May 19, 2013

A Vacation from our Vacation (1)

Get busy living, or get busy dying.
Shawshank Redemption 

Over 450 years of history Barra de Navidad - entrance to lagoon
When we began this trip, we didn’t actually think of it as a vacation; rather a water-based continuation of our lifestyle of discoveries and adventures.  Measured by any ‘normal’ means, living on a boat in Mexico is a nice holiday.  This makes for a conundrum when you leave the boat for a small vacation, from your vacation… 
Typical morning fishing with net
How do you leave a place where an unknown Mexican family picking fresh coconuts from a tall palm tree cuts one open and offers it to you with a beautiful smile expecting nothing in return?  "It’s for you to taste and try." they say. How do you leave a place as peaceful, serene and where everyone has been so friendly and helpful even though you are not one of them?

We so enjoyed our first trip to Comala (a ‘comal’ is a flat earthenware griddle – Comala therefore means ‘where comals are made’) that we decided to explore it further.  We have no winds to guide us back to the Sea of Cortez so rather than go stir-crazy waiting around; we happily migrated back inland for a few days.
Mike standing by one of the pyramids with rounded corners
Archaeological Discovery

Our first stop was at La Campaña (The Bell, named this way in 1936 by the Mexican government, based on the shape of the mounds discovered here), an archaeological site of dwellings dating further back than the Mayans and Incas.  Less than 1-2% of this 125 acre site has been excavated and can be viewed.  Digging is ongoing and will be for a long time yet to come!  This place is representative of a pre-Columbian settlement.  The buildings’ locations and arrangement clearly indicate a planning and layout of urban nature: monuments, avenues, homes, as well as religious and cultural centers.  Even though the area is full of volcanic rocks, naturally rounded stones were brought in from the nearby rivers, joined together with clay mortar, and then coated with mud made weather resistant by polishing and firing.
If you double click on picture to get larger image
You'll see church steeples in background
Marie-France walking on retaining wall
As we find out later while being driven around by our tour guide, there are at least two more sites in this region where construction has been halted due to the discovery of additional archaeological sites. So much so that many fields are bordered by fences made of rocks or walls from these ancient dwellings.

We meandered for a little over an hour marveling at the number of people and hours of work necessary to create such a ‘city’; the food and various materials needed to support them, and the vast amount of history just below our feet.
It’s no surprise this site offers a great view of the volcanoes nearby.  On one side we can see the volcanoes, on the other the tall steeples of a church in nearby Villa de Alvarez, an interesting contrast. 

Next are small descriptions of what we have seen or read about this place:
  1. Typical shrine of pre-Hispanic architecture rising from 3 staggered red square platforms, its beautifully sloped bulk has 4 stairways up to the top where there is another square platform used for different ritual activities dedicated to the Gods.  Burials uncovered at the base were meant as offerings.
  2. Extensive underground drainage system designed to channel and carry away rainwater runoff.  Once faced with stones, its course followed the base of the buildings.
  3. In all likelihood clay coating once had decorative motifs done with mineral and earthen pigments of different colors from this region.
  4. Its orientation responds to the conjunction of architectural principles based on geometric forms with astronomical elements and the symbolism associated with the cardinal points.
  5. Construction assessed to be between 100BCE and 500CE then additions/changes made around 900 CE.
  6. Patio area to play the ritual ball game known as ‘tlachtli’.  Its development had political-religious implications, rituals, and symbolism associated with fertility.
  7. Tombs found in funerary vault where fragments of human bodies were placed and served as departure point for the trip to the underworld.  Supplied with earthen pots of food and drink, in addition to clay dog which was to protect the entrance and serve as a guide to the departed during his trip.  Also found were ceremonial brazier, part of priestly accessories, a mask and anthropomorphic figurines meant to accompany the deceased.
  8. Deities of water and fertility were worshipped.  Fifteen toads associated with the vital liquid were found as offerings, arranged in a ritual position.
  9. The symbolic form of the rattlesnake carved in stone is related to water worship.  The serpent forms part of the image of the water God and was associated with the clouds, the rain and lightening.  Supposedly, the lightening was a fire serpent which, when it struck, sank into the earth.
Snake petroglyph at base of stairway
The American archaeologist Isabel Kelly excavated seven ‘shaft tombs’ (tombs first going vertically then horizontally containing no dirt, just plugged with large rock – hence why it is so easy to find pottery in excellent condition in many of these tombs) dating from 500BCE to 600CE.  Their past was not found on monumental pyramids nor sculptured stone deities.  There seems to be no specific evidence of sacrifices.  This culture appears to dedicate their admiration to everyday life and to prepare themselves to the mystery of death. 

The refinement, aesthetic value and originality of the pottery pieces are a reflection of spiritual values, respect and love for life and nature.  These are the reasons why Rangel Hidalgo (more on him later) was motivated to preserve them and avoid sending ‘part of our history to other parts of the world’.

