The Toe of Mexico
Blog Coda: December 2021
For a fascinating, charming, do-it-yourself value trip through Mexico’s Lacandan jungle outback along the Guatemala border, follow these simple instructions.
Prices are as of December, 2021, and quoted in US dollars, with the peso converted at 20 pesos per dollar.
Bring a rain jacket!
Begin in San Cristobal de las Casas, which is a wonderful place to spend a week or more. The first step is to take a combi (shared van) to the town of Comitan. From San Cristobal’s central plaza, walk 15 minutes south on Ave. Insurgentes or take a $2 taxi to the combi station on the north side of Highway 190. Combis leave for Comitan every half hour or so. The trip takes about 2 hours and costs $3. You’ll be dropped at the intersection of the highway with road 2a Sur Pte, 5 blocks SW of Comitan’s central plaza (Parque Central). You can walk or hop a combi to the center; the latter might be the better option as Comitan is very hilly!
It’s best to stay the night in Comitan, which is a pleasant ‘pueblo magico’, and continue the journey early the next morning. Hotel Delfin, on the plaza’s SW perimeter, is a cozy option at $29 double occupancy, but cheaper posadas abound on the streets immediately west-south of the plaza.
Your chariot to the jungle comes in the form of a company called Transportes Montebello. Their station is only a few minutes’ walk from the plaza; to get there, walk 2 blocks SW on Primera C Sur Pte, turn left, and continue a block and a half on 2a Avenida Pte Sur. Transportes Montebello is on the right. Their white, blue-striped vans are clean and comfortable and, despite having an apparent monopoly on this remote jungle route, the service is friendly and efficient and prices are very reasonable. Best of all, the vans run frequently! The first departs for the town of Pico de Oro ($5, 5-6 hours) at 3:45 AM, and near-hourly departures continue through the morning, with the last one heading out at 2:30 PM.
Getting on a 7:30 AM van works very well. The ride is beautiful, and quickly becomes very rural (and I mean very rural) as it passes through the Montebello Lakes region and heads deep into the outback along the Guatemalan border, stopping at tiny towns along the way. You will be getting down at the junction with the Las Guacamayas Ecotourism Center, about 14 km prior to Pico de Oro. The drivers know it well.
From here it’s a 1 km walk to the utterly delightful riverside eco-resort set deep in the trees. Here you could spend $100 a night on a private cabin if you want, but this is unnecessary because they also have camas economicas (economical beds) in shared, very comfortable three-bed huts right next to the river for $15 per person per night; shared hot water bathroom external. If there are two in your party, you’ll likely have your own private hut. The onsite open-air restaurant is good and decently priced, and a beautiful place to watch hummingbirds and spider monkeys (and listen to howling monkeys).
The thing to do here is take a motorboat trip deep into the jungle. The three-hour excursion costs $140 per boat, and each boat has eight spaces, which works out to $17.50 per person per full boat. Plus you each purchase a $2.50 entrance ticket to the Biosphere Monte Azules reserve. Afternoons and evenings are good times to look for others in the restaurant and lobby area to join up with and make a full boat.
Most visitors arrive at Las Guacamayas in the afternoon, do the boat trip the following day, and leave the next morning, But why not stay a little longer, at least another day or more? The grounds are gorgeous and relaxing, with plenty of opportunities to see (and hear) monkeys as well as visit endangered Red Guacamayas in the resident aviary, which is part of a conservation and breeding project.
When you are finally ready to move on, just walk back to the main road. You know a Transportes Montebello will be coming by almost every hour beginning at about 9:45 AM, so there is no worry about flagging a ride for the 14 km to Pico de Oro and then onward 33 km to the good-sized border town of Benemerito. You also might be offered a free ride in the back of someone’s pickup like we were.
From Benemerito, Transportes Montebello has excellent regular van service out of Mexico’s toe to Palenque. But we’re not done with this adventure quite yet! Instead, tell the person at the ticket window (and the driver) you are going to Frontera Corozal, and pay $2.50 to be taken 50 km onward and dropped at the junction. From here taxis make the final 15 km to the sleepy border town and river for another $2.50 per person.
Here, the not-to-be-missed activity is to take a motorboat trip 18 km down the Usumacinta River to the mesmerizing Mayan jungle ruins of Yaxchilan. You’ll want to have at least four people in your boat so the price will be a very reasonable $17.50 per person. You can hang out on the bench near the ticket desk and wait for others to arrive to join up with. Before departing, you will also need to go to the nearby office for the archeological site and purchase entry tickets ($4 each).
A visit to Yaxchilan is truly unforgettable. With howling monkeys screaming in the background.
Visits to Yaxchilan are best organized and departed before noon. If you arrive later, no worries; adjacent to the boat launch along the riverside is the very relaxing ecotourism center/hotel called Escudo Jaguar. The economical rooms here go for $20 a night double occupancy (shared external hot water bathroom), and the peaceful riverside restaurant is excellent value and a lovely place to hang.
Getting back to the highway junction from Frontera Corozal costs a little more than coming in; $10 per up-to-4-person taxi trip. We were only two people, and it was getting late in the day, so the taxi man agreed to take us for only $7.50.
Now all you need to do is stand by the road and wait for a Transportes Montebello to come along and carry you the final stretch to Palenque. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon, and we waited about 20 minutes. The 3-hour ride in the near-empty van was through beautiful countryside and a very charming experience, passing through little towns as twilight came on. When we reached Palenque, the driver would only accept $3.75 each for the trip.
Do yourself a favor, find a week or two at some point in life, and come do this wonderful jaunt!
The Lessons Of the Ruins
Blog Extra: December 31, 2021
Howling monkeys wailed through the canopy as our motorboat completed its 18-kilometer journey along the wide mud-brown river. Here we were, on the northern cusp of a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Usumacinta, in the remote Lacandon jungle on the present-day border between Mexico and Guatemala. This tongue of land on which we alit was surrounded on all sides by the river, save for a narrow terrestrial band to the south. Any human settlement here would have been strategic from a defense perspective.
We stepped ashore. More monkeys howled as we entered the forest, which soon opened up to the Grand Plaza and its stone ruins. Here was where military and religious powers were located, among altars, temples, steam baths, and markets. Here a city rose, developed, flourished, and fell.
The bits of story we know are thanks to hieroglyphics inscribed over doorways (called lintels), on staircases, and on stelae—engravings depicting people, dates, places, and events. They are ancient propaganda, created to exalt and legitimize rulers who wanted the story to be told a certain way. Many are retrospective, depicting what the ruler probably wished had happened. But from them some facts of dynastic succession can be gleaned, as well as details of religious practices such as self-sacrifice and bloodletting.
The known historic record begins with depictions of a king being enthroned in 359 AD. For a few hundred years this was a relatively unimportant place, not nearly on the scale of other regional powers such as Palenque. But a settlement did rise, and along with it, buildings and hieroglyphics. Thanks to the pictographs we know that Shield Jaguar I became king in the later 600s and ruled for more than 60 years. During the last third of his reign, building construction really kicked up.
One stela (now in a museum somewhere) depicts Shield Jaguar I transferring power to Bird Jaguar IV, his son. This event never happened; this is revisionist propaganda. Instead, for ten years after Shield Jaguar’s death in 742 there was a period of confusion during which a female regency likely took over. Perhaps his wife Lady Xoc handled things while she prepared her boy to rule. In 1980, a tomb containing her remains was discovered near the base of the steps leading to the Great Acropolis.
We reached the bottom of these steps and began climbing toward Bird Jaguar IV’s crowning achievement: a once-red-painted edifice now somewhat lamely named Structure 33. As we climbed, more unseen monkeys—the loudest mammals on Earth—howled their statement: “I am here!”
To me they were really yelling, “We’re still here! What happened to you?”
Not seen were many other species that are also still here, albeit in varying degrees of precariousness: Jaguars, tapirs, and crocodiles; toucans, macaws, and hummingbirds.
By 754 Bird Jaguar IV was almost definitely in power; a lintel depicts him watching his wife perform a fairly common bloodletting ritual in which she pulls a rope through her tongue. “Earthly blood for heavenly god,” as the saying goes.
Then as now, humans had a big focus on asking for favors and expressing gratitude to supernatural forces. Now as then, it is ingrained in our government and propagated by our rulers; it’s respected as completely normal and appropriate. “Prayers for the families,” I read in a tweet from Colorado governor Jared Polis this morning, referring to grassfires consuming north Denver suburbs yesterday.
Under Bird Jaguar IV’s 16-year reign, Yaxchilan (as these ruins are now called) increased in size and power. Structure 33’s centerpiece is a now headless humanlike sculpture, probably exalting the man himself. In one lintel, Bird Jaguar IV and wife Lady Great Skull Zero commemorate the birth of son-and-successive-ruler Shield Jaguar II with a bloodletting ritual known as the vision of the serpent.
Under Shield Jaguar II, from 769 to 800, the city reached its zenith. This means that it peaked and then declined. Son Mahk’ina Skull II took over in 800; the last recorded inscription is from 808. After that, no more hieroglyphics were crafted. No more large-scale monuments were erected. No more story is told.
What happened? Peasant revolt? Collapse of trade? War, foreign invasion? Epidemic disease?
Systemic ecological collapse?
The drought theory is looking probable these days, thanks to unambiguous recent scientific data indicating that significant and prolonged decreases in rainfall coincided with the sharp decline of city-states in this region—long periods with half to one-third the normal rain. This would have been a big problem for intensive-agriculture societies. Natural factors such as solar variability, shift in the position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, and changes in hurricane frequency could have exacerbated the effects of deforestation. Aside from needing abundant firewood to cook up all that maize, Yaxchilians coated their buildings with pulverized heat-treated limestone stucco, which consumed vast quantities of trees.
It’s not hard to imagine a civilization’s collapse coinciding with climate change. Social control requires people to be fed. Rituals and regulations quickly lose their meaning otherwise. The king can no longer compel obedience.
Monkeys kept on howling as we climbed past the Great Acropolis, and onward through the jungle toward other acropolises.
