Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Miracle of the Monarchs

We returned last night from our expedition to Michoacan to visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary. The weather was splendid, and the warm sun warmed the hundreds of thousands of butterflies to leave their tree branches where they spend the night and colder days. As we approached the 9000 foot sanctuary on horseback, the Monarchs became thicker and thicker in the air, filling the sky and alighting on branches, even sometimes on us. It was a spectacle like no other. Here are photos which show the monarchs clinging to the trees and filling the sky:

The story of the monarch migration is an astounding story, and one of nature's unexplained miracles. It had been known for years that Monarch butterflies from the Northeastern US and Canada migrated south for the winter. They had been tagged and traced as far as Texas, but their final destination had never been discovered. Finally in 1975, with help from Mexican loggers who had witnessed the migration, scientists found the unique 60 square mile area in the mountains of the State of Michoacan, Mexico, where the Monarchs make their winter home. Since that time, people from all over the world have been making pilgrimages to Mexico to see the Monarchs in Michoacan. Today, there are six separate sanctuaries where the butterflies are protected. Some of these sanctuaries are at risk because of illegal logging in the area, which is causing erosion and damaging the natural habitat.
The story of how the Monarchs get to Mexico is even more remarkable. The generation of Monarchs which makes the journey south are born in September throughout the Northeastern US and Canada. They begin their journey south in September and arrive in Central Mexico by late October or early November. These fragile insects, weighing about a half a gram, fly alone or with just a few others, sometimes crossing the Great Lakes, and braving wind and rain, flying between 50 and 150 kilometers a day, apparently. No one can explain how they all know where to go, high in the mountains of a small area in Mexico, where the temperature and humidity are perfect for their winter survival. They go into a form of hibernation, clinging to the trees, as their body temperature drops and they conserve fat for the spring. Beginning in February and March, the sun warms and they become more active, gathering nectar and moisture during the day, returning to their tree protection at night. In mid March, they mate, and begin their long flight north. This generation, which has survived the trip down to Mexico and has wintered over, lay their eggs in Texas or Arkansa, and die around May 15. Subsequent generations only live for four or five weeks, so it takes as many as four generations to make it back to the Northeast and Canada by August. Then, in September, the generation which will live for eight months and migrate south, is born again.

No one can explain how the Monarchs know where to go. After all, they were born in Canada, Maine, Pennsylvania or some other northeast area, and have never been to Mexico. But they know how to get there, and do every year, despite incredible odds. This map reproduced from Google Images shows the Monarch migration pattern. Notice that most of the western Monarchs winter over in California.

As far as our trip went, we stayed at a beautiful lodge in Zitacauaro, Michoacan, which does a lot of business this time of year when the Monarch sanctuaries are active. We met interesting people from Switzerland, Australia, Montana, and Wisconsin who had traveled to Mexico to see this phenomenon. The owners of the lodge, a couple from Yugoslavia and France, hired a guide to take us to an unspoiled, non-touristed sanctuary by horseback. Since I had not ridden a horse for 45 years, I was a bit leery of this, as was Pixie. But these horses were experienced with walking up mountain trails. We were able to stop for a picnic lunch in a sunny clearing, as hundreds of monarchs flitted around us. Once we got to the heart of the sanctuary, we could see literally hundreds of thousands of the butterflies clinging to trees and flying. The sound of thousands of butterfly wings flapping is similar to that of a light steady rain. We had to be silent and stay behind the roped off area. We stayed there for over an hour, just marveling at the spectacle. Here are more photos:

Here are some photos of the lodge where we stayed, and Pixie and I with Jeanne and Paul at breakfast.

And so,we have returned from our little adventure, perhaps a bit sore from riding horseback but happy to have seen this miracle of nature. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe we are all on our own spiritual journey, and we often take our spiritual meaning from nature itself, as did the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. This was a spiritual experience, unexplainable by our science. How these creatures manage manage so predictably to winter in this small area of central Mexico is a mystery, but one which we have been fortunate enough to share with them for a brief moment.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thoughts on Mexican Geography

Above are three recent photos taken at the Wednesday market, or
tianguis (tee-AN-gis) in Ajijic. First is a photo of some of the colorful pottery available which is made by local indigenous people. It is intended to be decorative and may contain lead which might make it unsuitable for holding hot foods. On the left, Mauricio is the man from whom we like to buy flowers each week. He is studying at the University of Guadalajara to become an English teacher. He likes to practice his English with us. Here he is posing with his daughter who likes to help him at the flower market stand. On the right is an interesting offering at the market. Soaps and cleaners are sold in bulk. You can buy laundry detergent, dish soap, fabric softener, floor cleaner, shampoo, etc. They will put it in a plastic bag for you, or you can bring your own container, 'green" and economical way to distribute these items.

