Saturday, April 19, 2014

two ideas -- one great; one silly

I love these little safes in hotels and on cruise ships.

They are really handy for important documents needed for travel, but that do not need to leave your room with you.  At least, daily.  You know.  Things like passports.  Credit cards.  Wads of cash.

Within the first five minutes in my room, I will set the code and dump the small, but important, indincia of my dwindling life into the tiny safe.  Now and then, I even manage to store my camera in its lilliputian innards.

But I seldom put my laptop in the safe -- for a very practical reason.  When my laptop is with me, I am usually using it on battery.  When I leave it in the room, I want it to be charging.  (That is, when I remember not to plug it into a socket that goes dead when I leave the room.)

If it is stored safely in the safe, it cannot be charging.  That is, until I ran across an interesting addition to my safe in Mexico City.  Take a look at this.

Pretty nifty, eh?  A power outlet right in the safe door.  A guest can store electronics in the safe while the gadgets charge.

Now, some of you sophisticates are going to tell me that hotels have been doing this for years.  But this is the first time I have seen it.  Maybe it was one of the unstated benefits for taking a room on the business class floor.

Whatever the reason, I thought it was a very clever idea.  I usually carry a small extension cord with me that would have allowed me to charge and secure my goodies simultaneously.

What was not a good idea was the little sign next to the plugin.  Does it warn of not overloading the circuit or relay some other helpful piece of information?  Nope.

The first part makes sense.  No need to bother the maintenance man who can open every safe in the hotel in less than 5 seconds.

It is the second piece that baffles.  "Suffocation danger exists."

Let's assume for a moment that my safe is not engaging me in a philosophical existential debate or that there may be someone somewhere that denies that suffocation do exist.  Instead, what we have, in its rawest form, is the blight of American litigation gone viral.

Unless you are Richard Gere who may absent-mindedly place his gerbils in the safe and lock it, I have no idea what could be suffocated in a space so small that I need to turn my hand horizontally to fetch my wares.

But it does make you start wondering if the souls I capture in my camera or the ideas I have stored on my hard drive may be in danger of being extinguished when I shut the safe door.

I shouldn't even give it a second thought -- because no thought went into the sign.  If I had seen the sign in Manhattan, I would not have even noticed it for the hundreds of other warning signs that would assault my senses up north.  But this was Mexico City.  In the land of personal responsibility.

Of course, the sign was in English and that gave away its provenance immediately.  It is just another legal alien that has made its way south into the NAFTA stream of commerce.

And that means I am free to ignore it.

Now, you can do the same.

Friday, April 18, 2014

another circus post

No matter how basic the surroundings are, there is a moment in every circus where a drab tent is turned into a house of magic.  The lights dim.  The music rises.  And we are transported to a place where children can imagine almost anything.

Hold it right there for one Cotton-pickin' minute, Steve.  Didn't you say the same thing in a post about Mexican circuses just a year ago?  You certainly did.  In bits of magic.  So, are you just recycling old material?  Or are you trying to fill Joe Biden's shoes?

If you want an apology, go over to Felipe's blog.  Because I like circuses, and this is another circus story.  I say "another," because I have trod the circus boards before with you before -- several times:
another opening; another show, llamas -- and tigers -- and bears -- oh my!, daring young men -- no trapeze.

Well, I did it again.  Last night was circus night.  I thought with the crowds in town there would be more people in attendance.  We numbered fifteen.  I guess the beach beats out women in tights.

That is too bad because Circus Atayde is one of Mexico's better circuses.  If you are looking for a New Age foo-faux Cirque du Soleil, I suggest you try Quebec.  But if you want to experience small circuses as they once were in the 1950s, this is your show.

What you will get is live entertainment with thrills and laughs.  And a lot of rough edges.  Where dropped balls and falling from a high wire are just part of the night.

Of course, there are animal acts.  What would a circus be without animal acts?  Starting with a lineup of healthy, theatrically-threatening tigers.  All under the control of a guy with a single whip.

But that is what Roy thought.  Or was it Siegfried?  I doubt the tigers could tell us.  Their nature is to burn brightly in the night, not to do a James Burke impression.