“Once again, I feel both hopeful and hopeless at the same time!” my travel mate said between breaths.
He’d mentioned this before during our journey. Perhaps the most poignant example was in Mexico City, when we stood and viewed three waves of ruin: the remnants of the Aztec Temple Mayor, backed by the national cathedral tilting and sinking into the ground, backed by the yet-to-tilt and fall Torre Latinamericano skyscraper.
“Hopeful because we haven’t changed as a species,” he went on. “We’re not doing anything different now than we’ve ever done. We’re no worse and no better. Everything is as relevant now as it was then: religion, politics, violence, hate, racism, stark inequality, environmental destruction, incapability of facing a crisis.”
“That’s the hopeful part,” I said.
“Right! And the second part: Of course we’re going down. Again. Only, thanks to scale, this next one might be the big one, the ending one.”
“Ah! You’re being too negative!” I laughed, anticipating the criticism many people have when this topic comes up. Maybe you have this criticism while reading this blog. Certainly, many critics expressed it in their negative reviews of the new movie “Don’t Look Up.”
“Why so negative?” I said jokingly. “We don’t like negativity! Surely, as a species, when the time comes, we will all come together and rise to the occasion and solve our problem!”
“What information do you have, that I do not have, to support this conclusion?”
“Okay, okay, I agree,” I said. “We’re going down. And you and I are going down with it. We’re not aiming for a slot on a spaceship to Mars. And so we will—”
“Not stress about the world anymore,” my friend cut in. “Because we humans are not doing anything different than we’ve always done as a species, AND we are going down. So what am I going to do instead? I’m going to do my part to help address our problems and sustain. Do my best to keep us keep going.”
“Hopeful while unhopeful,” I said.
“But bottom line: hopeful,” he replied. “Knowing that I did my part. When you try your best, what is there to be pessimistic about? Be happy with yourself instead, knowing that you tried with your whole heart. Do that, and there is nothing left to feel bad about. It’s hope and hopelessness—but hope. Hopeless because we’re not going to save the world or make mankind be here forever. But at least we’re not giving up on ourselves. To try and to fail is much more hopeful than giving up.”
“And doing our best includes being here, and experiencing the world, while we can,” I said, amidst monkey howls.
“Yes. Being here. Being present. Being in it. All of it.”
Pineapple Upside-Down Punch
December 12, 2021
“Quiere pan?” the woman asked, as she served me hot punch at her night station next to the church on top of Guadalupe Hill, in San Cristobal, in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
“Si,” I said. Absolutely! I want cake cubes in my glass of hot pineapple punch.
I’ve been eating my way through Mexico for several months now, and this is my latest treat. I’ve been enjoying it all week, during these celebrations for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Each night my travel partner and I climb this hill, among throngs of celebrants and music and skyrocket explosions, to reach this punch counter, where I warm myself with spiced pineapple elixir.
As I sipped and slurped, my head spun. Earlier in the day we’d gone to Chamula and visited the syncretic cathedral there. Here you enter to smoke and a pine-needle covered floor. There are no pews. The sides of the nave are lined with statues of Christian saints encased in glass, with thousands of lit candles on tables before them. These figures represent, to many adherents, fusions of saints with pre-Hispanic gods. Here families gather and clear some space on the floor, where they light more candles and perform rituals. Pine is considered to be a sacred tree, and people believe they are approaching and sitting before god via the pine needles, with candles lighting the way. The rituals involve specific sizes and colors of candle arrays, and in a dire situation, a live chicken is brought in. Here they sit and chant fervently in Tzotzil as the candles burn, asking for things and confessing things. Each saint qua god is equipped with a mirror to reflect the devotees; the idea is that you will be less likely to lie to yourself. When the candles melt to the floor, out comes the pox—a clear, very strong corn fermentation—to be poured into tumblers and imbibed. And they don’t imbibe just a little.
“Whew,” I said now, sipping my restorative Virgin pineapple punch atop Guadalupe Hill and thinking back on the day. It had been magical. I was inside that Chamula church for I don’t know how long; maybe two hours. I’d gone to the very front, and sat in the pine needles near a three-generation group of women, and stayed with them while they did their whole thing.
More skyrockets exploded above me, and the music and dancing kicked up in intensity as more parades of pilgrims arrived on Guadalupe Hill, each group bearing a framed picture of the Virgin and massive flower arrangement gifts for her. This had been going on all week and would continue for a couple more days, culminating tonight—the 12th of December. The roads into town have been continuous streams of plant-frond decked out pickup trucks packed with people, with a framed picture of the Virgin on each front bumper, and someone—man, woman, youth, or child—running in front carrying a lit torch as if it were the Olympics.
This is all a result of something that happened in Mexico 490 years ago, when the Spanish were conquering, killing, and converting. The latter—the converting—was proving difficult due to very strong and long-held indigenous beliefs. But things got a big boost after a man named Juan Diego claimed to encounter a woman who he believed was Mary, near a hill in what is now Mexico City. The woman ordered Juan to go tell the local bishop to build a church on top of the hill. The bishop didn’t believe Juan’s story and ignored him. Juan went back to the hill, and the woman appeared again, this time instructing him to collect flowers from the hilltop and bring them to the bishop. Juan climbed the hill knowing there would be no flowers up there in December. But he did indeed find flowers on top, which he picked and wrapped in his cloak and brought to the bishop. The flowers astonished the bishop, but more astonishing was the purported image of the Virgin Mary that the flower crumbs left behind on the cloak. The bishop became convinced that a miracle had occurred: the Virgin Mary had appeared in Mexico. She had chosen the Mexican people as her people. And the rest is history.
It’s this focus on ‘Virgin’ that seems exceedingly creepy to me. It’s all Virgin, Virgin, Virgin here. This wild obsession with a female body part’s status is almost as disturbing to me as the sight of a cross—a symbol of horrific violence.
What is the saying? Religion is a cult plus time.
And these people really believe this stuff, I said to myself, closing my eyes and feeling drained. And the children get indoctrinated before they can think and reason for themselves, and they pass it on to their children. There is no escaping it.
And we’re supposed to respect it.
And it’s no different in the USA, where the vast majority of the population lives a life imbued in hyper-supernatural superstitions. This includes most of the people in power, to the extent that it’s considered normal and appropriate for the President of the United States, in the aftermath of tornadoes killing people and wrecking towns yesterday, to say that he is praying to some sort of personal god about it, and he suggests I do the same.
“Ew,” I breathed.
I opened my eyes, and looked at the amazing madcap festival going on all around me. People having so, so much fun. I spooned more soggy pineapple cake into my mouth and smiled.
“But I need to see the world,” I said to my friend, who was sitting next to me.
He nodded. We’d been talking about this off and on all week. We need to see the world, and experience its cultures. And this Mexico experience was driving home the fact that culture is religion, religion is culture. There is no separating the two. Not for the foreseeable future, anyway.
Maybe someday we, as human beings, will get past this. Maybe someday we’ll be able to have our cultures not be based on magical, supernatural superstitions.
Or maybe we won’t ever evolve beyond this. We’ll just destroy ourselves first.
Regardless, I’ll sip my pineapple upside-down punch and carry on.
And I will continue to see the world. And love and respect its people.
Which is an entirely different thing than respecting religion.
From Michigan to Michoacán
Blog Extra, November 30, 2021
“There,” our guide Ismael whispered, pointing to the dark silhouettes of the oyamel fir trees looming in the cloud forest. We were up at 8,500 feet in the lush mountains of central Mexico, in the state of Michoacán.
I looked up at the branches in the mist.
Where? I thought.
All I could see were hulking, drooping branches. They looked laden in copious pinecones. Or perhaps they’d grown such a bulk of pine needles that they’d begun to turn slightly brown?
Then I realized I was staring right at them.
Coating the trees were millions of monarch butterflies. Millions!
And each of these butterflies had made its own individual journey here, by way of less-than-paper-thin wings and four fragile legs: a distance of up to three thousand miles or more.
At the end of September and in early October, all over the U.S.A. east of the Rockies and up into Canada, each butterfly had experienced an instinctive hankering. A tickle in its foot, perhaps.
And as a result, each had modified its flight path from flower to flower, shrub to shrub, and begun a journey southward.
Each had braved wind and storms and thousands of miles, to converge here on a few tiny patches of endangered cloud forest just west of Mexico City.
Here they will cluster, coating certain trees until mid-March or so, as they have done for millennia. Not seeking warmth per se, they will hunker down in cold but fairly stable, non-freezing temperatures, amidst abundant moisture and out of the wind. Here they will rest and conserve energy, drawing from body fat stores, rousing occasionally to flutter and get water.
I watched, mesmerized, as the sky brightened a little. Rays of sun filtered through the morass and some butterflies spread their wings and fluttered down to land on the ground next to me, where they vibrated and absorbed moisture.
“You are astonishing,” I whispered.
What an understatement.
You may wonder how any of this is possible. How can this be? Monarchs live for only a month or so.
This is true, except for the generation currently coating these trees. These butterflies are different from their brethren. Instead of developing sexually, reproducing, and dying, they have migrated. Instead of living for four or five weeks, they will live for eight or nine months: long enough to make it through the winter and begin the journey back.
All will die within a few weeks of leaving here. But this won’t happen until females have found some milkweed on which to lay eggs; milkweed which the caterpillars will eat, absorbing toxic cardenolides which the pupae will retain through metamorphosis, resulting in vibrant-hued butterflies that are sour-tasting and poisonous to predators. The brilliant orange color practically screams its warning: “I taste awful, and will make you sick!”
Month by month, generation by generation, through this spring and summer, the monarchs will repopulate and help pollinate the United States and southern Canada. As they have done for millennia after millennia.
And then, in autumn, the cycle will renew. Rather than mating and dying, the September-October generation will FLY.
I reached for my glasses to gaze closely, face to face, with a monarch.
“How did you do it?” I whispered.
Interior clock. Position of sun. Circadian rhythm. Earth’s magnetic field, were some of the answers that came back. Combined with a healthy dose of DNA.
