June is the right time to come…as the skies are full of every shape and color of cloud while the air is fairly warm; the flowers are abundant–buttercups, berries, cow parsnip and rainforest jungles of moss and lichen covering everything–bark, stone and ground. There are days of sunshine as well and glaciers, forests–steep and heavily wooded with Sitka Spruce and hemlock–and mountains, snow capped and teeming with waterfalls surrounding the Gatineau Channel, the inland passage between the mainland and innumerable islands that make up the Southeast area of Alaska. Juneau…the Alaska State Capital–is a mixed bag–ugly concrete state office buildings, parking garages, and hotels wih a port to huge city-building scaled cruise ships that disgorge thousands onto the town daily and block the harbor views–but Juneau is also a small town still with Victorian buildings in ice cream colors nestled among rhodedendrons and lilacs, fireweed and lupine, small sweet homes up steep streets with the forest out the backdoor.
I arrived here in Juneau just as the biennial CELEBRATION 2010 began. It was astonishing, moving and brought to life all the photos of native Alaskan regalia that I’d studied and taught in my Art of the Americas class. It began and concluded with processions through the streets of Juneau with all 52 dance groups, in full regalia, drumming and dancing and singing/chanting their way to Centennial Hall where they were greeted by the 102 year old Elder Walter Soboloff and by many other dignitaries of the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida groups. Then in two different venues the dance groups performed traditional dances and story songs in beautiful regalia–robes of black and red with button patterns, each individual to their clan–Ravens and Eagles, Dog Salmon and Killer Whale, Frog and Wolf. Some dances recounted myths–like how Raven stole the Light and gave it to man–; others were love songs; still others reenacted the process of catching salmon with men paddling in circles around people with carved sculptures of salmon bobbing within the circle. Children as well as Elders were participants in every dance and often the singers and drummers with strong voices and powerful drumbeats were women as well as men. Three days of performance brought one into an otherworldly awareness of cultures alive and throbbing with life here in Southeast, an area known mostly for totem poles, but an area rich in oratory, dance, song, story and regalia hardly known in the Lower 48. Indeed Alaska really seems like another country and the native peoples as still another nation…but one in which each clan has its own chief, its own stories, its own regalia, its own identity. What they all share is the land and its surrounding seas and rivers–rich in salmon and seal, walrus and whale, cedar and berries. I felt privileged to be among the 5000 who attended Celebration, to be among almost entirely native peoples who were there to express or learn about their own cultural heritage which the Elders were eager to share and invite the assembled attendees to embrace and continue.
From Celebration to Glacier Bay was like moving from New York to China–I flew by bush plane across wilderness mountains and bays to the entirely white homesteaded community of Gustavus and boarded a small squarish former Navy mine runner–the Seawolf– with mahogany trimmed staterooms and a sweeping viewed dining table on the stern. For six days we chugged slowly though Glacier Bay–mountains and glaciers everywhere–and kayaked amidst icebergs, watched Marjorie Glacier calf, paddled close to two Black Bears who snuffled and clacked their jaws at us to stay away, saw otters with babies on their bellies, seals leaping out of the sea and, at last, Humpback Whales blowing and diving, their tail fins the last sight before disappearance and then an amazing whale who rolled around and then breached, rolled and breached ten times right in front of the Seawolf. To see a whale hurl its many tons out of the water for a wild breach takes one’s breath away and was the best moment ever of this trip.
Came back to Juneau and met up with a woman I’d met 15 years ago when I was here researching the Arts of the Americas course–Sue Ann Randall– who has lived here more than 30 years, who lived like a homesteader in North Douglas on land without water and electricity, a woman who raised four children in the wilderness and who now is returning to school for a degree in ceramics, a move in her life which she attributes to my inspration–which makes me feel so grateful. I stayed at the historic 1913 Alaskan Hotel–tres Victorian, not especially well-maintained, once a brothel or a miners’ hotel–there’s a controversy of fact here–but I loved the old furniture, the fact that the place had history and the fact that it is part of historic Juneau, plus that it is in the middle of rip-roaring six bars in a block Juneau of the old days.
Next entry will recount what expires during the National Endowment of the Humanities Summer Institute on Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific Northwest Coast and Western Alaskan Cultures of Alaska…….
It is early, perhaps 7am but the sun has been up for hours, or at least the gray sky has been light since 4am here on this 30 kilometer long island off the coast of Fyn, the middle kingdom of Denmark. Here we are in the Baltic Sea which is warmer than the air on colder drizzly windy days and clearer than Lake Tahoe. There are songbirds on the chimneys of the heavily thatched roof of my arts-focused folkehojskole, at one time a typical Danish countryside farm built in 1779 and they sing their hearts out all day, beautiful varied melodies like Esteve’s primary colored paintings, like all the jazz we are hearing every day and night here at this “folk high school” I am attending for some weeks of the summer 2004.
In the field just beyond where we have breakfast of jam and yoghurt, cheese and rodebrot (a thin dense, nourishing dark bread made with sunflower seeds and other whole grains) there are always roan horses grazing and the hill beyond has an ancient windmill, the “Vestermolle,” also thatched and looking like every Van Gogh you’ve ever seen. Just down the hill is an earthwork, a huge mound a Viking king had raised by hand in the year 900 or so.
