Monday, December 28, 2009

Puebla and Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of the cities in Mexico I wanted to explore and I decided to travel there with a group from San Miguel this Christmas. We went by bus—not my favorite way to travel so far—but we overnighted in Puebla, another place I’ve wanted to visit, both coming and going. We were gone a week—only enough time to sample a little of the riches in these two cities. Both deserve further investigation, but I was glad to have this taste.

About 40 of us headed out for Puebla on the morning of the 20th—three people I knew and several acquaintances. Many had made a number of trips with Vagabundos. I’d only gone with them once, more than two years, ago to Mexico City. David’s trips are near perfect— never too expensive, hotels centrally located, and a prefect blend of planned activities, to some of the area’s highlights, and free time to explore your own interests.

Puebla, one of Mexico’s most populous cities, is a place of tile and Talavera pottery. It was established in the early 1500s by the Spanish, who needed a settlement between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz. Like San Miguel it is a colonial city, mountainous, about 7,000 feet above sea level, and was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. Its architecture is diverse—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when its textile industry was thriving, immigration from Europe was encouraged and the French and Germans have left their imprints on the city. Our two half-days didn’t allow me to see much. I joined the walking tour of the area around the Zacalo and hung out there our first night.

One of my biggest Mexican surprises has been its churches—among of the most exquisite I’ve seen anywhere. The exterior of Puebla’s Cathedral, a somber dark grey quarry stone, was an utter contrast to ornate interior. Its ceilings are a series of domed arches; fourteen chapels flank the main sanctuary whose altar is adorned with onyx, marble and gold; and its choir loft is a superb example of Moorish artwork, inlaid with wood in eight different colors. On our return, after visiting Oaxaca, I saw the tiled exterior of its San Francisco Church en route to La Purificadora, a boutique hotel on the grounds of the Paseo San Francisco, designed by renowned Mexican architects Ricardo Legorreta and his son Victor in a former 19th-century water-purifying centre. The side entrance from its four star restaurant, which wasn’t expensive, led into a beautifully landscaped garden with a couple of outstanding pieces of sculpture.

The ruins and craft villages that surround Oaxaca, Mexico’s fifth largest city, were what attracted me. This was my first trip South and also my first visit to an Olmec site, Monte Albán. Although Zapotecs were the longest inhabitants of one of the first Mesoamerican cities, the Olmec, the first documented Africans in Mexico, inhabited it initially. This impressive city, had a long period of influence, approximately 500 BC thru 900 AD, and remained a religious and burial site until the mid-1500s. Its history has been divided into five distinct stages and shows evidence that different cultures inhabited the city, the last being the Mixtec. The other archaeological site we saw was Mitla, a Zapotec religious and burial center, whose greatest sphere of influences parallels the dates of Monte Albán. The original color of its walls, adorned with stone-cut mosaics, was red, which is also a funerary color in some West African cultures. I am been intrigued by design similarities I’ve observed between ancient Mexican and African cultures.

At Casa Vasquez, a weaving workshop in Teotitlán headed by Oaxaca’s most renowned weaver, Isaac Vásquez, we saw the weaving process from start to finish. The rugs and other hand-woven items produced here are all produced from yarns colored with natural dyes—only four plants are used to produce over 150 colors. At Doña Rosa’s studio, in Coyotepec, her son demonstrated the traditional way of making Oaxaca’s famed black pottery. And we also visited a natural wonder, a 2,000-year-old cypress tree in Tule that is believed to be the widest tree in the world.

This taste was good but I want to go back and savor. I’ve posted more pictures from my trip to Puebla and Oaxaca at

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Writing My Way Through It

I was under the floor when I returned from Pátzcuaro and learned that the sale of my house in New Orleans had been postponed AGAIN. Since I’m no longer acting, a career that allowed me to put my drama onstage instead of bringing it into my life, I went into woe is me mode and started contemplating the edge. This is never really serious—my fear that I might reincarnate on a lower level negates the possibility of suicide. I wanna get it right this time so that I will never have to visit earth plane again.

