30 July 2009

A Light Subject for a Change

I had lunch yesterday for the second time at El Pegaso up town, a great restaurant with reasonably priced food and very professional and helpful, mature waiters. All the art works on display appear to be by a single artist, whom I will have to credit by name later. Those art works for the most part are hanging boxes with little multi-media tableaux in them comparable to the famous Joseph Cornell boxes that I delight in so much.

This artist's works are small and there must be nearly a hundred little boxes hung around the restaurant. He or she deploys Mexican images and colors with his or her boxes, Mexicans obviously having embraced a different color wheel than norteamericanos have in which, as only one example, orange complements red. And there is nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add.

Here is my point. At least a third of these little hanging boxes feature images of death, many rather macabre. The artist also has on display paper-mâché skulls to which collage has been applied. So there I am eating my mid-afternoon Mexican lunch amid a bunch of death's heads.

My impression is that this is typical of Mexico generally, that is, wherever you turn you run the risk of being ass deep in images of death. There are skulls and skeletons in the oddest locations placed in contexts that inspire discomfort.

I do not know whether this is part and parcel of the same phenomenon, but the funeral parlors—and I purposely use that phrase which is now archaic in the United States—the funeral parlors have window displays of their caskets. Folks here can browse for caskets from the street--adult's caskets, children's caskets, the whole product line. And on and on it goes.

I explicitly asked Maria from Columbia if this is a Latin American thing or strictly a Mexican thing. She insisted that it is the latter and professed to be as perplexed by it all as I am.

There has to be a reason for this. I will tell you in advance that I will not be convinced that this is simply an honoring of dead ancestors. There is much more to it. Is this a way for members of a culture to inure themselves to the troubling mysteries of death? Is the idea that if you are surrounded by images of death, then you will soon get used to and comfortable with the idea of your own demise? That is my working hypothesis right now.

I think one of the keys to understanding this better is to better understand the forthcoming November 2 holiday, the Day of the Dead, which takes Halloween to levels beyond one's norteamericano imagination. That article by Dale Hoyt Palfrey is helpful and quite eloquent, but it does not come close to answering my questions. I understand what Octavio Paz is saying that the Mexican is doing, but I would like to know why he is doing it.

29 July 2009

Brief Encounters

I know. I know. Doesn't it look so perfectly communal? Doesn't it look so perfectly hippie? Right down to the old green Volvo?

I wish to write something about these people so that I do not forget them.

Actually, this little group came together as an ad hoc family for a brief few days last week. An ad hoc committee, an ad hoc anything, is by definition formed for a particular purpose only and thereafter dissolves as this ad hoc “family” now has. What was its purpose? Quite apparently, my own amusement and great enjoyment. That is now accomplished, and I am back in town. The three young people are gone their separate ways.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Again, the lady in front of me on the left is Terresa, who has lived in the San Miguel de Allende area for thirty years. In her younger days she owned and operated a restaurant here in town. She knows everybody worth knowing in these parts.

I must mention the following briefly because it is an integral part of why Terresa is who she is. She lost a son and a daughter in a mountain automobile collision in México some years ago. Surgeons had to put Terresa's brains back in her skull and cap it to save her. They did a wonderful job because while her synapses fire a little differently, she is extraordinarily kind and quite obviously brilliant.

Terresa has been working in the field of Permaculture in recent years. In addition to that obligatory Wikipedia article, the internet is loaded with resources concerning Permaculture, more than you would ever want to know. I provided you with some pictures of Terresa's homestead earlier.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Frenchman immediately to my left is Fabien (corrected spelling) to whom I also introduced you earlier. Fabien is funded by some damned organization to hump around the world studying different “primitive” but sustainable agricultural methods and report on them. He was staying at Terresa's home to do just that, and has moved on to the Mexican state of Chiapas down south. He will then go to Guatemala. His most interesting stories are about his time in Africa, which he tells with eyes the size of saucers. He is lucky to be alive.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Then there is Chris, the Belgian backpacker, whom Terresa puts up periodically. Chris was the male master of ceremonies at her Temazcal Ceremony. He is now on his way further north going in the opposite direction from Fabien. He is a big personality who fills the room and is addicted to the road. He was working on one of his art projects here.

