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A Green Tamale Sandwich in the Sunshine
April 11, 2018


As the sun lowered over the mountains, Pam said, “Let’s have some beers. I’ll buy.”

“No, I’ll get ‘em,” said Grant, and pulled a green 200 peso note out of his pocket, flashing the face of Juana Ines de la Cruz, the seventeenth century scholar, philosopher, composer, and poet of Mexico.

“That’s too much,” said Pam. “You know how change-challenged places are. I have a fifty. I’ll get them.”

When she got back, Grant was holding up his 200 peso note and studying the nun-habit encased face of the Señora.

“I understand she was quite the mind,” said Pam.

“Yeah, too much so, for a woman in her time,” said Grant. “Bishop forced her to stop writing, shut up, and do penance. Then she died.”

“Of the plague, I understand. While tending to her fellow nuns who had the plague.”

“I like that: fellow nuns. It sounds like a Monty Python sketch.”

“Or the lady who used to deliver our mail back home,” said Pam. “My daugher Ione always called her the male woman.”

After a few seconds of not being able to think of a comeback, Grant said, “Let’s say this was your last 200 pesos. What would you spend it on?”

“You mean besides another pack of Emperador nut cream cookies?”

“That’s only twelve pesos.”

“Two packets of nut creams.”

“Okay. Keep going.”

“Well, I’d have to get me an elote, and have them to put extra mayo, cheese, and pepper in it.”

“In a cup or on the cobb?”

“Does it matter? Cup,” said Pam.

“Okay, 159 pesos to go.”

“I take it I have transport to border?”

“As you wish.”

“How many pesos did you say I have?”

“Make your next purchase and I’ll tell you.”

“Green tamale sandwich,” said Pam. “The problem is by now I’m full and it will get cold. I hope it doesn’t get stale by the time I eat it.”

“Is that all? You still have 146 pesos. Is food all you can think of?”

“Well it’s hard to find a good bottle of mescal for 146 pesos. So I suppose I’d take the rest and distribute it around town in five peso increments, to whoever looked like they could use it. How about you? What would you do with your last 200 pesos?”

“Pretty much the same as you,” said Grant, “Especially the green tamale sandwich. Except I’d get several, and wrap them up real good and eat them over several days. I’d also get my shoes shined, and my laundry cleaned and folded. And then have a bunch left over to donate. Such are the simple pleasures of life in Mexico.”

“Such as they are.”

“The morning of the day I met you," said Grant, "I was getting my green tamale sandwich from a cart vendor on a side street near the Zocalo. It was such a bright and clear morning -- and cold! Unless you were in the sunshine, that is. There were these two guys sitting and eating their tamale sandwiches near the cart. They were sitting on a curb or a stair or something, and I wanted to sit next to them because they were sitting in the sunbeam where it just felt so warm and pleasant. But there wasn’t enough space for a third person to sit with them. After looking around some more, I realized that these guys were sitting on boxes of shoe shining equipment. These guys were shoe shiners! And not the ones with the established chairs in the Zocalo, mind you. These were the mobile hustler street shoe shiners, the hardscrabble ones.”

“I get what you’re saying. What we crave the most, and take such pleasure in, is but a shoe shiner’s breakfast,” said Pam.

“That’s it,” said Grant.

“I think we can be grateful we know how to appreciate such a thing. Inequality is so asymmetrical in its effects. Think of all the other visitors – the tourists – who will never enjoy a warm green tamale sandwich for breakfast on the street for 13 pesos. And think of all the others who would never consider roaming around Mexico, like we're doing, due to some deep, collective, imagined, totally ill-informed fear.”

“Wasn’t that old couple selling the tamales lovely? The pair who were operating the street cart near our van station in Oaxaca? The old guy with the big stomach and hat and white apron and smile, serving it up, while his wife took the money so he didn’t have to stop and put a plastic bag over his hand to touch it. They were quite a team.”

“What I love,” said Pam, “Is how the men in Mexico do so much of the cooking, and proudly, with a smile. It isn’t like that in so many other countries.”

