Friday, November 19, 2010

Wanderings: Recuerdos de Oaxaca

Oaxaca de Juárez, OAXACA -- Oaxaca is rich in enticements for the traveler. I could write about the streets full of colonial buildings constructed of pastel stone, set amidst the hills of El Valle de Oaxaca, and Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec city whose hilltop pyramids are visible for miles around. Or the fantastic food, beautiful handicrafts and art, rich chocolate, numerous museums and galleries, parks, pedestrian streets, and full calendar of live cultural events. However for now I will leave those for the travel writers.

I avoid "how to" type narratives about travel within Mexico. There are others who like doing that and who do it very well. However annual visits to Oaxaca have become a necessity for me, and I feel the urge to write about it. All of the things mentioned above contribute immensely to my pleasure in being here, but what stick with me are other experiences. After a few years of visits I have friends and a history here. Oaxaca evokes memories of people.

The Lovers

About four years ago I was ordering an evening meal in a small vegetarian restaurant around the corner from my hotel when a young Canadian couple sat down at the next table. It was pretty obvious that they had just arrived in Mexico, were excited about their trip, and were in love. Within moments they had ordered wine and began asking my advice about items on the menu, beginning a conversation that would last into the wee hours of the next day.

When the first courses arrived we reached both with
forks and words across the gap between the tables as we shared food and talk. They were in Mexico for six months and had great plans to learn what the area had to offer, maybe teach English, and explore Oaxaca. They'd brought their dog.

The couple invited me to go along with them after the meal, and I accepted the invitation. They wanted to go to a mezcal bar, the kind that offers drinks samplers to tourists. I nursed a beer while they tried various brands of Oaxacan liquor. When they finished, I invited them to a small live music bar I knew nearby. The performer that night was a mesmerizing singer and guitarist. The house was packed and the crowd was having a great time. After a while, the couple began whispering and smiling and looking into each others' eyes. She asked me, "Do you think the singer would do a private show?" I told her I suspected he would, and she said, "I hope he can improvise. I want him to accompany us while we make love." During the next break she went up to the platform and began talking with the performer. I watched his face. The man did not blink an eye or crack a smile, but simply began nodding. They talked for a few more minutes, she wrote something down on a napkin and handed it to the man, then returned to the table. "Tomorrow night, he's coming to the hotel," she said.

I never saw them again after saying good night that evening. I still wonder what happened.

The Expat

The hotel where I habitually stay (always in the same room) in Oaxaca centro has a whiteboard in the reception area on which they post a welcome message and list the names of guests in residence. On one visit I noticed the name of a reporter I had worked with as a young photographer on an assignment for the Washington Post nearly twenty-five years before, memorable because the reporter fell asleep while we were driving and rolled the car. Curious, I left a note on his door.

Upon returning to the hotel that evening, I was greeted in the patio by a figure who was the spitting image of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The man was darkly and conservatively dressed in a shirt buttoned up to the collar, with long shocks of silver hair brushed straight back over the top of his head, and wearing small, black glasses that would have looked right in place on the nose of a '30's Eurpoean intellectual. "J.M." was obviously not the old acquaintance whom I'd been expecting.

A Texan, J.M. had been coming to Oaxaca for decades, he said, and was staying for a few months this time to look into buying a house here. He held court in the same blue chair each evening in the central patio of the hotel, where we both had our rooms. J.M. drank vodka on the rocks while I drank a coke or beer. J.M. owned an apartment in Paris, he said, which he'd bought in the 80's for $10,000 and now was worth a million dollars. It turns out I'd been in Paris for a bit in 1985 at just about exactly the time he'd been apartment hunting. We knew many of the same hangouts, and had lots to talk about. Evenings with J.M. were interesting. When I started considering the Beckett connection I was intrigued, because Beckett had lived in Paris for many years and there did his most notable work. I wanted to ask J.M. which came first, the Paris apartment or his "look," but we didn't become well-enough acquainted in a few short evenings for me to delve into it.

