Flying Down to Puerto

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Yesterday I took the 7 am Aerotucán flight from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido for the first time. The flight lasts all of 35 minutes and cost 160 CDN. Aerotucán uses a small 16 seater plane which doesn’t fly all that high, so the lovely view of the Sierra del Sul mountains on the way to the coast made the flight worthwhile.

The other alternatives are a collectivo, or crowded van, that travels across the mountains in seven hours over a bumpy potholed road involving many hairpin turns, or a regular bus that takes eleven hours by the roundabout highway. I’ve taken the van a number of times, and most passengers get sick. One time the van was cancelled due to roadblocks, so my husband and I opted for the larger bus which seemed to take forever so we vowed never to take it again. Of course, you can always rent a car and drive, but we met a crane operator from Calgary who found the experience terrifying.

There is a much anticipated highway under construction that was supposed to be finished in 2014 and then by the end of 2015, but the government ran out of money. It will probably be completed sometime within the next five or ten years, but who knows?

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However, for some people like myself, the fact that “progress” has stalled is a good thing. As soon as news of the new highway hit the press, there was a sharp increase in interest in real estate on the Pacific coast, and luxury resorts and condos began sprouting up like mushrooms, as did the price of accommodation.

As the name suggests, Puerto Escondido means hidden port. According to the history of the town on Wikipedia,

Prior to the 1930s, there was no town. The bay had been used as a port intermittently to ship coffee, but there was no permanent settlement due to the lack of potable water. The name “Puerto Escondido” had roots in the legend of a woman who escaped her captors and hid here. The Nahuatl word for this area was Zicatela, meaning “place of large thorns”. Today, it refers to the area’s most famous beach.

In the 1960s, Zicatela Beach became popular with surfers and the town began to develop as a tourist site.

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So a sleepy little fishing village that morphed into a surfers’ paradise is now transitioning into an exclusive resort town. There are a few other ways to get here, but I’m not going to mention them.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

From Puebla, my husband and I took a bus to Oaxaca. The trip usually takes about four hours, but 100 kilometres outside of Oaxaca, we encountered a roadblock. Since the new year, Mexicans have been protesting the 20% increase in the cost of gasoline when President Peña Nieto removed government subsidies and privatized the oil industry. Roadblocks are part of the protests. We were delayed for almost two hours, so the traffic piled up. Then, when the blockade was removed, the situation became chaotic. Fortunately we were at the head of the line and had an excellent bus driver; in addition, one of the passengers actually helped direct traffic so we were finally able to cross a dirt patch and take an alternate route. Because frustrated drivers became unruly, the situation was potentially dangerous, but all the people on the bus remained calm and waited patiently until we were back on the road.

Oaxaca is a very beautiful city and much smaller than Puebla. Its historic centre was also declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987. Here you will find one of the  most magnificent churches in Mexico, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.

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Inside, the stunning altarpiece and Rosario chapel are examples of Spanish Baroque style.    2b91074f0381918be47d7e7c65b89531All the goldleaf made me wonder how many Mexicans went hungry while money was poured into the construction of this church over a period of 200 years, from the 16th to 18th century. I don’t think Pope Francis would have approved.

Beside the Templo there is a fascinating museum worth visiting, the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre. As reported by Wikipedia, “This museum includes an important collection of pre-Columban artefacts, among them the contents of Tomb 7 from the nearby Zapotec site of Monte Albán. The former monastery garden is now an ethnobotanical garden, containing a large collection of plants native to the region.” I especially enjoyed a peaceful walk through the garden which features a wonderful variety of cacti. oaxaca_entorno_07_v_800

There are a number of worthwhile side trips from Oaxaca, including the Zapotec pyramids at Monte Albán and Mitla, but I’ve been there before. I’m afraid you can actually become jaded when it comes to visiting pyramids in Mexico; there are just so many! Every time digging commences on a new development, yet another archeological site is discovered.

In the historic centre there are numerous shops and restaurants selling Oaxaca handicrafts and their vibrantly coloured handmade rugs. zapotec-native-art_sidewalk-art-fair1You will also find very pretty embroidered tops and hand-painted figurines.

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However, my favourite shop remains the wonderful bookstore Amate, which has an enticing collection of English language books on Mexican culture and history.

