June 2008

Week four in another place is always when I begin to really really miss people I knew from home, even if they are not there right now. They are also abroad or away from home and thankfully for the internet we keep in touch once in a while. One very good friend in Madrid. A French colleague in Beijing. A Chinese friend in Indianapolis. One American in Taiwan. Another Korean-American in Malawi. An Indian-American friend in Beira, Mozambique whom I promised to visit soon, to laugh about times we had in Brazil. Sometimes we haven’t talked in years and it’s strange how people grow older but they still are the same. It’s surprising how over everyday little things, certain people can grow on you and you really remember how it used to be. Certain conversations, and I wonder why that is.

I include more photos of our team here, to let you see a few of the Ibero students who have come, and I will probably feel the same about them when they are long gone.

Javier, Pau, Cecilia, Diego, Ana, y Santiago

Javier, Paulina, Santiago, Diego, Cecelia, Ana y Diego

Gaby, Maki, Arely, Arlene y Valeria

Pedro, Petra, Daniel, Maki, Arlene, Marin, Aurora y Lucio

Here in Chiapas, Mexico… life is as organic and surreal and artistic as you can imagine. This morning I attended a local fiesta at Rancho LR at the estate of Flora Leila Edwards and her son Virgilio, and while the band played on and on, I just wandered all around their flourishing green house, the pastures and the rivers and had some really good conversations. And there was a sweet, mute girl who was so attuned to music and wanted to dance with me a hundred times. (Photos to follow soon.)

Still, for all the blessed abundance that Mexico offers, today I am a little weary of its expressive sensuality, its vibrant colors, its raw natural beauty, the starkness of its primitive-inspired indigenous art. I am a bit exhausted by the colonial buildings and cobblestone charm, a bit apprehensive of the fiestas and wood-carved crucifix or leather-cured boots. No more marimba.

Today I just want to retreat into my own space and be lulled by something more demure, less “Latino.”

Perhaps. Maybe something more Central Asian, perhaps inspired by refined desert, the taste of kebab soltani on my lips or perhaps the absence of guitar replaced by the sitar and the tabla against sitting cushions. What I would give right now for the feel of satin sand and perhaps Persian carpets, bazaars and medina souks instead of mercados, vintage things that stained aroma of tobacco that smell like sweet dried plums.

For a single day I implore, to exchange the Mayan women with braids and embroidery for the sophisticated tapestries and the demure but elegant Moroccan caftan stitched ever so precisely in brocade. Trade the paper lamps for beautiful crystal chandelier ones. And instead of adobe bricks and thatched roof… how I crave the courtyard riads with their gelatin colors of pretty ruby glass against tessellated fountains, and pillows upon velvet pillows in tiny mirrors. Just for a moment, strong mint tea. Muslim sensibility instead of Catholic cathedrals.

Today is the day I begin to miss another world, another interpretation, another language, and yet I am physically still here in the Chiapas Highlands. Yearning for exquisite contrast and exploration, but yet appreciative for tremendous privilege of Mexican friends and the daily experiences here. Not to renounce or cheapen my own rich world, but to see it through the eyes of a fresher perspective.

Besides drinking as many cups of Indian chai possible, I am grateful that with photography websites I can live vicariously for a moment… and so nourish another dimension of my being with visual sustenance. (Photos from My Marrakech, one of my private indulgences.)

Spanish Words of the Day: sortilegios, hechizos, hechicería” spells, charms | “cuenco” bowl, basin”laúd” lute | “juramento” oath | “papel charol, papel glacé” high-gloss paper


I just spent the ENTIRE afternoon (4.5 hours) looking for a stupid umbrella to buy in San Cristóbal. In a rainy city of thousands of unprepared tourists where heavy showers can occur at any moment, where streets become fluvial rivers of torrential rain, for some reason stores don’t sell umbrellas. And local don’t know where to buy umbrellas.

You know….if we were in Asia…the minute it rains there would be umbrella vendors on every corner coming to you asking if you needed one. In your favorite color and print. In fact, there would be vendors in sunny weather too, selling parasols to block the sun. And it’s not for lack of imports here too, because there are a trillion things imported, including umbrellas which I finally found after much walking.

