Out: Travels in 2019

A Zapotec woman at the Zócalo in Oaxaca

I left Seattle on March 13, 2019. After visiting a friend in San Diego for a few weeks, and my children in the Bay Area for a few days, I flew to Mexico. I have no fixed itinerary: no schedule, and only amorphous goals. These posts will document whatever happens to me.

If I interlard my blog posts with all of the photos I’d like to show you, there will be scant room for my words, but I don’t have the discipline to winnow the pictures down to a National Geographic standard of excellence, or even to a “competent amateur” standard. Instead, I plan to include a few photographs in each blog post, and to maintain a series of galleries, where I’ll include more. The photos that I incorporate into the blog posts are not necessarily my best pictures; they are chosen because they illustrate a point, not because they are interesting images. I will include links from the blog posts to the relevant galleries.

Here is a link to all my photo galleries from 2019.

Blog posts:


Quito and Baños

May 26, 2019

On Saturday night, my first night in Cuenca, I was awakened by an earthquake. It gently but insistently shook my bed and made one door of the armoire click open and closed, over and over. The lights came on throughout the hotel and I could hear excited voices from neighboring rooms. The news on the following morning said that the epicenter was 300 miles away, in northern Peru, and that its magnitude made it 2019’s most powerful earthquake to date. Shortly after leaving the hotel on Sunday morning I saw that a road had been cordoned off with caution tape and that emergency lights were flashing in the distance; thinking that some large object might have fallen into the street during the gentle shaking, I followed the lights. They turned out to be the police motorcycles and support vehicles that were acting as sweeps in a road race. The last runner was an old man whose left foot was turned in at an impossible angle and who was running at a pace that I easily outstripped on the sidewalk as I walked beside the slow-motion commotion. I admired everyone involved, except perhaps for the guy who ran out from the square with a bottle of water and dumped it on the runner’s head, shouting encouragement. It was 60 degrees out and had been raining all morning, you well-meaning fool.

I am experiencing that sensation of time compression that is so familiar to travelers; everything is happening so quickly that, when I look back at the week that has just passed, it seems incredible that I was the actor in all these memories. That was me on that overnight flight to Quito. Me in the spire of the church overlooking Old Town. Me staggering up the hill with a watermelon. Me vomiting out the window of the bus in Baños. Me standing under the waterfall at the Pailón del Diablo. Me staring out the window during the eight-hour bus ride from Baños to Cuenca, while countryside rolled by that reminded me of England’s Lake District except that it was far more vertiginous and was dotted with decrepit shacks instead of cute little cottages. As these things were happening they didn’t seem to be sped up at all, but in retrospect, it’s dizzying.

I’ll try to keep this short.

Quito

The sky in Quito is a startling shade of blue. At 9,300 feet, there is less air between the visitor’s pupils and the blackness of space than in any other city I’ve ever visited. I remember skies like that from the John Muir trail. I didn’t notice that the altitude had any effect on my stamina, but this could easily be due more to my habitual inattention than to some kind of superhuman disregard for thin air. The streets leading down the hills that surround the Old Town are so steep that climbing them would have left me out of breath even at sea level. The cobbles in these streets seem to be hanging at the angle of repose. On the taxi ride from the airport to my Airbnb, I could hardly believe that the driver was willing to attempt them; it was only the certainty that this was routine for him that kept me from rummaging through my infantile Spanish to protest. “¿Muy peligroso, sí? ¿No tienes temor?” My Airbnb was on one of the city bus routes; the squealing brakes outside my living room window sounded like the last yelps of a dying dog. I never got used to that sound.

I hardly ever left Quito’s Old Town. The city has 1.6 million people, and something like 5 million in the entire urban area, if Carlos, my cab driver, is to be believed; in the six days I had given myself, it wasn’t reasonable to try to see how all of these people lived. I wanted to see the famous churches and old, UNESCO buildings of the Old Town, to visit a few museums, and to find some restaurants that are well regarded by the English-speaking visitors who use apps like TripAdvisor and Yelp. I wanted to be a tourist.

But I usually didn’t like being a tourist in Quito. I enjoyed the sudden appearance of Andean fashions among the indigenous women, and I enjoyed the newness and strangeness of it all – the chief allure of traveling – and I absolutely loved the pre-Columbian art I saw, but most of the experience of being in Quito was wearying.

The neo-Gothic catholic church up on the hill? Austere. Concrete. Absurdly expensive to visit, by Ecuadorian standards. A visit to the spire, requiring a second entrance ticket, requires a long climb up several ladders, which you must share with timid middle-aged ladies and young male buffoons who lean off into space and urge their girlfriends to take photos that will demonstrate their heroism for posterity.

The churches down in Old Town? Preposterous overabundance of gold leaf. “Classy” by the standards of Donald Trump. Art that, when it isn’t horrific, is often not worth a second glance. Absurdly expensive to visit, by Ecuadorian standards.

The old buildings of colonial Quito? Jumbled together with decaying new buildings. The restaurants? Tiny, often, and either tourist traps or a low level of fast food. Street life was crowded, aggressive, and palpably dangerous.

When I was staying in Guatemala, it dawned on me only slowly that the police presence in the core of Antigua’s downtown was evidence that it was necessary; a country as poor as Guatemala would not have been paying the salaries of all those officers if it hadn’t been the only way to keep the tourists from being robbed. The police presence in Quito felt necessary in a similar way. Every day I looked up at the hill at the south end of the Old Town, where an enormous aluminum statue statue leans out over the city, and wished I could climb it, but I had read that the likelihood of being mugged on those stairs was so high that only a fool would attempt it. Every night I went out to dinner, at some tiny hole in the wall, and then returned to my Airbnb in the early darkness, sticking to well-traveled streets and doing what I could to appear large and vigorous.

After six days, I hired a taxi to take me to the bus station in the south end of town, well outside the colonial center. The north end of Quito is prosperous and new, judging by the photographs, but the south end is impoverished and sad. That trip to the bus station felt like a tour of Lagos. I was glad to be leaving.

Here are a few photos from my stay in Quito.

Baños

The little town of Baños is given plenty of space in all of the gringo guides to Ecuador. It has a reputation for being in a lovely area, and it is full of outdoor adventure opportunities for people who are younger and different from me: ziplines, bungee-jumping, rappelling down waterfalls, and so on. I probably wouldn’t have visited it except that it’s more-or-less on the way between Quito and Cuenca. Why not?

I recently read a book called The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. It includes several color plates that reproduce some of his adventures among Ecuadorian volcanoes. While the bus was rumbling out of Quito, I realized to my delight that I was catching glimpses of snow among the clouds to the south – I was looking at Cotopaxi, a volcano that von Humboldt attempted to climb in 1802. I recognized it immediately. Here is a romanticized painting by Frederick Edwin Church from 1855 that shows it on a much clearer day than I had.

Baños is also famous for a volcano – Tungurahua, whose summit is five miles from the center of town. In 2014, the National Geographic magazine gave first prize in a travel-photo contest to a picture of a tourist who is at full happy extension on a swing while Tungurahua erupts behind him. Shortly after that photograph was taken, they evacuated Baños for a few days, until the threat of ashfall and lahars had diminished.

The Rio Verde cuts through the volcanic sediment at the edge of Baños, creating a gorge that has to be seen to be believed. The hills around the town climb with stupendous speed. Trails snake back and forth on these hills, leading to little shacks at the edges of what appear from a distance to be stands of desperate coffee trees, clinging with all their strength to the sides of these cliffs. Baños is a happy little place – think Seaside, Oregon, without carnival rides – with no obvious police presence, an emphasis on outdoor entertainment, and trails that lead from the edge of town straight up the side of the volcano. This was just what I’d been looking for.

On my second day in town, I laced up my boots and set off for the famous swing, at a place called the Tree House – the Casa del Arbol. I had read a couple of accounts of people who had taken the bus up there and then chosen to walk down, but I had not read about anybody hiking up there. The reason for this, I think, is that it’s really hard.

The mileage wasn’t bad – three miles or so. The elevation gain wasn’t too bad, either; Baños is at 5970’, and the Casa del Arbol is at about 8700’, so I was looking at a little more than 2700’. What I didn’t understand, when I left my Airbnb, is that the first three or four hundred feet of elevation gain is on a set of stairs that leads up to a large and lumpy statue of the Virgin and Child, on a ridge overlooking the town, and I really don’t know how to pace myself while climbing stairs. I walked until I couldn’t continue, rallied for a while, gasping and clinging to the crumbling concrete handrail, and then kept going. Finally, at the statue, the stairs ended – but the trail continued to go straight up the fall line, past one shack that seemed entirely derelict, and then another that looked even worse but whose occupant had posted a sign on the trail that said “BAR.” Up and up and up. Once or twice I stopped to rest when I realized I was staggering, and then, a while later, I realized that the only way I was going to be able to continue was by staggering, so I made a virtue of it. After a couple of hours of this, I popped out onto a paved road and followed it until the final pitch to the Casa del Arbol and “the scariest swing in the world.”

The Casal de Arbol is a lovely garden, a snack bar, four large swings in a couple of different places, a tree house, and a few dozen mostly young, mostly European tourists taking turns on the swings. I took photos of some of these young people, including one transcendently lovely young woman with long blonde hair and a pair of bright orange shorts out from which poked legs that could have belonged to a springbok. After a while, when nobody was waiting, I took a turn on the swing.

Video: The swing at the Casa del Arbol

This was a mistake. Even on a playground in Seattle, a swingset can make me feel a little queasy – but here, on this enormous thing, after having nearly killed myself on the hike up to the attraction, it pushed me over the metabolic edge. After three or four oscillations, I got my feet under me, unhooked the safety belt, and slowly, slowly walked through the flower garden. Look – a hummingbird. I sat and watched the happy young people. I breathed deeply. The bus back down to Baños didn’t leave for half an hour. All I had to do was rest. Everything was going to be fine.

And everything was fine. I found the bus with no trouble, and I had the change I needed in my pocket to pay for the ride. Other people got aboard and found seats, including the lovely girl from the swing, who took a seat on the other side of the aisle from me. Which was fine. When the bus started up, everything remained fine for the first five minutes and two or three dozen hairpin turns, until it wasn’t fine for a little while. But then, after I opened the window and vomited in windblown streaks down the side of the bus, and then, after a minute, did so again, and then one or two more times, I felt much better, and everything was fine for the rest of the trip into town. I avoided eye contact with the young woman while I dabbed at my lips with a bandanna. No problem.

