Thursday, June 18, 2009

Catching up before signing off

First and most important -- Larry has his life back! He drove into Puerto Vallarta on his motorcycle this past Tuesday for check up appointments with those who were involved with all that surgery he had about a month ago. Everyone very happy. And I might mention that he made that drive on the motorcycle after four days full of activity: a kayak paddle to the island and back, two several-hour surf sessions in waves with nine foot faces, and on the fourth day, he and a friend dropped the transmission in our jeep to insert two "indispensible" bolts that the people in the auto repair shop in Lubbock failed to put back last August. Can't believe he drove that thing all the way down here. "Hmmm," he says. "I was wondering what that rattle was." But anyway, he's b-a-a-a-ck. And making me feel like a slug.

So while he was in Puerto Vallarta doing the check up thing, I went with friend Ann and her friend Paul to Tepic and sat in Samantha Bejar's office for two and a half hours. We weren't going to leave until the job was done. Samantha is the attorney that so many people down here have used for their real estate transactions, a busy mom, a competent attorney -- just a little lax on follow up details. Sigh. I'm afraid I can relate. But then, I'm not getting paid for following up on details. (This is a special note to our new CPA in Ajijic -- Marian, I will answer your tax questions. Promise, promise, promise. I hate that stuff!)

I know, I know, swallow a frog first thing every morning and get it out of the way. Well, it's Mexico. Isn't a frog once a week good enough? I swallowed a big one in Tepic. So did Ann. We both feel better for having done it. Ann bought her house from her friend Paul, and they have had unresolved issues with paper work for three years. It wasn't a big deal between the two of them, but now Ann has resold the house and she's HAD to get those issues cleared up so she can get her money. As far as Larry and I are concerned, when we went to pay our bank trust fee this year, a sharp-eyed clerk noticed that the trust had never been transferred to our name! Sure the property was in our name, according to the documents, and we have been paying the yearly fee, but officially, the trust is still in the name of the previous owners. Paperwork never received from the attorney. As Pooh Bear says, "Oh, Bother." Well, we've got the paperwork NOW, and I'll hand carry it into Bancomer tomorrow morning, along with Paul and Ann when we go to PV for the weekend. Frog swallowing accomplished!

Now comes the good part --

Reason for going to Vallarta: A FREE CONCERT ON THE MALECON!!!! Alejandro Fernandez and 20 other singers are giving two huge concerts over the next two weekends, one here on the coast, and the other in Guadalajara, to give a boost to Mexican tourism. Some of the other singers are Enrique Iglesias, Paula Rubino, and Gloria Estefan, though no one is sure who is showing up where. But the music starts at 8 on Saturday night and ends at one in the morning. A group of us have reservations in a restaurant overlooking the place where it's going to be held, and Roberto has borrowed a condo from a friend in Conchas Chinas, so we don't have to be out on the road late at night. Hooray! Viva Mexico!

And VIVA la lluvia! At last we had rain. Blessed and blessing big fat drops that have cooled the air, washed the dust off, and tempered the rays of the sun. Glorious wonderful rain!

Did I mention I'm signing off here? Ah, yes. It's in the title. I think it's time to officially move to Virgin Territory, the blog I've begun to support my book of the same name. It was getting responses from faithful readers of Now, Voyager -- Once More saying, "You should write a book," that planted the idea of writing the book in the first place. The manuscript is not yet complete, but it has an eight chapter start, I know what goes in the next four, and I know how it ends. Now all I have to do is write it! My goal is to have a completed working document by the time I turn 60. That's July 21, only weeks away. If I keep saying that publically, I'll have people holding my feet to the fire. That's YOUR job!

"Platform is everything," say those in-the-know in the publishing world. Well YOU are an integral plank in my platform, if you follow this blog. I'm so grateful for your comments and encouragement. Please keep at it. But let's just move over a notch and give ourselves an official name. From now on, I'll be posting on Virgin Territory. Come join me there!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Hanging Out on Sunday

Larry was watching NASCAR last Sunday (what else is new?) so my friend Lin and I ran away to check out Chac Mool's new location near the beach in Chacala. We were two very happy cappuchino sippers. Not a lot going on, just hanging out and being happy. I've been working steadily on Virgin Territory, and finally seeing it come together. I know where the holes are to fill in.