A friend of ours, Rick Rhoda (in December I posted a photo of Rick in his garden when we attended a Christmas Tree Trimming party at his house) and Tony Burton have written an interesting and long overdue book covering the geography of Mexico. The 2010 book, entitled
Geo-Mexico, pictured above, is an encyclopedic volume covering everything from geology, climate, water resources, economy, culture, ethnic diversity, religion, politics, and other topics which give a comprehensive picture of modern Mexico. According to Rick, who has his doctorate in geography, there is no similar book about Mexico in print. Since purchasing a copy of the book about a month ago, I have been enthralled with it, and I thought I might, over time, share some of the material on the blog. For those readers of the blog who might be interested in more information about the book, or who may want to purchase a copy, here is a link to the book's website:

Did you know that Tiajuana, Mexico is closer to Juneau, Alaska than it is to Cancun, Mexico? That demonstrates vividly how large Mexico is from east to west!

Geographically, Mexico might be divided into several regions: Baja California, the norther desert area, the central highlands, and the tropical southern areas. This is an oversimplification, of course, but that's the basic scheme. The northern desert area near the US border and reaching about 600 miles south is the very arid region which most people think of when they remember Hollywood depictions of Mexico. There is little vegetation aside from cactus and other desert plants, and, as you might imagine, it is very thinly populated. Many of the rural people who do live here are desperately poor, subsisting on very little. It is also the home to major industrial cities including Monterrey, Juarez, Reynosa, and Matamoros. Many of the jobs which have been exported to Mexico are in these areas. The ethnic mix in this area is Euro-Mestizo, or lighter skinned people, and the area has a higher GDP than the south.

The Baja California area is obviously very coastal and has a hot, Mediterranean-type climate, with most of its rainfall coming in the winter, unlike the rest of Mexico. It relies heavily on tourism and caters to the may people who come there from California and other western states.

The central highlands, which includes Guadalajara east to Mexico City, is where we live. The altitude in generally above 5000 feet, so the temperature is moderate all year. 90% of the rain falls between the months of June through October, so the winters are very dry and pleasant. It is a large agricultural area with rich volcanic soil. This are is considered the cultural center of Mexico and is the home of such Mexican cultural icons as mariachi music, tequila manufacturing, charro horse shows, and much native pottery and other crafts.

The south is much poorer, has a very high indigenous population, and has the most rain in its tropical areas. The south includes the areas of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Tabasco. It rains here all year, and flooding can be a problem. It is also an area rich in Mexican culture, but little manufacturing.

Surprisingly, the average rainfall in Mexico as a whole is about 30 inches a year, well above either the US or Canada. The problem is that the rain is unevenly distributed, with the north getting very little and the south often facing floods. The aquifers in some areas, particularly around Mexico City, are being over-used, requiring deeper drilling every year. Mexico is facing a severe water problem which is expected to get worse over time. The government is working on solutions, but they are very difficult.

I will discuss other interesting aspects covered in
Geo-Mexico in future posts.

On another note, Pixie and I visited Tonala last week and picked up a couple of items for our house. As you can see below, we bought some large vases which are very popular here. People put dried flowers and other colored plant products in them. They are inexpensive and give your home a decidedly Mexican touch. We also picked up a table and chair set made of wrought aluminum. These frilly sets are also inexpensive and very popular here. Pixie, for some reason, was not happy with our white plastic set which came with the house, so we replaced it with this set.

And, of course there's Chuy. Everybody seems interested in seeing update photos of our new puppy. He is, incidentally, doing very well with learning the rules of the house, like no chewing on our fingers and doing his "business" outdoors. He always goes outside for his bathroom activities, as long as we leave the door open for him. The only thing he has not yet learned is to come to us to ask to go outside. But, at only three months, not bad, huh? Here are two photos taken today. He had his first haircut this week.

Well, on Sunday we are headed to Michoacan with our friends Paul and Jeanne to stay at a londge near a private Monarch butterfly sanctuary. On Monday we will ride up the mountain on horseback to see the thousands of Monarchs who make this area of Mexico their winter home. This time, we expect the weather to cooperate, so I should have some interesting photos to post. Our friends Doug and Kathy are coming to visit us from New Gloucester , Maine next weekend, as well. So I should have lots to report in my next posting.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Unusual Winter Rain Postpones Butterfly Excursion

This is a very friendly bulldog we saw a couple of weeks ago on out trip to Tlaquepaque. His face was definitely worth a photo.

