Cuauhtemoc, and the first ob/gyn (Horacio says "children's doctor" but I think that's was at least part of his job). He originally came from Guadelajara in the south (Mexico's 2nd city), studied medicine and saved his money, sending it back home to be saved for his own wedding.

    He came home and found his parents had spent it: "we had debts." It made him angry, but he decided to get married anyway, and took up a job in a mining town in the north, where he did well. The owner of the mine had a daughter with a complicated pregnancy, and wanted her flown to the US for delivery. "There is no time" said Horacio's grandfather, "if you try to fly her out, both she and the baby will die on the way." Instead, he undertook the risky delivery himself, and both mother and child were safe.

    The owner and his family were happy, but the mine itself was declining. A colleague then wrote from Cuauhtemoc which was just starting to grow, "come here, I am the only doctor in town and there is plenty of practice for both of us." So he moved, and today the city has hundreds of doctors, also a nursing school (?) named for the grandfather.

    He had several sons, but Yolanda was his only daughter, and Horacio her only son. She then scandalized the family by getting a divorce, and for two years afterwards her father would not talk to her: eventually, they reconciled. Horacio's father moved to another city further north, remarried and had two more children. After a long interval, Horacio got to meet him again, and they keep distant but cordial relations. The grandfather was also the one who insisted that Horacio study English and attend school in the USA.

    After returning to Greenbelt, Horacio wrote more (16 October):

        My grandfather was a pediatrician, (I do not know right know, if he was also an obstetrician) but as a student he was required to do some obstetrics work, such as assisting in the delivery of babies and the use of forceps. This tool was described (not actually the tool itself, but how he came to use it) by my grandfather during his talks with me. To make it brief, at medical school, they were required to see the use the forceps at least once, in order to gain some skills, so they could get a passing grade. The actual procedure was done either by an intern or by a doctor. So my grandfather decided that in order to learn, he had to do it himself. And he did. But he got reprimanded and was suspended for some time. Afterwards, he talked to another teacher, Dr. Delgadillo, (The Dr. later became part of the Illustrious people from Guadalajara, due to his achievements as a Dr. and as a person). And they went to a hearing with the school principal. At the end, the use of forceps was mandatory, I believe, for the students to perform at least 3 times while studying.

    I know nothing about Roberto, who is 80, rather quiet and once lived in Los Angeles. I thought he did not speak English; in fact, I was surprised that, considering that English is taught in school (not to mention Hollywood films), rather few Mexicans speak English, though gestures and a few basic words can go quite far. Roberto's big hobby is his electric train set, which runs in the open backroom--former garage?--on an elevated track, just above head level, an old-fashioned train patterned after the Pacific and Rio Grande railroad.

    About 40 years ago Horacio's grandfather's car rounded a curve between Chihuahua and Cuauhtemoc when a tire blew out and the car rolled over. Horacio's grandmother was gravely injured and died a day or two later; his father needed surgery and never again walked properly, he needed a cane. Still, he lived to age of 94, dying in 2002. He was not always pleasant--e.g. he gave hell to patients who did not come to his office as clean as he expected them to be. But he was a good doctor, and Horacio asked me for a copy of "Night Calls" by Henry Eisenberg to get a better insight of his grandfather's profession. It was sent.


    The notes below were written almost 2 months later--November 6, eve of election day. Most were adapted from a letter to Allon and from another to Mauricio.

            Today our host Horacio took us to Cuauthemoc and beyond, to Mennonite villages. Also we stopped at the train station to ask if the train was running again, because floods had washed out some track. (We were told it was going to run.)

        It is quite green here, and last night we got a thunderstorm. The Chavez family is wonderfully, warm, and works hard; imagine, last night Horacio had to sign his son's notebook, to certify that Cesar had worked at least 25 minutes on his homework! Eva runs an accounting office with an internet cafe, and when we visited her in the afternoon all three of its computers were busy, each with one of her children. (another letter)

        Another day in this beautiful high plains of Mexico. At night a violent thunderstorm broke out, and now water flows down streams and dirt roads, it even carved a little channel down the middle of our dirt street, Arisiachic street. FYI, our phone number here is 585 0943, we may try reach you by phone, but it is not easy. As one Texan said, it is a whole new country once you cross the Rio Grande.

        ... Later in the evening we invited the entire family to the Buffalo Steakhouse in Cuauthemoc, a lovely wooden barn tastefully decorated and carved, not far from the Mennonites. All went well, the meat was unlike any Mexican fare, beef of course, very good, with both tortillas and rolls, also baked potato... too much food, we saved some for dinner. Then seven mariachi marched in and conversation became impossible. Their music is pretty, but also, so loud! Two trumpets, plus guitars of all sizes, including an outsized one. I tipped each with a Sacajawea dollar.

    Anahuac, Wednesday 13 September

    I wrote:
        Today around 7 I give a talk in the factory, I hope it goes well.

    The days pass in a daze. Our hosts do not believe in morning coffee (Eva gets her caffeine from coke), but they happily brewed some for us gringos, using coffee from a large tin they had. Today we discovered it was all decaf! Evening comes and we collapse, then at 6.30 the factory whistle lets loose and soon the kids need to eat and leave for schools. Big sleep deficit.

    It will take a while to digest what we have seen, but then again, this is just a corner of Mexico. Yesterday the Copper Canyon train did not run because the rain had washed out some bridges. For today we were promised it will be back in service, but that was before last night's thunderstorms.

    Have already forgotten how the rest of the day went. I spent a fair amount of time straightening out slides for the evening (and still, they were not all proper size). Also talked to Horacio about science--opened up the "SOHO" disk I brought from NASA, and tried to explain it, which was not easy.

