Friday, October 30, 2009

Jack O' Lanterns

Three years ago on a weekend off from teaching in the summer course at San Ildefonso Tultepéc, in the state of Querétaro, I took a hike on the outskirts of a tiny nearby pueblo named El Cuisillo. It's located close to the border between Mexico and Querétaro states. That makes it about equidistant from the towns of Amealco, Querétaro and Aculco, Mexico, along a two-lane highway that in two or three hours takes you, if you flag down and jump aboard one of the dusty buses that occasionally passes by, from this very small place to the world's largest metropolis.

The people of El Cuisillo are very shy but friendly. In keeping with that spirit, it is an unpretentiously scenic walk along roads and paths through their land. From hilltops you can glimpse distant rock formations, ravines and cliffs, and the occasional small house with cornfield, or perhaps far away a small child with a stick trying to goad a slow-moving cow out to pasture. There are some interesting pre-hispanic ruins in the area. The ruins are just there. There is no visitor center with bored security guard, you'll fend off no vendors selling fake artifacts and bottled water, and you need not heed any "do not climb" signs nor thoughtfully consider pedantic interpretive plaques of dubious interest. There is no one else around; you can enjoy the quiet and imagine yourself the explorer.

For some reason here, I suppose it's the stillness of the air and the rock formations reflecting sound waves, once in awhile I mysteriously hear clear voices and laughter but see no people. Perhaps they are hiding in the bushes and watching this strange foreigner smiling and whistling to himself, writing in a little book and taking pictures of things that seem to them very ordinary and mundane. Perhaps, as many acquaintances of mine in Barrow, Alaska will attest, the "little people" do exist, and maybe they live here, too. It certainly seems like a place they would appreciate. It may be a mystery I will never solve, and I like that. I've walked in the vicinity many times over the years and always find something new to do or see. It's a place I have visited with others, but mostly I like to wander here alone.

Many of the families in the region are indigenous Otomí, like these boys, and live a subsistence way of life near the poverty line. Besides keeping some animals and planting a small garden and milpa, or cornfield, some families make fired-clay products to produce cash income. The area produces a lot of these ceramics, such as pots, planters, platters, small replica churches and houses, sun plaques and other decorative, kitchen and garden items. Apparently someone in the area realized that with well in excess of 20 million persons living within a couple of hour's drive, there might be a market for jack o' lanterns. It seems like every clay workshop produces them. Halloween is not a tradition in Mexico, but some families do observe the day.

When I passed by their house the boys ran up to the road with arms full of "calabazas," or
pumpkins, for sale. I purchased two at the asking price of about a dollar each. I managed somehow to get them back to Mérida in my luggage without breakage. They have served me well now for three Halloweens. I have yet to receive a trick-or-treater at my door, but if one comes, I am ready.

Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beginnings: Alaska, Mexico, Lila...

When I moved south I considered starting a blog as a way to keep friends and family up to date on what I was doing. Now, more than four years later, I finally got around to it. A lot has happened in that time that probably will never make it into the blog: restoring my old house; travels around the country; exploring pueblos and stumbling upon ruins that seem to be completely lost in time; new experiences in teaching; tasty culinary adventures; learning about new plants, animals and environments; making many new friends and losing some; adjusting to a new culture; several dozen north-south round trips; just to mention a few.

The great thing about living where I do is that each day really is a new adventure. One of the reasons it took me this long to get started on a blog is that there is so much going on around me I don't spend much time at home on the computer. As long as I have the energy I will choose being "out among 'em," as Mom always says," over the alternative of hanging around the house.

OK, about Lila Downs. There are several reasons I have included pictures of her in this post. First and simplest, I just got back from Lila's latest concert in Oaxaca, downloaded my pictures from the trip, and it is on my mind. Second, she has been my favorite artist in current music for quite some time, and is someone from modest beginnings who has been internationally recognized but remains admirably close to her people and roots. And, for several reasons, in my mind she is permanently linked to my two "homes," Alaska and Mexico.

The same month in 2003 that I closed on the purchase of my house, in Merida, Yucatan, a dear friend invited me to a concert that Lila Downs was giving where I lived in Juneau, Alaska. Before that experience I had never heard of her. After it, I was hooked, bought all of her CD's, and began listening to Lila Downs and paying attention to what she was doing. During the next couple of years, my interest in getting out of the states grew in direct proportion to my utter disgust with the Bush administration and my keen interest in being in my new Yucatecan home as much as possible. The music became more inspirational and personal as I made decisions and began working toward making the idea of moving a reality. Within two years, my slightly-decrepit, entirely pink, old Yucatecan house in the historic barrio of Santiago, which I had planned to use for vacations and in some distant future as a retirement residence became, falling plaster, bats, leaking ceilings, dust, and all, my full-time home. Lila Downs' music accompanied me, with its beautiful spirit and as bridge between two cultures, as I initiated and then followed through on one of the biggest transitions in my life.