“But what did you mean when you said inequality is asymmetrical?”

“I was talking about the effects of inequality. Maybe you and I are different. I hope we are. We can find joy in a shoe-shiner’s breakfast. A lot of our cohorts cannot, in fact more than a lot of them, they—”

“Hold on there, lady. Cohorts? What cohorts?”

“I’m talking about us one percent,” said Pam.

“Ha! Then you aren’t talking about me!”

“I’m not? Are you sure? If you’re taking into account the whole globe, I bet I’m talking about you. If not the one percent then maybe the one point five or two.”

“Okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” said Grant. “So what were you saying about ‘us’?”

“For a lot of ‘us,’ we are doing fabulous if we can at best feel indifferent about our ultra-cushy circumstances. But a lot of ‘us’ can’t. Far from it. We are worried and anxious, totally unsatisfied with how much we have and scared that it's not enough, and that it will decrease or go away, and we are deeply unsatisfied about how we compare to people who are higher up and have more, so much more.”

“Of course we feel the lack!” said Grant sarcastically. “How could we not feel it? The disparity between the bottom and the top of the one percent is huge.”

“Ha ha. My point exactly. The impact of inequality is asymmetrical.”

“You mean the fact that wealth is so unevenly distributed, and concentrated in a tiny smidgen of people at the top instead of in the middle of the population?”

“That is not what I mean at all,” said Pam. “I’m talking about the effects of the inequality that you just described – how it makes people feel, regardless of where they are on the spectrum. As I say to my daughter Ione, money doesn’t buy happiness. It gets you about halfway there. And I always follow that up by saying that’s a huge deal. It’s hard to be happy if you are always worried about food or where to sleep and how to physically survive. Add to this your knowledge of your place in the world, compared to people who are able to enjoy so many more things, and I think it’s pretty clear that inequality causes a lot of pain, heartache, and distress for people who are below the midpoint. Even if they can get respites and moments of joy in things like the smiles of friends, or a warm green tamale sandwich in the sunshine. But as I say to Ione, money gets you only halfway there. You have to figure out the other half of being happy all by yourself, and that might not be easy. If inequality was symmetrical in its effects, it would mean that all the people in the upper half would feel the opposite of the pain, heartache, and distress, in opposite proportions, that their counterparts feel.”

“But they don’t?”

“What do you think? Do you?”

“Sometimes.”

“That’s why I think we are lucky,” said Pam. “Maybe we are different. But think of all those people at the lower end of the top one percent, or top three percent or whatever, unsatisfied and distressed with their situation. Our cohorts.”

“So what are you saying? What's your point?”

“I’m saying that inequality sucks for everyone. Even for the top point-five percent and the top point-one percent. For all of the distress it brings poorer people who are hard-pressed, it brings precious little joy to those at the top.”

“So maybe everyone would feel better if things weren’t so unequal.”

“I’d venture to guess,” said Pam. “I sure as hell wish we could try it out and see.”



To be continued


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San Cristobal de las Casas
(a prequel)

March 11, 2018

Matteo looked down on the steps and counted 21 from where the street cut across; the 277th overall. Red-painted mortar gleamed from between the stones of the wall next to the steps. This was where he and Elisa were sat when the silver Volkswagen pulled up, fifteen years ago.

He was cutting an old man's hair in his uncle’s barbershop in San Cristobal when the message arrived. A little girl about seven years old came in and handed him the note, while a four-foot tall woman in local dress and twin braids waited on the sidewalk. He opened the note and got a rush of excitement when he saw it was from Elisa: Meet me tonight on the hill. 9:00, on the steps beneath the church.

It had been six months since their trip to the jungle. He’d almost given up hope of seeing her again. He’d never been with a woman his same age before, let alone one who was ten years older. But it didn’t matter. He knew that it would be difficult for them to be together unless he joined the Movement, but that required an invitation. Up through their last day in the jungle he’d held out hope, and knew what he’d say if she asked. But she didn’t ask.

Instead she walked with him out of the jungle, to the village, where he boarded a pickup truck to Ocosingo.