This island I am living on for the summer, Aero, is an island lost in time, its lifestyle and values embedded in the 18th-19th centuries. Homes are all old, hand built, small and cozy; everyone walks or rides a basic bicycle around the island; and everyone has a garden, a craft he or she lives by, and a friendly heart Outside most homes is a small box, a chair, or a table on which are fresh foodstuffs and crafts for sale–. “ny kartoflen–10 kroner” (new potatoes, (about $2 US), juicy purple onions, lavender, homemade cookies, hand knitted sox and baby clothes in brilliant wildflower colors–orange, buttercup yellow, Mediterranean sea blue or would it be Los Angeles pool Hockneyesque blue?, Red, blue green, each sock or bonnet knitted with a different pattern, with stripes and flowers, each one unique, and for sale for a pittance–sox for two dollars, a baby dress for seven. Each cache has a jar for any money that you might owe, as here trust and honesty are givens. The office here at the skole for example is always open, with cash box, computers and telephone there with no one looking after them as no one misuses privilege. At a railway station on my way here two weeks ago I absentmindedly, travelling on two hours’sleep, left my suitcase in the kiosk store, and went to wait for a half an hour for my train. When it arrived I realized I’d abandoned my antique Sansonite (which is a marvel that I’ve lugged around for twenty years and still manages to stay intact and functional) in the little store in the station, a store by the way like most here in Denmark that serves fresh sandwiches, bakery bread and pastries. When I returned it was still there waiting expectantly. Indeed people leave their babies in perambulators (of the most advanced high tech and luxuriant kind) in front of restaurants while they dine inside and of course the babies are still there when the meal is done.
What brings me to Aero is Folkehojskole—a Danish post-secondary, non-graded school system, state-supported, and intended to give adults respite from work, a week or two or ten off in the country studying something they want to explore from world political peace movements to soccer, drawing to classical music composition. At our skole–Kunsthojskolen pa Aero (email@example.com)–the day begins with breakfast outside in the green yard next to the horses; then we have “sammling”– the gathering– wherein we sing songs not from a hymnal exactly but from a songbook of joyous tunes about the new morning, the grass, the beauty of the earth and life, a songbook that every hojskole here in Denmark uses, and that unites the people of this country in positive joyful peaceful living.
The idea of the folkehojskole was developed by a preacher and hymn composer named Grundtvig in the mid 1800s. Initially a folkehojskole was a school to let farmworkers (and other poor people who hadn’t the opportunity to go to school) come back to school at any age and be lightened by music, art, sport, ponderings of philosophy or study of other countries’ cultures. Grundvig is revered almost as a mystical visionary and his ideas about building a nation of happy and peaceful people revolutionized Denmark and really shows in every aspect of the Danish life. I was told in fact that you really cannot fight if you are Danish because fighting words do not exist in Danish so one cannot really be vicious to others. Case in point, here in Aero I have been living with thirty people for the last ten days and haven’t heard a cross word yet. We are all participant in a communal experience of great sweetness–we eat together, paint together, drink wine together (it’s quite hilarious really to see our little herd of middle aged people, each with his or her own bottle of usually Chilean red wine, me included strolling about the lawn and fields), and sit outside as often as the weather will allow and talk and talk and talk. I am as included as anyone else and most of the time they kindly speak English, though sometimes they are comfortable enough with me around to chatter on in Danish and I really don’t mind; it’s a little like birdsong in the end.
As the focus of this folkehojskole is the arts, and the course is “Art and Jazz”, we start the “study” day with a slide lecture on art–Sigmar Polke, Mondrian, Esteve from France, Saatchi artists, a Venezuelan installation artist from the last Venice Bienal, Bearden, a light installation in the Tate modern–or a film about contemporary art.
Then we go to our studio, an old farmhouse where huge buckets of acrylic paints and a huge roll of brown paper are available. And coffee, tea–herbal and English Breakfast–are brought to us fresh each morning and afternoon. Then the painting begins, done always to jazz, from Ellington to Brubeck, Jarrett to Miles. For three special days we had a duo from Copenhagen– Maas on sax and Erik on drums–play for us live in the studio, sometimes in the main room, sometimes wandering among us as we painted, Erik drumming on any surface he could find, Maas blowing the sax like a demon. They even came with us out one night to a sand quarry where we had our “night experience” Imagine a long long dusk, mounds of concrete blocks and rusted machinery, a crane, a huge shovel, mountains of sand and a lake, birds singing and the scent of lavender and us, all thirty of us, with six by eight foot sheets of paper and paint. By the time we set up, the light was fast disappearing which of course was the director, Nils, idea to free us all up. And so we painted until we couldn’t see what we were doing, painted with sand falling into the paint, painted by walking into our surfaces to make marks. It was great fun and then we were rewarded by cake and coffee–yes even out there in the quarry. Other nights we have heard live jazz at the Festival in the main town of Aeroskobing–great traditional cool jazz, sometimes cacaphonous obscure jazz by an Argentinian group–in an intimate old half timbered building, candlelit and cozy as every place here seems to be. When we come home at midnight or so the whole tribe raids the refrigerator and kitchen like kids at camp, bandits finding kuchen and kaffe and then talking another hour longer before retiring to our feather beds, mine in the garrett under the thatch of the main house.
