Saturday, 31 May 2014

Come Hell or High Water 3

              ‘The biggest troublemaker you'll probably ever have to deal with
               watches you shave his face in the mirror every morning.’
                                                                                                 Cowboy proverb

“Head towards Hope.” I said. It was the answer to Robyn’s question about how to get to Christina Lake, and the ultimate theme of the journey.
The grey waters of the mighty Fraser gave way to the large pink metal raspberries of the Abbotsford roundabout, and the village sign that marked our turnoff onto the bucolic pleasures of Highway Three. Experience Hope. But we had no time to stop for something so small. We drove by Hell’s Gate, past the salmon-clutching grizzly statue above the prairie dogs in Manley Park, and along the rows of rusted tractors and vintage cars through Keremeos, some with patty pan squash stuck in the parabolic hollows, where their headlights used to be. There was hot buttered corn and fresh fruit and ice cream and flowers and recycled antiques for sale, and Robyn and I congratulated ourselves on what a verdant peaceful country we had citizenship in. We had always believed that, unlike what had happened in the American Wild West, where ‘the person with fastest horse got the most land,’ in the Dominion’s march to western settlement, expansion had been carefully prepared by government officials, with much less attendant violence, and a more controlled flood of immigration.
It was all nonsense, of course. Canadian authorities used hunger to ethnically cleanse and clear the Western provinces for railway construction and settlement, until the aboriginal populations agreed to trade freedom for rations, and move to their new appointed reservations. Treaty Number Six.
Once there, ration house food was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into decades of malnutrition, impaired immunity, and tuberculosis and other sicknesses. Thousands died. The first Prime Minister of the country, Sir John A. Macdonald, boasted that the indigenous peoples were kept on the ‘verge of actual starvation,’ in an attempt to deflect criticism that he was squandering public funds. Within a generation, First Nations bison hunters went from being the ‘tallest in the world,’ to a population so unhealthy, they were believed to be genetically more susceptible to disease. Government physicians studied the natural history of malnutrition, instead of treating it, in a collusion not that dissimilar to the African-American Tuskegee experiments with syphilis. Canadians became inured to aboriginal marginalization from the mainstream, to terrible housing conditions on the reserves, contaminated drinking water, disproportionately lower educational and higher prison incarceration levels, and sexual and physical abuse at Indian residential schools. Adult ‘Registered Indians’ were not granted full citizenship until 1960, seven years after I had acquired mine as a birthright. Experience Hope.
The small hedges, separating the land yachts masquerading as homes, at the Sunshine Valley RV Resort, were the tragic topiary of the takeover. Robyn and I had been witness to own neighbourhood second growth forest, chipper-shredded into a tin can ghetto of ‘lifestyle choice’ and ‘resort amenities.’ Greed may be good, but it is no guarantee of elegance or erudition.
“I need to know the name of the town after Oosoyos.” I said. Robyn told me she couldn’t find one on the map. We stopped for a gelato in Oosoyos, and sat with a Nelson couple heading to our island, for their own holiday.
“We always stop here for the ice cream.” He said. “Its halfway good.” I wasn’t sure he was referring to the remoteness or the refreshment. We wished each other happy trails, and climbed up into the desert mountains, past signs which spoke of our geography. Do not pass snow ploughs on right.
The irrigation systems on the other side were named Stemwinder, like they could have been snakes. We drove through Grand Forks.
“Everybody here has four wives.” I said.
“Doesn’t look like there’s much else going on.” Said Robyn. We passed Johnny’s Motel.
“Looks like a Johnny’s Motel.” She said.
It was late afternoon, when we turned off into Christina Lake. We had general directions to Richard and Carolyn’s but, in our need for more specificity, we stopped at a motel to ask. The Chinese owner on the other side of the counter was speaking loud Mandarin into his telephone mouthpiece. He didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow to acknowledge our entrance. We stood in front of him for five minutes, before deciding to try somewhere else. The proprietor had no idea of our destination. Before a Scottish fur trader named the lake after his daughter, the local Indians had called it ‘En-Chalm.’ Unknown. This had made more sense.
Robyn and I finally arrived at the cottage, to a scowl from the old woman next door. She was sweeping the rocks. We slipped quietly into and through the house, to the magnificent end view of a long glacial lake horizon, flanked by pine-dense mountains, blue and green Kokanee perfection. We descended a path toward the shoreline, and out across the water on the tipsy boardwalk, to the floating pavilion on the dock. Here were watercraft and flotation devices and a ski boat and lounge chairs and laughter. A familiar sound echoed across the water, as they turned to the wooden ones we were making. Pssssht.
“Hey!” Said Richard. “You made it. You sure you don’t want a beer?”
I forget what I called him.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Come Hell or High Water 2

