Wednesday, April 16, 2014

back to base camp

There’s no place like home.

So said Dorothy Gale.  Of course, her trip was a bit longer than mine.

I have no idea whether the aphorism is true or not.  For the past six years, I have not really had one.  A home, that is.  Or what one would conventionally call a home.

I have rented in Villa Obreg
ón for all of those years.  But it doesn’t feel like home.  It is a place where I come to rest my wings. 

Maybe it is a nest.  Or just a perch.

Whatever it is, I am back at the beach for a few weeks until I head back to Mexico City to start another journey.  And Alex and Lupe are back at their home.

I asked Lupe to pose for another photograph.  This time with her customary smile.  It is a better representation of who she really is -- rather than yesterday’s shot.

Being in Mexico City for the past ten days has had an interesting affect on me.  (Partly due, I suspect, to Kim, Gary Denness, and Christine Potters lobbying me to join them in the Mexican Oz.)  And I find it hard to believe I am even considering the idea.

But there is plenty of time to further erode my concept of home.

As I was writing this post, the airplane was on its final approach to the Manzanillo airport.  The view outside my window was something I could never find in The Big City.  Crisply-outlined mountains.  Clear blue sky.  Lagoons.  Grassland.  And that great big body of water off to port side.

Dinner with friends on the beach capped it off.  Thousands of Mexican visitors are headed our way to enjoy our little village.  The next two weeks will be one of my favorite times to live in Mexico.

Whether or not I have a home here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

here’s looking at you, kid

When we left Melaque nine days ago, the three of us had one mission -- to get a new prosthetic eye for Lupe.  I can now say: “Mission accomplished.” 

But this trip has proven to be so much more.  Getting to know more about Alex and Lupe, even though they have been my neighbors for five years.  Getting to see Mexico City anew through their eyes -- with all of its wonders.  Best of all, though, creating a relationship with both of them that may not quite be friendship, but it is awfully close.

It almost seems anti-climactic to let you know that Lupe now has what we came to Mexico City for -- a new eye.  A week ago, we were not certain what the outcome was going to be.

Her initial examination revealed that the bone constituting her eye socket had begun to close.  The closing bone then started to push her artificial eye down and out.  Down in out in Beverley Hills may get you a movie.  Down and out in Melaque gets you trouble.

Lupe has worn that eye for ten years without any medical examinations.  DIF (the state social services) assisted her in getting it.  But her wages as a hotel maid were too much to qualify for further assistance -- and, as these things often are, too low to pay for treatment on her own.

That is when the kind residents of the hotel where she works stepped in.  And it is why we are in Mexico City.

Over the past week, Lupe on her own and with doctor-assisted therapy has been able to improve the opening.  But it was just an improvement.  The replacement eye is about 60% the size of her functioning eye.  But it will now fit properly.

Last Friday, the doctor chose a prosthetic that would fit.  An artist in the office spent a couple of hours with Lupe painting the artificial eye to match her functioning one.

On Monday at noon, we returned for its installation.  And installed it is.

So, are you ready for the big reveal?  Here is Lupe with her doctor -- Dra. Carla Ortega Zamitiz.

At this point, I think she was feeling a bit overwhelmed.  Her trademark smile is missing.  But she is overjoyed with the result.

To me, it is a great improvement over her old eye.  And there are a lot of thanks to go around.  To Dra. Ortega for her skills, caring, and patience.  To the people who love Lupe and were willing to sacrifice for her benefit.  To Alex, whose English skills and good nature have resolved several dilemmas that Lupe and I could not have done on our own.

And, of course, to Lupe who has been brave and nervous and persistent and thankful to everyone who has cared enough about her to get this new eye.

At lunch yesterday she broke into tears when telling me that she wishes she could hug everyone who has helped her get this eye.  In her own Dickensian words: "God bless them all."

I add my thanks to everyone who have given me the opportunity to grow during this past week.  Lupe and Alex have taught me a lot.

We may not be landing on an aircraft carrier to declare our victory, but when we return to Melaque around noon today, we will feel as if we are in a victory parade.

Monday, April 14, 2014

the big weekend

My mind is a blank.

For the past hour I have been sitting here staring at a blank screen.  I would like to tell you about our big day in Mexico City -- our last wander-around-the-city-as-a-trio day. 

