Not a Fair Exchange

Malaria Mosquito

The New World gave the European conquerors many gifts, including potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, tobacco, corn, vanilla, chili peppers, bell peppers, pumpkins, avocados, peanuts, cashews, pecans, quinine, wild rice, quinine, squash, and many types of beans. They were richly rewarded with such European gifts as measles, smallpox, and malaria. The mortality rate in Mexico alone was in the millions in the 16th century alone.

Most people do not realize that the malaria mosquito was a stowaway on ships that brought slaves from Africa. Mayan records make no reference to malaria, and many jungle areas in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico were inhabited which over the last several hundred years have been abandoned. The Petén region of Guatemala has hundreds of Mayan archeological sites, and more are being discovered each year. Where Mayan cities used to be connected by sacbés, or ceremonial roads, today they are connected by shoulder-deep mud.  Much of the Yucatán Peninsula is now sparsely populated thanks to the devastation wrought by the malaria mosquito.

According to the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France:

A large international study recently published in the PNAS by scientists from the UMR Migevec and their partners has shown that P[lasmodium] falciparum crossed the ocean on slave ships which crossed the Atlantic between the 16th and the 19th century, some 500 to 200 years ago. The research team has indeed just demonstrated that the parasite which is now found in America has African origins.

Through a global international scientific collaboration, biologists have collected several hundred samples of infected human blood from 17 countries representing the parasite’s entire distribution area. It is one of the largest sets of P. falciparum genetic data ever collected. The analysis of genetic material extracted from those samples has taught the scientists several things. First of all, the American pathogen is genetically distant from its Asian cousin, thus precluding an Asian origin. It is, however, close to the African parasite.

The IRD further concludes that the culprit were slaves who were brought into the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, partly, ironically, because blacks were more resistant to malaria.

When I go to Guatemala and Honduras later this year, I will spend part of the time in malarial jungles, which means I will be taking chloroquine and traveling with a mosquito net to place over my bed.

I hate mosquitoes, but I would dearly love to see the Mayan ruins, which are now in areas that are sparsely developed. The city of Tikal once had a population of 300,000 during Europe’s Dark Ages. Today, the entire Petén Department has a population under 700,000, mostly around La Libertad, San Luis, and Sayaxché.

Kale and Turnips—Not!

The Bombay Frankie Company’s Aloo Gobi Matar Wrap

Last week, I ran into a rabid vegetarian at the Ralph’s Supermarket in Santa Monica. She had her groceries in two piles, momentarily confusing the checker, who asked me if her second pile was mine.

I answered him: “Hmm, kale and turnips. Nope, that doesn’t look like what I’d eat.”

This angered the customer, who turned to me and started critiquing the groceries I was purchasing, much of which was for Martine, who has been ill with a bad cold. I stayed silent until she slunk away with a sour look on her face—a look that could only be the result of eating a diet of kale and turnips.

Actually, I consider myself a part-time vegetarian. The one difference between me and the other customer is that I refuse to eat bland, tasteless food, regarding it as an insult. I was raised on Hungarian food, some of which was vegetarian, especially when times were bad and we couldn’t afford meat. But it was good food and tasted great!

I cannot for the life of me stomach American vegetarian cuisine, which I find objectionable in the extreme. Hungarians have good vegetarian dishes, as do Italians and Persians. The best vegetarian chow, in my opinion, is from the Indian subcontinent. Indian curries are the epitome of a great vegetarian cuisine, such that I prefer to cook vegetarian when I make curry.

In preparation, I visit an Indian specialty food store, such as India Sweets & Spices in Culver City, where I can buy curry leaves, black mustard seeds, good turmeric, cumin, and coriander—and where the owner usually gives me a cup of chai masala for free. In fact, if Martine were not still hitting the soup trail for her cold, I would cook a potato and spinach curry this week.

One of the oldest books I own is Monica Dutt’s The Art of Indian Cooking, which has been my guide to learning how to cook curries. Today I had an Aloo Gobi Matar wrap (as illustrated above) at the Bombay Frankie Company in West L.A., which is located at one end of a Chevron Station at the Santa Monica Boulevard exit on the I-405.

Chichicastenango

Shades of Religious Syncretism!

Here I sit in sunny Los Angeles. A strong Santa Ana wind is blowing in from the desert, and the humidity is rapidly sinking, giving millions of people in Southern California a bad hair day. (But then, it seems I am living a bad hair lifetime.)

A year ago, I was fantasizing about a New Mexico vacation as I was entering another tax season. Even though it was my last tax season—as I am now fully retired—I am still dreaming about making another vacation getaway, this time to Guatemala. It would be my first stay among the Maya since my many Mexico trips between 1975 and 1992.

The scene above reminds me of my trips to Highland Mayan villages in the State of Chiapas, especially Chamula and Zinacantán. In those villages, the Mayans worshiped in what once were Catholic churches, but after the 19th century expulsion of the priests, were turned into the worship of the Mayan guides. Here is a description of a scene from the church in Chamula, where one is forbidden to take pictures upon pain of violence or death:

A live chicken with its feet bound was removed from a burlap sack and laid down upon the church’s floor. Three rows of perhaps a dozen candles each were placed in front of the chicken, all were fully blazing. A bottle of Coca-Cola sat to the right. A heavy set matured woman in a long dress emblazoned with a purple flower pattern was kneeling behind the offerings, sitting on her heels. A young man was kneeling next to the woman, and an older man with a mustache took up the same position on the other side. All three adults were rocking back and forth, chanting prayers in Tzotzil. The woman then withdrew a kitchen knife, and with a quick flick of her wrist the chicken was sacrificed.

