Category: ~ New Stories of Mexico and Elsewhere

Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory

 

“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.

We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.

So, why don’t we love Mexico?

We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get passed-out drunk and sunburned on spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.

In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in L.A., burned out neighborhoods in Detroit—it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead in Mexico, just in the past few years—mostly innocent victims. Eighty thousand families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.

Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over tortilla chips. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply “bro food” at halftime. It is in fact, old—older even than the great cuisines of Europe, and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet, if we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation—many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe—have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling heights.

It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, and was there—and on the case—when the cooks like me, with backgrounds like mine, ran away to go skiing or surfing or simply flaked. I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand from their hands to mine.

In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather around a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious salsas, drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, and listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.

The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of “Parts Unknown,” we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.

This show is for them.”

 

A Letter from Mephistopheles to His Mother, the Snake

Last night, precisely at the hour that the cucarachas in my house rose from their daylong slumber, I wrote a poem for you, Mother, celebrating my origin, when I slipped past your scaly loins and gave my first half-throttled scream. In spite of what others say, my skin was tender and the edges of your eggs, ragged and unforgiving. I cannot tell you how long it took me to unwind and find my tail. To see it quivering with new strife. I, your young Fliegengott, God of Flies, charged by you to bring war and darkness to all of life. An honest offering, when compared to the promises of the Bearded Fellow in the sky, whose plans you say I am tasked to disrupt. I, Lord of Rats, patron saint of the Long Tails of New York, Southern District, who pressure me with their Rule of Raw and the Triumph of Tooth during this Age of Lies. To whom I respond, Wouldn’t it be too bad if I asked you, my Mother, to drop down into the electric soot beneath Time Square and make lumpy digestive juices of them all. I have tried to tell them they are mistaking me for someone else. That it is not I whose squinty sun rises puffed and orange over Manhattan each morning, breathing in its own self-delighting smells. That we and they and the Old Man in the Sky are the only ones who stand between this bloated Faust and the sweet fifteen-year-old’s of our democracy. And so, Mother, I ask you to hold your snout and approach this high-rise, stale, bedpan stink and enter that chamber where humans purport to think, and swallow his dark pulp, make it your own, so that the status antequam can return to when it was mainly you and I and the Man in the Sky who determined the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and not this amateur who would supplant us all. Therefore, let us ally ourselves with the Long Tails of the Southern District and, after you have supped, let them finish off what is left in the cup.

Much Love,

from Him who aims to please,

Your Devoted son,

Young Count Mephistopheles.

Where I Confess to Being Mephistopheles

(Take a meditation pose)

Excuse me,

You’ve caught me at the hour of my meditation,

the moment my mantra and I meet each other

halfway.

Diese schwankenden Gestalten

These swaying approaching forms.

 

I am not authorized to tell you her name.

Except that it sounds like

Eritis sicut Deus,

scientes bonum et malum,

but it rises up like a whisper

from my inner Snore,

also known as my Mother

Die Schlange—The Serpent, which is just one of her forms

 

It’s from Her I have my name:

Fliegengott, (bat at my head) God of Flies,

Verderber, Corrupter,

Lügner, Liar, Mentiroso, Menteur

Herr der Ratten, (pick up feet) Lord of Rats

 

(Smile! Hold up forefinger!) Do not be frightened,

my young silphs and squawks.

What you’ve heard so far is little more than spiddle-spuddle,

Demented slag,

A bit of limping, farting hibble-hobble.

 

Better to fix on my Spanish heels and purple tights,

my ruffled frock,

the yellowed teeth,

my pinkish lids,

around my waist the gleaming sash of slipple-sklock.

 

But can you see her now?

This time she stands a full quarter of her length and flicks her bifurcated Zunge (point to tongue), and softly thistles,

“You are part of the Kraft, the power, that pursues evil, but produces good. You are the Spirit that negates the world. Nice going, snakelette!”

 

To keep her here, I hum my pantra, “Eres sicut Dea,

sciens bonum et malum.

But mostly malum, since no one knows more about coitus more ferarum, congress with animals, than you, Tlacuáche-Pache, Oppossom bitch.”

