Sunday, May 18, 2008

Is the party over yet? Please??!!

It is party time in La Penita! Fireworks! Every night about midnight, every morning at 4:30 a.m. on the dot (yes, that is A.M., as in 0 dark thirty), and all times in between. Tonight we were once again at Xaltemba just off the plaza, and the thundering booms and gunshot cracks made it hard to have a dinner conversation. Do our neighbors across the estero know how to party or what?

There's a reason for these fireworks and concerts. Oh yes. There are concerts. At the bull ring, the bull ring which has never seen a bullfight, but has seen lots of enthusiastic banda groups. Banda is a particularly dissonant type of music which relies mostly on drums and trumpets and great big electric amplifiers. The groups usually start around ten o'clock or so and really get rocking about midnight. As I write this in our bedroom about a half hour past midnight, ceiling fans spinning madly and air conditioner humming along, I can hear the music loud and clear. But as I was saying....

The reason for these celebrations is that little straw virgin back in the mountains. Nuestra Virgen del Rosario de Talpa. Turns out SHE is the official virgin of La Penita, and they celebrate her festival NOW, following the big holiday week that kicked off the month of May: Children's Day, Labor Day, Cinco de Mayo, Mother's Day. That was the first ten days of the month. Now we've had eight full days of Virgin festivities.
During this week there has been a huge banner across the front of the church off the central plaza welcoming her and her bishop to town. She's installed over the altar, and dear Guadalupe has been relegated to the sidelines. She's over there off to the left in the photo above, halfway hiding behind the large pink banner. The church in La Penita has to be one of the ugliest unfinished buildings in all of Mexico, but it is exuberantly adorned for these feast days, which are exuberantly celebrated. Twice this weekend we've found ourselves in the middle of all the exuberance. It was fun, but a little overwhelming.

Friday we went to dinner at Xaltemba with friends from the States. We got there just in time for a parade, up close and personal. Kids from the neighborhood dressed in these strange costumes that I'd like to know more about. They are much like the ones I saw in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, last March.

Later that night -- after obligatory fireworks -- there was a big dance on the plaza and a cockfight. (No, I didn't watch, so don't look for photos.) This amongst the vendors, tilt-a-whirl, ferris wheel and merry-go-round that have been installed there all week. And there's more of the same tonight -- which I THINK is the last hurrah. Hey it's Sunday. Someone's got to go to work sometime, right?

And someone -- namely me -- has got to go to bed. The music's stopped!!! I'm headed to the island tomorrow morning. First time to explore that big half a hairy coconut chunk of land about a mile or so off shore. Tell you all about it .....later.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Little Tiny Footprints

Hilda, our housekeeper, and her family should be back from Talpa today. As I wrote in my earlier post about our trip to Mascota, this past Tuesday, Hilda, her teenage son, her elderly mother, and husband Chano left early in the morning to drive to San Juan de Abajo, a small town north of Puerto Vallarta. From there, they were to join several thousand other pilgrims and follow the highway to a small town with big shrine dedicated to a tiny little virgin. All on foot. Three days of hiking. Footprints.

So what inspires such devotion? Hilda shared the history of the Virgin of Talpa one morning in our kitchen. She was scrubbing the stove and I was loading the dishwasher. Here's my interpretation of her account in Spanish. Obviously something might have been lost -- but more probably added -- in translation. Here goes:

Like many appearances of the Virgin, it started in a farmer's field. This particular farmer thought he'd found a child's toy, a diminutive straw figure, no more than a foot tall. He carried it home, and a few days later presented it to the daughter of a neighbor some distance away. But his first night without the small doll under his roof, he had a very vivid dream. The doll announced that she was the Virgin, Queen of Heaven, and that she belonged there, in his house. She was not to be removed. She further admonished him, that if he didn't wish her presence under his roof, he was to destroy the doll.

Waking, he of course thought “Whoa, weird dream.” But AHA! There she was, the very doll he had carried away to his neighbor's place. She had returned, leaving a trail of tiny footprints behind her right up to his front door. He stared into her face and wondered if what he had experienced the night before was indeed a dream -- or was it a bonafide vision? Hmmm, Let's see, he thought. Taking his cigarette, he placed the lit end on her cheek. And the doll began to cry. The trace of the tear is still evident on the right cheek of the image lodged above the altar in the shrine. Because, of course, a shrine was inevitable. What else is a peasant to do when the Virgin puts her foot down? Build a shrine! Build a shrine!