“When will I see you again?” he asked before getting in the truck.

“Some months. It is dangerous for us to be seen together, even here, let alone on the outside.”

They hadn’t discussed it in detail. She had infiltrated a pro-government paramilitary group, and was pretending to date the commander in order to collect intelligence. His name was Jorge and he was not a nice guy.

“Jorge is dangerous,” she said. “Eradicating the Zapatistas just his hobby. He has other businesses.”

Matteo finished the old man and cut a few teenagers’ heads. He couldn’t wait for 9:00 to arrive. When he shut the barbershop, he walked down Madero Street with a spring in his step. He got to the plaza with fifteen minutes to kill and sat on a bench, and watched the people and shoe shiners and food cart vendors. Then he walked to the hill.

Excitement built as his familiar steps came into view. As he began to climb he counted. He couldn’t help it; it was a reflex. Up to now he'd always escorted girlfriends to these steps, especially after dark. But Commandanta Elisa could more than take care of herself.

He grew nervous as he passed the 200th stair and began the final approach to where the street cut across. He gazed at his watch in the moonlight: 8:57 He jogged up the broad straight steps, and then the final triple set of sideways steps to gain the street. “256,” he said through his breaths.

There she was. In silhouette, a huddled form sat near the top in the moonlight near the church doors, covered in cloak and a derby hat. He knew it was her. He ran to her, and even in his excitement he could not stop counting. “277!” he breathed as he took her in his arms. “I have missed you.”

He leaned back and regarded her serious face in the moonlight.

“I came to warn you,” she said. “I should have written it in the note. But I needed to see you, so that I could make sure you understand what I have to say.”

“My darling, what is wrong?”

“Also, I wanted to see you one last time.”

“One last time?" said Matteo "But why?”

“It is Jorge. He has found about me, about us. Somehow this information was leaked from the jungle. I don’t think it was anyone inside the Movement. Perhaps it was someone from the village.”

“How do you know? Have you seen him?”

“Thank goodness no. He will try to kill me if he sees me. I obtained the information from a source who saw him in a bar, raging that his woman was a cheat and a Zapatista.”

Matteo didn’t know what to say.

“I must go underground,” she continued. “I must go to the jungle. And you must leave Chiapas. If Jorge doesn’t know your identity already, he will find it out. He will try and kill you too.”

“Leave? But where would I go?”

“Far from here. Tuxtla is not good enough. You must go to Mexico City, or farther.”

As she spoke, Matteo felt his stomach tighten. Life was hard enough in his homeland, with the economic situation the main challenge, more than discrimination. But to look like he did, and survive on the streets of Mexico City? He had no people there. He could not think of how to begin.

“Even Mexico City will not be safe,” said Elisa. “Jorge has connections and he will likely find you there.”

“No. I cannot go to Mexico City,” he heard himself saying as he hugged her. “Think about it. He isn’t interested in me. It is you he wants to harm. You don’t need to worry about me.”

Elisa hugged him back and spoke into his ear. “I am sorry I have put you in danger, Matteo. But what I say is true. Jorge is an evil and irrational man. Once he becomes angry, he only knows of one way to deal with it. He is after me, it is true. But he will kill you before he kills me, so that he can increase my suffering. You must leave as well!”

“Then let me come with you to the jungle.” There. He’d said it.

She released him and squeezed his hand. “That is not my decision. If it was I would take you with me tonight. But the others must agree, and they will never agree under these circumstances. They want to trust you, Matteo, but they are not able to. For all they know it could have been you who leaked the information.”

What she said stung, but he knew it was true.

They remained sitting on the steps, holding hands, discussing what to do. A half-moon crested the wooded hilltops across the city. Elisa was not concerned for herself; she had grown up in the Movement and lived most of her life in the jungle. It was Matteo she was worried about.

“It would be better if you left the country. I know people who can help you.” She took a slip of paper from her pocket with two names and telephone numbers. “Either of these people can help you. Just tell them it was me who directed you to them. It will cost you money, but the job will get done correctly.”