But, as I told you: my mind is a blank.  I have data.  Just no hook.

The phenomenon is not new.  My friend Patti sent me an email concerning yesterday's exchange about using flash in museums.  She wrote it reminded her "of our Magna Carta experience in Portland."

Now, I have the dim flicker of a memory about the incident, but no details come to mind.  I asked Patti to fill it in for me.  That is one reason to keep old friends.  They store precious memories.

For that reason alone, I should have turned today's post over to Lupe and Alex.  But here is my version of what we did.

We made the mistake yesterday of trying to stuff too many tourist sights into our schedule before we stuffed food in our stomachs.  That was not going to happen again.

We started out where I wanted to have lunch yesterday -- at el café de tacuba -- one of my favorite places to eat in Mexico City.  Because it serves tongue -- an old family favorite.

So, that is what we did, and it is what I had.  Mexico City seemed unusually busy to me for a Sunday.  Everywhere we went there were large crowds and lines.  Including the restaurant.  At least thirty people were standing on the sidewalk waiting to get a table.

Thinking I would get our name on a long waiting list, I approached the hostess and told her there were three of us.  She looked up, smiled, and said: "Right this way."

Instead of taking us to a waiting area, she took us to a private dining room where we were assigned two incredibly attentive waitresses.  It made me wonder if I should have told her that I am not Philip Seymour Hoffman.  But it was certainly the last time in the day when we were afforded special treatment.

At Joanne's suggestion, I surprised Alex with a visit to The Museum of Torture.  Joanne found it almost nauseating what human beings can do to one another.  I found it rather antiseptic and bookish.

The museum consists of various torture devices.  Most of them antique.  But the placards make clear that most of the underlying techniques are commonly used by Third World nations. 

I suspect there are a few First (western) and Second (communist) world nations that use the centuries of research that have gone into torture, if not the same devices.  Cattle prods to control rioters are merely a technical update of crowd rakes.

The photograph is the only one I could shoot because it was in the lobby.  Once you step through the museum's door, cameras are as verboten a they are inside John the Baptist's house in
San Juan Chamula.

Because we have been discussing the use of flash in museums, I asked the guard why cameras were forbidden.  His answer was straightforward.  The museum is small.  If people were using their cameras, they could not keep moving along. 

There may be a second reason.  I noticed the gift shop sold a book with illustrations of the exhibits.  Mammon must be served.

Alex liked it, though.  And that is why we went.

Our next stop was the old post office commissioned by Porfirio Diaz.  Even though it is quite eclectic in its architectural style (as are many buildings in Mexico), all of the pieces come together to produce what I consider to be one of the most eye-pleasing structures in Mexico City.  Inside.

Or out.

There are many people who would disagree with me.  Their list of nominees would probably include el palacio de bellas artes.  Porfirio Diaz (yes, again) commissioned this art nouveau building to be used as a cultural centerpiece of Mexico's independence centennial celebration in 1910.

His plans didn't work out that way.  The exterior of the building was completed a year after the centennial -- not until 1911.  The ongoing revolution stopped further work.

The interior was completed in a completely different style -- art deco -- between 1932 and 1934.  The theater is one of those places that leaves writers hunting for adjectives.

But I can put away my word-finder.  Even though I looked forward to showing the Tamayo mural to Lupe and Alex, the same crowds we would see all day were lined up in front of the building.  We passed on the undoubted mayhem that was brewing inside.

So, we jumped to the next obvious landmark -- el torre latinoamericana -- once the tallest building in Latin America.

Even though it has been surpassed by other buildings in the city, it is still a great place to view the smoggy skyline.  It would be possible to excuse someone for believing the world was flat when looking through the haze darkly.

In this view you can see the sights we visited on Saturday.

I had one last sight for Lupe -- el casa de los azulejos (the house of tiles).  Once an 18th century grand residence, it is now a Sanborns department store.

The tiles are interesting, and Lupe seemed to find it beautiful.  This area of the city is filled with grand, old houses that would not exist had they not been rehabilitated by businesses.  But the mix always strikes me as a bit odd. Like putting pearls on Carlos Slim.

