|Oct/Nov 2007 Travel|
For Whom the Bowl Flushes
My life in Mexico began with the cockroach incident. First morning in my new home, a toilet wouldn't flush, and a rising desert sun promised to bake the unsavory contents. I stepped into the shower.
Shampoo had just covered my closed eyes when I felt the tile floor move. One eye cocked open. An antennae-waving mega-roach scurried frantically around my feet. I yelled. I danced. We were trapped together like Aztec prisoners in a stone ball court. As he darted up my leg, I jerked, flinging him into the nearby fecal stew.
Several deep breaths stopped my trembling. La cucaracha paddled desperately thru putrid seas while I stood above in godlike indifference to his plight. His fate was not so special. For many, life is crappy and then you die. I came to Queretaro for such existential reflection, but first, I needed a plunger.
Took a taxi across town. Decals of the grim reaper and a laughing skull adorned my side of the windshield. Conversation pieces perhaps? Or maybe, while other cabs post assurances of the driver's safety record, Mexican taxis prefer to remind us that death comes to us all in our own time, thus the beer-scented chauffeur furiously street racing his amigos has nothing to do with it.
Ah, the philosopher/cabby. Stickers of Catholic saints nearly blocking out his field of vision offered further proof of his enlightened (if impeded) view. Now, that's faith! Plus, the white-knuckled passenger received a potent evangelistic pitch to make peace with his maker.
I disembarked at Jardin Zenea. Children strolled with ice cream cones, and couples kissed with uninhibited passion. Church bells clanged. The sound emanated from a stonework dome towering over the ochre-plastered Templo de San Francisco, which was founded in the 1500s as a convent. I descended into the dark interior. A gory, life-sized crucifix forced me left, where flickering candlelight revealed a chapel and an imposing, glass crypt dominated the scene. Inside, an orange-haired, green-faced Jesus bled profusely onto his white-cotton death shroud, looking much like a reject from a bad CSI set. Revulsion outweighed inspiration.
Mexicans have an obsession with death that tends to mystify and mortify gringos. Yet, could it be our culture's ritual denial that is truly bizarre? I was determined to wallow in the macabre with my brown brethren to find out. A policeman posted just outside the cathedral with pistol, automatic rifle, and ammunition strap reiterated that death is a fact of life that locals make no effort to conceal.
A Cock and Bull Story
Friday was National Independence Day. My death pilgrimage led me to the corrida de toros or charging of the bulls. Hemingway loved such bullfights for the romance. I was here because the sun also sets, and in Mexico it often sets blood red.
The crowd was mildly inebriated. We sat on brick risers between a dusty arena and a misty waterfall. Flamenco guitar filled the air. A black bull hurled itself into the walls as sleek men in gilded, pastel costumes tormented it from all sides. Snack vendors combed the aisles.
A blindfolded and padded horse served as victim for the bull's furious goring to facilitate its rider grinding a spear into the bull's neck. (This wound forces the animal to charge head downward and horns forward.) A thick magenta mantle oozed over taurine torso and coagulated on a yellow prize ribbon. Mothers chatted with babysitters via cell phone. The beast took on a glazed stare as bloody slather dripped from its lifeless, leathery tongue. Matador Fernando Ochoa stepped out to roaring applause.
El toro and el matador (the latter means killer) danced a swirling ballet. With each turn, horns and bulk passed within inches of the machismo artiste who skillfully hypnotized a mountain of testosterone into a delirious death cadence. The romance was highly questionable, but the finesse was indisputable.
The famous red cape conceals a silver sword. Fernando brandished it like a crosshair between raging eyes and snorting nostrils a yard away. (The fatal stab must be timed when hooves are together thus splaying shoulder blades.) Silence—the lunge, the strike, the collapse. This creature, born to hulking domination, crumbled finally into breathless submission. El toro had left the building. A pathetic bag of bones was dragged away with little dignity or notice.
Torrential rain swept in. The drag marks became a long, purple puddle, and the arena floor became a terra cotta swamp. A yellow bull stormed out with a raspy roar. Attacking his tormentors, he lost footing, crashed into a barrier, and broke off half a horn. His sound and fury signifying nothing, he now appeared an inelegant adversary and was soon replaced by a 600 kilogram, reddish, bellowing streak of anger who nearly hurdled the wall on entrance.