After 24-hours I stopped the pity party, a rule I’ve stuck to assiduously since Hurricane Katrina, and called Tim Hazell, an artist who had contacted me about writing an article for Atención on his new exhibit, to tell him I could get started earlier than I had anticipated. Although ma was a visual artist, I’ve never written about art and was a little intimidated. But a challenge was exactly what I needed—it would leave less time to brood. A day or so later, another writing assignment materialized—a feature article on the jazz festival. That plus my regular work for the Literary Sala meant I had 3 articles to complete in as many weeks.

Needing continual attitudinal adjustments, due to things in New Orleans, my Thanksgiving celebration this year focused on drinks, not food. I got wasted. I’d planned to watch Beyonce’s concert on one of the networks that night, but passed out on the couch about five minutes after it started. Will have to catch that one on Utube.

The 15th Annual Blues and Jazz Festival started the day after Thanksgiving. The Angela Peralta Theatre, where it’s usually presented, was closed for renovations this year so the Festival had to find a home. Festival Director, Antonio Lozoya, expanded the Festival and made other decisions that significantly increased the ticket prices this year, weird given that we are in the mist of a global economic meltdown. The lineup was good but I, like most San Miguelese, couldn’t afford to see much of it. As much as I love jazz, I have to pay the rent and utilities first and wanted to have a few Feliz Navidad dollars. My article on Nic Bearde got me into performance free. I bought a ticket to hear David Gilmore, who was guest artist for this kick-ass Mexican fusion band, lead by pianist Mark Aanderud, and a friend treated me to saxophonist David Sánchez’s performance with special guest, drummer Antonio Sánchez. Only the last performance was well attended. The first two had less than 60 people.

Am going back into writing hibernation until I leave for Oaxaca on December 20th.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Day of the Dead in Pátzcuaro

Pátzcuaro was a wonderful contrast to San Miguel—situated on a lake; green and lush, fragrant with the scent of trees; the simplicity of tiled-roofed, brown-trimmed, cream-colored facades replacing the ocher, rust and brick-colored buildings of town where I'm living.

Our hotel was situated right on the main square, Plaza Bocanegra, just minutes away from Plaza Chica that housed a crafts market. Handcrafts from the artisan rich state of Michóacan—metal work and pottery, hand woven and embroidered textiles, vibrantly colored folk art, feathered shawls, stringed instruments—are displayed in the square during the annual Day of the Dead celebration.

Our time in Pátzcuaro was divided between observing their Day of the Dead ritual and exploring the handcrafted goods produced in this area. The first morning, we walked up the hill to the concurso, the crafts’ competition—I wanted a sample of everything that was exhibited—then toured the mask gallery, and other exhibits at the new art school, before heading to Tzintzuntzan, a 16th century lakeshore village less than 10 miles north of the city. When we arrived, the cemetery was filled with families preparing the graves for their vigils with the dead that night. Most of the altars in this graveyard were elaborate.

Our time in Zintzuntzan was too brief. Although we saw the Franciscan monastery, the ceramics factory and their artisans market, I could have used more time in each and we didn’t even explore the ruins from the Purcépecha kingdom.

Families were just beginning to arrive when we visited a different cemetery that night, a small graveyard that doesn't draw many tourists. People were buried so close together that it was impossible not to walk on the graves as we moved around—something that made us Americans uncomfortable, but didn't seem to faze the Mexican community. I observed at a distance, felt like I was intruding on an event that should have been private.

Our last day was a lazy—we strolled around town and had a leisurely comida at a restaurant on the lake. The next day, on our way out, we visited by Santa Clara, the copper village. I wasn’t ready to go home, but since it's less than a 4-hour drive from San Miguel, will definitely return to Michóacan and Pátzcuaro again.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


It’s been unseasonably cool here for more than a week. Yes, I’m still in Mexico. The closing for the sale of my house in New Orleans was postponed and I’ve been trying not to fret about that. I keep repeating my The Game of Life and How to Play It mantra, “Don’t worry, it probably isn’t going to happen.” Have been trying to keep myself occupied—finishing projects started months ago and never completed, doing my own simple alterations rather than taking clothes to the tailor, writing more.