Going for a ride

I like getting out of the city to visit nearby pueblos. The most efficient and economical way to do this is to go by "taxi colectivo," which around here is a small Nissan Tsuru sedan that picks up and drops off passengers along a particular route in the same way a bus does. One afternoon I was in San Antonio Arrazola, a pueblo about a twenty minute ride from the city that specializes in the manufacture of alebrijes, the fanciful carved and painted wooden figures Oaxaca is famous for. I had bought a few things in Arrazola and was ready for lunch, so I found shade along the main road and waited a few minutes for a Oaxaca-bound colectivo to pass by. When he stopped, the driver was alone in the car, and I jumped into the front passenger seat. The driver was large, and he looked as if he was barely old enough to have a driver's license.

Within minutes there were three additional passengers taking up the back seat and we headed out of the pueblo. Suddenly the driver braked at the side of the road. A woman with large bundles neared the car and pulled open the front passenger door next to me. The driver said something rapidly to me and I didn't quite understand, but I thought he wanted me to get out and let the woman in, so I stepped out. The driver said, "No, no, the front seat is for two persons and unless you want to pay two fares she is going to sit with you." I got back in, and in order to accommodate the new passenger, had to put my left leg into the driver's floor area, not an easy task considering his bulk. However he was soft and unoffensive, so it was not uncomfortable. That was, until I realized that the gear shift was now protruding about eight inches straight up between my thighs, with the large, polished shift handle at about mid-belly level. I decided not to think about what would happen if we had an accident (of course I had no seat belt) and relax.

When the new passenger and her packages were firmly wedged into all available crevices and the door closed, the driver said to me, "Don't worry, I'll be careful when I grab it," as he glanced down at the lever sticking up between my legs. He made eye contact with a sideways look, smiled, and then we both laughed. I don't know if he was flirting or just being considerate, but it was hard not to notice the possible double meaning. With that, we started down the road. First gear, no problem. In a few seconds as the engine revved, he said, "OK, second gear, take a deep breath," and gave me another sideways look. There are lots of stops on a colectivo trip. The gear-shifting jokes and laughs continued until the woman finally got out. The journey ended as it had started, with just myself and the driver in the car as we entered the city. He asked me where I wanted to get off, and I paid him. He dropped me at a corner and handed me my change. He smiled. "There you go, amigo," he said. "Thanks," I replied as the door slammed and the taxi nosed back into the traffic.

Change and the people

The last several years have not been easy in Oaxaca. Civil and political conflicts have shattered the calm here, hurt the economy and distinctly changed the atmosphere. The place looks a bit tarnished and now seems less innocent, but hopefully these conflicts have prompted the people and the decision-makers to take a pragmatic problem-solving view of the future.

I have met all kinds of interesting people during my sojourns in Oaxaca, but above all in my memories looms the heart, warmth and civility of the Oaxacan people. A great many have opened their homes, helped me and taken time out to explain and teach me about various aspects of life and culture here.

I wrote last year about my favorite recording artist, the Oaxacan singer and cultural figure Lila Downs, and a chance acquaintance with her godmother Victoria that enabled me to meet Lila and have a privileged inside look during her 2009 concert in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. The friendship with Victoria continues, and resulted in another backstage view during Lila's concert in Oaxaca this week, during which I sat with Victoria and Lila's mother, Anita. We clapped, laughed, sang along and thoroughly enjoyed a fabulous performance. During a posh, outdoor after-concert dinner at a private home I was feeling a little out of place, and Anita, sitting to my left, said, "Marc, a look in your eyes tells me you are uncomfortable. Let me tell you something. We Oaxacan people are very down to earth, and our hearts are big. There is no reason for you to feel uncomfortable. You are at home. I want you to enjoy yourself." Afterward, Victoria and I accompanied the family to their home to see Lila and her husband Paul's recently-adopted six-month-old son, Benito. I've been charged with the pleasant task of finding him a suitably-sized guayabera when I get back to Mérida. Anita told me again as she walked us to the door, "Well now you know us and the house, and you should feel at home here, so I hope you'll come back soon."

Oaxaca's strengths lie is its culture and the hearts of its people. If you get to know them, the place gets inside you. Its beauty seems fragile and because of this more precious due to the turmoil of the past few years, but these inner strengths will pull Oaxaca through. I am already thinking about that next visit.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

People: "I Love You Too, Alberto"

I am at a bit of a loss. I have been gone quite a bit this year in order to help out my aging parents. For the second time in a matter of months I returned to Mérida to discover that a friend had passed away while I was absent, that the funeral was over, public mourning finished, and that the rest of the world had begun to adjust to the void, leaving me to catch up on my own.

