Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Guadalajara, week two

Saturday 9/1, 3:30 am
Baby fires warning shots across the bow. All our clothes are wet. There's no way we can be going anywhere until tomorrow afternoon. Also, we have no toilet paper.

Friday afternoon, 8/31
Parque Agua Azul, full of young women getting their photos taken in wedding dresses and brilliantly colored quinceañera gowns. One woman emerges from the mariposarium in acid green, her dark hair pinned in elaborate curls. Some of the Monarchs have escaped from their mesh dome and try to find their way back inside. Others cling to the sky, perhaps driven by some ancient urge toward Michoacan, far from the deafening noise of the buses and the crush of rush hour.

We have seen an inordinate number of large disembodied heads in Mexico.

We arrived at the Casa de Artesania, a government-run store/museum intended to showcase the best of the national arts of Mexico, to find the whole place mysteriously being packed up. It turned out they are moving everything to Monterrey for awhile. We still felt confused. The workers kept looking at us, but no one asked us to leave.

We thought this wall art, found in Adam's mom's hotel room, was an isolated incident.

But it's not!

On the way back from the park, a custom garage with a hot pink Bentley limo and unidentified street racer.

We're about to see two kind of depressing movies that have no plot. (My tastes in film seem to have grown very plebeian.) Near the theater bathroom is a poster for "Super-Size Me." In Spanish it's called "Super-Engordame."

Thursday, 8/30, 10:15 pm
After watching Antonioni’s Deserto Rosso—set in some industrial part of Italy with heavy shipping, disease, and dissonant “techno” music—I need a coherent narrative. We’re walking down Lopez Cotilla and see Churros La Bombilla. I think I remember that churros are long, ridged donuts, a sort of Mexican beignet, in other words sweet and deep fried. We order from the board: Cuatro con chocolate. The man behind the counter clips the ends off the churros with a big pair of scissors. The chocolate comes in a white coffee cup, thickened with corn starch, like hot pudding. I watch the only other customers stir their cups of chocolate with churros, then alternate between chocolate and thimbles of caramel. Una orden más. We sit there suddenly remembering things that happened a long time ago, like our high school Latin teacher bringing a pomegranate to class, its translucent red seeds glowing under the fluorescent lights. I imagine her searching Rochester, New York, for a pomegranate, her long gray hair folded into an untidy bun, her shapeless dress swinging as she walks through the parking lot of the big new grocery store. I remember what happens after that, and after that. Moments that were awkward and painful and filled with pleasure, now perfect because they are known. I have survived them.

Wednesday, 8/29, two years after the hurricane

The year I got my PhD and moved to Michigan, the annual MLA convention took place in New Orleans. I went back, got through my interviews, then met my friend Brandy for brunch at the Palace Cafe on Canal Street. It must have been a Sunday and a four-piece band was making its way around the room. When it finally reached our table, the trumpet player asked if we had any requests. Brandy came up with that old Louis Armstrong tune. Listening to it, I found my throat swelling uncomfortably—I knew, yes—I knew what it meant. And it was such a cliché. And so inarguably real.

That summer I drove late at night over the Industrial Canal to the Winn-Dixie or Sav-A-Center in Chalmette to wander the aisles. I bought ice cream or a bottle of wine. One night we went out to the Home Depot on Judge Perez and saw a sign saying, "Stock up on your hurricane supplies here!" We hadn’t heard about any hurricane.

I had been working all day, writing about Storyville. One of the few buildings from that time that’s left is Lulu White’s saloon. I wanted to say which corner it was on—Basin and, I couldn’t remember, though I’d passed it over and over. The landscape might soon be washed clean of that intersection, the truth obscured from me forever. I went out into the electric stillness. Streetlights lit the silent Desire projects and one young man, his shoulders hunched, walking toward the empty places between the brick walls.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Guadalajara, week one

Finally, some good chocolate. I ate too much and got overexcited. The doctor said I seemed so healthy, why was my blood pressure high? I told him about the chocolate, but I had to get some lab tests anyway. We walked all over el centro de Guadalajara to find the lab, then I went back to pick up the results of the tests and take them to the doctor, 'cause that's how they do it here. While waiting I had a jovial conversation with the receptionist, who told me, "You speak Spanish well! I can understand you!" This seems to be the marker for "good" Spanish--is it completely incomprehensible, or just occasionally so? The Mexican people I've met so far are very forgiving. The doctor reviewed my results and told me not only that I was perfectly fine, but that he liked to walk all over Guadalajara himself. Then he gave me a big hug and said that if we needed a doctor along when we sailed to the South Pacific with a baby, he was available.

