Ferlinghetti in Mexico

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

Ever since I saw him speak at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s, I have admired Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I loved his poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind. And I am fond of the books he has published under his City Lights Books imprint. I am currently reading his Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010, which also contains some poetry written during his travels, such as the following untitled piece:

La puerta escondida
	no está escondida
La puerta al invisible
	no está invisibile
The door to the invisible
	is visible
The hidden door
	is not hidden
I continually walk through it
	not seeing it
And I am what I am
And will be what I will be
Sobre las playas perdidas
	del Sur ....

The first four lines are translated in the poem. The last two lines read “On the lost beaches/Of the South.”

“Wind, Water, Stone”

Mexican Poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

As I grow older, I am drawn more and more toward poetry as the most profound literary medium. There is something utterly simple about “Wind, Water, Stone” by Mexican Nobel-Prize winning poet Octavio Paz, yet that simplicity is merely a pathway to wide vistas that keep drawing one in.

Wind, Water, Stone

For Roger Caillois

Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,
stone's a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.

Ocosingo

The year was 1979. My brother and I were taking an Autransportes Lacandonia bus from Palenque to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Today, the trip can be done in five hours. Back then, we boarded the reconverted North American school bus at 5:00 AM and got into San Cristóbal eleven hours later.

Enroute, we saw another Lacandonia bus that was run off the road into a ditch. It was surrounded by the passengers who were milling around. Luckily none of them seemed to be hurt. Then, about an hour or so later, as we neared Ocosingo, we were pulled over by the Mexican Army, who searched our luggage for weapons. We were not far from the Guatemalan border, and many Mexicans and even some foreigners were involved in gun-running to the rural Maya combatants across the border.

When we pulled into Ocosingo, a young boy boarded the bus selling something that was wrapped in straw. The boy didn’t understand my Spanish, and I didn’t understand his Tzotzil or Tzeltal Maya, but it didn’t cost much. Apparently, Ocosingo is famous for its queso amarillo (yellow cheese), which actually was pretty good—especially on a bus ride that seemed to take forever.

I wouldn’t mind returning to Ocosingo some day, having some more queso amarillo and visiting the Maya ruins at nearby Toniná. This relatively small Maya site bested the much larger Palenque in battle and got to sacrifice the royal family to their gods.

Every place I have ever visited in Mexico has left an indelible mark on my memory. Faced with a map of the country, I can follow my itinerary from city to city. These included places like Los Mochis, the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), Mazatlan, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Mexico City, Patzcuaro, Uruapan, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Puebla, Cholula, Xalapa, Veracruz, Papantla, Oaxaca, and points south too numerous to mention.

Dark Legacy or Not?

Carlos Castaneda: Real or Fake?

Back when I was a student at UCLA, there was a considerably more successful student across the campus from the film department’s Melnitz Hall. I am thinking of Carlos Castaneda, who electrified the publishing world in 1968 with The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and its sequels.

Reading his work, I was hooked—believing every word he said. As time went on, I heard strange things about Carlos. He tried to start some sort of movement called Tensegrity and surrounded himself with several women who idolized him, and whom he claimed were brujas, or witches. When Carlos died in 1998, several of these women went missing and apparently committed suicide.

Negative articles started appearing, such as this one entitled “The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda.” Now, after some soul-searching and a bit of re-reading, I am in the position of the psychiatrist in the anecdote which I quoted five years ago in a post about Castaneda:

There is an anecdote about a patient describing his life to a psychiatrist, who keeps nodding his head and saying, “That’s very interesting!” Finally, the patient gets angry and says, “Well, that’s all a pack of lies which I just made up. What do you think of that?” The psychiatrist does not miss a beat: “That’s even MORE interesting!” That, in the end, is my reaction to Castaneda. I think there are some fascinating truths to be found in his books, along with some things that were just made up.

Among the things that were made up were Don Juan Matus, Carlos’s Yaqui teacher—and in fact all the Yaqui material, which demonstrates that he did not know the first thing about Yaqui culture, places, or language.

And yet, and yet, a lot of the material that forms the teachings of Don Juan has the ring of truth to it. You have to look at it obliquely, perhaps, but there is a lot of wisdom there, whatever its point of origin. Castaneda was actually a Peruvian, and it could be that he joined some Peruvian mystical teachings to a fictional Mexican source.

The one thing that did not influence me at all was Castaneda’s emphasis on peyote, jimson weed, psilocybin, and other psychedelic substances. I had just survived brain surgery in 1966 and was not in any mood to experiment on myself.