Matador Rafael Ortega took off his shoes for mud traction. Time after time, slip after slide, his lance missed the mark, turning all efforts to end the misery into meatball surgery. Japanese executives in cowboy hats clapped as if this was a new twist on Teppan-Yaki. The bullring became a lake. Rafael and apprentices retreated to high ground, where they discussed the logistical nightmare; elite patrons retreated to shelter, where they bemoaned the damp inconvenience. Across still-rising waters, a solitary bovine clump occasionally twitched.
Were this Transylvania, the night's bloodlust would likely have been satisfied. However, this was Mexico. Our movable fiesta migrated to the crumbling stone bowels of an old Franciscan mission for the torneo de gallos or cockfight. (Perhaps, the Spaniards weren't such an obvious choice to "civilize" the indigenous peoples.) How do I characterize this cultural event? Picture 700 men with 500 cigars, 300 tequila bottles, and 100 women of the sort who become sexually aroused by homicidal chickens.
Amidst the smoky, drunken chaos, bets were placed two ways. Officials threw around a slotted tennis ball into which you crammed your wager, or spectators shoved money in your face which you were expected to match. Disputes were resolved quickly or violently.
The well-bred cocks were a lustrous green or red. Claws were accentuated with razor-sharp steel blades. Tournaments were a momentary flurry of screeches and feathers. Losers were often dead. When a bird survived, the owner orally sucked the blood from its throat to protect his investment. When both competitors were unresponsive, they were laid together and the winner (using the term loosely) was he whose beak hit the floor last. I'm not making this up!
Finding no thrill in animal cruelty, I was just about to leave when I noticed the curvaceous aficionado next to me licking her lips. "Well," I sillygized, "if animals are going to suffer, mankind should receive some benefit." Not all the cocks that parried and thrust that night had feathers, and that's no worn-out, wet and dirty bull.
Bootylicious and Decomposing Bodies
The following weekend, I discovered Mexicans not only enjoy watching death, they like flirting with it as well. Drove to San Miguel de Allende. This picturesque pseudo-authentic town keeps its rustic charms with a combination of modern zoning laws, tourist cash flow, and quaint shops run by bohemian foreigners. The authentic Mexicans, of course, are mostly busy in non-authentic places, hustling jobs to spare their children from quaint, rustic poverty. In short, San Miguel is theater, a place where white folks find burros and sombreros while brown folks elsewhere seek carros and cappuccinos.
Today was slightly different. The main drag was packed with rich boys in white shirts and red bandannas (chico rico rancheros) putting on a good buzz and awaiting the release of the bulls. (I'm not saying that youth is wasted on the young; I'm simply noting that some youth were wasted on the street.)
When the terrified little cows finally came scampering down the cobblestone, it was about as glamorous as watching tipsy Marde Gras revelers dodging parade floats. The bulls tried their best to avoid the staggering morons and were generally successful. "Bowling for drunks" pretty well sums it up.
My flirting-with-death reference had nothing to do with these bovine/hooligan antics. The real danger was in the crowd. Each tiny side street held a standing-by ambulance and about a thousand liquored-up frescas pressing against the barricade. (Fresca is Spanish for fresh or a girl who thinks shopping is the purpose of life.)
The strawberries and I were quickly becoming compote. As I was compressed from the front ambulance bumper to the door to the gas tank to the rear wheel, my will to live and my will to be smushed to death by beautiful women struck up an internal dialog. However, in the crucial moments my duty to you the reader kept me alive.
Every few minutes, some unconscious person was passed back thru the crowd. Without warning, an unsuccessful ambulance-climber above me sat on my head. She apologized, but this only confused me since it was pretty much the highlight of my day. I think I saw a bull running, but with my face plastered into the filthy window of an open rear ambulance door, it's difficult to say for sure. Next time, I'll play it safe and run with the bulls.
With near death and animal death behind me, I felt prepared for something truly hard-core. Time for another road trip. My destination city of Guanajuato wasn't so much constructed as sculpted out of solid rock. From the subterranean labyrinth of stone tunnels to the stone palaces of historic mining barons, to the stone streets, lampposts, walls, and bridges, this town was hewn to last.