 

(Raise forefinger again, as if teaching)

Hissing, she contin-you-z her guidan-sez.

“Because all that emerges,” she thims,

“Must go to dust.

And therefore, would’nt it be better if nothing came into existence?”

 

“My boy,” she swines, “everything you call

Sin, destruction, Evil—

All this is my nest primeval. My status antequam,

the way it was before.

The bedding,

the best slave-softened cotton,

ante bellum and Boll-weevil.”

 

How I love her, my Mother Constrictor, who sang to me when I had no height and couldn’t sleep!

Coiling around me, and pulling tight:

 

(sing with rasping sound) “Sluffle, sluffle, little peep,

if you do not wake in the morning,

still, your soul will keep.

Blood and feathers, forever weep.

Close you eyes, my darling, and become the seep.”

 

A plumpy tale to digest, you’ve got to think!

(nod your head like an idiot)

Have you guessed my name, for Him who can not be named?

From all of these?

Well, it is I, of course!

 

His Eminence, the redoubtable, slack-socked Count Mephistopheles!

At your service!

A Huevo

Only a fool would choose the desert entrance to Real de Catorce, when they could take the 2-kilometer long wormhole through the bedrock instead. I’m talking about the one-lane tunnel that was unlit on a recent weekday, when even cell phones weren’t working. Events triggered, according to superstitious locals, by up-coming tectonic clashes or political upheavals. Or both.

And so now you had to take the baton from the man at the entrance. And if, God willing, you came out the other out the other side, as most people did, you handed the baton to someone else. A rational system, and democratic like the tope, where even the President of the Republic has to observe the laws of physics. If not necessarily any others.

The Governor of an unspecified state arrived on that Wednesday. The poorly paid tunnel attendant greeted the first car, a bodyguard with a bull neck and expensive dark glasses, and explained that the tunnel was in use and, after that, it was the other side’s turn to come through. The bodyguard checked with the Governor, a man of ample girth, who was hungry and had been looking forward to a long meal at the little Swiss-run hotel at the other end of the tunnel, renowned for its thick steaks and fine wines. And afterwards, to a nap in the usual charming, top-floor bedroom along with his adoring, young, light-skinned secretary.

“Aren’t I the Governor,” he asked. And gave the signal to proceed.

His security men were Mexican ex-Marines, but not all-knowing. Because, with about the same frequency, the odd narco warlord also liked to eat thick steaks in the little Swiss-run hotel—and to wash them down with 100-Euro Spanish Riojas, which he brought along in his black Ford Expedition—while his bodyguards, in their SUVs, carried equally generous supplies of lightly greased 7.62 x 39 mm rounds for their Chinese-made AK47s.

The difference was that the Governor, though married, was hungry and in love, and “Chuy,” our narco warlord of the Soft Waist, was already full of steak and premium Rioja and drowsy with satisfaction—when the lead car of each party spotted approaching headlights and had to come to a stop. The guards got out. The Governor ordered that the citizens blocking his way should reverse direction and clear the tunnel. And so his Marines, holding all kinds of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, approached Chuy’s group. While the latter’s sicarios kept their AK-47s out of sight, so as not to alarm any citizens who might run out the other end and phone the Army which would then happily descend on the Chuy from both the East and West with their nopal-green HumVees and mounted Browning heavy machineguns that fired .50 rounds as long as your hand.

In the meantime, the poorly paid attendant on the Swiss hotel side, who had stood back as Chuy’s group entered the tunnel, decided to seek invisibility among his goats higher on the inner canyon wall. And so he was not present when the Butane truck from the Sonigas rumbled up to the tunnel. Its driver—the father of four hungry children under the age of ten—was eager to get out of Real de Catorce and away from the pinche tourists and their fat wallets. With no one to warn him otherwise, he entered the tunnel, and used his powerful headlights to fill the darkness with Butane-generated brightness.

