2003 Mexico Trip Journal
Lindy and I left on a ten-day trip to Mexico the day before our 37th anniversary in June 2003. The trip reconciled eight years of debate between us about whether to go there. Having traveled to Cuernavaca with a Denver church group at age 16 in 1960 to help build a youth facility, Lindy had wonderful memories of the country and wanted to see some version of it again. More recently she had been captivated by Scoop Nisker’s descriptions of the American community in San Miguel d’Allende. During talks at his weekly meditation group in Berkeley, he regularly invited participants to Buddhist retreats and countercultural events there, and it sounded magical to her.
By contrast, I was scared of going to Mexico, fearful of getting sick (after finally achieving a healthy diet and reliable digestion), nervous about how Americans are regarded in a country subtly disrespected and less subtly abused by the United States, and reticent of becoming a provincial, sitting-duck tourist in a so-called Third World country post 9-11: I had little confidence that I would be able to read cultural signposts and know where was safe and what interactions to avoid.
I had mainly stock images of Mexico from movies (reinforced by two brief forays from San Diego into Tijuana, one after high school, the other twenty years later in the early ’80s with poets Jerry Rothenberg and David Antin).
It is astonishing to me how many people whom I consider artistically or politically sophisticated (or both) share the same perceptions and fears; they haven’t been to Mexico and are afraid to go. I have asked two dozen or more people in the last six months (prior to and after my trip), people whom I assumed must have been to Mexico, whether they had gone and gotten one of two stock answers, “No,” or “Only Tijuana.”
What made the trip possible (and real) for me was deciding to learn some Spanish. I began this study with zero, not a word of context, not even a prior curiosity to puzzle out the stray Spanish that drifts through daily U.S. culture. Spanish was always taboo for me, as though not noticing it defined in part who I was. This implicit prejudice probably began with the attitudes toward the Spanish speech of the Puerto Rican community in my childhood New York. The marginalized ghetto (including those I knew as maids, janitors, and handymen buffoons—remember the apocryphal “My name Jose Jimenez”—and feared as street hoods and gang members) made the very sound of the language seem outlaw and underclass, as though not quite a fully intellectual speech. How bizarre! The language of Don Quixote and Garcia Lorca and Pablo Picasso. Even later, when my bias reversed and I sought identification with the South American surrealism proletariat, a subtler version of it prevailed in me subconsciously. The “Spanish lesson” never seemed to have to do with me; for instance, other people, only the less ambitious students, took Spanish in high school and college. My languages (both unspoken) were classical Latin (six years: five in high school and one of Mediaeval Latin in college) and classical Greek (one year in college and one year teaching it at Goddard college) plus a single year of French in tenth grade followed by a graduate course in reading texts for the social sciences (no conversation here either, just a lot of early Michel Foucault). Spanish would have been a radical seed and a breath of fresh air if I could have heard it instead of Cicero, Ovid, and Plato.
To that linguistic roster I could add the following scraps: five years of pretty much wasted afternoons in the Park Avenue Synagogue’s Hebrew school after my grade school, which left me able to sound out most letters and recognize a few vocabulary words (the goal there was to teach Zionism, not Hebrew or Judaism); a year of phonetic and morphophonemic coursework in graduate anthropology at the University of Michigan during which I studied many exotic African, Pacific, Oriental, Australian, and native American languages for periods ranging from ten minutes to a day or two each); two subsequent weeks in 1967 trying to teach myself Hopi from an ethnographic workbook in order to do fieldwork in Hotevilla (an adventure that finally came down to two days in July interviewing radical Indians in the King’s English); and three hours with an introductory Serbo-Croatian grammar book lying on a bed at someone’s house (I can’t remember whom) a few years ago when there was nothing else to do or read and I decided to see how hard it was to learn the language (I seem to remember that “mladic” means man, but that may not be right).
Once I dug into it, Spanish turned out to be grammatically and philosophically complex, aesthetically profound, and totally compelling—at least as great a language as the ones I took in its place. I spent six weeks with this Spanish obsession: an average of two hours a day with my son Robin’s high-school Basic Spanish Grammar, a Berlitz audiotape entitled Rush Hour Spanish on loan from my daughter-in-law Erica, and assorted dictionaries, bilingual children’s books (most of them a gift from their publisher in El Paso, my old friend Bobby Byrd), and two traveler’s phrase books (one with an accompanying CD). I also listened religiously, while driving around the Bay Area, to two Spanish radio stations and, though comprehending virtually nothing (in fact, nothing), congratulated myself on being able to catch a few more words in the rapidfire streams of lingo very week or so and, eventually, even a phrase or two and the context of a discussion—for instance, that a particular call-in show was probably about people’s sexual problems in relationships (but it could also have been almost any other variant of talk radio).
On many occasions I watched a local Spanish television station for as long as I could bear. That was more helpful than the radio in that at least I had an idea what they might be trying to say. One of those times a friend, Peter Clime, arrived during a theatrical portrayal of a fairy tale in which children were flying above their village: “Estamos volando!” “That could be useful,” he remarked, “in case you happen to see some flying people when you’re there.”
Meanwhile, in reading about San Miguel, I could find nothing about it that attracted me. It came off in descriptions as beatnik American, and even books by people who loved it divulged a gulf between its luxurious Euro-American district and the Mexican slums—of course, the reality could be quite different. Yet I couldn’t generate any enthusiasm to go there—and it takes a great deal of enthusiasm to get oneself to another country in circumstances that are more adventuresome and edgy than lying on a tropical beach or traversing the English lake country among sheep and appletrees.
Oaxaca was one place in Mexico that inspired me, at least in the guidebooks’ depiction of it, so I began to consider our going there instead. I had always loved its colorfully painted wooden animals, and travel writers talked about being able to go to craftspeople’s very homes and watch them work. Gradually I made a case to Lindy for choosing Oaxaca over her long-beloved San Miguel—although at that point I still didn’t fully realize that I was talking about both a very large state and a city in it of the same name.
Lindy was happy to go anywhere in Mexico and, if Oaxaca seemed more Mexican than San Miguel, she was game to revise her image. Once the core destination was set, we developed a second itinerary around Mexico City, based on business meetings with Mexican publishers. That portion of the trip later expanded when I remembered that an old friend, Harvey Bialy, a poet, occultist, and biotech mage, was now living in Cuernavaca with a young woman I thought of as his “new Cuban wife,” since I had never met her and did not know for sure even that they were married. He later corrected this retro image by informing me that he was “most happily married to Zaida for eight years, longer than the seven-year itch.” As we get older, time does seem to vanish in a jetstream behind us.
When our daughter-in-law Erica heard about our plans, she told us about a remarried aunt of hers, Maria del Carmen, who had places in both Mexico City and Tepotzlan, close to Cuernavaca, and would welcome a visit from us. In response to my email, she and her husband, Eduardo, offered to show us around. A year earlier they had been the hosts when Robin and Erica went to Mexico.
Thus, our itinerary became Mexico City to Cuernavaca to Tepotzlan to Mexico City to Oaxaca. Then I bought a pair of tickets on Mexicana Airlines.
June 20, 2003
We expect crowds of people at SFO, but the international terminal is completely empty at 8 AM except for a long, winding straggle awaiting a Nippon Airways flight to Japan, mainly businessmen and large extended families (the most interesting one comprising an African mother and three Afro-Japanese children inventing games of case across the vast empty atrium). The Mexicana area is totally abandoned, not one employee, not even a janitor. It is like the middle of the night there. We are finally checked in by a single woman who appears mysteriously at a United window to handle Mexicana customers. We are the only ones—not only no line, no people at all. This is beginning to feel like a Stephen King flight. Not a good sign.
At the entry to the gates Lindy and I are searched, head to toe, our backpacks emptied and each item examined. It takes quite a while to get everything back together. Only my motion-sickness wrist-watch that sends electric shocks into fingers draws police attention, but my assorted snacks, books, and papers are so unwieldy that the guard finally asks me to put them back myself. We go from there to the terminal and sit by the window. Gradually a full planeload accumulates among the seating at the gate, Americans and Mexicans of all ages. The aircraft boards.
What stands out in crossing into Mexico is the sand. The aerial landscape is not farms or villages but uninhabited desert. The silence below us is dense and goes far beneath the archaeologized surface. The coastline is a thin white chop, a jagged line on infinity. The first signs of human habitation are subtle, their curves soft. The induced green and hard lines of California have been replaced by soft earthen arcs. A single town is curled into the base of a gigantic Mordorlike volcano.
An obscurity beyond the foreground is what is compelling to me on the ground in Mexico City, the depth of unknown life that replaces in the imagination the facile newsreel and mercantile reality of Estados Unidos. This is palpable behind a façade of storefronts, apartment buildings, and streets, stretching in disorderly array from the bus window in the rain at dusk into the three thick dimensions in the towns outside Mexico City. Blue and red lights swim in water, as we inch through mega-twenty-first-century traffic toward a highway.
When we arrived here, we were embarrassingly ill-prepared. We had no pesos, no clue as to how to make a Mexican phone work, no strategy at all. Using Harvey’s step-by-step instructions, we did find the bus to Cuernavaca okay, but the next one was not leaving for an hour and a half, so we went back into the terminal, changed dollars into pesos, returned to the line, bought our tickets, and made one woman angry by refusing to share a cab with her in order to save the delay. Showing Lindy her pearls and then her husband’s business card (brokerage offices in San Francisco), she tried to prove she was not a crook or decoy but left, as in a second-rate movie, having given exactly the opposite impression. When we did convert some dollars into pesos, it allowed us to get Harvey on the phone. When he heard about the offer, he warned, “Don’t take a taxi with her. You’ll end up somewhere bludgeoned or dead in a ditch.” We didn’t need much vaguely disturbing cultural exchange and metaphorical subtext to convince us to follow his plan undeviatingly as stated. He would meet us at the Cuernavaca bus station.
The bounty of Spanish with its trades and shops floods my incipient consciousness: “ria,” “mento,” “ores,” “iar.” Places here are wonderfully allowed to begin with Xoch…., even Xoxo…. I sense the Aztec power of that initial X. There are cleaners, car-repair shops, churches, bakeries: Tintoreria. Remolcador. Tabaqueria. It looks like Spanish Harlem of the ‘50s but vaster beyond comprehension and deeper in space and time. It is the real life of Planet Earth. People’s experiences—intricate, brown, circlelike—tasting of spiced air and liquids of life, are what count, not global trade, not media soap opera. And there is more than enough real blood along our route out of Mexico City to illumine a whole planet from within: an entire unprobed metropolitan tapestry of intimacy and hidden filial connection.
The scope of this city was first evident from the air, Mexico D.F.’s hub and hive arising out of almost nowhere and stretching up the mountains in every direction. ‘That must be the city center,’ I would think—those giant towers. ‘No, that part coming into view is even greater! And now this one, wow!’ From on high, the clusters of buildings rest in fragile, toylike array, a miniature clay world circling another star. On the ground, it settles into patterns of streets and buildings inside a labyrinth, Spanish words on everything.
The air-conditioned bus offers K-Pax, Kevin Spacey with Spanish subtitles. “Where I come from, that’s known as the fastest gun in the West,” Prot says. “fusil rapidisimo….”
“Pero no yo vengo de donde usted viene.” (“But I don’t come from where you come from.”) Speedy Gonzalez shadowing the cultura breach all the way.
Ultimately it becomes full night, and the speed of the highway picks up. Rain falls in sheets; bolts of lightening reveal, in the ungaugeable distance, that Mexico does exist, south of America, in America’s horrific shadow. Thunder claps, the speed and lurch of the road tangling dizzily inside my body; I close my eyes and bury my head from everything but my own nausea and metabolic hum.
