A Sad Turn of Events in Michoacan, AKA: How to Survive a Gunfight

As if Michoacan is not beautiful enough, its forests also host one of the world's greatest migrations, the monarchs.

As if Michoacan is not beautiful enough, its forests also host one of the world's greatest migrations, the wintering monarchs.

Last month we traveled throughout the exquisitely handsome Mexican state of Michoacan, which I chronicled in Way Off the Beaten Path: The Coast of Michoacan, Mexico and Come With Me to Patzcuaro, Michoacan.

So it was with a sad heart that I read about a drug cartel uprising in the state this past weekend, in which at least a dozen police officers were murdered. The cartels targeted police stations across the state, as detailed in this post from The Zapata Tales, written by a blogger who lives in Patzcuaro:

“It looked like Baghdad.  There were bullet holes in the police station, the windows, the walls. Across the street, sitting next to a gas pump where some poor sap was likely getting a fillup, sat a silver Meriva like the one we once owned. Full of bullet holes too, shredded metal.”

The attacks were in retaliation for the police arresting a top cartel leader.

And, many of the attacks were on the very streets Brendan, Charlie and I rode on, which, when we visited, were flanked by scenery that was about as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen (Michoacan is frequently regaled as Mexico’s most beautiful state, and I not only agree with that assessment but would argue it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world). My biggest fear at the time was falling mangos or a flat tire (or getting stuck in the sand at the beach). My home is now full of art from Michoacan, some of the most amazing I’ve seen in my travels across 22 states in this country. We never once felt unsafe, although cartels have been operating in this state for some time.

The cartels are ruthless in their efforts to supply drug-hungry Americans, but most of the violence in recent years has been much  closer geographically to my friends and family in Texas than to me here in Mexico City.

This time, though, the recent violence was abnormal enough that I received this email this afternoon, from the U.S. Embassy Warden (an email alert service I signed up for after first moving here). I’m at no immediate risk, so the warning doesn’t frighten me, it saddens me. Tell me: How long will Mexico continue to suffer from this violence? What will it take to stop drug-related violence? How many people have to die? Is it really that important to keep drugs illegal?


The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens residing or traveling in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, to be aware of recent violent attacks targeting state and federal police officials, and wishes to remind U.S. citizens of the Travel Alert for Mexico dated February 20, 2009.  Several Mexican police officials have been killed at various locations throughout the state.  The U.S. Embassy is not aware of any attempts to target U.S. citizens with this violence; however, citizens are advised to maintain awareness of their surroundings when travelling throughout the state and to avoid large crowds and demonstrations.

Actions to Take if Caught in the Middle of a Gunfight/Gunfire

The U.S. Embassy takes this opportunity to remind U.S. citizens of guidance sent on October 22, 2008, recommending the following courses of action to take if you find yourself in a situation in or near gunfire:

–       Always be aware of your surroundings.
–     Whenever possible, carry a cell-phone with up to date contact information for emergencies.
–    When gunfire/explosions are heard, immediately move to a safe area with good cover.  For example, look for something substantial to hide behind, seek cover in a room made of solid construction (e.g. concrete, steel, etc.), stay away from doors and windows, and do not venture out to try and observe the conflict.
–      Immediately convey the sense of danger/threat to those around you.
–     Do not attempt to move to a vehicle if you are in a safe area. Remain there until local security tells you that it is safe to move.
–      Always carry information about your personal medical needs.

Mexico City’s Rainy Season Is My Optimal Living State

There is a reason millions and millions of people live in Mexico City, it’s very hospitable to human life. Everyday is basically perfect — I can’t remember a single day in the last two years where the weather was truly bad. It just varies a teensy bit in temperature, humidity, wind and sun levels throughout the year, thanks to its high elevation in the tropics (it’s the best of both worlds).

