Tuesday, March 1, 2011

sparkle spray paint shrines on the way to taxco

This morning we woke to the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire. Silence for a moment, then the birdsong started again. We'd rented a beautiful room in a hacienda in the mountains 2 1/2 hrs southwest of Mexico City in Taxco. Terracotta tile floor, embroidered runners on the whitewashed walls, brick ceiling, windows open on the sunrise on the mountains. White curtains stirring in the fresh breeze.
Yesterday we had a beer on a cafe balcony overlooking the mountain valley. The carved spires of the baroque cathedral on the skyline. Magenta bougainvillea tumbling down adobe walls. The flowering purple tree below our balcony so brilliant in the dusk that the blooms looked fluorescent. Then gunshots? Sounded like the guns in movies. We couldn't see any fireworks to explain the noise. Maybe we just thought we heard gunshots because earlier, when we were walking in the narrow cobbled streets, we'd seen a police jeep with a mounted machine gun atop. The police standing against the stucco walls were all carrying what R called assault weapons--rifles? machine guns? I'm not so clear on these terms.
After our beer, we joined the crowd in the square in front of the cathedral. People were sitting with their children eating roasted corn on the cob. A wizened toothless woman sucked the lime and chili pepper off her chunks of watermelon. A man hawked painted wooden animals. Would these people just be sitting here if someone was shooting guns in the streets? (Well, if they live here, where else would they go? Humans are amazing for what they get used to.)
We came to Taxco because we'd heard that it was beautiful. Aged stucco and adobe brick buildings wedged into the steep mountainside. The heavy beams of the balconies. Wrought iron. Cobblestone streets. Years ago I bought a silver ring in Montreal that was stamped Taxco. We were so close to Taxco and I wanted to buy myself a chunky silver ring in Taxco. I read the travel advisory advising against travel in the province of Guerrero because of the drug wars. I googled Taxco and crime and read about the mass grave that was discovered. The big shoot-out last summer. I have no idea how I'm going to die, but I decided it was highly unlikely that I was going to be shot by a drug lord in Taxco. (By a policeman I was less sure.)
We took a bus from Mexico City through arid mountains that became pine forests. The pines here don't look like Canadian trees. They're fluffier--as if they've been blow-dried. Then lush cornfields. Rich vegetation. Higher into the mountains again. Shrines along the way to commemorate accidents. Sparkle spray paint and streamers. Enormous plastic lilies. Mexican kitsch turned up a few notches by devotion.
There weren't any other tourists on the bus. No doubt they took the travel advisory more seriously. Their judgment wasn't addled by a love of chunky silver rings. Or they knew about the obligatory entertainment on the bus. You are not allowed to read. You must suffer, even if you try not to watch, a stupid Sandra Bullock movie dubbed into Spanish at earsplitting volume. And when that horror was over and it seemed no worse could follow, we got Alvin and the Chipmunks! Je-sus.
But it's true, we saw less than a dozen tourists in Taxco, including in our hotel which was so excellent that I'll recommend it: Los Arcos. Well-appointed rooms, tastefully decorated. No kitsch here. Calla lilies. A great stone fountain. A rooftop terrace. Fronds and palms. Lots of pillows on the bed. A firm mattress. A table and chairs. (So, okay, the bed was only a double and there was no hairdryer, but I'm not that kind of traveller. I don't need everything. I bless every hotel owner who puts a lamp next to the bed for that arcane pasttime of reading before sleep.)
After we sat in the square with the families, we decided to go relax in our comfortable room for a while. At around 8 pm we headed back downstairs to go out for a snack, but the main door of the hotel wasn't only closed, it had a log across it. We were barricaded inside. The desk clerk didn't want us to go out. She mimed guns shooting and told us it was dangerous. Ah, we said, so those really were guns earlier? Si, she said, guns. We went back upstairs--we had our comfortable room after all--and R complained for a while because he could see people in the street from the window. But that was different because one more or less Mexican shot in Taxco doesn't make the international news. A foreigner does. And then we did hear more gunfire--which sounded a helluva lot MORE real now that we knew it really was gunfire. Later we went up to the rooftop to sit in the balmy night and look at the stars and we could see the searchlights playing across buildings probaby a kilometer away. Only 10 pm and the streets were completely deserted. No pedestrians, no cars. Whereas in Mexico City the evening would only be starting to gear up.
So this is really too bad that this beautiful town which has already lived through a couple of ghost-town phases--when the first discovery of silver was played out, when the second discovery of silver was exhausted--might be heading for another eclipse while tourists stay away because of gunfire in the streets. Well, of course, they stay away. I would too now.
I'm still glad I went--and not least because I bought myself a beautiful ring. Ojo de tigre. Taxco is one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. I loved climbing through the market on several steep levels of steps; the man who explained to me what red drink he was serving in his big jug by pursing his fingers to mime the flowers he steeped in water; the purple flowers that had fallen from the tree into the courtyard like a petal carpet; the discoloured adobe walls; the mountains all around; the slow mountain dusk.
We're back in Mexico City now. DF. Another earsplitting movie in transit. I suspect there's no volume control in this country. There's only an on/off button. You turn on a machine and the sound is automatically at max. You have to get used to it. Invest in high-tech earplugs if you want to read or sleep.


  1. Alice, I did not know this about you - that you would read a travel advisory and learn a place was ultra-dangerous, then decide to go there anyway because it was beautiful. Wow. I am so impressed. I have to confess, I read with great relief that you had returned safely to Mexico City. Brava for you, my dear!

  2. Hm, Kathleen. That makes me sound more reckless than I am. I wouldn't go anywhere I thought was truly ultra-dangerous. I guess I don't always believe what the government and media broadcast. (Nor do you.)

  3. Hi, Alice...don't know you, but met Kathleen on the Arctic adventure that ended on a rock. We live half the year in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the other half in Laguna Beach, California (from where I write). Correct: Taxco is not ultra-dangerous, nor is Mexico; what is more dangerous is the PRESS that makes people fearful and scares away tourism, that was Mexico's #2 source of income. People can be shot at random in "safe" places like Tucson, AZ or stolen blind by Canadian crooks like Earl Jones (as happened to someone in our family).
    Thank you for enjoying Taxco and environs. Thousands of Canadians come to Mexico each year as "snow birds" ~ and all of their heads are still attached to their bodies.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Pat. I agree with you 100%. It was our first and won't be our last trip to Mexico. I envy you spending half a yr in Cuernavaca.
    I do think there's some risk travelling in Mexico, not least because there are so many police carrying machine guns. In Taxco, in Mexico City--at the entrance to Burger King! I don't trust boys with their toys. On the other hand, as you say, there is risk everywhere. Our original plan was to go to Tunisia.

  5. I love how this thread went! Yay Pat and Alice and Taxco and the Arctic!