I remember this day trip fondly. Except for the vomiting part, it was exactly what I needed, and the vomiting only lasted for a few minutes. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, although next time I’d sit at the back of the bus.

On the following day I visited the Pailón del Diablo – The Devil’s Cauldron – which my reading had led me to believe was the highlight of the “Ruta de las Cascadas” tour that so many local agencies were eager to sell me. I usually hate tours, and the Pailón del Diablo was reachable on one of the town’s standard blue buses, and the falls were accessible by two different routes, both said to be excellent; I didn’t feel the need for more.

The route from Baños out to the Pailón skirts the river, whose gorge is even deeper and more impressive as you head east out of town. Uncountable small businesses have strung wires across the chasm and advertise the opportunity to strap yourself into a harness and swoop across. I watched through the bus window as a young couple did this, in a tandem swan-dive posture, while their friends held up their phones and cheered them lustily.

The Pailón was at the end of the bus route. I followed the “old entrance” down into the gorge, walking past souvenir stands, and then down lots of stairs, and then a closed snack shop whose sign, facing the people who were hiking uphill past me, said “Pare de Sufrir, ¡Hermano Mío!” (“Stop the suffering, my brother!”) It was clear that hiking back up this trail was going to be some exercise. Down, under tree ferns, a plant I’d never before seen except in hothouses. Down, past a striped snake that I didn’t see until it slithered out from under my left foot and off the trail. I immediately tried to convince myself that it was harmless. “Red touches yellow can kill a fellow,” I remembered, but “Black touches red and you’re as good as dead.” Wait. That couldn’t be right. I have since looked this snake up on the Internet. It was a coral snake, probably Micrurus annellatus, a type of reptile known in Mexico as a “20-minute snake,” because that’s how much time you have between being bitten and drawing your last agonized breath, as the neurotoxins paralyze your diaphragm. How lucky to have seen one! Down, ever further, to the bottom of the gorge, under cliffs of hexagonal basalt, and to the ticket booth where, for $2, I was allowed to continue on the trail as it climbed back up to the waterfall.

Video: A look at the snake.

There isn’t a very good view of the falls on the old trail – or rather, there is no good view of the entire waterfall, of the falls en todo. The view of the falls as colossal amounts of water in movement, though, from intimate, sopping proximity, could hardly have been better. The trail gets wetter and wetter as you climb up from the river bottom, until finally you reach a hole in the cliff face into which the trail and handrail disappear. Okay. Soon it is impossible to even crouch/waddle without banging your head into the rocks, so you’re on your hands and knees, crawling through a crack in the cliffside, with the water of the Rio Verde roaring down next to you. And then the crack opens up, and the trail continues through a shower bath to a platform that is almost entirely obscured by the full force of the river falling over it. I left my pack in a relatively dry spot, put on my parka, and plunged in.

I remember having done something like this as a kid, at Niagara Falls. My rental poncho was made of green plastic and smelled like the previous thousand kids who had worn it. There was a lot of water, as I recall, but there were no tree ferns or snakes or long cracks in the rock to crawl through. The Pailón del Diablo is smaller but superior.

On the other side of the torrent, against the far cliff face, I could see people on suspended walkways, shouting inaudibly to each other over the roar and gesturing with their smartphones. They must have come in via the new entrance.

Climbing back out of the gorge was easy compared to the previous day’s hike up to the Casa del Arbol. I crossed the bridge over the Rio Verde and then made my way through a little village to the big red Entrada sign and the new entrance. The new entrance offers better views of the Pailón del Diablo, and the suspended walkways are fun, but the old side, as I’ve already said several times, features tropical forest, snakes, cracks, and drenching. If you find yourself in Baños, do both.

Video: The Pailón del Diablo

A much smaller waterfall poured down from the cliff no distance at all from my Airbnb in Baños, starting hundreds of feet up, among ragtag papaya farms, and leaping happily down the rocks to a spot just behind the Lizburger fast-food restaurant. Just past Lizburger is the public pool whose thermal baths give Baños its name. I had thought I would spend part of my last day in Baños at the pool, daring myself to dip into the scalding pool, and then the frigid one, and then back again, but in the end I decided against it. This was another activity – like eating grasshoppers, back in Oaxaca – that hardly makes sense as a solitary traveler. It didn’t take very much introspection to recognize that my chief motivation for the visit would be to gawk at girls in bathing suits. It seemed better to spare those poor girls, who are young and attractive through no fault of their own, and myself, with whom I have to live every day with as little shame as I can manage, from such a futile display of public lechery.

I’m composing these words in my teddy-bear notebook in a lovely little cafe in Cuenca. Old wooden furniture, black-and-white photos from the Jazz Age as decoration, Eine kleine Nachtmusik on the sound system. I may make a habit of this. It is a great relief to feel free of the obligation to be a tourist, after more than a week in Quito and Baños during which I always felt that I should be visiting a church or a museum or a swingset. I’ll be here in Cuenca until sometime in July. I can relax.

Here are a few photographs from Baños.

The Tyranny of Doltish Symbolism

Quito, May 19, 2019

I found a copy of The Best Travel Writing 2000 at my Airbnb in Quito. The binding had failed and the book was falling apart in chunks, but a bottle of Ecuadorian Elmer’s and a couple of rubber bands set it to rights, for the time being. I have read three or four of these essays now, with an eye toward figuring out how they are different from my own travel writing.

One obvious difference, about which I can do nothing, is that each of the essays in the book is a cleverly written account of a real adventure. The essays are about drifting down tropical rivers in foundering barges or ducking behind barricades in civil wars or digging a snow cave using the left femur of a fallen comrade while a blizzard descends upon the hapless author. The Best Travel Writing 2000 does not include any stories about the time the author visited a museum and then drank a cup of coffee while having deep thoughts. There are other differences, too, between my writing and TBTW2000, but this one is particularly germane to the essay you are reading now; despite suspecting that no one wants to read my philosophical musings, and despite having what amounts to proof of this suspicion right here at my elbow, next to a couple of glue-encrusted rubber bands, I am about to talk about my reaction to having visited three different museums here in Quito. I am doing this for my benefit, not for yours.

You have been warned.

The Virgen de Quito

There is an imposing hill called the Panecilla just south of Quito’s Old Town. In 1976, a 45-meter tall aluminum statue was erected at its summit – an inexact and enormous replica of the Virgen de Quito, an iconic statue kept at the altar of the Iglesia de San Francisco, at the foot of the hill. The original statue is a wooden sculpture by the Quiteño artist Bernardo de Legarda, dating from 1734. It depicts a woman with a crown of stars, a pair of wings, a silver chain in her hands, and, at her feet, a crescent moon and a thoroughly trampled dragon. This is a reference to a typically weird moment from Revelation – in this case, Revelation 12:1-4, although I quote 1-6 below, for the sake of completeness:

12 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.

4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

The convent attached to the Iglesia de San Francisco is now a museum. The gardens inside are home to a handful of tame green parrots, which munch on the chopped fruit that has been provided for them and say “¡Hola!” to the visitors. This is the second time I have visited a convent and met parrots that say “¡Hola!”, the first time being in 2016, in a village outside Antigua, Guatemala. If this is becoming a theme in my life, I’m not sure what to think of it. The museum itself features many brown, unrestored paintings on sacred themes and many sculptures that used to be carried through the streets in processions. All of these embrace the stereotypes of the genre: eyes are fixed on heaven and mouths are agape, all of the hands are spread, palms up, in supplication, wounds are prominently displayed, sometimes with helpful cherubim floating off to one side and extending index fingers to point out the injuries, for those of us who might not have been paying sufficient attention. The collection also includes four or five well crafted replicas of the Virgen de Quito. After walking slowly through the collection, I climbed the stairs to the choir loft, passing an enormous poster that featured a photo of the Virgen and the word SIMBOLOGÍA. Lettering next to the statue started at the top and worked its way down. I include only some of the enumerated symbols in the following list:

The crown – Los rayos solares are the splendor of the truth.
The sun – Jesus and the gospels.
The wings of an eagle – A sign of immortality and the throne of Salomon.
The robe – Symbol of victory.
The color white – Purity, glory, sanctity, justice, light, festivities, and so on.
The mantle – A cover of pure justice, glory, and so on.
The color blue – Symbol of the sky, sanctity, the divinity, and so on.
    Skipping many entries, until finally…
The clouds – God’s miraculous power, and so on.

We see runaway symbolism like this throughout the Catholic world. The churches of Quito feature some of the most brutal depictions of the crucified Christ I have ever beheld. The usual bloody excess of crucifixion scenes has been augmented by purple bruises all over his body. This is and is intended to be ghastly. It seems odd, at first, to find yourself confronted by such horrors in a place that is supposed to be providing a sanctuary from the grotesqueries of everyday life, but the progression that leads to these sorts of excesses is obvious enough. If the crucifixion of Christ is a symbol for God’s love made incarnate, then the sacrifice depicted by this image – the death of the prophet at the hands of the state – needs to be at the forefront of Christian minds. After a few years, a simple reminder – an undecorated wooden cross at the altar – loses its impact, and becomes simply a part of the architecture; the solution is to add the figure of the suffering prophet to the cross, and then to polychrome the figure, to rearrange his limbs to make his agony more obvious, to augment the runnels of blood running down from his hands and the wound in his side and from the crown of thorns on his brow. And then perhaps to add some purple bruises. What began as a symbol of a story in the shared cultural heritage becomes, over time, a symbol of other, similar symbols – the latest entry in a competition to catch the viewer’s attention, and to proclaim, more vividly than any of the previous examples, the symbols themselves, instead of their referents.

Visiting museums of Western sacred art, for a secular person in the 21st century, is largely about walking from one preposterous set of symbols to the next and thinking about the medieval European mind. (The sacred art here in Ecuador is Spanish, of course, and all of the people in the paintings and sculptures are whiter than I am.) The absurdity of the symbolism, and our modern distance from it, is much of the point of the visit. This is not to say that there aren’t many sacred works with superb artistic merit – of course there are. But the great bulk of most collections consists of uninspired clichés that owe their existence to pedagogy, not aesthetics. When Bernardo de Legarda created the Virgen of Quito in 1734, he heaped so much “meaning” on top of his creation that the reason for making it was entirely lost. Where, in his statue, and in the long list of symbols he troweled into it, and, for that matter, in the schizophrenic story out of Revelation, is a hint of the miracle of the virgin birth? That story is so deep and profound – so beautifully bound up with atavistic ideas about sexual impurity and the relationship of humans and gods – that it seems incredible that Bernardo de Legarda could have so entirely missed it. The story of the virgin mother is fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with trampling dragons, and the veneration of Christ is not advanced by adding more carmine and purple to the lifesize torture tableau on display in the local church.

