44…FortyFOUR

Mexico

*44 FridayProduced in 1979, translated into 1,100 languages, available as a free interactive application both on iTunes and Google Play;  the Jesus film  “…is perhaps the most-viewed motion picture of all time” according to The New York Times, as many as 2 billion views the BBC reported in 2003…today the website representing the film claims “6 billion views worldwide”.  The majority of these views designed to take place in the most ‘unreached’ areas of the world as the film is used by Christian evangelists working to convert populations who have potentially never heard of Jesus or do not have a single Christian among them.

An example of one such missionary crusade – an organization in my home state of Colorado – “Joshua Project is a research initiative seeking to highlight the ethnic people groups with the fewest followers of Jesus Christ” quoted from their website.  A visitor to this website can easily access details about “Unreached People”  around the world, organize missionary activities and check the “Unreached of the Day” calendar with lists of customized prayers.  After acknowledging the political function the missionary tradition performs in terms of spreading religious “reach”,  after addressing the inherent power of privilege and class divide that a potential interaction between missionary and ‘unreached’  groups presents,  such an intensity of emotional urgency to inform on a perceived dearth of spirit regardless of invitation is what remains curious for me.

Growing up in my father’s house and in his commercial design office, both filled with his curated collections of Mexican art, I gradually became aware of distinct artistic traditions and their correlating geographical origins.  When I learned of the Wixáritari (Huichol in Spanish) I was surprised there was not more of their art represented in my fathers collection. And when I decided to move to Guadalajara I saw  my opportunity to explore beyond my fathers cartography and into the unknown.  This quickly grew into a quest of a reasonable size and it was not long after arriving in Mexico when I announced my interest in ‘staying with the Huichol’ to Antonio.  Completely inexperienced in planning either the intellectual or logistical goals for such an impulse, I asked him to help me.  Soon after I realized that the situation was far more complex than I had understood.

First, the Huichol are historically a highly private people and very rarely welcomed strangers into their communities and second, they had long been the conversion target of Catholic missionaries traveling from Guadalajara.  Combined with the fact that Antonio and his family were highly religious themselves (attending Catholic mass every single morning) their participation, even facilitation, of my exposure to an animistic  “blue-deer worshipping-people” was…questionable.  In the end, after months of persisting,  Antonio found a way to negotiate between his spiritual hesitation and the loyalty to my fathers – and by extension my – artistic appreciation.  One afternoon he took me to the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, a neo-Gothic style cathedral stretching its spires skywards from central Guadalajara.  After consulting with the local religious authorities in Tlaquepaque, Anotnio had secured an audience with a church official responsible for contact with the Huichol.  Unaware of this plan until it was already happening, I quickly found myself confronted with a decision.  Was the ‘how’ important to me?  It was.  Although extremely appreciative of my friends efforts to stretch significantly outside of his well-defined comfort zone, I  declined the offer to join a group of missionaries attempting to gain access to a group of Huichol living north of the city.

This was the first of many ethical crossroads I would encounter as I continued my travels that year and ultimately it set the tone, color and texture of my life as an anthropologist.

The light of the tunnel eventually faded and we were birthed into a dark, sleeping town of colonial masonry.  Almost immediately a boy of ten ran alongside the car and offering himself as guide.  Initially our auto response denied him the chance to do so, but after  driving on for a few blocks without seeing any signs of other options, he climbed right into the car with us and began pointing us down the narrow streets and around the plaza until we stopped in front of an imposing set of wooden doors.  Calling passwords out to an invisible host, the doors opened and we were greeted by a middle-aged man, who had obviously been asleep somewhere inside moments ago. We parked the car and tipped our young guide before the heavy doors were closed behind us.

