Filed under: Books, Mexico, Travel, USA | Tags: Born in Blod and Fire, Driving Mr. Albert, Mexico, The City in Mind, Travel, US
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 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