Saturday, December 23, 2006
The Zocalo (town square) of Mexico City is one spot that looks much as I remember it in 1965
Oscar Ruiz, a helicopter pilot, has posted a stunning aerial guided tour of Mexico City here. Volcanoes, humungous apartment towers, the biggest bullring in the world, Chapultepec Park, the stock exchange, vast clouds of smog, Aztec ruins, fabulous mansions, ticky-tacky housing developments, La Guadalupana (site of the Virgin's first shrine) and endless vistas of overcrowded barrios. After a glimpse of the traffic and the sheer size of the place, I'd have to say a helicopter is definitely the way to see it.
Charlis, a year-round San Carlos resident, stamps books at the checkout counter with the current date. But if the book never comes back, no one hounds you. The empty shelves beside her usually fill up by 1pm, with books turned in.
My personal addiction is reading. From the age of eight, I was regularly harassed by adults on the playground and at home because I'd rather sit in a corner with a book than play.
These days, having met our deadline and while waiting for the boat to be ready to sail south, I have been devouring something like five books a week. Admittedly, it's light reading, for the most part...in fact the most educational book I had around, "Distant Neighbors," has disappeared, leaving me to cope with lighter novels by James Lee Burke, James Patterson, Tony Hillerman, Leslie Glass, Maeve Binchely, P.D. James, Colin Dexter and many more.
If one is addicted and not about to give it up, it's a good thing to live near one's source of supply, right? And here I am in Mexico, where English-language books and newspapers can be hard to come by. But I've struck gold here in San Carlos, and as a result I've been doing more reading this year than ever before. Because it's a popular gringo destination, Norteamericanos in RVs and on boats pass through with books to trade for ones they haven't read. This is often the case all along the Mexican coast, in marinas and popular coffeehouses frequented by gringos. Even laundromats! But here in San Carlos we have a real library!
On Beltran Street at Tecalai trailer park, a couple of rooms have been set aside for a collection of books, open to the public every Friday 9am-1pm. Hundreds of paperback and hardbound mysteries, novels, histories, biographies, westerns, classics, how-to, you name it. And yes, some books in Spanish. Because most Norteamericanos are not here year-round, the library closes during the summer, but in October it opens again, thanks to the volunteer efforts of four women who keep the stacks in order and handle the checking duties. Extra copies of popular books are weeded out and distributed at bookshelves in the marina and laundromat, but the motherlode is here at Tecalai. On my first visit I brought a dozen paperbacks to trade, but no one will throw you out if you arrive empty-handed and leave with as many as you can carry. Only two rules apply: don't take more than two books by the same author, and promise to return at least the classics, such as Hemingway and Steinbeck. A donation jar stands on the checkout counter, to defray rent and utility costs. There are no card catalogues, no library cards, no late fees, no consequences for forgetting to return a book. Nobody shushes you for talking too loudly. Even my dog Sophie is allowed inside!
My friend Sue (who will be occupying my house while we're sailing) is one of the librarians. Walk in, ask her for suggestions and in a few minutes she'll have you discovering authors you've never read before. If a favorite author has come out with a new book, she'll know about it.
When I think of things I'm thankful for, as I celebrate my first full year living in Mexico, the library is definitely near the top of the list. From what other public library could I take a stack of books with me on a two-month sailing voyage without paying dearly in fines?
My New Year's Resolution: when we get back home in February, I'll volunteer a couple hours a week to helping at the library. My sister, the librarian, will be so proud of me.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Google image of a girl celebrating her quinceaneara
Our friend from the Ranchitos is in a lather about the upcoming quinceanera of his wife’s niece Almita. For a latina, turning 15 is her rite-of-passage, her coming-of-age, her Cinderella Moment. Gringo teens have their Sweet Sixteen party, but the quinceneara is a much more momentous occasion, years in the planning. In many ways, it resembles a cross between a wedding and a confirmation: there’s a church ceremony, the poofy gown and tiara, a tiered cake, attendants in matching outfits, men in tuxedos, a rented hall, a live band and enough booze to at least get the adults through it all.
The Quincineara dates back to Aztec times, when 15-year-old girls were trotted out to display to prospective husbands. "She is a woman now, take her off our hands."
As Almita's designated godfather, our amigo bought a black suit (he could rent a tux, which is called a "smoking" here in Mexico, but they are all reserved by September. December is a big dress-up month in Mexico). He was required to contribute mucho dinero to the event and learn to waltz. Pobrecito!
