Xochistlahuaca, “land of flowers” in the Guerrero mountains

 xochistlahuaca, guerrero, mexico

xochistlahua_franco

Xochistlahuaca is in the Guerrero mountains, where corn grows on steep hillsides and everything is lush and green. It’s 4,000+ residents primarily belong to an indigenous group called Amuzgo, many of whom speak Nomndaa rather than Spanish.

Since 2002, Xochistlahuaca has provided it’s own community police and governed itself somewhat independently from the rest of Guerrero (a right of indigenous communities under the Mexican constitution) and since 2004, it has hosted Radio Nomndaa, the only Amuzgo-language radio station. (Radio Nomndaa advocates for indigenous rights and has been a target of state and federal police.)

Amuzgo women weave shifts, called huipil, and scarves. The linen-like fabric often incorporates design motifs of flowers, animals and legends, and sometimes it takes three months to make a single piece.

xochistlahuaca_franco

xochistlahuaca womens coop

They sell these pieces at a boutique run by a cooperative of 28 women, which was founded by Florentina Lopez de Jesus in 1969, and also on certain Saturdays, at an early morning casual street gathering where a few hundred women mill about with bags, pulling out handiwork and naming their price. Mostly the buyers and sellers are Amuzgo women but Sonia and I were there, and later we saw another woman, an Afro-Mexican tourist.

There are no banks and no ATM’s in Xochistlahuaca, so bring plenty of cash. Huipils run anywhere from US $30 to $250, and you’ll want to buy them all.

We hitched a ride with some people from our Playa Ventura hotel to Ometepec (where, from a car window, I caught a glimpse of a church that reminded me of Sufi shrines), and from there, took a collectivo a winding few hours. (Definitely break out the dramamine.) Our fellow passengers, a young Amuzgo couple, asked me for name suggestions for their yet-unnamed three-month-old son. Talk about pressure.

There isn’t much to do in Xochistlahuaca beyond eat amazing food in restaurants that are likely to be the upstairs of someone’s house (the area is known for soft cheese), hiking the hills (you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of town) and ambling around taking photos.

xochistlahuaca_Franco

There’s a river with rapids (the San Pedro?) just before Xochistlahuaca, with a calm, swimming spot near the road. Otherwise the current is rough, although I braved the rapids and wedged myself between rocks, letting the water pound me. (Swim in clothes. The Amuzgos are more modest than many Mexicans and don’t seem to wear bathing suits.)

Cheree Franco

Most people wear traditional clothes, although at a wedding we attended, the bride work a fluffy white dress and some of the younger women wore short, tight numbers.

If men aren’t in jeans and button-downs, they are in loose, white pajama-like outfits, with the shirt open to the waist. Women wear huipil and for less formal occasions, polyester lace shifts over long cotton dresses.

Many Amuzgos are Catholic, but there is a growing number of Protestants (missionaries started coming in the 1940’s), and there’s lot of magical thinking concerning hexes, medicine men, the power of heavenly bodies (more deaths are thought to occur during solar and lunar eclipses) and the power of specific burial rites.

The wedding was Presbyterian and certainly seemed, to my Protestant upbringing, to fit the bill. There was no alcohol, much prayer and many religious songs. The ceremony, held in the town’s central auditorium, was a curious mix of unfamiliar traditions (children’s games, a receiving line where the bride and groom spoke to everyone and accepted gifts) and familiar trappings (an official procession, a sit-down dinner).

Invited guests had seats at the table, but anyone in town was free to wander in and watch the proceedings from the bleachers.

Once the sun sets the streets are dark, since there are no street-lights, and most shops are closed. Some businesses close but leave doors opened and lights on, and people gather and chat in their entryways. There is at least one cantina (it happened to be very noisy and directly below our hotel), but it definitely seemed a men’s place more than a women’s place.

IMG_0700

There are two small hotels in town, and ours was empty but for us. We ended up in something called the “presidential suite” (about $20), with no wifi (though we paid extra), no hot water and a broken lock, so that we piled furniture against the door before sleeping. The suite was funny, like a kingpin’s idea of luxury, circa 1987. It had hideous red-orange walls, a black laquer dining set and china cabinet, two love-seats and a coffee table. Oh, and a TV that is, apparently, just for looks, since neither the remote or the power button enticed a picture.

