Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

February 05, 2005

Guanajuato

The pamphlets we were handed told us that Guanajuato was regarded by many as "the most beautiful colonial city in the Americas." I agree. We got in last night, but as soon as the sun rose this morning, we knew we were someplace special.

Guanajuato is a mining town built in mountains and ravines northwest of Mexico City. It seems wealthy, both at present and throughout history. The churches are opulent. The two pipe organs we heard this morning were the best on the trip.

To allow the old town to be an old down, the locals used their mining acumen to dig tunnels under the city for traffic. Thus, the town itself, with its tiny winding streets, is blissfully free of traffic.

Much of the stone used in construction here is a pastel pink or or green sandstone. It is particularly graceful. It doesn´t need painting.

I did not expect to find entire cities which are colonial Spanish, built in the 1600s and 1700s. Many of the buildings in the outerlying areas have been well-preserved. Although it is really impossible to tell how much things have changed, the level of preservation here in Guanajuato, at least, rivals that of any city or town I have seen in Europe.

And for good measure, the city is a whole lot cleaner than many in Europe. The only thing about which you must be careful: In the United States, we take for granted that walking surfaces will be level. You cannot do that here. There may be potholes, small steps, big steps, very, very big steps--or a ledge over nothing without railings.

We just climbed the bell towers of an enormous 16th century church. The stairs had no railing. When we got on the roof, there was nothing preventing us from tripping and falling to the street below.

But the unpredictable nature of the pavement is a minor matter. In fact, if there was squalor, one might expect it. In Guanajuato, however, things look so polished that you just don't expect to fall into a manhole.

Just as I am writing, a car drove past the internet cafe (which means it passed ten feet behind me) with speakers blaring Mexican music. The last two cars blaring music were plastered with ads for a political candidate. This one may have been advertising a company.

The narrow street I am on is torn up and some men are putting down PVC pipe. The stores are all open.

I could tell that this city charmed everybody on the bus right away--talk soon turned to real estate values. None of our hosts could give us much insight into the matter.

While I am at this internet cafe, I think I will write this week's column. It will be difficult, because I don't know how to tackle all of the things I have seen and wrestle them into one column.


February 04, 2005

A long day on the bus

This morning we got up early and left Tlaxcala. We were warned that we were going to go through some tough country. We did. We saw some pretty abject poverty in the countryside of the Mexican state of Hidalgo.

It was warm on the bus. We weren´t able to stop for rest stops more than once, and that was unusable. The smell of the bus restroom started to overwhelm the back of the bus. I because quite nauseated.

On the trip, we were one by one called to the front to relate our life story--or at least how we first came to know the pipe organ. I was called up front and sputtered throught the basics, and then mentioned after I got done that I felt nauseated. Anne, the resident historian, suggested I sniff lime. She gave me a lime and showed me how to scrape the skin in such a way as to release "essense of lime" which I would sniff. Larry, the doctor sitting behind me, expressed some bemused skepticism, but I sniffed away and eventually felt better.

We eventually reached civilization and had a wonderful meal in the covered courtyard of a former convent.

We did see some new country and some farming. The alfalfa looks like it was cut about three weeks ago. It is grown in little patches about thirty feet wide, sort of terraced. We feared that the sludge with which they were flooding the fields contained more than a little human waste.

Tomorrow is our last full day. I am not homesick, by any means, but I am ready to get back to my routine. There is no doubt but that this trip has enlarged my horizons. I had my idea what Mexico would be like, and I was pretty much completely wrong.


February 03, 2005

Cholula

Last evening, we visited a place which I figure is one of the most beautiful on this earth.

After leaving Mexico City, we climbed out of the valley, over a mountain pass, and into valley to the east. We had a good view of the enormous volcanos. The valley into which we descended was agricultural.

We first went to a small village where there was a virtually abandoned monastary built in the 1600s. What a beautiful place. It was made more beautiful by the fact that it was completely empty and quiet. There was a town square which was also empty. It was almost eerie.