A party planner online outlined the procedure for a Quincineara, which begins with:
a Holy Mass in which your Court of Honor and parents accompany you. You do a prayer of dedication, renew your baptismal vows, and give an offering of fresh roses to the Virgin Mary/Guadeloupe, among the standard Catholic Mass. This means you are now a woman to God and your parish. Afterwards, there is a large reception with a DJ in a hall or other big space. Your Court of Honor traditionally consists of fourteen couples and then you and your Chambelane de Honor make fifteen, each couple representing a year in your life. The Damas, or ladies, all wear the same dress, usually a color complimenting the quinceanera's dress. The Chambelanes, or gentleman, rent tuxedos and wear ties or bow ties matching the damas' dresses. They practice the waltz, a presentation ceremony, and if desirable, another choreographed dance. Then we do the final show, usually with encore. There is also a father/daughter dance, and the changing of the shoes. You wear flat shoes until the party, when your father changes them to heels. Both of these symbolize that he accepts your transition to womanhood. You also give a porcelain doll to your younger sister, representing your last toy. Your closest male friend should be your escort. However, he does not walk you down the aisle of the church ceremony. Your escorts down the aisle are usually your parents because you are still a child and are therefore not to be escorted by a boy.You dance your first dance as a young lady with your father because he has always been the man in your life. The song you dance to is usually a slow song. The lyrics should have special meaning to the relationship you have with your father. After the dance with your father, he then hands you over to dance with your escort.
A three-part series in the New York Times about three sisters who emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. mentioned that one of the sisters blew a year's pay on her daughter's quincineara last year...about $12,000. Now mama has a life-size color portrait of the honoree in her gown to decorate the living room. Is the daughter is any better off, now that the party's over? I'm reminded of young couples who get a big parent-funded wedding and then have to struggle to pay the rent.
Our friend from the Ranchitos suggested the thousands of dollars being spent on Almita's quincineara be used instead to send her and a companion to Europe for a month. But who would be impressed by that? Or four years of college. Or a training school to prepare her for a good job. No bling, no glitz, no fun.
Another friend, who with his wife manages a nearby coffeehouse/Internet cafe, presented his daughter with a quincineara this summer. On a day the restaurant was closed he gave her a modest party and a special birthday gift: a new computer. Bravo! It was a way of telling her, "Yes, you are a princess today among your family. And with this gift you can create a bigger life for yourself. It's up to you."
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Today, Dec. 12, is the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Sunday our friends from the Ranchitos invited us to an event celebrating the event, which was produced by Ruth, a German lady who with her Mexican partner Rudy operates a bakery here in San Carlos. The performers for this concert and lecture were children from Santa Clara, ages 8 to 17 (I'm guessing) and a local doctor, whose presentation was in English, "to share this part of our Mexican culture" with the language-impaired gringo community. And make some money for a new band.
Three youngsters, portraying warriors and a priestess in Aztec costume with fantastic feathered headdresses did a very basic, stilted dance, looking appropriately solemn. A choir in typical Aztec peasant costume (white sashed pajamas) sang contemporary Catholic tunes in Spanish, accompanied by five guitarists, the three girls in a female version of Mariachi garb, long black skirts instead of tight pants. Two of the guitaristas sang several solos, and one of them was said to have been commanded at the age of nine by the Virgin of Guadalupe to be a singer.
The Doctor gave a detailed slide lecture about the story of the Aztecs and their conversion, which apparently got a huge boost after the apparition. Finally we saw a live renactment of the event. The Capt. and our friends were twitching with boredom and discomfort in the overheated auditorium, but I was satisfying a longtime curiosity about the whole Guadalupe story.
Here's a simple version of the event, from Wilson's Almanac, a daily eZine:
December 9, 1531 (Saturday). Early in the morning, Juan Diego hears beautiful music and a woman’s voice calling him to the top of Tepeyac Hill which he is just passing (on his way to mass by some accounts, on his way to an Aztec shrine by others). He sees a radiantly beautiful woman, who reveals that she is the Virgin Mary and instructs him to go to the bishop and tell him that a temple should be built in her honour at the bottom of the hill.
Juan Diego goes immediately to Tlatelolco to the palace of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga who receives him kindly but, for the moment, is reluctant to believe Juan Diego’s story. Discouraged, Juan Diego goes back to the top of Tepeyac Hill and admits his failure to the Virgin. The Lady directs him to go back to the bishop and repeat the request.
December 10, 1531 (Sunday). Juan Diego returns to the bishop’s palace to try again. The bishop asks many questions and tells Juan Diego that he needs some sign to believe that it is really the heavenly Lady who has sent him. Juan Diego tells the Virgin of the bishop’s request, and she promises to fulfil it the next day when he returns to Tepeyac Hill.
