I came to Pátzcuaro by way of a commune in Eureka, north of San Francisco, where all they ever served at meals was organic brown rice, mushrooms, and peanut butter. After a couple of weeks of that, and absolutely no sex, my enthusiasm for collective living and agriculture waned. Once I read about Pátzcuaro and its butterfly fishermen in a travel magazine, I knew it was time to roll up my sleeping bag and head south of the border.
Somewhere stuck alongside the road, I met Darrell Free. I’m not sure he knew, or cared, where he was going. But when I told him my name, he seemed to take that as a sign or omen.
“Mike Love?” he said. “Like the Beach Boy? Far out, man. So we have Free and Love. All we need now is peace.”
He joined me on the spot.
The journey to Pátzcuaro, located in the mountains a couple of hours west of Mexico City, proved long and arduous. Part of the way, we rode in a bus packed with heavily sweating Mexicans who seemed to take suffering for hours in the aisles for granted. Our bus was half an hour behind schedule coming into Quiroga, an even smaller town where the station was little more than a roof and some benches, but we didn’t wait there long because the next bus was half an hour early. That’s Mexico.
We arrived in Pátzcuaro in the rain.
Rosa’s Cantina was not unlike the one in that old Marty Robbins song, or so I liked to think, being somewhat of a romantic. But with no sign of Rosa or other comely señoritas, we turned to philosophy for consolation.
“So what is the meaning of life, Darrell?”
“Good question.” He was drinking a Dos XXs from the bottle. “What makes me qualified to answer it?”
“You’re a seeker.” And you have a bushy beard like an Old Testament prophet. And you’re always making weird pronouncements.
“I’m just a wanderer,” he said. “And so are you, Mike. That doesn’t mean we have any particular insight.”
“Maybe not, but the question remains.”
“And so it shall, unto the end of time.”
Could we find the answer in Pátzcuaro?
At first glance, the little native tourist town didn’t seem promising. Old rundown adobe houses with tiled roofs sleepy ran along cobblestone streets down to the lake. The main plaza, surrounded by shade trees and larger Colonial-era structures, was damp and dark, and probably would have been even on a sunny day, if they had sunny days.
So was this cantina. Originally open-air, now it was topped with corrugated roofing that spoiled the patio effect but kept out the rain. Only a few tables were occupied, mostly by Mexican men wearing T-shirts. Ours was covered with two cloths, the upper one cater-corner and dirty.
“You’re saying the meaning of life is an unanswerable question?” I said, waiting for the chicken enchiladas we’d ordered.
“I’m saying you’re asking the wrong question,” Darrell said.
“Don’t give me that philosophy of language babble.”
“Look around. What do you see?”
“Food—I see food.”
I was really hungry. We’d last eaten this morning, and then only a flaky pastry and hot chocolate.
“Look closer,” Darrell said, “and you’ll see a poor primitive world trying to become a rich entrepreneurial one. You’ll see them failing. You’ll see that the harder they try, the more lost they become.”
“All that from one cantina?”
“You suggested this place,” Darrell said. “And aren’t you the one seeking the meaning of life?”
“True, and a weighty task it is, one requiring copious quantities of weed and tequila.”
But I remembered the decayed atmosphere in other Mexican towns we’d passed through, how so many buildings had looked abandoned. Not fallen into ruins exactly, but left half-finished. Pátzcuaro’s similarity to them was disheartening.
The enchiladas came with chicken skin inside and covered with cheesy white goop. After eating every bite, we went back through the rain to the first hotel we saw, a two-story adobe structure built around a small courtyard. Noting the proprietor’s fancy ski sweater and hat festooned with fishing hooks, I whispered, “Must be one of those entrepreneurial-minded Mexicans you were talking about.”
He took us upstairs to a room that was decidedly not advanced in any way, unless you counted mildew. A forty-watt bulb dangled from a cracked ceiling. Furnishings included a sunken double bed with a bare stained mattress. When we told him it wouldn’t do, he said he owned another hotel. So we followed him across rain-slick cobblestones reflecting lurid Christmas lights strung up around the market place, either three months early or nine months late. We were obviously in a hurry because of the rain, but that didn’t stop merchants huddled under the dirty eaves from uncovering their merchandise and trying to sell us carved wooden statues, clay pots, baskets, and other items made of woven straw and reeds.
“Now I get it. The meaning of life is sales.”
“Shut up, Mike.”
The second room wasn’t much better than the first, but to guys used to sleeping under the stars and overpasses acceptable. The twin bedspreads matched the big orange and yellow chrysanthemum print on the draperies.
“We’re probably lucky to find a room on a rainy night like this,” Darrell said, trying to make the best of the situation.
“At least the walls have been painted.”
Plunged into darkness when the power suddenly went out, a not uncommon occurrence, we left and walked the gloomy streets, passing courtyards and balconies filled with flowering geraniums, bougainvilleas, tiger lilies, and hydrangeas. A Catholic church seemed much grander than its grubby surroundings, as usual in Mexico. The men, I noticed, took off their hats as they entered, but señoras kept on their black head scarves. Darrell wanted to go in, where dozens of candles glinted on statues and gold crosses and paintings of angels. The flat ceiling was decorated to look like a vault. We didn’t stay long; Communion was in progress.
On the way back to our room, we walked through a park. A gray-haired old man with a big wooden yolk on his shoulders like an ox was carrying two buckets. An aged woman, perhaps his wife, trod behind him, also carrying buckets.
“Wow, those poor old souls are working so hard, so late at night,” I said.
“What does that tell you about the meaning of life, tourist?”
“What does it tell you, Darrell?” He could be irritating sometimes.
“Karma, reincarnation, and the endless cycle of rebirth come to mind.”
