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Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Not Another Anti-SUV Essay

I had to drive my car around Seattle yesterday to run a few errands. My downtown neighborhood is fairly self-contained but once in a great while I need to go to the mega-hardware store or the hiking/climbing/biking shop in Ballard. On my way home I drove through Freemont. I was planning to stop for coffee and check out Twice Told Tales, a used bookshop in that neighborhood. I was quickly overcome by the stress of trying to park my car so I gave up and headed home.

It wasn’t like I needed another reason to think that cars suck. Besides the hassle of parking, I can’t even count how many times during my short outing my field of vision was blocked by an SUV. Even when they are parked SUV’s are a menace to society.

In our “bigger is always better” culture of consumerism, the Humvee, or Hummer, is the biggest. The Hummer is a ridiculously large military vehicle now available in soccer mom flavors. Even its name is absurd--hummer is another slang term for blow job. Without altering the meaning, I suggest we change the name to the more abusive term for oral sex. Let’s call this vehicle the Skullfuck. The logo could be some frat rat dude wearing a ball cap on his head backwards forcing the planet earth to give him oral sex. Special permission will be necessary as this is already the logo of the Bush administration.

Some asswipe in my neighborhood actually owns a Hummer/Skullfuck. How anyone could drive this preposterously large truck down a city street and keep a straight face is way beyond my comprehension. I would be thoroughly embarrassed to be seen in one of these escapees from a monster truck rally. When I see one parked at a traffic light I half-expect to see a door open and a troop of clowns come rushing out. Hummers aren’t for off-road travel, they are clown cars.

Given the current make-up of our Congress, we won’t be able to pass legislation to close the loophole that allows these cargo tankers to infest our city streets. What we as citizens can do is to heap so much vitriol and sarcasm upon SUV’s that people will no longer think that it is cool to buy them.

The folks in marketing sell SUV’s as the vehicle for you, the lone individualist. If I have learned one thing about our society it is that we are all terrified to stand out from the crowd. People buy SUV’s not because they want to stand out, but because they want to be just like everyone else. If you want to buy into a cool image brought to you by the propagandists, then buy a Mini Cooper. If you are going to be a lemming, then at least you can leap off the cliff in a car that doesn't block my view of the precipice.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Seattle-Mazatlán-Los Molchis-Copper Canyon-Chihuahua-Zacatecas-Durango

Sometimes seeing the world is hard.

I hate it when a record of my travels begins with a trip to the airport and an airplane but there isn’t always enough time to take a train or ride a bike to the places I want to see. The first leg of this trip is a breeze: two hours to LA, layover for a couple minutes and another couple of hours to Mazatlán. It’s about a four cups of coffee journey. That part I could do standing on my head, which isn’t a lot less comfortable than flying coach. Once I land in Mazatlán I can feel the heat even as I walk through the air-conditioned terminal. All I have is my pack, which I carried on, so once I get out of customs I start looking for a cash machine.

I realize I don’t know the word for cash machine in Spanish (cajero automático, as I was to learn) but it turns out that there are no cash machines in the airport anyway, which isn't a problem for most of the tourists. They go directly to the hotels on the beach. You could probably spend an entire vacation here without ever seeing a Mexican peso. Dollars are gladly accepted in the tourist towns. Luckily I brought a few dollars in cash. I changed $40 at the rip-off cash exchange place in the airport and then I walked outside and got on a hot shuttle bus.

I told the driver I needed to catch a bus up north to Los Molchis and as we drove the 20 or so miles into Mazatlán I dreaded having to do any walking with my pack in this heat. There isn't a lot of charm to Mazatlán except along the beach. I had been here years ago and I think once is probably enough. The bus was packed with other gringos headed for the various new hotels that lay a bit north of town. The driver stopped the bus and ran into a building. I thought he had forgotten about me but he came out and told me my bus was leaving in fifteen minutes. Muchas gracias!

I had just enough time to buy something for the seven-hour trip and I opted for a can of beer. When I got to the register, the little kid behind the counter pointed to a sign on the wall that said that you couldn't buy beer on Sunday after two o'clock. I told him it would be our little secret. I guess he hadn't heard that one before because he laughed as he took my money.

