Saturday, 24 May 2014

Falling for the French Girl 4

“I think you have a ticket with Georgette.” And he and Janine continued down the beach. I wasn’t really sure, so I asked her.
Suddenly, there were plumes of multi-coloured silica flying everywhere. The French flag vaporized. An invisible marching band played the Marseilles. I signed up with the Foreign Legion. Among the stars, the iridescent sand flashes, and the fireworks in our brains, Georgette and I lost our way to up and down. We were weightless.
Dredged with sand, we stumbled back to her Rincon posada for a shower. Just after midnight, I kissed her one last time, and returned to Diogenes.
I couldn’t sleep, although I tried. The turista kicked into overdrive and I wanted to die. Before dawn the next morning I had made a dozen forays outside my tent to dig holes along the surf line, and I wasn’t finished yet. I fainted twice in an attempt to go for water. I don’t know how long I was unconscious but, when I came to, I was too afraid to get up again. I vaguely recalled the words of Emiliano Zapata, about how it was better to die standing than to live on your knees. But Montezuma wasn’t after Emiliano, and I was just fine with dying on my knees. Georgette finally found me face down, and went off to find a real doctor. Whoever she brought back wasn’t it.
“Nada.” He said. “Nada.”
Nada. I was probably down a quarter of my circulating blood volume, hypotensive with a reflex tachycardia, in preprerenal failure with a raging white count, and definitely semiconscious. In Mexico, apparently, this was nothing. The marching band in the background accompanied him off the set.
Four Mexicans set up a barbeque next to Diogenes. I added smoke inhalation to the list. A young urchin tried to sell me black coral in my stupor. I retreated to my tent.
I did gradually improve over the next two days but, when I finally regained my faculties, I realized how much had been stolen while I was away- my towel, my hammock and rope, one pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a pair of socks. My calculations told me that, at that rate, I'd be totally naked in a month.
The day I left Puerto Escondido, my pack was decidedly lighter, for I had also thrown away my razor, shaving gear, egg carrier, cooking oil and honey. I had heard about the Sol de Vega road, and the seven hours of hairpin turns, over the Sierra del Sur mountain range, to Oaxaca. It was one of the most rugged terrains in Mexico, rising steeply up in front of me, along the ocean. Just the tonic I needed.
Annuldo stopped for me, in his big truck full of coconuts. He tapped the roof, on top of which he had welded a park bench. I climbed up, and we lurched forward, through the gears and the clouds, into beautiful plantations of bananas, papayas, and coconuts. Roaring around one particularily steep curve, Annuldo braked for a calf that had ran across the road. The next few seconds went by in slow motion, but I distinctly recall the tarantulas flying out of my way, as I catapulted through a dozen banana trees. The initial difficulty containing his laughter, he overcame just in time, before I had decided to kill him.
Fifth Rule of Hitchhiking: Never ride on top of the truck.

We drove all night, me lurching from side to side, stopping occasionally to deal with my unrelenting diarrhea. About four am, he stopped for the last time. I woke up freezing two hours later and, thanking him, hitched one last ride into Oaxaca, with a guy that could have easily been Marlon Brando in his last movie.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Falling for the French Girl 3

“A towel…is about the most massively useful thing an intelligent hitchhiker can
  have… any man who hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it,
  struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is
  clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
                                                Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It was paradise. No doubt about it. Paradise. It was named Bahia de la Escondida (Bay of the Hidden Woman), after the young Mixtec girl who had jumped ship to escape from Francis Drake’s brother, Andres. She disappeared into the jungle, just beyond the white breakers of the emerald and cobalt blue water, and the white powder shore between the rocky cliffs. When I got off the bus, I went the other way. In 1980, there were only a few fishing families, and a couple of thatched roof restaurants. I walked down the sand, away from the palapas, and set up Diogenes near some caves. I fell asleep right on sunset, to the music of the surf playing outside the Gold Kazoo.
Over the next few days, I got to know Manuel, the owner of one of the restaurants, Bar ‘Liza.’ I spent a lot of time under his cabanas. With cheap breakfasts of hotcakes and honey-laced fruit, dollar fish dinners, and fifty cent Bohemia beer to wash it down, I had stopped firing up my white gas stove. The stars lit up the firmament at night, and the topless European girls lit up the beach all day. The earth shook with each pounding of the waves. I’d never seen anything like it. It seemed like months that I had been in Mexico, but it had only been 20 days. I still had my cold, and my stomach was learning about Montezuma. The village marching band practiced their drill formations along the palm tree backdrop.
A different sound of wooden flutes caught up with my siesta, beside Diogenes one afternoon. I looked out from under my towel, to find Doni, Janine, and Georgette, sitting cross-legged in the sand. They worked in the same hospital in Aix-en-somewhere, and were on a week’s holiday. They had brought an extra flute. We became fast friends. Later, after a fish dinner and a few Superior cervezas, we headed down the beach, under the stars. We began to notice that, every time we took a step, a luminescent ring flashed brightly around our footprints. We sat, and Doni began making sand drawings. The red, white and blue noctiluca organisms produced an incredible amount of light for their size. Georgette tried to make a French tricolour. I sat beside her to help. Doni whispered in my ear.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Falling for the French Girl 2

