Ruby Ramblings


The Magic of Mexico
February 23, 2013, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Mexico, Tlaquepaque, Travel

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After spending a week staying with good friends Grys and Juan, I’m finally back in my old hometown of Tlaquepaque. I felt welcomed back with open arms, and in some ways treated like I never left. Drank some cervezas with the hombres a la tienda. Got the scoop on the local rock band I sang with sometimes breaking up. A few stores have changed, but mostly it’s the same. Gorgeous, and warm, and delicious.

My plan was to rent an apartment from an English teacher who runs a school and rents some apartments in Tlaquepaque. When I got to the school to pick up the keys, the apartment I was hoping to rent wasn’t ready yet, and the cheaper apartments didn’t have internet. This was a problem since part of my plan was to hole up and write some gig proposals for the summer, and answer some long e-mails I’d been ignoring.

When he asked if I knew my way around at all, and I said I used to live and teach here, his eyes lit up, and I could tell he had a notion. It turned out a teacher was sick and he was in need of an emergency sub for that day and the next. He offered me a private apartment for less than the cheaper place in exchange for teaching two days of classes.

So here I am in a gorgeous private apartment, able to practice, have friends over, and write in peace in the center of a fantastic neighborhood. I even made myself a Mexican breakfast of chiliquiles, papaya, and frijoles. DSCF3904

Several people said they were afraid I wasn’t going to come back from Mexico, and if I didn’t have gigs lined up in Maine and Vermont, I might not. I could live here. But it would be almost impossible to play original music on a regular basis. So here’s to one more week in paradise.

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Mazamitla – Last Ramble in Mexico – for this time around.
May 20, 2011, 4:22 pm
Filed under: Mexico, Travel

Mazamitla is a unique little town with a vibe of its own. Surrounded by forest, there is a lot more wood in the architecture, and it is famous for it’s romantic cabin getaways. It was significantly cooler than Guadalajara, and had that relaxed air of a mountain town.

The houses here are adorable!

Green! Trees! Oh where have you been!

While walking around, we stumbled on this cute little car. While leaning against it for a rest, we realized there was a rather tattered looking man taking a nap inside.

baca

Hotel Cabanas



Ixtepete – Archaeology in Zapopan
April 29, 2011, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Archaeology, Guadalajara, Mexico | Tags: , ,

One of the first things I noticed on the map of Guadalajara that a generous former resident of our house left behind, was an archaeological ruin in Zapopan. Before I even found where our street is on this map (which actually took considerably longer than it should have considering my map reading skills), I was hankering to find this place. There is very little information on this site. Even though it is technically protected by the state of Jalisco, and has a considerable fence built around it, for now the efforts to restore it and have an open visitors’ center have been put on hold.

The bus we found online, 59A, no longer exists, so we took bus 59 from the new bus station to Plaza De Sol, and then proceeded to walk from there. I wish I had written down the number of one of the buses that passed us on the way there to make future visitors lives easier. We walked, and walked, and walked, and walked…. We stopped and asked a few people how far it was, and their initial reaction was that we were crazy for walking. Sunburn aside, it really wasn’t that bad, but it was over an hour from the Plaza on a BLAZING day.

Once you get to the highway (and have to cross an overpass), it’s only another ten minutes or so. We walked far enough, that it no longer felt like city, with buildings getting further and further apart.

I hope in the future that the empty visitors center is opened. There was no information at the actual site, but from what I was able to find online, it is from between 700 and 900 A.D. from the Teochitlan II culture with square pyramids, mounds, and shaft tombs.

I found the structure next to the pyramid interesting, with a sloping aspect. I don’t know enough about this kind of archaeology to know what the purpose is, but maybe it’s the shaft tomb metioned online? (Russ, Aaron?)

The gate itself is unlocked for visitors, and a few people were resting under trees. There’s a little trash strewn about, and the sides of the pyramid are starting to erode from folks climbing around even though there is some barbed wire to keep people off. There was mention of a plethora of ceramic shards, but also online it’s mentioned that the site has been looted for decades. I really hope someday some true archaeology is done here and it is restored for view. It’s not that much smaller than Guachimontones, and arguably of similar importance.



