“Ernesto Cardenal and I”

Poet, Priest, and Sandinista Politician: Ernesto Cardenal

Poet, Catholic Priest, and Sandinista Politician: Ernesto Cardenal

It suddenly struck me that i haven’t done a poetry posting on this blog for some time. Keeping it all in a Latin American vein, here is Roberto Bolaño’s “Ernesto Cardenal and I.” Ernesto Cardenal was the Sandinista minister of culture from 1979 to 1987 under Daniel Ortega’s government.

Ernesto Cardenal and I

I was out walking, sweaty and with hair plastered
to my face
when I saw Ernesto Cardenal approaching
from the opposite direction
and by way of greeting I said:
Father, in the Kingdom of Heaven
that is communism,
is there a place for homosexuals?
Yes, he said.
And for impenitent masturbators?
For sex slaves?
For sex fools?
For sadomasochists, for whores, for those obsessed
with enemas,
for those who can’t take it anymore, those who really truly
can’t take it anymore?
And Cardenal said yes.
And I raised my eyes
and the clouds looked like
the pale pink smiles of cats
and the trees cross-stitched on the hill
(the hill we’ve got to climb)
shook their branches.
Savage trees, as if saying
some day, sooner rather than later, you’ll have to come
into my rubbery arms, into my scraggly arms,
into my cold arms. A botanical frigidity
that’ll stand your hair on end.

The Journalist

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

I have only read two of her books so far, but they were both knockouts. First, there was Zinky Boys (1991), about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Now, added to that is Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997). Both books are descriptions of incredible suffering, and they are both powerful disincentives from enlisting in the Soviet military.

Svetlana Alexievich (b. 1948) is usually described as a Belorussian journalist, though she herself rejects the title: She has been known to edit the first person testimonials from one edition to the next, which is a big no-no for oral historians, but the mark of an imaginative writer. I do not mind, because I will accept 99-44/100% accuracy if it involves stylistic or other improvements.

Both Afghanistan and Chernobyl were unspeakable disasters that seemed to go on forever (the latter is still claiming victims), and you cannot hope for a better introduction to both than read Alexievich’s books.

In Voices from Chernobyl, the wife of one Soviet soldier who was involved in the cleanup says:

They say, “Chernobyl,” and they write, “Chernobyl.” But no one knows what it is. Something frightening opened up before us. Everything is different for us: we aren’t born the same, we don’t die the same. If you ask me, How do people die after Chernobyl? The person I loved more than anything, loved him so much that I couldn’t possibly have loved him more if I’d given birth to him myself—turned—before my eyes—into a monster. They’d taken out his lymph nodes, so they were gone and his circulation was disrupted, and then his nose kind of shifted, it grew three times bigger, and his eyes became different—they sort of drifted away, in different directions, there was a different light in them now, and I saw expressions in them I hadn’t seen, as if he was no longer himself but there was still someone in there looking out. Then one of the eyes closed completely.

I do not recommend reading the book on a full stomach. The same with Zinky Boys:

We were combing through a village. You fling open the door and throw in a grenade in case there’s a machine-gun waiting for you. Why take  a risk if a grenade could sort it out for you? I threw the grenade, went in and saw women, two little boys and a baby in some kind of box making do for a cot.

You have to find some kind of justification to stop yourself going mad. Suppose it’s true that the souls of the dead look down on us from above?

I know that we considered the Soviets to be our enemies, but these books describe scenes that one wouldn’t wish upon one’s worst enemy.




Pre-Columbian, Then and Now

A Unique Museum Linking Pre-Columbian Art to the Present Day

A Unique Museum Linking Pre-Columbian Art to the Present Day

There it was, a museum just one block from our hotel in the Mariscal district of Quito. I knew that Dan was interested in seeing and buying Ecuadorian handicrafts, so we decided to pay a visit to the Museo Mindalae, which calls itself an ethno-historical museum of Ecuadorian handicrafts.

It turned out to be a good call. Although we are more than half a millennium away from Christopher Columbus, the peoples of the Andes are still very much in touch in touch with their ancestors. Of course, not only the Spanish, but subsequent rulers encouraged them in this. Today, the Fundación Sinchi Sacha, which runs the museum, not only encourages them, but runs a three-story handicraft store featuring the best of their work at fair prices.

Pre-Columbian or Current?

Pre-Columbian or Current?

