Thursday, March 19, 2020

Streets of San Cristobal

San Juan Chamula, Opening Day of the Fiesta

Note: During these days of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, I decided to offer a distraction, a little entertainment, the real reason fiction exists. These are the first chapters of a nearly completed novel. In the early 1900s, newspapers and magazines published novels in serial form, an artistic rendering pretty much disappeared. La Bloga has offered many of us writers a chance to revitalize the art form, or to present our ideas in many ways, essays, poems, photos, and reviews. The following is a composite of different characters and incidents, some real and some imagined. Escape with me for a little while.

     By all accounts, I should be dead. Instead of embracing my good fortune, I lock myself in my study, my world shrunken to a twenty-by-twenty-foot refurbished garage, French doors facing the garden. Outside those doors, I can’t predict what will happen.
     “Please, open the door. Anthony, at least consider it.”
     I flip the lock and return to my chair. As she enters, my wife tries convincing me to do something, anything. Why not travel? That always helps.
     Right now, at this moment, it sounds useless.
     She tells me the quilt is unraveling, loose threads everywhere. I am entering the “danger zone.” To me, the threads are neatly in place, the problem is the quilt, and if any threads are loose, it is only I who can tighten them. She reminds what happened last time I tried that.
     I put on my “I’m fine” face and argue exhaustion.
     For me, travel is all-consuming. I can’t just visit a place, not even for a few days. I must know a place, sense its spirit. That takes time—and work. Travel is not only about museums, historical sites, or dining with friends but about back alleys, stray dogs, garbage heaps, and, dark characters, which, yes, have gotten me into trouble, but have also given me adventures I secretly craved. I might be one of those characters who after suffering trauma has a need to relive it.
     On my shelves, beside the books, photos, CDs, knickknacks, and whatnot, are two dozen travel journals filled with decades of notes, stories, interviews, and sketches. Right now, they mean nothing, just words. A new semester starts in a week. I can’t imagine crunching a trip into six or seven days, the hassle, planes, hotels, restaurants, itineraries, layovers, ground transportation, foreignness and isolation. At this moment, it all appears impossible.
     She is tenacious. “Anthony, you never let age stop you before. You still run half-marathons like a thirty-year-old. Get out of your head. Don’t let yourself fall into that ‘place’. Do something. Maybe you should go see the guys at the VA.” She leaves me some dignity and allows me to blame overwork. “Forget about finishing your book. Your editor will understand. Publish or perish doesn’t hang over your head. Besides, you’re the one who tells everybody to take life easy, and after all these years, you can teach your classes on automatic pilot.”
     I don’t do anything on automatic pilot. Some say with age comes a “don’t give a shit” attitude. Not me. I give a shit. A critical comment weighs on me for days. When I engage in something, I'm all in. She comes up from behind, drapes her arms over my shoulders, and says softly but with assurance, “I know you’ll finish the book. You always do. If it isn’t a masterpiece, so what. For once just go and enjoy yourself, get some rest. Taos is beautiful this time of year.”
     She knows if I go any place, it will be Mexico, where most of my teaching career I’ve traveled and researched. During one sabbatical, back in 2001, I spent a semester traveling on Mexican buses, from my home in Los Angeles through northern and central Mexico, ending up a month later in Michoacán, where I had something of a meltdown. Instead of staying a few days in Paracho, as I’d planned, I ran from my cheap hotel, boarded a first-class Omnibus de Mexico, and started home, desperate.
     Then, a few days later, it lifted, like a fog, and I wandered through towns and villages, following El Paso del Norte, as my grandparents had during the revolution. On one cold, rainy night, in Casas Grandes, when my bus didn’t leave until morning, I nearly froze in the back room I rented from a stranger who lived in a claptrap house adjacent to the bus station. All night, I heard strange noises, as if they were coming to get me. The next morning, I was euphoric, happy to be alive..
     Like everybody else today, my wife thinks Mexico dangerous, especially the out-of-the-way northern states I call tourist-free zones, the places I visit most.
     “Why not Canada? You’ve never been there.”
     I am empty inside, but I know she is right. I’ve got to do something to fill the void. I haven’t seen my relatives in San Luis Potosi in at least 20 years, so when I half-heartedly suggest visiting them, she frowns. It is drug-infested land. No, that’s overblown. We go back and forth. She sees she’s losing me. She offers alternatives. We reach a compromise: Mexico City, relatively safe, cosmopolitan, and, for me, Mexican enough. She makes me promise to spend my days with the tourists in the museum of anthropology, the parks, galleries, concert halls, and restaurants. She says, dead seriously, “Mexico is violent everywhere! We're in 2013, not 2001 like your last trip, Anthony. Things are out of control down there. And the way you are right now, you have to be careful. You are such a romantic.”
     I know the Mexican capital well, my first time there in 1978, to visit family members who had migrated from Jalisco. I’ve already visited most of the tourist spots in the city, so a quick trip there should be effortless, and, I possibly, re-energizing. She might be right.
     When we married, Serena and I spent our honeymoon in the capital. Her family’s roots are Guanajuato, and she always thought Mexico City over-rated, but, she knows, if I must get away, it’s better than hiding out in a garage, even a reconstructed one, pretending to be working. I understand her bigger, unstated fear, the menace hovering around us during times like these. I must do something, if not for me, then for her and the family. Halfheartedly, I promise to go and stay among the tourists and visit only safe places. When I begin to falter, she jumps into action, goes into the house, and does the legwork, buying me a round-trip ticket. She prints out a list of 4-Star hotels. She also hands me pictures of the state-owned taxis, the safest. She prays I stick to the plan.
     I haven’t been to the capital, not since my cousin moved to Acapulco in the late ‘90s, close to 15 years ago. I’ve got to work myself up to the idea. I can’t even imagine packing a suitcase. I rise from my ergonomically designed chair, where I do most of my work. I shut down my laptop and walk to the closet, push aside the mess, and from the back, the deepest corner, I wrap my fingers around the cold, steel and pull it out, grasping it tightly. Back in ’66, the Army let us keep whatever we confiscated in combat. With fire arms, we had to be careful, so we’d break them down and ship them home, one piece at a time. One guy lucked out and got himself a Viet Cong battalion flag and a Montagnard crossbow.
     From a hidden compartment in one of the walls, I pull out a 30-round banana clip. I push the magazine into the AK-47’s receiver. I chamber a round. I take aim at a picture of me standing on a dock at the Marina del Rey in Los Angeles with a friend, just months after I returned from Vietnam. We wear dark shades, each of us with a can of beer in our hands, kids acting like men. It’s a heavy weapon. There is little play in the trigger. The sound, the AK’s haunting "crack", will always be with me. I release my finger from the trigger. After a few minutes, I put everything back in place.