Very few tourists visit this time of year and the town is quiet. These peaceful interludes are the best times to explore the city. I have become neighborhoody here like I’ve done in everyplace that I’ve lived—confining most of my activity to the areas that are closest to home. I spend late afternoons walking through colonials on the other side of town. Observing what’s changed, taking time to investigate new businesses that catch my attention, ones that have survived the economic downturn that I haven’t been inside for months. I finally get to Vía Organíca—the health food store and restaurant that opened in Guadalupe months ago—one afternoon when one of the lunch specials is trout, a fish I love but don’t to get enjoy often.

I start preparing for my trip next week to Pátzcuaro for Day of the Dead. The day the Tarascan Indians believed the dead returned to visit with their loved ones. Like the recessional of a New Orleans style funeral, this is not a somber occasion. Towns are decorated with colorful, elaborate altars that include the four elements of nature—earth, wind, water, and fire. Earth is represented by crop, wind by a moving object—tissue paper is commonly used to represent wind. Water is placed in a container for the soul to quench its thirst; a wax candle represents fire. Families visit cemeteries to clean and decorate the tombs and share a meal at the gravesite. At night, the dances begin. The souls of children are honored on November 1st; the following day, the spirits of adults are remembered.

It was believed that because of its extraordinary beauty, Pátzcuaro Lake, in the State of Michoacan, was the door to heaven, used by the gods when they came down to earth. Because of this early belief, one of the most beautiful Día de los Muertos rituals developed on one of the five islands in this lake, Janitzio. I look forward to experiencing this next week.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guided by Astrology

In January, I started going to an Astrology Circle—a Friday session where astrologer Lauren Lasko illustrated how weekly planetary transits affected our daily lives. In February, I did a reading with her. I was not only interested in talking about my birth chart, and looking at my progressed chart for February 2009, but also looking back at the two dates that had transformed my life—the day I bought the house in New Orleans, and the day Hurricane Katrina destroyed the levees. What I learned at that session was enlightening. Lauren is not a predictive astrologer—she uses astrology as a tool for personal awareness—so when she suggested that I not run off to New Orleans because my tenant wasn’t communicating until after Mercury, the communication planet, stationed direct on September 29th, I listened. Tried to still my mind from imagining every possible doom and gloom outcome. I’m not basically negative but extremely impatient—and when life is difficult to navigate for long stretches of time, my drama queen surfaces.

Because I didn’t race off to New Orleans at the end of September, I was here for my 4th anniversary on October 1st. Here to experience La Alborada, the celebration of the town’s patron, San Miguel Arcángel, one of the city’s biggest fiestas. I arrived four years in the middle of that celebration, when dancers and drummers in native dress clogged the streets. Many streets in Centro were closed and my driver, who was inexperienced, couldn’t find his way around the closures to my house. By the time I got to my rental, in Guadeloupe on Cielito Lindo, almost two hours after entering the city, I was questioning coming to San Miguel. Now it is one of my favorite parades.

Because I didn't race off to New Orleans I was here to celebrate a friend's birthday on the 3rd of October, on the 5th I had a closing date. There are still a lot of details to work out but a little more than 4 years after my 10-day life in New Orleans, I’ll finally put Hurricane Katrina behind me just as Saturn is moving into Libra and the effect of my second Saturn return wanes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Preparing to Return to NOLA

I haven't heard from my tenant in New Orleans for more than 10 days. Last time we talked I thought that we were on track with the sale--that we'd be closing somewhere around October 1st. Now, I don't know what to think.

I haven't been to New Orleans in more than two years and am curious to see how much has changed since my last visit. Am looking forward to putting Weight Watcher points aside once or twice and indulging in a couple of great meals, strolling down Esplanade, perusing the Quarters and the Garden District, hoping that the little corner cafe is still on Magazine, serving up its mouthwatering blueberry cobbler. I'm not looking forward to seeing how little has happened in the Ninth Ward, living in my empty house for several weeks with just an air-mattress and Internet or the tremendous additional expense required to stay anywhere in the States compared with Mexico.

In preparation for this starkness, I savor my little house here. Afternoons are cooler now so I pull myself out of the dim office and work under the umbrella in the front patio, when I don't need to use the computer; when I do, I work in the living room where I can gaze at the garden. At night, I have dinner on the back patio under that gaze of the Black Madonna acquired at my friend Sandy Lawrence's garage sale when she moved back to Texas. A little prematurely, I prepare my garden for winter--feeding and trimming the plants, repotting those that have grown too big for their containers.