Lunch is my favorite meal here as a smorgasbord of treats welcomes us from a long hard morning of making art–two kinds of herring, wurst, ham, salame, camembert, gorgonzola and white cheeses, eggs, four kinds of fresh baked breads, greens, sometimes a pate or a spinach quiche, a veggie burger kind of loaf, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and carrots, dill dressing in creme fraiche and mustard viniagrette–always a feast and we take our food outside in the sunshine when it isn’t raining, even going out when its gray, the Danish folk so grateful for light and summer that they are outside as often as possible. In fact I am amazed at how often they become lobster red and sunburned, never a fear of skin cancer; actually many of them smoke a lot as well and seem to not care about lung cancer either. They are a happy, somewhat generous of body lot, who are unpretentious, casual of dress. It’s been funny for me to see a whole populace with the same skin and body type as mine–stout Germanic/Nordic with broad shoulders, pink prone to burning flesh–I have a friend here, Marlene, who is in the textile industry and she told me that each country actually measures its own population and makes clothes to fit that group. Here the clothing fits me better than it does in the states. If I could only learn Danish, but it is the most impossible of languages–words spelled one way never sounds like they look as they do in Spanish; and there are many sounds distinctly and uniquely Danish; hence the name Aage for instance is pronounced “oh yay,” and Aero is “ay rhuuuuch,” go figure. I am constantly misunderstood when I ask for places–people tell me they don’t exist. Of course they do; I just can’t say the words, try though I may.
Living with the Danish people for a month showed me a quality of community I’ve rarely experienced in the States. Here people invested as much energy in personal communication as they did in their art and though I was an outsider, I was never left out. Indeed when my birthday coincided with our farewell dinner, I was feted with tributes and a necklace of mementoes—a gull feather, a stone from the beach, a piece of rubble from the quarry, a velvet pouch of treasures Kirsten gathered for me to have a remember this new-found family by….and then, in the morning, my actual birthday, I was led out to the farmyard to see that the formal Danish flag was being flown. Knowing that this only happens on proscribed special days like Christmas and the Queen’s Birthday, I asked if my birthday was an official Danish holiday as well. “No,” Birgit replied, “the girls in the kitchen decided that we should fly the flag for you today!” In fact, the whole village of Soby, where our skole is located all replaced their daily vimpel (the long slender flag than flies from a white and red flagpole in every yard on Aero) with the big Danish flag in honor of my birthday. I was moved to tears as I walked down to the port to see my friends off for home.
Two weeks of painting and conversing, washing dishes together and listening to jazz, and we were family, not to mention that the entire group had as well produced a prodigious amount of art, had made exciting artistic break-throughs and were thoroughly reinvigorated in spirit. We had a final Gallery Opening and then a farewell dinner, full of tears and toasts, as if we’d known each other forever and were each departing for Antarctica. And indeed in the morning everyone departed except me (I was to stay for the next intensive, one on landscape that began with a trip on a classic square-rigger sailing ship). My fellow painters, now all friends, left on a red and yellow hulled steamer bound for the mainland of Denmark, a scene reminiscent of the departure of the Queen Mary—everyone on deck, waving hankerchiefs and blowing kisses until the ship vanished into the blue horizon of the glistening Baltic Sea.
THE JOY OF MEXICAN TRANSPORT
Oh how I wish America could learn from Mexico about transportation. Every pueblito is serviced by buses perhaps not every ten minutes but always served all day by anything from a “chicken bus,” an old schoolbus wherein one usually finds a sacks of live chickens on their way to becoming dinner. But chicken buses are by no means the norm; indeed they are merely one step below the filthy Greyhound that charges 100 times the price per mile than any Mexican bus, first to third class. Second class buses have reclining velvet covered seats, no bathroom and varying degrees of cleanliness, although they are fast, on time and about the level of a good Greyhound.
