Mouth to mouth with a Butterfly



The Monarch butterfly reserve in Michocan province in Mexico is at a very high altitude.  The mountains are craggy and covered with a sort of pine tree.  That’s the tree Monarchs like to mate in.  Just like they like to feed on milkweed that hasn’t been sprayed with Monsanto Round-Up. They’re fussy that way.  The first time I visited, I froze on top of a docile white horse who plodded me up to the viewing site.  I felt I knew what statues of heros on horseback in the park on a chilly January morning felt like.  Only difference was that Paloma had a disconcerting habit of slithering on loose stones as I clung to the large  pommel of the solid saddle.  Although I warned my friend to dress warmly when we returned earlier this year, we were rewarded with a balmy day.  My Shetland wool sweater and windbreaker draped over the saddle as we were taken to a different site.  Seems the indiginous people who shepherd us up and make sure we behave like civilized human beings in the face of this wonder  check out the mountain every day to determine where the Monarchs are .  We sat silently watching the butterflies fluttering around or settling on the branches of the pine trees.  There were quite a lot of dead butterflies around us…..happy males who had combined duty and pleasure for the continuation of the species.  (hmmm…butterfly orgasm….an interesting field of study )

Even though we were blessed with a mild day, a cold spell arrived shortly after our visit.  My friend sent me a note to tell me that friends of hers had arrived at the site to a fall of snow.  The delicate insects, of course, were affected.  Then she provided me with an image I will not soon forget.  She wrote that the guides, horse handlers, wardens of the mountain, took chilled butterflies  into their hands ( imagine brown, hard hands, cracked and calloused) and they breathed  gently on the butterflies with their warm breath and the butterflies revived.  They set them in a sunny spot and , as the day wore on, the sun at high altitude melted the snow and ….some butterflies were saved by a breath.


San Miguel Tuesday Market


Every week ordinary Mexicans and ordinary Gringos go to the huge market that is set up above the town. I always marvel at how this vast emporium is put up and taken down all in one day.  Want an axe handle, a Barbie,, sexy underwear, second-hand clothing, fresh,and,tasty fruits and vegetables?  Get on that bus at the square and enjoy the bumpy, chugging ride up the steep streets of San Miguel until you come to the market.  But wait, there’s construction up on the hill and this morning to my consternation, the bus sailed on past the site and sped along, through narrow streets and then back onto the highway until I was sure I would end up in the next town, 40 miles away!  An aged grandmother with a large walking stick had taken the seat next to me and the bus was so bumpy that I hesitated to make her get up so that I could ask the ticket taker if we were on the right road.  But then how would I ask him and how would I understand the answer? I gazed out at a burned landscape punctuated with large cacti and waited to see what would happen. ( It is tax time and if fields are not ” clean” people pay a higher tax. ). I think the idea is that fires should not start.  Hmm!  Logic?

Anyway I resisted the impulse  to jump out into the wasteland and to my joy the driver suddenly made a U turn at a big hotel and the sign announcing the city limits of San Miguel hove into view.  There I was with the little old lady getting off in front of me, her hair braided down in a grey roap and her apron unbuttoned in back.

The market was the usual cheerful chaos.  Even at 10 am, Mexicans were seriously digging into the cooked foods, particularly what looked like delicious soup.  It was unusually windy and that played havoc with the big coloured tarps that are strung up over the stalls.  They protect from the sun but the pink and orange filtering the strong rays make it impossible to see what color garment one is buying.  The flapping made me feel I was in a galleon carrying Mexico along to her fate.  The plastic sheets were like huge sails and the vendors struggled to get control of them and to stop the wind carrying away their goods.

The kids were out in force.  It was aschool day but there were a lot of youngsters “helping” or crawling around under the tables, getting lost or selling mysterious things out of plastic bags.

There are no San Miguel souvenirs at the Tuesday market, just people getting on with their daily lives.  I resisted the impulse to buy a pair of spurs, gathered up my bundles and headed for the bus bound for “Centro”.  Last Tuesday Market for at least a years. Other adventures to enjoy at home.