I got on the bus, settled down in my seat, and popped the can when a soldier got on the bus and walked right back to me. I made a half-assed attempt to hide the beer between my legs but he just wanted to check my passport. I guess checking a foreigner’s papers makes him feel like he is earning his pay.

The bus was actually pretty comfortable; they even showed a couple of movies. Only a fool would watch the driver on a Mexican bus and only a true thrill-seeker would watch the road as the driver fumbles around in his bag as he tries to load a video cassette, passing a semi while going over 110 kilometers an hour.

Watching a couple of crappy movies subtitled in Spanish on a Mexican bus gives me a whole new perspective on Hollywood. The first movie was Face Off and everyone was pretty much digging that one. There isn't a three-minute segment of that movie that isn't punctuated by some incredible (incredibly stupid) action sequence. I had to read the subtitles along with everyone else, as the volume was pretty lousy from my seat. My point is that things like action and sex transcend any language barrier. I don't think My Dinner with Andre would have gone over too well on the Mazatlán to Los Molchis bus. Come to think of it, I don't think that movie went over well anywhere.

The bus pulled into Los Molchis at about 11 p.m. I left my house at 5:30 this morning but who's counting. Now I have a couple of problems: I still need money, food, and I have to decide whether or not to get a room or just do the homeless thing for the night as I have to be at the train station at 5 a.m. I find a cash machine and then my survival instinct takes over and I ferret out a bar to make a decision. It is midnight when I finish my beer and I opt for the up-all-night option.

As I sit under an awning at a sidewalk taco stand, I watch an incredible cloudburst that fills the streets with up to a foot of water. The water level doesn't slow many of the people on the roads, as common sense seems to be optional for drivers here. I see several near collisions on my corner and after a few minutes I hear a crash down the street. After the rain stops I walk that way to check it out. There is a cargo van up on the curb with a motorcyclist-size shatter in the windshield and under the front tire, upside down, is the motorcycle. It was like a cartoon except with blood.

I got a chance to nod off a little bit on a bench at the bus station and before you know it I was in a taxi headed for the station. That's a bit like saying, "before you know it, the glaciers had receded and the ice age was over." If you want to slow down time, try staying up all night in Los Molchis, Mexico.

The Chihuahua-Pacífico railroad tries desperately to hang on to the splendid past of rail travel in this country. The express train is rather nice with a dining car and a bar but I realized very soon that it was going to be a slow trip. It is also a bit expensive. The ticket alone is over twice as expensive as what the guidebooks quote. My assigned seat was next to the only other gringo on the train and worse yet, the window was really small. I was moving to another seat as a conductor was checking tickets. The train was almost empty but he told me that I had to keep my assigned seat until we got to the El Fuerte station a few miles down the line. I was a little startled by his rigidity.

I had never encountered this sort of blind adherence to rules, at least not in Latin America. That was something I would expect on a German train--a country that makes you uncomfortable jaywalking on a deserted street. I remember what someone had told me years ago when we had run into a problem in Mexico. I can’t even remember what the problem was in that instance but I was voicing my concern to a hotel employee and he told me not to worry, “En Mexico, todo se arregla.” Here everything works out. I ignored the Germanic conductor and took a seat up front next to a huge window.

The train cuts through the Copper Canyon (barrancas del cobre) that I had read is bigger and more incredible than the Grand Canyon. The ride began very inauspiciously, slowing passing the flat coastal plain and squalid, makeshift dwellings--poverty as desperate as you're likely to see anywhere in this country. I was beginning to question my travel plans.

As soon as the train began to make its way up and through the canyon I immediately changed my mind. The territory of the Copper Canyon is as remote, as inhospitable as any I have ever seen--every bit as wild as the Slopes of the Andes as they dissolve into the Amazon basin. Roads are almost nonexistent and the few that are visible are dirt tracks. Only a handful of dwellings can be seen from the train. This is the realm of the Tarahumara Indians—Indians and drug lords. A lot of Mexican poppy for heroin and marijuana are supposedly grown in this remote area. There aren’t a lot of people snooping around and those who stumble on this place by accident sometimes don’t make it out.