* * *

I saw an enchanting painting, a colorful and mysterious portrait of a woman, hanging on the wall of a house in Mérida a few years ago. I asked my host where it came from, and learned that the artist lived not far from me, and although in his eighties was still busy working. Not long afterward, I met the man at a social gathering. His whispy hair was windblown, his precariously-perched glasses held together with adhesive tape, and his clothes spotted here and there with paint. The artist handed me his card. The black on white card pictured an artist's palette and brush and said simply, Alberto Castillo Ku, Pintor.

A few weeks later I called the phone number on the card and Alberto Castillo invited me over to his house in San Sebastian. As we got acquainted that afternoon we touched upon many subjects. We looked at paintings and photos and slowly wandered through his ancient, eccentric house and extensive garden. He cooked, and while eating the lunch we shared a couple of large bottles of beer. Over the next several years, visits like this one to Alberto's house became a regular and unforgettable part of my life.

Alberto Castillo was born in Mérida in 1920, and even as a child he liked to draw. When Alberto was about ten years old, his father bought the old colonial house in San Sebastian where Alberto lived off and on for the rest of his life. As a young man he was passionate about art, and against the advice of his father, decided to go to Mexico City to find work and study. There one day he wandered by a studio where Diego Rivera, probably the best-known and loved Mexican artist, was teaching. Alberto started talking with Diego, and was invited to sit in on the class. This began an exciting time in Alberto's life. He was a young man from an isolated provincial capital, suddenly immersed in cosmopolitan Mexico City of the 1940's. Communists, Nazis, spies, artists -- a fabulous mix of interesting figures -- were part of the scene there. Alberto lived near Diego and Frida Khalo, with whom he began to socialize. Included in this social set were the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa, the American writer Alma Reed, who was once the lover of executed Yucatecan socialist Felipe Carillo Puerto, and many other figures in Mexican and international art, intellectual life and politics of the era.

After many years in Mexico City, Alberto married and was living in Acapulco, where he had a studio and small restaurant. Acapulco then was a trendy hot spot, with foreign tourism just taking off in the area. Movie stars, the rich and the famous all made appearances in Acapulco, and Alberto's place was right in the thick of things. Then suddenly, after giving birth to their two sons, Alberto's wife became ill and quickly died.

At this point in the story there are gaps in my knowledge, partially because I never asked a lot of questions when Alberto began telling stories, and perhaps because my memory for the details a few years later is not all that good. After leaving Acapulco, Alberto made a living mostly from art and his culinary skills, working in Mexico, many years in the United States where he made many lifelong friends and became fluent in English, and finally returning to Mérida to live with and help his aging parents. For many years Alberto ran a restaurant out of the Mérida family home. And always, always, until unable to during the last few years of his life, he painted.

All of the images in this blog post are from paintings sold to me by Alberto Castillo. Most are works completed in the later years of his career, when his skills, due to arthritis and deteriorating vision, were past their peak. I have seen a number of examples of work from the height of his abilities that would have made his old teacher Diego proud. The sense of light and energy, the sensuality, presence and fine techinque in some of these works are witness to the mastery Alberto achieved in his art, thanks to talent, passion, hard work, and to teachers like Diego. Although most of my "Castillos" were painted in the later years of his career, I have a couple examples of earlier work. Below is a detail of a 1970's painting of a woman from Chiapas "in the style of Diego," as Alberto put it, which hints at the life he could project and attention to detail that he was capable of in his prime.

Alberto painted original religious and Mexican subjects and to pay the bills in later years also made copies of paintings for churches and individuals. Yucatecan daily life and Chiapas were favorite subjects of paintings. Above, a late painting of Chiapanecan musicians that hangs in my living room. At right, a portrait of a young man from Chiapas. Above, near the top of this post, a Chiapanecan woman on her wedding day.

His Catholic faith was important to Alberto, and it was a significant influence in his art. This portrait of Jesus and the Sacred Heart is one that he painted for his mother and which hung in her room for many years.

Alberto's studio was located in a roofed patio area at the back of the house. It was a hodge-podge of paintings, sketches and sculptures, memorabilia, tools, bundles of canvas and wood for stretchers, works in progress, paint tubes and containers of other liquids, brushes, and many years' accumulation of bric-brac and found objects that one day might be useful in a project. The area was bright and airy, which made it a good place for working. And like the rest of the house, the studio leaked like a sieve in the rain.