December 11, 1531 (Monday). Juan Diego fails to keep his appointment with the Lady because his uncle has become gravely ill and Juan must spend the day looking for someone with medical skills. He fails to find anyone and tells his dying uncle that he will go to Tlatelolco the next morning and bring a priest who would hear his confession and prepare him for death.
December 12, 1531 (Tuesday). At a very early hour, Juan Diego is rushing toward Tlatelolco to find a priest for his dying uncle. Being busy, he tries to avoid her but comes down the hill to meet him and listens to his excuse for not keeping his appointment. She tells him: “Your uncle will not die of this sickness; be assured that he is healthy.” (That morning, the Lady also appears to his uncle and cures him.) Juan Diego is greatly relieved. Then the Lady tells him to go to the top of the hill and gather the flowers he finds there. He does as she says and discovers a miraculous garden of roses. He gathers them and takes them to the Lady who arranges them in his mantle and instructs him to take them to the bishop as the sign he had requested.
When Juan Diego finally arrives before the bishop, he opens his mantle and lets the roses fall to the floor. But then comes the greatest sign of all: A beautiful portrait of the Lady appears on the coarse fabric of the Indian’s mantle. The bishop and his whole household are filled with amazement. And before long a temple is built in Mary’s honour.
The Doctor had some "scientific" curiosities to share with the dozing audience: there's a famous painting of the Virgin (I think at the site of the original shrine, he wasn't clear on that) that was examined under high-powered microscope. Mira! In the Virgin's eye (beneath a modestly lowered eyelid you see just a bit of it) are images of a naked Indian, a priest and numerous other persons. Either the painter was a fantastic micro-miniaturist or a divine hand was at work, he hinted.
He explained a few of the characteristics of the Virgin, who is always depicted standing with prayerfully folded hands in a long blue mantle with rays of light behind her. Although her complexion is cinnamon-toned like the Indians, one of her hands is lighter than the other, which the Doctor explained was a symbol of the blending of the Spanish and Aztec cultures.
Pip Wilson (an Australian, by the way) made some interesting comparisons between the Virgin and an earlier Aztec goddess named Coatlaxopeuh. He's done a lot of research comparing Christian tradition with pre-Christian myth.
Friday, December 08, 2006
Fifi, one of the two kittens we feed daily. We named the other one Zorro. I call the mother Mamacita (which I suppose might be an insult if she were human). She always allows the youngsters to eat first. There's also a big, husky, very shy male that comes for breakfast after the rest have had their fill. So polite!
Our little feral cat family has become very familiar with us since we started feeding them regularly three months ago. I've been advised I could trap them, have them altered, and returned to the neighborhood, and I know it's the PC thing to do, but would they still trust us?
It's especially crucial to cultivate cats since we found a rat in our dish cupboard one evening. The Capt. had left the back door ajar so he could carry some heavy object out to the laundry room, and somehow the rat got into the kitchen and climbed into the one cupboard that was open (NOT a food cupboard, gracias a Dios!). The Capt. was making tea, opened the dish cupboard for a cup and saw a long skinny tail. Closed the cupboard quickly and came in to tell me, very calmly, about our visitor. Armed with brooms, we opened the cupboard again and I began screaming like a car alarm when I saw the rat pop out. He jumped down onto the counter, hit the floor and scramble out the door, skidding on the tiles like a Tom & Gerry cartoon.
That was when we decided we'd cut back the feral felines' feeding schedule (from twice to once a day) so they'd have an appetite for the next rat that dares to approach our house. Fifi and Zorro still come around every evening, hoping I've changed my mind.
What I like about having feral cats:
1) Enjoying the sight of them as they grow. Cats are such a work of art.
2) Not having to deal with litterboxes.
3) Feeling some assurance that they'll keep down the vermin population, hopefully without presenting the dismembered corpses to us.
4) Seeing them become bolder: Fifi (pictured here) now comes to the back door to remind us it's breakfast time. (When I come out she races away even though she knows by now I'm no threat.)
5) The knowledge that they'll be fine without us while we're sailing for three months, especially since the folks who'll be housesitting for us like cats too and will be sure to feed them. We had to give away our last cat, Pooz, who we doubted would adapt to months of boat life.