Then there was the lady with the horse act -- a giant beast and a nasty-tempered miniature horse (if that is not being redundant).  The act, of course, was for the big horse to stand there like a straight man while the pony got the Jerry Lewis part weaving back and forth through the big horse's legs.

I suspect there were more than a few of us -- even though there were only a few of us -- who would not have taken some pleasure in seeing the big horse lose its patience and flatten the pony into Friday's birria.

And then there were camels.  There always have to be camels.  First, bactrian from Central Asia -- which were eccentrically mixed in with four zebra.

And then, dromedary from the Middle East -- complete with the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack.  More appropriately mixed in with two talented horses.

One was as talented on two legs as on four.

Those were the animal acts.  No lions.  No elephants.  But the tigers made up for their absence.

There were also plenty of people acts.  No circus is fit to call itself one without a juggler.  There were three quite good jugglers last night.

A duo that did not do anything original.  But they performed the classics adequately.

The other juggler started on a unicycle juggling bowls from his foot to his head.  And ended up on his back juggling everything from balls to rugs to what looked like carpet rolls.

There were no daring young men on trapezes.  But there was an athletic young man on a tight rope, who rode a unicycle and did back flips.  In this shot, he is pedaling in reverse.

For aerial acrobatics, we were offered a beautiful woman on a hoop -- always one of my favorites.  With daring heel hangs and spins.

The horse lady returned as the sole magic act.  Her schtick was as a quick change artist.  Whether walking through a dressing room on stage or in an up-to-the-neck bag or in a burst of silver confetti, she changed costumes in a split second.

Even though we all know the sleight of hand trick involved, it always amazes me that I am suckered into believing that the scarfy outfits are truly full costumes.  In much the same way that voters are beguiled by politicians.

Speaking of politicians, what would a circus be without clowns?  These two took their antics into the crowd and across several boundaries that would undoubtedly have got them prosecuted in Canada and boycotted in The States for insensitivity.  This jab at Muslims being the most obvious example.

I do not know why, but clowning is universal.  Or it once was.  Even when it is in a language I can barely comprehend, it is funny.  That is, unless you choose to be offended.  And that is just another universal language. 

And no one in the audience chose to be offended.  We just laughed.

For $150 (Mx) I spent an hour and a half laughing, catching my breath in my throat, oohing and ahhing, and thoroughly enjoying being eight again sitting next to my grandfather at the circus.

And what could be a better evening than that?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

tooting my buggle

Sometimes, I get an image in my mind, and I cannot figure out what I am seeing.  I observe, but I do not perceive.

The classic example is at the left.  Some people see the haggard, old woman first; others see the beautiful young woman.  But once you have seen one, it is difficult to see the other.

It can even happen orally.  Our textbook in freshman Latin would helpfully include a footnote with the English translation of newly-introduced words. 

One day in class, Bob Tyson raised his hand and asked: "Mr. McKenna, what is a buggler?"  Our teacher looked confused.  Thoughtful murmurs of "buggler" spread through the class. 

It wasn't until Mr. McKenna looked at Bob's book that he realized the word was "bugler."  Our repeated mispronunciation of the word kept us from a simple solution.

Well, that may be what happened to me on Tuesday.  We boarded a bus at the Mexico City airport to be shuttled to our ride home on Aeroméxico.

On the window were three international symbols scolding us not to be unsocial to our neighbors.  Two were easy to understand.  No smoking.  No cellular telephone usage.  But the third was a mystery.

Now, I have become accustomed to arcane signs -- like the one at the Manzanillo Soriana informing me that squirrels are not allowed inside the store.  But what was that third sign on the bus prohibiting?

Was I restricted from bringing my Uzi on the bus?  Or from using power tools?  Or glue guns?  And why is whatever-I-cannot-do wearing a cap?

Lupe and Alex had no further suggestions.

So, dear readers, I leave this mystery to you to solve.  After all, it is Easter -- the season of the greatest mystery of all.

Do you have any idea what the sign was telling me not to do?  Or have I now lulled you into the land of "buggler." 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

back to base camp

There’s no place like home.

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

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

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

Maybe it is a nest.  Or just a perch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether or not I have a home here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

here’s looking at you, kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

the big weekend

My mind is a blank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

all the world's a stage

The three of us decided to play different roles today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adults dealing with adults.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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