Wednesday 8/22, 9 am
The phone keeps ringing, followed by the distant echo of an extension. Suitcases exploded into haphazard piles of things we deemed necessary. The ceilings are twenty feet high, water stained, cracks running along the beams, painted in a nineteenth century green and white pattern of cornices, lilies and medallions. Glass wall sconces with electric candles, a wicker lampshade hanging high above the mottled tiles, a golden cupid with a broken switch. We are waiting. We probably don’t have much time. Time stretches out uncertainly. It snaps back without warning.

Friday 8/24, 11 am
The pollution and noise of the camiones on narrow streets, open doors revealing quiet rooms, a market fragrant with taco stands where women sold bushels of tuna and plastic cups filled with pomegranate seeds.

Our rooms at the Posada San Rafael. The real challenge lies in keeping the cleaning lady out, because we have contraband:

Things we never realized we wanted really badly.

Saturday 8/25, Restaurant Madoka, 3 pm
An old man sits at the counter beside an untouched glass of carrot juice. In the back of the room other men play dominoes, the surfaces of the tables worn from a half-century of games. A mariachi band serenades the group lingering over coffee and cigarettes in the center of the room. Smoke drifts up from the tables, spun in the metal fans. A perfectly executed club sandwich split into four triangles is delivered to another table. Our food is limp and alien. I haven’t been sleeping.

This espresso maker could teach Detroit's Big 3 a thing or two.

What are we doing here?

After a perfect lunch of organic fruits and vegetables and free range chicken, we wind up the day with a Big Mac. This is so wrong.

It's not as good as I remember from 5th grade and the fries are not hot. People put green salsa on them. I only ate maybe three bites of the Big Mac. But I think I ate a bunch of fries.

Sunday afternoon, 8/26
We’re going to die, Adam said. It’s all pointless. We were walking back from the antique market, stalls filled with things once owned by people who had died. There were a lot of old watches. Waiting for people for whom the measurement of time still means something. We ended up at the University of Guadalajara art cinema, currently presenting an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. We arrived just as The Seventh Seal (El Séptimo Sello) was about to start--a film about a man who plays chess with death. The couple with a baby escape his fate, temporarily.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dengue Journal Day 8: Dengue Deliverance

I don’t have dengue according to the latest test report. This is a good thing. This means I’m no longer ONE mosquito bite away from a potential hemorrhagic reaction; I, like everyone else down here who hasn’t been infected yet, am TWO mosquito bites away from potential hemorrhage. What a relief.

This dengue journey was brief but informative. First, I learned the word “viremia”, a noun that means “the presence of viruses in the bloodstream.” A great word which, when being your own doctor or just talking casually about infection, really gives you some med cred—don’t be afraid to use it. Second, I never thought about it before but the mosquito is, by far, the most dangerous animal to man with 2 to 3 million deaths/year. That figure puts into perspective the vastly smaller number of deaths caused by white sharks, grizzly bears and falling coconuts—creatures we more commonly associate with deadly danger. It’s something to think about. And finally, speaking of coconuts and hemorrhage, I wanted to share my primary tropical medicine goal—that of being the first American since WWII to be saved by a coconut IV.

So what did I have? Consults with one of New Zealand’s top specialists narrowed the options down to pretty much any virus other than dengue or typhoid. Since the headache is pretty much totally gone and I feel fine otherwise, I am until further notice. Many thanks for your wishes for a speedy recovery. Many thanks also to you anonymous internet dengue researchers that contributed sources to this entry.