By that time, the gunmen from both caravans were brandishing their weapons, and the Governor and Chuy, from behind their over-sized SUVs, were screaming obscenities at each other, forgetting that they had cooperated with each other over the last three years and belonged to the same moño-waitressed country club. Their respective lieutenants begged for calm. A significant current of mountain air was sucking through from the Swiss hotel side, they said, and would serve as God’s own bellows, if their military-grade bullets hit any of the eight, nearly full gas tanks and ignited the white fire that would cook them to termino medio in the singe of an eyelash.

That was when word spread that a Butane truck had pulled up behind Chuy—upwind from all of them, with enough explosive power to blow them all out the Governor’s end of the the tunnel, along with their SUVs and what remained of Chuy’s 100-Euro Riojas and the Governor’s unfulfilled condoms, Sico brand, Ultra Sensitive, “designed to let you feel the warmth of your partner,” in a bursting grand finale to the sound of a soprano’s wavering high C and an impressive short-lived roaring between the ears.

Chuy had just screamed something like “A huevo y, si no, a balazos!”

Which was something like “You’ll back the fuck up, or I’ll blow your heads off!” Only stronger. A getting-to-yes formula perfected during the Mexican Revolution—just as he began to understand what the Butane truck meant, and remembered that he had the Governor’s number under Contacts on his new iPhone. Which he smashed against the tunnel floor, when it didn’t work under the one thousand meters of peña above him. Instead, in the light of his headlights, and though his hands shook and affected both his syntax and spelling, he scribbled a note to the Governor—in which he apologized for being a pendejo. And ordered the bodyguard he trusted the least to deliver it, hoping some good might come of the attempted negotiation. But that man returned without bullet holes in him, and delivered the reply, in which the Governor also apologized and said they should have drinks at the Country Club and discuss what they could do to make sure that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that corrupt Communist shit, didn’t win the Presidential election in July and legalize drugs and grant a general amnesty to narcos everywhere.

Whereupon, both parties switched their assault weapons onto Safety and slowly backed out of the tunnel the way they had come in, bashing fenders as they went. A fifteen-minute operation, with headlight blinding everyone. Twenty minutes for Chuy’s group, because the Butane truck driver was nervous—given the extra dimensions of his truck—and because one of Chuy’s men, the one with half an ear missing, sat too close to him, holding a 9mm Beretta automatic up against his own perfectly in tact right ear.

Once outside, the Governor, his jowls sagging with resentment, repaired with his secretary to a modern, characterless Motel with a poolside bar on the main trucking route in Matehuala.

And Chuy, in a better mood than before, descended the lovely dirt road to the West, where it is said you can buy peyote buttons for meditative experiences and where small inns with nothing to offer still managed to get fruit to grow to maturity in clear glass wine bottles affixed to the pear trees that grow there in quiet courtyards. And where Chuy could linger a while, sip a lukewarm Coke by himself and breathe in the smoky scents of the Potosí desert and dream of the young, dark-skin beauty he would marry someday—and make as happy as he could.

