The Field Trip – Michoacan, Mexico

The Field Trip
Michoacan, Mexico


Pyramid ruins

Early on a Saturday morning, I climbed into the minivan, found the last seat and introduced myself to the seven women and one man filling the cramped interior. “Buenos dias! Won’t it be fun to see another state, archeological ruins, a lake?” All of us on the tour to Michoacan were language students at the Academia with little opportunity to get out of San Miguel de Allende.

“Aren’t you in the Modern Indigenous Peoples class with Sergio?” I leaned across my seatmate to ask a hulking man in shorts squashed up against the window of the van. “My name is Cherie, or Cherry in Spanish. I didn’t get yours?” I stuck out my hand. Ignoring my hand, he mumbled, “Dr. Larry.” Two girls in the front seat turned around. “Oh, wow, what kind of doctor?”

“I’m on vacation,” was the rude and gruff answer as Dr. Larry continued to stare out the window at the traffic. We nine people in the van looked at each other and shrugged, some tittered uncomfortably. There were a few pointed comments about manners.

Being excited about the excursion and because I knew the driver/guide, Jaime, I started chatting in my best Spanish about the trip with him as we ascended the highway out of town. “So are we going to Tzinzuntzan to see the pyramids, and can we go to the island in Lake Patzcuaro, and will there be time to shop for copper in Santa Clara del Cobre, and…”

A voice from the back said, “Please don’t talk to the driver. It’s too dangerous, and I can’t find my seatbelt.”

House of Handicrafts

House of Handicrafts

Instead of hearing Jaime explain about the ruined chapels, the crumbling haciendas, the bull ranches and the gorgeous countryside of ancient volcanoes and twisted cactus, everyone was sufficiently chastised and remained silent for most of the three-hour drive to Morelia, the state capital of Michoacan.

Once there we visited the superb cathedral, the Museum of Masks, the candy market, the House of Handicrafts in the cloister of the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, the magnificent ancient aquaduct of two hundred and fifty-three arches. We weren’t bothered by Dr. Terry as he wandered off by himself.

Since this trip was designed to be Spanish only and the level of skill varied with each person, it was generally only the good speakers who had anything to say. Or it would have been better that way. Sure, I was intimidated. I understood almost everything but didn’t speak that well. The three most talkative people made glaring grammatical mistakes, their bad accents were even worse, and without a teacher on board, there were no corrections and no one to slow them down. The only Mexican and fluent Spanish speaker was Jaime, who had been ordered not to talk while driving. Anyway it was enough, I thought, that he was driving and guiding us. I didn’t envy him.

At lunch, which was provided in a charming sidewalk café, Jaime recommended Victoria Beer, and so Judy from Seattle, sitting across from me, ordered one in between highpitched giggles that never seemed to have a cause. I had a sangria, which is half red wine and half lemonade here in Mexico. She tasted my Sangria and decided she’d rather have that, but when it arrived, she pushed it away, asking for coffee and bottled water. Once the bill came, she tossed aside her cuenta and trilled, “Oh, I have no money.” Guess who paid.

A group of teachers from Texas were traveling together on our trip. They were proud of the permanent eyeliner they had just had tattooed a couple of days previously. One was an eighty-year-old woman who looked sixty and could keep up with everybody, even trampling over the ruined pyramids in Tzintzuntzan. Her daughter was over six feet tall with a deep loud voice, huge shoulders and hands. Another of these ladies had had a terrible reaction to the tattooing and her eyes were almost swollen shut, but she maintained a cheerful humor. She and the mother were first-class sports.

One of the most militant in the group regarding the necessity to verbalize in Spanish one hundred percent of the time at all costs, spoke well but so quietly we were always asking, “Mande?” whenever she said anything. She was a psychiatrist who looked like a nun.

Los Viejitos

Los Viejitos

Three from the group went to see the performance of Los Viejitos, a wildly popular and well-known Indigenous dance of the Purepecha Indians, in which young people, often children, wear the masks, native clothing and posture of old people. Bent over and supporting themselves on canes, they did a lively, footstomping, humorous dance accompanied by their musicians in equally colorful outfits. Some said they were making fun of the Spaniards and others said they danced to honor the old folks and their wisdom.

Many stayed in their rooms ironically studying Spanish from their textbooks. Here was Mexican culture in full bloom with lots of correct and colorful Spanish and they were closeted with their books, each other, and their gringo accents in hotel rooms with moldy bathrooms. Go figure.

Besides the sites themselves, the best part was the surprise stop on the way back. Jaime had planned a tailgate margarita party with the cows and a view of green fields, exotic cactus and ancient distant craggy mountains.

The postscript to this weekend is that once back in San Miguel, the group went to a very fine Italian restaurant as part of the tour package. It had stopped raining. We sat on the roof enjoying the beautiful sky with a good glass of Italian red. I started to relax and remembered the wondrous things I had seen in the past thirty-six hours.

From nowhere the wind whipped up and the pool of rainwater that had collected on the canvas roof an hour earlier swept over our table and drowned us, our wine and our tasty Italian bread. I knew enough was enough. I walked home, planning as I navigated the dark cobblestoned streets. I knew I was going back to Michoacan – alone.

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