Harvey to Zaida: “I’ve known Lindy and Richard since 1965. You weren’t even born then.”
Zaida laughs. But then the mood becomes tense when, as we reminisce, Harvey suddenly insists on talking about the sexual prowess of some beautiful Somalian women he met through my old Goddard student Abdislam Y. Mohammed back in the early seventies, and Zaida,by telling him to stop talking about it, merely provokes him to provoke her more until she says, “Why do you always have to talk about your other women in front of our guests?” Never a good moment when people start saying things like that.
At their house on Rio Lerma that night, one black spider crawls across the patio—the biggest spider I have ever seen.
I start my account of this day with an email from Harvey at the end of the previous month:
back in cuernavaca
Sat. 31 May 2003
Please bring a copy tom’s biography of ed. I have never seen it. Along with whatever other books you might think to shlep. you are allowed 200 gms of pipe tobacco duty free, so if you can manage 4 tins each of any combination of the following dunhill blends (early morning pipe, 979, standard mild) I would be grateful. decent pipe tobacco is not possible in mexico due to local tobacco monopolies. I understand it may be equally difficult to find a provider of such in berkeley these days and, if so, don’t worry. the tins, should you find them, should not cost more than 11 (12 max) per (the 4 I bought in ny were 9.99 each) if they are more, never mind. please also find one pair size 38 tai chi shoes rubber soled. I will pay you for whatever you bring, in dollars or pesos, as you prefer. I am in the apple now and leaving for cuernavaca tomorrow so that I can spend my birthday with zaida. harvey”
Note regarding the above request: The tobacconist at 17 Glen in Piedmont could come up with only two tins that fit the description. I brought, in addition, two books and the t’ai chi shoes. I produced these items immediately after Harvey showed us to our room and I got to unzip my suitcase.
In the morning Harvey is not happy that his phones don’t work, as critical events are transpiring in his former family up north, his Nigerian ex-wife about to go to Africa, the fates of his sons uncertain. He is so frustrated that he has almost forgotten we are here or that we planned a day of sightseeing with him and Zaida the night before. Instead, the only outing available is to accompany him to Telmex. The expedition finally amounts to driving into a big parking lot, seeing from afar that the phone offices are closed, and trying to exit the lot.
Harvey refuses to pay the equivalent of 50 cents, and this stubbornness becomes a shouting match between him and the attendant. Harvey’s attack is in both Spanish and English, as he repeats variants of, “It’s closed, damnit” authoritatively as if to a child. “I’m not going to pay fucking five pesos.” The impasse quickly becomes a greater mess because we are blocking the exit and everyone trying to leave is upset at the obstacle. There is nowhere for our car to go except to squeeze into a tiny space beyond the gate, so Lindy is finally forced, at Harvey’s request, to take his ticket and try to get it stamped in a nearby store, reducing the cost to the equivalent of one cent—or is it five cents? Harvey starts moving the car as Lindy is getting out, trying to wedge it into the space beyond the toll booth, so that she falls down.
“Harvey, cool it!”
All this is unfolding with those behind us yelling and honking. It is clearly not worth it; it is embarrassing—but when you are traveling, you have to accept events as they occur.
Harvey is angry at a lot else, god knows, but he shouldn’t take it out on these people, even if they are charging him for nada. They routinely are charged themselves for their air they breathe. They don’t know any better. Someone is probably charging them for every car that comes through the first gate, so they better collect. Best to keep a lower profile anyway, nortemamericanos, and slip on through. We don’t belong here, not any more, not this way, not for 50 cents.
[Foolhardy or maybe passive aggressive, I did send Harvey an earlier version of this journal, and he avidly disputed my versions of most of our time together. In a return email I asked him what he did think happened on our outing to Telmex, and he wrote back: “i have no interest in going over the rashomon-like percepts of the telmex 10 mins, only to say it clearly clouded you much more than me, and didn’t faze the attendant one little bit, take my living here for 7+ years for that. it also had nada to do with small change, and there was absolutely no hysteria on my part. i had no idea lindy almost tripped getting out of the car, and as i remember it took her but 30 secs to get the ticket stamped. i did not pull into a tiny space, the attendant lifted the gate and i pulled into a big space. these are facts, not percepts.”]
Back to Cuernavaca. The old cars still running here and the informally oblique hand-written Spanish signs, bright colors slapped on anything. The soldiers—but they are more something between soldiers and gendarmes, securidad and police—are seventeen-year-olds carrying automatic machine guns, ammunition clips in tow. They are both sober and ancient, warrior and thief, totally incorruptible and absolutely corrupted right from the cradle. They are there, Harvey says, to prevent any average bank in the shopping center from being robbed on an average day.
Securidad here is a commodity as valuable and merchandizable as petrol or water—and becoming more so. You even have to give a coin or two to boys gathered in the parking lot, to watch (not wash) your car. This toll is expected. They keep a good eye on parked vehicles too, hawks in ritual. I am not sure what happens to your auto if you don’t pay, but I can guess because Harvey not only pays the toll but addresses them as though negotiating a seven-figure contract and, in his pidgin Spanish, insists on reassurance that they will do a good job. The kids, omnipresent and heedless, are routinely bumped by vehicles passing in and out of spaces, but evince no great concern, only further mirth and chatter.
El mercado itself is an absolutely incredible maze of vendors and portable shops spinning an internal geography of a bazaar painted within a quartz crystal. It is disorienting and dreamlike that so many different items could be crammed into such a small interior spaces and then the parts of those spaces wrapped into deeper coils of mazes.
There are fruits and vegetables of all shapes, scales, and colors, familiar and unfamiliar, bananas and not-bananas, apples and tiny apple-like drupes, strings of fruit, piles of fruit, much of it neatly stacked like beads or otherwise artfully arranged. Spanish-Indian faces implore a purchase—happy?, sad?—who knows? A culturally naïve question. The vendors operate with a verve and spirit that makes them happy by comparison with capitalist equivalents.
Fish from the river are piled in stacks of veinte, treinta, or more. Other stalls offer electronic devices, yarns, pinadas, colored marbles, shoes, belts with scorpion buckles (the scorpion huge in its plastic like a bug in amber), mushrooms like cameo impressionist paintings of orange and brown with a hint of blue-green, wasps buzzing on the cellophanes of candies, nibbling on molecules they suck through the slick membranes.
Passing the herbalists and apothecaries, I am transported by a sweet, ashen smell that is not entirely pleasant and is something I have never smelled before, thus takes me back not to my own childhood but a forgotten childhood of a life wild and unlived inside me. It may be coming from hundreds of magenta and orange wax lamps burning medicinally amid incense—the sad faces of these happy people, or is the happy faces of these sad people, from whom I, traveling in another corridor, have nothing I choose to buy?
The flowers, by contrast, smell as innocent and idyllic as a hundred Aprils, their braided bundles not quite honeysuckle, but deeper, closer to Middle Earth.
The yarns are such bright green, orange, yellow, pink, cobalt, lime, anaranjado, amarillo, verde, rojo, azul, red, cerulean, that I am in a slightly hallucinogenic trance. At a certain point it all merges, the ignited hues of foods, potions, posters, fabrics, so that the luminosity of the inner world, the deathmask itself, el muerto, shows through the life.
El mercado is a land inside the rainbow, not just any rainbow, but the rainbow in which blue and yellow-orange painted eggs pick up adjacent filaments, pots, basket coils, splotched mushrooms, deep-hued balloons, all at their max octaves, blending them at a density at which the inside of the egg called life (la vida) vibrates.
A dank sewerlike smell emerges from the outdoor parking lot to greet us, the wall performing a white crumbling vortex of drooling mud, brick by peeling once-blanco brick, that will still last forever or at least until 2012. Harvey drives to el centro and we park indoors in a garage so dark it could be the basement of a 1930s building in Brooklyn. It is perhaps more dangerous to be leaving a vehicle here than in the chico-guarded lot, but it is so economically and culturally appropriate, that it feels comforting. What might happen to the car here would only be real also, not a random act of violence or crime. Runaway electricity should not be pouring through malls of Las Vegas and Orlando, turning everything into a video screen or X-game. All the energy presently under conscript in this world should be distributed, mas o menos equally, so that all garages should be this dark, this unreclaimed, this indigenous and vulnerable.
We have run through our pesos and need a few more for Lindy to barter a necklace on the square. As Harvey checks in his wallet, I say, “Harvey is going to reimburse us for the tobacco and t’ai chi shoes, in either dollars or pesos, as we prefer, so we have some pesos coming.”
“You’ve got no pesos coming,” he snaps. “For eight tins you get pesos. For two tins you get none.”
That’s okay. There are plenty of cajeros automaticos (automatic tellers) in the square. While Lindy and Zaida go to check out the crafts, Harvey and I have capucino, and I hear about how he fell in love with Zaida, his last chance in life for romance, while doing biotech for his fallen idol Castro. When L. and Z. return, the waiter takes our group photo in the plaza, as a mariachi band plays.
On the way out of the garage Harvey tells a joke about Arabic being a more difficult language than Spanish. In Arabic, there are 450,000 words, each with four meanings: the literal, its opposite, a sexual innuendo, and a part of a camel.
Later that afternoon, Harvey moves Atilla the chained parrot to a new perch from which to chatter, the dog following, as we now consider Harry Smith’s plasma-like communications from the dead received through Harvey’s computer which also contains various screens of art and magic. The mystery of Harvey has always been that, while he is a flawless and successful scientist of international renown, and an equally consummate artist and hermeticist, the two sides of him do not so much talk to each other, so I never know how the contradictions are resolved inside him. Not today either, as Zaida prepares a haute-cuisine rabbit in the pot on the stove we will miss on our anniversary. Instead Eduardo and Maria del Carmen come and fetch us. Declining tea in favor of arriving ahead of nightfall, they drive us to their weekend house.
Along the way to Tepotzlan so many letters are handwritten onto long walls that whole brief villages seem scribbled on the landscape, their stores temporary sheds. The land is winning. Of course, even in New York City or London the land is winning. The land always wins. Nature bats first, and nature also bats last.
In the garden, clay jugs are buried in the ground to spread water to fruits trees, droplet by droplet, the roots seeking humidity, oozing through terra-cotta pores. Limes and mangos flourish insouciantly.
Arguments around Cuba.
Lindy: Will the embargo ever end?”
Harvey: “Not while this administration is in Washington.”
Zaida: “Not while Castro is there.”
Harvey: “Eventually, Richard, you and I will be dead.”
Lindy: “Zaida had no freedom there. She couldn’t advance. Her nieces and nephews can’t even come visit her here now.”
Maria del Carmen: “At least they are not run by United Fruit like Guatamala.” That’s her homeland. “At least the people are fed and have medical care. At least they have their dignity.”
Eduardo (German expatriate): “I used to believe in something, that I could have an effect. The Cuban revolution has turned rotten. Now I don’t believe anymore. I don’t think anything is getting better. I just think to do my job well.”
After dinner to our delight, they put on a CD and demonstrate how exquisitely they do the tango together after two years of classes.
