37 ….. ThirtySEVEN

Mexico

37- Sunday L’Inconnue de la Seine is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous Death Masks in popular culture.  It was reportedly taken postmortem  from a 16-year-old Parisian girl after she was pulled from the Seine river in the late 1880’s.  The pathologist handling her body was so consumed by her unusual beauty and expression that he carefully took a plaster cast of her face. The resulting mask and accompanying story entranced the Bohemian imagination  so completely that it became fashionable to have a replica of the mask displayed in one’s home. The production of Death Masks such as that of the unidentified young woman was already a common practice employed for a variety of reasons since the Middle Ages and eventually the production of Life Masks, taken while the subject was still living, became popular.

As a child I remember staring up at the cluster of Life Masks my father had hanging in his workshop, flutters of anticipation unsettling my stomach.  I also remember the saturated yellow glow of the afternoon sun as I finally lay down on the ceremonial aluminum grill cover, inserting a pair of Silly Putty rimmed straws into my nostrils. Years before he had started with my older brother and then sister and at some point decided that we would all have a Life Mask made.  The day my mask was made is steeped in a solemnity that accompanies a serious rite of passage.  I was nervous, I knew after that afternoon after I would be part of something else.  Connected to a lineage of faces, secured in place at a moment in time, like an exotic butterfly.

My father also had an extensive collection of folk art masks which he displayed more publicly across a wall in his office.  Somehow I understood that these masks were of a different kind, representing a potentiality and not a reality – full of wild colors and improbable elements. These masks came to represent him in my imagination,  it was as if he had each of those characters inside somewhere as if they were each a fragment of who he was, refracting light off of each of his surfaces.

I had been living ans studying in Tlaquepaque for just under a month when I decided to take advantage of a long weekend and headed to Patzcuaro – a small town on the banks of a lake in Michoacan, Mexico.  This area is central to the Purépecha peoples, their famous wing-shaped fishing nets, and it is also home to some of the most respected mask makers in the country.

My door echoed metallic down the twilight drenched rooftop courtyard and I ducked my head out into the light rain of evening.  I was hungry and on the prowl for some tasty street food.  Mexico has some of the best fluorescent-lit, tarp-covered street food in the world, even as a vegetarian I was always able to eat really well. Something that many people don’t understand about Mexican food is that nearly every fat dripping protein packed plate they identify as ‘Mexican’ was likely non-existent before the Spaniards invaded.  Indigenous cuisine originally focused on local fruits, vegetables, herbs and peppers with an occasional fish, Guajolote (wild turkey) or  Xoloscuintle (hairless dog) included for special meals depending on the region.

The center of Patzcuaro was arranged around a shady fountain-centric plaza and during the day it was lined with vendors tucked into towering piles of T-shirts, textiles, generic jewelry and replicas of all kinds. But the dusk fades and the vendors pack up their wares into wheelbarrows and small vans – and the food market takes over.  As soon as the dark settles completely across the plaza locals find themselves calling out, alongside the tourists, to the masters of the night kitchen. It was in Patzcuaro  that I first tried Ponche, hot fruit tea and stewed fruits –  a hearty blend of flavors infused with the glow of the street light filtering through a cobalt plastic sky – perfectly complimenting the roasted root vegetables and tortillas I had ordered.

The next morning descending into the plaza from my rooftop quarters I spent the morning at the nearby crafts museum.  Dreamily, I walked along the dusty hallways avoiding vendors until I  entered a large open room which had almost entirely been taken over by an enormous wooden machine.  The only other person in the room at the time, I approached the man sitting at the helm, busy moving an overwhelming number of wooden levers and pulleys.  In no hurry, he stopped the machine to explain that it was in fact a hundred year old loom and after an hour of careful discussion, I found myself behind the loom trying my hands – and feet – at the complicated craft.

Later that morning, scattering the pigeons, I sat down on a bench in the plaza.  A few minutes later an old woman came over and sat down directly next to me.  Finding it a little odd, as there were a number of free benches, I turned to greet her.  She had indeed been looking for a conversation with me and we enjoyed watching the business of the plaza pass by while we chatted casually.  Not long into our time together she began telling me about a rodeo that would be taking place outside of the city that day.  Nothing planned, I inquired about further details and within the hour I was stuffed into one of the vans serving as public transport to the outlying cities, repeating to my self for several minutes the unusual name of my ‘stop’.

I needn’t have worried as it turned out nearly every one of my fellow passengers were also going to the rodeo and we unloaded from the van, all of us stretching out our legs and regaining composure.  It was more adventure than I had been prepared for, the ‘town’ I had arrived at appeared to offer very little in the way of ATMs, in fact it was not a town of any normal description.  There were no streets and the river of people flooding in off the highway all channeled down a small dirt path and towards a large pit dug from the hillside.   Quickly I reviewed the contents of my pockets in my mind and realized  I would need to use my few pesos very wisely.