    Whoever assembled that disk made sure to include a great diversity of images, but their significance cannot be appreciated without proper explanation. For instance: the slide on magnetic fields of the Sun showed a mostly gray background, with some small areas around sunspots in white, others black. It only makes sense if you know that this encodes the line- of-sight magnetic component: white areas contain field lines with an appreciable component towards the viewer, in black ones they point away (or maybe the other way around), and gray areas lack any appreciable component in either direction. Given that information, a viewer can understand how field lines emerge at one spot and return below the surface at its neighbor, also the concept of leading and following spots, etc. But by itself the image does not tell anything. I suspect that (as in a lot of NASA EPO) the images were just handed to web site designers, and text writers added mainly captions.

    I asked Horacio how he found my web site. He said he went on "Google" and typed "collaborator", and the rest followed. Tried it later at home, but nothing interesting emerged.

    Audrey went on the web to see results of the primary elections

    Around 5 or a bit afterwards we all (including Eva and all the kids) got into Horacio's SUV and drove to the COPAMEX plant (Corporacia Papel Mexicana or something like that), a big complex of brick buildings. First we visited Horacio's office, and then after a while were given a tour of the factory itself, centered on a huge block of machinery which produces a continuous sheet of paper, something like 15' wide. At one end, paper pulp is poured in--dazzling white, probably bleached and dyed beforehand; once produced at the factory but now imported in raggedy white shreds the size of a hand or bigger, with the feel of paper mach. At the other end the sheet of paper emerges and is wound onto a giant spindle. Each time a roll is filled, it is cut off, a crane lifts it away and the sheet is transferred onto a new empty spindle, while the filled one proceeds to the cutting machine. There the paper is cut off into precise lengths, the cut pieces are stacked in bundles of 500, then cut into reams of 8.5" by 11" sheets, like the ones one might buy in a store. This is high quality paper, produced by an alkaline process: other factories of the same company produce sheets which incorporate recycled paper.

    Before approaching the machinery itself, we were given soft rubber plugs to stick in our ears, because the plant is extremely noisy. Then, climbing some stairs, we entered the control room where Horacio works. It runs the length of the central block (or a big part of that length) and arrayed in it were numerous computers controlling the production. The thickness, for instance, is continuously monitored within a micron or so at hundreds of points across the running sheet, and is automatically adjusted where needed. The humidity and other properties are also controlled, along the entire production line. The pulp is dissolved in paper, pureed, dried, rewetted... I could not possibly remember all the steps.

    The paper whizzes by at 30 m.p.h., and constant vigilance is needed, all the time. The day before (or that morning, not sure) a cog broke on one of the rollers and half a day's worth of production was lost.

    We then walked down and stood next to the machine, following the production process from its start to its end. Very impressive. Yet it is a competitive business: Horacio said that big producers like Kimberly-Clark outproduce this mill; even so, this one is still quite impressive. As in so many things, our style of living depends on big machines controlled by computers, a sophisticated industry which end users rarely see.

    The talk was set for 7, but management was busy in a meeting and it started late. César managed the image projector and did very well, considering that the images were not uniform in size. The daughter of Mr. Najar, the manager, came from Chihuahua to attend the talk--she studies chemical engineering at the Chihuahua Institute of Technology, a slim pretty young lady, and altogether, about 20 people attended. Horacio introduced me, and then I started, telling supposedly my own early experience in space research, though the meat of the talk was about the first satellites and the discovery of the radiation belt.

    The talk went in spurts: I would say a few sentences in English, then Horacio would translate, then English again, and so on. Somehow it seemed that for every ten words I said in English, Horacio said a hundred. I won't describe it here, the talk is anyway on the web at
and a translation by Horacio is at (FAnahuac.htm in French)

    At the end quite a few questions were asked, and then we went out to the office and from there to the car. What we did not realize was that while we were inside, a big rainstorm started outside, and as we reached the exit door of the factory (a glass door), we could see that heavy rain was pouring down outside, and water flowed down towards the door along a curving path leading from the exit. Horacio ran to bring his car as close to the exit as possible, and then we just dashed to get into it.

    We all got back OK, but that was not the end for Anahuac. A river runs through town towards the lake, and because in the past it has occasionally flooded, a concrete diversion channel was added along the railroad track. This time the channel was too narrow for all the water and overflowed, sending water into town--through a street where it moved cars, through the yard of a hotel where a propane tank was carried some distance, through a furniture store whose wares we saw next day standing in the street, put out to dry.

There was more. Later Horacio wrote to us:

    Remember the rain that fell on Wednesday night? This is a brief list of its toll:

  1.     150 families with severe damage to their homes (water came into the houses, destroying lots of furniture)
  2.     17 houses completely destroyed. People have to live somewhere else. The mill gave company houses to half of them, which were company employees.
  3.     A few cars were pushed away by the river current, and later were found stuck under a bridge. Also a video club lost some 700 videocassettes due to water damage. A furniture store lost mattresses, wooden bookshelves, couches, etc.
  4.     A computer store lost several of its computers.

    Seems to be that a small dam broke and all the water came pouring in. After that, we have had only one day of rain. And we have had clear skies afterwards.

    After 10 years, this was suddenly a very wet one, and the lake, instead of shrinking, expanded again. According to the paper (or TV?), a dam had an inflatable rubber extension built on top to give it extra capacity, and in the storm it deflated. The railroad too had some washouts.

    Anahuac Thursday 14 September

    In the morning I walked around the block. This part of the town belongs to the paper mill and a guard occupies a booth at the entrance. It used to have many more houses, but the company tore most down, not all--as Horacio wrote, some were given to displaced families, though I am sure they needed refurbishing, new doors etc. Arisiachic street is a dirt road, and though the sky was clear, water was still trickling down the "grand canyon" carved by the rainstorm in its middle, up to perhaps 10" deep. It is a gritty soil, very different from Maryland clay. A peaceful, quiet stroll.