“Always have to have the last word, don’t you?”
In the morning as I opened the tall shutters, a bus wheezed by, trailing the smell of diesel fuel, which mingled with cooking scents and excrement—an odor that will forever take me back to Mexico. The women of the town, their bodies hidden under skirts and blouses and aprons and shawls, carried plaid baskets. They were going to market—or coming back. One woman’s shawl contained a baby in the front folds, so Mom could use her arms while still keeping baby close. Children were out running around.
Vendors were selling fruits, sandwiches, tacos. I watched a man take half a dozen soft-shell turtle eggs from his cart and tear them apart, letting the yolks ooze into a tall glass. After he added what might’ve been onions and chili sauce to the concoction, a slight man wearing short white pants and a white shirt gulped it down. Two burros loaded with straw appeared, led by an elderly man with a blanket-like striped serape over his shoulders. Another man wearing a big straw hat headed for a restaurant on the far side of the plaza balancing a tall stack of tortillas in his bare hand.
When Darrell woke up, I told him about all that I’d seen.
“Is the egg man still out there?” he yawned. “I’m hungry.”
We tracked down some pastry and cocoa on the other side of the square and caught a cab to the docks. For some time, I’d been convinced that modern society was doomed. Getting out of the mainstream seemed like the thing to do. The question was how? I hoped that visiting a place where people lived simply might teach me something valuable, or at least be a high.
Janitzio Island was said to be such a place.
We bought tickets for a miserable few pesos and boarded a big pontoon boat that was riding alarmingly low in the water. When there were sixty or seventy of us aboard, the captain, an enormous fat man, hit the throttle and we set out across the lake. The kelp-choked shallows were muddy, but further out the water turned green, then blue. Contrary to our expectations about the weather, it was a beautiful morning—right up until it began to rain.
“Not again,” I said.
“That’s what Janitzio means. Where it rains.”
Then the engine died.
As we waited for another boat to bring us some gas, I stared at the distant cone of rock soaring above the island. It was magnificent, framed by sky and lake against a jagged range of mountains. It took about fifteen minutes before we got underway again.
Near the island, the rain stopped just as the famous butterfly fishermen, dressed in embroidered shirts and pants with sashes, paddled out to perform for us. As they dipped their nets into the lake, they resembled butterflies sitting lightly on the water. They were Tarrascan Indians, according to what I’d read, and this was their island. Only they could live here and no changes in its primitive character were permitted. That’s what appealed to me the most about the place: nobody here wanted to be anything other than what he was.
At the dock, our captain tied a rope tied around his immense girth to keep us from floating away. Everyone on the boat, mostly Mexican tourists by the look of them, tried to get off at once. When Darrell and I finally disembarked, four little island girls started singing to us. They knew their business; we didn’t get away until we gave them coins.
From here on, there was only one way to go: up.
The main footpath wound toward the monument at the island’s highest point. We followed it past mud brick houses built into the hillside. They were all missing one wall, the one that should’ve been facing the path, the better for residents to ply their wares. Still the selling, but life was simpler here. No chimneys, so cooking smoke filtered through the roof, where laundry was laid out to dry. More laundry on fences and bushes.
As I stumbled along, an old Indian woman tried to sell me a piece of folk handicraft made by winding yarn in a diamond shape around two crossed sticks.
“You didn’t want the little god’s eyes?” Darrell said.
“How do you know that’s what they’re called?”
“Maybe she’s a shaman,” he said. “What if she was just trying to offer you an aid to reach the spirit world?”
On our way to the top, we passed a primitive outdoor café, where women were cooking tortillas and fish over a charcoal fire. The aroma was heavenly, but we didn’t stop. At the peak stood a huge monument to some revolutionary hero. No doubt the view would’ve been fabulous. But there was an admission charge, so we skipped it. On our way back down, we encountered the old woman with the little god’s eyes again. This time, she was chasing a pig.
“What about that pig, Darrell? Is it another aid to reaching the spirit world?”
“Sometimes, Mike, a pig is just a pig.”
At the good-smelling café, we stopped for a Coke and watched three generations of island women doing their ritualistic work: Mom frying tiny white fish in a little skillet, Grandma making tortillas, Granddaughter washing the dishes in buckets filled with soapy leaves. The women did not sit. They stooped, resting on their haunches, and stayed in that position like yogis.
“Fish looks good. We should buy some,” Darrell said.
“I don’t like fish, and I’m afraid of getting sick.”
He placed an order.
I watched Grandma, who at first wouldn’t look at me. But then all at once she did. I wondered why. This was odd behavior down here. What followed was even odder. She picked up a handful of what I assumed was raw corn flour dough and offered it to me. When I didn’t react, she just kept holding it out. Finally, strangely compelled, I knelt beside her on the packed earth.
When Grandma laid her tortilla on a big flat stone, I did, too. When she pinched off a little section and rolled it into a ball and patted it out, so did I. When she wet her hands and kept flattening the tortilla even more, I did the same. And when she flipped hers over on a big round metal griddle, I imitated her exactly. Not until she’d dropped her tortilla into a little basket did we diverge.
I ate mine. Three white fish, too.
Darrell was standing off to the side, smiling. He nodded at the lake. Another boat full of tourists was coming.
“You’re not one of them anymore.”
The butterfly fishermen paddled out to meet the boat. When they dipped their nets into the lake, they resembled butterflies sitting lightly on the water.
Rick Neumayer’s short story “Robin’s Installation” will appear in Bartleby Snopes in March. He also has published short fiction in other journals, such as The Louisville Review and New Southerner, and has had three Broadway-style original musicals produced at RiverStage in Jeffersonville, Indiana.