Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Gardens of Tepoztlán, Mexico

A strangler fig draped over lava stones on the trail leading to the Pyramid
This winter I was making a somewhat epic overland journey from Paris to the Island of Crete in Greece.  Just before the New Year, as I was preparing to celebrate what for me had been a pretty great year in the beautiful city of Nice on the French Riviera, my beloved Mother passed away.  This was very unexpected as she had recently had a hip replacement and I spent a month with her during her recovery.  I had celebrated Thanksgiving with her and my Brother and his Wife a few days before I flew to Paris.  So suddenly, with a very broken heart I had to make my way back to Paris and fly home during one of the busiest travel times of the year.  I make a habit of not being in Oregon during the winter, and it had been more than 3 1/2 decades since the last time I'd done so.

My Mother and I sitting on the "Mother Stone" during the dedication of the Halls Hill Labyrinth, with the full moon mosaic I made on her birthday at our feet.
I moved in to my Mother's house on a small rural estate outside of Eugene and helped prepare for what was a beautiful memorial service.  We have a wonderful family, and I was able to contact many of her dear old friends.  Her granddaughters came for a week and helped me begin the daunting task of going through her things.  She had lived on this farm for 43 years and had managed to accumulate enormous quantities of things.  She did not like to throw things away, out of great sentiment, the impact of being born during the depression, an obsessive compulsion to organize and label everything before storing it away.

A labeled can, full of nested cans I found in the garage.  Shades of Marcel du Champ
Going through the house, the garage, the barn, the garden shed, the chicken house, and the pole shed was an enormous undertaking that revealed a painstaking need to save things.  She kept every letter, every card, every photo, the negatives of the photos, newpaper clippings, and magazine articles relating to anything relative to our lives.  There are dozens of photo albums.  She made detailed albums about my brother's and my childhood, an album for every year in general, meticulously detailed improvements made on the farm, family history going back to the 19th century, and things that she had experienced that nobody knew about.  Going through all of this was like excavating the past in vivid detail, and unless I was going to open a library on the scale of those done for presidents, and had to throw a lot away.  I am a practical person, but much of what I do is based on who my Mother was and the influence she had on me.  I am a very detail oriented person as well.  You have to be when you build pebble mosaics for a living.

One of the meticulously beautiful cone wreaths my Mother made when I was a child

After 6 weeks of reliving every minute aspect of our childhoods and the lives of everyone she knew, I was emotionally exhausted.  I take a lot of photos and one of the main reasons was so I could share what I see with my Mother.  I think of her every time I take a picture.  She wont be seeing them anymore, but I still take them for her.  It makes me cry a lot.  Tears are coming as I write this.

I travel to regain my sanity, one that is challenged by chores of every day life and the chaos of the World that presents itself in the media day after day.  I am not a fan of the current administration running our country.  I deplore Xenophobia, because I am a well traveled Libran and know how good most people in the world are.  There is no supreme race.  America is not number one.  There is no reason to look down upon others based on differences when you see what is really going on in the world first hand.  All of the Muslims I've ever met are gracious, wonderful people.  We are lucky to border Mexico.  Our culture would be greatly lacking without them.  Building a wall to keep them out is so stupid to me.  Thats where I first learned to travel in foriegn country.  That is where I returned to heal my broken heart after the loss of my Mother.  It was the first of many countries she traveled to as well.  She loved it.

I'm lucky to be self employed and able to go when I need to.  I set my life up this way on purpose.  I work very hard when I work so that I can take time to get away for long periods of time.  So I stayed up late one night and booked a flight to Mexico City.  It would have been too costly and time consuming to return to Europe and resume my journey to Crete.  My two side by side houses in Portland were subletted for the winter until March so it made sense to me to make this trip.

The last time I spent a winter in Mexico was the year before I started my two 6 month stints working at Camp Glenorchy in New Zealand.  Right before I left I met up with a friend who lives in Mexico City who told me about the town of Tepoztlán, a couple of hours away in a mountainous region to the south in the state of Morelos.  It sounded really interesting to me.  It turns out there is a bus directly from the airport that passes through the town so I found a nice looking and very affordable place near the mercado on Airbnb, and a couple of weeks later was on a plane.  It turned out that two good friends had been there for over a week and we would have two days of overlap.

I arrived by taxi from the small bus station outside of town after a beautiful ride through pine and oak forested mountains, obnoxiously seranaded by a dubbed action film they always show on buses.  Mexico City is one of the largest in the world and its amazing that you can be out in such a lovely landscape once you get past the traffic jams of the metropolis.

The dramatic mountain landscape surrounding Tepoztlán
My home for a week was on a narrow cobbled street called Guadalupe Rojas.  Traditional Mexican buildings are walled from the street, with a gate large enough for vehicles to pass through.  I knocked on the large brown painted wooden gates and a sweet woman named Placida opened the door and let me in.  Two friendly standard poodles came to greet me and continued to do so every time I came and went during the week.  Behind the gate lies a veritable paradise.  Hot pink bouganvillea covers the high stone wall by the cobbled stone driveway.

