A month in Mexico

Rick Barnes
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Plenty of culture and history to be found along the 'Route of Independence'

On Sept. 16, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo, the parish priest of the village of Dolores, Guanajuato, stirred Mexican peasants to revolt after 300 years of brutal oppression by the Spanish, the call to arms was the Grito de Dolores (Cry from Dolores).

A rebellion by untrained, undisciplined, poorly armed farmers led by a priest with no military experience stood little chance of success against the troops of the mighty Spanish empire.

A view of boats along the beach at Chapala. Submitted photo

On Sept. 16, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo, the parish priest of the village of Dolores, Guanajuato, stirred Mexican peasants to revolt after 300 years of brutal oppression by the Spanish, the call to arms was the Grito de Dolores (Cry from Dolores).

A rebellion by untrained, undisciplined, poorly armed farmers led by a priest with no military experience stood little chance of success against the troops of the mighty Spanish empire.

On Aug. 1, 1811, after his excommunication and execution, the head of Generalissimo Hidalgo was put on display atop a pole to discourage others from taking up a leadership role. But it was too late. There was no getting the peasant back into the yoke, and the bloody fight for Mexican independence had been set into motion.

Today, the unlikely general, whose full name is Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo y Costilla y Gallaga Mondarte, is revered by the proud people of Mexico as a hero, and "Father of the Nation."

In September, Mexicans will celebrate the painful and dramatic birth of their country 200 years ago. But the evolution of the modern Spanish-speaking democracy of today began long before that. As far back as 1549, the Spanish were smacking around the indigenous people of Guanajuato, forcing them to drag silver out of the San RamÓn mine to fund the Spanish Empire.

This year, late in the evening of Sept. 15, officials of cities and towns all over Mexico will re-enact the Grito de Dolores in the ZÓcalo, or public square. Mexican President Filipe CalderÓn will launch "AÑo de la Patria," or "Year of the Nation," a year of festivities celebrating Mexico's birth.

Last summer, Wife and I spent a month travelling the recently named Ruta 2010, the "Route of Independence," around central Mexico beginning in Mexico City - the largest Spanish speaking city in the world. It is a breathtaking sight as you fly into Benito JuÁrez International Airport - Latin America's busiest, two kilometres above sea level and surrounded by a city of 22 million amid the mountains. Even in July, the altitude keeps the temperature down in the 20s - much more bearable than temperatures at the coastal resorts.

Mexico City's ZÓcalo, or main plaza, is huge, and waving over it atop a 50-metre flagpole is a giant Mexican flag (14 m x 25 m). The nasty-looking eagle perched on the cactus of the Mexican tri-colour watches over the citizens of the republic as they go about their business. You'll find mariachis for hire, hawkers selling balloons, baskets, toys, baked treats, hot roasted corn, tacos and candy. Every day in a ZÓcalo is like Regatta Day in St. John's.

In addition to the usual big-city windshield washers, concessions of all kinds appear at your window when you stop for a red light: potato chips, water, soft drinks, chewing gum, breath mints, sun shades for your car, and balloons of all shapes and themes from Sponge Bob to the Virgin of Guadeloupe.

Sellers toting trays of sugared pastries board the crowded city buses and money changes hands quickly as tired travellers give in to the temptation of sweet treats on the run. When the buses are crowded to capacity, more money changes hands as passengers boarding at the rear send their fare up the line and a bus ticket and correct change works its way back down the aisle.

On one crowded city bus Wife and I rode in Guadalajara, even more money changed hands when some light-fingered hombre slipped Wife's wallet and passport folder out of her zippered purse as we stood in the aisle. It wasn't a huge disaster, though. ATMs are never far away, so there is no need to carry a lot of cash. The pickpocket only made about $20 for his trouble.

A couple of collect calls to banks home in Canada cancelled the missing credit cards, and Wife's purloined passport turned up at the Canadian consulate in Guadalajara. She had already reported it stolen, so after a few more phone calls, a police report and $100 Canadian, a new document was issued.

Mexico does have its share of big-time crime, though. During our visit, the federal government, frustrated with the lack of progress by state and municipal authorities in the ongoing war on drugs, flooded the state of MichoacÁn with 2,500 troops to combat organized crime. That's an armed force the size of the Canadian contingent of soldiers currently in Afghanistan, deployed to rout criminals from a state about half the size of the island of Newfoundland.

