Archives for the month of: July, 2013

I am rereading ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ for the third or forth time. I repurchased it early this month while on a trip back to the US having given away my two previous copies over the last 25 years. As I write this I realize that this is the only book in my bookshelves to have ever been replaced for the third time.

I should probably just tell you to read it. But you won’t because one glance at the back cover would tell you that it isn’t very relevant to your life. And the book wouldn’t make a very good movie either; it’s essays after all. But you should read it if you feel at all estranged from your American heritage. If you’re one of those introspective people who wakes up some mornings and wonders just who in the hell you are and questions the very roots of your identity. Being someone who asks the profoundest questions concerning your life; the most important being, just what do you believe in? Who are your heroes? And what are the myths that make up the tapestry of your identity? Bruce Lincoln defines myth as ‘ideology in narrative form’. As such myths comprise the soul of our identity.

Now having been in Mexico for almost a year I think it is more important than ever that in my re-reading I pay closer attention because the pages hold unquestionably the best exposition of Mexico and its people, character and culture. And quite frankly I have been more than just a little baffled by some of my interpersonal interactions down here.

The Labyrinth of Solitude is best seen as a decryption of the Mexican myth(s). Octavio Paz took the more psychological approach to explore the nature of his country’s individuality believing that it would be more revealing than attempting to explain his people merely through the lens of historicity.

He opens his analysis and critique of the Mexican character by stating ‘Our territory is inhabited by a number of races speaking different languages and living on different historical levels’. He goes on to speak to the Mexican’s profound sense of solitude, living ‘under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable gods’. He contrasts that with the North American, estranged from creation, who inhabits an ‘abstract world of machines, fellow citizens and moral precepts’. And that the United States was created by man in his own image and ‘it is his mirror’ and that subsequently he is forever lost, using the phrase of Jose Gorostiza, ‘in a wilderness of mirrors’. Where as the Mexican wants to return to the root of his consciousness, to the sun, to the very beginning before he was wrest from the center of creation.

And it’s here where I want to pause for a minute because I need to stop and ask myself what are my myths? What do I believe in? I am not speaking of spiritual matters here; I am speaking of those things that are external to me. I am asking what the enduring myths of my country are in this second decade of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately for me, I lack Octavio Paz’s intellectual engine to pursue this in the manner that the questions – ‘who am I and who are we’? – deserves but I am conscious enough of my own existence to ask the questions.

I spent the month of June doing mostly a self-propelled tour of the north-central US with my daughter; that’s run (90 miles), bike (700 miles) and canoe (50-60 miles). That much time spent on the ground gave me a birds-eye view into what I had hoped would be the heroic lives of the ancestors of Vikings who emigrated there 150 years ago. But we saw none of that. Central Minnesota positively frightened me because we saw almost no one out doors. We saw people in cars but that was it. We saw literally no children playing outdoors; ever. We joked at some point that there must have been a massive alien abduction. We saw no bookstores, no farmers markets, no coffee shops, no running stores (except for one in St. Cloud), no bike stores (except for two in St. Cloud), no music stores, nor whole food hippie style co-ops until we got to Duluth.

We did however see Indian Casinos; more than we wanted to as a matter of fact, and all built with that same grim Soviet-bloc architectural aesthetic. We saw people pulling boats and driving RVs but we didn’t see a single touring bicycle rider until we were half-way up the north shore of Lake Superior. I guess a lot of people just stay in their houses these days plugged into cable. I don’t know what else could explain what we saw and didn’t see.

At times I feel more than just a little camaraderie with Ambrose Bierce, that bitterly sarcastic journalist who was so critical of the hypocrisy of his time that he wandered off into Mexico to vanish into their revolution without a trace. In his ‘Devil’s Dictionary he redefined congratulation as ‘The civility of envy’. Or the equally bitter treatment he gave his generations’ nonplused hard-hearted treatment of the less fortunate when he wrote that air was ‘a nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor’. Where are the true American individuals and iconoclasts today?

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The title should come with a sub-title called ‘Little Miracles’ which I feel compelled to explain first. I have come to look at those tiny inexplicable events that happen in one’s life – things that one could easily dismiss as luck – to now come to regard those same things as little miracles. An example was when we were canoeing last month and on our second or third set of rapids both me and our bag of electronics got dumped out of the boat. Surprisingly the electronics survived because Sarah tied off the garbage bag which I had more or less ignored and just kind of packed it with our phones, my netbook, and stuff. And the place where this miss-hap took place just happened to have been right across from the very first wilderness camping spot on the St. Croix River. This is significantly important for a very big reason. Until then every preceding mile the shoreline was nothing but bog; nothing but a tangle of impenetrable trees that were mostly underwater, meaning there was no place to pull off. And we were to discover later that every mile thereafter, with few exceptions, were bog too.