As Matteo tucked the slip of paper in his breast pocket, he heard a rumble. A silver Volkswagen Beetle pulled up on the street below and screeched to a halt.

“Run!” yelled Elisa, as the muzzle of a gun glinted in the car window.

Matteo leapt as shots fired and bullets ricocheted off the steps. His ear stung. He zigzagged, and looked for Elisa, and spied her on the other side of the wall from the steps, making for the trees beyond a small cluster of corn stalks.

“Go a different way!” she yelled, and dove into the trees as the dirt from an impacted bullet jumped up in front of her.

He ran up the last few stairs as more shots fired and his calf stung. He sprinted around the side of the church and past it, to the forested hillside behind, where he dove into the trees and crawled until he found a concealed place next to a large rock.

Blood streamed from his stinging earlobe and soaked into the shoulder of his sweater. He pinched it, and with his other hand rolled up his pant leg and felt his calf. It too ran with blood. But he was okay. For as much of a murderer as Jorge was, he was a rotten shot.

He hoped Elisa was okay too.



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Cradle of Humanity
February 11, 2018


Santiago Apoala is a village on a mesa at the head of a valley in Oaxaca State in Mexico, sitting at often chilly 6,500 feet. A stream runs through it and irrigates fields of corn, wheat, and beans. Fig and pomegranate trees complement the pines. It was a center of Mixtec society, pre-Hispanic, and for good reason: this is the setting of the Mixtec creation story.

Here is where two trees growing along the banks joined their roots and branches, and from their union emerged the first woman and man. It’s understandable that this would be considered a place of emergence, what with the startling Morelos Canyon outside of town. The space between its soaring, vertical gray walls is only about 10 to 15 meters across.

If you backtrack through this porthole passage, and keep hiking, you reach a veritable eden of grassy hillsides, gurgling water, and oak trees draped in phantom moss. Before man and woman, the gods lived in peace and harmony here, at “The Place Where the Heavens Stood.” Here is where the deer god Puma-Snake and the deer goddess Jaguar-Snake raised a hill above the all-encompassing waters and built palaces. On top they laid a copper axe with its edge pointing upward, and on this edge the heavens rested.

Two of their sons, Wind-Nine-Snake and Wind-Nine-Cave, were particularly skilled. They could shape-shift into an eagle or a snake, or become invisible and pass through solid matter. They made a garden of flowers, fruit trees, and herbs, and tilled the earth and burned tobacco and prayed to their ancestors to let more earth be freed from its water covering. To strengthen their prayer they pierced their ears and tongues with flint, and sprinkled the blood onto the trees and and brush.



“Mixtec” comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning “cloud people.” As for what the Mixtecs called themselves over the eons, the names varied, and mostly translated to “people,” with an association with rain. It’s interesting how names given to distinguish a people are often not what they called themselves. The Ute Indians of Colorado, for example, didn’t call themselves Utes; the Spanish did (or “Yuta,” which possibly meant “meat eaters”). The Utes rather referred to themselves as “people.”







In alternative news, the Volkswagen Beetle is still going strong in Mexico!

Sadly, they are no longer being manufactured. The last ones were produced in June of 2003. A Mariachi sang the farewell song “Las Golondrinas” as the final one rolled off the assembly line (renamed the Hall of Sorrow) and was crated for shipment to the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Sales had been declining for years, and not helped by certain rules that said taxis in Mexico City couldn’t be more than eight years old, or have only two doors. The latter seems like a reasonable regulation, but come on, only eight years? That’s but a blip in the life of a Beetle.

Which means, of course, that the roads are still well-populated with charming, classic Beetles (though not as taxis). Sometimes you might feel you’ve stepped back into the 1960s in the USA. It makes you want one, and bad!

The good news is you can have one. A car not-approved-for-sale in the USA only has to be something like 25 years old before it can be imported.

So come on down, find someone who can bear to part with their 1993 Beetle, and buy it from them. The main problem is that you'll have to get it to pass emissions. After that you’ve got it: a 1965-style roadster to chug around in for another decade or two!