For the coming week, my last full week here before I leave, I'll take advantage of all the things I won't be able to afford when I'm in the States. I'll take at least 3 yoga classes, only 35 pesos at Belles Artes, OD on organic produce, have my hair trimmed and my feet pumiced, enjoy one last night of music, have my energy re-balanced with acupuncture just before my departure. 

I still hope for the best, that the sale will materialize, while preparing for the worst, that I'll have to dip into my saving to fluff the house so that I can get it back on the market and cover the expenses of the house until it sells.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Jazz Balm

I’ve been off my number for the last couple of weeks, anxious about everything—my house in New Orleans, my decision to live in San Miguel, if my God-daughter, Bianca, will get here for a visit before she has to return to work—wishing I hadn’t committed to do an article on jazz for a new magazine so that I could just stay home and lick my wounds. But I had, and after talking to a couple of the musicians, realized I also needed to hit the clubs. I hadn’t heard anyone for months, not since bassist Tyler Mitchell’s trio stopped playing Wednesday nights at Limerick. Even on a budget, Limerick was easy, no cover charge, and drinks were cheap. It was my Wednesday night ritual when they were offering up jazz that night, primarily for a young Mexican crowd, which also meant they were developing a new audience for the music I love.

I wasn’t impressed with San Miguel’s jazz scene when I came here almost four years ago. One jazz club, Tio Lucas on Mesones, didn’t seem like much to someone who’d spent most of their life in New York. But jazz has a short history in Mexico. Mexico City’s first jazz trio didn’t come on the scene until the 80s and was organized by an American, Bobby Kaplan, who lives here now. A club offering jazz 7 days a week, in a city this size, is a rarity for Mexico.

I’d only planned hit Tio Lucas a couple of nights and stop by Sierra Navada, a restaurant on Hospico, where guitarist Ken Basman, who moved here from Toronto, and keyboardist Doug Robinson, an import from San Diego, improvise alternate Fridays. But San Miguel was offering other musical choices for the next several days, and some of it was jazz. The Sunday after I heard Ken and Doug’s sophisticated interplay, I headed to the Wine Bar, at Fabrica Aurora, to hear Sibyl Lee-English’s set of classic R&B and jazz love songs.

As I was winding down Sunday night, I noticed that with just a couple of music hits my spirits had lifted. This was far cheaper than the shrink I had begun to feel that I needed, and I was looking forward to hearing more jazz the following week. En route to Tio Lucas, I stopped at Sunset Bar, on Mesones, where they were serving blues with happy hour, then headed downstairs to hear Doris Rogers, who moved here from Baltimore more than 20 years ago. Doris, who sings jazz classics with impeccable phasing and timing, has been singing at the club trice weekly since it opened. That night Gabriel Hernandez, a virtuoso from Cuba, was on piano and Antonio Lozoya, director of San Miguel’s annual jazz festival, was on bass. I’d planned to stop by another night to hear Bobby, who in addition to playing drums, piano and harmonica, also sings—he was one of the finalist for the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in ’98—but he was on vacation for a couple of months. Friday night I headed for the Angela Peralta Theatre to hear Gabriel’s latest jazz exploration, 10 original piano compositions, that he showcased with a trio that included Tyler and percussionist/drummer Victor Monterrubio. Their collaboration was one of the best jazz concerts I’ve heard anywhere.

The next week I headed back to the Peralta to hear Gabriel again, this time backing his father, Gabrielito, y su Descarga Cubana (his Cuban jam session). The repertoire that night was Afro-Cuban dance music—son montuno, danzón, mambo, cha-cha and bolero. And the band, that included Gabriel on bass, three drummers, a couple of horns, and a vocalist, had the audience dancing in the aisles.