The river that runs through the canyon looks unnavigable but maybe some crazy person has tried it. Passing through the canyon by train is like watching a really long nature movie, a marathon Discovery channel edition of this part of Mexico. I'm not comparing a real experience to TV I'm just saying that like TV, this is a really passive experience—just sit on your butt and stare out the window.

The train ride turned out to be longer than I had expected--17 hours in all. Ay caramba!. During the last few hours on the train I had the feeling of someone sinking with the ship as a lot of the passengers had opted to get out at Creel, an outpost that specializes in excursions to the Tarahumara Indian villages. I was sticking to my original plan of making Chihuahua in one day.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

In the News

I like to pick up the local papers when I travel around Mexico. The locals try to focus on as much regional news as possible to give people a reason to buy them instead of the big Mexico City dailies. Since there often isn’t much local news in cities like Durango, Chihuahua, Irapuato, or Leon, the dailies from these places will write up local traffic accidents and publish them along with gory post-crash photographs.

The wording of these reports makes me think that the authors are leaning more towards tragic opera or maudlin country folk songs than towards journalism. Much like Latin soap operas are about as subtle as a car wreck, the stories about car wrecks attempt to be as dramatic as soap operas (simply called telenovelas or novellas down here). Car mishaps, especially those involving fatalities, are seen as either entertainment or as cautionary tales.

The vehicles will be described down to the make, color, and sometimes even the license numbers are given. Along with pictures of the wrecked vehicles, the reporters will supply an exhaustive inventory of the damages to the cars and the medical injuries incurred.

The best part of these journalistic tragedies is when the writer points an accusatory editorial finger at a fatally-injured driver. They will report that the guy was going too fast, he was passing on a dangerous curve, he ran a stop sign, or he was just plain reckless. Sometimes the reporter will even speculate that the driver was intoxicated.

Allow me to translate one of these masterpieces I found in El Heraldo from Leon in the state of Guanajuato: Manuel _____, 45 years old, was driving a white Tsuru belonging to the Western Private Security Company when he apparently attempted to pass another vehicle on a turn. What he wasn’t aware of was the delivery truck heading in the opposite direction.

This particular story was accompanied by three photographs of the heavily damaged vehicles involved. The caption under one photo read: “The lifeless body of Manuel ____ remained pressed between the twisted metal.”

A news kiosk in Mexico is a pretty entertaining spot. Along with the newspapers and magazines are the mildly pornographic comic books. There is nothing too graphic in these comics, just lots of cartoon gals with really big cartoon breasts. My favorite one had a picture on the cover of a large-breasted, topless nun shooting a machine gun. For you social anthropologists out there, that one should keep you busy for your entire doctoral thesis.

Friday, November 15, 2002

More From Mexico

In all the times that I have been to Mexico no one has ever mentioned the city of Guanajuato. No one ever told me that Guanajuato is filled with shaded parks lined with outdoor cafes, with cathedrals and colonial architecture dating back hundreds of years, and with a vitality not apparent in most U.S. cities. No one has ever let me in on the secret that Guanajuato is one of the most beautiful cities not only in this country but in all of the Americas.

The name for this city comes from the native Indian term Quanax-huato which means, “Place of Frogs.” Statues of frogs are everywhere and their dense population could cause a lot of head scratching without this historical tidbit.

When you enter Guanajuato by car you will pass through miles of tunnels that were originally built to divert the river under the city. Now the river flows one level beneath the tunnels that are now used for automobile traffic. Traffic and parking are fierce here, as bad as any city in the U.S. The tunnels are a remarkable engineering feat. They are worth seeing but I wouldn’t recommend exploring them on foot, as the passages aren’t very well ventilated.

We only had a half a day to see the city so we didn’t see very much at all. We had lunch next door to the huge, neoclassical Juárez Theater just off the Jardin de la Union. We did the nickel walking tour and ended up in the gigantic indoor/outdoor Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s central market. A few more bootleg CD’s and then we had to set off to find where we had parked.

We had a 56-mile drive back to San Miguel and I wanted to get back before dark. It was another sunny late afternoon in El Bajío, the central highland plateau that stretches for hundreds of miles and almost as far south as Mexico City. We stopped to get something to drink at a roadside restaurant out in the country.