We visited a church before going to the monastary. It had a beautiful resonance. Micheal Barone pronounced its acoustics perfect, and two tenors in the group started to perform a Gregorian chant. As far as I was concerned, the whole group should have stood at attention and insisted that the concert continue--but I guess two minutes was better than nothing. We do have some good musicians on the trip.

Finally, we arrived at Cholula. Cholula lies in an enormous valley, the largest valley I have ever seen. It is surrounded by mountains, most prominently three volcanos. I will have to get home before I can figure out how high they were. One was active and emited a puff of steam every few minutes--a puff which must have been huge, given the fact that the peak of the volcano must have been over fifty miles away.

In the middle of this valley was the largest Aztec pyramid. When the Spaniards came, they built a church atop the pyramid. We walked up a switchbacking track to the top. The church was astounding. We have seen a lot of gold this trip, but nothing like the church of Los Remedios. It glistened.

The outside of the church was painted ochre. Some of the group climbed to the organ loft, and a few others of us climbed to the roof of the church.

Imagine the scene: Atop a gold-encrusted church built in the 1500s, atop an Aztec pyramid probably built in the 1300s. We were 180 feet above the valley floor. To the west towered one volcano, as imposing a mountain as I have ever seen, a symmetrical cone. Surrounding the base of the pyramid was Cholula, which is rumored to have no fewer than 360 churches. That is exaggerated, our tour guide told us, but we could see dozens.

From that vantage point, we watched the sun set. We could hear the sounds of the town below--several brass bands were playing as the religious processions wound their way through the streets. Eventually, fireworks popped all over.

I truly think the church of Los Remedios and the surrounding scenery was the most spectacular scene I have witnessed.

From there we went on the Puebla, one of Mexico's larger cities. It had a beautiful square. Although we were there for less than an hour, we were charmed. I would love to go back.

Then we got to Tlaxcala at about 9 pm (we had gotten on the road at 7:30 a.m.) and had a late dinner. Dinners here in Mexico go quite slow, and it was after 11 when most of us went to our rooms.

Our hotel here is the Posada San Francisco (www.posadasanfrancisco.com) a former convent. It is stunning in every detail.

Well, enough reporting for now. I look forward to posting pictures when I return home.

It might seem to some of you that our pace is onerous--we have had three fourteen hour days of touring in a row. However, I am, with one exception, the youngest on the tour. Those eighty year olds are something else!

There is no guarantee in Mexico that the streets are safe. I don't mean from criminals--I mean for walking. We lost one man who had to be shipped back to the states after he got his foot stuck in a square manhole covered by a round manhole cover.

Yesterday, I banged my head on the entrance to the stairwell to an organ loft; it knocked me silly for a few seconds, but I have no long-term ramifications.

Last night, my roomate and I were walking along the square in Tlaxcala admiring the architecture when we passed over a slight dip in the pavement. Both of us went caterwauling forward. They emphasize that we should not walk and look at the same time. I mean, right in the middle of the sidewalk will be a hole which, if you stepped into it, would suck you in up to your knees. You have to be careful.

Another random observation: Rebar is prominent. It seems that when they build a building, they leave strands of rebar going upwards in case they want to throw on another story at a later date.

Our resident history professor heard about this weblog at breakfast this morning and said, "Tell them all that travel in Mexico is easy, that it is beautiful and affordable." She is right. I have been impressed by everything so far but the sidewalks. And the political speeches at 6 am on the square.


Pipedreams

The leader of our tour in Mexico is Micheal Barone, the host of the national radio show Pipedreams. Micheal is sort of the locus of the American organ world. To be recorded for Pipedreams is an honor, and the organists down here in Mexico, for all of the misunderstandings that there have been, are above all honored to have Micheal record their playing and their instruments. The rest of us are taking advantage of his connections and reputation.

Because Micheal has heard thousands of instruments, his opinions on various pipe organs are descriptive, discerning, and usually pretty frank. When we walked into a cathedral last night only to hear an electronic instrument playing, Micheal grumbled an obscenity or two, a sentiment with which I agreed. The cathedral had three pipe organs which were sitting silent.





