Chapter Four – El Catrin

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El Catrin: Don Ferruco en la alameda su bastón quería tirar.

The Dandy: Don Ferruco in the Alameda, he wanted to toss away his cane, polish his steps.

Rose returned to the school, and took two hours of one-on-one Spanish lessons. The first was with Elda, a diminutive woman who was supposed to teach her grammar. She worked with Rose briefly on the present tense, then plunged into the relationship between the preterit and the past tenses. Rose enjoyed the lesson, but despaired of ever telling the two apart. In addition, she had once toyed with the idea of teaching abroad. If she had to work one-on-one with each student, she was sure that she would be exhausted by the end of the day.

Her next class was with Sr. Garcia on the sunny rooftop patio. They sat at an umbrella-topped table and he led her through the basics of reading a text. He was a very elegant gentleman, seeming more Spaniard than Mexican. Rose knew from experience that there was a cultural line drawn between the Mexicans who believed themselves descended from the French and Spanish settlers and those that came from mixed or pure indigenous blood. Sr. Garcia spoke correctly, dressed sharply – even for such a casual school – and looked like a college professor. He also gave her homework – something she had not expected. He asked her to write a paragraph or two in Spanish.

Rose left the Instituto Baden-Powell, and headed carefully for her home stay. With the help of her map, she was able to bypass the square and find the main road that would lead her to her next crossroads. She passed several doorway shops, including one that sold printing supplies. She passed under an apartment that had a large blue macaw sunning itself on the balcony. Confined to its cage, it shrieked and squawked periodically. The weather in Morelia was quite mild, even in mid-afternoon, and Rose was enjoying her walk.

At a corner, she came upon a vacated discotheque, and turned right around a small park. Along the park was a series of murals depicting themes of science and medicine. She even saw a group of boys (young men?) working on a mural. She deduced that it was sponsored by the nursing school for the University of Morelia and the Cruz Roja (Red Cross). She wondered if the murals changed as the students moved on. From the corner on the other side of the square, she took a left, and headed for the bosque, or city park.

The bosque was a large wooded area (bosque meaning “woods” in Spanish), and Rose could see that it was modeled after a Spanish, or European park design. There were four large broad walkways that converged on a central axis, with two more narrow walkways running from corner to corner. At the apex of the square was a statue of a woman. In the center of the park was a small amusement area, with tame children’s rides and a miniature train. There was also an area built up with hills of added dirt and with wooden ramps that was frequented by boys on bicycles and skateboards. It differed from a French garden in that the walkways were more rugged, and the trees not as pristine as those in Europe. All of the trees were painted from the root to halfway up the trunk with whitewash, like pecan trees in Louisiana were painted. She thought that she recalled that being an insect deterrent. Along the walkways were white cement benches, where couples sat and homeless men slept.

As Rose approached the last commercial street that led to Feli’s house, she took note of businesses that she wanted to visit. She resisted the urge to buy another Diet Coke to drink with lunch, knowing that this would seem too gringa for mere words. She passed by an ice cream shop called La Michoacana, decorated with a painting of a lovely Colonial woman. Paletas, or ice cream on a stick, were very popular in Mexico. These were hidden by a shaded overhang from the direct sunlight and stacked in pyramids with waxed paper between them. Rose toyed with the idea of buying one, but she was almost home and lunch was waiting. She knew that she was hungry, too, even though she had had breakfast – something she rarely indulged in at home.

When she got to the house, Feli was out in her front yard, washing down her sidewalk. Her house was very neat, surrounded by a high adobe wall with a security gate, and with a covered walkway leading to the front door. It reminded Rosa of a house from the sixties. It reminded her of her great-aunt’s house, full of old furniture. Unlike her great-aunt’s house, it was pristinely clean. She had the impression that Feli spent all of her free time from dawn until dusk scrubbing down the inside and outside of the house.

The meal was sumptuous. Rose knew that lunch was the biggest meal of the day, and was glad that she had saved room for it. There were tacos, and sopa azteca, a fabulous dark soup flavored with dried chiles and chicken. Condiments such as avocado slices, fried tortilla strips, and white crumbly cheese were added before eating. Feli urged the avocado slices on her grandson first, and then on Rose. She evidently did not like to waste food. Eduardo, her grandson, was obviously used to this, and refused politely, and did not budge. That left the rest to Rose, who could not refuse just yet. For dessert, there was a light pudding.