Not Very Entrepreneurial. You know, I’m starting to see why Chiapanecos are poor. Today I had lunch with some co-workers in the workshop, and discovered that the ultimate reason why we don’t open on Saturday afternoons and Sundays–the absolute peak time for clients–is because nobody wants to come in during those hours. Better to work Monday through Wednesday with nobody knocking on the door, than the precious peak hours. Is this a Spanish-colony thing? The whole discipline of “great service” and “convenience for the customer” might be missing.

I also discovered that, in a city where cobble-stone streets change names and numbers almost randomly, none of the hotels (except Holiday Inn, bless their soul) have ready maps for tourists who then end up getting lost and confused around the center because they are only here for 2-3 days.

So making the best of it…. since Taller Leñateros is a printing and paper-making center…Maki and I have become instant cartographers and we are working on an artistic rendition of a map of the city with a focus on the workshop.

“It was dark as I drove the point home.” – Piers Cameron

José Luis y José Pablo

José Luis y José Pablo con mi iPod

Spanish Words of the Day: retrasado” delayed | “destacado” outstanding | “desriñonarse” to strain one’s back

This is some of the food I’ve been eating at home. In San Cristobal there are some wonderful dishes too, and I want to especially mention the bacon-rolled ravioli, and the prawn spaghetti at Azafran… which are not pictured.

Here in the south of Mexico, we live in a native territory almost as ecologically rich as the Polynesian Islands with all the natural abundance and volcanic soil you can fathom (but not nearly as isolated). Yet Hawaii and Tahiti, for all its economic inequity, are rather developed and expensive. So with complexity and contradiction I had the curious impulse to ask Mexicans why they think this place is considered so poor.

Here are the top reasons I’ve been given:

+ Class warfare.
The indigenous poor are deliberately repressed. Politicians disregard this entire area, won’t build schools or infrastructure to help it grow. People are uneducated, ignorant, illiterate.

+ Complacency. Because this land is so well endowed, people have traditionally lacked the initiative to be entrepreneurial. They have inherited a paradise and live on its abundance, like PEMEX does for petroleum. Mexico does not engage in value-added industry, but rather in raw materials and trade commodities which is being replaced by China. For better or worse, people are not too angry about their poverty here and they don’t operate on survival mode.

+ No social redistribution. Carlos Slim, the world’s second richest guy, is Mexican. The income disparity in Mexico is gaping, with public officials earning at the earmark of $300,000 pesos (an incredible $30,000 USD) per month while more than half the nation lives in lack, sometimes without running water. The national minimum wage is $1,200 pesos ($120) per month but a vast percentage of Chiapanecos here live below that. $400 pesos, or a third of their income, goes to rent housing.

+ Short-term vision. Chiapanecos spend money today on rituals, social obligations, today’s wonderful meal, flowers, on liquor. Living for the present, they don’t have an interest or the foresight to save, to invest, to tend to their portfolio the way they do with their garden. But Neoliberal Capitalism is causing this place to suffer, and more and more people are becoming poor.

+ The American Dream belongs to America. The (apparently ludicrous) idea that ordinary people can simply start products and services in start-ups and grow them into companies…is purely a United States thing, and extraordinarily unlikely here. And Mexicans who do sell their companies for millions… do it in the United States…because there is a healthy financial infrastructure of loans, capitalist investments, angel donors, that is fiction in Mexico.

+ Unhealthy national envy combined with lack of direction. When Mexicans look at economic examples of China, Taiwan, Chile, Japan, they are more likely to be jealous and see it as other countries “winning” why they are “losing,” and blame the government, rather take the individual conviction to put in the long hours of hard work, the innovation and creativity to reach these goals. They do not see successful models as proof that it can be done within ten years… rather, they see it as someone else getting a piece of the pie that they wanted.

+ Disillusioned. Many Mexicans want to be prosperous and “First World,” but not necessarily “industrialized.” They want to develop as a nation, but rightfully feel burned by financial lending institutions such as the World Bank. They don’t want to move forward if it means being “like Americans.” There are fragments of culture, artisan craft and native history they desire to preserve, and there’s a lot of abstract concepts they are firmly against: Neoliberalist capitalism.

In my own opinion… I find it strange that Mexicans always consider their own country so pitifully poor—even sometimes calling itself the Third World!–but I suppose that bordering the wealthiest economy in the world and does produce a sharp sense of anger and sometimes an undeserved inferiority complex upon comparison. (For instance, even rich people feel inadequate when they’re surrounded by the super-rich.)

