It’s planting time in Central Mexico. For regular farmers like us, (“regular”, hah! Joke) it’s time to plant corn. If a farmer came out financially ahead on the wheat crop, there are funds available to invest in corn-planting expenses, and early June is the time. This year we began on the 6th. When we got out to the fields we were noticeably alone. There were no other tractors or planting teams with pickups loaded with fertilizer and seed. We’re in charge of seven fields, and they’re not all located adjacent to each other; we have a good view of the neighbors’ fields. Nada. There was no movement – only us. And we heard the talk (and jeers) about town. “Too early!”
Our team was headed by Chon The Guitar Player (boss), Me (driver), a tractor operator, and two loaders. Loaders load (duh) the pickup with the seed and fertilizer sacks, and then move that heavy stuff to the canisters on the planter behind the tractor. Each sack of granulated fertilizer weighs about 100 pounds. The seed sacks weigh less. It’s a heavy job but there are long resting times between the carrying and loading, and to me that balances it out – long hours, but a reasonably pleasant day.
That was the first day. It took us a week and a day (and then another two weeks) to finish the planting, and I won’t write a boring blow-by-blow chronicle for something that should have taken 5 days. Damp fields, hot weather, nightly rains, not-dry-enough leftover wheat stalks that got stuck in the planter wheels, lack of fertilizer (the supplier ran out!), but workers who wanted to Get Things Done by working at odd hours; all these contributed to a final acceptable outcome.
And then, like farmers do, we had to hope that the rain would arrive to keep the corn sprouts alive. They were already poking up out of the ground in some areas. The most costly thing that could happen is for all the millions of sprouts to die of thirst. And if it happens to us, it will happen for most of the farmers in our area.
If you were paying attention, the “Too early!” comment turned out to be true for nearly everyone. And by the end of the month (including on my birthday) many of us were re-planting. For three long weeks we waited for the rain we expected at the beginning of June, and with the exception of small sprinkles of rain in certain micro areas, they didn’t come.
A comment about my birthday – it was pleasant! We had casually planned a short-distance trip to somewhere new, thinking we’d just drive somewhere. Instead, since it was Tuesday, we decided – why not? – we decided to go to our go-to Tuesday place, where two-for-one is the magical word. For big plates of breaded fish filets served with rolls, salad, rice, and tostadas with chíle oil, and just about any kind of salsa you could ask for.
A dash to the ag supply place with money freshly withdrawn from the bank account preceded a stop at our tractor driver’s house. Yes, he said, he’d come to reseed a field.
And that’s what we did, until rain began to splatter the field, thunder sounded, lightning flashed, and – we finished the section of the field that had sprouted but not lived!
It was a day like many others, but somehow – just right.
OK, yes, it’s loud. We use our big speakers, and I’ve heard that it can be noticed in a town less than a mile away.
Right now we’re hearing The Eagles. People are on their way to mass. They just can’t miss it.
Time for breakfast of tamales at 5 pesos apiece. With beans, and café de la olla – check it out! Delicious!
Patronal festivals are an important part of rancho life. They are major events, lasting several days, and they serve to gather family and friends together. People from nearby towns come, and people from faraway places as well. There are plenty of ways to spend money. Colorful booths with vendors offer food, products, artisanal candy, and regional items.
Today we went to play for a mass in a not-too-far-away place where we’d never gone before. It’s a rancho called Sitio de Maravillas and maybe someday I’ll find out why it’s named that.The name means place of wonders/marvels. It looked like a typical rancho, and there were no wonders in sight. It did look typical, if there is such a thing, but the guitar player said, “These people look like they’re from Michoacan, and most of them have the same faces as my family.” As it turns out, the rancho is an ejido. From wikipedia: In Mexican system of government, an ejido (Spanish pronunciation: [eˈxiðo], from Latin exitum) is an area of communal land used for agriculture, on which community members individually farm designated parcels and collectively maintain communal holdings. And the area is only two or three miles from where many of the guitar player’s cousins live. There are some good photos of Sitio at this site:
It was a rather typical-for-us first time visit. We arrived more than an hour early and began our set up. It was difficult to find a power outlet, and there was no one to let us know where we should sing and play from.