This past week we were scheduled to drive to the Michoacan town of Zitcacuaro, east of Morelia to visit a Monarch butterfly sanctuary, but the weather failed to cooperate. Of course, everyone knows that this is the dry season in central Mexico, so every day is supposed to be bright and sunny. However, not this year. Last week we had torrential downpours from the el nino in the Pacific Ocean. Since we were going to get to the butterfly sanctuary by horseback, riding up a muddy mountain in the pouring rain did not seem like a good idea. As a matter of fact, 13 people were reportedly killed in this area of Michoacan by flooding and mudslides as a result of the rain. Fortunately for us, we were able to postpone our trip until February 21 without a penalty, so I hope to be able to provide photos and impressions of the Monarch sanctuary in a couple of weeks.

Our friends Curt and Judy returned to Maine last week. We were able to travel into Guadalajara before they left to see a performance of the Jalisco Symphony Orchestra at the renowned 19th century theater, Teatro Degollado, in Guadalajara. We first ate supper at a restaurant in the historic central district, Fonda de la San Miguel, which used to be a monastery. The food and atmosphere were wonderful. Then we walked to the theater. This building, dedicated in the 1860's, is modeled after the La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy, so it's quite a treat just to see a performance there. We found seats on the first balcony for 140 pesos (about $11). We heard two Mexican pieces, one a world premier, and after intermission, Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony. Here are some photos of the evening:

Another big event this past week or so was the book signing even held at the Casa del Sol B&B in Ajijic. I had planned this event to roll out my new book,
Agave Blood. I joined up with an interesting group of lakeside women who had written an anthology several years ago, called Agave Marias. Thus, we called our event, "Two Agaves, No Tequila!" We had a good crowd on hand for the readings and the signings. I sold 18 books, which put me well over the break-even point in book sales. Most of all, however, it was a lot of fun for everyone.

One more photo for this post. Chuy has formed a special relationship with Horacio, our gardener. Whenever Horacio comes to work, Chuy likes to follow him and sit and watch as he digs in the dirt and generally does things which bring him down to Chuy's level. Here they are together:

You probably heard or read about the terrible massacre of students last week in the border city of Juarez. This is another example of the terrible drug-related violence that has plagued Mexico since President Calderon declared war on the Narco gangs. This publicity causes many to fear even coming into Mexico. Here's an article from the AP which address the issue of Mexican violence in a more balanced fashion:

Despite drug war, Mexico less deadly than it was a decade ago

Mexico City's homicide rate today is about on par with Los Angeles and is less than a third of that for Washington, D.C.


The Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — Decapitated bodies dumped on the streets, drug-war shootings and regular attacks on police have obscured a significant fact: A falling homicide rate means people in Mexico are less likely to die violently now than they were more than a decade ago.

It also means tourists as well as locals may be safer than many believe.

Mexico City's homicide rate today is about on par with Los Angeles and is less than a third of that for Washington, D.C.

Yet many Americans are leery of visiting Mexico at all. Drug violence and the swine-flu outbreak contributed to a 12.5 percent decline in air travel to Mexico by U.S. citizens in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, a blow to Mexico's third-largest source of foreign income.

"What we hear is, 'Oh the drug war! The dead people on the streets, and the policeman losing his head,' " said Tobias Schluter, 34, a civil engineer from Berlin having a beer in Mexico City. "But we don't see it. We haven't heard a gunshot or anything."

Mexico's homicide rate has fallen steadily from a high in 1997 of 17 per 100,000 people to 14 per 100,000 in 2009, a year marked by an unprecedented spate of drug slayings concentrated in a few states and cities, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. The national rate hit a low of 10 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to government figures compiled by the independent Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies.

Mexico City's rate was about 9 per 100,000 in 2008, while Washington, D.C., was more than 30 that year. Chihuahua, home to Ciudad Juárez, had a horrifying homicide rate of 173 per 100,000 in the city of 1.3 million, or more than 2,500 murders last year.

"In terms of security, we are like those women who aren't overweight but when they look in the mirror, they think they're fat," said Luis de la Barreda, director of the Citizens' Institute. "We are an unsafe country, but we think we are much more unsafe that we really are."

Of course, drug violence has turned some places in Mexico, including the U.S. border region and some parts of the Pacific Coast, into near-war zones since President Felipe Calderón intensified the war against cartels with a massive troop deployment in 2006. That has made Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, among the most dangerous cities in the world.

Experts say while drug violence is up, land disputes have eased. Many farmers have migrated to the cities or abroad, and the government has pushed to resolve the disputes.

De la Barreda attributes the downward trend to a general improvement in Mexico's quality of life. More Mexicans have joined the ranks of the middle class in the past two decades, while education levels and life expectancy also have risen.

Critics of Calderon's drug war say his assault on cartels is giving Mexico a reputation as a violent country but doing little to stop the drug gangs' work.

"It's a bad international image that affects foreign tourism and foreign investment," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a sociologist at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University.

Drug violence has encroached on the resort towns of Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.

The U.S. State Department travel alert says dozens of U.S. citizens living in Mexico have been kidnapped over the years, and warns Americans against traveling to the states of Chihuahua and Michoacan.