Rambling Around
April 23, 2011, 7:40 pm
Filed under: Guadalajara, Mexico, Mexico, Tlaquepaque, Travel

Zapopan

When I asked my students and a couple of friends what there is to do in Zapopan, the response was – nothing. There is a big church and that’s it. I was skeptical of this answer given that Zapopan is huge, bordering the entire eastern side of Guadalajara. I figured my expert bus-hopping, adventure-seeking skills would find something. But my students were right, at least as far as taking the TUR bus to downtown Zapopan – there is a big church, and nothing else. Now, I’m sure if I went with a friend who lives in the area, there must be much to do, but on Thursday, it was good that I had some exceptional company, or I would have been sorely disappointed. We took a long walk around, and found what is usually found in the wealthy parts of cities – no life. Life where the rich people live everywhere in the world is often done behind closed doors and locked gates, it’s not for the rambling likes of a ruby and her companion.

Guadalajara
From the comparative lifelessness of Zapopan, we headed back into the centro for a walk around the streets closed off to traffic for Thursday of the Saints: churches overflowing, street venders hawking plastic toys and tacos, and a general crush of souls.

I had been contemplating last week how if I come back to this area that I might want to live in the city, but our after hours jaunt after finding Cafe Breton closed may have proved me wrong. The modern, bustling, beautiful city by dusk rolls over as the sun goes down to show a seedy underbelly of filth, poverty, and desperation.

Tequila
The next morning my new travel partner and I headed to the small town of Tequila. Any agave based drink not made in this town and couple of other licensed places is not actually tequila. It is the home of Jose Cuervo, Suaza, and several other factories – and to be honest – not much else.

It’s the type of place not really worth visiting in and of itself. It’s more for groups of Tequila aficionados and travelers who feel like getting wasted for the day. It’s one of the few places in Mexico where public drinking is allowed, and we started the day with an interesting drink called Pachecadas which is a mix of Tejuino and cerveza. It sounded horrible, but was extremely refreshing – and a tad bit expensive. We were neither interested in spending the day wasted, nor all that interested in the actual factories, but a walk around town proved pretty fruitless. The only things for sale are tequila, and tequila related products. It was hot dry, and the ice in our Pachecada turned out not to be very clean, which, I’m sure, you can imagine the consequences. A mid-day nap under a tree was in order.

After a good nap, we decided to try to find the logical thing in a town called Tequila – a good margarita. This proved harder than it should have. A place on the square had what seemed like really inexpensive margaritas until we realized they didn’t appear to have any tequila in them, which actually made them exceptionally expensive refrescos. Finally, after a bit more of a walk around town, we found a great place near the bus station called La Casa de Don Kiko, which serves a (cheap) lovely drink made out of sparkling water, lemon, and a few other things that hit the spot so well it lead to the kind of conversation only tequila can. While I was trying to memorize the many, many ways to say F*^& in Spanish and how to use them, we realized we were about to miss the last bus and made a mad dash, swearing in the language of tequila the whole way.

Although the travels of the last few days were somewhat disappointing in locale, they proved what the real magic of Mexico is, and that’s the kinds of connections and relationships people are open to here. I’m lucky to have landed in Tlaquepaque, and it’s still proving to be my favorite place in Mexico. Pueblitos Chavos and all.



Books and Cities, Cities and Books
April 10, 2011, 11:40 pm
Filed under: Books, Mexico, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , ,

While I was in Guanajuato I was reading Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. The publishing house at University of N. Carolina at Chapel Hill is enough to make me want to go to that school. They publish unusual and sometimes controversial things written by the professors and local scholars there. (Another favorite of mine from them is Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba) Blood and Fire is a great overview for someone who knows little about the general scope of Latin American history, told largely from the vantage point of indigenous folks and women of the time.

One such woman that stood out was Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who taught herself to read by three, taught herself Latin by ten, and was famous for her poetry by her late teens.

“finjamos que soy feliz
triste pensamiento, un rato
quiza podreis persuadirme
aunque yo se lo contrario”

pretend I’m happy
sad thought ()
maybe you can persuade me.

Even so, she was denied admission to University of Mexico (which opened 100 years before Harvard), in the mid 1600s. She was given two options, becoming a demure, respectable, doting wife, or become a nun. She choose the latter and became famous in Europe for her poetry, until at one point her superiors became worried about her fame and demanded she repent and act more like a woman. She had to sell her library, her instruments, and her writing tools, and repent for the sin of curiosity in the body of a woman.