         ‘Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes
          from bad judgment.’
                                                                                              Cowboy proverb

For Robyn and I to find the Wild West, we had to head east, across the Georgia Strait. A turkey vulture turned a lazy sky circle above the Jesus Loves You sign, as our own turned into the ferry terminal. We camped out in the back of the boat, hot sun shining on our faces, making us sleepy. I awoke to a lost generation, holding out their dominant hands, in supplication to the signal, missing on the open water. The way they looked past me, spoke to my age, and irrelevance. But it felt good to be invisible to the socially obsessed, reclining in my chaise lounge on the side of the gene pool, watching the blood in the water. Connections are more important than connectivity. Always drink upstream from the herd.
We landed on dusk, and a big harvest moon over Mount Baker. Robyn drove through vast expanses of big cookie-cutter tract houses. The Asian immigrants that had created the monster home had more use for floors than fields; yard space was just another relative that wouldn’t have a room to sleep in. We drove through the yellow light of downtown Langley, to the place had once secured the south bank of the Fraser River against the Americans.
In 1827, the Governor of the Hudson Bay Company was a worried man. The boundary between the British and the American possessions of the transmontane West had yet to be decided, and George Simpson feared that Fort Vancouver, his fur trading outpost further south than John Jacob Astor’s Fort Astoria in Oregon Country, might be lost, if the final border jumped north from the course of the Columbia River, to the 49th parallel. He ordered the creation of Fort Langley on the south bank of the Fraser, in an attempt to consolidate British claims to both sides of the river. Of the twenty-four men that James McMillan arrived on site with to begin construction, five were incapacitated with gonorrhea, and another had some other, apparently more exotic form, of ‘venereal disease.’ All the horses were crippled, exhausted, or dead. The brambles were seemingly impenetrable.
Despite the setbacks, the remaining nineteen men had, by early September, built two bastions and a palisade worthy enough to command respect in the eyes of the Indians, who begin, shrewedly, to conjecture for what purpose the Ports and loopholes are intended. By 1830, Fort Langley had become a major anchorage for the export of cedar lumber and shingles, and salted salmon in barrels of the same wood, to the Hawaiian Islands.
But the ‘Birthplace of British Columbia’ would not be destined for anything greater. Traders from Boston controlled most of the maritime fur transactions, travelling along the coast by boat, and the strong competition kept the price of pelts much higher than Hudson's Bay was paying elsewhere. Also, the indigenous Stó:lō people living along the Fraser were not particularly interested in hunting or trapping, since they were quite self-sufficient on salmon, and not in serious need of European goods, except for some guns in the first year to fend off a short-lived, largely symbolic, threat from another tribe. Finally, the Fraser was not as navigable as Simpson had imagined. After the river forked with the Thompson River, the powerful rapids and sheer cliffs convinced him that the passage would be certain Death, in nine attempts out of Ten. Parts of the journey from the north would have to be made overland, to bypass the Fraser Canyon and Hell's Gate.
Fort Langley barely survived the threat of Russian invasion in the early 1850s, the threat of American invasion in 1857, the boom and bust of the 1858 Gold Rush and Fraser Canyon War with American miners, the removal of its military and capital administrative functions to New Westminster in 1859, the loss of Hudson Bay Company monopoly, and Canadian Confederation in 1871. Shipping was lost to paddle wheelers, and the first train.
In 1921, a sawmill brought some measure of blue collar prosperity to the struggling town, until redundancy and aging machinery shut it down for good, just over seventy years later.
Which is why Richard and Carolyn were able to find affordable housing, in what had become a vestigial Vancouver bedroom community, and why Robyn and I, would have a place to stay the night, before beginning our long drive to Christina Lake the next morning. Our wagon sailed under Dr Benjamin Marr’s ancient columns of horse chestnut trees along Glover Road, until we reached the correct four-digit house number, on the pink and green trim we recognized as Carolyn’s favourite colours. There were two eights in the address. Some day the overseas Chinese will swoop on it. Carolyn and Richard’s eldest son, Kyle, was still at the house, working as a lifeguard at a local pool. He had waited up for us, and wondered why we were late.
“Your mother wrote the turnoff as Highway 1, rather than Highway 1a.” I said. “We were halfway into Vancouver when I figured it out.”
It didn’t matter. Kyle offered us a glass of wine, and then some fruit juice, when I told him of my infirmities. We spoke of the intervening years since we had seen his parents, his university aspirations in kinesiology, and the impact of technology of every aspect of life. He brought out his mobile phone, and introduced us to Siri, an artificial intelligence program which Kyle claimed could ‘answer all your questions.’
“Go ahead.” He said. I started big.
“What are Maxwell’s Equations?” I asked. Siri didn’t seem to know.
“Try again.” Kyle said.
“What is the meaning of life?” I said. Siri choked.
“He doesn’t know everything.” Said Kyle, to my obvious relief.
It was late, and we had a long drive ahead of us next day. Kyle showed us downstairs, to grandmother Grace’s bedroom, and bid us goodnight. Robyn fell asleep almost instantly, but I was distracted by the light outside our window, and my abdominal cramps, which ebbed and flowed in synchrony, with the irregular far off doppler haunted herald horns from passing trains in the night. The first signal of the last of the Old West, would be the last thing I remembered, on the first of our Wagon Days.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Come Hell or High Water 1