The place was completely empty at this time of day and the woman running the place, the only employee in evidence, seemed surprised to have visitors. We sat at a table outside with a great view of the countryside. It was one of those times when you had to be there. I couldn’t help but think how lucky my nephew was for being able to see so much of the world at such an early age. He probably won’t fully appreciate this little restaurant in the Mexican countryside until years from now. Something will spark his memory and he’ll remember sitting outside on a perfect evening in November.

MARTHA STEWART HAS NOTHING ON CONCHA

I mentioned that I wanted to learn how to make Mole, a dish I believe is of Mayan origin. Concha offered to come by the house and walk me through her version of this Mexican classic. She rattled off a confusing list of items (I don’t know what many of them are called in English let alone in Spanish). She saw the exasperated look on my face and said she would get everything so all I had to shop for was the chicken that accompanies the Mole.

For me, I can’t imagine a more rewarding cultural experience than having someone teach me to cook a dish very representative of that country in the language of that country. When she set out all of the ingredients for this dish on the kitchen counter I thought that perhaps I was in over my head. It is easier than the long list of ingredients suggest.

MOLE CONCHA

For the chicken:

Whole chicken cut into pieces and skinned.
1 Onion
2 cloves garlic
Several sprigs of cilantro
Salt

Fill a large pot with water and boil. Add above ingredients, cover, and let boil for about 25-30 minutes.

For the Mole

About 10 large dried chilies, stemmed and seeded
About a handful of pumpkin seeds and peanuts (all nuts unsalted)
2 table spoons of sesame seeds
6-7 almonds
3-4 cloves
2 bay leaves
2 inch piece of cinnamon
About a domino-size piece of sweet baking chocolate
Oregano
About 6 tomatillos
½ onion
1 clove garlic

Boil the chilies in about 4 cups of water for about 20 minutes. Toast the seeds separately in a skillet. Blend all of the ingredients together in a food processor along with the water from the boiled chilies. Add some chicken stock to the blender to liquefy the ingredients. Put the liquefied mixture in a large pot. Transfer the chicken pieces to this pot and cook for about ten minutes.

For the Rice

Brown 1 cup of rice in a pot with about 1 tablespoon of oil. Liquefy 2 Italian tomatoes, ½ onion, and ½ clove of garlic and add to the rice. Add about 2 cups of the stock from the boiled chicken to the rice and when this boils lower the temperature and cook covered. Do not stir. Cook rice to your preferred consistency.

Concha served the chicken on a bed of lettuce with the sauce poured over the chicken and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Serve with the rice and corn tortillas.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

La Casa del Gallo

If my stay here seems to lack much in the way of adventure and discovery I can blame it all on this house here in San Miguel. I never want to leave this place--ever. We are the lucky tenants for the week in a splendidly restored Mexican colonial town home called La Casa del Gallo because of the rooster that until recently occupied the back garden. Repeated crowing at 3 a.m. forced the owners to relocate the rooster. Reports are that he tasted like chicken. Vaya con dios, Señor Gallo

From the street the house in unbelievably unassuming, like all of the other homes in the town. A heavy wooden door and one barred window are all that face the narrow cobblestone Calle de los Chiquitos. The door opens to a long arcade with five arches that serves as a hallway between the rooms. The arcade runs along one side of the house all the way to the garden in the back. An open-air patio, filled with potted plants and a fountain, sits in the middle of the arcade. The living room, kitchen, and three bedrooms face into the arcade and patio.

This style of architecture takes excellent advantage to the comfortable climate here. Outdoors is where most of the living is done in these homes. There is a walled-in backyard that is home to one of the tallest palm trees in the city. In addition to the patio in the back yard there is another on the roof overlooking the city and the plains below San Miguel.

I don’t know when the house was built but if I had to guess I would say that it was during the lifetime of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)—over three hundred years ago. This style of home goes back at least as far as the Roman times when walled homes were built around a courtyard. The ‘your home is your castle’ school of architecture was common throughout the Mediterranean world and was easily adapted for the Spanish colonies in America.