After watching Adam lie in bed moaning for a week and then get misdiagnosed with typhoid, I finally went to the pharmacy today and bought him a course of Cipro—an antibiotic that is very conveniently available here in Mexico without a prescription! Even though it says on the box, “Su venta requiere receta médica”! (“Receta,” as I learned almost immediately upon arrival in Ensenada, meaning “prescription.”) While Adam taking antibiotics makes me feel better—not least because we're supposed to be having a baby in three weeks—it may not really speak to the illness at hand. According to the Mexicans I’ve talked to, he probably has something called “chipil”—which, they say, men contract before the birth of their first child. If it’s not dengue, it’s “la panza” (the belly), they shrug. Chipil is some sort of sympathetic illness that medicine won’t cure, characterized by—well, exactly the symptoms he’s been having! My Mexican friend down the street explained that the baby was taking Adam’s energy, too—drawing on both parents’ bodies as it gathers the strength to be born. I like that egalitarian notion—I like it very much.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Dengue Journal Day 6: Fever Dreams

Today was the day to get confirmation of my self-diagnosis at the local clinic. My friend Armando, in whose mosquito infested shop I was probably infected,

said they could diagnose and treat me with no fuss. Great, I thought, I can go there then go outside again without feeling like someone is resting their blazing-hot iron skillet on my head.

They were supposed to confirm my diagnosis and give me the necessary cure, but it didn’t end up working like that. When J and I got to the clinic, it was empty save for a family w/ small child getting a check-up and, judging from its offended sounding squawks, a shot. There was also an older gentleman who seemed to be waiting too but the nurse just shooed him away from time to time, perhaps he was merely clinic-curious.

Well, the nurse rapidly took my blood pressure, weighed me and took down some facts then led me across the hall to, the doctor? Whoever he was, he was mostly hidden behind a huge typewriter. He had AC in his office, unlike the nurse, and tons of medicine so I felt like I was in the right place—especially since I had read the big sign in the waiting room which says all treatment and medicine here is free.

He asked about my stomach and tongue and palpated my abdomen but since my symptoms haven’t extended lower than my cheekbones (mild rash), that didn’t seem relevant. Basically I feel fine except for a 6-day mild headache and some pain behind my eyes. Fine, that is, until I step outside, then comes the skillet and soon I face the choice of finding shade or passing out. The doctor pounded out a prescription on his typewriter and handed me some medicine and started to describe what and when I was supposed to take. During his mumbled spiel I caught the word “parasitos” and immediately I’m thinking, wait a second, this isn’t caused by parasites and isn’t that the prescription Armando got from this same clinic? Maybe this guy isn’t a doctor. Maybe he’s just a parasite eradication worker sent by the government of Jalisco to guard their pile of free medicine. I ask him if he thinks I might have Dengue fever and he says probably not because if you had Dengue you’d have pain behind your eyes…well, “I have pain behind my eyes,” I told him, and he then sent me back across the hall to the nurse. She jabbed my finger and then squeezed two drops of blood onto a glass slide to have it tested. She also asked where we live because, apparently, in a week or two, if the test is positive someone will knock on our door to let us know.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

What we eat

$1.50 worth of groceries.

Adam has sliced up quite a lot of pineapples.

People call him Mario, but his name is Gerardo.

After preparing the chicken, Gerardo drove Adam to the airport in his truck.

I had a dream in which I was standing in a crowded kitchen near the stove. I began shoving people out of the way and saying firmly that I needed to get something to eat. After the shrimp tacos in Baja, the agua de alfalfa con limón in San Blas, the tacos de adobado made with fresh tortillas in Puerto Vallarta, even the banana licuados and tortas de pollo in Colimilla—across the lagoon but it feels a world away now—I am hungry. Fortunately, a recent trip to Manzanillo yielded a major purchase of filet mignon (only $6 a pound), along with five different kinds of cheese, two cream-filled chocolate cupcakes, and a bunch of spinach. There were also chicken feet packaged in cling wrap and chayotes con espinas (bland, but covered with hundreds of spikes). At a local grocery store, a swarm of flies buzzed greedily around the celery. I wondered what they had found there. “You Americans eat huge salads—Canadians too!” an older Mexican guy who lives down the street exclaimed in amazement. I pass him on my walks and we speak Spanish and sometimes a little English. He explained hijo de la chingada, and I taught him motherfucker. He told me how I could get more spinach, but instead suggested tuna—the fruit of the nopal cactus. What do you do with it? I asked. “Nothing, nothing!” he told me. You just eat it. I’ve been overcomplicating things. Gringo habits don’t work here. So I’ve begun to embrace nopales, which I sauté with eggs and onions. There’s a table in a nearby grocery covered with boxes of fruit that people seem to have brought from their yards; I bought some carambolos there that I put in the blender with yogurt and mango. New synapses formed in my brain. At another store I found a cherimoya, and the woman behind the counter made me a present of it along with advice on how to eat it. This morning it was ready. I split the rough green oblong and squeezed the black seeds from the white flesh. Standing over the sink, I lifted it to my mouth. The flavor was so intense and even shocking that I couldn’t think in English. Could it be that I am discovering, poco a poco, some of what it means to be Mexican?