Catching up in Tlaxcala

Because we have been running fourteen hours per day, I have not had a chance to write. I took the afternoon off from the tour group to catch up. I wanted to get myself lost in this beautiful city and find myself again. In the meantime, I ran into an internet cafe, so popped in to write for a while.

Some random thoughts about Mexico:

What color! In this city, they paint with peaches, lavenders, ochres as vivid as the pollen on a daylily stamen, reds as vivid as a stop sign--yet it all works. The woods are richly stained. Tile is an art form.

Every city has a square. In fact, all but two cities in Mexico have a square. They are beautiful. Some have ornate gazebos or fountains in the center. Here in Tlaxcala, the square has several beautiful fountains sheltered by dozens of trees which must be hundreds of years old. I am sure the Spaniards planted the trees when they built the square three hundred or more years ago.

Mexicans are lovers! There are lovers on the benches on the square at all hours. They kiss their lovers, their kids, their friends without so much as a self-conscious blink.

I have seen at least a dozen organ grinders so far. Their music reverberates for several blocks.

Yesterday was a religious festival marking the end of the Christmas season. It is a day when people bring plastic Jesus dolls and bundles of rosemary branches to the church to be blessed by the priest. Since we were in churches thoughout the day listening to organs, we saw a few of the blessings. Later in the day, processions marched through the streets--with everybody carrying their Jesus dolls wrapped in blankets. At sunset, fireworks went off all through the city of Cholula, where we were at the time.

There are various cults of Mary throughout Mexico. It is obvious from paintings and the lectures we hear that the Catholicism that the Spaniards brought quickly adapted to the Aztec religions here before. This morning, we saw a mural in which a man dressed in the skin of an animal was worshipping Jesus. The ritual of dressing in dead animal skins was Aztec in origin.

However, I start to see the many rival cults of the Virgin Mary to be a form of polytheism. Here in Tlaxcala, there is one particular cult which prevails; in the rest of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe is the main cult. In fact, it is said that all Mexicans are worshippers of the Virgin of Guadalupe, even if they are athiest or Protestant.

Our trip's resident historian has been quite good about explaining it all to us; however, she must have gotten a little irreverent about it all this morning, for a devout Catholic on the trip exploded and said that too much is made of all these cults of the Virgin; the central truth of the Catholic Church is still what happened on Good Friday.





Mexican restrooms

I judge states in the USA by the cleanliness of their restrooms. Suffice it to say, I was trepidatious about Mexico's facilities. However, thus far, I would rate the restrooms hear as above the average of restrooms in the USA. Most have been spotless.


January 31, 2005

National Shrine

Tonight was a sort of stressful fiasco, but interesting. We went out for dinner as a group of thirty, which is always chaotic. We were the guests of some Mexican maestros, I guess. I am not sure. But they were unhappy with the seating situation at the restaurant, so we had to all leave while they rearranged the tables completely.

Then we were bussed to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This shrine is the most important spot in Mexican Catholicism. Our guide said if you ask him, he is not a Catholic, he is a follower of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He went on and on on the bus about the history of the picture, which has been associated with thousands of miracles. Little did we know that strings had been pulled behind the scenes to get us in the shrine after hours to hear the organ.

Well, right off, we were allowed in an area where no Mexicans are allowed. And right away somebody innocently snapped a flash picture. Ooops! Things went downhill from there. We had this beautiful modern cathedral to ourself, but things got chilly. Guards were everywhere. The Mexicans were going to allow us to play for over an hour, but after one person played, they cut us off and said "no mas! no mas¨!"

We don´t know what happened. Perhaps the one of us who played played too well and showed up the Mexican maestro. Perhaps we weren´t dressed well enough. Who knows. In any case, the organists who were along were pretty miffed. A couple were on the verge of tears.

Uff da. Get a life. Oh, and one of the elderly men on the tour got his foot stuck in an open manhole, of which there are many here, fell, and broke his elbow. He will be shipped back to Florida in the morning. That made the day difficult for the tour leaders, to say the least.