But magical. Utterly magical.
I leaned forward and stared, even closer, into butterfly eyes.
I am related to you, I remembered.
I am made from the same stuff. I came from the same place. I have instincts too. I am magical, too.
“Follow your heart. Follow your gut.” These words can be treated with disdain sometimes. But they are a potent reminder of the power of tapping into our own magical abilities!
I gazed up at the foggy cloudy misty trees and felt the moon energy, felt the magic.
These butterflies were showing me something. And it felt especially poignant at this time of the year. Here they were: following their interior clocks to the extreme, flying all the way to these few select trees to close in, fold their wings, and pause through the solstice. Getting ready to power through another cycle, but for now they are waiting, and resting, and preparing.
What a great message, as we humans head into this winter’s solstice: a time marked by frenetic activity, hyper-commercialism, way-beyond-excessive materialism, and go, go, go.
Has this ever felt wrong to you, in your heart, in your gut?
Might there be an ancient, DNA-driven urge rising up in you now, to take comfort in slowness, in darkness, in coolness? To fold your wings for a bit, only to flutter once in a while and absorb moisture? To close in, and take refuge in the dark and the cold, as you get ready for another cycle?
After all, we evolved with it. Just like the butterflies.
We contain the same magic. The same sorts of instincts.
This year I want to be more like the monarch. Pay more attention to my wildness. Listen to what my body is telling me, what my life is telling me. Feel the energy and follow the cycle. Pay attention to and heed what I feel compelled, in my heart and my gut, to do.
And when the time is right: lift off and go. Don’t fight it. The wind will help carry. It will feel right.
But for now: fold wings, take pause, and revel in the solstice.
Life and Death and Life
November 14, 2021
One of my Day of the Dead breads had bits of pumpkin flesh interred in it. On top, sugar was sprinkled over a baked-in design of four tibia-type bones, arranged outward like the spokes of a wheel. Perhaps to represent the wheel of life? A second bun had what looked like teardrops. I later learned these might represent tears of the Aztec goddess Chimalma: tears for the living.
The taste was the opposite of mournful, of course: sweet and fun; totally in line with the spirit of these days, which are more about celebration than solemnity. This was certainly true here in the mountain town of Pinal de Amoles, high in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda, where everyone seemed to be out and about and celebrating in any way they wanted to. Paths of marigold petals led to the decked-out plaza, where food was everywhere and Disney’s “Coco” played on a big screen. I got the feeling this town is never more alive than on these Days of the Dead.
Little did I know this unstoppable cycle of life, death, and more life would present itself to me in a uniquely profound way, a few days later.
There we were: hopping across rugged sharp black boulders, climbing a seemingly endless lava field. Everything around us looked ominous. The Earth we were walking on had recently been born, but it appeared unforgiving. Uninhabitable. Dead.
A bit of background: in February of 1943, Dionosio Pulido and his family were clearing land for spring corn planting on their farm near the village of Paricutin, in Michoacán State in central Mexico. Suddenly the ground swelled and cracked, and hydrogen sulfide gas belched forth. Within a day, a 150-foot-high scoria cone had grown in their former cornfield. Within a week, it tripled in size. By June the 700-odd inhabitants of Paricutin had to evacuate, and by August, so did the nearly 2,000 folks in San Juan de Parangaricutiro, the nearby municipal seat. No one died from the slow-moving lava, ejected stone, and ash, but a few people were struck by lightning generated by pyroclastic-eruption induced storms. Eventually more than ninety square miles of farmland and countryside became converted to a black moonscape. And at its head stood a brand-new mountain, rising 1,400 feet above the wasteland.
“I feel like we’re on a different planet!” I called to my friend, as we labored our way across the jagged, glassy black boulders. I imagined us wearing spacesuits, walking in unbreathable air. I imagined the mists that were forming and dispersing on the dusky outcrops ahead as not being water vapor, but something toxic instead.
“Wouldn’t you love to move to Mars?” I called to him.
“How stupid,” he called back. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Maybe because Earth had become uninhabitable?”
“If and when that happens, I’m going down with it,” he replied. “I have zero interest in floating around in outer space, staring forlornly through some little spaceship window. That would be a prison—one that we built for ourselves.”
I agreed. As we continued through the moonscape, I recalled something Elon Musk said in a TED Talk once. When asked about his motivations for establishing a colony on Mars, he replied, “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior…I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.” As he said this, the audience erupted in approving applause. But I felt a strong chill.
What a strange way to feel, I thought as I hefted my body over another big chunk of lava. The idea of living on Mars, or in a spaceship, seems unfathomably sad to me. How strange, to dream hopefully about leaving behind a planet so nurturing and friendly, to go live somewhere hostile and unaccommodating.
As we scrambled over a rise, we surprised two enormous black birds, who squawked and lifted off and flew up the side of the volcano which now appeared to be within reach. This reencounter with life, and the view of the grasses and small trees that had established themselves on the cone, felt more than rejuvenating. Life was indeed finding a way to return!
We reached the base of the cone. My mate hung back, and I began climbing up through vegetation on firm soil less than eighty years old. I gazed down at the vast lava field, which was mostly black, but had some green shrubs and trees dotting it.
And then I saw it: in the distance, the bell tower of the cathedral of San Juan de Parangaricutiro, poking out of the lava. The only evidence that a town once stood there. That human civilization once existed there.
Like the Statue of Liberty poking out of the sand, in “Planet of the Apes.”
No matter what we do, eventually there will be a Sixth Extinction. Maybe we humans will make it happen a lot sooner than later. But regardless, it’s going to happen eventually.
And after that, no matter what, there will be a Seventh Wave of Life. The cycle will continue. In the bigger picture, this Anthropocene Age we’re living in now will be but a blip in time. A flyspeck. With or without us, life will go on.
For at least a few more billion years.
Rejecting the Single Story
Blog Extra; October 20, 2021
“They’re called chiltepins,” Arnoldo explained, about the pea-sized peppers in the bowl on his serving counter. “They grow around here. Try some! Put one in your mouth, add a spoonful of soup, and bite down.”
It was morning in the little foothills town of Alamos, in the state of Sonora, Mexico. I was fortifying myself with a bowl of warm caldo in the central market.
I did as Arnoldo instructed and a full-bodied, wild verdant pepper sensation flooded my mouth and rose into my nose. It was jolting at first, but the heat quickly mellowed to mix harmoniously with the other flavors in Arnoldo’s shrimp-and-beef tomato soup. I ate the next spoonful sans-chiltepin, but then I was ready for another with the little pepper.
I was glad to finally become acquainted with chiltepins. Later I googled to find out they’re also known as “Indian peppers” and “bird peppers”; the latter name is due to their consumption and spread by wild birds. The pepper’s heat is referred to in Spanish as arrebatado, meaning “rapid” or “violent.” This indicates that it is intense at first, but dissipates rather quickly.
“How long have you had your place here in the market?” I asked Arnoldo, as I assembled another spoonful with a chiltepin.
“Ah,” he waved his hand. “More than fifty years. I’m 77 years old.”
“Wow. And who taught you to cook? Was it your mother?”
“Yes. I started when I was nine.”
“Did your mother have a place here in the market?”
“No, she cooked at home.” Arnoldo grinned. “Do you want more broth?”
I nodded and he dipped his big ladle into the pot simmering on his burner, and refilled my bowl with morning elixir.
After I said goodbye to Arnoldo, I bought some bananas and a few other things, and wandered home along the sidewalk opposite the plaza. Later that afternoon, my travel mate told me an interesting story. He was wandering the streets, taking pictures of the colonial architecture, when he happened upon an old mansion with a beautiful courtyard and garden. He poked his head in, didn’t see anyone, and took a few pictures. Then he stepped inside and took a few more.
Suddenly, the courtyard became filled with more than two dozen gringos, of all ages, speaking English, sitting down at the pre-set tables to eat their lunch.
This might sound unremarkable, but we hadn’t seen a single gringo anywhere in town for the two days prior, nor would we for the two days following. And this is a tiny town! Not one single time did we meet any of these people in the few streets, in the market, in the plaza, or on the hilltop mirador, where we went each evening to watch the sunset.
I couldn’t help but feel the single story at work here: The enormously-flawed single story about Mexico, which gets told over and over and over again in the United States, which I am so tired of I don’t even want to describe. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains it well, in her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which has received nearly 30 million views.
As Chimamanda explains, this is how the single story arises: “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again. And that is what they become.”
She continues: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
“The consequence of the single story is this. It robs people of dignity.”
Rather than go into the single story of Mexico, I’ll just give another data point. All through the pandemic, CNN has maintained a webpage listing all the countries of the world where USA people can travel. And here is what it says in the Mexico section:
After stating that the country is open to USA travelers, it adds: “The US State Department lists numerous states to avoid because of crime.”
Since when were we talking about crime? This is a page about travel during the pandemic, about whether or not you need a PCR test, or a vaccine, or to quarantine. I went to the State Dept. page, and read that Sonora is designated as a “Reconsider travel” state. Sinaloa, where we were going next, is listed as “Do not travel.”
Out of curiosity, I went back to the CNN page and copied and pasted it into a word document. I counted up the number of countries listed; there were 103. Then I did a search for the word “crime.”
This word came up in only one country’s pandemic-era travel description. You guessed it: Mexico’s. CNN has chosen to single out Mexico as the ONLY country, out of 103 countries, in which to talk about “crime” while advising on pandemic-specific travel concerns.
Chimamanda’s words echoed. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.”
That it does, I agreed. I thought of Arnoldo, cooking his soup at his market counter for more than 50 years while, three blocks away, two dozen Americans stayed who would never enter the market let alone walk down a street in Alamos and have a chance to meet him.
It’s not Arnoldo’s dignity I’m concerned about; I have a sense that his is well and intact. But what about the dignity of those Americans, surrendering their liberty, their opportunity to live, to know Arnoldo and taste his soup, to get a chiltepin, all because of a silly single story keeping them in their enclave?