Although I’ve finished the article, I’m headed out this week to hear Gabriel again—this time in duet with Tyler, at Mivida, a restaurant on Hernández Macías. Gabriel recently signed to do a year’s tour with the Afro-Cuban All Stars and, after October, won’t be around town too much, so I’m rushing out to hear him while I can.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lenses and Chasms

It’s taken me forever to finish this post started a week ago. Anxiety over events in New Orleans took my focus AGAIN. I am bored with myself. That sometimes I let the fallout from Hurricane Katrina consume me, for much shorter periods now, but still far longer than my two-hour rule. Two hours was the max I allowed myself to worry about something gone wrong before the storm.

I’m restless. I haven’t been back to the States in a year—first time since I came, almost four years ago, that I’ve spent a full year just in Mexico. Until a few weeks ago I was comfortable with this—being in San Miguel with short excursions to other Mexican cities. But lately I’ve been having fish outta water experiences, something I haven’t felt for a long time here. I’ve wanted to go home, not to a specific location but home to my creative, thinking, colored-American community, not strictly African-American but non-white.

It started with Michael’s death—mourning his passing, celebrating his life in a community that thought child molester when they heard his name. It’s interesting where people choose to be reflective. My friends here question much that is disseminated through the media but accepted unproven allocations about Michael without giving them much thought. They view him through a different lens. He wasn’t their hero, one of their ambassadors, like Aretha and Stevie, showing American, and the world, what it meant to be young, gifted and Black.

Our book club’s discussion of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novel, Sally Hemings, was another isolating event. I couldn’t believe that these intelligent, educated women were romanticizing slavery, accepting the author’s interpretation, that Sally’s love for Jefferson supercede all the sorrow surrounding their union—his not returning to Paris, as promised, where she would have been free; losing her children; having three siblings sold at auction following Jefferson’s death. And one of the romanticizers was Black. But raised in an environment different from any I've known; by a mother who thought Black salvation lay in marrying white. In essence, over time, eradicating the brown. When discussing this with an old friend, who, like me, is living far outside her comfort zone, Teia pointed out that, fucked up as this was, it demonstrated progress. In the space of 30 years, reaction to this book had moved from outrage and denial to rose-tinted glasses. Progress doesn’t always match our fantasy of change.

Discussions on the ignorant comments in the States regarding Malia Obama (wearing shorts in Italy with Puffy), and Professor Gates' arrest made me aware that empathy and shared experiences are not the same, it’s the difference between head space and heart space.

We humans may be more alike than different but the lens through which we’ve experienced life creates chasms. One of the reasons I’ve stayed in San Miguel is that living here broadens my life lens—not just through my interaction with Mexicans and their culture but also through my communication with Canadians and white Americans. But I don’t always feel like being a student. Right now, I’m wanting to be among people who have experienced life through my lens.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hunting Treasures

My mom was the only person I knew, growing up in the 50s in Atlanta, who admitted to shopping in thrift stores. She bought what she called my ridiculous clothes—things I’d probably only wear once—at a nearly new shop that got discarded clothes from rich Atlantans and things that didn’t sell at some of the city’s most exclusive shops. The first time I remember wearing one of these dresses was to the coronation at the high school where she taught—I never know why but for some reason they wanted to have two elementary school students on stage that year, and I was one of them. Its origin embarrassed me but it was the most beautiful dress I’d ever worn. The high school girls agreed and all complimented me on my gown, prompting me to proudly announced that, My mama had found this dress, brand new, tags still on it, for only $5 at a thrift shop.

Once I started shopping for myself, I’ve gone to thrift shops, flea markets, and weekly markets, in the less industrialized places I visit, to find bargains and seek treasures. Last week-end, feeling the need for a big city hit and a little something, something to add beauty to the house, I went to Mexico City with a friend to check out the markets. I couldn’t spend much but Mexico is filled with bargains this summer, due to the decline in tourism, and the favorable exchange rate gives an added boost to anyone swapping euros, pounds or dollars.

We stayed in a small hotel on Avenue Alvaro Obregon in Colonial Roma, southwest of Historic Centro, close to several markets we wanted to visit. Our double room was only 530 pesos, less than $45, a night. Both nights, we ate at restaurants near our hotel. During the day we culled the markets. Some specialize—check out the Coyoacán market for great street food, Mercado Jamaica for flowers, La Ciudadela for traditional hand-made goods, Mercado Sonora for herbs, amulets and other necessaries to cast spells and mix potions, Mercado de Antiguedades for antiques and collectibles. But the big Sunday market, La Lagunilla, sells almost everything. If you’re staying near the Zócalo, you might also want to stop by city’s national pawnshop.

