Thursday, July 7, 2016

Traveling to the Past

Even though it was 57 years ago, I remember it vividly.  The layout of the school. The long hall that went from the cafeteria on the north to the large gymnasium on the south. Three large classrooms lined each side of  the hall, one for each grade.
Long before my time in 1959, the school had been the entire school system for the town of Atoka, New Mexico. By 1959 there was nothing left of the town except the school, a few teachers' homes and a little store at the corner of the school road and the highway to Roswell. The store was owned by an old couple, so old that the wife had gone senile. They never had children and when children came into the store she would scream and throw canned goods at them. At least that's what the parents told us. 
Ruined classroom.
I went to first, second and third grades in that school. It had turquoise walls above cream tiles in every room. There were cabinets where everything was stored and each of us had our own cupboard with a door. 
The cafeteria was run by two women who wore white uniforms and black hair nets. One of them had long whiskers growing out of two moles on her chin. They would bake the rolls and cupcakes every morning for our lunches. They would make tamales from scratch, fry up the corn tortillas for soft tacos, trim the ends off fresh green beans when in season, and often we had pork. Because all the food we didn't eat, we scraped into a large bucket at the beginning of the line where we left our trays and dishes. When lunch ended, the bucket was toted across the street to one of the teachers' homes where they fed two hogs. All the ham in our sandwiches and bacon in our burritos came from those hogs. 
The school had other buildings but they were used only for music classes and art. The principal's office was in that building, too, along with other mystery rooms from which kids were banned. We rarely had music or art because the crawlspace under that building was crawling with skunks and the smell was usually so bad nobody could go in there. 
A couple of years ago, I went to the school. It was abandoned decades ago. Some commercial company used it for a while to repair trucks. They had installed roll-up doors in the giant gymnasium but the entire complex was in ruins. The windows were smashed. The trees were all dead. Anything that wasn't nailed down had been taken or busted up. A ring-tailed cat carcass was lying in the doorway of the principal's office. 
It is a school that no longer is. In a town that hasn't existed in half a century. But that school is where I learned to read, to write, and where I learned about recycling leftover food by feeding an animal I would also eat eventually. Schools don't dare teach those lessons any more.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Some Invasive Species

Axis deer, an invasive species in the Texas Hill Country. Brought from India in the 1930s for exotic trophy hunters, they are now as prolific as rabbits. So it is open season on them all the time. They are terrified of anyone on foot.

On a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country I was impressed at the number of invasive species. Maybe that was because there is so much natural landscape, the people don't stand out as much. 

I had done some reading on the proliferation of wild hogs and European boars throughout Texas. They've been feral for several hundred years and have reverted to an older body-style; quite hairy, short, heavy, and with bigger tusks.  There are 2.7 million of them concentrated in south Texas. Some wildlife managers refer to them as four-legged fire ants. They cause millions of dollars in damage to property every year.

I took my mother on this trip to Texas to visit relatives. She likes to walk a mile or more every day, so one morning we drove into Bandera and parked at the very interesting historical museum where we walked the streets for a while. 

A portly woman whose house was on the edge of a ravine was more than happy to strike up a conversation about the fifty or so Axis deer that had just wandered through her yard. The family owns 17 acres of wooded land behind the house, where they hunt with bows and arrows. Bow hunting is safer, you don't have to worry about a bullet straying off and hitting someone in town. They have a pig trap and get a wild pig about twice a month. I asked what they do with it. She looked at me as if I was an alien from Mars. "We kill it and eat it," she said quite matter-of-factly. "And we have dogs." As if that answered the question I hadn't asked, about how a single family eats two pigs a month, plus whatever other animals they manage to kill with a bow and arrow. 

The conversation gave me a "hankering" for some wild pig meat. I finally ran across wild boar sausage on the menu at a German Restaurant in Boerne (pronounced Bernie.) Buffalo was also on the menu so I had both. Quite delicious and no more greasy than a regular pork sausage. 

Aunt Judy and Uncle Bob have been living in Bandera County since 2000. The Hill Country is their giant backyard. As we drove around, I spotted all kinds of road kill; the usual rabbits and skunks, and one large creature I thought was a bear! It was a wild hog; solid black and hairy with its feet in the air, tossed off the road onto the grass. Bob said it would be unlikely that we would see one since they're nocturnal. They're out tearing up fences, corrals, cattle feeders, and stock ponds at night when the people, dogs and horses are asleep. 

