My friend (hereinafter, El Amigo) had emailed me instructions to "just get off the bus, grab a taxi and come to Hotel Mi Casita and yell" his name. The taxi brought me as far as it could go: there were still the narrow, cobbled walk and the huge, stone stairs to climb to reach the gate of the hotel. I rang the bell, and the gate slowly opened. At the top of the narrow, curved outside stairway, a lovely woman greeted me at the door, probably thinking I was a guest checking in. When I mentioned El Amigo's name, she looked puzzled; she had no idea who he was. She was extremely hospitable, however, and invited me to sit at a table in the small lobby, where we explored the possibility that I had gotten the name of the hotel wrong. We looked through the phone book, but there was nothing that even remotely resembled the name of her hotel. I had to fire up my laptop to find El Amigo's phone number (as I'd forgotten to write it in my daybook). The lady brought me a phone, and the problem was solved when El Amigo's voice instructed me to walk out the door of the hotel and look up. There he was, grinning at us from his balcony across the way. As soon as the hotel owner saw him, she realized that she did know who he was. She sees him every day. She just didn't know his name. If I'd mentioned "el viejo gringo," she would have known who he was right away.
Seeing me toting much more stuff than I will ever need for a few months in Mexico (what was I thinking?), El Amigo called down, "Where's the burro?" I answered, "I am the burro."
El Amigo showed me upstairs to a little room on the roof, actually his workshop, where I'm sleeping and writing while I'm here. It has windows all along the east and south sides. Seated at the workbench, to my left I look out over the jumble of buildings that hug the steep sides of the barranca all the way down to the valley below. I can see the hills beyond the valley, and more hills beyond them. Looking straight ahead, Taxco's landmark Iglesia de Santa Prisca dominates the skyline with its Mexican Baroque architecture. (Not being very knowledgeable about architecture, I find its combination of Italian and Moorish influences incongruous.) Below the church are the terraces and the red-tiled roofs of the Hotel Agua Escondido, and a very old stone building, Casa Borda, which houses the Casa de la Cultura de Taxco and a number of jewellery stores and craft shops.
That evening we had a light supper, with El Amigo sharing some of his observations and experiences over the course of visiting and living in Taxco for the past three years. There were things I would find helpful as leads into deeper understandings of the local culture, and there were things I would have to know, since I'll be staying in El Amigo's casa while he is away for a few days. For example, El Amigo called my attention to a loud whistle that sounded as if it was coming from just below the balcony. "Those whistles youll hear outside, they're like codes. Every group has a unique whistle that identifies its members to one another." During my first week in Taxco, I listened for these whistles, and for the yelling, and for other ambient sounds of Taxco. I heard church bells from Santa Prisca and from another church down the hill, and noticed that they were rung approximately hourly but never once on the hour. A couple of nights ago, it seemed that the bell ringers from both churches were having a friendly competition to see who would get the last ring. The number of times the bells clanged was far more than the hour would have indicated. I liked this place right away.
El Amigo told me that there is an almost endless succession of fiestas in Taxco and its environs. One that I had just missed was the Día del Jumil ((hoo-meel), held on the first Monday of November after the Día de los Muertos. It was held on November 5 this year. Taxqueños climb the Cerro de Huixteco, collecting jumiles along the way. When they arrive at the top of the hill, they have a big picnic, with music and games, as well as the election and crowning of la Reina del Jumil. Jumiles are also known as stink bugs. They are considered a delicacy here. You can buy bags of them in the Mercado Municipal, alive and crawling. People eat them live. El Amigo went to this year's Dia del Jumil and took some great pictures of it. He even ate some live jumiles. "It's all research," he says.
The next day, El Amigo and I took a combi (a white VW bus that is the main form of transportation in Taxco, along with the white VW beetle taxis) outside of the city to Tenango, where there is some land he is interested in buying. The land already has an old adobe house on it, a real fixer-upper. One of its best features, besides an incredible view and a lot of peace and quiet, is that it has fresh water from a mountain-fed creek year-round. El Amigo discovered it while photographing an old silver mine located there.
Besides the neighbours yelling to one another (and to El Amigo) from the narrow streets and from their balconies, and the whistling and the ringing church bells, there are other common sounds I'm getting used to hearing. Nearly every house I see has a yellow 30-kilo propane tank on the roof, along with a 750 litre water tank usually made of black PVC, but sometimes in an earthen colour. Every day two men go up and down the streets in the neighbourhood, one bellowing, "Gas" and the other, "Agua." If the gas for the stove runs out while El Amigo is away, I will have to buy it from the gas man in the street. For 285 pesos ($28.50) he will fetch a 30 kilo propane tank from the truck parked below and carry it on his shoulder up the street (which is more like a steep and wide set of stone and cement stairs -- 35 of them) to the house, and then through the house and up the stairs to the roof, where he will replace the old tank with the new one, connect it, and carry away the empty one. (With the weight of the tank added, its about 100 lb. when full, El Amigo says) If the drinking water runs out while El Amigo is away, I'll have to buy it from "agua-man" for 20 pesos. El Amigo is fortunate to live in an area where the water from the artesian well at the top of the mountain keeps the rooftop tank filled. This tank is for household use, not for drinking. Purified drinking water must be purchased. Some are not so lucky, and have to have their rooftop cisterns filled by a hose pulled up to the roof from a small tanker truck in the street. The average Taxqueño works very hard, and for very little money. El Amigo says the average wage is about $10 a day.
Over the next few days we took combis up to the Hotel Posada de la Misión, where we had lunch by the pool, and to the Ex Hacienda del Chorrillo, which now houses the Taxco Campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and includes the External Seminar Union, the National School of Visual Arts and the Learning Center for Foreigners. Amazingly, these facilities are extremely under-used, especially considering the relatively low tuition and the incredibly beautiful campus.
On Wednesday, El Amigo introduced me to Señor Mota, an elderly man who sells his abstract expressionist artwork in the zócalo. (Mota is also slang for marijuana, but it's his real name.) Señor Mota invited us to attend a fiesta with him the next day in the puebla of Axixintla (a fair pronunciation might be assy-seentla). It was the Feast of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Well, who would imagine that on that day, the best bands from all over Mexico would converge on this tiny little place, as they do every year on Saint Cecilia's feast day, for a music competition? We took a combi out of town around 7:30am and arrived a little after 8am. The bands had already started playing under a tarp that extended from above the entrance to the Church of Saint Cecilia and covered most of the small courtyard. The bands played mainly Mexican-style jazz. Some of it sounded a lot like Dixieland. Also (as I experienced in New Orleans last year) the bands served food to the audience. As soon as we arrived, a woman offered us tamales (hot tamales) and sweetened black coffee. Later we had something (I'm not sure maybe it was chicken; El Amigo said maybe pork, or goat, or who knows?). It was in a delicious sauce. When I asked Señor Mota what was the sauce made of, he told me "jumil." I was glad that I got to experience how delicious it was before finding out that it was made with stink bugs. We left when the bands finished playing, before the real party started. Señor Mota said it goes all night, fuelled by lots of tequila and cerveza.
At the end of my first week in Taxco I'm getting used to the sounds of the city: the fireworks that are set off on anything that a Taxqueño might consider "an occasion" (which could be anything); a marching band that practices every evening up the hill; the clanging bell that signals garbage collection around the zócalo; and a strange sound, like the "boing" sound in cartoons, that occurs frequently. Its never quiet here. I can understand El Amigo's desire to live in a quieter environment and still be close to Taxco.