Unlike Incas, Aztecs or Mayans, very little is known about these people even though they predate them…  It is nice to still have mysteries to uncover. 
Huge tree at entrance of gated home
Another huge specimen (we are surrounded by them) - Car for size....
Less than 30 minutes away, we are in Nogueras, previously called Valley of the Flowers until the Franciscans arrived in 1702.  To get there we drive on a cobblestone road bordered by high fences hiding very large and expensive properties.  We learned that Mexican presidents have had or still have houses here and that one of them created a greenbelt (protected area called Las Muertas) between Nogueras and Comala so that he would not have to deal with urban encroachment on his property.  Nice to have the power to do something like this. 

Textures: rocks, ironwork, ceramic tiles, wood beams, ivy, and water
Dove in cage with plants
Scale with plants Another interesting alcove
Interesting nooks found everywhere
Here, we visit the Eco-park and Cultural Center of Nogueras, an ex-hacienda where sugarcane was pressed and made into sugar and molasses.  Now it is a museum and eco-park where one can learn about the regions’ past, plants, fauna; or participate in events such as weddings, traditional dance or music, etc.

Vanilla vine (on right trunk)
Nesting dove above some coco pods
36 beautiful red brick arches
Mike and Nikki near where sugarcane was crushed
The Cultural Center is also called ‘La Molienda 36’ (Mill 36) because it is graced with 36 beautiful red brick arches.  Thanks to the involvement of the Rangel family and the University of Colima, the building has been remodeled magnificently for the enjoyment of future generations. 

Use of porones instead of bricks
Walls were made of bricks but when faced with shortages, they used ‘porones’ (clay pots used to store molasses).  They sometimes had them upside down, at others, sideways.  When intact porones were not available, they used their broken pieces to fill the blanks making for very interesting wall textures – a recycling of a different kind way before it became 'popular' to do so.

Other examples of mixed walls: - Bricks, rocks, pottery pieces, etc
Since this building is now used for special events (dinners, gatherings, dances, weddings, etc) the majority of the inside walls have been stuccoed over and painted white to give it a brighter, cleaner look.

Outside you can view hundreds of labeled plants typically growing in this region.  It is a beautiful educational garden to relax in where you can see bananas, citrus, star-fruit, neem (medicinal tree from India), plumeria (made famous by Hawaiian leis), fishtail palms, vanilla, birds of paradise, and much more.
Small chapel in Nogueras
Nearby is a small chapel from the late 1600s early 1700s that holds up to 80 people.  It doesn’t look operational from the outside but we are told mass is conducted once a week and small weddings when requested.  From here the view of the volcanoes is stunning, but with the burning of sugarcane fields visibility is minimal. 

Typical example of clay works we saw
The houses on each side of the chapel are now used as a museum exhibiting amazing pre-Columbian pottery/clay works of art.  Collected over time by famous artist Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo (Cultural Museum of Alejandro Rangel, University of Colima), all pieces were found in the vicinity.  In the days when these types of clay pieces weren’t seen as having much value, Don Alejandro convinced the local farmers to bring them to him in exchange for money, for preservation. 
Typical Rangel chair - check out painting upper middle
What Rangel called the pomegranate design - Even if in blue-green!
Other rooms accommodate the works of ‘Rangel’ (1923-2000).  Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo was an artist with many talents: he was a painter, a designer (ballet costumes, bedspreads, dishware), a graphic illustrator, a builder of furniture or lamps, a glass blower, he worked with clay and paper and forged iron.  He was made famous after entering a 1963 UNICEF card contest he won.  Eventually he sold more cards for them than any other artists ($8M).  These cards represented many of the Mexican traditions.  He was one of the few lucky artists to be made famous while he was alive.  Mexican embassies and presidential homes are proud to showcase his furniture and artwork.  The museum is located where Rangel lived while in Nogueras and what is believed to have been the home of the chaplain who took care of the chapel in the early 1700s.

Power Plant
Remains of fort above power plant, to protect it from thieves
Pilgrim's cross - one has to add a small rock when passing by
That evening we headed out to El Remate (The End - for it is seemingly at the end of the road) about 45 minutes away from Comala.  After a hike down some 300-400 feet we visited the first power plant ever built in the State of Colima.  The plant was planned to open on the first minute of the year 1900 but problems surfaced and it didn’t come online until 1906.  With water coming from two man-made lakes approximately 330 feet above, the plant’s maximum output was about 1 Megawatt and ended production in 1960.  This was a very interesting visit for Mike since he participated in the rebuilding of a 1903 electric plant in Telluride, CO (the 3rd Westinghouse AC Commercial generator ever built) and now could see a power plant of about the same era in Mexico. 

What is left of the equipment in the power plant
The power plant is at the bottom of a fairly steep canyon.  Across the river from where we stand is a vertical cliff of 400-500 feet.  The narrow trail we followed used to be a road eons ago.  It is used by pilgrims traveling for 7-14 days who are going to Talpa where its virgin (Virgin de Talpa) is known for miracles.  People walk for days or weeks to see her.  When we visited Juanacatlán last year, the brother of the man we stayed with is the priest of Talpa.  Through him, we had heard of this pilgrimage but had no idea people would come from so far and use such difficult trails to get there.

Also on this trail and for the next couple of days we see many new birds.  The bird found on the Mexican flag is the trogon (I always thought it was an eagle but the folks around here think the trogon is it!).  We also saw yellow winged cacique, chachalaca, Inca doves, gorillon (sparrow), russet crown motmot, white throated magpie jays, hummingbirds, etc.

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