The face of the comet.

I acknowledge that I am given to hyperbole. But allow me to say that I have never in my life before met a man so out of joint with his time and place. Chris ought to be living in 1876 and riding a pony with circles painted around its eyes and black hand prints on its rump. He ought to be heading toward the Little Big Horn in Montana with an eagle feather in his hair for a showdown with the white man. Everything about his walk and his talk and general demeanor conveys that image to me. It is more than a bit eerie.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

And lastly, there is little Maria, a student originally from Columbia who was staying at the place to study the Permaculture. She worked her butt off there during her two-week stay. Here she was reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being while Terresa cooked utterly healthy, unadulterated something. A beautifully quiet time in the early evening after a quick hard rain. Maria is back in Mexico City now.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Steve and Frank looking over the water collection system and solar panels on Terresa's roof.

What I did not appreciate earlier is that Terresa has succeeded in putting together a facility that ever so closely approximates the nirvana of Permaculture, the perfectly self-sufficient living space. She has come so close, as a matter of fact, that she has become somewhat of a celebrity in the world of Permaculture. That is why people come to study her operation.

Stuff happens there like the water being completely recycled through the garden, and all the while the sun generates electricity during the day. And stuff grows on the used water while cleaning it at the same time, and that stuff is food. It is a combination of square foot gardening, intense gardening, and something else. The water coming out of the faucets is potable, believe it or not. Going to the restroom is a bit of a complicated deal, but I will spare you those details. Taking a shower is an exercise in water conservation, so much so that the Frenchman simply dispensed with showers altogether much to the Belgian's very vocal chagrin.

I do not pretend to completely understand the systems yet. I call it a “terrarium.” Terresa prefers the phrase “life boat.”

In any event here is how I have this deal sized up after having hung around there for a few days. Do you remember Neil Young singing about “flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the Sun?” Well, one of those ships is going to take off from Terresa's place.

Chatsie and one of her damned bones.

These photos were taken for the most part on July 23.

28 July 2009

Neighbor Steve

Several times I have mentioned my neighbor Steve formerly from southern California, whose full name is Stephen O'Connor, and his daughter and son-in-law, Allison and Frank, formerly from Montana. And I believe I told you that in addition to his performance musicianship, Steve writes film scores. Here is an older bio.

The last time you saw Steve, he was standing on top of Terresa's place with Frank.

You can now hear a small sample of his work at this Facebook site.

It is a pleasure simply to sit outside and listen to this guy practice his scales in the late afternoon.

Happy Birthday to Me

This is one of those stories that is too sentimentally cheesy to be true but happens to be true nonetheless.

March 23, 2007, was my sixtieth birthday. The occasion was marked by a party in a room at a restaurant in Cedar Rapids called Daniel Arthur's. The little twist to this party was that on the reception table near the door there were boxes of baseballs for the guests to sign. One could pull out a baseball and with one of the Sharpies write, “Happy 60th birthday, Steve! Your pal, Phil,” for example.

That was back when I was still drinking, but I did manage to finish up that party only moderately drunk—moderately, that is, by my standards at the time.

Tomorrow it will be exactly two years since I had my last drink. Over the course of those two years, I have shed myriad little items of memorabilia that had come to inspire only painful memories of waste for me. Many of them are in the landfill back in Iowa. But for some reason I kept those boxes of baseballs. And for some reason I brought them with me. I had a vague idea that I might throw them in the Pacific Ocean or something.

Yesterday, I was driving back toward town in the pickup, bouncing along the narrow street of some little dusty hell hole of a village to get to the main road. I came upon five boys of assorted ages--six through eight maybe—fooling around kicking rocks in the street. In a flash of inspiration I jammed on the brakes, dug a box of baseballs out of the back of the cab, and launched five in quick succession out the truck window and into the street in front of the boys.

Jesus, what a scramble! There was a baseball for each of them, but you would have thought they were starving and fighting over food. As I drove away, in the rear view mirror I could see them jumping up and down, holding up their baseballs autographed by people whom I fully intend never to see again, and waving at me.

It was a very nice moment for me and one that I will not forget.

A belated happy sixtieth birthday to you, Steve.