My Goats and Andreas Scholl, Countertenor

Am I sitting in this table-wobble Bohemia café in a colonial Mexican town recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, embarking on the one sentence I am allowed for the evening, as I listen to Andreas Scholl sing Bach cantatas in his countertenor voice, which sounds like a castrato but isn’t, yet prompting my friend, a retired, down-to-earth officer of the British Royal Navy, to make silly, limp-wristed gestures with martyred, up-turned eyes as if appealing to God to join him in rejecting the whole idea of this kind of music, while of course the whole time the real target of his ridicule, his gentle jab, is someone close to me, if not identical, the one who loves listening to Andreas Scholl, about whom I know nothing at all, except that he has a long and distinguished career in the Music World and is surely one of the most talented in his field, again about which I know very little, except for once in an ancient abbey, Maguelone, on the French Coast near Montpelier when a another friend and I—he had painted the abbey many times in wonderful studies of light and dark, as if the building, surrounded by Maritime Pines were a ship of lesser tonnage, not English, approaching through a thinning fog, backlit by a weak sun that had forgotten that it was a Mediterranean sun—were sitting, he and I, in the middle of the empty pews, when a similar voice, carried on perfect acoustics, filled the abbey for several minutes, followed by a silence during which I waited for the mezzo-soprano to emerge from somewhere above and behind the altar, which happened, but as one of three young men—not a woman—grinning at their daring contribution as they passed by, and we, marveling, smiled right back at them, enchanted that a male voice could sound like that, in an abbey surrounded by dark Maritime Pines that had survived Roman shipbuilders—I’m talking about masts—all of which made me wonder whether the Roman soldiers, sitting around their campfires, wiping thick, heathen blood off their broadswords, had asked their own castrato or falsetto warrior to get up and sing a tune to relax his exhausted comrades, whose eyes would have been a mixture of Germanic Blue and Mediterranean Brown, or Cow-Eyed Limpid Umber—Homer’s phrase—if they were of Greek descent, and who didn’t think for a second of their singers as menso, zafado, loco, missing a wooden screw, or as someone whose goats had gone the mountains, hence Mexican for wacky, but just singing with vocal cords designed differently from yours and mine, hence completely undeserving of ridicule of any kind, least of all by me toward myself for going on like this without the usual punctuation, since Andreas Scholl, surely not dressed in a leather Roman battle skirt, has been stringing me along, as well as allowing me to make whatever I wanted to of his voice and of the mystery surrounding it, as well as of these Maritime Pines (gesture) made into tall masts, ghosting toward me, approaching off the coast of Montpelier, carrying a delegation of people I wouldn’t know but who are mezzo-sopranos and Hermaphrodites who can sing like Andreas Scholl and have been hoping for some time to find a writer wanting to write to their cantatas, which also go on and on, as their voices caress first the abbeys, then the Pines, and finally the mountains where my goats have gone when I listen to this music, which, as far I’m concerned, I wish would never end.

 

A Small Matter

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.

 

I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.

 

The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.

 

“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.

 

I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.

 

“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.

 

I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.

 

Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.

 

I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.

 

We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.

 

“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.

 

I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.

 

My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.

 

“Do you want me to call them?”

 

My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.

 

My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.

 

Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.

 

My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.

 

The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.

 

After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.

 

At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.

 

There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.

 

I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.

 

I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.

 

My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.

 

It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.

 

At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.

 

Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.

 

I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.

 

I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.

 

Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.

 

An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”

 

A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.

 

Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.

 

Spotting the Mugger First

Living here, I have learned to be alert. Each lesson where I have not done that has been costly. We were held up at knife point a couple of years ago, maybe more. You can read about it in The Knives of Mexico in this blog. In that case, a young man ran up the stairs past us—203 to our house from the old city center—twice, and the last time planted himself in front of us, brandishing his knife, a few yard from our garden gate. The missed clue? The lack of awareness? No one runs up the stairs in this city. Unless they’re high on something and/or have robbery on their mind.

At the beach a year ago, staying in a converted trailer, I followed the landlord’s advice and did not turn on the air conditioning. Instead, I kept a window opened (with screen) and turned on the fan. At 07:45 the next morning, I was aware that a man was standing a foot from where I slept. He darted out with my iPhone, a book, my one pair of trousers and other items that came to a tidy sum. I ran after him, without success. I had my money and credit cards in plain sight, tucked into a small Indian-woven purse. He missed it for some reason, or I’d have really been jodido. The lesson: keep windows locked and the air conditioner on, regardless of what any landlord says. He had taken off the screen and come in the window under the cover of the noise from the fan.

Yesterday, a Saturday, I started home wearing my expensive Ridge Runner’s 25 LLBean day pack. Nothing wrong with that, except that it signals you have enough money for that and for what’s probably inside it. I fell in behind a woman in her thirties. She was wearing medium-length high heels and very short black shorts barely covered by a black skirt, with black straps crisscrossing her mostly bare back. Every once in a while, she would reach back and adjust her shorts to a more modest length. Mexican women dress carefully and rarely, if ever, adjust as they walk along. There was something not ordinary about her and her progress through my neighborhood. Plus, I had never seen her before.

At the first alley, a good-sized man came up behind her. He was leering at her, which was also out of the ordinary. How do I know that? Because one notices those thing. We got to the stairs where I have to begin climbing. She turned into the darkness there—there was plenty of daylight left. The stairs are always in shadow. Something I have never done before: I sat down on a low wall on the other side of the road and waited, to spare her me climbing up behind her, if she was so worried about her modesty.