    Then from a distance came the sound of drums and trumpets, and I went to check. September 16th (starting with the night of the 15th, actually) is Mexico's Independence Day, and students of "Escuela Secundaria Tecnica No. 27" (Technical secondary school 27) were rehearsing their independence day parade, marching in formation--three rows, all in red pants and white shirts, probably school uniforms, some also with red jackets, older kids leading and the youngest last.

    Ahead marched two girls abreast, stretching between them the school's triangular banner (also red and white), then an honor guard with one older girl holding up a flag staff (no flag, it's just a rehearsal) then the students and somewhere in the middle, I think, kids with snare drums and trumpets, more for the tempo than for melody, it seemed. Walking with them at various positions were teachers, coaching and overseeing.

    Not unlike what one sees further north, one is reminded of the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival. Elsewhere I passed a ballfield with what seemed like a little league rehearsal. Again, like the US--but this was Mexico, and the street of the march was badly potholed. (Arisiachic intersects it). Good education here depends on circumstances. The state of Chihuahua pays for elementary school only--and to give one's kids good education, private schools may be preferred. High school and university are free and financed by the federal government, but I wonder whether César's school may be a private one, too. And this is Chihuahua: in the south of the country, I was told, schools are worse and people poorer.

    Eva had started studying English, and later she and Audrey promised to exchange letters, Eva would write English and Audrey correct, then Audrey writes Spanish and Eva corrects.

    Unfortunately, we are all too tired now! So my notebook just has

Cuchara -- spoon tenedor -- fork cuchillo -- knife
He says-- El diceHe said -- El dijo We say -- nosotros decimos
She says -- ella dice They say -- Ellos dicen
You say -- tu dices Digame por favor -- please tell me
Yo estoy su cerido (cerida) -- I am your beloved

    Eva is serious about those studies, and yesterday FEDEX brought her a headset for an internet course: she listens to text, then repeats it to a microphone, and finally listens to her own voice, to find how close it comes to the recording. Eva has one sister and 5 brothers, all in the area--two in Cauthemoc, one in Chihuahua and three in a small town on the road to Creel, a place where her parents live, too--forested country , green and cool. She has insisted that her accounting office goes under her own name--not Eva Chavez, but "L.C. Eva Yolanda Parra Rascon." Audery was not sure Horacio preferred that, but he goes along.

    Otherwise it was a day for rest and laundry. For breakfast we discovered the Mexican variety of white "wonder bread," here its brand is Bimbo Bread, "pan Bimbo." (Bimbo is the name of the mascot on the logo, a bit like the Pillsbury doghboy). What a name! (Bimbo is the name of the mascot on the logo, a bit like the Pillsbury doghboy.) For the big meal Horacio took us and the family to a restaurant in town; he also bought Eva Laura her first eyeglasses, they look cute on her. She had complained about headaches, so her parents had her eyes checked and found she needed those glasses. Just for extras the girls also got some bracelets. Little Claudia Sophia is a Herz Ganef, a thief of hearts, she smiles at her mother, or at Audrey and me, and one's heart melts.

    We talk a lot about the family, even the bible! Horacio is interested in almost anything.. That has been the nice thing of staying with a family. At first Horacio's family was shy, but now I can hear next door how Audrey and Eva Yolanda talk freely in English, as if they have been friends for a long, long time. It is nice to be with friends, and we hope they come to Washington where we can return the friendship.

    Chihuahua, 15 September, Mexico's Independence Day

    After this long night Audrey and I found it hard getting up. Still Horacio was up early, woke César, made his breakfast and sent him off to school (by bus?). Eva too was up early, and had a surprise for us: two bags of real coffee--Mexican coffee, the best, in colorful bags--I think one came from Vera Cruz and one from Oaxaca. Later when we left, she gave us two unopened bags of the same coffee to take home. It is strong stuff, a bit harsh compared to the Colombian variety we drink at home, maybe a different roasting,

    Eva, Audrey and I walked down a few blocks to "Cooperative Campesina", the farmers' Co-Op store next to the railroad, selling a wide variety of food (mostly) and various necessities. I forgot what Audrey and Eva had wanted (the place is close to Eva's office, too), but a lot is available--even plastic bags of lye crystals (NaOH). Cesar was supposed to make a chemistry project for his school, and I later suggested to Horacio using that lye to make soap out of oil or fat (though it would need supervision and definitely rubber gloves). After we returned Horacio wrote that he would rather help Cesar set up an experiment with ferrofluids--not exactly chemistry, and more involved, but neat looking. I don't know what was done in the end.

    The store also sold toys, and we bought for Josh a little plastic abacus. Then in some corner I discovered a pile of little hand-painted drums--the kind Tarahumara Indians make and sell, but painted and signed on one side by a local artist. The pictures were of Indians in various poses (probably projected and traced--but nice) and I bought a bunch, to take back home for presents. One small drum we keep as souvenir--an Indian gazing at the Basaseachic Waterfall to the north-west of here, one of the highest in the country, comparable to Yosemite falls or maybe even higher. It was probably flowing vigorously just then, because of the exceptional rainy season.

    Tonight is the beginning of independence day celebration in Mexico, the day when Miguel Hidalgo, a priest in a small town near Mexico City issued "el grio," the call for breaking away from Spain. It seemed like an opportune time--Spain at that time was occupied with (or by) Napoleon --but it still had a viceroy and troops in Mexico. Hidalgo was captured in Chihuahua and executed (he might have been on his way to get help in the United States), but the war for independence had begun, and ultimately succeeded.