First class buses, however, are like nothing known in America. The bus stations first of all resemble high end airport terminals—marble, glass, exposed beams a la the Pompiodou Center in Paris, all manner of restaurants and services available, and private waiting rooms for each bus line. A first class trip is signalled by two uniformed greeters, lovely young girls in pressed white collars and suits who welcome you on board and give you a sack of beverage, sandwich and cookies—what airline in the USA is this generous these days? But any Primera Plus trip longer than two hours will for sure give you lunch. Meanwhile one uniformed man takes and checks your baggage and another drives the Mercedes bus you are about to board. Seats are spaced well apart and have risers for your feet, reclining seats with fresh napkins at your head, cup holders, A/C controls, velvet curtains and tinted shades to control the sun. Every bus has a bathroom that is clean, has soap, towels and tp and in its anteroom there is hot and cold water, tea and coffee sugar and creamer perpetually available. This first class service charges, for example for a 5 hour trip $13-26 USD or to popular beach towns 4-5 hours/ $34 USD—amazing. And should you want ultra first class for a long trip, say for 7 hours, you can take an UNO wherein your seats fully recline, and are furnished with sheets. Would that we in the States could travel this way on a bus. On Primera Plus I am comfortable; there are good movies on the screen and I arrive refreshed even on an all nighter.. When I arrive I can then taxi—perhaps 20 minute ride for $2-3 to a hostel—four to a room with hot water $10/night and located a couple of blocks from the nicest parts of the centros historicos of cities like Morelia or Queretaro or even Mexico City (for $18 in the Zona Rosa-posh district, safe, clean, central)
GUANAJUATO is where I’ve spent July-August 2006 and it’s a town that grows on you—it’s not that touristy, it’s not a Texas suburb like San Miguel and it’s not a resort. What it is, is a mountain town with a population of about 75,000, that feels like Medieval Europe with ruined walls and aqueducts bordering streets and rebuilt into current homes, with old Spanish style wooden doors and brilliantly colored walls.
GUANAJUATO, someone said to me is “oscuro” (dark) while SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, is full of light. I resisted the comparison, not wanting to sound like every other American rhapsodizing about the perpetually cute American ex-patriate enclave just an hour or so up in the mountains of GTO state but San Miguel does have buckets of charm…narrow cobblestone streets lined with ochre, pink and Venetian red houses, single story, hand carved wooded doors, shell shaped aediculas on every corner hosting a sweet Virgin or a St Francis sheltering a bird in his gentle hands. The pink castle towers of the cathedral are said to have been built when a friar drew in the sand a design he remembered from Belgium; they rise high above the jardin (what central plazas are called in Guanajuato state) in the center of town. This plaza has thick square cut trees, elaborate ironwork benches and balloon men, children, home-made helados (ice cream) in obscure flavors like tequila, guanabana, and mamey. Cafes and stores with the best, highest priced and highest quality crafts from all over Mexico line the streets and surround the plazas and are deliciously tempting—I had to buy a big round chicken pitcher with lilies painted all over her belly as well as pineapple pots with deep green glaze from Michoacan.
Here the restaurants serve such delights as goat cheese and fresh spinach omelets and fresh salmon despite the distance from the sea. Cafes and cobblestone streets are filled with gray haired transplants from Arizona, Texas, California, pale replicas of a classic ex-pat type—men in Bermudas and huaraches; women with hair cut short and man-like, in bodies that have acquired more than a few pounds, all wearing indigenous huipiles or long embroidered dresses the styles of which no actual Mexican woman, who was not a poor indigenous Indian from Tejuantepec or Chiapas, would ever wear.
At night the San Miguel world is full of younger people—Mexican and ex-pat alike– wandering from bar to bar, dancing to cover bands way too enamored of 70s rock in places like Mama Mia.
I went to San Miguel for the weekend with an optometrist intern, a wild and beautiful Lebanese American from South Carolina, Rachel Davis, and we spent lots of hours shopping before we took a cab way out into the country where there are many hot springs—We went to Escondido Springs that had acres of land, groves of whispy pine trees, ponds with blooming waterliles and ten different hot pools, three in a row with tunnels between them and cupolas above, three bordered by rocks, the water the color of a swimming pool and natural cascades rushing down into the pool. We then were invited to stay at a most amazing mansion, the Texas ranch owners of which Rachel knew—the place was glorious, the pool and pool house reminiscent of Hearst Castle, though smaller; the main house, a three story rotunda with opulent bedrooms all decorated in Spanish style with authentic antique sculptures, paintings, even embroidered suitcase racks—views of the lands far from San Miguel and a full time staff serving from the living room bar, kitchen and chauffeuring us in the SUV. To see what this beautiful home cum rentable casa looks like you can go to www.casacarino.net.
Though in the same state as San Miguel and having the same wonderful climate—warm dry and breezy days, cool nights, clear air—Guanajuato has a completely different vibe. Here it is Mexican despite the many middle aged mostly female teachers and young students who live here for a month to take Spanish intensives. These Americans are only evident at places like pricey restaurants and at the elegant Teatro Juarez; otherwise, it is a city of Mexican people of all economic levels from well dressed businessmen and intellectuals to the poor old women in aprons and gray rebozos (shawls that virtually all older women wear here as in Oaxaca). Interestingly many of these women have more indigenous than Spanish blood, but not one of them wears a huipil. Here everyone is on his way somewhere, works, is engaged, is not on vacation unless he or she is just passing through for a day or two. This city is neither a resort nor a high profile cultural mecca like Mexico City.
