Butterflies and Bandits

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Things have gotten pretty bad in Michoacan (one of the 31 states of Mexico) in recent years. The murder rate has skyrocketed. Politicians are being assassinated in record numbers. Crimes against women are among the highest in the world. The Universities are under siege with students battling against municipalities and against non-students who are clamoring to get in.

A vigilante group who call themselves THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, organized to fight the ZETA criminal cartel. After a decades long bloody battle, the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR have

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

taken over most of the ZETAs criminal activities and have opened trade with organized crime syndicates all over the world. Now a new vigilante movement has taken hold and there is open warfare between them and the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR and remnants of the ZETAS. Soldiers in the new vigilante movement include members of Latino gangs from the U.S., who have either been deported or who have voluntarily left United States jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.

The Mexican government has sent in federal troupes because the municipalities are corrupt and the police can’t be trusted. The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings advising citizens to avoid all but essential travel in Michoacan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in The Mexican state except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.

Monarch Sanctuary

Monarch Sanctuary

So my wife Margaret said to me, “Lets visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan while we’re in Mexico,” and I said, “Sure, why not.” Ignorance is bliss.

Who wouldn’t want to see the Monarchs? There are undeniable mystical overtones to the Monarch migration, perfect for a writer who dabbles in Magic Realism. Up to a billion of these delicate creatures leave their home in eastern Canada and fly 2,500 miles to the mountains of central Mexico. They arrive when locals are celebrating the Day of the Dead (October 31 to November 2).

Monarchs clustered in pines

Monarchs clustered in pines

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the holiday, it is a remnant of an Aztec festival that was celebrated at the beginning of summer. The Catholic Church tried to eradicate it but was only able to shorten it and move it to a time that coincided with a vaguely similar All Saints Day festival. On the day of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors visit the living. The living throw a party for the occasion with feasts and costumes (mostly skeletons) and parades. The locals in the mountains of Michoacan say the butterflies are the ancestral spirits. The timing is right, and it does seem like quite a coincidence.

There’s more. The typical Monarch life cycle lasts 4 to 5 weeks, starting as an egg, going through the larva period, morphing into a pupa until it reaches the adult stage when it reproduces and then dies. But when summer is over in Canada and temperatures drop drastically, a special generation is born. This new group will fly all the way to Michoacan where they can hibernate, feed, mate, and then travel back home. This different kind of Monarch is known as the Methuselah generation. These migratory Monarchs live as long as eight months. This age old miracle is observable, measurable, and totally without explanation—practically the definition of Magic Realism.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

We hired a driver—I’m so glad we did—who took us to the Butterfly reserve. We climbed the mountain and witnessed millions of Monarchs clustered in the pine trees so thick they bent the branches. When they swarmed, we could hear the sound of thousands of wings moving the air. It was a spectacle I will never forget.

Follow this link to see and hear Monarchs taking flight IMG_0344

I never thought once about the dangers—or knew about them truth be told—until we were on the highway to Morelia, the second part of our trip. The toll booth (yes, they have those in Mexico too) just before we got into the capitol city of Michoacan had been taken over by about 20 young men our driver called “the boys”.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

They were students, he told us, or they would be students if times were better. Until things moderate, they hijack toll booths and demand money before they let cars pass. The going rate was 100 Pesos (about 7 U.S. dollars). There were several Michoacan police cars on the other side of the booth. They didn’t intervene.

“Sometimes the boys get aggressive,” our driver said. “Sometimes they block traffic for hours. This time we were lucky.”

For better or for worse, that’s what it’s like in Michoacan these days. Luck is an inexpensive inconvenience that could have been worse. There are butterflies and there are bandits. Unforgettable, but I don’t think I’ll make that trip again.

 

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende The parroquia at night.

San Miguel de Allende
The parroquia at night.

I wish I could tell you I like San Miguel de Allende for it’s historical significance as the birthplace of the Mexican war of Independence, but the truth is I am much more shallow than that. I like the city because it is drop dead gorgeous (I know that’s a cliché but it absolutely fits). For an opportunistic tourist like me the place is perfect. There is something to see at every turn.

The Parroquia de San Miguel is one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. It has a neogothic façade with two tall towers that can be seen from everywhere in town. It looks good day or night and is located in a public square known as the Jardin (pronounced Hardin).

There are old buildings (three to five centuries

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

old) everywhere with brightly colored walls in various states of disrepair that only makes them look more beautiful. The climate is mild and dry, and something is usually in season. When it’s not, people hang flowers from balconies and in windows.

San Miguel almost always has a festival going on. There are parades, dancing in the streets—especially indigenous dancers—and plenty of refreshments suitable for every taste.

Vendors line the streets selling things I am familiar with (like ice cream and tortillas) and things I’ve never seen before but plan to try at my earliest convenience.

The Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende

The Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende

Children run loose in the pedestrian areas. Their parents are always close by, but in San Miguel it probably wouldn’t matter if they were or not, because everyone looks after the children. It is an incredibly family friendly place.

There are churches everywhere. The Nuestra Señora de la Salud Church was built of native sand stone in the 18th century in the shape of a large seashell. People gather in front of it for festivals and just to sit underneath trees with branches trimmed in the shape of cylinders.Right next to the Nuestra Señora is Oratorio de San Felipe Neri Church, built in the Baroque style of pink sandstone covered by rich vegetative ornamentation. This used to be the place of

Pink Sandstone church in San Miguel de Allende

Pink Sandstone church in San Miguel de Allende

worship for the mulatto population. Now it’s open to everyone. There is no official racial discrimination in the city.

San Miguel is an animal friendly town. People still use burros to make deliveries. Dogs are welcome on the streets and in many of the stores. There are no leash laws as far as I can see. The animals seem at least as well behaved as the people, and the people and in this city that is saying something.

People are formally polite. They greet you in the street and ask permission (con permiso) to walk in front of you. They always say please and thank you, just like our mothers always told us we should.

So far I haven’t incorporated San Miguel into any of my fiction, but it’s a sure bet I’ll use bits and pieces of it in the future. It’s the perfect backdrop for a magic realism writer. Come see for yourselves.