It makes me wonder about how still, hundreds of years later women are subject to much more strict gender roles in most parts of the world. Many Korean women smoke, but won’t do it in public in their hometowns because it’s still seen as unladylike and unseemly. I’ve flustered many an Asian man when describing how I’ve travelled Asia, largely alone, just because I wanted to. In Guanajuato the matron of the guest house I was staying at loved looking through my camera at pictures of China and Mongolia. She commended my solo travels and said she wished she were my age now.

I was thinking about these things while having dinner alone in Guanajuato my first night there at a lovely place called Trunca 7 (I’m assuming this is named after Trunca – or the absurdly short street it is on.) I should have known that a place that made it into the tourist guide book for Mexico would be filled with just that. It felt a little less “decent” to be dining alone with a room full of foreigners than in a local hole in the wall place.

Guanajuato

Guanajuato has been the seat of many political and social uprisings in Mexican history. The main street (as are most main streets in Mexico) is named after Benito Juarez, the first liberal, and highly revered president of Mexico. He was indigenous Zapotec and didn’t learn Spanish until he was a teenager. A friend and contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and also famous for using dye to lighten his skin and to hide the fact that he was one of the few indigenous people to ever rise the ranks of Mexican politics.

There is something about the way the city is nestled in the mountains that creates an entire city filled with inspiration. Thinkers. Artists. Phenomenal architecture, but also a small touch of the haughty that pervades places frequented by tourists, especially those originally built by the wealthy. There are rumors of a town near here where the colonial French lived, and never mixed with the locals. There are apparently still to this day family lines without mixed blood, although they’ve lost French for Spanish and eat the current standard Mexican food. Every once in a while I see a Mexican man who could 100% pass for a tall, blond European, and I have to wonder if he didn’t wander down off that mountain.

After finishing Born in Blood and Fire, I started The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, a fantastic, if immensely negative look at some of the world’s most important cities and their urban development. There is a chapter on Mexico City and how it’s current incarnation isn’t the first time this area has risen to epic proportions of population and density, and also musing about if it will meet the same fate of disappearing for mysterious reasons. It is impossible to write an essay about Mexico city without talking about the slums, the pollution, and the utterly corrupt nature of the politicians and police that allow those two things to exist. Kunstler quotes a Mexican geographer to sum up Mexico city in one sentence, “The city is an urban disaster: the physical pollution is a product of the moral pollution of the Mexican political system.”

My favorite chapters in the book are his writings of the American cities: Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Boston. He rails on Atlanta as a failed attempt at creating an Edge City, where everything important moves away from the center into hubs of suburbia that absolutely require personal transportation. The result is a city that has no downtown to speak of, almost no walking streets, and ten hours of horrible traffic every day.

In a time when the bookstores are filled with books of positive messages, “ a year in the life of (fill in the blank with something probably completely useless)”, and mediocre novels that turn into bestsellers only because they can be read by anyone with a third grade education, I delved into this extremely well-written, unabashedly snarky and critical look at how some of the world’s biggest cities are failing to provide any semblance of quality of living.

My favorite chapter was on Las Vegas. Now, I need to preface that I’ve never been to Las Vegas, and although I have many friends who profess their love of it, and make a gambling run at least once a year, I have absolutely no desire to go there. Actually, the only person I know who has actually lived there is Mexican man who looks like he could be from that aforementioned French mountain. He enjoyed living there, but he had steady work of tearing down and rebuilding hotels until his work visa ran out, and said the place is just one giant, never-ending party. What’s not to like?

According to Kunslter, a lot:

“They say that Antarctica is the worst place on earth, but I believe that distinction belongs to Las Vegas….I’ve heard it touted as the American city of the future the prototype habitat for a society in which the old boundaries between work, leisure, entertainment, information, production, service, and acquisition dissolve, and a new exciting, colorful, pleasure-laden human meta-existence finds material expression in any wishful form the imagination might conjure out of an ever mutating blend of history, fantasy, electrosilicon alchemy and unfettered desire….As a tourist trap, it’s a metajoke. As a theosophical matter, it presents proof that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished. In the historical context, it is the place where America’s spirit crawled off to die.”

It sounds like the second Back to the Future movie brought to life.

But it brings up the question of what American cities are trying to achieve outside of pure unfettered expansion, and what all capitalists are trying to ignore, that expansion for expansions sake can’t continue indefinitely without eventual failure (and huge amounts of unnecessary waste and use of resources). It also brings to mind another fact that I encounter every time I go home: America is no longer the top of the world in most anything. The standard of living hasn’t had any major changes, and health care has declined, education levels are slipping, technology lost it’s foothold to Asia long ago, and the architecture and infrastructure that make it so grand and appealing is crumbling due to lack of maintenance and funding. I am not the only one of my generation who makes a far better living as an ex-pat with visitation rights than as a full-time citizen. Gone are the days when Europe and the US were the only places to live to have access to a certain standard of living and modern technology.

