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.

 

Gaspésie Revisited

Last August, after leaving New Brunswick, my husband and I followed the south side of the route 138 loop along la baie des Chaleurs until we reached Percé, Québec. While the countryside is undeniably beautiful, it is not as spectacular as the rugged north shore.

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We stayed at the same hotel as last year, Les Trois Soeurs, but on the second floor, so our view of the famous rock was even better. The delicate pastel shades of the sunset were just lovely.

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Unfortunately, our friends were not able to join us, so we spent more time wandering around Percé. One thing I hadn’t noticed before was the plaque on a rock in front of a large yellow house across the road.

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During WWII, the French poet André Breton spent the summer of 1944 in this house with his female companion, Elisa.

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It was here that Breton was inspired to write one of his surrealist masterpieces, Arcane 17.

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Goodreads describes the book as follows:

Using the huge Percé Rock—its impermanence, its slow-motion crumbling, its singular beauty—as his central metaphor, Breton considers issues of love and loss, aggression and war, pacifism, feminism and the occult, in a book that is part prose and part poetry, part reality and part dream.

Breton was not the only artist inspired by the Gaspé peninsula. Earlier, in the summer of 1932, Georgia O’Keefe drove there and painted several barns that prefigured her later work in New Mexico.

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I also came across an exhibit about a prominent group of radical Québec artists and musicians, including the Quebec superstar Robert Charlebois, who gathered in Percé in the late 1960s at a bar known as La Maison du Pêcheur.

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By 1969, Percé had become a Quebecois hippy haven. Ironically, the original house is now a prosperous restaurant; pictured above is a reconstruction for a 2013 film of the same name.

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 This was not the Quiet Revolution of the early 60s, which modernized Québec and made it a secular society.

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Perhaps the surrealist poet Breton best captured the essence of Gaspé. The forces of change are being felt once again, but in the form of climate change. In the fall of 2015, two violent storms hit Percé and caused considerable damage, destroying part of the boardwalk and beach. La Ville de Percé built a new green walkway and decided to leave the damaged section for tourists to view as part of an exhibit on climate change and the coastal environment.DSC02534.JPG

The Québec government acknowledges that climate change is being caused by greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.

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Touring Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

After teaching two demanding upper level summer courses, I set off with my husband and a friend for Nash Creek, New Brunswick, where we stayed in a huge farm house of about twenty rooms built in 1930 that had been converted into a B&B but is no longer in operation. Nash Creek is a tiny community of only 400 residents, but it is a lovely place to live, situated on the Baie des Chaleurs.. Unfortunately it rained the day we spent there, but the spacious house and generous hospitality of the woman who lives there made it a very comfortable stay.

On Tuesday morning my husband and I drove off to Liscombe, Nova Scotia, on the eastern shore of the Atlantic. Naturally, we stayed at the Liscombe Lodge, where we had a lovely little cabin overlooking the Liscombe River. That evening we dined on their famed planked salmon, made from a recipe that derives from the indigenous Mi’kmaqs of the region.

Planked salmon is made by repeatedly basting the salmon with a sauce made from butter and maple syrup. It is cooked on a cedar plank placed close to an open fire. Need I say it is delicious!

The following morning I was sorry to leave, but we had a reservation in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, from where we toured Cape Breton. After checking into our hotel, I still had time to visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. According to Parks Canada’s description, the museum

commemorates the genius and compassion of renowned inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Exhibits show how he and his associates achieved Canada’s first powered flight with their airplane Silver Dart, produced the world’s fastest boat, advanced recording technology, designed giant kites and, of course, invented the telephone.

Bell was born in Scotland, moved to London, England, and then migrated to Nova Scotia, as did many Scotts — hence the name. Along with Bell’s magnificent summer home, Beinn Bhreagh (see postcard below), there is a Gaelic College on Cape Breton.

Nova Scotia has a fascinating history. In addition to its strong Scottish heritage, there are the first nations Mi’kmaq, the Acadians and the Loyalists. According to Wikipedia, “During the first 150 years of European settlement, the colony was primarily made up of Catholic Acadians and Mi’kmaq.” The Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) are Aboriginal peoples who are among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic provinces of Canada. The Acadians are the descendants of French Catholic settlers who came to North America from 1604 onward and settled in the territory known as “Acadie,” which included mainland Nova Scotia. Later, there was an influx of American colonists who came to be know as Loyalists.

Loyalists … supported the British cause during the American Revolution (1775–83). Tens of thousands migrated to British North America during and after the revolutionary war — boosting the population and heavily influencing the politics and culture of what would become Canada.

The next day we began our tour of Cape Breton Island, following the Cabot Trail, named after the explorer John Cabot, who arrived on Cape Breton in 1497. The Trail is a 297-kilometer loop around most of the island, passing through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park at its northernmost point. The park is flat-topped plateau cut by deep river valleys, a wilderness home to moose, black bears, and bald eagles.

As you can see in the enlargement, the Cabot Trail skirts the edges of the island, at times clinging to steep ocean side cliffs. The views are spectacular.

We spent another night in Baddeck and then stopped near Shediac, the lobster capital of the world, where we indulged in a seafood dinner on the wharf. The next day we set off for the magical Gaspésie.

 

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.