Thursday, June 30, 2011

the green scorpion

I stayed in Oaxaca in a large old building that had been a stable back in the days when the property had been a working hacienda.  The walls were heavily plastered so I was never clear whether they were stone or adobe, but the walls were thick and held the night’s coolness through the heat of the day and gave no alarm during the occasional earthquakes that trembled up the Valley.  I had a fine, sunny apartment on the second floor, with tall French doors looking out over a garden and across the lawn to the old great house, and my hostess had a large, airy apartment downstairs that opened onto the garden, which was utterly charming, though sometimes creatures wandered in.

Hearing a commotion one afternoon in my hostess' quarters, I went downstairs to see what had happened.

She had found a scorpion on her dressing table.  It was green. 

She was upset, but pulled herself together.

“It is good luck to find a green scorpion on Friday,” she said, calming herself and putting the matter into perspective.

I am glad I recorded her words at the time; otherwise, I might not have trusted my memory. 

In my journal I go on to remark that I would have thought it good luck any day you found a scorpion before it found you and, in any event, it was not Friday.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

conversation over lunch

I am sure it was because we had been speaking English or looked like foreigners as we sat at lunch at an outside table at a nice restaurant on the Zocalo that the two men at the next table thought they could speak freely.  I was immersed in something else but my companion was listening.  After we left she told me what they had been talking about.

One of the men, who worked in a government office, wanted his friend to steal the office furniture for him.  “You know I have done favors for you,” he told his friend.
    They discussed how to do it and how the matter would be covered up.  “We will say it was sent out to be painted.”  His friend wondered if the truck should come at night.
    They were still planning the crime when we left.
The gentleman who suggested the theft in the first place was apparently a policeman.

Friday, June 24, 2011

We visit a Great House

Near where we lived were some great houses left over from the days of the hidalgos, now hidden from view behind tall, anonymous walls, closed in with heavy, iron-studded doors and veiled from the eyes of curious passers-by such as ourselves.

But my companion is the sort of person to whom no doors are closed  --  or at least she appears to assume so  --  and one afternoon we walked through a fortress-like door left ajar by workmen because we wanted to see the inside of one of these grand old houses, and in no time at all found ourselves talking to the owner. 
    In these situations you quickly pass over the question “what the hell are you doing in here?” in the most casual way and move immediately to admiring the architecture, their choice in furnishings and so forth, and if you are sophisticated and presentable folks as my companion and I, unless you have wandered into a narcotraficante’s warehouse (in which case you will probably already have encountered men with large guns), you may get a tour of the place and maybe meet someone interesting, as was the case this time.
    Our unexpecting host was an artist preparing the house as a gallery for her paintings, which were on pre-Columbian themes of a peculiarly erotic sort, with large, misbehaving rabbits.  While I knew that rabbits were associated with drunkenness in Aztec usage  --  “400 rabbits” was very drunk  --  I had not known of this erotic aspect.  But my companion had earlier told me that art was one more of many things about which I knew nothing, so I smiled amicably and admired the big old house and the lady’s paintings and quietly speculated on her inspiration.  

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Polvos Legitimos

My companion asked if I would like to go with her to visit a witch.  Of course I said ‘yes’.

There is a witch who lives in a little village some distance away who is very famous and rock stars and disgraced politicians and other great of the Earth come to seek her ministrations, and were my faith but stronger my companion would take me to see her, but given my unfortunate attitude she would take me instead to see Doña So-and-So who sold charms and powders at the market.  It was my impression that if she took me to see the famous bruja that she would be, in effect, vouching for me and she did not think we were quite ready for that.

So we went instead to see Doña So-and-So who had a stall at the central market and appeared to me indistinguishable from any other older Indian woman at the market.  While our Anglo-Saxon witches are partial to showmanship, Mexicans who traffic with the unseen powers seem to feel no need for theatrical enhancement.  More professional, I suppose.

My companion had apparently come in response to some specific problem and quickly became involved in serious technical discussion with the bruja, so I occupied myself with examining her wares and I was immediately taken with small plastic pouches of whitish powder labeled “Polvo Legitimo”.

The small plastic envelopes were stapled inside a folded sheet paper about 4 inches square, printed on one side in what at first looks like the very old-fashioned, traditional label of a folk remedy.  The hand-set type is beat-up and irregular.  Letters are crooked and inked-in and colors are wildly misregistered.  The illustrations appear to be from 19th-Century letterpress slugs for holy cards and religious tracts.  Saints are popular, though I also found devils, skeletons and a rather handsome black cat.
    Their texts are vague and expansive, as a Romance language can so easily be.  Polvos Legitimos de San Cipriano was a Balm of Illness and Exterminator of Curses.  Pulvo San Ramon would help you get rid of bad neighbors.  Polvo Destierro was not, as I had initially misinterpreted its name, for the relief of the recently disinterred, but to exile someone.  Gato Negro will keep a loved one from forgetting you.  Another polvo, this one with a rather disconcerting illustration on its label, was a specific to discourage your husband from beating you.
    Based solely on the style and presentation, I got the impression that all these came from the same shop, and probably not some wizened bruja out in the hills.