Even mortal flesh lingers here. Guanajuato's ground minerals not only sustain the living, they preserve the dead. A bizarre sampling of pickled Homo sapiens has been warehoused to enlighten and disgust at the Mummy Museum. Thanks to many locals who can no longer afford grave rental for barely decomposing relatives, this establishment serves up a daily visual feast of peasant under glass.
I bought my ticket and swallowed hard. First came a black and white photo gallery where parents held deceased children. The poses were reserved, but the eyes burned with grief. Mothers looked stunned and distant; fathers seemed bursting with rage or crumbling with despair. A miner in a dirty suit cradled his sleeping princess in a white frilly dress. A circle of gaunt children tenderly supported their lost sibling's slumping head. This was life, the movie, not coming soon to a theater near you.
Perhaps using dead children for spiritual education props and pay-per-view entertainment is inappropriate. If so, someone forgot to tell the Mexicans. One proprietor acknowledged the tackiness, then pointed to hordes of foreign tourists, quipping, "Which is worse: to sin for pay or to pay for sin?"—savvy museum official 1, sanctimonious journalist 0.
The threshold of the Mummy Museum proper passed beneath signage reading: "As you see me, so you shall be." A faint smell of musty rot offered further forewarning of things to come. Inside, the walls were stacked with glass vaults containing leathery remains that once walked and talked.
A sincere but incompetent friend strove to translate the tour narration. Our guide would speak for several minutes, then my pal would say, "This is another mummy, he's dead," or "More mummies, they're dead, too." I abandoned the tour de farce for the company of those who say nothing but communicate much.
Some corpses were organized in bone rows by human hands seeking meaning and order, but most had succumbed under nature's hand into varying degrees of chaos—clumps of hair, sagging flesh, loose fingernails, deflated lips, shriveled penises, dried-up eyeballs, broken-off toes, and peeling-off faces.
A skeleton in pleated shirt and silk waistcoat grimaced the word "Nooooo!" with enough terror to make Edward Munch's "The Scream" look like a Monet garden. One resident in cowboy boots held a note: "Simon Lozano, miner, died 1900, exhumed 1907." How ironic to spend your life in underground darkness and your death under floodlights.
I stood in absolute horror before a woman with dusty, petrified labia, still-visible clitoris, tightly-clutched breasts, and head jerked back in an agonized scream suggesting that death and orgasm are nearly indistinguishable and the former may be more familiar to us than we wish to believe.
The mummies continued ad nauseum. A fetus showed an umbilical cord dried across a tiny chest. A baby in diaper and blue sweater with chubby rotting cheeks gripped a doll with its few remaining fingers. A blackened, crispy elder retained beard, mustache, and pubic hairs. A pregnant woman bore heaps of collapsed belly skin and breasts like dehydrated figs.
The sickening parade ended, and I finally emerged into sunlight. A street vendor extended arms loaded with toy mummies. I laughed in disbelief. "More mummies? More mummies? Do I want more mummies? Are you kidding?" I found a place to sit down and think about anything but mummies.
Christmas Greetings from the Inferno
The gringo/Latino death-perspective-gap can also be found traveling southeast from the Bajio. I arrived in Bernal one weekend along with swarms of tourists. The village had few services, dirt lot pay parking, and rental toilets with extra charge for paper. So, why was everyone there? Only one reason: Bernal has a rock. Granted, it's a big beautiful rock with a stunning view from the top, but it's still a rock. Hippies and retirees flock to the rock and its reputed life-sustaining aura, whatever that means. Mexican locals are quite content to turn their backs on the monolith to welcome tourists with their life-sustaining aura of cash.
Nearly all of these visitors come to the rock through the junction town of San Juan Del Rio. Very few stop at the straightforwardly-named "Museum of Death," though admission and parking are free. My tour group included only young Mexican couples on what some would consider an odd first date. Here you walk across many elegantly carved rocks with mystical symbols. However, these are burial headstones. Rather than offering a panoramic vista, they provide only a glimpse into the abyss. Our guide expounded passionately on displayed artwork portraying all manner of persons awaiting their appointment with death. While most gringos are vaguely conscious of this inevitability, when it comes to metaphysics, we prefer less talk, more rock.