    Since then, by tradition, Independence Day in Mexico starts with a speech by the president, ending with Hidalgo's cry for liberty, a bit modified, echoed by the people al over. Originally it was "Long live religion! Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Long live the Americas and death to the corrupt government!" but now it is simply "Mexicanos, Viva Mexico! " Only ,this year the central plaza in Mexico City was occupied by supporters of Lopez Obrador, previously Mayor of Mexico City, who had run for president and lost by a slim margin. He refused to concede, claiming fraud, and his people occupied the center of town until (they said) their man's victory was recognized. Rather than provoke an ugly confrontation, Vincente Fox gave the traditional speech from Hidalgo's home town, and the rest of the country tuned in by radio and TV.

    Horacio decided to drive us to Chihuahua, to the Holiday Inn where the rest of the Elderhostel would arrive next day, take his family along too, and watch the celebration. We dropped our luggage at the Holiday Inn and then went to visit Eva's brother, an engineer for Lexmark.

    Most of Chihuahua seems to be made up of one-story buildings, often fairly closely bunched. Except maybe for downtown, one gets the impression of a huge village, with lots of little twisty streets, each different--not of the big city it actually is. From the outside, the brother's house was unremarkable: the inside, however, was elegantly furnished with ornate wooden carved furniture--though the style was old European, say 1910, and the pictures unremarkable. The brother was there with his son, an engineer who would like to go to Vancouver. A rather formal family, in contrast with Horacio's easy-going informality..

    As time approached for the traditional cry for freedom and for the fireworks, we tried to get close to the central city plaza, focus of the official festivities. But streets were clogged with cars and people, parking spots were filled, and we ended up (along with many others) a fair distance away, stopped on the side of the road just short of an overpass above it.

    You heard only the roar of the multitude--not even the cry "Viva Mexico." Many people carried flags, one was even wrapped in a sheet-sized flag, and some were tooting horns which to Audrey sounded "like sick cows." Of course, elaborate fireworks rose above the plaza, and light displays presented the colors of the flag of Mexico (red, white, green) as well as the date "1810" but the main idea seemed to be to get out and mill around. I am not sure, but I think Claudia Sofia was asleep before we were done.

    In the end Horacio dropped us at the Holiday Inn, and suddenly we were in a different world, in a bubble enclosing a little island of US life in the middle of Chihuahua. Our room was just like that of any Holiday Inn--same bathroom, beds etc. The breakfast was also similar, although I do think we had the choice of masa tortillas, a definite plus.

    Saturday 16 September 2006

    In the morning we slept late--finally, no factory whistles, no early-rising family, finally some badly needed rest. The elderhostel group was coming by bus from Fort Davis, Texas, and was scheduled to have lunch at the "El Faro" restaurant ("The Lighthouse", a seafood place--remember the Pharos lighthouse in ancient Alexandria?), so we took a cab to the place, leaving the luggage behind since we were going to stay one more night at the same place.

    Unfortunately (as it turned out) this elderhostel has been wholly subcontracted by Davis Mountain Center to a Mexican tour company, "Tourismo Almas" (Pacheco Ave #3813, tel 011-526-144-1092-32, locally, 541 1081). Not a bad company, but they mostly handled the elderhostel like any regular tour, which is not the same, one misses the personal contacts and the special flavor.

    The bus arrived just a little late, and the participants seemed to be mostly Texans, though the guide was a Mexican named Lorenzo, a big guy whose appearance suggested a lot of Indian ancestry. He had been guiding tourists for 20 years, he said, but had learned much of his English during five years of picking oranges in California and working the fields in Oregon. Of course, no one asked how exactly he had entered the USA. "El Faro" was certainly no high-class restaurant, and our group its only customer.

    After lunch Lorenzo took us around Chihuahua. The first stop was the governor's palace, dating back to the Spanish. A hollow square of a building, where we saw murals in glowing color on the history of Mexico up to about 1900; murals on the era of warlords and of the "Mexican Revolution" were on the second floor, for which we had no time. You walked away feeling most of history was bloody. All over the palace, and in the plaza around it, were red-white-green decorations from the previous evening. Interestingly, no one talked about this being independence day, unless Lorenzo told that on the bus. The building included a memorial to Miguel Hidalgo, who was imprisoned and executed there.

    Lorenzo's attitude to the native Apaches, who originally lived in the Chihuahua valley, was interesting. The Spaniards saw them as a danger to their rule, and their first order of business was to drive them away or if possible, kill them. They were driven across the border to the US (the ones who survived, anyway) and the US promptly pushed them back. No Apaches apparently remain in Mexico.

    All these stories of wars... In Israel's war of independence, in 1948, the leading army troupe "Tshizbatron" (combining "tchizbat" for "tall tale"--actually from Arabic "kizbaat", lies-- with "theatron" or theatre) sang about "A General of Mexico named Castanetas." Today I only remember the melody and snippets of the text, which started somewhat like that (gaps filled in):

    A General of Mexico named Castanetas
    Was a brave leader of his people, strong and great
    A General of Mexico named Castanetas
    He was the glory and the power of the state!
    Ah, ah, ah, ah
    Ah, ah, ah, ah
    With generals he sat together on verandas
    He ate tamales, tacos and tortillas
    And on his chest there glittered medals by the score
    The general, was tall...
           ---six feet?
           ---no, more like four!

    The General, the General
    He was the darling of the crowd
    And that was why, the general
    To go to war was not allowed
    "He might get hurt, he might end dead,
    Maybe a bomb will hit his head"
    The General, the general
    Was just too precious
    Which was bad, too bad!
    The rumor was that "Castanetas" actually stood for some Israeli army commander, known for his vanity. In the song the general's glorious career ended when he ate too much and burst apart "which turned out harmful to his health."