Having visited Oaxaca on several occasions, this time my husband and I opted to stay in Colonia Reforma, a modern middle-class neighbourhood north of the historic centre. We were able to rent a small bungalow in a complex on a quiet side street and are enjoying our stay here even if the ambiance isn’t Spanish colonial. Actually, it’s more fun to mix with the locals than the other tourists. This area also has many restaurants and shops and there is even a bus that goes directly to the centre that costs all of 7 pesos.

Usually I walk to the centre, which takes about half an hour. I enjoy taking in the colonial architecture and the various shops along the way. Perhaps it is symptomatic of how things have changed because the house where D.H. Lawrence stayed when he lived in Oaxaca is now an outlet for Yves Rocher, a highly successful line of French cosmetics produced in Mexico.

Next week we leave for the Pacific coast, and I look forward to it. Although the temperature is perfect in Oaxaca, ranging from 27 C during the day to 9 C at night, the city is 5,000 feet above sea level and I find myself experiencing a mild form of altitude sickness. The effects include strange dreams, lack of appetite, occasional headaches and fatigue. It’s the feeling of lethargy that annoys me the most as I would like to feel more energetic. But I can still read and write.

 

 

At Home in Puebla

When my husband and I visit Mexico, rather than stay in the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, we usually go to Puebla, which is only two and half hours away by bus and relatively peaceful, but it too has expanded considerably since we first visited it some twenty years ago. You can easily get there by bus, and if you sit on the righthand side, you can see the famous volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl that figure in Malcolm Lowry’s modernist masterpiece, Under the Volcano.

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The city of Puebla has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1531 to encourage Spanish settlers in the New World, but it is also where the Mexican army defeated the French in 1862 and the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20. Due to its colonial history and architecture, the area around the Zócalo, or main square, was declared a world heritage site in 1987. I first visited Puebla in the late 1990s when I attended a conference at La Universidad de las Américas. I immediately fell in love with this charming city and have returned almost every year for a short visit. I always stay in the historic centre at the Hotel Colonial, my home in Puebla.

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The Hotel Colonial was originally a Jesuit monastery built at the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the building was used to accommodate travellers from Veracruz on their way to Mexico City. In the middle of the 19th century, it became the Hotel Jardín; then in 1930 it underwent a restoration and became the Hotel Colonial.

The hotel is also known for its restaurant where they serve Mole Poblano, a traditional Mexican dish consisting of chicken smothered in chocolate sauce. mole Many people don’t know that chocolate is indigenous to Mesoamerica. Mole is not sweet; rather it is delicately spiced with chili peppers. Puebla itself is known as a culinary centre, so you will find many excellent restaurants to choose from. My favourite is El Mural, which is on the other side of the Cathedral pictured below.

8142344765_c7df076d5a_bThere are a number of interesting museums in Puebla, but the top one is undoubtedly the recently renovated Amparo Museum, which features a stunning collection of pre-Columbian art and a roof-top café with an excellent view of Puebla and the surrounding mountains. 2612699844_ac05ec8650_bBesides the Amparo, I would recommend the Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution, a converted house where the first shot of the revolution was fired. You can still see the bullet holes in the wall.

Another fantastic site not to be missed is the Palafoxian Library. Founded in 1646, it was the first public library in Mexico and may be the oldest in the Americas. Not only is the collection intact, all the shelves and furniture are original. 245px-biblioteca_palafoxiana_de_puebla

 

 
Puebla is also famous for Talavera, a type of ceramic that has been produced for over four hundred years.

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Many years ago my husband and I bought a genuine Talavera urn to decorate our living room. We also have hand-painted dishes, but these are copies that we purchased in Dolores.

Last but not least there is a bustling antique market and many fine shops to wander through if you should visit Puebla. These are just the highlights.

 

Me and You

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Last Saturday afternoon I went to see Talia Hallmona and Pascal Brullemans’ play Me and You. It is about the sensitive issue of immigrant integration in Québec. Moi et l’Autre was originally written in French and won the Louise-LaHaye prize, an award that recognizes excellence in plays for a young audience. Here is the synopsis from the Talisman Theatre’s website:

A young actress recalls her childhood memories and her arrival in Quebec. As the story unfolds, she recounts her meeting with Julie Sirois, her best friend—a quebecoise who dies in an accident. Denying this reality, Talia will interrupt the story and change the course of her destiny by giving her role to Julie. But she soon discovers that sharing her life with others has risks, especially when it comes to uniting two cultures that everything dissociates. Autofiction where reality and freedom are scrambled, Me and You portrays a friendship that defies conventions and looks at the identity of the immigrant, posing the question : Do we acknowledge the Other for what he gives us, or for what he takes from us?