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The worst book in the world

Before we left the U.S., I shopped for books in thrift stores. I began to see myself as a kind of anthropologist gleaning insights into the reading habits of different communities. At the Goodwill in Tucson among the well-worn Jonathan Kellerman and James Patterson paperbacks I found what the back cover claimed to be the definitive English translation of Anna Karenina. In Santa Barbara I found Dancing Wu-Li Masters and a copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile in French.

But I quickly realized that I was not going to spend all my time reading in foreign languages and enjoying classics I’d neglected. I was going to indulge my unseemly passion for crime. I found Murder at San Simeon in San Diego (along with a World War II pea coat that fit perfectly), and I couldn’t resist the pop culture appeal of a “novel of suspense” (co)written by Patty Hearst about a murder supposedly hushed up by her own grandfather. We had recently anchored off the pier depicted by the book designer at the bottom of the dust jacket. I was intrigued by the concept of a Biddle and a Hearst writing historical “fiction” about a world they presumably knew intimately. But this was the worst book I have ever read.

I turned to the Oxford Book of American Detective Stories, which includes Anna Katherine Green's "Missing: Page Thirteen" (1915), featuring a “fairy-like” young detective named Violet Strange who solves her case by crawling through hidden passageways wearing a ballgown, and the work of Clinton H. Stagg, whose hero is completely blind. It chronicles the rise of the hardboiled style, including a 1943 story by Robert Leslie Bellem called “Homicide Highball" that contains the line, “He must crave somebody cooled for this kind of geetus.”

Later, in marinas and the offices of hotels that we didn’t even stay in, I parsed the reading habits of gringo ex-pats. At the book exchange in the Ensenada marina, I found a whole new subgenre: romances featuring pregnant women and women with infants. These horrified me. I was forced to pick up a Patricia Cornwell thriller about maggots instead.

Here in Barra, abandoned books show up at Beer Bob’s Book Exchange, located a couple of blocks away in a converted garage. I browse alone in the overheated stillness. The books are covered in dust. The tastes of those who donate run to trashy romances, trashy thrillers, occasionally a decent work of modern fiction, and a lot of novels in German. Lately I’ve begun to keep a journal of the books I’m reading, and its intended result, in the short term, is simply shame. Gradually I am weaning myself from the rush of satisfaction that comes when someone else solves the problem. One day soon, maybe I’ll end my addiction to what they call closure. Maybe I won’t be waiting for a revelation.

[A few interesting books fortuitously found here and there: mysteries by Henning Mankell (set in Sweden—so stark and spare, and they’re always eating pizza. Could it be the pizza with tuna, bananas, mustard and mayonnaise that Adam and his dad discovered in Kungsviken?); The Last American Man (Elizabeth Gilbert’s chronicle of a man who lived in a tepee and killed his own food in late 20th-century North Carolina—aka “Davy Fucking Crockett”); Son of the Morning Star (Evan S. Connell poetically uncovers everything there is to know about Custer and his Last Stand); Random Family (Adrian LeBlanc’s gripping work of journalism about a Puerto Rican family from the Bronx), On Beauty (diverting Zadie Smith book about multiculturalism in the academy, sort of outdated and frustrating but absorbing), We Were the Mulvaneys (Joyce Carol Oates’ family saga set mostly in western New York—much better I think than The Corrections, which, National Book Award aside, was annoying, the author’s prose wasted on his characters); and, a recent find at Beer Bob’s, one of my favorites, The Day of the Locust (Nathanael West’s brilliant take on Hollywood in the 1930s).]