Forgive the tongue in my cheek. Perhaps it is the phalanx of "formidable protector" portraits -- all male of serious and heavy-browed countenance -- hanging on the walls of the church-sponsored museum just behind the shrine at Talpa that makes me raise my eyebrows with just a smidge of doubt. Here are the bishops, one after the other down the centuries, all charged with the care and keeping of the tiny little virgin. These guys have sold a lot of souvenirs and hosted a whole slew of pilgrims over the years. In fact, according to the Bruce Whipperman guidebook to Puerto Vallarta and environs, the bishop of the church at Mascota, jealous of the success of the church at Talpa, twice kidnapped the little straw virgin and installed her in his church. And twice she came running back to Talpa, leaving little tiny footprints behind her.

Have a look at the photo album I posted on Shutterfly. (To do this, move your cursor to the left column of this blog. Look under "Links to More Info about Life in Mexico -- and Me," and click on "Susan's Photo Albums." The collection of photos I took in Talpa is there, and you can bring them up as a slide show.)

What I found most fascinating in that museum were the pictures, hundreds of them, drawn with all degrees of competence. Each depicts an instance where people felt the Virgin was protecting them. They date back to the 1940's, and taken in themselves, present a rich cultural history of Mexico and the dangerous situations that the rural poor can get into. Lots of bus crashes, knife accidents, and slips of the machete, as well as a fair share of bad guys lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting farmers staggering home from cantinas. There are "Thanks to the Virgin" (TTTV's, I've called them) for saving people from disease, death, and temptations of all sorts. Signs indicated that the examples posted represent hundreds more in storage.

Now it's not that I disbelieve in divine aid. Not at all. I've had too much in my own life to doubt that when a longing heart asks for help, there’s an answer. And I believe that that help comes in the particular form each individual is ready to recognize and accept. Expect the Virgin. You get the Virgin.

My quibble – and therefore doubting eyebrows -- is about the original story where the Virgin appears to a peasant. And there are several versions and several virgins across Mexico. Who actually documented those stories? Why have they endured? How is it that it these stories continue to inspire and transform people? What is it that seems to make them grow in influence rather than wane?

After asking these questions, I realize that whether or not the stories are true or not, isn’t the real issue. A story, true or false, continues to be told because it is needed. The most factual, well-balanced story of something that actuallyreallytrulyhappened will eventually fade from collective memory -- if there’s no need to retell it.

But who is it that needs these virgin appearance stories?

First of all, it just seems very convenient that virgin appearances to native people in Mexico seem designed to establish organized and orthodox Christianity (read, Roman Church and Spanish Government) smack dab on top of indigenous religious practices. It was on the hill of Tepeyac near present day Mexico City that the Virgin now named Guadalupe appeared to the Indian peasant farmer Juan Diego. This is the Virgin of Guadalupe often referred to now as "Goddess of the Americas." Tepeyac was the hill where the pre-Columbian goddess of Mesoamerica was worshipped in a number of forms. Some of them.....

Tonantzín -- mother goddess and lunar deity
Tlaltecuhtli -- goddess torn in two by rival gods, half her body thrown skywards to create the stars, the other half left behind to create the earth.
Cihuacoatl -- fierce skull-faced old woman, keeper of snakes, who carries the shield and arrows of a warrior.

Pagan goddesses, displaced, but not forgotten.

How convenient that so soon after the conquest, Juan Diego's dark-skinned Guadalupe should arrive on the scene, advising (in the nahuatl language, no less) that Indians should convert to the religion of their pale-faced conquerors, and, Oh yes. Build a shrine. Make it a big one.

Likewise, the Virgin of Zapopán appeared at a critical juncture in the struggle between Spanish soldiers and the native population around Guadalajara. She convinced the soon-to-be-conquered to lay down their arms and accept Christianity. The shrine built to her -- one of the three "miracle shrines" of Mexico -- is the one where my dentist's assistant slacked off -- walking on her knees only from the church entry to the altar, rather than doing it clear across the city.

Why are these virgin appearance stories needed and retold? Who told them in the first place? Who is telling them now?