A bouganvillea draped wall in hot pink splendor by the entry drive
The most massive Philodendron I have ever seen screens the garden from the parking courtyard paved with square red bricks.  When there aren't any cars parked on it, it is a lovely courtyard.

A huge Philodendron encloses the parking court from the gardens

Hanging and potted plants surrounding a vine covered tree in the courtyard
The simple cabana I had reserved was right by a lovely oval swimming pool surrounded by Heliconias and Papyrus, with the scent of lemon and lime trees in bloom.  Lush green lawns framed by low walls with rows of large planted pots and clipped hedges are shaded by tall trees of many kinds.  This is the dry season but the dramatic surrounding mountains are covered in exuberant vegetation.  It must be even more respendent in the Summer when the rains come.  I had chosen well to stay here, heaven on Earth.  This place is magical.

Gardens at Guadalupe Rojas
A solar heater on the roof of my vine draped cabana heats the water for my shower and the swimming pool, which was the perfect temperature.  A cup of coffee in the morning has nothing over being able to step out the door in the morning and jump in to a tiled oval of water and then lying on the warm stone coping to dry off while the poodles nap on the lawn.

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I shared the pool with other guests residing in discretely located bungalows tucked away in the gardens but we seemed to time it so there was little overlap.

The garden is a wide terrace on a hillside with views of the mountains framing the valley beyond.  They are of volcanic origin, with layers of successive flows of lava stacked upon each other, which then eroded to make dramatic vertical slopes.

A mountain view from the edge of the garden
I have a critical eye for detail and I found the gardens at Guadalupe Rojas to be beautifully composed.  The lawns are perfectly scaled, and framed with interesting elements.

Low curved lava stone walls frame hedges and beds filled with a wonderful variety of plants

A patio in the center of the garden surrounded by low walls and potted plants
After a nap (my flight was a red eye) my friends came to pick me up and we walked to the nearby market for lunch.  This is one of the best mercados in Mexico, laden with beautiful produce, fresh meats, grains and spices.  A number of open kitchens whirl with activity surrounded by counters and benches filled with hungry customers.  Fresh tortillas are pressed and cooked on large round steel griddles along with flat pounded slices of beef, shredded chicken, cabeza de cabra (goats head) and a variety of vegetables.  I don't eat beef and lean towards vegeterian foods so I opted for a taco de chile relleno and a huarache, a thick oval tortilla heaped with delicious ingredients.  The taco came first and was huge, unlike the small ones I'm used to in the US.  Fresh squeezed mandarine orange juice is a heavenly accompaniment.

Taco de Chile Relleno, the best I've ever had

While I was eating this they prepared my huarache.  Tepoztlán's market is special for its prehispanic ingredients.  Amaranth and Chapulin ( a type of roasted grasshopper), Flor de Calabaza (squash blossoms), Nopales (prickly pear pads), and Cuitlacoche (corn smut, a type of fungus that infects corn cobs) are commonly used and delicious.

My huarache was heaped with lovely squash blossoms, earthy corn smut, and mushrooms, with stringy Queso quesillo and garnished with avocado.  It tasted incredible but was too much to eat so I finished it off for dinner later.

Huarache cooking on the grill

This would be a hugely popular gourmet dish back in the foodie city of Portland where I live.

The beautiful vegetarian Huarache I returned to eat again and again
My favorite food stall in the Tepoztlán market

A menu of various Huaraches at my favorite food stall
Flore de Calabaza, Squash flowers have been cultivated in the region for over 10,000 years
There is another stand called El Cuatecomate that my friends turned me on to that was more modern in decor but ancient in its ingredients.  They prepare a variety of patties prepared with Amaranth, Beets, Cacao, Amaranth, Chiles, Calabaza, Quelite (wild herbs) and a number of other locally grown vegetarian products, heated and served with delicious sauces.

Amazing patties made with Prehispanic ingredients.  I wish I could buy these in Portland
Prehispanic foods prepared at El Cuatecomate
When they dish is served he said in Spanish that he was giving me this food as an offering (una ofrenda).  I'm still feeling emotionally vulnerable and this made me cry.  So beautiful.

Prehispanic patties with sauces, and fresh Jugo de Maracuya (Passionfruit)
Beautiful produce on display in the Mercado
Black Chiles in the Mercado
Mandarinas, Naranjas, Tomates, Tomatillos, Papas, y Sandia
Nopales (Prickly Pear Cactus) and Agapanthus Flowers 
Chicharones are a popular Mexican snack
Cabeza de Cabra is used in soups and tacos
The mercado is located next to the walled garden atrium of the Ex-Convento Dominico de la Natividad, a monastery that was build by Indigenous people conscripted by an order of Dominican priests between  1555 and 1580.  The arched entryway is covered in the most astonishing mural made from millios of seeds from 87 varieties of plants.  Every year in a festival dedicated to the Virgin celebrated on the 7th of September, a new Portada de Semillas is erected.