We took the bus back to San Miguel, late afternoon Sunday, with a couple of treasures. Energized from spending time in the big city and exploring its neighborhoods through the markets.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Living in San Miguel

The weather this year was different from what I’ve experienced since I moved to San Miguel. Winter was shorter. The chill dissipated before Candelaria, the February 2nd celebration that marks the official end of the Christmas holidays and is traditionally a time to prepare the earth for spring planting. In SMdA Candelaria brings vendors from all over central Mexico to Juarez Park to sell their plants and flowers. Having lived most of my life in climates where February is the coldest month, Candelaria is perhaps the greatest delight of my new life here in Mexico. The heat of May, generally the hottest month in my adopted city, begin mid-April and extended through the middle of June. Although the nights are always pleasant in this mountain village, it was way too hot to be outside during the heat of the day. The hardest thing for me to adapt to, besides the high altitude, has been the 40-degree variance in temperature most days. Even during the winter season, generally mid-December through the end of January, when the night chill sometimes makes you wish that these concrete structures had central heat, highs are in the 70s. Thankfully the rains began this week and soon we should be able to enjoy outside activities in the afternoon.

Shallow breathing season started June 1st, my new name for hurricane season, post Katrina. My fear that another fierce storm might hit New Orleans and topple the levies before I can sell my house makes it difficult for me to breathe deeply. Acupuncture and yoga help with this. Luckily I am living in a place where I can afford both.

This has been a hard year for Mexico. San Miguel managed to survive the winter, when press about the drug wars at the border kept many tourist away from Mexico. But following the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City in April, tourist left this city in droves. Mexico moved aggressively to contain the spread of this virus, closing all public venues in its capital for 10 days at a cost to the city of more than ten million dollars a day. I cannot imagine Bloomberg closing NYC, the American equivalent of Districto Federal, if the outbreak of this flu had occurred in his city and less than ten people had died as a result. Now New York, which has had more cases of this flu than Mexico, is flush with tourists who continue to avoid Mexico. Many in both the American and Mexican communities here whisper about a conspiracy against Mexico. I can’t go there but am aware of the inflammatory nature of American news reportage. It was the primary reason that following Obama’s inauguration in January, I changed my cable lineup from CNN to the BBC.

Last weekend was the Los Locos (the crazy people) parade. Dia de Los Locos, is more than a carnival. It is also an act of faith and devotion that began in the 18th century when orchard workers danced to give thanks and ask San Pascual Bailón for a prosperous year. I didn’t fight the crowds to see the colorful costumes and floats, whose theme this year was Disney villains, but enjoy living in a country that understands the importance of fiestas—work needs to be balanced with play. In this way it reminds me of New Orleans, the city that I thought would be home during this phase of my life.

Some of the more conservative political websites label Americans living in Mexico as unpatriotic. We are not. Living here makes you more aware of the things that work in the US—we can employ most of our citizens, we have a social welfare system, that although insufficient, provides some assistance for those in need, our democracy is far less corrupt, a larger percentage of our children complete high school. What we are is “un” the 60-hour work-week, not just for the unskilled and uneducated but for the middle-class; “un” the economic imbalance where less than 10% of the population controls more than 85% of the wealth; “un” a health care system where a serious illness can bankrupt a middle class family with medical insurance. Shortly after I moved here, a friend, who had retired in San Miguel, had a heart attack and had no Mexican insurance. She received excellent care at a hospital in Querétaro, and the cost was less than the average annual health insurance premium for a person her age. A couple from Florida moved here two years ago with his elderly parents who were no longer capable of living independently. They were spending $10,000 a month caring for them in the States but spend less than a quarter of that here. We’re not here because we’re lazy—most of us worked our asses off for decades in the States. We are here because, whether we are retired, working part-time in the States or working in Mexico, we can afford a better quality of life. Here we live healthier lives—we have far less stress and the cost of fresh produce at the weekly market—20 pesos for a kilo of mangoes, 15 for a kilo of strawberries—is a pittance of what it costs in the States. If American corporations can shop globally for cheaper labor, why are we considered unpatriotic for shopping globally for a better quality of life?