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Full Circle
January 11, 2018


Happy New Year! I wish you all the best energy for the coming year, and hope you are looking forward to it as much as I am.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I am going to be publishing two new works in 2018!

First and foremost: I have a new novel. I drafted the raw words for it in fall-winter of 2016, while I was traveling in Ghana and Vietnam. Then, into a drawer it went shortly after the turn of 2017, as I spent the year walking and writing Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range.

When I finished hiking in October, I pulled the novel out of the drawer. I set up a room in my house, a little blue room about 10 feet square. I put a table in the center, and a chair, and that was it. I arrived every day at about 5 AM and stayed for about 4 hours. The rule was that I couldn’t work on anything except the novel in that room. If I needed to do something else, I had to leave the room to do it.

Success! On December 31, I wrapped Rev. 3 of my new novel, Black Volta. I feel good about it. And into a drawer it goes again, until my longtime editor and writing coach Victoria Hanley comes on board in March. My goal is to have it on the “also by Pete KJ” page when the hiking book comes out.

As I mentioned, I finished hiking for Base Camp Denver in October (though I still hike once a week; I can’t help it, I can’t stop). Originally I thought I might need two summers to do all the high-altitude hikes, and thus the book was slated for publication in mid-2019. The date is now moved up to December, 2018! We are heavily into the editing process, and the map and book designers have begun their work.

How did I come to write this hiking book? It was an interesting process that began in the spring/summer of 2016. My life had evolved and my gut was telling me to return to the mountains, and go hiking every single week like I did when I was younger. So I did. It was the first summer I had done this since my early twenties. It was mesmerizing.

Then in fall and winter, I traveled. It was a working trip. While I cranked out new fiction words every day, I also sent a minimum of 5 queries a day for my previous novel, The Rooster’s Hindquarters, trying to sell it to a conventional publisher.

I was in Ghana in November of 2016, writing query 101 of 111, when a scary orange lunatic was elected president of the USA. I don’t know about you, but for about a week I could not eat. The only food I could keep down was chocolate, and fortunately Ghana makes good chocolate. So for a week I ate chocolate and tried to stay as busy as possible, and I redesigned my website. When I got to the “About” page, I wrote that I was an actor, singer, and hiker. Simultaneously, Imbrifex Books of Las Vegas requested the full manuscript of Rooster, and rejected it the following day with some nice comments that indicated they’d actually read it. And the publisher wrote, “Your novel isn’t right for us, but I went to your website and saw that you are a hiker and that you live in Colorado. Would you like to write a hiking book about Colorado?”

I told him I’d get back to him after the New Year. My initial reaction was, “No way.” But then I remembered an awesome piece of advice I’d received a couple years back, haphazardly (as tends to happen), and it went like this: “Sometimes you will be asked to go through doors that you might not, at first, think you want to go through.”

I got back to the States in December and started thinking: Write a hiking book? Wait a minute. I love to write. I love to hike. I live in Colorado. Of COURSE I will write this book.

We cut the contract at the end of January, and I started walking. And the year proceeded like a dream.

Now I can see that I was meant to do this all along. It’s the buzzing, energetic feeling you get when you come full circle.

I began hiking seriously when I was in my teens. You could not keep me out of the Cascade Mountains, near Seattle, when it was summertime. I tromped ALL OVER them. And I had two bibles: 101 Hikes in the North Cascades, and 102 Hikes in the Alpine Lakes, South Cascades, and Olympics, published by the Seattle Mountaineers, written by my heroes, Ira Spring and Harvey Manning.

Last month my publisher and I started talking about the maps. Instantly I thought of Ira and Harvey’s books, and particularly the very lovely and effective “route diagrams” they contained, which were drawn by Helen Sherman, a friend and neighbor of my grandmother.

I’d long misplaced my dear old bibles. Thank goodness for Amazon! The books are now on my shelf, – the original versions from the 1970s – back in my life to guide me as I finish writing a 101 Hikes book of my own.

Thank you Ira, Harvey, and Helen!



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