Thursday, February 28, 2013

cutting corners

"Pride goes before destruction, and arrogance before failure."

So says the Good Book.  And I am living proof.

On Tuesday, I switched a number of "to do"s to "done did it"s.  Including switching my bank addresses from Salem to Reno. 

I should have done that two years ago.  But it didn't seem to matter since my financial matters are almost exclusively electronic.

That afternoon I received my new debit card from what we will call Bank A.  A spiffy silver card to replace my old silver card.  I was happy to see it because I thought I would be on my way back to Mexico before it arrived.

I called the telephone number on the card for activation.  As I slipped the new card into my wallet, I pulled out the old one and started snipping it up.

Only after it was in four pieces did I realize the card I was snipping was black, not silver.  And it was from Bank B, not Bank A.

My credit card!  The only credit card I brought north with me.

But there was no need for panic.  I called the bank and told the woman on the other end of the telephone what I had done.  That I was reading the numbers off of a cut-up card.  That she should ignore the earlier address change.  I was not at that address, but at the old address.

When she started asking me additional questions (the color of my first car, the street where I lived in the third grade), I knew this was not going to be an easy process.  Then she asked if I had an address before my current address.  Responded I, the old address where I currently am or the new address where I am not.

She transferred me to the security unit.  Or tried to.  Somehow I lost the connection.

So, I waited thirty minutes and called in on another telephone.  This woman was far less suspicious.  Even though the circumstances raised concerns.  She asked me where I lived before Salem.  A far better way of wording the question.

Satisfied that I was not someone who had dug a credit card out of a trash can, she set up a schedule to get my credit card to me today.  Of course, I am still in Bend.  But that would really have confused the situation.

With the exception of being without my credit card for a few days, all is going well.  If I can get the freezer out of the basement by Monday, the closing can be scheduled for next week. 

At least, I think it can.  Apparently, the appraiser confused the darkroom in the basement with a kitchen.  The freezer did not help to correct the misconception.

By Monday afternoon everything should be on track.  And I will have a credit card in hand to do my few purchases for the return trip south.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

85 -- and counting

Today, my mother is 85.

She won't mind if I tell you.  Notwithstanding the nonsense about not asking a lady her age.  After all, it is a landmark birthday.  Especially, when people tell her: "You can't be that old."

The comment is not new to her.  When she was a model instructor in her early 30s, her students could not believe she was the mother of a sixth grader.

I attribute it, in part, to her Scottish genes.  Her grandfather died at 100 -- or 110, the records are a bit muddled -- while on a pleasure trip.  She seems to be blessed with the constitution of the Queen Mother -- without the gin lubrication.

When she was born at home in Powers. the world was a different place.  Telephones and automobiles were as rare as women in professions.

But she was always a pioneer of change.  When my father took her home to meet the aunt and uncle who had raised him, she came face to face with a rural tradition where women ate in the kitchen and the men ate in the dining room.

Not her.  She grabbed a chair, sat next to my Dad's Uncle Noble, and was the unexpected belle of the table.

She made success look easy.  As a mother.  A political activist.  A world traveler.  A church leader.  She turned difficulties into learning experiences.  And bore the glow of a golden girl.

85 years of life find her as an avid computer user, smartphone aficionado, and a driver with the attributes of Stirling Moss.

This day is not going to go unnoticed.  At 7:40 this morning, I board a shuttle to Bend.

What we are going to do, I know not.  And it doesn't matter.  We are not a family of planners.  After all, this is not a day of merely doing something.  It is a day for our small family to celebrate a life that keeps on giving.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

the atchison, topeka, and the santa fe

That whistle you hear down the line is the express train barreling into my future.

My realtor called me yesterday afternoon to ask if I was interested in closing the sale on my house earlier than the scheduled date in late March.  Apparently, the bank has completed its loan approval and the buyers, by reading this blog, were aware I was in town -- and anxious to close the sale.

Even though I had started filling in my calendar for farewell lunches and dinners, I told her I was willing to close as soon as the escrow agent is ready.  So, I may be moving the last few things out o the house near the beginning of March -- instead of the end.