Which brings me to the last book of note I’ve read recently, and one thing that I always pine for where ever I am – the great American road trip. The US would not be what it is today with Eisenhower and the highway system that allows anyone to get anywhere in the personal vehicle of their choice, status, and personality. I long for my electric blue Insight, even as the poor thing is on it’s very last legs and falling apart at the seams. I could go on about how the American landscape has been ruined by the chains of box stores that lie at the outskirts of every medium to major city – to the point where you could completely forget which state, never mind which city, you are on the outskirts of.

Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain was a great, quick read. I read it this afternoon. Both because it is the quintessential American adventure, and had the added quirkiness of being the roadtrip of a regular guy with the doctor that (Preserved? Stole? Confiscated? Rescued?) Einstein’s Brain, and decides at the age of 84 that he wants to return it to the Einstein family.

For all of my travels across Asia, I have never made a complete road trip across the US. I’d love to, but of course, time and money are the essence of all travelling. And I’ve always said that the US is something I can see when I’m older and too tired to deal with the trials of travelling in places like Cambodia. But this book hit home with me, largely because the author lives in my home town of Portland, Maine. There have been a lot of these books popping up lately. Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, which was a great adventure story of a woman rowing the Nile alone, was written by a woman who lived in Maine. I’ve always associated Maine with a place where things can’t be done. It’s too small; too far away from everything else going on in the country. Too isolated. Way too expensive to save money for future travels. But apparently people are doing big, successful things from my state.

I’m going home for the summer. Something I haven’t done for a long time. I don’t have any money. I’m not even sure how I’m going to get there. But I do have gigs lined up. A massive pile of books waiting for me at my mom’s house, and a few friends who are at least feigning happiness to see me. It’s time for at least the eastern half of that American road trip.

Notes from my travels, and help funding future ones: Fieldnotes From a Caravan



Walking Guanajuato
March 27, 2011, 8:33 pm
Filed under: Mexico, Music, Travel

When I set out last Sunday on my only full day in Guanajuato, it was not my intention to walk across half the perimeter of the city, but that is exactly what I did. The benefit of travelling alone is that epic adventures on a whim are the norm, not the exception. There is no one else to convince but yourself that the next best thing is right around the corner (when if fact it was up a mountain, around two valleys, and past something unexpected).

Guanajuato is the most amazing walking city. There is no point in having a car, it isn’t big enough to need it, the buses are frequent and easy, and driving would only mean missing all the little callejons that you can’t drive down.

After making it through the center, I started rambling up the hill thinking it couldn’t be too far a walk to that giant pink church, the Valenciana. This is where the town starts to get more rundown – houses under half construction, and this clay factory where the trinkets sold in town for pennies are shaped and dried in the sun. You’d never see that from a bus.

Although, as the bird flies the church wasn’t that far from downtown up the side of the valley, from a roadside view, it required quite a few switchbacks and roundabout going to actually get up there. On the way there, another red church that wasn’t visible from the valley came into view, and was a great resting point. It was clearly Sunday, and the masses were out for mass.

Some boys were hovering around me and finally asked me for my bottle. I offered them the full thing to share, but they said they just wanted to empty bottle, for change I suppose. I found it such a unique and polite way to ask for something they needed. I gave them the rest of my snacks, and finally after some insistence they took the rest of my water. I was just excited I was able to conduct the whole encounter in Spanish and hope it helped them a tiny bit in their day.

From around the next corner, it looked like the pink church was RIGHT THERE, but of course, around more switchbacks and up the mountain, it was much further. After finally getting there, I rested at the base with an older woman selling geodes and such from a local mine. She gave me entire history of the area in Spanish, of which I understood approximately 5%. But it was sweet.

La Valenciana is a cathedral dating from the late 1700s. The pink stone and location make it visible from anywhere in the city. I think the little hilltop community here is actually it’s own town, and has the vibe of the kind of place that people don’t leave very often.