We took an ETN inter-city bus to Guanajuato. It's about a four-hour run from Guadalajara, and our 320 peso ($27) tickets included a drink and a sandwich. The loonie, now near parity with the American dollar, trades for about 12 pesos, which is double the value we received on a visit in the early '90s.

In Guanajuato we visited a ghoulish but compelling display of bodies that were mummified by a fluke of graveyard chemistry. There were 50 or more on display - men, women and babies, their hair and clothes intact. Some of them were buried as recently as the '70s - polyester holds up well. It sounds ghastly, but once you are there, natural curiosity takes over and you become totally absorbed.

Accessible by funicular is a giant statue of El PÍpila, another of the heroes of the war of independence, overlooking the city from a steep hill. Guanajuato is full of hills and gorges, and a series of tunnels worn through the rock by an ancient river are used for roadways. Some of these tunnels are only wide enough for one vehicle, although they carry traffic in both directions.

While a wimpy Canadian driver might proceed with caution, the Mexican driving strategy is to speed through the narrow sections as quickly as possible so you don't meet a car coming the other way. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it seems to work.

The Spanish brought Christianity and the Catholic Church is still prominent throughout Mexico. The church of Nueva Spain even had its own branch of the infamous Inquisition, torturing and burning Jews, Negros and homosexuals at the stake. At an old hacienda in Guanajuato there is a chilling display of instruments and methods of torture used to extract confessions from the heretics and witches of the New World.

In San Miguel de Allende, a haven for Gringo retirees from all over North America, we stayed at an old monastery - Posada de las Monjas.

In the ZÓcalo we happened upon a "QuinceaÑos" - the big coming of age celebration for 15-year-old Spanish girls. In the celebration, the QuinceaÑera marks her 15th birthday by re-affirming her faith at a special mass, and later, after a dance with her father, she leaves her childhood behind, symbolically changing from flat shoes to heels. The ceremony is as elaborate as a big church wedding, with white formal gowns and tuxedos, followed by dancing, toasting and cake-cutting.

That same week, the newspaper La Jornada reported that a QuinceaÑos at Perpetue Socorro at ApatzingÁn in the neighbouring state of MichoacÁn, was halted 15 minutes into the ceremony when it was stormed by 200 armed federales. They arrested a captain of the infamous drug cartel, La Familia, Miguel Angel Beraza Villa, known as La Troca. According to La Jornada, news of the incident reached Rome and the Pope's apostolic nuncio to Mexico, Christophe Pierre, railed on about the interrupted mass, insisting the Mexican government must respect the autonomy of the Catholic Church.

Taxco is the silver capital of Mexico. The city is filled with silversmiths and its merchants sell everything from $10 earrings to $100,000 works of art. Its ZÓcalo is at the top of a high hill, and the original Volkswagen bug is the favourite car among local taxi drivers. They modify the bugs by tossing out the front passenger seat. You climb into the back seat, haul your bags onto the front floor and the driver pulls the passenger door shut with an attached rope.

The bug taxis are not as comfortable as some rides, but they're practical for the narrow winding streets of Taxco. If you want more leg-room, for 10 pesos you can take the bus - a Volkswagen van.

It may not be coincidence there is a giant Volkswagen plant on the outskirts of Puebla. Their latest model is an open air version of the van. I can't wait for a ride in that one.

Mexico is a beautiful country with a history like no other. Even if you don't know a word of Spanish, you'll be fine. There is always a server, a security guard, or hotel clerk happy to practice her English. The Mexicans we encountered all knew a bit about Canada, and many had friends or relatives in Vancouver, Toronto, or working on the farms of Ontario or Saskatchewan.

The global financial crisis, the highly publicized drug wars, and the emergence of the H1N1 virus in Mexico City in the spring of 2009 have all had a damping effect on tourism. We were able to find good deals in accommodation last summer, but prices will likely start creeping up again as the September bicentennial approaches.

After just a five-hour flight out of Toronto, you can be in the midst of a rich and fascinating culture, and help this proud country celebrate its bicentennial - right here on our own continent.

Organizations: ZÓcalo, Spanish Empire, Benito JuÁrez International Airport Catholic Church Volkswagen La Familia

Geographic location: Mexico City, Guanajuato, Dolores Guadalajara San RamÓn Latin America Canada MichoacÁn St. John's Afghanistan Island of Newfoundland Taxco Toronto North America Rome Puebla Vancouver Ontario Saskatchewan

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