The symbols seem absurd to me, but today’s believers do not seem to be bothered by them. There is a framed print of the virgin, wearing a long flowing robe and an enormous silver crown, hanging on the wall at the foot of my bed here at this Airbnb. She makes me nervous.

The Cosmos and Pre-Columbian Art

There is a small, magnificent museum just a few doors from the Iglesia de San Francisco – the Casa del Alabado. It is devoted entirely to Ecuadorian pre-Columbian art. The greatness of many of the items in its collection is difficult to overstate. Many of the pieces are in pristine condition; despite being 3,000 years old; they seem to have been carried into the museum in the hands of some local genius just a week ago. I will include a number of photographs that will necessarily give you no more than a hint of what I mean, but I want to draw your attention to one piece in particular – a red-glazed figure seated in the lotus position with a white face and a high, bulbous forehead. This was created sometime between 950 and 350 BC, by someone who had never heard of the Greeks or Egyptians or Chinese – someone who created this aesthetic with no precedents except what he had seen created by other people in this part of South America. I don’t think this piece is great because of how much it accomplishes, despite its age – I think it is great because of how much it accomplishes, irrespective of its age.

This was a superb museum experience for me. I am not including it in this discussion of doltish symbolism because of its collection, or the cumulative power of the pieces in it – I am including it because of the sometimes laughable, often infuriating commentary in my museum guide and in the placards hanging next to the display cases. Whoever wrote this foolishness forgot that when you don’t know what you’re talking about, you should admit it, apologize, and then shut up. The author must have thought that it would be unseemly to write something like, “Again, we cannot be sure what this figure represents, but we admire its finish and power, and we invite you to speculate about the person it depicts. He is certainly a shaman, dressed in ceremonial regalia. We think the object around his neck may represent silver jewelry. Compare this piece to item #317, in which a similar figure is holding a bowl of lime for his coca leaves.” Instead of descriptions like that, which give some information that the visitor might not have come up with on his own, and which suggest correspondences that might otherwise have been missed, we are exposed to idiocy like this, copied verbatim from one of the placards:

PARALLEL WORLDS

According to the world view of indigenous American peoples, the cosmos is composed of many parallel worlds, often classified in three groups: the celestial realm and the underworld where ancestors, deities and good and bad spirits dwell; and the earthly world is the middle, inhabited by humans as well as plants, animals, and minerals.

 

Many rituals and objects promote communication among these worlds and maintain the flow of vital energy, the dynamic equilibrium of nature and the continuity of life. In addition, they reflect the dual structure of the cosmic system, made dynamic by its opposite and complementary forces such as night and day, male and female, life and death.

 

When the cosmos is divided in halves, and each half in two again, this quadripartition generates the concept of four cardinal points and a powerful center. This represents schematically the sacred geography of the parallel worlds.

This is one example of hundreds in the museum, all of them embarrassing displays of complacency and stupidity. Bad as they are, they don’t do a great deal of harm, except by supplanting whatever real information that could have been posted instead. Such harm as they do is limited to putting an unnecessary cognitive distance between us and the prehispanic people of Ecuador. These “explanations” are so far removed from the lives and the minds of the people who made these objects that they make the prehispanic population seem to be a bunch of vaporous hippies, unable to think in any but the most abstract terms.

Imagine describing great art of the Western European tradition using a vocabulary like this. The historical record is silent on the first performances of Hamlet, for example; what if an account of this were uncovered in a forgotten library that said, “Last night, the inhabitants of Stratford convened in a touching ceremony, gathering together by the flickering light of torches to reinforce their common culture and to examine, in symbolic form, their place in the cosmic order. A ritualized simulacrum of life and death was enacted, on a raised, rectangular platform whose four sides marked the bounds of the quadripartite universe. The bold speeches and gestures of the performers painted a picture of a realm of terrifying spirits and a dynamic interplay of societal obligations, and reified, at the conclusion of the ceremony, by the spectacle of reenacted murders commited with knives and poisons; a sacrifice that marks the climax of many such ceremonies, and which, by allowing the spectators to imaginatively take part in the bloodshed, helps ensure that the tensions of crowded urban living do not boil over into open violence.” Such a description of Hamlet may not be strictly false, but it could hardly be more wrong. It misses the point completely.

The authorities who have described the art at the Casa del Alabado have forgotten that the objects are art, and that they were made by people who knew what art is. The descriptions that hang on the museum’s walls infantilize the early Ecuadorians, and they cloud the minds of any of their readers who they don’t infuriate.

Museo Nacional del Ecuador

I love to travel, but I am not really very good at it. I am easily confused, easily intimidated, and easily overwhelmed. My experience with the Museo Nacional del Ecuador is a good example of the ways I often go wrong.

Many websites say that the Museo del Banco Central is at the top of every visitor’s list of things to do in Quito – that it features an enormous and first-rate collection of pre-contact artifacts, and that three or four hours are required to see and appreciate the hoard. I was eager to see this museum, but – here’s the odd thing – it doesn’t seem to exist. My guess is that it has been subsumed into the Museo Nacional del Ecuador, which I visited on May 18 – International Museum Day, as it turned out. Maps I had found showing the Museo del Banco Central displayed a location that matched the current site of the Museo Nacional del Ecuador, which had been closed for extensive remodeling in 2016; maybe this remodeling effort was also the moment at which Banco Central had been swallowed up. I thought this was likely enough to be worth taking a chance on it, so I set off on a long walk through the loud, dirty streets north of the Old Town, following my phone’s GPS to the new museum.

When I arrived, a large group of nicely dressed people was standing in the lobby, gyrating enough to express appreciation but not so much as to express wantonness as an ensemble of black-clad women sang and played an oddball variety of instruments. Speeches were made, and then the music started up again. I was told it would be diez minutos before I would be able to leave the lobby and actually tour the museum. Twenty minutes later, they were still singing. The museum staff relented when it became clear that the length of the delay was impossible to predict, so they opened up the second and third floors for visitors like me, who had not come for this event – which was to celebrate the addition of a famous painting, “The Three Mulattos of Esmeraldas,” to the collection.

The second and third floors of the museum are dedicated to “Thematic Axis 2,” “Territory, Economy, and Work,” which meant, as a practical matter, that there were displays of old furniture, ship models, paintings of old Quito and scenes of early life among the Spanish settlers, and modern art; none of this was particularly interesting to me. I wanted to see the material that had made the Museo del Banco Central so famous – if indeed I was in the right place.

When I had exhausted Thematic Axis 2, I joined the line that was controlling the access of the crowd to the main part of the museum; the music had stopped and everyone had queued up. My museum map told me that the pre-Columbian art I’d come to see was in the first room, “Historical Nucleus.” Here is part of the museum’s description of this theme, as published on their website:

In the 21st century, our national museum recognizes diverse identities and their constant transformations and seeks to establish itself as a space for participation, dialogue, confrontation and representation of the public sphere.

We invite you to be part of this ongoing construction process where memory, heritage, identities and social participation enter (are) in constant dialogue with cultural assets.

But where was the huge collection of prehispanic art? They had some nice pieces, but the collection didn’t come close what I’d just seen in the Casa del Alabado, and it was all mixed together with other objects that must have been part of their idea of a “Historical Nucleus.” If this museum now controlled the collection from the Museo del Banco Central – the collection that I had read demands three or four hours of my attention – most of it must have been in storage.

After the Historical Nucleus room, I walked through “Transversal Concepts”:

In this space, social memory and cultural heritage express the dynamics of a diverse and inclusive past in which the recognition of the multiplicity of subjects is fundamental for the construction of a citizen conscience.

And then “Political Power and Social Organization”:

When a community shares interests, values and ways of acting, which allow it to respond to the challenges of the social and cultural environment in which it operates, we speak of an organized society. Human relations can be explained from the study of historical processes, social phenomena and their origins, in which the human being has the ability to collaborate in the maintenance of social relations.

And then, since I wasn’t willing to join the scrum (and second line) that would have allowed me to see “The Three Mulattos of Esmeraldas,” I left.

It is possible – maybe even likely – that the National Museum of Ecuador did not incorporate the collection of the Central Bank. I may have been confused about that, as I am so often about practically everything. Maybe if my Spanish were good enough to allow me to ask penetrating questions of the staff at the National Museum, they would have been able to direct me to an enormous hall, maybe at a different location entirely, that would have given me four hours of sublimity. But that wouldn’t excuse the propagandizing that passes as the museum experience that the curators have constructed for us. The Museo Nacional del Ecuador has decided that its social mission – in which it “recognizes diverse identities and their constant transformations and seeks to establish itself as a space for participation, dialogue, confrontation and representation of the public sphere,” is more important than the objects it has on display. Pieces are mixed together in such absurd amalgamations as “transversal concepts,” and people like me – people who have come to the museum for an aesthetic experience, and to learn something about the history of the country – are instead subjected to what amounts to political indoctrination.

It is also possible that the National Museum of Ecuador did incorporate the collection of the Central Bank, but has chosen not to display most of that collection, because of constraints on the available space and their conviction that weaving the pieces together into their politically-enlightened themes is more important than simply putting the pieces in front of the public.

I am not saying that I disagree with the politics that the museum has adopted. Whether I agree or disagree is beside the point. The point is that art, and especially great art, is more important than ideology. I want to choose my own political context and themes, based on my own education and cast of mind. When art is subverted to an ideology, it ceases to be an aesthetic experience and becomes instead an agent of social change in the hands of of an ideologue. And ideologues are usually wrong.

The rampant symbolism of the Virgen de Quito is absurd because it so entirely ignores the central mystery of the virgin mother and why the story of Mary is interesting and vital in the first place – but this symbolism is appropriate and expected in its historical context, and it’s possible to enjoy it, while strolling through the collection and thinking about the weirdness of the medieval mind. The cosmic idiocy of the explanations at the Casa del Alabado is an insult to the pre-contact Ecuadorians and utterly fails to reveal what these people were like and why the collection is important. But neither of those examples seem to me to be doing real harm in the world – to be spending humanity’s patrimony in pursuit of an ideology. That’s what the National Museum of Ecuador is doing. This museum is pressing the brilliant work of Ecuador’s ancient people into service as a series of manufactured symbols that they hope might illuminate and implement modern political goals. It’s contemptible.