     I rub the long, hard, knot of skin at my side, more from habit than irritation. Serena pulls to the curb in front of the Tom Bradley International terminal. I lean in and kiss her. “I’m not sure about this.” I step away from her. My heart pounds. She releases my hand. “Watch what happens when you walk through those doors.”
     I take my suitcase and shoulder bag from the back seat, wave, and walk to the glass doors. Like magic, they fly open. I have a love-hate relationship with airports, even after all these years of travel. As a teenage soldier, airplanes, whisked me away from home and loved ones. When I arrived at my destination, usually a dismal army post in a remote part of the country, I reached some of life’s lowest ebbs and flows, a kid trying to find his place in the world. Then, after months of rigorous mental and physical brainwashing, those same planes would bring me home to family and friends.
     At 19, when I left LAX for Vietnam, my mother was in tears, and my father, without a hug or a handshake, offered an affectionate, ”Mijo, take care of myself.” I knew it was the best he could do. I put on a brave face, and for the first time considered I might never see them again.
     Serena calls as if talking to a kid, “I love you, Anthony. Remember, take only authorized taxis—and rest.”
     I step inside the terminal. My spirit lightens, and my heartbeat returns to normal, just like that. So, she was right. Now, I am in control of my future.
     I move through the human turmoil, a well-practiced professional, a world traveler, from Asia to Europe, South Africa and Latin America. I know the routine. I move to the e-ticket machine, scan my passport then my credit card, and my boarding pass comes sliding out. Security check is a breeze. I mind my own business. I walk the terminal’s shops, ending up at a bookstore, a ritual. I purchase a book, a newspaper, a few magazines, head to the nearest coffee shop and order a large coffee. I take my seat near the boarding gate and wait for them to call Area D for boarding.
     My flight is non-eventful. I don’t even order a glass of wine. In my bag is the incomplete draft of my newest book, minus the last chapter, what I refer to as my burden. For hours, I look down through the clouds. I ignore the impulse to take the manuscript from my bag to start marking it up--again. I arrive in Mexico City via Dallas, near dusk. I hear Serena repeat, “Stay in the capital! Don’t go wandering off like you always do.”
     I’ve already told her the last couple of years I’ve been losing focus in the middle of my classes, blank! Nothing! The words just spaces. The students stare and wonder--what’s up? First, they think I’m just recouping my thoughts. I look out at the faces then towards a wall or a window, as if seeking inspiration, but there are no words, nothing emerges. The fear rises, my head empty. When the silence goes on too long, their eyes change to doubt. They start to look at each other. I ramble. “Any questions?” I need a question to jumpstart me. When nothing comes, I make an excuse, panic, and cancel class, my body numb, confused. Once, I was the best teacher in the history department, dynamic and inspiring. My classes always filled the first days of enrollment. No more. Now, I’m just another prof in their schedule.
     I stand inside the busy Benito Juarez terminal, getting my bearing, signs speaking to me in Castellano. The taxi counter is behind me. It’s getting late. I need to get a taxi downtown and find a hotel. My anxiety rises, controllable, and not like the other. Lighted monitors capture my attention, displaying arrivals and departures from all over Mexico, places I’ve yet to visit. The words Tuxtla-Gutierrez jump out at me, lifting my spirit, Chiapas, the Lacandon, revolution, Mayas and Zapatistas. I am leery of jungles, once nearly losing it, emotionally, in the Yucatan. I’ve heard rumors about Vietnam veterans, the subject of my book, escaping to places like San Cristobal de Las Casas. Why? That’s what I’m researching.
     I discuss the Zapatista rebellion with my students in class, but my knowledge comes mostly from books, articles, and information from colleagues who have travelled there. I can hear Serena, “Anthony, I’m serious. I don’t need your mother bitching at me about why I let you go to Mexico, anyway.”
     Everybody knows the violence in Mexico has recently ratcheted up a notch, even my nearly nine-decade old U.S. born and bred Chicana mother, a major television news junky. A child of the WWII generation, the Tommy Dorsey era, she detests Mexico’s corruption and poverty. The last time she stepped onto her parents’ homeland was in 1943, to visit the ranch her parents had vacated in 1917. She’d told me. “They had nothing but dried tortillas and beans to eat. If they got sick, they died.”