After choosing an area that appeared to have a decent view of the rodeo grounds below and a lack of rowdy drunken men, I scrambled up the dirt incline and with my heels dug securely into the ground, I squatted down to take it all in…

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36….ThirtySIX

Mexico

Sunday-36“The place where gods come and go”  or the ‘ iikaah (ee-EE-kah) for the Navajo people is a meticulously constructed design drawn out on the ground by releasing handfuls of colored sand.  Usually lasting no longer than 12 hours, it is considered to be a gateway for spirits.  From this place they affect change in the physical world, healing illness and absorbing toxic energy and once this has taken place the sand is scattered. A similar tradition also exists in Tibetan Buddhism   where monks can sometimes spend weeks depicting hundreds of deity and religious symbols in brightly colored sand, once finished it is also scattered.  Some Hindi women across India also take part in the spiritual patterning of the earth with Kolam. Early each morning blessing their homes with elaborate powdered lines before the traffic of the day eventually deconstructs their design completely.  The spiritual importance of embracing cycles of construction and deconstruction has long been a foundational belief throughout the human world.

Upon returning from my travels in Europe, I was engulfed in one of my father’s heavy cycles of deconstruction which in turn generated one of my own.  The gods visited, initiating the painful process of extracting toxins, some of which had been feeding with profoundly deep roots.  To see my father in his best light is to see a freckled blonde surfer projected onto a middle-aged John Wayne standing at the dark wooden counter of a micro brewery.  He has built a boat, a motorcycle, a bed… shops for clothing at Costco and does not believe in using band-aides.  He has married and divorced three times, has six children and cooks Mexican with a vat of lard he stores on a top shelf in the kitchen.  His view of the world is innately artistic and overtly romantic.  Without his even noticing the scrutiny of his paternal eye could both inspire and traumatize.  And that past year had swung me like a pendulum between the two until I felt ready to snap as a result of the extreme cycles of tension.

Seismic effort helped me “sweep” the sacred space of my psyche and regain the longing to draw colored lines on the earthen floor of my life again – I needed a way out. To this end I consulted my options with the international studies department finally committing to a program in Mexico, and then called my father. For the previous 30 years of his life, my father worked with a man from Tlaquepaque, a small town now enveloped by the Guadalajara metropolis.  Antonio had met my father at the beginning of  his quest to locate independently sourced Mexican artwork for his restaurant designs.  They spent the next three Quixotesque decades traveling Mexico and commissioning an incredible amount of local artwork from an uncountable number of artisans.  Tony was accustomed to my father calling up with urgent requests and seemingly impossible proposals, so when he called asking to send me to them for four months, he probably laughed …claro que si – of course.  I arrived a little over a month later.  

In order to save up enough money to extend my travels once completing the semester in Guadalajara, I had been working as a mural painter to compliment my other part-time job while I was in school full-time… even so money would be very tight.  My plan was to travel some in Mexico during the four months I lived with Antonio and his family, but then to head south – as far as my money would take me. I had never been to Guadalajara, met Antonio or his daughter Rocio, but it was rather simple for them to spot me at the airport – light-blonde, blue-eyed and shouldering my travelers pack scanning the crowds.

Anotnio had for many years run a papeleria or stationary shop, on the main plaza of Tlaquepaque and lived with his wife and two of his children in a three bedroom apartment on the second level a few doors down. After refusing resolutely an offer of their personal bedroom, I settled into the living room couch and the following day a mattress borrowed from family friends. It wasn’t long and we were all falling into a rhythm together, they had after all known my father before I had. Although both Rocio and Abraham were around my age, both in their early twenties, I connected right away with Rocio.  She was studying psychology in the nearby University and working at a children’s facility during her time off.  The family computer was in her room and she did most of the driving for everybody, outside of working hours.

Anotonio had recently stopped driving as he suffered from worsening seizures and because of this one of his employees had taken over the regular visits to the wholesale warehouse for the papeleria.  Until I grew accustomed to the long public bus ride home from school the boxy white van would make a detour to pick me up and I would accompany them, trailing behind them as they made selections for the shop. Then we returned to the house for the enormous mid-day meal shared at the table in their upstairs apartment, the window open and a breeze shifting the crowns of palms planted along the plaza.  Usually I spent the rest of the afternoon reading or napping on the mattress in the living room. In the evenings I joined Rocio to lift weights and ride stationary bikes in the local gym.  Sometimes we passed by the taco stand where I ordered the regular with beans instead of meat or pick up a corn tamale and we would snack together at the night table.  Once cleaned up, I studied and then went to bed.  The metallic echo of church bells passing through the colored glass panels at the front of the house, woke me every morning.  I did yoga, took a shower and walked to the bus, rode to downtown Guadalajara and then walked to class.

My days went on like this, smooth and steady one after the other, just like sand falling through careful fingers.