However. Mexico *does not* have the problem that many underdeveloped countries have: Mexicans do practice coordination and management. Have you ever been in countries so backward, that even the local corruption is horribly unsophisticated?! Like, things are done so stupidly that even the crime is ignorant. This practice of getting together and doing what you say you’re going to do in a coordinated fashion is rare in really poor countries, but not in Mexico. In villages projects often drag on because it’s so hard to get a hold of people, there’s untimeliness, lack of initiative and decisiveness, and people waste time being unproductive.

Mexico has the most crucial of characteristics that drive nations toward prosperity: (1) hope, optimism and hard work…that we are capable human beings, and the elevated expectation of what someone is able to do (2) very high emotional well-being  (3) fairly high quality of nutrition and health (4) a willingness to share intangibles such as knowledge, friends, and even jokes that keep everyone abreast of the lastest.

Still, one can always complain. I’ll borrow Leo Tolstoy’s quote that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and extropolate it to nations as well. Prosperous nations are alike in many ways and requires a tremendous amount of foresight, concerted effort, lucky breaks, geopolitical endowment; it is the impoverished ones that often differ in its myriad ways.

I just wanted to share the Mexican perspective of their homeland’s issues. Why a region is poor is a severely complex question, full of nuances, far easier to criticize its flaws than it is to develop it properly.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world. No one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

¡Cómo está en flor mi cuerpo, en cada vena,
con más aroma, desde que te he reconocido!
Mira, ando más erguido y más esbelto,
y tú tan sólo esperas…¿pero quién eres tú?

Mira, yo siento cómo me distancio,
cómo pierdo lo antiguo, hoja tras hoja.
Sólo está tu sonrisa, como muchas estrellas,
sobre ti, y enseguida estará sobre mí.

A todo aquello que a través de mi infancia
sin nombre aún refulge, como el agua,
le voy a dar tu nombre en el altar
que está encendido de tu pelo
y coronado, leve, con tus pechos.
-Rainer Maria Rilke


Spanish Words of the Day: fíjate” look, check it out, notice, pay attention…| “decepcionado” disillusioned | “comida chatarra” junk food | “patrocinador” sponsor | “migajas” crumbles

Kate’s yoga class makes such a difference in the morning. It is a spiritual energy and contemplative eternity compressed into ninety minutes. It is incredibly humbling and amazing to face the skies, to see beyond and into the universal galaxies, and realize (yet again) that we are only but specks.

We, our entire physical existence are merely specks of dust made of the things of nebulous clouds and magnificent combustions, and when we die we do not perish, but become that dust of stars again in the cosmos.

And so how trivial in comparison become our daily bickerings, concerns, fears, interpretations, paranoias and thoughts when we remember our inherent divinity, our sanctity, and that which is inside of us. The intrinsic and natural order of things that guide our lives. The slowness of change that ebbs and wanes, yet is inevitable. What greatness lies dormant inside all of us. We are all more capable than we realize.

Morning on Calle Manzana

Spanish Words of the Day, yoga poise and posture: “esbelto” slender, slim | “erguido” upright | “barbilla” chin | “sosegado” calm, tranquil | “tumbar espaldas” to let your shoulders fall | “pómulos” cheekbones | “aspirar” to inhale | “respiración abdomenal” deep stomach breathing | “aumentar costillas” to expand the ribcage | “rebosante” overflowing | “talones” heel of feet | “plantas” soles of feet | “pompi, nalgas” buttocks | “muñeca” wrist | “cantar, salmodiar” chant, sing psalms | “sánscrito” Sanskrit | “ayuno” fasting

Hindi:asana” posture, pose | “pranayama” breathing exercises | “dhauti” fasting

Adviento En una rosa está tu lecho, amada. A ti te he perdido. (Oh yo, nadador contra la corriente del aroma).Así como para la vida de antes estos (no medibles desde fuera) son tres meses, así, vuelto hacia dentro, empezaré a ser. De pronto, dos milenios antes de aquella nueva criatura, a la que disfrutamos, cuando empieza el tocarse, de pronto: contra ti y sobre ti naceré en la visión.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

Here at Taller Leñateros, we have a vibrant cast of Mexican students and artisans who work on projects in subgroups or “departments.” Welcome to a part of my everyday life. May I introduce to you a set of wonderful friends that I often collaborate with in the workshop.

(Photographs taken from our excursion to San Juan de Chamula. See more photos on the Picasa album.)