GUANAJUATO looks and is unique. Imagine a landscape of mountains and then canyons cut by rivers and streams into the red and white sandstone . Good, now bury or divert the rivers and you have the general topography of Guanajuato—a three to four mile long single canyonesque street with some tributary streets and primarily pedestrian pathways plunging down into it. Using this main thoroughfare are thousands of people, cars, buses, trucks and taxis jamming the one usually single lane road until you get to the center where roads all go one way—downtown. Beneath Guanajuato is another tangled world of tunnels — an amazing labyrinth of archways, rough hewn stone tunnels, side tunnels coming in unexpectedly, stairways bringing people down into the subterranean world that goes for miles under the city. Sometimes a tunnel opens to the sky and there, clinging to the walls are rooms, even whole houses cantilevered out over the road far below, structures supported by wooden beams and painted ochre, Venetian red, pink, coral, blue, some with ornate balconies, arched windows. The tunnels began as an antidote to the traffic above, on the cobblestone streets that wind and twist between jardines—plazas with heavy Indian laurel trees clipped square creating a green ceiling for pedestrians, formal garden flower beds with sculptures, fountains and usually a stunning Baroque church, decorated like a wedding cake with estipe columns, angels, floral arabesques, aediculas with saints and virgins on every square inch of the elaborate pink sandstone portal.
But now both the tunnels and the above ground streets are both nightmares of clogged traffic that’s hard to overlook if you walk, like I do, down to the center nearly every day.
The center of GTO is the Jardin and the Teatro Juarez—Greek fascade, bronze figures on the pediment and a Moorish interior in gold, Venetian red and green earth—every tier a different pattern, every wall and column completely covered in geometric and floral bas relief. Outside is the jardin surrounded by open air cafes, shops, strolling families, venders of ice cream and corn cut fresh from the cob and served with butter, cheese, chili, salt and lime—double yummy.
Climbing up from the main street are callejons, walking alleys of stone that twist and turn as they climb up the steep walls of the canyon, every so often stopping at a plazuelita with a fountain, trees, some ornate Spanish Baroque iron benches where children play, older women converse and people sit for hours at cafes because life here happens outdoors. The houses here are like stacked boxes, some square, others rounded or angular to accommodate the bedrock on which they are built, all kinds of brilliant colors in certain neighborhoods, plain brick and cement in others, every house seeming to have a view either to the other side of the canyon or of the wild mountains and rocks that rise above the whole town, mountains dry and hosting California pepper trees, thorny shrubs, pine trees, flambuoyants with orange flowers, and several other leafy species I can’t identify as well as nopales and organ pipe cactus.
There are dirt roads and trails into the wilderness with jagged peaks and splendid caves way above the city, caves that may have once been mines. One high above my house, La Bufa, has gigantic slanted slabs of stone creating a natural amphitheater, like those in the Canyonlands of Utah and from this cave shelter high above the city you can see for perhaps a hundred miles of mostly wild uninhabited land—Glorious. I keep connected to the land by walking nearly every day along the Panoramica, a road that stays high above the town, skirting the natural landscape near my house. I walk to the Pipila, a huge sandstone sculpture of the revolutionary who set fire to the Alhondiga, a granary where the Spanish forces were sequestered in the first days of the War of Independence in the 1800s. This statue stands way above the centro historico on a cliff above Guanajuato and reminds everyone that this state is the home of the Independence of Mexico.
On the few actual streets of town, vehicles rule, exhaust filling the air, streets so narrow in places, you have to stop and flatten yourself against a wall while a smoke belching bus rattles up the hill right next to you—and from where I live there is only one street into the center and this is it. There are also the craziest steepest streets I’ve seen anywhere. The first night I arrived the cabbie missed the number of my apartment and had to circle around to the next
street informally called el infierno (hell) and it WAS. After winding down this barely single lane cobblestone street we came to a place so narrow we had one inch on each side of the old Toyota taxi and then the street plunged like a ski slope down to the main road.
My neighborhood, La Presa, is at one end of town, near a reservoir and wild space,. This is the “new” neighborhood (circa 1890) and here is the pink sandstone Beaux Arts Escuela Normal built by the former President Porfirio Diaz—whose selling off of most of Mexico to foreign investors caused the Revolution but whose taste, derived from visits to Paris and other European capitals, had some benefits such as this school. Here in La Presa is also the Neoclassical Governor’s Palace up the Paseo,
In La Presa, my colonia, there are many mansions sprawling up the hill with Art Nouveau stained glass windows, floral plaster faced walls, ballustrades Mucha would be proud to have designed and a wierd three story gabled structure known as the Casa de las Brujas (House of the Witches) because it was abandoned for years, and is now the home of Academia Falcon, the language school I attended along with every Mexican- bound middle aged grammar school teacher from the States—its own world of Spanish classes where grammar is pumped into our language phobic brains and where the accents of the Americans are truly torture to the ears.
My apartment is here as well and it’s magical—a place for a princess.
I enter up a spiral stair inside a golden-domed tower, then cross a bridge and come into my slate floored lovely living room/ kitchen with a wall of curved windows and traditional leather seats and couch. Up another spiral stair is my big bedroom with a big wall of windows facing the mountains and the turrets and colorful houses across the canyon.