Joel was almost as happy as Alfonzo had been, but its not as if my options were infinite. We walked down another jungle path to meet his wife, Yolanda, and their two shoeless children. We ate a tortilla con huevos and bread, and washed it down with agua and café guerrero. I thanked them and tried to sleep on their spare mattress. At first I thought it was the lightning through the thatched hut, and then the rain. But it was actually the rats, the fleas in the mattress, and Joel, meandering in and out all night. I did dream at one point- of fresh salads and white women, and the description of Puerto Escondido in my South American Handbook. Or maybe I just dreamt that I dreamt it.
Onions and café guerrero woke me. And I thanked them again.
Back on the highway, I was getting short little camionetta rides to nowhere. I had a fruitful encounter with a lime tree. Where I was standing, literacy didn’t count for much, and people’s reactions could be unpredictable. I was standing on the road outside some sweltering humid Hicksville, when a young girl no older than ten asked me why I didn’t take the bus.
I wasn’t paying her much attention. And I lied.
“No tengo pesos.” I said in a haze.
Within ten minutes, she had collected enough pesos from most of the townsfolk, and flagged the bus.
It was full of campesinos, with beautiful cotton shirts and pants, sombreros, machetes and sandals. A troupe of black musicians sat in the back.
I had stopped perspiring, my urine was orange, and the cold I got in Mexico City was doing a hat dance in my sinuses. Another drunk had fallen asleep on my shoulder. But there was a small breeze on my face through the window, the bus driver was friendly, the sign above him said ‘Pto. Escondido,’ and I had just had a number of my remaining clichés shattered by a ten year-old Costa Chica chica. When Bernal Diaz de Castillo was asked his reasons for joining Cortes during his conquest of Mexico, he listed three: ‘To serve God and the King of Spain, to give light to those who were in darkness, and to find gold.’ He got the first and third one right. As for me, I was just humbled.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Falling for the French Girl 1

“The French woman says, ‘I am a woman and a Parisienne, and nothing foreign to
  me appears altogether human.’”
                                                                                    Ralph Waldo Emerson

When Maximo pulled over, I knew what kind of day it was going to be.
There were three women in the back seat of his truck, and one of them was holding a big iguana by the neck.
“Guess wheech one is my wife?” He grinned through his four teeth.
My money was on the iguana.
We stopped and cooked a delicious soup of meatballs with eggs inside, before parting. I never asked anything more about the meatballs.
Through a maze of silver shops, I trekked to the other side of Taxco, where Salvador of the Wicked Laugh rolled to a stop. He bought me a coke and took me all the way to Acapulco. We arrived after dark. I was tired and there was no way to continue, so I found the Hotel Cora for 20 pesos and did the math. Each cockroach had cost about a centavo.
On the highway next morning, I had clearly entered another world. I was in the regressive state of Guerrero, in the progressive state of torpor. The heat was humid, the people darker, and everyone except me had at least one machete. They needed spittoons. This was the Costa Chica, a 200 mile-long coastal strip where most Afro Mexicans lived, settled by escaping slaves who migrated from Vera Cruz (but also across the Pacific from New Guinea, with Negritos from the Philippines). They came because the area was inhospitable and isolated, and transportation was difficult because of the summer rains so that, even today, there are few tourist attractions. The region is known for its independent spirit and viviendo. The shape of their round jungle mud huts came from Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. I got the feeling they drank. A lot.
One of them who drank a lot was Alfonso. He was definitely wasted when he insisted on taking me home for fresh milk and cheese. I was hitchhiking when he flagged down a bus and dragged me on. He paid the fare and hung on one of the straps asleep, despite the ranchero music and the screaming kids. I remember a seated women pulling down on one of her eyes, as a warning for me to be careful. Alfonso came to in time for us to get off at his parada ‘stop.’ We walked a long way into the jungle. Iguanas scurried off the path into the undergrowth, every two feet. When we finally arrived in a clearing at Alfonso’s hut, there was only one thing waiting for me. Watermelon. It tasted fantastic. By the time I walked alone back out to the highway, I needed another one.
A taxi driver from Acapulco on his way to see his girlfriend stopped to pick me up. We were both stopped a few kilometers later by soldiers, who searched us for drugs. They were clearly disappointed not to have found any. After my cab driver let me off at a dirt road turnoff, there were no more rides. There was sweat, and far horizon fire smoke, and a blood red sunset, but no more rides. I had run out of water. I thought I had run out of luck. And then I remembered the
Third Rule of Hitchhiking: Wait a bit longer.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Where Men Become Gods 2