The kitchen has a four-burner gas range vented by a chimney that runs along the back wall. Several skylights brighten up this room and the adjoining pantry. We have spent a lot of out time in this room, cooking eating, and hanging out listening to the bootleg CD’s of Mexican Ranchera music we picked up in the markets.
There is a formal dining room with an adjoining living area two steps below. We have set up the dining room table as out office. My nephew’s laptop computer and my huge road map of Mexico cover the table. I find the Hallwag maps to be excellent driving companions and I have one for almost every country in Europe. I highly recommend this map if you are venturing south of the border in an automobile or even if you are taking the buses.

I have made it out of the house. We made a road trip yesterday to the beautiful and cosmopolitan city of Guanajuato. More on that later.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Confessions of a Mexican Grandmother

For the purposes of this trip I am playing the role of uncle and Mexican grandmother to my twelve-year-old nephew. Not only am I tutoring him in Spanish but I am also inculcating him into other aspects of the culture of this country that I know so well.

Since we have access to a wonderful kitchen where we are staying, we decided to cook at least a few meals at the house. Pozole (po SO lay) seems to be a pretty big item in this part of the Sierra, so I thought our first meal would be my famous Pozole el Jarocho. For those of you unfamiliar with this dish it is a sort of stew, made with lots of different things in different places, but it must always contain white corn, or hominy as we call it in our southern States in el Norte.

My nephew is a notoriously finicky eater; he will rarely try new things unless you hold him at gunpoint. Evidently there are “laws” against pulling a loaded firearm on a child so the kid sticks with cheese pizzas and burgers. While we are in Mexico I want him to try all of the different things that they offer, but I was worried he might put up too much resistance. Then he told me about the little exception to his picky eating habits: He likes things that he cooks himself.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone: I would teach him how to cook pozole and get him to eat this rather foreign dish at the same time. I started out the recipe dictating it in Spanish for the benefit of the housekeeper’s six-year-old son who was hanging out in the kitchen with us. I explained to both of these males the importance of learning how to cook. Kids will pay pretty close attention when you are teaching them anything in which they have interest. All kids like to eat.

My nephew took to cooking like a natural. I designated him the official pozole stirrer. I also explained to him all of the ingredients that aren’t common to American cooking. The recipe for my pozole (I described this dish and left a recipe on a previous February blog) uses chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Chipotles are smoked jalapeño peppers that aren’t too hot but add a nice flavor to this dish. I also use chayote squash and, of course, the obligatory maíz blanco or hominy.

All of the cooking instructions that I gave were in Spanish and the kid performed beautifully. I highly recommend having a kid around to stir the pot, fetch another onion from the pantry, y sacar otra cerveza del refrigerador.

Along with pozole I went out and bought a spit-roasted chicken for our first home-cooked Mexican meal. They don’t call the chickens free-range here because the idea of factory-bred, hormone-injected poultry hasn’t yet occurred to the Mexicans. If it has occurred to them they didn’t think it was a very good idea. When you buy a fresh chicken in the market they are a wonderful yellow color and not that pale white breed we have up north.

One of my favorite things here are the pollos a la parilla, chickens cooked on a rotating spit. This is, without a doubt, the best way to cook a bird. As I was paying for the chicken I asked the guy if it came with tortillas. He gave me a look as if to say, “Of course it comes with tortillas, you idiot gringo. This is Mexico.” Silly me.

We also went to a huge outdoor market. Every imaginable item from fresh produce to bootleg CD’s was laid out on several acres of tables. Tents cover everything to block out the fierce midday sun. I picked up a couple of CD’s of Mexican music for the kid. Every kid needs to know about Mexico’s most famous singer of Rancheras, a type of folk song with lots of trumpets and lots of heartache. I have probably written about Vicente Fernandez somewhere or another. He is one of the biggest stars in Mexico.

You can’t really begin to understand Mexico or call yourself fluent in the Spanish of this country without a pretty thorough knowledge of Vicente Fernandez. He has also made a bunch of cowboy style movies so he is like John Wayne and Merle Haggard wrapped into one.

We also picked up a couple CD’s ofLos Tigres del Norte, a popular Norteño band. Norteño music is characterized by lots of accordion and a lively beat—Mexican polka. The music helps to put us into the mood when we are hanging out around the house.