La Portada de Semillas
 The Portada is so extraordinary that it is deserving of its own essay.  I photographed every part of it in great detail so that I could study the compositions later on.  Scenes of Prehispanic stories and rituals cover the surface, attached to sheets of plywood with raised areas that give it a three dimensional appearance.  The richness of colors and beautiful execution show a mastery of the craft of seed mosaic.  There is much about the lore of the people who ruled the region before the arrival of Cortez that I do not know.  Much research is in store.

La Portada de Semillas on Sunday market day
Hernán Cortéz, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Aztec empire had the town of Tepoztlán raised when its leaders refused to meet with him.  I have read that the conquistadors sent from Spain to explore and exploit the New World were dangerously uncontrollable psychotic members of aristocratic families.  Sending them away on ships was a way to get them out of the house and plunder the riches of the newly discovered continents of North and South America.  It is a legacy of injustice that still plagues Mexico, Central America, and South America to this day.

A Jaguar warrior costume

I wish I knew the stories so beautifully depicted in these murals
The Domincans were kinder to the indigenous people than the conquerers, but required religious conversion to the Catholic faith and hard labor in exchange for some form of sanctuary from the cruelty of the colonists.

Plumeria and Philodendron in the gardens of the Ex-Convento

Vines growing on a tall lava stone wall that divides the Templo atrium from the garden of the Monastery
Outdoor areas were built to teach large groups of indigenous people the ways of the Catholic Church. It must have been a terrible period in human history, the subjugation of entire cultures in to slavery and European belief systems.  Today the spaces and building have an air of peace about them that masks the brutality of the past.

An outdoor amphitheater for conducting sermons to Indigenous peoples.
In 1994 the complex was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO.

The interiors of the Ex-Convento are beautifully painted
Between the convent and the Templo is a lovely four part courtyard with a central fountain that would have been a source of water for the complex.

Courtyard in the Ex-Convento

An simple but elegant arcade surrounds the upper floor around the courtyard
A secondary roof was constructed to prevent water damage to the Templo.  Restoration work on the buildings began in 1993.  The 1985 earthquake in Mexico City caused some damage to the structure.

A piñata hangs in an old Ash Tree in the Atrium garden of the Templo

Before the Spanish arrived the region was inhabited by the Nahuatl people and was a ceremonial center believed to be the birthplace of Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, the powerful feathered serpent  that was worshiped throughout much of Mexico.  You see magnificent representations of this diety on many prehispanic temples.
Quetzalcoatl depicted on a pyramid at Teotehuacan

A modern depiction in a mural in Tepoztlán, with the utility pole painted to blend in.
 One of the most popular activities in Tepoztlán is to climb the steep path to the Pyramid of El Tepozteco, devoted to the God Ometochtli-Tepoztēcatl (try to say that!).  He was credited with creating the popular alcoholic beverage called Pulque, which is made from a type of Agave called Maguey.

A mural by the road leading to the path to the Pyramid of El Tepozteco
The main road past the market drops down towards a small stream called Axitla, which is lined with magnificent Montezuma Cypress trees (Taxodium mucronatum), that are related to the Bald Cypresses found in the swamps of the southeast of the United States.

Montezuma Cypresses growing along Axitla Creek
The largest of these is the famous Arbol de Tule outside of Oaxaca, which has one of the largest trunks of any tree in the world.

The enormous trunk of the Montezuma Cypress at El Tule
After passing through a lush green area crammed full of souvenir stalls and party pubs that sell gross looking Micheladas, the path passes between two large trees with a stone orb supporting a crucifix.  Just another example of Catholisism appropriating a location sacred to native peoples.

The path is made of stone, in some places looking like the original stairway ascending the hill.   Its a steep but beautiful climb with vertical rock formations all around.  We stopped and bought Tamarind Paletas (Popsicles) which seemed to miraculously give us the energy to carry on with renewed energy.

A stone metate once used for grinding corn and seeds built in to the path
Climbing higher, the path passes between stone towers and eventually leads to a terrace on the imposing rock formations with a dramatic view over the valley.  The pyramid is not large but is quite beautiful the way it is situated and has an altar which once had a roof over it.

The Pyramid of El Tepozteco

There are remnants of carvings representing 10 rabbits from a calendar and the name of Mexica ruler named Ahuitzotl with a date corresponding with the Gregorian year of 1509, the year that he died.

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Someone had left two small slabs of stone with jaguars painted on them in offering.