Nose to the keyboard,
sweat on the brow,
I'll blog now and then,
but more "sometime" than now.
Good thing it's not going to be a poetry book, right?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Being There

Anyone who spends longer than a week or two vacation in Mexico knows that it's not what you do with your time that's important, it's who you do it with. Connecting with people is what is most important in this country, being there, definitely, for life's big events, but even more important, being present for the small daily stuff that ultimately determines the quality of human life. The guy who shows up each morning to sweep the main plaza in La Penita, Oscar who comes regularly to service the pool and water the plants, Josefina and Marta who arrive like clockwork to mop the floors and keep the cobwebs and dust under control, the man who runs out with the dolly to help the fishing boats over the sandbar into the ocean -- every last one is needed, and if they don't show up, they're missed.

"No one will miss me," is not an acceptable excuse for missing one of life's big events, either. Even if wedding receptions appear to be little more than "sitting around," you can bet that if you're not there, notice will be taken. Far from being a social pressure thing, there's something precious in the importance imputed to each individual. It's nice to know you're valued, an essential part of the social fabric, and there would be a hole if you weren't there. A party at Thomas Bartlett's Hacienda La Penita a few weeks ago is a good example.

The occasion was wishing a friend Godspeed on a healing journey -- to let her know we loved and supported her through the challenge she's facing. A large group gathered under the palm trees, shared pot luck finger food, and circled together for prayers and affirmations for our friend. But most of all, we just "sat around."
The important thing for our friend was for us to be there.

On a more mundane level, a group of us needing an excuse to get out of the house on a regular basis, have started meeting for breakfast Tuesday mornings at La Casita, a local restaurant in La Penita. When the weather gets hot, I for one tend to go into hermit mode. It's good to emerge and make contact with real live people from time to time.

La Casita is run by recently-divorced Irma and her daughter Ceci, and our morning gatherings offer a good opportunity to support these women in their new enterprise. They're always surrounded by brothers, grandchildren, and other family members who drop by.
Irma's ex-husband got the restaurant they used to run together. It was situated in a prominent location at the end of the main avenue right next to the market place. It did a bang up business and was always crowded. Irma's new place is out of the way on a side street. You have to know where it is to find it, but it's slowly being discovered. It's worth the hunt! The standard breakfast of two eggs, beans, tortillas, bacon (or ham or "winis") is 25 pesos. A tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice will set you back another 15 pesos. But I've grown very fond of an avocado sandwich on whole wheat that's not on the menu. They make it up specially. I told Ceci last week they HAD to start charging more than 15 pesos for that sandwich, especially when they add bacon to it. She was protesting the size of the tip the five of us had left, which basically equalled the amount of the whole check. But we want these women to stay in business! We want them to be there.

Besides, you never can tell who will drop in to La Casita for breakfast. This morning there was a Green Angel.
These are the guys who are dedicated to helping distressed motorists on the highways and toll roads all over Mexico. They aren't volunteers; the program is federally funded. They carry water, motor oil, extra gasoline, jumper cables, and all are trained for medical emergencies. The service is free, aside from the cost of oil and gas the traveller may need to replenish his vehicle. Tips are probably welcome, but always optional. Those of us at breakfast agreed, Los Angeles Verdes are just one more example of a society where watching out for each other gets a high priority, where being there is the most important thing of all.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chocolate? Aaaaah....CHOCOLATE! And coffee, too!

I'm escaping from a hot kitchen for a few minutes and coming into my hermetically sealed office to enjoy the A/C. Thought I'd share with you what I've been doing "out there." I've been playing with chocolate. (This would be the place for a great big emoticon happy face.) Oh, what the heck? :-))))))))

I have been guilty, as most gringos have been, to responding to friends' inquiries of "What can we bring you?" with a vociferous, "CHOCOLATE!!! GOOD CHOCOLATE." It has always been a matter of consternation to me WHY in the country (even before it was a country) which gave chocolate to the Old World it seems impossible to find a decent chocolate bar. There doesn't seem to be even anything on a par with a Hershey's kiss, which is setting the bar pretty darn low. I have hovered lovingly over gifts of San Francisco Ghirardelli's squares, Suchard and Frigor bars from Switzerland, and bags of Dove kisses purchased on sale at Walgreen's in Lubbock. If I exercise self-restraint, I'm faced with the dilemma of storage -- too cold in the fridge and freezer, but getting way too warm to leave them out in the tropics. What's a chocolate lover to do without a local source to satisfy that dark-tinged hunger?

And then I had chocolate fondue at my friend, Karen's, across the estero.