The day was fading and my list still had two choices.  The monument of the Revolution or Chapultepec castle.  We opted for the monument because it was a healthy walk away.

The monument symbolizes Mexican utility.  Porfirio Diaz decided that the federal legislature needed a new building -- instead of letting them exercise any political power.  The laying of the corner stone on 23 September 1910 was not timely.  Seventeen days later, the Revolution broke out.

Only the dome was completed.  And there it sat in a marsh -- unused for over twenty years.  Instead of putting up with another Porfirio Diaz edifice, the surviving heroes of the Revolution turned it into a monument honoring their struggle.  Or, at least their myth of the struggle.  And that is the building we see today.

To my eye, its massive weight speaks more of power than of liberty.  But it is now also a mausoleum -- housing the bodies of several revolutionary heroes: Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Francisco "Pancho" Villa, Plutarco El
ías Calles, and Lázaro Cárdenas.  Several of whom were involved in the deaths of the others.

But it is not now merely another mausoleum honoring the dead -- in Soviet or Chinese style. 

The monument also attracts a tent city of angry leftists sulking like Achilles, who brandish rather crude caricatures of Barak Obama as Hitler and warn passersby that the government is giving Mexico's oil to the gringos (that last rant to Lupe, and directed at me -- leaving her very embarrassed).  All of them reactionaries at heart.

On the other side of the monument -- and reality -- were every-day people who know what it is to enjoy life.  In this case, by running through spouts of water on a hot day in Mexico City.  They are Mexico's future.

I confess: I am exhausted.  But I would not have traded this weekend with Alex and Lupe for my former plan of haunting museum galleries on my own.

Joy is a dish best shared in a private dining room with friends.  And a couple of dedicated waitresses.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

all the world's a stage

The three of us decided to play different roles today. 

We have tired of playing The Patient and the Support Team.  It appears that play will have a longer run that we expected.

But yesterday and today, we are going to play The Awe-struck Tourists.  Because that is what we are.

And if you are going to play those roles, the first place to visit is la plaza de la constitución -- or as it is popularly known, the zócalo.  Its large expanse of concreted space makes it the center of historic Mexico City.

Under most circumstances, it a great place to see the political and religious power centers of the capital.  With the cathedral on its north side, and the presidential office to the west.

But yesterday was not most circumstances.  What is normally is just space is now space filled with some sort of Telcel event.

So, there was no opportunity to stand under the giant Mexican flag and take in the grandeur of Mexico -- a grandeur often burdened by its own history.

Even though a strong vein of that history would say that we should first pay homage at some secular shrine, we decided to visit the cathedral or, to use its full name, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City.

The Mexican constitution declares that Mexico is a secular country.  A majority of Mexicans would disagree.  And they often do.  Fervently showing their faith.

Today is Palm Sunday.  And the cathedral, of course, is in full swing preparing for Easter.  That restricted our ability to visit.  Access to the main part of the church was blocked off for services.

I am not accustomed to being thwarted.  By listening to the tough woman barring our access, I determined she would only let people pass who had preregistered for a mass and a blessing to enter the sanctuary.

That was an easy-enough bluff.  I put Lupe and Alex in front of me, and in my most lawyerly voice, I told her we were there for mass and thanked her for her efficiency. 

We were admitted.  It was not a subterfuge.  Not really.  And here's the proof.  I took Lupe to the rail to be splashed with water by a dwarf priest.  (I don't make this stuff up.)

I then made an amateur grifter mistake.  I forgot my new role of penitent believer and whipped out my camera.  And thus was I exposed as an arrant fraud.  And cast out of the First Circle.  By then, though, we had some photographs of the forbidden zone.

Anyone who has been to the cathedral knows that the place, as a whole, is sumptuous -- almost hedonistic.  The largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the New World.  But, even the parts we could view in detail were well worth the visit.

I had to share a very Mexican sight with Lupe and Alex --  the statue commemorating John Paul II's special relationship with Mexico. 

The statute is pure Mexico.  The rear of the statue is made of keys that tumble down to a cascade of roses.

The roses are the connection to the front of the statue.  On the pope's cloak is an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- a play on Juan Diego's celebrated cloak.  Thus connecting the late pope's Mary cult promotion with Mexico's most sacred icon.

