Mexico Travel Adventures Continued

Gail Howard's Travel Adventures in Mexico in 1957

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Sigi said that malachite, an opaque green stone always found around copper mines, is used extensively in Mexican jewelry. It was hard to get because copper mines are operated by American concerns that don’t want to be bothered with the malachite. They offered to mine it and sell it by the ton, but at outrageously high prices. So, jewelers continued getting it the old fashioned way. They buy it from the Indians who steal it. I told Sigi I was interested in designing jewelry and had some ideas. He asked me to draw them right then. Afterward, he asked permission to make a piece of jewelry from a design I had drawn. Of course, I was very flattered.

I had fallen in love with Mexico and wanted to share the experience with my sister, Terry. I moved out of my tiny room on Victoria 87 when Terry flew in. When I left, Senora Serrano gave me a beautiful fan her husband had brought from Madrid before he died. She gave it to me with a hug and a kiss and told me she loved me like a daughter.

Terry and I roamed the entire country. We took in the archeological sites, museums, cathedrals, tourist attractions, and the local color. We spent luxury time at San Jose de Purua, a health spa, three hour’s drive from Mexico City. The spa, known for its ‘Champagne’ mineral waters, is said to cure everything from arthritis to gout. It had a most unusual nightclub. Originally a cave, the ceiling was rocks and stalactites with mica glistening on them. The glass dance floor was built over a natural waterfall that crashed to the rocks and swirling water some 20 to 30 feet below.

At a native restaurant in Mexico City, I ate tortillas filled with gusanos de maguay, which are crisply fried worms that live on the maguay plant. Terry resisted the idea of eating worms of any kind, specialty of the house or not. We ate tiny little fish, heads, tails and all at Lake Chapala; saw the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco at the University of Guadalajara; visited the hand blown glass factory in Tlaquepaque; bought pottery in Tonalateca and hand-loomed fabric in Ajijic; and picked up rough opals cheap in Queretaro.

In Guanajuato, we saw mummified bodies, mouths stretched open in horrific expressions, standing in rows along the walls of an underground chamber. They had escaped decomposition because of the dry air.

From Oaxaca we visited the ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec holy city and Mixtec burial ground. Of course, we had to stop and see the Tule Tree, believed to be the oldest living thing on earth – thousands of years old. This gigantic tree was 160 feet in circumference. On the way to Tehuantepec, we saw thatched huts for the very first time. We stopped the car so I could photograph each one along the way – until I saw that thatched huts were everywhere.

Tehuantepec had a matriarchal society. Fiercely independent, the women (Tehuanas ) were the business heads of the family and it was they who sold in the market place. The men supposedly worked in the fields, but I saw them just lazing about. Most of the Tehuanas were striking, tall, well-built with a queenly grace. Their proud erect carriage was the result of balancing bowls of foodstuffs on their heads.

In San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, we stayed with archeologist Frans Blom and his wife, Trudi Duby Blom. The other guests staying there were scientists studying some aspect of the Chiapas region. Frans and Trudi Blom had explored Palenque and uncharted territories and befriended the Lacandon Indians. Bonampak, an ancient Mayan archeological site, had been discovered only a decade before we arrived. On an excursion with the Bloms, we saw Indians who had rarely seen outsiders before. They were wiry, swarthy and small with dark stiff hair. The Bloms were dedicated to saving the Lacandon Rain Forest and preserving their culture, but on a trip into the hinterland, two American doctors, guests of the Bloms, passed out dollar bills to the unspoiled Indians.

In nearby mountain markets, tribes from as far away as 100 miles, walked with their wares (fruit or vegetables) on their backs. They seemed to thrive on their secret diet boost of chia seeds. The various tribes could be identified by their unique tribal dress.

During dinner hour, Trudi orchestrated the conversation. She caused sparks to fly among her chosen guests. I think all of us were aware that we were fortunate to be basking in her indomitable presence. After dinner, Trudi’s ritual was to sit on the floor in the living room doing her exercises. Never mind who was watching.


Terry and I returned to Mexico City and enrolled at the University of Mexico. We signed up for courses in archeology, anthropology, history, silver craft and Mexican dances, and moved into quarters near the campus. During a field trip to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan, the archeology professor explained to the class that torrential rains sometimes exposed fragments of ancient artifacts that one could still find today. After hearing that, I kept a sharp look out. It wasn’t long before my efforts were rewarded. I spied an ancient treasure on the ground, a piece of jade mosaic. I scooped it up and rushed to the professor with my awesome find.

The entire class gathered around, curious to know what I had found. As he studied it carefully, the suspense was killing me. “Yes. Yes. Tell me! What is it?” I asked breathlessly. The professor cleared his throat and announced for all to hear: “What we have here is a very fine specimen of ... a crushed piece of mint Chicklets gum.”

In silver craft, I made my own treasure, a silver bracelet, which I partially pounded out myself. The finishing touches were done with the help of a handsome fellow student, Sergio Aragones. Silver craft class was informal, so students could chat and have fun. Sergio would finish his own work fast, help me with mine, and spend the remaining time drawing cartoons – which I thought were clever and professional. Eventually, Sergio Aragones became a famous cartoonist, both in Mexico and in the USA, where his cartoons were published in nearly every issue of Mad magazine since 1963.

At the end of the semester, the Mexican dance class put on a performance of regional dances, for which I danced the Jarabe Tlaxcalteca. I received a bouquet of flowers that was almost as tall as I was. That evening I was serenaded by a group of musicians, singing my favorite Mexican songs, including Las Mananitas. It was my 21st birthday.

On July 28, 1957, I was awakened from a sound sleep with a feeling that I was being rocked in an enormous cradle. Then I heard loud crashing noises. Suddenly, my eyes were wide open.

“Terry, are you awake?”

“Yes. What do you think we should do?”

“Wouldn’t we be safer standing in the doorway?”

“I guess so. You go first.”

Neither of us left our beds. We both went right back to sleep. The next morning we saw unbelievable devastation caused by an earthquake 7.0 on the Mercali (Richter) scale. The cement block wall of a two-story building next door to our house was gutted. Many of the blocks had crashed through the dining room window. Our room was on the other side of the house, where a cement block retaining wall had fallen away from our sleeping heads, rather than toward us, in which case we probably would have been killed. Our heads were just inches from the wall that abutted the driveway.

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