This is not utopia—no place is. But living here has made me more flexible, increased my respect for different cultures—something we all need in our rapidly changing, global environment. Every place I’ve visited or lived has had its impact, changed me in some way, shown me a different way of approaching life. Who knows if I’ll stay here forever? I’ve had fantasies about living in other places where I’ve traveled—Accra, Buenos Aires, Rabat. Living outside my comfort zone no longer intimidates me. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll actualize one of those.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

If you want to make God laugh, make plans

Recently a friend shared a Yourba proverb with me, If you want to make God laugh, make plans. I, the meticulous planner, must have supplied Her with 50+ years of hilarity. That stopped last year. I stopped trying to map out a life course—stayed focused and aware and practiced my go with the flow skills, not the forté of us who like to plot our course. The only thing I planned last year was my trip to Morocco.

A couple of months ago I looked at pictures of my house in New Orleans—not the damage I photographed in November 2005 when we were finally allowed back in city after the storm—but pictures of the restored house. They were mostly of the kitchen which I’d updated—stripped the wainscoting, added additional cabinets and replaced the countertop. The kitchen I never used after the work was complete. I’d forgotten how much I love that house—how perfect it was for me. But the city no longer feels perfect.

2008 flew by. No, it’s not because I was having fun but because as we age each year is a smaller percentage of our lives. Now each year is less than a 50th of mine. The first part of the year must have been relatively uneventful because I don’t remember much—the Writers’ Conference in February, a wasted weekend in Mexico City. For me the Conference highlight was Rebecca Walker, a wonderfully frank and thoughtful memoirist. I loved both her keynote address and the afternoon workshop she taught. The weekend in Mexico City was wasted because we spent too much time inside, talking rather than out exploring the city. One of the things I miss most living in San Miguel is the stimulation and diversity of a big city, but el Distrito Federal es fabuloso.

In April, I went to Morocco—a place I’ve dreamed of visiting since mama’s photo essay book on the country captivated me in my teens. There were several cities I wanted to see and figuring out the logistics got complicated so I started looking at tours, something I’ve avoided in the past. Two other women from San Miguel and two of their friends from the States were interested in going so we booked a tour that included all the places I wanted to experience and some I hadn’t researched—out of a total of 15, we were five. I loved Morocco—the juxtaposition of ancient and modern; the intricacy of its hand made crafts; its colors, smells, and rhythm; the daily calls to prayer; the Atlas Mountains and its miles of coastline that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The pace of the tour was hectic—it was only during the pre-trip to Essaouira, a fishing village that reminded me of Cape Coast in Ghana, that we got to savor a city—but the plethora of experiences that were packed into these 20 days gave us a portrait of Morocco that extended beyond the typical tourist experience. An aspect of the trip I thought I would hate, I loved—touring Morocco by bus. This allowed us to see much more of the country. I'd dreaded the idea of endless hours on the bus, but we never drove for more than three hours without making a stop at some place of interest or for lunch. We stayed for at least one night in Casablanca, Essaouira, Rabat, Fez, Erfoud, Tineghir, Ouarzazate, and Marrakech and spent two nights camping in the dessert. One night in the desert would have been sufficient for me our campsite was too rudimentary for a 600 thread-count girl. This was a wonderful overall view of the country. Hopefully I’ll find my way back. I would love to spend more time in both Rabat and Marrakech and go back to Essaouira one June for the Ghaoua Music Festival. Since the trip, I’ve fantasized with my friend Teia, who is living in London now, about getting a retirement place together somewhere on the Moroccan coast.

When I returned, gushing about Morocco and how much I’d like to live there, a friend reminded me that I’d said the same thing when I returned from Buenos Aires in 2007. I loved both places for very different reasons. When I say live, I don’t mean forever but I’d like to rent an apartment in both places for a few months. Living in Mexico has let me know that I can acclimate to other cultures and I want to get to know people from other worlds. Most of us are much too insular for the current global environment.

The big surprises in Morocco were that no one wanted dollars, which had lost a third of its value against the dirham in the previous 24 months, and how focused people were on the upcoming election in the States. Whether they favored Hilary or Obama, all were anxious for Bush’s presidency to end, and felt empowered by the possibility that a man of color might lead the United States.