"WHERE did you get this chocolate?" I asked, dunking my second piece of fresh pineapple in a deep dark puddle of almost black chocolate laced with cinnamon, vanilla and almond flavors. It clung to the fruit with just the right consistency. There were also strawberries on the plate, and they were going even faster than the pineapple, but chocolate tends to run off round things, where if you've got a flat surface you can sort of pile it up and get more on.

"At the grocery in town," she answers. "It's those tablets you get in the cardboard cartons, you know the cylindrical ones -- Abuelita, Ibarra, Don Somebody. I just stick them in the microwave with a little cream and stir. That's it."

THAT'S IT??? That's all that's required to reach Nirvana??? When did life get so simple? Those tablets -- and I've seen them for ages in grocery stores in the States -- have always been a mystery to me. Right on the label it says, "chocolate for the table." Hard as a table, I've thought. About three inches in diameter and half an inch thick, they're sectioned into pie shapes. Try breaking them in pieces and they shatter. Bite one, you're liable to break your teeth. You probably wouldn't be inclined to bite one, as the tablets are riddled with sugar crystals and other stuff that looks gritty and inedible. This is a product lacking all the charms of chocolate -- until you MELT it. Ahhhh! Then it gets magical.

There are no paraffin or preservatives in this chocolate. Put some chunks in a teacup with a little water and nuke it for under a minute. It's rich enough you can make cocoa with water or milk. Add Maizena (basically cornstarch), boil some more and it thickens into champurado -- what Mexicans think of when they think hot chocolate, but is more like hot chocolate pudding for us gringos.

Just melted with a little liquid provides you a fudgy paste for scooping up and eating with a spoon. You can drop it in your hot coffee, or add it to smoothies and ice cream. For the last week or so, I've been in search of duplicating George's coffee-shop-in-Guayabitos mochachinno, since he closes from 2-6 every afternoon...and that's when I NEED a mochachinno!!! I'm getting close now, with this chocolate mixture.
I brew cafe de la olla and store it in the fridge. I freeze milk in ice cube trays. When the urge strikes, I pour the cold coffee in the blender, add a scoop of the fudgy chocolate stuff, and dump some milky ice cubes in there. Hit the button and varooom! We are very happy campers indeed. Every recipe needs adjustment for personal tastes, however. And that's what I've been doing in the kitchen this morning. Playing with chocolate and coffee. Hey, I'm good to go....and go....and go.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Support for Mexico - Amazing Race

Here's an email I received today. Thought it worth posting here and getting the word out.

Hi; unless you've been living under a rock, you know Mexico needs a tourism boost. In PV, alone, hotels are down 90%, we all know friends and neighbors who are struggling to stay employed or keep their businesses going. So Mexico has a chance to be chosen as a site for Amazing Race on TV which would bring a much needed positive PR shot in the arm to this country.

Go directly to the Amazing Race site and vote:

Non-Spanish speakers - When you get to the Amazing Race sight, it's in Spanish - just look for where it says "Encuesta" (survey), vote for Mexico , then click "Votar"...easy!
Send this to everyone you know who is a fan of Mexico and let's help get Mexico back on it's feet!!!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lucy in the Streets with Dancing

For those of you who have followed this blog, you've heard about Lucy. Maybe you've even met our young British writer friend who has compiled a group of minimalist stories about her life in the funky beach towns of Guayabitos and La Penita. Now you can see her, courtesy of Xaltemba.TV, the creation of our film-maker friend Juan Gonzalez, who was inspired to start putting some of these little stories on tape. Follow this link to get the first taste. Set against the real backdrop of Semana Santa and the spontaneous revelry that takes place in our streets, Lucy meets and dances with a mysterious stranger....who looks a LOT like Sergio the waiter from Xaltemba Restaurant and Gallery! (And surprise! has this video featured on its homepage! Lucy, you're a star!!!!)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

SOMEBODY needs to spend money in Puerto Vallarta

So we did. Not exactly a weekend at the Westin, but we left the economy considerably pumped up after three nights in San Javier de Marina Hospital. Kidney stones. Larry. You really don't want to know the details. Suffice it to say we're back home again, the stones are pretty much gone or going, and he's looking forward to having his life back. For people in Puerto Vallarta, it's going to be a bit longer. Caught between very diligent goverment efforts and horrific foreign press, tourist activity-- almost any activity -- has come to a screeching halt.