Lila's performance earlier this month in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, where she grew up, was the third of her Oaxaca concerts I have attended. The fact that the concert was presented to a hometown crowd made it especially meaningful. There were several welcoming events and ceremonies in the pueblo, including the unveiling of a plaque at her childhood home and a parade through the center of the pueblo, attended by a large number of press, fans, family and friends.

A very pleasant experience I had was being introduced to Lila's godmother Victoria at my hotel, and being invited by her to go down to the concert together. We had a long and interesting conversation, and through Victoria I met a lot of people. I was introduced as the person who had come all the way from Merida for the concert, and who first saw Lila perform in Alaska; as a result I answered a lot of questions. I was admitted backstage, and due to the identity of the person I was walking around arm-in-arm with, was announced by the security personnel as I entered as "Lila's Godfather." I didn't laugh until later that evening. Lila was gracious and although apparently suffering from a sore throat and tired, spent some time chatting with me. She and her husband, Paul Cohen, remember fondly their visit to Juneau, the warmth of the people, and especially a trip to the glacier.

The evening of the concert was by far the highlight, but the entire visit was fascinating. In Oaxaca it is easy to enjoy great food, beautiful scenery, the fresh, pine-scented air, and glimpse the unique cultures and adaptations they have made to this environment. In Tlaxiaco it is normal to hear the sounds of various dialects indigenous to the area as you walk around the pueblo or explore the market. And, as an

Alaskan transplanted to Mexico, I experienced pleasant moments of homesickness as I hiked neighborhoods and along a road out of town and passed many older structures, which look remarkably like their northern counterparts. The only real clue to the different environment in this photo is the red-tile roof. I have noted similar log construction in Queretaro and in Michoacan. Undoubtedly it also exists in other forested parts of the country.

Another reason I feel "a gusto" in Mexico is that it reminds me in some ways of the pre-pipeline and rural Alaska of my childhood (and of the older generations in the villages, still), when people really did know and look out for each other, spent time together doing things instead of talking on the cellphone, hovering around the cable-TV box or computer, appreciated how they were connected to their environment, and did a lot for themselves. Both Alaska and Yucatan also have a history of being culturally different, isolated penninsulas, far from the mainstream and centers of governemnt of their respective countries.

From what I have seen, there are challenges faced in both places that are very similar. As a teacher who has worked for many years in villages and with indigenous populations in both north and south of the border, I see the same issues, among which are: how to preserve culture and at the same time fit into a modern, rapidly changing world; how language- and cultural- minority children adapt to a school system that is based upon another language and a westernized urban culture that does not understand them; the terrible cycles of poverty and social disintegration that often accompany loss and cultural dislocation.

On the positive side, Mexico as well as Alaska retains a rich variety of traditional cultural knowledge, expressed in its enduring ways of life and survival. Here in Yucatan, folks still put out chairs and sit in front of their houses at night, rocking, talking and greeting neighbors in a way that seems hardly to exist anymore in the U.S. The last I recall of anything similar in the states was sitting on my grandmother's front porch on South Main St. in Wichita, Kansas during visits on hot summer evenings. When was that? Hint: while the grownups talked, I identified makes of cars by the style of their outrageous tailfins, and from that porch, amazed, we watched the Soviet satellite Sputnik track across the sky.

Here, people still say "good morning" to strangers, and manners are important. Here, adolescents are not embarrassed to be seen and to be affectionate with their parents in public. In Merida, it is still possible to live in an urban neighborhood where you can go to the market, cafes and restaurants, parks, the movies, galleries, theater and concerts, buy hardware or a mattress, get the car, shoes, a chair or a bike repaired, have your teeth cleaned, buy new glasses or visit a medical specialist, do all manner of errands or shopping, within a one-to-fifteen minutes' walk from the front door. Here, doctors still make house calls and a visit doesn't break the bank. In Yucatan, the abundant fresh fruits and vegetables are reasonably priced. In Mexico, safe, comfortable and economical long-distance bus transportation and safe, clean, and affordable hotels and restaurants still exist. In my neighborhood, a french-style baguette from the bakery down the street with wood-fired ovens costs about a quarter, and a beer in a local family-style cantina (no drunks or crude language allowed) served with abundant appetizers, maybe a dollar. Here, craftsmanship and individualized customer service and attention is still available, and home-delivery of products and services at no extra charge is common. Where I live, despite what the sensationalist, histrionic, news-tainment media would have you think, life is safe, secure, friendly and tranquil.

I am initiating this blog with the principal idea of keeping far-away family and friends more up to date. However, to old friends and new: if these topics interest you, welcome. The blog is still under construction. I'll add a few features as things get rolling.

Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, October 2009
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