Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Other Country

"Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near to the United States." -- Porfirio Diaz, President of Mexico, 1876-1880.

So many of my favorite authors put in their time south of the border. In one year of literary studies I must have read a dozen writers who either lived in Mexico or wrote about it. I loved Kerouac's sorties and the tales of the revolutionary era that Katharine Anne Porter wove with Old Testament filaments of delicious clauses, and I thrilled in Malcolm Lowry's baroque constructions and disjointed plot lines. Then, there was Graham Greene's Power and the Glory and its non-fictional companion piece, Another Mexico, with tales of low dealings and a high exchange rate. I had been mistaken about Nathaniel West, author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, thinking he had been killed in a car crash on his honeymoon in Mexico. Actually, the accident happened on the American side of the border. And then there was Cortazar and the poets, too!

My first sweetheart in Porter Junior High was a Chicana, Cecelia, and whenever I hear the voice of Cecelia Cruz I think of her and get woozy. In our Spanish class she got to keep her name, while the instructor dubbed me "Ramon". I considered myself Ramon Navarro and lacked only a fencing scar to complete the charade. I had my cinematic crushes on Lupe Velez and Katy Jurado--both birds of paradise-- such utter strangeness for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, but somewhere my blood boiled. And I would have given my life for Natalie Wood.

Hence, I caught the wanderlust at an early age and as soon as I left home, I began visits to Baja and the Yucatan and the southwest Oaxaca coast. My writing mentor Don Hendrie took a home in San Miguel de Allende every summer in the cool mountains of Guanajuato to work on his novels. So when I finally entered graduate school in Alabama, I took advantage of its proximity to New Orleans and the cheap flights to the Yucatan.

My memories of the country have developed like a photo left too long in the chemical bath, with the details blurring over time and the contrasts sharpening into stark relief. While I had experienced great sweetness amongst the residents of small towns and villages, the exhilaration in the deserts, mountains, and beaches, the Mexican cities grimly coalesced around a gran peligro that one feels in the Baja of Touch of Evil. It was as if you could slip through a crease in the fabric of folkloric splendor into ugliness and violence without a moment's warning.

Let us wait for another day to talk about the ride in the taxi I caught on the outskirts of the bufadora blowhole on the baja coast where the driver only revealed his nearly downed bottle of tequila long after we sped away from the parking lot and into the sprawling dust of the horizon where the cacti went purple against the setting sun. And the story of the Yucatecan bus driver who added two hours to an already excruciating six-hour drive from the Mayan ruins of Chitchen to the Caribbean coast by stopping where he pleased to pick up black market shipments of stoves and other appliances in dark alleys for transport to friends and associates along the dusty lanes outside Valladolid.

Or, the night I slept on the concrete floor of the deserted bus depot outside Ensenada because I had missed the last bus and needed to slip from view of the federale who was tailing me--trying to entrap me by withdrawing marijuana papers from his vest and asking me to simply fill them with herb so we could smoke; as all Americans traveling the Baja night carried mota. Or the crowded cantina south of the Tulum junction where the beautiful barmaid who had an uncanny interest in me was -- as some laughing compatriots at the table warned me -- packing some male genitalia under her skirt.

But that said, we should talk about Dr. Z who joined me in walks about Merida and on strange nights sat talking to his half-drained mescal bottle as we lay in cheap motel rooms lit by bare bulbs to save money. And how at the end of a small street we found a cafe pressed in the alley between two buildings that served dirt-cheap fish tacos that we enjoyed until one evening, after the meal, a stray cat walked out from the kitchen and vomited on our table and Dr. Z asked the mesera to bring along a platter of whatever the kitty had eaten. And the following morning I awoke with a humbling case of Montezuma's Revenge that had me squarely where it wanted me in the latrine from dawn till late afternoon when Dr. Z and I went from farmacia to farmacia in search of the magic cure I had read about in a guide book.

It came in a small brown bottle and the doctor said to pour a tablespoon of the thick yellow liquid onto a mound of mashed green bananas in a plate and spoon it down. It was not one of the pro-biotics handed out today, but an old remedy redolent with opiates and belladonna and while the runs continued over the following two days, I sat in the small but clean tiled bathroom in great delight.

Dr. Z had brought back from his daily errands (rounding up mescal and some pan dulce) a stack of comic books that surpassed all my expectations. They were comprised of snapshots cut from hour-long television soap operas, pasted into linear plots, with outrageous dialog typed beneath each photo. The common plots were steeped in trickery, infidelity, alcoholism, gambling, and firearms, with out-sized dramatic gestures (popping eyes and rivers of tears) and verbal exchanges orbiting the grief planet (by my limited translations): "She was MY woman!" or "You have brought us all a veil of tears, may Christ forgive you!"

Or, perhaps, the comics never existed at all. The days and nights went by in a blur of bottled electrolites and the belladonna-opium tincture. And I had developed a profound respect for clean restaurants.

There is another tale, too, of being arrested by federales for passing a funny cigarette on a sand dune one evening along the Sea of Cortez where my fellow wanderers--Plunger Dave and Yossi Raz of the Israeli army, ret. -- had to cough up enough funds to "pay the ticket" or spend the night in a San Felipe jail. The federales were kind enough, and young, and despite Yossi's notion that he could get the drop on the three that held the automatic rifles if Dave and I took down the fourth, let us off for $40. And the wheels were then greased for the remainder of our stay, during which time they returned in civilian clothes to share our pot with us and joke about the wealthy American couple that they had busted in a nearby travel trailer with cocaine aboard. That "ticket" went for a bargain at $6,000.

On our last morning in camp, I repaid Yossi's offer of violence by spiking his breakfast omelet with magic mushrooms, waiting to catch his reaction when his brains began to melt. It was a hot day and the tide along the Sea of Cortez yanked the water out for nearly half a mile, exposing the rocks and squirting mollusks and fish, flopping, gasping for breath in all that sudden air.

But those are other stories and, besides, it was another country.


A Cuban In London said...

Oh, the memories, the memories! Despit the fact that I wasn't there with you (I could NOT have been there with you obviously :-D!) you transported me to those places. Mejico has always had a special corner in my heart. I, too, dabbled in 'affaires mexicaines' and they left me unbalanced. The country is so huge that it I would love to emulate Kerouac and travel through it from end to end in a VW van.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Char said...

I only have been to Tiajuana which is not really represenative of the country. It was mostly dirty and touristy.

tangobaby said...

Have I been away for a year and a day? A lifetime?

I think the good part is now I have a veritable tome of your memories to make my own.

I have never thought much about Mexico, except in my interactions with the immigrants here, the ones I have met who are engaging and full of life and fire.

My memories of my first love involve visions of the Kremlin and hard times before glasnost, so I envy the warmth of your memory of Cecelia.