The tough stuff is done.  But there is still quite a bit of furniture to move out of the house.

The bookcase my Uncle Frank made for me as a high school graduation present is going to my niece -- who can put it to good use in her senior year of college.  My art collection will go on a loan tour with my nephew.

And a few items are heading to Bend.  My bed -- the most comfortable I have owned -- is going to my mother. Along with several boxes of hard-bound books.  My tools are for my brother.

The remainder -- this is beginning to sound like my last will and testament -- are headed to Goodwill.  With a few pieces  f furniture to my house sitter.  For his future apartment.

On my last day in the house, the Oregon Energy Trust will pick up my refrigerator and freezer -- and leave me with $80.  I suspect all of that is to somehow enhance the environment.

Because it looks as if this sale is now inevitable, I started the process of changing my address on my internet accounts.  The tougher issue will be closing out my local bank accounts.  I need to be certain all of my bills have cleared.  No sense in ruining my credit rating with ill-advised premature withdrawals.

If all goes well, I could be riding a train out of town before I even realize March is here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

wave that banner

I almost forgot yesterday was flag day in Mexico.  Or día de la bandera as my neighbors in Melaque call it.

Almost three years ago, I wrote a post about the history of the Mexican flag. For some reason, it is still the second most popular post since I began this little project.

You might enjoy taking another look at it.


bandera de méxico

Sunday, February 24, 2013

don't smoke 'em -- even if you got 'em

Late winter is one of my favorite times of the year -- especially when I bring a bit of Mexico north with me.

Salem has a very wide cusp between winter and spring.  By late February the snowdrops start popping up in the borders of my lawn.  Followed in quick succession by crocus, grape hyacinth, and daffodils.

When I wandered through the garden this morning, they were all there.  The friends that had greeted me each February for the past twenty years were making their showy appearance.  Almost as if scheduled by Amtrak.  But better.  They were on time.

The flowers alone were a comforting sight.  But they were backed up by a bit of unseasonably warm sunshine.  It almost felt like April.  As opposed to last week's local rain storms.

I am not a sentimental man.  But, out of a sense of honor, I took a walk through the Archives Park -- Jiggs's favorite romping grounds -- just a block from the house.

The Oregon Veterans Office shares a portion of the park with its various war memorials.  Including this statue honoring the dead of the First World War. 

A rather generic statue purchased from a foundry in the east.  The equivalent of those Saints R Us stores that supply the various accessories for Mexican shrines.  Places where I lack the appropriate habits to shop.

For some reason, he looks less like a war hero than a bowler-wearing Londoner hailing a hackney.

The weather.  The flowers.  The familiar landmarks.  All got me to recalling some of the more pleasant moments I had spent in the park.  Even a couple of my homeless acquaintances were there enjoying the day.

But, because this is Oregon, the hand of the nanny state had to interfere with what was an otherwise pleasant day.  On the path that borders the creek, those who must be obeyed had erected a sign to remind us that in Salem the Methodists had finally beaten down the remnants of the state's mountain man heritage.

Can Michael Bloomberg be far behind?

If anything, this reinforces my decision to move out of the state.  Mexico calls.

Bring on those closing papers.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

red to blue

I have one last note from Chiapas for you.

I am certain most of you know the Zapatista movement, with its spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, has been active in Chiapas for a couple of decades.  Spreading the news that private ownership of property is an abomination.  “Only those who work the land own the land.”  Or something like that.

While eating breakfast on Thursday, I glanced up and saw this stained glass mural decorating the dining room.

Some people have trouble understanding the theory of irony.  Well, this is a perfect example.  Where else could you see the reddest of political ideas portrayed in conservative blue -- but in an expensive hotel?  With the expensive garden shining through the eyes of Marcos and Zapata.

Maybe that is how the establishment has decided to deal with Marcos.  Co-opting him with fame.

Saturday will be my last day in Melaque for February.  I am heading north in the hope that the closing of my house remains on track.