After lunch, Rose returned to her room and took a long nap. She got up and decided to walk back toward the center of town – mainly as an excuse to check her e-mail. When she got there, fewer students were crowded around the computers, so she had more time to read her e-mails. There was a long communiqué from William, telling her what he had been up to since she left. Her mother sent a letter full of questions about the journey over, and Rose decided to fill her in on the details later, since she was not coming for a month.

While the journey over had not been unduly taxing on Rose, it had been confusing at times. After her plane landed, she endured a long line and wait to get through customs, and then braced herself for an assault on the taxi fleet outside. She was very cautious, because she had heard all of the stories of taxicab abductions – of tourists picked up by one of the numerous Volkswagen Beetles painted white and green and forced to withdraw money from an ATM, then dropped off in a remote place – or even assaulted. She had information from the school on what to do about taxis, and was determined not to be taken advantage of.

As she exited the airport, she was immediately greeted by a man with an official-looking badge around his neck. He said, “Taxi?” and proceeded to take charge of her. Hold on Pancho, Rose thought to herself, and balked. He looked official, but when she said that she needed to go to the Observatorio Bus Station, and asked how much it would cost, he pointed at a mini-van and said, “Four hundred pesos.” That was roughly forty dollars, so Rose replied, “A mini-van, for just me?” and pulled out the literature from the language school. She indicated to the man that a taxi-ride for that distance should cost no more than twenty pesos, and he looked at her, then summoned a smaller taxi (not a VW Bug) and took her two hundred pesos.

Rose tried in vain to compare the taxi driver’s identification badge to the photo registration on the dashboard, but gave it up. Still fearing the worst, she also tried to take note of landmarks and highway exit signs as they alternately careened through the city and came to sudden halts when they were unavoidable. By unavoidable, that meant that there was a wall of cars preventing any forward advancement. If there was any kind of opening, her taxi driver took advantage with the expertise of a jockey finding a hole in the herd of horses ahead of him. They reached Observatorio Bus Station without any mishaps, and she got out of the taxi, waiting for the driver to fetch her bags from the trunk.

As she approached the station, noticed her first dog of the streets. It was a large German Shepherd mix, lying on its side against the wall of the station. It did not move. Rose was sure that it was dead, and she did not want to go over and find out for sure. She entered the station, quieted by the thought. As she entered, she was faced with a long bank of bus company ticket counters. Two buslines in particular had been recommended, so she looked for the next bus going directly to Morelia, and purchased a first class ticket, which was only $12.00. She approached an equally long bank of food stands and convenience shops and purchased a burrito and a Diet Coke to eat while she was waiting for the bus. She headed for the special waiting area and sat down, after checking her largest bag.

In Mexico, the bus is the preferred mode of transportation for tourists (except for the adventurous who decide to drive their own or a rented car). Trains are less desirable – slow and over crowded and prone to thieves. The bus stations in Mexico City are outfitted like vintage airports, with time tables, waiting areas, and luggage check in areas. As Rose boarded the bus, a uniformed “stewardess” offered her a packaged snack or sandwich and a cold drink to take on the bus. There was a toilet on the bus, and reclining seats and televisions. On the televisions, short programs and movies were shown.

Rose found the trip very pleasant. There was a re-run of an American movie that she had already seen, so she was able to follow the story, even with her limited Spanish. She tried looking out of the window, and noted the monotony of the landscape as they went through the outskirts of the city. Everywhere there was construction, buildings and houses of cinderblocks in various stages of formation. There were also ugly portions of cleared land and Rose was appalled to see a mountain that had been chopped away at from both sides, so that all that remained was a tall column of bare dirt with grass on top of it.

When she reached the Morelia bus station, she noted that it wasn’t as grand as those in Mexico City, and she had to walk up a long stepped walkway to reach the main building. Once outside of the building, she flagged down a taxi, gave him the address for her host family, and paid the equivalent of $2.50 to get there. It was still daylight outside, and she got her first glimpse of the cathedral and plaza.

She wrote all of this to her mother, with the promise to check out a hotel for her and to make reservations as soon as possible. She then logged off of her computer, and made her way back to Feli’s house, where a snack awaited her. On her first night, there had been a more substantial meal, and Rose knew that the regular evening meal would be smaller, but this was ridiculous. She made a mental note to supplement this meal outside of the home if necessary.

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