    The second order of business was to exchange money, not easy on a national holiday. We got some pesos, more than we needed (as it turned out). The most memorable thing of that outing were the big painted fiberglass statues of Chihuahua dogs, similar to the pandas displayed on Washington streets, the sharks in San Jose and the birds in our own county. Some were quite funny and we photographed one, a math dog in yellow covered with symbols, but by then we were on a moving bus, on way to the Holiday Inn (saw a few more of those dogs when we returned through Chihuahua at the end of the trip).

    For dinner we were divided into small groups, each hosted by some selected Mexican family, and our bus dropped us off at various homes. Nice idea in principle, of imparting a personal touch and perhaps learning about Mexico and Mexican life, but hosts need to be selected with care. Not ours! Our group of 6 ended up with a single mother who spoke no English. She and her family did not join us in dinner, and the food was undistinguished-- apart from tortillas I only remember spaghetti and a jello desert, rather bland. Most of the talk was among ourselves

    Sunday 17 September 2006

    The train ride next morning started an hour late, thanks God: originally we were to get up at 4:30, but we got an extra hour. That was because the regular train and the tourist first class were combined, so we stopped in many more stations, including Anahuac: factory, Eva's office, the co-op store, all so familiar. The train traveled fairly slowly--slowing down even more at a bridge just after a washout, also at another place where the remains of an engine derailed a week earlier (another rainstorm casualty) could still be seen. The first 4-5 hours were boring, a seemingly endless ride across (mostly) a high plain, all green, some cultivated. Lots and lots of apple orchards, roofed over in mesh against birds.

    The train carries a guard of Mexican federal cops or "Federales," because apparently in the distant past the train had been held up and passengers were robbed. Dressed in black they look menacing, like storm troopers,

    Then hills appeared, forests of oaks which gave way to pines, until the landscape resembled Colorado, even the air was cool, at an altitude close to 8000 feet. Rushing streams followed most of the track.

    We left the train at Creel, originally a logging town--until it was decided that tourism paid better, especially since here was a convenient place for starting long hikes, rides or bike trips down the canyon. The scenery is rather pretty, forested craggy hills all around. We stay at the Best Western lodge, a good hotel with a large central log building--guests stay in smaller cabins, rustic and spacious, each with a balcony, while a stream flows in the rear and tall pines are everywhere.

    All over town one sees Tarahumara Indians, sitting on street corners, some peddling their tribal crafts at bargain prices--but where are we to put it all? The women's clothes are colorful but seem a bit ragged, with the swarming kids they remind one of gypsies. They may not want culture and schooling (or so we were told), but unlike gypsies, they are scrupulously honest. Maybe that was why they survived whereas the Apaches did not--that, and the fact that in these rugged mountains it is hard to find anyone who does not want to be found. In the afternoon we visited a Tarahumara mission church from about 1713, displaying old paintings, clearly a tourist attraction. Then on the way back the tour dropped in on a family living in a cave by the road.. Reminds one of Arabs of the poorest kind, back 60 years ago, but again, it is hard to tell how much of this is staged for us tourists.

    We also stopped by a lake outside town--beautiful blue water, but again, another open air market for Indian traders. That became an abiding theme on this trip--getting us to "support the local economy."

    This trip is making one bone tired. The elderhostel participants seem the usual mix, gradually resolving itself into experienced hostellers, widows, retired teachers, stuffed shirts and blank faces. In the evening the lodge offers one free margarita and after that two for the price of one, an offer with many takers, though not us. Meanwhile, no news about Mexico's presidential succession, on whether Seor Lopez Obrador was still camped on the square in his capital or not. However our dinner mates tonight, a couple from New Mexico, admitted they had switched from Republican to Independent, as Britt's parents had done. I shook Joan's hand (she's shares the name of Britt's mom) and said "May your party win!"

    Mirador, Sunday, September 18, 2006

    In the morning we visited the Creel museum, near the railroad station and facing the central plaza of the little town. Creel is named after its founder, the industrialist Enrique Creel (1854-1931), a timber magnate and good buddy of the dictator Porfirio Diaz: his bronze bust, green with patina, stands at the center of the plaza, atop a square stone pillar with a large bronze plaque. The museum has a newspaper picture of him with an aging white-bearded Diaz,. acting as translator between Diaz and President Taft of the USA. My notes say the paper was dated 1912, but maybe the picture was older, because the history book also says Diaz left Mexico in 1911. As I typed this, a message from Horacio came, telling among others that Eva Laura would march in a parade on November 20, "celebrating our 'revolution day' where we celebrate the fight to get rid of President-dictator Porfirio Daz."

    The main legacy of Diaz was a growing social inequality between most Mexicans on one side and Diaz with his rich friends on the other, and his ouster was followed by a confusing civil war--rebels, warlords, even the US army under Black Jack Pershing--which now goes under the name of "Mexican Revolution." Creel fled in 1913 to the US and much of his land was expropriated--but this being Mexico, he got much of it back, returned to Mexico City and even become an advisor to President Obregon. I read somewhere that Obregon was the suspect behind the assassination of Pancho Villa, one of the leaders of the revolution, after Villa had made peace with the government and returned to civilian life. Obregon himself was assassinated in 1928 by a Christian fanatic. Mexico may be like Russia--a country with a long history, all of it bloody and depressing, none happy.

    The museum displayed a rich assortment of Indian artifacts and historical objects. We saw the balls used by the Indians in their famous footraces--fairly small balls, I think of wood, kicked along by the runners. Woman raced too but in a different way--instead of a ball, their run was accompanied by a ring, a little bigger than a bracelet, held at the end of a stick with curved end. Many wood carvings, fabrics. even a stone carving of what may or may not be a childbirth. An interesting place.