The man had not followed her. She had distracted me from thinking about him. I only knew this in retrospect. After a while, I started up the stairs. At the top, at the level of the higher road, there was no sign of her. Which seemed a little odd. So I started up the next flights of stairs. Half way up, I decided not to rest. The same man was coming up behind me, and I had already decided there was something making me uncomfortable with that. After all, where had he been before? Why was he still around? Why hadn’t he climbed up behind her, or continued on the road below?

At the very top, I sat down on a low wall, as if taking in the extraordinary view of the various church towers, the university and the rich cluster of old colonial buildings in the city center. And I watched the approaching man. Ten feet away, he glanced at me three times, and looked away. Out of the ordinary. Ordinary would have been holding my gaze long enough after the second glance to add a greeting. That is how it works here. But he looked away each time, his face in neutral. Then he sat down on the opposite low wall and looked at his phone.

But my wife and I had been stalked before by a couple of thugs in Guadalajara, and that was what they did: keep referring to their phones. To show their disinterest. Plus, what was keeping him there? There is ordinary behavior, which includes sitting for some reason. You’re old, your children are tired, you’re tired from lugging a heavy bag of groceries up to your house, you’re making a call, or you’re visiting with someone. But no one sits without one of these reasons. I could also tell he wasn’t delighting in the view and wasn’t reading anything on his phone. He and his face were blank, empty of activity. And I wasn’t going to let him get me isolated from that public spot, where five narrow alleys came together, six, if you include the stairs. So, I got up and went back down the stairs, as if, as a tourist, I had taken in the sight and was now retracing my steps. Which I did, all the way down to the center of the city, where I hailed a taxi and went up the side of the canyon and home that way.

I looked back a few times to see if he was following me. But he wasn’t. And today I climbed home, taking a different path, just to throw off anyone bothering to be watching for me.

These things happen here every once in a while. A social predator or two roll in to town and try their luck. That was what the knife holdup was. A chance spotting by someone passing through in a car, who got out and ran up after us. In this case, this series of little things out of the ordinary, is probably a one-off occasion. But I am still curious to know whether the man in this story was working together with the woman so concerned  by the length of her shorts and so successful in distracting me from the man who was tracking me.

The Beginning and the End of the World

It’s as if a whole army of Canadians and Americans had been parachuted into this once sleepy town. I suppose it’s the nature of occupation that the invaders bring their culture with them. At the same time, the invaded culture has struck back with its own forces, in that Mexican vacationers—largely the class with money—could well outnumber the foreigners. I am an equal opportunity snob, so it doesn’t matter to me. I can get into a snit over all of them—overlooking the fact that I am one of them.

The larger crime is that all of us have landed on this strip of coast and are putting enormous pressure on it. So many pleasure seekers, sun worshippers, escapees from grinding nine to five jobs, from car payments, mortgages and insurance, from the ongoing search for love and meaning. All of it dependent on oil for the suntan lotion, delivery trucks, aviation fuel and the surfboards themselves. Still, apart from the half-treated sewage water pouring into the ocean not far from the right-hand break, the bay seems to be holding its own. Pelicans dive twenty feet from the edge of the sand, meaning the sea is still rich in food. Farther out, the oceans boils with waves from distant Pacific storms, changing the beach every night, casting up—for this beach—rare black sand, and more than capable of drowning those who are not confident swimmers.

I find myself sitting on the beach, watching all this, calculating my surfing skills and strength against the turbulence of the sea, observing the deployment of the tourist armies and Pelicans—the former, not entirely comfortable in their exposed skin, as they stroll the beach. And I am thinking about the greater threat. All of this is part of a planet that will probably become uninhabitable, because we will not be able to keep the oil in the ground, not sufficiently understand what we have to do in order to avoid disaster for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

And so, later and farther to the northeast, my friends and I sit on the beach and watch the light soften and the orange fade from the ribbed cloud formation suspended above us. We sit looking out at something that will not be as it was, nor support life the way it always has.