“Custom is the enemy of awareness, in individuals as much as societies. It
  regularizes the fears and cravings of everyday life. I wanted to shake them off. I
  wanted to use this journey to see things whole and clear, for I would never pass
  this way again.”
                                                                          Ted Simon, Jupiter’s Travels

The history of Mexico began thirty miles north of the city. Just before Christ was crucified (and they would all eventually know about it), in an elongated basin fringed by mountains, there was a small village on the northeast shore of Lake Texcoco, a crystal fresh body of water that went for fifty miles. It was called Teotihuacan, ‘the place where men became gods.’ Over the next four centuries, it would grow to 200,000 inhabitants, and rule as far south as Guatelmala. Each of the three pyramids they constructed, the Sun, the Moon, and Quetzacoatl, are as big as the largest pyramid in Egypt. The Temple of the Sun was built over a deep, 300 metre cave created by a lava tube, thought to be the place where humankind emerged upon the Earth. The pyramids were spatially oriented to the three stars in Orion’s belt. The city was administered from the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, across from the pyramids along the Avenue of the Dead, as dead they were all to be. There is a Wal-mart within walking distance today. The priceless artifacts, uncovered during the store’s construction, were reportedly trucked off to a local dump, and workers fired when they revealed the carnage to the press.
We took the same route back to the city as history. The poor and primitive Mexica, who came to Lake Texcoco around 1250 A.D., were driven south by enemies and fled to a swampy island. One of their priests had a dream of an eagle on a cactus, sunning itself. They found him with a snake in his beak, and he eventually landed on the country’s flag. The Mexica merged with two other groups, to form the Triple Alliance, although we still think of them as the Aztecs. They went on to build Tenochtitlan, the largest city on the planet, then and now. There were a quarter of a million people living in Tenochtitlan’s wide boulevards, markets, and ornately carved buildings. There were three grand causeways, interrupted by bridges that allowed flotillas of boats and foot traffic to pass without hindrance through the spider web system of canals, but which could be pulled up at a moment’s
notice to defend the city. The springs at Chapultepec supplied fresh water along two terracotta aqueducts, each over 4 kilometers long. They grew maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, amaranth, chili peppers, and flowers, on long manmade floating gardens called chinampas.
The Aztecs had compulsory education, and their philosophers, tlamatini , achieved an ethereal level of sophistication. Their poetry spoke of ‘flowers and song’ and ‘jade and quetzal feathers.’
But they were flawed. They were still psychologically traumatized from their experience with the tribes that once ruled the Mexica. They burnt the codices of those they had conquered. And they burnt their own, so no one would discover any weakness. Their principal deity was a left- handed hummingbird helmet, carrying a fire-breathing serpent as a weapon. His name was Huitzilopochtli. He was a god of war and the god that whispered in the ear of the priest, the founder of Tenochtiltlan. But Huitzilopochtli was also a sun god, and not very secure in his role, as he only supervised its workings. Sunlight, it seems, had to battle the moon and stars every day, as it rose into the sky. This constant struggle against darkness required life-energy nourishment in the form of human sacrifice, to ensure it (and the gift of fire it provided) would also survive the recurrent cycle of potentially apocalyptic extinguishment. Every year, an image of Huitzilopochtli was fashioned from amaranth seeds, glued together with honey and human blood. Inside were bags of jade, bones and amulets, to give him life. He had a mask of gold and rich vestments. At the end of the annual festival, the idol was broken up for the people to consume. At least 3,000 souls were killed every year in ritual sacrifice. Every full cycle of the 52-year calendar, one was of particular importance. The Aztecs called the belt and sword of Orion the ‘Fire Drill.’ The New Fire Ceremony, the Binding of the Years, was performed every half century, to prevent the end of the world. Five days before the ceremony, preparations involving abstinence from work, fasting, ritual cleansing and bloodletting, destruction of old household items, and observance of silence, began. At sunset on the last day, all eyes were fixed on a temple platform upon an extinct volcano summit, in full view of the city. Every fire in the Aztec realm was extinguished. When Orion’s belt rose above the horizon, a man was sacrificed and a fire drill was placed on his chest. When the first sparks of fire sprung from the device, the New Calendar was declared, and the flames were fanned into a huge bonfire. From this inferno, torches were carried by runners, to every ward of the city, where hearths could be rekindled.
It was into this scene that Cortes marched. Leaving a hundred men behind, he fought the Tlaxcala to a draw, and moved forward with twenty thousand of their troops behind him. He massacred thousands of unarmed nobles in the central plaza of Cholula, the second largest city in Mesoamerica at the time. He then set it on fire, to let the Aztecs know he was coming. On November 8, 1519, Cortes and his allies entered Tenochtitlan, in awe of its size and splendor. They came from a world ankle deep in sewage, to a metropolis that had a thousand men just to keep the streets clean. They saw their first botanical gardens. They learned of prostitutes that painted their teeth, chewed chicle noisily to attract clients, and then gave away their favors for free. Montezuma came out from the center of the city to greet the strange apparition with gifts, but it didn’t go well, did it. Cortes took him captive in his own palace. Eight months later, on La Noche Triste, the Aztecs killed three quarters of the Spaniards, and drove the rest out of the city. Foolishly, they didn’t hunt them down. Cortes recruited 200,000 troops from disaffected vassal states, built 13 ships to attack Tenochtitlan from the water, and still would have failed, except for a submicroscopic detail. While he was thus engaged, smallpox killed ninety-seven percent of the 25 million people living in Central Mexico at the time. Even with this calamity on his side, he still needed to kill 100,000 more, street by street and house by house, to finally capture the city in May of 1521. It was, and still is, the costliest battle in history.
We returned to the Aztec ruins near the Zocalo for an ice cream. Chocolate seemed fitting. We went on to St Marie de Acolman monastery, the Palaccio Nacional, Place des Belles Arts, Cathedral, and the Zona Rosa. Over the next couple of days I saw the Museo de Anthropologia, the top of the Torre Latino Americana, Museo de Historia in Chapultepec castle, and the Museo de Arte Moderno, with it’s weird acoustics under the dome. The last evening was punctuated by a meltdown from Luis. He had been quiet and moody, and was drinking too much. He was young.
“You will have many more nights with her?”
David told me he was jealous that Lydia had come to Teotihuacan with us. He told me but I couldn’t get my head around it.
D.H. Lawrence had described Mexico as a country where men despised sex, and lived for it. Which is suicide. In a country where men become gods, every new arrival is suspect. Which is potential homocide.
An hour after my final morning coffee with La Familia Hernandez, I caught a cold, and an oil tanker to Cuernavaca. My prospects for immortality were shaken from both.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Where Men Become Gods 1

