Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tending to a friendship

Those of us who migrate to Mexico in search of warmth and comfort share the characteristics of all immigrants who go to a new place to seek a good life. First generation immigrants seldom completely assimilate into their new culture; instead, they tend to obtain their support from others who are in similar circumstances. Accordingly, the expatriate community in our town may be small, but we form friendships quickly and socialize often. Isolated from our north of the border families, we tend to develop close family-like affiliations with our friends here.

When we met our friends John and Lisa Ozzello a few years ago, we knew that we had found a couple with whom we shared common beliefs, values and experiences. John and Lisa came here from Santa Fe, New Mexico to establish a home health agency and a hospice service. Lisa was a nurse and John, like Jerry, was a bit of an eccentric - he had made his living painting houses, advocating for the disabled and managing a number of nonprofit agencies.

During the month of May this year, many of our friends (and us) came down with unusual upper respiratory infections that were difficult to shake. Not only did we have sore throats and stuffy noses, we all felt tired and achy and miserable for about three weeks. But we all recovered. Except John.

We saw John on May 17, when he stopped by our house to return a flash drive with some movies on it that I had downloaded for them. He stood back from the gate and told us not to come too close - he was really sick and didn't want to spread it.

The next morning, John had a terrible headache, which progressed rapidly to uncontrollable vomiting and collapse into unconsciousness. On the advice of our local doctor, Lisa rushed him to Amerimed Hospital in Vallarta, about a half hour's drive. The doctors there first suspected a stroke, but a CAT scan ruled that out.

Within a few hours, the doctors confirmed that John had bacterial meningitis, a severe and often fatal infection of the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. Apparently, the infection in his sinuses found a breach between the sinus cavity and the brain, reaching through the thin membranes and spreading into his spinal fluid. This was likely a result of an injury he suffered while climbing mountains in the Himalayas back in the 1970s.

The doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of living through the next 48 hours. He made it through that critical window, and in the weeks that followed, he survived several other crises as the acute phase of the illness passed and one complication after another occurred, including additional drug-resistant infections, an inability to breathe that required a tracheotomy and leakage of cerebrospinal fluid from his sinuses, allowing his cranial cavity to fill with air.

I started out sending regular email updates to John and Lisas' friends and family members. When the number of addresses exceeded 100, I started a website on to keep everyone informed and allow them to leave messages for John and Lisa. A detailed account of everything that has happened to John is posted in the "journal" section. You can find John's website here:

For the last several weeks, our lives have basically revolved around trying to provide support for Lisa - cooking meals, providing transport to the hospital and giving her support and comfort. Justine has been a really special help - sitting many, many nights with John in the hospital.

After 39 days in the hospital, most of it in intensive care, and several emergency surgeries, Lisa brought John home, where he could continue his journey in peace and greater comfort. On July 7, John ended his journey.

Tonight, July 9, we gathered to pay tribute to John and to celebrate his remarkable life. As I looked about at the people gathered there, I realized how fortunate we are to have landed here, among so many kind and giving people. I realize that we are, indeed, a community. And we are at home.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Unexpected Rewards of friends and riches from Chicago!

Grateful kitties playing with their new toys

I guess that "serendipity" is the best word used to describe a thoroughly lovely, humbling and unexpected experience. That is what happened to us last night - when we actually had the chance to meet some wonderful people whom we met through this blog.

Some months ago, I heard from a delightful Chicago woman named Annie. She had been reading our blog, and had some kind words to say. A bit later, she sent an email saying that she was on her way to Bucerias in April, and would we like her to bring us anything from the states. I made a request for baking parchment paper - I use it for baking cookies and bread, and was down to only a bit of a scrap. If it is available here, I have never been able to find it.

Last night, we met Annie and her friends Kristine, Julie and Jeffrey at one of our very best local restaurants, Roga's, which sits on a hill and has a panoramic view of the entire bay. Just a lovely setting. We intended to enjoy a drink with them, but ended up staying for dinner, as we chatted enthusiastically with our new friends.

Julie handed us a gift bag filled with GIRL SCOUT COOKIES and toys for the kitties! Annie handed us a huge bag filled with gifts - FOUR boxes of parchment paper, T shirts from Chicago, wonderful toys for the dogs, and (drum roll please) a generous length of smoked Polish sausage! Oh my gosh, Jerry has been longing for Polish sausage, and it is simply not to be found in Mexico. How did she know???