I will provide Harvey’s further critique of my journal to close the day; it also fills in other parts of our brief visit with him and Zaida. We have been friends with Harvey and his different ladies and wives for years, and we have always had the same sort of tensions between us—in New York, Colorado, and California before Mexico. In fact, this is our first try to get along in person in almost thirty years. Our lifestyles don’t come close to matching, which we overlook at our peril. Harvey is certainly right that my journal is solipsistic and one-sided. He has every right to correct it, and also to challenge its indulgences. I may be wrong on many points, but the energy was weird, and that part is always hard to describe without attitude. In the end we had to call Eduardo and Maria del Carmen to rescue us in less than 24 hours, but Harvey is right that there were many good moments and positive things that didn’t make it into my journal. I just wasn’t on their wavelength or picking them up. Here’s his take:
“i do not understand how zaida’s haute cuisinee rabbit (prepared on the stove –where else would one prepare such?) almost interferred with your anniversary nor do i understand why you did not see fit to recall the precious specially printed set of poems/collages nor the billiard room nor the orchids, or the many monks, nor the garden nor anything else about the house nor the graciousness with which zaida received you nor the fact that you continually expressed concern about my impending biopsy, although after i wrote you the results you didn’t reply nor the time i took taking your picture, nor the time spent preparing it for your book nor what i lectured about, if i did, which i do not recall doing, except perhaps a little on the theory of billiards and why especially your one passing reference to atilla is ‘their chained parrot’, when he is neither all the time chained, as you know and says ‘om mani pedme hung’ and behaves with zaida exactly like a 3-brained (although small one) being and is hardly the tortured animal your description conveys. nor in short would any reader of your piece have the slightest indication that we passed quite a lovely solstice together (at least so z & i thought). my spanish is passable as you saw and heard (your own, for all your study, es ninguna). the car park in the centro was filled in the well lit parts, but you were safe. and last on this list, why do you attribute your neurosis about taxi cabs to me? i only told you not to take one from the airport. even though it is meant as personal diary, i would appreciate it no end if you removed the completely irrelevant and completely misleading reference to atilla, and a completely inaccurate and gratuitous sentence about zaida. you need, as a writer, whether for yourself or your public, to always keep it clear what is so and what is your say so. i have no idea why zaida’s long dinner table discourse left you and lindy with a singular and false impression, and i remain curious as to how her conjeo almost interfered with your anniversary. i can’t buy the personal stuff as an excuse. you make extremely personal (and often completely inexplicable) off-hand judgments and paint weird cameos when it suits you. and i beg to differ, the piece you sent has almost nothing to do with mexico. it is 99.9% richard’s reconstructed experiences encumbered by a great deal of self-absorbed background that could only be of interest to you. stream of consciousness should like the kerouac flow not hesitate. since, unlike me, you write a lot, i am certain the above criticisms are the proverbial water off, and as you said, what you wrote is meant for you mostly for you (but why did you send it to me and chuck?). my only concern is that when you are almost senile and happen to look at this you will not have radically distorted memories.”]
The hike to the pyramid outside Tepotzlan is through fog and mist, high facings of rock towering above us into the clouds that enshroud the forest, the land dropping into ravines below us. A waterfall crosses the trail, a thin torrent unspooling from high above, cascading along the wall, splashing before us, rolling off, and plummeting below. Fortunately the rocks are not as slippery as they seem.
We pass many other hikers and domingo parties, greetings exchanged: “hola,” “buenas dias.” “People always know the difference between buenas dias and buenas tardes,” Eduardo confides, adding it is still a little shaky for him after twenty-five years here, precisely when the morning turns into Mexican afternoon. It is strange also that this rainforest-like place is Mexico when it could as easily be California or Oregon.
We climb a long steel ladder, breath dear now, ascending rung by rung to a plateau by a cantina, which amounts to a bunch of men standing around selling water, soft drinks, and candy to the climbers, but not to long-snouted critters who are tame enough to beg for anything. These comical, mongoose-like interlopers are swatted away as pests because their noses go right to the food. I ask Eduardo what they are, but he offers only the Spanish: tejones. (Later we find out the English is “badgers,” though it is unclear if this is the right zoological as well as philological designation.)
Couples on dates, families, and various assortments of hikers gather at the pyramid and take turns sitting in the sacrificial altar, a declination in the center of the stones. The monument is substantially eroded, and it has also been culturally displaced from its historical context to partida de campo. The first time on the altar I feel a slightly diagonal patch of energy, a vestigial disturbance rooted in the air. Energy, yes, but mainly violence happened here; it is a gateway between worlds—an energy-conversion chamber disguised by the primitivity of mere rock. The second time I feel a nausea and a terrific sense of loss.
The Tepotzlan market is as gigantic as the one in Cuernavaca. It is clear that when Mexicans say “market” they mean something vast and ancient and commercial, where the Neolithic world meets the global economy. The air here is laced at spots with the same medicinal smell as at Cuernavaca, but outdoors it is more disperse and promiscuous. The scene feels like a combination of a park and a barbecue, though those are some awfully big slices of meat lying on counters amid flies, and some deep viscera swimming in pots and being stirred into red-orange oceans of gruel, plus some very stale amarillo oils in which tortillas are being fried.
In fact, Eduardo leads us to the very stand where Robin got sick on an earlier visit, spending the rest of his week in bed reading novels. Despite Eduardo’s assertion that it was only a tainted brush stroke of cold oil at the very end that did intestinal damage I take no chances and settle on a different vendor, close to the church where overloud music is playing, two pellucid corns on firm sticks, purchased consecutively, the first with Eduardo’s guidance, the second alone: “con nada, no chili, no lemon (limon), no queso, nada,” hard for them to believe.
The church is another soft erosion, subject to wind and light. A snaggle of electronic equipment in front drowns out everything, certainly sacrimony. It is unclear why they would allow the house of Christ to be music-blasted at such close range.
The walls inside display faint pastels and tile images of settlement days, when there was more melodic music, the old features like ghosts in stone. The present faces throughout the market are not just Hispanic-Indian as you might see in the U.S.; they are so many variants of that genome that they range over the spectrum of all familiar North American ethnic types, expressions, and personae, each of them representing a different ethnic/cultural experience, looser, lighter, not necessarily happier but funnier, less bound to the gods of wooden face and John Wayne. Browner, muddier, wider-eyed, more animated, more como el sueno, they reflect the Spanish rape of old Mexico four or five centuries ago, the invasion of Nahuatl-land by conquistadors, resulting in the present resolution of a universally changing Indian-Spanish face, lithe jaguar and and stockier cerdo bodies, ninas y ninos, all sprigs bearing blood of these offshoots of unending Cortezian globalization. Yes, Ed Dorn, “they are more beautiful than we are, and they will be more beautiful than we are forever.”
In the afternoon Eduardo, Lindy, and I walk the road through the fields to the next village, San Andres. It is uncertain, setting out, how long the journey will be, and Eduardo doesn’t say. We just walk, and talk while we walk. This gives us a chance to hear Eduardo’s history, particularly the German part. It is suffused with the squandered hopes of his father and grandfathers during the early Nazi era when Hitler’s politics seemed like little more than youth-culture enthusiasm and a sort of back-to-the-land nationalist counterculture. His father lost a leg among the skirmishes launched by that idealism and then lost his idealism along with it. And that was all even before he met Eduardo’s mother.
Then there were both of their fathers, Eduardo’s grandfathers, who were sort of Nazis, sort of not. An obscure boundary divided surficial beliefs from actual morals such that Eduardo goes to great pains to distinguish between their having to make an appearance of hating the Jews and their actually believing it (they didn’t). It is no wonder that he ended up in Mexico in a second marriage to a Guatamalan (who used to be married to the Mayan-anthropologist uncle of our son’s wife).
Here I will interpose Eduardo’s thoughts after visiting Berkeley several months later: “We are back from our week with Robin and Erica which we enjoyed, the various hoods and street-life, cool air and sunshine in San Francisco, the university town of Berkeley, crossing thje Central Valley eating peaches and talking to the Mexican vendor, our trip to Yosemite valley, sleeping in a tent and the clear sky with brilliant stars waiting for Mars, and our talks and walks with Erica and Robin, me talking mostly with Robin, learning about the ecology and history of the Bay area, he improving his Spanish through the discussion of the meaning of the names of places in the bay area -today and in historical maps- with María del Carmen.
“I enjoyed reading your journal as I enjoyed reading your book I started before our trip to Berkeley. Your journal is a new way of looking at things one does not see any more after living many years in a country. For example the heavily armed police and soldiers. María del Carmen said she was equally shocked when she first saw the men strutting in paramiltary outfit during hunting season in Nebraska.
“As all traveler´s journals—since their beginning—it tells what the traveler sees and tells us much about his culture and his personal outlook. Your journal—coming from an anthropologist with a history in psychoanalysis—has the delight of showing this without shame in order to enter in an intercultural dialogue, hindered by language barriers, but with a Homeric—no it is more of a playful—struggle to overcome it.
“On one thing I would like to add to your perception. Partly to honor my granddads, partly to add to the multifacet history of German-Jewishrelations. My grandfathers were both members of the Nazi party in a small town, one was Nazi from the beginning—he was proud of German nationalism and liked to shine in the paramilitary uniform as local Nazi boss—the other was anti-Nazi and “had to” (he also had only one leg and four children) become a party member—but never did any more, even got away with not paying his monthly fee because of a bureaucratic mistake—in order to keep his job as local postmaster. Their relation to the Jews was more than a matter of attitude. The postmaster did not discriminate against Jewish citzens and did not follow the order to make them stand last in line whenever an ‘Aryan’ came in; he was denunciated by a Nazi and from then on obeyed the order, although apologizing privately (which did not save those Jewish citizens from deportation and death). The other grandfather, the town´s electrician and local nazi boss, employed a half-Jew until the end of the regime, and probably saved him thus from deportation; he got admonishments from regional offices to unemploy him—my uncle still has these documents—but did not follow them. He probably got by because he was the local nazi boss.”
As huge grasshoppers fly up and completely over the road, we walk along a stone wall through fields, as it winds a couple of miles in both halves of an S, before finally becoming the outskirts of the next village, a habitation site along a cobblestone street, people standing around and sitting on walls. There are plenty of roosters, donkeys, dogs sleeping beneath blue-yellow-and-red letters, lavender flowers, blue-and-white paint deep in the irregular bricks of the wall, forming words. Spanish conversation flows among clatter and the calls of birds.
It is a generic Fourth World village of which I have not seen nearly enough. Indoors and outdoors are not clearly differentiated. People are cooking and bathing in patios; as in Arizona’s Hopiland, whole kitchens don’t have roofs. Many home plots and enclosures do not seem consecutive or to occupy the same sort of space as one another. They are each like a deep emblem or embellishment, a spot where a meteor hit and is exploding outward, a scar that radiates light and expands burrlike beneath the surface. Kids are visible in rooms through openings in adobe, lots of kids.
All life is hanging out everywhere. And the donkeys well know that this is the world, this is the game. Los perros no doubt know too, which is why they sleep in such utterly drenched, soporific dreams, splayed out in the heat recklessly and unconcernedly, as if they were already dead.
We keep walking; the springs inside us left running, we reach the end of the town in no time. We are drifting through, talking to each other, neglecting to measure how quickly it all ends. It is as though we have encountered a thousand years in five minutes, and missed it. So we walk back through more slowly, observing side streets, lanes between dwellings.
A speaker is being set up for a political speech. Since we are not going to trek all the way back to Eduardo’s house, we stand along the wall by the school, waiting for one of the VW buses that go from village to village—you pay a few pesos and get a ride. Many of them passed us in walking to San Andres; in fact, they were the main traffic.
It is a wait of hefty duration. “Amigos, amigas!” is the only part of the speech I understand, and it precedes long, overwrought pronouncements. The men and children gathering and the speaker seem from two separate movie sets, but then maybe I saw too many Westerns to fully appreciate the present convergence.