                                       Come Hell or High Water
                                      Nanaimo, British Columbia

                       ‘Life’s hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.’
                                                                            John Wayne

Radium. For a brief moment, there was silence on the other end of the line.
“Huh?” was how it began. That had come out of Richard, who I hadn’t seen for almost a decade, although it was about to happen.
His exclamation had been in response to the answer I had provided, to the question he originally posed.
“You ready for some mean gin and tonics on the dock?” The first westerns had four standard scenes- a bar, a stagecoach, a holdup and a chase. Ours got stuck outside the bar.
“I can’t drink.” Which was about where the silence began.
“I’m sorry.” He sounded like he had dialed a wrong number. “Why not?”
“Because of the antibiotics.” I said. That was the cause of the second long pause.
“What’ll happen?” He asked.
“You’ll need a bucket and mop.” I said.
Richard was a Royal Canadian Mountie and, for that matter, so was his wife, Carolyn. We had met them in Mexico twenty-five years earlier, on our honeymoon, before they were married. Richard had tried to get me bus tickets in English, before I demonstrated how much easier it was in Spanish. We shared many Dos Equis in a cantina where you made sure you sat with your back to the wall.
Richard and Carolyn had fallen apart briefly, until we got them together for a reunion in the basement suite we were renting, in a house in Vancouver. They went on to their own honeymoon, three young sons, and an occasional reminiscence with the instruments of their reacquaintance. The one we were planning was long overdue.
Richard and Carolyn were camped out at their cottage on Christina Lake, a long crescentic mountain ellipse of inland glacial water in the middle of the BC Rockies.
“Come for a long weekend.” Carolyn said. But Robyn and I knew it would take another long weekend to get there and back, and we had to plan our visit carefully.
“I know.” Robyn said. “Let’s take a short trip back through the States on the way home. We could see Montana.”
My wife is from New Zealand. Her sense of distance is not highly developed. When she first came to visit my parents on Lake of the Woods, just over the Manitoba border into Ontario, she asked if we could take a short drive to Toronto. I told her that this would not be possible. The short excursion she wanted us to take on this trip, back through the States on the way home, through Idaho and Washington, with Montana thrown in, would be a reenactment of the original crossing of the American West.
“If you climb in the saddle, be ready for the ride.” I said.
“It’ll be fun.” Said Robyn. It would be fun, I thought. No matter if our pilgrimage through frontier country turned into either a wretched ordeal or a wondrous adventure, it could also turn into a book. Maybe even this one. I was already visiting the places that had captured my imagination on the big Paramount Saturday matinee theatre screen in my hometown, when admission was a quarter, and a Rowntree Cherry Blossom or a roll of black currant fruit pastilles was a dime. Thirty-five cents would get you Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger, and Indians and horses and cattle and outlaws and posses and buffalo and US calvary and rattlesnakes and stagecoaches and sagebrush and saloons. Which brought me back to the source of Richard’s disappointment, and mine.