I returned to Queretaro on Sunday night to learn that even Christmas can't escape the kiss of death in Mexico. Though still early in the season, the main plaza had transformed into an elaborate, twinkling Navidad display, divided into four quadrants. The first illustrated the star trek of wise men from the East, the second offered shepherds prostrate before the angelic messengers, the third glorified the baby in a barn lying in a manger. (Oh, don't give me that fashionable blank stare, you know the story, and as for you New York literary types, word search baby Jesus!)
With this totally unsecularized presentation, readers may wonder if the city fathers provided anything relevant to those of other faiths or none. Why, yes, they did. The fourth quadrant portrayed a flaming hell with the damned in eternal death surrounded by twelve-foot-tall nightmarish demons.
Now, if you're a little shaky on the connection between tidings of great joy and tidings of your ass is grass, I'm with you. However, one needed only scan the beaming faces that packed the square to see that most locals were quite comfortable with a yuletide admonition of "joy to the world, or else." Don't tell Bing Crosby, but not everyone is dreaming of a white man's Christmas.
Come Wednesday, death made another appearance on an even less expected occasion. Have you ever been to a children's birthday party where you felt like killing a couple of kids? Who hasn't? Yet, only in Mexico have I seen the deed actually done.
Preparations began six hours before celebration time. Two woolly bleating kids were tethered to a tree. Suddenly, one was seized, its legs bound with coarse biting rope. A knife was inserted by a neck jab you could feel—a shocked convulsive squirm, a dramatic sigh with a simultaneous expulsion of poop pellets, a mixture of drowning and breathing from the neck gash, a bucket filling with goopy cherry-red blood, a woozy docile resistance followed by unconscious reflexive resistance followed by stillness.
The sibling stood by waiting his turn as obliviously as most of us do. The bloody knife lay on the cream tile looking like a movie poster. When a stick was thrust up the lifeless hind leg, long-closed eyes horribly snapped open. Using this entryway, the carcass was blown up like a raft to separate the meat for butchery. The dead animal was then hung from a hook with the head dragging clunkily across the stones and a gaping white aorta dripping like PCP pipe.
The inflators spit the bad taste from their mouths while I wondered if I should do the same. Our sibling sensed something negative and preferred to face the other way. Don't we all? Behind patio-door glass, a three-year-old brown face was sobbing. I assumed she was weeping for the kid; turned out she was crying because she had wanted to see. Perhaps, aversion to death is learned, not inborn.
The distilled blood was cooked with chilies, onions, herbs, and green tomatoes to make taco filling. The flesh and bones were grilled over a pot of garbanzos, potatoes, carrots, and onions, resting on white hot coals in a stone pit. This was covered with maguey leaves, plywood, and finally a mound of dirt. Four hours later, the pile was shoveled off to reveal succulent meat and zesty consommé.
A long fiesta table was spread over the spot where the killing took place. Small burgundy stains under the chairs went unnoticed. The greasy broth, served with chopped onions and cilantro, was strong as goat gravy mixed with sheep bathwater. The solidified-blood tacos had virtually no flavor, for which I was truly grateful. Our sacrificial lambs even attained an afterlife in the many photos of guests gnawing bones. A fly-covered bucket of hooves and organs, abandoned off to one side, comprised the final frame in my memory—a birthday, a deathday, a normal Mexican day.
Gettin' Drunk with Dead Relatives
Why are Mexicans so unusually comfortable with death? One possible reason is that they are less likely to die alone or forgotten than their northern counterparts. Death, like everything else here, is a family affair.
On November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, I went with a friend's family to a little town called Pueblito, which means "little town." The cemetery was packed with crowds of people and rows of porta-potties. Carnival-like vendors sold fresh bouquets and chocolate skulls. We negotiated the maze of above-ground cement rectangles, some of which were being lovingly painted and others of which were serving as picnic tables, to their grandather's plot. After arranging flowers and reciting rosaries, we sat on grandpa's grave to play guitar and drink pulque cactus beer. (The man resting beneath us had died trying to cross a desert on foot into the U.S.. How dare he scorn the immigration laws made by esteemed men like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton in order to feed his offspring? I guess he got what he deserved.)