I am currently re-reading A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. In the process, I keep bumping into my younger self. Very interesting.

Seven Dolls

Sign at Entrance to the Ruins

There are untold thousands of Meso-American archeological sites scattered through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Sometimes, it’s fun to visit some of the lesser-known sites. I have particularly fond memories of Dzibilchaltún, which is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Mérida. It was the first Maya ruin I visited back in 1975 with my guide Manuel Quiñones Moreno. We set on the steps of a temple and played several games of chess, which I lost handily.

So it was fun to visit it again in 2020. Now there was an entrance hall, an admission fee, and a rather nice museum. Plus, the cenote was filled with children diving into the limestone-cooled waters.

The Temple of the Seven Dolls

Above is the most famous structure at Dzibilchaltún, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after a number of figurines that were found by archeologists buried under one of the altars.

The Seven Dolls Buried in the Temple

Dzibilchaltún is not a world class beauty like Uxmal, Chichén Itza, Copán, or Tikál, but it helps fill in vital parts of the Maya story. Although it doesn’t have a lot of first-class structures, the city was inhabited for over a thousand years. It was close to the coastal salt flats that led to the one item most frequently used in the coastal trade with other peoples, namely: salt.

And I have happy memories because this is one of the places where I began my travels as a young man.

At the Start of the Covid Outbreak

It was the night of January 14, 2020. I was scheduled to take a flight on Volaris to Guadalajara, Mexico, and then on to Mérida in Yucatán. The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX was crowded with Chinese returning to their country. Most of the flights were to Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and other major cities on the Chinese mainland. My Mexico flight was one of the few in the wee hours of the morning that was to a Western Hemisphere destination.

A month earlier, on December 1, 2019, a patient was admitted to a hospital in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, with a strange case of pneumonia. I didn’t know anything about the official Chinese coverup of the disease until around January 24, when I was staying at the Hotel Lopez in Campeche, where I had access to the Al Jazeera news channel in English on my TV. The whole time I stayed there, the news was filled with pictures of Chinese healthcare personnel in hazmat suits. There were just then beginning to be cases of the unknown disease in the United States, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Viet Nam, Taiwan, and Nepal.

By the time I returned to the United States on February 7, mass quarantines were in effect in various countries around the globe. A month later, in the middle of March, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance performance of Kárpátok before submitting ourselves to the lockdown the next day.

There is an interesting chronology of the first days of the Covid-19 outbreak available by clicking here. Fortunately, we managed to avoid getting the disease; and my fingers are crossed that we never will.

Second Class

When I went to Yucatán in 2020, I had not been to Mexico for many years. I was pleasantly surprised that even the second class buses were air-conditioned and relatively new. Back in the early 1980s, I remember the old Unión de Camioneros de Yucatán buses with their broken windows and busted seats. Now there were a whole spate of new companies, such as Oriente (shown above). This was the bus I took from Izamal to Mérida.

In all, I took six trips using second class buses:

  • Izamal to Mérida
  • Mérida to Uxmal
  • Uxmal to Campeche
  • Chichén Itzá to Valladolid
  • Mérida to Progreso
  • Progreso to Merida

The first four were on comfortable new Oriente buses. The last two were on a shabbier line that just ran every few minutes between Mérida’s Autoprogreso Station some twenty miles to the port of Progreso.

Above is the first class bus ticket I used to get from Campeche to Merida. The second class route took some 5-6 hours stopping at numerous small inland towns. The ADO (Autobuses de Oriente) line pretty much owns first class routes in Yucatán. From Campeche to Mérida, it took the coastal toll road, which took only about 2 hours.

What’s the difference between first class and second class buses in Mexico? The first class routes are theoretically point to point, not making any pickups or drop-offs along the way. I say “theoretically” because drivers are not above going out of their way for friends. On a second class route, anyone can stop a bus anywhere. When I was going from Chichén Itzá to Valladolid. I stood in the bushes across the street from the Dolores Alba motel and waved down the Valladolid bus. Piece of cake.

Cholula

It’s Not a Hill: It’s the World’s Largest Pyramid

Where is the world’s largest pyramid located? You’re looking at it, in this photograph of the pyramid at Cholula near Puebla, Mexico. You can walk up to the pyramid, and it just looks like a hill, on top of which the Spanish built the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The base is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Cholula is just a few minutes west of Puebla and is famous for the number of churches in a city of its size. The legend is that there are 365 churches in the city of approximately 100,000, one for each day of the year. Actually, there are about 37, which is quite enough.

As I recall, there are some very claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that cut through the pyramid, which I decided to skip. They were used by archeologists to determine how many layers of pyramid there were on the inside.