On the Town Square


In this town they call the town square the “jardin” and we say ” hardine”. It’s an interesting place.  People come and sit on the infernally uncomfortable benches and talk to each other.  Vendors sell hats, balloons, beads or scarves.  There are a couple of shoe-shine men.  In San Miguel, you need never feel alone.  Perhaps I should say you need never lack for company.  Feeling alone is another matter.

This weekend it was different on the jardin.  Many Mexicans dressed in the most stunning regalia and they danced and danced to drums for many hours.  Men and women, old and young danced to the drum that inhabited my sternum for the time I was there.  They danced with rattles and with rows of large seed pods on their ankles.  On their heads sat elaborate head-dresses.  Long feathers swayed and bobbed with the dance.  Sometimes as they swooped by they caressed my arm and it felt like a blessing.  Some danced with modified and decorated modern shoes and others danced barefoot.

The Hardine is presided over by the parish church of San Miguel and sometimes groups went into the church to sing and to pray.  They never turned around to leave but backed out of the church.  They carried two crucifixes on a bier decorated with flowers.  There was a white Christ and a black one. They played their mandolins and danced and sang in church.  I understood very little of what was going on.  They danced and danced.

They set up altars outside the church and lit inscence and laid out flowers in front of images that were incomprehensible to me.  The old people wore magnificent robes and headdresses. The young gloried in neon colors, sequins, or skulls, dried crocodile heads, animal skins.  The motifs on the costumes were as old as the feathered serpent and as innocent as flowers.

A little way off from the serious dancers were people disguised as Cowboys, whores, the devil and one as a bull who chased all these “bad guys”. It was like a Medieval miracle play and whole families laughed or acted startled as the bull rushed imto the crowd.

It is still a big mystery to me.  This is Lent, after all in a city where such things matter.  You could never persuade people to do this.  The hours of drumming and dancing were done for the love of it. I wouldn’t   have missed it for anything.

Old and Young



I could hear an accordion playing somewhere near the square ringed with neatly clipped trees.  The melodies, however, were not neat, slipping from some sort of oriental belly-dance tune to a tango to a waltz.  Impossible that this eclectic stream of tunes and chords could be canned music.  Ah, there he was, sitting in the  shade and playing the most beat-up instrument I had ever seen.  With 20 words of Spanish and a liberal sprinkling of French and English we managed a ten-minute conversation, during which the musician told me his accordion was 100 years old.  I recommended to him Annie Proulx’s wonderful book “Accordion Tales”.  It follows the adventures of an accordion brought to the United States at the turn of the ( other) century.  I wonder if he will be able to find a Spanish translation of this brilliant and, at times, terrifying book.

I wandered off to my lunch date where I met a talented weaver.  Her website is at and her name is Yumiko Murai.  She dyes her wool with vegetable dyes and she agreed to show me her 70 year old loom, set up in a sort of open-air warehouse.

How fortunate that we enjoy the mild Mexican winter where these old, venerable objects continue to do their work, caressed by the hands of generation after generation of artists, creators of beauty.

One of the lunch party was a maker of silver jewelry.  As I looked around the table, it struck me that others cultivated the art of kindness and an open heart….the most valued of all skills.

Small Beauties


Yesterday it was humid and oppressive.  For the second time during my stay here if rained heavily during the evening.  I am hoping that means the air will be clear and fresh this morning.  Late in the afternoon yesterday I swung in the hammock, reading for a few moments, letting the book drop onto my chest,and then, picking it up again to scan the page in that loose easy way that a dozing mind-set permits.  A dark hummingbird, ever busy, chirping, scolding roused me to peel myself out of the swaying net and go and get ready to go out to dinner.  I had a look around the veranda and thought I would share some of the things I saw

The little shop window with the bouquet always has fresh flowers and the tall-man puppet seems to hang out on that street corner.  Can you see in the picture the opening just where his face can peer out.  I was too slow to catch the little boy handing a sandwich in through the unobtrusive hole.  Next time when it is not such a sleepy day.






