Sunday, May 31, 2009

Old, sad white guys

So G is way more into the movie-watching thing than I am, and since I've been in Mexico with him, I've watched three movies in three weeks, which, I swear, is a record for me. Thing about those three movies is they all revolve around an old, sad white man character. It wasn't on purpose that we watched those three movies; it just happened. G had wanted to see "Grand Torino" for a while. I think I actually fell asleep on that one twice before he got me to see the whole thing. "The Visitor" had been suggested to me by a number of friends. And "Crossing Over" was a random choice; something about the movie poster and the plot description drew us in--maybe, too, something about Harrison Ford. No matter how silly his movie's get, he's hard to resist. So "Grand Torino"--directed by and starring Clint Eastwood--and "Crossing Over" had the whole aging famous leading man thing going for them. Clint Eastwood was certainly my favorite of the three movies' respective protagonists, playing the very gruff and blunt yet somehow still intriguing Walt Kowalski, a man with a wife newly dead, a family that has a hard time loving him, and also abandoned by his old neighbors to face the Hmung immigrants now living next door. Less interesting by far is Harrison Ford's character, a very sympathetic ICE officer who gets way too wrapped up in his cases. "The Visitor"'s sad old white man is a university professor played by Richard Jenkins (unknown until viewing and definitely lacks the sex appeal of Clint or Harrison). University politics force the widowed Walter Vale to leave Connecticut to attend a conference in New York City. In the apartment he keeps there he finds an illegal immigrant couple who has been living there a few months, paying rent to some fake landlord. And this gets me to the other similarity between all these movies: the abandoned, sad, old white men in them are each changed, in some way, by new immigrants. I won't get too much into the individual plots but to say that "Grand Torino" was most satisfying as a story. "Crossing Over" was sort of in the style of "Crash" or "Magnolia" in which snippets are told of vaguely intersecting lives, and so you are following a few stories as once. It's a risky story-telling strategy because it's likely that one of those stories is stronger than the others, leaving the viewer uncaring about the rest, as in a book when you skip the italicized sections or the flashbacks. "Grand Torino" was also least cheesy of all of these movies. The worst cheese-factor award goes to "Crossing Over" in which the whole proud to be an American thing is slapped at you over and over at the end. "The Visitor" was disappointingly lacking in any real substance beyond the devices of the international/hot-topic plot. And Haaz Suleiman, playing Tarek, the drumming Syrian, was definitely hot. Most of the relationship developments here were a little hard to believe, and I wanted more more more. Another similarity between the three? They all made me cry. But I'm easy like that.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Absolutely No Photos Allowed

Yesterday, we went to a town about ten kilometers from here, a Tsotsil village called San Juan Chamula, or, simply, Chamula, as was painted on the window of the van we piled into along with too many others to get there. We rode at a steady incline up a road that cuts through the hills south and west of here and sloped through some agricultural lands to arrive at a town square covered in stands set up by vendors of various produce and other food stuffs, piles of pants, leather belts in every shade of black and brown. Immediately, it was clear that town was dirtier than San Cristobal, litter scattered everywhere. As we bought condensed milk-drizzled churros I was awed by the sight of a boy start moving on his bicycle through a pile of banana peels. It wasn't an accident either, but something he did as a habit, a commonplace occurrence.

We then went to the dusty tourist office and after a young european-ly stylish blond couple, paid 20 pesos each to gain entry to the church, pictured above. As we passed through the wide, empty courtyard, we saw women and children crowded into a gazebo--getting government handouts, G said. Then two young girls followed us, trying to sell us friendship bracelets. They tugged at our hands and in the end threw a bracelet at each of us, saying it was a gift. As I was running after the little brat that had targeted me, the man taking tickets got my attention, and G and I were subsumed by the church.

The rule for the Iglesia de San Juan Chamula is that tourists can visit and gawk but absolutely no cameras allowed, as in, they will take your camera away and throw you out immediately, G explained. Something seemed odd about it. Sure, I'd been in museums and performances where there was no flash photography allowed, and maybe even places with artifacts that one was not allowed to photograph...but to be disallowed from capturing a live event? Knowing myself, I would likely be too shy to do it anyway, but the fact of the prohibition being and out and out rule was intriguing. So in lieu of the photograph (that I might have never even taken, had I the rules on my side), I made a list of my impressions as I sat inside the church:

no photos allowed
smokey air hundreds of candles burning
chattering chanting
pine needles strewn everywhere, over hard cold floor
scent of pine, the feel of it under the soles of our shoes
the room is lined with effigies of saints
each in his/her own box
each with a mirror around his/her neck
as if we could look at ourselves but they are too high
and only concrete ceiling is reflected
rows of tiny candles lit on tables in front of the saints
rows of tiny candles lit on the floor
where they have been placed melted wax
families (or groups that look like families) gathered to heal
colas and juices liquid in bottles sugar water that heals
one woman chants as she rubs green leaves over anothers skin
behind me they will kill a chicken
i look but the old lady stares back and i feel ashamed
then i look and the man in the furry woolen vest is wringing the bird's neck
but it won't die is still moving and the old woman finishes her off
feathers and flesh lay before them and they are chanting
one empty coca cola bottle and one full sit before them, and chanting
G says a healing ceremony can cost 1000 pesos
children everywhere, the smallest slung on stomachs or backs
the others play with fire, with soda, with each other
what are they saying in that strange language?
like no language i have ever in person heard?
the men drink cane liquor
a man leads a small boy around the room in circles
the child's t-shirt reads "100% Guapo"
all the women here in those heavy, black goat's hair skirts
that old one still staring at me, whenever i look her eyes
the smoke, the incense, the chanted words like liquid all around us
the thousands of tiny flickering points of light
and the smoky air around us glowing