Other than what I did at work most days, I had only been in a hospital as a patient twice before, the first for a tonsillectomy at the age of four (I still remember how good the Jello tasted, whatever that red flavor was), and the second to have my appendix out, forty years later. But this last time beat me up a bit. I had held off as long as possible, under the deluded impression that physicians are supposed to be endowed with some higher form of immunity from these more common maladies, until I was doubled over in agony on our sofa, at the end of a long day treating ailments that seemed far less serious than mine, listening to Robyn threaten me with death, unless I agreed to be driven to our hospital emergency department. The best thing you can do for death is ride off from it. Robyn took me into a collegial corral of amusement.
“That fast enough for you.” Said a good friend, one of the emergency physicians. I had been ushered through an airport-sized waiting room, full of plague and pestilence. Business class.
“You need a scan.” He said, after examining my abdomen.
“The radiologist is coming in.” Said the technician, not much later.
“What for?” I asked.
“You.” She said. And there he was in the flesh, leaning on the machine as I made my exit from it, grinning like coyote at a gopher wedding.
“Classic.” He said.
“Classic what?” I asked.
“Classic diverticulitis.” He said.
“That’s an old man’s disease.” I said. He didn’t say anything.
“Bullshit.” I said, but it was too late. I got admitted, and my surgeon, another colleague far too overjoyed at the prospect of looking after me, appeared in my doorway as a silhouette at 3:30 in the morning. He brought travel photos and stories, of my colon, all annotated and primed, to enable my incarceration in his step-down unit.
“I don’t think I’ll have to operate.” He said. “This time.” I spent four days on the surgical ward, infused with gorillacillins and transitional diets to nowhere. He let me out the day before he was heading to Portugal.
“Any good wines I should try over there?” He asked. I told him. He wrote me out a prescription for metronidazole.
“Take this for two weeks.” He said. “Of course, as an internist, you know about its disulfuram effect.” I had momentarily forgotten. As long as I was taking this antibiotic, no alcohol could pass my lips, or I would become violently ill.
I forget what I called him. He left smiling, and I left it at that.
We both knew that what had occurred, could recur, at any time. Five months later it did, and I was once again on the dreaded regime of abstemious antibiotics. Notwithstanding how devastating it already was, for an author to be unable to drink, it was increasingly unclear whether I would be well enough, or how unwise it would be, to cross the border into the land of mercenary medical care, in my current state of infirmity. They’ll take your house.
There was another complication on the horizon. One of the planned stops, back through the States on the way home, was a hajj to the last home of one of my minor deities, the place where he blew his brains out. Hemingway had lived in Ketchum, and Ketchum was in the news. The Beaver Creek Fire had become a state-wide inferno visible from space, the smoke filled and obscured the sun in Sun Valley, homes were evacuated, wolves were chasing sheep trying to escape, and Salmon, Idaho was becoming Smoked Salmon, Idaho. If the rains came, there would be floods. My medical office assistant, Bonnie, offered me an alternative to our planned diversion.
“You could work if you don’t go.” She said.
“I plan on being dead in Montana.” It was decided. We were going. Come Hell or High Water. We all got pieces of crazy in us, some bigger pieces than others.