 “In Spain, the priests ruled, the king interpreted and interposed, and  
  the gods obeyed. In Mexico the gods ruled, the priests interpreted 
  and interposed, and the people obeyed. A nuance in an ideological difference is a wide chasm.” 
                                          Richard Condon, A Talent for Loving 

“Hey man, get in.” It was the only English they knew.
Roberto and Juan drove me 42 kilometers in their half-ton camion, most of the way to Mexico City. I got off at a trailer park, and bought a tamarind juice to go with my trail mix. A middle-aged guy with two kids took me another few miles. He put twenty pesos in my hand, as I got out of his Volkswagen. He wouldn’t take it back. I thanked him, because it was all I could do. Outside a Mexican cemetery gate, I waited out the day. Even as the light faded, I was still mesmerized by the elevated crypts and penitent statuary. A man named Francisco finally flagged down a bus, which took me into the Centro, for three pesos. I called David from a subway station. He arrived with his brother, Luis, and his girlfriend. We went bowling. Then, after a taco stand diversion on the way home, I fell asleep instantly on the cot his parents had prepared for my arrival. We met each other next morning, and Senora Hernandez provided a fantastic breakfast of eggs, frijoles, rolls, café con leche, and cantaloupe. She promised me a treat that evening. The family was in the trucking business, and I spent the day working on a truck near the turnoff to Puebla. After a shower and shave that evening, we sat down to what the Senora had spent all day working on. Enchiladas Suiza. I still dream about them. The following morning, David, and Lydia, Luis’s girlfriend, and I went out to the pyramids of Teotihuacan.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Queen of Mexico

         “The modest fan was lifted up no more, and virgins smiled at what they blushed
                                                                                          Alexander Pope

“Mucho malo.” Said the driver. Very bad.
“Muchas gracias.” I replied, jumping the great height off the back of the overloaded one-ton truck. I had been almost asleep on the bags of corn meal, with a moving view of the sky and the clouds. Until we broke an axle near Zamora.
Fourth Rule of Hitchhiking: You have other options.