Eduardo talks about the Spanish language and how easy it is to miss the subtleties. There are two verbs “to be,” “ser” and “estar,” and Eduardo thinks that he should have their distinction clear by now. “Ser” is a more permanent condition, an attribute, a status, a way of being composed of something, a universal state. “Estar” is also a state of being, but it is the result of a change; it is the current or specific condition or location of something.
Not only the meanings but the forms of these two verbs wind around each other, indicating that they were likely one verb once that developed separate branches to explicate something felt at the heart of identity and existence. The much-used third person singular of “estar” is “esta”; of “ser” is “es.”
At a recent academic meeting Eduardo wanted to praise the translator as being very good, but he used the wrong verb “to be” (probably “esta buena” instead of “es buena,” though it could have been the other way. Everyone broke out laughing. They knew, he didn’t, even after twenty-five years, that he had said she was very good-looking. The distinction between “ser” and “estar” is subtle; it comes with mother’s milk.
The young man (or big kid) driving the VW bus might be seventeen, probably not quite. He is elegant with his trimmed mustache and slicked hair. His passengers, us included, pile in to join those already there, giant Eduardo on the dashboard. It is really more people than the vehicle holds. The driver does not go far, maybe a block. Then he stops where they are making tortillas in a house and flirts with the girls behind the wall. Lindy catches a glimpse and says they are maybe fourteen. This goes on at least five minutes, maybe ten. Who cares? It’s Mexico.
Then, with unexpected entusiasmo, he grabs the clutch and we get going. As we backtrack along our recent path, the car bumps, crosses dance on the clutch and about the rear-view mirror. The passengers are silent. The kid turns the radio to Mexican music with a heavy dance beat, something that could be “La Bamba” but isn’t. This is our soundtrack as we reconnoiter on our route from the reverse direction, Lindy and I crammed together in the bouncing front seat. A giant grasshopper lands on the windshield for an instant, then is gone. The rhythm of the moment brings my first epiphany: This is Mexico, for sure; we got ourselves here!
We are left off at kilometer 14 of Tepotzlan out of Cuernavaca.
After dinner we come to the motto of our trip. It arises unexpectedly from a discussion of what we will do in the morning after Eduardo and Maria del Carmen drive us into Mexico City. We have two goals, a mid-day one of getting to our meeting with Fausto Rosales, the editor at Editorial Diana in Coyoacan (where our hosts’ apartment also is), and a more general one of checking into Hotel Maria Cristina in downtown Mexico City. I know nothing about the distances or logistics involved, and I remember not only Harvey’s warning at the airport, but our daughter-in-law, my stepmother, and several other people imploring, “Don’t take a taxi in Mexico City.” Lindy and I have gotten around cities in Europe, including Prague and Berlin, on buses and trains; we feel we can do that here. That has been my plan anyway. I am hoping that Eduardo might take us to our hotel where we can drop off our stuff and then back to Coyoacan in time for the publishing meeting (so we are not carrying suitcases)— but that is a lot to ask, and he makes it clear at once that he does not want to encounter the traffic that that would involve. It becomes a matter of us getting ourselves from Coyoacan to downtown, and he is adamant that we must take a taxi. The subway, he insists, is much more dangerous, plus we have little chance of finding our way through its labyrinths and making the correct changes without getting lost. With our suitcases we would be ready targets for a robber with a knife; he wouldn’t try it himself.
Yet I have dug in my heels and do not want to be in a taxi with a driver who could be anyone. Again, having seen too many American movies, I am trapped in my implacable projections.
This discussion goes on interminably without resolution. Eduardo keeps explaining the way it must work, but it always ends with a cab. I keep countering with other options. Finally, in exasperation, he says:
“Either you take the taxi, or you go back to the United States.”
At night the individual toots of large crickets against the undulating warble of the cricket population provides an exegesis on the universe that rivals all bibles and collected works of Shakespeares and Kants—a statement on the cosmic and sentient condition. The lights of Cuernavaca undulate in the invisible plane between us and them. Dogs bark and then stop.
Now a single toot: “I am.”
Departing Tepotzlan for the morning rush hour into Mexico City. El triste perro watches us from across the road; his wild girlfriend was killed recently, and his humans are in Argentina another two weeks. As we drive away, he whines, leaping against the fence. We were his only company. He is one of those generic Mexican dogs, lean and brown. The spinster from Montana down the road has six of them, barking all the time.
Giant black crickets sit on leaves.
Eduardo rules the road with the celerity of the familiar, even the weary, commuter en route to Ciudad de Mexico, a version of any resident returning from a weekend in the country. His trash is in the trunk with a pail of lemons from the tree. Mexican words dominate the landscape: curvo peligrosos, frenas, caminar, lavadoria, llama, basura, especial, izquierda. “No tire basura” means “Do not dump garbage,” not “Do not change tires.” “Tire” is the imperative of “throw away.” Hand-painted letters bend around the landscape and then fill the streets with their soft slants and litter of cultural debris (that is also dumped everywhere). Occasional high-beat musiclike sounds float by—evocative synopses of everything around us.
After we let Eduardo out, we go to their apartment in Coyoacan and, dropping our stuff, walk to the square with its cathedral. Everywhere is Mexican, thoroughly so. I feel our culture in the north, by comparison, is arrogant, self-important, vulgar, greedy, super-serious, hard-edged, modular, a monument to hubris, especially under its current Republican coup. It is a plastic factory, an ad for life. Americans walk on red carpets, soaring up high-rises through the universe. Here I cannot understand the emotional tenor, but at least it is tenanted by real guys, real mujeres. I feel a visceral comfort.
Even the rifles in the hands of police and securidad seem more authentic than the fetishistic, almost pornographic gun worship of the NRA. At least these guys are guarding banks and stores from old-fashioned robbers. At least they have hombre bodies. They are not ungrounded ideologues with phallic symbols.
The local cathedral is magnificent with its giant stained-glass panoramas set up near a painted ceiling. The apse is calm and devotional; this is a basilica ruled by the ikon of Jesus on the Cross in all his guises and aspects. He is not about religion, crucifixion, or conquistadores. He is code, a doorway to inner states of being. People this externalized and jocular, this musical and violent (even the schoolgirls, las ninas y los mendigos, the assorted lame and otherwise compromised) need a quiet internalized space as huge as a cathedral to affirm the round dance of gathered pigeons, the long journey and travail of the living and the dead.
In the restaurant with Maria del Carmen I don’t control what I eat—I who am normally so compulsively conscious. I put food consciousness out of mind to be here in a normal way. I try some mixture of flour, beans, cheese, and salsa that makes up for what it lacks in healthiness and taste with authenticity.
I feel as though trying to speak another language in rudimentary fashion is an act of faith. It is hard to believe that words really mean the things they are supposed to, that “el tenedor” will elicit a fork, vibrating as it does as such a different object. It is strange that discrepant words converge on virtually identical objects (if not meanings). I ask Maria del Carmen how she will meet us, “en el carro o usted camina?,” and she answers in English.
When I lie on the park bench and hear the Spanish cries and another variant of “La Bamba” starting somewhere, memories of all the American teams I have followed and their games flow back chaotically and undifferentiatedly through a vision that redeems and then scatters them all to the winds; rooms in my life and interactions with people tumble through my mind, flowing into one another. Being outside America opens a portal to my entire Americanized existence. I watch its events travel by in a sort of entranced wonderment, that I could be someone else and still feel their collective and individual poignancy, their onlyness that makes up me to this point. Here in Coayacan, the archetypal traveler, I am freed to be anonymous, beyond fears, beyond ambitions, compulsions, desires. I am just alive, an animal like the rest of them.
Fausto Rosales Ortiz, when I first met him at the BookExpo in L.A., looked Indian, unusual. Here he is in context, a Mexican man, a business guy in his home setting. After we stop to browse the esoteric store Nalanda, he drives by his own house (pointing), then to Editorial Diana, a spiffy publishing office. When I ask him what it says on the back of every bus, he translates, “Complain if you want, but here is my answer,” and he shrugs indifferently.
We sit in a cubicle by his office and discuss our titles, including our soon-to-be-published memoir by Carlos Castaneda’s mistress. In fact, he knows our author; he shared a meal with her and Carlos on more than one occasion. Fausto is Carlos Castaneda’s Mexican publisher—and nephew!
Back at her apartment Maria del Carmen arranges our taxi ride to Hotel Maria Cristina, downtown where the real city is in the warrens of what looked so complicated and labyrinthine from the air. The key is that the cab is ordered from a sitio, a radio-contact station, thus has accountability. We come outside the apartment, wheeling our suitcases. The driver is waiting. He is so young and innocent that he hardly matches any projection, but projection of what? Once a projection is formed, it can turn anyone into a monster or sly miscreant. Anyone can morph as anyone else.
A wooden cross dangles around the rear-view mirror—could mean piety, could mean deception and disguise, could mean just Mexico. I know it is me carrying around this tension, this melodrama, bad American plots, and nothing untoward will happen to us, even if it does.
It is established quickly, “No hablo inglis.” After a few blocks, perhaps acknowledging our presence and trying to be friendly, he switches his radio from a Spanish station playing Spanish music to a Spanish station playing American music. That is a good omen, though in truth I would rather hear the Spanish.
The journey downtown is an astonishing odyssey through many districts, many cities, slums in all directions (more than I could have comprehended if I tried to imagine the sheer numbers of poor people on the whole planet), oodles of traffic at multiple angles, hurtling from lane to lane along the boulevard, our stream of cars becoming more turgid until it congeals into absolute gridlock, the noses of perpendicularly traveling cars virtually touching our door as we block their access to the intersection.
We flow again through an endless stretch of Spanish business districts that feels reassuring in its insistent commerce and ordinariness. All along, the words work their spell: muebles, caminas, quejas, barberia, joyeria, autobus, cine, iglesia, moto, agencia de viajes, supermercado, papeleria, zapateria, optica, restaurante, oro, hilo, ambulancia, pescaderia, bolsa, banco, miercoles.
Lindy asks me how to tell him to “go more slowly.” I manically refuse because, to me now, his speed is far safer than either moderation or what his response would be to being told what to do by these haughty Americans. We are committed to this, here, now. We are in a culture that knows how to drive its own city, that knows how many shades of blue, cerulean, violet, cobalt, azure, magenta, purple, lilac, aquamarine there are, and how to use them in a billion obscure rainbows, where to splash bright yellows, oranges, yellow-oranges, reds.
The second epiphany comes out of nowhere. A song on the radio. Back then I thought it was Neil Young. Later I learned it was Tom Petty. From Mexico City, they are the same person. The lyrics are about a “good girl …loves her mama…loves Jesus, and America too….” Suddenly we are flying down the spine of North America (“…crazy about Elvis…and her boyfriend too.”). We have crossed onto the multidimensional highway, our teenage driver tearing across lanes.“And it’s a long day, living in Recita…” —flashes of Karate Kid, Richie Valens.
I can accept that America exists too, irrevocably, for him as well as us, for us as well as him, as long as it is Neil Young and not George W. and what his regency stands for (“Now the bad boys….” ) and what it has done to make the life of this Mexican boy what it is. (“Now I’m free…freefallin’…”). Even though he is more alive than his American doppelgangers, he shouldn’t have to live in poverty, to drive his cab this far from the central bank, from the freeway running through her backyard, from his old Aztec capital, the factory of dreams. “Now the vampires walking through the Valley /move West down Ventura Boulevard….”
It is all one planet, one vast humanity and, until we know this, acknowledge it, and change our policies to allow it, every piece of us will pull every other piece down.