See you soon on the Salem front.

Friday, February 22, 2013

high flying adored

How can a large city -- famed for its art, scholarship,  and bold leadership -- shut up shop one day?  And be reclaimed by the jungle?

That is a question that has bedeviled historians and archaeologists for almost two centuries. We are no closer to understanding why it happened than when the question was first raised.

What we do know is that the Maya city-states were very successful centers of human endeavor and success.  And one of the best places to see that success is the Maya city of Palenque -- once a regional capital.

Now it is a ruin.  But a magnificent ruin.  And the epitome of what an archaeological site should be.  Mysterious.  Carefully restored.  Solemn.  In a jungle setting that would do Indiana Jones proud.

As always, we need a bit of history to get ourselves oriented.  Palenque was one of the regional capitals of the classical period of the Maya.  That period ran from 100 BC to 800 AD over an area covering the
Yucatán Peninsula, Chiapas, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

But Palenque's golden days were far more concentrated.  From 600 to 800 AD.  And its history centers primarily around one ruler.  Pakal.

No other building on the site sums up Palenque's regard for Pakal as does the Temple of Inscriptions.  It was built during Pakal's reign -- 615 to 683 AD -- for his tomb.  A tomb that was left undiscovered until 1952.

The building looms over every other restored building -- even though there is an unrestored pyramid in the jungle that is taller. 

And, in that,  there is a tale.  Only 5 percent of Palenque's buildings have been explored and restored.  There are over 1000 structures that are still claimed by the jungle.  What we know of Palenque from the current record is only part of its story.

But, based on that limited record, Pakal is regarded as one of the great men of Maya history.  And Palenque is all about Pakal.

From his palace with its astronomy tower, living quarters, and school.

To the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Foliated Cross, and Temple of the Sun -- all of which celebrate Pakal's authority and his passing of power to his son.

Archaeologists recently discovered another tomb -- next to the Temple of Inscriptions.  This one included the body of a woman painted red and decorated with a jade mask and jade jewelry.  No one knows who she was.  But she was undoubtedly related to Pakal.

His mother.  His sister.  His wife.  No one knows.  However, due to the red paint on her body, archaeologists have dubbed her, with Carrollian tongue in cheek: The Red Queen.

I have a preference for archaeologist sites that allow me to meet the inhabitants on a human level.  And Palenque excels in that regard.

Maya art is very accessible.  All of the buildings were covered inside and out with stucco.  The stucco was then painted in bright symbolic colors.  After 1400 years some of the color remains.  Such as in this mural.

Or in this panel that shows Pakal deriving his creation power from the life-giving corn plant and pasing it along to his son.

Even the bas-relief statues show a people we can recognize as individuals -- even when they are portrayed symbolically as warriors.  But, after all, what great society does not honor its war heroes?

The Maya were one of the few American people who left a written record behind.  An odd form combining both hieroglyphics and an alphabet.  A language whose code was broken only in the middle of the twentieth century.  Only half of the writings have been translated with any confidence.

But it is the small details of the city that give it its real life.  Such as the aqueduct designed to bring fresh mountain water into the city.

Or the slab of rock that served as a sleeping platform.

Or the handy toilet in the palace.

The palace was a place for the elite to learn about and to enjoy life.  Even though the building was made of stone, the builders took care to add windows that allow both light and wind to enter the structure.  All in the shape of the symbol for the wind god.

This particular window served another purpose.  It is located in the astronomy tower.  On the winter solstice (21 December), when the sun is reborn each year, its light shines directly through this window.

All of this came to an abrupt end.  For 200 years, Palenque was at the top of its form.  In another hundred years, the people simply wandered away from the city.

No one knows why.  There are plenty of theories.  Incest amongst the ruling class.  Droughts.  Environmental depravation.  And a list of other possibilities.  Maybe they all combined together to cause the Maya to lose their reliance on the elite of urban society.

Whatever the reasons, the people left and the jungle reclaimed its territory.