Having filled our spiritual tanks, we pushed our way through the Saturday crowds to visit the center of Mexican political power -- the National Palace, with its presidential office.

I have never been inside the palace's doors.  But I am glad we visited.  It was well worth the hour or two we spent inside.

Starting with a detailed review of Diego Rivera's mural of Mexican history.

His romanticized view of Mexico's Indians.  Such as this depiction of Indians in the Vera Cruz area.  Dwarf priests seem to be an unintended theme of the day.

And his interesting take on Cortés, his Indian mistress, and their child -- one of the first mestizos -- shown with his European blue eyes.  Even though Cortés had dark eyes.  But this is political painting where facts are an inconvenience.

We also had an opportunity to view the restored former Chamber of Deputies.

I continue to be amazed how the custodians of Mexican public buildings treat citizens as responsible adults.  We were allowed to meander through the chamber.  No one was continually watching.  Other than the usual warning from a bored guard of no flash photography, we were treated like responsible adults.  And we all acted that way.

A perfect example.  At the palace entrance, there was a long list of rules.  The one that caught my eye was "no photography on the premises."  I understood why.  For security.  After all, the president works there.

So, I dutifully bagged up my camera.  But, at the first sight of a photo opportunity, troops of tourists whipped out their cell phone cameras.  Right next to armed soldiers -- who said not a word.  Except to say -- "no flash."

Adults dealing with adults.

But back to our tour.  We took a walk through Benito Juarez's residence in the palace, where he lived until his death -- embittered that his Liberal dream for Mexico was fading.  (Ironically, it is a man, who comes from a party that has spent almost a century as an enemy of liberalism, who is enacting a good deal of Juarez's dream.)

Having filled our plates with scoops of colonial and post-independence Mexico, we decided to take a look at what Mexico City looked like before the Europeans arrived -- and what the Europeans did when they did strut on stage.

History is condensed in the area around the cathedral.  In fact, the cathedral itself is built atop, and partially out of, ruined Aztec temples.

One of Mexico's most outstanding archaeological discoveries was excavated only in the 1970s -- the templo mayor.  When Cortés arrived, it was the largest of the city's temples.  Dedicated to the worship of the rain god Tlaloc and the war god Huitzilopochtli.  The Spanish were shocked to discover that human sacrifice was a regular part of appeasing both gods -- especially Huitzilopochtli who had killed and dismembered his goddess sister.

Archaeologists have been as true as they can be in their reconstruction of this magnificent building.  It is possible to imagine what it once was while seeing it for what it is now.

The attached museum includes a treasure trove of artifacts excavated from the temple site and the surrounding area.  This part of Mexico City sits on a giant potential archaeological dig.

Such as the recurring theme of giant discs depicting the dismembered body of

Coyolxauhqui, Huitzilopochtli's sister.  But don't expect a story about Huitzilopochtli seeking revenge.  He is the guy who dismembered her.

The disc was usually placed at the bottom of the stairs of a temple.  After an honored warrior was sacrificed at the top of the stairs, the priests would throw the body down the stairs -- replicating what Huitzilopochtli had done to his sister.  And creating a reverberating cliché for every Hollywood hack writer.

I suppose if there had been unitarian Aztecs, they would have used a plain dish.  Or, perhaps, merely the thought of a dish.

The museum is filled with other artifacts found at the site.  This elaborate vase, for instance, depicting the goddess Chicomecoatl, the goddess of corn.  The piece pays homage to the relationship between corn and rain by depicting Tlaloc's image in three different places -- once on the lid, and above and below Chicomecoatl's face.  Proving that it is not always bad to be stuck between Tlaloc and a hard face.

There is also a very helpful cut-away of the various levels of worship accretion the temple acquired over the years, where it is easy to see the havoc the Spanish lavished on the place.

I had placed some additional stops on my tour list.  However, when we left the templo mayor, it was past five.  Time to call it a day.

Today?  We will still be playing tourists.  I am just not certain where.  But Joanne gave me a great suggestion yesterday.

Wherever we go, we will play our tourist roles with aplomb.  Because if the world is not a stage, Mexico City certainly is.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

the incredible and edible mexico city

Where else but in Mexico City could I start the morning stuffing pork rinds in my mouth and end the day with kimchi?  It is a grand place.