My interest in the polvos had nothing to do with their magic or therapeutic claims, but with their labels as traditional art.  One of the things I look for when I travel is printed ephemera distinctive to a place and culture: labels, illustrations, tickets, advertising, old photographs and postcards and so forth, and with global markets it becomes increasingly hard to find these things.  The label on a box of laundry detergent in Oaxaca looks pretty much like one does in Omaha.  So when I found all these wonderfully labeled little potions I was delighted.  I bought a dozen of the most outrageous.

As I was buying these an earnest young man approached and very seriously warned me not to traffic in such malign things.  I assured him that I was not a believer, but was buying them only as art, an explanation which I suppose he found lamentably unserious.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mexico sometimes disappoints

If you are of a mind to complain about Mexico, there is plenty for you to work with. There is too much shabbiness; too many beggars.  Too much hardness.  As if the people and the earth had been beaten down by the sun.  There is endemic corruption.  And for myself, there are too many people I suspect I wouldn’t like if I got to know them better.  
    The better homes look inward to cool gardens and shaded verandas and show to the public bare outer walls and iron doors and top their walls with broken glass set in cement.  American culture is made by the middle class.  Here, the middle class is marginal.
    Here, personal relationships are important.  If someone is in a relationship with you, they are important, and if not, they don’t count.  “My home is your home, my friend” and “Go away, beggar.”

But my companion, a long time resident, sees it differently.  She has traveled a great deal and says that the poverty in Mexico is not like poverty in other countries.  In Mexico you will see no one starving in the street, as you might in Lagos or Calcutta or even Bogotá, for here there are extended families that will take care of poor relatives, some of whom may spend their days begging in the street so that they may contribute to the families who care for them.
    She told me how once when she was living in Mexico City a European friend who was making a film about world poverty asked her to take him to the poorest parts of the city.  And so for several days she took him to the poorest barrios, but he found nothing that he could use, for poor as Mexicans might be their poverty did not compare with that he had found in other countries, and he left Mexico disappointed.

Like many little stories you hear when you travel, my friend’s story does not mean much, but after you hear enough little stories like this you may eventually know a little more than you once did, even if you can’t say exactly what.  Or maybe you will discover that you now know less than you did before you came.  That has often been my experience.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mayan Vampires

A casual survey of movie posters, magazine covers and aggressive mottoes painted on truck bumpers had left me with the impression that Mexican popular culture was excessively fond of sex and violence.  I was thus not surprised to find at a newsstand on the Zocalo a graphic novella about Mayan vampires whose cover featured a befanged MesoAmerican preparing to do something unspeakable to an unconscious and fully ripe, half-draped female sprawled helpless atop a pyramid.  But, alas, it was a perfidious cover, for inside I found only filmily-clad women agonizing over relationships.  Understanding the Mexican mind is not the straight-forward thing you might think.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Xipe Totec

In a dusty shed on a ranch in the valley of Oaxaca, in a bucket of broken artifacts a farmer had collected in his field, I saw one that didn’t look like the others.

It was a small and round-faced image, with no headdress or ear spools or any other of the adornment common to these little figures.  A plain-looking face.  But I noticed faint lines around the mouth and eyes and I realized they were the marks of a flayed mask and that I held in my hand a figure of Xipe Totec, whose priest wore the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim to represent the god of spring and new growth.

In the Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec was the god who lived and died and was reborn, the god of renewal and rebirth and new vegetation, the life that lay concealed beneath apparent death, waiting to return, renewed, to feed the earth.  The god who showed himself in the germinating maize and the snake who shed his skin.  For twenty days the priest wore the flayed skin of a victim sacrificed to represent the god who sacrificed himself and mothers brought ailing children to touch the corrupting flesh and be cured.

It was curious to think that the image I held in my hand, this small figure of Xipe, had been fashioned by a hand who thought him beautiful.  That perhaps the last but one or two who had held this image had seen and approved of these bloody rituals and thought them necessary to the rightness of the world. 

But would he have thought him beautiful?  It would have been a spiritual beauty, of course, that he might have seen beneath the garment of rotting human flesh.  But of all the puissant attributes of this bloody and regenerative god, would his worshiper have said also that he was beautiful? 

I assume that he would, understanding that this is but one of the many ways in which he and I dwelt in mental worlds incomprehensible to the other.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


A curandero is a traditional Mexican folk healer and during my stays there I have twice gone to them for treatment, and in each case the experience was entirely unremarkable.  In both instances the fellow was straight-forward and business-like and there was not a whiff of mumbo-jumbo. They did not blow smoke or wave a lizard over the afflicted member.  It resembled nothing so much as the chiropractic.  Of course, they may have simply been responding to how they sized me up and had they been treating some more traditional sort of patient there might have been smoke and lizard-waving.

"The finest bridge in all Peru . . ."

On a shelf of used books I saw a thin copy of Thorton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  I took it down and opened it to read that wonderful opening line:

“On Friday noon, the 20th of July, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.”
One of the great opening lines of literature, or such it is to my taste.  It combines the precise exactness of time and date with the expansiveness of “the finest bridge in all Peru . . .”, the sort of phrase that might have been translated from another, more gracious language.  It would have been a fine beginning for a travel book.

I am sure if I went there today I would find a poorly maintained modern cement span off which overcrowded buses and trucks regularly precipitate their travellers into the gulf below.