And the truly beautiful thing is, I still have more baseballs in the truck.

27 July 2009

Jojoba Oil

My hair was approaching a point where I feared that some of the tangles might become permanent. I consulted with a neighbor hippie lady who has red hair down to the middle of her back. She recommended jojoba oil. Jojoba oil comes from the jojoba plant, which grows spontaneously in the northwestern parts of Mexico. Moreover, she said she would pick some up for me because she had to resupply herself, hippie women being quite high on natural products, particularly those natural cosmetic products that have not been squirted into puppies' eyes in a mega-corporation's laboratory somewhere.

Later, I found a bottle of the stuff on my table outside the camper. The catch was that I did not know how to use it. So I threw it into the truck for some reason.

A day later and in return for a meal or two, I was driving that hippie Terresa around so that she could pick up groceries for her Temazcal Ceremony after feed. Terresa lived in Berkeley when Berkeley was Berkeley. She explained that among other alternatives, I could simply rub two or three drops of jojoba oil directly into my hair.

At the next stop while Terresa went into the store, I got out of the pickup truck, fetched a hair brush from the back, rubbed three drops into my hair on the spot, and brushed it in. It truly was a miraculous product. I instantly felt like the Breck girl. I began swinging my hair around like women do in those television commercials for hair products. I raved about it to Terresa as soon as she came out of the store.

Later back home, I did find the cap to the bottle still sitting on my rear bumper. But the full bottle itself was no longer on the rear bumper where I had left it. I got exactly three drops of product out of that bottle of jojoba oil.

Nonetheless, based only on that limited usage, I can assure you that jojoba oil is one of the very few natural products that I have encountered that works every bit as well or better than the stuff that has been squirted into puppies' eyes.


Instead of a neighborhood barbecue with beer and brats, here in San Miguel de Allende one would more likely be invited to a Temazcal Ceremony at a neighbor's place on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps beer and brats barbecues take place here, too, but I have not gotten wind of any. I was invited to a Temazcal Ceremony and attended yesterday afternoon. I am still recovering today, feeling quite wonderful in one sense and totally gassed in another.

A Temazcal Ceremony makes use of a sweat lodge. There are no mind altering substances involved and certainly no booze involved. In fact I would think it impossible to mix any of those things in with this ceremony, which is a handful to get through without any artificially induced handicaps at all.

You can book a Temazcal Ceremony as part of your tour package to Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. What a fucking nightmare those ceremonies put on for the tourists must be.

The front door.

This is a northern plains Indian ceremony that has been imported into many Latin America countries. Mexican people have embraced it in particular. It is indeed a ceremony, and therefore, to put one on correctly, one needs officiators who know what the hell they are doing.

Terresa had been planning hers for weeks. Her friend, Chris, the Belgian backpacker, was the male master of ceremonies. Chris has gone totally native and embraced indigenous American culture so thoroughly that he is more American Indian than many American Indians are.

The female mistress of ceremonies was a Mexican friend of Terresa named Betty. Betty is approximately thirty-plus and sweetly, stunningly beautiful. Not that physical beauty is essential for that role, mind you. But I must admit that it adds a certain flavor to the proceedings, particular when I end up sitting on the ground right next to that woman for four or five hours while we sweat our asses off together in swim suits.

Just because Betty was a true veteran, however, did not mean that she did not suffer. She suffered. Little Maria suffered, too. But she displayed some real toughness and completed the four sessions.

There was also a Ukrainian woman present who really knew the ceremony and was very informative, her English being a bit better than Betty's.

The scene last week.

There are a lot of drums and shakers, a lot of singing, and a lot of prayer involved. I was the eldest male present, and therefore, I had to do everything first. That is not bad duty when it involves drinking the herbal water first or eating the fruit first. However, I was also cornered into leading a song once. The song I chose was Cost of Freedom by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Worked out okay with the drums considering the fact that it was the only song sung in English all afternoon. I am very short on Lakota song lyrics in my repertoire.