We were comfortable enough, and the comedy of the room compensated for it’s shortcomings. Our two days in Xochistlahuaca was time well-spent.

The Costa Chica region of Guerrero, Mexico

Apparently, I take the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings as vacation recommendations. But the Mexican state of Guerrero is much more than mass graves in hillsides, and I encounter more shady characters in 48-hours in my own Little Rock neighborhood than I did in a week in Guerrero. I’m not saying terrible things don’t happen there (and everywhere), just, hey, let’s keep some perspective.

PERSPECTIVE: Would you travel to Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland or Chicago? I have lived in three of those cities and frequent two others. In recent years, the French government has issued travel warnings against all of them.

So. Now we have that out of the way.

If you visit Guerrero, you’ll fly into Acapulco, which is, incidentally, the only city in the state that the U.S. government allows it’s personnel to visit. It’s also, arguably, the most dangerous city. In 2014 it had the highest homicide rate in Mexico. But that’s not why you’ll want to leave Acapulco as soon as possible –it’s simply not as amazing as the rest of the state.

Acapulco

Acapulco beach

My friend Sonia, who works with the UN in indigenous education and lives in Chilpancingo (the capitol of Guerrero and #3 on the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice’s list of most violent cities in Mexico), met me at the airport. We spent an evening and morning at a fancy-ish hotel called the Crowne Plaza, with a series of complicated, interconnected pools and a swim-up bar.

The best part of Acapulco was an early morning swim. I liked the misty hills, the slate-gray water, the contrast between warm ocean and cold drizzle. (This is supposedly the rainy season. But in 10 days, that first morning drizzle was as rainy as it got). After breakfast, we hopped a collective taxi to Playa Ventura — roughly $5 and two hours, if you don’t mind doing part of the ride with four people in the backseat and two in the front passenger seat.

Playa Ventura is in Costa Chica, a region of largely undeveloped beachfront and home to many Afro-Mexicans. We stayed at Meson Casa de Piedra, run by a Czech woman and her Mexican husband, both of whom speak English and Spanish. It’s amazing and affordable (about $20-30 a night), with maybe a dozen rooms, all of them unique and many with private terraces.

The front desk doubles as a bar, and there are winding shell and stone paths, driftwood furniture, shell and stick mobiles, hammocks, Chinese lanterns, two friendly Great Danes, free mangos and a restaurant that serves up yummy chilaquiles. There’s no hot water, mosquito screens or consistent wifi, but it’s so peaceful, you probably won’t notice. (Ok, you may notice the mosquitos. I live in Arkansas, so for me, that just made things homey.)

Mesón Casa de Piedra hotels playa ventura costa chica copala guerrero mexican beaches mexico beach

Mesón Casa de Piedra _cfranco

Mexican breakfast chilaquiles

The waves directly in front of the hotel are too dangerous for swimming – at least in the rainy season – but a short walk down the beach/climb over a great rock pile, the waves are more calm. And there’s a family owned, open-air beachfront restaurant there, where you can get fresh fish, homemade tortillas and sticky garlic rice. If you order raw coconuts (the nut with a straw), a guy shimmies up a tree and hacks it down for you.

PlayaVentura CostaChica Guerrero Mexico MexicanBeaches

Shells and bits of coral are plentiful. I had quite the collection in our room, though I ended up having to choose a few from a few dozen, because bag space was tight. They were brilliantly pink and purple, except for one of my favorites — a golden teardrop with a surface that looked like cracked glass.

playaventura mexicanbeaches costachica guerrero mexico mexicopacificcoast

Playa Ventura CFranco

PlayaVentura MexicanBeaches PacificCoastMexico CostaChica Guerrero

Okay, the requisite WARNING (Are we friends again, State Department?): Be careful on the rocks at high tide. I met a Mexican couple climbing, and we sat on one outcrop and tried to communicate, shouting our encouragement to the sea – “mas grande, mas grande” – basking in the spray. Then one wave slammed me into a rock and nearly washed him out to sea, and we scrambled down, bloody and lucky.