What is happening at the National Museum of Ecuador is nothing like the sort of brainless enthusiasm that has sometimes led ideologues into iconoclasm or burning Maya codices or carrying jackhammers into the Mosul Museum. The thinking is similar, though, and it should not go unremarked. Knowing you’re right is no justification for subverting your fundamental responsibilities to a social goal – in fact, it is clear evidence that your views are not to be trusted. The fundamental responsibilities of the National Museum of Ecuador are to care for and curate the treasures it maintains for the public. If the National Museum of Ecuador is keeping treasures in back rooms because otherwise they might not have enough room to display objects that promote their social goals, they are harming me and everyone else who think that essential history and great art are more important than 21st-century political positions.

If I must choose between meaningless drivel and meaningful drivel, I choose the former — but ideally I could visit a museum and not be subjected to drivel at all; I could learn about the history of the objects, and about their cultural relevance to the people who made them, and be allowed to extrapolate the experience to the modern world however I see fit. The National Museum of Ecuador has more enthusiasm for its opportunity to influence my politics than it has confidence in my ability and my right to draw political conclusions for myself. It insults my intelligence.

It was a long walk back to Old Town and my Airbnb. I passed tiny, squared-off grandmothers in fedoras, big-bottomed chicas in spandex, phlegmatic, tubby older men, and spiky, feral muchachos in soccer jerseys. Not one of them gave me a look that said, “I wonder if that grey-haired gringo has recently had a cup of coffee and then had interesting deep thoughts.” Not one of them gave me any kind of a look at all.

Here are a few photographs of some of the magnificent pre-Hispanic art in Quito.

Oaxaca and the Equator

May 12-17, 2019

This post is in three pieces:

  • The Oaxaca Piece
  • The Money Piece
  • ǝɔǝıԀ oʇınΌ ǝɥ⊥

The Oaxaca Piece

I named only one of the two cats who were my buddies at the apartment on Crespo, and that name came at the last second. I gave them the scritches they demanded, explaining to their complete unconcern that I might never see them again, and then walked around the corner, to a museum that my neighbor, Michelle, had mentioned to me, and which I had walked past many times without wondering what was going on inside its enormous ancient doors. This was the Museo de Arte Prehispanico de Mexico Rufino Tamayo, or the Museo Rufino Tamayo, for short. Tamayo was a famous artist in Oaxaca, Michelle had told me, who had amassed a large collection of pre-Columbian art and left it to the city.

Most of the objects at Rufino Tamayo are dated roughly to 1000 B.C.

The collection is arranged by the artistic themes of the pieces, not by their provenance, age, or other scholarly concerns. The objects had an effect on me that I have experienced before, but not often enough – the effect of suddenly understanding the power of a previously unimagined aesthetic. This realization, that there is beauty in places where the viewer had never previously thought to look, is one of the most important functions of great art. I have seen pre-Columbian art before, but never like this. At the Museo Rufino Tamayo, I realized that the odd representations of human forms weren’t naive errors, or early struggles toward a more fulsome ability to render objects representationally; these weren’t like the kouroi of Archaic Greece, standing somewhat uncertainly astride Egyptian forms and the magnificent realism to come. The aesthetic on display at Rufino Tamayo is complete and stable, fully mature, like Assyrian bas reliefs or Haida thunderbird masks. Fantastic and realistic and strange and abstract and intimate. Thrilling.

I had a delicious and absurdly inexpensive three-course meal at Xunca Choco – my favorite little restaurant – and then walked the familiar streets, past many places where I had struggled to buy a loaf of bread, or forced myself to take a seat among people who seemed different from me, or stopped to admire the colors or the people or the age of a building. I ended up down at the zócalo, where I sat and watched the touts selling their snacks, and the lovers teasing each other, and young parents chasing their children. After a while, I checked my watch, and realized that I should go pack my bags. My flight was three hours away.

Nameless and Nipply, my two buddies at the apartment on Crespo.

I saw the black cat again when I returned to the apartment; the other one was off somewhere. He rolled onto his back and showed me his boy-nipples, daring me to put a finger on his belly so that he, like every cat who has made that offer for the last three-thousand years, could open a few of the veins in the outstretched hand.

“Not a chance, Nipply,” I said.

I suppose I should have also named the other one.

The Money Piece

I assume that some of you are interested in what this adventure is costing me. I have been diligent about keeping track of my expenses since I left the United States. Now that slightly more than a month has gone by, it is possible to make some rough approximations.

My cost of living in Oaxaca averaged about $78/day, in U.S. dollars. This figure includes all of my expenses, including the flight from San Francisco, my health insurance, and my Spanish lessons. Extrapolated over a year, living like this would cost me a little more than $28,000.

I expect my daily average to climb as I continue to travel; more airfare will add to the burden, and living like a tourist is more expensive than living something like a local – and by “living something like a local” I mean doing some cooking, spending money on buses and taxis only occasionally, and not feeling compelled to splurge on restaurants or other special indulgences in a brand-new, never-to-be-seen-again location. It will be relatively expensive to be a tourist in Quito and Baños (a little town between Quito and Cuenca), but I’ll settle back into a less-expensive way of life soon, when I arrive in Cuenca.

Here is a pie chart that breaks down my Oaxacan daily expenses by category:

Sundries are groceries and other odds & ends – consumables.
Lodging was my single biggest expense. It is possible to rent an apartment on a long-term basis for significantly less than this, but, as a traveler, $29/night is not too bad.
Fees and Misc. include the Spanish classes I was taking, plus museum-entrance fees and occasional taxis.
Daily Insurance is what I’m spending for health insurance. This category also includes the pittance I’m spending to keep my car insured, under a tarp in Seattle.
Major Transportation is the airfare to get from San Francisco to Oaxaca, plus ground transportation from the airport.
Restaurant Meals probably seem cheap to you, at $8/day. This seems cheap to me, at any rate.

ǝɔǝıԀ oʇınΌ ǝɥ⊥

˙sǝʞɐs ɹnoʎ ɹoɟ ‘uoıʇɐıɹɐʌ ǝɹǝɥdsıɯǝH uɹǝɥʇɹoN ǝɥʇ oʇ ʞɔɐq ʇı dıןɟ ןן,I ‘ʍou ʇןnɐɟǝp ʎq sǝɔnpoɹd ɹǝʇndɯoɔ ʎɯ ʇɐɥʍ sı ʇxǝʇ pǝʇɹǝʌuı sıɥʇ ɥƃnoɥʇן∀ ˙suoıssǝɹdɯı ʇsɹıɟ ʍǝɟ ɐ noʎ ǝʌıƃ pןnoɥs I ʇɥƃnoɥʇ I ʇnq ‘ʇsod ƃuıɯoɔdn uɐ uı oʇınΌ ʇnoqɐ ʞןɐʇ ןןıʍ I ˙ʇsɐן ʇɐ ‘ɹoʇɐnbǝ ǝɥʇ ɟo ɥʇnos ‘ɯɐ I ǝɹǝɥ ‘ʍou ʇnq – ǝɹǝɥdsıɯǝH uɹǝɥʇnoS ǝɥʇ oʇuı ǝoʇ ɐ pǝddıp ɹǝʌǝu pɐɥ I ‘ןǝʌɐɹʇ ןɐuoıʇɐuɹǝʇuı ɟo sɹɐǝʎ ʎʇɹoɟ uI

That’s better.

The first things any Norte Americano does when visiting Quito are:

  • Gasp in relief at the cool air.
  • Gasp in distress at the thin air. Quito is at 9300 feet.
  • Flush the toilet repeatedly to watch the water spin in the wrong direction.
  • When weary of the toilet spectacle, inspect oneself in the bathroom mirror, then scrape off the remaining tar from the line-crossing ceremony all newcomers endure aboard the inbound jets.
  • Handle U.S. dollars incredulously – they are the currency here in Ecuador.
  • Realize that crossing the equator means that the season has changed, in an instant; in my case, from Mexican spring to Ecuadorian fall.
  • Find a clear spot at night to gaze up at the Southern Cross and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.
  • Take pictures of the indigenous boys driving their herds of guinea pigs to market.
  • Wonder why it gets dark so early – and why the sun comes up at 6:00 a.m. – until you realize that we are due south of Pittsburgh but are still on the equivalent of U.S. Central Time, for some reason.

Many of the items on this list are true.

I regret that crossing the equator is no longer worthy of comment, in something like the way I regret that the solstices and equinoxes now come and go with hardly anyone deigning to glance at the sky. Here is a fragment of Darwin’s diary from the second voyage of the Beagle, back when crossing the equator was not taken for granted:

I was then placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water. — They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. —at last, glad enough, I escaped. — most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces. — The whole ship was a shower bath: & water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through.

And here is one of Patrick O’Brian’s descriptions of the event, in The Mauritius Command:

But they crossed the line itself in style, with studdingsails aloft and alow, and with more than the usual merriment, for when they reduced sail to let Neptune come aboard, accompanied by an outrageously lewd Amphitrite and Badger-Bag, he found no less than a hundred and twenty-three souls who had to be made free of the equator by being lathered with rancid grease – tar was forbidden, being in short supply – and shaved with a piece of barrel-hoop before being ducked.

I am a tourist in the old part of Quito; my next post will have to do with museums, churches, and restaurants. I plan to spend a few days in Baños de Agua Santa, a little town halfway between Quito and Cuenca, during the next week. It’s likely that I’ll be writing the next post from Baños, so you should also expect reflections on zip-lines, white-water kayaking, and natural hot tubs. Bungee-jumping and sacred art. Finding a theme is going to be tricky.

For more photos from my last days in Oaxaca – and an action shot of a toilet – see Oaxaca: Last Days.

Desolation

An example

Many derelict buildings here in Oaxaca bear large signs that read, “Inmueble en Mal Estado,” or “Property in Poor Condition” – signs that are usually unnecessary, because they make a claim that is obvious at a glance. The cladding falls away from the adobe substrate and, through open windows, you can see weeds and debris in the empty rooms. Jenny tells me that it is very difficult to rebuild here in the center of Oaxaca, because of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; materials, dimensions, and even paint colors are carefully regulated, to preserve the character of the old city. “It is better, easier,” she said, “for the walls to fall on people in earthquakes than to make them safe.” (Demonstrates with dramatic hand gestures.)