I wound up liking the Museum so much that I returned to it the day before leaving Ecuador for the U.S. Both Dan and I bought several pieces of art from the store.

When, subsequently, we saw the crafts markets at Otavalo and Cuenca, we had a good idea what we would find and how much it might cost.

Regarding Henry

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Is Henry Miller famous? Or is he just infamous? Or is he both?

I have just finished reading a book of his essays, reviews, and prefaces entitled Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (1962) and find myself alternately idolizing and deploring the man’s work. Of course, he is probably most famous for his novels featuring S-E-X, especially The Tropic of Cancer (1934). And yet, he can write like a Bodhisattva, as in the essays “The Hour of Man” and “The Immorality of Morality.”

In the latter essay, he wrote what I regard as the definitive answer as to how to live in the era of Trump:

Neither would I urge one to run away from the danger zone. The danger is everywhere: there are no safe and secure places in which to start a new life. Stay where you are and make what life you can among the impending ruins. Do not put one thing above another in importance. Do only what has to be done—immediately. Whether the wave is ascending or descending, the ocean is always there. You are a fish in the ocean of time, you are a constant in an ocean of change, you are nothing and everything at one and the same time. Was the dinner good? Was the grass green? Did the water slake your thirst? Are the stars still in the heavens? Does the sun still shine? Can you talk, walk, sing, play? Are you still breathing?

And yet, in another essay entitled “To Read or Not To Read,” Miller brags about reading fewer books “I tried to make it clear that, as a result of indiscriminate reading over a period of sixty years, my desire now is to read less and less.”

One of Miller’s Water Colors

One of Miller’s Water Colors

Is it perhaps because Miller also sees himself as a painter, particularly of water colors? The ones I have seen are pretty good, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the author likes the act of pure creativity involved in coming up with these scenes, which he does not paint from life.

In the end, I see Henry Miller as, at times, gifted by his muses—and at other times merely producing when the muses aren’t present. There is a certain lack of consistency in his work. I will continue to read him for the times I find he is spot on.

“Men of the Red Earth”

Martine and Me at the Autry Museum

Martine and Me at the Autry Museum

Today, Martine and I stayed as far away from the Black Friday Madness as possible. Instead, we went to the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. At the #RevolutionaryVision show, we took the above picture, showing a pleasant looking woman and the strange character who photobombed her.

The Autry has been opening some new galleries and updating others. There was a nice exhibit of Mabel McKay’s Pomo Indian basketry, and the usual excellent art of the West. Below is Maynard Dixon’s “Men of the Red Earth”:

“Men of the Red Earth”

“Men of the Red Earth”

Born in Fresno, California, Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) is probably one of the best painters of the American Southwest. Although the museum was founded by Gene Autry, it attempts to present a panoramic picture of the West, including the land, the Western films, the art, the myths, and the environment.

I’ve always thought it an excellent place for travelers from other countries to visit—though I suppose they will continue to troop to Hollywood and be disappointed.

[Fashionable Term] A Nightclub

Say What?

Say What?

The Mariscal district of Quito is so full of nightclubs, including the oddly named (and described) one illustrated above. One could meditate for years on what “Relative the Perfect Side” really means. No matter: The term “Selfie” is hot right now, irrespective of any Perfect Side.

Apparently, people in Quito with money to invest think they can make a killing by opening a club. Walk down Diego Almagro or Reina Victoria, and you will, within a few blocks, pass several dozen clubs. My brother and I marveled at whether they were making any money at all. After all, probably most of the tourists are traveling on the cheap and staying at youth hostels.

Needless to say, neither of us wasted any time listening to loud music and drinking dubious concoctions.


Public Spaces

There Are Some Things at Which Latin Americans Excel

There Are Some Things at Which Latin Americans Excel

American planners stink when it comes to designing comfortable spaces for the public. A classic example is Los Angeles’s Pershing Square, which is essentially an underground parking garage. Do Angelenos want a place where they could sit down, read the paper, get their shoes shined, perhaps listen to an impromptu concert? Well, they’re out of luck: American planners design facilities primarily for hypothetical people who don’t really exist.

Compare that with Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia (see above), where one could sit and pass an hour or two without getting hassled. You can even feed the pigeons if you want. Take the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru (see below). Instead of chasing you away for feeding the pigeons, there are native women who will sell you some birdseed for a nueva sol or two.