Chimamanda ends her talk with some words of encouragement.
“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there was never a single story, about any place…
We regain a kind of paradise.”
October 12, 2021
As we headed across the Rio Grande into Mexico a couple weeks ago, with our duffel bags slung over our shoulders, my migration mate and I gazed at the smattering of people crossing the bridge in both directions. Here we all were, on a beautiful peaceful borderland morning, getting on with our lives; each changing country for various reasons.
As we walked into Ciudad Juarez from El Paso, I thought about the recent changes in reproductive freedom on each side. How might they affect some peoples’ reasons for crossing? Abortion has long been illegal in Mexico, but on September 7, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice declared the criminalization of it unconstitutional. And almost simultaneously, Texas passed a new law criminalizing almost all abortions.
“Turn left,” I told my friend as we got to the other end of the bridge.
We continued down a side street for a few blocks, then crossed a parking lot and entered a nondescript office where we could get legal. As usual, no one else was there. We were the sole travelers standing at the window.
Plenty of United States people migrate to Mexico of course. They just don’t do it in this fashion. Many fly in for tourism, and it’s a lesser-known fact that many fly in for tourism of the medical variety. Mexico is second only to Thailand as the preferred international destination for United States folks to get affordable healthcare. In 2019 alone, about a million Americans crossed into Mexico for procedures ranging from gastric bypass to rhinoplasty to breast implants to knee/hip replacements to heart and lung surgery to chemotherapy to organ transplants. I don’t think this number included all the multitudes who came for dental work.
“Now we’re good for the next six months,” I said to my mate, as a woman behind the window stamped our passports.
We continued our walk into town, through relaxing morning streets that were just waking up. We walked past bar, pharmacy, restaurant, pharmacy, towards the marketplace and the stop for local bus 1A.
Why all the pharmacies? Price, of course, in comparison to USA prices. And while it’s true that Mexicans have traditionally gone north for abortion services, that doesn’t mean borderland American women haven’t crossed the bridge south for similar reasons. Here, for about $20, you can get a 28-pill box of misoprostal, an abortion-inducing medicine that is endorsed as safe and effective by the WHO, which is not readily available in Texas but sold over-the-counter in Mexico as an ulcer treatment. For many years this has been a welcome solution for women who are willing to have an abortion outside a healthcare setting, and/or who can’t afford the up to $1,500 out-of-pocket cost for an abortion in Texas, and/or who are seeking any solution at all amid tightening legal restrictions which have made abortion services in Texas almost nonexistent. By 2017, 96% of Texas counties had no abortion clinics. El Paso was an exception up until the start of the pandemic, when the Planned Parenthood physician who flew in twice a month stopped coming.
Voluntary abortion is still listed as a crime in the State of Chihuahua; the next step is for its Congress to change the penal code to comply with the Mexico Supreme Court’s decision. It will take some time to train the healthcare system and to lay the foundation, but with abortion now decriminalized throughout Mexico, El Pasoans needing to end a pregnancy may soon be able to rely on Ciudad Juarez for more than abortion pills. Texan women may soon be able to walk across a bridge, get on a bus, and visit a safe clean and legal Chihuahuense clinic for more than a nose job or a gastric sleeve.
We boarded Bus 1A, paid our eight pesos, and sat on a comfy perimeter bench amidst gently pulsating music. Within thirty minutes we were at the central terminal, where we changed buses and headed off to the marvelous city of Chihuahua and beyond.
Meanwhile, five days later, a U.S. district judge temporarily blocked the Texas abortion ban. A few clinics reopened, but Planned Parenthood in El Paso did not. There was concern over being sued retroactively once the law went back into effect (as it most certainly would), not to mention the trauma patients might feel if they obtained appointments and were then forced to cancel.
Sure enough, the injunction lasted all of three days. It was lifted this past Saturday by a circuit court at the request of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who hailed the development as “great news.”
So now Texas’s near total ban on abortions is back in effect, replete with its provisions of making no exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest, and empowering everyone to sue anyone who helps someone get an abortion.
Good luck suing Mexico, y’all!
As I like to say, if you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly. Where are you, American anti-abortionists? Why so feeble in your convictions? Why so weak and timid? Why aren’t you in Mexico City right now, marching in the Zocalo?
And similarly, why haven’t you been protesting in China or Vietnam for the past fifty years? Millions, billions of detectable heartbeats have been lost, orders of magnitudes more than in Texas, and you haven’t cared enough to lift a finger.
September 12, 2021
My car Ruby has only a few months left to live. I’ve known for a while that something was up with her engine health; she’s been burning oil for several years, and recently acting up from time to time while still always getting me where I need to go and back. But when I returned from New Mexico this past month I knew it was time to take her in.
“That’s so sad,” my friend told me, when I texted him the news of Ruby’s terminal diagnosis.
But that’s not what I was feeling, at all. He hadn’t yet gotten my drift.
I stared out my front windows, and a passage from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s essential, indispensable book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, which I’ve recently read for the first time, came to mind:
“What must I give more death to today, in order to generate more life?”
Dr. Estés goes on: “What do I know should die, but am hesitant to allow to do so? What should die today? What should live?”
“It’s not sad,” I wrote back. “I will enjoy her for whatever time she’s got left. And today, I’m enjoying feeling so much gratitude and so many memories. From being picked out in Puerto Rico in 2007 by a two-year-old girl, to getting me there and back on this recent trip to New Mexico. And so much amazing life in between.”
“That’s right,” my friend replied. “So much amazing life in between. Ruby is a legend and always will be. We’ll all miss her when she’s gone. Ah, sweet memories.”
Look, I know Ruby is just a car. But her end is sort of like the end of a friend, or a relationship, or a dog. The feelings are richer and more complex than just sadness. It’s the throbbing of love, of LIFE, and the life-death-rebirth cycle. I mean, Ruby and I spent some serious time together. So much life, lived together.
This got me thinking of another Pinkola Estés quote. It’s about what we tend to knee-jerk do when apparently unfortunate things happen in our lives. We can ask ourselves the wrong questions. Such as: What went wrong? What did I do wrong? Who is to blame?
When instead we might ask:
“Where is the soul in this?”
When it comes to Ruby, the soul is everywhere. There’s a souvenir rock in her passenger side door pocket; thrown threw her window one day while we were on the beach near Rincon, Puerto Rico, in 2007. The alarm went off and I chased the guy down, and searched through his backpack for my wallet (which was still hidden beneath Ruby’s seat, it turned out). “I’m just here looking for my horse,” he claimed. “You ASSHOLE!” my incredible, chutzpah-filled ex-wife yelled at him as she arrived in Ruby, sitting in broken glass and setting the brake, after leaving our son in the waves to watch his two-year-old sister. I’ve kept that rock in the door pocket ever since. This is just the beginning of the memories.
These past few years, when I’ve looked in Ruby’s rearview mirror, sometimes what I’ve seen is this: My two small children (who are now grown), asleep in the sun in the backseats, their heads thrown back, their mouths open.
Then there’s the fact that it was Ruby who got me to all those hundreds of trailheads and back when I was researching Base Camp Denver. Without incident. And this is saying something. I took Ruby on some roads she had no business being on, including to Grays Peak and High Lonesome. In those days I frequently hiked three days a week, two or three trails a day. Many times I’d be staggering back in the near-dark, way beyond exhausted, with my feet sore as hell, and Ruby would appear through the trees. Her rich red paint glowed comfortingly in the twilight. “Oh Ruby!” I’d call. “I’m so happy to see you!”
She’s aptly credited in the acknowledgments page of Base Camp Denver and elsewhere. Yes; Ruby is a legend.
She’s had a blemish on the left side of her face for the past three years, ever since the deer hit her. It was dark, on a country road, and the deer came out of nowhere, striking her left front and doing a full somersault over the hood. I never saw the deer again. A hoof splintered the windshield, which I replaced, but it didn’t make financial sense to repair the dent thanks to this insane business racket/Ponzi scheme known as American auto body repair.
Ruby isn’t gone yet. Like I said she has some months left to live. And I don’t need to use her very much; I only need her for trips involving freeway driving. I still have Trusty Rusty, my beloved 1990 jalopy, to get me around town and to the grocery store (he’s a whole other story). As long as I keep feeding Ruby her oil and being tender to her, she’ll last a little while yet.
“And when the time comes, I’ll let her go,” I said on the phone last week, to the girl (my daughter) who picked Ruby out on the Puerto Rico lot when she was two. This amazing young woman will turn seventeen in a few weeks. She’s the captain of her high school field hockey team, and applying to universities (first choice: Boston College).
Last week Ruby and me went hiking, just like old times. It was time for my annual pilgrimage to Wild Basin, and specifically to its high near-terminus of Snowbank Lake. As this is quite a long walk (especially because I still use the ‘closed’ Allenspark portal), Ruby and I left well before dawn. Just like old times.
She of course did great. And so did I, more or less. But I fell asleep at the lake, and it was getting pretty late by the time I was on mile 20 of the 21-mile round trip. I was totally exhausted, stumbling through the woods in the twilight.
Then Ruby appeared through the trees. I felt such a surge of emotion, knowing this was probably the last time she’d be waiting for me to get back from Snowbank Lake. This understanding made the moment all the more special.
Yes there is soul, in this.
“Oh Ruby!” I called. “I’m so glad to see you!”
August 15, 2021
The terrain of the USA is full of surprises. I spent some days last week backpacking through one of the lushest, greenest, coolest summer forests in recent memory. This wasn’t in my old home of the Pacific Northwest, which was once again breaking all-time temperature records. Rather it was in New Mexico. And not only that, it was in southern New Mexico, only a few score miles from the border.
These are the lonely Sacramento Mountains, located between Alamogordo and Artesia. A swath of rolling peaks topping out in the 9,000-foot range, about 90 miles long by 40 miles wide, here the rainy season runs from July to when snow begins to fall in October. This time of year makes for lovely backpacking because the abundant rain comes in the form of afternoon downpours from thunderstorms, lasting only an hour or two. If you get your tent pitched before, say, three in the afternoon, you can watch the show through your open tent door. Afterwards you can lay in a flower-filled meadow in the returned sunshine until it dips behind the rise.