Jenny laughed when I asked her if she has experienced earthquakes. “Sí,” she said. “Sí sí sí sí.” She may have told me that she remembers an 8.7 quake, although that number is so high that I must have misunderstood. This reminded me to ask something I’d wondered about when I visited Mitla, the ancient Zapotec religious center, a week ago: “Why are the walls…no se ‘vertical’…up? Por qué no ‘kaboom’ en temblores?” (Demonstrates with dramatic hand gestures.) Jenny was excited by this question. She leaped to the whiteboard and, while telling me that Mitla is her favorite ancient site, sketched a subterranean view of the walls that showed them riding on enormous underground rollers. She told me that the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec people had anticipated earthquakes by putting their buildings on bearings. This may be true, but I have not been able to find any references to it online, and it has the odor of one of those stories that my fellow tour guides used to invent for the customers of Alaska-Yukon Motor Coaches. During our training we were instructed, with no visible trace of irony, to tell anyone who asked about the blue color of glacial ice that it was caused by the peculiar phenomenon of “glacial ice absorbing every part of the spectrum except the blue light, which it reflects.” Some of my compatriots took absurdities of this kind as license to make up anything they chose, so many visitors to Alaska in 1983 returned home with fantastical tales, typically invented on the spot, about the strange habits of bears, moose, and drunks in the Alaskan wilds.

I don’t know why the walls of Mitla are still standing, after all the earthquakes they have endured for the last thousand years. I don’t know why the site looks so little like the other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sites throughout Latin America. I don’t know how many of the intricate geometrical decorations are original and how many of them have been replaced, down through the years, by conservators – and so I don’t know to what degree the ruins I visited were authentic.1 I don’t know why Monte Albán has nothing like the wealth of abstract decoration to be seen at Mitla, or why Mitla has none of the representational art that is so prominent at Monte Albán – although I suspect that this may have to do with the easy access to Mitla, down through the centuries, access that tempted unscrupulous thieves and outraged Dominicans.

Last Saturday morning, I caught a colectivo taxi outside Oaxaca’s cemetery, just as Kerry had instructed me – waiting for a cab whose windshield displayed the word “Mitla” and then holding out one finger to indicate that I was only one passenger. I was soon joined by other men and women, who were often carrying plastic buckets whose contents were covered by scraps of newspaper. The road was lined by small businesses whose functions were typically advertised by hand-lettered signs painted directly onto their concrete walls. Outside one used-car lot, someone was being paid to dance slowly in the awful heat while wearing a tattered fish costume that covered him from head to foot. It took more than half an hour to reach the village of Mitla. My companions in the car told me that I could find the “zona arqueológica” – a phrase I slaughtered, but not so badly that they couldn’t understand what I wanted – by following the street that veered off to the left.

The wedding

The first thing you see as you approach the site is a church, whose front steps were occupied by a wedding party when I got there. This church was built in one of the Zapotec/Mixtec courtyards of Mitla, using stones from the ruins themselves. The marble that used to cover Rome’s Colosseum was used for the facade of St. Peter’s, but the bones of the Colosseum remained standing; when the church at Mitla was built, the structures that supplied the materials were erased.

Mitla is fascinating, but it has nothing like the scale of Monte Albán. The most important ruins are in a relatively small area, protected by a fence and a visitor center, but other, sadder, remains are scattered throughout the village. I took my time, climbing the knee-high stairs of the palace, exploring the tombs, and trying to stay out of the way of the “vlogger” who was busy documenting his visit with a GoPro and a wind-protected mic, and whose entire visit to the site lasted no more than 15 minutes.

I have read that Mitla was the seat of religious power among the Zapotec and Mixtec people, whereas Monte Albán was the seat of political power, but this neat division doesn’t match the archaeology very well. The hilltop site of Monte Albán was occupied by about 300 BC; its power and influence disappeared with so much of Mesoamerica in about 900. Mitla’s origins are difficult to determine – Wikipedia gives a range of more than a thousand years – but it was occupied and functioning as the main religious center of the indigenous people when the Spanish arrived in the 1520s. The most important period at Mitla began in 750, shortly before the collapse of Monte Albán. The two sites do not overlap very neatly in geographic terms, either; they are separated by 30 miles of hard, dry road. The presence of the Mixtec peoples, who had largely supplanted the Zapotec by the time of the Spanish conquest, muddles the timeline and the questions of cultural continuity even further. Maybe the reason that Mitla and Monte Albán seem so dissimilar is that they had very little in common; their people, cultures, spheres of influence, and fundamental concerns were very different.

Sergio Leone

On my walk back from Mitla’s main site, I found myself looking down a road that ended in a stone staircase that could only have been created by pre-Columbian people. No other cultures ever built such unforgiving stairs. This staircase climbed a steep hill that was crowned by a small brick shrine – a one-room building, topped by two small bell towers, looking just like a location in a Sergio Leone movie. I detoured to take a look, laboring up the stairs past a couple of layabouts under a tree and a family that was working its way down, having just laid an offering at the door of the shrine. The hill was obviously the site of an ancient temple, but there was nothing left of it except its outlines in the stone underfoot and one scrap of what I took to be Zapotec geometrical stone decoration, embedded in the tottering masonry on the north wall of the shrine. The building that once stood here may have been the source of the stone that built the church.

Weeds

As I approached the intersection where I hoped to find another colectivo, I walked past an unmarked collection of walls that I realized was another Zapotec site. This was undecorated and ignored by tourists, noteworthy mostly for the enormous blocks that had been used as lintels and for the abandoned courtyards, where weeds struggled up between the paving stones. In 1519 – exactly five hundred years ago – Cortez and his small army were sailing from Cuba to Mexico, and here, on these stones, philosophers and priests, oblivious, used all of their eloquence in debates about how best to serve their people and their gods.

It was a hard week for me. On Wednesday morning, while Manuel was attempting to make me understand the difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses, I realized with surprise that, unless I was very careful, I was about to burst into tears. I managed to get through the class without disgrace, but it wasn’t easy.

I don’t take my own moods very seriously; it is clear to anyone who has ever smoked a joint, taken MDMA, or had more than two beers, that simple chemistry plays a crucial role in one’s subjective experience of the world. Many people who have every reason to complain about their bad luck or their own shortcomings are instead full of passion and joy and self-confidence, whereas people like me, who have scant reason to complain about anything, spend an absurd amount of time mired in dark contemplations about the unregenerate idiocy of history, the reprobates who infest the globe, and especially about myself, perhaps the most unromantic beast to ever urge its squat thick bulk across the face of the protesting earth.2 I know that thoughts of this kind do not reflect reality, or at least do not necessarily reflect reality, or at least do not reflect reality in a manner that justifies my useless obsessions, so I suffer through these spells as I would the experience of having a cold. It is now Saturday – four days after my preterite catastrophe – and already the world seems a little brighter. I toured Oaxaca’s Botanical Garden this morning, where I met a woman from London who once had dinner with Oliver Sacks. Perhaps not everyone is a reprobate.

I also have recent memories whose vibrant colors offer strong evidence for the wisdom of happiness. Last Saturday, having returned from Mitla and spent a little time on the computer, I went out to dinner at an excellent restaurant. I ordered a local amber ale, an ensalada whose description included nopal leaves, and the lasagna I’d seen described on the chalkboard outside. The salad was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten – built sparingly and lovingly, with olive oil, local cheese, tomatoes, nopal, and some unidentifiable herb. And then the lasagna arrived. It had been made using platanos machos instead of noodles, which worked very well both as a surprise and as an entree. And then a band set up and started to play: two people on ukuleles, a man on bass guitar, a triple-jointed xylophoniast, a guy shaking and rasping the jawbone of a horse or a cow, a woman stomping out percussion on a wooden box, and the loud bellowing of all of them. When I left, having enjoyed the music for 20 minutes, I was walking south along Garcia Vigil when I saw a big commotion down by the Templo Santo Domingo – one of those inexplicable parades. I hurried south several blocks to get in front of it and watched the brass band and the enormous doll puppets and the religious symbols and the pretty girls in their long skirts and big, happy smiles as they all swept past. Just as I got home, scattered raindrops began to fall.

Here is the band in action, and here are a few moments from the parade.

The mounds

There is a red-domed roof just south of my apartment. Beyond it, a hill climbs out of the valley, with houses clinging to its slopes for much of its height. The last pitch is bare of human influence, until finally the ridgeline is silhouetted against the sky. I have admired this view many times during the last month, but it only recently dawned on me that this ridgeline includes a couple of anomalous green mounds that are almost certainly unexcavated Zapotec pyramids.3 I’m sure they are honeycombed by the tunnels of tomb robbers, and I can’t guess whether their condition or significance might justify my infatuation with them, but doubts like this haven’t stopped me from being enthralled.

Dry weeds struggle up among the flagstones at neglected sites in the village of Mitla, but the people who walked in those courtyards would have been destroyed, and all of their aspirations brought to desolation, whether they and their gods were remembered or not. And each dry stalk is a wonder, too. Perhaps the ignominy of urging my squat thick bulk across the face of the protesting earth is shameful only when I forget what a waste it would be to do otherwise. My mood is improving.

Photos of Mitla, and photos from around Oaxaca during the last week.

 
 
 
May 11, 2019 – Oaxaca

1 – This is the “Ship of Theseus” problem, first propounded by Plutarch:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

2 – This magnificent phrase is lifted from Patrick O’Brian’s H.M.S. Surprise. I realize that I am not very squat, thick, or unromantic, but the words are so wonderfully venomous and condemnatory that I felt compelled to use them.

3 – An article in the Washington Post from 1982 makes my supposition seem more likely:

There are no active archeological digs in the Mitla-Monte Alban region at this time, “a tragedy” the guides are quick to tell you. They direct attention over the mountains, pointing to gentle, rolling mounds on mountain sides and tops.

“Every one of those hides a temple, a tomb, a key to our most ancient past,” said our guide.

Las Comidas

Oaxaca, May 4, 2019

Chapulines for sale at a streetside stand.

1. – Ceviche

Last week I had dinner at a restaurant that had two irresistible virtues: first, I had read good things about it in the Lonely Planet guide to Oaxaca, and second, I knew exactly where it was, up there by the church on the Calle de Manuel Garcia Vigil. I thought that its attractiveness to gringos might have led to some accommodations for English-speakers, but this hope evaporated when I scanned the menu. I understood the word “pescado” and thought that fish might be just the thing, but then a mesera came up and asked me some questions. When she got nothing from me beyond a pleading, fearful smile, she brought a mesero to the table who launched into a disquisition that, after a minute or two, I realized must be in English. He had used the word “spicy.”