Now here is the second little miracle that happened just 5 short minutes later. We no sooner got the canoe, ourselves, and our stuff pulled onto shore at this quasi-manicured wilderness camping spot situated on high ground that the sky literally opened up and it poured rain for 40 straight minutes. We tarped up the stuff, I turned the canoe upside propping one end high up on a tree and we took shelter under the canoe. There was a 10 minute break in the rain where we took that opportunity to pitch the tent and it proceeded to rain hard for another hour and a half. We were able to warm up in the tent and change into dry clothes. Coincidence? No. If our accident would have happened 5 minutes earlier or 5 minutes later we would have been royally screwed. We’re talking a big cold rain storm – thunder, lightning, wind, the whole bit – and us with no protective gear. We truly were babes in the wilderness. You can call it whatever you want but to me it was a miracle.

So miracles both big and small are how I choose to look at my life these days; always mindful of the protective hand of the Almighty. Like when I tripped and fell down the stairs two weeks ago; that should have had tragic results especially for an uncoordinated old fool like me. But I escaped with only a torn up toe.

I live in an area populated by some very bad men. Just last week 22 men were killed in yet another cycle of the local violence here in Michoacán. People back home ask me if I am scared. Or people back home tell me to be careful. I am reminded of the preface that W. Somerset Maugham wrote for ‘Appointment in Samarra’ the novel published by John O’Hara in 1934.

The preface goes something like this: A merchant in ancient Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace to buy food. The servant comes rushing back and says ‘Master, master, lend me your fastest horse so that I may flee to Samarra to escape my fate’! The master asked him what was going on. The servant replied that while he was in the market he happened to jostle an old woman and in turning, he saw that she was Death. The master said, ‘Fine, take a horse and go’. The master was curious so he went down to the market and found the old woman and discovered that she was in fact Death. He asked, ‘Why did you frighten my servant so’? Death shrugged and replied, ‘I didn’t mean to frighten him. I was merely surprised. For tonight I have an appointment with him in Samarra’.

So, getting more on point here I should mention the 7 cigars that turned up just yesterday morning after being missing in action for something like 5 months. Sahuayo doesn’t have a cigar store or sell cigars anywhere; not even their own loathsome brand, Te Amo. A friend of mine brought me down a big box of Flor de Llaneza. And I mean big; it’s like 6” deep and holds 30 or 35 cigars that are 6 ½” long by 54 ring gauge. Anyway, I pretty much have been ignoring the box that sits on a shelf in my workroom until yesterday when I decided I could use the box to store some receipts in. I opened the box and pulled out the paper and a couple of squares of cedar that function as shelves to discover that there were 7 cigars under the last shelf!

I am beside myself with joy and happiness. They are a little dry – it’s rainy season here so the marginally higher humidity has been beneficial. But I will nurse them along to get them back in tip-top shape. Luckily the wrappers are not cracked anywhere so in a couple of weeks I’ll be smoking a cigar.

So you’re thinking, ‘Big deal, it’s just a stupid cigar. That doesn’t sound like much of a miracle to me. And even if there were a God he wouldn’t be in the habit of blessing people by giving them cancer sticks’.

Au contraire my friend. Cigars are not to be thought of as giant cigarettes. Oh, no.

Smoking a cigar isn’t about nicotine. You don’t inhale cigars. For the record, cigars have much more in common with all those things culinary then they do with those things that are habit forming. For instance there are still pre-Castro era cigars in existence. Some of those cigars so lovingly cared for that they have aged like the finest Bordeaux’s. I shiver at the very thought of smoking something so rarified.

In closing I’ll let those non-aficionados of you in on a secret. In smoking a cigar – a good cigar – one hits that place in the cigar that I call the sweet spot. It’s that magical inch (or more) where the flavor is something that can only be described as eating the finest filet mignon; it is that savory, so rich, and so complex. I smoked a Cuban years ago, the flavor of which I will take to the grave; that inch was a mile long of greatness. So yes, those found cigars are a tiny little miracle in my tiny little life.

And may you be equally blessed in finding the joy in small things.

This is another look at what to do with the left-over chicken bits; especially the skin and the fatty pieces that typically get thrown away in cultures of abundance.

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This is all being deep fried in freshly rendered lard. It comes out crispy and smoky; add a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lime and I guarantee it is one of the best things you could ever put into your mouth.