                      'Some may never live, but the crazy never die.'
                                                                   Hunter S. Thompson

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Forward Ho

            ‘The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it’s a state of mind. It’s
              whatever you want it to be.’
                                                                     Tom Mix, early western film actor

The American West was a notion, not a nation. It was a process, not a place. Or maybe it was, but it was no way to live. The exact boundaries of the Old West were where white men ran up against an alien continent, in space and time, on an ephemeral frontier. The collision annihilated native populations, and spawned completely new myths and metaphors. The borderlands were not an inferior stage of Western Civilization, awaiting the enlightening influence of the East, but a complex novel universe demanding clarity. It was the paradigm for a country that would eventually emerge from its conflicts.
The most formidable American western experience lasted less than fifty years, but its radical transmutation was more turbulent and consequential than many longer histories in other parts of the world. It was a pressure cooker cauldron of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human synergy. The minerality was elemental- radium, mercury, lead, copper, neon, iron, sulfur, uranium, carbon, oxygen, silver, arsenic, chromium, phosphorus, and gold. Bitterroot was sustenance and symbol. The native animal and human life of the West was displaced, replaced, and exterminated- sixty million bison to make way for European bog animals, billions of passenger pigeons for nothing, and ninety percent of aboriginal native Americans, out of an original population of possibly a hundred million, by accident and design. One of my patients was once asked by a student what his occupation was.
“I’m an Indian.” He said. “I’ve been an Indian my whole life.”
In 1750, the American colonies had a million people, and the West was the wilderness beyond the Allegheny Mountains. A hundred years later, there were twenty-three million citizens of the United States, and the West went all the way to the Pacific. The white frontiersmen who invaded the howling transformed and were themselves transformed by an unfamiliar, unforgiving horizon. Survival demanded a delicate adaptation. It cost some settlers their manners, and others their minds. Western savagery was measured by the degree of Eastern civility. The first frontier icon of the American West, struck the balance perfectly. Daniel Boone was a Revolutionary War veteran, early Kentucky settler, trailblazer, Indian killer, buffalo eater, bear wrestler, and a gentleman. I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences.
Manifest Destiny was the arrogance of the age, at the price of a cowboy hat and change. Along with the homesteaders and hunters came pioneer women, gunfighters and lawmen, wagon trains and railroads, soldiers and explorers, miners and gamblers, newspaper editors and entertainers, preachers and lawyers, and the occasional dentist and doctor. They arrived through and to everything that heaven, earth, water and fire could punish their arrogance with- droughts and floods and blizzards and prairie fires and insect swarms and winds and financial crises, and epidemics. The wooden structures they built caught fire or rotted.
It was the hardship that created the myths, and the bigger the hardship, the bigger the myth. There were all kinds of ways for a man to die- slow from exposure or starvation, or fast, from a bobcat or a bear, or a brave or backwoodsman. The combination of aggression and alcohol and ammunition was brutal, often lethal. The cruelty of frontier life wove colourful slang and tall stories and comedic catharsis into a folktale tapestry, which grew into big legends, changing fast. The frontiersman lived a fevered phantasmagoria of fable, a coarse charming realm beyond conventional laws and logic, where the Eastern rules didn’t apply. The grasshoppers were so thick you could barbecue them like steaks. The Old West was a place of magic and wonders.
The light that filtered through the Paramount prism of the Saturday afternoon matinees in my old hometown theatre brought Canyonland arches and Joshua trees, the Big Empty, and the giant men that filled it- Indian scouts and confidence men and calvary captains and bank robbers. What happened on that silver screen of my youth lit fires inside me, of curiosity and incredulity, admiration and awe, and disgust and disapproval.
There is a Tocqueville conceit, possessed by all foreign visitors, that one can read America by travelling through it. Late in the summer of 2013, I set out to find the Old West, what it had been, and what had replaced it. Whatever it had been, the last gasp of it likely came out of Mary Hemingway’s lungs, when she discovered the vanishing point in her front hallway in Ketchum. The heart and soul of the town was its big annual festival parade of Lewis freight wagons. I wanted to see it, and type on Hemingway’s Royal Typewriter, in the den of his own private Idaho. Robyn and I spent two weeks driving the loop, around through what ever we could reach of what else we could find, in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, before heading back to Vancouver Island, through Washington.
The quest for my own wild panorama would turn wheels of fortune into a movable feast of Wagon Days. And if this don’t get your fire started, your wood’s wet.