“Is okay?” he asked, finally.

“Sure!” I said. “Sí. Está bien.”

That is how I ended up eating a cold slurry of mango and citrus with bits of raw fish. This is what the word “cevice” means that I had seen on the menu, and I don’t doubt that the mesero explained exactly what I had just ordered before it arrived, but knowing that I had no one to blame but myself did nothing to improve my meal.

2. – What may have been a pomelo

On my walk to school one morning, I found a large grapefruit in the gutter that appeared to be unharmed. I picked it up and put it into a waist-high nook in the ruined wall that abutted the sidewalk. Perhaps somebody would be delighted to find his lost grapefruit, rescued by a nameless stranger who sought no thanks for his selfless act. That afternoon, on my way back, it was still there, so I took it home.

I wore my REI travel pants for a couple of days several weeks ago, while my jeans were at the lavandería. I hadn’t worn these pants since I was in Guatemala almost two years ago, and I remember their having been snug even then – but now it is only just possible for me to get into them. Ever since this disheartening experience, I have been eating fruit for lunch.

I had already developed a keen appetite when I sat down to open my grapefruit. The yellow skin covered a white pith that was more than an inch thick. I hacked big chips of pith off onto the tablecloth. The grapefruit sections in the middle were familiar looking, except that half of their bulk appeared to be seeds, but they were less sweet, less tangy, less zesty – less interesting – than I’d hoped. When I finished eating, the heap of debris in front of me looked like Picachu had been run through a wood chipper, and I was still hungry. What was that thing?

3. – The zapote

There is a graphic-design outfit near my Spanish school named “El Zapote Negro.” My dictionary says that the English translation for “zapote” is “zapote,” and offers “sapodilla” as an alternative, in case “zapote” was insufficiently illuminating. After my maestra, Jenny, explained what they were, I realized that I had eaten one or two of these while I was in Guatemala.

That afternoon, I was out on one of my afternoon constitutionals when I walked past a cart that had been parked in the shade of a wall – a cart simply heaped with zapotes. The guy who was waiting for customers gave me a sliver. They are fantastically sweet and buttery. “Uno, por favor,” I said.

He sold me one for seventy-five pesos. When I got back to my apartment, I opened it up. The flesh was reddish and creamy and sweeter than unrepentent sin, just as I remembered. With every bite I thought, “Seventy-five pesos? That’s like, what, four bucks. That guy ripped me off. Probably, I don’t know for sure, but four bucks? No way. Why didn’t I say something?”

And then the zapote was gone.

4. – Bugs

I have already mentioned that chapulines – fried grasshoppers – are a local delicacy here in Oaxaca. They are sold in heaps at the market, sorted by size and color. And practically everybody knows about the worms in Oaxacan mezcal. But I hadn’t heard about chicatanas, which, as Manuel explained to me during a digression in this morning’s lesson, are flying ants that appear by the millions after the first rains of spring. Their abdomens are plucked off and used to make a highly prized salsa. “Hay muchas palabras por ‘delicioso,'” he almost certainly did not say, and then explained that something tasty is rico. Something very tasty is saboroso. Delicioso is one step over saboroso, and, at the very pinnacle, when you need to describe a food that makes you want to abandon your family and make indecent proposals to the cook, is suculento. Chicatanas, said Manuel, staring hard into my eyes, are suculento. Here is an article about them, if you are curious to learn more.

This fern grows near my apartment. I have named it “Oliver.”

I finished two books within a few hours of each other a few days ago. One, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, is a wonderful piece of work, but it has nothing to do with Oaxaca, so I set it aside in this post. The other, Oliver Sacks’s Oaxaca Journal, is a small, lovely thing – the reminiscences of a charmingly intelligent man about his fern-botanizing trip to Oaxaca in the 1990’s. He recounts having enjoyed the local grasshoppers during his visit and speaks with fond nostalgia about their crunchy, nutty savor.

I have caught dozens, perhaps hundreds, of grasshoppers, with my bare hands. I know exactly how it feels to have one struggling in my grasp, its tiny claws working against my palm. I would open my fingers just enough to let my captive poke his head out into the air, where he would work his mandibles indignantly and spit brown juice onto my skin. Never once, in any of those sun-glazed afternoons in Idaho’s Mormon country, did I ever ask myself what it might be like to pop one into my mouth and give it a thoughtful chew. Never. Despite Oliver Sacks, despite the menu at every restaurant, the idea is ridiculous.

A closeup look at the chapulines.

My friend Kerry is returning to Oakland this weekend. If she weren’t, I had thought that perhaps we might go out to dinner, where she might encourage me to order the chapulines, and maybe take my picture as I put one into my mouth. I would be interested to eat some of the local bugs if I were here with someone who also saw it as an adventure; as a solo diner, though, there would be no point to it. Overcoming inhibitions is inherently a social act. Eating grasshoppers in a restaurant by myself, looking down at the heap of brown bodies and working up my courage, would feel like yelling “yahoo” into an enormous empty room.

5. – Tlayudas El Negro

A tlayuda is a grilled tortilla sandwich that seems to be the favorite local food here in Oaxaca. A tortilla is slathered with refried beans, lard, cheese, and whatever else comes to hand, another tortilla is pushed onto the slab, and then both sides are subjected to the fire. Tlayudas in Oaxaca have a status similar to the position pizza occupies in the United States. There is pizza here, too – there is a Domino’s down by the supermarket – but pizza is occasional and tlayudas are everywhere. Both foods are circular, flat, dripping with grease and cheese, and seem designed to invoke the wrath of whatever strange, tubular gods are worshiped by the human digestive system. In both cases, you feel full long before you stop eating.

The local branch of Tlayudas El Negro is just down at the corner of Calle de Manuel Sabino Crespo and Av. de la Independencia. The place is enormous, but I have never seen it with more than a handful of its tables occupied. When I arrived there, on one of April’s last evenings, it was easily 80 degrees, the cicadas were howling glassily in the trees outside, and the sound system was playing a Spanish version of “The Little Drummer Boy.” “Pa rum pum-pum-pum,” I hummed, studying the menu. Before I made up my mind, a quick-witted employee had changed the disc from “Christmas Favorites” to “Top Hits of 1971,” so, by the time the mesero arrived, I had already heard “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” and “A Horse with No Name.” I had to yell over the music as I ordered. “Can’t Live, Una tlayuda, if living is without you. Y una cervasa Can’t live! Sí! Con queso! I CAN’T GIVE ANYMORE…”

When the beer arrived, I settled back to admire my surroundings. I had not paid any attention to this restaurant’s signs when I came in; a young woman in faux authentic garb had lured me in from the sidewalk. It took a remarkably long time for me to realize that this restaurant was not named “Black Tlayudas,” as I had first thought; if that were the case, the name would be something like “Las Tlayudas Negros.” A better translation of “Tlayudas El Negro,” judging by their logo, is “Pickaninny Tlayudas.” This is not at all how we name restaurants in the United States.

Half an hour later, I had eaten everything I wanted, and then as much again. The bill was $6.50 American, including the tip. I waddled home along the roaring traffic of el Calle Crespo. Eating fruit for lunch won’t help if I keep having dinners like that one.

I asked my teacher, Jenny, about the name of this restaurant on the following morning. She had to tell me something that I had somehow not noticed on my own – that there are no black people in Oaxaca. I haven’t seen any Asians either, come to think of it. Thus, I suppose, Oaxacans feel free to use whatever language they like, since there is no one here who might object. I asked her why there are no black people, and she only shrugged.

I have done some a little Internet research on this subject, and could use this paragraph to advance some theories about it, but I won’t bother; I don’t know, and can’t know, about racism in Oaxaca. My infant español does not allow me to pry into the matter. Manuel told me a joke about a Galician leper who broke out of prison piece by piece, prefacing the chiste by saying that Galicians are well known for their stupidity. Is Manuel prejudiced against Galicians, or would making that accusation be something like saying that I am prejudiced against Poles because I sometimes told Pollack jokes when I was a kid? Maybe the people who run Tlayudas El Negro would protest that they have nothing against black people. They might say that they are charmed by pickaninnies and their cute antics – all that watermelon and fried chicken! – in something like the way decent white Americans might have defended themselves against such a charge during the 40’s and 50’s. Maybe racism here is the water everyone is swimming in. I don’t know.

 
 
* * * * *
 
 

I have already booked a flight and arranged lodging for the next leg of this trip. On May 15 – less than two weeks from now – I’ll be in Quito. This hardly seems possible. I only just got here.

Unless something changes, I will leave Oaxaca without having drunk mezcal or eaten a mezcal worm. I will not have tried chapulines or chicatanas, I will not have eaten nopal or tuna, the fruit of the nopal cactus, and I will continue to ignore the broad swathes of restaurant menus that I cannot understand. I will not have bought anything at a market. I will not have gone to a bar. I won’t know why there are no black or Asian Oaxacans, I won’t know why these people set off nerve-shattering concussion grenades more often than I pass gas, and I will not know Spanish. When I leave, I will not understand Oaxaca or Oaxacans.

However.

I will have eaten tlayudas and ceviche and a zapote. I will have laughed at a chiste en español and shaken my head at those idiot Galicians. I will have visited ancient ruins. I will have flagged down a shared colectivo taxi, ridden it out into the hinterlands, paid the driver, and then repeated the process on the return trip. I will have become comfortable with the city’s layout, I will have gotten used to the local levanderías, and I will have clawed my way back to the pitiable level of español that I attained in 2016. I will have admired thunderstorms, scratched the backs of appreciative cats, strolled through lovely churches and museums, and made a friend. I will have fallen slightly in love with Oaxaca.

Thank God for traveling. Es suculento.

More photographs from the last week in Oaxaca

The square in front of Santo Domingo.

Buenas Días

Friday, April 26, 2019

I signed up for Spanish lessons that began on Monday morning. You might think that my having spent two months studying Spanish in Guatemala during the fall of 2016 would make my first few days a matter of breezy, casual review, but you would be wrong. My reaction to each palabra is similar to the panicky feeling that I have when I am approached by a smiling person whose name I should know but do not. I have had that feeling hundreds of times since Monday morning.

I spend two hours with Manuel, who drills me on grammar, and then an hour with Jenny, who attempts to engage me in conversation while I knead my forehead with my fingertips and groan in frustration. When you include the time it takes me to walk to and from the school and the time I devote to the homework, my studies are consuming four hours of my time every day; when you factor in my psychic involvement, though – my anxious obsession – the classes are leaving me time for almost nothing else.

