Friday, September 30, 2011

Hotel Gran Imperial

I was crossing the border by bus, from one of those countries that you needed permission to leave.  We had gotten off the bus when we reached the border post and were now standing in line to get back on.  Our papers were being checked by a soldier.  Everything went smoothly until he asked where I would be staying that night.  I said, quite truthfully, that I didn’t know.
    This was not an acceptable answer.  He repeated the question.
    Why in the world should they care where I would be staying in another country?  Did they think I might slip up and say I would of course be staying at the CIA safe house?
    Attempting to appear both foot-loose and responsible at the same time, I explained that I planned to find a hotel when I arrived at my destination.
    The form he was filling out required a name or address.  He repeated the question.
    I was holding up the line.  Someone in the back called out “Hotel Gran Imperial”.
    I tried to explain that I usually traveled without a fixed itinerary.  I employed tenses and grammatical forms that I was not particularly familiar with.  Whoever it was in the back of the line called out “Hotel Gran Imperial”.  The soldier repeated the question, adding a note of irritation to his voice.  Soldiers nearby began to wander over.  The fellow in the back of the line, also possibly getting irritated, called out “Hotel Gran Imperial”.
    “Hotel Gran Imperial,” I finally said, having no idea if there actually was such a place.
    The soldier, plainly relieved to be done with my foolishness, wrote the name in the appropriate space on his form and I was permitted to reboard the bus and continue on my way.

The country was Nicaragua and it was back in the heady days of Sandinismo.  There was actually a great deal more nonsense involved than I suggest, but I am sure that is all a thing of the past.  As we drove away into Costa Rica an English fellow on the bus remarked that it was easier to get out of East Germany.

Monday, September 26, 2011

postcards from Elsewhere

I am told that postcards are now obsolete.  That they are used only by white-haired grandmothers, sent from their cruise ship to their white-haired, granmatronly friends from the bridge club at their retirement home.  So be it.

But I shall continue to send them.  My reasons are numerous as the leaves of the forest or the vermin of the fifteen-cent-a-night Guatemalan hotel I once stayed in when I was ill from an authentic dining experience.  (The two young lads I was traveling with had assured me it was a nice place; heaven knows where we would have found ourselves had they felt at liberty to put us up in someplace cheap.  But then they had been similarly positive about the place they had earlier taken me to eat.)

But, returning to postcards:

They are, unlike any electronic communication, a tangible thing.  They sat with me at a table on the square, in the shadow of the great church near where various dark/bloody/glorious events had once gone down.  They bear the digressive stain of a coffee cup or aperitif glass, or the tooth mark of a reptile. They bear a postage stamp commemorating some glorious deed or meritorious individual whom neither I nor my addressee have likely heard of, but every schoolchild playing nearby most probably has.

They are, in other words, a thing of wonder.  A gift from far away to my recipient.  A little thing from Elsewhere delivered into their hands.  Words I have pressed on paper in partibus infidelii and sent to them and them alone.  Not just words, but a thing.  More than an announcement or a message: a gift.

Once received, a postcard makes a handy bookmark, to be found years later by your recipient as they are thumbing through their old book and recall that you were once in that wonderful place and thought of them when you were there.

Will your Love keep your e-mails in a scented box, tied with a lavender bow? 

I did not think so.

If you have a few centavos you can buy a postcard and a stamp  --  and you can borrow a pen if you have to  --  and you are in touch.  If you carry a laptop or iPhone, you are worth robbing.  If there is a cybercafe where you are, you might want to think about going a little farther on, but that’s just my opinion.

I sometimes find unused old postcards in secondhand shops or used book stores.  They are relics of an earlier age, now slipping away; a sentimental reminder of the world that once was there, that you in your mind's eye can see and all those tourists on their buses and cruise ships are unaware of.

In Rome one evening, passing over the river from the Trastevere, in a little square I had never seem before I found a lone cart selling antique postcards.  In the fading red sun in the deserted square and the tiredness of a day on foot in the city, I quite lost my head and spent an unconscionable amount: I bought fifty dollars’ worth.  But, oh, they were beautiful little things: Art Nouveau and Art Deco and World War I and biplanes and advertising and museum cards and Fascist propaganda and the war in Abyssinia and Papal Rome and watercolor scenes of the old city and the Tiber in flood and warships long-since disappeared beneath the waves.  Picture postcards from that lost world I so longed to visit.
Of course I never used any of them, as I could not imagine anyone else thinking them as wonderful as I did.  I found them the other day in a box and am of the same opinion, still.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

locomotives, in hot pursuit

I brought a history book with me and read about the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  It seems more like a several-sided civil war, with generals and armies popping up around the country, and all distressingly bloody.

One part I liked about it, though: there were at least two locomotive chases.
Forced out of office in 1911, old don Porfirio Díaz, the closest thing Mexico ever had to a president-for-life, fled over the mountains to Vera Cruz with a train-full of loot, pursued by a train-full of Rebels.  He made it to a waiting French warship and ended his days drinking champagne and bouncing chorus girls on his knee in Paris.
    A few months later, Pancho Villa, having overstayed his welcome in the capital, fled north, pulling up tracks behind him, hotly pursued by Obregón, laying tracks as he came.
I like locomotive chases.  There was a brief window of time when they were practical; now, alas, gone.