The structure of the play is interesting. Numbered cards are brought out to introduce each brief scene. The two girls meet in high school and become fast friends, but only after Talia (Mirian Katrib) has been taunted and ostracised by her classmates for being an immigrant. The horrors of high school are intensified. Talia is half Egyptian and half Greek/Italian.

The acting was impressive. Kathleen Stavert as Julie, the rock’n roll teenager from Laval was electric. Although it is a short play, time passes quickly (in both senses) and we learn what life is like for Talia — confusing to say the least. After high school, she decides to become an actress, perhaps in the hope that assuming scripted roles will provide her with an identity, however temporary. Before long she announces to her mother that she now wants to be a revolutionary, so to get that out of her system, her mother brings her to an Egyptian community meeting where she is rudely denigrated by a young man for not speaking Arabic and for being a slut. Her mother overhears the conversation and is angry that her daughter didn’t tell him to go to hell, so they quickly leave. Katrib does a fine job switching from mother to daughter.

At one point, we overhear her mother on the phone to Egypt. For me this was really where the play took off. Not only is it difficult for immigrants to create a place for themselves in Quebec society, but the problems they have escaped from remain very real for them when they have left loved ones behind and hear of the horrors taking place but can do nothing. Although I belong to a minority in Québec, as a middleclass anglophone, I am not subjected to this painful reality. Of course I can watch news reports on the CBC or Aljazeera, or watch various YouTube videos about the war torn middle-east, but I can always turn the TV or computer off and forget about it.

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant surprise to read a recent online article reporting that the Syrian refugees in Canada had organized a fund-raising campaign on Facebook. They wanted to help the people who had to flee from the ranging fires in Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, near the Canadian tar sands. The Syrians said they understood exactly what it was like to suddenly lose their homes and wanted to do something in return for the help they had received from the people of Canada.

The sense of reconciliation Me and You suggests also merits comment. When we learn that Julie has died in a car crash, Talia quickly denies that this has happened. From that point on Sylvie inhabits part of Talia’s psyche, an idea which I think is well illustrated in the advertising poster shown above. The original French title is somewhat different: it emphasizes the opposition between self and other, yet the play collapses that seemingly unbreechable distance. What is remarkable is that all these various parts end up contributing to the construction of an identity — one that is not necessarily coherent. Perhaps it would be helpful to add that coherence may not be necessary.

 

 

Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon & Dora Bruder

Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon opens in Milan. It is August and insufferably hot. Jean, the protagonist, is on his way home to Paris but between trains. Since he has four hours to kill, he stops in at the bar across from the train station. It is dark and cool and practically empty. He overhears the conversation between the barman and a customer, who are talking about a French woman who committed suicide in the hotel two days earlier. Intrigued, Jean buys a newspaper and reads the obituary once he is on the train. Later we learn that he knew the woman, Ingrid Teyrsen.

Eighteen years later, Jean returns to Milan. As a documentary filmmaker, he has spent most of his adult life making films about explorers who disappeared. Not only is he tired of making films no one cares about, but he’s tired of his life, so he decides to disappear.

Modiano’s novels often engage with this theme. In Dora Bruder, which I read soon after Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, he investigates the disappearance of Dora, a teenager who ran away from the convent her parents had placed her in during the Occupation in 1941, undoubtedly for her safety. In this work of creative nonfiction, Modiano strives to understand why she would have done such a thing. We soon learn that she and her father were both deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. What happened to her in the interim? Modiano writes:

It seemed to me like I would never find any trace of Dora Bruder.Therefore the yearning that I felt drove me to write a novel, Honeymoon, a way as another for keeping on concentrating my attention on Dora Bruder, and maybe, I said to myself, to elucidate or guess something about her, some place she had been, a detail of her life.