Wagon Days- Contents

                                  Wagon Days

Foreword Ho
Come Hell or High Water
The Most Beautiful Town in America
Ghost Riders in the Sky
Vigilante Trail to the Paradise Room
The Last Best Place
Eating Crow
Wheels of Fortune
Buffalo Bills
Wagon Days
Across the River and Into the Trees
The Road to Silver City
Capital Punishment
Guts. Glory. Ram Rodeo.
Cherry Pie and Coffee
The Long Way Home

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Wagon Days has arrived!

Hitch up.

Monday, 26 May 2014

You Ask a Lot of Questions 2

                                      “Only the neutral is free.”
                                                Thomas Mann, Dr. Faustus

The grease my fried eggs were floating on, was only partly cut by the papaya juice, in the market next morning. They got me to the Museo Rufino Tamaya, and its magnificent collection of pre-Hispanic clay action figures, and a lift the three kilometers from the gas station to the highway. It began to rain and stayed raining, until a gold miner with a broken leg, named Jaime, and his sidekick driver, Luis, slowed to pick me up an hour later. We stopped for a lunch of meat, frijoles and tortillas, and they let me off at a hospital turnoff, in the downpour. The next ride was slow but Isaac, the drug wholesaler driver of the VW van that gave me the lift, was anything but. I sat on the motor between him and his younger brother, Estevan. The road was all curves, though spectacular rain forest scenery. Isaac was addicted to speed. He ran over a chicken, nearly collided with three kids on a horse in Valle Nacional, and was about to depopulate the rest of central Mexico, when Estevan started vomiting out his window. We had a chat. I picked some grapefruit off a tree as a farewell present, when Isaac stopped for gas in Tuxtepec at dusk. Wholesale drugs were far too cheap in Mexico.
I was still walking in the dark when I met Xavier.
“Donde va?” He asked.
“Cualquier otra parte.” I replied. Wherever.
True to form, I was eating well with his wife, mother, sister, and two kids, ten minutes later. What a country.
A Muscovy duck woke me up early next morning, staking out his territory with tiny pellets. I put on my wet clothes, thanked them goodbye, and hiked back to the gasolineria. The attendents pointed me in three directions, before I got a lift in the right one. A megaphone car, driven by a Chilean ex-seaman and his friend, took me to Loma Bonita, where two civil engineers drove me to some unpronounceable, in their volkswagon, via the rural hospital they were building on the way.
I found some limes and ate peanuts for what seemed like hours, before Chris, an ex-tourist guide and the driver of a tractor trailer hauling expensive cars, double-clutched down long enough, for me to toss up Serendipity and hop in. I listened to stories of his sexual exploits, all the way to the Palenque turnoff. He was otherwise pleasant enough, and gave me a contact number for his son in Merida, but I was glad to get down. I saw my first anopheles malarial mosquito, just before I got to hang off the back of a cattle truck for the last few kilometers, along the tall grass and dirt road into town. Oh joy.
The Posada Alicia was decorated with plastic pink carnations on plastic pink tablecloths (pink and baby blue are primary colours in Mexico). There were mirror image representations of Aztec last suppers on the walls and babel babble of foreign voices within them. I got the last bed, wrung out my clothes, and fell asleep in the dampness and the hum of insects. They were whining in German and Japanese.
After a tumultuous night of tossing and turning, I was covered in bites. I gave the desk clerk five pesos to watch Serendipity, and started to walk to Palenque, through a canopy of tall jungle trees, buttressed with triangular fins, and strangled with liana vines. I carefully stepped over a column of leafcutter ants crossing the road.
Engine noise crept up behind me. I turned to see a vintage black Mercedes Benz, a beauty: silver grill, twin headlights, curved fenders, and a spare tire in front on the driver’s side. I stuck out my thumb. There was a conversation inside. The car rolled to a stop, and a front suicide door opened.
“Are you going to the ruins?” I asked politely.
“Ja… you would like a ride?” a white haired old man with cerulean irises replied.
“That would be very kind. Thank you.” I got in the back.
His Mexican driver shifted into first gear.
The floor was made of wood, as were the window frames. I looked down at the manual stick shift, as the driver’s glove returned to the steering wheel. It was embossed with a Wehrmacht eagle.
The driver shifted into second gear.
“Where are you from?” I inquired. Pause.
“I am Swiss.” He said. We shifted into third.
I looked down at the gearshift knob again. An angular swastika hung from the eagle’s talons.
“When did you come to Mexico?” Once more into the breech.
“A long time ago. Before you were born.”
I went for broke.
“What did you do in Switzerland?” White pawn to Check.
“You ask a lot of questions.” Black rook to Stalemate.
We were stopped at the entrance to the ruins.
“Thank you.” Stepping out of the car.
“Gern Geschehen. Safe journey.”