On a drive west to Tarpley, Utopia, Vanderpool, and Leaky (pronounced Lakey), the landscape is a bit drier and there were herds of black buck antelope. These wild herds were brought in like the Axis deer for trophy hunters. There are a number of ranches in Texas with self-sustaining herds of African grazers. On the WWR ranch you can hunt for African Trophies. And in fact, as herds have diminished in Africa, several species would be in danger of extinction but for the herds still thriving in Texas. 

Native Bison, no longer free to roam, as they once did in herds numbering in the millions, are raised for their meat. 

When you stop to think about it, every continent but Africa is overrun by an invasive species of ape: us. Few species have caused more damage to nature. But it was a pleasure to this particular human to spend two weeks in the Texas Hill Country - where the animals outnumber the people and the natural world is more natural than most places even if many of the animals don't really belong there.  

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hill Country of Texas

Bluebonnets on a ranch near Kerrville, Texas
In the hill country of Texas bluebonnets, white poppies, daisies, and several other flower species all bloom around the end of March and into April. This year, 2016, has been an especially great spring for the flowers as the winter was mild with plenty of rain.

My mother's sister lives near Bandera, the Cowboy Capital of the World. It's hard to believe as the only "cowboy" I've seen so far was a dude in shorts, a cowboy hat and painted cowboy boots, probably bought that very day at the Western Warehouse in San Antonio.

We flew into San Antonio on Tuesday and spent a sunny Wednesday traveling all through the hill country stopping often to photograph the rolling limestone hills, red granite cliffs, clear streams, and wildflowers. Because it was a weekday there were no traffic jams at the more scenic spots, though there were certainly a lot of people out doing the same thing.

The Hill Country is an area bounded by San Antonio in the south, Austin in the East, and the Llano red granite uplift in the north and west. West of Kerrville the hills seem like small mountains, the roads narrow and twisty, the views from hilltops spectacular.

Larger towns have common national brand-name hotels, but the smaller towns feature B&B's, cabins, cottages, and furnished apartments available from local internet sites and others like AirBnB and HomeStay. The streams and rivers are fairly shallow but wide, and navigable by flat bottomed canoes that are available to rent. Cypress trees line many of the creeks with spaghetti-piles of convoluted roots.

This year it is green, so green as to seem like a miracle to most of us westerners who've grown accustomed to the decade long drought.

The local food is phenomenal: BBQ (Coopers in Llano) and chicken fried steak (Hill Country Cafe in Kerrville). Mashed potatoes with cream gravy, fried okra, crispy green beans, fresh salads, coleslaw, potato salad, black and pinto beans, cobblers with local blackberries and cherries, even homemade apple ice cream in Medina.

So far it's been a fantastic trip; visiting relatives, seeing friends in Austin, and adding one more checkmark on my bucket - photographing the bluebonnets at high season in Texas.

Ranch decor with bluebonnets.

Cypress roots holding trees to the riverbanks.
Remnant of a long ago Cypress along the Median River

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Staying home: El Cabezon near San Isidro, NM

View to the SW from the flanks of the Cabezon

I've not posted on this blog for about 9 months. The reason is that during my last trip to Mexico, my mother suffered from a stroke. My sisters were around to get her through the hospital stay and rehab process, but it fell to me, as the only one of us who is retired, to move in with her full time and take over all the details of her life like paying bills and driving.

She has made a remarkable recovery, but will never drive again. She can no longer see well enough to pay bills, use a computer, or even read. So my travel-life has shrunk down to day trips here and there, with an occasional longer trip if I can take her with me.

Recently, I met my friend Tyler in San Isidro, NM and we took his 4WD vehicle out into the Rio Puerco valley. The area is full of volcanic plugs, the largest of which is called El Cabezón, "big head" in Spanish. They are all what is left of extinct volcanos that weathered away, leaving only the hardest rock, the solidified throat or neck.

