El Ombú

The Ombú Outside the La Biela Café in Buenos Aires’s Plaza Francia

One of the most spectacular trees to be encountered in Argentina is the Ombú. The one in the above picture is in front of my favorite Buenos Aires café, La Biela, where Jorge Luis Borges frequently dined with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. Also, it reminds me of the tree described by W. H. Hudson in his first story in Tales of the Pampas (1916):

IN ALL THIS DISTRICT, though you should go twenty leagues to this way and that, you will not find a tree as big as this ombú, standing solitary, where there is no house; therefore it is known to all as “the ombú,” as if but one existed; and the name of all this estate, which is now ownerless and ruined, is El Ombú. From one of the higher branches, if you can climb, you will see the lake of Chascomus, two thirds of a league away, from shore to shore, and the village on its banks. Even smaller things will you see on a clear day; perhaps a red line moving across the water—a flock of flamingos flying in their usual way. A great tree standing alone, with no house near it; only the old brick foundations of a house, so overgrown with grass and weeds that you have to look closely to find them. When I am out with my flock in the summer time, I often come here to sit in the shade. It is near the main road; travellers, droves of cattle, the diligence, and bullock-carts pass in sight. Sometimes, at noon, I find a traveller resting in the shade, and if he is not sleeping we talk and he tells me the news of that great world my eyes have never seen.

They say that sorrow and at last ruin comes upon the house on whose roof the shadow of the ombú tree falls; and on that house which now is not, the shadow of this tree came every summer day when the sun was low. They say, too, that those who sit much in the ombú shade become crazed. Perhaps, sir, the bone of my skull is thicker than in most men, since I have been accustomed to sit here all my life, and though now an old man I have not yet lost my reason. It is true that evil fortune came to the old house in the end; but into every door sorrow must enter—sorrow and death that comes to all men; and every house must fall at last.

But my memories of this Ombú are all happy ones. I have eaten at the café there twice, both times having excellent meals. The first time was with Martine in 2011. In 2015, I met with my friend David Benesty there. Below is a picture of David sitting between Borges and Bioy-Casares at what was once their favorite table:

Jore Luis Borges, David Benesty, and Adolfo Bioy-Casares


I would love to go to La Biela again and have a cool bottle of Imperial beer on a hot Buenos Aires afternoon.

 

The Fashion Police

In Quito, There Are Many Types of Police

One thing that my brother and I noticed when we were in Quito, Ecuador, last October was that there are many different types of police. We sat in the central Plaza de Independencia for upwards of two hours, watching the different types of police congregate and go their separate ways, only to be replaced by policia with different uniforms and different means of locomotion. We were particular amused by the Segway patrol that mostly wheeled around chatting with one another.

At one point, as we were going by in a taxi, we noticed a number of heavily armed military escorting several male and female officers into the Municipal Palace. They seem to have arrived there without any major mishaps, like having a Segway run over their feet.

Just a few blocks away, there were four cops with bright yellow vests.

These Police Seemed to Be Guarding a Church (Rear Left)

All I could guess is that the creation of different government security forces was a form of mitigating the unemployment problem that seems to be endemic throughout South America.

Several times, we asked the police for directions. They were always very polite, even if they didn’t understand us. Fortunately, we didn’t look like bad guys; else, we would have been mobbed by policia wearing a variety of different uniforms. (It would have given them something to do for a change.)

Indian Country

Figure from the Zuñi Shalako Ceremonial

I will always think of the American Southwest as Indian Country. The high points of my visits to Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado were encounters with the various Indian tribes that inhabit that region. I was always conscious of stepping outside my culture into something radically different and in many ways spiritually superior. Yet I stand very much on the outside looking in.

Among the peoples I have visited are the following:

  • Navajo, the most populous tribe in the Southwest, whose reservation encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Their capital, Window Rock, AZ, is just over the border from New Mexico. Martine and I enjoy listening to their radio station, KTNN, AM 660. Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton’s The Navaho is an authoritative work about the culture.
  • Hopi, surrounded on all sides by the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, consists of three mesas, which include one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in North America at Old Oraibi. Don C. Talayesva’s Sun Chief: The Autobiography of a Hopi Indian is a great resource. Some day, I would like to spend more time on the Hopi reservation.
  • Zuñi, who call themselves the Ashiwi, are the largest of the New Mexico pueblos. Unfortunately, the only time I visited with them, they were down on tourists because someone had profaned one of their ceremonials. Frank Hamilton Cushing wrote several useful studies of the tribe over a hundred years ago which are still in print.
  • Acoma is the other pueblo with claims to be the oldest continuously settled village in North America. Their mesa-top “Sky City” is one of the most incredible places to visit within Indian Country.
  • Taos, north of Santa Fe, is a stunning multi-story pueblo that reminds me of the ancient Anasazi ceremonial centers at Chaco Canyon and other nearby locations.

When I go to New Mexico in a couple of months, the high points, once again, will be these native peoples. Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson—all have some interest to me, but not early so much. Stay tuned to this website for further developments.