Yet at this moment creation is totally exhilarating and, even though we have done nothing yet, absolutely nothing, it feels as though I have come a million light years through myself, through the astral too, to experience the great North American pop-culture intergalactic freefalling vehicle of light, racing through Mexico City. “And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows/and the good girls are home with broken hearts….”
It couldn’t be any different; we couldn’t be anywhere else. This is as perfect as it is, as it gets, bad as it is, doomed as it is. This is where we’ve gotten to by now, Hernando Cortez, Senor Montezuma, Cabeza, for all you did, for all you might have wanted to do, for all of none of this you could have imagined. “I’m going to freefall/out into nothing,/going to leave this/world for a while.” Yea, Mexico City. Yea, us. No matter where we are, we are that close to the visionary version of all of this, as luminous, as ready to sparkle, as the dark is dark.
We breeze down the last streets, and he pulls up at our spot. We get our stuff and pay him pesos plus a tip. We check in at the desk.
It is all like a dream. I feel for the first time, age 58, that I am an adult, that Lindy and I are a couple, two days after our 37th anniversary, on our own, free-fallin’. We have passed through many of the passages and crossroads of life that our culture, maybe any culture, affords—school, marriage, making a living, buying a home, raising kids, kids leaving, aging bodies—and now we are at a great detour. We receive the gift of feeling, in a way, that, however rocky, it has been a job well done. Thanks for the thought!
Welcome to the Hotel Maria Cristina, for sure.
Going out on our own into the Mexico City night feels like being in so many other great cities. Only the reputation is mas peligroso. With a map marked by the concierge, we are on foot to look for La Fonda del Refugia in order to cross the swift traffic flow of La Reformia and get to the recommended restaurant at Liverpool 165. Young policemen and policewomen, impeccably groomed and garmented, stand guard at every intersection. We are continually in a muddle of whether to use English or Espanol, starting many a sentence with “Donde esta…,” but giving it up at their own first halting use of English words, yet trying again when that use proves limited and we get stuck.
The first gendarme, in the center of La Reformia, directs us a la reche to Genova, then a la izquierdo. That leads us into Zona Rosa, a swish mall of restaurants, musicians, video arcades; in general the nightlife of yuppies and tourists. One restaurant is even called Boomers. A second policeman then points us down Genova three blocks, though Liverpool turns out to be unmarked, so we do not even know we are on it. When we seek confirmation, the policeman asks the number we are looking for. “Ciento sesenta cinco.” He insists on using his walkie-talkie to get precise information, which feels like embarrassing overkill for two American tourists approaching their dining site. He tells us, “Two blocks” and points across the street.
The restaurant is dark blue on the outside, quite elegant inside. The menu is in English and Spanish, and much of the din is English. Despite this preemptive care, a combination of the enthusiasm of the waiter for tapas and a continuing language barrier leads to far too much food arriving (the confusion about which appetizer to order leads to all of them being set on the table with disconcerting matter-of-factness)—and Mexico is not vegetarian. The assortment includes cheese enchiladas, tortillas, chicken on flatbread, plus sopas. Then comes snapper (for me) and strips of steak (por Lindy). One must simply inhabit the adventure. It comes out to 680 pesos.
The trip back involves some pure darkness, but it is populated by other walkers. Two policemen and a policewoman at Paseo de la Reformia point us directly across the avenue to Rio Lerma, not so much a shortcut (they explain) as a course correction. We started off the wrong way right out the gate at Liverpool.
We set out in the morning on Paseo de la Reformia, turning in the opposite direction toward Chapultepec Park. We know it will be a long walk (a few miles), but, hey, this is our walk, our Mexico City morning, what the trip is for: the sheer joy of being in a foreign country. The route is as uneventful as it is delicious. We trek past bank after bank, virtual garrisons of police abutting them, spiffily dressed men and women entering and vacating. Finally we arrive at the outskirts of Chapultepec.
Getting into the park itself stymies us until we figure out that it involves going under La Reformia through a tunnel, much like a NYC subway passage—but this one is populated by demonstrators of toys, tortilla-makers pouring yellow oils on griddles, as well as street merchants with stacks of electronic equipment, handbag-sales families. Along the way, sweet-smelling orange juice pours from great sacks of irregular, semi-blackened oranges.
Entering the park, we pass vendors trailing cumuli of multicolored balloons, vendors of cotton candy, vendors of cones of watermelon and mango artfully stacked (where in New York’s Central Park it would be an ice cream or peanuts). Pink, blue, and orange dominate the landscape.
We take a ride around the park on el tren pequenito. Occupying the seats in front of us are a group of women; they seem like office staff taking lunch together or maybe young students (plus one older one) on vacation. They yell at every even slightly hunklike male, letting out shrill wolf-whistles—and there are legions of eligible hombres, whole brigades of them running in file in military uniforms, teenage boys exercising provocatively, soldiers jogging, muscular men in skimpy dress working out on gym equipment. The trail of female sounds creates uproar and astonishment wherever we go.
We have no idea what they are saying, though the older woman seems at a higher level of vulgarity and certainly of noise, for she is shocking to the targets, who shoot appalled glances of various sorts back at her. She is reducting the other women in her party to near hysteria of laughter, assaulting even police and caretakers in trucks, her voice reaching to the furthest visible mounds, as her colleagues giggle and blush in the excitement of the group outing.
El Museo de Arte Moderno is surrounded on the park side by a delightfully wacky sculpture garden creating a post-modern landscape, though it takes a complete circuit of its fence back to La Reformia to enter the building itself. A man helps us find the path and, after inquiring where we come from, offers a bit of local sagacity to these Americanos. After Lindy tells him how wonderful Mexico is, he retorts: “God said to us, ‘I am giving you two things, a beautiful country and a challenge; I am giving you Mexicans to govern it.’ As you can see, we have not been able to surmount the challenge. And we never will.”
The surrealism exhibit reveals a persistently dreamlike, almost horrific vision of culture, civilization, technology, and humankind that has arisen from some older Neolithic sensibility. Probably Mexico has always been surreal. A century’s paintings show animal heads on people, a devil commandeering the nave of a church with the parishioners in chaos and the wealthy cluelessly in conversation with one another, las dos Fridas (her hearts showing on the outsides of her bodies), children as mannikins, volcanoes made of the pink and azure of their own smoke, fruits piled at the market in exquisite detail, ugly Old Man Winter helping beautiful Cytherean Septiembre view herself vainly in an allegorical mirror as the fruits and vegetables of her harvest are reaped across the canvass, a bright white circular field (Sequieres) around which electronlike colors spin, the ghastlier whites of the Rapture and Holocaust, Death in his/her many bodies, spectral figures in blue or white, many guises of muerto (muerto de Santa Ana, muerto de Jesucristo), gnarled and one-eyed self-portraits, butterflies and flowers and clocks where they shouldn’t be, melting and pliable, soft and metallic both. Here (like outside) so many blue and yellows, so many colors arise from invisible gaps.
That same shade of deep rich blue is on Toltec walls down the street at Museo Nacional de Antropologia. The color has gone (in time) from pre-Columbian temples and the woven and beaded crafts of indigenous tribes onto the walls and sides of buildings, from gods into ads, from the sacred to the profane, neither of them either sacred or profane. The identity of this country arises from its looms as well as its self-sustaining gardens, from its dances of the Underworld, summoning spirits, again equally sacred, equally profane. The Mexican sense of red. blue, and yellow is so stunningly profound compared to what, say, Disney or Madison Avenue has done to the same vibrations in squandering their psychic energies.
Massive prehistoric stones—calendar wheels and statues of jaguars, turtles, humanoids, and feathered serpents—curl in hieroglyphic patterns indicative of the transitional pre-Conquest cultures of Mexico and divulging an imprint of incalculable depth of time and space. As many calculations are buried in them as in a modern computer, just different kinds of operations.
Among dioramas are boats and badgers, hawks and tortoises hung dead inside models of houses, piles of assorted grains and fruits. A creative curator has even set one large female Indian doll outside the glass. Thinking she is a live spectator, I am very careful not to disturb her contemplative piety, but then I peak around the corner of her body and see that she is artifice. I accompany Lindy later to the same spot, as she shushes me to show respect. I wait until she figures it out. “How creative!” she remarks.
These make-believe landscapes portray peasant and tribal villages that overlap seamlessly with a present-day culture of tortilla wagons, begging children, and clowns with puppets. Women squeezing juice from colorful fruits weave around the bank traffic. The city with its corporate towers (torres mayores) is rooted not just historically but presently in equally esoteric glyphs, in the remnants of the Spanish conquest, Huichol, Toltec, and Amazonian Indian genes in every face.
We take La Villa bus back to Maria Cristina; it is a small vehicle, but many of its kind prowl the streets like insects. Everyone around us is instantly concerned that Lindy have a seat, that we are alerted to Rio Niza, our stop. With a young girl perched on the rise beside the driver and the rest of the interior packed to the hilt, it would seem that there is no room for the people who keep getting on; yet there magically is. This bus costs 4 pesos as compared to 200 for a taxi, an analysis offered by the tourist information office in front of the museum. It feels like the right way to travel. If you ride public transportation and walk, a city becomes familiar in just one day.
Sharp gusts of rain-spiced wind blow off the hat of the policeman who is pointing the way for us to Rio Lerma. He is laughing with slight embarrassment as he chases it.
In Mercury’s taxi on the way to the airport, colors and signs repeat: holanda is amarillo yellow; nestle is azul blue. Jalisco. Compra. Venda. A stray dog, a black poodle, is trapped down an impossible embankment among the high-speed traffic heading out of Mexico D.F., no way out for him except as a corpse, yet no way he could have possibly gotten there either; he is not a crow. He is pawing at something, perhaps the shell of a tire. Maybe in the way that I don’t understand Mexico he will escape to live. Perro. Trabaja. Vende. Estrellas.
Colors form, deep fields of them when I close my eyes on the Mexicana flight, intense shades of blue, pink, violet, red, magenta, like chakras behind my field of vision.
The walls of Oaxaca are shields of circumambient color, changing from dimension to dimension, building to building, hue to hue, as we explore the streets—salmon, blue-green, rosado, purple-orange, red-violado, lemon-jade. The visages are Middle Earth, whether adolescent and carrying a clarinet to la Escuela de Bellos Artos or ancient and sitting in the zocalo with beans and rice in a small bowl. The begging children, many with candies or little toys for sale, are like fire imps—akin to the little boys and girls of Dickens, sprat of the dispossessed.
A nina of about four, carrying a boy of less than one on her back like a possum—or it could have been another girl—passed right through and among the diners at La Gondola Restaurant, Zona Rosa, in Mexico City on our last night. There was no real way to liberate her or do anything for her except maybe buy another hour or two.
And what about all her sisters, not only here but throughout Mexico, throughout the Earth, even on other planets. What a universe! How can we negotiate the awful responsibility for sentient beings, for sentience itself?
What does one shoo away—a beetle, a badger, el mosquito, a stray black poodle, a dirty child who thrusts her being right in front of your dinner? Who does one shoo or feed—the Siamese kittens prancing with their mothers in the courtyard of the Maria Cristina, the pigeons scraggly and plump on the stairs to the church, old men missing an arm, missing a leg, haggard women betrothed already to Senor Muerto, gypsies throwing themselves on you like harpies for their due at the entrance to a Paris subway, the way high clouds suck up rain?— because on this planet, in this zone, there are laws…laws requiring a girl bearing her brother on her back. Witness likewise the sleek policemen and impeccably groomed bankers and professional women of this same Indian culture. Who on this vale of tears deserves to be fed and on what terms?