     “Ma, it’s not the same place,” I remember telling her after I visited the family’s village, years later. “They have cattle and dairies. One of your cousins owns 150 cows and automatic milking machines. He built a hacienda over your parents’ old adobes.”
     “NAFTA,” she’d said, without hesitating. “It changed everything.”
     I try convincing her today’s violence is mostly along the border. The rest of the country is safe, including Mexico City, the Paris of Latin America. I don’t mention an older cousin had told me on one of my visits that narcos had kidnapped his seventeen-year-old daughter. Luckily because of his connections with the local authorities, they caught the kidnappers at the border between Jalisco and Guanajuato and returned her to the family.
     She scoffs. “Why did you get a doctorate studying the Southwest border, anyway? What a boring place. The only reason it’s there is because of Prohibition, drunk Americans and servicemen.”
     “It’s history, Mom. My degree is in history.”
     “Your grandfather risked everything to come here. What you want is to think of a life that never was.”
     My father, born in Fontana, near a rock quarry where his dad died in a work accident. At 91, he spends most of his time listening to college sports on the radio. He says radio announcers know more than television commentators. “Enjoy yourself, Anthony, just be careful.”
     I have difficulty explaining what I do. My mom is right. Teaching does sound boring. I mean, people understand the teaching part. Everyone has sat in a classroom. But few grasp the abstract, the pretentious-sounding “search for knowledge and truth,” regardless of the subject. It’s hard to understand unless they’ve done it, but to say even that sounds banal.
     For me, it’s more esoteric. It started when I came home from the war. I needed to know why I was still alive and a lot of others weren’t, and why our leaders, who seemed like good, decent men, would send us to die, and in the most gruesome ways. That’s existential, right? Where else to turn but the church or education for answers. I chose education. In my 60s, I’m still seeking the answer, so are a lot of guys, and now women, fighting the never-ending Middle East wars.
El Templo de San Juan, Anthony's Resurrection
     I look up at the lighted flight information terminal. I tell myself, except for the Mayan rebellion of 1994, Chiapas is safe. San Juan Chamula is a pilgrimage site for many Mexicans and world travelers. I’ve heard San Cristobal is beautiful, still very colonial. And Palenque is a world heritage site.
     I make my way to an airline agent and ask the price for a round-trip ticket to Chiapas. The young woman tells me it’s three thousand pesos, about two-hundred dollars. “But, sir, there are no flights at this hour.” Quickly, she adds, “The buses run all night. Try the southern bus terminal. There are taxis outside--direct.” A night bus across southern Mexico could take hours, and my time is limited. I walk to booth that reads Taxis Autorizados. I hesitate. The adrenaline rushes through me. I don’t get it. For a month, I’ve been dead to the world. Now my heart is pumping like a piston.
     I ask for a taxi ticket to the Bus Terminal, South. Like I said, why not inquire, at least. Once there, I can leave my decision to fate. If there are no buses to Chiapas at this hour, that’s my answer. I give the clerk eighty pesos. He hands me a ticket and points me to a line of taxis. I walk outside, get into the line, hand the man a stub, and he directs me to the first taxi in line. I hop in, carefully examining the driver, making sure he has the necessary certificates on his dashboard. Taxis are notorious for setting up robberies. The driver places my suitcase in the trunk. I clutch the bag beside me where I keep my valuables.
     After a wild ride through traffic, the driver pulls to the curb behind other taxis in front of a large, modern circus-shaped building, the Southern Bus Terminal. Inside, it's a mad house, people and lines everywhere. I walk to the counter of the bus line Exclusivo. On the board behind the agents, I see the itinerary and find the bus headed to Tuxta-Gutierrez. It leaves at 8:00 P.M. When I ask, the woman says it will arrive at ten the next morning, about a twelve hour ride across half of southern Mexico. Should I chance it, or spend my vacation here in Mexico City, as planned? Anyway, if I take the bus, I will sleep most of the way and wake in the morning, in a whole new world. The woman tells me from Tuxtla, I can catch a shuttle through the mountains to San Cristobal de las Casas. My mind whirls. I hand her my credit card, and she gives me a ticket. As I make my way to the boarding terminal, I hear a pre-recorded female voice calling the names of buses headed to Oaxaca, Merida, and Villahermosa. I check in my bags, and find a seat in front of a plate glass window. I sit back and look out at BMW and Mercedes powered buses ready for loading. I will have some explaining to do.

(to be continued)

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