I suspect that the Mayans of Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan Highlands is not too diferent, except that the dialect spoken is not Tzotzil, but Kaqchikel. The town is famous for its handicrafts market and for the devoutness of campesinos visiting Santo Tomás church, shown above. I’ll bet that, as in Chamula, one is forbidden to take a camera into the church.

 

Loser City

Clevelanders Parade, Flaunting Their NFL Team’s 0-16 Record

It was almost always thus. In most years, Cleveland teams piled up a dismal win/loss record. Not that I give a fig for professional sports, but while I was living there, I would have given much for a winning season. In 1959 the Indians won the American League baseball pennant (but lost the series ignominiously to the White Sox). And in 1964, the Cleveland Browns shut out Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0. That was when Frank Ryan was quarterback and Jim Brown was at fullback and gary Collins and Paul Warfield were the ace receivers. After that, it was not until 2016 when a Cleveland team, the Cavaliers, won the NBA championship.

I actually had a personal stake in the Cleveland Indians doing well. As a straight-A student, I received seven pairs of free Indians tickets every summer—mostly to see them go down to defeat. Acutely, I felt that Seymour Krebs’s “The Monster That Devoured Cleveland” from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis had struck. I was in a major dudgeon until I could leave “The Mistake on the Lake,” which I did in 1962, when I went to college in New Hampshire. Thereafter, when I came home from Dartmouth, I could watch my father stew in his juices as his teams traduced his efforts at fandom.

Cleveland’s Terminal Tower (How Appropriately Named!)

Sometimes I think my great love of travel comes from feeling stuck in Cleveland and wanting to get out at any cost. It’s a pity, because at one time it was a fairly nice place. It did not, however, fare well economically and demographically. When I was in the lower grades of grammar school, it was the seventh largest city in the U.S. Now it ranks fifty-first, behind Oakland, Tulsa, and Wichita.

Sigh!

 

Christmas in Palenque

The Town of Palenque, Chiapas, Near the Ruins

The year was 1979. My brother Dan and I were traveling in Southern Mexico, roughly following the route Graham Greene had taken in his book The Lawless Roads (1939), when he was doing research for his novel The Power and the Glory (1940).  It was Christmas, and we were in the little town of Palenque, just a few miles from the Mayan ruins of the same name.

Dan liked hanging out in the cafés along the zócalo, because that part of Chiapas was a major coffee-growing area, and Dan is a coffee aficionado the way I am a tea aficionado. You have to understand that Dan was wearing slip-on loafers. While we were munching away, we were approached at our table by a shoeshine boy. Dan slipped his shoe off and handed his foot to the boy, which foot was clad in bright red wool socks. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter, including the shoeshine boy.

Mexico has some wonderful Christmas customs, especially the posadas. Between December 16 and 24, children travel around singing carols. We always donated to them.

Christmas Posadas Singers

 

 

Civilization in the Desert Wilds

William S. Hart in His Living Room

At least once or twice a year, we visit the William S. Hart Museum in Newhall, California, originally home to one of the greatest cowboy stars. In December, the face of nature in Southern California can be harsh. A cold wind was blowing, contributing to some of the gigantic brush fires that still haven’t been put down. Although people who profess to love nature endow it with a cuddly aspect, which it certainly doesn’t have in the Santa Clarita Valley, it does have a certain stark beauty. The plants all look downright prickly: Even the trees look as if they did not want to be hugged under any circumstances. Even the beautiful Bird of Paradise (below) looks as if it could administer a nasty cut.

Bird of Paradise

What, then, of the Prickly Pear cacti and trapped tumbleweeds on the trail to the Hart museum? California has a reputation for being a beautiful state—and it is!—but not in the way that people unfamiliar with the state think.

Prickly Pear Cactus on the Trail

And yet the Hart Museum is like a fortress of civility in the wilds of desert California. The aging cowboy star lived there, mostly alone with his sister Mary Ellen, and whichever of his Hollywood friends trekked through miles of dusty dirt roads to get to La Loma de los Vientos, “The Hill of the Winds,” and the cozy fellowship of one of the most beautiful living rooms I have ever seen.

The Living Room in the Hart Museum

 

The Healing Power of Chicken

Chicken, Rice, and Hummus at Sevan Chicken in Glendale

Martine has been feeling depressed for some time now. It has affected her eating, the way she spends her time, and the way she interacts with me. Today, there was some clearing. We usually attend the Three Stooges Festival at the Alex Theater the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Martine actually suggested we go. (Yes, there are some women who love the Stooges.) On the way, we stopped at Sevan Chicken, an Armenian rotisserie chicken restaurant at the corner of Glenoaks and Kensington in Glendale. It was always Martine’s favorite place, and chicken has always been her meat of choice. It did me good to see her tear into it.

Then we went over to the Alex Theater on Brand Avenue, purchased tickets, and waited in line to see six Stooges film—in 35mm studio prints yet—including “A Plumbing We Will Go” (1940), as shown in the photo below.

Curly Trapped in His Plumbing

After the films, it was time for … more chicken! We drove to Elena’s Greek and Armenian Restaurant on Glendale Blvd. and Acacia. I had my favorite lamb kebab, while Martine had chicken kebab. I myself am not a great aficionado of poultry, but it made me happy to see Martine come out of her blue funk for however short a time. It means that, maybe, there’s hope.