    The train arrived around noon and we all got aboard. Creel is near the top of the Sierras, and for a while it seemed as if we were riding through the Rockies or the high Sierras of California. We passed some isolated Indian dwellings, with small cultivated patches, and then the track started descending. We passed tunnels, and on one section, the track made a full 360° turn, rounding some peak and tunneling through the narrow neck between it and the rest of the mountain (the track has another such turn further down). As we came out, we could see above us the tracks on which we had come. For a while the tracks paralleled a highway with sparse traffic. Finally, nearly 2 hours past Creel the train stopped at Divisadero, for the first view of the "Barranca de Cobre."

    "Divisadero" means "panorama," a name well earned. The railroad approaches the canyon in a wide arc, and as it does, the scenery opens up. It is not a single canyon, and more distant branches can be glimpsed. Strange pinnacles rise on the side facing us and also on ours, and unlike the Grand Canyon in Arizona, here the rock is gray and the cliffs leave a lot of space to sloping talus, green with vegetation. Geologically this one is much younger than the Grand Canyon, something like 5 million years old, the result of the uplift of the Sierra Madre Occidental and (I believe) of volcanism.

    The train stops here for 15 minutes, giving passengers an opportunity to see the canyon, and also to engage in commerce. The canyon's edge and its railing are a fair distance below the tracks, and in the space in between is a bustling market, along a gently sloping staircase. Two markets, actually: the stairs are lined with stalls in which Indians sell baskets, cloth items, hats, wood carvings and other souvenirs, while a second row of stalls along the track next to the front of the train (the regular part, occupied mostly by Mexicans) sells food, a lunch stop on the long ride to the coast.

    On the left is a fairly new hotel, tucked beneath a rising cliff, and the highway also sweeps past here, not far away. At the bottom is a small park, where tourists pose and snap pictures, and where some Indians try to sell still more souvenirs.

    Just a short stop: soon we board again, just a few minutes' ride to the Mirador hotel, where we will stay. At that stop everything is unloaded, luggage is transported to the hotel, and the train continues while we walk towards the Mirador on a dirt road among the pines--or maybe, ride a bus, I am no longer sure.

    This is the oldest hotel in the area, for a long time it also was the only one. Now another one stands at Divisadero, and at least one more is being built atop the hill behind the Mirador. But the Mirador is unique, architecturally in perfect tune with its setting.

    A big concrete building on top of a steep slope, it nevertheless carefully presents a rustic style which is wholly Mexican. Painted in reddish pink, every one of its rooms has a balcony with a railing of varnished logs, open to the view and reached by a wide glass door. Every room has a fireplace (not that we needed it). The same wide view appears in the glass windows of the dining hall and from the large balcony next to it, and everywhere throughout the hotel are little touches of native decor. Inevitably, just outside the entrance sit Indians selling their goodies--e.g. baskets woven of tough sotol grass, also garish miniature masks with facets of colored minerals.

    Standing on the balcony lets one view: the cliffs, pinnacles, slopes, and trees on the slope below. Gradually, helped by binoculars, you begin to detect the presence of humans: a small building here, another there--a larger one with green roof said to be a school, people walking along a path below us, cultivated patches. But between these little spots, most of the area is wilderness.

    To the left, at the bottom of a cliff, is a small Tarahumara village, nestled around some caves. I recall Arabs living like this in secluded valleys in the middle of Haifa, in the mid-1940s. At the end of Ge'ulah street, past the garages of city buses, you took a trail up towards "Carmel Center" along a wild valley--no houses, just (in fall) wild anemones, poppies and cyclamens, purple blooming trees, terebinth bushes, scrub oaks, and suddenly, a cave with an Arab family, maybe also a few goats, living in ragged poverty.

    Lorenzo leads a short walk to the top of the cliff--some Indians follow a short distance, but we are not buying. We are rewarded with a wide view. The "Copper Canyon" is actually just barely visible in the distance, coming in on the left--the canyon in front is the Urique, about 4000' deep. A map I later found says the canyon land is a national part, but not the land around the top, where the hotels are. Lorenzo later tells us no one owns that land--the Indians are free to use it, but anyone having enough friends in power and willing to build a hotel, for instance, can easily secure title to the required land.

    We sit in the bar, which has a picture of the canyon, with rails and a train vanishing down a tunnel, while Lorenzo presents a short lecture on the area. He claims Tarahumara do not like to work, and only a fraction of their children attend schools--missionaries built schools here and an American (Mr. Evans?) has even made a writing system for the Indian language, but distances are too great. Their society is dominated by men--and while a woman may bear 6-8 children, most of those die young. Some men go down to El Fuerte, on the Pacific coast, hire out and earn cash. "It is like the process of Mexicans going to the US to earn some money. They come back the following year with cash to show, and the following year a few buddies come along with them. Same with the Indians in La Fuerte." But how happy are they?

    From 5 to 6 is "happy hour, " again with cheap drinks and two anglo guys in gaudy serapes and big hats, playing guitars and telling corny jokes to soused gringos. Not exactly elderhostel ambiance; we expected to hear more about Mexicans and how they feel and live, their country, about their history, their culture contrasted with ours, things they are proud of and things deserving change, the different parts of the nation... in short, what makes Mexico different. Instead we are trapped inside a tourist bubble: at least the bubble is transparent, allowing one to see the gorgeous landscape.

    We stay in our room and enjoy the night air. Dinner is good, we eat by the big window and later go out on our porch and watch lightning from distant thunderstorms. Thousands of stars glow overhead. Still later I walk out a goodly distance into the forest, to escape the floodlights, and savor the sky again, the Milky Way, the full complement of the stars of Ursa Minor. With binoculars I even see Alcor, the faint companion of Mizar, the middle tail star of the big dipper..