The rain falls on the blood and the dust and toxins of the ranchero of the Planet of the Rabbit, of the half-daughter of the full moon.
Is it any wonder that America is now resented worldwide, casts an utterly eclipsing shadow under which the wonder and variety of Mexico can hardly be seen, whether this situation is America’s fault or not? From outside our shadow it is one blur of banditos, illegal immigrants, government corruption, political kidnappings, drug lords, and luxury timeshares on either coast. Is it anyone’s fault that the walls are crumbling, the pavement is missing sectors block after block (the old earth coming up through the city), the garbage collects in even these slight declivities where we hasten and stumble at nightfall, that no one cares about littering or keeping the air pure, the drinking water separate of the sewage? Is anyone responsible for the poor gathered in the zocalo where students raise revolutionary banners (Frente Popular, Somos los enemigos tenaces de la injusticia…., Coordinadora Oaxaquena…., Por Chiapas), and others sit or walk, somewhere between life and death, in this place where they have found themselves, in this condition between plenty and nothing?
The global economy is the sum inventory of trades and deeds, requiring enough vig that it leaves much of the planet, under global warming, to suffer desperate attempts to get off local into global time, out of community into that mass dance of the dead that looks so much like the dance of life in its mimicry of futile activity, its cornucopia of commodities, articulos de consumo, mercancias. No wonder Mexico is populated with skeletons and fantastic animals who dominate its waking dream. It is more truly of the Earth than the great evasion and hypocrisy to the north, ruled arrogantly by the second Bush, whose buildings may be antiseptically clean and plush but whose spirit and heart are slowly being devoured, along with the rest of us, by a great serpent, invisible in its utter and total visibility everywhere. Here at least you can see and feel and start to make an inquiry into it. Here an old maxim, the once and future singlemost political slogan takes on its innocent halflife—that the oppressed of the Earth, that the Indians and Aborigines everywhere triumph, and live to see the day that the Earth is reclaimed from the machine—and that they do not turn into limp officials running money exchanges from suburban protectorates.
The speed of Mexican traffic, heavy with 1950s cars and trucks and ubiquitous VW bugs, is inhuman, like an executioner’s blade that actually must be dodged, people running across streets just ahead of vehicles that won’t stop, turning to look back because you see a person clipped or almost clipped three or four times a day—the police motionless.
Leccion 10: Llueve. Esta lloviendo. Esta nublado. Hace mucho viento. Hace mal tiempo. It is incorrect, however, to say, though I do, “Hace lluvia” to our taxi driver Victor at el Mercado a Zaachila. Amado, the all-things-to-all-people, Espanol-speaking manager at Casa Colonial, has suggested that the best way to deal with the constant downpour is to hire a taxi to take us to the homes of artisans in nearby villages, just as the guidebook describes. Victor is a small, cheerful, patient driver who has done this route hundreds of times. In fact, he is the generic Oaxacan good guy, whatever else that conceals.
Zaachila is soaked to the bone on market-day, but el mercado is bustling with activity and small-time merchants. The town is full of donkey-drawn, one-person conveyances, the skimpy blue slats of partial wagons little more than series of rectangles mounted on flatbeds above two stubby tires. Outside of town, horned oxen are pulling plows in the fields, their sad eternal eyes staring out of the vans taking them to market—the same eyes, maybe not wiser in any absolute sense but more canny and alert to the situation on this Earth plane, in mothers and children kneeling in rain on mirrored stone behind baskets of bright yellow squash- and pumpkin-flowers. Colorful awnings, like unraveled umbrellas and raincoats, cover some of the proceedings, held aloft by thin metal posts. Rain collects in little ponds and weighs down the waterproof cloth until it spills suddenly over the edge. Some women use wooden poles with festive coiled decorations to rattle it down in great splashes.
Whole watermelons and pineapples have been skinned and set out beside cow carcasses, equally skinned. Pale yellow, bright red. Flat fish are stacked like papyruses. A man comes through carrying a dead turkey by the neck in each hand. Elsewhere live turkeys sit in caches on benches, blithe to their approaching fate. A chubby, proud-looking potter with a large oblong face blending almost necklessly into her round body stands in a red apron-like vest with her kids before a white metal bench, her pots, baskets, and other wares in front of them. We purchase some little statues of animals and a mortar and pestle with a pig’s head. Cincuenta, cuarenta, noventa, ochenta—she counts fast, flashing pesos, not a smidgen of English, but we finally get her paid what she wants—and she is quite firm about repeating the count until we understand what she understands and are forced to break an embarrassingly large bill from el cajero. That’s okay. She’s got enough change in a tin as, never losing her theatrical smile, she wraps our purchases in newspaper and then puts them in plastic bags which we bear running back through the rain to deposit in Victor’s taxi. Victor is standing on the other side of the street, chatting with a group of men. He nods and comes running to open the door and help.
Back inside the market the rain falls much harder, collecting on the portable awnings. A woman bats a pond down with her stick, little care for splashing us or anyone else around, drawing much laughter. Our eyes meet those of chuckling women in a shared hilarity of water on the loose. We buy painted gourds from a young female artisan, half peasant Indian, half University student. Moments later, she splashes across the rainy market to hand us 25 pesos we had forgotten, the same eternally cheerful presence with which she gives Lindy a tiny gourd turtle with a moving head, a gift.
We smell the incense of the herbs and frying meats and see the rich mixtures gathered upon black griddles, more sensuous than food, but food we cannot, dare not eat.
Victor officially speaks no English, but we carry on fragmented two-language pidgin conversations with him as he drives us to San Antonio Arrazola. The issue for a while is how many children we each have. We have adult children, un nino, una nina. Our son is a biologist; Victor gets that. Our daughter is a performance artist and a movie-maker (cine); much pantomiming helps paint that. Victor has a harder time accounting for his offspring because he has a lot more children and they are younger, so he finally settles for saying: “Nino, nino, nina, nino, nina,” to convey gender and birth order. Then he throws up his arms and, laughing, declares, “No mas.” We are speaking Spanish! Communication is ninety percent intention.
Lindy, who didn’t spend six weeks cramming in words and grammatical constructions, at least remembers to say, “Por favor” often enough to get her many points of appreciation, especially at the home of the wood-carver Arsenio Morales, our first artesano in residence. His painted figures form menageries on two tables under the protected overhang of the courtyard. Unpainted carved blocks around the wall betray a distinctly Australian flavor—mostly rabbits and kangaroos, though some serpents and fish. His statues are of all sizes, and parts of elongated anatomy like tails, pincers, ears, and fins have been attached (or wait to be attached) ingeniously.
Arsenio and his brother were waiting for us at the entry to the tiny town. Victor called estos hermanas, “buenas mujeres” with some respect when we passed them. We had no idea (ourselves) that these two would show up on the hill a few minutes later and open their home to us.
We pick out a rabbit, a serpent, and a dog, each remarkable in its own right. However, most of the attention is on whether we will buy a pescado grande, a kind of Tlingit-like totem pole carving of a tuna or perhaps a dolphin. It is 2000 pesos or about $200. We waver. It is a magnificent work of artisanry—not even close to the most expensive item there, but the spotlighted unfinished one that Arsenio is presently working on. In fact, it looks flawless and complete until he points out where some additional markings will go.
Arsenio is firm. If he is to finish the fish for us, he needs a commitment, first by sabado, then viernes, then ahora—an immediate deposit of half the two hundred dollars. He flows seamlessly over this truncation of deadlines until we finally say, “Si” and pay him $100, and then must go back into Oaxaca to find another cajero because this transaction has used up both our pesos and few remaining dollars.
We can no more help that we are Americans than that mud is forming in rivulets or the figure of a bird comes out of wood under Arsenio’s hand. The airplane allows this dreamlike intersection of cultures moving at radically different speeds in different dimensions. They are joined by el cajero, the ATM, the global god of trade.
My search for cash becomes a gauntlet of automatic money machines, none of which disburses any more than a slip saying “Disponible: 0,” no stacks of artful pesos. We return to Casa Colonial por secos vestidos. After we change pants and shirts, Amado directs us back to el cajero at Gigante supermercado where, with the help of a somewhat unwilling overdressed cashier from el banco, forced to come out in the rain, the machine spits money.
I say to Victor that it is not estrano (strange) that il no hace los dolares but that el hace los dolares at all. That is a distinction and an irony beyond my Spanish. What is happening is that some words by necessity (like traje and viaje) are becoming more what they are when they have to be used over and over again, less the unplucked, sterile figments of my Spanish grammar book. It takes them being spoken and written, the same words, pronounced with uncoached precision, to become real to me.
When Victor passes a car blindly on a hill and Lindy gets across that she is appalled, our cheerful driver manages to communicate, mostly with hand gestures, that there is no traffic here to worry about. Since we have escaped with our skin, Lindy would prefer that he not look back at her to exonerate himself but pay fresh attention to the road. I say, “Pero,” and then open my dictionary and look up “gamble,” adding (upon finding it), “Empresa arries-gada,” which it takes a long time for Victor to get because he thinks I am saying, “Gato (cat).” He laughs with spontaneous delight, as Lindy startles both of us with a very convincing triple meow.
The day before this exchange I had a somewhat similar conversation with a young girl at the camera store when I was trying to figure out how long the one-hour photo really was. Using the dictionary, I said, “Este esta miercoles. Listo jueves? Listo manana?” She thinks this is terribly funny but replies, “Manana” with firm conviction and some compassion.
Our taxi goes next to Aztopa, the homes of Irma and Dolores Porras, both potters; we visit first one, then the other. Their pieces are mostly female figurines, some of them giant, five-feet statues with a dozen or more statues attached to their bodies. There are figurines carrying jugs on their heads and engaged in complicated ways with subsidiary objects. Most of the pieces are too large or fragil, rompible, to take a chance on transporting, but we still find several little animals and buy some of Irma’s clay crosses with painted flowers and then an equal complement of Dolores’ bowls and figurines. Dolores even gives me one I like, a jug that I find in the yard, partly cracked, its paint faded. “Un regalo,” Victor instructs when I don’t understand. She comes running after Victor with a present for him too, a bowl similar to one we just bought with raised fish imbedded in its concavity.
A mixture of rain both outside and inside us leaves Lindy and me exhausted. Everyone said, “Don’t drink the water,” but how do you avoid the water in the food, the air, the mud in the streets, flowing in streams now after several days of rain? How do you avoid molecular contact with the culture itself? Lindy, in fact, only recently realized that “don’t drink the water” means also “don’t use it to rinse your mouth and wash your toothbrush.” Too late. I scrupulously used bottled water for tooth-brushing and am no better off. The truth has crept up on us: we are both sick.
Our first stroll to the zocalo was idyllic, an hour watching the evening activity unfold there. Our second one, bearing paraguas, is a little more bedraggled. Only a day and a quarter after arriving, we are utterly exhausted by the roads, the air (puff of exhaust after puff of exhaust from speeding mufferless cars), the rain, the parasites in our guts. Oaxaca has worn through Mexico City in us, has worn through Tepotzlan back to that first night in Cuernavaca, lucid and sparkling, with Harvey and Zaida, a lifetime ago.
Piles of litter everywhere, in every hole natural and artificial, defy the common sign: no tire basura. It is ignored as if it said: tire basura, tire basura a todas partes. A brazen pigeon on a café table is stalked from faraway by a cat crawling along rooftops. Radical students are still making speeches; when does this rally ever stop? Drummers bang away at congas between their legs. Mariachi bands entertain diners. Children are racing about in the usual oblivion. Old men read the newspapers or simply stare at space.