All of us girls (yes me too) dressed up in traditional Chamulan regalia from head to toe for the day. As we walked through this Mayan town, we looked like a coterie of geisha girls. Left to right: Arely, Pepe, Maki, Arlene, Gaby, and Valeria.

[1] Petra [2] Arlene [3] Valeria [4] Pepe [5] Maki [6] Pepe [7] Pancho con Pepe [8] Maki, Petra, Valeria, Gaby, y Arely [9] Pedro. Click to enlarge.

Arely and Maki getting their braids done.

Left to right: Valeria, Gaby, Arely, Pepe (and toddler Pancho) and Arlene.

Spanish Word of the Day:chiclet” a slang word in the capital for awesome, like ‘hella tight’.

Just over the border is Guatemala, Mayan highlands that are just the same, but much poorer in poverty and yet far more rich in life.

This overcast morning, seeing our mountain pines suffused with drizzle and fog, I am overcome with nostalgia for the south.

Cross the Chiapas border and you are entrenched in Mayan territory, a place where a more traditional way of life is underscored by a certain tragedy and sadness. Huehue, Chimal, Xela, and Chichicastenango….The civil war left its warm people the scars and inheritance of cruelty and a touch of black humor in its jokes. Thoughts enter my head. And I remember the cement wall where Carlos said that villagers were dragged into and shot or macheted. Or the lingering poverty that plagues the campesinos.

And these days (at least my own experience in Chiapas) there is rarely any of that. Maybe it’s a good thing. I have been cheerful, going out with new friends, joking, celebrating, amused, getting used to a city and rural life. Happy to the extent that it tires. An social existence of design, creating beautiful things, receiving flowers and enjoyment with which I am then starting to become too carefree, too unaware, callous to pain. And after all the laughter and getting along with everyone, there is somehow the tinging desire for repressed tears and grief, for good measure and balance.

I yearn to go back to Guatemala to remind myself that other dimension of myself: how fragile life is, how utterly imploding painful conflict is; how sorrow and loss feels like so that I might be transformed. If you are there with locals long enough, there will be a moment you feel so connected with the anger and loss itself. You do see that life is unfair. It is indescribable compassion that you didn’t know you had. One friend asked if I wanted to see the rural school they have built for poor children, another friend works with orphans of the indigenous.

There is such majesty and humility in that everyday moment you acknowledge humanity in its dimension of suffering and eventual loneliness. From stark nothingness, we respire deeper, our heart blossoms open, and that in itself is a subdued miracle. And we are able to love your friends deeper with more wisdom and appreciate our coinciding path in this moment in time on earth.

Few places stain their cultural richness with brutal darkness the way that Guatemala does. There is a time to be replenished, a time to be contented, a time to be exhausted. Now that I am full, I somehow wish my well to be drained. I wish to experience and be around loss, I wish to be melancholy… it is the field left fallow so that things may grow from it. This is one of my favorite quotes:

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, and bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may.

For it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face into the pillow, or stretch myself taut or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, for your return.

A lot of people here generalize, exaggerate and become disgusted with the United States (or, the rich). The idea that Americans *all* are moneyed because we don’t sanctify, we don’t value the community enough to spend and re-distribute what they have for the benefit of the whole, on the contrary we privatize wealth and push social expenses onto everyone else, the definition of an evil person. Here is the Mayan perspective: “Finding treasure will make you poorer than ever, because treasure, takin, is literally the “Sun’s shit”; filthy money will always jinx you. Mother Wind knocks down the cornfield.— Page 31, Incantations.

I beg to differ. It is not that I dislike living well there, in fact, among the few percentage of Americans that comprise of my social circle there, I find a good number them to be more admirable, more fascinating, and more sensitive than the people saying these things. On the contrary, being an American (or of any industrialized nation) is an enormous blessing, especially if you can utilize it as one frame of reference. Both Tamana and I are able to relate to this place so much better when we talk about how life and human behavior is in Tokyo.It is the ability to live there for a while, live here for a while, to drench our identities with emotional vibrancy that I find life so worthwhile to experience. The act of seeking things of the soul will give you resiliency for rough times that lie ahead.

The days are long, but the years are short.

Spanish Words of the Day:sortilegios, hechizos, hechicería” spells, charms | “cuenco” bowl, basin | “laúd” lute | “juramento” oath

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