    Mirador, Monday 19 September 2006

    I slept well--drinking water helps overcome the dryness of the air. In the morning a bus took us to the rim near Divisadero, and then we walked back some of the way, a walk reminding one of the rim walk of Yellowstone Canyon.

    At one point we passed a gap in the rock through which a long hand-made ladder led from a trail below. We watched some Indians approach on that trail, they climbed out and tried to sell us some wares. A pretty wilderness with great views, but things are changing: we come upon an overlook pavillon being built, concrete mixed and poured. Then the bus took us back to Divisadero, where we visited the new hotel (and visited rest rooms!). It too is beautifully designed inside, with many artful touches, including the likeness of a Tarahumara Indian carved on the inside of its massive wooden front door.

    Lunch is tasty--tortilla soup, a huge hunk of salmon and small creamy-cracker dessert. We sat with Betty Swarek from Austin, Texas and her Dutch friend Metje Safir: Betty used to be a teacher and now taught a religion class, a big blonde who unfortunately has painful bursitis in one hip. We continued our siesta on the cool, windy porch.

    Afterwards a bus took us a short distance west to a nearby village "Areponapuchic" meaning "a place with snakes." The purpose was to visit a school built for the Indians, and we brought some presents (on Elderhostel's suggestion)--pens, etc. The school is bilingual (Indian and Spanish) and extends to 7th grade--after that, a high school exists in San Rafael, the next town west. We were shown around by the "Maestra" (every teacher in Mexico is addressed "Maestro" or "Maestra", I love it), Alma Rosa Perez Portillo (Av. Adolfo Lopez Mateos #29, CP 33200 Creel, Chihuahua, tel 635 45 60111).

    The whiteboard in the classroom lists10 questions about the motion of the Earth--rotation around its axis, the sun, seasons etc.--and 10 answers in scrambled order, asking students to put them together. Pretty good for any 6-7 grade! I have its picture and can guess the answers without knowing much Spanish. The first three:

    Los Moviementos de la Tierra

  1. Moviementos que realiza le Tierra girande so propio eje (El dia y el noche)
  2. Line imaginaria que atraviesa le tiera de polo a polo (Eje Terreste)
  3. Es el tiempo que tarda la tierra en compielar una vueit sobre su propio eje (24 horas)
The students were playing with a ball outside when we came, and converged on the goodies brought for them. Should send the Maestra some NASA stuff, and a disk of my own. In the afternoon we visited the Indians living below the cliff east of the hotel--the caves we had seen from our balconies. A trail leads to them, a fairly steep one, but we only saw a few people. First a woman with a baby, and I asked if I could photograph them--she nodded and I did; then we passed a little boy, watched by an older sister. Next was a small pit collecting spring water at the base of the cliff, and in it strips of sotol leaves, soaking. Those leaves are long and very tough, the Indians separate them with a sharp knife into strips maybe 1/8" or more wide, the raw material for basket weaving. Lorenzo explained that soaking leaves in water for a few days caused them to turn black, allowing the weaving of bi-color designs. Next to the caves sat a woman splitting leaves, and we were also shown a wooden frame used for making adobe bricks. We peered into the cave--rather grimy, a comforter lying on top of a bed in semi-darkness.

    I wonder whether this style of living is kept up for visitors to see--the village with the school was a completely different world altogether. Memories come floating up: the science fiction story "Brave New World" (1928?) where tourists fly to New Mexico to "visit the savages," isolated on an Indian reservation. Not too different from our visit here.

    Also memories of a trip with the Haifa hiking club, eating lunch in an open field near Eilabun in the lower Galilee. Nearby lived Bedouins in black goat-hair tents, paying us no attention--until after we left, when black-clothed women swarmed over the campsite to pick up whatever they could find, perhaps empty tins still useful for cooking. At that moment I could suddenly guess the kind of poverty those Arabs lived in.

    We then went back: a few continued on the trail below the hotel, to the houses we had seen on the other side, but most of us went back, since some raindrops had fallen, enough to cause us to worry about some real soaking rain. Audrey went to sleep, she had slept poorly the preceding night.

    Again, happy hour with alcohol, and new guests at the hotel, a tour coming up from La Fuente, which they liked. Tried to call Oren and Zoe (her birthday) but no one answered, left message. As night fell, we again watched distant lightning flash in the dark.

    Chihuahua, Tuesday, 20 September 2006

    The trip back was by bus, and much faster. By the time the 6:30 knock came on the door, we had already risen for showering. The canyon looked very different--draped in fog, the sun showing just dimly or not at all. We drove back on a big bus, a much faster ride and smoother than the one by train.

    By noon we were back in Cauhtemoc and drove to the Mennonite museum for a quick tour and a frugal lunch, in the upstairs room above the entrance, where we could not enter when we came with Horacio. Audrey and I had seen the exhibits a week earlier--a much more leisurely and thorough visit, we thought--so we did not join. Then back over the toll road to the tall "San Francisco" hotel in downtown Chihuahua, by-passing Anahuac.

    The bus had TV screens, and on the way saw some videos. One was about the Tarahumara, portrayed as a much more active and organized society then earlier suggested, with generals, majors and captains, also an overall chief and a rough system of justice, and celebrations--especially Holy Week. And with healers and sorcerers, "good and bad shamans," and healers who can suck out a "stone" of a bad spirit and bring about a cure. Notebook says: "I more and more suspect Tara dwelling next to hotel is for show."

    The 2nd video was on the Mennonites, and the 3rd was on native pottery. Early Mexicans never developed the potter's wheel (or wheeled transport, for that matter). They used a ball to shape the bottom bowl of a container, then rolled a long "chorizo" (sausage) of clay and snaked it around and around the rim, building it up and shaping it with fingers. Ancient pottery at Mesa Verde was made the same way.