To top it off, Annie insisted on paying for our dinner, and we ended the night with a shot of smooth and warming tequila courtesy of Roga, the restaurant owner, who also happens to be our neighbor!

Thank you so much Annie, Julie, Kristine and Jeffrey. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and your generosity is overwhelming. Who would have thought, when we began this electronic journal, that we would be rewarded with such rich new friendships?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The place where everything blooms - Visiting Michoacan Part 4

The picture above shows the highway between Patzcuaro and the beautiful colonial city of Uruapan (ooh-roo-AH-pahn), a distance of about 52 kilometers. In Purepecha language, Uruapan means "where the hearts of plants bloom like the flowers and enjoy a perpetual spring." With a population of about 250,000 people, the town’s environs are lush, subtropical, and as its name suggests, wonderfully fertile. Predictably, it owes its wealth to agriculture, especially the production of avocados, for which Uruapan is proudly known as the ‘World Capital of the Avocado’. They are also renowned for production of macadamia nuts. But if you ask any Mexican about Uruapan, they will first tell you about the remarkable Cupatitzio Gorge National Park, a treasure that encompasses more than 1300 acres, right in the city of Uruapan. It is the only city in Mexico with a national park in its boundaries.

The view from our hotel balcony...and

...just down the street from us to the right, one of the many decorative plazas in Uruapan. Just behind this plaza is an old textile factory that has been converted to a huge and diverse market, where you can buy everything from straw hats to electronics to delicious antojitos, or snacks. And Uruapan is famous for its wood carving. The wooden carved figure below greeted us in the lobby of our hotel:

We walked from the hotel to the park (uphill all the way - huff, puff - at about 6,000 feet elevation, it was a challenge, but we made it.) At the entrance to the park, we were greeted by this magnificent mural:

Several springs join together here to form the Cupatitzio River. Streams rush alongside cement and dirt paths or are channeled into dozens of fountains. Large trees support clinging vines and shade tropical flowers. You can feed the fish at the trout farm, or eat them at the adjacent café.

As we were leaving the park, we encountered a parade celebrating Shrove Tuesday (the last day before the beginning of Lent).

As anyone reading this can probably conclude, Jerry and I were absolutely smitten with Uruapan and hope to return there soon for another, longer visit. All in all, our trip to Michoacan was a grand adventure. I took 328 pictures, and have shared just a few of them here - we highly recommend taking a closer look at this magical region of Mexico.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ah, Patzcuaro, un pueblo magico! Visit to Michoacan - Part 3

The original name for Patzcuaro (PAHTZ-kwah-roh) is "Tzacapu-ansucutinpatzcuaro" that is translated as "door to heaven." Situated at 7200 feet elevation and home to about 80,000 people, this is the cultural and artitstic center of the area. We would have happily stayed in Patzcuaro for several nights. but only had one night devoted to this beautiful little city on our tour itinerary. One of our high priorities is to return and get a better feel for the city.

A multitude of churches, plazas and shrines make this a truly great historical destination.
Patzcuaro is famous for its sidewalk cafes and great restaurants. Small and large marketplaces line the plazas and ancient side streets. Woven tablecloths, trays, carved and finely painted furniture, and gold laminated handwork are among the treasures to be found in this colonial setting. Patzcuaro hosts one of the most active Day of the Dead observances in Mexico, and is perhaps the best place to find "Catrinas" - the wonderful skeleton figures that I love to include in my paintings.

The day we arrived in Patzcuaro was a market day: there were many more items for sale than I can possibly mention, and we purchased some huge hand-woven colorful baskets, a hand-carved mask, a sheepskin, some jewelry and assorted children's toys.

But I thought our readers might be most interested in the display of medicinal herbs, which are found in our local weekly market as well. Some of them are probably very effective. Valerian/valeriana, for example is a great natural sleep-inducer. But it smells terrible.

We also found these pretty little...uh...uh...does anybody know what they are?