Living in the warren of apartments my landlord has created out of an old Mexican home or hotel is an array of great people, with whom I go to dinner, see jazz, travel and just hang. Rachel Davis is a gorgeous Lebanese-American South Carolina optometry intern who has eaten Mexico whole, flying off to explore nearby towns every weekend, staying up all night with a film crew and professional “mountain crawlers” who tear up the local peaks in 4WD Jeeps, dancing at discos until 3 or 4am, and making friends with every person she encounters on the street. Then there’s Frank and Angela, elementary school teachers from Texas; she’s petite beautiful 27 a sculptor with a whimsical rapieresque wit while he’s cute, looks way younger than his 44 years, composes music, plays piano and guitar. They are absolutely in love and it’s a sweet vibe to be around. Then there’s our landlord, Bill Byrnes, — a friendly quirky white haired fellow on his third wife, a beautiful 27 year old Thai woman he met online, has lived in India, Thailand, all over Mexico and the States, a nomad who spends his life renting apartments, selling real estate and primarily buying rambling old structures like this one and rebuilding them to his own specs. He’s a wild one—takes care of everything from carrying huge 5 liter water containers up four flights for all of his tenants, to hauling rocks or carved stone ballustrades in his battered old Toyota, to designing and building a very small swimming pool that’s got a wave machine built in so you can swim laps in place. He wears dentures that he has twice had to replace when he got so wasted on tequila that they fell out and his dog munched them up like a toy. Another friend here is Rose, a tall Irish artist hippie from Santa Cruz who lives in New Orleans, does face painting for tourists to get enough cash to live really without working, just hanging with her artist friends and painting her dreams. She has a most magical way about her, open, joyful, sympathetic….she and her roommates are caring for a homeless man who is dying. She lives in a pink Victorian mansion that was once the nun’s convent next to Santa Rosa Church, a house that came to her, she feels, as a gift at $79,000 just three years ago. Having it allows her to live sparely without working.
Without even trying a teaching job fell into my lap when I visited the Casa Museo Gene Byron early in my month here. The Directora, hearing some comments I made about the current exhibition in the gallery, asked me to teach some intensives here. I feel so blessed. I teach drawing and painting in the garden of this museum, which is an ex-hacienda next to a river, a garden filled with antique sculptures, jungley plants and old trees—tranquil, beautiful and mysterious. The former owner, a Canadian artist who migrated here in the 1920s, Gene Byron, loved madonnas with children or standing in bliss alone , a blessing on their faces or on their gestures, silly elephants, and San Miguels with all manner of dragons at their feet, no Christos suffering. Inside the hacienda are grand rooms opening onto the garden, great stone arches giving light to the rooms full of fine ceramics, weavings, carved wood furniture, and sculptures of horses and metal work –In fact the Museum still houses a taller (workshop) where men hammer away at and weld tin into lanterns that cast magical patterns on nearby walls—they also fabricate 30s style sculptures that Gene Byron designed in copper and silver. Surrounding the museum are other ex-haciendas, all old stone, parts crumbling, with tangled gardens, old chapels, almost forests leading down to a river meandering below and next to an old parish church with wedding cake decorations, and bulbous baroque lintels over the fascade. There’s also a splendid dam with several sculptures of figures along its rim and water lilies and cat tails around the reservoir—lovely.
My classes have been brilliant I have been teaching in Spanish even with my bad grammar and my students have developed skill at an amazing rate. It lets me know how unmotivated are many of my American students. It is obviously possible to learn fast if one listens and tries. Perhaps because my students here had to pay for the course, they respect it more. Even the teenagers in one class paid for it themselves and worked hard. By Mexican standards, I am being paid enormously well–most Mexicans with laborer jobs earn $100 pesos a day–that’s $10 a day US– whereas I earn $100 pesos a day per student so I have earned $210 USD one week and $300USD another–cash in hand. AND the head of the Museo invited a reporter to check out the class; she interviewed me and took photos and I was featured in a newspaper here in the Style section—a half page spread with photos–how about that? I am so delighted with the students here—They are respectful, gracious and attentive. At the end of the second intensive, they prepared a most generous feast for me—various meats and salads, wine and a cake and we all spent hours celebrating the end of the course—Mexicans do this all the time—graduation, the end of a course, the end of a year of school, the 15th birthday—every thing warrants a party, a celebration that enunciates gratitude. I was delighted to say the least.
What makes Mexican life really different from life in the US inheres in little things—everyone walks for instance so the streets are always full of people, –families, lovers, children– and there are lots of places to sit—mostly elaborate ironwork benches. Streets are where it all happens—a mime always entertains a hundred people sitting on the steps of the theater, bands play in the gazebo of the Jardin most nights or break dancers practice there. Large groups of handsome young men, called Estudiantinas, dress in Medieval black velvet outfits, gold braids and ribbons on their capes, play antique instruments, sing, tell jokes and lead people around the mysterious nooks of the city like pied pipers of some Spanish troubadour romance. Families are the glue everywhere—even in discoteks people travel in tribes– brothers and sisters as well as friends, and if you are a stray single, you’ll be scooped up and welcomed into a group for the entire night. Somehow the intimacy of family seems to carry right on over into politics wherein governors are called by their first names—Felipe won this election, not Andres Manuel. Street venders are everywhere under blue tarps making fresh gorditas, tortillas, carnitas, serving fresh ice cream, or selling vegetables —and they are as regular in location as a store—this woman sells fresh cocoanut next to the pink lilies in the plaza, that one makes fresh yoghurt and sells it in a nice ceramic pot on the north side of the Hidalgo Mercado for $1.50 and that little old campesino—at least 85 if he’s a day–always hobbles around the Embajadores Plaza offering ten peso bags of squash.