Right now is the rainy season, which is my favorite. The humidity is a bit higher than normal, making it easier on the skin and the lungs. The temperature never gets higher than 75, nor lower than 55. The sun shines all day, while clouds slowly build in the late afternoon; it sometimes rains at night. The air is clean, crisp and comforting. You can wear a sweater or a tank top and be comfortable either way. Meaning, it’s an absolute paradise (while lowland Mexico is a steam room this time of year).

Plus, stuff blooms. Like crazy.

The very center of a very very large bloom, spotted in the park today.

The center of a very very large bloom, spotted in the park today.

What is this freakish thing? All will be revealed, just keep reading.

Not as close up. Any guesses?

It's the giant bloom on a banana tree in Parque Mexico.

It's the giant bloom on a 20-foot banana tree!

Plentiful: Awkward Money Situations in Mexico City

Need any fruit? If you sit in a park in Mexico, before too long, one of these guys will wander by.

Need any fruit? If you sit in a park in Mexico, before too long, one of these guys will wander by. However, they are low-pressure salesmen, for the most part.

My friend and fellow Mexico City resident Alice wrote a recent blog post that highlights some of the awkward money situations we ex-pats find ourselves in here. Her doormen asked to borrow money, which is basically impossible to imagine occurring in New York City. This led to rumination about why her two doormen are doing this, and also how different, in general, the exchange of money in Mexico can be. Some of this is due to the fact that there is a lack of formal jobs in Mexico, leading people to sell things on the street, or ask for tips when you least expect it. And some of it is due to what I politely call “cultural differences.”

To name but a few other examples:

The Grocery Bagger…
Awkward: When the grocery bagger looks down to see how many pesos you’re handing him/her as a tip.

Meaning…yes, you must tip the grocery bagger. Even if you (<– *cough* me) bring your own canvas bag and stuff most of the heavy stuff in the bag before the bagger can use plastic bags.

Then, once you hand the tip over, it’s not unusual for them to look at what you gave them, right in front of you. Again, this is not something you can really imagine happening in the U.S. (but it’s hard to fathom in part because we never tip baggers, at least not in the states I’ve lived in.)

The Waiters…
At restaurants here, sometimes the waiter (almost always a male — especially at nice restaurants, and if anyone can fill me on why this is so, I’d love to know) will watch you sign your credit card slip, or hover close by. Depending on the credit card system the restaurant uses, the waiter also may ask you — directly — how much you want to tip, so he can add it onto the bill. You must tell him the answer in percentages (we usually say 15 percent) then he punches it into this little machine he carries with him, and swipes your card in that machine and hands you a slip to sign. Those few seconds are some of the more awkward moments in your life, especially if the service sucked and you’re dying to get out of the restaurant.

Trick-or-Treaters…

The Mailman…
I tip the mailman twice a year — in November for Mailman’s Day (always men, again) and for Christmas. At first, I was taken aback, until friends filled me  — it’s normal. I now smile and wave at Juan every time I pass him outside. We’re amigos.

The Fake Parking Dudes….
There is also an unofficial system of street parking attendants who expect you to tip them, and in return, as my friend Jeremy says, “they won’t break into your car.” They also will wash your car for an extra fee.

On a recent trip to the mercado, Brendan and I decided to drive there in our rental car. I quickly found a parking space outside, we pulled in, got out, went  in, bought our produce,  went back outside, got in the car, and started backing out of our parking space. Simple enough. But up runs one of these parking attendant men, who pretends to help me back out, waving his hands this way and that (it was not a complicated parking situation; his help was not needed). At that point, it’s expected that I’ll roll down the window and hand this man some pesos for his hard work.

I was not feeling generous that day, and didn’t tip him. Of course, I was immediately worried about my karma, that this would come back to haunt me. Then I had to remind myself that if this happened in the U.S…. well, wait a minute, it just wouldn’t happen.

The garbage men arrive every day except Sunday, ringing a loud bell to let you know they've arrived. It's customary to tip at least a peso per trash bag.

The garbage men arrive every day except Sunday, ringing a loud bell to let you know they've arrived. It's customary to tip at least a peso per trash bag.