It was still wintery, though a nice day. Even with the jeep, we couldn't go that last mile to the trailhead parking lot, it was too muddy. So we slogged in on foot, ate a nice lunch on a slope protected from the constant cold wind, and then hiked up to the 'shoulder' of the mountain. Further up the rocks require ropes and pitons. The views were outstanding. I counted about 24 volcanic necks in the area of varying sizes, and that was just looking to the south. From the shoulder we could see east to the Sandias and southeast to the Manzanos. Due south was a series of volcanic mesas, valleys, desert, and blue blue sky.

El Cabezón, southwest of San Isidro, NM

Tyler, in a plaid shirt and beige pants is almost perfectly camouflaged. 

The long tubular structures happen when lava cools very slowly over time, called columnar jointing.
This entire mountain is all that is left of a once large volcano.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Return to the Familiar

Mayan Cross in the plaza of the Guadalupe Church
All over Mexico, you'll see restaurants with the phrase "Restaurante Familiar" under the name. It means they welcome families. Now in the US I would avoid a "family restaurant" like the plague - fearing my meal would be one long scream-fest. But children in Mexico are normally very well behaved and there's only crying when one is hurt or desperately needs a diaper change.

My city familiar is San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas. I'm there now. This is my sixth time to live here for some part of the year. In 2012 I lived here attempting to rehydrate my dessicated high school Spanish and have rented apartments in several locations since then.

Now I am staying in Casa Blues. It was a large two-story home to an extended family for at least a century and has been owned by the smae family for about 30 years. The two grown boys live here with their wives and children. There are two nice casita's in their own little garden on the other side of the wall from the family house. My friend John lived here for about three years before moving back to the west coast. I stayed in his casita once when he was gone, and then rented it for myself this year.

Casa Blues is just a few doors down from Margarita's house, where I took care of her animals when she was gone. It's two blocks from the house where I lived for 6 months, and barely four blocks from el Centro where I rented two different apartments. At night I can hear the amplified jazz musicians singing in the bar down the street. The tropical birds and neighbor's rooster wake me up in the morning.
View of my portal out the bathroom

I know the banana man in the market where I buy the giant red bananas for frying and the tiny sweet yellow ones for eating.

I wander up the Cola del Diablo, the Tail of the Devil, a narrow street that makes a sharp turn to the left. Some cars go too fast and once in a while a pedestrian gets run over.  But the best little bakery is just on the other side of that turn and I know to walk on the left side of the street, the sidewalk is higher. When cars go too fast they tend to overshoot the turn and hit the right curb.

Traveling is always a little scary, and it's the unknown things, like the Cola del Diablo,  that actually endanger us. When one becomes familiar with a place fears disappear. This city is my Mexican home. I know people. I'm invited out to lunch, concerts and parties. Though I'm only here for short periods of time, I feel safe. I am in la ciudad familiar, in the bosom of chosen family.

Staircase leading up to the San Cristobal
church with great views of the city.

A great view from San Cristobal Church

Saturday, May 16, 2015

San Miguel de Allende, Otra Vez

The Parroquia from the backside.
I am again in San Miguel de Allende. This makes the fourth time I've visited this beautiful colonial city. Friends of mine have gone back to the states and they are letting me stay in their small apartment just off Ancha de San Antonio, one of the larger streets in the city.

At the end of this street is the Zócalo, the Jardin, the Centro. It goes by all three names. A large tree'd park with a pink stone, elaborately carved, parochial church on the south side; the police station, on the north, with banks and restaurants flanking the other two sides.

It is where the city goes to hang out, people watch, walk dogs, sell snowcones and plastic toys. It is a city that, starting just shortly after WWII, has been inundated and more or less taken over by Gringos. So much so that when I speak Spanish to someone, they automatically look at my pale freckled face and begin to speak English. Sigh.

It is a beautiful place, but the plethora of Gringos is why I wouldn't want to live here. Don't get me wrong, the Canadians and Americans have brought lots of money to this part of Mexico causing it to be more prosperous than many other places. They have also started over 200 non-profit organizations that perform the services the government cannot (or won't) do, like provide wells for small towns, mid-wife training for young women in the villages, dental care and library books for children, and nutrition training so people don't give their babies Coca Cola instead of water to drink.

I wouldn't live here for the one selfish reason that I speak Spanish more often and better elsewhere in Mexico where there are not so many of my countrymen.