Can you see what these very glamorous bridesmaids are doing?  Having come to the main church of San Miguel ( the parochia) they are removing their trendy sports shoes and putting on some killer high heels.  That way they  can totter into the church behind the equally glamorous bride and guests.  It is impossible to walk  in high heels in the cobblestone streets of San Miguel so this is not just sensible, but a matter of survival.  There is nothing glamorous about a cast, after all.

I spent some time in the public garden in front of the ornate church and saw a couple of society weddings on Saturday.  The square was crowded with wealthy Mexicans, some visiting from Mexico City.  The usual crowd of tourists and locals were there too.  The hat sellers, balloon sellers, Mariacci bands and beggars added local color.   

I crept inside the church and found it lavishly decorated with white flowers.  The guests were dressed to the nines; men in immaculate tuxes and women sporting all the bling they could muster.  At a side altar, a woman, her hair dishevelled, clothes dirty and almost in rags approached on her knees to the object of her prayers, an altar devoted to St. Theresa, the little flower.  Two half drunk young men posed with a can of beer for their companion to take their picture before a gory statue of Christ dressed in a purple robe, on his knees, blood running down his face.

It was too distracting for me in the church that day.  I wondered if I had been transported back in time to the Middle Ages when a different order reigned.  People were, before my eyes, sharply divided into rich and poor. I wished the bride and groom well, in my heart, wished the penitent on her knees well, wished the happy guests well and left the church.

I was carrying a back pack full of the fresh vegetables that make cooking  such a joy in this town.  It was about five o’clock and I turned down a side street away from the bustling main square.  Soon the bride and groom would emerge to the sounds of the band and evening would fall over the scene.  On my way down the street I passed a young mother, sitting with a child of about a year and a half, begging.  She looked tired.  The child was grubby.  He  was playing half-heartedly with a bit of white rag.  I tossed into her cup a small coin, about the equivalent of a dollar.  Then I noticed that the child had a cast on his leg.  I was at the next corner before I decided to turn back.  My pack was heavy and how much had it cost me?  Let’s say I could have bought one item in my grocery store in Montreal for the cost of that shopping trip.   I decided to give her the equivalent of the cost of the bag of vegetables.  Perhaps then she could go home and put that child to rest.  She looked up in astonishment as I put the equivalent of the cost of three cups of coffee in the Gringo establishments I frequent,  into her cup.  Then I saw that the baby had a shorter cast on his other leg too.  In my pathetic Spanish I tried to ask her what had happened and she replied in a flood of explanation that only conveyed to me her distress at the child’s condition.

I continued down the street full of happy teenagers taking selfies, tourists hailing a taxi, overdressed guests from the weddings.  All that evening that mother and child haunts me and they still haunt me.

The title of this piece is leap.  Surely we are at the leaping point.  There is no more excuse of ignorance.  We who are rich know who lives beside us in the beautiful parts of the world we visit.  They see us, watch TV.  (  Oscars last night!) wash our clothes, clean the house, cook and serve food.  Can we leap into the heart of the others in compassion?  A great leap… that that child can leap out of the gutter…not into conspicuous wealth or as an exploiter himself, but into a world of knowledge, health, service to others.  Ah, what a dream!



The ladies ( and gents) go shopping in San Miguel



I am revelling in  the serious second-hand shopping scene in San Miguel.  The classic is the Tuesday Market high up on a hill outside of the town.   It’s overwhelming, muddled and chaotic but sometimes it yields good results ( a North Face jacket for my granddaughter for $2 last week). The vendor even congratulated me for digging that one out.  If you crave something a little more genteel, there are the discrete second hand shops.  I saw what I am assured is a “real” Louis Vuton purse last week for less than $40 and it’s seriously haunting me.  Today I dressed carefully in a pair of shoes I could easily slip off and a comfortable skirt.  Although it was a little chilly today and we even saw…horrors!…showers, no way was I going to wear pants. I had a feeling the garage sale I and two lady friends were going to would not have a fitting room. Although my underwear is eminently respectable, I thought trying things on under my skirt might be a little more tactful if my hunch was right.  It was and …it was.  In the private garage sale I stocked up on basics like a lambs wool sweater and one of my friends got pants.  She wasn’t so prudent as I so her two cronies made a sort of tent affair with coats and she managed to be convinced that the pants fit.