Tucked into every neighborhood there is a small store in someone’s house, open all the time, prices the same as anywhere else—a local enterprise, not a slick 7-11– where you can get fresh bread every day, limes, tomatoes, milk, juice, cigarettes, phone cards –whatever you need is hidden somewhere and all you have to do is ask and the woman fetches the goods, from some rooms in the back. Papelerias—paper stores—can be found literally on every block and are magical places filled with wildly colored paper, ribbons and strings of gold and silver sequins and brilliant gift wrappings as well as the usual notebooks and glue.
Really quirky is how, if anyone wants to write down a number or an address, they always tear off a very small portion of a piece of paper and hand it to you, sometimes so small it’s instantly lost. It’s about conserving things. Even the seemingly hundreds of plastic bags that every vender gives out for each item, however small, get reused for garbage bags, lunch totes, etc.. Change is wierd too—no one seems to have it so if you have, say, a $200 peso note ($20) and you want to buy coffee for $15 pesos, it is a rare store or vender who will have that much change so often you will be left standing at the store while the owner runs down the street to get you change.
Literally no one has change from fancy stores to an old woman selling bread for $3 pesos so you get to hoarding tons of it yourself to make sure you can pay for what you need, making extra efforts to give exact change if you like the taxista, or the woman with a baby bundled into a rebozo on her back selling fresh green peppers and avocados which she has piled into attractive little mountains on a towel on the street. This is a country where every vender, no matter how few or humble her or his goods, lays them out carefully, with rhythm, in colorful patterns, or arranges vegetables like a bouquet—and packages of cut up veggies for soup are always an art piece.
The RAG, however, is just the opposite—it was never a thing of beauty—a basic gray and black striped cotton thing, usually falling apart at the edges, the rag is a sorry excuse for a doormat that squats just inside the door of every home, humble to grand, every store, even a the posh brand new Neoclassic Maria Cristina Hotel with spa, pool and suites starting at $350 USD/night.
As for finding out what’s going on here, the newspapers are not the place. Here the walls are full of posters or just 8 x10 papers notifying anyone who passes by of everything from a religious procession for the Feast of the Virgen of Carmen, to a summer guitar course for children, to an art gallery opening, to the jazz group performing tonight. Careful reading of the walls has assured me a great social life here as I rarely miss anything and most events are free to boot.
Things do not really fall apart here in Mexico so much as they never really get finished. Rebar rises out of sidewalks and nearly every roof; a beautiful new casa will have a patch of wall unplastered and with electrical wires dangling out; a main tourist street will be torn up by hand and left in piles of brick and scanty wooden planks over pits in the ground for months; holes seem to be in every wall and even a third of the main steps of the elegant Teatro Juarez has been torn up and has remained under construction for the whole time I’ve been here. No one seems at all fazed by the need to climb over a pile of sand, or pick your way across a deep hole in the sidewalk. Uneven pavements and steps have given me a sprained ankle every time I’ve been in this country but I must have Mexican blood by now as I haven’t tripped once during this sojourn!
As for services, most things work well—public phones on every block work, electricity is never shut off; but now we are in a drought and haven’t had water for three days—no showers no dishwashing, no nada. The one real unpleasantness is that no toilets take paper so dirty toilet paper builds up in every bathroom and makes most houses, stores, restaurants smell rather rank. But this is a small price to pay for the peace I feel here in Guanajuato and in the country as a whole.
The best part of Mexico perhaps is that it is in a kind of time warp—like some probably idealized fifties in America. Here children can play in the streets without fear of abduction; here I can walk alone on a path in the hills; here honesty is the rule be it at a shop or on the bus, correct change is always given. Here people walk or take the bus, not isolated by cars and freeways, suburbs, and locked doors. Here everyone eats more or less the same food, has more or less, mostly less, in the way of goods and here people are overall much happier, not to mention much less political and angry and self-indulgent, Was America ever like this? I do not remember such quality of life or sense of community on the block where I grew up, so I return to Mexico as often as I can like a homing pidgeon comforted by a community I always manage to find in Mexico, be it in Oaxaca or Puerto Angel, Vallarta or, this summer, in Guanajuato .
GUANAJUATO—The Coda and the Ultimate Adventure
Well I really did something amazing for my birthday…Today is the Day of the Cave, a tradition here in Guanajuato that everyone– families, groups of young guys, couples, all kinds of people, but no tourists–climbs up the mountain behind La Presa (the reservoir) and camps and parties all night there with gasoline bucket fires, sometimes tents, sometimes tequila and water. At the base of the mountain women prepare all kinds of food in makeshift tents, Corona has several stands and there’s a huge jumble of people, cars and police–very festive. I was told that there was a midnight mass at the cave, a splendid deep wedge of rock plunging into the side of La Bufa, the name of the steep cliff of rock way above town, a rock they have a myth about, a rock the city floodlights at night.