It's not a cheap place to live, but small apartments can be rented for around $350 a month. There are plenty of low-end hotels for $20 a night, and plenty of high-end ones that will set you back more than a month's rent for one night. Homes range from $89K US dollars to over 4 million. Deep inside the city, a simple looking wall with large wooden doors guarding the driveway can be hiding a 2 million dollar elaborately outfitted home.

San Miguel has been a tourist draw for years, but now more than ever. Condé Nast named it the destination of the year and since then, the number of tourists has increased and Mexicans, in search of work, have poured into the city.

Now in the spring, the Jacarandas have finished their purple flower rain, and the bougainvilleas are in full force, ranging from deep red to the palest lavender. They overflow the walls of gardens to sprinkle their flowers on the walkways like little girls at a wedding.

During the last week, every afternoon, the clouds built up and it has rained. The rainy season is early this year. Soon the storms will be fierce by late afternoon and evening. And every morning, the streets are fresh with the scent of flowers and pan dulces baking in the panaderias.

Not much in the way of social services
for old people. They resort to begging.

Lots of free roaming cats, and a few
prisoners of affluence.

When you need a wall, and there's a tree.....

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Paris: Museé de L'Orangerie

Inside the L'Orangerie Museum

Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas)
Both monumental and intimate, Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) are the ultimate expression of Claude Monet's artistic ideas, an incredible project by a painter who wanted to explore all the variations of light in his garden at Giverny. The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms, and encourage the visitor to gaze in endless contemplation. After the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on this aesthetic and poetic dimension, and provide a haven for peaceful meditation. 

On the Museé de l’Orangerie website, the above description of Monet’s intention sounds inviting. The reality however is not quite what he had in mind. Around 1900, he conceived the idea that his largest and most magnificent water lily paintings might find a home, in a uniquely designed building for all to enjoy. The building already existed as a greenhouse for citrus trees. It was ultimately remodeled into two oval rooms, with a high skylight, perfectly suited to the four paintings in each. And in the center, a comfortable long double wide bench for people to sit upon and gaze. All that came to pass, but the sheer numbers of people who come to see them, make the room somewhat less contemplative than one might like. Surely, for Parisians, there must be times when fewer people would permit a visit more in line with Monet’s vision, but as a fly-by tourist, I could only sit, ponder, and then lean dramatically to look around people who stepped into view.

The eight paintings are magnificent, about eight feet wide and varying in length, each representing the light on a pond of water lilies at different times; dawn, noon, later afternoon, sunset, and reflecting cumulus clouds in the sky. It is very much like looking out a large window on a slightly foggy day, when everything is out of focus, yet discernable. The trunks of willow trees come into the picture without roots and scale upward into the sky without branching out. Only their weeping leaves rain from the sky to the water that reflects them and adds tremendous depth to the composition. The lilies themselves are mere hints of paint, applied on top of layers and layers of other colors.

After seeing so many paintings by varied artists on this trip through France, I was a bit astonished at the amount of paint, the layering, the thickness of Monet’s paintings, whereas other painters like Henri Martin let gesso covered canvas show through from time to time, without worry. It all worked the way each artist wanted, conveyed exactly what they had in mind, and the paintings never cease to astonish, a century after their deaths.

On the floor below the Water Lily exhibition there is a whole other museum. It is the Walter-Guillaume collection. Paul Guillaume was an art dealer who died prematurely. His widow, Dominica, lived more than 40 more years. She married another wealthy man, Jean Walter, and continued to purchase paintings. She sold many of Guillaume’s Picassos, and kept only the paintings done during the blue period. Guillaume loved the impressionists and post-impressionists. He was open to many new experiments like cubism, so the collection is widely varied and interesting.  We got the audio guide in English. It was well worth the money as each painting was explained in detail, whereas the label next to each work had nothing more than the name of the painting and the artist.

Next to the museum is the enormous Tuileries Garden. It is filled with sculptures, collected by kings and the government of France, over the last 500 years. A picnic in the park with a longish visit to the L’Orangerie would make a wonderful day in Paris for anyone wanting to drop out of the usual tourist whirlwind.

The Big Tree by Andre Durain