I also picked up a book of fairy tales in Spanish--the last thing on our cultural calendar for the day. The great artwork in this book helps in learning new words. Tonight I had the kid read Jack and the beanstalk in Spanish (Juan y los Frijoles Mágicos). This is great reading material and really aids in the cultural literacy that is necessary for mastering another language. The kid is already familiar with the story lines so it is just a matter of teaching him the vocabulary of fairy tales. I learned a few things myself.

You really sleep like a baby with a stomach full of Mexican food and a story where everyone lives happily ever after (vivieron felices por el resto de sus vidas isn’t quite as poetic I must admit). A couple of strong margaritas don’t hurt either. Buenas noches.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

AHop, Skip, and a Jump

I’m not exactly the most detail-oriented guy in the world but it would have been nice to know what flight I was looking for. As I was leaving Seattle I noticed that I had deleted the e-mail that carried this vital information. I was fairly sure that I had the right day.

The airport of Guanajuato isn’t very big. There is only one screen of arrivals, which made it easy to figure out which flight was the one I wanted. I had a beer at the bar overlooking the airstrip and watched a few planes land. An American Airlines flight from Dallas touched down and I saw my brother and nephew walking to the terminal.

From the airport it is about 140 kilometers from where we are staying in San Miguel de Allende. I had rented a little Nissan sedan that had plenty of power on the flats. As we made our way out of the plateau and back into the mountains, and with three people in the small car, it was obvious I wouldn’t be doing much passing on these narrow, vertiginous roads. Of course, that didn’t prevent the other drivers from taking some rather breathtaking chances on these goat paths without guardrails. I think they use the movie Road Warriors as a drivers training film down here.

Once we passed through the city of Guanajuato we had the road almost to ourselves and, even driving, I was able to enjoy the beautiful late afternoon. My nephew grew up speaking Spanish in Spain, but it has been a few years since he has used this language as anything other than a subject in school. I stopped at a restaurant along the highway to get a quick bite to eat and give the kid a chance to use some Spanish.

We were only a couple minutes away from San Miguel where we were planning on going out for a big dinner. I ordered one item on the menu for us all to split. The young girl brought out a large ceramic bowl of chorizo, a basket of tortillas, and a big dish of various condiments with three different types of salsa. This one dish turned out to be a meal for the three of us.

Although this area is well into the tropics at about the 21rst parallel, the high altitude keeps the temperature at a comfortable level even in the summer months, as long as you are in the shade.

The city of San Miguel de Allende sits at an altitude of 6,400 feet. I can’t say that I can even feel the difference from the change from sea level in Seattle to here. The car’s fuel injection had a harder time with the altitude than my cardio-vascular system. I’ll notice the change more when I return home and have my first, hard bike ride.

I don’t worry that the altitude will affect me adversely but I worry that I will eat myself to death. I have been here three days and I’ve already eaten twice my weight in tortillas alone. Influenced by my nephew, I actually had some sort of attack that could only be cured by eating an ice cream cone—I normally never eat sweets. I have to watch myself because these days the airlines make big people buy two seats.

San Miguel is a beautiful colonial city that was declared a national monument in 1926. There are no traffic lights, gaudy florescent signs, or any new construction in the city. What it does have is lots of construction dating from back to its conception in 1542. All of the streets are cobblestone and there seems to be a cathedral on every corner. San Miguel is also host to a sizeable ex-pat community of artists and retirees from the U.S. and Canada who live here for the excellent climate and the historic charm—the same reason I’m here.

Monday, November 11, 2002

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

At least I dodged the cab or bus ride to the airport this time. Another couple were on a flight the same time as mine and I was able to hitch a ride with them. From the moment you step out of your car at the airport you are bombarded with threats and dire warnings. Don't leave your car or it will be towed. Don't leave any bags unattended or they will be destroyed. You can't go here. Stay out of this area. Pass through this machine. You need to be searched. There are countless seemingly benign items that, if you are foolish enough to carry them, will land you on the wrong side of the law.

The security people are almost all completely humorless, a condition that is either mandated from above or a result of performing an excruciatingly boring task or a bit of both. It was only 11 a.m. but all of this security stuff made me want a stiff drink. After a $10 breakfast Bloody Mary I heard my flight giving the last boarding call. The attendant reminded all of us non first class passengers to pick up our lunch bag before boarding the aircraft. A fucking bag lunch? It would have been less humiliating and perhaps more rewarding nutritionally had there been a clown on the ramp hitting each coach class passenger in the face with a pie. I was really hungry so I grabbed my bag and settled into my seat.