It’s hard to tell there are any mountains out here at all as you drive west from Artesia. After passing through the hamlet of Hope (population 90) the hills slowly begin to rise, and an hour later you are in a whole new world. Being a fault-block range, the mountains drop down much more sharply on the other side into the rift valley of the Rio Grande. Here you can enjoy a hot soak riverside in Truth or Consequences.
I’m talking about a place: Truth or Consequences. Incorporated in 1916 as “Hot Springs, New Mexico,” in 1950 it was the first town to rise to radio host Ralph Edwards’ challenge and change its name to that of the popular game show. In return, Ralph aired the 10th anniversary broadcast from town. He liked it so much there that he returned every year during the first week of May for the next 50 years, to participate in a still-recurring event that came to be known as Fiesta.
I liked Truth or Consequences and its hot springs all right, but probably not as much as Ralph, and my heart remained up in the lush rainforest of the Sacramentos. I also felt a little haunted while in “T or C” (which is how it is abbreviated to fit on road signs) because I ate a burrito in the adjacent town of Elephant Butte, which has its own claim to fame. This is where the “Toy-box Killer” David Parker Ray parked his soundproofed truck-trailer in the 1990s and tortured and murdered as many as 60 women. His horrific exploits came to an end in 1999 when Cynthia Vigil escaped from the trailer and ran down the road wearing only a slave collar and chains. But that’s a different story.
The Endurance of Dumb Things
July 14, 2021
Why do I water my lawn? Why do I have a lawn?
The facts are damning. The most-grown crop in the USA is something we don’t eat. We just look at it. And it consumes staggering amounts of resources, and severely harms the environment.
Approximately 70,000 square miles of lawn is under cultivation in the USA, an area larger than Texas. There’s about three times as much irrigated lawn as irrigated corn. When it isn’t raining, a lawn needs about an inch of irrigation water a week—more in arid and evaporating locales such as mine. In most municipalities, 30-60% of the filtered, treated, piped, drinking-grade water is dumped on lawns.
Also dumped on American lawns are 70 to 90 million pounds of fertilizer per year. These are synthetic products; manufacturing them produces carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. A key ingredient is ammonia, much of which is extracted from fracked natural gas. And after fertilizer is dumped on lawns, any nitrogen not taken up by plants is converted by microbes to nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Let’s not even talk about the problems of nitrogen runoff.
We also dump pesticides and herbicides on our lawns: about 80 and 90 million pounds a year respectively. Pesticides are made from petroleum products.
About 3.5 billion dollars of lawnmowers are manufactured and sold in this country each year. Estimates differ on how much gas is consumed mowing, somewhere between 0.6 and 1.2 billion gallons a year. About 17 million of these gallons are spilled while refilling; far more than Exxon Valdez. And then there’s the emissions! Hour for hour, a gasoline-powered lawnmower produces 11 times the pollution of a car.
Americans spend more than three million hours a year mowing. Many do it every weekend. But do we enjoy it? I actually kind of do; about twice a month. However 58% of those polled by Consumer Reports in 2008 said they didn’t enjoy mowing.
But wait: don’t lawns redeem themselves by being carbon sinks? Don’t they soak up carbon and put it in the ground? The answer is a resounding “No.” Taking into account all the factors, standard lawns emit five to six times the carbon they absorb during photosynthesis. And if the clippings aren’t left on the ground and instead sent to landfills, which still happens in way too many places, they decompose anaerobically to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
So why the hell do I have a lawn?
The answer, which I’m not proud of, is, “Because it’s there.” It came with my 1970s, Brady-Bunch style house. And for more than 20 years I’ve procrastinated ripping it out.
But why did my 1970s, Brady-Bunch-style house come with a frigging lawn? In frigging Kentucky bluegrass no less, which is terribly difficult to grow in Colorado? The grass isn’t even native to Kentucky; it’s from Europe and the Middle East. Once people brought it, it spread rapidly through Appalachia on its own. But not to Colorado on its own!
Perhaps we can thank George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for this fiasco. In the spirit of Versailles, vast lawns were cultivated at Mount Vernon and Monticello, giving wealthy Americans something to copy and aspire to. Lawns were slow to be embraced by the general homeowning population (key word: “wealthy”), but after World War II the trend really took off. The federal government financed low-cost mortgages, and builders created blue-collar tract suburban housing. This low-cost housing often featured lawns in order to mimic upper middle-class dwelling spaces.
And so here we are in 2021: with dumb harmful lawns the size of Texas, because that’s the way it has been, and that’s the way we think it needs to be. I admire the few neighbors of mine who have caught a clue, done the work, and xeriscaped their yards. In every case, what they have is to me far more appealing and calming to look at than a lawn. And I cringe when I see vast new housing tracks coming up, all with lawns, and public planting strips and green spaces endlessly irrigated and manicured.
What other dumb stuff can we stop doing in the USA? Changing our clocks twice a year certainly comes to mind. Please, can we cut that out?!
Then there’s the concept of “retirement” and what needs to happen during the four decades prior to it. Fortunately I can expunge these silly ideas on my own. In this recent American myth, which everyone seems to regard as age-old fact, you are supposed to work your ass off until age 65 and then stop. Never mind what you are going to do with your next 40 years! And much more importantly: never mind how you would prefer to live your previous 40 years, perhaps taking time to enjoy more of what life has to offer.
Like lawns and daylight savings time, “retirement at 65” is a recent fabrication. It didn’t come into vogue until post-World War II. Before then we worked until we croaked, which incidentally was right around age 65.
June 15, 2021
Question: What mountain’s summit is farthest from the Earth’s center?
I was on a bus in the Ecuadorian highlands a couple Thursdays ago and it came into view. I wasn’t expecting it. The first time I came through here, seven years ago, everything was socked in with clouds. But there was Chimborazo, soaring above us on our way to Riobamba, and it kept on soaring as we changed buses in said town and wound higher up its eastern flank.
Although this glorious, glaciated four-summited double volcano is only the 39th highest peak in the Andes, it is higher than anything north of it including Denali. And yes: it sticks out into space farther than any other point on Earth, including Mount Everest (Huascarán, in Peru, is a very close second).
This is because Chimborazo is located on the equator (actually, one degree south) and because our planet is not a sphere; rather it’s an oblate spheroid, about 27 miles fatter in the middle than at the poles. Known as the equatorial bulge, this is a result of the spin’s centrifugal force.
This means that although Chimborazo, at 20,549 feet, is about 8,500 feet closer to sea level than Everest, it sticks out into space about 7,000 feet farther than Everest.
It also means that when we were up above 13,000 feet earlier in the week, on our way to visit the iconic crater lake Quilotoa, we were as far out into space as the top of Mount Everest! Woo-hoo!
The highest of Chimborazo’s graceful four summits, Whymper, is a pretty wimpy name if you ask me. It got that from the British dude who led the first summit party, in 1880. The two Italians with him didn’t get anything named after them. An opportunity was missed later that year, when folks didn’t believe Whymper actually made it and he went up again, this time with two Ecuadorians. One of them was Francisco Campana, which means bell in Spanish—a much more suitable name for Ecuador’s (and the Earth’s) apex, in my opinion.
Chimborazo’s next two summit names make little sense: Vientimilla (20 mile?), which at 20,450 feet should be Vientimil pies, and Politecnica (polytechnic?!) at 19,094 feet. Things get better for the fourth and final summit: the 18,274-foot promontory was named for the Ambato resident and early-20th century mountaineer Nocolás Martinéz. Nic was mostly a scholar and educator, but among the books he wrote is 1905’s “Algunas montañas volcánicas.” Nic also lived to be 96, so he was doing something right.
Back in Quito, I was glad to see that the barbershop tucked into a cubbyhole beneath the Carondelet Palace was still there. I was astonished, when I visited in 2014, to find such a business operating beneath the President’s residence and workplace. Moreover, I loved getting my haircut there, by a friendly barber-woman who had a mane of curly auburn hair.
“How often does Correa come in here?” I joked with her then as I sat in her chair, speaking of then-President Rafael Correa.
“Aw, he doesn’t come here,” she grinned. “He’s got everything he needs upstairs.”
She did a great job in 2014, and to boot, she gave me a Correa cut. Seriously! She cut my hair in exactly the same style as Rafael Correa, which he and I both had enough hair for back then.
When we got to Quito this time, it was the weekend and the barbershop was closed. Now it was Monday morning on our last day, 9 A.M. We needed to head to the airport at 11:00. I sat in Plaza Grande and affixed my eyes on the barbershop entrance.
At 9:27, I spied a woman with a mane of curly auburn hair enter.
I waited a few minutes for her to get situated, and went in. “Are you ready to cut me?” I asked, and she nodded.
“Like you did seven years ago?” I showed her the pictures on my phone.
“What a nice surprise!” she exclaimed, not remembering me of course but thrilled nonetheless. “Have a seat.”
“Make it ‘the usual,’” I joked, as she wrapped me in neck tape and a cloak.
“Being a barber is lindíssima,” Susana (her name) told me with twinkling eyes, as she took her time and gave me a wonderful cut. “It’s like I get to travel the whole world from beneath Carondelet Palace. Last week I cut a man’s hair who was from China.”
Susana also told me that she had cancer a few years ago and lost all her hair. She’s better now, and her hair is coming back, but it’s not as thick as it used to be. Of course her life and business has continued to be challenging, what with the virus and all; they were shut down for months and people are still not coming back because hardly anyone in Ecuador is vaccinated. Susana, being frontline, has received her two shots, but she understands if people don’t want to come. And then there’s the fact that business gets affected whenever there are protests (and there have been many in recent years) as Plaza Grande is ground zero. But that’s all part of the fun of working beneath the Presidential Palace.
As Susana removed the tape and applied warm shaving lather to the back of my neck, an indigenous group assembled outside and demonstrated for sustainable agriculture.