The Garbage Men…

We tip them, and we tip them especially well around Christmas time. Without question, this is the hardest and most important job in Mexico City. This has not been awkward for me.

The Drain Cleaners…
There are also men who come by, ring your doorbell, and tell you’re they’re going to clean the drains out in the street, and would appreciate a tip. This is not an approved city service, and who knows if the drains even need “cleaning.” I wished I would have warned my friend Lesley about this before they came to her door. When it first happened to us, we panicked and wrote our landlord. She explained there is no need to tip them but they also won’t mind if you do. So, now, I usually ignore them, since they always manage to stop by when I’m in the middle of a work phone call.

Basically, Everyone….

Balloon sellers, like this one in Cholula, are *everywhere* in Mexico.

Balloon sellers, like this one in Cholula, are *everywhere* in Mexico.

And, I realized recently that everyday, no matter what, someone approaches me for money, in some fashion. Whether it be the roving bands of street musicians who play on our block, a woman selling candy (with three or four children in tow), a guy selling plants from a box, a scammer trying to tell you a sad tale hoping you’ll fork over dough, etc. If you’re in a car, it’s the same: A guy who will wash your windows with a dirty bottle of water and a rag, a guy selling windshield wipers, an entire family of clowns doing tricks in front of traffic, men who juggle, men who sell flowers…it goes on and on and on. (The subway is similar, and even popular beaches in Mexico suffer from too many vendors selling trinkets, although it may only be a “problem” to people like me).

Needless to say, as an introvert and as an American, this can be exhausting at times. I’ve thrown a few babyish fits about it, blaming all of Mexico unfairly, for a shitty day.  But, for the most part, as a New Yorker, I am used to being  approached (on the subway)– once I was even forced to smile. So I had some tolerance built up.

So, at other times, I marvel at how alive and fantastic the street culture is in Mexico City — never a dull moment. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I feel very safe here, walking around, going on about my day. As NPR reporter Jason notes, it adds up, making the city a “symphonic cacophony.” People are everywhere. And I’m not the only one being approached, although it still baffles me when someone calls me out specifically as a guera (white woman).

But, overall, the various street peddlers have changed me. When I first moved here, I would sit with my dog in the park on my lunchbreak, enjoying the sunshine. Then I got tired of people walking up to me and I no longer linger (all the people who insist on walking their dog off the leash is also a huge deterrent).

When I walk down the street, I move quickly, and say a terse “no gracias” (always with a smile) to basically anyone who is trying to sell me something. Thankfully, I now have found that if I walk a few extra blocks to quieter areas of my neighborhood, it’s possible to sit at a cafe and not be approached once. I no longer feel any guilt for not answering my doorbell, I never answer it unless I’m expecting a delivery.

I don’t know if this shift in my behavior is a good or a bad thing, if it’s something locals automatically do, or if they don’t get annoyed by having their personal space invaded, if perhaps, they even find it useful.

I, clearly, don’t.

That’s Why I Was Freezing Last Night

I woke up at one point last night, thinking “hmm, it’s a bit chilly, even though I’m under the covers.”

I should have known someone had stolen the top blanket.

Comfy, Charlie?

Comfy, Charlie?

When I asked him about this act of theft, this was his only reply.

When I asked him about this act of theft, this was his only reply.

Beach After Beach After Beach…and Still Going

In one of my favorite books, “In Search of Captain Zero,” author Allan Weisbecker explains how, for some people, there is nothing quite like being in the exact inexact spot (thanks to tides) where land meets sea. There’s the land, and there’s the sea, but where the two meet…well…what else is more haunting?

“Yeah,” I remember thinking as I read the passage. “Right on, man.”

If not already obvious, it’s a book that appeals to surfers, those who appreciate the surfer lifestyle (<– me), oceanographers/marine biologists or wannabes (yep, me)…and those who grew up on the beach, moved away from the beach, but try to get back often (<– si, si, yo)..