After that, we walked to the graveyard, a litter-strewn expanse of lawn surrounding the ruins of another church, older than the first. Everywhere there were earthen mounds, as if every single grave was fresh. Each mound had at its head colored crosses, in most instances more one stacked against each other, like records, or books or plates.

G and I sat in front of it for a while, in a barely clean patch of green from where we could see the graveyard with the old church, the new church and the town in the distance behind it. To our left, there was a small bar on a side road. Outside of which a young girl in traditional dress huddled on the concrete step sang: "Life is worthless!" I am told by G it is a famous song, and the girl went on and on, singing mournfully, soulfully, off-key and slurring.

(More pics from that day and the one before here.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

About the food here

For days I have been planning on writing a post about how damn good and fresh and cheap the food is here, how amazing the markets and little shops--all in walking distance, all relatively cheap--are, and then the other night G got really sick. And, most likely, the bug that kept running between bed and the bathroom for hours of attempted expurgation before we finally embarked for medical help in the middle of the night came from lettuce he’d bought at the market that day.

The central market where he went is labyrinthine and exciting and reminds me of Cairo or Damascus or maybe even parts of Beirut. There is an outdoor section, where people vend wares on blankets, under umbrellas. Then stalls, made of soft wood, set up under roofs of tarps and corrugated metal. A woman sells batteries, a man sells dried beans out of baskets, a woman sells tomatoes that she has piled in pyramids, and on and on. Then the food section, where a woman sells tamales, some women work behind ovens, scraping at piles of meat, and mysteriously brightly colored drinks in large clear plastic containers, large chunks of ice floating. And all over tiny stools to sit and eat at. Then there is the indoor part, all white ceramic tile and the smell of raw meat--a fish section, a pork section, a beef section. Any part you want. Cow head, anyone?

Besides that, there are tiny stalls a few blocks down the hill from our house, where a handful of vegetables and fruits are on display.

Then there are the special, the organic, the house-made things: a twice weekly organic market in the courtyard of an arts center just down the block where a few vendors sell healthy-looking greens, juicy berries, colorful roots, golden-yolked eggs, the handful of pink lily-looking flowers that still smell fresh after a few days on our dining room table. And a dairy shop, also down the street, where they sell all sorts of cheeses and raw yogurt, their amazing pineapple flavor in our fridge right now. Tangy and sweet and sour all at once. And a coffee place downtown, that's all fair-trade and organic and delicious, where the woman had us try raw cocoa beans when we bought our half kilo last week.

G's sickness lasted a very painful eight hours. It was the kind of sick where you feel like you might die, I think like the way I felt in Egypt that time after the koshary in the desert--or was it that time after the baba at the fancy Lebanese place? It was awful. But now after finding a decent all-night clinic, getting a shot, and taking some pills, the thing that possessed him is gone, and we're eating normally again. Big meal in the middle of the day, amazing smells coming from the kitchen now, as you see pictured above.

Meandering post, I know. Just trying to get some fluency going. Stuck on an awful short story rewrite these past couple days. It's killing me. Or at least it feels like it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Visiting the Big City

Last weekend we descended the 2,000 or so meters and made the 1-hour bus-ride to Tuxtla, to visit G’s family and friends. While Sancris is colorful and airy and stone-built, Tuxtla is haphazard and hot and concrete. Not to say it wasn’t fun, but, all in all, this is where I’d rather be.

While we were away, we spent an afternoon with G’s niece and nephew, taking them for the most beautiful handmade popsicles I’ve ever seen. On a galavanting, meandering night with G’s friends, we went to a couple of a certain type of party, where people our age fill the front courtyard of a house with plastic tables and chairs and serve food and drink a lot of alcohol. Pretty bad reggae-tone music at the first, awful karaoke at another.

For lunch one day, we ate what is pictured above. In a “snack” bar with impossibly loud music and then a mariachi band, and all sorts of men singing along and everyone drinking, we feasted on a plate of slow cooked meat in adobo sauce, amazing black beans and fresh, hearty flour tortillas to go with. Before that we had a plate of fresh tomatoes, cilantro, and onion, as well as dried shrimp. Too salty for my taste. All washed down with a few shared pitchers of Sol doctored with lime and chili.

At amazing restaurant, G’s friends put one of the flip-flops he’d casually slipped off his feet into a crate of beer bottles on the ground. When we realized it was missing as we got ready to go, it was nowhere to be found. Shoeless, G took me to the home of some friends of his, a married couple who have shared a house for thirty years. From the street it looks like a concrete wall with graffiti, like a forgotten place, but inside it was filled with art and plants and books. They were nice.