Anyway we were a bit nervous, and the church began filling up about a half-hour before the mass was to begin, which was not exactly a calming influence.
We were surrounded by people, some praying, but mostly silently watching us set up. We felt more nervous. But when the priest entered, we knew we could relax, because we knew him, and he’s a helpful guy (not a person who corrects you or gives mean looks or cuts you off in mid-sung-syllable). And we went on getting prepared, guessing at which kind of music they might want for whatever saint was being celebrated. There were several Maria statues in the front area of the church, which is not necessarily a clue. But we did the Ave Maria for communion (the guitarist made a good call on that one, because as it turned out, the patron saint was Maria). In the last 6 years I’ve sung Ave Maria more times that I had previously accumulated in my lifetime of church singing.
There was a pretty ceiling treatment there. The only difficult thing in creating it would be using a long, long handle for the paint brush.
Afterwards, the same silent watchers converted in front of our eyes into friends! and wanted to know WHERE we were from, and WHY they hadn’t heard of us before, and, and, and…And WHAT is our phone number so they can call us for upcoming events. They were welcoming, and invited us to eat móle, a famous Mexican dish often served at big gatherings.
As we were leaving we had to hurry to get the car moved because there were about 40 Aztec/Indian dancers in wonderful costumes setting up for a show right in front of the church, which I don’t recall seeing before. Not right there in front of a church.
When we got home we took a nap, and now I’m sitting here with a little headache, yawning, and it’s only 8 p.m. I’ll bet they’re getting ready for the fireworks in Sitio De Maravillas.
Yes, we’ve been practicing, but – life happens. Our next gig is coming up fast, and we’re trying to stay ahead of it. On December 8, we’re playing for The Guitar Player’s birthday party and concert. Here, at our house. Yes, we’ve had the very best of intentions, and we’ve made schedules.
Clean up the garden, which is rapidly returning to its natural state. (store the big squashes, haul the dead and dying vines to the lot behind the house, dig the weeds – they show no signs of dying, protect the chile plants from children running through the garden.
Clean up the yard, which is lined with hand-made-by-us bales of the large sacks our farming salts and fertilizers come in, and sad looking cardboard boxes, and sacks and sacks of plastic bottles and containers. That requires hauling the heavy trash to a recycling center in our big truck.
Get the invitation posters printed.
Make sure the food people are prepared – yes, we serve a meal to our guests! At least this time we don’t have to go grocery shopping the day before the party.
Practice, many more hours. We have a list of well over a hundred songs that are at the ready, but this time we’re featuring brand-new-to-the-public original songs. We’ve planned a set list of 60 songs, about half of them originals.
We’re also preparing our annual Christmas/Posadas Parties set list, of about 30 songs that we alternate from night to night.
And one of the band members just doesn’t feel good. He’s got a sort of flu-ish thing that’s lasted a few days. What to do? Except for practicing and memorizing lyrics, the rest of the band can’t practice alone, by herself.
It took me several distinct steps to get to the point of saying that, over a period of a few years.
Step 1: What’s this in my soup? Bleh. What’s a chayote?
Step 2: Chayotes are OK, I guess.
Step 3: What else can you do with chayote besides put it in soup? What’s “agua fresca?” OK, I’m just kidding about not knowing what agua fresca is. I liked that right away. Who wouldn’t? Fresh fruits blended into gorgeously colorful drinks are wonderful in the summer alongside a meal, or just by themselves. Some of them may sound a bit unusual – agua de pepino, for example, is a cucumber drink. I was skeptical, but it was just as delicious as lemon, or strawberry.
Chayote (chai-OH-teh) – it’s a pear-shaped squash with (usually) thin, pale green skin. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It has little flavor of its own, and picks up the good flavors in soups. Some people make agua fresca with it, and some people put it in salads.
Today I prepared albondigas (Mexican meatball soup) for Thanksgiving, not having had much opportunity to purchase a turkey, and not having an oven to roast it in. I do have a 6-quart slow cooker, but….