They are papas rojas - that's right, red potatoes. If we hadn't been traveling, I would have bought some to bring home and cook. They must be a local product; I've never seen them here. We did buy some woven straw cat toys from the beautiful native woman in the picture below. She and I were sharing a little joke about mi esposo guapo (my handsome husband) ...

Before we left the market, we encountered a lively parade, raising funds for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti:

Then it was into the shops, looking for Catrinas. I bought the small one in the lower center, proudly holding her blue dancing dress for everyone to see.

There were other beautifully hand-crafted items:

We also took the opportunity to visit one of the most extensive mask museums in Mexico, right here in Patzcuaro...

And they also had TOYS!We ended our day in the hotel courtyard, having a great cup of coffee with friends Marcia and Noble. The next stop was Uruapan (ooh- rue-AH-pahn). Many treasures and pleasures there./ To be continued....

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Visit to Michoacan - Part 2

Our next adventure led us to three outlying villages - Quiroga, Tzintzuntzan and Santa Clara del Cobre. A brief history lesson is necessary here: prior to arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the Purhépecha tribe dominated much of Western Mexico, including Michoacan. They initially welcomed the Spanish. On a visit to Mexico City, in 1524, their king, Tangoxoán II was baptized with the Christian name of Francisco, and he subsequently requested that Spanish missionaries be sent to Michoacan. Unfortunately, King Carlos V of Spain, sent Nuño Guzmán de Beltran to govern the new territory, who turned out to be ruthless in his plundering of the Purhepecha empire. He sold the indigenous people into slavery, ransacked their temples searching for treasure, and kidnapped women. Eventually, Guzman tortured and killed King Tangoxoán.

Guzmán's cruelty had destroyed the relationship between the Spanish and the Purhépecha. In a short time, the grand and powerful Purhépecha nation had been completely devastated. Had it not been for the effort of one man whose ideals, good judgment and ability to put into practice the morals that he preached, it is possible that the Purhépechas would not have survived this catastrophe. This man was Don Vasco de Quiroga, who at the age of 60, arrived in Mexico in January 1531, with a mandate to repair both the moral and material damage that had been inflicted upon Michoacán by Guzmán. Quiroga was an idealist who embraced the concept of a utopian society, which he attempted to establish in Michoacan.

While there is controversy concerning Quiroga's role, there are tributes to him throughout the region, and he was known for educating the indigenous people in all the villages around Lake Patzcuaro. He taught the villagers of each area a different craft. These practices persist to this day, and the area is famous for artesanial variety and excellence.

The first town we visited was named for Quiroga, and enjoys a reputation for lacquered wooden products. The first thing we encountered as we sat in the town plaza was this group of children dancing:

The child on the right is wearing a "vieja" (old woman) mask, a mask that is featured in the popular "vieja y viejo" dance in Michoacan.
The lovely wooden tray we bought in Quiroga for only $100 pesos - about $7.50 USD.

From Quiroga, we moved a few miles on to Tzintzuntzan, which still retains its indigenous Nahuatl name, meaning "place of the hummingbirds." We were charmed by this lovely village, which offered a wide variety of attractive crafts at very reasonable prices.

An assortment of clay dishes in the Tzintzuntzan market

Useful pottery in the Tzintzuntzan market
A pair of attractive masks

While we were enjoying a delicious cup of coffee, a wedding procession came by. Yes, the bride wore GREEN.

Our last stop of the day was Santa Clara del Cobre, the town in Mexico that is famous for copper crafts. I got so excited here, that I failed to take very many pictures, so I've had to import a few from other sources. Note that ALL of the copper items here are hammered/shaped from a single sheet of copper. Here is a picture I took of the town square, which features a huge copper pot.

Notice the beautiful blue sky! Temps were in the mid-70s.

Incredibly beautiful images of the ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe

A sampling of copper selections

Our next stop deserves an entry of its own - the next day we were on our way to Patzcuaro, designated "pueblo magico" by the government and one of the most beautiful villages in Mexico. To be continued....