The day before, when he dropped us at the hotel, the bus driver told us about a saint’s festival in town (Copala, maybe?). So he picked us up and deposited us at the celebration, promising to return in a few hours.

IMG_0303

IMG_0216

Copala Guerrero Afromexican CostaChica

Neither of us ever caught which saint we were celebrating, but past the skinny, hyper-made-up teenagers in flouncy dresses, the kids wrestling in trampolines and bouncy houses, the food vendors and the man with mylar balloons, there was a tiny chapel with people filing in and out, lighting candles.

playaventura guerrero mexico

IMG_0247

IMG_0256

But the real attraction was the cumbia band and the middle-aged women wiggling their hips, shimmying on tent-supporting poles, grinding against each other. They were super sexy, more fluid and free than the teenagers, and they’d all mastered a particular party trick — dancing with a full beer on their heads. They were friendly, enticing Sonia and I to dance, their husbands plying us with tiny bottles of beer.

IMG_0187

IMG_0370

IMG_0392

IMG_0454

By the time the sun set and our bus driver returned, we were buzzed from beer and adrenaline and didn’t want to leave. But he said we should go before the men got too drunk and started fighting.

IMG_0325

He was our ride. Reluctantly, we did.

We took our buzz to the beach and laid across the flat rocks in front of our hotel, looking for shooting stars sans light pollution. Stars, waves, fish, mango — basically, Playa Ventura is heaven.

Snapshots from April: Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas

So now that I’m taking lots of iPhone pics, I’m trying to do a monthly round-up of some of my faves but I keep getting behind. It’s spring and, despite being monsoon season in Arkansas, I’ve spent lots of time outside recently. I’ve also spent lots of time obsessing over things probably best left alone. And there’s been lots of procrastination in general. But well into May, here are some snapshots from April…
magicworkshopFullSizeRender 2rockreflectionkarlacrawfish1FullSizeRender_3FullSizeRender (4) FullSizeRender (3)oilcloudwaiters

The Thrill is Gone. Goodbye, BB King. Goodbye, Lucille.

The last time I saw BB King play his homecoming in Indianola, MS, 2008…

“BB’s cousins slopped BBQ on plates, we sucked at rancid bottles, sinking deep in overgrown grass. He called his grandkids onstage so they danced for 10 dollars, and BB could stand then, and play his guitar. My friend Amelia waved her round ass, her hippie skirt and brown hair tangled in the music of her own Delta legacy—a girl with porcelain skin and a coming out ball, but she shares BB’s hometown hubris. And afterwards we’d parked downtown, tossed the kid a twenty to watch our car, paid another twenty at the door, plus a fiver-bribe for being underage. BB tore it up the way he used to know, the aunties moving truer than Amelia could, and I knew, I am of this but mostly, I am a footnote.

Now Club Ebony’s an easy hundred and BB’s blood chugs tired, a yellow dog called Type 2, so he’s a figurehead in a folding chair, tappin’ knees and nursin’ juice, guitar mostly resting in his lap while the band carries the show.The kids onstage dance crunk and there’s more, so this time they get singles and fives, and BB says I can’t see nuthin’ but that boy’s stomach, so the fat kid steps back, and they play The Thrill is Gone, open and close, because it’s a radio hit, and it’s pretty much true. The whole world can see how BB’s softened with success. (He’s still doing it. That’s the thrill.)

Read the whole piece if you want.

Something to Look Forward to in Little Rock

The Arkansas Tealiban, or whatever those clowns in the Capitol are calling themselves these days, have depressed all the just citizens of the Natural State this week (it’s mislabled as the Religious Freedom Law, if you’re interested). So this morning, I decided to find something to celebrate about my city, and here it is – TV news reports that a 1,000 foot water-slide is coming to Little Rock on May 23. Not sure how that works without a 1,000 foot hill, but I’m eager to find out.

11080925_10153258180074113_6219113175050432561_n