By now our blood was up and pants lady ( her name is Susan) suggested we go to Alma’s.  Ah, Alma’s, enchanted name for bargain hunters in San Miguel!  The other musketeer, Lindy, was driving and like a modern day Cinderella, she had to be home by noon. “No worries” cried Susan.  “I know the way and if you miss today, you’re out of luck until next month.”  That’s all it took to persuade Lindy.

Alma’s is a nursing home not far from the centre of town where Mexicans and ex pats are cared for.  They’ve been in operation for about 20 years.  One  of their big fund raisers is this monthly sale. When  we arrived I was astonished to see a large courtyard full of racks of very nice clothes but Susan, the   cognoscenti insisted I start in the little room.  Such a mysterious turn of phrase.  The best stuff is in there, she assured me, and it was.   I have heard stories of heated exchanges in the ” little room” but today we were all perfect ladies.  I even saw a husband seated quietly on a stool waiting for his lady to get it out of her system.  A wise man!

I was thrilled with a very pretty and usual skirt which cost the equivalent of $5 and a tremendously funky purse that cost $3.  Can’t beat that, you say.  Yes, you can.  A rummage of the racks outside produced  a very nice  pair of pants ( Gloria Vanderbilt, no less) and a heavenly silk blouse…each cost 10 pesos.  One dollar?  Now you see why I wore the skirt, right?  While my friends were guessing or estimating, I was dragging things on ( up?)  with abandon.

At these prices there were lots of Mexican buyers too.  There were many many helpful volunteers.  I have a feeling some of these pieces may be re-sold in the little informal shops that crop up on fences or in garages on Saturdays.

I wondered where all the clothes came from.  We must remember that San Miguel has had a huge ex pat population for decades and that many of the ladies who live here enjoy a fairly affluent lifestyle.  It all makes for a lot of recycling which is good.  So I can fit my new things in my suitcase, I will be giving lots of things I brought here to LIlly, the nice cleaning lady.

So, I if you want to shop without spending lots of money, don’t forget…Alma’s Nursing Home on the last Saturday of every month.  It’s quite close to the Mega Shopping Centre near the round-about and I guess a taxi would take you there for about 40 pesos.  Clothes, clothes, shoes, household items and mysterious electrical items.  Go and support a good. cause.  If you’re like me, you’ll spread all the stuff out on the bed and congratulate yourself on how little you spent.

Little Mexican mysteries


Today just a few scenes from a fine day walking around the city.  Besides the lovely colonial architecture which has been preserved in San Miguel we often see something pretty to catch the eye.  I love this piñata high over one of the streets leading from the central garden.  Don’t know who will be able to find a stick long enough to break that one.  In a shop that specialized in paper mâché figure piñatas, I saw a Donald Trump one.  But this a post about beautiful and intreiging things so I’ll leave that alone!

Yesterday there was was a book fair in another of the squares, close to the bus terminal.  All the boks were in Spanish and I had a pleasant few minutes resisting the temptation to buy a poetry book.  I have discovered the South American poets  and think I should stick to studying them in English first!  I wonder if someone could translate the poster for me.  I think I have the first part worked out but the end eludes me. Come on readers, help me out here!

I love the little shop of fruits and vegetables stacked up in a stairway.  It is this sort of ingeniouity that is lost in Northern societies, perhaps.  You can see a picture of the knife grinder on his bike too.  For a while I was puzzled by a shrill whistle I heard every so often.  Then I realized it was the knife and scissors sharpener who called his customers this way.  He goes around on a bike and when he has a blade to sharpen, fixes the wheels and turns the grindstone by pedalling.  I am always a little shy of taking people’s pictures when they are working….others not so, as you see.