Seeking aid or answers from a power beyond ourselves is a practice as old as human life on the planet. We've been doing it since learning to walk upright. The ancient of ancients attributed that help to a feminine source, drawing parallels from the human pattern they saw every day. It was Mom who fed and clothed, comforted and caressed, righted wrongs and sent bad little children to the “time out” corner of the teepee. Dad was out slaying beasts, bringing home bacon, backslapping and bonding, giving high fives to the rest of the guys. Dad was tired when he got back.

And so it was, across the globe, that Great Cosmic Mother morphed into a pantheon of female images and icons, each with particular offices that mirrored the duties of earth mothers everywhere. And it was these images and icons that were eventually deemed "pagan" by societies evolving -- or perhaps devolving -- into the ethos of ownership and hierarchies. Hunter-gatherers started farming and fencing, taking possession of the earth instead of belonging to it. And down the centuries --

Ta dah! Enter tribalistic Jehovah worship. Enter the Church of Rome. Enter Taliban thinking in all its gory glory. God got macho. Exit Great Cosmic Mother, stage right.

Well maybe. Sort of. I’ve noticed something about the gentle people I meet around here, and perhaps it's true of people close to the earth as a rule. Except when they’re driving, they will do almost anything to avoid confrontation. I see what people put up with around here and think it’s a wonder Mexico ever had a revolution. Accommodation, compromise, say what makes the gueros happy. Smile. But under it all...... footprints.

It was several years ago I spent a week in Morelia and visited the historical museum there. Lots and lots of little clay fertility goddess images were on display. The guide said the Indians used to plant them along with their seed corn. This blatantly pagan practice was forbidden by the conquering Spanish, who proceeded to put the best Indian craftsmen to work fashioning images of the Virgin instead. These were installed in the churches going up all over Mexico. It was hard work, but Indians have strong backs. Soon the Queen of Heaven reigned over rural congregations across the country.

Images of the Virgin were sacrosanct, treated with great care, venerated at the altar, hauled out on feast days and paraded through the streets. But one feast day in Morelia the bearers failed. They stumbled, and the huge platform on their shoulders went tumbling. The image of the Virgin shattered in the street. And, like a giant piñata, things fell out of her. Clay things. Little goddess images doing ….. ahem …. fertility things. Now where did those come from? Who could have put them there?

Little tiny footprints. We know the story. And here I've retold it yet once more. But whose little footprints are those, really?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dealing with traffic -- and wheeled stuff

I spoke too soon. Guayabitos looked lazy and deserted. I totally forgot that we were entering one of the biggest clump of holidays that Mexico celebrates -- a combination of Children's Day (April 30), Labor Day (May 3), Cinco de Mayo (which really isn't that big a deal down here, but a good excuse to party), and Mother's Day (May 10). Whew! A whole week worth of celebrations. The place is packed! Buses and buses and buses on that snakey little road, while insane people with flashy SUVs stitch in and out between them. And HONKING big trucks that crawl up the hills and gather unimaginable speed over the crest. The safest thing to do is get behind something huge, stay there, and let it run interference for you. I really don't mind going slow. It gives me a chance to read the inscriptions on all the little crosses and shrines beside the road. There seem to be a lot of them.

That's just the highway. In town there is a popular sport we've named competitive left hand turning. Games break out spontaneously, and they're just SO much fun. It goes like this. You are first in line in a left turn lane, (going onto the highway, coming off it, it really doesn't matter). Do not believe for a second that you have a corner on making that turn without company. There's the guy to your right in the straight ahead lane who really doesn't have time to get in line behind all you suckers in the left turn lane, but doesn't think a thing about holding up all the straight ahead traffic waiting behind him. After all, he has about fifteen people in the bed of his pickup truck, and numbers should count for something, right? Then there are the kids on the bicycles and motorcycles straddling the faint white line between you and the guy in the pickup. Usually there's a girl on the back of one with an interesting tatoo across where her jeans should be but aren't. That can be a tad distracting. AND then there's the guy to your left -- YES! to your left -- headed the same direction as you, only into oncoming traffic. He smiles and shrugs as if to say Well, why not? Those people across the intersection aren't actually using these lanes until the light turns green. And if it does turn green before he gets turned, they can always go around.

Let's be clear on this. CLHT is definitely not a team sport. It's every driver for himself.