It's been two weeks since a cruise ship has docked. It's strange to see the marina without at least one floating city at anchor in the harbor. Usually there are two or three. Every car coming into the city is stopped for inspection. We were when we came in Friday. The guy in uniform was appeased when I said we were headed for a hospital. Then he asked me what the English word for tos was, illustrating his meaning by imitating a cough. If you don't look healthy, or have even a little tos, you are turned back to where you came from.

As we came into town, we saw lines of yellow cabs sidelined along Avenida Francisco Medina Ascensio, the long main thoroughfare that leads into town, waiting for non-existent fares. Hotels are experiencing their lowest occupancy rates ever. Most airlines have cancelled all but one flight a day. Westjet has suspended their flights altogether. Bars, movies and nightclubs have shut down completely. Restaurants might as well be closed. On Saturday afternoon I took a break for a couple of hours and visited my friend Char. She had gone to Vitea's for breakfast/brunch earlier by herself at 11:30. It's a popular bistro, oceanfront on the malecon. An easy place for meeting friends, it's usually crowded, especially on weekends, even during the hot summer months. She was their FIRST customer of the day, and the ONLY customer during her whole meal. As if she were personally responsible for the solvency of her favorite restaurant, she ordered a huge meal and left a ginormous tip.

Char's condo is in a building just off the malecon, opposite the ladder statue. When I drove to her place, I was able to park right around the corner from her entrance-- a feat unheard of on any normal day. But at least she's been able to sleep at night, with Senor Frog's, Hilo, and performances at the Arches all closed and cancelled. Even though Char was full to the gills, we stepped catty-corner across the street to Maria Gallo, where I got the one full meal I enjoyed the whole time I was in PV. Comida corrida -- or plat du jour if you were in France. It was an agua fresca, soup or salad and choice of plato fuerte, all for 55 pesos. Char wrapped hers up and took it home. I scraped every delicious bite off the plate.

As in the States, when the going gets tough, the tough go to Walmart. I headed there before going back to the hospital. I think this was the busiest place in town! Why not? It's cheap and it's air conditioned. The staff there were all wearing masks. The busiest personnel were those using squirt bottles to sanitize the handle of each shopping cart as it was returned, and then once again before offering it to a new customer. I suppose this would be an ideal time for masked bandits to pull off a job....but I haven't heard of any. Believe me, nothing exciting is happening in PV right now.

Things will change. They always do. Business will pick up again, tourists will return. The first ones back will be welcomed with open arms and phenomenal deals. Think about coming down and shoring up the economy of a country that's been really hard hit from bad press and caution. Puerto Vallarta has so much to offer -- and you're sure to have a better time than we did whereever you stay!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Huichol Bead Work

(Double-click on the image above to get a really detailed view of the work.)

I spent several hours this morning with Eduardo, a Huichol Indian from the village of San Andrés high in the Sierra Madre northwest of Tepic. The only way to get to the village besides a very long hike is by air. Eduardo spends the tourist season down in our area selling his beadwork at the Thursday market (which is now cancelled because of swine flu fears) and on the beach near the all-inclusive Los Cocos resort at the far end of Guayabitos. He is getting ready to return to his village for the summer months (much cooler up there!).

He was not happy to return without fulfilling a promise to a friend of his – to sell a piece of artwork she had created, and which would provide the major source of funds for her family this year. She is one of the elders of the tribe, and was one of the first to begin using the colored beads about twenty five years ago. Prior to that, Huichol beadwork was done in earth tones.This kind of beadwork is not sewn, but the little glass beads are embedded in a beeswax surface one at a time. There is no space left between the beads. This particular work took her two months to complete.

It is of a size and value that is beyond the budgets of most of our local tourists, especially this year. She was asking the equivalent of about $350 U.S. dollars. I told Eduardo I would take it to a party we're going to tomorrow, and try to sell it for him there, but I would need to know something about what the picture meant. "It's the story that will sell it," I told him, and this is the explanation he provided as we sat in my kitchen this morning.

In the center we see a ceremonial house which is where all the rituals and prayers take place and are participated in by the jicareros. These are like priests, and the marakame or chaman is like the high priest. Directly below the house, looking like he's carrying a chain saw, we see the marakame who is in charge of ordering the deer hunt for the ceremony.