I’ve been reading Mike Loh’s blog on and off for the last couple of years . He has been a bit more curmudgeony of late than I’d like but he’s a good writer.

I especially like his Eat Drink Men Women section.

He’s a guy about my age. He lives in Singapore (a place I know quite well), he’s well traveled and loves the good life.

If you want to get more of an insiders view of both Singapore and the rest of Asia then I suggest that you check him out.

He’s a damn good writer if you can get past his querulousness.

My mother has been asking for more photos: photos of my house, the neighborhood, the market, the town, etc.

So here are a four pics of the house. The first pic is the very unappealing streetside view exhibiting what they say back in the states has ‘zero curb appeal’. Yes, my house with each story measuring 15’W X 75’L is like 3 single wide house trailers stacked one on top of the other. Yes, the exterior is totally devoid of charm, character or beauty but…

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The front of my house (notice all the iron?)

I didn’t care about the curb appeal, I rented the house because half of the third floor is a terrace with a 270 degree view of the city. It is from there that I take all of my sunrise/sunset/approaching storm photos.

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The third floor terrace (looking north towards Lake Chapala)

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Looking south from the terrace through the third floor workroom

The other half of the third floor is my work room. The windows and doors are open from the time I get up in the morning until the time I go to bed.

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Third floor workroom with a southern view (notice all of the iron?)

The charmless second floor supports the third floor (but also has 3 bedrooms).

The charmless first floor [also] supports the third floor but has the kitchen, another bathroom, an attached laundry room and a garage of sorts.

PS – curb appeal in Latin America (just like Asia) is attractive to criminals. Too nice of a house telegraphs that you are wealthy. And here, wealthy can get you kidnapped.

 How I love literary references and those epic titles from those no longer readable novels from those grimly tragic Russians bastards of times past. Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and other novels that I read when I was a teenager but no longer have the stamina to stick with anymore. Stories of such depth and historically sweeping panoramas that if they do nothing more but expose our tiny selfish and inwardly focused lives and in the doing belittle the shallowly electronic internet times that we live in today  then so be it.

My post’s title should read ‘The Belly of Mexico’; but that would be taking too much from Emile Zola. So to be fair I will call some future posts ‘Notes from the Belly of Mexico’; stealing equally from both Dostoyevsky and Zola.

Zola’s ‘The Belly of Paris’ got me thinking about food; a subject that is truly never far away. And while in the Mercado this morning I bought 3 very fresh, as in never been refrigerated, chicken livers that I am going to lightly sauté but leave pink in the middle and serve with a little salt on toast as an appetizer this evening. It is truly poor man’s foie gras. The chicken here is so incrediable; the skins are so yellow that they’re almost orange. Contrast that with the anemically white birds back in the states. And they are so fresh; they were clucking at 6 am and plucked and stacked on tables by 7 am. And to pay them the highest compliment – to borrow words from an early 20th century chef, ‘They taste of what they are’.

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And ‘Notes from the Underground’ got me thinking about my alien-ness, tented here as I am among the inscrutably mysterious Mexicans. And didn’t I mention that the Santiago Apostol Fiesta started on the 16th and runs until August 4th? And didn’t I also write how that immense procession of glorious costumes and headdresses dancing down my street from 5 pm until 1 am on the 25th was the climax? Well, as exciting and climactic as it was, it turns out to not necessarily be true. I learned this morning that there is a similar event happening tomorrow on the 28th.   . Another grand parade, only luckily for me the closest it gets is one street over to the north on Calle Tepeyac. And then there is another procession on the 30th – this one is one street over to the south on Calle Niño’s Heroes. It is a complete relief that neither of these go all night. That honor is reserved for the closing blow-out on August 4th which does go all night and is said to be the mother of all parties – for the entire year. And the guy relaying this information in the hardware store this morning said ‘no one sleeps’. Great.

My neighbors were all very pleased that I stayed up and partied with them till the very end. They especially were very proud that I had a really good time and called it the best party in the world. Saul’s 80 year old mother was sweeping up across the street when I got home at 1:30 am. So you’re certainly not the partying stud animal if old women are still up and doing work at that time of the morning. And she had been serving drinks and botanas all night too. Maybe I can take a little comfort in the fact that she wasn’t drinking beer and tequila from 5 pm on.