At night the whistling of the crickets forms a shamanic tunnel of sound down which I try to forget everything, all appointments and agendas, all years in between, and slip into old thunderstorms of summer camp, maybe 1953. Feeling sick brings it all back. Then, out of the whispering night, comes a great deluge. Waking from sleep and falling back into sleep I hear it pounding on the roof, rushing down the streets. I see its shadow rolling on the floor.
We set out in the pouring rain toward Ocatlan. It is almost too rainy to travel and we are almost too sick to keep up our part. We will visit the domiciles of the four Aguilar sisters, all artesanas, all potters: Irene, Josefina, Guillermance, Concepion. We start with Josefina, the first of three in a row on the same side of the street. She offers genres of multicolored statues. In her alcove a live man is jumping up and down on a huge, rubbery hunk of clay. Josefina, sitting over a table, is applying paint with a tiny brush to a baked figure. The random progressions from her to Guillermance and Irene show divergences of styles from the same initial form. The sisters all make statues, death figurines with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, crosses, hombres that are both ghastly and jolly. Like Arsenio and the Porrases they keep domestic and farm animals in their semi-outdoor studios: dogs, burros, ducks, chickens.
Concepion’s studio is across the street from the other three. Her work is different. It is mostly tiny brightly-decorated insects with delicate legs and antennae—lady bugs, ants, grasshoppers, flies, beetles. Any one of them, wrapped carefully by her in newspaper, would almost fit into a robin’s egg. It is basic courtesy to make a purchase everywhere. You can’t come to people’s homes, take their time, and then not buy, especially at these sad but compelling prices.
Language remains a fascination between us and Victor. A truck hauling oxen toward the market leads to my looking up their “word” in the dictionary. It is “buey,” which I check with Victor. He agrees, glad that the book backs up common knowledge. I add, “Suyo suerte, suyo fortuna” (their fate). He particularly likes the word “oxen” because not only is it an outrageous name for creatures like buey, but it is somewhat a homonym to “taxi.” When he announces, “Taxi!” with delight, Lindy thinks he is saying “toxic” because of the spewing truck ahead of us, and she tries to talk to him about the problems of exhaust in Mexico, “toxico,” which baffles him at first until he catches on and sings the praises of our slapstick communications. A triple entendre, we have performed!
Next we arrive at the pavilion of female textile workers in Santo Tomas Jalieza. They form an improvised shop, some quince o veinte women, young and old, vying instantly for our attention by pointing to their own goods. “Dulces pero agresivos,” I say later to Victor and, infinitely agreeable, he nods with gusto. They are all ages and style. Some are girls; some almost hags. The bright rainbows of their work bind them in this single enterprise, anchored by a series of looms at the front of the room, a few demonstration weavers joining separate, bright-hued threads into emergent patterns. We buy several things here too.
We stop at one more artisan on the way back into Oaxaca, another word-carver. His shop is a virtual toystore of animal figures. Tourism has created its own crop There are probably dozens or even hundreds of makers like him throughout Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico, creating these traditional artifacts—indistinguishably adept. We add several more to our collection of newspapered balls in the back seat.
On our way out of the village we encounter a great coursing of water over the road. I look in the dictionary, as we splash through, and say, “Inundacion.”
“Inglis?” Victor asks.
It sounds so strange to him, the English word for the inundation before us, that he repeats it several times: “Fludd, fludd, fludd.”
“Un poco d’ingles esta aleman; otro ingles esta frances y espanol. Flood esta allemagne. Puedomos dicer ‘innundation’ tambien.” It is my most substantial try at Spanish.
Later Victor says that we have quince (fifteen) minutos a Oaxaca, maybe veinte. I point out to him that “quince” in English is a different word, only one syllable (kwince, not kon-say) meaning a fruit not a number. He wants to know what fruit, so I look in the dictionary: “Membrillo.”
Parting, I try another concept, using the number of his cab, which has become familiar these last two days, “Adios, Senor Cincuenta y Siete.” This joke he appreciates, so he salutes me back and bows, our Oaxacan Charon disguised as Speedy Gonzalez qua Language-Game Taxi-Cab Confessions.
Back at Casa Colonial, I formally give up on my grapefruit-seed extract and essential oil of oregano and take my first Cipro. I am plunging into allopathy because I need immediate relief. Dizziness by now has come to mean Oaxaca.
Even though sick, we do not want to miss the Naranja Restaurant. We have thus far eaten every meal here boarding-house style at Casa Colonial. We are missing the entire Oaxaca restaurant scene.
We trudge into town along Independencia, then down J. P. Garcia to Hidalgo. Unfortunately the service is very slow (we wait an hour and fifteen minutes) and the food, though ordered mild, is much too hot, especially in our condition. When we depart the restaurant we feel as though the trip has worn us even further to nubbins. We are on veritable last legs. Our first thought is to walk straight back to Casa Colonial and go to bed, but instead we decide to sit for a while in the zocalo.
The poet Rafael Vazquez Aguilera, making the rounds of everyone, hands us a canary yellow sheet of paper containing a poem by him entitled “Cuando un hombre te ame.” It is simple enough Spanish for us to make out most of it— on the level of a Valentine’s Day verse on a Hallmark greeting card, even though Rafael looks like one of the Brothers Karamazov.
Across the square thirteen-year-old girls are flirting with fifteen-year-old boys, especially a tall, lively chico who is dancing up a storm without actually dancing. Los chicos are so self-involved that they drift off, but then seem to be aimlessly floating back to the girls as though on gossamer strings, following without following them.
We are startled by a greeting next to us. Rafael Vazquez has returned to ask us if we liked his poem. We compliment him. He offers to sign it. We accept. He elicits our names and writes them (more or less) to the left underneath a rose and some doves, signing his own name below the actual poem. Then he asks for a donation in English, “The poet needs to be fed.” There is no other choice at this point, though he is hardly among the needier in the zocalo.
The mood has suddenly changed. There is a new rhythm in the air. It is a band on the corner, in the direction of the Naranja. There is something about them that is so delightful and charismatic that they have transformed the entire square. Even the thirteen-year-old girls and fifteen-year-old boys start dancing in beat to the band, unconsciously, as they wander toward Independencia. Two younger girls follow, one wearing large glasses, mouthing and moving to a beat finished minutes ago—da-da-duh da-da-da-da-da-da-duh-duh da-da-duh da-da-da-da-da-duh-duh. Anything could follow this music—a fleet of UFOs, a circus with clowns, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, reggae on the river, Woodstock 1969.
We go over to the spot where they are; a small group has formed around them, including a half-sleeping beggar in a sack, a few kids, some tourists, plus the diners at the outdoor portion of La Jardin Restaurant that borders their zone. We stand there, listening. It is a marimba band. Its musicians could be any five guys in any city: a college student, a bartender, a mechanic, a waiter, a fisherman, the actor (Barry Pepper) playing Roger Maris in “61,” only a bit chubbier and Mexican. The “college student” could also be Bill Gates twenty years ago, or Jonathan Lethem about the time he worked at Moe’s Books in Berkeley before he wrote his main science-fiction novels.
They change my heart, my spirit, my frame of reference to life. This is my third Mexican epiphany, and all are around music. These guys are charming everyone. And they are having easy fun. One of them in fact, is not even playing. He’s just sitting with the three guys working the marimba, chatting, unabashed, as they unreel song after song. The marimba guys let their sticks fly over the huge xylophone-like instrument with aplomb and impeccable syncopation. Roger Maris plays slide base; Bill Gates picks up the rhythm on his big red drums. As the song ends, a policeman passing by smacks one of his drums twice. Then they launch into a number that sounds totally familiar, but I can’t place it. It just prances along with wonderful beats in a smooth river of sound.
Roger Maris shares a beer with friends. I go over and try to talk to him, but my Spanish and his English don’t meet anywhere near halfway. I ask what they are playing, meaning what kind of music, but he answers with the song title which translates easily into Inglis, “Strangers in the Night.” I ask again, and he gets it: “Reggae, rock, mambo, everything.” I try to find out if they have a tape or a CD. “No.” I want to know if they will be back tomorrow night. “Si. Come back manana. We make CD.” I get a card from him. At the very top it says marimba: white in a black box; underneath that in script: “Hnos Carreon,” the “O” of Carreon a little musical square with two slanted exclamation points coming out of it. Beneath it says Rosendo Carreon Agreda, Representative, Francisco I. Madero Num 411 Col. Fernando Gomez Sandoval, Oaxaca, Oax. He is searching for a pen, but there isn’t one anywhere. I want to give him my home address and phone on a card of mine, and he seems to want to add something to his. It takes a long time, but finally a waiter produces una pluma. His card has five telephone numbers on the front, yet he adds one more on the back.
Lindy is too weary to stay, so we take a taxi back (yes, Eduardo, we are in Mexico, finally); I ask the driver, “Conozce Victor Sanchez?” A shake of the head. “Taxi cincuenta y siete?” Another shake. We detour through the heights of the city past a rally at the church. We pay him. Back in the room I get my camera and a jacket. I walk back in the night by myself, fifteen blocks through the dark city, to hear them again.
I understand I must see this through. I know nothing Rolling Stone-like about music, but I was moved by them as I rarely am. I would want no less from someone moved by me. Take it to headquarters. Let Joshi Marshall, who works in our Berkeley warehouse, hear about them; he’s got a band, Mingus Among Us. He plays reggae with Don Carlos (in fact, he’s the one who knew it was a slide base in the photograph I took that night on my return trip—because if I never got a CD, at least I wanted an image of them). Tell Les Blank and Maureen Goslin, documentary film-makers of musicians. Maybe these guys would be as charismatic in Tokyo or New York as in the zocalo of Oaxaca. All this I think about, high speed, while half-walking, half-running back.
I also have figured out how to be alone and safe in Mexico, sailing through the night, drawn to something I care about, later (after several sets past midnight) to take a cab back myself. I will always thank them for that the players. And it is lucky I went and took the pictures because I never saw them again. Standing there against the wall, moving subtly in my mind to their beat, I think: it doesn’t have to be the Beatles or Springsteen because in places like this all over the world, the world (the world that is lost) begins again.
“Pase, pase, pase”: Amado to a taxi-driver in the crowded Casa Colonial office, the exact phrase used by a truck driver as his vehicle squeezed past our train filled with wolf-whistling women in Chapultepec Park a few days earlier, virtually no clearance between him and them, so having to go painfully slowly as they took advantage of his situation to catcall mercilessly. “Pase, pase, pase.” The high irony in the first case is revealed by the lesser of the second.
A scene by the church of Santo Domingo. A young Indian girl is harassing a giant green, gossamer grasshopper and will likely kill it. An American young man intercedes, holding her about the waist, subtly pulling her back, talking in Spanish (at first I think it is her father, exercising such intimacy). But she is persistent. The creature is irresistible and provocative to her, and he has to keep discouraging her anew, pulling on her waist, extracting her arm, then her hand, which keeps snaking back. Finally she goes running to her mother.
The grasshopper is seemingly intact but unmoving, probably stunned. We discover it is not the girl’s father only when we go over and join the discussion. After telling us he is a student from Chicago and just hanging out here, he adds, “I had to stop her from destroying it. It’s so beautiful.” The girl is hiding behind her mother, dodging my aim effectively as I try to take her picture. She keeps peeking out and then ducking back. Her older sister, tall with a long braid, comes over and is starting to prod at the poor creature with one insistent finger. The student stops her too, as we all shout simultaneously, “No!”—quite impactful and surprising to the girl. Restraint doesn’t last. Her hand goes right back to it. This calls for moving the animal itself. The student admits, oddly, that he doesn’t like touching insects, so Lindy carries it from the pavement to dirt beneath a tree.