We see a gathering of people a quarter of a mile up the beach in the opposite direction. It is a sizable group, and it moves out toward the water. I say it must be religious in some way, some sort of organized superstition. Or maybe something like twelve steppers, born-agains, or boosters. In a way, I am right on all accounts. Our Mexican companion, now a resident of Madrid, formerly of Paris, before that, Guanajuato, hits on it.

“Turtles,” she says.

We explain this to her two and a half-year old, who is half French, half Mexican.

Tortues,” says her mother, in French. “Tortugas,” in Spanish. And since she is attending an English-speaking immersion school in Madrid, we throw in “Turtles.”

We gather up our things and head down the beach. People have placed stakes and the equivalent of police ribbons to demarcate a corridor with an opening at the end where the incoming tide has left the sand wet and gleaming. The light is dimming, the evening chosen, I suppose, to make it harder for predators—gulls and humans—to interfere and poach. We squint at the sand inside the corridor. It has been raked in order to smooth the way. There are little things, perhaps the size of a soup spoon sitting immobile. But, no, here and there, their little legs begin paddling at the sand. Each one leaves an un-straight track in the sand. (See attached video clip.) A tongue of wave and foam, a tidal impulse, sweeps up and over the most advance ones. The children and adults behind the police tape utter a collective, wondrous “Ouuuu!” And when the wave recedes, twenty or more of the tortuguitas have disappeared into the vastness of their new home. It is an uncertain future. A young volunteer from the Czech Republic says five percent of them are eaten by fish in the first day. She places more within the sea’s reach. Another tongue of foam sweeps up and across, and then those too are gone. One or two get turned around or try to cross the ribbon. Onlookers reach down and get the strays oriented again.

Finally, they are all gone. The sea knocks down the stakes holding the ribbons. Nearly everyone leaves. Except those like me who are still stunned. I see a young man, sitting cross-legged, facing the opening where the turtles left us for the sea. It occurs to me he might be praying—something that would normally touch my cynic button. Instead, though I am not religious, I feel a similar impulse. And that is to pray for their safety, that they won’t be eaten or be too lonely. Pray not to some god but to something older and more important. Perhaps pray for the earth’s wanting to continue in all her ways. If only we would make it so.

Guanajuato and Katyn

What is a day like in my little Mexican city? I stretch my spine, put on a jacket and go into the kitchen. I get on my hands and knees to light the fake wood stove in the corner. A modest gas flame surrounds modest fake logs. I switch on a small silent fan that hangs in back of the stove and pushes warm air out into the room. There are two folded cotton blankets, multicolored, in front of the stove. This is where our two cats take their positions. My position is in front of the refrigerator. I take the homemade loaf of bread out. I cut a slice and put it in the toaster. I pour Mexican Alpura corporate yogurt into a glass bowl and, on top of that, ladle out homemade, crude applesauce, spiced with nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon. I add seven Costco home-roasted almonds. I find a treasured implement. An inexpensive Czech butter spreader purchased in Prague, serrated on one edge. I pluck the ready slice of homemade bread out of the Chinese toaster. It is the miracle food, depending on what you read and what your culture is. We import the Winter Red Wheat berries from California in sealed three-pound plastic bags. Larger quantities are vulnerable. There are critters here that, given enough time, can bore through thick plastic and reach the rich, organic, whole-wheat egg-laying environment. I am still using the same Seventh Day Adventist or some other survivalist kit electric stone mill that I put together at least forty years ago. With the Czech butter spreader I lift old fashioned peanut butter out of a Laura Scudder’s jar we scored in the larger gringo community an hour and twenty minutes to the east of us. San Miguel de Allende. To the locals there, SMA.

 

Our black alpha cat Lilus Kikus comes up the stairs. We took the name from Elena Poniatowska’s first novel. She is the grande dame of Mexican literature. One of us has released her from her room. She wears a cat cone so she can’t lick the treated abscess on her rear end. She bumps into things. Today, we take her to the vet’s, where she will be in shared solitary, hopefully with similar species. I suppose it is like going to prison, where we have been five times since August, to visit our friend, a Mexican who loves his two horses and who might destroy himself if the false charges stick. In other places, I have written about the Mexican justice system.