From being treated like a criminal by security you go to being treated like a child by the airline staff. "Sit down. Fasten your seat belt. Sit up straight. No, you can't go to the bathroom. Drink your drink. Eat your food. Don't stand up until you're told." At least the booze is cheaper on the plane than in the airport. Flying sucks.

From Seattle to Dallas and then on to Leon, Mexico. When I got to the gate for the flight to Leon the attendant announced over the P.A. that the flight had been overbooked and they were offering volunteers $400 cash and a flight to Guadalajara and ground transportation to Leon. Before I could look at my map and do the math in my head I had missed my chance. I had no place to stay on my first night so Guadalajara would have worked as well as Leon.

I like how Latinos will clap when the plane lands. I like how you have to walk from the plane to the terminal across the tarmac. It was a beautiful evening. I was comfortable in shirtsleeves. Now all I had to do was clear customs, get my car and find a hotel at 11p.m.

Along the highway from the airport into Leon are a bunch of auto hotels. I wasn't going to be particular as I was tired and I was leaving early the next morning anyway. These auto hotels are a walled compound. You drive inside and each room has its own garage. The one I pulled into had a sign saying that a single room (una sencilla) was 130 pesos. I had hit a bank machine at the airport so I had a bunch of pesos but the problem was that I had no idea how much they were worth. It had been a year since I was here last and I couldn't remember. I decided that I didn't care how much it cost. I pulled into a garage and paid the gal who lead me there. She also informed me that the exchange rate was about ten pesos to the dollar.

The room was clean and modern. It was actually a little too modern. There was a round bed with a mirror on the ceiling. The place looked like a Mexican version of Hugh Hefner's bedroom. The TV had two channels of porn (Very odd for this Catholic country). The room was about $13 and I was becoming suspicious. I began to think that this was one of those hotels where you go to have an affair and pay by the hour. Just to clear things up I walked out to the office and asked if the rate was for the entire evening. The gal in the office looked at me funny when I asked this and assured me that it was.

The next morning I got up early and pulled out of my little garage and as I made my way to the exit I saw that it was blocked by a heavy steel gate. So this is it. This is where someone comes out and tells me that I owe them $1,000 American or they impound my car. Someone did come out but she just asked me my room number. The gate swung open and I escaped. A $13 hotel room, even for Mexico this was really inexpensive.

I had a couple of hours to spend before I had to go back to the airport to pick up my brother and my nephew. I desperately needed a cup of coffee. Between my hotel and the airport there didn't seem to be any likely prospects so I continued past the airport to Siloa. I parked near the Cathedral Plaza and walked. One thing you can say for every town in Mexico is that there is plenty of commerce going on. Hundreds of little stores are crammed into the downtown area and street vendors cover the sidewalks. Even the nuns were selling stuff in front of the cathedral. I found a cool restaurant off the square for coffee and breakfast. I wasn't even sure when I was supposed to pick up my brother but I thought I had a ballpark estimate.

I brought the same notebook I had on my last trip here so I will probably rehash some of my thoughts from a year ago and sell them as new here. Time to go.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Books: The Ultimate Status Symbol

Have you ever looked at magazines that have pictures of the homes of rich people? Have you ever noticed that they never have any books in their homes? They may have a few coffee table books stacked neatly on an end table. Perhaps the high-minded celebrity may have a small shelf of those expensive leather-bound books that are published for people who don’t read, but most of the time rich people don’t have any books. Books define us; they aren’t clutter that needs to be put away the day the photographers arrive.

When I walk into someone’s home, the first thing I look for is books. Nothing tells me more about a person on this initial glance than knowing what they read. I don’t care how many trips you have made to the Pottery Barn to furnish your little castle, you had better have some good books if you are out to impress people in my perfect world. I would be head librarian of this world. I worked for a semester in a rare books library so I feel myself to be highly qualified for the post.