“Last time I was here, you gave me a Rafael Correa cut,” I told her. “And I’m happy to say I still have enough hair for it! Unlike Rafael.”
“Poor guy,” she replied, speaking of the former President, who remains in exile after finally leaving power in 2017, especially now that he’s been convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison in abstentia. “He’s left with only a little muñeca in front. The rest is almost gone.”
To be fair, Rafael has a year of age on me.
“What about Moreno?” I asked. “Did he ever get his hair cut here?”
In answer, Susana scoffed through her facemask.
“How about Lasso?” I asked. “He’s got a ton of hair.”
We agreed we’ll have to wait and see if Susana ever gets a crack at President Guillermo Lasso’s locks. He was sworn in just a few weeks ago, on May 24.
May 16, 2021
(While listening to the Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante this past month, I experienced my favorite among all their episodes. I offer my summary-translation here, with a little of my own research thrown in. The photos are mine (except the first one), taken during the last trip I made to Bolivia, in 2008.)
When Lidia Huayllas was growing up in the 1960s and 70s in El Alto, the low-cost indigenous suburb on the high plain above La Paz, Bolivia, she stared at the mountains. El Chacaltaya and Huayna Potosi were often in clear view, like you could reach out and touch them. She imagined what it was like up there, and traveled there in her mind. But she knew that going there was only a dream.
Lidia’s father delivered newspapers and her mother cooked and raised the children. When she was four, robbers killed her father, leaving her mother to raise six kids alone. Times were hard. Lidia helped her mother, went to school, and played football in the barrio. And she kept staring at the mountains. She would run home from school to watch Superman on TV. She wanted to fly like him, and view the world below her. She used to climb walls in the neighborhood and jump from them. She loved that rush of adrenaline.
Lidia’s mother sold cooked food in the local market twice a week, a garlic pumpkin dish. It was a simple stall with a place for a kerosene stove and a single table for clients, beneath an awning that sheltered them from the sun, which could be strong at this altitude of 13,600 feet. Lidia and her siblings helped. She learned to cook, and spoke Aymara, which is the second-most spoken language in Bolivia. And she dressed accordingly, in the traditional manner.
Lidia was and is a Chola: someone in a long skirt called a pollera, worn over a petticoat, along with a sweater and, classically, a bowler-type hat so small it’s held on by a pin.
Calling this “traditional dress” can be misleading unless you are more specific about the tradition. The current look evolved from the colonial era, when Spain imposed its culture and customs on Andean people. By decree, Spain instructed women to use “characteristic dress,” which meant they had to wear woolen tops, full skirts (polleras), and head coverings. Even the parting of hair down the center was a requirement for women, decreed by Viceroy Don Francisco de Toledo. However, the viceroy certainly did not decree that Bolivian women shall wear bowler hats.
Bowler hats weren’t even invented until about 1850, in London, and they were designed to be worn by men. The tradition of Aymara women wearing bowler hats goes back to the 1920s. Rumor has it that some expatriate merchant in La Paz ordered too many, too-small bowler hats for Europeans, and the surplus hats were adopted by local women. Another rumor is that bowler hats enhance fertility. Two facts appear certain, however: (1) The bowler hats really caught on with Aymara women, and (2) they are more about fashion than utility. One element of the style is the size: The hats must be too small to fit around the person’s head.
Back to Lidia: This form of dress was and is central to her Aymara identity. But she couldn’t wear it much of the time. It was prohibited in school, for example, where she had to wear a uniform of pants and a jacket. Other places she couldn’t go in Chola garb were to offices or anywhere important, or to the city’s plazas. No formal law forbade this; it was just a taboo in society up through the 1980s.
When Lidia had to leave her pollera behind, she felt like she was leaving a part of herself. “I had very strong roots as a Chola, no?” she says.
When she was 15 she met Elio Gonzales at a local carnival. He was 21, a musician, and also Aymara. He too grew up gazing at Huayna Potosi. Things moved fast, and within a month he’d asked Lidia’s mother for her hand and they’d moved in together into their own house in Al Alto. They married a year later; Lidia had two kids and quit school. By age 17 she was working in the market with her mother, while carrying a baby on her back.
Elio joined a band that became fairly popular, and asked Lidia to sing with them because her voice was good and the pay was decent. So, Lidia cooked and sold food in the mornings, and practiced and performed shows in the afternoons and evenings. Very quickly she became the center of attention, to the extent that when the band got interviews, the media only wanted to speak to Lidia. Elio didn’t like this and ordered her to quit. Which she did. “He told me to stop, so I had to stop,” she said.
She set up her own place in the market, where she sold about 400 plates per day of traditional food. Elio became a driver, taking tourists to the mountains. Then he trained as a mountain guide and, in a way, achieved her long-held dream. She continued cooking and taking care of the kids.
Fifteen years went by. Finally, she dared to ask Elio, “Can’t you take me to the mountain? Because I also want to go.”
Elio thought it would be a good idea if she cooked for the tourists. And so, Lidia became a cook at Campo Alto, the final climbing refuge on Huayna Potosi, 900 meters below the 6,088-meter summit.
It was 2001. Lidia was 35. She finally got to know the mountain she’d gazed at since she was a little girl. Each week she’d walk up to Campo Alto with her aguayo (shoulder bag) containing her cooking equipment, while chewing a little coca leaf to help with the altitude. She describes feeling a very beautiful emotion ever since the first time she hiked up there: a sense of freeness, while admiring the glaciers, the view, the cracks, the precipices. She loved it all, including the lung-straining air.
At the refuge, she prepared breakfast for tourist climbers from all over the world, who left for the summit at 1:00 in the morning. But she never accompanied them. And she’d have food ready when they got back. And they’d come back looking so happy, so content! She felt shy back then, to talk to them and ask them about it. She was also afraid they wouldn’t like her food. But this was hardly the case. “Great food, Lidia! Do you have more?” they’d say. And little by little, she became more comfortable with the tourists.
She also became more comfortable with her fellow Bolivians, who throughout her life had often mistreated and discriminated against her, saying belittlingly, “You are a woman of the pollera: an indigenous woman.”
But the tourists never discriminated. They accepted Lidia’s dress, asked about her pollera, asked about her culture. They made her feel welcome and she enjoyed talking to them. And they always had the same question: “Do you ever go up the mountain? You live here, you see it. You have to go up it.” And she’d say, “No! I can’t do it. The equipment is costly.”
This was true, but only part of the story. As her curiosity increased, and her long-held desires surged forth, she began to say, “One day I would like to go. I would like to see what is there.”
Another 15 years went by.
One afternoon in 2015, when her kids were grown and she was almost 50 years old, Lidia said: “Yes. I want to climb the mountain.”
Reaching this decision had been a process. True, she was getting older and felt like it was now or never. But there was more. After witnessing and experiencing so much discrimination during her life, getting to the summit became to her, in a way, and act of protest: a way of showing that women like her, the Cholas, could do it. Because really, she was so beyond annoyed with the discrimination against women, the racism, not to mention the femicide. In Bolivia men kill at least one woman every two days. The violence is brutal, and Aymara women suffer it more than average.
Lidia had it relatively good. Although Elio made all the decisions about her life and career, he treated her well and respected her. But it wasn’t the same with everyone she knew; many were mistreated by their spouses. One case of violence involving a close friend marked Lidia more than any other. Her friend was stabbed in the leg by her husband, and when Lidia advised her to leave the man, she couldn’t get the woman to react.
And it occurred to her that the best thing she could do would be to break this idea that women of the pollera must be obedient. “I decided I could do the work of a man,” she said. And she decided to do it from her place: the mountain. And she decided to do it in the clothes she was wearing.
She began planning a trip to the summit with her friend Domitila, who worked with her at the refuge, who said, “Of course, yes. I want to go.” They recruited four more women who also worked on the mountain, who also wanted to know the summit and only needed a push. All were Aymara who would climb in their polleras, petticoats, braids, blankets, and typical hats.
Lidia’s husband doubted she could make it, because, as she says with a laugh, “I’m a little fat.” But she told him she felt she could, being as she was adapted and acclimatized. She received resistance from other family members as well, including her mother who long ago patched her scraped and bleeding knees after she jumped off walls in El Alto. “Always with your craziness, no matter how old you get,” her mother said.
Elio finally agreed to serve as guide for the group, and Lidia set to work organizing everything: transport, as well as rental of boots, crampons, and ice axes. The women took a basic survival course, learning how to use crampons and perform self-arrest.
They departed El Alto on December 16, 2015, each woman carrying her own equipment in her aguayo. They also brought a little liquor to pour on the top make to a challa. They wore their polleras, as they had wanted, and brought long stockings, helmets, and polarized sunglasses. When they got to Campo Alto, Lidia was stunned when more and more women arrived—11 in total, who did not want to miss this chance.
They left the refuge at 2:00 AM on the 17th, by the light of their headlamps. They had to cross a glacier in the dark. The women encouraged each other. Then the sun began to come up, and the landscape Lidia had dreamed of now presented itself to her up close: pure snow, and below, the landscapes that had stayed beneath.
They had 500 meters left to climb to reach the summit. Fog had formed beneath them. And then an airplane went by—lower than they were!
By 7:00 AM, all they had left to do was walk the knife-edge final ridge to the summit, in single file. And suddenly they were there, touching a crest which all their lives they had thought was unreachable. They shouted and hugged; they were at the point of crying. So many emotions flowed through each of them. Lidia felt like she was in paradise. She felt like she was a condor, or an eagle. She felt like the freest woman in the world. She felt like she didn’t want to leave the mountain. She wanted to continue.
Going down in the warming, melting conditions was a little dangerous. But now they felt they could do anything. Tourists usually make this climb over three days. The Cholas had done it in two. At a celebration meeting the following day at the refuge, Lidia said, “Now that we’ve done the first mountain, why not do the second mountain?”