Two Englishmen in 1930s Mexico

Mexican Family ca 1930

Two writers who influenced my travels in Mexico are Aldous Huxley, who wrote Beyond the Mexique Bay in 1934, and Graham Greene, who wrote The Lawless Roads in 1939. Both writers were there during a rough time. The Mexican Revolution was theoretically over in 1920, but there were not only widespread disturbances, but there were not, as there are today, a safe system of intercity roads. Plus Huxley spent most of his book on his travels in Guatemala and Honduras.

Greene’s book was my guide to a trip my brother and I took to Mexico in 1979. We flew to Mexico City and transferred to a flight to Villahermosa, which at the time impressed me as the armpit of the republic. Greene then then made his way to the Maya ruins at Palenque. From there to San Cristóbal de las Casas was lengthy journey over the Sierra Madre on muleback. For Dan and me, it was an all-day journey by second class bus during which we passed a bus from the same company (Lacandonia) that had run off the road and encountered an army inspection just outside of Ocosingo. From there we visited Oaxaca and rode an all-night bus back to the Mexico City airport.

Old Penguin Cover for The Lawless Roads

Greene had considerably worse experiences during his trip over forty years earlier. In the middle of his journey, he broke his glasses:

Just short of our destination a sudden blast of wind caught my helmet and the noise of cracking cardboard as I saved it scared the mule. It took fright and in the short furious gallop which followed I lost my only glasses. I mention this because strained eyes may have been one cause for my growing depression, the almost pathological hatred I began to feel for Mexico. Indeed, when I try to think back to those days, they lie under the entrancing light of chance encounters, small endurances, unfamiliarity, and I cannot remember why at the time they seemed so grim and hopeless.

Why the author went to Mexico with a single pair of glasses is a mystery to me. Fortunately, I never felt any pathological hatred for Mexico, based on the many subsequent journeys I took there.

The Edition of Huxley’s Book That I Own

I have also been to most of the places that Aldous Huxley described in Beyond the Mexique Bay during my trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Unlike Greene who saw only the Maya ruins at Palenque, Huxley traveled to Copán in Honduras and Quirigua in Guatemala.

Like Greene, Huxley also had a problem with the people of Central America. At one point, he lets it all hang out: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’” The French expression could be translated thus: Stupidity isn’t my strong point.

These two civilized and (perhaps) sticky Englishmen did manage to write interesting books which engaged my interest through multiple readings over a period of more than four decades.

Now why would you want to read books written almost a century ago when there are more current books on the subject? My answer is a simple one: The best recent books were written with a knowledge of what went before. And when it comes to Mexico, one could easily go back to the books of John Lloyd Stephens written in the 1840s. (In fact, I will do just that in a follow-up post.)

Chicken Enchiladas in Mitla

Mixtec Ruins at Mitla, State of Oaxaca, Mexico

It was January 1980. My brother and I were traveling in an arc across southern Mexico along a route taken by Graham Greene in the 1930s, when he was doing his research for The Power and the Glory, which he described in his travel book The Lawless Roads.

Dan and I flew to Mexico City, transferring there to a flight to Villahermosa, which was the least hermosa (beautiful) city either of us had seen in all of Mexico. From there, we went to Palenque, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Oaxaca, and back to Mexico City via all-night bus.

While we were in Oaxaca, we took a side trip to see the Mixtec ruins at Mitla, which consisted of numerous geometric motifs such as are shown in the above photo. Seeing ruins in the desert makes one hungry and thirsty, so we repaired to a little restaurant within shouting distance of the ruins.

We were the only customers in the place. After a few minutes, a little girl raced out of the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks, seeing two large and hairy gringos seated at a table. She did a quick U-turn and ran back to the kitchen shouting ¡Mamacíta! Within a couple of minutes, her mother appeared at our table with a notepad asking in Spanish what we wanted. Dan and I both ordered chicken enchiladas, rice, and beans.

There followed a long delay of several minutes which was punctuated with what Dan and I recognized as the death squawk of a chicken whose neck was being wrung. (Our great grandmother, old Hungarian farm woman that she was, liked to buy live poultry and butcher them and pluck their feathers herself.)

In time, about thirty minutes in all, our lunches were served. The chicken which had given its all for us turned out to be old and tough, with a decidedly stringy texture. It had been old, but by God it was fresh! We did our level best to eat as much as we could before thanking the proprietor and her daughter and making our way to the bus terminal.

That was a fun trip which gave us dozens of funny stories to remember for the long years to come.