Well I took a disco nap and was out at 10:30 walking up the Panoramica Carretera, not a light or a car in sight, spooky. Then I came to the path up the mountain and people were everywhere but no lights leading up to the cave–I had this fantasy of a row of sacred candleraria–you know candles in a sand based paper bag?? Forget about it–In front of me was an open face of gravelly rock I’d scrambled up the week before– a challenge then and more so in the dark but I made it, other people nearby making it somehow easier and lessening my fear–you know I’ve never liked heights–So it is near midnight when I arrive at the cave and there are lights there, a loud rumbling generator, venders with food and water and beer but no Midnight Mass…it is to be today at “media dia” not “media noche…” as is often the case I don’t understand everything I read or hear in Spanish!!!!!
So here I am at the cave and rising way above me in glorious perpendicularity is La Bufa, its slanted mesa platform lined with fires and all the paths up and nearby rocks have clusters of people, tents, fires–the place is alive and compelling so, incredibly, I keep walking and come to the narrow, exposed path that rises steeply up to the saddle of the mountain. There in the floodlights young Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, in uniform, are manning the first part of La Bufa, a cliff so exposed that someone has installed a rope for the climb. All those smiling warm faced children beckoned me up so I do start up the steep half of the mountain. I realized that I felt fine, was in good shape–all that training I’ve been doing by walking up to the Pipila daily and disco dancing until 3am a couple of nights a week have stood me in good stead–
But then the way got steeper and there was no rope, light only from small random fires. I looked back and couldn’t imagine how I’d get down even from here. Then two young guys who were gambolling up the mountain like sure footed mountain goats started to take my hands whenever I hesitated at a big step up and somehow the way got easier. I was scrambling up a slope I would never have done in daylight and I too was sure footed. I asked the time–exactly 12:01–my birthday and here I was at midnight on the side of a near cliff–exhilarating.
We kept going and then at last there was an even steeper cliff and with no lights at all; but fortunately there were some natural cuts in the rock so I went all the way, my hands on the rock much of the way but then—astounding, I was on the slanted mesa of La Bufa, below the whole city of GTO spread out all around us, lights in every canyon and far below us. The mesa was sheer cliff on the other three sides and clusters of people were here and there at the summit. Now what? I thought hoping to turn around and go down but the guys had a tent and no intension of helping me back down until dawn–
Oh slick..I wasn’t going down alone in the dark especially down the final cliff-like ascent. They said stay–I could use the tent too-a tarp staked with rocks, the poles tree branches–no blankets– but after a while a bit warmer than on the mesa. I was okay with staying up there until it was light and I knew I was safe–this place doesn’t have any of the dangers US cities have and the guys made no advances whatsoever. I still would have preferred to get down and into my warm bed. But how? About 1am the guys all popped up from their corpse-like prone positions in the “tent” and announced, in Spanish, of course, “It’s not safe for you here any longer.” “Why not” I asked and they said “We want to fight.” Wow! I was in another world, the world of men developing bravery I suppose and not in any controlled and safe way.
By this time many people here on the top of the mesa were getting wasted on tequila and beginning to roar insults from fire to fire. At this point I definitely wanted to leave so I looked around and found a family going back down the mountain. I followed them, sometimes sliding down the sometimes wet rock on my butt, negotiating steep gravelly places, just focused on getting down, no place or time for fear. I was totally wet with sweat after we’d all made it–so much isometric control was needed on the descent. At last I came to the gravel face I’d first climbed and no one was on it and there were no lights–it seemed like the hardest part of the descent of all but of course I made it and then walked the mile of dark road home at 2:45 am–complete silence and not a car on the road–so this was my birthday. How ’bout that?
I thought I’d done ” Dia de la Cueva” last night but no, day break brought new magic—At 10 or so I was awakened by 400 cowboys riding horses by my apartment on their way up to the Midday Mass at the Cave. They had been riding from the train station by the cemetary many miles below, having come from the countryside, a “fraternidad” of campesinos, here to celebrate the Cave and the Virgin and Jesus and Guanajuato. I returned to the now traffic-jammed road and walked up to the Cave, making my way faster on foot than the stopped cars and diesel-spewing buses clogging the road who were all held up by the horses. It was a zoo—no room for pedestrians, really, especially once we were all on the trail up to the cave. But somehow we all made it and were greeted near the cave by fruit venders with artistically presented mountains of watermelon, pineapple and melon, giant vats of oil boiling in readiness to cook fresh potato chips, wheel barrows full of candy, and ice cream and nuts. At the cave a priest led the “Santos” in chanting the Mass while I ate fruit and looked at the impossibly steep mesa I’d climbed at midnight the night before. I felt blessed on this day, my birthday, though thousands of miles from home; I felt like a local by participation and trust of the Scouts and “Angels” on hand last night, a deputy citizen of Guanajuato celebrating this sacred/secular Day of the Cave.
July 31, 2006