The only thing I miss: not being able to scoop them up, hold and cuddle them in my lap.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Stove and south-facing window in the Broken Angel
On Oct. 18 I shared a news story about a couple in Brooklyn who have been rebuilding an old office building in their own creative fashion, calling it The Broken Angel. Their project, spanning 30 years, has been the subject of a film shown at the Sundance Film Festival, a benefit concert, an appearance on "David Chappelle's Block Party," a video and numerous news articles.
Most valuable of all is the Flikr collection of photos taken of the interior and exterior of the building by the Woods' sculptor son, Christopher, who grew up along with the project. Christopher said,
"Many of you wonder what the hell my parents are doing with that building. They always were building an outline of a dream, a building that was different from the usual architecture of today. They did this while never having enough money to complete their dream. But that didn't stop them for using found or discarded objects that we throw away ever day like the glass bottles that they used to create a stained glass windows."
Even if the New York Dept. of Buildings, which calls it a "deathtrap," succeeds in having the Broken Angel torn down, these photos will remain to remind us that one man's trash is another man's fascinating found-art masterpiece. Call it tacky, eccentric and audacious, love it or hate it, but check it out.
Today I saw an update in the LA Times that said Arthur and Cynthia Wood have been driven out of their home and are living on the street in a Volkswagen van.
They've had offers on the building from developers, who would tear it down and erect condos on the site, now that the neighborhood is becoming gentrified. The Woods are talking about leaving New York and starting over with another building somewhere else. Wonder how they'd like Mexico?
A more positive update: Laura has reported that the Mexican navy towed her "Duckling" to port yesterday afternoon.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
Dahon folding bike, ideal for carrying on a boat, caught my eye at the swap meet, where everyone at the marinas and anchorage gather to trade second-hand goods and gossip
The saga of "lost" Laura turned out to be even more interesting and provocative than expected. This morning we came home from the monthly swap meet down at the Captain's Club and turned on the VHF radio to catch the end of the Net, and Laura herself was speaking! Here’s her story.
Her 22-foot sloop, whose Norwegian name means “Duckling," was sound and holding her own when the Mexican navy found her in the Sea after a two-day search. Laura had hove to (set the sails against each other so she somewhat hold her position in the turbulence) for a couple of days waiting for the winds to die down. With no engine aboard to charge it, the boat's battery had died. A small solar panel provides the radio’s juice, but since the boat was tossing and bouncing around the panel couldn’t do its job. Before the radio died, Laura had been in contact with at least eight boats and had notified them all that she was in control of the situation. But friends in San Carlos who had been expecting her became concerned, and called the Mexican navy in after they were unable to hail her on the VHF.
When the navy found “Duckling” yesterday, they insisted that Laura abandon her vessel, against her wishes.
“They were terrific,” she said. “Very courteous, except of course for the fact that they made me leave my boat.” When they approached so she could board, she said, they managed to stand off and prevent damage to the “Duckling” with a handling skill that impressed her. There were five navy craft surrounding her as well as a helicopter. When she boarded the nearest navy boat she found three crewmen, two of which she treated for dehydration and seasickness (one being the skipper).
So, remarked my Capt., it’s just as well they had to “rescue” her so she could “rescue” them.
The navy promised to retrieve “Duckling” as soon as conditions permit. But meanwhile, her sails have been lashed down and the prevailing winds have been pushing her back toward Baja. There was concern that if the navy didn’t get her, a Mexican boat would tow her back to land and claim salvage rights. So several skippers at the marina volunteered to head out in search of “Duckling.” Laura had obtained a GPS position before leaving the sloop and estimated she was drifting SSW at about three knots, so she may be back in Baja before she’s found. Ham radio alerts have been sent out all along the northern Baja coast to keep an eye out for her. Donations have been offered to offset the cost of fuel if the boating community gets involved in retrieving the little craft.
The moral of the story, according to one old salt on the Net, is that when encountering a vessel you think is in trouble, make sure of the facts before calling in the Mexican navy. I've been told the navy charges a considerable fee when they tow in a vessel. But in this case, they have promised Laura she won't be charged, since she hadn't wanted to abandon "Duckling."
Will “Duckling” be found? Will the navy, the local boaters and the Mexican fishermen get into a dispute over her? Will Laura get her back in one piece? Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter in this gripping drama...
