Saturday, August 27, 2011

A trail of tiny chapels, part two

The ancient and tiny building, with no identifiable religious symbols, sat alone atop a barren, cratered hill, looking like an abandoned space station waiting for someone to arrive.

"¡Hola E.T., mi casa es tu casa!" 

Its weathered wooden door was shut tight with a large padlock. There were no holes or cracks that would let you peep inside. A faded graffiti scribble on one side was no help in identifying the purpose of the anonymous structure, which nevertheless towered over the town of Cruz del Palmar and the valleys on all sides, spray-painted bright green by the recent rains.

After losing track of the last few chapels on the Ruta de las Capillas because tourist signs disappeared beyond a certain point, we returned two weeks later but drove in from the tail end of trail, to try find out what we had missed. Shazzam: The state tourist board had come around and installed the rest of the signs.

Yet none pointed or explained what was the mysterious and forlorn chapel-like building on the hill. Instead the signs pointed to Cruz del Palmar, a typical off-the-road Mexican village except for the inordinately large church in the middle--and the four or five diminutive belfries attached to abandoned chapels, whose names no one seemed to remember.

Only two of the towers had any bells or apparent purpose today. One had been retrofitted as a place to hang a TV antenna. We christened that chapel "Our Lady of Television." The other bell tower still in use was attached to the main church; indeed it looked like it was an huge expansion of one of the original mini-chapels.

The big church was very much a live operation, decked out with natural and artificial flowers, holy statues and even a base fiddle leaning gently on one corner, ready to turn around and join the next religious shindig at a moment's notice.

Out in front by the left of altar was a statue of the infant Jesus, an odd touch on two counts.

It was a young, cherubic figure, with a hint of a smile on his lips. It contrasted with the rest of the statuary, which as in most Mexican churches, depicted saints bleeding, weeping or otherwise contorted in pain. Jews who think they hold the patent on guilt and suffering need to check out Roman Catholic churches in Mexico for some needed perspective.

At the foot of the baby Jesus parishioners had deposited not candles, flowers or "milagros" (mementos of answered prayers) but toys: a teddy bear, toy horse, a fire truck. Indeed, with both hands up in the air, the baby Jesus seemed ready to lead the congregation in some jaunty hymn.

"Hey, folks, don't worry, be happy!"

The middle-aged, shy man who gave us a tour of the church also solved the mystery of the would-be space station on top of the hill. It was a large "calvario", a usually small shrine next to a church were parishioners place wooden crosses or other relics belonging to their ancestors.

Before community events, such as religious fiestas or pilgrimages, the participants would check in at the calvario to seek permission to proceed from the souls of those who had passed away. The structure on the hill was the main calvario for all of Cruz del Palmar, according to the tour guide.

(I wondered if the ancestors ever denied their permission. Like a voice thundering from above: "Hey guys put those Coronas away. Enough partying already.")

Our quickie tour was but an introduction to the history of all these chapels which looked somewhat similar but have unique narratives. Each commemorates a different saint, like San Isidro, who looks after farmers, and enshrines a community's history and aspirations for the future. Each chapel and saint requires its own yearly fiesta, typically prayers and somber religious processions combined with drinking, dancing and fireworks.

I'm particularly interested in the fiestas at Cruz del Palmar, when they open the lonely calvario atop the hill. I need to see what's inside. It'd be a hoot if it turns out to be a large black slab covered with hieroglyphs and with a strange energy field around it.

The mysterious structure on the hill, which we found out was the main calvario for
the community of Cruz del Palmar.
(Above and below) The main church at Cruz del Palmar, an otherwise nondescript town except for its collection of chapels and churches, functioning or abandoned. 

The cheery baby Jesus, standing tippy-toes on a cloud.

Strike up the band.

An abandoned chapel, which we named "Temple of Clay Pots."
Our Lady of Television sanctuary.

This chapel had lost its nave and become part of someone's house. Let's call it "The Shrine of the Unknown Saints."

This ruin was not connected to any chapel or other structure. Judging by the elegant interior decorations and murals, it must have been a fancy place in its time, about 150 years ago.  

The Chapel of the (Three) Kings, the last one on the tour and one of the best preserved. Above, the bell tower. Below, the decorative downspouts and buttresses on the side. 

Above, carved dove on the door of the Chapel of the Kings.  Below, decorative painting  around a round window in the chapel. The tear-like discoloration was probably caused by rain seeping in. Or is it a sign from God? 

A small calvario in the front yard of the Chapel of the Kings. The objects inside are probably new; most of the calvarios were looted over the years.


Monday, August 22, 2011

When the babes come marchin' in

Photographing baby animals around the ranch is cheap but irresistible blog material. 

Félix the gardener found the little rabbit under a cactus, where it had been cornered by Lucy who spends her life going after rabbits but never catching any. Like dogs who chase cars, Lucy wouldn't know what to do if she actually caught one. What were we to do with the stray baby? Put it in a box and feed it lettuce? Félix advised to give it a piece of lettuce but instead take it to the other side of the fence out of Lucy's reach. And so it was. 

In my imagination donkeys have a sad, long-suffering appearance though most of them  probably don't feel that way. Our neighbor Arno has found several that were starved and abused, bought them for as little as ten dollars, to join his animal kingdom which includes 50 dogs, several sheep and a few birds. Arno even put bricks and rocks around the anthills on the road to his house lest someone drive over them. 

After a few weeks on Arno's as-much-alfalfa-as-you-can-eat burro diet (with no physical labor required except walking around batting your ears) the donkeys become noticeably cheerier. They answer to their names and trot up to the fence contentedly to have their noses scratched and even bray a little. 

Baby burros, with their disproportionately long ears, sport a silly grin maybe because they don't know the work and hardship that awaits them as adults. We've been tempted to adopt a couple. We have the land though we'd have to fence off an acre or so, otherwise the donkeys will eat all the vegetation and probably come after the dogs (or vice-versa).  

Calves look underfed and unhappy, just like their parents. Hard to imagine how the scrawny cattle around here have the energy to have babies much less feed them. I miss the sight of Midwestern American cows standing around fat, indolent and unappreciative of how good they have it. 

Colts look neither sad like donkeys nor skinny like calves, and instead hop around unsteadily but happily on their stilt-like legs.  Maybe horses are more valued by the owners who feed and treat them better. Maybe that's just the way they look. 

Birds are the most difficult to figure out. Félix keeps finding nests all over the place: On top of small bushes, hidden somewhere in the middle or sometimes built on the ground. The latter are the riskiest; talk about a bird-brained place to put a nest. The dogs sometimes find those chicks and try to play with them until Félix intervenes and put them back on the nest.

Most chicks still in the nest behave frantically. Could be fear of a human's eye or camera lens, or just a perpetual call to their parents: "More food! More food! Quickly!"

Once they leave the nest, either by flying off or getting the heave-ho by their weary parents, chicks take a while to get their bearings. The one we found on the railing of the back porch, its fluffy faux-feathers gently blowing in the breeze, remained there for about a half hour, just looking around and calmly admiring the beautiful world into which it had been born. 

Or it could be all my imagination.