In order to have a ceremony, Eduardo told me, it's always necessary to have a deer present. "A live deer?" I ask. "No," he says, looking at me like I'm a little slow. "We kill them. All that's necessary to have is the head of the deer." The deer is always "invited" to be present this way because each Huichol considers the deer as his or her older brother. "Interesting way to deal with sibling rivalry," I think. Anyway, for this reason we see to the right of the ceremonial house several invited older brothers who probably have no idea what's in store for them.

The picture seemed to me to be divided not only in three tiers, but in two distinct halves, the left half being feminine, and the right masculine. Eduardo agreed that this was the way it was meant to be. So to the left of the house balancing out the older brothers, we see the corn girls. According to Huichol legend, one of the beautiful daughters of the goddess (who is kneeling just to the right of the six girls) was carried off by a man and installed in his house. When he returned to "claim" her, all he found was a corn plant which grew and flourished. So legend has it that all her daughters were converted to corn plants, which would be a way of not only protecting them, but turning them into objects of reverence. They are depicted in the six colors of corn: yellow, white, blue, purple, brown and pink.

What this picture really deals with, says Eduardo, is the time when the world was lost and covered with water. On the right hand we see the canoe with the man who saved all the animals. "Noah?" I ask. "He could be." "Is this a story the Huichol got from the Bible?" "Well, who knows?" Eduardo shrugs.

(The Huichols and the Kora, which are the indigenous tribes of Nayarit, never were converted to Christianity, and their ferocity in resisting the Spaniards caused the Spanish conquerors to move the capital of "Nueva Galicia" away from Compostela to Guadalajara. And so our adopted home state has remained a remote Mexican backwater for centuries.)

On the left is the woman responsible for the flood. Yes, a woman -- Takutsi Nakawe who is the goddess of rain and water. That's also her in the upper left hand corner taking care of the corn, with her own little "canoe" filled with animals. Just to the right of center on the upper tier is another marakame bringing Takutsi Nakawe an offering of corn from the field behind him.

Having the story definitely made the difference. Right after Eduardo left, I got a visit from one of our neighbors. They bought it! Happy ending and I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the Huichols and their legends.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Looks like Palm Desert....but it's Guadalajara!

I've posted a few pictures of where Agneta and I stayed in Guadalajara during Semana Santa. They're in one of the photo albums you can reach by clicking "Susan's Photo Albums" over there on the side bar. Or you can click here. It was a lovely week's get away!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What do you call a surfboard stuck on a wall?

ART! Last Thursday saw the opening of "Endless Summer: The Art of Surfboard Shaping" -- complete with professional hula dancers and a personal appearance by premier shaper and humble hubby of mine, Larry "Cobbo" Cobb. I wasn't there for the big event (off to Guadalajara for a week) but I took some photos just after the exhibit was hung.

Those of you from the Sano crew (that's San Onofre, CA) will recognize prints of Fred Hope's watercolors and the oil painting "Circle of Friends" of his that Cobbo gave me for Christmas a few years back.
There are also photos of the master shaper at work and on the waves,
as well as that long, long drawing "Friends of the Three Wisemen."
And then there were also the boards. Standing in corners
And hanging from the ceiling over the bar.
It was a fun event, and brought in some of the tourists that were here for Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter. Ah, well. A great way to end the season for Xaltemba Gallery and Restaurant, one of the nicest places to gather here on Jaltemba Bay.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Washing a Chicken

In economic melt-down times when everything seems out of control, it can be a relief to focus on daily details that make a difference in the quality of life. Like this guy attending to the personal hygiene of his chicken. Cleanliness is next to godliness, right? In La Colonia, it's also next to the highway.
Lots of good bye events, "last time" for whatever-s, and fond farewells these days. Gringos headed north, even though I hear there's still snow on the ground where a lot of these people are headed. I made some very good friends of some incredibly interesting people this last season. La Penita has become a place for writers, artists and creative types from the frozen latitudes to come down, thaw out and live cheaply over the winter. My friend Lupita and her husband Angus (yes, he's from Scotland) bought a bungalow hotel (kitchens included in each room). The tall wall that surrounds it hides a sweet little swimming pool, palapa-covered patio, and about eight small units. Renters pay one hundred pesos a night for pretty basic but extremely clean and more than adequate accomodations. Perfect for, to take one example, my new friend Becky who lives most of the year in a yurt in northern Idaho. Check out her book.
Today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Semana Santa when most of Guadalajara comes to Rincon de Guayabitos to enjoy the beaches. I for one am headed to Guadalajara with a friend to enjoy five days of quiet. If there's internet I'll blog. Then I can tell you about our sailing trip on a 43 foot catamaran last Sunday, the exhibition at Xaltemba featuring surfboards as art -- all shaped by Cobbo. And -- just got a call from travelling companion. Her meeting this morning has been cancelled! She's going to be ready to go four hours early! Yikes. Adios! Hasta the next time.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Coming soon -- Poolside Yoga in Guayabitos!