No, I have no photo of Betty yet. All I can tell you is that when you meet a Mexican person, do not let the first words out of your mouth be, “Can I take your picture?” It is best if you avoid asking to take his or her picture until you are quite well acquainted. And you must never take anyone's picture here without asking permission. That is an explanation, not a lecture. You are going to have to take my word concerning Betty's looks for the time being, and I guarantee you that I can still recognize a killer looking woman when I see one.

Enough of that.

The photos here were taken this morning, the “morning after.” I collapsed into my little tent out there for the night after all was said and done.

Here Terresa has spread some of the straw mats outside in the sun to dry. These straw mats become absolutely soaked with sweat.

I am not going to bore you with all the details of the ceremony. Suffice it to say that it consists of four sweat sessions with little breaks in between to temporarily cool off and to add more glowing hot rocks to the hole in the middle of the sweat lodge.

A large wood fire is maintained outside the sweat lodge by assistants called “firemen.” The firemen stay outside the entire time. The firemen carry hot rocks from the fire to the sweat lodge on shovels and slide them in the door after each break. Then the door flaps are closed, and a new session starts.

Each of the four sessions is a bit hotter than the last because there are more and more rocks. During a session water with herbs in it is occasionally sprinkled on the rocks, and the odors are heavenly, if you will permit me that word. Betty did not smell all that badly either--kind of lemony or orangey or something citrusy--in her hair, I think.

The back door.

There were eight women and five men in at the start of this ceremony. Only two of us were first timers, both of us men. You are free to leave at any time, but if you wish to drop out, it is preferred that you try to hold on and drop out at the next break. Men drop out. Women do not. This has come to be a ceremony with a very strong female bent. Women love this.

I made it through the entire ceremony in the sweat lodge, but I want to emphasize that it gets very hot toward the end in that sweat lodge, folks. It is painfully hot during the fourth session. You find yourself checking your skin for bubbles.

Is this one of those things that women are able to endure more easily because of that legendary, extra subcutaneous layer of fat they sport? I don't know. Maybe.

Actually, there is a slightly different, even hotter version of Temazcal tailored more to men that is referred to as a "warrior sweat." I want not one goddamned thing to do with any "warrior sweat."

Anyway, you fast before a Temazcal Ceremony and eat like a hog afterward. What a feed after this one! I have only the faintest idea what that stuff was. I was able to recognize a grain of rice here and a bean there and a banana burned to a crisp and chocolate with strawberries and on and on. Whatever it was, it all went down incredibly easily.

This is an entirely different sweat lodge that I photographed down south in Tequisquiapan in someone else's back yard.

25 July 2009


I detest the term “third world country.” How much more pejorative can you get?

I guess you could use the term “emerging nation.” But emerging into what? The Walt Disney magic kingdom of MacDonald's and Walmart?

Actually, I am just grumpy because I cannot think of a better term myself to refer to a country like México where the culture is still a bit pungent and earthy and the overwhelming number of citizens are poor in the monetary sense—but only in the monetary sense, by the way. Birth, suffering, and death are right out there on display on the front doorstep.

Well, whatever. . . .

México is one of those nations whose citizenry still make daily use of very fundamental tools.

I am holding one of those fundamental tools in my hand in this photo. It is about as simple as it can get. A large elongated piece of steel sharpened on one side with a handle attached. Here in México it is called a machete.

I have spent some significant time cutting wood with a machete recently. It is a tool perfectly suited to its purpose. That purpose is not to chop down trees. There are no trees in the sense we use that term in the area where I was. It is perfectly suited to clearing and chopping up brush wood.

Using a machete for an extended period is emotionally formative. If that shithead, George W. Bush, had used a machete to clear the brush at his ranch near Crawford instead of lighting up his fucking chain saw, I am convinced that he would have developed an adult personality and we would now be living in a better world.

Here is my friend, Maria, a visiting student from Columbia with another very fundamental tool, a johnson bar. She has been setting out some plants, and the soil is so rocky that you need to use the johnson bar like a pick ax in making the hole. Another perfectly simple tool perfectly suited to its purpose, and an emotionally formative one as well.

A Little Back-to-the-Earth Bullshit Will Do You No Harm

I went on an extended camping trip from 1969 to 1973 courtesy of the United States Army, as they say. I was 22 years old when I went in and 26 years old when I got out. Infantry officer. Airborne. Ranger. The whole catastrophe. Over and over I said to myself that if I ever got out of that camping trip, I was never going to camp again for the rest of my life. That is pretty much how I have governed myself with regard to camping ever since until this little journey.