Our guide offered to take us on a jungle tour to see a portion of the unreconstructed structures.  And to possibly see howler moneys and toucans.

We heard the monkeys and the toucans, but we never saw them.  What we did see were hill after hill of jungle-covered structures.

And there was some wildlife.  A parrot.

A rather angry baby garter snake that struck at anything potentially aggressive.  Like my sandaled toe.

An iguana looking as if its image was being sculpted in stone for posterity.  But they always look a bit regal -- and dim-witted.

A lizard.  Lots of fast-moving slithery creatures. 

A bit of colorful lichen eating away at the Palace's facade.

And this delightful little world in miniature.

Without doubt, Palenque was the highlight of the trip for me.  I could have stayed there for at least five days.  Often simply to meditate on the steps of its temples.  And I very well may do that in the future.

For this trip, though, I will pack Pakal away and head back to Melaque for one day.

And then I am off to Oregon.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

cascading to palenque

Say good-bye to San Cristóbal de las Casas.  And hello to Palenque.

I will miss San Cristóbal.  The weather was refreshingly cool.  But the grand Maya city of Palenque is why I came on this trip.  We arrived at our Palenque hotel late on Wednesday night -- and I have seen nothing yet.

But the six hour bus trip to the lowlands was filled with plenty of sights.

I read statistics about the poverty of Chiapas.  How it is the poorest of the poor among the Mexican states.  But the trip down the mountains did not look like a land of poverty.

There were plenty of farms along the way.  Not all of them German-neat like the enclosed pastures in the title photograph.  But the local farmers appeared to be industrious.  And quite content in a way that economists cannot seem to understand.  Wars on poverty often turn out to be wars on rural sensibilities.

A major downside to bus travel is that it often raises far more questions than it answers.  We saw many homes along the road with beans drying on concrete pads.  But I do not know what type.  I suspect some were coffee beans.  But what are the darker beans?

And what type of flowering tree is this?  The red blossoms were blooming at every altitude in Chiapas.

One constant was the scenery.  Chiapas must be one of the greenest and most beautiful of the Mexican states.  That reputation is helped by the amount of rain that falls in the area.  And the resultant river flow.

A river flow that often meets rock barriers.  The marriage produces some very interesting waterfalls.

We first stopped at Agua Azul -- blue water.  A park designed to set off the beauty of its 500 waterfalls.  Some small.  Some grand.

But each cascade offers the viewer an opportunity to sit and contemplate.  There is something meditative about the sound of rushing water.

In addition to waterfalls, the park contains a series of aquamarine pools that invite hot and weary travelers to take a quick dip.

Just as this father and son are doing.  Watching the dad teach his boy to swim brought back some fond memories of my own childhood at the apple orchard in Powers.
I love the symbolism of a strong father simultaneously protecting his child while teaching a new skill.

After two hours at Agua Azul, we drove over to a much higher (if less contemplative) waterfall -- Miso-Ha.  100 feet of tumbling water.  With a calm pool at its base perfect for swimming.

The waterfall has another feature for the intrepid.  A trail leads behind the water to a small grotto.

The Maya believed that the colors green and blue are the same color.  Green is the color of life.  Creation.  The earth may be green and the sky blue, but they are the same to the Maya.

That may be why these waterfalls seem so magical.  With their mixture of blue and green.  Is it any coincidence that the greatest symbol of creation -- honeymoons -- were traditionally celebrated in places like Niagara Falls?  We may not be as far from our primitive roots as we think.

Later today we will visit one of those roots.  The ruins of the great city of Palenque.

And the lessons it can teach us in our modern world.

But I have one last question for you.  Does anyone know the name for this bird?  ("Moon bird" will get no points as an answer.)  We saw it at Miso-Ha.  What I really wanted to do, though, is share the image.  I think it is rather cool.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

myth and maize

The Spanish Conquistador, Diego de Mazariegos, founded San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1528. 

Or so the residents of San Cristóbal de las Casas believe.  Its colonial architecture -- along with the syncopated orchestra in its park gazebo -- provides evidence of that genesis.