In theory, Day of the Dead is to remind people that life must be lived with gusto and forebears should be remembered with gratitude. In practice, it's more like a tailgate party on a tomb. However, compared to Halloween, where we introduce children to the occult while jumpstarting their diabetes, this is good clean fun.
I for one would be happy to have my bone box used for dining furniture or an accordion concert, if it helped the next generation view life more as spiritual quest than shopping spree. (I would also be thrilled to have this writing constitute a legal will, if it reduces the global lawyer population by one. I would thus herein claim to be of sound mind and body, but those who've read my work or seen me naked could easily testify otherwise.)
Liked the Holocaust? You'll love the Aztecs!
Another likely contributor to the Mesoamerican death fetish is the longstanding local tradition of brutality and slaughter. Regional history somewhat resembles the Mel Gibson flick. Plus, don't tell Mel, but the Mayans were sissies compared to the Aztecs.
One lazy afternoon, I stood inside the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl at Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology. Below me were skeletons of sacrificial victims wearing human jawbone necklaces—Mexico's answer to the Hawaiian lei. Spend a day in this world-renowned art collection, and you'll see clearly that the death cult has long been inseparable from Mesoamerican civilization.
Olmecs near Veracruz portrayed the death god well before 1000 BC. Half skull / half face shamanic masks, along with evidence of ritual roasting, boiling, and defleshing cannibalism likewise survive from these early times. First millennium citizens of Teotihuacán dubbed their main drag "The Avenue of the Dead," then mass produced gleaming obsidian blades and needle sharp skewers for daily executions. Early second millennium Toltec gave their reclining deity Chac Mool a belly bowl for stockpiling human hearts. (So much for those "wild fraternity ritual" stories.)
Just before closing time, I gawked at the famous Aztec Sun Stone, which celebrates the source of all life and currently adorns the ten-peso coin. Gringos like to pretend it's a calendar. Mexicans know it's a sacrificial altar. The center sun face has a knife tongue and holds two beating hearts. (Not so surprising from folks who roofed their buildings with skulls, covered every other flat surface with grinning death god motifs, and decapitated someone for each ball court foul. Even ratings-starved NBA owners haven't tried this.) The sheer number of Aztec altars that have survived time ravaging and Spanish purging boggles the mind, without even noticing the built-in drain holes and trenches engineered to dispense with an ocean of blood. Need I go on? Suffice it to say: death themes are as common to Mexican heritage as corn.
Mesoamerican history loudly argues for the brevity and tragedy of existence rather than happily-ever-after Hollywood endings. So, to some extent, omnipresent mortality is a permanent fixture in Mexican psychology. There abides a Sun Tzu-like conviction that death is coeval with life and to prevail without resistance is best. Still, my experience suggests a deeper and more current explanation for why these people stare death squarely between the eyes.
With Mexican Chocolate, Who Needs Peyote?
While leaving Mexico, I had one more sobering brush with death—death by chocolate. The day was scorching hot. My vehicle had no air-conditioning. The more delirious I became, the more determined I was to reach Zacatecas. Stopped for food and drink. The gas station had neither, except for the Mexican chocolate bars made entirely of cocoa, cinnamon, and sugar. I munched happily with no awareness of the dehydrating effects or of a fireball sunset magnifying thru the rear window onto the back of my head.
Stuffed into a narrow canyon between craggy, arid mountains, Zacatecas often shimmers like a mirage. On that day, though, in my waterless sunstroked state, it positively wobbled back and forth and zoomed in and out. Near passing out, I negotiated a one-lane cobblestone alley with cars parked on both sidewalks toward a hotel shown on my map. Dead end.
Backing out was impossible, and blacking out seemed inevitable. Could things get any worse? Suddenly, a street person, wearing an arm sling clearly concealing something other than an injury, stepped from the shadows and began urgently whistling for his accomplices. Putting a hand on my open window, he hissed that he'd help me if I'd just hand him the keys. I froze for an eternal second, wavering between fight and flight, until a police car lit up behind me. Ten minutes later, I stumbled into a Howard Johnson suite, threw up, and fell into bed.