Swaying palms, fishing boats and lots of early morning bird sounds. Ah, yes. And there's also Agneta. Now you can join the early morning yoga stretch sessions for beginners to intermediates that we've been having this season down on our pool deck. We'll have our last time together tomorrow morning before most everyone leaves for the season. But before Agneta heads north, we got it all on tape. The DVD's should be available soon, so look for a link. I'll keep you posted! (And no, that's not me holding the cue cards. I'm taking the picture!)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More to Mexico than you can imagine

My mom tells me her friends constantly ask her, "Are Larry and Susan still down there? How about all that violence?" In response, let me share this link. There is a LOT going on down here that you never hear about in the States.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Virgin Territory -- Introduction

Hooray! Two of my paintings have sold! The Face in the Crowd at Chichicastenango remains on display at Xaltemba, and perhaps may also find a home before the show closes on the 15th of this month. Today is market day, and I'm headed over in a few minutes to check it out.

In the meantime, I've been writing more on Virgin Territory. I had another reading last week, and those attending were enthusiastic. Also, their feedback was invaluable. I'm coming to appreciate the communal nature of creativity. Raise the rate of circulation and the work itself is invigorated. I've decided to start posting some of the chapters here on the blog. Here's the introduction --

In late 2006, my husband and I moved to the Pacific Coast of Mexico just north of Puerto Vallarta, having sold practically everything we owned in the United States. It was a decision made in a moment of either inspiration or sheer madness, but we have had not one regret. Our new home is in a rural area, though visions of a glitzy “Riviera Nayarit” dance in the heads of the governor and local movers and shakers. It hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps with the current economic meltdown, paradise may be safe for a while longer.

For me, like thousands of other gringos, Mexico these days represents a new beginning. It is definitely “virgin territory” in that sense. But our new beginnings are planted in the dust of ancient civilizations. Vestiges of those who have been here before remain in various forms and practices. Most notable of all is Our Lady of Guadalupe, “Goddess of the Americas.” She is an indigenous icon with origins that stretch back thousands of years, and her presence and influence continue to grow stronger both north and south of Mexico’s borders. Clothed with the sun, heavy with child, she graces more pickup windshields, notebook covers and shopping bags than she does church altars. Though appropriated by the Catholic Church, she transcends any religious denomination. She may very well be the reason women in particular feel nurtured and protected in a country that is so completely “other” from its neighbors to the north.

Christianity, in general, has not dealt well with the Virgin Mary. It’s sort of been “thanks for the baby, lady, now go get lost.” Many Protestants look on her with downright suspicion, like adoptive parents fearful of the claims of a teenaged birth mother. But in Mexico the Virgin, La Madrecita, is honored as no other place on earth. On December 11, pilgrims converge on the second-most visited Catholic site in the world, the Shrine of Guadalupe. The number grows exponentially each year. This past year there were over five million. They come to “watch” with her on the day traditionally celebrated as the anniversary of her appearance to Juan Diego on the hillside of Tepeyac outside of present day Mexico City. Smaller crowds, no less fervent, gather in other parts of the Americas from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego. Where I live now, it’s celebrated in tiny, makeshift shrines in the dirt streets of La Colonia and La Penita – and it is celebrated exuberantly in Technicolor and surround-sound. Evidently Guadalupe loves fireworks.

“We’re looking for Christmas lights,” my Canadian neighbor says, speaking in the clipped, exact tones of her native South Africa. “White ones that don’t flash.” We’ve met in the tianguis, the Thursday market in La Peñita on the American Thanksgiving Day. “Tupperware Alley” is what gringos call the extension of the market which stretches away from the Indian handwork and colorful displays in the main plaza. Here vendors spread the more mundane items that are needed on a daily basis – plastic dishes, clothes pins, pirated DVD’s, patent leather sandals, some of the most formidable padded bras I’ve ever seen, and now, Christmas decorations. There is not a white light to be found. Guadalupe likes color, and preferably color that flashes.