Her team accepted immediately, happy for the new challenge. Elio proposed a more ambitious goal: climb eight mountains all over 6,000 meters high, a classic mountaineers’ challenge. The Cholas loved the idea, and so on December 18, 2015, Las Cholitas Escaladoras, “The Climbing Cholitas” was born. There goal: to climb the six highest peaks in Bolivia, plus Aconcagua in Argentina, plus Everest.
The second summit proved more complicated. In addition to being more technically difficult, they had started getting pushback from some of the male guides. “How can a woman of the pollera climb mountains? Always she has to be in the kitchen,” they said. They were also not happy about the media attention the women had started to get.
But it’s because of these comments that Lidia had to climb Huayna Potosi in the first place. Instead of discouraging her, they gave her extra motivation. “Don’t pay attention to the foolish things people say,” she told her team. “Let’s go! The mountain is for everyone, not just a few.”
So, they began to prepare and save money for Acotango, a 6,050-meter volcano bordering Chile, which is regarded as a sacred Inca sanctuary. To climb it they needed permission from local village elders, who thought it a more-than absurd idea. “If a woman goes up dressed in a skirt,” lamented one, “I don’t think it will ever snow again on this mountain.” This is in line with other superstitions that endure in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America: Women bring droughts, make wells go dry, make snow disappear. This was nothing new to Lidia.
But this time her response was different: “Don’t discriminate against us. We just want to climb, wearing our clothes.”
After an hour of negotiation with the elders, Lidia obtained permission. She had an ace in the hole: she promised to promote the mountain in her next interview with the press. By now the notoriety of the Cholitas was increasing. The story had been picked up by the Associated Press.
The climb of Acotango went off without a hitch. And Lidia was pleased, to be breaking traditions a little bit. But when they got back to El Alto, conflict with the male guides deepened. Much of their ire was directed at Lidia, who they blamed. “How can we allow her to do this to women? We didn’t expect this little project to open doors for them, and make them want to do a lot more things.” Las Cholitas Escaladoras was a threat to their concept of family; the Chola was supposed to stay in the house and cook and care for children. The men were also upset that the women’s successes had come rather easily, without them having to take guide courses etc. like they’d had to do. Some of Lidia’s women, under pressure from sometimes violent husbands, left the group. Only 6 of the 11 women remained.
Elio supported Lidia, and practiced with her for the next ascent. But this brought him problems as well. He got bullied by other guides for constantly being with his wife. They considered it his fault that the women had gone up in the first place. Elio lost his post as president of the local guides’ organization, and more significantly, he lost work. Obtaining guiding jobs is an informal process based on who you know, and Elio became shunned in the network.
Lidia began to doubt whether she should proceed with the Cholitas. But just when she was on the verge of abandoning the project, she received some news: A Spanish producer had arranged funds to finance an expedition for the Cholitas to Aconcagua, and make a documentary.
Without thinking twice, the Cholitas went for it. Lidia and four others got on a plane for the first time, and left Bolivia for their first time, in January of 2019. They reached Aconcagua’s upper refuge in non-ideal conditions, where they played football, cooked, danced, and sang while waiting for the mountain to let them climb. After seven days, conditions improved enough for them to go.
Only two of the five made it to the top; Lidia wasn’t one of them. About 200 feet below the summit, she came down with some serious altitude sickness. She had some tears over it, but said she was happy to come as far as she had come. Indeed, at age 53 she had reached 6,700 meters. And this wasn’t about her getting there, it was about her group getting there.
The climb brought them more fame, including an admiring tweet from the president of Bolivia, congratulating, “Our 5 sisters…They are a pride for Bolivia.”
Now when tourist come to climb in Bolivia, more than a few of them want to do it with las Cholitas Escaladoras. Some of the women are now working as guides. The resulting visibility has helped to decrease the friction with the male guides; increased visibility has been good for business and therefore good for everyone working on the mountain.
Things are different now. Lidia is different as well.
No longer is she the quiet, obedient woman she used to be. “Now that I’ve started climbing, I’ve done a lot of things, right? I don’t think the same way now…One day I made the decision to say, ‘No, I can’t do just what you want. I am going to do what I want, too.”
Woman of the pollera are still being marginalized in Bolivia. But there is a movement to overcome this, and the Cholitas have contributed to this movement.
In a school in La Paz, there is a mural of Lidia. This is a school that once banned the wearing of traditional Aymara clothing. But in this mural, Lidia is dressed in her pollera. She’s also wearing a helmet in place of her bowler hat, and has a flashlight, a rope hanging from her shoulders, and is wielding an ice axe. Accompanying the mural is a phrase she often repeats: “La cima es para todos.”
"The top is for everyone."
Today the Cholitas number 16 women, and have climbed 7 of their 8 mountains. The next project is Everest.
In addition to being an alpinist, Lidia has become a political leader. In January 2021, she ran for city councilperson in the City of El Alto, and won. During her campaign she promised to continue fighting for the rights of women of the pollera. Her term began two weeks ago, on May 3.
April 14, 2021
On this cloudy April morning in Colorado, I’m reminded of a different, misty cool April twelve years ago. My son and I were on our 9th month of a 13-month journey around the world when we happened upon…
Darjeeling (April, 2009)
Our original plan was to head up to Sikkim, the Himalayan kingdom wedged between Nepal and Bhutan which became a state of the Indian Union in 1975. Along the way, in the Shiwalik Hills of the lower Himalaya, we arrived at Darjeeling.
It was abundantly clear that we did not need to go anywhere else. We were seduced in the traditional manner, like so many before us. It was our own little replay of the 1830s, when some tired British soldiers passed through Darjeeling while on an official errand. They looked at the peaceful wooded hillside and the icy Himalayas soaring in view, and they said: “Sanitarium.”
Like the British officers, we were tired. We’d been hitting the trail pretty hard for two solid months, ever since leaving Kenya. We set our bags down in the comfy Hotel Dekeling, and later that evening went out for a stroll. Everything whispered to our spirits: “Stay awhile and rest. Breathe some fresh, cool air. Get some exercise. Play. Don’t even think about going anywhere else for a while.”
My son gazed across the mountainsides and said, “Baba, this looks like a smash-up of so many other places we’ve been.”
“Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Colorado.”
The immortal massif Kangchenjunga, which means “The Five Treasures of Snows,” forms an elusive backdrop in the mists above town. Assumed to be the world’s tallest mountain until 1852, it is actually a system of five major peaks, four of them exceeding 27,000 feet. The highest of course is Kangchenjunga itself, at 28,169 feet. It is the third highest mountain on Earth, bested only by Everest and K2. Everest too is visible from points in town on very clear mornings, as a tiny point on the horizon.
Your best chance to catch a view of the Kangchenjungas is in the early morning before the clouds and mists build. A good plan is to head along the path around Observatory Hill from Chowrasta Square, which is located in the saddle at the top of town. If Kangchenjunga is showing, it will be right in your face and tinged with orange morning rays.
Then you can climb to the Buddhist and Hindu shrines on top of Observatory Hill as the sun strikes the evergreen trees from the east. Thousands of prayer flags will be draped through the trees above you, flapping and mixing with the smoke and incense rising up through them. Worshippers will arrive, huffing up the path. They will ring the bells over the gateway as they enter.
It is really too lovely for words.
You can be content in Darjeeling doing almost nothing except sitting by a window with a book or a laptop. Get a cup of famous tea and gaze out across the moody hillsides. Or go for a walk, even if it’s cold and drizzling in an Earl Grey fog.
There is an excellent zoo out along the hillside that you must not miss. It makes a nice walk from Chowrasta. There you can visit Himalayan Black Bears, Snow Leopards, Tibetan Wolves, Siberian and Indian Tigers, Red Pandas, and Grey Langur Monkeys.
Above the zoo you’ll find the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where people come for mountain climbing training. The Institute was built in honor of Darjeeling resident Tenzing Norgay who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, first reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Sir Edmund was knighted in England for his efforts, and Tenzing became perhaps an even bigger hero in an independent and grateful India.
Back down in the zoo you’ll find a lovely aviary containing some awesome birds. One of our favorites was the Golden Pheasant, which looks like a 1980s glam rocker. And in this aviary resides a particular member of the Hill Myna species who just might steal your heart.
He hung out on a perch, inches away from the mesh, and blinked at us. He tilted his head. “Happy birthday to Lolo,” he said.
We congratulated Lolo on his birthday, and stayed and talked with him for half an hour. We were transfixed by his magnetic personality. Lolo sat on his perch and patiently taught us how to whistle his eight-note song. He winked at us some more and gave us his impersonations of the other birds. He also did his version of a car siren.
Finally, we bid goodbye to Lolo and hiked back towards Darjeeling. We huffed and puffed it up the switchbacks towards Chowrasta Square. At one turn along the trail, my son paused.
“Lolo made this walk worthwhile,” he said through his smile and heaving breaths.
On our last full day in Darjeeling we went back to the zoo. Lolo saw us coming and immediately flew over to talk.
“Hey, what’s with you?” he asked.
“Happy birthday, Lolo,” we replied.
“Happy birthday to Lolo,” he agreed. “Could you, would you?”
A woman standing next to us laughed. “He’s gotten so much nicer, now that he’s older,” she said. She was wearing the red jacket of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He’s cleaned up his language. He used to shout, ‘Who goes there!’ and then hurl abuse.”
“What kind of abuse?”
“Swear words in Nepali,” she replied. Then she turned to Lolo and said, “Could-you-would-you?”
“Couldyouwouldyou!” shouted Lolo, tilting his head and winking.
“What does that mean in Nepali?” I asked.
“It means, ‘What time is it’.”
We hung out with Lolo for a while. We didn’t want to leave him. We sat next to his cage and did a little of my son’s school work. We whistled Lolo’s eight-note song with him, over and over. Finally, we got up to go.
“Goodbye, Lolo,” we said.
As a going away present, Lolo gave us his impersonation of a car alarm.
We hiked back up the ridge towards Chowrasta. Through heaving breaths, my son asked, “Baba, how long do they live?”
I paused. “Hill Mynas? I don’t know. Quite a while, I think. Maybe thirty or forty years?”