The next morning as I loaded my suitcase, a passerby offered me three thousand U.S. dollars to ride in my trunk across two days of desert and over the border. Imagine. He was willing to pay dearly for a deadly ordeal that made mine of the day before look easy. Why? Because most Mexicans are all too aware of what we have in North America: economic wealth. However, little human cargo goes the other way, since most North Americans have no idea what treasures lie South of the Rio Grande.
Frankl-ly Speaking, Kevorkian Don't Know Jack
Friedrich Nietzsche said that he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. In concentration camps, Viktor Frankl confirmed this with his observation that those who saw purpose and meaning in life were able to face even a death of ultimate degradation and injustice. I've met Mexicans living in many degrees of pain and squalor, but I've known very few who face life or death without a belief that God is there and cares. In fact, if you confess to a typical Mexican that you doubt whether God exists or gives a damn, he will likely flash you the poor-pathetic-gringo-look and offer to buy you a beer.
Perhaps he has a point. While most Mexicans have little faith in the workings of democracy or the benefits of exercise, they pity the desperate fool who finds himself in a spiritual void. It may be that in our flight from moralism to unlimited freedom, we North Americans have sold our souls to the—well, of course, we don't believe in him, either.
In Man's Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl contends that the depression, aggression, and addiction of Western society cannot be comprehended without recognizing the existential vacuum underlying them. He furthermore suggests that the Statue of Liberty should be supplemented by a Statue of Moral Responsibility, lest freedom degenerate into a meaningless existence.
Ironically, while Latinos do a majority of the physical suffering in the Americas, gringos do almost all of the clamoring for the right to assisted suicide. In Auschwitz, Frankl conducted doctor-assisted non-suicides, dissuading comrades from offing themselves by helping them find meaning in all life, even suffering. If Kevorkian were right, then Frankl was denying people dignity rather than restoring it. When would-be suiciders argued that they had nothing more to expect from life, Frankl boldly suggested that "life was still expecting something from them."
I came to Mexico with the gringo values of effective-time-management and cleanliness-next-to-godliness; I came away with a deep conviction that life and death can be faced with purpose and courage. John Steinbeck once combined a Mexican folktale and a parable of Jesus to caution that the pearl of divine and family love should never be traded for the pearl of worldly wealth and leisure. Mexican Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Dep) similarly enlightened his gringo psychologist (Marlon Brando) that all the questions in life worth asking have the same answer: love. For some reason, most of my brown friends don't have to be told this. They know people need reasons for living, not just resources.
Heading North on the highway from Zacatecas, I watched red ponies grazing in yellow daisies and ashen burros slumbering among brown corn-stalk pyramids. Slowly, the cactus took over—blue agave, grayish maguey, pale green organo, and red-fruited garambullo.
To the physical eye, the desert is a lifeless place. When seen under the midday sun, it appears still as a corpse and dry as a crypt. Yet, locals know the truth. As darkness closes in, the coyote and the tarantula come to life.
Like the biblical Samaritan woman, ancient Aztecs found living water in a parched land. Beneath a forbidding surface, the cactus gushes with moisture. For those who endure prickly discomfort, it provides the vegetable nopal, the tuna fruit, and the beverage tequila. As people draw near to death, they often sense more life in this equally forlorn prickly place than meets the eye.
When my mother lay dying from cancer and diabetes, a doctor proffered her a quicker exit to avoid the approaching days of pain. Instead, she hung on and suffered as humans often do, until her children and grandchildren arrived by car and plane. Though I'm not suggesting that Kevorkian's clients were taking the "coward's way out," neither can I endorse the politically correct notion that those who pass in agony fail to "die with dignity."
In a world where many suffer guilt from unresolved relations, my mother gave a precious gift in the midst of her pain. One day dialysis became impossible, which meant that afternoon's fifteen minutes of consciousness would be her last. I was choking and drowning on the knowledge that we were having our final conversation, but Mom simply squeezed my hand and spoke a concluding sentence: "I'll see you soon." I take her at her word.
Everything I know about facing death, I learned from my mother or those crazy Mexicans. Gracias mis amigos, hasta luego mi mama.