Manuel is 48 years old and slightly tubby. He wears glasses, a small mustache and beard, a baseball cap, and, for three days in a row, a red tee shirt with “Egypt” embroidered across the chest. A mole on his neck sprouts three luxuriant hairs. There is a scar at the nape of his neck that marks where a tumor was removed, years ago. The treatment after this procedure damaged his hearing, he tells me, although it appears to be better than mine; these treatments may also be responsible for the back of his head being nearly bald.

Manuel teaches me at the whiteboard. My apologies for the poor quality of this cellphone photograph, but I thought you might be curious to see him.

Within the first few minutes of class on Monday, Manuel had written “James Bogar” in one corner of the whiteboard. He glanced at the whiteboard before using my name for all of Monday’s lesson. This was true on Tuesday, too. And on Wednesday. And on Thursday. On Friday morning when I arrived at the school I saw him sitting in the open courtyard outside our classroom and chirped “Buenas días, Manuel,” as I have been told I must. “Buenas días, uhm er fruhlrmngk,” he replied.

I don’t know whether this incredible forgetfulness is an aftereffect of his surgery, but honestly I doubt it. Manuel is as relaxed a person as I have ever met. His calm makes my ongoing anxiety seem insane. I think he doesn’t remember “James Bogar” because he feels no social pressure to do so. And why should he? Manuel and I are not going to be friends. We have a purely professional relationship. Manuel is at peace with himself; he knows he is a good teacher, whether he remembers my name or not. And he is a good teacher, absolutely. I like knowing that he doesn’t feel obliged to care about me as a person. I remember having this reaction to my first college classes; it was fantastic that in those enormous classrooms I was able to care about the subject without having to worry at all about the teacher’s feelings.

Jenny takes over for Manuel every morning at 11:00. She is energetic, tiny, and perhaps 30 years old. Her dark hair is parted on one side and pulled back in a ponytail. She is intelligent and her English is idiomatic; she spent several months in California some time ago, where she eagerly learned such preposterous phrases as “the whole enchilada,” and “holy guacamole.” Jenny has heard of Steven Pinker and Oliver Sacks and James Joyce, to my surprise; she says that a trip to Liverpool is on her bucket list, because she adores The Beatles. She pulls out her phone whenever she needs to illustrate an anecdote; she showed me photos from a Oaxacan hailstorm two years ago that was “apocalíptico”; hail the size of tennis balls smashed windows and dented cars. Jenny, like Manuel, insists that she and I begin each lesson with the “Buenas días cómo estás muy bien y tu también gracias” routine. “Perfecto,” she said, when I asked how her previous afternoon had gone, and then talked about how the weather was neither too hot nor too cold.

I don’t get it. What is it about this “Buenas días” thing that Manuel and Jenny find so important?

Outside my classroom at the Becari language school. Manuel walked up as I was taking this photograph; I was engaged in the “Buenas dias” ritual with him when the shutter opened.

I had a paper route in Idaho Falls when I was 12 years old. Every afternoon I would ride my bicycle to a small grocery store at the southern fringe of the downtown area and wait for the bundle of Post Registers to be dropped off. While I waited, I chatted with the guy behind the cash register. The store was usually empty; he had plenty of time on his hands. “Hey, it’s the caramel kid,” he would say, identifying me by my most frequent purchase. And then he would put his elbows on the counter and smile at me. He always let a beat go by before asking, “How’s it going?”

Even at 12, I knew that the proper response to “how’s it going?” is the English equivalent of “perfecto,” but I just couldn’t bring myself to utter something so banal. That’s why the guy at the cash register always made himself comfortable before asking me that question. He knew he was in for a story. “Pretty good,” I’d say, “but the chain keeps coming off my bike, and I didn’t turn in my math homework on time, but that’s okay because I think I’ll be all right for the test on Friday, and I’m behind on collecting for my route, but I think I can get caught up on the weekend, because…” and so on. Many kind adults used to amuse themselves by starting me up like this. I was the kid who didn’t understand the rules of polite conversation, and now I’m the adult with the same problem.

“Cómo estás?” How much time do you have?

When I came back from Easter mass, and my neighbor asked me how my morning was going, I said it was fine. But it wasn’t fine at all. What was the right thing to have done in that situation? Should I have told her about my bicycle chain and Ecclesiastical Latin, or was “fine” the correct response? I honestly have no idea.

More photographs of Santo Domingo and Oaxaca from the last week

Postscript: A friend points out that I misspelled the two-word title of this post. It is tempting to silently correct the error, but that would be cowardly. It is also tempting to protest that I carefully inscribed this error in my notebook, on my first day of classes, and that I have been diligently reinforcing it in my mind ever since – but this careful dedication to my stupidity only makes it worse. I leave the post unchanged, note here in this postscript that I now know it is “buenos días,” and apologize.

Easter Mass

April 21, 2019

The splendid interior of the Templo de Santo Domingo.

I arrived at the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman, wearing a button-down shirt and a neutral facial expression, and settled down in a pew to wait for Easter services to begin. By 11:00 it had dawned on me that something was wrong; the only people coming into the church were occasional solitary explorers and obedient tour groups. I couldn’t be confused about the day of the week, could I? Surely I couldn’t be as confused as that. Surely not.

On the following morning at 11:00 I arrived at the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman, wearing a button-down shirt and a neutral facial expression, and discovered that Easter mass was already underway. I stood in the back, so that I wouldn’t have to get up and down with the congregants, or, worse yet, use the kneeler when everyone else did. The priest was delivering a sermon, judging by his vocal cadences. I wouldn’t have understood him even if he had been speaking English; the echoing space obliterated the differences between vowels, consonants, and the pauses between words. After a while, a young woman addressed the crowd. Then the priest took over again, using that vocal style that is neither singing nor speech – or maybe it’s just very poor singing. It’s hard to be sure. There was some holy-water sprinkling. And then there was more sermonizing, which I took to be jocular, this time, judging by the priest’s energetic arm movements.

The people in the pews seemed to be dressed exactly as they might have been for a trip to the market. Short-sleeved shirts, sometimes bare shoulders for the women, no bonnets in sight. I watched as a woman standing nearby scanned the crowd to see how other people were dressed; she made a quick assessment and then pulled the hat from her head and tucked it under one arm. A young woman in a tank top was wearing complicated bracelets on both wrists that tangled together when she put her hands behind her back; she faced away from her companion while he painstakingly released her from her bangles. Mothers fanned themselves and their babies. People in the back took pictures with their cell phones.

Then there was a stir in the congregation, and, to my horror, I realized that everyone was about to shake everyone else’s hand. I keep forgetting that this has become the custom, despite being forcefully reminded of it every few years. I’ll never forget the look of distaste on the face of the woman who found herself compelled to shake my hand when I attended mass at a little town outside Burgos on the Camino de Santiago; her cold look said that she felt that I was an outsider and that I had no business being there, in the role of a bemused observer of her deeply held convictions, and she was absolutely correct. I kept my hands clenched behind my back and my eyes on the altar as the activity bubbled around me, and then, when the mass started again, I left. I’d hoped to stay for communion, but I was feeling so thoroughly an extranjero that I didn’t want to linger.

The Procesión del Silencio gets underway on Good Friday.

When I was a child, my mother used to take me and a few of my older sisters and brothers to mass. We would stand in the back, even when there was space in the pews, and even when the ushers were quietly insistent about our taking a seat. The moment the ceremony came to an end, we would rush out of the church and find our station wagon at the edge of the parking lot. Because this was what we always did, it felt normal; it didn’t cross my mind to wonder why the other people were sitting down and we weren’t, or why we usually arrived just as mass was due to begin, or why we always left as the closing words of the service were still echoing off the walls. I didn’t wonder about any of this until I was an adolescent, when I realized that my mother was afraid. I used to say she was agoraphobic, but now that term seems unnecessarily clinical, and to carry an air of diagnostic certitude that it doesn’t deserve. The word “afraid” is all that is required.

I wasn’t afraid of too many things when I was six years old, but that has changed. I’m afraid of the distance that seems to separate me from the people at Easter mass, and maybe even more afraid of the distance between me and my own childhood. I disapprove of casual dress at church and what it implies about disregard. I am deflated by any mass that is not in Ecclesiastical Latin; I remember it with fond reverence, even though the Church abandoned that ancient tradition in 1962. I feel sorrow at the absence of a censer swinging smokily down the center aisle. I don’t want to shake a stranger’s hand. I’m afraid of people. I left the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman feeling as though I was not quite a member of the human race. As I stepped out into the sun, a young woman approached the church doors wearing a wisp of rayon that, in any other context, I’d have said was an article of lingerie.

I know that this sentimentality is absurd, and that the world of my childhood has changed in far more important ways than the trappings of the Catholic mass. I was hoping for a colorful show of quaint customs on Easter morning and got upset when people behaved like casual inhabitants of their own culture instead of like tourist attractions. I was hoping that the differences between me and the people in that church would be so profound that I could observe the mass safely, from high in my aerie – but instead I see that the problem is not that I and the Oaxacans inhabit different worlds so much as that I will not or cannot comfortably inhabit my own.

When I got back to my apartment, my neighbor Michelle was out on her little porch, watering the plants and sweeping up. “How is your morning going?” she asked. “Fine!” I replied. It didn’t even occur to me to tell her the truth.

More photographs of Santo Domingo and Oaxaca from the last week

Foreigner

Oaxaca, April 19, 2019

One of the goats that was being dragged up the street as part of last weekend’s Palm Sunday procession, bleating and shitting in terror, had a piece of masking tape affixed to one ear that gave its price. “Look!” breathed Kerry, rapturously. “That goat is only 250 pesos!”

I had signed up for this excursion through the Oaxaca Lending Library, knowing nothing at all about what I might be seeing, but feeling sure that it would reward my curiosity. Some of the most interesting experiences of my life have occurred when I put myself into someone else’s hands and gave them permission to show me something unexpected. “No te quedes en tu zona de confort,” as a decorated flowerpot reminded me. I met a half-dozen expats in the van that took us out of Oaxaca, including my new friend, Kerry, who may have been one beer away from goat ownership last Sunday morning .

A litter had been built at the entrance to the cemetery at the nearby pueblo of San Antonino, where the figure of Jesus, one hand raised in benediction, presided over a heap of produce that was growing larger by the second, as a team of serious, eager men piled up the offerings around him. The crowd was bringing in more produce for the litter, and also baked goods, lovingly packaged fruit, household necessities, blouses, small livestock – items intended for the auction that would occur after the procession, and whose proceeds would benefit the church and the community for the following year.