So Honeymoon was written while writing Dora Bruder, as an exercise to help him understand why Dora ran away. The exercise appears to have worked. Once Jean has staged his disappearance, he returns to Paris, to the shabby suburbs where he once lived, and begins writing the biography of Ingrid Teyrsen, who (like Dora Bruder) was sixteen when he first met her. The writing of the biography triggers a series of flashbacks and speculation about what might have happened to her during the war, all interspersed with glimpses of Jean’s life, both past and present. By the end of the novel, Jean understands only too well why Ingrid took her own life.

Although Dora’s running away was in a very real sense suicidal, the ending of Dora Bruder is somewhat different in tone. However vague, we do get a sense of her life. Modiano writes:

I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History, time–everything that defiles and destroys you–have been able to take away from her. (119)

In writing about Dora’s life, Modiano gave it meaning, at the same time granting a sense of reality to all the others who disappeared and died during the Holocaust. For this, he undoubtedly deserved the Nobel Prize.

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel

While the subtitle of this book announces itself as a novel, in terms of length, it more closely resembles a novella or short story, as it can be read in one sitting. But in terms of the depth of emotional involvement it manages to draw out, it reads more like a novel.

My Name Is Lucy Barton begins with the narrator Lucy recalling the time she spent nine weeks in a hospital room in New York City facing the Chrysler building. She had had an appendectomy but developed a fever. Although she was subjected to all kinds of tests, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her, so her husband asked Lucy’s mother to visit, which she immediately does. She has not seen her daughter in years. The story hinges on their relationship, bringing us back to Lucy’s childhood in a small town in Illinois, where her family suffered extreme poverty.

Suffered is the right verb here. Strout briefly lets us know what it was like for a child to be tormented at school by her classmates and teachers for being so poor. The family, which includes three children, actually lived in a unheated garage. The deprivations the children experience reminded me of Tilly Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Like Elena Ferrante, Strout shows how poverty can be stultifying and scaring. Lucy is not even allowed to cry. What saves her is that she is able to escape into books. Lucy says,

the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point.

We also learn that Lucy’s father was essentially destroyed by the trauma of his experience in WWII. He cannot forget the atrocities her committed on German soldiers. What Strout seems to be getting at is how the humanity of both the torturer and the victim is violated, with lasting results. Following the war, many suffering from such trauma received little or no help. The situation has not improved all that much, as we continue to hear of the PTSD of those who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fortunately for Lucy, she is bright and eventually wins a college scholarship. She leaves home, graduates, and marries a man who is completing his postdoctoral studies at the university. Because he is of German origin, her father wants nothing to do with him, thus creating a serious breach between Lucy and her family.

After Lucy and her husband settle in New York and have two daughters, the emotion picks up again. Lucy has two stories published and meets the writer Sarah Payne, who has been faulted by a male critic for being “compassionate.” Lucy goes to hear Payne speak on a panel at the New York Public Library and notices the man “sitting alone in the back row.” I do like Strout’s sense of humour, her ironic use of understatement. Before long, Lucy becomes a student in Payne’s writing class. It is essentially through writing and following Payne’s advice — not to protect anyone as she writes –that Lucy is able to construct a viable and whole self.

It seems too that Lucy’s mysterious illness was caused by her need to have her mother’s love affirmed. Of course, readers understand that Lucy’s mother loves her. She has after all taken a plane on her own for the very first time in her life in order to visit her sick daughter. Since Lucy’s mother has no money for a hotel, she actually sleeps in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room. But because her mother has been so hardened by poverty and what must have been a brutal marriage, not to mention her own impoverished upbringing, she cannot bring herself to tell her daughter she loves her.

It may very well be that Lucy’s mysterious ailment was a manifestation of her need for parental love. We learn that her doctor has taken an interest in her and comes to check in on her even on the weekends, when he doesn’t work. We are told that members of his family died in the camps during the war, yet this man is still able to express love and kindness — in a word, compassion. In a sense, he becomes the positive father figure Lucy lacked.

By the end of the novel, Lucy reflects on the pain she has caused her own children and adds,

I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is  mine, this is mine, this is mine.

What is unique, is that Strout writes, “we children.” This is no ordinary heart to heart. Strout is speaking directly from her wounded child to the reader’s. This is a beautiful and touching ending, a novel narrated with the simplicity and honesty of a child.

Photo © Leonard-Cendamo.