Then a big boy prances into the foreground from nowhere and attacks it blatantly; he is outraged and astonished as we boom simultaneously for him to stop. “Peligroso,” shouts the American student, which I think is the wrong strategy because the kids all know that the grasshopper is not dangerous. The boy is drawn to it irresistibly like a magnet; he would like to mangle it. Now even the two girls come running back. They look at us questioningly. They don’t understand this challenge to the law of the land. The student has given up his campaign that it is peligroso and is telling them instead that it deserves to live. He is encouraging them to be nice to it so, as they take this bizarre message in, at least bizarre to them, they creatively convert what they would actually like to do into a horrific pantomime. With bare restraint, this boy and the two girls take turns gently petting it, not what it wants, not what they want either. Against all odds it starts slowly to climb the tree.
The youngest girl loses interest and decides to play a game with Lindy, asking her to guess in which hand she is holding a rock. Five out of six times she is delighted to exhibit the empty hand. I am not sure if this is just luck or a real trick. If the latter, I can’t imagine how she does it. After a dozen or so rounds of this, she prefers to try on Lindy’s sunglasses and look at the altered square.
All the visits with Victor to artisans cumulatively produced a striking mound of objects, mostly big and small paper balls, in the corner of our room at Casa Colonial. We intended to make up two boxes ourselves and take them back on our ticket with our single suitcases (two pieces allowed per traveler). But with no packing material or boxes, we eventually took Amado’s advice and hired Victor to drive us to a packaging store above a leather shop on Independencia, where we left them. Now we return to pick up the boxes. To our chagrin, the volume of the mound has expanded by five and, when we have finally paid and dragged our stuff downstairs, we find ourselves sitting on the street with two giant crates that won’t fit into any taxi—and no place for any taxi to park here anyway. We have to haul the crates back upstairs, gradually get across the problem in bits of Spanish to the proprietor’s mother (who does the wrapping in newspaper), finally encouraging her to call her son on his cell, and then we wait for him to return. He arrives an hour later. We pay him for an air shipment back to Berkeley. The karma of all our heedless shopping has come home to roost.
The feeling of being out of place increases that afternoon when Lindy is too sick to try for the last bus to Monte Alban. I set out alone, fully expecting to make the trip there. Yet the daunting line of buses backed up on Trujano, J. P. Garcia, and 20 de Noveimbre, plus the fumes from their traffic jam discourage me from even wanting to try. I don’t want to sit in this mess. After running ten blocks to get there in time, I turn around and start back, retracing my path—just like that, on a dime—though along different streets to lessen the discouragement. Reversing my trajectory and heading straight back toward Casa Colonial moves along the hinge of my ambivalence; I feel both the terrible disappointment at missing the major Oaxacan archaeological site and the relief of not leaving Lindy sick in the room alone. I want to do both, but I can only do one. Either choice leaves something undone.
I cannot collect experiences like commodities, like pots and wooden animals; I have to follow compelled desire against broken ambition.
It turns out to be a day of misses; everything is out of sync. I spend the latter part of the afternoon into the early evening waiting for Arsenio to return with el grande pescado (he had said “Ante de mediodia”). I left a thousand pesos in an envelope with Amado and then reclaimed it when he went home a cinco.
We have lost the fish-maker’s cell phone number as well, so we can only hope for the best. The whole thing is given additional energy by our deposit; otherwise, we could just forget el pescado and go home tomorrow. Finally the great man shows up in person, 7:30. Undeterred by the dinner hour, undeterred by the fact that mi esposa esta enfermada, he asks to set the work of art up in our room. Too late for the crating, this fish is going to be hard to get back to California, so there is a desire not to take it out of its wrappings—but it is also hard to deny the proud artist who wants to put on the fins and have us admire his work. This we do, Lindy sitting up in bed as audience. We say, “Beautiful, bello.” Both of us keep repeating these words, and we shake his hand as he beams. It is not that he is not used to such praise; he expects it. And he knows how to receive it graciously and how not to overplay the moment. It is a ritual. He and his fish are a pose in dignity, even as money changes hands.
After dinner at Casa Colonial, after failing to convince any of the other guests to accompany me, I go back to the zocalo. There I find not only no CD or tape, but no marimba band. I decide to wait there for them, first along their wall, finally wandering over to the permanent student rally. A young, bespectacled folksinger is performing, of all things, “Guantanamara” on his guitar, singing to several adoring college-age girls around him. It is Ann Arbor, 1969; Chiapas 2000; Oaxaca, Junio 2003, in a light rain.
It is my whole life, everything I was and everything I missed being but dreamed of or fantasized along the way. As a teenager, I sang the Spanish of this song from heart as a kind of phonetic mush, not knowing what any of the words meant or where individual ones began and ended and others started. Now it comes newly clear in pieces; words like “quieres,” “pero,” and “sierra” leap out as a kind of sparkling borderline between who I am now and who I was in 1965. I stand holding an umbrella, a solo and displaced figure in the night, the colors of the banners rippling in the water on the black pavement, between past and present, latency and actuality, self and other, all part of the clueless trance of existence. I photograph the banner in the water. I photograph the drummers. An hour later, still no band.
Back at Casa Colonial a twenty-year-old student named Scott tries to help me, using the band’s card with its many numbers to call for information. None of them lead to anyone who has even heard of the band—except the handwritten one on the back from which he ends up taking down yet another number from a woman who is apparently the wife of one of the musicians. After he explains that I want to get a recording from them before I leave—in order to interest a documentary film-maker—she insists they are at the zocalo right now. Scott suggests that we walk back there together.
On the way I hear about his study of the perception of pesticides by Mexican migrant workers returning from the U.S.—a big undertaking for only a sophomore at University of Puget Sound.
He is of another generation entirely. His Cuban Missile Crisis is 9-11. He will live his life in a world as radical as the one I was entering then, but in an entirely different, more dangerous post-modern context. His parents have moved to Couer d’Alene, Idaho, and are now bicycling across Spain. They are conservative, he says, “by comparison with us kids.”
It is amazing how safe we feel, walking through so much poverty so late at night. In fact, Scott is surprised that I would even worry about danger of any sort. I understand that the relationship between poverty and violence is an optional one, and what exists in the U.S. may be an aberration, having little to do with deprivation. It may be more about guns, a legacy of slavery, lack of community, an unfair distribution of wealth (no, that is in Mexico too), perhaps the total superficiality of the mercantile culture. Meanwhile Scott’s sister is doing ecological work on the Chilean-Argentinan border, and he is going next year to continue his studies at the University of Havana.
The hope of the world rests on him, her, and their kind.
We make the rounds of the zocalo several times, as he queries waitresses and maitre d’s at various places. Further from the corner where the band was, people insist they are, in fact, playing over there. Closer to it, we hear other stories, about how they were there and will be back. We stand and listen to the drummers, while we continue talking about the planet. The maitre d’ at La Jardin finally tells Scott that the band has been called away to a government function somewhere else.
But it is more mysterious than that because Scott returns to the zocalo for the days, and then the weeks, after I leave and return to Berkeley, and by email he tells me he cannot find them anywhere, though everyone who has an opinion continues to insist they are there right now or coming back in an hour or so.
The last morning in Mexico I await Amado’s arrival because I have a brainstorm to get the hired taxi driver to take us to Monte Alban on the way to the airport but, when he arrives, Amado brushes it off. Monte Alban is not on the way and, no matter how early we leave, there is not enough time. The last chance, gone.
I want to use up our remaining pesos. Fortunately a traveling carver and his family have come by Casa Colonial with a bag of painted animals. The man and woman are maybe in their early thirties, and they have a muchacho. They are Indian; the guy is sweet in the way Victor is, incessantly smiling, bespectacled, a bit stocky, black hair; he is the artesano. His wife looks a little long-suffering but equally affable, a bit delicate, or maybe not delicate but innocent-seeming and very tired. The lithe rubber-band of a boy is active as a squirrel and somewhat bored but used to amusing himself on excursions like this. They have been at the casa a while when I discover them. In fact, they are packing up to go but, when they understand I am a possible customer, they patiently unwrap their wares and set them back out. A big responsibility for me! I want to come through for them.
Lindy is worried that if I spend all the pesos, we will have nothing in reserve in case a problem arises en route to the airport. Yet I have already paid the cab driver the day before, and I feel anyway I have no choice and hold a mere fraction of the coins I need to honor them. It is so horribly sad because—only through my eyes, of course—there is dignity amid pathos, refusal of pathos by dignity, also by the acuity and perfection of the animals. These include a crab (each pincer inserted in a hole), a rabbit (bolt upright ears), a monkey (curled removable tail), and numerous badgers, insects, and reclining cats, some exquisitely tiny, some mouse-size. This emerging archaeology is totally childlike and engaging, like Alice in Wonderland, but I still can’t help feeling bad for them, adults and child, though, god knows, my existential situation is not any better than theirs—on the present Earth, our separate itinerant tourista cultures, unanchored anywhere, yawing at the planet’s seams.
I have to remember that the sense of loss, the things not done, whether Monte Alban yesterday or “Guantanamara” thirty-five years ago, will always be there and are just a tag for a greater, cosmic sense of loss. These people don’t want or need my sympathy. I cannot do anything for them or honor them any more fully than by my commerce. I buy eight animals, the last and smallest of them down to my final ten- and five-peso coins, until there can’t be any more. I will have to cram even these in among the clothes in my suitcase.
In the cab to the airport I remember that Oaxaca is no small town; it is a city. I suspected that first while watching an ad for a televised game of the Oaxacan baseball team on TV in Mexico City. Next time I will have to buy some of those Oaxaca beisbol t-shirts for me and Robin.
Indians or near descendants of Indians stand on the observation deck to watch an Aeromexico plane ignite in a roar, take off, and head, dwindling in size, over the mountains. Esto es vida. The airport reminds me of Newark or Laguardia, 1952, where in my childhood we could stand before the relative novelty of aviation and watch everything, the planes coming and going, as a ceremony.
This is also a partial scene from dozens of movies I have seen—the airport in Central or South America, the fields and mountains beyond, the Indians gathered to observe our own cargo cult.
El tenedor. Gracias. Si. Pase, pase, pase. Camine a zocalo. Freefallin’.
It is strange taking off in the exact path that the Aeromexico jet assumed just an hour earlier, the Indians watching my tiny ikon turn into the clouds. Below are the fields and the mountains—and then suddenly I see the arenas of Monte Alban, its stone geometry and courtyards, as we are departing, a final gift.
My closed eye vision continues to run pink-green-grape- yellow-blue-orange, though not any pinks, greens, yellows, blues, oranges, chakras I was familiar with before Mexico.
At the beginning of this adventure we were struggling with our phone card, money exchange, a bus ticket to Cuernavaca (cash only), and a nosy woman wanting to share a cab ride. Mexico was a mystery, exposed in tiny, scaled-down vistas through degrees of its own fog. The real Mexico is now slightly revealed, the map south of the United States.
The landing in Mexico City through layers of clouds is extremely bumpy. We wander through much of the airport looking for our next flight until, circling all the way back, we find that is just across the aisle from where we got off. That is because it is a domestic not an international flight. We are not going to San Francisco; we have an intermediate stop in Guadalajara.
Rising through the clouds, with thunderstorms in all directions, the plane shakes and suddenly drops, three times in fact, before continuing to ascend. It is about as terrifying as any flight I have been on. I can only breathe and try to go deeper inside myself. Finally we get up above the clouds to the sun.