I took the bus back town the mountain – 15 minutes, as opposed to the two or three hours I spent taking the long way up. I made it back to the other side of town to the Mummy museum that everyone talks about. It is quite a racket with an endless line out the door. 50 pesos to look at the dessicated and highly preserved bodies that were dug up decades ago to make room for more folks. They are in amazing states of preservation, and some are quite disturbing. The worst/most interesting were the babies – up to 100 years old complete with eyelashes, fingernails, and perfect baby toes. It was interesting to learn that traditionally in Mexico baby funerals are treated as a joyous event to lift the families spirits with music, dancing, dressing the baby in white, and making a parade through the city.

As I was headed back to the hostel for a siesta, I passed a cafe that just called to me. I really wanted to have dinner there, and made it back off the hill the hostel was on. The effort was worth it, as La Vida Sin Ti (The life without you), turned out to be a truly unique and memorable experience.

As soon as I walked in, a woman who wasn’t even working started talking to me and getting the waitress’ attention to help me. The woman and her party then turned their seats to include me in their conversation while they drank coffee, made (from what I could understand) many off color comments about dating and men, and life in general. This was a good enough night for me, but that is only the beginning. A rather flamboyant man with tattoos all over his arms came in and started joking with the woman talking to me and pretending to dirty dance with her. He then came over to me, and when I laughed and pushed him away with my strongest Mexican cuss words, the whole place erupted in laughter. It turned out pretty much everyone there were close friends and regulars – all writers, artists, musicians, and the tattooed man a mime/magician. The owner of the restaurant is a writer who writes exclusively in Portuguese by the name of Oliverio Alvarez. I was going to leave and call it a night, but decided to stay when I saw this picture in the bathroom.

Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise.

After finishing a unique quesadilla, I joined the folks at the bar and got to talking. It turned out everyone spoke English (and they weren’t shy about letting the disappointment that I’m not conversational in Spanish be known – although I learned later in the night some of this was projected anger at former or present American girlfriends who never learned Spanish.)

At some point in the night we were talking about art, and I stated that I was a really good singer. I didn’t mean for it to sound the way it did, but everyone stopped in their tracks, made jokes about my American-ness, and then dragged me on top of the bar and ordered that I sing right then and there to the restaurant full of people – with no guitar, and no time to think about what might go over. I tried to get out of it, but was instructed that I couldn’t make such a comment without proving it (this coming from a writer – if he were put in the same situation, it is impossible to make a writer provide a novel at a moments notice.) So I sang – Rock Salt and Nails to be exact.

Luckily for me, it went over extremely well, and the writer who claimed that he was ready to ridicule me for my American bravado the second I was finished instead asked me to marry him.

And so went the night. They shut the place down, they locked the doors, and a few of us artist types spent the night drinking, talking, and occasionally they made me sing a song – although my ability to come up with one on the spot and actually remember the lyrics got worse as the night progressed. Sorry Derek Hoke, I hope the butchered version of Still Waiting I came up with at 1am never makes it onto youtube.



Guanajuato – The City that is a Castle
March 24, 2011, 3:57 am
Filed under: Mexico | Tags:

For only the second time since I’ve been in Mexico, I had a two day weekend. Road trip!

I headed to Guanajuato, the city that I’ve heard so much about from every other teacher I’ve met in Guadalajara. It is pure magic. The entire city looks like one giant castle, with stone streets, stone walls, an entire subterranean roadway system, and bards roaming the city in what look mideval costumes.

I arrived late Saturday night, and was a little nervous about finding my hostel. The bus dropped us off downtown – underground. It just stopped in the middle of a tunnel (of which there is a tangle of rabbit warren like roads under the city), and told everyone to get off. The tunnels are clean, well-lit, and a haven for youngsters who want to make out where their dad’s can’t see. When I popped up to the surface, the city was a gorgeous and busy maze of lights, people, and stunning cathedrals.

My roommates at the hostel were a merry band of Korean folks who immediately invited me up the rooftop for a bottle of whiskey and reminiscing about the land of morning calm. It was a great evening with an amazing view from the top of Casa de Dante. It was really nice to hear some Korean language again and trade stories about places we’ve lived. These folks all work for Samsung Engineering and get to travel around the world working on different projects.


The view from Case de Dante. Keep that giant pink church across town in mind, I ended up walking to it on Sunday.


To say this city is a maze, is an understatement. Roads go under each other, around each other, up mountains, and down spiral staircases to nowhere. It is a land of dreams, and for a kid who believes in dragons, would be fantasy on earth.