A friend, hoping for a favor from us (thank goodness it didn’t involve money), gave us these chayotes the other day. I put one in the albondigas, and blended one with some guayabas for a fruity, vegetable-ish drink.
Ready for Thanksgiving!
It’s cold this morning – 40 degrees! That’s 4.44 Celsius. We’re a little concerned about the two baby ground doves that have been sitting on the tile floor of the patio for two whole days. But we can’t see them, so we’re hoping for the best.
We haven’t been feeling our best, either, but today we’re going to practice anyway (that’s what musicians DO!)
if you haven’t made your Thanksgiving plans yet, well, make them. I’m thinking albondigas, Mexican meatball soup. Have a good day, all y’all!
I say that today was unique for several reasons. We are jack-of-all-trades musicians. (Can I say that?) We play for religious ceremonies, dances, and special events of all kinds.
We played for a mass in nearby El Tecolote, and it was an occasion that we had not played for before: it was a mass for San Juditas, a familiar name for San Judas. Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes. This saint is popular in Mexico City, and people make pilgrimages to temples dedicated to him all over Mexico. Unique.
We were told that there is a temple dedicated to this saint in El Tecolote. In a house. Unique! There’s a story told to us with little detail. An owner of the house promised San Juditas that he would make and dedicate a temple to him if he would answer a prayer about a desperate situation that was affecting him. The temple bears witness to the answered prayer. It’s inside a house on a street near the edge of the town. They say that at one time the house was the very last house in town. Now the street boasts several more houses, and as we came to surmise, the houses belong mostly if not completely to descendants of this man. It’s their own family neighborhood!
The houses in this area are different in that nearly all of them can be shut completely up. The entrances are very large solid metal sheets fashioned into gates by practiced metal workers. .Some have people-sized doors cut into them, but most of them are just enormous doors or gates, opened only enough for people to slip in and out. There is no view at all of the house for the curious.
It can be trying to figure out driving directions given in another language, and often the gestures are just as foreign. We were told that the church was at the end of the town, so we turned onto what looked like the last street. Since it was a mini patronal fiesta, the street was already lined with vendors, and as we were gawking, we just about tore off the right sideview mirror of our big truck,
Here’s another unusual thing, if not unique – we drove our big truck. It’s a large old panel truck that’s big enough to carry large equipment for playing for a couple of thousand people. One might ask why we took it. I’m really not sure what provoked that decision, but as we were leaving (it’s tricky getting it out of our parking in the back lot) I noticed that the brake pedal was squishy, and I announced it. Chon said we would get brake fluid tomorrow. After we loaded up our regular equipment (that can ride comfortably in the back of the PT Cruiser) we drove about a mile to the turnoff for El Tecolote, and headed down the narrow paved road leading to the town.
We asked for directions. Down there, a woman said. Turn right after the second block. And that’s where we came right up on vendors! and lots of people milling around! By this time, the brake problem had reached noticeably scary levels. We drove right up to the vendors’ stands, and an enormous piece of plastic that covered most of the street. After the unfortunate mirror incident, I unhappily backed up the truck onto the main street again, and went further to the bottom end of the town. A lovely woman approached, smiling, and said yes; at the next street turn right. It will be much easier for you. It was a narrow street that looked like it ended right away, but it didn’t – there was just a sharp curve that we couldn’t see around. So we made it almost to the house-that-is-a-church, and parked. In front of our truck was a castillo; a fireworks tower, so we couldn’t go any further forward. A butcher in his apron came over to us and said he would get people to help us carry the equipment right to the door, and he did. Shortly we had everything set up, and then we waited for the priest to arrive. There are few priests and many churches and people, and they are pressed for time. One priest may serve up to eight churches in one day. We were hoping it wouldn’t be the bland-faced cura who often stops us mid-song, and it wasn’t – it was the new priest, who is easy to read, and (so far!) easy-going, too.
Right as we began the first song/canto, a large bus pulled right up behind our truck, and many men in uniforms got out. No, they weren’t soldiers or drug dealers. They were a band; a banda, with uniforms, instruments and sound equipment, and they traipsed right in front of us in a row in the street, to take their instruments to the other side of the entrance to the house/church.