Women at the donation tables at San Antonino.

At some mysterious signal, we all processed the four blocks down the road to the church, where an enormous crowd had gathered under an awning. We didn’t stay for the auction – probably a mistake, in retrospect. Instead we visited the workshop of a blind sculptor in clay, a roadside weaving works where a young woman sat on a low wall with her boyfriend’s head in her lap and, with grim concentration, squeezed his blackheads and zits for every second of the fifteen minutes we were there, and then went to lunch, at a good place Larry the guide knew about.

The choir at the cathedral.

On Tuesday evening, Kerry and I went to a Concierto de Música Sacra de Órgano y Coro at the cathedral, getting there early enough to ensure seating and chatting amiably as we waited. She told me about teaching in Nigeria as part of the Peace Corps, and about a British expat there who was wearing absurd madras shorts when he raced in on July 20, 1969 to exclaim, “The moon is ours!” She agreed very fervently with my opinion that we visitors should not be walking around in shorts – none of the local men do so, the shorts we choose are usually hideous, and knees and calves are no one’s most attractive feature. A procession of tall banners was carried into the cathedral just before the music started, as part of the Holy Week festivities; many of the young men carrying these lacked the presence of mind to avoid the chandeliers with their burdens, making Kerry and me wince and look away as the collisions came, one after another. The singers were local amateurs of varying ability levels, but the music was very nice; Bach, Pergolesi, Fauré, and so on. During the last piece, a skinny young man strolled into the open area in front of us, blocking the views of some of the other people, who reacted with outrage. “Borracho!” shouted a middle-aged man, giving the young man a hard shove. “El coro de los ángeles te reciba,” sang the choir.

More recent photos from Oaxaca

I start Spanish lessons on Monday. Improving my Spanish will not help me get over how foreign everything seems, nor would I want it to; the foreignness of my surroundings is their chief allure. It should help me feel a little less anxious when I interact with waiters, though, or attempt to interpret signs, or ask for directions. Even if I were fluent, I am a foreigner here and will remain so. Even when the cultural references are familiar to me – when a young woman’s tee-shirt reads “Girl Power” or “Espresso Yourself” or “You Cute but You Broke Tho,” or when the buskers at the Zócalo play “The Pink Panther,” “Imagine,” or “I Will Always Love You” – I don’t really understand what they’re driving at. Why are they doing this? Why are those two guys dressed up as Plains Indians and playing pan pipes? And I’m even more confused when the cultural references are unfamiliar. Grasshoppers with the guacamole – really? Mariachi music – can you possibly be serious? Is this guy talking to me? No hablo español.

I visited Monte Albán yesterday, a series of ruins that command a hilltop only 10km from Oaxaca. This was the ancient seat of the Zapotec people, the civilization that ruled the area until 800 or 900 AD, when, as with the Maya, something went wrong, the cities were abandoned, and the local people returned to their farms. The Zapotec culture is not gone; I am told that many of the people I see here on the streets and markets speak Zapotec as their first language, and may not learn Spanish until they are taught it in school. Whatever remains of the Zapotec people, the civilization that built Monte Albán exists only in the minds of scholars, and even there only as a series of guesses.

The bus climbed the hills above Oaxaca, past pye dogs sleeping in the dust, concrete buildings topped by rebar sticking haphazardly out of support columns, graffiti, and scattered plastic trash. Finally, the sad buildings gave way to scrub, and then we arrived.

Looking north across Monte Albán.

Whatever distance separates me from the people of Oaxaca, it is nothing compared to the gulf between me and the people who lived at Monte Albán. This observation is so obvious that it seems hardly worth making, but it is at the heart of my interest in ancient sites. The questions every visitor must ask themselves go beyond such conspicuous mysteries as where they got their water, where they grew and how they distributed their food, where they had their lavatories and what they were like, what the rules might have been to the games played in the ball courts, and so on. The more interesting questions have to do with their states of mind. What was their relation to their gods? How large a part did music play in their lives – and how did it sound? How did men and women view each other? What made these people laugh? When a priest stood here, on this platform, and looked south over the enormous courtyard, what varieties of reverence and power and complacency stirred in him? If I could have had one of those priests with me, and could have walked with him from ruin to desolate ruin, and taken him with me back to Oaxaca, jouncing down the winding road from the hilltop to the crowded, noisy city – what might he possibly have felt? How would he feel about having been unable to imagine the terrible fate that would befall his beloved city, and the unthinkable futurity that created the modern city of Oaxaca? Why are those two guys wearing feathered bonnets and playing pan pipes? At least people are eating grasshoppers with their guacamole, thank the gods. What keeps the buildings from falling down? Where are the images of the gods and kings? Where is that music coming from? Is this guy talking to me? No hablo español.

More photos from Monte Albán

Out

My last glimpse of Mt. Rainier for a while.

San Diego, San Francisco, Oaxaca
3/13/2019 – 4/11/2019

I left Seattle on March 13, flying to San Diego to keep house for my friend, Frans, while he recuperated from hip-replacement surgery. After a few weeks, when he was able to hobble around in an encouraging way, I flew to the Bay Area, where I rented an Airbnb in Palo Alto and spent a few days with my son and daughter. On the evening of Monday, April 8, I flew from San Francisco to Oaxaca City, where I moved into another Airbnb and began the process of making a temporary home. I’m finally out.

Frans recuperates in his motorized recliner, gamely working away at my latest meal.

Being in San Diego with Frans was pleasant, but it didn’t feel like being out. I went for long walks every day, exploring the canyons that furrow the plateau on which his University Heights neighborhood is perched. I took distant pictures of the wild parrots, I tickled a lizard, I visited the zoo and a good museum, I ate a loquat right off the tree – it was much better than the bedpan-changing, mopping-the-fevered-brow-of-my-delirious-old-buddy visit that I’d imagined. Frans and I ate my sub-mediocre cooking, listened to music, and gave each other the good-natured grief that is the cornerstone of practically every male friendship. It was good, but Frans’s apartment was nothing like my place, and I was not at all the master of my own time. San Diego is warm and prosperous and much too easy. When Frans was able to get up and down the flight of stairs that leads to his apartment, I was ready to leave.

More photographs from San Diego.

Breakfast

On my first morning in Palo Alto, I found a cafe in an old, repurposed movie theater, where I ordered a cup of drip coffee and a croissant. There was some confusion about how I was expected to interact with their touch-sensitive payment system, and how I was going to get my order, and whether I was allowed to sit down in the separate area where chairs were apparently being rented by the hour by serious young people with laptops and which was being guarded by a skinny gender-fluid person with an unnecessarily ambitious hairdo. The bill was $10.00, including the tip. I ate my precious breakfast in the courtyard while Teslas swept silently by on University Avenue.

Sam and Laura and I had Burmese food on Friday night. On Saturday, Sam and I walked around on the Coyote Hills near Fremont, and then the three of us went to the de Young museum, where various forms of ID and good luck got all of us in for free. After bowls of Pho, we stopped at a co-op grocery store at the north end of the Mission District, where Laura spent $275 on 35 pounds of local unfiltered olive oil for her group house. At one point Laura told me that I could look around in the store while she shopped, if I liked, and I said, “That’s okay. I’ve seen grocery stores before,” drawing such a shocked look from a bearded young man nearby that I felt compelled to add, “Never one as splendid as this, of course.” He showed me the absurdly expensive thing he was buying and explained very earnestly that one simply couldn’t find such a thing elsewhere, no matter how hard one looked. And then we went to the south end of the Mission, where an amorphous art fair didn’t materialize, but which turned into a good excuse to buy ice cream. (Sam’s flavor was “Secret Breakfast” – bourbon and corn flakes.)

On Sunday afternoon we visited a bar where Eric Douglass, an old friend of Laura’s and, now, of mine, was having his 31st birthday party. It was a crowd of very smart young people and also me. The deck behind the bar adjoined another bar, whose bass-heavy sound system was producing something that seemed to me more like a well-meaning assault than music – like a kind of CPR that, even if it were to somehow save you, might be only marginally better than cardiac arrest. After that, many of us decamped to a Muslim Chinese restaurant that Diane, the cephalopodiastical post-doc, knew about; nine of us crammed ourselves around a table where the food was mounded up before us in pleasing excess.

On the deck with Sam and Laura

Then I hugged my kids in the street in front of Laura’s house and walked back to my Airbnb. God knows when I’ll see them again.

More photographs from the Bay Area.

I spent much of the day on Monday walking through San Francisco, doing a big loop that took me counterclockwise through the Financial District, Chinatown, Little Italy, up Lombard Street to Russian Hill, and then south through the sad and appalling and frightening Tenderloin District. I got to the airport at 8:00 p.m., three hours before my flight was due to leave, mostly because I had nowhere else to go. I changed planes in Mexico City, at an hour poised between night and morning, and arrived in Oaxaca at 8:00 on Monday morning.

My new place – #11, at the top

And now it’s Thursday evening. I had the usual misadventures with finding a way to contact my Airbnb host, with changing money, and with that first-day exhaustion that feels like a species of despair, but now those problems are behind me. My third-floor apartment opens up onto a balcony with a view south over the city, with bougainvillea twining around the railing. I have met five of the expats with whom I share this apartment complex, all of them friendly and helpful. I bought a one-month membership at the Oaxaca Lending Library, a local resource for expats, whose enormous collection of English-language books made me laugh with delight; while there, I signed up for a tour that will take me to a Palm Sunday procession at a nearby village this weekend, and got some good leads on Spanish classes. I have a loaf of whole wheat bread here at the apartment that contains bits of husk and straw. Last night, my sumptuous dinner cost me four U.S. dollars, including the tip. A beetle the size of a squash ball tried to batter through my screen door this morning. The walls are yellow and orange. The air is warm. It’s heaven.

Me in my apartment

I’m out. Out of America, yes, and out of my old routine, but also out of this last, depressing period of my life. It has been a tough couple of years, but all that is over now. I know that I am not done with grief and hardship — that everyone’s life is one damn thing after another, until the last damn thing brings it all to a close — but right now I’m in a pristine little apartment in a city I had hardly heard of a few months ago, and I have practically no idea at all what might happen next. For now, and for a while, some unpredictable and indeterminate and precious while, I’m free.

More photographs from my first days in Mexico.