He wiped a tear from his cheek.
Then he smiled. “Well! When we come back here, we know exactly where to go.”
March 14, 2021
It’s official: after 74 years, McElligot’s Pool has reached the end of its publishing road. You might have read this past week that it is one of the six books Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it has stopped publishing due to racist and insensitive imagery. It has drawings that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” according to the company’s statement.
I go way back with The Pool and I’m sorry to learn it’s getting pulled. It has been one of my favorites nearly my entire life. It enchanted me as a child from page two, with its the beneath-the-surface depiction of the junky contents of the Pool where Marco is fishing. It is one of the few select Seuss books I resurrected as a parent and read with my children over and over and over again. Another good thing about it is its hardcover size: McElligot’s Pool makes a great lap desk. My copy is holding up well, but it’s been so thoroughly used as such that I doubt it will ever be a collector’s item.
Problems with Seuss have percolated for a while, and have been getting quite a bit of academic attention in recent years. Examples include Mr. Nel’s 2017 book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (it’s been pointed out that said cat might be in blackface), and a 2019 paper by Ishizuka and Stephens, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” It’s true that the also-pulled And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Seuss’s first children’s book from 1937, has a drawing of a yellow-faced, slanted-eyed “Chinese boy who eats with sticks” (adjusted in the 1970s to be a white-faced, still slanted-eyed “Chinese man who eats with sticks”).
What’s the problem with The Pool? Nothing jumped out in my mind when I read about this. I had to go and look.
All is smooth sailing until pages 22-23, when “Some fish from the Tropics, all sunburned and hot, might decide to swim up! Well they might…might they not? Racing up north for a chance to get cool, full steam ahead for McElligot’s Pool!” In doing so, these overheated fish chug past a palm-tree island on which a guy in a sombrero-like hat, a red vest, and cowboy boots reclines in the sand with a gigantic margarita.
Problem? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. However, on the next page things gets more serious.
“Some Eskimo Fish, from beyond Hudson Bay, might decide to swim down; might be headed this way!” Here we have a guy in a fur-lined hat holding a spear. Judging by how white and friendly-looking the guy’s face is in contrast to the darker-faced, more indigenously-featured fish, I suspect he was altered in the 1970s along with Mulberry Street’s Chinese boy. Perhaps the spear remains the problem, or the fur-lined hat, or the use of the outdated term “Eskimo” (which I grew up using)? Or maybe it’s the ethnic fish themselves? To which I have to say something similar to what my friend’s workmate said recently, when Disney got backlash for casting a black actress to play Ariel in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid: “Guess what? She’s a fish.”
The only other potential problem I can detect comes near the end, on pages 42-43: “Or I might catch a fish from a stranger place yet! From the world’s highest river in far-off Tibet. Where the falls are so steep that it’s dangerous to ride ‘em, so the fish put up chutes and float down beside ‘em.” And what these fish are floating down beside is a cane-holding man in colorful clothes and a pointy hat standing outside his entirely-Seussian dwelling.
But the man doesn’t look Tibetan to me. He looks like a Trump supporter.
So you be the judge. I’m not qualified to determine The Pool’s demerits, due to my longtime emotional experiences within its pages which make it hard, if not impossible, for me to see how it can be offensive or hurtful. Did it merit being pulled for the reasons Dr. Seuss Enterprises claim it was? Or is something else at play here? It should be noted that, after the announcement was made last week, Dr. Seuss books have re-stormed the Amazon charts.
Books go in and out of print. The Pool came out in 1947. It barely sells anymore; nothing close to Seuss’s more celebrated works. I wish they’d just quietly discontinued it, and left it to keep whatever place in the cultural record.
Day of the Hearts
February 14, 2021
Today is the 1,525th feast day of Saint Valentine, the patron saint of epilepsy. Martyred circa AD 270, he got his day in the year 496 thanks to Pope Gelasius. It wasn’t until much later, in 1868, that Cadbury introduced its heart-shaped chocolate box as a new Valentine’s Day era was gaining steam. Before that, at least in Italy, it was much more common to give little gold keys on this day (especially to children) in efforts to ward off epilepsy.
Word is that Singaporeans now lead the world in spending on Valentine’s Day. In the Philippines they too love them some Valentine’s Day; in the lead up to araw ng mga puso (“day of the hearts”), flower prices skyrocket and cathedrals get booked-out for weddings.
Elsewhere in Asia, Feb. 14 is not such a big deal for various reasons. Places like China and Vietnam are too preoccupied with Tet, the climax of which was this past Friday night. But retailers don’t need to worry because we now have White Day, March 14, to more than make up for it. White Day actually got its start in Japan in the 1970s, after a botched rollout of Valentine’s Day there a few decades earlier gave the mistaken impression that Feb. 14 was a day for WOMEN to give MEN chocolates, and not just to their boyfriends and husbands but also to their coworkers. To make up for this unfairness, March 14 was established as a day for men to reciprocate with white chocolate, marshmallows, et cetera. South Korea takes it a step further; if you did not get chocolates on Feb. 14 or white candies on March 14, you can go to a restaurant on April 14 and eat black noodles by yourself (and fortunately, not have to file your income tax until May 31). In fact, South Korea has a designated love—or lack thereof—day on the 14th of each month of the year. I like October 14: that’s wine day!
Latin America is big on Valentine’s Day of course, except for Brazil, which isn’t hip on it because they’re too busy with Carnival. Plenty of other countries are decidedly non-hip on Valentine’s Day and even have government regulations against it: much of the Muslim world for example, plus India. In Finland and Estonia the day is more about appreciating friends than lovers.
For Valentine’s Day, like other festivals with Christian connotations, I find myself wondering what thousands-of-years-old pagan practices got usurped. In Rome at least, though many academics claim it wasn’t intentional, the usurped festival was Lupercalia. Prior to Pope Gelasius designating Feb. 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day, February 13-15 was all about ritual cleaning and sacrifice in the name of Roman hygiene. In fact, februa is Latin for “purification.”
But it turns out Lupercalia had a Valentine’s Day element to it!
At its focal point, rites were performed at Lupercal Cave on Palatine Hill, the site where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the wolf according to legend. As a part of these rites, a male dog and goat were sacrificed. According to Plutarch, the skin of these animals was then flayed into pieces and given to young noblemen, who took off all their clothes and ran around the base of Palatine Hill, anticlockwise. Well-to-do women wanting to get pregnant purportedly lined up along the course, and held out their hands to receive a slap of dead dog fur from a buck naked noble-boy.
The earliest form of Valentine?
January 15, 2021
High in the Indian Himalaya, in a gorgeous lonely glacier-scooped cirque, sits a tarn called Roopkund. Hindi for “beautifully shaped lake,” it is about 130 feet across and 10 feet deep. It’s frozen most of the year, but when it thaws you can see plentiful human skulls and bones lying on the bottom.
I haven’t made it there, but I’d love to try someday!
Hundreds more bones and skulls dot the shoreline, which trekkers have arranged into cairns and patterns. In 1956, an expedition brought some of these remains to Calcutta for study. Carbon dating, then in its infancy, indicated they were between 500 and 800 years old.
Roopkund sits at over 16,000 feet, and is an arduous multi-day trek from Wan, the nearest village. It probably wasn’t a popular spot for picnickers of yore. However, the tarn lies beneath a soaring ridge which is along a longtime pilgrimage route honoring the goddess Nanda Devi.
In 2005, a multidisciplinary team collected additional bones for study. The Roopkund remains had long been picked over and mixed around by trekkers, but a recent landslide had exposed a fresh cache. Researchers estimated that between 300 and 700 peoples’ remains were at the lake, and determined that most had been healthy, unrelated women and men between the ages of 18 and 35. Among the recently-exposed bones were bits of leather slippers, bamboo parasols, and bangles of shell and glass.
The DNA proved, unsurprisingly, to be South Asian in origin. Carbon dating was tightly clustered in the 800s, indicating perhaps a single event. Two distinct groups of people emerged from the bone analysis: tall individuals with long heads, and shorter ones with round heads bearing the marks of forehead straps–i.e. Brahmans from the plains, and their mountain porters.
A fairly clear picture emerged: of ninth century pilgrims and porters, perhaps not well fitted with mountaineering gear, getting caught in a blizzard or hailstorm and dying of exposure. Over the centuries, landslides and avalanches rolled their bodies down to the lake.
The mystery appeared solved; the puzzle pieces fallen into place.
Or so we thought.
More recent studies have yielded some extremely puzzling information. As Douglas Preston explains in the Dec. 14 New Yorker, a significant portion of the Roopkund bones, up to a third of them, do not exhibit the DNA of South Asians. Rather they are from the eastern Mediterranean. And they died much more recently.
The closest match is Crete. Backing this up is bone collagen data, which indicate these folks ate a typical Mediterranean diet in the ten years preceding their death (the South Indian bone collagen, on the other hand, showed a diet typical of India). Carbon dating is now more precise; the South Asians died in 3-4 incidents between 700 and 950 AD. The Mediterranean group, on the other hand, perished in a single event sometime between 1650 and 1950. The highest probability is that it happened in the 1700s.
When these results came out, the researchers sort of hoped someone would come forward with information about a lost group of Greeks in the Himalayas sometime around 1700 or 1800 (and explain why they were making a Hindu pilgrimage). No one has.
Anthropologist William Sax, a longtime Roopkund afficionado, has spent years in the villages below the lake. He has heard not a whisper of any story or legend about a party of foreigners coming in the 1700s or 1800s, let alone dying at Roopkund.
Were the bones mixed up with others in their Kolkata storage locker? Not likely. If that had happened, the DNA would be all over the map. Else we’d have to explain why a bunch of Greek bones remarkably consistent in age, type, and diet ended up in a vault in India.
The mystery persists.
And its answers may lie on the muddy floor of Roopkund.
Beneath the clear water, which is frozen most of the year, are human remains untouched by meddlers. They are better preserved than their shore counterparts, and contain soft tissues.
And perhaps artifacts.