G’s parents took us to one of those all-you-can-eat buffets, Mexican style. We were resistant but it was pretty damn good. I recall a past when I could do three or four plates at an occasion like that, but this time only managed one and a half.

Other than that, some insane cab rides, amazing street art, and finally seeing marimba park, a place full of people dancing G has always told me about. But we missed the people dancing part. We got there when they were milling about, but the gazebo in the center was cool, all the ancient benches lined up and facing it, like sun’s rays. Maybe next time.

More pics of our Tuxtla weekend here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

From the Land of Swine Flu

[photo from, by way of Reuters]
On the birthday card my father gave me four days before I left for Mexico and two days before my actual birthday, he had pasted a carefully cut picture of Disney’s version of the Three Little Pigs. “The Swine Flu welcoming committee,” he wrote beside it. We had gotten past being scared of the Swine Flu. The main problem, we decided when mankind’s newest plague began making appearances on the headline news just two weeks before my take-off date for a summer long trip that had been months in the planning, was if the airports closed. And it became quickly apparent that Obama’s approach to this would be—unlike Egypt’s slaughter of thousands of pigs, Afghanistan’s confinement of its only one, Cuba’s absolute restriction on travel to Mexico, and the decrees that I was crazy if I went by certain of my acquaintances—rational and his plan of action would not involve any sort of travel restrictions because the flu had already spread past Mexico, and far past its origins, whatever they were. Encouraging was news that the new disease was most often easily fought off by the body, that it wasn’t spreading as quickly as scientists had feared. I went to my university’s student health center, and had a nurse who, very evenly told me that I should be cautious down there but swine flu was the least of my concerns. In addition to Relenza, she prescribed Cipro and malaria pills. I only purchased the first—which comes in an odd inhaler form and is not to be taken as preventative but only when symptoms appear—and relented to a flu shot and a typhoid shot. For the latter, I was apparently three years overdue.

In the meantime, I watched CNN more intently than usual when I was at the gym and was likely one of the most frequent visitors to the CDC website. Then I got bored of all the different types of coverage—some racist, some plain fear-mongering, some interesting, some worth thinking about in relation to my own situation. Then there was meta-coverage—news reporting on the news. Was the media blowing it out of proportion? Were people who took swine flu lightly asking for it? Answers ventured for all these questions were speculative at best. My parents gave me two respirators they’d had from some previous scare. I told G they were for me and him, in case we had to face Armageddon together.

My flight from Atlanta to Mexico City was relatively full. A business man across the aisle wore a surgical mask the whole way, and a mother and son and another man, a foreigner to Mexico like me, put on masks as we landed. In the airport I was made to fill out a questionnaire asking if I’d experienced any of a list of symptoms, and there were people wearing masks here and there. Most of them were casual about it, the blue fabric often draped below their mouths. There was one woman in the restaurant where I had lunch who very gingerly removed one of two plastic gloves she wore in order to better fork her enchilada.

Before I boarded my plane to Chiapas I was approached by a couple wearing respirators (like masks but sturdier, and with some sort of breathing appendages sticking out on either side). The man was American and guessed at where I was going. He asked if I’d share a cab from the airport with his girlfriend, since it’s so expensive in Tuxtla. I agreed. He said his girlfriend was shy about her English, that she works as an epidemiologist in a town near the Guatemala border. He was on his way to another state, and asked if I wasn’t worried. It was strange to have a conversation with these people wearing their masks, so I didn’t say much. As we boarded the plane, I turned to see them pull the things away for a brief kiss.

On the ground in Tuxtla, G found one more person to share our cab all the way to San Cristobal, which would be about an hour up the mountains. I was so happy to finally be here, to see G after so long, and generally ignored the conversation the epidemiologist—who had her mask off all the way now—had with the other dude, but G said they were talking about swine flu the whole time. The state government in Chiapas had apparently just decided it was a problem, and had shut down schools longer, banned public gatherings, etc.

Since I’ve gotten to San Cristobal and been here a few days I’ve only noticed a few people wearing masks. One young guy in a jewelry boutique had a cartoon animal mouth drawn on his. A pharmacy we passed in our walk to the market this morning had a sign saying they were out of masks. We weren’t allowed to enter a wine and tapas place we went to the other night, because, a man with a mask hanging under his chin explained, they were limited to serving 18 customers inside the cozy space at the time. We took a table on the street.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

first day, new world

This is a picture of the street I will be living on for the next 2.5 mos. Arrived in San Cristobal last night as the sun was setting. The apartment G got for us is beautiful--full of ceramic and clay tiles, wood ceilings, airy, bright walls. The garden we share with the other houses in our complex:

Walked some around town today, saw the main squares, dipped into the market. The city is small, as far as I can tell and streets sit low under the stone sidewalks and houses that line them. There are too many cars on these ancient streets (G says about 400 years old), and so many old Beetles around, I've already revived the "punch buggy" game we used to play in Lebanon when we were younger, punching each other each time we sighted one of those fanciful-looking cars. It's actually pretty fun since G never played before and he takes their profligacy for granted.

The rest of the pics are here.