Very shortly after we moved to Mexico, both my parents had major health crises. My mother sent my sisters and me notes she’d made for obituaries -- hers and dad’s. My father’s ran on for pages; hers was no more than a paragraph. Mom, who had always been there. Dad, who even when physically present was mentally preoccupied with something other than the child before him. I received the notes when I opened my email the morning after the night I’d spent at a velada for Guadalupe, an all night watch which I’d left at midnight. Scrolling through the pdf attachment written in my mother’s still strong and legible hand, I felt vindicated for our move to Mexico. Here I was in a country that honored La Madre, that told and retold her story, celebrated her appearance each year with hot chocolate and tamales and fireworks at two in the morning. Mothers matter in Mexico, and Guadalupe is the archetype.

Not that Guadalupe is the only virgin in Mexico. Oh, no. She appears in many forms and places, a great variety of virgins – the one at Talpa, at Zapopan, as well as others. The dust of Mexico is heavy with stories of how and when she’s graced humanity with her presence. In the New World, it is usually in a field, usually to a peasant farmer, and usually the virgin asks for a shrine to be built so the indigenous population can convert their pagan worship to a more institutional form. Telling other people how they should pray is a time-honored tradition that continues alive and well today.

And yet there is a growing tendency to refuse religion in a box, to resist having one’s spiritual content accounted for with the detail of Nutrition Facts on the back of a cereal carton. Perhaps this is why Guadalupe’s influence is growing. More than any other icon, she epitomizes a popular religiosity unconfined to any institution. An unmediated experience of divinity is no longer the privilege of an ordained few or of a specific gender. And Guadalupe isn’t just for Hispanics and Catholics any more. She is a current symbol of an ancient ethos, a touchstone for what is colorful, primitive, and free-flowing.

In 1810, Mexico’s Father Hidalgo raised a flag emblazoned with the Virgin of Guadalupe to encourage rebellion of the indigenous classes against the despotism of the ruling Spanish. Guadalupe still symbolizes resistance to “the man.” Her image has been appropriated for better or worse by street gangs in the States and narco-traficantes plying their trade across borders. But she also provides a rallying point for creative rebellion. For anyone at odds with engrained church doctrine and tradition of any denomination, she offers new mental and spiritual landscapes to explore. For the hurt or wounded, the mentally, physically or spiritually abused, she reflects an image that is unbroken, unharmed and intact. And for anyone who longs to claim a unique identity and an intrinsic value above and beyond conventional roles and relationships, the Virgin embodies a one-in-herself-ness, that says “YOU are complete and worthy right now, just the way you are and just because you are.”

For anyone who longs to reclaim their own inner virgin, I dedicate these pages.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Women Who Watch

As I promised -- Here are the three paintings I plan on putting in the opening this coming Sunday at Xaltemba Restaurant and Gallery.

"The Virgin on the Jetty" -- oil on canvas 11" x 14" (28cm x 36cm)

La Veladora -- Keeping Watch -- mixed media 12-1/2" x 15-3/4" (32cm x 40cm)

Face in the Crowd at Chichicastenango "14-1/2" x 18-1/2" (37cm x 47cm)
And here is the accompanying narrative:
The series “Women Who Watch” evolved from observing those who are present but often unnoticed –

The Mayan flower seller, sits hunched on the steps of the church at Chichicastenango, watching the colorful mayhem of market day. Who looks into her face when her flowers are so vibrant, her clothing so arresting?

A velador is a night watchman, but veladora is the word for “nightstand,” a piece of furniture that often goes as unnoticed as the prayerful constancy of the woman who waits alone, thinking of child, husband or friends absent from her life. Is she the watcher – or the watched over? The quotation is a Spanish translation from Mary Baker Eddy.

The Virgin on the jetty at Guayabitos has her back to the tourists, but engraved beneath her feet is a misspelled assurance of protection for the fishermen and sailors who leave Jaltemba Bay. She is cemented there, assaulted by sea spray and splotched by pelican poop – keeping watch.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zack and Friends

I'll answer the question before it's even asked. Cody has a really short haircut right now and is getting special treatment for an itchy condition. So he's not doing spa trips at present. Instead he's getting a bath twice weekly with something that smells antiseptic. But fuzzy furry Zack gets a day out once every three weeks. Couldn't resist taking this photo with him and his friends and putting in a plug for friend Melanie's place in Lo de Marcos. It's doggy day camp and they love it. Cody will be back soon with his playmates.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Travels with Susan -- North, South and Center