Sunday, 25 May 2014

You Ask a Lot of Questions 1

“If the day should ever come when we (the Nazis) must go, if some day we are
  compelled to leave the scene of history, we will slam the door so hard that the
  universe will shake and mankind will stand back in stupefaction.”
                                                                                        Joseph Goebbels

I squeezed a little more lime on my skewers of fried grasshopper chillied chapulines. I had heard good things about Oaxacan dining, but my budget would keep me close to the bottom of the food chain. The autumnal colours of the seven mole sauces decorated the Posada Marguerita, but that’s as close as I was going to get to haute cuisine. I checked in to meet John, an old Rhodesian Selous Scout from Holland, and his Belgian girlfriend, Marlene. We took a bus to the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. It was wonderfully peaceful, except for the genital mutilation of the captured and tortured war prisoners on the walls, whose sacrifices were sculpted in pain. They were called Danzantes (dancers). You bet. From there we went to the market, and used our aroma navigation skills to weave through a psychedelic labyrinth of known and novel meats and cheeses, tomatoes, avocados, chocolate, nuts, new fruits (guanabana, chilacayote, and zapote), medicines, and cochineal, carmine dye insects, hand-collected with deer tails, that had once become Mexico’s second largest colonial export, after silver.
Back at the Posada, we met two exchange students, Yoshi, from Japan and Yutte, an Austrian. It was September 16, Independence Day, and there was a fiesta in the Zocalo. The plaza was mobbed with marimba bands, choirs, and Guelaguetza folk dancers. Long Live Our Lady of Guadeloupe!  The music and noise, flags, lights, and fireworks, stole all your senses simultaneously. We drank Negro Modelo, and wondered where the earth and sky had gone. By the end of it, several hours later, Yutte and I had lost John and Marlene. And Yoshi.
There was only one other guest, besides me, left in Posada Marguerita next morning. His name was Raf. I flicked a scorpion off his shoulder in the courtyard. Fair trade, he offered to repair my shoes.  Raf was an American. He told me his wife was poisoned. Bit not as much as he was. He might have noticed the scorpion, if it hadn’t been for the mezcal. The worm in the bottle of maguey juice had spoken to him. ‘Para todo mal, mezcal y para todo bien también.’ For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too. I took a slow, hot, Independence Day shower, and ate a slower warm breakfast of huevos, frijoles and café con leche. The day picked up at the Oaxacan Regional Museum, and the dazzling gold leaf ornamentation in the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman. I got to play with the beautiful machine that was a suit of conquistador armour, and marveled at the turquoise, aquamarine, gold, bone, silver, shell and jade artifacts from Monte Alban’s Tomb 7, in the museum there. After some more bread and beans in the market, I watched a little orphan, in worn-out sandals, whip a pod of chubby rich kids with designer sneakers, in a road race through the Zocalo. Mercury rising over Jupiter. I returned to Raf and my own repaired footwear, and gave back the book he had loaned me, Your Friend, the USA. They had been told about the one in Jesus, too.