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa, Peru

Whenever I have some time to kill in Latin America, I will simply find a park bench and sit down for a while. In Cuenca’s Parque Calderón, I got into an interesting discussion with a Peruvian visiting from Cuzco. Admittedly, he was selling some pictures—and I bought some from him because I thought he was a talented artist.

I would have a hard time finding an equivalent in Los Angeles without getting panhandled or run over.


Walking Straight Up a Hill

Indigenous Couple in Alausi

Elderly Indigenous Couple in Alausi

I’m not going to call them Indians because they feel insulted by the term: They are the indigenous peoples of the Andean highlands. I almost never saw them unless they were carrying babies or various other loads on their backs, sometimes obviously heavy.

The day I left Alausi, I waited at La Estación on the Pan-American Highway for two and a half hours for a bus to Cuenca. (See yesterday’s post.) At one point, a native woman who looked to be in her fifties or sixties greeted me, crossed the Pan-American Highway, and proceeded to walk straight up the hill on the other side. She was wearing cheap slipper-like shoes. There did not look to be much of a trail, and I saw her for upwards of thirty minutes while she ascended and began to harvest some tall grasses, which she put in her pack.

The Hill Across the Highway

The Hill Across the Highway

I waited for her to come back down, but by then, my bus to Cuenca had arrived. I think it was Thomas Hobbes who said that man’s life was “nasty, brutish, and short”—and this was a woman, and not a young one at that!

The native peoples of the Andes fill me with awe.

Dealing with Uncertainty

La Estación Near Alausi

La Estación Near Alausi

If you are unable to deal with uncertainty when traveling in other countries, it is possible that South America is not for you. One of my main destinations this trip was the Nariz Del Diablo railroad journey between Alausi and Sibambe. When I went to the bus terminal in Cuenca, I could not find a bus company that would sell me a ticket to Alausi; so I ponied up a few extra dollars for a ticket to Riobamba from the Patria bus company.

Alas, my Spanish is not good enough to understand what the ticket-sellers were trying to tell me. So I showed up the next morning and boarded my Patria bus, after telling the conductor I wanted to be let off on the Pan-American Highway near Alausi, which was a few kilometers away. I was met with another torrent of Spanish which I did not understand. (In this situation, it never helps to be flustered: I just played stupid and found my seat.)

Five hours later, the bus pulled up for a lunch stop at La Estación (shown above), from which Alausi was visible in the valley below. Not only could I get off there, but the conductor called a cab for me, for which I thanked him. I suspect what everyone was trying to tell me was that the bus did not actually go into the town, but I knew that to begin with.

My Bus Back to Cuenca

My Bus Back to Cuenca

Getting back was even more complicated. I took a cab from my hostería back to La Estación, where I waited two and a half hours for a bus back to Cuenca. I was going under the mistaken assumption that all buses stopped there. Apparently, they didn’t. (You can see my two blue bags in the first photo above.)

Just when I gave up hope, I walked to the edge of the highway prepared to flag down any bus. No sooner did I do that than—from a side street a couple hundred feet ahead of me—a second class bus from Alausi’s own line pulled onto the highway and stopped for me. I saw the Cuenca sign in the window and boarded.

We drove like a bat out of hell and covered the distance to Cuenca’s Terminal Terrestre in an hour less than the Patria bus took. The driver hit speed bumps and rumble strips at high speed, and my head bounced off the ceiling a couple of times. But I made it to Cuenca in good time and was happy.



Trains and Trolleys

Pacific Electric Red Car

Pacific Electric Red Cars

If you’ve ever seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) you know that the Pacific Electric Red Cars were probably the world’s greatest interurban railway—until they were destroyed by Judge Doom, ably played by Christopher Lloyd.

The Red Cars were already history when I arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966. Imagine my surprise when I saw a whole collection of them, along with their predecessors, at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California. It appears the collection was put together by a private individual named Walter Abbenseth, who died in 2006.

Trolleys were not the only things Martine and I saw at the Orange Empire museum: There were steam and diesel locomotives, passenger and freight cars, and a whole slew of cabooses. The museum was staffed by old railroad pros who knew their stuff and were delighted to answer questions.

There was even a nice exhibit devoted to Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls, whose Harvey House station restaurants, particularly in the Southwest, stood for quality.

I had always intended to visit this museum, but was put off by the 85-mile drive along the 60 Freeway to get there. Now both of us want to return. We had a great time.