This looks like a great big time machine, doesn't it? I'm not sure what it's called, but it shares part of the plaza in front of the Shrine of Guadalupe. It depicts all sorts of ways to keep track of time. I'm putting it here as an acknowledgement that I have indeed let time get away from me. But I'm ready to remedy that right about . . . now:

I started traveling after Christmas, mostly short trips like up to San Sebastian and Mascota in the mountains back of Puerto Vallarta, into PV itself for a few days at a friend's time share (ah, the good life!), up to the Four Seasons at Punta Mita to visit friends staying there (ah, the very good life!), and another trip to Tepic to introduce more friends to that great vegetarian restaurant, Quetzalcoatl.

There was also a recent trip north to Lubbock to check in with my Mom and Dad. That was a five day trip going and coming, as I drove to Phoenix with a friend and did Lubbock as an airplane side trip. Won’t be doing THAT too often! But Ann and I had no trouble at all with our trip through “tierra caliente,” which is what the Mexicans call the Sinaloa corridor along the Pacific Coast from Mazatlán to Nogales that's been in the news so much lately. There were lots of checkpoints and the occasional Mercedes or Suburban with dark windows and no license tags whizzing by. And there was that hotel in Los Mochis with a machine-gun-toting uniformed guard on every balcony. No I don’t know who they were or what was going on, but we decided to find some place else to stay. Nobody bothered with two middle-aged white ladies in a Toyota RAV4. We’d bought some apples for the trip and kept lying to the agricultural inspection guys about not carrying fruit or vegetables. After about the third time I didn’t even break a sweat. We might be ready for some big time smuggling sometime in the future, but don’t bet on it.

I spent several days in Mexico City right after the first of the year. My time there was jampacked, thanks to my friend Jorge, his family and friends.

Jorge and his wife Irma are friends of mine from San Francisco. Irma was back home, but Jorge was in town visiting some of his five brothers and five sisters. Sounds like my mom's family!

My first evening in town, his brother Wilfrido joined us and accompanied us to the northern part of the city to introduce us to Wilfrido's friend, Horacio, an expert on the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Horacio's office, tucked back into a rabbit warren of rooms filled with relics and treasures, is stuffed to the rafters with memorabilia from his studies and writing.

He is not only an expert on Guadalupe, but on popular religiosity and traditions throughout the world. Horacio has written three books about the legend of Guadalupe, its origins and its significance. He received a gold medal and citation from the Pope for his work separating fact from fiction about the history of Juan Diego and his encounter on the hill of Tepeyac. OK, so the fiction prevails in popular thought. I'll tell you more in Virgin Territory. I AM still working on my book.

Horacio, was very generous with his time, and it was the wee small hours of the morning when we arrived at Armida's house far to the south of the city. Happily there isn't as much traffic in the federal district at one in the morning!

The next day I explored the Dolores Olmedo Museum with Pimplo, another friend of Jorge's family. It is near Xochimilco, only a short distance from where I was staying.

A haven, an oasis, a paradise -- I don't know how to describe this 400 year old hacienda and former home of one of Diego Rivera's last lovers. She was more than his lover. She was his patron who collected his work and then converted her home to a museum to house it and some of the work of two other women in his life, Angelina Belhoff and Frida Kahlo. There are also temporary exhibits featuring current artists, and an extensive exhibit of Mexican popular and folk art. One visit is practically the equivalent of a semester at an art institute.

So, fired up and inspired, on my last full day Jorge and I painted, I with borrowed canvas, brushes, and acrylic paint. Painting seems to be the primary Perez family passtime. Another family friend who I never knew by any name other than "maestro," maintains a workshop/studio, which is filled mainly with work from Jorge and his sisters.

Armida collected us late in the afternoon, and the three of us headed north of the city once more, this time to visit Guadalupe’s basilica. I wanted to see the new one, as one whole chapter of Virgin Territory consists of my visiting the old one back in 1957 when I was eight years old. I figured there might have been a few changes. There were. Lots more scaffolding in and around the old shrine. But the new yurt-shaped basilica was worth the visit, and like I say, more about that in the book.

Traversing the city southward once more, Jorge wanted one last visit to the Zócalo, the main plaza of the Federal District.

It was magic, the last hurrah of the holiday season before all the decorations come down and the lights go out. A good place to spend my last evening in the heart of Mexico.