 

Alpha cat used to be invisible in the dark. Now she advances like a small bull elephant with white warning ears.

 

My made-in-China iPhone dings. My dear friend and writing partner’s mother has died. It’s a Spanish I’m not familiar with. “El donde hoy falleció mi mamá.” It is sad but not entirely unexpected news. There is always the end of life waiting for us.

 

As I eat my yogurt mix, I utilize my made-in-China, slave-wages mini iPad to read my Kindle version of Phillip Kerr’s Les Ombres de Katyn, The Shadows of Katyn. I read it in French translation to maintain my contact with the language. It is riveting in a sad sort of way. I am a child of the Holocaust in the sense that, when I was eight years old and in the thrall of a couple of Walt Disney movies in Norwich, New York, the News Reel divided the two movies with footage from Dachau, or some other KZ, in black and white of an American or German bulldozer pushing white, flopping skeletal Jews, Russian prisoners of war or gays into a massive pit, with German citizens forced to look on. My fellow witnesses to something inconceivable.

 

The Phillip Kerr novel is about the circumstances and intrigue surrounding the NKVD’s, Stalin’s secret police’s, execution of 4,000 – 5,000 Polish officers, along with 18,000 others, so that no organized resistance would ever arise on the Polish flank again. A single German bullet—to throw off possible future forensics—to the base of the skull, wrists wired in front, a loop of wire around the neck, being forced to the edge of the pits. How is an eight-year old supposed to understand this? Or the man who is now seventy years older? As you can see, there has been little progress. But now I test the gravity-fed water in the bathroom sink, after running it for a while. It is solar-heated. Barely. I decide to risk it and step under the miserly shower head. I am grateful when the clouds have spared me  their presence, when the water is warm enough to comfort the base of my skull.

 

In the cafe where I am writing this, an impoverished indigenous boy drifts my way. He is selling chicle, chewing gum, in tiny packages. He goes past my little table and me for some reason. He is more interested in the young woman giving haircuts in this my favorite writing cafe. The cafe is some sort of a collective of educated, bright young people, gentle and smart. Its customers are mostly students, including French, German, Japanese and Americans studying at the university or at one of the several language schools. The Indian boy with the chicles does not go to school. No one sees to it that he does. He belongs to a marginalized, forgotten group. There are adults that run him 19th century Dickensian style. He is one of many faces of poverty and neglect in a land full of billionaires. He stands close to my small, open backpack. I wonder whether my attention should be on him or on my writing. But he glides away from me and closer to the object of his interest. The twin sister of someone I know in the collective is visiting from Mexico City and is cutting hair nine feet away from me, like a visiting country priest dispensing blessings. She is capable and conducts conversation as she cuts and snips. Neither the boy nor I will need a haircut for some time, but both of us I think were imagining her gentle hands touching our hair, the comb on the back of our head. A series of her friends and their children are taking advantage of her visit. None of them marginalized. They are Mexico’s best, invisible to the largely self-serving national leadership. They are young people who want a better Mexico. I feel lucky to share their lives. This scene, this stage, is the very opposite of Katyn. The forest just east of Smolensk.

 

After a brisk shower, I dress, gather my knapsack and writing things, including a little notebook, and descend the 203 steps from our house to the Old City on the canyon floor. My love has delivered Ms. Alpha Cat to vet prison, where her abscess treatment will continue while we are at the beach on the Pacific side of Mexico. At the bottom of the stairs, I turn left and then enter what we call the Vegetable Alley. I see Pilar’s boy-like frame in front of me. Her face is strained. She is too thin. She takes something like a qigong stance and holds her hand out to me. She’s very dark, very dirty and beyond bi-polar high.

 

“Un peso!” she shouts, her voice hoarse.