21 July 2009

Residential Real Estate Again

My camping trip is postponed until tomorrow.

Today I rode along on a house hunting trip. You must see this one particular unit that some moron American built down here.

Yes, if you look closely, the gutter on the right side is formed in the shape of a rattle snake. What do you suppose crossed these folks' minds?

20 July 2009

Terresa's Place

I find that the Teresa to whom I have been referring lately spells her name Terresa. She lives approximately 6 miles out of town in the wilderness. I visited her house today with friends.

Frank and his father-in-law, Steve Uno, checking out Terresa's roof. (I am Steve Dos.)

Terresa in her kitchen.

Her home is designed to be a self-sufficient living space.

Water collection systems. Solar panels. All that about which I would like to learn more.

This is the back of the house showing the big skylight on top.

Terresa's tepee and sweat lodge framework.

The closest neighbor through the zoom lens.

It is a fascinating way of living. Check out the cobblestone floors.

I will be taking the truck out there tomorrow with the small tent and sleeping bag and camping on the property for a couple of days.

I have wanted to camp amid those plants ever since I first saw them.

Earlier, I looked back at one of my entries on March 9. I do not know why, but I did. I found this:

The air is particularly rank this morning downtown. It smells as if something is decomposing. And something probably is.

I was ten worlds away from that out at Terresa's place today. Maybe twenty.

Purified at Last

Saturday I received a sudden invitation to an indigenous people's purification ceremony courtesy of Maria Teresa.

Today by the way Maria Teresa is off to the airport for one of her periodic forays into the American lecture circuit. She couples her immense knowledge of native American lore and story-telling with a beautiful command of the English language. And that is exactly how she makes her living. The little old ladies in Peoria must absolutely take bread at her feet when she is through with them.

At the risk of sounding snooty, this purification was an affair by invitation only. All I had to do was buy a white, long-sleeved shirt. As it turned out, Frank and Allyson, formerly from Montana, and I were the only gringos in attendance among approximately 35, perhaps 40, participants.

Maria Teresa and my other new acquaintance, Teresa, just to make things more utterly confusing, drove the five of us up to San Luis Potosí in Maria Teresa's old Volvo. Has anyone heard or read any of reports of Volvos wearing out? In many places Maria Teresa's Volvo is held together by nothing more than duct tape. Yet it runs like a top.

I thought this trip would involve camping again. I had taken my little cheap tent and my cheap sleeping bag. Actually, it turned out to be a bit different deal.

We stayed at a facility that reminded me of a church summer camp for young people.

There were dormitories for boys and dormitories for girls set in the middle of beautifully healthy, irrigated fields of peppers.

We never slept in those bunk beds though.

Here is what constituted a native American purification ceremony like this one that I attended.

Everyone sat in a circle around a beautifully maintained campfire in the middle of the old soccer field. The ceremony was presided over by a head shaman and two assistant shamans. The head shaman was dressed in an elaborate, indescribably colorful costume. There was an opening ceremony during which all the equipment was blessed.

Then one sat around that campfire all night while various sub-ceremonies, if I may coin a word, were undertaken. These consisted for the most part of individually cleansing and purifying the participants by waiving feathered wands over and around them and swinging smoking censers over and around them. There was a lot of chanting and many group singing sessions. There was one very long dance around the campfire to an accompaniment of drums.

Luckily, it was perfectly permissible to lie back on the ground and take a nap. I took a very long nap in the early morning hours. I had no idea I could still sleep so soundly directly on the ground with only an old Army blanket over me. Young Frank and Allyson have been teasing me unmercifully about my nap ever since.

So then we had a closing ceremony and watched a stunning sunrise together while we ate fruit.

This is Teresa with my other new acquaintance, the Frenchman, Fabian, newly purified in the morning. As you may be able to tell, Fabian is the most entertaining goof ball with whom I have become acquainted in a long time.

The Frenchman and I newly purified early Sunday morning.

Here Frank and Allyson are packing the Volvo for the return trip.