This much for today and more observations to follow.

The poster says,” La poesie debe ser un poco secca para que arda bien y de este mondo iluminaries y calendarnos.

Beaten by Butterflies





Yesterday I went to see the Monarch butterflies in their reserve high in the mountains of Michoacan Province in Mexico.  The landscape is startlingly different from the scrubby plains, full of cactus and brush that surrounds San Miguel.  The car turns off the highway onto a twisting two lane highway and soon oaks and other deciduous trees appear.  They are gradually replaced by a sort of pine tree, the whole tree shaped like a cone.  They cover steep mountain sides dotted with villages.  Sheep, goats and cows graze on dry meadows.

After a torturous drive up the mountains, involving much popping of our ear-drums we arrive at the reserve.  It is run by the indigenous people who consider it their trust, their responsibility, their privilege to protect the mountain and the butterflies.  There has been a lot of pressure on the environment by logging companies but the government has promised to put a stop to this industry.  Recently, we were told, a company started cutting the timber again and when the villagers called for help, there was no answer from the responsible office.  The villagers took matters into their own hands and burned a vehicle belonging to the company.  The logging stopped.  That news gave me a certain satisfaction.  Direct citizen action!

Cars and busses ( how they navigate the end of the road was beyond me!) park in a lot far from the butterflies.  There were small cabins where  we could buy food cooked on a wood stove and handicrafts made by the villagers. After a delicious lunch we went up to a large paddock where visitors decided whether to hike up to the Monarch preserve or to ride on ponies, horses or mules.  I chose a good sized horse and prayed that my artificial hip would hold up.  The saddles are perfect for us scardy-cat Gringos as they have a large pommel and a raised back forming a sold  wooden seat.  Just sit tight and let one of the locals lead you on up.  These guys must have tremendous lung capacity as they hike up three times a day!  The altitude is enough to make me gasp and feel a bit queasy so – horsy it had to be.

Now, butterflies have minds of their own and we were led to a different observation spot than the one I visited last year.  We dismounted and left the horses.  Access involved a lot of scrambling around on a narrow sandy trail until we finally arrived at a small clearing where the beautiful Monarchs were fluttering about or landing on the branches of the trees.  There were many dead butterflies lying about.  After mating the males die, presumably with smiles on their faces.

There is something sobering, awe-inspiring about this place.  People sit down quietly and even the many school children present yesterday were subdued and silent.  There are “monitors” who remind us to be still and not disturb the insects. Most of these are venerable grandmothers who wear a badge of honor as elders of the group.

It is odd how people take many photographs, of course, but then they fall silent or start to talk about the fragility of life, the wonder of the cycle of the tiny insects that make such huge journeys.  This is a place that inspires deep thinking with its tall majestic trees and its creatures that care nothing for our admiration or reverence.

The journey to see the butterflies takes many hours and I found the drive back to San Miguel tedious because of its many twists and turns, slow-downs for speed bumps and tolls.  Seeing the Monarchs requires real effort.  It requires that one obey the orders of the horse handlers, the silence monitors, even the weather, for if it is cloudy, the butterflies cluster on the trees and do not fly.  There is a physical effort too of sitting in the car for a long time, hiking and riding up to the observation points.

I was tired when I got home.  I ate a bite, drank a cup of tea and even took a headache pill as I think the altitude affected my pressure.  I slid into my bed, defeated by butterflies, and I dreamed of those fluttering, elusive beauties that understand mysteries that we mortals can only theorize about.  Why and how do such migrations occur, how does the fragile beauty of butterflies come to be, what is the true place of humans in all this?  These are deep questions to keep us all dreaming, even past our fatigue and effort.  Be eternal, butterflies.  Stay tall and strong, pine trees.  Indulge our shallow ideas, our ambitions and pursuit of wealth,  you who live on the mountains.  Our connection with you is as fragile as a butterfly’s wing yet as strong as the instinct to travel across the world, generation after generation.