Each day this week, I either walked or taxied over to Lupe and Alex's hotel to join them on our own version of Mr. Toad's Wild ride to the eye clinic.  Our usual routine is to wait for the doctor to arrive.  She spends about a half-hour with Lupe, and the three of us break for an hour and a half or so for breakfast-lunch.  Lupe then spends about two more hours with the doctor while we wait.

We have been eating at a little Mexican diner for each of our clinic meals.  The food is nothing special, but it is good.  And filling.  Not to mention inexpensive.  The most we have spent for the three of us is $189 (Mx).  In Mexico City.

This morning I decided to throw caution to the wind and have a traditional Mexican breakfast -- chicharrón in salsa verde.  Put that way, it sounds exotic.  Alex's description, though, was far more direct.  "Strips of fried pig skin." 

Yup.  I had fried pork rinds for breakfast.  But the sauce does the same thing to the rinds as it does to tortilla chips in chilaquiles -- reduces it to a slightly gelatinous product.  Despite that description, it was quite good.

Today, Lupe's second round with the doctor was going to last three hours.  The eye has been chosen, but the artist now needs to add personal touches to make the prosthesis look like her other eye.

Alex and I decided to do some guy stuff.  There is a museum dedicated to the countries who have interfered with Mexico's sovereignty -- museo de las intervenciones.  The big draw for me was to see the throne of Agustin de Iturbide.  Mexico's first emperor following independence.  But it had been moved -- to the exhibit at the Chapultepec castle.

On the other hand, we did get to see a museum dripping with some of Mexico's worst moments.  The museum is located in a former convent that served as a fort during the Mexican-American war.  You can still see bullet holes on the exterior wall.  Painstakingly preserved I might point out.  Some wounds are not designed for healing.

But it did give me an opportunity to greet some of my favorite characters from Mexican military history.

Starting with the turncoat Agustin de Iturbide, who settled for glory and a firing squad rather than retiring to his farm after the war.  We didn't get to see his throne, but we did see his saber.

Then, there was that old scoundrel Santa Anna.  A man who gave away half of his country to the Americans to save his own hide.  Only to end up giving rambling speeches in old age to paid audiences.  In this painting, he is probably showing the Americans the best spots for cattle ranching.

As a side note, Santa Anna's artificial leg is exhibited at Chapultepec castle -- probably next to Iturbide's throne. 

Or, the man who brought peace, order, and prosperity to Mexico, only to squander it for dictatorial powers.  Porfirio Diaz.

I found it a bit odd that Diaz was celebrated in a rather objective way.  Usually, he is portrayed as the very essence of evil -- at least, by the side that won the Revolution.

But nothing topped the death mask of the Emperor Maximilian -- fresh from his date with a Juarez-ordered firing squad.

I could have stayed longer, but we needed to get back to the clinic to check on Lupe's progress.  And progress there was.  Her artificial eye has been painted.  It now needs to dry.  On Monday, we will return to have it installed.  On Tuesday, we will fly to Melaque.

But the day was not done.  I had given Alex my guide book to peruse.  I wanted him to choose something he wanted to do.  And he chose what any 19-year old male would choose -- the wax museum and Ripley's museum.

Ripley's museums are eccentric no matter where they are located.  But this one was obviously attuned to the grotesque.

My experience is that most Mexicans are thrilled to see the oddities of life.  Like brains being drilled out of Egyptian mummies.

Or a horn growing out of a Chinaman's head.

Or a human bone used as a flute.

But it was the wax museum that we enjoyed the most.  Probably because it was set up to allow viewers to not just gape, but to also mingle with the wax celebrities.

Such as Ricky and Frank who greeted us at the door.  Not to mention, Alex.  (But, I guess I just did.)

Intermingling was a bit unnerving.  I almost expected Octavio Paz to rise from his chair to discuss how his co-exhibits were simply wearing masks.

My favorite, though, (because I have never left my teens when it comes to kitschy entertainment) was the Chamber of Horrors.  And only in Mexico could grade school children have the times of their lives amongst the gruesome.

And then I was off to dinner at a Kim-recommended restaurant.  (From whom other than a Kim would you accept advice about matters Korean?)