The man casually led us through the courtyard, passing a thriving garden of potted plants and drying laundry until we reached a small room at the back of the building.  Before leaving us to rest, we asked about horses, actually my friend wanted a donkey, but I definitely was interested in a full-sized horse. Without explaining further he responded with a sleepy nod and replied “Si, si mañana. / Yes, yes tomorrow.”  as if the initial request his guests always made was for a horse at sunrise.  The donkey, he paused reflecting, may not be possible… but “mañana” either way.

We needed toothpaste and I needed a snack, so by default it was me who returned back out into he night in search of a tiendita.  I found one still open at the far end of the plaza, out front an animated group of teenagers were playing foosball on an aging table below a flickering fluorescent bulb and a smoking griddle was keeping an older man company as we watched in his periphery.  I ordered three tacos without meat and was served a mystified pile of grilled onions and bell peppers in corn tortillas before returning to our quiet room. It was dark and surprisingly cold when the alarm roused us the next morning.

Unsure if we had clearly expressed ourselves the night before, we made our way back through the courtyard and the still quiet building beginning to doubt if in fact horses would be waiting for us.   Passing through a collage of sprouting plastic bottles, leafy terra-cotta and prolific recycled cans of all kinds we noticed a single light had been switched on near the entrance.  Turning the corner three large horses dominated the doorway, their frosty breath forced out in plumes from moist nostrils, as they waited impatiently.  No donkey. A quick discussion about the price to time ratio has satisfactorily agreed upon by all involved, we were launched atop leather saddles and were following a young man out of the cobbled stone and onto a dirt path out of the town.

The sky was slowly fading to violet and the stars seemed to contrast against it even more fantastically.  The vegetation around me was unlike anything I had ever seen.  In town the roads were dry and dusty, coating your mouth with a residue of desert as you  took breath.  But atop the horse and making my way into the mountains which grew upwards in every  direction from the sleepy plaza, we had entered a soft green, low lying lushness that was completely unexpected.   Dew clung to everything and in it appeared the first signs of sunlight as the water droplets began to refract light with a gradual intensity illuminating our silent climb upwards. The horses circled, our guide indicated a place for us to dismount and he took the leather reigns from us without a word exchanged.

The Sierra Madre Occidental reached their own spires of rock and earth skywards and sunlight began to breach the diffused humid glow of dawn, until finally spilling over their peaks and into green valleys, layered infinitely towards the horizon.  Our guide had led us to that peak specifically because of a building no taller than 10 feet.  Displayed prominently on the ground in front of the building was a repeating circular design of gathered stones and inside the structure was filled with countless Ojo de Dios – God’s Eye, one of the principal forms of Huichol religious artwork.  Called Sikuli in the native dialect, the brightly colored weaving of yarn around branches or wooden sticks in a pattern that is meant to represent “the power to see and understand things unknown” and sometimes are understood to be direct representations of the experience a Huichol has had looking directly into the eyes of god.  As the morning warmed the air around us, birds began to replace stars, and I was certain of my decision.  Although my adventure had not led me to “staying with the Huichol” I had been able to understand a part of why they so seldom gave access to those who would attempt to convince them something was missing.

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43…FortyTHREE

Mexico

43-ThursdayWe were transformed into birds, beaks wide open… hoping to catch whatever might spill from her as she bounced across the room on a bright plastic exercise ball.  Laura Archera Huxley was not a robust mother Robin, but instead she was built as an ant might be.  You could tell from a distance that she was strong and in full control of her bodily limbs, however fragile looking.  Dance naked first thing in the morning and do it  to passionate, loud music, I remember her saying as she oscillated around the room on the ball.  “The second wife of the late Aldus Huxley”… I had honestly known nothing more about her.   It struck me as a little sad that I had not known what an interesting person she was, independent of his illustrious name. Among the many books, essays and lectures Aldus Huxley produced during his lifetime, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell were two that helped to explain his idea of Mind at Large, he explains in The Doors of Perception:

“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”

Doors of Perception is an account of his experience while taking part in an experiment with the psychotropic drug, mescaline.   Another famous author who has written about the mystical qualities of this particular substance was Carlos Cateneda.  His books, originally published in the 1960’s while he was completing a bachelors and then doctoral degree in anthropology at UCLA.  He described a companion whom he is reported to have met in the northern Mexican desert and with whom he ingested peyote, a naturally occurring source of mescaline.  Castenedas’ books have been hotly debated. While the purely scientific value may be debatable, the cult following is not.  Some hold Casteneda responsible for the apparently ceaseless flow of drug-tourists that continue to saturate the mountains and deserts of northern Mexico.