I had eggs, beans and fresh tortillas at Gaby’s this morning. I’ve taken to the local custom of creating Mexican style crepes scooping some fresh red salsa into a tortilla and rolling it up like a crepe. It’s another flavor vector as the salsa Gaby smothers your eggs with is green. I pick up a 16 oz. fresh squeezed juice from my neighbor for the walk down the hill; I like carrot juice and orange juice mixed together.

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I read the papers online first thing after getting out of bed. I make a cup of coffee that is 33% dark roast mixed with 66% medium roast beans from Chiapas. I think it is about the best cup of coffee this side of Vienna.

The town is quiet. There are maybe a few roosters crowing here and there but that’s it. I open the 3rd floor terrace door and watch the sunrise.

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It was the best party – by far – that I have ever been to and I as a general rule don’t much care for parties anymore. But this one was spectacular. And as hard as it is might seem to believe, this party beat Rio’s Carnival hands down. Maybe because it was less hedonistic and more personal and then there was just so much of everything going on; kids and families everywhere. Two of the most enthusiastic supporters were 2 little girls, 3 doors down, whom I watched out of the corner of my eye because they were so positively delightful. If they weren’t laughing and shouting and clapping their hands to the music, they were dancing or they were dashing into the street to throw confetti on the giant masked dancers. They did this for 2 straight hours. But then I left to go down the street so for all I know they were out there all night like a lot of other kids I saw all night wide-eyed and having a great time.

Imagine people in giant (up to 6’ tall and 4’ wide) handmade masks dancing down the street (my street) for 8 solid hours. We’re talking 89 different groups – meaning different masks and headdresses – with on average of 20 people per group. Dancing, cavorting, jumping, and twirling.

From 5 pm until 1 am there was literally a river of people pouring down Calle Victoria ; 8 straight hours of music and dancing.

All my neighbors were serving punch (pronounced pun-che) and botanas (snacks). The punch were all variations of water, sugar, diced up apples, chopped nuts, chocolate, and a little alcohol. Delicious.

I stood in front of my house holding an umbrella sipping on punch and eating small plates of botanas that my neighbors kept bringing to me. Everyone was sitting out in lawnchairs either holding umbrellas, sitting in doorways, or standing under erected tent like structures. It wasn’t just the neighbors; it was their families and out of town friends. Thousands and thousands of people. People from all over Mexico were there for the fiesta; some Mexicans came from as far away as Los Angeles. There was a light rain falling but it certainly didn’t detract from the good time everyone was having.

One of the busted down old cowboys I see from time to time walking on Victoria either to or from plaza or the Mercado stopped and accepted some of my tequila. We chatted a little as we watched the parade of people. He understood me and I mostly understood him; I like plain talk, brevity, and big chunks of silence in between. I like this old man like I do some of the other old guys who live arriba; that’s up and over the hill from me. And I want to be like this guy when I am 75; lean as a greyhound, skin the color of dark roasted coffee, and cheekbones sharp as knives. He probably doesn’t have 10 pesos to rub together; but regardless of which he’s a true gentleman possessing the dignity that some men get after fighting the good fight; not winning but not exactly losing either.

I walked a block and a half down and sat with my friend, Jose and his bunch of people. He too had an unlimited source of punch which we’d mix with a little tequila. The carpenter next door had his shop doors open and we’d pop over there from time to time to shoot the breeze and swap tequila for cold beer. Every couple of blocks there was a fresh source of loud dance music to keep all dancers fired up as they moved down the hill like one gigantic gyrating snake. The whirling men (and women) in their huge headdresses covered with shiny sequins caught the street lights and reflected back every color in the rainbow. I got home at 1:30 am and was still sober enough to check the news and look at my email before I washed up and went to bed.

What a great evening.

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I groaned when the first flashes of light illuminated the insides of my eyelids. The explosions that followed pushed just enough consciousness into my sleep dulled mind to recall the grim facts of what lay before me for the day. It would be the 4th day of listening to the loud music of the Banda loving painters working next door. Worse, today would be the climax to the fiesta that had been running for 9 straight days. Considering an all day and all night party populated with every last mariachi band in all of Mexico, a couple of painters and their boom box were pretty small potatoes. However, music down here isn’t just a cultural heritage; it is viewed as a God given right. And the louder the better.

I knew that today would contain the noisiest 24 hours of the entire year and would be quite possibly the loudest sustained day of my entire life and I was almost dull with dread. And I don’t have to think back very far to remind anyone that I’ve been through some noisy times – like here – like Christmas and New Year’s Eves; family house parties that spill outdoors into serious street celebrations that go all night.