I recall an afternoon in the dining room. We were seated at the table, which was always set with a complete service for eight, plates on metal chargers, cloth napkins, wine glasses and other service items, along with a collection of
unrelated objects that over time had accumulated here. The afternoon was darkening as a storm approached, so our meal was illuminated by the chandelier, which had been manufactured from an artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and lights, hanging upside down over the table. Alberto opened a bottle of beer and toasted the meal amidst rolling thunder. Just as we started to eat, the heavens opened and in a moment rain began to pour through cracks in the roof. One cascade began to fall right in the middle of Alberto's bald head. Alberto grabbed a baseball cap that just happened to be hanging on the back of the next chair and put it on. Then he looked at me for a second or two and laughed. "C'est la vie," he commented. We continued eating without further talk about the weather. After finishing, we walked through the house gathering the various buckets and pans, strategically situated under the worst leaks, and emptying the accumulated water in the garden.

I regret not having photos of the house. During the period I was spending a lot of time with Alberto, I was not doing much photography. I always said to myself that I ought to photograph his house, but preferred to enjoy his company in the moment rather than try to make images. The cluttered house and garden were a
museum of more than a century of family life and his interests that included art by his father, son and many friends, photos, antiques, stained glass, valuable religious art and artifacts, various collections, and furniture manufactured by Alberto himself. There were dining rooms whose roofs had gone years ago, but which were still furnished with tables and chairs from the long-closed restaurant. In one corner of the grounds lay a huge mound of wine bottles, the accumulation of decades in the restaurant business and enjoying fine drink. In the back grew a large ceiba tree, which is the sacred tree of the Maya people, with a bench underneath. Once Alberto told me that there was a baby buried in that spot, apparently the dead infant child of a young relative or family friend who stayed with the Castillo Ku family when she got "in trouble," many, many years ago.

There are more stories I could tell about Alberto Castillo. We went out drinking at his favorite bar, the expat hangout Pancho's in downtown Mérida. We took the bus and rode on errands in the city. We went out to dinner. I bought large paintings and before I had a car carried them across a good piece of Mérida centro to my house in the heat of the afternoon, prompting interesting conversations along the way. One painting, the large oil of Saint Michael with which Alberto poses in the photo of his studio above, was once lost when a hurricane-tossed tree landed on and collapsed the roof of Alberto's house. The storm then sent his possessions flying all over the neighborhood. The painting was later returned to Alberto by a friend who had found it. It now hangs in my front room.

Alberto loved fruit and knew a lot about plants, which he was always giving to me. Roots from plants growing on an outer wall of the house broke through the wall and hung down inside the bathroom. Alberto didn't cut them. Instead he painted a woman's lips and eyes on the wall and incorporated the roots as the hair in a new piece of living art, which happened to be right over the toilet. Every so often when I used the bathroom I noticed how the woman's hair had grown.

There was the story of the son whom Alberto had never met, the product of a love affair with an American woman years ago. His obvious pride in his grandson in France, also an artist, who had come to visit. Stories of friends who'd passed on, of whom there are many when a person reaches his late eighties. Through it all, Alberto's attitude seemed to be to enjoy life as much as possible. He was always saying with a smile, "such is life," as if to shrug off the problems and sadness that we all deal with at times. His other favorite saying, whenever someone thanked him, was, "don't say thanks, say more."

One of the last times I was with Alberto he suddenly looked at me, gave me a bear hug, and told me, "I love you." I could only reply, "I love you too, Alberto." About that time Alberto stopped painting and was having more pronounced health problems. He was no longer taking care of the house and was less able to handle his own personal care. I offered to help in the house but he mostly refused. Not long after this, one of his sons, who for some time had been trying to convince Alberto to move in with him over in Puerto Morelos, moved Alberto to a nursing home where his needs could better be taken care of.

Earlier this year a 30-year-old bonsai flamboyant tree that Alberto had given me suddenly dropped its leaves and dried up. I felt guilty because I had been gone a lot and feared that my lack of attention had been the cause of the loss. Then, when I heard belatedly of Alberto's passing, I thought again of that tiny, gnarled old tree that Alberto had started from a seed and taken care of for 25 years before he gave it to me, and I thought, "C'est la vie. More, Alberto, more."