A long time ago a girl I was dating got a job house-sitting for one of her professors. I went over with her one day to feed the cat or something. I walked in the kitchen door and I immediately knew I was somewhere special. The place was lousy with books. I have never seen so many books in one home in my entire life. The collection was so vast and varied that I couldn’t even tell what the husband and wife professorial team taught at the University of Maryland. They were simply polymathic to an alarming degree. I had always been a book lover but this couple became a heavy influence in my interior design preferences.

My book collecting fetish took on a new fervor. I spent at least one full day a month combing the used bookstores and thrift shops of the greater Washington D.C. area buying books on every subject that struck my fancy. My personal library grew, women were impressed. Impressed isn’t quite accurate, women saw my library and flung themselves at me. I was the envy of all men.

I envisioned myself growing old with my thousands of hard bound volumes with library-quality plastic covers. A couple of cross-continent moves changed all of that. My books became a weight that was drowning me, a millstone around my neck. I gave away most of my library. A friend of mine called me from the other side of the country recently and told me she had bought one of my books (all of them stamped with my personal seal) at a yard sale. What goes around comes around.

I didn’t quite start from scratch, as far as my library goes, when I moved here to Seattle, but just about from scratch. My place is quickly filling up again. They day isn’t too far off when I will make another long move. My books will be sent to the Diaspora. I have had to rethink my attitude towards amassing possessions. I have come to realize that my prized possession, my books, were both a source of comfort and a hindrance to my mobility. My response to the commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” is not to have much that my neighbor would covet. If any of my neighbors would care for a book, they only need ask.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

What's the Question?

American politicians are very good at coming up with answers. Our current president has been on a whistle stop tour of the country supporting Republican candidates on the ballot for the election today. His answer to everything is to invade Iraq. The problem with our president is that he doesn’t know the question. He hasn’t listened to the country when it has posed questions.

We haven’t asked our political leaders to be philosophers. Philosophers ask questions. We see people who ask questions as being indecisive, wishy washy or just plain cowardly. We seem to view those who constantly give out answers as being the opposite of indecisive, we see them as leaders, we see them as strong. The problem, as I see it, is that the absence of philosophy is religion. Religion doesn’t ask questions, it spews forth answers. Perhaps we should seek political leaders who have more in common with philosophers than priests.

Asking questions is at the heart of the brilliant new film by Michael Moore, Bowling for Columbine. The main question the film asks is why we Americans kill one another at such an alarming rate. He asks many questions. Critics of the movie point out that he doesn’t provide any answers. Again with the answers thing!

Bowling for Columbine is steered by the questions it raises. At one point Moore travels to Canada to try to find out why Canadians are less homicidal than their neighbors to the south. He interviews three teenagers that he catches skipping school. One of the film’s finest moments occurs when he comes to the subject of Canada’s universal health care system. When he asks the kids if they think national health care for everyone is a good idea, they all agree that it is. When he asks them why, the young girl he is interviewing simply laughs at him, as if she found the question so ridiculous that it didn’t warrant a verbal response.

About as close as Moore comes to providing an answer for the senseless violence in the United States is the film’s suggestion that perhaps we are too preoccupied with fear to address the true problems of this nation. For decades we lived in constant fear of a third world nation called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For the past year this nation has been practically paralyzed with fear because of an act of terrorism committed by a handful of fanatics. We are told that this nation cannot afford to provide health care for all of its citizens yet we have increased defense spending to the highest level in over forty years. I have a few questions of my own concerning what will make America a better place to live for its people. I don’t know the answers but I know it doesn’t entail invading Iraq.

Bowling for Columbine is not journalism. It is a work of art with more in common with the traditions of Dickens and Zola than the current trash being heaped upon us by Hollywood. I don't think that most of what we think of as literature is much better that the vapid cinema that surrounds us. Very few recent American novelists have bothered to explore our society to discover what questions we should be asking ourselves. When was the last time that a film or a novel provoked a serious dialogue? Moore's film will have viewers leaving the theaters and asking many questions of their own. I think that everyone who sees this movie will have a completely new outlook on television news. It will make everyone aware of how violence has been exploited to secure viewership. Art that doesn't provoke questions is pretty frivolous in my opinion. This isn't a frivolous movie.