 

Where Smokey Bear Is King

Smokey Bear Museum Capitan

Smokey Bear Museum Capitan

Everybody knows the Smokey Bear of advertising, but do you know there was a real living Smokey Bear.According to Wikipedia:

The living symbol of Smokey Bear was an American black bear three-month-old cub who in the spring of 1950 was caught in the Capitan Gap fire, a wildfire that burned 17,000 acres (69 km2) in the Lincoln National Forest, in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Smokey had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned. According to some stories, he was rescued by a game warden after the fire, but according to the New Mexico State Forestry Division, it was actually a group of soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, who had come to help fight the fire, that discovered the bear cub and brought him back to the camp.

Originally called Hotfoot Teddy, his name was changed to Smokey and he became a living symbol, ensconced at the National Zoo in Washington until his death in 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico, where there was a museum and a funerary monument in his honor.

The museum is still there, as well as a Smokey Bear Motel and a Smokey Bear Restaurant. We visited in 2003, and plan to drop in again to pay our homage to Smokey. Martine has a special devotion to Smokey. She has a special 50th anniversary stuffed Smokey Bear, as well as a zipper pull. Our refrigerator has two Smokey Bear magnets.

This Sign Appears All Over the Southwest

This Warning Sign Appears All Over the Southwest

There is even an Idaho company called Woodland Enterprises, which Martine has visited and which sells Smokey Bear (and Woodsy Owl) memorabilia. We shop there annually for gifts.

So Capitan, New Mexico, you can expect us some time this summer.

Standing on the Equator

At the Mitad del Mundo

At the Mitad del Mundo

That yellow painted line is supposed to be the Equator. But actually, according to computer measurements, the actual Equator is about 240 meters north of the line. Not that it matters: That woman in the lower half of the picture who is straddling the yellow line thinks she is getting some of the Middle of the Earth mojo—but she probably isn’t. Dan and I didn’t bother pacing out the 240 meters to the real Equator, because we would have fallen into a volcanic crater to our deaths. And some things just are not worth sacrificing oneself for!

Ecuador created a nice museum and restaurant complex at what it calls the Mitad del Mundo, which takes the sting out of the slightly misplaced line. The only problem we had was getting there in our rental car. Fortunately, there is a Mitad del Mundo bus line. We just followed the buses until we actually met up with a helpful road sign, of which there are probably not more than a dozen in the whole country.

Close Enough for Government Work

Close Enough for Government Work

There is nothing in Ecuador to compare with the tourist éclat of Machu Picchu in Peru. So the Mitad del Mundo will have to do. Fortunately, it’s not half bad.

Latin American Churches

Altar of Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church

Altar of Quito’s La Compañía de Jesús Church

In my posting the other day on Why Did I Go to Ecuador?, I seem to have left out one of the main reasons. This applies equally to Peru and probably Colombia, but not so much to Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

I am referring to the Catholic cathedrals, basilicas, and other old churches of the Andes. Until age 17, I received a Catholic education at St. Henry School in Cleveland and Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. Then, while I was at Dartmouth, although a nominally Congregationalist school, I was very active with the Catholic Students’ Newman Club.

Coming to California has been disastrous to my faith—but yet something remains. It comes out when I visit the Andean churches, the most beautiful of which is La Compañía de Jesús church (shown above) near Quito’s Plaza de la Independencia.

In both Peru and Ecuador, I frequently stopped in at the local churches; and, not infrequently, I stayed for the services. In the Andes, I felt like a Catholic again. Even the smaller churches in places like Otávalo, Alausi, and Mindo drew me in.

The Small Church in the Village of Mindo

The Small Church in the Village of Mindo

In my life’s journey, I can see my returning to the Catholic Church. I continue to take exceptions to many points of dogma, such as the prohibitions on married priests, women in the priesthood, abortion, and divorce and some doctrines such as the relatively recent ones of the Immaculate Conception and what I call Papal Inflammability. On he other hand, there is much to admire. At this point, I am not sure which route I will take.

It’s OK To Be a Fool!

When in Doubt, Use All Means To Communicate—Even If It Makes You Look Like a Fool

When in Doubt, Use All Means To Communicate—Even If It Makes You Look Like a Fool

I never took Spanish in school, so most of my knowledge of the language comes from an old Berlits Latin American Spanish phrase book. I’m pretty good at getting a place to stay, and even better at ordering a meal. What I cannot do is engage in a conversation. I will try gamely, but my Rule #1 is never ever get flustered.

Once you get flustered, the person who is talking to you will think that you are being a rude dickhead for no earthly reason. It is far better to look stupid and try patiently with your limited repertoire, including hand gestures and even written notes.

At the bus station in Cuenca, I tried hard to buy a ticket for a ride to Alausi. Although the signs on the booth indicated that Patria buses stopped there, the lady refused to sell me a ticket there. Instead she went into a long explanation which I didn’t understand. Finally, I bought a ticket instead to Riobamba, which was a major stop on the line, albeit past Alausi. I figured I could get off the bus near enough to Alausi to get there by other means—at worst walking a kilometer or two down the hill. (I knew that the buses would not stop in Alausi itself, as it was in a valley below the Pan-American Highway.)

In the end, not only did I have no trouble getting off at the Alausi bus station on the Pan-American Highway (a place called La Estación), but the conductor called a cab for me.

I think what the woman’s long explanation at the Cuenca terminal was all about was that the bus did not go into the town of Cuenca, a fact which I already knew. Although I was out about fifty cents by buying a ticket to Riobamba, everybody was a winner in this transaction.