Well, I can go to bed now and forget it all. I hope the tempers cool by morning.


Pipe Organs

Today, we will hear four pipe organs in Mexico City. There organs were built in the early 1700s. I just listened to the one in the cathedral. It has a unique sound, but it certainly isn´t overpowering. This evening, we will hear one which probably will be more impressive.

Nonetheless, the history and the beauty of the churches and cathedrals is astounding. Mexican history is complex. There were the Aztecs. They were defeated by the Spanish. The Spanish immigrants mixed with the natives and imported black slaves. Every possible racial mixture was given a separate name such as "mestizo" or "creole" until there were 52 groups not counting the native Indian tribes.

Those groups, as you might imagine, were ranked. Some were allowed in this or that part of the church and some were not.

We heard a Mexican piece this morning which used the Aztec language. There were Spanish composers, Mexican composers, as well as some indigenous musicians. The history is rich and varies, but only a tip of the iceberg survives. They are just beginning to sort it all out.

We heard a recital by two Mexican sopranos as well this morning. They sang mostly Mexican classical music, which, at least thus far, to my ear at least, is indistinguishable from other 18th century music. Some of it is quite good. It simply is not played in North America because we take all of our music from Europe.

Just after I wrote the last entry, there was a cloudburst which cleared the square in minutes of the throngs of people and the vendors. Later that night, we walked on the damp streets to the palace of Las Belles Artes--what a place. It was built in 1934 or so. The curtain--which must be 75 feet tall--is made of Tiffany glass.

What an amazing show. It was billed as a ballet, but there was every form of music and dancing, and the costumes were spectacular. It was something I hadn´t relished attending, but it wasn´t to be missed in the end.

Just now, I snuck away from the group for a little respite. It gets to be a little much wondering around like a herd of cows.

Eighty degrees and hazy today. The pollution is not noticable. It is muggy, but it is cool in the churches.


January 30, 2005

Old Mexico

Today was a day of walking to several churches, two museums, and several other architectural wonders, including the Mexico City post office. It is difficult to sort out the highlights, except to say that I took about seventy pictures. Most of the pictures, however, were not of the sites but of people.

The Mexican kids are a bit shy about having their pictures taken, but once you take it they want to see it on the monitor. That was fun.

We saw Aztec ruins near the main square, just behind the cathedral. They were discovered only recently. When the Spanish conquered, they used the Aztec temples for brick for their cathedrals--but there were enough ruins remaining beneath the surface to give a good idea of what once was.

Near the ruins stands an opulent museum devoted to the Aztecs. Because it is Sunday, the national square, the museums and all the streets are utterly packed with people. Street vendors, who make up 40 percent of the economy, are everywhere.

We made it to the Aztec museum long after my energy ran out. And I am the second youngest one on the tour. We have people over eighty who can barely shuffle along--but they seem indefatigable. They go slow, but they don´t stop.

Today is in the eighties and humid. Everybody is dripping sweat. I brought along a pair of shorts which I thought about wearing. However, last night I was reading in a Mexico City guide book in the hotel room which stated, ¨"shorts are not worn in Mexico City." So, I did not wear shorts, and I noticed that of the thousands of people we saw today, not a one over the age of perhaps five was wearing shorts.

We went through a park today which has been in use since the 1500s. At that time it was used by the Spanish for public torture and executions. For example, if a pair of women were caught arguing with each other in public, they were clamped with irons around their neck facing each other. They would have to live that way, clamped together, until they died of the infections from the rubbing against the metal.

The catalog of such cruelties is one I won´t recount. We only heard a little of it today, but you can imagine it is diabolical.

Our meal this afternoon was again delectable, served by an army of waiters.

Tonight, we walk to the ballet.

The music out on the square has been pounding since seven this morning. It provides a low rumble wherever you go in the hotel. It is particularly loud in the room. I sleep anyway without any trouble.

We ate lettuce today, a supposed no-no. Some of the group wouldn´t touch it. I did. I feel fine so far. First thing I did when I got into the hotel was take a drink of water of the tap, another no-no.