    We reached Chihuahua around 3, giving us two hours of free time before the daily "happy hour" ritual. Audrey and I went around Cathedral square near the hotel, to find more of the gaudy Chihuahua dog sculptures, of painted fiberglass--in several styles and outrageous coloring. After seeing 6 or 7 Audrey got tired of them and we went back.

    In the evening we were taken to see Pancho Villa's house, a real palace, beautifully maintained by the state. When Villa died several women claimed that each was his legal wife, and the courts had to weigh their claims. The final decision went to one named Luz, who went to live there and on her death bequeathed "Casa Luz" to the state. The house is now kept like a shrine--even the Dodge car driven by Villa when he was ambushed and shot is carefully displayed with its bullet holes. The stables in the back where Villa's troops were quartered, are now decorated with heroic murals. And the sign on the grass says "NO PISE EL PASTO" which sounds funnier in English than in Spanish.

    I asked Lorenzo--was Villa a good man? Well... his father was murdered by a landlord, and his mother told him his sister was raped...

    I rephrased it: was he good for Mexico? Lorenzo answered a definite "yes"--without Villa, he said, land would not have been distributed, "people lived like slaves."

    We then crossed the road to the big gift shop, for an important part of the trip was"supporting the local economy." In fact the goods in the shop were quite attractive and in the end we yielded to a big carved frog for Christa's collection. In the back room of the gift shop Hugo and Carmen gave us a demonstration of native pottery, Hugo building up the clay layer by layer to show how it was done, then in the end smashing it all to a ball again. From there

    we were taken for our final dinner to the "Calezon" ("Courage"?) restaurant. Potatoes with a tough and gristly piece of steak, mediocre food in general. We sat next to the two eldest hostelers, one was 92 and from Missoula, and his friend, from Denver, 85, both planning later to drive from Fort Davis to Big Bend National Park. The younger of the two would not touch any vegetables--all Mexican produce was suspect, he said, even though he admitted that in Arizona big trucks full of produce keep crossing the border. He may have had a point there --that night Audrey was hit by "La Turista, constant trips to the bathroom all night. I managed to avoid that, but back home developed the nastiest cold. Of course, that could also have been picked up on the airplane.

    But never mind the food--the entertainment was great. It seems that high school students all over Mexico compete annually in folk dancing, striving to outdo each other in originality, style and costume--first competing locally, then in each state, and the best travel to a national dance show. (Was unable to find on the web any reference to this, but got the impression that Mexican folk dance competitions are widespread in both Mexico and the USA).

    So during dinner we were entertained by the 6 dancers of the Chihuahua team, coached "by a famous expert" (who however was not present). The long side of the room had a wooden partition with a passage behind it, and for each dance, the dancers emerged from the ends and put up their show. They started with an "Aztec dance" in which a boy with bare chest sported a most elaborate head-dress with long feathers radiating out, and his shorts and armlets (also the girls' dresses and headbands) were richly embroidered, with lots of gold. A gentle Vera Cruz dance had boys balancing glasses filled with water atop their heads (the careful one went through without spilling, the more daring one did not), and a "cockfight dance" had the opponents--one wearing black pants, jacket and hat, the other white ones--circling each other first, then breaking into a fight with the loser writhing on the floor.

    In the iguana dance, dancers now and then dropped to a crawl, and of the two Chihuahua dances, one celebrated the revolution, with men dressed like soldiers and both they and their partners stomping heavily, each stomp sounding like a shot. There was even a Tarahumara dance, whose barefoot dancers wore headbands and big rattles around their ankles. The final dance, from Jalisco, was the familiar Mexican Hat Dance--at least, the melody was familiar. Costumes throughout were original and striking.

    Back at the hotel room we tried calling the kids again, and found a light lit on the phone, meaning a message was waiting. The front desk told us how to retrieve it--call 7500, then 1, a Spanish message will come on, then dial 1 again, and so on, and after 3-4 tries we should get our message. Sounded complicated, so I asked someone come with us and help, and they dispatched Manuel, a young man born in Dallas but a Mexican citizen. He determined pur phone line was busted and called a repairman, who tried to fix it but could not. The desk however knew the number calling, and it was Allon's. So I called Allon from the pay phone downstairs--no emergency, he just wanted to wish us a good trip home.

    Home, Wednesday 21 September 2006

    In the morning we called a cab and rode to the airport where again hardly anything was happening. Twice small planes taxied across the runway, then after the longest wait, a big Azteca jet pulled out. Our small jet took off on time, and from the air we could see Chihuahua spread out like the giant village it was, rocky hills rising in its midst and fluffy fair-weather clouds casting shadows across the land. "Ay, Chihuahua!" was another phrase we learned on this trip--roughly equivalent to "Ay, Caramba!" which Audrey heard said in earnest, by one of the listeners at my talk: maybe the flood had started by then.

    In English, either means something like "Oh, shit!" At home I looked on the web for its origin (it is fairly recent)--apparently, it started the same way as "Jeez, Louise!" where a person starts swearing, then catches himself and blunts the word it by changing the ending. The web experts agreed it probably came from "Ai, Chingado"--as one wrote, "Yes, chingado basically equates to f**ked, at least in Mexico."

    We stopped again in Houston and arrived in Baltimore around dark. Audrey was bushed, and strongly resisted any plan to taking the bus to the Greenbelt Metro--wanted to get home in a hurry, while I wondered how fast a limo would be. Suddenly we heard a voice "Hi, David and Audrey!" It was our neighbor, Samir Chettri. "Tehseen sent me, she said--Audrey and David are now arriving in Baltimore, go pick them up!" So it wasn't much later that we stepped back into the house, and all was well.


Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 12 August 2009