As I write this, my main driver and all time Guaybitos Left Hand Turning Champ is in Washington State. We are reregistering all our various wheeled things, also known as Larry's toys. Some of you are interested in this, so I will elaborate. (I myself would skip straight to the Virgin of Talpa stuff in the next post, but each to his own). To recap -- Larry traded his much loved Fat Boy Harley, which we left in California with a "For Sale" sign on it, for a jeep. He did that sight unseen over the internet with the help of a lot of friends. Then he had Harley withdrawal symptoms and started to hyperventilate. At last, a "deal" was found in Texas. Some kind of classic Harley wonder bike that we picked up last year. (I just remember we went with the guy to pay off the loan he had on it. We went to the Happy State Bank, which still gives me a kick thinking about the name. I had a boss one time who refused to be on the board of a new bank until they changed its name. A group of West Texas movers and shakers were planning on building it near the airport, and with a blind eye to irony tried to charter it as Terminal State.)

But I digress. The new/old/totally classic and wonderful Harley is in a storage unit in San Antonio waiting for Larry to whirl through the Midwest this summer with an old high school friend and eventually bring it home to Mexico in September. It is a 1998, and there's some kind of red tape provision that this year in Mexico foreign vehicles built in 1998 can be "regularized," that is, get Mexican plates, with minimal outlay of paperwork and pesos. This would be a HUGE plus, as Harleys are like gold down here. Maybe it has something to do with competitive left hand turning. we also have a trailer to put said Harley in....another deal....more help from friends. The trailer is parked at their house outside of San Antonio. So that makes three scattered wheeley things to keep track of. Plus Hummercita down here, still wearing its LOVDSEA California vanity plates. Pricey plates. Someone has to pay for all that pretty iceplant on the freeway medians out there, but since we're no longer residents, we went looking for the state which would give us the best deal -- taking into account not only price of registration, but also price of insurance, and how often you have to show up and have something inspected. We also needed a place in Washington to call "home." Since I had a photo of my sister Amy's back yard vista out over the Hood Canal and up to the Cascades as my screen saver for about four years, I feel like that could be home. And she "gets" this absentee stuff. She and John were in Thailand for seven years, but "officially" they lived in Texas. And the lady at the DMV in WA said OK with her. At any rate, we are now official Washingtonians. It's cheap. All told the fees on four vehicles -- including title transfers and sales tax on the trailer -- came to less than half what it costs to register Hummercita for one year in CA. But it definitely wasn't easy.

Well, maybe easier than competitive left hand turning, but not half as entertaining.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Introducing Rumer Godden -- She would be at home in Mexico

I've finally got "Blogger" up, just as I hear the six in the morning clang clang clang of the bell at the fishing village across the estero. It's taken almost thirty minutes to get through all the "updates" and assorted obstacles (in Spanish and in English, mind you) that impede the booting up process. Rumer Godden never had problems like this. She's my favorite British author and I've been reading her memoirs -- again. The volume I'm reading now, A House With Four Rooms, covers 1945 - 1977. She talks of getting handwritten manuscripts to competent secretaries who type them up on sturdy manual machines, not even electric. Maybe that's what my creative process needs -- less technology.

My mother-in-law Chloe and I shared a passion for Rumer Godden's books. (I can't just use her last name, as her sister Jon also wrote. Jon's books are terrifying, psychologically scary fiction that makes Stephen King look like a bumbling over-obvious oaf. I can't say I love Jon's novels, but they have stayed with me for years after reading them.) Like Chloe, Rumer left the earthly scene before email really caught on. It's hard to imagine either of them using it. Both were more sit-at-a-desk-in-a-morning-room-loved-fountain-pen-in-hand type ladies. I could never miss by giving Chloe pretty stationary for whatever occasion. She used it constantly, and some of my best mementos of her are notes she wrote, to me and to others. My favorite: "I just love Susan, Son. You're right. This is the one." It's been a bookmark of mine for years.

I've been re-making Rumer's acquaintance during these hot in the light, cool at night days as we slow down and come into summer. Do you know her? She died in 1998 at the age of 90, after having written around 60 books, the last published in 1996. Many of them were made into films -- Black Narcissus, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, In This House of Brede, Greengage Summer, and the classic Jean Renoir-directed The River. Her novels all have a strong sense of place, no matter where the setting. There are many: a Greek Island, a small country French hotel, a monastery in the Himalayas, a villa on Lake Garda, a mews house in the middle of London.

