Feasting in the university library, Morelia
Enchiladas in green tomatillo sauce with just the right amount of heat. Or tacos al pastor on tortillas so fresh you can almost see the handprints in the masa harina, perhaps from the cafe that serves hot chocolate with an exquisite blend of cardamom and cinnamon beneath the blossoming bougainvillea tree. After a couple hours exploring the Clavijero Museum in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, I was ready for lunch.
“The university library is right next door, should we check that out real quick before we eat?”
Sure, why not? It’s a library, maybe cool, but won’t take long. Luckily my mouth wasn’t still watering over lunch when we ducked through the low door of the library, or I would have drooled when my jaw dropped open.
The barrel vaulted ceiling of a 17th century Jesuit temple stretched above a space lit golden though the hexagon windows whose religious stained glass had been replaced with secular clarity. But, while beautiful, a religious building rarely has the power to stun me to awe anymore (#TourGuidePrivilege). More remarkable were the walls of solid books three stories high, reached by stairwells and balconies whose wooden banisters had been polished dark by centuries of reverent hands.
My wonder only increased when we approached the stacks and found overlapping rows of books whose age itself told a story. The leather binding of some was carefully burnished while others flaked apart after generations of avid reading, and everywhere the styles and aesthetics of a bygone era. Volumes in Spanish, French, English, and Portuguese stood at attention alongside tomes in Latin and Greek, the compiled scholarship of ages. The Voyages of Captain Cook looked like the captain might have penned them himself, and I could imagine Ibn Sina consulting this copy of Physiologie Generale (since daydreams need not heed linguistic boundaries). These were works worthy of the museum, and I didn’t even know yet that they have incunabula dating back to the 1400’s. (I also had not the foggiest idea “incunabula” is the word for a document printed before 1501.)
The building and its epic collection deserve more extensive description, but there was something else in that cool space filled with the joyous smell of old books that made it even more striking. People.
Traveling often carries a murky awareness in its shadow, as you-the-visitor visit the historic city center, the fancy museum, or the ticketed fortress above town, always aware that the locals inhabit a completely different version of the place. If someone flew to your town, saw that one main postcard sight, and left, how would you feel at hearing them say they “did” your home?
The hard truth is that getting a local’s sense of a place takes time that most of us just don’t have, and we want to see the remarkable sights, the unusual edifices, the historic remains of yestercentury. You try to span both, but accept that most of the places you photograph are more for tourists than locals anymore.
This was different. The university library in Morelia is public, anyone can walk in and read a book, and several people had done just that. (All men, but patriarchy in Latin America is too big a subject for my last paragraph.) It wasn’t crowded, most people had other things to do besides peruse ancient volumes, but the space was not set up just to entertain foreigners, it was there for the use of everyone. We were just visitors.
Impressed, amazed, and happy visitors. Hunger forgotten under surprised delight.