Jaguar offerings on the pyramid

The view of Tepoztlán from the pyramid
 Descending the mountain was much easier.  It seems to be a tradition to celebrate by drinking giant cups of beer mixed with thick tomato salsa, which look totally gross to me.  It seems that Pulque would be far more appropriate but it has been superseded in popularity.

Michelada time
The lava rock that make up the geologic structure of the mountains is the primary building material for walls, buildings, and pavement.  The main streets are paved in flat cut black stone with stone chips detailing the mortar joints.  Walls have a similar construction but sometimes include brick chips to add color.  Other streets are cobbled with rounded river stones.

A stepped altar to the Virgin de Guadalupe and low walls made of lava rock.
The high walls make the streets feel a bit like canyons winding through the hills.  There are delightful discoveries around corners and the social life of Mexicans bring color and liveliness to the otherwise peaceful streets.  Its a pleasure to walk in places embued with so many interesting details and rich local character.

Vine draped walls and Sanseverias
When I was studying landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, one of the underlying principals of design consideration was "a sense of place" or venacular that reveals the character of where you are.  So much of America has become mundane, the strip malls, suburbs made for a transient culture that frequently moves, cookie cutter landscapes with no redeeming character.  Tepoztlán is quite the opposite.  I found this community to be very distinctive, and rooted in its beautiful landscape, culture, and history.

A lava rock paved street winds between high walls and boulders
Hidden behind the walls lining the streets are many beautiful gardens.  Even humble dwellings have exuberant plantings, utilizing recycled barrels and bottles and paint cans for containers.  Some areas are more upscale and were clearly designed by people with training in garden arts.

Buckets and cans used as planters on top of a lava wall utilizing many textures of stones
Plastic buckets overflowing with succulents hang from tree branches

Colorful flowering plants in the Mercado

A magnificent staghorn fern mounted on a tree trunk

There is a strong tradition of mural painting in Mexico.  Tepoztlán is no exception.  Many stuccoed walls are painted with facinating scenes relating to mythology, festivals, and traditions.

A wonderful mixture of colors plays across this painting of a man singing

Political statements are a frequent subject of murals in Mexico

El Bujo

They still have pay phones in Mexico!

 Death is a very real part of Mexican culture.  Vivid depictions of a vibrant life after death keep the memory of the departed very much alive.

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos
One evening I was walking down a road with friends, heading to a nice restaurant where we would have a good meal to celebrate before they departed the following day.  I saw the gate to the town cemetery.  Many of you know I have a thing for these "cities of the dead".  Mexico has a special relationship with departed family members.  They have tend to the graves, bring fresh flowers, and have family gatherings.  If you've ever seen the wonderful animated film Coco, you learn about the importance of remembering one's departed loved ones.  Once they are forgotten, they are in a way lost forever.

The crumbling gates to the cemetery, braced with timbers to keep it from collapsing

Graves in the Tepoztlán cemetery
A family was filing in through the gates carrying food and beer and wine, and gathering at the grave of a relative, where they would party late in to the night.  There is some comfort in knowing you'll be remembered after you're gone.  We made the effort to have a beautiful service for my Mother.  We created an altar, and photo collages honoring her life, and I made a bouquet of things collected from her winter garden.  I brought a painting of the headwaters of the Metolius River in Central Oregon that her Mother painted, where I will eventually spread her ashes.  Its a beautiful river that springs from the Earth in a magical way.  She called it God's country.  So much of who I am is who my Mother was.  As the line from the lyrics from a song sung by Tony Bennett goes; "I see your face in every flower."  I'll think of her every time I take a photo, when I plant a plant, and when I throw something away.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

"I see your face in every flower"

Plastic bottles used as containers for cuttings, my Mom would have liked this

Stone slabs set on boulders provide seating across from a church

A nicely detailed driveway allows for permeability

Aliens at the gate

A carved cantera stone bowl set in to a wall on either side of an entry gate for birds to bathe in

Ficus nitida makes patterns on a white stucco wall

An tarot studio with a Moroccan theme across the street from where I was staying

Wooden bowls, cutting boards and rolling pins in the Mercado

Hanging pots decorate a wall in a parking lot

Adobe bricks with pebbles and brick shards in the mortar joints

Crosses and Montezuma Cypresses

A magnificent Montezuma Cypress along the creek

Virginia Creeper trailing down a multicolored stucco wall

A mural with the names of the formations in the mountains

A mural protesting a proposed golf resort development that was prevented

Tillandsias in the trees

A ramen noodle shop with a pleasant garden dining area
A nun selling votives in the park by the Ex-Convento
I love you Mom

1 comment:

  1. Jeffrey-
    You are so inspiring! How deep do you excavate the area you are going to mosaic, and what material do you lay down before you put the mortar..crushed gravel? sand? anything? Thank you!