We continued the mass with no incidents. I wasn’t surprised, since I had read the wikipedia article about San Judas De Tadeo, when the priest admonished us all, after the mass had finished, that the children should not dress as witches, or La Santa Muerte, or devils, or zombies, but instead costumes should be of saints, or religious personages, etc.
We were wondering how we would get out of the area. But the answer to that question was obvious – we couldn’t leave at all until the bus moved. And so it was that we stayed to hear a banda performance. (talk about a captive audience!) It may have been the worst live banda I’ve heard in Mexico so far. Take a listen. (I hope you can hear this. It’s my very first time converting this kind of audio file to an MP3). At least in this example, the tuba was playing generally in the same key as the rest of the band.
The band played on, and I do mean on. We needed to move our truck because of the impending tower of fireworks, and so did the band. The fireworks guys who built the tower and strapped on all the fireworks (spinning wheels, sparkling flowers, shooting rockets, etc) stood there, at times shooting anxious looks up at the tower, the two big vehicles close to the tower, and other vehicles that were blocking us from behind.
The band moved into a set of banda with vocals, even worse than the first songs. There were two men’s voices, each one thin. The lead voice sang close-to-in-tune (and those of You Who Know, know that sometimes is even worse than badly-out-of-tune singing), and the voice singing harmony, sang really, truly, badly out of tune, which sometimes created augmented chords instead of major and minor chords.
We bought some some excellent enchiladas from one of the women in front of the church/house. Well, we were hungry, and trapped in El Tecolote! How to make enchiladas for a crowd? They’re prepared on a very large disc with a bowl-like center that holds hot oil. One woman dips a tortilla in the sauce she has prepared, then dips the tortilla in the hot oil, and lays it on the outer edge of the enchilada maker. Another woman fills the red, soft tortilla with the filling of – mashed potatoes (!), and rolls it up into its familiar enchilada-ish shape. When there are several, they are transferred to a plate, and the toppings are added. Thin slices of tomato and onion are layered on top with sliced lettuce. Then, on top of that, thin cream is drizzled over the whole thing, and then some green salsa. They’re very satisfying and delicious.
By this time it was getting cold. I’m not exaggerating. I had already put on a light-weight blouse over my linen dress, and I wound my way through the crowd to get a long sleeved shirt from the truck. It wasn’t enough, but I felt a little more comfortable.
We waited and waited until the painful banda was finished with their contract. They moved over to the previously-mentioned butcher’s shop for their (free!) tacos. Hey! Why not for us? Then the large butcher and several of his equally large brothers began the process of moving the vehicles so that the bus and we, too, could get out of the narrow street. After some pickups that were stopping up the whole movement moved out of the way, the bus backed up and parked on the side of the narrow street, and the family of large brothers began to convince me, the driver, that I could back up our big truck into a side yard to turn around (thank you, gods of driving!). That’s when I remembered that the brakes weren’t exactly in working order. In spite of this, I backed the long truck into the yard. One man was telling me to Go, go, go! When I asked who was watching the other side he said There’s no problem! There’s lots of space! It was all rather jolly, and we made our way back out the narrow street, stopping only when the lovely woman who had earlier given us the (correct!) directions said to me “Don’t forget the way! You’ll be coming here every year for the fiesta for San Juditas, godwilling!”
Heading back up the street we had come down several hours earlier, we crossed each traffic-slowing tope, and made it up to the small highway, with (almost) no brakes. Slowly, we traversed the highway back to our home in our rancho. It was after midnight, and after we made our way with extreme caution past the neighbors’ house with its overhanging walkway that could be destroyed by my carelessness in driving our tall truck, we were greeted (surprise!) by our-dog-that-is-not-our-dog, Manos. He was thrilled to see us driving something (even though it was not his thrilling super favorite moving thing), home. He leapt on us and pawed us happily, making puppy sounds. We hadn’t seen him for weeks. We surmised that his other humans had gone to the big fiesta in nearby Jalpa, and he had somehow escaped his rope or chain. It was an unusual if not unique happening…
It was the date of “falling back” from daylight savings time here in Mexico. We fell into bed late but uniquely satisfied.