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Visiting Michoacan - Part I

Colorful balloons everywhere on the streets of Morelia
Stunning colonial architecture in Morelia

We have spent the past week traveling on a comfortable luxury bus with a group of amiable companions through one of Mexico's most beautiful states, Michoacan (meesh-wah-KAHN). Nestled in the central highlands of Western Mexico, Michoacan is full of history and magic. Michoacan's countryside is a vast expanse of rolling hills, deep lakes, winding rivers and green valleys. The state has few large cities, but rather a collection of small villages and towns that have changed little since the 1800's. It's pace is leisurely, its people friendly, and its Spanish colonial and indigenous heritage rich. The change of pace from our beach town (full of tourists this time of year) was refreshing, although the cool weather was something we were not used to: we wore clothes that have been packed away since we arrived in Mexico almost four years ago!

The first destination on our itinerary was Morelia (elevation 6,399 feet), a colonial city of almost a million people that is a
UNESCO World Heritage Artistic site. The city was founded in 1541 by Antonio de Mendoza and its original name was Valladolid. The name was changed after Mexico's War of Independence, in honor of one of its heroes, Jose Maria Morelos de Pavon, who was born in the city in 1765.

A painting showing revolutionary hero Juan Morelos at his birthplace. He is almost always pictured wearing a headband, apparently because he suffered from migraine headaches.
Sunset view from our hotel window
Across the street from our hotel, Superman was keeping a vigil.
Sweet selections from the famous Morelia mercado dulce, or candy market

With our good friends Marcia and Noble Dunson, we explored the city, marveled at the beautiful colonial architecture and browsed the many markets. We savored some of the regional offerings: Sopa Talasca, a bean/tomato soup with bits of tortilla, garnished with cotija cheese and crema; Enchiladas Moreliana, chicken enchiladas in a red sauce, garnished with diced carrots and potatoes; and huechepos, a sweet tamale-like masa dish, shaped into tiny loaves and garnished with queso fresca and crema (for breakfast - yum!).

We walked for miles through the city, finding friendly people and lots of good coffee. The elevation didn't bother us a bit, but our feet got tired. We slept like rocks in our comfortable hotel. Because of recent unusual storms in the higher mountains, we were unable to take our anticipated side trip into the Monarch butterfly reserves, where ALL the monarch butterflies in North America spend the winter. There were mudslides and floods and closed highways in the butterfly reserve areas, and many many hundreds of people displaced from their homes. In spite of the local needs, we encountered an organized effort in the city zocalo (plaza), raising funds for Haiti.

After three days in the city, we boarded the bus again and made our way to some smaller towns, on our way to Patzcuaro, one of the jewels of Mexico. (To be continued)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

More pictures of our tormenta (storm)...

The recycling lot up the street from us where Jerry volunteers his time. They'll need a new sunshade before summer.

Ah, this is why you reinforce the bricks with steel rebar! We've never seen anything like this in Mexico before.

Power lines caught in a downed tree. Amazingly, we had power restored about 4 o'clock this morning.

Lots of damage at the local tourist market, where sheet metal roofs are the norm.

This is the roof from our favorite beach restaurant, Gordos. It blew off and landed on this guy's market stall. Mucho dinero damages here.
Thanks to John, Christie and McKenzie Forget for these great pictures. Good job guys! Unfortunately, our poor town didn't need this...when the tourists finally begin to arrive agin after last year's flu, drug cartel fears and the bad US economy, many of the local vendors are temporarily or permanently out of business.


A new look for our front yard...

this limb crashed down on the cyclone fence.
Other broken limbs remain in the tree, awaiting some help to remove.

Our neighbor Demetrio found a young iguana that had apparently blown out of a tree...

...and Jerry gave him a new home in our poor broken tree.

Was it a hurricane? A tornado? A waterspout? No one seems to know for sure, but about 11 o'clock last night, the gently falling rain turned into a howling storm, with wind gusts estimated at 100 mph or better. The thunder crashed, the lightning flashed and the lights (of course) went out.

Our weather this winter has been puzzling for long-time residents of Bucerias. Our rain usually ends in October, and does not revisit the area until mid-late June of the next year. This winter, we had several days of heavy rain in November, again in December and again in January. Right now, it has been raining steadily for three days. Because most of the streets in town are either cobblestone or dirt, there are deep ravines everywhere, and many are impassable. People who have lived here all their lives are shaking their heads in wonder. Their explanation? "Loco." Works for me - it's as good as any explanation I've heard so far.