Monday, September 19, 2011

being the right sort of person

Several years ago, in the waiting room of the airport at Tuxtla Guiterrez, a handsome young woman, 30-something, struck up a conversation with me and plainly found me quite interesting.  Her obvious enthusiasm for me grew as we spoke until at last she could restrain herself no more and told me that I was the sort of man who would be just right for her widowed mother.  We were the right age and everything.   As this has happened to me on several occasions I have come to take consolation in being the sort of person who appeals to handsome young women who care about their mother’s happiness.


Post Script: At the time this happened there had been recent fighting with guerrillas and the young lady and I were sitting in a building ringed by soldiers in sandbagged machinegun positions.  But colorful as those details might be, they weren’t really part of the story and the art of story-telling lies in part in knowing what to leave out.

Friday, September 16, 2011

bandits in the forest

This story was told me by a long-time French resident of Mexico:

A party of French tourists arrived in Mexico City and rented a car, intending to drive to the top of Popocatapetl, one of the two great volcanoes overlooking the city.  They did this even though they had heard reports of bandit activity in the forest that skirted the mountain.  And knowing this, they were not surprised to encounter a police roadblock.
    The police officer was cordial and business-like as he checked their passports and inquired of their purpose.  He then asked if they had any firearms, to which they said they didn’t.
    The officer’s expression registered amazement and concern.  Did they not know that there were bandits operating in the forest?  To travel unarmed was quite out of the question.  He could not permit them to so place themselves in such danger.  Without a weapon they could go no farther.
    The French were taken aback by this turn of events, and protested that they were strangers to the country and there was no way for them to obtain arms.
    The police officer considered their dilemma and said how much he appreciated their desire to see the famous Popocatepetl, but he could not see them endanger themselves.  Another officer came to the car and there was much discussion between them in Spanish and the second officer looked at them with sympathetic concern.  Then, as if an idea had occurred to them, the tone of their conversation changed to a happy good humor and the first officer announced that their problem could be solved.  By good fortune they had an extra revolver and for only $100 U.S. the officer would sell them the pistol and they could continue on their way. 
    Needless to say, the French had not expected such a resolution, but one knew that in other countries things were done differently, so they gave the officer a hundred dollars for the revolver and, amid warm wishes of safe travel and good voyage from the smiling and waving officers, they drove away from the check point.
    Several miles up the road they came to another police check point, whose officer, cordial and business-like, made the same inquiries as the first officer had done.  When he asked if they had any weapons the French proudly responded that they did, and showed the revolver they had just purchased.  The officer was aghast.  Possessing a weapon was so illegal that he could scarcely think of words to describe it.  He confiscated the weapon and sent them on their way.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

things brought back

Frederic Church, the 19th-Century Hudson River artist, and his wife Isabel filled their home  --  itself inspired by an ancient Persian fortress-treasure house  --  with things brought back from their travels, which they assembled not according to scientific or ethnographic categories, but according to sensual and artistic considerations.  Mrs. Church, for example, was an avid collector of ferns, which she beautifully pressed, but rarely labeled.  This was consistent “with the way the Churches lived and collected all their lives: of the thousands of artifacts they returned with from the Near East, few had much actual monetary value.  Rather, ... Mrs. Church contrived to make the whole collection of curiosities look like the natural part of a comfortable, living house.”  Or so we are told in the Times Literary Supplement of Oct., 8, 2010.

Their house, Olana, sits on a hilltop off Route 9G, on the east shore of the Hudson, near the town of Catskill, and can be visited today.  A relic of a more gracious time and of life itself seen as art.

Monday, September 12, 2011

the sufficiency of memory

In Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury’s sweet, nostalgic tale of a summer in a small Midwestern town many years ago, there is the old Colonel, now frail and housebound, remembering the world he had once seen, who calls an old friend in Mexico City and asks him just to hold his phone out the window so that he can hear again the sounds of a Mexican street.  A bit over-wrought, I think, though we understand what he means.  The sad part to me was that the old Colonel’s memories weren’t enough for him.  That after a lifetime of experience he still needed to hear again the actual sounds. It was as if he were still at sea; his memories still at risk.  His children, learning of what he was doing, had his long distance service cut off, to keep the old man from wasting his money so foolishly.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

the Spanish Dollar

My last post ended, for the time being, my Oaxacan stories and I am going to start something different now, another facet of Elsewhere & Elsewhen.  I am going to open my Wunderkammer and bring out a few little things I have picked up along the way because, like someone you meet when you are traveling, they have been someplace interesting and have an interesting story to tell.

The Spanish Dollar

“In Japan a broken pot mended with gold lacquer had more value because it had lived.  Stories and objects have complex lives.”
                                      --  Edmund de Waal,  The Hare with Amber Eyes.