Friday, December 01, 2006
This map of Mexico shows the Sea of Cortez, Guaymas (where we are) and Zihuatanejo, our destination. Almost directly west across the Sea from Guaymas is Puerto Escondido, where Laura sailed from
“If anything’s going to happen, it’ll happen out there.” Captain Ron
A series of northers have brought strong, cold winds (35+ knots) and big waves to this part of the Sea of Cortez. This morning on the VHF radio net, a daily 8am tradition among boat people, there was talk of a 20-foot sailboat with no motor, lost just south of Guaymas. The Mexican navy has been searching with no success. A woman named Laura was single-handing the little vessel across the Sea from Puerto Escondido in Baja and apparently made the crossing only to get into trouble off Guaymas. The Net moderator called for prayers for her survival, which is about all we can do to counter the feeling of helplessness when one of our own is in danger. Bob on "FantaSea" was in radio contact with Laura for a while, then they were cut off, which may indicate she lost her rigging and antenna. He took "FantaSea" out to look for her yesterday, but found nothing and came back reporting fierce conditions. The marina, the anchorage and the bay are fairly calm, but out in the Sea it’s no place for a 20-footer with no motor.
I try to visualize what Laura must be like, a woman brave enough (or crazy enough, depending on your viewpoint) to singlehand a craft hardly bigger than a panga across 75 miles of open sea in late fall when winds are predictably unpredictable. Most men I know wouldn’t do it. To make that trip in a 20-footer she must have been at sea at least 48 hours, must have been exhausted by the time she sighted the hills of Guaymas. If her radio went out, she could have made it ashore and not realized there are people looking for her. Tomorrow morning, will we get the good news of a rescue, or hear eight bells for Laura?
We’ll be summoning our own brand of boldness/insanity in ten days, when we plan to cross to Baja and head south to Zihuatanejo. The lubberly life has become somewhat tedious and we're both looking forward to some high adventure. Our sailboat is almost twice as big as Laura’s, with a considerably stronger mast and high freeboard (that crucial distance between the deck and the water) and a sturdy diesel engine. But it's still a small boat and it's a big sea out there.
My Capt. has already experienced a dismasting, on Veterans’ Day, 1993. He took my son for a daysail in a calm bay on our first sailboat, the "Pollo del Mar" (a 25-ft. Bayliner). They were caught in a sudden gale near San Rafael (SF Bay). The motor failed, they were in danger of being swept into the bridge pilings and had to struggle for more than an hour to get a line to a Coastie rescue boat for a tow back to the marina.
Here at the house we have only a hand-held VHF and its range is so limited we only hear about half the reports on the Net. So I was gratified to hear that our friends on Sojourn have returned, bringing with them the new VHF we ordered a couple of weeks ago. Now we can have full communication across both marinas, the workyard and maybe the whole town of San Carlos. Free telephone! As always with new technology, it’s smaller, cheaper and has more bells and whistles than our old model, which we bought in 1994.
So we are starting out with at least the best communications we can get, with the new radio plus our handheld. We have two GPS units, both in good shape, so we are unlikely to get lost. There’s radar to watch for ships and a depth finder to warn us of reefs. We all, even the dog, have lifejackets.
On the minus side, our EPIRB, the satellite communications unit carried on most boats to send out distress calls, hasn’t been recharged in a long time and could be unreliable. We have no inflatable liferaft, as the Capt. considers our dinghy sufficient transportation if we have to abandon the boat. Still, a cozy 4-man liferaft is at the top of my wish list. Liferafts typically used on sailboats come in canisters or valises that take minimal space on the foredeck (even Laura would have had room for one) but they’re very costly and have to be serviced every couple of years at great added expense or they might not inflate when needed. Givens Marine Survival Co. in Rhode Island, for example, has a $5K 4-man liferaft with survival pack (rations,bailer, flashlight, oars, jacknife, signal mirror, seasickness tablets and parachute flare) on sale for $3995. Servicing every two years runs about $300. Chances are, like our EPIRB, a liferaft would sit on the boat for years and never be used. But Murphy’s Law is as always echoing in the back of my mind.
We have a list of items to pack in a "ditch bag," that essential bag we have to have ready if the boat goes down. Things like canned and packaged food, strobes, fishing lines and lures, dogfood, sunblock, a first aid kit, space blankets, hats, long-sleeved shirts... the trouble is that many other things we might pack in a ditch bag are items we use all the time and don’t want to pack away: towels, hats and sunglasses, lifejackets, the GPS and batteries, our small solar panel. At present, we don’t even have a bag of sufficient size to hold all this stuff.
My position as 1st Mate includes the duties of quartermaster, so the ditch bag is my responsibility. And maybe acquisition of a liferaft, too.
Santa Baby, I’ve got a special request.
All I want for Christmas is this BurgerKing-shaped life raft from Givens. It has a boarding ladder, double-insulated canopy and floor to protect against exposure (last night it got down to 38 degrees here) plus self-righting ballast and it packs into a valise the size of a large gym bag.