 I sighed. It was going to be a long day; a very long noisy day that wouldn’t end until sometime in the wee hours of the following morning. The cannonade of rockets – from all three flanking cathedrals – began long before daybreak. I had been fearing the Fiesta Santiago Apostol for an entire year and here it finally was; the day for celebrating the feast of St. James, known locally as Santiago Apostol.

I don’t mind a good party mind you. But I am resentful of a party, any party, that I can’t just get up and leave. And I also happen to hate noise. I am one of those people who in the words of Trevanian, like to ‘leave a little’; in this case, leave the party before it gets too late and everyone gets too drunk. Unfortunately, this was going to be a surround sound event in every sense of the word; a wrap around fiesta with my street being the epicenter. I am not kidding. The locus for the entire celebration uncoincidently happens to be the Sanctuario de Santiago which is just one block up and around the corner from me. In retrospect I think it is much better to live anywhere other than next to the cathedral named after the city’s patron saint.

You are probably thinking what a Grinch I am. Here’s this old guy who should be enjoying this maybe once in a life cultural event and here he is grousing about a little noise.

No. You don’t get it. First, the procession that marches past my house happens somewhere around midnight or one in the morning. I am serious. It might be even later than that. The street parties started at 11 am this morning which was when I was given my first glass of punch from my lovely neighbors (truly seriously nice people) who live on the corner (and delicious it was). The parties won’t begin (that is begin) to break up until something like 2 hours after the procession finishes passing through. So we are conservatively talking about easily 4 am until things begin (there is that ephemeral word begin again) to wind down. Oh, and the description ‘procession’ doesn’t give true weight to what that really means. Second, there will be people parked in front of my house all night long, drinking, cooking food on makeshift fires (yup), and playing loud music. And as far as the cultural thing goes, I was in Brazil for Carnival. Not just Brazil mind you, I was in Rio De Janeiro – on Copacabana for Carnival; which I think makes me qualified to talk about large cultural celebrations. And for my money, cultural celebrations aren’t very useful unless they include lots of beautiful half-naked women gyrating to the sensual rhythms of samba music. So big guys wearing giant masks followed by drunken mounted cowboys, interspersed with more mariachis than you can bang a drum at doesn’t seriously register on my calendar of significant cultural events.

But I like my neighbors a lot because they smile at me and talk to me like they really care when they don’t have to at all. And I want them to like me. So I am going to participate in this fiesta and do it with a big smile on my face because I think some of these wonderful people really want me to work harder to act like I want to be here and be with them.

And may God bless each and everyone.

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From the British paper, the Guardian this morning:

“Violent clashes across the Mexican state of Michoacan killed at least 20 gunmen and two federal police officers, the government said.

Gunmen blocked roads and ambushed police patrols in at least six different areas of Michoacan on Tuesday, the interior department said in a statement.

The department said federal agents repelled the attacks, killing 20 and wounding an unknown number of assailants. Two police officers died in the shootouts and 15 were wounded, it said.

Fighting between the Knights Templar drug cartel and federal police has been intensifying over the past week in western Mexico. At least four police officers have been killed in shootouts with gunmen in Michoacan since Thursday.

On Monday, five people were killed when gunmen opened fire on a group of community self-defence members gathered on a plaza in the Michoacan town of Los Reyes.

About 300 masked community vigilantes wearing similar T-shirts arrived at city hall in Los Reyes and announced they would take over policing the town. Minutes later three assailants opened fired on the crowd, killing three members of the self-defence group, a police officer and a passer-by, prosecutors said.

Self-defence squads have been set up in recent months in Michoacan by people who say they are fighting violence, kidnappings and extortions carried out by drug cartels”.

Los Reyes is just south of Sahuayo where I live. I need to buy a newspaper this morning and talk to a few people to find out more.

To read more of the story – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/24/mexico-violence-22-dead-michoacan

PS – Did any of this show up in the US papers or on cable news?

I was asked the other day, ‘Who is Spike Johan’? It seems his name has been popping up in a few places and this acquaintance of mine sent me an email to ask me if I knew the guy. I thought it was most curious that this person framed up the question like it was a huge mystery; like maybe the guy didn’t exist or that maybe he was a mythological figure much in the way of ‘Who is John Galt’?

I replied that I knew the guy; maybe not knew him so much as having met him once or twice and exchanged a few emails with him from time to time. There wasn’t much else to tell. I told this person that every now and then he buys some sandals from me, but other than that I think the guy is a writer.  A friend says he owns a house in Jalisco; in the mountains near Matazmitla I think he said. I get the impression he is always traveling. I think he owns an import/export business in Hong Kong (and he also mentioned Panama). Who knows?