A thing ought have more value because it has lived.  They are comfortable and relaxed and when you have the time they can tell you a story.  I have one beside me at the moment at my desk: a Spanish Dollar, a large silver 8-Real of Carlos IIII, struck in 1792 at the mint at Mexico City, well-worn and tattooed with merchants chop marks, evidence of its long circulation in the Orient.
    The coin tells a wonderful story.  Struck at the Spanish mint at Mexico City, it would have been transported in bulk by pack train over primitive trails across the mountains to Acapulco to be put on board a Manila Galleon to cross the Pacific along the route discovered in 1565 by Andrés de Urdaneta, the Iron Friar.  (Getting to the Far East from Mexico was no problem, for the winds and currents went that way, though they also made it a one-way trip; it was fray Andrés’ cleverness to figure how to get back.) 
    At Manila or some silver-hungry trading port in China the coin was used to buy porcelain or silk or lacquerware or some other exotic oriental good.  Once in China, the coin passed from hand to hand, each merchant applying his distinctive chop to indicate that he guaranteed the coin.  From the wear on the piece and the number of chops, I would suppose it had circulated perhaps a hundred years until, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th Century, it came into the hand of a merchant seaman or sailor or some such person who brought it back in his pocket or packed in his sea chest with odds and ends of jade and ivory knick-knacks and exotic seashells and maybe something carved by a Fijiman whose grandfather might have been a cannibal, and by one or two removes it found its way into the box of a coin dealer in the port of Halifax, where I found it.
    As collectors foolishly prefer their coin without the least hint of circulation, I was able to buy the piece for not much more than its value as scrap silver.
    I like it.  It has been places.  I enjoy its company.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

precautionary magic

I think it is time to end the Oaxacan stories  --  I have a bunch more and will likely come back to them someday, but for the moment I would like to move on to other things.  But first, a bit of business.

I had been very comfortable in my apartment in the old thick-walled stables with the French doors looking down on the gardens, and had hung my clothes in the closet and spread out my books and things that now had to be packed for the return home and the place took on that sad, disordered, end-of-trip look.  Of course Poosey Gato, the cat, immediately took it all in and saw that I was just one more unreliable foreigner, and did not hide her contempt.
    My hostess, the Countess, was also, for her own reasons, preparing to return to Mexico City, or perhaps to France; her affairs were at the moment unsettled.

We were both concerned about Poosey Gato.  I left an endowment that would keep her in canned cat food for several months but the Countess was concerned that when she left the Mexican help would abuse the cat and chase it off, as they did not like cats, so she described a campaign she had been subtly pursuing.  For a number of weeks, when chatting with the Mexicans who worked around the hacienda, she had been mentioning the interesting fact that the reason Americans had so much money is that they kept cats and cats were very good luck.  Everyone knew that Americans were unreasonably fond of cats, and also seemed to have more money than they deserved, so it all made perfect sense.

And this is probably a good place to end my stories about Oaxaca.

At least for now.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Monsieur le Comte

I was surprised to discover when I arrived in Oaxaca that my friend, since I had last seen her, had become a countess.  She had done it the old-fashioned way: by marrying a count.  She wore her new estate lightly and the whole thing appeared to be some sort of charade to placate his family back in France and on the whole she treated it as just one more interesting story in her life.

Her ennoblement  --  and her husband, for that matter  --  figured not at all in our daily affairs until one morning she announced that she was to open an art exhibition sponsored by the local authorities, and would I like to go as her escort.  She was something of a local figure and apparently, there being no stray royals about, she was to be enlisted in her capacity as Madame la Condessa to provide cosmopolitan glitter to a provincial occasion.  As I do not have much opportunity to get dressed up when I am in Oaxaca, I thought it a fine idea.  She would chatter away with the luminaries and smile for the cameras and I would nod agreeably in the background and sip champagne and nibble canapés.

It was raining on the appointed night and the exhibition was in an elegant old colonial building looted from the Church.  We mingled with the great and the good and the politically well-connected until the appropriate government grandee arrived, late, whereupon the champagne was served.

While my companion was well known, people were not certain who I was, but at length many apparently concluded that, since I was with la Condessa, that I must be Monsieur le Comte making one of my rare local appearances, and so I passed the evening admiring the paintings and sipping champagne and smiling amicably as people introduced themselves and tried to talk to me in French, a language of which I am innocent.  Everyone had a fine time.  Noblesse oblige.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mexico dreaming

I think of Mexico: intoxicatingly present, pervasive, intrusive;  tangible and real.  In the Land of the Feathered Serpent the blood has scarce dried on the altars and the Conquistadores only just left, and Juarez is in the hills and Zapata is coming, but now is extravagant fiesta with bright colors and wonderful food and cold beer with lime and salt and happy, tinny music.
    And those long, cool afternoons in the library at the Grafica with its tall shelves packed with books about art and archæology and such like wonders as I do not find in el Norte
    A sweet, simple life.  I felt as if I wanted for nothing and there were treasures strewn everywhere.