But the ones I've been most entranced with are the ones set in India where she spent so much of her youth and young married life. She writes of hot sun, tiled floors, brilliant flora, dangerous fauna, polluted rivers and sparkling sea, market smells, dust, tropical health hazards, indigenous religious practices. Long quiet afternoons when no one stirs. It could be Mexico. Here. Now.

Because the vacancy signs are out now in gaudy little Guayabitos. There's a suspension of activity that coincides with the retreat of shadows. The beaches are deserted. Doorways are open but empty. Even the pelicans are quiet in midday, standing impervious to the sun on the tiny little sand-islet in the estero behind our house.

The sand bar beyond is still intact and blocks the river's exit to the bay. It will take a raging summer storm -- or man's machine -- to make the breach. PROFEPA, the Mexican equivalent of the EPA, is not eager for this to happen. While the water of the estero looks beautiful, no one in their right mind would venture to swim there. The sewage treatment plant upstream is for all practical purposes, non-functioning. That water -- green, silent, inviting -- is deadly.

But for now the beach and the bay are safe, pollutants held captive by a strip of sand a few meters wide. Early morning, depending on the tide, the fishermen launch from the village, gun their boats and make it almost across. Scraping hull. Scrunchy stop. Shouts, shouts, shouts as all jump out and push, push, push into the salt water waves beyond. Once more the engine revs, the craft escapes. The pelicans, wheeling and squealing encouragement from above, settle once more on the round patch of sand they abandoned in an upward rush moments before. They stand now, circled like awkward feathered sentries caught off guard, shifting webbed foot to foot in the heavy hot air, barely a ripple breaking around them.

The evenings are more animated. White egrets bank around the river curve, skim the surface in flights of three, six, then ten, twenty, thirty, more, settling with great flapping of wings and noisy negotiations in the tree on the large island in the river behind us. We listen to them from the verandah. "You're on my branch! No mine, mine!" Their immense number is doubled by reflection in the water. They'll stay through the night if something doesn't disturb them. Last week at almost midnight, I lay floating on my back in the swimming pool, eyes closed, breathing and listening in the dark. A sudden noise and I looked upwards. Great white stars swirled madly overhead. Had the earth sped its orbit??!! The stars were so stable, stuck like jewels on black velvet when I'd first closed my eyes. No. It was egrets, startled from their perches revolving round and around, upward and outward in great circles, their great white wings reflecting light from the street lamps below. If they were squawking the wind carried their protests above and beyond my hearing. All was eerily silent. Except for .... laughter. Snickers floated across the dark water. Young men. Rocks. I pulled a towel around me and headed back upstairs.

This week we've been lighting candles on the verandah after the sun goes down, turning on the fans, and feasting on the results of a cooking binge I went through last weekend. We've been grazing in good company. Monday it was old friends Victor and Linda (there's a link to her blog on this site) meeting new friends Agnetha and Ezra -- the mother and son who will be renting our house for three months this summer while Larry and I wander around the States. My instincts were right. Victor and Agnetha share the same metaphysical wave length. The rest of us bobbed and drifted in their wake. Tuesday it was new friend Ann and her ex-husband but still good friend Elias, a giant cherub of a man who makes films about his native Mexico. There was also Juan, another film maker who is making a television series about the coast of Nayarit. And Roberto and Eddie, new friends I've known forever, ready to take the summer off and plan for next year's events at Xaltemba. Shades of the last ten years! I'm going to be curating a month of women's history events for them in March! Last night there was talk of movies and art and books. Elias, to his surprise, was a Rumer Godden fan, though he didn't know it. He knew the films. So did Juan. And Roberto had just been introduced through the short book, The River.

But Lucy is gone -- off for a week in Mexico City with her departing-back-to-England friend Selena. Selena looks like a twenty-something Iman, and for the past two and half months she brought a welcome bit of exotic glamour to our neck of the jungle. Half Sri-Lankan, she could easily have stepped out of a Godden novel. Besides that, she was sweet and genuine -- exactly what you'd expect Lucy's best friend to be. Lucy, when she returns, may be moving into the bedroom/study upstairs on the roof. We are, after all, her "official" address in Mexico. It will be nice to have her close -- watching the birds, swinging in the hammock, gazing at the stars. I'll bet she knows who Rumer Godden is. If not, I'll introduce her.