But, if you are a Tzotzil Indian living in San Juan Chamula, you know that is simply another myth of The Conquest.

Because, as we should know, San Cristóbal de las Casas was founded by John the Baptist before the Spanish arrived.  He came here to bring sacred sheep to the Indians.  Well, some Indians.

That is why sheep are still sacred to the residents of San Juan Chamula.  They can be sheared and their wool can be loosely loomed to make shaggy black skirts and coats.

But, just as cattle are sacred to Hindus, sheep are sacred to San Juan Chamula.  The sheep are individually named and prized as a sign of wealth.  But they are not to be eaten.  Nor is their milk to be consumed by anything other than lambs.

Welcome to pre-Columbian America. 

We visited two villages on Tuesday.  San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán.  The former far more traditional than the latter.

In San Juan Chamula religion is the driving force of the entire social structure.  Even though the village was converted to Christianity soon after The Conquest, the conversion did not quite take.

Catholic priests were quite clever throughout Mexico (and elsewhere in the world) by identifying local deities with Christian saints.  Not actually a merger.  More like  a hostile corporate take-over. 

In San Juan Chamula that approach backfired.  The Indians readily identified their pagan deities with saints, but the saints were then converted into the pagan deities -- keeping only their saintly names.

The notion of a monotheistic God disappeared in favor of old gods tarted up in saintly garb.  With John the Baptist topping the list.

In the local church building, there is no saintly intercession.  The curing ceremonies and prayers are directed to the saintly deities.  No need for a priest here.  In fact, the Catholic priests were evicted over 40 years ago.  Think of Martin Luther with a very crowded altar.

The village enforces a strong no cameras policy.  Even the cell phone on my belt was subjected to a TSA search.  So, all I have is prose. 

I have witnessed ceremonies in almost all of the world's faiths.  But the interior of the church was a new experience for me.

There are no pews in this church.  Congregants sit on the floor to bring themselves closer to the earth's fertile power.  A floor strewn with fresh pine needles -- to decorate and add a pleasing odor to John the Baptist's house.

Because it is his house.  Where he lives.  And where he hears their prayers.

When we were there, the floor was filled with groups conducting cleansing ceremonies.  Complete with candles, chants, and chickens.  The latter being sacrificed.

The Totzil believe illness is merely a physical manifestation of a sick soul.  And if the rites are conduced properly, the soul will be cleansed, and the person will be healed.

Traditional societies are not receptive to change.  And that has caused social problems for San Juan Chamula.

In the 1970s, a large number of the community converted to Evangelical Christianity -- partly as a way to cure the alcoholism that was destroying families in the village.  The faith of the Evangelicals is far different than the religious practices of their neighbors.

As a result, the Evangelicals were expelled from the community.  About six to seven thousand of those exiles now live in San Cristóbal de las Casas -- mainly women and children.  You see them on the streets making a living by selling handicrafts.

I say mainly women and children because many of the Evangelical men died in the pogrom.

The survivors now live more modern lives outside of their former traditions.

I had a conversation with a young woman named Anita-- one of the exiles.  That is her on the right in the photograph above.

She makes her living selling personalized pens and other goods.  At 27, she is not married.  She has no children.  Shooting her arms to the sky she declared she is free.

The second village we visited was Zinacantán.  Just a few kilometers from San Juan Chamula.  But it is quite different.

The people of Zinacantán are a mixture of Tzotzil and Nahautl -- partly a legacy of the era when the area was an Aztec vassal.  They were also instrumental in helping the Spanish defeat the ancestors of San Juan Chamula.  As a result, bad blood still exists.  Almost 500 years later.

There are no sacred sheep here.  The people of Zinacantán raise flowers.  In over 6000 greenhouses that dot their valley.

Similar to San Juan Chamula, the church in Zinacantán is a mixture of pagan and Catholic elements.  But the Catholic elements predominate.  There are pews.  And, with the exception of a few tourists, the place was bare of adherents.