Last year, the American community in San Miguel was fixated on the election and primarily pro-Obama. I did not embrace his candidacy wholeheartedly at first. He would be an outsider, and our last outsider President, Jimmy Carter, who I thought was a great man, had been ineffectual. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe a Black man could be president in my lifetime. I’d grown up in Atlanta and fantasized about this possibility since Maynard Jackson became our first Black mayor in 1974. But this dream dissipated as the restoration of New Orleans unfolded. The blatant racism surrounding this great tragedy made me feel that America would never live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. I was so cynical at the beginning of his campaign that an Obama presidency seemed like a pipe dream.

Plus, Obama did not match my first African-American president fantasy. I’d envisioned someone older, someone descended from the Civil Rights movement. And he was bi-racial—which I knew in America meant Black but somehow seemed to mitigate his blackness with white Americans. And I resented this, that blackness still needs to be softened in these United States. But for some unknown reason, during the spring I remembered something my first acting teacher in New York, noted actor and director Bill Duke, had said. Bill had told us that the first thing we had to do as Black actors, when going on auditions and interviews, was remove the threat—the sense of danger that whites always felt in our presence. For a myriad of reasons—his demeanor, his Harvard education, growing up in a white home—Obama was less threatening than the African-American president I’d imagined. My first Black president fantasy probably would not have been reached a broad enough constituency to get elected. Obama did.

Morocco was supposed to be my only trip this year but death brought me back to the States twice—in May I went to San Francisco for a friend’s memorial service and in July returned to New York to bury Aunt Sis, my mother’s eldest sister. Her death shouldn’t have been a shock—she was 99 years old—but it was. It had never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be around for the big 100th birthday party we were planning for her in November. Connecting with family and friends was the up side, the downside is being continually revealed as all the holes she left in my life are exposed.

In August I moved for the 3rd time. I hate moving, but had lost patience with the owner’s constant renovation of the apartment above mine—workers hammering and nailing all day long while I was trying to work. I moved to a separate little house on Calle Palma in Colonial San Antonio. It’s a different colonial but essentially the same neighborhood, less than a five-minute-walk from my old place in Guadiana. Guadiana was more upscale and essentially an American neighborhood. San Antonio feels more like neighborhoods I lived in all my life—a mixture of Mexicans and Americans, houses and businesses (with the convenience of tienda at the end of the block), kids playing in the street. I traded my extra bedroom for the seclusion of my own house and more outdoor space—a huge patio in the front, a smaller one out back. It also has a fireplace, which I thought would fight the winter chill of no central heat in concrete building, but it's poorly constructed and only provides ambiance. But this house gets much more light and the sun warms it most days.

Although I gravitate toward ancient over modern, I needed a respite from San Miguel’s colonial charm and returned to Tlaquepaque, a village outside of Guadalajara, in August for its annual crafts show and furniture expo. Although its buildings are mostly colonial, modern-day Tlaquepaque has become an up-market boutique arts and crafts centre. It was refreshing to see modern Mexican design.

I spent the balance of the year in San Miguel and surprisingly wasn’t bored by this. Last April, when I left for Morocco, I was dying to get out of the city—I’d spent five straight months in SMdA and was wondering if this environment could engage me for the long haul without frequent travel. But I’ve had some kind of shift and am enjoying this small town experience. It’s a perfect place to write, something I’m doing almost daily now. I began working with Victoria Smith, a retired nurse and Peace Corps alumnae, on a series of personal essays and wrote my first series of newspaper articles, publicizing the Writers’ Conference. There were moments when I would have preferred to be in the States—I would have loved to celebrate both Obama’s election and inauguration either in Atlanta, where I grew up (preferably at the Ebenezer Baptist Church), or outside the State Office Building in Harlem, but made do with the celebrations we had here. Some days I think about returning to New York but the cost of living is high and jobs are scarce. Staying in Mexico now is just good common sense. When I need a big city hit, a fabulous city is a 4-hour bus ride away. Plus I’m enjoying this—it’s beautiful, has nearly perfect weather, and I’ve made friends.