My experience in Mexico is that ethnic food does not translate very well.  Pizza and Chinese buffets leading the parade.  But Kim said it was good.

And he did not steer me wrong.  For all I know the place is a front for North Korean intelligence operations.  If so, they serve up good grub to fellow travelers.  A lot of it.  All of this was for me.

There was enough on the table for four people.  I left enough for two.

So, there you are.  Another full day.

Just wait what we have in store for you tomorrow.

Friday, April 11, 2014

my dinner with kim

In the early 1980s, I belonged to a gourmet club. 

A doctor.  A banker.  A businessman.  And a lawyer.  I know.  It sounds like the start of a very bad joke.  But it was a fun group of food-loving people.

One evening, the doctor's wife asked if any of us had seen a new movie -- My Dinner with Andre.  The banker's wife said: "No.  What's it about."  Mrs. Doctor responded: "Well, it's like having dinner with Steve -- but more boring."  Zing!

That lost memory popped up tonight.  But my experience was far better than what Mrs. Doctor had in mind.  I had dinner with the camera-shy Kim of el gringo suelto.

Actually, I spent the full afternoon and evening with him.  We met at Starbucks and then trekked into some familiar and new territory for me.

The familiar was walking down one of Mexico City's grand boulevards  -- Reforma.  The road was originally built by the unhappy Hapsburg Prince Maximilian, who the French installed as puppet emperor.  He wanted a grand avenue from his residence at the Castle Chapultepec to his offices in the historic center of the city.

What he ended up getting was being shot in front of a Mexican firing squad.  One of the men who toppled the emperor became president (Porfirio Diaz) and spiffed up the street to reflect a Liberal interpretation of Mexican history for the country's independence centennial.  He escaped a firing squad by sailing off to his beloved Paris -- a city that is reflected in Reforma's design and decorations.

But all of that is simply a setting for my meeting with Kim.

Kim was one of my early readers -- leaving intelligent and witty comments on my posts.  I knew I wanted to meet him one day.  And I did -- twice -- in 2011.  In Mexico City in March (continued next week), and in San Miguel de Allende in July (lazarus in san miguel).

He has proven to be a great dinner companion.    So, I jumped at the possibility that we could meet up on his road trip through Mexico.  And yesterday was the day.

There is a cliché that goes something like this.  "I know we are good friends because we can start up a conversation as if we had never been apart."

It is a silly construct -- one that the Hatfields and the McCoys could blast a hole through.

A friend is someone with whom you can discuss any topic with analytical clarity.  Where any topic can be discussed without emotional hysterics.  A person you can tell anything in confidence and know that it will be shared with no one but you.

Facebook and the television program Friends has sucked the word "friend" dry of any rational meaning.  But Kim fits the bill as the real McCoy -- probably the type that shoots at Hatfields.

One of my joys of walking in Mexico City is reinterpreting the Mexican history I have read.  After all, history means nothing until it is structured into a good tale.  Our walk provided plenty of fodder.

At the head of Reforma, we entered the forest that surrounds Chapultepec castle -- home to two emperors and a bevy of presidents.  More history.  More wailing over the lack of civility in politics.  More personal tales.  More laughter.

All of that makes two guys hungry.  So, we swung south into the La Contesa neighborhood that several of you have pressed upon me.  The food was good.  The companionship and conversation was without comparison.

Here's the amazing part of this story.  Kim and I did not attend university together.  We never worked for the same or similar employers.  My background is law.  His is finance.  If you went down a list of characteristics, you would think we could not possibly have become the chums we have through blogs.

But there we were.  Chatting away almost until yesterday was today.  Which it is right now.

There is a possibility that I will see Kim in Mexico City again when I return for my final formal costume fitting.  If so, I have no doubts the night will be as good as it was tonight.  (And, yes, Christine, I will let you vie for that billing, as well.)

But before I close, let me tell you about Lupe's appointment yesterday.

The doctor has determined that she cannot increase the size of Lupe's eye socket.  If she installed a normal size artificial eye, Lupe would be unable to close her eyelid.  Instead, she will fit Lupe with a smaller eye later today -- and then begin the process of painting it to look like her normal eye.

That means we will stay in Mexico City until at least Tuesday.  It will also give me an opportunity to show the historical center to the two of them.