We stopped at a local weaver to see a demonstration of how the village's woven goods are created on small back strap looms.  The demonstration, of course, was to induce tourists to leave with a few products.  I didn't.

Our hostess then invited us to a light lunch of blue corn tortillas that we could fill with beans, a variety of salsas, local cheese, and a powder made of crushed squash seeds.  It may have been one of the best and simplest meals I have eaten in Mexico.

Someone asked me last month what had happened to the Maya after their city-states collapsed.  The answer is -- they are right here in Chiapas.  All around us.

Some traditional.  Some less so.

And I had the pleasure to spend a day with them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

she walks in beauty like the night

Every beautiful thing is beautiful in its own way.

Travelers know too well the temptation of comparison.  Attempting to tamp down the new into a familiar box.

It's human.  It's natural.  We need devices to make sense of new experiences.

The problem with comparisons is the failure to stretch our existential envelopes.  If the Great Wall of China looks like Uncle Ernie's back yard fence, we may be missing something.

Monday was our day to experience the Sumidero Canyon and the Grijalva River that runs through it.

The canyon started forming just about the same time the Grand Canyon began its giant erosion project.  In the case of the Grijalva, it started trickling through a crack in the area's crust on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.  Proving that the hardest rock is nothing more than sand and water -- and will crumble over time.

I have seen impressive combinations of rocks and water.  The Rhine.  Norwegian fjords.  The Columbia Gorge.  They are all beautiful in their own way.

Just as the Sumidero Canyon is beautiful its its own way.

The Grijalva starts as a wide and shallow stream running through agricultural land.  Shallow enough that you can watch fish swimming beside the boat.

But it soon takes on almost Tolkien proportions as it approaches the mountains it long ago defeated.

Towering rocks on both sides of the river reduce the viewer almost to insignificance.  Well, significant enough to be the computer that processes the cliffs and river into beauty.

Where there is not awe, there is whimsy.  Such as a sea horse stalactite.  I have never seen one look that vicious in the wild.

Or a calcification that conjures up thoughts of a Christmas tree.  Complete with fluttering green vegetation.

Topped by an "angel" that looks like an apocalyptic steed to my eyes -- pictured at the top of this post.  I wasn't aware there was going to be a Rorschach test.

Along with a multi-colored grotto dedicated, of course, to Mexico's national saint -- Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The pink, gray, and green colors are produced by rain dissolving minerals and then soaking through the surrounding rocks.  Leaving behind this colorful mural.

And lots of wildlife.  Especially, birds.

Black vultures wintering over from The States.

Brown pelicans guarding the approach to the dam and hydroelectric facility.

Shadowy monkeys.  We hope to see more later this week in Palenque.

And did you think I would leave out the crocodiles?  We saw several.  But none of them as photogenic as those in my back yard.

In Chiapas, beauty is everywhere.  Not just in nature. 

I promised you a daylight photograph of the cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas.  As Kurt Vonnegut would say -- here it is.

Some call the facade flamboyant.  To me it is as whimsical as the formations in the canyon.

The colors represent local neighborhoods.  All of the art is stylized.  European in form; Indian in execution.  Even the Moorish designs take on an embroidered effect in the hands of the Indian craftsmen.

There are several well-constructed gold altar pieces inside.  But what impressed me the most was the intricate ceiling.

Norm asked me to photograph the Indian women who wear black wool dresses -- woven roughly enough to look like sheep skins.  Here you go, Norm.  Amongst some of our group.

And there is an interesting tale there.  At least, to me.

When the Dominicans arrived, they needed a method to easily identify the various tribes -- of which there are many in Chiapas.  So, the priests designed distinctive clothes for each tribe.  Clothes that reflect the facade of the cathedral.  European in form; Indian in execution.

I could not close this essay on beauty and whimsy without sharing a final photograph with you.

I had seen four young Mexicans earlier and correctly concluded they were Mormon missionaries.  Here, the two elders are photographing the two sisters in front of one of the most beautiful churches in town.

I simply started humming my favorite tunes from The Book of Mormon.