I’ve got lots purty beach photos — hundreds? — from my travels. And I’ve never met a beach I didn’t like, but I’ve grown to love the Pacific Coast the best. It’s the one I now dream about at night, in other words.

Let’s work our way up from the Southern coast of Mexico, all the way up to California, shall we?

Eco-resort, Bahia de la Luna, Oaxaca

Bahia de la Luna, Oaxaca

Mazunte, Oaxaca

Mazunte, Oaxaca

Acapulco (photo by Betty)

Acapulco vista by day (photo by Betty)

Acapulco, later.

Acapulco, later (photo by Dora).

Michoacan

Somewhere in Michoacan

Manzanillo, Colima

Manzanillo, Colima (and a closed beach umbrella)

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

La Jolla, California

La Jolla, California, and its harbor seals (also beach lovers)

Lighthouse, Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.

The long staircase to the lighthouse, Point Reyes, Calif.

Your host, Point Reyes seashore

Your host, happy to be here, roots and all, Point Reyes seashore

Just Call Me a Copper Snob

Before I visited the Mexican town of Santa Clara del Cobre in Michoacan a few weeks ago, I knew nada about copper (aka cobre en espanol). We didn’t own any copper – except for the cable that hooks the washer/dryer up to the gas lines.

Then, we visited. And went a little hog-wild, buying plates, dishware, jewelry (not enough – only two bracelets) and a serving bowl.

Copper cookware is supposed to be the chef's ultimate, because of how it conducts heat.

Copper cookware is supposed to be the chef's ultimate, because of how it conducts heat.

Copper comes in different colors, depending on the chemicals used in the finishing process.

Copper comes in different colors, depending on the chemicals used in the finishing process. This serving bowl looks like wood.

These plates are ubiquitous in Patzcuaro restaurants; they're sort of like placemats.

These plates are ubiquitous in Patzcuaro restaurants; they sort of mimic placemats....

...like this! I didn't realize my serving bowl (above two photos) would match so well with the dishware, a gift from my mother-in-law.

...when used like this. I didn't realize my serving bowl (above two photos) would match so well with the dishware, a gift from my mother-in-law.

This $2 bracelet really jazzes up an outfit.

This $2 bracelet really jazzes up an outfit.

This spree was helped by the fact that we eloped, and never got (nor wanted) any of the fancy wedding gifts most couples get. While in Mexico, we’ve managed to upgrade our home decor substantially from rickety Ikea furniture to, in some cases, original creations (or at least things you can’t find in the U.S.).

When I first moved here, I went a little crazy buying cute knickknacks you can find at most art-themed mercados. I was taken in by the bright colors of Mexico. With time, and lots of shopping experience, though, I’ve come to love the more muted art here (I think I need to do a separate blog post on those purchases), mostly made of dark wood. The copper matches perfectly.

So, we bought a lot, but not the pot.

In one of the stores we visited, Brendan and I both spotted a large copper pot from across the room; it seemed like a little beam of light was illuminating only it. We clustered around it, and spent several long minutes trying to decide if the price was worth it. After all, it was bedecked with a ribbon, indicating it had won an award in last year’s concurso, a copper artisans competition. (The category, we later found out, was for artists 15 and younger. Yes, a young joven designed the pot!)

Ultimately, we decided, no – we were just beginning our vacation across Michoacan, and the pot would seriously hinder the space in our rental car.

Then, we came home. And thought/chatted about the pot so much we went back to Santa Clara last weekend and bought it. It’s now sitting next to my desk, as we decide what to do with it (that’s the hard part).

I think it’s also time to name it, maybe Clara, para Sta. Clara.

Clara without sunshine shining down on her.

Clara without sunshine shining down on her.

Clara in the sunshine, looking less moody.

Clara in the sunshine, looking less moody.

[Friends Lesley/Crayton came with us the second time, and ended up buying a large, original artwork, too — of a more modern sort ]