Nowhere more so than a ghost town draped over the bones of a forgotten silver mine in San Luis Potosi ,  Real de Catorce or the “Royal Fourteen”. The windows were down and hot currents flowed in off the highway, filling the car with the smell of asphalt and dried plants.  We had left Guadalajara and were headed north towards Zacatecas where we planned on staying the night before continuing on.  As if we had just been set free of our cages, the destination acted only as a star to guide our sails.  So, with lyrics spiraling out of the speakers like pencil sketches, more than a week until anyone complained of our absence and a moderate level of Spanish we drove on, happy to be doing so.

We arrived in Zacatecas as the sun was burning holes into the horizon and after negotiating a miraculous parking spot on a steep cobbled hill, we walked towards the center of town to look for dinner. Expecting a sleepy mid-sized colonial town, we were slightly unprepared for a series of exploding stages, light shows and crowds.  We had arrived at the beginning of a weekend-long international Jazz festival.  It was… surreal.  And then again, “why not?” I asked myself… surprised by my uptight expectations of spending the evening admiring colonial buildings and quiet plazas.  Jazz was what was happening in modern-day Zacatecas, the Spanish were gone and the Mexicans were enjoying the excellent acoustics ricocheted off the cavernous buildings left behind.

After a simple breakfast, we were back in the rental, deciding what music to play and settling in for a long drive.  Invigorated by the unexpected atmosphere of the previous night, Real de Catorce seemed to pull us even more strongly towards its mystery.  Sometime around lunchtime, after a number of hours alone of the road, a group of  people appeared in the distance and as we approached we could see they were military. Many places in the world the sight of the military does not engender a sense of safety but quite the opposite and this was most certainly one of those places.  Alone, female, foreign… we began to rattle off the list anxiously as if we were taking an inventory of our mutual vulnerability.One of the uniformed men flagged us down and the gravity in the car suddenly amplified, turning off the music we pulled over.  A young man, in his twenties, leaned into the driver’s side window and asked us to exit the vehicle. As a group of soldiers searched the car, we waited 100 meters away behind a line of gun crested men.  We were  interrogated coldly about our destination before being allowed back into the car, which had now become imbued with supernatural protective powers we had previously been unaware of.

Neither of us spoke and the rear view was filled again by desert and sky, the stereo remained silent.  It is a difficult feeling, confronted with the very real dangers of a place, a sadness about the lost adventure we could all share, an understanding of the very real socio-economic divisions that create strife and the simultaneous desire to discover the special-gem-of-perfect-tranquility deep within a country; to be allowed access to its friendly places.

A glorious moon was rising and a dense sky of stars glowed down on us as we turned away from the highway and onto a gravel road lined by large Seuss-like cacti.  In front of us the mountains took on a deeper and deeper hue with the fading light, growing larger as we neared them until  finally blocking our view of the sky entirely.  Gravel abruptly turned to concrete as we came upon a warmly lit tunnel. Rolling slowly towards the tunnel, unsure of our next step,  A  man appeared from the darkness and walked in front of the car.  Our headlights shone across his ample midsection and his eyes looked tired.  The tunnel only had room for traffic in one direction at a time and we needed to wait.  Leaving us and making his way over to an old phone booth, he lifted the receiver and spoked for several minutes before motioning to us lazily and disappearing again in the shadowy cacti.   Awash in a yellowish light we entered the tunnel, a mysterious universe unfolding just beyond our windshield.