An old campesino stopped and we shared some biscuits. He rambled on about sorghum, corn and wheat. On the road outside Irapuato, I left him. He desperately wanted to drive me to a bus station. I remember the puzzled look as he pulled away. Five minutes later I was in the back of a camionetta blasting along at 80 miles an hour. I waved as we passed. He went from bewilderment to wonderment, an old Mexican tradition.
The bewilderment was originally supplied by the arrival of an Aztec myth. In February of 1519, Hernan Cortes landed on the Yucatan peninsula with 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses, and a few small cannon. He came in defiance of orders. He burned his ships to the waterline. Batshit crazy. Cortes, like many conquistadores, was from Estremadura, a hot and inhospitable battleground, that played no small role in expelling the Moors from Spain. The excavated black statue of Our Lady of Guadelupe buried there, was a lightning rod for the reconquest, and a durable symbol of Spanish nationalism. Her iconography was carried by the priests arriving with Cortes, and a chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, flattened the existing temple of the goddess-mother Tonantzin at Tepeyac outside Mexico city. The dark skin of the Madonna was not enough, by itself, to convert many of the Nahuatl, until a local peasant had his own vision. On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego saw a young girl surrounded by light. He asked for a sign. The apparition told him to collect buttercups from the top of Tepeyac hill. It was winter but the flowers were there. Juan Diego placed them in his cloak. When he went to show them to the local bishop, the buttercups fell to the floor. The impression left on the fabric of his cloak was the imprinted image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the wonderment supply, the Queen of Mexico. She was ‘arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.’ With her melanin, maguey-spined rays of light, and other indigenous symbolism, she clinched the conversion deal with the Indians. “The Mexican people” wrote Octavio Paz in 1974, “after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the National Lottery.” I was heading in both their general directions.
The cowboy driver let me off near Celaya, where Pancho Villa had suffered his worst military defeat. Off in the distance, I could see her heading in my direction, but I didn’t really believe it. A beautiful girl in a fancy convertible went by, and stopped, an eighth of a mile down the road. Even with the heat and sixty pounds of Serendipity, I covered the distance in record time. If I hadn’t been out of breath, I still would have had trouble speaking.
“San Juan del Rio?” She said. Pancho’s hometown.
I was actually heading to Mexico City.
“Si.” I managed to say.
She opened the passenger door.
Her name was Salle. She didn’t speak English. It didn’t matter. She was arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head, a crown of twelve stars.
We stopped in Irapuato for her to complete an errand. When she emerged from the building, she handed me a set of dentures. She was a dentist. I bought her a soda in a pleasant outdoor café. There were cobblestones and carriages and fountains. Afterwards, we drove to San Juan and she began an afternoon clinic, while I wandered around the market. I drank a licuado, and ate tacos and nieves. I went to the park and sat on a swing. I liked Mexico.
It was late when Salle finished her dental work and, because the hotels were too expensive, I slept in the back of the convertible. Next morning Sybille, Salle’s assistant, walked me to San Juan’s swimming pool. After an invigorating swim, I meandered back to car, and changed into my khakis and Indian shirt. I was able to shave in a hotel courtyard. The guard there directed me to an unmarked restaurant for huevos al gusto, frijoles, tortillas, and café con leche. Salle and I drove into the mountains towards San Miguel de Allende, feeding each other grapes. We walked silently, holding each other’s hands, and shy embracing in the lengthening shadows. I stole some flowers from a hotel courtyard and we sat in a little bar for Sangrita and mineral water. Sangrita, a citrus peppery orange, lime and pomegranate grenadine with dried chile, literally translates as ‘little blood.’ With the sips of tequila reposado, it was a calming oracle. Finally together hours later, after the flowers fell to the floor, I found out how, surrounded by the light, truly immaculate she was. And the next morning, with the last traces of the Queen of Mexico’s tears on my cheek, I found myself eating grapes on the road near Queretero. Vaya bien, mi amor. Vaya bien.