 

And I always say, “Solamente tengo diez!” and hand her a ten-peso piece. I try not to touch her hand, because I don’t think she washes. She takes the coin, whirls around and spits out a curse at someone thirty feet down the alley. Someone who has mocked her. I think she’s saying, “Eeh, cabrón? Chinga a tu perro!” Or more like the plural: “Chinga a tus chingados perros!” I’m pretty sure she’s using the masculine ending. I say, “Cuídate, Pilar.” Take care, Pilar! To show her and others that I recognize her as my friend. I touch her on the shoulder to show friendship. People catch my eye, as I proceed. Crazy, dirty lady, say the grinning eyes. I smile back, betraying Pilar. But these mockers are also part of my world. It is a rare day that this exchange does not occur. Sometimes when she is more coherent and her mind is racing less, Pilar asks, “Hey, do you want a sexual?” That’s the expression, a sexual. An adjective with no noun, sort of like what she is. I thank her and say no.

 

I pass the young woman and her sister with the comal who sell warm tacos. The younger one always wears a wool cap, no matter how warm it is. She is smart. I know their names. I always make some joke when I pass. They are generous with their laughter. I think they will live out their lives selling tacos. That idea used to bother me. It no longer does. There is much to be said for work that does not shower Hellfire missiles down from your country’s drones. Their food is not popular. Even I do not eat there.

 

I enter one of the city’s few busy streets. The traffic is one-way, the sidewalk narrows to the width of about fifteen inches. You have to be aware. There is a curve and when the buses that are too big make the turn their rear ends swerve to within twelve inches of the building touching the sidewalk. It is fairly exciting unless you are someone who is both wide and  not paying attention. It helps that the buses are probably not exceeding five miles an hour.

 

I duck into the pedestrian alley where the cafe is located. Mexican and South American New Years tourists stroll toward me. They are in no hurry and don’t worry about approaching me five abreast, as if family takes the right of way. I step up into the cafe. I see the young woman cutting hair. I am surprised, but not very. I say hello to a few of my young friends. They greet me warmly. I sit down and begin to write. It is what I need. Being surrounded by these gentle people. Watching the hair cutting. Smiling inside, then also on the outside. So far from Katyn—if not from the missing and still unaccounted for 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

 

 

Keeping Warm in Mexico

Today I got my Honda smogged at Nissan in Guanajuato. Then I drove over to the new Honda dealership and pulled into the Service entrance. A young woman in a jacket came out of an office to greet me. It was 11 in the morning, long after cars had pulled in for service. She held out her hand and said Buenos Días. I reciprocated, bowed a little the way my mother must have taught me, and brought my heels together—maybe from seeing movies. There was no click because I was wearing sandals. I did have to go to dancing school when I was about eight years old. I do thank my mother for that, since it gave me a life-long advantage over male competitors who are reluctant to or don’t know how to dance. Your value as a male leaps when you know how to dance and bow a little. The young woman was a facilitator. I told her one of my lights wasn’t working, on the left side. She went away and came back with a mechanics’ supervisor. I turned on the lights, he nodded and walked away. He came back with a mechanic. I had thought the matter was going to be complicated, involving removing a lot of things under the hood to get at the delinquent bulb. He signaled that I should open the hood. He reached in and in maybe eight seconds had the bulb in his hand. With a look of satisfaction, a detective finding key evidence, he held it up to show us all that it was blackened from the short inside it. The two men went away, the supervisor to the Parts window to inquire about the bulb. I did not expect them to have the bulb. They are a relatively new branch of Honda, plus it is my experience that in Mexico you often have to come back for something you need. I believe that comes from a culture that has learned to avoid the cost of maintaining an inventory that may not be sold. The work area was a high-ceiling shed, with big doors open at either end and a chilly wind passing through the work space. I chatted a little with the young reception woman. I am sure, aside from cleaning people, she is one of the lowest paid employees at the dealership. She had a jacket on and was clearly still cold. I stood in front of the engine looking in. “It’s pretty clean for ten years old,” I said. She agreed. The supervisor came back and said they would have the new bulb the next morning after 9. Maybe, I thought. The engine gave off heat. I was like standing in front of a very warm radiator, the old fashioned steam kind. I mentioned this to her and invited her to join me. We stood with our backs to the motor and chatted. She was a smart person, personable, friendly. And poised culturally and socially that she could stand beside an unknown gringo of years and feel relatively comfortable. If I were head of Honda, I would make sure she rose in the ranks as far as she wanted to go. I just thought I’d mention it. The moment. And where a burned out headlight bulb can lead.